Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Food Blogs

On Tuesday night my long-lost friend Lisa, who had been hiding in New Hampshire for two years and now works for a comedy agency, invited R and I to come along with her on assignment to Housing Works Bookshop's Tuesday night comedy show. Overall it was very good, a super funny line up and a surprise performance by Jim Gaffigan. The only joke I can remember, though, came from the least funny comedian in the show. He was talking about blogs and pointed out that almost everyone he knows has a food blog and how its the equivalent of telling someone that you're going to write about the restaurant you went to in a diary, take pictures of the food, stick them in the diary, then hang it out the window of your apartment so everyone can read it. For some reason everyone laughed, he was probably getting the residual laughs from Jim Gaffigan's set, so mostly we were laughing because we'd been laughing before, but the blog joke struck a chord with my little troupe for... obvious reasons. R and Lisa both looked at me smiling and I laughed along with them because if you show people you can make fun of yourself they like you. But really I was thinking, Sigh, it so f-ing true.

Since my discovery of food writing and subsequently the food blog culture, I've come to realize I'm paddling a small raft in a big ocean full of ocean liners, pirate ships, yachts, Coast Guard boats, abandoned kayaks, and runaway jet skiis, but aside from the wide-range of vehicles traversing these oceans you can't help but notice the sheer amount of boats. There is actually such a thing as foodblogblog.com, which serves as a directory exclusively for major food blogs run by professional writers and photographers. Then there's the little guys like me that simply want to obsess about food in hopes of somebody hearing me and thinking its funny. And then paying me. Unfortunately that's also what the big guys are doing and they have nicer boats that actually fit a genre.

What I mean is there are several categories food blogs tend to fall into. If you look at Delish's Best 20 Food Blogs you begin to notice a pattern: recipe blogs with professional looking photography like SmittenKitchen, baking blogs with professional looking photography like Bake or Break, recipe/musings blogs with professional looking photography like Orangette, fun vegan blogs with recipes and professional looking photography like Vegan Yum Yum (I'm not kidding), food travel blogs by inherently odious people with semi-professional looking photography (no control over their lighting situation, I'm afraid) like Traveler's Lunchbox, and the English-writers based in foreign countries like Lobster Squad, who who writes about Spanish food and is based in Madrid. She does drawings. There are also the handful of unique career-launching blogs like Wine Library TV (which became a multi-million dollar one-man corporation on how to become successful doing what you love... and you know selling wine). But I won't go into the beverage blogs, they're a whole other ball of wax.

Basically what I'm trying to point out is that blogging is no longer, and hasn't been for years, the turf of 19 year olds Live Journaling their romantic forays and mishaps... or more to my point, about what kind of cake mix they used to baked cupcakes last Saturday. Blogging is now the terrain of professionals looking to maintain a presence online (or amateurs trying to go professional by maintaining a presence online), by writing and photographing (well) what obsesses them, tweeting about it, and hoping people respond. And they do. Its becoming so that readers now trust bloggers as much or more than professional, published food writers. And the reality is, bloggers are now becoming their brethren and vice versa. Since the advent of Julie Powell, this has been the dream, but then where does that leave the food magazines like Bon Appetit and Food & Wine? And the proper websites like Leite's Culinaria and Epicurious, are they now just more sophisticated blogs? I should hope not.

An observation my teacher David Leite made when he was forcing me and my classmates to exit our comfort zones and interview food industry professionals and stuff hours of primary resource material into an eloquent 999 words that might never see publication (while we wondered, is this what I signed up for? We just want to obsess about food!) was that the presence of blogs was actually a very positive thing for professional food writers. In his reasoning, it would force them to actually do their jobs and be reporters. Leave the op-eds and the recycled recipes to the home cooks, food writers are supposed to inform and innovate! But a big problem that has arisen within the publishing world is that professionals are no longer getting paid what they used to and that was pretty meager to begin with.

So what's going to happen to all of us? Will we suck all the oxygen out of our ocean? Will we reach the firm land of professional food writer-dom only to realize we're walking on a melting glacier?

I think the more interesting question is, why are we all doing this in the first place?

Aside from the use they serve for the blogger, I know blogs are actually super useful for the reader as well. At least the good ones are. Recipes are the most obvious benefit, but they also teach you how people talk and think about food in their own terms. There are no editors, there's no "magazine's voice" or word count they need to subscribe to, this is what they really think and sound like. I think if our comedian friend's observation of the over-abundance of food blogs indicates anything, though, its that there is a very strong demand for food writing, specially during a time when the food industry is stuck between a rock and a hard place, the economy on one side and the obesity epidemic on the other. Cooking is experiencing a reawakening. Julie & Julia, Michael Pollan, and Super-Size Me have forced us back into the kitchen with a laptop propped open on the table in place of a cookbook. This is good for the reader and in a way good for the writer because if you can't get paid for it, at least you have an audience. Of course if after a while we still can't make money off of this then maybe we should consider starting blogs featuring funny animal pictures with captions over them. Put those professional photography skills to good use.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What Makes a Good Cook?

At the Brooklyn Chocolate Experiment, where we sampled three types of chocolate-spiked chipotle chilis, chicken mole, beer marinated pork with chocolate barbecue sauce, and a dozen different types of chocolate desserts from flourless chocolate cake to salt and pepper truffles with peanut butter, R turned to me, uneasily balancing a plate ladden with chocolate inventions and said, "You're totally of this caliber." He was referring to my cooking and I, of course, quickly corrected him by vigorously shaking my head, mouth full of chocolate sticky-rice lollipop. I clarified what caliber I actually was, "I can follow a recipe and make it well." But when it comes to invention, my creations are messy, muddled, unbalanced, chaotic, tasty, and poorly plated. The people at the BCE, even if most were amateurs, knew what they were doing and they were good at it. So while R as my kitchen guinea pig did well in saying I was as good a cook as they were, I don't think he's necessarily right. Which, by the way, is not to say I'm a bad cook. What's a good cook, anyway?

I've been asking myself that since I read a review of Michael Symon's new cookbook, Live to Cook. The reviewer gave it a glowing recommendation, saying it was mostly for beginners, teaching such basics as the difference between sweating and caramelizing, and how to confit pig ears. At this point I realized to what extent I'm still in diapers when it comes to the wider food world. I've only started to understand what confit means and I was surprised to discover a difference between two things that essentially employ the same technique. Apparently I didn't read my Julia's Kitchen Tips closely enough. But what rubbed me, I won't say the wrong way but in a way I'm not sure I like, was how the reviewer described Symon as a very very good cook. A Food Network personality, a restauranteur, a cookbook author, many people are all these things and I don't know that I've heard them specifically singled out as very very good cooks (aside from the implication inherent to their success). Had Symon personally cooked for her that she could make such a claim? Or is a cook as good as his recipes are effective? In that case I'm definitely not a good cook. But while it is widely understood that being a recipe follower does not make one a good cook, does being a recipe writer or creator grant you that gilded title? Is your Mom's chicken pot pie recipe as good as a sous-vide steak studded with black truffles recipe? Some people may argue yes.

Consider two popular Food Network personalities. Michael Symon and Rachel Ray share a national stage but one is
regarded as a good cook (owns restaurants, understands cooking techniques, is a CIA graduate, the culinary school, not the government agency) and the other is more of a domestic role model (she learned to cook following her mother around, does not have good knifing technique, her recipes are soccer-mom-ish) than a cook. But Rachel Ray's cooking and her recipes are for the most part more popular than Michael Symons. Does it mean hers are better even though they're easier and more familiar and are created by someone with no formal training? It becomes a question of elitism in a way. Is Rachel Ray, whose cooking is more popular among the common-folk, less of a "good cook" than Michael Symon whose credentials are industry solid?

And how compare either of them to the brash, young, talented home cook with a well-seasoned skillet? When R and I lived with Joni, a severely precocious 20 something year old Israeli with a subscription to Cook's Illustrated, a shelf full of cookbooks, and a kitchen amply supplied with cooking equipment, spices, sauces, and seasoning from rice vinegar to cumin, he would make these two day opuses of meat that melted away on your tongue in a broth that was thick and flavorful studded with vegetables that never went to waste because their presence in the overall dish was always essential. Nothing wasted, the whole thing better than restaurant quality. He was a good cook because of his audacity and his patience. Like David Chang, what Joni did was care just that much more than the other guy about what he was making and he took the time to do it right, even if it meant he did wrong sometimes. He wasn't magical, he was probably talented, but beyond that he was meticulous and daring.

I think Mark Bittman defines it best, or rather he embodies what for me is the essence of a good cook. A former cab driver with no formal culinary education whose New York Times column The Minimalist is a wonderfully comforting guide on how to make complex food with ease. In a Time Out New York interview Bittman offers this piece of encouragement:

"I am the least impressive cook you will ever see. I am completely without knife skills, I screw things up all the time. When I’m in the kitchen I’m not obsessively trying to create the perfect dish; I’m trying to put dinner on the table. Comparing yourself to the people who cook on television is like comparing yourself to Andre Agassi. If you can drive you can cook."

Most of what keeps the rest of us from being very good cooks is our impatience and the feeling of inferiority borne of being intimidated by a long, delicate process and unfamiliar ingredients. Rachel Ray is anything but intimidating because she cooks things that are familiar, easy, and cheap, she's not a bad cook but she's not a great cook. Mark Bittman elevates the standard by taking the intimidation out of complex flavors, preparations, and dishes through his own simplified techniques and his laid-back, just-toss-this-all-together-it'll-be-awesome writing voice. Michael Symon, like Julia Child before him, teaches the techniques that make the bigger tasks, the dutch oven stews, the three day cassoulets, the obscure alien-looking vegetables as well as the run-of-the-mill ones, and makes them more manageable and more impressive. In a way being a good cook has more to do with how far you're willing to go to challenge yourself and how much you care about getting it right.

I still don't think I'm at the caliber of the BCE cooks but only because I'm still intimidated by words like chipotle and the idea of making my own barbecue sauce. But having started to make my own bread, by following slightly more complex recipes each time and learning from them, by taking time to learn techniques, practice them, even burning a few dishes along the way, I will eventually become their caliber mostly because I want to be. So yes, I'm a good cook in that I'm good at bullshitting my way around a kitchen and as a former roommate once said to me, "Some people's bullshit tastes better than others." But I'm still not as good a cook as Joni (advanced kitchen bullshitter), Bittman (recipe writer), Ray (TV personality), or Symon (chef). For that, you just need to clock in experience in the kitchen. And get an agent. An agent helps.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Two Restaurants

Back when I used to tell people I was a filmmaker the inevitable response was Wow! You should make a movie about this and this and this. Now when I tell people I'm a food writer I'm inevitably met with a wide-eyed proclamation that I should review this or that restaurant. I never have the heart to reply that being a food writer doesn't mean being a restaurant critic or reviewer. Its like saying all dogs are huskies (though they should be-- or pugs, I like pugs).

Restaurants have never been my thing really. I come from a family that has been going to the same four restaurants since before I was born. They may occasionally swap one out for a new
one that serves the exact same food-- either Puerto Rican, Cuban, or Mexican -- and may have the advantage of being closer to our house. When I started doing high school summer programs in NYC I had many fights with my parents because the only restaurant they ever wanted to go
to was this one Cuban place next to their hotel (which they still go to when they visit me). So I never developed an understanding or a passion for restaurant faire or that industry. Its only recently through my addiction to food blogs and my artist-turned-culinary-student friend that I even know what a Michelin star is. Even when I was in college and it was up to me to choose where to go for lunch, dinner, breakfast, or better yet brunch-- I kinda always just went to the same handful of places on campus (and never to brunch, had no idea what that was).

Now a young (meaning adventurous), working (meaning with an income), aspiring (meaning still too lazy to actually get it together and start but with intentions of doing that before age 30 once the ADD goes away) food writer, I have yet again fallen into the same pattern of going to the same restaurants simply because they are near my house. Unfortunately because of the limitations of my neighborhood (that's a lie, if I walked ten blocks further in any direction I would have more options), there's only two restaurants I really go to: Maria's Mexican Bistro and Korzo, an Eastern European restaurant with a $20 tasting menu on Wednesdays. So here is a testament to why I'm more of the Mark Bittman-Smitten Kitchen-Gastronomica-Savour school of food writing as opposed to the Frank Bruni school.

I think I have invested more money and time on Maria's than any other restaurant I've ever patronized. It got the seal of approval as far as Mexican food in the East Coast is concerned from our Texas friend who is the pickiest eater I've ever met so there's definitely something there. The food is not bad, sometimes its even good, though you're better off ordering simpler faire like burritos, quesadillas, and corn rather than a proper entree which inevitably comes with overcooked meat. Their tacos are particularly good, two corn tortillas filled with meat or spinach, lettuce, and pico de gallo and at $2 you can mix and match. Where they really shine, though, is with their brunch menu which includes the usual list of offenders: tamales, pozole, huevos rancheros, huevos con chorizo which are all very flavorful, generous dishes serves with slightly watery refried beans and yellow rice. During the summer, they transform a Brooklyn backyard with cement floors into a courtyard decorated with brightly colored beer ads and banners, tiki torches, and an inflatable palm tree. The inner dining room is narrow with red walls decorated with framed Diego Rivera prints and Mexican crafts. The bar takes up half the space and is always playing some sort of sporting event on low volume while the rest of the space is bombarded with Latin rock and salsa turned to a reasonable volume. Usually its quite empty and the food is cheap so we wonder how they stay in business but we're thankful that they do. I guess their absence might motivate us to find new places to go out to eat but with a $10.95 brunch menu with unlimited booze and good food, I hope not.

Korzo on the other hand is actually good. Its the type of food that will have you rolling back to your apartment-- greasy meat and potatoes washed down with Czech and German beer. Their brunch is more like dinner with eggs on it but their dinners are lovely. Particularly exciting is the aforementioned tasting menu, created so that people get the chance to try new things which makes sense considering the unsung glory of Czech, Hungarian, and Germanic food. It consists of the soup of the day (potato leek with bacon when we last went), a lighter plate (a gnochi-like thing with walnut pesto-- those gnochi things come up in almost all their dishes and they seem innocent enough but they multiply and grow inside your stomach making you feel like you've eaten several loaves of bread soaked in grease-- but they're great, as long as you only have a few), and a meat-centric dish like seared pork loin. Their goulash was spicy and tasted like the goulashes I would have back in Prague but the meat was cut into small chunks so it was more like picadillos than goulash and it was peppered with those infernal gnochi. While they did help to curve the spiciness, I would've preferred them on the side or even replaced by say bread dumplings. There are several things on the menu I have every intention of trying in the coming months, among them the Hungarian fried bread Langos, dates wrapped in bacon, and the Slivovitz chicken (a chicken made with plum brandy, called Slivovice in Czech, quite big in Bulgaria). The space itself is divided into a front section dominated by the bar and a scattering of tables, and a back dining room with no
windows that makes up for it by becoming an annex to the gallery across the street. Giant, colorful paintings of different styles ranging from Pollock-like paint splatters of female figures to Edward Hopper-like interiors of bars and clubs circa the Roaring 20s open up the space which would otherwise resemble the back of a Polish or Czech beer hall where the long communal tables and benches have been replaced by proper individual tables and one large, low table where you can lounge on couches while sipping Budvar or a cocktail. The lighting in the front is dim and mostly consists of the television and overhead lights turned so low that the other night when R and I were walking towards it we thought it was closed because it looked pitch-black. They make up for it by the having an all glass front wall that lets in the light from the street and in summer they open it up and bring out tables to the sidewalk. While I love Czech and Hungarian food, I know its not for everybody and while this restaurant is far superior to my usual default Maria's, its slightly more expensive and incredibly heavy. You know they mean business when you decide to go for Mexican when you want to eat light.

So those are my walkable, affordable alternative for when I come home in a huff and express no desire to get out the cutting board and mince garlic. Humble, lazy but good and if you ever come visit me, we will probably end up going to one of them. Unless you can convince me to walk those extra five or ten blocks.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bready Goodness

I currently work next to Amy's Bread in the West Village. While this shop also boasts some pretty incredible-looking cookies, cupcakes, muffins, scones, and sandwiches, they really make some stand out bread. What's wonderful about working next to Amy's is that I've realized that bread is not just bread. Bread is white, whole wheat, multigrain, pumpernickel, brioche, croissant, sobao, de agua, Italian, French, black, potato, Challah, and comes in the form of loafs, bagels, nan, rolls, pizza, sticks, toast... Bread is the backbone of culture (where bread is not found in prominence, rice will often make an appearance, but even those cultures have some sort of bread). You can even have it as a drink in the form of beer (every culture has beer). Its as universal as marriage and dessert.

Lately I've opted for more savory baked goods as my mid-afternoon, I'm-going-cross-eyed-but-have-no-desire-for-coffee pick-me-ups and for some reason I feel guiltier after eating two bread twists or half a mini-loaf of some delicious bread (they even contain seeds and healthy things like that) than if I'd eaten a whole chocolate chip cookie from Jacques Torres or City Bakery (big, big cookies full of butter and chocolate). And I'm slightly outraged by this. I've fallen into the cultural trap of hating bread. I've been well-aware of this for many years but I really thought I was over it. I want to make a case for modern Americans, myself included, not to hate bread.

For centuries bread has been close to holy. Challah is eaten on high holy days and blessings are read over loaves as big as a medium-sized dogs. To invite someone to break bread with you is an indication of trust and affection. Everything cool that has been invented is called the best thing since sliced bread. For so many years bread in America was as wholesome as white bread.

In the Middle East, bread is eaten with every meal even if that meal already includes rice or couscous or pasta. In Ethiopia it replaces cutlery. Even in Europe bread is a daily part of life. For breakfast, for lunch, for dinner as baguettes, sandwiches, or creating a bread crumb and cheese crust over a cassoulet or a gratin. My friend Marc, whose culinary habits I find intensely curious specifically because he is French, would sometimes eat nothing but a bagel all day. Then have another one with us after several rounds of beer. Bread and peanut butter were his food of choice. And yes he was skinny (stupid French people).

Bread often makes top ten lists of favorite things about being alive. A warm loaf out of the oven, the smell of bakeries, the way butter melts and becomes yellow and liquid on softly browned toast, the tart crust and the soft sweet insides. They look attractive, be it speckled with whole wheat, dark and black, pure white and yellow, their insides flaky or crumbly, magically leavened by yeast. So what happened, people? Bread was been basterdized (like everything else was) by the food and diet industries.

I started making my own bread recently because I wanted to save money and because I really

don't like it when things in my life are too easy. The ingredients in the recipe I found include whole wheat, yeast, honey, salt, milk, eggs. A stark contrast to the bread I would buy at the supermarket that for some reason contained high fructose corn syrup, sugar, natural flavors, and coloring. The good news is that like everything (the best thing to happens to organics since profits), certain brands are embracing the Obama-Vegetable-Garden, celebrity chef with a cause, 20 and 30-something-year-old urbanite mentality that processed food should still be food and taste good, so you're seeing a drastic reduction in their ingredients lists. Score one for bread! But why is bread still the bad guy?

Basically, bread still hasn't found its margarine.

Back in the days before trans-fats, butter became Public Enemy Number One and margarine came on the scene as the savior of both our taste buds and our arteries. Of course chemically produced spread made with hydrogenated oils were better than rendered dairy solids! Except, they were better in the way that guns are better than knives. Once margarine was ousted as the real enemy of your heart, butter came back into the good graces of the public or at the very least stop being attacked.

Since Atkins, bread has not found a satisfactory scapegoat to blame fatness on because the problem is Atkins actually worked. It didn't work the way Atkins followers believed it worked (all they were really losing was water), but people were becoming thinner. And while nutritionists brought people down from the bacon and eggs enduced highs and told them they needed to start eating fruits and vegetables again, bread remained black listed. It feels too filling, you know? It expands in your stomach. Its so easy to overeat it. Yes. But you can say that about anything we like to call food, specially if it contains sugar, alcohol, or cheese.

At the height of my own diet-craze I came to stark realization: What's life without sugar, alcohol, and cheese? Dull. And living without bread, while it would mean I would be skinny, would also mean missing out on one of the better things in life. I don't have to eat it three times a day but why feel bad if I do? We eat corn flakes, for god's sake, and that doesn't make any sense either if you think about it nutritionally and in terms of flavor.

So go out right now and eat some bread! And I'm not talking the sliced stuff from the supermarket. There are still bakeries in abundance. Don't worry, you'll walk it off on the way there.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Halloween has passed and the leftover debris of that nigh of sugar and alcohol fueled debauchery now sit in neat little boxes at office reception areas where people waiting pick at fun sized bags of chocolate and candy. They don't serve the leftover alcohol at these reception areas because there wasn't any leftover alcohol. But post-Halloween candy is always in abundance. As kids we understood that that was the whole point. On Halloween you created a stash, a bag or a bucket full of refined sugar, something to hold us over until Thanksgiving. But now candy is bad.
Except its really not.

Candy is such a visceral experience, innocent as childhood, fun, impulsive, pointless, and sweeeeeet. The stigma around it is undeserved, I feel. The only reason kids binge on candy is because they are not allowed to have it or they are allowed to have too much of it. Instead of celebrating it as a treat, kids scream and kick and demand it when they pass it at the pharmacy or supermarket or deli, and if parents give in or if kids are forced to sneak candy on they side, they gorge on it, taking its delicate magic for granted. This is not the kids' fault. Kids don't understand the consequences of too much of a good thing they just know what they love. Parents in this age of over-abundance have forgotten how to eat properly or they eat too properly, so they are rendered useless when it comes to teaching their child how to eat candy properly, and there is a way. Candy is an impulsive desire, a rush of happiness that should be savored not abused, and that becomes deadened if candy is handed out too often or not at all. The easiest solution would be to have more candy stores and less candy aisles.

New York City has several candy meccas: Dylan's Candy Bar, Economy Candy, the Hershey Store, and Max Brenner. Other notable candy shops I've visited are The Olde Candy Shoppe in Boston, with walls lined up to the ceiling with jars of candy and eccentric antiques like stuffed leopards and weird lamps; a candy store in Madrid that had every inch of wall covered with displays of colorful, barely identifiable candy, dried fruit, and nuts, and of course the candy store in the biggest mall in the Caribbean, Plaza las Americas, where as a child I would always buy a bag of gummy worms and eat them as I followed my mom and my aunt to boring stores. What they all have in common: sheer, beautiful, colorful quantity and variety.

Candy stores, like Halloween, are once in a while explorations. To do them more often than once is to kill their magic, which is exactly what the overabundance of candy aisles has done. They create the possibility of candy so often that a treat becomes a threat. There is something incredibly thrilling about seeing stacks and stacks of candy, gummy bears, coconut chocolate turtles, sour patch kids, twizlers, malt balls, hard candies, M&M's arranged in blues, reds, pinks, yellows, greens, gummy sharks, chocolate-covered peanuts... it goes on and on and on... then dipping a small shovel into a chosen bin and scooping out loot. Once again you're creating a stash. Its like a mini-Halloween, an event and a trip, instead of a bad idea. Because the other thing these stacks and stacks of candy do to a child is they overwhelm them. They couldn't possibly have all of it, much less stuff it all into a bag, so they become selective. They create assortments that won't bleed into the rest of the week because the portion control is built in and more than anything they are getting exactly what they want.

So if you want to boycott anything, boycott the candy aisles and large bags of generic candy shit. Get the good stuff. Its a bit of a walk (all candy stores require a bit of a walk) and the quality is infinitely better. And if you need a fix now, don't go downstairs to the deli, just visit the reception area. They usually have a little bowl of sin taunting the poor receptionist. Or, you know, have a cookie.