Recipe: 10-Minute Mussels

Like a lot of humble working-class fare in recent years, moules frites has been elevated to bistros and fancy dining rooms. At NYC’s Flex Mussels, 17 different versions of the classic Belgian dish anchor the menu, for $18 (classic) to $21 (“Maine”: w/ lobster, smoked bacon, corn, white chowder, parsley). I much prefer to make mussels at home because I don’t feel like choosing between paying $20 for mussels (seriously, they’re only $3.99/lb. at Whole Foods), or getting food poisoning at a less reputable establishment. Fortunately, they’re incredibly easy to make. Here’s a simple recipe that takes less than 10 minutes from beginning to end, and tastes great!

Ingredients:

1 lb. Mussels (per person)

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 Andouille or Chorizo sausage, sliced

1/2 bunch Parsley, chopped roughly

2 tbsp. Butter

1 cup White Wine or Dry Vermouth

.

Instructions:

1) Clean your mussels by scrubbing them under cold water, and pulling off the “beards”. There are only two things to know about eating mussels safely: (a) Don’t buy/use any raw mussels that are already opened. Ask the fish monger to sort them out if you’re buying by the pound. (b) Don’t eat any cooked mussels that haven’t opened. Do not force them open.
2) Heat a pot with a lid, preferably a clear lid. Add butter to hot pot. Add sausage, and cook through. The sausage is obviously optional, though I think it enriches the broth and gives it a bit of a smokey flavor. You can leave it out, but in that case I might add a diced shallot. Add garlic, brown.
3) Add cleaned mussels. Quickly sprinkle some salt (not too much, the mussels are naturally salty from the sea), and pepper. Add chopped parsley and splash over white wine. Cover quickly with lid.
4) While holding down the lid, vigorously shake the pot back and forth to turn over the mussels. Once the mussels open from the steaming, they are cooked–this took 90 seconds for 1 lb; I can’t imagine it taking more than 3-4 min. even for larger portions. Some recipes say 8-10 minutes… but that will completely overcook them. Live dangerously, I say.
5) Portion mussels into bowls, remember to throw out unopened mussels. Pour over broth, and mop it up with warm, crusty bread!
Advertisements

In Defense of Farm Subsidies

A while ago I thought it would be fun to have an “In Defense Of” series that would present arguments for some oft-not-supported causes. Stay tuned for Defenses of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas…

While debating for Columbia, Josh and I were also responsible for teaching debate to interested students. One aspect of the style we participated in was that the government team proposed the “case” in each round, and unlike [m]any high school debate formats, the “case” was unrestricted by any previously determined resolution. However, there were a handful of prohibitions designed to keep the rounds fair, and one of these was the injunction against “tight cases”–ideas that were so obviously true or one-sided that no matter how well the opposition side argued, they wouldn’t be able to defeat the case. A good example, often used in philosophy, of this is the moral proposition that “we should not torture innocent babies for fun”. Another common example used in illustrating a “tight case” was “the government should end farm subsidies”.

There is a litany of reasons against farm subsidies, which I will briefly mention. Budget hawks harp on their enormous expense. Direct aid to farmers totals around $15-20 billion each year, and one report that aggregated indirect subsidy (i.e. programs for irrigation, export credits, nutrition food aid and loan guarantees) claimed that total direct and indirect aid exceeded $180 billion. Health-conscious critics like Mark Bittman will point out that overproduction of corn allows the cheap production of high fructose corn syrup and all the sugary, diabetes-causing products it engenders, not to mention the corn-fed snack industry. For those who oppose the conglomeration of power in the hands of a few, the Farm Bill disproportionately pays out to large agribusinesses, and not small farmers. Overproduction of wheat, corn, livestock require oil-based fertilizers that destroy the soil and environment. And finally, though I may be missing a few reasons, farm subsidies allow American food producers to dump cheap wheat and corn on the world market, and destroy the livelihood of local farmers in developing countries where agriculture is the primary comparative advantage. Without food subsidies, the argument goes, these local farmers would either be self-sufficient feeders, or could sell their foodstuffs in the market at the same price as American companies.

Let’s look at the last point a little bit. I found a website that showed world production of the three most important cereals: corn, wheat, and rice. (albeit from 2003).

Corn Total Production, Mt %world prod. yield, Mt/ha
World 637,444,480
United States 256,904,560 40.3 8.92
China 114,175,000 17.9 4.85
Brazil 47,809,300 7.5 3.7
Mexico 19,652,416 3.1 2.53
Argentina 15,040,000 2.4 6.47
Wheat
World 549,433,727
China 86,100,250 15.7 3.91
India 65,129,300 11.9 2.62
United States 63,589,820 11.6 2.97
Russia 34,062,260 6.2 1.71
France 30,582,000 5.6 6.23
Rice
World 588,563,933
China 166,417,000 28.3 6.07
India 132,013,000 22.4 3
Indonesia 52,078,832 8.8 4.54
Bangladesh 38,060,000 6.5 3.43
Vietnam 34,518,600 5.9 4.63

One thing I found interesting was theyield, or metric tons of a commodity produced for each hectare planted. The United States, for example, produces 8.92 metric tons of corn per hectare, but the productivity ranges widely, down to Russia’s meager 1.71 metric tons of wheat per hectare. It seemed to me that richer countries generally had higher yields than poorer countries, and in fact a country like Eritrea yielded only 0.24 Mt/ha for wheat and 0.33 Mt/ha for corn. Kuwait and Qatar, on the other hand, have double digit yields of 20 and 12.5, respectively, for corn, despite not being known as particularly fertile places. This makes sense, because a major component of your yield is whether you can afford fertilizer, pesticides, genetically modified crops, or modern machinery. This is not to say that some poorer developing countries do not have excellent climates for agriculture–Egypt, for example, has corn:wheat:rice yields of 7.71, 6.15, and 9.43. Clearly it has retained its historic reputation as a regional breadbasket.Yet even in Egypt, after the building of the Aswan dam, cereal production hasn’t been the same and the country is now the world’s largest importer of wheat.

Just as obviously, it is not so that developing countries have a comparative advantage in agriculture. It seems foolish, in retrospect, to lump together countries like Egypt and Eritrea, which has less than 0.5 yields for both corn and wheat. Even though agriculture is the main economic activity of that latter country, it is subsistence agriculture at best–plagued by manmade disasters like war and deforestation, but also by erosion, drought, and insect infestations. Comparative advantage should not be measured in terms of what uneducated people with time on their hands can traditionally do–modern agriculture is for those with good soil, temperate climate, adequate rainfall, and the technology to maximize those geographical advantages. Nor is it profitable to be an agrarian society, where the majority of people are involved in farming; on the contrary, a nation of small farmers is usually quite impoverished. The fact that America feeds poor people in Africa through cheap corn and wheat, brought about by farm subsidies, is a good thing for countries that don’t have the god-given nor man-made tools to grow as efficiently, and their real comparative advantage is not time for agriculture, but cheap labor galvanized into factory work (think China, Thailand). (note: some Western African countries have a comparative advantage in cotton, but, as far as I know, not wheat/corn/rice).

The other thing I found interesting was that the United States is a Top 5 Producer of both Corn and Wheat, and ranks 11th in terms of Rice. The corn production is astounding: over 40% of the global supply! Recent news has been dominated by coverage of political protests in Egypt and Tunisia, and the specific timing is often attributed to rising food prices. Indeed similar riots occurred in Egypt in 2008, when there was also a wheat shortage, and food prices are higher in 2011 than in 2008, in fact the highest ever since the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization began indexing prices in 1990. Already, half the Egyptian family’s budget is spent on food. Other Middle Eastern rulers are taking heed. In Bahrain, King Hamad raised government subsidies on flour, poultry, and meat. “Algeria, Libya and Jordan have either relaxed food taxes or duties on food imports or cut prices of staple food. Elsewhere in the Gulf, Kuwait recently introduced a generous stipend and free food for its citizens until March 2012 to ease the pain of higher costs.” Note the benevolence of these dictators is targeted toward food.

Why are wheat prices suddenly so high? The heat wave and fires in Russia/Ukraine, combined with floods in Australia severely diminished the harvests of those major exporters. India and Pakistan both suffered flooding as well. Russia, the world’s 6th largest exporter of wheat, canceled exports. Now China may also be contributing to the problem, as major agricultural regions face the worst drought in centuries, as reported yesterday in the NYTimes. China is a self-sufficient nation with very little exporting or importing, though with many mouths to feed, and a poor harvest could make China’s rich government, with $2.85 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, a big buyer in the international arena, raising prices in an already unstable market.

What does this have to do with farm subsidies? They were originally created in the U.S., in response to the Great Depression, to combat boom-and-bust pricing patterns for agriculture. In bumper years, prices would plummet and it’d be hard to make a profit in an oversaturated market. In lean years, farmers would lose their harvests and need to take on loans just to replant, while the consumer suffered from fluctuating prices. Government subsidies provided a price floor, and income was guaranteed no matter how low prices got. In return, farmers were incentivized to overproduce–there was, after all, a buyer of last resort–and food became cheap and plentiful.

Now in the United States we don’t worry about expensive food; our problem is overeating. But the food riots across in the world, in Manila and Mexico, Cairo and China, remind us why we spend in order to have years of plenty. If America stopped its farm subsidies and American farmers produced only what was domestically needed and a little more, no longer flooding the world market with cheap wheat and corn, would this unpredictable world food crisis have been even more severe? Would the food crisis be better if the U.S. had never had farm subsidies to begin with, and there were small farmers in developing countries trying to feed the Sphinx and the Dragon? Food protectionism costs a lot, no question. But in these modern times with poor countries developing slower than their populations are growing, food security affects global stability. America is no longer merely protecting itself from hunger, but, as an able producer of surplus food, serves as bulwark against global hunger–the farmer of last resort.

Continue reading

Restaurant Review: Co. (NYC)

Several weeks ago, I went to Co. for the second time. Apparently it is pronounced “company” but I find this confusing and a little pretentious. Apologies in advance for the quality of the photographs; I had forgotten my camera so we used a cell phone.

"Popeye", with pecorino, gruyère, mozzarella, spinach, black pepper, and garlic.

This upscale pizza restaurant is located in Chelsea, just blocks away from Upright Citizens Brigade, making it a solid date night restaurant. It’s also, incidentally, directly across the street from my once-favorite Chinese restaurant in the city–Grand Szechuan–which was displaced by Sichuan Gourmet. The chef-owner is Jim Lahey, champion of “no-knead bread”. His bread recipes have been written about by Mark Bittman, served up at Jean-Georges (an investor in Co.) and Marea, and raved about by none other than Stone Soup co-author Josh Morrison.

The decor of the restaurant is casual and relaxing. Long, wooden communal tables stretch across the dining room, with rows hanging lamps directing their light downward, right at the pizza to be placed below. A few tables line the walls, but I found it more fun to sit at the communal table, which seemed to bridge the boundary between a fine dining establishment and the informality of a pizza parlor. The wood and stainless steel and little else made the room seem modern rustic in the clean and sparsely-furnished sort of way, like a cross between Peter Luger and Aquavit. All of this prepares you for a somewhat revolutionary experience–this isn’t your local Brooklyn pizza.

