Countdown to the Bombing of Qum with Snacks

I was loaded into a van as soon as I left the house, after walking the dogs, and with a sack over my head it was impossible to tell who I was with or where we were going.

That was yesterday.

I heard the voices of two men and they were discussing falafel and hummus, grilled fish, and the thickness of pita bread.

The twin doors opened in a big parking garage, emptied of cars, and the two men led me by the elbows into a conference room that had an egg shaped table in it and about a dozen swivel chairs.

I had thought we were going to talk about branding: How Michelin is free and based on the merits of the establishment while Relais Gourmand is sold at, ballpark, $12,000 per year and used by the restaurant–we’re talking here about Menton–to imply that some standard has been achieved.

But no!

We were in a bunker and the talk, to sum up, was: Should Obama wait to issue a bombing order on Qum until after the election or before?  If he did not wait, and world conflagration followed, what with the Chinese heavily invested in the Iranian nuclear venture, wouldn’t that be a bad thing?  But if he did wait, and the Iranians developed nuclear capability by Election Day, wouldn’t Obama lose the Presidency?

Snacks were served, and most of these were really delicious: Crispy fried falafel, a terrific hummus that had a strong tahini flavor, a nice and simple tomato salad with light vinegar and oil dressing.

 

 

Another Day, Another Dollar

My goodness, so much is going on in the world today and each and every day that it’s a wonder that focus is even on the table.  For starters, a levee was breached in New Orleans and massive flooding is predicted.  Morsi is in Teheran to discuss whether the nuclear fallout from planned bombings will blow west to Cairo.  Melissa Clark is eating figs in Brooklyn.

Me?  I’m still recovering from watching a chemical restraint on a locked unit, mulling over the three crazy-delicious pieces of o-toro I pan seared last night and served with spinach and fennel and onions beside cherry tomatoes in balsamic and parmigiano.

The skinny is the book proposal on nonresident Indians, the edit of the book on chefs, and the family history after the 1872 Emancipation.

Busy, busy, busy.

I think it must be environmental, no?  The squirrels are out in battalion force.  Birds not singing like they used to.  Concert announcements.  U-Hauls stuck under low bridges on Storrow Drive.

My goodness!

It’s Writing Weather

It’s writing weather, and you know what that means.  Having been a duck in a past life, it means rain and overcast skies, thoughts of Miles and solos by Bill Evans and Coltrane.  It means thinking about buying the new book by Pankaj Mishra who, like me, has written in the duckiest of places: Mashobra.  Talk about rain. Talk about buckets of rain and tall pines with monkeys on boughs, a screaming monkey man who tries to chase away the simians, long stretches of overgrown apple orchards planted by Scots, and commanding views of the Himalayas.

But I get ahead of myself.

Yesterday, it was NYC.  Caught in a downpour, without an umbrella, and in a hurry to reach MG for lunch @ Lupa, a mere two blocks away, I arrived soaked to the skin.  And me, the thing without feathers.

Lupa is predictable, which is obviously a plus and a minus.  Delicious sweetbreads with shishito peppers followed by bucatini amatriciana.  Not exactly Roman in ingredients (shishito), but tasty all the same.

Earlier, pre-Carmellini, I stopped at Murray’s: Four cheese ravioli for dinner.  Now why would I carry food back to Boston?  That, my friends, is a taboo subject.

 

 

There It Is

A view of the Hudson, twenty-floor floors above the streets, and so little commotion on Canal and in all directions, one could mistake Manhattan for Parsippany.   It is 6:30 A.M., and I am sandwiched between Soho and Tribeca, which accounts for the quiet.

Last night the raucous The Dutch did not disappoint.  It never does.  Take refinement and apply the concept to delicious American food and stay focused and you’re off to the races.  Bone dry, ice cold Plymouth, just two oz, prepared by a dish with black bangs and served with five pitted, green olives.  “Barrio” tripe cooked with beer and served with avocado, a good and small portion, so savory and spicy that the corn bread, buttered, had to happen with what was left of the sauce.  The main dish of smoked ricotta and tomatoes and “soft” herbs (what are “soft” herbs as opposed to “hard” herbs?) was so good I wanted to take the plate home with me.  I never order dessert, but we were sent by the kitchen an icebox peanut butter pie and roasted peaches with peach pit ice cream, and I wept.  Well, of course not.  The tab came to $80 per person with drinks, tax, and tip.

Today it’s an interview with the chef from The Dutch and lunch at Lupa.  Then back on the plane to a town that has really great baked goods: Bread & pizza.  It’s a town in love with yeast, too: Plenty of beer!

Either you’re on the plane or off the plane.

Say What You Like

Say what you like, but The Dutch, where I expect to find myself tonight with the estimable Shoko, is a fascinating, revitalizing concept of a restaurant.  Nothing frou-frou about it, no pyrotechnics, nothing molecular, no reinvention based on the chef’s whims, no effort to add to a classic or take anything away.

Folks: It is simply good food.

What a concept.

Raw shellfish.  Good pot pies.  Good fruit pies.  Good products: Benton’s bacon, prime and aged beef, Copper River salmon.  No burgers, no pandering, no trying to meet an imaginary customer’s expectations.  It’s the kind of food I think that people are eating  at the counter in Nighthawks, as depicted by Edward Hopper.

It’s food of a place in a country where people live near farms and eat as part of the day.  Not food as the pivotal point of their lives, but as a character in a longer, bigger story.

That’s why this kind of cooking is so hard to do for chefs in turmoil who see food as a replacement for less substantive matters or who want to hear applause when they step on stage.  It’s food that is part of a context and not the context.

This kind of food?  It requires humility.

 

Food Prices Going Up and Then Some

It’s been a tumultuous week.

I got riled up when I saw throughout the web numerous gripes about a new yakitori restaurant–Yakitori Zai–in Boston’s South End.  All these clowns writing in to complain that it cost $50-75 or so per person to eat yakitori there.  Not necessarily: Depends on how much you order.  Anyway, folks, that’s what it costs to eat a dozen sticks of good yakitori anywhere: It’s the quality of the chicken, the sauce, the chef’s training.  And: Why eat so much?  Why not settle for 3-4 sticks?

These are the same people who write at length on Chowhound & Yelp & other sites about where to get the best cocktail.  $12 cocktails.  It’s like the Man in Kyoto said to me when discussing the $45 matsutake mushroom at the grill we sat at: “Cheaper than champagne.”  The gripers are happy to spend $ on alcohol, but balk when it comes to beautiful food.

Speaking of high prices for food, the NY Times reports today that food prices will go up next year.  That’s OK, though, right?  Because your wages are going up, too!  No?  Uh oh.

Here’s what’s happening: Beef: Up 4-5%.  Dairy: 3.5%-4.5%.  Eggs: 3-4%.  Pork: 2.5-3.5%.

The article notes: “Americans spend just 13 percent of their household budgets on food. The falling price of gasoline — fuel and transportation costs being a major component of prices at restaurants and grocery stores — will help temper any price increases.”

That 13% is a remarkable figure: Way lower than the generations before.  But it’s not uniform.  The article notes: “’It is one extra kick in the stomach,’” for low-income families, said Chris G. Christopher, senior principal economist at IHS, a consulting firm. “’There’s a lot of people in this country living paycheck to paycheck. This is not a good thing for them.’”

There’s always cake.

 

On the Road, Off the Road

Forty-eight hours until the NY launch and 24 hours of Carmellini, Carmellini, Carmellini.

The Dutch and the interview.

Hey, simple food again.  Pricey, but simple.  In a good way.

Ah, one day we will have more simple restaurants well-defined by skills and focus rather than ambition.

Even a certain paper noted that there is no good sushi in a certain town.  Why?  They found a scholar who said it’s because there are few Japanese businessmen in Boston.  Uh huh.  First of all, data?  Second, raw fish is loved by all sorts of folks.  The piece did note that the Japanese places are often run by Chinese folks here.

The big news?  BBQ in the Bean!

 

Fried!

That would be me.  Somewhat, as they say, or of course.  Although who is complaining?  That would not be me.

OK, the skinny is 7/14 rocked out folks: A&B, Major Drug Trafficking, Dead Boy on the Street, Boy in the Hospital off of Oxy about 72 hours.

“Nice,” to quote Santos.  “Very nice.”

The goods news is a quick foray into the new Whole Foods in J.P.–subject of one protest after another by Hi-Lo customers and tempeh toting pranksters, but what with the salsa playing inside the store, the Latina at the register, and the two big, greasy chunks of pork skin at the hot food island, and what?  Alimentos Enteros, right?  Wrong.  Talk about fried, my brothers and sisters.

Meanwhile, at the encampment down the hill I can smell the burning wood and see the spirals of smoke from fires.  They are getting closer.  And are only defenses are the high stone walls and a few catapults manned by a few bronze clad draftees who’ve had as much mead as bees drenched in honey.

This does not bode well.

 

 

Fried pork Stock Photo - 9152799

I’m Talking To You

Look, no disrespect, but the best Italian food is often the easiest and fastest to prepare.  And you know why that is?  Because conviviality trumps standing over a countertop making sauces and ignoring your guests.  That’s one reason.

Another reason is that most home cooks don’t have the talent to make dishes that require years of practice, training under a chef who knows how things should taste, or a crew needed to prep for hours.

Italian cooking is adapted to the home.  French cooking?  I’m not saying you can’t bang out decent French stuff, but seriously?  Better than a good restaurant?  Not likely.

So stick to the basics.

And I think often of what Chef Patrick O’ Connell said to me in an interview: “Work on the same dish hundreds of times until it’s perfect.  You’ll be lucky if at the end of your life you have ten dishes that you can rely upon.”

I’m not saying that the dish below has achieved perfection in The Haas Test Kitchen, but I am working on it.

It’s adapted from The Cookbook of Cookbooks, “The Young Man and The Sea,” from David Pasternack at ESCA.

The secret here, as always with Italian cooking, is the key ingredient of the fish.  That means don’t buy the swordfish, noted below, from Whole Foods.  I don’t know where you live; find someone who sells good fish high in fat.

Light the coals.  When they are gray-red, take a plate and put some canola oil in it.  Take a piece of swordfish, about 1/2 to 3/14 pound total for two people, and put it in the plate, turning on both sides.  Take another plate and put good breadcrumbs in it.  Turn the sword on both sides in that plate.

Put the sword on the grill, about 3-4 minutes each side, depending on thickness.

Remove.  If still not done, microwave for 30 seconds.

Put on third plate.  Slice into long pieces about 1/2 inch wide.  Juice of a lemon.  Parsley.  Black pepper and salt to taste.

Serve.

Are you kidding me?  You still think French food is tops?  C’mon, get outta here.

Chefs, Chefs, and More Chefs

Chefs in the schools.  Chefs on T.V.  Chefs in the zoo.  Chefs on the loose.

And why not?  Why not sell fancy-pants sandwiches at airports and Madison Square Garden?

OK, I know why not.  Eat less, take the world in through your eyes, nose, and ears.  “I Like Big,” need not be the credo.

And you know what else?  I like taking airplane picnics.  Po’ boys from Mother’s; bagels from Iggy’s; subs from Paesano’s; pizza from Eataly.

Still, happy to jump on the chuck wagon: The video series on chefs is in progress, the book on chefs out soon, the article on airline consulting chefs will be in Wine Enthusiast by the end of this month.

Let’s face it: Writing about chefs puts food on the table.