Archive for March, 2010

Foods of the Season

As we say good bye to the month of March and all its food events, we welcome April for its bounty of freshness that now fills the aisles at the markets. Strawberries have been bursting with flavor for the past several weeks. They are ripe and ready and make a great snack and enhance any meal.

Skip the white asparagus from Chile as the first sprigs of springtime green asparagus are ready for crunching as many farmers return to the farm markets. Asparagus, as a food, spurs numerous lengthy discussions about its preparation. There are those who subscribe to the thin spear school as the tastiest product that merely needs a quick dip into boiling water for a wonderful al dente taste. The other camp looks for thick spears that need more time in boiling water; more monitoring. Whatever your preference, it is best to select uniform stalks to even out cooking time. Then there is the whole discussion about peeling and not peeling the outside skin. With the first crop of its season, it needs little attention. OK, a squirt of lemon and a dip into fresh Hollandaise.foxrunasparagus peeler

Brussel sprouts are still fairly plentiful at market, but it’s time to say good-bye and welcome the other fruits and vegetables that are making their entrance. Mushroom varieties are back with so many wonderful choices bursting from their terroir. The bounty of lettuces have escaped the greenhouses and are ready for light tossing.

Yet, no food is as recognizable at this time of year as the once humble egg. This is the season that egg farmers cherish most. With all the ceremonial egg dishes for both Passover and Easter and the decorated fun accompanying the baskets, no one is happier with this week than sellers of eggs as dozens make their way into uncountable households for traditional foods and fun choices.

Now we’re cooking.

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Chocolate and Coffee: The Dream Team

As a follower of all health news, especially when it pertains to coffee, chocolate, and an assortment of other foods, I loved the latest report from the European Health Journal that says I’ve been right all along. Or that other studies have found their way into my heart and this latest one confirms the data. Simple findings; complex end results.

A half a bar of chocolate a week lowers blood pressure. That’s easy to understand; you’re less tressed about whether or not to have the treat. Have it and your blood pressure will thank you. Over 19,000 individuals were studied during an 8-year period. That in itself helps validate the data as so many studies involve far fewer people and cover a more limited time period. This translates into a reduced risk for strokes and heart attacks. Of course, the caveat is that too much chocolate produces negative results such as weight gain. The simple takeaway: The little bit of chocolate reduced heart attacks and strokes by 39%. That’s well worth the minimal chocolate addiction! Once again we have the flavanols to thank.

As for coffee, scientists believe they have found the ingredient that could help individuals who have difficulty digesting and enjoying a perfect cup of caffeine. This turns out to be a significant part of the population that voices stomach issues: 2 out of every 10 people. Several products are already marketed as helpful to this population, but this particular European study focused on the specifics that cause irritation. Interestingly enough they found that espresso, which most assume is stronger, produces fewer irritations and is easier to digest and tolerate. The darker the roast, the easier for the stomach to handle the beverage. Know it sounds backwards, but the research supports forward-thinking.

The perfect pair: The darker the better. Chocolate and espresso. Yes.lavazzabeans

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Happy Passover

Tonight is the first night of Passover. The time for a true spiritual, ritual dinner: The Seder. As more people celebrate this holiday, the special meal and ceremony have become celebrated in many different settings. It’s all about tradition.

Happy Passover.

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The Single Focus Restaurant

maggiemias_topYou know the old John Belushi skit on Saturday Night Live: No Coke, Pepsi. (OK, here’s the script). Well, there are parts of the current restaurant world that are making the same assumption. Maybe it’s cost that determined this was a good idea. Maybe it’s the love of a particular food or the fact that someone has one good recipe but the desire to be in the business. Whatever the analysis turns up, the single focus restaurant is becoming more common rather than disappearing.

If you can have a rice pudding place in NYC, then any concept seems possible. The latest trend that’s in an expansion mode is the cereal place. Seriously when we have to go out for cereal, we have reached some sort of new low. Get a bowl, sprinkle some O’s in it, add milk, OK, add a banana and you’ve got it. What is this spot called The Cereal Bowl? Sometimes you can’t make this stuff up!

A Florida concept has spread its wings and opened its newest location in DC. What makes it work is the Maggie Moo principle of cereal; it’s about more than just a scoop. Sure, there’s ice cream but people want it fluffed up a little. That’s what the new cereal restaurant does. It can be a breakfast option or an anytime visit when the cravings for a something a little different takes over.

It’s really less about cereal and more about creativity and fun. It becomes a destination; a place to hang out and linger over the organic coffee and your own creation. Rather than buy 10 different kinds of cereal, you just pop in here and go wild. An all-day stop: They’ve got you covered with yogurts, smoothies, and parfaits.

Coke, please.

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Restaurant Life: How to be Successful

So many ways to entice. So many ways to please. Yes, a restaurant can serve many purposes. It’s not that complicated. It just takes practice and training: Lots of both. When a server responds to a question with, “I said, Yes.” It’s the tone that counts. What does that simple “yes” mean? Yes, you can order that. Or, why are you asking me the same question twice? I said “yes.”

Tone. Training. Service.

One of my favorite questions comes from people asking me for a restaurant recommendation. I need some specifics. What are they looking for? What matters? Is it style of food or type of restaurant? When a place bills itself as kid-friendly, a 45- minute wait can quickly undermine that concept. When a restaurant menu covers every corner of the world without giving you a hint to its strengths, you might have a problem. A hodgepodge of menu options may not spell dining success as in overwhelming the kitchen by needing to wear too many hats to meet the menu options!tablecloth1

When a customer walks into a semi-empty restaurant and the one person on duty barely raises an eyebrow, you get the sense that your presence may be more of an annoyance than an exciting moment in an otherwise quiet period. Training. Attitude.

How can a restaurant be all things to everyone? It can’t. Nor should it need to be. A restaurant model is not that complex. Front and back of the house training is essential and must be an ongoing effort. Attitude can easily be conveyed incorrectly, but with proper training these instances will be minimized.

Yes, the customer is always right, but the customer should not take advantage of the restaurant. If there is a problem, voice it. Voice it when it occurs. Do not go home and put your complaint out to the neighborhood. Solve the problem at the source not in the listserve. Do not kill a business with an issue that could have a simple resolution.

Allow the restaurant to deliver what it promises. A successful restaurant benefits everyone.

The message seems simple; the execution often proves tricky.

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International Food Round-Up: Gluten-Free Guide

MetsIf ours is a fusion food world, then we need to know which foods are best for those who want to taste specialty dishes when they travel or in their home environs. Not everyone needs a gluten-free lifestyle, but more attention is being focused on simpler diets and fewer grains. Besides resorting to the caveman approach, there are options for the adventuresome.

Mexican, Thai, and other nationalities have plenty of choices Here’s a start: A masa-based Pupusa. The El Salvadoran dish or the version from Honduras is quite simply a delicious choice, a corn pancake-like dish filled with meats, cheese, or beans, similar to the more common Mexican tortilla. Rice noodles that work their way into Pad Thai is another simple solution. Being gluten intolerant may enable you to be more of an adventuresome eater, one with an interest in dishes from other countries, those that use more rice or corn than heavy gluten-laden wheat flour.

Some new snack foods are coming into the market that will please the G-F group. If you’re planning on visiting the Mets this season, they’re ready for you at the beautiful new Citi Field. Kozy Shack puddings are gluten free and now the company is sponsoring a G-F food cart that will be easy to spot and take the worry out of baseball dining.

Batter up.

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Healthy Changes: The Time is Now

The American Heart Association released an interesting survey. They found that people are just not interested in giving up their favorite foods. No matter how much money was offered they (40%) wanted to have their pizza, cupcakes, and mac ‘n cheese. The AHA wants to help people find healthier food choices. They’ve set up an online nutrition site with tips on shopping for food and dining out. Wait there’s more, they’re setting up a Twitter site with giveaways for creative recipes that demonstrate smart food substitutions to improve the nutritional quality of a dish. For instance, a suggestion might be adding shredded carrots to meatloaf. I assume they mean start with a less fatty ground beef.37785-inter-full

With the newly passed health bill, the mystery of a calorie count will be removed form a guessing game. Calorie postings are part of the new program. Panera Bread announced sometime ago that it would be posting calories. In New York City, calorie posts have been required from businesses that had multiple locations (Starbucks, for one). Under the new law, any chain with at least 20 outlets will need to post. We can be certain that this type of in your-face information will have a positive outcome; at least it will make people think twice about some dishes that are the equivalent of a whole day’s calorie requirements!

The other food topic receiving increased attention is salt. More companies are taking a stand and reducing the sodium count of their products. The snacks owned by Pepsi (Frito-Lay, for example) will come under the reduced sodium count during the gradual reduction over the next five years. it would be grand if they considered reducing calorie counts in these same foods at the same time. Kraft (Oreos, for example) has a similar plan in the works. Both of these companies, both industry leaders, plan gradual changes so that consumers do not balk at the taste differences.

As a nation we are suffering from obesity and its many dangerous end results. At the same time, we cry out that regulation from any front is bad. This time our health as a nation depends on assistance from multiple sources if necessary.

We are out of control.

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Food Recall Detective

pepper millSome of the recalls of the past month have gotten a new round of attention. They were too meek and the recall has expanded. When we talked about potential problems with pepper, we looked at just one direction of the product trail. Well, that has changed as more companies are expanding their recalls and trying to get consumers to focus on the potential problem. In some cases, we need to be ingredient detectives as pepper has become a commonplace ingredient. Are we to skip products that say seasonings?

We had the major list of foods that may be contaminated with hydrolyzed vegetable protein. we covered that base by saying read, read, read labels such as those in sauces and mixes.

The pepper recall has grown significantly with companies finding that the pepper from Mincing Overseas Spice Company may be the potential wholesale source of the pepper/Salmonella link. McCain Foods USA recalled its frozen potato product, the All American Roaster (10072714037334, UPC code) for this reason. C. H. Gunether & Son started a voluntary recall of seasonings and gravy mixes for the potentially same problem. These big foodservice companies purchase items in bulk and then divvy them up to create their products. We have no way of knowing the original source unless we stay vigilant and tuned to the recall news. We are merely end users of a long distribution channel.

Check for daily updates as the list continues to grow. Precaution serves us all.

As consumers we may have to start walking around with magnifying glasses to search the ingredients and learn the source of the original product.

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Restaurant News: There’s Life

When you study certain fringe aspects of the economy, you see glimmers of a brighter outlook. Look at the food industry. Just yesterday, the long-awaited announcement was confirmed: Michel Richard would set up shop at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner in the beautiful space that once housed Maestro.  Although Michel will not open until October, the deal is sealed. Maybe sealed with a little irony as Michel’s first chef at DC’s Central was a sous at Maestro! Maybe Cedric will return to work with Michel at a space he knows well. One to watch.

With a major chef signing at the Ritz, this translates quickly into good news: Good for the restaurant community, for the metropolitan area, and for those who look for clues that the restaurant world is suffering less and climbing out from under the rocks of the economic debacle.

Let’s see what other little clues we can unearth:

Even though the BLT Restaurant Group has had its share of management changes, they are still expanding their brand and moving into the Italian mix with Casa Nonna expected to open this summer.

Another Italian offshoot will be gracing the DC landscape. Carmine’s, the famous family style restaurant in New York, has taken its show on the road with plans for a spring opening in the bustling Penn Quarter section of town. You’ve read enough about small plates; these are gigantic platters. Round up your friends.carmines

New York City turned to chef Todd English to create a food hall at The Plaza Hotel, The Plaza Food Hall, which is scheduled to open this spring. The plan is to have cooking stations and a variety of foods, sort of in the European tradition. Definitely one to watch.

Lettuce Entertain You, the large restaurant corporation with Chicago headquarters, has just joined the burger crowd with their newest restaurant, M Burger. The M stands for Michigan Avenue and it tells you they want to be right at the action with the burger food trend that continues to grow.

No matter who does what, each of these openings casts a peek at expectation. A healthy nod.

Napkin, please.

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Can a Brit Change America?

foodrevIt’s intriguing to think of the concept: British chef Jamie Oliver (of “Naked Chef” fame) comes to America and takes a peek at our food ways. As he comments in the opening preview of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” Pizza for breakfast. I’ve never seen anything like this.” Mind you, he was in Huntington, WVA, a city the CDC  labeled  the Unhealthiest City in America, not a positive banner headline!

His goal is to create lifestyle changes that reverse the devastating health statistics surrounding early death and severe obesity.  Without giving too much away, let me say his welcome did not resemble a cuddly, warm, open-arm reception. He was laughed at, viewed as a threat, and generally undermined, if that’s possible to do to the the delightfully entertaining Oliver. The kitchen staff at the first elementary school scoffed at what they considered an intruder; after all they had been there for decades doing the same thing. When they showed him how they make mashed potatoes, with potato pearls, he struggled to hold his composure.

His goal is simple: Effect the lives of the community and bring about healthy changes. He’s working with families and introducing them to foods that are not processed, deep-fried, and come out of the freezer section. Challenges are in every corner, for the students who are asked to choose between a home-cooked chicken lunch v. a slice of pizza–you know who wins! The lunch ladies, as he calls them, can barely hide their resentment and disgust. They admit that they said he could try to set up his school guidelines as he has done in the UK, but they emit skepticism.

Enough of this first episode. Recognize that he is tackling the very issues First Lady Michelle Obama has so eloquently addressed. His goal is to have schools, administrations, families and in general, the US think about the food that goes into our bodies. In this blog we’ve talked plenty about nutrition and childhood obesity; let’s hope that Jamie’s Kitchen becomes a model for how we can change the nutritional guidelines of school lunch programs and help families learn how to shop for foods that are not laden with lines of ingredients.

As they say, check your local listings for upcoming episodes.

As an aside, maybe the biggest irony of the show was the commercial for a fast food restaurant that talks about giving you more for less. They obviously never received the Jamie Oliver memo!

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