While Adolf Trump and Heinrich H. Bannon (with mouthpiece Joseph G. Kellyanne) usher in America First nationalism (is National Socialism or outright Nazism far behind?), HG/BSK practice internationalism at the table. With a bow to Muslims, there are two Middle East staples: Baba Ghanoush (garlic infused mashed eggplant) and Shakshuka (poached eggs in tomato-onion-pepper sauce) Shakshuka is very popular in Israel, a delight shared by Arabs and Jews. HG/BSK also like Halwa (from Lebanon) as dessert. Asia predominates in many HG/BSK dinners. Oyster (or scallop) pancakes from Korea. Pho and rice noodle/chicken salad from Vietnam. Ma Po Tofu from China. Watercress and smoked ham soup from China. Chicken and vegetable curries from India. Spicy eggplant and pork belly dishes from the Hunan and Szechuan provinces. Steamed sole with bok choy and garlic chips from Japan. A score of pasta, meat and chicken dishes inspired by the late Marcella Hazan’s Italian cookbooks. Soup de Poisson from France. Congee from China and the Philippines. Lamb chops and racks of lamb (imported from New Zealand) and cooked using French techniques. And, yes, many dishes from Mexico including chile and posole. For sheer comfort there is the strange Jewish-Russian-Italian medley, Kasha Varnishkes (buckwheat groats, chicken stock, eggs, mushrooms, onions and Italian farfalle pasta). HG/BSK will eat this tonight with gobs of sour cream. HG will accompany it with iced vodka (from Sweden). BSK will choose a wine from Argentina, Italy, Chile, France or the State of Washington. Hurray for diversity in culture, people, life and pleasure. This is the message fromHG/BSK’s American-Canadian-Japanese-Italian-Jewish-Russian-English-Irish-Welsh family.
How to explain HG’s passionate attachment to vodka? There was a time when HG was the spokesman for Vodka Wyborowa, the superior Polish vodka. HG always had a plentiful (gratis) supply available. Those were the days (1959-1963) when Russian cavIar was cheap. (Caviarteria was HG’s source). Buttered toast (Pepperidge Farm thin sliced white toast) topped with a big spoonful of Beluga. (No lemon or other useless condiments.) Vodka Wyborowa from the freezer. Ah!!!! HG’s vodka love can be traced back to HG’s Belorussian ancestry (HG’s ancestors distilled vodka as part of their mill operations.). Strangely, HG never saw his beloved father, Hershele Zvi Freimann, ever drink vodka. His alcoholic indulgences were Park & Tilford rye whiskey, home brewed cherry brandy (Vishniak), and Slivovitz (fiery plum brandy). Unlike his son, Hershele had a happy time but never got drunk.
Yes, errors do happen at holiday family feasts. One Christmas, HG/BSK decided to cook a goose rather than a traditional turkey. Very, very tough bird. A chain saw would have come in handy for carving purposes. There was another Christmas when gifted daughter Lesley R. (a talented cook) prepared mushroom soup using dried Italian porcini mushrooms. As the soup cooked worms appeared. Don’t know what Lesley did but the worms disappeared (immersion blender?). The soup was delicious and no one had unpleasant after effects. Another time, Lesley roasted rutabagas all night in the kitchen which opened on HG/BSK’s guest bedroom. HG/BSK awakened smelling like root vegetables. HG’s holiday feast mishaps were caused by alcoholic overindulgence. One New Jersey Thanksgiving, HG greeted guests with a glass of chilled Polish vodka in hand. There were many guests and many glasses of white lightning. HG ended the meal by taking a nap under the table. (withering, but futile, criticism from BSK, who over the years has made only a slight dent in HG’s vodka consumption). And, there was a smoked bluefish, sautéed bay scallop, lobster and just picked corn feast on a Fourth of July celebration at HG/BSK’s salt box home on Nantucket Island. A guest (who was a talented mixologist) made rum punch as an after dinner libation. HG insisted that his punch have black rum floating on top. Yes, there was black rum on top and HG ended, once again, snoozing beneath the table. Restraint? Moderation? HG will keep these useful words in mind during upcoming festivities.
The yiddish word haimish means warm, unpretentious, down home comfort. It applies to the comfort level of a home, the personality of a person and the taste of certain foods. Brisket, potato latkes, chicken soup, matzo balls, blintzes, chopped liver, pastrami are among the long list of “haimish” foods. Despite being decidedly unkosher, pork chops taste “haimish” to HG. Sushi and sashimi are delicious. But, not haimish. Gyoza, curiously, are “haimish.” So is Menudo, the Mexican tripe stew.There are times when HG chooses among three foods for a comforting “haimish” dinner. These are dishes HG’s Mom fed her growing boy, so they are imbued with a strong element of nostalgia. First choice is kasha (buckwheat groats) with caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms and a big dollop of sour cream. HG accompanies this with chilled vodka and beer chasers. Number two is starkly simple (but lush): Little boiled potatoes in their skins. Butter. Sour cream. Lots of black pepper and Malden Sea Salt Flakes. Vodka and beer plus a platter of sliced Kumatoes and Vidalia onions. (No, HG’s Mom didn’t serve the little fellow vodka). Third choice is another simple dish: Egg noodles with cottage cheese, salt and pepper. Coffee if serving at breakfast. Trader Joe’s Vegetable Patch drink if serving at lunch. BSK, despite her Anglo-Saxon-Welsh ancestry and Canadian-Midwestern youth, makes superb matzo balls. HG longs for these winners floating in a big bowl of free range chicken broth. Unrfortunately, BSK has not made them for years. However,BSK makes a world class bowl of Straciatella, the Italian version of egg drop soup. Italian “haimishkeit”. The best cure for the common cold and a splendid nourishment when flu has caused (a very rare happening) the disappearance of HG’s hearty appetite.
HG felt good last night after swimming 40 laps in HG’s sun dappled New Mexico indoor pool. Wanted to feel even better so drank two hearty glasses of vodka and orange bitters before dinner. HG’s turn to cook dinner. HG chose to sauté four pounds of Trader Joe’s free range chicken(there would be leftovers) in a mix of butter and Sicilian olive oil (Was HG’s choice of “chikin” spurred by the news that Chick-Fil-A was opening New York outlets ?). Anyway, HG browned the chicken parts to a savory mahogany shade. Removed them from the pan and cooked a lot of chopped garlic, shallots and fresh rosemary (from BSK’s herb garden) in the lush and buttery pan juices. The chicken went back in the pan with a glass of Pinot Grigio and left to simmer into tenderness. When finished, HG added Maille Dijon Mustard and lemon juice to the pan, gave it a swirl and poured it over the heated platter of chicken. A wow of a dish. HG also fried a bunch of tiny Ratte potatoes as an accompaniment. (BSK would add a green salad to the meal). Proud of the culinary accomplishment, HG toasted himself with a few glasses (size XL) of very good Chilean red wine (selected by BSK, HG’s favorite sommelier). Drank more wine with dinner. Following the splendid meal, HG relaxed with a snifter (XL) of grappa. And, then a second grappa (XL). HG arose to adjust the Bose. Took a noisy tumble. Fortunately, nothing was broken. Very minor bruises. BSK helped HG to HG’s feet. When assured that the mature gent was healthy, BSK (in a stern tone) noted that excessive alcohol contributed to the fall and that falling was one of the leading causes of demise in the senior citizen community. A point well taken. No pre-dinner vodka (except in dire circumstances). Two glasses of wine with dinner. A modest sip of brandy or grappa after dinner. HG vows: Austerity and Moderation. Says dubious BSK: “We shall see.”
Kasha (also known as buckwheat groats) is one of HG’s favorite foods. HG is always puzzled why it’s so seldom on restaurant menus (except for the rapidly diminishing number of Jewish “dairy” restaurants) and is so rarely used in home cooking. Simple to make. The kasha grains are mixed with beaten egg and sautéed until dried. A few cups of chicken broth are added to the saucepan and the mix is cooked until the grains become soft (Warning: Never overcook into a mush). HG likes kasha topped with fried onions and mushrooms (accompanied by a bowl of sour cream and plenty of ground pepper and sea salt flakes). Great topped with fried chicken livers and onions. Kasha Varnishkes used to be a staple in traditional Jewish eateries. In these kosher (non dairy) restaurants the mix of kasha and butterfly (farfalle) pasta would get an exhilarating hit of crisp fried onions and a big dollop of chicken fat. A young HG would accompany this treat with plenty of cold vodka and beer at Moe Dubiner’s eponymous non-kosher restaurant (long closed) on New York’s Stanton Street. It was a big favorite of the Jewish gangsters and gamblers who came to the restaurant for a late night snack. Kasha is versatile. Great in a big bowl of steaming chicken broth. Excellent as a filling in traditional blintzes (an egg crepe topped with kasha, rolled and then fried gently) or knishes (a flaky stuffed pastry). Best of all as an accompaniment to slow roasted beef brisket. Obligatory is lots and lots of savory gravy.
HG is very fond of those enhancements to alcohol known as bitters. And, HG makes good use of them. Topping the list is Peychaud’s Aromatic Cocktail Bitters. HG enjoys perusing the old fashioned Peychaud’s bottle which mentions many honors such as the Diploma of Honor. The Grand Exhibition of Altona-Germany, 1869 as well as many other awards from long gone expositions in 1885, 1895, 1905 and 1907. L.E. Jung and Wolff Co. (the makers of Peychaud’s) are proud of their product which they proclaim: “Has no equal for flavoring cocktails and is used in every bar of any prominence.” HG uses the delightful product in flavoring modest brandies (originating in New Orleans, Peychaud’s was first used only with cognac for alleged health benefits). HG also likes a dash in vodka on the rocks. HG alternates by giving his shot of vodka a hit of orange bitters made by a company named Stirrings which originated on Nantucket Island (where HG/BSK once had a summer home). Bourbon, with a few drops of these Blood Orange bitters, mixed with a bit of sweet vermouth and plenty of ice produces a delicious, vaguely Italian cocktail. A refreshing non-alcoholic drink HG enjoys in the summer is a dash of Angostura Bitters in a glass of Pellegrino and ice. (Yes, HG sometimes drinks non-alcoholic beverages but doesn’t make a habit of it.)
HG is a lucky man. While HG gets great gustatory pleasures eating at restaurants throughout the world, it is the meals that HG eats with his family that transport him. Yes, HG is blessed with a family of great chefs; and chefs whose influences and talents are truly global in scope. Take the two meals HG ate over the past week: Dinner in Brooklyn Chez SJ and Exquisite Maiko. Their pals Jay and Maya were present. Jay is an outstanding wit and guarantor of laughter. So, fun was guaranteed. A bottle of Tito’s Hand Made Vodka was on the table. The meal started with French smoked herring and smoked salmon. Rich, unusual tastes. Then, wielding chopsticks with her usual grace, Exquisite Maiko transformed into a master of Japanese style BBQ, grilling marinated short ribs and thin slices of pork belly to perfection on a table top barbecue. The crisp, sizzling pieces of meat were placed in cold lettuce leaves accompanied by EM’s extraordinary sesame oil and scallion dressing, onion sauce and discreet dabs of wasabi. With sips of cold vodka, the meal turned into a paen to the real flavors of beef and pork where richness was counter-balanced with the lighter, healthier touch of EM’s Japanese presentation.
Onto Rhode Island where comfort may be the last word one associates with the ever turbulent, bloody and embattled Middle East. But, the word is appropriate when applied to Brilliant Daughter Lesley R.’s riffs on dishes from that region. Lesley R. made her own version of little kefta (middle eastern stuffed grain and lamb meatballs). The ingredients: Ground lamb. cumin, smoked Spanish paprika, chopped almonds, chopped onions, garlic and raisins. Beaten egg as a binder. The mixture was formed into balls (about the size of a golf ball) and baked on a cookie sheet. When done, these were popped into steaming lentil soup. The ingredients: Red lentils, chopped onions and garlic, cumin, finely chopped carrots, chicken stock. Salt and pepper, of course. The savory bowls of soup and meatballs were topped with scoops of Greek yogurt and sprinkled with cayenne. To complete this filling and heartening one dish meal there was cheese, green salad and very superior bread from the Seven Stars Bakery in Providence. Needless to say, there was ample wine.
Yes, verily, verily — there’s no place like home.
Feasting and festivities seem to go together. The Day After Christmas Dinner was a festive feast for a table of 12. And, the dozen members of La Famiglia were of good appetite. Mushroom soup (shitakes, cremini, porcini). Brisket and gravy; haricots vert, kale salad; SJ’s super-buttery, creamy, smooth mashed potatoes. Plus an unusual dish of Middle Eastern carrots (abundant cumin and garlic). Pear Clafouti and whipped cream for dessert. Excellent wines (white and red). Time for confession: HG overdid the pre-dinner vodka and the post-dinner Lesley R.-crafted limoncello. Head and tummy whirled about at bedtime but had eased by morning wake-up. Obviously, the purity of HG’s soul and the organic integrity of Lesley R.’s cuisine banished the toxins.
That’s a question HG often puts to himself. HG is referring to drinking habits in the 50s and for most of the 60s. In those halcyon days, HG lunched daily in Manhattan restaurants with journalists, pals or HG’s public relations clients. Typical lunch at the Blue Ribbon, very good German restaurant on W. 45th (convenient for journalists from Times, Herald-Tribune, Newsweek and Business Week): Two dry martinis with Rollmops Appetizer (Bismarck herring rolled around a dill pickle); steak tartare or bratwurst or Kassler Rippchen (smoked pork chop) washed down with two large, dark beers. Cognac and a cup of black coffee to finish. At Russian Tea Room, HG drank chilled vodka throughout a lunch of Eggplant Oriental, Borscht with Pirozhki (flaky meat pastries) or Siberian Pelmeni (tiny Russian ravioli in a rich chicken consomme infused with generous quantities of chopped dill, sour cream and strong mustard). Wine, of course, accompanied the food at Sardi’s, Four Seasons, Gino’s. Patsy’s, Charles, Christ Cella, etc. But, two martinis always jump started the lunch. After lunch, an energetic HG was back at work. Focused. Productive. HG was not alone. Men (and women) drank cocktails at lunch — Martinis, Manhattans or Whiskey Sours. How could we function with so much lunchtime booze? We did. And, it was fun.