Thursday, December 31, 2009

I Ate This in 2009: Favorite NYC Restaurant, Favorite Chocolate, Highlights of the Year


Photo not mine.

Favorite Restaurant
In 2009, my favorite restaurant experience was, by far, Harbour in New York.

Search the web for photos, and you'll find most of them reflect on the restaurant's interior design, which resembles the inside of a yacht. Stunning as it was, the food was actually superior to the look.

In one night, I probably tasted more than a dozen different kinds of seafood while passing plates between three people, across a seven-course meal (the tasting menu said five courses, but there was an unannounced amuse bouche and petit fours as well). Everything was spectacular!


Photo not mine.

Sadly, since the time I dined there, the head chef changed, talk of a bad location sinking the ship pervaded New York food gossip sites, and if I'm not mistaken, Harbour even closed temporarily while management fixed a few kinks. Regardless, I would return in a heartbeat. Maybe a second visit would not live up to the first, but I am willing to take that chance.

Favorite New Chocolate
In August, I set out on a mission to get to know some of New York's chocolate purveyors. Some initial research pointed me in the direction of Li-Lac Chocolates.

There are two locations: one inside Grand Central Markets (one of my favorite places to shop), and another at 8th Avenue and Jane Street, where I subsequently have learned the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks goes daily to buy one dollar's worth of 72 percent cacao chocolate break-up bar.


I did take this photo, which reminds me of another noteworthy food-writing moment from 2009: I upgraded my camera.

For me, the reason to go back to Li-Lac again and again and again is the jelly bar. I adore plain chocolate, both milk and dark, and I am highly opinionated about evils of adulterating fine chocolate with too many explosively-flavorful things, like booze-flavored ganache or matcha or bacon. But the jelly bar is a dream come true: playful in texture, complementary in flavors, and positively addictive.

Two Big Accomplishments
I had two major accomplishments this year, which would not have been possible without the support of Boyfriend, who puts up with my "making a mess and then cleaning it up" regimen daily; my dining partners, from my super foodie friends to the ones who blindly come along for the ride and let me nibble off their plates or let their entree get a little cold while I take "just one more photo"; and the home cooks in my friend circle and family, who have tested recipes often knowing that the final product was not going to be all that much fun to eat.

The first accomplishment: The cook book I have been editing has finally found a publisher! More on that when the details of the contract have been sorted out.

The best recipe in the book that I have tasted so far is the soy sauce and brown sugar chicken wings.


I took this photo, too. I took probably 50 photos of chickens wings, rearranging the burned parts, smearing more sauce on the wings to make them look glossier. And I probably spent two hours selecting good images and cropping them. But I'm very happy with the results.

Second: I (and three other New York-based food bloggers) wrote an article for the BBC's olive magazine. It's in the January 2010 issue in the travel section.

Monday, December 28, 2009

What Should I Bring? An Advice Column for Appetizers and Desserts

Q: I'm going to a party and I'm supposed to bring an appetizer. I want to bring something that's going to make me look good, something deliciously creative and impressive! However, time is against me. Do you have any ideas for should I bring?

A: Yes, I do, as long as this party is not for vegetarians or people who are kosher: It all starts with prosciutto.

Photo not mine.

The first and simplest idea travels extremely well, whether you'll be walking, driving, or taking mass transit to this little soiree. Buy a package of thinly sliced prosciutto at any grocery store or well-stocked market. Next, hit the bakery (or bakery department of the grocery store) and buy fresh bread sticks, something along the lines of "twisty bread," but without the cheese if you can manage. Buy the slimmest sticks you can find. Think fingers. Crunchy breadsticks work, too.

When you arrive at the party, as the host for a cutting board, sharp knife, and either a platter or wide-mouth container, like a medium-sized canning jar. Open the prosciutto and very carefully slice each piece in half, aiming to make long strips. Wrap a piece of prosciutto around the end of several breadsticks (two per person, I'd say), and arrange them nicely on a platter or in the jar with the meat-wrapped ends up.

Alternatively, if you can't get bread sticks, use melon. Buy a cantaloupe and either cube the flesh or use a melon baller to cut bite-sized pieces. Cut the proscuitto into smaller slices, but big enough to wrap around each piece of melon one and a half times. Secure each piece with a toothpick. Arrange and serve.

Photo not mine.

If the melons are no good, try peaches, and slice each one carefully into eight segments.

In making this extremely easy and low-effort appetizer, you absolutely have to promise to do two things.

First, you must swear that you will not buy a loaf of bread. The whole point of this starter is that it is elegant, and all your efforts (and the $9 you spent on a measley 3 oz. of prosciutto) will have gone to waste if you display it all on doughy hunks of bread. There are other times and places for big crusty wedges breads, but this is not one of them. Equally, if you opt for fruit, you must cut the pieces carefully. It will take you 18 minutes instead of 12, and it will be what makes the dish impressive. You've already skimped by not cooking anything, and you're about to pull it off, so don't cut corners now!

Second, you have to write down "prosciutto" so that you don't accidentally buy pancetta. That would be disastrous.


Q: I'm supposed to bring a dessert to a special occasion, but there are a few problems. 1) I don't really bake. 2) All the people who will be there are finicky eaters. 3) My budget is a tight and I can't go out and buy a nice $40 cake. What should I bring?

A: Brownies. From a packaged mix. With extra chocolate chips thrown in.

Photo not mine.

It is the biggest sham in all of baking, but as long as you don't over cook them, a pan of brownies made from any store-bought package will please and awe 95 percent of all people who have ever existed. They will all love you and fawn over you, at least until someone eats the last brownie.

I don't really know why this is, but I'm just as guilty as the next person on this matter. Everyone loves brownies. Everyone loves brownies from Betty Crocker, Ghiradelli, Duncan Hines, Pillsbury... it doesn't matter as long as you bake them that day, throw in a cup or two of semi-sweet chocolate chips before you bake them, and undercook them ever so slightly.

One easy way to make your brownies seem even more appetizing is to cut them into equal pieces using a rule. This is a trick that doesn't work if you try to eyeball it. You really need to use a ruler or tape measure (there are actually specific baker's tools for this, but you don't need them at home). Nevertheless, it makes a huge difference in how people receive the dessert.

Do not, under any circumstances, add raisins, cranberries, walnuts, pecans, granola or anything else. Do not put M&Ms in there (the colors will bleed). Do not top your brownies with white frosting. Do not swirl cream cheese into them. Do not put a fancy raspberry puree on the side. Just give the damn people the damned brownies and let them love you. Trust me. It will happen!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Baking Day 2009, East Coast Edition


Chocolate creme sandwich cookies, or homemade Oreos.

