Punching Down

You might say that Times Union food critic Susie Davisdson Powell did not enjoy the lamb-stuffed poblano peppers at Farmhouse Tap and Tavern.

In a single paragraph she compares them to a ball tucked in a sock, a comet with a meatball for a head, and — finally — a dick. She also adds that they’re hard to cut and undercooked.

One example would have worked, but she went with three. That’s commitment!

Davidson Powell recently ravaged Farmhouse Tap in a scathing review that was more of a bitter attack against the restaurant than a balanced critique. It was gleefully malicious, oozing anger and sarcasm with every tart observation and clever turn of phrase. But that’s her thing, isn’t it? Being nasty is much more entertaining than being fair.

It was about as bad as a local restaurant review gets — and it made me wonder why it’s OK for a big media company like the Times Union to take down a small local eatery?

Davidson Powell defends restaurant reviews, lumping them in with other arts criticism, like that for theatre or music productions. Bullshit, I say. A restaurant may be an expression of someone’s creative energy, but first and foremost it’s a business, and your review has the potential to ruin someone’s livelihood. The Times Union doesn’t review a car dealers or furniture stores, so what makes restaurants fair game?

Yes, I know — restaurant reviews are a staple of newspaper journalism. People are obsessed with content about food and can’t get enough. Six straight hours of Chopped anyone?

Now, full disclosure here: I’ve reviewed restaurants on Yelp — and that’s totally different. My lone opinion doesn’t hold the weight of a major media outlet, and in forums like Yelp and Trip Advisor, the view of one person is balanced by the other contributors. Not the same as taking almost a full page in the Sunday paper to fuck with someone. And this isn’t the New York Times going after Guy Fieri, this is people with power stomping on people without any.

Oh, one last thing: Farmhouse Tap is owned by the woman who runs 518 Foodies, a website that focuses on the local dining scene. Huh. You can draw your own conclusions, but something about this stinks like last week’s fish.

Relish Redux

Editor’s note: I rarely re-print stuff, but I heard Susan Stamberg going on about her relish this morning, and felt it was worth dusting off this ten-year-old post.

Yes, it's really that color. If you listen to NPR, you may be familiar with the Thanksgiving tradition of Susan Stamberg sharing her mother-in-law’s cranberry relish recipe. She’s been sharing it and sharing it. Sharing it since 1972, in fact. That’s a long time, even in NPR years. Ira Glass was just 13-years-old when she started in with the relish.

I actually served the crazy pink mess of cranberry, onion, sour cream, sugar, and horseradish one Thanksgiving. While I sort of liked its tart-tangy-sweet flavor, nobody else touched it. Maybe it was the color. Maybe that it looks more like a desert than a side dish. Maybe they were not Morning Edition listeners.

Anyway, I thought I would give it one more shot and taste test it on my family before turkey day. Reviews were mixed.

My 22-year-old son said it was “unique and interesting” and said he’d like to see it on the holiday table. My 15-year-old called it “weird.” My wife said that it was “too oniony.”

And oniony it was. The trouble with onions is that they can vary wildly in their pungency, so even the small onion called for in this recipe can pack an unexpected wallop. I’d recommend going easy — or even using a sweet onion to temper the effect.

Based on my unscientific sample, maybe half the people might like this stuff — but since it only takes a couple of minutes to prepare, why not? Be prepared, though: the relish will signal you as an NPR geek. Depending on your family, they will either see you as worldly and enlightened or an elitist snob. But as they say, you can choose your radio station, but you can’t choose your family.

Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish Recipe

Fuggetaboutit

I was about to peek in the oven when I noticed them, the raisins on the counter that were supposed to be inside my soda bread. Oh, shit.

This was in the middle of a busy morning of baking for the annual soda bread contest at the Irish American Heritage Museum. This loaf, one of two for the “family style” competition would not do. I needed to start over.

My wife was like, what? How could you forget the raisins?

I didn’t have a good answer for that one — and I hustled into mixing my ingredients.

Everything was under control — until later in the morning when I got a sick feeling about my traditional loaf. I peered in the oven and saw that things were not right. I forget to add the baking soda to the soda bread.

These traditional loaves only have four ingredients — flour, buttermilk, salt and baking soda — and without the baking soda, you have something that’s inedible, like a big white hockey puck. What kind of idiot leaves out an ingredient that’s right there in the name?

This kind of idiot.

The wife eyed me suspiciously. Was he finally losing his shit, she must have thought, giving in to the early effects of dementia?

I assured her that I was not incompetent — or senile — and pushed ahead. Even with the delays, my loaves made it into the contest with five minutes to spare.

They say all’s well that ends well, and after all the trouble, my family style bread won second place. Nevertheless, I’m beginning to think that I may need to keep better track of what’s going on while cooking, the way I always go to the grocery store with a list these days. When I remember to bring it.

Rolling Boil

Dominick Purnomo grew up around the work, stress, and pain that comes with carrying the weight of a restaurant. His parents, Chef Yono & Donna Purnomo are local legends in the food world, so he saw the business at its best too, with all of its triumph and joy. It’s a tough game. Restaurants are a place of great successes and epic failures. 

Dominick’s parents may have tried to steer him away, but he jumped in with both feet.

On Thursday, he tweeted a copy of a letter he was sending the Times Union, setting off a skirmish on social media where food and journalism collided.

You can read Susie Davidson Powell’s review here. To say she hated Boil Shack is understating things, for her review wasn’t just negative, it was gleefully nasty.

It’s fair to say that some people find Powell’s reviews annoying. When she started at the Times Union, her pieces were thick with Britishisms, so full of pip-pip-cheerio nonsense that they sounded like parody. Not so much now. Thank God for editors.

The president has taught us that Twitter is a great place to show how thin skinned you are, so Purnomo’s post drew a tart response from several prominent TU folks, like managing editor Casey Seiler.

Maybe Purnomo will get a polite and reasonable response to his letter from a senior manager at the paper, but that time isn’t now.

I don’t completely agree with Dominick Purnomo on this. A restaurant can have a bad night and fix it the next day, but your bad night may have ruined somebody’s special occasion. Or maybe you took the $100 bucks they put away for a nice dinner and you didn’t deliver. There’s no taking that back. 

As for Susie Davidson Powell,  her schtick is unfair and unprofessional. She may have been right, but she was not just.

Big Bird

Maybe I’m just getting old, but this year’s turkey was a gigantic pain in the ass.

Clocking in at more than 25 pounds, it was a huge and unwieldy bird that was challenging every step of the way. Next time, I think I’d be better off cooking two smaller turkeys. It would be more work in some regards, but after wrestling with the mega-brid, it’s worth considering.

Did I mention the stuffing incident?

When I was taking the turkey out of the stove, the roasting pan slipped and dropped onto the oven rack. It didn’t fall more than a couple of inches, but the impact was enough to launch a load of stuffing straight into the air. Some of it ended up in my hair, some on the floor, and some was on the cabinet doors.

My son walked into the kitchen. “What’s that up there?”

Holy crap — several clumps of stuffing were clinging to the ceiling.

Overall, it was not the easiest day, but the trouble was worth it. The turkey was spectacular — probably the best I’ve ever cooked — but more importantly, it was a great crowd of friends and family and everyone had a wonderful time. Spirits were soaring on our all-American holiday, soaring almost as high as the stuffing.

The Inspector Calls

In Ballston Spa, a seven-year-old ran afoul of state regulators by operating a lemonade stand without a permit. An overzealous state health inspector made him close up shop after alleged complaints by fair vendors — and America erupted in outrage.

Years ago, I myself had a brush with the the food police.

I was in charge of the hot dog stand at our Cub Scout pack’s annual pinewood derby race. It was nothing fancy: dirty water dogs, potato chips, slices of pizza — you’ve seen these ad hoc food concessions at youth sports and school events. You’ve probably eaten a lot of that food, too.

A woman approached. “Do you have a permit?”

Excuse me, for what?

“I do food inspections at the health department. Most people don’t know this, but you need a permit to serve food —  and if you don’t have a permit, I could shut you down.”

I laughed. Her son was one of the scouts and I figured she was just pulling my leg.

“I suppose we should be wearing gloves, too, right?”

She looked around. “Yes, actually, you should.”

