The foodfest continued, and I must say that there was a wonderful continuity to the quality (after Porchetta.) Monday we went out to Brooklyn, to eat at Flatbush Farm with Amy and Jonny of We Are Never Full. The restaurant gets all their meat from our very own Fleisher’s, and they try to use local and seasonal produce. It’s the kind of refined home cooking that Brooklyn is doing particularly well, and we had a great time getting to know each other in real life. I had some oysters- sustainable and delicious- followed by two more firsts as a second. Their house-cured bresaola was excellent, and a bean soup was good, though lacking some middle flavors to tie the puréed beans with the mushrooms. I found it a tad too thin, and actually a little too large; if it were concentrated and enriched a little, it would make for a bowl where one picked it up to lick the bottom. As it was, I left a bit.
Tuesday we went to Tartine, a nice little BYO French place in the Village. I had moules frites, and we brought the 1990 Raffault Chinon to drink. Life was good. It was exactly the right kind of place for what I had been craving: honest, simple, high-quality food. After that, I rushed off to meet a couple of other people, and accidentally ordered 6 oysters since they were already eating. I’m really feeling the shellfish right now- doing research for my next magazine piece has taught me a lot about which seafood to buy and which to avoid. Later on I met Andrew and Sophia again and we drank some Belgian beer.
It’s been a pretty good trip so far from a culinary point of view. Saturday Ellen and I went to Porchetta, a little storefront joint in the East Village that’s been much touted as an excellent place to indulge in the Roman delicacy. Given the shitty snow and freezing rain, greasy slow-roasted pork seemed like a good bet.
It was unremarkable at best. I read this effusive review just now, and but for the address I’d be convinced that they were talking about adifferent place. They talk about “wonderful beans that hold their integrity.” The beans were utterly bland and noticeably undercooked; they held their integrity because they were just shy of still hard. Greens (broccoli rabe and chard) were fine, a side of brussels sprouts were nicely cooked, though too sweet, and a curried cauliflower soup delivered on that classic flavor duo. And the meat? The namesake? The “citywide attraction” that this droolingly sycophantic puff-piece of a review brays about?
Was nothing special at all. The skin was nice and crisp, and the meat was moist, but it had a kind of one-dimensional anise flavor and not much else; it was underseasoned by a factor of about four. Now leaving aside the understandable lack of a big open fire and spit to do it properly, for the life of me I cannot understand what the fuss is about. Give me a loin, a belly, some seasoning, and an oven, and I could make this so much better on my first try. This place is a wasted opportunity to provide a neighborhood with one of the world’s great comfort foods.
Sunday Andrew finally arrived, after spending the night at O’Hare because of weather. We went right to work, and murdered forthwith a giant table of dim sum on the Bowery. The little hedgehog guys- stuffed with vegetables- were something I haven’t seen before, but their novelty and cuteness bought them no reprieve.
Then, last night, we went with Mike and amy to The Good Fork in Red Hook. It has also garnered praise, and in this case it has been happily deserved. All three of us guys tucked in to their signature steak and egg (marinated flank steak with kimchi rice and a fried egg on top) and Amy had ravioli with brown butter. Aside from the egg being a touch overdone- thus lowering the unctuosity quotient of the yolk- it was a heavenly confluence of flavors and comfort. We found some 2002 Olga Raffault Chinon “Les Picasses” which was a treat, especially since Andrew and I bought a 1990 of the same wine to celebrate his visit (though we haven’t opened it yet.)
It’s been out for a while now, but I’m finally getting to the post. Brooklyn Oenology contacted me last spring about using a piece of mine as label art, and here, belatedly, it is. My work ended up on the Social Club Red, a Bordeaux blend. All their grapes are grown on Long Island. Each year they choose a piece by a different Brooklyn artist to adorn the label of each wine produced that year.
I don’t know much about Long Island wine, but I do know that people are starting to pay attention. When Alie first contacted me, I went by her office to taste some of the previous year’s offerings: the merlot and the chardonnay. She adds a little petite sirah to the merlot, giving it a much-needed backbone, and the chard was intriguing. I said yes.
Along with three cases of this wine for participating, I also asked for a bottle each of the new chard and viognier, bacause my intial impressions and a little research on LI wine suggested that the whites might be the ones to watch. The viognier is really a summer wine; we had it with some asian-inflected soup, and it was perfectly good, but it positively cried out for a summer picnic with bbq chicken, sesame noodles, and sunshine. The chard was really good, as I had hoped. It’s got a refreshingly complex profile and nicely restrained fruit with some interesting minerality underneath.
The red blend is a combination of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, malbec, and syrah. For a Bordeaux blend, it’s styled more like a Burgundy (which is a good thing in my book.) It’s pleasantly tart and light-bodied, with some nice spices under the fruit, and it’s not too hot, tipping the scales at 13.6% alcohol. Another perfect picnic wine (and it makes a great gift!)
Sunday we schlepped into town to shop at the big supermarket because they’ve actually got the beginnings of a decent organic produce section there, and the other stuff we needed is way cheaper than at our little local joint. It pisses me off, but the difference in price makes it well worth the 16 mile round trip. I’m trying to buy more in a trip, but go less often, and figure that my haphazard meal-planning style will mean enough trips to the local places to spread the love. Or something.
I had it my head to get mussels, because they have the good Ommegang beer there, and it’s a no-brainer combination. But their mussels were not so fresh. Maine Littlenecks, on the other hand, were just in, so we brought 18 nice ones home. I made a quick dice of leek, fennel, and carrot and threw it in a pan to sweat. Next two fat cloves of garlic, a pinch of herbes de Provence, and three tiny but firey pepperoncini. (I have now successfully raised Milo’s tolerance to the point where he doesn’t notice a decent baseline heat.) Once all that was soft, I added a glug of cream, a knife of tomato paste, and a pour of beer, followed by all the clams.
Once they all opened, the pasta (whole wheat spaghetti) was ready and the one went atop the other for a pretty tasty variant of spaghetti alle vongole. Sweet, plump, tangy, a little rich, a little spicy- bells were rung. And it was excellent with the beer: a Rare Vos, their amber ale, which I think is my favorite; it’s more like a bitter and less creamy and cloying than some of the others. It ended up as a compelling and satisfying Italo-Belgian hybrid meal, but not so satisfying that I don’t still want moules frites in the near future.
Back in June, I discovered that if you make a spinach pie sort of concoction but roll it up like a cigar (spliffakopita in Greek) you can avoid sogginess and have the whole exterior flaky and crisp. In order to avoid redundancy, here is the link to the post documenting this momentous discovery. It’s important enough to repeat that the addition of chopped broccoli really does take it to another level. We still had some roasted beet salad in the fridge, so I blended that with yogurt and the last daub of kalamata-feta purée to make a deep fuchsia beetziki to accompany the pie.
And better yet, rummaging in a cupboard I came upon a little container with the forgotten last two dark chocolate truffles I made on new year’s eve. I forgot to mention them in that post, so here they are: 74% cacao with butter, heavy cream, maple syrup, and a little tangerine juice, then rolled in a mixture of kinako, cacao powder, and the sugar from some crystallized ginger. My first try making chocolates- without a recipe, of course- and they came out really good in that sophisticated barely-sweet grownup way that I was hoping (in vain, also of course) would keep Milo from wanting to eat them all.
There’s a rhythm in Moroccan Gnawa music called Sha’abi. It’s in 6/8, with the main pulse usually played on a bendir (frame drum) with syncopations from both karakab (castanets) fluidly creating a tension between the triplet and the 16th note- and clapping, by at least two people, forming triplets around a beat of four played against the six. Combined with ostinato bass from a sintir, and singing, it’s some of the most trance-inducing music there is; it can make you leave normal time and enter another temporal dimension for the duration of the song. The combination of acoustic instruments, heavy rubato from the karakab, and intricate interplay of all the parts makes for the musical equivalent of the mosaics or textiles that adorn every possible surface in that lovely country (and incidentally puts most electronic “trance” music to shame.)
I’ve been listening to Gnawa music for a long time, and I’m lucky enough to have some friends who play it- and mutations thereof- exceedingly well. The couple of weeks I spent in Morocco back in 1989-1990 (exactly this time of year) were profoundly influential from a visual, musical, and culinary point of view, and that influence continues to resonate strongly in the main creative areas of my life.
They eat a lot of lamb in Morocco, and its strong flavor takes famously to the spice mixes they use. When I was out shopping for new year’s, I picked up a couple of lamb breasts to use for broth, and waiting to pay for them it occurred to me that lamb might make a wicked pho, since many of the main spices in the soup- anise, cinnamon, clove- are central to ras-el-hanout and other Moroccan blends. Last week’s duck pho was still on my mind, because it gave us so many amazing meals, and I find that lamb has more character than beef, and thus makes a more interesting broth.
So I roasted the ribs, then did the blanch, drain, and refill trick to purge impurities, and added ginger, garlic, peppercorns, cloves, star anise, coriander, lemongrass, and a cinnamon stick to the pot along with half an onion, a carrot, and a slightly droopy celery stalk. I let it simmer low for three hours, then strained it into containers and shredded the meat off the bones and removed all the silverskin and tendon. The next day, I cooked up some udon and served it in a bowl of hot broth to which I added shredded meat, a glug of tosa soy sauce for extra umamification, and a big handful of cilantro since that’s all I had in the way of traditional garnishes for pho. I also stirred some sambal in after the picture to add some heat and double the deep garlic-ginger-citrus line in the broth an octave or two higher.
There’s no question that lamb makes a brilliant pho; this broth was hypnotic. The various flavors united and divided in a kaleidoscopic dance that never let any one component dominate; the effect was musical in its immersive and moving totality. The ways in which “sweet” spices play against meat is a common fundament to many cuisines, but this particular example was so evocative that I sort of dropped through the bowl into another food dimension for a minute. There are so many ways in which this could be tweaked: couscous in place of udon, and harissa instead of sambal would make much more Moroccan, and if I added a little of the preserved yuzu I put up last month in place of lemongrass it would veer off into a different kind of Mahgreb-Asian hybrid. It’s going to be fascinating to mess with these possibilities through the rest of soup season.
Right after Thanksgiving I semi-accidentally got a job as the food writer for Chronogram magazine. My first piece, about salt pickling and curing, is out now in the January issue.
You can read it here.
My plans for our new year’s eve dinner proved to be more lavish than our appetites, so I reined it in after two courses. I went out to grab some provisions, though it was snowing pretty hard, and came back with some good salmon, three little Cornish hens, and a little rack of six lamb chops. I had visions of super-luxe yet homey three-course dinner (plus dessert) dancing in my head as I deftly avoided fishtailing morons in SUVs on the way home.
For the first course I finely chopped the salmon and tossed it with yuzu juice, ponzu, tosa soy sauce, minced shallot, chives, and sesame oil. A little tartare is always a nice beginning to a meal, and the only thing missing was a glass of Champagne. We agreed that one bottle was going to do, so I chose a big red for the body of the meal instead of bubbly. Turned out it might have actually been better the other way, but such is life.
The second course was just the roasted hens with caramelized turnips and wilted spinach. I had planned a nice gravy, but they didn’t throw off much in the way of drippings, and I was busy making things to go with the lamb chops so there was no gravy. But Cornish game hens are deceptively meaty. After we tucked in, it became clear that we didn’t need any more food so I put the lamb and its various garnishes away until the following year. The red I chose was a 1998 Clerico Barolo “Pajana” which, though still young, is a wonderfully sexy and deep treat of a wine, and a fine way to help call it a night by about 10:30.
Tonight, I used the lamb chops as a central point around which to gather as many leftover things as possible; we’re at one of those critical points where the fridge is packed with containers of all sorts and there’s no room for anything else, and nothing to put food in. So I took the parsnip-celeriac purée I made the night before, added the creamy cauliflower and some turnips, and blended them all together with a little yogurt and ras-el-hanout. We had some cumin-seasoned pinto beans I made the other night for a vaguely Mexican thing, so I thickened them with tomato paste and let them simmer down. There were also roasted beets made into a simple salad; I pulled them out and used them like that. The remnants of some good feta had a spin with kalamata olives and some oil to make a tangy sort of tapenade, and I also used the last of the dandelion pesto. The chops got seared with herbes de Provence, salt, and pepper, and after I pulled them out to rest I made a quick little pan sauce with wine and a pat of butter.
The chops were perfect; this local lamb is tender, sweet, and almost pudding-like when cooked rare. All the different garnishes did their predictable things with the lamb, and the sauce kind of liased it all into one big happy welcome for 2009.