The Rhode Islanders — Gifted Daughter Lesley, Profesore/Dottore Massimo, Beautiful Granddaughter Sofia (and visiting friend from Bologna, Valeria) are here. Our Prince Edward Island pals, Philosophy Professor Neb and architect/wife Silva (designer of HG/BSK’s PEI home) came to dinner before setting out for European conferences and trips. Lots of folks. Time to create a spread: BSK poached a chicken for HG’s Shredded Chicken Pan Pan (chicken in a spicy Szechuan peanut-scallion-garlic-Chinese pickle-soy-vinegar-oil sauce served room temperature on a bed of thin pasta.) Lesley made a Newfoundland fresh water shrimp salad with mayonnaise, lemon juice and tarragon (from BSK’s herb garden) plus a platter of sliced tomatoes with feta cheese and freshly picked basil. EM did her signature salad of room temperature cellophane noodles with shredded ham, cucumber and egg. Plenty of wine, locally brewed beer and excellent bread from the Cardigan Farmers Market. Neb and Silva brought olive oil gelato for dessert. Sounded strange but tasted great. A fine and joyous feast for family and friends.
Le Stella is a brasserie/bistro on Avenue Victor Hugo in the very affluent, posh 16th Arondissement of Paris. Few tourists among the conservatively dressed, well mannered clientele — mainly residents of the neighborhood who are as conservative in politics as they are in dining habits. No Asian, Italian, Spanish or (heaven forbid) American influences have invaded the kitchen. The menu is pure Eternal France. As one food writer has put it: “The dishes are what Grandma would have cooked (if she was a very good cook) or what would be on the menu if you took Grandma out for Sunday dinner.” Like any proper brasserie, Stella has a vast bank of oysters, other bivalves and crustaceans outside the entry door, manned by guys with striped shirts, fisherman’s hats and shucking instruments (of course, a rugged Breton fisher-guy selling oysters is a clear signifier of the freshness of the seafood). HG/BSK have often launched their dinners there with some oysters and a bowl of bulots (sea snails) with freshly made mayonnaise. If HG wishes a light repast he moves on to pickled herring with potato salad. Then soupe de poisson (with some assertive rouille). Cheese course is rich St. Marcellin (accompanied by a glass of the very nice house Bordeaux). Finale is the sumptuous Ile Flottante. A glass of Vielle Prune (a strong digestif). At other times HG chooses steak tartare with pommes frites; tripes a la mode de caen; blanquette de veau; choucroute (a Wednesday special); tete de veau (admittedly a special taste); grilled pig’s foot. And, there are times when HG switches from an oyster starter to diving into sizzling escargots or the more delicate pleasures of smoked salmon with blini or a frisee salad. A happy choice is to share a carre d’agneau (rack of lamb) with BSK, a lady who is an adventurous eater but has not developed a passion for tripe or the interior and exterior of a calf’s head. Service, under the supervision of manager Christian, is friendly and professional. One warning: On a visit to Stella (without HG/BSK) intrepid SJ ordered the Andouilette, a house specialty. SJ thought this was a spicy, New Orleans-type pork sausage. Wrong. Stella’s Andouilette is a chitterling sausage, a sausage with rather intense barnyard odors and the distinct flavor of pig shit. Like fressing up tiny little song birds, this is one French food passion HG (and SJ) doesn’t share.
HG has enjoyed some of the world’s great fish dishes. Sole swimming in fragrant butter at Le Dome in Paris. Perfect grilled Dover sole at J.Sheekey in London. Crisp sauteed Long Island flounder at Esca in New York. Shad and shad roe at two New York landmarks of yesteryear–Christ Cella and Gage & Tollner. Sublime striped bass at the greatest of all seafood restaurants–New York’s Le Bernardin. As good or better than any of these dishes is the sole prepared by HG’s Japanese daughter-in-law, Exquisite Maiko, the talented chef/caterer. HG has enjoyed this EM creation with fish purchased from Whole Foods (Santa Fe); Fairway (Brooklyn) and By The Bay Fish Mart (Prince Edward Island). All splendid but the PEI version is the best since the fish is just hours out of the sea. Here’s how EM does it. First, garlic slices and then shredded, preserved kombu are gently browned to a crisp in canola oil and drained on a paper towel. EM then places the sole in the remaining oil — still fragrant from the garlic and seaweed. Adds sake. Covers the pan and steams over a medium/low flame. When done, the sole is placed on a warmed platter. EM adds soy sauce to the pan with the oil and sake mix. Swirled and reduced slightly, this sauce is poured over the sole. The final touch is topping the dish with the garlic chips and crisped seaweed. As interpreted by EM, this is Japanese cooking at its best. Light. Fragrant. Flavorful. HG/BSK will try to replicate this dish in EM’s absence. Are sure it will be tasty but will lack that special Maiko magic.
The Davis Park/Ocean Ridge section of eastern Fire Island (the long barrier beach south of Long Island,N.Y.) was battered by Hurricane Sandy but survives. Many years ago, HG/BSK had a house there perched atop a sand dune with spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Great South Bay on the other. The duo plus daughter Lesley and SJ spent every weekend there from late March to early October (BSK and kids were there full time for July and August while HG steamed in New York). Those days were brought back to HG/BSK last night when they dove into some big bowls of BSK’s special linguini in white clam sauce. Weekends on Fire Island featured great food and drink, much appreciated by appetites sharpened by the sun and salt air. Here are some of the memorable dishes served up by HG/BSK’s Fire Island friends and neighbors: Gravlax with a pungent mustard and dill dressing (made by the late Willa Z.). Perfect sirloin steaks grilled in the oven by the late John A. who hated the barbecue with its unreliable levels of heat. The late Glenn F.’s Swedish smorgasbord with a dozen varieties of herring washed down with Aakavit and beer. The 20-dish rijstaffel prepared in a tiny kitchen by two guys whose names HG can’t recall. The Normandy-style steamed mussels prepared by a woman (name also forgotten) who had previously summered in France. The roast lamb that cooked all day over a wood and charcoal fire (supervised by a fellow with an Armenian background). Omelettes and Bloody Marys for brunch at a pretty blonde’s house. Spaghetti Carbonara at (the late) Veronika H.’s. The late Hobby Miller’s community fish fry with corn meal coated filets sizzling in hot oil. The best-of-all fish dishes prepared on the barbecue by the late Catalan sculptor Joan Junyer (friend and compatriot of Picasso) . He would toss whole fish on the barbecue for brief cooking. Then off the grill for a quick de-boning. The firm, juicy and slightly smoky filets got a pour of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Magic. (Sorry to describe so many people with the adjective “late” but time and fate are inexorable.) HG and BSK hosted many a great cocktail party on their rear deck with the sun setting over Long Island. With clams HG and BSK (sometimes with the help of SJ and Daughter Lesley) had just plucked from the Great South Bay, HG would prepare clams casino to nosh on while those who stayed for dinner had, naturally, BSK’s signature clams and linguini.
But, one of the most memorable Fire Island meals HG can recall took place in the bleak years before HG met BSK. A large group of Fire Islanders — very much under the influence of prodigious quantities of martinis and marijuana — mused that a meal of great Chinese food would really hit the spot. Good fortune. One of their number was a wealthy, young Chinese guy (tungsten, HG believes, was the source of his fortune). He called his office in New York City and gave some rapid orders in Cantonese. In 90 minutes, a seaplane landed in the Bay. Two Chinese gentlemen emerged carrying huge, metal tureens of duck, lobster, shrimp, fish, pork, beef, bean curd, noodles, vegetables, and more — all from Chinatown’s best restaurant. In moments, the hungry crowd was feasting on their dreams. HG realized then that there are some tangible benefits attached to wealth.
HG doesn’t spend his days only writing and thinking about food and drink. Today, HG thought about wit. No, not funny. There are lots of funny people around. Woody Allen, David Sedaris, Steve Martin, Jack Handey, Paul Rudnick, Marshall Brickman and Ian Frazier (yes, the author of On The Rez and Travels in Siberia can be hilarious) and others make HG laugh.(Alas. Dave Barry discontinued his column, a weekly shower of laughs). Wit, however, is scarce. What HG has in mind when he thinks of wit are the off-the-cuff, un-rehearsed one liners, retorts, apt insults, swift characterizations and satirical comments that have bite and savor. The French call these (and HG paraphrases) “staircase remarks,” meaning that they are the remarks you would have used to demolish the dinner party boor; unfortunately, you only thought about these cutting words after you have left the party and are walking down the staircase. Wit takes many forms, not all destructive (although malice does contribute a certain spark). Here are examples of wit that HG treasures. You may have heard many of them but bear with HG and allow the Hungry Guy to bore you: Lady Astor to Winston Churchill: “If you were my husband I’d put poison in your coffee.” The retort: “If I was your husband, I’d drink it.” The legendary British politician Benjamin Disraeli’s description of an unfortunate dinner party: “Everything was cold but the champagne.” Disraeli’s culinary advice (true then and now): “Vote with the liberals. Dine with the Tories.” Truman Capote to a rowdy who displayed his male member and said: “Autograph this.” Capote looked at the unprepossessing organ and said: “Well, I could initial it.”
Show business folk have been responsible for many memorable lines. The great playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart were summoned to the hotel room of the volatile, brilliant director, Jed Harris. Harris received them in the nude. There was a heated discussion of the play they were working on. Nobody mentioned Harris’ lack of clothing. But, upon leaving, Kaufman murmured: “Jed, your fly is open.” Screenwriter Harry Kurnitz was a renowned Hollywood wit. When Ernst Lubitsch was fired from his job as a studio head but didn’t leave his office immediately, Kurnitz remarked: “Forgotten. But, not gone.” And, it was Kurnitz who characterized the marketing campaign for the film The Outlaw, a campaign that emphasized the actress Jane Russell’s robust cleavage: “The Sale of Two Titties.”
Jewishness and its many manifestations have elicited some memorable lines. Walter Matthau (who began his career on the Yiddish stage) wrecked his sailboat and was forced to make an emergency docking at a very exclusive, WASPY (and presumably anti-semitic) yachting club. The club commodore asked Matthau: “And, who are your people, Mr. Matthau?.” Matthau’s answer was succinct: “Goyim.” Groucho Marx once inquired of the director of a restricted country club: “I’m only half Jewish. Can I play nine holes?” And, it was Marx who said of the Presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater (who was of Jewish ancestry): “I always knew the first Jewish President would be an Episcopalian.” HG will leave the last word (a bitter and sardonic piece of wit) to Otto Kahn, the very elegant and cultivated Jewish financier and art patron. When asked for a definition of a “kike,” Kahn retorted: “A Jewish gentleman who has just left the room.”
SJ, Exquisite Maiko, grand-son Haru, grand-daughter Teru are on Prince Edward Island with HG/BSK. EM, much to the delight of HG, has been busy in the kitchen. EM is a masterly chef and turns out some dishes that have Japanese soul but are rarely found on the menus of Japanese restaurants. Some nights ago, EM accompanied braised chicken with a tureen of sauteed bean sprouts, snow pea pods and oyster mushrooms. Bean sprouts are usually innocuous but EM does something magical and they became succulent while retaining crispness. Last night, EM soared. The meal started with a chawanmushi, a savory Japanese custard made with eggs beaten with dashi broth, soy sauce and salt. Slivers of mushrooms, yellow beans and corn kernels were added (no chicken or shrimp which she usually adds). The mixture was poured into individual bowls and steamed. The result was food poetry: a silken custard, accented with the smokey notes of dashi, that yielded exquisite bites of the fresh vegetables that were suspended within — a delicate, yet robust dish where EM’s masterly technique celebrated the integrity of the ingredients. The main dish was equally unusual. Buta no Kakuni, pork belly with daikon radish and hard boiled eggs. Served over rice and enriched with the fragrant braising liquid created by cooking the pork belly and daikon. This is a two day dish. The pork bellies are first seared, then cooked at a low boil with ginger, scallions, sake and water. Finally they are left in the pot and refrigerated overnight. In the morning, all the fat is removed and the pork is simmered together with mirin, sugar, soy sauce and dashi broth — the daikon and the eggs are also added. EM’s attention to detail is revealed in the shape of the daikon, each piece cut into a uniform size reminiscent of a child’s building block. The dish is powerful and rich in flavor but oddly light on the palate. A piece of Japanese culture illuminated by EM’s creative wizardry.
HG has been rereading some works by I.B. Singer (In My Father’s Court, The Magician of Lublin, Satan in Goray) and I.J. Singer (Yoshe Kalb.) This is a plunge into the vanished world of the Jewish Chassidim of Poland, a strange environment of fervent religiosity, Talmudic scholarship, superstition, mysticism. A world wiped out by the German murderers. Beyond the spiritual, the Singer books provide plenty of descriptions of traditional Eastern-European Jewish food-ways from everyday eating to wedding dinners to the opulent feasts of the more prosperous rabbinical courts. HG was struck by the omnipresence in these descriptions of kasha (buckwheat groats). Kasha with milk for breakfast. Kasha in chicken soup. Kreplach (a sort of Jewish ravioli) stuffed with kasha. Knishes stuffed with kasha. Bowls of kasha with onions. Indeed, kasha seemed the staff of life for many Polish and other Eastern European Jews. HG, the son of Jewish/Belorussian immigrants, ate lots of kasha at the family table. Loved its robust nutty flavor. Still love it. HG enjoys it in a bowl of steaming beef or chicken broth. Enjoys it as an accompaniment to brisket and gravy. Enjoys it mixed with farfalle (butterfly shaped) pasta in a dish called kasha varnishkes. HG has a fervent attachment to this dish when it is topped with fried onions and mushrooms. Accompanied by a bowl of sour cream or Greek yogurt, of course. When winter chill arrives, HG watches NFL playoffs on TV. Before HG is a bowl of onion-mushroom-kasha varnishkes, Sour cream. A bottle of dark beer. A glass of ice cold vodka. Happy times.
Rhubarb (classified as a fruit by American agricultural agencies) grows easily in warm weather and is abundant on Prince Edward Island. In conversation, BSK noted that in the Ohio of BSK’s youth, rhubarb “always grew behind the garage.” Prince Edward Island neighbor Chuck P. presented HG/BSK with a big bunch. “Where did you get it?”, queried HG. Answer: “Behind my garage.” Okay. Mysteries of the world outside of New York continue to abound. BSK promised to cook it. HG took this news glumly. HG’s Mom would always cook up a big batch during the summer and did nothing to mitigate the fruit’s tartness. “Roobock (her pronunication) is good for you. Cleans you out.” Mom was referring to rhubarb’s properties as a laxative. Well, BSK cooked a batch of rhubarb with sugar and the first strawberries of the season. Delicious. HG is gobbling it up with fresh fruit and Greek yogurt. Needless to say, HG has the cleanest colon on PEI. Moral: Always listen to your Mother and always rely on BSK’s culinary skills.
Clams Posillipo was one of the long time menu fixtures of New York’s red sauce Italian restaurants that has gradually faded into obscurity. A simple dish of clams steamed in a marinara sauce. On Prince Edward Island, fortunate HG/BSK can purchase very fresh cherrystone clams (known in these parts as quahogs) for less than five bucks a dozen. So, nostalgic HG/BSK decided to revisit this dish last night. BSK got busy chopping: onions, garlic, garlic scapes, basil, parsley, oregano. (Oops. BSK doesn’t chop basil — BSK tears the leaves apart). These are sauteed in olive oil. They go into a pot with good quality canned San Marzano plum tomatoes, white wine and clam broth. When all is boiling away, the clams are added. They get a dusting of red pepper flakes plus some Pimenton( smoked Spanish paprika). The clams are added and the pot is covered. Due to the magic clam clock in BSK’s head the heat is turned off the moment the clams open and before they turn rubbery. The result of BSK’s endeavor is a dish of tender clams floating in a magical, smoky broth redolent of the flavors of Italy and Spain. Chunks of ciabatta are dunked. BSK says the secret is slowly cooking the broth to develop full flavors and making sure the alcohol in the wine has burned off before adding the clams. Whatever. Sure tastes good.
Yes, in the sultry heat of summer, HG, like many other folks, prefers lightly fried, sauteed or steamed fish; also salads, fresh vegetables and fruits. Clams, scallops, mussels, shrimp and lobster go hand-in-hand with the summer months. Plus oysters ( eating oysters only in months with an “R” is not applicable on far north Prince Edward Island). However, there were two summer feasts — totally delicious and totally inappropriate for the season — that remain prominent in HG’s culinary memory bank. They were prepared by two very different people — Rex Reed and Andre Reudi. Rex Reed, an urbane television personality and newspaper arts/theater/music critic, was on Fire Island, the colorful barrier beach off Long Island, New York, where HG/BSK had summer homes for many years. Rex was visiting HG/BSK’s dear friends, the inimitable jazz duo, Jackie and Roy. Blazing hot day in August. Temperature in the 90’s. Rex prepared dinner, drawing upon his southern roots. A long cooked piece of roast beef liberally sprinkled with Cajun spices. The beef swam in a lake of dark brown, winey, spicy gravy. It was accompanied by super buttery mashed potatoes and slices of Wonder bread (to soak up any excess gravy). Reed baked lemon meringue pie. Every bit of the meal was consumed. With joy.
Andre Reudi, a Swiss nudist-futurist, prepared his memorable meal on a blazing June day some 50 years ago, just weeks before HG/BSK married. En route to Fire Island in their 1960 Cadillac, HG/BSK picked up Andre at the great Upper East Side German butcher shop, Schaller and Weber. Reudi had picked up a pork knuckle, sausages, sauerkraut, lentils, beer, pumpernickel bread, pickles, three kinds of mustard and Liederkranz cheese. All were loaded in an ice filled cooler. Upon arrival at HG/BSK’s home, the pork knuckle, sausages, lentils, sauerkraut, dark beer and some unidentifiable spices were dumped in a big pot. The oven was turned to a low heat. And, there the robust German stew simmered all day while HG/BSK played on the beach, body surfed in the ocean and gathered beach glass in walks by the shore. After the sun had set and pre-dinner Martinis (wine for BSK) were drunk, the pot was removed from the stove and ravenous HG/BSK and Reudi fell upon food. Absolutely Fabulous feast.