Thursday, December 21, 2006

Don't Buy Pre-Cut, Pre-Marinated Meat

If you want to make a stew, or kebabs, or a stir fry, don't buy pre-cut meat. Yes, it's convenient, but you'll be sacrificing both quality (meat surfaces deteriorate when exposed to oxygen) and control ("stew meat" is meaningless - you want to pick the specific cut that is best for what you're trying to make). You'll be paying much more for about 1 minute of cutting and a little bit of cleaning. So don't buy pre-cut meat. Just don't.

If you want to marinate your meat before cooking, don't buy pre-marinated meat from the supermarket. Yes, it's convenient, but you'll again be sacrificing both quality and control in your final dish. Moreover, you'll basically be buying water at several dollars per pound. Why's that, you ask? Well, some retailers use a "vaccum tumbler" to infuse the meat with whatever spices and liquids they include in the marinade. Then they charge you several dollars more per pound for the convenience of meat soaked in flavored water. So, for the same meat quantity, you pay extra per pound of meat for the "convenience" and then you have to buy the marinade back at the same price as the meat. Instead, make your marinade from scratch in five minutes, then put meat+marinade in a plastic bag in the fridge and let it soak up the flavor for as long as needed.

See this video, from the Ontario Pork Producers Marketing Board series on "value-added cutting", for all the inside details on the retailer's strategy. Direct quote: "I can tell you that by vacuum tumbling, you can expect a [weight] pick-up of anywhere from 10 to 20%. That means great money for your bottom line. In fact, you can expect in excess of 50% profit when you produce your [pork] in the fashion that I've shown you here today."

I prefer not to hand over my hard-earned money directly into the retailer's pocket. Thus I shop where my profit (e.g. my "consumer surplus", the difference between the value I get and what I pay) is maximized and the retailer's profit is minimized.

UPDATE: Consumerist links here, and posts the pork videos on YouTube:

Friday, December 08, 2006

Friday Food Politics: The Economist vs. Ethical Food Edition

The Economist has a major article this week on why "Ethical Food" may not deliver all that is promised. Definitely read the whole thing, but I'll summarize the key arguments:

1. Organic farming uses less fertilizers and pesticides, but uses more land because it is less efficient. This could lead to increased deforestation if adopted on a global scale. Organic farming also is more labor intensive, thus may not save very much energy overall. I'm not sure the question of which type of farming is least harmful can be answered scientifically, but it's interesting to think about the side-effects of seemingly well-intentioned food choices.

2. "Fairtrade" products offer a price-premium to certified producers, but the Economist argues that this merely perpetuates the problem of commodity overproduction through the Fairtrade subsidy. I've never sought out Fairtrade products, and am much closer to believing that "Free Trade is Fair Trade". But I do like the advocacy work of the Rainforest Alliance, which provides advice, credit, and marketing help to producers and workers, not permanent subsidy.

3. Local food isn't as great as it seems, particularly when it comes to "food miles", much as I wrote about earlier. The Economist tries to highlight a few cases where local food isn't as fresh and delicious as long-distance food, but the evidence is scant. I choose to eat local food because of its quality, but perhaps this is just a privilege of living in California.

I really like one of the conclusions of the article: "Local sourcing coupled with supermarkets' efficient logistics may yet prove to be the greenest way to move food around." Whole Foods is trying to do this more and more. I've even heard that Sysco, the foodservice giant, might be able to use its inventory and distribution software to integrate very small producers into their supply chains. This is perhaps a food industry example of the Long Tail, and is certainly an instance where technology can be leveraged to good ends.

Friday Food Politics: Food Miles Is A Crock Edition

A very interesting discussion on eGullet titled "Food Miles is a Crock".

Key quote: "Assume that the typical surburban family drives a 25 Miles Per Gallon vehicle, lives 2.5 miles from their nearest supermarket and buys 20 pounds of groceries in the average shopping trip...You could move that 20 pounds of groceries exactly halfway around the world by ship for the same amount of fuel as it takes for you to go to the store and back."

The conclusion: "Now, does this on the face of it means that eating locally is crap? Of course not, all of the previous reasons to do with freshness, seasonality and supporting local farmers are still valid."

I made a similar argument, that advocacy to "eat local" is primarily aesthetic rather than environmental, in this post.

(Hat-tip to Megnut.)

Friday Food Politics: New York City vs. Trans Fats, Final Edition

So New York City has finally banned trans fats. A reader asks for my opinion on this legislation. Two thoughts:

1. Why not ban all trans fats served in restaurants? Under the new law, a restaurant can still serve a bag of pre-packaged chips with trans fats but can't fry their own chips in oil containing trans fats. I understand the importance of pragmatism in politics, but this seems simply hypocritical to me. A trans fat eaten in a restaurant is the same no matter what the source, pre-packaged or not. If the concern is that a consumer might not know that the fried or baked goods served in a restaurant contain trans fats, then require labeling, just like is required on packaged products. Anything else is hypocritical.

2. I'm opposed to all food bans that are meant to protect individuals from themselves. This is the foundation of my beliefs on these food politics issues, and is based on my own moral and political values regarding individual freedom. Where does it stop? If we can't have one gram of trans fat b/c it is so bad for us, what's next? I'm not a health scientist, but my intuition is that a few grams of trans fat can't be nearly as bad as tens of grams of saturated fat, so will they ban rib-eye steaks next? What about chicken-fried bacon?

The Center for Consumer Freedom, which is funded by Big Food, put up an ad suggesting that pizza, hot dogs, corned beef, and coffee are next. Yes, it's hyperbole, but the principle is correct. A ban on any unhealthy food can be justified using exactly the same reasoning that the New York Board of Health has used in this case. And despite my reservations about advocacy funded by agribusiness, I'll support the Center for Consumer Freedom much more readily than the the "scientific" busybodies at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

For a hilarious take on all these issues, but with a real nuanced political message, I highly recommend Thank You For Smoking.

Addendum: The bad qualities of trans fats are well-known (raises bad cholesterol, lowers good cholesterol), but the positive culinary qualities are less well known. Partially-hydrogenated oils (which is where most of the trans fats we consume come from) are inexpensive, have a long-shelf life, are solid at room temperature (= good for shelf stability), don't break down in a hot fryer, and make for exceptionally flaky pie crusts and biscuits. Do note that most of these qualities are also true of animal fats, such as lard, but that restaurants and industry switched to hydrogenated oils b/c of the health risks of saturated fats. Shucks.

Friday Food Politics: McDonald's vs. Chinese Culture Edition

My favorite food podcast is Good Food by KCRW. This week's was great, with commentary by food science guru Harold McGee on "meat glue", but I found the interview with Harvard anthropology professor James L. Watson especially interesting.

Watson is the author of Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia, which has just come out in a second edition almost ten years after it's initial publication. I had never heard of Watson or the book before, but his thesis is counter to the conventional wisdom on the influence of corporate globalization on local food cultures.

Watson suggests that the "culture imperialism hypothesis" is mostly incorrect, and that corporations do not simply replace local food and local culture with sanitized global cuisine. The Chinese visiting McDonald's are not "puppets" of corporate power, but have their own agendas for eating there. Watson argues that McDonald's is more the "caboose" than the "locomotive" in the globalization happening in China. The transformation from a traditional society to one with a large, consumer-driven middle-class is not due to the growth of McDonald's in East Asia. On the contrary, McDonald's growth in East Asia is made possible by the transformation that precedes its entry. He offers the perspective of those on the ground experiencing rapid change first-hand, rather than the perspective of distant observers with pre-conceived notions about how traditional cultures should evolve.

Listen to the whole thing here, or pick up Watson's book.

Friday, December 01, 2006

How to access expired website content from America's Test Kitchen

UPDATE: America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated have updated their websites, so this trick no longer works. I very much encourage everyone out there to get a subscription to Cook's Illustrated or - it's well worth it...

Just discovered a way to access all the expired content on the America's Test Kitchen website.

Click here for this old review of chef's knives.

Didn't work huh? You should have ended up at, with message saying "Expired Content".

Now try this link. (If you're not already registered on the website, you can type in and hit submit to get through the registration.)

It worked, right?

Here's the trick:

  • 1. Right click on any expired link on the site. Copy it.

  • 2. Paste the link into your browser address bar.

  • 3a. If the link includes this sequence at the end, "&iSeason=", change the number after the equals sign to a 6 so that it reads, "&iSeason=6".

  • 3b. Or simply add "&iSeason=6" to the end of the url if nothing is there.

  • 4. Type in your e-mail (or to get through the registration, and there you have it, all the America's Test Kitchen content you could ever want.
Just another quick tip from the Frugal Foodie...

UPDATE: I posted this tip at Chowhound and eGullet earlier today, but both posts were removed by administrators. This may be more controversial than I initially thought.

To clarify: I don't advocate doing anything illegal to access restricted content on the internet. I don't believe this work-around is illegal, so please follow your own conscience in using it. I'm a big fan of America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated, and certainly don't want to harm their business. I may just go ahead and alert them to this gap in their security myself. Thoughts from any visitors on the ethics of this would be appreciated...

Friday Food Politics: Cities vs. Trans Fats Edition

New York trans fat ban expected to pass.

Louisville Official Seeks Trans Fat Ban

Those who've been following my Friday Food Politics series can guess my opinion...

Friday Food Politics: Virginia Postrel vs. The Conventional Wisdom Edition

Chains do more than bargain down prices from suppliers or divide fixed costs across a lot of units. They rapidly spread economic discovery—the scarce and costly knowledge of what retail concepts and operational innovations actually work. That knowledge can be gained only through the expensive and time-consuming process of trial and error. Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals. Chains make a large range of choices available in more places. They increase local variety, even as they reduce the differences from place to place. People who mostly stay put get to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain.
That's Virginia Postrel, in an Atlantic Monthly essay titled, "In Praise of Chain Stores: They aren’t destroying local flavor—they’re providing variety and comfort". Read the whole thing before it goes behind the subscription wall.

My chain restaurant philosophy is similar to my general restaurant philosophy. Few restaurants are good at everything, but many restaurants are good at something. Seek out those good things, and enjoy.

