May 082008

It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted. That makes me sad. Because really, if I haven’t been posting it means I probably haven’t been cooking much.

But at least there is a good reason.

I’ve barely been home in the last couple of months. Since my swim meet in February, really. But the nice thing about traveling is that you get to try out a bunch of new local flavors. Unsurprisingly, whenever I travel I make an effort to eat at locally owned places. They’re always much tastier and I get a warm fuzzy from supporting a local economy. Plus, really, what’s the fun of eating the same things everywhere you go?

So without further adieu, here is a list of honorable mentions from my travels. Sadly, I didn’t have my camera with me, so this is to be a presentation with visual aids.

See my picks from my travels to both coasts, the middle of the country, and an island in the middle of the Pacific!

Feb 292008

“Ugh! I hate Italian pizza! It’s so gross! It’s not even Italian, it was invented in New York! Let me eat the pizza at Boston’s, it’s so good!”

Wait for it….


Yep. That was my head exploding.

It exploded not for just one, but three very good reasons.

Hating Italian pizza is impossible. The ingredients are so fresh and the results so simple that it’s quite simply easier to divide by zero than to hate it.
I’m not a food anthropologist, but I’m gonna call shenanigans on pizza originating in New York. The research I’ve done shows that it in fact came from Naples. It’s funny how a place can do such great things (invent pizza) and such monumentally stupid things (like stop collecting all the garbage so it piles up to third story windows). But I digress.
Boston’s pizza (god, I feel dirty typing in that URL for that link) is disgusting. You all know that I get pissed about paying good money for bad food, and not much makes me angrier than having to go there and pay the bill. In fact, the first time I ever went there (my bosses love it so we go there all the time for working lunches, much to my chagrin) I was sitting across from someone who had just read a few of my thoughts on restaurants and he could tell on the look on my face that I was livid about paying seventeen bucks for a shitty meal that I could have made one hundred and twenty times better by just lifting a finger and giving a shit about the food I was preparing. Anyway, their pizza is even worse than that first meal – a salmon caesar salad – that I had: the cheese was laid on way too thick and rubbery as only really bad American-made mozzarella can be, the crust suffered from being stuffed with ten times as much yeast as it needed to rise which made it utterly bland and sour, and the basil – this was supposedly pizza Margherita – was DRIED. DRIED, PEOPLE!!!!!!!!! WHAT THE FUCK???

*steps aside to breathe for a moment…. long deep breaths….*

Ok, I apologize for that “Oh FUDGE!” moment there. I just get sent into spasms of anger when I think about that place. Let’s get back to my happy place, and for me right now, that happy place is homemade pizza, even if, no matter how hard you try, it’s not quite like the Italians make it.

Not totally authentic Italian, but still really bloody good pizza
Nikon D50

For some reason I don’t make pizza as much as I should. There’s really no reason not to – I have a wealth of dough recipes whose prep times vary from 24 hours to 90 minutes. My pantry is always stocked with the requisite ingredients for the crust and toppings. I even have two 8-inch pizza stones, perfect for a cozy binge-free pizza night. But for some reason, I just… don’t.

Well, I had been craving good pizza for a couple of weeks and last Friday it became wholly apparent that that night was the night. The stars were aligned – the grocery stores were hemorrhaging fresh (FRESH! Not DRIED!) basil, I had plenty of fresh mozzarella in my fridge, and I had made a batch of marinara the night before. All I had to do was find a dough recipe.

So I called up my Mom. When I talk to him on the weekends, it’s not uncommon for my Dad to give me a rundown of the pizza my Mom made the previous Friday and for him to gush about how her pizza gets better every single week. No dice on the recipe from the Mom front though – she was really busy with some elderly relatives, no big deal, it’s not like she’s the sole source of pizza dough ever (though I still want her recipe!). So at one point, needing to get my current events fix, I brought up NPR and lo and behold, on their rotating blurbs about featured stories, was a Kitchen Window ad, whose topic just so happened to be pizza. It was like the skies had parted and I was sitting in my own little personal ray of sunlight. I was fated to make pizza that night. The gods had willed it to be so.

So when I got home, I got to work on my pizza. After the dough was done rising, I attempted to get the dough nice and thin, but the thing about kneading is that it make dough very elastic. Every time I stretched out the dough it just shrank right back up. I eventually adopted the mannerisms of a, well, special Italian, trying to toss this tiny disc of dough up into the air, catch it on one finger, and let gravity do the work. It certainly worked better than counter-top stretching, but clearly, my method needs work if I am to continue to aspire to Italian-standard thinness.

