Archive for the ‘family’ Category

My Favorite New York Stand-Up Comedian

Friday, December 17th, 2010

5 Honorary Meat Dishes

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

I’m a shameless carnivore, happy to be perched near the top of a providentially-designed food chain. I enjoy chunks of animal protein, I always have, and I always will. On this point, I share common ground with the Sage from Wasilla – “If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?“.

But even I find myself having meatless meals from time to time. Sometimes, my appetite strays from its carnivorous tendencies, and I find myself realizing after a tasty meal that there wasn’t any meat involved in a perfectly satisfying entree. Those entrees never are fussy messes of too-sharp onion, mesclun that looks and tastes like lawn clippings, or tofu. Instead, they are classic meals that transcend the need for meat.

I propose that the following 5 entrees be considered honorary meat dishes, and henceforth be recognized as unifying meals that can cause vegetarians and meat-lovers to sit down together without compromising satisfaction or principle.

1. Pizza Margherita: Dough, tomatoes, cheese and basil baked together in a pie that satisfies. Inspired by royalty, the classic Pizza Margherita’s ingredients achieve a purity that can only be sullied by pepperoni or italian sausage.

2. Macaroni and Cheese: Many of us lived on boxed versions of this during college years of relative poverty, and sumptuous new takes on the recipe often include lobster or pancetta. They’re all good, but the good old classic, with bread crumbs on top, deserves a spot in the pantheon of great meals.

3. Falafel: I was in college when a friend introduced me to fried globs of ground up chickpeas in pita bread; he told me it was the “Big Mac” of Israel. Falafel has been among my favorite foods ever since – a great one has flavors and textures that can blow you away.

4. Welsh Rabbit (or rarebit): It seems too simple to be satisfying, and too small to be filling. But the toasted english muffin with a savory, rich cheddar sauce described in The Vegetarian Epicure cookbook caught our attention back during the Reagan administration, and its simple satisfaction has remained a favorite. Served with a hearty ale, it’s a warming meal.

5. Pierogies: I may be a bit ahead of the curve on this one, in that pierogies are not as universally known or appreciated as pizza or mac cheese, but, trust me, these over-sized mutant ravioli are Polish soul food. Locally, Pieroguys are soon to open a cafe in the River Market, and their frozen offerings are found in a few grocery stores. Closer to home, you can make my mother’s version by following my narrative recipe.
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What else belongs on this list? Eggplant parmesan, grilled cheese sandwiches, spaghetti with marinara sauce, portabella sandwiches?

Sunday Poetry: Buckingham Palace, by A.A. Milne

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Buckingham Palace

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
“A soldier’s life is terrible hard,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We saw a guard in a sentry-box.
“One of the sergeants looks after their socks,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
We looked for the King, but he never came.
“Well, God take care of him, all the same,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
They’ve great big parties inside the grounds.
“I wouldn’t be King for a hundred pounds,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
A face looked out, but it wasn’t the King’s.
“He’s much too busy a-signing things,”
Says Alice.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
“Do you think the King knows all about me?”
“Sure to, dear, but it’s time for tea,”
Says Alice.

– by A.A. Milne
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Today is National Children’s Poetry Day, and this one brings to mind the faces of my children smiling and reciting this poem nestled on the couch with my wife. The repeated lines and dependable rhythm allowed them to “catch on” at an early age, and enjoy the music of the words. In fact, this one was often sung in our home, and two wonderful readers were born.

If you have a child in your life, please take some time to read to him or her. Just as exercise in the back yard helps children strengthen and develop coordination, sitting next to an adult reading helps children grow intellectually and develop appreciation of the written word.

Poetry does not need to be about serious topics to be important.

Sunday Poetry: September, The First Day Of School, by Howard Nemerov

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

September, The First Day Of School
I
My child and I hold hands on the way to school,
And when I leave him at the first-grade door
He cries a little but is brave; he does
Let go. My selfish tears remind me how
I cried before that door a life ago.
I may have had a hard time letting go.

Each fall the children must endure together
What every child also endures alone:
Learning the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That worlds invisible and visible

Bow down before it, as in Joseph’s dream
The sheaves bowed down and then the stars bowed down
Before the dreaming of a little boy.
That dream got him such hatred of his brothers
As cost the greater part of life to mend,
And yet great kindness came of it in the end.

II
A school is where they grind the grain of thought,
And grind the children who must mind the thought.
It may be those two grindings are but one,
As from the alphabet come Shakespeare’s Plays,
As from the integers comes Euler’s Law,
As from the whole, inseparably, the lives,

The shrunken lives that have not been set free
By law or by poetic phantasy.
But may they be. My child has disappeared
Behind the schoolroom door. And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form

Nor hope to know it. May the fathers he finds
Among his teachers have a care of him
More than his father could. How that will look
I do not know, I do not need to know.
Even our tears belong to ritual.
But may great kindness come of it in the end.

– by Howard Nemerov
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This is one of those frustrating poems to write about, where I cannot force myself to focus on the meter or the poetic technique, because I’m closest to the subject. Forgive me for a moment, then, while I focus on the thought instead of the poem.

Nemerov captures so much of what my parenting experience has been in this poem. You are given this little bundle to take care of – immobile to the point you can lay it on a pad on the table while you drink a cup of coffee and read the paper, dependent to the point that it would starve if you didn’t feed it, and ignorant to the point that the pet dog has a vastly superior vocabulary.

Then everything changes.

I’m particularly wowed by the final two lines. “Even our tears belong to ritual.” It is a ritual, isn’t it, that we wind up taking our children to schools – society demands that we act out this strange act, leaving our children to others to teach? (Homeschoolers aside.) We do this to our children, as our parents did it to us, and it is a truly horrid ripping, no matter how we prepare ourselves and how convinced we are that we have the best school and the most excited child. It is a societal ritual, where all parents symbolically surrender their children to society, and all children accept that they will need to face the challenges of institutions without the protective gaze of their parents. All lives are changed on the threshold of schools.

And the final line is not a prediction; it is a plaintive prayer. “But may great kindness come of it in the end.” Nemerov was a teacher – a professor at Washington University, a few miles from my childhood home. He knew education and academia, and he does not offer an unconvincing declaration like “This is for the best”, or “Education will expand their worlds”, or even “They’ll increase their earning power if they make the right choices”. He doesn’t even attempt prosaic persuasion – instead, he joins those of us who have abandoned our children to society in a prayer that some greater kindness, some happier outcome, will follow from the tears of division on the schoolhouse steps.

My Dinner at Per Se

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

In writing, as in many other aspects of life, it is unwise to leapfrog over your own abilities, even when offered the opportunity to do so. The hotshot high school quarterback dreams of a shot at the NFL, but would be crushed and demoralized if thrust into the situation. The funniest guy at the office bombs at an open-mike comedy show. The NASCAR fan winds up in a ditch when the speedometer hits triple digits.

Here I go, doing the same thing. An amateur foodwriter visits Per Se, and gets the VIP treatment, and tries to write about it.

Per Se is one of the world’s best restaurants. Those who decide such things have declared it to be the best restaurant in the United States (or anywhere in the Americas, for that matter), and the 6th best in the world. Personally, I’ve not been to any other the other top 100, so I can neither confirm nor deny that it deserves #6. I’ll let the experts defend their own rankings to those of who you swear by the French Laundry in Yountville, California (#12), Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York (#31) or even the obviously crappy #97, Bo Innovation in Hong Kong.

Suffice it to say, the restaurant is well-regarded. I wore a suit to dinner on vacation.

First, even before the decor, you are struck by the people. Help is everywhere, from the team of people who greet you at the door and take your coat to the servers walking quickly but without seeming rushed. The staff is urgent in a manner that does not quicken your pulse; they are urgently working to help you feel relaxed and comfortable. It’s a nifty trick, and they pull it off.

Then, the view. A table next to the fireplace, with a view of Columbus Circle and a snowy Central Park. The space is elegant, but graceful instead of “fancy”.

But we were there for the dining. First, a flinty champagne with gruyere puffs and salmon cornets. The puffs (gougeres, actually) were at a perfect temperature, with the gruyere just warm enough to be sensous and flavorful. The cornets (Salmon tartare and Red onion Creme Fraiche in a Savory Cornet) were like tasty little cones of salty tart flavor to wake your palate from the cozy slumber brought on by the gougeres.

Hold it.

I could continue on like this, but I won’t. The reason is I haven’t even hit the menu yet. These were “amuse bouche” – little extras that just happen. Not that the term “menu” means what you think it means here, anyhow. You don’t really order at Per Se – you decide. And all you decide is whether you’re going to be a vegetarian for the evening or if you will have the chef’s menu. Either way, the chef is in control, not you. Which is okay, since either way, you’re down for $275 dollars, and I know my personal imagination cannot conjure a meal worth that much money, so it’s just as well an expert is there to do it for me.

(The $275 does not include the fabulous wines and one ethereal beer, by the way. And there were 4 of us. And we got the VIP treatment, which means that we got much more than the normal $275 meal. Incredible. My son underwrote the entire experience.)

Instead of going through each course, I’ll mention a few of my favorite moments out of the five and a half hour feast. There were 18 courses listed on the menu they gave us at the end of the evening, but it didn’t list a few of the various extras delivered.

“Surf and Turf” was a lobster mitten (just the most tender portion of the lobster’s claw), served with Boudin Noir, a luscious pork blood sausage, and heightened with a vigorous shaving of black truffle at the table.

The black truffles came out again with the “Salad of Young Beets”. I had not ever been a beet fan, but this was out of this world. But the highlight of the dish for me was the “pastrami”, which was shaved and dehydrated crispy foie gras, enhanced with pastrami spices. I never thought I would eat crispy foie gras and black truffles in one bite.

There were four items with foie gras. Three had black truffles. Can you believe that?

One of the most spectacular presentations was “Quail in a Jar”. While I haven’t seen the recipe, my son tells me that the first direction is “Debone a quail” – a ridiculous assignment for your average home cook! Anyhow, they brought a canning jar to the table, with a quail suspended in aspic. The brought it back to the kitchen for plating, and it returned as an amazingly rich quail stuffed with foie gras, and garnished with tiny lettuces and 100 year-old balsamic vinegar.

There were 6 salts at our table, ranging from a volcanic black salt to a pink salt from France.

Probably my favorite dish was the “Salvatore Brooklyn Ricotta ‘Agnolotti’”, which was like tiny ravioli filled with ricotta unlike any I have tasted before, and the whole dish was covered with white truffle shaved over it tableside. I’ve never seen white truffle before, much less tasted it, but it is pungent and earthy and mind-altering. The dish was heaven.

At one point during the meal, we were welcomed back into the kitchen. Everything sparkled, even a copper tube leading to a drain. There is no walk-in refrigerator; instead, refrigerators opened to reveal shelves of carefully organized ingredients in clearly-labeled tubs. The pace was urgent, but not frenetic. The person preparing desserts was a friendly young man from Barstow, here in Kansas City.

During the meal I learned that “Cervelle de Veau” is calf brain, and that I love calf brain. My daughter thought for a moment the server said it was “cat brain” . . .

I love food, but I never, ever, expected to have such a meal. I’m glad I did; it was the culinary equivalent of standing on Mount Everest. The fact that I have been there does not diminish my love of Pancho’s or Blue Stem. But, man, it was amazing.

The meal happened two weeks ago tonight, and this is the first time I’ve wanted to write about it. I want to remember it, and I can’t help but share the experience as best I can. I won’t tell you to rush out and visit the place; the tab was more than several cars I’ve purchased in my lifetime.

Chef Thomas Keller, the founder of Per Se, wrote, “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.” Lots of meals make me happy, but this one was special. Just like your happiest moment does not diminish the joy of other happy moments, my dinner at Per Se was a pinnacle of food appreciation, but it leaves room for plenty more.

Where Have All the Pretzels Gone?

Monday, December 21st, 2009

We live in a golden age of beer, with hundreds of brands and varieties easily available at local stores at reasonable prices. No human population has ever, in the history of mankind, had a richer beer experience than American beer lovers today. It is a joyful time to be alive.

But where have all the pretzels gone?

What a painful irony it is that now that I am of age to match pretzels with their proper beverage, the honest pretzel is nearly extinct, preserved only in far-away gourmet sanctuaries beyond the reach of ordinary folk.

Today’s pretzels are a shadow of what pretzels should be. Pretzels should be twisted, but now they are pooped preformed from machined tools and baked to bland uniformity. When I was a child, even the mass market brands were twisted, with little extra-browned pretzel nipples to be snapped off the top arch, and a corrugated center where strands of dough did a joyful dance of crispness. Now, mass-market pretzels are flat and uniform, tanned and smooth.

And the snap! Back in the day, when you bit a pretzel, it snapped like a dried branch. The place where it broke would be jagged with striations and spikes. Crumbs were flakes or like tiny twigs of dough. Now, pretzels are like compressed powder. The texture when you break one is like crumbling a clump of laundry detergent.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ll eat a bag of the current version of mass-market pretzels without a shred of self-control. Even a bad pretzel is, after all, a pretzel, and proof that crispy and salty are two keys to the good life.

But every now and then, I’ll recall the pretzels of an earlier time. “Nibble with Gibble’s” brand came in plastic bags and a twist-tie, and brightened winters in Schenectady, New York. When my mother passed away a couple years ago, the only item my wise brother sought from the home was a large round Tupperware container that she used to store pretzels in the cabinet when we were kids, but, alas, it was gone like Rosebud.

Snyder’s sourdough pretzels are the closest you’ll find in our grocery stores to the great pretzels of my childhood, though they are expensive and taste of cardboard. I’ve heard rumors that there are still great pretzels being made out there, and I may someday resort to mail ordering some. I’ve even tried baking my own, but they came out stone-hard, and looked more scatological than appetizing.

Even if I mail-order or bake my own, though, it won’t be the same. Great pretzels are like a mother’s love. You shouldn’t need to seek it out, and scarcity reduces, rather than enhances, its value. They’re both at their best when they are a comfortable part of everyday life. This holiday season, I miss them both.

My Favorite Comedian

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

My favorite comedian does a great show in NYC.

New Orleans’ Carver High & Its Field of Dreams

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

My daughter, having recently graduated from Tulane, is staying in New Orleans for a year with a program designed to help 9th Ward high school students become high school graduates. It’s an important goal for a part of the city that “Great Work Brownie” somehow didn’t reach. 4 years after Hurricane Katrina, Carver High remains shuttered, and the students attend classes in trailers.

The school used to be a football powerhouse pre-Katrina, and some ambitious people are working to restore that source of community pride.

As a parent, it’s awfully exciting to see my daughter drawn to where she can do the most good, in the presence of others who have bold dreams, real initiative, and problem-solving skills.

Homecomings

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be gathering children at the airport. They won’t look like children – they will look like a 23 year old man whose self-reliance in New York is impressive, and a 22 year old woman who is completely competent to manage her own life in the strange city of New Orleans. In fact, appearances are reality – it’s just in my imagination that they are children.

We’re thrilled to have them back for a few days.

Eating All Over the Place

Monday, December 29th, 2008

One of the many benefits of living in an information age in a moderately cosmopolitan city is the opportunity to eat something other than roast turkey for fancy meals. Over the past several days, we’ve served 3 meals of note – Christmas Eve, Christmas, and a dinner party on Saturday evening. It struck me how varied our food options are.

Christmas Eve is always tamales at our house, and we wound up purchasing them from the groceria place on Southwest Boulevard a couple doors west of La Fonda. I love those tamales, sold by the dozen, and we accompanied them with Rick Bayless’ easy-and-quick-to-make fried beans and rice pudding. It wasn’t wildly authentic and it wasn’t all homemade, but it was a fantastic meal that tasted a whole lot more Mexican than you ought to expect in a house of pasty white Irish Poles.

The multinational flair continued on Christmas Day, when Sam fired up the stove and roasted ten pounds of Korean pork butt, served with kim chee, some kind of freaky soy paste I got at the Asian Supermarket just north of City Market, and home-made pickled peppers. The recipe has a name, but I’ve forgotten it, but I won’t forget the crispy/tender texture of the pork wrapped in lettuce leaves with accompaniments. I’ve never been to Korea, but slow-cooked pork is always Seoul food for me (I am filled with remorse for that one). We finished it off with home-made key-lime pie – geographically inappropriate but a gastronomically perfect citrus ending to a meal that was all umami and spice.

Saturday we were hosting guests whose taste I don’t know well, so a little restraint was demanded. I went with the Tandoori Chicken recipe adapted for those of us without tandoori ovens, featured in the most recent Cook’s Illustrated. (Cook’s Illustrated has a subscription-based online recipe database, but this recipe looks very similar.) The recipe was spectacular – spicy/flavorful more than spicy/hot, and just slightly charred but still moist and tender. I accompanied it with Indian Spiced Cauliflower and Potatoes – golden with turmeric and cumin, and just spicy enough to be flavorful. Dessert was chai-spiced almond cookies – I’m glad I held off on a little of the cardamom, and the cookies were crumbly perfection.

Friends, I grew up in a pretty meat-and-potatoes household, and I’ve never been to Korea, Mexico, India, or even Key West. I count myself fortunate to be alive in an age where ingredients and good recipes make it possible to taste cuisines from all over the world. I love a good pot roast and making pierogies is a foodie connection to my own recently-lost ancestry, but, armed with a few good cookbooks, the internet and a few ethnic markets, I can take my kitchen around the world, and still drink the water.