Thursday, May 29, 2008

Magical Mystery Tour- The Miracle Fruit

Yesterday, the New York Times ran an article on the effects of a berry called miracle fruit (or miracle berry) and chronicled a group of Big Apple denizens as they experienced a trippy journey of the taste buds (the host dubbed the event a “flavor tripping party”).

I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this berry before! Although it isn’t something I would partake in on a regular basis (you know, due to that deep-seated fear that the alteration will “stick,” much like that obscenely hideous face I made as a kid to irk my parents).

The plant, known scientifically as synsepalum dulcificum, is an evergreen native to tropical West Africa and the berry is known as miracle fruit for its ability to trip up the taste buds, leaving people tasting sweet when they are really consuming something sour, for example. The berry contains a glycoprotein molecule and when eaten, causes the extreme taste reaction. Talk about a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down! I’d like a bite of this fruit when I have to take bitter medicine!

According to the Times, Guinness with a dollop of lemon sorbet tastes like a chocolate shake. Tabasco became hot doughnut glaze. It states that the “berry rewires the way the palate perceives sour flavors for an hour or so...”

I feel like I’ve flavor tripped before. Eating at a restaurant like WD-50, you get experiences like Chef Dufresne’s take on pepperoni pizza- he renders the precise flavor of a pepperoni pizza into dehydrated balls minus the sauce, the cheese, and the meat. Pop ‘em in your mouth, let them melt, and taste your pizza.

I’m contemplating ordering a small supply or miracle berries and hosting a party of my own. An experimenter at heart, I love anything that whimsically plays with the taste buds and the mind. I’d love to swish around the berry flesh in my mouth, let it coat my tongue, and then suck on the rind of a lemon. Would it taste like a sugary lemon square? What would happen if I washed my mouth out with soap? Would it taste like cotton candy?

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Quick and Healthy Favorite- Thai Ground Pork Lettuce Wraps

There’s nothing like a flavorful, healthy, well balanced meal to bring your day to a close. It is often true that flavorful and healthy do not go hand in hand, but these attributes do not have to be oxymoronic.

I love Thai Ground-Pork Salad, which I found in an old issue of Gourmet Magazine from 1999. I adapted it slightly for my own purposes, using Boston lettuce to wrap the pork mixture instead of cabbage and using panko bread crumbs instead of your run of the mill variety. I also add steamed Japanese sticky rice to the original recipe for added texture and to have a starch for energy.

It is an absolutely perfect combination of flavors and textures- the crunchy lettuce and sticky, starchy rice nicely contrasts the zesty, souped-up ground pork. You’ve got your veg, your starch, and your protein gift wrapped and ready for munching. It’s healthy, gourmet, and wonderful enough for a casual dinner for two or as part of a dinner party menu. And it is easy to make and assemble, to boot.

2 bowls sticky rice (see recipe below)
1 head Boson lettuce, leaves separated, washed, and dried
1 bunch fresh cilantro
1 bunch fresh mint
2 small shallots
10 ounces lean ground pork
3 to 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons panko bread crumbs
1 to 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (preferably naam pla)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Chop enough cilantro and mint leaves to measure 2 tablespoons each. Arrange lettuce leaves on platter. Thinly slice shallots lengthwise.

In a small saucepan with a fork stir together pork and 2 tablespoons lime juice and cover with cold salted water. Bring pork to a simmer, stirring with fork to break up meat, and gently simmer until just cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes. In a sieve drain pork well and put back into saucepan with shallots, chopped herbs, bread crumbs, fish sauce, cayenne, and remaining lime juice to taste.

Mix well and transfer pork salad to a serving bowl and put on platter. Spoon out individual bowls of rice. Have guests serve themselves: Spoon rice and pork salad on top of lettuce leaves. Close lettuce around mixture to eat. Enjoy!

Serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 as a main course.

Sticky Rice:
1 cups Japanese rice, such as Nishiki or Hikari
1 1/4 cups water

Put rice in a sieve and wash with cold water. Repeat washing until the water becomes clear and drain.

