Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Grumpy Old Men and Katz's

In a strange, simple twist of fate, Significant Eater and I had lunch yesterday with two friends who were in the city for their son's before-going-to-college orientation. And when I asked them where they wanted to go, well...whaddya know, they wanted Katz's.

Now, I say a simple twist of fate, because it just so happens that the world famous curmudgeon and restaurant critic extraordinaire Alan Richman, happened to blog about Katz's yesterday, the same day we went for lunch! Let me say this - and as anyone who knows me can tell you, I'm cranky. I'm not cooking right now because it's so freakin' hot...that's how cranky I am. But Richman? Holy shit. I'm an amateur next to him.

You see, Richman's blog basically disses on Katz's. In a big way. And even though he makes the disclaimer that there really are only 3 or 4 things to order at Katz's, he goes through the motions of ordering a lot of stuff that no sane person orders there, and hates it all. Duh. When I say "no sane person," that means that anyone who knows Katz's (and Richman knows Katz's) knows that you order a pastrami sandwich, a hot dog, a knockwurst or a knoblewurst. For accuracy's sake, he likes the salami too - but, in all my years going to Katz's, I've never had a salami sandwich...I may have to try one soon.

Back to the pastrami. Which is my #1 thing to order. It's really good. It comes piled high on (less than great) rye bread and is enough to share...especially when a few hot dogs are on the bill. BTW, the potato knish (Gabila's - I saw the box), which I ordered in order to compare with the one I had last week, was nowhere near as good as that one at Yonah Schimmel's.

For those that don't know, when you step up to the front of the line, tell your counterman you want a pastrami sandwich - juicy (or fatty) - on rye...while you're placing a dollar or two in his tip cup. My guy walked over to the steamer, fished around, found one he liked and cut me off a few end pieces to taste - and when I dribbled my approval, proceeded to slice a heap of that heavenly meat to make my sandwich. Ask nicely, and you're liable to get a damn good pickle plate too - as Richman warmly says:

I won’t argue. In fact, I’ll go him one better and say that the mustard is terrific, as good as deli mustard gets, and the pickles are pretty good.

And that's what you want - juicy pastrami on rye with mustard. And a pickle plate. Order that, and Katz's is still damn good...(go ahead and click on that picture to see just what I mean)...

New pickles, sour pickles and pickled tomatoes too...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Knishes - Calling Yonah Schimmel

It's weird really, 'cause nobody talks much about knishes anymore. What I mean is that there was a time in my life, and in the life of the people I was around at that time in my life, when knishes were a part of it. By a part of it, I don't mean that my Austro-Hungarian-Cossack grandmother was in the kitchen making them...though she did make a mean latke. No; what I mean is that in the neighborhoods where I grew up - in Brooklyn, in Queens and on Long Island, there were lots of delis - and the delis always had griddles where the knishes were being kept warm...next to the hot dogs. So did Nathan's, Roosevelt Raceway and places like that. They were a staple. When you went for a hot dog, you most of the time got a hot dog...and, a knish.

Don't get me wrong, they haven't gone away. It's just that they're not a weekly or monthly ritual like they were at some other point in my (and others) lives. And if you moved away from New York, you'll never find a good knish - maybe by mail order. I lived in California for a long time; the only good knishes I had were when I would come back for a visit.

Knishes can be still found on lots of street food carts around the city. Gabila's is a major brand. Katz's still has them, in front, on the griddle, next to the dogs. And they're good...well, they're OK. Split, with mustard, they go nicely with a Katz's dog - and it'll probably cost you $10 for the 2. Zabar's, Murray's and 2nd Ave. Deli all make respectable knishes. Knish Knosh in Rego Park is some people's favorite. The list goes on.

What the hell is a knish? You know, I've been asked that a lot of times, and I don't know if I've ever just been able to describe what it is without a lot of sorta like this, sorta like thats. But a couple of web sites and a couple of books later, here's what I found on Jewish recipes.com:

Knish is an eastern-European Jewish or Yiddish snack food. It is a dumpling covered with a dough shell that is either baked or fried. In the most traditional version, the dumpling is made entirely of mashed potato.

The wiki goes even further, pointing out that there are similar, yet cultural differences to:

the British pasty, the Scottish Bridie, the Jamaican patty, the Spanish and Latin American empanada the Portuguese rissole, the Italian calzone, the South Asian samosa, the Russian pirozhki and the Middle Eastern fatayer....

But, I'll still take my NY knish, thank you. And since we live on the lower east side, which at one time might've been the knishery of the world, it's still pretty darn easy for me to get a good one at Yonah Schimmel's. Yonah Schimmel's has been baking ("Always baked, never fried," as the sign says) knishes on the lower east side since 1910, which coincidentally is the last time the windows were cleaned. But it makes no difference for a knish like this.

So , the next time you're strolling along East Houston St. as I was the other day with some old friends, make a bit of a bit of a detour into Schimmel's. There's "table service," or just do what we did and stand at the little counter, next to a couple of squeeze bottles of mustard. Order a potato (on the right) and maybe a kasha (there are other, more eclectic varieties, but I find those to be more like blueberry bagels - criminal) along with a couple of Dr. Brown's and think about why you let knishes slip away.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Hamburgers - And Happy Father's Day

Maybe it was my dad? Though I don't really have any Proustian hamburger of my youth - like the one that made you sit up and go "wow - I need burgers!" My dad, on the other hand, probably had something to do with my love of Martinis, thought he tended to drink his Beefeater on the rocks, with an olive. For that, I'll always have him to thank.

Back to the burger...and really, seriously, for the best hamburger you can possibly make at home, you need to grind (or finely mince) your own beef. For purposes of this discussion, it's beef I'm talking about. Sure, you can use pork, chicken, turkey, veal, lamb, salmon, tuna, tofu, beans, whatever...not that any of them were used by my dad...but here we're talking beef.

It interests me a little bit that whenever you use any of those non-beef options, the burger is called by what you've used - that is, grind up some salmon and you have salmon burgers; grind up some black beans - you have black bean burgers, and so on. Now, grind up some beef and you've got - that's right, the hamburger. What if you grind up ham...

For the second best burger your money can buy, get a nice big fat chuck roast and have your butcher grind it for you - once (you have a butcher, don't you?). Because for the best tasting burger, it's really important that the meat be as freshly ground as possible - and there have been scientific tests to support that fact.

Back to the beef. Over the past 5 years or so, burger places have proliferated in New York. Maybe it was Shake Shack that got everyone so excited (a good burger, if you're looking for that style). Significant Eater and I always had and have a fondness for J.G. Melon's, on the upper east side. To each his own, and burger fanatics will support their faves till the end. Along with the burger places, the beef and blend of cuts has lately become the plat du Jour. Is it Pat LaFrieda's black iron blend, city blend, country blend or what? Aged, prime - hey, just gimme a steak! Really, if you're gonna take the trouble to age beef, why then grind it up? It's enough to make one mad - though hopefully they're keeping that cow out of the mix.

I recently bought a couple of pounds of chuck and a skirt steak from my butcher and ground them together...something no self-respecting dad of mine would have done. Once the meat is ground, you don't want to work it to much - just pat it into shape, and it should look something like this (a little indent with the thumb in the middle helps it keep it's shape while cooking)...

You see, there's actually some fat in there. Fat = flavor. Indoor cooks, get a cast-iron frying pan pretty damn hot - let it heat up over medium heat for 7 - 10 minutes. If you're using your grill, same thing - hot! Although that crappy propane grill will never get as hot as a cast iron pan properly heated, it's a start (charcoal's better). Salt and pepper that burger well, and put it into the pan - it will hiss and spit a lot; it should. Get a splatter shield, you wuss. Flip that baby after 3, 4, 5 minutes - whatever, of course depending on the thickness, and how well you like it done...when you flip it, it should look like this...

