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  • Archive | March, 2008

    Back to the Three Rivers

    This weekend I found myself back in my hometown of Pittsburgh. After moving to Seattle, I had resigned to myself that it would be a rare moment for me to ever return to the Steel City. But research into whisky gave me the opportunity.

    Above, is a picture of my favorite sandwich, a Primanti Brother’s Capicola with Cheese, topped with a fried egg.Added to the sandwich are a vinegar based cole slaw and french fries. In Pittsburgh, these are condiments rather than side items. Below, an Iron City Beer, possibly the worst lager beer with the largest cult following (aside from, y’know, Budweiser).

    When Krysta met me in the airport, the first thing out of my mouth was “We HAVE to go to Primanti’s”. Ninety minutes later, I had converted her into a fan. Primanti’s is the only food out there that can make an Iron City beer taste passable.

    Sunday we spent the day doing a little research into both the Whiskey Rebellion and Western Pennsylvania’s past whiskey history. Afterwards, we drove to New Kensington where I grew up. But really, the best part of this trip back the ‘burgh? It’s the picture above.

    The worst part?

    The picture below.

    Iron City? Oh it’s pretty bad.

    Pied de Cochon Farci Périgourdine, Façon Bourgeoise

    pig trotter stuffed with foie gras

    Ah Paris…so much to eat and so little time. Honestly, it would have been easier if I’d worked on my gluttony skills before I left.

    Pictured above is the plate of my dreams…Pied de Cochon Farci Périgourdine, Façon Bourgeoise, a pig’s foot, stuffed with foie gras. I’m unclear on how this was accomplished but I intend to get my greedy little hands on some trotters and attempt to recreate this sumptuous bowl of porky love. It was filleted, stuffed with foie gras, rolled up, crusted with a minimal coating of bread crumbs, cooked and served with a fabulous melange of demi glace, more pork, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, and potatoes. Ooolala…this was one sexy beast.

    If you’re ever in Paris stop by Au Pied de Cochon on the Rue Coquilliere and order the stuffed trotters. In the meantime let me know if you have any suggestions on how to execute the recreation of this plate.

    I’ll be posting more about my Paris eating adventures at What Geeks Eat.

    And now, I have some questions:

    I’m looking for advice on a couple of subjects, and who better to turn to than the readers of this site.

    First, in relation to the itinerary below, are there any restaurants or food-related places of interest that anyone can recommend?

    Secondly, I’m looking to set up a tasting of whiskys in the State of Washington, but I am wondering on legal obligations surrounding such an activity. For example, it’s likely that I will need to have Mandatory Alcohol Server Training. Has anyone out there set up wine tastings? If so, what legal hoops did you have to jump through?

    The Death of Molecular Gastronomy?

    Okay, death is likely too harsh a word. Perhaps Fading from prominence is a better descriptor. Over the past few years it it seemed to me that Molecular Gastronomy, like most trends, was more fad than revolution. Lisa Abend over at slate, presents the case for exactly this:

    ..from the beginning, some critics have scorned a mode of cooking that relies, in their opinion, too heavily on technology (as if an oven weren’t a machine) and often chooses form over substance. Twenty years into (Ferran) Adria’s revolution, those criticisms have only grown. In a recent e-mail, Gerry Dawes, an American expert on Spanish food and wine, wrote, “I am getting a little weary of the Catalan-driven techno-cuisine. Many of these ‘experiments’ would be better off if they didn’t show up anywhere but at chefs’ conferences.” His words sum up the critical attitude: It was fun at first, but enough with the chemistry kit! I’d like some real food now, please.

    I always get a little skeptical when people talk about how revolutionary anything is, let alone food. And while I thought porcini cotton candy and raspberry foams were interesting, they felt more of a novelty to me, than something that an average eater would be enthralled with.

    The other aspect here is the “Been there, done that”, which Lisa infers in her article. From my own point of view, unless a food is both amazing and readily accessible, I’m simply not going to eat it that much when there are so many other options in dining available. I’ve never been to the top tier places, so perhaps there’s there’s a dish or three that I’ve missed that better represents this genre. But even this implies that it’s the skill of the chef, and not the food itself which is important. This is hardly a lesson that’s new to anyone.

    This is not to say that I think that this type of cooking is going away. As the conclusion to the article states, parts of it will take their place into restaurant culture. In the end, it will simple become another option available to consumers, no better, no worse.

    What these kinds of food have done is cemented my theory that there is a huge divide between the fans and purveyors of upscale restaurant dining and…well…everyone else. While many people knew and loved the food of Adria and his disciples, exponentially many more have never tried nor even heard of the foods.

    North American Whisk(e)y Tour 2008

    And the “research” continues – here is the current itinerary, with the first week being very busy, the second week not so much.

    • March 29th – Arrive Pittsburgh
    • March 30th – Lament the loss of the East Coast Distilleries
    • March 31st – Flight to Louisville and a quick jaunt to the Jim Beam Distillery
    • April 1st – Heaven Hill distillery in the am, Woodford in the PM
    • April 2nd – Buffalo Trace
      in the AM – Drive to Nashville in the PM.
    • April 3rd – Jack Daniel’s Distillery in the am, George Dickel in the PM, drive to Atlanta.
    • April 4th – Flight to Halifax, Nova Scotia
    • April 5th – Lament the fact that the Glenora Distillery is closed.
    • April 6th – Day off
    • April 7th – Flight to Toronto
    • April 8th – Forty Creek Distillery
    • April 9th – Old Distillery District Tour in Toronto in the am; drive to Windsor in the PM.
    • April 10th – Visit Canadian Club Brand Canter
    • April 11th – Tour Walkertown in Windsor, Windsor city archives
    • April 12th – Return to Toronto as to not pay exorbitant car rental fees.
    • April 13th – Seattle bound

    Some of these are set in stone, others can be altered as time allows. If anyone else is interested in meeting or setting up an interview, e-mail me at kate AT accidentalhedonist DOT com. Canadian Whisky folk are highly encouraged, as there’s comparatively very little in the way of historical documentation in regard to Canada’s place in whisky history, especially when stacked against America and Scotland.

    Meanwhile, I’m happy to meet folks just to meet. So if interested, drop me a line.

    The Emptiness of “100% Natural”

    Parke, over at US Food Policy, reminds us once again that the word “Natural” should be regarded with great skepticism when found on food labels.

    Part of my real-world job involves parsing words and phrases, interpreting meaning in poorly worded passages, and generally understanding government regulations. So when I read the USDA’s definition of natural for meat and poultry…

    A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as – no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)

    Writing regulations and requirements is not like the writing you and I do in everyday life. Everything must be unambiguous, consistent, and verifiable. In parsing the above, I find (and others have found) several flaws with the above, specifically in the area of ambiguity and verifiability. For example:

    • No artificial ingredient – How is “artificial” defined?
    • Minimally processed – What defines “Minimally”?
    • Does not fundamentally alter the raw product – What is the criteria for any product to not be “fundamentally altered”?

    The answer to the first issue is likely found in a different set of regulations, where each ingredient is identified as artificial or not. The other two issues are more severe. For only being one sentence, having three issues shows poor oversight by the USDA. Adverbs and adjectives are often indications of poor regulations, unless they are defined as well. Without clarification of these terms, it leaves the regulation open for interpretation and abuse – which is precisely what has happened.

    The simple answer is to look upon the phrase “natural” with great suspicion, unless a company puts some effort in communicating answers to the three issues listed above. The problem with this is that it is counter-intuitive for the purpose of the “natural” label.

    Love of Food

    The phrase “Love of Food” is one of those turns of words that can be misinterpreted. There is the all-encompassing love for all food and all things food-related. Then there’s the love that I wish to speak of today: the love for very specific items.

    For all the love I have for food, it is surprising to me how many items for which I’ve had a real passion. It’s as if I’ve reserved this energy for a few select items to be exalted only when they met some list of nearly unattainable criteria.

    Often that criteria is based solely on the uniqueness of the food. My first true love was for General Tso’s chicken . My father had introduced it to me when he had taken all of his children to a Chinese restaurant in Pittsburgh in the early 1980′s. For a child who had grown up on burgers and hot dogs, it was a revelation.

    And as with most first true loves, an infatuation appeared. For the next few years, every time I went to a Chinese restaurant, I would order the dish, basking in the crispiness of the fried chicken pieces, and how the sauce was both spicy AND sweet at the same time. Even the rice was adored, as it became coated with the remnants of the oil and sauce of the dish. To me, it was the pinnacle of food.

    Until it wasn’t. The problem with love is that sometimes it wanes. In the case of the General Tso’s chicken, over the years it had ceased to be mysterious and exotic, and had instead become commonplace. It was and is still respected, but the infatuation was lost.

    Over the years there had been several such love affairs. There were the hot dogs at Cedar Point covered in Cole Slaw, who fell into disfavor after being consumed on a nearly daily basis. There was the brief but meaningful passion for sangria and the obsession with a dessert called the El Diablo. But both of those love affairs ended when an improperly made batch ended on my table. Nothing ends a relationship faster when a food ceases to be as good as one remembers it.

    And now? The picture says it all. I’m in love with a 21 year old single malt whiskey from Bushmills that has spent it’s final year finishing in a Madeira cask. To anyone who has heard me talk of whiskey since arriving home from Ireland, they have heard me speak of this drink.

    The problem with a person’s love affair with food is the same when they are in love with people – when they speak of the object of their affection, they straddle the ever-so-tenuous line of cute versus annoying-as-hell. All they can speak of is are the best aspects of the loved-one, and are blind to the flaws.

    Love, whether it’s for food or for others, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. But it needs to be handled responsibly. One needs to take care not to allow the love to become commonplace, nor expected. It should be cultivated and treated carefully.

    I will not drink the Bushmills as often as I would other whiskeys. One reason is it’s price tag. At one hundred dollars a bottle, it’s not a cheap date. And expensive dates should only occur every so often. But I will relish each time I get the opportunity to share its company.