Orts and ends
Ted Blew’s popcorn blows Orville’s out of the pot. It’s fresher and cheaper, too ($5.50 for a full two pounds versus $5.29 for 30 chintzed ounces). At Union Square Wednesdays and Fridays.
Mesclun from Satur Farms sustained us through the end of winter when Windfall was charging $48 a pound: It’s local and budget-sustainable, not to mention truly great. The mix is superb, and the red leaves never turn to slime like so many from the Greenmarket and from those collective bacteria boxes in all the stores. A 5-ounce pack is $4.29 at Barzini’s on Broadway, a deal good enough to make me brave a hellhole where the staff makes Fairway’s customers look polite.
Almondine’s baguette really is as great as the glossy promised. My consort has brought a couple home from Dumbo recently, and not only are the texture and flavor outstanding but the uneaten ends hold up till the next morning. (Our “pain” bag bought in Provence to keep bread fresh as it does there lives up only to the English meaning of the word.) I think it’s $2.50. (Do actual reporting? Me?)
And I only tasted a little at Gouge Liquors down at the corner, but Starr rum out of Africa (Mauritius, to be specific) is pretty good for the white stuff, smooth and complex. Not sure it benefits from the packaging, a red bottle shaped like the Pyramids. Don’t go to the website, either: Cocktail recipes include something called Adult Film Starr, and Soderbergh is not involved, only cucumber. (Insert your own “two girls and . . .” joke here.)
Like no other largesse
The hardest question I ever get, constantly, is “Who’s a good caterer, not too expensive?” How the hell would I know? I cook just about everything I ever serve to guests, and friends who contribute to potlucks here do as well. If money were not a daunting issue, I’d throw out names like Daniel’s crewe because I have had those lavish bites so often at promo parties. But a good, affordable caterer? A unicorn would be easier to find in Manhattan.
Or so I thought until my pal Cheese Jenkins took pity on me when I went in to meet the chainsaw. Three boxes of amazing food were delivered to the hospital and four more greeted me back home on the weekend. Yes, this is blogrolling, but I do know from good. So I can say the fruit salad, cookie platter and cheese tray were outstanding in shipment A, while the sandwich platter, potato salad, coleslaw and smoked salmon-cream-cheese bagel tray were exceptional in shipment B. My consort usually spurns potato salad because no one makes it like his mom does, but even he loved this chunky/creamy/vegetable-flecked version. Turkey-avocado-sprout sandwiches were also totally satisfying (the tray included roast beef, grilled vegetable, goat cheese etc.) And the salmon was silky perfection to top bagels of an intelligent size. Not surprisingly, the cheese platter was a many-splendored thing, with great almonds, walnuts, dried figs, apricots, raisins, golden currants and grapes nestled around five or six types of great cheese.
None of this should be news to anyone, but Fairway does hide in plain sight. If you ever need a caterer, not too expensive, don’t ask me. 2127 Broadway at 74th Street, 212 595 1888.
Summer in this city
Be careful what you read on the serious food sites. No matter what the weighty folks say, you should never shuck your corn at the Greenmarket. As I overheard a vendor ask once, do you crack your eggs before you buy them? It would really be abuse of the good ears from Paffenroth, the best I’ve bought this summer. Even two days old they were sweet and juicy. And they are holding the price line at two for a dollar.
The only things more outstanding are the baby pattypan squash Ray Bradley is selling this summer at the Greenmarket on 97th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam. The first time I bought them I made the mistake of tossing them with pesto, thinking they needed gilding. But these you can eat without even butter. Just simmered in a little salted water, they have amazing flavor.
OXO’s party celebrating its move to new headquarters was well worth the schlep. The food was all passed tastes from iconographic New York feederies (Katz’s two-bite Reubens, lox from Russ & Daughters, dim sum from Golden Dragon, etc.) and the wine was the good stuff locally sourced you never want to squander your own big bucks on. Murray’s probably could have acquired countless new junkies if it had only bothered to label the fantabulous “assorted cheeses” on offer. And in a world where it feels as if jobs are only vanishing, I was impressed with the workspace as much as the views. Every employee has top-o’-the-line chair, desk, computer, phone system. Kafka would be very comfortable.
Taking the K out of craft
Now that my consort is the true denizen of the Greenmarket at Union Square, I have to agree he is totally right about most of the cheese sold there: NG. So I was gratified to hear his scorn fade to acceptance after he tried the Millport Dairy “Monterey Hot Jack” I succumbed to during one of those dairy-promotional Wednesdays this summer. I never thought the Amish had a peppery streak, but this is seriously capsaicin-loaded. Even better, the white cheese that encases the liberal flecks is closer to Cheddar than that slimy Jack you get even in good stores these days. A hefty slab is $6 and grates up great in scrambled eggs (especially for a burrito) and quesadillas, with no grease. I’m not quite clear why “Adirondack Cheese” is made in Lancaster County, though . . . . Fridays @ Union Square.
One of the biggest travel mistakes I’ve ever made was listening to the young Estonian couple who invited Bob to Tallinn to speak and show his work — they said there was nothing to see, and so we booked only three days on a crazy trip that started in Veneto, moved on to Tuscany and wound up in awful Copenhagen with nearly the death of our long relationship. Of course the place was fascinating on about 30 levels, not least the alcoholic. For three years I rationed a half-pint bottle of the local liqueur, Vana Tallinn, because it tasted so much like being there. It’s sweet and fragrant firewater, a perfect evocation of a new country that mere years before our visit was under the thick boot of the Soviet Union — our hosts had very recent memories of lining up for vodka and sugar rations, of bribing the doctor with chocolate bars for appointments. The label says it is infused with citrus oils, and it does have a round, smooth flavor that is otherwise like a not-quite-syrupy rum. It’s totally fascinating. And, apparently, the only way to try it is to fly to Estonia. But there are worse destinations.
Main Street, Queens
Any outing that begins with a 20-minute subway ride in a car with a ranting crazy guy wearing a huge handmade “JAIL SEX SUCKS” button has to end well. But our expedition to Flushing with our new friend the Dumpling Queen was still a Saturday to remember. She led us first to a “hole in the wall” for fresh soy milk, the kind she said makes Silk the foul route, and for outstanding leek dumplings and a doughy scallion pancake. Sitting on the steps of the Queens library at Kissena Boulevard, we passed around pints of sweet and salty “fresh-squeezed” soy milk and could have stopped indulging right there. The sweet tasted like liquid Cream of Wheat, which was nice enough, but the salty was rich and savory and floating with skins of tofu. And then we were off to the restaurant she had described as being under a deer head, but all four of her charges were surprised to see it was yet another Joe’s Shanghai. Pam insisted it was better than the one in Chinatown (and later told us the original name was something like “the sound a fawn makes in springtime”), so we waited 15 minutes or so for a table, put up with a human larva breaking the sound barrier and had a decent lunch of soup dumplings (pork and crab to start, then beef) followed by fried rice and a fascinating garlicky green with hollow stems that I correctly guessed was water spinach.
Forty-six dollars for five later, we were off to Hong Kong Supermarket, through the back door just across the street rather than the grand entrance through a mall on Main Street. I think we were there at least an hour, prowling up and down aisles, marveling at the myriad ways food can be processed (and stand out when sold fresh) and simply gawking. My consort and I walked out with four bags filled with cheaper-than-Kam Man mushroom soy sauce, chili sauce, hot sesame oil, cat feeding bowl, pumelo, Korean apple, Japanese chile powder, two-for-$1.99 bags of edamame and frozen scallion and black pepper pancakes (on DQ Pam’s advice), plus 14 kinds of Asian candy for Bob’s job, all for $35.
We were so full from lunch none of us succumbed to the many samples being passed out around the store, but when we stopped two or three doors down at Tai Pan Bakery we had to buy superb egg custard tarts, the kind we’d all had in Hong Kong. Somehow Pam’s bag holding the leftover soy milk had gone missing while the shrieking was going on in the restaurant, so we schlepped back to the hole in the wall for more and wound up buying frozen dumplings to take away ($11 for 50). And in the end Pam’s leftovers from Joe’s went missing when the A train running local suddenly went express and we jumped off. I hope the jail sex guy found them before someone could see something and say something.
Hole in the Wall: 41st Avenue off Main Street and Kissena Boulevard, next to Monster — the menu board inside has a few words in English; otherwise bring a Chinese speaker.
Joe’s Shanghai, 136-21 37th Avenue, 718 539 3838 (bring earplugs).
Hong Kong Supermarket, 37-11 Main Street, 718 539 6868.
Tai Pan Bakery, 3725 Main Street, 718 888 1111.
Luck of the jaw
Given how essential my mouth is to my livelihood, it’s impossible to gush adequately over an oral surgeon who sent me out of his office feeling euphoric. And not just on the day he pulled two stupid teeth with the help of heavy drugs. On my last visit, to remove the stitches that had kept me from eating right for a week, he volunteered that one had been “about as bad as it gets” when it came to extraction but that he had not told me beforehand because he didn’t want me to freak even more. For that gift alone I would be blabbering his name all over town. But the whole experience was extraordinary, and I’m accustomed to dental miracles — my regular dentist, Jack Binder, is a drill whiz who for 10 whole years repeatedly rescued a failed root canal dating from my Iowa days before replacing it with a relative breeze of an implant in 1992. He also yanked my first wisdom tooth with so little problem or pain that I went to a book party that same night, drank my lunch and dinner both and wound up meeting the editor who would lure me back to the NYTimes to be Deputy Dawg over in Dining. Even he would not touch the bottom set, though, and eight years after he referred me, I finally escaped the state of denial and went to see his preferred specialist. Who had an Xray machine that took a panorama shot while I was standing, not clenching, and also had the warmest staff imaginable — the whole tiny office felt more like a womb. He also acted as if he had all the time in the world to talk me through the valley of evil when I went in for the consultation. As for the actual nightmare, I remember nothing between the prick of the IV and my consort waking me a couple of hours later in a recovery room. I spent the rest of the day in the arms of Vicodin, waiting in vain for the agony I was dreading. Luckily, I have chipmunk cheeks already, but even the swelling was nominal. His greatest gift may have been intimating that tackling the ordeal in stages would make it more bearable and less prolonged. Now I’m halfway looking forward to going back in a few months to remove ticking time bomb No. 2. If he were a restaurant, you’d grow wisdom teeth to try him.
Gil G. Perrone DDS, 262 Central Park West @ 86th Street, 212 496 6343.
Jack Binder DDS, 145 Central Park West @74th Street, 212 787 4966.
It takes a foreigner
New York’s Thanksgiving feature is the smartest in any magazine right now, even in a banner year for turkey and trimmings given the Versace treatment. Many have tried to do ethnic menus, but I don’t think anyone has ever succeeded on this level. The photos, back stories and recipes all add up to a particularly vivid snapshot of food and the city. I might not attempt the Chinese, Italian or African turkeys on the feast day of Big Bird, but I’m filing more recipes for the future than is probably healthy. And definitely tossing my brussels sprouts with chorizo on a Thursday soon.
It’s not the meat
I’ve written about these before, but who knows where and when on my crazy-aunt-in-the-attic old site. Now I’m back to say again that Mario Batali’s nesting prep bowls are astonishingly useful — the five of them do the work of three sets of measuring cups. Mine were a Christmas gift from my consort, and when I had all of them in overdrive the other day while testing two recipes simultaneously it struck me again how intelligent the design is, definitely more revolutionary than evolutionary. Each cup has two measures, from one tablespoon to two cups, so when you’re portioning out something like grated cheese or freshly ground pepper there’s no spillage. Plus they keep the bits, big and little, easily organized, and they’re light and easy to clean. Admittedly, the color is an annoying reminder of whose name they bear (amazon may call it persimmon, but goddamn it, it’s clog). Still, if I can tune it out, so can you. Even his site says they are “Copco designed and inspired.”
I can’t remember who uttered it, but my favorite quote from my consort’s caffeinated travels was that, as a wake-up call to your system: “Tea is a ballet slipper. Coffee is a combat boot.” And of course as an aficionada of excess, I will take the latter in pairs. So far the best route to a double dose in small bites is a Bacio al Caffe from what has to be the world’s best coffee shop, in my least favorite Italian city, Sant Eustachio in Rome. Two airy wafers of pure weapons-grade espresso powder, cut with ground hazelnuts and cocoa, sandwich a chocolate-coffee cream spiked with coffee liqueur. It is truly extraordinary, just coffee transcendent. Kisses aren’t priced like Hershey’s (I think they’re 1.50E each), and you have to go to noisy-dirty Rome to try them. Still, even though I find the phrase “to die for” cringe-inducing, I would exit happily with one Bacio on the last tray on my deathbed.
Hold the steen
Buying mangos in August in New York is the fruity equivalent of a dollar and a dream. Sometimes you get buttery-sweet, juicy bliss. Most times you get either a hardball or a softy that separates into hanks of tart orange “hair.” Last August I found the cheater’s path to perfection. We’d forgotten at the grocery store to pick up a pint of Haagen-Dazs to rescue my day-old lemon poundcake for company dinner and rather than get back into the inchworm line we proceeded to the health food store, where my consort proved to be quite an authority since his sojourn in natural-living Middle Earth. Confronted with overwrought Stonyfield Farm (Javalanche?), I compromised on Ciao Bella sorbet. This intensely mangoey concoction was almost good enough to put me off the fresh gamble. It is sugared, and the texture made me double-check the ingredients for carrageen, but it really is the next best thing to crawling into a bathtub with a champagne specimen.