Fair Comment

I’ve been able to forgive Gordon Ramsay for much because, when criticizing a trainee chef’s work, he is alleged to have uttered the immortal words, “You burned that fucking dish so black it went out and stole my bicycle!” (I don’t care if he said it or not, actually; all I know is when I read the story I nearly passed out from laughing so hard.)

Now Chef Gordon has uttered some more immortal words, as part of a another story:

“That’s when I knew Americans knew fuck all about good food. Right there and then.”

Before we get our backs up and start muttering about “Spotted Dick” and “Toad In The Hole” (British ahem delicacies both), not to mention a storied national tradition of boiling food to cook it, Our Gordon has a point. How else can one explain such excrescences as the Big Mac, Cincinnati chili (don’t even ask me), light beer, and concepts such as drive-through windows at “fast food” outlets?

I’m not being a food snob, really. I hate the whole concept of “fast food” (as I’ve stated innumerable times in the past) for the simple reason that one absolutely cannot create good food when speed of delivery is the sine qua non of the thing. And once again, let’s not talk about how little room the Brits have to talk; this is about us, we Americans.

I have to think that we treat food in the same way as we treat most problems: we’re hungry, so we eat: problem solved. What we eat doesn’t really matter, because practically anything will do to assuage hunger — and besides, we Murkins are a busy people and we need to take care of our hunger right now — unlike for example, the indolent Europeans, for whom a lunch “hour” is, in the immortal words of Pirate Captain Barbossa, “just a guideline”.

The problem is that when we’re prepared to eat just any old shit under those circumstances, our standards become so atrophied that (and I swear this was once said to me, in total earnestness) places like Applebee’s, Red Lobster  or Olive Garden become perfectly acceptable choices for dining out when we aren’t in a hurry. And they shouldn’t be, because they serve absolute crap — at best it’s mediocre, and usually, it’s unimaginative and boring food prepared to suit palates accustomed to the boring and unimaginative.

Once again, please remember that I’m no food snob: I can’t be, not when I enjoy junk food like sausage rolls, fish & chips and similar fare. But I do understand the concept of proper dining as opposed to just eating, and I think that’s what Ramsay was alluding to. If you read his story above, it concerns how his lunch guest was prepared to take out her Caesar salad to eat later, even though, as he correctly pointed out, it would taste like shit because it had already been dressed (and un-refrigerated Caesar salad dressing goes off faster than a Kardashian’s underwear). She was prepared to eat terrible-tasting food just for the sake of eating something — and I think that’s something that lamentably, we Americans are often guilty of.

Also again: I’m not suggesting that we should make a fetish of our food like, say, the French do; but I do believe that we need to become more discriminating in our approach to food because otherwise we will continue to fall prey to the purveyors of the mediocre. And that’s a Bad Thing.

Let me illustrate this with a personal anecdote, for a change. I remember going grocery shopping with the Son&Heir when he was still just a boy of about fourteen. We walked around the store picking out foods we’d like, and I noticed that he wasn’t buying ordinary cheese but really good stuff, whether imported or the better Wisconsin fare (we were living in Chicago at the time). Ditto bread: no Wonder Bread, but loaves from the store’s bakery. On and on we went, until I pointed out how much I appreciated his choices. His reply was immediate: “Why should anyone buy shit food when good food is only a few pennies more?”  (I should also point out that as a weenie, he’d lived off canned Vienna sausage and Kraft Mac O’Cheese like so many kids do. But living with me, he’d become accustomed to having only good food in the house, and his tastes had adjusted accordingly.)

So I guess my point is this. We don’t have to settle for the ordinary. Yeah, sometimes the extraordinary may cost a little more, but in the grand scheme of things, “good enough” just can’t compete with “great”.

And as my old Dad used to say: “Long after you’ve forgotten how much you paid for it, you’ll still be enjoying it.” In the case of food, you’ll remember the fine meals forever, while the ordinary meals will be long forgotten.

Besides, I’d love us to start proving that smug little British turd wrong.

Cheese Toasties

Stephen Green at Insty linked to this article about grilled (a.k.a. toasted) cheese sandwiches, and the best cheeses to serve therein. (It’s a HuffPo article, but somehow they managed to avoid any “Trump is Hitler”references, so it’s safe.)

Loyal Readers may remember my discovery in London last year:

…and from this you may deduce that I too am an aficionado of the toasted / grilled cheese sandwich (which I’m going to refer to as “toasties” hereafter). You would be correct. Here, then, is my take. (You may want to get a fresh cup of coffee ready, because this is going to take a while.)

Let’s get the easy part out of the way. Toasties cannot be made in panini presses (as Stephen Green mistakenly suggested), because the press makes the bread tough and dry. The only way to make toasties (of any kind) is either in a sandwich toaster (like a waffle iron, only with flat sides and should not be pressed closed ) or (preferably) in a frying pan. Either way, the sandwich has to be buttered on the outside first, to give the bread just the right degree of crunch. So avoid the panini press because after all, it was invented by some Italian fascisti after listening to a speech by Mussolini. (I may need to check that one, but you get the picture.)

Not appetizing:

Ideal:

Next comes the bread. Forget any thoughts of Wonder Bread, Mrs. Baird’s, Sarah Lee or any of that ilk unless you are making the snack for a young child, in which case it’s fine because kids like to stick bland stuff into their mouths. But grownups can and should do better. A good toastie is never bland. Good bakery bread is essential because it adds depth and flavor — and while I prefer white bread (preferably from French boule or batard loaves), I won’t run screaming from the room if you choose sourdough or even wholewheat. Here are the boule and batard, in order:

Next comes the butter. Most American butter is terrible: off-white and tasteless, it should be called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Margarine!” For a good, golden toastie with incredible flavor, use one of the two below (the first is spendy, the other isn’t, but both come from over The Pond):

       

(The Double Devon, by the way, is de rigueur for scones and jam, less so for toasties. The Kerrygold is just fine.)

Now for the fun part: the cheese.

I myself use a hand-slicer on whatever cheese I decide because it can make paper-thin slices (and takes less time than grating), but whether slicing, shredding or grating, this is to avoid having thick slices of cheese, which won’t melt properly without the bread getting burned. And now for the cheese itself.

My number one cheese, the cheese I would eat if I could eat no other for the rest of my life, is Norwegian Jarlsberg — so it should come as no surprise that it’s also my favorite toasting cheese: nutty, smooth and buttery, it makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

I buy the large wedges at Sam’s Club because it’s too spendy everywhere else. (And avoid the Jarlsberg “Lite” because “lite” anything is just awful and will give you dropsy or turn you into a vegan, perhaps both.) Back to the real stuff:

Other, more tangy choices are Emmental or Gruyère:

…and if I’m feeling really wild and crazy, a sharp-ish cheddar, preferably real English cheese like Barber’s 1833 (which you’ll have to grate because it’s too crumbly to slice):

…but you can find a decent local cheddar if you eschew the large commercial brands (e.g. Kraft). Like this one:

If not using Jarlsberg, I like my toasties to be ever so slightly piquant; but rather than using spice or garnish, I like to let the cheese provide the piquancy. (Some people like to spread mustard on their bread before putting the cheese on, but be warned: it’s easy to overcome the delicate flavor of cheese with too much or too hot a mustard — it’s like putting hot sauce on mushrooms: you can, but why?)

There are people who add things like pickles, onions or tomatoes to their cheese toasties, but I avoid these additions because Satan. The garnishes can be eaten on the side — see the pic at the top for reference — but should never be in the sandwich itself. (By the way: if you commit the heresy of putting tomato in your sandwich, be aware that long after the cheese has cooled to eating temperature, the hot tomato will still be able to blister the inside of your mouth, which would serve you right.)

And speaking of Satan: there is something known as “American” cheese (a.k.a. Kraft Singles or Velveeta), an orange-colored pasty substance of no discernible flavor or nutritional value. Among us grownups this is known as “kid’s food” and should be severely shunned, as one would a fanatical Muslim cleric, a gun-confiscator or a Democrat [some overlap].

Armed with the above ingredients I’ve listed, you should be able to make yourself a first-class toastie.

Finally, you will notice that I’ve avoided the topic of putting ham with the cheese. That’s because adding meat to a sandwich turns a snack into a meal. I’m not averse to a toasted ham ‘n cheese sarnie — by no means — but for a simple, satisfying snack there is almost no substitute for a cheese toastie.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the kitchen.

Alternative Eating

Yesterday I talked about Greggs, and Alert Readers will have seen from the picture of the Earl’s Court outlet that next door is the Paul Café.

Paul is for people who think that going to Greggs is infra dig. I discovered Paul one day when the line of Greggs customers ran out the door into the street (in pouring rain), and not interested in waiting that long for a pastry I went next door instead.

As the decor suggests, Paul is more up-market, and unlike the Britain-only Greggs, they’re an international organization. (In the U.S., they’re in the Washington D.C. area, Dade County FL and Greater Boston, as I recall.) They’re all over London, I noticed, although I never went into any outside Earl’s Court.

Also unlike Greggs, which is more of a kiosk than a restaurant, Paul is a more Parisian kind of place: more relaxed, more comfortable and more expensive (and in rush hour just as busy, unlike what the pictures below would suggest).

