Kitchen Exhibitionist
The Culinary Quests of a Food Enthusiast Stuck in the Sticks
Where Cow Pies meet Computer Chips (plus a Thomas Keller recipe)

Last summer I visited a robotic dairy farm here in south central PA, one of only ten such farms in the U.S. It was a fascinating tour! Almost everything is automated and computerized, allowing a dairy farm of several hundred cows to be run by only 6 people, two of whom perform solely administrative functions.

The cows on this farm have quite a luxurious life, complete with water beds, automated back-scratchers, and a temperature controlled barn. Although the barn was open to the outside with computer-controlled louvered windows, a special ventilation system discouraged flies. It was a hot July afternoon but in the barn it was comfortable and pleasant. Clean too, because even the mucking is performed continuously by machine. Everything about this barn is designed to make the cows comfortable because contented cows give a lot more milk.

The milking was the most interesting part. When a cow feels the need to be milked she walks through a gate into the milking area of the barn. A sensor at the gate electronically identifies her, retrieves her computer files, and then drops a tailored combination of vitamin supplements into a bin for her.

After she has consumed the vitamins, the next gate opens and she walks into the milking room. Her teats are sprayed with an antibacterial cleanser and the robotic milking cups locate and attach to each teat. For whatever reason, not all cows have the same number of teats. Each cow’s teat quantity is programmed into the computer so it doesn’t endlessly search for that last missing teat.

Before the milking process begins in earnest, the computer takes a small test sample of milk to analyze for bacteria, blood or other problems. If there is any problem with the milk, all the milk from that cow is sent to a separate vat to be discarded. The computer alerts the farmer, via cell phone, that this cow needs medical attention.

If the milk is satisfactory it is sent to the common vats to be processed. After the cow is milked and leaves the area, the machine completely sanitizes itself to prepare for the next cow.

If you’re in the vicinity, I highly recommend this fascinating tour of Hope Acres robotic dairy farm. (

After touring the barn I visited the dairy store where they sold all sorts of wonderful fresh dairy products at excellent prices. The tour included a free dish of their homemade ice cream, and oh, what ice cream it was. Made from their fresh cream and quality natural flavorings, with no air added to dilute its luscious richness, it was heavenly. It was July so I tried the raspberry ice cream made with fresh local berries. Since then I’ve tried other flavors, all wonderful. When using fresh, quality local ingredients, the results can only be perfect.

They sold many other dairy products, including milk, creams, and cheeses, In addition to the freshness and the good prices, another benefit of the dairy products sold here is that they go through very little processing, other than pasteurization. Cream that is not homogenized is a better candidate for cheese making and whipped cream than the homogenized and ultra pasteurized versions in the grocery store.

I purchased a container of fresh unhomogenized cream and discovered that it would whip into beautiful mounds, more than doubling in volume, with very little effort. I decided to use it in a Thomas Keller recipe that I had on my “to try” list.

Most French Laundry recipes are overwhelming for the home cook because each ingredient is actually another recipe in itself; and sometimes the ingredients in those sub-recipes are additional full blown recipes. This one is one of Thomas Keller's more accessible recipes for home cooks as it is just one component of a more complex salad. It requires only a couple of ingredients so it is important that each be of the freshest and best quality available.

This simple but elegant green bean salad makes a wonderful summer side dish, served at room temperature or slightly chilled. Although it contains some cream, it is very light tasting and refreshing.

Haricots Verts in Red Wine Vinegar Cream
From Thomas Keller's "The French Laundry Cookbook"

1/2 pound haricots verts (small French green beans)
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper

Trim the stem ends of the haricots verts and cut the beans into 1-inch lengths.

Blanch the haricot verts in boiling salted water until they are just cooked through, 2 to 4 minutes depending on thickness and age. Chill the beans in ice water, drain, and dry on paper towels.

Whisk the cream in a bowl set over a larger bowl of ice just until it thickens slightly and you can see the trail of the whisk in the bowl.. Using the whisk, fold in the red wine vinegar and season with the salt and pepper to taste. Do not overbeat the cream as it will continue to thicken when it is tossed with the beans.

Toss the beans with cream and serve at once.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Restaurant Rorschach
Restaurant Rorschach

Back when I was attending graduate school for a degree in clinical psychology, I went to classes during the day and worked as a waitress at night. By day I learned how to administer and score a variety of psychological personality tests. By night I discovered that what people ate and how they ate it told me much more about them than any psych test ever could.

It began quite simply when I noticed very definitive differences between people who ordered their beef cooked on the rare side and those who ordered it more well-done. The rare beef-eaters tended to be very personable, adventurous in their dining, and generally fun-loving. The well-done beef-eaters were restrained in their behavior, restrained in the quality and quantity of food they ordered, and more introverted.

The rare eaters lingered slowly over their meal, typically starting with appetizers and ending with desserts. The well-done eaters consumed their main course (and whatever came with it), then paid and left. The rares quaffed cocktails and wine while the well-dones sipped coffee.

The rares might rave about the food and send their compliments to the chef. The well-dones often found something to complain about. The rares talked, laughed, and enjoyed themselves while the well-dones watched them from across the dining room in tight-lipped silence.

I realize this is a generalization and there are plenty of exceptions, some whom I know personally. Just as the standardized personality tests are not 100% accurate, neither is my waitress’ theory of psychology. But over the course of several years working as a waitress in two busy restaurants, I saw support for this theory over and over again, as did my dining room colleagues.

My fellow servers and I often discussed this phenomenon but we were never able to determine the cause and effect of the correlation. Were the behaviors and attitudes we saw a direct reflection and result of the food consumed? Perhaps the high amounts of iron in the rare beef caused increased blood flow in the those customers, resulting in unabashed pleasurable satisfaction, while the consumption of dry gray over-cooked beef caused the spiritless abstemiousness we saw in those other customers. Maybe Brillat-Savarin’s oft paraphrased homily, “we are what we eat” is more than just metaphor.

Or was it the other way around? Did one’s existing personality determine the types of food one chooses to consume? Perhaps the gastronomic voluptuary is unashamed of feasting with abandon and “living to eat” while the ascetic forever clings to his iron-clad “eat to live” philosophy?

We never knew which, but we all agreed on one thing. The moment a customer ordered his beef well-done, we could be pretty sure that the gratuity would not be a penny more than 15 percent.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006
South African Food Souvenirs

On any journey, international or domestic, my favorite souvenirs are local food items not available back home. It is an easy matter to find food souvenirs in obvious culinary destinations such as France or Italy, but you may be surprised by the goodies my trips to South Africa unearthed.

Rooibos Tea

Red bush tea, or Rooibos in Afrikaans, is a popular tea served everywhere throughout South Africa. Containing no caffeine, it is a flavorful and gorgeous reddish amber brew. Rooibos tea is considered somewhat of a health drink due to its high amount of antioxidants and its purported ability to reduce problems such as insomnia, irritability, headaches, nervous tension, and hypertension. Its reputation to relieve colic has made it a favorite beverage for the baby bottle. I like it because it tastes good.

Although I can find various brands of Rooibos tea in stores at home, my favorite brand, Five Roses, is not available locally, making this particular brand of tea mandatory return trip luggage fodder.


To refer to Biltong as beef jerky does it a great disservice. Biltong is beef jerky with a pedigree. Where jerky’s texture is dry and brittle, biltong is tender. Where jerky is salty and smoky, biltong is mild but flavorful. Where jerky’s heritage is the common steer, biltong’s lineage reads like a who’s who of the African plains game family tree.

Biltong falls into two styles; dry and wet. The wet version is air-dried for less time than the dry style, so it retains more moisture. We tasted dry Eland biltong at the hunting lodge, homemade by our host himself. To eat dry biltong, you break it into small shreds and eat it with your fingers. It was very good and I was pleasantly surprised by its tenderness.

In a butcher shop outside of Hermanus we tried wet biltong. This biltong had just been made and was very moist and tasty. We tried it both flaked and chunked and couldn’t decide which we liked best.

Biltong seems to be a South African staple. We were served a biltong dip with crackers and discovered biltong flavored potato chips in the grocery store. A South African cookbook I brought home contains recipes such as biltong muffins and biltong pot bread.

Unfortunately, due to U.S. customs regulations regarding meat, you cannot legally bring South African biltong back into the United States, although many a biltong fan has smuggled in a bag or two.

Vinegar flavored salt

My introduction to vinegar flavored salt coincided with my introduction to avocado on toast. At first, avocado on toast seemed an unlikely combination, especially for breakfast. But I love avocados and I love good quality wheat bread, freshly toasted and lavishly buttered. What better butter-alternative for toast than a thick layer of rich, unctuous mashed avocado?

The crowning finish to avocado on toast is a generous sprinkling of vinegar flavored salt. The salt brings out the flavor of the avocado while the vinegar adds just a hint of acid to offset the richness. What a simple but wonderful combination!


Amarula is South Africa's answer to Ireland’s Irish Cream liqueur. Like Irish Cream, it is rich and creamy, but with a subtle fruity flavor. That fruitiness comes from the Marula fruit of the Elephant Tree, so called because elephants adore the fruit. Stories abound of elephants becoming intoxicated by eating the fallen fruit, which ferments quickly in the hot African sun. Although the image of tipsy pachyderms makes me smile, I don’t believe the stories are really true.

After returning back from South Africa I discovered that this delicious beverage is available in the local liquors stores so I no longer use valuable suitcase space to lug it home.

As good as it is to drink straight, if you insist on gilding the lily, as most of us food enthusiasts tend to do, it can be taken to the next level via the Dom Pedro, a popular South African drink available in restaurants and bars everywhere. A Dom Pedro is basically a milkshake made with vanilla ice cream, cream and Amarula, although some versions use whiskey or Kahlua.

Amarula Dom Pedro Recipe

2 shots of Amarula Cream
2/3 cup vanilla ice cream
2 tablespoons heavy cream

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into a serving glass and serve with a straw.

Yield: 1 serving

Kalahari Liqueur

Even if you are not a drinker of alcohol, Kalahari Liqueur will get your attention. The bottle, fashioned in the shape of a calabash gourd, is quite suggestive of, ahem, something else. And not just some thing else, but the whole package.

The liqueur itself is a potent spirit made with herbs, berries, and fruits of the Kalahari Desert. To my taste buds its flavor falls somewhere between the French Chartreuse and the Italian Strega, both of which I enjoy. Kalahari Liqueur may be an acquired taste, but you gotta love the bottle!

Wellington’s Sweet Chilli Sauce

I first encountered this jewel-like sweet-hot sauce flowing over a block of cream cheese alongside a plate of crackers. It was love at first bite. Imagine salsa meets chutney.

Wellington’s Sweet Chilli Sauce is a translucent golden red sauce studded with flecks of red chili pepper and tiny bits of onion. Its sweet, hot, tangy spiciness against the cool creamy cheese on the crisp cracker was an incredible contrast of textures and flavors. On the way to the airport to catch our flight home, I had to stop at a grocery store to pick up a bottle of this ambrosia. My only regret is that I bought just one.

Schweppes Granadilla Twist soda

Soda and I are not very good friends due to its carbonation, but I like to try new and unusual flavors. This passion fruit soda is both tart and sweet, a thirst-quenching combination that works well as a cold beverage drunk in a hot dessert.

In my international travels I’ve noticed that passion fruit is very popular in many countries where it flavors sodas, candies, pastries and snacks. I don’t understand why it has never been a common flavor in the U.S. I couldn’t recall anything back home flavored with passion fruit. But as I sipped the Schweppes Granadilla soda, something about that flavor suddenly took me back to my childhood. It took a minute and a few more sips before I realized, there is a popular drink in the U.S. flavored with passion fruit…. Hawaiian Punch!

