Counter Intelligence

Liquored Up

Posted in Niche by melissamccart on February 21, 2009

Jose Andres gets quite an introduction from Mario Batali at South Beach Wine and Food Festival. . . .


Radiohead at the Culinary Institute

Posted in Niche by melissamccart on January 31, 2009

From McSweeney’s:

“Everything in Its Mise en Place”

“Fritter, Happier”

“All I Knead”


“My Waffle-Iron Lung”

“High and Dry Rub”

“Knives Out”

“Caramel Police”

“Black Star Anise”

“Weird Fishes”


Going Fishing in Annapolis

Posted in District of Columbia, Niche by melissamccart on August 17, 2008

I’ve been finding excuses to take Charlie to Quiet Waters dog beach once a week just so I can stop by Annapolis Seafood Market down the street.

For one, the quality of the seafood is terrific. Customers can choose from delicious looking whole snapper, rockfish, cod, flounder, and whatever else; it’s so fresh, the eyes are still clear– not easy to find in Washington. Use the tongs to transfer fish to a bin and bring it over to the fishmonger, who filets and weighs it. 

In the center of the store, ice filled bins showcase scallops, smelt, sardines, hundreds of little necks, head- on shrimp in three sizes, mussels, and razor clams. In cases across the way, it’s the point drill for lobsters, tuna steaks, salmon, crawfish, crab claws, crabs, crab cakes, soft shells, and whatever else. For more visuals, check out the overflowing bins stacked with unshucked corn, potatoes, piles of lemons and limes, or tomatoes.

The lunches alone are worth the trip. I adore the soft shell or crab cake BLT, or a cup of cream of crab with a drizzle of sherry.  I can’t remember the last time I had something with sherry in a to-go cup.

A fun picnic option would be the Steamer Suppers. An example: a pint of New England clam chowder, a pound of spicy shrimp, and two one-pound lobsters for $54, with four other options in the same price range. At the park, there’s a lovely overlook of the Chesapeake. Bring some linens, wine, a citronella candle, and it shapes up to become a fine spot when stuck in town for the weekend.

Is there a fish market with such a bounty in DC? Should the Annapolis field trip remain in my weekly repertoire? Cannon’s can be a pleasure, but has limited supply if you hit it at the wrong time. Whole Foods and Teeter’s fish counter is fine, but the shopping experience is sort of souless. And I haven’t been to Maine Avenue lately, but rarely hear resounding enthusiasm. I hope I’m wrong and I’m just missing something.

Sip, Don’t Shoot

Posted in Niche by melissamccart on July 22, 2008

At Tales of the Cocktail,  I had an interesting tequila tutorial with Philadelphia’s David Suro-Pinera, owner of Tequilas and Los Catrines and project coordinator at Siembra Azul, a small batch tequila company in Mexico. 

Historically this Mexican spirit had been a poor person’s drink, while wealthier folks gravitated toward Cognac and whiskey, according to Suro. As its popularity rises and consumers become more informed, tequila’s reputation is changing for the better.

Though there are many kinds of agave, tequila comes from one, which takes around twelve years to grow. While other versions may yield terrific tequila, since the industry is heavily regulated and the growth cycle of other plants is longer, blue agave it is. 

Suro suggested I sip an 100% agave blanco for a brighter, unadulterated tequila (Many bottles of what we call tequila in the US hover closer to 51% blue agave). 

Our very own Oyamel carries his version, as well as an array of refined tequilas, whether they’re blanco, reposado, or anejo. Have a favorite? Leave it in the comments.

Ketchup Esoterica

Posted in Niche by melissamccart on February 25, 2007

86071004003o.jpgIf you’ve read Ray Sokolov’s Fading Feasts, you may share my relief that many of his declarations about foods he claimed were disappearing in 1979 have returned to regional tables.  Some of these include morels, key lime, Smithfield ham, moonshine (well, bourbon, in particular) boudin, and cured meats.  Others have a way to go. Thankfully, I haven’t had to endure Brunswick stew made with squirrel, for example.

In the most recent printing, Sokolov includes an essay on ketchup.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the condiment is next thing for which restaurants offer dizzying varieties, as is the case with mayo and mustards.  Some paraphrased Sokolovian observations:

The word–first recorded in English in 1690– originates from Maylay ketchap and the Chinese Amoy dialect, ketsiap, both of which refer to something prepared by pickling shellfish in brine.  It’s a derivative of Roman garum and Vietnamese nuoc mam, made of the juice of fermented anchovies.

. . .Early English and American ketchups evolved with ingredients available there, such oysters or walnuts.  Sometimes only the juice was kept and the solid matter was discarded, producing what we’d now call ketchup.

  The condiment was originally used to relieve the monotony of food on sea voyages and otherwise, through the use of vinegars and horseradishes, soy and garlic, pickled walnuts, oysters, mushrooms, lemons, anchovies, and onions.

Tomato ketchups were the preferred condiment after 1900, when canned tomatoes became more widely available. . . . In her memoirs of being a child during the early 20th century, M.F.K. Fisher confesses to her guilty pleasure of mashed potatoes and ketchup, “from a large, full, vulgar bottle that stood beside my table mat where a wineglass would be at an ordinary commonplace, everyday banquet.”

If you’re particularly ambitious, you can concoct your own tomato or walnut version made with salt, vinegar, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, pepper, shallots, horseradish, anchovies, and port.

The ideal cup of coffee: How does flavor vary between beans?

Posted in Niche by melissamccart on December 15, 2006

favgreekmug.jpgWithin the next couple of weeks I’d guess, The Washington Post Food Section will do a spread on coffee similar to the coffee editions in the LA and New York Times. And while in the past, the subject would have been too esoteric– remember the days of the Greek coffee cup, “It’s our pleasure to serve you”?– I’m sure when it comes out, it will be met with enthusiasm.

Its no surprise that, 25 years after Starbucks went nationwide, customers have been groomed into more discerning drinkers.  How could they not, at $3 to $5 a cup? Whether it’s Starbuck’s, Peet’s, Caribou, or others, specialty coffee shops have encouraged drinkers to focus on flavors, harvests, roasts, and of course, the rising price for a cup of java.

What makes for great coffee? As part of the country’s embrace of  heritage-organic-fair trade movements, coffee that’s been farmed in an ecologically responsible way by local farmers on small farms is more sought after than ever. 

They’re sourcing their own beans at “origin,” finding local growers (in some cases, they are the local growers), making estate blends, often championing sustainable farming methods and roasting in small batches that highlight the intrinsic flavors — the “terroir” of the coffee beans — instead of over-roasting them into charcoal oblivion. (LA Times).

Coffee connoisseurs have been seeking out coffee from specific regions as well.  In the Times, the head of Taylor Maid Farms Organic coffee, one of the first Fair Trade sellers, “‘We are ready for consumers who come into the store and order single-origin coffees from a particular region of Panama,’ said Mark Inman, 37, a founder and principal of the Taylor Maid Farms organic coffee roastery in Sebastopol, Calif. ”

As of late, the origin and harvesting of the beans has been more of a focus than methods of roasting.  Nick Cho of Murky Coffee, emphasizes the beans over the roasts, as reported in the New York Times, “Mr. Cho of Murky Coffee says roasting would distract him from the retail end of things.”

But really, what’s the difference in terms of taste?  Sure, milk versus cream, freshness of the brew, and other factors make a difference in terms of flavor. But if we’re talking about black coffee after its brewed, how do the farming methods and the terroir affect the flavor?  And, to what degree does roast affect flavor?  In each of these articles, these are the words I found on flavor:

1) In LA Times’ “Artisans of the Roast”:   sweetness and a long finish, nice fruitiness and blueberry tones.

2) In LA Times’ “A Passion for Quality Gathered Steam”: less bitter, concentrated flavor, thin, mild, milky.

3) In NY Times’ “For the Refined Palate, Too Refined for a Certain Large Chain”: lemon, flowers, sweet herbs and ”perhaps a cedar toned semisweet chocolate.”

4) In NY Times’ “Espresso’s New Wave Hits Home”:  ruddy, jasmine, flowers, dense, think and heavy. . mouth-feel, weak.

Hello?  If we’re going to sink a ton of money into these single-origin, fair-trade artisanal coffees, can we come up with more lively descriptions that show the variations between beans and roasts? God knows there are hundreds of ways to describe the differentiated flavor of Pinot Noir, or Burgundy, or Reisling.  If coffee is going in that direction, shouldn’t the vocabulary evolve as well?  Perhaps we can consult a flavor wheel to help in differentiating between beans.

Or is all this making too much of a humble cup o’joe?

The Umami King?

Posted in Niche by melissamccart on November 9, 2006

On Choptalk this afternoon:

Mushrooms are the king of umami. Umami is the fifth taste, sometimes defined as “savory.” Besides salty, sweet, sour, and bitter, there is umami.

Who would have thought?  It’s not what the Umami Information Center says.  By the way.  I can’t believe this organization even exists and that I’ve been there more than once.  Thanks to Cookthink for pointing it out.

Bee Season

Posted in District of Columbia, Niche by melissamccart on October 4, 2006

200px-loukoumades.jpgThough I’m not much of a dessert person, I’ve been eating them at restaurants more often with the rise of the nostalgia dessert.  Be it Eric Ziebold’s upscale version of the s’more or the many renditions of homemade chocolate pudding here and elsewhere, these desserts are the best way to relive childhood, despite the calories and super sweetness that I’ve probably outgrown. That’s why I especially liked the loukoumades I had at Komi last night.  Who wouldn’t like honey dipped donut holes served with a side of chocolate mascarpone pudding?  And it’s the first time I’d eaten them without being chased around by bees. 

Clearly, it’s been awhile since I’d had some.  In late summer in Ohio and Illinois where I’d lived as a little kid, grandmothers at Greek church festivals would serve the donuts fresh from a deep fryer, roll them in honey, and sprinkle them with a dash of cinnamon or powdered sugar for good measure.  Problem was, it was bee season, which meant that we had to swat bees, juggle our donuts, and generally keep on moving while trying to savor the once-a-year treat.  It was a pleasure and pain dessert.  If we wanted to eat them, we might have had to endure a few bee stings in the process.

How nice to have them in the more relaxed vibe of Komi’s cozy dining room,  while listening to Iron and Wine and enjoying good company. 

Ed Levine: Pizza Slice Superhero

Posted in District of Columbia, New York City, Niche by melissamccart on October 2, 2006

foldholdcomplete-thumb.jpgEd Levine is a guy after my own heart, since he is the number one pizza freak in New York.  Recently, he’s alerted readers to the sad state of affairs in his beloved city: Gotham is in the throes of a “pizza crisis.”  

The NYC slice, once a justifiable source of culinary pride in this town, is going to hell in a hand basket filled with pizza cheese and canned pizza sauce.

He attributes the lousy state of the slice to “Ray’s Syndrome”, which has created a “slice plague” in Manhattan in particular. Levine reported on it for the Times in 2002 and said that the quality of the illustrious slice has only declined since then.

In Brooklyn and Queens, however, “slice culture remains intact.”  And in Staten Island, “it’s a veritable beacon of slice quality.”  I can’t think of a better reason to ride the ferry.

What he doesn’t mention is that the reason Manhattan slices taste like crap is because there are no poor or semi poor folks who actually eat the meager slice.  And, of those who remain on the island of Manhattan, many of them have lived in New York less than a few years, let alone a decade.  These are the people who are weaning the good slice out of New York.



Posted in New York City, Niche by melissamccart on September 28, 2006

rickspicks.jpgEver since our friend Adam mentioned that he canned 20 pounds of heirloom tomatoes last month, I’ve been wanting to can and pickle– a couple weeks late, I realize.   Rather than thinking like a cook or a foodie– what ingredients can I use?–I’ve been mulling over this article from the Times from awhile back, “A Man in a Pickle Jumps into the Brine.”

It chronicles the beginnings of Rick’s Picks, a gourmet pickle company that Rick Field started out of his Prospect Heights apartment in Brooklyn.  Eventually, he rented a place to pickle on the Lower East Side:

Mr. Field grew up in Cambridge, Mass., in a family of academics; his father and both of his grandfathers taught at Harvard, a lineage that makes his effort seem a bit like a Texan opening a pizza parlor in Rome. Yet despite the choice of location for his business it was never Mr. Field’s intent to compete in the universe of sours and half-sours, barrels and traditional brines.

For years he had made a hobby of immersing cucumbers, cauliflower, string beans and other vegetables in experimental brines infused with ingredients like rosemary, wasabi or curry. One of the inventions now in his line is a sliced bread-and-butter pickle called Bee ‘n’ Beez that derives its sweetness not from sugar but from coconut, dried cherries and ginger.

Field hot-brines his pickles by heating the liquid to 190 degrees, combining the brine and the pickles in a jar, dunking the jar in hot water for seven minutes, then sealing it for a couple weeks until its ready.  His bread and butter pickles are delicious from what I remember.