cook + dine

Home Soda Maker Goes After the Big Boys


You drink too much soda.
Last year Americans consumed 50 billion liters of soda. That comes to 216 liters for every man, woman, and child. Not you? Well, someone is drinking all that soda.

This is not like pineapples from Hawaii or lobsters from Maine—it’s water and flavoring and some CO2 for carbonation—the stuff could come from anywhere. And sparkling water? We haul San Pellegrino from Italy like it’s Prosciutto di Parma. Oceans of corn syrup; mountains of glass, metal, and plastic waste; money; fossil fuels; canned and bottled soda is wrong on so many levels.

Who wouldn’t want to cut the waste? That’s why home soda makers are so appealing. And that’s why the giant soft drink manufacturers just might be looking over their shoulders.

One home soda maker, SodaStream, is itching for a showdown.
It was supposed to happen during the Super Bowl. SodaStream had saved up its pennies and purchased one of those big-money ad slots during the game. They prepared an ad touting their reusable bottles that showed rival Coke and Pepsi trucks racing to make a delivery. As the delivery men push their carts loaded with soda bottles toward the supermarket’s entrance, the bottles spontaneously explode into a sticky mess. It cuts to a home SodaStream user while a voice over intones ‘With SodaStream, we could have saved 500 million bottles on game day alone.’

We had the duration of the Pepsi-sponsored halftime to ponder this one.
The ad wasn’t aired. CBS, which owns the broadcast rights to this year’s Super Bowl, rejected the spot. Too ‘controversial’ for the network, it crossed a line that apparently wasn’t approached by the soft core content of the Mercedes-Benz wet t-shirt car wash or the explicit GoDaddy make out session.

You can see the banned commercial and its milder replacement at Fast Company’s Co.Create blog.


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The Super Bowl of Snacking


On Super Bowl Sunday we’re not so much armchair quarterbacks as snack bowl linebackers. 
For most fans the broadcast is an excuse to eat a full day’s worth of calories one tortilla chip and chicken wing at a time.

Of course you’re no linebacker bulking up for the big game. But if you were— or a cheerleader, or even just a wildly enthusiastic fan—these are the football-related activities that it would take to burn the calories.



We’ll consume 27 billion calories just from potato chips. Forget about the carbs; the fat content alone contributes the calories to create four million new pounds of fat on American bodies. To burn off just a small handful of chips with French onion dip you’d have to ride a bicycle from the New Orleans airport to the Super Dome and back.




Who doesn’t love a good pig in a blanket? It takes about a half hour of tossing around a football to burn off each little pastry-wrapped sausage.



You’re looking at a graph of 52 weeks of chicken wing sales. Note the spike? That would be the week leading up to the last Super Bowl. Paint the faces of eight rabid Ravens fans and you’ll burn the calories contained in a single chicken wing that’s been fried and drenched in Buffalo sauce. Unfortunately there aren’t enough football fans on the planet to make up for the 1.23 billion wings that will be eaten this Super Bowl Sunday.

Once the hors d’oeuvre of choice for Grandma’s bridge club, deviled eggs have become a Sunday staple during football season. Jogging the length of the football field 20 times will burn the calories from two stuffed halves of an egg.


football guac


Guacamole has risen through the Super Bowl snack ranks in short order. From a mere 8 million pounds a decade ago, this year we’ll be mashing 79 million pounds of avocados into dip, helped by having San Francisco in this year’s championship. Figure on 10 minutes of climbing stadium stairs to burn a quarter cup of guacamole.



Pizzerias are always the big winners. Super Bowl Sunday is their busiest day of the year by leaps and bounds. One in seven Americans orders take-out and most of it is pizza. If you played the French horn in a marching band for the duration of the game, the exercise would earn you a couple of slices.

 superbowl glass

The nation’s beer tab will be more than $10 billion for Super Bowl Sunday. That’s 50 million cases, but it’s still only good enough to rank eighth on the list of beer-drinking holidays, mostly due to the season. The warm weather holidays of 4th of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Fathers Day hold down the top spots. If you do your part with a 12 oz. beer each quarter, you’d have to do ‘the wave’ 2,853 times to burn the calories in those four bottles of beer.

Chips, dips, wings, beer… it’s no wonder that 6 percent of Americans will call in sick for work on Monday morning.

Posted in Entertainment, health + diet, snack foods | Leave a comment

Starbucks Baristas to Wear Name Tags. Still Can’t Get Your Name Right



Starbucks has announced that its baristas will be required to wear name tags.
The company has gone back and forth on this for years. The hope is that it humanizes the experience; the fear is that it’s too ‘fast food.’
That’s all well and good, but what about our names?

You know the drill. You order a coffee and they ask for your name so you can be summoned when it’s ready. The cashier scrawls it on a cup, the barista calls it out, and fingers crossed, the name that comes back will be close enough that you’ll recognize it as your own.

Starbucks’ name butchery is legendary. It’s like your name went ten rounds with AutoCorrect: Amanda becomes Tammy, Andrew becomes Stanley, and God help you if your name is Gaelic in origin, has more than two syllables, or rhymes with any part of the female anatomy. Dozens of websites like That’s Not My Name, StarbucksThe Starbucks Name Game, and Starbucks Got My Name Wrong serve as repositories for the most outrageous and egregious of the the cup misspellings.

Meet Minnie
Minnie always orders my coffee. She’s unfailingly polite and an excellent tipper.
Minnie is my coffee name. 
Unlike my real name, Minnie rarely needs to be repeated, enunciated, or spelled out. And it’s a source of mild amusement when Minnie’s Grande is announced.

The Starbucks alter-ego is a common phenomenon.
Some use it in the interest of privacy, some want to avoid the tiresome task of spelling out an uncommon name, and some coffee pseudonyms are just for giggles. I once stood in line behind an iced tea duo of Mary-Kate and Ashley, and have seen tittering middle-schoolers retrieve frappuccinos made for the likes of Seymour Butts and Hugh Janus. One unflappable barista took Voldemort’s order and returned a cup marked He Who Must Not Be Named.

What’s your Starbucks name?
Create your own with the Starbucks Name Generator.

Saturday Night Live nailed it.
Watch this parody of Starbucks’ at-home brewing system to see how the Verisimo can mess with your name in the comfort of your own kitchen.

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How’d They Get So Little? The true story of baby carrots.

image via Bent Objects

image via Bent Objects


Did you ever wonder where those perfect little carrots come from?
Those marvels of the produce aisle, so uniform in shape, size, and color, like no carrot found in nature. You’ve had your suspicions; you’ve heard the rumors.
It’s all true. Carrots- yes; Babies- no.

True baby carrots are a specialty crop that’s grown to be harvested before maturity. The supermarket version is a manufactured product, more properly known as ‘baby-cuts’ instead of baby carrots.

The baby-cuts began as full-sized, fully-grown carrots that are snipped into 2-inch sections, pumped through water-filled pipes into giant whirling peelers, whittled down to lovable niblets, and bathed in a mold retardant before they’re packed in plastic bags for shipping. Organic carrot growers use a citrus-based product called Citrix, but the conventional baby-cuts in your supermarket were treated with chlorine to prolong shelf life.

Pass the bunny balls
The baby carrots we’ve come to know were invented in the late 1980′s. Supermarkets have always demanded carrots of uniform size and shape, with no lumps, bumps, spots, or twists. One California carrot farmer had grown tired of culling the imperfect and irregular carrots from his crop. Up to 70% of his harvest would end up discarded or sold at a discounted price for juice and animal feed. He started experimenting with green bean trimmers and potato peelers, dabbling first with 1-inch rounds that he marketed as ‘bunny balls’ before settling on 2-inch thumbs, and an industry was transformed. Ironically, we now pay a premium price for the former cast-offs.

The baby-cut boom has changed the way carrots are grown. The ideal carrot used to be bulky-topped and steeply tapered, grown to a standard 6½ inches for the best fit in 0ne- and two-pound plastic bags. Now growers shoot for long, narrow cylinders. The length gets them more cuts—it’s gone from the original two cuts per carrot to three and even four cuts from 8+ inch behemoths. Straight and narrow means they can be planted closer together for more yield per acre, and less is wasted when they’re carved into the baby carrot shape.

Before the advent of the baby-cut, annual carrot consumption in the U.S. was a steady 6 pounds a year per person. It started climbing in 1986 and topped 11 pounds per person by 2007. We snack on them, throw them into soups and stews, entertain with baby-cuts and dip, put them in lunch boxes, and order them at fast food restaurants. The carrot industry’s Eat’em Like Junk Food campaign has even pushed ‘scarrots’ as a dubious alternative to Halloween candy.

I know what you’re going to say.
Yes, it’s cheaper, healthier, and better for the environment to buy whole carrots from a local grower. But baby-cuts did get us to eat twice as many fresh carrots as we used to.
It’s hard to argue with that kind of success.

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We Want Meatballs


meatball recipe


What we want: meatballs.
What we don’t want: a meatball trend.

Try as they might, the food press could not shoehorn meatballs into the latest food fad.
Bon Appetit dubbed 2010 The Year of the Meatball; People Magazine went with 2011 for Meatball Mania, and The Food Channel tried again in 2012. But for all the meatball-only boutiques and roving meatball food trucks in all the right neighborhoods, meatballs are not now— and will never be— the new cupcake.

Meatballs are universally and perennially loved; so much so that they are trend-proofed and fad-resistant. They never fall out of fashion or favor. They are rarely stylish but always in style.

That’s not to say that meatballs can’t have their moment.
In fact the added attention meatballs have received makes this an excellent moment. They’re more popular than ever in restaurants where they seem to anchor every small-plates menu ever printed. Meatballs can be Indian (köfta), Italian (polpette), Greek (keftedes), or Mexican (albóndigas), and they speak comfort in any language.

Chefs might want to reinvent meatballs with luxe and modern ingredients, but the best are those that barely tweak the classic recipes and humble traditions. They’re not a vehicle for expensive cuts of meat, but benefit from cheap and fatty grindings. They cry out for filler to add flavor and moisture, and are a perfect landing spot for stale bread and cheese rinds.

Meatballs are simple and inexpensive to prepare at home, and are nearly always a bargain on restaurant menus. They are at home in soup, on a sandwich, atop pasta, or stuffed in rice paper, grape leaves, or  dumpling wrappers. They make a fine appetizer, a winning lunch, and soothe our frazzled, modern souls in a satisfying dinner.

Who needs trendy when we can have meatballs?


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Waking Up to Breakfast Beers

Rooster logo via

Rooster logo via


Brewers have turned their attention to one of the few underserved market segments: morning beer drinkers.

The eye-opener, the hair-of-the-dog, the morning brewskie
Beer for breakfast was once the domain of problem drinkers and spring break partiers.
It’s as if there was an unwritten law that liquor marketers wouldn’t try to mess with the social standard of the booze-free morning. Not any more. There’s a whole slew of new brews aimed at getting you out of bed.

Founder’s Brewing calls its Breakfast Stout ‘the coffee lover’s consummate beer’ with ‘an intense fresh-roasted java nose,’ and the recommended food pairing with Left Hand Brewing’s Milk Stout is a bowl of granola. Wells and Youngs brews a Banana Bread Ale; Terrapin’s Wake ‘N Bake is more bake than wake at 8.6% alcohol, but it’s infused with high-test Jittery Joe’s coffee beans; and Rogue Brewing might have created the ultimate breakfast combination with its Voodoo Donut Bacon Maple Ale.

Defenders of the morning quaff point to its traditional standing in many cultures.
In earlier centuries, beer was the default breakfast beverage of the British, when coffee and tea weren’t widely available and safe drinking water was hard to come by. Hong Kong stockbrokers like to fortify themselves with a morning pint before the market opens, and instead of a coffee break, Eastern Europeans have always favored beer for their mid-morning brotzeit, or second breakfast. Beer is high in carbs, loaded with empty calories, and its soporific effects can derail your morning get-up-and-go; but swap the alcohol for sugar and you’re basically looking at the nutrition profile of many breakfast cereals.

Others shudder at the the thought.
It might be beer ‘o clock somewhere, but not everyone has the stomach for an eye-opening jolt of bitter carbonation. It also strikes many as irresponsible behavior, from a health and addiction perspective. Morning drinking is considered a sign of addiction; it can be a gateway to more daytime drinking, and leads to higher rates of alcohol-related liver disease and dementia.

Have your own breakfast of champions.
The Wall Street Journal recommends food and beer breakfast pairings that it claims ‘can be as perfect a breakfast accompaniment as O.J.’

Brubar is the breakfast bar for beer lovers. It’s the creation of a home brewer who marries malty beer flavors with a non-alcoholic energy bar.

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On Cupcakes and Tax Cuts







It’s 2013 and cupcakes are still going strong.
Once again cupcakes made year-end hot lists like The Year on Twitter and Google Zeitgeist. Their images are re-pinned endlessly on Pinterest and their recipes are among the most searched-for on cooking sites. They’re still the fastest-growing segment of the baked goods industry, and there’s no end in sight.

It seems like only yesterday that cupcakes were a humble homey dessert, just one of the pack, interchangeable with cookies and brownies. Then, in a perfect storm of economics and Sex and the City, cupcakes caught fire. Today, cupcake bakeries dot the landscape of gentrified urban neighborhoods and suburban strip malls. You can get a cupcake in a deli or a burger joint, waiting for a plane at the airport, in a hospital cafeteria, or a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Doomsayers have predicted a post-sugar rush crash for years.
Cupcakes are derided as tedious and over-exposed, ‘fake happiness, wrought in Wonka unfood colors,’ and ‘the favorite greedy treat of the me-generation.’ Washington City Paper dubbed them ‘the cockroach of the culinary scene,’ but the way they multiply is more like fruit flies. If it’s a cupcake bubble, as some say, when’s the burst?

Countless column inches have been devoted to media predictions of the ‘new cupcake.’ Once we had our fill of cupcakes, they wondered, what would be the next it treat to feed our sugar lust?

We scurried after macarons and whoopie pies, chased down cake pops and donuts, and listened to stray rumblings of support for dark horse candidates like bread pudding and bundt cakes. While each of these pastries might, in turn, have its pop culture moment, we don’t see cupcakes stepping aside anytime soon.

Cupcakes are shaping up as the pastry equivalent of the Bush tax cuts.
When they first popped up a decade or so ago, nobody expected either to stick around for long. But here we are in 2013 and both cupcakes and the tax cuts seem to have become permanent fixtures.

Just like fiscal policy, the rationale for cupcakes is a slippery one, capable of transcending the vagaries of our economy. You’re doing well? Trade up from cookies and treat yourself to a cupcake. Times are tough? For just a few bucks a cupcake will soothe you, body and soul. Cupcakes can be an indulgent treat or an affordable comfort. Just like tax cuts.

It’s all a matter of perspective. And that, it seems, is the secret to their longevity.


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Smart Kids Grow Up to Drink More Alcohol

image via The United Nations of Beer

image via The United Nations of Beer


It seems contradictory, but it’s true.
The smartest kids are the ones who grow up to consume more alcohol, more frequently. They are more likely than less intelligent individuals to drink to get drunk and to engage in binge drinking.

These are the findings of two highly respected, long-term studies: the National Childhood Development Study from the United Kingdom and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the United States. Both studies defined high intelligence as a childhood IQ of 125 and above; both studies controlled for a huge number of variables in both the kids and their families (including age, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, marital status, social status, education, earnings, political attitudes, stress factors, religiosity, physical and mental health, medications, socialization, and sexual activity). The findings held true: smarter kids drink more as adults, and it appears that it’s their intelligence itself that makes them drink more.

On the face of it, this makes no sense: obviously these very smart people are familiar with the potential dangers of heavy alcohol consumption. The researchers reported the data, but offered no explanations. Hypotheses abound.

Psychology Today theorizes that it’s all about evolution. They argue that alcohol is a relatively recent invention in human history. Until 10,000 years ago, drunkenness was a mostly unintentional state that occurred when our ancestors ate rotten and fermented fruit. In an evolutionary sense, the deliberate creation and consumption of alcohol is a modern invention that has been embraced by the leading edge of highly intelligent early adopters.

Another evolutionary theory posits that people of higher intelligence can take more pleasure from the mind-altering experience of drunkenness. Their brains are equipped to process a broader range of stimuli and novelty than are the brains of the less intelligent.

Addiction expert Stanton Peele suggests that individuals of lesser intelligence are more susceptible to public health and educational messages warning of the dangers of alcohol. They might also have swallowed the myth that alcohol kills brain cells.

The Journal of Advanced Academics links drinking to the difficult adolescence of highly intelligent teenagers. They are more prone than mainstream kids to experience depression and social isolation and commonly use alcohol to self-medicate.

Or maybe, it’s just that once they’ve outgrown those awkward years they want to cut loose and make up for all the high school parties they weren’t invited to.

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, kids | Leave a comment

What Goes With What? The Do-Re-Mi of Food Pairing


cupcakes via Enjoy! Bespoke Events


It’s true that there’s no accounting for taste, but some foods just seem to go together.

It’s like that with music. There are notes that sound good together and other combinations that make you cringe. And we know that it’s based in science. The vibrations of sound in the air create sound waves, and when the math and physics of different waves are a good fit, you’ve got music.

We all know foods that go together better than others. Bacon with cheese, pickles with deli meats, sushi with ginger, tomatoes with basil—they seem to create their own harmonies. And just like music, there’s math and science behind the fit of flavors.

The science of food pairing
Scientific flavor analysis has only been with us for a few years. It’s based on the molecular analysis of ingredients that identifies the odor and flavor compounds. Ingredients are sliced and diced with liquid and gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, and then an algorithm is applied to the compounds to come up with a unique flavor profile for each food. Compatible pairings happen when ingredients share enough compounds.