Baking Day is an annual tradition started about four years ago by Boyfriend's mother, who lives in San Francisco. It's more or less a cookie swap or cookie exchange, only everyone who is participating actually bakes together, too. It's a full day and usually involves as much time in the kitchen beating butter and greasing trays, as at the dining room table listening to everyone reminisce about their childhood memories—what their grandmothers baked, the recipes their mothers handed down, their family traditions.

While I lived in Boyfriend's hometown, I so looked forward to Baking Day because it made me feel like winter and the holidays were really happening, which was sometimes hard for me, an east-coast native, putting up with the mild San Francisco climate. It just never felt like winter when it was 55 and drizzling... persistently.

When I moved away about two years ago, I decided to carry on Baking Day with an East Coast edition. This year it was a small, late-night affair on a weekday, but the important parts still happened, and once again, it feels like winter.


My mom's magic cookie bars, a.k.a. five-layer bars, a.k.a. "crack cookies."

My mom made her magic cookie bars, or seven-layer bars, which were dubbed "crack cookies" last year by one of my friends who developed a little addiction to them. They are graham cracker crumbs pressed with melted butter, topped with walnuts, chocolate chips, shredded coconut, and sweetened condensed milk.



Peanut butter jammers with raspberry jam.

I made two cookies this year: peanut butter jammers (above), which is a peanut butter and raspberry jelly thumbprint cookie, and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, which are my specialty. to make the peanut butter cookie base, I deduced a recipe by comparing the ingredient lists of five similar recipes (see below; although there are six columns, two are identical). I was shooting for a cookie that would be more round than flat, but failed on that front. However, I succeeded in baking a cookie with strong peanut butter flavor.


Deductive notes on peanut butter cookie recipes.



As the homemade "Oreos" come together, Midge the dog hesitantly decides she does not want to eat the dough.

Only one of my sister could make it this year, but she pulled together these glorious chocolate creme cookies. She wanted them to turn out crisp and slightly dry, just like an Oreo—and they did! She used a recipe from Smitten Kitchen.


My sister shapes the chocolate cookie dough into slightly flattened rounds.



The chocolate cookies bake for 9 minutes and then must cool fully. Afterward, vanilla creme is piped on one, and another cookie is sandwiched on top.



My oatmeal chocolate chip cookie dough waits for a space in the oven.

My oatmeal (something) cookies get the chocolate chip treatment this year.

The day after Baking Day, a few co-workers and I took were going to take part in a cookie exchange at work; so I actually made good use of Baking Day and pulled together four dozen extra oatmeal chocolate chip cookies to bring to the office.


An office cookie swap instantly doubled my net gains of Baking Day. This is the colorful assortment I brought home.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review: Luke's Lobster


Lobster purists, like me, will only eat a lobster, meaning the whole crustacean, boiled with melted butter optional, and even then, the butter only goes on certain parts. The tail can get a dip of butter, but not the precious claw.

There is no reason to adulterate lobster meat with anything else. Don't put it in risotto. Don't chop it to bits and strew it through linguine. And don't you dare split the poor creature in half and broil it. (Langoustines or spiny lobsters, fine, but real lobsters, no.)

The only other acceptable treatment for lobster is to use the discarded shells to flavor a broth.

So when my friend swore up and down that Luke's Lobster dished out terrific lobster rolls, I said, "Eh, no thanks. Lobster rolls don't do it for me. I don't mess around when it comes to lobster."

"No," he said. "You don't understand. It is lobster!"

Had he not grown up on Long Island (like I did), where lobsters are plentiful and lobster purists even more prevalent, I might not have taken him at his word.

Luke's Lobster takes pure lump lobster meat and does almost nothing to it, and that's why it's so special. It's put on a very minimalistic toasted roll—nothing more than wimpy white bread, thankfully— with a dash of mayonnaise, a flick of lemon-pepper butter, and speck of seasoning: thyme, oregano, celery salt, salt, and black pepper.

The main complaint I've heard is that the price is too high. When I went last week, a hot dog sized lobster roll was $14. I got the "snack" size, which measured about the length of my index finger, for $8. The reason I ordered just a sampler portion was because I also wanted to try the crab meat roll—$5 for the petite sandwich.

All together, I had the tiniest lunch imaginable for about $14 after tax. But it's not a $14 ripoff. It's $14 worth of pure, fresh, wholesome lobster meat, flown in that day from Maine. What would you pay for a pound of lobster, boiled, cleaned, and picked through? $35 per pound? $40 per pound? The 4oz. lobster roll for $14 is a reasonable price if you think about what you're really buying and eating.

The meat really was divine. The crab was slightly sweet, not as sweet as Dungeness, but more subtle and ... almost personal. And the lobster was as unadulterated and fresh as it gets in Manhattan.

Luke's Lobster
93 East 7th Street
(at First Avenue)
New York, NY

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Recipe: Cranberry Lemon Cake (er, Bread?)


Photo from Sassyradish's Flickr page.

Nothing guilt-trips me quite like wasted food, and the amount of ingredients I had leftover from Thanksgiving cooking had been weighing on my shoulders for the last two weeks.

I'd open the fridge: "There's more buttermilk? There's another bag of cranberries? What am I going to do?"

Then I had an idea: lemon cranberry buttermilk bread. Surely there is such a thing.

I made two versions of this quick bread. It's really cake, but who can resist calling it bread, which is so much more acceptable at breakfast than cake? The recipe that follows is clearly the superior one.

The alternate version used 6 tablespoons of sour cream in place of the 3 tablespoons of butter and was baked in a square baking dish instead of a loaf pan; I was hoping to maximize the surface area, which was my favorite part the first time around, but the flat expanse of 8"x8" cake paled in comparison to the tall, quaggy bread, spoonable in the middle.

Cranberry Lemon Cake
Yields 1 loaf, which can be cut into 8 generously sized slices
3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 cup plus 1 teaspoon white granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon lemon extract (or fresh lemon juice, though I find extract better for this recipe)
1 tablespoon lemon zest (about half a lemon's worth)
2 cups plus 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 1/4 cups fresh whole cranberries
Preheat oven to 375 F and set rack in center.

In a large bowl and using an electric mixer, beat the butter until it is light and fluffy. Continue beating while adding 1 cup of sugar, then the eggs, buttermilk, and lemon extract, until thoroughly combined. Add in the zest and stir with a wood spoon to combine.

In a separate bowl, sift together 2 cups of flour with the salt and baking powder. In two batches, add the dry ingredients to the wet, stirring with the wood spoon until just combined. The batter should be slightly lumpy.

Measure out the cranberries and toss them with about 1/4 or less of flour, which will keep the cranberries from falling to the bottom of the cake.

Add the cranberries to the batter, folding them in and keeping the batter a little lumpy.

Grease a loaf pan with butter or vegetable shortening, and either dust it lightly with flour or sugar. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth it flat with a rubber spatula or a metal spoon. Sprinkle the remaining sugar on top.

Bake for about 20 minutes at 375F. If the top has begun to brown, turn the temperature down to 350F and continue baking another 10 to 12 minutes.

I like the cake to be gooey and undercooked in the center, and baking it in this fashion will allow that to happen while the edges will still turn out about as dry as a typical quick bread, such as banana bread or pumpkin bread.

Serve warm.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Recipe: Buttermilk Bread


I had some leftover buttermilk in the fridge the other day. Normally, I would make a few dozen cranberry-lemon scones with it, but we had so many sweets in the house leftover from Thanksgiving that I decided to do something a little more on the savory side.

After finding and liberally adapting a buttermilk yeast bread recipe, I have to say I am really pleased with the way mine turned out. Substituting olive oil for butter helped make this bread achieve a less sweet flavor.

Buttermilk Yeast Bread
Yield: 2 loaves

1 envelope yeast
1/4 cup warm (100 degrees F) water
pinch of ground ginger
6 cups white flour
1/3 cup white sugar, divided
1 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking soda
2 cups warm (about 100-110 degrees F) buttermilk
1/4 olive oil
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. cream or whole milk

Using a small whisk, mix the yeast in the warm water with a pinch of ground ginger and a teaspoon of sugar in a small bowl. Leave it to proof or "bloom" for about 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl and using a large whisk, stir the rest of the sugar with 6 cups of flour and the salt and baking soda. Divide the flour mixture in half by spooning out about 3 cups and setting aside.

Pour the yeast mixture into the bowl and stir quickly with a wooden spoon, and immediately following, pour in the warm buttermilk. The batter may seem very lumpy. Continue stirring until it smooths out. Add the olive oil.

When the batter seems relatively smooth, add more dry ingredients, about a half a cup at a time, stopping before the last half cup. This is when I gauge the bread. It should be elastic and warm to the touch. If it starts to seem at all like hard rubber, you've added too much flour. Better to err on the side of sticky wet bread dough than one that is stiff.

If you want, you can turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead it a few times, but I honestly find this step is where I typically go wrong and incorporate too much flour. Really, the bread will be just fine if you don't knead it!

Using either a few drops of olive oil or a pad of butter, grease a ceramic bowl that is at least twice the size of the dough. Cover and leave in a warm place (if it's not warm, you're wasting your time!) for about 90 minutes.

After 90 minutes, punch down the dough gently and divide it in half. Grease two loaf pans and put one piece of dough in each. Cover again and leave in a warm place for about 40 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375-400 degrees F and set one rack on a fairly high notch.

In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolk with a splash of cream or milk. Brush this all over the top of the bread.

I like to put the bread into the oven right on a baking sheet to catch any drips or spills.



The cream and egg yolk will brown nicely, but are susceptible to burning. Once it turns dark golden, almost brown, the bread is done — about 25 to 30 minutes. If the bread doesn't seem quite done but the tops are too dark, cover the tops loose with aluminum foil while it finishes baking.

Cool completely before trying to remove the bread from the pans.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Food Philosophy for Everyday Cooking

The food philosophy in my house for everyday cooking is, "Take good food and do as little as possible to it."

Even though we're busy people, Boyfriend and I eat dinner together pretty much every night. The only way we could possibly pull this off is by preparing meals that take 20 to 40 minutes at the most. The philosophy that we cook by helps: Take quality ingredients; add nothing more than salt, pepper, olive oil or butter, and perhaps a handful of herbs; and add heat.

High quality ingredients don't have to be anything crazy. Most of the time, it's a fresh piece of fish bought from the fish market on the walk home from the subway, or a few chicken thighs from the Halal section of the grocery store, or a plump eggplant from the produce stand, or a couple of cage-free eggs from the little organic market around the corner.

We'll pair whatever we cook with a salad, bread and cheese, or another vegetable cooked in the same way: olive oil, salt, pepper—sometimes black pepper, sometimes red pepper flakes, what we call pepperoncino—maybe a bit of parsley, basil, garlic. Depending on what the main ingredient is, we'll pop it under the broiler or toss it on a grill pan, or do some other one-step cooking.

At least once a week, we do something more involved, like braise some pork. Two weeks ago, Boyfriend braised a rabbit, which fed the two of us three meals each. Last week I cobbled together a vegetable lasagna on Sunday so that later in the week, when I knew we'd both be busy, whoever got home first could pop it in the oven for an hour and be done with the cooking.

If the weather has been particularly hot, or if we are suddenly busy and late to come home from work, we'll grab a package of smoked salmon and a baguette from the market and pair it with a salad and a bottle of wine.

We eat well daily, and healthfully, and it actually takes less time and effort&mdashmuch less time and effort—than it would to prepare food that's unhealthy. That's the one thing I wish I could convey to people who want to improve their eating habits. It takes minimal effort to stir up together two omelets and a baked sweet potato, or a lay out a few ounces of smoked salmon on bread with sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions and a lentil salad.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Review: Yakitori Totto


A skewer of grilled chicken oysters.

This blog post might be titled, "The Review that Never Got Written: Yakitori Totto." I've had all these photographs hanging around for a week now and have been focusing so intently on other things that I just haven't written much about the restaurant.

Yakitori Totto is a yakitori restaurant, a Japanese style of street foods, mostly grilled meats on sticks. Each piece costs somewhere around $2-$4, so a small group of people can try literally dozens of items.

Yakitori Totto is chicken-centric, and the prize piece on any chicken is the oyster, which is not the anus exactly, as many people assume, but is a small piece of dark meat attached to the thigh and backbone (see diagram).



Rather than give a play-by-play review, I'd like to just share some photos and say Yakitori Totto was very good. The atmosphere is casual, and prices are flexible, as you can order heavily or lightly. I have no complaints, and I could nit-pick if it were a restaurant with loftier aspirations, but it's not.


Fried squid pieces.


Battered and deep fried soft tofu.


Asparagus pieces wrapped tightly in chicken skin.


Shishisto peppers with fluttering bonito flakes.


