Mark Bittman had a good article recently in the New York Times expressing his displeasure with expensive, elaborate meals at New York restaurants run by “celebrity” chefs. Unwelcoming atmosphere. Fussy food. A $200 price and you don’t have a good time. Antithetical to this are the three New York restaurants run by HG’s daughter, Victoria, and her chef/partner/husband Marc Meyer. The restaurants are Cookshop (Chelsea), Hundred Acres (Soho) and Five Points (Noho). Do not accuse HG of nepotism, favoritism or clouded judgment. In matters of cuisine (if nothing else) HG is the soul of honor, objectivity and probity. Victoria’s restaurants don’t need HG’s aid. They are busy, successful places with lots of steady customers and many famous faces among the diners. The food? Strictly locavore. Generous portions. Robust flavors. Affordable prices. Very good wines and splendid, beautifully shucked oysters. Brunch is a special treat. Check out the restaurant websites. You’ll get hungry. When you go, say HG sent you.
Is there any food more versatile than salt cod? HG has a pound of salt cod soaking in a big bowl of cold water (the cod has been rinsed and the water changed many times in the last 24 hours). How shall it be cooked? No, not a creamy brandade. HG likes to make this with fresh poached cod or haddock. Portuguese style? Cooked in the oven with lots of olive oil, garlic, onions and potatoes. Showered with black olives and halves of hard boiled eggs. Spanish. An emphasis on peppers and onions. Italian (served on polenta). Basically, a fish and tomato ragu. Save some of the poached cod for some fritters and cold salad tomorrow. Have just scratched the surface of possibilities. Love Jamaican Ackee and salt fish, but the ackee just isn’t available in these parts. If you are interested in the fascinating history of cod read Mark Kurlansky‘s book: Cod: A Biography of The Fish That Changed The World. He’s also done two other great books: Salt: A World History and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell.
Following yesterday’s posting, Hungry Gerald followers have expressed curiosity about the cuisine in the tiny, cramped, non-air conditioned Rockaway rooming house occupied by HG’s family during the steamy summers of the Great Depression. Sour cream (smetenya, HG’s Mom called it, harking back to her Belorussian roots), was the basic foodstuff. Big spoonfuls were mixed into Mom’s cold and flavorful beet borscht and sorrel soup (schav). Main dish at many dinners was simply a bowl of boiled potatoes with sour cream. The family also ate bowls of sour cream with chopped radishes, scallions and cucumbers. Sour cream adorned Mom’s blintzes (crepes stuffed with pot cheese or peppery mashed potatoes). Sour cream was served with kasha varneshkes (buckwheat groats and butterfly pasta). Best of all were bowls of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries adorned with sour cream. Meat didn’t play a big role in the Rockaway diet (except for salami and eggs in a pancake style). Lots of fried flounder. Mom dipped the fish in beaten egg and rolled them in bread crumbs before popping them into an pan of sizzling Crisco. This was served with Mueller’s Spaghetti and Mom’s very rudimentary tomato sauce (HG loved it). Tuna and sardine salads were basics. A truck manned by a Long Island farmer pulled up on the Rockaway block daily loaded with fresh tomatoes, lettuce and seasonal vegetables. Fortunately, he always had a load of just picked corn and HG managed to eat a ton of it dripping with butter. The drink was always beer fetched at the beginning of dinner from Reidy’s Saloon on the corner (in later years, HG had an Abie’s Irish Rose romance with the proprietor’s lovely daughter). Yes, HG (at the age of six) drank beer with his elders. It was considered a healthy drink unlike the sugary sodas that were not allowed on the HG table. HG had a joyous errand at the end of dinner. It was his job to get a quart of ice cream (35 cents) at Barney’s Ice Cream Parlor. This was hand churned deliciousness that Barney scooped into a container. HG had to race back home with the ice cream before it melted. Anticipation gave the little fellow winged feet.
When HG was a little lad during the Great Depression, the HG family of four (and sometimes five) spent summers in a Rockaway Beach boarding house. Two rooms (a kitchen/”dinette” and bedroom connected by a foyer. Mom and Pop slept in the bedroom. Sister slept in the foyer. HG slept on the kitchen floor. When brother occasionally joined the family, the kitchen table was shoved to a side and he joined HG on the kitchen floor. The rudimentary sleeping pads were rolled up in the morning and stored under the parental bed. Toilet was in the hall outside the apartment and was shared with another family. The arrangement encouraged alertness. Showers were in the basement of the boarding house and the water had two temperatures — cold and very cold. The summer season began July 1 and ended the day after Labor Day. Rent: $25 for the season. Did HG (or any of the other family members) feel deprived because of the crowding and primitive facilities? No. It was heaven. Life was lived (during the day) on the beach and in the sea and (at night) on the boardwalk cooled by salt air breezes. HG’s father commuted to the hot city and (rain or shine) upon his return spent an hour being refreshed in the Rockaway surf. The kitchen had no refrigerator. It had an ice box (serviced by a muscular Italian ice man named Vito). There was a basin beneath the ice box to contain the melting ice and it was little HG’s responsibility to make sure the basin was emptied before it could overflow. HG was dedicated to that task. As a reward, HG could use the ice pick to chip a bit of ice for a cooling treat. HG’s Mom would often chip some chunks of ice to put in her bowls of pink, cold beet borscht (best cold summer soup in HG’s long culinary experience). The ice pick got a lot of use. During that same time period ice picks were being used for lethal purposes by the Murder, Inc. killers from Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhoods. The renowned Jewish assassin, “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, would plunge an ice pick into his victim’s ear or temple. He was so deft that many medical examiners assumed the victim died of a cerebral haemorrhage. According to a recent New York Times story, the ice pick (after a decades long absence) has reemerged as a an anti-social utensil. It is now a weapon of choice for many Bronx street gangs. Obviously, these thugs have an affection for retro artifacts.
Many foreign gourmands have commented, unfavorably, on the tremendous size of American restaurant portions. They infer that this contributes to the tremendous size of Americans. HG believes that a reliance on snacks and sugary drinks is a bigger contributor. But, HG does admit restaurant portions in the U.S.A. are too large. HG feels light, sprightly and well fed after a Paris lunch where the portions are small and the fat content is large. A U.S.A. lunch can give HG leaden feet and a heavy head. There is big and then there is really big and into that category falls a dish that used to be served in the fancier restaurants of HG’s youth. This was planked steak (usually served in a portion meant for two but could feed eight at a Paris bistro). Here’s how the dish was constructed: A very big steak was centered on a very big plank of wood (basically a cutting board). It was surrounded by every seasonal vegetable –spinach, broccoli, asparagus, beets, carrots, peas, zucchini. The steak got a big blast of buttery steak sauce and the vegetables glistened with additional butter. Piped around the entire border of the plank and creating a picturesque frame for the meat and vegetables were mashed potatoes mixed with abundant butter and heavy cream and then browned under the broiler for a brief moment. Planked steak was a very nice All-American dish that paid for the college education of the chidlren of cardiologists.
That’s what Willy Loman’s widow said in the climactic scene of Arther Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” And, to leave the artistic heights for the mundane, this applies to the construction of a proper lobster roll. The big problem with lobster rolls is the cost/pleasure ratio. Lobster rolls are expensive. Unfortunately, most contain little lobster and much mayonnaise. When there is enough lobster the price makes a dent in the appetite. Before they left Prince Edward Island, SJ and Exquisite Maiko joined HG for a lobster roll lunch day (BSK had to be left out of the feast because of crustacean allergy). Attention was paid to all of the details and the result was six lush, lobster abundant lobster rolls. First, celery and onion were chopped. No cucumber. HG finds it incompatible with this treat. One pound of very good lobster meat was sliced into manageable pieces. All went into a bowl with Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise. How much mayo? Just enough. Plus a dab of Dijon mustard and a squeeze of lemon juice. Hot dog buns were toasted (exterior and interior). The interior got a generous helping of softened sweet butter. Attention was paid. Perfection was achieved.
Some great dishes seem to have disappeared from restaurant menus. Mozzarella in Carozzo, a delicious fried mozzarella and bread confection (often enhanced by anchovy sauce) is gone from Italian restaurants in New York. Hard to find clams casino or clams oreganato. Pork chops with vinegar peppers was a staple at the late, lamented Delsomma and other Italian eateries. Gone except for venerable Patsy’s on West 56th. HG misses boeuf bourginoun and plain, old American beef stew. What could be better on a cold day (with a big dollop of buttery mashed potatoes or egg noodles) ? Ditto really good meat loaf, which, except for the dish’s re-invention at many a New York hot spot, has gone the way of a 25 cent cup of coffee. HG sees $40-$45 veal chops on menus. Fuhgeddabout it !! HG wants those hearty, bargain treats.
While waiting to hear President Obama’s DNC speech, HG began to think about history. HG realized that he is now old enough to have a visceral link to the Civil War. The Memorial Day (usually called “Decoration Day”) parade on the Grand Concourse in The Bronx was a dramatic and memorable occasion. HG’s famiy watched the parade from a vantage point on W. 164th Street. Marching bands. Flags. World War One Veterans. A few Spanish-American War vets. Then, a true dramatic moment, one that drew loud cheers and applause from the crowd. A convertible auto drove by slowly. In the back seat (with a nurse) were two very, very frail old men. Civil War veterans (Union army, it is presumed). They waved. Feebly. Six-year-old HG was thrilled. After the parade, HG’s family went to a favored delicatessen on Mt. Eden Avenue for pastrami sandwiches and garlicky hot dogs doused in sharp mustard. Inevitably, that food has become linked in HG’s mind to that special occasion; and it was those memories that re-surfaced during the closing night of the convention. Many hopeful (and ominous) thoughts.
Now that autumn is rolling around, HG expects to see Cassoulet, the French casserole based around a mix of duck confit, sausage and beans on many restaurant menus. HG has dined on Cassoulet in many estimable Paris and New York restaurants. The dish sounds so good but, inevitably, HG is disappointed. In fact, the only really good Cassoulet HG ever enjoyed was prepared by his talented cousin, Wini Freund, in her Port Washington. L.I. kitchen. Deeply flavored, robust and rich, with every ingredient retaining integrity. The memory lingers on.
HG likes beans. They know how to handle them in Tuscany. In Florence, Steak Fiorentina cooked blood rare and gilded with great olive oil is usually accompanied by abundant, firm white beans with lots of that good olive oil, rosemary and plentiful garlic. HG replicates this dish in New Mexico with New York strip steak and Goya beans. HG has never liked Boston baked beans. Too sweet. Serving it with Boston brown bread just adds to the saccharine quality. The only cook who can do anything good with conventional Heinz or Campbell’s baked beans is BSK. The excellent woman adds lots of sauteed onions and ketchup to the mix (and a dash of Tabasco). Serves the beans with grilled Hebrew National all-beef frankfurters. Mustard pickles on the side. A -once-in-a-while, funky, teen age, down home treat.
Yes, SJ, Exquisite Maiko, Haru and Teru are off to Brooklyn, leaving behind Prince Edward Island for the harsher realities of school and careers. For HG and BSK this will mean Prince Edward Island quiet and serenity, no sounds but the wind and the sea. Of course, this will mean no extraordinary cuisine from EM. No funny insights, swim companionship, beach walks, book reading and much more from Haru. No delicious cuddles and silly noise making with the enchanting six month old Teru. Tonight, SJ took over the preparation of a farewell dinner. SJ marinated some organic, free range farmers market chicken in a mixture of oil, garlic, adobo, lemon juice, salt and pepper. The chicken went on a charcoal grill and the result was crusty, spicy, juicy hunks of bird. SJ also did the best, simplest summer pasta: A host of chopped herbs from the garden — marjoram. chives, mint, parsley, thyme, rosemary,Thai basil — were mixed with ripe local tomatoes and thin slivers of garlic. These were placed on top a big bowl of artisan pasta from a local market. SJ then heated up hot olive oil (just before the burning point) and poured it (with the appropriate sizzling sounds) over the herbs, tomato and garlic mixture. The heady herbaceous aromas filled the room. Post feast, Haru manged an ice cream bar but the rest of the dinner party could only sip wine and murmur the bittersweet sighs of farewell.