Friday, July 10, 2009

Unraveling Organic

Cross posted from The Daily Fork.

The organic food that you’re buying may not be 100% organic and therefore discredits the integrity of the organic certification. That is the basic gist of The Washington Post’s much deliberated article, “Purity of Federal ‘Organic’ Label is Questioned“, published July 3rd. It is a well-known fact that the organic certification is not perfect nor is it the end-all, be-all solution to our broken food system. In truth, I am quite tired of hearing people use “organic” as the sole qualifier to their healthy, “sustainable” diet. A Cheeto is a Cheeto, is a Cheeto by any other name, even “organic”, and the company that produces it may not be sustainable in the least.

Multinational corporations have been gobbling up organic companies since they figured out they could make a buck or two off the $23 billion-a-year business. When you buy Horizon Milk, you’re supporting dairy giant and factory farmers extraordinaire, Dean Foods. Boca Burgers are owned by Kraft, Odwalla is owned by Coca-Cola, Stonyfield by Danone. (For some great charts on organic food, click here.) For those who care simply about eating healthier, perhaps it doesn’t really matter who owns the brand. For others who care about where their dollars are going, buying conventional organic is just buying into the same old corporate machine.

Granted, there are a good number of successful companies who have managed to remain independent. Organic Valley, Amy’s Kitchen and Eden Foods are just a few examples that have managed to stay away from corporate takeover. There are also some serious benefits that come along with organic. Animals are fed vegetarian feed and are not given hormones or antibiotics unless ill. Fruits and vegetables are not treated with pesticides. The organic certification also prohibits genetic modification, sewage sludge and irradiation.

On the other hand, organic gives no guarantee that animals will have the freedom to roam. Sure, they are technically supposed to have access to the outdoors, but many companies (not all) find loopholes to this rule. Organic is no guarantee of biodiversity either. Fields and fields of organic soybeans don’t leave room for much else, and can quickly deplete the soil’s resources. Organic food may also be shipped thousands of miles to your nearest Whole Foods or Wild Oats, and it may come packaged in loads of plastics, Styrofoam and who knows what else. That’s why we’re called Sustainable Table, not Organic Table.

Organic does not equate to health either. Organic chips, fatty dips, frozen burritos and pizza are not health foods, something that confuses many consumers. Many tout their healthy, organic diets, but in the end they are eating junk food all the same-it’s just more expensive. And then there are those who disapprove of the 5% of organic product ingredients that need not be organic. The list of allowed ingredients has gone up from 77 to 245 substances since the program’s birth in 2002.

There is really only one true solution to these problems. Get over relying uniquely on the organic label and go beyond. You put food into your body at least three times a day; it’s probably worth getting to know what you’re putting in. If you’re in a huff about the 5% of non-organic ingredients, make the food from scratch. The organic industry is now a corporate machine; chances are they aren’t going to change much. If you make simple meals from scratch, you will really know what’s going in and chances are it will be healthier and cheaper.

Do research. There are many great food companies and farms out there, some certified organic and some not. Many farmers who use biodynamic and organic practices can’t afford the certification or feel disillusioned with it, but they may produce a superior product. Find ones that you can honestly support and stand behind without feeling like you’re giving in to the man. Go the farmers market, talk to the farmers and find out their practices. They are friendly people; ask them questions. When you buy at a farmers market, they get much more money on the dollar than when you buy in a store. Support a dying breed; this country was founded on farming, and now they make up less then 2% of the population.

I appreciate the Washington Post taking a good look at the organic label and bringing it to everyone’s attention. In recent years, it has become so wrapped up in bureaucracy and big business that it confuses consumers and has begun to lose its original meaning. To truly support independent, wholesome organic food producers, do your research and get to know your food. Maybe someday we’ll have an Organic 2.0.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Waxman-Markey Passes Through House After Allowing “Big” Ag Amendments

On June 26th, the House of Representatives voted on the Waxman-Markey Bill to address climate change. It passed narrowly with 219 aye and 212 nay votes. The American Clean Energy Security Act (as it is otherwise known), sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA), aims to cut emissions below the 2005 level by 80% in 2050. The bill is enormous, and is divided up into four sections; Clean Energy, Energy Efficiency, Reducing Global Warming Pollution, and Transitioning to a Clean Energy Economy. You can read more about the details of bill here from Grist and here from the NRDC.

While the original bill made little to no mention of agriculture, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) had urged representatives of big agriculture states to vote no on the bill unless changes that he favored were inserted. These changes included payment for certain carbon sequestration methods and definite exemption from the cap and trade limits, even though agriculture contributes between 18 to 20 percent of global warming gases - a higher level than transportation. As Tom Philpott of Grist reports (and he has reported very extensively on the bill), companies such as Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer have been working to create their own system of classifying these offsets, lending much suspicion to their credibility. They have also spent over $2 million lobbying around this bill.

Rep. Peterson was successful in pushing his agenda through. Sustainable Food News reported on June 29th that the climate bill will pay ranchers and farmers for carbon sequestration. It is undoubtedly true that farming does have the ability to curb carbon pollution. Reduction in nitrogen-rich fertilizers (which pollute water) may be eligible for offsets as well as switching animals to more natural feed such as grass which curbs methane production. Some of the other methods that the climate bill suggests are extremely suspect, however, an example being the Big Ag approach to pesticide and fertilizer-heavy “chemical no-till” farming.

In traditional farming, farmers till the soil to decrease weeds. They also add mulches, compost, and manure to help naturally fertilize and build organic matter in the soil. A 2008 Rodale study showed that a field using traditional organic farming had the potential to store up to 2000 lbs of carbon per annum. In some areas, too much tilling causes erosion, but institutes such as Rodale have been working on methods of organic no-till to prevent this problem.

“Chemical no-till”, on the other hand, depends on heavy herbicide use, which can be extremely toxic to both humans and the land. Few claims have been made that “no-till” methods sequester carbon, but there are many peer-reviewed studies which refute this. “No-till” may even release more nitrous oxide from the soil, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon. Companies such as Monsanto produce vast amounts of herbicides used in “chemical no-till” such as their Round-up product, so the bill, in rewarding farmers for using these methods, is indirectly supporting their bottom line.

The Waxman-Markey Bill truly has its ups and downs. It is the first United States bill that takes a stance on dramatically reducing global warming emissions. It also includes some measures that reward organic farmers. On the other hand, the bill is a shadow of its former self. It has been heavily watered down by Rep. Peterson’s amendments and gives many recessions to industrial farmers who heavily impact pollution. The amendments have taken power from the EPA and concentrated it with the USDA, which in the past has been heavily influenced by Big Ag. How the bill is perceived in the Senate and beyond is yet to be seen. Many government decisions and non-governmental influences will effect how it plays out in the real world; one can only hope that it will affect some positive change.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Americans: Declare Your Independence from Supermarkets!

Ask a child where their food comes from and they will probably tell you “the grocery store.” For most people, adults and children alike, the grocery store is the sole point of access to food. Little thought is put into its life beyond the shelves. Vegetables don’t come from the Earth; they come from the refrigerated truck that delivered them. Crackers, chips, and beans materialize magically and are presented, neatly packaged. Most of us don’t know a farmer, but we may know someone who stocks the shelves.

With less than two percent of U.S. residents employed in farming, and the vast majority of our food controlled by a few enormous companies, there is a great divide between the masses and the food they consume. That is why I believe we should declare our independence from grocery store chains. Shop at the farmers market, join a CSA, grow a garden! In doing so, we can reclaim our independence and choice concerning one of our most basic necessities.

In a 1785 letter to John Jay, who was then serving as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans or anything else.” But employment they lacked, and converted they have been. While some have been lured by the glitz and glam of urban life, many have simply been unable to sustain their farms against fierce competition from large, monopolizing businesses.

Our current condition does not reflect the agricultural and culinary habits of our past. When this fine nation was established, we were all farmers. Our founding fathers and mothers raised corn, beans, and many varieties of wheat and grain. Nearly everyone had a kitchen garden as there was no grocery store to drive on down to. In 1790, 90 percent of the U.S. work force was involved in agriculture. A century later, it had halved to just 43 percent. Today, less than 2 percent of the U.S. labor force farms for a living.

Granted, we have come a long way in agricultural production methods. I’m not speaking of chemical fertilizers and pesticides – which hardly represent progress – but it is obvious that we would have fewer farmers with the advent of tractors and modern irrigation. That said, many who wished to remain farmers have been forced out – not by mechanization – but by the competition of massive corporations subsidized with our tax dollars. Meanwhile, small independent farmers struggle to pay the bills and most work additional jobs off the farm to make ends meet.

Whether or not your sympathies lie with small farmers, our self-interest is firmly at stake in the massive takeover of agriculture. Large corporate farms making over $250,000 a year make up only nine percent of the nation’s total number of farms – yet produce 63 percent of the nation’s food. That leaves us, as consumers, little choice over what foods are produced and how they are raised – in essence, big agribusiness has a stranglehold on our food supply.

Large chain grocery stores - vast, impersonal warehouses filled with chemical-laden food - have been a force in pushing farmers off their land. But they weren’t always this way. At one point, each small, local store carried a specific group of items. There was a store for baked goods, another for cheese, a butcher, a fish monger and a green grocer. In many parts of the world, this is still the case. However, the United States, unfortunately, has been a leader in the quest for faster, cheaper, factory-produced food – a trend that continues to spread throughout the developed and developing world, although not without resistance from some communities.

Today most grocers search far and wide for the cheapest product possible, whether it comes from right down the street or from thousands of miles away. In Barbara Kingsolver’s tremendous book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” she recounts the story of a group of tomato farmers in Virginia who worked for several years to produce an organic crop for a grocery store chain, only to have the order cancelled when the tomatoes were harvested, packaged and ready to ship. The grocery left the farmers with tons of beautiful, quickly rotting fruit – they had arranged to buy cheaper tomatoes from California.

Many grocery chains have developed methods of seducing customers into buying more products than they actually need. Think about the many winding rows involved in getting to the necessities such as eggs and cheese. The most expensive items are placed at eye level while the cheaper goods are hidden at your feet and above your head. Sugar laden children’s cereals are placed at their eye level where they will be more inclined to see the happy characters hawking the brand. Many stores pipe in canned smells in order to make you hungry and persuade you to buy more. Other sales-increasing techniques include manipulating lighting and music.

While grocery store chains seem to offer a wide variety of food, the options are actually quiet limited. Since fruit and vegetables generally travel a long way, they have been bred to be tough and sturdy, not tasty and nutritious. Farmers who want to sell to big distributors are forced to grow these inferior products, which markets value due to their long “shelf life.” Forcing farmers to grow just one or two varieties that travel well not only cuts down on consumer choice, it results in higher use of harmful chemicals and fertilizers because large swaths of land growing only one or two plants are more vulnerable to destructive pests. Shopping at a farmer’s market and buying the heirloom varieties many small independent farmers are growing today encourages them to grow more, preserving the biodiversity and wonderful flavors that are everyone’s rightful heritage, while eliminating the middleman, and leaving more of a profit for the farmer.

This country was founded on the idea of free choice and independence, but our most common activity, eating, is shackled to big business today. It’s time to reclaim our food democracy, reclaim more choice in what we eat, and get back in touch with America’s original profession, farming, so that we can start to close the divide between the American consumer and the farm.
Cross-posted from me at Sustainable Table's blog, The Daily Table...

Kids and nutrition has been a very popular topic in the news. The Bancroft Elementary School students have been helping Michelle Obama in the White House organic garden, and the first lady has been very vocal about getting more healthy foods into the USDA’s Child Nutrition programs. Sites such as School Lunch Talk and Better School Food are spreading the word about the unhealthy food kids are served in school and what action can be taken. Slow Food USA just launched the “Time For Lunch: National Day of Action” campaign to fight for “real food” in schools. On top of all this, a new movie, “What’s On Your Plate” explores food, nutrition, and our modern food system from two eleven year old girls’ points of view.

On a summer vacation to Ohio, Sadie and Safiyah taste the best cherry tomato of their young lives, which leads them to ask, “Where did this come from”? Sadie’s mother, the film’s director, asks them if they want to meet the farmer who grew it, and so their journey begins. Back home in New York, they question the processed food they see in grocery stores and try to figure out “What exactly is a Funyun”? They join a CSA, visit farmers’ markets and speak with friends about their dietary habits and what can be done to improve their health.

Along the way, the two girls meet up with food activists, chefs, authors and teachers to explore the depths of America’s food system. The advisory council to the film reads like a roster of major players in the sustainable food movement: Anna Lappé, Dan Barber, Raj Patel, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, plus many more. The girls meet with food activist Kate Adamick, who takes them to the supermarket where they take a look at the ingredients labels on supposedly “healthy food.”

According to director Catherine Gund, “Kids need to know the full benefits of local food: more energy-efficient production, more prosperous farmers, healthier communities, longer lasting and better tasting fruits and veggies. Kids need to know that their food doesn’t only come from the supermarket or the factory, but from nearby farms, trees and the ground. Adults need to be empowered to share this information with the next generation.”

If you feel this way too, take your kids to a screening! For New Yorkers, there is a free screening in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park this Saturday, June 27th as well as one at the BAM cinemas on July 7th.

For other screenings around the country, check out the fabulous “What’s On Your Plate” site. They have an interactive map, animation clips, information on the advisory board and much more. You can watch the trailer there, or click here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


The host was late in seating us. Our 8:30 reservation was backed up to 9:15 and we were left to entertain ourselves consuming specialty cocktails (light on the hooch, not too hard on the wallet). Not to worry, Matsugen kept us content with free appetizers - spicy edamame and chicken meatballs - piquant and savory. We passed our time gossiping at the long and slender bar until we were lead to a four-top deep within the cavernous depths of the restaurant.

Four of us had set out to this shrine to soba on a blustery Friday night looking for a reprieve from the daily grind that offered a touch of class but a reasonable price tag. The class was present, clean lines and simplicity, concrete floors, and blooms piled high on the end of the sushi bar. The vast space was full (but not cluttered) with dark tables of all shapes and sizes. The lighting was dim and serene, and a group of Japanese girls chatting in the corner provided the soundtrack.

After much deliberation, we decided on an appetizer and soba each, not a bad bargain for one of Jean-George Vongerichten’s superior eateries. One of my fellow diners tried the uni in yuzu jelly, and was turned off by the texture. I got past it however and was pleased by the salty, rich flavor of the dish. The serving of silken tofu was enormous, clean tasting, and rustic. The kumomoto oysters were at their best - petite, unfettered, lush.

The giant bowls of soba-noodles arrived on wooden faux-cafeteria trays. The scent wafting from the bowl was comforting, and the broth luxuriant and rich. The noodles were cut with precision and tasted distinctly of buckwheat. They were not sloppy and bland like so many soba noodles, but earthy-sharp. I lingered over that bowl, and rebuffed the server several times when he tried to take it away. The mushrooms bobbing in my bowl provided the perfect counterpoint to the noodles and my neighbors duck was toothsome and tender. This was a dish that would have been just as comfortable sold out of a street-cart in Japan as it was in the snazzy New York dining scene.

We finished with a molten-chocolate cake, cliché but well executed, and were also presented with a sorbet sampler, another benefit of our late seating. Fig, pear, and plum all tasted right off the branch. The restaurant was nearly empty when we finished; a light sizzle could be heard from the tabletop grill close-by grill. I would declare this meal a victory – agreeably long, reasonably priced and plenty of perks. A most satisfying soba experience on a cold night.

241 Church St, New York, NY‎
(212) 925-0202‎

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lidia Makes Me Wish I Was Italian

I came home from New York on Sunday exhausted by a late night and by the miserable rainy weather. I fell asleep on the couch with the soothing sounds of Jacques Pepin in the background and awoke again to Lidia, just starting to work away in her kitchen on Channel 13.

I've been into Italian food lately, Northern Italian in particular, just like the rest of the world. But I prefer to think it’s my own discovery, like I’m the only one who eats at Al Di La and has dreams of slow-cooked onions and anchovies. So I was happy to see Lidia, at ease in her kitchen, cooking with her granddaughter on that dreary Sunday afternoon.

That day she was making hand rolled Makaruni in a simple rich mushroom sauce she recalled from her childhood in Istria, Italy. That show made me wish my family was Italian. Then I would know dishes like this from my childhood. I would call my grandmother Nonni, and we would have hand-gestured all over the place.

I tried making that dish for my American mother and me. I couldn’t get the Chanterelles the recipe called for, but made due with Cremini and Shitake. The pasta was simple to make using the Cuisinart. I had to fuss with the water and flour a bit but quickly got it to the right texture. The sauce took a bit longer to make then I expected, but I’m sure it would be faster the second time around. The smell wafting from the pot was earthy, mushroomy deliciousness seasoned by the concentrated tomato paste and sage.

I would call it a success. I might cook the noodles a bit longer next time but it was certainly a hearty, home-cooked meal. Click here for the recipe and enjoy. Thanks Lidia!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Stamford: Eat at the Restaurants, Avoid the Nightlife

For a long time I’ve stayed away from downtown Stamford. The thought of Hula Hank’s and the Thirsty Turtle have kept me far away. Girls in skin-tight tube tops sporting dangly butterfly belly-button rings, and guys with greasy spiked hair, diamond studs and wife-beaters have kept me at bay. I usually only venture in for the occasional movie or to drop something at my dad’s office, but in the last month or so I have sampled several of the downtown restaurants and have been surprisingly impressed.

We celebrated the farewell of a friend about a month again at Napa & Co, a year-old restaurant in the Marriot Courtyard. While exorbitantly priced for the hotel and the neighborhood, the food was impressive. In particular, my farrow, mushroom, and poached egg appetizer was delicious, flavors melding together to form a rich, creamy dish. The roasted Brussels sprouts were also a pleasant surprise. My father’s gnocchi was fluffy and tender with the help of some ricotta cheese. The menu changes nightly, and while I didn’t try it, the cheese selection was impressive. Service could have been ramped up a notch considering the tab, but it was polite and attentive enough.

We slipped in for a quick meal at Telluride about two weeks ago before seeing Slumdog Millionaire at the Avon Theatre across the street (a great place to see a movie by the way, lots of old-world charm). While I wasn’t there for long, the décor was pleasant, the service attentive and my pasta dish quite tasty. A hearty combination of penne, goat cheese, roasted red peppers in garlic was much better than I had expected. They also have an array of oysters which my grandmother took advantage of. (Don’t order the corn chowder, it tasted like it came out of a can.) Important to note is that both Napa & Co and Telluride shop at sustainable retailers and use organic meat, something that earns them major points in my book.

Last week we had a lovely pre-Valentines day meal at Duo, taking advantage of their free oyster night (again, my grandmother loves oysters). I’ve eaten at Duo before (it’s below my father’s office) and always had a very satisfying experience. The oysters were fresh, garnished in three different ways. I had sushi, and asked the manager to prepare whatever was freshest. I tried Uni for the first time, and found it quite delicious. My grandmother’s duck “duo” was excellent in both forms (sliced breast and cannelloni confit), as was my mother’s lamb (two chubby chops cooked to perfection, accompanied by couscous and root vegetables in a reduction sauce). Definitely a restaurant worth checking out, and they have great deals and specials. Get on their e-mail list.

So, while Stamford after eleven may not be my scene, it’s not a bad place to go for a casual meal or a classy night out. The downtown renovation along with the addition of U-Conn Stamford has been successful in drawing a variety of bars and eateries to the area. But instead of taking shots at Black Bear or hopping on the swing at Hula Hank’s, have a sustainable bite to eat and catch a classic at the Avon instead.

Napa & Co
75 Broad Street
Stamford, CT 06901
(203) 353-3319

245 Bedford St
Stamford, CT 06901
(203) 357-7679

25 Bank St
Stamford, CT 06901
(203) 252-2233

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What I Think About Picky Eaters

I hate picky eaters. There, I said it. I was trying to figure out a more tactful way to state it, but that’s what came out. They really bother me with their, “I don’t like asparagus”, “I can’t stand scallops” and, “I only eat white food”. Or even worse is when someone says “gross!”. Just because YOU don’t like it, doesn’t make it gross. It means that you are afraid to try things, and therefore are missing out on many of the great pleasures in life, like blood-sausage.

And where does picky eating stem from? My theory: parents. It’s those parents who say, “Well we’re having pork loin, but little Billy just throws up at the sight of pork, so I’ll just make him a hot-dog and some Doritos”. I love parents who feed their kid whatever they’re eating, and too bad if they don’t like it. It’s one of the first questions I finagle into the conversation when I meet parents; it helps me judge them.

I don’t care if you don’t like a particular food, but you must try it, and more than once for that matter! Trying a Brussels sprout in third grade doesn’t count. You have to try it roasted, with lots of butter, now. I include bizarre meat products in this must-try policy as well. People all over the world eat all sorts of strange cuts and entrails all the time and love them! In America so much goes to waste. Bring me the tripe, the sweetbreads, the liver! When my beloved grandfather was ill, all he wanted were tongue sandwiches, and that is one of the many reasons I respected him so much.

So please, when you encounter something you’re afraid to eat, have courage in the fact that it probably won’t kill you and you might even enjoy it. Who knows, your new favorite snack could even be a bug.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

New Year, New Parties

Dinner parties seem to be the theme of the last couple of months – they’ve certainly been my theme anyway. We’ve been trying to save money (or at least pretend like we’re saving money) by going to the grocery store and cooking in. Of course by the time we’re through, we’ve spent at least $60 bucks on various cuts of meat, herbs, veggies at the specialty food store and then more money for wine. It does feel less guilty than spending $100 on a mediocre meal at a restaurant, and you may have leftovers!

About a month ago it was a steak and potatoes night in Brooklyn, updated steak and potatoes that is. Recipes provided by Fine Cooking, of course, and wine from the lovely shop on 5th in Park Slope, Red, White and Bubbly. We started with a white bean and artichoke dip, easily blended in the Cuisinart. Then it was on to an herb-marinated steak, which sat overnight in olive oil, kosher salt, pepper, fresh rosemary and thyme and then was grilled on the indoor cast-iron behemoth in Cliff’s kitchen. For a side, we had the very successful smashed potatoes, a mix between mashed and fried potatoes, especially popular with the male contingent. To finish, waffle-iron chocolate chip/oatmeal cookies. A very easy dinner, satisfying and fun to share with a few friends.

Another night’s dinner was a bit more complicated. Our aspirations were higher as we had the whole evening to cook, and Cliff’s parents’ giant kitchen to do so in. We slacked on hors d’oevres, just veggies and dip. For the main course, I tried something I’d seen in the “Roasting” special edition that Fine Cooking had just put out, Chorizo and Apple stuffed Pork Roast. I’d never stuffed anything like that before, and we had quite the adventure getting the chorizo inside the pork. For the side, we served a shallot and Gruyere potato gratin that even our French “amie” praised. For dessert, my hero Jacques Pepin’s Cuisinart almond cake, an easy crowd pleaser.

On other nights, there have been braises, a perfect winter meal and an east way to transform a cheaper cut of meat! We’ve also gone back to our old standby, baked mac and cheese with broccoli, as well as Roast Chicken à la Alice Waters. So now that I’ve made so many dinners, I’m just waiting for my pals to reciprocate. Cooking at home is an easy and amusing way to spend a cold night indoors, catch up with friends, and save a little money at the same time.

Smashed Potatoes

Apple and Chorizo Stuff Pork

Waffle Iron Oatmeal-Chocolate Chip Cookies

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Al Di La Sings (Cheesy, I know)

I feel bad that I have neglected to write about Al Di La. I’ve eaten there twice, and the two meals that I had there were some of the most satisfying that I can recently recall. The food is not typical Italian, it is not meatballs and spaghetti, or gourmet pizza, or even comparable to other high end trattorias in which I have dined. It is Venetian, in my humble opinion one of the most heartfelt and comforting cuisines in the western world. The flavors hold a certain depth that suggests tradition and patience. The natural “goût” is coaxed out of each ingredient, allowing each to shine, and at the same time melding in perfect harmony.

Eating at Al Di La reminds me of the wonderful, and entirely too short time that I spent in Venice during the winter of 2006. Using the wonderful French travel guide, Guide de Routard, we strayed immediately away from tourist traps and into the back allies of Venice. In particular, I remember a meal of simple spaghetti with the small clams they fish from the bay, cuttlefish, and the perfect amount of fresh tomato sauce. It also reminds me of the braised rabbit in a back alley restaurant, found without the help of a guidebook, but through the joys of wandering. There was also a bottle of wine, whose cork smelled of cocoa.

