Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Dining Out for Non-Foodies

June 7, 2011

The Fun of Dining Out

Recently, after posting a Yelp review I perused some of the reviews for the restaurant which my husband and I had thoroughly enjoyed.  This led to some further perusing and some mental meandering on peoples’ expectations and ideals when it comes to dining out.

What my conclusions were is that many times the expectations of diners and what standards are for most restaurants are not aligned.  The restaurant reviews that inspired these thoughts showed a lack of understanding for what are considered to be the SOPs in upscale casual and fine dining.

This inspired me to create a list similar to the one at the end of the book Waiter Rant… but with a slightly softer tone.

So, in the spirit of increasing pleasure for all those dining out…foodies, non-foodies, couples, families, singles and groups.

  • Make a reservation and keep it—also, be sure to confirm it.  There is no shortage of times when reservations can be lost due to glitches on computers or with reservations systems.  Also, be aware that if you make a reservation for a second seating, it is possible the party who was seated in the first seating may not get up exactly when needed.
  • If you have not made a reservation and walk into a restaurant on Saturday night at 730 and insist that because tables are open they should be able to seat you, you must understand that the people who made 800 reservations for those tables actually want them.
  • Be aware that booking systems track reservation habits.  If you do not show up for three reservations most will not take further reservations.
  • Service—the standards vary between different levels of restaurants—be aware of the differences and more pleasant dining experiences will follow.  Hostesses will present your menus in casual restaurants, servers in finer restaurants.
  • Timing of service—in nicer restaurants one should expect to have food coursed and enjoy course breaks.  One should expect to have 10-15 minutes between courses…not as I witnessed one of the uninitiated do and berate a server for not having entrees on the table at the same time as we (I was dining with the uninitiated)were still eating appetizers, also, please allow time for everyone at the table to finish before expecting to move to the next course.
  • If there is a problem with the food, address it politely.  It will sometimes happen that a dish is not cooked properly or an errant hair will end up on a plate.  Give the server or manager a chance to fix the problem—especially if the hair is not the color of the server or kitchen staff.
  • If you have a question about portions sizes, ask.  In the reviews which inspired this line of thought, there were numerous mentions of the size of the salads (which in all three cases were ordered as entrees)…this, despite the fact that the restaurants’ menu clearly has them listed as appetizers.  Simple communication can avoid many problems and many disappointments.
  • Tip commiserate with service…be aware that most servers make a little over two dollars an hour and their tips are both taxed and are also their primary income.  Smile, say please and thank you, just as we were all taught.

If you would like to know more about cuisines from different regions do some research. Many of the restaurants in the US alter the food quite significantly from what is traditionally served in the country of origin.  The more you research and find out about different cuisines the more you can enjoy the dining experience.

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Felix Ortiz’s Proposed Salt Ban

March 11, 2010

Seriously?!?!

I normally maintain my cool in this particular forum, but this just goes beyond my comprehension.

Seriously?!?!

Has the man ever cooked?  For the love of God, has he even boiled water?  This ridiculous bill states that, “ A. 10129 that “No owner or operator of a restaurant in this state shall use salt in any form in the preparation of any food for consumption by customers of such restaurant, including food prepared to be consumed on the premises of such restaurant or off of such premises.”

I have NEVER in my 42 years on the planet, my 30+ years cooking or my 20+ years in restaurants seen any chef, cook, assistant or anyone remotely human cook without using salt.  And.  I do not want to. Salt changes boiling temperatures.  Salt affects flavor balance.  Salt extracts fluids.  And. Salt is actually necessary for proper cell function. Look up sodium potassium pump if you do not believe that.

Now, does the typical American consume to much salt, yes.  But the majority of that happens to be in processed foods, not in well prepared restaurant foods.

As one of my favorite eating divas, Food Philosophy, said…first they came for the foie gras…and commandeering Martin Niemöller’s famous quote may seem blithe to some, but really it is not.  How Big Brother is it to assume that the public needs to have the Food Fascists completely eliminate their option of choosing how much salt they want in the food they are buying in NYC?

And would you like to discuss the economic stupidity of legislation of this ilk? NYC is one of the only cities in the entire country recognized around the world for its cuisine.  If chefs are not allowed the use of an ingredient which exists in every cuisine on the planet you can kiss the reputation of NYC’s restaurants and all of their tourist attracting dollars goodbye.

Felix Ortiz has obviously never spent any time in a kitchen.  Next week, no sugar, no coffee and no cream sauce.

Rant over.

A Taste of Tuscany

March 3, 2010

Tuscan Food Festival at its Tastiest

For all lovers of real Tuscan food, Slow Food, artisanal food, essentially all things yummy and delicious, there is another event coming up that you will either completely enjoy or be completely jealous of me for attending.

The weekend of 13-15 March, Taste will be held in Stazione Leopolda.  This is more than just a simple walk around and nibble tasty examples of what local producers have to offer.  Instead, there are actually lectures and speakers whose love of food and intensity in speaking about it can inspire even the most staunch consumer of mediocre cuisine to aspire to culinary mastery.

There are, of course, a huge variety of incredible foods available for purchase.  For those who will, by chance, be in Florence that weekend, these make fabulous gifts to bring back with you…if you are able to hold off on eating them yourself.

Everything from olive oils to cured meats to wine to chocolate is available, as is a wealth of information on a bevy of products and production methods.

For those who must live vicariously through Florentine residents, I will be posting notes and photos after the event.  Maybe they will inspire you to either move to Italy or at least take a well-deserved trip to travel Tuscany next year.

Grocery Shopping in Italy

February 22, 2010

Sooooo, you are coming to Italy and you’ll be staying a while.  You love food and want to learn more about it or you are simply a student who needs to feed herself while studying and soaking up Tuscan ambiance.  You’ve rented an apartment in Italy and you a ready to stock up that kitchen.

But, you don’t stop to think that the grocery store could be a different experience here…I sure didn’t.  Of course, I knew about the markets in Italy and had been there when I had traveled before, but the grocery store experience was slightly new and different.

So, we have an entrance to exit guide of a typical trip to the grocery store using my local Esselunga as a roadmap:

  • Parking. Don’t. Walk.
  • If you want a basket they are by the front door.  If you want a cart you will have to “rent” it with a single euro coin.  Have your coin ready before going to the store.
  • Produce can not be touched with bare hands…yes I know you are supposed to wash it when you take it home…just use the supplied gloves if you don’t want to be cussed out by an 80 year old 4’10” woman who probably could do you bodily harm.
  • You must weigh and tag your produce before leaving the produce section…they do not do this at the register in most stores.
  • Stocking is done throughout the day…many times at the busiest times of the day…if you do not see something ask…it very well could be on its way out “fra un po.”
  • If you are looking for ethnic items it is best to try to find and ethnic store…remember tortillas are ethnic food here.
  • The deli section…Godsend to those who can cook and those who are learning.  Fantastic meats, cheeses and prepared foods in most of the larger stores…do not freak out on the whole pig legs on the shelves…or the heads.
  • Meat sections…everything is pretty much the same except for the fact that there will be some items Americans don’t usually run across.  Pigeons, quail, rabbit, tongue, tripe and liver are standards here…I have seen a girl lose it over the poor bunny that was on display.
  • Checkout…unload in an organized way…you have to bag those groceries yourself, into bags you either bring with you or bags you buy there…and you have to do it fast…that same 80 year old woman will bag her groceries faster than you and she will yell at you again…and she can probably trek down the sidewalk faster than you, while carrying four bags of groceries and smoking a cigarette.

Remember your conversions. One kilogram is 2.2 pounds, a liter is about a quart, un etto is 1/10 kg…the dollar and euro conversion…well, sorry that one changes a lot.  Basically produce is usually cheaper, milk is always more expensive, meat is roughly the same and the quality on all tends to be high.  Be prepared to run a shopping cart obstacle course…don’t question it, it’s just like parking a car here.

Do try to head to the local markets here…they really are a don’t miss…the quality and freshness of the produce is amazing, you will find only fresh in season goodness and…perhaps it is just my prejudice… but I really believe the produce tastes better.  Then head home and let the creativity begin.

Wine: seriously, you have never seen so much good quality, reasonably priced wine. Ever. In your life.

Classic Treats for Carnevale

February 8, 2010

Fresh Cenci: the Cookies of Carnevale

Italians celebrate everything with food and Carnevale is no exception. One of the simplest joys of the Carnevale season in Italy is cenci.  These are fried cookies that are available in every pasticceria and bar and grandmother’s kitchen.  Not only are they easy to make, but they also happen to be highly addictive…be forewarned if you happen to make these and plop yourself in front of the TV with a DVD it is very possible to finish the whole batch.  It’s more possible to finish the whole batch if you take the bottle of Vin Santo with you from the kitchen to the TV.

This is one of those recipes that also offers the happy convenience that you likely have virtually everything in your kitchen already…maybe not the Vin Santo, but then you have an excuse to go buy more wine.

Ingredients:

1   cup all-purpose flour
3   tbs butter (melted)
2   tbs granulated sugar
1   egg
2   tbs Vin Santo (you can substitute rum)
1   tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Oil for frying (I like sunflower)
Confectioners sugar
Place the flour in a medium-sized bowl  and add the other ingredients slowly, mixing well. Form a dough and knead the dough for a minute or two. Cover the dough with cellophane and allow to rest for an hour. Roll the dough out onto a lightly floured board until thin.  Using a fluted pasty wheel, cut  the pastry into strips, or  simply use a knife and cut into strips about 8 inches long and 1/2 inch wide, and tie each strip into a knot.  Heat your oil to 375F and fry the strips a few at a time until golden.
As you remove from the oil, place the cookies on a plate covered with paper towels to absorb any excess oil.  When they have dried slightly, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.
These cookies do not have a long lifespan, therefore you will be forced to consume them rapidly…within two days…and hopefully with a tasty Vin Santo.
Buona Festa and enjoy Mardi Gras!!!

Chocolate in Italy: Pure Heaven

February 6, 2010

I have just returned from the Fiera del Cioccolato in Florence’s Piazza Santa Croce.

Do you like chocolate?  Do you LOVE chocolate?  Then this event and similar events that occur in different regions of Italy are the place for you.

Nuggets of Joy

My hands down favorite of the festival was Chic & Shock .  Of everything they offered…and believe me, the selection was extensive…my favorites are pictured above.  For a business that is only 16 years old…a blip on the radar in Italian terms…the quality and beauty of their artisanal chocolate is amazing.  In addition to the bars of chocolate, which were phenomenal, I took home “frutto di bosco,” “cannella” “rosa” and “amarena.”  The process for these little gems takes three days because different components must set before the next can be added.  So, combine intense flavor with artistry that creates a miniature log of white and dark chocolate filled with berry infused fondente and topped with a little chocolate ladybug for 1€ and you can understand why I fell in love.

Truffles Galore

My second favorite was Di Maria, who unfortunately have email, but do not have a website yet. The truffles where classic example of what chocolate should be.  My favorite was actually the coconut and white chocolate, which is absolutely flabbergasting to me because I always prefer dark chocolate.  The milk chocolate filled with Grand Marnier was also outstanding and how they managed to create lighter chocolates that I fell in love with amazes me.

Chocolate Equipment

The final standout to me was Dolci Express.  The quality of the chocolate was high…and I loved the heart shaped chocolate suckers.  The thing that really made me fall in love was the “Chocolate Equipment.”  The photo does not do the pieces justice, but these would be an ideal gift for a man’s man chocolate lover for Valentine’s Day.  They have crafted all sorts of tools and objects from chocolate…little boys went crazy for these and I think grown up boys would too.

Any time you are in Italy there is likely a chocolate festival going on somewhere nearby.  They are not always easy to find online…so I will be compiling a list of all that I can find…stay tuned.

The Mediterranean Diet: Eat Yourself Skinny

February 4, 2010

Italian Snack Time

Pasta does not make you fat.

Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in Italy can tell you this.  A Mediterranean diet will not only make you skinnier, it will make you healthier.

I already ate a fairly healthy diet before moving here because I am a huge fan of quality food, freshly prepared.  I have made my own soup stock and sauces from scratch for years and am a Slow Food aficionado…including being a member of their LinkedIn group.  Basically, I didn’t just hop on a bandwagon.

Not only does the typical diet in Italy help maintain a healthy weight, but it also helps maintain your health.  The science backs it up.  The World Health Organization stats back it up.  Most importantly, everything tastes good so it is not only easy to adopt, but, unlike “diets”, it is also easy to maintain.  Who doesn’t like a diet with spaghetti, pizza and red wine as basic components?

What are some of the most basic tips that will keep your body slim and your taste buds satiated?

  • Eat fresh
  • Eat multiple times a day
  • Don’t eat chemicals
  • Eat colorfully
  • Eat when you are hungry

Italians eat throughout the day and in small portions, except on holidays…then all bets are off.  Food is bought much more frequently than is typical in the US, going to the market every couple days is not at all unusual.  Preservatives are avoided as much as possible because they aren’t necessary if you go to market three times a week.

Beyond freshness, plates are colorful.  Different fruits and vegetables are in abundance in bowls and refrigerators in every house in Italy…and they are eaten with gusto.  This is great not only for flavors and a balanced diet, but also because of all the phytonutrients and antioxidants, besides, if you don’t eat them mamma or nonna will not be happy.

So what does an Italian typically eat?

  • Prima colazione—the first breakfast, usually toast or a croissant and some fruit or fruit juice and yogurt and, of course, coffee
  • Secunda colazione—the second breakfast, usually about 11 or so, a small sandwich and some coffee.
  • Pranzo—lunch, a sandwich or small plate of pasta and a salad…a small plate of pasta means about 125g or a little over 1/4 lb and with a tomato based sauce typically.
  • Merenda—snacktime, cheese or fruit and most likely an iced tea.
  • Cena—dinner, this is generally good sized and is eaten fairly late 9pm.  Some soup or antipasto, a small pasta serving and a small meat serving, roast pork, seafood or steak and a large salad or vegetables…and a glass of red wine.

Italians consume as much fat as most Americans…but, almost all of the fat is in the form of olive oil.  Olive oil is monounsaturated fat, and gives you fat and flavor without issues with cholesterol and heart problems.  The meat here is lean and high quality and portions are sized right.  It’s the same thing with cheese, every house has multiple types of cheese, but people eat it in small portions…an ounce here or there or grated over pasta.

Good food does not make you fat.  Eat fresh, eat healthy and eat a little at a time…except on holidays, we all need to have fun.

Eat like an Italian!!!

Travel in Italy: Deals on Dining

January 18, 2010

Save your Euro

When you are traveling in Italy the exchange rate is not your friend.  Food in Italy is generally fairly reasonably priced, BUT with the exchange rate generally hovering around 1:1.50 this essentially means that everything you eat will cost 50% more than it would in American dollars.

I would not advise eating your way through Italy by patronizing McDonald’s, but it does make for a good comparison.  In Florence a McDonald’s Value meal costs 6.90€ which is roughly $10.  Extrapolate that to all of your food purchases and restaurant excursions for a two-week vacation and it can make for a very nasty surprise come bank statement time.

Now, I would not encourage you to eat mediocre food while you are traveling here so none of the tips will actual involve any reduction in the quality of the food you enjoy.  On the contrary, many of the tips will actually expose you to higher quality foods (both for consumption and for gifts to take home) than many tourists encounter.

  • Water—walking in Italy is the way most people see the sights, this means consuming a lot of water to stay hydrated.  This also means that vendors take advantage and price water significantly higher than the markets that will be within a very short walk of most hotels.  Simply ask the concierge or receptionist where the nearest market is.  Water will be less than 0.50c per 1.5 l bottle in the market, it will be 2€ for a 0.5 l bottle in the city centers.  For two people over two weeks who each drink 1.5 l of water per day that works out to 154€ or $216.  ON WATER.  That is money you could spend on quite a lovely dinner.
  • Sandwiches—when you are out walking about you may notice very small sandwich places or Italian style delis.  Asking where to get a good panino will likely lead you to one where the locals eat.  These will be made fresh to order and use such wonderful ingredients as prosciutto di San Daniele, fresh bread, artichoke puree and other such treats.  Much better than the pre-made sandwiches for sale in so many tourist traps…and usually only around 3€.  Take your panini and plant yourself in the nearest piazza, just like all the people who live here.
  • Tavola—huh?  It is standard here for many casual restaurants to have two separate posted price lists.  The first is for “al banco” and is a much lower price for drinking your coffee standing at the bar.  The second is the “tavola” and is the price for enjoying the exact same item at a table instead.  The prices vary significantly, the coffee that is 0.80 at the bar is 3€ at a table…sometimes you just want to sit so it is worth it, but it is good to be aware beforehand.
  • Restaurant choices—you may have a list of specific restaurants you want to try in certain places and many of those in Zagat or Michelin are what you want to be spending your food budget on.  The thing you do not want to do is to waste your money on mediocre food at high prices.  This often happens in restaurants that cater to tourists.  It is much better to find restaurants that cater to locals.  Spend some money on a decent dictionary and find the restaurants which do not have English menus.  They will open later and the food will virtually always be not only easier on the budget, but much higher quality.
  • Markets—there are open air and indoor markets everywhere here.  They offer everything from artisanal olive oils, small production wines, locally grown produce and hand made sausages.  Fabulous foods for snacking on, taking back to your hotel for a midnight snack or bringing home with you as gifts.  The bonus:  many of these items are identical or better to what you find in the gourmet stores at a fraction of the price and with a much broader selection.

Enjoy the food in Italy without melting your Visa.

Regionality of Italian Cooking

January 14, 2010

Travel in Italy can offer some surprises for many Americans who are not familiar with Italian history and the development of the various cuisines throughout Italy.  The diversity of the food has deep roots and slow or never changing habits.  I have had people traveling here wonder why they can’t find X dish when they are here in Tuscany…”Why can’t I find Italian food in Italy?” went the query.

Because “Italian food” is essentially a misnomer.

  • Geography:  Italy ranges from glacier-covered peaks in the Alps to its southernmost point being on the same latitudes as parts of North Africa.  In a country the size of California they have the kind of geography that has allowed them to host both the Winter and Summer Olympics.  Surprisingly enough to most people, the country has hosted the Winter Olympics twice and the Summer Olympics once.  This means that different foods and livestock characterize different regions of the country.
  • History:  Italian history as such did not exist until 1861.  Prior to the unification of the country the southern portion of the peninsula and Sicily were the Kingdom of Naples and the northern portion of the country was a collection of Duchys and Principalities, with San Marino and Vatican City thrown in as well.  Trade between regions was often strained and resulted in the development of items such as the salt-less Tuscan bread.
  • Grudges:  Italians as a culture can hold a grudge longer than just about any on earth.  The wars that lead to the development of aforementioned salt-less bread ended over 500 years ago, but the bread is still made without salt.  The black rooster on the label of Chianti Classico is a remnant of a 13th century disagreement over territory distribution between Florence and Siena.

Where does this leave the traveler when searching out good food while traveling in Italy?  My opinion, eat what the locals eat.  The variances in things as “simple” as tomato sauce really do correspond to the items that they are served with.  A second factor in this is immigration.  Immigration from southern to northern Italy is quite common so finding good southern Italian cooking throughout most of the country is fairly easy.  If you are looking for a restaurant straight out of Naples you can probably find one in most towns.   On the other hand, if you are a fan of the indulgent style of eating characterized in Bologna then visiting the city is recommended.

Hints for maximum restaurant enjoyment:

  • Find a restaurant that does not display English menus:  this means they cater to locals and the price/quality ratio will be infinitely better.
  • Look for asterisks on the menu:  it is required by Italian law that the use of any frozen ingredients be indicated on the menu…the more of these you see the higher the chances you will get mediocre food.
  • Seasonal foods:  even if you do not go for truffles or cinghiale, the more focus a place puts on the seasonal the better your meal will likely be.
  • Unusual foods:  do not immediately run if you see unusual dishes on a menu.  Tripe, liver, chicken neck, wild boar and even horse are not unusual in traditional foods here.  Even if you do not order them, it usually means that absolutely everything in the place is going to made from scratch.

Other than that, eat as much as possible, as often as possible and with as much gusto as possible…you can walk it off sight-seeing.

What Makes a Fabulous Meal?

November 19, 2009

I have been asked on countless occasions what I think makes a meal great.

I am definitely not a food snob and enjoy a thick juicy hamburger with all the fixings or a big ol’ plate of BBQ as much as foie gras and fine wine.  I have been known to eat and serve all types of meals with the same gusto.  Expense does not make a meal stand out.  Some of the simplest meals can also be the most enjoyable (says the proponent of peasant food.)

What are keys to making any meal as good as it can possibly be?

The freshness of your ingredients and their quality.  Animal products must be fresh (except for the ageing aspect…follow the three day rule.)  Using good quality ingredients does not mean buying the most expensive thing in the store or special ordering freakily rare ingredients.  It means picking good tomatoes, using fresh herbs whenever you can, springing for the cage-free eggs.

Flavor combinations need to be considered.  High end restaurants with prix fix menus are well aware of this.  Appetizer A flavors work with fish course B flavors work with meat course C flavors.  This applies in everyday meals too.  The previously mentioned BBQ (yup craving BBQ, don’t get it the same way here) the sweetness inherent in most sauces plays well with the high sugar content of creamed corn, the bacon flavors in baked beans and the hoppiness of ice cold beer.  Classic flavor combos exist because they work.

Pacing a meal makes it more fun and more relaxing and enjoyable.  Unless every person you know eats like a Hoover, then pace out your meals.  You know it’s healthier to eat more slowly.  But it also lets you enjoy the flavors of each dish more.  Just like multi-tasking creates less than optimal results in work, multi-task eating creates less enjoyment.  Relax over your meals and savor flavors.

Simple presentation.  Once in while I like the artsy presentation of hard sugar decorations on my dessert plate, crisped sage leaves on my soup and decorative drizzles of creme fraiche.  But for the most part, simple presentation works best.  Clean design white plates, plain old white napkins that you can bleach, simple flatware and good, honest food.

Company counts.  All food is more enjoyable when you share it with people you care for.  Lively conversation will make a meal an event rather than a source of sustenance.  Use this time to focus on asking questions and reminding yourself why you have these wonderful people in your life.  The relationships with your family and friends should inspire you to create meals that you do not want to end.  This is why there are such a wonderful array of after dinner drinks.

Did I forget wine?  Of course not, sillies.  I just think it goes without saying.