Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sunday a la Mexicana: Pickled Pork Skin, Anyone?

It’s still April, the trees may be greening, but already, it's feeling like summer, so I’m wondering if taking my shirt off – let’s admit it, I’m a hairy guy – is really a viable option. I'm really schvitzing here. Gotta buy some gold necklaces to nestle in the chest hair first, I guess.

It’s Sunday, of course, and this week we’re picnicking at Flushing Meadows Park with the family: Sara, Jose, Juan, Maria, Mari, Alma, Giancarlo, Janine, Jonathan, Diego, and Lalo. We're sprawled in the grass and our faces glow, softly, colored by the purples, whites, and yellows of the new spring blossoms overhead. Across the lawn, two giggling girls are showing off their new fit-for-summer bodies under the Globitron, a 12-story chromed replica of Mother Earth, made famous by, among other things, the final scene of Men in Black. Reggaeton pumps in the distance while cholos ride past us on their tricked-out bikes. What a day. Here comes the foo-ood.

Like Anthony Bourdain says, it's always better to eat with your shoes off, and I have to agree with him and more: outside in the park, shoeless, with sweet spring air and tender grass, we're absolutely ravenous.

The raw ingredients for tortas de milanesa de pollo and massive chicharrones de harina are arrayed in their glory on our industrial-sized picnic blanket. As I will continue to say, we don't do food half-way: soon we're attacking this picnic like a pack of wild animals.

And tortas are the perfect picnic food: smooth with avocado, refried beans and sour cream, lifted by the tang of hot sauce and fresh onions. With each bite, pickled jalapenos burst and crunch with a tart, refreshing spice while juicy tomatoes complement the milanesa, a breaded chicken cutlet that is crisp, moist, and toothsome at the same time.

I've had tortas and their cousin, the cemita (even better!), many times, but our second course was daunting. After overcoming my fear of all food British last week – including offal – my sister wanted to push my taste buds even further: we would be eating pickled pork skin.

Now, I love everything about chicharrones, those giant, deep-fried pillows of crisp, tang and spice. I love the word chicharron, the way it rolls off the tongue and makes me start drooling. But today would bring me something totally new: chicharrones preparado, vaguely basket-shaped chicharrones liberally slathered with sour cream and hot sauce and topped by cabbage, tomatoes, onions, avocado and...pickled pork skin.

According to Jose, this is classic comida de la calle, Mexican street food, but to my American sensibilities, it just doesn't work. I'm not squeamish – I'll eat pretty much anything – but even so, here I am, looking at a bowl of translucent, pasty, gelatinous, worm-like strips of skin, and I have to shudder a little bit. No offense to those who love skin pickles, but I don't even like Jell-O.

Here goes nothing.

So here's the deal: I love pickles – I'm Jewish, right? – and I love pork (Don't quote me on this, but Orthodox Jews aside, we love pig more than anyone else), but package the two flavors in a cold, gelatinous strip of pickled skin and they just don't work so good. Not to say I don't like the rest of the dish, but the next one I make, I've swapped out the skin for more chicken. Fucking Americano. Of course, I'll try it again, for sure. For sure.

Next course, please.

At a New York picnic, especially in the outer boroughs, and especially at a place like Flushing Meadows, you buy your dessert from the ubiquitous and itinerant churro vendor or Coco Helado cart, (which contains what appear to be Italian ices and sometimes ice cream), or, more often than not, out of someone's backpack.

I kid you not. At Flushing Meadows, there are roving bartenders whose backpacks are flush with Coronas and Modelos. Then there are the traveling restaurateurs pushing baby carriages laden with roast corn slathered with mayonnaise, rolled in chili powder and cotija, or peeled, spicy mangos on a stick.

We choose the ice cream.

The sun is going down and the kids, Jonathan, Diego, Janine and Giancarlo, are smiling, still energetic, happily covered, head-to-toe, in food grime and grass clippings. I'm loving this summer-y spring weather, my blissed out family and a day well-spent on a blanket, in a field, surrounded by cholos and soccer players, hipsters and sun-bathers, all enjoying this park, this Sunday.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bronx is the New Britain, or How I Met (and Fell in Love With) Blood Sausage

When Moses said let my people go, Britain was a muddy hole in the ground. When the Emperor Hadrian built his famous wall across England, it was still just a rainy, muddy hole. And as the world’s greatest religious and political dynasties rose and fell, still, Britain was an unspeakably muddy, backwards kind of place. Let’s leave it at this: the Maya were conducting brain surgery as the Scots invented whiskey and not much else. Priorities, people? Well...I guess we could argue over that one pretty endlessly.

Still. It’s safe to say that I’ve never chosen to partake of traditional British cuisine, as long as we're ignoring ale, scotch, stilton, cheddar, and shepherd's pie, which we probably shouldn't, but...Toad-in-the-hole? Sunday boil? Guiness? Hello?

When Yaz – who was raised on the stuff I've spent my entire adult life avoiding – offered to change my lowly opinion of the British and their cuisine once and for all, how could I turn her down? I'm a walking, talking stomach. And following the culinary world's ongoing obsession with broiled marrow bones, I was ready to sink my teeth into anything, yes, anything, especially offal. Yes, definitely offal.

Sunday morning I'm out of bed by nine, which, if you know me, is heroically early. I'm excited, and as I ride the train uptown towards the Bronx, the day's menu figures large in my sleep-starved, under-caffeinated mind: cornish pasties, steak and ale pie, sausage rolls, scrapple, blood sausage, cheddar and apple sandwiches, chips and vinegar, mushy peas, curry dip and Branson's pickles, hot cross buns, Cadbury chocolate, and perhaps, most importantly, that sailor's best friend, the gin and tonic.

We're at Yaz' house watching Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, which, to be honest, has aged incredibly badly, but that's besides the point. The spread before us is formidable, almost ridiculously so. Yaz has outdone herself. I can't keep my mouth closed. There's enough food for ten people, but it's beautiful, especially now, in the afternoon light. Just take a look at the pictures – you'll see.

More to come later!

It was Enough: A Mini Passover Photo Essay

Talk about tradition. This is the three thousandth year we celebrate Passover, give or take a few centuries. In New York, at least, the blatant, violent anti-semitism my grandparents faced is a thing of the past, so after a couple millennia, we can finally just sit down, relax, eat, drink, and be merry.

Everyone loves a good matzoh ball, but as far as I'm concerned, they are the thing, not because they're delicious, which they are, but because making them involves the whole family.

Like a good fondue, shabu shabu, or hot pot, like a dumpling or tamale party, matzoh balls are about coming together, cooking together, and eating together. Talk about tradition.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

White Trash Sunday: Koolickle, anyone?

Sunday, T minus nothing. I’ve been waiting for this day for weeks, and here we finally are: White Trash Day.

We're in Queens at my sister’s apartment. The day is young, today's feast is on the coffee table in front of us, and we're all buried under blankets on the couch. I’ve got the stuff of legend in my hands – a Kool-Aid pickle – and comfortably sandwiched between Jose and Yaz, I size up my quarry.

John T. Edge puts it bluntly in his New York Times article: the Koolickle is "either the worst thing to happen to pickles...or a brave new taste sensation to be celebrated."

In the noonday sun, the Koolickle is an electrifying presence: wrinkled and warty, glowing, purple, phosphorescent. It exudes unwholesomeness – my face reflects its self-generated light.

Is this thing for real? Should I take a bite? Can I really do this?

What a day, what a day. And you know, I was thrilled when my sister raised the possibility of an all trash food fest. After all, no one enjoys a good gas station hot dog more than me. But when it came to authentic white trash cuisine, we were stumped. Sunday Fun Day rules stipulate that we have to cook – no twinkies, no lil' debbie snack cakes, no cheez whiz, no processed meat product.

Deliberation over the menu was intense. I argued the merits of such ill-conceived entrees as tempura-fried spam sushi rolls and government cheese fondue. No and no.

Eventually we turned to our trusty friend, the internet, for guidance, and turned up this culinary abortion: Sluicey Dab in a Foot Tub? Seriously? (If you click on the link, you'll need to scroll down to see the recipe.)

I tell you, Sluicey Dab was tempting, but ultimately we came to the somewhat misguided (I think) conclusion that white trash cooks are collectively trapped in some kind of 1950's purgatory. Whatever. Cheese in a can is, like, so futuristic.

The menu we settled on is true class (or should I say working class?) on display, a classic slice of mid-West Americana: sloppy joes, cole slaw, seven layer dip, cheese doodles, onion dip, deviled eggs, pig-in-a-blanket and potato skins.

But I just need to ask something: Is it really white trash to make your own mini brioche hamburger buns? Did the Dukes of Hazzard really eat organic cheese doodles? And why is seven layer dip always that terrifying green color?

Whatever. The koolickles overwhelmingly saved the day with their salty sweet funk, casting a pall of authenticity on our otherwise wannabe table. It's time to take a bite.

God, that's disgusting.

Here follows a more delicious account of a meal well enjoyed:

Mezze and a Movie

The first day of spring, all we had was cold, cold, cold. Nevertheless, I was determined to usher in the new season with lemon, ginger, parsley, mint, cilantro, and garlic. Down with braises, stews, and casseroles! Down with meat and potatoes and winter vegetables!

Saturday night, the kitchen was strewn with fresh herbs redolent of the warming earth and lengthening days.

As Saturday verged on Sunday, the emerging feast gradually overcrowded the kitchen table, the coffee table, the refrigerator: smoky baba ganoush and garlic-fragrant hummus; honeyed apricot pepper relish; minted, oven-roasted beets topped with feta and parsley; that beautifully colored trifecta – cumin, coriander, and carrots; Israeli health salad, crisp, tangy, refreshing; light, gingered couscous speckled with glowingly translucent apricot slices and sweet peppers; Tunisian olives, artichoke hearts, and lima beans swimming in olive oil and garlic.

Most importantly, a lamb and potato tagine.

What a menu. I’m intoxicated by these dishes, vibrantly colored, perfumed and pungent, with bottom notes of cumin, garlic, ginger, and caramelized onions, freshened by lemon, vinegar, and green, and tied with honey, olive oil, salt.

I love this mingling of savory and sweet, salt and crunch.

When I cook a dish from a specific region, I like to get a sense for the traditional preparation and culture surrounding the food: the history of the dish and the history of the spices, herbs, and vegetables utilized.

This is especially true of Middle Eastern dishes –first, because I was raised on them, and second, because historically, these dishes represent thousands of years of the good and bad: tradition, celebration, hedonism; boom and bust; invasion, cultural dispersion and colonialism.

As a very basic example, cucumbers and tomatoes, neither indigenous to the Middle East, are staples of the cuisine.

Think about it. Israeli health salad – tomatoes (Mexico), cucumbers (India), onions, olive oil, and parsley – has global roots. With a strong grasp of food history, any dish will tell you the history of the world. If you're interested, foodtimeline.org perfectly describes the origination and dispersal of virtually every staple food.

Sunday, the coffee table, five feet long by a foot and a half, is entirely covered by twelve plates of food.

Sara, Yaz, and Jose arrive. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is on. Drinks are poured. Debauchery ensues.

By Way of Introduction

Everybody eats. That’s a given, and most people love their food. But when it comes to the four of us – that’s me, my sister Sara, her fiancĂ©, Jose, and Yasmine, that love verges on the crazy. And when I say crazy, I mean borderline obsession.

For us, food isn’t just what keeps us alive. It’s not just about pleasure. The food we cook for each other ties us together as a spoken and unspoken form of communication. Both implicit- and explicitly, we understand cuisine as family tradition as well as an affirmation, an exploration, and an exposition of all cultures through human history.

What a ridiculous statement, but oh so true. In my family at least, we don’t speak so much as we cook together, so that food has always been a valid form of communication. Moreover, we retain our immigrant heritage and Jewish identity largely through food, so that for my sister and I, eating has always been about history to an extent.

Returning to the present, the four of us are a kind of family – Yaz likes to call us the “new urban family,” whatever that means – and since family needs tradition, and our family represents somewhere in the realm of thirty years of professional culinary experience…tradition means food, and lots of it.

Like I said, we’re all crazy food extremists, and we don’t stop eating until there’s no more food left -- ever. Okay, maybe Sara, Yaz and Jose do, but not me. Let’s not mince words here, I don’t know when to stop and I like it that way.

Thus follows the new family tradition, Sunday…debauchery. Yaz with the names, has to call it Sunday Fun Day, but that’s a little too precious for my taste. I guess I’ll just call it SFD until I think of something better.

Yes, our Sunday debauchment began several months ago as a means to help Yaz get over a recent breakup. That first day – a crazy marathon of bloody maries, finger food, and romantic comedies – set the tone for all the SFD’s to follow.

The rules:
  • SFD must happen at least once a month and travels from house to house consecutively.
  • Whoever hosts SFD must pick a theme: Katherine Hepburn, epic battle, white trash, etc.
  • The host must show at least three movies in accordance with the theme.
  • The host must cook according to the theme and make enough food to feed at least ten people.
  • All of the proceedings must be carried out in pajamas or sweat pants.
  • And remember, SFD is not SFD without a healthy dose of liquor.