Monday, November 30, 2009
I had been conducting research on Jewish gangsters and their noshing habits. Believe it or not, they eat, just like us. They don’t inject themselves with a mercury-based liquid metal to gain mental and physical powers over the layman. Nor do they eat a solid diet of bullets and other gangster-tested, mobster-approved paraphernalia.
My gangster research was myopically focused on finding a recipe suitable for contribution to a satire magazine for their crime-themed issue, which ended up being an exercise in futility professionally, but very interesting on personal and academic levels.
I needed to find a solid dish, beloved by the Jewish mob, and recreate it in my own culinary style. In order to do my research, I spoke with notable New York historian Dr. Phil Schoenberg, a NYU PhD best known for his historic tours of New York City. I also spoke with a retired NYPD detective who, before his exit from the force, worked on Russian organized crime cases as an undercover and an investigator.
We spoke of the Kosher Mafia and their preferred restaurants. Never men to shy away from the hyperbolic lifestyle, many could be seen frequenting the kitschy, over-the-top banquet halls in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, such as the famed Rasputin. Others like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Leven preferred cuisine like their bubbies made, holing up inside the mystical Ratner’s vegetarian restaurant, a kosher dairy enclave that served up to 1,200 per diem in their heyday. And still others went the way of the Jewish deli, specifically Katz’s. Maybe they sent a salami to their loved one in the army? On second thought, they probably used the salami as a club.
Since my research took me back to the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, I started to crave Russian specialties and decided to whip up a batch of Thomas Keller’s mini blini. Though he’s not exactly a Russian cook, Chef Keller’s blini are light, airy, creamy and as opulent as the Russian nightclubs in Brighton Beach. The savory, silver dollar-sized pancakes are made from Yukon Gold potatoes and as Keller notes, the waxy potatoes allow the batter to absorb more cream. Garnishes can be as simple or lavish as you wish, ranging from a dab of rich butter, a tomato confit like Keller uses, caviar, or smoked salmon and a dollop of crème fraîche, the latter being my personal favorite.
Adapted from The French Laundry Cookbook
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 to 3 tablespoons crème fraîche, at room temperature
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
1. Place the potatoes in a saucepan with cold water to cover by at least 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat, and simmer until the potatoes are thoroughly cooked and tender.
2. Peel the warm potatoes and press them through a potato ricer. Immediately weigh out 9 ounces of puréed potatoes and place them in a medium metal bowl. Working quickly, whisk the flour into the warm potatoes, then whisk in 2 tablespoons crème fraîche. Add 1 egg, whisking until the batter is smooth, add the second egg, and then add the yolk.
3. Hold the whisk with some of the batter over the bowl. The batter should fall in a thick stream but hold its shape when it hits the batter in the bowl. If it is too thick, add a little more ore me fraîche. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
5. Heat an electric griddle to 350 degrees. If you do not have a griddle, heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Spoon between 1 and 1-1/2 teaspoons of batter onto the griddle or skillet for each pancake. Cook until the bottoms are browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Then flip them to cook the second side, about 1 minute. The blini should be evenly browned with a small ring of white around the edges. Transfer the blini to a small baking sheet and keep warm while you make the remaining blini, wiping the skillet with a paper towel between batches. Serve the blini as soon as possible.
Yield: About 3 dozen small blini.