Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pork in the Sun and Bagged Spinach

We take sanitation and food safety for granted. Everyone knows that you need to keep your meat refrigerated. Room temperature poultry is definitely to be shunned. Spinach is safe, though, as are canned goods. Right?

Having traveled a bit and sampled foods that seemed to suffer from less than proper handling without getting sick has made me question these beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of refrigeration and I think it should be used whenever possible.

“Surely that must be a refrigerated table,” I thought to myself as I gazed at the chicken parts piled high on the stainless steel table while shopping in a grocery store in Thailand. As I walked towards the table to check the temperature, I thought, “even if this is refrigerated, the bulk of the chicken is still not being held at a safe temperature”. No worries, it was not refrigerated. None of the chicken was held at a “safe” temperature. Yet people were buying it. Presumably, the grocery store was not in the habit of killing people with its food. That couldn’t be good for business.

On multiple occasions, I dined on a variety of “street meat”, as I like to call it. It was certainly a leap of faith to eat pork and seafood products that had been stored in the ninety-degree Thai heat without any visible means of refrigeration. Not only did it taste fine, it didn’t make me sick. There are many more examples that I could cite of times I gambled with my life for the sake of some local cuisine.

The real irony comes from the fact that we have been told not to eat spinach, peanut butter, and canned chili. Our developed nation that is full of oversight has repeatedly allowed tainted food to enter the marketplace; foods that reasonable people would always consider to be healthy. How can it be that we cannot feel safe eating spinach, peanut butter, or canned chili, yet much of the world eats perishable protein foods that sit without refrigeration and they do not get sick?

For starters, the folks at the supermarket in Thailand could probably tell you everything about the chicken farmer that supplied those room temperature chicken parts. They probably know his name, where his farm is, and the names of his wife and kids. While working in Italy, it was common for the chef to secure products from his neighbors. Pork, produce, wine, etc, all purchased outside what we would consider “normal” distribution channels. This is not allowed in America. One cannot simply buy a pig from your neighbor and sell it in your restaurant.

Our mega-farms with our mega-distribution channels ensure mega-exposure of unsavory elements like E-Coli and botulism. Perhaps the biggest shame of the recent outbreaks is the medias total failure to educate the public on the benefits of buying local. I never heard a single talking head say that you could still buy local spinach, provided you don’t live near the mega-farm. They didn’t even say you could cook your spinach. That kills E-Coli. They simply said throw all of your spinach away.

The more items get recalled, the greater the need for people to start buying local, the more opportunities are missed by our news media to inform people of the benefits of eating locally.

Keep your mega-farm products, your Wal-Mart meat, your canned chili, and give me some room-temperature pork.

Orange-Craisin Spiced Lamb Meatballs in a Pomegranate Glaze

Ocean Spray recently had a recipe contest. I had a grand plan. I was going to make tortellini with duck confit and cherry craisins, served with a brown butter, walnut and sage sauce. This would then be topped with crispy duck confit. I had read the rules and was ready to go. Well, I have been busy and I did not get around to developing the recipe. I still wanted to do something, so the night before the contest was over, I threw together the following recipe. At 10:30 P.M., an hour and a half before the deadline, I went online to submit my recipe. After I clicked the link to enter my original recipe, I saw for the first time the rule that stated the ingredient list should be limited to ten items. Well, I had more than ten items. I submitted it anyway, although I combined the multiple spices into one by listing "Moroccan spice blend, or curry powder". I will probably be disqualified, but the food is tasty. Here is the recipe. It will serve about twelve people 4 to 5 meatballs each.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons Moroccan spice blend or curry powder
2 pounds ground lamb
zest of 2 oranges
1/2 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1 egg
1/4 cup parsley
1 bag orange craisins (6 oz)
6 oz chopped walnuts
salt and pepper to taste

Pomegranate Glaze
2 cans ocean spray cranberry sauce, jellied or whole berry
juice of 2 oranges
6 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees

Heat the olive oil in a saute pan until shimmering, do not allow to smoke. Add the onion and saute a few minutes until softened, but not colored. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the spice mix and cook for another minute, until fragrant.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Meanwhile, put the nuts in the oven and toast for about 5 minutes, until fragrant.

Mix the ground lamb, orange zest, bread crumbs, parsley, and the onion/garlic mixture until smooth. Mix in nuts and craisins. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Shape into 1" meatballs and bake for 10-12 minutes until cooked.

Place the cranberry sauce, orange juice, balsamic vinegar, and pomegranate molasses in a large skillet and heat until smooth. Season to taste with salt.

Add meatballs to sauce and simmer briefly. Serve as cocktail meatballs or with couscous.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Is Everything OK?

At what point did this question become rhetorical? I am amazed and dismayed by the blank stares I receive whenever my response is anything other than "fine" or the like. I recently wanted a healthy and quick meal after a long day of travel and work. I chose a Japanese restaurant near my hotel in Savannah. I sat at the sushi bar, as I always do when I dine alone. The waiter looked like a poor, disheveled version of a young b-list actor, whose name I can not recall and do not care to. His long sleeves where rolled up well above the elbow. The wrinkles in his clothing made me wonder if he had slept in them. He informed me that there was an all-you-can-eat sushi option. A somewhat limited menu was available for $25. I opted to fill out my little sushi card and slide it to the young, very American-appearing sushi "chefs" behind the bar. Another disheveled guy promptly put one of my rolls on the counter for me. It was followed shortly by the other roll I ordered. He then left the area, his destination unknown. The two other "chefs" continued to crank out sushi. I ate my rolls and waited. After an unreasonably long time, I still had no more food. The waiter came by and asked me " Is everything OK?". "Well, I am waiting for more food, and it has been a while", was my response. He said "Oh" and walked away. OH? That's it?

A little more time passed and I flagged down a guy behind the bar and asked him when the rest of my food would be up. "You have more food?" He then explained that he thought the other guy had finished my food. I informed him that he didn't. OK, my guy was not good at communication and they dropped the ball as a result. I can live with that. Now fix it.
Fix it he did not. He put one of my items up and then continued to work on other orders. Orders that had come in substantially after mine. All in all, it took another 35 minutes more to receive my remaining 4 orders of RAW fish.
Once again, the disheveled waiter came by to ask me if everything was OK. Well, I am still waiting on food, the couple there has ordered, eaten, paid, and left, those gentlemen are on their fifteenth plate of food, and I still do not have my unagi. After a bit of silence he said they are working on it. By now, the departed individual had returned, and put my sushi on the bar without a word.
Why are service individuals not trained how to handle responses that are not the best? I do not really blame my young, disheveled waiter, or the other people who have given me blank, uncomfortable stares when my response was not positive. Employees need to be trained to handle issues that arise, or at least to get a manager.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Pizza Test

When ordering pizza from a place you are unfamiliar with, it is good to have a strategy. I believe that you can find out everything you need to know about a pizzeria by ordering a sausage and mushroom pizza. The quality of meat is a telltale sign about a pizzeria and sausage is most often the biggest offender of good taste. I do not like what I call "dogfood" sausage, you know, those crumbly, rubbery, processed little nuggets that look like they should be in a dogs bowl. When I get a pizza with either slices of real sausage, or crumbles of sausage meat that looks like sausage meat, this indicates a big step in the right direction. If I see the telltale fennel seeds in the sausage then I generally start the mental happy dance.

As far as the mushrooms, canned mushrooms are bland, watery little abominations that have no place on a pizza (or anywhere else). Slices of fresh mushrooms are the only acceptable mushrooms for my pizza.

Now that takes care of our meats and vegetables. The remaining items of sauce, cheese, and crust tell the rest of the story. Doughy crust, overly sweet sauce, and an inch or two of cheese are all indications that you should run away from the place and tell your friends to stay away. A crust that is slightly less then perfectly round is a very good sign. It has been my experience that Atlanta tends to undercook its' pizzas. A black bubble or two on the crust is desired. The best pizza ovens (wood or coal, I prefer wood) run very hot and cook pizza in just a few minutes.

There are too many places out there where the owner learned everything they know about pizza from their Roma sales rep. Premade dough rounds, dogfood sausage, strange cheese blends, and other abominations are the norm. It is good to have a strategy to sort the wheat from the massive amounts of chaff out there.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Shucker's Sucks

On Friday, August 3, 2007 at 5 PM, I stopped at Shucker’s for bite on my way back from out of town. I asked that my oysters be lightly steamed. My oysters were overcooked; they were without moisture and completely shriveled. I asked they be taken away. I also ordered crawfish, they were not very good, but I ate them. When I received my bill, I was overcharged for my crawfish. I approached a man behind the bar and asked if he was a manager or owner. The response was no. I asked him if he could help because I was overcharged for my crawfish. I also expressed frustration about my oysters being overcooked. "I saw your oysters and they were beautiful" was his response. Dumbfounded, I then pointed to the menu price and to my bill to demonstrate where I was overcharged. I then inquired, "You thought those oysters were beautiful?" "I deal with people like you all the time" was his response. “People who want quality food and their bill to be correct?” I asked. I asked him what gave him the right to be an asshole to me, since he was neither a manager nor an owner (yes, I should not swear, but he was very rude, and I had had a long day). He then asked me if I wanted to go to jail. "I do not wish to be mistreated.” was my answer. He hovered by the cash register as the waitress fixed my bill. It seemed to me that he was trying to be menacing. His rude behavior continued and I left.

I then called the owner, who was at the other restaurant they own. She was apologetic and said she would call the restaurant to resolve the situation. I received a call back in a couple of minutes and I was told that I “pushed the oysters across the table” and “threw the menu across the bar”, neither of which is true. I was told that the staff perceived me to be rude, which even if I was (and I do not believe that I was), is no excuse to insult, threaten and mistreat me.

The photo above is an actual photo of the bartender who mistreated me.

Shucker's Oyster Bar
660 W Bankhead Hwy
Villa Rica, GA 30180
(770) 459-2600