The coffee shop is a New York institution, a basic eating place for generations of busy New Yorkers. A place to meet. A place to wait for a movie to start. A place to finish a date over some chocolate cake. No, HG is not talking about the espresso cafes in Greenwich Village frequented by voluble intellectuals, pseudo and genuine. HG is talking about that blend of diner, restaurant, fast food dispenser and “greasy spoon” (an unfair description) unique to New York. HG doesn’t know whether they should be written about in the present or past tense since so many have been the victims of the real estate plague where neighborhood landmarks have been replaced by banks or retail chains. In any case, the coffee shops vivid in HG’s memory were owned by Jews or Greeks. If owned by Jews you could linger over coffee with a bialy, cream cheese, the Times and the News (plus a pack of Marlboros, of course). Greek places had excellent soups, superior hamburgers sizzled on the griddle and some Greek specialties (HG remembers with fondness platters of fried chicken livers and onions served over pilaf). Coffee shops served breakfast all day. BLT’s and tunafish sandwiches were staples. Coffee shops did not strive to scale culinary heights. Their emphasis was on speed and efficiency. Those cooks working behind the long counter could get a lunchtime crowd in and out in a hurry. Home made food, no pretensions, no minimum charge — a boon to New Yorkers through the decades.
Although HG is a born and bred urbanite, oblivious to much of the beauty of nature and its infinite variety, HG has oddly found that observing seabirds is a source of unending pleasure. HG/BSK’s Prince Edward Island home, perched directly above the sea, is the ideal theater for enjoying seabirds. The Heron, of course, is the most graceful bird. Statuesque in repose. Poetic in flight, a streamlined Art Deco vision. Cormorants provide comic relief. The least graceful of fliers, flap-flap-flap go their wings in a manic pattern as they progress across the sky. Crows are graceful but unpleasantly noisy and untidy in their excretory habits (they target HG/BSK’s decks). Gulls of all kind soar through the air with the greatest of ease, seemingly mocking the clumsy Cormorants. Harrier Hawks do, in the words of the song, “make lazy circles in the sky.” Every now and then a mighty eagle soars into view and all of the birds scatter. Among the smaller shore birds, HG derives particular pleasure from colorful Meadow Larks and quick-stepping Sandpipers and Piping Plovers (the latter, alas, is an endangered species that PEI naturalists are making an effort to preserve). But, HG’s favorite sea bird is that mighty fisher, the Osprey. They are feathered dive-bombers. Ospreys fly a few yards above the sea, ever alert to the possibility of a meal. Then they spot a fish. The Osprey comes to an abrupt halt and does a swift, vertical dive. There’s a big splash when the bird hits the water. It is one of nature’s most diverting spectacles.
Yesterday, HG picked up a big box of first-of-season strawberries at a roadside stand on Prince Edward Island. Took a big breath and inhaled sheer magical goodness. Out of season strawberries (imports from Mexico, Chile, etc.) are tasteless with a cottony texture. These local strawberries, grown in the good red earth of PEI, are a world apart, full of juice, flavor and fragrance. A favorite dessert is a bowl of these berries sprinkled with a bit of sugar and covered with sweet cream. Very nice macerated with a bit of kirschwasser. BSK is planning a compote of rhubarb and strawberries. When HG was a little fellow enjoying summers is Rockaway, Italian truck farmers would arrive and shout: “Stromberry!!” That shout announced that strawberry season had arrived and for days and nights HG would enjoy big bowls topped with sour cream. In the kitchen of HG’s Mom, almost everything edible received the inevitable (and delicious) dollop of sour cream. In the here and now, HG/BSK are breakfasting on the berries with Greek yogurt, walnuts and honey. In a few weeks, heaven will get a new dimension. That’s when the local raspberries and blueberries appear. HG/BSK and famille pick them every day from the bushes surrounding the HG/BSK home. Salt spray from the sea seems to give them another delightful dimension.
Eileen Ford, the grande dame of model agencies, died this week and received a rather reverential front page obituary in the New York Times. The obit did mention, however, that the lady could be nasty and imperious with would-be models. She sure was with young BSK in l963. BSK met with Ford in hopes of doing some part time modeling (the HG/BSK bank balance needed some augmentation). Ford, clad in a proper skirt and sweater twin set, disapproved of BSK’s clothes: A stylish Tuffin and Foale maroon melton pants suit. Pants were not appropriate for wear in a city, said Ford. Ford suggested BSK lose 16 pounds and get a nose job if she wanted a modeling career. BSK did not take Ford’s counsel. BSK continued to eat sensibly, wear pants and breathe through an unaltered nose, a distinguished mark of BSK’s Norman ancestry. Two years later, BSK (and baby daughter Lesley) were featured in a photo layout in the New York Herald Tribune (the newspaper that harbored Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe and other outstanding journalists while giving birth to what became today’s New York Magazine). The article was about BSK’s way with fashion (the writer/editor Eugenia Sheppard called BSK “a pants addict”). Ms. Sheppard found BSK to be elegantly svelte and dubbed her “a hipless hippie.” An interesting piece of observation since BSK was neither “hipless” nor a “hippie.” Oh, well. The years have rolled by. Fashion and much else has changed radically. BSK remains a constant. Still a beautiful pants addict.
Fifty years ago, ratatouille was a fashionable dish. It was a mark of culinary sophistication to pronounce the word properly: Rat-a-too-ee. Then it disappeared from the dinner tables of the fashionable and the menus of chic restaurants. HG is pleased that BSK, a culinary classicist, keeps it alive. One of HG’s favorite luncheon dishes is a bowl of room temperature ratatouille topped with three or four anchovy fillets and a few black kalamata olives. Somehow it evokes summer. It should. Its origin is Provence, southern France. Its birthplace is Nice. In fact, the full name of the dish is “ratatouille nicoise.” BSK’s version of the dish is delicious. Each ingredient (olive oil, garlic, onion, eggplant, zucchini, red bell pepper, tomato, parsley, basil, thyme) is top quality ans treated as such. BSK cooks the vegetables in a sequence BSK has devised (tomatoes go in last). This means all the flavors merge but each retains an individual vibrancy. Keeps well in the refrigerator. Gets better with time. HG has never fancied ratatouille as a side dish with fish or meat. It’s a stand alone treat.
Was it Lucius Beebe (or Oscar Wilde) who said (and HG paraphrases): “My tastes are simple. I like only the very best.” ? HG agrees (in part). HG deplores over elaborate, over sauced, fussed over food. Through the years HG dined at many temples of high cuisine (Le Pavillon, Lutece, La Cote Basque, Le Bernardin in New York; Connaught Restaurant and Savoy Grill in London; the once glorious Laperouse in Paris). Even in these vaunted places, HG ordered simple dishes (mixed grill at the Connaught; grilled sole at the Savoy and roast duck with turnips at Pavillon). HG may be accused of favoritism and family pride, but HG’s ideal of dining is Cookshop, the restaurant run by HG’s daughter, Victoria Freeman,and her husband, chef Marc Meyer. It is located on Tenth Avenue in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood and is always filled with a lively, good looking crowd. The restaurant has been in the forefront of the farm-to-table, locavore movement. Meyer treats his superior ingredients with restraint and imagination. A tip from HG. Settle down with a glass of chilled rose (from Slovenia, surprisingly). Have some radishes with herbed butter and sea salt. Follow with roasted asparagus (sauce gribiche). Then, share a Hudson Valley Chicken Breast Salad. This is not the usual mayonnaise-drenched mess. The menu describes it this way: “Chicken, arugula, cucumbers, sliced carrots, radish, spiced walnut, golden raisin, sherry vinaigrette.” Crunchy with summery flavors and hints of salt and sweetness. HG shrugs off charges of nepotism. Can one imagine a better summer lunch? (An afterthought: Alexander Lobrano, the Paris-based food writer for the New York Times and many other publications and the author of the best guide to Paris dining, Hungry For Paris, dined at Cookshop while visiting New York. He expressed a wish that Paris should have more restaurants like Cookshop).
Lots of weather excitement yesterday as Hurricane Arthur roared across the Canadian Maritimes. Nova Scotia bore the brunt with power lost for many homes. Here, on Prince Edward Island, HG/BSK listened to loud winds and watched the sea produce whitecaps and spray. Beautiful. Turned into rain as the day progressed. Electricity went on and off. Fully restored by early afternoon. All was snug as HG read back issues of GRANTA, the wonderful British literary quarterly. BSK constructed a nice foul weather dinner: An Asiatic influenced beef short ribs soup /stew served with Japanese udon noodles and topped with a poached egg. This was followed by a salad and cumin gouda cheese from PEI’s inimitable “Gouda Lady.” HG/BSK let the winds howl as much red wine was poured. Bright sun and moderate winds this morning as Arthur disappeared. Long, invigorating beach walk. Shore was strewn with bits of jellyfish chopped up by the storm. A first: HG found a nice piece of green beach glass. BSK, the champion glass gleaner, found none.
HG has noted previously that BSK has cultivated a lush crop of sorrel. BSK makes very good sorrel soup in the French manner. Thickened and enriched with a touch of sweet cream, it is the perfect sauce for grilled or poached salmon. Vaudeville, the art deco Paris brasserie, served a very good version (before the brasserie went downhill under chain management). However, HG’s favorite use of sorrel is in “schav”, the ice cold, refreshingly sour sorrel soup as it was prepared by HG’s Mom and served in New York Jewish “dairy” restaurants (and Catskills resorts) in years gone by. Topped with some sour cream, this soup conquers summer heat. Accompanied by a boiled potato, this was often HG’s boyhood summer lunch in The Bronx and Rockaway. Weather has been hot and humid on PEI. HG”s palate cried out for schav. So, consulting the Jew and Carrot food blog, HG made a jar of schav. Very good. But, it lacked something, A bite of sourness. What was Mom’s secret? Memory was racked. The answer: Rokeach Sour Salt. Essentially citric acid, this is what Mom added to her schav, exemplary beet borscht, robust cabbage borscht and savory ground meat stuffed cabbage in sweet and sour sauce. Yes, Rokeach still provides sour salt and HG is waiting for a supply from Amazon.
HG/BSK (and family) have been collecting beach glass for more than a half century. They have walked the shores of Fire Island, Nantucket, Cape Cod, West Hampton, East Hampton, Montauk, and, of course, Prince Edward Island. Always on the alert for bits of glass that have been burnished by the sea. It is a gentle and harmless pastime made delightful by sea breezes, salt air and the sounds of the surf. On the antique Chinese sideboard in the entry to HG/BSK’s PEI home are glass containers filled with more than a thousand bits of beach glass. Some months ago there was a charming New Yorker cartoon depicting a couple at the sea shore. Says the man to his lady friend: “You are a piece of blue beach glass.” When HG saw this, HG remarked to BSK: “You are a piece of red beach glass.” Yes, blue beach glass is rare but red beach glass is the ultimate rarity. In years of beach walking, HG has never discovered one. So, you can imagine HG’s excitement today when BSK shouted: “Come quickly. I found it.” Yes, there in BSK hand was the perfect piece of red beach glass. Like the lady, rare and beautiful.
HG has had an interest in eels ever since HG learned that Freud, an HG hero, spent a youthful year researching the snake-like sea creature. The appearance of eels tend to turn off a great number of folks; but, they are nutritious, delicious and in Japan, where unagi is a favorite food, they are lauded as being an aid to vitality and longevity (the maternal grandfather of Exquiiste Maiko — HG’s Japanese daughter-in-law and favorite home chef — lived to be 100 and ate eel almost every day). HG enjoys unagi sushi at Shohko Cafe, the very good Japanese restaurant in Santa Fe. HG used to obtain unagi at Whole Foods and enjoy it as part of a sashimi platter. HG also liked to top a bowl of rice with much sliced unagi. Alas, Whole Foods no longer carries unagi and HG can’t find a good online source. However, the best eel dish HG ever experienced was at yesteryear’s great French restaurant, Henri Soule’s Le Pavillon. Soule served lightly smoked filets of eel with whipped cream spiked with lots of freshly grated, strong horse radish. Divine. Eel remains popular with London’s working class who enjoy jellied eels and patronize some of the city’s few remaining eel-and-pie restaurants. HG fears that this eel dish may be a specialized English taste like mushy peas, Marmite and the chip butty.