Friday, March 26, 2010

Overheard on an elevator....

Instead of deciding to study a language that I could use on a daily basis (Spanish) or to find a job (Chinese or Arabic) or while traveling (French). Nope, I decided to study Russian, but since I first began in high school, it has come in handy in very convenient moments.

First, it was just so damn weird that it made for some great college admission essays. Secondly, it was a blast to minor in, as Russian literature is the best thing there is and easy to meld in with a history major. Thirdly, Russian humor is the most underrated thing on this earth. Olga, my thesis adviser, and one of the most brilliant people in the world, no hyperbole, is also one of the funniest. Her weird brand of dark humor had the entire class laughing to tears when she described growing up in a communal apartment, which is an impressive feat, considering that it is actually quite wretched. And finally, because it is such an "unusual" language for non-Russians to know, it is great for listening in on elevator/subway/otherwise private conversations in public places.

But what does this have to do with food? Well, I admit this is a bit of a stretch, as Russian food, minus borscht/beet soup, is not really much to write home about (at least what I ate in Russia). However, there was one gastronomical delight I discovered while in the motherland, no mean feat considering that my taste buds were probably all half-dead from late nights and vodka.

This gastronomical delight is called "Shaverma," and it is Russian street meat. The Slavic equivalent of those funny little silver meat carts on every corner of midtown that always smell so damn good but can be of dubious hygiene.

It does not compare to Shaverma. And lord knows what sort of meat is actually IN Shaverma. It could be cat for all I know, but when I was in Russia, I didn't care. The smell wafting off those carts was unreal and the taste, even better. This "meat" is shaved thin, served with grilled onions, lettuce and shredded cabbage, with a special sauce inside a pita. It is unlike anything I have ever tasted before or since, and is no doubt Mediterranean in origin, but something about the Russian interpretation takes it to a whole new greasy level.

Anyway, so here I am in the elevator leaving work for the day, and these three women get in and are talking in Russian. It starts off fairly innocuously, with some family gossip and statements of fatigue, and then one of them sighs and says, "You know what I would kill for right now? Some fucking Shaverma!"

I almost turned around and confronted them, but that would be violating urban elevator code, and also reveal the fact that I was evasdropping and so kept quiet. Plus, I was hoping that maybe they would secretly reveal where I could find some of my own Shaverma here in NYC.

No dice. The women all murmured in assent and the lamented the fact that you couldn't find any in this whole wretched city.

With that, the doors opened and out they went. Anyone up for a trip to St. Petersburg?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Consider the Persimmon: Fruit of the Gods

I am back from Sacramento, California, the capital of the golden state and haven to amateur fruit growers extraordinaire like my Po-po. I am not kidding here, kids. Nearly everyone in my grandparents neighborhood, a sweet little clustering of single-story, single-family homes that looks like a sunnier, better landscaped version of what you see in Leave it to Beaver, has at the very LEAST, their own orange tree out back. How amazing is that?

However, these oranges, no matter how lovingly home-grown and organic they may be, cannot compare to what Po-po grows. This woman is a fruit fanatic. She says the fruit is the best thing about living in California and can't really understand why everyone else, including her wayward granddaughter, does not understand this. She has a point though. How lovely would it be to have your own little back yard (and their yard is little), with one of each kind of fruit tree: Asian Pear, Orange, Plum, Golden Apple, Apricot, and Persimmon.

She also keeps her own little vegetable garden off to the side, but that is another story for another day.

So here I am, with Vronsky in tow, and my grandparents, who are almost 90 and probably in better shape than most 30 year olds, immediately exclaim and extol the virtues of Vronsky's great height compared (it's all relative...these are two 88 year old Chinese people we are talking about), and then Po-po grabs him by the hand and immediately says, "come with me."

She leads him out to the backyard and puts on her gardening boots, which are standard wellies that reach up over her knees since she is so tiny. She points to the persimmon tree and explains to him that, even with the aid of her ladder and her fruit-picker pole, she can't quite reach the persimmons up top and by golly, she is convinced that those are the best ones. Could he please utilize that great WASP height of his and get them down?

