10 years of ‘Table Talk’

By Dorothy Firestone

Special to the Light

The first “TableTalk” column appeared in the St. Louis Jewish Light 10 years ago, followed by more than 120 columns featuring Jewish cookbooks, Jewish cooks, Jewish foods, holiday cooking, seasonal foods and memoirs, all dealing with the pleasures of the table.

But a decade is a milestone, and to get a wider view of the food scene over the past 10 years, I spoke with one restaurateur, two journalists and two journalist/cookbook authors, asking them about food trends, the influence of the Food Network, and anything else they felt pertinent.

Former St. Louisian Danny Meyer, owner of five Manhattan restaurants, plus creator and manager of the new restaurants in the Museum of Modern Art, said he believes the Food Network has made cooking into a spectator sport.

“People keep track of chefs and restaurants and food trends the same way they look at sports pages,” he said. “My kids watch the Food Channel — there is always a happy ending — and my 12-year-old daughter makes what she sees on the Food Channel.” He said, however, he wished they taught knife skills — his daughter cut her finger while cooking.

As to restaurant trends, he said many chefs feel they need a gimmick to attract patrons and thus offer avant-garde food.

“I find it exhaustive,” he said. “I don’t want to think my way through dinner.”

Janice Denham, food and home editor of the Suburban Journals, said she believes that food shows make it easy to learn about ethnic foods, travel-related eating and interesting cooks.

“Foods of many lands have become the norm,” she said.

“People live vicariously by relishing a country’s best foods. Some of it is Americanized, but it still has a touch of the land that produced it.”

Joan Nathan, author of Jewish Cooking in America and other Jewish cookbooks, said the biggest change in the past decade is the increase in the number and variety of kosher foods.

“I think that kosher products have reached out to the mainstream,” she said. “Manufacturers realize it is not a big deal to go kosher.”

She said that in the past, the only kosher cheese was Muenster, which no one even mentions now. “People want kosher mascarpone, kosher wines and kosher soy products,” she said. “Eating is generally better for people and for Jews, much better.”

Judy Evans, food editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said it is easier to eat well, eat locally and eat seasonally than it was 10 years ago.

“Heirloom tomatoes, fingerling potatoes and goat cheese are among the foods that have made their way, slowly at first, to local markets,” she said. “And of course, we’re blessed with an abundance of ethnic restaurants and ethnic markets.”

The biggest stories in foods in the past 10 years continue to be in so-called international foods, said Mark Bittman, author of How to Cook Everything and host of the Public Television series, How to Cook Everything: Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs. Bittman also writes “The Minimalist” for the New York Times food page. “Americans have the opportunity to cook and eat food from all over the world as never before.”

He said he does not know if more or fewer people are cooking at home, because while restaurants keep increasing, cookbook sales do as well.

“I think people are recognizing that cooking at home isn’t all that hard,” he said. “So when they’re home, they may be opting for simple, healthy, good meals made from scratch over so-called convenience foods.”

Cold Noodles with Sesame or Peanut Sauce

Adapted from “Noodle Dishes from China” in How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

Makes four to six servings.

Bittman calls this a wonderful starter or side dish. The noodles and sauce each can be made in advance and combined at the last minute.

12 ounces fresh egg noodles or any dried noodles, such as spaghetti

2 tablespoons dark sesame oil, divided

1/2 cup sesame paste (tahini) or natural peanut butter

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice or wine vinegar

Hot sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce, Tabasco or other hot sauce to taste

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup minced scallions for garnish

Cook noodles in boiled salted water until tender but not mushy. Drain, rinse them in cold water and drain again. Toss them with half the sesame oil and refrigerate up to two hours.

Beat together tahini or peanut butter, sugar, soy sauce and vinegar. Add a little hot sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Thin with hot water so that sauce is the consistency of heavy cream.

Toss noodles with the sauce, adding more seasoning if necessary. Drizzle with remaining sesame oil, garnish with scallions and serve.

Basic Grilled or Broiled Salmon Steaks

Adapted from How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

Makes four servings.

Bittman writes, “Be sure not to overcook, and these will be wonderful.”

4 salmon steaks or filets, one- fourth to one-third pound each

1 tablespoon peanut or olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 teaspoons dark sesame oil

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

2 teaspoons soy sauce

Lemon wedges

Minced parsley or cilantro to garnish

Start a grill or broiler with rack about four inches from heat source. Remove any pin bones from fish, using tweezers or needle-nose pliers. Rub salmon on both sides with oil and sprinkle with pepper.

Grill or broil salmon three to five minutes per side, turning once. If doing filets, start with skin side towards the heat source.

While fish is cooking, warm sesame and vegetable oils in a small pan. Add soy sauce.

When fish is done, garnish with lemon wedges and spoon on warm sauce.

Note: While fish is cooking, finish noodles. Serve with steamed sugar snaps.