The thing to get here is obviously the pizza. The dough is prominently featured, as advertised. It is thin, light, with huge air-pockets. The outer edges are crunchy and charred from the intense heat (900 degrees F) of the wood-burning oven that home cooks simply cannot replicate, no matter how conductive their pizza stones may be. Despite being barren of toppings, the crust itself was salty, and a little sour-doughy. Needless to say, I didn’t discard it like oil boom-grade Domino’s crust. The dough under the toppings, on the other hand, mopped up the liquids from the toppings well, particularly the nectar leaking out of the roasted cherry tomatoes.

Special of the day: mozzarella, basil, roasted cherry tomatoes, chili, and corn meal.

Though most of the hoopla is focused on the dough, I thought the toppings were extraordinary. I’m customarily a meat-eater, and when I go out to restaurants, I don’t stick with salads. My first trip to Co. with three other omnivores and one vegetarian, I dutifully requested the “Boscaiola”, with tomato, mozzarella, pork sausage, mushroom, onion, and chili. On the suggestion of an episode of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, however, I also recommended the “Popeye” with pecorino, gruyère, mozzarella, spinach, black pepper, and garlic. It was revelatory. I hate cooked spinach normally, finding it slimy, stringy, and bitter. But this spinach had been scorched by a 900 degree oven. The edges of the leaves were blackened and crispy, and the heat seemed to have released the Platonic essence of spinach flavor, free from the disgusting texture and tongue-parching quality it normally has. The cheeses complimented the spinach perfectly. The black pepper were crushed larger and coarser than normal, so it provided a surprising toothsome crunch to the odd bite. I thought the some of the garlic pieces we a little large for my taste, but it didn’t stop me from ordering the Popeye at my second visit. At that visit, my friend ordered their special pizza of the day, which had mozzarella, basil, roasted cherry tomatoes, chili, and (interestingly) corn meal. The concept of using corn meal as a base, in lieu of a tomato sauce, actually worked terrifically, and I would get it again if it were available. The toppings were so good that I remarked to my vegetarian friend that I could see myself converting… if I could eat Co.-quality pizza every day.

Quick note about a salad we ordered. It was delicious, and simple enough to try to replicate at home. In fact, it’s going with the escarole-gruyere-citrus idea I stole from Union Sq. Cafe in David’s Book/Pamphlet/Short List of 2 Salad Recipes. This Co. salad was shaved strips of zucchini (I think it was raw), dressed with a simple lemon-olive oil vinaigrette, black pepper, coarsely ground sea salt, basil, shaved parmesan, and mint (a masterful addition). Great alternative to the leafy salad variety, and the best part was that the zucchini held up better than a poor lettuce leaf against absorption of the vinaigrette, and retained most of its crunchiness. A sure winner for any dinner party.

The service was terrific. The server was incredibly friendly and polite. One when reaching over to clear a plate, he accidentally brushed against my shoulder. And by brushed, I mean there may have been the barest contact between his shirt sleeve and the fabric of my shirt by my shoulder. He immediately swung over and apologized in a courteous, but not embarrassing manner. At my first visit, the server was able to squeeze in two extra pizza orders during a busy dinner service when we realized that our initial order was insufficient, and she/the kitchen ensured its timely arrival before we had finished the first two pizzas. The standard of good service remains water service, and here Co. has a good system in place. Your water is filled from a carafe, and the carafe is left on the table. Instead of a small carafe that merely held the volume of the already-poured water and scantly a few milliliters more, this carafe was well capable of filling our glasses again. And what’s more, full carafes of water were left on the table, finally answering the eternal custom of leaving a nearly empty carafe with an obvious solution–don’t. Of course, the server also stopped by frequently to top off our water glasses, and I never had a moment where had to search out some hapless busboy with a needy look.

Having sampled NYC’s artisanal pizza scene (Motorino, Otto, Artichoke), its old guard landmarks (Grimaldi’s, Patsy’s), and its everyday NYC standbys (Koronet’s, the generic place that Louie C.K. scarfs down a slice at, half-a-dozen random places with “Best Slice in New York” signs, and the pinnacle of authenticity–Famiglia’s), and even some healthy challengers from up in Boston (Emma’s in Cambridge), I’m confident in voting for Co. as my favorite pizza spot. Go, and get the spinach pie. It’ll make your taste buds bulge like its namesake’s muscles.