Thicker-crust-than-desired aside, this pizza was marvelous! I loved the warm, garlicky, basily sweetness of the sauce, topped with just a bit of mozzarella a plenty of fresh torn basil, all atop a crispy, grain-flavored crust. That pizza was not long for this world, and though I expect that it would have made a mean cold pizza breakfast, it never got the opportunity to prove itself. But even though I loved the process, the experience, and the taste so much, I think the best thing that came out of it was the inspiration to try again with a myriad of toppings. That’s one of the best things about pizza – almost anything is a choice candidate to grace your pie, so you’re only limited by your imagination.

And if you still think the pizza from Boston’s is better than this, well, do us both a favor and don’t ever talk to me about food. Unless, of course, you like watching my head explode.

Not totally authentic Italian, but still really bloody good pizza
Nikon D50

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Nov 032007

When Cory and I arrived in Florence, one of the first things I noticed on menus at local restaurants was tomato and bread soup. I had never heard of it and honestly was thinking, well, something close to “ew.”

But then there was Il Latini, the renowned restaurant that hasn’t lost its local charm despite its fame (which I have already described in my Panna Cotta entry). Since it was our last night in Tuscany and we had finally found the Florence restaurant of our dreams — the restaurant that we had literally stumbled across, having gotten lost in the streets in our quest for food — I decided to branch out and try some of the truly local cuisine. Even though we were offered many, many delicious options for our primi, I ordered the pappa al pomodoro.

Basil, pre-soup!
Nikon D50

As soon as the waiter set the bowl down in front of me all of my previous expectations evaporated. I had been imagining something much like American tomato soup, thin and watery with an assertive salt flavor. Instead I was served a hearty, thick, delicious soup with deep tomato and bright basil flavor. Its texture on the tongue is like no other soup I’ve ever had. Cory, with his singularly amazing gnocchi, was something akin to jealous.

Bread, thinly sliced before going in the soup
Nikon D50

So, unsurprisingly, Cory and I started looking for a way to duplicate this soup experience when we got back to the States. The William-Sonoma Florence cookbook had disappointing results (which is a cautionary tale to American cooks that what we consider to be aromatics like celery and carrots will never ever stand a chance against plenty of fresh basil), and I was almost beginning to despair until I remembered that in the front window of Il Latini a TV was playing a tape of the international media coverage the restaurant had gotten — and they had played a clip of Rachel Ray’s $40 a Day. Feeling slightly dirty (to put it delicately, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Ms. Ray), I hunted down the episode online, and lo and behold, she had their recipe!!! Cory and I cooked it together, and it was everything we remembered and brought back wonderful memories of that night in Florence.

Soup in progress
Nikon D50

So if you can’t make it to Florence yourself, at least do yourself this favor and make this soup. It’s so representative of how Italians can take something most Americans would throw away (stale bread), add it to a couple of fresh, simple ingredients, and create something warm, delicious, and satisfying.

Tuscan tomato and bread soup, finished and topped with fresh basil
Nikon D50

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Oct 232007

Maybe I’m just a huge food snob, but when I see people getting excited about going to chain restaurants like Applebees, Chili’s, or Friday’s, I just have to shake my head in wonder. Come on, really, the food their sucks. It all tastes like it has been stuffed with preservatives and microwaved and the menu is enough to put me into spasms of yawns. Plus, it’s expensive. I will gladly pay good money for good food, but not much pisses me off more than having to pay for a crappy meal. This happened to me a couple of times last week when I had to go out with co-workers for working lunches and all I could think about was how much yummier my sandwich of homemade roasted chicken on homemade oatmeal bread with locally-grown tomatoes and red leaf lettuce would have been. Luckily one of the lunches was free, but at the other place, 90% (literally) of the things on the menu were deep fried. Anger. Much anger.

Here’s where the snobbery (and maybe a bit of being too proud of my own abilities) comes in — I don’t go out to eat much because I can cook better than 90% of the places out there. I’m not saying that I can hold a candle to a Mom-and-Pop-owned hole in the wall Italian place, a fabulous local pizza joint, or a to-die-for breakfast cafe, but let’s face it — most of the food being hawked at Americans is rubbish. You owe it to yourself to do better than that.

