Category Archives: Eating

Seder in the City

My family has always celebrated Easter in the traditional way. Immediate and extended family get together for a day of rejoicing, food & wine, laughter and play. The menu changes from year to year. Sometimes we’ll bake a ham or roast a leg of lamb. More often than not my grandmother will prepare her famous Haitian turkey, as my family need not wait for Thanksgiving to enjoy this specialty of the house.

Despite living in New York my whole life, I’ve never capitalized on the opportunity to attend a formal seder for Passover. When it rains it pours, because this year I had to turn down two dinner offers, but finally I managed to attend one at the home of my best friend on Thursday.

Over the years I have heard bits and pieces of what happens during a seder, and I have to say that a night of storytelling and eating has always appealed to me. In fact, I try to arrange dinner parties in just this way.

I admit to being a bit leery of the food and the wine. I’m not a big fan of Kosher restrictions, with its archaic by-laws concerning pork and dairy products. I respect those who follow this regimen, and have also noticed the gradual improvement in the overall quality of Kosher wines.

At the home of Dr. L. and Dr. Y., charter members of the Grand Crew, the food and the wine would be prepared with precision, care and expertise.

But before I get to the meal itself, I would like to focus on the importance of the seder. Dr.L.’s father, John, was the patriarch and sort of emcee for the dinner, and he performed his task with love, humor, vivacity and compassion. He assigned roles appropriately and with ease, incorporating the two children present (David and Allison), and utilizing every adult perfectly. Much of the symbolism was explained carefully and colorfully. Dr. Y.’s mother speaks fluent Hebrew, and she orates as if she had been a rabbi in a former life. Her enunciation had such spirit and depth of feeling, I felt as is she were chanting.

The ceremony was kept to about an hour, and because of the choice of program (haggadah) did not feel lengthy at all. The family and friends retold the story of Moses and Exodus, as well as employed several storytelling techniques and role playing to discuss the importance of remembrance and commemoration of things past. The universal message I came away with from Passover is that as long as people are suffering in the world under tyranny or oppression, we must remember, pray, and not tolerate this for our brothers and sisters.

Four cups of wine are sipped throughout the service, and nearing the last song and blessing, my appetite was sufficiently whetted and prepared for a feast. Dr.Y., an excellent baker, diligently prepared some classics using only the best ingredients and recipes.

First up was an elegant matzoh ball soup, hand rolled, light, ethereal matzoh balls floated in a rich, luxurious broth prepared by her husband, no slouch when it comes to soups.

This was followed by gefilte fish, a curiously ethnic dish that would normally strike fear even into an adventurous eater such as myself. Again, fresh fillets were used to create light-bodied dumplings, an acquired taste, and certainly a better tasting and looking version than I have ever had. They resembled French quenelles. The family ate it up.

For the main courses, Dr.L.’s mother prepared two beef briskets, which were succulent, moist and a bit fatty, all qualities I admire and enjoy. It was easily the best I had ever tasted.

Not in direct competition, Dr. L. served a sort of Kosher choucoutre garni. Replacing all the traditional pork products, Dr.L. inserted beef brisket, beef tongue, beef sausage and of course sauerkraut. Slow-cooked overnight, this one pot wonder was a masterful display of ingenuity and religious observance, illustrating the importance of technique and imagination necessary to cooking. I had three plates and took home leftovers.

As accompaniments to the main dishes, Dr. Y. baked a potato kugel, airy with a crunchy crust, and a carrot ring, unleavened and also sporting a tasty crust, exuding a light carrot flavor and aroma.

On a recent trip to Israel, Dr. L. & Y. brought back a few bottles of red and white wine. The majority tasted like standard table wine, forgettable, but some paired well with food. A 2001 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon was enhanced by the brisket, and I even tried some good old-fashioned Manischevitz, a favorite of mine since childhood – I’m not afraid to admit. Finally we switched to a Julienas and a wine from the Coulloire, both good, friendly matches for the food.

No successful seder would be complete without dessert, and Dr. Y. met the challenge with a flourless almond cake with orange, a delectable creation with a refreshing, moist filling. Only crumbs were left.

Sated, I retired to play tic-tac-toe and Gameboy with the kids (they whipped me), and I felt like part of the family. Everyone was happy to be with each other, and this is no small task considering the effort required to pull off a dinner of this magnitude in the midst on NYC holiday traffic.