The molecular basis of pairings takes chefs away from recipes, intuition, and tradition to inspire the new and innovative dishes that you find on the menus of cutting-edge restaurants. Some of the new combinations that have worked their way into modernist cooking are chocolate and pink peppercorn, cauliflower and cocoa, and salmon with licorice. Some are better left in the laboratory like liver paired with jasmine and chocolate with smoked fish. And it’s said that caviar is molecular perfection with white chocolate, but I’ll just take it on faith.

There are clearly limits to molecular pairing.
That’s because we experience food in ways that transcend flavor. Preferences are also shaped by a dish’s appearance and texture, and the eater’s individual taste thresholds, culture, memories, traditions, and even inbuilt defense mechanisms that guided prehistoric eaters away from poisonous foods. The most complex genetic map in the entire human body is the one that controls the olfactory bulb that processes information sent to the brain about the food that we eat. Taste is far too complicated to boil down to a single, molecular rule of thumb.

Food, like music, can thrive on contrast as much as harmony. 
In music it’s called dissonance; the jangle of tones that deviates from neat sound waves to create harmonic tension. It can sound harsh and unstable but dissonance has also given us Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever, and pretty much every movie soundtrack worth its salt. In food a kind of dissonance is found in East Asian cuisines that are based on contrasting tastes combined in a balancing act of sweet and sour, hot and cooling. Garlic with sesame oil, shrimp with ginger —these are food pairings that are completely incompatible on a molecular level, but without them there’d be no Pad Thai, Vietnamese spring rolls, or Japanese gyoza.

Don’t just guess:
has more than 1,000 pairing trees. These are interactive visualizations that give you all the possible combinations you can make with a chosen ingredient. Your selection is placed at the center and you can see all the molecularly compatible matches grouped on the branches around it. The closer to the center, the better the pairing.

Posted in cook + dine, food knowledge, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Another Epic Twitter Fail – This Time It’s Starbucks’ Turn

cursing twitter via ClaudiaChez

cursing twitter via ClaudiaChez


When good tweets go bad
Twitter is a powerful tool for brands to interact with their fans. It’s an inexpensive and immediate way for restaurants to build relationships and create a buzz. It builds customer engagement and loyalty. But when something goes wrong, things can go downhill in a hurry.

The followers, and the followers’ followers, and the followers’ followers’ followers….
We’ve seen blunders and over-sharing, humor that backfires, restaurants that tweet their own gaffes, and Twitter campaigns hijacked by disgruntled customers. When it happens, the company’s own narrative is in the hands of the masses. Starbucks is the latest in a string of restaurants to lose control and see their Twitter campaign blow up.

They spread it, all right.
Starbucks created the hashtag #SpreadTheCheer and invited its customers in the United Kingdom to tweet out some holiday cheer. The feed was displayed  on a giant screen at London’s Natural History museum where the company sponsors the ice rink. But cheerful quickly turned to sneerful.

Unfortunately, Starbucks has a reputation as a bit of a Scrooge in Britain where the company has been in the news for its plans to cut paid lunch breaks, sick leave, and maternity benefits for thousands of employees. It had also recently emerged that the coffee chain, with 700 locations across the U.K., had circumvented the British tax system with some financial-sleight-of-hand involving its division in Switzerland, and had paid less than 1% in corporate taxes over 14 years. The tweeter feed was flooded with profanity-laced sentiments blasting Starbucks as economy-busting tax dodgers who push overpriced milky coffee drowned in sugar syrup. And all was displayed on a giant screen at a central London landmark.

For the non-twitterers out there, hashtags are words or phrases preceded by a hash (#) symbol. They’re used to organize tweets into a topic or dialogue, and make them searchable. The hottest hashtags appear as trending topics on the right side of Twitter’s homepage, the most coveted spot in the twitterverse, seen by millions of users. This happens organically when a newsworthy event dominates the conversation, like #HurricaneSandy or #JustinBieberHaircut, or for about $120,000 a hashtag can be purchased and promoted as a trending topic, as Starbucks did with #SpreadTheCheer.

This is not the first restaurant twitter campaign gone wild.
McDonald’s began promoting the sponsored hashtag #McDStories with the idea of getting people talking about their experiences with the fast food giant. The company started the conversation with a few innocuous tweets:  Meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day and When u make something w/pride, people can taste it. As hoped, people shared their #McDStories by the thousands. There were stories about diabetes and diarrhea, a video posted of a mouse working its way through a bag of hamburger buns, and a heated back-and-forth with PETA over the inhumane use of mechanically-separated chickens. Apparently some McDStories are better left untold.

Wendy’s had a similar experience with a Twitter campaign built around its 25-year old TV commercial with the little old lady crying out “Where’s the Beef?  When the chain promoted its hashtag #HerestheBeef, plenty of users responded with their pornographic versions of Here it is! and another segment responded with less bawdy but equally graphic imagery of cruelly penned, industrially-raised livestock.

There have been some obvious missteps: Taco Bell was justifiably slammed for its utterly offensive tweet on Martin Luther King Day asking Have you ever dreamed of eating @Taco Bell and then woke up and made that dream come true?  And Denny’s printed its menus with an invitation to Join the conversation! that directed its customers to the Twitter account of a Taiwanese gentlemen named Denny Hsieh whose Twitter handle is @Dennys. The menus were used for four months in 1,500 locations before they were corrected.

For Starbucks, this was a rare stumble in cyberspace. The company has topped virtually every list of social media winners since such things were tracked: industry, media, and marketing firms have all singled out Starbucks as the most socially engaged company, the best loved online brand, and the top restaurant presence online. That’s what makes this bush league Twitter fail all the more surprising. A publicly displayed, unmoderated, real-time feed? They should have known better.


Posted in coffee, cyberculture, food business, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment

Flavored Vodka Has Gone Too Far















[l-r from top: bacon, Froot Loops cereal, peanut butter and jelly, pumpkin pie, popcorn, hard candy (lemon drop, cinnamon, root beer barrel, orange creamsicle), and smoked salmon flavored vodka]



Glazed donut, marshmallow fluff, buttered popcorn, red velvet cupcake. Is it vodka or the shopping list for a middle schooler’s slumber party?

Vodka’s virtue used to be its absence of flavor. It was colorless, odorless, and tasteless, valued for its neutrality. Today, whipped cream flavor is the third most popular vodka.

Flavored vodka is big business. Vodka makes up a third of the U.S. market for liquor, and about 20% of sales volume comes from flavored varieties. While the rest of the market remains relatively flat, the flavored segment rose by 20% this year and accounted for three-quarters of new brand introductions, with the sweetest flavor profiles gaining the most traction.

You won’t find a lot of 50 year-olds ordering cookie dough martinis. 
Vodka flavors like cotton candy and marshmallow fluff are obviously aimed at a young demographic with a less refined palate, and many come from value-priced producers. Still, the higher-end brands aren’t just ceding the market. The more frivolous, confectionary-like flavors might not be consistent with their brand strategies, but premium distillers Grey Goose, Absolut, Skyy, and Charbay are pushing plenty of novelty flavors like green tea, chocolate, ginger, and dragon fruit.

Despite the continued growth of the flavored vodka category, there are grumblings that suggest the tide could be turning.
There’s a can-you-top-this mentality gripping producers. They keep stretching the flavor range so they can drum up press coverage and keep their brands in the minds of bartenders and drinkers. But the more unusual the flavor, the smaller the customer base it appeals to. And retailers are starting to push back on the growing assortment. They already devote nearly half their shelf space to a category that accounts for one-fifth of their sales.

Some of the gimmicky and outrageous incarnations suggest that palates are growing fatigued if not downright jaded. Smirnoff’s fluffed marshmallow, Cupcake Vineyard’s frosting flavor, and much of the Three Olives vodka lineup (the Froot Loops-flavored ‘Loopy’, s’mores, bubble gum, birthday cake, and the perplexing ‘Dude’ flavor) even veer into self-parody.

It’s no wonder that one of the hottest new brands out there right now is Purity Vodka launched with the following ad copy:  “We believe the smooth yet full-bodied taste of Purity Vodka is best enjoyed straight up or on the rocks.”
Vodka-flavored vodka. What a concept.


Posted in beer + wine + spirits, food trends | 2 Comments

Marijuana and Food: How Chefs Feed the Munchies


image via Everything About Weed

image via Everything About Weed


The munchies are a well-documented phenomenon.
Generations of stoners, chemotherapy patients, and now a scientific study conducted under rigorous, double-blind controls can all confirm that smoking weed makes you hungry. And not regular hungry but craving food of the sweet, salty, or fatty variety.

Marijuana perks up the taste and hunger receptors in your brain and body in the same way as they are stimulated when you eat fatty foods. Flavors are heightened on the tongue, happy-making mood compounds course through your body, and your brain craves more, more, more. It’s why you’ll never stop at one french fry, and it’s why even brownies made from a boxed mix will taste so damn good when you’re stoned.

Chefs are often uniquely attuned to the cravings.
Restaurant workers and marijuana go together like salt and pepper, and many, many chefs blow off steam after a long shift in the kitchen by smoking a little dope and heading out to feed their munchies. Anthony Bourdain, who famously chronicled his own taste for drugs and debauchery, claims  “There has been an entire strata of restaurants created by chefs to feed other chefs. These are restaurants created specially for the tastes of the slightly stoned, slightly drunk chef after work.”

Chef recommendations:
The best munchies are familiar but with a twist, with big, contrasting flavors that go down easy. You don’t want to be fussing with little fish bones or seeds or sorting through too much tableware. Soft is good, mushy is bad, and not so hot or cold as to startle.

Outstanding examples of the form cited by New York chefs include the cereal milk soft-serve ice cream at Momofuku Milk Bar—a dessert based on the slightly sweet flavor of the milk left at the bottom of a cereal bowl; the breakfast burrito pizza at Roberta’s in Bushwick, Brooklyn; and the deep-fried cheese steak hot dog served at Crif Dogs in the East Village.

On the West Coast, Los Angeles chefs are fans of the fleet of Kogi Korean taco trucks circulating through the city, and they single out the French-Canadian dish poutine as served at Los Angeles’ Animal, combining french fries and cheddar cheese doused in oxtail gravy. San Francisco has the haute stoner dish known as the Lincecum, named for Tim Lincecum, the famously toking star pitcher for the Giants. At the Ritz-Carlton dining room it’s served as quail eggs and caviar sealed in a porcelain bowl with billowing smoke that’s pumped in by a fan-driven bong.

When it comes to munchies from the home kitchen, even the professionals go for quick, easy, and familiar. Grilled cheese sandwiches are a favorite of chefs, as is oatmeal with sweet and crunchy toppings like toasted nuts and caramelized bananas. Top Chef’s Betty Fraser has some sound advice (that has the ring of experience) to go along with her favorite at-home treat: “If you want to blow your friends’ minds grab some cookie dough, crush a package of pretzels or potato chips, roll the dough around until it’s covered and then bake. Here’s a Professional Chef Tip: Turn off the oven when you’re done.”


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TV Dinners: TV Show Cookbooks


Where would Andy and Opie be without Aunt Bee’s pies? Or the Brady Bunch without Alice’s pork chops and apple sauce? Jerry Seinfeld could build an entire episode around a babka, Tony Soprano happily traded his gun for a fork when Carmela whipped up her baked ziti, and Betty Draper’s kitchen is a model of midcentury cooking with gems like turkey tetrazzini and pineapple upside-down cake.

A TV tie-in cookbook combines cultural anthropology, a food-annotated episode guide, and a culinary love letter to the characters. Publishers love them for their immediate brand recognition and built-in audience. The best of the cookbooks are filled with well-tested recipes that take genuine inspiration from their shows and characters. Others, like the Star Trek Cookbook, require a bigger stretch of the imagination since we never actually saw Mister Spock stirring a pot of kasha varnishkas à la Vulcan or Bones McCoy recreating the smoked baked beans of his Tennessee childhood.

Andy Taylor’s Aunt Bee is perhaps television’s most beloved homemaker; so much so that when Aunt Bee’s Mayberry Cookbook was published decades after Andy of Mayberry had gone off the air, it sold 900,000 copies. After moving in with her widowed nephew to help raise the motherless Opie, Aunt Bee was perpetually up to her elbows in wholesome, home-cooked meals. She baked fruit pies for church suppers, entered her pickles in the county fair, and brought picnic baskets of fried chicken to the town drunk residing in Mayberry’s homey jail cell. The dishes are all in the book, along with Andy’s favorite cornmeal biscuits and Aunt Bee’s justly celebrated butterscotch pecan pie.


