Sunday, March 31, 2013

Pruning and Renewal At Apple Trace

When I was a youngster, my Dad had a set of electric hair clippers.   At a designated hour every month, my brothers and I would line up by a tall stool in the basement, and one by one, Dad would zip off our hair, clippers buzzing furiously. 

As a barber, Dad had a sure-handed and confident technique, and we’d emerge from the basement with perfectly trimmed buzz cuts.   Our closely cropped dos would be the envy of any young military recruit.  

I am far less confident of the outcome as I approach Apple Trace at Restoration Farm on one of the last days of winter, preparing to prune the line of young apple trees for the very first time.   The eight heritage apple trees were planted in memory of my father James M. Barritt, Jr. in the spring of 2012.  
Restoration Farm’s resident fruit tree expert, Glenn Aldridge tells me the window for late winter pruning is once a year, and it is just about closed.   The tree is dormant, and energy is stored in the root, so the pruning promotes new growth in the spring.  Even at an early age, pruning is important to influence the future growth and shape of a tree.   The goal of pruning is to expose the strongest branches of the tree to as much sun and air as possible.  
I am skeptical.  The trees look so fragile.  They are barely twigs, so how will they withstand a pruning?   
I’m not quite ready to make the first cut, so I stroll down a secluded path adjacent to the historic village to visit the old Hewlett Apple Orchard and see how the trees there have progressed.  Exactly a year ago, we began pruning those long neglected trees, and Glenn has been working the orchard throughout the winter.  Along the way, I am trailed by a small flock of Billy goats who follow me into the orchard.  
At the Hewlett Apple Orchard, the trees appear to be thriving.   None are the worse for the rigorous pruning we gave them last year.    They look strong, healthy, well-shaped and ready for spring.  
So, perhaps the fledgling trees of Apple Trace would hold up to a little pruning.  After all, I survived the once-monthly trauma of a buzz cut.   I return to Apple Trace with renewed determination.  

In discussing “intuitive pruning,” orchardist Michael Phillips says, “Approach each tree with an introductory intake of the breath.  This meditative pause is when you take in the tree’s framework and overall shape.  How does it fit within the row?  Are some branches too low?  Is the leader beyond reach?”  
I take a deep breath.  I walk around each little tree and examine it carefully.  Where are the odd, outlier branches?  Where do the branches grow together in a pleasing conical shape?   At last, I am ready to take the clippers in hand.  I’ve convinced myself that pruning will be beneficial, and a path to renewal for these beloved trees.   
As I examine each tree, and clip one branch at a time, I start to see the results.   The trees look cleaner, streamlined and shapelier.  Each is a different variety, and each has its own shape and character.  
As I clip each branch, I collect the twigs.   I’ll put them in a vase on the Easter dinner table as a reminder of Dad and his apple trees taking root at Restoration Farm.   Someday, should the pruning pay off, perhaps I’ll make an apple tart with the fruit from Apple Trace.  
As I bundle up the cuttings and prepare to leave, I notice a family of robins who have alighted on Chapel Field – a sure sign of the promise of the season ahead. 
Happy Easter!  Happy Spring!   

©2013 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Attack of the Toast Monster

What you’re gazing on is a monster mash up of breakfast, lunch and dinner.   It’s the grilled Mac & Cheese Texas Size Sammie (that’s street lingo for sandwich) served up by “Toast Monster,” and it’s a massive collision of cheese and carbs.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  Perhaps I should explain.

For weeks, I’d been tracking Toast Monster, the latest food cart rumored to be on the street.   Not a truck, but a cart-like vehicle.   Kind of a large glass-enclosed gondola on four wheels.   Mac & Cheese on toast??!!  What God fearing suburbanite could turn that down?  It’s ethnic food for WASPS.  Yet Toast Monster had proven to be as elusive as the legendary Bigfoot.   I’d go out of town, and Toast Monster would appear on 50th Street with elbow macaroni sizzling on the griddle.   I’d return to town, and Toast Monster was off the street for repairs.  My stomach was getting extremely frustrated.
Finally, one Monday morning the stars align.   Toast Monster is spotted on 47th Street near Park Avenue gearing up for lunch.   I persuade my college roommate “Ford McKenzie” to join me for the chase.  

I’ve suspected for some time that Ford is a bit ambivalent about my efforts to drag him into this questionable culinary sub culture.  However, even though he tells me, “I’m a lover, not a hunter,” he’s game and agrees to rendezvous on 47th Street at the appointed hour.  Ford’s Mad Men office is just a few blocks away on Madison, but it’s a bit of a walk for me across town.   As I near the site, he texts me, “I’m here.”

“Is the beast growling?” I text back.

“It’s a little smaller than I thought,” he responds.