Nothing is more important than family traditions, and if you can prepare and enjoy the best food possible, food filled with love, than you too can recline, like kings and queens for a day.

L’Idiot Affineur

Cheese is all the rage in New York, thanks to Steve Jenkins of Fairway markets, Terrance Brennan of Picholine/Artisanal, and other pioneers. Mr. Jenkins’ cheese primer just about educated the hungry masses, and Terrance Brennan stylized the cheese cave in a restaurant. Some proponents of cheese would have you believe that cheese is part of the culinary DNA, that no matter what type of eater you are, there’s a cheese out there just for you.

Growing up, the best cheese I could get my hands on was young gouda and american slices. Parmesan cheese came out of a green tin. Sometimes in the fridge there would be a wheel of cheese cut into triangles with silver wrapping on it, featuring a happy cow as if to remind me where cheese comes from.

Gradually, I learned about other cheeses through burger choices: swiss, cheddar, muenster, and weird bleu. Never the blue for me. Then parties with bad, off the block brie. Ho hum, but a necessary transition.

Then a brave new world opened up when I tasted the undisputed king of all cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano. This Italian cheese, full of umami (a sort of sixth, savory sense packed with glutamate), opened my mind and my palate to the undiscovered country, a land filled with cheese courses to come for a lifetime. If nothing else, always stock this versatile food.

There’s a turning point in a culinary lifespan, when you have something proper and no longer turn back, like the day you taste great sushi or aged beef. There’s just no way you can compromise for anything less, at least not while attentive and sober.

As in an informal culinary education, you seek friends who are interested in good food, cooking, wine, etc. Cheese is no exception. Jay is the resident cheese guy in our group, the Grand Crew, and I have benefited from his lifelong appreciation of cheese, the process, and its rightful place in any top-notch meal.

If there is someone in your life who fills this role, cherish that person, listen, take notes, and above all, always bring him/her proper cheese.

Jay has inspired me not only to look at cheese in a different, more meaningful way, but also to try to age my own cheese in my refrigerator at home. I’m known as the idiot affineur of the group due to my ability (or luck) to age cheese in a humidity-free drawer at the bottom of my refrigerator, thereby aging fresh cheeses and transforming them into something very advanced. Don’t ask me how I do it. Like I said, idiot affineur.

Passing along some advice, what helped me get over my distaste for blue cheese was a “gateway” blue. The gateway cheese is that which helps you over the hump, and sets you off looking for radical forms of cheese. For me it was the Cabrales, a Spanish blue that marries well with red wines, is in between mild and strong both in flavor and in nose. If you don’t like Cabrales, blue cheese is just not for you. Because following this are English stiltons, dirt French bleus and so on. On second thought, you might try Maytag blue. I’ve used it to make great blue cheese dressing for hot wings.

For bries, step up and try a wheel of Pierre Robert or Explorateur. Just don’t blame me for not being able to keep it in the fridge.

Over the years, my favorites have changed, but some are perennials. On a desert island, if I had to pick, I would have an aged Vacherin Mont d’Or, a Torta del Casar, and aged Manchego, a good, runny Epoisse, and a Neil’s Yard Farmhouse Stilton. Anytime you can get your hands on these beauties, snap them up. They’re worth it.

The question remains: Where should I buy my cheese?

As with any food or wine item, of primary importance is the relationship you foster with the vendor. Some vendors are owners, quite skilled, and the great ones get to know you palate and challenge you to new ideas. Just as you should have a fish monger, a butcher, your favorite produce at the farmer’s market, the wine guy, and maybe even a chef on hand for advice, cheese should be no exception.

Next is the quality of the cheese and how the cheese is stored at the location. Price should not come into play. As with any good product, we must pay. Remember this supports the industry.

I have purchased cheese at Balducci’s, the Garden of Eden, Fairway (both locations), Zabar’s, Whole Foods, Artisanal, Citarella, Gourmet Garage, Murray’s (both locations) and a host of other supermarkets not worthy of any mention. Fairway uptown has a good cheese selection and has served me well in the past. Fairway on the upper west side has poor storing conditions for its cheese section, and as a result, my friends and I have returned many a cheese. The shop uptown is better because the cheese breathes in the open, airy space in which it is kept. Zabar’s is good for young, fresh cheese, but nothing exciting. Gourmet Garage has improper storing conditions for its cheeses. You have to inspect the packaging carefully. I often purchase at the Garden of Eden because of its location, and the just is merely fair. Citarella lacks depth, but stores its cheeses properly, and Whole Foods has been surprising me on occasion. Artisanal is a cheese altar, but the prices are more expensive than any other competitor in the city. I do treasure the trendy cheese bags they send me home with my purchase.

