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Posts Tagged ‘ingredients’

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Most days, I think you guys would agree, I am not a Wendy Whiner.

Today is not one of those days.

Look, I love to cook, and I love ingredients, and I’m creative to the core (for better or worse. For worse, see here and here and ooooh just recently here). So please know I am all for personal expression, for putting something into the world that has your own stamp on it.

But…what is the unholy obsession today with calling dishes by the wrong name? I see it especially in restaurants that call themselves Italian, the cruelest knife in my side. New Jersey has the third largest Italian population in the country and it’s the densest state in the country. So in essence, we’re talking about a whole lot of Italians who really ought to know better.

But this virus is not just in Italian restaurants, nor it is endemic in New Jersey. It’s everywhere.

Stand by for the dirty laundry.

1) Tortellini in Brodo

This translates to ‘tortellini in broth.’ It’s a very simple dish. You can tell by the name. I ate this as a kid when I had a sore throat. A wanna-be-upscale place nearby serves a dish by this name. It has tortellini, broth, lemon juice, eggs, cheese, and Italian parsley. And it’s actually pretty good. But it is not tortellini in brodo. It’s stracciatella, Italy’s version of egg drop soup.

Chefs. Just because you float tortellini in soup doesn’t mean you can pick any name out of the Italy handbook and slap it on. And most importantly? People who eat it and aren’t aware that it’s not what you say it is are going to be misled. You’re the ones wearing the aprons. You’re supposed to be authorities on this stuff. Hello.

Wait, here’s another one. This same place also serves what they call pasta carbonara, and thinks the odd chunk of ham in a cream sauce does them proud. To clarify, there is no cream in carbonara. This sauce is made when you add (along with pancetta and other ingredients) raw eggs to hot pasta, which cooks the eggs on contact and provides a lovely velvety texture. You cannot get this out of a jar, kids.

If you call yourselves a ‘ristorante‘ and brag on the menu that the experience of eating here is going to be authentic, then p.s., you don’t get to lie to us.

2) Turkey Bolognese

Bolognese is my favorite sauce. Marcella Hazan, who even while dead could cook me under the table, calls for butter, oil, onion, celery, carrots, beef, pork, veal, pepper, milk, nutmeg, white wine, and tomato sauce. Recently I saw a recipe named the above. The creator said she loved traditional Bolognese sauce, but likes to vary it up with turkey.

But she didn’t stop with turkey. She spiraled off the map, using red wine instead of white, adding garlic salt and mushrooms…then she remembered the Alamo and threw in steak seasoning and Worcestershire sauce.

Do I applaud her innovative spirit? Without question. Would I eat this? Sure. But it is Bolognese sauce? Not even CLOSE.

Dear lady. Give your recipe a new name. Name it after your sainted Portuguese Water Dog for all I care. Just don’t call it Bolognese.

Her recipe is sitting on my desk next to me as I type this, and re-chafes me every time I look at it. It’s WordPress’s problem now. Recycling.

Okay.

3) Caesar Salad

I’m not sure anyone makes classic Caesar salad anymore, which kills me because it’s a knockout. The dressing is made with raw eggs, anchovies, fresh lemon juice, fresh garlic, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Dijon mustard, salt, and black pepper. This is tossed with Romaine lettuce and topped with rustic toasted croutons. It is not, as most restaurants would have us believe, thick, gloppy, and sponsored by Hidden Valley.

4) Chocolate Mousse Cake

This was an edit I was assigned. After scanning the ingredients I called my higher-up.

‘The Chocolate Ganache Cake looks fantastic. But there’s a problem.’
‘What is it?’
‘There’s no ganache in it.’
Pause.
‘Huh?’
‘Ganache is chocolate and cream. This has lots of whipped egg whites. That’s mousse, not ganache.’
I spoke to the recipe writer and we changed the title. There it is above, and it really was delicious. But again. Before you call something something, make sure you know what that something is.
5) Tiramisu
Your dessert may have more layers than an ogre. But if it doesn’t have espresso, cocoa, zabaglione, and ladyfingers, it’s not tiramisu. Chefs: get lazy in this respect and your customers are going to walk out of your place thinking Nilla wafers layered with Snack Pack pudding and out-of-season Peruvian blackberries are tiramisu. Or worse—you think they are, too. Aren’t.
To all of the accused: You’re dropping more work into my In Box. Give me a leg up here.
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Hot pastrami on rye, Ben’s Best, Queens.