Al Di La’s menu changes on a frequent basis and always has interesting, variable specials. One of the most memorable dishes was a chickpea and grilled octopus salad, which was charred and devoured in seconds. The pastas are always unique and homemade, two excellent examples being the ravioli we red beets and ricotta, smothered in butter and poppy seeds, and the Swiss chard and ricotta gnocchi with brown butter and sage, which melts delicately in your mouth. I’ve also enjoyed the braised rabbit with olives and polenta, even if the rabbit was slightly dry.

So if you get a chance, go stand in line for dinner at Al Di La. Or to avoid the invariable line, go for lunch, at 10 pm, or check out the wine bar, which I think I will be sampling this weekend. Order a bottle of wine, check out the shabby-chic décor of various chandeliers, kitsch wallpaper and oversized art, and enjoy an acutely pleasurable dining experience.

Al Di La Trattoria
248 5th Ave.
718 636-8888‎
Reservations not available

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stone Park Café

Dined at Stone Park Café today for the second time this month. Both times I sat at the same table, and both meals were equally enjoyable. What stands out most at Stone Park is the freshness and quality of both the produce and the meat . The vegetables are minimally tampered with, allowing the clean flavors to stand out. The protein is showcased through simple preparation and generous portions. The menu also has an equally appealing number of fish and meat dishes, which makes for nice variety and balance.

Last time I visited, several weeks ago with a small party of friends and friends' parents, we were there for dinner. The atmosphere was cool and relaxed with fish prints on the wall and brown paper on the tables. I can’t keep track of everything that was served, but I do recall that my Brussels sprouts salad with goat cheese and duck confit was crunchy and the uncooked Brussels sprouts a real treat. Cliff’s steak tartar was also a very interesting concoction served with a Worcestershire jelly, something I had never encountered before. My main course, tilefish, another first, was light and buttery, yet satisifying.

At brunch today, Stone Park was transformed into the most happening brunch joint in Park Slope. Thank God they take reservations for tables of six or more, otherwise it would have been a very long wait. My bluefish cakes with poached eggs, caper hollandaise and celery root slaw was a great take on the original, and I finished every bite. The short rib hash with eggs was also a hit, along with the biscuits and gravy, a dish rarely seen on the New York scene. The side of pommes frites was devoured by all. My Bloody Mary was good and spicy, which I appreciate, as they aren’t all so. My mom's Bellini was a little dull, the peach juice was apparently not cold, and brought the temperature of the sparkling wine down to a not-so-refreshing temperature.

Stone Park has thus far been consistent in quality. My only real complaint was the loud classic hip-hop music during brunch. I couldn’t hear a thing (some people actually like to converse over a good meal) and not everyone particularly enjoys that genre of music. They were also out of the chicken that my mom ordered at brunch, but failed to tell her until very shortly before our meal was served. She made another choice though, and the problem was quickly resolved.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

To Tarry or Not to Tarry?

My 90-year-old grandmother first brought to my attention the recent opening of Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich’s new restaurant in Port Chester, the Tarry Lodge. What was once a rundown, run-of-the-mill, windowless Italian joint has been transformed into the green, bright, chic eatery serving up the well known restaurateurs’ Italian fair.

As she was the one to make the discovery, my grandmother took us there for dinner on an average Wednesday night. My expectations were high. I had read a lot about the Batali/Bastianich team but had never been to one of their restaurants. Most reviews for their other enterprises had been rave, but perhaps my expectations shouldn’t have been so towering for a Port Chester restaurant with mid-range prices. It’s not New York City, after all.

The reservation was tough to get, but we finally snagged a 7:00 slot after several attempts. The place was packed, people crowded around the entrance, noise spilled from the many rooms and frantic hosts ran in all directions. There are two dining rooms downstairs, one larger bar room and another smaller room straight through the entrance. We got a table in the upstairs dining room, hoping it would be quieter.

The second level proved to be nearly as loud, but with less of the hustle and bustle. We were seated at a pleasant corner table and handed enormous single-page menus. I don’t really understand the purpose of such a large, obtrusive sheet of paper. You can’t set it on the table, and the only place it fits is on your lap where, if you’re my height, it comes up to your chin. Why not a smaller, more manageable menu that you’re not in a hurry to get rid of?

After some serious analysis and questions for our waitress about some unfamiliar terms, we made our decisions and placed our order. The knowledgeable sommelier also gave us some help with the vast Italian wine list. Upon his recommendation, we selected a Sardinian red, which was light in body with subtle red fruit. It was a crowd-pleasing recommendation.

