Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Spoon in Paris

I truly felt bad about going to France without Fork. I know how much he loves the place, its food, its wine, its rap music... but when my parents decided we needed a family vacation in Paris the week before Christmas I couldn't say no. So I sucked it up, packing my suitcase with empty Tupperware and Ziploc bags to smuggle back some cheese. We stayed in a lovely apartment in the 7th and spent our days strolling, eating, visiting museums and shopping. It was miserable. Really. Fortunately for Fork, the cheese made it home, along with some yummy poultry liver pate made with port wine from Hediard. For the meals I consumed, he is resigned to live vicariously. Herewith, the rundown.

Best in show: tie between cassoulet and a variety of salads

This tie might seem ridiculous; how could a rich, slow-cooked bean/sausage/duck stew possibly be on par with a plate of cold vegetables? Here's how: the French, I learned this trip, make some surprisingly kickass salads. Salade de chevre chaud is particularly triumphant, with creamy pats of the cheese browned on toast or bread, atop greens dressed in some sort of vinaigrette (often one with a little cream). They're almost always hearty, either with or without meat (with its potato salad, haricots verts, beans, greens and other veggies, a salade vegeterienne at a cafe in the Marais was just as filling as a curried chicken salad set amid mesclun at the cafe of the Musee d'Orsay). So yes, the salads are awesome. But. That cassoulet (at Aux Fins Gourmets, a charming place Fork & I first discovered on Boulevard St. Germain) deserves major kudos. It came in its own little crock, still bubbling. Bread crumbs on top. White beans, pieces of pork sausage, bits of duck on the bone. The flavors were... how you say... magnifique.

The runners-up would be surefire winners in New York any day:

-A delicious jambon/fromage/crudite (which in this case meant lettuce, tomato and slices of hard-boiled egg!) baguette sandwich at a hole in the wall in Reims (called, hilariously, "Pause Sandwich")
-A fatty but yummy boeuf bourguignon at adorable La Varangue (jammed with Americans thanks to its great write-up in a Rick Steves book)
-An amazing leg of lamb in a curry sauce with rice, figs & prunes at a little restaurant on a cobblestone-paved portion of the 6th called La Jacobine
-Great spaghetti al vongole at our local trattoria, Carmine

In the culinary experiences category, my sister's snail episode deserves mention, if only for our reaction to it. Dripping in butter and garlic, the slippery little sucker flung right out of the clip poor Laura was using to hold the shell, hit her in the gut and ricocheted onto my shin and then my shoe. We had a hard time containing ourselves, naturally, and it was several minutes before I could compose myself enough to gracefully bend under the table and retrieve it. And then I had to convince myself it was not sanitary to eat the thing, even if the escargot was still safely ensconced in its shell.

Oh, and the boulangeries, fromageries and patisseries. Baguettes, croissants, brioches, camemberts, chevres, St. Marcellens, macarons, mille-feuilles, buches de Noel (tis the season!)... I ate them all. Bonnes fetes.--S

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Stinky Slow-Poke, Part 2

An article in today’s New York Times dining section addresses the sugar du jour--and the one that I’ve been baking with lately: unrefined cane sugar. In other words, cane syrup, brown sugar and molasses. I.e., Sugar in the Raw, not Splenda.

As Julia Moskin and Kim Severson point out, "for bakers everywhere, especially during the season of fruitcake and gingerbread, the distinct spicy, earthy flavor of unrefined cane--the taste of cane syrup, brown sugar and molasses--is irreplaceable. The classic recipes date back to a time before white sugar was found in every cupboard. We may pull out the ginger, nutmeg and cloves when baking for the holidays, but the truth is that the old-fashioned flavor (and toasty colors) of treats like spice cookies and plum pudding is really the flavor of unrefined sugar cane."

I will say that those molasses spice cookies (see post below) I made last week have gone pretty quickly; my friends at the office gobbled them up--though they all thought they were ginger snaps before I notified them otherwise--and I bundled some and froze them to give as holiday gifts. The rest (a small tupperware full on my kitchen counter) are being rationed out to Fork and I, but I'm thinking of ditching that plan since their chewiness has already given way to crispiness...

Anyway, back to Moskin and Severson. They give "a quick sugar primer," explaining that the aforementioned sweeteners all start with the juice squeezed from sugar cane stalks. To make sugar, they say, the juice is quickly spun in a centrifuge. Pale amber crystals rise to the top, becoming sugar; the brown solids sink to the bottom, becoming molasses. Et voila.

The article also pays homage to some of America’s sugar mommies--the good people of southern Louisiana, who basically have turbinado running through their blood and whose families have worked in the sugar business since the 1700s. Unsurprisingly, these folks have seen massive changes in the marketplace in the last 50 years: as Moskin and Severson write, "The American market for cane sugar has been shrinking steadily since the 1950s, under pressure from cheaper refined alternatives like beet sugar and corn syrup, and especially from synthetic sweeteners like sucralose, which is sold as Splenda. There are only a dozen sugar mills left in Louisiana." Supersize that.

My favorite part of the article are its piquant lines like "When baking with these darker sweeteners, you reclaim the satisfyingly complex flavors of the past" (cue Bing Crosby's "White Christmas") and "We take sugar for granted as a supermarket staple, but the quest for it is one of the great dark epics of food history." Muuahahaha. No, really. Have yourself a merry little Christmas, and don’t forget the molasses.--S

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Stinky Slow-Poke Gets Baked

Fork and I hit the OG last night (the crappy Italian restaurant chain, that is; no original gangstas here). Scarred from the experience, which you can read about in the previous post, I returned home and immediately set to erasing the memory. What better way to do that than baking cookies?

To me, baking Christmas treats is one of the best parts of the season. Something about it goes against the boisterous intensity of the holiday rush. You're in your own kitchen, wearing clothes you don't care about getting dirty, alone and not forced into polite conversation with anyone. And unlike cakes or pies, with (most) cookies, you get near-instant gratification: 10 to 12 minutes at 350 degrees, and you've got a warm cookie in one hand; a glass of milk, or mug of hot cider or cocoa in the other. So far this season, I've already made a batch of chocolate-cranberry-almond biscotti and a few dozen cookie-cutter cookies. And I'm just getting started.

Last night I made a cookie that's fast becoming one of my holiday faves. It's a chewy molasses spice cookie from Everyday Food, of all places. I made them last year and wrapped them up in little stacks, tied with ribbon, to give to Fork's family. This year I have no intended recipient. I just wanted to, no, needed to bake something after enduring the processed, corporate kitchen stylings of the Olive Garden.

One of the good things about these particular cookies is that you don't need much to make them, and I was able to make do without having to compound the trauma of dinner at the Olive Garden with a trip to Morton Williams. All you need is a 1/4 cup of molasses (duh), 1 and 1/2 sticks of butter, an egg, some nutmeg, cinnamon and the standard baking ingredients: flour, sugar, baking soda, salt.

If you've ever opened a jar of molasses and taken a whiff you know it's pretty gross. Kind of like the Olive Garden. Molasses is a thick syrup "by-product" from the processing of sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar, and how could any "by-product" ever smell good? Somehow it morphs from nasty goo into chewy fabulousness once baked. Incidentally, molasses is also the base material for fermentenation into rum. Cool.

After 11 minutes in the oven and a minute resting on the cookie sheet, the cookies are chewy, crisp on the outside, nice and soft on the inside. A warm cookie, a glass of milk and all is once again right in the world, or at least in my little Manhattan apartment on a chilly December night.--S

Chewy Molasses-Spice Cookies
Makes 36

2 c all-purpose flour
1 1/2 t baking soda
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t salt
1 1/2 c sugar
12 T (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
1/4 c molasses

1. Preheat oven to 350°. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. In a shallow bowl, place 1/2 cup sugar; set aside.
2. With an electric mixer, beat butter and remaining cup of sugar until combined. Beat in egg and then molasses until combined. Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in dry ingredients, just until a dough forms.
3. Pinch off and roll dough into balls, each equal to 1 tablespoon. Roll balls in reserved sugar to coat.
4. Arrange balls on baking sheets, about 3 inches apart. Bake until edges are just firm, 10 to 15 minutes. Cool 1 minute on baking sheets; transfer to racks to cool completely. Store in an airtight container, 3 to 4 days.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

When You're Here, You're Family...But Your Family Sucks

Olive Garden (multiple locations)

I've always loved the TV commericals where "Uncle Giovanni" comes over from Italy and his family takes him to an Olive Garden, which, he loves, making all those Ragu-stereotypical Italian "mama mia thazza spicy meata ball!" hand gestures. Some family, right? Either Uncle Giovanni has just been furloughed from an Italian prison, or his family are total assholes.

Television advertising, however, works on me. So for months now I've been prodding Spoon to dine with me at an Olive Garden just blocks from her apartment in Manhattan. To her credit, she resisted, even ridiculed the suggestion. Eventually, however, she began to see my point: in a city with so much fine, authentic Italian food, eschewing the multitude of excellent family trattorias for the OG could offer a perverse culinary thrill. And we're nothing if not thrillseekers.

Tonight we finally made our pilgrimage to the OG. And let's just say I likely would've preferred an authentic meal eating soap flakes and drinking homemade "wine" from the toilet of Uncle Giovanni's Italian prison cell. Our dining experience at Olive Garden was everything we thought it wouldn't be. And so much less.

The OG experience began with three young hostesses creating a standing room only line for a restaurant full of empty tables. After almost 10 minutes of waiting, with the strains of opera lilting through the restaurant, (how, um, authentic) a pimply teen led us to a table for four smack in the middle of the room. Having just come from our gym, we had hoped for something a bit more secluded. So we rocked the poor kid's world and asked if we could move to an empty booth a few feet away that was set up for two. "Uh...hold on," he said, pubescent voice crackling. After at least five more minutes standing with coats in hand in the middle of the room our thoughts turned dark: can the humans defeat the seating software?

Eventually, the OG executive hosting committee found the override codes and we were shown to our booth. After another five or ten minutes our first waiter showed up with a bottle of the OG's own rose wine. "This is made exclusively for Olive Garden," our waiter, Marvin, informed us. I envisioned Uncle Giovanni barefoot, swilling from the bottle (ahhhhh...tutto bene!). Marvin poured us two samples. We swirled our glasses, breathed the wine's essence, held it to the light and tasted. I got toenails. Driftwood. Porcelain. A hint of soil...perhaps, Chia Pet? We declined.

The room itself, despite clearly coming from a kit-box labeled ITALIAN RISTORANTE, was not altogether objectionable. The tables were spaced widely apart, which succeeded in muting other diners' conversations, like:
"Does your food taste like shit?"
"Yes, like shit."
"I think this mushroom might actually be a piece of shit."
"I think you're right. It's a little piece of shit."

After a period of attempting to read the lips of nearby diners it dawned on us that Marvin had pretty much disappeared. It wasn't hard to figure out why: the menu states that all tips are automatically included in the checks, calculated at 15 percent, the perfect incentive for a waiter to work just hard enough not to get fired. Despite his inattentiveness, we liked Marvin, what little we saw of him. He seemed like he was probably a good student.

When Marvin eventually returned he brought with him the Olive Garden's signature dish: free bread sticks! A basket of two phallic, warm, chewy mini-loaves of bread clearly pumped with so much bleached flour and preservatives they could stay soft through the next ice age.

The OG menu itself was entertaining. General observations: the trans-fat ban in New York could destroy the appetizer section. The "Italian antipaste" was literally a plate of fried food. The special appetizers that night included a mozzarella "fonduta," essentially a bowl of melted cheese you dip bread into, and an artichoke dip, a big, sloppy boat of warm, greenish gruel surely plopped out from canned ingredients.

We did not dare try the specials. Instead, we ordered a refillable salad bowl and a bowl of soup called Zuppa Toscana. The Salad was fine, delicious, actually. An iceberg lettuce base with canned olives and red onion, albeit, but it was lightly dressed and rather cool and crisp. It was no question the best thing on the table all night, especially the tomatoes, which were soft and flavorful, as good as I've had anywhere in the city. The half-star review earned by the OG in our review was earned right there by the tomatoes.

The soup, on the other hand, was a gray, Campbell's-like creation with shredded bits of what i'm guessing was sausage, sliced potatoes, and flecks of a kale-like weed. The soup's key ingredient was salt: it had the salinity of movie popcorn.

For dinner, we opted to play it safe. Spoon had a cappellini pomodoro. While we could discern some fresh ingredients (it was a pomodoro after all) fresh ingredients don't prepare themselves and can still taste like shit, epsecially when prepared by a disinterested, underpaid ex-con line cook working from an Italian recipe supplied by an American mass-market fast-food corporate bohemoth. Spoon's pomodoro sucked. There it is. Not much nuance to add, it just totally...fucking...sucked. The pasta was badly cooked, clearly boiled once, rinsed, cooled, then re-boiled before serving. The sauce looked like someone had run a lawn mower through your nonna's garden and tossed a fistful of the mulch onto a plate.

I had spaghetti and meatballs, not even really an Italian meal, to tell the truth, but then Olive Garden isn't really an Italian restaurant so the order made some kind of twisted sense. My plate was positively institutional. The sauce tasted like the kind you'd drill from a can in any school cafeteria or jail. It was a meal I would've expected to eat in a bomb shelter. The meatballs were gray, hard, possibly microwaved and tasted of the lowest low-grade ground chuck. Luckily, we were ignored by the waitstaff long enough to skip the clearly non-Italian desserts, mostly syrup-strewn cheescakes and chocolate.

Is there a way to do the Olive Garden...and survive? In an interview, food writer Steven Shaw told Spoon he once dined at an Olive Garden while stranded in some backwater burg and made a decent meal out of the soup, salad and breadsticks. Famous Italian chef Marcella Hazan, however, who once accepted a sadistic invitation from USA Today to eat and critique the Olive Garden, hit the nail on the head.

