The Occurrence at Freeman Alley

1 Feb

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This is a story of a city girl and a country boy joining forces in a downtown Manhattan alley.  OK, that came out wrong—let me explain.  In the beginning of this school year, my friend, Austin, approached me about cooking a dinner for Bloomer Creek winery to celebrate their recent addition of a new plot of land to their greater vineyard.  I had gotten to know Debra Birmingham, one of the owners of the winery (and wife of the winemaker, Kim Engle) and artist at the Ithaca farmers’ market during my time at Cornell.  Therefore, I was obviously enticed by the thought of cooking toward the Bloomer Creek wines (which I have thoroughly enjoyed while in Ithaca).

To get the planning started, we took a short trip up to the Bloomer Creek winery one chilly Sunday in October to taste their wines and talk ideas with Debra and Kim.  After basically mudding through an enchanted forest to get there (damn you, GPS, who did not know the easier route), we arrived at the winery.  Before going inside, I could tell the property was beautiful; even though the day seemed gloomy, the area’s extensive green, weathered and healthy vines, and view of the lake had me excited.  Once we entered Debra and Kim’s winery (and home), I was blown away.

This place was not ordinary, and it only took a few questions on my end before I learned that Debra and Kim built the house with their bare hands, painted every wall, and distressed and finished every floorboard themselves.  It was incredible.  After taking it all in, we went over to a central island to taste some wine.  While we tasted from Riesling to Cabernet Sauvignon to distilled grape spirits, we learned how they began the winery, Kim’s philosophy on winemaking, and their take on their wines in the context of New York as well as the world.  Each wine had unique beauty, and as we noted various flavors and aromas, colors and textures, we began thinking food.

Before heading home, we saw the cellar where the magic happens.  Vats and carboys of fermenting wine took up much of the cellar, while old oak barrels housed aging wines.  Kim and Debra explained that they prefer using older oak barrels for their wines so that the grapes can be more readily expressed than they could under a veil of heavy oak flavor.  Even more interestingly, they allow their wines to begin fermentation naturally rather than inoculating with a yeast starter like many other winemakers do.  Even though the fermentation begins more slowly, they said, the wines’ flavors benefit, and this proprietary yeast strain makes their wines more notable.

When we talked about a location for the dinner, Debra and Kim suggested we either have a sit-down dinner in the Bowery section of Manhattan, at their artist friend, Jimmy Wright’s place, or have a cocktail party at the winery.  Although the cocktail party sounded fun, we unanimously agreed an off-site in Manhattan would be a fun adventure.  Besides—with a smaller crowd for dinner, we could control the wine pairing experience better and focus on creating a winning menu to show off these great wines.

Once we got on the road, Austin and I began talking food.  Between the car ride home and a stop at Chipotle for a quick dinner, we had already come up with much of the menu.  First and foremost, we chose our wine progression based on seasonal ingredients we wanted to use.  Then, it was all menu talk.  After drafting a five-course tasting menu, we sent it to Debra for feedback.

She gave the menu the thumbs-up, so we began to plan the dinner for mid-November.  Unfortunately, as the date came closer, Hurricane Sandy hit the city.  Although Jimmy’s place was not damaged by the hurricane, the city was a watery, powerless mess still, and we decided it was clearly best to wait.  After a few back-and-forth emails, we set the date for January 27th, the weekend after classes began again for Cornell.

On January 25th, a Friday, Austin and I drove out of Ithaca for my New Jersey hometown at the crack of dawn.  Neither of us really knew whey we had to leave so early, but we felt we could get more done without a rush if we arrived early Friday.  That day, we shopped for most of our ingredients, finalized our menu, and created a game plan.  We would drive into Manhattan the next day to set up at Jimmy’s and begin prep.

On Saturday, I was excited as I backed my Dad’s old Toyota into Freeman Alley, a small alley off Rivington, where the fabled apartment we would work in, was located.  As of this day, I had not seen the space, even though Austin had, so I was running on blind faith.  After all, this was a sketchy door going into an industrial looking building in an alley.  But you never know these days…  After we got buzzed in, we carried our coolers of ingredients up his couple flights of stairs to the main space.

If I wasn’t speechless from lugging coolers upstairs and being out of shape, I would have been rendered so by the sight of the living space.  When I say this place was cool, I mean it was the sickest looking apartment I had ever laid eyes on.  The apartment had everything—exposed brick, random decorations collected over the years, beautiful art, a nice kitchen with two four-burner ranges and ovens, and a lovely man living there.

Jimmy was a rare bird, for sure.  One way to explain how cool he is is to start by noting that he and his late partner renovated the apartment years ago, converting it from a near meth-lab type building to the crazy-awesome studio/apartment that it currently is.  I could also describe him by noting that over a day at his apartment, we heard music from opera to Snoop Dog to jazz to skaa-like stuff.  And he painted his bathroom like a jungle.  And he has some witty-ass humor.  Yes, the dude is awesome.

After we unloaded and organized our stuff, we parked the car and set out in search of Asian herbs and duck breast.  Being close to Chinatown certainly helped; after striking out on duck meat at Whole Foods, we knew where to look.  In a Chinese fish and meat market, we found a pile of birds in the back cooler, most of them chickens.  Fortunately, we found three ducks priced at ten dollars each.  This was great!  We would find out later that the suckers still had heads and feet on and were very possibly frozen with the guts still in, but because we did not need the carcasses, we were in the clear (and the duck passed the taste-test).  We should have known when we saw an oddly small center-cut loin that was most likely from someone’s wire-haired Schnauzer that we were probably not getting a fully fabricated bird situation.  But hey, c’est la vie, right?