Indeed, positioned next to a massive canary yellow food truck, the diminutive Monster looks a bit like a pussycat.  
Ford is dressed for comfort food on the street.   “I decided to wear my 1960’s Glenn Plaid slacks and scuffed Gucci loafers since we were hitting the pavement,” he says.  Once again, Ford is the trailblazer, adding sartorial style to the street food experience.   
The Toast Monster is kind of like a wild animal’s cage, with the griddle and grill roaring inside.   The glass barrier makes it easy for us to see our lunch being prepared.   I explain to Ford that according to street food etiquette, you have to order a couple menu items so we all get a chance to sample.  
So we make a deal with the Monster, and get one grilled Mac & Cheese Texas Size Sammie that features stringy mozzarella, macaroni, buttered toast, and a whole lot of cheddar cheese.   Our second choice is the Chicken Parm Sammich, offering chunks of Italian-seasoned chicken breast, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and grated Parmesan cheese on two pieces of garlic toast.   Just for a little extra variety, we throw in an order of Sloppy Joe Sauce to embellish the Mac & Cheese.  For dessert, we order one of the Monster’s signature sweet finishes – a French Toast Sammich drizzled with maple syrup with walnuts and coconut tucked in between the slices.  

“Does that come with a defibrillator?”  Ford asks.  The Toast Monster is not amused and just snarls venomously.  
Ford’s still a little miffed that I publicly maligned his culinary instincts in the write up of our last food truck adventure, and even more disturbed that Zany gave him a thumbs down in the comments section for taking his street food indoors.  

“I don’t need that kind of smack down,” Ford says testily.  “Zany’s retired, and we’re taking a new approach now.”  He starts trotting towards Park Avenue. 

Now that's the kind of trash talk we expect on the street.  I don’t even want to think about how that comment’s going to fly on the streets of Chicago, but I gather up our sacks of food, take a deep breath and follow Ford towards the East Side.  Before I know it, he’s bounding up the steps of the palatial Inter-Continental Hotel.   
He makes a beeline through the marble and gilded lobby to a quiet area where a sofa, coffee table and chairs are arranged beneath an oil painting.  
We crack open the bags and inspect the monstrous menu.  Of course it’s all about the bread – thick, crisp and seared with beautiful bronze grill marks.  The Mac & Cheese Sammich is a mile-high stack of golden Texas Toast oozing with elbows and creamy cheddar.   The carbs-on-carbs layering is strangely narcotic. 
The Chicken Parm Sammich is worthy of Little Italy – juicy chunks of chicken and piquant tomato sauce wrapped in crunchy garlic toast. 
The Sloppy Joe sauce is an arresting accent – the mac & cheese kind of mellows the spicy sauce.

So, a little toast, a little lunch, and with the French Toast Sammich, we are back to breakfast again.  The breakfast of champions.  
As we eat, a parade of well heeled tycoons and international travelers pass by and I know they’re wondering why they’re sniffing the distinct aroma of toasted bread and macaroni and cheese.   Frankly, this mash up of “street food dining while squatting in New York’s finest hotels” is beginning to grow on me.  

Lunch is complete and Ford bags up the trash and glances down at the gleaming marble floor.   “If I had known we were going to dine in such opulence,” he says, “I would have polished my shoes.”  

Later that afternoon, Ford pings me.  

“How are u feeling?” Ford writes.  “The caloric shock is making it difficult for me to bend my wrists, and my office suddenly doesn’t seem quite big enough for me.  I think I am going to need to string up an irrigation line from the water cooler to my mouth for the rest of the day.”

A nightmarish end?  Indeed.  I guess that’s why they call it the Toast Monster.  Grrr.  
©2013 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Soil, Seeds and Dirty Hands – Sowing Begins at Restoration Farm

This is how the summer harvest begins – palms blackened and dirt clinging to cuticles.  

It is a humble inception and one most never see.   But, assisting with seeding at Restoration Farm has become a regular pre-spring ritual for me.  It’s dirty, but it’s a signal that no matter how uncertain the times, some things remain constant.   Eventually, spring will arrive and seeds, soil, sun and water will produce food.
Seeding is the start of something delicious.   As always, Head Grower Caroline Fanning is scrupulously organized with detailed directions on which flats get which variety of seeds.   
On Saturday, our assignment is to seed 21 flats with beets and scallions.   I like seeding beets, because I enjoy holding those bright purple orbs in June, knowing I played some part in their birth.   The team includes Susan Salem, Donna Sinetar, Judy Stratton and me.     
We use our index fingers to dimple the soil, and then count out seeds one-a-at-a-time into the holes.  It is painstaking work but with a group, the job moves quickly.
Caroline takes us to the greenhouse, where scallions seeded earlier in the month are already sprouting.   There is a smattering of green accenting the flats of soil.  
The flowers at Restoration Farm are a feast for the eyes.  By midsummer, the cutting garden is a canopy of color.  It all starts with seeds, some no bigger than a grain of sand.   We reconvene on Sunday, and this time the team is Donna Sinetar, LuLu McCue and me. We prep the flats again.   After a point, your finger joints can get a little stiff.   You need sharp eyes for seeding microscopic flower seeds, but with focus we complete 28 flats. 
Ada does a pretty good of seeding, too.  Rumor has it she is planting lollipops, which sounds pretty tasty to me!
We conclude the weekend of seeding with a potluck soup and bread lunch.  LuLu is a soup chef extraordinaire, and serves up a rich, delicious lentil soup chock full of legumes, greens and orecchiette pasta and flavored with pancetta.  
It’s paired with a loaf of whole-wheat cottage cheese dill bread from my kitchen.
We can almost taste the fact that spring is just around the corner…  
©2013 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved   

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ascending to Hibachi Heaven

I’ve never been much for pyrotechnics.  Far from a model Boy Scout, I could never light a campfire, and my first backyard grill – a hibachi – required copious amounts of lighter fluid.  My guests would wait for hours only to be served an anemic, barely scorched burger.  

So, I’m particularly awestruck when someone ignites an impressive flame, and it was no surprise that the Hibachi Heaven food truck immediately caught my eye.
I’ve managed to collar my college roommate “Ford McKenzie” for lunch.  He’s recently started a job in my neighborhood.  I think a street food lunch is a fantastic idea.  He’s not so sure.   As a compromise, we’ve agreed to meet at a new sandwich shop for lunch.  But, when I spot Hibachi Heaven on 52nd Street, I send him an A.P.B., also known as a text.   Moment later, I can see Ford – dapperly dressed for casual Friday – just a half-a-block away heading towards me.

“I could sense the excitement in your text,” he tells me.   He’s right.  My pulse is racing.  I try to explain the kind of primal “hunter gatherer” thrill a new food truck inspires, but my words are insufficient.   I’m pleased that Ford will get the full food truck experience.  He’s just returned from India and sampled a variety of street food.   He should be a real natural at this.  
Hibachi Heaven is a sleek black truck flanked with Hot Wheels-style flames on each side.   An angelic hibachi chef is depicted on the truck door.  
The whole concept of a hibachi on a truck has raised some questions in my mind.   The word “hibachi” means “fire bowl” in Japanese and a traditional hibachi is a ceramic box or bowl that contains charcoal.  I’m half-expecting a Benihana-style chef putting on a food and fireworks display inside the truck.  
I suppose the truck is kind of a metaphysical hibachi on wheels.  The owners describe the vehicle as “a fire bowl truck filled with delicious food and great service.”   Hibachi Heaven boasts the largest grill on a food truck, but then I don’t exactly have a tape measure handy.  

The menu is simple but substantial.   Entrees are available in a wrap or a bowl and you get a selection of protein, rice, vegetables and sauce.   If you are inclined to be creative, you can actually come up with quite a range of options.   The protein choices include beef, chicken, shrimp or tofu.   Add to that a choice of fried rice or brown rice and a vegetable medley of carrots, cabbage, broccoli, mushrooms and onions.   Top it off with a Heavenly Ginger Sauce, Yum Yum Sauce or Wasabi Infused Mayo.   It’s a lot of food and probably not the best option for the salad and soda cracker crowd.  
Ford steps up to the window, calmly orders a beef wrap with wasabi infused mayo and lays out his cash.   I’m a little taken aback by the rationality of the whole scene unfolding in front of me.  Where’s the witty repartee?  Where’s the “my-order-is-better-than-yours” competitive mind games?   Where’s the sense of food porn rapture?  Doesn’t he know there’s a whole ritual to this truck food thing?  To be fair, he is following the crème de la crème of food truckers, and they are not an easy act to follow.   Maybe a more formal apprenticeship is in order?

I pay for my order – a Hibachi Heaven bowl, filled with grilled chicken, fried rice, vegetables and Heavenly Ginger Sauce.   I’m about to head for the usual outdoor dining spot when Ford decides to add his own unique twist to the ritual.  I’m pointing to the concrete benches, but he’s shaking his head disapprovingly.  

“We’re not eating outside,” he says.  “Let’s go to the lobby of the Sheraton.”  

I should have known that “roughing it” was not exactly his style.  I follow Ford up the street and through the revolving doors of the Sheraton Hotel on Seventh Avenue. 
“Is this legal?” I whisper.

“Sure,” he says confidently.  “It’s a public space.”  He heads for a grouping of two cushy chairs, and brushes some paper and debris off a table so that we can use if for our indoor picnic.   It turns out the paper and debris actually belongs to somebody who huffily appears to collect his things.   Meanwhile, I’m keeping one eye trained on the hotel security desk as we unpack the goods.  

Ford’s wrap is the size of a burrito on steroids.  The beef smells savory and delicious.  
My chicken is rich and meaty with big chunks of chicken, the vegetables are nicely crisp and the Heavenly Ginger sauce adds a nice zing.  
Leave it to Ford to take street food and "class it up" a notch.  In terms of our “fine dining” experience, it all turns out not to be a problem.  We enjoy an uninterrupted, leisurely lunch with a pretty good view of the taxi queue outside the hotel.   Ford thinks I worry too much about “the rules” but it would have been embarrassing if Hibachi Heaven had ended in the slammer.     
©2013 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved