Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Polish Truck and an Oktoberfest (minus the beer) at The W Hotel

We haven't seen much of my college roommate Ford McKenzie this summer.  After hosting an extravagant gourmet dinner on Memorial Day weekend topped off with artisan S'mores at his summer getaway on the East End of Long Island, Ford headed abroad where he began voraciously eating his way through the great capitals of Europe.   

The resulting food porn was excessive and just a tad annoying.  I'd stop for a quick lunch at Red Lobster (a healthy soy glazed salmon) and a series of pictures would suddenly appear on my phone from Ford, chronicling his tony four-course, five-star dinner in Geneva.   It was a not-so-subtle reminder that his food was infinitely better than mine.  That's the way it is with Ford.  He enjoys reminding me that anything I can do, he can do better.  A few days of this digital gluttony, and I find myself ungraciously hoping that Ford will split a seam in his skinny designer suit.   

The summer is waning when we are both finally back in New York, and I decide that perhaps Ford's palette needs a little recalibrating.  We plan to meet up for lunch.  

"An adult lunch, or road food?" he asks via text.

Silly question. Street food is the great equalizer.  We schedule a meet up at the Polish Truck, which is selling its wares on 47th between Park and Madison.    Ford is dressed in his usual spectacular designer business attire, while I'm far more casual in a button down and a pair of khaki Dockers.   

Ford looks me over critically.  "I'm quite certain that Dockers are banned in Poland," he says.

Whatever.  Perhaps I should have come dressed as a Polish sausage.
The Polish Truck is doing a brisk business, and in fact, the whole stretch along 47th Street is a Food Truck nirvana.   The number of trucks and selection of international cuisine is staggering.

The Polish Truck is decorated with a faux wood appliqué, evoking a traditional, old-time sausage cart.   An illustration of a comely Polish lass beams down at us.   
Ford orders a selection of cheese and potato pierogis.  I order the "Lite Combo Platter," which includes a massive hunk of kielbasa, four pierogis, a sour pickle and some rye bread.   So how is this possibly considered a  "Lite" platter?   My official source for all things Polish tells me that in Poland, the definition of "Lite Platter" most likely means there were four pierogis instead of ten.
Of course, a sweet finish for lunch is a must, so we order a serving of the Polish Truck's famous blueberry pierogis with sour cream.   Far from lite, that would be ten pierogis to a serving.   It's not really clear if this is meant to be a dessert, or a gargantuan entree, but it's summertime and blueberries are in season.

So, where to eat? It's a beautiful summer day, and some readers (you know who you are) might wonder why we are not dining outside. Ford insists that lunch should not include exhaust fumes or sidewalks.  So we head for the nearby W Hotel on Lexington, and grab a seat in the lobby.  The hotel is said to be "an urban oasis inspired by natural elements - earth, fire and water."  So if we use our imagination, it's kind of like an Oktoberfest in the Polish countryside, except Ford is drinking Pepsi instead of beer.
"I love this lobby," says Ford.  "You can sit here for hours and nobody bothers you."   It is a comfortable and expansive sunken living room decorated in earth tones, and it's unlikely anyone will notice two guys surrounded by Styrofoam food boxes.  However, the distinctive and intoxicating aroma of fire-grilled wurst begins to permeate the lounge and turn a few heads.

The grilled kielbasa is extraordinary.   About 9-inches long, it is savory and chocked full of chunky layers of meat.    

The pierogis are plump dumplings stuffed with creamy cheese filling or rich potato puree.   I'm on the verge of a happy Polka dance.  

At this point, Ford's Pepsi topples, and spills all over his brand new pair of designer shoes -- and the hotel lobby rug.  This is the peril of an indoor picnic, but we gather our napkins and mop up his shoes.    At least the carpet was slightly more worn than the spanking new carpet that now features a pizza sauce stain at the Waldorf.  We do tend to leave our distinctive mark wherever we go.  
The blueberry pierogis literally bleed blueberry sauce. Ford tops the massive plate of stuffed pillows with a dollop of sweetened sour cream, and in a minute, it all starts to look like a Jackson Pollock painting.    
I probably consume a few too many blueberry pierogis - but my doctor says I should get more antioxidants into my diet.

I'm trying to be organized and I have stacked the empty Styrofoam food boxes on one of the leatherette-upholstered ottomans.  As we gather the trash in preparation to leave, I notice that my plastic knife has cut through the bottom of the box, and there is a pool of delicious melted fat residue seeping out of the Styrofoam and collecting on the top of the ottoman.   It's that glistening, juicy slop that typically tastes so good mopped up with the rye bread.   

Ford points accusingly to the pool of liquid. "That is now in our stomachs," he declares like a charter member of the food police. Always the epitome of five star service, he heads over to the nearby bar and returns with a hefty stack of napkins.   

"The great thing about hotel dining," says Ford,  "is you always have everything you need handy for those emergency cleanups."   

We wipe up the grease, and the leatherette literally shines with new life.   Add this tip to Martha Stewart's list of Good Things.  And, be careful where you sit, the next time you stop by the W for a cocktail.   

©2013 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved   

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Fava Bean Dilemma and a Fava Bean Hummus with Cumin

First up, let’s get the Chianti jokes out of our system.  The problem with fava beans is not the association with that villainous character with the voracious appetite.  The issue with fava beans is two-fold – preparing fava beans is time intensive, and the process is far from user friendly.
The committed cook would say, “What’s the problem with shelling a few pods?  Are you lazy?”

Let’s just say that on a busy work night, when it comes down to a choice between preparing fava beans or nuking a pack of frozen sweet peas, the peas will win every time.   I’m not a fan of stringing or shelling. 

With fava beans the issue is compounded.   First you’ve got to shell the pod, and once you’ve cooked the beans you’ve got to peel a white filmy skin off each bean individually.  Hasn’t someone come up with a gadget for this chore?   I really don’t believe the people who claim peeling fava beans is relaxing. The process drives me crazy. This usually means that the small harvest of fava beans that comes each year from Restoration Farm sits in the bottom of the crisper until the pods turn an unsightly shade of black. 

This season when the fava beans were distributed at Restoration Farm, a number of us debated the issue at some length.  What do you do with fava beans?   Do you really have to peel that second skin?  You will likely encounter a variety of viewpoints that even advocate steaming, grilling or eating the pods whole.  I simply determined that I wouldn’t waste the fava beans this year – eating them would be a more desirable solution than letting them rot.

Immediately, upon arriving home, I begin shelling. If you put a little music on, it’s really not so bad. The shell is kind of a fuzzy, velvet-lined cocoon that protects the bright, jadeite-colored beans.
The cooking process takes about a minute.   Just toss the beans in boiling water for 60 seconds and then drain the beans, rinsing with cool water to stop the cooking. 
Then I must skin each bean individually – tedious, but the color of the cooked beans is even prettier than when the beans are raw.  
This leaves me with a little more than a cup of beans. It’s not a great yield for the effort, but now I’m committed to completing this journey.   For the final step, I select a recipe for Fava Bean Hummus with Cumin from the book Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison. (Recipe found here).  The recipe satisfies my inherent need for instant results – fava beans, garlic, cumin, olive oil, sea salt and lemon juice are pureed in the food processor, producing a sparkling green spread.  The preparation of the hummus is lightning fast, quicker, in fact than it takes to shell a handful of pods.  The spread is quite fresh and delicious.  
And, wouldn’t you know it? I consume the total batch of hummus in about a quarter of the time it takes to shell, cook and peel the beans. I guess all the work attached to preparing fava beans does encourage a voracious appetite. A nice Chianti would have actually encouraged me to linger over the snack.

Until next year, fava beans…

©2013 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Sugar High with a Cupcake Cutie

My friend Amanda knows a lot about human behavior. So she probably knew it would take me all of two seconds to agree to join her for a class on baking Nostalgic Snack Cakes at the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) in New York City.  