However, if it’s French-style food you’re wanting — and I do, almost all the time — Paul has you covered like a king-size duvet:

Good grief. This is yet another place where I could eat breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner for a week and not get close to trying all the dishes available. And everything — everything — is freshly baked, like Greggs. Unlike Greggs, where the ovens are right behind the counter, Paul’s bakery rooms are either upstairs or in the basement — that steel door on the left of the pic isn’t an oven but a dumbwaiter which drops off fresh merchandise every few minutes, as the sales numbers from the registers indicate turnover. It’s a very efficient system and as a one-time retailer, I applaud it.

Oh, and one more thing: I think that Paul’s coffee is better than Greggs’s coffee, although not by much. Greggs’s tea, in contrast, is much better, perhaps because the Brits know more about tea than the Frogs. And as the pics indicate, Paul’s seating is more comfortable — in the smaller Greggs stores, come to think of it, there are no tables at all.

I love Paul. Now this is a store which I do wish would open in Plano, if only for the reason that inexplicably, we have nothing of its kind in the area (sorry, La Madeleine doesn’t count). There are a couple of near-misses, but if Paul opened here, I’d have to walk five miles a day instead of my customary two, just to avoid the Zeppelin syndrome.

Another thing I like about Paul is that their outlets aren’t cookie-cutter lookalikes. Here’s the South Kensington shop:

The outside tables and chairs are, I think, an act of purest optimism given the typical London climate, but you have to give them kudos for trying to make the place more Parisian.

The next time you go Over There, don’t leave Paul off your list. As I said earlier, they’re all over London so there’ll probably be one nearby wherever you find yourself.

No need to thank me; it’s all part of the service.

No Surprise

When I got back to London after my trip to South Africa, the very first place I went to immediately upon getting off the Tube train from Heathrow was the Greggs bakery on Earl’s Court. It’s right across the road from the station, and despite (or perhaps because of) the gloomy weather, it was a beacon beaming its seductive Siren call [sic]: “Cup of hot tea! Sausage roll! Nom nom nom!”

I never stood a chance.

Greggs has come a long way, as recounted here, and one could easily make the case that they’re Britain’s answer to McDonald’s — in fact, they sell more sausage rolls than Mickey D sells hamburgers — and they’re opening hundreds of new branches each year.

Greggs serves my two favorite British “junk” foods, the ubiquitous sausage roll — and in retrospect, theirs is better than the offerings from any of the gourmet bakeries and boulangeries — and my recent discovery, the “steak bake” (meat pie). It took me a while to discover the latter because whenever I’ve gone into Greggs it’s to get a sausage roll. But one day the Devizes branch was out of sausage rolls (it happens sometimes, while the fresh batch is still being baked), and Impatient Kim said what the hell and ordered a steak bake instead.

Now I order whichever of the two delicacies is on the shelf — it’s when they’re both on the shelf that I hop from one foot to another in the agony of indecision.

I haven’t tried the chicken bake (the empty shelf on the bottom left) because… well, because I don’t much care for chicken pies, and anyway, why give myself a choice of three yummies when I have enough trouble with two? Brit friends of mine, by the way, swear by different Greggs pies — the steak & cheese and the cheese & onion each has its own supporters, to mention just two. Aaaargh.

Don’t even get me started on the sweet pastries:

There is not a single one of those that isn’t an avalanche of taste sensation, particularly if (like me) you have a sweet tooth. Like Warren Beatty, I’ve had ’em all, and all of ’em are wonderful.

Some guy wrote an article about how he ate solely out of Greggs (breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner) for a day. Hell, I could do that for a week and still not have tried everything I wanted to. The choices are astonishing, the quality superb, and there’s something for absolutely everybody (except vegans of course — there’s butter in every Greggs item — but the hell with them).

And yes, I’d have to spend the hours outside Greggs exercising just to prevent myself from assuming Zeppelin proportions inside a few days, but I’ve found that if I contain myself to just one sausage roll or one steak bake or one pastry a day, then I don’t put on weight at all. (The several miles I walk per day when in London may also have something to do with it.)

There’s a part of me that wishes Greggs would open an outlet here in Plano, while another part of me hopes they don’t. It’s one of my totally-not-guilty pleasures when visiting Britishland, and it should be everyone’s. So put it on yer “must-do” list on yer next visit to Britishland — and if you’ve never been Over There before (for shame), I should point out that Greggs offers a welcome respite from London’s sky-high prices. A meal for two with coffee/tea, for under $6? It’s Greggs, for the win.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about its neighbor.

Safe To Eat

I’ve always been skeptical about health warnings on canned foods, especially as I’m somewhat familiar with the canning process (which basically renders food bacteria-free). Now my suspicions have been justified by SCIENTISTS:

Microbiologist Richard Page, of Alliance Technical Laboratories, looked for a host of nasties, including the potentially deadly bacteria E.coli, salmonella, listeria and Clostridium perfringens, as well as for yeasts and moulds, which affect food quality but aren’t necessarily unsafe to eat.
Then food technologist Brian Smith, of Booth Smith Food Technology, analysed the results — and reached a very surprising conclusion.

There’s a reason canning has been a popular way of preserving food for the best part of two centuries. Canned food is subjected to a very high heat process to kill bacteria, and once sealed the contents are effectively sterile.
Sterilisation means heating to very high temperatures, killing all microbes. In 1974, tins of food from the wreck of a U.S. steamboat that sank in 1865 were tested. There had been a deterioration in appearance and vitamin content, but scientists found they were safe to eat.

“All of the best before dates you are looking at would absolutely not be for bacterial risk. The reasoning behind them would be due to quality,’ says Richard Page. “It may be the manufacturer knows that after a certain period of time there is a certain degradation in the taste or the flavour, colour or smell.”
Or it might just be because they want to sell more pineapple chunks.
Meanwhile, Brian Smith says food manufacturers do give “quite a margin of error” when setting best before dates — in some cases as much as 50 per cent.
So while “use by” dates should always be adhered to, “best before” is more an indicator of quality than a health alarm bell.

I remember eating some of my Y2K canned goods nearly ten years later, and none — I mean not one — tasted any differently than if I’d bought them the same day. Ditto some of my SHTF Grab ‘N Go supplies, just a couple years back. Most of the warning dates are just in case some guy eats 30-year-old corned beef hash he found in Nana’s pantry, and keels over — but even then, while the fats in the food might have caused the taste to deteriorate, the health risk is close to zero.

Read the article for all the details. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the kitchen to make me some food:

Nom nom nom…

The World’s Greatest Snack Food?

Some background: in German, the word “Imbiss” is loosely translated in to English as “snack bar”. One of the best examples was this one (apparently a temporary structure because a friend looking for it later couldn’t find it):

It was located at the beginning of the Graben, Vienna’s premier pedestrian mall in the Old City (Altstadt), just across from St. Stephan’s Cathedral (Stefansdom). (I’m translating so that future visitors can find them on a map or on signposts, because this is how they’re commonly listed.)

Anyway, what set this particular Imbiss apart from all the others was their bratwurst hot dog sandwich — not so much for the food, although it was delicious, but for its preparation. Allow me to explain.

The footlong (or whatever that is in metric) buns are kept warm in a steam oven, just as they are in the U.S. What’s different is that when it’s time to put the brats into the bread, they aren’t slit open lengthwise, oh no. That would make it a messy sandwich, which would be unerträglich to the neat ‘n tidy Austrians.

Instead, the bun is impaled on a very hot spike, which does two things: it makes an opening for the bratwurst to be inserted, and it toasts the bun on the inside.

Now for the bratwurst. It’s not just any old sausage, oh no; it has great hunks of cheese embedded in the meat, and the brats are heated on rollers similar to the one you see at 7-11 — only these rollers are really hot because the cheese melts inside the sausage, in some cases even bursting through the skin, making a crust of burned cheese around the sausage. (Are you drooling yet?)

The vendor will ask you if you want the burnt cheese scraped off (the answer of course should be “Nein, nein! Bitte lassen Sie die Käse!”), whereafter he will insert the sausage into the roll after first squirting some wondrous German mustard down inside the opening.

What you will have (as Daughter exclaimed loudly upon tasting her first one) is the world’s greatest hot dog, and quite possible the world’s greatest snack food, period. It also makes no mess when you eat it — unless you bite into the brat too quickly, which will make melted cheese and sausage fat run down your chin. Here’s the finished product (from the excellent Philosophy and Madeleines blog), but I’m afraid the pic just doesn’t do it justice:

(And of course, keine Coca-Cola, bitte; you have to eat it with a beer — sold at the same outlet.)

I have no idea whether this is a Viennese style of preparation or a common German one. I do know that I’ve never found its like anywhere I’ve looked, whether in southern Germany, the Rhineland or even in Salzburg.

I would hesitate to recommend visiting Vienna purely to experience this wonderfully-delicious snack, but then again there are about a thousand equally-good reasons to go to Vienna. Just add it to the list of things to experience in the Austrian capital, one of my top three favorite places in the whole world.

Next time: Gulaschsuppe and where to find it.