February 28th, 2013 § § permalink
Some years ago, HG was lunching at a restaurant in Chicago’s Greektown. Grilled octopus. A tasty slab of sauteed pickerel with garlicky greens, okra and orzo (the Greek version of Jewish farvel, a small pasta shape also called “egg barley.”). Retsina wine (admittedly, an acquired taste). For dessert, my companions (all of Greek origin) ordered yogurt for dessert. Didn’t sound promising. Sounded like a bad health food restaurant option. It proved to be a revelation. Thick, really thick yogurt, topped with walnuts and fragrant honey. Delicious. Remains one of HG’s favorite desserts. Greek yogurt was hard to find then. HG managed to source some at a Greek delicatessen in Vancouver where it was scooped out of a big tub. Now it has become omnipresent. Even Dannon has a version. But, as far as HG is concerned, only the Fage brand has authentic Greek texture and taste.
In Trader Joe’s spice department you can find a nice melange of spices labeled “Tsatziki Mix.” Add it to plain Fage yogurt. Make some Keftas (Middle Eastern lamb burgers utilizing garlic, cumin, mint and grated onion). Tuck a Kefta into a warmed pita with a dollop of Tsatziki-spiced yogurt and a few slices of raw onion and tomato plus a squirt of Sriracha for heat. The burger from heaven.
February 27th, 2013 § § permalink
HG and BSK have spent these last evenings watching PBS’ Vietnam: A Television History This balanced (but very moving) account of that dreadful, wasteful, almost endless horror made HG and BSK relive the turmoil of the 60’s and early 70’s when the couple marched and protested against the war. BSK recalled HG’s comment as they blocked (under the gaze of Secret Service agents and sneaky FBI photographers) New York’s Whitehall Street draft board headquarters: “After thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese are dead and billions and billions of dollars are wasted this is going to be the end result: We’ll get out. The North Vietnamese and the Vietcong will win. And, the United States will get a lot of good Vietnamese restaurants.” A very prescient HG. The recent wasteful (in lives and dollars) war adventures of our peace loving (???) country seems to have produced few benefits (outside of killing Bin Laden). Aside from everything else, where are the Iraqui mezze and Afghan barbecue restaurants that should be opening throughout our fine land?
HG was alerted (through Wikipedia, so maybe not historically impeccable. But, it makes a lovely story ) to a little known sidebar regarding Vietnam history. In 1946, David Ben-Gurion, one of the remarkable founders of Israel, and Ho Chi Minh, the indomitable leader of North Vietnam and fighter for the unification of that nation, were both staying in a Paris hotel. They liked and admired each other and became very close friends. Ho made a remarkable offer. He would turn over a portion of Vietnam as a Jewish homeland. Ben-Gurion thanked him for the offer but said he would drive the British out of Palestine and establish a Jewish state. HG has mused. What if Ho’s offer had been accepted? Would matzo balls now be floating in brimming bowls of tasty pho?
February 25th, 2013 § § permalink
It seems that the very odd treat — the chow mein sandwich — is alive and well. As HG has previously posted, the Chow Mein sandwich is a guilty pleasure, a low-end treat relished by HG and only available at Nathan’s Famous hot dog emporium on Coney Island and its branch (long closed) in the mid-Manhattan movie and theater district. A very messy sandwich. Care and numerous napkins ae required. A year ago, this sandwich appeared at Lee’s Chinese in Rhode Island. And now, HG has just read, with pleasure, that the chow mein sandwich has been thriving at Mee Sum Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge in Fall River, Mass. Jane and Michael Stern, those intrepid discoverers of funky food on America’s highways (and creators of the seminal Road Food Good Food books and website), reported on the cuisine of Fall River in this month’s (March 2013) issue of Saveur Magazine. They describe the excellence of the noodles on the Mee Sum sandwich: “Thin and elegant, fried until wicked crisp, the noodles are an ideal foil for brown gravy laced with celery and onion. The sandwich is a fascinating textural swirl: soft and crunchy, wet and brittle.” The Sterns, noting the treat is “mischievously delicious,” observe the chow mein sandwich is little known except as an “oddity” at Nathan’s. It all sounds good but the mention of “brown gravy” is enticing. Nathan’s sandwich binds the celery and onions with a traditional, light beige, corn starch thickened, gravy. Does this difference of gravy darkness represent a genuine, regional split?
February 23rd, 2013 § § permalink
The coming Academy Awards reminds HG that dining is always treated in a perfunctory manner in films and television. Yes, there are elaborate dining room scenes in such Masterpiece Theater epics as Downton Abbey. The clothes are great and the service (butler, footmen, etc.) looks exquisite. But, what, exactly, are these aristocrats eating? And, is it any good? Drinking gets lots of attention. Much tippling but little tipsiness. Last night, however, HG discovered an exception to cinema’s superficial treatment of dining. After watching brilliant, funny Bill Maher, HG channel surfed. HG stopped at the film adaption of John Le Carre’s, The Constant Gardener. Here’s the scene HG watched: The film’s protagonist, played by Ralph Fiennes, is in London to meet with the aristocrat, Sir Bernard Pellegrin. Meeting place, of course, is the aristocrat’s venerable Pall Mall club. Nice camera work detailing all of the palatial spaces and antique detailing of the club. Into the dining room for lunch. Dark woods. Nicely spaced tables. Subdued lighting from chandeliers. And, here comes the great, cinematic food moment. Sir Bernard suggests sole. Mentions that it is available “Meuniere” or grilled. Fiennes’ character chooses grilled. There are some murmurs and then all action ceases as the camera focuses on an alluring still life. There is the sole, dusted with chopped parsley and glittering with melted butter. Nestled beside it on the plate are small boiled potatoes and what appears to be some fresh asparagus spears. The camera does not move. The food obsessed viewer has plenty of time to absorb this perfection. Mind you, this has nothing to do with the plot. Obviously, there was a food nut in the cutting room. If you want to experience a London Dover Sole experience, HG suggests J. Sheekey in the theater district. The dish will bend your credit card but is well worth it.
February 21st, 2013 § § permalink
HG knew that good times with a Middle Eastern bent were beckoning when HG saw BSK fill a container with preserved lemons from the Whole Foods olive counter. This was confirmed when BSK began to browse through the two best books on Moroccan and Middle Eastern food: Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco by Paula Wolfert and Arabesque — A Taste of Morocco, Turkey & Lebanon by Claudia Roden. And, so it came to pass that Middle Eastern flavors provided great joy when two friends joined HG and BSK for dinner. The meal started with Baba Ganoush (the famous pureed eggplant dip) and Moroccan carrot salad. Then came the main: A tagine of chicken with preserved lemons and olives. Sides were Israeli couscous cooked with onions, garlic, stock and spices plus a melange of vegetables (turnips, chickpeas, onions, etc.) swimming in a savory broth. Harissa (fiery pepper paste). Warmed pita. Pinot Noir. And finally Zinfandel with dark chocolate almond bark for dessert. A much more triumphant meal than any HG and BSK encountered during their visits to the Moroccan cities of Tangier, Casablanca, Rabat, Fez, Tetuoan, Meknes and Marrakesh. To be fair to those wonderful cities, insiders confided to HG that the great meals of Morocco are to be found in private homes as restaurant dining is not really part of the culture.
February 20th, 2013 § § permalink
Sometimes the unexpected or improvised meals turn out the best. Went to an afternoon showing of Life of Pi (Recommended by Gifted Daughter Lesley whose film counsel HG and BSK always follow). Enjoyed the movie. However the leading man closely resembled Vikram Vij of Vij’s, HG’s favorite Vancouver restaurant (extraordinary Indian fusion food). His countenance made both HG and BSK ravenously hungry. The peckish duo popped into Jambo African-Caribbean Restaurant (30 minute wait). Off to Mu Du Noodles (One hour wait for Asiatic cuisine). Motored home. Dusted off a jar of Mezzetta Porcini Pasta Sauce in the pantry (tasted in a supermarket sampling and found it quite good). Also In pantry was box of DiCecco Pappardelle. BSK enriched the jarred sauce with anchovies, garlic, capers, dry porcini mushrooms (softened in hot water) and olive oil. Served the steaming pasta with shavings of good, authentic parmigiano reggiano. A bottle of “1967” Tuscan red. Green salad with Italian truffle cheese. Marvelous meal. It’s good to have a well stocked pantry and frig.
One of the protagonists of Life of Pi was a tiger named “Richard Parker.” Excellent performance, deserving of an Academy Award. HG’s fantasy: Tiger wins award. Pads up to podium. Eats Al Pacino. Leaves his toupée.
February 19th, 2013 § § permalink
Montmartre, that steep hill in Paris, has always attracted tourists in droves. They are drawn to the storied artistic and literary traditions of the neighborhood and the film Amelie, (set in Montmartre) only fueled that tourist fire. At the highest point of Montmartre sits La Basilica du Sacre Coeur, the big wedding cake of a cathedral with fabulous views of the Paris panorama. A few blocks away from La Basilica is Place du Tertre, the low point of international tourism. Souvenir junk. Lousy restaurants. And, scores of “artists,” all busy at their easels turning out vapid crap. With all of this in mind, HG has some reluctance about telling you of his favorite Montmartre hangout — La Cave des Abbesses (relatively untouched by tourism — at least for now). It’s just up the hill from Place des Abbesses, the busy, colorful square often enlivened by a carousel and street musicians. The Cave is a wine shop with hundreds of tasty, modestly priced wines. Unadvertised by any signs is a back room cafe with old tables, battered chairs, nondescript posters and a bar. Slightly dingy. Poorly lit. Dusty. In a word, perfect. It has been HG’s custom to sit there drinking white wine and slurping oysters (usually the very good oysters are priced at one Euro an oyster). There are very pleasant platters of cheese and charcuterie. Good bread (there’s a prize winning baguette baker across the street). The atmosphere is welcoming. All pretense is left at the door. Time passes in a wine drenched haze. When HG first discovered The Cave, he and BSK were lodged in a rented Montmartre apartment. HG dropped into La Cave to pick up some wine before crossing the street to buy smoked salmon, pate, ham, cheese, a baguette (and, possibly, a roast chicken) for an evening meal with BSK. What harm could a glass of wine do before the errands? Well, that “one glass of wine” proved fictional. For a day or so, multiple glasses of wine were drunk, errands were forgotten, oysters were eaten and roast chickens remained shop-bound, turning slowly under the rotisserie as HG fell deeply in love with The Cave. This did not make a famished BSK happy as she waited for meals that never came. Finally, BSK solved this bibulous problem by taking the intelligent “if you can’t beat em, join em” step and accompanied HG on the evening shopping (and drinking). Sometimes the errands were postponed. After all, what’s wrong with a meal of oysters, sausages, grilled vegetables and cheese? (With wine, bien sur.).
February 17th, 2013 § § permalink
Yes, when HG is in Paris for a two week stay there are moments when HG becomes tired of French food (admittedly, it takes a lot of French food to make HG tired). Diving into other cuisines in Paris isn’t so simple. Obviously, Algerian, Tunisian and other Middle-Eastern food is commonplace and delicious. Reasonably priced Italian restaurants are awful: Pasta is overcooked. Risotto is gummy. The really good Italian places are astronomically expensive and, of course, totally lack the jolly, noisy ambiance of good Rome and New York Italian restaurants. Pizza? Fuhgeddabout it. One taste of Paris pizza and you know you’re not in New Jersey. Chinese food? There are some snob joints that are pricey and very ordinary. Good, simple Chinese eateries are in obscure neighborhoods and one has to shlep endlessly for a good meal. Vietnamese is another story however; cheap eateries can be found in abundance in Belleville, the 13th and in the outskirts and are lifesavers for students, backpackers, taxi and truck drivers. But, they don’t compare to the top flight Vietnamese restaurants in New York, California and — surprisingly — Denver. Paris is now in the midst of a hamburger craze. Better than Burger King but costly and just passable. Parisians tout Severo as a great steak house. It’s not. Not in the same class as Palm, Spark’s and other top New York steakeries (Must admit, however, the Severo’s steak tartare is world class and tops any in New York). HG’s Paris sources tout two unusual ethnic restaurants that will please foie-jaded palates. One is a very quirky, tiny Izakaya restaurant, a Japanese specialist in sake and tapas (plus a tasty sukiyaki). Run by a gentleman named Takamoto, it is Cave 27 located on Rue Lamarcq, Montmartre. Takamoto is a very versatile guy. Expert equestrian. A flamenco guitarist and singer. Flamenco artists often come in and perform. The other ethnic place is El Nopal, a few blocks from Canal St. Martin. Mexican, Tiny (two stools). Americans who have tried it say the tacos, burritos, quesadillas, salsas are the real deal. HG will pass on this one when in Paree. It seems ludicrous for a New Mexico guy to be eating a taco in the City of Light.
February 16th, 2013 § § permalink
About once a month (okay, twice a month) HG likes a big, rare rib steak for dinner. Tuscasn style (like you get it in a good Florence trattoria). Blood rare. Good olive oil poured on at serving. Accompanied by Capellini beans that have had a nice hit of sauteed garlic. (Must discourage Dracula). This gets a frown from BSK. She doesn’t object to the cholesterol or calories. She objects to the inevitable smoky kitchen. That’s because HG sears the steak on a bed of kosher salt in a white-hot big, black cast iron pan. Only way to cook a steak, insists adamant HG. Now, there seems to be a cooking compromise that will please BSK. Melissa Clark, in the NY Times. suggests doing steak this way: Heat a cast iron pan until very hot. Turn on the broiler in the oven. Put the steak on pan and, with care and using pot holders, put the pan and steak under the broiler. Melissa suggests broiling a thick steak for about seven minutes. Bloody minded HG would cook it for less. Must try this method. Will sacrifice for household peace. Will report on how experiment turns out.
February 14th, 2013 § § permalink
In the most recent New Yorker Magazine, there is a beautiful, heartbreaking piece by the late Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) entitled: “Street Life: Becoming Part of the City.” In a brief introduction, the New Yorker states: “What follows here is the initial chapter of a planned memoir that Mitchell started in the late sixties and early seventies but, as with other writings after 1964, never completed.” From 1964 to 1996, Mitchell went to his New Yorker office every day but never published a word. Street Life proves once more that nobody wrote about New York City, its places and people, with Mitchell’s eloquence, grace and sensitivity. It is heartbreaking for lovers of the New York City and journalism (a type of journalism that can only be described with the adjectives: literary and poetic) that Mitchell did not publish for 32 years. If you haven’t read Mitchell, check out Amazon for his books (collections of his New Yorker articles). You will be rewarded. Mitchell wrote wonderfully about food — namely seafood (though he did the definitive article on a gluttonous old New York event called a “Beefsteak”). Mitchell loved the Fulton Fish Market, its Sloppy Louie’s Restaurant and its unique raffishness. One of his composite characters, Old Mr. Flood. describes himself as a seafoodetarian. While Mitchell was the Poet Laureate of the Fulton Fish Market, another New Yorker writer, the lamentably short lived John McNulty (1896-1956), was the Poet Laureate of Third Avenue (the Third Avenue which had an El rumbling overhead; the Avenue which was lined with Irish saloons and Jewish pawn shops). Nobody ever wrote better about ordinary New Yorkers, horseplayers, bar room beer drinkers, unsung laborers, office workers, news dealers, etc. James Thurber, his New Yorker colleague, said about him: “Nothing, however commonplace, that he touched remained commonplace, but was magnified and enhanced by his intense and endless fascination.” (Permit justified parental pride. The same words could be applied to SJ and the series of “Sad Chairs” photos and poetic prose SJ posts almost daily on his Sad Chairs Blog. Better than anyone, SJ evokes the bittersweet qualities of urban life. Log into http://sadchairs.tumblr.com/ to experience a very individual view of the city.)