Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Did you know? Ranch dressing

Tonight, after a spectacularly long nap, my brain cells kicked in: I realized I didn't know what was exactly in the ranch dip I was smothering my carrots and celery in. I mean, I could always realize with my tongue what ranch flavor was and then deduce key facts:

  • the red speckles in the dip are probably carrots (or orange M&Ms)
  • there's probably some onion in it, since it tastes like garden vegetable cream cheese and because ranch-flavored popcorn and Lay's chips had green herb-like dots on their ranch powder
  • it's probably mayonnaise-based because of its opaque white non-shade
But really, that was all I could think of. Which brought me to wiki, and then to two little gems that made my day:
  • I was right on all three conjectures - even though they weren't that hard. The taste of ranch that I couldn't place comes from a heavy dose of buttermilk, though.
  • This 2005 Slate article, which provided me with the fact that there is such a thing as the Association for Dressing and Sauces that monitors flavor trends for dips, dressings and sauces. Since I am, after all, a proud nerd, I call dibs on the analysis on the flavor trends' longitudinal data. Also, the association had it right, Greek was totally a trend this year...
While we're on this flavor trends business, I have never been able to understand why ranch became the chosen dressing. Today at the salad bar, nearly everyone smothered their salad in ranch (that is, there was more ranch than lettuce on their plate), regardless of any demographic differences. Also, using deep-fried foods (e.g. chicken fingers or fries) as a carrier for ranch dressing seems kind of weird in theory, because you're adding fat to fat. It's like drinking milk with pizza: something that should be avoided until there's nothing left in your fridge.

In that little thought experiment, I began comparing ranch to other dips: Thousand Island (the chili sauce equivalent to ranch -- no way on my fries), ketchup (the sourness provides a contrast to my beloved onion strings), and honey mustard (slightly hot on the tongue, but not enough to alarm most Americans' spicy range). Then I realized that besides the mayonnaise and the fat, that the buttermilk gives a tang to the dressing, and that maybe ranch on chicken fingers did make a little sense.

But ketchup and French dressing, still for the win.

P.S. In the same inquisitive spirit that led me to wonder about ranch, I just looked up French dressing. Apparently it's not just the tomato based, sweetened version of a vinagrette, but it's supposed to be a generic name for all vinagrettes. That said, the wiki article also acknowledges the presence of nationalistic French dressings:
"Those from outside the U.S. may best picture its appearance and consistency as a very high quality interior house paint the color of terra cotta."


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

To places that would not ordinarily be found on a fine dining list:

a personal note to Starbucks (three locations in Harvard Square alone - I would know; for one math exam we had to find the distance from campus to each), Dunkin' Donuts (Harvard Square), Chipotle (Harvard Square), McDonald's and Mary Chung (the latter two in Central Square)

Starbucks, thank you for providing caffeine in three convenient locations. Your pumpkin spice latte (iced and light whip) really went well with chicken tacos, and your free wi-fi enticed me though I hadn't taken advantage of it yet. It's too bad your $3.68 per craving made me leave you for...

Dunkin' Donuts, thank you for filling in my caffeine craving when Starbucks was unable to make it happen. Thank you also for being cheaper and for giving me free toasted almond syrup and only giving me half the amount of usual sugar per my request. Please don't fire the man who gave me the first good cheap coffee I've had in a while that I haven't made myself just because he burned the pan pizza to a crisp and one of your employees from another location who was ordering an iced coffee yelled at him and called his manager at 10:30pm on a Friday night and then got behind the counter and made the coffee herself.

Anyway, your strawberry frosted donuts were better than I expected. The frosting would have been better on a cake donut, though.

McDonald's, thank you for still operating a dollar menu - and one of your locations - within two miles of Harvard Square. My Tuesday night "Please, please give me fries with that problem set" craving has been satisfied, thanks to you. That said, I wish you would have had burger meat after 10pm for my friends.

Chipotle, thank you for providing me with the taste of what a good, Midwest-headquartered burrito chain tastes like when I was homesick. Thank you also for acquiescing to my picky demands for tacos.

Lastly, Mary Chung, thank you for still using the 1950s, quaint Boston-specific term "Peking ravioli" for your dumplings and potstickers, and for not making any changes to your menu prices. More specifically, thank you for putting bean sprouts in your dan dan (peanut flavored) noodles, adding extra crunch, which is more than I can say for Shangri-la in Brookline, and for inspiring me to try a similar recipe in the dining hall (which I'll talk about in a later post). Thank you, moreover, for making me rant to my mom about my peanut butter noodle cravings so that both she and my sister could teach me good recipes for them. Even though your noodles are kind of salty in retrospect and I will probably swap them out for pan-fried Peking ravioli next time, they are still my guilty craving.

