Department of Total Absurdity: According to The Huffington Post, a Brooklyn bar is hosting a “smallest penis contest.” The proud possessor of most miniscule member (How about that for alliteration?) will receive the title: “2013 Smallest Penis in Brooklyn.” HG questions the validity of this news. HG thinks a spoof is afoot. Nevertheless. In terms of food and drink, HG is an advocate of small. HG likes tapas, HG likes “small plate” meals, HG likes ordering a bunch of entrees at Chinese restaurants and sharing it all. Big portions are gross and are tasteless by the time they are finished (as HG has noted many times, portions at a Paris restaurant are half the size of their American counterparts). HG likes wine glasses to be half filled. HG likes downsized salads. HG wants some leaves, not a meadow. The American tendency to oversize is reflected in our huge refrigerators. Italian refrigerators and French refrigerators are quite small. This means daily shopping for fresh food. The cuisine is elevated and since there’s a lot of walking between shops, the exercise diminishes the waistline. Truth is, HG and BSK are guilty of excess — they have a mammoth and much loved refrigerator. This leads to leftovers languishing in the rear of shelves. There are nasty discoveries–vegetables and cheeses that appear to be sprouting new varieties of penicillin, plastic wrapped drips and drabs of pasta dishes from days gone by, a sad half lemon sporting a green, fuzzy beard. It is a commentary on our society based on consumption, that HG and BSK must regulary edit their refrigerator.
A writer (might have been James Salter), once noted that most people have three self delusions: That they look younger than they are. That they are good drivers. That they are good in bed.
HG thinks there is a fourth self delusion. Most people think they know something about food and dining. They are wrong. Whether or not they know it, they like their fish and steak overdone. They blunt the taste and aroma of white wine by serving it too cold. They fill up with bread and butter before the waitperson brings the first dish. They miss out on rewarding tastes and textures by refusing to eat innards like liver, sweetbreads, tripe. kidneys and brains. They refuse to obey their own taste preferences and buy expensive wine when they prefer cheaper varieties and blends. They accept the worst table in a restaurant (next to the bathroom or adjacent to a noisy service station) rather than risk appearing brutish by requesting a table in a more pleasant location. They keep cheese in the refrigerator and don’t bring it to room temperature before serving. They order risotto in a restaurant and wonder why it is gummy (because a bowl of risotto, done properly, takes at least a half an hour to prepare making it a non-cost effective restaurant item). They kill the essential briny taste of oysters by dousing them with red “cocktail” sauce. Likewise shrimp. They squeeze too much lemon on fish destroying the elusive sea flavors. They overcook pasta and serve it swimming in sauce. They overdo the Parmesan. They make salad dressing too elaborate rather than relying on excellent olive oil and a tiny bit of vinegar. They love the insipid, sweet junk that is sold as balsamic vinegar in this country — REAL balsamic vinegar is aged for years, is excruciatingly expensive and is best when moderately drizzled on fruit or cheese. They have no idea what to order in a decent Chinese restaurant and opt for cliches of the Kung Pao and General Tso variety. HG could go on and on but doesn’t want his misanthropy to triumph.
Tostadas don’t get enough respect. In the world of down home, plain spoken Northern New Mexican food, tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tamales get all the attention. Tostadas are an afterthought (In Yiddish, a nuch shlepper. See how HG expands your language skills?). So, what is a tostada? This is the way they do it at El Parasol in Pojoaque: A corn tortilla is fried until crispy. It gets a layer of refried beans (refritos); then browned ground beef (fragrant with garlic and cumin); green chilis; a layer of guacamole. It is topped with chopped iceberg lettuce, raw onions and tomatoes. Final touch is fiery salsa (red or green). Lots of different flavors and textures. Crisp. Unctuous. Earthy. Fresh. Cold. Hot. The gamut is run. HG imagines that during this health conscious time, tofu will become an alternative to ground beef in the construction of tostadas. There are a number of Sikh ashrams in HG’s neighborhood and these turban wearing folks seem to favor funky Mexican flavors for their vegetarian dishes at El Parasol and Sopapilla Factory. So, Tofu fajitas, anyone?
In France eggs are not relegated to the breakfast table; instead they are treated with the culinary seriousness they deserve appearing on both bistro and three star restaurant menus. Oeufs Mayo (hard boiled eggs toped with lots of freshly made mayonnaise) is a nice entree. So are Oeufs Meurette (poached eggs in red wine sauce). One bistro even serves BSK’s childhood favorite: Eggs and Soldiers. The dish consists of a soft boiled egg with buttered spears of a baguette. Naturally, omelettes are prominent. HG loves a bistro mushroom omelette, brown and crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. (The French descriptive word for this is baveuse which literally means “oozing.”) A baveuse omelette accompanied by pomme frites, red wine and good bread (perhaps a bit of salad) makes an ideal light, but hearty lunch. (The comic genius, Mel Brooks, discusses a baveuse onion and tomato omelette in this month’s Bon Appetit Magazine). HG also likes fried eggs and bacon tucked into a Norman galette, a crisp edged buckwheat crepe. Back home in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, HG likes a summer egg salad (heavy on the mayo) sandwich on whole wheat toast with a glass of cold lemonade.
Campbell’s Tomato Soup. Velveeta Cheese. My-T-Fine Chocolate Pudding. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. Have not had any of these supermarket basics in scores and scores of years. While certainly not gourmet treats, they were important elements of HG’s schoolboy cuisine. Little HG’s elementary school, P.S. 86, was just three blocks from home so HG would go home and enjoy a Mom-prepared lunch every day. A bowl of tomato soup (HG’s Mom used milk rather than water in preparing this excellent potage). A Velveeta-lettuce-tomato-sliced onion sandwich on whole wheat or Pechter’s pumpernickel bread with a goodly dollop of Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise. And, sometimes, a chocolate pudding for dessert. For some obscure reason, Friday lunch was Aunt Jemima’s pancakes with butter and honey. This cuisine enabled smart little HG to get a consistent string of A’s on the HG report card. The Principal of P.S. 86 would bellow at his students during the weekly assembly: “Concentration. Self Control. Obedience. Watchwords for future success.” In later years, HG proved deficient in two of these watchwords but excelled in “Concentration” when applied to food and wine.
BSK, a talented potter (among many other accomplishments and skills, both practical and artistic), has made a special pot for storing lemons, limes, oranges and avocados. Out of this wonderful artifice, BSK extracted an avocado, squeezed it and announced: “I’ve got some Vidalia onions. Let’s have an onion-avocado-orange salad.” HG is a passionate lover of sweet Vidalias. Combining them with ripe avocado slices and blood oranges is a heavenly marriage that HG first tasted in a Cuban restaurant in northern Manhattan. No, they did not use pricey Vidalias, but ordinary onions — delicious nonetheless. When eating at this unnamed restaurant, HG accompanied this salad with fried shrimp or flounder or “ropa vieja” (a type of Cuban pot roast) or sometimes a slice of chewy but flavorful rare steak. Obligatory was a big bowl of “Moros y Cristianos” (Moors and Christians, a colorful name for black beans and rice). So, for the mutual delight of HG and BSK, this meal was reproduced last night. HG sizzled a garlic rubbed flap steak in a trusty cast iron pan. (Flap steak is a butcher’s secret. Cheaper than a conventional sirloin and full of beefy flavor). A can of Goya black beans (the best) was warmed and served atop white rice (adorned with plenty of chopped, raw Vidalia and splashes of picante salsa). There was a bottle of Rosemount Austrailan Shiraz (big and fruity). Django Reinhardt (circa 1936) on the Bose. Joy.
The last remnants of the Cedar Tavern (always referred to as the Cedar Bar), 82 University Place in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, are being demolished to make way for a waxing salon. Nostalgia can can cloud vision. But, not Lee Siegel’s vision. The writer has a very balanced account of Cedar Bar in a New York Times Op-Ed piece and comes to some surprising conclusions. Permit HG to review the Cedar Bar history. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s it was the hangout of the hard drinking, rambunctious New York school of abstract expressionists and other painters who became modernist icons — de Kooning, Rivers, Pollock, Kline, Guston, Motherwell, etc. Their presence attracted writers, film makers, poets, musicians and a motley crew of bohemians. It was a macho crew so there were plenty fisticuffs and alcohol fueled rage (and hilarity). Needless to say, misogynistic and homophobic language and behavior flowed free. Siegel points out that women were always treated badly. He quotes Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife and an extraordinary painter in her own right: “I loathed Cedar Bar. Women were treated like cattle.” Gays were insulted and made uncomfortable. One saving grace of the Cedar was it was very inter-racial. It was a bar where HG always felt comfortable drinking with his African-American girl friends. (Yes, women were treated shabbily. But, not African-American women. The Cedar’s ferocious leftists saw to that.)
HG was a man of his time. HG loved the Cedar Bar and shared most of the nasty attitudes of its habitues. When HG lived in the Gramercy Park neighborhood (more than 50 years ago) HG had a Saturday routine. Little daughter Victoria (now the distinguished restaurateur — Five Points, Cookshop, Hundred Acres) was placed in her stroller and the duo was off on a stroll through 23rd Street (great bookshops), Gramercy Park (HG had a key for a short period), Irving Place (a grilled cheese sandwich for little Vicki at Pete’s Tavern), Washington Square Park and, as a final destination before returning home, Cedar Bar. Vicki was perched on the bar where she munched pretzels and peanuts and was admired by all for her remarkable blonde cuteness. As for HG, there were numerous martinis while HG participated in vigorous discussion. A very boozy and joyful afternoon indeed.
Okay, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, available in every super market and grocery in the United States, is a dumb cheese. Thoroughly generic, absolutely processed and totally boring; however, HG admits, the cheese has its place. HG likes it with a chunk of guava jelly. Goya produces guava jelly in a big round, flat can. Very cheap. Very good. HG also likes it spread on buttery Ritz crackers (yes, HG likes some proletarian treats) and topped with fiery jalapeno pepper jelly. The best cream cheese ever was produced by the Daitch Dairy stores in The Bronx and Manhattan. Today’s closest approximation can be obtained by mail order from Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Be forewarned. It’s not cheap.
There are few things better than a plate of softly scrambled fresh eggs with buttered, toasted bread. Brew robust cafe au lait and a super breakfast is at hand. Unfortunately, you cannot have this dish in a diner, cafe or restaurant. Always disappointing. You must do the dish at home. Whisk together two eggs with a bit of milk (or heavy cream if you are feeling decadent). Melt butter (lots of butter — this is an indulgent dish, not a heart healthy, everyday treat like HG’s beloved Cheerios). Keep the heat very low. Add the eggs to the pan and stir gently. As mellow curds start to form, add a touch (little bit, don’t douse it) of heavy sweet cream. After the soft golden mix of eggs absorbs the cream, serve immediately. As for the bread. Forget the toaster. Grill thick slices of country bread on your range and have softened butter in readiness. For some extra zing give your plate of eggs a few drops of Tabasco or a discreet dusting of smoked Spanish pimenton. If you really want to go overboard, top the eggs with a spoonful of good quality red salmon caviar (try Zabar’s or Russ & Daughters for sourcing) and a bit of creme fraiche. Bacon (or ham) and eggs is for the common folk. This dish is the province of aristocrats, Kings and Princes.
HG, as fans of this blog may have noted, is a big fan of menudo, the very pungent and flavorful Mexican tripe stew. Among menudo’s many benefits is the fact that a bowl banishes a hangover. HG, a conservative imbiber (ahem!!), has not been able to vouch for this. In any case, HG’s menudo go-to place is the plain spoken eat in/take out El Parasol in Pojuaque. EP’s menudo, fragrant with the heady aroma of offal, contains plenty fiery green chilis and is accompanied by chopped raw onion,lemon slices, Mexican oregano and soda crackers. Discerning SJ, during a recent New Mexico visit, said he prefers the menudo at Sopaipilla Factory, a New Mexican eatery a few hundred yards from EP. So, HG had to test SJ’s judgment. Well, SJ is on to something. The Sopaipilla Factory menudo is a bit more refined than El Parasol’s funky version: the tripe itself is very tender and the smell of the red chili broth is cleaner and less earthy than El Parasol’s; lots of spice but not lip searing. You get the obligatory chopped onions-lemon-oregano. But, here’s the big difference. At Sopaipilla Factory you get their specialty: fresh, warm sopapillas (Mexican popovers). As many as you want (“a volonte” as the say in Paris bistros). Smeared with honey butter or drizzled with plain honey they enhance the menudo experience. Another Sopaipilla Factory advantage is the fact they have a liquor license, making it possible to accompany menudo with an icy beer or margarita. HG Still loves El Parasol’s hearty menudo but will vary it with Sopaipilla Factory’s suave version.