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Recipe inspiration, tips, and kitchen hacks from the Chowhound editors.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Scallions may be off the hook: It’s looking (registration required) more and more like lettuce is the culprit in the Taco Bell E. coli outbreak. The fast-food chain’s iceberg shreds hail from (where else?) California—specifically Irwindale-based Ready Pac Produce, although Taco Bell canceled its contract with the company last week and hired Taylor Farms of Salinas instead.

The whole story reinforces the growing awareness that something ain’t right with our food-safety regulations. Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser helps explain why in a recent opinion piece (registration required). Hint: it has something to do with fast-food and meatpacking lobbyists, political donations, and Republican elected officials.

But this latest development also raises another, admittedly far more frivolous question: Why use lettuce in Mexican (or even “Mexican”) food in the first place? As plenty of true burritophiles and burrito eaters will tell you, lettuce has no place in a burrito. Ditto for a taco, where in my humble opinion (and in others’ as well), the only garnishes, if any, should be salsa, onion, and cilantro. Shredded lettuce has virtually no taste, and it doesn’t add crunch, no matter what anyone tells you—it gets watery and dilutes flavor, a far cry from the crisp, lovely lettuce cups common in Korean fare. The so-called vegetable doesn’t add any health benefits, either: Iceberg lettuce is a nutritional black hole, and even the other varieties (romaine and Bibb, for example) don’t bring a whole lot more to the table.

If there are any lettuce-in-burrito lovers out there, come forth and defend yourselves!

Space Grain

Space Grain

Rice Cookers Go High-Tech. READ MORE

Time Machine Steakhouse and Killer Szechuan

Framingham, Massachusetts

While I’ve always viewed Framingham as a Brazilian wonderland, I’ve also been aware of other nationalities. Obviously there’s wonderful Dakshin, and there also used to be a very good south Indian place right in the Framingham train station. But other ethnicities have caught my peripheral vision on previous visits, so while continuing to try to hit every Brazilian café in town (I’ve already strafed a bunch but haven’t yet found greatness worth reporting), I’ve decided to challenge myself to find treasure that’s neither Brazilian nor Indian.

Shortly after making that resolution, I blundered into venerable Ken’s Steak House (95 Worcester Road, Framingham, Massachusetts; 508-875-4455). What’s more evocative than a real old-fashioned steakhouse? Not the contemporary ilk, with self-conscious Rat Pack vibe and fancy meat-aging techniques. I mean the steakhouses you’d find in the 1960s and 1970s, with well-rounded menus and merely high, not extravagant, prices. The sort of place one took one’s wife with her beehive hairdo for an anniversary dinner, back in the days when dining out was a special occasion.

You still find such places in burgs like Framingham. Ken’s Steakhouse was clearly a big name in town once, but is reduced to huddling alongside overgrown Route 9, the sort of sprawly road that sucks the dignity from every venue along its glaring length.

Inside there’s still lots of dignity left. Dark wood, padded bar, stained glass, couples dancing, wise-cracking career waiters and bartenders, dark wood—it’s like attending a dining museum. The passage of time has revealed this, the most mainstream type of American eatery, to be as stylized and transportive as any Polynesian tiki restaurant or Sicilian red-sauce palace. I gleefully hoped to immerse in a patently ethnic dining experience, and was not disappointed.

Hear a podcast recorded in the lounge as I awaited my scallops wrapped in bacon, sipped my Shiraz, and contemplated the contrariness of choosing such a bland place in a town rife with jazzy wonderment (which itself is little known to most outsiders): MP3.

Hear a post-meal rundown (synopsis: everything was right on the money, and you can’t find this sort of cuisine so easily anymore), as I head to a full dinner (I’d just had a few bites at Ken’s) in a Szechuan restaurant I’d spotted up the block: MP3.

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Sichuan Gourmet (271 Worcester Road, Framingham, Massachusetts; 508-626-0248) looked good, but I didn’t realize how good. This crummy photo was the best shot I could get of the place, from across the street (where I was ordering in yet another restaurant, but we’ll get to that in a minute):

All alone, and raving into a voice recorder, I faced down three plates:

Beef tendon with spicy wonder sauce.

Dan dan noodles.

Cumin lamb (a seasonal special).

The food was phenomenal. The beef tendon was floatingly light (and subtly, soulfully spiced); the lamb was oh-so-tender and dosed with tons of fragrant cumin; dan dan noodles tasted hand-pulled, were properly oily and hysterical with chili, and hit notes I’d never before experienced with dan dan noodles. And I’ve had lots of really great dan dan noodles.

Listen to my screaming, gasping podcasts:
MP3 and MP3.

I need to return to try more things. One problem with my streak is that I tend to order all the best dishes right away, so these may be the only three great dishes on the menu. But I doubt it.

