Saturday, November 20, 2010

Culinary Confession

Bless me, James Beard, for I have sinned. It has been several months since my last culinary confession.

Inspired by a morbid curiosity, I staged an expedition to McDonald's to order a McRib sandwich. I was shocked by the somewhat decent quality of the roll on which the sandwich arrived, and by the presence of pickle slices and sliced raw onion. Of course, the sandwich was drowned in overly sweet BBQ sauce, which drowned out the flavor of the other ingredients (that's probably the point). The processed pork patty was moist but insipid, just a vehicle to deliver the high-fructose corn syrup sauce. For more assertive pork flavor, I'd go to a mom-and-pop for a Cuban sandwich or bánh mì, or roast a pork shoulder, and make a roast pork, provolone, and broccoli rabe sandwich at home.

When the McRib disappears from these parts, I will most certainly not mourn its disappearance.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Foraging Season is Drawing to a Close

This week, I was able to get my hands on some fine wild grapes, but the clock is ticking, and my foraging activities will be ending soon.

October was a busy month for me, hence the lack of posts (I could have written about Halloween candy, but for an underdeveloped sweet-tooth), but I hope to restart this flagging, lagging blog of mine.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Sumac, Savory Sumac

This time of year is the prime time for foraging for the fruit of the staghorn sumac. The bright red, fuzzy fuits have a sour flavor, and have been used extensively as a seasoning in Persian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Here are links to two takes on a "sumac chicken" recipe.

The easiest way to enjoy the flavor of sumac is to cut the fruit-laden cones off of the plants, wash them, steep them in water (I often do this in a jar left out in the sun), strain the resultant liquid, and sweeten it with simple syrup to make a beverage comparable to lemonade.

Of course, if you see any sumac plants with waxy white fruits, stay away.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Culinary Confession

Bless me, James Beard, for I have sinned... it's been quite some time since my last culinary confession.

On a trip to the woods, I ate... Spam. You see, not having access to nearby markets, and having a small propane-powered fridge, one has to use one's limited refrigeration capability wisely. Therefore, canned or "potted" meat is not a bad thing to take to the cabin.

Of course, Spam is pretty much a salty, oleaginous lump of pink stuff, with a texture not far off from slighty solidified pink goo. It can, however, be edible, even tasty, in the hands of a master Spammer. The key to Spam cookery is to cut the stuff wafer thin, and to fry it until it is golden-brown and crispy. I imagine the stuff could be used to make passable faux lardons, although a salad containing Spam as an ingredient seems to be a crime against both cuisine and nature.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

It's True, I Am a Weed Addict

This summer, I have been blessed with a bounty of edible weeds.

My first weedy love is purslane, which I have found in abundance. I usually just pick it, wash it off, and eat it out of hand. Because purslane has such a succulent texture, I prefer to eat it raw. When cooked, purslane has a texture similar to that of green beans. Besides the recipes linked to in this post, I found an interesting recipe for Turkish-style purslane salad (the comments on this post are hilarious- I'll do an attributed cut-and-paste at the end of the post). The lovely, gracious, and talented Aunt Snow (who is pursuing pie perfection this summer in some must-read posts) suggested finding a Persian purslane salad recipe, and a Google search turned up this recipe. Personally, I love the stuff so much, I'd substitute it for just about any green, or add it to mixed salads (if only I could refrain from wolfing sheeping it down long enough to get it into the kitchen).

So, on to the comment which had me laughing so hard- Cebtoo, in a reply to Greengirl's request for advice on how to grow purslane, writes:

To GREENGRL: Try to grow something else. Water once a week lightly. Everything else will die but your purslane will thrive with or without fertilizer, in sun or shade. Once you get some growing, break it up with a hoe. Spray it with broadleaf weed killer, it loves it. That's been my approach for years here in San Antonio and probably could grow 500 pounds or so in 100 square feet if I let it run wild.

Besides purslane, I am a huge fan of lamb's quarters, which grow in profusion around my neighborhood. Lamb's quarters compare favorably with spinach or kale- I usually snip the tops off the plants (so they'll continue to grow), then steam them for use in any recipe that calls for spinach.

Of course, dandelions are delicious, and are instantly identifable to just about everyone.

The nettles are past their prime, but they served me well in the spring. The Japanese knotweed is tough and woody, but I'm hoping to find some younger, tender shoots to munch on.

Yeah, I'm a weed addict, all right. With a little research, and a lot of patient observation, you can also pick up an addiction to weeds.

Sometimes, I am amazed at the effort and resources that people waste on their lawns- they are devoting their energy, time, and money to a plant that they cannot use, and cutting said plant to a length which mimics the length of a sheep-cropped field. When the weekend squire mows his lawn, he's not only trying to imitate the verdant green pastures of Lord Such-and-such, but he's doing it without the benefit of having a herd of sheep to do it for him (and to convert it into wool, meat, and milk). Luckily for my neighbors, I live in an apartment, but if I had a yard, I'd probably plant a lot of perennials.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Limoncello is a typical liqueur from Southern Italy- the centers of Limoncello production are centered around the Gulf of Naples and the Gulf of Salerno. Best served chilled, limoncello is a perfect after-dinner digestivo- though I would never criticize anyone for drinking it before, or during dinner, or on a lazy summer afternoon, or to chase away a winter chill, or... sorry, I was distracted by the prospect of a nice, chilled glass of limoncello.

While limoncello recipes are plentiful on the internet, here's my personal method for making it. First, thorougly wash, then peel fifteen or sixteen lemons (depending on the size of the lemons, and whether the market is selling them in lots of three or lots of four) with a vegetable peeler, making sure you are not getting any of the white pith (which will make your limoncello bitter). Place the lemon peels in a clean gallon jar and pour a gallon of pure grain alcohol (I have to drive to Connecticut to obtain the stuff) over the lemon peels, and cover. Let the mixture sit for at least a week (I leave the jar in a dark, cool corner for three weeks), then prepare a simple syrup by heating two pounds of sugar with a quart of water, and simmering until the mixture is slightly thickened. Strain the lemon peels out of the alcohol, and add the syrup to the infused alcohol (I use a couple of one-gallon pitchers for this stage of the production). Dilute the resultant syrup/alcohol mixture with water until the desired strength is reached (I use a 50/50 ratio, making the resultant liqueur about as strong as a typical vodka). Strain again, and bottle the stuff. Keep away from small children and open flames. A few hours before serving, place the bottle in the freezer to chill. If necessary, dilute individual servings to taste... the stuff is strong.

Here's a still life which incorporates the ingredients of this delicious treat. Look at that forlorn lemon, which has been robbed of its golden integument. Also, note that the contents of the gallon jar, with an alcohol content around 95%, have a clear golden color, while the glass of limoncello in the center has a milky translucency. This is the same effect one sees when one mixes water with absinthe- as the percentage of alcohol decreases, the oil from the lemon peels forms a microemulsion in the glass:

La dolce vita, served by the glass.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Yerba Maté

I honor of Uruguay's world cup victory, I decided to break out my bombilla, and treat myself to some hot, bracing yerba maté. Yerba maté is a tea-like infusion of the pulverized leaves of a South American tree of the genus Ilex, a close relative of the holly tree. This infusion is a popular beverage in southern South America (Argentina, southern Brazil, and the "Axis of 'Guay"). It is commonly drunk from a gourd (maté), using a bombilla, a metal straw with a strainer at the tip which is inserted into the gourd. Yerba maté contains caffeine and other alkaloids, so it has a stimulant effect. Traditionally, the beverage is consumed in communal style, the leaves are placed in the gourd, then hot water is poured over the leaves. The consumer drinks the beverage, then passes the gourd to the designated pourer, who refills the gourd for the next consumer. The first "fill" of the mug is extremely strong and bitter, and care must be taken not to drink any of the "sediment" of finely-ground leaves that may rest on the gourd's bottom. Each additional refill of the gourd results in a weaker infusion, and the beverage actually has a pleasant flavor by the third or fourth "fill" (one has to grit one's teeth and put up with the stuff before this). Of course, those not used to drinking the stuff can brew it as if it were tea (when pressed for time, I'll throw some of the stuff in the coffee pot, and brew a thermos-full).

Rather than a gourd, my maté is an embossed-leather wrapped wooden cup, advertising Pajarito brand yerba maté from Paraguay. Other brands I have tried are Argentina's Cruz de Malta, and the pictured brand, Canarias, from Uruguay:

Locally, yerba maté can be purchased in the C-Town supermarket in Tarrytown, which has a wide variety of South American products (including cuy). Another source for yerba maté (and the best source for bombillas and matés in Westchester) is the Panaderia Uruguaya Las Gemelas, a Uruguayan bakery in Port Chester, which also makes very good empanadas and pastries (their tres leches cake and dulce de leche-filled pastries are top-notch). Also on Westchester Avenue in Port Chester, one can find Inca y Gaucho, a Peruvian/Uruguayan restaurant (and possible future post topic).

UPDATE: For the sake of accuracy, please note that the Canarias company seems to be headquartered in Uruguay, but the actual product in the bag pictured above is Brazilian. The label, however, is in Spanish.

Monday, June 14, 2010

They've Got These Pies...

Last week, I stopped into the Down Under Bakery, on Prospect Park West for a taste of Antipodean cuisine. The cornerstone of DUB's menu is the New Zealand pie, which also seems to be a cornerstone of New Zealand cuisine.

Down Under Bakery does a brisk takeout business, and provides pies for other venues (I had my first DUB pie, a Thai curry pie, at The Bell House in Gowanus). The storefront operation has a small, spare dining room- strictly no frills here. Service was good, but I was the only customer on the premises at the time. The steak and cheese pie was good, a well-prepared, simple item- I imagine it would be a perfect complement to a nice, fat pint of beer (I had to settle for a delicious ginger tea). A spinach and feta roll was a good chaser for the pie. Foolishly, I decided to forgo dessert, though reading a description of the Lamington makes me regret my folly. Next time, this mistake will not be repeated.

All told, Down Under Bakery makes for an interesting snack/light meal alternative, though I must confess that it won't knock the local pizzeria off it's premier position in the "quick but good" food pantheon.

Note: The breakfast pie featured on the DUB menu seems to be a nod to American tastes- I have been led to believe that the traditional breakfast in New Zealand consists of black pudding and akvavit.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Forager's Diary

This weekend was a banner one for foraging- early-ripening mulberries are plentiful, and I am keeping at least some of them from falling on, and staining, parked cars by greedily stuffing my mouth with them. Lamb's quarters plants grown in profusion in my neighborhood, and they are comparable in taste to Swiss chard (I merely parboiled some cuttings, then sauteed them with garlic and bacon). I have also located a nice patch of purslane, which I tend to consume raw, without accompaniment- it has a succulent texture, and a pleasantly sour flavor. Known as verdolagas in Spanish, purslane is prized in Mexican cuisine, often stewed with pork. Since it's a prolific weed, I forsee trying the verdolagas stew recipe... if I can prevent myself from scarfing down the purslane as soon as I wash it. Here's a link to a site with a vegetarian verdolagas recipe, with the added bonus of a song about la verdolaga.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Culinary Confession

Bless me, James Beard, for I have sinned- it has been six weeks since my last culinary confession. Last week, I ate dirt pudding... a concoction that a friend of mine, who was running an afterschool program for seven-year-olds, had whipped up after teaching the little urchins about soil. To make the dirt pudding, she mashed up an Entemann's Bakery chocolate-chocolate cake with store-bought chocolate pudding (she prefers to use Kozy Shack brand), chocolate chips, and Cocoa Pebbles cereal. For a added element of "grossness" guaranteed to appeal to any seven-year-old, she garnished the dirt pudding with Gummi Worms.

As can be expected, the resulting soil simulating salmagundi was trashy, but tasty. If I ever make it at home, I'll be sure to wash it down with a copious amount of White Russians.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Slavic Savor

Uh... would Slavic savor be slavor? Is this alliteration thing a little too twee?

Although I was "scooped" by Aunt Snow, a blogger who regularly posts mind-bogglingly beautiful pictures of her garden, I had a craving for Polish food last week, so I headed over to the Polish Community Center, which features a weekday buffet, for the well-nigh inconceivably low price of $8.45. While the dining room has all the ambiance of a budget hotel, the food is simple, but well-prepared, and the service is top-notch. The menu invariably features potato pierogi, stuffed cabbage, kielbasy and sauerkraut, a rotating variety of "American" dishes (the day I went, mixed vegetables, chicken Marsala, and mashed potatoes were on the menu), a soup of the day, and various salads. Absent from the menu are such "challenging" Polish delicacies as tripe soup or kiszka- this place concentrates on serving up heaping platters of crowd-pleasing foods. The lunch crowd is a mixed bag of retirees, city employees (City Hall is an easy walk from the community center), and gastronauts with a couple of hours on their hands in the middle of the day. The beer selection is perfunctory at best, with Bud and Bud Light on tap, and $5 bottles of Żywiec (I dated a Polish girl for a while- she was a staunch Okocim supporter, being from the greater Krakow metropolitan area, and doubtlessly would have castigated me for patronizing the rival brewery). For the price, the buffet at the Polish Community Center is one of the best lunch deals in Westchester County- again, the food is simple, but prepared with care, and the service is remarkably attentive (each time I have eaten here, the same waitress has been on duty, and she's absolutely charming).

Continuing on in my Polish culinary journey, I stopped by Roman's Deli, 643 McLean Avenue on the following day. The deli features a wide variety of Polish charcuterie, anchored by an impressive selection of sausages (not only several types of kielbasy, but Hungarian style dried sausage, and kiszka- a personal favorite of mine which will merit an entry of its own), which the proprietor gets from a distributor in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Roman's, which opened last August, would be the one-stop place for someone in south Yonkers to pick up the ingredients to make bigos.

While Roman's Deli is an angelic upstart, the best place for purchasing Eastern European foodstuff's is Ukrainian butcher shop Yonkers Miasarina, 39 Lockwood Ave, Yonkers, NY. The store-made kielbasas (including an uncooked variety which is a refreshing departure from the usual smoked variety) put supermarket varieties to shame, and the store sells house-made smoked pork ribs (bacon on the bone! Need I say more?). Yonkers Miasarina is worth the trip from anywhere in the county.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Turkish Cuisine in White Plains

I recently had an opportunity to dine at Turkish Cuisine, a small- uh- Turkish restaurant at 116 Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains. The proprietor was formerly associated with Turkish Mezze in Mamaroneck.

The restaurant has tables in the back, and a long counter which provides a ringside view of the vertical spits on which the kebabs are cooked- it seems to do a brisk takeout business.

I started my meal with an excellent
baba ghanoush- creamy, with a sweet and smoky flavor, and followed it up with a freshly-made adana kebab dressed with tomato sauce and thick Turkish yogurt. The food was prepared with care, and the portions were perfectly sized and reasonably priced.

I asked the proprietor if he ever featured my personal favorite Turkish dish, imam bayildi, but he told me that the dish was a bit ambitious for this restaurant, which specializes in simpler menu items such as salads and kebabs.

Given White Plains' rather vibrant bar scene, Turkish Cuisine is an appealing stop for a quick break from a pub crawl, an opportunity to quickly refuel with well prepared dishes from a cuisine which is underrepresented in Westchester County.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Culinary Confession

Bless me, James Beard, for I have sinned. This is my first culinary confession.

Beset by curiosity, in a moment of weakness I purchased, then ate, a KFC Double Down. Behind me in line were two hip smartasses who were also there to get Double Downs, no doubt to be consumed in ironic fashion, much like $3 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Ah... the Double Down, what can be said? This is a food item with a minimal amount of plant matter, some wheat in the breading, a trace amount of jalapeños in the pepper jack cheese, probably some hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, and maybe a bit of high-fructose corn syrup in the sauce (but I cannot be sure of these). Yeah, there's no bun, no wisp of iceberg lettuce to distract one from the meat and dairy (so called) products. To be fair, however, the end result is much like a dumbed-down chicken cordon bleu, reconfigured for the "eat in the car, guzzle a liter of Mountain Dew" demographic. While the chicken, cheese, pork product combo is not foreign to le gastronomie, the whopping 1380 mgs of sodium per serving is appalling, a really nasty legacy of our modern food-processing industry. It would be interesting to create a "homemade" version of this fast-food monstrosity to determine what the sodium content of such an item could be under "optimal" circumstances.

Even more appalling than the sodium content of the Double Down was the fact that the "medium" sized soft drink accompanying it looked to be about 24 ounces. I shudder to think of the calorie and sodium content of such a soda serving.

I have no doubt the Double Down will sell well in it's initial run, as curious gastronauts and postmodern ironic hipsters will seek it out, as well as the target audience of true fast-food fanatics. The Double Down is most properly eaten in quick, wolfish snaps, as one's wife or significant other looks on, silently weeping.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nettles and Knotweed*

After yesterday's post about space-age cuisine, I will now describe a tradition which dates back millions of years, and come out as a forager. The dean of foragers in the NY Metro Area is "Wildman" Steve Brill, who conducts regular foraging classes.

Last year, I made a resolution to, when possible, forage for a least one comestible item a week. I kicked off the spring foraging season last weekend, by harvesting some stinging nettles (wearing heavy gloves), common plants which are covered in stinging hairs, which inject a cocktail of pain-inducing chemicals such as formic acid and histamines into the skin when brought into contact. Nettles have traditionally had a medicinal use (arthritis sufferers sometimes use nettles for their condition). I have informants in New Zealand who tell me that the viciously toxic native nettles have killed at least one person. When boiled, though, young specimens of the common North American stinging nettles can be quite tasty (they have a pretty intense herbal flavor), and make a decent substitute for, or addition to, spinach. I have used them in omelets, added them to spanakopita, and have cooked them with beans (in the same fashion that I'd use escarole). Harvested with care, and boiled well, nettles make a great, free addition to one's springtime culinary repertoire.

I was also able to gather Japanese knotweed, a pernicious invasive weed in the NY Metro Area, is also edible when harvested young. The plant looks like the offspring of an unholy union between bamboo and asparagus, and is distantly related to buckwheat, rhubarb, and sorrel. Peeled, the stalks of young knotweed have a pleasantly sour flavor... once again, Steve Brill is the go-to guy for knotweed facts and recipes. One caveat, though, is that knotweed, being a pest, is often sprayed with herbicide, so caution must be exercised in finding patches that are not periodically sprayed. Of course, the weed being edible, the promotion of knotweed consumption should be a goal of all local Parks, Reacreation, and Conservation Departments.

*No, this post is not about a Role-Playing Game in which participants play foragers.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Night of Experimental Cuisine

Last night, I attended a lecture in the Secret Science Club series at Brooklyn's Bell House. The talk was conducted by two speakers, Dr Kent Kirshenbaum of NYU's chemistry department, and pastry chef/alchemist Will Goldfarb, a go-to guy for esoteric baking ingredients. These two men are founding members of the Experimental Cuisine Collective.

The program began with an effort by our intrepid lecturers to realize the grand dream of creating a combination floor cleaner/dessert topping. Dr Kirshenbaum gave a quick chemistry lesson about soaps, which have molecules with a hydrophilic end, and a hydrophobic end, which tend to aggregate in a water-based solution as micelles. In the quest to form an edible "soap", Dr Kirshenbaum and Mr Goldfarb decided to use an extract from the Curaca Agave, a saponaceous plant from Peru. A bit of Curaca extract was added to water, and whipped into a foam in an electric mixture. The resulting "foam" was described by Dr Kirshenbaum as "smelling like wet newspapers". A batch of the "soap suds" was mixed with a simple syrup, and eight audience volunteers were brought up on stage to sample the "soap/dessert topping", sprayed on a brownie. The team that devoured their soap-browines received a prize. The "foam" was also used dipped into liquid nitrogen and flash-frozen to create vegan "Floating Islands".

The quest for a floor-cleaner/dessert topping a success, the talk shifted to other projects being undertaken by the Experimental Cuisine Collective, including a long digression on Turkish salep- based ice cream called dondurma. Not only is dondurma resistent to melting, the salep contains a polysaccharide called glucomannan, which also acts as a soluble dietary fiber. Dr Kirshenbaum jokingly described a hypothetical dream-dessert which was high-fiber, could counteract type 2 diabetes and tooth decay (mastic has been proposed as a tooth-decay fighter), and even an aphrodesiac (the folk-etymology for salep is a word combination meaning "fox testicles", a reference to the plant's appearance). On a more sober note, he added that the salep-orchid is endangered due to overharvesting. Happily, the good people at the E.C.C. have determined that the common konnyaku or "Devil's tongue" can be used as an acceptible salep substitute (I will add that konnyaku is also used to make shirataki noodles, a great addition to a well-made nabe).

Futher consideration was given to the use of liquid nitrogen as a culinary tool, gum arabic as a thickening agent, and the tension between the traditional and experimental trends in cuisine. Dr Kirshenbaum was of the opinion that the techniques pioneered by the Experimental Cuisine Collective were not necessarily at odds with the precepts of the Slow Food movement. He mentioned a hilarious ban on the use of liquid nitrogen in Italian restaurant kitchens. A shout-out to experimental cuisine titans Ferran Adrià and Wylie Dufresne. Left unmentioned was Abel Gonzalez, Jr. the mad genius who came up with fried Coca-Cola.

