Monday, July 22, 2013

Let Me Decide — North Carolina | Food & Water Watch

Let Me Decide — North Carolina | Food & Water Watch

Have you signed the petition to have GMO/GE Foods labelled?  We are working to get 9,500 signatures before July 25.  We have over 9.300.  Please take a few minutes and sign this petition so we can use it to encourage Sen. Kay Hagen to co-sponsor the bill presented to Congress a few weeks ago.  Sen. Hagen needs to know that this issue is important to her constituency.  Please sign and pass the link along to your friends.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

In Defense of Guy

Writing does not come easy for me nor does finding what to write about.  Keeping the hungrily waiting hoards at bay whilst looking for a new story to entertain, provoke thought, question the status quo can be challenging.  It is easy to mock, ridicule, make fun and become what is known today as a "cyber bully" by only poking fun at or skewering others.

Today I will try to make amends to that. Like writing, the culinary world is a demanding beast. It is like watching the titan Cronus devouring his son.  Hard work, talent, skill, and determination  are demanded through endless hours of sometimes anonymous thankless tasks.  Public awareness of food along with celebrity chefs have flooded television and the internet.  Cooking schools and culinary programs are flourishing with talented hopefuls grasping for the brass ring of stardom.  One of these celebrity chefs and punching bag for his peers has been chef Guy Fieri.  This is not however one of those posts to knock him down. 

I have never met him on a one to one basis but have spotted him from time to time in our shared hometown of Santa Rosa, CA.  I was able to try his restaurants while I lived in Sonoma County and well... let's say I was underwhelmed.  Let me put it this way; for my money at a celebrity chefs' restaurant, I'd go with John Besh or Emeril Lagasse.  This posting is about defending the Guy.

According to Wikipedia "Although Fieri has no formal training as a chef, he worked at restaurants during high school and then managed and owned restaurants. Fieri attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Hotel Management in 1990."  For those who do not know, before CCA (California Culinary Academy), CIA (Culinary Institute of America), Johnson and Wales, crossed anyone's mind in the 1980's it was about it was the University of Los Vegas  They were the proving grounds to see if you had what it took to succeed in the hotel/restaurant world.  Not New York, Boston, Los Angles, San Francisco, Berkeley but Vegas, baby. 

The world was your oyster if you could survive the shark tank of Los Vegas.  Wikipedia  goes on to state "After three years in southern California, he became District Manager of Louise's Trattoria, managing six locations along with recruiting and training for the restaurants."  Managing restaurants requires skills above and beyond your basic knife skills.  Demanding schedules, demanding budgets, labor issues, logistics, quality control, customer service, portion control, staff training, staff development, public relations, media relationships, menu development any one of which could break a lesser mortal in this kind of environment.  Guy did not break but, began to learn what it took to become successful. 

With The Next Food Network Star, Guy Fieri started to become a household name.  Fast forward and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives takes off. Ardently pretentious, self righteous, sycophantic food critics, foodies  and media suck-ups dismissed this show and him but, his fans loved it. The rest as they say well is history.

Guy Fieri  has now opened several new restaurants.  He is now selling the cookbooks, aprons, culinary accoutrements and knives.  He has also branched off to frozen foods, sunglasses and bobble headed figures of himself so this may easily dismiss Guy as a media whore.  But wait my intrepid readers there may be more to Fieri than meets the Guy.   According to the Food Network's Guy Fieri web page "Passionate about empowering today’s parents to include their children in the kitchen and educate them about eating healthy, Guy helped draft California state legislation proclaiming the second Saturday in May annually as Cook With Your Kids Day. While it was passed unanimously by the California State Legislature in 2008, in April 2011 Guy received a new resolution that recognizes Cook With Your Kids Day every Sunday. Invited by the U.S. Navy team to cook at the White House, Guy spoke to politicians about making this a nationally recognized holiday. In August 2010 he officially launched CWK (Cooking With Kids,, a program that encourages developing healthy eating habits to address the childhood obesity crisis and strengthen the family unit by sharing quality time in the kitchen.

A longtime supporter of law enforcement and the military men and women serving our country, Guy has an ongoing Armed Forces Entertainment commitment and has visited bases in the Persian Gulf, Guantanamo Bay and Hawaii, all as a guest of the U.S. Navy. He entertains the troops and inspires the military culinary specialists with instruction and inspiration.

Has Guy helped or hurt the culinary world?  The jury is still still out on that one.  Guy is not the first chef to put out cookbooks, do television, sell knives and cookware or promote canned soups and frozen foods.  Others have also done so, including chefs Paul Prudhomme and Wolfgang Puck.  Julia Child, Jeff Smith (The Frugal Gourmet), Graham "Galloping Gourmet " Kerr, the incomparable master chef Jacques Pépin forever left their marks on the public.  Even the iconic master chef Auguste Escoffier wrote cookbooks which are still regarded as standards today.

Guy Fieri has helped many small business by showcasing them with his best known work, the show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives; some of which may not be open today if it was not for his show.  He has appeared as himself on more than 40 different cooking shows, children's programs (doing voice-over) and has hosted three cooking series of his own as well as the network TV game show Minute to Win It.  Guy has also lent himself to be used as a spokesperson for TGIFridays and for Flowmasters, a California based performance muffler company which continues manufacturer in the US instead of China.  At times he has appeared ubiquitous on our television screens.

Will Guy Fieri ever become a culinary visionary giant like Auguste Escoffier, James Beard, Jacques Pépin, Thomas Keller or Eric Ripert  Uhhh... most likely not.  I think chef Guy Fieri is much happier making people happy with comfort foods at a reasonable price most families can afford.  His clientele doesn't need the elitist palette of a food critic and his menus are simple to enjoy. 

That is the Guy Fieri we have come to know. Successful television personality, successful businessman in very challenging economic times, hard working entertainer,  knowledgeable self promoter and successful cookbook writer.  Guy is about fun and having fun.  With his hilarious signature laugh and his shocking bleach blond hair, he's not trying to win any McArther Foundation Grants – he's there to promote the enjoyment of good 'ole fashioned American food (whatever that may be from one diner to the next) and put a little bit of accessibility on our plates.

He's a lot like Elvis who laughed all the way to the bank.  Hell, he's probably laughing right now!  Guy reminds us to lighten up and enjoy the ride (in our classic American muscle car if we have one). He sure is; especially after getting his car back  Fieri may be the court jester of the culinary court, but let us not forget that often, the jester held the king's ear and had great influence.  Guy Fieri reflects that very well, sometimes to a fault.  He's only a reflection of what we make him out to be.          

Friday, April 19, 2013

Till We Meet Again, Vin Antico

Risk: verb; act or fail to act in such a way as to bring about the possibility of an unpleasant or unwelcome event: Life is full of risk. I am not going to bore you with all of the definitions of Risk; be it a noun, verb or board game. Let it be suffice to say that life is full of risk. I risk my comfort by waking up in the morning and hoping our rickety old dog has not left another "dog bomb" next to my slippers each day.

Nothing is more risky than venturing out on your own while others may mock or ridicule you as you are putting your self, your reputation, your fortunes at "risk ". One of the most risky financial ventures is to open a restaurant. Being either a visionary like Ferran Adrià with his ground-breaking elBulli or Carl Karcher's first hot dog stand, which later became Carl's Jr (Hardee's if you are on the East Coast) you will undertake risk.

High rate of failure, low profit margins, increasing food and labor cost, insurance premiums, fickle diners... sure, I want to go into a business like that. Every once in a while a gem may shine in the culinary world. Maybe for a short magical time. The memory of a romantic dinner with a loved one, meeting out of town friends, a quiet dinner with a family member burns in my memory like midnight oil sometimes. Having the setting, tone, food and service all come together is magic.

Vin Antico was one of those magical places to dine. Chef Ed Vigil could turn ordinary farm to table bill into a Mediterranean landscape. Using recipes from Spain, Italy and France made Vin Antico the best restaurant starchy, uptight Marin County ever had. Had? Had did you say? Yes, sadly, had.

This momentary gem, for undisclosed reasons, is no more. I had my first fiddle head fern, dancing with orange zest and madeira wine with fine seasonally available vegetables, cooked to perfection there. Marin County never knows a good thing until it is gone.

Marin County will continue consuming fondue dipped cheese burgers as it ever has done in the past. Continually wishing for something new but afraid to change. Marin County is hanging on to memories of acid indulged past, burning out on the Grateful Dead while the rest of the world has moved on once again.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Toast should be Toast

The culinary world is a beast and extracts a high price to those who work in the field. It is full of long hard thankless hours pressed into service cooking to the masses. As a cook, you feel very much like Charlton Heston in Ben Hur, rowing on a galley ship awaiting the slave-master's lash or death. It is a feeling I am oh so familiar with thus, I am sympathetic to the plight of the line cook. Anyone who has worked in the hospitality field knows that there are three NEVERS:
1) You never know when your guests will show up
2) You never know what they will order
3) You never know how much they will eat.
Any good General Manger, Owner, Kitchen Manger, Chef or Line Cook will tell you that. These are some of the fundamentals which will help you plan for a successful dining experience and help you to have return customers.

I am glutton for punishment. There I admitted it; that is why I play the lottery hoping some day I will ensure my good fortune and never have to work again. I, however, am not a glutton for punishment when it comes to dining. This could either be from a hip new food truck to an old pedigreed established restaurant. If the food is poorly done I most likely won't be back. This bring us to my latest dining adventure. Being still new to Charlotte we have asked for tips on where to find good food and have found most everyone loves Toast Cafe

This well loved family staple has been serving the Charlotte area for years. I am trying to understand why? Okay, I may be sounding like a soulless elitists from California picking on the the natives of Charlotte but, rest assured, friends this is not the case. My wife and I first tried Toast Cafe shortly after we first arrived here in Charlotte. We where pleasantly surprised by the quality of food and service from Toast Cafe. However on two other occasions our hopes have been dashed. Poor service and even poorer food was to be found in abundance when we took an out of town guess with us to Toast Cafe before the holidays on a busy Sunday morning.

Hoping that this was an "off day", we where willing to let things slide . Retuning today knowing on a slower day with fewer patrons amassing like a barbarian hordes we where sure that no mistakes would be possible. Right? Wrong!

How can you over cook toast and serve it cold with piping hot eggs and under cooked, cold hash browns? Or serve luke warm mushroom soup with an ice cold, semi-toasted meatloaf sandwich? This was after waiting 20 minutes for food that couldn't have had more than 8 minutes of prep on a slow day?

The General Manger did comp the meal so that was something I guess. Yes I maybe a glutton for punishment but, I am not stupid. Like Charlton Heston in Ben Hur, I will be watching the slave-master go down with his ship.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Holy Cannoli! I have a Moral Dilemma

Growing up in Massachusetts, I became a devotee of ice cream.  Massachusetts is in the top five states in the nation for per capita ice cream consumption.  Pretty sure if I still lived there it would easily take back the #1 position.  I'm not saying I'm an ice cream glutton - I don't eat quarts of the stuff per day, but I sure do like to have it a couple of times per week, regardless of season.

In the 80's, with Vermont so close by, I was an early adopter of Ben and Jerry's.  I watched the company go regional, then national.  I was a fan of their corporate culture as much as I was of their product.  Then came Unilever.

Wisely, Unilever continued to produce the same quality product.  They didn't "dumb it down" for mass consumption, but somewhere Ben and Jerry's started to gradually slip.  The original product became a little over shadowed by the seemingly never ending quest for clever new flavors.  They lost me a couple of years ago with their tip of the hat to SNL and the "Schweddy Balls" flavor.  They went from being clever, to hip and ended up just a little bit snarky.

They also lost me when their commitment to quality ingredients began to slip.  Until recently, Ben and Jerry's has made no commitment to guarantee that their products are all natural.  In fact, they presently contain GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).  Their milk, once all pasture raised and organic, is now sometimes fed GMO feed.  Their add ins and flavorings leave many open ended questions about food quality as well.

Since 2012, when Unilever spent nearly $500K to prevent the passage of California's Proposition 37, which would have mandated labeling of GMO foods, I have been quietly boycotting Ben and Jerry's.  There have been moments when this has caused me some personal discomfort or at least dissatisfaction.  As I said earlier, I love ice cream and their product, despite the occasional GMO ingredient is still one of the best mass marketed ice creams on the market.  It was a small price to pay for conscience - I could eat other ice cream (like my current favorite Three Twins - ALL ORGANIC!) for a while until the FDA pulled their heads out of their sphincters and required GMO labeling.

Just this past week, a new angle to presented itself and has left me with a dilemma.  We're obviously not talking world peace here, but this does take up some thought for me.  Ben and Jerry's has announced that by the end of the calendar year all of their products will be certified GMO free.  Great, right?

Well, that's just it.  I'm not so sure.  Either I can stop my boycott and start buying Ben and Jerry's and know that product is free of GMO's BUT still have the revenue go to Unilever which MAY still use those proceeds to fight a GMO labeling requirement but also showing Unilever that there really is a viable and appreciable market for non-GMO products so they may adopt more GMO free products into their portfolio OR do I continue to boycott until Unilever, the parent company, broadens its commitment to make ALL of their products GMO-Free. 

I'm torn.  Ice cream should not be stress inducing.  What are your thoughts, friends?  Should I take up my spoon again once Ben and Jerry's are all certified GMO free and thereby use positive reinforcement on the free market OR continue to boycott until Unilever concedes that they will be GMO free in all of their products OR at least agree to label those products which contain GMOs?

I need some comfort food just thinking over the huge moral implications of all of this.  I think I'll have some Three Twins.  They're guilt free!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Delish Delights at La Shish Kebab

Given the option to eat only one cuisine or style of cooking for the rest of my days I would, without much hesitation, chose Lebanese food.  Healthy, savory, rich, loaded with taste, texture and packed full of nutrition this cuisine is always deeply satisfying to my palette and brings peace of mind that I'm eating well by sticking to the classic Mediterranean diet.

Twelve years living in Washington, DC with its excellent variety of restaurants from around the world spoiled me.  I worked in a Real Estate Brokerage whose owner was Lebanese and ended up frequenting many of DC's excellent Middle Eastern and Lebanese restaurants and cafes.  I could point you to the best Halloumi sandwich and the freshest rotisserie chicken without a second's hesitation.

Sadly, there were some dry years in between those halcyon days and our arrival here.  16 years in fact.  There was one Middle Eastern restaurant that I found in Atlanta - a place called Lawrence's which was better known for their belly dancers (who were not all that good) than their food.

Next came San Francisco, a city known for it's great food.  Any hole in the wall found you great if not amazing Italian, seafood, sushi, Chinese or Thai food.  There was a large population of emigres from all over the world there so it should have been a no brainer to find good Lebanese food.  I did not find that to be the case.  We looked, we tried everything from fancy joints to falafel huts.  It was just "Meh".

After hearing about the dearth of Chinese food here in Charlotte, I held out little hope of finding good Lebanese food.  How glad am I that I was DEAD WRONG!

La Shish Kebab is one of those places that you would drive right by unless you knew it was there.  Fortunately for us, the local edition of Creative Loafing had done our homework for us by writing a review in their free weekly.  Dave and I hopped right on it and didn't waste any time in checking this place out.

CL-CLT was spot on.  The food was delicious and the proprietor was terrific.

I had a chicken shawarma, a dish of both delicacy and gusto - with loads of garlic.  Their's was served over hummus with hand made pickles, fresh tomatoes, purple onion and a perfect blend of spices.

This dish truly knocked my socks off!  Probably the best I've had.

Dave tried a variety of dishes including the handmade falafel, dolmas, foul medanna (a fava bean dish from Egypt) and fettoush.  Everything was really fresh.  The textures were wonderful.  Absolutely the yummiest hummus I've ever had.  There was a light, delicate homemade pita bread to use for dipping into the fava's of the foul medanna.  It was bliss!

We weren't even out the door before I was messaging my friend Kitsy (another big fan of Lebanese cuisine) in DC to tell her that we had a date for this place next time she and her husband are in town visiting her family. 

This is an inexpensive, quaint, healthy and delicious spot.  Add it to your roster of regular stops here in Charlotte!  The owner was attentive and informative - sharing suggestions when he learned Dave was a vegetarian.  The setting wasn't fancy, but it was impeccably clean.  Our food came out quickly and was presented beautifully.  This may not be a fancy date night spot, but for excellent, fresh and flavorful food it's a big winner.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Phe Phi Pho - YUM!

I've had problems with sinus infections for years.  Years ago I had a deviated septum repaired and they are less frequent, but it seems now when I get one, they come on with a vengeance.  Whether it was the stress of the move and the new job, transition to different flora and pollen that exacerbated allergies or just being around the hospital (where I was working for a while) I ended up with a doozy of one this past winter.  For weeks, I could barely even hear out of my right ear - it had a constant whistle like a teapot.  I was miserable.  This especially stinks when you're a foodie like me and you can't even taste anything because your head is so stuffed up.

So, you'd think working at the hospital, I'd have no problem kicking an infection, right?  Well two months, three doctor's visits and four rounds of antibiotics later I could still hear that darn teapot whistling.  I was immensely frustrated.

Then I had inspiration... years ago a big steaming bowl of hot and sour soup had cured me of a nasty chest cold.  There is definitely something to the old adage of a big bowl of chicken soup for a cold.  Rich marrow broth, vegetables and a balance of protein... it all adds up to a healthy fix.  I think when the sinuses are the primary issue, the extra kicker is to add some va va va voom - heat clears out your head and let's you breathe easy for a while.

Now the question, "where in the world would we find good hot and sour soup in Charlotte?"  Every one we talked to told us this city is completely devoid of good Chinese food.  (Seriously - anyone out there who wants to open a good Chinese joint, this is your town!  It's wide open!)  We asked about twenty native Charlotteans as well as a handful of transplants like ourselves, and we weren't able to come up with a single recommendation for Chinese food.  However, more than half instead recommended a Vietnamese place called Lang Van.  We decided to give it a shot.

Dave and me (and my stuffy head - for a table of three) made our way to Lang Van one Sunday evening.  It was rainy and my head was pounding from all the pressure.  I ordered a seafood combo Pho.  We shared some vegetarian spring rolls and Dave ordered a great tofu dish.  Before I was halfway done with the Pho, something miraculous happened.  I literally heard an audible "pop" and my hearing was restored.  The teapot was no more.  As I continued to enjoy the delicious Pho, I began to feel more and more restored.  Head and sinuses drained, fatigue reduced, headache gone... Within hours, it was like I'd never been sick.

It was a Pho Miracle!  We were converts!  How could we make sure that we kept this level of vitality without eating at the WONDERFUL Lang Van every day (we wouldn't object, but it wasn't in the budget)?  We had better learn to make Pho at home.  We've been playing with recipes and exploring international markets for a couple of weeks now.  We think we've come up with the master recipe for a great vegetarian Pho.

Heat a heavy stock pot on medium high heat.
Add the following:
1 teaspoon Vietnamese Cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice
1/2 teaspoon ground Coriander
1/2 teaspoon Coriander Seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole Cloves
1/2 Star Anise Seed (approx 1/2 teaspoon)
1 tablespoon organic Soy sauce (non-GMO baby!)
(we put the seeds, cloves and anise in a tea ball so that we could easily pluck it out later)

Once it starts to smoke a bit, add
1 chopped medium Onion
2 tablespoons chopped rough fresh Ginger
4 cloves fresh Garlic chopped rough
1 tablespoon Olive Oil

Saute these ingredients until the Onion turns slightly translucent.  Then add
5 cups of water
5 cups of organic vegetable stock (we use Better than Bouillon)
1 stalk Lemon Grass cut into large pieces
3-4 whole dried Chili Peppers

Bring to a boil, add salt and pepper to taste (I used a little bit of white pepper as well as black pepper).  Simmer and set your timer for 50 minutes.

While your broth simmers, prepare your ingredients for the soup.  We added the following tonight, but you can through in just about whatever you want.
1 cup thinly sliced carrots
1/2 cup dinosaur Kale cut into 1" pieces
1/2 cup shredded summer squash
1/2 cup re-hydrated dried Shitake mushrooms
1/2 cup coarsely chopped baby broccoli
1/2 cup cubed Tofu

When the timer goes off, add all the veggies you prepared for the soup to the stock.  Then start a large pot of water to boil.  Once it boils, add your Pho noodles.  We found a great, all natural brand at an Asian market for $1.29.  Follow the instructions on the noodles and cook until done.  Use tongs or a slotted spoon to fill your bowl halfway with noodles.

Ladle the soup to cover the noodles.

Top with fresh cilantro, basil leaves, bean sprouts or pea shoots.  Add siricha or other hot sauce to taste and enjoy!

We've now made this Pho recipe a few times and we're really enjoying it.  I usually add a few shrimp to mine.  You could also add just about any fish or shellfish which has been steamed.

Other veggies you might want to try:
Napa Cabbage
Bok Choi
Snow Peas
Japanese or Thai Eggplant cubes

No sign of any sinus problems in our household anymore!