Archive for the ‘Food’ Category


In Piedmont, Seasons of Truffles and Barolo

A view over some of the Vietti vineyards in Castiglione Falletto.
ALBA, ITALY — This city in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy takes gastronomy very seriously.
Michelin-starred restaurants lurk around every street corner. The Slow Food movement, which champions the use of local produce and time-honored cooking techniques, has its headquarters in the nearby town of Bra. The aroma of toasted hazelnuts and chocolate, from a Ferrero Rocher plant on the edge of Alba, hangs over the region.

The interest in food grows especially intense in the fall, harvest season for the Alba white truffle. For a few weeks in October and November, these pungent-smelling tubers, unearthed from the forests around Alba by wizened hunters with specially trained dogs, are sold in a market in the old city center. There, the truffles are prodded, sniffed and haggled over before changing hands at breathtaking prices.

The fall is also the season of Barolo, the great wine produced in hillside vineyards from a cluster of villages southwest of Alba: La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba and Barolo itself. As truffle season arrives, so do the autumn mists that are said to have given the late-harvested Barolo grape variety, nebbiolo, its name. (“Nebbia” means fog in Italian.)

Like food, wine arouses passions here. For more than two decades, the so-called Barolo wars raged, pitting traditional producers of the wine against modernizing winemakers in what each side saw as a struggle for the soul of Barolo. Fortunately, a cease-fire finally seems to be taking hold.

What was there to fight over? Barolo is one of the most complex, aromatic and delicious red wines in the world. At its best, it has the delicate fruit of Burgundy, the age-worthiness of Bordeaux and a broad register of flavors, from cherries to dried flowers to eucalyptus to Darjeeling tea, that is entirely its own.

Yet Barolo is also one of the hardest wines to handle, for winemakers and consumers alike.
Traditionally, Barolos were made in a way that emphasized the tannins, the astringent, mouth-puckering substances that give serious red wines their structure, but that also make them difficult to enjoy before they have spent many years in a cellar. The problem with some old-school Barolos was that by the time the tannins softened, the fruit and the color had faded, robbing the drinker of any pleasure.

“People talk about all these great old Barolos from the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s,” said Fabio Fantino, the winemaker at the Conterno Fantino estate, which was founded by his father and a partner. “But in any of those decades there are only two or three vintages that you can still drink. We have only one life to drink wine.”

To try to make their wines more approachable, the so-called modernists imported new methods from France. They shortened the period of maceration, in which the skins from crushed grapes soak in the juice, as well as the fermentation. They encouraged the wines to undergo a second fermentation, which converts harsh malic acid to gentler lactic acid. And they started aging their wines in small oak barrels, known as barriques, bucking the local tradition that favored giant casks.

These and other changes produced wines that are softer, rounder and deeper in flavor and color. But some winemakers overdid things, producing wines that were virtually indistinguishable from other plush, oaky reds, like California cabernet sauvignon. A number of winemakers added grapes like cabernet or merlot to their nebbiolo; under Italian wine regulations, this cost them the right to call the resulting wines Barolo.


Eric Pfanner/International Herald Tribune
Testing the scent of tubers at the truffle market in Alba.
Eric Pfanner/International Herald Tribune
Looking toward Serralunga d’Alba, one of a cluster of hillside villages southwest of Alba that produce the great wine Barolo.
Eric Pfanner/International Herald Tribune
Chiara Boschis, shown here with a map showing the location of Barolo vineyards, was considered a modernist when she took over the E. Pira & Figli winery in Barolo a little more than two decades ago.
Eric Pfannner/International Herald Tribune
Fabio Fantino, the winemaker at the Conterno Fantino estate, which was founded by his father and a partner.

The new style impressed some wine critics, but didn’t always fare well with consumers. Barolo is a food wine, rather than one made for easy drinking, but traditional producers say modern methods sometimes compromised its ability to accompany fine cuisine.

