Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ramps! Love 'em or...

Be glad the friggin' season is over, like I am. About time. Wednesday, at the Union Square green market, I finally spotted the sign I've been waiting for all season...ramp season, that is. Yes kids, they're done. Through for the year. Gone. Kaputski. Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. And so on. So here's what caused my brief happiness at all things seasonal...

Whew. Now, don't get me wrong, I love it when things (i.e. fruits and vegetables) come into season. There's certainly nothing wrong with a delicious, fresh from the garden tomato or a nice, ripe and juicy peach picked earlier that morning and not taken off a truck fresh from a week-long journey from California's Central Valley.

But hasn't the whole ramp-craze just gotten out of hand? I mean, the damn things are on every menu in town. From the farm-to-table places that we've all come to love (or else!), to places we hardly expect, chefs and home-cooks alike shove ramps down the throats of diners, whether you like them or not. I half expect to see them on tacos at some truck parked on lower Broadway, or being served with hand-pulled noodles on Eldridge Street.

Let's face it - taste wise, are ramps really all that different from tiny scallions? Or a mince of maybe garlic and scallions? Or shallots and garlic. Or onions that still have their greens attached? Those are all sure to be in the farmer's market in a month's time. I mean, I know they're cute and all, otherwise why would the food kids be doing stuff like this...

Yep, the ramp tattoo, and you have no idea what it took to get that chef to show me that ramp.

Anyway, ramp season isn't all that bad. Because, y'know, if it's ramp season then this isn't too far behind...

Oh, and bring on the scapes - I can hardly wait.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Weekend in DC

Now that we're settled into our DC apartment part of the time, it's fun to spend time down there on weekends every now and then. 'Stead of in the city - you know - New York City. Significant Eater and I always love weekends during the summer in the city - well, except for the parts that I can't stand, like the heat, humidity and smell. But it's a fact that when a lot of New Yorkers leave town for the weekend in the summer, if you avoid the tourist and other generally annoying areas, the city takes on a different feel - more relaxed, slower - a fun time to be together.

Why I explained that I don't know, but this past weekend was a DC one - and as far as our stomachs were concerned, we had some really great food, some mediocre food and cocktails, and some decent street food to go along with it all.

First lemme show you some gratuitous views from our roof-deck. SE gets caffeined up on the roof every morning. Here's the...well, if you don't know what this is, you might want to get that checked...

And here's the Washington National Cathedral...

with some big building in the foreground whose name escapes me.

Oh, we were taken to a secret spot by Miami Danny (now a Washingtonian, even though he still wears flip-flops, in a freakin' city)- well, secret that is, except for the busload of tourists that had pulled up. Here are MD, SE and guess who? I won't tell you who it is or where it is because I don't remember, but maybe you can look it up.

Bar Pilar was where SE and I started on Friday night - and is there really no host or hostess, as we were told? The second time I approached the server who had told me that, she basically ran away from me without saying anything. Ran. Ask SE. Nice.

Anyway, after about 15 minutes, using high-quality hovering skills honed over years in bars, we were able to snag two seats at the bar. Nice enough. Bar Pilar was once, I seem to recall, noted for it's cocktail program back when a certain bartender was behind the stick. No more, I guess. Asked for a Manhattan and an Aviation. Tender asked me what goes in an aviation? Switched to 2 Manhattans. Free-poured and shaken and too much rye (not necessarily a bad thing?). I guess the bar program has taken a plunge (or all the bartenders were in NYC at the MCC).

The food came soon enough. The roasted mushrooms were okay, frisee salad too (though the egg was overcooked). A lamb dog, a good idea in theory, was bland with zero snap, even after setting the superfluous giant hot dog bun aside. Mustard was great (wow), but who the hell serves minced raw shallots as an accompaniment to anything except maybe in a mignonette sauce or their mise en place?

Pork shoulder, served on grilled bread (?), was not good. The best dish of the night, and last to be served, was the fried chicken. Nicely crisp and somewhat juicy, served with a really good potato salad and a couple of pickle slices that were properly crunchy...and here's a tip: serve those sides with the pork, too. No need to return, I guess, but with the crowd they have, what do they care?

Walking around the neighborhood on Saturday afternoon, stumbled upon the Latino mercado which sets up in Adams Morgan on Columbia Road. I say stumbled though it has been there for years, according to M. Danny. Puerto Rico was in the house, as were Mexico and Argentina Avoid the commercial - style stuff; we had a good empanada, and great tacos from a mom and pop; lengua abounds.

That night - a return trip to Zaytinya. I had the pleasure of ordering for our group (my old friends trust me), and while I had somewhat mistakenly order a WHOLE LAMB SHOULDER for the 4 of us, there was more than one Significant Eater at the table, and we did good work. The lamb shoulder was amazing, black and crusty, fatty and juicy, salty and peppery - just perfect. I can't really compare Zaytinya having no in-depth knowledge of the DC restaurant scene, but it could easily become a favorite down there (Birch & Barley, though much different, has been good twice too).

The next day was reserved for one of my least favorite things to do....that is, after grocery shopping at Whole Foods on a Saturday, at prime time. Being out in a large crowd, with everyone lined up to get food. For tickets. But we ended up at a Taste of Arlington, a mass of humanity best left for those, shall we say, less cranky that I am. We did have a couple of nice bites, including some bratwurst and short ribs from this crew, but...

we missed this, being cooked by a couple of chefs from a Jaleo outpost...

Sadly for us, this paella was about an hour away from being anywhere near our stomachs. Never seeing a paella pan this huge in action, I took it as a teach myself how to make good paella - past attempts have been so-so, and I've bought a nice properly-sized paella pan and...I think I'll save that for a weekend in NYC. It'll give me something to blog about.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Attack of the Killer Strawberries

You know, as much as I respect and admire and have stuck up for Alice Waters, I'm not exactly what you'd call dogmatic when it comes to buying our edibles only from local "producers." After all, if you wanna use Spanish olive oil, or Greek feta cheese, or French mustard, or Italian prosciutto or any of a million other delicious products, you're basically throwing the whole locavore schtick under the bus, aren't you?

Oh sure, in season I go crazy...coming home from the farmer's market with more locally grown and produced stuff than 2 people could possibly eat (even if one of them is Significant Eater), before my next shopping binge. But there's also stuff we want to eat when it's not in season locally, and strawberries happen to be one of those things.

Trust me, I get strawberries locally when they're available at the farmer's market...tri-star berries are the berries which get everyone excited - and any menu worth it's fleur-de-sel will have a tri-star berry dessert on it come strawberry season in these parts. Creative chefs will probably even have some on their non-dessert menus, and I can hardly wait.

I can find some pretty tasty berries from my local guy-on-the-corner-with-fruit stand, when they first come in season and are shipped up from Florida. I don't know what variety they are, but they're usually very sweet, smell great and actually taste like strawberries. A few weeks later they're not as good, but still, we like strawberries and they make a decent sorbet (with a little kick from Framboise or Kirsch or something similar). Oh, and they're coming in from Mexico and California instead of Florida, and maybe that has something to do with it.

Just the other day, I happened to see that corner-guy had some nice looking California berries at his stand - they smelled good too, which sometimes can be an indicator of how they might taste...but not always. So I took some home and now I'm wondering what the hell they grow these things in - because I've never seen berries that look like this...

In this picture, they don't look so freakish - they look pretty good, as a matter of fact. But, they're huge - on the scale these two berries weigh almost 5 ounces! Take a look at them next to a good size clove of garlic...

That probably doesn't worry you so's this, though, next to a medium size onion...

Or near a couple of fingerling potatoes...

Yes, they're bigger than the potatoes. They even dwarf the potatoes...but maybe that's because the potatoes are grown locally? (By the way, the potatoes were delicious cooked in duck fat, but that's another blog).

Anyway, don't you wonder what they're using in that soil out in California when you get a strawberry that big? Alice I'm sure does - oh, face it - I'm sure she'd never serve berries like those in her restaurants.

The upshot: they didn't taste half bad once you've trimmed away the core and all the other cottony weirdness that's inside. For the rest of the season, though, I think I'll wait for the tri-stars.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Painkiller Opens - Trader Vic Lives On

Welcome to the neighborhood our new tiki bar, called Painkiller. Located right next to the Pickle Guys on Essex Street, in a space formerly occupied by the East Side Company Bar, Painkiller will help you do just that. Kill the pain, that is. Especially if you love tiki drinks...and who doesn't? For now, the menu is a simple placemat, no prices listed and picturing some tiki classics...

Even if you don't love a Mai Tai, or love a Zombie, or love any of the other delicious rum based concoctions the talented team of mixologists at Painkiller are stirring, shaking and blending, I also noticed gin, whisk(e)y, vermouth et al. on the back bar, so have no fear. Well, that is, unless you fear what rum at 151 proof might leave you feeling like (don't worry, you can only have one - that's a house rule).

Behind the stick you're likely to find Giuseppe Gonzalez and Richie Boccato, two fine tenders whose names are known to most anyone who has followed the resurgence of fine cocktail establishments in our city. Last night, which happened to be opening night, Mr. Gonzalez mixed up a delicious Martinique daiquiri for me, a variation on the classic daiquiri made with rhum agricole and maraschino and topped it off with freshly grated nutmeg; needless to say, it went down easily...

Daiquiri flights, scorpion bowls, swizzles, painkillers and drinks served in frozen pineapple shells were everywhere. And from what I could tell from checking out the happy crowd, everyone else's drinks went down as easily as mine.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Happy As A Clam

The other day, for the first time this year (bows head in shame), I got over to the green market at Union Square, one of my favorite food shopping destinations. As a matter of fact, I even walked both ways, combining exercise (a not favorite thing) with food shopping (a favorite).

While the market is not yet in full-speed ahead spring vegetable mode, there was plenty to be had...ramps (duh), asparagus, fingerling potatoes, greens of any and every sort, radishes up the kazoo, and some beautiful seafood from a favored Long Island fisherman. And in addition to a few scallops (simply pan-fried) and a pound of sweet squid (stir-fried with the aforementioned asparagus and ramps), I also picked up a healthy bagful of these beauties, freshly dug littlenecks...

Now, you can have Manila clams, or you can have Mahogany clams or you can certainly have those tiny, little clams they sell in Chinatown (feh), but to my taste there is nothing quite as delicious as a littleneck. Of course, if you're in Venice, the tiny clams they use to make pasta con vongole are amazing, but we're not in Italy right now, so...littleneck it is.

Provided they're stored properly, hard-shell clams will last quite a few days in the fridge...especially when they're as fresh as these. By stored properly, I mean in a bowl (even better, in a colander over a bowl) covered with a wet towel, topped by ice (I use blue ice - no melting) and in the coldest part of your fridge. Check 'em daily and rewet that towel - it will dry out in the fridge - and throw out any gaping clams. Even on the 3rd day after I'd bought them, not a single one of these clams was bad - and it was time to cook.

I only wanted something simple, easy and quick...oh, and that had pork in it, too. A classic combo on the Iberian peninsula, pork and shellfish go really well with each other. Since I had a couple of links of Spanish chorizo in the fridge, that was going to be my pork, so I sliced one of the links into rounds. I slowly cooked the chorizo in a tablespoon of olive oil, and added a chopped up clove of garlic after the chorizo had softened. Once the garlic was beginning to color, I added 1/2 cup of dry white wine, reduced that, then added a cup of chopped tomatoes -(canned San Marzano's, if you must know), a handful of chopped parsley and about 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Salt and pepper too, but be careful with the salt; clams have some of their own.

Let it simmer, uncovered, for a good 10 - 15 minutes, taste it, and if it tastes good, time to add the clams, which by now you've washed and scrubbed well; I suppose if you're really neurotic you've soaked the clams in a bowl of salt water overnight in the fridge with the hope of purging them of any sand inside. I never do as I find it unnecessary with hard shells like litttlenecks. Soft-shells, steamers, surf and razor clams are a whole other story.

Anyway, add the clams, turn the heat up to medium or medium high, cover the pan and wait. Give the clams a good stir after 2 minutes or so and after another 2 - 3 minutes, check and stir again. If they've started opening, it's time to take out the open ones, recover, and check again in another minute. Remove them as they open , otherwise they'll overcook and you'll be eating rubber. After a good 10 minutes, any that haven't opened probably won't, so toss those. It's worth noting that I have yet to get a single clam that didn't open from the vendors at the green market.

Once cooked, the clams will have released a lot of juice so reduce the sauce a bit and taste for salt, pepper, heat, whatever. Once it's to your liking, pour the sauce over the clams, throw some more parsley on top and serve with a spoon and some bread. A salad on the side can't hurt either, nor will an ice cold beer or a glass of dry white - like the wine you used for the clams. Enjoy.

Littleneck Clams with Chorizo

2 - 3 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed clean
4 oz. chorizo, cut into rounds
1 T olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup high quality canned tomatoes (fresh ones in the summer), diced
1/4 cup parsley, minced
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper, to taste

Method above. Serves 2 as a main course, 4 - 6 as an appetizer.
Easily doubled.