Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorialize This!

Memorial Day finds us seated on flimsy folding chairs at a cemented backyard barbecue in Queens County, Long Island – two Jews, fifteen Mexicans, a Bolivian and a Puerto Rican – and though you might say I'm a bad citizen – I'm hard pressed to tell you what it is exactly that we're meant to remember on this mysteriously most memorable of days – I'm giving some serious thought to the concept of "being American."

Because here we all are, hiding from the sun under a black tarp stretched taut against a strong breeze coming off the Atlantic, Coronas in hand, cumbia and tejano blaring on the stereo. Because we are speaking Spanish and English and eating Korean barbecue and topping it with a roasted tomatillo salsa Alma's mother taught her to make in Mexico City. Because nopales mingle with sriracha and generic Kraft barbecue sauce on my plate, and Alma's three year old son Diego is happily covered head to toe in all of it. Because Luis can't get enough of the Vietnamese salad that Sara and I doused in nam pla.

So I have to wonder: looking towards the bright future of their infant country as they celebrated the first of many such memorable days, did the Founding Fathers, or whoever founded this whatever it is Memorial Day, see us – this motley crew slowly baking on a cracked concrete slab in Queens – when they imagined America?

It's possible that this question, and the reality of a place as richly diverse as Queens, has defined the Eastern US more than any other; it's a certainty that the arguments it spawns affect us all. So although the American dialogue is characterized as much by violent nationalism as by an oft-stated, ill-practiced aspiration to cultural inclusion, our character is definite: we are a nation of immigrants and our cuisine shows it.

On this Memorial Day, sharing Korean barbecue with a transplanted family from Mexico City, our plates are a map of East and West, indigenous and imported, rice noodles and nopales and tomatillos. It's clear that these interminglings of cuisines and cultures is what makes us so distinctly American, and for me, this odd, incredible fusion of flavors is the best reason to be here in Queens right now.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Dancing with the Wurst: A Day at the 9th Avenue Street Fair

The trucks have arrived with their greasy, quivering spiral mounds of sweet and spicy Italian sausage. They're on every street corner, those huge white behemoths of schlock on wheels, filling the air with the sickly sweet aroma of burnt vidalias and charred sausage.

Where else am I but New York, the cultural capital that can't seem to offer up a single decent street fair? Go figure – the world's most ethnically diverse city, the center of the food revolution, conquered by a fleet of shitty sausage trucks. Like a summer nightmare, a blight on an already humid, stinking city built on what used to be a malarial swamp.

But the 9th Avenue street fair is billed as something different, and I've headed up here with a sense of hope and a healthy appetite, ready for anything. Because like the Atlantic Antic, that one bright spot on the calendar of otherwise characterless festivals, this is one time we actually get a dose of some serious personality: the restaurants on the block will be cooking for us?

Strangely or perhaps not so in New York, when culinary personality does pop up on the street, it tends to manifest in seriously barbarous form: severed animal heads, whole spitted piglets and seriously medieval South American barbecue. Go figure.

Nestled in the carnage of the day, and tucked between dancehall DJs and "buy one bra get two free" deals, we hit some truly New York gold: homemade mochi and even more homemade pupusas. But really, and truly, I had come for the currywurst.
If you'd like a history of the currywurst, I'm not exactly the expert you want to talk to, but it's one of those glorious cross-cultural amalgamations that make the ravages of centuries of vicious colonialism, culture conflict and globalization just oh-so delicious. To put it basely, it's just a hotdog doused in curry, but that's like writing off Venice as a stinking, glorified fishing village on stilts – which it is, I guess. But because I hate hotdogs, and I love currywurst.

The right sausage, crisp, so ready to burst you've already grabbed a napkin to wipe your face before you even buy the thing. The bread is crisp and dense, a welcome departure from the wonderbread fluff that turns to playdough in your stomach. The sandwich almost overwhelmed by pickled red cabbage slaw and a seriously delicious onion relish. A blast of curry.

Why the curry? If you have to ask, you'll never know. But really, it just works. This sucker is GOOD.

And then we bump into this. Oh, New York.

Although after the fat tranny hooker I ran into that morning, gut bulging in a cut off mini tee...New York, I love you for it all, but please, please, please, get rid of the sausage trucks!

A Chaat in the Park

Rain rain, go away. In New York, apparently, April showers bring May...showers, although the East Coast, which suddenly has a monsoon season, has finally given way to kinder weather (pray for it!).