Judging from my experiences in restaurants throughout the country, there are two things that the generic American diner seems to want:
1. Salt
2. Fat

Most restaurants are thrilled by this because it’s a cheap formula for success. It doesn’t take much money — either through hiring well-skilled cooks or by buying quality ingredients — to make dishes that have both of those key ingredients. It’s like these people have never heard of oregano, sage, or rosemary, much less nutmeg, ginger, cumin, or coriander. The food is incredibly bland yet is guaranteed to be three times what you need, nutritionally devoid, clog your arteries, and raise your blood pressure! (By the way, if you serve me a salad and the greens are comprised of iceberg lettuce — which has all the nutritional value of water and is a shame to the word ‘vegetable’ — you will automatically be relegated to the list of “gross place to eat.”)

In contrast to many restaurants, when I’m cooking for myself or for friends I know what will make my tastebuds happy and will keep my friends eagerly accepting my dinner invitations:
1. Fresh quality ingredients
2. An interesting menu that finds delicious ways to incorporate things like veggies
3. A heavy hand with herbs and spices

And that’s where the big difference lies: restaurants care — above all — about turning a profit. If they turn a profit because their food is good, then great. But the corollary is that if stuffing your food so full of sodium and saturated or trans fats in huge portions to put you into a caloric stupor means they make money, they will do that too. In contrast, my sole aim is to make good food. End of story.

A delicious homemade meal of red king crab, locally-grown read leaf lettuce salad with homemade balsalmic vinaigrette and Tuscan tomato and bread soup
Nikon D50
Jun 022007

Until I made this dessert at home, I had never had panna cotta in the United States.

I hadn’t even heard of this indulgent dish until a couple of months ago, when I met someone in Korea who had actually taught at the Culinary Institute of America. I haven’t met many people who are bigger foodies than me, but he definitely qualified. A few of us were looking for a restaurant in Seoul for dinner and we decided to pop into an Italian place, and my chef comrade ordered it for dessert, served with a perfect raspberry sauce on top. “Not too shabby,” I thought, but didn’t think too much of it again until Cory’s and my honeymoon.

After our day trip into Siena, we returned to Florence intent on finding a classic Tuscan dinner. We looked through our guidebooks and found a place or two that looked promising on paper but were totally uninspiring when viewed in person. So we started to wander the streets, looking for those wonderful Italian hole-in-the-walls that you hear about from all your friends who were lucky enough to go to Italy when they were still in college.

All of a sudden we passed by a Il Latini, a restaurant that looked very cozy and the menu was actually entirely in Italian, which I took to be a good sign that this place was authentic. It was about 7:05 and the place didn’t open until 7:30, so we decided to wait, queuing up like, well, normal civilized people would. About ten minutes later a man walked up and asked if anyone there spoke English, and almost all of us answered that we did. “This is the third time this week that my wife and I have been here, and trust me, the wait is worth it.” Cory and I grinned at each other at this, and the man continued, “I know you all think that you’re lined up like rational, courteous people, but trust me, when it gets closer to opening all the locals are going to start massing around the door. Lines will mean nothing!”

Well, you know what they say, when in Rome….

So we gaggle up, and before long the man is proven correct when these people start amassing around us, trying to get in ahead of us even though we’ve been waiting twenty-five minutes. ‘Oh hell no!’ I thought to myself. “If anyone tries to get around you, throw ’em an elbow!” was Cory’s husbandly advice. And throw an elbow I did!

We managed to get in at the first seating and were seated at a table with another couple. The huge bottle of house wine was already on the table, and the food starting coming almost immediately. We never saw a menu, but everything they brought was superb: insalata caprese, pate on crostini, and tabbouleh made with barley for antipasti, Tuscan tomato and bread soup for me and gnocchi with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes for Cory for primi, roast beef for me and roasted lamb for him for secondi, and then a delicious dessert wine, biscotti, espresso, (something delicious that I can’t remember), and, of course, panna cotta with a velvety chocolate sauce for dolci. It was an amazing meal (quoth Cory: “my brain pretty much shut down so that the only thing working was the taste buds”) and an unforgettable dining experience in my favorite city.

It was also, of course, a wonderful reminder of a dessert that is fast becoming a favorite.

Vanilla bean panna cotta

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