Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Fruit Table

This is the last post from our trip to Sicily, July, 2007.

Fresh Fish

The fish we ate all tasted fabulously fresh; we knew it was coming in on little day boats in the Mediterranean.
Sardines in many forms are the signature dish of Sicilian cooking -- and can't be duplicted outside of Sicily. I especially liked these sardine balls: ground fish balls in tomato sauce.

Swordfish, snapper, and many other fish both large and small appeared on the hotel buffet, but I was always too immersed in enjoying my meal to photograph them. These photos all are from the restaurants in Palermo.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Served in Style

At every meal, the hotel buffet was decorated with hand-carved fruits and fanciful arrangements:

Aside: Palermitan Pastry in History

In 1686, Francesco Procopio de Coltelli of Palermo, Sicily, founded Le Procope, now the longest-lived cafe/restaurant in Paris. This is considered evidence that the Sicilians, especially the Palermitans, were recognized at that time as experts in sweets, coffee, and gelato. Coffee was just beginning its reign throughout Europe: it had recently come from the East, via the Arabs who were in contact with Ethiopia where the coffee plant had its origin. Now delicious, very strong small cups of espresso are one of the pleasures of visiting the island.

Many delicious desserts are native to Palermo -- I tasted only a very small number of them. Almond paste, jam and jelly, chocolate and vanilla creams, and other delicious substances fill the breakfast pastries. Tartes, cannolis (photo above), semi-freddo (an ice-cream cake, photo below), ice cream-filled brioches, marzipan shaped like fruit or toys, and many other specialties are on offer in Palermo's cafes and dessert shops. Small wineries and liqueur makers produce lemon and almond liqueur, Marsala (from not far away) and other sweet after-dinner alcohols.

The book Bitter Almonds: Recollections and recipes from a Sicilian girlhood, by Mary Taylor Simeti and Maria Grammatico documents the old ways with almond paste made by nuns. The hardships and mistreatment suffered by Maria Grammatico while she lived and learned in the convent make it a very modern story. The ancient tradition of pastry-making and other ways that nuns were exploited make it an old story as well. While Palermitans ate and made such confections, this book documents the shop in Erice where I have been on other trips.

Small Meals

Actually, we had no small meals in Sicily. We didn't choose to eat as much at breakfast and lunch. Here's a picture of the breakfast tray at the hotel in Palermo. I love the Italian rolls and breakfast pastries, though they are really rich, and we couldn't finish what was on the tray. At the hotel, in addition to rolls and pastry, there were buffets of scrambled eggs, bacon, cold meat and cheese, and the fruit selection that was present at every meal.

On the day we walked around in Palermo, we ate an outdoor lunch at a cafe that specialized in light meals and desserts. The smoked beef on mixed greens was very good, as was the roulade of beef with stuffing, served on a skewer and fried in breadcrumbs (at right). After this course, we had tartes -- a very small meal compared to our hotel experiences.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Antepasto Courses in Sicily

First we ate in several restaurants in Palermo, where we tried classics such as fruitti del mare and salad capresi.

At the beach resort, the antepasto was served on a big buffet, and included both hot and cold choices. Each day there were at least three cold dishes including many raw and cooked vegetables, peppers, shellfish, and numerous combinations. I didn't get to try anywhere near every dish -- I'm afraid I missed most of the hot stuffed vegetables as I loved the cold salads too much.

One day, I arranged the long-stemmed artichoke hearts, two types of tomatoes with two types of mozzerella, and so on on my plate for a photo. I also loved the tomato-greenbean-tuna combinations. The olive oil was especially delicious.

At the conference dinner, the buffet included small finger-foods such as olives, warm toasted almonds, filled puff pastry, and other things. At the sit-down part of the meal, we started with two types of smoked fish and some vegetables on a plate. I photographed only a small fraction of the vast number of things we ate: the buffets had new things at every lunch and dinner.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Last Meal?

"The former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, discovered last week that it's an extremely bad time to get blamed for any of China's food and drug safety problems. He had been convicted of taking bribes in exchange for helping drug companies evade regulation. Sentenced to death in May, he confessed his crimes in a written statement, vowed to return the bribe money, and pleaded for leniency. He proved unpersuasive; the government announced Tuesday that he had been executed. We can only imagine what he was given for his last meal." -- from "Made In China (Annotated)," posted on Aschenblog.

More on Chinese-American Food Interchange

In thinking more about why Chinese bad products are so disturbing, I also was thinking about the rejection of American meat by China. I first assumed that the Chinese government were just retaliating. They have kind of a sledge hammer approach: after all, they just put the head of food safety in their country to death, why wouldn't they try to punish us too.