Back at the house, we busted out most of our prep for the next day and planned out the table set-up with Debra, Kim, and Jimmy.  After that, Austin and I returned to New Jersey to get some sleep, print some menus, and go over final details.

The day of the party, we only had to finish some prep work, organize, and set up the space for the dinner.  Despite using my family’s old-ass computer and printer for the menus, we came up with something our artist friends deemed nice.  Once we got started with the dinner, it went by in a flash.

When guests arrived, we had cheese and aperitif wine for them.  Debra poured Bloomer Creek’s delicately balanced Riesling and Pinot Noir while we took a break in our cooking schedule to meet and befriend the guests.  Debra insisted that we not rush the dinner or spend too much time cleaning in case we miss out on the company, and her advice did not fall on deaf ears.  Everyone was really great to talk to—we talked to people in the food and wine business, the art business, and a girl close in age to us who gave me advice on where to travel in Hungary.  Cocktail hour was fun, and we cheers’d to finally making the dinner happen.

Course by course, we sent out the food, actually taking the time to eat each course with the guests—another of Debra’s kind requests.  No one was in a hurry, and even though we took time to eat, the whole dinner didn’t drag.

Our first course was a carrot salad with cashews, sheeps’ milk yogurt, oregano, and maple-lime vinaigrette.  We paired it with the Bloomer Creek Block 97 Chardonnay from 2010.  Here, the subtle oak on the wine went beautifully with the smoky, nutty cashews; the maple rounded out the pairing, adding some sweetness where the wine was dry.  Oregano added minty, herbal freshness, and the yogurt brought a tart note to the dish that echoed the Chardonnay’s clean acidity.

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The second course was a black cardamom and vanilla-spiced crispy pork rillette with mizuna salad and challah croutons.  This paired with their Tanzen Dame 2nd Harvest Riesling from 2011.  We designed this course after Debra told us she likes this wine with paté.  Since the Riesling had some spice notes to it, we wanted to bring that home with the spices in the pork.  The vanilla in the dish accented the stone fruit in the wine.  Since the wine had a little sweetness, we dressed the mizuna salad in a high-acid vinaigrette so that the overall pairing wouldn’t end up too cloying or one-note.  Overall, the pairing seemed a success.  And, of course, deliciously butter-laden challah croutons never ruin the party.

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The third course was duck with masa dumplings, squash puree, raspberry-red pepper salsa, and chevre crema.  We paired this with the Cabernet Franc from 2007.  Because we detected a lot of earthy notes and some bell-pepper notes in the Cab Franc originally, Austin wanted to give a nod to his home (Arizona) with some Southwestern flavors.  Hence, the masa dumplings and salsa.  The pairing was really nice here, because the raspberry in the salsa brought up some of the red fruit in the wine a notch and the peppers in the salsa spoke to the capsicum notes the wine already showcased.  The masa and the duck both brought some warmer flavors and umami to the dish, creating a pairing that had it all.

ImageThe fourth course was braised beef tongue with celeriac puree, sour cherry gastrique, and Vietnamese herb salad.  This went with the Cabernet Sauvignon from 2007.  This course was a funny one.  From the outset, I wanted to do braised beef tongue.  As frequent readers of Getinmebelly know, I am an off-cuts girl.  It took minor convincing on my end to get Austin on board with this, and Debra was a little unsure.  But because we went through with a risk, we did reap a high reward—none left a scrap of tongue on the plate.

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Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the heavier wines in the world.  Kim and Debra’s Cab is slightly less oaky than some, allowing the woodsy, fruity qualities from the grape to shine through.  For the pairing, we did a take on steak and potatoes.  Our steak was obviously the tongue, here, and the mashed potatoes were really celeriac puree.  To pick up the acidity, we added the sour cherry gastrique, and to add intrigue, we added the Vietnamese herbs (mint, cilantro, culantro, basil).  The celeriac met some of the woodsier flavors in the wine where a potato might have left them hanging, and the herbs came through for the subtle eucalyptus notes we found in the wine.

The last course was a clementine-saffron sherbet with whipped almond gazpacho, tonic gelée, and smoked paprika gingersnap crunch.  We served this with the Bloomer Creek grape brandy.  This course was a fun one.  We took some very Spanish flavors (saffron, pimentón, white gazpacho), and used them in a dessert.  It hit home for me, having spent time in Galicia, where some meals are finished with the house Orujo, a distilled grape spirit.  No, we did not put garlic in the gazpacho for the dessert, but a little lemon zest and a touch of sugar transformed it into a delicious dessert “soup.”

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Since we charged it in an isi canister, it was really more fluffy than soup, but let’s not get away from the bigger picture.  The spice and crunch from the cookie with the creaminess and acidity of the gazpacho, the bright, saffron-infused sherbet, and the subtly bitter tonic gelée was a pretty dynamic bomb of flavor.  And with the beautiful grape brandy?  It was the shit.  And I’m not bragging—it’s just one of those things when flavor nostalgia hits home.

By sitting down and eating with the guests (something cooks do not do often), we got to see both sides of the story—the cooking and the guest experience.  As Aly, one of the guests, pointed out, the English language does not have a word for good food, good people, and a good place.  Well hopefully, we can make one soon; it seems a few foreign countries already beat us to it.

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When the dinner was over, I think Austin and I both felt mixed senses of relief and loss—even though we were both glad the dinner went off without a hitch, it was our baby.  Since October, we had been planning, tweaking plans, re-engineering the menu…and now it was all over!  I take comfort in knowing that not only did the dinner go well, but that we met some really great people in the process and had a great time collaborating with Debra and Kim.  I know I don’t usually get all sappy here on Getinmebelly, but I am certainly grateful to have a great friend/fellow cook in Austin and that Debra and Kim took that leap of faith having us cater the dinner.  I think it was a master collaboration of Ithaca, Manhattan, food, wine, art, and friends.  May the Barrow Vineyard property we celebrated bring more great wine and great times to Bloomer Creek.

2012 in review

30 Dec

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,800 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 10 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Fun in the Whirlwindy City of Food

2 Aug

I got into Chicago’s O’hare airport at 12:15 on a Friday afternoon.  After a speedy flight sitting between an old lady and an uptight middle-aged woman, I was stoked to finally be there.  When was the last time I flew on a plane?  Yikes.  I was glad to be off-board, back on my comforting land.

“Ah you pole-eese?” asked the Korean cabdriver who I asked for a ride into Evanstion from O’hare.

“What?” I did not understand what he was saying.  I later realized cabbies aren’t supposed to solicit travelers at the airport curb, and therefore he was asking me if I was a policewoman trying to arrest him.  What a jokester.  I didn’t think he would know where I wanted to go, since we could scarcely understand each other, but I had a feeling he had the divine cab driver instinct that would get me to my sister, Maddie, at the Draftfcb office downtown.  He did get me there, and all was good in the world as Madison and I got sushi on her lunch break.

Yes, I said sushi on her lunch break—she is fancy.  She was dressed to the nines like her intern colleagues, and I looked like a semi-stylized punk/hippie burnout hybrid at best.  Womp.  We had a good time catching up before she had to head back to work; we would hit the Purple Pig in a few hours.

We waited a good half hour for a table at the Purple Pig; it was busy, as I’m sure it has been every night since it opened.  We shared a cocktail before sitting down—some boozy answer to the creamsicle called a Montalena.  Once at the table, we got down to business.  I was ecstatic to see so many piggy goodies on one page, and we ordered well: beet salad with goat cheese, watermelon with ricotta salata-like cheese, pork fried almonds, tongue in agro dolce, crispy pig’s ear, Iberico lardo, and the pork shoulder blade steak with ‘nduja and honey.  Holy business.  That stuff was good.  Even Maddie, a self-proclaimed offal-hater, liked everything.ImageImage

That evening, we just crashed at her apartment in Evanston; we had more plans the next few days that required a little recharging of the batteries.

The next day, we hung out at her apartment.  In the morning, we headed to the farmer’s market and grabbed a bunch of ingredients for dinner, and I was stoked to go home with corn, tomatoes, berries, goat cheddar, and lamb spare ribs.  While we watched “Something Borrowed,” a mediocre dramaromcom, I reduced some cranberry juice with the flesh of some old figs Maddie wanted to use up.  For a few hours, I slow-cooked the ribs and then glazed them with the cranberry-fig reduction, and served it all with a corn and tomato succotash with nectarine, micro basil, and the goat cheddar.  I had an awesome time cooking those tasties in her kitchen, and the food came out pretty well.  Who couldn’t love lamb ribs?  They had all the succulence of pork ribs with that exotic, lamby flavor I find delicious.Image

Although we wanted to go out that night, I got tired after a train ride and some hang time at a weird pub called Cheesie’s, where we got margaritas and a grilled cheese sandwich filled with mac ‘n’ cheese…so we called it a night.  Talk about being a lame sister and visitor!  I hoped for more energy for the following day.  Check out my somewhat childish table art at Cheesie’s:Image

The next day, Sunday, we got ready and went to Wicker Park for brunch at Mindy’s Hot Chocolate.  Once we sat down, I was immediately impressed by the beer list offered during brunch.  Hell yeah, breakfast beer.  After checking out the menu for a while, ordering once and finding out 80% of what we wanted was 86’d already, we attempted to order again.   This time, we were successful.  One chai hot chocolate, one Alpha King beer by Three Floyds Brewing Co., one order of donuts with raspberry sauce, chicken and biscuits with gravy for me, and baked egg with ratatouille for Maddie.  ImageImage

This stuff was pretty bangin’.  Although we both thought the kitchen could have used some more salt, everything was tasty.  I think the beer, hot chocolate, and the donuts were the best-prepared things (#pleasetellthechefthebeerwasbrewedperfectly).  My chicken was cooked really nicely, but I felt the biscuit was a little dry or uninspiring, and the gravy was almost solid by the time it arrived to me.  I tried the ratatouille, and I really liked it but for its slight lack of seasoning.

We shopped for about five hours to work up an appetite again, and I actually had some success, even if it meant nearly spending all I had.  A cool ring, a top hat, sunglasses, and a record later, I was all shopped out.  Perhaps the best find was this little mascot I got myself at a funky boutique:Image

Later that day, we had dinner at Girl and the Goat.  I would stage there on Tuesday, and I wanted to get acquainted with the restaurant’s flavor.  Thoughtfully, the restaurant seated us at the chef’s table across from the garde manger station, so we got to witness the fun as we ate.  In addition to what we ordered, the kitchen sent us two gifts: the sockeye salmon tartare with squash and truffle vinaigrette and the goat cheesecake with candied beets and cajeta.

Between the two of us, we ordered the roasted beets with avocado crème fraiche; scallops with foie vinaigrette and plum; oven roasted pig face, goat belly with lobster, crab, and bourbon butter; grilled broccoli with blue cheese and crispy rice; and quatro leches cake with cereal streusel.

Everything was delicious, and I am not just saying that.  That pig’s face was pretty genius, first of all, because essentially it was a sliced, crisped up pig’s head terrine served with potato sticks and a fried fucking egg.  Fried fuckin’ eggs actually make the world go ‘round, if you’ve ever read science-type literature.  And when you eat that dish altogether, with the tamarind sauce, maple gastrique, and cilantro oil, it does taste like the best porky hash in the world.  My brain was all shouting loud, excited expletives, such that I could not hear Maddie talk very well while I was eating it.  Now that I’ve written a paragraph about one dish, I’m just gonna let this dinner experience turn into something of a Steinbeck-length novel (but not Grapes of Wrath, because even I am not cocky enough to write something that long and expect anyone to read it).Image

Now, for everything else, in the order we ate them…First, we had the salmon tartare, the roasted beets, and the grilled broccoli.  The salmon tartare was very clean and delicious; it was served with a salad of thinly sliced zucchini with truffle vinaigrette.  I can’t say the truffle was really my favorite part of the dish; I loved the freshness of the salmon and the zucchini without the truffle.  However, I do think the kitchen made a great argument for using Sockeye salmon over farmed Atlantic salmon.  It was delicious raw, and having recently served Sockeye ceviche at an event I catered, I have to say: enjoyed once, good; enjoyed twice, addicted.  Its darker color and deeper flavor really gives it extra oomph in uncooked preparations.

Moving on to the beets—I can’t begin without noting that my sister loves beets and ordered them everywhere we went while I was in Chicago.  I’m really glad she did, because everywhere we went, they were great.  Girl and the Goat was no exception.  Our beets came in a large bowl with anchovies, breadcrumbs and avocado crème fraiche.  The portion was generous, and I really liked having something besides just chevre with the beets.  Maybe that sounds obvious, but I am always surprised by how many restaurants stick to that classic combo instead of changing things up.  Anchovies were a really nice contrast to the earthy beets, and I probably would have eaten the whole bowl if I a) didn’t order five other things or b) knew for a fact that I would drop dead right after the meal for unknown reasons and therefore did not care how full I would be upon polishing off five generous portions.

The broccoli, people, was just plain stupid good.  Wood grilled and served with a velvety blue cheese sauce and toasted Rice Krispies (yes, the cereal), the broccoli had insane depth of flavor.  I love my cruciferous veggies, and I’m big on roasting broccoli and cauliflower.  But grilling the broccoli added some ‘round-the-campfire nostalgia beyond just dark roastiness, and adding milk and cereal (in blue cheese and crispy rice form), was smart.  The Rogue blue cheese sauce was piquant and in harmony with the smokiness from the grill; the toasted Krispies added crunch factor and intrigue. Image

Now, let’s talk protein.  Following the veggies, we ate some really dank scallops, a goat belly dish that challenged Victorian feasts in decadence, and that crazy pig face described in the above funky passage.   The scallops, served with plum, brioche croutons, and foie vinaigrette, were ridiculous.  Now, these were the fattest scallops I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few scallops in my day.  Seared to brown perfection, they were super tender and sweet.  The brioche croutons added textural contrast while singing buttery back up for the browned scallop flavor and rich foie.  Do I even need to say that the trifecta of scallop with foie, foie with plum, plum with scallop, was perfect?  Maddie liked it, and she is a proclaimed foie-phobe.  Is she on the path to enlightenment?  I believe so; and I thank this dish for the prospect.Image

Now, in the past ten years, the secret on bellies has gotten out.  These days, the only belly fat Americans can’t get on board with is their own.  Pork belly was always the thing.  Then lamb belly.  But goat belly…yes.  Similar to lamb belly in gaminess but perhaps more subtle, the goat belly was meltingly tender while crispy on the outside.  As for the decadence factor, if belly wasn’t hard core enough, Chef Stephanie Izard whips out lobster, crab, and bourbon butter and suddenly the dish is all, “if you’re so badass, eating your bellies all the time, try this, ya pussy!”  And I’m all like, “Screw it!  I’m goin’ in.  Because bourbon butter strikes my fancy, and lobster and crab are awesome. And all these shenanigans in one dish makes me quiver.”  The salad of shaved fennel and some delicate shoots on top offered freshness, and it was tasty, even if mocking in its sparing ray of healthfulness on a plate of lipids.

Everything worked.  The belly and seafood were fun partners, and the bourbon butter bridged the two together pretty nicely—who doesn’t like a little butter with their lobster and some bourbon-y sweetness with their belly?  I dug it.

Dessert was fun.  We ordered the quatro leches cake with blueberries and cereal struessel, and the kitchen sent out the goat cheesecake with beets and cajeta.  I think that between the two, I may have liked the cheesecake more, but it was a close call.  I love this chef for her use of cereal on the menu, because I’ve been a cereal freak since I was about three.  I was down with having corn flakes in my streusel for sure.  I thought that maybe the cake needed a little more of a leche soak, just because my experience with tres leches cake has been on the more “leche-soaked” side.  Even so, it was tasty.

The goat cheesecake was delicious.  Now, I have to say—well played with sneaking the goat cheese-chevre combo in there, chef.  And at that rate, the combo as a dessert was pretty rad.  Candied beets were both sweet and earthy, and the cheesecake was creamy and just goaty enough for a dessert.  Cajeta, a caramel/dulce de leche of sorts made with goat/sheep’s milk and sugar, rounded out the combo in a way that said, “I am not just beets and goat cheese.”  It really worked.  Our server was certainly right when he said we had to try it.

Phew.  You better feel like you just ate that meal, because that was a damn lot of words back there.  So that was my experience with Girl and the Goat.  Staging there was great, and it really didn’t hurt that I got to taste every dish on the menu during my day working there.

