Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Chourico and Clams, Portuguese Style

Newark, NJ. Hardly a destination for most people. It's kind of a poster child for urban decay and the various ills that accompany it. But there is a part of Newark that I consider a worthy destination: the Ironbound neighborhood, Ferry Street in particular. This is the neighborhood where they shot the Sopranos episodes focused on Tony's childhood. The ethnic mix there is Italian, Brazilian and Portuguese. The Portuguese are very well represented, taking pride in the neighborhood and making it almost impossible to walk down the street without finding a taste of Portugal. Portugal tastes good.

I found myself on Ferry Street this week with a little time to kill. Had it been close to the dinner hour I would have stopped at one of the old school restaurants there. (Iberia Peninsula is a favorite). But it was early in the day, so I just stopped in a Seabra's grocery to pick up some Portuguese items I have trouble finding in Manhattan. Among them was a Chourico Serrano, which I used just under half of to make this dish. I love the combination of pork and shellfish, even though it may seem weird to some.

I served this with the sides you might find at a Ferry Street restaurant: rice, black beans and collard greens. This will feed two. A Portuguese vihno verde would be a perfect accompaniment.

Chourico and Clams
1 dozen Little Neck clams, scrubbed
1/3 lb Chourico Serrano, sliced
1 cooking onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 Tbs olive oil
1/2 glass dry white wine
fistful of chopped Italian parsley

Heat a heavy bottomed pot, add oil and saute onions, garlic and chourico. Add wine and clams, bring to a simmer and cover. Clams will open in seven or eight minutes. Discard any that fail to open. Stir in parsley and serve immediately.

(This week I started a weekly food column in the Lo-Down, my neighborhood online news source. You can check it out here:

Readers of this blog will find some familiar ground covered!)

Photos by Cynthia Lamb

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Blason Cabernet Franc, 2009

I just got back from a brief European tour with folksinger Rod MacDonald. A folk tour can be very different from a rock tour. It's still the same magic when you walk onstage, and the music can be just as transcendent. But you miss some things rock and roll gets you accustomed to, such as: monitors on the stage, a bus & driver, a tour manager, backstage dressing rooms, a crew and venues specifically designed for live music. Folk shows are smaller and more shoestring. The distance between performers and audience can be as little as three feet - more intimate than rock that way. You don't walk to the bus after a gig and ride through the night to the next one. After a folk show you hang out with the good people who came to see you, maybe even dining with some of them, tear down your minimal stage gear, sleep in a local guest house, then drive to the next gig in a rental car the following morning. Less glamorous, but you're rewarded with a strong sense of place and people. Places and people you might never see another way: Laupen, Switzerland; Obing, Germany; Vipiteno, Italy.

By far the biggest and loudest show of this tour was in Gradisca, Italy. Members of the local rock group Mr Tambourine Band sat in with us at a gymnasium. The stage was rock and roll loud. There actually were monitors, but they weren't much help. As a result none of us had any idea what this performance sounded like. I clearly remember letting a few notes during a solo ring out in hopes of hearing just where the downbeat was, as it became impossible to tell on my side of the stage. The bass player assured me things were no better on his side. But the crowd loved it, so I can only assume it sounded good where they were sitting, which is the most important thing. Afterward we had a lovely pasta dinner on tables set up in the back of the gym.

Gradisca is a beautiful little town, as far as I can tell populated entirely by lovely people. As this was my third time there I've actually managed to get to know some of them a little bit. One guy, an actor in local theater, is a fan of the music, and really seemed to dig my guitar playing. He remembered that I like wine, and graciously gifted me a taste of the local vineyard: three bottles from the Friuli producer Blason, located right in Gradisca.

The Blason Cabernet Franc 2009 was a standout among them. It's available here in the US (at least in California) for under $15 a bottle. Usually I find Cabernet Franc a little difficult on its own. Wine made solely from this grape often seems to be missing something to me - it rarely seems balanced. This one is. Nice fruit up front without being excessive or jammy. It ends a little quickly, but with clean tannins, inviting another sip. The wine is just big enough in the mouth to cover its 13% alcohol and still feel medium bodied. Along the way you get spice and black pepper following bright red fruits. Not a wine to show off with, but surprisingly good given its price tag. No one in their right mind would balk at this wine. The only criticism I can come up with is that this wine is a little simple, and the finish is a little short. It's a pleasure and a wonderful taste of Gradisca. If you're lucky enough to find this wine in your local shop I'd recommend picking up a bottle. It's one heck of a value. Made a wonderful gift, too!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

$30 Plate of Spaghetti? No Thanks!

My friend Coco kindly loaned me her copy of Anthony Bourdain's book Medium Raw many months ago. Shamefully I have yet to return it. Part of the reason is because I find myself often rereading part three, titled The Rich Eat Differently Than You And Me. He describes what he calls the Cipriani Model: the idea that the rich will pay outrageous sums to eat marginal food as long as they can be secure in the knowledge that others in their set will choose to do so at the same place. Places he describes with the words, "...restaurants that any food nerd with a Web site and a few bucks would walk sneeringly by."

I'll have to take M. Bourdain's word for that, as I have no plans whatsoever to hit the Rainbow Room or Cipriani. But as a food nerd I've noticed a trickle down of sort of thing. The most expensive meals I've had were rarely among the best, and when I think about my favorite places to eat, very few of them even qualify as moderately priced restaurants. That's not to belittle the work of the great chefs out there and the justifiably popular restaurants they operate. I just fail to see a strong correlation between the amount on the check and the deliciousness of the food when dining out, though I feel like I should. And I take issue with that.

I have nothing but my own experience to go on here, which tells me in most situations one hits a wall somewhere around $40 per person for dinner. I'm pretty convinced that after that point added expense has little to do with the quality of what arrives on your plate. (Sushi excluded, of course). After that you're paying for a place's prestige, its location and the privilege of dining among others who have no qualms shelling out that kind of money. That last one is key. You're not just paying for food costs, staff, rent and whatever other set costs one would assume contribute to the total sum. Tacitly or overtly you're paying to associate with members of a specific class, whether it's the one you happen to be a member of, or aspire to be.

There's nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. People have every right to eat at a place that's within their comfort zone, or even their aspiration zone. A nice place with a specific clientele, decor, service, wine list, etc... Maybe they even brag about how they source some of their ingredients. But will the food be "better" than at a place with lesser standards? Maybe yes, maybe no. Because the food only has to meet the expectations of the target audience. That's why the $30 plate of good (but not amazing) spaghetti exists in New York City. It all depends on your comfort zone.

But you know what? That ain't for me. I've tried for years to appreciate things like decor and service, and I've made peace with the fact that beyond a certain point I simply don't. I do not care how cute a place is, and as long as the service isn't completely feckless or rude I'm fine. The social status of the other diners in the room? I hope to be too engrossed in my meal and conversation to notice.

Which brings me back to the food itself: if the bill approaches $40 per person (or sails right past that) it had better be excellent. Because I know where to get excellent food for under $10 a plate in this town; fail to impress and I'm done with you. Helps to have a pretty broad comfort zone, admittedly.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Massaya: A Tasty Rosé for Spring

There may be a mix of rain and snow outside my window right now, but it's spring, which means soon it will be rosé season. Now is a good time to drink rosés in America. Back in the 60's pink wine meant Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill. In the 70's it meant Mateus or Lancers. Things got worse in the 80's. As if hair metal, trickle down economics and androgyny weren't enough we also got cloyingly sweet white zinfandel, which still accounts for 10% of the wine sold in the United States. (WTF?!) Fortunately things have gotten a little better in the 21st Century. Dry rosés have increased in popularity as the stigma against pink wine slowly recedes. This is a good thing, but it's driven up the prices of good examples from Provence (which is where many of the best are made). If you doubt this just ask one of your posh friends what they're paying for a case of Domaines Ott this summer.

So what are the rest of us to do on a hot afternoon when nothing would be better than a cold glass of pink wine? I found a number of good choices at a recent rosé tasting hosted by New York distributors Winebow. Aside from a couple stunning sparklers, the star of that tasting was Massaya Rosé, from Lebanon. That's right: Lebanon. You'd never guess. The bottle looks like one from Provence. On the nose and in the mouth you'd swear it was from Provence. It's crisp, refreshingly acidic without being overbearing, dry and even lingers a bit. It does make sense: the Lebanese climate is hot and dry, and they did learn wine making from the French. (Unsurprisingly there are a couple French heavy hitters involved with Massaya). The story is pretty good, too. The winery is located in the Bekaa valley, so Israel shelling nearby targets or blowing up the road to the vineyard can have an effect on some vintages. We're not just talking good wine, we're talking triumph in the face of real adversity. I'll support that.

Best of all, Massaya Rosé will retail for about $12 a bot when the 2010 vintage hits the shelves in a couple weeks. So let everyone in the Hamptons tear through all the $40 bottles of D.O. they want to this summer. I know what I'll be drinking, and it won't be from Provence. Lebanon's got my attention this year.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fish Curry!

I've never met a fish curry I didn't like. This one is both delicious and easy to make. It takes about half an hour. I used cod and squid last night, but you could use either. It would work well with shrimp, too. While fiercely tasty, I'll admit this curry is a bit on the mild side. You can adjust how tangy and hot it is by how heavy you go with the vinegar and hot pepper. When you open your can of coconut milk you'll be able to judge how thick it is; if it's half solid the curry will be very rich, whereas thinner will make a less rich curry. Both are good. If you have thick coconut milk you can always thin it down with a little water, but with thin you're best to use the whole can. One last point: most of my recipes are on the less salty side, because one can always adjust salt to taste at the table. You may want to taste and reason before serving. Beyond that there isn't much to this practically foolproof fish curry beyond making up some rice, dal and greens to go with it. If you really want to get crazy you could add a peeled boiled egg or two like the Malaysians do, but I think that would be gilding the lily in this case.

This recipe will serve four with rice, dal and greens.

1 1/2lb fish (I use 1 lb cod, 1/2lb squid), cut into bite sized pieces
2 Tbs white vinegar
3-5 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
1tsp black mustard seeds
2Tbs oil
1Tbs each: coriander, fennel and cumin seeds
generous 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/4 tsp Indian hot pepper powder (or cayenne)
jalapeno pepper, sliced in rounds (seeds and all; don't be a wuss)
2-4 tomatoes, cut into generous chunks
14 oz can coconut milk (if thick use 2/3 of can)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped cilantro, to garnish (or more, to taste)

In a bowl marinate seafood in vinegar. In a dry frying pan toast coriander, cumin and fennel seeds until fragrant. Let cool and grind together in a spice grinder (I like a cheap whirling blade coffee grinder). Toasting the spices is the secret to the curry - it's easy, so don't blow it off! In a large pan heat oil and black mustard seeds. When you hear the first seed pop add jalapeno pepper, ginger and garlic. Let fry for about a minute, then add tomatoes and salt. When tomatoes have softened a bit add coconut milk, turmeric, hot pepper powder and the toasted spice blend. Take a whiff of what's happening - it should be glorious! When tomatoes are cooked add seafood with the juice at the bottom of the bowl. The seafood will cook in 2-3 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and serve immediately.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Eldridge Street, Chinatown, Manhattan

Generations of New Yorkers have enjoyed the luxury of good, inexpensive Chinese food, some of it Americanized, some less so. Today Chinatown has more choices than ever: Old guard Cantonese, complete with roast ducks hanging in the windows, trendy Shanghai joints serving soup dumplings, dim sum restaurants, bakeries, tiny counters where people start the day with a cup of tea, a bowl of congee and a doughnut... Most New Yorkers have their favorites, whether it's Wo Hop, Hsin Wong, Joe's Shanghai, Mei Li Wah Coffeehouse, NY Noodletown or lesser known places they'd rather keep to themselves. Manhattan's Chinatown might not be as vibrant as Flushing's, but it's no tourist theme park, either. Granted, a few blocks have become that, but Chinatown stays refreshed by waves of new immigrants arriving and setting up shop. Many of the shops they set up happen to be food related businesses.

As a home cook I admire the frugality of Chinese cooking in general. Wastefulness is frowned upon, and value is appreciated; that lines up with my own way of thinking very nicely. I don't go out to eat often, but when I do it's no surprise when I end up in Chinatown. There are so many places where the food is good and I leave feeling like I got my money's worth (and then some). Extreme examples of this seem to be clustered on, or very close to Eldridge Street. They stand out so sharply in my mind that I drag people there. But they never seem to mind.

It's fun to eat delicious handmade food in places where if lunch costs more than $8 you're doing it wrong. A buddy from San Fransisco proclaims the dumplings in these shops "the best potstickers I've ever had." My dear friend Richard Priest calls them "pork porn." It was fun to watch band mates Jeff Kite and Mike Bloom overcome by the first bite of the Lamb burger at X'ian Famous. Or Julian Casablancas suspiciously eye a Fujian fish ball before trying and liking it. It was fun to see if my brother could polish off an order of dumplings and a bowl of hand pulled noodles. (He can). It's fun to see out of town guests shocked that places like these actually exist in 2011 New York. (There's so much more to this city than $14 cocktails and $35 plates of pasta!) It's even fun to pick up the tab; the damage is very little here.

So I'm going to take a break from offering home cooking ideas and instead suggest a walk down Eldridge Street. Depending on where you live and what your plans are for a New York City visit this may or may not be a practical suggestion. It stands as a tasty, inexpensive suggestion, regardless. Here's where I go:

Vanessa's Dumpling House, 118 Eldridge St. This is a good place to start. Word is out, and it's often crowded. What to get: fried pork and chive dumplings (four for a buck), sesame pancake sandwiches, homemade pickled cabbage (like a milder, sweeter take on kimchi). Mr Dunn, Glaswegian guitar tech extraordinaire (and a man with no patience for anything frou frou) considers this place a "top call." I took my nieces here years ago and they still talk about it. You can get more tasty food than most can consume in one sitting here for $4, all of it made before your eyes.

Prosperity Dumpling, 46 Eldridge St. There's a running debate on who has the better fried pork dumplings, Prosperity or Vanessa's. To me it's a knife-edge call: if you like more of a ginger flavor you'll prefer Vanessa's, but if thinner wrappers and pronounced scallion flavor are your thing Prosperity wins. A few years ago Julian Casablancas and I did a Lower East Side fried dumpling shootout, and Prosperity was our winner. The place can seat maybe ten people, so get your dumplings (five for a dollar) to go. Eat them walking down the street; they won't last half a block. Word is out about this place, too, so there is sometimes a line.

Super Taste, 26 Eldridge St. You can get good dumplings here, too, but the hand pulled noodles in soup are the star of the show. The spicy beef version is noteworthy, and quite spicy the last time I had it. (Also a bargain at about five bucks). You can watch the guy making noodles behind the counter.

Sheng Wang, 27 Eldridge St. To me this place is the star of Eldridge Street, and word seems to be getting around. Though the crowd is still mostly Fujian I've noticed other "aging hipsters" on recent visits. English is spoken here, but haltingly. Best to just point at the menu. Their policy has been not to serve tea, but they've realized many Westerners expect it, so it seems to show up at tables where Westerners are sitting. Last time I visited it arrived in small styrofoam soup containers. Very charming, even though the tea itself is weak. They offer both knife peeled and hand pulled noodles; the former are more interesting, but the latter are a little better, among the best I've had. Their steamed dumplings ($3 for 12) might be the best on Eldridge street - thin skins and a perfect balance of ginger and scallion flavor. They've elevated the lowly fish ball into a work of art as well, by giving it a ground pork center. It's obvious they're proud of that because they sneak one into most orders of soup, regardless of what you have ordered. I cut to the chase and order the hand pulled noodles in soup with fish balls ($4.50) to assure I get five or six in my bowl. Fifty cents extra gets you a fried egg on top.

Xi'an Famous Foods, 88 East Broadway. Walk to the southern end of Eldridge Street and you're looking at the base of the Manhattan Bridge. One of the businesses there is Xi'an Famous. This is food from Western China, with a Uighur influence. Nearly everything is oily, salty and spicy (cumin and hot pepper are well-represented). Imagine a mix of Chinese and Middle-Eastern flavors and you're not too far off the mark. Lamb and pork are the meats available, and their handmade noodles are completely different than those of their Eldridge Street neighbors - starkly white and quite thick. Most of the dishes here are too much of a commitment to eat on the street, and the shop's tiny counter can only accommodate three diners. So only go for the Cumin Scented Lamb Noodles, the Liang Pi Noodles or the Spicy and Tingly Lamb Face Salad (all excellent choices) if you're of a mind to seek out a bench somewhere to sit down and eat them. (You are just a block from Sara D. Roosevelt Park). If just a quick grab and go is more your style I'd have to recommend the lamb burger ($3.50): cumin scented lamb served on a bun that is like a tough Chinese version of an English muffin. That might not sound appealing, but trust me: it is sublime.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bitter Melon

I like food with character. I don't need bold, assertive flavors 24/7, but I'll admit I gravitate to them. Bitter melon is a favorite of mine. It isn't for everyone - while popular in Asia, it's more of a cult veggie among Westerners. It's name is only half correct: it's not a melon; it's a gourd. But it is bitter, possessed of the powerful astringency of quinine. Some say the flavor reminds them of asprin. It has a medicinal taste, and in China has many uses in traditional medicine. I've heard of it being good for diabetes, hangovers and psoriasis, among other things. It is densely packed with nutrients, to be sure. But most important to me is that its astringency is a perfect foil to one of my favorite foods: pork.

On Chinese menus it appears in soup or stir fried with beef, but I'm of the belief that bitter melon is at its best with pork in a black bean sauce. And not sliced pork, char siu or the more traditional little spare rib chunks, either. I like it with coarsely ground pork. This has been in pretty regular rotation in my kitchen for 20 years. I'll include it on the menu for dinner parties sometimes, and am still surprised when it's one of the first dishes to be polished off. Bitter melon's flavor can be a bit much for some, but against ground pork and black bean sauce it's capable of winning people over. I'm capable of eating almost half a pound of bitter melon in a sitting, and am lucky enough to be married to a woman who takes great joy in doing the same.

Bitter melon can be found in Asian markets. You want it green, not orange. Sometimes you can find the Thai variety, which is white and very mild. The Indian variety is darker and even bumpier, not what I'd use for this dish. Right now bitter melon appears to be out of season in the Northeast, so not everyone has it, and it's $4 a pound - more than twice what I pay in the summer. But I'll pay it, because I need my fix. Today was one of those days, hence this post.

Approach the bitter melon by slicing it down the center lengthwise (unlike my picture above). Use a teaspoon to scoop out the seeds and white pulp, which you discard. Cut each half of the vegetable into 1/4" half rounds, and you're ready to go.

Note: Bitter melon is not a fast enough cooking vegetable to stir fry the way you would a bell pepper. You have two options for getting it cooked through: you can boil the slices for a few minutes beforehand, drain them and let dry before stir frying. Or you can let the finished dish simmer in the wok over low heat, covered, for a few extra minutes to finish cooking the bitter melon. I like the second method, although it seems to violate standard wok practices. Just remember the less cooked the melon the more bitter it will be. You don't want it totally soft, but you do want it cooked through.

The recipe below will makes enough for a complete dinner for two over rice, or will feed as many as six as part of a larger meal. (The black bean sauce in the recipe is also a no-brainer for seafood dishes, and even works for chicken and vegetables).

Pork and Bitter Melon in Black Bean Sauce

3/4lb bitter melon, cut in half-rounds as described above
1/3-1/2 lb ground pork (coarse is better)
2Tbs Chinese fermented black beans soaked in 2Tbs Chinese rice wine
Tbs soy sauce
1/2tsp sugar
1/3 cup chicken stock
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2" piece ginger, peeled and chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, sliced into rounds
3Tbs peanut oil, for frying
heaping Tbs cornstarch made into a slurry with and equal amount cold water, to thicken

Pour oil into hot wok. Add bitter melon and stir fry for 3-4 min, adding a little oil if needed to keep from sticking. Add garlic, ginger and hot pepper and fry another minute. Add ground pork and sugar and fry until pork is mostly cooked, about two minutes. Add chicken stock, sugar, black beans in rice wine and soy sauce. Lower heat and let simmer (covered works fine) until bitter melon is cooked through, about four minutes. Stir in the cornstarch slurry until the liquid is the consistency of gravy. Discard extra slurry. Serve over white rice.