A list of chain restaurants.

A few chains I like: In-N-Out Burger, Chipotle, Ruth's Chris, Krispy Kreme, White Castle

A few chains that are passable: Panera, Cheesecake Factory, Wendy's (the frosty!), McDonald's (the fries!), Starbucks, Benihana (great birthday memories as a kid)

A few chains that suck: Olive Garden, Denny's (just ate at one for the first time a few weeks back, even the average New Jersey diner is 10x better), Ruby Tuesday's (worst burger of my life), Red Lobster

Friday Food Politics: NYC vs. Cured Meats Edition

If I really am dedicated to cooking by the seasons and supporting local agriculture, I thought, now would be the obvious time to buy a whole pig. Ideally, I would break it down into primal cuts, put the hams in salt for the next month, and then hang them at room temperature for two years, allowing them to slowly dry into prosciutto. And why not grind up the dark, fatty shoulders with salt, pepper and juniper, stuff the mixture into casings, and then leave the sausages in a cool room for six weeks to naturally ferment, developing delicious, tangy porcine flavors?

I can’t, because the United States Department of Agriculture and the local health departments do not allow commercial processing of meat without refrigeration.
What we need is to invert the logic now applied to meat safety. Rather than apply refrigeration standards to an ancient and safe method of preservation, we need an alternative set of standards that take into account what salting and drying can do to discourage the growth of bacteria. Federal and local health officials should recognize artisanal methods as an alternative to refrigeration.
That's Chef Peter Hoffman of Savoy in NYC, writing in the New York Times.

Authorities treat food safety like it is a positive problem, with an answer determinable through science. But food safety is a normative problem, with an answer determinable only through value judgments. What does it mean for a food to be safe enough to eat? Safe enough for an infant? For the elderly? One way out of this conundrum is to leave food safety decisions to individuals themselves.

I quote Bourdain: "Food that’s too safe, too pasteurised, too healthy – it’s bad! There should be some risk, like unpasteurised cheese." So say we all.

For those interested in one approach towards rulemaking in a free society, read Virginia Postrel's book, The Future and Its Enemies. From an excerpt in Reason Magazine:

There are many dynamic systems in the world, many areas of life that evolve and improve through trial-and-error learning, from "digital organisms" that evolve better computer programs to global financial markets, from adaptable architecture to international science. Looking across these various processes, we can find patterns in their fundamental rules, though we can fully apply those patterns to a specific case only when we understand that particular system. Here we can only begin the exploration by laying out some general principles. As an overview, dynamist rules:

  • allow individuals (including groups of individuals) to act on their own knowledge;

  • apply to simple, generic units and allow them to combine in many different ways;

  • permit credible, understandable, enduring, and enforceable commitments;

  • protect criticism, competition, and feedback;

  • establish a framework within which people can create nested, competing frameworks of more-specific rules.
Hat tip to Michael Ruhlman.

Friday Food Politics: Fisherman vs. Crabs Edition

In the past, fishing families have gone on strike, basically stopping the commercial fishery, to try to prevent the large northern boats from dominating the central California catch. The industrial boats snap up nearly all the crab at the beginning of the season, selling them at rock bottom prices to processors who freeze them.

The cooked crab and picked crabmeat available in retail markets often comes from these crabs that are processed at the beginning of the season. Small crabbing families cannot compete in this scenario.

Consumers also suffer. Such a crab season offers a bumper crop of cheap crab at the beginning, and small and poor-quality crab the rest of the season. A solution, such as limiting the number of pots lowered per boat, has yet to be hashed out by wholesalers, fishing families and regulatory agencies.
That's from an article in last week's SF Chronicle. Read the whole thing for helpful advice on how to shop from local fishermen.

Would IFQ's (Individual Fishing Quotas) help solve the problem? In general, I think regulators should focus on the environmental harms and let technologies, such as boat size, be worked out freely between suppliers and consumers. I like small fishing families and fishing towns, and I'll spend my money to support them. But protectionism just ain't right.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Buy This Cookware Set: Kirkland Signature 14-Piece Hard Anodized Cookware Set

While the most important thing you can do to improve your cooking is to buy a better knife, the second most important thing is almost certainly to buy better cookware. If you've only cooked with cheap, thin pots and pans before, you'll be amazed how much easier things are when you have a couple of sturdy pots and pans to work with. Your onions won't burn anymore and your eggs will cook evenly. Your pans won't warp until they're curvier than Scarlett Johansson. In short, good cookware makes good cooking much easier. You need some.

Two caveats before I offer my recommendation:

1. I'm assuming you currently have no adequate pieces of cookware. Maybe you're in your first apartment after college and have never bought cookware before or you own a cheap set that is now fit only for the scrap heap. If you do own some decent cookware, you're probably best off filling in the gaps in your collection with individual items rather than a whole set.

2. You plan on cooking at least some serious, multi-component recipes, or at some point you plan on having more than a few people over for dinner. If so, you'll appreciate having a lot of cookware, and a set may be right for you. If not, you're probably best off just getting a big pot, a small pot, a big pan, and a small pan.

On to my recommendation...

I love Costco. Probably not as much as I love Trader Joe's, but still quite a lot. The best purchase I've made at Costco (and maybe the best purchase I've ever made anywhere) is this cookware set: the Kirkland Signature 14-Piece Hard Anodized Cookware Set.

I agonized over this cookware decision. I knew I wanted a set, but with a limited budget most of the recommended cookware by All-Clad or Calphalon was way out of my price range. I also considered this Wolfgang Puck set, but had concerns about the durability of the disc bottom.

Thus I went for the Kirkland Signature, and I couldn't really be happier. You can follow the link for all the details on what's included, but the most important thing is that the whole set only costs $150. The direct comparison is this Calphalon set for almost $600, and that one doesn't even include as many pieces. I would honestly recommend to someone that they pay the $50 Costco membership just to buy this cookware set. It's even a Consumer Reports best buy.

Kirkland Signature is Costco's house label, which means that you're paying much less of a markup. The cookware is made of anodized aluminum, which is great because aluminum is almost as good as copper in terms of conductivity (higher conductivity means the pan heats evenly). Regular aluminum reacts with acidic food (which is why cookware is often lined with non-reactive stainless steel), but anodized aluminum has been treated with electrolysis to form a corrosion and stain resistant surface layer of aluminum oxide.

The only caveat is that the cookware is "non-stick", meaning that a non-stick coating has been bonded to the surface. Why is non-stick less desirable? For one thing, non-stick is less durable, and won't last long if you don't treat it well. I treat my cookware well, only using non-metal utensils and washing by hand with non-abrasive sponges. After over a year of hard use, my cookware set is still in great condition. I expect the set to last many years more, which is almost unheard of for non-stick cookware. And Costco has a 100% customer satisfaction return policy, so if the set breaks down too quickly you can always return or exchange it.

The other problem with non-stick is that food doesn't brown very well in the pan. Browning means flavor (see "maillard reaction"), so cooking with non-stick can mean less flavor when you make pan sauces or braising liquids by deglazing the fond (the brown bits) that has built up in the pan while cooking meats or vegetables. Saying all that, the Costco set browns better than other non-stick pieces I've used. Plus, non-stick pans are really easy to clean, which is a huge bonus when you have no dishwasher and do everything by hand, like I do.

So buy the Kirkland Signature 14-Piece Hard Anodized Cookware Set. Your friends will never guess how great a deal you got on those gorgeous pots and pans when they're gorging themselves at your dinner parties.

UPDATE (12/13/06): The set is no longer available on I would suggest checking your local Costco to see if it is in stock, or buying a set off of eBay.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Importance Of Warehouse Clubs

I thought I'd take a cue from the cookbooks of Thomas Keller and write a series about the things (stores, ingredients, techniques, people, etc.) that are essential to eating well on the cheap. My first post in "The Importance Of ..." series follows.

Ah, the warehouse club. That land of 5 gallon mayonnaise jars, 200-roll packs of toilet paper, and row upon row of products that seem best-suited for those with nine children of large appetite. But the modern warehouse club offers more than bulk size products, and I believe that a membership (even though it costs $40-50/year) is an important addition to a frugal foodie's life.

What do I buy at the warehouse club? Household goods like paper towels, toilet paper, soap, and laundry detergent are probably the most common items. But I've also bought cookbooks, clothing, and electronics, all at great prices compared to online stores or even discount stores like Wal-Mart or Target.

As for food products, there are a few things I buy regularly. Frozen chicken breasts and thighs are one, and frozen salmon fillets another. Both are great to have on hand for quick weeknight meals. I don't think you can find a better price on Parmigiano Reggiano anywhere. Soda is a great deal, particularly for those of who need Diet Coke in their veins to survive. I don't often buy huge packs of fresh meat or giant packs of canned goods, but I would definitely do so if I had a bigger family or threw large dinner parties using relatively expensive cuts of meat.

My favorite warehouse club purchase was a cookware set from Costco, a review of which I will be posting shortly. I've also stocked my kitchen with a Rubbermaid Stain Shield storage container set that has is sadly no longer available from Costco.

Costco and Sam's Club both have 100% Satisfaction Guaranteed return policies. In theory that means you can return anything you've ever purchased for any reason, but returns are at the discretion of the manager, particularly if you're trying to return something purchased a long time ago. I can report that last week I returned to Costco a broken year-old DVD player for a full refund. That alone was worth my $50 membership. So if you're buying items that might break within a year or two, such as kitchen appliances or electronics, a warehouse club is your best bet. There's no need to waste your money on an extended warranty. Even better, you can buy food and drink items without fear that you'll be getting something you don't like. If it tastes terrible, just return it.

Warehouse clubs are important. You can get high-quality products at dollar-store prices, particularly if you know how to spot a great value. I don't buy everything at a warehouse club, but the things I do buy there are a better value than I can get anywhere else.