The swag of a Chicago kitchen seemed different from that of New York kitchens.  It may be unfair to base my judgment solely on G&TG, since their culture seemed particularly fun, but everyone just seemed more relaxed, and I never heard anyone bitch anyone out.  Everything just flowed smoothly, and no one seemed fazed on the line as they put out plates for 500 or so covers.

The day after our meal at Girl and the Goat, I hung out with some friends in downtown Chicago, and day after that, I went back for my stage.  Those two days flew, and on Wednesday morning, I found myself packing up to fly back to New Jersey.  I would be lying if I said I wasn’t depressed about leaving.  Chicago in general was fun; I could see why Madison wanted to stay and work there during her summer break from Northwestern.  If I didn’t have to go home to cater a dinner, I might’ve even extended my trip.  But Maddie and her roommates probably wanted the rights to their couch back…

Since Madison needed to lock up the apartment, I was cool playing bag lady for part of the day, carrying my luggage around until my 3 PM flight.  I hopped on the train to Wicker Park and walked around for a little, rolling my suitcase up and down the street like a nerdy child in the middle school hallway.  Finally, some stores opened and I checked them out to kill time.  Afterwards, I passed this donut shop Maddie and I had seen a few days before: Glazed and Infused.  The operation ran out of a little window on the side of a restaurant.  Could I resist the maple-bacon donut?  No.  Would it be a waste?  So many maple-bacon wannabes leave me unfulfilled.  This time, however, my doubt was misplaced.

The donut was a freaking revelation.  It was a yeast donut.  Usually, I am a cake donut person.  When I eat yeast donuts, I wonder why I bother.  They are so light and airy that I feel like I am reconstituting the essence of fryer oil with my saliva.  This one, however, was perfect.  The donut had a denser crumb for a yeastie, and it was just the right amount of sweet.  The glaze on top was maple-y heaven, in a perfectly thin but powerful layer.  When I saw that one strip of perhaps not freshly rendered bacon adorned the top, I was skeptical.  How wrong I was.

That one strip of bacon was meaty and a little crispy; one strip down the length of the donut really was enough bacon for every bite.  Warning lights flashed in my brain as I considered the tragedy that my favorite donut (a cake donut from Payne’s Dock, on Block Island) might be replaced with this monstrosity.  I decided they could tie and subsequently calmed.  In my usual obnoxious eating fashion, I ate the two ends, which had the most glaze coverage, and then I ate off most of the glazed external part of the donut, as if I was eating corn off the cob.  I got fairly messy, but I had no shame eating that thing—sitting on a sidewalk bench next to my luggage, looking like a confusing form of well-fed hobo.

I walked to my airport terminal with a heavy heart.  Was I really flying away from delicious donuts, crazy good goat bellies, Iberico lardo, and other awesome eats?  I suppose you always know when it’s time to go for real: when you have $0 in your ATM account and you are having a difficult time fitting into your pants.  I had to go back to the dirty Jerz and make some money; eat some salads and stuff.  Sigh.

Now, I’d like to take this final paragraph to disclaim the following: my Chicago food expeditions are merely a secondary and happenstance occurrence; my primary reason of travel is to see my awesome sister, Madison Loew, and it is not her fault that she lives in such a delicious city.  It is not her fault that I influence horribly unhealthy eating for a four-day period, and it is not my fault that she likes to go shopping and therefore we both spend all our money.  That is just how it happens.  And what the hell—we only see each other so often; might as well go all out.  I can’t wait to return for her Northwestern graduation next summer.  Publican—I mean commencement—is gonna be awesome!  Just kidding, Maddie.  Until next time, Midwest!

The Adventures of Shaina and Chase in a Fatty Place Called Montreal

29 Jul

Leave me here to die in a bloodbath of gravy, pork gelatin, and half pichet’s of kamikazes.  That is how I felt leaving Montreal two Sundays ago.  I was coming down from my poutine trip from the day before, and I was unprepared to cross the Canadian-US border back into the Empire State.  I reached into a brown bag of cookies my boyfriend, Chase, and I bought to bring back to the states.  I sought stability in food form, although neither of us knew what those delicious “biscotti” really were.  Was that flavor coconut?  White chocolate?  I didn’t give a shit, as I munched and waited behind a man and his wife on their Harley and a very large dragonfly in the border control line-up.  All I wanted was one more bite of my Montreal experience.

Why Montreal?  Everyone in the US constantly jokes about Canadians and their shenanigans, although I’ve never understood why that was remotely funny.  “Dude, it’s CANADA.” Nope, I still don’t get it.  I have always longed to visit our North of the border compadres and take part in their sketchy-cum-brilliant cuisine.  I’ll tell you why Montreal:

Maple syrup

Piggy

A fondness for foie

Sweaters

European-esquity

Drinking for “minors”

That’s most, folks.

I love all those things.  I know sweaters in July are not a great idea, so forget those until I re-visit Montreal in the cooler months.  But I needed to get out of the US of A and could really see myself downing a few Unibroue beers with a dish of narsty/beautiful poutine.  And it happened.

Chase and I arrived on a Thursday evening to Hostel La Maison du Patriote on Rue St. Paul.  Turn onto Rue Paul! Rue Paul! RuPaul???  Is this a drag hostel?  Whatever works.  Finally, after seven or eight hours of driving, I would’ve crashed almost anywhere.  We got into the building and promptly found our room.  At $50 each per night, we were pretty stoked to have a clean, fairly large room with two large windows looking onto the main street, a stone wall with an electric fireplace (small detail: it didn’t work), and two fat beanbag chairs all to ourselves.  Oh, and a decent, clean kitchen to cook in if the opportunity presented itself.

We went to dinner at a small corner bistro with al fresco dining that night.  Game terrine, smoked salmon, French onion soup, a braised lamb shank, and some solid red wine all graced our presences over the course of the meal, and we were both happy campers calling it a night after that.Image

Friday, we walked around and looked in stores in the morning.  We got coffee at a small café, and that is when we found those crazy cookies: Heavenly Taste Biscotti.  Weird, overly sweet, overly lumpy cookie bricks, studded with white and milk chocolate and almonds is an under-description.  Just go get some.  They are just fucked up at the very least.

After enjoying our weird cookie, we went window shopping and wondered why there were so many native American stores.   Those and gift shops that sold aprons depicting a naked dude boning an animal from behind…maybe these quirks explain the Canadian jokes…At any rate, all the Inuit- and bestial-inspired art confusion got us thinking we might understand Canada more if we sat down and got some lunch.

OK, so we got pizza.  At least it was pizza Quebecois—with bacon, mushrooms, onions, and peppers.  That and some wine and beer.  Even though pizza is not inherently Canadian, it is not inherently New Jerseyan either, but I get it there all the time.  The Quebecois was yummy and hit the spot.  We tried not to overdo it though…in light of our reservation at AU PIED DE COCHON that night.

When we got to APDC, we were very pumped.  A glass of champagne was the least we could order ourselves to say, “thank you, selves, for having the magnificent foresight to choose to spend all your money at this Mecca for pork lovers.”  We perused the menu long enough before ordering the PDC platter (from their seafood bar), the special app of softshell crab pancake fried in duck fat with bacon and maple syrup, and the pig’s head for two.  Glory, glory.  I was stoked. Image

When the PDC platter came, we were in awe.  Periwinkles; razor, cherrystone, and littleneck clams; mussels; oysters; calamari; and conch awaited their turns to be dumped into our gullets.  It was glorious.  Sauces, dressings, and garnishes made each piece of seafood sing in a new light: the razor clam, chopped up with red onion and herbs was refreshing; the raw oysters, unadorned, were briny, juicy, and delicious; the littlenecks, with a creamier dressing, were rich yet light.  Everything was just right, even when we were poking sticks into the periwinkles to extract the miniscule muscle, while simultaneously coating our fingers in their sticky, barbeque-like glaze and scoring about 5 for 10 in the “is there a periwinkle in there or is it an empty shell?” category.  It was all bueno.

At that point, we were already full, but we still shoveled the softie pancake sandwich, with its cucumber slaw and bacon filling, into our mouths.  It was yummy, even though I wondered if maybe its exoskeleton wasn’t a little overdeveloped to earn softshell status: maybe medium-softshell would have been more accurate…crunchy, no; chewy, yeah, probably. Image

The piece de resistance was yet to come.  We were full.  The man next to us was blotting his brow with a linen napkin; he had a severe case of the meat sweats.  But we had to soldier on.  That pig’s head for two was coming.  The wait staff armed us with Victorinox knives and such for the onslaught.  We relaxed our bellies with more wine.  And then the fat wooden board, carrying a large pig head, came to our table.  It was big.  Mashed potatoes were smeared on the board.  A whole damned lobster, for fuck’s sake, stuck out of the pig’s mouth.  I was touched to see a pot of pan drippings next to the head.  Damn…we were screwed…Image

We did the only thing anyone could do: we just dove right in.  We carved fatty, sticky cheek and jowl bits off.  We ripped off the snout and sucked down its jelly-ish porkiness.  We grazed the skin off the ears like a regular human eats steamed artichoke leaves.  Stopping meant pain, so we kept going until we started feeling faint…

We asked for the check and some more water.  Our waitress became elusive.  Where IS she, damn it?  She had abandoned our care in favor of waiting on the newly seated couples on either side of us.  As a chicly dressed hipster/foodie wannabe ordered a Hendrick’s martini and tried to impress his date, we breathed shallowly and willed ourselves to maintain composure.  We were as washed up as a pair of beached wales being force-fed funnel cake by Snooki on the beach of the Jersery shore.  Wa.ter. Please.  Finally, we got some water, paid, and peaced out quickly.

Driving home was rough.  With Chase in the passenger seat, bemoaning his pork overdose, I, too, was struggling to keep it together long enough to park in the overpriced lot next to our hostel.  We both fell into hard core food comas that night, and either I was too tired, or my ears were too stopped up with pork fat to hear the partiers on the Friday night pub crawl outside.

The next morning, we both slept in.  When we woke up, we were not really too much worse off for our previous night’s food exploits other than a probable five extra pounds on the scale—but who’s counting on vacation?  Once we got our brains back in the game, we headed over to the Jean-Talon market, apparently one of the biggest open-air markets in North America.

After painfully withdrawing some more money at the ATM, we began to check out the stalls.  Cured meats, cheeses, fresh meats, produce, and more abounded.  We bought a bunch of things for dinner that night, including blood sausage, goat cheese, berries, a dry cured sausage, and chanterelle mushrooms.  We also picked up some Canadian beers on our way out, after stopping to try some delicious, briny oysters at the oyster stall.

Back at the hostel, we turned our now hopelessly mushed bag of mixed berries into a jam to go with our cheese.  Meanwhile, we drank a wheat beer and enjoyed the cool shelter from the 95 degree day outside.  After sautéing our chanterelles and cooking off the blood sausage, we took our foods to our room and ate them while people watching from our window that opened onto Rue St. Paul below. Image

If that wasn’t enough, we decided to hit the streets later that night to see what we could get into on our last night.  A few doors down, a live band played in a nightclub, and we decided to check it out.  Once inside, we watched an energetic band play some songs in French and some randomly thrown in American songs, including “Footloose.”  Don’t ask.  Over our half-pitchers of not quite cold cocktails, we weren’t questioning the soundtrack.  It was fun!  A birthday girl was ushered on stage with her friends and mom for a song, and at one apparently choreographed point, all members of the group downed the contents of their glasses in one fell chug.  I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel at home.Image

Driving to the US border the next day brought a tear to my mind (I don’t cry actual tears often).  It was over.  We at least had a couple of those weird biscotti to keep the memories alive a bit longer, but no cookie could mend the fact that we were headed onto highways that only had speed limits; not speed minimums, as we so appreciated in the land of our Canadian brethren.Image

FIN.