She’s no Aunt Bee but Carmela Soprano knows her way around a baked ziti. The Sopranos Family Cookbook  shares the secrets of Carmela’s ziti and sautéed escarole, and shows you how to recreate quail Sinatra-style and other specialties of Artie Bucco’s Vesuvio Restaurant, home to the finest Napolitan cooking in Essex County, New Jersey. Uncle Junior contributes Little Italy-style potato croquettes and Bobby Bacala offers cannoli-stuffing tips.

Vampires and mortals mingle over the Cajun cooking of True Blood’s fictional Louisiana town of Bon Temps. True Blood: Eats, Drinks, and Bites from Bon Temps has classics like banana pudding, gumbo, baking powder biscuits, and crawfish dip as well as a slew of blood-red dishes like beet bisque, blood orange gelato, and the Tru Blood cocktail of carbonated orange soda, grenadine and lemon juice, hold the plasma.

You seldom saw Monica cooking, even if her character was a chef. Maybe that’s why most of the recipes in Cooking With Friends exist mostly as an excuse for some Friends-centric jokey recipe names like ‘Janice’s Foghorn Fish Dish,’ ‘Marcel’s Monkey Lovin’ Mocha Mouthfuls,’ and ‘Chandler’s Could THIS Be Any More Fattening? Cheesecake.’


A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Game of Thrones Companion Cookbook breaks the mold of the tie-in cookbook. More scholarly than kitschy, it’s a meticulously researched and detailed culinary document that updates recipes while staying true to the Game of Thrones’ late medieval setting. Dishes are based on those found in 15th-century manuscripts and ingredients adhere to the seasons and imagined geography across the Seven Kingdoms and over the Narrow Sea.

If a food or drink was so much us mentioned in an episode of the show, it made it into The Unoffical Mad Men Cookbook: Inside the Kitchens, Bars, and Restaurants of Mad Men. There are Oysters Rockefeller from Sterling Cooper power lunches, the gazpacho served at Betty’s around-the-world dinner party, and lots and lots of cocktails (even little Sally Draper is known to mix a mean Tom Collins). Dishes were recreated using recipes that were adapted from cookbooks that would have been popular at the time or from Manhattan restaurants visited by the characters.


Bree is a brittle striver in the kitchen; Lynette is a time-challenged multi-tasker; Edie is a sensualist; Gabrielle is a spicy Latina; and Susan doesn’t know which end of a spatula to stir with. Some recipes in The Desperate Housewives Cookbook come straight from the show’s episodes while others use the characters’ wildly different personalities as a launching point for some culinary imaginings.

The most anticipated TV tie-in cookbook since Aunt Bee’s opus is next summer’s Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans. The HBO series provides substantial raw material. Treme is a favorite of chefs like David Chang and Eric Ripert who have guest-starred in past episodes and contributed material to the book. It’s set in in New Orleans, one of our greatest eating cities. Plot lines revolve around a fictional chef who’s ‘worked’ at some of the city’s top real world restaurants like Brigtsen’s, Emeril’s, and Gabrielle. Kitchen scenes on the show are scripted by Anthony Bourdain, who also wrote the book’s foreward.

It’s not out in time for holiday giving, but Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans can be preordered at Amazon where it’s already racking up some serious sales numbers.


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The $450 Starbucks Card Is Here


Last week Starbucks rolled out  the Starbucks Metal Card. For the low, low price of $450 the card gets you $400 worth of coffee.
That’s not a typo. $450 gets you a card preloaded with $400 in store credit. Oh, and you also get a gold-level Starbucks card membership, a frequent buyer perk that gets you some freebies like drink refills and a birthday frappuccino, but that’s already free to regular customers.

Forgetting what they say about one born every minute, Starbucks announced a limited initial run of 5,000 cards and offered them for sale on the luxury goods website Gilt. The cards sold out in less than a minute and you can now find them on sites like eBay and Craigslist where they’re being resold for for more than $1,000.

Clearly this about more than just coffee. But what?

Starbucks gave up its aura of exclusivity the minute it opened its first shop outside of the Seattle city limits. You can’t be an insider to something  that you can buy on every street corner, turnpike rest stop, and hospital cafeteria. And the now mass market coffee brand doesn’t speak of any particular connoisseurship. The true coffee snobs left the building long ago. But since the next guy in line won’t have the Metal Card in his wallet, merely possessing the card confers a conspicuous kind of status in and of itself. And the Starbucks Metal Card, which really is made of metal, is truly conspicuous. Watching someone pay for coffee with a slab of etched stainless steel is a little like seeing Fred Flintstone buying his brontosaurus burgers with a stone credit card issued by the Bank of Bedrock.

Starbucks understands that status signaling is a game of ever-higher stakes.
Look what happened with credit cards: the fading luster of the American Express Gold Card led to the AmEx Platinum, only to be topped by the company’s black titanium Centurion Card, distinguished less by the superiority of its member benefits than by its $5,000 initiation and $2,500 annual fee. Then there’s the I Am Rich mobile app: when iPhones first became widely available and lost their must-have status, a $999.99 application was sold through the App Store that was virtually featureless save for a large glowing red screen icon and the mantra “I am rich. I deserve it. I am good, healthy & successful.” Eight were sold before Apple removed it from the store.

While it’s intended to be seen, status is really in the eye of the beholder.
“This is a card for the 1%,” cultural anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff told USA Today. “It’s all about status, and to tell you the truth, I don’t know if I’d want to be seen with one of these.”


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Bad News for Clumsy Eaters Everywhere

The wildly popular YouTube science series Vsauce has a wake-up call for kitchen klutzes who put their faith in the 5-second rule.
You know the one: the freshly buttered piece of toast slips off your plate and falls to the floor.
The floor looks clean. It landed buttered-side up. The dog didn’t lick it.
Looks fine to me!

It’s time to invoke the 5-second rule, the polite fiction we like to believe that says if we are quick enough, we can still eat food that’s hit the floor. We pick it up, scrutinize it, maybe brush it off or blow on it, and tell ourselves that a few seconds isn’t enough time for contamination to occur; and proceed to eat it.

Surveys have shown that most of us abide by the rule at least some of the time: 50% of men and 70% of women invoke it on an as-needed basis. Parents of young children are the most ardent practitioners, constantly popping dropped bottles, pacifiers, and snacks into the mouths of their precious offspring.

The Vsauce video will have you rethinking the rule.
The fact is your dropped toast attracted plenty of floor bacteria in the very first fraction of a millisecond of contact. Five seconds in and somewhere between 150 and 8,000 bacteria are clinging to its surface. Just how much nastiness gets scooped up depends mostly on the moisture content and surface geometry of the toast, and on the condition of the floor. Time is a factor—after a minute the bacteria level can go up ten-fold—but with so much instant contamination, it’s hardly worth quibbling over the extra seconds.

Vsauce gives the 5-second rule a seriously unappetizing debunking.
We learn that salmonella can live for days on even a clean and dry kitchen floor, and that fewer than a dozen salmonella microbes can give you headaches, diarrhea, and vomiting. Nastier still is this tidbit: 93 percent of shoes have fecal material on them.
And trust me, nothing beats video for vivid, stomach-churning presentation.

Maybe it’s time for a new 5-second rule.
Next time you drop something, take those 5 seconds to reflect on the squirming microbes and poopy shoes you saw in the video. At the end of those five seconds, decide if it’s still worth eating.
Sadly, even if it’s chocolate.

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Surprise: Pinterest is Tops Online for Recipes

image via Someecards


Pinterest was the breakout social network of 2012.
It might feel like you blinked and missed this one, but clearly a lot of food lovers didn’t— 90% of online recipe sharing is happening on Pinterest.

Two year-old Pinterest flew under the tech radar for much of its early life. Silicon Valley found it easy to ignore the start-up of yet another social media channel, and especially one that lacked technological innovation and was founded by a Valley outsider with a humanities background. But it struck a chord with home cooks.

Mom’s old recipe cards meet food porn.
The Pinterest combination of social sharing plus a visual scrapbook feels right at home in the kitchen. Home cooks have been clipping and swapping recipes forever, and now they’re taking them to Pinterest’s web-based pinboards where food fans trump all other interest groups. Food is by far the fastest-growing, most popular, most re-pinned category on the site.

The top spot on Pinterest is no small potatoes.
Pinterest is now the third largest social network behind only Facebook and Twitter, and is closing in on number two. The site has around 30 million monthly visitors and is the third-largest source of referral traffic on the Internet. 70% of Pinterest users cite recipes as their most pinned items.

Pinterest has staying power.
Pinterest is the rare social network that seems to have cracked the code for monetization. Pinned images are like glowing recommendations for products that convert Pinterest browsers into shoppers at astounding rates. According to PriceGrabber 21% of users have purchased something they saw on the site and foodies again led the way, accounting for a third of those purchases. The site collects affiliate fees by attaching links that take you from a pin you like to the store that sells the item, and last month Pinterest launched its business accounts that will surely lead to advertising and other revenue.

Learn to love Pinterest.
There’s never been a shortage of places to go for pretty pictures of food and stuff to buy. And does anybody really need another online social network? But if it’s where the food is, it’s where we’ll want to be. 
I’m trying:


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Eggnog and Other Raw Egg Cocktails

image via Editer


Do you gag at the thought of downing a raw egg?
Salmonella scares and Rocky movies have given them a bad name, but there’s a world of raw egg cocktails out there, and one of them, eggnog, has come into its season.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of a well-crafted Pisco Sour or a true eggnog you probably wonder why anyone would bother adding uncooked goo to perfectly good liquor. I’ll tell you why.

Egg whites transform a humdrum cocktail into a frothy showstopper. A brisk workout in a cocktail shaker creates volume, silkiness, and a beautiful foam topping. It’s like a soufflé in a glass. And while egg whites alone are relatively flavorless, shaken together with the other ingredients the egg whites act as an emulsifier melding the separate components into a whole drink that is truly more than the sum of its parts.

While egg whites add a certain je ne sais quoi to cocktails, all texture without discernible taste, whole eggs or egg yolks announce themselves with a vividly eggy flavor. Whole egg cocktails are less soufflé, more flan. They’re rich and dense, creamy even when there’s no added cream. These are not warm weather refreshers, but they taste just right on a cold winter night.

The rumors of their health risks have been greatly exaggerated.
Salmonella is a truly nasty bacterium, but it’s a lot less common than you probably think. The FDA estimates that only 1 of every 20,000 eggs contains the bacteria, so the odds are 99.995% that your eggnog is safe. At this rate a typical egg eater will run into a contaminated egg once every 84 years. Of course some people can’t take a chance even with those odds. Children, the elderly, pregnant and nursing women, and anyone with a weak immune system should look for egg cocktails made with egg substitutes or liquid egg products which are required by law to be pasteurized. And no, the alcohol in cocktails is not going to kill Salmonella.

Now’s the time to try a raw egg drink.
Trendy cocktail revivalists have fervently embraced the raw egg cocktail in both old-timey drinks and new mixologist concoctions. And from now through New Years Day you’ll probably come across some eggnog somewhere.

Chow has a nice round-up of old and new raw egg cocktail recipes, including their unspeakably decadent and boozy eggnog.

Who’d have thought—I came across not one but two blogs dedicated to eggnog: the photos and recipes Eggnog Blogand the all-things-eggnog Eggnogaholic with eggnog-themed cartoons, shopping, jokes, and poetry.


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Tofu is a Waterlogged Sponge of Nothingness

image via Savage Chickens


The pro-soy camp just doesn’t get it.
Share your true feelings with your tofu-loving friends, and they tend to get a little weepy for poor you who has never had it properly prepared. They speak glowingly of tofu’s chameleon-like ability to shape shift and meld with the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with, as if there is that one magical combination that will open your eyes and taste buds to tofu’s glories. They’re missing the point.

