Sunday, December 20, 2015

Zany Tidings of Comfort Food and Joy

It is that enchanting season in New York City where the urban landscape is transformed. Ordinary steel and cement is transfigured amidst a dazzling display of twinkling lights. The urban landscape resembles storybook illustrations. In a fascinating, and somewhat frightening phenomenon, department store buildings literally break into holiday song. Tourists clog the streets and gridlock overtakes most intersections, making it a challenge to get anywhere efficiently. And tantalizing aromas fill the air. It’s beginning to look a lot like … dinnertime!

It is several nights before Christmas, and I am running a little late for a planned holiday adventure with Zany.  Dashing through the streets, I must navigate a hoard of revelers, a life-sized Elmo who is carrying his head under his arm, and a guy on a street corner with his own live menagerie on display, which seems to include several rabbits, two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree. It’s all part of the magic of Yuletide in New York.

We are scheduled to rendezvous at the Bryant Park Winter Village, an enchanting Christmas Town that magically appears behind the New York Public Library about the time of Halloween and then vanishes like the Spirit of Christmas Past sometime in January.  One can find a dazzling selection of high-end shops, impossibly athletic skaters performing the occasional triple axel leap across the ice rink, and most important, a maze of tantalizing food stalls.  
We have planned to meet under the Bryant Park Christmas Tree, its boughs heavy laden with holiday baubles. I circle the tree once, and Zany appears before me, full of the holiday spirit.

“We’ve got an international smorgasbord here,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.  “Let’s get started!”

She tugs me towards the Saj Mahal booth, which features of selection of Israeli inspired flatbreads with a twist.  The flatbreads are sizzling on large metal drums.  We consider the menu selection and choose our appetizer – a flatbread layered with olives, roasted red peppers and green guacamole – perhaps not traditional, but certainly the right color scheme for the season.  
We sit by the skating rink, devouring our flatbread and watch the Zamboni buff the ice until it resembles shimmering glass.  In the distance, I can hear Judy Garland singing, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  

Feeling in a festive mood, we head for the seasonal residence of my old pal Pickle Me Pete. Pete’s a former accountant who abandoned the corporate world for a life of brine. He looks like a right Jolly Old Elf, bedecked in pickle green from head to toe and his handmade artisan pickles shimmer like green jewels in the barrels before him.   
But it’s not the fresh pickles we’re after…

“This woman’s a fried pickle connoisseur,” I tell Pete. “We’d like one order of your amazing fried pickle chips.”

“All of our dipping sauces are vegan,” Pete explains to Zany.

She gives him the stink eye.  “Well, I’m not,” she says curtly. “We’ll take the Ranch dressing on the side, please.” We return to the skating rink for our second course. 

“Have you heard of the Christmas Pickle tradition?” she asks me. Most of Zany’s fondest memories and traditions seem to center around pickled foods and condiments. In fact, I am familiar with the Christmas Pickle.  It’s an old custom and no one really quite knows how it got started, but some suspect it was a marketing ploy by an ornament company.  A glass ornament in the shape of a pickle was hidden among the branches of a Christmas tree. The first child in the family who discovered the pickle got an extra present.  Go figure.  Next thing you know they’ll be trying to convince us that the Wise Men brought gold, frankincense and pickles to Bethlehem.  While we can’t verify the source of the custom, we decide to start a new tradition – gorging ourselves on fried pickle chips with Ranch dressing under the Christmas tree.  Pete’s fried pickles are hot and crunchy, and in our minds are far superior to chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Our next visit is to La Sonrisa Empanadas. We split a scrumptious Coconut Curry Chicken Empanada seasoned with Caribbean curry and sweetened with coconut milk.  We are in agreement.  This hot little hand pie would make a perfect stocking stuffer.   

We wander the food stalls considering our main course and find ourselves drawn by a beacon of bright canary yellow to the window of Super Mac & Cheese.  Talk about tidings of comfort food and joy!  
A brief debate ensues when Zany spots a “V” symbol next to the company logo. “What does that stand for?” she asks suspiciously.  “Is there such a thing as vegan mac and cheese?” 

