Sunday, September 12, 2010

Oops, I've Seem to Have Forgotten to Blog

Life threw up a plethora of challenges to keeping this here old blog alive and kicking this summer.  The biggest road block was that I was writing a lot at work.  After spending hours each day trying to find different ways of saying the same thing in new and exciting ways, the idea of sitting behind a keyboard and crafting witty and exciting prose was not what I wanted to spend my evening on.  Besides there was lots of food to cook on the grill.

 I tackled pulled pork a few weeks ago and it came out really well if I have to say so myself.  Mom loved it as well, but you don't expect to get a negative review from your mother do you.  Except if it's your high school girlfriend, but there is no need to bring that back up.

I also spent a lot of my free time behind a camera this summer.  I took a lot of photography classes and I've been working on several non-food related photography classes.

But now the summer is over.  The weekend parking spaces have magically disappeared, the lines in front of the bars have returned and symbolically, the grill ran out of gas the day after Labor Day.

I have a lot of interesting(I hope) events lined up in the near future:  A class with the man who literally wrote the book on food photography, the New York Food and Wine Festival and several other events will be popping up like Halloween pumpkins.  I've also been mulling a change in the blog that should be fun and interesting for all partied involved, ie me writing about it and you poor, poor people... I mean my loyal followers will enjoy reading.

So, instead of the sweet smell of bbq wafting through the condo, that official Sunday scent of roasting chicken is permeating.  And what a welcome smell it is.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Is the Sandwich Ready for its Close Up?

OK, turn a little to the right.  Could you reflect that light a little more to the left?  Hold it, hold it... Yes!, I got the shot.  What, is John going to bore us with some more fashion shots?  This is a food blog.  Oh, no.  I was hard at work crafting a photo of a beautiful.... sandwich.

Crafting a good food photo is not easy.  Some food is great to eat, but not that photogenic.  You have to work fast because the food dries out, wilts, turns brown or even melts into a puddle.  You have to work the light just right.  Using natural light doesn't mean just plopping a plate of food by the window and snapping away.  You need to control the natural light with shades, reflectors, and other modifiers.  Its a craft that one needs to constantly practice to get better at.

I noticed that the International Center of Photography was offering a food photography class.  In fact, it was the first time it was offering a food photography class.  I would have to take two days off from work to attend, but what the heck, I needed a break.

The international in International Center of Photography is not just hyperbole.  The class had students from Mexico, Brazil, Columbia, and Singapore among other countries.  The instructor was Susie Cushner, a widely published food photographer.  The class started with a survey of some of the better food photographers out there.  There are some people doing really, really good work out there.  I really liked the work of Roland Bello.  His work had a narrative running through it that added another level of interest in his photos.  His work was often featured in the dearly departed Gourmet magazine.

The next two days we met at The Shooting Kitchen studio in Tribeca.  This is a photography studio built around shooting food.  It featured three separate areas to shoot in, including a full blown kitchen.  A professional food stylist was on hand to help out.  In the real world of food photography, a photographer can't work alone.  They need a food stylist and sometimes a prop stylist to get the job done in time.

The first day was a little rough.  It was tough getting all the elements together to get a good shot.  The second day flowed much better.  A rain storm came through in the afternoon, breaking the heat wave that held NYC in its fiery grasp.  But that made the lighting that much harder to deal with.  I did get my best shot, the sandwich, during this dreary period.

The final day we did some outside shooting at the Union Square Greenmarket.  The summer's bounty was on display throughout the park.  It was difficult to pick just what beautiful vegetables to shoot.

This class was both challenging and rewarding.  Anyone who is thinking about becoming a food photographer should take a class like this to get a feel for what is involved in this profession.  As with many photography classes, you start to look at things a different way.  Instead of just seeing a sandwich, I now see a Diva.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hoboken Food Tour

A class in studio lighting morphed into a class on fashion photography, so I channelled my inner Austin Powers and shot photos like this:

I took advantage of my free time this weekend to examine my town more closely.  

It is easy to ignore the things that are right underneath our noses.  We are apt to jump on that plane to Aspen but to tale an afternoon to look at the food purveyors in our own area, we turn a blind palette.  Yesterday I decided to remedy that situation.

For the past year, a Hoboken food tour has been offered.  This was a chance to glimpse the family owned world of food purveyors that has kept this city well fed for generations.  Despite the 90 degree plus temperature, I signed up.

I could not have been happier with the tour.  the guide Avi had a deep and comprehensive knowledge of the Hoboken food world,  We were given behind the scenes looks of the coal oven at Antique Bakery.  We were treated to the wonderful pizza at Grimaldis.  Most impressive was Tony Lisa's demo of making mozzarella.  He and his brother formed the cheese by hand as countless generations before them have done.  Handmade, artisan and local as it could possible be.

A new cupcake centric bakery and an old coffee purveyor led to the end of the tour.  While I am glad that "Cake Boss" has put Hoboken on the map, I am more happy that people like Tony Lisa and the Antique Bakery people have been producing great food for generations.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

It's Not a Party Till Someone Brings the Liquid Nitrogen

Whew, it has been busy here the last week or so.  When it wasn't busy I was enjoying the wonderful weather outside on my terrace, grilling like a madman.  So I'm taking this respite before the day's ribathon commences to wrap up Aspen and to wish everyone a Happy 4th.

The last event I went to at Aspen was very cool, darn near freezing in fact.  It was a cooking competition between Rick Bayless and Michael Voltaggio,  a Top Chef vs Top Chef Masters battle.  It was very entertaining and it raised funds for Cook for the Cure, a breast cancer charity by auctioning off Rick Bayless' sous chef spot.  The darn near freezing came in when Michael Voltaggio had a giant cylinder of liquid nitrogen wheeled onstage.  It's not a party till someone brings the liquid nitrogen.  He used this to basically make sangria slushies.  Chef Bayless won the Quickfire challenge, but it really didn't matter.  The audience had fun and a worthy cause got a nice bump in their coffers.

Having been grill deprived for most of my adult life, I am compensating now.  Most evenings from May through September find me outside, tongs in hand.  Having found my new religion, I had to find my new bible.  It came in the form of Weber's Big Book of Grilling. I'm sure more experienced grill masters will scoff at such a pedestrian tome, but it has done me no wrong so far.  The apple cider mop sauce baby back ribs are a particular favorite of mine.  The spicy Texas rib eye is no slouch either.

Well, I have ribs to rub and sauces to simmer.  Everyone have a wonderful Independence Day!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Aspen Food and Wine Festival: The Day Chef Nobu Blew Our Minds

Day two promised to be a clone of day one.  Some demos, some slam dancing in the grand tasting tent,  a good dinner with good beverages.  No signs, omens or portends indicated the course the day would take.  A rapturous dinner was in store for us, our palates graced with a taste of near perfection.  
Copious amounts of caffein washed away the lingering effects of last night’s wine pairings.  Jacques Pepin, the master of classic culinary techniques, was the first event I had scheduled for the day.  The buzz, from both excitement and the coffee, made the 20 minute wait interminable.  Eventually the doors were thrown open and we were allowed in.  Jacques Pepin and his daughter Claudine gave a demo.   using their line of caviar as an ingredient.  If time has diminished Jacques Pepin’s knife skills, it was certainly not noticeable to us mere mortals.  Besides having mad skills, he is consummate educator and entertainer.  The years have honed his stage skills to razor sharp edge.  His blend of wit, wisdom He is also one of the nicest and most gracious people in the culinary world.  His sense of humor had the audience laughing through out the event.  The dynamic between Jacques and Claudine was a little, weird.  Well, to be exact, the dynamic between Claudine and Jacques was a little, weird.  Couldn't tell if it was a forced frustration with Jacques just for show, or if it is their normal relationship.  The champagne bottle not cooperating with Claudine's sabering attempts did nothing for her mood.  
After another trip through the mosh pit of the grand tasting tent, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons gave a demo.  They seemed to really enjoy cooking together as they whipped up dueling lamb dishes.  Tom cooked a loin of lamb stuffed with homemade merguez sausage, while Gail made a quick dish using store bought merguez.  Chef Colicchio's main message of the demo was for home cooks to learn how to butcher meat themselves to save money and have more flexibility.  

For a change of pace, I left the world of cooking demos and headed over to the spirit world.  The kind of spirits than can be reached with a cocktail shaker, not a Ouija board.  The mixologist Tony Abu-Ganim took us on a historical tour of drinks made with gin.  It was a fun romp through Ramos Gin Fizzes, Aviators and Corpse Revivers.  It was an entertaining presentation.  The cocktails certainly helped boost the amusement factor.

A few hours later, I made my way Matsushisa, Chef Nobu Matsuhisa's Aspen restaurant.  I was prepared for a nice dinner paired with some good Sakes.  I was not prepared for the food we actually ate.  Each course got increasingly wonderful.  Everyone at the table was simply agog as the great was improved upon.  We thought we reached the pinnacle with the black cod cooked with miso butter.  We were wrong.  The Kobe beef course that came next brought us to the summit.  Richly flavorful and tender as a mother's kiss.  It was hard to wrap our minds around the concept of ethereal beef, but chewing it was close to chewing air.

We all floated back to our hotels, buoyed by the culinary afterglow of  a truly supernatural meal.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Aspen Food and Wine Festival: So it Begins

I started the event out in an inauspicious way, waiting in the wrong line.  After correcting that minor error in judgement, due to a really bad night's sleep(or so I can keep telling myself), the event began in earnest.  the first demo I attended was by the Chef Thomas Keller.  His entrance into a room does not generate nervous energy, it produces a silent awe.  He demoed three recipes from his cook book "Ad Hoc at Home."  Well, the current chef at Ad Hoc in Yountville and an ex-sous chef from Ad Hoc did the demoing, Chef Keller handled the edification.  He reiterated some of his favorite themes: learn good techniques, get good tools, get great ingredients.  One really interesting topic he espoused on was the difference between seasoning and flavoring.  Seasoning enhances the flavors that the ingredients themselves have.  Salt and acid are the two main vehicles to achieve this.  If you can taste the salt and/or the acid you are no longer seasoning, you are flavoring.  Under this way of thinking pepper is never used in seasoning, only in flavoring.  He made sure to drive this point home in several humorous exchanges with the audience.

Next on the agenda was to enter the cornucopia of chaos, The Grand Tasting.  All I could say was wow and I am so glad my pass allowed me early access.  Walking past the blocks of eager foodies ready to snap their jaws shut on whatever in on offer,  I felt a wave of relief flow through my body.  I would have about 45 minutes to make my way around the tasting while it was much less crowded.  There was not much food on offer, but what was there was extraordinary.  One standout was Blackberry Farms from Tennessee.  The salumi made by Michael Sullivan was some of the best I have tasted.  The man is passionate about his craft and it was entirely evident in his products.

The Grand Tasting Tent was awash in a sea of wine.  There were enough areas, varietals, and styles available to keep an oenophile busy for weeks.  I did not have weeks, so I just headed to what looked the most interesting.  I was not disappointed as I discovered some new areas and producers to explore further.  I really like the wines from the Alto Adige,  an area in northern Italy.  Those will receive some further exploring when I get home.

Mario Batali was next on the list.  He cooked some relatively easy dishes from Linguria.  He is very entertaining to watch.  So entertaining in fact that you learn some great things without even noticing.  Mario loves to impart his demoes with the whys and hows of Italian food culture and philosophy. This background gives the audience deeper insight into the whys and hows of Italian cooking.

Morimoto wowed the audiences with his nearly supernatural knife skills.  Cutting paper thin slices of daikon radish or butchering a fish faster than you can tie your shoes resulted in the sounds of hundreds of jaws hitting the ground in unison.

The evening was capped off by an Italian dinner put on by Amex.  The food created by the chef had a hard time competing with the wines presented by Sergio Esposito of the Italian Wine Merchants.  Sergio's discussion of the wines became more, shall we say, spirited, as the night went on.  Don't know what could have caused that, there were only like 7 wines poured with dinner.

The excellent company at the table capped off a stellar night as I made my way back to my hotel.  Those four blocks seemed to have gotten longer during dinner.  

Friday, June 18, 2010

Aspen Food and Wine Festival: The Prelude

June in Aspen brings sun, wild flowers and most of the culinary world.  For the past 28 years people with a passion for cooking, wine making, food growing, or just eating and drinking have gathered in the rarified air of Aspen, CO.  Not rarified in the snooty sense, but rarified in the lack of oxygen at 8,000 feet sense.

The bulk of the program began today, but things got off to a great start last night.  Courtesy of American Express, I attended a meet and greet with Mario Batali.  We were able to taste food created from the recipes  in his latest cook book, while drinking some exquisite Italian wines.

The meet and greet segued into the official opening party featuring food stations manned by Top Chef favorites.  Jennifer, Eli and both Voltaggio brothers were dishing up dishes for the attendees.  I must say, their food was very inventive and ultimately toothsome.

I dragged my jet lagged and sleep deprived body home to get ready for the next days events.   Stay tuned...


Monday, June 14, 2010

BBQ, Burgoo and Bliss

One weekend a year, a change comes over Madison Square Park.  The question "What is that smell?" gets an answer you are delighted, not horrified, to hear.  The ubiquitous pale blue haze hanging invites a deep inhale,  not a call to the EPA.  Out of the cacophony of entwined conversations, you hear more than a few "Y'alls."  The annual Big Apple BBQ Block Party has arrived.  The country's best pit masters hold court for two days of bbq, burgoo and bliss.

I arrived early Saturday morning to take a quick reconnaissance tour around the park.  A crowd was already starting to form for the upcoming pork-a-palooza.  I made my way to Ed Mitchell's and joined the already growing queue.  The line moved quickly and I soon was dining on one of the greatest pleasures of porkdom.  I looked up and saw what I thought was a porcine induced hallucination.  There, clad in heavy rubber gloves, was Michael Pollan chopping pork into tiny pieces for Ed Mitchell.  Yes, the Michael Freakin' Omnivore Dilemma Pollan.  I had no idea of what to make of that, so I continued on my quest for low and slow cooked perfection.

I soon ran into my friend Kat who was busy working the Big Apple BBQ for work.  After a chance encounter with a friend of hers, we found ourselves immersed in  a wonderful conversation with Ed Mitchell.  Ed has hogs raised to his own standards to be used for his bbq.  The hogs are raised on pasture and given a high quality feed that Ed devised himself.  He works closely with several organizations concerned with the living conditions of farm animals.  The pork that Ed uses in his bbq has a superior taste to what is available commercially.  Mr. Mitchell believes that the better you treat the animal, the better the animal will treat you.  Now I know why Michael Pollan was up to his elbows in hog.  He was getting a hands on lesson in sustainably raised pork.

Most of the pit masters at the Big Apple BBQ served up the usual offerings.  Whole hogs, ribs, beef brisket and a sausage or two were the staples.  Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn from Kentucky was serving up more of a regional specialty, mutton.  Along with the mutton, they were serving another local Kentucky dish, burgoo.  I was snapping a few photos when I was ushered into their cooking area to get a full lesson on how they cook their mutton and how they prepare burgoo.  Burgoo is a thick soup of mutton and vegetables cooked for 6 hours, while being stirred every 15 minutes.  The restaurant freely gives away their recipe because so few people are willing to stand around and stir a pot for that long.  The mutton and burgoo were a nice counterpoint to the more usual being offered. a

While the consumption of bbq is the main attraction to the event, abundant other activities were there to keep one entertained while you digested your grub.  A full slate of seminars and cooking demos kept one's mind fed.  Beer and wine were ion tap to help wash down all that food.

The organizers of the event thoughtfully book many live music acts to help you dance off some of that food.  The two bands I watched on Saturday were incredible.  The first band was called Secret Country from Newark, NJ.  Newark is about as far away from rural as one could possibly get.  In fact, I just looked up rural in the dictionary and the definition was not Newark, NJ.  This probably helped form their unique style of playing.  Try to imagine the love child of Hank Williams Jr. and The Ramones.  Country music played with breakneck speed and a punk aesthetic.

The other artist I really enjoyed was Carolyn Wonderland from Austin, TX.  She possesses an incredible voice, amazing guitar chops, and a very droll sense of humor.  The audience wouldn't let her leave the stage.  She had to sing an a cappella number while the roadies set up the stage for the next band to keep the audience satisfied.

I always have a good time at this event, but I had an extraordinary time this year.  It could have been the bands.  The food certainly was great.  The icy sauvignon blanc provided a welcome respite from the heat.  But I think the moment that pushed this year to its apex  was when I asked Michael Pollan why he was working at Ed Mitchell's.  "I have to have a day job." was his reply as he want back to chopping.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

It's Been How Many Years Since I Graduated? Better Hand Me a Beer.

Saturday I had to grapple with a difficult concept, it's been 25 years since I graduated college.  Stevens Institute of Technology having untold empathy for its alumni, scheduled both a wine tasting and a beer seminar for Alumni Weekend to help them in their transition to dotage.

Last year's wine tasting left me a little parched, so I opted for the beer seminar to celebrate, make that mourn, the fact that it's been 25 years since I was a carefree frat boy.  Well, as carefree as 20 credits and a major league senior project regarding a dual crystal x-ray crystallography  examination of microplastic deformations in 440 stainless steel could be.

I so made the correct choice.  The audience and the presenters were in full on let's have fun mode.  The theme of the seminar was beer made in breweries that are at least as old as Stevens, 140 years.  The main presenter, Neil, was both informative and entertaining.  The host, Dave Manhas, kept everyone in a festive mood with his entertaining banter and his best game show host skills during the trivia question sections.

Everyone was getting into the seminar.  I'm not suggesting that the beer had acted as a social lubricant, but the audience participation did seem to pick up as the event progressed.  We did get to taste a gamut of beers from around the world, representing many of the styles that exist.  My two personal favorites were the Chimay Red and the double chocolate stout. Both were far cries from the usual mass produced domestic beers.  The double chocolate stout could possible recruit a whole new demographic to beer drinking with its chocolate and espresso flavors.

I left the seminar entertained, informed, and a bit relaxed.  I was also toting the new bottle opener I won by answering a trivia question.  If only my undergrad classes here were like this.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

Just a quick post to wish everyone a great Memorial Day.  Amidst the beer, burgers and barbecuing, just take a moment to reflect on the reason for the day.

That being said, here's the first rib porn of the season:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Same Sparkle, Less Lira

I love Champagne.  I would drink it to celebrate the start of the evening news.  Realizing an exciting fact like it was Tuesday, I would send corks flying. I would brush my teeth with it.  I would dab it on as after shave.   I have often and loudly declared my never ending love to it.  Champagne is intrinsicly perfect except for one issue, it is a bit pricey.  Luckily, like the beautiful ugly person in romantic comedies, there is a more accessible hottie.  When the sparkling wine urge hits hard, but the cash reserves are light, there is Prosecco.

Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine made from the eponymous grape.  The wine,  mainly produced in the Veneto region, may date all the way back to Roman times. However, Prosecco did not see much US importation until 2000.  Once it landed on these shores, Prosecco's  popularity took off faster than a flying cork.

