Yes, it’s Christmas every day at Sopaipilla Factory, the exemplary comfort food restaurant dishing out New Mexican cuisine a 15-minute drive north of Santa Fe. HG lunches there at least twice a week. There’s a ritual. HG slides into a comfy booth. Felipe Garcia, the pleasant, welcoming proprietor, says: “Señor HG, enchilada or burrito? Christmas, as usual?” HG always orders chicken. An enchilada for light eating or a giant burrito when really hungry. “Christmas” has a specific meaning in Norte, the food language of Northern New Mexico. It means half the plate is smothered in green chile and half in red chile. Red and green. Christmas. Get it? At Sopaipilla Factory the red chile has plenty of heat while the green is mild and mellow. It is just the opposite at nearby El Parasol, another HG favorite. At Angelina’s in Espanola, the heat levels vary every day. Last time HG was there the waitperson warned HG about the green chile. “Picante !! Picante !!” HG tried it anyway. Mouth fire. So, when eating in Northern New Mexico ask about the heat levels of the two chiles but be sure to order “Christmas” if you want to have a tasty holiday.
Like the Huns and Visigoths sacking Rome, the Yups swooped down on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and destroyed scores of Mom-and-Pop shops, idiosyncratic, eccentric and full of flavor. Only big time operations can afford today’s rents (HG has written about the hapless search by a woman who wanted to open a bookshop in the neighborhood and found nothing that rented for less than $40,000 a month). HG/BSK began their life together in May 1963.Their residence was an artist’s studio in 27 W. 67th Street, a building constructed by a group of artists (Childe Hassam among them) in 1903. The HG/BSK connubial nest consisted of a big, high ceilinged studio with a wide expanse of windows awash with north light. Modest sized kitchen (big enough to accommodate a dining table). Bathroom with a giant tub. Small bedroom (once a changing room for models). A romantic apartment on a block renowned for the arts. (The Hotel Des Artistes was next door.. The restaurant in the Des Artistes featured gently naughty murals by Howard Chandler Christy and the building housed at times such luminaries as Noel Coward, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick and Fanny Hurst). The rent for HG/BSK’s urban paradise was $147 a month. The 67th Street liquor store was on the corner and sold very good splits of champagne for $1.25. Nice little grocery/delicatessen on Columbus Avenue dispensed good bread, freshly made soups and salads. A short walk to good, affordable restaurants–Fleur de Lis for French food and Volk’s for German food. And, yes, Zabar’s was in business on Broadway, just a modest Jewish “appetizing” store, not the food megalopolis of today. West Side memories swept over HG today as HG examined a full page ad in the April 24-May 4 issue of New York Magazine. “27 W. 67TH STREET” was the headline. The ad detailed the glories of a duplex apartment in the building. The price: $4,950,000. “Hey, HG,” mused BSK, “If you’ve got a spare $5,000,000 tucked away somewhere we could buy it and start over again.”
Yes, HG can eat (with appetite and judgment) but HG has learned (in later life) that HG can also cook. HG’s repertoire is quite limited. However, some of his dishes can be memorable. One that has received the BSK nod of approval is HG’s eggplant dish. HG browns cubes of Japanese eggplant in very hot vegetable oil. Removes the eggplant from the pan. Heats some more oil and softens a bunch of thinly sliced onion. When onion is soft adds lots of chopped garlic and stirs a bit. Then adds soy sauce, oyster sauce, some water, a spoonful or two of water, a sprinkling of sugar. Chili garlic sauce is added (use a generous amount if you want a blast of Szechuan heat). Eggplant goes back into the pan and it is simmered until the eggplant is tender and the sauce has thickened. Top it with ground black pepper, a drizzle of sesame oil and chopped scallions. HG likes to accompany it with BSK’s perfect white rice and crisp green salad.
A lovely Easter/Passover vacation where HG spent delicious time with Son Jeremy and his family. SJ is one of nature’s originals. A unique sensibility that encompasses music, literature, food, family and many other things. HG is blessed to hang out with this remarkable guy. And, wow, wow, can SJ cook!! The other morning SJ sautéed shallots and combined them with buttery, softly scrambled eggs (with just a touch of sour cream folded into them). The perfect companions were British bangers (from Kaune’s Market) and English Muffins (plenty of butter in those nooks and crannies.). For the evening meal, SJ did pork ribs. Rubbed with his secret ingredients. Roasted in the oven at low temperature for a number of hours. Smoked in the gas barbecue with clippings from the HG/BSK apple trees. The result: Smoky, juicy, spicy, killer ribs. Yes, SJ is beloved by HG. SJ is a person of character. A caring father. A devoted husband. A person of taste, creativity and morality. HG blesses his loins (with some modest help from BSK) that brought this wonderful human being into this very imperfect world.
SJ despises the word cute. The description seems condescending, minimizing. In any case, SJ doesn’t like it. So, here’s the puzzle. How to describe HG’s enchanting two-year-old granddaughter Teru? The little lady is breathtaking (yes, yes, grandpas are biased…however). She is emphatic in expressing her needs for bedtime, food, hugs, kisses, diaper changing , etc.. Like her grandfather she likes to eat. Current favorite is avocado. Bedtime is an extravaganza as she races to each family member and distributes hugs and kisses. Okay. I admit it. This is boring, HG doesn’t care. It’s not always fun getting older. Teru makes it a joy.
As reported in an earlier post, SJ and family are in New Mexico for Passover/Easter vacation. Exquisite Maiko, HG’s favorite cook, prepared dinner and it was a miracle of Japanese simplicity and light, healthy eating. Appetizer was a giant steamed artichoke served with a mustard-based vinaigrette. This was followed by a platter of Icelandic cod in a soy and white wine sauce. EM sautés (and lightly steams) the fish to bring out natural succulence. The cod was adorned with crisp garlic chips and little tangles of fried seaweed. HG contemplated an unusual phenomenon. HG was enjoying the ultimate seafood in the high desert of landlocked New Mexico. EM magic. Accompanying the fish were haricots vert and lush mushrooms (a tasty variety of oyster mushrooms). Just a sprinkle of soy sauce enhanced the flavors. Simple, simple food made memorable by EM’s Japanese genius.
The following night, EM took to the kitchen once again for a feast of tempura. Now, HG thinks of himself as a gourmand, a person who relishes good food and wine. And, he believes his choices are guided by judgment and experience. Decidedly not a glutton dedicated to the “grand bouffe.” There is an exception to HG’s self regarding analysis. That’s when HG is confronted by a tempura dinner created by Exquisite Maiko. Mad gluttony takes over. Excess rules. No chopsticks for HG. Knife, fork and spoon are wielded with speed. At times, HG wishes for a small shovel in order to engage the largest amount of EM’s tempura with dispatch. So, here’s what EM prepared last night. Each diner got a bowl of soba in soy broth (the fried items were dipped in this and the noodles slurped happily and noisily). Bowls were continuously replenished. The tempura included shrimp, bay scallops, mushrooms and asparagus. There was also a dish of Japanese eggplant — elegantly cross-hatched with knife cuts — nestled in a sweet and rich sauce, dusted with bonito flakes. A dish of Age Dashi Tofu. Condiments for the meal included wasabi, finely chopped ginger and sliced scallions. Only a poet could describe EM’s tempura adequately. Alas, HG is just a pedestrian proseur. HG can only stress that EM’s tempura is crisp, light and greaseless. Miraculously, EM’s swift frying doesn’t obscure the natural flavors of the ingredients, only enhances them. Two nights and two lovely examples of EM’s Japanese kitchen artistry.
SJ and family–wife Exquisite Maiko, son Haru (age 7) and daughter Teru (age 2)–are here in New Mexico for Passover/Easter vacation. Among the joys for HG is hanging out with Haru, a quirky, original, fascinating fellow. Unlike his father, a guy who likes to cook and eat (a barbecue specialist), and his mother, a super skilled chef (more about her in a following post), Haru is not (understatement) passionate about food. Ribs, pizza, pasta, ice cream bars are his staples and when not available nourishes himself with milk and cookies. Despite his limited menu (and limited protein intake), Haru has plenty of physical and intellectual energy. While in New Mexico, Haru paddles about the lap pool for hours, hikes in the Barrancas (scenic cliffs) with his father, feeds the fish in HG/BSK’s somewhat murky pond, helps HG make the nightly blaze in the fireplace (Haru has dubbed himself “Prince of Fire”). When truly interested in a subject, Haru’s memory and concentration are startling. His latest interest is the American Presidency. Last night he recited, in chronological order, all of the American Presidents. Even the obscure (Pierce, Fillmore, Tyler, Arthur, etc.) were remembered with laser-like precision. For the next hour, Haru entertained everyone with little known facts about the Presidents. Fascinating. When HG has a little guy like Haru around, HG reaps rich grandpop rewards.
HG never drinks tea at an American restaurant. It’s vile. Sheer heaven is teatime at Brown’s or another estimable London hotel restaurant like the Savoy or Claridge’s, etc.. Ah, scones with clotted cream and strawberry preserves with properly brewed tea. SKF carries on English tradition by doing tea properly. Scalds the teapot with boiling water. Adds the good tea bags to the tea pot and covers them with boiling water. Nestles the teapot in a tea cozy (SKF uses a colorful cozy knit by her late grandmother). Lets the tea steep for an appropriate period. Pours it in a cup and adds a dash of milk. Very comforting. HG’s beloved late father, Hershele Tsvi Freimann, would frown at the addition of milk. He drank strong Russian style black tea with lemon. Held a sugar cube between his teeth as he sipped the brew. Sometimes he eliminated the lemon and added a big dollop of cherry preserves to his cup. That’s the way after dinner tea was served at the Russian Tea Room on W. 57th Street in New York. Try it. Delightful.
The Macaron, a light, melt-in-your-mouth, tiny pastry is one of the glories of French cuisine. Its polar opposite is the American Macaroon, a heavy lump of coconut, low-end chocolate and other vile ingredients, that makes its appearance in supermarkets during Jewish holidays and then, for the most part, disappears (thankfully) for a year. HG first discovered the macaroon at his Aunt Marie’s and Uncle Phillip’s home over the Passover holiday. Vaguely stale, chocolate waxy, it was an unpleasant, sweet diversion after the delicious ceremonial meal. HG/BSK first discovered the French Macaron during a Parisian vacation many decades ago. Chilly, rainy afternoon. HG/BSK ducked into Laduree on Rue Royale, the venerable (founded in 1862) tearoom. BSK had heard Laduree served the only good pot of tea in Paris. Correct. The steaming tea was comforting. But, the accompanying Macarons provided an incomparable treat. Laduree and its dazzling pastries was created by an extraordinary Frenchman, Louis-Ernest Laduree. The original Laduree bakery on Rue Royale was destroyed in the Paris Commune uprising but quickly rebuilt. Laduree was a miller. He was also a writer, a cutting satirist whose targets were intolerance, religious dogma and governmental excess. Undismayed by official disapproval, Laduree wrote some 20,000 letters and 2,000 books and pamphlets. His grandson, Pierre Desfontaines, added a tearoom to the original Laduree pastry shop in 1930 and it quickly became a favorite meeting place for fashionable Parisiennes. Groupe Holder took over Laduree in 1993. There are now scores of Laduree tearooms throughout the world (two in New York) that offer up the same wonderful Macarons. But, nothing quite has the charm of nibbling Macarons at the Original Laduree, preferably on a rainy afternoon.
So, HG was sunbathing below blue New Mexican skies before entering the HG/BSK pool house for a lengthy swim in the lap pool. As the sun warmed HG’s bones, HG thought of the enslaved Jews laboring for the Pharoahs in Egypt. This steered the HG mind (no surprise) in the direction of food, namely the menu for the Seder this week. A Seder is the traditional reading from the Hagadah (the story of the Jews’ escape from Egypt). The Hagadah reading is accompanied by lots of food and wine as is traditional in Jewish holidays because, well, the overall feeling regarding the horrors of the Jewish past is: “They tried to kill us. They failed. So let’s eat a lot.” Words to live and eat by. It is traditional to start the Seder meal with gefilte fish (a form of Eastern European Jewish quenelles). HG is happy to report the discovery of really good jarred gefilte fish. This is Mrs. Adler’s Pike ‘n Whitefish. Nice, slightly coarse structure. Home made taste. Nice fish broth that jells beautifully. Label says there is “artificial flavor” but knowledgeable HG couldn’t discern it. Gefilte fish is bland unless accompanied by powerful horseradish. HG found killer horseradish on the shelves of Sprouts Supermarket in Santa Fe. The label says: Fresh Ground Horseradish. Good-n-Hot. There is no brand name but there is a website: silverspringfoods.com. Main dish should be roast chicken or brisket. Two kugels (puddings): Potato and noodle. A vegetable? HG would like some grated carrots cooked with cinnamon, ginger and honey (This is tzimmes, a dish HG’s Mom cooked with an abundance of chicken feet. Let’s skip the feet this time). To finish: Honey cake, macaroons and Slivovitz (plum brandy). SJ and family will be present for the Seder. Handsome Haru will ask the traditional Four Questions (They concern why the Seder night is different from any other night). Some traditions will be observed. The Afikomen (a gift of money) will be searched for by Handsome Haru and Adorable Teru. Fear not. They will be found because of helpful hints from BSK. A glass of wine will be on the table for the Prophet Elijah. Who knows? This may be the year the thirsty Prophet appears.