The clear winner is Murray’s, and it is most definitely worth the trip. Every time I get lazy and want to buy cheese elsewhere, I either regret it or get lucky. Murray’s passion is cheese and it shows. Just go there on a weekday, when a sales rep. can spend over an hour with you figuring out your tastes and needs. The staff works there because they live cheese. You feel like you are buying from the cheese shrine in the sky. They have the widest selection, and often are privy to raw or hard to find choices. Murray’s offers a multitude of specialty gourmet products, from pasta to chocolate, to Niman Ranch salumi, to olives, to Amy’s bread, to artisanal honeys, etc. My main man Cielo has been hooking me up for some time now. Find your regular too.

Cheese courses should be comprised of four selections if possible, a goat, cow, sheep and blue. If you can find them raw (score!), the better. All cheeses should be served at room temperature so as to bring out all the natural flavors and slight nuances. Try to match cheese and wine with the region of cuisine. This is almost foolproof, although you’ll find that goat cheese is a problem to match with most wines (try a Sancerre or Savennieres). Dessert wines, however, do work well. Think ports and madeiras, as well as ice wines from the Finger Lakes. Jay has preached to me that cheese should always be served before dessert so as not to “blow up” your palate. I have been resistant to this for years because I feel that no one will have room for the cheese. I continue to be wrong about this. Serve one cheese in the beginning if you must, but try not to. That’s what olives and salume are for.

When you are done for the night, wrapping is important to prolong the life of the cheese. Use wax paper and secure with tape, or wrap in plastic wrap. Try not to handle the cheese with your hands. Rather, place the wrapping over the cheese and scoop it up. Then fasten the underside. Plastic wrap doesn’t work as well because the cheese doesn’t get to breath, but it will do for at least one week.

Like a good bottle of bubbly, you should always have cheese in the house for surprise guest visits, emergencies, and your own appetite. After all, serving cheese and wine is a civilized thing to do.

Cheese is great served alone with sliced fruit, but here are some quick and easy goto recipes:

Blue Cheese, Honey & Nuts

½ lb. Neil’s Yard Farmhouse Stilton

Lavender Honey


1 box Finn Crisps

On crisps, spread some stilton, drizzle honey on top, and sprinkle with nuts.

Blue Cheese Dressing

1 cup sour cream

1 cup mayonnaise

¾ cup crumbled Maytag Blue cheese

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

2 tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley

salt & pepper to taste.

In a mixing bowl, fold in sour cream, mayo, and blue cheese. Add rest of ingredients and salt & pepper.

(Can store for one week in refrigerator)

Ricotta & Honey

1 lb Fresh Ricotta


Fresh Ground Black Pepper

Place three tbsp ricotta in a small bowl. Grind pepper. Drizzle honey to taste. Repeat for number of guests. (Serves 4)

Iron Chef Roast Chicken

April 2, 2006

There are several vital facets to creating a successful neighborhood. Parks, a great pub, a green grocer, a pizza shop, and the list goes on. For me, high on the list is a place where I can buy a proper roast chicken, a true expression of a neighborhood’s culinary diversity and coming of age.

I am not partial to any cultural recipe. I’ll take Peruvian, Dominican, Cuban-Chinese, Jewish, New American or any other ethnic version as long as the chicken is done right. I rate roast chicken based on aroma, texture, and flavor.

The Upper West Side is a good place to start, partly because I grew up there and also because of the RCB, or roast chicken per square block ratio. It appears that every three or four blocks someone is trying their hand on this boon, as people gotta have their roast chicken fix.

The Chirping Chicken spots crisp their chicken skins quite nicely, but the texture is on the dry side, and the flavor is not very forthright. There are a number of these types of restaurants around the city. Their motif is all but too similar and bland.

Keeping on the mainstream path is the Dallas BBQ chain. The roast chicken seems to cater to the early bird dining crew. Stick to the fried chicken if you must.

A number of barbecue places sell their rotisserie chicken smoked. It is often too smoky to enjoy the flavor of the chicken.

A number of supermarkets also sell a reasonably priced roast chicken to go. These versions are passable, but nothing to shirk specialty shops for. Perhaps if they used the organic birds they sell, the chickens would be more delectable.

