Saturday, May 31, 2014

Run Away! Run Away!

           Everyone wanted to be a part of what Stan had going for him. Food and Wine magazine called it “an American food empire.” But it eventually dawned on people that he had basically two business talents, independent of his genius with menu, dĂ©cor and attitude. First, he was usually able to put together any kitchen he wished to (Mexican, Cuban--even Chinese), relying on various families of Dominican cooks and prep men who eventually were all in his debt for the many jobs gotten through him. The other talent—if that’s what it was--was that he filled the remaining key roles with people who had big smarts, but who were usually untrained in what he hired them for. This was “the Start-‘em-up Stan” method. Hire them--then let them figure it all out; or, more likely, hire them--then run off to start another restaurant. This is what happened when Stan arranged to turn the old Horn of Plenty restaurant at Charles and Bleecker into his first restaurant on that site, Del Rio’s Bar and Grill.
Named after the curmudgeonly patron saint of the Cottonwood CafĂ© (Stan’s first place and the source of his local fame) its menu was a shift towards the Mex side of Tex-Mex. The namesake, Eliseo Del Rio, had inspired the young Texans who ran and staffed the place, turned them left, politically, with his tales of fighting for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. They loved the man and his poetry, wrote a beautiful song about him—watched helplessly as emphysema wasted and then killed him…gawked at a memorial at which several living veterans of Del Rio’s old army unit, the legendary Abraham Lincoln Brigade, were present.
But Del Rio’s was a business. And as soon as Stan signed the lease and hired me and a few others to do this and that, he split for Key West to open another branch of the Cottonwood.
It would take about a month to get the place in shape, and it was mostly grunt work. But there was no contact with the guy who hired us—and therefore no money to pay anyone with. After the second week of this, people began to be very antsy about Stan’s whereabouts.
In the early eighties we still relied on phones like the ones in restaurants that took dimes. We dumped pockets full in the payphone, trying to get the mercurial start ’em up guy to commit to arranging for workers to get paid. It was almost three weeks by the time I finally got through to him—with hired hands lurking anxiously nearby, waiting to hear what was what—and uttered words that would make me famous among those yuppy peons for months to come. Desperate, I yelled into the telephone mouthpiece,  “Stan, there are people starving in this restaurant!”

Part of my job was prepping the kitchen for a health department inspection, and this involved steam blasting years of grease off the walls. Why were the walls covered with grease when the Horn of Plenty was there? Maybe because Archie, the landlord/owner, knew who to grease--or maybe an inspection was de rigueur only for a new place.
Stan had arranged for the rental of a steam blaster--a gizmo that we could aim at the walls. It was a simple enough contraption, slapped together out of iron and tubing: a squat machine the size of a picnic cooler on wheels, with an attachment like a high-pressure garden hose, a hose that shot out boiling water in steam or spray.
At first it sounded like fun…until we discovered that you didn’t plug the thing in—that it had a gasoline engine. O-kaay…so we gassed it up. And then we tried to read the scorched and grease-stained directions, which were not helpful even where they were readable. We had to pull this, do that—and ignite it all with a flame!

Well, that’s what we tried to do--until the infernal beast began to cough and wheeze and shudder, the flames glowing hotter. Sure, when you know what you’re doing, noises and sparks may seem harmless enough, as in just a part of the process. But when you don’t have a clue….
Neanderthal man accidentally discovering fire-–maybe after a lightning strike—is what I compared it to. I didn’t care what happened to the crazy jumping machine, or what would happen to the restaurant if it blew—or to the guys running close behind me for that matter. All I knew was that my feet were in charge. And I am alive to tell of it.
In the end, the restaurant stayed unexploded, the kitchen got degreased--and the place saw some success in its day. I had my first chef gig there, right out there in the middle of the garden floor, at a grill.
In the next Stan place that emerged there—Cuba Libre—the rent wasn’t paid toward the end, and—well, read the post called “The Night East Third Street Earned Five Stars”.