And now, a final point. I don't know to tell you this, and not to come as a surprise or anything, but my romance with one and/or more of you is over (read: everyone but Mary Chung's). I think I first knew it when I craved that bitter, bitter taste of coffee at 2am one night before a problem set was due, and I saw you with your doors closed, refusing to take my cash. I'm sure you're understanding enough to have seen how addicted I've been to the idea of your caffinated, deep-fried goodness, but I want you to know that I will always remember the calories it cost. It's not you, it's me and my health-conscious January.

To ellipticals and a good Earl Grey tea,

Monday, December 29, 2008

Now, the fall '08 photo rundown

places I ate and pictures I took (that will hopefully improve, thanks to those photography books I got for Christmas...)

Blue Ginger (Wellesley). Ming Tsai's (didn't anyone watch East meets West in the 90s?) restaurant. Tasty, though carb-heavy, entrees, and a long trip. Above: the Filipino-style pulled pork sandwich.

Rialto (Cambridge). Touted on all the student email listservs around Restaurant Week as "the best restaurant in Cambridge." I took advantage of a 15% student discount I had, and went...we were easily the youngest people in the restaurant. Service was wonderful (possibly because it wasn't Restaurant Week), Jody Adams came out to talk to us - and not just about food, she's super nice - and recommended the honey ricotta cheesecake that most people get on their first time. That's not pictured here, but the second course of truffle pasta, and third courses of pork tenderloin with fig and seared sea scallop with stuffed butternut squash pasta are, respectively. The latter two courses are still on the December menu.

Incidentally, this meal marked the start of the weekend where I gained - and lost - six pounds.
Two reasons: a harrowing midterm and Columbus Day weekend, when some family visited. Meal number 2 that weekend: Harvard Faculty Club (Cambridge). Having dealt with Rialto the previous night, I wasn't as impressed as I could have been (the seared beef-blueberry vinagrette salad was a winner, though), and the entrees, per a faculty club, seemed a little overpriced. Below, a picture of the beef medallion:

Yankee Seafood (Boston). We indulged next day with some seafood - the fried kind. Enter Yankee Seafood, next to Bank of America Pavilion, which we found on Yelp. Best fried scallops ever. Also, during lunch, it was pointed out that good seafood places have bad fries. This proved to be no exception.

Minsok (Brookline) was our dinner that night. We struggled through the amount of Korean food we ordered but were delighted at the seafood pancake and the stir-fried seafood. This, however, is a picture of the japchae - sweet potato noodles. And that concludes my food-intensive weekend for the semester.

Fireplace (Brookline). A repeat visit for brunch over the semester. My first time, I ordered the challah french toast, which although rich and pretty to look at, made my stomach hurt afterward. The fried duck hash was the unanimous favorite, though - especially slathered with the yolk from the accompanying fried eggs. Later, I would try eating the fried goat cheese and walnut salad, but it elicited the same physiological response I had from the challah.
I also confirmed my findings that salad was not meant to be one of the food groups of brunch.

Giacomo's (Back Bay and North End). Remained the place to bring out-of-town friends for food. Secret: don't wait at North End - they don't take reservations - go to Back Bay. The quantity of the small fried calamari place (at $7) was huge, and the best entree remained their specialty seafood pasta - whose quantity was also enough for two (though I opt for the fra diavolo over the overly-rich eponymous lobster based sauce).

Cheesecake Factory (Cambridge, Boston). Surprisingly, a repeat visit this semester - if only for the cheesecake. Among my classmates, it has become "the place where we go out somewhere nice for dinner" - despite the fact that there are so many good places near Harvard Square to eat. Rather, I think Cheesecake Factory has attained the dubious award of "restaurant where we can escape." In any case, if you look past the overly-rich (again) and possibly overpriced Asian-fusion pasta (though pretty good - and definitely more reasonably priced than California Pizza Kitchen's Kung Pao Spaghetti), it's actually okay, and a good place to find steaks. Also, it's called Cheesecake Factory for a reason. Below, the pumpkin cheesecake:

Shabu-Zen (Chinatown and Allston) might be the restaurant I most frequently visit, by way of my sister's influence on my taste (she goes there about five times as often as I do).

Finale took a smaller hit (or should I say drain?) on my wallet on this year. The blocking group's Finale fund (let's pay for the birthday girl's preferred Finale dessert) was still in effect, and yes, I like the tiramisu, but as I've previously said, ov-er-rat-ed. I've taken advantage of our walking distance from two Whole Foods though, and I am now requesting this beast of a cake:

Note that it also contains berries, something difficult to find in the Harvard dining halls. And now that I've definitely gone over my usual photo quota, go forth and eat.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A January 20 Memo...

Advocates of Change in Food Policy Look to Obama With Hope

(Because that title could not be more convoluted.)