Let it finish cooking while you're toasting your bun - the classic being a Martin's potato roll, and they are (trust me on this) much better toasted.

Sit back, make yourself a Martini or crack a beer, and admire your handiwork. Go ahead - it's your day. To all the dads, here and not - Happy Father's Day. Thanks for the burgers...and the memories.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Cherries of Summer

I wrote in my last blog post that one of my favorite vegetables is the artichoke, and it has a lot to do with many years spent of the left coast. Along with the artichoke, there was a fruit I learned to savor as well...a fruit with a very short (local) season and one that I'll never tire of. This is a fruit that I've eaten too much of at one time, or eaten too many too quickly and gotten a bit of a tummy ache from. That'd be my favorite fruit, pictured above...the cherry.

There was a place I used to stop off at driving home from work, back when I had a bit of a career in Silicon Valley. On El Camino Real in Sunnyvale, CA, CJ Olsen's cherry stand is nirvana for cherry lovers. You see, Silicon Valley was the place where once upon a time lots and lots of cherries (and apricots) were grown and shipped all over. It wasn't called the Valley of the Heart's Delight for no reason; of course now there's not much growing there (except silicon), but Olsen's survives. I remember some of their cherries being as big as plums - they'd ship the best specimens off to Japan, where they often sold for $10 a piece.

Cherries come in lots of varieties (thanks, wiki): there are sweets and tarts with varietal names like Bing, Lambert, Burlat, Rainier and Royal Ann; Windsor, Montmorency, Morello, Black Tartarian, Napolean, Schmidt and plenty more. Most of the great sweet cherries (my favorites are Bings and Rainiers) are grown on the west coast; sour cherries are a more eastern thing, and they're the ones famously used in cherry pies.

What's cool about cherries is that they grow here, in New York, almost as well as they grow out west. And even though I eat as many Bings and Rainiers from the west coast as is humanly possible, I also look forward to our local cherry season (though I'm kinda worried about this year's crop - so much rain, and when you see a cherry with a split down it, that's what happened), which should be any day now. Here's what it looked like at the farmer's market last year...

That's some mighty fine cherries right there. Get 'em while you can, because the season goes by in 3 or 4 weeks...but don't forget, cherries also give a bit of a thrill with their spectacular display of flowers in early spring.

So, what to do with the bounty? Besides eating as many of those sweet things as possible, there's the cherry pie. Not a bad idea, and if you can make a good one, people will swoon - I may give it a try this year, since I've been working on my tart doughs. There's clafoutis, the fab French dessert, basically cherries covered with a custard and baked like a large pancake - served warm or at room temp and you've just saved on that flight to Paris.

For me, I don't like a heck of a lot to muck up the flavor of the cherry. So I decided upon a sour cherry soup, just the ticket to pure Montmorency cherry flavor, and really easy. And a Bing cherry sorbet - how bad could that be? To provide a counterpoint to the fruity goodness, I whipped up a batch of vanilla ice cream. Summer never tasted this good - but it goes by quickly, so grab those cherries now.

Bing Cherry Sorbet
(Adapted from David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop)

2 lbs sweet cherries - then pit 'em
3/4 cup sugar (might be a little more, depending on sweetness of cherries)
1 cup water
1 T lemon juice
2 T kirsch or (gasp) vodka or other booze - optional

Cook everything (except the booze) in a saucepan for 10 -15 minutes, till the cherries are very soft. Cool, and then puree in a blender. Add booze. Chill overnight then freeze.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Whole Globe - Artichoke, That Is

L'artichaut. Carciofo. Alcachofa. Anginare. No matter the language, the artichoke is a vegetable that has been enjoyed by Mediterranean cultures for a long, long time.

I developed a love for the thistle during my years living in California. I had never had one before moving there. Cali produces about 99% of the commercial crop in this country (Texas is trying) - though I do see artichokes from Jersey at the farmer's market here in NYC come fall. In California, I can remember getting them cheaply during the season (actually, they're pretty much available year-round, but the best are in the spring, followed by the fall crop) - a couple of bucks for a 2 lb. bag of baby artichokes (not really babies, just from the lower parts of the plant), and sometimes 3 for $1 for the big ones. Here in New York, not so cheap. So, imagine my surprise when I stopped in at the Essex St. Market the other day, and one of the produce stands was selling some nice sized globes at that price - I took home 9 of 'em for a grand total of $3. Not bad looking ones, I might add...

A couple of tips. I learned a long time ago to beware of the tops of the leaves (bracts, really) because they will jab you in the finger and you will curse - I gua-ran-tee it. Loudly. Those fuckers are sharp. Second, they should feel heavy in the hand - as should most of the fruit and vegetables you buy - that way you know it's fairly fresh and not dried out...after all, they have spent at least 4 or 5 days coming from Castroville/Watsonville - pretty much the artichoke capital of the US - at least that's what they want you to believe. To prove it, this year they held the 50th anniversary of the Castroville Artichoke festival, and I'm sure they were serving up tons of fried artichoke hearts.

Oh, and third - the artichokes will talk back to you if they're fresh. Pick one up and give it a bit of a squeeze - it should squeak. If it doesn't, put it back - it's old and likely to be fairly flavorless. Tightly bunched bracts are a good sign, and a little bit of browning on the leaves isn't bad - it just means that the artichokes have been kissed by a bit of frost. Old-timers will tell you that makes them taste even better.

Now, I'm not going to go into the whole cleaning and prepping of the bud - if you've used them before, you know what a royal pain in the ass that is. By the way, there's nothing more fun than being handed a case of artichokes and being told to "prep 'em," but that's a topic for another post, I'm pretty sure. If you're trying them for the first time, do an internet search and lots of instructive sites will be able to help you better than I can. Better still, buy a book or two - I happen to like and have this one: The California Artichoke Cookbook: From the California Artichoke Advisory Board, and it's easy enough to find.

So, what to make? Well, there's a great Italian tradition of slicing the hearts very thinly and serving them raw in a salad - dressed simply with good olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and you can't go wrong.

Deep-frying them whole gives you Carciofi alla giudia, but not in my apartment kitchen, thank you. There's also Carciofi alla romana, which are braised and almost as delicious as the fried ones.

For Significant Eater and me, however, I just wanted something plain and simple to go along with the pasta we had as our main course. So, first I cleaned the globes down to their hearts (don't throw away the stems either - peel them and they're as tasty as the heart) and cut them in 1/2 or into 1/4 s. Next, I sauteed them, along with 1/2 an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic in a good 1/4 cup of olive oil to brown them a bit - when they started to take on some color, I deglazed the pan with 1/2 cup of dry white wine and when that boiled off, added 1/2 cup of chicken stock along with a couple of sprigs of thyme, covered the whole thing and allowed it to simmer for 15 - 20 minutes until tender. Dressed with a bit more extra virgin and a handful of chopped parsley - and who needs Schwarzenegger. Buon appetito!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Weekend in Italy

Now that I've gotten your attention, I might wish we had spent the weekend in Italy. Our friends Judith & Jeff have a home in a little hilltop village in Umbria, where they spend a good half the year at least. Every time I read Jude's blog, Aroma Cucina, I remember the great time Significant Eater and I had while visiting them in Montone; the food, the hospitality, the outrageous (to this lower east sider) location...all of it.

However, if you can't be in Italy, maybe you're lucky enough to have friends whom you might join for a great meal right here - and that's what we did this past weekend, heading out to Brooklyn to have dinner with friends - who invited us to their backyard, to their Weber and to cook like a bunch of Italians.

