Monday, November 29, 2010

A Man's topic...

Peanut butter and jelly, whether you like them fried or fresh, the PB&J seems to have become a staple for any male's diet.  It could be a tie in with some feeling of a comfort food or a piece of nostalgia, but this sandwich seems to show up in almost every setting and I almost always have seen men enjoy this over women.

While the first recorded mention of this sandwich was in the 1940's, we have a couple of facts that can be seen and laid out here for everyone's view:
1.  We know that George Washington Carver created a peanut butter for culinary uses in 1880, but did not patent it because he thought that anything from nature was a gift from God and allowed to everyone.  But this is the first recorded listing of peanut butter.  The peanut probably was first seen around 950BC in South America.  From there it was sent to places like Africa where it is believed that the Africans did grind it up into a paste.

2. Jelly can likely be traced back to the Middle East, where sugar cane grew naturally.  Mixing some macerated fruit with the ground sugar cane and cooking it down, reducing it, could have produced a very simple jelly if not a fruit spread.  Scientists believe that this happened before the Crusades, as it was likely Crusaders who brought the idea of jelly in to Europe.  Modern jelly probably did not exist until much later, around the 16th century when the Spanish used sugar cane syrup to preserve fruit. Pectin was not extracted from apples to make jelly until the late 17th century.

3. While some could point out that South America had peanuts and the India actually had the first sugar cane, then  could the two have collided at some point and created the sandwich?  I guess this comes down to the bread.While the Middle East and India may have had sugar cane or sugar first, their bread has been a thin bread not made with any yeast, so it would have resembled a rolled or very skinny and flat sandwich. While the more leavened bread would have required grains and yeast to rise and would likely have originated in the Scandinavian countries, it could be noted that Spain did have a grain bread like what we are familiar with now, in America.

This being said, thanks to help with wikipedia, by looking up different histories, it could be seen that the Spanish may have invented more closely what we refer to as peanut butter and jelly. The Spanish Conquistadors brought peanuts over to Spain and if Spain already used honey and sugar by then in their fruit preserving, then the love of the peanut and jelly could have kindled. If Spain had access to honey or sugar around the 16th century and had access to peanuts or ground peanuts and bread, then they could have sliced it in two and created the first peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Now, whether you prefer grape, strawberry or another flavor of jelly, wheat, white or another kind of bread and chunky or smooth peanut butter, that is another story.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What is the one thing you could live on for the rest of your life?

Are you asking me?  If so, that is an easy question to answer: chocolate milk.  If you are among the others who are left in the dark about how something that they give children in pre-school could possibly be good for adults, let me enlighten you. 

While chocolate milk is nothing more than chocolate and milk, it is filled with important fat calories, protein and calcium.  Let's look at some important factors and notes about chocolate milk:

*The chocolate flavoring is one of the more important elements and now, for the first time, chocolate sauces are being made without high fructose corn syrup.  These taste more like the dark or unsweetened chocolate and add a rich flavor to the milk.

*Chocolate flavorings have been in a powder form for some time as well, with everything from Nesquik and it's sugar-free version to Ovaltine and it's inherent nutritional drink mix.  Ovaltine started off by making a healthy nutritional supplement-type of drink that gave people the vitamins they needed with a glass of milk.  Well, how do you get kids to drink your product? Make it chocolate.

*Most people continue to use whole milk to help the solution have a silky and rich consistency as well as a richer taste.  Whole milk gives the drink a taste like one is drinking pure melted milk chocolate.  There is a push to make chocolate soy milk, but that ruins the purpose of the original thought.

Lately there has been some scandal because some doctors believe that milk has been contributing to childhood obesity.  They blame that milk has natural sugar and fat in it and think that these natural things which your body deals with naturally are the causes of the fat and overweight children.  These same doctors refuse to believe the findings of the latest research against high fructose corn syrup.  Think of this; you have some pretentious idiots who think that milk is what is making kids fat.  What is really making them fat is likely the large doses of high fructose corn syrup that is in everything they eat or drink.  You know, these are the kids that get McDonald's for lunch, get their mcnugget happy meal, filled with high fructose corn syrup and sugar, then wash it down with a soda, also filled with high fructose corn syrup and sugar.  Then when their kids get fatter, because they go home and play WOW or other video games and don't move off of their butts for a few days, they complain that it is the milk.

Science finally proves the dangers of high fructose corn syrup

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I don't give a Puck....

First of all, the word 'puck', in culinary circles is synonymous with Wolfgang Puck. That chef, has done wonders with fusion foods and also has kept his feet on the ground to create master works of culinary art that still tastes like the foods mom used to make. However, if you are in st. louis and you were thinking of going to get his brunch menu at the st. louis art museum, skip it. My wife and I attended this hot brunch a few months ago.  You can find better food for the $25 a person.

There was a hot foods buffet line, with things like egg, cheese and spinach quiche, freshly cooked bacon, sausage, waffles made on the spot, chicken marinara, a carving station with roast beef and other smaller details. There was a cold bar with fresh fruit and some small pastries and salads, like a fresh spring green salad with walnuts, dried cranberries and a oil vinaigrette.

There was a desert bar as well.

For $25 a person, I was expecting a bit more: 2 out of 5 stars.

The cold food was too plain. The melons were sliced almost paper thin, so you had to stab 19 on your fork to fill the same space one normal chunk of melon would take. The croissants were good, but taste like pillsbury made them at the store. I doubt that there was a pound of butter in that batter for those rolls. The hot food was normal and mediocre at best. There was no awesomely sublime ideas presented to us, like fresh salmon and eggs or rich buttery and creamy waffles or pancakes (flapjacks, griddle cakes, etc). After working at a buffet most of my life, I know that you need to change out the meats because they tend to dry out fast under that heat lamp. The carver would sometimes leave his station and the beef looked like it was dry as a bone by the time he came back to it. Dessert was things like what seemed to be flourless chocolate cakes that were small, like 2 cm each way and then chilled, so there were almost frozen solid. Or there was peanut brittle that was rock hard as well. Cookies, which seem rather safe and chocolate covered strawberries.

Here's the thing: the brochure says that they have an "incomparable Sunday brunch". Well, it is, because I don't know what to compare it to. It didn't have the complexity that a more high priced brunch should have and didn't have the regular feel to it that normal places have. It is like if you wanted to go to Mesa Grill but only wanted to eat their baked goods, like the jalapeno bread or blue corn muffins. While blue corn bread is something strange, it is still something that you can make at home. I guess this is slightly biased because as I become more and more skilled some things are easier for me to cook at home. So, here is my standard: if I can't do it, and it tastes great, I pay a lot for it.

So, the cooked foods at Puck's brunch, sadly, I could do it all myself. I should have saved me from the $50 and just cooked breakfast for my wife in bed. I would pay $50 for the two of us for fancy french food at Chez Leon, in the central west end, and that gets me a grilled chicken with a black truffle risotto and my wife some soft shelled crab with a desert. (we always go prix- fix)

What was the most comical of all, when my wife and I did do this art museum brunch, which was actually several months ago, was that the restaurant area was filled with a large assortment of pretentious and snobby individuals who felt that the best way to judge the food was how easy it was to cut with a knife and fork and for them to place in their mouths and chew: hoping their dentures didn't crack or fall out. My wife and I are foodies, so when we sit and try food we comment out loud sometimes as to what we think.  I remember the looks of someone at the table next to us act like we were horrible people because after the meal I had stated what I thought of everything.  I'm sorry ma'am, that the eggs that my wife makes at home don't taste as good as the ones your butler makes every morning for you, but we still have a right to an opinion.  I think we received the most stare-downs that we have ever had at a restaurant in a long time.  (Which was odd, because I had a full suit on, my wife had a long dress and we were perhaps the two most well dressed people there.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

The falling leaves....fall past my window....the falling leaves of red and gold...