Who could resist such an offer? After all, we both grew up in suburbia during the golden age of lunchbox snack treats, where nobody really fretted about a little sugar or empty calories in the diet and hyperactivity was euphemistically described as “school spirit.”  Suzy Q’s and Ding Dongs are our ethnic food!  Having already delved into the art of the homemade Twinkie, I’m anxious to expand my snack cake repertoire. 

The class is led by Chef-Instructor Faith Drobbin.   She’d laid out a sampling of snack cakes that she’s prepared in advance.   There are freshly turned Twinkies, Suzy Q’s, Funny Bones, and Ding Dongs.   
We chat about the different names of cakes generated by the longtime rivalry between snack cake giants Hostess and Drakes. Was it a Ding Dong or a Ring Ding?   What’s the difference between a Twinkie and a chocolate glazed Twinkie, called a Chocodile? Is the filling Marshmallow Fluff, or buttercream?  What’s the difference between a Yankee Doodle and a Sunny Doodle? What were Captain Cupcake’s actual super powers? The class is filled with snack cake aficionados, but I’m just a little suspicious of the woman in the back of the room chomping on a Granny Smith apple.  Who let her in?  

Chef invites us to try the samples she’s laid out.   Everyone is very polite and restrained, but after 5 minutes I can’t hold back.

“I’m going in,” I whisper to Amanda.   We divvy up a chocolate glazed, cream filled Ding Dong.   It is a heavenly, light, devils food cake, filled with sinfully good cream filling.  "Do I have chocolate in my teeth?" I self-consciously ask Amanda.   
Chef Drobbin does a fine job of demonstrating the Yellow Snack Cake recipe, and the Chocolate Snack Cake recipe.   Here’s where I have a snack cake epiphany.   Every single snack cake in the universe consists of either yellow cake or chocolate cake, with cream filling and a chocolate glaze.   No matter what the snack cake may be, the recipes for the individual components are the same.   If you master the recipes, you unlock the caloric key to infinite variations.   At this moment, I feel a little like Escoffier and Twinkie the Kid all at the same time. 

Amanda’s insight is just a little different as she eyes the Chocodile.  “I really think the key learning here is that everything is better dipped in chocolate,” she remarks.

We get ready to bake, and there are lots of questions from the class.   How do you get the goop in?   How big should we make the Twinkies?

“How big do you want your snack cake?” comments Amanda. “These are First World problems!”

Chef advises us that with the proper recipes, pans and techniques we can create a fine facsimile of any iconic snack cake.  Yet they won’t taste exactly the same.  Ours will taste better, because we’re using butter and eggs.  

We start baking and needless to say, as the day proceeds, our vegetable intake is minimal, and our carbohydrate consumption is close to astronomical.
We prepare Chocolate Snack Cake for cupcakes, Ding Dongs and Chocodiles. At times, we find ourselves engulfed in a cloud of cocoa, but when it all comes together, the batter is dark and glossy.

We decide to double the batter for the Yellow Snack Cake Mix.  This is a bit of a no-no, and Chef is somewhat peeved. When we’re done, we actually have enough snack cakes to host a birthday party at PS 143 in Queens.     

Amanda becomes quite accomplished at injecting cream filling into the cupcakes.

And, we perfect the high art technique of snack cake glazing. 
Some of it resembles Lucy and Ethel at the candy factory. At one point, a blob of icing lands on Amanda’s big toe.  She has worn flip flops to the class.  I really need to talk to that young lady about proper kitchen attire.

The final touch?  We express our inner doodler, by applying the squiggle of icing on the top of the Hostess Cupcakes.    We have prepared enough empty calories to power an army, and we box up our cakes and head for the subway.   I have a sugar hangover. Amanda complains that she’s thirsty and she has a tummy ache. She returns home to consume a large helping of animal protein, and enjoy the adoration of her daughter who has been waiting all day for treats from Mom’s class.  

Me?  Well, we were such a well frosted, high producing team that I think we may have a future in snack cakes. I think our next class should be, “How to Make Your First Million by Hosting a Neighborhood Bake Sale.” But first, I'm planning my next marathon bike ride.   

©2013 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved