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The 2008 Top-Ten Tastiest

The end of the calendar year is a fine time to cast a glance backward before we press on into the new frontier. What went well? What didn't go so well? How can we improve? What should be cast away, never to be spoken of again?

And so, before we recycle the upsie-downsie pages of 2008, here's a rundown of what we'll call:

The 2008 Readers' Choice Top-Ten Tastiest Posts
(as judged by total web traffic)

10. Faux Yo... in which the distinguished food scientist Harold McGee weighs in on active cultures in fro-yo.

Susky Banana Rama

9. A Scoop of Nutella-Bacon Swirl... because we love the bacon — even in our ice cream. :)

Bacon Ice Cream

8. What, Me Bitter?... discovering the delight of homemade bitters.

Homemade Bitters

7. For Love of Chocolate Almond Daim Cakes... in which we attempt to recreate an IKEA classic.

Daim Cakelets

6. I Drink Your Milkshake... after all, who doesn't need a creepy baby bib?

Milkshake Bib

5. Snuggle Up With a Good Label... in which we consider packaged foods vs. whole foods.

Food Guide

4. Top Ten Real-Food Workout Foods... a list of healthful snacks for active folks.

Chickpeas in the Park

3. Bacon + Cake = Yay!... a much-loved post on the combination of bacon and chocolate cake.

bacon cake!

2. Unlock the Salad Code... the secrets of stellar salads revealed!

Salad Chart


And finally, the number-one post of the year, as judged by web readers...

1. On Bread & Butter Alone... a shoot-out tasting of nine rich and creamy contenders.

Nine Butters

Thanks again to everyone who stopped by and "voted" at MissGinsu.com with your eyeballs this year! It's great to know there folks out there peeping and reading.

To 2009! Cheers,
Miss Ginsu

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12.29.2008

Apricots, Apriums, Plumcots, Pluots & Plums



Am I the only one that's confused by exactly what the difference is between a pluot and a plumcot?

Heck... It was only very recently that I discovered the existence of the aprium.

As it turns out, pluots and apriums aren't just recently popularized fruits. They're the result of hard work by the Zaiger family of Modesto, California, who for the last 30 years or so, have been quietly marrying apricots and plums — among other stone fruits — in an effort to create crazy new fruits (with Zaiger-registered trademarks, of course) for the marketplace.

As it turns out, apricots, like plums are actually members of the same species, Prunus. Who knew? Well, apparently the Zaigers knew.

In general, I find any in-season stonefruit to be so delightful, a recipe is hardly necessary. Just a napkin, please.

That said, you can dress up any stonefruit just a bit by making a quickie summer pastry with it. For little tartlet, don't even fuss with making up a pastry base. Just thaw some puff pastry, mount it with macerated fruit (use whichever ones you happen to run across) and bake. Voila! Stonefruit perfection.
Plum/Apricot Tartlets (Servings Vary)

Frozen puff pastry (thawed)
1 Apricot, Aprium, Plumcot, Pluot or Plum per serving (cut in 1/2" slices)
1/2 tsp sugar per fruit
1-2 shakes ground cinnamon (optional)

1. Heat the oven to 400°F.
2. Cut 1 4"x 4" puff pastry square for each serving. Rewrap and freeze any remaining puff pastry.
3. Place pastry squares on a baking sheet.
4. Stir sliced stonefruit, sugar and cinnamon (if using) in a mixing bowl.
5. Pile sugared fruit in the center of each pastry square, leaving a 1" pastry border.
6. Fold up the edges to create casual pastry cups around the fruit, and bake for 30 minutes, or until pastry is golden.

As you can imagine, these are really nice served warm with plain yogurt, crème fraîche or vanilla ice cream.

Cheers!

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7.08.2008

Goal 5: Eat In Season

January is a grim season for locavores. I try to eat locally whenever I can, but there's no way I'm going to pass up a juicy Pomelo in January or a sweet box of clementines in December. Thankfully, citrus is in season during the winter months, even if it does have a lengthy sojourn on the way here.

If you live on on the West Coast, you have a few more options. Om Organics has a nice chart of what's growing when in the Bay Area.

For those of us out here in the East, things are pretty sparse at the farmers markets. What should you be eating now? Broccoli. Cauliflower. Root Vegetables. Pumpkins. Citrus fruits and all manner of hearty greens.

