The most bestest falafel in town

OK, so Maalouf’s doesn’t have the best falafel in town after all.  Hands down, Sanad’s on K Street is better.  Freshly fried falafel balls, broken up on the sandwich (this is key!), nice fresh veggies (the “traditional” has cucumber and peppers instead of lettuce and tomato), good size (small, more snack-like, but can be a lunch with one of the bomb deli offerings), and good green falafel flesh with accompanying herby flavor (out of the half-dozen times I’ve been there, the flesh was a little undercooked once).  There are bottles of good hot sauce (and a vat of free olives), which can add a whole dimension to the sandwich.  I don’t know what the sauce on the traditional falafel is, but it’s wicked good.  I’ll ask next time I go.  

In the deli case, the tabouleh, dominated by parsley, is extremely acidic but great.  The hummus is finely pureed, rich and creamy with tahini (the polar opposite of Crest Cafe’s runny, pulpy, sour but otherwise flavorless chickpea mush).  The “grilled” eggplant is not so hot: super oily, under-salted, and slices towards the stem end are tough & undercooked.  The foul (fava beans) is good.  

I like to end things on a negative note, so I’ll say this: there’s a real problem with the free water pitchers.  The water tastes so strongly of stale freezer that it’s undrinkable.  Next time I guess I’ll ask for water from the tap, so I don’t have to drink the horrible melted ice.


The best falafel in town

It is with great sadness that I report that Maalouf’s on Fulton has the best falafel in Sac, because it’s just not that great: way too much lettuce, mushy, mealy tomatoes, and falafel balls with less than perfect crust.  This means the falafel gets a little greasy and dry, rather than the crunchy outside and moist inside that a falafel ball ought to have.  Still, the balls are freshly fried, the bread is soft and tasty, and the pickles, tahini sauce, and hummus are all very good.  When will Sac catch onto this international sensation?

Long lines at Il Fornaio for what?

The “salame e provolone” sandwich at Il Fornaio’s takeout lunch counter downtown is pretty bad.  I was enticed by the menu description: salami, provolone, and mustard.  A simple sandwich, maybe on good bread (some of the rustic-looking loaves on display looked OK; I’ve only had their mediocre baguettes).  But the salami and provolone are more or less flavorless, piled thick: one layer of salami, one of provolone, another of salami, another of provolone; and the layers stick in your mouth in a really unpleasant way.  The sandwich is pre-made (at corporate headquarters?) and served on sliced white bread straight from the fridge, and the mustard is yellow, French’s style.

Bad China

Today’s New York Times reports that China and India have stalled trade negotiations due to fear about “cheap farms imports from the rich world,” a worry that is counter-intuitive to say the least.  Poor countries have cheap labor and cheap land, so how is it that rich countries can produce agricultural products cheaply enough to undercut their prices?

Researching tortillas (corn vs. wheat, specifically), I found that corn exports to Mexico from the U.S. have increased dramatically since 1994—the year NAFTA passed.  Mostly, we’re exporting yellow corn, which is used there almost exclusively for animal feed and industrial products.  The increase in yellow corn imports by Mexico is tied to an increase in animal farming (hogs and chickens, especially), which probably means clogged colons for a greater and greater percentage of the population. 

NAFTA also has led to an explosion in the market share of tortillas made from masa harina, or masa flour, rather than the traditional masa, the highly perishable dough made through the ingenious nixtamal process. Ninety percent of masa harina production is concentrated in the hands of two producers (one is Maseca, which does a brisk business in the U.S.).  50% of tortillas are apparently still made the old-fashioned way in small tortillerias from fresh masa, but an increasing percentage of these are made from hybrid high-yielding varieties, grown in relatively arid places like Sinaloa, where industrial, rather than traditional, farming dominates.  How do you suppose these developments affect the taste of the tortillas?

How can U.S. corn pull this off—how are we able to undercut Mexico’s prices?  The complete answer is too complicated and boring for me to understand.  But the short answer seems to be that U.S. exporters sell corn to Mexico for 30% less than the cost of production, made possible by the typical $5 billion the U.S. government pays annually to the corn industry.  Why are the corn farmers doing it?  Do they get some domestic pricing advantage by dumping a portion of their supply in Mexico?  Is their goal to devastate the corn growers of Mexico so that they can take over and raise prices?  Certainly, with 2 million rural Mexicans having moved away from the countryside, Mexican corn has been disrupted, if not devastated.  And worldwide corn prices are on the rise, nearly tripling over the past few years.

Is this what China’s afraid of?

Berkshire Lard

Fat plays a central role in my cooking, and in my life.  My list of complaints about other people’s cooking, which I usually politely keep to myself, is topped with Dearth of fat. The single most essential fat in my life is extra virgin olive oil, but I also currently have peanut oil, unsalted butter (without natural flavorings), duck fat, goose fat (rendered from the goose I braised at christmas), and sesame oil.  I also have lard, in the familiar green and white tub, which is hydrogenated and industrial, and which has no real smell or taste (except maybe a hint of chemicals).  The obvious solution is to render some good lard, from some good pork fat.  But it’s not as easy as I thought it would be to get good pork fat.  Taylor’s gave me some pork chop trimmings, but these were full of meat, and they rendered a foul liquor that I had to throw away.  When I asked at Corti’s butcher, I was directed to green and white tubs.  But I persisted, and the butcher produced a three-pound, vacuum sealed bag of frozen Berkshire pork fat.  It was three dollars a pound, and so I bought it and brought it home.

I love Jeffrey Steingarten’s brief account of rendering lard in his kitchen at the beginning of The Man Who Ate Everything.  But three hours in my 225-degree oven wasn’t long enough to render my lard; nor, indeed, was ten.  I had to go to bed, though, and so I drained the lard at the ten-hour mark, and threw away the pre-cracklings.  The lard, rendered with cloves and a cinnamon stick, smells beautiful, and it’s perfect in poor man’s spaghetti.

Another chance for Austria

Thomas Beisl has very expensive sandwiches. We went for a late lunch on a Monday, planning to order sandwiches, but these were the four options: two paninis (ham/meunster, peppers/feta), each $12, or viennese meatloaf or norwegian salmon with chipotle mayo. None of these sounded particularly Austrian, so we each sampled a schnitzel. M got the Wienerschnitzel (I guess this is a veal cutlet), and I got cod schnitzel. They were both surprisingly delicious, freshly fried, nicely breaded (with decent bread crumbs), and served piping hot with a delightful side of cucumber/potato salad (vinegary, not mayonnaisy), and a little bit of pickled red cabbage. The wienerschnitzel went nicely with the light but rounded Austrian gruner veltliner M ordered, and the cod was a great complement for my zippy Austrian riesling. Both wines had a touch of sweetness that made them a lot more vinegar-friendly than most. Looking at the menu, there was at most one item (some lamb dish) that would have been red-friendly. Austria!

What the fuck is up with red wines from Austria?

Between a flabby, fruity Zweigelt at a dinner at Thomas Beisl and a slightly less flabby, slightly less fruity and more earthy Pinot Noir called Juris at Wallsé a couple nights ago, maybe Austrian red is total bullshit. Granted, we fucked up by ordering a bottle of pinot for chestnut soup, boiled beef (or Kavalierspitz), and a venison chop (only the last dish had anything to do with red wine). I can start to see why whites with a little a sweetness are so treasured in this part of the world—the cuisine needs that sweetness to balance it. Boiled beef with horseradish (this dish was very good, with a line of gelatinized collagen running through the center of slices of shoulder meat) will never match a red, and it’s hard to imagine it working very well with a dry white. The chestnut soup with armagnac prunes had a richness that totally clashed with the pinot noir and would probably dwarf a dry white. The venison chop, over four inches thick, was perfectly cooked: darkly browned on the outside, and a deep, gamy red on the inside. But it seems venison meat is too lean to really deliver its own flavor (like filet mignon, but moreso), and the pomegranate reduction that accompanied couldn’t compensate for that. It was a fine match for the wine, however, which makes the dinner something less than a complete loss.
We also learned something about the pairing of wines with Austrian food (off dry whites!), and about Austrian reds generally (nasty!).

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