Friday, September 27, 2013

What's with these low-cal fries?

Earlier this week there was a story in the paper about how Burger King is introducing a (sort of) low-cal french fry, 270 calories for a small serving, compared to 340 calories for its regular fries.  But what leaped out at me was the explanation -- "because of a new batter that doesn't absorb as much oil."

Say what?  Batter?

I always thought the basic ingredients in french fries were potatoes and oil.  So what's with this batter?

Googling reveals that fast food fries often do use a batter to improve texture.   The batter used by Burger King is apparently a slurry of starch, giving BK fries a hard shell and more crunch.  By contrast, McDonald's doesn't use a batter; its fries are dipped in a sugar solution to give that golden-brown color.

I guess it's too much to expect that industrial strength fast food would rely solely on ordinary ingredients and cooking techniques.  I rarely set foot in a fast food restaurant, so I have no dog in this fight (I used to love McDonald's fries but haven't eaten them in years) but was interested to read about BK's marketing strategy for its new low-cal item.

First, instead of using the fancy new batter for all its fries, BK will sell low-cal and high-cal fries as separate menu items.  (Even though BK says people won't be able to tell the difference.)

Second, BK will charge about 30 cents more for the low-cal fries (except for kids' meals, where you can get low-cal for the same price).

Third, in the advertising, instead of comparing the new low-cal fries to its own high-cal fries, which would mean 20 percent fewer calories, BK is going to compare them to McDonald's fries, for 30 percent fewer calories.

Fourth, BK's idea of a "small" serving is pretty big -- 128 grams (4 1/2 ounces) compared to McDonald's, 71 grams (2 1/2 ounces).

My jaundiced view of this whole campaign is that BK wants to have its fries and eat them too -- get credit for offering "healthy" food but not actually do anything to encourage people to eat it.  In fact, they're building in lots of incentives to keep eating high-cal.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sausage and grapes

I don't usually cook with recipes.  I do read food stories in the newspaper and in Fine Cooking, my favorite food magazine, more to get general concepts than specific directions.  But I was browsing through old columns in the New York Times and came upon a recipe that I tried immediately.

It was for a Tuscan dish called salsiccia all'uva (sausages and grapes) and it caught my eye because magnificent seedless white grapes were on special all week.  We'd already bought a big bag and scarfed it down, the best grapes we'd eaten in months.  So this recipe seemed to be karma.

Besides, it was about as simple as a recipe can possibly be: brown some Italian sausages, add a big heap of grapes and cook them in the same pan until they start to soften and collapse.  Squeeze some lemon over the top and serve.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out exactly as the recipe promised.  The key to this dish apparently was that some of the grapes would get brown, some would collapse into mush, others would stay relatively firm, thus giving a nice variety to the plate.  But though I cooked and cooked and cooked, none of the grapes ever got mushy.  In desperation I crushed a few of them with a spatula, but never got them to soften.

Experiences like this do nothing to induce me to follow recipes.  It was an interesting combination of foods but not one that I'm dying to make again.  If we find ourselves in a grape glut some time maybe I'll give it one more shot.  But I'll do it a little differently... maybe put the grapes in a tomato sauce and serve over pasta...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ahead of the trend again

I had to take some food to a dinner this week so I made a big dish of carrot salad.  Practically everybody will eat it, and it sure brightens up your plate!

But when I arrived and announced what I had brought, I didn't say "carrot salad."  Following the lead of the New York Times, my infallible guide to what's hip and trendy, I called it "carrot tartare."

It seems that anything raw has become h and t.  As Mark Bittman explains in the article, "tuna tartare has far surpassed beef in popularity, lamb tartare is fashionable and carrot tartare is expensive."

Well, mine wasn't, but then I don't operate a restaurant in Brooklyn.

I make my carrot salad tartare with a lot of carrots, a few thin-sliced cucumbers, and a dressing made of equal parts olive oil, dijon mustard and lemon juice.  As has happened so many times in the past, I reflect that if you do your own thing for a long time, it will eventually become fashionable.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Close the window, please

Our fruit market has the habit of cutting windows in its corn, presumably so you can see whether the ear looks good.  I'm not sure what you might expect to see in a window that would cause you to not buy the corn -- in my experience, when corn is disappointing it's because the top inch or so hasn't developed its kernels fully, or if a worm has somehow gotten in there -- neither of which you'd be likely to see through the window.  I wonder how long it takes the guy in the back to cut all those needless holes.

But my big complaint: the windows prevent you from sticking the corn in the oven to roast, a technique I like if I'm already making chicken or baked potatoes or something else.   (I stick the ears in exactly as they come from the market, on a cookie sheet in case they leak, for about a half hour at 400, give or take, whatever temperature I'm using for the rest of the meal.)  

Once this year I really wanted to roast some corn with windows so I cobbled together some extra husks to cover the hole, tied on with some husk and pinned in place with toothpicks.  It sort of worked, although the part under the window was a lot more done than the rest of the ear.

So now I ask the guy at the market if he has any corn with no windows.  He always does, and I haven't found a bad ear yet.  If you ask me, cutting windows has no upside.  But I guess it's part of some marketing mystique.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Vegetable blues

This has been the worst summer for fruits and vegetables in my memory.  Our zucchetta has produced four fruits, one of which ripened while we were gone on vacation and became an almost-inedible baseball bat.  Another was soft at the flower end and I had to cut off a third of it.

Here's approximately 50% of our entire tomato crop for the year.  They tasted great.

Not just our own crops have been disappointing, but also those from the market.  The watermelons have had seeds, true, but only one or two have tasted really wonderful. The tomatoes have been insipid, even the beautiful red ones from the farmer's market.  I've ended up roasting or pan-caramelizing more than we've eaten raw.  No juicy tomato sandwiches; no wonderful fresh-tomato pasta sauces.  Even the heirloom tomato salad at the pricy new restaurant was on the so-so side.

(that's crabmeat and bacon on top, lemon aioli on the plate; magnificent even with so-so tomatoes)

We've had some disappointing peaches on and off all summer, so much that I'm afraid to buy more than two or three at a time.  Last week we bought three.  The first one was magnificent -- the best I'd eaten all summer.  The second and the third were mediocre.

On the bright side, the corn has been superb all year.  I think they must have made some permanent breeding improvements in the last five years, because no matter where it comes from, the corn seems to be consistently excellent throughout the season.  Thank heaven something is turning out reliably delicious.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Desperation defense

It has been a perfectly terrible year for our home garden, and we've heard the same from others.  Critters have practically destroyed our tomatoes (we've had two or three all year, and only one was really good).  Our zucchetta, previously so prolific that in August I used to never leave the house without a plastic bag full of squash to foist upon friends, neighbors and homeless people encountered in the street, has given us about three fruits all year.  Even our basil has been hit by a blight, and the big batch of pesto I processed a couple of weeks ago will be it.

In the midst of lamenting our bad luck, we commented the other night that it's a good thing we're not dependent upon our crops to get us through the winter, because we'd starve before Thanksgiving.

We tried to protect the tomatoes from the critters (deer, chipmunks, squirrels, groundhogs, raccoons, all have been seen on our property and we don't know what all is feasting on our stuff) but to no avail.  We encased a ripening tomato in a plastic onion bag and the critter ate through the plastic to get a nice bite of tomato.  We've pretty much given up on everything and are about to just rip the plants out and put the whole garden into arugula for fall (our critters hate arugula).

On my walk the other day I encountered a gardener who apparently shares our frustration, but unlike us, isn't ready to give up yet.  Here's how he's protecting his tomatoes.

I say, good luck.