Eating peak-season produce is a great food resolution because it's cheaper, it's more nutritious and when you buy locally, you support your farming neighbors. And that's just plain old good karma.

I've made up a chart here to keep those of us in the Northeast region on track throughout the year. (Anything that's not grown locally is indicated with an asterisk.)

Apples to Cabbages
Apples through Cabbages

Carrots to Grapefruit
Carrots through Grapefruit

Green Garlic to Sweet Onions
Green Garlic through Sweet Onions

Blood Oranges to Wild Ramps
Blood Oranges through Wild Ramps

Raspberries to Turnips
Raspberries through Turnips

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1.05.2008

Forget Foodies. Unleash the GastroGnomes!

The New York Times published an article today that features "The Foodie Scene in the Twin Cities," the subhead for which proclaims, "In another sign of a cultural awakening, dining out in this city of sensible industry is no longer confined to steakhouses."

Sitting on the couch this morning, I read this line aloud with ill-hidden outrage.
Confined to steakhouses? Seriously? Did the writer actually visit MSP? I lived thereabouts for close to ten years and I can't remember ever eating at a steakhouse.

My sweetheart chuckled from his desk a few feet away. Having already read the piece, he knew my boiling blood wouldn't cool a bit as the thesis statement of said article became clear.

As it happens, the "Foodie Scene" covered in the Times refers almost entirely to some recent "celebrity chef" action. Oh sure, there's a passing reference to one of the excellent farmers' markets and to Chef Brenda Langton, a Minneapolis fixture who's been cooking tasty things as long as I can remember, but as far as the Times is concerned, the term "foodie" seems to be confined to those looking for high-end five-to-seven course prixe fix dining directed from on high by the new gods of expense account cuisine (Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, in this case).

Why all the rage? Well, if I knew nothing about the Twin Cities (and honestly, that's true of the majority of New Yorkers I've met), I might read that article and think to myself, "Thank heaven for those bold, selfless celebrity chefs. How else would a backwater like that learn any kind of appreciation for organic and regional ingredients? God bless Wolfgang and Jean-Georges."

All of which is complete and utter hogwash. But wait... is it possible that they mean something different by the word "foodies?"

With that thought in mind, it seems the foodies of the Times eat exclusively at tables with very high thread-count coverings. Said foodies would also have to have completely forgotten Celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson who ran Restaurant Aquavit in Minneapolis (and NYC) until recently. And they'd have to be blind to places like La Belle Vie, whose chef, Tim McKee, was recognized by Gourmet, James Beard and the local City Pages. (And for that matter, I recommend that those seeking guidance on MSP just skip the Times and read the City Pages food reviews. They know all the best things going.)

I could go on, but I feel we should get back to business: "Foodie." I've never liked the word. It just sounds dumb. Like someone affixed a vowel sound to a random noun to make a label. It's what little kids do to form insults.

They can have that word. I just want to clarify that "Foodie Scene" as used in the article mentioned above should be read as the "Status Dining Scene."

On the other hand, I feel that those people who are dedicated to ferreting out and exploring the world of tasty, exciting, horizon-expanding foods available any a given place should be called something else.

"Gourmets" sounds flaccid and snobby. "Epicurians" seems accurate, but it comes off as a tad stiff. "Chowhounds" isn't bad, but it's rather specific. I'm going to go with something more like "Gastronomes," which conjures up an image of an army of garden gnomes armed with forks and knives, ready to explore and devour. Unleash the Gastro-Gnomes! (A bit terrifying, isn't it?)

