Monday, April 5, 2010

Food Carts and Recipe Duels

Some meals are best left to restaurants. Long, multi-course affairs with wine pairings and a different amuse bouche for each diner or conceptual, intricate dinners decked out with foam and exploding truffles are beyond pleasurable, but not something most of us would want to make ourselves or even enjoy on the fly. And, much of the time, these are not the meals I crave, dream about, or plot to put together on a long Saturday.

Usually I want simple, straightforward food that tastes great and looks like it was made by human hands.

I think most of you do too.

There are several cities in our country experimenting with new ways for getting just this kind of food into our bellies cheaper, quicker, and better. Chefs are doling out meals ranging from fried-whatever-you-can-imagine and khao man gai to handmade local sausages and artisanal pizza, to hungry office workers, elitist hipsters and vacationing families. They’re brining good food to fast food wastelands and transforming parking lots into foodie meccas. Those of you in Portland, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington DC surely have eaten lunches, dinners, and late night snacks at your roaming squadrons of food carts, not realizing how fantastic these mini-kitchens are. I know I grew complacent.

But I now know how empty an empty parking lot can feel, and I now know how satisfying that 1:30 am cone of fries can be.

Atlanta, unfortunately, is home to archaic zoning ordinances that make it close to impossible to own and operate a food cart. These days there are a few cart-like vendors but, until the rules change, there is no way for carts to populate Atlanta like in other cities .

Luckily, it looks as if things might be starting to change.

The Atlanta Street Food Coalition, mostly made up of Hayley Richardson and Christiane Lauterbach have begun mobilizing current and future food cart owners and lovers to petition the city for change (go ahead and sign the petition here). They organized a great event a couple weeks ago to raise awareness for the chefs already trying to bring their creations to the street.

I hung around for a bit and tried some pretty good food, made simply and delectably.

Good Luck Bowl: collards, black-eyed peas, cornbread waffle

Coppa Pizza

Ginger Creme Brulee

Speaking of good and simple food, did any of you hear that two of the best sources for creating these meals at home, food52 and Cook’s Illustrated, are having a duel? Apparently they’ve been, um, exchanging words since this fall, and they are, right as I write, culling and/or developing recipes for roast pork shoulder and sugar cookies. The recipes will be judged on Slate and the winner will get the title of Best Method for Creating Foolproof Recipes (or something like that). Will it be the power in numbers that comes from internet-saavy homecooks or will it be the tried-and-true science behind a trained kitchen of experts?

Personally, I like both. I use cookbooks like textbooks and I love resources like Cook’s that provide a wealth of information along with their reliable recipes. I also think that online food site like food52 bring an impressive level of creativity and ingenuity that can inspire cooks of all levels to develop their own recipes and palates.

I ran my own little test this Easter, just to verify my two-is-better-than-one thesis Granted, my test was, um, the opposite of scientific and was pieced together after the fact, but I think that the strength of both publications shone through anyway.

In addition to Martha’s fabulous mac and cheese and an Italian Easter Bread recipe from Gourmet, I baked up a daffodil cake from the most recent Cook’s Country and a pomegranate molasses-glazed ham from food52 (a winner and editor’s pick).

The cake was seriously beautiful, and crazy-simple to make (as long as you can whip egg whites to a medium peak, you can bake this cake). The perfect complement to our strawberries and cream, its crumb was both delicate and creamy, and the hint of orange mimicked the warm sunshine in our backyard that afternoon.

The ham? Holy crap, it was good. The reddish glaze baked up into a complex, spicy caramel crust, and its je ne sais quoi permeated to the depths of the meat. I stood in the kitchen, long past full, picking at the crispy bits long after lunch ended.

Who needs a winner?

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