Yes, ladies and gents, excepting that one brief hot spell last month, picnic season is finally here for good in the NYC, so break out those blankets, baskets, that suntan lotion...and a few discreetly illicit beverage containers, including, but not limited to, watermelon soaked in your liquor of choice and the ever-popular "white-wine-vodka-or-rum-look-like-water-in-a-Nalgene-bottle" thing.

As you may already know, and barring a few rain-outs, I've managed to wring a few picnics out of these water-logged months past. So last week, with temperatures soaring into the 60s(!), Sara and I headed to the Sheep Meadow in Central Park for a pan-global, cross-culinary no-no of staggeringly gut-busting proportions.

Pickled pork skin aside, when it comes to picnics I am generally a purist, so I've come to the picnic like some red-faced old French peasant, baguette and all. Actually, I'm cradling the bread, Le Pain Quotidien's pain a l'ancienne, which is so intrinsically beautiful, so soul satisfying, it borders on an erotic fixation with me. The baguette's caramel crust – though dusted by the hands of some god-like scion of the hearth, is yet glossy underneath – crackles in the hands, shatters at a bite, and yields to a tender core of purest alabaster ambrosia. Seriously, you need to try this bread.

In other news, my shopping bag yields a trove of life's other pleasures: dusky alfonso olives rubbing shoulders with their fiery tunisian cousins; a hellishly stinky cheese, so buttery smooth it spreads itself; cured ham, cornichons, and artichoke hearts. An apple, with its tart freshness, to counteract the fats, the salts, and the ferment.

On the far side of the picnic blanket I'm losing sight of Sara. Carton after carton is piling up between us. Yes, it's chaat, friends, that masterpiece of Indian cuisine, a perfect amalgam of cool and salt, crunch and tang and sweet.

Sara assembles the chaat, topping cold diced potatoes and fresh white onions with a mellow cilantro chutney and the pungent sourness of tamarind. Golden strands of deep fried chick pea flour add a nutty crunch to the dish and the complexity of chaat masala finishes it off with hints of cumin and green mango powder.

The sides are drawn, the food is laid. I wish we'd brought utensils.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Roundabout Mother's Day Story

Though my parents will never admit to this, they had big plans in mind when they named me after a chef. "That's right," they said, "He'll be our live-in cook, and it won't cost us a dime!"

And so it goes: I grew up in the kitchen, my life dictated by the rhythms of breakfast, lunch and dinner. I learned the intricacies of holiday meal planning while my friends were learning to count: polishing the silver and making individualized place cards for our numberless and mammoth family gatherings. I was cooking for my family before I could read. But am I bitter? Lemon curd is bitter too.

As a mini gourmet, food was magical; food was creative; food was addictive…and I loved it. Flash forward a few years. I'm a serious, artistic fifteen, still in the kitchen, happily baking my first baguettes and meringues when a voice comes calling from the bedroom upstairs: “David! Company’s coming! Get your ass in the kitchen.”

And so it goes.
. . .

On a visit to our parents’ house last week, my older sister Sara and I find a very telling photo: we are twelve and seven years old, grinning at the camera and showing off our very first cake. Joy of Cooking, the double-layer yellow cake – serves eight to twelve – recipe for icing on the following page.

In the photo, the pink frosted flowers we so carefully piped on a white icing background – are perfect.
. . .

I’m 25 now, with several years of professional kitchen experience under my belt. Sara, the FCI graduate, has been a pastry chef for more than a dozen. More than once – sometimes two, three, and frequently four times – a month, we still head down to Jersey to cook a meal for our family. Because that’s what we were raised to do.
. . .

So what does this all have to do with Mother’s Day? Well first, I’m grateful for my childhood in the kitchen and the careers that it has led Sara and I to. And, as such well-trained house servants-cum-gourmands, we spent several weeks deciding on the appropriate menu for this years Mother’s Day lunch, shooting each other e-mails, talking it out over dinner and by phone, and finally squabbling on the train ride to Jersey.

We came. We cooked. They ate all of it. Before we were done cooking.

And I thought: how appropriate for Mother’s Day.

At least I managed to take some pictures before they ate.

Pate de Campagne

Assorted Cheeses with figs, grapes, guava paste and cornichons


Croques Monsieurs
Grilled Brie and Guava Paste

Goat Cheese Tart with Caramelized Onions and Cherry Tomatoes

Salade Nicoise

Homemade Strawberry Shortcake