The blizzard of 2010 has been disruptive. HG and Beautiful Sharon are in New York hoping we can make make it to storm warning Denver and then to Santa Fe. Iffy. HG and BS consoled themselves last night with some Congee Village eats—joined by son Jeremy, daughter Vicki and chef husband Marc. Clams in black bean sauce. Fried chicken. Pepper and salt squid. Fried shrimp. Hot and sour soup. Greens and garlic. Much Tsing-Tao beer. We were well nourished. The late Nazi film maker Leni Riefenstahl made a film “White Hell of Pitz Palau” (fleeting insider joke reference to it in Tarentino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds'”). White Hell of Manhattan snow has quickly turned to ankle high slush. HG saw a shapely Russian lady leaving HG’s hotel wearing some open toed Manolo Blahnik six-inch stilettos. Good luck to you, Natasha. Style demands sacrifice.
HG is a cheapo when it comes to spirits. HG likes after dinner French brandy but settles for lesser labels. However. He has a ploy. A splash of Peychaud Bitters make an inferior brandy sing. Give it a try.
Prof. Massimo, HG’s distinguished son-in-law,created a culinary surprise this Christmas: Budino. This is the Italian version of chocolate pudding..less sweet than the American version, denser than a French chocolate mousse. Chocaholic ecstasy when topped with whipped cream. There was also a spirits surprise. Neighbors of Massimo are Dr. I and his wife, Doctor D. They are both family care physicians serving the uninsured, the underserved and the homeless. Not exactly jolly work but you’d never guess. Dr. I, a long,lean guy, radiates energy and originality. Dr. D radiates goodness without being in the least a goody-goody. The hospitable Dr. I hosts a holiday season tasting of his extraordinary collection of Scotch whiskys. This is no casual gathering of tipplers. Dr. I provides a map of Scotland tracing the location of the whiskys plus a scholarly guide to aid the Scotch nouveau through the tasting process.
Dr. I’s guide suggests that after doing a crititical tasting the taster should: “Pour yourself a second dram, suspend your critical judgement and, in the words of Oscar Wilde,’revitalize the soul with the senses and the senses with the soul'”. Dr. I, a Doc who knows a good pour and good prose.
Scungilli are common channeled whelks or marine snails. They are rarely encountered on menus anywhere except in Rhode Island (in the form of snail salad) or in very traditional, soulful Italian neighborhood restaurants. The waiters call the whelk “skuhnjeel”. You can get skuhnjeel in a garlicky salad; in a marinara sauce or topping pasta in a blazing sauce alive with chili peppers. HG, reared in a Bronx Italian-Jewish-Irish neighborhood, became an early convert to skuhnjeel and often devoured it at Vincent’s and Umberto’s restaurants in Little Italy. For some reason. skuhnjeel was a favorite with mob guys. The late Joey Gallo met his final end while on his way to a late night skuhnjeel feast. Difficult to find great skuhnjeel in New York these days. Making them edible is very labor intensive. Frozen skuhnjeel is expensive, mushy and lacks authenticity. In Paris, the common northern whelk is known as the bulot. Much easier to prepare, for some reason, than its New York/New England neighbor, bulots are a cheap and delicious treat. They are served with mayonnaise. When HG visits Paris in February, a dozen oysters and a dozen bulots will begin his meal at the Le Stella brasserie. Bring on the Muscadet.
HG has been informed that when ordering Rhode Island’s New York System hot wieners with all the fixins’, one requests: “All the way.” The beverage of choice with these morsels is coffee milk. If, like HG, you are a Rhody fan make sure you listen to Blossom Dearie perform: “Rhode Island Is Famous For You.”
HG likes pizza. Hot pizza. HG does not like cold pizza. There’s a problem. The first slice is very good. After that the law of diminishing returns takes over. Subsequent slices feature gummy mozzarella and tepid tomato. Not good. In HG’s youth a pizza was shared with four friends. The pie was sliced into five segments..a hot slice for each diner. Then another pie was ordered. HG and buddies could knock off four or five pies or more. Each slice hot and yummy. HG’s pizza problem could be solved today but there no cholesterol-defying buddies available.
HG gets back to New York tomorrow in time to say hello to the December blizzard. Seems that Bloomberg (like John Lindsay) can solve human problems and financial conundrums but can’t get the snow off Queens and Brooklyn streets. The more things change the more they stay the same. Musing about New York, HG has concluded that The Big Town serves so much food that there’s no way that Zagat, the Times, Time Out and the hundreds of bloggers can really sort it all out. HG was thinking about three places he enjoyed some years ago. All below the critical radar. There was a Chinese/Cuban joint near the George Washington Bridge that caused HG to step on the brakes when going to or leaving Scenic Joisey. Chinese ran many Havana restaurants and skipped out when Castro took over. They brought a unique cuisine with them. The meal HG enjoyed: Chinese butterflied fried shrimp, Cuban black beans and rice; Cuban avocado, orange and onion salad; Cuban coffee and Cuban/Spanish flan. Sensational. HG often had a hamburger at a coffee shop on Madison Avenue in the 80’s. Somehow the Greek proprietor had wangled a long term lease and was not affected by astronomically rising rents. He would prepare a hamburger from freshly ground chuck, just fat enough to make the burger juicy. It would go on a sizzling griddle. The exterior was charred. The interior was pink. This was a big, more than a half-pound burger. It got a topping of caramelized fried onions, slipped into a buttered, toasted bun and plated with a robust helping of crispy-edged home fries. HG never used ketchup on this super burger. It would be sacrilege. At one point the Greek’s landlord paid him a million bucks to buy out his lease. Joy for the Greek. Sadness for HG. Then there was breakfast at a coffee shop in the East 40’s. Simple. Three very, very softly scrambled eggs. Two bialys (heated but not toasted). Good cream cheese (not that Philadelphia brand junk). Strong coffee. Simple. But, every detail was perfect. For HG the great food thing about New York is the fact that hundreds (maybe thousands) of unheralded neighborhood places daily serve dishes that are simple and good, prepared better than in any city HG has encountered..
Goya cans tasty beans. And, as long as you have beans, you’ve got a meal. Cowboys knew it. HG agrees. Black beans. Serve them over rice. Top with chopped, raw onion and a pinch of dry Mexican oregano. Maybe a dollop of sour cream (or thick Greek yogurt)). Garbanzo beans. Mix with some duck fat (or chicken fat if you can get it). Chopped raw onion plus sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Pass the Beaujolais Nouveau. An alternative: Puree the beans with sauteed onion and garlic. Add to hot chicken broth and stir until smooth. Before devouring the soup give it a hit of olive oil and dust with parmesan. White beans. Drain the beans and mix with some good canned or jarred Italian or Spanish tuna. Add chopped red onion and a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice and a bit of Dijon mustard. Supplement any of these dishes with some good bread, a bit of salad and, of course, red or white wine. Cheap. Hearty. Beans were good enough for Buck Jones and they’re good enough for HG
The late Anatole Broyard wrote a pleasant memoir of his early years—just post World War Two— in Greenwich Village–“When Kafka Was The Rage.” Worth reading. At that time, HG was young and Greenwich Village was the hangout for HG and his left-wing, amorously adventurous, artistically striving pals. Rent was cheap and $35- a-month one-room apartments were occupied by fresh faced young women from the midwest—each apartment complete with bullfight posters, a cat and a fragrant litter box. Permit HG some nostalgic sighs. There was a culinary feature of those Greenwich Village streets—the back of the truck Italian sausage. On the bed of a pick up truck hot and sweet Italian fennel sausages grilled over charcoal. In a big, black pan onions and peppers sizzled. The gate came down. The Italian guy parked. Let the good times roll. The juicy sausage (when you bit into it there was a squirt of liquid glory) was topped with the onion and pepper mixture and placed in a split Italian loaf from Zito’s Bakery. It cost a quarter. HG must pause to wipe away a nostalgic tear. For midwest romance and juicy two-bit sausages. Both were delicious.
Funny, quirky Rhode Island (that’s where HG is spending the holiday). Home of great oysters and clams. The basic Rhody food is the doughnut. There’s a Dunkin’ on every corner. The sports arena is the Dunkin’ Donuts Arena, known to basketball fans as The Dunk. Needless to say, Rhody leads the 48 in per capita doughnut consumption. The teeny state is home to the ultimate thirst quencher: Del’s Frozen Lemonade. HG has experienced the beverage on the Providence- to- Bristol bike path on a blazing summer day. Del’s works. Ocean Staters like the combo of clam cakes and Rhode Island clam chowder. The Rhody chowder is simple and clear. Clam broth. Onions. Potatoes. Chopped clams. Oregano. The clam cake is a hunk of fried dough with a vague clam taste. Meaningless on its own, it achieves stature when dipped into chowder. And, then there’s New York System wieners. These are steamed pork frankfurters served on steamed buns. Fans order a threesome “three ways”–topped with a chili-like meat sauce, mustard and chopped raw onions dusted with celery seed. A very special taste, beloved by the natives. Others might prefer more conventional tube steaks.