Monday, November 29, 2010

Frites’ N’ Meats – Super-Powered Truck Food with a French Flair

The time is just days before Thanksgiving. We’ve planned a midday truck food adventure that has been diabolically foiled. The truck – which for the moment shall remain nameless – believes in “democratic eating” and asks fans to vote on its stop of the day. A group of college students up at Columbia has stuffed the ballot box, and the truck is now up in Morningside Heights. Drat! We need a “Plan B.” Fortunately, the Frites’ N’ Meats truck rides to our rescue – just outside our office lobby.

Zany and I are standing on the street, staring in awe at the glossy canary-yellow truck that looks like it just roared out of the pages of a DC Comic book. On the side is a heroic bull dressed in a red and blue faux Superman costume, perched atop an All-American burger and grasping a paper cone full of some of the most enticing French Fries this side of the Atlantic.

Zany is on a slow burn. Our partner in crime, Marie Antoinette, is late. We’ve decided to order without her, and make a mental note to mention the tardiness issue at her next evaluation. Now, with all distractions put aside, we’re focused on the food, an intriguing fusion of American, French and Belgian cuisine.

“We have to expand our stomachs in preparation for Thanksgiving,” says Zany as she examines the “weighty” menu.   She fills out her order card and points out that they ask for “Your Superhero Name” at the top of the card.   She writes in “Zany.”  That’s her superhero name. 

I wish I’d been more quick-witted and written “The Avenger” or something cool like that on my order card. Instead, I’d written my plain-old first name. I might as well have written “Clark Kent” or something equally mild-mannered.

We’re enjoying the carnival atmosphere. Beatles music is blasting from a megaphone, and it’s attracting a crowd. Zany is getting in the spirit of the dining occasion.

“I can’t tell if this should remind me of my honeymoon in Paris, or when I was 8-years-old,” she says.

I order the special of the day – The Bymark, a seasoned grass fed angus patty, covered with melted Brie, sliced grilled mushrooms, garlicky lemon aioli and topped with a brioche bun. Zany builds her own burger – a Wagyu - which starts with American Kobe. To that, she adds cheddar cheese, Dijon mustard and mesclun greens topped with the brioche bun. She believes in truth, justice and American Cheddar. Of course, it all comes with Handcut Double Fried Belgian Frites and some socko dipping sauces.

As we wait, our thoughts turn to super friends. “Who’s your favorite super hero?” asks Zany.

“Batman,” I answer immediately.

She scoffs at my lack of originality. “Batman? Everyone like Batman! Now He-Man and She-Ra – they were cool!”

Our orders are called. Lunch is all wrapped up in a brown bag with a colorful Frites’ N’ Meats sticker on it. “It’s just like your superhero lunchbox,” says Zany.

Back at HQ, we examine our loot.   The Belgian Frites are like a strange and wonderful visitor from another planet – super crisp and salty on the outside and molten potato goodness on the inside.   It’s must be that double-frying technique.   On the side are Sassy Frites Sauces – Garlic and Spicy Chili. 

My burger is cloaked in delectable melted Brie.   Zany’s burger has some perky greens peeking out from under the bun, just like a smart-aleck teenage sidekick.  

At this point, Marie Antoinette shows up clutching her bag full of lunch.  She’s managed to apprehend us and she’s packing an American Kobe burger with gruyere, tomato, mesclun greens and ketchup on a sesame seed bun.  
We discover that the fries come with utensils – a tiny plastic fork.   “I feel so classy eating French Fries with a fork,” says Marie Antoinette.   For someone who was more than fashionably late for lunch, she seems to have a funny fixation with etiquette.  Is she actually sticking out her pinky? 

Soon, the smoke of battle has cleared, and the lunch is just a memory.

“I’m ready to leap a tall building in a single bound,” I note.

“Not after that burger,” moans Zany. “Maybe after I finish the sauce."

“No, seriously,” I say. “I feel like I could fly to Krypton. Don’t you just want to do something heroic?”

“I made my own burger. Isn’t that enough?” asked Zany. “I built it from the bun up, since that’s what superheroes do.”

©2010 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Farmers' Holiday

The sky shimmers pearly grey as I approach the distribution tent at Restoration Farm. It is uncharacteristically warm for late November, as if the growing season of 2010 is trying to squeeze in just a few more hours of productivity.

The head growers have prepared a bonus distribution of vegetables – a final, Thanksgiving harvest for members already signed up for 2011. I can only gape, astonished, at the endless banquet table, groaning with a medley of autumn vegetables - red and green cabbage the size of soccer balls, golden beets as big as baseballs, fat leeks, and clumps of chubby crooked carrots.

The butternut squash has been prolific – not one, but two?

And of course, there are always vibrant, life-giving greens.  

The farmers – our farmers – Dan and Caroline seem happy and content. The pace at Restoration Farm will slow… for a time.

I stop to chat, but this is not the usual relaxed weekend distribution. Within minutes, a drove of members flood the tent with recyclable bags in hand. It is as though someone has just convened a frenetic harvest square dance. People gather their produce with a sense of efficiency and purpose. There are still pies to be baked. I jump into line and get with the business of gathering and weighing.

Last spring these vegetables were tiny seeds, pushed into the soil by index fingers caked in dirt.  Such potential now fulfilled, but it required an investment - sun, sweat, collaboration, water, weeding and a nurturing community.   
Such dividends are found in every bite – brilliant color, variety, flavor and nourishment for the body and the spirit - satisfying our hunger, stocking our freezers, and filling our lives.

As the butternut squash puree, the green bean casserole, the beet salad and the pumpkin bread are placed on the table on this day of Thanksgiving - and passed between friends and family - there is reason to smile. We all share in the farm this day.

Happy Thanksgiving!
©2010 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pumpkin Pie? Lighten Up!

And so, the 2010 Pie Season begins in earnest. Have you been training?

If you’re already looking for ways to pace yourself over the next four weeks or so, consider this Chocolate-Pumpkin Tart recipe from Everyday Food. While it’s not exactly, uh, diet food, it is a more streamlined version of the traditional pumpkin pie and the combination of creamy pumpkin custard and chocolate cookie crust is sublime.

Just imagine how far I’ll go to rationalize my craving for desserts by the time Christmas rolls around!

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 14, 2010

NYC Cravings – A Taiwanese Food Truck

The day has not started out well. My socks don’t really match my slacks (that’s what happens when you get dressed in the dark) and now Zany and I are wandering aimlessly up 51st Street looking for a food truck that seems to have vanished.

We’re off our game. We’re hungry. We’re lost, and we just might be suffering from seasonal affective disorder.

“Mad Me-Shell would never have gotten lost looking for lunch,” points out Zany, exasperated.

“True, but I wasn’t the one who had the wrong address,” I respond peevishly. (I make a mental note that Zany still seems to be going through separation issues. Mad left us for the food truck desert of Chicago last August.)

Always the cool head in a crisis, Zany pulls out her mobile phone. “We’ve never had to call a lifeline before,” she mutters and dials up a colleague to get the proper coordinates for our target. NYC Cravings – A Taiwanese Food Truck is actually serving today on 50th Street.

We hustle one block over so I don’t faint from hunger on 6th Avenue. The chow line is substantial, which is interesting because NYC Cravings takes a simple, no-frills approach to street food – no fancy graphics or packaging, in fact, you take away your food in a basic brown paper bag.

The bill of fare is not as “precious” as some trucks. You’ve got about two choices – a Taiwanese-style fried pork chop over rice with pork sauce, and Taiwanese-style fried chicken over rice with pork sauce.

“Fried chicken with pork sauce?” I wonder out loud. “First of all, what’s pork sauce, and secondly, isn’t that a strange marriage of proteins?”

“The pork sauce is their secret recipe,” explains Zany, who’s been doing some research on the message boards. “Nobody knows what’s in it.” Judging from the looks of the line, I wonder if the secret ingredient is a controlled substance.

While we wait, I wax nostalgic about pork chops. “We always had Shake and Bake pork chops growing up,” I share.

“Did you help?” asks Zany, who is barely tolerating my hunger-inspired musings.

At last, we approach the window where there’s some frenetic prep work underway. We get a face full of steam. Good for the pores. We request an order of chicken, an order of pork, two tea eggs and a serving of pork dumplings. Within seconds, it’s all shoved in a brown paper bag and placed in our arms.

Back at the office, we spread the goods out on my desk. The aroma of authentic Taiwanese street food is overpowering. We both have pending appointments, so this is destined to be a power tasting. Such is the fast-paced lunch life of a New Yorker. The pork is a deep bronze, and the chicken is crisp and golden. Both sit atop a healthy serving of white rice, drenched with that mysterious pork sauce.

The pork sauce might be habit-forming. We can taste warm, exotic spices – maybe Chinese five spice or star anise? The meat is cooked perfectly, but for some reason, we can’t help ourselves from devouring the rice.

I’ve heard of the legendary tea egg. It’s not quite as pucker-worthy as Zany’s favorite pickled eggs from western Pennsylvania, but certainly worth a try.

The steaming dumplings are tender and bulging with seasoned pork.  We pronounce them quite tasty.

The meal is enough for four, but we manage to polish off most of it. Too bad our crony Marie Antoinette is away. I dispose of the debris in the pantry about a quarter-mile from my office so as not to be distracted by the intoxicating aroma for the remainder of the day. We move on to the second half of our day, clearly under the influence of that special sauce.

Halfway through my afternoon meeting, as I struggle to stay awake, my Blackberry starts blinking. It’s a message from Zany.

“The hallway smells like Chinatown,” she writes. “It’s gotta be the pork sauce.”

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Perfecting the Pippi Longstocking of Breads

During my entire elementary school career, I never tugged on a classmate’s pigtails, but I must confess I have a bit of an obsession for braided bread. Challah is a traditional Jewish bread, enriched with eggs and served on the Sabbath. An egg glaze gives the bread a glossy, bronze finish, and the braided dough is a stunner. The plaited strands are a symbol of love.

Four years ago, I took a month-long course in Classic European Breads at the French Culinary Institute in New York. We worked like dogs, making dozens of baguettes each day for restaurant service, as well as learning to make a range of classic styles of bread. We made some impressive Challah. When I tried to make it at home, the obstacles were numerous. The home kitchen is nothing like the professional bread kitchen. I used a stand mixer to mix the dough, and probably overworked it. I couldn’t’ find a spot in the house with the ideal temperature to encourage bread to rise. I did a nice job with the braiding, but on the final rise, the loaf barely budged. The loaf I brought to a Thanksgiving dinner looked good, but was dense and chewy. Everyone was polite (how could anyone be critical on Thanksgiving?), but I knew I knew my Challah was an unqualified flop.

Recently, I installed a warming drawer with a setting for proofing bread. That hefty investment made, my bread now rises spectacularly well. And, I have to laugh when I think about the fact that my Great Grandmother used to leave her bread to rise by the furnace. That never worked for me, but a pricy warming drawer delivers the desired result. She probably finds this quite amusing.
I’ve also eliminated the stand mixer from the process. I’m a physically fit guy. I can manage a few minutes of kneading. In fact, the tactile approach is what baking bread is all about.
So, I can honestly say this latest attempt was an improvement over the last. When placed in the warming drawer, the braided loaf did actually double in size, and the crumb in the finished loaf had a nice, feathery texture.
I had a little trouble keeping the braid together, and one side got a little tattered. This is probably because I didn’t coat the dough with oil during the second proofing in the refrigerator, and it developed a bit of a skin. This made it harder to roll the dough into ropes, and some of the ropes tended to tear a bit. I can probably fix this next time.

But, heck, right now I’m eating Challah that I kneaded, braided and baked myself. It’s edible, it’s even tasty, and it didn’t come out of a plastic bag. What could be better than that?

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved