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May 20, 2004

Food Notes

Dear Friedrich --

* Low-carb lookout: I notice that sales of bread and orange juice are both 'way down. (Check out this report here, and this one here.) The two industries are responding in similar fashion: with advertising blitzes, and with new lines of low-carb products. Krispy Kreme's stock price is off too. I wonder if they'll be advertising low-carb donuts soon.

* Any idea what what low-carb OJ tastes like? I've had a couple of low-carb breads, and they were awful. The other night The Wife and I tried a soy-based low-carb pasta. Eating it was wet, unpleasant, and heavy work, like chowing down on the contents of a laundry hamper. Are whole-wheat pastas better than the soy/low-carb pastas? Have you -- has anyone -- run across a whole-wheat pasta that's better than bearable?

* The Wife and I caught a documentary called Eat This, New York, harvested by the loyal DVR off the Sundance Channel. It's a likable, scrappy no-budget thing, definitely not-great but a modest triumph of pluck nonetheless. And it's got a terrific subject: the New York City restaurant business. The film follows the misadventures of two new-to-the-city midwestern semi-hipsters as they try to open a small bistro in Brooklyn. The filmmakers crosscut this footage with interviews with some of the city's great food figures: Daniel Boulud, Ruth Reichl, Danny Meyer, many others. Despite its skimpiness and flaws, the film kept us more than half-interested -- amazing what a great subject can do for a movie. What an all-engulfing life running a restaurant seems to be. Not so long ago, I used to be taken out to expense-account lunches at many of the city's best restaurants. (My three faves: Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Park Tavern, and Danube.) So it was doubly fun to watch the talents behind these places tell their stories and offer their reflections. I see at the film's website here that it'll soon be available on DVD. I also notice that the film is airing on Sundance one last time, tonight at 10:30 pm.

* Turkey burgers: healthy, handy, cheap, and about as pleasing to eat as scraps of plywood. The Food Network's ever-enthusiastic Rachael Ray to the rescue, here. The Wife found this recipe and has cooked it several times, and the results have always been wunderbar: an informal delight, full of taste and juice. The secret is mixing chopped apple and onion into the burger meat, and covering the pan as the turkey cooks. That way, the meat stays light and moist, and gets saturated with good onion-and-apple syrup. Rachael Ray urges you to serve the burgers with a cranberry relish, but The Wife has also served them with her own inspired tamari-garlic mushroom sauce. Yumsville.

* French food alert: Marie Valla and Christopher Dickey report in Newsweek International (here) that French cooking no longer seems so special, and they explain why. The blame seems to lie with government tax policies, red tape -- and the fact that cooking elsewhere has gotten so much better. I wonder if another element is something I've mentioned before: that, as a friend in Paris tells me, the old tradition by which cooking expertise was passed down from Frenchmother to Frenchdaughter has broken down. Interesting passage from Valla and Dickey:

Consider the value-added taxes that were "harmonized" all over Europe during the 1990s. They benefit fast-food chains, since the tax on takeaway is only 5.5 percent, while they penalize sit-down restaurants, whether humble bistros or haute cuisine, which pay 19.6 percent.

* I've been a tea-drinker for a few years, ever since the cancer doc told me to ditch the coffee and take up tea instead. (Antioxidants, flavenoids, blah blah.) I'm amazed how different the tea high is than a coffee high. Even when I've had the same amount of caffeine via tea as I'd have had via coffee, the tea buzz is still a less jangly one than a coffee buzz. Does anyone know why this should be so? For the first year of my tea habit, I did the classy thing and brewed my own fresh, with loose tea and a tea-strainer thingee from Adagio Teas (here). Then I succumbed to laziness, and to the convenience of tea bags. (Morning predicament: although I love the taste of fresh-brewed tea, I'm much too bleary to make it -- haven't had my morning caffeine yet, after all.) I've run across two teabag tips that have served me well. One: keep the teabag in the hot water for less time than you think you should. If you let the teabag steep for too long, the result won't be a stronger, richer cup of tea; it'll be murk that tastes like compost. (For most teas: around five minutes. For green tea: a minute or two less.) Tip two is for those of us who drink green tea: use water that's not yet at a boil. Water that's too hot will bring out the bitterness always lurking in green tea.

* Can you drink red wine these days? The Wife and I seem to have lost the ability. It's a minor tragedy, because we both love the taste of it. Seems to be an aging-related thing. Over the last few years, we've discovered that we can barely tolerate red wine at all. A mere half a glass will distress my sleep, and will depress my mood the following morning too; I'll dream about suicide and wake up feeling spiritually weighed-down, like a man recovering from a Nyquil overdose. Young friends have told me there's a good name for this syndrome: "Redhead."

* Every now and then I'm moved to argue that of all the arts in America, cooking is in the best shape. (My theory about why this should be so: because 1) there's a lively, open, experimental food-creating culture around these days, and because 2) no one can force people to eat what they don't enjoy eating. That's the kind of feedback loop that makes an artform flourish.) More proof: Maroon's, a restaurant in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood. The theme is upscale Jamaican-Southern. They create and serve witty and satisfying mixed drinks (this is a fun place to get sozzled) and funky food bursting with flavor and soul: melt-in-your-mouth cornbread; fried green tomatoes that are like a vacation down south; garlic shrimp as eloquent as any novel I've read recently; and red velvet cake that'll make you want to weep in gratitude and then die happy. (I'd skip the fried chicken, which was a little dry, and the macaroni and cheese, which wasn't special enough.) The friendly service operates at a mood-shifting tropical pace. This is home cookin' from two seductive places that has been elevated and turned into buppie poetry. The website for this little jewel of a restaurant is here. A NYC story? A week after lunching at Maroon's, I ran into the restaurant's owner at a Bikram yoga class.



posted by Michael at May 20, 2004


garlic shrimp as eloquent as any novel I've read recently

Once upon a time I might have balked at such a claim, but I've ceased to be amazed by the social graces of crustaceans ever since the Mock Turtle taught me the Lobster Quadrille.

Posted by: Mark Dellelo on May 20, 2004 7:50 PM

Tea-bags should not be used to prepare tea for drinking. Though I've heard they make nice cold compresses.

Have you tried brewing with a mug-sized mesh infuser? It's a sturdy mesh sleeve that fits inside a standard mug. Very easy to clean.
For bleary mornings, I set up my mug and infuser with a spoonful of tea the night before. In the morning all I have to do is the boil the kettle, pour the water, wait ~3 minutes, and lift out the infuser. If I'm really lazy, I don't bother rinsing the infuser until evening.
They sell infusers and other nice tea accessories at

Posted by: valine craig on May 20, 2004 9:56 PM

Tea-bags should not be used to prepare tea for drinking. Though I've heard they make nice cold compresses.

Have you tried brewing with a mug-sized mesh infuser? It's a sturdy mesh sleeve that fits inside a standard mug. Very easy to clean.
For bleary mornings, I set up my mug and infuser with a spoonful of tea the night before. In the morning all I have to do is the boil the kettle, pour the water, wait ~3 minutes, and lift out the infuser. If I'm really lazy, I don't bother rinsing the infuser until evening.
They sell infusers and other nice tea accessories at

Posted by: valine craig on May 20, 2004 9:56 PM

Yes the tea buzz is much more smooth. Not jangly and wired and shimmery, and not followed by a noticable crash once it wears off. Also seems easier on the body.

Posted by: Brian on May 20, 2004 11:36 PM

*Some* of us stuggle through the bleariness and brew a proper cup.
Age-related or not, White wine is intolerable. Harsh and bitter and stomach upseting. Have you tired the lighter reds? Claret is sweet, weightless, and gives you old world gravitas.


Posted by: jleavitt on May 20, 2004 11:44 PM

The low carb thing won't last. People are going to stay away from bread, pasta, donuts indefinitely? Puhleeze!
Great buying opportunity for Krispy Kreme Kommon.

Posted by: ricpic on May 21, 2004 9:52 AM

I, for one, am tired and irritated at my local television news station. Every night, and I mean EVERY might, they have a viciously happy, finger-pointing story about some American weight related topic. With evil glee, the anchor team exPOUNDS the newest information on the fat Ugly American. Nowadays, I keep a gorilla mask in my car for a quick, furtive drive-thru at the unholy golden arches. Thanks to all the low-carb hype, I now understand the guilty pleasure of being a patron of something considered the slimy underbelly of society. "Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes", I have become the Aqualung pariah of the Food Police.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on May 21, 2004 10:39 AM

Mark -- "Eloquent" is a great word, no? I'd been thinking about using "noble" -- I love the way somie wine critics like to refer to a certain kind of grape as a "nobel" grape -- but didn't have the balls. A little more seriously: I don't know how food writers do it. I mean, how many adjectives are there that are useful? Not all that many, it seems to me, not that I'm master of them by any means. But it seems almost inevitable that you'd wind up writing food porn. Which of course many of them do. Makes me have a lot of respect for the ones who manage to keep it fresh and make some sense. Can't be easy.

Valine -- You're a better person than I am! Even that bit of effort's too much for me in the morning, I've found. Although, who knows, I may go back to brewing my own tomorrow morning. One never knows.

Brian -- Thanks, good to know someone else has noticed this too. I find that if I want to be super-aggressive, I'll drink coffee rather than tea, but that generally the tea buzz suits me better. But it can't be just the quantity of caffeine, it's gotta be something else, no? I wonder what. Another funny thing about the coffee buzz is that, while it does make me aggressive, it also sometimes blasts my concentration into smithereens. I won't wind up accomplishing what I drank the coffee in order to accomplish. I'll accomplish a dozen other things - most of them pointless and useless -- instead, or maybe just spend the day in an agitated state. On tea, I seem to be able to behave in a more organized (and productive, and rewarding) way. Do you find that too?

John -- You and Valine show how to do the morning with some class. I'm quite the grotty spectacle. I've had to get to like white wine because red has become so impossible for me. The other week, I started trying to train myself back into drinking red. I put two tablespoons of a decent cab into a 4 oz. glass of water and sipped that. (Hey, back in the early '70s when I was in France, the French often drank watered-down red, although not watered down by that much.) Despite the wateriness, it was surprisingly delicious -- the aroma, the swirly dark flavors, etc. But it still hit me like Nyquil. The next evening I tried one tablespoon in a glass of water, and I survived that pretty well, pathetic though it is. Of course, I could barely tell that there was wine in the water at all. But: no headache, no thoughts of suicide, no immense weight on my spirits the next morning. So at least now I've got a place to start from again. The age-related physiological changes are often, alas, next to impossible to overcome. Bones do grow brittle, muscles do get stringy, hair does get thinner. And, in my case, red wine does start to turn on you. Biochemistry, I suppose.

Ricpic -- Yeah, like you, I wonder how long the low-carb thing will last. Still, aren't you surprised (I am) by how vehement it's been? It's really swept the country in just a couple of years. Any idea why? I find myself suspecting that it's because everyone felt really betrayed by the medical-health establishment. All those tips they gave us turned out to have made us fat. So everyone has turned on the bums very aggressively. I'm not sure yet whether I consider this a healthy thing -- experts do need to get slapped around from time to time -- or whether it's just another example of American herd behavior. Do you have a hunch about this yet?

Pattie -- We obviously need more such courageous souls as yourself! Besides, we eat to live, no? At least in part? And what's the point if the "living" part of the equation becomes no fun?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 21, 2004 10:47 AM

The most recent issue of Consumer Reports tested low-carb breads and found two that were apparently quite palatable: Arnold Carb Counting Multi-Grain and Sara Lee Delightful Wheat Bakery. Unfortunately, they both contain wheat gluten, which for people sensitive to wheat, like me (and I don't mean celiac disease; in my case, it upsets my digestion and, over longer periods, depresses me) is a problem.

Posted by: Dave Trowbridge on May 21, 2004 11:53 AM

Yes. Coffee is like a sports car. It's really flashy and nice to look at and it certainly speeds things up, but it's also rather distracting and you can end up driving around without getting anywhere in particular.

Tea takes you up gently and brings you back down gently. It's almost subliminal.

I believe that tea contains caffeine (like coffee) and an additional stimulant. I don't recall the name exactly but it'd be easy to google. Theoph . . .? Theobr. . .? Something like that. Maybe that's the difference in the buzz.

Posted by: Brian on May 21, 2004 11:57 AM

Oh, and about the low carb stuff? It's a fad, but it's a fad because it works. Everyone follwed that hi carb low fat fad of the early 90s and wound up bigger than ever. People try this one and it actually works.

I didn't do Atkins or anything like that but I did cut drastically on my refined carbos (sugar, pasta, bread, etc). Otherwise I ate all I wanted. In 6 months I went from 184 to 165. I'm back to what I weighed in high school. (I'm 33). No change in the amount of exercise or anything. I was never hungry. It just works.

I think the reason it works is that it's the diet we evolved eating over 100000s of years before the invention of agriculture. It's evolutionary dieting. What did we eat as hunter-gatherers? Meat, seafood, fruit, nuts, vegetables, bugs. . . we didn't eat refined carbos. It's the way we're "designed" to eat.

Posted by: Brian on May 21, 2004 12:03 PM

I love Catelli whole wheat pasta, but I don't think it's available in the U.S. Contrary to regular pasta, it has a great taste of its own, and needs very little sauce.

Also, rice pasta makes a great replacement to the regular kind. Not that white, translucent, stringy stuff they use in oriental cuisine: brown rice pasta. The brand I use is Tinkyada. They taste great, almost like regular pasta, but are much better for your health. I find it in the organics section of my supermarket.

Posted by: Sereenie on May 21, 2004 3:05 PM

I've always thought turkey burgers tasted better than ground beef, and was more than a little bummed when the Mad Cow scare around Christmas led shoppers to buy up every last scrap of it around these parts for a week or two.

(At least the dark ground turkey - the white ground turkey tastes like crap. Of course, so does white sliced turkey meat.)

Posted by: Ken on May 21, 2004 3:48 PM

Tea has much more theophylline than coffee, it's a stimulant related to caffeine, but which affects the cardio-vascular system much more than the central nervous system. So the amount of 'head buzz' you get from a given amount of tea will have a more balanced effect on your heart and suchnot. So it's smoother.

Neat, huh?

Posted by: David Mercer on May 22, 2004 2:23 AM

You might be interested in how Newsweek got the French VAT thing all wrong. Full details at

Posted by: Tim Worstall on May 22, 2004 6:26 AM

Oi..enough of the fads already. Brian does make a good point when he goes back to the beginning of it all, but how about a nice balanced diet with all the food groups in the right proportion. Organic, natural fruits and vegetables( go Farmers Market!), lean and white meat, and unrefined whole wheat rice/bread/pasta, with atleast a 30 minute walk in fresh air (I'm sorry - gyms have recycled air) everyday.

By the way, wheat pasta definitely tastes better.

Posted by: Neha on May 22, 2004 9:20 AM

As for coffee vs tea and the buzz, a recent study showed you can get all the benefits of coffee (alertness, increased concentration) without the jazzed up feeling by sipping two ounces of coffee every hour or so, rather than tanking up with a whole cup every four hours or so.

I happen to find most teas insipid (although I really like Silver Tip), so this is good news.

Posted by: Dave Trowbridge on May 22, 2004 2:30 PM

About ground turkey: I haven't eaten turkey burgers before, but I find that when eating turkey tacos or meat loaf, I simply can not tell the difference. Although I don't eat much beef anyway.

Posted by: Shannon on May 22, 2004 3:05 PM

For me the gentleness of the tea buzz is countered by the tannin nausea.

A question about your cuisine theory. The idea that the free market yields cultural as well as material abundance is one I'm inclined to believe - all those Tyler Cowen books I've read - but then how do we explain the sorry state of Hollywood?

Posted by: Brian on May 22, 2004 8:35 PM

Brian, that's what the biscuits (or similar) in tea and biscuits is there for!

Posted by: David Mercer on May 23, 2004 10:45 PM

Thank you, David T, this makes much more sense; I think I'll switch to this new buzz schedule.

To everybody who thinks tea is a milder, more forgiving and non-addictive drug: I'll copy this entry from Logic & Sanity blog (permalink doesn't work for some reason) by March 29th:

...Chifir (Чифир) is a russian name for really, really, really strong tea.[accent on second syllable - T]

Effects of drinking chifir inclue alertness, a somewhat drunken/high state, and even hallucinations. As this source suggests, if you have a heart condition, your hallucinations might include seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

Chifir is very popular in Russian jails, since other stimulants/alcohol are not as readily available. Drinking Chifir is a ritual and, according to Тюремная энциклопедия (Prison Encyclopedia - basically, a guide to life and rules inside russian prisons), being invited to a chifir drinking is a sign of respect, I guess somewhat akin to being invited to smoke a hookah (in the Arab societies). Chifir is usually drank in a group, with inmates passing around a jar (a liter or so).

To make chifir you need (roughly) 1.5 oz of loose tea per 10 oz of boiling water.

So, next time you're bored at work... Make some tea :)

Posted by: Tatyana on May 24, 2004 11:30 AM

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