Category: Food and Drink

My Ethnic Dining Guide, revised

Here is the seventeenth edition.  Even if you don’t live near Washington D.C., here are  a few general tips for eating out:

         1. Avoid dishes that are "ingredients-intensive."  Raw
ingredients in America –  vegetables, butter, bread, meats, etc. – are below
world standards.  Even most underdeveloped countries have better raw
ingredients than we do, at least if you have a U.S. income to spend there, and
often even if one doesn’t.  Ordering the plain steak in Latin America may
be a great idea, but it is usually a mistake in Northern Virginia.  Opt
for dishes with sauces and complex mixes of ingredients.  Go for dishes
that are "composition-intensive."

          2. Appetizers often are better than main courses.  Meals composed of
appetizers and side dishes alone can be very satisfying.  Thai and
Lebanese restaurants provide the classic examples of this principle.

          3. Avoid desserts.  Most ethnic restaurants in America, no matter how
good, usually fall flat with the desserts.  Especially if the restaurant
is Asian.

          4. Order more than you plan to eat. 

The Alphabet Diet

Eric Husman writes to me:

I have a personal theory I call the Alphabet Diet.  I always begin with the fact that everyone who is eating anything is "on" a diet, and that when people do what is considered to be "going on" a diet, they are really *changing* their diet.  I think the reason that most diets work at first is that they require you to change your eating habits.  Since you are unfamiliar with the new rules, you basically cut back on the number of calories because you don’t know what’s "legal" and are confined to collections of suggested recipes based on a best-selling author’s preferences.  As you discover foods within the diet that you like, you gradually get back to your previous calorie intake, i.e. you learn to "game" the diet.  So I suggest that if you picked five letters at random from the alphabet and confine your diet to foods whose name does not contain those letters, you will see the same initial effects as the Atkins or any other diet.  If the diet ceases to be effective, pick 5 new letters.  It’s hard to write a best-selling book based on a principle that simple because there is no pseudo-scientific justification for random letters that will dazzle your would-be readership.

This is simple to graph with indifference curves.  If you deny a person her ideal point, given previous income and prices, that person will then eat less.  Over time, learning effects can counteract this tendency to some degree.

Here is my previous post on why the diet you choose does not seem to matter much.

Politically Incorrect Chef

Here from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook is the glossary entry for foie gras.

Foie Gras: The fattened liver of a goose or duck.  Unfortunately, an endangered menu item with the advent of angry, twisted, humorless, anti-cruelty activists who’ve never had any kind of good sex or laughed heartily at a joke in their whole miserable lives and who are currently threatening and terrorizing chefs and their families to get the stuff banned.  Likely to disappear from tables outside France in our lifetimes.

Luring Alex to lunch

Here is my side of the conversation:

"Alex, will you come to lunch with us?

Busy? (scornfully).  Doing what?

You write articles so that people will read them, no?

How many people read one of your articles?

That’s not bad.  But how much time does it take to write the article?

If it is so good that articles are read, why not read another article instead of writing one? Surely not only your articles are worthy of being read. 

Reading a good article is so much easier and quicker than writing one.

So you admit my point.  You oversupply the writing of articles, relative to a general  undersupply of the reading of articles.  The same might be said of academia in general.

And surely, Glaucon, we should correct institutional failures, no?

Now let me ask you — going to lunch, and talking with us — is it more like writing an article or reading an article?

That’s what I thought."

The chicken tikka was delicious.

Mexican mole sauce

16 mulato chiles

5 ancho chiles

6 pasilla chiles (all the chiles should be dried, of course)

one white onion, chopped

two cloves garlic, chopped

one cinnamon stick

one teaspoon coriander seeds

one third cup raisins

one stale tortilla, and perhaps some crumbs of stale white bread

one tomato, chopped

one teaspoon anise seed

four cloves

two ounces unsweetened chocolate

Now toast the chiles over medium heat for a few minutes, and soak them in water for an hour.  Pull off the stems and deseed them.  Puree them in a blender.  Toast the rest of the stuff, except the chocolate, over medium heat for a few minutes, puree as well.  You can do all the pureeing together, if your blender is big and strong enough.  Mix the whole thing together, and let it simmer over low heat for fifteen minutes.  Add water (or very mild stock) to thin as needed.  During the simmering, stir in the chocolate so it melts evenly. 

Set it aside, preferably for a day, but even an hour will do.  The flavor will change as the spices blend and settle.  Reheat as needed.  This is best with turkey (today!) or chicken on the bone.

The proverbial free lunch?

Why stop at voluntary tipping? Why not run the entire restaurant this way?

The current edition of Restaurant Magazine has an article on a restaurant in the suburbs of London where there are no prices on the menu. Customers pay what they think the meal was worth. It is called Just Around the Corner and has been around for 17 years. From what I saw when I went to help photograph it for the magazine, it serves old fashioned French food of an average standard (soup, chicken supreme, profiteroles…).

Here are some interesting quotes from the owner:

“In a cheaper area the restaurant wouldn’t survive because people wouldn’t pay the money I expect and in a busier, more central area, we couldn’t build up the trust.

When people don’t pay what the owner thinks appropriate (about £20 a head) We just thank them nicely and give them their money back. These people know they don’t belong here, they try you out and by giving them their money back nicely, you ensure that they never return.”

That’s from Peter Rossi, libertarian chef in London.

Tale of two condiments

Why has mustard in the United States improved so much, but ketchup has stayed largely the same? Why are some sectors more prone to innovation than others? What constrains innovation from the consumer side?

Here is Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent account from The New Yorker. Here is an archive of his writings for the magazine; he is also author of the best-selling The Tipping Point. Check out Gladwell’s work if you don’t already know it.

How bad is McDonald’s for you?

Bad enough. But beware the Michelin-starred restaurant as well:

I haven’t seen Supersize Me yet, but since I heard of the idea behind the movie, I thought it was a bit shallow. Of course you can eat yourself ill at McDonalds. I am almost certain I could eat myself ill in the same manner at a Michelin starred restaurant that serves classical French food. For example, take a typical French Michelin starred menu or look through Gordon Ramsay’s or Thomas Keller’s recipe books. To start, I could have some sort of foie gras terrine, for a main course I could have lobster cooked in butter or meat that might be served with pommes puree (which can contain up to 50% of their weight in butter), and then there are the cheese and desserts. Eating this type of food 14 times a week is probably not good for you.

Here is a good commonsense conclusion:

You might have a fast metabolism, be genetically fortunate, or exercise sufficiently to get away with it, but the point is that you can eat unhealthily anywhere. McDonald’s does not have a monopoly here. Since it is probably impossible to force everyone to eat + live healthily, and definitely a waste of resources to try, policymakers (and their lobbyists) should focus on reducing incentives to offload healthcare costs, thereby increasing incentives to live healthily.

Anyway, McDonalds is trying to change + diversifying its menus. You would have thought this is a good thing, or will the anti-McDonalds lot only be happy when the evil Ronald is 6 feet under?

If you are looking for a good blog by a libertarian chef, Peter Rossi is the guy.

Economic growth and diet

…at that time [eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries] food constituted between 50 and 75 percent of the expenditures of laboring families…however…the energy value of the typical diet in France at the start of the eighteenth century was as low as that of Rwanda in 1965, the most malnourished nation for that year in the tables of the World Bank. England’s supply of food per capita exceeded that of France by several hundred calories but was still exceedingly low by current standards. Indeed, as late as 1850, the English availability of calories hardly matched the current Indian level.

Not surprisingly, meat was not a major source of calories in earlier times.

One implication of these low-level diets needs to be stressed: Even prime-age males had only a meager amount of energy available for work.

And get this:

…the average efficiency of the human engine in Britain increased by about 53 percent between 1790 and 1980. The combined effect of the increase in dietary energy available for work, and of the increased human efficiency in transforming dietary energy into work output, appears to account for about 50 percent of the British economic growth since 1790.

Keep all that in mind next time you despair about the modern world. The data and quotation are from Robert Fogel’s The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death.

Don’t take your salad bag for granted

Today’s [salad] bags are a triumph of practical ingenuity. Their plastic is made of up to five to ten layers, each with a different function. Some are designed to make the package shiny or crinkly, others to carry print well. Together, they have to be just permeable enough to keep the bag’s artificial atmosphere in balance – the wrong ink alone can suffocate a salad. As the lettuce sits on the shelf, the gases in the bag are constantly consumed, released, and replaced. Oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon-dioxide molecules bond with the polymers on one side of the plastic and are released on the other, diffusing from high concentrations to low. Every type of salad requires a different type of bag, tailored to its respiration rate by gas chromatography and computer analysis. Every bag is a miniature biosphere.

That’s from the recent double-issue of The New Yorker, Sept. 6, p.140; it is devoted to food and may be the finest issue yet under Remnick’s tenure. And here is a brief defense of eating from salad bags.

Is Globalization Changing How We Eat?

Here is my recent keynote address to the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Since it is a transcribed talk, this is about as chatty as I come. I present a simple approach to thinking about excellent food, based on the ideas of competition, experimentation, and pride.

You will also “hear” me on the decline of diners, my idea of food paradise, and how to find a good dive in rural Louisiana. Here is one excerpt:

If you look at Mexican food in this country, a lot of it, of course, is not eaten by Mexicans at all. It is eaten by Americans. But consider the Mexican food eaten by Mexicans. Well, who are the Mexicans, for the most part, who are currently coming to America? They tend to be fairly young, and they tend to be male. So take a group of young men, say ages eighteen to twenty-five, put them together in large numbers and let them eat. What do you get? Well, some of it is quite excellent, some of it is not so great, but you get something very different than the native cuisine. Let’s say you performed this thought experiment with France. Take a million Frenchmen, male, ages eighteen to twenty five, bring them to the United States, let them loose, have them eat. You are not going to get classic French cuisine.

Can you implore “read the whole thing” when it is your own talk?

Wonder Bread

I’ve been buying this organic bread recently. I’m not a big organic guy (could you guess?) but it’s low-carb and yet doesn’t taste like cardboard. Several times, however, the bread has gone moldy within a day or two. Yuck. So I took some back to the store all indignant about how I only just bought this bread and now its moldy. The clerk explained it to me – heh, it’s organic – no preservatives, get it? Oh, that’s what preservatives do. I will never question civilization again.