Sunday, April 9, 2017

289. Food to Die For

         Two LibraryThing early reviews of Bill Hope: His Story:

graham, March 30, 2017:  I sat down to read this book around 6 p.m.; it's 11:20 p.m. and I've just finished it. I couldn't put it down. This is a very engaging, fast-moving first-hand "biography" of a turn-of-the-century petty thief turned con man which held me enthralled from start to finish.  

terry, April 7, 2017:  Engrossing novel that makes you want to continue reading in order to find out what happens next in the life of Bill Hope. Many ups and downs make it a truely enjoyable read, about a bygone time.

Forgive my including them; not all reviews will be so positive.


Bill Hope: His Story: ($20: Softcover: 6X9”, 158pp: 978-1-68114-305-7; $35: Hardcover: 978-1-68114-306-4; $2.99: EBook: 978-1-68114-307-1; LCCN: 2017933794; Historical Fiction; May 17, 2017) is the second novel in the Metropolis series. New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his scorn for snitches and bullies; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; his brief career on the stage playing himself; his loyalty to a man who has befriended him but may be trying to kill him; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder. In the course of his adventures he learns how slight the difference is between criminal and law-abiding, insane and sane, vice and virtue—a lesson that reinforces what he learned on the streets. Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a yearning to leave the crooked life behind, and a persistent and undying hope.
          This is the second title in the Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.  The first in the series is The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), mention of which appears at the end of this post. 

         The book can be ordered from Amazon and will be shipped after the release date of May 17, 2017.  But the paperback, which goes for $20, will cost an additional $4.95 for shipping, unless you order books totaling $25 or more.  The book is also available now from the author and will be mailed immediately ($20 + postage).  And now let's talk about food.

         This post is all about food – dishes, snacks, and meals that I have thought superb.  It began with a recent visit to the Patisserie Claude here on West 4th Street in the West Village that is said to do French croissants sublimely – so sublimely that they sell out every morning, long before my lusty palate crosses their threshold.  What better place to begin than the French croissant, which long ago I had for breakfast on many occasions in France, where one can find them every morning in any café.  Last year, in an unguarded moment, I bought one from my organic bread stand at the Union Square greenmarket – usually a reliable source of bread, muffins, and cookies – only to find it a poor imitation of the true French croissant.  This poor imitation squatted on my palate like lead, whereas the true croissant, being light and feathery and delicate when fresh-baked, dances.  “Fresh baked” says it all; never eat a croissant that is a day old; it isn’t a true croissant.  And if you ever see one prebaked and packaged, register disgust and flee.

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Chi King
          Note on photos:  Photos rarely do justice to food.  The above one of croissants makes them look like a bunch of sleeping armadillos.  I'm adding photos, but with reservations.  Believe me, the food is delicious, no matter how it looks when photographed.

          Another fond memory of French pastry is the baba au rhum, a rum-soaked cake topped with whipped cream and ideally, right smack in the middle of the whipped cream, a cherry.  The very thought of it makes me drool.  All authentic French pastry is superb, but for me, this one stands out. Though it is presumably available here in this city, I can’t recommend any bakery off the top of my head.

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         It was in France that I learned to dine.  In a restaurant one doesn’t just plump oneself down and gobble.  A traditional French meal – even a simple one – has a structure; it comes in courses.  First, soup.  Then one breaks the ever present bread and takes the first sip of wine (always there is wine).  In a fancy meal other courses may intervene, but then, climactically, comes – not the entrée, as we incorrectly call it – but the pièce de résistance, the main dish that you ordered.  And after that, in time (one must never hurry), dessert and, if one so chooses, coffee.  And the entrée?  That, in French dining, is another course that precedes and leads into the main course.  How we came to so term the main course I do not know.  Be that as it may, the French are insistent on being served properly, one course at a time.  In Mexico I recall a Frenchman complaining vigorously to me of the barbarous custom the Mexicans had of bringing all the dishes at once.  His emphasis on the word barbare summed up his shock and indignation at this uncivilized behavior, responding to which I told him that, being French, he was spoiled: he knew how to dine.

         Obviously, French dining looms large in my culinary reminiscences.  I will add just one more item: chèvre, or goat cheese, which I once encountered in – of all places! – Luxembourg, while visiting a married couple of my acquaintance.  They served it as an hors-d’oeuvre and it was love at first taste.  I can’t even describe that taste, but anyone who has experienced chévre will know what I mean.  The stand of the Lynn Haven Farm at the Union Square greenmarket on Wednesdays offers a very acceptable goat cheese with many different seasonings; my preference is the herbed goat cheese with a thick coating of rosemary, tarragon, and thyme.  Lynn Haven, a dairy-goat farm, is located upstate at Pine Bush, New York, 90 miles north of New York City, and glad I am that they make that long trip down to the city every Wednesday.  But their goat cheese is too special to be consumed weekly; I reserve it as an hors-d’oeuvre to begin special home-cooked dinners for just Bob and me, the next one being Easter.

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         Francophile that I am as regards food and culture generally, I have a place in my heart and tummy for Italian food as well.  In the spring of 1999 I went to Italy with my partner Bob and our friend Barbara from Maine, and as marvelous as the art and architecture were, the food was even better.  All the meals were good, and nothing so delighted us starting our dinner with fresh bread dipped in olive oil, and later to sprinkle Parmesan cheese on our salad.  On two or three occasions the pasta was out of this world – better than the best pasta we have tasted here in the U.S., and on two occasions the same could be said of the bread.  On one occasion we chose to wander through Canareggio, a working-class district in Venice rarely visited by tourists, where we stumbled on a little restaurant that had neither a sign outside nor a printed menu; the waitress simply told us what they had, and our limited Italian was just enough to make satisfactory selections.  While Barbara and I sat facing the restaurant’s interior, simultaneously eyeing with delight the young workers sitting at another table, poor Bob, facing us with his back to them, missed that added attraction.  But the hit of the day was the bread, probably obtained from a bakery nearby, and so good you could almost make a meal of it.

         My favorite other reminiscence of Italy and its food hearkens back to a somewhat overcast day in Florence when we decided to cross the Arno and try to find Omero, a restaurant in the nearby countryside that Bob had discovered on a previous trip.  This was an adventure, for it took us off our map of the city and its environs, but we trusted to our instincts and Bob’s memory to get us there.  Across the Arno we wandered on a country road with the Tuscan landscape stretched out wide before us: skinny dark green cypress trees, dusty green olive groves, and vineyards with long rows of well-cropped vines.  Lovely, but where was Omero?  As we wandered, on the low rock wall beside the road we saw little lizards sunning themselves until they detected our approached and scooted off.  Charming, but where was Omero?  Bob’s vague memory, really just a hunch, had us make a turn in another direction, and there in the distance, marked by no sign but several parked cars in front of it, was a building that indeed turned out to be Omero. 

         Inside were a host of Italian diners, many of them professionals taking a lunch break, but we were the only Americans, and surely the only patrons to arrive on foot.  But we had found a choice spot known only to the knowing few, and there we dined royally, with a view through wide windows of the Tuscan landscape.  The whole meal was excellent, but this was one of the places where we tasted pasta like we had never tasted it  before.  What is the secret?  Local ingredients, no doubt, plus age-old traditions passed down from generation to generation, this being a restaurant that the same family has run for many years – a formula that we shall encounter again at (of all places) Coney Island in New York.  And if our walk back to the city was a bit anticlimactic, with a light spattering of rain, while high walls on either side of the road deprived us of views of the villas, it hardly mattered; we had had the meal of meals.

         All right, French and Italian restaurants are superb, but what about the U.S. of A.?  We’ll come home now and focus on New York, where fine dining was introduced in the nineteenth century by Delmonico’s, a series of French restaurants that adapted French cooking to American ingredients, and by the 1860s printed menus totally in French.  Today New York justifiably has a reputation for restaurants of every national and ethnic persuasion, and of prices ranging from the modest to the stratospheric; my reminiscences will for the most part be confined to the modest.

         Bob and I both love Chinese food, though he inclines to the spicy, and I do not.  Now that I nibble cheese and sip wine with him on Sundays and then go out alone to lunch, I’m not looking for a full meal, only an appetizer or two, and usually settle on a hot and sour soup (the one hot dish I tolerate), then maybe a dumpling and, if they have it, green-tea ice cream.  This was my Sunday lunch for years at the Empire on Seventh Avenue – not a gourmet restaurant, but adequate – until it closed a year ago.  I then migrated to another Chinese restaurant on West 3rd Street, but had to do without my beloved green-tea ice cream.  And now, just a week ago, I discovered Niu (yes, that’s its name) on Greenwich Avenue just across from the Jefferson Market Library and its adjoining garden, a quiet, discreetly lit restaurant that, in addition to scallion pancakes, does indeed – mirabile dictu – serve green-tea ice cream, and three big scoops at that.  The well-being of my Sabbaths is now assured.

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Scallion pancakes

         Speaking of spicy dishes, Bob and I and our friend John once tried a Burmese restaurant on the Upper East Side whose dishes were robustiously spiced.  Being in an adventurous mood, I consumed a full spicy meal and was beginning to think I might adjust to this kind of food.  But the next day my system rebelled, and in between trots to the john I concluded that spicy Burmese food was not for me.

         The peak of Bob’s and my dining experiences was Gargiulo’s, an Italian restaurant on West 15th Street in Coney Island, but a few blocks from the boardwalk and the ocean.  Founded by the Gargiulo family in 1907, it has been run since 1965 by the several generations of the Russo family and features classic Neapolitan cuisine.  Coney Island is not the most refined of neighborhoods, and Gargiulo’s is close to the boardwalk and  beach, and, at one time before it expanded and thus gentrified the neighborhood, had a brothel discreetly lodged next door.  But even in those days it had a dress code: no shorts and, above all, no bare feet.  Its clientele is strictly middle class and, I would suggest, middle class with taste.  (Like Bob and me, for instance.)

         For the two of us over the years, dining at Gargiulo’s, which Bob had discovered through a review in the Times, involved a long trip by subway through the outer wilds of Brooklyn, most of it above ground with vistas of rooftops with laundry on clotheslines, and other less-than-stimulating sights, until the high-rise apartment buildings of Coney loomed up in the distance, announcing the imminent end of our journey.  We took this trip several times a year, budget permitting (Gargiulo’s is not cheap), but our favorite excursion was on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, when we went first to the Aquarium for a look at romping seals and walruses, keen-toothed sharks, and groupie penguins waiting to be fed.  That done, by 5 p.m. we were on the boardwalk bound for Gargiulo’s, and if it was a cloudless day, en route we could see a sunset over the ocean.

         Arriving at Gargiulo’s, we would be among the first diners to enter.  After checking our wraps and lingering in the entrance hall briefly, to eye the lobsters lumbering about in a giant tank, we connected with our favorite waiter, Giancarlo, who guided us to our reserved table.  What followed at a leisurely pace was a sumptuous meal, each course a treat in itself.  First, mozzarella in carrozza (mozzarella cheese on toast), the most delicate of appetizers.  (Literally, “mozzarella in a carriage,” but don’t ask me why.)  Next, along with bread and a tri-colored salad, came fettuccine alfredo, a pasta tossed in Parmesan cheese and butter, pasta being the house’s specialty.  All this with wine, our preferred choice being Amarone, a full-bodied dry red wine made from partially dried grapes in a very special process that gave it a very special taste and, of course, a very special price.  Pricey, yes, but Giancarlo highly approved, and so did our palates.

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Cannoli.  A bit phallic, but let's pretend that's irrelevant.
Joe Foodie

         Our favorite dessert was cannoli, fingerlike shells of fried pastry dough with a sweet, creamy filling, the lightest, most delicate coda for the symphony of our meal.  But the coda to the coda was coffee with Strega, a yellow-colored Italian liqueur, richly sweet, made of some 70 herbal ingredients.  For me, the whole meal was a scandalous violation of my vegan principles, but I love Italian food, don’t dine this way often, and anyway, this is a chronicle of food to die for. 

         Other Gargiulo’s dishes to die for:

·      Cold antipasto, each item specially marinated or otherwise prepared, and tasting like no other antipasto I have ever had.
·      Fritto misto, deep-fried vegetables, delicious.
·      Veal valdostana, veal chops stuffed with cheese, a dish so rich and filling that, having tried it once, I shun ed it thereafter in favor of lighter, less overwhelming fare.

And many, many more, including marvelous pasta dishes.

         So much for dining out.  How about meals at home?  Good cooks, I firmly believe, are born and not made, and I have known several, none of whom ever attended cooking school.  A friend of ours told us how her godson could come on a visit and, finding scraps of leftovers in her refrigerator, would then combine them in a gourmet dish that was absolutely delicious: obviously, a born cook.  My partner Bob evolved as a cook, leaving behind pepper steaks and chunky cheese salad dressing to develop two dishes in particular, one for winter and one for summer.  The winter dish was baked endives, which he did in our ancient oven wrapped in foil, and then, for the last five minutes of baking, removed the foil, thus giving the endives a marvelous taste combining a dry, crisp surface with a moist inside.  The summer dish was a cucumber soup made with cucumbers, dill, yogurt, chicken broth, minced onions, and black pepper.  Chilled overnight in the refrigerator and served the next day, it delivered us from the muggy heat of summer in our un-air-conditioned kitchen and hoisted us to pinnacles of bliss.

         Other culinary highlights experienced in our apartment:

·                The faint aroma of wine, teasing my nostrils as I sat on the sofa in our living room, when Bob added wine to a dish he was cooking in the kitchen.
·      The earthy, mushroom taste permeating a veal dish, when Bob cooked it with truffles.  (He tried truffles in various dishes at least four times; two times it worked, and two times it did not.  And truffles aren’t cheap!)
·      The taste of a red wine that we had stumbled on by accident, not paying a fancy price.  It let us grasp at last what was meant by the French word velouté, describing the taste of a wine: velvety.  The taste of a cheap wine is like a single bold note; the taste of this wine was like a musical phrase, the first impression yielding subtly to another.  

              To which I'll add Bob's French onion soup, based on a Julia Child recipe, which involved cooking the onions slowly for several hours, adding a touch of white wine (ah, that aroma!) and, just before serving, sprinkling the soup with grated Parmesan.

         Yes, good cooks are born, not made.  I am not a born cook; I need a recipe to guide me, and tend to repeat successful dishes rather than experimenting with new ones.  Nor are my taste buds particularly sensitive. Tasting a wine, Bob and our friend John could discover nuances that I could not, pronouncing it “fruity,” for instance, with hints of cherry or peach, whereas I could only register dry and robust with maybe a hint of sweet.  And when I tried to do Bob’s baked endives or cucumber soup, the result was a sorry imitation of what he could do.  Maybe it runs in the family; my mother never claimed to be a good cook, whereas Bob’s mother had three dishes she did to perfection, my favorite being her turkey; the stuffing and gravy were out of this world.

         I myself have one signature dish, which I owe to the Whole Foods Project, where I did volunteer work and took vegan cooking classes in the 1990s: millet and tempeh loaf, involving two foods I had never even heard of before that -- millet, a whole grain, and tempeh, a soy food.  It takes several hours in the kitchen, but it’s worth it.  It involves no less than six different cooking procedures:

1.    Preboiling carrots cut into small chunks.
2.    Cooking the millet until all the water evaporates and steam holes appear.
3.    Steaming the tempeh.
4.    Rinsing the sea vegetable arame, to make it soft and pliable.
5.    Sautéing carrots, garlic, arame, scallions, and parsley in a skillet.
6.    Mixing the vegetables and arame with the millet and tempeh in a big bowl, then baking the mixture in loaf pans in the oven.

And this omits various seasonings to be added, and a sauce to serve with the dish when finished.  The result is a dish with a marvelous blend of tastes that cannot be described, only experienced firsthand.  Could the cooking be simplified?  By no means.  Veteran cooks have warned me that omitting ingredients in a recipe can be fatal to the dish involved.

         If millet and tempeh – like so many good dishes – sounds a bit complicated, consider phyllo triangles, a specialty dish appropriate to winter holidays that I learned of in a Whole Foods Project cooking class, and that I attempted just once.  To begin with, I didn’t even know what phyllo was: a paper-thin unleavened dough used in pastries.  I tried three health food stores before I found it, and there it had to be brought up from refrigeration in the cellar.  I won’t give a detailed account of this adventure – and adventure it was – in preparing crumbled tofu and chopped spinach, garlic, and scallions, and seasoning them with umiboshi paste (do you even know what umiboshi is? I didn’t) and tarragon and black pepper, and then placing the mixture on fragile strips of phyllo dough that are then folded over into triangles and baked in the over until the triangles are a light golden brown. 

         To do all this required three – yes, three – days.  Not that you needed all of each day, but the recipe had to be done in stages.  The result was admirable; when served to guests, the triangles brought cries of delight, followed by cries of amazement when I modestly announced that I had done the triangles myself.  But three days of preparation?  Life is short.  I never attempted the triangles again.

         Such are my culinary reminiscences, many of them garnered in New York City, where any cuisine you might wish for is available somewhere, and the ingredients too, if you just know where to look.  New Yorkers are afflicted with high rents, noise, and congestion, but they eat out often, and well, and if they want to dine at home, all they need is available, and much of it at greenmarkets.  Many of the foods I now consume I had never even heard of in my younger days, before coming to the richly diversified city of New York, which has never ceased to evolve in cooking matters since the first Delmonico’s opened here long ago.

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          BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

         Coming soon:  "Beauty is power."  Another look at Helena Rubinstein and her arch enemy Elizabeth Arden, two cosmetics queens whose epic rivalry has now come to Broadway.

          ©   2017   Clifford Browder


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