“He is the first president who might actually have eaten organic food, or at least eats out at great restaurants,” Ms. Gehman Kohan said.Still, no one is sure just how serious Mr. Obama really is about the politics of food. So like mystery buffs studying the book jacket of “The Da Vinci Code,” interested eaters dissect every aspect of his life as it relates to the plate.
As my sister pointed out, this is a lot of speculation...and a lot of projection onto his identity. I mean, he's already the 'arugula' president, no? (Love the fact that they got the author of The United States of Arugula to quote on the article, by the way.)

I'm not sure if I'm as interested in his kitchen (well, I am, in the way that people are interested in Michelle Obama's clothing choices) - or even local/sustainable food policy - as much as I will be about what he does about kids and food. Might there be some improvement there - or at least, getting junk food advertisements and vending machines out of public schools?

They look for clues in the lunch menus at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, where his two daughters will be eating items like herbes de Provence pita, local pears and organic chopped salad, served with unbleached napkins in a cafeteria with a serious recycling program.
The point being that Obamas' daughters are attending a fancy-schmancy school with fancy-schmancy food, of course. But I can't say that I found it too fancy - I mean, I miss the grilled cheese and tomato soup I had in high school, but we also had cooked-to-order chicken-tomato risotto at one point. Along with the Au Bon Pain mushroom bisque, it was one of the few memorable meals of my high school, though. Not because it was so good (it was pretty good), but because the whole concept of it seemed too luxurious.

I wonder if the Sidwell menu was cherrypicked similarly - but all in all, comparatively nice food (I did get Tazo tea bags at lunch, after all) is definitely part of a college preparatory education. Though it shouldn't be necessary as part of the education, but as part of the $1500 meal portion of tuition. (In which case I always wondered why they just didn't give us a Chipotle burrito for lunch every day; eight times out of ten it would have been more satisfying.)

Also, Harvard also orders organic, local produce - but it's now common for colleges and prep schools to order the same. See 'Major food trends!!111oneeleventy' (kidding, though it really is one). So local pears and produce don't faze me, and neither do the napkins (I think, "Great. Finally, we can get rid of the school-logo emblazoned cocktail napkins that were a waste of money.").

But of course, the question is, when will every other high school kid - public and private schools alike - get the same thing? And that brings me back to the beginning of my post.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Froyo: An Update

In case you're wondering...I did end up going to redcherry in Minneapolis. My friend James patiently watched me taste and complain about the state of Minneapolis froyo (too tangy, too watery) -- though the citrus was a lot better than their berry flavor.

But I wonder if the froyo trend has hit a roadblock.

It has with me, I mean -- compare the number of times I've been to Berryline this year (2) versus the number of times I've been to Starbucks since Thanksgiving (10). I wasn't even addicted to Starbucks last year, even though I went there all the time last spring to study. Why might this be the case?

1) Starbucks is closer.
2) Holiday drinks (I refuse to pay more than $2 for a mocha - which makes things near impossible at Starbucks - but gladly put pumpkin syrup in my latte and I will jump my willingness to pay to $4. Oh, economics.)
3) I've developed a caffeine habit thanks to all these problem sets.
4) Berryline wouldn't give me a free yogurt even though I tried to pass off my cupcake costume as a froyo sundae. It was pretty convincing too...actually, this is reflective of a larger problem. Not that Berryline should have given me free froyo (it would have been nice - I got free Chipotle that day for wearing tin foil - but they aren't obligated to give free stuff) but now that the owners aren't there all the time, service at Berryline is inconsistent. Sure, there are the really nice guys, but others are just unfriendly. And give you less fruit.
5) Also, buy-one-get-one coupons at JP Licks.
6) Did anyone mention cold?

Just a thought.

A quick rundown of fall '08 and future posts (hello again!), and some gift ideas

Between problem sets, exams, meetings and papers, I (clearly) haven't been blogging. I keep promising this won't be a habit...but hopefully my New Year's resolutions start with updating Foodivia at least once a week.

A quick summary of my fall: I came to school, went out to eat more often than I did last year, and most notably, dressed up as a cupcake for Halloween (the G-rated kind).

I also took a LOT of pictures of food, which I'll be putting up shortly in sets, backtracking from the Taiwan Food Festival in August all the way to this week. (My roommate: "I'm so honored to be the only human in your Facebook album, and that's because I'm eating a lobster claw.") Until photos come up tomorrow, enjoy The State of the Cookie - a Slate discussion about what makes the perfect cookie.

Finally, in the rush for Christmas shopping, I've also been looking for good food-themed gifts - and I stumbled on miniature food jewelry. I've always been obsessed with fake food (I used to press my face against sushi displays, I buy thumb-sized plastic bowls of udon at gift shops...) so needless to say, I was excited. For instance, these tiny cupcakes - but at the other end of the scale, there are giant sushi pillows too. Cakespy, which also does sweets reviews, was a pretty good source for similar gifts (though kind of expensive on their part), but I really like their own art better.