September 26, 2009

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Backyard Chicken style

Jumping right into it...

Jill Richardson at La Vida Locavore does some reading and signals the warning bells about farm-raised shrimp:

As the shrimp grow, the water is treated with pesticides and more piscicides, but by far the gravest area of concern is the use of antibiotics to ward off disease. Acutely toxic to other marine organisms, they can cause contact dermatitis in the shrimp farm employees who administer them. When the plug is pulled on the ponds at the end of the growing season, hundreds of pounds of shrimp remain marinating in the toxic mud at the bottom, and pickers have to be hired to scoop up the stranded shrimp. ...

The adulteration of shrimp does not end at the pond... shrimp are routinely soaked in a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate, or STPP, a suspected neurotoxicant, still legal in the United States, that prevents seafood from drying out in transit and boosts product weight. Borax, best known as a hand cleaner and insecticide, is used to preseve the color of shrimp in some countries. The most unscrupulous countries use caustic soda to chemically burn tiger shrimp a customer-pleasing pink.

I only buy wild-caught fish these days, including shrimp, but eating fish has truly become a hazardous thing on a number of levels. It's really sad.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Richardson responds to a question about whether wild-caught is all right. Her reply: "wild-caught is bad environmentally (it's caught via trawling and 90% of the catch is other species, killed and thrown away)." I'd like to confirm if this is the case everywhere, including in the Gulf.

On another serious note, have you seen these "smart choices" labels on various food items? I'm vaguely aware of them. Not surprisingly, they don't really mean much.

The criteria deciding which products are “better for you” were set by a panel of representatives from companies such as Kellogg’s, Con Agra and Kraft, as well as independent scientists from health organizations and Academia.

However, something strange must have happened in those criteria-setting meetings, if the result was a seal of approval for Froot Loops and other uber-sweet products. Fruit Loops is 41% sugar by weight, contains a rainbow of artificial colorings, and some trans-fat to boot.

Long story short, some folks who realized the "smart choices" were kind of dumb, got together, put some pressure on other signatories to the "smart choices" program, and those signatories, like the American Diabetes Association, are now leaving the program. They are deserving of a Stewie-style "Victory is Mine!"

Ever thought about raising chickens. In video form, writer Susan Orleans gives you the low-down.

We ate at one of LBoN's favorite places in the world, Dinette, over the weekend. Had a pizza with roasted eggplant and "Salsa Di Canella" on it. The salsa was, in effect, the sauce, and its flavor reminded me of garam masala. Our server said it did indeed have some of the same ingredients in garam masala. It was delectable. And now I'm thinking that it might be a good idea to roast some eggplant, throw it in the food processor with a little oil, some garam masala, some type of herb, and put it on some crostini type things.

I think I made one formal request, via email. But I don't like to be pushy. So perhaps I'll beg:

Please, China Millman, add a link to LBoN to First Bites' "food blogs" list.

For beer and Halloween freaks, Rogue has a special growler-sized edition of Dead Guy Ale that reportedly grows in the dark. You can pick one up, along with Oktoberfest and a multitude of pumpkin ales, at 3 Sons Dogs & Suds.

And, finally, I'm all up in this Twitter thing. It's quite addictive. I'm mostly using it for work purposes, at least in terms of my own "Tweets." But I'm needy. I can always use more "followers."

September 25, 2009

Azzeria (Wexford)

Being a true pizza snob is a difficult existence. Simply put, often I'd rather go without than eat an inferior slice just because it's technically pizza. There are times when hunger, convenience, and a lack of options gets the better of me. But, as a general rule, I try to avoid poorly made pizza.

What are the/my criteria for "poorly made"? Well, let's start with the crust, which, remarkably, is the most underappreciated component of a pizza. Think about a crust from a typical chain, whether it be Dominoes or a smaller, local chain. It typically has the texture of damp cardboard, lacking any crispiness or chewiness, and has almost no flavor, with the exception being that of grease.

