How Chefs Are Destroying American Cooking

Archvillain Guy Fieri and His Inedible Creations

My original title for this post was “How the Food Network Is Destroying American Cooking,” but I decided the problem is more general. It’s almost as if all the young chefs have been subsisting on Cheerios and S’mores until they suddenly got religion and started putting together things that never really belonged together. It’s like those stupid Iron Chef competitions in which cooks are challenged to make something intriguing from unlikely ingredients. For instance, some competing chefs may have to cook a dish using:

  • A men’s size 10 double wide leather shoe sole
  • Two cups of lard
  • A dash of Asafoetida
  • Several pounds of kale
  • A pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream

All the components of a dish must be built up in a tower of food, as in the photo below:

Small Tower of Miscellaneous Ingredients

I was raised on Hungarian food, but living in Los Angeles has given me an abiding interest in Asian food (principally Chinese, Indian, and Japanese) and Mexican food. Although Martine and I do visit restaurants (principally on weekends), most evenings we eat dishes which I have prepared. For instance, tonight I made a Middle Eastern vegan stew containing potatoes, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), tomatoes, onions, and cumin. I also liked to prepare a jambalaya (minus shrimp, which we don’t eat), keema, chili con carne, chicken chow mein, kasha varnishkas, and ratatouille vegetable stew. I never pile the main dish up into a tower of any sort, and I studiously avoid ingredients that conflict with one another.

When I read a restaurant review, I have to read between the lines to determine whether the food is good, or merely showy in some strange way.

There used to be a great Hungarian restaurant in the San Fernando Valley by Ventura and Vineland called the Hortobagy. When that restaurant closed down, the owner opened another place off Tujunga and Magnolia called Maximilian’s Austro-Hungarian Restaurant. It turns out that the owner, who fancied himself a chef, thought that the liberal use of raw onions was his trademark. The women chefs who worked at Hortobagy were the real artists; the owner, Laszlo, was anything but.

 

A Beneficiary of Global Warming

Habanero Chile Peppers

If you are looking for a hot time tonight, you could do worse than biting into a habanero chile, also known as a Scotch Bonnet or a Jamaican Chile. Although you can theoretically get hotter chiles from specialty food retailers and farm scattered farms, the hottest chiles I can normally find in Southern California are the habaneros. (For more information of the Scoville Heat Unit rating of the hotness of various chiles, click here.)

As I plan for my Yucatán/Belize vacation, I have taken to reading the website of The Yucatán Times. One interesting story I found related to a university study of which crops would benefit most from global warming and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. You’ll never guess which crop would benefit the most. Of course, it’s the habanero chile, which is so fierce that I would not use more than one-half of a small pepper to heat over a gallon and a half of soup.

Following is an excerpt from the article:

However, people who work with habanero pepper expect higher production, due to the conditions that will prevail in the State, as was observed with the study that was carried out by specialists of Technological Agricultural Institute (ITA) and the Scientific Research Center of Yucatán (CICY).

“The Capsicum chinense harvest will improve as the conditions of temperature and concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) increase,” Garruña Hernández said.

He explained that the favorable result was obtained in different theoretical models of climate change simulated under controlled conditions in growth chambers located inside the CICY greenhouse.

That is to say, “in the laboratory it was possible to regulate both the temperature and the concentration of CO2 in the air, and the results with this emblematic product of the Yucatan Peninsula were remarkable,” he said.

Garruña Hernández indicated that habanero crops were grown in different environments, with temperatures of 30, 35 and 40 degrees [Celsius], similar to those registered as a result of climate change. At the same time, different concentrations of CO2 were maintained, CO2 levels are increasing, also as a result of climate modifications.

Are you thinking of biting into a habanero chile any time soon? See this video for the grisly result.

Note that the Mayan name of the chile means “the crying tongue.” Unless you are a real chilehead, be warned.

The Singing Chef and Others

Singing Chef Harpal Singh

Although I still have a shelf of cookbooks, it is unlikely that I will add to it. For my own ventures into cooking, I am increasingly turning to YouTube where I can see the dish being made and what it looks like when it is completed.