While we drank our wine and waited for appetizers, one element that you could not help but notice was the blaring 80’s soundtrack pounding from unseen speakers all around. The choice of music was absurd (think along the lines of Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life” and believe me that was the best of it). The tunes were totally incongruous with the vibe and food of the restaurant. It’s as if they had chosen the music in total disregard of all other elements; the décor, the clientele, the food, the location. Obtrusive to the point of being annoying, we finally asked the sommelier to turn it down, and he graciously accommodated us. After that, we could at least converse. On to the food …

appetizers materialized promptly. I ordered the octopus with baby potatoes that I had been eyeing on the restaurant’s website. I have to say, I love octopus and was a bit disappointed. There was almost too much octopus, cut in large chunks drowned in dressing. It was overly oily and without any defining flavor. Another appetizer ordered was grilled shrimp with pickled watermelon, an interesting combination, but could have been refined. My dad ordered a bowl of faro with charred corn and some sort of fresh cheese, which was probably the best of the dishes. My mother had the new “it” meat, speck, which was paper thin and delicious. It could have used some sort of accompaniment as it was served solo on a sheet of paper like it just came from the deli slicer.

Our bread plates (and by the way, the bread was fantastic) were taken when the appetizers came, but I later saw a family sharing their appetizers. This would have been the way to go, as the aforementioned dishes were a bit overwhelming. However, there was no way to predict individual serving quantities, and sharing wasn’t suggested.

On to the main courses. My father had the squid ink pasta with corn and lobster. It tasted fine, the pasta was cooked well, but it was nothing special. With those three ingredients, I really feel like something outstanding could be created. I had the gnocchi with braised oxtail. The gnocchi was very well prepared and extremely light, and the oxtail was cooked perfectly, but again, the flavors didn’t pop. My mom had the braised short rib, one of her favorite dishes. It was well seasoned although a little salty (even for a big salter like herself), but they skimped with only a trickle of polenta under the sizeable piece of meat. Winkie (Grandma) ordered eggplant parmesan, for what reason I cannot understand (she isn’t a vegetarian), and I think it was decent, but I didn’t hear any rave reviews coming from her side of the table.

So there ends my first encounter with the famed Italian-style restaurateurs. On the down side, the food was just okay. I had expected bolder, fresher flavors, something thrilling to the palate. I knew the food would be rustic, and not too technical, but it just didn’t quite make it. After so much care and attention to the décor and service, the food and its “visual” presentation were a step down.

On the positive side, the restaurant is beautiful, ochre walls and large windows with marble sills. The servers were very knowledgeable and attentive without being pushy. And the prices were reasonable, at least for the Fairfield/Westchester/NYC area.

Although my first visit wasn’t the awesome experience I had hoped for, I would definitely give the Tarry Lodge another shot. The menu is large and varied, and perhaps we ordered wrong. The pizza looked very appetizing. Who knows? Maybe that could be the standout item that keeps you coming back as it was with the original Tarry Lodge. With some refinement of ingredients and presentation, I think the Tarry Lodge may have the potential be a neighborhood hit.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I was just checking out Michael Ruhlman’s blog at, when I came across an entry blasting the press release for Alain Ducasses’s new cookbook, Ducasse Made Simple by Sophie. As it happens, I was the one who translated the press release from French so that it could be sent out to the many editorial staffs around the country who just LOVE getting press release after press release.

So anyways, that’s exciting. Something I worked on getting blasted by the ever amusing, ever sarcastic, ever Teva-wearing Michael Ruhlman. I have to agree with him, the idea of simplifying Ducasse, who is difficult by nature, is slightly ridiculous. But hey, it wasn’t my idea, I just did the translation.

If you want to read what the blog said go to: The Fallacy of the Quick and Easy Cookbook @

Monday, October 20, 2008

Blue Ribbon Brasserie

Ate the other night at Blue Ribbon Brasserie in Park Slope with Cliff, his sister Laura, and his parents, who were kind enough to treat us. Although Mr. H. was bummed about the future of the stock market and was on his Blackberry for much of the time, the food was still very fine indeed. Despites these uncertain times, the Brasserie did not seem to be hurting for business.

Blue Ribbon Brasserie is one of eight successful establishments owned by the Bromberg Brothers. Located directly next to its Sushi counterpart (reviewed below), Blue Ribbon, which opened in Brooklyn in 2001, maintains the high standard of quality that has come to be expected from the Brombergs.

The warm and bustling atmosphere with red walls, a large raw bar, banquettes and mirrors, is a pleasant place to enjoy some comfort food. Out waiter was very attentive and friendly, perhaps even a bit over-eager. We all drank wines by the glass, and my large pour of Tempranillo was pleasing to the palate.

To start, we shared four appetizers. Laura ordered the artichoke, which was classic and delicious with a lemon butter dip. The pirogues that I ordered were hearty and familiar, with some perfectly caramelized onions along side. I didn’t try the sardines, (I was a bit hung-over, but I usually love them), but they got rave reviews from the other diners. Lastly the chicken wings that Cliff ordered were fantastic and came with a little pot of fire to caramelize them on. At first we thought this was a gimmick, but once it got going, it actually put some tasty char on those wings!

