Friday, July 31, 2009

The Fried Egg Sandwich

Early on in Gael Greene's book Insatiable, the Insatiable Critic tells us about a tryst she had a few years ago with the king. No, not that king, the real king - Elvis Presley. When the fun was over, Gael says of Elvis:

He twitched a shoulder toward the phone. "Would you mind calling room service and ordering me a fried egg sandwich?"...the totemic fried egg sandwich. At that moment, it might have been clear I was born to to be a restaurant critic. I just didn't know it yet.

Now, I'm no restaurant critic, and I certainly don't have the food chops of Ms. Greene, and I'll never even get to meet Elvis. But I do like me a fried egg sandwich every now and then, if you know what I mean.

A couple of months ago, I started a thread on eGullet about the fried egg sandwich, and even though Gael and Elvis happened to be in Detroit at the time of her epipahny, I tend to think of that sandwich as our own special breakfast treat.

You see, New York City has an old tradition for people on the go in the morning. And maybe other cities too; but here, it seems like you can pop into any "deli" or any "bodega" and grab a fried-egg sandwich on a Kaiser roll, along with a cup of coffee, for about $2.

People sometimes eat them later in the morning, at which point it's really not a hot sandwich anymore. It's a sandwich that at one point was hot, and was wrapped in deli paper, allowing the heat from the egg to soften the roll...and infuse it with eggy smells.

If I recall correctly (I haven't had one from a deli in a long time), the egg on the sandwich is of the broken-yolk fried egg variety. So the egg is thrown on the griddle or into a hot buttered pan, allowed to set a bit, and then the yolk is broken as the egg finishes cooking.

Then there are the add-ons. To my taste, the only possible additions there can be are bacon, ham, cheese or some such combination thereof. Nothing else - nada - you wouldn't put lettuce on there, would you? Especially if you're planning on eating it later, because then the lettuce would just turn, well - gross.

This morning I decided to make the fried egg sandwich at home. Fortunately for Significant Eater and me, there is a kosher bakery right up the block and Kaiser rolls are easy to come by. Kaiser rolls are, to my mind, the classic container for the fried egg sandwich, but I also bought an onion roll for comparison's sake. Unfortunately, they had run out of the seeded Kaiser, which I like, but I settled for the unseeded variety, to go along with the onion roll.

Next, to make the sandwich, I fried up a couple of eggs (yes, farmer's market organic free-range eggs at $4 a dozen) in my trusty nonstick skillet (broke the yolks as you can see from the picture below) - toasted and buttered the roll, although I don't think toasting the roll is "traditional," added a bit of cheese to the sandwich and you know what - it was good. Not quite the same as unwrapping the fried egg sandwich from the deli, where the steamy, eggy smell hits your nose - but it was damn tasty. And I can guarantee my coffee was better too.

Here's the sandwich on the onion roll. I guess due to the fact that it's not the traditional enclosure, we didn't like it as much as the egg on Kaiser. The near burnt onions mask the flavor of the delicate egg and cheese way too much.

By the way, do you make fried egg sandwiches? Are they good? Feel free to share how you make yours.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pickle This

Every summer about this time, I start getting the urge to "put food up." Maybe it's genetic? Maybe it's my fond memories of my grams, slaving over a hot stove, making pint after pint of preserves, while Pa and I whittled away on the front porch, drinking lemonade by the quart.

Or perhaps it was my nans, who after picking peck after peck of cucumbers from the backyard garden, turned them into fabulous dills or her unforgettable bread and butter pickles.

Fuggetaboutit. We both know it was neither. One of my grandmas lived in a 4th floor apartment in the Bronx, near Gun Hill Road and the Grand Concourse - which was fancy schmancy back in the day. That apartment had a dumbwaiter, so that gives you an idea of how old IT was...though I guess they're back in fashion now, since there are actually a few web sites devoted to them.

My other grandma lived in a semi-detached 2-storey house in Forest Hills, Queens...and we lived upstairs, at least until I was 9 and we made the upwardly mobile move "out" to Long Island. Her contribution to my life-long curiosity with food centered around breakfast. Hers consisted of nothing but percolated coffee (Maxwell House, I'm pretty sure), with sugar and condensed milk, and Marlboro reds. No light cigs in those days, you wusses. Actually, compared to my grandpa, who smoked about 7 or 8 cigars a day, I guess the Marlboros were light.

Well, that was a nice walk down memory lane, but back to the pickles. I like pickles - well, who doesn't, really? And I'm not only talking about the pickles you might get at a deli like Katz's, which are usually nice and sour - those are fermented pickles. I'm talking about all kinds of pickles - though there are basically two main types: those fermented with vinegar and those fermented with salt. Now, remember I said two main types; don't get all crazy with me here, just trust me on this. From these two types, all other pickles evolve.

If you really want to learn all about pickles, which I'm not about to teach here, pick up the books that I have - they're really great. One is called The Joy of Pickling, by Linda Ziedrich (her name sounds like she should know about pickles, don't you think?). It's a classic, and will teach you everything you need to know to start making your own pickles. My other favorite pickle book is called Quick Pickles, by Chris Schlesinger, John Willoughby and Dan George. With these two books, you'll be a pickle maven before you know it.

Now, what to do when the farmer's market hands you a bounty like the one above? Mostly, I'm a "quick pickle" person. I can't be bothered with waiting around for the whole fermentation process to take place, nor can I deal with the whole canning process, so I make pickles and then they go in the fridge; the get eaten before anything really bad can happen to them. Here's a batch of veggies after their initial prep, which basically involves salting them...

Then, they go into nice clean jars. By the way, if you've never pickled corn, it's delicious, and one of my favorite pickley things. Here are some jars of pickles ready for the fridge - there are cukes and string beans; the reddish looking ones are middle eastern pickles, those pickles of affliction, I like to call 'em - turnips, radishes, onions, etc. in a salt and vinegar brine - no sugar for those middle easterners!

And finally, a little pickle plate - not quite Katz's, but just as delicious. And, thanks to all my grammies!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Stocking Up

In my mind, one of the main differences between a good cook and a great cook (and we're talking home cooks here) is in the use of basic raw materials. That is, if you start off with a great steak and don't screw it up, it will be a great steak...start off with a lousy steak, and no matter what you do to it, it's still going to be lousy.

Another little item which separates the good cooks from the really good cooks is homemade it veal, beef, chicken, pork, seafood or vegetable (or some combo thereof), a homemade stock is going to be world's better than that stuff in a can or especially that stuff that comes in those little cubes (though as a flavor booster in certain situations, they do come in handy); they're about 80% sodium and the rest unpronounceable weirdness, so proceed with caution.

Presently, I'm not one of those cook/hoarders who saves up scraps in the freezer to hopefully some day have enough to make a nice stock. Nah - when I feel like making stock or I'm running low on frozen stock, or I know I'm making a dish that requires, say, veal stock, I go and buy the chicken, veal, beef, bones, whatever and make the stock then and there. Then I freeze it, in everything from 1 oz. portions (ice cube trays are great for that) up to quarts - frozen first and then vacuum sealed, or at least frozen in high quality plastic containers.

There are, to be sure, plenty of arguments about the difference, if any, between stock and broth. Marcella Hazan, in her Classic Italian Cookbook, writes about broth (brodo) thusly:

The broth used by Italian a liquid to which meat, bones and vegetables have given their flavor, but it is not a strong, dense reduction of those flavors. It is not stock, as the term is used in French cooking. It is light bodies and soft spoken...

Julia Child, in her seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking, says:

The wonderful flavor of good French food is the result, more often than not, of the stock used for its cooking, its flavoring, or its sauce. A stock is the liquid obtained from the simmering together of meat, bones-or fish trimmings-with vegetables, seasonings and water. This liquid, strained, and boiled down to concentrate its flavor if necessary, is the basis for stews, braised meats or vegetables, and the liquid used in making all the sauces that have a meat or fish flavoring.

So, maybe we can say that stock is French and broth is Italian? Works for me.

Usually, but not always, I'm making stock, and for a nice chicken stock I take about 5 pounds of various and sundry chicken parts (feet are real good for stock, btw) and first bring them up to a boil. Reducing the heat, I then spend the next 30 - 45 minutes or so skimming the crap out of the crap that rises to the top. Chinese stock makers will sometimes bring the chicken and bones to a boil, pour off the water, rinse it and start all over with cold water - but that still requires skimming, so instead I skip that step and just skim furiously. Once I'm pretty sure all that junk is gone, I add a little water back to the pot and bring it up to a simmer again. After about an hour, I add the mirepoix (cool French word) of carrots, celery and onion, along with a bouquet garni, which is another cool French term that means "garnished bouquet," and is actually a bunch of herbs tied together and simmered along with the other ingredients and then removed. It's so cool I took a picture of the bouquet all by itself...