Love it or hate it, tofu is all about texture.
Tofu is basically a waterlogged sponge of nothingness that has always had an uphill battle to win favor with flavor-driven American palates. We appreciate texture, but in a secondary role, balancing and completing a dish. When we are wowed by a texture, it tends to be crispy-crunchy or fat-based and creamy— the textures associated with European-style luxury foods.

Texture plays a different role in Asian delicacies, where its importance can even outweigh flavor. There are some Euro-Asian cross-overs, like the prized luxury of fatty fish that drives the appreciation of sushi, but the texture of many Asian delicacies can be a turn-off to Western palates.

In Chinese cooking, the sea cucumber, jellyfish and pig’s ears are appreciated for their gelatinous and crunchy texture, even though they have almost no flavor themselves. Dried sharks’ fin and bird’s nest soup, which is made from the saliva-based nest of the cave swift, are both appreciated for their soft, goopy, jelly-like texture. Japanese cuisine has natto, in which soybeans are left to ferment until they develop spider-web like strands of a mucousy substance that hangs from each bean. Okra is cooked to its most gelatinous, and tororo, a type of Japanese yam, is made into a slimy paste.

It would be easy to dismiss tofu entirely. If it’s an acquired taste based on its consistency, and you don’t care for the consistency, then why bother?

There are good reasons to learn to love tofu: it’s loaded with protein, iron, calcium, and B-vitamins; it’s low in fat, cholesterol-free, and low sodium. It’s cheap, long-lasting, and can make your Meatless Mondays a heartier affair.

I hate to say it, but I suppose this brings us back to poor you who has never had it properly prepared.
Fortunately, there are plenty of places to turn for help.

The Cook’s Thesaurus has a good illustrated overview of commercially available soy products.

May’s Machete has a pragmatic post titled How To Make Tofu (So It Doesn’t Suck).

Changing the Texture of Tofu will teach you just that, from Vegan Cooking with Love. 

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Not Cooking in Our Really Nice Kitchens

Julia Child in her pegboard kitchen


It’s an oft-told tale: acres of gleaming granite and stainless steel, a six-burner Viking range pumping out 30,000 BTUs of fire power, the 22-slot block of Japanese knives from a hot new bladesmith; and the dual door Sub-Zero is stocked with frozen pizza and Hot Pockets, red-boxed Stouffer’s, Trader Joe’s burritos, and pints of Ben & Jerry’s.
It’s not just an amusing anecdote. The more we spend on our kitchens, the less we cook in them.

According to Remodeling Magazine’s Cost Vs. Value report, the average cost of a midrange kitchen remodel in 2011-2012 was $57,494 while the average upscale project cost $110,938. Kitchen square footage has doubled over the last 30 years, giving ample space for high-end appliances and specialized cookware. We spend giddy hours online drooling over the design possibilities on display at Houzz and Pinterest, and are consumed by the choice of whisk from the 55 different shapes and sizes for sale at Sur la Table. We love everything about our kitchens, except we’re not so hot on the actual cooking.

For all that expense, we’re not cranking up the Viking very often. About half of our food spending is in restaurants; just 11% of Americans eat two hot, home-cooked meals a day. And cooking drops as income rises, so a mere 2.4% of households earning more than $120,000 have those two hot meals at home—and presumably these higher earners represent the households with the pricey remodels.

That home cooking ain’t what it used to be.
We spend just 27 minutes a day on food preparation— less time than it takes to watch an episode of Iron Chef America. Our entrées are prepared from scratch 59% of the time, down from 72% in the 1980’s. We’ve even decreased the number of ingredients per dish, from a 1980’s average of 4.4 to a current 3.4. Scarily, about 10% of adults use the microwave for virtually all of their cooking.

When it comes to your kitchen, are you looking or are you cooking?


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The 4-Hour Chef: A Feat of Cooking and Promotion


This might be the first time you’ve heard about it, but I guarantee it won’t be the last.
The 4-Hour Chef (or as the antsy author calls it, 4-HC) comes to us from Tim Ferriss, the P.T. Barnum of modern branding.

Ferris boasts that if you buy his book “In the first 24 hours, I’ll take you from burning scrambled eggs to osso buco.” You’ll also lose 20 pounds, improve your sexual technique, and acquire the skills to sink basketball three-pointers and memorize a random deck of cards in less than a minute.

Where can I get this auspicious volume?
The book is yet to be released, but according to the author’s website, it already can claim the distinction as “the most banned book in America since Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928.” That’s because Ferriss chose to release the book through Amazon’s controversial publishing arm, which many traditional publishers see as a threat, and many booksellers refuse to stock. But it’s all in a day’s work for the master of self-promotion.

Ferriss studied the most popular phrases in Google Adwords to test potential titles for his first book, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. The book crosses between self-help and business guide, advising readers to unclog their minds and their calendars by outsourcing online tasks to remote personal assistants in developing countries, and to practice what he calls ‘selective ignorance’ by limiting their newspaper reading to the headlines visible from vending machines. The book has sold over a million copies and spent the better part of the last five years on the New York Times bestseller list.

His second book, The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, will have you  achieving feats of physical stamina, strength, sexual endeavor, and even sleep. A series of 30 minute lessons can get you to lose 20 pounds in a month, cut your night’s sleep down to two hours, add 100 pounds to your bench press, and hold your breath longer than Houdini. The book debuted at number one on the Times bestseller list, despite the newspaper’s own reviewer saying “The 4-Hour Body reads as if The New England Journal of Medicine had been hijacked by the editors of the SkyMall catalog.”

Somewhere in there, Ferriss also found the time to become the National Chinese Kickboxing Champion and to be entered in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most consecutive tango-spins in one minute.

The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life is Tim Ferriss’ third book. It will be available on Amazon in plenty of time for holiday gift-giving, but won’t be sold by Barnes & Noble and many other bookstores. The author is undaunted by the challenge of promoting his book through non-traditional channels. All he’ll say is that “Big things are afoot. Plans are being schemed. Old models shall be stress-tested.”

Does anyone doubt he’ll succeed?


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