Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How Much is That Lulav (and Ethrog) In the Window?

The Lower East Side. Division and Canal. At one point in it's storied history, the ethrog (etrog) center of the universe. Just look at this sign, and tell me differently...

Now, of course, times have changed. I mean, directly across the street from where that picture was taken, lies this teeming scene any other time of the year...

And, pre-Sukkot...

That's the corner of Essex and Canal - where a bustling Chinese street-market stands in contrast to the aforementioned etrog (and lulav) center and sellers. By the way, the whole 2 ways of spelling etrog/ethrog is something I never really understood, but it may have something to do with different ways of pronouncing it...and I'm going with etrog from here on.

Every year, when the holiday of Sukkot rolls in (a cool holiday, because it celebrates the harvest and locavorism), the etrog and lulav sellers come around our neighborhood to sell their wares. In and amongst the Chinese street markets, there are still a few storefronts along Essex Street that make it seem not so unlikely:

Now, what are a lulav and an etrog? To put it simply, they're two of the symbols that are used in the 7-day celebration of the Sukkot festival - the other being the Sukkah itself. Here's an even better description of the lulav and etrog, from

A lulav is a slender palm branch that is held together with two willow branches and three myrtle branches. An etrog is a citron that looks mostly like a misshapen lemon but smells like heaven. The branches and fruit are waved each day Sukkot, except on Shabbat, in a specific manner for a variety of reasons.

That's the lulav - which is a palm branch, and here's the etrog:

The etrog is very important. It appears more important - doesn't it? It's cooler looking and I'm sure it's tastier. I bet you could even make a cocktail from it. And if it wasn't very important, there wouldn't be rules like this, as I like to call it "The Etrog Rule:"

Some etrog varieties arrive with a pitom, the stamen left over from the etrog blossom, protruding from the top. Be careful with the pitom. Should the pitom fall off, the etrog is no longer considered whole and should not be used for the mitzvah of waving the lulav.

Watch your pitoms, kids. You know, the etrog needs to remain in good shape for the duration of the holiday as the branches and fruit are waved together each day, in a Sukkah. Sukkahs (or is it Sukkot?) pop up all over the lower east side before the holiday; as a matter of fact, our buildings put up two really big Sukkahs. Here you can see one on part of what used to be Hester St...

What is a Sukkah?
A sukkah is a booth of sorts, a construction of a one-room abode where holiday-observing Jews dine, entertain, and some even spend the nights, for seven days each year.
The origin of this ritual is biblical. God instructed the Jewish people to construct booths. “You shall live in booths seven days. All citizens of Israel shall dwell in booths” (Levitcus 23:42).

God forbid, seven days with your family in a one-room hut. Anyway, the reason for the sukkah is symbolic, as is pretty much everything on most religious holidays (see birth of various peeps, if you don't believe me). It symbolizes how:

During the busy harvest season, farmers would build temporary shelters in the fields to save themselves the trouble of heading back home for rest. They also did this to act as human scarecrows as their presence would help keep thieves at bay. The sukkah is reminiscent of these harvest huts. Modern scholars have argued for the validity of the sukkah’s agricultural roots because the leafy covering stipulated in sukkah construction codes are more similar to huts farmers would build than to the heftier huts nomads would need.

I can just see those modern scholars arguing now. But really what should be argued about is how come the guy whose etrog and lulav I snapped pix of was charging $25 for the set, while right up on the corner, another was willing to make me a deal at $20. Hah - just like the old days.

Oh, and if I was going to make a cocktail with that etrog, it would probably be something along the lines of an let's call it the...

Sukkot Aviation - Serves 2

4 oz. Gin - Beef, Tanq or Plymouth here, please
1.5 oz. etrog juice - even though I have no idea what it tastes like, but let's hope lemon
3/4 oz. marashino liqueur
2 tsp. Creme Violette (optional)

Shake it all up with a lot of ice. If it sucks, you're out $20.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Answering A Higher Authority - DC Kosher

There's an old Woody Allen joke that goes something like this, and I'm paraphrasing here:

Two people are dining together at a Catskill's hotel. One looks at the other and says, "The food is really lousy here." The other responds, "And such small portions."

Philosophically, I don't know whether that joke has anything to do with my post today, but let's just say the kosher restaurants piss me off - because 99.99% of them suck. Now, I'm not talking about places like Katz's or the 2nd Avenue Deli, both here in New York. Katz's doesn't even pretend to be kosher (because it's not) and 2nd Avenue is sorta kosher, because...oh, let's just say because they're allowed.

No, I'm talking about the REAL kosher restaurants, like the one down here in our lower east side neighborhood called Noah's Ark, and others scattered about this city and others. Real kosher (glatt kosher, if you will) usually means they're not open on from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday nor on any Jewish holidays, dairy and meat are never served in the same restaurant and, from

Answer: The technical definition of glatt kosher is meat from animals with smooth or defect-free lungs, but today the term glatt kosher is often used informally to imply that a product was processed under a stricter standard of kashrut.

Which isn't 100% correct, according to - and oy, you get the picture. It's kinda like the kids you knew in high school or the girl you once dated who were "kosher," but not really - only at home, let's say. And then your friend ate a bacon cheeseburger out, on Passover, just to really break the rules. Or you took that "kosher" girl out on a date, and she was slurping down oysters with chorizo, and you knew she wasn't really kosher - and you breathed a sigh of relief.

But back to Washington, DC, where Significant Eater and I had a, shall we say, less than memorable quick bite at a REAL kosher place called Eli's, downtown on 20th Street. Playing it safe, I ordered a pastrami sandwich on marble rye, chicken soup with a matzoh ball, and SE had a chef's salad, which is basically greens, maybe a tomato, a bit of cuke, a hard-boiled egg (I particularly like the green ring around the yolk - a true hallmark of kosher cooking) and all the lousy meats you'd want, for some reason rolled up into a cylinder, like maybe you were gonna smoke it or pretend you're eating a California roll...apologies for the lousy cell-phone pix...

If you want to know how to screw up pastrami, Eli's might be a good place to start. Putting aside the actual sourcing of the pastrami, there is a NEED to slice pastrami correctly for the sandwich to be edible. Hint - that's against the grain as opposed to with it. But it wouldn't have mattered if Eli Zabar himself sliced this pastrami - it was lousy. And, they toasted my marble rye - a big no-no. The kicker was the potato salad - seen in the upper left hand corner below.

Those little dots on top of the potato salad? It took SE and me a while to figure out what they were. We decided that they were fake bacon bits, and they added just the right touch. They might be something different - who really knows?

Now, this problem of lousy REAL kosher food in restaurants is by no means restricted to Eli or Noah's Ark - trust me. I mean, have you ever walked out of a kosher restaurant and said to yourself, "man, I just can't wait to get back there?" No, you haven't - or you're lying. It's sad, because I can take a kosher chicken, or a kosher brisket, or a hundred different vegetables, grains, eggs or whatever and make a pretty darn good kosher meal. I just haven't found the kosher restaurant kitchen that can do any of the same. Not Eli's, and certainly not Noah.

And I'm open to suggestions for great kosher, in ANY city.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Elevator Going Up...

New Yorkers are fairly fond of their views. At least those that have some. But views in New York can be fleeting. And they're certainly always changing. That's why when I'd heard that Gouverneur Healthcare Services was getting ready to under a rather massive expansion program, I started to get nervous about one of our four teensie views of the East River.

You see, Significant Eater and I live on the 15th floor of our building. We fell in love with our apartment when we first walked into it six years ago, because of the views and "the light" - why do realtors always talk about "the light" as if it's some sign from the heavens that all is well in the universe? Jeez, there's a realtor in DC who showed us an apartment on the first floor (albeit of a very nice building) that had its shades drawn because the only windows in the apartment looked out upon the building next door, who spoke of "the light" in glowing terms. Yeah, I wanted to say, the light's great - because you have all the fucking lights on!

But back to Gouveneur and our views - SE and I can see four slivers of the river from our bedroom window. Slivers, mind you, with the Manhattan Bridge just visible in the background. And it's not like the view from our living room windows, protected as it is by the fact that we overlook Seward Park - looking out over parks is a really good thing, because you can't generally build big buildings in parks in NYC - though looking out over Seward Park and it's playgrounds can sometimes be annoying, what with all the shouts and screams of children having a good time making their way up to our apartment. No, this is a view that over time is likely to change, just as the skyline all around the lower east side is changing. Tall buildings, Blue building, Gertel's building, every time I hear of a new project, I wonder how our "light" is gonna change.

So, after looking at the renderings for the new expansion, I started to get really worried. I mean, take a look see...

That thing is huge. So, I started to get out my protractor (yeah, like anyone uses one of those), and started calculating vectors and shit, just to figure out if one of (maybe my favorite) our slivers was going to disappear. SE was kinda getting sick of hearing me complain about the building...she prefers to take the view that if there isn't anything you can do about it, why worry. God, she's so zen. And for a year, all they were doing was foundation work. And then, it started to grow up...and here's a diary of photos...