Oh, PS: we ate this really good poutine next door to our hostel in an amazing beer garden type place and drank some really nice beers:Image

On “Fuck It” Cooking: warning: this post contains perpetual profanity that is not meant to be insulting but rather a stylistic descriptor.

4 Jul

Too many people ask me if I use recipes when I cook, and if not, how do I go about it?  My answer is that no, I really don’t ever use recipes.  In uncharted waters, obviously, a seaman (haha) may need a map, but for previously endeavored voyages, he will probably jibe and tack as he sees fit.  And so it is with cooking: a handful of basic methods, nearly infinite ingredients, and hope result in a finished product that can be enjoyed and improved upon next time if need be.  This post is meant to inspire those that are too engrossed in the maps to get in the boat—or, in this case, recipes and the kitchen.  Instead of trying to plan ahead every day, try my “fuck it, let’s do it” approach.  The easy steps include the following:

  • What am I feeling today? 
  • What is in my pantry/fridge? 
  • Getting started
  • Oh, shit—I don’t have that
  • Going to the store or, preferably, choosing a substitution
  • Completing the cooking
  • Figuring out what it is that you have made

With these six simple steps, you should be able to cook something without really needing a recipe.  If you are confident enough, go ahead and use the fuck it method for a dinner party.  I prefer it for impromptu breakfast items, baked goods, or just-for-fun cooking.  Let’s take a look at how to go about the process.

What am I feeling today?

What am I feeling today is about getting to the core of your mood and figuring out what you crave.  If Saturn is in line with your sweet tooth today, maybe you want to bake.  If you have insomnia, maybe you should decide on a shorter project that doesn’t involve waiting for something to come out if the oven (often you will fall asleep and burn it).  Perhaps you have a bottle of wine or beer to kick with some friends and you want some light apps to go with it.  What are you feeling today?  Let’s say I wake up at like 5 AM feeling something fried and I know I have some chicken around.  You may think this is a disgusting plan, but I sleep haphazardly, and I really never know what ideas will hit me, so I try not to question these things too deeply.  OK, so 5 AM fried chicken.

What is in my pantry/fridge?

What is in my pantry/fridge is about scouting around your house for ingredients, especially leftovers and esoteric condiments or other items you otherwise would not use.  Continuing with the chicken example, let’s say I want to bread and fry the chicken and make a pan gravy to go with it.  I’m looking around my fridge and I find some coconut milk and curry paste.  That’s cool, that’s cool.  What else?  Hm…some fish sauce, mustard, grab eggs for that breading…oh, check it out—half an onion from that guac I made yesterday…word.  Aha! Half a bottle of Saison beer I did not drink last night for some odd reason…let’s amp up that gravy a tad…

Getting started

Getting started involves beginning the cooking process and not worrying if you don’t have everything yet.  In fuck it land, we just sort of find what we need as we go.  So for this chicken dish, I would grab a pan (probably that old faithful cast iron), and heat up my oil to fry the chicken.  Then, I would grab my chicken, bread it, and get ready to fry.

Oh shit, I don’t have that

Oh shit, I don’t have that is the essence of why fuck it cooking is awesome.  When you find you do not have what it is that you need, especially something key (this is even more hilariously beautiful in baking, where precision is a little more desirable), you must either put things on hold and go to the store (not as cool), or choose a new ingredient to substitute.  Let’s use an example: so I’ve found a tub of lard in the back of my fridge (this is somewhat typical for me, I guess), and I’m melting it and bringing it up to temp for the chicken in that cast iron pan.  I beat up the eggs to dip the chicken in, but then I realize I don’t have flour or bread crumbs for the breading procedure.  Crapmonkey. 

Going to the store, or, preferably, choosing a substitution

What do I do?  Well, this is not really much of a dilemma.  I know I can coat that chicken in whatever I really want, so why not think outside the box?  Check it out—I have Captain Crunch AND Kix in my pantry, so I will grind them into crumbs in the food processor and use that instead.  Gross?  Think again.  DELICIOUS.  As for the flour, I found some potato flour kicking around in the pantry from Passover 2010.  Why not?  Does anything from Passover go bad?  Don’t think so, or at least I hope not, since suddenly I wonder why all this Manischewitz business has been here so long.

Problems solved, people, and I didn’t even have to go to the store dressed in boxers, moccasins, and a concert t-shirt, like a washed up hippie/Pocahontas hybrid.

Completing the cooking

Now, I have my 350-degree lard and my cereal-crusted chicken, and I’m ready to fry.  I fry away.  As the chicken fries, I chop up the random onion.  After it is done, I pour off most of the fat and sauté the onion.  Next, I add in a little potato flour to thicken the gravy (not as ideal as wheat flour, but fuck it), and then whisk in a little curry paste, the beer, and coconut milk.  Adjust with a little fish sauce and maybe even a little mustard.  Season to taste.  No salt?  Why don’t you have salt?  I always have salt.  If you don’t have salt, which you should have had to season the chicken before breading, you should cry bitter tears, which will, in turn, season your gravy, I suppose.

Figuring out what it is that you have made

What have I done?  Well, I have made cereal-crusted fried chicken with curry gravy.  It is strange.  But it tastes so good…But strange…But good…And thank god I don’t have to look at that stupid jar of curry paste in the fridge anymore…

 

See?  Fuck it cooking can result in strange but delicious things.  More often than not, this cooking method forces creativity.  Most cooks/chefs would tend to disagree, arguing that starting with a plan is the key to successful cooking.  To their credit, when cooking specific items or large quantities, especially under time constraints, it doesn’t hurt to have a plan.

But fuck it cooking frees the mind.  Too many home cooks spend way too much time going through recipes to find dishes that include ingredients they have.   You don’t need a recipe for that.  Just a will.  And then, as we saw with the weirdo-delicious-o fried chicken concoction, there will be a way.

Happy fuck it cooking, and happy 4th of July.  May you concoct creatively.

Foodetry Musings for A Sunny May Day

11 May

Food is good is good is food.

My mood. 

I’m wooed by food;

Of crappy edibles I’m shrewd.

When it looks good and tastes bad,

My food balls blued.

Prude eaters seem rude

To my keen foodie blood,

And I know it’s dangerous to cook bacon nude.

It’s not universally understood

Why my kind brood over

Shiny plated entrée photos, almost lewd.

I can’t conclude;

Why I light up on cue,

Thinking about all this wonderful food.

 

Well, You Know What They Say About Pink Slime…

5 Apr

What?  That it’s 100% natural?  That it’s all beef and utilizes parts of the animal that would otherwise go to waste?  OK, OK, I know I’m ripping off the corn syrup advocacy commercials, but I couldn’t help it.  Recently, the United States has been riveted by the news that we have been consuming this so called “pink slime”/finely textured beef in ground beef mixes for years, much to the dismay of many people.  Ewww!  It’s gross looking and pink!  So?  The reasons people are shying away from ground meat at the store now are all the wrong ones.  For years, I have been telling my parents we have to grind our own–but that’s for other reasons.  The real reasons why pink slime–and all other factory produced beef–is wrong.  The truth is, though, that if we could choose to raise beef and other animals humanely and feed them properly, we could actually feel good about using every last ounce of pink slime we could eek out of our animals: the practice, in theory, is just plain efficient and sustainable.

I guess this is one of those events some people will remember like the death of Michael Jackson or the verdict of the OJ Simpson trial: “where were you when they debunked the pink slime caper on the news?”, people will ask.  If anyone asks me, I will tell them I knew about the inner workings of commercially raised, butchered, and processed meats long before this slime’s red carpet debut.  This information has been available to the masses in books and documentaries such as “Food, Inc.” for a long time.  Why hasn’t anyone fussed until now?  I guess the pictures of this awkwardly extruded meat substance bothered people.  But why?

Let me straighten the situation out simply: using as much as we can from an animal–good.  Needing to spray the meat with ammonia because we fed it things that killed its digestive tract, leaving it susceptible to E. coli and other diseases and because we don’t keep the meat from every slaughtered animal separate–bad.

No one wants to hear that their meat is sprayed with ammonia.  But no one wants to die or know someone who died from E. coli either.  So we’re stuck, right?  Not really.  Research shows that feeding cattle their natural diet of grass allows them to fight off harmful diseases.  Feeding them corn disrupts this harmony in their gut, allowing the E. coli to fester and ultimately endanger us beef consumers.  Meanwhile, corn is a crop that is cheap for farmers/producers to feed their cows in order to bulk them up and get them all fatty and tasty–qualities we Americans demand.  Our government subsidizes the growth of corn, and many beef farmers find it cheaper and easier to feed it to their cattle than pasturing them on grass.

This modern way of producing beef is sort of something that mirrors the way people from my generation behave: we want things quick, easy, and convenient.  And lots of adults and older people shake their heads.  Well, all of us say it’s OK for the commercial beef farmers to take the easy way out and neglect to raise their cattle in healthy, natural, happy ways.  And it’s coming out in the meat.  E. coli incidence would be down on its own if cattle were pastured on grasses and herbs instead of corn, and that would reduce or eliminate the need to use ammonia on the beef!

Of course it’s more complicated than that–how can we be sure one animal won’t contaminate the rest of the beef in a slaughterhouse in the chance that grass feeding didn’t do away with disease altogether?  It would be neither practical nor economical to process each cow and not get any cross contamination whatsoever.  But we need to figure out something here!

So you see: factory beef is pretty wrong right now.  I’m digging buying beef or other meats from small farmers who raise their animals naturally on pastures and slaughter them humanely.  And I grind my own meat, so there’s never a question of ammonia being sprayed (which should not be an issue with the small farmers anyway).

The problem lies in the way we allow our beef and other meats to be manufactured.  Not pink slime.  I was just talking about this issue with a friend the other day, and I could not say it any better than she did: using every extractable part of an animal reduces the number of animals we need to kill to sustain our consumption.  If all this pink slime we get makes up a fair amount of our meat, we’re making it possible to slaughter fewer animals.  And that means it’s a more sustainable practice than the alternative.  So thanks to the gross-out factor, even McDonalds “stopped using it.”  What?  So we’re going to kill more animals and waste more of this source of energy now.  Awesome.

America.  Come on!  Don’t succumb to being treated like a bunch of idiots.  Corn fed beef raised in poor conditions and processed in such ways that we have to spray the meat with ammonia: bad.  Using every edible part of the animal: what do you think?  Think.  Think.  Don’t just accept what you’re told.  Think and make choices and force the meat production methods to change based on your educated decision.  We can do this.