Archive for November, 2010

  • Parsnip ice cream and other culinary adventures

    Date: 2010.11.28 | Category: Consumerism | Response: 1

    A couple of years ago, there seemed to be a foodie trend in which restaurants were serving cuts of meat that went way beyond the usual prime rib or pork chop. All of a sudden, bone marrow was turning up on tons of local menus, and a hot eatery called Incanto got a lot of buzz for serving unconventional animal parts like lamb spleen and rooster crest. Oh, and don’t forget TV shows like “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” and the various Anthony Bourdain programs.

    You know who feels left out when Zimmern is snacking on chicken testicle soup and restaurantgoers are clamoring to attend “nose to tail” dinners? The vegetarians, that’s who. We’ve had it with grilled portobello mushrooms and pasta primavera! Bring on the extreme vegeterian cuisine!

    I was eager to try Berkeley’s Gather because it had received write-ups far and wide for its adventurous dishes — mostly vegetarian, but I could point to the online menu and show Joe that they also had hamburgers! (Their ground beef is sourced from Prather Ranch, which has been certified for its “low stress cattle handling.”) Since it was my special evening, I let him order the burger but picked the starter, the vegan charcuterie plate. Charcuterie is, by definition, cured and preserved meat, so the idea of a vegan one was unusual, to say the least. Everyone around us was ordering it, though, so the word is out that it’s delicious. Even Joe was digging in, scooping up slices of pear carpaccio with smoked persimmon celery root salsa and watermelon radish “steak” with leek “butter.” The charcuterie name is a bit of a gimmick; unlike a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant we dined at a couple of weeks ago, where the menu was full of faux chicken and beef dishes, nothing on Gather’s plate tries to mimic the taste of meat. The parsnip lardo did look a bit like fatback, but the texture was crisp.

    Joe raved about the enormous, cheddar-topped burger and the heaping helping of yummy fries. I opted for one of the specials, a pizza topped with leek cream, wild mushrooms, and stinging nettles, mainly because I love mushrooms and thought stinging nettles seemed like kind of a weird, and thus intriguing, thing to put on a pizza. (Important note: cooking nettles removes their stinging chemicals.) The leek cream was deliciously rich and there were lots of big chunks of mushroom; as for the nettles, they tasted sort of like a cross between parsley and spinach. Having read about the difficulty of making them edible, I am happy to leave the nettle-cooking to professionals instead of trying it myself.

    I was pretty full at this point, and even had some leftover pizza to take home, but I had to check out the dessert menu anyway. Too stuffed for the pinot noir chocolate mousse, I asked what the daily house-made ice cream flavor was. Parsnip and pine nut. My immediate reaction was, “I have to try that!” while Joe’s was, “Who would try that?” Even he had to admit, though, that the ice cream was amazingly good. I could definitely taste the pine nuts, but it didn’t really taste… parsnip-y. More like pear and lemon. I love the fact that Gather is willing to put something like that on the menu. It seems very only-in-Berkeley. I mean, if you want a scoop of vanilla, there’s a Ben & Jerry’s down the block.

    Because the cooking at Gather is so seasonal and local, I am looking forward to a return visit in the spring or summer so I can see what the cuisine is like then. But if you stop by the restaurant this winter, take a chance and order the parsnip ice cream — you won’t be sorry.

  • Kitchen stories, pt. 2

    Date: 2010.11.25 | Category: Consumerism | Response: 0

    A couple of months ago, I was heating up some frozen bread in the oven. It had a window in the front and when I glanced over I saw sparks flying. Naturally, I immediately turned off the oven. It turns out the heating element had broken.

    Well, how difficult could that be to fix? I called a local appliance repair shop, and was asked for the oven’s model number. When I read it, the woman laughed, informing me that the oven dated from the 1960s and there was no way they could find parts for such an ancient appliance.

    I knew the oven was old. Oddly enough, the kitchen was pretty modern — the previous owners had put in a fancy kitchen island with a granite countertop. But the oven and the microwave were both pretty ancient. The microwave had dials instead of buttons, which made it sort of retro, if not steampunk.

    photoInstead of going the Sears-Kenmore route and buying something inexpensive and functional, which is what I did when we replaced our refrigerator, I decided to replace the oven with something top-of-the-line to make the kitchen more gourmet. Of course it had to be stainless steel, because that is the preferred finish of today’s modern high end appliance. Besides, I was supposed to be raking in a bunch of money for a job I finished in August. (Money which still hasn’t materialized, incidentally, but that is perhaps a story for another day, as well as a “don’t count your chickens” cautionary tale for the freelancer.)

    I figured I might as well buy a new microwave too, since I’d need to get an installer to come out anyway. So off I went to an appliance store, where I purchased a stainless steel convection microwave — you can bake a cake in it! — and Electrolux oven with more digital controls than the space shuttle. I will admit that I missed the simplicity of our old dials and knobs.

    Naturally, one of the first orders of business with the new microwave was to pop popcorn in it. Imagine my surprise when I read in the manual that because of the oven’s sensor, I needed a special accessory — and it wasn’t included. With maddening specificity, it directed me to use “a NordicWare two-sided bacon/meat grill (grill side) made from heavy weight thermoset polyester when popping bagged microwave popcorn.” We thought perhaps we could just raise the bag on a different type of surface, but that wasn’t gonna happen; the corn remained unpopped, and I had to toss away the sadly deflated bag. After looking in a couple of local hardware stores for the NordicWare bacon grill, I gave up and ordered one on Amazon. It cost seven dollars, and yes, the popcorn popped. You’re spending six hundred bucks on a microwave and the manufacturer can’t be bothered to toss in a popcorn plate? What the heck, people?

    Other than that, the microwave has proven to be satisfactory (I still haven’t baked a cake in it, though). The oven is also far too complicated for its own good. Its Quick Reference Guide is eight pages long. On the first page, it says that to wake the oven from “sleep mode,” “touch within the display panel.” However, you need to touch the panel in exactly the right place or it won’t wake up, which has led to a lot of poking around until I find the On button.

    The oven came with a temperature probe and Perfect Turkey setting. You’re supposed to insert the probe into the bird and connect it to the oven, and it will alert you when the internal temp reaches a precise 180 degrees. That would have been a nice feature for Thanksgiving, were it not for the fact that I don’t eat turkey, so buying an entire bird would have been overkill. (I got a precooked turkey portion at Trader Joe’s for Joe.)

    Our old oven’s timer had an extremely loud buzzer. The new one chirps discreetly when the timer goes off. We joked that it was the equivalent of a butler summoning you: “Pardon me, sir, your food is ready.” It’s not made for people who are in the living room watching TV while waiting for the timer to ding.

    I’m not sure I made the right call with the super-duper appliances, though they do look nice, and I love the extra-smooth way the oven racks glide in and out. At least I won’t need to worry about the heating element sparking — in our new oven, it’s hidden beneath the surface.

  • Thank you. We are all refreshed and challenged by your unique point of view.

    Date: 2010.11.24 | Category: Consumerism | Response: 1

    On today’s “Talk of the Nation”: Fat Traveler Prepares For “Plus-Sized Ordeal”

    “If you’re fat, travel can be physically uncomfortable, expensive, embarrassing, even humiliating–at least as Rob Goldstone described it in The New York Times. Try squeezing through the metal detector, navigating transit turnstiles and enduring jibes and cruel stares.”

    A letter in response to Mr. Goldstone, from David Lehmann of New York:

    In response to Rob Goldstone’s “Tricks and Trials of Traveling While Fat” (Oct. 24), I ask: has Mr. Goldstone seriously considered a diet? Wouldn’t he be a healthier traveler after shedding some of his 285 pounds? Instead of going to Fiji, where bulk is revered, or choosing a larger seat, try smaller meals and more exercise.

    My response to Mr. Lehmann:

    Wait a second — are you telling me that if I eat less and exercise more, I can lose weight? Why has no one revealed this magic formula to me before? It’s so simple–I don’t understand why we have an obesity epidemic in this country! The scales have fallen from my eyes! Hallelujah!!!

    “[T]o win the fight against obesity,” [public health professor Ken Thorpe and STOP Obesity Alliance director Christine Ferguson] write, “all of us need to be individually committed.” Really? All of us? What role do people who aren’t fat play in this, exactly? If you mean they need to be constantly reminding fat people that we’re disgusting, unlovable, smelly, lazy, undisciplined, and above all, unhealtheeeeeee, then as a whole, they’re doing a bang-up job already. (This does not, of course, apply to all thin people. Some of my best friends are thin!) So I’m pretty sure what you mean is “Fat people need to be individually committed” to fighting their own bodies. To which I’d point out: Most of us already are. Who the fuck do you think is keeping the $50 billion dollar weight loss industry afloat? Magic sprites?
    –from Fat vs. Fiction by Kate Harding

  • A spy in the house of meat

    Date: 2010.11.06 | Category: Consumerism | Response: 4

    Joe’s birthday request was simple: he wanted to have dinner at the House of Prime Rib in San Francisco. The HOPR has been around for over 50 years, and they are wildly successful for one reason only. They have the best meat in town.

    Prime rib. That’s what they serve. The menu really only exists to show you the different cuts you can get, from the smaller city cut to the King Henry VIII cut (“for king-size appetites”).

    As someone who hasn’t tasted cowflesh since the mid-1980s and isn’t looking to start eating it again, I will admit that I was nervous. Noted vegetarian-hater Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of his TV show at the HOPR to show that despite San Francisco’s reputation as the home of tree-huggers and tofu-eaters, there was at least one meaty haven left in town. The place is obviously very popular; when I went on OpenTable two weeks in advance to make a reservation, the only times available were 5:30 and 9:30 PM. I called the restaurant and was offered my choice of 7 or 7:30. Keep that in mind if you plan to dine there: the HOPR doesn’t need to rely on OpenTable to fill its seats.

    The HOPR is a very large restaurant, but it consists of several different rooms, so it feels more intimate than institutional. We were seated in a room with sort of an English-library feel. In each room, there is a gigantic stainless steel cart staffed by a man in a chef’s hat: the meat-cutter. The prime rib is delivered to your table moments after it’s cut to your specifications. Everywhere I looked, there were people chowing down on slabs of blood-red meat.

    Joe said that it was silly of me to worry, and asked our waiter if the sides were available sans meat. The man didn’t even blink; I was obviously not the first vegetarian at the rodeo. I got all of the sides, from the salad — a mix of lettuce, beets and hard-boiled egg, tossed in a metal bowl spun by the server as he adds the dressing in a dramatic tableside preparation — to a giant baked potato, creamed corn, steamed spinach (their standard spinach dish has bacon in it, so mine was made special) and Yorkshire pudding. Would it be my first choice if I was picking a restaurant? No, but I left feeling satisfied. (Joe loved his prime rib, by the way.) And amazingly, they only charged me $7.50 — on the receipt, my meal was listed as “a la carte salad.” I gave our waiter a big tip.

    And where are we planning to go on my birthday? Gather, a new-ish restaurant in Berkeley that the New York Times described as “a Michael Pollan book come to life,” with a “sustainable ethos… Farm sources and quotes from food activists are scrawled on chalkboards surrounding an open kitchen.” There’s a list of the restaurant’s local purveyors on their web site. While it specializes in vegetarian and vegan food, however, Joe needn’t worry — there is also meat. Like so much in life, it is a happy compromise.