Aunt Tillie’s Beetroot chutney

In between winery visits while touring the wine lands outside of Cape Town, we stopped for a snack at the Cotage Fromage (the cheese cottage). There we shared a nice platter of assorted cheeses with fruit, bread, and an amazing beetroot chutney. Like all things made from beets, it was a lovely color, but it looked deceivingly ordinary in its dish; just chopped bits of beets and onions in a sauce. However, one bite made my taste buds sing. It was sweet and tangy with a special spiciness that I couldn’t definitively identify but believe may be allspice. It was a perfect complement to some of the cheeses.

The Cotage Fromage sold jars of Aunt Tillie’s Beetroot chutney so of course I bought one to bring home. Back home, whenever I opened the refrigerator, it would beckon me and I found myself just spooning it directly from the jar to my mouth. As the jar became dangerously low, I searched online for sources. No luck. I looked for recipes but none of them really sounded quite like Aunt Tillie’s. I tried a few experiments but didn’t come close to it.

The last bite is long gone but its memory lingers on. I do believe Aunt Tillie’s Beetroot Chutney is a sufficiently valid reason to visit South Africa again.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Pod's Fondue Tower

Last summer a group of us had dinner at an interesting restaurant in Philadelphia with the simple name, Pod. The cuisine is contemporary Pan-Asian and the decor is kind of retro space age, with lighted walls that change colors, bright plastic furniture, and a conveyor belt sushi bar. The bathrooms, oversized versions of airplane lavatories, line a long hallway with red or green lights outside each door to indicate occupied or not. The cocktail menu offers a selection of brightly colored signature drinks that one orders by color (purple, red, blue, etc.).

Despite the gimmicky decor the food was delicious and served very intriguingly. For example, the Peking duck arrived as a tall column of bamboo steamers, each steamer holding different components of the dish. All dishes are served family style in beautiful bowls, on lacquered platters, or in three-dimensional layers. A popular dish, which seemed to appear at every table in the dining room, was a dessert called The Fondue Tower.

The moment I spied it coming from the kitchen in a flurry of fanfare and set on a neighboring table to appreciative “ooh”s, I knew it would be a fun dessert to serve at home for a group of guests. We ordered one for our party of five.

A tall three tiered plate holder was placed in the center of the table. Each plate held a small dish of sauce and various goodies for dipping in the sauce. The top tier had a dish of blackberry coulis surrounded by tiny freshly fried beignets, miniature macaroons, meringue cookies, squares of pate de fruit, and small rice crispy treats. The middle tier’s sauce was chocolate, served with fresh fruit skewers, glazed banana slices, and a scattering of fresh berries. The bottom tier held a dish of caramel sauce flanked by mini-cheesecakes, bite-sized brownies, and tiny biscotti.

I saw how simple this dessert would be to prepare at home with any combination of favorite sauces (purchased or homemade) and dipping goodies. I loved the concept so I decided to make my own Fondue Tower for the dessert course of a special birthday dinner party I was planning.

For the sauces I made caramel sauce, raspberry coulis and a very easy dark chocolate sauce. For the dipping goodies I basically used the same things that Pod's dessert contained, mostly purchased. It was a great dessert; very impressive looking and fun to eat. The presentation in the tiered tower is what really made this simple dessert so special.

Here are two of the sauce recipes I made. I had never made my own caramel sauce before but the flavor is so amazing that I will never buy commercial caramel sauce again. The microwave chocolate sauce is so incredibly easy and quick; it’s a miracle.

Caramel Sauce
From Cook's Illustrated Jan/Feb 2003

My notes: The flavor of homemade caramel sauce is just wonderful. Commercial sauce does not compare. A candy thermometer insures success. This sauce is still somewhat soft even refrigerated.

If you make the caramel sauce ahead, reheat it in the microwave or a small saucepan over low heat until warm and fluid. When the hot cream mixture is added in step 3, the hot sugar syrup will bubble vigorously (and dangerously), so don't use a smaller saucepan

1/2 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Place water in heavy-bottomed 2 qt saucepan; pour sugar in center of pan, taking care not to let sugar crystals adhere to sides of pan. Cover and bring mixture to boil over high heat; once boiling, uncover and continue to boil until syrup is thick and straw colored (syrup should register 300 degrees on candy thermometer), about 7 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook until syrup is deep amber (syrup should register 350 degrees on candy thermometer), about 1 to 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring cream and salt to simmer in small saucepan over high heat (if cream boils before sugar reaches deep amber color, remove cream from heat and cover to keep warm).