As I grow older, I am becoming more interested in vegetarian cuisine. And which is the greatest vegetarian cuisine, but the foods of India. If I am cooking for myself these days, I am more than likely to go for a good curry recipe like one of the following:

Chef Harpal Singh’s Mumbai Mast Tomato Pullao

Chef Harpal Singh is a charming presence who likes to entertain you by singing (or is it singhing?). I have not made this dish yet because Martine prefers me to cook dishes with meat. So I have to wait until she has an episode of irritable bowel syndrome before trying it. (Those episodes last for about a week.)

A Tasty Eggplant and Potato Curry from HowToCookGreatFood.Com

The chef here does not introduce himself by name, but he is a wizard. I have prepared this dish twice and love it. My friend Mona, who is a health nut, thinks I am crazy for liking a dish whose primary ingredients are both members of the deadly nightshade family. Happily, I have not yet succumbed to any sort of nightshade poisoning.

There are other sources, which I may introduce at some later date, such as Chef Odon Hankusz from Budapest. Unfortunately, his instructions are all in Hungarian, but his Gulyás Leves is a dish for the gods!

27. Magyar Majális és Tavaszi Fesztival

Don’t Worry If You Can’t Read This

Every year on the first Sunday in May, the Grace Hungarian Reformed Church in Reseda has a festival with authentic Magyar cuisine and Mothers’ Day entertainment. Unlike previous years, I couldn’t find any mention of the festival on the Church’s website. Martine made the perfectly logical suggestion for me to call the Church, except she made it to the wrong person. I have something of a telephone phobia, especially when I’m calling people I do not personally know. So Martine went and made the phone call herself. And yes, the festival was taking place at the usual time and place.

My rudimentary knowledge of my native language prevents me from being able to translate the above information sheet in its entirety, but I got the gist of it. The festival is a combination Spring, May Day, and Mothers’ Day event. For an admission fee of five dollars, one could have some of the best homemade Hungarian food in Southern California. For lunch, I went for the Gulyás Leves, usually referred to in English as Hungarian Goulash. What most Americans don’t know is that it is a hearty beef and vegetable soup served with chile peppers. After the kiddie Mothers’ Day entertainment, which was exceedingly cute, we ordered two stuffed cabbage dinners to go, which furnished our supper once we got home.

The highlight of Hungarian cuisine for Martine—and, in fact, for most Hungarians—is the pastry, particularly a kind of cheesecake referred to as crémes, pronounced KRAY-mesh. I get the impression that Hungarians in a pastry shop are even more dangerous than bulls in a china shop, and that they are not above packing away 25,000 calories or more.

This is aided and abetted by the Hungarian love of a fried dough concoction called lángos (pronounced LAHN-goash), richly slathered with sour cream, cheese, or garlic. It’s very like Indian fry bread, except with a different selection of toppings.

 

 

To BZ or Not To BZ

Beach Scene at Caye Caulker, Belize

Normally, I am not really a beach person. As my planned vacation to Yucatán takes place, I am thinking of also including Caye Caulker in Belize as a little side trip, a sort of vacation from my vacation so to speak. Why on earth would I be interested in knocking around on a Caribbean island? Especially when there’s nothing of any archeological import to be found there. I don’t particularly like to swim, snorkel, or dive: Hell, I don’t even like wearing shorts.

The answer goes back to my last trip. Throughout Eastern Guatemala, there was one condiment that was de rigeur on every restaurant table. It was a bottle of Marie Sharp’s Hot Habanero Pepper Sauce. Now I have always been partial to habañero (aka Scotch Bonnet) chiles, ever since my 1975 trip to Yucatán. Until I encountered those Marie Sharp’s sauces, with their motto “Proud Products of Belize,” I was contented with the El Yucateco Salsas de Chile Habañero, which came on hot and fierce, and maybe a little raw. What fascinated me about the Marie Sharp’s product was that it had the heat, but also the sweetness of carrots. How did she do it?

The Product in Question

Mind you, I still like El Yucateco, but Marie has won me over.

Now, how does that translate me wanting to spend a few days on an island off the coast of Belize? When I went to Guatemala, I was intrigued by the cultural mix at the port of Livingston: Maya, Garifuna, etc. I thought it would be fun after tromping through miles of Maya ruins in the jungle to sit under a palapa with a cool drink (perhaps a Belikin beer) and a good book. And available to me would be the best of Maya and Caribbean cooking. That sounds like a culinarily and culturally interesting diversion.

Marie Sharp’s manufacturing complex is actually by Stann’s Creek near Dangriga in Southern Belize, but that’s a tad too jungly for me.

From Chetumal in Mexico, I could take a quick boat ride to Caye (that’s pronounced KEY in Belize) Caulker and pass through customs at Ambergris Caye. So I might very well BZ happy there.

 

Not a Connoisseur (Accent on the 2nd Syllable)

It Was Just a Phase I Was Going Through

I have fallen out of love with wine. Oh, when I was younger, I thought that it would be very cool if I were knowledgeable about wine and showed everyone what good taste I had. Right next to the company where I worked, there was a Vendome Wine & Liquors, and I tried mightily to read up on vintages and varietals, and to be the guy who showed up at the party with the most interesting wine.

My biggest coup was to find several 18th century Madeiras. It was a bit of a rip-off, because only a small portion of each bottle dated back two centuries, but the bottle stated that it was a 1756 (or whatever) vintage. It was all right, I suppose, but now Madeira is a bit too sweet for my taste.

Now my brother is a genuine wine connoisseur (with the accent on the last syllable). He actually has a wine cooler at home set to the ideal temperature, rarely varying more than a degree or two of optimal.

Perhaps the reason I no longer drink wine is that the medications I take—anyway, most of them—may not be taken with alcohol. And, as a diabetic, I know that alcohol turns into sugar in the body. So I rarely drink anything alcoholic with my meals. Yesterday’s lunch was an exception: I had some British hard cider, which was quite good. And when it is blisteringly hot, I will occasionally drink a beer.

As for wine, that is, for me, so 1970s that I generally avoid it. It was all well and good when I had people to share it with, but Martine doesn’t drink wine either, and if I open a bottle, what do I do with what I don’t finish? Put in in the refrigerator? That kind of wrecks the taste.

The last time I enjoined wine was three years ago when I was in Valparaiso, Chile. The Bed & Breakfast where I was staying had a wine tasting of reds and whites from the nearby Casablanca Valley. They were all pretty good. So maybe, it’s not so much that I don’t like wine as that the circumstances of my life as it is lived have irrevocably changed.

 

Seeing the Stooges at the Alex

Curly, Larry, and Moe—The Original Three Stooges

You wouldn’t think that Martine is a big fan of the Three Stooges, but she is. She has seen every one of their shorts innumerable times. For the last twelve years or so, we have trekked to Glendale’s Alex Theatre see see their annual big screen event, usually on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Today was the 21st annual Stooges show at the Alex.

The theme this year was a title with the number three in it. Consequently, the program included:

  • “Three Little Beers” (1935)
  • “3 Dumb Clucks” (1937)
  • “Three Missing Links” (1938)
  • “Three Little Pirates” (1946)
  • “Three Hams on Rye” (1950)
  • “Three Sappy People” (1939)

I am not about to claim that watching Stooge shorts is a sophisticated intellectual experience, but it is uproariously funny. There is something about watching same with a large appreciative audience that makes it funnier still.

The Alex Theatre on Brand in Glendale

The Alex Theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places. Founded in the 1920s, it has become a venue for not only films, but occasional concerts. Two of the upcoming film programs include the Nutcracker Ballet with the Los Angeles Ballet (several dates in December) and “The Greatest Cartoons Ever” on December 26.

One of the reasons that incline Martine toward events in Glendale is that she truly loves the way Armenians prepare chicken. (The City of Glendale is the largest Armenian city outside of Asia.) Glendale is the home to Sevan Chicken at Kenilworth and Glenoaks and Elena’s Greek and Armenian Restaurant at 1000 Glendale Boulevard.