Thursday, March 27, 2008

Comfort Food, New Mexico-Style

Last month, my husband Gabe and I went to New Mexico. We are from New Mexico; we grew up in Santa Fe, and try to get home to visit our families whenever we can. Packing for Santa Fe is always a dilemma. (Well, to be honest, packing for me is always a dilemma because I hate packing. I have always hated packing. I have written artic les on how to be a smart packer and yet, still I hate packing. There’s probably a deeper meaning there that I should investigate. Is it that I’m hesitant to compartmentalize my life into a pre-set structure? Do I fear the wrinkles that persist in cropping up in my plans? And what if I forget my pajamas? ) But packing for Santa Fe presents a special kind of packing dilemma because of what must always be brought back. Namely food.
The land I grew up in is home to too many tasty things to count, things like green chile, thick tortillas, posole, powdered red chile, tamales. Things I can’t get easily in New York. Things that make cold winter nights (and starry summer nights and rainy Sunday afternoons) that much more palatable. And so, whenever a trip is made to New Mexico, room must be saved in one’s suitcase to bring back much needed supplies.
Once, when I was flying back to New York from a Santa Fe trip, I left my two frozen pints of green chile on my connecting flight. I didn’t realize it until I had already boarded my second flight. A normal person would probably have surrendered to the inevitable, sat back, and started the crossword. I couldn’t give up so easily. Where there is chile, there is hope and so, I flagged down one of the harried flight attendants to ask if they could call over to the first flight and see if a rescue mission was possible. Bless them for actually calling, but it was too late. The cleaning crew had come through and my chile was gone. Still, I felt better for trying. Such is my dedication to the overall mission. I continue to hope that whoever found my pints appreciated them for what they were. I can’t linger too long over what probably happened when they did not.
Back to the packing: it’s easier to bring food back in the summer. In the summer, one tends to pack items such as sundresses, flip flops, tank tops. Ten carefully organized tank tops take up about as much room as one winter sweater. Meaning that in the summer you can take all the wardrobe that you want and still have plenty of room for tortillas (sounds a bit like a short story title: “Plenty of Room for Tortillas.” It would probably star a short order cook and a world-weary waitress). Winter is a totally different ball game. In winter, one wants boots and thick cozy sweaters and tall socks and ski pants. Ski pants do not allow enough room for tortillas. And so one must learn to be economical. Or if one is me, one simply delegates. One calls one’s husband into the room where an unreasonable amount of sweaters are stacked on the bed and asks him to choose three. Or maybe four because one really loves the light blue cable knit. This is the only way. We must make sacrifices for what we truly care about. And when all else fails, bring an extra tote.
This trip I ended up getting especially ambitious. I wanted to bring back two packages of tortillas (promised bounty for my good friend—also from New Mexico—and her husband who were babysitting our car), two pouches of frozen chopped green chile (good in soups, burgers, scrambled eggs, or to make sauce out of which I had never done, but wanted to try), a half-gallon of frozen green chile sauce from one of my favorite Santa Fe restaurants (good on burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, or even on its own with beans and cheese mixed in and a warmed tortilla on the side), and a large Ziploc bag of powdered red chile (to make into red chile sauce). Thank heavens for the extra tote.
There is somewhat of an art to packing all these goodies, especially now that security procedures in airports don’t allow liquids or anything that might be construed as liquid-like. Green chile sauce sometimes appears liquid-like. Hence all the freezing—airport officials tend to look more kindly on frozen blocks. So when I purchase my goods, into the freezer they go and then the night before our flight back to NYC, my mom helps me wrap up my frozen pints and pouches in newspaper. My mom and I are really good at this. Over the years, we’ve honed our skills: pouches wrapped like little presents, pints with lids taped on with packing tape, then rolled in newspaper and middles secured again with rounds of packing tape. We talk as we wrap. It’s a little like going for pedicures.
For those of you who are reading this and thinking that my devotion to New Mexican food is too much, that I am—in a word—obsessed, that perhaps I should turn my efforts to something more worthwhile like world peace, I have two stories to tell you. One: We have two good friends here in Brooklyn who are originally from France. There was an evening a couple of years ago when we had heard about a restaurant in Dumbo that supposedly imported green chile from New Mexico. It was a Saturday night. My husband and I were determined to go. There was at least a two-hour wait. We tried to rationalize to our friends why this really wasn’t so bad. This past December, we invited these same friends to come to Santa Fe with us for Christmas. After a week of enchiladas and burritos and huevos rancheros, my friend M said to me, “You know, that night when you were so interested in that restaurant that served green chile? I really thought you two were a little crazy. I really couldn’t understand why you wanted to go there so badly. I understand now.”
Two: On our way back after this most recent trip a month ago, Gabe and I were going through security in the Albuquerque airport. The tortillas and chopped chile pouches were safely nestled into my suitcase and on their way to the belly of the plane. My extra tote packed to the brim with the Ziploc bag of red, my frozen half-gallon of green, and yes, my ski pants went through the x-ray machine. Something in the bag looked suspicious. The official pulled my bag off the belt and asked me to accompany him. Sometimes this happens. It’s always the risk of carrying chile onto the plane. The officials will unwrap it. They’ll look at it dubiously. They’ll call over their supervisor to confer. Sometimes they’ll take it away. So, as a result, I always have an anxious eye on their faces as my bag goes through the x-ray machine and my heart is always pounding. This time, the official unzipped my bag and of course, zeroed in instantly on the chile. He pulled it out of the tote. “It’s chile,” I said chirpily, trying to convince him with my tone of voice that all was well, that I was clearly a good person, that my half-gallon shouldn’t be confiscated. “It’s frozen. I grew up here, but I live in New York now and you know how it is. I just can’t go long without my chile!” “Oh. Chile,” the official nodded sagely. He tucked my half-gallon back into the tote, he zipped it up. “Here you are, ma’am,” he said, handing the tote to me. “I would do exactly the same thing.”

