Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Jewstalgia- Touring and Exploring in NYC

A few months ago, my aunt Paula decided that we need to capture our culture’s tradition through food, bottling up as much Jewish culture in a day’s work, touring New York City’s most iconic Jewish and Russian food spots. It would be an intimate family affair and we would sacrifice our stomachs to the pickled herring of New York, we’d spew Yiddish sayings at will, we’d start an annual tradition filled with nostalgia, humor, and self-discovery. Hence, Jewstalgia was born.

June 7 was the day of our first annual Jewstalgia and the behemoth gods of hot, hot heat were upon us. The oppressive sun hit our backs like the heavy, scorching roof of a Panini press. Sweat dripped down our slick backs like flowing, living waterfalls. However, we persevered. It was the type of severe weather where the appetite is suppressed, yet we kept eating like it was our last meal(s) on earth, our tenacious minds quarrelling with our contentious bellies.

We began the day on New York’s lower east side, a part of town brimming with Jewish heritage: Houston Street, Essex Street, Grand Street, Orchard Street- all painted with vestiges of a turn of the century immigrant history. The Lower East Side was once an epicenter for American Judaism, a neighborhood where immigrants, in particular Jewish immigrants, settled and developed a new capital of Jewish culture in America.

Arriving at our first destination, Russ and Daughters, at 179 East Houston Street, our feet were already pavement-weary, our faces coated with slick and salty sweat, our mind’s questioning our day’s work. But when met with the bounty of Jewish delicacies in the shop, we quickly forgot the weather’s curse, mustered our appetites and delved in.

Russ and Daughters is a polished yet authentic Jewish specialty shop filled with the foods we’ve come to identify with being Jewish- smoked fish, herring, cured salmon, caviar, chopped liver, and only the best of everything. We sampled items such as traditional pickled herring, rolled in dainty rounds, filled with tart pickled onions, rich chopped chicken liver like your Bubby made, tangy-sweet smoked salmon tartar, and the famous “Super Heeb Sandwich”, a pillowy bagel filled with creamy whitefish salad, horseradish cream cheese and the piece d’resistance- wasabi flying fish roe.

I honestly could have quit our adventure right then and there! The entire Russ and Daughter’s staff was not only helpful and courteous, but wholeheartedly joined in on our fun, teaching us eccentric and humorous Yiddish anecdotes, surveying our printed itinerary, and even taking our photo for their upcoming blog.

Just down the street from Russ and Daughter’s is Katz’s, a kosher deli dating back to 1888, a tourist hotspot and a quintessential New York Jewish deli. Some argue that Katz’s is overrated, overcrowded and unfriendly, but it is a truly historical New York experience, and a truly Jewish one. There’s something mischievous about eating at Katz’s: the ominous, never-ending rows of tables, the World War II d├ęcor, the ever-effusive patrons, the conveyer belt efficiency of the staff.

Some argue that the service is unpleasant and even abrasive. But let’s be honest, who comes to Katz’s Deli for the Michelin star service? They come to take a bite out of truly mouth-watering, spicy, juicy brined pastrami on rye, some of the city’s best. They come for the corned beef, the hot dogs, the tongue. They come for the tart, mouth-puckering dill pickles and pickled green tomatoes. They come to remember their pasts- the boys of World War II. They come to revel in their present- the salty, juicy deli meat filling their bellies and the frothy, sublime egg creams. Little known Katz’s fact: their latkes are splendid discs of perfectly crunchy and lightly salted potato with a piping hot, soft interior; a surprising find for folks not known for their latkes. We also ordered a mandatory Kasha filled knish, a staple of the Jewish household of yore.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “did they possibly move forward, did they possibly consume more? “ Yes, we did move onward and we did eat more, although begrudgingly at this juncture. The heat of the mid-afternoon sun was becoming increasingly oppressive. On our walk to our next destination, we had to seek shelter in a hole-in-the-wall convenient store, air conditioners lovelingly blowing blusteringly cold wind onto our sun kissed backs, providing us with a fleeting moment of reprieve. Our stomachs were growling, filled with the relics of our mornings work while our lungs and hearts were working overtime, fighting nature’s torridness.

And unfortunately, our subsequent two destinations were closed for the Sabbath. It is obvious you are dealing with a secular bunch when Jewish gastronomy day is planned on the Sabbath!

Guss’s Pickles on Orchard Street is the place to go for a briny bite of Jewish history. They offer an array of pickles including garlicky kosher sour, the salty half-sour, the spicy pickle and the pickled green tomato. Just down the street, Kossar's Bialys was also resting for the Sabbath and thank goodness for small favors: could we really consume another carbohydrate?

Yes, apparently we would could. And we did. Our next stop features otherworldly carbs, like manna from heaven! Mark Isreal’s Doughnut Plant’s confections are astonishing- pillowy doughnuts so fluffy they melt in your mouth like cotton candy. We sampled the Valrhona chocolate, mango glazed and coconut cream doughnuts, although the coconut cream blasted the competition out of the sugary water with its subtle sweetness, coconut glaze sprinkled like snow on the outside of the yeasty pastry, a refined coconut cream running evenly through the perimeter of the doughnut like a silken river. Mr. Isreal makes use of only the freshest and most high quality ingredients, including fresh fruit in the glazes, high-end chocolate and homemade jelly.

Before our final and most memorable eating experience of the day, we made a required stop at the educational Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street. The tour takes you deep into the past, directly into the lives of newly minted Americans and their preserved home, a tenement built in 1863. The building has been restored to display the dismal living (and in-home working) conditions of the immigrants that inhabited the building over the course of half a century.

Our night began and ended not on the Lower East Side, but in Little Odessa in Brighton Beach (Brooklyn). We stumbled into Primorski in a collective delirium, more hungry for the air conditioner and stiff seats than for the actual meal and the cruise ship-like ambiance. Our experience at Primorski was truly trippy, authentically Russian, cheesy to the max and more kitschy than Pee Wee Herman. Everything at Primorski is grandiose and over-the-top.

This is the place to go for a never-ending Russian/Georgian family style meal, all you can drink vodka, live technoesque Europop, all under dizzying disco-lights. Suffice it to say that words cannot convey the utterly hilarious and simultaneously bizarre experience of Primorski. The restaurant is a dimly lit, windowless ballroom and as the night progresses and the patrons become increasingly intoxicated, the music crescendos and frenetic dancing fills any potential void in the sprawling room. Like clockwork, the singers treated the eaters to their raspy rendition of “Happy Birthday” eleven times, complete with larger than life birthday cakes. We began to assume that we were not only the only non-Russian speakers in the room, but also the only table not celebrating a birthday.

Some of the food at Primorski was questionable, at least to our sensibilities, which was okay, since the banquet menu is essentially ceaseless. We jettisoned the seafood dishes in favor of salty meats and the plethora of carbohydrates. The menu went something like this: crab salad, chicken in jelly, Caesar salad, eel salad, seafood salad, duck salad, chicken in jelly, herring, pickled tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage, smoked fish platter which included smoked white fish, smoked salmon, smoked sturgeon, various cold cuts including tongue, galantine, smoked pork meat and other mysterious meats, crispy fried potatoes with garlic, khachapuri (Georgian bread patty filled with cheese), bilinis with red caviar, warm seafood platter, chicken Kiev, various fried meats, a fruit platter and fruit filled crepes. If you feel exhausted reading that list, try to be on the receiving end of the plethora of shameless gluttony, especially after a marathon day of excessive eating.

We ate, we drank, we conquered. Our first annual Jewstalgia was filled with great food, vivid history, bright new memories forged and yes, nostalgia.

Russ and Daughters:
179 E. Houston St.
New York, NY 10002
(212) 475-4880

Katz’s Deli
205 E Houston St
New York, NY 10002
(212) 254-2246

Guss's Pickles
87 Orchard St
New York, NY 10002
(212) 334-3616

Kossar's Bialys
367 Grand Street
New York, NY

Doughnut Plant
379 Grand St
New York, NY 10002

282 Brighton Beach Ave #B
Brooklyn, NY 11235

The Tenement Museum
97 Orchard Street

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ode to the Sandwich

I grew up writing silly poems. Some families hike, some go camping, others play board games. We wrote silly poems very often about food. Yes, we were (and still are) a quirky bunch. We threw evocative language and traditional meter to the wayside in exchange for pure sophomoric entertainment.

I continue the trend with my Ode To The Sandwich (with recipe below).

Marbled pumpernickel
Thickly toasted white
Carbohydrates aplenty, have to take a bite

Turkey, pastrami
Liverwurst and onion
A concoction hefty enough even for Paul Bunyan

Aioli and horseradish
Mustard and mayo
Or nature’s condiments- simple lettuce and tomato

Make it a Ruben
Complete with Russian dressing
A deli style sandwich is hunger’s sweet blessing

An Italian meatball hero
A steak and cheese in Philly
A Greek gyro, topped with rich tzatziki

A pickle on the side
Or potato chips with salt
A lobster BLT, in my tracks I will halt

Lamb burger on a bun
A Cuban with shredded pork
Eat it with your hands, no need for spoon and fork

Grape jelly or peaches
Buck flavor tradition
Unconventional toppings, surpass the competition

Sticky or gooey
With cheese or peanut butter
Using Marshmallow Fluff yields a fluffernutter

Call it a Monte Cristo
Or a curry chicken Panini
Work the lunch-time magic, and you’ll be a sandwich Houdini

Charcoal-Grilled Greek-Style Lamb Pita Sandwiches with Tzatziki
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated, America's Test Kitchen

For Tzatziki Sauce:
1/2 cup Greek Yogurt
1/2 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced fine (about 1/2 cup)
3/8 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 1/2 teaspoon)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint

For Lamb Patties:
Vegetable oil for cooking grate
4 (8-inch) pocketless pita breads
1/2 small onion, chopped coarse (about 1/3 cup)
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano leaves
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
1 pound ground lamb

1 large tomato, sliced thin
2 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
2 ounces crumbled feta cheese (about 1/2 cup)

For the Tzatziki Sauce: Combine cucumber, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and lemon juice in colander set over bowl and let stand 30 minutes. Combine thickened yogurt, drained cucumber, remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, garlic, and mint in clean bowl.

For the Patties: If using charcoal- About 20 minutes before grilling, light large chimney starter filled 3/4 full with charcoal (4 1/2 quarts, or about 75 briquettes) and allow to burn until coals are fully ignited and partially covered with thin layer of ash, about 20 minutes. Build modified two-level fire by arranging all coals over half of grill, making sure they are in even layer, leaving other half empty. Position cooking grate over coals, cover grill, and heat grate until hot, about 5 minutes; scrape grate clean with grill brush. Dip wad of paper towels in vegetable oil; holding wad with tongs, wipe cooking grate. Grill is ready when side with coals is medium-hot (you can hold your hand 5 inches above grate for 3 to 4 seconds). If using propane grill- About 10 minutes before grilling, heat propane grill on medium heat. Just prior to grilling, scrape grate clean with grill brush. Dip wad of paper towels in vegetable oil; holding wad with tongs, wipe cooking grate.

Use quarter of fifth pita and tear into 1 inch pieces, and discard saving remaining part of pita for future use. (You should have about 1/4 cup pita pieces.) Process onion, lemon juice, salt, pepper, oregano, garlic, and pita bread pieces in food processor until smooth paste forms, scraping down sides of workbowl as necessary, about 30 seconds. Transfer onion mixture to large bowl; add lamb and gently mix with hands until thoroughly combined. Divide mixture into 4 equal pieces and roll into logs. Gently flatten logs into rectangular patties, about 1/2 inch thick, 2 1/2 inches wide, and 7 inches long.

Place patties on hotter side of grill. Cook, turning once using spatula, until well browned and crust forms on each side, 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer patties to plate. While patties rest, place pita in single layer on hotter side of grill. Cook, turning once, until each pita is thoroughly warmed and faint grill marks appear, 30 to 40 seconds. Remove pita from grill and wrap tightly with aluminum foil.

Spread 1/8 cup Tzatziki Sauce inside each pita. Put 1 patty in each pita and top with tomato slices, 1/2 cup shredded lettuce, and 2 tablespoons feta. Serve immediately.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Pickle Love

In my eyes, there is no food as profoundly romantic as the pickle. Like a good relationship, canning, brining and pickling require a labor of love along with a sprinkling of time and a dash of patience.

Pickles begin their journey with fresh ingredients and over time develop a completely new set of flavors, an entirely new identity. They experience a hyperbolic rebirth: subtly flavored fresh vegetables become boldly tart, intensely sour, sweetly tangy, aromatic, acidy and crisp.

Pickling began as a necessity: a way to preserve foods as preparation for cold, dark, bleak winters. Although pickling has fallen by the wayside as a means of survival, it has become a way to tap into family histories, to serve as a reminder of simpler eras or to simply capture time in a mason jar.

I’m a fan of all pickles: simple bread and butter, garlic dill, pickled watermelon rind, kimchi, tsukemono, pickled eggs. Some pickles require preservation, canning, sterilization; others are fresh and ready to eat fairly instantaneously. I made two very different types of pickles over the course of a weekend, in an attempt to capture summer’s essence in my own set of mason jars.

Southern-style pickled watermelon rind is a process, requiring jar sterilization and a kit and caboodle of appliances, such as a kettle and several pans. Since I made half the recipe, I was able to sterilize one jar at a time in my handy All-Clad asparagus cooker, which comes equipped with a removable basket insert. Ultimately, I filled a gallon jar and a pint jar with watermelon rinds. Pickling rinds requires overnight marination, though worth the effort, as the finished product is mouth-puckeringly sweet-tart.

Since I am a die-hard lover of kimchi, I wanted to try making my own, but ended up straying from an aged version and headed for the fresh cabbage patch. This fresh kimchi requires a beef broth for marination and I had luckily made a batch that morning for our evening dinner, although canned broth would do just fine. After half a day of salting and draining, the cabbage was ready to be whipped into form. I decided to jar the bold and fiery kimchi for aesthetic purposes, although it can be stored in an air-tight container.

Pickled Watermelon Rind
Adapted from Molly O’Neill, NY Times

7 cups 1-inch-cubed watermelon rind, dark green skin and all red flesh removed
1/4 cup kosher salt
4 cups sugar
2 cups white vinegar
1 thinly sliced lemon, seeds removed
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon whole allspice.

1. Place the rind in a large bowl and toss with the salt. Cover with 1 quart cold water. Refrigerate overnight.

2. Drain the watermelon. Bring a large kettle 1/4 full of water to a boil and add the rind. Cook until tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.

3. Return kettle to the stove. Add sugar, vinegar, lemon, cinnamon stick, cloves, allspice and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil. Add the rind and simmer until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes.

4. Have ready 3 hot, sterilized pint (2-cup) canning jars and lids. (See pickled peppers for sterilizing instructions.) Gently pack the hot rind into the jars, leaving 1/4inch of space below the lip. Pour enough liquid into the jars to cover the rind. Wipe rims with a clean, damp towel and screw lids on securely but not too tightly.

5. Fill a large kettle fitted with a rack halfway with water and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, bring a teapot full of water to a boil. Place the filled jars on the rack (do not let them touch -- work in batches if necessary) and pour in boiling water from the teapot until jar tops are covered by 2 inches. Bring to a boil and boil 10 minutes.

6. Using tongs, remove jars from the kettle. Using potholders, tighten lids. Allow to cool. Store in a cool, dark place.

Yield: 3 pint jars.

Fresh Kimchi
Adapted from Molly O’Neill, NY Times

1 2-pound head Napa cabbage
2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 cup very thinly sliced sticks of daikon
4 scallions, sliced into long, thin, strips
1 cup leaves and tender stems of watercress
3 tablespoons ground Korean hot-pepper flakes
1 cup beef broth
1 tablespoon sesame oil
4 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced.

1. Quarter the cabbage and remove the thick, white core at the base. Halve each quarter. Place the cabbage in a large strainer set inside a large bowl. Toss the cabbage with 2 tablespoons of the salt. Place another large bowl on top of the cabbage and fill it with heavy cans or other weights so that the cabbage is compressed. Set aside to drain for 5 hours.

2. Rinse the cabbage briefly under running water and wrap it in clean tea towels to remove excess water. Cut cabbage into strips and transfer to a large, clean bowl along with the daikon, scallions and watercress.

3. In a small bowl, combine the remaining ingredients and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Pour mixture over the vegetables and toss until well coated. Season with additional salt, if necessary. Serve at room temperature.
Yield: 6 cups.