After the lecture, the audience was given samples of vegan "meringue" cookies, made using the tried-and-true techniques of the Experimental Cuisine Collective.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Eating Easter

Easter just wouldn't be Easter without certain foods, and I am not talking about chocolate bunnies! It is inconceivable to celebrate Easter without having some traditonal Easter bread, a challah-like braided bread, coiled into a ring, adorned with eggs (often dyed) before baking, and decorated with a sweet glaze and (often) candy sprinkles. Being a pretty imcompetent baker (I've killed more yeast than Monistat over the years), I delegate the responsibility of bread-making to the local bakeries (this year, I went to Artuso's Pastry Shop on McLean Ave for my Easter bread, though any Italian bakery will be able to provide this delicacy).

Pizza rustica is a pie (similar to a quiche Lorraine) that is traditionally served on Easter Saturday. The pie, which is richer than Scrooge McDuck and C. Montgomery Burns having a money-fight in Fort Knox, is an emphatic declaration that Lent, the season of privation and penitence, is over. While the exact ingredients of a pizza rustica are a various as the cooks making it, the pie incorporates eggs, several pork products, and a bewildering array of cheeses. It's the perfect dish to make with the ends of your cold cuts- if your local deli or supermarket sells the ends at a bargain, they make the perfect addition to this dish. To give you an indication of the richness and complexity of ingredients that one can employ when making this pie, I am linking to a recipe from Domenica Marchetti, originally published in The Washington Post- count the number of cheeses used! The lemon juice in the pastry dough for the crust is a nice touch as well, a little acidity to counteract the richness of the filling is inspired! A lazy cook could always use a pre-packaged pie crust, cut down on the variety of cheeses (again, making this dish is a perfect way to use up any leftover bits of cheese in the fridge). Myself, I picked up some fresh basket cheese (Mexican panela cheese might be a good substitute, but you want an unsalted or low-salt cheese to offset the salt of the cured meats), sopressata (Genoa salami would make an acceptable substitute, or addition), and a (this will break some people's hearts) finger-wide slab of prosciutto- since it's going to be cooked, I bought the Canadian product, rather than the expensive stuff. I'll add some tail-ends of Romano, Parmiggiano, and Provolone to round out the "cheese spectrum" in my pie. Again, this dish lends itself to customization- use what you have on hand, clean out the fridge- whatever you use, the end result will be fantastic enjoyed with a green salad (to counter the richness of the dish) and a glass of Chianti or a nice Primitivo.

Another, traditionally Neapolitan Easter dish is the pastiera di grano, the grain pie, a sweet confection made with well-soaked wheat berries and rich with ricotta. I must confess that I have never made a grain pie, but I had an old manager who would typically make them around Eastertime, and I was usually able to persuade him to bring me a slice.

So, as a postscript, I ask, who needs a chocolate rabbit, anyway?

How is this Post Unlike any Other?

This post is unlike any other because it is a mea culpa- I totally forgot to write about Passover, and there is no other holy day which is characterized to such an extent by the foods associated with it. Here I am, trying to pose as a "foodie" blogger, and I spaced out about Passover... may as well turn in my I.D. at the front desk! Yeah, I could have written about the significance of the bitter herbs, of the charoset, of the lamb bone. I could have written about pizzerias that make matzoh pizza (sounds like an ancient Inca city) for patrons observing Passover. I could have... yeah, I blew it. Hopefully, I won't space out on Passover next year- anybody hosting a Seder should drop me a line- I'd be totally up for bringing a "Sephardic inspired" grated-carrot "slaw" dressed with olive oil, a hint of lemon juice and a bouquet of such spices as coriander, cumin, and a hint of red pepper.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hoity Toity!

Last week was Westchester County's Restaurant Week, during which many local restaurants were featuring special prix fixe menus at a discount. A friend gathered a large party, and made dinner reservations at Xavier's X20 a high-end restaurant located in the upper level of the Yonkers pier. The proprietor of X20 is Yonkers-born chef Peter X. Kelly, who has gained a measure of fame by winning on the Food Network's Iron Chef.

The setting of the restaurant is dramatic- a renovated Victorian-era pier that juts into the Hudson River less than ten miles north of midtown Manhattan. The views are dramatic, with the George Washington Bridge providing a brilliant foreground to the Manhattan skyline- even the Yonkers water treatment plant, about a quarter of a mile south of the pier, provides a dramatic spectacle of twin methane flares, which the river reflects in glorious fashion. The decor of the restaurant's interior is best described as "restrained elegance", the huge windows which afford views of the surroundings provide all the excitement.

The special Restaurant Week three course prix fixe meal cost a mere $28. The dinner was accompanied by warm homemade breads, a choice of torpedo-shaped dinner rolls or warm, rich blue cheese biscuits (these were positively addictive, and given out with the generosity of a soft-hearted grandmother). I started with a warm wild-mushroom custard, garnished with chives and crabmeat- the earthy flavored mushrooms giving a lusty "oomp" to the luscious custard, which was tempered by the briny notes provided by the morsels of crabmeat. I followed the custard with a perfectly cooked half duck, accompanied by crisp snow pea pods and buttery Spätzle. The richness of the duckmeat was nicely cut by a sweet-tart cranberry sauce. Dessert (after the richness of the meal, it was almost an afterthought) for me was a molten chocolate cake, a well-executed, not-too-sweet confection. The featured wines were products of Hudson Valley vineyards.

Service was impeccable- the waitstaff was attentive yet unobtrusive, quick to refill water glasses or generously provide the house-made bread (have I mentioned that the biscuits were particularly addictive?). During the meal, Peter X. Kelly circulated throughout the dining room, greeting his customers warmly. A gracious host, he indulged patrons who wished to be photographed with him, and carried himself with the easy, self-assured air of a man who has achieved a remarkable degree of success through hard work, talent, and a geniunely hospitable disposition. He also comes across as a man with a great sense of humor- a vintner, his "wine cellar" bears the name "The Silenus Room".

All told, the dining experience at Xavier's X20 was second-to-none. The restaurant, with it's breathtaking views, exquisite food, and romantic atmosphere, is a perfect venue for a meal celebrating a special occasion. Valet parking is available, and the restaurant is within easy walking distance of the Yonkers station on the Metro-North Hudson Line.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Feast of San Giuseppe

March 19 is the Feast of St. Joseph, a saint who is especially venerated in Italy. Traditionally, sweet morsels known as zeppole are consumed on the feast day, which (like St. Patrick's Day) is considered a day exempt from Lenten fasting and abstinence. Zeppole can be found in two forms, the most common is a fried fritter which is typically dredged with confectioners' sugar. This form, which dates back to antiquity, is often a featured menu item in pizzerias in the Northeastern United States, which typically use pizza dough to make them.

The more refined form of zeppole, also known as sfinge, are fried pastries made with pâte a choux, and filled with cream or custard. This form of zeppole probably originated in Eighteenth-Century Naples. Most bakeries make both cream and custard filled varieties, but why force yourself to choose? You know you want one of each.

The simple type of zeppole can be commonly found in pizzerias, and is a staple at carnivals and fairs. The second type can be found at any worthy Italian bakery, in my neck of the woods, Delite Bake Shop on Yonkers Avenue and Artuso's Pastry Shop on McLean Avenue make particularly good ones.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Corned Beef and Cabbage

This post concerns an all-American Jewish/Irish combination that is utterly delicious...

Uh, er, um... I was going to write about corned beef and cabbage, which has come to be associated with Irish-American foodways, and specifically the celebration of St. Patrick's Day. Corned beef, though, is not a traditional component of the Irish diet, but an ingredient that came to be used by Irish emigrants to the United States.

The original template for corned beef and cabbage was the traditional Irish meal of bacon and cabbage. Beef consumption in Ireland was largely limited to the upper class- cattle were typically employed as dairy cows, most beef would have been either exported, or consumed by the rich. Pork was the meat of the common people. Irish bacon, as opposed to the typical bacon found in the states, is typically cut from the back (much like Canadian bacon), not the belly, of the pig, and the pork is cured, but not smoked. The bacon is then traditionally boiled whole, and cabbage is added toward the end of the cooking time. Alternatively, Irish bacon can be sliced into rashers, which are typically fried as part of a full Irish breakfast.

In neighborhoods such as Manhattan's Lower East Side, immigrants of many backgrounds lived in mixed communities. Irish emigrants to the United States found that the bacon they were accustomed to was unavailable. Corned beef, typically beef briskets cured in brine, was readily available, however. Being brined, it was a common feature of Jewish charcuterie- to this day, any Jewish deli worth its salt prides itself on its corned beef almost as much as its pastrami. Perhaps taking a cue from their Jewish neighbors, the emigrants utilized corned beef (which must be cooked for a long time until tender) as a substitute for the bacon they used to boil with their cabbage, a tradition which continues to this day.

Tinned corned beef, typically imported from Argentina, has become a staple in the Caribbean, where it is known as bully beef and consumed for breakfast.

For a change from the usual corned beef and cabbage, try getting back to the Irish roots of the dish by using boiling bacon, which can be readily found at The Butcher's Fancy on McLean Avenue in Yonkers (where it retails for $4.99 a pound), or Prime Cuts on Katonah Avenue in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx.

Postscript: After your corned beef (or bacon) and cabbage dinner, by all means use any leftover cabbage to make Colcannon, which, in its simplest form, is a mixture of mashed potatoes and cabbage. Personally, I prefer to use a mixture of kale and cabbage in this dish, as the dark green adds a nice visual touch to the dish, and I include scallions (I find that leeks are a pain to clean thoroughly, though I do love them).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bergen Beefsteak

Last Saturday night, I attended my first Beefsteak in Fair Lawn, New Jersey- a fundraiser for the local ambulance corp organized by the Fair Lawn Rotary Club (it was their 18th annual Beefsteak and Tricky Tray). Four of us traveled from southern Westchester to North Jersey, where we met with the remaining member of our party, who traveled from northern Westchester. We seemed to be the only Beefsteak newbies in the St Leon's Armenian Church hall. The regulars were a really nice bunch, who made us feel right at home and taught us some Beefsteak pointers. This was a family event, not a rowdy crowd of burly, surly longshoremen.

The Beefsteak (please note, the linked site is a PDF) has its origins in late 19th Century New York City social and political groups (political machines, unions, fraternal orders...) which would sponsor great, rowdy feasts to raise funds and court supporters. These events disappeared from the New York social scene, although a revival has been underway in recent years.

The Beefsteak never went out of fashion in New Jersey's Bergen County, although the bewildering variety of meats in the late 19th and early 20th Century beefsteaks has given way to beef tenderloin, served on sliced rounds of Italian bread (some buttered, some left as is). This particular Beefsteak was catered by Giresi's of Lodi, NJ. As well as the beefsteak, a raffle known as a Tricky Tray.

Before the meal, the Tricky Tray started- the various raffle prizes were set up on long tables, each prize accompanied by a two-quart deli container, into which one would place a raffle ticket. The meal began with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, led by the son of one of the Rotarians, followed by a verse of God Bless America (singing being a common feature of the Beefsteak)- then the feast began in earnest.

At the onset, a small fruit platter and a vegetable platter were set on the table. A pasta course (ziti with marinara sauce) followed, but this was merely a preliminary. Once the pasta course was cleared, the beef tenderloin arrived, and arrived, and arrived. Shiny silver plates, with neatly arranged open-faced sandwiches... at first, everyone at the table took two, then passed the tray along. This pace continued for the first four or five trays, then the less ravenous would slacken for a spell. Before serving a tray, the waitress would ask the table if they preferred sandwiches with or without buttered bread (it was about a 50/50 split over the course of the evening). These little sandwiches were accompanied by copious amounts of waffle-cut fries, and a continuous stream of beer and wine. Being a newbie (and also, I must confess, an extremely frugal person -read cheap- who'd never leave something uneaten on my plate), I consumed the bread, while the regulars would, in traditional fashion, stack the rounds of bread into towers in the center of the table.

This example is crowned with a pickled hot pepper:

The undisputed champion of the night, though, was this young man, who fashioned an architectural marvel out of his table's rounds of bread:

The steak onslaught was followed by a perfunctory dessert- a swiss-roll styled chocolate cake with ice-cream filling (too bad it wasn't a thinly-pounded flank steak with a hamburger filling), and a most welcome cup of coffee. Dinner was followed by the raffle results- I am happy to say that my friend Joe won a huge basket of beach toys that his son will go nuts for. The best gift won by the table, however, was this wonderful item:

Yes, it is what you think it is.

After the meal, we all staggered out of the church hall, filled to the gills. I have to say that, having read the old New Yorker article, I had half-expected a greasier, grittier event... one in which wives and girlfriends would silently weep, or sit stone-faced as their husbands or boyfriends shoveled great big handfuls of dripping chops and steaks into their mouths without pause, but those Tammany Hall days are no more. In fact, there were even napkins on the table! So, fear not, you can take your significant other to the event with no reservations.

Needless to say, I did the vegetarian thing the next day, and have laid off the red meat so far this week.

Note: I ran out of space in my inbox, so I was unable to send the picture of the actual sandwiches to my e-mail account in time for this post. I will put up a picture of these little beauties as soon as possible.