For our main courses, Mr. H. and I ordered the duck confit, with an orange sauce and roasted potatoes. It was well cooked and I especially enjoyed the garlicky salad dressing that came on my little side of greens. However, the overall portion of duck was a bit small. Mrs. H. ordered the salmon with mashed potatoes, which she raved about. Laura had the fried chicken that was apparently tender and scrumptious, although she was too full to finish it off. Cliff was the most adventurous and ordered the pigeon (not squab, pigeon) and enjoyed his first encounter with this particular fowl. It was very rich in flavor, and I was proud of the boy who once lived continually on peanut butter sandwiches.

Even though we were all pretty “stuffed,” of course, we ordered dessert. We had one Chocolate Bruno, which is Blue Ribbon’s signature dish, and half portions of both the chocolate chip and Banana Walnut Bread Pudding. I loved the Banana Walnut Pudding because it reminded me of my favorite Baang desert, banana nut spring rolls. My dinner companions gobbled up the chocolate dishes, so we can safely assume they enjoyed them!

It was a very cheering dinner in these not so cheerful times, even if the bill was probably a bit steep. There is something on the menu for everyone, from the youngest to the eldest patron. Diverse, upscale comfort food for all, Blue Ribbon Brasserie in Park Slope is most definitely a winner.

Blue Ribbon Brasserie
278 5th Avenue (between 1st and Garfield)
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Reservations are accepted for five or more.

Birth-Day Par-Tay

Birthday Dinner

I wasn’t going to have a birthday party. I hate when people obsess over their birthdays, so this year I thought I’d just let it pass by. Of course there was the obligatory family dinner, heretofore described, and maybe I’d go out with the boyfriend, but besides that, no party.

Then, suddenly, it was five days before the big day. People started asking, “What are you doing for your birthday?” and “Are you having a party, going to a bar?” Well I couldn’t say I was doing nothing now, could I? So, I sent out a desperate, last minute e-mail trying to wrangle as many people as I could. And then I started planning for the food.

The plan was to have a little shindig over at Cliff’s apartment, no big deal. There would be friends, drinks and lots of food. I decided on an all-appetizer theme. In case you didn’t know, making all appetizers is hard. Preparing lots of little things, as opposed to a few large items, is pretty labor-intensive. Next time I will keep this in mind.

Anyway, things turned out quite well. I made chicken sate, babaganoush with Lebanese flatbread, blinis with crème fraiche and smoked salmon, Stilton stuffed-mushrooms, and two pork tenderloins. We finished it all off with a delicious chocolate cake courtesy of Aux Delice. Several have asked for recipes, so I thought I’d post some of the good ones.

I don’t want to plagiarize, so I have to give a lot of the credit to the cookbook I used, (even though I’d like to say I made them all up). The book is Appetizers, Finger Good, Buffets & Parties, edited by Bridget Jones, and published by Hermes House. The book is generally clear, and the recipes went well for the most part, although some of the directions were a bit confusing. (A lemon-basil aioli dip went disastrously wrong.) Also, since I prefer to go a little free form sometimes, I made some modifications to the recipes

Chicken Saté

I have to say, this was the hit of the party. It went FAST. I doubled the recipe, and it was about enough for 7 people.

3 boneless chicken breasts
6-inch wooden skewers

For the marinade:
• 12 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 8 tablespoons soy sauce
• 8 tablespoons fresh lime juice
• 3-inch piece fresh root ginger, peeled and chopped
• 6 garlic cloves
• 4 tablespoons light brown sugar
• 2 small fresh red chilies, seeded and chopped
• 4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

For the peanut sauce:
• 6 tablespoons peanut butter
• 4 tablespoons soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon sesame oil
• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
• 4 scallions, finely chopped
• 2 garlic cloves
• 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
• 2 tablespoons brown sugar

First, prepare the marinade by mixing all of the above ingredients in a bowl. A food processor is not necessary for this, just make sure you whisk it well.

Next, begin preparing the chicken by making sure all the excess fat is removed. Then slice the chicken into 1½-inch cubes. The easiest way to do this is cut it into about 4 strips length wise, and then cut crosswise.

Place the chicken and marinade in a plastic bag, making sure it’s tightly sealed, and place it in the refrigerator to marinate. If you have the time, leave it overnight. That is what I did and the flavors were powerful and clear.

For the peanut sauce, mix all of the ingredients together in a medium-sized bowl making sure it is well blended. You can adjust the sauce with more peanut butter, soy sauce or sugar depending on your preference. I like mine very peanut-y.

When you are getting ready to grill, skewer the chicken, about three pieces per stick. I used a large, two burner, cast iron grill, but you could use a regular outdoor grill or broiler.

If you are using an indoor grill as I did, turn the heat up very high and let the grill get hot before you start. Cook the chicken for about 2 minutes on each side, or until it is golden and cooked through. If you use the broiler, put them in for about 4-5 minutes on a cookie sheet lined with tin foil (to avoid a burned-on mess).

Place skewered chicken on a serving tray with the peanut sauce and enjoy!