That one has flat-leafed parsley, bay, thyme and peppercorns and is ready to be added to the simmering stock, which now looks like this...

Let it all bubble slowly together (don't boil it, please, though in school we did learn how to make an express stock, which boils rather rapidly) for another 2 or 3 hours, skimming occasionally (and if you were really adamant about the skimming over the first hour, there wont be much more to do) and tasting after about 3 hours total. I usually simmer it for a total of about 4 hours - your mileage may vary.

By the way, the question of whether or not to add salt in the beginning is much debated. Obviously, since the stock is going to be reducing, you have to be careful, because it's pretty hard to judge how salty something is going to become as it reduces. Julia adds some salt, whereas Marcella doesn't. James Peterson, in his well regarded book called Sauces, doesn't. I do, but only a little bit. Remember, you can always add salt to the sauce or soup or whatever it is you're using the stock for, but you can't take it away - so salt carefully.

Then, once the stock is nice and tasty, but before it has reduced too much, strain it, first through a medium strainer to get rid of the solids, and then through cheesecloth or a chinois into quart containers ready for the fridge. Once chilled, the fat on top can be removed, and the stock frozen for future use, or used right away. If you want to keep it for a few days in the fridge, it's best to bring it to a boil every 2nd or 3rd day, and use it before the week is out. It is not a keeper, unless it's frozen.

Now that you've made your own stock, everything you use it in will be that much better - trust me. For instance, the other day for lunch, I decided to make a Chinese noodle soup (pretty similar to my old Jewish grandmother's chicken noodle soup, though her use of bok choy was limited), with some Fuzhou dried noodles I had bought at a market up the block. Those noodles get soaked for a few minutes, boiled for a few minutes more, and drained. Along with some cut up cooked chicken I had in the fridge, a few heads of baby bok choy, scallions and a bit of cilantro, this is a soup I'm sure would do your grandma proud. And it's 100 times better than anything out of a can or cube.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Oh, That's Just Peachy

Over on eGullet, there's a thread entitled I want a damn peach now, wherein peeps wax nostalgic about the flavor of old-time peaches. Now, as you and I and Significant Eater know, nothing tastes like it did when you were in your youth, does it? In my youth, seriously folks, we had a fruit and vegetable guy in a truck, who would drive around and sell some delicious fruit (in my memory) to the neighborhood...and no, it wasn't a horse drawn truck, weisenheimers.

Of course, one can pay big bucks to have real, organic, California tree-ripened peaches, picked by nubile virgins and packed in god-knows-what, shipped to you via 2 day Fed Ex - they'll probably cost around $5 a peach - or more...and they may even be worth it. Once, when SE and I were driving from San Francisco to Tahoe, we stopped in the heart of peach country and devoured some delicious peaches that had been picked that morning. Another time, in Bologna, we had a simple dessert of peeled peaches, tossed with a bit of a semi-sweet wine and a hit of sugar, and they were amazing.

But, of course, we're here now, and what to do, what to do? Well, luckily for me, I can walk up to my corner, see what Mohammed has for sale, and if I'm lucky, there might be some peaches which, if handled correctly, can be pretty delicious too - and at 3 for $2, much cheaper than those Fed Exed babies. They even look pretty...

Of course, handling them correctly means a few things. First of all, pick good ones...they should have a bit of a peach aroma, they should be unblemished, and there shouldn't be any green background in the color. Then, to "ripen" (and guess what, they don't ripen anymore after they're picked, though they do go through some enzymatic changes and get softer and juicier, their sugar content doesn't increase), the peaches should be placed on a counter (or in a paper bag, but I like the counter better), not touching each other, and left for a day or two or three till they're soft to the touch and have a nice peachy smell. Of course, you can refrigerate the peaches then, but never before - that's what turns them mealy and awful, and you don't want that, do you?

So, the other day after buying a half dozen monster size peaches from my fruit guy, I decided to make a nice peach crisp. Which is pretty much the same as an apple crisp, except - yes, I used peaches instead of apples. First, the peaches were peeled, which is accomplished by blanching - cut an "x" in the bottom just through the skin, place gingerly in boiling water for 15 - 20 seconds (a Chinese spyder/strainer comes in handy), and then plunge into ice water - the peel will practically slip off. Then, they were cut up and macerated with a bit of sugar and lemon juice and a pinch of salt - to turn into this (pretty yummy looking)...

While the peaches were macerating, or bathing in their own juices, I made the topping. In a food processor, I put about 6 T cold butter, 1/2 cup of flour, 1/2 cup of sugar (you can use some brown sugar), 1/2 cup of chopped nuts (I used almonds, but I imagine hazelnuts or pecans are good too), 1/2 tsp. of cinnamon, a bit of nutmeg, and that all important 1/2 tsp. of kosher salt, and pulsed till it all looked good. If you've got a good crisp topping of your own, just use that.

Put the peaches into a baking dish that will hold them, top generously, and bake in a 375 degree oven for a good 40 - 45 minutes. Tip of the day - put that baking dish on a larger sheet pan or put a cookie sheet underneath the baking dish in the oven; that way, if some of the peachy stuff bubbles over, you're not cursing away while trying to clean the floor of your oven - like I was!
And if the topping isn't brown enough for you, up the temp to 400 for an additional 5 minutes. Remove and let cool - I like this served at room temp, and I also made pistachio and vanilla ice creams to go with it. No complaints and tasted just like the old days.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fried Clams and Lobster Rolls - It's Summer!

Fried clams and lobster there anything better in the summer? When I was a kid growing up, fried clams were a summertime treat (I don't recall a helluva lot of lobster rolls from back then, however). Nathan's and Howard Johnson's were two places where fried clams might be had. As a teenager with a car, Pete's Clam Bar in Island Park was a favorite stop. It was on the way to or from the beach, where we kids from Franklin Square often headed, on the days when we weren't working...yes, we had summer jobs back then. Unfortunately, my last visit there (perhaps last summer) left me wanting more - a lot more than the insipid clam strips they served, which I must've thought were great at one time or another. Ahhhh, the folly of youth.

Last weekend I saw a friend who mentioned that he and his wife had recently spent almost a week up in the Gloucester/Rockport area of Massachusetts...known as Cape Ann; and even more likely well known for the book and movie The Perfect Storm.

Which reminded me that not long ago Significant Eater and I also spent a few days up that way, starting with a night in Newburyport and then migrating south, where we ate ourselves silly with lobster rolls and fried clams, among other things. And that's what this is about - those lobster rolls and fried clams - and there's no better place in the world for them than north of Boston, aka the north shore.

Our first night was spent in Newburyport, at the Essex St. Inn, a nice, slightly shabby property within minutes of everything in Newburyport - a great old fishing town. After checking in, our first meal was at Bob Lobster, which is on the way to and from Plum Island, and where we ordered a light lunch, consisting of:

These were really good, the lobster roll nothing more than big chunks of lobster and a bit of diced celery (to use celery or not? - that is one of the great lobster roll questions), lightly dressed; the bellies were ungreasy and delicious. Here's the lobster roll:

Needless to say, a quite satisfying lunch (take that, Pete's!) followed by dinner in "downtown" Newburyport at Aquatini, where we had a surprisingly good meal, studiously avoiding the eponymous martini list. I said to Significant Eater on our walk back to the inn: "I could live here." She scoffed and said, "for about 10 minutes." Okay, I'll grant her that...

The next day we headed to Cape Ann and Gloucester, stopping for a few lunches along the way, first at:

Farnham's fried clams may have been our favorite ones of the trip, but we also loved the scallop chowder...check out the huge scallops in there:

And then the bellies...

Next up, after a couple of Tums, was Essex Seafood, a nondescript place with a view of the parking lot, but with some pretty darn good bellies as well...

Proceeding on, to the lovely town of Gloucester, made famous in that Storm movie, and quite photographic - it's amazing as well as sad to think about, but over 10,000 fisherman have lost their lives in the 400 years that Gloucester has been a fishing village. The birds seem not to care.

These can be seen all around the harbor:

After they're hauled in by:

We stayed at the lovely Ocean View Inn, in East Gloucester, right on the water. Our room had a great view, along with a nice terrace outside, from where I took this shot:

We had dinner that night in the restaurant in the hotel, and the view is really the only reason why you would want to eat there, though it has a nice little bar.

Were we done? No way, as lunch the next day was at The Lobster Pool, overlooking Ipswich Bay in Rockport. Once again, we ordered and ate. Rolls, bellies, chowder...

I was surprised at how greaseless all of the fried clams were.

And Lobster Pool's lobster roll doesn't even bother with the celery, which is okay with me.

Dinner on our last night was at Duckworth's Bistrot, a quite fine place in East Gloucester. Everything on the menu can be ordered in full or half portions, and the food was well prepared and a nice break from all that fried goodness. As a matter of fact, we even got to eat a green vegetable other than diced celery or cole slaw!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cooking Chinese in Chinatown

Even though Significant Eater and I live within walking distance of literally dozens of Chinese restaurants, I often prefer cooking "Chinese food" at home rather than going out for it. Mostly it's because of the dozens of restaurants that we might walk to, in general they suck. They're slophouses for the masses - inexpensive food prepared from less than the highest quality ingredients. It's a shame really, because Chinese food, when prepared properly from high quality ingredients, is great cuisine.

Now, don't get me wrong...when I want a bowl of hand-pulled noodles or perhaps some roasted duck wonton noodle soup, I'm heading out and spending the under $10 that it'll cost me (Great NY Noodletown, if you must know). Dim sum - you'll see us at Chinatown Brasserie, where the dim sum is masterful. There's no getting around that, and I can't really reproduce that stuff at home - at least not without a fair amount of procurement, time and work, and it still won't be as good as what I get by heading out for that walk.

However, there are certain things (a lot of things, actually) that I make just as well as, if not better than, that which can be found in restaurants in Chinatown. The other day for lunch I did just that - and I started with my trusty old clay (or sandy) pot...

This sandy pot is a great little pot for preparing slow cooked, stove-top braises, as well as for some damn tasty rice dishes - and I did just that, taking a few varieties of Chinese sausage (duck and pork liver), along with a couple of soaked, dried shitake mushrooms, a bit of garlic, ginger and scallions along with a cup and a half of medium grain rice, 2 cups of water (chicken stock is even better, or maybe some of that mushroom soaking liquid) and cooking it all together. I did start by first frying the sausage and aromatics and then adding the rice and didn't look like much at the outset...

but after you've brought it to a boil, covered it, lowered the heat and let it simmer for about 18 minutes, it looks really tasty, don't you think?

Of course, man...and certainly not Significant Eater, does not live by rice alone - even if it comes with 2 kinds of sausage, mushrooms, etc. And no self-respecting Chinese person would ever just eat rice for a meal, now would they?

So, to go along with the rice, I happened to have a piece of poached pork butt, which is perfect for twice-cooked pork, a Szechuan specialty. Earlier that morning, I had walked up to the corner to buy some fruit and veggies (that's the real plus about living at the edge of Chinatown), and I had picked up some beautiful baby bok choy for the low, low price of $1 a pound. Along with a bright red pepper, and using ingredients that I always have on hand ( a few kinds of soy, chili paste with garlic, Shaoxing wine, the aforementioned ginger, garlic and scallions), my twice-cooked pork and fancy steamed rice were on the table in under an hour. And SE and I thought they were both much better than we could have gotten at any restaurant in Chinatown!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

July 4th Cocktails - The 1920

Last week, I happened by White Star, a fairly new cocktailian (and absinthe-centric) lounge that's right across the street from our apartment - at 21 Essex - and that's Essex Street just after the trees in the photo, looking west from our kitchen window.

Asking the tender for a "Manhattan-like" cocktail, he (Kelvin) was kind enough to stir me up a 1920 cocktail - and it made my night. I'd never had one before, and since K. was nice enough to share the formula with me, I got to make one at home to celebrate the 4th.

Actually, I liked it so much that I immediately had to share it with friends of mine. Jude and Jeff, whom I've posted about before, really enjoy their cocktails. I shot an email off to them, and they tried it and liked it so much, that Jude blogged about it too! As she writ:

The “1920” is a hook up between a Manhattan and a Sazerac and the recipe goes like this: 2 parts rye, 1 part sweet vermouth, absinthe rinse in the glass and a dash or so of orange bitters, stirred, never shaken.

And that's what it is. The absinthe rinse is what separates that 1920 from a Manhattan. Here are a couple of tips to make an excellent cocktail:

1) It's always good to keep your cocktail and mixing glasses in the freezer. It's really good.

2) To "rinse" is just to pour a teaspoon or so of spirit into the frozen cocktail glass (in this case, absinthe), swirl it around and pour what's left into the sink. It leaves just a hint of spirit in the glass, and is a great technique. Do this right before pouring your cocktail.

3) Lots of cracked ice in that mixing glass. Stir the shit out of it.

4) Enjoy rather quickly - (as you should all cocktails.) No matter where you are, it's a damn good drink.