Hazan slammed the food. That's a given. It tastes like shit and you don't need to be a legendary Italian chef to know shit when you eat it. But Hazan declined the low-hanging fruit and rather than bash the food for being shit, she derided the OG's very existence embodied in their penchant for creating fake Italian dishes as an excuse to drench things like a chicken breast or a steak in four cheeses and olive oil. "There are 60,000 recipes in Italy." Hazan told USA Today, the Olive Garden of American newspapers. "Why do they have to invent new ones?" --F

Monday, December 04, 2006

Best in Chow

Grand Sichuan
227 Lexington Ave.
(btw. 33th, 34th Street)
(4,5,6 to 33rd Street)
NY, NY 10016
Tel: 212-679-9770/9771


When I first moved to New York, a fresh-faced young grad in 1989, I made a whopping $13,500 annually as an editorial assistant at Penguin USA. Ah, so much promise, so many hopes and dreams. So little cash.

Like my non-trust-funded peers in publishing, I had little choice other than to subsist on Chinese food, ordering bountiful two-dollar quarts of Lo Mein pretty much every night. Back then my affinity for Chinese cuisine was poverty-driven. I could have eaten shredded newspaper for all I knew. The price was right, the shiny noodles nicely soaked up the booze I devoted most of my disposable income to, and there were often greasy leftovers to salve a painful hangover. It’s fun to reminisce, isn’t it?

Speaking of hangovers, I got one from too much Chinese food. For years I swore off the stuff entirely, emotionally and intestinally scarred from too many forced-feedings at those little neighborhood woks: you know the ones: a cook, a cashier, a freezer and a vat of boiling oil behind three inches of misty, bullet-proof glass adorned with a numbered, pictorial menu. Yes, after months of indulgence, I blew out my palate and fell face down in my pu-pu platter. I opened my fortune cookie that night, and it read: you’re fucked.

After a lengthy period of culinary rehab, however, I was back--and with both a more refined palate and a more adventurous diet than the one forged in the salty crockpots of my youth in Central New York. Thanks also to a, well, a modestly expanded food budget, I rediscovered the gastronomic pleasures of the Orient, from the white-coated waiters and high-end prices of Mr. Chow and Shun Lee Palace, to the dingy authentic Chinatown kitchens. Have the Wor Wonton soup at Hop Kee, or Dim Sum at Chelsea House and you'll know what I mean.

Today, when the question is “ni yao chi wufan ma?” my answer is yao!

That's all for another post. When talking about Chinese food in New York, we’re usually talking delivery. And today, I’m crowning a new champion: Grand Sichuan, in Murray Hill. It’s authentic and nicely spiced dishes add a newfound excitement to what has become the boring old idea of ordering in Chinese food.

For those of you not familiar with Sichuan (or Szechuan) cooking, it is the hot and spicy sister of the milder Cantonese offerings. Originating in the Sichuan Province, located in the hot, humid climes of southern China, Sichuan hallmarks include stir frying and ingredients like the Sichuan mala, or the “numbing pepper,” A fragrant, powerful, almost citrus-like spice, along with things like ginger and bean chili paste. Kung Pao chicken is an example of a popular Sichuan dish.

There are plenty of milder dishes on Sichuan menus as well, but, well, why would you bother? If you’re going to enjoy Sichuan cooking, go for the spice. The flavors offered by Grand Sichuan’s spicy dishes are intoxicating, yet not overbearing. You’ll feel the heat, yes, but not so much as to overcome other elements carefully balanced in these dishes.

We recommend the cellophane noodles with minced pork, thin, clear rice noodles, that take on both the frangrance and hue of the pepper and the flavor of the pork; Beef with snow peas and carrots, the meat pounded to softness and prepared with a dusting of Chinese rice flour that produces a rich gravy; and don’t miss the spare ribs in spicy sauce. Little pork ribs, almost Korean style in how they fall off the bone, served in a hot and peppery sauce with slightly poached celery and cut with soothing fresh cilantro.

From all we’ve seen and heard, dining in at Grand Sichuan leaves something to be desired service-wise. But if you’re dining in at a Chinese restaurant and critiquing the service, you’re missing the point, so just leave your 10-percent tip and get the fuck out of New York, there’s an Applebee’s waiting for you somewhere.

Spoon and me will almost certainly dine in at Grand Sichuan soon, if only to try their version of the authentic Sichuan torture, um, delicacy known as the “hot pot" (pictured above). The hot pot is the most famous and favorite dish in Chongqing. It was first eaten by poor, obviously masochistic boatmen on the Yangtze River and has now become the specialty of an obviously masochistic region. It involves gathering around a small pot of atomic, peppery soup base boiled over a fire (or in nyc, electric burner) into which you dip slices of raw meat, fish, bean curd and vegetables Shabu Shabu style, boiling them in the soup base. You then dip them again into a little bowl of special sauce before eating.

When Anthony Bourdain visited China on his excellent show, No Reservations, he sat around a hot pot with his guides and sweated like he was sitting on nails in a Sauna. Now that’s good TV!--F