Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The King of Paella

Recently, I heard a rumor that my friend Rocky claims to be a member of Spanish culinary royalty.

I first get the word from my colleague Hal2001, a creative thinker and epicurean. We are sampling Manchego and chorizo – with a side of red wine – at Despana Gourmet in Jackson Heights. I am admiring the gleaming paella pans perched high on a shelf.

“Rocky says he’s the King of Paella,” Hal2001 mentions. This surprises me, since I’ve always considered Rocky a serious meat and potatoes guy.

“Where did you hear that?” I ask.

“Rocky told me. He was installing a light fixture in my apartment, and fell off the table and hit his head.”

“You believed the word of a man with a serious head injury?”

I am determined to investigate further and approach Rocky directly. I send an email.

“I hear you’re “The King of Paella.” You know how I feel about food. How could you keep this from me?” I demand.

The direct approach pays off, and scores me and Hal2001 a dinner invitation where Rocky promises to prove his prowess at paella. So we show up at the Upper West Side apartment of Rocky and his charming wife, with a bottle of fine Spanish sherry in hand.

Paella is a legendary Spanish dish of rice, chicken, vegetables and seafood, named for the pan in which it is prepared. It is often cooked over an open wood fire – although this is not acceptable behavior in a New York City apartment. Rocky has the ingredients spread on the kitchen counter. Chicken and spicy chorizo is simmering on the stove in the wide, shallow pan, and nearby there is a bowl-full of perfect clams and an open packet of succulent swordfish.

You can learn a lot about colleagues around the table that you’ll never discover at the office. I’ve always known that Rocky was a man of letters, but had no idea that he’d lived in Spain for four-and-a-half years as a youth and later bartended there as an adult. He claims to be a bit nervous with a celebrated food blogger scrutinizing his every step, but he moves with comfortable dexterity through the kitchen. Saffron colors the broth a burnished gold and the pan sizzles with savory and briny aromas evoking the earth and the sea.

It turns out the recipe is something of a family heirloom. During the time Rocky’s family lived in Spain, they often ate at a restaurant called La Puntaza in Mojacar and befriended the chef. One night at the restaurant in 1971, Rocky’s mom got up from table, went to the kitchen and learned how to cook paella from the chef. Take that, Julia Child! To this day, Rocky traditionally prepares the same paella recipe as part of their New Year’s Eve celebration.

Just before the feast of paella is ready, we encounter a slight snag. Hal2001 announces that he doesn’t like peas, just as Rocky is about to toss a handful into the pan.

“No peas, lima beans or sauerkraut,” states Hal2001 decisively. The sauerkraut issue is surprising for a guy who grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

“Two out of three are not in this recipe,” says Rocky, but he agrees to a compromise. Only the right half of the pan will contain peas.

We fill our plates at the stove with the steaming and colorful concoction. Adorned with wedges of lemon and roasted pimiento, it is a brilliant and festive serving of Mediterranean splendor. Rocky agrees to share the recipe acquired so long ago on Mojacar. In a nod to modern technology, this time the recipe is passed along via Blackberry, but the venerated tradition remains intact.


1 small frying chicken or chicken pieces
Partially precook with 2 teaspoons parsley, salt, pepper, bay leaf in 6 cups water to make broth. Remove chicken, reserve broth.


4 cloves garlic, minced
½ lb. swordfish
1¾ cup rice (Uncle Ben’s)
4 oz. tomato sauce
Handful of peas
Small jar roasted pimiento, drained
Olive oil

In paella pan: brown the partially precooked chicken and chorizo in olive oil along with the garlic for about 10 minutes.

Add fish, brown 2 minutes maximum.

Add saffron.

Add rice, stir to more or less coat with oil and distribute evenly.

Add tomato sauce to the broth and add to the paella pan to the top. Continue cooking until liquid is almost absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes.

When liquid is almost absorbed, add shrimp and shellfish, pushing them down into the rice, until they open. (Shellfish can be precooked separately to remove bits of sand.)

Decorate with lemon wedges and roasted pimiento strips.

(Serves Six)

Paella, fit for a king and prepared by a culinary monarch. And, if you’re choosy about peas, remember, Rocky’s Paella is completely customizable.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Woman Who Revived a Forgotten Food Writer

Clementine Paddleford. Her name sounds like something out of a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, but she was perhaps the most famous food writer of her day. And, when she died in 1967, Clementine Paddleford’s distinctive name and voice all but vanished from the annals of food history. Until now.

I first spot Paddleford’s intriguing moniker in a recent Gourmet article about a new biography. The “roving food editor” for the New York Herald Tribune and This Week magazine, Paddleford crisscrossed the country for decades interviewing homemakers, short order cooks, farmers, celebrities and socialites about the food on their tables. Inevitably, she would persuade them to share a prized recipe with her readers.

Paddleford was a writer who believed that people were integral to the story of food. I feel as if I have found a kindred spirit and within minutes, I order the biography and locate a long-out-of-print copy of Paddleford’s 1960 opus, What America Eats on ebay. It is a compendium of her reporting from This Week, featuring essays and recipes on everything from Election Cake to Sauerbraten and Oysters Rockefeller, all organized according to the regions of the country that made the dishes famous.

Author and food writer Kelly Alexander made it a personal mission to resurrect the intrepid food writer, once referred to as “the Nellie Blye of food journalism.” A former editor at Saveur magazine, Alexander had written an award-winning profile on Paddleford. She then teamed with archivist Cynthia Harris to write “Hometown Appetites: The Story of Clementine Paddleford, the Forgotten Food Writer Who Chronicled How America Ate.”

The two women poured through Paddleford’s personal papers, now archived at Kansas State University, and spoke to dozens of friends and relatives to craft a profile of the woman behind the byline. The book is an intimate visit with a shrewd and flamboyant character. Alexander and Harris meticulously and reverently reconstruct Paddleford’s life, from her childhood in America’s heartland to her days as food editor at the Herald Tribune. Paddleford was said to have traveled 800,000 miles during her career, interviewing American cooks from every walk of life and sharing their recipes. The authors paint a vivid portrait of Paddleford, swathed in a fashionable cape with a large pad in hand, on the hunt for yet another distinctly-American recipe. If you care about food, and the central role it plays in our lives, you will likely make an immediate connection with the woman who devoted her career to chronicling how America eats.

Paddleford was sometimes criticized by her rivals for her universally positive approach to the often-basic style of American cooking, but she was not a food critic. She was a writer who celebrated food and its connection to daily life. Her critical opinion mattered less than her reporter’s ability to record the scene.

Channeling Paddleford, I do a little leg work of my own and manage to track down Kelly Alexander. She graciously agrees to an email interview and shares her insights into what motivated Paddleford, her influence on the profession of food writing and our understanding of regional American recipes, and what the pioneering reporter would think of today’s food bloggers:

Culinary Types: Why do you think Clementine was so drawn to the story of regional American food?

Kelly Alexander: I think that Clementine understood inherently that America is a "melting pot" culture; without using that cliched term, she managed to plug into the fact that we're really all immigrants whose parents or grandparents came here from foreign shores toting their own unique food traditions. When they got here, they had to make their treasured recipes with whatever ingredients they could find -- that's the basis of regional American cooking as we know it today. Clementine was attracted to telling the stories behind the home cooks of America as they endeavored to get dinner on the table every night; it was an issue she was intimately familiar with, having grown up on a farm in rural Kansas. She knew that the food that was sacred to her in her girlhood was worth celebrating, and she made it her life's work to explore the hidden pockets of great regional American food as a way to pay homage to hard working women everywhere.

Culinary Types: What did you learn about your profession as a food writer in researching Paddleford?

Kelly Alexander: Well, it's really true that nothing in the world of food is ever "new." We think of "regional American food" as a hot topic these days, but it was around as a way of eating since long before even Clementine wrote about it. Writing about Clementine was an education in food writing in other ways, though: Her writing style is not memoiristic or especially personal, as so much food writing is these days -- it's explicitly based on solid reporting and fact gathering. It's much more structured, and frankly much more informative, than a lot of the food writing I see out there today...and it was a great inspiration to me for my own work.

Culinary Types: What would Paddleford think of today's food bloggers?

Kelly Alexander: I think she'd love the Internet. One of her hallmarks as a journalist was soliciting feedback from her readers. She would often end her columns by asking her readers to write to her, and when they invariably did she made sure to respond to every single one of them -- it's a wonder she slept given how much correspondence she produced. She was an inveterate letter writer, and I think the best food blogs today are written by people who approach their blogs in just that spirit. In short, I think she would have relied on bloggers as sources for great regional American food and would have taken pleasure in the whole online world of food.

Culinary Types: What do you think was the one thing that drove her for so many years?

Kelly Alexander: She was one of those people who was just born to be a reporter; as a child she wrote letters, kept journals, pestered the local newspaper to let her write stories...her passion as a storyteller was a huge part of her personality, and her desire to succeed, to become a famous writer, nearly dominated everything else in her life. She really wanted to tell stories, and she used food as a way to do it -- and her ambition was just positively limitless.

Culinary Types: Do you have a favorite Paddleford recipe and why?

Kelly Alexander: There are several personal favorites. The haman taschen, a traditional cookie baked on the Jewish holiday of Purim, is historically significant because it marks the first time a dish of such ethnic distinction was featured in a major national newspaper -- and the cookies are delicious, which helps. But the one I'd say is probably closest to my heart is called "Aunt Sabella's Chocolate Cake." It came from a lady in the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside. It's a small, rich, moist chocolate cake -- really more like a very large, very intense brownie -- and Clementine, who had a real sweet tooth, wrote about it with such enthusiasm ("Chocolate cake -- now that's my meat!" she said) that it drew me to it. It's a simple, classic, American dessert -- I would question the sanity of anyone who could find fault with it!

Culinary Types: Do you think American regional food is viewed differently because of Paddleford's work?

Kelly Alexander: I really don't think it's overstatement to say that we wouldn't have Rachael Ray without Clementine -- she paved the way for reporters and writers and cooks to talk about food as more than just a recipe formula. She was interested in the stories behind the recipes, and she was the first person to really make those stories come alive for the American public. She is such an integral part of American food history, and I'm just happy that she's finally getting her due.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Eight-and-a-half Hours in the Sonoma Valley

We’ve dubbed the day the “First Annual Food and Wine Classic.”

The conference is over, and fifteen of us have stayed on in the San Francisco Bay Area to, quite simply, wallow in all its gastronomic delights. And, we’re really good at wallowing, especially when it comes to food.

Sonoma is that place I’ve never quite gotten to, but almost everyone who mentions it, says they find it even more appealing than the Napa Valley. With that kind of endorsement and the assurance that there will be a vineyard every mile or two, I’m ready to roll.

We divide up into cars and I am paired off with a formidable team of culinary adventurers. Our genial host, Papa Bear is at the wheel, and I serve as co-pilot. Princess and Dairy Queen – both from Chicago – take the back passenger seats.

We leave the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge behind us. The clouds part, the morning is glorious and we cross into the Sonoma Valley, passing herds of dairy cows and gently rolling hills of taupe and brown heather. Papa Bear peppers the trip with an encyclopedic knowledge of the region. We are heading towards Petaluma, which he tells us is “the former chicken and egg capital of the world.” For the breakfast fans in the group, this is good news.

As we pull into Petaluma, Dairy Queen is distracted by the many antique shops that line the classic Hometown USA town center where the movie “American Graffiti” was filmed.

“You can’t swing a dead cat here without hitting an antique store,” says Papa Bear. Many of the shops are located in former chicken hatcheries along the main thoroughfare.

We disembark close to our first stop and immediately note a distinctive barnyard aroma that permeates the town. It is as though the agricultural spirits of California are welcoming us with a warm and gamey embrace.

We enter the bakery and café, Della Fattoria, located at 141 Petaluma Boulevard. One of our tour leaders, Shannon, says it offers “the best bread in the Bay Area.” We crowd around a large rustic table where we lunge into a tasting of thick, crusty slices of artisanal breads served in wooden bowls with steaming cups of coffee. There is olive bread, semolina bread, and walnut bread, but we all fall instantly in love with a Rosemary Meyer Lemon Boule, deeply infused with herbs and fresh citrus flavors. We scoop the remaining slices of bread into a shopping bag to sustain us en route.

Our culinary caravan continues into Santa Rosa and we make a left hand turn at a weather beaten sign and continue down a rutted country road. A few turkey vultures swoop overhead.

Stepping out of our cars, we are greeted by a flock of song birds and a community of sociable Holstein cows. We are at a bucolic dairy farm, home of the Joe Matos Cheese Company.

The diminutive dairy is painted robins egg blue and inside, the Matos family – fifth generation cheese makers from the Azorean island of St. Jorge – produces small batches of a Portuguese-style farmstead cheese. The shelves behind the counter are well-stocked with cream-colored wheels of cheese, and there are faded prints on the wall that depict scenes from the Azores.

We stand in the noon day sun, savoring the pale yellow slices which are tart and buttery. Our colleague, Buenos Aires Gus, passes around the shopping bag filled with bread slices and provides a translation of the cheese making process from a Matos family member. We get a glimpse inside the creamery, where curds are being cooked and turned by hand, and heavy concrete weights are used to press the wheels of cheese. The cheese is pressed for two days, and then aged for a minimum of two months.

By now, it is lunchtime and we are famished. We stop in Sebastopol at the Hopmonk Tavern, where an autumn chicken salad is washed down with a glass of pale, California-style ale that tastes herbaceous and refreshing.

The meal concluded, the Dairy Queen abandons our little entourage and goes with Buenos Aires Gus for ice cream (he is addicted), so we pick up our friend Nola who takes over the vacant back seat. We outpace the group and arrive ahead of them at St. Francis Winery and Vineyards for a tasting.

Nola, Princess and I sample a variety of reds, and are quite taken with a Cabernet with deep flavors of chocolate. I take note of a quotation by Robert Louis Stevenson – “Wine is bottled poetry.”

We continue driving along the legendary Valley of the Moon Highway, passing districts made famous by novelist Jack London. Alongside us, vineyards creep up clusters of hills, reminiscent of the wine regions of France.

As the sun starts to pull slowly behind the mountains, we arrive at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards for a champagne tasting. We pull together tables on the outdoor terrace and gaze out over the vineyards, where the grape vines are planted in endless, precise rows.

Papa Bear pops a few corks and we sample three luscious varieties – an all-Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc 2004, a pale blush Blanc de Noir and an elegant dry Brut. If the company and the adventure haven’t been intoxicating enough, this stop certainly is.

The vineyards take on a magical, late-afternoon glow, the wind picks up over the valley, and I once again sense that distinctive barnyard aroma, this time mingled with the sweet scent of wildflowers and smoke. It smells invigorating and alive!

In the evening, the group dines on exceptional flatbreads at a restaurant in Mill Valley, and it should be no surprise at this point, that I completely fail to note the name of the establishment.

As we conclude, only a single slice of flatbread remains on the table as evidence of our culinary odyssey through the Sonoma Valley.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Restaurant Formerly Known as KFC

What is a Spork? I must admit I was totally in the dark. Maybe I don’t get out enough, but for those of you who are as blissfully uninformed as I am, a Spork is an amalgamation of a spoon and a fork, and it allows you to pierce food and scoop food in one easy stroke. The Spork – I am told – is a utensil that originated at the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain.

So, why am I bringing this up?

I’ve never eaten at a KFC. Yet, this is about to change, as I descend on San Francisco, along with a small army of colleagues from around the world for a two-day conference. Jet lagged and undernourished (because nothing resembling food is ever served on planes), we arrive famished in the City by the Bay, and our genial host, who I’ll call Papa Bear, immediately sends us to Spork to fill our stomachs and revive our spirits.

In San Francisco, a vacant building is a good enough reason to start a new restaurant, and Spork – located at 1058 Valencia Street – is the site of a former Kentucky Fried Chicken, now revamped and remade and devoted to classic American dishes made with fresh ingredients. While you might think you can almost hear the chickens clucking, no poultry is actually served on the premises.

Allyson the Savage and Pamela the Rock are our designated food photographers for the evening since they actually remembered to bring cameras (unlike your intrepid Culinary Types editor – shame on me). While I usually work alone, it’s kind of nice to have a team of food paparazzi. It gives me more time to eat. The photos presented here are their fine work.

The Original Recipe Pull Apart Rolls are free (the price is listed as a big fat zero on the menu) and they are swoon-worthy. Fat, fluffy and dotted with sea-salt, their arrival stops all conversation in its tracks:

Note the dramatic angle that Pamela achieves on the mile-high house dinner salad. If she ever decides to quit her day job, she can moonlight as a food blogger photographer:

Tera and I, who may be destined to sit together wherever we go, each choose Goat Cheese Croquette with Pears as first course and Seared Dayboat Scallops with farro salad, beet puree, horseradish cream, arugula and orange vinaigrette. The scallops are melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and my culinary twin Tera describes the goat cheese croquettes as “Crispy goodness with melty cheese on the inside.” She does note that the single croquette is “lonely.” One croquette per person is just wrong.

We are hardly discriminating when it comes to dessert. We order one of everything on the menu and share. Buenos Aires Gus is smitten with the Strawberry and Huckleberry Cobbler, topped with vanilla ice cream, and yours truly is all but lusting after Donut Power, the light and fluffy beignets with cinnamon sugar. I also do a number on the Rocky Road Ice Cream.

Speaking of sweets, our friend Tera has a prediction. “Pie is the next thing,” she says. “I want us all to be on the lookout for pie.”

You heard it heard it here first, gang. Have your spork ready.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Economic Remedy

Has the news got you down? Global economic woes got you in a slump? Cheer up – apple season is in full swing!

Okay, maybe food can’t actually solve everything. If a glistening green Granny Smith is not enough to inoculate you against all the financial and political shenanigans going on at the moment, how about a golden apple cake drenched in bath of buttery-bourbon?

The economy is tough, and politics is grueling (ask any Joe Six Pack). But there’s always bourbon. And, this Bourbon Apple Cake by The Minimalist Mark Bittman is easy. Nothing fancy – flour, sugar, butter and pureed apples combined in the food processor, and baked in a no-frills 9-by-13 pan. And, if the current political campaign is driving you to drink, here’s a technique that won’t require a congressional vote – a cup of bourbon is warmed with butter and sugar and used to soak the cake. The result is robust, autumn flavor and a nice warm glow, even if the sputtering economy leaves you cold.

There’s another Presidential debate scheduled for this Wednesday. You might want to have a slice of Bourbon Apple Cake handy. I promise – my friends – you will not be undecided about this cake.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Les Dames and Daniel

It is not my typical Saturday lunch.

The autumn air is crisp and clean as I stroll along East 65th Street in Manhattan, towards a cream colored building with an art deco façade. I turn left into a large set of revolving doors with burnished trim. On each glass panel is a cocoa-colored plaque embossed with the name DANIEL.

Inside, elegantly dressed women are drinking ruby red sparkling wine in tulip glasses. I quickly spot my friend “Lee Sloan,” a grand dame of food and wine and join her. I’ve learned a lot about the world of food and met a lot of scrumptious foodies, thanks to Lee. She was a pioneering force in the practice of food public relations and helped to establish the organization Les Dames d’Escoffier more than 30 years ago. As she often reminds me, I was just a child back then. Les Dames d’Escoffier is an international organization of women leaders who create a supportive culture in the food, beverage and hospitality professions. The group is named for the famous French chef, August Escoffier.

It is the annual Les Dames d’Escoffier induction luncheon. Seven women of distinction in food, wine and hospitality will be welcomed into the organization. We are directed into a handsome gathering room carrying our bubbly red wine. During the ceremony, women are honored in the fields of food journalism, publishing, wine and consulting. Some wander in late complaining of parking challenges and one Dame notes that the bus is perhaps the most reliable form of transportation on a Saturday in Manhattan.

With the ceremony concluded we proceed to the sunken dining room to experience Chef Daniel Boulud’s seasonal French cuisine. The décor is a mix of neoclassic columns and contemporary art. Seated at the table, along with Lee are Dames Betty Fussell, Roberta Morrell and Rozanne Gold. Betty Fussell is a writer and food historian I’ve met on a number of occasions. She studies quintessential American foods, has written “The Story of Corn” and just published a history of beef in America called “Raising Steaks.” Roberta Morrell is the owner of a prestigious wine business in New York City. Rozanne Gold was once chef to former New York City Mayor Ed Koch and went on to create the successful series of “Recipes 1-2-3” cookbooks which offer delectable recipes using only three ingredients. The talk of the table is predominantly presidential and vice-presidential politics, as it is almost everywhere these days.

The luncheon is akin to being presented with a collection of rare jewels. South Carolina Shrimp with Spiced Carrot Coulis, Lime Gelee, Ginger-Scallion Salad & Whipped Cilantro Cream fairly glistens on the plate – several perfect crustaceans on a sea of deep orange. Pennsylvania Squab, Leg and Foie Gras Pastilla with Young Radishes, Broiled Breast with Vadouvan & Avocado Chutney is deeply earthy and the dollop of foie gras meltingly rich, surrounded by expertly sculpted new vegetables. Cilantro Poached Pineapple with Coconut Cream, Lime-Rum Gelee & Pina Colada Sorbet is a composed landscape of bronze hues and intensely tropical flavors.

Chef Daniel Boulud appears at the center of the room dressed in a crisp and immaculate white jacket, with rimmed glasses and dark steely-gray hair. He is one of the world’s most celebrated French chefs. Deliciously charming, he introduces the kitchen staff, and several dozen young men and women in white uniforms enter the room to the enthusiastic applause of the guests. One can sense the esprit de corps of the team at DANIEL. Chef Boulud notes that the women on his staff would make exceptional members of Les Dames d’Escoffier. He then moves from table to table greeting guests individually.

After chatting at our table, he invites us to take a tour of the kitchen. He leads us through a side door and we leave the classic elegance of the dining room and enter a world of stainless steel, bright lights and precision. This kitchen is for cold preparation and lunch dishes. Prep stations are arranged in an angular fashion. There are young culinary professions carefully chopping perfect vegetables. A variety of spice canisters are stored on a high shelf that lines the wall, along with small works of Asian art, and there is a large picture window above us. Chef Boulud notes that this is the chef’s dining room. “Anyone can eat up there if they reserve ahead,” he says.

He takes us along a narrow corridor and down a series of stairs – a culinary pied piper leading us through his domain. We enter a labyrinthine, subterranean kitchen where a battalion of more than forty kitchen staff are at work, inspecting fine herbs, preparing soup, organizing ingredients and baking bread. We weave through the center of the room. Each work station is just about two-feet-by-two feet. Members of the staff smile and greet us, but never waver from their orchestrated tasks. Chef Boulud explains to me that the kitchen is active for many hours each day with some members of the team beginning work at 11 a.m. to prepare bread, with others reporting in by 2 p.m. for dinner preparation. The ingredients surrounding us are perfection. Chef Boulud stops at a station, picks up a flawless Honey Crisp apple, puts it to his nose and inhales the aroma.

We wind through more corridors, past computers and photographs of illustrious guests. I spot framed photos of Chef Boulud with President Bill Clinton and Julia Child before we climb another set of stairs and return to the lobby of DANIEL.

As we are preparing to depart, Chef Boulud graciously agrees to inscribe my program and writes in large, expressive script:

Merci et à bientôt! Daniel Boulud 10/08

It’s going to be tough to go back to Saturday soup and sandwich next weekend.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved