Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chewing Our Way Through The Big Apple: A Diner's Progress

It's been quite some time since I last set type to blog, but the month of December has been a dizzying rush of events both large and small, with a semester drawing to a welcome close, new puzzling developments at the medical library where I spend parts of the week, and a quick trip to the East Coast for a stay in New York, a city the two of us know well and think often about. With plenty of free time on our hands, we nevertheless spent a good portion of our several days in New York visiting with old friends, some for the first time in over a decade. We caught a few Broadway shows, checked out some museums, got some walking in. But we spent a large amount of our time inside the restaurants, bars, diners, and watering holes that make this city hum all hours of the day and night. In a metropolis as vast as New York, one can no more hope to adequately sample the culinary scene than one can hope to sample the entirety of a National Park by driving the main loop (and forget the fact that we didn't even make it to the outer boroughs - someday, Queens, someday). But I'll do my best, through photos, links and descriptions, to at least offer a hint of what we managed to uncover, taste, sip, enjoy.

Day One (evening) :

A late-night arrival into JFK and a sluggishly-advancing shuttle van meant we didn't settle into our midtown hotel until past 11 PM. The bitter winds blowing in from upstate and the East River didn't help matters any. But a brisk walk around our block reminded us that we were once again in the city that never sleeps - meaning, the city where it is always possible to find a plethora of open restaurants, no matter the hour. "How civilized," I muttered into my scarf. In the end, we passed up the welcoming (and warming) interiors for a curbside hot dog and bag of roasted chestnuts. We're easy to please.

Day Two :

The ubiquitous coffee and roll from the ubiquitous sidewalk vendor. Would New York be able to start its day without these carts?

With a cold wind barely edging past the mid-20s whistling through the cavernous blocks, I took evasive action and warmed myself as best I know how - two cups of espresso and a fast walk from The Bowery to Lincoln Center in just over an hour. To say I warmed myself up is to damn my accomplishments with faint praise. The espresso(s) were purchased and consumed at the charming Ballaro / Caffe Prosciutteria, a newish East Village Italian-themed coffee shop and food purveyor (77 Second Avenue and E. Fourth). My prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich + green salad was delightful. Did I mention the two espressos?

That evening, we managed to meet up with two distinct sets of friends, from opposite sections of the country and opposite moments of our lives, and two different restaurants our friends had independently chosen - restaurants that were literally across the street from one another. The Indian food at Basera smelled so wonderful that I felt bad at having to duck out to make our other engagement. The purposefully-tacky decor and rock album-illustrated menus at Vynl meant I didn't mourn my loss too much. The fried chicken and mashed potatoes were pretty great. Don't let any talk of fusion or gourmet trendsetters confuse you - New York is an awesome comfort food town.
Day Three:
Coffee and a roll. Are you sensing a pattern yet?
Slice of pizza. Pepperoni. Folded in half for consumption. I regret to announce that I did not adequately fix my pizza jones on this NYC trip. After all, I have to catch up on almost five years of eating West Coast pies.

As snow flakes from an approaching East Coast storm started making their way across Soho, I literally stumbled across a place I'd long been aware of - Once Upon A Tart, home to finely crafted tarts, cookies, sandwiches, soups. I even own the cookbook.

I managed to snag a seat in the impossibly cramped interior, and ordered myself some herbal tea and their famed tuna salad sandwich on a poppy seed roll. Heavenly. When I offered my seat to the New Yawk matron and her impossibly beautiful young daughter, I was told I was "very kinnnnnd".
Speaking of cookbooks - Chef Marcus Samuelsson taught me how to cook like (something approaching a) gourmet. Whatever meagre skills I had picked up during our first year or so in upstate New York, it was discovering Samuelsson's Aquavit cookbook - a (sorry, can't help it) smorgasbord of Scandinavian haute cuisine - that first suggested I might be able to attempt complex and fancy-schmancy concoctions. My wife still gets misty-eyed remembering the lobster soup. The crab risotto graced many a dinner table. The coffee-roasted duck breasts served as one of our final meals together before 2007's deployment. And so on.
While living in New York state, we never managed to scrape together enough cash to afford a full dinner at Aquavit, but had managed to sample some of their lunchtime offerings in their cafe. For this trip, we had planned ahead. Chef's Tasting Menu, we await you.
New location (East 55th)....

....lovely interior decor......

....and an eight course tasting menu that offered pleasant variations on traditional Scandinavian cuisine and tiny tastes that simply begged to be captured on film. The fabled Foie Gras Ganache, with pickled apples and port wine......

....served alongside paired wines (in this instance, the 2007 Auslese from Kracher (Burgenland, Austria)...

....and the Cured NY Strip, with Västerbotten cheese crisp, butternut squash and pumpkin seed.

Hot-Smoked Arctic Char! Venison Loin! TÊTE DE MOINE (uh, riesling jelly, grapes, marcona almonds)!
But the somewhat horrified look in our server's eyes when we mentioned we had tickets for an 8 o'clock show should have tipped us off that we hadn't planned the evening out as carefully as one should. The plates began to come and go at a rapid clip, watches were anxiously studied, and before we knew it, we were attempting to tackle the grand finale of Arctic Circle - goat cheese parfait, blueberry sorbet, passion fruit curd. With no time for even a celebratory glass of the restaurant's namesake liquor, we scurried out the door. Maybe next time?

Day Four :
The coffee / roll streak ends abruptly. Enter the proverbial NYC diner. Decent omelet under a heat-spewing wall unit.

Another evening, another theater date. This time, we gave ourselves a bit more time. Our friend led us into Koreatown for what he promised would be excellent mandu, or dumplings. His predictions were accurate. Trust a dumpling shop that prepares their dumplings practically streetside to know what they are doing.

Mandoo Bar (2 West 32nd Street) - what lovely seating arrangements! What friendly waiters! What colorful bundles of goodness!

Following the evening's performance (Fela!- check it out), I suggested we take advantage of the post-production hour and check out what had been advertised as New York's only casual 24-hour brasserie - Pigalle Brasserie. Casual, yeah - I could have done without the flat screen over the bar tuned to ESPN. But keep your back to the TV, and a surprisingly warm interior takes over.

Plenty of seasonal holiday brews (don't you just love ale with hints of pine needles?), an excellent charcuterie plate (with pickles and brined lentils), and an after-dinner sampling of a now-deemed-safe-and-legal glass of absinthe (much tsk-tsking from the wife). Vive le France!

Day Five:
Back streetside. Coffee and a (wait for it) cruller.
Friends from L.A. had also left the sunshine behind for a week under the cruel East Coast winter light, so we met up at the 2nd Avenue location of one of the many restaurants under the Momofuku banner. Chef David Chang has been setting the NY culinary scene on fire for several years now with his rapidly expanding locations of Momofuku (literal translation - "lucky peach" in Korean, yet also the inventor of instant noodles). His East Village Noodle Bar has been packing them in since 2003, whereas our location, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, opened in 2006. It was last year's Momofuku Ko restaurant that really turned heads, however - only twelve seats, reservations taken on a first-come first-served basis only six days in advance, three-hour lunch tasting session for only $175. This was not where we had lunch.

However, the Ssäm Bar proved a favorite - for us, our L.A. friends, and a good friend from upstate who made the long journey from Albany to meet us there. Asian-themed appetizers and east/west fusion without a hint of condescension or compromise. Shigoku oysters with kimchee. Newman's Farm bbq rib sandwich. Pork scrapple (yum). Fried brussels sprouts with fish sauce vinaigrette, mint and delfino. Plus, tender and amazing steamed pork buns with slow-cooked brisket - Asian tacos!

Plus, spicy rice cakes with chinese broccoli and shallots!

Plus, assorted root beers and dandelion soda!
You think we're done with Day Five? Hell, that only takes us past lunch. Yet another friend showed us around the downtown pub scene by first taking us into The Blind Tiger, where I was delighted to find several dusty chalkboards displaying rapidly changing menus of draft beer, many of the East Coast variety (who knew there were so many excellent Pennsylvania microbrew offerings? Not this Californian)......

....and then marching over to the unfortunately named Spitzer's, a gastropub that served amazingly flavorful duck confit, wondrous house-cut french fries, and an appetizer dish of Gus's Pickles, a Lower East Side tradition of sorts I had long wished to sample.

Plus, another wall of beer choices. Long live the gastropub tradition.

What better way to wash the taste of finely crafted New York microbrew out of one's mouth than sampling New York's other great culinary tradition - the rapidly expanding world of cult cupcakes. I see you over there, Magnolia Bakery (and so do all the teeming hordes with their "Sex And The City" location maps). And nice meeting you, Crumbs (plenty of you back in Los Angeleeeze). But how about investigating something new - Sugar Sweet Sunshine.

The pumpkin cupcake I devoured was all one hopes for in such matters - soft, bouyant, excellent frosting. The confused Brazilian boy next to us who kept asking his increasingly bemused companion questions about American culture probably enjoyed his cupcake, too - but I suspect the disillusionment of realizing that there is more to American culture than was dreamt of in the American Pie movie franchise was probably a bitter pill. No, not all of us received swirlies in high school, my friend. Nice try.

Day Six :
Both of us had discovered the pleasures of Cafe Angelique during earlier times, and it was pleasant to return and tuck ourselves discretely into the back to sip our dark coffees. Jane's bowl of fruit was better than one should expect in the Northeast this time of year. My panini was beyond reproach.

An old childhood friend from Jane's Walla Walla days is currently serving as a Presbyterian minister at a lovely Upper East Side congregation, and we enjoyed both her company and the views from her 27th floor apartment. That evening, she took us and yet another friend (a fellow childhood friend from Walla Walla - how many of them are there in this city?) into the busy streets below, first to Libertador, an Argentine-themed restauarant that we visited solely for their attractive bar....

....and then down the street a bit to see if we could weasel our way into Sfoglia, the Nantucket- and-Manhattan Italian ristorante that informs website visitors that reservations should be made weeks in advance. We somehow managed to score an 8 o'clock table. How civilized.

This place was wonderful. Snug and warm, with a small yet world-class wine list, a tiny bathroom tucked alongside the kitchen, and ingredient-driven dishes that reflected both old world traditions and contemporary flash. The sauces were to die for - rich and oily, yet smooth and intensely flavorful. The gnocchi were lighter than air (no easy feat - I've made 'em myself). The chicken al mattone, my wife tells me, was fantastic. The brined Berkshire pork chop with melted gorgonzola and celery mostarda was even better. The fish of the day was no doubt the best of all - they had sold out earlier in the evening. Rumor has it Sfoglia has a cookbook out. Watch this page for updates....

Day Seven :
Travel day, back to the land of sunshine, gentle breezes and good tacos. Breakfast at the Midnight Express Diner, solid Greek fare served up with playful attitude (if you ask for butter on your toast instead of on the side, you're told to be a keeper. If you're not yet ready to order when the guy comes around the first time, you're informed they're open 24 hours). Bottomless cups of coffee.
Quick trip to one of the many Dean and deLuca locations in Manhattan to ward off starvation at the airport and on the five hour flight back to San Diego. Overpriced? Oh yeah. But excellent people watching. And a Cuban Sandwich that can't be beat.

And that's the menu. Seconds, anybody?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Thoroughly Cooking One's Goose: Of Giblets and Dark Broth

When I made the rather arbitrary decision to serve stuffed goose instead of the traditional turkey at this year's Thanksgiving table, I can't say I was making any knowledgeable or informed choice based on years of experience sampling the world's poultry. I've had duck on numerous occasions, and even tossed together a duck-and-roasted-coffee-bean Scandinavian recipe on the eve of Jane's 2007 deployment for a get-together with friends. And I suspect I've tasted goose at some fancy meal or other. But an expert on waterfowl? Not me. Rather, the idea of using one of the world's other noble birds for a holiday meal simply - can I say this without sounding excruciatingly posh? - touched my fancy. Plus, the notion of serving goose has always struck me as being uncommonly festive, a holiday tradition, perhaps more common around Christmas time, but perfect for any season of cold amid the cheer of company.

But while it was all well and good to announce goose on the Thanksgiving menu, it was quite another to actually set about acquiring the bird in question, finding a suitable recipe, convincing my guests on the appropriateness of my choice, and taking a crash course in goose preparation. I handled the problems one at a time.

First, finding the goose. I turned to the good folks over at Iowa Meat Farms, some kind of San Diego institution and vegetarian house of horrors tucked back among the loathsome sprawl of Mission Gorge Road. They boast a wide array of meats of both the farm and game variety (note to self: this is the place to head for when I get the hankering to try some of the many preparations for wild boar lurking in my cookbooks), and while they may not be the place to seek out when looking for bargains, their quality is impeccable. I'm still a bit shocked that my handsome 9.5 lb. goose rang up somewhere in the ballpark of $72. But I'm also shocked that a co-worker of mine served a $4 turkey to a family of six. Somewhere between the $4 turkey and the $72 goose must lie some kind of reasonable compromise. Our goose was frozen and as sturdy as a brick. We planned our thawing process out far in advance, and still needed the give the rigid fellow a bit of a warm water bath on the big day.

Next up was locating a suitable recipe. For that, I consulted my large array of European cookbooks. As the dinner's Mediterranean theme had already been decided, I quickly came across an Italian preparation that seemed perfect - Lombardy's oca farcita, or stuffed goose. The stuffed bit was essential - I may be a bit iconoclastic, but a Thanksgiving without stuffing strikes even me as anathema. This recipe called for a stuffing made out of roasted chestnuts, toasted filberts, prunes and salsicce sausage. It also called for the goose itself to be draped in bacon. Who was I to resist such a call?

My wife handled the delicate process of contacting our guests to inquire about their feelings concerning goose vs. turkey. All were amenable to the experiment, and my heart was warmed when one of our friends gave her official blessing with the words, "Whatever he wants to do will be great, I'm sure". I believe in the restaurant business, this is called 'throwing yourself at the mercy of the chef'. Game on.

Finally, I needed to familiarize myself a bit with this unfamiliar fowl. The oca farcita recipe itself gave very little advice. The goose packaging offered a little more in the way of concrete details. Word of mouth, on both the streets and the blogs, could be summed up in one sentence: "goose is a very oily bird". The oil mantra, as a matter of fact, was so all-encompassing that I soon had a notion of my goose as being little more than a dozing grease monster, an oozing mass of oil so dangerous that I would need to elevate it from my roasting pan and drain off the accumulating crude throughout the three hours of cooking time. Had I cursed myself? By opting out of the stereotypically dry turkey, was I about to subject my guests to a plate of OPEC?

In the end, I relied on a simple poultry-cooking rule of thumb: prick the bird all over with the spines of a fork to allow the juices and oil to run more freely. Midway through the roasting process, I poured out a large portion of the accumulated oil and fat, some of which was mingling with the bacon fat coursing down the sides of the goose. Healthy? Nope. But rather than pouring the fat down the drain (a major no-no at any rate), I collected the stuff in a large container to keep for future use. More on that later. As it turned out, the goose was perfectly moist and rich, and no excess of oil was noted by any of our discerning guests. In summation, at least on the matter of oil, I'd argue there's no need to fear the goose or the gander - just prick and drain (a lovely kitchen mantra).

In the preparation of the goose, I was aided by our guests, three of whom were physicians and one of whom spends his days in surgery. Sewing up the holiday bird after filling it with stuffing is a Thanksgiving tradition, but I doubt many have had the pleasure of witnessing as professional a suturing job go down in their kitchen as we did last Thursday. I may have been the chef, but Brian was the doctor (see below for the surgical footage).

I won't go into the entire process, but allow me to pat myself on the back and say that the goose was an unequivocal success, triumph, discovery. Like the kids say today, it was a"hit". The outer skin had crackled into a sweet richness that was only aided by the nearly candied-like fusion of the bacon strips into the sides. Everyone agreed that these bacon-fused skin chunks were like ice cream treats - tasty and utterly decadent. The goose meat itself was a pleasant surprise - certainly not oily but plenty moist, with an abundance of flavor that was simultaneously gamey yet smooth. It proved a far more substantial offering than the overly-familiar dry white meat of the turkey. It was indeed a noble bird and a noble dish.

And, much like the American Bison in the days before its near-extinction, our goose continued, and has continued, to offer up additional riches. I must admit to feeling a brief rush of that old pioneer spirit when I contemplate exactly how much we managed to wring out of our fairly pricey purchase. In addition to several full meals worth of bird (with leftovers), I was able to concoct a rich, yummy gravy from the enclosed giblets. I placed the liver, neck and other items on a baking sheet and roasted them with celery and onions, tossed with a bit of tomato paste and seasonings, and simmered on the stove top until dinner was ready, at which point the ingredients had thickened into a delightfully fragrant gravy. I'll admit it - I have always found the creation of authentic gravy to be one of the great magical processes of the kitchen. As a child, I adored the stuff poured over mashed potatoes and found it to be a lifesaver for turning dry turkey meat into something capable of being swallowed, but I had absolutely no idea how it came about. No doubt I suspected a can yielded up the stuff. I understand for many people, cans still supply the majority of holiday gravy. At the risk of offending any well-meaning reader out there, I would like to make a passionate plea for the criminalization of using canned gravy instead of the real thing. Don't get squeamish about handling the giblets - it's no less graphic than anything else you'll be handling when preparing a bird. And don't fret about the time required, either - gravy requires very little preparation and lots of non-supervised stove top simmering. The transformation from giblets, vegetables and water to a glistening saucer of rich gravy is a treat no cook should deny themselves. And anyway, the pre-made crap has tons of unnecessary added sodium inside. You'll be getting enough sodium as it is.

In addition to the gravy, I still had all that goose fat. I've left it to sit for a few days, and it has taken on the consistency of soft candle wax. We haven't yet reached the point where we're capable of making our own soap or candles from the rendered goose fat, but perhaps that day will soon come. At any rate, my wife and I both made remarks about our desire to jump into the wonderful world of soap making. Maybe another time. For now, I'll keep the goose fat for more basic pleasures. Besides being healthier than butter (less cholesterol, less saturated fats, higher in heart healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats), goose fat is known as an intensely flavorful cooking agent. The French have been relying on goose fat instead of other oils or butter for quite some time and seem to be doing rather well. I hope to flavor soups and broths with my goose fat in the days to come, and especially look forward to roasting or baking sliced potatoes with the goose fat. I have a potato recipe in my favorite Scandinavian cookbook that calls for lemon and goose fat that I've been dying to try for years now.

Finally, when we had finished picking the goose free of any stray bits of meat in the days following Thanksgiving, I set about the process of cleaning and chopping the bones for the preparation of goose stock. This, too, was something I'd eagerly been awaiting. A gloriously colorful photo in the opening pages of the above-referenced cookbook has teased me for some time - beet soup with goose stock. I now have nearly four cups of thick goose stock to play with. I vary my stock recipes each time out, but I tend to always roast the bones first in the oven, sweat the celery, carrots and onions alongside, add a bit of tomato paste, then simmer with water on the stove for a few hours with peppercorns and bay leaves. The stock is strained twice, allowed to cool, then frozen. In addition to the beet soup, the flavorful stock will no doubt be called into duty for soups, broths, basting sauces and risotto dishes. We'll be enjoying various parts of our goose through the winter.

Looking back on the immense effort required to locate, prepare, consume and preserve our holiday goose, I can start to recognize why the purchase or slaughter of such a fine animal instilled a sense of respect and awe in our ancestors. This was no quickly-prepared and just-as-quickly-forgotten meal. This was an offering that will continue to appear in our kitchen for months to come. I understand why families in Europe saved up for their Christmas goose and why they humbly gave thanks for the bounty on their tables. We all agreed it was a noble bird that had found its way to our celebration. One needn't be accused of being maudlin for suggesting that we had a duty to honor it as best we could.