August 24, 2009 - called my doctor and asked for a refill of my Xanax prescription. Note 2 of our 4 slivers - see, I told you they were slivers.

September 1, 2009 - noted the appearance of girders intruding into river view - started to think about using Gouveneur's mental health services. Glad to be thinking about an apartment in DC; helps take my mind off this project, if only for minutes.

September 18, 2009 - after returning home from one of our round-trips to DC, lo and behold it looks like the sliver view might be retained after all. Very happy...called doc for prescription for Ritalin.

September 21, 2009 - And so it goes. Building topped off, and for now our sliver remains. It's good to be zen about these things.

September 22, 2009 - Oh, how do I know it's topped off? Well, they plant one of these on the roof when a building is topped off. I think it's called, ummm, a topping off ceremony, and it's done for practically every construction project in the city.

But really, do you think I was that worried about losing a precious bit of view? Nah, not me. I like to think about how health care services will improve in our neighborhood. Especially for people who can't afford quality health care. I'm not getting started on politics here, though. And the project will eventually bring lots of jobs and increased revenue to the neighborhood as well, which is a good thing.

I've also learned a thing or two regarding complaining about things you have no control over, thanks to SE. Whether or not it'll change how I react to things remains to be seen - or at least until the next large construction project starts taking place outside our windows.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Early DC Impressions - We Prefer La Preferida

Well, as I said in my last post almost two weeks ago (!), Significant Eater and I have been getting set up in a nice little apartment in downtown DC - on N Street, and she started her new job (loves it, btw) just last Monday. But what a two weeks it was. Three (or was it four?) round-trips by car, numerous trips to Target, Ikea, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Calvert Woodley for booze - where some of the pricing makes no sense to me, when I have the luxury here in NYC of shopping at Astor Place and Wherehouse Liquors. Think $23 for Rittenhouse BIB, and some of you know what I mean. But, at least they stock it.

There's even a Harris Teeter, a Southern-based grocery chain, which my buddy turned me onto as one of the key supermarkets to shop at...with parking. They put out those fancy sample trays (with domes!) all around the store, too - but you don't eat out of those, do you? Just think of how many kids reached in to grab a slice of apple after wiping their runny noses with their hands, and I bet you'll stop. Actually, I think they should call them H1N1 domes.

In between all the cleaning, shopping and stocking however, a boy's gotta eat. Oh, SE and I made the obligatory stop at Ben's Chili Bowl, where the half-smoke is good, and the picture of Obama on the wall makes the food taste better than it really is...I wonder, did Michelle make him sleep on the couch after his chili dog?

I digress, so back to food. One of my oldest and closest friends now also lives in DC (and he just started a new job there too - what is this world coming to, with people getting jobs?), so I picked up Miami Danny and dragged him to a couple of places I had spotted on my various shopping excursions around town. And what's the first thing a couple of Jewish kids from Long Island think about when they're thinking about food? Yeah, that's right, ribs. I had spied this joint, located in the 3900 block of 14th St. NW, and just had to give it a try.

Well, wouldn't you? And boy, did it suck. You'd think with that pile of wood stacked up so nicely in the front window, there might be a chance that this would be a place to return to again and again. You'd be wrong. Perhaps the inside should have been a clue - it had more bulletproof glass than a bank in the 70s, and the ribs were delivered (after paying) via a turntable type device which made sure there was no human contact between the "pitmaster" and the customer. I'm pretty sure that the only smoke the ribs saw was the liquid smoke in the over-applied barbecue sauce. And the wings, which if done right can be ethereal, were dry and, I dunno, woody?

That big mitt holding the wings might've tasted better than the wings themselves, but Danny refused to sacrifice it, so off we went to stop number 2, which was a couple of blocks south on that same stretch of 14th St.

Yes, Pepe's Elotes Asados, where just to get the taste of the ribs and chicken out of our systems, we each got a nice ear of roasted corn, along with a tamale...after Danny charmed Ms. Pepe with his excellent Spanglish. The corn didn't taste like a lot of farmer's market corn these days, overly sweet but lacking real corn flavor - instead, it was slightly chewy (not necessarily a bad thing), and with it's coating of mayo, dusting of cheese and sprinkle of lime and chile powder, hit just the right note.

Corn is filling, so we decided to not even taste the tamale, though it looked good. Instead, it was passed along to a "street-person," who declared it "damn good." And off we went to stop numero tres. See, I can speak Spanish too - just not that much.

Now, this was a place I had spotted on a drive back from College Park, MD - the home not only of the University of Maryland Terps, but of Ikea as well. Located in a parking lot at the intersection of New Hampshire and E-W Highway, or Routes 410 and 650 in Takoma Park, it's easy to miss, but keep your eyes open and there she is...

Yes, La Preferida, womanned by two lovely ladies from El Salvador, was no doubt the find of the day. Since pupusas originally hailed from El Salvador, we ordered two pupusas revueltas, stuffed with pork, cheese and refried beans, along with two tacos de lengua, or tongue tacos. So we come full circle, as these two Jewish kids from Long Island are tongue lovers from way back - though I think my mom used to cook her calve's tongue in the de-flavorizer, and certainly didn't serve it on a taco, she started a life-long love of mine for one of the great organ meats.

And we watched as one of the ladies took a handful of masa and shaped and stuffed the pupusas delicately and with purpose. Onto the griddle to cook, Danny and I waited patiently for this not-so-fast food. It was worth the wait, as we drove away to find a shady spot (on Elm Street, no less) where we could enjoy the food. The pupusas were great, a little greasy, a little crispy around the edges, and meltingly tender. Like a great pizza, the cheese, pork and dough come together in each bite, even going so far as to burn the roof of my mouth.

And the tacos. Oooh, the tacos. Bursting with perfectly stewed tongue, topped with freshly chopped tomatoes, avocado slices, shredded queso fresco and served with a piece of lime and a bit of a green chili salsa hot enough to melt the floorboards of my Camry, these were better than any tacos I've had on the east coast. Though I don't think tacos are native to El Sal, these ladies sure know how to cook 'em. And I know I'll be stopping at this place as often as I can on my trips into and out of the district. Take a gander at these:

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Other Side of Summer

It's been a busy end of summer for Significant Eater and me. SE has secured a fantastic job in Washington, DC and we've been looking for a new (temporary) home in the district to help with the settling in process. We'll eventually find a more permanent place, and in the process become bi-municipal (a new word that we've created). There'll be BOLT buses, and more driving than we've done in a long time (at least since I lived in California). And there will certainly be new neighborhoods, restaurants, bars, markets and food to explore. We're also sure there will be many new friends, and even some old ones, to drink with, to eat with, to cook for and to make the experience all the richer.

On the last weekend of the summer, however, we were in New York, and I was able to fire up a friend's Weber to do some barbecuing. Real barbecuing, low and slow - my favorite method of preparing ribs for sure, as well as various other cuts that benefit from long cooking with low heat.

And ribs it was. Pork spareribs and beef short ribs. Along with a wayward chicken that took an overnight bath in brine, the ribs were dry rubbed the night before with a mixture of salt, sugar, paprika, cayenne, black pepper, cumin and a bit of fennel powder that had made its way back to me from Umbria, via our friends Jude and Jeff. The ribs can come out of the refrigerator an hour before the fire is ready, and the chicken should be rinsed well of its brine and dried thoroughly before going into the smoker. It helps to have a rib rack, but even without one, everything got nice and cozy on the grill.

The coals and fire are built off to one side, so none of the meat is directly over the coals. It's a low fire, and you want to keep it in the range of 200 - 225 degrees. A handful of soaked wood chips gets placed on top of the coals, and every 30 minutes or so, a couple of unlit pieces of charcoal can be added to keep the fire going, along with another handful of wood chips. Your smoker should look something like this:

Ribs can take anywhere from 3 - 5 hours, depending on their size and how hot the fire is. And after we could wait no longer (actually, right around 4 hours), everything came off the grill. Waiting is hard at this point, so after 15 minutes, the ribs were cut and plattered and ready for the feast...

That's a short rib in the upper left hand corner, and they were damn good. You can see the beautiful pink smoke ring on the pork ribs and they were mighty fine too. Lest anyone think there wasn't anything but meat, our hosts made a beautiful multicolored tomato salad with tomatoes from their backyard garden, along with watermelon, yellow melon and handfuls of herbs, also from the backyard.

And there you have it. Summer's over, a new job and a new city await (we'll be seeing lots of I-95, to be sure) and a new chapter on life is opened for Significant Eater and me. Sure we're a bit nervous about it all, but we're also really excited about what the future holds for us. And Tasty Travails will be sharing it all along the way.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Next Door to Gertel's Revealed - The Full Monty

Back in February of this year, I wrote about the demise of Gertel's, the famous bakery on the lower east side, where some of the finest rugelach and challah this side of Delancey Street was at one time found.

Well, since it's Labor Day weekend and I don't have a heck of a lot to write about, what follows is a pictorial essay about the rise and reveal of the, ahem, lovely building that has risen next door to what was once Gertel's. Without further ado...

We still don't know what's going to go up where Gertel's was, but we're open to any and all ideas.