Monday, March 23, 2009

white house breaks ground on a kitchen garden!

This is exciting. In classic savvy PR fashion, the White House blog today featured a post (w/ pics) about a groundbreaking ceremony for the first family's new vegetable garden. This event is significant for obvious reasons related to the promotion of healthy, sustainable eating and living (as well as frugality and self reliance), but it also highlights the fact that this is likely the first such garden to exist on White House grounds, at least in recent times. Let's hope they don't use those heirloom tomatoes to top a dubya-style frozen hamburger.

From the post:

"This is a big day. We've been talking it since the day we moved in," said the First Lady as she and two dozen local students broke ground on the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn of the White House. Those students will be involved in the garden as it develops and grows, producing delicious, healthy vegetables to be cooked in the White House Kitchen and given to Miriam's Kitchen, which serves the homeless in Washington, DC.

Fashion note: It was a bad decision for Mrs. Obama to wear patent leather boots in the garden. I think some wellies and trousers would have been more appropriate (and fashion-forward).

the season's first burger: an essay

All of this blogging about other people's cheeseburgers left me feeling eager to grill some of my own. That, combined with a stretch of warm spring weather and the specific nature of my wife's pregnancy cravings, meant that the ceremonial first-burger-of-the-season would be grilled on Friday. Much to my dismay, what started as a fantasy week of balmy spring weather quickly turned cold, rainy, and straight-up medieval by Friday afternoon. I did not care. With a Summit Maibock in hand, I donned a raincoat and proceeded to load the chimney and brush the grate.

Americans love cheeseburgers. However, our sterile, Walmartian culture has completely fucked up this simple pleasure. In fact, you might say the standard American burger is FUBAR. We have ruined the hamburger patty. We have stripped the cheese of a soul. We have reduced the toppings to bland, watery, and/or chemical soaked afterthoughts. What remains is a previously sickly, previously frozen, previously in a CAFO sandwich-type-thing that is hardly fit for consumption by American pets. I mean that. I seriously mean that. And I'll stop my rant there. You read this blog because you already grind your own grass-fed beauties, right?

Time travel is possible. When you grind your own high quality, grass fed beef you will experience the delicacy enjoyed by many of our grandparents before the convenience age. When you choose to assemble a cheeseburger from the simplest, best ingredients that you can possibly find (within your local food economy), the utilitarian cheesburger is transformed into something truly sublime. Even the French have acknowledged the perfection of a grilled cheeseburger.

The only special equipment you need is a basic meat grinder - I use the Kitchen-Aid grinder attachment, but a manual countertop grinder also works well, and will earn you respect from your bad-ass grandfather.

Does your gray, industrial, frozen patty look like this? I think not. So buy some respectable beef and grind your own damn burgers. It will expand your mind.

Ingredients for a burger that transcends time, space, and industrial food culture:

  • 2 lbs chuck roast, from grass fed cows raised by a small local producer (I really like Thousand Hills)
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • kosher or sea salt, to taste
  1. Put your grinder components and two large mixing bowls in the freezer
  2. Trim the beef to remove any tough connective tissue or large pieces of fat (but don't be too surgical or you'll risk grinding meat that's too lean - grass fed beef has very little fat to begin with)
  3. Cut trimmed beef into one inch chunks
  4. In one of the mixing bowls, combine meat with black pepper and salt
  5. Grind meat mixture through the small die into the other chilled bowl
  6. Pour Worcestshire sauce and olive oil into bowl, mix with a wooden spoon until liquids are incorporated (do not over-mix)
  7. Chill the meat in your refrigerator for 15 minutes to keep the meat cold (this is critical) - this is a good time to light the grill
  8. Using your hands, form the meat into 4 equal patties. Each should be about 1 inch think. Press your fingertips into the center of each patty to make them slightly concave (this helps them cook evenly and hold their shape)
  9. Grill over very hot coals until an instant-read thermometer registers 125 degrees (for medium rare). Too squeamish for medium rare? You're missing out. Buying good beef and grinding it yourself means you can eat a correctly grilled burger without fear.
*makes 4 celebration-sized grilled hamburger patties

P.S. Spring and Fall are fleeting portions of the grilling season because the mild outdoor temperatures permit the home chef to prepare some elements of the meal on the grill and some in the kitchen. This is especially important for homemade cheeseburgers and french fries. I do not own a deep fryer (sadly), but my wife and I have learned how to make addictive oven fries using a recipe from Cooks Illustrated. I'll feature our version of that recipe in an upcoming post.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

extremely fast food: new "pizza vending machine" unveiled in italy

Redefining the concept of convenience food, an Italian business man has just introduced a new vending machine that creates hot pizzas in about three minutes. The pizza-centric "Slice" blog, which is part of the Serious Eats community, posted a photo and additional information earlier this week. Read the full post here.

While Italians typically value high-quality, local ingredients, I don't expect these machines to come stocked with artisanal mozzarella and seasonal, heirloom tomatoes. My advice: buy a slice from a local vendor, which also supports a several local jobs, rather than pumping money into this mass-produced, slightly depressing concept.

Monday, March 16, 2009

buy hydroponic. lettuce.

I've had it. I'm not going to buy lettuce from California any more. Picture this: A small head of green lettuce grows in the dirt for many weeks. The lettuce, which is about 95% water, is then picked, washed, and placed in a huge box with hundreds of other heads. The box is placed on a semi trailer with many other boxes of lettuce. The truck drives from some town in California's central valley to St. Paul, MN, where some dude unloads it into the storage room of a grocery store, and someone else puts it in the produce section. Then someone drives to the store to buy it, they return home, and they put it in their refrigerator, where it may wilt before it is ever eaten. This head of lettuce, which, don't forget, is frickin' 95% water, just traveled over 2,000 miles to meet this basic "need." Does that make any sense? It's akin to growing bottles of water iand shipping them thousands of miles to be consumed by someone who already has water. Yes, we do that, too.For that very reason, northern food economies should support more greenhouse and hydroponic produce growers. From May to October, farmer's markets and co-ops carry an excellent assortment of locally grown, outdoor lettuces and leafy greens, but these are clearly not an option in cold months. Hydroponically grown lettuce, by contrast, is extremely versatile because it simply depends on a warm greenhouse and adequate water and nutrients (we have plenty of both in MN, and not so much in CA).

LaBore Farms, a small hydroponic lettuce producer in Faribault, MN recently started selling some value-priced greens at area co-ops and natural foods stores. At approximately $2.99 per bag, these greens are delicious, nutritious and they keep longer in your refrigerator because they only travel about 50 miles to a St. Paul store, vs. the epic transcontinental journey described above. Read more about hydroponic agriculture.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

the stray bulldog: st. paul diners beware!

Like any blogger I keep an ongoing list of potential post topics, which includes recipes I've used, products I like, and restaurants that are worth writing about, for better or worse. Around the time of the RNC in 2008, rumors began to circulate about a Bulldog opening in St. Paul. Most people I talked to were enthusiastic, as the Bulldog NE has been a huge hit across the river, offering the well-needed combination of a unique beer list and thoughtfully prepared bar food, emphasizing high quality ingredients such as humanely raised Midwest Wagyu beef - more about this later. As a St. Paul resident, blogging about the new location was a no-brainer, as such a bar doesn't really exist in this city (the Muddy Pig comes close for beer, but the food doesn't hold a candle to Bulldog NE).

Anyone who has eaten at the Bulldog NE knows that their burgers are special. As explained on the menu, all burgers are made from pasture-raised Wagyu cattle, which the restaurant grinds in their own kitchen. The result is an expertly prepared cheeseburger, cooked to your preference (where medium rare is actually a rich, juicy pink). At first glance, the Bulldog Lowertown's menu appears very similar, right down to the different types of burgers served. The selections are not a carbon copy of the NE location, but they're arranged similarly.

I've eaten at the Bulldog Lowertown three times now, and overall, I would say the experience was fairly good. The beer list is unrivaled and the tater tots are the definition of munchies. In fact, after eating there the first time I was excited to write a celebratory post describing how this bar is a beacon of hope in the rather bleak downtown St. Paul scene. What ruined that sentiment was not an incident of poor service (though one should read the yelp reviews for Bulldog Lowertown), or singularly bad meal. Rather, I am completely disappointed in the owner's decision to serve lower quality food to the good people of St. Paul, particularly with their burgers. The second time I visited the bar for dinner I took a closer look at the menu, mainly because I didn't recall seeing the word "wagyu" printed anywhere - just the words "100% angus," (words that carries very little meaning these days - MN readers will remember this story).

To gain some clarity around why the menus are different, I placed a call at each restaurant (NE and Lowertown) to ask about the beef they serve, mainly what type it is, where they get it, and why...

Bulldog NE

The woman who answered the phone, who is likely a server, was very friendly and receptive to my question. She confidently explained that the NE location only serves special Wagyu beef from cattle raised in the midwest, which are grass-fed and humanely treated (although not certified organic to her knowledge). All beef is sourced from a small company in South St. Paul called Swanson [no website found], and it is ground in-house at the Bulldog.

She also mentioned that their menu is different from Lowertown; in fact, she said their menu was much more "high end," featuring better ingredients and different recipes. I am not surprised. I have eaten at Bulldog NE several times now and the food has always been solid, with a subtle gourmet edge. If this server's respectful, knowledgeable response is any indication of the restaurant's overall dedication to serving good food, then Bulldog NE should be high on the list of any locavore looking for a sustainable burger and fries, among other good things.

Bulldog Lowertown
In stark contrast, the Lowertown server who picked up the phone initially could not recall where their beef is from, and seemed slightly annoyed by my simple question. However, several seconds later she remembered that "oh yeah, it's angus," which is printed on the menu - so much for knowing more than the customer. When I asked where it came from and if the animals were treated well (such as free range, grass fed, organic, etc.) she asked me to hold so she could ask someone else. It turns out they buy their beef from Shumacher's, a MN-based meat wholesaler, and she didn't "think" it was free range or grass fed, nor did she know anything else about it. She did say that one of their burgers, "The Lowertown" is made with grass fed beef - apparently they use a special blend of meat, sundried tomatoes, etc. that I'm assuming they buy as frozen patties Why else would they only serve one burger that's grass fed? It boggles the mind. Well, perhaps they don't care about differentiating their food from every other thoughtless burger joint around town.

Ok, this post has run on for too long, so I'll sum this up. As a St. Paul resident, I am truly dismayed that the owner of both restaurants has veiled lower quality food under the same brand name in my city. If I decide to eat at any Bulldog again, it will surely be NE because I do care about what I eat and will spend my dollars at a restaurant that cares - in fact, I'm even willing to pay a bit more. Also, I am a marketer by profession, so I understand the need to tailor your offerings to the specific community you intend to serve; however, some brands may not be elastic enough to support too much variation in product quality or service. Quality and consistency are king. I hope St. Paul diners catch on quickly.

P.S. I have emailed the owner directly to ask why they've taken this approach to the St. Paul restaurant. I'll let you know what I hear, if anything...