Food for thought… ChefTalk

ChefTalk is “a food lover’s link to professional chefs” where regular folk can ask questions and get detailed answers based on a lifetime of learning and practicing pro strategies. Here is an example–a thread in which a starving college student wants to stretch his food budget and receives lots of good advice but also the admonition that “You’re not actually allowed to be broke, starving, unwilling to work and overly-fussy all at the same time.”

There is also advice for would-be professional chefs on is culinary school worth it, how much will I make, etc. Check it out.

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The Italian Trade Commission comes to Price Chopper, and that’s a good thing

ITC take on olive oils

Dr. Mauriizio Forte appraises the olive oil lineup at Price Chopper/Market 32

Why are Italian delis filled with shelves of enticing jarred and canned foods, but not American or Jewish delis? Why is your supermarket stocked with box after box of Italian pasta in shapes you could never imagine? Because the Italians, in addition to being producers of delicious foods, are great marketers of what they make.

Today I got to meet one of the head marketers: Dr. Maurizio Forte, Executive Director of the Italian Trade Commission. He was at my local Price Chopper/Market 32 supermarket (the stores are undergoing a name change) which has just become one of three chains (the others are HEB, parent of Central Market, in Texas and Marinaro’s in Chicago) to forge a direct partnership with the ITC to bring more Italian foods to their stores.

Dr. Forte told me that the American grocers are able to pick and choose from the many Italian products offered to them, so it’s up to the producers to make their pitch for inclusion. If the product is not successful in getting picked up, or doesn’t sell well in the stores, then the ITC gives them coaching in how to succeed in the American market. And that’s why there are so many Italian pastas on your grocery shelf. These guys are just genius marketers.

We toured the store to see the installations in place and Dr. Forte got a little more serious. It became obvious that he’d like to see his products showcased (“like any parent would want for their children,” one of his colleagues told me) while Jerry Golub, Price Chopper’s president, prefers to present “a wall of cheese and let the customer decide.” Both guys were doing their job and in fact there was quite a lot of Italian product on sale and featured in a promotional flyer.

Price Chopper pizza tasting

Dr. Forte tastes pizza with Price Chopper President Jerry Golub

I had to leave before they got to the sauce (or “gravy” as we call it upstate) which would have featured Italian plum tomatoes alongside not only upscale sauces like Rao’s and Mario Batali but local products like Casa Visco from Schenectady. I expect Dr. Forte and Mr. Golub would have had plenty to talk about. But the consumer is the one who walks away a winner. There’s great food, and lots of it.

P.S. There’s also a trip to Italy being given away. If you have a Price Chopper in your area, pick up and buy product from the flyer by this Saturday October 22, and each item purchased counts for an entry in the drawing.

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Bahn Mi beat down, West Coast style

Sing Sing bahn mi cutaway

Cutaway view of Sing Sing special combination bahn mi. Would it reign supreme?

Merriweather vs Pacquiao. Leonard vs Duran. Rousey vs Correia. The matchups between legendary opponents merit extra scrutiny because of their rarity and the possibility of a “fight for the ages” which lives up to the hype.

Bahn Mi wrapped

Round One: the combatants arrive at the ring (OAK gate 30). The heavyweight Saigon is on the left.

So I hoped it would be when I curated a head-to-head taste test between Special Combination Bahn Mis, from Sing Sing Sandwich and Saigon Sandwich in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. I had a bit of extra time on the way to OAK so I visited the two shops in succession and ordered the same thing, extra spicy, then tucked them into my flight bag and spread them for inspection when I arrived at the gate.

Bahn Mi tops

Round Two: the sandwiches unwrapped. What’s that coming out of the Saigon at the very bottom?

Saigon Sandwich is the perennial favorite that gets no respect, other than from the hordes who stand in line outside. There are no lines at Sing Sing, unless you count the old men sitting in rows on the bench outside and shooting the breeze, yet it’s the darling of local foodies and cognoscenti including Bahn Mi guru Andrea Nguyen, who introduced me to this hole-in-the wall a couple years back.

Sing Sing side view

Round Three: side view of Sing Sing sandwich

My first Sing Sing visit produced the best Special Combo I’d ever experienced. But a second visit disappointed. They’d changed their buns and the smaller new sandwich seemed to have lost a step. It was in hopes that was a fluke that I arranged today’s face off.

Saigon Sandwich side view

Round Three: Saigon Sandwich side view

You can see the results in pictures. In Rounds One and Two, Saigon is ahead simply on size and volume. But then we observe the insides more closely and the contest starts to go the other way. There’s something worrisome in the top view of the Saigon sandwich—something that does not belong, like a cut under a fighter’s eye.

Then we open them up for a cross section (I had to bite into the Saigon to do this, since the sandwich was not sliced at the shop) and the differences become clear. Sing Sing is beautifully crafted, including hollowing out the roll to add more room for the ingredients, while Saigon is a lumbering, out of control beast. Sonny Liston comes to mind.

Saigon Sandwich cutaway

Cutaway of Saigon bahn mi with illegal roast pork. Sing Sing wins by TKO.

And then—the ref blows the whistle and raises his hands. Saigon has been disqualified! That suspicious brown substance turns out to be five-spice roast pork, probably used because their regular “fancy pork” was in short supply. But it throws off the flavor balance and, anyway, it’s as out of place as a ball bearing inside a pugilist’s glove.

Out of respect, I eat the loser for lunch, then turn to the remaining half of the Sing Sing Bahn Mi. I realize that even though it’s less generous and its flavor was subtle, it did everything necessary to win on points.

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Recipe: Ceviche



Two critical decisions when making ceviche are a/whether to add oil and b/how long to let the fish “cook” in its acid bath. The answer to the first question is no. The second is a bit more nuanced. Serves 3-4 as a main dish, or 6 as an appetizer.

1 lb firm-fleshed white fish such as sole or halibut
1/4 c lime juice (about 2 limes)
1 large or 2 small tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/2 red onion, chopped fine
1 t Kosher salt
1/2 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1/4 t dried oregano leaves
1 T cilantro leaves, finely chopped

Method: cut the fish into 3/4 inch cubes. Place in a glass bowl, add the lime juice and mix thoroughly. Allow to cure in the refrigerator 30 minutes, or until the fish becomes milky-white instead of translucent. Add other ingredients, mix well, and serve immediately.

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No ma’am, this brisket is NOT tough

Naked brisket fat and lean

Naked slices of reheated brisket: fatty on the top, lean underneath.

Smoked my first and probably last brisket of the season this past weekend. (Apologies to Bruce Frankel, whom I promised I would get some males together and roast a whole animal on one of his spits. Next year!) Got a real nice smoke going and decided to leave the meat in my Weber kettle for the entire cooking time instead of finishing in the oven as I usually do.

The result is shown here. To me, this is brisket perfection. Nice crust, a satisfying smoke ring, and sublime tenderness both in the fatty section and the leaner part, the latter having just a bit of “bite” as Vencil Mares would describe it.

Which is why I was so flummoxed when a guest complained the lean meat was tough and, further, suggested it was “rare” after 8 hours in the smoker. The latter is easy to explain: the pinkness comes from the smoke ring. But tough?

I let the meat rest overnight as tempers cooled down, then did some objective analysis. A brisket is composed of two overlapping slabs of muscle. One is connected to the forelegs that do the work; the other just hangs there. The inactive part is full of fat which, with long cooking, assumes the texture of pudding; the lean meat can be cooked tender but in the way of a lean steak. It will always have a bit of chew and if you are doing a head-to-head comparison you’ll find it is “tough” compared to the fatty parts.

Good brisket establishments allow you to specify fat or lean meat or a combination and this is why. I stand by my lean, less-tender beef. It sliced with my butter knife and held its own when reheated and layered on a bun, whereas a fatty piece might have disintegrated. Tough? No way.

I’m thinking that my usual cooking method might have satisfied this cranky diner because the meat is finished in the oven, covered, at low heat which means it’s basted in steam and fat. Those factors might have made it more appealing when it was served right out of cooking, but not when it was re-heated. Keep in mind that most brisket is held at low temperature then sliced to order; a fresh-off-the-fire sample may not be the same as what you’ll get later. Like a good steak, barbecue benefits from a bit of patience.

