Wednesday, May 20, 2009

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.

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