on being unreasonable in food critiques: a tale of two hamburgers

IMG_8828I occasionally check in on a big online local food group’s discussion threads.  As they are wont to do, the discussions flare up and people get offended at others’ opinions, especially if they are seen as damaging to local establishments or exhibiting socioeconomic privilege or unacceptable politics or perceived “snobbery.”  These places provide local jobs, the outcry goes, we should support them no matter what!  Keep any negative opinions to yourself or go whisper it personally to the manager!  Not all of us eat caviar and champagne every day!

No.

As consumers who vote with our dollars in a local economy that is still heavily dependent on word-of-mouth and habit, we should be actively and publicly and vociferously supporting the good restaurants, and actively and loudly calling out the bad ones on their badness. But to do so without namecalling or resorting to empty cheerleading for your “team” (as we do in this one-team town) is crucial.

So here’s my advice.  Be reasonable in your food critiques.

1)  Use the skills you should have learned in your college or high school English composition class: explain how and why you believe what you do, and provide evidence that supports your case.*

Without exception, the good places are places with chefs who are intimately involved with a dynamic menu and have great palates, creative and innovative spirits, and a need to be in the kitchen and serve the unwashed masses.  In almost every single case I can think of, that means supporting a local restaurant in Eugene that relies on local products, local distribution, and sustainable ethics insofar as the price point can maintain it.  And there are plenty of good ones to support.

There are also plenty of bad ones.  Yes, there are the ones meant to be lower cost, and there’s a place for that.  The portions may be huge for so-called “value,” and the food isn’t seasoned well, if it is even what you ordered.  To take one example, I ordered a burger at a mom-n-pop place the other night, and they still messed up the order after I heard no less than FIVE repetitions of what I wanted (from me twice, the server once, and the cooks on the line twice, plus it was written on the ticket).

But I was hungry and the kitchen was slammed and it was getting dark and I was on my bike, so I just said fine, I’ll scrape off the barbecue sauce and ignore the cheese and just eat this mountain of breaded-and-too-salty french fries from a freezer bag. I’m also not going to go on Yelp and whine about it, since I wasn’t expecting much and I got less but it turns out the ticket was written poorly and I chose not to have the order re-fired.  There was no safety issue and no one was out of line.  If I go again (and that’s a big if), I’ll just make sure the order is right.  I ain’t fussed.

But I am (is?) fussed when a restaurant whose soul is like the burger joint tries to pass itself off as an expensive locavore joint.  Using industrial frozen crap in a bag, not getting orders right, sacrificing local produce and quality ingredients to increase the slim profit margin, and struggling along with an absentee owner or executive chef and cooks who don’t taste the food or know what combinations work and little training for the front of the house, but still calling the menu locally sourced and fresh and the restaurant high-end.  I’ll pay $9 to suffer all that plus a high school server who is busier making eyes at the bartender than writing down an order properly, but I won’t pay $39.

And neither should you.

2)  The key for a good review is a customer who knows the difference.  Learn how to cook.  Yeah, I know you’re busy.  But education is always a sacrifice, and your body/family/farmers/planet will thank you for it.  You can choose to eat most of your meals out at cheap places if you aren’t rich.  I’d argue it’s better to save your money and use it on better places less frequently, but clearly I don’t take my own advice, as you see from the anecdote above. Nevertheless, it’s important to know the difference with your eyes and mouth between cheap, mass-produced food and good food.

Don’t patronize the places that serve you cheap food and provide cheap service for expensive prices AND, contrariwise, don’t expect places that serve you high quality food and provide good service to give you massive, gluttonous portions and act like you’re both in a chain restaurant in the mall.

And when places underwhelm you for the prices they’re charging for the quality (note again: quality not quantity since you’re not eating from a trough) of food, call them out when they do.  The reason why some of our crappy overpriced local restaurants are still in business is because (a) most people don’t know how good our fresh local food can be because they’re used to eating mass-produced products; (b) very few people who know about food say anything because they’re in the business and afraid of offending someone they may be working for someday; and (c) we live in a town where inertia helps us along and no one likes conflict or sounding too opinionated.

