At some good Paris restaurants and bistros there’s a nice beau geste at the end of a meal: A little tray of bon bons and chocolates served with coffee or a liqueur. James Salter, that excellent writer who constructs sentences as exquisitely balanced as a crystal glass of Chateau Margaux, notes in his book “Life Is Meals” that he and his wife often serve sweets at the end of a dinner party. The discerning Salters favor Enstrom’s Butter Crunch (manufactured in Grand Junction, CO.). They state unequivocally (and HG agrees) that this is the best candy in the world. When HG/BSK are out of this delectable they serve dark chocolate and Belgian Butter Cookies. Excellent peanut brittle also delights guests. The nutty goody was discovered at the Latino-centric Pojoauque Super Market, a short drive from the HG/BSK New Mexico home.
Dave Frishberg, the witty pianist and songwriter, wrote a funny tune: “Do You Miss New York?” The song’s conclusion is affirmative. Well, HG doesn’t miss today’s New York which seems to be dominated by oligarchs and their sycophant lackeys. What HG does miss are the long departed pleasures of an older New York. HG misses the old telephone numbers (no area codes) with their lovely exchange names: MUrrray Hill, TRafalgar, GRamercy, AUdubon, KIngsbridge, BUtterfield (John O’Hara wrote an ode to this exchange in his novel “Butterfield 8). HG misses career cabdrivers named Moe, Vito and Pat who knew every nook and cranny of the city and (sometimes) were entertaining conversationalists. HG misses the pro football players who had tough guy names. Tufffy Leemans of the Giants. Bruiser Kinard and Ace Parker of the Brooklyn Dodgers (yes, youngsters, the Brooklyn Dodgers were also an NFL team). HG misses baseball players with funny, euphonious names like Van Lingle Mungo and Kirby Higbe (the lyrics to Frishberg’s song “Van Lingle Mungo” consists solely of baseball player names). HG misses trolley cars with their yellow straw seats and leisurely pace. HG misses double decker Fifth Avenue buses with their open air seating atop. HG misses the Third Avenue El. HG misses the secondhand bookstores on Fourth Avenue (later gentrified to Park Avenue South like Sixth Avenue to Avenue of the Americas). Perhaps HG just misses being young.
Last night, HG/BSK’s neighbor Karen K., The Dessert Queen (also a talented film producer/director), provided one of her delicious, organic, locally sourced, healthy desserts. Some months ago, dubious HG (who likes rich, unhealthy desserts) tasted Karen’s goat milk ice cream. HG was blown away on a cloud of flavor. So, HG was looking forward to her Apple Pan Dowdy. Equally delicious. Made HG recall the lyric to an old time tune: “Shoofly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy makes your eyes light up and your stomach say ‘Howdy.’ ” And this led to musing about food in song. “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” “Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread.” Fats Waller declaimed: “Shrimpers and rice. That’s very nice.” HG recalls (sung by whom?) a favorable song mention of New Orleans Jambalya. Harry Belafonte sang of bananas and there was a silly 1920′s novelty tune, “Yes, we have no bananas.” The Yiddish music hall hit, “Romania,Romania”, is HG’s favorite food tune since it mentions (with enthusiasm) three great dishes: Mamaliga (polenta); Karnazelach (a cigar shaped lamb burger–the lamb is mixed with chopped onions, garlic, parsley and grilled or barbecued); Pastrameleh (Pastrami). Of course, if one should eat these three treats to excess (as HG is apt to) the only song to listen to is “Agita” as sung by the Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte) character in the great Woody Allen film “Broadway Danny Rose.”
HG/BSK have been watching the Ken Burns documentary “The Roosevelts.” HG has been pleased that the documentary stresses the originality, political smarts and racially progressive attitudes of one of the great women of our time, Eleanor Roosevelt, an HG heroine. Some writers have criticized the food at the Roosevelt White House, calling it “tasteless.” In Mrs. Roosevelt’s defense, HG cites her favorite White House supper, scrambled eggs cooked into delicate curds in a chafing dish (When was the last time you saw a chafing dish?). The secret of the comforting eggs was plenty of butter and sweet cream. Toast, sliced ham (and a few other cold cuts) completed the meal. It was preceded by FDR’s deftly mixed Martinis. The meal gets the HG seal of approval. Another wonderful woman who knows the right way to cook scrambled eggs is BSK. HG’s life companion learned how to do it on a hot plate provided by a veteran actor when BSK was a young actress in a repertory company. An electric hot plate was part of the indispensable gear of a peripatetic thespian. Today, BSK uses her favorite Paderno saucepan, uses plentiful butter but substitutes milk for the cream. HG likes these eggs topped with sour cream and red salmon caviar (from New York’s Zabar’s). In Barcelona, scrambled eggs are made table side in a Cazuela (an earthen ware casserole) and topped with various savory ingredients. Bobby Flay, the chef and TV food star, loves this Barcelona classic and has introduced it in his New York restaurant. The dish is made in the kitchen (not at table side) and waiters rush it to the table before the eggs cool and harden. Flay’s version has Spanish Romesco sauce, olives and chopped Marcona almonds. Sounds good.
The morning started with HG in a fury. Once more the Nobel Prize committee rejected Philip Roth, HG’s favorite author. Sheer injustice. There is no living author who has produced a body of work to match Roth’s. Yet year after year the Nobel officials reject Roth for the literature prize. SJ has suggested that there is the whiff of antisemitism in the rejection, a sense that enough Jewish authors have won. Maybe? In HG’s youth, HG confronted injustice with direct action on the picket line and in physical confrontation. Now, as a member of the “golden years” population, HG seeks solace in food, wine, strong spirits, New Mexico sun and vistas. And, of course, HG’s good fortune in having BSK, a loving family and a recent addition– Toby, The Wonder Dog. Tonight, HG will hope for better literary judgement in the future and soothe HG’s abraded feelings with Craig Claiborne’s Mississippi smothered chicken. The late Claiborne was a pioneering restaurant critic with the New York Times and author of some very good cookbooks. Claiborne’s chicken recipe calls for a three-pound chicken to be spatchcocked (backbone removed). The flattened chicken is placed skin side down in cast iron pan with sizzling butter. Weighted down with a plate and a five pound object (brick, tomato cans, etc.) so the skin is in direct contact with the pan. Chicken is removed and a roux is made with flour, pan juices and fat, chicken broth. Chicken is put back in the roux and cooked some more until tender. (Check here for a precise recipe). HG does not favor roux. Instead, HG will use white wine, mustard, pan juices, a squeeze of lemon, a few capers and 1/2 teaspoon of corn starch (as a modest thickener). Reduce it all. Enjoy it with BSK’s smashed potatoes, sugar snap peas, ripe heirloom tomato salad, A robust red wine. Fury will subside. Pleasure will rule.
Joy. Antony and Claudia C. are back in their mountaintop Colorado home after a few years residence in Singapore. Sorely missed by HG/BSK, it was happy news to learn Antony and Claudia would be visiting New Mexico for two days. Some info concerning A. and C.: Antony is a distinguished mutual fund manager specializing in Asian and Pacific economies. Claudia is a print and radio journalist (a super interviewer) and the author of three important books on Asian economics and finance. Though both are American citizens, they remain, in accent, appearance and manner, very British. Antony is of noble lineage and looks it. He would fit in very nicely lording it over Knowlton Abbey. Claudia is a classic Anglo-Irish eccentric from a theatrical family. Auburn haired, colorful, open hearted and uninhibited. Her delicious flamboyance makes any room burst into life. Farewell any traces of boredom, the C’s have arrived. Antony is a dedicated collector of important automobiles. On their last visit to HG/BSK’s New Mexico home they arrived in Antony’s supercharged Aston-Martin convertible. Antony, who has the skills of a Grand Prix driver, put a heavy foot on the accelerator and took HG on a thrilling drive through the scenic Northern New Mexico mesas and valleys. How to describe it? It felt like sitting in a chariot powered by raging lions. This time Antony’s vehicle was a 2007 Bentley lined in rich, voluptuous leather and burnished woods. The ride? Like sitting in a leather chair at Boodle’s (Antony’s London club) with the world floating beneath you. All that was missing was a glass of vintage port and a Cuban Maduro leaf cigar.
HG/BSK tasted Padron peppers for the first time in Madrid a few years ago. After hours on the majestic city’s museum row (the Prado and other wondrous venues) HG/BSK settled down for a late lunch at a busy, plain spoken Galician bistro. Grilled Chorizo. Shrimps in garlic sauce. Very tender Polpo Gallegos (octopus cooked in the Galician style). A big pitcher of Sangria. Good bread. And, a platter of Spanish Padron peppers fried in oil and garlic until they blistered. They were a taste revelation and HG wolfed down a dozen before a hot specimen set HG’s lips aflame. And, so HG discovered the Spanish saying (which applies to any number of experiences and persons), “Some Padrons are hot. Some are not.” You can’t tell by appearance. You only learn the truth by tasting. Last year, BSK ordered these peppers at Bones, the very good Asian fusion bistro in Denver. BSK had enjoyed the dish there many times. On this occasion, however, BSK swallowed a pepper so hot that BSK almost lost consciousness and was left with a severe and ringing headache. A stroke was feared. Since then HG/BSK have become pepper cautious. Most of the time BSK buys Shishito peppers at the Santa Fe or Pojoaque Farmers Markets. These peppers are an East Asian variety transplanted to the United States. They are very similar to Padrons, slightly smaller, never hot (and in HG’s opinion, slightly less tasty). Last night, BSK took a chance and fried a big batch of Pojoaque Padrons to accompany Adobo dusted fried pork chops. Heaven. Nary a hot coal, just peppery garlic enhanced flavor.
The Pojoauque Pueblo is HG/BSK’s Native American neighbor and its retail complex (strategically located at the juncture of Highway 285/84 and Highway 502) has been HG/BSK’s source for household necessities and outstanding New Mexican food. The Pojoauque Farmers Market (much expanded through a $44,616 grant from a Department of Agriculture program which encourages marketing by local farmers) operates every Wednesday and is BSK’s source for superb little potatoes, juicy tomatoes, chiles and herbs. A stand simply identified as “Orlando’s” offers freshly made burritos and tamales. The Pojoauque Super Market carries an extraordinary range of salsas, locally processed spices, hot sauces and everything necessary for preparing authentic New Mexican dishes. The prepared food section (good menudo and green chile stew) does a brisk luncheon trade and local women prepare fresh pico de gallo and ceviche on a daily basis. At the entrance to the supermarket, Native Americans offer traditional fry bread (as well as jewelry). Besides a bank, hardware store, government offices and a drug store, the retail complex contains Sopaipilla Factory. a restaurant much favored by HG for its suave menudo and its generous chicken enchiladas prepared Christmas style with both red and green chile sauces. The friendly staff offers all-you-can-eat sopaipillas (New Mexican popovers) with honey and butter. Yes, the Pojoauque complex has been a locavore paradise. Until now. Enter McDonald’s. Yes, Mickey Dee has made an unwelcome appearance in a large building with much parking at the entrance to the retail area. Construction had been going on for some months and most people believed the building was an addition to the nearby group of Pojoauque government buildings. Unhappy surprise. McDonald’s opened last week and, sadly, has been very busy. HG finds McDonald’s factory food nasty, inedible and unhealthy. HG hopes it will not negatively impact Sopapilla Factory and the very good nearby El Parasol, a bastion of down home, hearty Northern New Mexican cooking.
It has been said that the company, conversation, etc. are the important elements of a dinner party. Yes, but in HG’s narrow and obsessed view, food counts. A lot. HG has been fortunate. The food at the great majority of dinner parties HG has attended has been, if not distinguished, at least edible. Some notable exceptions took place when HG/BSK participated in a “gourmet” club in the Colorado mountains. The club members were sweet people but the meals they prepared seemed like absurd parodies of serious cooking. HG recalls a mushily braised rabbit, a shoe leather tough hunk of venison, a “health” salad of bean sprouts, carrots, honey and kale.
In terms of geography, Wyoming gets HG’s vote as capital of bad food. HG/BSK once ventured to the state on a horseback riding trek that took HG/BSK from ranch to ranch. Bunk beds, breakfast and dinner were provided. Memories: Watery coffee, insufferably sweet stale cinnamon buns; gristly, well done steak with canned peas; beef stew topped with congealed grease. HG/BSK ate lunch on the trail: “Luncheon meat” sandwiches and Kool Aid. Dismal. At least the majestic views of the Grand Tetons, the sunrises and sunsets were great – almost made up for the food. Almost.
In terms of bad food, HG mused that sometimes actual hostility was involved. This had to have been the case at a shrimp curry dinner an eccentric woman launched at her Fire Island home. HG is fond of spicy, even very hot food like Indian vindaloos. But, the shrimp at this party were like hot coals, they were mean. HG does not exaggerate. One bite and blisters formed on lips and gums. When the guests protested they were urged by the hostess — with a glint of sadism in her eyes — to gulp yogurt to staunch the flames. It didn’t work.
Sometimes bad meals had a hint of surrealism as in the very strange “white” meal a beautiful blonde, pale woman once prepared for HG/BSK: Vichysoisse. Chicken in a creamy a la king sauce. Mashed potatoes. Creamed puree of cucumbers. White wine. White Bread. Dessert? You guessed it. Vanilla ice cream.
Finally, a dinner party meal that HG/BSK have often recalled was made notable for the absence of food. Throughout the night, there were smells of cooking (HG/BSK may have imagined this). Periodic noisy clatter coming from the kitchen where the nervous hostess continued to dart. But, no food ever appeared. No explanation from the hostess or her playwright husband. Hours went by. Before midnight, famished HG/BSK mumbled farewells and raced to the nearest diner.
Pete Wells, The New York Times restaurant critic, did a delightful, witty review of Sammy’s Romanian Steakhouse, The Cardiolgist’s Nightmare on New York’s Lower East Side. Sammy’s serves a nostalgia drenched, schmaltz (chicken fat) drenched, heavy on garlic cuisine. The place evokes the yesteryear Jewish New York of The Bronx, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. It is loud and clamorous with music from a non-politically correct pianist. Customers, fueled by vodka from ice enclosed bottles, join in the songs and dance between the tables. There are no strangers, just one big family. Wells got it right when he called it a “permanent underground bar mitzvah where Gentiles can act like Jews and Jews can act like themselves.” The restaurant provokes strong emotions. Love it or hate it. Wells wrote: “Sammy’s is the most wonderful terrible restaurant in New York.” BSK is firmly anti-Sammy’s. HG and SJ love it. Sammy’s is a once (maybe twice) a year place. More than that is suicidial. HG once left Sammy’s full of vodka, chopped liver and silver dollar potatoes. Driving uptown on the East Side drive, HG’s equally sozzled companion pointed out he was driving in the downtown lane. Both survived. Barely. Some sensitive Jewish readers have complained about the Wells review. HG’s advice to them: “Lighten up. Sammy’s is just a Jewish joke. Have a shot of icy vodka. L’Chaim.”