I will admit that in my limited cooking education, seeing how I have had no real formal classes and work, very little has been instructed to me on what to do when you have something with an open cavity and something that can be cooked inside.  Much like the stuffing inside of a turkey, many great things can have a great stuffing and therefore make for some delicious food.  I decided to take a risk and in doing so, tried to make some Lebanese food, probably the most tricky Lebanese dished to make, for those not familiar with the style, technique or the cuisine.  What dish could this be?  It involves leaves and a filling.

I know it looks like we just pulled some leaves off of any old deciduous tree but these are in fact pickled grape leaves.  You take these leaves and stuff them with a mixture of ground beef, rice and cinnamon. 
Make sure the rice is uncooked.  Now, you take out a single leaf, place some stuffing in it and roll in up.  Then carefully place them in the bottom of a pot.
How weird is that?  It looks like a pot of leaves.  While the grape leaves do have a leafy flavor, overall, they take on the flavor of the filling, as well as the garlic and lemon juice that you place in the pot, with the water to cook them.  They are delicious and as weird as the leaves are, it was definitely worth trying to cook with them.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Can you make it at home?

It is a basic truth: if you make something at home, chances are it can be more healthy than if you buy it commercially.  So what did I make?  My kids love the mall, mainly because every time we go, my two young sons both get a pretzel.  I forget the name of the company, but it is the blue lettering on white back. The pretzels are sugary and dripping, yes dripping, with butter or oil.  Well, I swear that each pretzel has a thousand calories and while it may taste good, it isn't that good for young children, or anyone for that matter.  I made my own pretzels at home, twisted them, brushed them with egg yolks, sprinkled some Kosher salt and had some delicious alternatives made.

What is better than pretzels? Doughnuts or Donuts, however you spell it.  I found a recipe online and will the switch of Truvia for the sugar I produced a good sweet dough and then made some shapes, cut them out, let them rise and here ya go.

The recipe was here:

Only thing I would suggest as a change, roll the dough thicker than 1/3rd inch.  Maybe 1/2 inch, as they don't rise that much.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Your rights as a customer

I was thinking about this the last time I was at a restaurant: I was ordering a steak and requested that it be cooked a certain way and while doing so, my wife indicated that if it was cooked incorrectly, I should send it back.  It was an interesting thought:  When was the last time you have ever sent anything back to the kitchen?

I have never done so, myself as I always thought it was just something that they do on TV or in the movies.  Furthermore, I figured that if I did send some dish back to the kitchen or even complain more to a manager or waiter, it would only further infuriate a chef or cook and they may sabotage my food.  It can happen and I sometimes worry about it.

Think of it like this: a menu is a list of offers. When you chose to order something, you are agreeing with the offers that are on the menu.  When you agree, you are saying that you will pay so much money as long as the restaurant keeps their side of the offer, which usually is that the food is served as explained and cooked the way you suggest.  When you order that item, you are confirming that you have accepted an offer and when the restaurant takes the order and bills you for it, they are further agreeing to the offer, making a solid agreement or verbal contract.

But, just as celebrities and business people can break contracts, restaurants can as well. If you order a steak, a 9 ounce before cooking weight Angus steak that is cooked medium well and you get something different, you are allowed to send it back.  I have had several dishes that were bad enough to send back but wanted to point out that the server or cook did something wrong when they chose to serve it.  If it wasn't even made from an Angus cow, you technically have a right to send it back.  If it tasted bad enough that it was not cooked right or made you spit it out, you could even ask for your money back.

Now, how would I feel in the same situation? If I was in a restaurant and I had did something wrong or prepared something not as I had displayed it as such, I would be at fault for it and if someone had sent it back to me after I had sent it out, I would have taken full responsibility for it.  While I worked at Old Country Buffet/Home Town Buffet, I came across several instances where people would complain about different dishes.  Maybe they said that the fried chicken was still raw or the soup was too salty.  I had to know how everything was supposed to taste and every once in a while, the food was too salty.  I'd go back to that complaining customer and let them know that the food was bad or wrong and we are fixing it now.  If they were really complaining, sometimes we would have to give them their money back or even offer free meal passes.