Better Know a Riesling

In a business where decrees, diagnosis and haughty pronouncements are handed down often, it ‘s a good bet that quite a bit of this wine chatter is related to the noble yet often misunderstood grape known as Riesling. Riesling just makes sweet wine right? Nope, not really. In fact, Germany has a whole hierarchy of ripeness and sweetness written into law, ranging from totally bone dry all the way up to very sweet, making it only one of a handful of ultra-versatile grapes you could actually pair with every course of a meal. And the French and the Austrians often don’t vinify their Rieslings anything but dry. Oh, they grow that grape in Europe? Isn’t Riesling just grown domestically and in Australia and New Zealand? No again. Riesling has been cultivated on the banks of the Rhine and surrounding areas since at least Roman times.
Joining in a tasting through a box of rieslings were Ted Matern, co-owner of Blue Apron Specialty Foods in Park Slope, Michael Amendola of Brooklyn’s Slope Cellars, Evan Spingarn of David Bowler Wines and his wife Kate, and Andrea Browne of Ron Ben-Israel Cakes.

The wines in the slate were mostly German. There was much curiosity how wines of various ripeness levels would perform with different foods, so dishes and tastes were prepared to pair with this shape shifter of a grape. “The whole thing is about how the food and wine play off one another.” Michael noted. Some wines fold into the flavors of the food, some wines stand up to them.

The first wine was a sparkler, Reuter Sekt. The wine was paired with some younger cheeses like brie, and the contrast of the creamy rich cheese with the dry, racy Sekt worked. This example showed it’s lighter side when paired with older cheeses like Hirtenkasse; it just couldn’t stand up against them. This manhandling of wine by aged cheese came up again when we moved on to the dry Gobelsburger 2005 from Austria. Ted noted this wine would be great for salads or lighter fare.

Surely one of these wines would work with fish, though the perfect matches were not what some of us expected. The off dry examples seemed to work best. The 2004 Paumanok from North Fork, Long Island stood up to the lemony Bass Grenobloise, and the wine’s peachy smoothness dovetailed nicely with the browned butter. In a blind tasting, this wine might just be a dead ringer for something from the old country. “This wine’s trying to trick you!” cried Evan.

In wine and food pairing, sometimes acid will cancel out acid. To test the acid cancellation idea, Michael had brought some fresh tomatoes from his garden. “Tomatoes are revelatory for wines.” Michael said. Instead of settling down the acidity of both the tomatoes and the dry and off dry wines, the acidity was actually amplified, though in a pleasing way. The Alsatian Riesling, and a slice of fresh tomato was like a party in the mouth! Of course this was a full bodied zinger of a wine that absolutely crushed the bass. You almost need the complexity of a raw tomato to react with this Riesling. This wine showed more effectively in a classic pairing with some liverwurst and pate.

From here it got sweeter, and the food got spicier. Various elements of this tasting crew had suspicions that the conventional sweeter wine with spicy food wasn’t as effective as was believed. When the Lamb Vindaloo came out, this trend in wine and food pairing was put to the test. All but two of the wines simply vanished when showed with the vivid, eye watering spiciness of the vindaloo. Michael said he’d rather be drinking beer. The forcefully dry Alsatian bottle began to drink with an unpleasant bitterness when thrown against the Indian dish. The real winner with this plate was the Gysler, which had the zipping acidity and slight sweetness to contend with what was happening. It turned out salt and sweet was where it was at; spice and sweet was a little more challenging.

When the raspberry tart Andrea made for the event came out, it was time to test the mettle of the dessert grade Rieslings. The Rauen Eiswein was a perfect fit, the sweetness danced with the pastry cream, the matching zip got along famously with the berries.

Trying to contribute to a wholesale examination of what Jancis Robinson calls “Arguably the world’s most undervalued grape,” There was some reinforcement of what was previously held to be true, and there were some surprises.

Find the Goodies from this Article:

1. Schoffit 2002 from Alsace and dessert wines: Paumanok Gobelsburger, Rauen - Slope Cellars

2. Paumanok - Vintage New York

3. Hirtenkasse cheese- Blue Apron Foods

Chris Hiatt's Greenmarket Update

So, during this time of year I’m generally scarce around the Greenmarket. And for that matter, so is the ‘green”. But I did see mache at the Hawthorne Valley Farms booth. It was pricey, but they practically had the corner on the market in fresh greens. Some salad greens from one of the big Jersey outfits on the North side, and that was about it. One thing I really have noticed the last two times I’ve been to market, it the proliferation of cider doughnuts. It seems now, that everyone has them. Ladies and Gentlemen, a glut on the market! Be picky about your fave. Flying Pigs Farm can still be found this time of year at the Grand Army Market on Saturdays. Arcadian Pastures, relatively new booth at Grand Army on Saturdays, has an extensive line of butchered meats, including lamb, pork and beef. Hudson Valley Farmhouse has teamed up with Knoll Crest, poultry farmer extraordinare, and have entered the noodle business. They have a variety of flavors, but it start with the plain egg fettucine at $3 for a 10 ounce package. Look for them at Union Square Wednesdays and Saturdays. The frozen corn display at Migliorelli was a little tired, but I’m still excited just to see some local person attempting to use this aspect of the industry to their benefit.
Phillips Farm out of New Jersey is a huge market farm that I usually don’t go near when supply is flush. This time of year they come in pretty handy. They grow pretty much everything, and an increasingly comprehensive winter produce program has lead to greatly improved quality during the lean months of February and March, so they now fill a valuable niche. One can find decent root veggie of all sorts, salad greens, fresh spinach, though you have to pick through it a bit.
Prices are fairly reasonable on what little is available right now. Potatoes are generally $2/lb, apples and bosc pears are $1.25/$1.50/lb, with Migliorelli coming in on the low end of the spectrum. The glaring exception to fair prices is the $4.50 John Madura is charging for a dozen eggs. It’s easier to forgive this due to the fine looking mushrooms this outfit has been bringing to market lately, which are competitively priced. For eggs the undisputed champ is still Tello’s Green Farm, with large eggs for $3/dozen, They have stewing hens now as well. Some booths on Mondays have had cole crops and cabbage, for reasonable rates. Phillips Farm has rutabagas and butternut squash for a mere $1/lb, and competitively priced salad mix at $12/lb. Lynhaven is selling 3 oz. logs of chevre for $6. Monday at Union Square Troncillito Farms has ½ gallons of fresh apple cider for a reasonable $3. Sweet potatoes can be had for $.99/lb. The Friday fish booth had scallops for $15, basically the same as at a Whole Foods type store.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Follow-up to Our Date with Brooklyn, Joanna Newsom, Thomas Beisl and Barack Obama