Salt and pepper sea scallops (right) and gyoza (left).


Chicken meatball, highly recommended.


Smelt served with lemon.


Seaweed salad, highly recommended, and out of focus at right are cold chopped tuna livers served with blobs of cream cheese.


Chicken with scallions.


Ground spiced chicken stuffed in hot shishisto peppers, highly recommended.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Postcard from Long Island: Azuma



There's a tradition that says a bride and groom are supposed to save the top tier of their wedding cake and eat it on their first anniversary.

Last week, two of my closest friends celebrated their one-year anniversary. Their cake was swaddled in seven layers of plastic wrap and aluminum foil at their bride's mother's house.

A few days before their anniversary, I got this email:

"Ok, so i just got a crazy idea, and i'll understand if it's too last minute for y'alls but here it is: G and I are running out to L.I. tonight to pick up the year-old frozen cake. I thought maybe you'd like to come along and we can have dinner at Azuma." She added, "You of course might have already planned out your evening, which I totally understand. But you're totes invited to ours after for year-old cake anyways. (just kidding)."

I had been to Azuma once or twice before with my mother, who lives around the corner from the bride's mother.

It's not the most amazing restaurant by any means, but for that area, a suburban neighborhood, it's one of the more interesting places to nosh.

Azuma is your standard Japanese-with-a-touch-of-Asian-fusion restaurant, the kind of place that could have focused just on Japanese food, or just on sushi, or just on specialty rolls, but for its location and clientele.


Azuma's chicken teriyaki.

I imagine Azuma attracting an adventurous eater who lives nearby, but who also needs to convince his mother, wife, kids, or father-in-law — who happen to shutter at the thought of eating raw fish — to dine out with him. I imagine a middle-aged man who is enamored with the idea of eating a bright purple nugget of yellow tail side-by-side with warm banana, but whose wife demands, "What am I going to eat there?" Maybe he replies, "Honey, they have chicken teriyaki!" ($13) the most prominently displayed non-sushi dinner on the menu. Everyone's happy!

The first time I went to Azuma three or four years ago, I remember it vividly because it was my introduction to scallops served raw. Giant sea scallops are by far my favorite seafood, and a major part of my love for them has to do with texture. So to slurp at their buttery flesh, doused in a light and clear sauce, adorned with a streak of seaweed salad (another food that I swoon over) flecked with red pepper, and served in the shallow bed of a saucer-sized scallop shell was memorable. Ever since that experience, I have been on the hunt for a restaurant item that features raw scallops: ceviche, sushi, on the half shell.

My mother on that visit ordered a special roll called something like "snowy mountain," if I recall. It was your standard California roll buried in a haystack of shredded coconut and panko, which stuck to the roll via Japanese mayo.


Azuma's unappetizing sushi pizza.

On this most recent visit, a few of us shared a couple of things. The special tuna pizza, hastily designed, was a mess and a disaster in flavor profile: a Styrofoam matzoh-like flatbread, layers of sliced avocado, imitation crab meat shredded and piled atop and smothered in some kind of deep red barbecue sauce, with a scallion chiffonade garnish, which would not be its saving grace no matter how deftly sliced.

Much better, though surprisingly bland, were two special rolls not on the online menu. One, called "spicy girl," featuring salmon, lacked any spice or heat. The other, a tuna and banana roll, could have hit the mark, but seemed unseasoned, as if the vinegar had been left out of the rice. As I've become more attuned to sushi, I've slowly moved away from using wasabi and soy sauce to seek out the delicate essence of fish and other ingredients. However, these rolls needed something to punch them up. Dunk I did.

And, I did not eat the cake.


Azuma's spicy girl roll.

Azuma Sushi Asian Fusion
252 Broadway
Greenlawn, New York

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Beer of the Month Club: Shipment 1


One of my birthday presents this year, from two of my very generous friends (thanks, guys), is a four-month Microbrewed Beer of the Month Club membership.

Around the middle of each month, a case of beer shows up on my doorstep. Each shipment contains both domestic and international microbrews. For the first delivery, I got three bottles each of four varieties (I'm down to just two bottles already): Buzzard Limited ale, Tallgrass Ale, Primátor Maibock, and Primátor Double Bock.

Of these three, my favorite was the Maibock, although the two Primátors were both very different from the ales.

The double bock, like most double bocks, is noticeably sweet. And this one was heavy, a sipping beer with a syrupy mouthfeel. The Maibock, on the other hand, is creamy but much more drinkable.

Of the two ales, I definitely preferred the Tallgrass, which boasted more flavor all around. Both were very dark brown, a bit hoppy and bitter, and with no head.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Review: Hill Country


Photo from New York Magazine's web site (2008), and courtesy of Hill Country.

Never has meat clung so fearfully to bone. Perhaps it was afraid of heat without smoke, of a cooking process that seized up its muscle without injecting or coaxing out any flavor whatsoever.

I don’t like to write negatively of a place where I’ve only eaten once, but I tried a lot of food at Hill Country, and all of it missed the mark. Hill Country is an utter failure in Texas-style barbecue, greasy, odorous, and sure to perpetuate any bad stereotypes New Yorkers—or maybe I should just say “I”—have about the lone star state.

“Give me whatever’s good,” I told the meat guy, “about 10 dollars’ worth.”

A complimentary bite of brisket wielded a soft and edible texture. Two or three giant beef ribs, at $5.99, however, were $5’s worth of bone and $0.99’s worth of gristle. An equally tough on-bone piece of pork ($3.24) was all peppercorn and oil, with little other flavor. I gnawed through what I could and threw the rest away. Corn pudding was gummy below a crust that was more like dried paste, a disgusting insult to the near $5 price.

Instead of natural meat juices, there is oil, and a lot of it. The roll of paper towels supplied on each table does little to cut through the slick. I tried to use only utensils to eat, yet somehow, the oil seeped upward onto the very handles of my knife and fork. It was everywhere. There was no escape. I felt like I had oil in my sleeves.

Happily, there was white bread, which I used to sponge up various vinegar-based sauces to tide me over.

What amazed me most of all were the dedicated patrons. I overheard two separate dupes in suits telling their lunch buddies while they waited in line, “Just wait! This place is awesome!” Perhaps in the world of bankers and lawyers, there is some pleasure in snarling over bones.

Hill Country
30 West 26th Street
New York, NY

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Recipe: Pulled Pork from Braised Pork Shoulder


"I'm braising a pig’s shoulder for you!"

"Oh yes!" says Boyfriend. "That's pulled pork, right? I love pulled pork! Are we eating it for dinner?"

"Yes!"

We pound fists.

"Well," I say, trailing, as he freezes, mid high-five. "We are eating it for dinner, but not tonight. It takes eight hours to cook and a day to cool. So, we can eat it in two days."

He slunks, hangs his head, and turns to retreat to the couch.

How to Braise a Hunk of Pork
Step 1: Marinate
I started with a 5.5-pound piece of bone-in pork shoulder, which had a thick layer of skin and fat on one side.

First, I made a viscous marinade with about 2 tablespoons of Korean red pepper paste, a teaspoon or so of sesame oil, a few more teaspoons of olive oil, table salt, a pinch of black pepper, a few tablespoons of water just to thin it out.

Then I rubbed my washed and still wet hands all over the pork skin and meat to make sure there was nothing odd on it, like a shard of bone or prickly hair. I didn’t want to fully rinse the meat, but I did want to check it once over. Using my fingers and a small fork, I loosened some of the skin away from the meat where the shoulder joint was, and where there was less fat, and smeared some of the marinade inside. I coated the whole thing generously, using my hands and fingertips to massage it in.

The shoulder was then placed in a plastic bag containing one rough-chopped onion, a small head of garlic, peeled and separated, several dried bay leaves, and several stalks of celery with the leafy parts still attached. I left this in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

Step 2: Sear
Next, I heated an enamel cast-iron Dutch oven on the stove top over a medium-high flame, while simultaneously bringing a few cups of water to a boil and preheating the oven to 250 Fahrenheit. The shoulder just barely fit in, skin side down. I like brown a bit until I heard a few nasty “pop!”s, then turned it over to brown some of the meat. When that also began to sound agitated, I laid the vegetables from the marinade into the pot, nestling them all around the pork.

The only problem with this method is that the direct heat made the red pepper paste go airborne, leaving me and my houseguest hacking and coughing for 20 minutes until it dissipated. When will I ever learn not to use hot pepper items in a dry and open pan?

Before sealing the Dutch oven with its heavy lid, I added the nearly boiling water as the braising liquid. My theory was that all the vegetables, as well as the juices from the pork and the marinade itself, would create a stock flavorful enough for me to get by with using water and not broth or another stock. Plus, I didn’t have any and when I went to the store earlier in the day, I didn’t have enough room in my bags to carry home one more thing.

After an hour or two, I checked the level of the liquid and topped it off with another 4 cups or so of boiling water, then lowered the temperature to about 220 F. It’s especially important to use hot liquid when braising because the temperature in the oven is low, and adding cool or even room-temperature water would quickly lower the temperature of the food and cooking vessel, essentially halting your cooking process.

Being skin-side up, the fat from the pork was melting into the meat, and the skin, which was above the liquid, had developed a beautiful browned crust.

Step 3: Rest (both you and the pig)
After 5 hours, I needed to get to bed, but I was really hoping to get a full 8 hours of cooking time in on this pork shoulder. So, I turned off the oven but left the pot in there. Seven hours later when I woke up, it was still warm to the touch. That’s when I moved it to the refrigerator to rest until later that night.

Step 4: Skim-n-Trim
The pig piece spent the day in the refrigerator, still in the Dutch oven. That evening, I removed the lid and found a ring of bright orange encircling the meat. It was fat, and it was stained with the red pepper paste. It had also separated cleanly from all the other gelled liquids and solids underneath, the stuff that would later become a sauce.

Taking advantage of the cool temperature of the fat, I used a fork to lift it away in large swaths. It came right up, neatly and cleanly.

There were more things I wanted to strain from the pot, like all those celery stalks, which were now stringy and soggy, and the bay leaves. To strain it, I would first have to reliquify everything — except of course the pork.


Step 5: Reheat and Shred
Back on the stovetop burner went the pot, over a low to medium flame. I jiggled and stirred until the bottom contents turned back into a sauce, at which point I tasted it and decided to add another three cups of hot water.

When it was all looking like a hot meal again, I hoisted the pork shoulder gently from the pot and set it on a jelly roll pan to remove the bone, sheet of fat, and other inedible bits. That's also the point at which I strained the sauce and returned about half of it to a simmer, reserving the other half for another time.

The piece of meat was so big, the insides were still cold when I began shredding the meat with a fork. Little by little, shred by shred, I returned the meat to the pot and let it reheat in the juices. When it was all done and everything was hot again, I turned it off, put the lid on, and waited for my friends to come over.

Step 6: Plate
Considering how aromatic the marinade was, almost all the finished product tasted cleanly porky and not at all like sesame oil or that lovely, sticky pepper paste. It was a bit of a shame because I was planning on having these slightly Asian-infused tacos, but what we got was more like typical pibil, which no one had a problem with whatsoever.

We ate the pork shoulder as tacos on soft corn tortillas with cilantro, avocado, diced red onion, black beans, Belizean hot sauce, and a squeeze of lime. Four hungry people didn't even eat half of it, so there's plenty left over now for — well, the hardest part is deciding what.

Ravioli?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Review: Kati Roll


Image borrowed from The Eaten Path.

When lines of busy people start pouring out of a midtown Manhattan lunch spot, it definitely piques my interest. And that's how I found The Kati Roll Company, a little fast-food-fresh restaurant that serves what many describe as "Indian burritos." I just happened to be walking by on 39th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues and saw dozens of people ducking in and out of this brightly orange-colored place. Some were tottering slowly out the door, having just eaten. Some were scurrying along, paper bag in hand stuffed with Kati rolls in hand.

Image at right from Roxy Dynamite's Flickr page.

The restaurant itself is nothing to behold, and the menu listings are intentionally over simplified with pictograms of the main ingredient in your kati roll:
- egg
- beef
- chicken
- potatoes
- paneer
- shami kabob (mutton)
- beef and egg
- chicken and egg
- potatoes and egg
- shami and egg.

And that's it. No daal. No raita. No pakora. If it's any consolation, you can have a bottled drink, but no alcohol.

I like the austerity of the menu. I also appreciate that what actually comes inside the kati roll is ten times more interesting than "chicken and egg" (which was what I ordered; $5.75).

There's chopped jalapeños, red onions, and a mildly kicking and fragrant green herb sauce.

The chicken, which is char grilled kabob-style, was moist at every bite. The flat breads used for the wraps are grilled on a flat-top, visible behind the counter, and were slightly over oiled, but deliciously tender and warm.

I'm excited to go back and try the egg or "unda" kati roll, as well as the paneer (a fresh farmer's cheese that's similar in appearance to tofu) and potatoes.

Kati Roll
49 West 39th Street
New York, NY

Additional locations at 99 MacDougal Street in Manhattan, and in London at 24 Poland Street.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Brooklyn Kitchen Announces The Meat Hook

A bit of local news today:

The Brooklyn Kitchen, a kitchenware shop that also holds small, usually one-off cooking classes, announced via email newsletter today that it is opening a new location called The Meat Hook.

The Meat Hook, which will open November 9, will be a huge 7,000 square-food space with two full service teaching kitchens, allowing the Brooklyn Kitchen to now hold weekend classes (previously, most classes were held weekday evenings). The space will also house more retail and a new butcher shop. Upcoming classes in November, in fact, will feature pig butchery, but they have largely filled up already.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Baked Squid and Potatoes

Squid has quickly become a staple ingredient for me in the last year. I've always loved eating it, but I was intimidated for years to cook with it. Besides, where I grew up, and in all the neighborhoods where I've lived in the past, I almost never saw it at a fish market.

My current neighborhood, Astoria, is predominately Greek, and squid is everywhere. I never realized how simple it was to cook, nor how inexpensive it is (about $2.99 a pound to buy it already cleaned). Every fish market and fish counter in every grocery store has it. Nearly every restaurant within a three-mile radius serves grilled squid, charred quickly over open flames and doused with lemon juice and olive oil.

At home, I first learned to steam small squids, cleaned and cut into rings and tentacles, which I then mixed with diced bell peppers, herbs, lemon zest, and a splash each of vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil. It's a great salad warm or cold.

A few days ago while flipping through one of Lidia Bastianich's cook books (Lidia's Italian Table), I found a picture of baked squid and potatoes, all of it golden brown and speckled with a liberal amount of chopped parsley.

The recipe was so simple, I didn't even follow it: I read it through once or twice and then adjusted to my own tastes and the fact that only two of us would be eating it for dinner. Because of how easy it was and how inexpensive all the ingredients were, I am looking forward to making this again the next time family comes over for a meal.

Baked Squid and Potatoes, or Teglia di Calamari con Patate, adapted from Lidia's Italian Table

1/4 to 1/3 pounds per person of cleaned squid (the book recipe specifically says to leave the skins on the squids, but I buy them already cleaned, and it didn't affect the cooking)
1 cup fresh chopped parsley, lightly packed
a few tablespoons to 1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper (fine sea salt or Kosher salt works best)
a few boiling potatoes, such as new potatoes, cut into 1/4-inch rounds
1 very large onion, sliced
3/4 to 1 cup water

Preheat oven to 475 degrees F.

Cut the squid bodies into thick rings. Leave the tentacle pieces intact. In a large bowl and using your hands, tumble the squid pieces with the olive oil, parsley, and a bit of salt and pepper, until everything is well coated.

Using your hands again, tumble in the potatoes and onion.

Spread the mixture into a large ceramic baking dish, such as a lasagna pan, trying to maximize surface exposure. Pour the water into the pan, stopping short if it fills the dish more than a quarter of the way up the sides. Cover the pan tightly with foil and pierce the foil in a few places with a fork to let some of the steam escape.

Bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue baking, stirring the squid and potatoes at least two or three times to encourage even browning. The total cooking time should be just about an hour.

Let the dish cool a few minutes before serving, and be sure to stir up any remaining juices or gravy that has developed on the bottom on the pan.

Serve with a drizzle of "salsa verde" (an extra virgin olive oil-based dressing that includes a lot of finely chopped parsley, capers, lemon zest, minced garlic, and salt).


Monday, October 5, 2009

Chocolate and Salty Peanut Butter Cake

It was birthday the other day, a landmark one in fact, and I made myself a big, fat, triple-layer chocolate cake with salty peanut butter filling and ganache glaze.

I found a chocolate peanut butter cake recipe, done by a number of bloggers, but originally from a book called Sky High: Irresistable Triple-Layer Cakes. The frosting called for cream cheese blended with peanut butter, which was not what I was into.

So I invented my own peanut butter filling as I went along, adding what seemed right as the hand blended whirled and grunted and eventually whirled some more: about a cup of peanut butter (the processed stuff, not the natural kind), a lot of powdered sugar, maybe 3 or 4 cups, a half cup or so of simmering water to smooth it out, a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract, and at the end, a sprinkle of sea salt, folded in.

I used the peanut butter filling on top of each cake layer, as well as around the outer surface. Then I put the whole thing in the freezer for a half hour while I made ganache. When the ganache was still warm but not too hot to melt the peanut butter, I covered the entire cake in it, smoothing the sides and top to form a deliciously soft chocolate shell.

The chocolate cake layers, however, are from the recipe, and they are dynamite. The cake is moist as if it has been soaked in some delicious and sweet liquid, even though it has just come straight from the oven. Here's my slightly modified version.

Chocolate Sour Cream Cake

Makes three 8-inch rounds, which when filled and stacked, makes 16 generous slices.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 3 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon table salt
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup canola oil
1 cup low-fat sour cream
1 1/2 cups cold water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 Tablespoons distilled white vinegar
2 eggs at room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Butter and line with buttered parchment paper three 8-inch round cake pans.

Sift together first four ingredients into a large bowl. Add the sugar and blend with a whisk.

Using a whisk (but not whipping) stir in the oil, then sour cream, then water. When smooth, add the vanilla extract and stir. If you are going to lick the batter, do so now before adding the vinegar. Add the vinegar and stir. Crack two eggs into a separate bowl (or the measuring cup used for the water and oil) and lightly beat the eggs, which should then be added to the batter. Blend until very smooth. The batter will be very runny.

Divide the cake batter evenly into the prepared pans, about 2 cups of batter per pan.

Place on middle rack of oven and bake for about 22-28 minutes. When done, the top of the cakes will have small air bubbles, but the parchment will have begun to slightly pull away from the sides of the pan. Let cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, then invert onto wax paper (the cakes may be too moist to invert directly onto a wire rack, unless you don't mind leaving half your cake behind).

If filling and stacking, freeze cake layers for one hour before handling.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Spotlight On: New York's Edible Eat Drink Local Week


This week is, or has been, Edible Eat Drink Local Week in New York. A few dozen restaurants in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and eastern Long Island (and one or two others on the peripheries of those areas) are offering special menus that highlight locally produced food.

I heard about Edible Local from a weekly email newsletter from Council on the Environment. After surfing around, the menu that has caught my interest is Almond's, Manhattan location (12 East 22nd Street). There's a Long Island location, too. For the special menu, click on the Google map that's displayed from Edible's web site. Some, but not all, restaurants have put their special menus on the links on that map.

What caught my attention was the focus on goat: roasted goat meat, goat's milk feta cheese, and goat's milk ricotta gnocchi.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Year of the Cucumber: Part III


A New Generation of Eaters
[This is the final post in a three-part series. See also "The Year of the Cucumber: Part I: Could I Be a Full-Time Eater?" and "The Year of the Cucumber Part II: It’s Just Food"]


On September 14 (2009), I was fed a seven-course meal by Alexandre Gaulthier, from La Grenoullière in France, because he was cooking as a special guest chef in New York at Momofuku Ssam Bar.

Momofuku, which means “lucky peach,” is a small group of restaurants (Ko, Ssam Bar, Noodle Bar, and Milk Bar) headed by David Chang, a chef who has been repeatedly named one of the best and most exciting young chefs in the last few years. Ssam Bar is a small and in the East Village section of Manhattan.

Chang and the Momofuku team arranged for four guest chefs—Pascal Barbot from L’Astrance, Iñaki Aizpitarte from Le Chateaubriand (which apparently was canceled due to problems with chef Aizpitarte’s visa) David Kinch of Manresa, and Alexandre Gauthier of La Grenouilliere—all more or less on unofficial hip watch lists, to come to New York and cook at one of his restaurants. The event was dubbed the “Four Fucking Dinners,” and by some absurd luck of the draw, I got a seat at Ssam Bar. (A fifth dinner was held at Wylie Dufresne’s WD~50, with guest chef Michel Bras cooking alongside Dufresne and Chang.)

My friend and fellow gourmand, whom I call Googly, found an Easter egg on the Momofuku web site before the reservations for the event had officially opened and got two seats. He sent out an email to a handful of friends who are all serious eaters asking who would like to join him—first come, first served. I just happened to be online and checking my email when he sent the note, and I replied instantly.

The fact that Chang, Gaulthier, and the other chefs are seen as young, hip, and up-and-coming cooks is significant. Of all the things that were different about this meal, the most striking was how unpretentious it was.

It was fun.

Service and the servers themselves were integral to the atmosphere. The wait staff was exceptionally tuned in to making the experience something novel, something that was of the highest esteem but marked a new era, or marked the coming of a new generation of fine dining patrons. We were eaters eating great food, not fine dining people. This wasn’t my grandmother’s or mother’s idea of impeccable service; this was my ideal.

There were many differences from a typical high-end restaurant that created this unique experience. It’s easy to put my finger on the more prominent ones, like the music or the fact that half the diners shared a communal table. Others were subtle, but the small differences in culmination meant something.

For instance, our server, who also poured the wines (though I don’t think he was technically a sommelier), spent time with us, and chatted casually yet sincerely about the food, drink, preparation, and ingredients. His body language didn’t say, “Now I shall pour you some wine.” It said, “Hey, I’ve got this wine I’d like to share with you.” It was like the difference between doing things by the book and doing things according to the intended sentiment or toward the goal, without having rigorous instruction on how to get there.

Another example: When we asked whether the “cup of seawater” was indeed water from the outdoors, or whether it was just a brine made from sea salt, he said, “Oh, no it’s not really seawater. The chef told us earlier, ‘You know when you go to the beach and the waves splash you and you get a mouthful of the ocean?’ That’s what he was after.” A by-the-book answer might have been, “The chef has prepared a solution of sea salt and water that mimics the saltiness of the Atlantic.” One response is stuffy. The other is just people sharing ideas.


The Lowly Cucumber
On the seven-course tasting menu there were two courses that featured cucumber. Featured! Cucumber wasn’t just an ingredient; it was the star of the plate in one case, half a giant pickling cucumber, grilled, with taramasalata, and lead supporting actor on another, a cylinder of slow cooked turbot and an equally sized and shaped peeled cucumber. Seven courses, and two of them are cucumber. It’s the kind of thing that should make you say, “What is the chef doing?”

I used to not be crazy about cucumbers. As a kid, I never saw a salad that didn’t have them, and in the summer, my mom would fan sliced Kirbies, always Kirbies, always with the skins on, alongside slices of beefsteak tomatoes, served with a cup of Hellman’s mayonnaise and black pepper for dipping.

When I was old enough to have to stock my own refrigerator, I bought cucumbers out of habit, the requisite Kirbies at first, but later waxy cucumbers, which were sometimes cheaper, and English cukes when I didn’t feel like peeling the waxy ones. After a while, I got tired of cucumbers, but I didn’t stop buying them. That would have seemed wrong. Instead, I started seeding them, slicing them into spears, dicing them, marinating them, doing whatever I could think of to make them different.

By this spring, I had had enough. I stopped buying them. And yet, every time I opened the vegetable crisper, I’d find one, or half of one, that Boyfriend had bought to put in his lunch salads to take to work.

One day in late July I went to my CSA distribution and learned I had to take home a pound and a half of cucumbers. Sorting through the box, I noticed these were Persian cucumbers, long and slender with soft, light green skins. There were ribbed, and I’d say they were phallic, but in reality, they were much smaller.

I came home hungry, and as I put the groceries away, I wiped off one of the cucumbers and bit it in half. It had a crisp snap. It was juicy, but not waterlogged like so many waxy cucumbers. It was refreshing. I sprinkled some salt on the bit end and, crunch, took another bit. This was not a cucumber as I had known it. I felt like every cucumber I had ever eaten had suddenly been wiped from memory. A complete and total do-over.

Appreciating a simple and unadorned thing, like a cucumber, or a pear, or an oyster, is to me the mark of a matured and educated palette.

Now, having had that perception-changing experience, I think about cucumbers the way some people talk about pears. A good one is stupefying. Anything less than a good one makes my expectation for how good they can be at all plummet.

So here I was at a very expensive dinner (with wine pairings, $170) faced with two cucumber dishes that I could only hope would be revelations.

The Dinner
Tasse d’eau de mer: cup of seawater, black sea bass, oyster, chervil, basil
Soft.
The raw fish, raw oyster, and gentle herbs were a joy to my mouth. By far, this was my favorite dish. I adore crudo.

Cornichon grillé: grilled pickle, tarragon, taramasalata
Firm.
The pickle was barely pickled, if at all, but wonderfully firm and warm and topped with a paper-thin slice of lardo. Fresh tarragon was a lovely touch, and the taramasalata was remarkably not too salty (by it’s nature, it’s generally quite salty).

Gnocchi de pomme de terre: potato gnocchi (Yukon gold), lemon, comfrey, parmesan
Smooth.
Due to an abundance of butter, this was the most French Italian dish I have ever eaten. The richness of the butter was counter-balanced by a strong lemon overtone, perhaps a bit too strong, although together, they rubbed out any bitterness from the greens.

Cuisson douce turbot: slow cooked turbot, cucumbers, dill
Fresh.
Like two long tongues, the shape of the turbot and cucumber were striking. Dill came in the form of, what I can only guess was a fresh and sprouted dill seed, clinging to the cucumber.

Poulet Rôti: roasted chicken, trout roe, romano beans
Surprising.
When the poulet rôti arrived, I saw two two-bite-sized pieces of chicken, which looked poached due to the whiteness and uniformity of color, a glistening of sauce, a few green beans, and two or three miniature potatoes (note: I emailed Chef Gauthier to check, and he has confirmed it was miniature potatoes and green beans), a single elongated leaf, and a crisp disc of something balanced on top. I had a moment of anxiety upon not hearing the server clearly. “Did he say toro?” I asked my friend? Was that what the golden chip was, a smoked and dried sliver of toro? My eyes were wide and my mouth had dropped a little.

Googly just looked at the paper menu. “No. Trout roe.”

But where was it? There was no roe on the plate!

Then, I cut into the little pouch of chicken and out spilled brilliant orange eggs, like a change purse with golden coins inside.

Intermezzo: honeycomb
Sensual.
A honey man traveled from table to table and cut a chunk of real honeycomb for each person to suckle. This was dynamite honey made more enjoyable by the act of pursing one’s lips, giggling it around in the mouth, and sucking the honey from the comb, then chewing the comb, extracting every drop of sweetness, and finally pulling it from the mouth, reminiscent of secretly getting rid of chewing gum in school.

Prune d’agen: plum, maple syrup sugar
Warm.
Prunes are so very French, though I would have liked for the chef here to have done more to compose the dish. The cooked, halved prunes were splayed across the plate with a smear of custard, which was grainy.

Glace badoit menthe: peppermint and Badoit (brand name) sparkling water sorbet, berries
Popping.
The final dessert definitely cooled my palate, but it positively popped with fresh peppermint, chopped and left in. A very enjoyable texture and flavor contrast was a panna cotta next to the quenelle of sorbet, and fresh raspberries.

What Makes Having Dinner a Good Time?
The food at this dinner was great, but then again (as I note in Part II of this series), it’s just food. It’s the stuff we eat every day, often three or four or five times a day.

I went home that night very late for a Monday, and a little tipsy, but genuinely happy. There had been nine wines with the pairing, plus one non-wine digestif (Fernet-Branca—definitely not for me), plus an extra pour or two, courtesy of our gracious server who noticed that I didn’t care for the Frenet-Branca and said, “Let me bring you something else. I have some sparkling Muscat.” We lingered after paying the bill, and he poured a little more.

Wine lubricates not just the conversation, but also the soul (a word I almost never use). I tend to get a bit irked when I hear it, but people constantly tell me how much more fun I am when I drink. As much as I wish it weren’t the case, I loosen up and become a much more free person after two glasses of wine.

Dinner conversation doesn’t have to be about one’s day, one’s job, one’s boss, one’s to-do list. Meeting new people doesn’t have to involve answering the question, “What do you do... for work?” These are the typical conversational topics of Americans and other Westerners.

However, dinner conversation doesn’t have to be this way. It can be about how it feels to let down one’s parents by dating someone of the wrong race or background (not me). Or it could be about fear of failure. Or it could be about how the loss of flirting feels after being in a monogamous relationship for years.

Let me assure you, for me, wine loosens something other than just my tongue, allowing me to have these kinds of conversations. And I need them, not every day, but sometimes.

Not long ago, I saw the documentary film Man on Wire about Philippe Petit’s goal in the 1970s to string a tightrope between the Twin Towers in New York and walk it. At the end of the film, I declared it my favorite movie ever. I fell in love with it for many reasons, though a big one is this: I am envious of cultures in which peoples’ lives are filled with true emotion, not just measures of career success.

The amazing feat that Petit accomplishes matches the enthusiasm and love with which he talks about the act. In the movie, he is brilliantly animated when he explains how he spent years preparing to walk the wire. When he describes the set up, how he and a small team of people banded together to arrange their tools and rigs, illegally and secretly, to string the wire between the two towers, he speaks as if he were still in that moment, still trying to get away with something that could, potentially be thwarted.

Even Petit’s girlfriend from that time, Annie Allix, looks back 30 years and has the same welling of emotion when she talks about her former boyfriend walking the wire. So do the other Frenchmen involved in it. However, the Australian teammate and the American ones talk about it differently. Their voices don’t rise and move to tell the story. They don’t pour forth as much expression unreservedly.

Anyone who knows me will agree that that is not me. I do not speak emotionally, even about the things that matter most. People are more likely to call me steadfast, critical, judgmental, hardnosed, or unsympathetic. I am not an emotional person, but it’s a quality that, when expressed by an entire culture, commands my envy. There’s something magical about a group of people who treat others warmly and without reservation, who talk about their ideas and their feelings and relationship more than they talk about their jobs. These cultural differences can only be learned through traveling widely and interacting with new people.

The closest I ever come to acting with the same generosity of emotion, or openness, that Petit and Allix do, happens after two glasses of wine. It’s sad, and I’m sad, to know this, but it’s the truth.

I had more than just two glasses the night of the Momofuku special guest chef dinner, and perhaps my enjoyment of the whole evening was proportional.

The Wine Pairings
Marc Pesnot, Chapeau Nature (NV), France

Domaine de Montcy, 2007, Cour-Cheverny, France

Domaine Ganevat, “la Combe” Savagnin Ouille, 2005, Côtes du Jura, France

Domaine Ricard, les Trois Chênes, 2008, Touraine, France
&
The Reed Hook Winery, Sauvignon Blanc, 2008, North fork, NY
(the only wine more than half the diners seemed to dislike)

Belle pente, “Belle Pente Vineyard” Pinot Noir, 2006, Willamette Valley, Ore.
&
Domaine J. Chamonard, 2007, Morgon, France
(Gamay)

Mas Amiel Millé, 1980, Maury, France
(aged, single vintage)

Sparkling Muscat
(off menu)




The Year of the Cucumber: Part I: Could I Be a Full-Time Eater?

The Year of the Cucumber Part II: It’s Just Food