3)  Another thing to keep in mind is that we’re trained as Americans, as Westerners, and as Oregonians to “have it your way.”  We value individual choices so strongly it’s sometimes hard to get out of our own little bubble when we’re judging others.  So be reasonable with your tastes when you’re critiquing a local restaurant.

To return to my hamburger example, I know I am idiosyncratic with burgers.  The burger depicted above is how I like my burgers:  a crusty toasted roll, extra dill pickles dripping their dill juice into the meat, and more ketchup than burger so the whole thing is falling apart.  I even dip it in more ketchup.  Without a doubt, folks will find this completely gross and a BBQ cheeseburger far more preferable.  Where’s the special sauce?  Or Jesus, at least add some mayo and lettuce!

But no.  I just so happen to have odd tastes in burgers.  And I know this.  So you’ll rarely see me commenting on burger joints or even ordering a burger in mixed company, especially at a nice restaurant.  I know this and account for it:  I act like a 5-year-old with burgers and get surly when stuff like nasty yellow mustard or a raw onion touches my ketchuppicklefest, because my burger training was at fast food joints.  Now, of course, I make my own ketchup and pickles and eat beef ground to my specification from a local cow and form the patties myself, so I’m even worse than your average McDonald’s hamburger type.

In short, I am a hamburger douchebag.  I know this.  I protect others from the madness.  There’s probably even some residual shame in this that makes me do stuff like scrape off barbecue sauce on a misfire than insist I have my order the way I wanted it; who knows.

Do you act like a douchebag with your food tastes?  Complaining about a restaurant’s menu based on your own idiosyncratic needs is not reasonable.  If you’re gluten-free, for example, why are you in a bakery?  Can’t abide greasy food?  Get outta the pizza joint.  You only eat burgers and nothing else?  Heaven help you.  The seasonality of local ingredients, higher labor, and chef’s vision in more expensive places dictates that you can’t always have it your way.  That’s part of what you’re signing up for when you choose to go to a good restaurant.  If the menu is huge and offers concessions for every fathomable dietary restriction du jour, it’s going to come out in quality elsewhere.  So respect the genre of the restaurant you’re critiquing if you want to promote your own agenda, or better yet, be reasonable about your expectations.

One can be opinionated and reasonable.  Really.  I’ve seen it work.  I think it’s working now, actually, because in the past seven years I’ve seen drastic and wonderful changes in the Eugene dining scene, changes for the better.  And it isn’t because people blindly supported local establishments and kept their opinions to themselves.  Local restaurants are reading comments and listening to their customers.  You’ll be a respected critic if you state your opinions from an intelligent and understanding position, and back up your impressions with proof. You’ll still probably be attacked and called names, but that reflects on the commenter, not you.

* Why yes, I am an English professor by trade.  How can you tell?

i say plum and paste tomatoes

IMG_8629 Visual only! Don’t even dream of canning these wonderful ‘Ananas Noire’ tomatoes on view at the farmers market last Saturday at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Oasis.

IMG_8624 These guys?  Probably not.  Very much slicers, too, in my book.

Paste tomatoes are the bane of the gardener/canner’s existence, I’m feeling more and more.  They taste bad, they’re prone to blossom-end rot, and they take forever to ripen.  I’ve tried a number of varieties, always seeking that nirvana of good flavor and robust health, but every one seems to have its significant downside.  Every year I end up supplementing my significant acreage (ok, one super long row) with purchased plum tomatoes.

IMG_8620Plums are gorgeous and long-lived when they’re grown properly, especially the new striped and black hybrids, but the taste doesn’t advance beyond mediocre.  Although I strongly disapprove of adding bottled lemon juice when processing tomatoes, I kind of think it doesn’t matter when you’re using plums, since there’s no flavor to begin with.  Regular ‘Roma’ tomatoes are useless, and ‘San Marzanos’ are particularly awful here in the Willamette Valley.  People insist on buying them, since they are the Italian variety everyone knows as quality, but they just taste like cardboard in and out of the jar.

IMG_8619So what’s a local girl to do?  Keep searching for better varieties for our region.  I grew ‘Saucey’ for several years.  In 2014 my biggest success is a grafted plant of ‘Jersey Devil,’ which may be a new offering from Log House this year. They have a very pleasant little tail at the end and turn bright red, just like Satan.  They didn’t crap out like my highly anticipated ‘Orange’ and ‘Black Icicles’.

But paste tomatoes, in my opinion, are better than plums, but still prone to diva behavior.  They’re the ones that are not necessarily elongated and hollow/seedy in the middle, but may be more heart-shaped and solid flesh with very few seeds.  They will be a bit more liquidy at first than plums, but cook down nicely and produce a much more flavorful sauce.  I’ve posted many times about ‘Amish Paste,’ so I won’t go into it here, but the 1-pound tomatoes I get from the good strain of this plant (i.e., not the small tomato strain), are excellent.  Farmer Anthony Boutard recommended it to me several years ago, and he’s since moved on to his own ‘Astiana’ line plucked from a market in the Piedmont region of Italy.  I’ve yet to haul my preoccupied behind up to Hillsdale to get in on some of that ‘Astiana’ action.

IMG_8623Heart-shaped, solid tomatoes are also good for sauce.  One possibility for me this year might be these ‘Reif Red Hearts’, spotted last weekend next to the ‘Ananas Noires’. They look quite promising indeed as a sauce tomato, from what I’ve read on the internets.

IMG_8618As for local plums, and there are better varieties than ‘San Marzano,’ like ‘Scipio’, which was good last year from Sweetwater Farm, and these fat and gorgeous ‘Opalka’ plums from Mountain View Farm in Junction City.

Another possibility to consider are the good ol’ round canning tomatoes, like the all-purpose Moskovich, again from Ruby and Amber’s stand at the market.

IMG_8625What varieties are you picking, buying, and canning this year?

niblets: the more things change, the more things stay the same edition

IMG_8671Niblets is an all-too-occasional feature on the ins and outs of the Eugene food scene. Syndicate me?  You know you want to.  Or, if you don’t own a magazine or newspaper or media outlet, join Facebook and friend me there for updates about many more local events than I can post here on the blog.

Today, it’s all about Olivo Tapas.  We had an achingly delicious meal there yesterday, reminiscent of times past at Soubise and Rabbit Bistro.  Chef Alejandro Cruz was trained by Chef Gabe Gil, and it shows in his flavors, presentation, details, and sheer joy in the kitchen.  We opted for the chef’s tasting menu and watched him in the open kitchen smiling his way through the service.  Such a lovely thing to behold, a man who loves to cook and does it well.

The menu was at once unusual and comforting, “relateable,” as my students might say.  We had two oysters with a slightly spicy lemon-tabasco granita to start that were delicious but could have been even colder.  I’ve grown obsessed with icy oysters in my old age; not sure what’s up with that.  The oysters were followed by that sublime combination of watermelon and tomato, kept lively by little bits of cured salmon and pecorino and basil, then a perfectly fresh medium rare fan of albacore with a green olive sauce on squash succotash (corn, tomatoes, and a surprise of summer chanterelles).  Colors and flavors popped all over the place. Pork belly over slightly too al dente white beans was utterly enchanted by cilantro; I didn’t want the plate to end.  As my dining companion said, “I could go for a do-over on this!”

And the best of all?  The pictured dessert.  Like a molecular gastronomist’s dream of a deconstructed crisp with cream, oh my.  Pecorino custard with charred peaches and crumbled cinnamon Japanese-pan churros (which I happened to recognize because Masa gave me a taste last time I was there).  So. Good. Sigh.

The menu’s available all weekend, so hurry down and try it.  Nice, simple wine list, too (we sampled very different but equally good glasses of white bordeaux and pinot gris.  Maybe when it’s ready they’ll add this year’s William Rose rosé?

Check out my photo album for more snaps of the fabulous food and more information about the restaurant.

We also stopped by the new Oregon Electric Station for a quick cocktail before dinner. Charming host and barkeeps trying hard. I was delighted to run into bartender James West there, who will be presiding over the smaller bar with a specialty menu in the east room off the main dining hall, open officially on Monday.  I’ll be glad to see him back in action.  Food menu for the OES?  Well, it’s large and varied, with an unfortunate collection of customer favorites from the old OES (think coconut shrimp, or rather don’t).  Happy to see several varieties of ‘carpaccio’ offered, including beef, salmon, beet, and lobster.  And more types of fettucine alfredo than one can shake a stick at.  Way too much Maine lobster for a local restaurant with access to Dungeness crab, IMO, and ahi instead of albacore tuna (egads, in season!) but let’s give them a chance to learn our local.