Place rice in a deep pot and add measured water. Let rice soak for 30 minutes to an hour. Cover pot with lid and bring to a boil over high heat. Once the water boils, turn down heat to low and cook for 15-20 minutes, until the water is almost completely gone. Turn off the heat and let rice steam for 10-15 minutes before opening the lid.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Two cheesy birds with one pizza stone/Cheese of the month- Taleggio

I recently made a swoon-worthy pizza using one of my personal favorite cheeses, Taleggio. In the midst of cutting chunks of the gooey beauty, I ran headfirst into a quandary: is Taleggio a cheese of the stinky variety or is it subtle enough to inch its way into an alternative, quieter category?

Many debate Taleggio’s stink-factor, but one thing remains indubitable: it is a semi-soft, washed-rind baby, hailing from the Valteleggio region of Italy. Taleggio is a pleasantly nutty cheese, creamy and buttery. However, Steven Jenkins, famed author of the “Cheese Primer” describes it as “beefy,” nomenclature generally reserved for stinky cheeses.

I’d personally like to welcome Taleggio into my friendly family of stinky-cheeses. It is more mild in flavor than some of its brothers and sisters, but on the nose, Taleggio gives off a yeasty, heady scent. It has an orange or salmon colored rind and the center is often gooey and always moist.

My Taleggio pizza really was a taste to behold- a simple construction brimming with welcoming flavor. A crackling crisp crust offset by warm, sensual cheese oozing in the dough’s craters; the sweet melted creaminess perfectly contrasts the peppery bite of wilted arugula and the earthy, perfumed truffle oil.

I didn’t want to doctor the pizza too much; I like taste to speak for itself. I wanted the pie to beckon eaters with its scent and reel them in with its bold, yet simple flavors. Taleggio is the perfect cheese for pizza- it melts well and when heated, yields an incredibly sweet smell, almost too much goodness to take when combined with the scent of truffle oil!

1 lb pizza dough, thawed if frozen
3/4 pound well-chilled Taleggio, rind discarded
1 garlic clove, minced and mashed into a paste
4 cups loosely packed baby arugula
Truffle oil for drizzling
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Put a large pizza stone in lower third of oven and preheat oven to 500°F. Allow 1 hour for pizza stone to heat.

Meanwhile, roll out dough on a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin, stretching corners with your hands to form a 14-inch circle. (Do not punch down dough; it will be easier to roll out as it warms.) Transfer to a large tray lined with sheet of parchment paper. Lightly prick dough all over with a fork, then slide dough (on parchment) from tray onto hot pizza stone. Bake until top is puffed and pale golden in patches, 6 to 10 minutes. (Prick any large bubbles with a fork and flatten.)

While crust bakes, shred cheese in a food processor fitted until you have about 1 1/2cups. If the cheese is extremely gooey, do not process.

Remove crust from oven and brush with garlic paste, careful to avoid the outer edges. Sprinkle evenly with cheese and brush the outer crust with olive oil and a light coating of kosher salt. Bake pizza on lower level until edge of crust is deep golden and cheese is bubbling and golden in patches, 8 to 10 minutes.

Remove from oven, then scatter arugula over pizza. Drizzle with truffle oil and coarsely grind pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Jumping the gun on summer soup

After what seemed like the longest winter of my life, spring has finally sprung. The days are longer, the grass is greener, the sky is a more vibrant indigo. The cherry blossoms have come and gone, and there’s a morning dew on my car rather than an icy, teeth-chatter inducing frost.

This means that the dog days of summer aren’t far off and neither are cravings for summer’s finest eats- those that nature creates: crisp watermelon, succulent peaches, vine-ready tomatoes, and those that man manipulates: salty grilled meats, juicy roasted hot dogs, lively summer salads. And then there’s the marriage of both worlds with dishes like tangy, cool gazpacho.