It was quite a scene. Vronsky picking fruit, my grandfather and I looking on bemusedly while Po-po hurried around the base of the tree picking up all the new fruit. She already had more oranges than she could handle (much of it was squeezed into juice by this point, since you can only eat so many oranges, no mater how good they are), but persimmons are special. After all, their entire genus name, Diospyros, actually means "Fruit of the Gods."

The persimmon is native to China, where it has been cultivated for centuries, but has since spread to Korea, Japan, and California (as of the 1800's), and thrive in Sacramento's mild winters and long summers. They are not appreciated very much outside of the Asian community, which is a real shame, since they are wildly nutritious, chock-a-block full with every vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant you could want. I swear the fact that my grandparents are still so healthy and spry is partly due to a lifetime of persimmons.

Persimmons are delicious sliced up like an apple and extremely sweet, which might be too much for some. Po-po dries out bags and bags worth of them in the backyard via just pure sunlight, which cuts the sweetness a bit and provides a lovely chewy texture that is perfect for snacking. I brought back to gallon-sized bags worth on the plan and have been snacking since.

Dried persimmons have such a great sentimental value for me that I have never thought to explore other uses for this yummy fruit, but its unique flavor and easy to "pulp" texture makes it a favorite for cookies, puddings, chutney and even a "bundt cake." Plus, as the images show, they are quite beautiful to look at!

But don't take my word for it. Sample some "fruit of the gods" for yourself!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Slow and steady wins the race: Beef Bourguinon

You may have noticed my incredibly lax posting frequency as of late. I apologize, but my schedule has just been insane these past two weeks and show no signs of slowing! But c'est la vie...I suppose it is better to be busy than not in this day and age, but now more than ever I savor the "slow' times, even the briefest moments of it, as they are seriously the only thing that is keeping me from going 'round the bend, as the Brits like to say.

As mentioned in my previous post, the French seem to enjoy drawing out their meals, and traditional French food reflects the leisurely pace of a Parisian meal. A welcome respite for a busy American! My Russian teacher in high school had a funny, but very true, pithy saying. "The most valuable thing Russians can give to one and other is money. In America, the most valuable thing we can give is our time." So true, and a good lesson for all. (Volunteering versus writing a check??) I feel that this sentiment is best embodied in the French dish that has become one of Julia Child's most famous: Beef Bourguinon.

Beef Bourguinon can take close to two hours to cook but is completely worth it. Alexander Lobrano, author of the excellent Hungry for Paris makes the bold claim that as far as a perfectly satisfying French meal, beef bourguinon has it all. It is warm, savory, quintessentially French, and can take on as many individual interpretations as there are cafes along the Seine. It was the one dish I simply had to have while in Paris, as my mother had always made beef bourguinon while we were growing up, although we called it "beef boogie-boogie," since we were weird children and someone was always young enough to not be able to pronounce "bourguinon" correctly.

Beef bourguinon is essentially a beef stew made with beef, mushrooms, red wine, and potatoes. The mushroom, wine and beef juice/stock is slowly reduced over time, and to me is the epitome of those rich sauces that define French cuisine. As with most good things in life, it takes prior planning and a bit of time to get just right, but still remains essentially simple and pure, hence it's rib-sticking goodness.

I finally got my beef bourguinon on a drizzly day after we had braved the crowds and Notre Dame and we had seen about a million other sights, all while fighting off our slight hangover and exhaustion from a night out on the town the night before (hearing Mozart, Verdi and Pachabell at the Saint-Germain cathedral the night before--magic! and the only way to continue the magic was to have ten more drinks apparently). We finally slumped into this little brasserie in the 5th arrondissement, damp and starving, and my lord, if the iteration of the bourginon we were served was not the perfect thing for our situation. Heavy on potatoes with beef so tender you hardly needed to chew it, we were in 7th heaven. Vronsky wolfed down his entire bowl despite having eaten his weight in foi gras just before. I myself would have preferred a bit more vegetables, but perhaps I am a bit biased.

Below is my mom's iteration. It is loosely based of Julia Child's recipe, and has been simplified over the years as you will see if you check out Julia's recipe. Try them both and then improvise to suit your needs!

3 pounds of lean beef cut into cubes
2 large white onions
salt and pepper
garlic powder
soy sauce
Worcestershire sauce
Italian seasoning blend
Beef broth
Olive Oil
3 cups of red wine (dry preferably)
Carrots, Mushrooms, and Potatoes to your preference
(I also like to add a bit of tomato paste...just a dollop)

1. Start heating large sauce pot and coat bottom with olive oil
2. put kettle on to boil water on separate burner
3. Wash and clean your beef, season with salt and pepper, and garlic powder
4. When pot is hot (olive oil is beading/steaming) put in beef and let it sear, then flip and move about until all sides are done
5. Put approx 1/4 cup of sugar all over the beef
6. Put in 1.5 teaspoons of salt
7. Stir, stir, stir to coat
8. Add 1/8-1/4 cup of Worcestershire sauce to taste
9. Add 1/4 cup of soy sauce
10. Let simmer
11. Dice up onions while you are waiting
12. When meat is boiling briskly, add the onions
13. As the onions start to cook, but while they are still opaque (not quite to the clear stage yet) add the tomato paste if you would like and coat
14. Add the beef broth and a bit of water from your teapot until the liquid covers about 1 inch over the food mix
15. Add the wine
16. Turn down the heat and let simmer (NOT boil) for 30minutes to an hour. This is when you meld all the flavors together but the water/water in the broth slowly steams out (reduces) and renders that nice thick yummy stew-like sauce
17. After about 30 minutes, put in your cut (and peeled) potatoes and bring to a boil for about 5 minutes, depending on how many potatoes you put in
18. Add your carrots/mushrooms if you'dl ike
19. Keep boiling until potatoes are done
20. Thicken with cornstarch if you like it really thick, simmer/reduce to desired thickness, take off the stove, and you are done!

This freezes/keeps in the fridge quite nicely and makes wonderful leftovers. This is the sort of recipe that allows for improvisation (for example, Julia Child likes to put in bacon fat, but that is just too rich for me. I like to load up on the veggies and will sometimes even put in some celery when the onions go in). Try as many variations as you like until you find the one that works for you! The KEY component to all this is the SIMMERING for about an hour to let all those flavors meld together. The most valuable ingredient for the perfect beef boogie-boogie, is time.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pastrami wars!

I interrupt my French-themed postings with this incredibly important announcement:

The geniuses at New York Magazine's "Grub Street" posted about the upcoming episode of Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservations, which includes a lot of fun things, like going to Kampuchea, Pat LaFrieda Meats, and even Bourdain butchering a pig, yikes, but what is actually the most important thing is that he and several other judges (including a rando off the street) will decide who has a better pastrami sandwich: Katz's or 2nd Ave. Deli.

I gotta go with Katz's here, but j'adore 2nd Ave. Deli as well. Plus the sad, sad, story of what happened to its previous own in the East Village (murdered during a mugging) makes me want them to win it, just because, but Katz's pastrami is a bit thicker and jucier and apparently sliced by hand (versus 2nd Ave.'s machine-cut) and that may put it over the edge.

Regardless, both are damn good. Purists will argue with me, but I gotta have my pastrami as follows: on toasted Jewish rye bread with oven-roasted onions and spicy brown mustard. Melted Swiss cheese optional. Pickle on the side a must.

Original NY Mag post
2nd Ave. Deli (in Murray Hill now)
Katz Deli

A post on Beef Bourgiunon TK, to round out my France trip musings, and all this talk of pastrami sandwiches makes me want to do an "Ode to the Deli," quite possibly the greatest thing about the NYC food scene.