June 2007 Archives

One fork at a time

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Tasting the ratatouille.JPG
Fork in one hand, pen in the other, the critic Anton Ego prepares to taste Rémy's ratatouille.

What's this? A movie that stars a rat and food critic? Guess who's the bad guy? Seriously, the little rat, Rémy, is a genius in the kitchen. But the food critic Anton Ego, voiced by 75-year-old Peter O'Toole, has the best lines, a brilliant monologue late in the film on the art of criticism that transforms Ratatouille into dogma. If you've ever written a harsh word about any artistic performance, it's your credo.

And they're marketing this as a movie for kids! What a mistake! Ratatouille is, among other things, an intelligent film about cooking in general and French cuisine specifically. Stirred into the soup, as it were, are several enchanting story lines with overlapping messages: the random and arbitrary nature of creative genius, the value of family, the breathtaking beauty of Paris, the simple pleasures of good food. The movie's premise, that a rat becomes a superstar chef, requires no particular suspension of disbelief; its embrace of French culture is never condescending.

The snooty critic, Anton Ego (brother of the less-famous Alter, one assumes) orders a 1947 Cheval Blanc when he visits Gusteau's, the restaurant where Rémy and his crew are "cooking," but the bottle at his table is clearly Lafite Rothschild. Quelle horreur! That's probably the only oversight in the film. [Update: the DVD release apparently corrects this.]The critic loves the ratatouille (which was actually created for the film by Thomas Keller of the French Laundry), and audiences of all ages loved the movie. It took in $47 million this weekend, beating Die Hard for the number one spot.


By the way the film makers even get the little things right, including a scene where Rémy's father shows him evidence of human cruelty: it's a real shop in Paris called Julien Aurouze at 8, rue des Halles. Its giant window display, "Destruction des Animaux Nuisibles," caught my attention a couple of months ago. The website's soundtrack is, gulp, "After you've gone."

Julien Arouze Paris ratcatcher.JPG The real rats of Paris.JPG

The gospel of real food

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Real Food lg cover.jpg Nina Planck.JPG

The cholesterol in butter, whole milk and organ meats is good for you, nothing short of brain food, while industrial food makes you sick.

That's Nina Planck talking. Modest, funny, spiritual godmother to farmers markets from New York to London, she came to Seattle to promote the paperback edition of her bestselling book, Real Food: What to Eat and Why and stayed an extra day to have dinner at the Volunteer Park Café with a group of foodies put together by Michael Hebberoy of OnePot. (More on Michael and his leadership of the so-called "underground restaurant" movement in upcoming posts.)

A former vegan herself, Nina Planck created a big stir in the New York Times earlier this month by arguing that pregnant women, newborns and nursing moms were ill-served by a vegan diet. Cradling her 8-month-old son, she called skim milk "an abomination," lard a virtual miracle food, and statin drugs dangerous because they block vital enzymes.

Things like the "Fat-Free Half & Half" sold at Whole Foods are neither natural nor healthy, she says. On her website, she explains:

I belive the conventional wisdom on traditional foods is mistaken. The so-called diseases of civilization - obesity, diabetes, heart disease - are not caused by real food. The diseases of industrialization - as I call them - are caused by the foods of industrialization.
And we all have dinner: bruschetta with chèvre; braised brisket with cabbage and carrots; hot biscuits with raw Jersey butter; lemon loaf with berries and cream: a generous meal full of the satisfying flavors that come from fresh, local ingredients, free of industrial taint...and enriched with animal fat.

Faking our food

Let's see if I've got this right: in the name of progress, our food police want to feed us tasteless cheese and watered-down chocolate.

Epoisses.JPG Theo chocolate bars.JPG

Regulators at European Union headquarters in Brussels, in an purported effort to promote food safety, are insisting that the raw milk used in traditional Camembert be pasteurized, which would kill bacteria that give it a unique flavor. Big producers are thrilled, artisan producers are aghast.

But before we castigate the EU, let's save a bit of outrage for our own Food & Drug Administration, which is about to allow the production of chocolate candy with less chocolate. Again, big producers are thrilled, artisans (like Seattle's own Theo Chocolate) are mortified.

(Quite parenthetically, all this on the same day that the Tokyo fish market almost runs out of real tuna, thanks to overfishing. Some sushi chefs say they'll substitute deer meat. Yup, looks like Bambi will be the new toro.)

Because, for the big guys, it's not about the real thing, it's about making something that looks like the real thing...as cheaply as possible. Remember when Coke was the "real thing"? Well, even then, sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, it wasn't.

We want, we want, we want it all. But we don't want to pay, so we get what we deserve: shinola.

Dining big

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Fund-raising dinner for Big Brothers / Big Sisters this weekend. For the "Big battle of little tastes," Chef Dan Thiessen of Bellevue's 0/8 Seafood Grill brought his signature dish, scallop sashimi, which once again proved a crowd-pleaser; he won the People's Choice award. Critics Choice went to Queen Anne's Sorrentino for two Sicilian dishes: an eggplant caponata with baby octopus, and a tomato salad with prawns. Yum!

DineBig plates.jpg

Waterbrook Winery in Walla Walla won the People's Choice award. The critics chose the new Helix wines from Columbia Valley grapes, made by Walla Walla's Reininger Winery.

The Sandwich

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Out and about in Belltown, I espy a hand-lettered chalkboard in the window of Bambino's, promising "New York Style" sandwiches, including my favorite, beef tongue.

Aha! A chance to write a post in support of a neglected cut of deli meat and say something nice about Bambino's for a change, instead of griping about the lackluster "East Coast" pizzas and the dinner server's tattoos. (Not just Bambino's, either; tats last week at Cucina deRa, too, with a lip piercing thrown in. Is this a trend? I could understand this on Broadway, but it seems a bit aggressive for genteel Belltown.)

Tattooed server.JPG

Printed menu says all nine sandwiches are served "Pilled High," a typo, no doubt. Anyway, there it is, the Piemontese, $7.90 for beef tongue with garlic mayo on a baguette. I settle in (on a stool) with my book, The Journals of John Cheever.

The (untattooed) lunch server returns. "Um, we're out of the tongue," she says. "It hasn't been all that popular."

How hard would it be, I ask tartly, for the shift manager to simply erase the tongue from the blackboard? Cheever, I imagine, would have found something gracious to say. By coincidence, this is the 25th anniversary of his death.

Could wander a block down Cedar to Mike's East Coast Sandwiches, get a more-than-passable reuben. But it wouldn't be tongue, dammit. Ah, Cheever might say, we are so demanding, so spoiled.

Bambino's East Coast Pizzeria, 401 Cedar St., 206-269-2222 Bambino's East Coast Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Yukon River king salmon.JPG

Better believe it, the 25-year reign of the Copper River salmon is over. The new king comes from the mighty Yukon River, and the architect of its ascendancy is (no real surprise) the same power-behind-the-throne, Jon Rowley.

Nothing personal, the assembled court seemed to say (to the Copper) at today's luncheon down at Elliott's Oyster House. You've had a remarkable run, leading Seattle diners into new realms of taste. But the new guy, well, he's everything you were (and still are) only moreso!

Technically, the more intense flavor comes from additional fat: up to 50 percent more of those nutritious Omega 3 oils. The Yukon River is 2,000 miles long and the salmon have to swim for up to two months without eating before they reach their spawning grounds. (The Copper is much shorter, though more rugged.)

Until last year, most Yukons were frozen and shipped to Japan; very few fresh fish ever made it out of Alaska. It's a long, tough slog from the village of Emmonak, pop. 767, so remote that a dozen eggs cost $5.50 past-pull-date milk is $10 a gallon, and an airplane ticket to Anchorage, 1,000 miles across the tundra, is $800. What's made the difference in this remote location is a five-year-old cooperative established by the local Yup'ik Eskimo community called Kwikpak Fisheries, which hooked up with Rowley to work out logistics and marketing.

Down on the Copper, the fishery is sophisticated: big boats with communications gear and power winches to reel in the gill nets. The mouth of the Yukon is broader and shallower, so boats are open skiffs; it's not unusual to find an entire family aboard to haul the nets in by hand. The natives have been fishing like this for the past 10,000 years.

What's different for the Yukon fishery this season is simple: ice. Kwikpak, buying only from boats that keep their catch iced, ships them by bush plane to Anchorage, then by regular airfreight to Seattle.

The season starts tomorrow and it's a short one, maybe three weeks, 30,000 to 60,000 fish max.

Rowley reminds us that the oilier the fish, the denser the flesh, and the more important to cook it properly. No rare, pink-in-the-middle preparation here; it needs to reach an internal temp of 115 degrees. A bit of salt is all it needs for seasoning. Sear it quickly, then let it absorb the heat of a 250-275-degree oven for ten minutes or so. It will ooze that nutritious Omega 3 oil all over the plate, speading its rich, deep flavors to a few simply grilled summer vegetables.

The fish will taste like velvet.

FRIDAY UPDATE: Video from Northwest Cable News.

Chef Jeremy Anderson checks fish temp.JPG Copper next to Yukon.JPG

Paris, here we come!

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Crew flying first Seattle Paris nonstop.JPG

Air France 046 touched down right on schedule Monday--the first-ever nonstop flight from CDG to SEA, water cannons spraying the Airbus A330 in a festive salute, the pilot waving French and American flags from his cockpit window. Champagne toasts and official speeches followed, blessing this long-overdue rapprochement of the Eiffel Tower and the Space Needle.

Francophile Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur said we'd finally been kissed on both cheeks by the standoffish French. But the rest of Seattle's media reacted with a yawn. No mention at all in the Post-Intelligencer, which hasn't prevented them from prominent displays of Air France ads for the past several weeks. KING's Glen Farley's workmanlike, two-minute clip covered the basics (50,000 passangers a year fly to Paris out of SeaTac, but have to make a connection), while KOMO's Akiko Fujita whined about the price of the nonstop trip. Got news for you, Akiko: if you think the flight's expensive, wait till you order the escargots (about $21 a dozen most brasseries these days).

Seriously, this is not about the cost of air travel. A nonstop flight from Seattle to Paris is about our own sense of identity. Sure, we've been able to reach London, Amsterdam or Copenhagen overnight for decades. But Paris has always eluded us. Now we can live happily in Seattle, just knowing that we can follow up today's lunch at Le Pichet with lunch tomorrow on the Champs Elysées. I tell you, it's life-changing.

What's more, some of those 65 million Frenchies now get to do the same thing: visit Seattle. Little-known fact: the average French visitor to the US is on his third or fourth trip. Air France knows that travel demand can't be one-sided, but until recently, Seattle was in the backwoods of French consciousness. Now, with media exposure and the boom in hi-tech, that's no longer the case. The clincher, for Air France ceo Jean-Cyril Spinetta, came at a dinner with French business leaders (carefully orchestrated by Port of Seattle officials) just a few months ago. Finally convinced of the pent-up demand from the European side, Spinetta okayed that 200-seat Airbus, promising to switch to a Boeing 777 if the extra 100 seats can be justified by the headcount.

Allons, les enfants! On va à Paris!

Bastille Day Eiffel Tower.JPG Space Needle.jpg

The Queen's birthday

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Regal as ever, she turns 20 and celebrates with an early-evening $20 menu. Queen City Grill, at the corner of First and Blanchard, has seen her once-seedy neighborhood transformed. Her glowing mahogany bar has become a club for Belltowners who avoid Belltown's clubs.

QCG 20th Anniv.JPG

Part-owner and general manager Robert Eickhof firmly at the helm. Sit on the deck overlooking First and order the crabcakes. "Sidewalk Dining" at its best.

The myth of "organic"

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Just as politicians hate voters, Corporate America hates its customers. Valid interests become trivialized, legitimate concerns minimized. Anheuser Busch, which has been selling an "organic" beer for the past year, would benefit from new Ag dept rules to allow a host of non-organic additives.


Here's the pitch Anheuser Busch is making on its website for Wild Hop Lager:

In today's world of artificial flavors, preservatives and factory farming, knowing what goes into what you eat and drink can just about drive you crazy. That's why we have decided to go back to basics and do things the way they were meant to be … naturally."

"Wild Hop Lager is made with 100% Organic Barley Malt, certified by the USDA for a rich, flavorful taste."

Except that it's not. The statement is a flat-out, baldfaced lie. The hops, essential to flavor, are not organic at all. In fact, USDA rules have been bent to allow beer companies to use fertilizers and pesticides on hops. Oh, and that "Green Valley Brewing Company," my foot. It's Budweiser, friends.

If you pay attention, you know that "organic" hasn't meant squat ever since the USDA got its hands on the term.

More than three dozen non-organic ingredients will be allowed under new rules taking effect Friday. Sure, there's a voice of outrage in the wilderness (Finland, Minnesota); the Organic Consumers Association is crying foul. But what's a few thousand ragged hippies compared to the financial and political muscle of Industrial Farm & Pharma?

What deep contempt those marketers must have for their customers! We've become a nation of zombies; we'll literally swallow anything.

The joy of white

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While everyone else is out there swooning over monster reds, I find myself searching out obscure whites. Waaay beyond chardonnay and pinot grigio. Pan-Mediterranean varieites like vermentino and vernaccia, catarratto from Sicily, picpoul from southern France, txacoli from northern Spain. I'm like a sailor on shore leave: a new mistress every night.

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A couple of examples from a wine dinner this weekend. Intense floral nose on a Jurançon from Domaine Cauhapé on the north-facing slopes of the Pyrenees in southern France. Grape varieites: gros manseng and petit manseng. Or a delightful, slightly sweet Torrontes, Argentina's signature white grape, from José Luis Mounier; it smelled and tasted like a cross between chenin blanc and gewurztraminer. Delightful with the foie gras that opened the annual Bring Your Own Wine night at downtown Seattle's venerable Rainier Club. (Parenthetically, haven't been a member for several years now; was most pleased to note that executive chef Bill Morris's sure hand is still guiding the kitchen.)

It's really a state of mind, whether you settle for the predictable, bland and unremarkable or prefer the the adventure of uncertainty. Would guess that the choice (pro-choice? pro-red?) falls along party lines, but then, this isn't a blog about politics.

Drop that megaburger!

Burger King logo.jpg Giant burger.jpg

Comes as no surprise to discover that a website called TheGiantHamburger sells a do-it-yourself "16-inch giant hamburger kit" for $19.95 plus postage. All you need is 10 pounds of ground beef and one or two friends.

Mention this in passing because Burger King, which has been running a distant third in the burger wars ($1 million per store, compared with $1.9 million for Mickey D), is beefing up its sales with a new 1,000-calorie Quad Stacker. It complements last year's entry in the megaburger sweepstakes, the 1,230-calorie Triple Stacker With Cheese, also from BK. The winner, calorie-wise, is the Double $6 from Carl's Jr., weighing in at 1,530 calories and 111 grams of fat.

The winner, sales wise, is actually In-n-Out, at $2 million per store, but they're a small, region chain by comparison. BK, on the other hand, has three stores north of downtown, two south, and three on the east side. Mickey has 25 locations within 10 miles of the Needle. In case you're still hungry.

But there's hope! Remember the 5-second rule: If you drop something on the floor, no cooties if you pick in 5 seconds. A recent study warned that bacteria actually swarm cookie crumbs on contactm but it turns out, the experiment was rigged; researchers had salted the floor with deadly e.coli bacteria. The very latest study, reported today in Newsday, refutes that with a real-life experiment conducted at a high school cafeteria. No harmful germs arrived for a full minute.

So go ahead, order that Quad Stacker, that Triple With Cheese, that deep-fried BaconMegaCheeseBurger, and don't worry if you happen to drop it on the floor. The staph and strep bugs won't touch it. They know what's going to kill them.

Opera pig

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This is too good. First, Seattle Opera got in on the frenzy of Pigs on Parade, whipping up an Opera Pig named Rusty. Then the scenic studios manager, Michael Moore, composed a 20-second "aria" for the pig to sing, and persuaded baritone John Boehr to lend it his voice.

A bit of electronic wizardry in Rusty's snout senses when people come snooping around the plaza in front of McCaw Hall, prompting Rusty to belt out "La Canzone del Maiale." Rough translation: Whatta day, whatta song, what great singing, this (snort!) song of the pig!"

Doesn't sound rusty to me. More like Pigoletto. Or Pigliacci.

Ladies who lunch

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Lunch lady 160.jpg logo_caisse.gif

Over in Ballard, Archie McPhee sells a cheerful Lunch Lady action figure for $9.95. Tell the disgruntled lunch ladies in Chicago, who are demanding respect from a school system that pays them peanuts (well, $10.46 an hour) and expects them to serve slop to thousands of kids.

"We're looking at each other like, 'I wouldn't eat that.' We wouldn't give our kid that at home," one lunch lady told the Chicago Sun-Times. No wonder that kids revolt. Just outside Chicago, a vast, unsavory food fight made headlines around the world.

Meantime, there's Vincent Jarousseau, an up-and-coming Paris politician, deputy mayor of the bohemian 14th arrondissement, in charge of schools. Among other things, school lunches, which he posts on his blog. Three-course lunches, mind you, with a classic appetizer like hard-boiled eggs, or a fresh vegetable salad; a main course of beef, turkey or pork; cheese or fruit for dessert. French schools teach kids how to eat right; or, rather, they serve decent food because it's what the kids, their families, the school administrators and the country's elected officials expect.

The most emailed story over at the New York Times last week lamented the crummy choices offered by restaurants on their so-called Kids' Menus: mostly chicken strips and fries. Deep-fried crap, in other words. No wonder we're raising a nation of gastronomic illiterates. If you don't learn to eat at school, at home, or in restaurants, you end up with a range of flavor preferences that runs the gamut from Coke to Pepsi, from Mickey D to Burger K.

Quick, while Paris is in jail and the politicians annointed as "official" candidates by CNN and Fox are poking each others' eyes out, let's take a moment to talk about the Farm Bill. (Yeah, right.) Seriously, because you are what you eat, you know. (Yeah, right.)


We've written about this before; the Farm Bill is one of the country's most important pieces of social engineering because it provides subsidies to crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, cotton), thus determining what gets grown where.

Agricultural policy is a classic MEGO topic, and that's what the corn lobby is counting on. But a guy named Earl Blumenauer is sending up some flares. He's a "Democrat" congressman from Oregon's 3rd District (encompassing Portland), and, more to the point, a savvy blogger. Although he represents a decidedly urban constituency, he wants to see a farm policy that makes sense, that supports family farmers, that ensures a healthy food supply.

Blumenauer's a guest columnist this week on TPMCafe.com, an online forum that grew out of the liberal Talking Points Memo. And he's got his own blog, where he's laying out a Food & Farmer Bill of Rights.

What harm has our government's official policy wrought? For a start, Blumenauer writes, "Fruits, vegetables, and row crops are largely bypassed in favor of lavish subsidies for a few commodities." Just one example: the well-intentioned but archaic policy to prop up the price of sugar during the Depression has backfired; today, it's doing nothing to help the domestic sugar industry while making it impossible for Third World cane farmers to survive.

While we're at it, think how silly it is for sugar grown in Hawaii to be refined in California, shipped to New York for packaging and shipped back to Hawaii in one-gram paper packets. Not just silly but wasteful.

This little piggy

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Too disturbing for the Market? Lemme tell ya, this whole Pigs on Parade thing has gotten out of hand.

Prosciutto and melon.JPG

You know the concept: local artists create fiberglass scultpures based on Ur-piggy Rachel, eventually sold to raise money for the Pike Place Market Foundation. One such sculptor is Colin Reedy, an Oregon furniture designer whose previous contributions include a couple of ride-em "Pork Choppers." This particular creation, titled "Prosciutto and Melon Pig," ought to be positioned at a deli counter like DeLaurenti, not on the sidewalk in Belltown next to, gulp, the pork-free Tandoori Hut.

Where will it lead, all this "On Parade" stuff? Cows in Chicago, Cows in Zurich, "Sound of Moosic" cows in Salzburg, Vach'Art in Paris, nutcrackers and ponies in downtown Seattle, more piggies in Cincinnati, ducks in Eugene, salmon in Salem, hearts in San Francisco, donkeys and elephants in Washington, DC, bulls in Torino, Italy, lions in Lyon, lions in Venice. Whales on Parade to raise money for ocean research? Rats on Parade for urban sanitation?

Beer here!

Posted an item yesterday, here and on Seattlest.com, on the subject of "wine versus beer." Lots of online response, including this email from St. Louis:

Good morning Ron,

I read the same piece in Slate, then the follow-up Q&A with Field Maloney at the Wash Post's website. I loved your response post.

If you haven't already, I highly recommend reading the Q&A. Pay attention to the question from Cleveland.

Additionally, I think you may be interested to know that the premium Czech lager Pilsner Urquell--full disclosure, Pilsner Urquell is a client of mine--is stealing a page out of the wine marketer's playbook with scores, food pairings and tasting notes....all the domain of wine, until now.

Perhaps this push can be most-simply illustrated with the Pilsner Urquell neck hanger, so I've attached an image.
neckhanger small.jpg

Take care, keep drinking and please let me know if you'd like to talk to a Pilsner Urquell brand rep or their very own internal beer sommelier. We've got a great story to tell!

Sean Hixson

Thanks, Sean!

Two other notes: check out Pilsner Urquell's cool food-pairing chart.

And take a look at Maggie Dutton's comment on my post (same topic) over at Seattlest.com:

Crap wines probably outnumber crap beers, as the crappiest beers are the most omnipresent. Wine's just scared. Because if beer was ever widely seen as a vibrant, layered, interesting beverage that pairs just as well if not better with food (cough, cough Belgium), wine's marketing strategy to Boomers would be screwed.

Or unscrewed, as the case may be, given the snooty wine industry's reluctance to embrace Stelvin (screwcap) closures.

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