[The Horn of Plenty closed in the early 80s, then there was Del Rio’s, something else for a bit (?) then Cuba Libre, Cucina della Fontana, Hue and the East Coast flagship shop of Juicy Couture most recently. Around the time Hue closed –probably early 2000s—I heard a guy who just looked at the premises, talking on his cell phone and quoting a sixty-thousand-dollar monthly rent. It has a smallish upstairs, but an opulent garden downstairs—and Juicy Couture only used upstairs, thus probably paying about a hundred bucks a square foot per month, since the place couldn’t be more than 600 square feet upstairs.]

Saturday, May 24, 2014

DRYING GRAPES BY FM RADIO

It started by accident. I think it was for lack of space that I first placed a scrawny twig of red grapes atop my old radio/stereo thingamajig. I figured they’d hear some Mozart, or some blues--and get to be close to the window, where they might see some last rays of sun before they die--or maybe I’d pop one of the little wrinkled, overripe things in my mouth on a rebellious whim.
I forgot about them after a while.
Then one day I looked at them--and they were perfect raisins. At least six of them were. The ones that had clung to their scrawny little stems had fallen victim to that white mould that forms on rotting grapes. Since then, my observations lead me to believe that the mould is a manifestation of the hatred of the grape by its shriveled stem--the little nonentity who has given so much of itself by pouring the goodness and sweetness of its life-giving sap into the ungrateful little wretch. It is a white sickness that will slowly dissolve the unwitting grape. It’s all very ugly. Don’t fuck with Mother Nature.
In any case, there those six raisins were—a living tribute to serendipity. Dried inside of a week by WQXR or WNYC or WBGO or Spotify or my CDs. It was warm atop the machine—the top was a screen/grid to let the heat escape. It was perfect!
Since those early eureka moments I’ve been recycling instead of trashing the grapes that I don’t eat soon enough. I have a problem with grapes—and, actually, a lot of fruit—in that I begin with fervor, then slack off and let the stuff rot. But no more, not when it comes to grapes at least. I did winter strawberries once (what else can you do with those sorry imposters?) but most of the drying occurred inches from a hot steam pipe.
Keep in mind that these are raisins of prodigious size, something that suggests to me that raisin grape growers are raising relatively small grapes. Mine are the ones that are sold to be eaten—big, juicy, sweet. I have recently discovered that, among the red grapes that are available these days in these here parts (Manhattan Island, lower half, in April), the rule is: the darker the sweeter--also, often, the larger as well.  So I await the latest harvest…the darker ones. I will taste-test the small of the dark ones against the largest of the redder ones, and we’ll just see.
When I summered in Oregon, I used to dry things on the porch in bamboo and screen driers. When that proved to be too long a wait for my New York sensibilities (and it drew bugs), I bought electric drier trays at yard sales and sooner or later caught on that the reason no one wanted the things was the electricity it cost. Dedicated electricity like that erases any cost-effectiveness that drying your own fruit has.
But I listen to my old stereo all the time. Yeah, it’s an energy consumer and all that, but it has cool interface features that make it unnecessary for me to play computer music with that clever but costly Bluetooth nonsense. The whole hookup cost me forty bucks, and now my Bose speakers are blasting whatever I’m listening to on line—iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, whatever. And I’m drying grapes.

I have attached the “schematic” for my hookup, if there are any adventurous Rube Goldberg types out there…with a good strong magnifying glass and a healthy sense of humor….[but seriously, if you want a larger copy, message me.)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

TASTE BUDS

       In this sensory memoir, I have enhanced my memory of the cheese, citing a method of ageing that I only recently became aware of. You can age Parmesan or Romano cheese in a way that creates insanely flavorful grated cheese by doing the following. 1] soak cheesecloth in vinegar and mostly dry it before wrapping it tightly around the three-inch-by-four-inch (approx.) pieces of cheese you are going to age; 2] place the wrapped cheese in a cool dry place where it gets some air; 3] leave it for several months....What happens is that the moisture evaporates very slowly, after which what remains of the oil tightens the cheese and causes the piece to become harder than some woods. When it reaches this hardened state, it will be real exercise to grate it. It is too tough to be grated on anything but the finest grater, and the result will look like sawdust--sawdust with more cheese flavor packed into it than you could ever imagine. [When the pieces have been grated so far down that more grating risks skinned knuckles do not throw them away. Simmer them in broth, chicken soup, whatever. More amazing flavor boost!]



Taste Buds--art gatti

The hot room with its high, doily-covered dressers,
their mute, framed faces staring down at me:

Men in black cassocks
showing me where my gene pool ended
in that small corner of the Old World –
scattered, sterile seeds,
lost in cavernous, dark seminaries.

An ice box in the corner,
drip pan beneath, sparse provisions within.
All the rest victims of the hot room with
its thick, drawn drapery.

Hard cheeses, sour auras redolent when you’re near,
wrapped in cheesecloth,
aging in the open air;
flagons of wine
and a green viscous oil that it would take years
for my American palate to love.

My grandparents would mutter
in their strange and fluid tongue
and urge me to mangia.
I was too thin–“Fagiole!”

The salad of crisp green--
cool, ignoring the August day–
greens and orange slices.
My little face cries silently at the first taste--
why did they douse it like that?
I liked olives–if they were pitted...
and dyed black, and swimming in a can
under murky, innocuous water.
But this green oil was from no olive I knew.
And with the black pepper, too,
the oranges were spoiled for me.
Bitter and sweet, bitter and sweet.


Why did the old people mix bitter with life’s joys?

I would not mangia,
me, with taste buds
not yet born into the flavors of my people.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Celebrating the Melted Cheese Sandwich-

    It was the first culinary adventure I ever embarked on. My oeuvre were not considered very special, but I liked them: grilled cheese sandwiches. Clearly, this isn’t something to brag about, but it was a beginning, back in 1954.
     My mom worked, so when I returned home hungry after school the fridge was my go-to. But what did I know? I surely wasn’t going to suddenly learn how to produce the meals my mom could turn out. So what was there?
     What there was were sliced white bread loaves and American cheese.

     I already had developed a craving for melted cheese sandwiches—and the part that was most enjoyable was the crispy run-off that fried brown along the edges of the sandwich. I would scrape this part off and eat it first…and sometimes I would return the sandwich to the fry pan and let more run  off and fry brown.
     That’s where the brainstorm appeared: why bother with the bread, when the cheesy, crispy part was all I craved?!
     So I started to fry cheese, sans bread. I would simply heat up the pan and fry up slices of cheese and eat them with drippy, oily fingers. This became something of a minor jones. No cheese was safe.
The problem arose—along with a serious talking-to—when I started frying Limburger….
     As you might imagine, there is a strong odor accompanying ANYthing you do with Limburger. I guess it was because of my deviated septum that I didn’t consider this a big deal. Family members with normal senses of smell took exception. But it was too late! The mad kitchen scientist was on his way!


Monday, April 14, 2014

THE “RICH PASTRY” MENTIONED IN THE DIVORCE—
There was this Italian pastry. It was opulence out of a scene in Amadeus—the one where Mozart plays for the Grand Duke and the dining room is full of Viennese cakes. It combined the best of northern European pastries and the Italian pastries I’d grown up with. It is a Casatina Palermitana, a small wonder whose name translates to “Little Wedding Cake from Palermo” (which is the capital of Sicily and my maternal grandmother’s maiden name)—and it figured prominently in my second divorce.
While my wife was working as a technologist in the designer garment trade, I was delving into all areas culinary. I was executive chef at a trendy Manhattan restaurant and so I spent a lot of my spare time playing with recipes. And eating.
My grandparents used to call me “Lucullia-face”, which meant that I “made like Lucullus.”Lucullus was a famous Roman statesman and gourmet; I had a sweet tooth. Same thing. And if something seduced my taste buds they stayed seduced.When I first had the rich pastry, I knew I had to one day replicate it.
It was a small, round wonder—two moistened sponge cake layers with cannoli cream inside, topped with vanilla fondant and some candied fruit; but most importantly, it was wrapped along its sides with rich green marzipan. This instant addiction was only available, as far as I knew, in two bakeries in the NY area, and having a couple Casatina Palermitana in the fridge always entailed a voyage by a few subway trains to La Guli in Astoria, or a bike ride to DiRoberti’s in the East Village.
Because marzipan is so expensive, I wasn’t overeager to replicate the dessert. I took my time, “settling” for just buying and eating. However, I eventually came across a user-friendly product in Chinese supermarkets that solved the expensive marzipan problem. For three or four bucks I bought a large can of powdered almond drink, which I played with until I got it right, until I got a useable flavorful final product. This semi-faux marzipan could be made by mixing a little water with egg whites and stirring it into the dry mix. A drop of green food color, and the resulting dense paste was a very viable marzipan substitute.
This discovery was like the philosopher’s stone to me. I was back on the scent of the elusive little pastry. My early experiments were awkward—the moist little three-inch-wide cakes would crumble or the filling and the marzipan would ooze—but I soon got it down. And now I was ready to spring them on the world!
I was having problems with my wife though. And she was having issues with male bosses at work, so my part in our conflict had a legion of boogie men behind it. She was additionally concerned, even though she was in the technology area, that being a little overweight in a fashion firm like Liz Claiborn could endanger her job. So she decided to diet. She asked me to be understanding and to be supportive and I agreed.
But she had once excelled as a student in various baking courses, had a cake decorator’s certificate, and so I highly valued her opinion. I promised her that I would be supportive as she’d requested, but I asked in return that she take one small bite of whatever new dessert I was working on. She agreed.
Several days later she forgot her promise. It was a weekend night and we had visitors, so we went to a Tex-Mex place and everyone had burritos and beers. Now of course this isn’t a dieter’s fare--and she had a second bottle of Tecate to boot. Back at our apartment with the other couple, I proudly presented a tray of four casatinas. My wife, however, rejected the dessert.
I reminded her that she’d promised to try one small bite of my occasional creation, and this only annoyed her. It’s probable that her overly peevish response was fueled by guilt at having broken her diet earlier at dinner. She asked me to just leave her “the hell alone”. And then I made the mistake of whining….
“Okay!” she literally growled at me, “You want me to eat this?!” she bellowed, scooping rather than delicately lifting it off the tray. She proceeded to moosh it into her mouth—deliberately making a mess, the force of the moosh spattering a wall behind her.
“Are you happy now?!” she gurgled angrily. The visitors made their excuses and left. My marriage to her lasted another year or so.
When she found a lawyer and hired him to walk us through the divorce, he required a reason from her. They explored all the normal this-kind-of-cruelty and that kind, and somehow they settled on the key clause in the uncontested divorce:

“…did physically force to eat rich desserts.”
  “OFF the PIG!!” with SIGNORE MARCELLINO
During our Italian adventures in 2000, my wife, daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter and I spent time in seven different towns over a five-week period. In at least three-quarters of the places we stayed at we did our own cooking. We were good cooks; the local ingredients were classically superb. Why eat out?
Halfway through our travels we found ourselves renting an apartment high up on the cliffs of Ravello, above the coastal town of Amalfi, and much to our discomfort, we hadn’t yet adapted to siesta hours. One problem was the difference between small towns and large cities. In small towns, all the food supply stores were closed four for hours every afternoon. Consequently, we found ourselves constantly looking for sustenance at times when shops were closed. Since no one was in charge of watching out that we didn’t run out of this or that, supper time was often a frenzied search for crucial ingredients.
On this particular day, the ingredient needed most was meat. Sausage to be precise.
Down the hill from us was a small butcher shop that hardly anyone frequented. From what we could tell, the reason for this was that the butcher, Signore Marcellino, was a man who preferred to drink wine and sit in the sun conversing with neighbors and passersby than actually run a butcher shop. Since there were no other options, we headed down to Marcellino’s. We took a shot.
Sure enough, the place was all but empty. A matronly female shopper had a small wrapped parcel in her hand as she exited, leaving us gawking at empty cases and a merry proprietor behind them, a man who seemed happy, for some reason, to welcome us to his vacant shop. We stuttered a bit in our poor Italian, told the man we’d come back tomorrow.
“No, no!” he insisted, then asked us what we needed. We said we were in need of about two kilos of sausage meat; but we also gestured at the empty meat cases and repeated our promise to return the next day. He would have nothing of it. “Ashpete ‘qui” he slurred, and promised us the meat.
Dragging us by the arm, he led us outside the shop to the two deck chairs he kept there and instructed us to sit and “ashpet” again as he disappeared back into his shop. Moments later he returned with two cloudy glasses and a cool flagon of his home made white wine. He poured us each a glass, handed the bottle to my son-in-law and indicated once more that we should wait. Then he organized his considerable girth atop the seat of a tiny scooter, hit the ignition, stomped on the pedal and was off down the spiraling mountain road that lay before us in broad panorama.
Amused and already a little drunk from the wine and that afternoon’s heat, we watched as Marcellino wound his way down the mountain and out of sight, imagining him possibly driving by a sequestered Gore Vidal, who was living there at the time. We could still hear his engine, though, as he put-putted down to his final destination. When all went silent, we began our second glass of wine.
A few minutes later, as the wine-fueled glow started to become a blur, we heard it down far below us.
It sounded at first like a high-pitched, sharp grinding…until the pitch grew sharper and we realized that it was a scream. A pig’s scream–“squealing like a stuck pig!” And just as soon as it began, it was eerily over.
We looked at each other. “You think that’s…”
“Yep.” We quickly poured and downed another wine.
Twenty minutes after leaving us to our winey indulgences, Signore Marcellino was sputtering back up the hill and winding his way into view. We drank to him silently as he approached. He arrived with a bloody sack over his shoulders, greeted us and went to work setting up his grinder.
Gradually, a heap of pork piled up on brown butcher paper. This would be supper—as soon as we were sober enough to cook it. It was, of course, the freshest pork we ever ate. As the saying goes, so fresh it still had the squeal in it.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Damn you, fugu!

DAMN YOU, FUGU!
Two weeks before the word “Sandy” entered our disaster lexicon I made an important culinary discovery in the Smithsonian of culinary discoveries, the market streets of Chinatown in New York City. Chinatown, Jake—where I discovered black moss in heavy syrup and sea cucumber, a foot-long ocean bottom slug. Without going into the whys and wherefores of how these two failed to inspire me, let me say that stumbling over a reappearance of local blowfish tails made up for all the weirdness that the neighborhood’s “tastes” had presented me with over the years.
Blowfish. The name that suggests the term, “tastes like chicken” and conjures the memory of the soft fragrant flesh of the little “garbage fish” that started to catch on—at least in my kitchen-- in the 1970s. Fluke, flounder, sea bass, hake, blues—that was what we were after in fishing excursion boats out of Sheepshead Bay and other such launching berths along the northeastern US shoreline. And if we happened to pull up an ugly sea robin or blowfish, it was usually back it went. Unless we needed chum, in which case its fate was sealed.
And then one day in 1968, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, at a fish store, I saw a fish I could afford for my new family. It was a pile of freshly skinned blowfish, of all things—a choice that at first repulsed me. But when I saw the boneless state of the meat and the price--only thirty-nine cents a pound—I gave them a try. I cooked them up exactly how the fishmonger suggested. Dredged in a little flour and salt and pepper, then lightly fried in a pan with some butter, they were amazingly tasty, and soon became a staple at our table.
When I moved from Newark to New York City in 1970 I had a little difficulty locating the little tail-meat filets, but diligence paid off. By the late 70s, however, they were going for close to four bucks a pound. People were catching on….
And then the damned fugu swam into town.
This is not entirely true. No fugus are swimming in these parts. They live primarily in the Sea of Japan, or thereabouts. But when the sushi craze started catching on in the 80s, Japanese chefs began importing the meat of this Asian puffer, or blow fish. And then the legends started spreading.
To begin with, you should know that cleaning puffer fish or blowfish is not easy. They have rubbery skin like a catfish, which is what allows them to puff up to four or five times their size and thus dissuade predators. When it comes to the Japanese blowfish and its North Atlantic cousin, however, that’s where the comparison ends.
Unfortunately, the public has remained in the dark about this.
The key difference is that there is nothing at all lethal about our local native species, while the fugu, not properly prepared, can kill you. This is because the liver/bile sac organ of the fugu contains a deadly poison, which makes cleaning the fish a critical process; one nick of the liver and the bile that escapes will taint the fish’s flesh to where a single morsel could kill a person. A slight hint of this poison is sought after by some foodies—enough to just cause some numbness of the lips and tongue. (To each his own!)
Atlantic blowfish come cheap, but imported fugu served in sushi restaurants, due to all the precautions, is expensive. However this is all academic, since most New York sushi restaurants forgo the delicacy so as not to worry their customers. The words fugu and blowfish, therefore, became synonymous. And blowfish disappeared entirely from the stands of local fishmongers.
Until last year, 2012, when they began to appear in a single fish store on Grand Street, just east of the D/B train stop. I rejoiced, bought about a dozen small filets and greedily headed home for a great fish dinner. The first batch got cooked up about two weeks before Sandy, the super-storm, hit. The fish store became my champion. I was delighted with this return to sanity, this reemergence of a worthy fish.
I went back a second time. Then, less than a week before Sandy, I bought five pounds. You might say so what, but if you knew my freezer, you’d realize that this—what with all the individual wrapping of the 35-40 little filet-tails—would take up the bulk of my space. And that’s just what it did.
Suddenly, on October 28, 2013, we had no power.
Gas still came through my stove jets, so I could cook--and it suddenly became necessary to cook up whatever I could in my fridge, lest it rot. The blowfish filets were dredged and fried by candlelight and carried floor-to-floor by flashlight, as I fed whoever was still at home in my five-story walkup. I wondered about some—those whose eyebrows lifted when I said “blowfish”—as an awareness of poisonous fugu was more common than any knowledge of this long-disappeared local delicacy.
A few days later, as I strolled along the river wall at Hudson River Park to see firsthand the damage the storm had done to our cherished shoreline, I came upon something called the “Wetlab”—a location at the end of one of our piers that’s financed by various environmental agencies to monitor aquatic life in  local rivers and streams. They have what amounts to an aquarium there on the Hudson, and while it’s not structured for the public’s viewing (fish swim in muddy tanks) they welcome visitors and questions.
So I found a qualified and certified and fish-fried ichthyologist and put the question to him.
Those who remain skeptical can always visit the pier laboratory at the end of West Houston Street and ask the same question I did. You will get this answer: “There is no connection between the Japanese fugu and the North Atlantic blowfish, or puffer fish. You can eat the latter without a worry.”
Tell the paranoid public that! I guess fear won out in the end, and that I was one of the little fish store’s only customers last fall, because a half dozen visits there and elsewhere over the fall of 2013 have turned up zip.
I get blank ESL stares when I ask them about it. “Blue fish?” they ask.
Damn you, fugu!