Co.: 4 / 5

230 Ninth Avenue (and 24th Street)
New York, NY

Restaurant Review: Sichuan Pavilion (D.C. area)

This weekend I visited Sichuan Pavilion in Rockville, MD with a fellow spicy food enthusiast Matt S.

Sichuan Pavilion was highly recommended by ethnic food and economics blogger Tyler Cowen (it is, in fact, #1 in his Top 5 list), and so despite the distance, we decided to give it a shot. We had previously visited Szechuan Gourmet in Flushing together with Josh, and I think both of us were eager to compare the best of NYC with the best D.C. had to offer.

Sichuan Gourmet is nestled in a deteriorating strip mall/business center with drab, brownish architecture. Despite the dismal exterior, the restaurant was packed, with a line of people waiting for tables. We knew right then that the restaurant would either be terrific, or inappropriately popular. Fortunately, it was the former.

We managed to get seated relatively quickly because I pointed out two empty tables for two, but the wait for larger groups was much longer. Unfortunately, the restaurant only takes reservations for groups of 6+ (I was told), so prepare to stand around if you go during peak hours.

The menu is divided into an American Chinese Style section, and an Authentic Chinese Style section, so you don’t actually have to ask for the “secret Chinese menu” like in some other places. Both menus were quite extensive, and we would become very impressed that they could execute such an ambitious menu.

We ordered the Dan Dan Spicy Noodles, Ma Po Tofu, Fresh Pepper Corns w. Fish Fillet, and Smoked Duck. Both the Dan Dan noodles and Tofu are normally served with minced beef, but since Matt is a vegetarian, were able to request them without.

The Dan Dan noodles came first. Although they initially come out looking like a bowl of plain noodles, all the sauce is on the bottom, and its important to toss and mix the noodles. Although we were familiar with this preparation, it may have been helpful for the waitress to mention the proper way to mix the food, or even to mix it table side. The noodles were not how I expected them to be; normally they are more white than yellow, and slightly thicker, so they’re chewier. The chili sauce was good, though not initially super spicy. We thought the Sichuan peppercorn that imparts the characteristic numbing sensation could have been used more liberally. A few other ingredients I would have liked to see in this dish were steamed bok choi, and maybe fermented black bean. Without the black bean or more peppercorn, the spiciness was a bit one-note; with them, I think the dish would have had a more complex flavor. Overall, the noodles were very tasty, but not as delicious as the same dish at Szechuan Gourmet.

Matt ordered the Ma Po Tofu, a classic Sichuan dish that we also had in NYC. The tofu was cooked very well, and you could tell it had been stir-fried in the wok for a while. It was browned, rather than white, and little pieces of tofu had chipped off the edges and melted into the sauce. I mention the brown coloration because you often get tofu that’s very white, bland, and sort of lukewarm on the inside. This tofu was terrific, and the flavors penetrated all the way to the inside of the tofu. As Matt put it, it was the difference between eating a great tofu dish, and a eating great sauce with some white cubes floating in it. He thought it was the best tofu he had ever had, and I would agree that it was up there among my Top 5 tofu experiences.

Dan Dan Noodles

The smoked duck came highly recommended from several other food blogs, even though it is not precisely Sichuan. You could definitely taste the tea smoke in the duck. I was happy to see the fat was properly rendered, because excess duck fat is the biggest problem with classic Peking duck. After the duck was smoked, it was breaded and fried, and the skin was super crunchy. Unlike Peking duck skin, which at its best is thin and crispy, this was more like a chicarrone. The generous pile of duck was placed on a bed of chopped lettuce, ringed with buns, and topped with some cilantro; there was also a bowl of sweet black bean sauce (I think this is often conflated with hoisin sauce, incorrectly). The intent seemed to be for the diner to create duck pouches like one would with Peking duck pancakes. The buns were very, very authentic-tasting. Many restaurants buy their buns pre-packaged, and they have the soft airiness of processed Chinese pastry bread. The bread of these buns seemed more substantial, and tasted like the man tou my mom and grandmother used to steam. I was very happy about them, and it gave me a sort of Ratatouille moment. The duck as a standalone item was absolutely delicious, and I loved the crunchy texture and the flavor of the tea smoke. However, I thought the duck pouch concept could have been executed better. For example, instead of lettuce, which has absolutely no flavor, they could have used julienned cucumber. Instead of cilantro, I think the more traditional slivers of scallion would have been better suited.

The last dish was the peppercorns with fish fillets. This is the pescatarian version of the braised beef fillets in chili oil soup that I discussed in the Szechuan Gourmet review. The fillets of fish (I couldn’t tell what kind… probably tilapia) were cut into square inch pieces, about a quarter of an inch thick, and were swimming in a deep red chili broth. In a lot of places, ordering this dish means you get single layering of meat on a bed of napa cabbage, but in this case they actually gave you a lot of fish. In general, we thought the portion sizes of this restaurant were very generous. The fish held up well through the cooking process. You could pick them up with chopsticks without them falling apart; they were still flaky, and not at all overcooked. The chili broth itself was very spicy, but I thought once again they could have used more peppercorn in it.

Ma Po Tofu

The service was very responsive, and we had no trouble waylaying different waitresses with requests, none of that “I’ll get your server” stuff you see in many American restaurants. I appreciated the extra-large glasses of water. Though we didn’t necessarily need the water to put out any oral fires, the management understood the effect of their food on clientele (and drinking water is just more fun after eating Sichuan peppercorn). This is an odd comment, but we also thought the chopsticks were very nice. Not the one-time use chopsticks that you have to rub splinters off of, or the overly lacquered and slippery fancy chopsticks, just nice wooden chopsticks you would find in any normal Asian home. As with most very-authentic Chinese restaurants, the stuff on the walls was nothing to write home about, but the decor was in the atmosphere–the packed dining room with large families, the instantly-recognizable aroma of great Sichuan cooking, even the predictably kitchy decorations. Eating Sichuan food in a more fancy setting (like Sichuan Chalet on the Upper East Side) just wouldn’t be quite the same; wiping the orange chili oil off your chin with a nice white cloth napkin would seem almost disrespectful.

One final constructive comment. The menu had a short beer list with the standard Budweiser, Heineken, and Tsingtao offerings. It would be great to see a white wine or two, particularly (since I’m a big fan) a few Rieslings which go really well with spicy Chinese food. And of course, markups on wine always equal large profits for the restaurant.

I’d definitely recommend Sichuan Pavilion to any readers in the D.C. metro area who are willing to travel a bit for a spicy food adventure. While Szechuan Gourmet in Flushing remains my favorite Chinese restaurant, I thought all the dishes we had were terrific and, and hope to one day return to explore more of their extensive menu.

Sichuan Pavilion: 3.5 / 5

410 Hungerford Dr
Rockville, MD

Smoked Duck, Breaded & Deep Fried

Stuffed Duck Pouch

Fresh Peppercorns with Fish Fillet

Tofu gone, this bowl represents our appreciation of the meal.

Recipe: The Best Braised Short Ribs, with Coffee and Chili.

Coffee and Chili Braised Short Ribs

Braised short ribs are probably my favorite thing to make for people I love (if I’ve made this for you, you know I care). Short ribs are beef, and they are literally the “short” ribs located at the end of the rib cage, the ones closest to the tail end of the cow. A braise is simply  a way of slowly cooking something, usually a tougher cut of meat, at a lower-than-normal temperature.

It’s a dish that’s fancy enough to impress dinner guests, and yet surprisingly easy to prepare, given a simple willingness to invest the time. They’re popular at nice restaurants these days as a cheap cut of meat that can be turned into a delicious, tender product (much like skirt steak or lamb shank). Personally I think there’s something deeply romantic about a long, slow braise. It brings to mind the days of yore when our great-great-grandparents would stew a peasant’s portion of meat for Sunday supper, throwing in whatever vegetables could be harvested from the garden. In that manner, it’s a perfect Stone Soup recipe! The braising liquid becomes enriched by the beef, the vegetables, the herbs, the wine, and other ingredients you add to become a perfect sauce for the short ribs later. And the ribs themselves are so tender, fork tender, that they melt in your mouth. Luxurious, spicy, smoky, tender beef… is there anything more sexy than that?

Braised short ribs can be customized however you want, and this particular recipe was cobbled together from so many versions that I won’t bother hunting them down again and linking them all, except to nod in Mark Bittman’s general direction. Here are the ingredients:

Continue reading

Restaurant Week’s odd prices.

Josh writes in a recent post:

Currently Boston is having Restaurant Week (which lasts, confusingly, for two weeks, till the 28th). For those of you who haven’t been exposed to the phenomena, it means cheap meals at fancy restaurants. Somewhere like No. 9 Park in Boston, where the three course prix fixe usually costs $65, will have a three course menu for $33.10 (don’t ask me what the $0.10 is about).

Boston isn’t the only city to have an odd, non-integer pricing scheme for Restaurant Week, where in addition to their strange dinner prix fixe price, RW lunch is $15.10 (2-course) or $20.10 (3-course). In New York this year, RW lunch is $24.07 and dinner is $35. In Washington DC, lunch and dinner were $20.10 and $35.10 respectively. What’s up with the weird prices–why charge an extra ten cents or seven cents? It can’t be taxes, because as any menu or RW ad will tell you, taxes and gratuity are not included in the Restaurant Week price. Are restaurants adjusting for inflation, and if so, why not simply round up a whole dollar? Whatever the reason, it’s not universal. LA, for example, has a confusing system of 6 different prices, ranging from $16-44, but each is a whole dollar amount.

This inclusion of $0.07 and $0.10 may seem odd, not only because we’re accustomed to seeing $0.95 or $0.99 if cents are used, but because nicer restaurants in recent years have gravitated away from decimal points (and cents) completely. This is after studies showed that consumers spent more money when restaurants eliminated pricing cues like the dollar-sign and cents from their menus. Restaurant consultant Gregg Rapp tells clients to “omit dollar signs, decimal points, and cents… It’s not that customers can’t check prices, but most will follow whatever subtle cues are provided.” So why deviate from accepted smart menu practice for Restaurant Week?

From Boston Chef’s Inc.

Aquavit Menu

In Boston, they just try and make the price somehow relevant to the current year and as inexpensive as possible while still realistic for the restaurants.

From DestinationDC:

I can’t speak for the other cities, but Washington restaurant prices are the year (2010) for lunch ($20.10) and more for dinner.  How much more (this January, it was $15.00 more) is decided by a committee representing the participating members of the Restaurant Association.

And an interesting and thorough answer from NYC & Company:

NYC Restaurant Week is the original and oldest program of its kind.  To welcome the DNC in 1992, the program was created to offer delegates the chance to dine out and with a prix-fix price of $19.92 to represent the year. Every year it went up one penny to reflect the calendar.  In 2003, we introduced dinner and prices were set as lunch for $20.03 and dinner for $30.03.

In 2005 and 2006, we were working to bring the 2012 Olympics to NYC. So prices were set for lunch as $20.12 (to reflect the bid year) and dinner for $35 (this was simply to set an easy number). NYC came in third overall in the bid and look forward to the summer games in London.