If you didn't know, I have grill/bbq envy. I admit it. Our 15th floor apartment isn't set up for grilling. And even though some friends and neighbors have a balcony and a grill...I still need charcoal every now and then. Hey, I lived in Cali for 18 years. I had 3 grills in my backyard - none of them used propane or butane or anything like that. They all used charcoal and wood and that's the way to grill (and to bbq, too), in my humble opinion.

So...I needed Brooklyn. And to pretend we were in Italy. Surrounded by apple trees, roses, herbs growing...and that Weber! A trip to the farmer's market by my buddy that morning brought some Long Island oysters - and a quicker trip on a fiery Weber for those oysters, along with a splash of lemon or a bit of house made mignonette - could there be a better starter? Goes well with a French Pearl, too.

Next up, the farmer's market brought in some fresh shelling peas, which were simply heated up with a bit of extra virgin, and then tossed with orecchiette, some fresh ricotta I had brought over the bridge from Alleva Dairy, mint from the garden, Parmigiano-Reggiano, lots of cracked pepper and the pasta cooking water. Simple, and we could have been in Umbria. See for yourself...

For our secondi, a big, prime T-Bone went onto the Weber, now glowing with mesquite and apple wood. So, make that Bistecca Fiorentina, which is the famous grilled beef of Florence and Tuscany, from a Chianina cattle, grilled over wood or charcoal, and usually anointed with extra virgin olive oil, salt & pepper. In addition to the T-Bone, a couple of prime strip steaks were sacrificed as well. It was all carved up and served with some foil grilled packets of market potatoes and spring onions. If you closed your eyes, and ignored the planes on final approach to JFK, you could easily be in Umbria.

Since we didn't get to Italy this past weekend, here's a pic I took in Montone when we were there. I may even do a post about that trip someday - when I'm imagining a weekend away.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Chinatown Meanderings and Elvis Costello

To wander through Chinatown is always a treat. Oh, I lie - it's mostly aggravating for me, and I do it as little as possible, but if you stay off the beaten path, it's a little more mellow.

And you never know what kind of interesting stuff you might come across. Take the other night, when I was fortunate enough to be invited to a "Secret Show" being performed by one of my favorite musicians, Elvis Costello. He's got a new CD 0ut, and this show was for listeners who had won a call-in contest ( and their guests) - sponsored by an FM station that's been on-air for over a year here in the city - 101.9 RXP. Anyway, since the show was being held at Jim Brady's on Maiden Lane, I figured I'd walk - it's about 30 minutes, and you get to transverse some of those off-the-beaten-path streets of lower Manhattan. First check out this shot of EC...that's Diamond Jim Brady just over his left shoulder...

I digress - back to my walk, through Chinatown, to see Elvis. In the past, I've found noodle shops that sell hand-pulled noodles to take home and cook for yourself. I recently ran across a tofu factory offering all sorts of varieties on that theme...which really isn't that fascinating...oh, I'll take home a chunk of tofu and cook with it, but eating that stuff all the time - feh. Sometimes the signs on the shops really crack me up. Take a look at this one and see if you agree...

Yes - it's Strange Taste Cuisine. I don't know what the Chinese characters mean and perhaps someone will be able to translate, but I found that a weird name for a restaurant. Good Taste Cuisine, Wonderful Taste Cuisine, Awesome Taste Cuisine - they all work. Strange Taste - not so much. Of course, if you look closely, you'll notice the gate is pulled down and there's no business going on - obviously, others thought the same way too. And just look across the street...

Doesn't that sound so much better? It's Best, not Strange. Oh, and on the walk home from the gig, which was great, I stopped into Great NY Noodletown - (see, that's Great - not Strange!).

Significant Eater was due to be getting home from class in a few minutes, and trust me, there's not a lot better for a late dinner than NY Noodletown's roast pork, roast duck and shrimp wonton soup. Check out the hanging deliciosity...

As I mentioned, the gig was great, Elvis was in prime form...singing 8 newly recorded songs with his trusty guitar. Thanks for the invite, guys.