Note: I've belonged to both Costco and Sam's Club, and I must say I'm partial to Costco. If I didn't have a Costco nearby, I'd join a Sam's Club. But given the choice, I'd choose Costco. The product selection is better suited to my slightly upscale tastes. (Example: Costco sells Heinz ketchup, Sam's Club sells Hunt's.) The meat and produce are of higher quality. The gourmet foods selection is greater. The employees at Costco are better paid. (Is this why the employees are more productive in checkout and more helpful with customer service?) My parents belong to a BJ's in Long Island, but I've never shopped there. BJ's appears to only have a 30-day return policy, which may be a deal killer for some.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Friday Food Politics: San Francisco vs. Restaurants Edition

Is San Francisco killing restaurants? That's what Michael Bauer (SF Chronicle food critic) asks over at his blog, Between Meals. His evidence:

  • "Candle" tax: $200 a year
  • Propane tax: $146
  • Tent tax: $146
  • Restaurant license, S.F.: $951
  • Valet license: $244
  • Place of Entertainment tax: $352
  • San Francisco license renewal: $758 (an ongoing charge after a restaurant purchases the permit, which can range from $28,000 to $60,000 or more)
  • SF Minimum Wage Ordinance
  • In the latest election, a measure passed that requires restaurants and other small business to provide 8 to 9 days of sick leave a year
  • The Board of Supervisors is about to implement universal health care, which will cost around $120,000 to to cover 80 employees
Is a libertarian chef (or restaurateur) born with every new regulation? Let's just hope San Francisco dining doesn't follow France down the hole.

On a positive note, excessive regulation in SF likely means better food in the rest of the Bay Area. Although I would expect this effect to be most predominant in inexpensive restaurants, the most recent Michelin guide may hold some evidence.

Three Stars: French Laundry (Napa)
Two Stars: Aqua (SF), Cyrus (Russian River Valley), Manresa (South Bay), Michael Mina (SF)

So only two of the top five Michelin-rated restaurants are in San Francisco. Not definitive, but certainly interesting.

UPDATE: San Fran chef's are already raising their prices. More commentary at Chow.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

10 Steps To A Frugal Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the ultimate frugal holiday. No expensive presents. No fancy decorating. Just quality time with the family and a delicious home-cooked meal. And the meal does NOT need to be expensive or time-consuming. Thanksgiving is mostly about the side-dishes, and side-dishes are often inexpensive. Even the meat course is not too bad, with high-quality turkeys going for only about two or three bucks a pound.

But keep it simple. There's no need to make complicated dishes with expensive ingredients. Just make simple, classic recipes. If you do it with a little finesse, it will be the best Thanksgiving you've ever had.

A Few Days Beforehand

1. Buy a good quality turkey. Time is money, and you don't want to have to spend time brining a bland supermarket bird just so that it is juicy and tasty. If you're in California, I'd recommend a Diestel brand turkey (found at Whole Foods among other places). The turkey will have been treated nicely during its life (no factory farms), and will taste better than a Butterball that has been injected with flavored salt water (so-called self-basting). Go for 1 to 1.5 pounds of turkey per person. Stick with the upper end if you want a lot of leftovers.

Can Be Done Ahead of Time

2. Make a simple fall soup. Try carrot-ginger or butternut squash.

3. Make dessert. Try a pumpkin or apple pie. Or a pumpkin cheesecake. Even just cookies and ice cream would be simple, delicious, and inexpensive.

4. Make cranberry sauce. The canned cranberry jelly is somehow retro and delicious, but a cranberry-orange relish is incredibly easy to make and tastes awesome. Last year we served both the canned and the homemade.

On Turkey Day

5. Cook the turkey simply. There's a lot of extra things you could do if you want the perfect turkey (such as brining, e.g. this SF Chronicle recipe), but buying a good turkey and cooking it to the right temperature is probably good enough. Try these high-heat, quick-cooking time recipes from Epicurious or Safeway. Temperature matters, so Thanksgiving is a good opportunity to pick up an "instant-read" thermometer. I've had pretty good luck with the Taylor model.

6. Potatoes are cheap. Mash them. Last year I enjoyed mashed potatoes with sage and white cheddar cheese.

7. Make stuffing (more properly called dressing b/c it's cooked outside the bird). Bittmann has a feature today on simple stuffings. For something more substantial (but more expensive) try cornbread-sausage stuffing.

8. Make another vegetable side dish. Try creamed leeks. Or make something lighter, like green beans with ginger butter.

9. Remove and rest turkey, heat up side dishes, and make gravy. The Epicurious turkey recipe cited above has a simple version. Alton Brown's scientific explanation plus from-scratch version here.

10. Serve and enjoy!

UPDATE: Other Thanksgiving advice for those on a budget from About. Even more advice here, here, here, and here.

Carrot-Ginger Soup

+ + =

This is my first recipe post, just in time for Thanksgiving. If you go to a market with good prices, you should be able to make this recipe for about $2.50. Enjoy!