In conclusion, you have a right to pay for what you want.  Remember, the customer is always right.  I know that most restaurants don't announce this motto but it is true and still true today.  If you order something and it tastes off, most restaurants will take it right back and serve you up another one, they will call a 're-do' and get it to you without complaints.  I will even learn from my own advice and the next time I take a bite of a dish that makes me spit it out, I will send it back, before punishing the restaurant as a whole.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An explanation of ME, 101

As a new introduction to these next 100 posts, I'd like to talk a bit about myself, my experiences and my rating system.
I'm 32 years old, possess a certificate in Catering, a B.S. in Holistic Nutrition with a concentration in Herbalism and a B.A. in Literature and Language Arts with a minor in Computer Science and Business Administration.  I went to college for 6 & 1/2 years because I was undecided for so much of it.  It also was because for 4 of those years, my adviser changed each year: the first became the Dean of students, the next was promoted elsewhere and the other two left the college.  I feel as though if I had an adviser that stayed long enough to know me, I could have made better choices.  However, had I not stayed as long as I did, I would not have met my wife, so it was all okay.

I've always enjoyed cooking and when I was younger, my brothers and I were often sent, one at a time, to 'help' my grandmother at her house, prepare family meals. I was always amazed at how one person could make so many people happy, just be food.  So many of my fondest memories of passed away loved ones have been related to food and with food prepared in similar manners it does give me a moment in which I feel like I have been transported back in time to those moments.
I used to work for an all-you-can-eat buffet called Old Country Buffet/Home Town Buffet.  It was when I was thrown on the cook's line that I started to enjoy the cooking and the control and freedom that I had while back there, no supervisors and just me following the recipes to create good food. People and fellow employees always make fun of the food and in some cases the cooking habits of some of the cooks, but it most cases, as was the case of at least the Lindbergh location, the food was healthy and clean.  While there cooking, I was also fulfilling my requirement as the Dining Room Supervisor and learning how food was supposed to be prepared and taste.  After 8 & 1/2 years of working in this environment, I think I know how a restaurant should operate.

If you combine my work experience with my catering certificate, that composed of no less than 40 hours of coursework, it brings together a shape and scope of what is needed and how food should be prepared.  I know how food should be prepared and how long it takes to be prepared. I know that if I order a chicken strip and fries basket for my son at a restaurant that it shouldn't take longer than 6 or 7 minutes.  When I order one and it takes 30 minutes to an hour, then something is wrong.

Now, what makes for 5 stars?
 0/5 is the kind of food that is so bad that I spit it out.  This often happens if the food is too salty or even served with an edible garnish that isn't prepared properly. Undercooked chicken or vegetables are placed in this category as well.

1/5 is the food that is edible but still not good.  It is the food that you take a single bite and think to yourself that you would not, unless under gunpoint, take a second bite.
2/5 is the food that is okay.  This is food that is not even good, but just mediocre. This level also applies to food that is very, very normal.  The standard burger and fries, for example, where it is just okay, belongs in this level.
3/5 is the food that is good.  You are willing to have multiple bites to try and may even eat all of it. This is also the level of foods that are not what they say, so if a restaurant calls a dish a stew and it is a good mix of ingredients but isn't really a stew, then it would be here.  This is my basic starting point as I have the expectation that all food is good.
4/5 is if the food is really good.  This is the food that is good enough that you are happy with it and will recommend it to others.  The food is cooked properly, hot and tasty.  It is above what you had expected as well.  If you had ordered a bacon burger and someone had placed the bacon inside of the burger, it would have been a new enough concept to fit into this category and not be considered the normal standard burger.

