Friday, February 27, 2009

Give Me a Quarter; I'll Tell You Your Fortune



Fortune Cookies from K&B Bakery, Oregon

Every moment of the fortune cookie experience yields a pleasant sensation. Breaking it apart in half with a sharp snap; pulling the fortune out with a crackling swoosh; cracking bite-sized pieces off either side; the loud crunch of each subsequent bite; the sweet, light flavor hitting your tongue with just the slightest hint of vanilla and almond or honey. That twinge of vanilla stays in your mouth for a moment as you grind the thick, hard cookie pieces into the fine medium orange powder that's all over your shirtfront from the initial break. Not your typical cookie, the light, soft, and short-lived sweetness is the perfect complement to a meal of Americanized/Westernized/bastardized Chinese or Vietnamese food (which has apparently been on my mind a whole lot this week). However, its association is of course, with the former. But interestingly enough, its origins can be traced back to neither.

Rather, the earliest documented occurrence of a similar cookie shape was found in Kyoto, Japan, where random fortunes, or omikuji, were placed in the fold of sesame and miso-based cookies ... not in the hollow section as they are found now. The modern fortune cookie as we know it has a butter and vanilla base for the most common flavor, and its creation has been hotly disputed in California. San Francisco bakery Kenkyodo provided the cookies to Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden, but Los Angeles' Hong Kong Noodle Company, a company that provides many products for Chinese restaurants, holds a claim as well. Also in Los Angeles, the founder of Fugetsu-do in Little Tokyo says that he sold them to Chinese restaurants on the California coast after bringing the concept over from his own nation's traditions.

Regardless of who dreamed the concept up, these crunchy folded treats are now mass-produced by factories in areas of high Asian populations. Wonton Food Inc. in Long Island City of Queens, New York, made notorious by the March 30, 2005 Powerball winning numbers, is one of the big manufacturers, and is most commonly known as its subsidiary cookie producer, Golden Bowl. The Fortune Cookie Co. stays true to its roots in San Francisco, and there are a couple of other companies who are popular, with distinctive plastic wrappers of either a pig in a chef's hat or pink roses (these are better than the pig ones).

Golden Bowl fortune cookies (pictured right) are by far the best, with a more consistently satisfying crunch and a sweetness that lingers a tad longer than the other companies. Their branding is the most modern and the most recognizable from the other companies, since they are usually the manufacturer of choice for many Chinese restaurants (in my experience), and as an added bonus, they do not contain corn syrup. They also have the biggest variety of the wholesale cookie suppliers, being one of the first companies, if not the first, to offer specialty flavored fortune cookies, in citrus, chocolate, and a Neopolitan-style mixed cookie.

The citrus is really great, with a little burst of tangerine and orange and a tiny zest of lemon in every bite. An orange not too much brighter than the original vanilla, the best way to compare the shade is to imagine if a yellowy-orange original fortune cookie ate a few too many carrots and got a few shades brighter. It still has the same level of sweetness we've grown to love in fortune cookies, but with an added acidity, which is kind of refreshing.

The chocolate flavor honestly isn't something to get too excited about. It's more cocoa-y than sweet, and retains more of that earthy flavor cocoa can have if not enough sugar is added. Slightly bitter and a deep brown, verging almost on black in some batches, the only thing that remains true to what makes a fortune cookie a fortune cookie is that little slip of paper and cookie's size and texture. The taste is extremely far removed from what we've come to expect of a fortune cookie.

The "Fun Fun 3 Flavor" ones are exactly that -- one-third vanilla, one-third chocolate, and one-third citrus, presented in horizontal bands of flavor.

Many novelty companies like Fancy Fortune Cookies (whose specialty appears in the photo above) now offer a variety of flavors as well, such as lemon, banana, almond, mint, and strawberry; chocolate-dipped fortune cookies make popular wedding favors these days, too, with customizable fortunes. If you're feeling adventurous, click on the picture below make your own fortune, or get other snacky recipes from eula.wordpress.com, whose blog has all kinds of cookie happiness going on.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

MSG: The Much-Maligned Seasoning

A sparkly rectangular thin crystal, monosodium glutamate (commonly known by its abbreviated form MSG), a flavor enhancer made from a salt derivative, glutamic acid, is perhaps one of the most misunderstood seasonings ever to have been invented. Originally found in seaweed and now commercially created from fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses, all it does is awaken tastebuds and essentially cause you to taste in slightly saltier HD. Yet so much controversy has come of this dissolving granule of flavorant, with myths, perceived effects (showing that mind over matter matters), and the physical manisfestation of hypochondriacs' symptoms, all working together to discredit the safety of consumption of MSG and, unfairly, Chinese food.

I'm referring, of course, to Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Wikipedia sums it up best, so I'm just going to pull a direct quote from the people who've spoken:

MSG as a food ingredient has been the subject of scientifically unsubstantiated health concerns. A report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) compiled in 1995 on behalf of the FDA concluded that MSG was safe for most people when "eaten at customary levels." However, it also said that, based on anecdotal reports, some people may have an MSG intolerance which causes "MSG symptom complex"—commonly referred to as Chinese restaurant syndrome—and/or a worsening of asthmatic symptoms.[7]es of MSG given without food may elicit more symptoms than a placebo in individuals who believe that they react adversely to MSG, the frequency of the responses was low and the responses reported were inconsistent, not reproducible, and were not observed when MSG was given with food.[8] While many people believe that monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the cause of these symptoms, a statistical association has never been demonstrated under controlled conditions, even in studies with people who were convinced that they were sensitive to the compound.[9][10][8][11] Adequately controlling for experimental bias includes a placebo-controlled double-blinded experimental design and the application in capsules because of the strong and unique after-taste of glutamates.[9]

See, to me, the funny thing is that the people who claim these adverse reactions to Chinese food have no physiological complaints against other foods that contain higher amounts of MSG but aren't reputed to be loaded with this ingredient. It's ironic that Chinese food suffers from the association, whereas they only use less than the average pinch of salt of the substance per quart of food. Below is a list of common food items (often processed and refined goods) that contain this seasoning, unbeknownst to the consuming public:
  • Pringles potato chips and many flavored varieties of chips
  • canned soup (recently called out with the start of the "Soup Wars." Click on the picture below to get the full story from the L.A. Times)
  • prepared stock or boullion cubes
  • Vietnamese pho
  • barbecue sauces
  • tortilla chips
  • salad dressing
  • seasoning mixes
  • anything from KFC
  • Ramen noodles
  • McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell menu items
  • Parmesan cheese
  • packaged sausage
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • soy sauce
  • some types of alcoholic beverages
Daunting list of unexpected sources, eh? And that's not even the half of it. MSGTruth.org gives you the whole rundown of who is guilty of sneaking the public this flavor enhancer, and reveals that those new commercials we've seen for umami is in fact a new name for MSG. But they're way more fair in their condemnation of the seasoning due to their unbiased studies (since although I think the majority of people who complain of suffering from MSG in Chinese food are full of it, I recognize and openly acknowledge there are people with sodium sensitivities that should avoid this ingredient) and dub the subsequent dry mouth and hour-later hunger pang the American Restaurant Syndrome instead. They say:

For years MSG Symptom Complex has been known in the US by the misnomer Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. We do not use that term anywhere on this site, except this page. The reason is quite simple. Calling this health problem Chinese Restaurant Syndrome not only does a disservice to Chinese Restaurant owners who do not add MSG, but it also dangerously hides the fact that American processed food is now so loaded with the flavor enhancer Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) as to be the largest source of MSG in the average American diet.

All of this I heartily agree with. It is entirely unfair and unsubstantiated to designate Chinese food as the culprit of all things MSG and evil, when this genre of food is a victim of misinformation. MSGTruth.org also has these valid points to make:


Chinese food, for the most part consists of fresh vegetables quickly cooked. MSG is added at the end as a condiment. It can be NOT added at the consumers request. Most Chinese Restaurant owners also know what else on the menu contains natural MSG - soy sauce for instance is naturally loaded with free glutamate. Wait staff at a Chinese restaurant will often steer the MSG sensitive patron away from dishes containing soy sauce as well as MSG. At Asian restaurants, they know what is in the food because they put it there.


Most American restaurants today purchase their foods from large US food companies that have what are called "Food Service" divisions. In American restaurants, most wait staff and often the cooks don't know what is in the food,because the soup base probably came from a can, those cute little jalapeno poppers came from a brightly colored bag in the freezer, and very little is actually "fresh". And, unfortunately, most American food scientists use the fact that soy sauce, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein naturally contains free glutamate to give their free glutamate containing products what is called "a clean label". So even cooks and wait staff don't even know what they are reading on the labels. The people who create the foods supplied to American restaurants have absolutely no compunction about hoping you don't know that MSG is in your food when you are consciously trying to avoid it.


I couldn't have said it better myself.

So what's the point to this long-winded factual piece? Merely to dispel myth, separate fact from pure fiction, and make the point that--you know what? You may not actually be allergic to MSG. In conclusion, chill out and eat what makes you happy. And if you don't feel well afterwards, well, maybe you should have eaten less, and that's the end of the story.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mo' Than Pho

In every ethnicity, there is the one gateway dish that gets you completely hooked to the cuisine; the one singular specialty that is just so damn good that it compels you to come back time after time just to order what--to your shame in revealing your boring, unadventurous side--becomes fast known as "the usual."

In Vietnamese cuisine, that gateway drug is pho, a big, wide bowl resembling a medium mixing bowl, filled with aromatic broth, roasted meat or fresh seafood, crisp vegetables, fragrant herbs, and a fabulous nest of noodles sitting at the very bottom. The broth is absolutely delicious, a steaming, golden clear liquid with little oil bubbles creating a light film with high sheen over the surface. Typically made from a combination of simmered beef and chicken bones, charred onion, native spices, and plenty of flavor enhancer MSG, there's an incredible complexity to the well-blended flavor that you just don't expect from something considered so common. Even to those with a well-developed and refined palate, it's challenging to individualize each thing you're tasting in this exotic blend.

(Photau borrowed from food blogger TheGrandInternational.com, who also has a great
recipe posted for Vietnamese pho -- click on the picture to get right to it!)


The noodles are the second main component of this popular soup, traditionally sheets of fresh or loops of dried rice noodles. Soft, slippery, and slightly chewy on first bite, these plain noodles border on compared to the sweet shallot and garlic infused broth. Wonton noodles are my personal favorite, making the pho more closely resemble the soups of Chinatown, New York. Thin strands of firm, yellow noodles with a yolkier and richer flavor than is ever available in European or American egg noodles, these have a great bite and more depth of taste than the neutral rice noodles, which in my opinion, goes better with the show-stopping broth, which just overshadows the traditional noodles.

Topped with green onions/scallions, cilantro, Thai basil, dried garlic and/or shallots, and Romaine lettuce or Napa cabbage slowly absorbing moisture at with the noodles at the bowl's bottom, there's a lot going on here. Lime, jalapenos, and bean sprouts are typically served on the side for added refreshment or spice, whatever your pleasure.

Sounds delicious, right?

Well, it most definitely is ... but it's time to break out of your Vietnamese comfort zone and I guarantee you'll be glad you did.

My rave of the day is about different types of bun, or Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodle bowls. (I know I'm venturing into territory where there may be some inaccuracy due to things getting lost in translation, and for that, I apologize.) Essentially a big bowl of noodle salad, this authentic dish is considerably lighter than pho and just as delicious ... just in a different way. Sweet and slightly tangy where pho is straight up savory, it's still equally complex and layered with exotic, heavy flavor. Vermicelli noodle bowls have more crisp vegetable components, the shredded (versus whole-leaf of pho) lettuce and cold bean sprouts/mung beans still exhibiting that watery crunch that's just so refreshing in contrast to everything else that's going on in your mouth. Cool or room-temperature, these thin rice noodles have a completely different mouthfeel than your usual broad, flat noodles. Round all the way through, a tad softer than al dente, and retaining more of that rice flavor than its slicker cousin, it forms a great foundation for the heaping mounds of stuff piled on top.

(Photo borrowed from NaokoMoore.com)

The name of the specific type of dish (other than just bun) depends on what you put on top of its noodle base. You get to choose the type(s) of meat--juicy, scented lemongrass beef; sweet chargrilled chicken, fatty sweet pork, or plump shrimp; Chinese style red roasted pork; or crispy mini egg rolls filled with good stuff like pork, carrots, cellophane/bean thread noodles.

The usual suspects that you'll find on top of this hot mess is fresh sprigs of cilantro, coarsely crushed peanuts, fried garlic and shallots, and occasionally onions, crisp cucumbers, and of course, the bean sprouts and shredded lettuce. And if all that wasn't hard enough to taste in your mind's (eye? ... mouth?), you're expected to top it all off with a "dressing" of cane sugar and lime-sweetened fish sauce (which, by the way, is not fishy at all when used as a dressing, due to the blend of additive substances like the sugar) mixed with some of that famous Sriracha sauce. Stir that together in a little cup, pour, and mix and you've got yourself the makings of a meal that will blow your senses clean away on pure overload.

What does it taste like?

Imagine this: sweet, a little salty, with a bit of a smoky, fried element added from the shallots and garlic. Cold and refreshing in one bite, and heavy, meaty, and nutty in the next. A hint of heat, or more if you're not afraid of the chili paste or Sriracha, toned down by the medium density of the vermicelli rice noodles and the cool cucumbers, lettuce, mung beans, and cilantro.

Still can't put a finger on it? I guess you better try it yourself, since the essence of these noodle bowls is almost beyond words.
  • Pho Tau Bay: (Love this place!) 113 Westbank Expressway, #C, Westbank in Gretna, LA; (504) 368-9846
  • Nine Roses/Hoa Hong 9: (Go for the pho here.) 1100 Stephen Street, Westbank in Gretna, LA; (504) 366-7665
  • Dong Phuong: 14207 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans (East), LA; (504) 254-0296
  • August Moon: 3635 Prytania Street, Garden District of New Orleans, LA; (504) 899-5129
  • Ba Mien Restaurant: 13235 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans (East), LA; (504) 255-0500
  • Pho Bang Restaurant: 14367 Chef Menteur Highway, New Orleans (East), LA; (504) 254-3929
  • Jazmine Cafe: 314 South Carrollton Avenue, Uptown New Orleans, LA; (504) 866-9301

Monday, February 23, 2009

Mardi Gras King Cake or Diabetic Sugar Coma?

Christmas and New Year's fast become hazy, distant memories in New Orleans, since as early as January, after Twelfth Night on the sixth, the city begins its annual draping of bright, gem-toned, somewhat abrasive, but impossible to miss colors -- a jarringly abrasive goldenrod yellow (or gold), forest to kelly green, and a rich, bright purple--the first appearance of these hues on supermarket king cakes being the first indication that Carnival is upon us.

Famous local bakeries like Haydel's, Gambino's (their king cake is here on the right, photo courtesy of their site), and Randazzo's find themselves shipping king cakes all over the country, some selling out and sending them to customers year-round, even though tradition dictates that they be available only for the Mardi Gras. Personally, I think that's something that should be stuck to, since it's really easy to OD on sugar just eating a little bit of it.

Maybe it's because I'm from Long Island, New York (my fiance can't stomach king cakes, and my sisters found it overwhelming), or maybe it's because of my ethnic background (I mean, culturally, we serve fruit as a dessert and our sponge cake pastries tend towards the flavorless side), but the sweetness of this raved-over cake just kills me. It's great for the first couple of bites, but after that initial taste, it's a bit much to handle.

Longwindedness aside, you may wonder: what is a king cake?

Served as a round with a hole in the middle like a Danish ring, the landscape of this twisted pastry is an exciting one, full of swells and uneven dips. This kind of inconsistent appearance is always a good thing, since it indicates that it's been handmade from scratch ... as they usually are. Topping off the king cake is a thick layer of white glaze (not icing! The topping very obviously was poured on like molten candy to drip as it pleased) made from confectioner's sugar, then literally coated generously (not to be confused with sprinkled liberally or dusted over) with a dense covering of sugar crystals in purple, yellow, and green.

A big bite of king cake (seen left, courtesy of MyRecipes.com) is obviously extremely sweet, but the cake itself is slightly flaky in medium density air-puffed layers that are cool to the taste and not overly rich or as buttery and light as croissants. It's often said to be reminiscent of twisted brioche, and it's swirled with cinnamon in sparkly rings that lace through the pastry like candy veins, giving a sweet shot of life to the mild-tasting bread. Scrape half the toothachey sweet glaze and wipe all of the colorful sugar off, and we have ourselves a tasty treat that closely resembles the delicious Danish Rings that Entenmann's makes, a delightful substitution in an area they don't service. However, with all of that superflous candy all over the entire thing, it's overdone, overcontrived, and a massive headache and stomachache waiting to happen. And as some very Southern foods tend to excess, king cakes are easily pushed even further over the line with fillings of (even sweeter) praline, strawberry, cream cheese, and others, which blow my mind with the fact that they're growing each year in popularity.

This is not to say I don't enjoy an occasional slice of king cake. I do, truly. See that picture? That's me on the left in my college days, diving in on Mardi Gras day to fuel for Fat Tuesday. I mean, there's a great play of texture in the king cake -- the soft give under the initial hard crust of the glaze; the crispy grains of sugar that roll like sand in your mouth before dissolving; the refreshing neutrality of the cake, cut with sparks of cinnamon, with its satisfyingly soft yet firm bite. These are all good things. All I'm saying is that it's hard to devour these candy beasts of treats the way native New Orleanians do, so more power to 'em and God bless great dental plans.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Guilty Pleasures: Fast Food Fish Fillets

As a shameless foodwhore, I have many guilty pleasures, many of which I'm not actually that guilty about. I just know I should be. As a food writer, it's assumed that I'm all uptight and and will only let Michelin-approved cuisine pass my lips -- but that's simply not true. I'm more a gourmand than a gourmet, and my insatiable appetite dictates that I just can't be that insanely picky because a) I'm a writer, so I'm really too poor to be that discerning all the time; b) I can turn on and off my food-writer-tastebuds at will and lower my expectations appropriately, to properly enjoy the benefits of pure junk food; c) sometimes, crap is delicious. 'Nuff said.

Many people are sketched out by the idea of eating fish from a fast food restaurant, which is completely understandable. Seafood as a whole needs to be of a certain standard to even be edible without getting you sick, and "fish" is such a generic term that you can't be entirely sure what you're getting. I only eat them because I grew up doing so, and for a long while, I would hide the fact that I really, really loved a good ol' fried fish sandwich from my friends. After all, it was Long Island, and in lower-middle class Suffolk County, you just didn't eat that. Regardless of living on an island shaped like a fish surrounded by fish, Lawng Islanders just didn't eat the stuff, which is more the shame.

The funny thing about all of this is that since eating fish was considered "gross" and taboo by my peers, I stopped eating real fresh fish for many years, and would only eat the processed fast food fish fillets. Ironic, isn't it? But still, they beat the hell out of any fish sticks my mom would massacre. (The cooking gene passed from my chef grandparents right to me and my siblings, fortified by my dad's abilities, skipping right over my poor stove-challenged mom.)

Since it was a low-volume food item, even back in the day -- before fast food was all about making it fresh and mostly about pre-preparedness -- the fish fillets always came out nice and crispy. A light, crumbly crust coats the fish itself, and breaks easily at the bite with a satisfying medium crunch. The fish is always a mild white variety, dense of flesh, flaky but firm, and slightly sweet as opposed to the harsher and more apparently sea-derived flavors of fish like salmon, or the neutral and relatively tasteless quality of mahi-mahi. Served on soft, warmed buns and coated with a tart and tangy tartar sauce, I like the fillet hot and the tartar squishing out of the sandwich. But that's not saying a whole lot, since I ask for my mayonnaise "disgusting" to get the proper amount of ooziness.

The big three for fish sandwiches are the big three for fast food: McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's (photo from Wendys.com). Rally's, known in other regions as Checkers, offers a fish sandwich, too, but seafood for under or around a buck or two is hard for me to trust. Low-rent is hardly how you want your fish categorized, and if the buns are any indication of the quality of what's within, well ... you know.

Here's my rundown on facts you should know about each of your options before you chow down:
  • McDonald's: The buns at McDonald's are much more superior than their competitors. Slightly sweet, their bread is always light and fluffy from being warmed, and although you can't really tell due to the softness, toasted. This does indeed make a difference, since that sweetness lends itself to enhance the flavor of the fish fillet itself and provides a lovely contrast to the creamy, chunky tartar sauce, which is nicely reinforced with a good amount of pickled relish blended in for bite. Their tartar sauce is also one of the best I've had since the flavor balances and texture is dead-on to the point that I could very well eat a tartar sauce and cheese sandwich ... often necessary due to the unequal rectangular size of the fish fillet. The fish itself is consistently hot and crispy, firm and sweet, and of a pretty good thickness. Topped with melted cheese, that additional luxury complements all of the other flavors very, very well, and balances out the chunkiness of the tartar sauce with smooth, ooey goodness. The award-winning fries are a perfect accompaniment to the Filet-o-Fish, the salty golden shoestrings providing a contrast to the sweetness of the sandwich. This fillet weighs in at 470 calories.
  • Burger King: (logo courtesy of britishblogs.co.uk) By a span of several centimeters, this is the biggest of the fish sandwich offerings, with a diameter that surpasses that of its smaller counterparts, dwarfing McDonald's offering, even with the Filet-o-Fish's expansion a few years ago. However, although the BK Big Fish has its competitors beat in size, its quality is proportionately lower and the fillet is thinner. The corn-dusted bun is an improvement over their supermarket-variety toasted but still a little soggy sesame-seed buns. One of the only fast food chains that still premakes some of their menu items, their sandwiches are pretty inconsistent, meaning you can get a piping hot, crispy fish fillet one day and a sloppy, heat-drawer steamed hot mess the next. The dark meat is more interspersed than the mostly-white and vein-free goodness of Mickey D's and Wendy's, indicating a lower quality in my opinion (I like all of my meat and meat products clear and unblemished, and won't even eat veiny chicken). It's still nice and mild, but not as subtly flavored as the others. The tartar sauce is more sweet than what's found at the other two chains mentioned, but the crisp, cool iceberg lettuce is refreshing and provides a little more of that sweeter note. A heavyweight at 640 calories and not as succulent as the others, you may want to rethink your choice if you shoot for this one.
  • Wendy's: Founded on a premise that fast food could still be good food, Wendy's makes their fish sandwich no exception. With sandwiches made to order, the toppings taste fresh and the sanwiches are consistently tasty. The Premium Fish Fillet is the thickest, meatiest, and juiciest of the three fast food giants, and also the most flavorful. Made with North Pacific cod, as they proudly advertise, this is no mystery meat, which is obviously always a plus. The panko breading is light and fries up well, crumbling in small granules and satisfyingly crisp. I have yet to have a fish fillet here that's suffered from being kept in a warming drawer, whereas the crispy chicken sandwiches like the Spicy and Classic are never a sure thing for textural satisfaction, much like their crapshoot fries, which are either undercooked, overcooled, improperly drained, under- or over-salted, or a combination of those things in one batch. But going back to the fish, their use of a warmed (not toasted) sweet "Kaiser" corn-dusted bun is a smart choice, and they model their sandwich's composition after Burger King's formula, but improves it by dint of quality. A more chunky than creamy smooth tangy tartar tops it all off, and a cold full leaf of iceberg lettuce is a welcome blast of coolness. Ask them to top this one off with a slice of American cheese and we have ourselves a winner! Unfortunately, this one is purely seasonal. 470 calories is what this one will cost you around your wasteline.
Conclusions and Findings:

Wendy's wins this comparison for best fish fillet sandwich, but for the whole meal package, go for the Golden Arches, whose fries go best with their sandwich. Best case scenario? Get your sandwich at Wendy's and head to McDonald's (Filet-o-Fish pictured right) for your side. Burger King's selling point is in its size, but it becomes a classic case of quality versus quantity, and the breaded fries, great on their own when done well, don't necessarily mesh with the flavors of the sandwich.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Universally Appealing Corniness

I've always been a sucker for cornbread. The fact that I get excited over 33-cent boxes of Jiffy mix should attest to that. I just frickin love cornbread, whether it's the coarse grainy texture of said Jiffy mix, the soft, crumbly yellow squares from the (Southern) supermarket, or best yet, when it's the hot stuff straight from a restaurant's oven.

In New Orleans, I encountered the most special cornbread ever, at a little hole in the wall on Oak Street uptown (a Carrollton neighborhood filled with cute, privately owned restaurants, bistros, shops, bars, and coffee spots and the site of the delicious Po-Boy Preservation Festival each fall) that's actually pretty famous -- Jacques-Imo's.

Owned by renowned chef Jacques Leonardi, a fellow Tulane University alumnus and a graduate of the Chef Paul Prudhomme (of K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen; the "Magic" chef himself) school of cooking, his eclectic style reflects those deep, smoky flavors born of the Cajun style of cooking often found at K-Paul's. His informal, friendly personality does, too, but his personality, as well as the character of the restaurant and food bring daring eccentricity to a whole other level. Serving a lot of fresh gamey meats and a variety of fish and seafood, every entree comes with his signature spinach salad in a black sesame and sweet soy viniagrette blend (the house and only dressing) and two sides for around $30 and change. (*For photos of some key dishes, as well as the original of where I borrowed the above picture from, click here or on the picture.*)

The vibe is funky, bohemian, and exotic--"Jesus candles" light up each of the tables, set with mismatched vinyl cloths; the chairs are a bowlegged ragamuffin bunch; the furiously spinning ceiling fan looks ready to fall from the swamp-shack rear dining room, complete with splintering wood beams; the kitchen is fully exposed and must be walked through to get to the dining area and/or bathroom ... the list goes on. But then again, you wouldn't expect anything less from a founder whose regular uniform is a chef's jacket and Bermuda shorts, whose beard is always perfectly trimmed but whose hair looks styled in a windtunnel.

The food is incredible. The flavors are unexpected yet familiar, complex but strong, and the taste of the meat shines through without being plain. But as an unabashed carb-slut in addition to being a general foodwhore, the fresh corn muffins at Jacques-Imo's really take the cake.

Freshly baked in butter-coated trays all night long, these come to the table piping hot, with crackling crisp edges and a rich corn flavor that is very sweet for cornbread without being achingly so. A perfect balance. These pre-dinner treats are lightly glazed with slighly salted butter, and have fresh toasted garlic on top, filling the little crannies. For a splash of color, since they don't contribute much flavor, dried parsley flakes are sprinkled over it.

There's a satisfying thin crunch as you break into the fragrant muffins, the teasingly sweet corn taste covering your tastebuds as the scent of garlic wafts up your nose for a sensory overload of amazing flavor. With each bite, a small puff of hot steam enters your mouth, and milk or buttermilk-tinged, moist, precious crumbs scatter. It's actually very impressive how extremely light and not at all dry these muffins are, given their external crispness and small size.

To sum it up, you know how a lot of people go to Red Lobster just for those addicting Cheddar Bay biscuits? Up the ante on the food, and the corn muffins are that much better proportionately.

Can't wait for dinner/carb overload tonight!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Gumbo Grumble

* Ruth's Chris Gumbo (photo courtesy of Ruth's Chris New Orleans' marketing team) ... and it really looks exactly like this every time. *

I was watching the semi-finals episode Top Chef last night on Bravo (since being a very proper foodwhore, my channels are--for the most part--pretty permanently affixed to the Travel Channel, Food Network, and marathons of Top Chef) which for 2009, takes place in this wonderful city I live in. The Quickfire Challenge was for three returning chefs to compete for a fifth spot (!!!) for the semi-final challenge by way of crawfish. I'll admit that I'm a bad New Orleanian in one respect, that I don't enjoy the taste of these distinctive little mudbugs, but I can appreciate what it's supposed to taste like and what would be a good representation of the critters.

Segue into the elimination challenge, where the contestants cook for the highly respected and celebrity-studded Krewe of Orpheus' masquerade and for esteemed chef Emeril Lagasse. The one and only criteria for these key players as they run amok through Emeril's Delmonico on St. Charles Avenue? That they show an ability to cook Creole food.

Now, that sounds pretty simple, since Creole encompasses so many different styles. There's a lot of flexibility. The main ethnic foci are French (well, duh), Spanish, African-American ... with a touch of Caribbean thrown in. Other important aspects include:
  • the presence of the Holy Trinity; bell peppers, (yellow) onions, and celery, often diced very small
  • use of fresh, local ingredients
  • fearlessness of subtle heat, adventurous spices
  • generous heapings of sauce and/or butter.
The flavor profile of New Orleans is huge, so there's a whole lot you can do with all this. I give great props to Hosea, who really read up on the cuisine of New Orleans before coming here (they all had months and should have done the same) and was able to put out the most accurate dishes for the area, showing inventiveness while preserving what makes Big Easy food Big Easy food.

However, it's very annoying when people that aren't from this region automatically assume that when people ask for New Orleans dining, they want gumbo. I cringe when people that are unfamiliar with the food here attempt to make and serve gumbo, since there are age-old traditions that--no matter how avant garde you fancy yourself--should always be adhered to. And Stefan was right in saying that everyone serves their own particular kind of gumbo with different ingredients, since recipes are all passed through families and altered generation through generation ... but still. Here is where Stefan went wrong:
  • You can't make gumbo without a roux. I don't know what he was using to thicken up his, but it didn't fluff up right. For a healthier option, many choose to bake their roux versus the classic laborious stove top method (which Hosea did, and more power to him to spend the appropriate amount of time on it), but I certainly didn't see Stefan do either of those things.
  • Gumbo on grits?! No, no, no. There should ALWAYS be a nice dollop of firm, medium-grain white rice in the middle of your bowl. Not mixed in, but almost serving as an extremely functional point of interest. It adds a neutral slightly sweet flavor to the usually salty dish, and makes it even heartier. There's also something so satisfying about mixing it all up. How can you mix up grits that way? They'd get watered down and diluted and sit at the bottom like a big old sandbar.
  • Gumbo is usually dark(er) than that red mess he served on the show. Normally a brackish brown, like the color of the Mississippi River, swamp food needs to look like swamp food. I mean, gumbo is more Cajun than Creole (Cajuns are big fans of the one-pot slow-cooked medleys), anyway.
As for actual ingredients, as I mentioned before, that may vary according to taste. I prefer my gumbos to be free of seafood, with an allowance for fresh, cleaned shrimp. My favorites are made with andouille sausage (this is the only must-have, I believe); either slow-roasted chicken, braised off the bone, some nice duck, or delicious turkey; and plenty of the Trinity with bit of okra's bite. Seafood gumbos usually include crab, oysters, and some fish, but don't confuse seafood gumbo with bouillabaise -- it's not.

This is just a smattering of what New Orleans has to offer for gumbo-philes, but for spot-on land animal (mostly) gumbos, check these places out:
  • Cafe Amelie in the Princess of Monaco Courtyard and Carriage House (shown right): 912 Royal St., French Quarter
  • Brennan's: 417 Royal St., French Quarter
  • Drago's: Hilton Riverside and 3232 N. Arnoult Rd. in the Fat City neighborhood of suburban Metairie
  • Commander's Palace: 1403 Washington Ave., Garden District
  • Ruth's Chris: 228 Poydras St., Downtown and 3633 Veterans Blvd., Metairie

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Yoplait Yogurt - It Really IS "Sooo Good"


I cringe inwardly every time I look at the label on my yogurt of choice since it brings back unpleasant, stifled memories of the most irritating commercial and commercial actress there ever was -- the pixie-haired brunette that made ridiculous comparisons to how good Yoplait yogurt was ("This is like, cute best man good." *Spastic eye-roll*). For a long while, I boycotted this brand of yogurt because I couldn't handle how obnoxious and cliche those girl-power-yogurt ads were. But for health reasons (live and active cultures, like Acidophilus are phenomenal preventative creatures, and Calcium and Vitamin D become more important as women age), I found it necessary to dive back into the world of yogurt-eating, and only justify trying Yoplait again since:
  1. They finally stopped making those television commercials.
  2. It became harder and harder to find Colombo. (C'mon -- you must remember this brand! Happy little blue and yellow cups with snap-together spoons built into the lid?)
  3. Dannon's cups shrunk in size by half, and the level of sweetness went up by half. (The "fruit at the bottom" people.)
  4. Meanwhile, Stony Field wasn't sweet enough. (They do the organic, nothing artificial yogurt.)
Okay, back to my point.

After trying the Yoplait Lights, I found that those were basically kind of disgusting. With an artificial aftertaste due to it having been sweetened with aspartame, it leaves a funky feeling in your mouth, which can sometimes travel up to your nose. Although the calorie count is approximately anywhere from 70-90 less than the Original, it's not worth it to feel like you're choking on a cloud of Sweet 'N Low while you're eating it, and feel like your tongue's villae have become noticeably furrier afterwards.

So that's my contention on fake-sugar yogurts, which I now steer very clear of.

Yoplait Original is pretty good, of medium consistency, many varieties have real fruit inside (the Cherry is particularly tasty), and the density is such that it's easily stirred with minimal effort, but not liquidy and watery. There isn't often that thin film that sits atop the ones you have to mix yourself, like the Dannon classics, which is nice. They're already pre-blended, though, so you can't control the amount of stuff per spoonful, which is Dannon's biggest plus.

However, for a handful of calories more, I've discovered the Yoplait Thick & Creamy yogurts to be particularly satisfying for a sweet tooth that isn't craving a full-on dessert. Extremely, extremely dense and thick, you can stick your spoon in the middle of it before stirring and it won't fall down. Nice. (Or kind of gross, depending on how you feel about gelatin, the collagen of animals, in your dessert-like snack.) It fluffs up pretty nicely once your whip it up vigorously, but maintains that rich, thick mouthfeel that kind of coats your tongue with a smooth, cool layer that doesn't run anywhere. A fellow food blogger described it negatively as "bouncy." But on the other hand, I find it particularly annoying in yogurts with thin consistencies, when the yogurt runs off and mixes with your saliva before you even have a chance to swallow.

Another plus is that the Thick & Creamy blends are slightly less saccharine-sweet than the other types. The Vanilla is the mildest I've been able to find at a typical grocery store without tingeing on the slightly tart, bitter flavor that plain yogurts have. With just a hint of vanilla, its density reminds me more of custard, which makes it easier to eat. The Strawberry Banana is my other favorite, more banana-y than strawberry-y, which is a plus since the banana lends a heaviness that tones down the berry a great deal. Processed strawberries tend to cut right into your salivary glands with that overly sugary flavor, causing an instant ache, and this combination does not.

Appalling, or -- Appling

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Or at least, that's what my mother always said to me as she sliced up pieces of this nutrient-rich fruit. According to USApple.org, weighing in at an average of 80 calories, this contender is free of fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol. Not too shabby, eh? And there's more: they're "a natural source of health-promoting phytonutrients, including plant-based antioxidants;" contribute "the mineral boron to the diet, which may promote bone health;" and "because of apples' high fiber content, the fruit's natural sugars are slowly released into the blood[stream], helping [to] maintain steady blood sugar levels," part of why the first thing a diabetic reaches for is a slice of this crunchy snack.

With all that in mind, it is with deepest regret that I cannot tolerate the feel of a fresh raw apple in my mouth.

Wtf?!

Chill out and let me explain. This aversion to apples is not one of taste--since the sweet juices with its slightly tart flavor is kind of pleasant--but rather of texture and sensation. The peel is at such odds with the fruit itself, waxy, thick, and requiring a great deal of chewing to ensure that it doesn't get stuck in your throat. If you eat an apple without its peel, it has a tendency to turn brown rather quickly from exposure to the air, which is not aesthetically appealing.

The crisp crunch of the apple when you bite into it bothers me, too. Many consider it a refreshing feeling as the molecular structure breaks and juice flecks out and hits your tastebuds; others like the powerful feeling of crunching into something with a gratifying hollowly snapping sound. I am not one of those people. I prefer food with a little more give and a little less bite.

However, this is my main beef with apples: the squeak. The what? The squeak! People often look at me like I'm crazy when I try to describe this sensation. There's something about apples, with the crunching and the sweetness, that make it so that my teeth squeak and grate against one another inside my head, and it reverbrates and echoes through my skull like nails across a chalkboard ... straight into my brain. In all, it makes my brain hurt.

Although an apple a day may do a whole lot of good, it's just way too agonizing of an experience for me. I mean, there are types out there with different flavors that feel differently, but the end result is always the same no matter what variety I try to eat. Fuji apples, with their more crumbly texture and sugary taste, are more tolerable than most; Golden Delicious have a good flavor as well; Galas are even crumblier than Fujis at times, and even milder. Red Delicious, the most common of them all, strikes me as particularly dry and grainy. But Granny Smiths, those tart little green ones that are so delicious as pie filling, or enthrall children and adults alike as candied apples? To hell with them--they make my teeth squeak the most. I'll take my apple a day warm and under streusel; thanks.

Gratuitous Sexiness

Trio of Chocolates - Restaurant August

Chef John Besh’s restaurants are internationally acclaimed for inventive cuisine, and the desserts at this award-winning establishment do not disappoint. Complex flavor is emphasized, so the forms of desserts may change, but the featured tastes remain the same. For example, with the Trio of Spiced Chocolate, the focus is on vanilla-scented white chocolate, milk chocolate with chili, and salt and caramel bittersweet … but whether it will come as a cake, custard, mousse, or other is unpredictable.

Here, a thin, crispy caramel wafer, delicate and light, rests atop a hunk of salted bittersweet. The vanilla element in the middle is represented by hollow "cigarettes," constructed of such sweetness that the crunchiness gets firmly embedded into your molars. They're filled with a fluffy white chocolate type of cream and dusted with confectioner's sugar. The little dish on the left was the chili-spiced chocolate, a creme brulee type of dessert with the faintest hint of pepper. Shaved smooth milk chocolate and a dollop of fresh, rich whipped cream top it off.