Carrot-Ginger Soup (serves 8)
Originally from "Recipes From A Very Small Island" by Linda Greenlaw and Martha Greenlaw

6 Tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
2 pounds carrots, peeled and thinly sliced or grated (I run the carrots through the shredder on my food processor)
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger (use a little more if you want a stronger ginger flavor)
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
4-5 cups homemade chicken stock or the low-sodium canned/boxed version (the Trader Joe's organic free-range version is good and cheap)
1 cup half-and-half
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup minced flat-leaf parsley

1. In a large, heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the carrots, onions, and a few pinches of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften.
2. Add the ginger, orange zest, and coriander. Add 2 cups of the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low so that the stock simmers. Cover, and cook gently for about 30 minutes, or until the carrots are very tender.
3. Transfer the soup to a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. You may have to do this in batches. Return the pureed soup to the pan.
4. Add the remaining chicken stock and the half-and-half to the soup until brought to desired consistency. (I like it pretty thick). Heat through over medium heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
5. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately. (You also could refrigerate for a few days or freeze for a few weeks.)

(Not So) Great Moments in Iron Chef History

From the Iron Chef America special this past weekend, which pitted Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis against Mario Batali and Rachael Ray in a cranberry battle:

1. Rachael saying: "Being surrounded by real chefs, when you're not one, it really does build a lot of tension." I respect her honesty and humility, but god that was funny. I loved how Mario made her stir a pot for half the contest.

2. Giada using pre-made pasta dough. Did they never make pasta from scratch in her family? Maybe that's why the ravioli weren't so well received.

3. Rachael using pre-made hot and sweet sausage. This is Iron Chef honey, not a Wegman's demonstration. Throw the pork and the seasonings in the food processor and teach the ladies at home how the stuff actually gets made.

Two other observations:
-- Does Giada have the largest head to body size ratio of any person on the planet? I worry she's going to fall over sometimes.
-- At what point does Mario Batali's seemingly ever-expanding abdomen affect what's on the stove? Does his gut ever knock over pots or catch on fire? He might have Fernand Point beat.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Tuesday Food Politics: Panera vs. Burrito Edition

This is a special Tuesday edition of Food Politics...

Is a burrito a sandwich? A judge in Massachusetts says no.

The gist: Mall has contract guarantee with Panera that no sandwich shops will compete. Panera thinks new burrito shop counts as a sandwich shop, sues, but judge disagrees, stating that, "A sandwich is not commonly understood to include burritos, tacos and quesadillas, which are typically made with a single tortilla and stuffed with a choice filling of meat, rice, and beans."

A few thoughts:

1. Do I have a problem with the ruling? No. It's Panera's fault for not being more specific in their initial contract. And a burrito really isn't a sandwich.

2. Is this kind of contract anti-competitive? Yes. Does that mean it should be illegal? No. Food is a competitive market, and Panera doesn't even have a food monopoly in the mall, just a sandwich monopoly. This doesn't rise to the level of an anti-trust violation, but as Greg Mankiw points out, this is a good example of businesses trying to impede competition. Pro-free-market doesn't always mean pro-business.

3. What's the larger point here? Food definitions matter. But they often defy common sense, particularly when the government gets involved. In Florida, Uglyripe tomatoes can't be exported in the winter because they're not round. In the UK, a chocolate-covered Jaffa Cake is taxed if it's a biscuit (= cookie this side of the pond) but not taxed if it's a cake. What counts as "fast food" to those trying to restrict what establishments can be near schools? Panera? Chipotle?

4. Does the Platonic ideal of a sandwich exist? This armchair philosopher says no. One trend (some would say fad) in fine-dining is the deconstruction of classic preparations into pure components that are often transformed or reinterpreted. What would a judge think of the tomato and corn "salad" I had at Manresa for my birthday last month? There was certainly no lettuce, and in fact the whole dish was liquid except for two small tomatoes. It is simply impossible to define a static boundary between sandwich/not sandwich or salad/not salad. In fact, some of the most interesting cuisine plays with our perceptions of those bounds.

5. What's the solution? Leave the food decisions to the chefs and the diners, not to the bureaucrats. There's no reason for Florida or the FTC to be deciding what is and what isn't a tomato. If consumers want to buy the Uglyripe, they'll buy it. If they want their tomatoes round and red, they'll buy them round and red. While this hands-off approach won't work in every case (Panera vs. Burrito being one), it should certainly be the default.

But that's just one freedom-loving frugal foodie's opinion...

Hat tip: megnut and Greg Mankiw.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Friday Food Politics: Are Chefs More Likely to be Libertarians?

Note: I wrote the following last May for a now-stalled blogging project. I thought I'd repost it here as part of my Friday Food Politics series.

In 2004 California passed a law banning the production and sale of foie gras by 2012.

"I hope I'm retired by 2012," said Thomas Keller, owner of the French Laundry in the Napa Valley and Per Se in Manhattan, who believes the government should not tell people what to eat. "If force-feeding a duck is cruel, then packing chickens in a cage is cruel, and then the veal and the beef. We are all going to be vegetarians soon if they have their way. We should probably start converting now."

Mr. Keller might have been joking, but animal activists are not. Their opposition to the force-feeding of ducks and geese is just the beginning of a campaign against what they consider inhumane farm practices.
Charlie Trotter, who stopped serving foie gras in his eponymous restaurant five years ago because he did not like what he had seen on several foie gras farms, said he is not an animal rights activist but is opposed to interference from the government.

"When I took foie gras off the menu I was not trying to make a political statement," he said. "I am certainly not gleeful about this. I am very much a libertarian." And he added: "I don't think government should tell people not to smoke in restaurants."
From Wednesday's New York Times.

I can think of two reasons why chefs are more likely to be libertarians:

1. Chefs, and in particular the best ones like Trotter and Keller, are basically in the hedonism business. With many on the right and the left calling for greater regulation of personal choice, a chef might feel that his livelihood is threatened and identify with those that defend personal freedom. Libertarians are on the forefront of that battle.

2. Chefs and restaurateurs must deal with government regulations that are often ineffective and arbitrarily enforced. See for example, this article on New York City's crackdown on sous-vide, a technique where food is cooked very slowly under vacuum to create incredibly tender and flavorful results. The chef's think they're doing it safely, but since the local authority has no specific rules for the procedure, chefs like David Chang have had to destroy thousands of dollars worth of food at the order of the city inspectors. (David Chang is a friend of my cousin's, and I've eaten at his restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, in New York City. It's really damn good.)

Does the best cuisine develop in areas with the least regulation? A large grant to do some field research to answer that question would be nice.

Update: The blog (Marginal Revolution) and blogger (Tyler Cowen) I seem to reference more than any other has had two posts that go some way towards answering my last question. See here for reasons why lax regulations help the barbecue in Lockhart, Texas be arguably the best in the country. See here for the effects that labor market regulations and taxes are having on French cuisine.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Buy This Knife: Forschner Victorinox Fibrox 8 inch Chef's Knife

What's the most important thing you can do to improve your cooking? Buy a better knife.

What's the second most important thing? Buy a better knife.

I learned this lesson the hard way. When I first moved out of the college dorms and into a real apartment I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what cookware would give me the best bang for my buck. I made an awesome decision on the cookware front (more on that later...), but didn't put much thought into the knife purchase. I bought this set by Chicago Cutlery, thinking I was getting a lot of knives for my dollars. But they weren't sharp, they bent when I cut through anything substantial, and I used the main chef's knife 95% of the time, leaving the others in the block.

I should have known better. I'd read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, where he says: "No con foisted on the general public is so atrocious, so wrong-headed, or so widely believed as the one that tells you you need a full set of specialized cutlery in various sizes." So Tony (if you somehow miraculously ever end up on this site), you were right, I was wrong, and I'm sorry.

Admitting my mistake, I did some research to find the best inexpensive chef's knife, and came upon the Forschner Victorinox Fibrox Chef’s Knife.

This knife comes highly recommended by America's Test Kitchen:

One tester summed it up: “Premium-quality knife at a bargain price.” Knives costing four times as much would be hard pressed to match its performance. The blade is curved and sharp; the handle comfortable. Overall, “sturdy” and “well balanced.”
I bought the Forschner this past summer for about $25 at a restaurant supply store, and couldn't be happier. (You can find it online anywhere from about $20-30, so shop around a little bit.) The knive is strong, sharp, and substantial without being heavy. It feels good in my hand, and my chopping and prep work have improved immensely.

If you have a few bucks to spare, you should also get a paring knive for more delicate work like peeling. Forschner has some good ones for under $5, so just go ahead and get the paring knife as well.

That's pretty much it. You simply don't need more than those two knives (chef's and paring) for 99% of everyday, standard home-cooking. Yes, it would also be great to have a boning knife and serrated slicer, but this is the Frugal Foodie, not the Fancy Foodie. While I do hope to get my hands on a supreme-quality knife set someday, you should save that for when someone else is paying, like when you get married.

Some readers (read twentysomething friends of mine) may not know why knives are so important. Two thoughts for now, which I will likely expand later:

1. Cooking is 90% prep work. This is all the cleaning, chopping, measuring, and organizing you do before the food hits the pan or the oven. Cooks call this mise en place, literally "setting in place" from the French, or "everything in its place" more colloquially. Being frugal is not just about managing your money, it is also about managing your time. A good knife (plus practice) will get dinner from your pantry to the table much more quickly than a crap knife.

2. A sharp knife is a safe knife. Counterintuitive, yes, but a dull knife won't cut your food, it will only cut you. You will try too hard and will slip, while a sharp knife will glide right through. I could write pages on what makes some knives sharp and some not (this guy has, an absolutely awesome read if you have the time), but just trust me for now.

Friday, November 03, 2006

In-N-Out Burger

In-N-Out Burger
website, 1159 N Rengstorff Ave, Mountain View, CA,
(800) 786-1000, Sunday through Thursday 10:30 a.m.-1:00 a.m, Friday and Saturday 10:30 a.m.-1:30 a.m.
[Yelp | Chowhound | Palo Alto Weekly | SJ Mercury News]

In-N-Out Burger makes the best fast food burger I've ever had, by a wide margin. Most other Californians would agree with me (including Thomas Keller). With a fresh bun, crisp lettuce and tomato, addictive spread, melted cheese, and a juicy patty with great beefy taste (despite being cooked to medium well), the burger is fast food perfection. If I had just $3 left for my last meal, I'm pretty sure I would spend it at In-N-Out.

My standard order is a double-double, "animal style", with whole grilled onions instead of the standard chopped grilled onions. (
For those that aren't in the know, read up on In-N-Out's "secret menu".) Whole grilled onions are CRUCIAL to an excellent animal style burger. I cannot emphasize this enough. The regular grilled onions are pre-cooked, often burned, and just generally taste bad. The whole grilled onions are cooked to order and thus match perfectly with the freshly cooked patty and the cool, crisp lettuce. The pickles on an animal-style burger also add a nice contrast.

In-N-Out's fries leave something to be desired, however. They're freshly made and never frozen, but they just don't taste that good. I've heard that getting the fries cooked "well done" makes a difference, so I'm going to try that on my next visit. But I doubt that they'll surpass McDonald's, which is the king of fast food fries. (McDonald's apparently uses the same potato supplier as Bouchon, where I had the best fries of my life, and for breakfast at that.)

The milkshakes at In-N-Out are pretty good, and I'd recommend getting one Neapolitan-style (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry all together) if you go for a shake. But the Frosty is still my favorite fast food frozen dairy option. (Neither are even close to the best milkshake I've ever had in my life at Matt's Place in Butte, Montana.)

So stick with the burgers at In-N-Out, particularly if your caloric budget is limited. It's one of my top two or three favorite places for a meal under $5, and is a must for those visiting the CA-AZ-NV area.

Friday Food Politics: Economist vs. Pollan Edition

Given my utter obsession with alliteration as a stylistic device, I'm going to make food politics my blogging focus on Fridays. The news cycles may not cooperate properly in the long term, but for now this is the plan.

In Slate, Tyler Cowen (George Mason University economist, veteran blogger, and ethnic food lover) critiques Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Cowen's main point:

"He [Pollan] focuses on what is before his eyes but neglects the macro perspective of the economist. He wants to make the costs of various foods transparent, but this is an unattainable ideal, given the interconnectedness of markets. Often the best ways to solve environmental problems are invisible and not available to the consumer in the supermarket aisle. We can tax or regulate offending activities, such as fertilizer runoff or the bad treatment of animals. But we cannot always tell how much environmental evil any given foodstuff contains."
As a self-proclaimed "small-l libertarian" (at least that's what my facebook profile says), I'm generally in favor of correcting market externalities (like pollution) with taxes or similar instruments. (See Greg Mankiw's blog for lots of recent discussion on Pigovian taxes.)

However, I'm not convinced that people would actually make the switch to eating local or humanely raised food even if they had to pay for the associated pollution of industrial food. The added cost wouldn't be that much. (If you had to pay for the congestion you cause when driving to the supermarket, it might be a different story.) And some people also just have bad taste. Pollan's argument is at heart aesthetic, and for someone who likes food it is pretty persuasive.

There's an interesting podcast with Megan McArdle, the guy who founded chowhound, and a behavioral economist/psychologist that I'll need to write more about sometime. They're basically arguing over why people eat chain food. The chowhound guy doesn't get why people eat at the Olive Garden when there are so many great cheap ethnic restaurants around. McArdle argues that people like convenience and don't want to take risks. I personally think it's an information problem that is being solved by review sites like chowhound and by bloggers like yours truly. But more on that another day.

Other commentary on the Cowen article by Megan from Sacramento ("my
absolutist stance is that no one should live in a place that cannot feed its people year round") and megnut (Cowen "raises some interesting points").

UPDATE: Cowen comments on the Tim Harford article I linked to above. Key quote: "
When it comes to the social cost of food, one estimate is that congestion and accidents account for two-thirds of that sum. So maybe you should walk or bike more, but eat what you want, from where you want."

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Frugal Foodie

This blog is more for me than for you. That's not to disparage any (potential) readers, but after a few failed blog attempts in the past, I've realized that I need to write for my own edification and not for any desire to educate or impress readers.

So who are you?
I'm a graduate student studying geophysics at Stanford University. Although rocks and earthquakes are very dear to my heart, nothing is more enjoyable to me than cooking a delicious meal or trying a new restaurant at the end of a long day in front of my workstation. But I'm also on a graduate student's budget, which means that eating out at top restaurants and cooking with expensive ingredients are luxuries I can't often afford. Thus my quest to eat like a king without spending like one. Fortunately, it's not that hard to do, and this website will be about my ongoing quest to eat well and cook well without breaking the bank.

Why "Frugal Foodie"?
Because alliteration is dead sexy. And because "Frugal Gourmet" would not have been original.

Are you cheap?
No, but I do spend my money wisely. I like to have great food experiences, and sometimes that involves spending a good chunk of change. But it's not as expensive as I originally thought, and hopefully this blog will allow me to explain why.

Are you a food snob?

Is your blog only for people living in the Bay Area?
Maybe, I'm not really sure yet. I will be posting restaurant reviews of the places I've checked out, but I'll also be writing about kitchen equipment, cookbooks, food politics, and other food-related topics I find interesting. So hopefully people from all over will enjoy reading this, but like I said above, as long as I'm enjoying writing this blog I'm not going to worry too much about readership.