Thursday, July 31, 2008

In a Pickle

My friend Ms. Zany tells me they pickle everything in her hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania – beans, beets, red peppers and even hard cooked eggs. Some people – who clearly see themselves as slick urbanites – raise an eyebrow when she mentions this, and I assure you, she mentions it fairly frequently. I like Zany. She knows what’s important in life.

Yet, for all my prowess in the kitchen, I’ve never pickled anything. Oh, there is the occasional Saturday night when I … okay…too much information.

Something about sweet, savory, tangy foods with bite resonates deep within. I was said to be such a fan of pickles as a child that I was once given a jar of pickles as a birthday present. Not too tough to shop for. Or maybe I should just pick up and move to western Pennsylvania where I’d clearly fit right in.

When Zany sparks an idea, it usually comes to fruition, and I’ve kind of been on the lookout for something to pickle – at least something that doesn’t have to get up for work the next morning.

So, I do a quick round of the Hallelujah Chorus when I see that the organic Sisters of Sophia Garden are offering pickling cucumbers in this week’s harvest. I gather up my five allotted virgin pickles and head for the kitchen to get started.

Before we get into the details of pickling, here’s a short history of an old and venerable kitchen technique from the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Did you know that pickles are thought to have first been eaten in ancient Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq? It was there that a number of foods were preserved in saltwater brine. The word “pickle” is derived from the Dutch word “pekel” and Dutch colonists brought the technique to North America in the 1600s. The practice was often necessary to preserve foods during long journeys and over lean winter months. Various ethic groups have developed different recipes for pickling, from kosher pickles that come from the Jewish community, to the sweet pickles loved by the English, or the tiny spiced cornichons craved by the French.

The August issue of Cooking Light is my guide, and its “Cooking Class” on Curing & Pickling introduces me to the stress-free method of “refrigerator pickling.” This approach requires no boiling or sterilization, so I forge ahead with a recipe for Bread-and-Butter Pickles. Pickles prepared in this manner must be refrigerated at all times, are perishable, and will usually last up to two-weeks. I discover that the bread-and-butter variety is known for its sweetness and the high sugar content in the pickling brine.

The cucumber slices are tossed with kosher salt and chilled for up to two hours. I then prepare a hot mixture of granulate sugar, brown sugar, white vinegar and cider vinegar, spiked with mustard seed and celery seed, which is poured over the cucumber and sliced onions.

The slices then sit for an hour at room temperature, and must then be covered in an airtight container and refrigerated for 24 hours to allow the flavors to meld and the cucumbers to "pickle."

The results are a crisp and bracing summer snack, the just-picked crunch of the organic garden buoyed by sweet and biting flavors that pop on the palate.

And all this time, I thought the stork delivered pickles straight to the kitchen!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 25, 2008

Thank God for Organic Vegetables

I am a true believer. Organic vegetables from the community garden are a blessing.


It’s even better when the organic garden is run by a group of Dominican nuns. Maybe I’ll get extra credit in heaven for doing something good for the Earth.

That looked doubtful a few weeks ago, as I’d systematically avoided every available opportunity to do my required 15 hours of work in the garden as part of my share. My afterlife was beginning to look like Lettuce & Lovage & Fire & Brimstone.

You will no doubt rejoice to learn that I’ve averted hellfire and actually completed my first shift harvesting green and burgundy beans. It was hot as blazes, so maybe I just think I’m on my way to heaven, and refuse to accept the inevitable. But it was fun to meet a couple of fellow gardeners and spend a few hours picking vegetables and really sweating for a change. I’m not trying to claim an epiphany or anything, but there is something fundamentally simple, healthy and good about harvesting food and cooking it with your own hands.

It’s a little like Christmas in July each time I make a pick up at Sophia Garden. There’s always something new, and the color, texture and variety is a welcomed challenge to my culinary creativity.

Ten heads of garlic – fresh, tender and sweet – are now the seasoning of choice:

Burgundy beans turn green when steamed, but offer a festive contrast in a salad with cherry tomatoes:

A single head of cabbage becomes a tart, sweet-and-sour soup, worth several days of meals:

And, brilliant yellow summer squash and just-picked onions are sautéed with garlic for a fluffy frittata:

It’s just like manna from heaven. I can’t wait to see what the Garden of Eden offers up next!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Jackson Heights, NY: Noshing in the Nation’s Most Diverse Zip Code

The great food connoisseurs say, “Go abroad. You will only truly understand cuisine when you cook and eat among the major cultures of the world.”

Have you checked the price of an airline ticket recently?

Enter my colleague, Hal2001, a creative thinker and an epicurean who never hesitates to embrace the bold, big idea. He has recently relocated to Jackson Heights, and has been exploring the eclectic food options. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of international food you can find in one square mile,” he tells me one day during a side conversation at a management meeting.

I’ve been trying hard for years now to shake my white bread culinary roots, having grown up in the “Casserole Corridor” of Long Island. Hal2001’s suggestion is as much encouragement as I need and I arrive on his doorstep on a blistering summer morning, my backpack filled with “Little Shiver Freeze Paks” in case we decide to pick up some perishables on our journey.

Jackson Heights was a planned development just outside Manhattan that was begun in 1916. Some of the area architecture is part of the National Historic Register. Today, Jackson Heights is home to numerous ethnic populations and the food that makes them famous. It is often referred to as the most diverse zip code in the nation.

Hal2001 could quickly add a couple of inches to Eugene Fodor’s waistline. He has planned a rigorous series of gourmet stopovers, all before lunchtime. The breeze dancing across Northern Boulevard feels like warm velvet as we set out on our tour. Our first stop is Cannelle, a classic French Patisserie at 75-59 31st Avenue. Jean-Claude Perennou is the Pastry Chef, and was formerly the pastry chef at the Waldorf-Astoria for a decade.

We order up a billowy and flaky traditional croissant, an almond croissant, pain aux chocolat, and two rich caramel cream puffs with a sweet, brittle crème brulee topping.

Turning our attention to Spain, we pass a distressing bus stop poster that is perhaps a harbinger of things to come:

At Despana Gourmet Foods at 86-17 Northern Boulevard, they promise “The finest from Spain.”

Inside, we are warmly greeted by Marco Santaella, who hands us each a glass of red wine and invites us to sample a spread of cheeses and chorizo like we are part of the family. It is 10:30 in the morning. Ah, well. It’s probably time for tapas in Spain at this very moment. I manage to stock up on Serrano ham, anchovies from Cantabria, Spain and Manchego cheese.

We make a quick side trip to check out the former home of film director Alfred Hitchcock, known in the neighborhood as “The Tower.” I feel like I’ve got a touch of vertigo. Perhaps it’s the wine.

On to nearby “Little India” where the clothing of the local residents has now shifted dramatically, and we encounter women dressed in saris and stores selling DVDs of Bollywood films.

We visit a neighborhood grocery store called Subzi Mandi that is bursting with fresh vegetables, exotic produce like Indian Karela, and staples like ghee, rice and spices at prices that seem like a distant memory in my local grocery store.

At the Patelle Brothers, colorful grains and legumes are stacked from the floor to the ceiling.

And, outside, enormous prickly green orbs line the store front.

There’s no way I’m taking these home, as my backpack is now filled with Jasmine Rice, Toor Dal, pearl-like orange Masoor Malka from Turkey and red whole chilli.

Walking along Roosevelt Avenue, and beneath the elevated train tracks, we are now lured by the sights and smells of Central America. Restaurants offering the cuisine of Peru, Columbia and Ecuador line the street. I can smell charred meat, and I notice that Hal2001 seems distracted, almost possessed.

“We have to visit the cerviche truck,” he says.

“You can buy cerviche from a truck?” I ask, with just a hint of skepticism in my voice. I once tried cerviche, at a fine restaurant on Costa Rica. Cerviche is an ancient food from South America. Raw fish is “cooked” when it is immersed in citrus juice and seasonings. But I’m a little hesitant when it comes to cerviche as street food.

“You’re either in or you’re out,” says Hal2001 and sprints towards a brightly-colored lavender truck parked at Roosevelt and 80th.

Inevitably, I am “in” and we split an order of Cerviche de Camaron, or shimp to those of us who don’t speak the language.

A dozen delicate, inebriated shrimp are playfully doing the back stroke amidst red onions in a cold, crisp, citrus broth. It is tart, delicious and even a little intoxicating in the afternoon heat.

For lunch, (yes, the culinary road warriors still have room for lunch!) we dine at Meson Asturias Restaurant at 40-12 83rd Street, one of the oldest Spanish restaurants in the five boroughs.

Our meal – which comes with sangria (liberally spiked with brandy) and dessert, all for $8.95 – includes a traditional soup of white beans, collard greens and smoky sausage:

And a classic preparation of chicken with rice and chorizos:

Our final stop along Roosevelt Avenue is at a traditional Mexican bakery or panaderia for Pan Dulce, a colorful Mexican sweet bread.

I choose a pretty-in-pink slice that deliciously smells of yeast and sugar in the bag.

With our cook’s tour of the world’s top cuisines concluded, I hop a train back to Long Island’s “casserole corridor,” without the typical hassle of airport delays or customs agents, and indulge in a well-deserved siesta.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 14, 2008

Camp Cheddar

I’m too old to qualify for the draft (although I may never have really “qualified”) but nonetheless, I decide to enlist – in Cheese Boot Camp. (I might have actually given more than a passing thought to ROTC if cheese had been part of the deal.)

I get the first email from my drill sergeant Taylor Cocalis at Murray’s Cheese in Greenwich Village. “Eat plenty of greens (got that covered) and report at 18:30 hours.”

Boot Camp Day One – Tonight is the initial immersion in our tour of duty. The 20 members of our unit – the few, the proud – introduce themselves. Some are food professionals, others are cheese fanatics. One gentleman has come all the way from Florida. “I’m here because Miami is a cheese wasteland,” he tells us sadly. Our drill sergeants are decked out in red t-shirts with military slogans like “Brie all that you can Brie.”

We meet our commander for the evening, Liz Thorpe, a senior officer at Murray’s. She is tall, blonde and attractive. She possesses what amounts to a graduate degree of knowledge in cheese, with a ripe smear of screwball comic Carol Lombard to make things interesting. She’s very funny, but not in a cheesy short of way. In fact, the entire staff at Murray’s is incredibly cheerful and helpful – perhaps a residual effect of hanging around all that fermenting milk protein.

We dive right into our first maneuver, a sampling of 14 … yes, count ‘em … 14 cheeses! It’s literally an international tour of duty with cheeses from Italy, France and Spain. “I don’t recommend 14 cheeses for social settings,” Liz cautions. She tries to get us to understand the nuances of tasting cheese. “Don’t just eat it. We’re going to taste it. That’s slower.”

We learn the basics – visually analyze the cheese, sniff it, and then taste it. Try to describe the cheese. Eat the cheese from the inside out, because the flavor can be different at the core of the cheese.

During the tasting, we are introduced to the different milk types – goat, cow and sheep, and the categories of cheese – fresh, bloomy, washed rind, uncooked pressed, cooked pressed and blue. It is all starting to make some sense. It seems that cheeses are pretty much defined by moisture content, color, age, and flavor.

I run the risk of developing an instant addiction to the stinky Epoisses de Bourgogne, an orange, washed rind, oozy pudding-like cheese. Through it all, the helpful staff at Murray’s cheerfully fills our glasses with sparkling wine and a soft, well-rounded red.

We complete our tasting regimen with a pungent blue cheese. “I feel a little stoned,” says Liz. “That was fourteen cheeses!”

I depart for the evening feeling like a round of calisthenics is in order.

Boot Camp Day Two – We are introduced to Zoe Brickley, Murray’s affineur. She bills herself as the “ultimate layman.” Affinage is translated “to refine,” and Zoe lives underground most of the time overseeing the process of aging in a subterranean chamber far below Murray’s retail store. Zoe did a brief assignment at Murray’s while studying at the French Culinary Institute and decided to stay. We descend to the caves bundled in sweat shirts where cheese for some of the top restaurants in New York is aged to perfection. We are fully outfitted with hair nets and booties. Bacteria is good in cheese caves, but perhaps not our bacteria.

Murray’s basement is a fromage fantasy for cheese fanatics. There are four caves each for different styles of cheese and each with different climates. Each is lined from floor to ceiling with glorious, moldy cheese. There is a bloomy rind cave, a washed rind cave, a tome cave for softer cheeses and a hard cheese cave.

The blast of aromas threatens to assault the senses – musty, mushroom, ammonia, citrus, ash, wet hay, and animal. It smells like a very lively barnyard.

We taste a number of cheeses in their fresh form and aged form to learn the difference in the aging process. Zoe puts out a round of Fleur de Lis fresh and a Fleur de Lis aged. The fresh looks like a mold of pure butter and tastes somewhat bland. The aged version has a chalky white bloomy rind, and has a more complex taste.

Zoe tells us that there are two kinds of cheese makers – the cheese scientists, and the cheese artist. The cheese scientist seeks precision, and the cheese artist wants you to taste the terroir and seasonality of the land. Murray’s tends to favor the cheese artists.

In all we sample 13 cheeses in the cave. A key lesson from our session is that when it comes to cheese, beauty is only skin deep. Ugly is good. A gnarly, brown cylinder of Stilton is far more ripe and flavorful than pale, pristine Stilton.

During the afternoon session, Liz returns and we touch on the history and economics of cheese. We learn that Benedictine monks had a major influence on washed-rind styles of cheese. Perhaps that’s why I consider cheese a religious experience? We blind-taste an addition 14 cheeses with Liz guiding us through old and new world styles, which now brings our grand total to 41 cheese samples. The exercise is designed to heighten our senses and powers of observations. I note that one camper is AWOL and never returned from the lunch break. Lightweight. This does require certain stamina. I feel like I’m developing a bloomy rind myself, and decide to skip dinner.

Boot Camp Day Three – I awake with what appears to be a “cheese hangover.” There are 14 more cheeses to sample during our final series of maneuvers, this time paired with wine and beer. Someone may have to call me an ambulance when it’s all said and done. I add 100 sit ups to my morning exercise regimen, just so I have a chance at retaining my trim physique.

Just before drills resume, I run into a fellow camper in the coffee shop next door to Murray’s. “I went jogging this morning, and was sweating butter fat,” she tells me.

Zoe is back for our morning session on the science of cheese. “It’s all about the milk,” she explains. “Milk is amazing.”

We learn about the different fat content of milk from goats, cows and sheep, and the fat content in milk that comes from different bovine breeds. Quality of milk is affected by breeding, feeding and husbandry.

We do another blind test – nine more cheeses – and train ourselves to note the differences in fat and texture between cheese made from the milk of goats, cows and sheep. Some useful tips – cheese from grass fed cows is often yellow, cheese made from the milk of sheep is rich and high in fat, and goat cheese tastes, well, goaty.

There is even a Mr. Wizard moment, where Taylor makes fresh ricotta cheese from scratch, and coagulates milk before our very eyes.

As if we haven’t already gone completely off the deep end, the afternoon session is devoted to pairing cheese with beer and wine. Instructors Chris Munsey and Amanda Crawford do kind of a battle of the sexes of pairings. He is a beer guy and she’s a wine gal. The best takeaway is that cheese and wine from the same region of the world will often go well together, and a good rule of thumb is to match flavors (grassy cheese with grassy white wine) or wines and cheeses with the same level of intensity.

Turns out I’m a wine guy, too. Amanda’s pairings complement the cheeses beautifully, and while I like the selection of beers chosen by Chris, they tend to overpower the cheeses on my palate. However, Chris’s final combination of Jasper Hill Farm Bayley Hazen Blue with Allagash Black is a winner.

And with that final tasting, we are given an honorable discharge.

So that’s the story of my lost weekend in Boot Camp at Murray’s Cheese. The grand total – 48 hours and 55 cheeses. There’s a reason someone came up with the line, “Everything in moderation.” (Was the author perhaps a cheese-making monk??) My first instinct is to check into the Betty Ford Center Dairy Clinic. It’s definitely time to return to a steady diet of cleansing legumes and organic lettuce.

Final thoughts? Three days at Cheese Boot Camp has been physically grueling, demanding all the senses. I’ve confirmed that a genuine love of cheese is more than a passing attraction. The true cheese aficionado is just a little crazy, and that I probably am. I’ve learned a lot, though. I have a real clear sense of styles of cheeses and milk types, can identify most by sight and smell, and I actually think I understand the science behind cheese. I might even try to make it at home, but if that fails, I know I can put together a kick ass cheese platter.

Note to self. It might also be prudent to postpone that upcoming cholesterol test, at least for a week or so.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, July 10, 2008

If It Can Work in San Francisco, It Can Work in New York

I know that lately I am obsessing over organic vegetables and farmers markets. Maybe it’s the summer season. Or maybe it’s because obsession tends to be a slight issue with me (see series of posts on mini-bundt cakes). At least this obsession has plenty of fiber.

So, when – by chance – I find myself to be staying just steps away from the historic San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (for once, the corporate travel agent has hit the bull’s-eye), I am compelled to take a stroll.

As I recently reported, the good folks at New Amsterdam Public in New York are working hard to get a permanent market established at the now-vacated site of the Fulton Fish Market. While this will probably continue to provoke endless debate in New York, San Francisco seems to have figured it out. The Farmers Market has been in operation since 1992 as part of the restored Ferry Plaza, which had been all but destroyed in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. Today, the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) hosts a range of education programs and twice a week, the people of San Francisco stream into the market for their pick of the most heavenly produce found on the face of the Earth.

A walk through the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is a garden of earthly delights. I am tempted by luscious, blush-colored nectarines larger than tennis balls …

Luminous sunflowers line the pavement …

Bundles of crisp, orange carrots catch the eye …

Sweet California strawberries nearly burst with juice …

Just-picked salad greens sparkle in the morning sun …

And, a kaleidoscope of multi-colored peppers dazzle …

In the CUESA education center, the text on a placard offers food for thought:

“The Farmers Market contributes to quality of life … It provides us with fresh wholesome food, rich in vital nutrients. It also offers a gathering place where people from all walks of life, both urban and rural, come together to form a community.”

Are you listening, New York?

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved