Tuesday, October 17, 2006

because every food blogger has to blog about hamburgers

Hamburgers are one of those things that I could never cook for myself and enjoy. It is the food of kicking back and relaxing, it’s a craving happily satiated, it’s a night off – and if I’m going to have a hamburger, damn it, it had better be good.

I’ve noticed an outcropping of trendy burger “eateries” popping up around the city over the past year or so, places offering organic burgers on homemade bread, every incarnation of veggie burger, turkey burger, bison burger, kobi burger, etc. All these places seem to have a very modern-trendy, clean lined and sterile feel about them – not entirely unlikable, but when I think hamburger I feel much more drawn to the places better referred to as a ‘joint’ rather than an ‘eatery’.

I confess to being totally biased on the subject of what environment I like to eat my hamburger in, to the point that I haven’t even stepped foot in one of these newfangled hamburger places. Perhaps, for posterity or in the name of scientific research, I should check one of these places out. But when I want a burger I don’t want a white table clothe restaurant, I don’t want to be staring out the window checking out the shoes and handbags of the passers-by on the streets, or pompously displayed New Yorker, Zagat and/or Wine Spectator reviews stuck on the wall. I want a place where unfettered pleasure is the goal; a place where I can guiltlessly and blissfully throw down a pint and a burger without being reminded that there are vegetarians in this world, without having to debate whether I should go for the healthier choice on the menu, without having to choose whether I want foie gras or truffles. I want the decision making process to be simple and straightforward, streamlined in fact. Choice 1: Hamburger, Choice 2: Cheeseburger. Choice 3: There is no choice 3. Rare/ Medium Rare/ Medium/ Well (God forbid!). I don’t want a bun so thick or crusty that I must disconnect my jaw, like a boa constrictor, before taking the first splendid bite. I don’t want some fruity, homemade ketchup or fancy ingredients.

I want it medium-rare on a soft, white, fluffy cloudlike bun. Mayo, pickles, lettuce and ketchup. Lots and lots of ketchup. Ketchup on the bun, ketchup to dip it in. I love ketchup. I hate broccoli. And much to my parents dismay, that’s just about the only thing a Bush president and I will ever agree upon. But I digress.

One of my favorite places to get a hamburger is CafĂ© Fanelli on Prince and Mercer. That place never ceases to be an experience. A dark wood interior, long bar and comfy barstools, old black and white boxing pictures line the walls, two-tops in a row along the wall opposite the bar, the staff as checkered as the table clothes. The tattooed and pierced waitresses have a look like you’d better be careful how you behave or they just might kick your ass. The bartenders are salty, surly and sarcastic – just the way I like them. The clientele too is a pretty checkered bunch. The same drunk has been at the end of the bar since I first started going there eight years ago, and their is a cross between old-school SoHo artists (can you say, “rent controlled apartment”?), a few businessmen, a tourist or two and a few starlets who’ve wandered in off the street to use the toilet. The place is strangely unchanged and unaffected by the retail storm that has slaughtered much of the neighborhood charm, unfazed by the mignons of fashionistas and bankers that have come through its doors and replaced the old artists, bohemians and mobsters of yesteryear. Amazingly, it maintains a little bit of what the rest of SoHo used to be - brash, eccentric, and smug.

They have a decent burger served on a soft onion roll. But the pickles are on the side, and aren’t cut for proper placement on a hamburger. Their fries are good and they have Heffeweisen, Guiness, Stella, Bass and Brooklyn Lager on tap on tap so I can’t complain.

But recently, I found a new favorite hamburger joint (sacre bleu!). And I can’t believe it, but I was taken there by friends from South Africa! How is it that someone from S.A. knows where to get a great burger in this town without me knowing about that place first?! Impossible, or so I thought. I was hesitant but by my friends description, I knew I had to investigate.

We pulled up on 56th Street in my friends bright orange rental car. It was like riding in a pumpkin, perfect for the season. By some strange stroke of luck (that I never seem to have), we found a parking spot right in front of the Le Parker Meridien Hotel and I thought to myself, how good could it really be? We walked into the grandiose lobby; polished, chic and trendy and I thought, “oh no, here we go”. We ducked behind a long, curtained wall behind the front desk and I felt like Jody Foster in Contact when she slid through the worm hole to another dimension. Suddenly I was in this tiny cube shaped hovel, maybe 400 square feet – maybe. Ramones and Soprano’s posters adorned the wood panneled walls, thick wood tables and walls carved up with initials “J.M.” heart “B.L.”, autographs, stickers from the women’s roller ball league, a few carved-up, vandalized booths, a large communal table in the middle. The counter and kitchen open to view and two guys working – one taking orders, the other flipping burgers over a flaming grill. And the best part was the smell – it smelled like grill smoke, char and sizzling meat. The menu was written in magic marker on torn cardboard and states:

If you aren’t ready you go to the back of the line.

They also had fries, milkshakes, Sam Adams and sodas.

I waited in line and mulled my choice, sure to be prepared when it was my turn at the front. I wasn’t going to be sent to the back of the line for not having my order ready. I waited and waited and like a good New Yorker, when I got to the front of the line and spat out my order so quickly the guy told me to slow down and repeat myself…

After a weekend of gluttony cooking (and drinking) up a storm at a friends farm in Pennsylvania, a stop for lunch at my favorite Middle-Eastern restaurant in Bay Ridge where we gorged ourselves yet again, I thought that there was no way I would possibly be hungry for dinner, much less a hamburger. I was thinking more like Perrier and a lemon…

But once I smelled that fine, fine smell of fat dripping into a fiery grill, I was suddenly famished. It was my dream come true and I was taken their by a tourist! Say it isn’t so… The burger was great, the flaming grill leaving its stamp on every tasty bite. The pickles fit, the bun was soft and fluffy. Perfection. I can’t wait, wait, wait to go back again – many more times before I leave for the Caribbean.

The Crew at The Hamburger Joint at Le Parker Meridien

On a side note, I know many New Yorkers will say Corner Bistro (Burger Bistro, as some call it) is the place to go for burgers. It was my favorite for years – but ever since a friend of mine got a glue trap with a rat on it stuck to his foot there, I can’t ever go back.

So happy to have finely found a decent replacement. Plus, you won’t have to endure the frat boys and drunk chicks at The Burger Joint.

The Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien
118 W. 57th Street
Between 6th and 7th

Cafe Fanelli
Corner of Mercer and Spring

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bollywood Nights

If I died tomorrow and went to Heaven, it would smell like the prep kitchen at Devi.

The air was fragrant with the intoxicating aroma of roasted spices - cardamom, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, asafetida and cinnamon; and the walk-in full of kuri leaves by the sack full, fresh ginger and chilies. I was dilerious by the smell of it all and didn’t hear a word the pastry chef was telling me as we entered the walk-in and she pointed out which side the dairy was on, where the produce was kept, the prepped veg, the fruits for desserts, etc. The squeal of a Bollywood soundtrack played in my head as I drifted into a world of coal rimmed eyes, bright sari’s, tabla’s, sitars and spicy food. The sultry, heady aroma of curries, masalas and biryanis stealing my attention away like an opiate… I was pulled reluctantly back to reality as we stepped out of the walk-in and back into the prep kitchen and I realized that every word Surbi had just told me in the walk-in had gone in one ear and out the other. All I wished for was some time alone in there and a spoon so that I could sample from each and every brightly colored quart container. I was completely transfixed, I’d found olfactory nirvana, my taste buds salivated. I closed my eyes and drew one more deep breath before the walk-in doors closed and I returned to my prep station in a spice induced haze.

My prep list included making shortbread dough spiced with fresh, green cardamom and garam masala, cardamom kulfi (Indian ice-cream made with milk cooked until it is thick and sweet), mango panna cota, tangerine and saffron custard, black cardamom and bittersweet chocolate truffles. A circle of prep cooks gathered around a table listening to the Dead Can Dance while making trays of lentil cakes and samosa, mincing chilis and peeling sweet potatoes. Another prep cook made potato croquettes spiced with chilis, cilantro, ginger, cumin and curry, another one still was busy decorating miniature spiced pineapple cakes. I was in bliss as I weighed and measured.

Cardamom Kulfi (Indian Ice-Cream)
layered with pistachio's and a passion fruit sauce

I figured staff meal had to be good but was afraid I’d missed it as I hadn’t arrived until after 1 o’clock. But luck shined down upon me and at 3 o’clock and I was invited to dine with the rest of the kitchen staff. A cook peeled away the aluminum foil hiding the contents of a deep hotel pan. Inside was a thick, green sauce with yogurt, curry spices and cilantro, chicken and potatoes. Another tray held fragrant jasmine rice and another of naan bread, fresh from the tandoori and still warm. The naan was perfect, lightly chard on the outside, slightly sweet and chewy on the inside. We gathered around the steel tables of the prep kitchen, sitting on glass racks tipped on their side, the pastry chef handed me a bowl of heavily spiced black beans and a friendly banter was tossed back and forth among the kitchen crew and the wait staff like a game of Frisbee on a sunny day in the park. Never before have I enjoyed staff meal quite so much…

Pears with funagreek leaves for a sweet and tangy chutney cook on a giant burner along with peas cooked with mint chutney, cumin and chilies for pea croquettes

Day two was full of rolling spicy pea croquettes, shaping tandoori salmon and crab cakes, cooking down pear chutney, coating cashew brittle in tempered chocolate and gold dust, cutting out fruit jellies and rolling them in sugar. The salmon for the salmon and crab cakes was coated in a red, tangy tondoori sauce and skewered in big chunks on long steel rods, over two feet in length and placed in the tandoori to roast. When trays of it were brought down to the prep kitchen, several cooks (me included) took the liberty of sampling it – we had to making sure it was up to snuff, and it was…

Salmon in the Tandoori

Staff meal this time was yellow curry with potatoes, peas and chicken. Although delicious, I had to comment to Jonathan, the youngest of the kitchen crew, that perhaps curry for lunch everyday might get old. He laughed and said that he didn’t want to burst my bubble by telling me that the day before.

The crew worked away in the prep kitchen and every once in a while chef Hermant, squat and round with his smoldering black eyes and thick black moustache, would come down and make sure that the prep was moving along smoothly, and switching between Spanish and Hindi as he guided and advised the kitchen crew.

I’ll be hanging in the kitchen of Devi for the next few weeks doing some recipe testing with the pastry chef, learning a few new tricks. Then, in just 22 days – it’s off to the Caribbean

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Rolling in the Dough

29 days left in New York City and then I’m out of here… It’s off to the Caribbean or Florida although I’m not sure where exactly. We’ll see which way the wind blows…

I’ve given up my apartment and am leaving New York once and for all – not an easy task given that I have lots of friends and family here and New York has this way of roping me back in. I’ve been trying to leave for five years now! But those Caribbean waters are calling my name. A fellow yachty and I have been talking about sharing an apartment down in St. Martin for the season and I’m also considering getting a place in either Miami or Fort Lauderdale. Either way, I’ll be heading down to FL in a few weeks time to meet with some crew agencies and friends that have arrived from the Mediterranean. I’ve sent out my cv to crew agencies, emailed crew friends and looking to jump on a boat sometime in November. The Caribbean season doesn’t really get going until mid-December, but there should be plenty of work doing deliveries from the Med and the US down to the Caribbean.

As of November 1, I no longer have a place to live! AH! This should scare me, but it doesn’t. To some, it would seem inconceivable to give up an apartment and have no place to “live”, throwing caution to the wind and just taking off. But I feel free, and for me, that’s just how life works out best. Whenever I try to plan too much is when things start to go awry. I function much better just jumping in, and after last season on the yachts, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect, where to go and what the challenges will be. I can’t wait to be on the water again and feel the wind in my face. I feel totally optimistic about the coming season…

In the meantime, I’ve been keeping myself entertained by interloping in friends kitchens around New York. I spent the day today at the restaurant Barolo on West Broadway, learning to make fresh pasta! I went in this morning and met up with my friend, Maurizio, the chef – a bald-headed, overly caffeinated, Vespa riding Italian from Genoa. We met over a lengthy conversation at his bar the other night about chestnuts, as friends and I waited for a table for dinner. I’m preparing for an Iron Chef Chestnut cook-off at a friends farm in just a few weeks and pasta has been on my mind. So, I saw the chef and figured who better to talk to… We talked about savory chestnut cakes, chestnuts and game, and then he brought out some freshly prepared chestnut pasta to taste. After a great dinner (I had the cocoa pasta with wild mushrooms) and a ’78 Barolo, I decided to hit him up to let me hang out in his kitchen and learn to make pasta.

Maurizio put me in the capable hands of his master pasta maker, Manny. Expecting to walk into a hectic and chaotic environment, lots of bustling around, Manny perhaps being too busy to really show me his magic, I was pleasantly surprised that the kitchen was the exact opposite of what I'd anticipated. It was calm and sane as I walked downstairs into the prep kitchen; Mexican radio piping out of a flour dusted boom box, the butcher hand mincing lamb for a lamb ragout, another prep cook picking basil leaves and coring tomatoes. Something about Mexican music and foreign languages being spoken around me always makes me nostalgic for my time in restaurant kitchens…

Manny, a soft spoken and friendly Salvadoran, has been the resident pasta maker at Barolo for eight years and also moonlights as a pasta maker for other restaurants around the city. We started out the morning making 24 lbs. of pasta dough with eggs and durum flour; kneeding the dough in a giant mixer (you’d need Andre the Giant to kneed that amount of dough by hand!). He offered up the recipe: 18 lbs. of durum flour, 6 lbs. of a.p. flour, 50-something eggs. I declined writing it down, I don’t think I will ever be making that much pasta! Manny said he doesn’t need a recipe; he just goes by how it feels. And all along, as the dough was kneeding, Manny would grab a lump of dough and show me how the dough should feel – not too wet, not too dry, not too soft, not too hard. I fed a few pounds of dough at a time through a large pasta roller, which squished it out in thinner and thinner sheets - #3 for spaghetti, #1 for papparadell and ravioli.

We rolled and cut – busting out pounds of hand cut papparadell, linguini and spaghetti. Then we moved on to the ravioli making. Manny mixed up a batch of filling; ricotta, mascarpone, parmesan and lots of fresh herbs. After dusting them with semolina, he draped the ravioli molds with long, thin sheets of dough and showed me how to pipe in the filling. He worked like a machine, his dough was perfect, not a ripple out of place as he piped in the filling. Of course, when it was my turn to start piping, my raviolis really stood out – because each one was a different size! I didn’t quite have the trained precision that this pasta master had…

He said it was a slow day for him, not a lot to make (besides the 24 lbs. we’d just busted out), so we toured the walk-ins and he pointed out the black farfalle he’d made with squid ink, the chestnut linguini made with chestnut and chickpea flour, the cocoa pasta, apple and cheese filled ravioli’s, etc. Then, of course, it came time to sample and the chef set me up with a plate of apple and cheese filled ravioli’s with a lamb ragout. The ravioli’s were much lighter than expected and the lamb ragout was a delicious accompaniment to the mildly sweet filling.

On the way home, I stopped at the Buon Italia in the Chelsea Market and picked up chestnut, chickpea, durum and semolina flours to test out my new pasta making skills, and indoctrinate my new, hand-crank pasta machine…

Tomorrow I’ll be hanging with pastry chef Surbhi Sahni at the Indian restaurant Devi, on 18th Street in Manhattan, picking up some new tricks to bring to the Caribbean with me…

Ahhh, life is good.

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