OK, this woman’s not kidding. For a moment I considered trying to bribe her with a free hot dog, but thought better.

I thanked her and said we’d look into getting a permit next year. We never did.

Even though we were not sanctioned by the county or state to serve food, we managed not to kill anyone with our cheap hot dogs. And thank god for that. Poisoning an entire Cub Scout pack is not something you’d get over easily.

Rules are rules, and stupid rules are still rules. But it seems like the one rule we really need is the one about common sense. There’s no regulating that.

It’s Raining Yogurt

Who doesn’t enjoy a little Greek yogurt in the morning? Great stuff — unless it’s plunging out of the sky.

I was walking from my car recently and I heard something land behind me with a loud splat. I turned to see a container of Greek yogurt had burst open on the sidewalk, close enough to spray my pants leg with flecks of delicious yogurty goodness.

There wasn’t a car or person in sight, and only one place it could have come from: the overpass above.

It’s astounding that someone would recklessly hurl this yogurt bomb from their car. Any object thrown from that height could hurt someone, even something so soft and creamy. I suppose it also could have been an accident, maybe a container of yogurt absentmindedly left on the roof the car. In case you lost your yogurt Monday morning, mystery solved.

I was in Price Chopper last month and a man began ranting out loud in the yogurt section to nobody in particular. “Greek yogurt! Greek yogurt! What happened to regular yogurt? All I need is some regular plain yogurt for a recipe.”

I pointed him to the case with Stonyfield Farms products. He would not have been surprised to learn that Greek yogurt was literally falling from the sky, that something that’s supposed to be healthy could come sailing out of the blue and crack you in the noggin.

Getting Baked

There was something wrong with my soda bread.

Over the course of a week, after baking about ten loaves, it was obvious we had a problem. Not to get all technical, but it didn’t have the usual oven spring and the crumb structure was denser than it should have been. It was still delicious, but not quite right in its texture.

Was it the oven temperature, the kneading, the water? Maybe I was not paying enough attention to detail. Perhaps I’d just lost my knack — or it could be something darker. I joked last year of using Lucky Charms in the recipe — and this may have stirred the fairies or little people, who in turn cursed my baking.

But as it turns out, it was the baking soda.

I don’t know how old a can of baking soda must be to be beyond the sell-by date, but my can was expired. Does baking soda actually go bad? Yes — and it was confirmed by a simple test I found online.

A number of factors can ruin baking soda, and generally, it should be kept in a cool, dry place. The cabinet above my stove certainly gets warm — and the steam from cooking can’t be helpful.

I baked a final loaf Sunday night with a newly opened container of baking soda and the results were back to normal. Mystery solved — but just in case, never take any chances with the fairies and little people.

Ziti and Meatballs

The corruption trial of Cuomo confidant Joe Percoco grinds along this week. It’s hard not to feel bad for this guy, who seems to have gotten in over his head in every way possible — but you’ve got to admit, the “ziti” business is funny.

The feds claim that Percoco would refer to payments by the code word “ziti,” and they say they have emails with Percoco writing, “Keep the ziti flowing … Don’t tip over the ziti wagon.” And where did he come up with that? According to the prosecutor, from watching the Sopranos. In other news, Mario Cuomo is rolling over in his grave.

Meanwhile, in a federal courtroom in Allentown, something entirely different is on the menu. Prosecutors there claim that the word “meatballs” was used as code for illicit payments in the bribery case of mayor Ed Pawlowski.

This from the Allentown Morning Call is priceless:

“So, this is not code for a bribe? Did you actually go to Mike Fleck’s to pick up meatballs?” Morgan asked.

Strathearn replied yes.

“Did you actually get meatballs?” the prosecutor asked.

Strathearn replied that he had, but not as many as he was expecting.
“How many did you get?” Morgan asked.

“Four,” he replied.

On cross-examination, McMahon played several more recordings containing references to the meaty Italian cuisine and suggested “meatballs” was, in fact, code for a bribe.

“You want these people to believe it’s really meatballs?” McMahon yelled. “It’s a payoff, Mr. Strathearn. You know, I know and everybody knows.”

Yes, everybody knows meatballs mean money. And meatballs and ziti? Fuggetaboutit.