Where do the Gastrognomes of Minneapolis-St. Paul eat? In many places, as it turns out. Ask a few. They'll tell you. In that spirit, I'll list just a handful of my favorite Twin Cities food spots:

The Midtown Global Market, where you'll now find a killah combination of cheap+tasty, including Manny's Tortas, Holy Land and La Loma, the home of tasty tamales.
920 E Lake St
Minneapolis
612.872.4041

One-stop picnic shop: The Wedge Co-Op, where you can get a loaf of bread, a fresh-pressed fruit juice, an array of treats and be on your way to the Sculpture Garden for lunch.
2105 Lyndale Avenue South
Minneapolis MN, 55405
612-871-3993

The improbable Sea Salt Eatery for fish sandwiches and crab cakes that have no right to be so tasty. Be warned: They're only open in the good months.
4825 Minnehaha Ave
Minneapolis
612.721.8990

Ted Cook's 19th Hole Barbeque — Classic baked beans, cornbread, greens and saucy barbecue. Worth getting lost on the residential streets trying to find it? Hell yeah.
2814 E 38th St
Minneapolis
612.721.2023

Victor's 1959 Cafe Eggs with black beans and fried yuca? Toast with guava jelly? Yeah, I'm in.
3756 Grand Ave S
Minneapolis
612.827.8948

Hell's Kitchen, which makes awesome bison sausage and their signature brunchy treat: the luxe Mahnomin Porridge.
89 South 10th St
Minneapolis
612.332.4700

Emily's Lebanese Deli I've been trying for close to 6 years to make tabbouleh that tasty...
641 University Ave NE
Minneapolis
612.379.4069

Blue Nile I'm a sucker for Ethiopian. Mmm... Stew.
2027 E Franklin Ave
Minneapolis
612.338.3000

Surdyk's wine + cheese shop extraordinaire
303 East Hennepin Ave
Minneapolis
612.379.3232

Rustica Bakery Breads, rolls and pastries made with love, skill and a bonus helping of tastiness.
816 W 46th St
Minneapolis
612.822.1119

A Baker's Wife's Pastry Shop Unassuming, inexpensive, impressive. Get a tart.
4200 28th Ave S
Minneapolis
612.729.6898

Coffee Gallery at Open Book. This listing really isn't all about the food. There aren't many things I crave more than Books + Coffee. Open Book is an amazing resource for anyone who loves books and enjoys seeing how they're constructed.
1011 Washington Ave S
Minneapolis
612.215.2626

Bayport Cookery Okay, so it's actually a stone's throw from MSP. But my lord, people... they host a morel fest. It's damn tasty and not terribly expensive. Make the trip. These guys were doing sustainable, local cuisine before it was cool.
328 5th Ave N
Bayport, MN
651.430.1066

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4.29.2007

Handy Stuff: Coffee Concentrate

Q. How do you make coffee concentrate?

A. Put it in a quiet, well-lit room with minimal distractions.

ice coffe

Thanks... I'll be here all week. But seriously, folks.

Iced coffee season is officially open, and it's an occasion that fills me with a need to empower any ambitious folks who are willing to listen. For some reason, adding ice to one's java tends to increase the asking price from a straight-up buck to $2.50 or more. Call me cheap, that seems a bit dear.

Iced coffee is something I believe people can and should be able to make at home.

So what's to prevent you from dropping a few cubes in your mug? Well... good sense, naturally. Nobody wants a watery cuppa joe. I've seen some people recommend ice cubes made out of coffee, but I personally think a concentrate is the way to go.

So then, how do you make coffee concentrate?

Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book recommends using a little device known as a Coffee Toddy.
To prepare coffee concentrate, you will need a coffee toddy, 1 pound medium to fine ground coffee, and 1/2 gallon cold water. Set the toddy over an empty jar, place the coffee in the filter, and pour the water over it. Let the coffee drip overnight. This makes 5 ounces of concentrate.

Once made, it's easy to keep coffee concentrate on hand in the fridge for use in ice cream, cakes, smoothies, gelato, granitas and of course... iced coffee.

Take back the power, people. If you're an iced coffee devotee (sipping say, four times a week from now through August) who's paying $2.50-$3 for the stuff, you could end up spending $400 or more to get a summer's worth of fix. A toddy and a bag of beans at the beginning of the season will cost you less than $30.

As an added bonus, by using your own insulated mug, you won't be tossing away dozens of the standard-issue plastic ones. DIY iced coffee is better for your pocketbook and better for the planet. Best of all, it's reliably delicious. And if that's not worth an ounce of concentration, I don't know what is.

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4.28.2007

Recipe Rock Star #5: It's the little things

resting pork loins
A pair of pork loins, resting. From missginsu @ flickr

The Recipe Rock Star is a cooking tutorial series meant to make you a better home cook. It's kitchen hacking. So far, we've covered one focused minute, mise en place, the importance of quality and the proper tools for the task. These aren't necessarily ordered, so feel free to read, review, skim or skip. Now then...

