November 2006

To Brine Or Not To Brine

After reading all the comments on my Thanksgiving post and Meg’s round-up of all the food magazine turkey advice it’s amazing to me how divisive the issue of brining is. There are passionate brine advocates, the Anti-Brining Association of America and those who’d rather you salted your bird. After careful research I told my mom to buy brining bags from Williams Sonoma and I plan to make this Honey-Brined Turkey from Epicurious. Why? Because it sounds yummy and I think I can do it. As for the rest of my menu, I have created an elaborate array of dishes that I think I can pull off by pre-cooking most of it on Wednesday (I’m flying in on Tuesday.) Here’s the plan and feel free to help me tweak it based on your recommendations (as you’ll see I’m relying heavily on last month’s Gourmet Magazine.)

Turkey Time!


Something big is about to go down in the Roberts famiy. For the first time in our history–a history that goes back to the 70s when mom and dad danced to “What Are You Doing For The Rest of Your Life?” at their wedding–we are having a home cooked Thanksgiving. And who’s doing the cooking? You’re looking at him! And I need help! So here are some questions:

– How would you cook a 14 to 16 lb turkey? Would you brine it? How long would it take? (We reserved a Bell & Evans turkey that I think is all natural and organic.)

– What sides would you make? The obvious ones? Anything special?

– What other courses would you serve? Soup? Salad? Dessert? (Well, of course dessert. But which desserts? A basic pumpkin pie or something more exotic like a pumpkin ginger cheesecake from Gourmet?)

Can’t wait to get your advice and of course you’ll get to read all about it next week. Thanks in advance!

Me At Work

My friend James Felder of Snapshot Artifact shot this picture of me at work on his way over to our apartment the other night. This proves that even at the social hour I am dedicated to pleasing my readers. Or I’m looking at porn.


Why Do We Pay So Much For Breakfast Food?

Every Sunday it’s the same, whether you’re in Atlanta (where I used to live) or New York (where I live now): people wait an hour to pay too much money for breakfast food. Sunday Brunch is a ritual–an excuse to see old friends, to get out of your borough, to eat cake and call it nourishment. This Sunday I made Craig trek up to Sarabeth’s Kitchen on Central Park South so I could enjoy the pumpkin waffle:

It costs $14. That’s an outrageous amount of money to pay for a can of pumpkin mixed with flour and egg and sugar and plopped into a waffle iron, flipped on to a plate and topped with sour cream and honey and pumpkin seeds and strawberries. But it’s an indulgence that seems to be worth indulging in. We know we can probably make brunch food at home (and investing in a waffle iron could probably save you a fortune for all the waffles you wouldn’t have to order on Sunday mornings) but that’s not the point. The point of brunch is that it’s social, it’s communal: when you stand with the crowd on Central Park South waiting to savor the sweetness of syrup and pastry and strong bitter coffee, you feel like you’re part of the world. And after you’re seated and your food comes and it starts to rain you join everyone in laughing and running inside; or, if you’re Craig, you continue to eat:


Today, though, I had the opportunity to return to Eli Zabar’s E.A.T. on the Upper East Side. This place always makes my jaw drop with its prices. I think it’s criminal that Eli charges $18–EIGHTEEN DOLLARS–for scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. True you get his famous bread with that but my God, man, how can you charge that much for so little and still show your face? Smoked fish was born out of poverty: it’s a poor man’s food. Eggs are plentiful and cheap. There can’t be a logical reason to charge so much except for the most obvious reason: you CAN. Eli caters to the Upper East Side crowd and they literally e.a.t. it up. I don’t know why I’ve been back three times now: every time when the check comes I am outraged but I keep going back. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the few decent places to eat near the museums. Or maybe it’s because Eli’s good friends with The Barefoot Contessa and I have a soft spot in my heart for her. Or, most likely, maybe we’re all under a spell when it comes to breakfast food: maybe we were all hypnotized by an evil breakfast spirit at birth who compels us to spend too much on food that costs the restaurant very little. Breakfast is a brilliant racket and the only way to dismantle it is to make breakfast at home. And during the week it’s easy to do this but on Sunday–oh, Sunday–it’s almost impossible to avoid going to brunch. So why fight it? Most people don’t. I don’t. And that’s why Sarabeth and Eli are laughing all the way to the bank.

Imitation Is The Highest Form Of Flattery

Joe, a reader living in Korea, pays homage to my truffle post with his attempt to make kimchi. Thanks Joe for the flattery and to anyone else who may also want to do a comic book post, the software I used is called Comic Life and it’s available here. Click the picture to see his full post:


Nibbles 10.0 (including an inside look at The Taste of New York)

I do Nibbles so often these days that I think I should start numbering them. But since I don’t know how many I’ve done, I will arbitrarily assign this a number. And that number is 10. This is Nibbles 10.0. Welcome. And now for Nibbles.

1. Coffee Shop Tip Jar

I have a problem and the problem concerns the tip jar at my new coffee shop. See at my old Manhattan coffee shop lattes and cappuccinos cost $3.50. So I’d pay $4.00 and get $0.50 change which I’d put immediately in the tip jar. The people who worked there smiled gratefully. “Thank you!” their faces would say and sometimes their mouths would say it too. I felt quite well liked at my old coffee shop.

At my new Brooklyn coffee shop lattes and cappuccinos cost $3 even. So I either pay $3 even or I give a $5 and get two singles in change. But singles in change is too much to tip for coffee. I can’t put a dollar in the jar every time I go or I’d lose all my money. And so when I pay for my coffee I reach in my pocket and feel for change and usually don’t find it. So I don’t leave a tip. And the people there give me a look that says, “Won’t you tip me?” And I give them a look that says, “I can’t! I’m sorry! I have no change!”

So the moral of the story is that though it’s nice that the new coffee shop charges less for coffee, I’d almost rather pay more so I can tip the people who work there. It occurs to me as I write this, though, and I’m sure this has occurred to you: if I continued to go to my old coffee shop I’d be paying $4 for coffee because of giving the $0.50 to the people who work there, so in the end tipping a dollar at my new one would cost me the same money. But it still seems extravagant. And that’s my tip jar quandary.

2. He Ain’t My Gay Lover, He’s My Brother

I was so excited to receive a free copy of this new cookbook by the Lee Brothers.

The book is excellent and the recipes look dynamite. But I have to share an observation from having this book around my apartment all day. People think it’s written by a gay couple. Craig, the other half of my gay couple, said: “Who are those gay guys?” when he saw the book lying on my kitchen table. “They’re not a gay couple, they’re brothers,” I told him. “Don’t you see it’s called The Lee Bros. Cookbok?”

And then Lisa came over and she also had the same reaction. “I was like, ‘what’s that gay cookbook?’ And then I was like ‘Oh, they’re brothers.'”

The three of us consulted and we agree that the problem lies in the matching shirts, the khaki pants, the smiles and the standing so close together. But Craig offers that their shirts are a little too big so they’re probably not gay. “A gay guy would wear a tighter shirt,” he concludes.

3. Starbucks = Bathroom

I wanted to do a separate post on this but Nibbles seems the right place. I have finally learned a way to appreciate that bastion of bad coffee known as Starbucks. As we’re all aware, Starbucks is taking over the world with stores opening on every corner of every city in every country east, west, north and south. Many see this as a bad thing but I see this as a good thing: mostly because Starbuckses have free public bathrooms. You may not think that a big deal, but when you’re in SoHo, as I was the other day, and you really have to pee and it’s raining, it’s much easier to pop into a Starbucks than to sneak past the host of Balthazar to pee. The same was true when I was in Paris last year. I really had to pee and I saw a Starbucks and sure enough there was a free public bathroom. So I think as long as we remember the equation Starbucks = Bathroom we can appreciate their constant proliferation.

4. Taste of New York


I got free tickets to New York Magazine’s taste of New York event at the Puck Building on Monday. Craig and I had a great time and enjoyed meeting the fine folks at NYC Nosh, the elusive Lockhart Steele of Eater and Curbed and the other half of the internet, and the fine people from Blue Hill Stone Barns who sought me out to say how much they enjoyed my comic book post.

Thoughts on Tonight’s Episode of Top Chef II


We ask the same thing of a TV show that we ask of a restaurant: consistency. I want the burgers at Shake Shack to be just as good every time I eat there; I want Steve Carell to be just as jerky every time I watch “The Office.” Tonight’s episode of Top Chef disrupted what was, for me, an excellent start to a new season. They’d gotten rid of the walking monotone that is Billy Joel’s wife and replaced her with the charming and beautiful Padma Lakshmi. The contenders are more equally matched than they were last year (no more health food nuts and Rachel Ray wannabes). But tonight’s episode revealed a flaw that is fatal to any competition, particularly one that is stretched out over several months: an embarrassing flip-floppiness with the rules.

We can safely say that there’d be no Top Chef if there weren’t a Project Runway. The success of Project Runway is based largely on the seriousness with which everyone involved takes the competition: the contestants, the judges, Tim Gunn. On the season finale this year, when Laura accused Jeffrey of getting help with his final collection, everyone took it very seriously. And we took it seriously when Tim Gunn informed the other contestants the next day that the producers had done a very thorough investigation and that Jeffrey hadn’t had any illegal help. Jeffrey broke down crying because he took it so seriously.

Tonight on “Top Chef” Sam, a highly ambitious New York chef (voted one of New York’s sexiest chefs by some New York rag) was under the gun in the low calorie challenge. The contestants had to cook a three course meal for kids at a weight-loss camp with the requirement that the entire meal total no more than 500 calories. We learn that one cup of olive oil has 1500 calories so making this food tasty, let alone edible, will be difficult. The teams were scrutinized by nutritionists as they assembled their recipes: the recipes that they decide upon the first day must be the recipes they carry out the next day.

The next day Betty’s team–which includes Frank and her arch nemesis Marcel–wins because of Frank’s crowd-pleasing pizza. Two teams are declared the worst: Sam’s and Mia’s–one made overcooked turkey meatballs, the other made bland coleslaw. And it’s there at the judges table when Sam is under fire that he says that members of the winning team may have cheated. When the judges press him, he says no more. “I’m not that guy,” he says. (This clearly annoys Tom Collichio who writes on his blog: “Still, the whole thing left me annoyed. I dislike the passive-aggressive tendency on the part of some chefs to keep mum about possible violations….I believe in addressing things head on — both for your own sake and for the overall health of the working environment.”)

Mia steps up and says Betty cheated. When the nutritionist was there Betty used Splenda for her “crispy cookies” (meringues), the next day–when she was supposed to stick to her original recipe–she used sugar. Colicchio confronts Betty about this and Betty admits that she did change the recipe but that she didn’t understand the rules: she thought it was about keeping it under 500 calories, not sticking to the recipe. Collichio scoffs and says none of the other chefs were confused about the rules. Even on his blog he writes, “I find this suspect, since she knew we had no nutritionists on day two to OK the changes.”

Here’s where the problem lies. On the first episode they cornered Otto for taking lychees from a grocery store without paying for them. It was an honest mistake–he didn’t steal them, he just didn’t notice they weren’t paid for until they were at the car. They took him to task in the judges room and when Otto offers himself up for dismissal they accept. He didn’t break a specific rule, he just made a mistake and he’s off.

Here Betty absolutely violates a rule of the game and she’s let off the hook. Collichio declares that no one will be sent home this week. His justification is complete and utter bullshit–he actually doesn’t have a real justification. The truth is that the producers like Betty. She makes for good TV. She’s vibrant and at odds with Marcel. She’s one of the few who’s emerged so far as a “character.” Keeping her on the show ensures drama and conflict; sending her home would diffuse an explosive atmosphere. And so Tom says “no one goes home this week” and I cry “crap!” Even on his blog his reasoning is shoddy: “But without video to prove cheating — and given that the White Team had won the challenge — the judges weren’t prepared to send anyone from that team home.” Why do you need a video when she confessed that she cheated? The rule was don’t change your recipe and she changed her recipe. [And you know that if it had been someone less interesting than Betty they would totally have shipped them home. Diana, my roommate, who works in reality TV confirms this: “You know something’s up on a show like this when nobody gets sent home. You know the producers are involved somehow.”]

So I now feel about “Top Chef” the way I feel about a restaurant that dazzles the first time you try it but flops the next. I’m dubious but I’ll keep going back because of the good stuff it still offers. I just hope the integrity of the judges isn’t continually compromised by the production-mindedness of the producers. Imagine that: a call for integrity in reality TV! Bravo, however, is the network to deliver. It did with “Project Runway,” let’s hope it can with the second season of “Top Chef.”

[HEY! Check out Pim’s post on the same topic. I love the line about preferring the Satanic Verses to Uptown Girl.]

[HEY#2! I enjoy this audio interview with Tom Collichio. He says the producers play a very small part in the decision making process. Hmmmm…]

Food Story Game 1: The Muffin Man

And now for an experiment. You ever play that game where someone writes a sentence and someone adds to it and you pass it around until you have a group-written story? That’s what we will attempt here. Except the story will relate to food because this is, after all, a food blog.

So this is how we’ll play. I will write the first sentence and number it (1). Whoever comes along next will write the next sentence and number it (2). If two people respond at the same time and both number their sentence (2) (or 3 or so on) the next person can choose which sentence to take and build off that one. For example:

(1) Mary had a little lamb.

(2) She loved her lamb very much.

(2) The lamb was made of iron.

The next commenter can choose which to build from.

(3) Iron, however, made Mary’s skin itch.

If someone writes something obscene or attempts to derail the story, the next commenter can number their sentence with the same number to offer an alternative. For example:

(1) Mary had a little lamb.

(2) The lamb had a big vagina.

The next commenter, instead of writing (3) can writes (2) and offer an alternative.

The game ends when I, The Amateur Gourmet, write the last sentence and end the story. I do urge all participants to keep it related to food.

And now for the story. This story is called The Muffin Man. Here is the first sentence:

(1) David Daniels ate a muffin every day of his life.

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