February 13, 2010

Science Saturday

It's taken as somewhat gospel in certain circles that reducing meat consumption in the U.S. and globally would be a good thing for reducing waist lines, the impact of climate change, etc. And, based on my limited understanding of these various issues, that seems logical and I generally agree.

But I found this news story from the journal Science to be quite interesting.

Although cutting back on meat has many potential benefits, [food-security researchers] say the complexities of global markets and human food traditions could also produce some counterintuitive—and possibly counterproductive—results. "It's not this panacea that people have put forward," says Mark Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFRPI) in Washington, D.C. One provocative forecast: If people in industrialized nations gave up half their meat, more Asian children could become malnourished.

February 11, 2010

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Antibiotic style

A few interesting things happening out there. To begin with...

CBS News actually does a good job reporting on the extreme overuse of antibiotics on factory farm animals. It was a two-part series, part 1, on the situation in the U.S., here and part 2, which covers the situation in Denmark, where this practice is now banned, here.

Although, it's hard not to gag a little when, Katie Couric, back in the U.S. with an American turkey farmer who doesn' t use antibiotics, is walking through a huge barn packed with turkeys and is asking about why it's so important to also give the birds "more space."

Jamie Oliver continues in his efforts to get Americans (and his mates in the U.K.) to eat better. He even won a $100,000 award to help further his efforts from this organization called TED that, I have to admit, I really don't understand.

UPDATE: Jamie Oliver's talk at TED. Great quote right off the bat.

"I profoundly believe that the power of food has a primal place in our homes that binds us to the best things in life."

My take on genetically modified food is pretty simple: I know that for a mighty long time farmers have been cross-breeding different varieties of the same crops to produce more prolific or more tasty or more pest- or drought-resistant crops. But that's different than inserting foreign, non-plant genes into crops, planting them all over the place, and selling them for consumption, without a ton of research to show that these products are safe for human consumption, among other things. I am all for the appropriate use of biotechnology. It's produced some very good (and expensive) drugs in the past decade or so. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily appropriate to use in our food supply -- again, at least without much, much more research.

I say all this because the USDA wants to know what you think about the subject. You can do so easily via SlowFood USA. For some very detailed background, there are also some work published last year that called into serious question the underlying science and value of GMOs.

Some experience-based cooking advice: If you want to jazz up a roasted cauliflower soup with some dried porcinis you find in your cupboard, you don't need very much of the porcini (reconstituted in water, that is). Otherwise your cauliflower soup might become a mighty potent porcini soup. In theory, that sounds good. In practice, it was a bit overwhelming.

In other local food news,
Michael Pollan will be speaking at Allegheny College on February 25. Details here (scroll down).

Finally, the South Side Soup Contest is on the horizon, February 20. I've never been to this, but have purchased tickets. Looking forward to some delicious soups from places like Cafe Du Jour, Yo Rita, Big Dog Coffee, and others.

February 9, 2010

First-Bite Review: Caffe Davio

Caffe Davio, on East Carson Street on the South Side, is small, warm, and comforting. And it's BYOB. Great qualities for any restaurant.

And from there the overall experience is fair to good. The service, generally speaking, was adequate, but could be better with some small changes.

The most important part, the food, generally speaking, was good. For some people, this is the kind of place they would return to again and again (e.g., on my way back from the restroom, I heard a broad, muscular fellow proclaim "I'm in heaven" as he sliced into a veal chop). For me, once was enough.

Caffe Davio on Urbanspoon

I had read some comments on Urban Spoon that Caffe Davio had recently changed its menu and was now serving the typical "Goombah" food that can be had at any of the chain and non-chain Italian restaurants that infest many U.S. cities. I would argue that assessment isn't correct. This wasn't just red sauce and sickeningly fatty cream sauces and lots of breaded chicken.

That said, much of what is on the menu -- admittedly based on one visit -- is one-note cooking. You're not going to find new or innovative flavors or food pairings here. And, again, for some people that may just be fine and dandy.

Perhaps what defines Caffe Davio is the sheer volume of food. A trip here means that, if you so choose, you will have dinner for at least the next night, possibly two!

One problem with such volume -- aside from what I would argue is that it is an attempt to compensate for or obscure the limitations on flavor/texture/technique inherent in the food -- is that, as a diner, you're constantly distracted by the thought: "I have to be careful how much I eat of this course, because there are three more coming!"

Our biggest mistake was ordering an appetizer. I wish the waitress/hostess had advised us against this. She did explain that with your entree you also got a salad and a pasta dish. But I like to order an appetizer. It lets you probe the kitchen's repertoire. At Dinette, for example, the pizzas could be considered the star. But the appetizers -- whether they be a beef carpaccio with at least one unique component (e.g., nuts or a poached egg!) or, as my wife recently had, a grilled shishito pepper (who knew there was such a thing) with goat cheese bits and fried almonds -- are a whole world unto their own. To skip an appetizer at Dinette, you see, would be a huge mistake.

But back to Davio. Before the appetizer even came we received a large basket of quite delicious fresh bread, which was accompanied by three equally enjoyable dips: chickpea and roasted red peppers, white beans and basil, basil-infused olive oil. This was a nice way to start the meal, but already my wife and I were saying "We have to take it easy, there's a lot more food on the way."

The appetizer was Bay scallops carbonara, a large bowl of bay scallops with a medium-to-heavy cream sauce, big chunks of bacon, and peas. This was an entree masquerading as an appetizer. Yet, even so, it was well prepared - the scallops were tender and the sauce was flavorful without being overpowering. It actually made for a fourth dip for the bread. We ate maybe a third of it (not to mention more bread).

Salad: A huge plate of iceberg lettuce, feta, roasted red peppers, a sprinkling of white beans, with a balsamic vinaigrette. Nothing fancy or different, but, nevertheless, it tasted good. The iceberg was really crunchy and cool, and the beans were a nice touch. Maybe ate a third of it.

With our wine and the bread, we could have stopped here and been perfectly content.

Pasta: Each of us received a bowl of cavatappi (a longish, curly pasta) with a passable-to-good marinara, shaved Parmesan, and (again) fresh basil leaves. If ever there was an afterthought on a menu, this is it. If you want to do a pasta dish, do something special, something that cleans the palate and sets the stage for the entree. Something I'd give my kids on a weeknight does not meet that standard.

Entrees: For me, a New York Strip (I was going to order a pasta, but there was already a pasta side, right?), with melted fresh mozzarella on top, resting on a mound of sticky risotto, as if it had been sitting in a pot for too long. After a bite or two, I pulled off the fresh mozzarella, which had congealed into a sealant. Generally, the steak was properly cooked and tender, but a bit underseasoned.

For my wife, a gargantuan veal chop topped with melted fontina, accompanied literally by one-third head each of steamed cauliflower and broccoli. The bites I had of the veal chop were moist and flavorful. The fontina was a distraction. The cauliflower bite I took tasted overwhelmingly of garlic. Neither of us ate half of our meat. I took only a few bites of the risotto.

Having already eaten more in the previous hour than we would ever eat in an entire day, we figured we'd might as well go the Full Monty and split a desert. And that was actually a good choice. A marscapone cheese cake topped with berries: light, creamy, delicious.

Of course, desert isn't necessary, it turns out, because, little did we know, you also get as part of your meal house-made cookies: a few biscotti and a few long, thin lemon-flavored cookie the name of which I forget. With an espresso or desert liqueur, that would be a fine desert on its own.

Even with a gift certificate and bringing our own wine, the bill was not inexpensive. For that money (if you include the amount of the gift certificate), even if I had to purchase the alcohol at the restaurant, I could get a truly spectacular meal at a place like Eleven.

So, yes, for some Caffe Davio may indeed be restaurant heaven. For me, it was a one and done, leaving me feeling overly full (we didn't even eat the leftovers the next day) and thinking that this place is missing the bigger picture of what a quality Italian restaurant is supposed to be.

Childhood Obesity... The Good and the Stupid

Warning: This will be a serious rant. Now then...

First, the Good:

First Lady Michelle Obama is launching this initiative to combat childhood obesity - common sense things, like getting more nutritious foods in schools, getting kids to exercise more, getting important nutrition facts placed more prominently on labels, efforts to make healthier foods more affordable and accessible. Not sure how all of this will be accomplished, but it's long overdue.

What's wrong with school lunches these days, you ask? Hmmm, here is some school lunch yumsville for thought.

All of the big players in the food biz are paying lip service that they are going to help be part of the solution.

* The American Beverage Assn. has committed to putting front-of-pack calorie labels on cans, bottles, vending machines and soda-fountain machines within two years.

* Major food suppliers to school cafeterias have pledged to cut sugar, salt and fat and increase whole grains and produce.

* About 40 executives of major food producers and agribusinesses indicated in an open letter that they would join the first lady in promoting healthy eating. Among the signers: the chief executives of Kraft Foods and Sara Lee Corp.

And the prez is kicking in for the team, ordering a task force to look at federal policies that affect childhood nutrition and activity.

And here is the predictable Stupid:

This is just another example of the nanny state, mostly conservative/right wing critics are saying. Perhaps the most ill-informed critique comes from Julie Gunlock, of the Independent Women's Forum, in the National Review Online.

[Mrs. Obama] hopes to improve the “accessibility and affordability” of food for all Americans. (Apparently, Mrs. Obama is unaware that Americans pay far less for their food than citizens of other nations do, spending only 7 percent of annual income on it, according to a 2009 Department of Labor study.)

Ms. Gunlock is apparently unaware that this is the very reason Americans are so fat. Because they can get megasized fast food meals chock full o' fat and calories for $3, a case of sugary soda for the price of two gallons of juice, and a case of frozen beef patties that were bathed in ammonia for the same price as 4 or 5 apples. Americans eat tons of cheap, fattening food -- food made so cheap because of government subsidies to big agribusinesses to grow billions of acres of corn and soy, and because the government doesn't mind if factory farms shove a few thousand pigs into a bin and jam them full of antibiotics and collect their anti-biotic infested waste product in huge manure pools that then run off into streams and make people in surrounding communities sick while simultaneously causing a significant increase in antibiotic resistance in humans.

What a bargain, eh Ms. Gunlock?

As for the accessibility issue, perhaps Ms. Gunlock should try to grocery shopping in Pittsburgh's Hill District for some fresh fruits and veggies. Oh, that's right, there is no grocery store there. But there are plenty of convenience stores and fast food joints.

Oh, and then there's this statement from Ms. Gunlock's commentary, which I'll let speak for itself.

Most children are smart enough to make good decisions for themselves when given guidance and attention from their parents.