Next the sauce. Again, the sauce at most pizza joints taste primarily of grease, excessive salt, and tomato paste. There is little actual flavor of tomato or even any herbs. There is also often an excessive overabundance of sauce. The toppings? Mass-produced, tasteless mozzarella, and, again, typically too much of it. Mushrooms? Canned or dried, sad little things that taste like and resemble jigsaw puzzle pieces. Olives. Boring black, likely from a large can. Sausage? Crumbly, dry, closer to bird droppings than a meat product. Pepperoni? Well, pepperoni is pepperoni. The only difference typically is that of quantity.

AZZERIA PIZZA & gelato on Urbanspoon

Which brings me to a relatively new addition to the northern 'burbs of Pittsburgh, Azzeria. Located in the Village at Pine on Rt. 19 in Wexford, this is a second location -- the original is in (or at least on the border of) Mt. Lebanon -- for Azzeria. And I can say without hesitation that the pizza at Azzeria is quite good.

Is it on par with Dinette? No. Then again, few pizzas are.

Generally, though, the pizza at Azzeria is at least two steps above what can be had at most predominantly pizza joints and at other restaurants that also offer pizza on the menu.

The crust could use a little more salt, and often times could use another minute in the brick oven, but generally it has the flavor and texture that you would expect from what is in effect homemade bread, and serves well as a canvas for the toppings.

Speaking of the toppings, Azzeria seems to understand the fundamental importance of moderation. The sauce or cheese or various toppings are not heaped on and seem to be of high quality (even the pepperoni).

The plain red is quite good. Tangy tomato flavor and the fresh mozzarella tastes, well, fresh. The "white," topped sparingly with 4 cheeses, including a whipped fresh ricotta, is also well done. You can taste the different cheeses with no single one dominating.

The vodka sauce pizza, an idea I like, is an interesting offering and mostly successful. The beans & greens pizza, another good idea, is overwhelmed by too much garlic. I suppose this appeals to some people, but I'd rather taste the bitterness of the escarole and creaminess of the beans. My favorites are the white and my personal concoction of sausage and escarole.

Also on offer are some salads, a bit small for my liking, but fairly fresh, and soups, which I've yet to have. The wings, which are doused in herbs and fired up in the brick oven, are smoky and meaty (could be a bit crispier) and a welcome change from the overly sauced and underflavored wings that litter the menus of restaurants across the city/country.

There is also delectably creamy and locally made gelato, made by Mulberry Creamery. Among the many flavors on offer, the "Death by Chocolate" lives up to its moniker and the pistachio tastes like pistachios. An excellent way to end a visit here.

The setup at Azzeria is a little atypical. There is no wait staff. You place your order at the counter and a few minutes later they call your name to pick up your food. Herein can be a problem, because let's say you need to get an extra drink or some gelato or, heck, another pizza, you have to wait in the ordering line, which, depending on how busy things are, can take 5-10 minutes. Yes, typically you'd have to wait for your server to get any of things, but at least you'd be sitting.

It's also BYOB, with small wine glasses and corkscrews available. Unfortunately, there is no liquor store in the plaza. The new Giant Eagle in the same plaza will soon have a liquor license soon, though. The restaurant itself is wide open, with a few booths and tall two- and four-top tables, and garage door-like walls that open up to ample outdoor seating for when the weather feels like cooperating.

Overall, I'm a big fan of Azzeria and am glad it's here. With so few good dining options in this neck of the woods, it's nice to know there is a kid-friendly place where we can have an affordable, quality meal in a comfortable environment.

September 22, 2009

First Futbol of the Year

After a rocky start to the Serie A season, this makes two wins in a row for my Giallorossi. Forza Roma!!

September 21, 2009

I Was Right

Like I said, I thought this prosciutto-wrapped chicken would make a great Sunday dinner.

And it did.

Some tips in preparing it, though. First, you don't need heavy cream or as much butter for the broccoli puree. I used half and half and a little less butter than it called for and it was still quite rich. Further reductions in butter and the amount of cream could probably be made with little lost in terms of flavor.

Second, if you happen to get truly plump chicken breasts, you'll likelyneed to roast it for closer to 20-25 minutes in the oven.