Across the street I spotted a Shanghai restaurant called Uncle Cheung’s (266 Worcester Road, Framingham, Massachusetts; 508-872-9200). Could lightning strike twice in this supposed Chinese-food desert? Likely not, but I always like to give serendipity a shot, so I ordered, takeout (as I was stuffed), Shanghai soup dumplings plus the ultimate Shanghai soul food: soybeans with minced pork and bean curd threads. Nice people, authentic menu, no pandering, more or less “correct” cooking, but just no flair at all. My delicious-o-meter flatlined.

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Earlier in the day, between the tiniest chowconnaissance bites at a zillion Brazilian holes-in-walls, I managed to do something I’d always dreamed of: I ordered one of the wacky hamburgers at Magic Oven.

The Magic Burger, for a mere $5.75, fills a small grocery bag to bursting with a burger with cheese, bacon, egg, corn, ham, chicken, pineapple, lettuce, tomato, and a blizzard of potato sticks. How does it taste? Really really good. Obviously, it’s something you need to be in the mood for. I’d suggest, as a prerequisite, two weeks starving in a cave.

Beyond Uncle Ben’s

Beyond Uncle Ben’s

A rice primer. READ MORE

Aussie Apocalypse Continues

As we reported last month, Australia is in the grip of an eight-year-long drought that’s threatening the wonderfully chow-obsessed country’s food supply. Looks like that impending food crisis is closer than we thought, judging from a piece in Tuesday’s Sydney Morning Herald: A recent 40 percent rise in flour costs is poised to push up bread prices significantly, and veggies might double in price by the end of January, according to producers.

Eggs and milk are also discernibly costlier at Sydney’s supermarkets already, but the price of meat hasn’t risen significantly—even though farmers are selling their livestock for pennies at wholesale markets. The federal agriculture minister has just ordered a commission to get to the bottom of this, er, curious pricing disparity.

Paying 10 cents more for a carton of eggs or a couple bucks extra for a bunch of basil might not sound like such a big deal to those of us used to paying a premium for the organic or locally grown versions, but when an entire society’s food prices—right down to its bread—increase, that’s pretty scary news. But what’s the solution? One possibility is that the country will end up ditching its historically anti-GMO stance and start engineering genetically modified crops (requires free site pass) to be drought resistant. Would you get behind that kind of decision, or do you think there are other proven solutions to drought-related food shortages?

What You Call Sprawl, I Call Heaven

Framingham, Massachusetts

I’ve been infatuated with Framingham, Massachusetts, for years. To Bostonians, this is a boring boonie amid undifferentiated sprawl—an area to drive past quickly on the Massachusetts Turnpike. But I love sprawl in general—the tastiest nuggets can often be found therein—and Framingham in particular, which at some point in the past few years turned shiningly Brazilian. I’ve spent only a few tantalizing hours in this town, on my way to other destinations, but have long dreamed of settling in for a few days of serious exploration. This CHOW Tour is my big chance!

My first-ever bite here, lo those many years ago, was at the Magic Oven (470 Waverly Street, Framingham, Massachusetts; 508-370-8008). Like a slot-machine player hitting big with his first coin, it’s given Framingham an enduring allure for me. As always, I made a beeline to this Brazilian bakery as soon as I got into town, and ordered everything in sight:

Shish kebab.

Shish kebab (spicy, tender, fun).

Biscoito de Polvilho (progenitor of the cheese doodle).

Bolinho de mandioca (one of their best items, a fried yucca ball stuffed with oniony ground meat), quibe (same as Lebanese kibbe), and risole de frango.

Empadão de bacalau.

Yeasty, irresistible coconut bread.

I also ordered plenty of pao de queijo, the Brazilian cheese rolls made from sweet and sour yucca flour and lots of mild white cheese worked into the dough. I’ll get more tomorrow and photograph them in daylight (they’re really a breakfast item, anyway).

+ + +

Thus fortified, I revisited Dakshin (672 Waverly Road, Framingham, Massachusetts; 508-424-1030), the only Indian Tamil restaurant I know of in North America. More specifically, it specializes in the cuisine of Chettinad, which is renowned throughout India and extremely hard to find.

We ordered heavy on the Chettinad dishes:

Vetha kuzhambu with gooseberries (made with garam masala and tamarind).

Chicken Chettinad (in spicy garlicky/gingery sauce).

Chili paneer.

Potato varval (very traditional, very oniony Chettinad dish).

Thayir rice (soupy with homemade yogurt).

Mango lassi.

Everything, as usual, was wonderful. But this is a high-difficulty-rating restaurant, requiring some palate agility to enjoy. The Chettinad stuff doesn’t taste familiarly Indian, and the cooking is unforgivingly authentic, so eating here creates the sensation of having stumbled into the holiday dinner of some family with traditions extraordinarily unlike your own. If that sounds like your sort of thing, Dakshin’s for you. Those who require hand-holding and reference points will have their doors blasted off. I’ll never forget my first dish here: garlic curry. I expected garlicky curry. What I was served was a plate of sweet, salty, bitter and sour tamarind curry sauce studded with big chunks of garlic. The garlic is the meat! I realized I’d gone far beyond vindaloo.

This place also makes north Indian dishes, a full range of south Indian dosas and such, and Indian-Chinese dishes including burnt chicken garlic fried rice—offered in addition to regular chicken fried rice (what a restaurant!).

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen as severe a service melt-down as took place at Dakshin tonight. Patrons were walking out after waiting an hour for menus. By the end of the night, our check was given us by some dude who’d never worked in a restaurant before who the panicked staff had apparently deputized. Hey, it’s all part of the experience! Dues must be paid for the opportunity to eat anything as rare and prized as Chettinad food!

Note: Nearby Worcester is also full of great stuff (read a Boston Globe article on my last chowconnaissance run there, which also includes some Framingham places). But I’ve decided to focus on Framingham for now.

What Makes a Restaurant Great?

Is it the food, the ambiance, the service, or a combination of all three—or is there something more? Food writer and blogger Catherine of Food Musings poses this question in a thought-provoking post.

Catherine makes some interesting points: Taste in “good food” is subjective; people are more willing to forgive bad food than bad service; there are different versions of what people want in their dinner service. But at the end of the day, there is something more that makes us love our favorite restaurants.

The usual review touches on three topics: food, service, ambiance. But, like umami—the “secret” fifth taste (after sweet, salty, bitter and sour) that is usually described as “savory”—there is another sense that I think is always considered, though rarely stated, and that is the feeling you get from a restaurant. That feeling is not just the sum of the food, service and ambiance; it is its own score. It is also, in my opinion, the most important yardstick by which a restaurant is judged.

Seeing as I continue to adore a restaurant I ate in over a decade ago—and I don’t even remember what I ate there—I think she may be on to something.

What makes you love your favorite restaurants?

Food & Wine & Decadence & Altruism

Aspen’s Food & Wine Classic turns 25 next year, and some of the event’s plush goodies are slated to slop over the edge of the velvet tablecloth into the worthy coffers of the Farm to Table program.

The Food & Wine Classic is aiming to raise $1 million through its Grow for Good campaign. The goal is to help Farm to Table expand its services into 25 U.S. cities, open a West Coast office, and save 1,000 to 1,500 farms during an unspecified but presumably around-the-corner three- to five-year period. Also on the docket: providing assistance to help small farmers implement more sustainable practices.

To that end, 4 percent of the cost of every Food & Wine Classic ticket will go to the Grow for Good campaign. That might not sound like much, but with tickets for the Classic hovering around the $1,000 mark, it may add up to some serious ducats.

The Machine Age

Barry Sonnenfeld directed Get Shorty. He directed both Men in Black films as well as the Addams Family movies. In short, he’s a player, Hollywoodwise. So why is he writing espresso-machine reviews in the pages of a men’s magazine? Does he need the cash that badly?! Does everyone want to be a food writer now?

No. Sonnenfeld is Esquire’s gadget columnist, sharing his thoughts each month on toys from laptops to vacuums. In this issue Sonnenfeld uses the excuse of having to motivate a crew to work faster, so he treats them (and himself) to delicious shots of espresso every two hours during the filming of his television show, Notes from the Underbelly.

In the process, he gets to try out four high-end espresso machines, along with the Aeroccino, a $90 device that foams milk without steam.

His favorite is the Jura-Capresso Impressa Z6, a machine so high-tech that it does everything short of actually drinking the shot itself:

The Jura-Capresso also has a truly unique separate thermos that stores the milk and sends it through a tube into the frother, allowing you to create one-step lattes and cappuccinos. The steamed, foamed milk is sent through one nozzle while the freshly brewed espresso is sent through another—all ending up in a perfectly foamed cappuccino.

Gadgetlicious! Sadly, you practically have to be a Hollywood filmmaker to afford one: The cost is $3,600.

Raw Sugar, Meet Fancy Butter

The holiday baking days are upon us, and, ever helpful, the dailies are getting down to the basics of baking. Forget Gourmet’s fiddly geometric Christmas cookies: The food sections of the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times talk butter and sugar this week.

The Chron’s wish-we’d-been-a-judge taste-off features European-style butters, those high-priced, high-butterfat charmers whose ranks are ever swelling in the dairy case. The lucky tasters assessed each butter (some domestic, some imported) straight up and baked in shortbread. Surprisingly, Plugra, the butter whose high-fat plasticity started the whole Euro-butter craze, came in third in the combined scores and fourth in baking, beaten by the American Challenge and Danish Lurpak butters.

Over at the Times, life is sweet as writer Kim Severson continues her culinary romance with Louisiana, this time focusing on the state’s cane sugar industry, with recipes for cane-syrup popcorn balls, gingerbread slabs, and gâteau de sirop—along with a description of a local snack of white bread folded over a brown ripple of cane syrup and called, memorably, a “diaper sandwich.”

According to fans of unrefined products like raw sugar and cane syrup, the cane solids in the rough stuff add a smoothness that’s lacking in whiter-than-white processed sugar. As Charley Steen of longtime family business Steen’s Cane Syrup says, “For lack of a better word, the cane flavor just butters it out.”