Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Smoky Snack

The California company Rancho Gordo is best known for selling gorgeous heirloom beans (yes, that's right, I used "gorgeous" and "beans" in the same sentence), but my personal favorite is their crimson popcorn. The kernels are a deep garnet color and pop up into a fluffy, snow-white miniature clouds. Normally I just cook them in vegetable oil and a bit of butter, liberally sprinkle coarse kosher salt over the pot, give it a good shake and enjoy!

The other night I wanted something a little more...exciting. I bought some wonderful ground chipotle from a spice vendor at Cleveland's West Side Market and was looking for ways to use the smoky, spicy, terracotta-colored powdered. I skipped the butter and drizzled some olive oil over the popcorn after cooking. I added one tablespoon at a time of the chipotle powder until it was just spicy enough, then gave it the mandatory saltiness required of popcorn. The smokiness of the chipotle wasn't enough to satisfy my craving, so I used applewood-smoked sea salt from Dean & DeLuca to finish it off.
You don't need fancy popcorn or expensive sea salt to make this snack. You can add these ingredients to microwave popcorn (but promise me you'll try the Rancho Gordo popcorn if you get a chance!). Most major supermarkets and probably every gourmet market sells smoked salt. Even Morton's makes a brand of large-crystal sea salt. It's too big to actually stick to the popcorn but you could use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to pulverize the crystals. In fact, while you're at it, mix the chipotle right in with the salt to sprinkle over the popcorn. You can make a big batch store the mixture in a ziploc bag for future use.

Use a 2-1 volume ratio of chipotle to salt, and adjust it to your personal taste. I used about 1 tablespoon of the mixture for every 2 cups of popped popcorn (roughly...how you season it will depend on the strength of your chipotle powder and your taste).

I made a huge batch and brought it into work for a snack. My co-workers loved it, and one even exclaimed "it's like there's a party in my mouth!" This would be a great movie night nosh, a sensational snack at work, or a tasty road trip treat. It's a terrific trio of flavors: smoky, spicy and salty.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lose the Loonies and Find the Foodies (or “How to Read Yelp Reviews”)

I recently attended a seminar in which a roomful of restaurant industry folks started badmouthing Yelp. Now, the reason I was sitting there was because I had scored some free tickets through Yelp, but you can bet I wasn’t going to throw myself to the wolves. I happen to think it’s an admirable concept and I do (sort of) regret not speaking up, but it really wasn’t the forum to launch a discussion about the merits and problems of a website that posts user-generated reviews (especially not with people who had clearly been burned by unfavorable reviews). Do I think there are some things written in Yelp reviews that can hurt someone's business? Yes. Do I think people should take most of these reviews seriously? Absolutely not.

I have almost never been steered wrong by Yelp recommendations because I know how to read the reviews. Is this guy clearly the scorned ex-boyfriend of the executive chef? Probably shouldn’t listen to what he says. Or vice-versa; is this girl clearly sleeping with the bartender? She might be slightly biased. Is “CheeseHead1955” a soccer mom from the middle of nowhere Wisconsin who gave her local McDonald’s 4 stars? I wouldn't take her review of Boulevard too seriously (unless you’re planning on taking your visiting Midwestern family there). It takes a little more time and effort to sift through the reviews and decide which ones you actually want to consider, but it’s worth it.

Here are some tips:
1. Make friends with people that have similar tastes to you. Look up your favorite restaurant. Find someone else who loves it. Read their other reviews. Do you generally agree with their opinions? Then be Yelp friends with them! You have to have an account set up to do this, which I recommend. You can then sort a business’s reviews to see your friends’ comments first.
2. Look for common themes and comments among the reviews for a business. If there is one two-star review among a sea of four-star reviews, you should probably ignore it. Does everyone rave about the rack of lamb? Then you might want to try the rack of lamb. Is it pretty unanimous that the chef can’t cook seafood? Don’t order seafood. Duh, right? But you’d be surprised…
3. Look at the dates of the reviews and when the person patronized the business. Is someone writing about an experience they had two years ago? Skip it! The place might not even have the same chef anymore and odds are really good that the menu has changed. Did someone go to a steak house for brunch? Well, if you’re going for a romantic dinner then who cares about their brunch experience? Make sure the reviews you’re considering are relevant and relatively current.
4. If there’s a review that seriously disturbs you and gives you doubt about going to a place, look at that person’s other reviews. If they seem sane and normal, then you might want to take heed. If this person is a rage-aholic who’s never given any business more than 2 stars...move on, my friend.
5. This is personal, but I always look for the “Elite” sign to the left of the reviewers’ names. This means that the Yelp staff thinks these people write legitimate reviews and use Yelp the way it was intended. You can sort the reviews for a business to look at only Elite member reviews. But of course, that doesn’t mean you should take all of them seriously.

The key point I wish I could have made to the woman in this seminar who declared “[Yelpers] say these horrible things about your business that you put your heart and soul into” is this: at the end of the day, these people are paying YOU for your food or service. If you’re not making them happy, don’t they have a right to stop other people from making the same mistake?

In full disclosure, I will admit that I am a Yelp Elite member. But I really believe in the purpose of Yelp. It’s a way for people to share their experiences at local establishments and help others find quality places of business. Now I don’t know anything about the rumors that Yelp blackmails business owners and all of that, but I do know that I’ve discovered some pretty amazing places through Yelp that I never would have tried otherwise. Do I think these reviews are a good replacement for professional reviews? No, no, no! But I’m pretty sure Michael Bauer hasn’t reviewed the Sushi joint down the street from me, and I want to make sure I’m not going to end up with food poisoning by eating there. So you can bet I’m checking the Yelp reviews.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

SF Chefs.Food.Wine

Several weeks ago was the beginning of what I think will be an amazing San Francisco tradition – SF Chefs.Food.Wine. It was a celebration of primarily local food and wine, with seminars, parties, and tastings galore. Tickets were a bit pricey at $150 bucks a pop for day passes, but I was lucky enough to win a pair through a Yelp Elite giveaway. Fortunately, this kind of price point filtered out anyone who wasn’t serious about being there. This meant that the tasting tent never got out of hand even though the wine and cocktails flowed very freely.

The format consisted of a choice of one morning session, the lunchtime tasting tent, and an afternoon session. There was a wide variety of seminars to chose from, with anything from sake tastings and education to growing heirloom seeds and cooking with their product. My morning session was “From Italy to the Bay,” with chefs from Perbacco, Palio D’Asti, Kuleto’s and my personal favorite Italian in the city – Defina. Three chefs demonstrated three different dishes using eggplant and ricotta, while discussing how they apply their Italian training to the ingredients and culinary philosophies of the Bay Area. The afternoon session was “The View From the Top” and was a panel discussion with Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Per Se, Bouchon, Ad Hoc), Charles Phan (The Slanted Door, Out the Door, Heaven’s Dog) and Douglas Keane (Cyrus). They discussed some of their achievements and how they created successful businesses in an industry with such a high failure rate.
Above left photo: A view of the tasting tent from the top of the Westin St. Francis in downtown SF.

Kuleto's Robert Helstrom, Palio D'Asti's Daniel Scherretor, Delfina's Craig Stoll and Perbacco's Umberto Gibin at "From Italy to the Bay"

Top 3 Interesting things from SF Chefs.Food.Wine (Well, I thought they were interesting anyway):
1. I like eggplant! I have a VERY short list of things I don’t enjoy eating, and eggplant was at the top of that list until the “From Italy to the Bay” demo. We tasted some smoky, marinated grilled eggplant with ricotta baked in a fig leaf (prepared by Defina’s Craig Stoll) and eggplant parmesan so perfectly cooked it was almost creamy (prepared by Palio D’Asti’s Daniel Scherotter). One of Craig Stoll’s memorable quotes was “if you undercook eggplant, it sucks! That’s why a lot of people don’t like it.” I think that’s where my dislike of eggplant came from, and I am officially a convert.
2. Thomas Keller had never heard of Yelp. Someone from the audience asked how the chefs approached reviews, especially from user-generated content sites such as Yelp and he asked, “What’s Yelp?” Everyone laughed, thinking he was being ironic, but he looked confused and said, “No, seriously…what’s Yelp?” (For the record, FL has 4.5 stars and over 540 reviews on Yelp).
3. When asked why wine country was such a perfect place to open a restaurant, Douglas Keane made a great point; he said “people go there for the meal and can spend three and a half hours eating.” San Francisco is rather unique in that most people expect two to three hour meals on the weekend, but I think in most of the country people like to be in and out in around an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Wine country just moves at a different pace. And most of the wineries close after five o’clock anyway, so why not sit and relax for three hours?

I was third in line, after lugging my French Laundry Cookbook around all day. I think it weighs about 15 pounds.

Top 3 “Celebrity” Sightings
1. Thomas Keller. I’ve never been so star struck and can’t imagine getting this excited about seeing even Brad Pitt.
2. SF Mayor Gavin Newsome. Well, he’s a local celebrity at least!
3. Ryan Scott of Top Chef Season Four, the pretty boy who exhibited a true San Franciscan’s knowledge of sporting events in the Tailgate challenge. Bread Salad? To Bears Fans? Thankfully the judges had the good sense to cut him for that one. Not that I should talk, some of our baseball tailgating parties can get pretty elaborate…

Making friends...with Thomas Keller! I was telling him about our amazing meal at Ad Hoc the night before.

I’m already counting down the days until next year’s event, but I’m kind of hoping they change the name…I understand not wanting to call it the “San Francisco Food and Wine Festival” since that’s pretty generic, but they seriously couldn’t come up with anything more creative? What they’ve got right now is pretty confusing. Do you pronounce the period as “dot” as you do in “dot com?” Or do you ignore it? If you ignore it, what’s the point? Hmm, they’ve got some time to rethink this whole title and I hope they take a good, hard look at it!