It’s not like it ever stops, but lately it seems societal angst about food has been escalating, spinning off madly into illogic. It’s worrisome, and it’s not necessary.

Here’s the thing, and I’m speaking as someone who knows from illness (most of my 30s) that kept me from eating a lot of foods, and from being overweight (through high school and college). I learned a lot from being fat and from being sick. The answers are actually pretty simple, so let’s not make it any harder than it has to be.

1) Food is about balance. It’s not about eliminating entire food groups, or about denouncing natural ingredients, or about imposing senseless deprivation upon ourselves. Let’s keep sugar, fats, and carbs off the cosmic dartboard. That’s no way to live.

The body can manage short bouts of overdoing the fat and calories. While in Scotland for a week I watched my ex eat a classic UK breakfast: bangers, buttered toast, eggs, the works. This meal was for centuries the rich but wholesome foundation of a working farmer’s day, and that farmer needed every calorie. My ex is not a farmer. Yet he survived. For a week, the body can handle almost anything.

Historically, the human race has more or less structured their lives around eating moderate portions of wholesome foods plus the odd treat during the week, and blowing the lid off a bit on weekends (Sunday dinner) and holidays (eggnog). This system worked pretty well. It’s when we started to eat as if every day was a weekend, as if every day was a holiday, that we got ourselves into trouble.

Now a lot of people hand out stickers on Halloween instead of candy. This is a tragedy and a travesty, an adulterated—and I use that word deliberately—slam in the face of tradition. Part of the euphoria kids feel on Halloween is based on indulging in treats—treats that, during the year, they’re only allowed on occasion. Adults need to act like adults again. We need to re-establish moderation, to maintain balance in everyday eating. Lose the damn stickers. For one night a year, bring back the Milky Ways.

2) Food is pleasure. There is nothing quite like experience of eating the first slurpy peach of the season, or a warm fat heirloom tomato pulled off the vine. But neither is there anything quite like Aunt Rosemary’s lasagna fresh from the oven, or Mom’s sour cream coffee cake. These foods deserve honor, not our projected castigation and reproach. Too much of anything is no good, be it Pop-Tarts or fresh blueberries. Enjoy rich foods, every single mouthful. Eat them slowly. Appreciate them. Write about it and describe it passionately, if you’re as nutty as I am. Treat them like the treats they are. 

3) Food is connection. Food is not just for silencing hunger. Other hungers are fed as well: our need to express love and to feel loved, to protect and to feel safe, to share memories and to remember. I love cooking for people, and I love tasting other people’s gifts of food. Everybody gets so excited. It’s powerful. I love sharing what I’m eating and being offered bits of my friends’ food. Some people hate that, but not me. It’s a sign of intimacy. When you go out a lot to eat with actors, food gets passed around. I have one friend who never wants his pickle, so I take it. Recently I picked all of the peaches out of his fruit cocktail with my fingers. It’s not classy, but it’s home—even if you’re away from it.

Go easy on yourselves, everybody. Keep balance in your eating. Enjoy everything. We’re supposed to be happy on this planet.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a peanut butter moose tracks cone. And I’ll live.

 

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Whenever I tell people I’m a food writer they always assume I have Food Network standards, or that I’m a gourmet cook. And God knows I hate to be a buzzkill, but here I go.

Re: the first allegation—while the Food Network does hire some decent people, they also have no problem bringing on hacks who can decorate, or swear, or mug like rock stars, but not, you know, cook. In too many cases, shock value is what goes; the food, let alone the quality of it, is almost incidental.

Re: the second—that’s very nice of you, but still no. I’m actually way more boring than that. All I really care about is quality ingredients, prepared in a simple way that shows off how awesome they are. Ta dah. As opposed to the chef wrecking them as a sacrifice to his own ego. Can I please just eat without you handing me your resume with every bite?

Serenity now.

