Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Top Chef: Ilan Won Because He Resembles Drew Coursin

So, I'm sitting here writing my first realtime post, whatever that means. I guess I mean some stuff JUST happened and here I am writing about it already! If there's one thing you Scrumptulescents (you like that? Like adolescents or descendents...whatever) deserve is timely reporting on food-related stuff.

Todd, Geoff and I are sitting at my place, drinking PBR and watching the finale of Top Chef. This was, I confess, was my first episode of the much-touted kinda-cooking-but-mostly-fighting reality series. All I can say is: I'm glad I only saw one episode, because this show is rubbish. First, I'm not a big fan of reality TV, other than Real Housewives of Orange County, The Real World, Next, My Super Sweet Sixteen, World's Most Shocking Police Videos, The Girls Next Door, and really anything about plastic surgery, exploiting painful family drama, or transexual hookers. Okay, so I dig reality TV on a superficial level. Or whatever, stop judging me.

Anyway, back to Top Chef. The finale was your basic drawn-out nonsense with both "chefs" (they're no BK, that's for sure) preparing the best meals of their lives. Tall order, huh? Not so much, apparently, since both Ilan and the Wolverine-meets-Dragonball Z-coiffed knew what they were going to cook in about .2 seconds. I mean, really, they were in Hawaii, they'd been eating there all week, blah blah blah. I'm afraid both competitors, when faced with unlimited budget and an exotic farmer's market, got sucked into what I call Iron Chef Syndrome - if you give someone who usually eats grilled cheese sandwiches a handful sea urchins, those urchins will appear to be the most amazing comestible EVER. Uni-what?!

Long story short, Ilan and Marcel prepared five-course meals for such chefs as Wylie somebodyortheother, this "Molecular Gastronomist" (excuse me? Please keep your molecules away from my food), among others - you can tell how much I cared about this whole affair.

Ilan won. Geoff and Todd yelled at the television. I strolled indifferently to the computer to write this.

I am disappointed in Top Chef. But I still love food.

A Real Man's Vegetarian Chili

In honor of the upcoming epic clash between Da Bears and the Colts, I've decided to post my as-yet-unpublished-for-totally-inexplicable-reasons recipe for my veggie chili. A quick note: I don't think I've ever made the same chili twice, so maybe the official recipe should be Drew Coursin's Groundhog Day Veggie Chili - you know, innumerable, subtly different iterations of a certain culinary motif. I'd draw the obvious comparison between Rachmaninoff's endless variations on his second symphony, but I'm not sure Scrumptulescence is ready for such stratospheric conceits. So, here goes:

1 Large, shiny green bell pepper (preferable a deepish hunter green, because that means fresh)

1 Equally large, shiny red bell pepper (or orange, or even yellow, if you like that kind of thing)

2 Pretty much bustin' out of their enormous toadstool chapeaux-size portobello (portabella for those of you who like to spell it that way) mushrooms

1 small can yellowish (not necessarily totally yellow, but it's okay if it is) corn

2 cans kidney beans (one light, one dark to represent the duality of life and impermanence of being) - feel free to cook dry beans if you're one of those non-can purists. Same with the corn - feel free to use fresh-off-the-ear, or better yet, why don't you just grow it, Squanto?*

*Note: this is not a slander toward American Indians, but rather a clever but biting reference to the ostensible "helper of the Pilgrims" before the supposed First Thanksgiving in the apparent pre-United States of America

2 cans chick peas - there is nothing funny about this ingredient

1 package extra firm tofu

1 package seitan (if you have a problem with meat substitutes, you'd probably have stopped reading at tofu. Jerk.)

5 vine-ripened tomatoes

1 can tomato paste (optional for thickening if you put too much bean juice in - don't put too much bean juice in, dummy!)

8 cloves garlic, minced (or squashed, smashed, diced, even whole if you're a real man, in which case make it 50 cloves of garlic)

3 large carrots

Cayenne, hot chili powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper

1/2 can chipotle peppers and sauce (I mean, use the whole thing if you're into it, Hercules)

If you're soft, try 1/2 thinly-sliced jalapeno (sorry, I can't get the tilde to work) pepper without the ribs (it's not that seeds that are the hottest, Alex Trebek! And don't touch your eyes or private parts after handling!)

2 squares semi-sweet baking chocolate

1. Dice everything dice-able up, place into three separate bowls the following:
-Green peppers, mushrooms, tofu, garlic
-Red peppers, corn, carrots, seitan, garlic (Ha! You put all the garlic in the first bowl!)
-Everything else
2. Saute in groups per step 1. Add chipotle peppers and sauce judiciously as the vegetables and meat substitutes cook. Cook until delicious.
3. At about the same time, but a big pot on the stove, on low heat. Squeeze the hell out of those tomatoes and place seeded, diced tomatoes in pot alongside all beans (use some of the delicious, syrupy bean juice if you like. Otherwise, add some water to make it a bit soupy).
4. When step 1 ingredients are cooked to delicious, add them as you see fit.
5. Stir often. Adding spices and hot peppers and other stuff you want to add. It's your meal, I'm not trying to tell you how to live your life.
6. Cook for 2-10 hours on low heat. I mean, cook as long as you want. Do it in a slow cooker if you like.
7. During the last 1/2 hour of cooking, add the squares of chocolate and some more cayenne (you know you need it).
8. Serve in attractive bowls, top with lots of cilantro, maybe some queso fresco, and a draught beer.
9. Enjoy.

If it sucks, it's entirely your fault, because I'm made this stuff countless times, and every time it's been f-ing awesome. Yum!

Monday, January 29, 2007

For the Soul?

In the current issue of Cook's Country magazine, they published the results of a chicken soup contest. Since it appeared in the mail while I was away in Mexico, I was feeling comparatively cold when I read it. Plus I got a new enameled cast-iron dutch oven that I wanted to put through its paces. So I went to the store and obtained the ingredients necessary to make three of the soups they featured. All of the recipes take less than an hour to make, and all use store-bought chicken broth and boneless - skinless chicken breasts. Heresy, yes, but I don't currently have any made from scratch chicken stock, so these were a good way to get some warming goodness into the roommates and myself. So, over the past 6 days, I made three chicken soups.

First up, New Orleans Chicken and Sausage Soup. It's a pretty basic soup based on onions, garlic, red bell pepper, chicken, smoked sausage, and rice. For the smoked sausage, I would have preferred andouille, but I was shopping at the local produce store, where they have all kinds of smoked polish sausages, but no andouille. So I used kielbasa. The soup was quick and easy to make, involving a very quick blonde roux for thickening. One of my roommates compared it to gumbo, which I can accept, but it didn't have the complex and deep flavors I associate with good gumbo. Probably because of the quick cooked roux, canned chicken broth, and lack of real andouille. No one complained, though. For a hearty soup in less than an hour, it was pretty good.

Next up was Thai chicken soup. Bring chicken broth to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Throw in 6 smashed cloves of garlic, 6 big chunks of ginger (also smashed), the zest of one lime, 5 jalepenos, and 2 chicken breasts. Simmer until the chicken is done, pull out the chicken and set it aside. Fish out all of the aromatics, toss them out. Put in some thin rice noodles, let them simmer until they are soft. Stir in some basil and some cilantro, the juice of half a lime, 5 sliced scallions, and cut up the cooked chicken and throw that in. Then serve it. This was probably my favorite soup of the three. Least amount of prep work, big flavor reward. Lots of leftovers, too.

Those two soups made dinner for 3 nights in a row for me, and some roommates ate it for breakfast and lunch at work, as well. So I took a break for a few days. Last night, I made the last one, which was actually the winner of their contest: Chicken and Corn Chowder with Sweet Potatoes. It's exactly what it sounds like. Make a basic chicken soup that includes chunks of sweet potato. Stir in milk and corn muffin mix. Let it simmer to thicken. Stir in frozen corn and a little bit of cheese. Simmer until the corn isn't frozen anymore. This was my least favorite of the three. It wasn't bad, but I don't really care for sweet potatoes, although I am trying to like them more. Between that and the corn muffin mix and the corn, it was a little too sweet for me. But it was a pretty successful and inexpensive set of meals, and if the roommates will eat the rest of the chowder, we will have eaten a lot of decent meals at home without much effort.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Total Naan-Issue

As some of you out there know, Indian food is some of my favorite out there (and for those cultural purists/historical revisionists/bigots/people who routinely confuse the indigenous North American native peoples whose legacy the white man all but wiped out with people from India) that's grub from the Indian subcontinent. You know, Indian food. I'm not really snobbish toward either North or South Indian cuisine; I've been known to join the I Ate a Dosa by Myself Club and sling handfuls of sag paneer down my throat in the same sitting. (I do, however, have some Indian friends who always make fun of one Bengali guy for always smelling like fish, but that's neither here nor there. The humor is lost on me).

So, to celebrate both my love for Indian food and my reunion with The Honorable Rev. Dr. Professor Jayadev Athreya, I have decided to review my favorite cookbook of that culinary subgenre: Lord Krishna's Cuisine, The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking, by Yamuna Devi. For those of you fools out there who don't know, Ms. Devi studied for eleven years with THE A.C. Bhaktivedata Swami (or B-Swam as he is known in my head). So take that, all you haters and doubters. This woman is the real deal.

Being a white kid from Wisconsin with limited exposure to real Indian cooking (thanks for nothing, Ramit, Rajit, Rajat, et. al.), my favorite thing about the book is the easy-to-understand instructions and rich background on each family of dishes. Ms. Devi presents the elements of a traditional Indian meal in a logical fashion and keeps the approximately 800 pages of information lively with anecdotes from her travels and food experiences around the world. The author relates where she obtained recipes, who presented them to her, and innumerable tips on technique, materials, and preparation.

Like most traditional North American cookbooks, Lord Krishna's Cuisine follows a rubric of preparatory methods and dishes that proceed from the basics (starters, accompaniments, basic side dishes) through the more complex showpieces of a meal (more elaborate vegetable dishes, etc.). Since it is a vegetarian cookbook, meat doesn't make much of an appearance, and I promise to write more about fall-off-the-bone, slow-roasted or smoked barbeque in the future. It hardly matters, though, since the book overflows with everything from Indian breads (e.g. chapati, naan, roti), soups, chutneys, salads, pastries, sweets, and even beverages.

Although the volume can be a bit overwhelming at times, I recommend picking a section and exploring the variety of preparatory techniques presented. My first foray into Indian cooking was simple panir (also paneer, see above), the subtly-flavored, unripened farmer cheese that is to Indian cooking what tofu is to many Asian vegetarian dishes (i.e. a hearty substitute for meat that can be prepared quickly and holds the flavor of its surrounding spices and sauce remarkably well). The process is pretty simple - heat milk and add some sort of acid reagent like lemon juice, then follow a couple of steps and boom, panir! The instructions on technique and accompanying drawings were invaluable, as were Ms. Devi's recommendations on ingredients.

I could go on for pages about the things I love about this book, but I recommend you find out for yourself. I realize I'll never be competing in Iron Chef: Bollywood, but as far as expanding my horizons in the kitchen, this is an invaluable resource.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Brief Sermon on Eulogy

Let’s get one thing straight: I love beer. You should too. It’s a beverage as full of personality and subtle variation as the range of drinkers who enjoy it. Most people find beer (unlike its grapy counterpart) the most accessible libation out there. I’ve seen even the most stalwart of my friends quiver at a wine list, but you can be sure there’s minimal anxiety associated with calling for a pitcher of Lager or staring the bartender in the eye and saying, “PBR me ASAP.”

And then there’s Eulogy. With 21 rotating draught beers and 300+ bottles from around the world, this Belgian-style eatery/beer emporium can be intimidating to your casual beer drinker. Ask my girlfriend, whose brew of choice is Miller Lite (and you can go to hell if you say you don’t like it. God. Bless. Wisconsin). She and I stared at the four pages of 10-point font beer menu, replete with serving size, origin, alcoholic content, and general type (e.g. lager, ale, etc.) for about 10 minutes before folding it up and asking for our server’s recommendation in terms of a lighter lager.

At this point my bullshit-o-meter starting buzzing. Our server, a nondescript dude who obviously enjoyed beer, stared at Elissa and asked, “What? You don’t know what you drink?” His incredulity and what I’ll term Bourgeois Beer Scorn (BBS from here) were palpable, and E and I rolled our eyes in unison as he skulked away. Needless to say, we were unimpressed, and the initial BBS made us a bit wary of the waiter for the remainder of the evening.

E settled on a full-bodied framboise, which normally I wouldn’t pick for fear of BBS from some of my hop-heavy buddies. It was, however, thick with flavor but still light enough to drink without feeling heavy, not at all syrupy, and darkly ruby in color. As I am a secret fan of fruity brews, the raspberry won me over immediately, and I took more than my fair share of boyfriend sips. I opted for a Young’s Double Chocolate Stout (pretty self-explanatory – it was dark, chocolaty, and I find it more sip-friendly than Guiness, which I find is best for breakfast or pounding alongside Bailey’s and whiskey). Geoff went for Skullsplitter (a heady [no pun intended] Scottish brew that will knock your socks off and is generally only sold in four-packs for obvious reasons). The other people at the table also had some delicious beers, but I can’t remember them exactly (the beers, that is, I remember the people quite well) and I’m not a food critic.

To start, we shared a brie-filled crusty puff pastry drizzled in a raspberry glaze and surrounded by slices of apple and various berries (the aptly named Brie Puff). It was yummy, but I wouldn’t say I’d camp out in front of Eulogy to eat it for breakfast today or anything. A quick aside: having a lactose-intolerant girlfriend reduces the amount of cheesy goodness stolen from one’s plate. I highly recommend it.

Eulogy and its sister restaurant, Monk’s, are known in Philly as THE places to get steaming pots of the best beer-soaked (among about ten different preparations) mussels that rest in big-as-your-palm-unless-you-have-ridiculously-large-hands shells in town. Julie and Bridget shared a pound of the beer mussels (Hoegaarden, garlic and shallots,, celery, onions, peppers, fresh herb mix and butter) and some of Eulogy’s signature Flemish Belgian-style frietjes (read: fries…and they really weren’t all that wicked awesome). Geoff and Todd had the Dijon mussels, which were spicy enough to cut some of the briny mussel taste but not so mustardy that they overwhelmed the natural piquancy of the shiny onyx bivalve.

E and I went the carnivorous route, ordering the steak sandwich and what is hailed as The Best Burger in Philadelphia, respectively. The steak was good, a sort of dressed-up cheesesteak with roasted peppers, fried onions, and cheese on a baguette. Good, but not worth shooting a man in Reno. Same for the burger, which was pompously overtitled the Beneluxx Napoleon Burger. I’ve eaten a lot of burgers in my time, and it takes a lot to impress me. First, their topping offerings were scant – standard cheeses (except for Gruyere and blue, which aren’t even that exotic), the usual bacon, mushrooms, etc. The only unexpected inclusions were leeks and Ardenne ham, which seemed more like a perfunctory nod to real cuisine than anything, and I’m not sure 50 cents worth of leeks would have helped me attain culinary Nirvana.

All in all, I’m pretty sure our crappy interaction with the server colored some of my impression of the meal itself. For the most part, however, I think the food was pretty standard. Everything was good, don’t get me wrong, but nothing stood out as amazing. I recommend going to Eulogy and Monk’s for the beer and munching on mussels, frites, and other shareables as complements to the stunning (albeit slightly overwhelming) menu of brews.

Eulogy Belgian Tavern
136 Chestnut St.
Old City, Philadelphia
(215) 413-1918

Cinnamon Dolce Latte, Why do you Taunt Me?

I am not a coffee drinker. Even in college, I didn't use coffee to wake up in the morning or to stay awake at night. I never developed the taste for black coffee, and my dad is a coffee purist. No cream, no sugar. And he makes it strong. As the Starbucks phenomenon grew, and a friend of mine worked there, I would get the occasional Frappuccino® . I know that's not real coffee, but I love milkshakes, and a Frappuccino® is like a milkshake, but with more artificial flavors. This magical drink helped me to realize that, while I don't like black coffee, coffee as a flavoring with something sweet can be pretty good. So began a flirtation with desserts such as tiramisu and rich molten chocolate mocha cakes.