Sparkling wine can be produced using a variety of methods.  Prosecco is made using what is known as the Charmat method.  This process is less expensive than the  traditional method that true Champagnes must use.  Sparkling wine needs to undergo a secondary fermentation.  This is what produces the sparkles in the sparkling wine.  No bubbles, no bubbly.  In a true French Champagne, the secondary fermentation must take place in the bottle.  Each bottle of wine needs to have yeast and some form of sugar added to it.  It is then capped with a standard bottle cap like you find on a beer.  The yeast feasts on the sugar producing the gas to form the bubbles.  In a Prosecco, they just dump the still wine into large tanks with sugar and yeast to undergo the secondary fermentation.  This bulk process is much less expensive than doing it bottle by bottle.  Once the secondary fermentation is complete, the sparkling wine is bottled and rushed to market.  Prosecco waits for no one, it is best enjoyed as fresh as possible.

So, what does this stuff taste like?  It has a nice bright, brisk taste, with  fruit flavors front and center.  Prosecco lacks the bready, biscuity, yeasty flavors that a Champagne has.  While Prosecco does not clone the Champagne taste experience, its own unique flavor is highly enjoyable.  Prosecco is most often enjoyed as an aperitif, but I find it quite food friendly.  The acidy and the carbonation make it a perfect accompaniment to fried foods.

I know, I got you all excited by Prosecco and you are just waiting to be let down. You are expecting me to tell you this stuff is a bargain at $30 a pop.  No fears there, Prosecco is a steal.   You will be hard pressed to find one retailing for more than $20.  The majority are under $15 a bottle.  The nice pink one in the above photo was $10.99.

When the mood to celebrate hits and you wallet has more cobwebs than cash, you now know what to do.  Pick up that bottle of Prosecco, pop the cork, and you won't miss the Cristal.  Well, you may miss it a little, but think of all the bling you can buy with your savings.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Schramsberg Sparkling Wine

The open door let out a rush of cold air, drawing us in surer than any siren's song.  The AC slowly cooled our heat addled brains into rational thought and we began to notice the photos on the wall.  Nixon, Brezhnev, Carter, Princess Di all smiled back at us, glass in hand, toasting.  What filled these glasses besides history?  It was Schramsberg sparkling wine.

Schramsberg's history is impossible to separate from that of Napa Valley's.  In the nascent years of wine making in the area, Schramsberg was there.  The property first produced wines in the 1860's under the leadership of barber/wine maker/German immigrant Jacob Schram.  Some one hundred years later, the Davies bought the rundown property, started making sparkling wines and started making history.

Keeping a sharp eye out for the turn, you leave the heavily traveled Route 29 and head uphill and though the woods.  Grandma isn't there to great you at the top, but the statue of a very happy frog, "Riddlers Night Off", is.  You enter the mercifully air conditioned waiting room and the adventure begins.

A knowledgeable tour guide led us out of the reception area into the caves.  These are honest to goodness, "Be quite, sparkling wine sleeping", caves.  Dark, cool, moss hanging off the wall caves.  Caves filled with thousands of bottles of sparkling wines awaiting their time to shine.

The one thing that really stood out about Schramsberg is that they riddle they're bottles by hand.  In this day of automation, Schramsberg still has a man turn the bottles by hand, slightly angling them up, until all the sediment migrates to the neck of the bottle.  The neck is then frozen and the bottle opened, the frozen plug of dead yeast flying out, leaving the crystal clear sparkling wine behind.  I've met the riddler, and he looks at least 20 years younger than his 62 years.  Maybe there is a new fitness class in here.  Spend an hour turning bottles in a rack then rehydrate with sparkling wine.  I thing that class may be a winner.

Real caves, world leaders and hand riddling does not exactly spell out a recipe for a bargain wine.  The flagship vintage sparkling wines do command a premium price.  A sip or two confirms that this was money well spent.  They also offer non-vintage sparkling wines under $25 for those less important celebrations like say, Tuesday.

In this era of endless self promotion, Schramsberg has quietly been producing some of this country's best sparkling wines.  A visit to the winery is one of Napa's true must do activities.  Who knows, if that political career of yours pans out, it may be your inauguration photo on the wall.

If you do plan on going, you must  reserve a tour time.  The tour costs $40 but I must say is worth it.  You can get all the tour related information at: