“Comfort” has now entered the lexicon of gastronomic writing — whole restaurant describe their menus as “updated comfort food” or “comfort food with a twist” or (most depressingly) “luxury comfort food”. Well, in the HG/BSK home, comfort food sticks to its root — beloved dishes that are easy to prepare, often repeated and have the ability to be both familiar and thrilling. One such dish that BSK cooks is a take on Chinese Ma Po Tofu: BSK stir fries (in peanut or canola oil) ground pork with chopped onion, garlic (much); fresh ginger (heaps); frozen peas; sliced mushrooms. Flavors it with chicken broth, Chinese oyster sauce, soy sauce, a bit of Vietnamese fish sauce and dashes of Sriracha. Adds cubes of tofu. Showers the finished dish with chopped scallions. The dish is accompanied by plentiful room temperature angel hair (or other very thin) pasta flavored with sesame oil and chile oil. Belgian endive is nice with this. HG scoops up the pork mixture with these crisp leaves. Happily,BSK makes enough of this “comfort food” to have it for two dinners. Nice in hot weather when HG/BSK don’t want to linger near an oven.
Last night HG reveled in an annual indulgent pleasure: Watching Tampopo, the 1985 Japanese movie directed by the late Juzo Itami. Tampopo is a self described “ramen western,” a deeply self-conscious and Japanese spoof of the “spaghetti western” genre. But, it is much more than a Blazing Saddles, much more than a big bowl of noodle soup. It is a sly, but hilarious, commentary on food, sex, cinema, Japanese corporate structure, culinary pretension…and more. Like a great dish, the film has many layers of flavor. The hero, Goro (Totumo Yamazaki), pays homage to Shane (he wears a cowboy hat and like that solitary, legendary figure, he rides off alone–in his truck rather than on a horse). The heroine, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamato), is lovable, lovely, innocent and funny. Brilliant. There’s a film within the film starring a gangster in a white suit, his beautiful girl friend and plenty of food, sex, violence. This satire of western romance and gangster movies concludes with a startling last-moments-before-dying elegy (given by the gangster) concerning a wild boar and sweet potato sausage. HG’s favorite section of Tampopo (which HG shares with SJ), is where The Ramen Professor (Ryutoro Otomo) instructs a neophyte in the proper, classic way of eating ramen. Deadpan hilarity (which also make you very hungry for a steaming bowl of ramen). Since the basis of the film is food and nourishment it ends with a beautiful image of loving nourishment: A mother suckling her child.
No, HG is not referring to HG’s 51 years with BSK (although that too is a monument to happiness). HG is referring to the joyous affinity zucchini has with mint. BSK tends verdant herb gardens in New Mexico and Prince Edward Island so there’s an abundance of mint. BSK does something original. BSK makes a pesto of mint with garlic and good olive oil. Roasts, peels and seeds red peppers. Sautes chunks of zucchini. Fries some bacon or pancetta. Mixes it all with the pesto and al dente tagliatelle. A lovely,unique taste of summer. BSK grates parmesan on her plate. HG chooses only salt, pepper and an additional splash of olive oil. Doesn’t want to adulterate the mint pesto vibrancy.
Terre Rouge Marche/Bistro on Queen Street in downtown Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, is an unusual establishment. It does many things and does them all superbly. Owned by John Pritchard with Mike Clarke as chef, Terre Rouge (it means “red earth”, a reference to uniquely colored PEI soil) occupies a roomy space in a pre-1860’s commercial building. The restaurant is strictly locavore, with a farm-to-table, nose-to-tail philosophy. The raw material provided by PEI’s farmers and fishers is incomparable. And, chef Clarke cooks with imagination and precision. (Pritchard says: “He’s killin’ it.)HG/BSK had a simple, late lunch there on a rainy day this week: For HG, a “Shellfish Sammy.” This was a toasted soft roll lined with fresh cut herbs and filled with chunks of local lobster, Gulf of St. Lawrence shrimp and fried Colville Bay oysters. This very sizable treat was nestled next to an extraordinary salad of baby greens, pickled radishes, curls of carrot and golden beets. Perfect. BSK had “Cod Fritters” with pickled onion remoulade and green salad. BSK declared these the best fish cakes ever, superior to BSK’s previous favorites consumed at Nantucket Island’s Downy Flake Cafe. The moral: Only eat fish cakes on an island. HG/BSK drank a nice chilled Pinot Grigio with these treats. There’s lots of robust food on the Terre Rouge menu. Some examples: Roasted marrow bone with truffled parsley-caper salad, duck fat toast, sunny side farm egg. Beef Carpaccio with olive oil, parmesan and organic greens. Pan roasted pork loin with rosemary gnocchi, green beans, beetroot puree, natural jus and root vegetable chips. Fish of the day with smoked potatoes, pine nuts and sauce vierge. Terre Rouge serves some unforgettable sandwiches like the inventive take on the BLT that features pancetta, lettuce, tomato jam and aioli on duck fat toast. Salads (for lighter appetites) and vegetarian platters. A definitive seafood chowder made with local seafood, smoked corn, pancetta and served with fresh biscuits and sea salt butter. There’s lots of seafood (lobsters, clams, oysters, shrimp, crab, scallops, fish) from local waters including an ebullient Plateau de Fruits de Mer. The restaurant does justice to its motto: “Famers plus Fishers plus Fat= Good Food”. But, there’s more to Terre Rouge than the Bistro. There the Marche. The Marche sells superb house-made sausages and offers an array of cheese from local farms (as well as some from New Brunswick and Quebec). Very good breads and some opulent desserts. If you’ve got some kids with you, pop into Terre Rouge for some house-made Italian gelato. You can have a cappuccino or an espresso. Terre Rouge stays open late and serves all day. It has something for everyone. World class food and sweet and savory treats served with the usual Prince Edward Island modesty and courtesy.
Mark Bittman, the seemingly omnipresent food writer, did a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times bewailing the state of restaurants in France and their reliance on food “cooked at a faraway factory.” He is quite harsh in his opinions concerning Paris restaurants (he has to research and eat at three in order to find one good one). Bittman exaggerates (slightly). Sure, there are bad restaurants in France (as in every country) where owners pay more attention to profit than dining pleasure. And, sure, Paris is no longer the dining capital of the world. New York has taken over that spot. In addition to world class dining experiences like Per Se, Bernardin, etc., mighty Noo Yawk has an almost limitless array of interesting ethnic restaurants ranging from the entire spectrum of Korean and Chinese restaurants in Flushing to Ghana taxi driver food on the Grand Concourse in The Bronx to Uzbekistan eateries in Rego Park. And, if you want to recapture the golden age of French cuisine replete with lush flowers, deft service and classic dishes, one can turn back the clock and empty one’s wallet at La Grenouille on Manhattan’s posh upper East side. And, then there’s Brooklyn with its astounding metamorphosis into the world’s center of hipness with a multitude of food experiences to match its style. But, Paris, though no longer the ultimate gourmand destination, still has much to offer. Super baguettes and Poilane bread. Very good oysters (and guys who know how to shuck them). The best cheese and butter (Bordier). Wine shops stocked with splendid affordable vintages. Cafes, for the most part, offer mediocre food but world class viewing of stylish women (of all ages, thankfully). Bittman has a point. It’s not easy to find restaurants where fresh food is prepared on the premises. HG’s advice: Consult Alec Lobrano’s Hungry for Paris guide and John Talbott’s website. In Paris, HG spends much time at museums and cinemas. When it comes to food, HG is downscale. Favorite hangout is the back room of La Cave des Abbesses, a Montmartre neighborhood wine shop. In this very bare bones place, HG likes to linger over a platter of cheese with a carafe of red wine. In season, there are oysters for one Euro a piece. HG manages to get down a dozen with ease. La Cave is a nice place to visit after listening to the street musicians (usually quite talented) on the Place des Abbesses. HG also likes the gritty Arab/African neighborhood of Montmartre for couscous and other Maghreb specialties. Jour et Nuit is a good place for a hearty meal with the locals. Big flavors. Tiny prices.
“If it bleeds it leads.” That’s the operating principle of local TV (and most national) news programs and newspapers. On that basis, Israel is losing the public relations war with Hamas. In Gaza, there are actual dead children, weeping women and maimed and bloody men. Newsworthy and capable of arousing profound emotion. On the Israeli side, there is only footage of a few destroyed buildings. But, very few dead and shattered civilian bodies. Daily fear and disruption is not visual. Yes, there is coverage of the funerals of Israeli soldiers. But, these lack impact. The horrific wars in Vietnam and Iraq have deadened emotions concerning military death. And, there’s an angry Netananyu behind a microphone. Not a big PR plus. Of course, it is not for lack of trying that Hamas isn’t giving Israel PR opportunities. By sheer luck (and Israeli anti-rocket technology) hundreds of Hamas’ rockets haven’t exploded in heavily populated areas. Israel had a better world image when the Hamas military wing, Izz ad-Din-al-Quassan, managed successful suicide bombings that littered Tel Aviv’s streets with Jewish body parts. Hamas has two public relations objectives. For the Arab world (and rival Fatah), Hamas wishes to appear “resolute” and able to “stand up” against Israel For the rest of the world, Hamas wishes to appear as the brutalized victim of Israel (the killer of women and children.) In any case, Hamas is achieving these objectives and winning the PR war. (Curiously, defying logic the suffering population of Gaza does not seem to blame Hamas and its policies for their role in their bloody predicament). The benefits to Hamas from its “victory” seem negligible and the cost in terms of bloodshed is huge. For Israel, punishing Hamas (and the Gaza civilian population) militarily will, in HG’s view, not bring security but only a temporary respite from violence. Is there a solution? Doubtful. There are too many ideologues, religious fanatics, political power seekers involved. The madness will continue since the human capacity for wasteful violence seems limitless. However, we have all been taught that miracles have occurred in this part of the world: Seas have parted and the dead have risen to new life. Time for the miraculous to again make an appearance.
Jonathan Schell, age 70, a brilliant journalist/historian died at his Brooklyn home a few weeks ago. Schell’s work (most of which appeared in The New Yorker and The Nation) aroused emotions in HG, namely anger, fear and sadness. That’s because he wrote about the worst ailments of our time: Global warming, nuclear weaponry, the Vietnam and Iraq wars, the near destruction of the American democracy during the regime of Richard Nixon. Three of his books are essential reading: The Village of Ben Suc (written when Schell was only 24, it sums up the Vietnam madness through one horrifying incident ); The Fate of the Earth, a frightening analysis of the possible end of our planet; The Time of Illusion, the history of the Nixon presidency and its reliance on lies, fear and downright criminality. No, Schell provided little comfort. But, dedicated truth tellers rarely do.
Many, many decades ago young HG was an after school soda jerk at Bonder’s Candy Store on West Kingsbridge Road in The Bronx. The most requested beverage was simple: A Two Cents Plain. What is that? Well, it is a glass of cold seltzer that cost two cents. A very modestly priced thirst quencher. The older Bronx population believed seltzer was an aid to health and digestion. The local tradesmen would pop into the candy store a few times every afternoon, swallow a two cents plain and emit a hearty belch.(A greps in Yiddish). Bronx digestive therapy. A seltzer bottle (siphon) was always on the HG family dining table (along with a nice jar of schmaltz). A delivery service picked up the empties and replaced them with full bottles. The seltzer truck was a familiar sight. There is one last Seltzer delivery service in New York — Brooklyn Seltzer Boys According to HG’s research, other than New York, seltzer in its familiar siphon is still delivered on a daily basis in Vienna, Toronto and some Argentine cities. A nice urban amenity.
Resting under some heavy weights in a corner of the refrigerator is a slab of Nova Scotia farm raised salmon. BSK is making gravlax, Swedish dill-cured salmon, a favorite summer appetizer. HG/BSK were introduced to gravlax some 47 years ago by Bibi, our delightful Swedish au pair. (As a side note, Bibi made the best dessert we never tasted: A 3 layer cake of whipped cream and fruit. Beautiful. Unfortunately, we turned our backs for a moment and our chronically misbehaving pet poodle, Peaches ate the entire masterpiece.) Typically, HG isn’t fond of farm raised salmon but this Nova Scotia variety (purchased at the By the Bay Fish Mart in St. Peters, PEI) is superior. BSK rubs a filet with salt, pepper and a bit of sugar and covers the entire thing with fresh dill. Places it on a plateand then covers it with a board and weighs it down with some big cans of beans and tomatoes. Lets it cure (flipping it over a few times) for a few days. HG makes a dressing of Dijon mustard, sugar, olive oil, vinegar, salt and chopped dill. Thin slices of gravlax topped with the dressing and accompanied by icy vodka or white wine is a nice way to usher in a summer dinner.
Souris (pronounced “Surrey”) is a charming town; a 17-minute drive from HG/BSK’s Cable Head home on Prince Edward Island. Founded in 1727 by Acadians, the town — at some point in its early history — was invaded by field mice. Thus the name: Souris is French for “mouse.” Despite its rodent influenced name, Souris is a lovely place, very scenic and charming. Surrounded by water (Rollo Bay, Colville Bay, Souris River, Northumberland Strait, South Lake), Souris cultivates lots of splendid oysters and its fishers pluck juicy sea scallops out of the waters (plus lobsters, of course, in season). Many potato farms. Souris is also the port where a ferry leaves for Quebec’s Magdalen Islands, windy, beautiful and Francophone. Souris’ most illustrious citizen is Johnny Flynn, the proprietor of Colville Bay Oysters. In HG’s opinion (shared by BSK, SJ and nearly anyone who has tried them), Flynn cultivates the best oysters in the world. They have distinctive slightly green shells and balance brine and sweetness to provide unique sea succulence. You can buy these oysters at The Lobster Shack, a pretty little shop and outdoor dining area perched at the edge of Rollo Bay. You can buy a few dozen for home shucking or eat them there (lobster rolls are also available).