Fast forward to last January. I was working as a "Mac Genius" (real title) for the company formerly known as Apple Computer, Inc. A co-worker had me try the Cinnamon Dolce Latte from the Barnes and Noble Cafe (serving Starbucks brand coffee). Ahh. Transcendence. I don't know what it is, but I love it. And now it's back. Let me tell you, I don't need the calories or the fat. But it doesn't work in low or non-fat versions, and it doesn't work with the sugar-free syrup. I can't wait till it's gone. But I will miss it. It's kind of like liquid crack * (which is what we called it at the Apple Store). Go pick one up. You'll be glad you did. And you'll hate me for suggesting it. Oh, and don't get the Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino®. The cold icy thing doesn't go with the Cinnamon Dolce thing.

In other related news, my body can't handle the caffeine of a 'bucks venti C.D. Latte with nothing else in my stomach, so I'm kind of jittery and can't focus right now. I love Thursday mornings.

* I realize that this statement minimizes the terror of the drug problems in our country, but I wanted something strongly worded, and I also like disclaiming things every so often.

The "Right" Way to do Food in Chicago?

This is an excellent post from Hungry Magazine about a topic very much on my mind recently: inexpensive meals prepared with care and skill. It's cool because it highlights some interesting things happening in Chicago, and talks about some prominent Chicago and non-Chicago chefs. It's amazing how many names in this piece that I recognized, mostly not because of their restaurants.

  • Homaru Cantu of the Chicago restaurant Moto just beat Morimoto on Iron Chef America.
  • Tom Colicchio (based somewhere in California) is the host chef on Top Chef, a reality cooking show that I watch with some regularity.
  • Rick Bayless was also on Iron Chef America this past year, and also has written possibly the best cookbooks by a "celebrity" chef that I have ever read and cooked from. His PBS show is fun and accessible.
  • Charlie Trotter is, quite simply, everywhere. The press loves to interview him or write about him.

I got bored with the list thing, but of the four chefs listed, I have only eaten at Bayless's Frontera Grill (which is excellent, by the way). It is impressive how these chefs have become so famous.

Quick side note from the diversion: I have eaten at Hot Doug's quite a bit. It's amazing. Doug Sohn is a personal hero of mine. Every time one eats there, he is the person that takes your order. He's funny, he's friendly, and his specials are some of the most creative and tasty in the city. All I want to do is sit him down and talk with him about his take on food and specifically about the feasibility of opening a unique, casual, inexpensive, lunch only restaurant. In spite of his friendliness, I get a little star struck when I'm there, and only manage to smile and order my wild-boar sausage with imported cheese and house-made sauce.

But allow me to dive back into the point I was going to make. The author of the article throws down a bit of a challenge: "I’d like to see local food stars commit to making well-prepared, well-farmed and creative food affordable in 2007." Chicago is positioned in reasonably close proximity to quite a few farms the provide amazing sustainably grown produce, meat, and dairy products. I know Bayless makes good use of this, but I'm surprised that more places don't. My ideal restaurant/ tavern in this city would have a rotating menu of whatever is coming out of these local farms. I do understand that you can't exclusively use local products without making some big sacrifices on the menu. That's ok. I'm a realist. But if I can get local sustainably grown chicken, beef, and pork year round, and even have it delivered to my door once a week, I feel like the restaurants should be able to, as well. And not just the big name places. It's easy for Frontera to serve me a lamb chop that was grown in Wisconsin. Bayless has the name recognition and the pull to move the industry around a bit. But why can't the smaller places do a little legwork pull in food of the same quality? I'm sure there are some small places doing just that, but we need more.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Food Porn PSA

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a friend of mine about television. We were talking about our favorite Food Network shows (real men have favorite Food Network shows, and they do not include anything including Rachael Ray, that saucy minx) when he threw out the term food porn. I'd never heard of it, but I immediately assumed that FN had gotten desperate and were featuring some all-out gravyfest replete with cucumber fellatio and Kegel exercises with carrots or parsnips or something.

Boy, was I wrong. And apparently disturbed, but I'm pretty sure the look I got was because my friend didn't know what fellatio meant. Apparently I was the only person who eats food in the world who didn't know what food porn is, so I went to the most credible source on the planet: Wikipedia.

According to the peerless (and flawless) online encyclopedia, food porn refers to any number of things, including:

*Secondary enjoyment of cooking - not actually cooking, but rather watching others cook (e.g. on FN). Go figure, I was already on my way to becoming a food porn star.

