There is an eggplant dish, Turkish in origin, called Imam Bayildi.An overrated bit of food, in HG’s opinion. Essentially, you scoop out the soft interior of a long roasted eggplant. Mash it with tomatoes, onions, etc. Blanch the exterior of the eggplant. Recompose the eggplant into round or oval slices and bake them in the oven. Is it worth all the bother? No. HG will stick with the much simpler Baba Ghanoush. “Imam Bayildi,” roughly translated from Turkish, means “the Imam fainted.” Culinary lore has it that that a Turkish Imam passed out with delight when he first tasted this dish.
Baba Ghanoush. HG suggests you roll these two words around your mouth. Sounds delicious, doesn ‘t it? It is. Basically a spicy eggplant puree, baba ghanoush can be the center piece of a fast, simple Middle Eastern meal.
Here’s how you do it: Prick an eggplant all over with a fork and roast it at 400 degrees until it’s soft. When soft, scoop out the interior and discard the skin. Mash the eggplant with a lot of minced garlic, some tahini, lemon juice, cumin. Salt and pepper, of course. HG will not give specific proportions. Be creative and make it your own creation. Some very finely minced onion can be added, if you like. Form it into a mound. Make a well in the middle and fill with fruity (HG likes Sicilian) olive oil and drizzle some over the rest. Sprinkle with Za’atar. Surround with Kalamata olives and sliced tomatoes. If you want some heat add some Italian hot pepper flakes. Goes good with lamb chops and lamb burgers. Pass the warm pita.
Passover is here and that means, among many other things, that it’s time for one of HG’s favorite breakfast treats: matzo brei (pronounced bry..rhyming with dry). Here’s the classic recipe: Beat two eggs with salt and pepper. Break up two whole matzos into small pieces. Soak the pieces in cold water for a few minutes until soft. Drain and gently squeeze out the water. Drop the pieces into the beaten eggs. Heat a mixture of butter and vegetable oil until it sizzles. Cook the matzo/egg mixture under low heat for a few minutes until the bottom sets. Turn over and brown the other side. Serve hot. (This is from Claudia Roden’s wonderful “The Book of Jewish Food.”) Mrs. Roden says this quantity is enough for two but HG could easily knock it off himself. Indeed, he is Hungry Gerald. HG , irreverently, likes to top off the matzo brei with some thick cut, natural bacon. Don’t tell the Rabbi. Ah shandeh!! (a shame, a disgrace).
In 1957, a super-cool pal of HG took him to lunch at Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers Street in New York’s Chinatown. In the days of the Tong Wars when Chinese gangs fought for control of opium, gambling and extortion rackets, Doyers (which is shaped like an elbow) was called “The Bloody Angle” and it was a veritable killing field. But, all was peaceful when HG dug into a meal of steamed and fried dumplings, pork buns, spare ribs and other savories. HG learned this type was food was known by the collective name: Dim Sum. The Dim Sum was brought to the table on carts wheeled by serious Chinese women. The danger was stuffing oneself on the offerings of one cart when an even better cart was waiting in the wings. Condiments were hot mustard and Hoisin sauce. The beverage was tea, of course, but HG supplemented this with a bottle of cognac. That first visit led to scores more. BSK became a devotee as did gifted daughter LR and SJ. Nom Wah was ludicrously cheap, of course, as was everything in the Chinatown of that era. HG had many feasts of fried crabs in eggs sauce ($1.75 at Wing Fat) , shrimp in black bean sauce ($1.25 at Yuet Sun) and other laughably priced delicacies up and down Mott Street. How about surprisingly good grilled pork liver for 45 cents? In oncoming years Chinatown was flooded with huge, Hong Kong-style dim sum parlors. HG hasn’t been to Nom Wah in years and didn’t know if it even existed anymore. Voila! Nice story in NY Times a few days ago. Still in business under management of new generation of owners. No carts. Dim sum made to order. Still good. Still cheap. Decor has been kept the same with only some very minor refurbishments. Can’t wait to get back and refresh happy memories.
Uncharacteristically, HG wandered into a healthy, Vegan restaurant yesterday. Off on a tedious errand and it was the only place around. Had a nice meal of green sludge, orange sludge and orange/green sludge. Never mind that this bland pap was supposed to be Saag Paneer, Spiced Root Vegetables and a Tofu-Pumpkin thing — it was terrible. Never again. Life is too short and there are too many good things out there.
The imponderable: Why is this type of healthy, ecologically responsible, spiritual food so tasteless? Why does it show so little respect to the preparation of vegetables? How is it that foods such as Vietnamese or Southern Indian can be so healthy, yet so vibrant, so DELICIOUS?
I longed for dumplings before I even knew what longing meant. Yes…the classic Chinese, crescent-shaped, fried dumpling filled with pork and chives. My sister, LR and I loved them. We loved the ritual mixing of the soy sauce and vinegar; we loved that they came first at any Chinese meal; and finally we probably loved that there were never enough — at 6 to an order, our family of four always had 2 orders…3 each! Not Enough!!!!! When LR first got a boyfriend who had a car she quickly got him take us to this Chinese Restaurant in Teaneck, New Jersey whose dumplings were bigger than average, seriously juicy and had a fine balance between a crispy bottom and tender exterior. It was an act of true kindness to an annoying younger brother. With no parents around to say no, my sister and I went for the pay load — we ordered 8 orders of dumplings. We were finally going to have our fill. And we did. And it was genius. It was better than we could have imagined to shuck off the trappings of a meal and simply focus on what we really wanted all along. Needless to say, the boyfriend knew that he had been used by two dumpling obsessives as he pitifully tried to order Egg Foo Young. He did not last, and my sister ended up marrying a wonderful man who would happily join us for a mad 10 order dumpling fest with narry a blink of the eye.
As the years went by, my dumpling obsession did not cease. I knocked off thousands of orders of fried dumplings and expanded my horizons with Russian Pelmini, Polish Pierogi, Uzbeki Manti, Korean Mandoo, Japanese Gyoza and more. In my 30s, I sat once again with my sister at New Green Bo on Bayard Street and, still giddy to be free of all parental constraint, ordered an ALL DUMPLING meal of Xioa Lung Bao (Shanghai style Crab & Pork “Soup” Dumplings), fried dumplings and Schezuan Wontons in hot chili oil. Delicious.
My wife, the lovely Maiko, is Japanese and we were married in Tokyo. HG and BSK were in attendance. After the wedding, we decided to take both sides of our respective families to Kyoto for our honeymoon. While we loved the company and Kyoto itself, translating between, not just languages, but some general cultural concepts was a touch trying and a bit stressful for both me and my new bride. One night, we escaped our families and walked down from our hill-side hotel into the center of the city; swaying through the ancient streets and narrow lanes, I spied a dank, dirty store-front pulsating with the neon visage of yes…you guessed it…a dumpling. It was a clarion call we could not avoid. Inside, the ancient chef/owner confirmed that they only made one thing. Gyoza, and one type of gyoza at that. Though stuffed from a dinner finished not an hour before, we made our order and watched as the chef, with custom-made implements coaxed out a plate of 6 (what? Is there a world-wide dumpling standard?) perfectly identical dumplings bound together with a lacy sheet of golden brown, fried rice flour. We sat together on a tiny bench, armed with chopsticks and cracked that crunchy crust, dipped them in the soy and vinegar sauce and lifted those gyoza to our mouths. The rice flour crunch acted as a hearty welcome as the silken dumpling skin began to dance on our tongues. Oh yes! It was dumpling excellence taken to a power of what seemed to be infinity. It was a dumpling that took the basic dumpling components and elevated them — where some dumplings could be heavy, these were light; and yet they were unctuous and bursting with juice and porky goodness. We smiled at each other and really had to laugh — we had just spent a week of incredible Japanese wedding banquets and traditional Kyoto style Kaiseki meals, but these dumplings, these luminous gyoza were the high points of our culinary adventuring.
Well…back in New York, we started our married life. While we both had two busy schedules, I began to discover that Maiko could cook. Seriously cook. I would come home to discover the lightest tempura or a 2 week stint where pig heads slowly bubbled away to create a broth for a ramen soup that took my breath away. And then one day I came home and Maiko promised me a surprise. I waited patiently, listening to the sounds of cooking and finally she came to me with a platter of what I can honestly describe as the most gorgeous dumplings I had even seen — it was an abundance of dumplings! 25 or 30 of those crescent shaped gems bound together with that lacy filament of delectable rice flour crunchiness. And best of all, there were no side dishes or main dishes or any other type of dish to distract from the very dumplingness of it all.
And so I ate.
Where those great Kyoto dumplings had one perfect note, one perfect flavor, Maiko’s reached that note, sustained it and then followed it with a back beat of other subtle tastes and nuances. Simply put, she ascended the heights of the Kyoto dumpling pinnacle, stuck her flag in it and somehow went even higher.
I had an epiphany at that moment. Like that delicate rice flour crust, my existence had always seemed so fragile. It was a life predicated on the galloping momentum of my ancestor’s random choices and lucky escapes which finally led to a sperm in a million hitting an egg and creating me. But, as that dumpling coursed through my system, I questioned that randomness for the first time. How could it be anything but fate that one of the world’s finest dumpling eaters would meet a woman from across the globe and marry her only to find out that she was the world’s greatest dumpling chef?
For many years HG was obsessed by the Chow Mein Sandwich. Permit HG to clarify: A Chow Mein Sandwich is a layer of crisp chow mein noodles, a large glop (heavy on the corn starch) of vegetable chow mein, a squirt of soy sauce. Served on a standard, soft hamburger roll, it is very difficult to eat. The filling has the regrettable habit of rolling down the eater’s sleeve. The only places that served this delicacy were Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island and Nathan’s Famous near Times Square (it had a run of about 10 years). Despite the consumption difficulty HG was mad about the sandwich and made many detours to Nathan’s to indulge his passion (ruining many suit sleeves in the process). Nathan’s is now franchised beyond recognition and despite existing in every major airport, ONLY the original Coney Island branch still serves the Chow Mein Sandwich. HG has moved to New Mexico.
If fate is kind to HG and BSK they will be in Bologna later in 2011 or in early 2012. Bologna is a delightful city, not much visited by Americans who stick to the Rome-Florence-Venice peregrination. They miss out on the best cuisine in Italy. Some may object to this statement since Bologna is an inland city and fish is not on many menus. However, for the truly robust eater (and one who is not too fearful of cholesterol) Bologna is a dream. Of course, the city has many others features besides food: Interesting museums, architecturally outstanding arcades, a noble square anchored by a cathedral and a soaring bell tower; one of the oldest and most revered universities in Europe and a moving memorial to the many who died fighting fascism. Splendid…
Okay, back to the food. HG has joyous memories of a dinner he had at the classic Ristorante Diana. The decor was classic — hand polished wood and glittering mirrors of 1920’s-30’s vintage. Courtly waiters. Traditional Bolognese dishes. HG’s meal started with tagliatelle with butter and the best parmesan. The waiter topped the dish with generous shavings of pungently fragrant white truffles. Then a large man wheeled over a silver cart, removed some lids and allowed HG to gaze upon the ultimate Bolito Misto, the classic Italian dish of boiled meats: Juicy beef; Cotechino (a fat sausage that had simmered at a low heat for four hours); Zampone, which is a pig’s trotter stuffed with sausage meat — a delicious, porky treat that has a delicate rim of fat which creates a velvety contrast with the rough hewn sausage. Tongue; a chicken thigh. HG had it all with very generous lashings of salsa verde and mostarda di frutta. The wine was Sangiovese. Dessert was a semifreddo, the Italian version of frozen custard. Unforgettable.
In a previous post, HG has commented, forcefully, about his dislike for waitpersons making personal introductions. One more thing that HG finds objectionable is waitpersons asking: “Still working on that?”.
The correct response should be: “Yes. With a pick and shovel — now let me finish my meal in peace!”
HG’s gifted daughter LR and her distinguished husband, Profesore/Dottore MR, hosted Romano Prodi at dinner in their Rhode Island home last week. Prodi, a voice of political and economic sanity in an increasingly crazy and disjointed world, is the former Prime Minister of Italy and President of the European Commission. Because of his low key manner, unusual in an Italian public figure, he has been nicknamed “Valium.” Less flattering, he has been nicknamed “The Mortadella.” That’s because he is a bit round, a bit pink and is from Bologna (birthplace of that delectable salume). This has led HG to muse on the subject of food nicknames. As noted in an earlier post, Charles De Gaulle was “La Grande Asperge”, of course. New York’s late and lamented Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was often greeted by shouts of “pastafazoole” because of his stated fondness for pasta e fagioli. Any other nicknames? Of course, many big wigs and titans of industry have been called “The Big Cheese” but given the recent, rotten actions of the Republican party, HG may well dub them, the “Overripe Gorgonzola.”