Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Brooklyn Beefsteak – Guys, Red Meat and No Napkins Allowed

My college roommate “Ford McKenzie” claims I’m a bad influence on him. This, he attributes mostly to the Manhattan Cocktail imbroglio of 2009, of which I do acknowledge some level of responsibility.

But, lately, I’ve come to believe that Ford may in fact be the real provocateur and I am the unsuspecting victim. Recent events have prompted a recurring delusion. I see Ford standing just on the horizon, looking dapper in a Mad Men-style suit. He is summoning me with his index finger and a sly grin, and luring me into yet another compromising situation that results in deranged gluttony.

Take the recent incident of The Brooklyn Beefsteak. Perhaps you’ve heard of this noted New York tradition. Writer Joseph Mitchell immortalized The Beefsteak in The New Yorker magazine in 1939. The ritual might have begun in the late 19th century. Large groups of men would gather (often at a Republican club) and gorge themselves on an endless procession of steak and beer. Knives, forks and napkins were strictly prohibited. In fact, according to Mitchell’s chronicle, if you left the event hungry, it wasn’t a beefsteak, but just a dinner masquerading as such. Women did not participate. Eventually females were allowed to join in the fun, but with the equal opportunity came a certain refinement. It was never quite the same, according to Mitchell, and eventually the Beefsteak died out during a regretable phase of frugality.

Ford is a passionate New Yorker and local historian and becomes quite excited when he learns that The Bell House in Gowanus has revived the Beefsteak. An excursion is planned months in advance. Ford has assembled a cadre of carnivorous men – Eric, Matt, Richard and yours truly. I ask Ford if they are actually banning women at the Beefsteak or if we are just keeping up the tradition.

“Every time I mention this to or in front of a woman, I get a look of utter disgust,” says Ford, “so process of elimination.”

The Mitchell article says that male guests would wear tuxedos, or their second-best suit, grease being a significant factor in a Beefsteak. I’m not exactly sure what to wear.

“I think if you cut a hole in a shower curtain, wear it like a poncho and bring along a slop bucket you should be OK,” Ford advises.

And so, we set out on our journey through an untamed district of Gowanus. Richard knows the area and mentions that there is a casket company nearby.

“Is that where they take you after the Beefsteak?” I ask.

We approach the Bell House on foot, and plunge into a cloud of smoke. Large grills are set up on the sidewalk and hanger steak and skirt steak are sizzling in the afternoon sun.

Inside the Bell House, we are handed white butcher aprons and our hands are stamped. We enter a cavernous room and face a sea of humanity. Close to 250 boisterous people are seated at banquet tables and a Brooklyn hillbilly band is performing on stage. The noise is deafening. Matt’s from Vermont. For just a minute, I wonder if this experience will do any permanent damage, but he seems resilient. Heck, he seems fully prepared to jump off the deep end …

The cavalcade of carnivorous pleasure begins. It occurs to me that I am ravenous. The slivers of steak atop slices of bread are red and juicy, with a savory and smoky taste that just wraps you in ecstasy. One of the staff places a platter on the table, and all I can see are five sets of hands grabbing across the table. Steak is alternated with mini-burgers. In the tumult, one of my burgers falls to the floor. It stays there.

There are also heaps of potato salad, macaroni salad and pickles. We wash it all down with a torrent of McSorley’s Ale.

Ford is into to the Beefsteak etiquette and refuses to eat anything with utensils – even the macaroni salad. His apron looks like a Jackson Pollock canvas. I keep a roll of paper towels near my chair. He says I’m a wimp.
A leggy blonde in a blue denim mini-skirt and cowboy boots has dozens of slices of bread stacked in front of her like a set of poker chips. At first, I think she’s being carb conscious, but then, I realize that Eric and everyone else seems to be scarfing the beef, skipping the bread and collecting the slices. It’s all part of the ritual. The person who collects the most slices of bread has presumably eaten the most beef and is eligible for a prize.

The beef and beer continues. It’s like manna from heaven. Or is it a Tudor banquet? No matter your reference point, there is something primal, dangerous and deeply satisfying going on. I’m flushed with beer, protein and B12.
By now, I’m feeling like I could use a green salad. “You know, it’s only 3 o’clock,” says Ford. “We need to pace ourselves.

After a point, I abandon any remaining shred of self-control and let myself succumb to the mob mentality. There is more and more meat. I mention to Ford that I’m in need of a palate cleanser. He can barely contain his ridicule. “You want sorbet?” he sneers. “You’ll be lucky to get ice chips.”

A level of smug satiety has sunk in amidst our team.
The crowd is slowing down. They are now several hours under the influence of umami. The leggy blonde has an architectural nightmare on her hands.

She accepts her prize – a t-shirt. It’s a lot of effort and digestive juices for a pre-shrunk cotton garment. The mob revives and is whipped into a frenzy. A food fight erupts, bread slices soaring through the air at a furious clip.

I haven’t seen this kind of carnage since college.
The aroma has changed – it is now a musky mixture of charred meat, stale beer and sweat. It’s time to go.
The lights go on, and we experience that self-conscious, squinty, uncomfortable feeling you get when you exit a movie theater on a summer afternoon.
Ford seems satisfied, though. “I liked the food fight at the end,” he says. “It made the day.”
Ford McKenzie – always a class act.
We leave the building – some of us still wearing our aprons – and looking like an squadron of butchers who’ve just gone off-duty. Within about an hour, Ford and I are queued up for ice cream at the local Haagen-Dazs shop.
Boys will be boys.
©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Chocolate-Mint Icebox Cake and Some Chilling Thoughts

I remember when my last refrigerator died. It was chock-full of food and several days before the holidays. There’s never a convenient time for the refrigerator to go. Emergency resuscitation failed. The food was quickly scooped into coolers, and I made a frantic trip to the local appliance store. A replacement was delivered within about 24 hours. That chocolate brown beauty of a fridge – circa 1970 – had done an honorable tour of duty. The spanking new compact Hotpoint Refrigerator Freezer seemed ultra-modern. It certainly was, compared to these vintage models on display at the exhibit “America’s Kitchens” at the Long Island Museum at Stony Brook.

It’s easy to take the refrigerator for granted, but it is an essential kitchen tool. If you’ve never considered the maintenance-free qualities of the modern refrigerator, take a look at this passage from the booklet, “2000 Useful Facts About Food,” published in 1941 and a birthday gift from my friend Miss Tera.

In the section, “Care of the Automatic Refrigerator,” the author writes:

Defrost and clean refrigerator once every week or 10 days. Turn temperature control to defrost. Remove ice trays. (Ice cubes may be kept in a vacuum jar for several hours.) Remove food from refrigerator. Leave door open. Ice trays may be filled with tepid water to hasten defrosting. Do not chip ice from freezing unit with any sharp instrument. Wash inside of box and inside and outside of freezing unit with a solution of soda and warm water. Remove shelves and wash. Rinse with clear warm water. When defrosted, empty water collected in drip tray. Turn control to normal operation (if not automatic.)

This sounds like just the kind of household job I’d like to take on every week to 10 days.

It is precisely because I am lazy, that I recently decided to upgrade my refrigerator/freezer –that, and a desire to have more room to store the vegetables anticipated from the upcoming summer CSA season. You’ve probably gotten the sense that there is a bit of a kitchen renovation in progress right now here on suburban Long Island. The latest addition is GE® Energy Star Refrigerator with bottom freezer drawer, and “CleanSteel” doors that resist pesky fingerprints. It looks like something out of the Jetsons.

There is plenty of room for fruits and vegetables, chilled wine, and lots of wide shelf space to hold special cake projects. My sister-in-law Ramiza is convinced I have an incurable condiment problem, and now I’ve got a designated section to keep condiments organized and easy to access. My decluttering guru was not at all happy with the state of my baking cabinet, so she’ll be pleased to see that I’ve started out on the right foot organizing the new refrigerator. Everything is visible and has its place.

It’s easy to brag about your organizational skills when you start fresh. I’m not so willing to share photographs of my cupboards for Lydia’s “Other People’s Pantries” feature.

A classic no-bake Icebox Cake seemed like the perfect recipe to christen the new refrigerator. Chocolate wafers are stacked with layers of mint-flavored whipped cream to create a log that is covered with the remaining whipped cream and sprinkled with chocolate morsels. The cookie layers become soft and cake-like as the roll chills. You can find the recipe here. The most famous version of the recipe is found here.

It’s a sweet finish to dinner with good friends, and if you happen to serve this Icebox Cake during a blackout, be sure to slice quickly, because even the most modern refrigerator still needs electricity to keep a no-bake cake from melting.

©2010 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 14, 2010

In the Beginning - Hints of Green at Restoration Farm

The storm is hellacious – belligerent wind and soaking rain. Nature is throwing a chilling late-winter tantrum. Yet, in a well-lit basement work area, a small group of volunteers is painstakingly focused on the promise of sun-drenched organic vegetables. The first CSA pickup is months away. Sometime in early June, members will arrive at the Restoration Farm distribution tent, and delight in that first look and taste of tender greens. Some may never consider how the journey of that verdant lettuce, hearty kale or sweet crimson beets began.

Head Grower Caroline Fanning is instructing a group of volunteers in the process of seeding. She is carefully organized with detailed lists, labeled flats and packets of seeds grouped together. Seed flats are stacked tall throughout the room, each packed with soil and designated for a specific food crop, herb or flower.

I’m given the task of sowing seeds for Red Ace beets. Each compartment of the flat must be “dimpled” to receive the seeds. I plunge an index finger into the cold soil to make the indentation. Larger seeds require deeper holes.

Caroline gives me an index card folded into a v-shape. From the index card holder, two gnarled beet seeds are dropped into each hole. I seed eight flats in total. If all goes well, once the Red Ace seeds germinate and are planted at Restoration Farm they should be ready for harvest in mid-June for use in a Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Salad. Can’t you taste it already?

Head Grower Dan Holmes arrives with Glen and Caroline’s grandfather George. They work to finish the flats – topping them off with more soil. There are flower seeds to be sown. It is eye-straining work. The flower seeds are tiny – some even dust-like.

Restoration Farm Head Growers Dan Holmes and Caroline Fanning, George and T.W. in the greenhouse.

Outside in the greenhouse, onions, leeks and scallions seeded several weeks earlier have begun to sprout.

The aromatic onion is the foundation for so many dishes. The onion has been cultivated for more than 5000 years, but even today is still seeded by hand at Restoration Farm. The fragile green tops of these aromatics are just one signal of the cultivation, the labor and flavor still to come.

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Weekend Cookie Classic

I’m learning the temperament of the new stove, one recipe at a time. Next up is a little cookie baking experiment. How will this hot shot oven affect the browning, crispiness and texture of a very traditional oatmeal cookie recipe?

My recipe comes from a 1983 pamphlet from Quaker Oats called “Simply Great Cookies.” It is one of several heirloom recipe pamphlets that I received from family and friends for my birthday. This was part of my mom’s collection and came from my parents.

The recipe is a classic –“Easy Chocolate Chippers” – but I can’t resist the urge to improvise.

Instead of chocolate chips, I add a cup of cinnamon chips that I purchased last fall at Charles H. Baldwin & Sons in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. If you are ever in the area, you should visit this charming, historic flavor and extract company tucked away in the Berkshires.

The batter comes together quickly in the stand mixer, and two trays of cookies slide into the oven.

Within 15 minutes the cookies are ready – plump and chewy with a slightly crisp edge.

The cinnamon chips are subtle, sensual and mildly sweet. Not exactly a chip off the old block, but an intriguing update for a classic cookie recipe. Is it necessary to tell you that I couldn’t stop at one?

My Cinnamon Chippers fit nicely into a new addition in my kitchen, a sunny golden pineapple cookie jar.

It’s a gift from my good friend Joan Licursi. Joan explains, “I wish I had a lot to tell you about the cookie jar that I knew to be fact. It was likely a wedding gift to native New Yorkers Mary and Fred Roeben (Joan’s parents) in 1934, and has always resided in the West Village (first on West 12th Street and then for at least 50 years on Bank Street) before its move to Long Island this year. It sat in a place of prominence on a built-in shelf in my parents' kitchen for as long as I can remember (up to my eviction in 1993!). Humorously enough, I never remember there being any cookies in it as my mom was not exactly a Betty Crocker type. That may be why it's still in such good shape after 75 years!”

I’ve know Joan for more than 20 years, so it should be no surprise that the pineapple is a symbol of friendship. I am so pleased to be the new caretaker of one of Mary and Fred Roeben's prized possessions!

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved