February 2007

Great Flan & Corn Fungus at Chiles & Chocolate

I’ve never been a big fan of flan. For starters, the word “flan” seems to fuse together two words that don’t exactly whet the appetite: flacid and wan. And then there are memories of bad flan in Spanish class in high school. We all had to bring in a dish (Jessica Aronowitz and I made guacamole) and someone brought in flan, which I remember as a gelatinous blob that tasted like chemicals and milk. I think the person who brought it in made it from some kind of box the way you make Jell-O from a box. If I were the teacher, I’d have suspended him.

Luckily, my flan phobia has been remedied by the flan you see above. I joined food writer Dana Bowen at Chiles & Chocolate in Park Slope on Tuesday. The space is wonderfully eclectic and authentic, a paean to the Oaxacan culture that the restaurant pays tribute to. We were tended to by a jovial host/hostesss/waitress/coffee-maker who engaged us at every turn about the food we were eating. Dana (pronounced Dah-na, like banana) had been there once before and steered me through the menu. I thought she was steering like a crazy person when she suggested we share a corn fungus quesadilla. Or, more precisely, a “Huitlacoche” quesadilla.

“Corn fungus?” I protested. “Like…real fungus?”

“It’s really earthy and strange,” promised Dana. “You’ll love it.”

So here it is:


What looks like black beans on the inside is actually the Huitlacoche. Like Dana said, it has a muted, earthy flavor–subtle and strange and not like anything you’ve ever had.

“The French have truffles,” said our waitress. “And the Mexicans have huitalacoche.”

My chicken mole entree was a bit disappointing. Dana had the “mole negro” (which I ordered) a few nights earlier and she was convinced that the mole on my plate wasn’t the mole negro because it was so red. We asked the waitress and she said it was the mole negro so we ultimately believed her, though we both agreed the mole was a bit lackluster and had a bitter aftertaste. (Dana had tamales which she liked.)

The best part of the whole meal, though, was the flan you see at the top. It was fantastic: creamy, rich, sweet but not cloying. Enough to make a flan convert out of anyone, especially me.

“This is the best flan I’ve ever had,” I told Dana.

“Isn’t it great?”

A final bite remained on the plate and I offered it to Dana. She said “No thanks, it’s so rich” so I scarfed it down. And with that final bite I retired my Soul Man status and accepted my new role as Flan Man. I am a man who likes flan.

Blame The Brush

It takes a certain kind of man to claim he broke my wine glasses because of ineptitude; it takes another to blame the brush. “I hate this stupid f***ing brush!” said the man in question. “It doesn’t clean anything…it’s chintzy and stupid and you should have sponges. Why don’t you buy some more sponges?”

These wine glasses are the third casualties in the war against the cleaning brush, a brush I bought from The Container Store a few months ago. It fills up with soap and I really like it. But Craig loathes it. So last night we bought sponges and now he’s happy. The wine glasses you see above are survived by two more wine glasses which will hopefully remain intact as Craig retires the brush of death.

Not Your Mama’s Meatballs

I wanted something simple. Specifically, I wanted spaghetti and meatballs. I’d never made spaghetti and meatballs before and last night was going to be the night.

But then I opened Lydia Bastianich’s book, “Lydia’s Family Table,” and after looking up meatballs in the index I found her recipe for “Long-Cooked Sugo and Meatballs.” Lydia explains, “Sugo, or gravy, is a long-cooking sauce that has a big component of meat in it, which releases its flavors as it cooks and transforms the sauce into a more complex and flavorful gravy.”

After doing more research, I discovered that spaghetti and meatballs is not an authentic Italian dish but an American Italian concession to America’s love for meat. So if I wanted to have street cred among Italian chefs I’d have to swap spaghetti for sugo. And that’s just what I did.

Blue Food: A Contest

According to a random site I just found on the web, “blue is an appetite suppressant. Weight loss plans suggest putting your food on a blue plate. Or even better than that, put a blue light in your refrigerator and watch your munchies disappear.”

And thus a challenge is born! A challenge with a real prize. What’s the prize?


Two tickets to Blue Man Group!

That’s right: the people behind Blue Man Group (New York) will give the winner of this contest two tickets to see the show on a date “that works best for them.” What a deal!

So what’s the challenge?

Make a delicious dish on the theme of “blue food.” Does the food need to be blue? Not necessarily, as long as it expresses the theme. I plan to enlist some celebrity judges to pick the winner so this is a great chance to show off your cooking chops to VIPs and win a really cool prize. Entries are due a week from today: Tuesday, February 20th by 11 PM. Please post corresponding pictures to Flickr (or host them elsewhere on the web) and then send me the link at amateurgourmet AT gmail DOT com. Good luck!


More than a year has passed since I went to a taping of Iron Chef America. And since the episode has aired, I can tell you it was the Ostrich episode. The Iron Chef was Cat Cora. I never got the name of her challenger but the mystery ingredient was ostrich and ostrich eggs. I sampled Cat’s ostrich risotto and it was super tasty. (That’s a sentence you don’t read every day.)

The Dessert Menu Drop

You’re done with your entrees, they’re cleared away. A busboy wipes the table clean. And then the waiter or waitress approaches, carrying dessert menus. He or she places them on the table without asking, “Dessert?” You’re forced to say, “We’re actually not having dessert tonight.” He lifts the dessert menus up, disappointed. And that’s the Dessert Menu Drop (DMD): the newest tactic I’ve noticed at restaurants that want you to spend more money, despite your level of hunger or desire for dessert. A DMD doesn’t give you the opportunity to say “no thanks” the way you might if the waiter or waitress were to ask you, “Are you still hungry for dessert?” If you’re in the middle of a conversation you may even allow the menus to be dropped surreptitiously and then you unconsciously look at them and decide to order a dessert. This is the Dessert Menu Cave In (DMCI) and it’s disastrous for the frugal diner. Luckily, if you can anticipate a DMD you’re in good shape. Ask for the check as the plates are cleared away, before the DMD takes place. This is a preemptive strike that will save you the embarrassment of having to turn away the dessert menus later. Unless you want dessert, in which case please disregard this message.

UPDATE: People have brought up good points in response to the above. Mainly: people enjoy looking at the dessert menu after a meal in case there’s something really great on it. But my point was merely the sneaky way servers (gender-neutral! nice!) slide those menus on to the table without asking first. I guess I don’t mind if it’s a blow-out dinner at an upscale place, but when you’re out for cheap Thai food how often are you craving dessert? That’s the sort of DMD I’m reacting to here. The one that’s creeped it way into mid-level dining establishments.

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