Starting in 2007, we set a standard price system that could be used year over year so consumers could easily remember. Today lunch is set for $24.07 (to reflect the City that never sleeps, we are open 24/7) and dinner remains at $35.

While I cannot confirm for other Restaurant Week cities, I suspect the $20.10 represents the year 2010. It would be best to reach out to each city for the official answer.

With the answer in hand, it now seems obvious that $0.10 may have represented 2010, though the 24/7 reference still seems somewhat difficult to figure out. The bigger question is whether the meaning of the prices is commonly understood and appreciated by RW patrons, or if it is an esoteric inside joke mainly for the RW organizers?

Well, welcome to the inside.

Recipe: Dragonfruit sushi

One hallmark of today’s greatest chefs–e.g. Thomas Keller of Per Se and The French Laundry, Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck–is their devotion to molecular gastronomy, which uses a knowledge of chemistry and the scientific processes involved in cooking and curing to make their dishes otherworldly and astounding. Perhaps the most common example of this is when molecular gastronomists use liquid nitrogen to make ice cream; the extreme cold of liquid nitrogen, much colder than ice, allows for a rapid freeze. The fast freeze keeps the fat particles small and prevents ice crystals from forming, for extra creaminess. Another is the now-popular sous-vide method of cooking, where a thermal cycler keeps a water bath at an item’s ideal, perfect cooking temperature, so you can get a piece of steak, poaching in a vacuum sealed bag, where not a single bit is overcooked and everywhere is tender.

Molecular gastronomists use their new cooking techniques, borrowed from science, to make new and interesting concoctions. This increased latitude of possibility enables them to let their imaginations run wild. Thus we get Thomas Keller’s signature “Oysters and Pearls“, Adria’s surprising “Olivas Sfericas“, and this “Carrot and Orange Lolly” from Blumenthal. These ideas are playful; they take a familiar dishes or food items and add new spins to make them unforgettable. They trick your eyes into seeing a green globe as an olive, but when it’s placed in your mouth, the outer layer breaks apart to release an intense flavor of olive oil. Molecular gastronomy seems to go hand in hand with a new take on food that’s fun, and joking. Sometimes you don’t even need the gadgets and chemicals to make an interesting dish, just a sense of humor, some creativity, and a willingness to experiment!

Ferran Adria did an interview with a NYTimes journalist several years ago, and his dinner gave me an idea for a play on one of my favorite foods–sushi–that you can also easily make at home and surprise some friends!

All I used were 1) dragonfruit, 2) some tomatoes, 3) and some oranges. Dragonfruit is a fruit you can often find in Chinatown. In Chinese, it’s called huo long guo, or fire dragon fruit. Despite a boldly colorful exterior with vivid purples and greens, the inside is shockingly spartan: blank, white flesh and small black seeds, like kiwi seeds. The taste is extremely mild; it has the texture of eating watermelon and about as much flavor as one of those unripe, more thirst-quenching than sugary melons.

Since we’re making a play on sushi, we slice the white-fleshed dragonfruit into slabs, like dominoes. They represent the rice. Next we peel the skin off of the tomatoes (if you’re dextrous and the skin comes off easily, with your fingers, and if not, very carefully with a knife). You want to preserve as much as possible of the deeply red tomato flesh just under the skin. Cut slices of the tomato, and place it on the dragonfruit slabs: that’s tuna sushi! I made a balsamic and olive oil mixture that I dabbed under the “tuna sushi” to resemble soy sauce, and to give it a bit of extra flavor. Next, suprème the orange so you don’t get any pith (the white membrane). Stand the orange up, slice down the sides to remove only the peel and pith, and then cut wedges. These represent salmon sushi. You can probably experiment with a lot of different fruits and “sushi”; I didn’t think the orange worked well because it didn’t look enough like salmon. Maybe next time I’ll try papaya for salmon, roasted sweet plantain/banana for eel, and lychee for scallop.

What other fruit/fish analogues do you think would work well?