5/5 applies to the best.  This rating does change as I haven't eaten in every restaurant on the planet so it may fluctuate.  I have eaten great Lebanese food in Beirut, for example. So, if a restaurant in St. Louis claims to have the best Lebanese food and it doesn't, or doesn't even have anything similar or like the real food, then it would not get this level of stars.  If the restaurant had food that was very similar to the real country and tasted just like the food there, then it could be considered a 5/5.  This is also food that integrates something new. If you were eating a bowl of some noodles with a simple broth and vegetables and the noodles were hand made, the broth just got off the stove from 8 hours of cooking and the vegetables were earlier in the ground right outside, then it would likely classify as a 5/5, as long as it still tasted good. 

My biggest pet peeves:

1.  Food takes too long
The longest it has taken for me to get food after ordering was 1 hour.  I have been to a restaurant, ordered food and it took over an hour for the food to come.  If it was the waiter's fault that the order was not put in for 40 minutes, it is not my nor the customer's fault.
2.  Waiter never comes back
My wife and I are always cursed that the waiter may give us great service and as soon as we are given are final plates, they disappear. We sometimes have to either flag the waiter down or ask another employee to gather the bill so we can pay and leave.  That last bit of service, does weigh into the final tip.
3.  No one greets me
It should be a standard that if you enter a restaurant in which an entree' costs more than $20 someone from the cooking or management staff should greet you.  After all, you are spending your money to keep their salaries or their wage intact.  Some of the restaurants that have received 5 stars from me, have had someone greet me from start to finish and talk to me. Instead of the kind that greet you upon entry and then you never hear from them again.

I feel as though I cannot be bought or sold. I take the review of a restaurant very seriously as I want people to have the same experience, if it is good, as I have had. I am just like you in that if someone asks you what is a good place for dinner, you tell them your favorite place or a place where you have had a good time.  You may also tell them the places to avoid.  I do the same thing.  I know that if I have a good time (good food and good service) at a location and I talk about how good it was, someone else may try it out.  I am technically bringing new customers in with free publicity. The same however, goes for if the location is bad or rated poorly as if I think a place is downright awful, it may stop people from going there.  Skills are not inherited. If your family owns a restaurant, it does not mean that you have instant knowledge of how a restaurant should be run and how food should be done.  I have an issue dealing or even talking with people who say 'my father owns so and so and it has been in business for over 20 years, which is why I opened my restaurant'.  I want to say to them, 'your restaurant sucks' and leave it at that.  My father works as a credit manager for some St. Louis owned corporations, does this mean that I could start a finance company and demand instant success and fame, because of his past and his professional resume'? Not everyone is cut out to be a chef or not everyone is cut out to be a restaurant owner.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The un-celebration of the 100th post

 100 posts ago, I started with just a simple restaurant review.  The restaurant was The Stable, in St. Louis and this restaurant became one of my family and friend's favorite place.  My review was from a date with just me and my wife and after my honest review, no less than 10 others had since been there.  All of these others have told me how great the restaurant is and plan on going back again.

Since then, I have done about 18 restaurant reviews, about 7 recipe or cookbook reviews and the rest have mostly been articles dealing with food or food science.  I enjoy eating and going to restaurants and equally enjoy writing about my experiences. I did want to try to get something special, like an interview with Rick Moonen or even a local chef but have been turned down as a result.

During these past 99 posts, there are a few things that I have learned about food and restaurants and chefs:

