The Easy Way to Make a Perfect Poached Egg

The quintessential poached egg has a firmly set white that surrounds a barely cooked yolk. Use a fork to gently pierce the surface of the neat round package, and the yellow will ooze all over your plate, ready to be sopped up with the edge of your toast, English muffin, or bagel. It’s a nice alternative to scrambling or frying your eggs, even if you use Jacques Pepin’s nifty technique that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

But how do you get the poached egg to keep its shape and come out perfectly? The egg’s journey from the safe harbor of its shell to a simmering pot of water to your plate is a treacherous one. Some chefs think that adding vinegar to the water can help the egg stay intact. Others advise wrapping it in plastic, or using a sous vide cooking method that poaches it more gently.

I’m certainly no eggs-pert, but as usual I turned to Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab to get his advice. Lopez-Alt says that an ingenious trick for getting the poached egg to hold its shape is to crack it into a dish and then pour it through a fine-mesh strainer. That will cause the egg whites that aren’t held tightly to the yolk to drain away. When you’re ready to start cooking, simply immerse the strainer in the pot and slide your egg out into the water.

Lopez-Alt offers these additional tips for improving your poached egg technique:

  • Use eggs that are as fresh as possible. He says that the freshest eggs have the strongest membranes that hold the white together, so an older egg is more likely to spread when it hits the water.
  • Turn your burner off once your water comes to a boil. The more agitated your water is, the more likely it is that your egg will fall apart. It will only take about 4 minutes for eggs to poach in simmering water.
  • Swirl your eggs gently once they start cooking, which will help them poach more evenly and keep a more rounded shape.
  • Don’t bother adding vinegar to the water. Although this might help your eggs set a little bit faster, it’s more likely to make them come out tough.
  • Do add salt to your water. This won’t affect the cooking process, but a little seasoning will make your eggs taste better.
  • If you’re making breakfast for a crowd, feel free to poach eggs in advance, cooking them a few at a time. Store them in cold water on your counter for a few hours, or in the refrigerator overnight. Then you can simply reheat them in hot water for a few minutes before serving. Just be sure to transfer the eggs carefully when you’re moving them from one dish to another.  

Try out these tips and see if they help improve your poaching technique. But to get perfect results every time, I’m sorry (not sorry) to say that will only come with … eggs-perience.

And what if you need an accompaniment to go with your poached eggs? Someday I’ll have to write about the sauce I learned to make during a long weekend in the Netherlands. I really enjoyed my Holland days.

What I Ate: Poached eggs on a bagel with Yotam Ottolenghi’s shatta chili sauce

A perfect poached egg has a firmly set white that surrounds a barely cooked yolk.

 

Six New Ways to Cook Vegetables and Bring Variety to the Table

Regular readers to this blog may know that I’ve been trying to eat less meat and reminding myself that once-hated vegetables taste great when they’re properly cooked. But when you’re spending a lot of time in the kitchen, it’s far too easy to fall into the same ruts of blanching broccoli, grilling asparagus, and steaming green beans. That’s why I was excited to come across Thomas Keller’s series of instructional videos about new ways to cook vegetables on MasterClass. Keller demonstrates a few less familiar techniques for working with carrots, parsnips, eggplants, zucchini, beets, and more, using methods that help bring out the best flavor and texture from each ingredient.

Keller explains that it’s worthwhile to select vegetables when they’re at their seasonal peak, especially while they’re young (i.e., newly picked), and to use the cooking method that’s most appropriate for each one. For preparations like roasting zucchini or baking beets, the cooking process aims to remove moisture from the vegetable, which helps concentrate their flavor. Keller also discusses how different methods of preservation can make good-quality vegetables available to you even when they’re not in season.

Here are few of the new ways to cook vegetables that I’m looking forward to inserting into my rotation:

  • Glazing carrots: This method highlights the vegetable’s natural sweetness. Cook your carrots over high heat, with just enough water to cover them, and a teaspoon each of butter and sugar. The water will evaporate as the butter emulsifies and the glaze reduces. Don’t overcook the carrots or you’ll start to caramelize the sugars instead of leaving the vegetable shiny.
  • Pureeing parsnips: For this root vegetable, as well as others like rutabaga or celery root, Keller suggests simmering it in a pot with cream and water. Once it’s fully cooked, transfer the vegetable and its cooking liquid to a blender. Add butter and process until it’s completely smooth.
  • Roasting zucchini: First, slice the vegetable in half, score it with a crosshatch pattern, season it with salt, and let it sit for half an hour to draw out the moisture. Then, sear the flesh in a hot pan with neutral oil for about five minutes. After the zucchini is well-caramelized, roast it in a hot oven for another 25 minutes, which makes the interior come out soft and creamy.
  • Baking beets: This technique is preferable to boiling beets, but it may take a while, depending on the size of your vegetables. After you clean them, season, and sprinkle with oil, wrap them in foil and bake until you can insert a knife and feel very little resistance. Then, peel the beets while they’re still warm (using gloves to protect your hands from stains and parchment paper to cover your cutting board). Season with salt and dress with your favorite vinegar.
  • Preserving eggplants: Similar to a preparation you might use for duck, you can confit this vegetable by slow-cooking it in oil at a low temperature. First, as with zucchini, it’s best to score the eggplant and season it before cooking to draw out as much moisture as possible. Place it in a baking pan, cover with warm, neutral oil, and cook at 300 degrees for about 45 minutes. You can add flavor to the dish by using the same technique to preserve garlic. The vegetables will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week if they’re stored submerged in oil.
  • Pickling radishes: You can endlessly vary this preservation technique by using different vegetables and flavor profiles for your pickling liquid. In one preparation, just combine water, sugar, white wine vinegar, garlic, thyme, and mustard seeds in a pot and simmer until the sugar is dissolved. Then pour the hot liquid over your vegetables (radishes, peppers, onions, and cauliflower all work well) and chill in the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat.

With each of these techniques, make sure you have the right amount of seasoning to bring out the best flavor of each ingredient. And to make your vegetables taste even better, it’s often worthwhile to complement them with additional fresh herbs. Or, for many preparations, you can’t go wrong with some extra melted butter.

What are your favorite new ways to cook vegetables? Leave a comment and let me know!

What I Ate: Roasted zucchini garnished with parsley

Roasting zucchini is one of my new favorite ways to cook vegetables

The Surprisingly Effective Way to Organize Your Recipe Collection

When a company called Recipeasly launched a new product this week, it might have seemed like a dream come true for home cooks drowning in information overload and struggling to organize recipes. Product manager Tom Redman announced on Twitter that he and two friends had created a solution to “fix online recipes,” making it easier to collect your favorites from the Internet but “without the ads or life stories.”

Within hours, Recipeasly received a torrent of criticism from food bloggers and others, arguing that the company was violating copyright laws and robbing content creators of their income streams. In a tweet that’s been liked over 1,000 times, Kat Kinsman, senior editor at Food & Wine magazine, responded to Redman, “Wait, so you are just stealing content, eliminating context and creator revenue, and diminishing the labor that is the only way these recipes exist in the first place because you have decided the humans behind them are annoying?”

Recipeasly quickly took down its website and apologized, suggesting that its intentions were to help content creators. But by removing the introductory notes, it erased what many consider to be the heart of the recipes, what one food writer, Jessica van Dop, said on Twitter “tell the stories of generations of families who created dishes that represents a culture.”

Redman claimed that imported recipes could only be viewed by the person who did so, just as if they had printed a recipe or copied it into a document. But in an article about the controversy in the Washington Post, several bloggers disputed this, adding that the site could have created revenue streams that benefit Recipeasly rather than the people who originally published the recipes.

Dubious ethics aside, because of the intricacies of copyright regulations, Recipeasly may not have technically violated the law. According to the U.S. Copyright office, “mere listings of ingredients” are not subject to copyright protection. (Whether or not the blogs themselves included a copyright symbol or were registered with the copyright office is irrelevant.) In a 1996 lawsuit involving recipes from a book of Dannon Yogurt recipes that were copied by another publisher, the court ruled that the lists of ingredients and directions for preparing the dishes were excluded from copyright protection.

Regardless, Recipeasly’s design would have run afoul of the standard practice for recipe attribution that has been neatly summarized by well-regarded food writer David Lebovitz. He says that if you’re not substantially changing a recipe and rewriting it in your own words, or if you’re simply copying a recipe, the right thing to do is link to the original source and give proper attribution in your text. Although Recipeasly did include a small link back to the original recipe, it failed to give credit to its source.

Of course, Recipeasly isn’t the first company to attempt to solve the problem of organizing online recipes. Sites like Copy Me That, Pepperplate, Paprika, and Big Oven all have various ways for you to bookmark, save, and organize recipes from around the Web, or to add your own recipes. And even the New York Times Cooking app offers a similar capability to paying subscribers.

But none of these sites would help you organize the deluge of recipes that you may have collected from your grandmother’s file box, clippings from magazines that you may have stashed away in a drawer, or your favorite cookbooks that may be festooned with Post-it notes. So what’s a home cook to do?

I’m here to offer two solutions – one that may be right for the highly organized person, and one for everyone else. Here’s what I do: Because I frequently cook from recipes that I’ve found in the New York Times, I organize recipes in the Times cooking app. But I also keep a master spreadsheet with an alphabetical list of every recipe I’ve recently cooked, as well as a second file with a list of recipes I’d like to make. Ideally, I’d have a note listing the source of every recipe (a website link, or the page number of a cookbook or magazine) so I can easily find it again. But even a detail-oriented home cook like me finds that system hard to maintain. Clearly, it won’t work for everyone.

The second solution is a “radical suggestion” that I’m borrowing from Christopher Kimball, from a recent episode of his Milk Street Radio podcast. Kimball’s surprising advice was to try cooking without using recipes at all. Instead, he suggests that you try cooking differently, by mastering a small number of basic dishes that you can vary endlessly. “You’re going to discover that you don’t need recipes as much as you think you do. It’ll make life easier,” Kimball said.

When you cook without recipes, or use them only as a rough guide, you gain confidence in the kitchen, by trusting your own experience rather than following step-by-step instructions. This technique might not work as well for baking, or when you’re making dishes that require a specific ratio of ingredients to turn out properly. But often, you can cook just as well using your instincts and your tastebuds. And that way, you can rely on cookbooks and food blogs not for directions, but for inspiration. And perhaps even more importantly, you can allow yourself time to savor the life stories that didn’t need to be fixed in the first place.

How do you organize recipes in your own collection? Leave a comment and let me know!

What I Ate: Mushroom risotto, adapted from The Food Lab by Kenji Lopez-Alt

Organize recipes like this mushroom risotto from Kenji Lopez-Alt's The Food Lab

Why a Dish Invented in Finland Has Become Everyone’s Favorite Dinner

You might not have heard of uunifetapasta, but you’ve surely seen pictures of it. This pasta casserole with a block of feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic, created by a Finnish food blogger and known by the hashtag #fetapasta, now has over 600 million views on TikTok. And its viral popularity has created a ripple effect in the food world, with empty feta shelves in some grocery stores and tens of thousands of videos with variations on the dish – some of them gone horrifyingly wrong.

The pasta recipe is easy to make, which is one of the ingredients that may have helped the dish go viral. You simply take a block of feta, cover it with olive oil, and surround it with cherry tomatoes and, if you like, some garlic cloves. Season it with salt, pepper, and chiles, and bake it in the oven for 25 minutes. Then cook some pasta and mix it with the cheese and some basil leaves. The result is a creamy, pinkish sauce in a casserole that seems appropriately comforting for the dark days of a pandemic winter. And it’s visually arresting too, which is surely another factor in the recipe’s popularity. “The visual just draws you in — the top-down shot of this big brick of oven-melted cheese and colorful tomatoes,” brand consultant Zach Weiss told Vogue.

But not all versions of the dish have turned out as well, and not just because it can be difficult to find great-tasting tomatoes at this time of the year. Some cooks have tried using low-quality canned tomatoes, or have gone with low-fat feta, which won’t create the creaminess that makes the dish appealing. And the Wall Street Journal reported that others have attempted some weird substitutions, like using boursin instead of feta, or strawberries instead of tomatoes. One woman said that people who watched her TikTok video of the fruit-and-pasta concoction “threatened to report her to unspecified authorities for a crime against cooking.”

Meanwhile, a Michigan food blogger, Yumna Jawad, who helped popularize the recipe in the U.S. and whose TikTok for the recipe has over 10 million views, told the Journal that many people have contacted her complaining that their versions of the dish didn’t turn out well. She says that using Roma or beefsteak tomatoes won’t create enough juice, and that crumbled feta won’t melt properly.

But in some places, as feta sales have skyrocketed, that may be the only option. Harris Teeter said that demand for feta was up 200 percent at its stores, according to the New York Times. And at the height of the dish’s viral popularity, Fresh Market, a chain of grocery stores in the Midwest and Southeast, was said to have temporarily run out of blocks of the cheese. One TV journalist in Charlotte reported that local supermarkets Food Lion and Trader Joe’s were also out of feta.

While I haven’t noticed any TikTok-related feta shortages in Seattle, I haven’t yet added uunifetapasta to my cooking routine. Perhaps I’ll wait until fresh, local tomatoes are available during the summer. Or maybe I’d just rather use my time in the kitchen to prepare something a little more complicated, like the ricotta pasta with zucchini I cooked last week. But it could be that I’m just not someone who needs to follow what’s trending on the Internet. Before I decide to make uunifetapasta, I think I’ll wait until this viral moment has reached its Finnish.

Have you made #fetapasta? Add a comment and let me know how it turned out!

What I Ate: Pasta with zucchini, ricotta, and basil

Uunifetapasta may be trendy, but I prefer pasta with zucchini, ricotta, and basil

How the Rise of Ghost Kitchens May Leave Diners Feeling Haunted

When you’re craving some lunchtime chicken wings but you’re swamped at your desk with work, the easiest thing to do might be to open your favorite food delivery app. On DoorDash, you have the choice of a few well-known national wing brands, as well as Sticky Wings, Rebel Wings, and Wings & Things. But what may not be immediately clear is that there hasn’t been a sudden influx of new chicken restaurants in your neighborhood. Actually, all of these wings come from the same Seattle ghost kitchens, located in two trailers hidden in back of a strip mall, parked down the hill behind a wireless store and a mattress outlet.

The wing shops are run by a business called Reef Kitchens. It’s one of a growing number of companies that are operating Seattle ghost kitchens (also called virtual kitchens or dark kitchens). These are usually delivery-only “restaurants” that are sometimes attached to a brick-and-mortar eatery, but can also be brands that barely exist at all.

Reef Kitchens is one of a growing number of companies that are operating Seattle ghost kitchens

Another Reef trailer is located behind a barbed-wire fence in an RV storage lot in an industrial area of Magnolia. That’s where food is prepared for one outpost of the Instagram-friendly brand Man vs Fries. From there, you can order burritos with fries that are served on a “hella big” flour tortilla and topped with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Man vs Fries started as a Bay Area popup in 2018 and partnered with Reef to expand to cities across North America. There are now over 70 locations, including four in Seattle, and the brand has over 27,000 followers on Instagram.

Diane Lam, a restaurant owner in Portland, described Man vs Fries as “sterile” after she tried it out in the name of market research. “On the website, it looks so good,” Lam told Eater Portland, “but when it comes to your door, it doesn’t feel like anyone is cooking it.”

I haven’t had the chance to try the Man vs Fries concept myself, but I’d be surprised if it lived up to the hype. Personally, I’d rather order my takeout from local businesses like Marination, Frelard Tamales, and others, who have a track record of supporting the community and preparing fresh, flavorful food.

Ghost kitchens are projected to become a $1 trillion market over the next decade, and the NPD group, which tracks restaurant sales, says that delivery now makes up 11% of restaurant sales, up 86% since the beginning of the pandemic. Capitalizing on the trend, or perhaps driving it, big companies like Chili’s and Applebee’s have started creating their own ghost brands. Meanwhile, celebrities like Mario Lopez, YouTube star MrBeast, and Guy Fieri have begun to roll out virtual restaurants in dozens of cities nationwide, through delivery apps like Doordash, Uber Eats, Postmates, and Grubhub.

In Seattle and other cities, Fieri made headlines when his Flavortown Kitchen opened a few weeks ago, offering diners his signature fried cheesesteak egg rolls and burgers covered with Donkey sauce. But the concept actually operates out of the South Lake Union location of the Italian chain Buca di Beppo. The kitchen there also prepares orders for MrBeast Burger, Wing Squad, and Mariah’s Cookies (a virtual brand named after Mariah Carey, who’s not baking the treats herself). All of these brands are under the umbrella of a company called Virtual Dining Concepts. At Buca di Beppo, Fieri himself seems like a ghost. If you choose to eat in their dining room, you can’t order anything off his menu, and there’s no signage outside that delineates the entrance to Flavortown.

The emergence of a ghost kitchen with ties to a celebrity chef seems likely to cannibalize sales from local brick-and-mortar establishments that are struggling during the pandemic. But some restaurants are fighting back by creating their own virtual brands. Green Lake’s Cocina Oaxaca is about to launch three new delivery-only brands that are run through a company called Future Foods: Daydream Breakfast Burritos, Smashmouth Burgers, and Cantina Latina. “It’s a cool way to make a little more money without modifying our menu at all or compromising anything,” Isabel Dominguez, manager of Cocina Oaxaca, told me. The Mexican restaurant already has almost all of the ingredients it needs to make burgers as well as breakfast burritos, so Dominguez says it’s a low-risk, no-obligation way to expand their business through delivery that she hopes will help the restaurant stay in business and not have to lay off any staff.

Hungry customers browsing online may not realize that these brands are connected to an existing restaurant. (Uber Eats says it now has over 10,000 delivery-only restaurants on its platform.) And in some cases, the offerings can be misleading. If you order from another location of “Smashmouth Burgers,” you might get a completely different product, because those burgers are made in the kitchen of Lunchbox Laboratory, a restaurant with locations in South Lake Union and Bellevue. Meanwhile, “Next Level Clucker” isn’t actually a chicken restaurant, just an offshoot of the vegan Next Level Burger in Roosevelt. And if you shop for vegetarian food through the “Viva la Veggie” brand, you’ll actually be getting your food from Pecado Bueno, a Mexican restaurant with locations in Fremont and Eastlake that also operates as “The Torta Shop.”

While DoorDash sometimes labels its ghost brands as virtual restaurants, the lack of transparency on most platforms might lead you to believe you’re getting something very different than what you ordered. Search for Chinese buns on Uber Eats and you might select Mount&Bao, a Lake City restaurant specializing in noodles or dumplings. Or you might choose Wow Bao, a national chain I first encountered in Chicago that’s partnered with Reef to bring the brand to its “neighborhood kitchens.” When you order from Wow Bao, your frozen potstickers or buns will be steamed in the same trailer where you’d get your frozen chicken wings.

We’re still in the early days of Seattle ghost kitchens. But big players are entering the market, like Uber founder Travis Kalanick’s CloudKitchens, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars in investments and has been buying properties around the country, including in Seattle. While it’s unclear whether virtual kitchens will ultimately be a boon to the local economy, restaurants that exist only as ghost brands  – whose marketing and food quality may be just a mirage – could be a scary prospect for Seattle diners.

To get updates on new posts, you can follow me @seattlefoodhound on Instagram, or @seafoodhound on Twitter.

More from SeattleFoodHound: 

What I Ate: Malasaladas with guava filling from Marination

I'd rather order malasaladas from a community-focused business like Marination than patronize a company that's operating Seattle ghost kitchens

Why You Need to Give Brussels Sprouts Another Chance

I can’t think of a vegetable more people grew up hating than the lowly brussels sprout. They would usually go straight from the freezer into a pot of boiling water, from which they emerged in a grayish, overcooked clump without any distinct flavor except one. Bitterness. The brussels sprouts of the 1970s and 1980s weren’t typically prepared well, and they didn’t taste good.

Fortunately, many adults today have learned how to properly cook and season vegetables, and there are more options for fresh produce than many people had access to in decades past. But there’s an even more important reason that brussels sprouts aren’t as horrible as they used to be – the actual sprouts themselves are much less bitter, and much, much tastier.

What happened? In the 1990s, a Dutch scientist named Hans van Doorn, who was working at the company Novartis (which at the time included a seed division) was able to isolate the chemical compounds that made brussels sprouts taste bitter. Dutch seed companies then cross-bred old varieties of sprouts that had low levels of those chemicals with modern high-yield varieties. After several attempts in test plots, they discovered some crops that weren’t as bitter. Eventually, this resulted in varieties of brussels sprouts that became significantly more popular.

When you start with a less bitter vegetable, it’s much easier to cook it in ways that bring out its pleasing qualities. One technique that works wonders is to halve the sprouts, toss them with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Then, pop them into the oven to roast at a high temperature, which makes their leaves brown and crispy. (Cooking them in an air fryer would also work well.) To add a touch of sweetness, toss the roasted sprouts with balsamic vinegar and either honey or maple syrup.

The result is a well-seasoned, flavorful vegetable that, even with the salt, oil, and sugar, is still relatively good for you and will disappear from your dinner table like candy on the day after Halloween. But if you want to make sure that there won’t be any leftovers, there’s one easy way to make your brussels sprouts taste even better – just add bacon.  

What I Ate: Roasted brussels sprouts with balsamic and honey

Brussels sprouts are much tastier than they used to be, thanks to science

Reader Q&A: Where’s the Best Place to Eat for Under $10?

It’s time to answer our first reader question! Today, we’re tackling cheap restaurants in North Seattle. If you have a food dilemma or a cooking conundrum, send it to seafoodhound@hotmail.com. Include your first name and initial and your location, and the answer may appear in a future post.

Where’s the best place in North Seattle that I can get dinner for $10 or less? – Arthur W., Seattle

Great question, Arthur! I’ve got a few ideas for cheap restaurants in North Seattle, where you can enjoy a satisfying and filling meal for the cost of a Hamilton. And as a bonus, you’ll get to travel around the world as you zip around city neighborhoods between Lake City and Aurora.

Our first stop is a taco truck that’s located between Northgate and Lake City on 15th Ave NE, just south of NE 117th St. At Loxicha Authentic Oaxaca Cuisine, you can get a plateful of street tacos plus a drink for $5.99 (four tacos) or $7.99 (six tacos). I’m partial to the tacos al pastor, juicy morsels of pork mixed with chunks of pineapple and accented by chopped cilantro and onions. For another budget-friendly choice on the menu, try a bowl with rice and veggies that can be topped with chicken, fish, or carnitas. Loxicha is cash-only, but you might want to bring a little extra to try their creamy, cinnamon-flavored horchata ($3.00).

Next, we’ll head up to Lake City Way, north of NE 137th St., to another cash-only establishment, Man’oushe Express. Here, you’ll get a taste of the Middle East, with almost everything on the menu under $10, including flatbreads called manakish that are topped with ground lamb, zaatar and cheese, or sujuk (spicy beef sausage). I’ve tried a few versions, and they were all well-seasoned and filling. If you’re looking for Mediterranean fare that may be more familiar, try the gyro or falafel plates, shawarma sandwiches, or the stuffed grape leaves.

Further south on Lake City Way, just north of NE 110th St., is one of my favorite sandwich stops, Tubs Gourmet Subs. The Italian combo sub includes ham, turkey, salami, provolone cheese, and vegetables on a toasted baguette. Order the small version ($7.99), and it should be plenty for a single meal, but a healthier appetite might make you want to add a few dollars to your budget and go for the large. Tubs also has a wide-ranging menu of beef, chicken, and vegetarian options, as well as sandwiches that nod toward every corner of the country, like a Texas turkey sub, a Southern sandwich with ham, bacon, and coleslaw, a Philly dip, and even a Hawaiian special with ham, pineapple, and “BBQ dust.”

When I’m hungry for an inexpensive meal, I frequently turn to banh mi, and a good choice on the north side of town is Luu’s Cafe (8507 35th Ave. NE). The Vietnamese sandwiches ($5.95) are served on a French baguette with the typical accompaniments of carrots, cilantro, and mayo, but also come with a smear of pate and some additional veggies. I prefer the BBQ pork version, but you can also get beef, chicken, or vegan meatball as your protein. And if you have room in your budget (and your stomach), try a macaron, a waffle taco, or a milk tea in one of 30 flavors, including ginger, lychee, pomegranate, and sesame.

Still feeling peckish? For our final stop, let’s stay in Asia and head west to Pop Pop Thai Street Food (13242 Aurora Ave. N), where several tasty entrees will feed you for under $10. Less adventurous eaters may want to order pad thai ($9.95), which comes with either chicken, pork, tofu, or mixed vegetables, or a rice dish like the spicy holy basil (also $9.95) that’s stir-fried with your choice of protein, green beans, and onions in a rich and flavorful garlic sauce. Other intriguing, budget-friendly options on the menu include a salted crab papaya salad, a Thai omelette served over rice, and a spicy chicken noodle soup with fish balls.

Happy eating, Arthur! Enjoy your excursions to the cheap restaurants in North Seattle and let us know what you tried! For more ideas, read how pop-ups are changing Seattle’s dining scene

What I Ate: Al pastor street tacos from Loxicha

Cheap restaurants in North Seattle like Loxicha will let you eat well for less than $10.

 

Why Professional Food Writing Is Just as Important as Ever

When Chicago Tribune restaurant reviewer Phil Vettel accepted a buyout last month, it left the nation’s third-most populous city without a full-time food critic. A few weeks later, Detroit Free Press dining critic Mark Kurlyandchik also took a voluntary layoff, leaving that city without one of its food writing mainstays. 

These departures are just the latest high-profile examples of a trend in food media that’s been accelerating over the past few years. As local newspapers across the country have cut costs in the wake of severe advertising shortfalls and declining subscription rates, their food sections, which can be expensive to produce, have been decimated. Many newspapers no longer have a dedicated restaurant critic, and some alt-weeklies that were mainstays of local criticism, like the Boston Phoenix, the Village Voice, and Seattle Weekly, are out of business or no longer publish articles about food. And while there are plenty of food influencer Instagram accounts, paid bloggers, and Yelp reviewers, few are serious independent journalists who have the big picture on the city’s restaurant scene that helps provide context for their opinions.

But even as the media landscape shifts, professional food journalists still provide an important service to their readers and enhance the cultural life of a community, even if their role is in flux. A recent article in Eater Chicago, commenting on Vettel’s departure, described a food critic as an “arbiter of taste” whose role is to “champion places that return value for your hard-earned money and keep you away from the spots that would fleece you.” But during a panel discussion this morning hosted by Eater Chicago, two prominent critics disputed that view, saying that food writing has expanded to wrestle with issues in American culture through the lens of dining, not just recommend or pan restaurants.  

Tejal Rao, a restaurant critic for the New York Times, mentioned “Black Lives Matter” as a cultural movement that has informed multiple pieces she’s written over the past year. “There’s this idea of restaurant criticism about being at a table tasting something and giving a bunch of adjectives. It has to be more than that or it’s really boring,” Rao said.

Devra First, restaurant critic for the Boston Globe, added that restaurants, many of which have closed or shifted to takeout operations, have been a huge story during the pandemic. She believes that part of her role is to “support and uplift” the industry, not just decide which restaurants are worthwhile. “In the moment that we’re in now any restaurant that is managing to muddle through is a four-star restaurant,” First said.

Rao’s colleague Pete Wells agrees. In an article in the New York Times last week, Wells said that with takeout and outdoor dining during the pandemic, his job has changed but the essence of his food writing remains the same: telling people about where to find great food. When he discovered a restaurant that was bringing New Yorkers joy while keeping them healthy, “I didn’t want to just report on it. I wanted to bang a drum so people would pay attention,” Wells said.

Journalists who write about food can take their reporting in many different directions. Freelance writer Korsha Wilson, who was also on the Eater Chicago panel today, pitches stories to publications about voices who aren’t already at the table. She says her mission is to “highlight the amazing work that black and brown chefs are doing in this country.”

Rao said she’s written several stories about food policy, as well as “weird” essays like the one about all the smells she encountered during a day. Other writers highlight important trends that are affecting local businesses. In one example this week, the Los Angeles Times reported on a “dine and dash” scam in which some customers are ordering takeout using fraudulent credit card numbers, or disputing charges made through delivery apps (who often side with the customer rather than the restaurant). One such scam helped put a Korean restaurant called Spoon by H out of business.

Closer to home, local food writing, in publications like the Seattle Times, Seattle Met, and Eater Seattle, helps inform readers about changes in the local dining scene. Sometimes these writers also offer their opinions about recommended spots. Just this week, I’ve learned about a restaurant that one critic thinks is the best pizza in Washington State, about a historic Japanese restaurant in the International District that’s evolved its izakaya menu to include Nashville-styled fried chicken and a teriyaki-inspired cheeseburger, and about a Syrian food cart on Vashon Island.

While there aren’t as many restaurant reviews as there used to be, and even the ones that exist don’t usually come with star ratings, local and national audiences depend on these independent voices to help them understand how the food world is changing. When social media is dominated by advertising and influencers, it’s critical for readers of all backgrounds to have trusted sources who can give them valuable information and put them at the heart of their efforts. And these food writers – even if they’re no longer just arbiters of taste – can still make recommendations on where you should spend your dining dollars.

What I Ate: Roasted beet salad from Joli

Food writing done by professionals helps enhance the cultural life of a community

How Ottolenghi’s Intriguing Flavors Are Changing the Way I Eat

Eleven months into the pandemic, it can sometimes be hard to feel enthusiastic about cooking. How many different ways are there to prepare chicken, anyway? But a new book by Jerusalem-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi has infused some new flavors into my kitchen that have inspired an experiment with eating differently – and perhaps, more healthfully.

Ottolenghi’s latest book, co-written with Ixta Belfrage, is called Flavor. Its recipes make use of 20 essential ingredients that layer a punch of heat, spice, or texture within Ottolenghi’s typically vegetable-forward creations. These flavors include chiles (aleppo, ancho, cascabel, and chipotle), fish sauce, gochujang (fermented soybean paste), mango pickle, miso, rose harissa, tamarind paste, and more. You can find each of these ingredients online or in local specialty markets, and they add complexity, variety, and depth to the Middle Eastern flavors for which Ottolenghi is typically known.

The book’s three major sections describe how to transform vegetables with cooking processes (charring, browning, infusing, and aging), how to pair them with other flavors to bring out their intrinsic qualities, and how to get the most out of different types of produce, keeping them at the center of individual dishes. Ottolenghi’s “ultimate roasting-pan ragu” recipe develops a rich umami flavor with the use of both oyster and dried porcini mushrooms, as well as miso paste and tomato paste, and also includes a complex heat from the addition of rose harissa. And using cumin seeds, soy sauce, and coconut cream helps steer the dish in the direction of Asia, a surprising turn for those used to making a meaty, typically Italian Bolognese like Marcella Hazan’s well-regarded sauce.

As is customary for Ottolenghi, the number of elements included in some of his dishes can turn a recipe that seems easy into a cooking project. When I made his asparagus and gochujang pancakes the other night, it involved mixing a dipping sauce, toasting sesame seeds, chopping vegetables, making a batter, cooking pancakes individually, and garnishing them with cilantro. Sure, you could simplify the recipe, but would the results be as delicious or as visually interesting?

Ottolenghi argues that the extra effort helps his recipes move beyond just tasting good. He expanded upon his cooking philosophy on a recent episode of the Milk Street Radio podcast with Christopher Kimball. Ottolenghi said that his recipes are designed to look appealing, with an emphasis on visual contrast. “I hate a boring meal, even if the level of cooking is exquisite … A smooth soup with nothing in it is kind of my idea of hell,” Ottolenghi said. That aesthetic is also something he brings to his restaurants, like his takeout shop in London’s Notting Hill that I visited in 2019. His dishes are presented on large, colorful platters, which he says recreates the feeling of the souks he grew up near in Jerusalem.  

Inspired by the interesting flavor combinations and appealing look of the recipes in Ottolenghi’s new cookbook, I’ve decided to experiment this winter with eating less meat. Instead, I’ll look to gain satisfaction from using a variety of produce as well as some of his essential flavors that are less familiar to me. I’m eager to try Ottolenghi’s ultimate ragu, as well as meatless schnitzels made with romano peppers, and tacos that are filled with celery root and a date barbecue sauce that contains black garlic and smoked paprika.

And if these dishes start to feel like too much effort for a weeknight dinner? Well, I’m also a fan of Ottolenghi’s 2018 cookbook, Simple. His cauliflower, pomegranate, and pistachio salad is something I can whip together quickly. And when I’m ready to switch things up again, it seems like that dish would go great with some lamb and feta meatballs.

What I Ate (A Few Days Ago): Ottolenghi’s asparagus and gochujang pancakes

Asparagus and gochujang pancakes by Ottolenghi pack a world of flavor into a small bite

A Few Grains of Salt About Choosing the Right Seasoning

Most home cooks probably grew up with only one type of salt – table salt, which was kept in a cylindrical can in the pantry, or in a shaker on the table, next to the pepper. But in many kitchens these days, you can easily find kosher salt, sea salt, and specialty salts like Himalayan pink salt or black volcanic salt. And more than any other seasoning, the types of salt you use – and for kosher salt, even the brand you buy – can make a tremendous difference in how your food tastes on the plate.

Professional chefs and experienced cooks typically don’t use table salt because of its small, dense grain that makes it hard to distribute evenly on food. Also, packaged table salt usually contains iodine, which can give food a slightly metallic taste. By contrast, kosher salt granules have a larger surface area that clings more easily to meats and vegetables, and tastes clean and pure.

But all kosher salts aren’t exactly the same. The two major types of salt are Diamond Crystal, which you’ll find in a red box at the grocery store, and Morton’s, which comes in a blue box. Because these brands use different processes to produce the salt crystals, Diamond Crystal granules are larger and more fragile than Morton’s, which are denser and crunchier. And that means that a teaspoon of Morton’s is much saltier than a teaspoon of Diamond Crystal, about 70% more by weight.

As with other dry ingredients, like flour or sugar, one way to ensure you get the right amount in your dish is to measure by weight, not volume. But recipe writers usually specify the amount of salt in teaspoons (or fractions of teaspoons). Because the leading brands of salt have such different salinities, unless your recipe specifies which type it’s using, you risk over-salting your food if it was written with Diamond Crystal in mind, and you’re using Morton’s. (You can often add more salt if a dish is under-seasoned, so the opposite scenario isn’t quite so treacherous.)

That’s why Milk Street announced last year that it was switching to using Morton’s in its kitchen. “By developing our recipes to use less salt by volume (but the same amount by weight, and therefore the same level of saltiness in the finished dish), we believe it will be more difficult for people to unintentionally add too much salt to a recipe,” Milk Street said in its blog.

Another solution for recipe writers is to forego kosher salt entirely rather than specify a favored brand. Samin Nosrat, author of “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” has shifted to using fine sea salt in the recipes she’s written for the New York Times and other publications. Nosrat says that refined sea salt, which comes from evaporated seawater, has the same salinity as table salt but doesn’t have its metallic taste.

Other types of sea salt, like fleur de sel or Maldon sea salt, are less refined and more expensive. They’re better choices as finishing salts, when you want the contrast of a salty texture on top of a sweet chocolate chip cookie or a sharp and creamy tomato-and-mozzarella salad. “Fleur de sel, one of the most expensive salts in the world, is not something you want to dump into your pasta water, because you just spent $22 to dissolve all of that away,” Nosrat said on a July 2020 episode of her “Home Cooking” podcast.

And what about those specialty pink or black salts? “To me they’re much less about how they taste than how they look,” Nosrat said.

Whichever types of salt you use, remember that salt is a flavor enhancer that can keep your food from turning out bland. Whenever you’re sprinkling it, tasting as you cook will prevent you from being unhappy with how your dish comes out – a disappointment that might lead you to use some salty language.

What I Ate: Cucumber salad with sumac-pickled onions

The types of salt you use for seasoning can make a big difference in how your final dish tastes