Saturday, August 29, 2009

You Say To-Mah-To

Since I'm probably the one millionth blogger to write about tomatoes this summer, I don't know how much more to add that most of you haven't already heard. Here on the east coast, of course, we've all been made aware countless times about the "late blight," a disease that affects tomato plants and which was also responsible for the infamous Irish potato famine of 1845. Yes, tomatoes and potatoes come from the same family of plants.

Since we all (foodies, chefs, writers, eaters, etc.) anxiously await the arrival of tomato season, our loss this year is deeply felt. Last year, pre-Tasty Travails, great tomatoes were in abundance. Here are a couple of shots I took of my farmer's market forays in '08:

As can be seen, no shortage of colors and varieties (there are various cherry, grape and heritage "cherry" tomatoes) last year. Same for the large heirlooms; 2008 was, iirc, a banner year, and I was making tomato salads throughout August and September and October. Here's just one, which looks as though it has 6 or 7 tomato varieties in it, along with some freshly torn basil, a bit of fresh mozzarella and a drizzle of olive oil:

Fast forward to this year, and no such luck...certainly not from local farmers. With the copius amount of rainfall early in the season, coupled with the blight, 2009 is shaping up to be a disastrous year for farmers and consumers alike. To be sure, tomatoes can be found. Maybe a farmer was lucky and his or her field survived unscathed. Perhaps the tomatoes were greenhouse grown. But many of the tomatoes I saw last week in the market were not too prime. And at $4 - $5 a pound, buying a not-prime tomato doesn't really work in my book.

However, I was able to cobble together a small sampling of heirlooms, and Significant Eater and I have had at least one nice tomato salad so far...the basil is great, by the way, so all is not lost. It just feels that way, and to all the tomato farmers and home gardeners out there, we wish you a better season in 2010. Here's my 2009 salad of heirlooms 3 ways:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

For He's A Jolly Good Butcher

My favorite butcher in the world (well, if not the world, then on the lower east side of NYC) is Jeffrey Ruhalter, of Jeffrey's Meat Market in the Essex Street Market. For instance, check out this whole flat-cut brisket from Jeffrey, and the fat cap it drove in with...

Jeffrey's Meat Market has been in the Essex Street Market since the day the ESM opened, in 1939 or 1940. Opened as a way to get the street merchants of the lower east side off the streets and under one roof, the ESM has had some major ups and downs over the years. I wasn't here from the mid-70s till the mid-90s, and even when I came back, I didn't move downtown until 2003, so I can't speak from having shopped there during their long, lean years. I do recall a trip I took "back east" from California in the early 80s and heading down to Katz's, Ratner's and the ESM to check them out. Someday I may even find the pix I took back then, digitize them, and put them up on TT...but not now.

Right now, I have to think the ESM is on a big high. From chocolatiers to cheese mongers, to a couple of very nice, value oriented produce stands, I shop there a couple of times a week. Air conditioning is a newish feature, and they're actually tiling the floors...they were cement before. Jeffrey the butcher has been there through it all...well, if not Jeffrey himself, then one of his ancestors, as he's the 4th generation of butchering Ruhalter's, who started out way back in 1920 on Orchard Street.

What's really cool is that over the last 10 years ago or so, or for easily as long as Significant Eater and I have lived downtown, Jeffrey has become more and more of a celeb. Lots of reasons for that, but in my opinion, all these sexy new wave butchers getting a lot of press have Jeffrey to thank - if not directly, than at least for not letting butchery fall into the abyss.

Anyone I've ever brought to or sent to Jeffrey's has had positive experiences. Well, some actually get a little scared by him, as happened to our friend Judith, when Jeffrey told her to come behind the counter and cut her own meat...he does that, though I refuse to pick up a knife in his shop. Usually, first time customers get a freebie - be it a wheel of cheese (from his deli pickins') to whatever meat they're buying that day. He's given Significant Eater a $30, 10-week age prime rib steak (which he made sure to tell me was hers!) and another friend who has made the journey downtown with me got a whole, prime graded eye of chuck roast. Really, every neighborhood should have a Jeffrey's, and perhaps they once did.

What made me very happy today, however, was this article in the NY Times. Entitled Cuts of Meat, With a Side of Culture. It's all about Jeffrey, and his wonderful way with meat...and words.

“Do you know what a butcher really is?” he asked, steepling his hands as if in prayer. “A butcher is a member of your family who makes sure that what goes into your children’s stomachs is fresh, healthy and precisely what they need to survive.”

Check it out. And if you're in the neighborhood, check out Jeffrey's. On Essex and Delancey. Right outside the F train. You might walk away with a free hunk of cheese or perhaps a really nice steak. Maybe a beautiful piece of brisket like that one up top. And you'll always walk away with a smile on your face.

By the way, here's another shot of that brisket, after spending a day with me...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Russ & Daughters Delivers...Well, Almost

Many of my friends, all of my family and even those who don't know me, from Significant Eater on down, know how much I love Russ & Daughters. I've touted it on sites such as eGullet, where I volunteer as a host. I recommend it to people coming to the city when they ask where they might get the best appetizing (or bagel and lox) in Manhattan - because it really is the best (try the white fish salad, if you don't believe me). Over the years, I've sent Russ & Daughters gift boxes across the country to friends, and down to family members in Florida. SE and I have taken it to family get togethers - and serve it at home on those (rare) occasions when we have people over for breakfast...or, heaven forbid, brunch (my least favorite meal - why does it even exist?).

I digress. The other morning, we happened to have a friend here who had spent the night - same dude we sent Russ & Daughters to in California, by the way, when he and his wife had their first kid. So I figured, lets have appetizing...check out the wiki, and note the picture within their definition. Only, for the first time ever, I didn't feel like walking up to Houston Street and back - a slight hangover will do that to me - so I picked up the phone and called to see if they deliver...they certainly do, only not to my building!

Now, you gotta understand, if you look at their website , there's a fairly defined map. Our address in not technically on the map, but it's closer than a good percentage of the delivery area that is - including 2 of the 4 buildings in our co-op! We live in Seward Park Housing, one of the giant co-ops along Grand St., where 2 of the 4 buildings have addresses on Grand (within the delivery area, btw), but the other 2 (ours included) have addresses on East Broadway, which is evidently not. However, our front door can be entered from Clinton St., as can our sister building across the street - the one with the Grand St. address - only we're a block closer to the store. Still, no delivery...well, there is a delivery, but it'll cost you $13.50 please, to travel less far and take less time. The same amount they charge you to schlep up to 85th street on the upper west side. Makes no sense.

The best and most direct route to our building is .8 miles walking, according to Google. Every far-flung corner of their delivery map is .8 miles - well, except Broadway/Grand, which is actually further, at .9 miles. Take a look at this map, and the route to our building, to see why I gripe:

View Larger Map

Now, this morning, Russ & Daughters was kind enough to grant me clemency. Well, not really. I had to go out and meet the delivery guy on the corner of Grand and Clinton. Sorta like that Seinfeld episode where the Chinese delivery guy wouldn't cross 86th street to deliver Elaine's order and she has to adopt a janitor's closet on the other side of the street. Oy vey. I'm actually thinking of talk to my dry cleaners, with his address on Grand St.

Anyway, our co-op has 1,728 apartments. Yes, 1,728 apartments...and by not delivering to 50% of our co-op, Russ is basically saying we don't want those 850 or so apartments as customers. Lots of Jewish peeps too - I'm one, as is Significant Eater.

And even though the lox and gaspe and whitefish salad and herring and mini-bagels (which are the only ones I buy, cause the big bagels suck) and cream cheese were all as delicious as ever, I can't help thinking that founding patriarch Joel Russ would be giving his mishpucha a slap upside the head while saying "What's the matter? Another 10 yards is too far for you to walk? And what, you don't want another potential 800 customers? Mishugah."

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Fuzhou Supermarket on the Lower East Side

Back in the day (oh, say 1970), NYC's Chinatown was a fairly easily definable area, roughly bordered on the north by Canal Street, east by the Bowery, south by Worth Street and west by Baxter Street.

When we were high schoolers who wanted to come "into the city" to eat in Chinatown, we went to Mott Street, the center of it all. That was Chinatown to we Long Islanders.

Now of course, Chinatown encompasses a much larger area, with no definable borders at all, or at least with borders that are constantly changing. Our building, actually on the lower east side right next to Seward Park, could almost be considered to be in Chinatown...but I prefer Chinatown to be considered in the lower east side. Whatever, it doesn't really matter - because for food lovers like Significant Eater and me, it opens an exciting world just outside our front door - no need to travel halfway around the world, that's for sure. Or even to Mott Street any more.

For instance, just around the corner, near the East Broadway subway station, I came upon this bustling market at the corner of Henry and Rutgers Streets:

Fuzhou is the capital of the province Fujian, from where many of the newer immigrants to Chinatown arrived, and is also the home of one of the four traditional cooking styles of Fujian cuisine, which in turn is one of the eight recognized regional Chinese cuisines - whew - thanks, wiki. From

Generally speaking, Fujian dishes are slightly sweet and sour, and less salty, and often use the red distiller's grain for flavoring.

Whatever that all means, I happen to like the store and it's display of vegetables. Look at those amazingly low prices...

Vegetables like this can even get me into the kitchen on hot, sweltering days (like today), because to cook Chinese doesn't necessarily involve heating up our whole apartment like some other methods might...most of the work is in the prep, the actual cooking can take place very quickly, especially if you're not preparing soups or roasting whole animals.

Whenver I'm getting ready to stir-fry a couple of dishes, I make myself a plate of the holy trinity of Chinese cooking that is garlic, ginger and scallions - now don't show this to Daniel or Eric or any of those other fancy French chefs, because it probably would be tossed, but for SE and me, and you, it's just fine.

For a stir-fry of vegetables, the next step is to heat a wok till it's very hot. Very hot. Then, a tablespoon or two of oil (peanut or something with a high smoke point) is swirled around followed quickly by however much of the 3 ingredients above (a good teaspoon of each is nice) you're using, then the vegetable which is tossed and turned, exposing it all to the heat of the wok. I usually add a little (say, 1/4 cup) of homemade chicken stock seasoned with a bit of soy and sugar and cover and steam the dish for a minute or two. Uncover, let the liquid boil off, and you're pretty much done -here are some of those baby bok choy cooked in just that manner:

To round out lunch for Significant Eater and me, I happened to have some leftover rice in the fridge and that's perfect for fried rice. As a matter of fact, it's really good for fried rice. Along with some wild-caught frozen shrimp and some peas, and starting off the same way with the holy trinity, it's pretty cool living and cooking in "Chinatown!"

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ain't No Cure for the Summertime Blues

With apologies to Eddie Cochrane, please. Anyway, it's summer, it's really hot, it's really humid, I'm really cranky...but a guy's gotta eat - and so does Significant Eater, who has been studying away for the final part of a grueling exam she's taking this summer.

How to do that without adding heat and humidity to our already soupy apartment is always tough during the dog days of August. However, making pasta with an uncooked sauce at least solves half the problem, and with what I had lying around the kitchen (see above), was eminently doable. And I'm not that much of a snob (okay, maybe I am) to scoff at the De Cecco brand, especially when I find it on sale for a buck or so a box.

There was a pint of greenmarket grape tomatoes that needed to be used, along with a big bunch of fresh basil from the same lunch was on the table in less than half an hour - holy shit, don't tell Rachael Ray, but this was a real 30 minute meal, I guess. No sandwiches here.

So, while the pasta was cooking, I cut the tomatoes in half, doused them with a good dose of olive oil, salt and pepper, and stood back to admire my handiwork.

I also tore up a handful of basil, and grabbed a hunk of Parmiggiano Reggiano from the fridge.
As soon as the pasta was done, I grabbed my Chinese spider and removed the cavatappi from the water, dumping it right on top of the tomatoes and basil...don't pour it into a colander, you need some of that pasta water to help make a bit of a sauce. Add a BIG grating of the parm, toss and taste, maybe add some pasta water, perhaps some more pepper (we like pepper), and, as Mario always liked to say back when he was Molto, take it to the plate. Significant Eater was very happy.

And I know the orange one (RR) always likes her dessert, so I cranked up Miss Silvia (oh, the heat!), portioned out a couple of scoops of homemade coffee ice cream I happened to have in the freezer, and topped them with a freshly pulled espresso - a nice tasty affogato, which made Significant Eater's afternoon study session just a bit easier.