Archive for April, 2009

The Stringier, The Better

Let’s be honest: how delicious is string cheese? Seriously, there’s like a mere handful of foods that lend themselves to being played with (who among us hasn’t made a mashed potato volcano?), and string cheese is by far my favorite. There is, however, a painfully easy way to ruin string cheese: by making it “low fat”. It turns into a rubbery, chewy, flavorless log of proccessed cheese food, AND, to make things WORSE, it doesn’t even string properly! You can tear off little hunks here and there, but that satisfying feeling of peeling off one long, perfectly proportioned strip has completely gone out the window.

I am not an advocate of foods that are low fat, lactose-free, low sodium, sugar-free, sugarless, and so on and so forth. It totally negates the whole reason you’re eating food in the first place: because it TASTES GOOD. There are those who, for whatever reason, cannot regularly indulge in full-fat or salty foods, and I understand. It is important to take care of your health. BUT. If you’re a healthy, young, active person, why not take advantage of the butter-filled pastries, the frosted cupcakes, the fatty meats? Do you really enjoy that low-carb no fat no salt high-fiber tofurkey wrap with soy cheese and sprouts?

I’ll illustrate my point with this little anecdote involving sugar-free gummi bears and the havoc they wreaked on my intestinal tract. I was at Treasure Island, the most European grocery store in America, and plopped what I thought was a container of Haribo gummi bears in my basket. I didn’t read the label closely (are you starting to sense a pattern here? I am not a careful grocery shopper) and instead brought home a crapload of sugar-free gummi candies. Mindlessly, I popped the bears into my mouth as I absorbed hours of crap TV. The container was half empty and I was starting to feel….not good. Soon, I was hit with wave after wave of the most insane stomach cramping I’ve ever felt. I lay curled on my side on the couch, clutching my stomach and wishing I could throw up or something, just to ease the torture. This went on almost all night, even after two doses of Pepto and four chalky Tums. It wasn’t until the next day that I noticed the “sugar free” label on the plastic box, which reminded me that my family does not tolerate artifical sweeteners well. I Googled “gummi bear stomach pain” and was faced with page after page of similar agonizing experiences that occurred after chowing down on some sugar-free gummi bears. Apparently the sugar substitute used in these products is Lycasin, which is known to cause gastrointestinal distress.

This is why I stick to the real stuff, people. Real sugar ain’t never give me no trouble.

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Unappetizing

Just how often are things described as “chunky” also things that are delicious? Not very often, let me tell you. Busy day today, but I just wanted to hop on and express my distaste for one odious bearer of the “chunky” moniker: Jif EXTRA Chunky Peanut butter.
Having skipped breakfast this morning due to my tardy arrival to work which was in turn caused by my Nyquil coma, I was frickin’ starving by the time 10:00 rolled around. Like, stomach-growling-so-loud-my-coworkers-looked-at-me-funny starving. Having only grabbed an apple on my way out the door, I opted to stop by my neighborhood sandwich/wine/grocery store hoping for a package of English muffins and a jar of smooth, creamy peanut butter to supplement said apple. The store yielded no English muffins, so I settled for a weirdly-hued, supposedly “whole wheat” bagel and grabbed what I THOUGHT was creamy peanut butter from the shelf.
Once back at the office, I sliced the crumbly bagel in half (whole wheat my aunt Fanny), toasted it, and opened the jar of Jif. To my horror and dismay, I had grabbed EXTRA CHUNKY PEANUT BUTTER. I seriously debated my options for a minute. Do I return? Do I sigh resignedly and smear the stuff on the bagel? Do I pitch the whole jar, thinking not of the starving children? I went with the second choice, knifing out just enough peanut butter to cover both faces of the bagel. I found myself getting annoyed at how difficult it was to spread, and increasingly frustrated at the bits of whole peanut that kept catching on my knife. Back at my desk, I plowed through both halves of the bagel, alternating with gulps of water to ease the carb-y, peanutty lumps down my throat.

My distaste for this version of PB stems from not only the gross name, but also the unexpected crunch you get when you bite into something smeared with the concoction. I hate chunky peanut butter. There, I said it. And if you happent to be one of those freaks who choose chunky over smooth, may God have mercy on your soul.

Nothing That’s Red

I can’t say that I was a particularly picky eater as a child. Going back through my meticulously chronicled baby book that my mother slaved over, recording every minute detail about the wonder that was a baby Me, I noticed a pattern. Each year (the book recorded the first five years of my life), my mother would write down my favorite foods. Without fail, they were olives and pickles. The salty tang of a pickle is something I’ve craved on a regular basis throughout my life, and it’s heartening to see that I’ve stuck to my guns lo these many years. Those favorites aside, there generally wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t eat, pleasing my parents to no end as my older brother was a prissy little kid who turned his nose up at everything from spinach quiche to stir-fried tofu with broccoli, snow peas, and brown rice. Next to him, I was a human garbage disposal.

Full disclosure: at age two, I ditched pickles and olives in favor of dirt and paper. When asked why I was eating paper I responded “because it tastes like paper.” Touche, little Me. Touche. At around age four, following a bout of the stomach flu that involved copious amounts of red vomit, I refused to eat anything red for over a year. Red apples? Nope. Red onions? Nuh-uh. Red soups, sauces, or dips? Go. Fuck. Yourself. NOTHING RED. I got over this aversion, but still, whenever I eat something red, some long-forgotten part of me wonders what it’ll look like should it make its way back out via my mouth hole. Still red, I’d imagine.

The FDL

About a month ago, I was out to dinner with three of my high school girlfriends at a fabulous sushi/Thai place here in Chicago (Butterfly Sushi…get the curry). We were plowing through plates of smooth, creamy, slow-heat curry and mounds of perfectly-decorated sushi, downing glasses of cheap white wine like we didn’t have to work the next day. “We should do this every month!” my friend J. exclaimed around a mouthful of Godzilla Roll. “Well, why don’t we?” was the resounding answer. Thus, the Fine Dining League was born.

The rules are simple: each month, one of us picks a restaurant in the greater Chicagoland area to sample. The cost cannot be more than $60 a person, and everyone has to agree on the choice. Other than that, the world is our oyster. Last night marked the FDL’s first official (and probably most expensive) excursion.

As someone who reads food blogs as voraciously as some indulge in the gossip rags, I had heard nothing but praise for Graham Bowles’ first restaurant, Graham Elliot. Described as “bistronomic,” GE (as it is casually referred to by those in the know) walks that fine line between food snobbery and refined accessibility. Bathed in soft orange light, the interior features about 25 tables, with four booths separated from the main dining area by vases filled with large brown branches. As we sat down at our table, our waiter handed us menus bound in buttery suede, with the letters “g e” embossed on the cover. We eagerly perused the menus, having spent the entire day on the GE website, visually devouring the descriptions of the food and the accompanying pictures.

Bowles has divided the menu into four distinct sections: Cold, Hot, Sea, and Land. The Cold and Hot sections feature smaller dishes, meant as appetizers, and boast selections such as foie gras with compressed rhubarb, salted almonds, and buttermilk sorbet or split pea bisque with lavendar marshmallows.

I settled on the creamy crab risotto for my “Hot” dish. The risotto came topped with a whole crispy basil leaf, which cracked neatly under my fork. Perfectly al dente, the pasta was smooth and, indeed, creamy, with the taste of the crab subtely underlined by the white truffle oil, mascarpone cheese, and spring onions. As is my wont, I was tempted to do away with the fork nonsense and plant my face directly into the plate, letting the cheesey creamy goodness soak into every pore. Fearing a permanent lifetime ban from this fine establishment, I reigned in my enthusiasm and reminded myself to eat slowly and savor each crab-tinged bite.

For the main event, the menu presented us with both Land and Sea creatures. J.chose wisely with the New York Strip with toasted brioche, creamed watercress, onion rings and bordelaise sauce; a bit of a twist on a classic, traditional, and old-school dish. (I briefly rethought my selection when J’s dish arrived with a section of bone, marrow still in.) A. went with the Scottish salmon confit, dressed in a horseradish crust and topped with candied beets, tater tots, and a sorel coulis. M.’s Alaskan halibut was the most visually impressive, accompanied by Israeli couscous, smoked eggplant, caramelized fennel, and tomato marmlade. Atop her halibut was a crispy, caramelized tomato skin, which cracked under her teeth when she bit into it.

My own meal may have well appeared on a menu in any restaurant in the South, so down-home were its ingredients. Three large scallops were crusted in cornbread and placed atop fried green tomatoes, then sprinkled with crispy bacon bits. Mounds of black-eyed peas surrounded the scallops, alternated with piles of purple and white cabbage cole slaw and all drizzled with a tangy, ham hock vinaigrette. The scallops were perfectly cooked, with a firm but tender consistency, and not at all chewy. I ate slowly, savoring the tasty texture interplay between the grainy cornbread, smooth scallop, and tender, juicy fried green tomato. The beans were good, but may have been left sitting on the plate a touch too long, as they were slightly dry as was their sauce.

Dessert consisted of a deconstructed strawberry shortcake (deconstructing things is very hot in the culinary world, I’ve noticed. Chefs seem to understand the somewhat childish delight diners get in seeing ingredients separated and laid out in a way we can understand) and a Mexican chocolate cake with a teeny horchata milkshake, roasted banana and cinnamon gelato.

People, bottom line, this meal was plate-scraping, fork-licking, belly-rubbing delicious.

Suffice it to say, this was not cheap. In fact, I’ll probably be eating cereal for dinner for the next month. But it’s all in the name of experimentation and exploration, amirite?