Saturday, August 25, 2007

Carnivore Carnival

The ancient ritual of offering burnt sacrifices to the gods is happening nightly in New York City.

My colleague “Rocky” has a deep and abiding affection for red meat – mostly rare – which inspires him to host a team event at Churrascaria Plataforma Rodizio, a practically unpronounceable pantheon of protein at 316 West 49th Street in Manhattan.

Churrasco is the Brazilian form of barbecue where enormous cuts of beef and other meats are seasoned with garlic and sea salt, skewered and roasted on an open wood fire. The tradition can be traced back to the early 1800s in Brazil where local ranchers called gauchos cooked over an open flame and perfected the art of rapidly cutting razor-thin slices onto each other’s dinner plates. It’s a little slice of life for devoted carnivores.

I have some experience with this tradition – the eating, not the slicing. Years ago, my colleague Splint McCullough and I were on assignment in Sao Palo, Brazil, and we spent the evening at a churrasco. Splint consumed thrice his weight in steer.

As often seems to be the case these days, I am late for this engagement. I should not have taken that last phone call. A well-dressed and stone-faced maitre d’ opens the door and I enter a cavernous hall filled with raucous meat mavens. The patrons all look remarkably fit and trim. I assume they must be Atkins Diet devotees. Some have assumed an aggressive posture near the centrally-located salad bar, a titular nod to the health-conscious among us. The level of “salad loading” seems unusually high, given the specialty of the house, but I suppose the lettuce and chick peas are available to help assuage any guilt that might crop up during the evening.

Make no bones about it. This is a pure, unadulterated flesh-fest not for the faint of heart or stomach. I am led to our table of 20 and as expected, I am one of the last to arrive. I take my seat at one end of the table and immediately take note of waiters parading past me on each side, carrying alarmingly sharp Samurai swords that skewer large steaming chunks of glossy meat. The waiters carry a second knife in hand to rapidly whip off those juicy slices.

There is a process one must quickly learn if one is to manage his continuous meat intake. A laminated cardboard disk the size of a coaster sits by my place setting. There is a circular red strip on one side and a circular green strip on the other. Green means “Bring on the meat,” and the minute I flip to green, waiters are crowding the table with shish kabob meant for a giant. The red strip means, “My cholesterol levels need a time-out.”

Steel blades are flashing and I wish I’d brought a styptic pencil for quick treatment of nicked ears. A second stomach might not hurt either. My fear of injury is unfounded however. These guys are craftsmen. Their knives glide through the perfectly-grilled meat with surgical precision, layering succulent slices onto my plate in a brisk clip.

The carnivorous cavalcade streams past the table – prime rib, lamb, sausage, chicken, short ribs, flank steak, and some varieties I don’t even recognize. Only once does a spatter of juice hit the pristine white tablecloth. Each mouthful is smoky, briny and savory. I’ve rarely had meat infused with such flavor. It’s so intense, it almost hurts. An inky-red malbec wine is poured as an accompaniment.

I wonder out loud who is tending the prolific barbecue pit, surely the sweatiest job in Manhattan. I establish my own technique for avoiding a bovine pile-up. The minute I can no longer see the plate, I turn the disk to red. Once I see white porcelain again, I turn the disk to green. Pacing is everything at churrasco. I quickly develop a fondness for the sausage, but it’s not offered as frequently. The table sets up a vigilant “sausage watch” and the minute someone spots a sword on the other side of the room I flip my disc to green. Instantly I receive hot sausage, all I can eat.

I barely have time to catch my breath when a three-tier dessert cart screeches to a halt near my left shoulder. The coconut flan looks appealing, but sounds a bit fattening. I don’t want to over-indulge (if that’s even possible at this point) so I select a demure serving of caramel flan, instead. The sheer volume of food does not deter several colleagues from selecting the jumbo-sized tiramisu. I am in awe of their endurance. We speculate about flipping our disks to green to see if the desserts will keep coming.

I am experiencing complete protein overload when I stumble towards the E-train sometime after 9 p.m.

The aftermath? Right now, I’m thumbing through my vegetarian cookbooks. I really need to work a little more celery into my diet.
©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sunshine Orange Cake

Here’s an idea for those of us looking to get a little more fruit into their diets. Sunshine Orange Cake looks freshly picked from a Florida orange grove. It even slices into sections, sort of like the real thing.

According to the website of the Sunkist Growers association, oranges contain numerous health benefits. A single navel orange provides 130 percent of your daily value of Vitamin C, and contains powerful antioxidants. Oranges are fat free and are a good source of potassium and phytochemicals. Oranges even contain pectin, which may lower blood cholesterol levels.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Sunshine Orange Cake offers none of these benefits. It does, however, contain a healthy dose of butter cream frosting, which includes a touch of Vitamin A and absolutely no carbohydrates! The white cake takes care of that. I won’t get into the cholesterol discussion. No need to cast a rain cloud over all this sunshine.

If truth be told, since the famous Watermelon Cake, I’ve been a little obsessed with the idea of making confections look like real food. I’ve brainstormed a “Hard Boiled Egg Cake,” a “Pink Grapefruit Cake” a “Granny Smith Apple Cake” and even an “Okra Cake.” It is likely an expert therapist could link this all back to an early childhood penchant for playing with my food. I prefer to believe that I have an inner-artist who must express himself through the medium of cake.

I’m currently giving some serious thought to a “Broccoli Cake” – for those of us health-minded individuals who want to have our cake and eat it.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Breakfast and the Morning Headlines

Many generations of the Barritt clan have decended on America's heartland for a family wedding. I've driven a rented Chevy Impala past mile after mile of glistening corn stalks accompanied by my brothers and a car radio that insists on switching to a hip-hop station, no matter how often I try to program classical.

With the journey finally completed, we are able to settle in and enjoy reconnecting with relatives of every age. After a sound night's sleep, assisted by what was perhaps the largest strawberry marguerita ever prepared in history, I awake to explore the area and find a spot for breakfast.

I've recently abandoned my paper version of the "New York Times" in favor of the Times Reader online edition. It feels "green" and I have fewer old newspapers to dispose of. So I am intriqued by the Courier Cafe at 111 N. Race Street in Urbana, Illinois. A popular weekend breakfast spot, the building was once the home of Urbana's first daily newspaper.

Well before Urbana ever considered what news was fit to print, the location was actually the site of a 2 room log cabin, built by William Tompkin in 1837. But fifty years later, the study brick building now on the site was the center of the news business of the day, and "The Champaign County Herald" was first published in 1877. Like many news organizations, The Courier eventually fell on hard times and shut its doors on March 31, 1979.

In the 21st century, the headline is all about food, and the Courier Cafe, which opened in November, 1980 does a thriving business, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. We are seated in a charming wood paneled booth, and are fascinated by the decor, which includes many of the original characteristics of the building, and transports us to a bygone era.

Faded yellow editons of "The Courier" are preserved in a glass case.

The "Courier Clock" is a "master clock" built in 1925 and considered the most accurate timepiece of its day.

The Palace Chandelier was saved from the Palace Opera House in Eirie, Pennsyvania before it was demolished and casts a golden glow over the room.

A "Fan-O-Plane" from the 1930s blows cool breezes over the morning diners.

BREAKING NEWS: The Banana Walnut Pancakes are fluffy and golden with fresh slices of fruit and a nutty crunch. I drizzle the warm plate with syrup, take bite, and I am ready to spread the news!

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Pineapple Upside-down Cake for the Office Luau

It doesn’t take much to provoke my inner culinary comedian. This time, it’s a young colleague we’ll call “Ms. Zany,” who hails from western Pennsylvania. She’s been ruminating over how best to use that bottle of rum she brought back from a recent holiday in Saint Martin. The inspiration hits her like a balmy Pacific breeze.

“Let’s celebrate “Hawaiian Shirt Day,” Zany suggests.

Now, I know you’re all excited, but don’t check your calendar or call up Hallmark. There’s no such thing as Hawaiian Shirt Day. Zany made it up. Although some of our colleagues are a tad skeptical, we proceed to plan the event with unfettered enthusiasm.

For me, it’s the perfect opportunity to conjure up that classic Pineapple Upside-down Cake that The Old Foodie suggested I bake a while back. The origin of the cake is a bit topsy-turvy in its own way. While I always assumed that Pineapple Upside-down Cake was an invention of the 1950s, the book “Fashionable Food” by Sylvia Lovegren reveals that Upside-down Cake made with fruit was actually an innovation of the 1920s. It was sometimes cooked in a skillet, and depending on the sophistication and upward mobility of the baker, might even go by the name “Caramel Pineapple Cake” or the very stylish “Pineapple Glacé.”

At the time of the Roaring Twenties, pineapple was considered an exotic fruit. If the recipe called for pineapple, it was often dubbed “Hawaiian,” whether the dish had any relation to the island paradise or not. It was quite the fad to serve tropical-themed “Hawaiian” menus and it allowed suburban chefs to travel the world vicariously without ever leaving the dining room. Indeed, some food marketer was well aware that such a cake could sell more canned pineapple slices, but the classic recipe from the Dole Pineapple Company calls for a box cake mix. Hoping to stay true to my culinary training, I select the “from-scratch” recipe found in the Joy of Cooking, which calls for a homemade batter made from eggs, vanilla and buttermilk.

There is something peculiarly intriguing about canned pineapple slices. Each slice is uniformly cut and identical in size. I’m not sure anything like this really exists on Earth. But, I can’t take my eyes off them, nor can I shake the thought that decades ago, an ingenious and mathematically-blessed test kitchen chef determined that exactly seven slices would fit perfectly into a nine-inch cake pan.

The maraschino cherries sit snuggly in each pineapple hole like little crimson jewels. I increase the butter and brown sugar, so the topping is especially gooey. It’s just the right-sized baking project for a weeknight. The cake is done, and I’ve got the dishes washed and my feet up by 10:30 p.m.

Hawaiian Shirt Day dawns and the New York City weather is as steamy as the South Pacific. Enthusiasm is starting to build among our associates. Even my road warrior colleague, “Splint McCullough” arrives in town for the event, ready for a little Island action. He’s purchased his Hawaiian shirt for $5.00 dollars off a clearance rack. We suspect the fabric is completely unnatural. “I’ve never been to a luau,” Splint says, “but I do like the idea of a one-ton pig roasting on a spit.” He then thinks about it for a moment. “Why do they put the apple in the pig’s mouth?” he wonders out loud. “What’s the pig gonna say?”

As pictured below, Splint has a reputation for taking the cake.

I invite a few special guests, including “Rocky” from the other end of the building. In terms of sheer mileage, our offices are about as far away as you can possibly get, so we really have to make plans to see each other. He’s been craving my watermelon cake, and while this is not exactly in that league, it’s an appropriate introduction to my retro cake addiction.

The Boss makes a perfectly-timed arrival just as the Magnum PI theme is blasting from the speakers. You kind of get the feeling he’d rather be on a beach south of New York surrounded by women. He’s sporting a classic Hawaiian shirt with multi-colored parrots that his wife has been trying to destroy for years. Splint’s advice is, “Don’t walk too close to pet shop windows.”

Our intrepid associate, “Babs Gordon” is pushing the fashion envelope. She is indeed wearing a Hawaiian shirt …that is pinned to her pullover. Babs will do anything for cake.

Zany pours some killer rum punch cocktails, we thrill to the beat of Hawaii Five-O, and I slice up the Pineapple Upside-down Cake. It is gone in about thirty seconds. In a short time, we have managed to consume a week’s worth of sugar, cheese, crackers and alcohol, as well as violating the corporate dress code and a few rules of good taste.

It is Splint, ever the culinary philosopher, who manages to sum up the occasion. “What I’ve learned from today is that when you live near active volcanoes, healthy food is an afterthought.”

Zany, meanwhile, is hard at work on a September theme event. Fortunately, she’s already rejected Splint’s first choice – “Heavy Metal Day.”

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Summertime and The Cooking is Easy

It’s August, the thermometer’s been sweating it out in the 90s in New York City, and my culinary muse is taking things slow. While I’m usually an “over-achiever” in the kitchen, right now I’m quite content to wander the Farmers Market in Rockefeller Center, admire the succulent summer produce, and concoct some simple menus that allow for plenty of time to prop up my feet and enjoy a glass or two of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, lush with notes of herbs and citrus.

The Everyday Food “Great Food Fast” cookbook is a fantastic resource for the summertime chef who is looking for more time to dip his toes in a cool mountain stream, literally or figuratively. Broccoli, Chickpea and Cherry Tomato Salad assembles in minutes. The broccoli can even be steamed in the microwave, and the colors are as bright and inviting as a farm stand on a country road.

Roasted Salmon with Lemon Relish from Everyday Food pairs glossy pink salmon with intensely-sweet raisins, tart lemon zest and crunchy pine nuts. Aromas of lemon and fruity olive oil tickle the nose.

A colleague shares tomatoes, garlic and leafy basil from his garden. The tomatoes are full of savory juices and the basil tempts me with smells of licorice. I turn it all into summer pasta garnished with the raw chopped vegetables, herbs and a splash of olive oil.

The baskets of peaches at the greenmarket catch my eye immediately. The pinkish-amber fruit would make a scrumptious pie, but that just feels too strenuous. Instead, visions of peach ice cream dance through my lazy head. The peaches are soaked with sweet nectar and the recipe is simple, requiring no stove-top cooking. Just cold, crisp, sweet peaches and cream.

Summer produce is sublime and just one embellishment can be miraculous. Such is the case with the sensual combination of strawberries and balsamic vinegar. I use the exquisite Balsamic Vinegar “A La Fig” from O&CO Mediterranean Food Merchant in New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The drops of balsamic splash onto the fruit and are thick, like mahogany syrup. The liquid coats the strawberries with a dark glossy sheen until they are almost an iridescent claret color. The dessert is tangy and almost hot, with notes of smoke and black pepper and sunny-sweet floral strawberries.

Although I’ve managed to cut my kitchen time considerably, my often demanding “to-do list” is effortless – listen to classic music at the botanical gardens, feel the summer breezes, watch the clouds dance across the evening sky and admire the sunset. Ambition can wait for a while. It’s summer.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved