Think of New Orleans

August 31, 2008

I’m not a religious man, but I don’t mind if others pray.  And right now, if you’re the spiritual type, please pray for New Orleans as Hurricane Gustave heads toward the Gulf Coast.  New Orleans is a national treasure, and quite frankly, it’s been shit upon quite enough already.  One of my best friends in the world is a NOLA resident, and he’s had his life turned upside down several times since Katrina.  He doesn’t need any more misery, thank you very much.  He’s not alone, either.  So many people have left New Orleans in the past three years — it got to be a joke about how many “going away” parties there were that we discussed throwing one for me — when I was getting ready to leave after a 4 day visit.

But this isn’t funny.  This is the home of some of the most creative people in the wold, and that’s not just culinary creativity.  Painters, musicians, writers, sculptor.  Heck, even their street performers are awesome.  I love New Orleans and have lots of friends there.  Real people.  Real good people. And I’m scared to death.


My Favorite Summer Pasta

August 29, 2008

It’s the end of summer, when tomatoes are everywhere.  This is the time to make fresh pasta.  Yeah, I know that it can be a royal pain in the bohunkus to make pasta, so you can buy some decent fresh stuff, but the reason for it is to make an uncooked tomato sauce to go with it.  This is such a simple dish, but oh, so tasty!

Here’s what you do.  Find the freshest tomatoes you can.  You need about one medium-sized tomato per person, and make sure that sucker is ripe.  It’s OK if it’s a bit over-ripe.  Then chop it up to a medium dice — skin, seeds and all those lovely juices.  Frankly, if the tomato is really ripe, you won’t really be able to dice it at all — it’ll just smush up.  So, put all that tomato glory in a bowl, add some salt, a tablespoon or two of fruity extra virgin olive oil, one clove of freshly minced garlic, stir it up, and let sit for at least 15 minutes.

Cook the pasta that you’ve made.  And no, I’m not going to tell you how to do that.  Just cut it into a linguine style strand.  You want it somewhat thin, but you don’t want angel hair, either.

While the pasta is cooking, which shouldn’t take much more than 2 or 3 minutes, chop up some fresh basil — several large leaves’ worth for each tomato.  Stir those into the tomatoes.

Drain the pasta just when it’s done and dump the tomato mixture into the still hot pasta pot.  Stir it around for a few seconds to warm it up a bit, then add the cooked pasta back to the pot.  Stir it all up so the pasta is fully coated with the tomato juices and serve.  You’ll want to get the pasta out first, and then spoon some tomato and juices on top.

All you need is a baguette to soak up the liquid heaven.  A glass of wine works, too.  After a few bites, you’ll be in a state of revery, which is what summer is all about.

Three T-Shirts I Want

August 27, 2008

When I was in Alaska, my entire family laughed at the Native Alaskan barbecue vendor wearing the shirt that said, “Vegetarian: Inuit Word for Poor Hunter.”  That’s an oldie but a goodie.

In a story about obsessive foodie dinner club parties, today’s NY Times mentioned someone wearing a t-shirt that read, “Meat Is Murder — Tasty, Tasty Murder.”

And my favorite still might be the shirt worn by a butcher in a Gourmet article from several months ago: “Bacon — The Gateway Meat.”

I think I need more food-related t-shirts.  If anyone wants to send me one, that’s fine with me.

Fun With New Nutritional Index: NuVal and ONQI

August 26, 2008

Over the next year, you’ll start to see a new “number” in your grocery stores — the “Overall Nutritional Quality Index” or “ONQI” (but likely to be marketed under the trademark, “NuVal”).  Developed by a bunch of nutritionists, the ONQI uses a complex algorithm to establish a single score — on a 1-100 scale, for all foods and recipes.  The algorithm takes into account the following factors: fiber; folate; vitamins A, C, D, E, B12, B6; potassium; calcium; zinc; omega 3 fatty acids; bioflavanoids; carotenoids; magnesium; iron; saturated fat; trans fat; sodium; sugar; cholesterol; fat quality; protein quality; energy density and glycemic load.

Sure, this is a gimmick, but it has some laudable objectives.  The ONQI strives to define the nutritional quality of a food based on its influence on overall dietary goals.

But what’s fun about the ONQI is when you start comparing foods to each other.  For example, you CAN now compare apples to oranges (and oranges win, 100 to 96).  Bacon, oh, how I love thee, is a 2.  A two?  WTF?  That’s only one more than taffy or a regular popsicle.  Dark chocolate is a 10, one better than white bread.  Unfortunately, a comprehensive list isn’t available yet.  I’ve found this list on the ONQI website and another in the September edition of National Geographic that is not online.

Of course, having a simple scoring system will create lots of debate.  The low-carb afficianados are already screaming mad that unbuttered, unsalted popcorn receives a 69 and skinless, boneless (and tasteless?) chicken breasts get a 39.  Heh.

And the fact that we need an index to teach people that broccoli is better for you than white bread is pretty sad, when you get right down to it.  Funny, too.

Al Baraka is Nuts About Nuts

August 25, 2008

My friend Beth gave me a gift, and now I must be angry at her.  “Why?” you ask.  Because she brought me nuts from Al Baraka, a Middle Eastern grocery store on Hillsborough Street, just inside the Beltline.  The nuts at Al Baraka are roasted daily, and whether they’re the lightly salted almonds, the candied hazlenuts and pecans, or the fantastic pistachios, they’re all incredible. My favorite, however, might be the chili-coated kri kri, which are round peanuts that you eat shell and all. Just containing a bit of heat, these things are addictive, particularly as a bar snack.

And that’s the problem with Beth’s gift. I’m hooked on this place. Sure, they have lots of other great groceries, including some of the best dried apricots around, but it’s the nuts that bring me back. Again and again! You can talk all day about how healthy almonds are, but something tells me that’s not the case with the kri kri or the candied nuts (which my kids ADORE!).

Don’t let the place scare you away.  Just because it’s next to a tattoo parlor should never be a reason not to buy some great nuts.  And the people there are fantastic, letting you sample every nut they have.

Apparently, the words “al baraka” mean something like “blessings,” and frankly, you’ll see that’s completely appropriate after you stop at Al Baraka.

Al Baraka Market
4001 Hillsborough St.
Raleigh, NC 27607
(919) 838-5155

Slow Posting

August 20, 2008

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. When I was in Alaska, I learned my Dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and he underwent surgery yesterday to remove the tumor. My Dad’s a fighter, and although there was a scare shortly after the surgery, he seems to be doing fine. I’m flying down to see him on Friday.

Anyhow, I haven’t been focused on the food blog, as I’ve got to devote my attention to my family and my job. But I’ve got a lot of partial posts prepared, so be prepared for an onslaught!

Most Important Food Story of the Year

August 13, 2008

Andrea Weigl and Shawn Rocco of the News & Observer have put together an article and multi-media presentation that should be required reading for everyone over the age of ten. This is the story of a pig, a cute Ossabaw hog that has made its way to the abbatoir. A pig that will be dinner in a week’s time. The article itself is graphic and gut wrenching, but is as well-written and objective as anything you’ll find. This isn’t a story that you usually see in the food section of a newspaper, with inherent space limitations and over-editing. This is a well-rounded, detailed journalistic piece and includes a side story comparing the small operation of the packing plant used for the Ossabaw with the large, industrial plant of the Smithfield Packing plant in Tar Heel, NC. This is top notch writing and photojournalism, pure and simple. Rocco’s pictures juxtapose sweet shots of piglets with a scene of “dead pig walking” and a somewhat eery photo of a small plastic pig in the cup holder of the truck taking the pig to the slaughterhouse. Frankly, I have not seen a story as compelling as this in any paper or magazine this year.

As a father of four children, I believe it’s my duty to ensure that my children understand how we get our food. Whether it’s the heirloom tomatoes, the Frosted Mini-Wheat or the barbecue, my kids should know that food production and processing isn’t always pretty. Sometimes, it really hurts.

This story was the second reminder I’ve had of this in the past month. The first time was when we were in Alaska, on a small boat in Resurrection Bay near Kenai Fjords National Park. The primary purpose of the boat trip was to see wildlife and scenery, and boy, did we ever see some sights! However, we also stopped two times to fish, once for silver (coho) salmon and the second for halibut. My 12-year old daughter, who doesn’t eat much meat at all (and absolutely no fish), was looking forward to catching a fish or two. She got really excited when her younger brother hooked a feisty salmon, even though we couldn’t net it. When her 70 year old grandmother brought the first fish into the boat, she was ecstatic. But that was all to change. The crew brought out a small club and brutally and quickly ended the salmon’s life. I hadn’t prepared my daughter or any of my children for that reality. And she couldn’t handle it, starting to bawl from witnessing the cruelty of meat. Just as Morrissey and the Smiths said, “Meat is Murder,” and my daughter just witnessed a killing.

And a small part of me is glad she did.

Many of you are thinking that I’m an awful father for thinking it’s a good thing for your child to hurt, but that’s not the case. I suspect my daughter already had issues with eating meat because of humane reasons, and this incident may make it worse. I know it bothered her later that day when that salmon was on our dinner table, but she saw first hand how the fish gave its life for our nourishment. She knows that the world of food, including fish and other meat, is not pretty. She knows that her chicken drumstick really came from an animal, an animal that was killed to satisfy her hunger. I don’t think she’ll need to go into therapy, thank god, but she’s forever changed. A little less innocent, perhaps. And after many of us read Weigl’s articles, we might be, too.

Edit: Please also read Weigl’s first piece about this particular pig that came out in Sunday’s paper.  Great, great writing.