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World’s best food is at UMass Amherst

Lunch at UMass dining hall

My lunch at UMass Amherst, with the Subbaswamy family squash curry at bottom

In his remarks at the 2015 Parents’ Weekend at UMass Amherst, Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy delivered some unsettling news: the school’s dining program had been ranked second by Princeton Review, behind Bowdoin College. But he tempered the blow by pointing out that Bowdoin serves 2,000 students per day compared to 20,000 at UMass. And he put his money where his mouth is by offering up his family recipe for chayote squash curry in coconut milk as part of the “Taste of Home” menu on offer at the dining halls.

This is the world’s best food not in the sense of “best meal I ever ate” but as as rated for consistency, and ticking off all the categories on an imaginary scorecard. Sustainable, check. Organic, check. Locally sourced, of course—look at the pictures of the farmers as you come into the dining hall. The recipes are in general not imaginative but are faithful renditions of a vast array of American and international dishes, designed for institutional preparation by a battery of cooks including many students, with the quality of the ingredients shining through. Well-known chefs are often in resident cooking special meals—a Mexican cookbook author is coming this week. The depth and breadth of the offerings is astonishing—if you’re ever in need of meal inspiration, check out the daily menus posted on the UMass Dining page.

In addition, the servers practice portion control. If you want a second slider, you’ll have to ask for it. As a result, there are very few food leftovers visible on the dishes headed down the conveyer belt into the wash up area. So students are getting a painless indoctrination in what good eating is like and hopefully this will follow them into life after college. (Though it should be noted that the busiest stations were stir fry and burgers.)

Parents Weekend menu

Parents’ Weekend menu entering dining hall at UMass Amherst

I tried a pro strategy of visiting multiple dining halls with my bemused student and asking for a small portion of the featured “Taste of Home” items which are from recipes developed by members of the university community and included in a book provided free to all incoming families. The Subbaswamy family curry was in fact the best dish of the day: aggressively spicy and giving away nothing in unctuousness to its vegan origins. Also liked a Taiwan style fried chicken (including 5 spice and lots of salt) and the savory red cabbage/apple combo accompanying a sauerbraten. But really, nothing I would not eat again or would not eat more of if I were able.

There’s one more reason this has to be rated as the world’s best food, which is that it’s free. Or I should say “free” in the sense of invisibly folded into the other expenses you are paying. If the student has a dining plan, the accompanying family members eat at no charge. This is a genius marketing strategy to make sure parents visit often. And if you are a local, like the hosts at our bed and breakfast, you can eat all you want by paying a more than reasonable $13.

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Farm-to-table pizza from Nine Miles East Farm

Nine Mile East Farm pizza

My custom pizza from 9 Miles East Farm with arugula, sausage and extra tomato sauce and cheese

I first tasted pizza from Nine Miles East Farm of Schuylerville, NY (which is 9 miles east of Saratoga where I live) at the home of a health-conscious friend. She raved about its natural goodness and how the two-day fermentation of its dough made it acceptable even for some people with gluten sensitivity.*

I didn’t like it. The pizza was just too dry, the crumb too dense, like a virtuous hunk of whole grain bread.

Arugula at 9 Mile East Far

Arugula for tonight’s pizza

I soon met 9 Miles East’s proprietor, Gordon Sacks, and he informed me that the dough was made with high extraction flour from New York miller Farmer Ground—not 100% whole wheat, but close. Would he consider offering the option of a white flour crust? “Not gonna happen. There are plenty of places you can get a white flour pizza.”

Gordon Sacks

Gordon Sacks in his basil patch

But he continued to tinker with the dough, and it’s now close to 25% white flour plus an undisclosed amount of spelt to soften the high-x. The bread is kneaded with an Italian fork mixer which (unlike the planetary mixers used by most bakeries) does not raise the dough temperature to insure a slow, even fermentation. The white flour is Victoria from La Meunerie Milanaise in Quebec, a stone-ground organic product milled to French specifications with a lower protein content than its American equivalents.

Pizza prep at 9 Mile East Farm

Pizza prep station; the fork mixer is at upper left

With these modifications the dough is still a sturdy platform, but light enough to be pleasantly chewy with even a bubble or two. And I’ve also discovered that, though the pizzas are intentionally made with smaller than typical amounts of their (excellent) tomato sauce and cheese, the kitchen has no problem adding extra on request. (A bonus as I was writing this: I happened upon a slice of week-old pizza which had been carefully wrapped and placed in the vegetable bin of my fridge. Unlike regular stale pizza, it had not turned to cardboard. If anything, it was better than when fresh-baked, like a loaf of high-protein rye or a miche that benefits from a couple days of aging.)