Remove sugar syrup from heat; very carefully pour about one quarter of hot cream into it (mixture will bubble vigorously), and let bubbling subside. Add remaining cream, vanilla, and lemon juice; whisk until sauce is smooth.

(Sauce can be cooled and refrigerated in airtight container for up to 2 weeks).

Easiest Ever Microwave Chocolate Sauce
From The 5 in 10 Dessert Cookbook (Five Ingredients in 10 Minutes or Less)
By Natalie Haughton

My Notes: I used a good quality Belgian dark chocolate and heavy cream. It was amazing how it turned into a smooth dark chocolate sauce in just 45 seconds! The refrigerated leftovers got hard but softened back into a sauce in just 10 seconds in the microwave.

1 cup (6 oz) semisweet chocolate chips (I used a good Belgian dark chocolate, chopped)
1/4 cup milk or heavy cream (I used cream, of course)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a 2 cup glass measure, combine the chocolate chips and the milk or cream. Microwave on high for 45 to 60 seconds; stir until the chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. If necessary, return to microwave for15 to 20 seconds. Stir in vanilla.

Serve immediately. Keep any leftovers refrigerated and reheat in the microwave before serving.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

For the past several years I have resided in gastronomically-challenged south central Pennsylvania, where many of the lifelong local residents don’t know an artichoke from an avocado. Although I have spent most of my life in and around major metropolitan areas, I never truly appreciated the wealth of food riches those cosmopolitan locales offered, until recently.

Currently stranded in this culinary void, I find myself actively seeking food adventures to appease my appetite for epicurean excitement. Surprisingly, I often find them here. And when I don’t, I create adventures in my own kitchen or hit the road to seek them elsewhere.

Although I’m no stranger to the Internet (I’ve been online since the very beginning), it wasn’t until six months ago that the word “blog” entered my consciousness. I had been noticing that my Google searches often returned sites that were one very long scrollable page, with my requested relevant content buried deeply within it. I found myself quite annoyed as I paged down and paged down trying to find the words that made the search engine think this page was something of interest to me. These sites always had the word “blog” somewhere in their URL or title. I became so frustrated by this that I would no longer click on any sites Google returned if it looked like one of these funny blog things.

One day at work I finally asked someone, “what is this blog stuff I keep seeing”? He explained it stood for “web log” and was a way people could publish their thoughts, ideas, and experiences to share with others. I wondered why anyone would want to read the thoughts, ideas, and experiences of total strangers, especially after seeing the inane nonsense on some of them.

Not too much later I was doing some online research for an upcoming trip to Paris, specifically searching for must-try foods, special restaurants, and whatever other epicurean treasures Paris would offer me. I happened upon several food blogs and found myself fascinated. The authors were as obsessed with food, cooking, and eating as I was. They were articulate and enthusiastic and I couldn’t stop reading! I immediately became a fan and regular reader of several of them.

I was awed and inspired by these new age culinary commentators and felt compelled to express my food fanaticism in the same way. But how could I? These eloquent chroniclers of food adventures lived in exciting culinary cities like New York, Paris and Seattle. I currently live in a gastronomically unsophisticated area of central Pennsylvania. What could I write about? What experiences could I possibly share?

Living here the past few years I’ve learned I have to work harder to find my food adventures but I also discovered that I can find them here, or anywhere for that matter. I only have to open my eyes, my mind, and my mouth. The more I thought about it, the more I realized, yes, I had plenty of blogworthy food experiences, stories, and recipes. I made a list of potential topics and began to write. The next thing I knew I had a dozen posts.

So here I am, with a blog. I have discovered that I enjoy this very much and that I am practically driven to do it. I wonder if anyone will be driven to read it.

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