Recipe Rock Star Lesson #5:

It's the little things


My father likes to say, "Don't sweat the small stuff." He means, of course, that life's details weren't worth a lot of stress.

We live for a short period of time, after which we're dead for a very long time. Within this perspective, an ugly chink in the paint on one's new car really means nothing at all. Water off the proverbial duck's proverbial back.

Now I'm going to contradict myself a bit, because one of the lessons I picked up from cooking school and restaurant gigs is that good cusine really does require that some fussing over the small stuff. In cooking, the details make the difference.

The key is knowing which details matter and how much they matter.

Take stock, for example. Long ago, good home cooks put down a pot of water to simmer at the back of the stove before they began their other kitchen tasks.

As they cut vegetables, the trimmings went into the stockpot. As they picked herbs, the stems went in the stockpot. As they butchered meat, the bones joined the veggie trimmings and herb stems. When it came time to moisten a sauce, a stew or a braise, well... no problem. The stock was waiting there at the back of the stove.

Who makes stock anymore? Restaurants do, but for home cooks, stock is a neglected detail. Home cooks have day jobs, and the broth that comes in cans and aseptic containers is more convenient.

And yet, a quality home-brewed stock adds flavor characteristics that canned broth can't match. If you're making a soup, stew or a simple sauce, good stock is one of the details that makes the difference between not bad and daaamn!

Better still, making stock is a small effort. Just put a pot of water on the stove. If you're already in the kitchen cooking something else, you're bound to have things to simmer in that pot. Carrot peels? Wilty celery? Onion ends? Parsley stems? The bones from that rotisserie chicken you picked up at the deli yesterday? Into the pot!

Simmer everythig with a couple of bay leaves, some thyme (if you have it) and maybe some peppercorns. When you're done working in the kitchen, strain out all the spent aromatics and bones through a strainer or colander, cool down the stock and transfer it to small containers. Keep 'em in the freezer. Some people freeze stock in ice cube trays and later transfer the cubes to freezer bags for easy portioning. When you need stock, it'll be waiting for you.

There's a lot of details that make a big difference in the final dish. Most take very little time. I'll quickly list six more of my favorites:
  • Warming first, resting later. Don't take a piece of meat, fish or poultry out of the refrigerator and slap it down in a hot pan. Proteins cook more evenly when they're a few degrees closer to room temperature, so take it out to warm a few minutes before you cook it. (I'm not suggesting you take that steak out after lunch when you're planning to eat it for dinner. Just let it warm for twenty minutes while you prepare the salad or chop the vegetables.) And while you're at it, plan for a little resting time after the protein is cooked. Heat drives juices to the center of meat and chicken. A five- to ten-minute rest on the cutting board allows the muscle fibers to redistribute the liquid, ensuring a juicy steak or cutlet and preventing a soggy cutting board.

  • Minding the texture. Does the recipe call for cheese or citrus zest? The texture makes a big difference in the final dish. For example, if you use a microplane to zest a lemon, you'll end up with small, airy shreds, which are going to release oils and hit the tongue in a different way from the plump shreds you might get from a box grater. Similarly, a powdered Parmesan cheese tastes different from one that's lightly shredded or sliced.

  • A quality sear. When cooking meat, it's generally a good idea to start with high heat in the pan and reduce the temperature once the protein has a good sear. As it turns out, that sear produces a chemical reaction that really makes a big difference in the meat's flavor in a process called the Maillard reaction. That sear is important whether you're braising, grilling, broiling or pan-frying. Keep that in mind next time you use your slow cooker. The sear is a great investment in flavor.

  • Browning that roux. Thickening a sauce, stew, gravy or soup with a flour and butter mixture? The few minutes spent patiently stirring and toasting the roux can mean the difference between a bland or even slightly bitter dish and something that's rich, complex and toasty.

  • The last-minute herb attack. Ever notice how restaurant chefs often toss a pinch of fresh-chopped parsley, cilantro, basil, chervil, rosemary, chives or mint on top of your dinner entrée? It's not just garnish (although fresh herbs do generally make any dish look a little more swanky.) The vibrant, verdant flavors of the last-minute herb sprinkle (or citrus squeeze) have a big flavor impact... particularly in heavy dishes that benefit from the contrast.

