I was looking for something I read a while ago about project cooking versus everyday cooking (which I’m planning to post about…. tomorrow?  although we all know that probably means next month), and ran across an LA Times article about the Berkeley Bowl.  In two pages of irritatingly familiar vignettes and interesting trivia, Michael Pollan manages to have the best line.

One time, Pollan was picking out a box of cereal for his daughter when a fellow shopper interrupted him. “He said, ‘I’m watching Michael Pollan shop for groceries,’ ” Pollan recalled. “There was this note of disappointment that I was buying Fruity Pebbles. Berkeley is full of hall monitors. It’s a small town, and people are looking into each other’s baskets.”

ALL THE TIME.  My personal favorite is the time I made the dog sit and wait at an off-leash park in the hills, and a woman sighed, “Are you really going to train your dog in the middle of the path?” as she ran past.

For context, the path was a good 8 feet wide, and the dog was on the edge of it.  BERKELEY, city of hall monitors.

You should read the rest of the LA Times article, though.  Learn what it takes to be banned for life from the premises!  (Surprisingly little, actually.)  Behold the person who yelled at another customer for saying “meat market!”  Marvel at the terrible behavior of the privileged shopper!

By request from my dear friend Emily, a quick and dirty guide to buying semi-ethical hot dogs for your barbecue:

1) Go to Whole Foods.

2) Buy hot dogs labeled with some useful words like free-range, no antibiotics, or organic.  Organic is the most useful word.  Ignore ‘natural.’  If you want beef hot dogs, take extra credit for ‘grass-fed, grass-finished.’  Applegate claims to make such hot dogs, so your odds in most Whole Foods are good.

3) Grill and enjoy.

(p.s. I like coarse-grind sausage better myself, but this is what I would do if I were trying to buy hot dogs.)

(p.p.s. is anyone still reading this blog?)

If you’re worried about being mean to animals and damaging the environment, figuring out what kind of meat/eggs/dairy to eat (given that you want to eat those things, which I do) is hard.  Here is the simplest fastest #1 most useful rule: no subtherapeutic antibiotics.

Here’s the deal with antibiotics: they make animals gain weight faster.  They also prevent animals kept in dirty, stressful, illness-inducing conditions from getting sick and dying.  So confinement operations feed animals low doses of antibiotics all the time.  As you might imagine, this is a brilliant way to develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria; in fact, it’s one possible source for the rise of MRSA.

Your solution: don’t eat meat that contains subtherapeutic — i.e. not for treating disease — antibiotics.  Farmers who don’t routinely use antibiotics need to keep the environment cleaner and less stressful so their animals don’t get sick; they’re also not directly contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  (No antibiotics at all is ok, and a much more common label, but it gives farmers incentives not to treat sick animals.)

What to look for in the labeling: Anything labeled ‘organic’ had no antibiotics used at all, but some farms also label non-organic products as not containing antibiotics.  Most of the natural, cage-free, etc eggs have that on their labels.

I ended up making the Gramercy Tavern gingerbread again because it has always been Ruth’s favorite dessert (although I have the recipe from Hell’s Backbone on deck for next time I want to make gingerbread).  This is something like my 6th go-round with the same recipe and I think I finally got the exact right balance of buttery flavor, crispy-chewy exterior, and moist texture.  Not to mention I finally got the spices exactly right.  There are enough tweaks  I served it with roasted pears, butterscotch, and whipped cream, but you could easily serve slices for a very decadent breakfast with a little tangy fresh cheese.

The only thing that went wrong — and it goes wrong every time — is that I lost a couple little chunks of cake.  I buttered and floured the hell out of that bundt pan, too.  I might try it in two round pans next time, though the crispy bits from the bundt pan are worth digging out of the crevices and squishing back onto the top of the pan.

Not Exactly Gramercy Tavern Gingerbread for Ruth

adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 cup molasses
1 cup oatmeal stout
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2.5 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ancho chili powder

3 large eggs
1 cup turbinado or granulated sugar
1 cup packed dark brown sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
3/8 cup (6 tablespoons) light-tasting olive oil
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

Preheat the oven to 350° and butter and flour a bundt pan.  I cover the inside of the pan with room temperature butter (melted butter gives an insufficiently thick coating), toss flour in, and shake the pan around to get full coverage.

Heat stout and molasses together in a small pan.  When they boil, add the baking soda.  Set aside and let cool to room temperature.

While you wait, mix together the flour, spices, baking soda, and salt.  Beat the eggs and sugar together briefly, then whisk in the melted butter, oil, and grated fresh ginger.  Add the molasses mixture and whisk thoroughly.  Stir in the flour and spices, and mix until just combined.

Pour into the bundt pan and bake 50 minutes, or until a few crumbs cling to a knife.  Don’t overbake or you lose the incredibly dense moist texture.  Cool 5 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a rack and cool thoroughly.  If any bits stick to the pan, carefully scrape them out while cursing loudly, then stick them back to the top of the cake.  Dust a little powdered sugar over it to cover your tracks.

Notes:  You can make this a day or two ahead: wrap it thoroughly in plastic and store at room temperature.  As far as I know there is no satisfactory way to make this recipe vegan.  A friend tried egg replacer and got a miserably gooey mess — my best guess is that the batter is so dense that it needs the egg protein structure to stand up at all.

Last time I went to Comstock Saloon — on a (financially ill-advised) whim  — we ordered nothing but classic cocktails (Ruth) and Barkeep’s Whimsy (me).  On the third round the bartender made me the cocktail I’ve been trying to find for years.  It’s a riff on Remember the Maine, which is a riff on a Manhattan, which is my drink of choice in a joint that knows what it’s doing.  She replaced the rye with Famous Grouse Scotch and added a teaspoon of Lagavulin for extra smoke.  The result was smokey and bitter and a little sweet, and I wish I were drinking it right now.  My best guess at the recipe, which I haven’t made at home because all we have is the absinthe:

1.75 oz Famous Grouse
1 teaspoon Lagavulin
.75 oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
2 barspoons cherry heering
1/2 barspoon absinthe

p.s. I 100% recommend Comstock.  Sit at the bar and get the fried rabbit.

Friends who bake: talk to me.  I’m making gingerbread later this week, and the recipe (which by the way is outstanding) calls for oil.  I don’t like the aftertaste I get from using canola oil.*  I’ve tried using butter, increasing the quantity by about 25% — it’s not as moist.  What should I try next?  Things I’ve considered:

  • Maybe the milk solids make it set up harder.  I could use ghee instead of butter.  Or coconut oil if I’m too lazy to make ghee.
  • Maybe the much higher level of saturated fat in the butter is to blame.  In that case, neither ghee nor coconut oil would help.  I could try an oil with better flavor, but olive oil just sounds weird and peanut doesn’t sound much better.  Sesame sounds great.  Also expensive.  Recommendations?
  • Maybe there’s some other magical solution I’ve never heard of.  Add a few tablespoons of bourbon and the cake will be perfectly moist?  Drink a few tablespoons of bourbon and I won’t care anymore?

p.s. googling this problem led me to many, many explanations about when and how to replace butter with oil.  WRONG DIRECTION, friends.

*I freely admit that this is a ridiculously tiny detail in the context of a cake as spicy, moist, and delicious  as this one.  Nevertheless, it bothers me.

Still waiting for Lucky Peach issue 2 to come out, which means I’ve read issue 1 cover to cover at least twice. I still like it, but what a sausage fest. I mean obviously, of COURSE it’s going to be a sausage fest: Bourdain, Dufresne, and Chang! Drunk and ranting (about how work-life balance and the maximum work-week are a crock, because THEY certainly don’t have to take care of kids). But they couldn’t get more than 3 women? Really?

Last time we were casing the grocery store, a year and change ago, I was talking about how labels can always be gamed.  That’s all very well if you live in a post-modern artisan pseudo-barter economy like Alice Waters, but most of us are at the grocery store, paying strangers money for food made by other strangers.  We’re stuck reading the labels.

(Quick disclaimer: none of this is about health claims, though some of the basic issues are the same.  I don’t care about health claims and don’t have much to say about them.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest, on the other hand, would be happy to tell you about health claims and their misleadingness at great length.)

There are two kinds of labels, maybe three if you squint.  Some labels are certifications: they have specific criteria enforced by an independent certifying agency.  These labels mean exactly precisely whatever those criteria are, with a smidge of wiggle room related to differential enforcement.  Organic and Fair Trade are the big two, but there’s also Certified Humane, GAP, Animal Welfare Approved, MSC, FSC, and a boatload of others.  These labels are great for consumers, because they mean something extremely specific.  On the other hand, they take quite a bit of work for producers and can be expensive to get.

On the opposite end, some labels are pretty words with no particularly specific meaning: artisan, humane, natural, sustainable.  Artisan cheese, for example, describes everything from something made in a converted home kitchen with no employees and a couple dozen goats (hello Shellbark Hollow) to the products of a $10 million a year operation with 45 employees owned by a major international company (hello Cypress Grove).  There’s some meaning there — you wouldn’t call Velveeta slices an artisan cheese — but it doesn’t tell you a whole lot.

In the middle you have some words that have meaning — it’s false advertising to lie about them — but there are no audits or particular certification.  These are things like antibiotic-free, hormone-free, free range, grass-fed.  They mean SOMETHING, but not always exactly what you think.

Here’s my plan for talking about labels.  If I wrote a single post covering every label ever, it would be loooong.  And boring.  And hard to navigate.  So instead, I’m going to write a couple of separate posts on some of the more important ones.  There should be a post about organic soon, another about fair trade, and a few more.  I’m also going to put up a label directory on its own page with links to the posts about them and short descriptions of ones that don’t merit their own post.

So now, I need your help.  What labels should I cover?

(p.s. This is obviously not an interesting enough post for the end of a few months of silence.  Sorry.  It’s what you get.)

David Chang, the guy from Momofuku, started putting out a food magazine via McSweeney’s this summer, and because I’m a sucker for painstakingly-handmade-looking hipster fanciness I bought the first issue at the Berkeley Bowl.  (FOR TEN DOLLARS!  That’s more than a sandwich!  It’s close to two sandwiches! I digress.)

I feel like a sucker for liking it, but I can’t help myself.  There’s a chart of what happens to eggs when you cook them to different temperatures, like 62.5 degrees.  There’s an interview with a white guy from New York who has a secretly Jewish ramen shop in Tokyo.  There are recipes for most (all?) of the component parts of Momofuku’s ramen.  There are lightly edited transcripts of conversations among chefs, and plenty of self-mockery.

When it starts being winter again I’ll make some ramen out of the magazine and tell you about it.

Farmed salmon are covered in sea lice, which eat chunks off them.  Infection rates and severity are much worse on salmon farms than in the wild, because farmed salmon generally live in dirty, crowded net pens.

When wild salmon swim past salmon farms, they get severe infestations of sea lice, which can be deadly.  Kills more salmon than fishing, in fact — perhaps up to 80% of affected populations.  Every salmon farm on the west coast of North America is a threat to the survival of wild salmon.

Don’t eat farmed salmon.

It’s possible that, in the future, salmon farms will have better louse control tactics and will no longer threaten the existence of wild salmon. That would be great, but it’s not true yet.

And yes, I’m avoiding something, how can you tell?


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