Ananda GO box from 9 Mile East Farm

GO boxes

With those modifications, I’m now a fan. And a good thing too, because everything else about 9 Miles East seems like a prototype of a successful farm-to-table operation. Their brightly painted delivery trucks are visible all over Saratoga, making deliveries to Skidmore College and other central locations. And it turns out the pizzas, though the most visible aspect of Gordon’s operation, are actually a Trojan horse.

The kitchen’s stated capacity is 20 pizzas a night and the most they’ve ever turned out is 30, hardly enough to support a staff of several people. Gordon’s real purpose is to convert you to prepared meals and “GO boxes”. The meals are 3 pounds of a stew plus a side (tonight it’s Moroccan chicken tagine with quinoa couscous) for $25, sufficient to serve a family of four “or two with generous leftovers”. The GO boxes are $10 and weigh about a pound; they’re a large salad with the addition of a starch, so could serve as a meal for one or an appetizer for the crowd before your pizza or stew.

Tomato shed at 9 Mile East Farm

Late season tomatoes under Luminance tunnel film

These are distributed in large quantities to a number of corporate centers as far south as Albany, a network which 9 Miles East has built up over several years. His audience is professionals who want good healthy food but are too busy to cook; his competition is the self-serve counters at Whole Foods as well as Blue Apron and other prepared meal delivery services.

And we really are talking farm-to-table. The tomatoes for the pizza sauce and the vegetables and herbs for the pizza are grown right outside the kitchen, in open fields or under Luminance tunnel films which extend the growing period in the extreme upstate environment to three seasons. (During the winter, Gordon buys organic ingredients from other sources because “we realize we’re not going to sell a lot of potato and cabbage pizzas”.) Sausage for the pizza is from a farm down the road and the cheese is from Capielo’s in Schenectady. Vegetables not grown on the premises are acquired from local sources as much as possible.

Yelp pizza at 9 Miles East Farm

Some experimental pizzas at a Yelp tasting event, topped with ingredients we picked a few minutes earlier

If you’re in the Saratoga area and want to try 9 Miles East pizza and other products, order on the website. (Oddly enough, the GO boxes and main dishes don’t appear till you start to build an order.) More about the business deliveries and other corporate programs is here. Even if you’re not local, check it out for some beautiful food photography.

While I was picking up my meal at the farm and chatting with the cooks (some of whom have experience in the kitchens of high-end restaurants of Saratoga and appreciate a shift that ends while the sun is still out), a delivery truck returned and a woman scurried into the fields to pick some basil for the next pizza on order. You’re not going to see that at Domino’s.

* My friend Amy Halloran talks about why gluten-sensitive people may do better with locally grown, minimally processed wheat flour in her book, The New Bread Basket. One theory is that natural grains contain fewer of the byproducts that are found in heavily processed commercial flour. If you want to know more, read her book.

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The golden age of cider donuts is here

Terrace Mountain Cider Donut

The winning cider donut, from Terrace Mountain Orchard in Schoharie

If you look at the samples in my post on the Tour de Cider Donut from 4 years ago and compare it to the pictures below from this year’s tour, you will notice quite an evolution. Now the miraculous Donut Robot is in near universal distribution, and farm bakeries are pushing the envelope with flavor, coating and the tenderness of the crumb. And the shape requirements have been relaxed somewhat, reflecting the bakers’ confidence with the form.

Lakeside Cider Donut

Lakeside Orchards, Mayfield

Rogers Cider Donut

Rogers in Johnstown, the least favorite of the group

We visited five remote locations on the first weekend of fall, starting in Mayfield, NY and heading due south. The repeating script was that you’d wander on back roads wondering if your GPS had misled you, then round a bend and suddenly there would be cars parked on the side of the road, hayride tractors lumbering through the fields, and crowds of young families with sacks full of just-picked apples.

Sand Hill Cider Donus

Sand Hill in Fonda, made from vanilla cake mix

Sand Hill donut ingredients

Ingredient mix at Sand Hill is proudly posted on the wall

But we were here for the cider donuts and the only actual apple I ate was a Gala sample to save me from a sugar coma at the 4th stop. Donuts were ranked on crust, sugar, cider texture, taste, oil and overall. Crust and texture were the most important components for me. I realized I wanted a crispy exterior which yielded to a soft, nearly pudding-y crumb when I bit into it, and at a couple of places I found just that. One of these establishments stacked the deck by using cake mix as their dough base—a diabolical move they are obviously proud of, since the ingredients label from the package was posted on the wall.

Lined up for donuts at Bellinger Orchards in Fultonville

Lined up for donuts at Bellinger Orchards in Fultonville

Bellinger Cider Donut

Bellinger Orchards, Fultonville

That donut scored #2 on the day, with the top place going to the Terrace Mountain Orchard in Schoharie, high on a hillside overlooking US 88. As a bonus, you get an incredible view of the valley on the way down. (Which impressed me so much I forgot to snap a picture.) I can’t think of a better way to spend a crisp fall afternoon.

Bellinger Donut Room

View of the donut prep room at Bellinger Orchards

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Recipe: Grilled Squid

Grilled Squid

Grilled Squid

When it’s in oil, it’s calamari. When it’s over the flame, it’s squid. That’s how we roll in my house. And this is one of the easiest yet most delicious preps you’ll find. Just be sure to use a perforated iron sheet on the grill so the tentacles and slippery squid pieces don’t fall between the grates. (Or you could broil in your oven, I guess.) Serves 4 as appetizer or 2 as main course.

1 lb squid, cleaned and with tentacles separated
1/4 c really good olive oil
1 t dried oregano or 1 T fresh, finely chopped
3/4 t salt

Method: sprinkle salt and oregano over the squid and pour on oil, rubbing with your hands so everything is evenly distributed. Marinate in refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Grill over high flame until translucence turns to white and the squid picks up a little char. Serve immediately.

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Overflowing with okra

Carol Okra

Carol M likes to cook okra in a hot cast iron pan, no oil, just salt and a bit of garlic

The very hot September in upstate New York produced an abundance of okra at the farmers’ markets. Perhaps coincidentally, readers here and on Facebook have made lots of useful comments on my recent okra posts.

Susan F (I’m using initials because I asked none of these people for permission to quote them), a chef who lives in Saratoga, likes to sauté okra in bacon grease with “a heavy dose of granulated garlic and sea salt.” If you just have a little okra from your garden, she suggests you mix it in with some green beans and cook the same way. Laurel B makes okra “Indian style with garbanzos and tamarind, or spicy with corn and limas and tomatoes, or tossed with corn meal and stir fried with onion.”

For simplicity, Carol M likes unadorned okra rings which are charred on a cast iron skillet or a perforated sheet on the grill, no seasoning other than a little salt. And Phil F in Madrid cuts his okra into bite size pieces and fries it up with some olive oil.

Enough Already! “discovered roasting okra whole on high heat with o.o. coating, salt/pepper, produces a delicious product. Leave room between pieces to allow air circulation so the moisture evaporates, concentrating the flavor. Also the Mediterranean style with tomatoes (I add the roasted okra to a chunky quick cooked tomato sauce. Add lemon juice.) is delicious. p.s. This even works with frozen okra, surprisingly.” Her idea combined with Susan F’s was the inspiration for this delicious okra prep.

We also did some examination of the twin okra evils of woodiness and slime. You know if an okra is woody because it crunches when you cut into it. I had been in the habit of discarding these pieces assuming their toughness would infect the rest of my dish but this last time I simply sautéed them separately. And you know what? They cooked up as tender as the smaller pieces.

As for slime, Lynn T suggests that “if you cut the end of the okra but just above main part, leaving no air access, you don’t get the slime.” I tried this. The sides of the okra tend to open up during boiling, so out comes the slime. I suppose you could watch the okra like a hawk and take it out of the water when it’s just tender, but if you are averse to slime you should try one of the sauté methods, all of which are slime-free.

Of course, none of these preps will budge the okra haters of the world such as Carol W, who says, “not even the greatest chef in the universe can make okra something I can enjoy. I don’t know what it is – the texture, the basic flavor, I am not sure. but it makes me want to hurl.” To each her own.

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