  • Freshly whipped cream on desserts. Cool Whip is more convenient. Spray cans are more fun. But there's nothing quite as flavorful, decadent or impressive as topping your dessert with cream you've freshly whipped yourself. Bonus: Whisking is great bicep exercise.

  • There's more. A lot more. Just keep this in mind: Sometimes cutting corners means you save time, and sometimes it just means you deprive yourself of flavor. Know what the shortcut really costs.
    Next time in the Recipe Rock Star, I'll discuss why being "in the weeds" is unpleasant and what can be done about it.

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    2.15.2007

    Nothing says gratitude like a slaughtered lamb

    the lamb and the wolf
    Symbols of gratitude and danger living in perfect harmony. Image: NYPL digital library.

    My boss asked me to track down a traditional "thank you" food.

    He wanted to give that unknown thing as a gift of appreciation to our best customers. It seemed like a good idea. I'd just do some research, discover that flash-frozen steaks were a universally acknowledged symbol of goodwill and esteem, and out they'd go. Boss happy. Customers happy. Easy-peasy, right?

    On the ensuing search for consumables as symbols of appreciation, I discovered... well, it's not so easy. I should have known. Symbolic meaning is relative. More than that, it's local. So there's not a lot in the way of universally recognizable representations. Particularly not in the way of food items, which have traditionally tended to be very local.

    Oh sure, you'll find quite a few quasi-universal symbols out there. There are flags to represent nations, the white cross, which generally symbolizes medical help, the golden arches, which symbolize heart failure and the swoosh, which means I'm about to pay a surcharge for a piece of clothing. But the great efforts used to make those symbols into something globally recognizable was intentional. And, generally, well financed.

    The more organically occurring symbolic representations tend to be "readable" only by those in certain groups, or regions.

    When I grew up in the Dakotas, I attended pow wows, sweats and other events at which tobacco was a gift that demonstrated respect and appreciation. Presenting someone in Manhattan with a nice pouch of fresh tobacco probably wouldn't read the same way. Particularly in this "tobacco as symbol of death and/or decadence" era.

    So back in the frustrating realm of my food symbol quest, it seems that a pineapple might say "hospitality" to me (this fellow has a nice rundown of why the pineapple has historically been recognized in that capacity... I love the bit about how pineapples used to be rented short-term for parties in order to demonstrate one's status and taste), but it might just suggest "Hawaiian cocktails" (or even worse, "Williams-Sonoma") to our customers.

    The slaughtered lamb was once pretty widely used as a dramatic "thanks a lot" gesture, but again... it's all about location, location, location. And context. Symbols are language, meaning, of course, that the recipient of the symbol has to speak your language.

    I submitted my findings. He ended up sending out boxes of chocolate.

    But now that I think about it, considering our best customers are high-spending NYC food buyers, maybe a box of steaks wasn't such a bad idea as a symbol of appreciation after all. It's extravagant and not really not that far afield from the slaughtered lamb. And isn't extravagance nearly always recognized as symbolic of appreciation?

    In no particular order, some of my findings on food symbols and their meanings:
    Apple = appreciation (generally of teachers), temptation, New York
    Peach = longevity, marriage
    Pear = affection
    Olive = peace, healing
    Garlic = strength
    Gourds = good health, longevity
    Chocolate = devotion, love
    Fish = faith (Christian faith in particular)
    Rabbit = fertility
    Lotus Root = unconditional love
    Lamb = faith (again, it's about Jesus)
    Maple Syrup = Canada, eh
    Pineapple = hospitality, welcome
    Pumpkin = prosperity, festivity, harvest
    Pomelo, basket/cornucopia, sheaf of wheat = bounty
    Slaughtered lamb, tobacco = appreciation, gratitude
    Rosemary = fidelity, remembrance
    Pomegranate = fertility
    Lavender = good luck
    Salt = wealth, loyalty, incorruptibility, immortality
    Honey = wealth, happiness
    Turnips = charity
    Pepper = lust, spice
    Fig, bamboo, pig = prosperity
    Banana = hey... sometimes a banana is just a banana, okay?

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    1.04.2007