I spot a nearby group of women scarfing down paper cups full of the golden noodles.  “Nope, it’s the real thing,” I reply and we dive in.  The Super Mac & Cheese is silky, tangy and delicious.

And, what would a holiday adventure be without visions of sugarplums?  Since we’re not really sure what a sugarplum looks like, we settle on French macarons instead.  The Woops both features a dazzling spread of colorful macarons, and even a macaron holiday tree.  We feast on an eclectic selection of flavors that include Lemon Poppy, Peanut Butter, Chocolate Chili and Cookies and Cream.  

While our tummies might be full, we are not yet filled with the holiday spirit, so we make a quick stop at the historic Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station for some decidedly adult holiday spirits…a Negroni for her and a Manhattan cocktail for me.  It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!
Some days later, I find myself in a cooking store in Virginia where I discover the perfect gift for Zany.  Back in New York, I arrange a meet up.  The holidays are now in overdrive and we can only manage a five-minute rendezvous outside Zany’s office before she dashes for a train. 

I push my way through the multitudes to meet her.  The Saks 5th Avenue building is regaling holiday shoppers with a booming rendition of “Christmas Is Here!” 

Zany is already out on the street.  I hand her the little box, which she opens with a distinct sense of anticipation.  Inside, nestled in tissue paper, is a glass holiday ornament in the shape of three perfectly cut, glistening, emerald green pickle chips.
Zany throws back her head and literally howls with laughter. “The only thing it’s missing is a side of ranch dressing!” she exclaims.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all! May you be blessed with dear friends who magically reappear and bring you extra helpings of joy. May your condiments have zip, may your pickles be crisp and may your macaroni always be smothered with gooey cheddar!

©2015 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Taste of Lebanon at the Toum NYC Food Truck

It is the waning days of the food truck season. There’s a slight chill in the air, tourists are beginning to stream into New York City for the holidays, parking is tight, and it’s getting tough to find a truck to satisfy a food craving.

Food trucking – by its very nature – can pose logistical problems. Indeed, traffic patterns, police activity, pedestrian clutter, bad WIFI and U.N. General Assembly activity can all conspire to impact the quality and accessibility of one’s lunch. 

Zany and I have agreed that the perfect antidote to a routine workweek is the chance to pig out on international cuisine. I’m working my connections like mad – Twitter, Facebook, and even some street reconnaissance – and I’m coming up empty. Trucks rumored to be on certain street corners are missing in action, some have migrated downtown to the Financial District (those lucky bankers) and some have apparently folded. I truly fear that the closest we’ll get to international dining is the foot long Chicken Parmesan sub served at the Subway shop in the lower level of my building. 

Just when I am ready to throw in the towel I get a solid lead – a Lebanese food truck on 47th and Park that specializes in garlic and cured meats. I signal Zany and we head for our respective elevators. 

Zany’s culinary world has been rocked by the recent World Health Organization report that cured meats (including bacon???) could be a health hazard. She is convinced that our only response is to face the enemy head on.

“Bring it,” she says with a steely glint in her eye. 
We rendezvous on 47th Street just East of Park Avenue where the Toum Food Truck is doing a brisk business. For the uninitiated, “toum” is the Lebanese word for garlic, and toum is the national condiment in Lebanon. I take note that the truck’s mascot is a bright and perky animated clove of garlic.  You kind of just want to hug him. 
Zany, our Queen of Condiments, seems to approve, not only of the vast garlic theme, but of the selection of cured meats.

We queue up and order three items to share. The Makanek Platter features Lebanese beef sausage mixed with pine nuts and sautéed in pomegranate molasses lemon sauce, served with tabbouleh salad, hummus, French fries a side of toum sauce and Pita bread.

The Kafta Platter is two patties of minced beef mixed with parsley, onions and Lebanese spices and served with babaghanouj, rice pilaf, tahini sauce and Pita bread. 

The Lahem B’ajeen is a Lebanese style pizza of minced beef, tomatoes, onions and Lebanese spices spread on homemade dough and grilled. 

