Friday, November 30, 2012

microREVIEW: Mrs. Renfro's Ghost Pepper Salsa

This is the best, super-hot salsa on the market. It is fruity, spicy, and roasty. Many salsa and sauce manufacturers are willing to sacrifice flavor in the quest to make something as hot as possible. The products end up tasting like fiery-hot butt. This tastes like good salsa, just hotter than 95% of the population can handle. It is hot enough to trigger spontaneous nausea. A truly great product for the adventurous.

Mrs. Renfro's Ghost Pepper Salsa: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

QUICKVIEW: Ralph's Bull & Claw - +++

Ralp's Bull & Claw is your standard sort of local haunt with a massive menu. It's very Rhode Island, very local, and very good.

The location isn't the best place, but it's not bad, either. Ralph's is situated along Charles Street in North Providence, right along the Pawtucket line. It's north enough to not be in the increasingly bad areas farther south, but not north enough to be part of the more expensive locations into Lincoln. The atmosphere and clientele is precisely what one would expect from the location: a sitcom cliche. I was sat next to a group of people that seemed like family members from the movie Moonstruck.

The interior is nice enough. Standard family restaurant designs. The building is much larger than the small frontage indicates. There's lots of natural light. Essentially, nothing about which I could complain.

Service was a bit slow since they were busy for reasons that I will explain. Our waiter was friendly, attentive, and at ease in her job.

The food was very good. Frequently, local haunts have a tendency to serve bland food. I think that it's just a side effect of running a business that isn't interested in delivering gourmet experimentation, and is instead focused on delivering good food to people that simply want good food.

And that's the important thing. Everything was good. The dinner bread is one of the best presentations that I've ever seen: two, big boules of Italian bread, freshly baked. No pretensiousness. No nothing. Just good bread with butter on the side. They say, and by they I mean Janeane Garofalo's character from the film Ratatouille, that you can tell good bread by its sound. Well this bread sounded great. Many gourmet restaurants would do well to take a page from this no-nonsense approach. Don't give me weird breads filled with nuts and currants. Or some strange, house-made sourdough. Just give me bread, baked, with butter.

The soup was loaded with vegetables and pasta, and had good punch to it. Not in the slightest bit bland. The baked stuffed sole was super-sweet and a table favorite, but it was a bit overwhelmed by its butter sauce. I would have liked a much lighter drizzle. The seafood casserole was well-balanced, without being swamped in stuffing, cheese, or sauce as many places do. And the gorgonzola sauce on top of a steak was mellow and not too pungent.

There were a few things to pick on. The steak wasn't the best cut, but it was still good, flavorful, and well-prepared. The vegetable wasn't much of one, simply being some steamed kale and olives next to mashed potatoes. But these things, insofar as being negative, aren't much worthy of note. Especially when you consider their ace in the hole: half-price Sundays.

Every second and last Sunday of the month, everything on the menu, and I mean everything, is half priced. A $30 steak drops to $15. My baked stuffed sole was only $9. Gorgonzola steak: $11. When you think about the mark-up generally required to keep a restaurant churning, they're probably reducing their price down to around, or maybe even below, the break-even point, so it's a good attention-getter for them, while costing only a little.

Now you understand why service was a bit slow. The dining room wasn't swamped, but I'm sure that they handle waves of people coming in throughout the day, which does much to diminish pre-prepared supplies.

This promotion makes Ralph's perhaps the single best deal in all of Rhode Island. I don't consider that an exaggeration. I can't think of any other restaurants with prices like this for a menu like this. Good for great prices is, in my mind, better than great food for good prices.

With a menu for everyone, the best deal in Rhode Island, a friendly personality, and good service, Ralph's is the kind of place that I would default to when I don't know what else to get. There are few restaurants that I would describe as an excellent place to bring the family, but Ralph's is one of them. Now all I have to do is find a family.

Ralph's Bull & Claw: +++

1027 Charles Street
North Providence, RI 02904

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Friday, November 23, 2012

QUICKVIEW: LJ'S Barbeque- +++/$$

Barbeque: the only truly American form of cooking.

I'm not joking. Barbeque is the only form of cooking unique to the New World. It's believed to have originated in the Carribean islands and then migrated out onto the mainland, and eventually into the culture of European explorers and, ultimately, people in Rhode Island.

And speaking of Rhode Island, we have a surprisingly robust selection of BBQ considering our distance from the food's genesis. Along with the subject of this article, we have Wes's Rib House, Smokey Bones, Rick's Roadhouse, Ribs & Company, and the various bbq-ish options at the various chain restaurants in various towns.

I had previously been completely satisfied going to Smokey Bones whenever the urge for ribs and pulled pork struck me, but after its recent purchase and transformation into a "fire grille," the mind-numbingly overt sexism has soured me to the place. Women are used exclusively as decoration and they all but declare that men are beer-swilling, sports and sex-obsessed, humanoid buffalo.

Oh yes. I love being made to feel like a cro-magnon when eating my ribs.

Smokey Bones' homepage currently features a "hot babe" serving beer. If you click on their "About Us" section, you have another hot babe serving beer. Look!

The Smokey Bones Home Page. Yes. Please. Take a look around at all of our beer and breasts.

The About Us page that says everything about them that matters.
Let's break down and analyze their About Us page.
At Smokey Bones, we specialize in three things: good food, good drinks and good times.
That's it? As a restaurant, you should specialize in a few more things than just that. Like organization and operation, cleaning, refrigeration, and other such important things for running a place that serves food like knowing how to use a goddamned Oxford comma. And also, what is this? Cheers?
We are a bar and fire grill, but not necessarily in that order.
Oh good! I was worried for a moment. This "fire grille" garbage has been positively shoe-horned into everything they make, as though the marketing guys think that by taking a stupid idea and simply making it omnipresent somehow negates its stupidity.
We are grill masters who respect the power of the open flame. We like simple, yet flavorful recipes and believe marinating is not to be taken lightly. We know medium-rare isn’t the only way to cook a steak, but believe it should be.
This is completely acceptable marketing speak.
We believe pork should be slow smoked and pulled often.
I think this may be a masturbation reference.
Slow, as in 11 hours over hickory logs every night, and often, as in every day at every restaurant.
This is an excellent sentence. It makes me want to visit the restaurant.
We know it’s our bartenders that make our drinks great, not the liquor. Although the liquor doesn’t hurt. We think beer should be ice cold and consumed regularly.
Because obviously, the more attractive the woman, the better the beer from the tap. And doesn't Smokey Bones think that encouraging alcoholism is a bad idea?
We know our servers bring much more than food to the table.
Indeed. They also bring boobs. I'm not kidding. I cannot think of a single restaurant where a greater percentage of the servers are female aside from Hooters.
We are big fans of sports, loud music and surprises.
Why in the bloody blue fuck would I want surprises at a restaurant? I want food as expected. If I order a burger, and get a bowl of fruit, I'll damn well be surprised. I'll also be angry.
And we believe in laughing often, especially at ourselves.
This is good, because you are laughable.

You can understand why the atmosphere has become intolerable over time.

So it was with great relief that I found LJ's to have the air of a local joint, populated by locals from the surrounding neighborhoods, without any insultingly stupid marketing statement defining the restaurant's character. Do you know what's on LJ's website? Pictures of food. How novel.

The interior is simple. The place settings are utilitarian, with whole rolls of rough paper towels at every table. They provide squeeze bottles with house-made BBQ sauce, and a wider variety of hot sauces than is likely necessary. The closest thing that I can think of as a competitor is The Oak Hill Tavern in South County.

The wait staff was friendly and decently fast. The menu is very large and priced well. They offer a prix fixe option for $20 that includes an appetizer, two sides, corn bread, dessert, and a beer. Platters are usually in the $10-$20 range and offer an enormous amount of food for little money. Even if the food was merely adequate, LJ's would be a good deal.

And the food is much more than adequate. This is the real deal. This is not the crap "BBQ" that you get at places like Chile's. Their babyback ribs were just fatty enough and just firm enough to provide some satisfaction in biting while still falling off the bone. Their spice rub is muted and austere, perhaps a bit too, but when combined with a light drizzle of their sweet house cause becomes an excellent representation of the meal. Their pulled pork is on the fatty side, but is soft and flavorful as a result. And holy crap, do they give you a lot of pulled pork. Two mounds of it took up over half of the plate. You will consume a significant percentage of a pig with this meal. And again, all of these choices come with two sides and cornbread for the price.

Their platters represent a small portion of the menu, though. They have sandwiches, burgers, grilled pizza, and soups/salads. Their burgers were a good representation of the difference between this place and other restaurants and the subtle value that is available. At Smokey Bones, they have long since ditched providing a side with their burgers. They still aren't a bad deal, mind you, but this is what I mean when I talk about the fundamental difference between a local restaurant and a chain. At Smokey Bones, with dozens of locations, not including a side dish with their burgers could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra annual revenue. At LJ's, it may equal a couple hundred. There is little motivation to skimp, and thus they don't. For the same price, at LJ's, you get a side. To me, that matters.

And about those sides, their french fries were surprisingly good. Crispy and light and tasting like they were made from fresh potatoes, which I'm assuming they were. Their house beans were a little thin — I like my baked beans thick with bacon, beans, and fillings — but sweet and good. Their candied yams were candied and yammy. Basically, all good on the Western front.

Everything we had was good. The atmosphere was good. The service was good. The food was everything I could have hoped for, and even a bit more. And that is what LJ's is about: the food. It's not about sports, or idiotic slogans, or puns, or packaging. It's about food, made with skill, and served up for a fair price. I will be returning to LJ's soon, with slow-cooked pig on my mind.

LJ's Barbeque: +++

727 East Avenue
Pawtucket, RI 02860
Delivery: 401-353-4121

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Recommended Desserts For Thanksgiving And Beyond

Every year, I make sure to mention the best places to get pies for the holidays. Pies are a special thing. You can't simply mix up ingredients, put it in an oven, and have it be fine. You have to choose your ingredients carefully, prepare them correctly, then add them all together for baking.

For example, I so rarely find an apple pie that has the apple pieces cut up into small, thin slices. This is important because it increases the surface area on which the cinnamon, sugar, and acid interact, providing that rich, tart flavor. Go buy an apple pie at your local grocery store: huge chunks of apple.

Obviously, your best course of action is to make the pies yourself and get it just right. But if you don't have the time, and during the holidays time is at a premium, you want to get the best.

#1: The Village Hearth, Jamestown
I haven't been to The Village Hearth in some time, but it doesn't matter. I know the kind of person who runs it: dedicated, passionate, skilled. Their dough is house-made, their ingredients of the utmost freshness, and their preparation flawless.

Their prices aren't out in la-la land, either. Everything they sell is competitively priced, and when you consider the quality of their food, it becomes an absolute bargain. The only problem is their capacity, meaning that they sell out pretty early. To guarantee your pie, make sure to order early.

For your holiday pies, I cannot recommend The Village Hearth enough.

#2: Pastiche, Providence
I think everyone saw this one coming. Pastiche has been a fixture in the Providence dessert scene for nearly three decades. Much like The Village Hearth, they know how to prepare their fruit before.

In comparison to The Village Hearth, Pastiche's recipes fall a bit short. They aren't as rich or delicately prepared. It's as though everything is taken down by a notch. This may be a philosophical issue, where Pastiche feels that they should leave everything slightly more mellow. All I can say is that I don't agree with that philosophy. I like subtlety in many things, but I prefer my desserts to be punchy.

The most important thing is for desserts to be complex. There is a penchant for businesses to prepare desserts with a single-minded drive to deliver a particular flavor. Cake must be cake. Pie must be pie. No! Because desserts are so sweet, which can easily be overpowering, it is all the more critical for their design and preparation to provide a wealth of flavors and textures to prevent the palate from becoming bored.

In this regard, both Pastiche and The Village Hearth deliver. If The Village Hearth is too much of a drive, Pastiche is delicious. But if you're willing to take a journey, you won't regret what you get in Jamestown.

#3: Trader Joe's, Warwick
Obviously, Trader Joe's pies and treats do not compare to what you will get at Pastiche and The Village Hearth. But when it comes to grocery stores baked goods, no other store even comes close. These are the only acceptable baked goods that I have received from a grocery store. Stop & Shop and Shaws are disgusting. Dave's is only slightly better. When these things are the competition, one wouldn't think it hard to compete, but apparently it is.

Trader Joe's is legitimately good. And while the crusts are unimpressive when bought, a light basting with butter and milk and ten minutes in a 400' oven turns Joe's pies into something worth mentioning. It also helps to extend their shelf life in your home, since Joe's uses no preservatives, their baked goods have a penchant for going moldy very quickly.

And one cannot ignore the price, either. Trader Joe's isn't as good, but holy crap are their pies cheap. A full apple pie only costs $7.00. Their pies are smaller, so the comparison isn't quite apples to apples (pie), but even if you add 50% to the price of Trader Joe's pies to account for the size difference, Joe's still comes out cheaper. If you're on a budget, Trader Joe's is a great choice.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

REVIEW: Ruth's Chris- ***/$$$$$

Want steak? Want almost nothing but steak? Ruth's Chris has you covered. Ruth's is the largest luxury steak  chain in the United States with one hundred and thirty five locations in almost all major cities, serving up specially-sourced meats straight from high-end farms managed by the company. Pretty impressive.

At least as far as the Providence location goes, that impressiveness extends to the architecture and decor. Ruth's apparently spent over three million dollars building their Rhode Island operation and it shows. The inside is massive, and it seems to stretch forever from the front of the building to the back, where doors lead to private dining areas for groups. The ceilings are a good twenty-five feet high, with gigantic modern-ish light fixtures that could kill someone if they fell. As far as aesthetic goes, it is modern with a distinctly wealthy bachelor feel to it.

The valet was friendly and helpful, and after he took our car, we entered into what appeared to be the entrance. We stood around for a couple of minutes looking lost before someone at the bar finally realized that we were hoping for dinner, and we were directed to walk past the bar, down some stairs, to a second (hidden from our vantage) desk that actually held the hostess. Of course. The hostess was vegetative, and she lead us to our table in a haze.

After getting to our table, we enjoyed the view out the window of the river. It was very nice and I suspect that dining during Waterfire would be great. Unfortunately, I'm sure that this is precisely the time when the restaurant will be overwhelmed with diners. But even without burning pyres, it was pleasing. The tables are set well and the chairs are decently comfortable. The flatware was nice, and the glasses were spotless.

The waitstaff is a disaster. I'll have more on them later.

Apparently, the restaurant relies on your having an appetizer. We were informed that "going straight to entree," results in a twenty-minute wait for food. Ok. This gave us a chance to take in the sight of the other diners. The masculinity of the decor is not lost on the clientele, with the vast majority of people being male, with many of them talking "business." And by business, I mean congratulating each other on being brilliant. I don't mean to sound like some sort of corporate-hating communist at this point, but it was painful to watch and listen to. We had no less than three groups of white men discussing why Romney lost.

Adding to this absurdity of the scene was the mob family that kept parading by our table to a private dining room. I'm not joking. Seriously. I think it may have been a mob family. Lots of overweight men in nice suits, lots of women with tans. The restaurant manager who asked us about our meal did not help this impression, with hair that was slicked back with shoe polish so fiercely that they could very well have been cutting the meat with it. After he stopped by our table, I commented to my partner that I felt greasy.

"But what about the food?!" you are yelling. Yes. The food. Long story short, it was very good. It was exactly what you would expect for an expensive piece of meat cooked well. Ruth's appears to err on the side of rare, with my medium-rare petite filet being what I would consider rare. Perhaps they do this since they plate on which they serve the meat is heated to 500 degrees, meaning that the meat continues to cook. Regardless, it was a minor quibble, and in fact I think more places should err on the side of rare.

The meat dishes are austere. Very austere. You get meat. On a plate. And that's it. You can appreciate why this business model exploded during the real-estate boom; the profit margins are enormous. Our petite filet, which I suspect was in the neighborhood of 6-8oz, cost $36. I don't consider this wildly out of whack since the meat, in all its austere glory, is excellent: tender, flavorful, and seasoned just right. But that said, it's still a bit pricey.

I can get similar meat for less per ounce at any number of RI steakhouses. Providence Prime, my current favorite, will give you a 10oz filet, with sauce and side for $37. It's a similar, cheaper, story at Ten Prime, Capital Grille, and Fred & Steve's. While other restaurants have brought their competitive A-game in the economic downturn, all Ruth's has done is apparently stop charging for valet. The prices aren't a total deal-breaker — with meat this good, they would have to be much higher — but they are still a knock against Ruth's.

It's the very austerity that they champion that amplifies this issue. Why pay more when I can get meat that is equally prepared and equally austere elsewhere? There is no recipe, no art. All they have is their hot plate gimmick (which is, I'll admit, nice). This stands in contrast to places like Gracie's, who I have criticized for having servings that were too small for the price. At least at Gracie's, their foods are complex creations — pieces of edible art. Most of Ruth's Chris items are little more than high-quality ingredients, prepared well.

The sides, which are intended to be shared, are equally disappointing. When I ordered a la carte sides at Fred & Steve's, they were the size of the table. Sides at Ruth's Chris are borderline one-person servings, further exacerbating the wild prices. Twenty cents worth of broccoli is sold for $8.50. The sweet potato and pecan casserole was a bright spot. It was nearly a dessert, with creamy sweet potatoes under crisp pecans. Other than that, their sides are basically a list of overpriced vegetables.

I mentioned earlier that the service was a disaster, I shall now elaborate on that.

When I am spending a fair amount of money, I expect service. I do not expect to be worshipped, or fawned over, or have dutiful-yet-silent servants float by with water. There is no script for this — no absolute plan. But that is exactly what Ruth's Chris is trying to do, and it blows up in their face.

The strained obsequiousness of our waiter was painful. The absolutely oddball lilt to his way of speech contrasted badly with his tattoos and hair. His bodily positioning bordered on parody, as though he was almost attempting to mimic the waiter from The Triplets of Belleville.

This cartoon is exaggerating and thus mocking the mannerisms of a classically-trained French waiter. Ours wasn't at all classically-trained, so the movie is not directly mocking him. They are related, though. He was a waiter who was following a script, differing from the above video only in that the creators of the movie wrote with mockery in their mind, while the managers of Ruth's Chris did so with insane earnestness in theirs.

Indeed, the waiter acted as a suitable representation of the restaurant's gestalt: a poser, faking the gross elements of behavior of other high-end restaurants. In those cases, the raison d'être of the restaurant is being a restaurant, not being yet another instance of a chain. The wellspring of choice and behavior comes from that. Good restaurants go from that into a business model that allows for profitability. Ruth's Chris reverses this.

There is no fire behind any of it. It is faked high-end. The dining room wants to be like Per Se or Chez La Mere Michel, but without the passion of a singular vision behind it, it's soulless. It's Hewlett-Packard selling a computer that looks like a Mac. This is fine for cheap places like TGI Friday's, or even slightly more expensive chains like Longhorn Steakhouse. But there is a good reason why the majority of high-end restaurants are not chains: we are not simply paying for food when we go to them, we are paying for vision. We are paying for art. We are paying for something more than a mere declaration of conspicuous consumption.

My final issue with the environment wasn't initially noticed by me, but my partner, Danielle. I may have been oblivious, but after she pointed it out, the hair on the back of neck stood on end for the rest of the meal: the waiters were all white, and the busboys and waterboys were all black. 100%. I'm not sure if this was the case over the entire staff — I can't imagine them being that blatant — but for our meal, the 100% measure is accurate.

Interestingly, while doing research on the steakhouse scene for this review, I came across an article posted earlier this year, and while not having anything to do with Ruth's, it did involve their across-the-street competitor, The Capital Grille. The Grille is the focus of a growing, multi-state racial discrimination lawsuit where employees are alleging that "Capital Grille [favored] white workers over people of color for lucrative tipped jobs." Sound familiar? I guess this isn't surprising considering all of the Romney voters in the dining room and stuff like this (start at 3:00).

I will never go back to Ruth's Chris, yet I give it three stars. Why? Many of my problems with Ruth's are my interpretations of things in the environment. If you do not have these interpretations, you will not have many of my problems. Certain things are the very embodiment of food criticism, though, such as the recipes and prices. These problems, combined with the fact that Providence is not at all short on high-end steakhouses, place Ruth's Chris firmly in averageville. Everything is simple, good, and high-priced. Just like everybody else.

Ruth's Chris: ***

10 Memorial Boulevard
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 272-2271
Reservations Recommended

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

microREVIEW: Trader Joe's Cinnamon Crumb Coffee Cake Mix

Too sweet. I can rarely ever finish a small piece. The crumb topping is almost entirely sugar, doesn't crumb very well, and overwhelms the rest of the cake. It has what seems like a pumpkin aftertaste. Easy to make.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

microREVIEW: Trader Joe's Cajun Style Blackened Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo

This is the first of a series that I call microreviews. I had been posting these to Twitter, but since Google and Twitter started getting all possessive about their content, Tweets disappear in the internether quickly after posting. So I shall put these on an actual page instead.

Good pasta. When microwaved, not rubbery, but a little watery. Chicken doesn't taste microwaved, but tastes a bit overdone. Chicken spice is too mild. Sauce has good kick. It's quick to make, but I feel like everything in it could be made fresh in very little time.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Organic Food Isn't Healthier: People Are Surprised?

Stanford University published a study showing that organic food isn't any nutritionally better for you than conventional food. There has been a massively negative response to this from the organic community. The publishers and many food pundits have expressed surprise by this response. Their general point is that the study doesn't reveal anything that most people didn't already know.

And that's the problem. The intelligent, well-read, educated people who are involved with the organic movement do not represent the majority of people. In fact, these "ivory tower" types are so disconnected from the general population, that they are wholly unaware of what the population actually thinks. The organic population does not buy organic food for rational reasons. They do it for dogmatic reasons.

People are ascribing moral, personal, and even cosmic significance to their organic diets. And as we have found, people have a hard time seeing the shades of grey that are inherent to... everything. We don't like to see our heroes in complex terms. Our heroes are all-good, and when they reveal themselves to not be all-good, we say that they have failed us. It is a crippling event.

That is why this backlash occurred. Organic advocates don't want to see their hero in complex terms. They see it as the answer. The answer to what? Almost anything. Again, organic food isn't better for quantifiable reasons. It is better for qualitative reasons. It is metaphysically better. Even for those who don't ascribe deep significance to organic food, these views rub off onto them and the entirety of the organic industry. Most people buy organic thinking that its essentially better.

This study is quantitative evidence that this isn't true. Is organic better in some ways? Yes. But that's not enough. And that's why this backlash happened.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kids Won't Eat Healthy Food... Unless...

Trader Joe's Milk Is Crappy For Steaming and Lattes/Cappuccinos

I found a few mentions of this online, but I wanted to make a large, explicit post for any of those interested: Trader Joe's milk sucks for milk steaming. Do not try to make lattes or cappuccinos out of this. You will not get microfoam. You will get vaguely good-looking foam that disintegrates after nothing more than a single tap on the carafe.

I've encountered this before in other milks as well, but never with the consistency of Trader Joe's. I have never gotten a gallon of milk that worked. Other brands, be they Garelick, Hood, or Rhody Fresh, have had the odd bad jug, but by and large, they're fine.

I read one theory that is associated with the age of the milk. I know the basics of milk steaming chemistry, and had never heard of age having a significant effect on milk steaming performance. This also didn't line up with my experiences of Rhody Fresh, which as the name says, is fresh. Namely, I have had more bottles of Rhody Fresh than any other brand that simply would not steam.

I think it has to do with the pasteurization process. Trader Joe's milk, as with most supermarket milks, is pasteurized. That means that the milk is raised to a temperature of about 150 degrees Fahrenheit for about thirty seconds. The temperature isn't high enough to cause breaks in the proteins and lactose, meaning that after it cools down, it should steam up just fine.

What I suspect happens sometimes is the milk doesn't cool down as they expect, the temperature gets too high, or they heat the milk for too long, thus causing the proteins to break, thus making smoothly steamed milk impossible. I don't know why Trader Joe's is more affected by this than other brands. Moreover, I don't even know if it's just my Trader Joe's locations. I'd imagine that different farms provide milk to different stores.

So if you buy a lot of milk at Trader Joe's, and you've found that your ability to steam has fallen off a cliff, it's not in your head. It's actually the milk. Just go buy something else.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Monsanto Gets Screwed

I disagree with vegan/organic/natural wingnuts on most everything, but in one case, our feelings line up perfectly: Monsanto is evil. You'll find a very strong anti-corporate bent in the vegan/organic movements, and in many cases, I think that this is well-founded hate.

Major corporations are interested in profits. We feel safe in buying their food because we assume that their profit interests and our health line up, since most corporations would not want to kill their customers... because then it would have no more customers. Reality, though, is a lot more sinister.

Many companies are completely fine. They very much do care about their customers. But others do not. In the book Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner, an Imagineer at Disney recounts the general opinion of guests to the theme parks: scum. The executives, the park managers, the entirety of the company had zero respect for its customers. In fact, they borderline hated their customers. Does Disney feel that way today? I don't know, but I suspect so.

This is Disney. They are one of the companies about which people get all warm and squishy. Imagine what other companies feel. Look at the venom with which the major banks hated their customers, as revealed by the investigations following the 2008 collapse. They thought nothing of their customers.

We see this behavior in all levels of society, not just among corporate executives. We judge the hell out of each other. We are a truly judgmental species. The drive to judge is doubly fueled both by anger but also by perspective. People will judge others based on their life, not the life of the others. For example, a poor person would call a Porsche needless and ostentatious, but a rich person may see it as positively demure in comparison to Lamborghinis and Ferraris. Neither person is correct.

Similarly, people of power and prestige will judge the lives and behaviors of those who do not have power and prestige as negative. This is the problematic thread in conservativism. "I did it, so can you!" They are so disconnected from the lives of the average person, that they lose all perspective with which they can make accurate assessments. People comfortably ensconced in positions of power judge like crazy and they are wildly inaccurate when they do so. That so many companies grow to have a top-down hatred of their hoi polloi customers is no surprise..

As such, having a healthy distaste for corporations is quite sensible. I think that there are few better applications of this sensible distrust than with American food.

Perhaps because food, more so than any other industry, is at the convergence point of socioeconomic status,  cultural identity, racial identity, and religion, food is discussed and argued in more ethical and spiritual terms than any other item. Food has been the very centerpiece of society since the beginning of time. It is, quite literally, our life blood. Food stops being merely a gathering point, or something that fun, or an excuse to party. People start referring to it in quasi-spiritual, transcendent terms. And problematically, they start to judge others based on those terms.

America seems worse than other countries, and I suspect that the impression is more than just that, an impression. I suspect that there is actual, quantifiable truth to it. In my mind, there can be only one reason for this: religion. Western religion infects our outlooks on life even for those who aren't religious. Those who are fat are bad people, because good people resist food. Gluttony is a sin. Those who eat are sinful people. Even in the face of ever-mounting data to the contrary, people persist in their belief that being overweight is some choice that some are making, and thus deserve to be mocked and shunned for this greedy decision.

Imagine an executive at a food company holding this opinion, which I'm sure many of them do. A company like Kellogg's has to know that most of their products are complete garbage. Yet they continue to shovel out slop. Look at the resistance with which research about trans-fats was met. If that sounds like the same cynical response that tobacco executives had to research indicating the extreme addictiveness of tobacco, that only further illustrates the problem. It is no coincidence that one of the biggest mergers of all time was between Nabsico and RJ Reynolds Tobacco.

Look at the race to the bottom illustrated in fast food. The companies talk about quality and dedication to the customer, but that's complete bullshit and everyone knows it. The logical counterpoint to this view is not that these companies actually do care, it's that their products are at least decent for the price, which is generally true. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of a company, but true.

What does all of this have to do with Monsanto? Well, Monsanto is famous for having one of the most famous patented life forms: Round Up Ready seeds. These seeds are resistant to the weed killer Round Up, meaning that a farmer can plant the seeds and then spray Round Up with abandon, killing the weeds and leaving the seeds unscathed.

It doesn't take much hard thinkin' to realize that patenting a life form has a lot of serious problems, and those problems have been borne out quite well in real life. Monsanto has been on a tear since the release of these seeds in the late 90's, suing farmers all over the world... even if the farmers never wanted the Round Up Ready seeds in the first place. And compliments of a massive war chest, Monsanto has won most of these casees because they can simply outspend the small farmers. This has caused hundreds (possibly thousands) of farmers to go out of business. Monsanto is using the court system as its personal WMD.

Well, in this case, Monsanto appears to have finally bitten off more than it can chew. They may own the court systems in the United States (although that has more to do with broken patent laws than anything else), other countries are much more treacherous. One of those treacherous countries is Brazil, where Monsanto just lost a little ol' court case — lost it to the tune of $2 billion dollars.

I spend a lot of time ranting about patents, copyright, and food. All three of these issues combine into one, evil, mega-conglomerate in the form of Monsanto. However, wherever, and whenever they get fucked is a good thing. There are no exceptions. I am not one for hyperbole. Sweeping statements very rarely hold up to scrutiny. But this sweeping statement is one of such veracity that I am willing to make it. Monsanto is one of the worst companies on Earth. They are putting farmers out of business, increasing the centralization of American agriculture for no reason other than greed, and giving fuel to an inane "locavore" movement that won't solve any of the dietary problems currently facing our society.

Monsanto represents the worst corporate greed, avarice, cynicism, and belligerence that our world can muster. As I mentioned, food is at the very heart of our society, and the American heart is undeniably sick. Monsanto's perverse philosophy as manifested by their behavior is a big reason for that sickness.

This court case won't do anything to fix the underlying problem of the fucking absurdity of patenting a life form, but it does take some money from Monsanto and give it to a smaller entity. Whether I agree with the behavior of the farmers in Brazil or not is immaterial, since they would have to be Nazis to make me side with Monsanto over them.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

An Excellent Dinner At Legal Sea Food

The Klingon Tea

Tuna looking like heaven.

Atlantic salmon with lemon caper butter sauce. A good deal at $20.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

New Developments In Exercise Research

This documentary has very little to do with diet, which kinda' runs counter to a whole, ya' know, food related website. Still, exercise and diet are tightly linked as regards overall health and one cannot be discussed without the other.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

PRODUCT REVIEW: Archer Farms Colombia La Floresta Coffee

Target continues its march up-market with its own line of "gourmet" food stuffs. And no gourmet selection would be complete without coffee. I had tried a couple of Target's whole bean varieties in the past and found them completely acceptable, but not much worth mentioning.

Target has relatively recently started carrying special blends of coffee that come in their own tins. Their 2011 "Cup of Excellence" winner is a Colombian, and while Cup Of Excellence might be a bit of an overstatement (It was at the bottom of the award winner list) it's still good coffee.

The beans don't have a very good smell. They are tart with little mellow pleasantness that most will expect from roasted beans. The roast is very light and the beans are quite healthy. All good signs. They didn't provide preparation recommendations, so I erred on the side of caution with a standard grind and a 3:30 steep in a Clever Coffee Dripper.

The bloom is surprisingly good. This photo is after it had eased for about thirty seconds. I would say that the full extent of the bloom is among the best, if not the best, grocery store shelf coffee bloom that I have seen.

The nose is incredibly pleasant. It has a very slight tang to the scent with the primary smell of burning wood. To me, it smells like Christmas. As the coffee cools, other notes become apparent, but that roasted wood scent always remains front and center.

The coffee hits right where I expected it to. At full temperature, fruit and roast are the primary flavors. As the temperature decreases, the body evens out while toasted bread, wine, and an apple-y fruitiness become apparent. It has a very mild astringency and light finish. Actually, the best way to describe the coffee is very Colombian.

Overall, it is a good coffee. I like Colombian coffees because they're so damned bulletproof and this variety seems no different. Understeep, oversteep, your cup will come out alright. If you like light-roasted coffee, and your only option is the grocery store shelf, this is an excellent choice.

Archer Farms Colombia La Floresta Coffee: RECOMMENDED

Friday, March 16, 2012

My Drunk Kitchen

It's much better to be blasted when cooking. Makes it seem much more fun and dramatic.

Much thanks to my friend for introducing me to this.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

QUICKVIEW: The Duck & Bunny- +++ / $$

Perfectly steamed milk.
I've been meaning to try Duck & Bunny for some time, for no other reason that it's called a "snuggery." I thought that it was a made-up word, but no, sure enough it is actually a word.

Unfortunately, the connotations of the word did in fact evince truthfully the Duck & Bunny. This place is nauseatingly twee. They have variations on famous paintings littering the dining areas -which are, as they say, snug- all of which have been altered to include images of ducks or rabbits. I think that I would have found it more appealing if the dining area had not been packed and loud. The place is snug, to be sure, but cozy, at least to me, implies soft.

A steak sandwich in a crepe. Delicious.
The D&B is anything but soft. The dining areas are old rooms with hard wood flooring. Each room is an echo chamber with its own unique acoustics. They really need some carpets. We arrived at 7:20pm on a Thursday to a packed house. Quite a few people behind us simply aborted their mission of dinner. We were lucky, apparently, and were seated quickly.

Service was friendly, but they were seeming to have a hard time dealing with the full house and cramped quarters. Service never failed, but they seemed to be making it up as they went along, arranging patrons on the fly in the "snug" rooms. Once seated, our waiter was attentive and quick and delivered the nightly list of cupcakes.

Oh, right, the cupcakes. If the name, classification, "irreverent" rules, and custom paintings didn't earn this place the hipster stamp of approval, the cupcake menu certainly would. It's amazing how quickly macarons were replaced with cupcakes as the hip baked good du jour, but that's beside the point.
The Angelina.

Speed of delivery was good. Considering that the wait for crepes at La Crêperie can be interminable, we waited for only about five minutes before drinks, cakes, and crepes were on the table. The atmosphere aside, we were all very happy with the food.

The T.S. Geller, essentially a roast beef sandwich in crêpe, was perfectly prepared with fresh mesculun and pungent, delicious, house-made horseradish sauce.

The Sweet Baby James.
Sweets included The Angelina, a blueberry blini with Des Nuages cheese, raspberry chocolate, lemon zest, but they were all out of the raspberry chocolate, so instead it was strawberries and chocolate sauce. The Sweet Baby James was a rocking strawberry & sweet vanilla mascarpone blintz. These were, as with other things on the menu, relatively standard things prepared perfectly.

My only criticism of the night is the cupcake being covered in a massive dollop of frosting. It was delicious, obviously house-made, chocolate cream frosting and a true delight to eat, but as with so many places, the cupcake bordered on frosting-delivery mechanism. I like my cupcakes lightly frosted. Yes, yes. I can scrape it off, which I did, but it shouldn't be up to me to "correct" my food. I recognize that I might be a minority in this, so if you like frosting, as I'm sure many of you do, ignore me. Oh, and the cupcake was fantastic.

So much damned frosting.
Prices are a bit on the high side, considering what you get. They are not insane, mind you, but this place is not cheap. Their standard crêpes sport $10 price tags, with their more complex, entree-like offerings going as high as $15. I loved their T.S. Geller, $12, but a roast beef sandwich of similar size and quality with horseradish sauce can be had at many neighborhood sandwich shops and delis for $7 or less. Again, not high enough to keep me away, but high enough to not quite line up with the twee/hip personality that they are trying to project.

The whole evening was made difficult by the acoustics and the cramped dining area. The photos on their website do not at all communicate the incredibly limited space in which they are operating. I think that the insufferably hip elements of the restaurant would not have grated on me, and some of them I would have found legitimately appealing, if not for the noise. I plan on going back during a time when the crowds will be less intense so I can enjoy the environment, because the food was certainly enough to lure me back.

The Duck & Bunny: +++
Price Range: $$

312 Wickenden Street
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 270-3300

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Coolest Starbucks On Earth

The Starbucks made entirely from recycled shipping containers is super-cool, but this is even cooler.

Starbucks recently opened a location in Japan that needed to blend in with the surrounding milieu while simultaneously being "Starbucky." The solution is as elegant as it is attractive.

It's still not as cool as my favorite cafe (as regards design) in the world, Tinderbox in the UK, which has a seemingly endless number of little nooks into which you can tuck yourself as you get buzzed.

Go go gadget, caffeine.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Espresso Gasket

Make sure to replace your portafilter gasket once in awhile. Because, man, it lets you know.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

PRODUCT REVIEW: WhoNu? Nutrition Rich Cookies

The shtick behind WhoNu? cookies, aside from the baffling spelling, is that they are "healthy" cookies. I have to admit, this is something that I had long wondered: why had no company made cookies with added nutrients? I always assumed that it could be done cheaply and with little effect on the final product's taste. Well, WhoNu? has confirmed this. It can done.

Each serving of three cookies has 160 calories and a whole bevy of nutrients. Very cool. I'm glad to see a company trying to take something that is traditionally unhealthy and make it healthier. As the box states, the cookies have as much fiber as a bowl of oatmeal, as much calcium as a cup of milk, and as much vitamin C as a cup of blueberries. There is more on the back of the box that I won't bother listing.

Before I talk about the taste, I want to talk about the philosophy. I am very dedicated to dietary health, and as such, I don't like dodges. Not for some vaguely Christian moral reason about not enjoying anything, but because unhealthy foods are unhealthy. Trying to take something unhealthy and make it sorta'-healthy does not eliminate our reliance on the product. The same principle applies to diet sodas. Yes, they are zero calories, but the goal is not to continue drinking soda while simply dodging the calories with some ersatz sugar. The goal is to stop drinking soda altogether.

At the same time, sweets and treats are great. They are an important part of anyone's diet because we very much should be enjoying all elements of the culinary world. Cakes, pies, cookies, and candy, while something that should not be eaten constantly, should be eaten every now and then. They are great! And if, in your periodic treat-eating, you can find a product that is healthier than other, comparable products, it only makes sense to eat it.

So, I guess, my review comes with a caveat. These are STILL COOKIES. They are high in calories and do not fill you up. Just because they are better than other cookies does not mean that they are better than eggs and toast. With that said, on to the review.

These cookies are excellent. No, they are not gourmet, but the company was obviously not shooting for that. They wanted to make a direct competitor to Chips Ahoy and Oreos. I didn't do a direct taste test, but I could tell from memory that the Oreos rip-offs taste slightly different. They are not quite as sweet, but at the same time, they have a slightly better chocolate flavor.

The Chips Ahoy wannabes taste identical to their target. Two of my friends said that they tasted slightly different, though. I would have been happy that the cookies are made with no HFCS and no hydrogenated oils, but they went one step farther and loaded them with nutrients and fiber. Unfortunately, the Oreos use palm oil, which is made with the blood of baby orangutans. Cute ones.

The actual nutrition levels are quite high. These would literally be a better breakfast choice than many cereals. As such, it is impressive that the flavor is the same. If you treat these as cookies, and simply replace extant Chips Ahoy consumption with these, I cannot recommend them enough. But the danger of using them as replacements for otherwise healthy foods is very real. I repeat: these are cookies.

Truly, they needed to be cookies! These needed to not be health food. We already have healthy "cookies" littering the shelves of Whole Foods across the nation. Instead, what the market needed was Chips Ahoy without the crappy ingredients.They did that and did it perfectly. These taste like cookies. Are they the best cookies? No. But neither are Chips Ahoy. So if you eat Chips Ahoy, stop, and start eating these.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

PRODUCT REVIEW: Starbucks Blonde Roast

Starbucks is making a big deal out of their first light roast, and rightfully so. This is far and away the lightest roast that they have ever produced. In fact, I think that they went further than they needed. Most people would have been happy with a coffee that was merely not charred to a crisp.

This shift in strategy is coming in response to huge pressure from McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts, both of whom offer lighter coffee that, in many taste tests, is significantly preferred over Starbucks house roast, and, as near as I can tell, universally preferred over Pike Place. I have never been a fan of the 'Bucks' blasted house roast, and Pike Place is too bland. Blonde, specifically the Willow Blend, is much better.

The light brown appearance and healthy, undamaged beans bode well.
The roast is such that there is little-to-no oil on the surface of the bean and has a very light-brown color. Compare this to oily-as-hell and nearly black beans of Starbucks' usual selection.

This bloom is slightly down from its peak. Not bad.
I liked that the beans appeared to be fresh, with a much better scent and bloom during brewing. I don't know how well the beans will hold up after sitting on a grocery shelf for awhile, but perhaps Starbucks was forced to use fresher beans because they couldn't hide low quality with an obscene roast.

The nose is significantly better than anything else Starbucks makes, both from the beans, grounds, and final brew. Talking about flavor notes in the coffee is not an academic affair like with everything else at Starbucks because the terroir of the beans has not be cruelly executed.

The initial flavor profile is obviously very similar to Starbucks' ordinary roast, but there's more of it there. Notes of toasted bread, berries, and small amounts of caramel, peanut butter, and chocolate are all noticeable. It is a much more interesting and pleasant roast to drink.

There is a huge caveat to this, though. The coffee brewed in Starbucks locations is weak, watery, and lacking all punch. The Veranda blend is partly to blame: it isn't as punchy as the Willow blend; but that's only part of the story.

Both home preparation methods produced wildly superior cups to what I got at-location. The siphon-pot (3:30 heat, no cold compress) brought out acidity to the detriment of the coffee. It gave it way too much bite and an astringency on the finish that was not hidden by milk. I didn't bother with an espresso double, but the espresso single worked well. I certainly would not opt for this method, but it wasn't bad.

The sweet spot was hit with pour-over, specifically the Clever Coffee Dripper (4-minute steep). It brought out every drop of rich flavor from the beans and produced none of the biting acidity of the siphon pot. There is much more body hidden in these beans than Starbucks' preparation method would indicate.

The brew at Starbucks is not something that I would buy. It is adequate, but compared to the drip coffee available from smaller cafes, and even sometimes McDonald's, it doesn't justify its higher price. The whole beans in a bag, on the other hand, are something that I would certainly buy. While, as always, I recommend finding a local roaster for maximum freshness and quality, both critical for good coffee, blonde is some of the best coffee that you can buy on the shelf. It more than earns its recommendation.

Starbucks Blonde Roast: RECOMMENDED

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Peanut Butter Comparison Part Deux

My first, and thus far only, product comparison cum taste test was for peanut butter, which I did, like, a hundred years ago. That analysis resulted in Skippy Natural easily beating all of the other sweetened peanut butters. Since then, Jif has also launched a natural version of their peanut butter, but after trying it, my previous conclusion stands: Skippy Natural is the best sweetened PB available on the market.

In retrospect, I regret not having included natural peanut butters. My rationale was that, since sweetened versions make up the vast majority of sales, an analysis that focused on them would be more useful to buyers. Since then, though, I have given natural versions a fair shake, and let me tell you... once I tasted the rich, delicious, peanutty goodness of natural butters, I will never, ever, EVER go back.

Obviously, that makes the winner of this comparison a forgone conclusion; Skippy is most certainly not taking home any prizes. But does that mean that all natural butters are better than Skippy? Read on!

Yes. Yes, it does. You must admit, I can never be accused of circumlocution. Skippy is inferior to essentially every brand of natural peanut butter on the market. But within the natural brands, there is a great deal of difference.

I tried to find multiple natural, unsweetened peanut butters, but the market is pretty thin.1 For example, aside from Skippy Natural, Wal-Mart carries Smucker's and nothing else.2 Target, with a higher SES target demographic, carries a wider selection, but the majority of their offerings are still sweetened and buffered with some sort of oil. Real, natural peanut butter is, for some reason, just above a niche market. This is sad, because I think that if more people allowed it to become part of their diet, they would wonder how they ever did without.

And speaking of without, further ado. On to the ratings.

Smucker's Natural: 95
Delicious in every way I could expect a peanut butter to be. It's rich, with little bite, and fabulously mellow roll-off into a rich, roasty aftertaste. It tastes the best, but, strangely, I don't usually buy it. Why? Wouldn't you like to know!

Teddy: 88
Teddy has a more acidic bite in the primary taste. It's not as mellow as Smucker's and the roll-off isn't as smooth. It does have a subtle sweetness that Smucker's does not, which is pleasant. Ironically, I buy this more often than Smucker's. Why would I do something so silly? A cool trick to prevent a requisite mix of the peanut butter with every serving is to stick it in the refrigerator, which stops the oils from separating. This also increases the viscosity of the butter, which is helpful with natural PB as when it is warm it has a tendency to ooze out of sandwiches.

Teddy remains soft and spreadable when it is cold. Smucker's, oddly, acquires the consistency of cement after a couple of days in the fridge. This is only fixed with a warming period and a little re-mix. I find this annoying enough to avoid Smucker's and buy Teddy. Smucker's Chunky is not afflicted with this problem, but sometimes I just want creamy, dammit.

Woodstock Farms: 87
This small organic brand lacks the nutty texture of Smucker's and Teddy and is much more comparable to traditional butters like Jif and Skippy. It is very smooth and thus blankets the palate more, but this actually had the counter-intuitive effect of attenuating the flavor. It has a distinct sweetness to it and is brighter than Smucker's, but without the acidic bite of Teddy. Its smell is very weak compared to the rich, peanut flavor that explodes from a jar of Teddy or Smucker's. As far as flavor goes, I like this about as much as Teddy. But that nutty, somewhat crunchy texture of Teddy and Smucker's is far more appealing to me.

Smucker's Organic: 82
Almost like a cross between Teddy and Smucker's, it has a significantly weaker flavor than either. It has no bite, but it is also missing all of the mellow roast of Smucker's Natural. Quite a disappointment. While that bite from Teddy is unpleasant, it has a richer peanut flavor, making it better. Smuck-Org, as I shall now call it, also suffers from the same problem as Smuck-Nat in that it turns into carbonite when chilled. Letting it warm, re-mixing, then cooling alleviates the problem for a day or two, then it becomes carbonite again.

Skippy Natural: 60
Once having the rich, smooth sweetness of natural peanut butters, Skippy is positively cloying and simple. The taste is hollow and has an almost metallic tinge to it. Because of the addition of palm oil as a stabilizer, the butter has an oily yet tasteless quality to it. Real peanut butter is oily, but the peanut oil tastes like peanuts. I could never go back to this peanut butter. If your kids absolutely can't do without sugar in their PB, this is certainly the best variety to buy. But trust me, keep some deliciously-delicious natural PB for yourself.


1: There is a wider variety of peanut butters available online, including variants from Smucker's such as Adams and Laura Scudder's, and smaller companies like Krema. The problem is that most of the time, you cannot purchase a single jar online. You can only buy a pack of three or more. If you do not like the peanut butter, you must either grin and bear it, give it away to friends, or throw the peanut butter away.

2: I didn't include any almond butter, pecan butter, or peanut butter that has been blended with something, since that isn't peanut butter.