Sunday, August 31, 2008

Short takes for the holiday

A few quick thoughts as I catch up on other things:

Twinkie, Deconstructed
I'm partway through a fascinating book called Twinkie, Deconstructed. The author traces the origins of the ingredients in processed food, working from the ingredient list on a package of Twinkies. You will never think the same way about cornstarch again. Recommended reading.

Food Cellar
Yesterday I visited a new upscale supermarket in the Long Island City neighborhood, Food Cellar, an offshoot of the Amish Market chain. The store is gorgeous--spacious, well-lit, and not crowded. I cannot stress enough how exceptional that is in New York City, where most grocery chains haphazardly cram maximum product into minimum space and shopping at the Whole Foods in Union Square is practically a combat sport. Food Cellar is clearly aiming for the new population of the gentrifying neighborhood, people who would otherwise be taking the subway to one of the Manhattan Whole Foods locations or ordering from Fresh Direct. There really don't seem to be other supermarkets in the immediate neighborhood, even mainstream ones like FoodTown and Associated, though if you head just a few subway stops east into my neighborhood you can find several of those. For me Food Cellar represents an opportunity to get organic or humanely raised meats without having to schlep into Manhattan and change trains, and if I want any of the frozen foods I can probably get them home without melting. I also wonder how much more crowded it will get after the holiday weekend; New York seems to empty out for Labor Day, so I need to reserve judgment. But Food Cellar has a lot more space for the masses than pretty much any other food store I've seen in the city.

Paton Oswalt on Black Angus
I saw a variation of this bit on Oswalt's "Comedy Central Presents" special recently; be warned that there is a fair bit of offensive and adult language in this clip. He certainly has a point; some of these chains are pushing food in quantities that go beyond appetizing to frightening.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Sweet, sweet cauliflower

Once again, I must apologize for protracted absence and reassure you that, as Granny Weatherwax would insist, I aten’t dead. I have just been doing other things. You can accuse me of having my priorities out of whack.

But you cannot accuse me of suggesting that you could pour Coca-Cola over cauliflower and call it food. That crime is ascribable to the editors of Consumer Guide, who in their 1984 More Favorite Brand Name Recipes Cookbook offer this among other less sinister recommendations for working brand-name foodstuffs into your cooking. Sadly, the book does not have many photos, just a few more presentable concoctions in a center-pages insert; I regret this because I would really like to know what this cauliflower mess looks like when ready to serve, but I am not about to waste a perfectly good head of cauliflower to find out for myself.

I’m also utterly mystified about what makes it Japanese. And for that matter I have my doubts about its “pickled” status; to me, the combination of about a cup of sugar and cola with 3/8 of a cup of vinegar and half a tablespoon of salt seems more likely to result in syrup than brine. Perhaps “candied cauliflower” didn’t test well with audiences.

Most of the other recipes in the book are less bizarre than the combination of Coke and cauliflower, but they still include a lot of stretches to include brand-name ingredients where other, less processed foods would probably do just as well or even better. A pork and cheese casserole calls for a particular brand of bleu cheese crumbles, but I’m pretty sure you could substitute whatever kind you had handy. “Chinese Skillet Dinner” lists only one brand-name ingredient, Premium Saltines, half of which are crumbled and mixed in with a combination of butter, celery, scallions, chicken and rice soup, chicken, frozen broccoli, lemon juice and soy sauce; the other half are thinly sliced (yeah, right) and used to scoop up the mixture. Many of the recipes make this halfhearted effort at brand loyalty. Perhaps the editors of Consumer Guide realized what a joke this all was.

The dessert chapters look comparatively good, largely because most of the brand-name ingredients required there are things like Pillsbury flour, Hershey’s chocolate chips and Libby’s canned pumpkin—items that many cooks would already use, or that are easily replaced with better-quality offerings like Ghirardelli. But even in these sections some weird items appear: Superose Liquid Fructose, Butter Buds, Sweet & Low, Dr. Pepper. Significant effort and expense went into producing a book of recipes that would have been far better in the aggregate if readers had been advised to turn away from processed mixes and substitutes and just cook with real food.

Japanese Pickled Cauliflower
1 medium sized head of cauliflower
1 green pepper
½ cup very thinly sliced celery
¾ cup Coca-Cola
6 tablespoons wine vinegar or white vinegar
¼ cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons salt
Break off each floweret in cauliflower, wash and drain. Wash and remove seeds from green pepper; cut into thin 2-inch strips. In large bowl, combine cauliflower and green pepper. Cover with boiling water; let stand 2 minutes; drain thoroughly. Add celery. In small pan, heat Coca-Cola with remaining ingredients. Pour over vegetables. Toss lightly with a fork, and pack into a 1-quart glass jar. Push down lightly so liquid covers vegetables. Cover and chill overnight. This keeps in the refrigerator for several days.
Makes about 1 quart
From More Favorite Brand Name Recipes Cookbook, by the Editors of Consumer Guide. Skokie, Ill.: Publications International Ltd., 1984.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Completely crackers

I've been neglectful of the blog because I've been busy with work. NOT because there's any dearth of material, oh no. Two quick notes:

Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Crackers
How many times have you said, "I like Cheez-Its, but they taste too much like actual cheese, and they're not bright enough to read by at night. What can I do?" Your troubles are over with the introduction of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Crackers. Yes, really.

Is Cereal Supposed to Be Bad for You?
I spotted this at a local grocery store and could hardly believe it: Chocolate Chex. Next to it on the shelf was Strawberry Chex. No. No, no, no. Chex is supposed to be a decent cereal, a not-so-sweet cereal. It's supposed to be one of the few mainstream brands on the cereal aisle that might be a little bit good for you. Turning it into candy is just wrong.

OK, I'm going to go eat some peaches. I'll write more soon.