“Restaurants tell me that when you have one bottle of traditional Barolo on the table, and one bottle of modern, the traditional bottle is empty first,” said Paola Rinaldi, who runs Francesco Rinaldi & Figli, a producer that stuck with older methods as others veered off in new directions. “Fifteen years ago it was harder to sell these wines, but at the moment, people are looking for something that is distinctive and different.”

She added, with a note of triumph, that many producers who embraced modern techniques are now backtracking a bit — for example, trading in their barriques for larger barrels, which impart less oak influence on the wine as it ages. At the same time, Ms. Rinaldi’s wines seem to reflect a bit of modernity in their richness and approachability — at least those of the newly released 2007 vintage, which produced unusually ripe nebbiolo grapes.

Indeed, across the region, a convergence of styles seems to be under way, which is good news for anyone who loves Barolo. A majority of the wines tasted on an autumn visit to the region defied easy categorization. They were full of fruit and energy, yet elegant and refined, with only subtle oak influences. Are these wines traditional or modern? Does it matter?

Some of my favorite producers of the wine, like Vietti in Castiglione Falletto, have long employed methods that blend the best of old and new. Vietti, for example, puts some of its Barolos into barriques for a few months, where the malolactic fermentation takes place, then transfers them into larger casks to age.
Chiara Boschis, who was considered a modernist when she took over the E. Pira & Figli winery in Barolo a little more than two decades ago, said labels like traditional and modern were never entirely accurate.
“A lot of people just didn’t understand these things,” she said. “They were calling us modernists. No! We were just a group of friends who wanted to make the best wine in the world.”

At the time, Ms. Boschis was one of only a handful of female vintners in Barolo. Some of the locals viewed her with suspicion, especially when she introduced progressive winemaking techniques like “green harvesting” — clipping unripe bunches from the vines early in the growing season in order to concentrate flavors in the remaining grapes.

“People were saying to my father, ‘What happened? Did she hit her head on the wall?’ ” said Ms. Boschis. “He was doing the calculations and saying, ‘This is how much money you are losing.’ The grapes that I cut off — I felt like I had to eat them off the floor.”

These days, Ms. Boschis is content to leave the discarded grapes where they fall. Her wines attract critical acclaim, and commensurate prices. Barolo is not cheap. (We’ll be looking at some less expensive alternatives from Piedmont in my next column, in two weeks.)

While producers like Ms. Boschis say the Barolo Wars are passé, the question of traditional versus modern production has not been resolved everywhere. One such place is the home of Virna Borgogno.
Ms. Borgogno is a proudly traditionalist winemaker, but she is married to a modern-style producer, Giovanni Abrigo, who makes Barbaresco, Barolo’s main rival for fame in Piedmont.
Ms. Borgogno’s winery, called Virna, and her husband’s estate, named Orlando Abrigo, share the same cellars.

“We taste together, we discuss the problems of vinification,” Ms. Borgogno said. “But the choice of style remains our own.”

In Piedmont, Seasons of Truffles and Barolo –

Israelis introduce falafel to the Chinese

Here Comes Falafel

GoChengdoo: Chengdu & Sichuan living, business, travel

October 16, 2011
Israelis Ariel Wakstein, 29, and Gal Finezilber didn’t have any extraordinary plans when they were presented with the opportunity to start a business venture in China. Wakstein had been studying Chinese medicine in Chengdu for the past four years; Finezilber was working as a sous chef in Israel. After Wakstein’s in-law, a restaurant manager, visited Chengdu, he proposed the pair open the city’s first falafel stand. Two months later, they’re feeding between 150 and 200 customers per day. And now? They’re planning to turn Chengdu into a falafel feeding frenzy. And then, the world. Just as soon as they open their second stand.
Why did you choose falafel instead of something else?
Gal: Falafel is Israeli’s traditional food.
Ariel: Israeli’s national food. Because Israel is not an old country, so we look at it as a regional food. Falafel exists for at least 2,000 years that we know, but to put it in the pita, with the salad and everything as sort of a sandwich, is more of an Israeli thing. And that’s what we wanted to bring it here. And also the local people like things that are deep-fried. It’s not strange or a turn-off for them. It’s very popular in Israel so it’s an easy connection for us. The falafel stands in Israel are exactly this style.
Gal: Actually this is a bit fancy. In Israel you just have the falafel, and you don’t have a menu; it will just say “Falafel,” and that’s it. But the original way to do it is stand outside the falafel stand, eating the falafel, and the tahini should run down your chin.
Ariel: When it’s a good falafel stand, you see people standing around it eating falafels, eating salad, adding tahini to their pita, and it’s not so much of a restaurant—at most there could be three or four tables just for comfort.
Gal: It’s takeaway food. But it has to be eaten fresh. Chinese sometimes buy it and take it home.
Ariel: It’s new for them, so they want to take it and give it to their husband or their wife or their child to try it.
So what do the locals think of your falafels?
Ariel: I think it’s still new and early to judge how the locals will accept it.
Gal: We did make it spicier for the Sichuan taste. For me it was hard in the beginning. Coming from Eastern Europe, we can’t eat spicy food—it’s a known thing. So when I first tasted the falafel it was really spicy for me. But I got used to it. So we try to measure the taste to the Sichuan taste. Some of them really like it. Some of them throw it away after a few bites. But when I saw people throw it away after a few bites they just ate the top of the pita—they didn’t even get to the falafel.
Ariel: How many people did you see throw it away?
Gal: I saw one.
Ariel: He saw one!
Gal: You know, it really bothers me.
Ariel: We have very warm responses from the Western crowd because I think they’re more used to this flavor, and it’s easier for us to believe them also. When Chinese tell us they like it I always wonder whether they’re just being polite or what. But I had some very good responses from Chinese who are not from Chengdu—people from Taiwan, and Xi’an and Beijing, Hong Kong. I think the locals are curious [when they see two foreigners in the stand]. They see us, they come, they look, they don’t really know what it is. They stare at the menu. The common response is “Falafel shi sazi dongxi?” Or “Falafel shi shenme?” “What is falafel?” We hear it all the time.
What’s your goal?
Gal: We’re hoping to open a chain of restaurants.
Ariel: We’re going to be the biggest falafel in the world! Which is not so difficult since if we make it in Chengdu already we’ll be bigger than any falafel in Israel, size-wise. We’re hoping at first three to five shops and we’ll see how it goes. I think Chengdu is not such an easy market to break into. They love their local food.
Are you worried about imitators?
Gal: They won’t be as good as ours.
Ariel: The falafel recipe is a secret. Also in Israel—the owner knows how to make the falafel, and he makes it at home.
What if it doesn’t succeed?
Ariel: My long-term plan is still Chinese medicine. I just hope the falafel will provide some stable income on the side.
Gal: I came here because of the opportunity. I didn’t know much about China before I came, I didn’t know Chengdu. I knew Shanghai and Beijing. And Hong Kong. That’s it. I thought Chengdu was gonna be like a village, a huge village, with dirt everywhere and stuff. So I was amazed when I came here.
Ariel: [sarcastically] You were so right! I think it’s an adventure also—we have a chance to make money here, but it’s not only that. There’s something very exciting in it, and even if it doesn’t work out it’s still an amazing experience for us.
Gal: And to make people food they don’t really know it’s really challenging, it’s really fun. It’s like you’re creating something new for them.
Ariel: And it really feels great to see Chinese people enjoying falafel in a pita. I enjoy so much their culture and their food and their Chinese medicine, and their philosophy, so in a way it’s paying them back a little bit—even though they’re paying me for the falafel.
Falafel Laila Kehua Bei Lu location
Falafel Laila’s new second location at Liansheng Xiang/联升巷 (Chunxi Lu) also sells kebab in addition to their regular menu items.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 47 (“how to V”).

Here Comes Falafel – GoChengdoo: Chengdu & Sichuan living, business, travel

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>April 22, 2011
A Passover Toast to a Rabbi Known for Social Activism, and for Kosher Coca-Cola

Rabbi Tuvia Geffen, of blessed memory, was born in Lithuania in 1870 and educated in the renowned Slobodka yeshiva. In the wake of a pogrom, he immigrated to New York in 1903, and seven years later he moved to Atlanta to become the rabbi of Shearith Israel, a tiny and struggling Orthodox congregation meeting in the battered remnant of a Methodist church.