However, maybe even the Chinese authorities have a point about the American tolerance for low levels of salmonella in raw meat even if their food isn't handled so purely either. The case is documented here: In Role Reversal, China Blocks Some U.S. Meat, by Ariana Eunjung Cha and Renae Merle, Washington Post Foreign Service, Sunday, July 15, 2007.

My friend whose field is public health, and who often travels to China, commented on the lack of hygiene in China several years ago, describing a pile of shrimp being shelled and put on a filthy floor as his example. It's not really a new thing: just a new fad to notice it.

Nasty food for nasty thoughts

Here's another possible interpretation of the widespread reaction to Chinese food poisoning possiblities: maybe it embodies a serious element of racism and fear of foreigners.

"The association of Chinese with dubious edibles has insinuated itself into our cultural consciousness in small and seemingly trivial ways -- in schoolyard taunting, in sitcom gags about takeout food, in standup monologues about puppy chow mein." So writes Jeff Yang in yesterday's Washington Post: A Taste of Racism in the Chinese Food Scare (July 15, 2007).

In contrast, the New York Times had an editorial, Killing the Regulator, (July 16, 2007), about the subject that stated: "What China needs is an effective and transparent regulatory system and a clear understanding that its export boom will suffer if it continues to sell tainted food, toys and toothpaste. Until that happens — and there is no guarantee that it will — American regulators will have to do more to screen Chinese imports to protect American consumers." The article also noted that, because the Bush government has destroyed much of our regulatory infrastructure, perhaps large wholesale buyers (like WalMart) could police their own imports from China and wherever else was necessary.

Both points are important, but I find this paragraph of Jeff Yang's article thought provoking:

"As it is, Food and Drug Administration records show that China isn't even the leading source of contaminated imports to the United States. India and Mexico have exceeded China in "refused food shipments" over the past year, and the leader in rejected candy imports was a country with an otherwise antiseptic image: Denmark. Domestic food sources also aren't exempt from scandal: Remember the California spinach scare last year? And last month, another California-based company recalled more than 75,000 pounds of hamburger distributed in the western United States, the latest in a lengthy series of tainted-meat incidents -- all from American suppliers."

Addendum: A lot of the cartoons of the week chosen by the Sunday papers had some type of joke which I think also hints at the roots of anti-Chinese bias in American culture. The best one, by Jeff Danziger, had the caption: "At the Moon Garden Palace, You Can Now Get REAL Chinese Food (Just Like in China)" and showed the above-the-counter food choices: "1. Happy Shoebox, 2. Chicken Anti-Freeze, 3. Sweet-Sour Phonebook."

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Trevor Corson Op Ed

In The Zen of Fish Trevor Corson talks a lot about what American sushi eaters could learn if they would sit at the sushi bar and talk to the chef. Today he emphasized that such a collaboration would not only result in better adventures in eating, but also offer a way to reduce the demand for now-rare types of tuna, which Americans think are the pinnacle of sushi. Corson's Op Ed reminds the readers that in fact, the Japanese only developed a taste for tuna, especially the fattier varieties, in the last 40 or 50 years, and originally enjoyed a wider variety of leaner fish.

A quote from Sushi for Two by the author of The Zen of Fish, in today's New York Times:

"I suggest that customers refuse to sit at a table or look at a menu. We should sit at the bar and ask the chef questions about everything — what he wants to make us and how we should eat it. We should agree to turn our backs on our American addictions to tuna (for starters, try mackerel), globs of fake wasabi (let the chef add the appropriate amount), gallons of soy sauce (let the chef season the sushi if it needs seasoning) and chopsticks (use your fingers so the chef can pack the sushi loosely, as he would in Japan). Diners will be amazed at how following these simple rules can make a sushi chef your friend, and take you on new adventures in taste.

"In return, the chefs, be they Japanese or not, must honor the sushi tradition and make the effort to educate us — no more stoicism. They must also be willing to have a candid conversation about the budget before the meal; it’s the only way American diners will be willing to surrender to the chef’s suggestions. Sushi should never be cheap, but it also should never be exorbitant, because that makes it impossible to create a clientele of regulars.

"Fraternizing with the chef may be a tough habit for Americans to take up. But we’ve had sushi here now for four decades, and it’s time for a change — both for our sake, and for the sake of the embattled tuna. Let the conversation across the sushi bar begin."

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Food Bloggers

I decided to make more of an effort to find blogs about food. I knew it wouldn't be hard, since any subject you can think of is covered by about a zillion blogs. Of course I follow McGee's Curious Cook already, as well as a couple of others.

These appear to be rather widely read and recognized -- I plan to follow them for a while:
  • Tea and Cookies: full of really pretty pictures of food at various stages of its existence, from green berries on the vine to a dressed salad in a bowl
  • The Amateur Gourmet: looks like it covers a lot of food topics
  • Ruhlman: blog of the well-known food author

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Local Produce

Eating Local Food

At the Ann Arbor Farmers' Market local food has always been a superb summer possibility with a large variety of Michigan fruit and vegetables. A variety of cut flowers and garden plants are well-adapted to conditions here, as well as adding beauty and color to the market.

I haven't been managing to shop here regularly for a while, but today we got up early. We arrived when parking spaces were still easy to find and crowds were thin. (In fact, we made the ironic observation that the on-average heavier people seemed to be arriving as we were leaving; we have no idea why this seemed to be the case.)

Many years ago, farmers brought in chickens that they had raised, slaughtered, and cleaned themselves; also eggs. One or another authority denied them the right to do so. However, for the past five years or so, some local beef, lamb, buffalo, goat, and poultry raisers have found ways to comply, and we have some lamb chops which come from a farm along M-52 between Chelsea and Stockbridge, an area we know well. The farmer who sold them to us explained how she had selected a slaughterhouse that is legal and meets her requirements for cleanliness as well. The chops are frozen.

-- we defrosted them, sauced them, put them on the Webber grill, and ate them for dinner. They were marvelous.

Friday, July 06, 2007

From "The Big Oyster"

"The only thing New Yorkers ignore more than nature is history." From Mark Kurlansky's preface to The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell.

Addendum: I'm not quite as enthusiastic about this book as I am about Kurlansky's other food books, Salt and Cod. Trying to cover the history of New York from the point of view of oysters is a real stretch, and in the end, he has to swivel back and forth between the two topics. I prefer the pure oyster book called The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Red, White, and Blue Dessert

Musical program to accompany dinner:
  • New World Symphony -- Antonín Dvořák
  • Sound track -- "Oh Brother Where Art Thou"
  • Sousa Marches

Monday, July 02, 2007

Kyoto Sushi, 1994

Kaiseki Dinner: July, 1994

Kaiseki Dinner is an elaborate meal hosted by the owner of the traditional inn and served by a large staff. Mariko's parents invited the three of us to such a dinner in Kyoto, Japan, when we were there for Mariko's wedding. In our case, an apprentice Geisha, called a Mako, was also present.

Kaiseki is the meal served with a formal old-style tea ceremony. The many courses are each arranged with extraordinary care and tradition. Some of the traditions of sushi are derived from this meal. Decorations in the private room in the inn reflect the season, in this case, the hot season in early July. In fact, the heat was extreme during our entire trip in 1994.

One item on display was an antique summer kimono, which guests are encouraged to try on for a photo opportunitiy (another old Japanese custom: taking photos).

Sunday, July 01, 2007


After reading The Zen of Fish for three days, I decided to eat some sushi! We went to Totero, a sushi bar near campus (named for the Miazaki movie). Len ordered the deluxe platter. I ordered a simple cucumber roll, a seaweed salad, and two individual pieces of sushi, later followed by a spider roll. The book described how custom-made sushi and rolls contain rice that's still warm: that was the case with my delicious toro and salmon roe sushi. It was fun knowing the history of these two types of sushi.

I decided to try doing what the book said: eat a whole piece of sushi in one bite rather than eating a little at a time. It was too big for me. Maybe they've adapted the size to accommodate the American habit of eating. I also tried keeping the wasabi and soy sauce separate to avoid weakening the blast of wasabi flavor. It works: I almost choked when I overdipped into the wasabi. However, I didn't feel like picking up each piece of sushi with my fingers: I used the chopsticks, as the chefs quoted in the book did not recommend.

California rolls and all the other kinds of rolls were invented in the US. According to the book, rolls often include ingredients selected to please American taste. Totero has a Hawaiian roll that includes pineapple! In Japan, sushi bars in edgy places like Tokyo have adopted these Americanized versions of their native food. In Kyoto, some sushi bars still serve their own style, served in a box and less sweet, unlike the Tokyo style sushi that's mainly known outside Japan. I'll have to check my photos of the sushi we ate years ago in Kyoto.

Here's the sushi bar at Totero. Some time, I'll sit at the counter and watch the action. Tonight we sat at a table, despite all my reading about how one should get the full experience of seeing the chefs at work.