Second Helpings

Hard Times: Sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Take the term "al dente." Originally applied to pasta, it meant not overcooking the noodles--so they weren't soft and squishy. Properly prepared pasta has a bit of spring, a bit of firmness when you bite into it. And the public has been educated; these days, no one wants mushy pasta.

For some inexplicable reason, however, the concept of al dente has spread, like a virus, to other foods. What's worse, it has spread to foods it has no business spreading to.

Over the past few months, I've run into chefs who've taken al dente to areas nature never intended. I've been served potatoes--scalloped, roasted, home-fried--so severely undercooked they were practically raw. I've had beans hard as diamonds, and lentils that would have taxed the incisors of a wolf. Potatoes, beans and lentils should be soft, not chewy.

And the vegetables! A generation ago, vegetables were routinely cooked to mushy pulp. Not anymore. Today, we get stalks of broccoli that require a chain saw to cut. You could break your jaw taking a bite of cauliflower. The topper came just a few days ago, when I had a "cooked" carrot so tough I could have put it through my steering column and used it as "The Club."

Please, chefs, could you confine your al dente cooking to the pasta, and give our eroded bicuspids and molars a break?

Good Times, as in Bon Temps: Restaurant operators keep rolling into town, convinced that the Valley's remarkable growth and demographics make it an ideal site for investment.

The latest venture? Cajun House, a downtown Scottsdale project that promises to be a "quality-dining Cajun restaurant, special events/music venue and high-concept theme bar."

The scale is massive--25,000 square feet, 1,200 capacity and a $9 million tag. According to the publicist, the proprietors are aiming to bring the "French Quarter/Bourbon Street experience" to Scottsdale. Among the amenities: a courtyard with--are you sitting down?--a 150-foot by 50-foot retractable roof. It's hard to believe that not too many years ago, businesses in this section of town still had hitching posts so customers could tie up their horses.

The New Orleans fare will include the familiar favorites, like crayfish etouffee, red beans and rice, gumbo, shrimp Creole and jambalaya. But I hear the chef is also working on adding some Southwestern notes to the mix.

Cajun House is at 7117 East Third Avenue, in Scottsdale.
Book Notes: If you're looking for some quick alternatives in the kitchen, check out Memories of a Lifetime. Put together by Douglas Klinge, it's a collection of easy-to-prepare recipes, each dedicated to someone lost to or living with AIDS.

All the proceeds go to research and care. The cost is $15, and the book is available at Unique on Central in Phoenix, Changing Hands in Tempe and Alice's Stained Glass in Glendale. If you want to order by phone, call 279-9691, or 1-800-269-4840.

--Howard Seftel

Suggestions? Write me at or New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix,


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