The Albany Report, Part 4

We’re talking, first of all, about Jack’s.  Not the fancy-pants, old school, downtown steak and lobster place with the way cool signage and what must be a great bar, not that I know yet, but I will.

No, this is Jack’s Diner.  Also old school, but well within budget for many.  Open 24 hours.  A small aluminum room with stools and booths.  The crowd on Sunday AM?  Four old white men in suits straight from church; one of the group unable to walk and so supported by the others.  An older African-American couple.  A younger African-American couple with the woman in tight gray sweat pants and a little skin as she leaned forward on the stool.  A big white family.  A big white cop.

OK, the food.  Really delicious eggs.  And, more to the point, was a turkey club sandwich with generous slices of bacon.  Turkey, apparently, is the house speciality.

Will we be back?

Can’t wait.

Later, that same morning, we visited the Food Coop.  A saint from the Bible was returning to his car as we arrived: Lean, tall, grizzled, gray, and bearded.

Inside: Amazing stalks of Brussels sprouts, kambocha, spinach, and kale micro greens.  Even better: An astonishing stock of Misty Knolls chicken; this is restaurant quality bird, unavailable consistently in Boston.  Plus, Neal’s Yard Dairy cheeses, a room of beans and bulk.

Staff at both?

Chill, of course.

Three for Three

Unusually, because I am far more often in the house cooking, I found myself in three cute, little restaurants over the past 24 hours.

All cost about the same–$25-30 per person with drinks, tax, and tip–and all were pretty good.

The first was BACK DECK on West Street in downtown Boston.  Lively room, packed with Emerson and Suffolk students, it’s basically a bar that sells food.  Adequate wings and an adequate turkey burger and one cold gin Martini per person and, $47 later, we’re good to go see Seven Psychopaths.  Spiff up any neighborhood bar and it’d be the same.  Oddly, this place has a real chef, Paul Sussman, who, back to the room, feels the need to devote energy to expediting this food.

Next up was SIDE STREET CAFE, in Florence, MA, where chef Patrick Shannon cooks really good food.  We’re talking turkey pot pie, BLTs, Reubens, sausage and kale soup, and burgers.  Great room, local crowd, light years better than the dinner the night before.

Finally, it was GASTROPUB in Albany, NY: Terrific, thin pizza with soppressata from Andy’s, a local deli that is first-rate, burgers with freshly ground beef, a pork ragu with rigatoni, and a salad of local, golden beets.  About eight beers on tap.  Heaven, really.


This Week in the World of Food

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.  You’ve got the UMAMI story I was just assigned to write for Thai Airlines.  Then you have BACK of THE HOUSE, out in February with Berkley/Penguin, which is my book on chefs and restaurants–SPECIAL OFFER: Buy 10, get one free!

If I didn’t know better, I’d think that there was near balance.  Not new balance, near.

Meanwhile, there’s black bean soup with cumin and onions followed by roasted halibut with baby Brussels sprouts and chopped tomatoes.  And that’s just last night.  Prep to table: 20 minutes.

Does it ever end?  This seemingly ceaseless pursuit of flavor?

Where does it originate?

Could this be linked to the trace memory of the race wars of the 1930s?  Or are these cravings of a wholly independent biological etiology?

One place where the answer might be found is in the fascinating, brilliant, mildly overwrought in places book, “Au Revoir to All That,” by Michael Steinberger.  I finally picked up a copy after reading some time ago an exceptionally interesting review by Steve Shapin in the London Review of Books.  Steinberger is contextual in his analysis of food and his efforts to understand how meaning is conveyed through gastronomy?  First rate.


Writing Weather

I’ve been writing about the 1930s for the past three years and, when I am about to doze off and in the first moments of morning consciousness, the darkness of that decade gains a greater specificity.  Which will make for a good book, the one I’m writing, while also placing every misgiving in the here and now in stark perspective.  It’s as if events go on and I see them from a distance unless I decide to hone in, and then the listening and observation have a laser-like focus and immediacy.

But enough of that, to paraphrase Busta Rhymes, a.k.a. Trevor Tahiem Smith, Jr.

I mean do you just love his music?  Of course you do:

“See how I’m drillin ’em baby?
It’s Bus-a-Bus back bitch, I’m killin ’em crazy
We off the Relaxic, I’m spillin the gravy
Got every club packed thick, creating a frenzy
To be the latest greatest for all you niggaz from gazing
Bugatti off white tan, interior pastry
See my swagger sharp like that, these niggaz amaze me
As a matter a fact just salute me and praise me
Enough of that.”

Where was I?

Ah, I remember.

The halibut.

I made a white bean and kale soup in the pressure cooker.  First, the beans in eight cups of water.  Drain all but one cup after 18 minutes of cooking.  Add chopped kale and one sliced onion and salt and high quality olive oil and four cups of water.  Pressure cook for five minutes.  Place in large, round fish/seafood pan.  Preheat oven to 200.  Take 1/2 pound, bone in filet of halibut and dust in flour.  Add salt and pepper.  Pan sear over high heat to get a crust on all sides.  Let it rest on a paper bag to get the oil off.  Place atop the beans and kale.  Put the halibut, beans, and kale in the preheated oven for 20 minutes.  Remove from oven and plate.  Add salt and lemon juice atop the fish.  Serves two.



Chill in the Air: Who? What? When? Why? How?

Up here in the NE, the skies darken and the pressure drops, and Pete Townsend, pants down or not, remains irrelevant compared to the moans of the JBs.  I mean: Those shrieks, crashing instruments, and leaps?  Puh-leeze.

I’m more tuned into miso broth.

I was just thinking as I made my nightly batch: Wow, is this a cuisine of poverty and terroir or what?  Few dishes are as subtle and evocative as miso broth.

Think about it: You take dried fish flakes (bonita) and dried seaweed (kombu) and some water and boil it up.  Then you pour the broth through a sieve and into a bowl.  Add, through a spoon sieve, miso made from fermented soy, rice, and barley.  Stir over a low flame.

Add some greens.  Pour over soba in bowls.  Add fried fish, if you like.

It’s so soothing.  And you can imagine being in a rocky, desolate place–some might say that place is the imagination–where the creative act is in the observation rather than the imposition.

The Who?  Who cares?

Food Prices Going Up, Up, Up (Redux)

With the mushroom festival over, as noted, reality has come crashing down or in.  That’s right, international food prices for the month of September have been posted and the global news is dire.

From The Guardian: “World food prices rose in September and are moving nearer to levels reached during the 2008 food crisis.”

More specifically:  “The Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) price index, which measures monthly price changes for a food basket of cereals, oilseeds, dairy, meat and sugar, rose 1.4% in September, mainly due to higher dairy and meat prices.”

Now what this means is that concomitant or subsequent social changes will take place.  The last time the FAO price index went up, food riots took place throughout the Arab world.

I wish that the mushroom festival went on all week so that I didn’t have to think about crises.  But it doesn’t, it’s over, and I must.

I mean, serious?  Look at these figures posted by the BBC:

“Cereal prices rose 1% from August, as gains in wheat and rice offset a decline in maize.”

“Meat prices were up 2.1%.”

“Dairy prices rose 7%.”

It’s this last item that ought to trigger concern as you mull the nonfat, low fat, whole milk, organic, sustainable, grass fed, locally grazed yogurt and other dairy driven products you place in your cloth bag that you use to save the planet from more plastic or paper bags.  (Thus putting people out of work in the paper and plastic industries.)



Another Year, Another Mushroom

The last caps and stems are being swept away and the crowds have boarded buses and planes for the long ride home.  Last night, in a remarkable break with tradition, the Annual Mushroom Festival was extended briefly.  Now?  Now it’s just a memory.  To quote Mick.

The final dinner was a handful of trimmed chanterelles cooked over high heat in Amish butter and a chopped shallot.  Water added periodically until the mushrooms were done.  When were they done?  When they were done, that’s when.

Then the mushrooms were placed atop two slices of toasted “house” bread from Hi-Rise: A whole grain, thick crusted bread you might readily find in northern or central Europe.  Grate a little good parmigiano and add cracked black pepper to taste, and serve.  Wow, right?

And now that the festival is over, it’s onto other matters.  Restaurants, in order to jack up prices, calling themselves French or Japanese when they are hodgepodge instead; kids throwing away healthy school lunches; baby Brussels sprouts appearing on grocer’s shelves.

And am I the only one to notice that after Obama, during the debate, said something that Romney felt was untrue that he was compared by the challenger to his five sons who fib occasionally?  I mean: He inferred that a black man was a son.  That’s not right.

And just for the record: This site did not invite Romney to the mushroom festival.  We wouldn’t.  Would you?

Of course not.  I didn’t think so.

Mushroom Days, Mushroom Nights

The festivities ended just about the same time as the buses started their first morning routes.  After dinner what happened was the big masquerade ball, sort of a prelude or nod to Halloween, and this year’s fungus-inspired costumes matched the fervent of the madcap band brought in from Toronto.  Never mind the name of the band, let’s just say it was a pun, OK?

The dinner menu was revised at the last moment by the chef.  First course turned into pan seared red snapper with grated wasabi.  Then, inspired by noodles, he took two dishes and made them into one:

A miso broth with Swiss chard and matsutake below which were soba noodles cooked independently and added to the broth in the bowls.

What about the chanterelles?   You might well ask.

Saved for tonight!  The festival has been extended by twenty-four hours!


The Big Second Night of the Mushroom Festival

In years past, the second night of The Mushroom Festival tended to be a little on the slow side, sandwiched as it is between the exuberance of The First Night and the Closing Ceremonies.  Not this year!

In fact, the merriment went on until dawn!

It started slow, I’ll admit , with a pedantic lecture by Harold McFee, CEO of The Mycology Institute, in which he addressed the slur towards mushrooms implicit in descriptions of the A-bomb as being, “a mushroom cloud.”  Harold, you went on too long!  And, please, stop reading from your notes!

I will say that the information Dr. McFee provided was tops, as usual, and, certainly, you can never hear enough about the misuse of mushroom terms in the media.

Things picked up with the gala dinner.

We started with blue fin toro in checkerboard sized squares topped with a spritz of lemon juice, salt, and Bulldog sauce alongside grated ginger and wasabi.

Then it was Niigata rice risotto with tender pieces of roasted sugar pumpkin and matsutake.

The risotto was served at the same time as miso broth topped with carrots, kale, and chanterelle.

Was it all crazy-delicious?  Well, does a mushroom grow in the woods?

The Gala Opening of This Year’s Mushroom Festival

A small cardboard box was hand delivered yesterday by FEDEX just before 9 A.M. by a cheery, uniformed woman.

I said, “Mushrooms!”

She said, “I thought that’s what it said on the box!  Wow!  Enjoy them!”

Along with the mushrooms from Oregon Mushrooms ( came a $25 wasabi root swathed in a wet paper towel to keep it from drying out.

The mushrooms–matsutake and chanterelle–came in little, brown paper bags.  The former were flat out gorgeous; the latter were beautiful.  Both had firm texture and that forest-like aroma one associates with, well, take a guess.

Preceded by a visit to New Deal to buy fish for the wasabi, or was it wasabi for the fish, the first night’s meal was prepared with ruthless and swift efficiency.

The first course was sliced, raw blue fin tuna with a dash of salt and Bulldog sauce and a spritz of lemon served with freshly grated wasabi and freshly grated ginger.  Stunning.

Next were two dishes served at the same time.

Miso soup from scratch with Hokkaido kelp to flavor the broth.  We are talking great depth of flavor.  Sliced the matsutake into quarters, placed in the soup.  Separately, boiled kohlrabi to death and cooled them.  Then added them, quartered, to the broth.  Crazy.  Flat out nuts.

Chanterelle: Pan seared with Amish butter and a shallot and before finishing some chopped parsley was added in.  Toast four slices of first-rate rye from Hi-Rise.  Place chanterelles atop toast.  Slice Gruyere atop mushrooms.  Toast again.  Grate black pepper.

It was Umami, start to finish, and I can’t wait until tonight.