The following review isn’t for chain restaurants. They’re not about quality cooking; they’re about sticking to a formula. It’s for the independents that have gotten off track, or are new to the business, about to open a burger place called Berger’s Burgers Burgers and Burgers, and muse, ‘Wouldn’t a sushi bar look JUST FABOO in that back corner?’

Well—happy to help—it wouldn’t. And segues right into my first point.

1) For the love of all that is righteous, pick a cuisine. One.

Have you ever been to an Irish restaurant in the US that didn’t feature veggie fajitas on their menu along with shepherd’s pie?* Me neither. Restaurants and trying to please everyone are as cliche a pair as Rogaine and a Corvette. Be known for doing what you said you’d do, and doing it very well. I know a sock hop joint in South Jersey that’s known for their grilled cheese sandwiches (thepopshopusa.com. Count ’em—30 kinds of grilled cheese. Looky above for the one I got, the Haddon.). They’re freaking amazing at it, as evidenced by the happy customers who stand on line to get in without complaint.

2) Don’t throw flavors around like you trained at Chez Panisse.

Sometimes restaurants know how to combine unexpected flavors, and the results are successful. Other times it’s as if the kitchen staff wrote down every conceivable flavor on the planet, and some on Jupiter, tacked them to a wall, and then everybody did a shot, then started winging darts at the flavors.

‘Woo hoo—we’ve got two new flavors for our fish tacos! Let’s see…we’ve got…cilantro! And……..huh. Nutter Butter Swirl.’

Other times it’s clear they’re just cleaning out the fridge. That’s when they add ‘vinaigrette’ to throw us off the trail. Genius move.

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You forgot the applesauce and the bottom of the Hellmann’s jar.

3) Quit mailing it in.

Tomatoes. It’s high season. Buy local ones, for crying out loud. They’ll cost more than the pink ones that taste like wet tube socks, but people will remember how intensely flavored the tomatoes on your sandwiches were. They’ll be further impressed that you source locally (people do want to hear this today) and will be back, begging for it. Go ahead and charge more. We’ll pay it because it’s worth it. Promise.

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Juicy, runny, and worth licking off your arms.

Then there was the time last month when a bunch of us went out after a show. I asked the server what was on tap for dessert. My friend Tom started laughing and said, ‘You just want to see a dessert menu so you can mock it.’

But I’m hoping it’s good. I am! I’m genuinely rooting for you, hoping there’s somebody in the kitchen who’s making something yummy from scratch. I would be thrilled to order it, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at times with wonderful treats in restaurants. (That’s homemade Italian ricotta cheesecake below, from Portofino in Tinton Falls. Best I have ever eaten, anywhere. And it came just as you see it, with the lightest ever powdered-sugar snowfall.)

But oh yeah, I’ll cheerfully mock the dessert menu if I sense everything they offer is frozen, and/or was borne of a paper pouch, and/or otherwise tastes like it’s full of fake and acrimony. And wouldn’t they kind of deserve it?

Can we all agree that cake mixes uniformly blow? The real thing is chocolate, butter, sugar, flour and eggs. A five-year-old can swing that. $9 for something they shook out of a box is a fat no.

If your brownie’s essentially a little square of lab ingredients, I don’t care that on top of it you recreated the left wall of Taylor Swift’s walk-in closet in royal icing. Get the brownie right first.**

Whenever I order dessert out I always ask for it without all of the glitterati. This inevitably makes the server a little twitchy. With a big smile she assures me that the toppings are scrumptious. I am resolute. Then she scampers off to tell the kitchen her customer wants to see what the Toll House pie looks like in its birthday suit. They’ll panic, and, collectively twitchy now, they’ll press their little noses up against the kitchen door’s windows to inhale in short gasps as they watch me eat it. And maybe they’re inspired to mix together some butter and sugar.

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*By the way, authentic shepherd’s pie is made with lamb. No shepherds in it. Just sheep. (Made with chopped beef it’s called cottage pie. No cottages in it. Cows.)

**I wrote about this in my bora bora post when I said restaurants hand you a dessert covered with goo, betting you’ll be too impressed by this quaking, amorphous blob to notice they’re stiffing you and giggling about it in the kitchen. Hasn’t changed yet, and stoicism is such hard work on my part. Get with it, people.

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