Although the tomatoes aren’t yet the sun-ripped fruit of summer, I was desperately craving gazpacho enough to risk making an imperfect soup. The warm weather brings forth the soil’s rich bounty and raw vegetables take center stage. I jumped the gun a bit with this raw tomato-based soup, but couldn’t wait to fill my belly with this quintessential summer food.

With the windows wide open, I began vigorously chopping and grating veggies. With just the collective sound of the birds chirping and the knife swiftly meeting the cutting board to keep me company, I recalled the cold summer soups of my childhood, watermelon seed spitting contests, charcoal grilled corn on the cob, shrimp, shells intact, wrapped in foil and char-grilled.

For the gazpacho, I used an Alice Waters recipe. Let it be known that Alice doesn’t believe in using food processors and blenders when they can otherwise be avoided- certainly a purist in the age of modern appliances. And although this recipe for Gazpacho came from her new book “The Art of Simple Food” and although the technique itself is unassuming, it is certainly time consuming, which in my eyes, negates the concept of simplicity. The recipe employs the use of a grater and about halfway through the process of grating not-quite-ripened tomatoes, my hands were swollen and aching for a blender.

I adore Alice and everything she represents but started to wonder about the maddening nature of this recipe. Everything crushed, mashed, grated by hand. In a cookbook review in the New York Times, Kim Severson states “in parts of the book she veers past purity to madness. Halfway into a recipe for gazpacho, while soaking ancho chili, grating tomatoes and mashing it all in a mortar and pestle, you start to look at the blender with longing.”

Although I felt like a veritable masochist while making this gazpacho, I tried to zone out and appreciate what it must have been like before the Cuisinart and the KitchenAid- not an easy feat in the age of robots!

I followed the recipe almost to a T, although noticed that my ancho chile was not absorbing as much hot water as it should have. I soaked it for an extra ten minutes in a refreshed bowl of boiling water and when mashing with a mortar and pestle, I added a teaspoon or so of warm water to accelerate the breakdown of the chile fibers.

In the end, all the pain was worth the gain- a piquant, colorful soup bursting with freshness and flavor.

Alice Water’s Gazpacho.
Makes about 3 quarts; 6 to 8 servings.

Soak in a bowl of hot water for 15 minutes:
1 dried ancho chile
Drain and crush to a paste with a medium-size mortar and pestle. Remove and set aside.

In another bowl, soak in cold water for 2 minutes:
2 cups crustless cubes of day-old bread
Drain and squeeze out the excess water.

In the mortar and pestle, pound together into a paste:
2 garlic cloves
A pinch of salt.
Add the soaked bread, pound until smooth, and set aside.

Cut in half horizontally:
5 pounds ripe tomatoes
Over a bowl, grate the cut sides of the tomatoes on the medium holes of a box grater until only the skin is left. Discard the skins. Pass the pulp through a strainer to remove seeds, if you like. Stir the chile puree and the bread paste into the tomato pulp in a large bowl. Add:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Refrigerate until well chilled. To speed this up you can set the bowl in another, larger bowl filled with ice. Taste for seasoning before serving and add more salt if needed.

Make a relish to garnish the soup. Mix together:
1/2 pound cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cucumber, peeled and diced
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/2 red onion, diced
A handful each of chopped chervil and basil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh-ground black pepper

Divide the chilled soup among 6 to 8 bowls and add a generous spoonful of relish to each bowl.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Battle of the Celebrity Chefs

I recently decided to conduct a poll. No, we’re not talking the reds versus blues- we don’t want to see the elephants battle the donkeys in the ring. And we’re not going to hit below the belt and ask whether you prefer Obama or Clinton.

No, we’re talking a much more political poll: who is your favorite celebrity chef? The goal is to find out the obvious- are people lovin’ the bam-happy Emeril Lagasse, are they head over heels for lesser-known hottie David Myers? Are you molecular-gastronomically gaga for Wylie Dufresne, do you rock the tantrum-prone narcissist Marco Pierre White, or are you putting down your utensils and throwin’ up your hands for Bravo sensation, the Craft-y Tom Colicchio?

Like it or not, TV chefs have greatly influenced the way we view the food industry. The celebrity chef of today can gain rock star status without even demonstrating veritable cheffing ability (ehem, Rachel Ray). Someone like Ms. Ray is a powerful celeb first, and a chef, or should I say cook, second. With celeb gossip-infused websites like,, and infiltrating the World Wide Web, it is no wonder we’ve placed these folks on an overly-enthusiastic pedestal. America has whipped up a recipe for a new breed of celebrity with its unapologetic obsession with all things famous along with its obsession with food.

Unlike the simple good-ol’-days, we live in a television-saturated world and our TV’s are studded with images of the rambunctious Gordon Ramsey and the grill-happy Bobby Flay.

Back in the day, we watched Julia Child on public television with twinkling stars in our eyes. At the time, Julia was one of a kind- fresh, unique, gratifying, and most of all, distinguished. Julia was the original food TV star and yet, she was so much more. She was a cultural icon, a woman of class with bona fide skills and we loved to watch her in action. Her methods were technical and truly informative. Many others followed suit and eventually, we wound up with TV chefs as the holy grail of the food industry.

Even well-trained professionals like Emeril, who I had the pleasure of meeting BEFORE he went nuts on TV, have gone the way of the marketing-maven. He has morphed from respected New Orleans chef into an international television star, product-pusher, and fame-whore. He has also become increasing macho and dummed down as his fame grows. Gone are the days of technique and food history. Present is a studio-audience so star-struck and vapid that they cheer with glee as he throws a handful of parsley into a stew.

On one hand, cooking has become more en vogue than ever and the industry has been glamorized and galvanized. It has brought high-end food to the masses, at least via electromagnetic waves. On the flip side, food TV is experiencing a major dumming down, with less focus on true talents like Sara Moulton, for example. Celebrity chefs themselves often eclipse the food they are making when the focus shifts from the art to the artist. It can be argued that this type of chef muddles the pond and dulls the industry. Cookbooks no longer feature images of silken pie, glazed roast chicken. Today, more often than not, cookbooks feature 15 inch glossies of famous faces. People are buying the books for the faces that grace the cover, rather than the food that studs the pages.

I was curious to calculate the effects of the celebrity chef had on the general public; this means my friends, of course. I wanted to know if they might prefer a neighborhood chef from their favorite corner bistro rather than those who appear on TV. Unfortunately, my suspicions were confirmed. I don’t claim to be above the influence of the Food Network, by the way. I often tune in to catch Ina Garten in her kitchen making crispy fish and chips or mixed berry pavlova. I also adore Top Chef.

I polled ten of my friends and family members. I asked a simple question: who is your favorite chef? I received answers like Alton Brown, Tom Colicchio, Anthony Bourdain, Dave Lieberman. One friend listed her significant other. And a few enjoyed lesser known gems- Roy Finnamore, author of One Potato, Two Potato and Ric Orlando, of New World Café in Saugerties, New York. Mr. Orlando did do time as a TV chef, but of the local variety, at WMHT in Albany.

I was truly surprised at how many prefer the chefs they see on television rather than those whose food they eat. But it proves my point- the celebrity chef has infiltrated our culinary society and has influenced the way we think about food. It seems celebrity chefs are taking over the world.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Kate’s Ten Commandments of eating

1- Think global: eat local

2- Eat enough fruit and veg to keep the engine running smoothly

3- Eat at least one piece of chocolate a day, preferably dark and preferably Valrhona

4- Always eat carbs- they are necessary for energy, especially at breakfast

5- Keep a healthy stash of cheese in fridge- a parm, a blue, a goat, a double or triple crème

6- Always try new flavors, new recipes, new combinations

7- Drink tea every morning (and noon, and night)- the more high quality, the more caffeinated, the better

8- Dine together as a family and switch off all electronics- phones, televisions, lawnmowers and other heavy machinery

9- Drink fine wine, even with burger and fries

10- Put truffle oil on everything