December 31, 2007

Scrapin' Up the Bits, Bye-Bye '07 Style

OK, OK, I admit
it December doesn’t seem like the best time to be buying or eating avocados. That said, if Giant Eagle is going to sell avocados at this time of year, then maybe they should actually last a few days, eh? I bought one about a month ago as well and, when I cut it open and tasted it a little bit, it had the consistency and flavor of wax.

Last week, with the hope of putting some slices on a COBALT sandwich (Cheese, Onion, Bacon, Avocado, Lettuce, Tomato) – using some delicious bacon from Wil-Den Farms – I cut it open and you can see above what I found. Mind you, the avocado was by no means overly soft. Based on my experience over the past few years, it seemed to be plum for slicing. Shame the inside looked like a rotted out tree!

Even minus the avocado, the sandwich (pictured to the right) was still pretty good. And, admittedly, the “T” in the COBALT was a tomato from the same grocery chain (yes, meaning it came from pretty far away – I was weak and really in the mood for a BLT!) that was pretty good, even though it’s December.

Enough complaining A little bit late, some of my favorite things about the holiday season:
  • Holiday beers
  • Panettone from The Enrico Biscotti Company - where, by the way, on Christmas Eve, we received a present in the form of two free black and white people cookies for our two kids: “Little ones never pay for little people cookies,” the very nice woman behind the counter said.
  • My mother’s pizzelles
  • Watching It’s a Wonderful Life
  • My wife’s gingerbread men (and women)
  • Listening to the soundtrack from Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

‘Burgh food gems A food critic from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, China Millman, offers her top 10 food moments of the year and, I gotta say, it was inspiring. It really demonstrated to me that Pittsburgh has a better food scene than I give it credit for.

Gotta get me some of that Boscano Tartufo from Penn Mac.

And, after our recent trip to NYC and the other-worldly gnocchi with short rib bits appetizer I had, the braised pork ragu with gnocchi from Mio Kitchen & Wine Bar in Aspinwall sounds ultra appealing.

More local food… Two other local food items of interest – that is, two new local food-related businesses. First, Radicchio’s International Marketplace to the south of the city in McMurray sounds intriguing. What caught my eye:

But the nicest surprise may be its 15,000-square-foot produce section in the center of the store. It features precise piles of fruits and vegetables (including exotics such as Sharon fruit persimmon) in easy-to-navigate rows managed by clerks in black bow ties.

And then there’s the mega-environmentally friendly, Florida-based pizza chain, Pizza Fusion, which is opening a location far north of the city not far from Casa de Fillippelli. The menu seems almost too extensive, almost never a good thing in my view. But it’s an interesting concept in a pizza chain, that’s for sure:

We proudly serve up delicious, gourmet pizza in its purest form - untainted by artificial additives, like preservatives, growth hormones, pesticides, nitrates and trans fats (to name a few). ... Additionally, we proudly offer health conscious alternatives for our friends with selective diets and food allergies, such as our delicious gluten-free pizza, brownies and beer and our tasty vegan selections.

Born from a desire to make a difference, every detail of our operations is continuously evaluated from an environmental perspective in an effort to further minimize our ecological footprint. From delivering our food in company owned hybrid vehicles and offsetting 100% of our power consumption with the purchase of renewable wind energy certificates to building LEED certified restaurants, we are committed to being a leader in not only the pizza industry, but in a better quality of life.

December 27, 2007

Two Days in Manhattan

Last week, my wife and I had the rare opportunity – rare for us, that is – to spend not quite two days in New York City.

The trip, ostensibly to see the (still) undefeated Pitt men’s basketball team take on (the no longer!) undefeated Duke men’s basketball team (you da’ man, Levance) at Madison Square Garden, almost didn’t happen because of various familial illnesses. In the end, however, it did happen, although not quite as I had planned – said plan almost strictly revolving around food.

Most of the details of the trip are, as Dr. Evil once opined, inconsequential. One worth noting is that my intention to eat a Neapolitan-style coal- or wood-fired pizza never materialized, primarily because of my own stupidity and indecisiveness.

The other is that, of the two exemplary meals we did have, the stars were the appetizers. Here some details are necessary.

Market Table

The first meal was at a restaurant called Market Table in Greenwich Village, a well-regarded eatery that has ties to an even more highly regarded restaurant called The Little Owl where I tried, but failed, to get a reservation.

We arrived, amazingly, at 10:00 p.m., the exact time of our reservation, despite the basketball game running long because of overly intrusive referees and one (incredible) overtime period.

We had hardly eaten all day and, truth be told, neither my wife nor I were in ideal gastrointestinal condition for a meal at a fairly high-end restaurant. But we were in the Big Apple, and had no intention of letting a little GI distress interfere with well-researched plans to enjoy culinary delights.

My wife ordered the bacon-wrapped scallops, hardly a unique appetizer, but one that came highly recommended (via Chowhound's Manhattan board) nonetheless. I went with the gnocchi with short ribs. This read like a heavy appetizer and probably not the ideal choice given the situation. In the end, however, it was the best decision I have made in some time.

There is no picture to be had because our digital camera was resting idly in our valet-parked car at the hotel, which means it was, for all intensive purposes, out of reach until our departure on Saturday morning. And it was too dark for my camera phone to provide anything more than what resembled a pasta apparition.

In any case, a picture would not do this little plate of wonder any justice: light, perfectly chewy petite gnocchi, with little shreds of succulent short ribs and tender escarole chunks in a savory “parmesan broth” that I would have poured down my throat if I were sitting at my own dining room table.

My wife agreed that, although her scallops were excellent, the gnocchi were beyond exceptional. Which led me to actually vocalize the question:

Will this be a case in which the entrée will, for no fault of its own, be a letdown?

I had just eaten what was, in my estimation, one of the most wonderful things I have tasted in a long time. By that measure, how could it not?

As it turns out, the entrée, a mammoth braised lamb shank (accompanied by a gruyere gratin and some braised escarole), was quite good. Excellent, in fact. But it did not exceed the gnocchi.

In the lamb shank’s defense, I was already feeling full by the time it arrived. Remnants of a nasty, cruel flu-like illness were still lurking in my chest cavity, and, as a result, I had eaten so little over the past two weeks that I had lost two pounds without a lick of exercise. Also, we had already downed two-thirds of a bottle of red by the time the lamb arrived.

The lamb shank was incredibly flavorful and tender, pieces effortlessly dropping from the bone with only a slight prodding from my fork. The flavor, in fact, was too intense. The dish was so rich that I had to take each lamb bit with a little gratin and escarole to tame it. Even with this workaround, I ate not even a quarter of the lamb shank, apologizing to our waitress for letting so much food go to waste and cursing the fact that our hotel room had no refrigerator.


The next night we had 8:45 reservations at another well-regarded restaurant, August, run by an alumni of Mario Batali’s uber-famous Babbo (yet another place where 3 weeks was insufficient lead time to obtain a reservation!), Tony Liu.

The star of August is the wood-burning oven, which is where a majority of the dishes on the sparse, but intriguing, European menu are cooked. This includes, not surprisingly, the tarte flambé.

The flambé begins with a light, crisp, flavorful (dare I say perfect!) crust accented by just a little char. It was the perfect delivery vehicle for seriously luscious caramelized onions and bacon and red cabbage, all sitting on a bed of crème fraiche. Again, here we were, faced with a welcome dilemma, that the entrée could potentially be a disappointment following such a wonderful starter.

Our entrees were both well prepared. My wife had the whole oven-roasted orata and I had a really interesting (“interesting” in the best sense of the word, not the backhanded insult kind of way) baked farro pizzichi pasta, which had bits of speck, red cabbage, and a healthy dose of sage. These were new flavor combinations for me and were truly enjoyable. But my dish, at least, was not as good as the flambé. The orata was quite remarkable, but if I were forced to choose, I’d probably have another flambé.

I’m still kicking myself about the pizza. And I’m still dreaming about that gnocchi.

* Statue of Liberty image from Ellis Island Foundation Statue of Liberty picture page.

December 19, 2007

Looming Breakdowns?

Michael Pollan had an excellent piece in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, discussing just what the term “sustainable” really means in the context of agriculture and food production.

To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown.

He cites two examples of looming breakdowns to illustrate a larger point about the unsustainable practices in agriculture today, including one about the extreme reliance on antibiotics on huge factory farms, where pigs and chickens and cattle are raised in such tight, and terribly filthy, quarters that infections, once unleashed, can race through inmate population like horses at the beginning of a Triple Crown race.

Public-health experts have been warning us for years that this situation is a public-health disaster waiting to happen. Sooner or later, the profligate use of these antibiotics — in many cases the very same ones we depend on when we’re sick — would lead to the evolution of bacteria that could shake them off like a spring shower. It appears that “sooner or later” may be now. Recent studies in Europe and Canada found that confinement pig operations have become reservoirs of MRSA. A European study found that 60 percent of pig farms that routinely used antibiotics had MRSA-positive pigs (compared with 5 percent of farms that did not feed pigs antibiotics). This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study showing that a strain of “MRSA from an animal reservoir has recently entered the human population and is now responsible for [more than] 20 percent of all MRSA in the Netherlands.”

And, by the way, it’s not just the animals infected with these resistant bacteria. According to a new Johns Hopkins study, it’s the people who work with them.

Poultry workers in the United States are 32 times more likely to carry E. coli bacteria resistant to the commonly used antibiotic, gentamicin, than others outside the poultry industry, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


Currently 16 different antimicrobial drugs are approved for use in U.S. poultry production, with gentamicin reported to be the most widely used.

This is a huge part of why we try our best to buy our chicken, pork, and beef from local farms. The chicken and pork, in particular, not only tastes much better, but I know that I’m supporting farms that are doing things the “right” way – not damaging the environment, treating their animals well, and not promoting potential public health nightmares like rampant antibiotic resistance.

We’re fortunate to have access to these local farms and their products and, when necessary, to purchase meat sourced from somewhat more sustainably raised animals at places like Whole Foods. I know that’s not the case for a lot of people and I would never say that those with limited means should make sacrifices to purchase more sustainably produced products.

However, when scientists like Dr. Terry Etherton at Penn State – part of Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff’s infamous Food Labeling Advisory Committee -- claims that people like me, who are concerned about the use of antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones in the source animals for our food supply, are just snake oil salesmen who are “anti-ag, anti-biotech, and anti-science … who use campaigns of misinformation and junk science to scare consumers,” I’d like to take information like this Hopkins study and smack him over the head with it.

There are unintended effects, Dr. Etherton, of the way the majority of animals for food productions are now raised in this country. And while you may see unlimited use of antibiotics and growth hormones as an important part of the solution, there are mounting data that say using them in such an irresponsible manner on massive factory farms may be creating more problems than they are solving.

At the moment, their use may make a T-bone or a pork tenderloin more affordable for Joe and Jane American, but in the not-so-distant future, it may mean increasing rates of infections with antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria or maybe increased rates of cancer. So if we’re going to debate the facts – which is what Dr. Terry Etherton says is the purpose of his blog -- let’s talk about all of them, not just a carefully defined subset.

As one funny and wise blogger once wrote: Just. Friggin’. Sayin’.

* Image from University of California

December 15, 2007

Scrapin’ Up the Bits: Bah-Humbug Style

I can’t really do it any justice, because I’m just not as familiar with the ins and outs of the Farm Bill as I’d otherwise like to be. But, I believe I can sum up the recent activities surrounding the Farm Bill in one sentence:

The Democrats are a bunch of craven, corrupt pieces of rotten (overfished) tuna who turned their backs on family farms and sustainable agriculture practices.

The Democrats failed to:

  • Place a meaningful cap on subsidies paid to already rich individuals who happen to operate a farm
  • For that matter, enact any sort of meaningful subsidy reform whatsoever
  • Prevent big meat packers from manipulating cattle prices
  • For that matter, enact any sort of meaningful reform to reign in Big Meat

What was it Dianne Feinstein said on the floor at one point after Democrats took majorities in both chambers? "Elections have consequences." Yes, apparently they do. Meaningless ones.

Let’s see, what other good news is there to report. Well, gee, wild salmon are headed toward extinction, clearly a positive development. And bluefin tuna — the tuna sashimi and nigiri so many sushi-eaters, including myself, love — aren’t far behind.

Been meaning to get to this, but Unbossed has THE LIST, that is, the list of members of the heretofore mysterious Labeling Advisory Committee convened by Pennsylvania Dept. of Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff to support his already-decided decision to force certain dairies to remove helpful language from their milk labels.

At some point, I’d love to dig into this list a little more, but, with the holidays upon us, the time just isn’t there right now.

I did notice that one committee member, Dr. Terry Etherton, has a blog on agriculture and biotechnology (he's clearly an unabashed proponent of the latter). His most recent post discusses the milk labeling issue. I wanted to leave a comment, but, alas, the “comment” function is disabled. This could be a Penn State-wide policy, since the blog appears to be hosted on the university’s Web site. But it isn’t real conducive to providing a forum for a discussion of the issues Dr. Etherton raises, including his criticisms of “countless [advocacy] groups who don’t care about the facts” because “[t]heir first priority is their agenda and raising funds to continue their campaigns of propaganda and false attacks.” Nice ad hominem attack there, Dr. Etherton.

Well, after all of this pleasant talk, the very least that can be done is to imagine something delicious, like chocolate truffles!

December 10, 2007

Hammin' It Up with the Ibericos

Courtesy of the New York Times, I saw last week that those living in the United States can now -- for the first time -- get their mitts on one of Spain’s most exquisite delicacies, Iberico hams.

These prized hams, which take more than two years to cure, are lush, almost mahogany-colored and deeply flavorful, streaked with creamy fat from the famous black-footed (pata negra) pigs of western Spain. Such luxury comes at a price. The ham will retail for more than $50 a pound.

In addition to being sold at high-end food shops, whole hams (boneless, about nine pounds; bone in, about 15 pounds) can be ordered from, with a deposit of $199.

The arrival of such a luscious-sounding style of cured pork product on American soil is true reason for celebration. But, as the Times article suggests, it may be a delicacy few will get to enjoy. In fact, the price for the whole 8.5-9 pound ham will be about $800. For those prices, it’s safe to presume that these hams will mostly end up in the kitchens of Spanish tapas restaurants, where a few paper-thin slices will probably run the price of an entrée. Why? Supply and demand, I suppose.

In the next few weeks, some restaurants and shops will serve and sell their allotments of the initial shipment of 300 hams from Embutidos Fermín, in La Alberca, Spain, the only producer that is authorized by the United States Department of Agriculture to export the hams here.

If the imports proceed without problems, more hams will arrive in coming months through Fermín USA, a partnership among Mr. Andrés, Embutidos Fermín and the Rogers Collection, a distributor.

Now, I happen to know one of the two fellows who run the Rogers Collection, and talked with him last year about these very hams. Getting all of the paperwork in order and coming into compliance with USDA regulations sounded like a formidable undertaking. I'm hoping to get some more details from him in the next few days about just how good these hams are and what restaurants or specialty stores will be offering it.

In a brief email exchange earlier this week, he didn’t comment on whether he thinks it's superior to Prosciutto de Parma. So, darn it, that’s something I guess I’ll have to investigate for myself next time I’m in D.C., probably in February. I can only hope that Jaleo, owned by famous D.C. chef José Andrés -- without whose help these delectable hams probably would not be available in the States -- will have some in stock so that I may gladly grossly overpay for some cured pork nirvana.

Or, even better, maybe the local -- and quite good -- Spanish restaurant Mallorca, or its adjoining tapas sister, Ibiza, will decide to hop on the Iberico wagon train. That's a call I suspect I'll be making very soon.

* Image from

Never Too Chilly for Chimichurri

Prior to this year, I had only had a true chimichurri — the famous Argentinean “sauce” for the country’s legendary grass-fed steaks and other meats -- once, at an Argentinean restaurant in Washington, D.C. It was good, but, to be honest, far from memorable.

Well, when we got some grass-fed beef earlier this summer, I wanted to try my hand at a chimichurri to accompany it. A quick Google brought me to a recipe by renowned Miami chef – and occasional guest on Top Chef – Michelle Bernstein. I made some modifications, which I included in brackets next to each ingredient. The results, given how simple the recipe is, were excellent. I made it again on Sunday to put on top of some small New York strip steaks from So’Journey Farms.

Nothing against the steaks, because they were very tender and quite delicious, but grass-fed is definitely a different taste than most Americans are used to. So some sort of sauce to tame the beef’s aggressive flavor is almost necessary, and this chimichurri is ideally suited to that purpose.

Traditional chimichurri

  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced [2 large garlic cloves; 4 just seems like WAY too much]
  • 2 tablespoons fresh oregano
  • 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper [1 heaping teaspoon]
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup of top-quality extra-virgin olive oil [Start with one-third cup and, if it seems to cover most of what you’ve got, you can stick with that]

Blend the parsley, vinegar, garlic, oregano, and crushed red pepper in a food processor until until smooth and then season with salt and pepper. Transfer the sauce to a bowl, pour in the olive oil, and let stand for at least 20 minutes.

December 5, 2007

Crostini for the Holidays

While laying in bed this afternoon, hoping that I just might be turning the corner on whatever this body-beating illness I have is, I caught the tail end of an old episode of “Molto Mario.” He was recreating a meal you would get at the Hotel Lancelloti in the Emilia-Romagna region, in northern Italy. Part of the meal included an array of crostini, or, as MM called them, crostini misti.

Occasionally we make what I guess would fall into the crostini category, a combination of a number of strongly flavored ingredients, but with roasted red peppers as the star. It has holiday-themed colors, and is really easy to make [Wish I had a picture. Made this just a few weeks ago and forgot to snap one. Doh!], so it's an ideal appetizer if you’ve got some friends coming over or as part of a small dinner party.

One important note: The measurements here are guesstimations of the highest order. The roasted red pepper, again, is the star, so should be the predominant component.

Roasted Red Pepper Crostini

  • 1 cup of roasted red peppers, roughly chopped
  • ½ cup of large, tender green olive, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of red onion, finely diced
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of capers, rinsed, drained, and roughly chopped
  • Two big swirls of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • A little salt and pepper
  • 1 fresh baguette, cut on the diagonal into half-inch slices

Preheat the oven to 325.

Combine the peppers through capers, swirl on the olive oil, add the salt and pepper, and lightly stir together with a spoon. Again, I typically wing this, so taste at this point and see what you think. Might need a little more of something or another. This is an easy preparation to remedy.

Put the bread slices on a baking pan, and toast in the oven for about 2-3 minutes, just enough to get lightly toasted, and then remove. Put a healthy spoonful of the red pepper mixture on each bread slice You don’t want to do this too early, or the bread will become soggy and fall apart while people try to eat.

December 3, 2007

Scrapin' Up the Bits, Bed-ridden style

Ahh, the holidays, time to decorate your house, buy some gifts, make merry, and, of course, come down with some dreaded sickness that leaves you flat on your back. So, a longer update on the milk label ordeal will be just a brief note, combined with some other odds and ends.

First, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was kind enough to print an op-ed I submitted on this subject in its Sunday “Forum” section. Aw, shucks. Considering that I usually write slightly more technical stuff, I was just honored to be considered.

Over at Chewswise, a post written before Gov. Rendell stepped in to put these regulations on hold, has some interesting tidbits, including this one comparing organic producers, which undergo formal inspections, and those who aren’t organic but are synthetic hormone free:

Conventional milk producers can issue legal affidavits about their practices under penalty of fraud. But Pennsylvania closed off this avenue by saying that such affidavits were now unacceptable as a basis for label claims.

Next, it’s been a little while, but we have two very deserving candidates for Fast Food Abomination of the Month. The winners are Wendy’s Jalapeno Cheddar Double Melt, which the chain reintroduced this week for a “limited time only.” Ah, yes, two beef patties, lots of gooey cheese, bacon, and a heaping helping of (undoubtedly canned) jalapenos. What is it the kids say, these days? Oh, yeah. OMG! Not to be outdone, Pizza Hut has introduced the Double Deep pizza, which has double the toppings and 50% more cheese.” This is not pizza. It’s acid reflux in a cardboard box.

And, lastly, because I think it’s time to go get horizontal again, the other night I made a favorite of ours, pan-roasted pork chops. Although they are fantastic on their own, decided to make a quick sauce. So after I pulled the chops from the oven, I

  • removed them from the pan and put the pan on a burner
  • added half cup each of white wine and chicken stock (yes, it was store bought! Sue me!)
  • cranked the heat up to high
  • Scraped up the bits on the pan
  • And let it reduce, about in half, which took about 5 minutes, stirring it here and there.
You want a sauce here, so be patient and let it reduce and thicken. It was excellent. Highly recommend this little bit of extra work. UPDATE: Ooops. Totally forgot. When the consistency was where I liked it, removed it from the heat and added about half-tablespoon of somewhat softened butter, lightly stirred it in, and then poured it over our wonderful pork chops from Wil-Den Farms.

November 30, 2007

Impromptu lunch

I work at home and most days eat lunch at home. At this point, I’ve found some frozen items that aren’t too shabby in terms of taste and healthful ingredients. One day about two weeks ago, the thought of eating anything that just a few minutes before had been frozen turned my stomach, a plain-Jane sandwich was something I just couldn't consider, and the few places in close proximity to my basement cave did not seem to justify the effort or cost.

So I opened the fridge and, with little hope, took a quick appraisal of what could pass for lunch. The (local, free-range) eggs (from Misera's) caught my eye. As did the tortillas. Light bulb: Breakfast Burrito, only... for lunch.

I quickly got to work. I finely diced a little onion, half a clove of garlic, and a little jalapeño left over from a prior meal for which its use was, in the end, not required. In the meats and cheeses drawer was a knob of smoked cheddar, so I cut up about a quarter-cups worth.

Then I beat two eggs, and added some salt and pepper, sauted the onion and garlic in a little butter until they were tender, added the jalapeño, gave it a minute, and then added the eggs. When they started to show signs of firmness, I added the cheese, gave it a minute or two to make the eggs cheesy, and finally nestled the whole thing into the tortilla, and shook on a few dashes of Cholula! (If only I’d had some cilantro!).