I loved our date with Brooklyn the other night! It reconfirmed everything I love about our home-borough and leading a lush life. Annie Ricci, General Managing Diva of Opera on Tap, is also a stellar companion for such pursuits.

Brooklyn is the understated diva-borough of New York City! It has everything Manhattan has without the superior attitude. It even has its own lovely, 2000-some seat opera house! The Howard Gilman Opera House is replete with ornate ceiling and red velvet curtains, carved box-seats and characteristically, vertiginous nose-bleed seats that still have a great view of the stage (That's where we sat). The opera house is only one of the great venues at BAM, one of the most innovative artistic centers in the city, and it's mine! I do share it with the other 2,465,326 residents of Brooklyn, but it's still mine! I'm so rich!

Annie already described our evening and our meal at Austrian restaurant, Thomas Biesl, in sumptuous detail, I just thought I'd add a few things. First off, Thomas Beisl has great beers on tap: Gosser, Czechwar, the original Budweiser from the Czech Republic, and another German pilsner I recognized from my time in Berlin. Yumm!

Also, in view of tomorrow's big event, Super Tuesday, a wanted to mention that Joanna Newsom's drummer plugged Barack Obama during the show on Thursday night. He even talked about campaigning for Obama in Iowa. Joanna herself continued the conversation and said that her whole band were Obama believers. That was more than 2,000 captive fans receiving the message that the cool young folks like Obama. Pretty powerful endorsement!

I was interested to hear how the orchestra would be used in this project, never having heard Newsome's album “Ys”, and was a bit disappointed. Pop-classical cross-overs and collaborations are always difficult. The two genres are difficult to blend due to the practicalities of governing a large group of musicians at the same time. Rehearsals are necessary to make things sound organic. A conductor has to know what kinds of tempo changes are going to happen and where a band-leader might take liberties. If not, the music falls apart. On the other hand, if a band has to play with metronomic strictness, their style and uniqueness can disappear.

The music didn't fall apart the other night, but it also wasn't very tight. The orchestral writing of Vandyke Parks was unimaginative and pale, unfortunately acting more to diffuse the intensity Newsom's music than to enhance it. Her solo song in the middle of the orchestral section of the show came into beautiful focus after the muzzy, bland string harmonies and very occasional bits of brass or wind. I was hoping the orchestra would be like another member of the band, telling the story, heightening the emotion, setting the scene, but twas not to be.

Newsom's solo music is captivating. The unique, unstudied, unselfconsciousness of her singing and the almost human sounds of her harp are so personal, her lyrics so evocative and non-linear, I had the feeling I was observing her dreaming instead of performing. It's useless to pull her songs apart. The individual elements aren't impressive on their own, but they create an experience for the audience; take listeners on a surreal, emotional journey.

If I had to pair an alcoholic beverage with Joanna Newsom and 2,000 idealistic and stylish young people in a Brooklyn opera house, I'd say something floral, clean, post-racial...a delicious cold sake. I'll hope to be tasting some in the near future and will get back to you with specific recommendations. Until then, yay Giants! I'm still recovering from the decadence, and get your asses to the voting booths!


Friday, February 1, 2008

Jessica and I on that whole New York “dinner and a show” thing

I’ve heard of this NY “dinner and a show” thing for years now and have often wondered what it would be like. My career as a struggling artist exiled me to the retail and weekend nanny industry for years (this has ended, having traded in the cliché artist retail job for the cliché artist office job) As is the case with retail and weekend nannying, my work schedule severely cut into my ability to attend shows that started at the typical 8 o’clock time. For the first time in my not incredibly young life, I’m on schedule with the masses and promptly end my workday at 5pm. Hence the time excuse no longer applies. However, post-experience, I have a new one. You need some serious cheese to do the “dinner and show” thing!

In honor of this blog launch, Jessica Miller-Rauch and I decided to go on a hot date and do just that. Because we like to think ourselves unconventional, we chose to have our virgin-NYC date experience in the great borough of Brooklyn. To BAM we went! But FIRST to Thomas Beisl for Austrian fare. This cozy little Viennese bistro has the fortunate circumstance of being located right across the street from the most important performing arts institution in the borough. Hence, it was the perfect restaurant to begin our journey. We arrived just before the Theater rush and took a seat in their dining area which really is an indoor porch replete with heat lamps and tent ambiance. For starters we split two items (since that’s what people do on dates. We decided not to feed each other in order to not incite suspicion from our other halves). First up were fried mushrooms and chicken liver mousse with cranberry compote paired with Grüner Veltliner. The wine complimented the mousse well. The mushrooms might have been better served by a sizable stein of lager. For entrees, we had braised beef cheeks with spätzle and chicken paprika with spätzle. The beef was perfectly cooked but a little under-salted. Nothing tragic though. I loved it almost as much as the glass of Zweigelt I had with it. Zweigelt is the premiere red wine grape of Austria, first developed in 1922 at the Federal Institute for Viticulture and Pomology of Klosterneuberg, Austria by the soon to be director of the institute, Dr. Fritz Zweigelt. Zweigelt is a cold weather grape (resistant to frost) hence is successfully grown in such regions as its homeland as well as Canada and Hungary. It is delightfully light on the palette, well-balanced with nice fruit. It stood up to those beef cheeks well! The cheese strudel that followed capped off the evening nicely.

2 glasses in, we were officially warmed up for some proper music-experiencing. On the program was Joanna Newsom and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Newsom is a classic example of a classically trained musician taking a pop medium to new heights. Her music is multi-textured, beautifully structured and, of all things, through-composed! The first half she played with the orchestra backing her as she performed pieces off her second release "Ys". The songs were interesting, but I felt that the orchestra kind of got in the way. In what seems to be the plague of big-production classical music-making, it felt like the orchestra and band could have used a couple more rehearsals to really have exquisite give and take. It seems to me that in order to put new music into production, it might be better to think small. The concert got better after the orchestra exited the stage and we were back with just the band. My gauge? Well, the first half, I was on the verge of falling asleep in my starchy food/wine induced barely conscious state. The second half I couldn’t have fallen asleep if I tried. Newsom has a gorgeous voice-clear as a bell and child-like in timbre with a whimsical and unique vocal style. She does this really cool squeaky thing that I want to learn how to do! Anyway, enough vocal-nerding. Her songs are very melodic. A whole lotta times I couldn’t figure out what the hell she was saying, but it didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of her performance. Hm. Long pieces through-composed pieces.. sung in an un-intelligible way… Sounds like opera! The audience was rapt and it gave me hope for the future of our youth and their ability to concentrate on something for more than a minute. Yay good art!

All in all, the evening was grand. If I could pair music with our restaurant experience, I most likely would’ve picked Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Viennese operetta arias, but Joanna Newsom made a fine substitute. Hm, to pair a wine with Newsom… Definitely a honey mead.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

This... is a cake.

There is a man. His name is Ron Ben-Israel. He teaches his apprentices to make cakes any way they imagine (or any way his clients imagine more succinctly). It happens. For a lot of money. Unless.. You know one of his employees REALLY well....

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My Newest Obsession!!

"It's going to be my new obsession!"

The words of General Managing Diva, Anne Ricci, perfectly capture my, and soon, the world at large's feelings about Opera on Tap's newest venture:!

Drawing from our ridiculously rich base of culinary, wine and cultural connoisseur friends, including ourselves of course, we will be launching a recommendation/discussion/ramble about music and food and drink! The good things in life!

We can't wait to hear what you think! By the way...lushes live longer!