Archive for the ‘Food Profile’ Category

The novelty of nothing new

February 5, 2013

Here’s a suggestion for the culinary equivalent of a parlor game: take five ingredients, any ingredients, and devise a dish utilizing those ingredients. Now, come up with another one. And another one. And another one. Continue doing this until either a) you’ve exhausted all the possibilities or, b) you’re simply exhausted.

What shall we call this fun, new game? Marketing!


Promotional photo for Pizza Hut’s new Big Pizza Sliders.

Pizza Hut’s big commercial entry in this year’s Super Bowl commercial extravaganza – apparently to much fanfare on Pizza Hut’s part – was an exciting new addition to their menu, Big Pizza Sliders. In other words, little, tiny versions of the same thing they’ve been selling since 1958.

This approach is hardly new. As a friend of mine often jokes – scoffing, mind you – Taco Bell’s menu selection is the same ingredients (tortilla, meat, and cheese) packaged and repackaged into various versions over and over again. In fact, if you look at pretty much any chain restaurant menu, you’ll find it’s a fairly standard approach. Kentucky Fried Chicken – excuse me, KFC – sells chicken. They sell many versions of chicken because, after a while, sales begin to drop as customers’ interest wane and it becomes imperative to make that chicken look like something potential customers have never had before. At the same time, they have to be consistent in their offerings so that customers will know exactly what they’ll get, no matter which branch of the restaurant they’re visiting. Remember the 600-calorie Double Down with 1600 mg of sodium? Two pieces of fried chicken sandwiching a filling of bacon and cheese. Apparently, it’s still out there, shoring up the 290-calorie potato wedges and the 800-calorie, 64 oz Sierra Mist soft drink because how else will you make it from lunch to dinner without 1700 calories to fuel your afternoon?

But I digress.

Companies like Pizza Hut which, along with Taco Bell and KFC, is part of the enormous Yum! Brands conglomerate, have to generate revenue. They’re not in business to feed people, they’re generating revenue by feeding people. And it’s a lot of revenue. Last year, pizza restaurants in the US generated more than $36 billion in sales. In 2011 Yum!, alone, generated $1.3 billion in profits worldwide. How do they do that? Paradoxically by offering both consistency and novelty.

This is an issue faced by just about every food producer in the marketplace. Budweiser – the American one, not the Czech one – has very little new to offer its customers so much of its effort goes into packaging, rather than contents. Coors, another iconic American beer, faces the same problem. Its customers don’t want the product to change but the company still needs to maintain existing customers’ interest and draw in new consumers, as well. Its response to this quandary six years ago was to add a temperature sensitive label to the bottle.

Consumers tend to keep their refrigerators set to between 40º and 45º F,” reported the trade journal Packaging World back in 2007, “so the label color starts to change around 48º F and is at full color between 40º and 44º F, indicating the beer has reached the perfect temperature.”

In other words, novelty labeling nothing new.

Still, the buzz generated by something as mundane as making a teeny version of something customers have been ordering for the past 55 years can be substantial. Pizza Hut’s Facebook page was filled posts and commentary about its planned giveaway of samples of the Big Pizza Sliders.

Comments ranged from negative (“I called there’s a limited quantity and its only pepperoni they will be ready and its small like a biscuit! Always a catch!”) to the disturbingly enthusiastic (“Hope everyone enjoys the Big Pizza Sliders today. Another simple, hand held variety option from Pizza Hut!”), which leaves me wondering just how many shills are populating Facebook feeds.

When you’re selling the same old thing, any publicity, evidently, is good publicity.

Quality since 1086

July 9, 2012

Des de 1086

This morning, I stopped by my neighborhood dairy – lleteria in Catalan – to buy yogurt. It was the first time I’d been by there. I picked up a few cartons of plain yogurt, paid my bill, and took the stuff home with a couple more stops by the bakery and the bean store, where one goes to buy beans that are already cooked and waiting to be added to other dishes. It wasn’t until I got home and unpacked everything that I glanced at the reciept. Beneath an idyllic picture of what I assume is the ad agency’s version of the company’s headquarters – a lovely, rustic, stone farmhouse located at the foot of a mountain – was the line “des de 1086,” or “since 1086.”

That’s got the brand I usually buy back in San Francisco beat by about 1100 years, give or take.

Kitchen Experiments: Kefir

February 9, 2011

Full of calcium, beneficial bacteria, and - apparently - alcohol.

A buddy from Los Angeles was visiting last week and, as is his habit, he left some bizarre, apparently-good-for-you stuff in my refrigerator. This time, it was kefir. I’m late to kefir, the thick fermented milk drink with origins somewhere in Central Asia.

Like yogurt, it’s full of beneficial bacteria to say nothing of calcium and all those other nutrients of which we rarely get enough. It’s also, according to Harold McGee, ever-so-slightly alcoholic. Even that, however, wasn’t enough to make a  fan of me.

Part of the reason – actually, all of the reason – is the texture of the stuff. I like yogurt but I don’t try to drink yogurt from a glass. Kefir, not quite as thick as yogurt but hardly thin enough to drink, wasn’t much of an improvement. Or at least it wasn’t until it occurred to me – staring at the bottle Ed had left behind – that I could thin the stuff out.

I poured a glass about two-thirds full and then added some water, just enough to thin it out and make it gulpable. It occurred to me, too, that I could add fruit juice as well. Suddenly, the funky white stuff in my fridge wasn’t quite so off-putting anymore.

I drank the kefir-water mixture, pleased with the improved drinkability and the flavor – like yogurt, it’s tart, tangy, and lightly sweet – and then put the bottle back in the refrigerator. A few drinks more and I was nearly out.

I liked the stuff. I would buy more, I decided, but then I realized I could also just make it. The recipe couldn’t be much different from making buttermilk, for instance. Keep a small amount of the kefir to use as a starter, add it to milk, and let it ferment.  So I did.

By the next day, nothing had happened. I opened the bottle – the same bottle the kefir had come in – and found about a liter of regular ol’ milk. The problem, I figured, was that it needed to be warmer. I broke down and looked up directions for making the stuff on line – indeed, it needed time at room temperature to let the bacteria grow. I pulled the bottle from the refrigerator and left it on the counter. The next morning, about 18 or 19 hours later, I checked again. It was still thin.

Disappointed, I considered throwing the mixture away but didn’t. Instead I placed it back in the refrigerator. Some of the information I had read said kefir, developed at a low temperature, would happen and given the slow fermentation, would actually taste sweeter. I really didn’t want to wait a week, however, and removing the bottle from the refrigerator again, placed it back on the counter.

A few hours later, I had kefir, thick and tangy. Actually, I wasn’t sure how it tasted at first.

It might have just gone bad, I thought. It might taste, well, sour and not pleasantly so. I put the now-thickened mixture back in the refrigerator and then, a few hours later, looking for something to have with breakfast, I decided to give it a shot.

It was just fine.

Apparently, kefir culture is really only good used this way a few times. If I want to continue making kefir, I’ll need to buy starter. For now, it’s a nice novelty and I’ll keep it going for a little while longer. If I like it enough after that, I may track down some starter.

Condom Cuisine

February 3, 2011

And for the starter, I'll begin with the primordial soup...

Edible condoms might seem to undermine the very reason for using a condom to begin with but, in this case, it’s for a good cause. Hong Kong Chef Alvin Leung, Jr. unleashed a new raincoat-themed dish at a recent food congress in Milan: Sex on the Beach. SF Weekly described the plate of prophylactic goodness like this:

The edible “condom” is made by dunking a metal cigar tube into a food-grade polymer. It’s partially filled with a milky fluid of honey and Yunnan ham emulsion, arranged on powdered shiitake mushrooms (i.e., the “sand”).

What? No dental dams? Proceeds go to a local AIDS fund.

Girl Scout Cabal Begins Shakedown

February 2, 2011

They show up at your churches and temples, on street corners and grocery stores, even at your front door. They have one goal: to shake you down while forcing you to consume life-threatening trans-fats. They are, of course, the Girl Scouts of America and they’ve begun to mend their evil ways.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Girls Scouts have removed trans fats – a product of partially hydrogenated oils – from five of their popular cookies. That doesn’t mean the trans fats aren’t there, however. What it does mean is that the levels of trans fats are below the FDA-mandated allowance enabling a company to label its products as trans fat-free.

“When it comes to fat, trans fat is considered by some doctors to be the worst of them all because of its double-barreled impact on your cholesterol levels,” writes Web MD. “Unlike other fats, trans fat — also called trans-fatty acids — both raises your ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol and lowers your ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol.”

Which of the eight are the three offenders? They happen to include two of the best ones: Samoas, Thin Mints, and the less-fabulous Tagalongs. Apparently, “a person who eats eight [Samoas] could be taking in nearly 2 grams of trans fats – a substance the National Academy of Science says cannot be safely consumed in any amount,” reported the Tribune.

What goes into a Girl Scout cookie? In the case of Samoas, vegetable shortening is the fourth ingredient (Samoas are called Caramel deLites in this particular instance). There’s plenty of high fructose corn syrup and 6 grams of saturated fat. A single serving size is two cookies. Yeah, right.

Maybe it’s too early but there was nothing posted in response at the Girls Scouts’ web site. Or, maybe, trans fats consumed in Girl Scout cookies don’t count and we can eat them to our heart’s content.

Nothing like nothing in the larder

July 7, 2010

If there are any notable challenges to the creative cook, poverty probably ranks the highest. There’s nothing like nothing in the larder to truly inspire a cook to new levels of culinary greatness.

Take this evening, for example. Still waiting on payments from a web site which shall remain nameless, I found myself rummaging through the refrigerator looking for something to make for dinner. Last night, I made a pretty tasty sweet potato and chickpea soup (which included green apple, shallots, corn, cilantro, garlic, and jalapeño) with a pan of corn bread but after eating the soup for lunch today, as well, I wasn’t really in the mood for another helping.

Actually, photographing the damned noodles and fussing with the lighting was probably more difficult than actually making them.

What else was available? Not much. Then I remembered I still had a couple of eggs in the refrigerator. I had flour. And olive oil, and capers, and sage growing on the windowsill in the kitchen. There was still a chunk of Romano cheese, too. Dinner just sort of presented itself.

I learned how to make handmade pasta several years ago but I’ve been making it with more frequency in the past couple of years. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I spent a couple of hours with the kids at my temple teaching them how to make noodles from scratch. It’s a useful skill to have and, anyway, few things rival the simple pleasure of fresh, homemade pasta.

It took me about 20 minutes to make a batch of fettuccine using my hand cranked pasta machine. Before I threw it into the pot to boil, I picked several leaves of sage from my windowsill herb garden and then, after cutting them into a fine chiffonade, I tossed them into a skillet filled with about three tablespoons of olive oil heating up over a low flame. I rinsed off a couple tablespoons of the salted capers I bought while I was in Italy and added those to the oil, too.

While the herbs sizzled gently in the pan, I dumped the noodles into the pot of boiling, salted water I had going on the other side of the stove, stirring them to prevent them from sticking together (unless you hang the freshly made noodles on racks or toss them with flour, they have an annoying tendency to cling to one another as severely as if they were suffering from abandonment issues). Fresh noodles, of course, take very little time to cook. That gave me just enough time to grate about half a cup of Romano cheese and to crush some black pepper.

In a few minutes, the noodles were done. I drained them, returned them to the pot, and then poured the hot oil and herbs over the pile of pasta. I added the pepper, and then – stirring the noodles all the while – added the grated cheese, bit by bit.

Dinner was ready. Inexpensive? Oh, yeah. I figure about 45 cents for the flour, 33 cents for the eggs, 16 cents for the olive oil, and another 40 cents or so for the cheese – as well as for the capers –  and the whole meal probably cost me $1.74.

Being broke doesn’t mean one has to eat badly but eating well on a budget running in negative digits does require a certain amount of skill.

Meet My Friend, the Center-Cut Pork Chop

June 8, 2010

I’ve become a huge fan of the center-cut pork chop.

OK, obviously, this isn’t earth shattering information or even vaguely earth nudging but I’ve come to appreciate the sheer flexibility and utility of this otherwise not-terribly-exotic cut. It’s thick, it’s flavorful, it’s not terribly expensive and – best of all – it’s useful for a lot of different dishes. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I actually cooked one as is.

Black bean and pork tacos

The center cut pork chop is typically edged with a nice, thick layer of fat on one side and a generous chunk of bone (You can get them boneless, as well; I don’t). There’s plenty of meat wedged into the nooks of the bone in addition to the glorious round slab of lean meat that forms the bulk of the chop. It is, without doubt, a lovely piece of flesh and it would look pretty damned fabulous on just about any plate come dinner time but, inevitably, in my kitchen it gets used for other things.

Just tonight, for example, I made black bean tacos with pork cut, you probably guessed, from a center-cut pork chop. Except the chops I used were actually the leftover scraps from other chops I had trimmed for other dishes earlier on. Rather than tossing the bones and the fat, as well as the leftover chunks of actual meat, I froze them. Usually, you’ll find at least a couple bags of frozen pork chop scraps in my freezer waiting to be used for any number of dishes.

I pulled out what I wanted – a bone, a couple of generous strips of fat, and several chunks of meat – and then diced the fat into small cubes. I tossed those into a hot pan in which I was already sautéing a few diced shallots and let them brown. Then I tossed in the pieces of meat which I had cut into larger dice, and let them brown a bit as well. Once that was done, I put in the black beans I’d left soaking, along with fresh-ground cumin, oregano, and some cilantro, covered it all with water and set it to boil on the stove, reducing the whole mess to a steady simmer once it had actually hit the boiling point.

When the beans were nearly done, I added salt, pepper, and some lime zest and then served it up in corn tortillas with tomato salsa and cotija cheese. What the tacos lacked in authenticity, as if that were an issue in my kitchen, they more than made up for in flavor. With a cold Hefeweizen, they made for a great meal.

But I use that cut of pork for other things as well, particularly when I want to mince my own pork for Mapo tofu, for instance. I rarely want more than a quarter pound of meat for that particular dish and the center-cut meets my expectations quite nicely. When I’ve trimmed away the meat I want from the cut, the bone and fat scraps go into the freezer to be used for any other number of dishes. Need flavor for beans? Toss in the bones. Need fat for another dish? A roasted chicken or perhaps a meatloaf? There it is, waiting patiently for me in the freezer.

Who needs plain old pork chops?

Fresh Chicken

February 24, 2010

Apples on display at the Civic Center Farmers' Market.

At the Civic Center farmers’ market today I ran across something I hadn’t noticed before. Outside the row of stalls selling everything from cheese, fish, and flowers to choi sum, kari leaves, and blood oranges, was a truck covered in tarps.

It was partially covered, actually, with a tarp draped across one side and extending over the top of the bed, and a small, portable pavilion had been set up in front to give the vendors and customers a place to stand and conduct business out of the drizzle that had been falling all morning. The vendor, a beefy Latino guy with a thin mustache and deep brown skin, was selling live chickens.

Held in crates too low for them to stand up, the Rhode Island reds sat three or four to a cage, stacked at least six or seven crates high, nervously watching as a woman pulled them from their confines. She reached into one cage and pulled out an obviously nervous bird.  I assumed at that point it was headed to the chopping block – that’s not true, I was actually waiting for her wring its neck – but, instead, she tucked the clucking hen gently into a paper grocery bag, folded over the top to close it, and then handed it to the man who then passed it over to a customer.

His customers were almost all Chinese: small women with short, sensible, no-nonsense haircuts and the standard-issue fleece jacket sold to tourists who never expected San Francisco to be as cold as it often is, with a stylized “SF” embroidered on the breast. As I watched, one woman was crouched down, tucking a full paper bag into a plastic bag with handles which would be easier to carry. She would, later that day probably, kill the bird at home for dinner that evening. You don’t get much fresher than that.

Five years ago, I managed an apartment building in Nob Hill, just a couple blocks outside Chinatown. Many of my tenants, as well as my neighbors in other buildings, were Chinese. I had only lived in San Francisco less than two years at that point and was even newer to the neighborhood.

Working in an empty apartment one afternoon, repairing a window, I was surprised by the sudden sound of a chicken clucking. I opened the window on which I had been working a little farther and leaned my head out into the light well. Several long moments later, I heard it again. The chicken sounds were coming from an apartment on the fourth floor, where Mrs. Fang lived.

I knew that many Chinese – and Latinos – often bought live chickens to slaughter at home. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that the tenants who lived in the small but comfortable studios in my building were doing it, too. As a kid, my family had raised chickens on our small farm and I tended to think of slaughtering chickens as a fairly messy business best done outdoors. But, no, when one’s total acreage consisted of about 450 to 500 square feet on the fourth floor of a 99-year old apartment building, one made do with what one had.

I heard nothing else after several moments and returned to my work. The doomed bird would end up, no doubt, as the centerpiece of dinner that evening, perhaps as salt-baked chicken, or in a rich soup. The next morning, hauling out the trash to be picked up by the city, I saw no feathers, nor any other signs of the poultricide that had taken place the day before. In fact, over the next couple of years, I never found any hints of other animals being dispatched in the building. The home-butchering was quiet, tidy, and discreet. It was just as well: we didn’t allow pets, anyway.

A Little Respect for the Pock-marked Old Woman

February 20, 2010

For several years now I’ve had a lovely little thing going with Mapo tofu, that quintessentially Sichuan dish of chilies, tofu, and minced pork. In truth, it’s difficult to narrow down just what about it appeals to me: bold flavors, wonderful textural contrasts, and its simplicity are all points in its favor. Of course, there’s more than that happening in a dish of the stuff. What every truly great dish has – and Mapo tofu is surely one of the great dishes of Chinese or even world cuisine – is a good background story. Without that, it would still be wonderful but it wouldn’t be great.

Sometime late in the Qing Dynasty, according to various stories, a widow known as Old Lady Chen ran an inn on the outskirts of Chengdu. Author and expert in Sichuan cuisine Fuchsia Dunlop writes Old Lady Chen was the wife of the restaurateur who owned the inn. In any case, her customers were the laborers and poor merchants who couldn’t afford to stay at the nicer places in the center of town. Her own story was no less poignant, however. Her face was ravaged with the scars of small pox and she was forced to live outside the city as a result.

Serve Mapo tofu over freshly steamed rice.

The inn was located between a tofu maker and a butcher who specialized in lamb. Some of Old Lady Chen’s customers were cooking oil merchants and so she combined the three ingredients along with the chilies that are so popular in Sichuanese cooking to produce a dish that gained notoriety. Stories say Mapo tofu became so popular people traveled long distances just to try it. Given what she must have had to endure as a result of her scars, it’s nice to think she enjoyed both prosperity and respect as a result.

The name of the dish, incidentally, is taken directly from Old Lady Chen. Ma is short for “mazi” which means pock-marked as a result of small pox. “Po” means “old woman”. Put them together and you have Pock-marked Old Woman’s Tofu. The name belies the great pleasure of the dish; yet another contrast.

Mapo tofu is a sensual adventure: crisp morsels of pork pair up with soft, smooth tofu in an oily – but not greasy – bright, red sauce. The spicy but gentle burn of chili stands up against the blandness of the tofu although neither is overwhelmed or overwhelming. In fact, the heat of the chilies is a perfect complement to the unassuming flavor of the tofu. In this particular dish, tofu doesn’t need to be fried beforehand or marinated in anything to give it flavor. It readily absorbs the chili-laden oil that forms the framework of the sauce but it isn’t saturated. In a way, the deep flavors of the sauce really allow the tofu to present itself simply for what it is and it comes off beautifully. Once the dish is finished cooking, ground Sichuan pepper is sprinkled across, leaving the diner with a pleasant, tingling sensation on her lips as she eats.

Good tofu, in this particular case, is essential and we’re fortunate in San Francisco to have a very good tofu producer.

I rarely order Mapo tofu in restaurants anymore because it is so often disappointing. Typically, the heat is toned down far too much and the beautiful textural contrasts seem to disappear in kitchens used to churning out generic Chinese food for non-Chinese customers. Even in restaurants that cater almost exclusively to Chinese tastes, however, I’ve found the Mapo tofu to be less than compelling and, in some cases, loaded with ingredients – such as peas – which have no business being there.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe is easily the most authentic, but like any recipe when it appears in a different kitchen, I’ve altered it a bit to fit my tastes. Dunlop calls for the more traditional beef (not lamb!) but I find that beef doesn’t stand up as well to the pungent demands of the chili sauce as well as pork. I typically use scallions rather than leeks and, rather than dried Sichuanese chilies, I use Korean chili flakes, called koch’u karu. I frequently make kimchi so I almost always have an abundance of them on hand.

1 block firm tofu
4-6 scallions
½ cup peanut oil
4 ounces minced pork
2-3 tablespoons Sichuanese chili bean paste
1 heaping tablespoon fermented black beans
1 tablespoon coarse ground dried chilies
1 cup chicken stock
2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon Shao Xing rice wine
4 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 6 tablespoons of cold water
1 teaspoon ground, roasted Sichuan peppercorns

  • Cut the bean curd into ¾ inch cubes and let steep in hot water to warm them up before they go into the wok.
  • Slice the scallions on the bias into 1 ½-inch lengths (I usually mince the white ends and add them to the dish early in the cooking).
  • In a hot wok, add all the oil and then the minced pork, letting it fry until it’s crisp but not dried out.
  • Reduce the heat to medium and add the chili bean paste and ground chilies, stir frying them for about 30 seconds until the oil turns a vibrant red (I usually add the chopped scallion whites at this point). Add the fermented black beans and cook for another 30 seconds.
  • Pour in the stock, the soy sauce, and the rice wine. Now add the drained tofu, folding it carefully into the meat and oil mixture to avoid breaking up the cubes. Simmer over low heat for about five minutes, allowing the tofu to absorb the various flavors.
  • Add the scallions, stirring them into the sauce, and then – in two or three doses – add the cornstarch, stirring it gently into the mixture until the sauce begins to thicken, clinging to the cubes of tofu and meat.
  • Sprinkle with the ground Sichuan pepper corns, stir again, and serve.

    With rice, serves two generously and four quite adequately.

Pitaya: the Drag Queen of Exotic Fruit

February 7, 2010

Slice open a dragonfruit and this is what you'll find.

This essay originally appeared Oct. 13, 2009, at

Amidst the piles of bok choy, gai lan, and other Asian vegetables at last Wednesday’s farmers’ market at San Francisco’s Civic Center was a box filled with what appeared to be several kohlrabi in full drag. Brilliant fuschia, I picked one up in amazement. The look on my face must have tipped off the vendor because she asked me “Do you know what that is?”

I had no idea.

“Dragon fruit,” she replied. “They’re very sweet.”

Sounded good to me and suitably exotic, to boot. Standing nearby was an older woman with a heavy Russian accent. “They are very, very nutritious,” she chimed in. “I eat them often.”

Well, that pretty much settled it. I’ll give it a shot, I told the vendor. How much?

“Five dollars,” she replied. OK, by that point, I was committed and my curiosity too aroused to ignore. I pulled the last five ones from my wallet and handed them over, depositing my flashy fruit into my grocery bags with the other produce I had purchased at other stands.

Once I got the dragon fruit home, I began looking for information on line. As it turns out, dragon fruit – also known as pitaya, pitahaya, and thang loy – is immensely popular in much of Asia. The vendor, who had grown the fruit on her farm near Sacramento, had said as much, adding that her father had planted the trees from seed back in 1989. Despite its popularity in Asia, it’s actually native to Central America.

Pitaya is rich in vitamins – C, most notably – as well as numerous other nutrients including B vitamins, phosphorous and, surprisingly, calcium. It’s a good source of fiber and, like watermelon, it’s a watery fruit and quite refreshing.

In California, pitaya is in season from September through November. When ripe (the skin should give gently but remain firm) the inedible skin peels away easily to reveal either white, bright red, or even yellow flesh underneath. Like kiwi, to which it’s similar in taste, it’s filled with hundreds of tiny, black, edible seeds. The flesh is firm but easy to cut, which makes it a natural for fruit salads. It will hold its shape nicely cut into cubes or other shapes, and remain firm enough to provide a wonderful contrast with other ingredients. Pitaya chills nicely; store it in the refrigerator.

Pitaya seems to inspire flamboyance – or silliness, depending upon your viewpoint – in its fans. Those who have helped to develop new strains of the fruit seem to find that normal adjectives simply aren’t descriptive enough. One Florida grower offers David Bowie, Bloody Mary, Purple Haze, Seoul Kitchen, Cosmic Charlie, and L.A. Woman among his selections. I can only imagine what it must be like to ask for five pounds of Purple Haze at a market.