Saturday, July 28, 2007

One gadget that is worth buying

Although I love cooking and have a variety of specialty equipment (two pasta makers, lots of cookie cutters, a stand mixer, a wok), I'm not especially fond of gadgets, especially those that only do one thing and take up lots of space. In this category I place things like garlic presses, cherry pitters, shrimp deveiners, dumpling presses - all the gadgets that populate paid programming and garage sales.

One gadget I am crazy about, though, is the jumbo vegetable cutter I got a few months ago from Surfas, the best cooking store ever. Although any kind of cooking is a welcome break from work, I've never been great with a chef's knife, and chopping a big pile of potatoes and onions can try even my typically never-ending patience. Egg rolls, especially, are a killer - after I'm done chopping, I just do not want to stir-fry, wrap, and fry, and the poor egg rolls often end up mutilated and misshapen because I'm too tired to care. Now that I've been having hand pain from typing too much, chopping has become even more daunting.

I saw this nondescript, utilitarian little gadget during one of my regular browses through the Surfas website (just follow the link and you'll see how one can lose an hour, easy), and I actually used it as an excuse to purchase a whole wish-list of items I had been saving for a long time. Believe me, the pink peppercorns and beet powder were great, but the vegetable cutter is one of the unsung heroes of my kitchen. It saves both time and labor, it's easy to clean, and fun to use - making a cool thwapping sound as the veggies are pushed through the blades, ending up in perfect uniform slices. The cutter is actually so powerful that it's best to do it next to the sink with a big bowl to catch the vegetable projectiles. Although it of course makes perfect french fries, I've also used it to chop onions, cabbage, eggplant, and even mushrooms. If you like to making big batches of things for company or the freezer, a vegetable cutter will really make life easier, minimizing the tedium of chopping that often comes with the joy of cooking. While you're at it, check out the rest of the amazing selection at Surfas online. Need Balinese long pepper, forbidden rice flour, or smokehouse almonds? Surfas has it all at the lowest premiums I've found anywhere. Shipping only costs about $17 no matter how much you buy!

Note: I am honestly not a paid spokesperson for Surfas ;-)

Painless fries (large cut):

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Reason # 254 to love the Haymarket

Boston's Haymarket is a venerable weekend tradition that has many attractions. The colorful vendors and crush of market-goers reminds me a little of China, and I like mingling with Boston's ethnic population. Shopping at the Haymarket always carries a sense of adventure - you never know what will be cheap or what will be good, and there is always the possibility of incredible deals.

What many people don't know is that it's often possible to find high-end organic produce at the Haymarket in addition to the usual surplus items at rock-bottom prices. Amazingly, the high-end produce usually sells for the same price or even less than regular produce, and many shoppers overlook unusual gourmet items. If I find a huge bag of mesclun mix or a 5lb bag of organic potatoes for a dollar, I go home happy, but once in a while I find a truly astounding buy and it just makes my whole day.

Today, I bought this entire box - more than 10 lbs - of organic heirloom tomatoes for two dollars! Actually this is the second box I bought - I got the first one earlier in the day at the exorbitant price of three dollars. Although the tomatoes are quite ripe, they had only a few rotten spots and most of them were at the peak of juicy, umami-filled flavor. So far I've made a huge batch of delicious tomato soup, tomato sherbet with citron, and my childhood favorite, raw tomatoes with rose sugar. I still have about 8 pounds left, but no worries - they're good both as fruits or vegetables :-)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Why I hate Whole Foods

Warning: this is a rant. I try not to rant often, but when I feel like the cause is important enough, I just need to let it all out. In this case, the cause is to inform you of some things you might not know about one of our favorite grocery stores.

So here, at last, is my Whole Foods horror story. To be sure, I had had several bad experiences at Whole Foods previously:

  • In 2005, I splurged on some "natural" ground pork for dumplings. The meat looked fine, but after I laboriously made the dumplings and tried to cook them, I found that it to be tough, gamey, and extremely strange. I boiled the dumplings as usual and found the meat to be still be very raw inside, so I boiled, and boiled, and added more water, and boiled .. and after an hour .. it was still pink and raw-ish inside! Valliantly attempting to salvage the two pounds of meat and all of my labor, I tried frying the dumplings, deep-frying .. but nothing worked. It was just inedible. I still don't know what was wrong with the meat - was it from a disesased or geriatric animal? Was it doctored? I should have returned it to the store, but that was before I developed a sense of outrage.
  • In 2006, a deli worker coughed directly on an order of sliced meat (right in front of us) and tried to give it to us anyway.
  • Also in 2006, I was about to splurge again on some steak. I got two steaks that ended up totalling almost 30 dollars, but as I walked away from the meat counter I found that they were already significantly brown and returned them. For the price they were charging, they should not be selling anything that was not at the peak of freshness.
  • At several locations both in California and the Boston area, I have generally found the staff at Whole Foods to be indifferent and sometimes even rude. This is surprising given Whole Foods' reputation for offering the highest wages in the industry along with great benefits, but the staff are certainly not nearly as friendly or helpful as the folks at Trader Joe's.

But somehow, I wrote off the above incidents as flukes and still believed Whole Foods to be a reputable retailer that would not knowingly sell defective products to consumers. Given the extremely high prices Whole Foods charges, though, I only shopped there for special items I couldn't find anywhere else. When I was organizing a chocolate tasting in April, I thought it would be a good opportunity to try some of the delicious-looking chocolates in the glass display case by the bakery at the Whole Foods at the Charles River Plaza in Boston. The store offered chocolates from high-end chocolatiers Christopher Norman and Knipschildt for $45 / lb, and I bought a wide selection from both brands.

And the chocolates were utterly disgusting. Now, I have eaten a lot of chocolate in my day, and admittedly, I've even kept home-made and store-bought chocolates long past their "best-by" dates. I have kept chocolates in the refrigerator for a year and still enjoyed them. I hate wasting food so much, I even scrape mold off of bread and pick bugs out of rice and still eat it. But even I draw the line somewhere. These $45/lb chocolates were stale at best and inedible at worst. Across the board, the fillings were desiccated with cracks on the inside, indicating that they had been kept out too long. The white chocolates and cream fillings were all rancid with weird combinations of jarring astringency and offensive sulfurousness, and most of the flavors from both brands were indistinguishable from each other, sharing a uniform rancidity. Some of them literally tasted like shit. Now, I have eaten many, many bonbons in my life of varying origin and repute, and I can tell you with near certainty that my perception of these chocolates was not a matter of preference, taste, or snobbery - they were just spoiled. Unfortunately, in my naivete and utter shock I forgot to take photographic evidence of the offensive confections.

Thinking back, I don't think I ever saw another person actually purchasing chocolates from the display case, and with all that lighting and an un-refrigerated case, it's not hard to imagine how the chocolates became spoiled. I just don't think it's unreasonable to expect a store selling chocolates at such an incredible premium to ensure utmost freshness and quality.

But it gets worse - the worst part of the experience was not even the spoiled chocolates themselves, but the reaction of Whole Foods to the incident. I returned the chocolates the next day (along with with the rest of the chocolate I had purchased from Whole Foods). Now, I have never, ever returned food that was not spoiled to a supermarket, but I was just so disgusted by the display-case chocolates that I could not stomach serving any chocolates from Whole Foods to a crowd at an event I was organizing. I did feel bad about returning the bars and feves, but my disgust was visceral.

The product return process was extremely onerous and took about 20 minutes. To top it all off, the man who helped me had a very bad attitude and belittled me for returning the chocolate. I tried several times to tell him that the chocolates were spoiled and that he should check all of the chocolates in the case, but he just glared at me and said "It's okay, you can change your mind any time", dismissing my concerns as mere capriciousness. In an attempt to dissuade me from returning them, he also told me that all of the unopened bars would be thrown in the trash, which he didn't do and which I somehow doubt actually happened.

That same day, I sent emails to the local store, Whole Foods headquarters, and the two chocolate-makers. I soon got an email back from a store manager at the Charles River Plaza store who told me he personally checked each of the chocolates and they were, in his words, perfect. Although there is always room for disagreement, and I am usually willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, I place a vanishingly small probability on those chocolates being fresh and "perfect." To placate me, he also sent me a $50 gift certificate, which I sold on Craig's list and donated the proceeds to two African women on I also got an immediate response from Christopher Norman, and they assured me they would follow up on the complaint, although I didn't hear from them again. Kindly, they also sent me a complimentary box of their chocolates, and although they tasted rather commercial (with a long list of ingredients including corn syrup, flavorings, and artificial colors), they were certainly decent and nothing like the chocolates I had from Whole Foods. I never received a response from Knipschildt, but I had previously received a box of their white chocolate mint ganache truffles as a gift and they were delicious. However, their customer service in this case is a little lacking.

This incident has utterly soiled Whole Foods's reputation in my mind. It is one thing to sell spoiled product, but the response I received indicates much bigger problems of accountability, governance, and corporate culture. Therefore, it was no surprise when I herd of the recent scandal involving CEO John Mackey, who posted anonymous online attacks on Wild Oats Markets just before Whole Foods made a bid for it. Although initially dismissive of his behavior as a bit of "fun", Macky today issued an unconvincing pro-forma apology:

I sincerely apologize to all Whole Foods Market stakeholders for my error in judgment in anonymously participating on online financial message boards. I am very sorry and I ask our stakeholders to please forgive me.

To me, Mackey's terrible behavior and unrepentant attitude fits with my experience of Whole Foods as a company which markets itself on corporate, environmental, and social responsibility but acts contrary to this philosophy in practice, acting responsibly solely as a way to build its image. We should all be wise enough to know that Whole Foods is not our friend, and neither is any publicly-listed firm which must abide by fiduciary duty and the demands of the market. But Whole Foods's hypocrisy in pretending to be responsible and subverting of our trust is what makes it in my mind, one of the most pernicious corporations in America. Here is more on my take on good and evil in the corporate world.

Whole Foods Evil Watch
  • Although it prominently displays messages of sustainability and purports to support the small farmers of America, much of the produce at Whole Foods is not organic at all, and it purchases the vast majority of its organic inventory from one of the handfull of huge industrial organic operations. Moreover, store displays often misleadly conflate conventional and organic produce. See this insighful article for more details.
  • A big part of Whole Foods's success comes from making us feel like we're making a responsible choice for the environment, for farmers, and for society, but in reality the premiums we're paying doesn't go toward environmental or social causes, but into corporate coffers. Whole Foods's strategy is a typical one of price discrimination, when products with only nominal differents are sold in order to pick off the customers who are willing to pay more versus pennypinchers like me. In reality, only pennies of the huge premiums we pay on products with organic or fair-trade actually go to farmers or earth-friendly pesticides. So although most Whole Foods consumers probably don't realize it, we're just paying for self-righteousness. My concern is not that Whole Foods achieves one of the highest profit margins in the retail industry (35%), but that it deceives us and exploits our good-will to do so.
  • I think the recent revelations about John Mackey speak for themselves, but on top of that debacle he has also mislead the public about his own salary. Whole Foods has widely advertised that the CEO makes only 14 times that of the average worker, a relatively small pay gap by today's standards. But that's only true if you don't count stock options, which typically make up a large fraction of executive pay packages. In 2005, he actually received $2.7 million including options, 84 times the salary of the average worker, with another $4.4 in vested options . Now, a lot of CEOs make much more than that, but there's no excuse for lying about it.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Green tea powder bonanza

I love the flavor of green tea, so I'm always looking for new kinds of green tea powder to add to cakes, puddings, and other desserts. At the moment I have a whopping five different kinds in my cupboard, and that's not even including thai tea and black tea powders! Despite the explosion of green-tea-flavored desserts in the US, tea powders are still surprisingly hard to find. In Boston, the few places that reliably carry them are Ming's supermarket in Roxbury, Kam Man supermarket in Quincy, and the Super 88 in Dorchester. I go by Ming's the most since it's within walking distance of my apartment, but sometimes they don't have the pure green tea powder in stock. If it were closer I'd probably shop for green tea powder at Super 88. If in desperate need, Trader Joe's also carries instant green tea and matcha latte powder, but they are much more expensive than those at Asian markets.

Here is a run-down of the green tea powders I've tried in order of preference

Tradition brand green tea powder
$4.99 / 250g = $19.96 / kg @ Ming's
Ingredients: green tea
Pure green tea powders can get very, very expensive, but this brand from Taiwan combines quality and value for those who are not picky or rich enough to spring for $30 / ounce Japanese matcha. It has a lovely green color which makes for attractive icing (although it turns brownish when baked, as all green tea powders I've tried), a fine, powdery texture, and a clean taste with a nice bitter edge.

E-fa brand jasmine tea
Ingredients: green tea, non-dairy creamer, jasmine extract, refined sugar
$7.05 / 1 kg @ Ming's
I love the fragrance and flavor of E-fa jasmine tea powder. It includes sugar and non-dairy creamer which temper the bitterness of pure green tea, letting the intense floral aroma of jasmine take center stage. It's readily substitutable in place of cocoa powder in baked goods, but I like it best in frostings, puddings, and beverages which are not heated for a long time. The only problem with this powder is that it contains rather large sugar crystals, so it has to be dissolved in water if you want a smooth texture.

Mayushan Green tea boba
$5.65 / 1 kg @ Ming's
Ingredients: Green tea powder, non-dairy creamer, sugar
This is a delightful green tea powder which is an incredible value for the price. Although it includes sugar, it is only a touch sweet, so you can add it to recipes are you please without worrying about adjusting the sugar. I use it as an all-purpose green tea flavoring for baked goods, frostings, ice cream, and anything else I can think of. Despite its low price it doesn't taste cheap or artificial, so feel free to let your imagination go wild.

Trader Joe's Matcha latte
Needham, MA
$3.99 / 284g = $14.0493 / kg
Ingredients: Cane sugar, nonfat milk, Whey protein, green tea, matcha tea, maltodetrin, tricalcium phosphate, carrageenan, natural flavors, salt
Trader Joe's matcha latte powder has a very nice floral aroma which hits you from when you first open the package. It has a fine texture with a nice flavor, but I don't see any reason to pay so much when you can get the above powders for less at Asian markets.

Trader Joe's instant green tea
$2.99 / 57g = $52.46 / kg
Needham, MA
Ingredients: green tea
This "instant" green tea is very strange. The tea is brown and intensely oxidized, and it is in granulules similar to instant coffee (or some kind of animal chow). The flavor reminds me more of bitter coffee grounds or overbrewed black tea, frankly, but in a pinch it would work in a cake recipe in place of cocoa. The resulting cake can scarcely be distinguished from that made from a low-grade cocoa powder, however.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Chocolate tortilla chips

A while back I tried the chocolate tortilla chips made by a company called Food Should Taste Good. The company makes several flavors of tortilla chips, and this was the first one I tried. The chips have a deep cocoa flavor reminiscent of good dark chocolate, and they are relatively thick with a nice crunch and natural flavor. I've always loved foods that were sweet and salty without being too much of either, and these chips strike a good balance. They taste good with salsa (especially chipotle) but are also sweet enough to be used in desserts. I bet they would be fantastic in place of graham crackers for pie crusts!

The chips are available at Shaw's in Back Bay and are definitely worth a try.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Chinatown bakery tour

Yesterday I lead a tour of some Boston Chinatown bakeries. Sadly, the bakeries in Boston just don't measure up to the carbohydrate cornucopia found in L.A., but they still offer plenty for those seeking a fix of fluffy cake and bean paste. Having tried almost all of the bakeries in Chinatown, my favorites are Bao Bao and Crown Royal. Although the confections at Bao Bao are quite a bit more expensive than other bakeries, I've found them to be the tastiest and most attractive. Crown Royal is in a little alley on the edge of Chinatown adjoining the fence for the new Big Dig park, and it has really fresh breads and cakes. Unfortunately, I didn't snap a picture of the beautiful purple taro cake I got from Bao Bao, but it was as soft and delicious as it was pretty. I also enjoy the jelly desserts from May's Cake House, and the lady there is by far the nicest bakery proprietor I've met.

Here are some treats I've sampled in Chinatown over the years:

From top left: Boston cream cake from Finale, strawberry cake from Maxim, Boston cream cake from Maxim, and green tea and taro pastry puffs from Bao Bao. The puff pastries are some of my favorite treats in Chinatown. The Chinese Boston cream pie was much better than the one from Finale.

Coffee roll, fruit cake, and coconut bread from Crown Royal. The cakes were fresh and fluffy although their flavor was ordinary, but the bread was buttery and delicious.

Green tea and black sesame cakes from Bao Bao. Unfortunately they taste like plain cakes and not much like tea or sesame.

Wife cake (lao po bing) from Bao Bao, a traditional cantonese treat with a flaky pastry crust and a mochi-like filling of glutinous rice. I had some really delicious wife cake in Hong Kong, and these are almost as good.

Coconut jelly from May's cake house. Its texture is a mix between almond tofu and a konjac jelly, and it tastes of creamy, slightly sweetened coconut milk.

Water chestnut cake - another jelly treat from May's cake house. This one is less sticky and more like an agar jelly, lightly sweetened with crunchy pieces of water chestnut inside.