Archive for January, 2009

High Fructose Corn Syrup and Mercury in your food

Friday, January 30th, 2009

So some daylight is finally being shed on the secretive nature of High Frustose Corn Syrup (HFCS) production. Just as the corn refiner’s ad campaign swings into full gear, telling us that it’s all natural and safe in reasonable amounts, the sugar replacing food additive is found to contain mercury. And the Corn Refiners’ Association doesn’t deny this, they just say they stopped using it last year (although they admit a few plants still use the mercury process). So this is an admission that a highly toxic substance has been in their “all natural” food additive all along. If you (or more importantly, your children) eat processed foods, it’s time to really think about what might make them sick.

In case you think I’m passing along some silly web rumor, here’re some sources:

US News & World Report, The Washington Post, Fox News (yes, even them),
Here’s some info on how mercury is used to process corn syrup.
And here’s the actual study showing the detection of mercury in food.
And here’s info on current mercury contamination levels in the US population.

Make your own Haggis. Yeah!

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

With the annual Robert Burns celebrations rapidly approaching, it’s time to break out the haggis ingredients. Here’s a step-by-step visual guide to making your own.

And remember that haggis may still be alive in Scotland, it was brought there by the Vikings and others from Scandinavia. And a version of haggis even shows up in Homer (book 20, line 38):

“Just as a man turns
quickly to and fro on a blazing fire a stomach
stuffed with fat and blood when he’s keen to roast it fast.”

There is more to read on haggis here, here and here.

NYC

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

We made a short trip down to the city last weekend. A Book Fair at the 69th Armory on the East side was disappointing, although we did better than many. The best meal of the weekend was certainly the Chinese at Don’s favorite Szechuan place on 24th and 9th. Otherwise meals were unremarkable, we just didn’t hit the groove this trip. I was a little creeped out by all the for lease/rent/sale signs on retail spaces. And then every block was populated by a useless combination of drug stores, cell phone stores and ATM branches of banks. It would seem that banks are the only businesses that can afford NYC real estate these days….

The most remarkable thing I saw during our trip was the Farmer’s Market in Union Square on Friday, 1/16. If you are in the Northeast and think back to last Friday you will remember that it was in the middle of that frigid cold snap. (Lucky us returned to Maine on Sunday night to a foot of new snow and frozen pipes, sigh) If you are not here on the East coast, let me tell you it was COLD. I was traveling through Union Square and was so impressed to see that the market had vendors, temperature be damned. I whipped out the camera and took some snaps just to be able to prove that this was true. Maine’s Farmers Markets have to go dormant, or scale back to minimal distribution in the Winter. The snow just makes it impossible. So to see this display filled me with pride for those people who grow our food….

Of course there are Markets in California and the South year round. But I think this picture shows how dedicated and serious the East coast food community truly is.

More about basic books coming soon.

Some basic books…

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009


In this moment when cooking at home has taken on new importance, there is a search for useful reference material. Many many posts could be written on this subject. I will attempt to cover some of this ground over the next little while. I find that the better basic how-to-cook books have loyal followings. I have my personal favorites which I will certainly highlight. There are others that I am less enamored of but see the value of nonetheless. I will try and do those titles justice as well. So without further ado, one of my favorites.

Chances are that anyone who has come into the store and asked me my favorite cookbook will have heard about Deborah Madison and her tome, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I bought a copy of this book a decade ago before I had chosen the world of food as a profession, when it caught my eye at a book store. For years it has been my go-to book even though I left the world of the protein-challenged back in the early 90’s. I spent ten years eschewing red meat, which in retrospect was tied to the way that I believed commercial meat was produced. I jumped back on the flesh eating bandwagon with gusto (due to a steak I just couldn’t resist) and yet still found Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone was incredibly useful for everything else on the plate. Madison addresses the entire vegetarian oeuvre from how to store vegetables to yields to preferred techniques to complimentary flavors, yet she never preaches about meat substitutions. If you had only seen an eggplant in the store but never brought one home with you, Madison would see you through various different preparation options with clear, descriptive and salient instructions. Here you will find the traditional cookbook layout, starting with a fantastic chapter on becoming a cook. She advises the reader on how to shop, set up their kitchen, work with tools and ingredients, and how to pace the cooking of a meal. The latter including techniques that I imagine were learned cooking at her restaurant Greens in San Francisco in the 80’s. She also talks about vegetarian menus and how to pair wine with them, and then spends a whole chapter on foundational ingredients like butter and vinegar, seasonings and flavor profiles. Those first few chapters are extremely accessible and empowering for the both the novice and the experienced cook.

The book then takes the expected road through salads, soups, stews, pastas, beans, casseroles and the like. Sandwiched in the middle, however, is an A to Z catalog of vegetables that is worth the price of the book in itself. If I had a nickel for every time I went to this section of the book I would be drinking some mighty fine wine right now. In this section there is a description of the types of, say, an eggplant. There is advice on what to look for when buying, how to store, how to utilize and what the yield is for eggplants. There are basic preparation techniques (roasting, anyone?) and good partners for, including cross reference on sauces and seasonings that go well with eggplant. Then she gives you a handful of basic recipes. The eggplant turns up in many other places within the book, but this is a good place to start your education on this noble vegetable. Many is the time I have gotten a hankering for something that looked delectable in the market: cauliflower, celery root, parsley. Bring the charming bit home and flip open Madame Madison and there it is: a recipe for fusilli with cauliflower, green olives and herbs. If you already feel at home in your kitchen you will find this book a treasure trove of twists and turns in the world of produce. If your kitchen is that room where the microwave lives you will find a supportive gentle hand leading you down the path of kitchen love.

If you have any interest in learning where to start preparing more of these fabulous vegetables that are available to us these days I would advise you find yourself a copy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Do not be intimidated by the size of this book, yes, it is big, but it covers a lot of ground and you will be using it for years. I have been.

Moving Forward

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

So, here we are in 2009.

I am not one for resolutions or predictions for the new year. Changing the year on my correspondence is about as much of the transition as I notice. And yet this year we have had some changes that are notable and disruptive enough for me to mark the passing of 2008 and the potential for 2009. The reports on retail sales for the holiday season are grim and the stock market has reacted negatively. And yet Rabelais had a good showing these past five weeks. When I read those dire pronouncements about Wal-Mart and other mall stores I cannot help but think that the public is acting on it’s dislike of big box stores. Bigger is not always better. There is no doubt that the next year holds many challenges for us all, but we think that being small is good. Our customers certainly seem to appreciate the ability to have a conversation at Rabelais about the books on our shelves (or any other myriad array of food related topics). We intend to be able to keep those conversations going in the ensuing months. Last night’s showing at the Slow Food book group was formidable. New readers are always welcome.

President elect Obama gave a speech this morning about belt tightening and the continued potential for things to get worse if we do not take these economic times very seriously. I do find his call for action encouraging. The past eight years left me with very little optimism about the US government, I had thought that I was inured to political hope. However I see a silver lining in these tough times. Re-connecting with where your food comes from is never a bad thing. On so many levels, being accountable for the resources that sustain us has huge repercussions throughout society.

Americans have become too removed from their food chain. I find it truly depressing how many folks have no idea how to make a simple vinaigrette. It’s salad dressing, people, not programming the VCR (although I guess no one does that anymore either)! These tough times may spur a renewed interest in the culinary arts beyond the food fads of TV and celebrity chefs. If our sales during the holiday season were any indication, there is an interest in learning to cook. I take encouragement from the 2009 Saveur 100. This month’s edition of this national food publication is dedicated to the home cook. Peppered throughout the magazine are recipes for such staples as vinegar, mustard, ketchup and worcestershire sauce. Some of our best selling books in the past months have been those that address cheese making and home curing of meats, as well as preserving books. If there ever was a moment in our modern history to learn how to feed yourself, this is it. Between global warming issues, the cost of food, the hemorrhaging economy and it’s financial insecurity this is a great time to teach yourself both how to get the pleasure of feeding yourself and your loved ones, and how to economize by preparing real food at home. Learning how to cook may also spark a new found appreciation of, and respect for, real restaurants (ie not the fast food chains). When Obama talks about sacrifice I see the possibility of re-learning how to make ourselves happy without electronic gadgets (well, I guess the modern range has some pretty fancy electronics and I do appreciate my food processor, but you know what I mean). During the Second World War, Americans were asked to do their part by growing a Victory garden. I think the current call should be to make a Victory Meal…

Cookery books in all forms are one of the better ways to learn about the culture and mechanics of preparing a meal. It is an endlessly engaging school of study, the culinary arts. They can be approached at any level, from any background and to whatever degree you desire. If you can’t quite figure out where to dive in, ask us for our opinions. We give them freely and with much gusto.

Here’s to the meals of 2009. As Julia Child would say, Bon Appetit!