Flavor of the Month: April 2017

Sunday, April 30, 2017 0 comments
This month has certainly delivered on that "April showers" poem, but even the constant rainstorms couldn't keep me away from some exciting food destinations. It's time to jump into the meals that struck a real chord over the past 30 days, and spoiler alert, the themes of community and friendship are in play more than ever.

  • Road tripping with some pals to the old prison in Jefferson City

  • My friend Frank often goes on auto rallies around the St. Louis area. This past month, though, his club set up a field trip that went further afield; we went out to the old Missouri State Penitentiary in our state's capital. Road trips mean road food, and in addition to the must-have snack for any long journey (cheddar/pretzel Combos), the group stopped at a restaurant completely themed around the nearby prison. Roadside places like this can have some really great food, and while I wouldn't do a cartwheel over the meal or the homemade root beer at Prison Brews, it fun to eat there as part of a band of merry travelers. I can also give them a lot of credit for having the best sauerkraut:sandwich ratio on any Reuben I've gotten in a long time.

  • The first grill-out of the season

  • Speaking of Frank, we sometimes go on nature hikes together, and after one such jaunt recently, we were both ravenously hungry. The weather was lovely for once, so we stopped by the store to pick up everything we'd need for the first grill of the year. The hamburgers and hotdogs were soon sizzling away, and with some clever marinating and spicing, they really hit the spot. Having tater tots on the side sealed the deal, and though it wasn't at all fancy, it was one of the most enjoyable meals of the month.

  • Easter Dim Sum at Wei Hong

  • It's long been a tradition for Jewish people to have Chinese food on Christmas. So why not expand that tradition to hit the other Christian holiday? I can't think of a single reason, so Kyle, Jeremy, and I headed to my favorite dim sum place on Easter Sunday. There are actually a handful of great dim sum restaurants in the St. Louis area, but my favorite thing to get is the BBQ pork bun, and Wei Hong has far and away the best ones, so I often end up there. The dumplings, sesame balls, buns, and hot tea all made for a better holiday than some dumb chocolate rabbit ever could.

  • Marching for science, marching to a burger, marching to taco night

  • The current administration is a terrible one when it comes to scientific research. There were nationwide protests in April about proposed cuts to publicly-funded science, so I joined my friends Jack and Corey downtown to march and chant. It did my heart good to see so many people whipped up about a topic that's so vitally important, and it did my appetite good to go on a long walk. After the march, we wandered over to The Kitchen Sink's new downtown location, and I got my favorite burger at their place, the Three 'Lil Pigs. So much pork... Then, that same night, we went to another friend's place for homemade tortillas, tacos, Corona, and party games. It was a fun and memorable day, not only for the food, but for the affirmation that a society that prioritizes science is a better one for all its citizens.

  • A stormy evening at Kampai

  • I'll eat sushi pretty much anytime, especially if it's with fellow fanatics Tiffany, Ben, and Dana. One of those three is getting increasingly pregnant, so we have to grab these sushi nights where we can. Even if one of those nights is during a rainstorm of biblical proportions. Normally, I'd cancel dinner plans if the weather is terrible, but didn't even give it a thought this time. I braved the elements and the roads, and as always, we had a wonderful time downing roll after roll. Sushi always makes me happy, but sushi shared with friends who are equally obsessed with it is magical.
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    Flavor of the Month: March 2017

    Friday, March 31, 2017 0 comments
    Kyle and I once mentioned on the podcast that oddly, March seemed to rank among the best months of the year for eating. St. Patrick's Day! Pi Day! A Lenten fish fry at every neighborhood church! Meals in March can easily outshine some of the other parts of the calendar, so how did 2017 stack up?

  • Kampai on the go with Tiffany

  • Things have been somewhat rough in life lately, and my friend Tiffany had an idea guaranteed to lift my spirits: Grabbing a metric ton of sushi from my favorite place, taking it to her house, and settling in to watch the first episode of Feud while stuffing our faces with spider rolls. It worked. Combining great food with great company is the best medicine in the world.

  • James' birthday extravaganza at Fleming's

  • James hasn't had many opportunities to eat well, lately. Fortunately, he wasn't scheduled to be in the hospital on his birthday, so I made a reservation at one of his favorite fancy places, and when we got there, I told him to go nuts, and order whatever the hell he wanted. I did the same, and we were soon luxuriating in richly sauced sea bass and perfectly-cooked filet, along with creamed spinach, baked potato, some nice red wine, and fresh berries in lightly-chilled cream. The bill certainly reflected our extravagance, and I've had to pinch my pennies since then, but it was a good reminder that every once in a while, if you get a chance to throw moderation to the wind, you'd best grab it.

  • The annual St. Patrick's Day party at the Dogtown parade

  • Halloween is still an enormously important holiday to me, but at this stage in my life, it's pretty much been upstaged by St. Patrick's Day, which is a holiday that is paramount in my circle of friends. No matter the day of the week, and no matter the weather, we've been gathering together for the Dogtown parade on St. Patrick's Day to drink, eat, catch up with old acquaintances, and remember the loved ones we've lost. St. Patrick's Day has its traditional food, so in addition to all the booze and hotdogs I inhaled, I made sure to save room for some good ol' fashioned corned beef and cabbage. Irish identity is always fun to celebrate, but St. Patrick's Day has become about celebrating friendship itself, and hey, I can think of way worse ways to commemorate that than with corned beef.

  • Revisiting the past while hanging out with Jack and Corey

  • It's always good to have friends who enjoy food culture as much as you do, and I always have a ball going out to eat with these two. On this particular evening we wound up at Wildflower in the Central West End. This restaurant has special significance for me, because I worked for them for years as a caterer waiter. Going back as a customer made me feel like I was dropping by my high school Homecoming football game. Event catering was hard work (especially at Wildflower, whose catering space is only accessible by a narrow staircase with no dumbwaiter - every dish had to be carried up and down to the kitchen by hand), but I enjoyed it. As we sat down to enjoy our dinner, I found myself reminiscing about some of the old stories, from faking my way through bartending duty to getting a ridiculous amount of tips the night we catered an even for the Gay Rodeo. Dinner itself was pretty remarkable too; I got a carbonara dish with a ridiculous amount of calamari on top. While it can be nice to look back at the past via photo albums or old letters, there's something pretty satisfying about going back in time while chowing down on pasta.

  • Considering the modern wave of home food delivery with Tiffany

  • I finished out the important meals of the month the same way the month began: Kicking back in Tiffany's living room. Instead of sushi this time, she split up one of her Blue Apron meals. I'm intensely curious about the recent wave of services that deliver pretty involved recipes to your doorstep, and may even sign up for one at one point. They seem a little pricey for a guy who works in publicly-funded science, but there's something intriguing about coming home to find the ingredients for battered catfish and marinated cabbage waiting for you. That's what we had on this particular evening, and it was quite tasty. Home delivery meals will never cure me of my cookbook addiction, but it's always cool to try something new.
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    Research: The Brunch Backlash

    Wednesday, March 29, 2017 0 comments
    We are always in the midst of a lot of shifting social conventions. You never know what aspect of society these shifts will affect, and in an odd twist of fate, the ostensibly simple concept of brunch has become a big target.

    A target of what? You name it. Sometimes, it’s singled out as the purview of irresponsible people with nothing more productive to do with their time. Chefs are accused of using brunch as an excuse to peddle substandard food, and diners are accused of using brunch as an excuse to eat without the courtesies afforded to the other meals of the day (tipping, for example).

    There’s also the big matter of race and class privilege. It's tough to articulate, and I’m finding it tough to land on a position in regards to protesters’ tactic of interrupting diners’ brunches in order to address issues such as police brutality. It’s definitely an issue worth addressing, and the activists have a point when they point out that brunch is a public gathering at which a lot of affluent people who feel unaffected by the conflict tend to gather. Getting their attention is precisely the goal. It’s just such a strange situation we find ourselves in, in which it’s considered safe to assume that someone who’s done nothing more than go out to eat waffles must either be uneducated or uncaring.

    Even leaving that aside, brunch has been facing some tough critics lately, not least of which springs from an article in the New York Times, which proudly proclaimed that “Brunch Is for Jerks“. Lots of people jumped into the fray after that, complaining about the self-entitled hipsters who pat themselves on the back for being so awesome as they guzzle their bottomless mimosas. Or they wrote about how terrible brunch is for the poor, overworked service industry.

    If you’re a fan of brunch, take heart. Defenders have started swinging back against the haters.

    All of these overwrought articles have left me more puzzled than anything else. I’m neither smug with satisfaction that these brunch-eating jackasses are finally getting what’s coming to them, nor am I angry at the snarky writers taking aim at these innocent diners just trying to enjoy some eggs and a drink with friends. It’s more a wonder at just how symbolic brunch has become for highlighting so many American social issues.

    Who knows how much further the battle will go? Perhaps “Bloody Mary” will take on a terrifyingly literal meaning as the war over brunch gets waged.
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    Research: The Pepper Heat Index

    Friday, March 24, 2017 0 comments
    People are always competing to set some extreme record or other. Who’s built the tallest building? Who can swim the farthest? Who can live the longest? Competitions are not confined to the human race, though. For example, every time we think we’ve discovered the hottest pepper on Earth, another upstart comes along to set an even more painful fire on our tongues. In the past few years, the Ghost Chile, the Naga Viper, the Trinidad Scorpion Moruga, and the Carolina Reaper have all held the coveted title of Hottest Pepper. There are so many different types of pepper, though. Where do they all fit in? And how do we go about comparing heat levels from pepper to pepper?

    Until recently, the traditional method has always been the Scoville scale, named after a test that Wilbur Scoville devised in 1912. That scale measures Scoville heat units (SHU), which is a function of capsaicin concentration in each pepper. Way down at the bottom are our friends the bell peppers, which have a SHU of zero. Then come the milder zings like paprika and pimiento, which won’t crack a SHU of 1,000. In the 1,000-3,500 SHU range, you’ll find Pam’s and my current pepper of choice, the poblano. Jalapeño is the level above that, in the range that goes up to 10,000 SHU.

    From 10,000-30,000 SHU, you’ll find serrano peppers and peperoncino. Cayenne and tobasco peppers lie in the 30,000-50,000 SHU range, while 50,000-100,000 SHU contains lesser known peppers, such as piri piri and malagueta. My painful experience with habanero makes sense, because it shares the 100,000-350,000 SHU range with Scotch bonnets. A specific type of habanero called “Red Savina” lies between 350,000-580,000 SHU, but even that pales in comparison to the peppers I mentioned in my opening paragraph. None of those peppers is less than 855,000 SHU.

    All that SHU measurement is nice, but there’s a fatal flaw in the Scoville scale. It’s completely subjective, which I was shocked to learn. Decreasing concentrations of the extracted capsinoids are given to a panel of five trained tasters, until a majority (at least three) can no longer detect the heat in a dilution. OK, but... People’s taste buds differ from each other, and even on the same tongue, a taster’s receptors can be worn out or overused with multiple tastings, changing the results. Can you imagine if the official daily temperature was taken by people wandering outside and saying “Eh. It feels like it’s about 56° F today.”

    Fortunately, these days, there’s a system that’s a lot more scientific. Using high-performance liquid chromatography, it can be determined how many parts-per-million of alkaloids (the heat-causing agents) are present in any given pepper.

    Tastes in pepper heat vary across cultures (Asians seem to favor a sharp punch of heat at the beginning, while Americans favor a lower heat that sustains for a longer period of time), and some people have made it a personal mission to find the upper limit of what their taste buds can handle. I’ll leave all that record-grabbing to them, and just enjoy the gentler wallop of a dish spiked with cayenne.
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    Research: Goulash

    I love paprika, but I am far from its only fan. Paprika is especially popular in Hungary (the plant that yields it has been grown in Budapest since 1529), and frankly, I don't have a lot of experience with the best-known use of it: Goulash. Goulash is the national dish of Hungary, though it’s a popular dish worldwide. Paprika is the sole defining feature of goulash – all of its other components are variable. Paprika was used from the very beginning; the first recorded goulash recipe in 1748 specifically recommended its use. Hungary loves paprika so much that they haven’t even restricted its use to the culinary world. During the 1831 cholera epidemic, Hungarians used red paprika powder, red paprika schnapps, and red paprika wine as medicine. I can’t recommend following this treatment regimen for any illness you might contract, though, so let’s stick to paprika’s use in goulash.

    There seems to be some internet confusion over whether it’s more properly referred to as a soup or a stew, so let’s indulge in some research history. Let’s see… Goulash is eaten hot, served as a main dish, and though paprika is the most important ingredient, its flavors center around the meat and vegetables. Survey says: Stew.

    Goulash traces back to the 9th century, to stews eaten by Hungarian shepherds. Cooked and flavored meat was dried with the help of the sun, and packed into bags made from sheep stomachs. Just add water, and the meal is complete. In fact, the word goulash derives from gulya, which is Hungarian for “herd of cattle”. Goulash can be made from pretty much any meat, from beef to veal to pork to lamb. It’s typically made from shank, shin, or shoulder cuts. Those cuts are rich in collagen, and when they break down, the collagen converts to gelatin, giving goulash its thick texture. This may be why goulash is one of the few stews that does not rely on flour or roux as a base.

    The meat is cut into chunks, seasoned with salt, and then browned with sliced onion in a pot with oil (or lard, if you’re going old-school). Paprika is added, along with water or stock, and then left to simmer. Then you add garlic, whole or ground caraway seed, and vegetables such as carrots, parsley roots, bell peppers, or celery. Other herbs and spices are also generally added (chili pepper, bay leaf, and thyme, usually). Diced potatoes are a popular addition, since they provide starch as they cook, which makes the goulash thicker and smoother. A small amount of white wine or wine vinegar may also be added near the end of cooking to round out the taste. Modern cooks have also started adding tomato, but those are not included in “traditional” goulash. Once it’s done, the goulash can be served with egg noodles, called csipetke in Hungary. Csipetke are not a side of pasta, though. They’re prepared by boiling them in the goulash itself.

    Those are just the basics of Hungarian goulash. There are tons of variations:

    Gulyás à la Székely: Reduces the amount of potatoes, and adds sauerkraut and sour cream.

    Gulyás Hungarian Plain Style: Omits the csipetke, and adds vegetables.

    Mock Gulyás: Substitutes beef bones for the meat, and adds vegetables. Also called Hamisgulyás (Fake Goulash).

    Bean Gulyás: Omits the potatoes and the caraway seeds, and uses kidney beans instead.

    Csángó Gulyás: Adds sauerkraut, and omits the csipetke and potatoes.

    Betyár Gulyás. Uses smoked beef or smoked pork for the meat.

    Likócsi Pork Gulyás: Uses pork and thin vermicelli in the goulash instead of potatoes and csipetke, and is flavored with lemon juice.

    Mutton Gulyás: Uses mutton as the meat, and adds red wine for flavor. Also called Birkagulyás.

    There are also countless variations on goulash in other countries. Since I'm writing this from America, I’ll just mention American goulash briefly. The American tweak is a casserole mentioned in cookbooks dating back to 1914, and has plenty of its own variations. Originally it was a seasoned beef dish, but now usually includes various kinds of pasta (usually macaroni or egg noodles), ground beef cooked with onions/garlic, and tomatoes. Cheese, melted into the dish during the cooking process, can also be added. Now that’s American. At least we have the good grace to maintain the use of paprika to connect it back to its Hungarian origins.

    How about putting this research to good use? Instead of the usual pot roast or meatloaf at your next dinner party, how about trying out a hearty goulash? Your guests will thank you! Maybe even in Hungarian.
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    Research: The Reputation of American Fruitcake

    Wednesday, March 22, 2017 0 comments
    A couple of Decembers ago, my friend Chris and I enjoyed some of the truly wonderful julekake he had baked for the first time. And a couple of days later, I devoured a terrific little pannetone cake that came in a Foods of the World assortment. If other countries have mastered the method for baking an actually tasty fruitcake, why does that word send a shiver down every American spine?

    In a way, terrible fruitcake is all our fault. Back in the 16th century, European fruitcake was humming along quite nicely as a symbol of a successful harvest season, when suddenly, cheap sugar poured in from the American colonies. Candying fruit became a simple way of preserving it, making it available to places with a dearth of fresh produce. Inserting the sugared fruit into cake was a convenient way of making a buck, and since fruitcakes were heavily produced in the American South, cheap surplus nuts found their way into the recipe as well. Soaking it in booze helped counteract some of the sweetness, and no doubt gave people a handy way of coping with their families around the holidays.

    Fruitcake was popular enough to become a Christmas staple, so what precipitated its fall from grace? A lot of it has to do with marketing, a problem that plagues white bread as well. In the early 20th century, industrialization transformed the food landscape. Mass-produced fruitcakes were sold via mail-order, and these newly available cakes definitely did not represent the height of quality. Fruitcakes became heavy and dry.

    From there, its popularity began a steady decline it has never recovered from. It became associated with other bygone recipes of your grandmother’s kitchen, like aspic casseroles. Tales and jokes about people’s hatred of fruitcake proliferated; one article I found mentioned a soldier who received a gift of fruitcake on the front lines of WWII, shoved it in his bag, and discovered the uneaten cake 40 years later in his mother’s attic. Johnny Carson joked that “The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other,” a jibe that people have been repeating almost word-for-word to this day.

    Some American bakeries claim that fruitcake is making a comeback, but this doesn’t really pass the sniff test. Christmas baking displays often exclude them. Restaurants don’t serve them. Nobody I’ve talked to about it can seem to remember the last time they spotted one at a family gathering, unless one was served as a joke.

    It’s not all bad news for fruitcake, though. There does seem to be one country that appreciates American fruitcake. Japan apparently can’t get enough of the stuff, enjoying the sweetness of the fruit and the dense texture of the cake. So, in the interest of the season of goodwill, let’s strike up a mutually-beneficial trade agreement. Japan can have all of our fruitcakes, and we’ll take Norway’s.
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    American Plate - Bite #52: Oysters Rockefeller

    Tuesday, March 14, 2017 0 comments
    John D. Rockefeller is heavily associated with New York City, but the Big Apple has pretty much nothing to do with the iconic dish that carries his name. For that, we have to jet to another one of America's well-known food destinations. In 1840, French immigrant Antoine Alciatore founded Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans, and it was an immediate hit, which makes sense, given the city's embrace of its citizens' Cajun and Creole backgrounds. In fact, if you'd like to have a more personal experience with this restaurant, you can, as it's amazingly still in operation, having been owned and run by the Alciatore family since the very beginning.

    Antoine's son Jules is who really put the restaurant on the map. In 1899, he created the original recipe for Oysters Rockefeller. Its status as a decadent dish with an indulgent, rich green sauce inspired the name; if you're going to serve a fancy dish as a status symbol, why not name it after one the Gilded Age's wealthiest and most notorious financiers? Since then, Antoine's has served more than three million servings of this iconic dish, and its popularity has spread across the country.

    The fact that this dish was invented at and served at a restaurant is no mistake. When have you ever had Oysters Rockefeller at home? Some dishes and ingredients are welcome in multiple dining spheres, but these almost demand to be eaten out in public, which is exactly what I did.

    They're deceptively simple. Oysters Rockefeller is just oysters topped with other ingredients (usually parsley and other green herbs, bread crumbs, and a rich butter sauce) and then baked or broiled. That said, I've never had two servings that have tasted the same. Every restaurant seems to have a different twist on this classic.

    As you can see, the ones pictured above were served on ice in order to keep them chilly, and they turned out to be quite good. I like eating oysters in pretty much all their forms (on the half shell, fried, and so on), but Oysters Rockefeller will always have a special connotation in my brain. It's a dish to be enjoyed out on the town, and as such, are symbolic of a certain kind of fun and friendship. That's a pretty impressive accomplishment for such an unpretentious little preparation.
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