10 Things in the Food World We Loved in September

Including an illuminating look into Manhattan's Chinatown, Puerto Rican pantry items you can order to your door, and tiny clay masterpieces that look good enough to eat.

Published Oct. 1, 2020.

One of the things all of us at America's Test Kitchen have in common—no matter what department we work in, whether it's in the kitchen or at a desk—is a love of food. And not just eating and cooking it, but learning about it. We talk about the latest food podcasts with coworkers, share interesting articles in Slack, and have long email chains about what food-related activities we're doing after work or on the weekends.

That's why we decided to start a series where we share the things we loved over the course of the previous month: things that made us think, things that made us laugh, things that reminded us why we relish being a part of the food world. If we enjoyed them, we thought you might, too.

In the fourth installment of the series (you can find the first three months' lists here), we've got 10 things that we loved in September, submitted by ATK staff members from all over the company. The list includes an effort by a Boston-based wine store to make the wine industry more inclusive, a new podcast that you and your bubbe can listen to together, and a couple of books worth checking out.

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1. Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories by Grace Young

The pandemic has hit independent restaurants incredibly hard. Despite efforts by groups like the Independent Restaurant Coalition to get much-needed federal support for our beloved local restaurants, the outlook is, by most meaures, grim. This is particularly true for our nation's Chinatowns. In this 8-part short video series, Grace Young, a James Beard Award Winner and renowned wok cooking expert, takes us deep into Manahattan's Chinatown to see first hand how the coronavirus pandemic is shuttering generations-old family-owned business and offers hope for how we can help save them. — Dan Souza, Cook's Illustrated Editor in Chief

2. Rebecca Ackermann's tiny foods made out of clay

As a kid, I loved The Borrowers, a series of fictional books published in the 1950's that followed inches-tall people that lived in the walls of an English family's home. Their miniature lives seemed so simple, and reading the books felt like such a peaceful escape. (Ditto for the unrelated but more recent Tiny Kitchen.)

So, needless to say, when I first saw one of Rebecca Ackermann's tiny clay creations (on Eric Kim's Instagram, where he reposted Ackermann's recreation of his Seasoned Salmon with Warm Sushi Rice), I was hooked. From the shine on the salmon to the chopsticks balancing on the side of the bowl, if it wasn't for the fingers peeking in the corner of the shot for scale (a signature of all of her posts) I wouldn't have known it was made out of clay. Since May, she's paid homage (claymage?) to Sohla El-Waylly's Miso Clams with Soba Noodles, Bryan Ford's Sourdough Pizza with Prosciutto and Arugula, and Klancy Miller's Strawberry Shortcake For One, among countless others.

Ackermann has talked about how relaxing it is to make the sculptures, but why do I feel that same comfort merely looking at them? What is it about small-scale items that are just so soothing? Maybe it's because in a time where everything feels so enormously big and like there's something else to be worried about constantly, scrolling through Ackermann's feed filled with teeny tiny foods feels manageable. It's almost like the doll-sized (or should I say Borrower's-sized?) noodle bowls, pop tarts, corn dogs, and cheese plates are from a smaller, simpler world—one devoid of wildfires and pandemics and Supreme Court justice nominees. Or maybe I'm overthinking it. Either way, they're cute. — Brenna Donovan, Assistant Editor, Cookbooks

3. The Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color

When I was a cheesemonger at an area Whole Foods Market, one of my favorite parts of the job was going to the Urban Grape each month for a casual wine and cheese tasting. I picked the cheeses. TJ Douglas, one of the store’s owners, paired them with wines. I was young, just 23 or 24, and I knew nothing about wine. TJ, his wife Hadley, and all of the store staff never made me feel foolish for being new to wine or having questions. They made me feel glad that I’d asked—and they poured me plenty of tiny samples to help me figure out my likes and dislikes.

In the years since, I have been so glad to see the store flourish. Recently, they celebrated a new milestone: launching the Urban Grape Wine Studies Award for Students of Color. Award recipients will pursue the four-level Certificate Program in Wine Studies at Boston University’s Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center and receive some truly top-of-the-line mentorship through a series of paid (!) internships—including with the hospitality group of Boston’s own Tiffani Faison. The Urban Grape had planned to announce one award recipient this year, but the Douglases were so overwhelmed with contributions and applicants, they decided to name two: Suhayl Ramirez and Amanda Best. You can read all about them and the program in a Boston Globe article announcing the decision. — Kate Shannon, ATK Reviews Deputy Editor

4. Schmaltzy, the new podcast from the Jewish Food Society

Think the Moth—but make it Jewish. In mid-September, the Jewish Food Society turned its popular in-person storytelling series into a podcast. In the first episode, New York City-based but Texas-raised pastry chef Zoe Kanan recounts a memorable Rosh Hashanah meal from when she was 10 years old. Her grandmother, a born-and-bred New Yorker and the cook of the family, was out of commission with a sprained wrist, so Zoe and her father—an Irish Catholic former punk rocker—prepared the food. It was an unconventional menu that brought the family closer and led to Zoe's interest in pursuing food as a career. — Mari Levine, Web Managing Editor

5. Poppy Seed Butter from Dastony

With the weather starting to change, I've been turning my oven on more, and turning to Dastony's Poppy Seed Butter to add deep poppy seed flavor to everything. The flavor is pretty intense—savory, nutty, and a little bit bitter—so I've been adding it to cakes and cookies and also using it as a base for salad dressings to enjoy the last of the summer's produce. My favorite application has been mixing a few tablespoons into vanilla ice cream base before churning; the butter delivers poppy seed flavor impossible to achieve by simply steeping seeds in hot milk. You can find Dastony's products at online organic and health food stores such as Raw Guru and Vitacost—I'll certainly be checking out their other offerings (like Watermelon Seed Butter) soon! —Azariah Kurlantzick, Content Audit Intern

6. American Vinegar Works vinegars

These are small-batch vinegars that use high-quality base alcohols and a natural fermentation process that dates back to the 1800s. They're then aged in American oak barrels for up to a year before bottling. I discovered their Junmai rice wine vinegar at a local shop and it has become my favorite for vinaigrettes. Their IPA beer vinegar is amazing on french fries. As the weather turns cooler this month, I'm excited to try their pear and apple cider vinegar in my fall cooking. Though currently only on shelves in Massachusetts, they ship nationwide. — Valerie Cimino, Senior Editor, Cookbooks

7. Mail-order sauces, spices, and snacks from Seattle restaurant Addo

Lechoncito with Puerto Rican flag behind it

I became online-friendly with Seattle chef Eric Rivera early on during the COVID lockdown via Twitter. He shuttered his Puerto Rican restaurant Addo right away, and it has remained closed to in-person dining since. Rivera is a fierce advocate for the welfare of his employees and those working in restaurant kitchens and dining rooms everywhere, and has used his platform to rail against those who’ve pushed for too-rapid restaurant reopening without concern for worker safety.

Meanwhile, he seems to have figured out an alternative approach to keep Addo going, one that, like many restaurants, includes selling his menu via take-out and delivery. And he’s also selling meals ready-to-reheat, on a one-off or subscription basis. (There’s even an “Only Flans” subscription that includes 5 flans each month, each set with a signed picture of Addo’s “hottest flan.”) Most of these options—including the Only Flans—are perishable and thus only available to Seattle locals only.

For the rest of us, though, there are mail-order options, including a wide variety of Rivera’s house-made sauces, spice blends, and snack foods. I ordered a box full of these for myself, including a smoked soy sauce, a jalapeño hot sauce, and a bag of fried chicken dredge, all of which were delicious. But the things that I’ve loved most are his “Lechoncito" classic Puerto Rican pantry items, which include three types of the brick-red, flavor-enhancing spice blend sazón and two different adobo secos, the garlicky, powdered base for a marinade for fish, chicken, and meats (yes, I ordered all of them). Not only are they wonderful and versatile blends, they are far superior to those made by Goya, and 100% controversy-free. And as of Wednesday, 9/30, each of these products (and everything else on the site) is currently 10% off— Andrew Janjigian, former Cook’s Illustrated senior editor and forever breadhead

8. Notes From a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi

I love reading books that fall into this vague "food writing" category, whether it be autobiographies, memoirs, or historical nonfiction. Kwame Onwuachi's memoir documents his journey from growing up in the Bronx to being a contestant on Top Chef, to opening (a few) restaurants, with a few recipes peppered in between chapters. In addition to simply being a joyfully entertaining read, it was an important reminder of the roadblocks that people of color face in the culinary industry, as well as a reminder that the path to success is rarely a simple upward trajectory. I had been wanting to read this ever since it came out and a beach trip was the perfect opportunity to finally do it. Coincidentally, he just announced that he will soon be a judge on Top Chef, so things are coming full circle. — Sarah Sandler, Social Media Coordinator

9. Why We Eat: Pozole from Munchies

Pozole is one of those dishes that has incredible historical and cultural significance. In this video, chef and amateur Mexican food anthropologist Claudette Zepeda dives deep into its history from the very beginning as a religious dish and traces how it has evolved over time, geography, and population changes. I really enjoyed this video and was especially interested to learn how certain parts of Mexico have large Asian communities, including Asian American immigrants, and how that has affected the local cuisine there. Its a super fascinating look at culture, history, and identity through the lens of one (very important) soup. — Lauren Robbins, Imaging Manager

10. Classic Indian Cookery by Julie Sahni

This book (first published in 1997) is an oldie but super-goodie—and one I cooked from several times in September. Sahni provides extensive historical context on the mosaic of different cuisines that make up cooking on the Indian subcontinent as well as lots of detail on ingredients (including spices, of course!) and techniques. — Amanda Agee, Cook's Illustrated Editorial Director

This is a members' feature.