During his early decades at Shearith Israel, Rabbi Geffen established Atlanta’s first Hebrew school and oversaw its ritual bath. He stood by Leo Frank, the Jewish man falsely accused of murdering a young Christian girl, and after Frank’s lynching in 1915, the rabbi urged his congregants not to flee the South in fear.

At Passover in 1925, he spoke eloquently and presciently against Congress for passing immigration restrictions that “have slammed shut the gates of the country before the wanderers, the strangers, and those who walk in darkness from place to place.” As early as 1933, he warned about the Nazi regime in Germany. Long before feminism, he advocated for Orthodox women who were being denied religious divorce decrees by vindictive husbands.

But all those achievements are not why we invoke the name and memory of Rabbi Geffen today, more than 40 years after his death. No, we come to honor his least likely yet most enduring contribution to the Jewish people and his adopted nation: kosher-for-Passover Coca-Cola.

Yes, observant Jews of today, searching supermarket counters for those bottles with the telltale yellow cap bearing the Orthodox Union’s certification, and yes, Coke die-hards of any or no religion who seek out those same bottles for the throwback flavor of cane-sugar Coke, you owe it all to Rabbi Tuvia Geffen.

He of the long beard and wire-rim glasses and Yiddish-inflected English, a man by all outward appearances belonging to the Old World, he was the person who by geographical coincidence and unexpected perspicacity adapted Coca-Cola’s secret formula to make the iconic soft drink kosher in one version for Passover and in another for the rest of the year. To this day, his 1935 rabbinical ruling, known in Hebrew as a teshuva, remains the standard.

That ruling, in turn, did much more than solve a dietary problem. A generation after Frank’s lynching, a decade after Congress barred the Golden Door, amid the early stages of Hitler’s genocide, kosher Coke formed a powerful symbol of American Jewry’s place in the mainstream.

“Rabbi Geffen really got the importance of it,” said Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina, who specializes in Jewish life in the South. “You couldn’t live in any better place than the South to get it. To not drink Coca-Cola was certainly to be considered un-American.”

Or look at the interplay of Jews and America from another angle. Rabbi Geffen’s solution to the Coke problem was not to forget the kosher rules and melt into the melting pot. But neither was it to decry the spiritual pollution of modernity in the form of a fizzy drink. A half-century before the era of cultural pluralism, his answer was to have the majority address the distinct needs of a minority.

As a contemporary Orthodox rabbi, Adam Mintz, has written in an essay on Geffen and Coke: “Struggling to find their place in a land that was often hostile to their religion, American Jews respected and appreciated rabbis who sought to include them within the Orthodox camp rather than simply condemn them as sinners. Of course his approach would not have been possible had he not felt confident in his powers of persuasion.”

We can safely say, however, that this issue chose Rabbi Geffen rather than the other way around. As early as 1925, as the Orthodox authority in Coke’s home city, he was receiving inquiries from other rabbis about the drink’s kosher status. A few other rabbis had already given certification, without knowing the secret formula. And multitudes of American Jews were drinking Coke regardless.

“Because it has become an insurmountable problem to induce the great majority of Jews to refrain from partaking of this drink,” Rabbi Geffen wrote in his teshuva, “I have tried earnestly to find a method of permitting its usage. With the help of God, I have been able to uncover a pragmatic solution.”

Putting aside God’s props for a moment, we should note that Rabbi Geffen had some significant earthly help in the person of Harold Hirsch, a Jewish Atlantan who was Coca-Cola’s corporate lawyer. Through Hirsch, Rabbi Geffen was permitted to enter that industry’s Holy of Holies and receive Coke’s secret formula.

With it, the rabbi was able to identify the elements that rendered Coke nonkosher during the bulk of the year (oil of glycerine derived from beef tallow) and specifically during Passover (a corn derivative). Hiding the exact ingredients behind Hebrew euphemisms in his teshuva, Rabbi Geffen explained the needed corrections. Glycerine could be replaced by coconut or cottonseed oils, and the corn derivative by cane or beet sugars.

Kosher-for-Passover Coke is now produced under rabbinic supervision at bottling plants serving Jewish population centers in New York, Florida, Southern California and Houston, among other areas. A number of other major brands have followed Coke into the Passover market: Dannon, Lipton, Pepsi and Tropicana. There are tequila and blintzes made without forbidden grains.

“It used to be that for Pesach you were limited to matza and hard-boiled eggs,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of the Orthodox Union’s kosher-certification program. “Now, I’ve got to tell you, I love those cheese blintzes.”

And, whether devout or debauched, Coke fans anticipate Passover for their own cultish reason: the usual sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, is replaced by cane or beet sugar.

Moshe Feder, an editor of science-fiction and fantasy books, traveled to six supermarkets from his home in Queens before finding four two-liter bottles of Passover Coke. The subject of his quest happened to come up at a seder the other night. The host, a Jewish man, had never heard about the difference between Coke and Passover Coke. But two Roman Catholic guests, Mr. Feder reported, “knew all about it.”

Rabbi Geffen, of blessed memory, who’d have guessed you were so ecumenical?

A Passover Toast to a Kosher Innovator — On Religion –

>The Criollo Cocoa bean from Chuao is the best!!

Venezuelan village claims best cocoa

By Lissy De Abreu (AFP) – 3 days ago

CHUAO, Venezuela — As the sun beats down to dry cherished criollo beans in the main square in Chuao, residents of the village in mountainous northern Venezuela simply say: behold the world’s best cocoa.

Of course, people in other countries, with chocolate on their happy faces, may beg to differ.

‘If you are born in Chuao, your life is tied up with cacao,’ Alcides Herrera told AFP, referring to the cacao tree which yields the cocoa bean from which chocolate is made.

Since 1976, Herrera’s company, Empresa Campesina Chuao, has produced Venezuela’s only cocoa beans with a coveted appellation certifying their origin.

‘As a kid, for example, when I was passing through the square, and you could feel a rainstorm closing in, you would stop to help gather up the beans,’ Herrera continued.

‘Ours are the world’s best cocoa beans. That has been certified, and experts from many countries agree,’ he said. ‘We process by hand with techniques that have been passed down for 400 years.’

More than 80 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from the forastero cacao tree and less than one fifth from Chuao’s criollo.

Many experts believe the criollo around here has a singular, tastier bean and they are top-of-the-list ingredients for many of the world’s top chocolate-makers.

Beans from Chuao total about 18-20 tons a year; it’s a tiny figure compared to the 20,000 tons Venezuela produces each year.

Recently, looking to boost output if possible, the government deemed cocoa beans a strategic crop. Now 35 percent of the annual take goes to a German firm; 35 percent goes to a new state Venezuelan Cocoa Bean Company; and the remaining 30 percent to local producers.

‘We have our eyes on the sky to see if any clouds pop up,’ explained Maryoli Chavez, 32, one of more than 1,200 workers at the cooperative.

‘I like to work on the farm. We all do a bit of everything and make the same money. Some weeks I am on drying duty, other times I am out picking pods or breaking out the seeds.’

On this afternoon, three of Maryoli’s kids were playing at her feet.

The cocoa industry has traditionally been women’s work in Venezuela. Men tend to work in construction or the coastal region’s fishing industry.

On cutting duty, the women wield machetes with skill, lopping off the violet or yellow pods in seconds; a few men trailing behind pick up and transport the pods for processing.

The area is just 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Caracas, but feels a world away as one has to travel in by sea as the town is wedged between a mountain and the Caribbean coast.

Edis Liendo, a local star among cocoa bean processors, hes been at it most of her life and is now 60.

‘I think the cocoa bean is something from the heavens. It was what the gods used to prepare as a special drink,’ Liendo says, hawking candies, liquor and desserts at the door of her home.

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.

AFP: Venezuelan village claims best cocoa

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Venezuela in London: Mi cocina es tuya – Café Latino, Crystal Palace

Between the pubs and print shops of Westow Street in Crystal Palace is a fantastic little restaurant serving authentic Venezuelan cuisine. Mi cocina es tuya (My kitchen is yours) bills itself as London’s only Venezuelan restaurant – perfect for our World in London series.. If you know better, let us know in the comments below!
I went to meet husband-and-wife team Alexis and Mary yesterday to sample their coffee, and find out about their unique eatery. What started as an events catering business with a stall in Camden Market now has a more stable base in this Crystal Palace restaurant. During the past three years, Alexis and Mary have served their traditional Venezuelan cuisine all over London, from the Carnaval del Pueblo to the Venezuelan Embassy. For the last seven months, they’ve been concentrating on developing Mi cocina es tuya.
The menu offers delicious-sounding empanadas (patties), asado criollo (grilled beef and rice) and arepas (corn bread with beef, chicken or cheese). The most popular dish, Alexis tells me, is the Pabellón de carne: beef, black beans, rice and fried plantains.

“At first, finding the right ingredients was difficult. For example, this hallaca is a traditional Christmas dish, but it’s wrapped in banana leaves.” He shows me an intricately bound parcel of dark green leaves. “But, you can’t just buy banana leaves in Asda! Now, we’ve found out about the right vendors in Brixton, at the market, and we can make hallaca. Similarly, you can’t get the chilli beef for Pabellon de carne in a normal supermarket. Now, we go to a Columbian butcher in Brixton. It tastes just as good as the meat in Venezuela.”

As well as the traditional food, Mary and Alexis are proud to show me their Venezuelan drinks. Mi cocina es tuya is one of the few places in London you can enjoy typical Latin drinks like Malta, Sugarcane with lemon, and Cocada, which, I’m told, is like coconut milkshake, but much nicer.

“People are often surprised that our food is like food from Trinidad and Tobago, or Caribbean food. But really, we’re from the same part of the world. Chilean, Peruvian, Columbian, all Latin American people that come here will see and recognise the products we sell.”

Indeed, as well as being a lovely place for a traditional Venezuelan breakfast of Perico (scrambled eggs with chopped tomatoes, onions and coriander, black beans, cheese and arepa, or corn bread – much healthier, I’m assured than the Traditional English they also serve), Mi cocina es tuya is also something of a Latin American deli. You can by the white or yellow “PAN” cornflour, as well as Malta drinks and other typical delicacies.
With guitars and maracas hanging from the walls, as well as plenty of gorgeous pictures of Venezuela itself, I think Mi cocina es tuya is a fantastic representation of Venezuelan London. And the wonderful hospitality of Alexis and Mary means I’ll be back for more. That, and the promise of trying some Dulce de tres leche next time!

Visit Mi cocina es tuya – Café Latino at 61 Westow Street Crystal Palace, London, SE19 3RW. If you know any other examples of Venezuelan culture in London, let us know in the comments below.

Venezuela in London: Mi cocina es tuya – Café Latino, Crystal Palace – Visit London Blog

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>Asado Negro in the NY Times!!!

The Cheat: Dark Arts

This week’s recipe is a raggedy Christmas number out of Venezuela called asado negro. It requires a fat roast of beef that is simmered for a long time in dark caramel, its sweetness tempered by vinegar. The result is sticky and unctuous beneath a cloak of peppers, onions and leeks. It looks mysterious and bold on the plate and at the start of a New York winter can conjure some degree of Latin American humidity and joy.
Asado negro has its primary home in Caracas, where it is often served during the holidays, alongside fried sweet plantains and white rice, with perhaps a tart green salad for contrast. The meat is napped in blackness that comes not from fire or smoke but from the absorption of all colors into one, a color as deep as space itself.
It is beef the color of a velvet dinner jacket seen across a dark lawn at midnight. It makes mockery of pot roast. And, as we shall see, it is exceedingly simple to make.
Hold on: blackened beef? I first had the dish at a restaurant called Mohedano, a flash place in Chacao, the relatively prosperous part of Caracas that is a stronghold of opposition to Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. The neighborhood supports restaurants and shopping centers and has plenty of gated parking lots guarded by men with guns. It recalls Miami crossed with the Upper East Side of Manhattan, with a few blocks of London and Mexico City thrown in for good measure.
Mohedano’s chef, Edgar Leal, runs the restaurant with his wife, Mariana Montero de Castro, with whom he has also had a restaurant in the United States. They served asado negro as part of a tasting menu designed to highlight the traditional flavors of cosmopolitan Venezuela.
Leal is an irrepressible figure in his restaurant, a ham who cooks with grace and precision, a character out of Stoppard, the gourmand existing within the privation of a repressive state. “It looks burned,” he said of his asado negro, laughing as he often does, as he placed the plate on a table. “But you see what you think.” Then he put on a stage whisper: “It’s not burned at all!”
The beef was cut thin, against the grain, and it glistened with moisture. The sauce cloaking it was dark and deep in flavor — with a strong, nutty sweetness, yes, but a bracing sort, far from cloying and leading only to the desire for more.
Leal cooks his asado negro with papelón, the solid block of unrefined cane sugar that is known by various names across Latin America (boiled sugar-cane pulp, essentially, formed into small blocks that can be broken into shards or grated into drinks or sauce). Papelón makes for excellent asado negro, and if you can find some at your local market — where you’ll most likely discover it listed as panela or piloncillo — go ahead and use it for your own.
But you can also cheat, which, as Chávez might say, is the way of our nation. Norman Van Aken, the Miami chef and restaurateur who has done much to bring the flavors of the Caribbean and South America to the United States, and who included a recipe for asado negro in his excellent 2003 cookbook, “New World Kitchen,” said in a telephone interview that the home cook could replicate some of the complexity of papelón by making a dark caramel out of plain white sugar and water, then adding a few teaspoons of brown sugar at the end.
“Asado negro is not a dish that’s centuries old,” Van Aken said. “As near as we could figure it in our research for the book, it goes back to the 1960s or ’70s. You can definitely mess around with it a little and make it your own.”
And so we begin with caramel, a chemistry-class lesson for the home. Sugar is dissolved in water and heated until the water evaporates and the sugar molecules break down, turning heavy and dark. Add to this sticky pool some vinegar and dry red wine, which impart savory, acidic notes to what will amount to a braising liquid, as well as some brown sugar for rustic depth. Pour the liquids carefully, for the caramel will spatter and hiss. Then allow the sauce to become whole again, stirring occasionally.
Now we sear the beef, creating a crust on the bottom of the pan that will add heft to our meal, a beefy intensity to counter the sugars and acids. Removing the meat from the pot for a moment, we sauté a great deal of garlic and onion, celery and leeks, then combine these with the seared beef and the caramel sauce under a swirl of sliced bell peppers, and push the covered whole into the oven for a few hours. Some crazy magic happens in there.
Plain white rice dressed only with a pat of butter is the best starch with which to pair this meal. You might try to locate some ripe plantains as well, to slice into coins and fry gently in oil until they turn the same golden brown as the caramel you started with. (In a pinch, you can use bananas, though they are a great deal more fragile and sweet than a ripe plantain, and require close attention in the pan, lest they turn to mush.)
Leal adds a rustic Venezuelan salad to the plate, with fresh hearts of palm, avocado and diced tomato. You might do the same, but at this time of the year, you would most likely disappoint yourself: December tomatoes in the United States are generally a grim affair, to say nothing of our canned hearts of palm and rock-hard avocados. Better to find some hothouse lettuces — Van Aken suggests something peppery in the area of watercress or arugula — and to dress these in a lime vinaigrette.
There’s a new Paul Simon song out, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day.” It’s all strummy guitar and thumping Delta blues, Simon’s muted trumpet of a voice singing about money and war, the pain of family and the release that comes to all of us somehow, religious or not, on Christmas Day. This would make a fine final accompaniment to the dinner itself, along with some dark beer or a strong zinfandel, slightly chilled.

The Dark Art of Beef –

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>Incredible!!! as if they had nothing more important to do!!!! – And anyways, if bake sales are the most popular way to raise money, it must be that it is the only one that works!!!  Fools!!

Hold the brownies! Bill could limit bake sales

WASHINGTON – Don’t touch my brownies! A child nutrition bill on its way to President Barack Obama — and championed by the first lady — gives the government power to limit school bake sales and other fundraisers that health advocates say sometimes replace wholesome meals in the lunchroom.
Republicans, notably Sarah Palin, and public school organizations decry the bill as an unnecessary intrusion on a common practice often used to raise money.
“This could be a real train wreck for school districts,” Lucy Gettman of the National School Boards Association said Friday, a day after the House cleared the bill. “The federal government should not be in the business of regulating this kind of activity at the local level.”
The legislation, part of first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to stem childhood obesity, provides more meals at school for needy kids, including dinner, and directs the Agriculture Department to write guidelines to make those meals healthier. The legislation would apply to all foods sold in schools during regular class hours, including in the cafeteria line, vending machines and at fundraisers.
It wouldn’t apply to after-hours events or concession stands at sports events.
Public health groups pushed for the language on fundraisers, which encourages the secretary of Agriculture to allow them only if they are infrequent. The language is broad enough that a president’s administration could even ban bake sales, but Secretary Tom Vilsack signaled in a letter to House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., this week that he does not intend to do that. The USDA has a year to write rules that decide how frequent is infrequent.
Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says the bill is aimed at curbing daily or weekly bake sales or pizza fundraisers that become a regular part of kids’ lunchtime routines. She says selling junk food can easily be substituted with nonfood fundraisers.
“These fundraisers are happening all the time,” Wootan said. “It’s a pizza sale one day, doughnuts the next… It’s endless. This is really about supporting parental choice. Most parents don’t want their kids to use their lunch money to buy junk food. They expect they’ll use their lunch money to buy a balanced school meal.”
Not all see it that way.
Palin mocked the efforts last month by bringing a plate of cookies to a school speech in Pennsylvania. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said the federal government “has really gone too far” when it is deciding when to hold bake sales.
Some parents say they are perplexed by what the new rules might allow.
In Seminole, Fla., the Seminole High Warhawks Marching Band’s booster club held a bake sale to help send the band’s 173 members to this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York. One of the bake sale’s specialties: New York-style cheesecake, an homage to the destination they’d pursued for 10 years.
“Limiting bake sales is so narrow-minded,” said Laura Shortway, whose 17-year-old daughter, Mallory, is a drummer in the band. “Having bake sales keeps these fundraisers community based, which is very appealing to the person making the purchase.”
Several school districts and state education departments already have policies suggesting or enforcing limits on bake sales, both for nutritional reasons and to keep the events from competing for dollars against school cafeterias. In Connecticut, for instance, about 70 percent of the state’s school districts have signed on to the state education department’s voluntary guidelines encouraging healthy foods in place of high-sugar, high-fat options.
Under those rules, bake sales cannot be held on school grounds unless the items meet nutrition standards that specifically limit portion sizes, fat content, sodium and sugars. That two-ounce, low-fat granola bar? Probably OK, depending what’s in it. But grandma’s homemade oversized brownie with cream cheese frosting and chocolate chips inside? Probably not.
One loophole in Connecticut: The nutritional standards apply if the food is being sold at a bake sale, but not if it’s being given away free, such as by a parent for a child’s birthday.
“If a mom wants to send in cupcakes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, that would not be subject to the state guidelines,” said Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for the state’s education department.
In New York City, a rule enacted in 2009 allows bake sales only once a month, and they must comply with nutritional standards and be part of a parent group fundraiser.
Wootan says she hopes the rules will prompt schools to try different options for fundraising.
“Schools are so used to doing the same fundraisers every year that they need a strong nudge to do something new,” she says. “The most important rebuttal to all of these arguments is that schools can make money other ways — you don’t have to harm kids health.”
Associated Press writer Stephanie Reitz contributed to this report from Hartford, Conn.

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