We adjourn with our Middle Eastern feast to one of our favorite dining plazas – the Park Avenue-facing patio of a large bank. Zany goes right for the sausage, a fire-grilled revelation with a bright kick of lemon.  She nearly swoons with rapture.

“That is well worth any possible carcinogenic risk,” she declares.

We revel in the buffet of flavors. The hummus is rich and sensual and the signature toum sauce is fresh, sharp and biting, perfect for dipping crispy fries.

The Lebanese pizza is a savory concoction of meat and onions. This raises a brief debate.

“Can you truly call something a pizza if it doesn’t contain cheese?” Zany asks. 

As usual, Zany is divvying up the food and eating with her fingers – probably the way they would in Lebanon – and when she catches me using a fork, it is an anathema to her.  At this point she decided to question my selection of rice pilaf as one our sides.

“You do know that rice is not a finger food?” she says pointedly.

We feast to our heart’s content, and slather up that garlic toum. After all, when in Lebanon…

But, short of hiding out in my office, I’m already certain that any human interaction scheduled for the afternoon will be severely impacted by my lack of restraint. 

So, as we return to our offices we do what any responsible business people would do – invest in a little insurance.  

©2015 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Schaller’s Stube - For Better or Wurst

Now that Zany is commuting to New York City from the “Northern Suburbs” she has plenty of time to read the newspapers. It is the crack of dawn (at least it feels that way) on a steamy day in late August when I get a text.  She’s on the train devouring the Wall Street Journal.  She’s photographed and sent me a headline that reads, “Yorkville Goes to the Dogs.” Her text says, “Field trip!”

The story concerns a new “sausage bar” (yes, that’s a thing) on the Upper East Side called Schaller’s Stube, a brand new twist on the local hot dog stand. Schaller’s Stube features authentic Teutonic sausage and wurst, served practically on the street. Which means you can actually sit to dine.  They have stools.  Zany accurately notes that since the market news is dismal, the Wall Street Journal reporters have chosen to drown their sorrows in gourmet bratwurst.

The sun is barely up, and I haven’t even had my Cheerios, and she’s already tempting me with savory, grilled meats. I think she’s my best friend ever.

We agree that a “hot dog happy hour” is in order. It takes a little time to coordinate schedules, since evening adventures are new for us. In fact, anything that resembles brick and mortar is a pretty dramatic step. 

Low and behold, it is now the month of Oktoberfest and our schedules have finally synched up. Zany is thrilled. “The scent of sauerkraut is in the air,” she proclaims.

We rendezvous after work at the 51 Street - Lexington Avenue Subway station and squeeze our way into a crowded number 6 Train that whisks us uptown to 86 Street.   From there, it’s a short walk to Second Avenue, amidst the teeming humanity of the Upper East Side. 
Schaller’s Stube is tucked between the Schaller & Weber charcuterie shop (that has been in residence in Yorkville since 1937) and one of those classic neighborhood bakeries where you put on the pounds just looking in the window. Schaller’s Stube is hidden behind the construction rigging that marks the future home of the Second Avenue subway, an urban improvement project that I am certain will never be completed in my lifetime. 

Schaller’s Stube has only been open a couple of months.  What is a “stube” you ask?   I had to look it up.  One dictionary says a stube is an establishment serving alcohol and chiefly beer.  Well, guess what?  Schaller’s Stube is still working on getting its liquor license. That’s okay.  We’ve come for the wurst. Other definitions hearken to German translations, which say that a “stube” is a lounge or parlor. This is more accurate. And quite frankly, for two folks who are used to dining on the street, the indoor accommodations are downright luxurious.
Zany approaches the open window that faces Second Avenue. Two friendly guys wearing black t-shirts and red baseball caps lean forward, and exhibit an incredible degree of patience, as we take too long to debate our order.  Should we get the formidable “Berlin Wall,” a half-pound of kielbasa covered with American cheese, bacon jam, crispy bacon, chicharones and diced onion, or what about Mrs. Schaller’s Fried Chicken, which sounds yummy but doesn’t quite seem suited to our Oktoberfest celebration? Or maybe we go smorgasbord and order a variety of tube steaks?
Tempting us, right at street level, is a luscious selection of artisan wurst and brats piled high in a glass display case.  
After much debate, we settle on a savory tasting menu of Schaller’s best – “The Classic,” which is bratwurst, S&W Dusseldorf mustard and S&W sauerkraut, the “Steuben’s Reuben,” a beef wiener, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and stube sauce, and the “Saigon Special,” which consists of bauernwurst, daikon-carrot slaw, cucumber, fresh jalapeno, cilantro and sriracha aioli. 

We place our order and move to the “parlor” which is an indoor space behind the street counter about the size of a small walk in closet – challenging if you’re claustrophobic, or great if you enjoy an intimate dining experience. At the back end of the parlor is a steel door and a sign that sharply warns us not to advance beyond a certain point. 
Zany has been conflicted over this move to indoor dining, but the street noise offers a special kind of ambiance that makes us feel right at home.  “This is legit,” she admits.  “I still feel true to my roots, and technically, we did order on the sidewalk.”

Our beverage is an Austrian fizzy drink called “Almdudler,” which our maître d’ explains is similar to ginger ale or elderflower cordial, and pairs beautifully with savory meats. 
The executive chef and sous chef quickly whip up our order and each is a stunner.

Zany puts her butchering skills into play and divides up the goods. 
The first thing we note is that the rolls that surround the wurst are exquisite.  Toasted and buttery with perfect grill marks.  

“Is this brioche?” Zany asks?  “You know brioche is not good for you at all.”   I can barely hear her as I’m snarfing down the bun.  

“This one looks like a German Cannoli,” she remarks.
I like the fresh bite of the “Saigon Special” but neither of us can deny the sheer gustatory glee of “The Classic” and the “Steuben’s Reuben,” both smothered in sauerkraut.   

Zany reflects that she’s always been smitten by sauerkraut. 

“That’s because you’re from Pennsylvania,” I say.  “Everything you ate from the time you started to teethe was either pickled or fermented.”

“Pretty much,” she nods.

Having completely abolished our trio of wurst, I’m still in an adventurous mood, and I convince Zany to sample one more entrée, the Checkpoint Charlie Currywurst, also known as C.C.C.  It’s a mélange of sliced knackwurst, topped with curry ketchup and curry powder. Our maître d’ explains that this is classic Berlin street food, and is traditionally served without a bun.  That's good.  We're watching our carbs. The dish is placed on the counter in a white cardboard tray, disks of wurst piled high. 
Zany inhales the spicy aroma. “Is this Germany, or little India?” she asks.  Within minutes, we bring that wall of wurst down. 

Zany glances uneasily at her watch, and I recognize the look of a conflicted commuter who is always on the mass transit clock.

“I can run for the next train,” she says, “Or we can go get a glass of wine, and I can get the later train.”

I raise an eyebrow. A glass of wine?  How civilized. Perhaps there are some fringe benefits to dining out at night.  

©2015 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Long Island Food: A History From Family Farms & Oysters to Craft Spirits" by T.W. Barritt Debuts September 14

I’m excited to share news of the September 14th publication of my first book, “Long Island Food: A History from Family Farms & Oysters to Craft Spirits.” It’s the story of a suburban boy’s search for his hometown food culture, published by the History Press.

Growing up well fed on meatloaf, tuna casserole and TV dinners, I had little knowledge of Long Island’s rich agricultural and maritime history. The book explores the past, but looks to those people who are advancing Long Island’s food legacy today in delicious new ways, in community agriculture, wine, cheese, bread, fine dining and craft spirits. There’s even a chapter on Long Island’s pickle pedigree. 

I’m grateful to all of the people who generously shared their stories. It was certainly an unforgettable experience to travel Long Island over the past year and talk directly to the people who are defining what our food culture is all about. My thanks, also, to the many photographers whose beautiful work illustrates the volume. In particular, I must thank Jacob Skoglund, a talented young photographer who served as image curator for the project. 

“Long Island Food” is available on Amazon and through History Press. There’s also a Facebook page, so please “like” that if you are able. I hope you enjoy exploring the story of Long Island food as much as I did. I think you'll find it a deliciously surprising adventure!

©2015 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved