The four warning signs of faux-fancy cuisine

Traveled to a big tourist city last week. After three days of ghastly airline, airport, and convention center food, I splurged on a fancy hotel restaurant that billed its cuisine as “local” (or at least, “regional”).

What a hideous and expensive mistake.

There are more and more of these tourist-targetting restaurants that serve faux-fancy cuisine. Some executive chef comes in and designs a menu, then leaves. A team of low-end cooks slavishly follow the assembly directions, with no modifications based on the quality of the actual ingredients.

I don’t know what was worse that night — the horribly, flabby, thawed shrimp passed off as local or the beautiful fresh scallops tainted with painted-on high-sodium artificial smoke before being seared in a pan of questionable grease.

Avoid these places like the plague.

The watermelon dish

The watermelon dish

Your first clue is the menu: Each dish has three ingredients that, in juxtaposition, raise the eyebrows rather than whet the palate. Watermelon chunks topped with large balls of goat cheese with a side of onions and orchids, anyone?

The second clue is the dinnerware: Gigantic white plates in weird shapes — rectangular, triangular, trapezoidal. Give me a break.

Sauce overkill

Sauce overkill

The third clue is the sauces: Salty, fatty and so highly flavored with hot pepper, mustard, or spices that they obliterate any flavor that the main dish might ever have had.

Finally, the damning fourth clue: A gluey version of balsamic vinegar zig-zagged artistically over your food and the trapezoidal plate. For dessert, it’s raspberry-balsamic glue for the zig-zag.

The scallop travesty (note balsamic zigzag)

The scallop travesty (note balsamic zigzag)

I wanted to cry — particularly for what must have been delightful scallops before they were poisoned with artificial smoke flavoring.

The next day I set out on the road and found myself in a small rural community. At 12:30 p.m. the downtown burger pub was filled with people drinking like fish (cocktails AND mugs of beer?). I got the basic lunch — a hamburger that could have fed three people, a mountain of fries, and a 24-oz. plastic glass of ice-cold Coca-Cola.

I ate the beef patty (quite good) and the tomato slice (fresh, and local) and had a few sips of Coke. You know what? It was about 10 times better than the previous night’s dinner. And so was the service.

Yoga, flexibility, strength, and endurance

yoga matsLast August my Skype yoga classes went on hiatus for six months while our teacher, Susan Powter, embarked on a traveling and cooking project.

I’ve spent the past half year doing various Vinyasa routines on my own. For whatever reason, I simply could not do 1-hour sessions, and ended up doing 45-minute workouts. I’ve been sick for the past two months with things including a fairly severe sinus infection, followed by a painful bladder infection. So things just haven’t been good.

Susan’s back to teaching (yay!) and today I got to take a 75-minute class and assess what I maintained and what I lost doing a self-directed practice.

Flexibility — To my surprise, I can do most of my poses just as well as I could when doing three 1-hour classes a week last summer.

Strength — To the degree that strength supports balance, I’m still doing fairly well.

Endurance — Here’s where I completely lost it. Moving rapidly from pose to pose is a key element in Vinyasa yoga, and as soon as I had to spend a lot of time in plank, down dog, and other inverted poses in which arms provide support, I was in huge trouble.

Lest anyone think my workout today was torture, I want to assure you that Susan, who works with many students who haven’t exercised in years, urges you to modify whenever a pose is overwhelming. I was able to move at a quick pace through the sequences — it was holding difficult poses for any length of time that got me.

Susan has asked me to keep notes to see how long it will take me to regain my strength.

Meanwhile: Hot bath, then dinner. I will certainly sleep tonight.

When it comes to Naot, think Vinyard

Naot sandal

Naot Reserve

Naot shoes are unique in their ability to combine comfort and European-style fashion. This year their Vinyard collection sandals, with a mid-to-low heel, are hot. The Cabernet has the gladiator look; the Chianti a very classic style that would work beautifully for dressy  occasions. The Muscat has a rather aggressive fashion look, and the Reserve is perfect for an office sandal. I just got the Reserve from Online Shoes, and am wild over it — the front band (as well as the strap) adjusts (via hidden velcro) making it perfect for my wide-in-front feet.

Look to Naot’s Impulse collection for dressier black wedge sandals. The Deluxe,  with lacy cut-out leather, comes in metallic black (as well as in some astonishing colors). It has a deluxe price of $190. The less-expensive Gallus is sturdier and has a tiny elastic inset in the back strap.

Be aware that to get traditional Naot support and comfort, you need to stick with collections that have sturdy soles. I tried the Cheer from the Avante-Garde collection (with a thin footbed) and it was just as painful and miserable to wear as most high-heel sandals from other brands.

Dyed-to-match cashmere sweaters…get ready for Advanced Style

The blog has always cheered me up and inspired me. Now these women come alive in a new documentary:

New Haven Pizza Recipe

Cooked pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella, ham, mushrooms.

Cooked pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella, ham, mushrooms.

Michael Maffeo Snow and I developed this recipe in the 1970s while living in New Haven. Note that this is a New Haven, not New York or Neapolitan (NEO), crust. The crust recipe uses lots of water and very little oil. The toppings should be fairly light, but intense in flavor. (I’ll write a second post on toppings.)

Equipment

Your oven must be able to hit 450F degrees; 500 or 550 is even better.

Pizza on pizza stone in oven

Pizza on pizza stone in oven

It helps if you have a restaurant-style pizza stone ($9) for the oven and a basic wooden pizza peel (all of $7) that you’ll use to slide the assembled pizza onto the hot stone to cook. (After two expensive gourmet-store pizza stones cracked, I finally bought a $9 pizza stone from a restaurant supply store in Chicago. I keep it on the bottom rack of the oven all the time, and move it up to the middle to make pizza. It’s lasted more than 10 years.) If you don’t have a pizza stone…well, I’ve seen people use the flat bottom of large, upside-down cast iron skillet or griddle. As long as it’s been preheated in the oven.

Ingredients

1 cup tepid water
1 pkg dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus about 1 cup more for the board in the kneading phase
2 tsp salt
olive oil to grease bowl
fine cornmeal for the pizza peel
toppings of your choice

Directions

Phase 1 (less than 1 hour)

Dissolve yeast and sugar in 1/4 cup warm water.

In a separate (large) bowl, mix the salt into 1-1/2 cups of the flour. Add the remaining 3/4 cup of water to the flour mixture.

When the yeast begins to foam a bit, add it to the flour mixture. Stir vigorously, and add the rest of the flour. Turn the dough onto a floured board and let it rest (safe from cold drafts) while you clean the bowl. When the bowl is clean and dry, rub the interior with a light coat of the olive oil.

Knead the dough continuously for 15 minutes, adding flour  as necessary (up to an additional 1/2 cup of flour, even 1 cup if you feel confident of your ability to judge doughs), to create a silky dough. Return the ball of dough the bowl, roll it around to coat it with the oil, then cover bowl with two tight layers of plastic wrap.

Phase 2 (2 to 3 hours)

Let it rise in a warm (but not hot) place until double in bulk, about 2-3 hours.

Phase 3 (2 to 24 hours)

Punch down the dough, divide in half, wrap the halves, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. 24 hours is ideal.

Phase 4 (1 hour)
assembled pizza

Assembled pizza on wooden peel

When you are ready to make pizza, preheat the oven, with the pizza stone in it, to 450 degrees — or, if your oven is capable, 500 or 550 degrees.

While the oven is pre-heating, take out one of the dough halves and place it on a floured board. Pounding with the heel of your hand (or using a rolling pin) work the half into a pizza about 12-inches in diameter. (Alternatively, you could lightly flour your hands and spin the dough in the air until until it is 12″ in diameter. If you try this, be prepared to get a light shower of flour all over your kitchen.) Note that New Haven pizza does not have a gigantic outer crust. So feel free to stretch the outer rim of the dough. It will puff up a bit on its own in the oven, just because it doesn’t have toppings on it.

Sprinkle the pizza peel or a large cutting board with some fine corn meal and place the flattened dough on it. (How much corn meal? Enough to enable you to slide the dough from the peel onto the hot stone in the oven.)

After it’s on the peel, brush the dough lightly but thoroughly with olive oil and then add your sauce and toppings, with a light touch. (My lecture on hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes as opposed to tomato sauce will be delivered at another time; all I’ll say here is that if your sauce or tomatoes are too watery, use a strainer first. You don’t want the dough to get drenched.) If using plain canned tomatoes rather than an herbed sauce, finish with a sprinkling of dried oregano.

When the oven is ready, slide the pizza from the peel or sheet onto the pizza stone in your oven. Bake 15 minutes or until the underneath of crust is light brown. Remove, slice and serve. Repeat with second ball of dough.

Fall fashion highlights: Boots, tops, and boyfriend jeans

I’m so excited about fall clothing this year. I have a basket full of beautiful merino, cashmere and silk scarves, some cute black hats, and I haven’t lost all of my gloves…yet.

It helps that (with the exception of those hideous plaid double-breasted babydoll winter coats) this year’s fall fashions are attractive, practical, and even comfortable! Here are the highlights:

Boots: THEY REally are made for walking

born lottie bootThe passion for Frye engineer boots has given way to low-heel equestrian-style boots, which are now ubiquitous on the streets of Seattle. Brown is the favored color. Not only do they look great, they’re easy on your feet.

Tip: If you love the boot look but have trouble getting boots that fit over muscular calves check out the Born boots at Zappos.com. I tried on a few pair of Born boots at a store in Seattle, purchased a pair of the Lottie equestrian boots, and then went online to look at a much wider selection. I’m now rather wishing I’d gotten the Lizzie (very subtle studded, and in a choice of black, red, or tan). I did, however, go completely over the top and order the Montana in grey with red insets. Not a subtle look!

Tops: Essential TEES

I lived in black Gap essential and market t-shirts over the summer, so got the Gap essential neck long-sleeved tee for winter. It runs large, so I got a petite medium rather than a petite large. It’s lightweight, extremely soft, and drapes but doesn’t cling. I expect that this shirt will have the same problem with durability that I’ve experienced with other Gap lightweight t-shirts (one even came with a hole in it and had to be returned) but I’ll tolerate that to get the great fit. The crew neck is neither dorkily high or stupidly low — it’s a modified scoop. Price? $23 or $17 on sale. The Gap fluid pleat-back (rayon) T looks intriguing, but I’m waiting for the reviews. The phrase “skinny sleeves” has me worried.

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Meatloaf pans, crock pots, and creme brûlée sets

If you make old-fashioned meatloaf, you just have to try a meatloaf pan with a lift-out liner. The liner keeps the loaf about 1/4 inch above the bottom of the pan, preventing the meatloaf from sitting in a pool of grease but keeping the meatloaf moist via heat from the warm liquid.

Meatloaf pan with linerThe picture is of the Baker’s Secret pan I use, with an enamel rack. It’s not longer available, but there are similar items on Amazon.com from Chicago Metallic, I strongly recommend the ones with the long, narrow liners — the finished meatloaf lifts right out and doesn’t have to be pried out of a liner pan.

So, speaking of the meatloaf itself: Last night the Scholarly Gentleman made a beef/pork meatloaf that included…toasted pecans. The result was very good, but very rich. This is meatloaf for company — reminded me quiet a bit of kibbeh with pine nuts.

The discovery that my wonderful meatloaf pan is no longer available brings me to my latest vintage kitchen gadget: The Hamilton Beach Crock Watcher crock pot with Auto-Shift!

The Scholarly Gentleman likes to make bean soup with ham hocks and also slow-cooked chicken thighs. My response to this has been “so use the stovetop” but we have kept our eyes open for a mid-size crock pot.

The Crock Watcher crock potFortunately, we live in a Scandinavian neighborhood where estate sales are a treasure trove of Dansk teak, stainless steel, crystal, and superb cookware (especially Nordic Ware ebelskiver pans). Today we spotted a 60s-era crock pot in pristine condition, complete with original instruction manual, for $8. The Auto-shift setting allows you to start it on high and have it automatically turn itself down to slow cooking after 1-3/4 hours.

Veering from the practical to the frivolous, I dropped $5 on a Bialetti Creme Brulee Set — four white ceramic ramekins and a little butane blow torch.

creme brulee setWhile rationales like “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to cook [insert ridiculous dessert here]” rarely work for me, the fact is that creme brulee is the dessert the Scholarly Gentleman and I are most likely to order when we go out. So perhaps it does make sense to try it at home. Once again, I discovered that this item is no longer available (original price: $35), but that it got 5-star reviews on Amazon when it was and that this basic Oggi set appears nearly identical.