*Blogging - it seems that this very medium has popularized this phenomenon and online foodie coalitions have a major hard-on about it. This post, then, has just been catapulted into a sort of postmodern, eminently self-referential corollary to all other criticisms of food, porn, food porn, and the Information Superhighway.

*Real Porno - I totally called that one. And I'm pretty sure that was a mature summer squash featured in Requiem for a Dream (if you caught that reference I'll buy you a beer).

So, the upshot of all that is twofold: food is delicious, and keep an eye on your vagina around fresh produce. And if your bits and bobs aren't particularly yonic, then you are a man and probably not eating vegetables anyway.

I don't know why I was invited to the party

I feel like I'm out of my depth. I mean, I like food, but I hardly have the most discerning taste. I like everything, and I don't ask questions about what something is or isn't. Not only that, I already have a blog that I'm actively ignoring, so who knows if I'll have the time. Perhaps this means that I'll feel compelled to cook interesting things again, but probably not. Who wants to stir cajeta (or at least watch their girlfriend do it) for 3 hours when bryan cheats and just puts a dollop of tequila in caramel. In short, for my part on this project, I'm managing expectations. But who knows, I may surprise myself; but probably not, its been a long-time since the halcyon days of dinner club. Besides, my real agenda is to get BK and Drew to open a bar/restaurant together, and to that end, I will use any means.

Living to Eat: The Bryan Story

It's true. I love to eat. As a youngster growing up in Idaho, I was a picky eater with a healthy appetite. Moving to Chicago, one of the great food cities in this country, I was able to grow out of the picky eating phase and into the exploratory eating phase. Then I discovered that I kind of liked to cook. Now it turns out I really like to cook. Not that I've stopped eating out. I try to maintain a healthy balance between the two. I've known Joe for years, and he eats anything I put in front of him (except cheesecake. weird, huh?). He's also a rather accomplished cook himself, so between the two of us, we try to keep our roommates and friends well fed. Meeting Drew in Mexico was cool, as we share an adventurous food philosophy. So here we are.

Food for Drew

Welcome to Scrumptulescence - your home on the web for limited-scope, highly-opinionated, at times scatological, always spirited commentary on eating, drinking, and general carousing around the world (but mostly in Chicago and Philly). I'm Drew, part of the Philadelphia contingent (read: the sole member of said contingent as of this post). I recently stopped what I was doing in order to devote all my energy to making this the finest self-indulgent blog in the world. I hope you like it.

A little about me: I grew up in Wisconsin, but I can't stand sauerkraut. I learned to love bratwurst, but only because it's apparently un-American and rather un-Wisconsinite not to love them. Since then I have become an equal-opportunity eater, but you just won't convince me to like the taste of raw red onions. I don't know what it is, maybe I have some repressed red onion memory from childhood. I vaguely remember being knocked over by a large black lab when I was a kid, but since I'm not afraid of dogs I can only assume that it was actually a large-ish red onion and not a dog at all.

I love to cook and eat in my ridiculously small kitchen/hallway in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I'm hoping someday to have a kitchen large enough to accommodate my need for a walk-in freezer, roasting pit, and tiki bar. And counter space, maybe a pot rack. And somewhere to put my sweet orange KitchenAid mixer. Is that too much to ask? For now, though, I'm ballin' on a budget, and any money I do find lying around (whether the money or I am lying around is inconsequential) goes into delicious ingredients, ridiculously yummy meals, and unpronounceable wines.

I look forward to collaborating with Joe and Bryan, and maybe someday even eating with them. Until then, though, I'll provide the scoop on Philly eats (or wherever I go). I also like Ultimate and parenthetical asides (like this).

Another food blog?

So, these three guys were sitting around at an ultimate tournament in Mexico. Joe and Bryan are roommates in real life, and they were talking with their new friend Drew. Since it was lunchtime, the talk turned to food. After some exchanges of stories about wonderful meals, we realized we needed to revisit this topic at a later date. The problem? Joe and Bryan live in Chicago. Drew lives in Philadelphia. The solution? An online exchange of food ideas and stories. While using email and instant messaging would allow for such an ongoing conversation, we decided a weblog would be more fun. Enjoy.