 1.  Anthony Bourdain will never come to St. Louis.  In a bit of a sore topic, Mr. Bourdain was asked no less than 3 times, while he was speaking about his book at the Fox Theatre, this past October, if he was coming to St. Louis.  He responded that he was coming to the state to do some time in the Ozarks but not coming to St. Louis.  Once again, another person who thinks of St. Louis as nothing but an airport hub. We may not be as big as a city as New York or Vegas, but we have great food, great restaurants and great farms.  We have the oldest outdoor market West of the Mississippi and even one of the best chefs (Chef Larry Forgione).
2.  Most of the St. Louis area people have no idea what good taste is.  If you are reading this, then you are some of the few people with good taste.  I have been to at least 2 bad restaurants during these past 99 posts and the strange thing is that the locals around both establishments believe that these places are the best they have ever had.  So, either these places really are bad or I just have bad luck when it comes to restaurants.  Either the food has been way to salty and not enough to match the price or the food doesn't even come at all after an hour and when it does it tastes just like any other regular fare.  The best Mayan food in Maplewood is home to the saltiest and smallest portion of beef ever.  The newest restaurant in Columbia will likely not get your food served to you under an hour.  Both places have full houses and it amazes me that people are willing to put up with bad service or bad food.  If a place has food that you don't like, DON'T go back!

3.    Most celebrity chefs, celebrity since they have been on TV, don't do much cooking anymore.  In most cases, they are pushing their wares or doing book deals or things like that and are not found in the restaurants anymore.  These celebrity chefs, train chefs to be the executive chefs of their restaurants and therefore don't have to do a thing at that location again.  In some cases...  Some chefs, like Rick Bayless, for example, does work at his restaurant.  You can tell who has the love of cooking in them and who is in it for the money. If I had a restaurant and then became famous for any reason, I would wish to stay in the restaurant, because it is what I love.

4.   Most Americans will not or do not wish to try anything new and authentic.  My wife posed an interesting thought this past weekend: how do those bad Chinese places stay in business?  A family wants Chinese food for dinner and instead of going to a place that serves Chinese food like Dim Sum or other regional food, they wish to go to places like China Court or Panda Palace.  The difference is something real from something that is created and toned down for the American palette.  Which would you rather have: steamed bok choy and broccoli with some beef tendons or cashew chicken with fried rice?  This doesn't only apply to Chinese food but all foods of ethnic nature.

5.  Always try something new.  I try to post recipes involving new ingredients or something like the cactus leaves.  As a foodie and chef, I am learning that there are many different flavors out there and instead of hoarding the tastes that only you like, perhaps you wish to open up.  Let's say that someone had a new kind of chocolate out there.  Would you try it?  Chocolate covered bacon?  It's good.  I know because I tried it.  Chocolate is good and bacon is good and together it is good.  Why don't you try it?  A lot of people, older people, want to go to their usual stand-by's and never try anything new. It could be an older woman who doesn't like anything on a salad bar or someone who only gets chicken strips at whatever restaurant it is.  But try something new!  Life is too short to see something new, smell something new and then say "No Thanks" when it comes to taking just a small bite.

6.  Take care of yourself.  Smoking dulls the taste buds, which is why food is too salty in some cases because teh chef is a smoker and most likely cannot taste the real taste of the food.  It doesn't register for him.  Also, try to stay away from unhealthy junk food.  A great food leader in our country is McDonald's and while they have a burger for just 270 calories, that bun and ketchup has high fructose corn syrup in it.  So, in a culture that is just now discovering the dangers of High Fructose Corn Syrup, one burger has two doses of HFCS and one dose of regular corn syrup and even sugar!  I suggest a substitution.  Are we that lazy of a society that instead of making food at home that isn't going to cause health problems or kill us we would rather eat the junk food?

What is amazing overall, is that the chefs that come up with food that is actually healthy for us, make far less money than those that kill us more quickly.  A chef that can come up with bacon wrapped bacon and then deep fries that makes more for his recipe than someone who makes sugar free jam without the use of artificial flavors and colors.  My wife always joked at the idea that a a box of snack cakes, filled with fat and sugar costs as much as one pound of apples.  It is almost as if our nation wants us to get fat. 

What can you expect over the next 100 posts? If I am lucky, I will get a local chef to answer some interview questions for me.  I will get more restaurant reviews and more recipes in here as well.  I have had some requests on Facebook for some low fat or sugar free versions of some favorite desserts and have been working and pulling those off. I will get more of those recipes online for everyone to see and try.

What would you like to see?