I haven’t had the chance to patronize the new Elk Horn Brewery, run by Chef Stephen Sheehan of Delacata, because it was overrun by fans in its first few days of business.  I’ll wait for the chaos to settle, but I admire them for putting an elk burger on the menu with all their fried delicacies.

IMG_8569I *have* had the chance to eat sweet corn honey butter ice cream in this neverending-nineties weather.  The patio at Friendly Street Market is the nicest casual outdoor dining space I’ve seen in a while in this little ol’ town, and Red Wagon Creamery’s new scoopery inside the market is perfect.

And last but not least: I’ve urged you to always get the specials, especially the fish tacos, but the sangria special at Tacovore is a must-try.  It’s the best sangria I’ve had in a long time.  Thanks, bartender Amy Hand!

ozette potatoes and a sauce from garden herbs

IMG_8647I bought some delicious, glossy PNW-native ‘Ozette’ potatoes from Turnip the Beet Farm at the Lane County farmers market on Saturday.  I’ve written about them before, and think they’re fantastic for the locavore and armchair anthropologist.  They taste good, too!  As far as I know, Turnip the Beet is the only farm that produces them around here.  Farmer Lela says it’s the second crop of the year and they should have them at the next couple markets.

I like the Ozettes because they’re waxy and flavorful, so they make good fried potatoes and potato salad.  Or simply boil them and serve with the brilliant German green sauce, Grüne Soβe (or in the dialect of Frankfurt, Grie Soß).  It’s more of a spring thing, but if you’ve got a burgeoning herb garden, it’s a great summer dish.  All you need is seven herbs, a binder (e.g., sour cream) and something sour (e.g., lemon) and a little mustard.  The herbs that are traditional are sorrel, chervil, parsley, borage, burnet, cress and chives, but there are many variations.  Why not make a PNW herb blend?  I’ve seen basil and dill and marjoram included in some recipes, even.  Here are a few variations:

Mine was made with my very thick homemade sour cream (read: too thick for this sauce), a little milk to thin it out (bad idea, as it de-emulsified the fats), wine vinegar, mustard, and the traditional herbs minus cress.  Sorry about the poor picture, I was hungry.

I’m particularly excited about these potatoes because they represent yet another young farmer couple who are making a go of it in Lane County to bring us heirlooms and unusual produce, produced in a sustainable and labor-intensive way.  They’re worth supporting.  Even better, they just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign for new greenhouses, so they’ll be able to extend the season in the future.  Congratulations!

 

 

 

 

grapest show on earth

IMG_8636Whoa, looks like my green table grapes (of indeterminate variety) really liked having more airflow and a less severe prune!  For a change, my laziness resulted in happy times: a bumper crop of the little, seedless, acidic things. So. Many. Grapes. Expecting yours did as well as mine, I won’t try to pawn mine off on you as a hopeful gentleman did the zucchini bat below:

IMG_0188Thus, I present to you the recipes I’m experimenting with this year. I’m afraid my grapes are less juicy and more tart than the average grape, so I’ll probably have to adjust the recipes. 

I’m looking forward to:

You might be tempted to try some of these 51 grape recipes.  I dunno.  Some of them look awful.  And that goes for most grape recipes on the internet.  Anything remotely indicating a grape pie, for example — a weepy, mushy grape pie with some offensive topping where the recipe writer warns the reader ahead of time — is not going to be something I sample.  If you do, and you like it, let me know!

One recipe link that’s broken is an interesting one for “burnt grapes,” which seems to be just a raspberries Romanoff adaption, in which one tops the fruit with sour cream then brûlées it.  Eh.  Not my fave, and grapes would be slipperier.  But here’s another link for that.

Pickled grapes?  Hmmm, maybe.  You tell me.

Or this grape almond olive oil cake that won the contest that produced the Collins and chutney recipes?  Sure thing.

You could also try fresh grape juice, which is made by processing a ton of grapes in a blender, then straining. Or grape juice for canning, recipe here.  I had some wonderful grape juice this winter sold at the Cottage Grove farmstand made of blends of table and wine grapes, both red and white, so I know it can be good, and not a trip down Welch’s memory lane.

IMG_8631Aaaand upon seeing the price of table grapes at the market…anyone want to buy about 50 lbs. of grapes? I’m trying to fund a freelancing career, here. ;)

but first, the tomato news

IMG_8416Tomato time.  I take advantage of cooler nights and melt down chunks of paste tomatoes with a little olive oil and salt in a 225 degree oven overnight to make tomato paste.  After I mill out the skins and cook the rest of the water out, I freeze the paste in ice cube trays.  I’ll do this several times during tomato season to keep up with the harvest.  Not everything needs to be canned/preserved in big batches!

For a change of pace, try my green and red pizza sauce, cooked similarly to tomato paste but with more seasoning and green tomatoes.  You don’t need any special equipment for this one!

And later in the season, you can bet I’ll use up all the rest of the paste tomatoes in my ketchup recipe, one of the best recipes I’ve ever developed.

This year my always huge tomatoes got away from me in the dry heat, and I’m battling an even more severe blossom end rot issue than usual.  It’s clearly a calcium/fertilizer deficiency, since they grew so fast and I thought I had covered my bases with my usual treatment of dried milk and eggshells, plus even watering.  Even a calcium infusion late in the game didn’t help much.  Kind of mad at myself, since I’ve now lost about 75% of the plum tom crop, but I still have huge numbers of tomatoes, so I can’t complain about anything other than my own lack of vigilance.

What’s growing extremely well is the next generation Indigo tomatoes developed first at OSU.  I planted a grafted variety from Log House Gardens called ‘Indigo Cherry Drop’ that has proven to be blossom-end-rot (BER) bullet-proof (the only plant that emerged unscathed).  The others, not so much:

Tomatoes 2014

  • Orange Icicle and Black Icicle (both very prolific but wiped out nearly clean with BER, orange variety tastes terrific)
  • Black Ethiopian (a solid salad tom, pretty good BER resistance)
  • Indigo Cherry Drop – terrific, perfect golf ball size; actually tastes good, unlike the first gen Indigos (not great but good), and very pretty
  • Sungold
  • Amish Paste (got the big strain this year, thank goodness, and it’s stronger against the BER than expected)
  • San Marzano (grafted) – still tastes bad and full of BER
  • Jersey Devil (grafted) – another plum but same problems
  • Sunset’s Red Horizon
  • Henderson’s Winsall
  • Anna Russian – another big paste (or rather heart-shaped) that resembles Amish but seems heartier
  • Rose di Berne
  • Black Mt. Pink

And while I’m at it, just thought I should mention the peppers are doing very well.  I had to pinch off blossoms early in the season to encourage the plants to grow large enough to support the crop, so I’m just now getting some full, beautiful pepper development.

Peppers 2014

  • Corbaci (a long skinny sweet pepper, really cool and prolific, grew in pot)
  • Sweet banana
  • Carmen (x 2, not sure why i grew two of these)
  • Paradisium Alatu Sarza Szentes (yellow ribbed flat guys)
  • Jaloro (yellow jalapeno, in pot, hot)
  • Atris (F1 hybrid, huge)
  • Mulato
  • Mulato Islena
  • Padron
  • Aji Amarillo  (no flowers yet!!)
  • Negro de Valle
  • Pasilla Baijo (chilaca when fresh)

pricing albacore for canning

IMG_0443If you’re planning to can tuna this year, and you just so happen to at or near the Oregon coast, be sure to use my handy, research-based, certified Master Food Preserver vetted, proofread (etc., etc.) guide to canning tuna.  (Or check out more tips if you want to can salmon.)  I’m going to amend it with more info about buying tuna, with thanks again to fellow MFP and tuna canning expert Dale Dow, who clarifies:

To order fish, a rough rule of thumb is to order one pound of fish (whole fish, not fillets) per half-pint jar.  This is the whole fish and about 50% wastage is expected.  But the size of the fish, the skill of the fishmonger, and the skill of filling the jars all determine how many jars can be filled.  In other words, I’d say,”I want 24 pounds of tuna for canning, filleted” if I planned to do a canner full.  It is cheaper to filet your own if you have the skill and time.

Thanks, Dale!