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Monday, April 29, 2013

Olive oil and more--who knew?

I went to the most fascinating store today. It's called The Virgin Olive Oiler and, as you might suspect, it specializes in olives oils but it also has a wide selection of balsamic vinegars, sugars and salts. I was overwhelmed. The owner--and this is not a chain but a privately owned store--is knowledgeable and friendly. I didn't really browse but told him the gifts I wanted and who for and came away with an olive oil infused with herbs de Provence, another with Tuscan herbs, an 18-year-old dark balsamic traditional vinegar, and a butter infused olive oil.
I told him that the friend who lives in my garage apartment is dairy-free and although we don't often eat together occasionally I sauté vegetables in butter and then regret that I can't share. He carefully gave me a card explaining that no items in his store come from animal products--he has a large vegan trade--and the butter olive oil, while it tastes like butter, is dairy free. And aside from sautéing, you can use it almost any place you'd use real butter--over baked potatoes, in baking, over everything from popcorn to pasta, to dip bread in, and a bunch of other things. Use your imagination.
The oils fascinated me--truffle infused, mushroom, roasted almond, sesame, French walnut, chipotle, cilantro and roasted onion, green chili. Apparently a California garlic oil is his best-seller.
I'm not as big a fan of balsamic vinegars, but I suspect if I hung around there I would be. The bestseller is the 18-year-old one I bought but the dark also come in black currant, blueberry, cinnamon-pecan, and even chocolate. White balsamics have fruity flavors from pineapple and mango to coconut and peach. One of the premium vinegars is a pinot noir one.
An entire wall of salts intrigued me because I'd just bought chocolate sea salt in Hawaii--can  you imagine that on a grilled steak? Like a subtle mole sauce. The store didn't have that but did have a dark red Hawaiian sea salt. Almost all of the salts were from the sea--black truffle, chipotle, wild porcini, vanilla bean and others. And there was a bread-dipping seasoning--my kids brought some of that back from France nine years ago and we loved it.
The pure cane sugars also come in a variety of flavors. I liked the idea of espresso, lime, and lemon. Not so sure I want to try habanero.
The Virgin Olive Oiler offers shipping anywhere in the continental United States, and their website has recipes. Check it out at I haven't had such a fascinating shopping trip in a long time, and now I'm ready to experiment in cooking.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Recipes from the Blue Plate Cafe

One of the joys of writing the Blue Plate Mystery Series, for me, is a chance to talk about food and include some recipes. So there's a recipe section at the back of Murder at the Blue Plate Café. Naturally I attributed them all to the fictional Gram, who owned the café for years until her sudden death. In truth one of those below is my own version of chicken salad, but I attribute it to Kate because she added it in an attempt to lighten the café menu. The sheet cake came from my late dear friend, Reva Ogilvie. Reva and I used to argue whether it was a sheet cake or a sheath cake. I insisted it's a sheet cake because you make it in a sheet pan; she persisted in calling it a sheath cake. Either way, we'll continue the fiction and call most Gram's recipes. These would be the great basis for a lunch menu, maybe with the addition of fruit and bread.

Kate’s Chicken Salad

Kate is a purist about chicken salad. She doesn’t believe in adding pickle relish, grapes (too much like bistro food!), or nuts. This makes great sandwiches.

4 whole chicken breasts, poached and diced
Juice of 2 large lemons
8 scallions, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
Salt and pepper
Mayonnaise to bind (do not use that low-fat stuff) or equal parts of mayonnaise and sour cream

Optional: stir in some blue cheese. So good!

Flake chicken in food processor or dice, according to your preference—Kate flakes it; add diced scallions, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and mix. Add mayonnaise a bit at a time, blending thoroughly. It should hold the chicken together but not make the mixture soupy. The pure chicken flavor should dominate. Serves about 12. Can easily be reduced for home use; just start with one whole chicken breast or even a half.
Gram’s Sheet Cake
Follow the directions carefully because this goes together like no cake I've ever made.
2 sticks butter or margarine
4 Tbsp. cocoa
1 c. water.
 Bring these ingredients to a boil and add:
 2 c. sugar
2 c. flour
Mix and add:
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
½ c. buttermilk
1 tsp. baking soda
 Mix and bake in a greased rimmed cookie sheet at 400° for 20 minutes.
Separately combine in saucepan:
 1 stick butter
4 Tbsp. cocoa
6 Tbsp. milk
Bring to a boil and add:
1 lb. powdered sugar
1 c. chopped nuts
1 tsp. vanilla
Spread over hot cake.



Sunday, April 7, 2013

Airplane food

Having just returned from first-class flights to and from Hawaii, I found this guest piece by Claire Jenkins is of great interest. Our food was not nearly what I expected from first class, nor was the wine. The pictures are from our trip.

The Airline Food Lottery - Are You Getting Your Money's Worth?

Food used to be considered one of the perks of airline travel. It was a novelty, a nice little freebie to make you feel better about the cost of the flight and break up the tedium of a long-haul journey. With air travel now more commonplace the novelty has well and truly worn off, and passenger expectations have increased in line with flight costs. What used to be reasonably reliable quality standards, however, seem to have taken a nose-dive in some quarters. In-flight food has become something of a quality lottery, with customer experiences ranging from the sublime to the inedible. Passengers can take heart though, as signs from the industry suggest that moves are afoot to address customer concerns.

Travelers are becoming more discerning and (with the help of the internet) more vociferous, and it would seem that the airlines are starting to respond to the backlash. Travel companies, keen to preserve their reputation for promoting quality service providers, are increasingly using the internet to demand feedback on passenger experiences of onboard catering. There are also the annual World Airline Awards which seek to establish a global benchmark for excellence in all things flight related. If you value good quality in-flight food and you have some choice of airlines when you are booking your flight it may be worth checking out these polls and awards to give you an idea of the type and quality of food you can expect. This is no guarantee of a pleasant experience of course but you can perhaps narrow your odds a little!

A pasta dish

The airlines are taking this feedback on board, and appear to be busy addressing the onboard catering issue via the introduction of various initiatives targeting different passenger markets. European holiday airline Monarch offer set breakfast lunch and dinner menus, bookable in advance, for an additional cost. The emphasis is on quality, the range being called "Divine." The opportunity to Buy-on-Board, or order ahead of time is becoming more and more popular. As a part of that airlines are increasingly offering locally sourced products for sale, a response to growing global concerns over carbon footprints and the demise of the small, independent producers.  

Names of celebrity-chef big-guns are also appearing more frequently in the airline publicity blurbs bringing the X-Factor to the skies, with the likes of Michelin-starred chef Michel Roth creating menus for Air France, and James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein working with Delta Airlines. For the lower-budget pocket, Japan Airlines is setting the scene by providing passengers with in-flight food and drink sourced from, and prepared in conjunction with, well-known coffee brands and fast food chains.

Overdone steak and faux potatoes

Estonian Airlines has been rolling out their "Restaurant in the Sky" idea over the last 12 months, showcasing a different chef from a prominent national restaurant each month to prepare meals in-flight for Premium passengers. Similarly, Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad Airways offers its Diamond First Class passengers meals made to order on from scratch on the flight itself.

As an airline traveler you are a captive audience, and in the dry atmosphere of recycled air it is usual to both want and need a drink. Increased security measures on some flights may prevent you from taking your own beverages on board, so check this out before you travel, and ensure you are in a position to buy a drink should you need one. They are generally not provided free of charge.

Freshly tapped beer has been available on All Nippon Airways since 2010, not something that seems to have taken off at a global level, but nevertheless another move in the direction of responding to passenger demand.

The quality of wines offered onboard flights can vary greatly too, and some of the larger trans-continental airlines, such as Delta and Cathay Pacific, have sought to address this, and now have trained sommeliers on board who help with both the selection and serving of the wines on offer, but usually only in First Class. This sweetener isn't designed to make money in its own right (the drinks are often complimentary) but rather to keep passengers coming back for more, thus securing the more lucrative ticket sales.

Catering isn't the only in-flight offering that you may want to consider before you book. The range of other products available free or to buy onboard seems to be ever-expanding too. Airlines clearly see these products as beneficial to their businesses, as for Premium and First Class passengers they will often offer complimentary products. Perfumes, watches and cosmetics are all favorites with airlines, as are travel accessories and skincare products.  It is important to remember that the bargains on board may not be all they seem, and a little forethought before you travel can save you a lot of money. There are some unbeatable deals on travel accessories and beauty products available online that not only protect your pocket, but allow you to choose from a far superior range of products to find one that best suits your needs. Onboard, you are limited in your selection to the very small range of products carefully selected to provide the illusion of choice. Do not be fooled by the limited choice trap - always ask yourself if this is REALLY the product you would choose or is it simply the best of the selection on offer? You may well find some products at a lower price than on the high street, but a quick scan online of in-flight magazines has just revealed no fewer than three different cosmetic products alone on offer on various trans-continental flights that are DOUBLE the price you can find them online. In-flight products are by no means always cheaper!

A really good salad

The initiatives underway are a start - as with any service-based industry it seems it will be those who can afford to pay the premium for top class catering and service who will benefit most, but  the other initiatives mentioned do indicate a good move in the right direction for all passengers.

These new initiatives should in theory address quality issues through greater control, visibility and transparency in the supply chain. If this is supplemented with improved benchmarks for standards of excellence for cabin crew and training programs to support that, then it is to be hoped that the overall airline food experience will continue to improve.

Pre-dinner snacks and not very good wine
What this all boils down to is the airlines squeezing margins where they think they can get away with it. For the passenger, choice is often limited - the airlines know this, but are still keen to keep the majority of customers happy if they can. As far as catering is concerned, if the quality of your food experience on flights is important to you, then it's wise to check out your alternative operators, how each fares in the unforgiving world of online ratings and comments, and also where they rank for catering quality within the airline industry itself. Then hopefully your in-flight intake will be sure to satisfy!