To drink, I cracked open a canned guava drink I got at the grocery store a few weeks ago. From no lunch to a delectable meal in about 15 minutes. Mangia!

November 29, 2007

Labeling Victory, for the Moment

In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Daniel Malloy reported yesterday that Gov. Ed Rendell has finally waded into the milk labeling fiasco, putting on hold the new rules banning claims like “hormone-free” on milk sold in Pennsylvania.

Chuck Ardo, press secretary for Mr. Rendell, said the governor's office heard complaints from elected representatives of rural districts and agriculture lobbyists, prompting the review.

That's right, y'all. Power to the people! ... For now, at least. There will be a delay of a few months while Rendell's office reviews things.

More on this topic soon.

November 27, 2007

Scrapin’ Up the Bits, Rock n’ Roll Style

First, a mea culpa. A few weeks ago, I was whining about how the cold weather would terminate my herb picking around our back patio, requiring serious alterations in my cooking activities. Well, I spoke a little too soon. Despite the generally cold weather, we’ve still been able to salvage fresh oregano (vinaigrette for greek dressing), tarragon (sauce for pan-seared scallops), and mint (Ziti with Tuscan-style cauliflower – Oh, Molto, I just can’t quit you!) — all in the last week! It’s not going to last too much longer, but it’s been a welcome surprise.

Second, the local protectors of the Fourth Estate, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, weigh in on the milk labeling fiasco.

Next, and in what appears to be a bona fide act of some supernatural being, the current administration has appointed a non-Crony to lead an important component of a federal agency. The extremely well-respected Dr. Brian Wansink from Cornell University has been selected to head the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the folks in charge of putting together the much-maligned food pyramid.

And, what, in my opinion, has been a long-time coming, the Food Network is ceasing production of “Emeril Live.” I haven’t watched Mr. Bam in years because I was going to scrape the skin off of my back with a zester if I saw Emeril play with his stove knobs one more time. But Ed Levine at Serious Eats gives Emeril some props.

Finally, but not lastly, for Tony Bourdain fans, be sure to check out the Dec. 10 episode of “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel. Tony’s special guests? Progressive rockers Queens of the Stone Age—the only band that could make only the lyrics “Nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol” into one incredibly kick-a@# song. Of course, the hippest mp3 blog on the planet, Stereogum, had this story like weeks ago.

November 20, 2007


Ever since we got The Babbo Cookbook a few years ago, I have wanted to make one recipe in particular: a porcini-rubbed rib-eye. It’s the kind of recipe that makes your eyes open wider and wider as you realize how easy it is and how delicious it could be. And, yet, I had never made it.

When we invited some friends over for a dinner party last weekend, that rib-eye was the first thing that popped into my head. And, I have to say, it did not disappoint. It was, as a good friend of mine is fond of saying, phenomenal. [Perhaps even better was the roasted red pepper soup with Sambuca cream, but that’s a tale for another post.]

Now, of course, some credit has to go the actual piece of meat. It was not – gasp – local. [I would likely have a hard time getting such a piece of meat from a local provider, at least on short notice, and, admittedly, the grass-fed beef I’ve had has a different, stronger flavor than what most people are used to, so I’d hate to spring that on dinner guests, at least the first time I am having them over.] It was, on the contrary, a nearly five-pound beauty that I purchased at Whole Foods.

And that five pounds complicated the matter a bit, because the original recipe called for a 28-ounce rib-eye to be grilled or broiled (as dinner for two), whereas I had something approximately three times bigger (meant to serve 8), which I had no doubt would prove tricky on a grill. To make grilling a little easier, we cut the beef in half. Even so, I ended up having to reduce the heat after the first few turns of the meat and then keep rotating every 4 or 5 minutes after the original rotations to keep any one side from getting charred. I pulled the meat off when the internal temp hit about 125 degrees – which took about 30 minutes -- and let it sit for not quite 10 minutes before my wife did an excellent job of slicing it up into 8 individual servings.

For our five pounds of beef, we tripled the rub recipe – except for the garlic, which, in my view, just seemed like a LOT of garlic (sorry to doubt you, Molto, but I have to trust my limited culinary instincts).

The recipe called for topping the final, sliced product with drizzles of top quality balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil. I had seen, however, another pan-fried rib-eye recipe that topped the beef with a quick balsamic reduction. So I went that course instead. In the end, in the rush of finalizing the meal, I didn’t reduce the balsamic enough, so it wasn’t very syrupy, but it still added a nice bit of complexity to the final product.

The original recipe, with some slight modifications and notes, is below. Scale up, or down, as you see fit, and enjoy!

Porcini Dry Rubbed Rib-Eye

  • 2 tablespoons of sugar
  • 3-5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of crushed red pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of freshly ground black pepper
  • Quarter to half-ounce of dry porcini mushrooms, ground to a powder (spice grinder is probably preferable method)
  • ¼ cup of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 28-ounce rib-eye steak

Combine the sugar through the olive oil until it forms a paste. [NOTE: The original recipe says to combine until it forms “a thick, fairly dry paste,” which would explain why it’s called a “dry-rubbed” rib-eye. The paste I made, on the other hand, was actually quite wet. The end result was, again, excellent, but the wetness of my rub/marinade may have been part of the reason I had to tend to the meat so carefully on the grill. So you might want to start with a little less olive oil at first and then maybe add more as you see fit.] Coat the steak all over with the rub, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 12-24 hours.

Remove the steak from the packaging and scrape off the excess marinade with a paper towel. Preheat the grill and cook on the hottest part for 6 minutes per side (which, in this case, is four sides, not two). Cook to 120-125 for medium-rare, remove and let it sit for 10 minutes. REMEMBER, it will keep cooking after you take it off the grill, so if you like it medium rare, no more than 125 degrees max.

Slice against the grain and top with a quick drizzle of very good balsamic and extra-virgin olive oil, or, as I mentioned above, a balsamic reduction.

November 19, 2007

Milk “Label-Gate” Update – Eggs, and Hopefully a Lawsuit, Are Next

To be honest, I’m surprised that this story has managed to maintain any traction. Heck, on Sunday morning, one of the local news channels even managed to squeeze in a 2-minute segment on it between the weather and a story about some guy who kicked the snot out of a neighbor who had broken into his house.

And even more surprising was that a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) representative actually called in response to an email I sent expressing my dismay with this decision.

First, the highlights of my talk with Bill Sherdan (can’t confirm this is the correct spelling – amazingly, I forgot to ask how you spell his name!) from the PDA’s Food Safety & Laboratory Services division. To be honest, the volume of my voice was a tad-bit raised at times. I’m used to writing about complex subjects and I don’t like somebody trying to spin me under the guise of, “This is complex and you just don’t fully understand it,” which is how I felt this discussion went at times.

  • Mr. Sherdan said repeatedly that there is no difference between milk produced from cows shot up with rbGH and those that haven’t. Why? Mostly because there’s no test to find rbGH in milk. This latter point, according to this excellent and very timely report from the dairy industry publication The Milkweed, is fairly scandalous. Normal FDA regulations typically require that a “residue assay” be developed in a situation where a company is potentially altering a product that will end up in humans via the introduction of another substance – in this case, a synthetic hormone. For some reason, this was not required when the FDA approved rbGH in 1993!
  • Second, he argued that dairy farmers are using it, so we should just shut up and let them do it. This is close to verbatim. “Farmers are saying, ‘We don’t care. We know it’s safe and we’re going to use it.” Except for the ones who aren't, of course. And, these days, that's a lot of them.
  • He tried to use the argument that cows normally produce hormones in their milk, so saying “hormone-free” is misleading. This made me want to curse, loudly.
  • And, finally, I noted that other products in the grocery-store are labeled as hormone-free, like meat, poultry, and pork, and asked whether they were next. He said, frighteningly enough, that eggs were most likely the next thing to come under the scrutiny of PDA and this mysterious Food Labeling Advisory Committee. The slippery slope indeed!

Two other things of note. Mr. Sherdan said that PDA staff met with representatives from York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Dairy, which has been vocal about its opposition to this decision. I don’t blame them! Rutter’s received approval from the PDA in August 2007 – a whopping three months ago – to use a new label that proclaimed its milk free of artificial growth hormones. A decision they then, of course, reversed a whole two months later.

During the meeting, Mr. Sherdan said, PDA staff encouraged Rutter’s to “tell their story” about their product, using the back part of the label. I don’t know if this means they can still say their product is hormone-free, however. But there does appear to be some truth to what Mr. Sherdan told me:

The Rutter's officials called the meeting "productive" and said they hope the exchange will lead to a common ground that will allow Rutter's to continue with its current labeling, or similar labeling.

Meanwhile, it sounds like some legal action could be in the future. Earl Fink, of the Pennsylvania Association of Milk Dealers (which doesn’t have a Web site!), tells the Pittsburgh Tribune Review they may sue to prevent the new rules from taking effect.

[Fink’s] organization is talking with state agriculture officials to work out more acceptable labeling requirements, but it is one of many state and national groups (emphasis added) planning to sue to stop the ban from going into effect, he said.

"The labels are allowed in 49 other states," he said. Processors would have to have Pennsylvania-specific labels and face increased costs in separate inventories and by rearranging delivery routes, he said.

This is what really pisses me off: Are financial and logistical realities going to prevent the smaller dairies/companies that provide hormone-free, antibiotic-free products from doing so in Pennsylvania because of this change?

I have also been in contact with the folks at the Campaign for Safe Food and they apparently are about to take some "action" on this issue, although it's unclear at this point whether that's a lawsuit or something else.

It's important to make something very clear: I am not a tin-foil hat kind of guy. I don’t see conspiracies around every corner and, after more than a decade as a medical/science writer, am extremely skeptical of claims that, for example, say cell phone use causes brain cancer or that drinking pomegranate juice is going to prevent Alzheimer’s.

All of this said, since I have started investigating this issue, it seems that valid concerns have been raised about whether milk from rbGH-treated cows has potential risks for humans who consume that milk. This is particularly true with regard to what rbGH does to levels of the protein known as IGF-1 in a cow’s milk. In well-conducted studies published in leading peer-reviewed journals, this protein has been linked to some of the most common cancers, including breast and prostate cancer. It also turns out that IGF-1 is molecularly identical in cows and humans – it has the exact same amino acid sequence. And, in its own studies to support FDA approval of rbGH, Monsanto showed that IGF-1 levels were significantly higher in treated cows versus untreated cows.

Along those same lines, a 2002 study out of Harvard by a highly-respected group linked dairy consumption to higher IGF-1 levels. Now this result came with the entirely appropriate disclaimer that “more research must be done to determine whether milk consumption itself is directly linked to cancer risk."

The problem is, nobody at the FDA seems to be very keen on conducting this research. They’d rather just stick with the language they used when they approved rbGH in 1993 – no difference in the milk from an rbGH-treated cow and a non-rbGH-treated cow.

Of course, they are saying this. Imagine the furor if they even intimated they were now uncertain. They’d have to admit that the original decision – and the research they based it on – was a little shaky! They’d be giving the impression that perhaps children and adults are everyday consuming dairy products – thanks to that government-subsidized “Got Milk?” campaign - that could potentially increase their risk of disease, including the big C. It would be a PR nightmare of remarkable proportions.

So, instead, they do nothing.

Finally, to get back to the whole BS reasoning PDA Sec. Dennis Wolff and his Food Labeling Advisory Committee used to justify this decision: The labels are misleading. When a somewhat similar discussion around milk and rbGH came up in Maine in 2003, Dr. Michael Hansen, from the Consumer’s Union (home to Consumer Reports), sent a letter to the Maine State Attorney General that laid out some of the scientific concerns I cited above. But Dr. Hansen also made this excellent point:

Monsanto also argues that the ads “mislead consumers by creating the false impression that milk is somehow better if it is produced without the use of rBST. Indeed, these claims falsely suggest that there are health or safety risks associated with milk from rBST-supplemented cows.”

We do not necessarily believe that a truthful label—such as “from farms that pledge not to use artificial growth hormone” or “Our Farmers’ Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones”—always leads to the conclusion that milk from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones is “safer or superior to non-supplemented milk.” While some consumers may draw such a conclusion from these ads, others may not. Indeed, if such labels are considered to mislead consumers, then, by the same logic, labels such as “contains no artificial flavoring or colorings” or “contains no preservatives” would also be considered to mislead consumers. Yet no one has suggested that such labels should be banned.

November 16, 2007

Scrapin' Up the Bits, Gnocci style

One of my favorite meals growing up was gnocci, or, what we incorrectly called cavatelli (which is made from flour- or ricotta-based dough, not potato-based). It was a little chewy, but not gummy, and had far more personality than plain-old dried pasta. It also seemed to elevate my mother's red sauce to new flavor heights.

I know for a fact
that my mom makes her gnocci with instant potatoes, which might cause some bona fide foodies and Eye-talians to curse loudly and then cross themselves over and over again. This approach by Paula Wolfert sounds like a lot of work, but she swears that it's worth it. I’m game.

The Farm Bill ain't goin' nowehere any time soon, it appears. I think this may be a good thing. All reports I've read is that there is still way too much money in the form of subsidies for big agribusinesses and others who don't need it, not enough for conservation and for promoting diversification of crops, instead of just a gajillion acres of corn and soy. Maybe this will open up a new avenue to getting this stuff fixed?

We’re all going to be paying a bit more for our Thanksgiving dinners this year. Which isn't good news, especially considering how many people are struggling to feed their families.

This is what it means to get pastured eggs from a local provider. I’d pay an extra $5 to get one of those notes!

Stephen Hedges at the Chicago Tribune continues to do an excellent job of reporting on meat safety. His latest stunner: the sale of “cook-only” beef. Reassuring, eh?

Finally, I don’t like to hear these kinds of things about beer. I already spend quite a bit on beer, and we seriously don’t even drink that much! A hops shortage? Now we HAVE to do something about global warming. This just isn’t right.

November 14, 2007

Milk Labeling Shenanigans

Man, this stinks like, well, rotten milk! About a week before Halloween, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture announced that, as of January 1, it is no longer going to allow dairy products sold in Pennsylvania to indicate on the label that they are “hormone-free” or “antibiotic free.”

The rationale behind the move -- which was reportedly made in concert with a 22-member Food Labeling Advisory Committee composed of “dietitians, consumer advocates and food industry representatives” – is that the labels are misleading. Oh, and as the PA Dept. of Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff explains, these products also tend to cost more.

Here is the money quote:

“Consumers rely upon the labeling of a product to make decisions about what they buy and what to feed their families,” said Wolff. “The department must approve the labels for milk sold in Pennsylvania and we’re seeing more and more marketing that is making it hard for consumers to make informed decisions.” (emphasis mine)

Um, Denny, if I may call you that (I’d like to call you something else right now), you know what helps me make informed decisions? Knowing what is being done to the cows from which the milk my kids are drinking or the yogurt I am eating comes. To me, Denny, it’s important to know that the cows are not being pumped full of synthetic growth hormone produced by the chemical giant Monsanto so each cow can produce an extra gallon of milk a day. And, Denny, it’s apparently important to a lot of other people, as well, otherwise companies like Kroger and Starbucks wouldn’t be making the switch to only synthetic hormone-free products.

It’s also important to me because, when I use the Google, I find out little bits of disturbing information, like the fact that Canada and Europe have banned the use of this growth hormone, rGBH, in cattle there. And that decision was made based on research performed by Canadian and European researchers which turned up some disturbing findings:

After more than nine years of study that took into account the findings of two independent advisory panels, Health Canada (the FDA's Canadian counterpart) made the decision to ban the hormone, citing greatly increased health risks to cows and potential health risks for humans exposed to rBGH. Canadian researchers reported that "long-term toxicology studies to ascertain human safety" must be conducted, as their research indicated that rbGH may cause "sterility, infertility, birth defects, cancer and immunological derangements" in humans. Other recent studies, as reported in the Journals Science (1/23/98) and The Lancet (5/9/98) have linked IGF-I (Insulin-like Growth Factor), high levels of which are present in milk produced with rbGH, to much increased incidence of prostate and breast cancer.

Now, from the quick reading I have done, the science here is far from settled. FDA researchers, in what is now an apparently famous – or infamous, depending on who you ask – paper published in the highly respected journal Science in 1990, concluded that use of this hormone in dairy cattle would not lead to dairy products that are dangerous to humans.

But this paper had some serious flaws:

Among the findings, the agency said that the rbGH in the milk of injected cows was degraded by commercial pasteurization. The sole research cited for this claim was that of a Canadian graduate student, whose master's thesis studied the feeding of rbGH-derived milk to calves (not humans). This study erroneously heated milk for 30 minutes at the 15-second pasteurization temperature.

So, again, it seems safe to say that, despite having been approved by U.S. federal regulators for use in cattle, there are serious concerns that have been raised by some pretty smart people about the use of these hormones.

Which brings us back to the main point here: making informed decisions.

There are dairy companies that go through extraordinary efforts to provide a product that consumers want, a product that they purchase because they think it is potentially safer, or because they don’t agree with pumping cows full of hormones that make them sick, which means they need lots of antibiotics so they don’t die, or perhaps for some other reasons.

In our house, we strictly buy milk from Organic Valley, which, in our nearby Giant Eagle, is more expensive than the other milk products they have. We consider the added expense – which, admittedly, isn’t as big as an imposition for our family as it might be for others – well worth it. The label on Organic Valley milk boxes says “Produced without antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or pesticides,” all three of which Uncle Denny cited as potentially “misleading” terms on milk labels.

One Pennsylvania dairy, Rutter’s, did receive a warning letter, according to this USA Today report, and is fighting back.

Rutter's Dairy Inc., a central Pennsylvania company that sells about 300,000 gallons a week, began promoting its milk as free of artificial hormones this summer. It has fired back at the state decision with full-page newspaper ads and a lobbying campaign. It is also urging customers to protest.

"We just think the consumers are more keenly aware in today's world about where their food comes from and how their food is manufactured or handled," said Rutter's President Todd Rutter.

Rutter’s has made it easy for you to contact your state legislator to complain about this unwarranted decision.

Mark A. Kastel from the Cornucopia Institute -- a great organization and dairy industry watchdog that produced this fantastic report last year on which dairies really live up to the organic standard (Organic Valley – 4 cows out of 5!) and which are just factory farm organic phonies (Horizon – 1 cow, barely!) – told me via email that his organization has been working with others in Pennsylvania to respond to this action, and will be putting out an alert urging Pennsylvanians to contact Gov. Rendell about it.

So, let’s review, shall we:

An unelected state official convenes an advisory board to fix something that he has provided no evidence to support is broken. This was done with no public hearings, no scientifically valid surveys to measure whether consumers actually are being misled, and singles out dairy products, despite the fact that as of January 1, I’ll still be able to go buy beef, pork, and poultry at Giant Eagle under it’s “Nature’s Basket” brand that has the very same misleading claims on its label. Well, that seems… really freaking stupid and, if I might don my little tin foil hat, very suspicious.

To wit, one question that cannot help but be asked is what role Monsanto or big dairy operations played in bringing this issue to the forefront of Mr. Wolff’s agenda.

Monsanto, which reportedly has seen the sales of rgBH slide dramatically, has tried to get federal regulations enacted that would prohibit this very same type of labeling. That effort has stalled. But it’s amazing to see the similarities between Mr. Wolff’s statements and those of Monsanto:

[Monsanto’s] letter to the FTC outlines deceptive advertising and milk promotions that mislead consumers…


“Deceptive labels suggest to consumers that there is something wrong with the milk they have been drinking for the past 13 years. Even though the companies that print these labels know this is not true, they choose to mislead consumers in an effort to charge more money for the same milk."

So, with federal efforts failing, is this the beginning of a state-by-state effort? Has Mr. Wolff or other members of the PA Department of Agriculture met with Monsanto officials or any firms who represent them? Who was on this Food Labeling Advisory Committee? Who selected the members to be on it? Was there any consultation with the Governor’s office before this decision was made?

I’m planning on submitting these questions to the Department. Something stinks in the Keystone State, and its origins are in Harrisburg.

November 12, 2007

The Terrace Is Closed

I was in the swamplands of Washington, D.C., last week for work, and met a friend for dinner at Tako Grill, a great sushi place in Bethesda (Md.) and, conveniently enough, just a few blocks from my hotel. Before dinner, I walked by a favorite restaurant from our past life, Café Europa. Curtains cloaked the windows. It was closed. For good.

As one-time regulars at Café Europa (in our pre-children days), we got to know the owner, Jack. In the spring and summer, my wife and I often would walk to the restaurant from our one-bedroom condo -- or after catching a movie at our usual theater in Dupont Circle -- for a late meal on the terrace (or, in the guise of Jack’s accent, “tear-AUS,”). Once there, we would slowly consume a bottle of wine, with a simply prepared piece of fish, ravioli with rock shrimp in a saffron-laced cream sauce, or, one particular meal that has always stood out, flank steak with a creamy mustard sauce. Often Jack would bring us a limoncello to have with our desert -- on the house -- and sit down for a brief chat.

A native of France (Toulouse, I believe), Jack could never be confused for a businessman. He initially was a co-owner, but his partner, who I’m fairly certain led the shop when it came to the financial and other managerial aspects of the restaurant, left after a few years to take over an Italian-American restaurant in the Virginia suburbs of D.C. where he had once been a manager. It was a successful restaurant, I remember Jack telling me, gently suggesting that his partner had, in effect, opted to take a step down in cuisine—lots of pasta and red sauce, little else—for the security of a tried and true business.

Even before this parting of the ways, though, Café Europa had an unsettling existence. Weekend business was typically brisk, although not overflowing like many nearby restaurants, but getting eaters into its cozy confines during the week was clearly a challenge, as was attracting younger diners, who tend to eat and, cha-ching, drink more.

The turning point, when things went from troublesome to terrifying, arrived in the form of a retail rejuvenation of a three-block neighborhood of Bethesda just a mile or so away from Café Europa. In went a new stadium-style movie theater and a host of new restaurants with plenty of bar space, including several family-friendly places with good food.

This portion of Bethesda also was an easier walk from the Metro, had a huge Barnes & Noble always buzzing with lots of customers, and, at the time, in the dawning days of the new decade, more condos and townhouses in close proximity, housing well-off singles and young families with lots of expendable income.

Suddenly, the foot traffic in “Bethesda triangle,” as the portion of Bethesda where Café Europa resides is called, began to drop off. More and more restaurants — and there were many from which to choose — had a disturbing number of empty tables on weeknights and perhaps only a full house for the first seating on weekends. In the matter of a year or two, spring and summer nights in “the triangle” went from bustling to barely breathing (it’s since been revived, with the arrival of many new luxury condos and the addition of even more, including some very well-reviewed, restaurants).

Jack tried various remedies: updating the menu (although probably not enough – it was, truth be told, never a very exciting menu); getting rid of the brick-oven pizzas; bringing back the brick-oven pizzas; reinvigorating the interior with new tables and seductive lighting (Jack had made some of the original tables himself) and the exterior with stark red awnings that proclaimed “crepes” “steak” “pasta;” sinking a huge chunk of change into adding a swanky lounge, with live jazz on the weekends.

But nothing seemed to work. From its earliest days, there were problems with the service, something that plagued Café Europa ‘til its end. I believe there were issues with some temperamental chefs, including a soup chef who was too drunk to make it in one busy Saturday night when we were there. I know that friends and colleagues who had eaten there complained about the food being uneven, although I can honestly say that most of our meals there during the years were quite good.

The stress of trying to keep the restaurant afloat clearly got to Jack. The last few times I saw him, he was slightly drunk and overwrought by stress, running his hands through his hair as he recounted the latest attempts to revive the business. “I don’t know, you know,” he would say, mashing a hand through his thinning black hair as if he couldn’t push hard enough.

The very last time I spoke with him he was clearly inebriated. "Let me tell you something, I think I just made a huge mistake," he said, as I sipped a Bombay and tonic at the lounge bar, not quite sure what was about to follow. He had sold his condo in Bethesda and, using money he took out of the restaurant, had bought a house in Chevy Chase, where the lowest range of any house is at least $1 million. He wasn't even sure why he had done it.

The red awnings were still there when I walked by last week. A small orange sign in the window indicated that the new inhabitant of the corner of St. Elmo and Norfolk would be a sushi restaurant, which was in the process of getting its liquor license.

Despite all of its troubles, Café Europa made a respectable run of it. It lasted for approximately 8 years by my count, which in the kill or be-roasted world of Bethesda restaurants, is no easy task. The owners of this new sushi joint should hope to be as fortunate.

Cheers, Jack. Thanks for the meals and memories.

November 9, 2007

Scrapin' Up the Bits, Quickie Style

Been on business travel, so some quick hits…

First, top of my Christmas wish list: Michael Pollan’s new book, due out in January.

Second, New York Times had an article earlier this week about the growing interest in “food science” and chefs using chemicals and such to do fun, funky things with their foie gras. Um, eh, not so… appealing. Maybe it’s just me.

Third, get yerself a turkey from a local farm this year. I’ll bet a six-pack of Anchor Merry Christmas Happy New Year that it will be one of the best you’ve ever had.

And lastly, if you never had one, make it a point in your life to get a Peruvian-style roast chicken. There are many Peruvian chicken places in the D.C. area. Had some from one such place, Crisp & Juicy, for lunch on Friday. With, of course, yucca fries and fried plantains. That stuff brings out the inner-Homer in me: Oooohhhhh.

November 5, 2007

The Beef Recalls Hit Close to Home

Ah, yes, it’s just not a good week any more unless there is a massive recall of some fine bovine. And this time, it’s infected our local grocery gargantuan, Giant Eagle.

Several hundred thousand pounds of ground beef sold at Giant Eagle outlets last month may be contaminated with potentially deadly bacteria, company officials announced Saturday.


The meat processor, Kansas-based Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., announced a voluntary 10-state recall yesterday of more than 1 million pounds of possibly tainted ground meat, the second time in less than a month that Cargill voluntarily recalled suspect beef.

Cargill, of course, is an Agribusiness monstrosity. Reportedly there are no sicknesses that launched the recall. It came about as a result of testing.

Giant Eagle spokesman Rob Borella said that ground beef products now on the company's shelves are safe.

Borella said the affected products would have been found in the self-service counters, not at the butcher's counter.

In fact, most of the recalled beef came in the form of pre-made patties—pre-made by the “manufacturer.” The same was the case with the 22 million pounds of beef recalled in late September/early October by the now-defunct Topps Meat Co. UPDATE: Apparently the recall isn't yet quite complete:

State inspectors said Wednesday they have found more boxes of potentially tainted meat on store shelves more than a month after a nationwide recall of Topps frozen hamburgers.

Over the past few weeks, 141 boxes of Topps burgers have been found at 12 stores, all in northern New Jersey except for one in Gloucester City in Camden County, the state Division of Consumer Affairs said.

We do purchase some beef and chicken at Giant Eagle. In the last year, the majority of the pork we eat has come from a local farm, Wil-Den Family Farms. When we do buy any type of meat at Giant Eagle, it’s always the “Nature’s Basket” brand, which is advertised in pamphlets at the store as hormone-free, antibiotic-free and fed an all-vegetarian diet, which can include both grass and grains.

I called Giant Eagle to see if the Nature’s Basket branded beef is processed in the same Cargill facilities as the recalled beef. I was told by a Giant Eagle representative that it was not. The representative went on to explain that:

  • The Nature’s Basket beef all comes from farms in Kansas operated under the name of Star Ranch. These farms used to be operated by a former powerhouse of the beef industry, IBP Inc., but that company was swallowed up by another Agribusiness giant, Tyson, in 2001. [Interestingly enough, Tyson tried to back out of its purchase of IBP and was sued by the company, a lawsuit IBP won, meaning Tyson had to complete the purchase. Tyson officials later were sued by IBP, with IBP saying Tyson executives had lied about why they tried to back out of the deal. Tyson won that case.]
  • There is no intermingling of these “natural” cattle and more traditionally raised cattle during processing -- they are processed on separate lines.

Some more digging shows that Tyson added this line of “Natural” meats in January 2006. Not long after, if my memory is correct, the Nature’s Basket beef started showing up in our local Giant Eagle, displacing the Coleman “natural” beef products.

I was talking with my wife about the recall and she said, “Why do you think all of these recalls are happening now?” And it seems safe to conclude that we’ve reached a tipping point in this country when it comes to protecting public health in general, whether it be food or toys or the environment.

The current administration does not believe in regulation and has been slowly tearing apart federal regulatory bodies of all sorts, appointing former industry people to head regulatory agencies that oversee the industries from which the appointees came. It’s gotten to the point where the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission—which is tasked with overseeing the safety of things like toys, you know, those ones lovingly coated with all of that lead paint—pleaded with Congress to vote down legislation that would have given the CPSC more money, authority, and inspection staff!

While I am somewhat reassured by what I learned about the Nature’s Basket products at Giant Eagle, it’s hard not to be concerned about any beef coming from a large USDA-inspected facility, particularly those run by the industry giants. After all, it took the USDA 18 days – that’s right nearly 3 weeks – to decide that the aforementioned Topps should announce a recall of potentially E. coli tainted frozen beef patties. Again, Topps, until it folded up shop last month, was one of the largest beef suppliers in the country.

And then there are the recent reports about overworked, understaffed USDA meat inspectors.

USDA inspectors visit about 6,000 food-production facilities, but some are so large that they require several inspectors. From April to June of this year, inspectors examined 34 million "livestock carcasses" and condemned 54,546 of them, according to FSIS records. For poultry, the numbers jump to an astounding 2.3 billion carcasses inspected and 11 million condemned animals. …

The legal requirements for inspections, combined with a reduced force, mean that the inspection goals have not been met for years, according to inspectors. They say the workload is unrealistic, reducing their duties to cursory checks of company records, not the physical examination of meat, poultry and eggs.

Well, it’s all a bit worrisome, eh? Here’s probably a good new rule of thumb to be taken away from these recalls – you’re at a picnic or somebody’s house and you see some thin, perfectly shaped burgers on the grill, pretend you’re on a diet. Otherwise, you might get a cheeseburger with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and just a hint of deadly bacteria.

October 30, 2007

Brown-butter, Baby

Well, the first frosts of the year have arrived. And while I’m happy – elated, actually -- finally to see some colder weather, it’s hard to come to grips with what that frost means: bye-bye fresh herbs. Walking my son out to the bus stop this morning, I saw black, shriveled up leaves on a plant that just a few weeks ago I used to make the last of the summer pesto.

It’s really an awful feeling to know that I can no longer walk out to my patio with a pair of scissors and snip off a mitt full of thyme, some long threads of oregano or tarragon, a few petals of basil, or a small sampling of sage.

What the frost means is that how we cook, or what we’re able to cook, changes dramatically. Combined with end of our CSA season next week – the topic for a whole ‘nother post of dread that I’m nowhere near mentally prepared to start writing – no longer can we make decisions on the fly about how we’re going to sauce that pasta, season that chicken, make that vinaigrette.

It means having to know exactly what you want to cook, because the herbs we have at our disposal are limited to what we remembered to buy at the grocery store. And that assumes, of course, that the herbs in those little plastic packs are actually still good by the time I want to use them.

The cup-half-full folks might say that the situation forces you to step out of the usual routine, use the abundance of spices that are available even in most standard grocery stores these days to make meals you’ve never made before, to experiment with new cuisines.

And that’s true. But that’s something we already do. It doesn’t make up for the immediacy of stepping out my back door to pick some mint and cilantro, dice it up, whisk it together with some oil, salt, pepper, or other herbs and use it as a rub on some chicken thighs. It doesn’t compensate for those missing flavors that for many months now have been available on a whim.

And so it was, with what ended up being the last of our back-patio sage, I made a real favorite meal of ours – and perhaps the quickest and easiest of any dinners we make. All it takes is some quality ravioli or tortellini (especially if it’s stuffed with pumpkin or butternut squash or maybe gorgonzola, which is what we had last night) that you only need to boil in water for 10 minutes or so to cook through, a good bit of butter, and, of course, some fresh sage.

Ravioli in a Brown-Butter Sage Sauce

  • 1 lb of ravioli, tortellini, similar “pocket”-type pasta that only needs to be boiled in water to cook
  • 4-5 tablespoons of butter
  • 6-8 sage leaves, torn in half
  • Salt and pepper
  • Big splash of balsamic vinegar
  • Grated parmesan cheese

Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Melt the butter in a large pan over medium-high heat, let it go for a few minutes, stirring it a little to get it to foam. Add the sage, salt, and pepper and stir; cook until the butter starts to brown a bit. Remove pan from the heat, add a good sized splash (a splash, not a guzzling pour) of balsamic vinegar, and add the pasta to the pan, toss and coat, and then add the parmesan, toss and coat some more.

I’ve seen recipes that call for adding lemon juice at the end – which I would advise against if using balsamic -- or topping the pasta with some toasted walnuts.

UPDATE: While the basil quickly succumbed to the frost, and the sage is not fairing very well, the tarragon, mint, and oregano are still hangin' in there. In fact, I used some tarragon last night in an excellent tomato soup. Recipe soon.

October 26, 2007

Scrapin’ Up the Bits, Locals-Do-Well Style

NPR provides an update on the Farm Bill and a concise overview of its main components, or “titles” in legislative geek speak. Meanwhile, burghpunk over at Daily Kos gives a rousing summary of the importance of the Conservation title.

Speaking of the Farm Bill, a big part of the debate on it often centers around subsidies for corn. The excellent environmental blog Grist, which often produces some very insightful pieces on food and food policy by Tom Philpott, has an interview between the aforementioned Mr. Philpott and two representatives from two organizations who, in many respects, represent "Big Corn." The intro to the interview is enough to make the average person dirty his or her pants...

According to the U.S. Grains Council, the U.S. produces about 44 percent of the globe's corn crop -- that's more than China, the European Union, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico combined. Iowa alone, which produces a sixth of U.S. corn, produces about as much as the European Union.


[Corn] covers fully a fifth of U.S. cropland, far more than any other crop. It draws more subsidies than any other crop, too. According to the Environmental Working Group, the U.S. government paid corn farmers $51.2 billion between 1995 and 2005 -- more than the outlays for the next two most-subsidized crops combined (cotton and wheat) and nearly three times more than the amount spent on the Conservation Reserve Program over the same period.
Some interesting stuff in Wednesday’s NY Times Dining & Wine section:
  • One of the Times’ most emailed articles/blog posts this week has been 5 Easy Ways to Go Organic. As has been pointed out by many people, just because something’s organic doesn’t mean it hasn’t left a substantial environmental footprint to arrive at your grocery store. Same goes for locally produced food. Man it can be confusing trying to be a responsible eater.
  • Back in our D.C. days, a favorite meal at one of our regular – and, sadly, defunct – restaurants, The Fairmont Café, was lobster and mashed potatoes. I can still taste those chunks of lobster coated in buttery mashed potatoes ("Drool clean up on laptop keyboard, pronto!"). The Minimalist suggests trying something similar, but with a less costly piece of fish.

National props for some local establishments, including to Penn Brewery for proving once again that its hefeweizen is da’ finest in all o’ the land, and Bona Terra in Sharpsburg – where, gasp!, I have yet to eat – which Gourmet magazine has named one of the country’s finest farm-to-table restaurants.

October 22, 2007

Shrimp O'Rama

Great Moments in The Simpsons’ History:

Cap’n McAllister: Ahoy, mateys! Had your fill of tacos? Would ye sooner eat a bilge rat than another burger? Then come for all-you-can-eat seafood at the Fryin’ Dutchman!

Homer: Marge, we’re going to that restaurant.

Marge: But I think I’m allergic to seafood. The last time I ate shrimp, my throat closed up, and I went into convulsions.

Homer: Mmmmmm…shrimp.

Speaking of shrimp, came across these two appealing shrimp recipes and thought I’d share the bounty. Have not made either, so can’t vouch for their quality. Read them and see what you think.

Shrimp Risotto, courtesy of Leite’s Culinaria, an interesting, but, IMO, strange site. Launched by well-known food writer (how do you become one of those?!) David Leite, this site is not a blog, not a news site, something altogether different. Whether that’s a good thing, I can’t tell.

From Food & Wine comes a Curried Shrimp and Carrot Bouillabaisse. Now, I’ve never made a bouillabaisse. Heck, for that matter, I’ve never eaten one! According to FoodGeeks.Com – which is not to be confused with the Grumpy Beer Geek, not that you would make such an error – it’s made with lots of different kinds of fresh fish. It guess it's a French version of a cioppino. In either case, I would guess that soup purists might take offense at this recipe being called a bouillabaisse. Me. Not so much. If it tastes good, you can call it crap stew and I’ll eat it.

And, finally, Curried Coconut Shrimp on Rice Noodles. I posted this in July, but it seems worth pimping in a post about shrimp. It’s not the easiest recipe, but the end result is quite good.