Thursday, January 31, 2013

Portland Food Pods

Portland has a number of what they call food pods—zones of a dozen or two shacks and trailers selling food on the edge of parking lots (one pic below has a shot of the pods from the parking lot view). There are a few hipster food stands, but most are run by recent immigrants: Korean, Thai, Iraqi, Indian, Pakistani and so on. They are a regular lunch destination, I saw more people eating at them than most downtown restaurants.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Recent Reading

A farm should be aesthetically, aromatically, and sensuously appealing. It should be a place that is attractive, not repugnant, to the senses. This is food production. A farm shouldn’t be producing ugly things. It should be producing beautiful things. We’re going to eat them. One of the surest ways to know if a wound is infected is if it is unsightly and smells bad. When it starts to heal, it gets a pretty sheen and doesn’t smell anymore. Farms that are not beautiful and that stink are like big wounds on the landscape.
From an interview with Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms (he was the Virginia farmer profiled in Omnivore's Dilemma and Food, Inc.). Compellingly argued in ice clear language. From one of our country's great communicators on the problems with modern agriculture. Hat tip to Glenn.

That urinary tract infection? There's good chance it came from the chicken you ate. And it's getting increasingly antibiotic resistant because the chickens are taking antibiotics too. 

Mitchell and Webb cheese fail:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Food show finds

The soft, deeply flavored almond and pistachio cookie from Catania in Sicily was probably the best thing I ate at the show, though Neal's Yard is selecting an excellent Welsh cheddar made to an early 20th century recipe that's also excellent.

The fig chocolate bar is made by the same folks who so our chocolate dipped figs. It was good and made me think it'd be something a Catalan might swallow before a late night out, like some sort of trencherman's power bar.

The British company we get our oat biscuits and kids cookies from has a new tin that opens like a book with banana cookies made with real banana--super fun.

Not pictured but enjoyed: anchovies and paste from the same folks we get our colatura, bergamot+Seville+blood+poorman orange marmalade from Robert Lambert, Spanish corn nuts.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

In defense of old tourist restaurants

Swan Oyster Depot

Sometime in the last decade or so I lost whatever hangup I had about going to restaurants that serve a lot of tourists. I guess it should have happened a lot sooner given that I've been part of Zingerman's for almost two decades and we've been a tourist joint almost the entire time. I think I can pinpoint my personal transformation to sometime around the second bite of lunch at Cal Pep in Barcelona. It was a crowded counter swarmed by Americans. I was there with my friend Eric Farrell, now the owner of one of my favorite bars. We did that kind of anxious wait you do in Europe when you stand around not sure if anyone has seen you or if you should be doing something different or just leave. Sometime later a bottle of wine was handed to us, no questions asked; naturally we emptied it. An hour and a half later we closed the place having eaten most of the menu. I've never forgotten the food. I'm sure there are technically better meals in Barcelona — I've eaten a couple of them — but for sheer force of expression almost no place I've eaten at feels quite like Cal Pep.

What was a small transformation has grown into a larger passion. Where once I avoided them or held my nose when I visited, now I'm really drawn to old places that continue to do something great. That said, I like new places, too. They have loads of energy and I learn all kinds of things. They're exciting like a new rock band is exciting. But with older places there's almost something else to grasp. It's not like they have to do everything well, and in fact most of them don't. It's kind of like watching old movies; you have to get over the period artifice to some extent in order to enjoy it. Same with old restaurants. Most of the time half the menu will be crap. Order carefully. If they do enough well — or even just one thing — that's enough for me. The part that makes it worth it is that they've done whatever it is so well for so long they wear an elegance that newness can't share. My friend Dai who owns Astro Coffee (highly recommended) put it well when he recently told me, "When people ask me where to go in San Francisco I tell them Chez Panisse. I mean Mission Chinese is red hot and it's fine but Chez Panisse has been at it and after 40 years it's beautiful. You want to know the secret to a great place? That's it. You just show up and keep making it great—endlessly."

Here are a few of my favorite old tourist joints — some older than others — that I think are worth it for one reason or other.

Barcelona, Cal Pep

San Francisco,  Swan Oyster Depot and, on some nights, the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel

Buenos Aires, La Preferida

Rome, Sora Margherita

New York, Grand Central Oyster Bar

Montreal, Schwartz's

New Orleans, almost anything

Friday, January 11, 2013

Big Data versus One Person

It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do.
- Steve Jobs
Big Data, as far as I can tell, means collecting acres of information about something and then using it to help predict behavior. Like watching how millions of people use your website in order to decide how to change your website to sell more sardines. 

There are lots of people in love with this idea. I can understand why. It's alluring in its big black boxness, its promise that the algorithm will tell me something I couldn't think of myself. In some areas it has worked, like science and genomes for example. Google too, they use massive amounts of data all the time to make search better. In some areas it has failed. The financial crisis of 2008 was, to some extent, a result of big data going through a black box no one understood and then bombing globally, spectacularly.

I think the most important thing to realize about big data is that it's a strategy. Like all strategies, you use the right one to fit the crime. Wal-Mart and Hermés both have great selling strategies but it would be suicide to use one's approach with the other. Same for big data. There are times to employ it. Then there are times to run away.

Here's a good article on big data comparing it to intuition. And then, in contrast, an excellent piece on what you can do as one person to make decisions when you actually love to use the thing you make — or, in our case, love to eat the food you sell. (Note you can embrace or ignore the business mumbo jumbo in the article, there are other juicy bits littered throughout.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Pantry Peek

Brad (who writes ZMO's enews) and I are working on a Pantry Peek campaign for our Mail Order Enews. We'll go around to different people and take a picture of their pantry, hopefully unadulterated, unbeautified, and share what they have and why. I thought I'd kick it off with a blog post. This is what my counter top looked like today. (I'll do the cupboard another day.)

Back row, left to right

Frankie's 457 house olive oil. Frankie's is just down the street from me and pretty much every retailer in my neighborhood carries the Sicilian oil that the Franks select. It comes in a liter tin only, though I'm sure they probably bring in bulk containers since they say it's their house oil.

Moulin de Chartreuse Olive Oil. The Provençal oil we started carrying last year. This was the sample that I took to help edit the copy, though Brad wrote it I think. It's currently petering out as my cooking oil, something I usually employ a cheaper oil for (usually Lucini, it's pretty good and everyone around here carries it), but I ran out.

Mario Bianco's Moscato Vinegar. A white wine vinegar we used to carry. We stopped because I thought it was just a little too expensive for what it was.

Unlabeled Red Wine Vinegar from Marina Colonna. Ten years ago I visited Marina Colonna in the Molise and she had some dodgy bottles of vinegar someone had crafted from wine she makes. It tasted really good. For some reason or another she never decided to make any more, a fate shared by a line of olive oil cosmetics she had also made. She gave me a bottle to take home. A word of advice: don't pack vinegar in your suitcase. For that matter don't take samples from anyone when you're traveling. They always end up evolving into disaster.

Monini White Wine Vinegar. Rather crap vinegar I got for some reason I can't remember.

Pofi Brothers White Wine Vinegar. Pretty much my go-to for vinaigrettes and has been since I first tasted it.

Front row, left to right

Butternut Squash Seed Oil. We've carried this for a couple years. It was the first good American nut/seed oil I'd found—all the rest have been from France or Austria. It's a once-in-a-while thing I use for vinaigrettes or dousing a soup, raw vegetables or cooked vegetables. I probably shouldn't keep it near the stove but I know if I put it somewhere else I'll forget I have it.

Halen Mon Sea Salt. Or it could be fleur de sel sea salt just as often. I keep it in a little La Creuset pot and use it for salting dishes at the end. It's the salt I bring to the table if we have company, hence the little bone spoon.

Tellicherry Black Pepper. After busting my way through three or four pepper grinders Vic Firth's is the best one I've tried. I guess I beat the hell out of them because they just stop after a while. Not this one. I got mine before Mario Batali started licensing his name to them and now I think the only way to get a red one is if you get one with his name on it. Well, I like Mario, so that's not a deep tissue wound. The pepper is Indian Tellicherry pretty much all the time, and I keep the grinder set rather coarse.

Marash Red Pepper Flakes. Pretty much the only red pepper I ever use.

Portuguese Salt. The fine grade, which I pretty much use for everything except finish salting. This could just as easily be French grey salt, I have one or the other and switch up for no good reason. I house it in one of the old gorgeous fleur de sel jars that we used to get. Man I miss them!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Business advice from Nine Inch Nails

"... the song chosen by algorithms...has begun to feel synthetic. What's missing is a service that adds a layer of intelligent curation. As great as it is to have all this information bombarding you, there's a real value in trusted filters. It's like having your own guy when you go into the record store, who knows what you like but can also point you down some paths you wouldn't necessarily have encountered."
Trent Reznor on what's missing from Spotify and Pandora. Also, in a nutshell, a good approach to selling food.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Portugal Pastelaria

If the defining utility food shop of New York is the bodega, in Portugal it's definitely the pasteleria. A pasteleria is a pastry shop crossed with a coffee shop and, like New York's bodegas, they are ubiquitous. There's always one on the next block just where you need it. The picture I took (below) was on a street corner in a small town—there were three other pastelarias on the same corner. Someone is always getting pastries there, day or night. For some reason the coffee is uniformly poor, another trait they have in common with bodegas. Pastelerias may look a bit shabby, or they may be fancy with mirrors and glitz. They usually have some seating, though at any given time 75% of it is empty. The most popular pastries, bottom picture, are pasteis de nata, custard cream filled puff pastries about the size and shape of small cupcakes. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Portuguese Christmas goat, two ways

Goat is part of a traditional dinner in Portugal on Christmas eve and Christmas day. On the left, Christmas eve, old goat stew, chanfana, cooked for many hours with wine and bay. On the right, Christmas day, young goat, cabrito, roasted till the skin is crispy. Both are very tasty.