Third, the carrots in this recipe are really just a poor man's version of the classic carrots in
Marsala. Which is what I ended up making. Per Gina DePalma, here is how they're made:

Carrots in Marsala

  • One pound of carrots, cut on the angle into quarter-inch coins
  • 2 tbs butter
  • 1/2 cup of Marsala
  • Water
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • Salt
  • Flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat, add the carrots and toss to coat.

Add the Marsala, let it come to a bubble, add enough water to mostly cover the carrots. Add the sugar and pinch of salt and give a quick stir.

Bring to an easy simmer and cover. Cook until the carrots are tender, 15-20 minutes. Remove the cover, turn up the heat a little, and let it cook until most of the liquid is gone and all that's left is a nice glaze on the carrots, 10 more minutes.

Remove from heat, toss with parsley and serve.

The Size of My Fist...

... and crisp and tasty as ever. The Honey Crisp apples that is.

They've had them now at McGinnis Sisters for a few weeks.

They are from PA, significantly cheaper than any apple variety at the Giant Local Grocery Chain, and taste fantastic. And, to boot, they are ridiculously large. Seriously, they are as big as my fist, often bigger.

And that's saying something, 'cause I've got fairly sizable hands (scroll down)! [And you know what they say about guys with big hands? Clumsy in the kitchen.]

But even Honey Crisps that are inferior to these in size and cost are still typically the bestest apples ever.

Our Lovely Factory Farms @ Work

This time it's factory dairy farming, part of the NY Times' excellent series on water pollution. An example of the impact of dirty water?

In Morrison, more than 100 wells were polluted by agricultural runoff within a few months, according to local officials. As parasites and bacteria seeped into drinking water, residents suffered from chronic diarrhea, stomach illnesses and severe ear infections.

“Sometimes it smells like a barn coming out of the faucet,” said Lisa Barnard, who lives a few towns over, and just 15 miles from the city of Green Bay.

Tests of her water showed it contained E. coli, coliform bacteria and other contaminants found in manure. Last year, her 5-year-old son developed ear infections that eventually required an operation. Her doctor told her they were most likely caused by bathing in polluted water, she said.

Runoff from these farms is very poorly regulated, the Times' Charles Duhigg explains. And they seem to skirt around the regs that do exist. And then there's this:

And regulations passed during the administration of President George W. Bush allow many of those farms to self-certify that they will not pollute, and thereby largely escape regulation.

Wow. There's some tough regulation. Self certification. Seems a bit like asking a murderer to remain in his house for a prison sentence, as long as he self certifies that, honest, he won't leave the house or kill anybody ever, ever again.

Despite what many, including many family farmers, think, regulation in and of itself is not bad. Excessive regulation is bad, as is the practice of purposefully not enforcing regulation.

The biggest problem, in agriculture, though, is probably that big ag pretty much writes the regs. As a result, they get the veneer of being a "heavily regulated industry," when in reality the regs are chock full of loopholes large enough to accommodate the space shuttle, but loopholes that really only benefit the big guys.

It's a terrible system. One most legislators seem perfectly willing to maintain.

September 16, 2009

Cooking Stuff

There is some policy-related news that I've been meaning to get to (perhaps tomorrow), but in the meantime, some actual preparation and consumption of food items.

I can't remember the last time I made anything with chicken breasts -- my preference being, of course, the dark meat -- but this sounds really good, and although it's a tad labor intensive, it would probably make a really good, and healthy, Sunday meal.

And I'm not sure if lobsters are still really cheap (relatively speaking, that is), but this lobster tale (pun intended) got me thinking back to the most recent New Year's Eve, and a decadent meal that I would highly recommend trying to emulate.

We picked up some lobsters from Penn Avenue Fish Company and intended to use it as part of a pasta dish using some fresh pasta we got from Penn Mac in a saffron cream sauce. For the latter, I did some searching on the Intertubes, found one that seemed to meet our needs (tablespoon or two of shallots sauteed in a little olive oil, add half-cup of white wine and reduce in half for about 5-10 minutes, cup or so of heavy cream, pinch or two of saffron, salt, pepper, stir over medium low heat for a bit, finish at the very end with some chopped herbs, parsley or tarragon. I forget the exact details, to be honest - try the aforementioned and you might be surprised.).

Having never done anything with lobster in our kitchen, I followed the instructions in the first hyperlink above:

''The best way to kill them, according to animal welfare agencies, is to put them in the freezer first for 15 minutes,'' he said. ''It slows their metabolism.''

After that, Mr. [Trevor] Corson suggested, put the lobster on its back and slice lengthwise through its soft underbelly.

From that point, you put them in the boiling water.

We had purchased two lobsters. I put them in the freezer for the prescribe time. I removed them. Unfortunately, for the lengthwise slicing of the first lobster, I used our chef's knife with the rounded tip, which precluded me from getting a good first incision into the large crustacean, thus defeated the entire purpose -- that is, humanity -- of this approach, as the poor thing wriggled its antennae and claws as if it were indeed feeling the pain. It was not enjoyable.

For the second lobster, having learned a hard lesson, I used a more traditional chef's knife, and the lengthwise cutting went very quickly and smoothly. No wriggling this time.

We boiled the lobsters and when they were done, my wife extracted as much meat as possible while I made the cream sauce and got the water for the pasta boiling. When the pasta water was ready, folded the lobster meat (most, not all, because there was a lot!) into the sauce, cooked the pasta, combined it all in large bowl and it was fantastic. We enjoyed it tremendously with a lot of red wine before watching the Big Night. A perfect desert to our meal.

A day or two later, we made lobster rolls with the unused lobster meat. As good as they might be on a pier in Nantucket? Probably not, but man were they tasty.

September 10, 2009

More Bits Scraping

I typically don't like to follow a "Scraping" post - known in blogging venacular as a "digest" - with another "Scraping" post. But I'm all about breaking the rules these days.

To begin with...

This is the thing that is no good about having a young child involved in soccer: Games are always on Saturday, which interferes with our semi-occasional ritual of trips to the Strip District.

And now I have yet another very good reason to make it to the Strip: Peace, Love, and Little Donuts. According to the PG's China Millman, these little donuts are quite good.

And, it's official: I have a mad addiction to Extra Cheddar Flavor Blast goldfish. The snack crackers, that is.

I also have an addiction to beer. Among my favorite, most styles from Dogfish Head. Which reminds me, I need to pick up a 6 of the Punkin' Ale before it's gone.

In any case, the crazy guys at Dogfish have a new brew in the works. It involves purple corn... and human saliva. It's called chicha. The NY Times was there to watch it made. And thanks to the wonders of the Intertubes, you can too.

Speaking of the Times, Michael Pollan, per his usual, has a thought-provoking piece on how health-care reform is inextricably linked to food policy reform.

The moment these new rules take effect, health insurance companies will promptly discover they have a powerful interest in reducing rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to diet. A patient with Type 2 diabetes incurs additional health care costs of more than $6,600 a year; over a lifetime, that can come to more than $400,000. Insurers will quickly figure out that every case of Type 2 diabetes they can prevent adds $400,000 to their bottom line. Suddenly, every can of soda or Happy Meal or chicken nugget on a school lunch menu will look like a threat to future profits.

When health insurers can no longer evade much of the cost of treating the collateral damage of the American diet, the movement to reform the food system — everything from farm policy to food marketing and school lunches — will acquire a powerful and wealthy ally, something it hasn’t really ever had before.

While it has its logic, I'm not sure I'm buying it. First, it assumes that, at the least, some weak form of reform will pass whereby pre-existing conditions are a thing of the past and there have to be standard rates. No one is saying those have to be affordable rates. Without some type of competition to bring down rates, would it be any surprise if rates for insurance just got higher, and priced out a lot of people (even if some form of subsidies are made available)?

And I don't see the insurers taking on Big Ag and the like. They would just find an easier way to keep their profits high. That's how they roll.