Dominican restaurants generally excel in their roast chicken preparations. The aroma of the chicken at the Malecon brings you through the door. The skin tastes sublime, but something is lost when the texture and flavor is tasted. If only it were as succulent as it smelled.

At Flor de Mayo, a Cuban-Chinese criolla spot, they make a Peruvian style roast chicken which has been a favorite of mine for years. A fiery red sauce is offered on the side, and I order the pollo a la brasa every time.

Nearby to Flor de Mayo stands the now defunct Tacita de Oro which easily had the best roast chicken and rice combo in town. The chicken scored high on all three criteria, but after over thirty years in business, lost their lease. It was a sad day for all chicken lovers.

On the East Side en El Barrio, there are dozens of Puerto Rican versions offered. I find them a tad overspiced and dry. Better to stay with the roast pork (pernil), their specialty.

Restaurants invariably offer roast chicken on their menus because they know someone will always order it. It is safe and somewhat foolproof. Bullpucky. Some of the best restaurants mess this up night in and night out, and they should stick to the fancy food they’re known for.

Often when I’m out tasting with the Grand Crew, one of us usually orders the chicken, and depending on the restaurant, it is the best dish served.

Recently I enjoyed the roast chicken at Bouley Upstairs in Tribeca and La Luz in Brooklyn, an absolute bargain at five dollars.

My quest for the best is ongoing, and would love to hear your recommendations. In the meanwhile, I have been fooling around with roast chicken recipes for years, and am known among my friends as iron chef roast birds. My friend Dr. L. from the Grand Crew travels to Israel, goes to the Arab Quarter and brings back an herb and spice mixture called Za’tar.  The following is our latest collaborative recipe. Try it and let me know how it rates to your favorite spot.

Remember, eat life.

Za’tar Roast Chicken

3 lb. organic chicken

juice of one lemon

½ cup olive oil

¼ cup Za’tar

salt & pepper

5 cloves garlic

1 tbsp. ginger

Set oven to 375 degrees.

Spatchcock (Cut out backbone) chicken and reserve for stock.

Rinse chicken under cold water.

Set aside on a baking tray layered with aluminum foil.

In a mortar and pestle, add garlic, ginger, pinch of salt. Mash into a paste.

In a mixing bowl add rest of ingredients and paste. Incorporate.

Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides of chicken.

Spread mixture on front and back.

Place on tray, breast side up, and roast for 45 minutes.


  • Za’tar is an aromatic Middle Eastern herb-and-spice mix (a type of thyme and sesame seeds)
  • Spatchcocking flattens the bird out allowing for even cooking

The “Real” Wine Assault

Last week was Natural Winemaker’s week, and I had the opportunity to visit the Chambers Street Wines Shop for a selection of Louis/Dressner and LDM Wines.

Sometimes I find that I tend to purchase bottles based on importers rather than producers, especially if I feel that our palates are similar. I have yet to drink a bottle of wine from Louis/Dressner that I did not enjoy.

My exposure to natural wines occurred by accident. A few years back I tasted a Sauvignon Blanc from Theirry Puzelat. The wine tasted unusually fresh and boasted great minerality and balanced acidity. It was as if the wine were more alive. I felt like I was drinking the soil, and had a tremendous sense of the terroir of the wine even though I had never been there. Then a restaurant in Red Hook named 360 sported an all natural wine list. I was intrigued and my interest was piqued.

Since that first tasting I have been seeking out these types of wines to pair with my dishes and have become a big fan of many on the winemakers.

To ensure wine tasting stamina, I went to Katz’s Deli on Houston to load up on a pastrami sandwich, potato pancakes, and Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda. I was also able to sample the reuben sandwich which was also quite filling. I rolled out into a cab to Chambers Street, and boy was I in for a treat.

The presence of famous natural winemakers made for a star-studded night. Just imagine six or seven of your favorite musicians gathered in one hall playing their music for you for free. In my mind’s eye I have imagined what some of these winemakers were like, often giving them outrageous personalities and superhuman abilities. They were indeed pleasant, wonderful hosts and obviously passionate about their wines.

The wine shop, glass aplenty, buzzed with tasters humming to and fro the narrow aisles for their chance at a glimpse of their heroes. Table One was shared by Marc Ollivier and Evelyn and Isaure de Jessy de Pontbriand. Monsieur Ollivier’s offered just one wine, a 2004 Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur lie Clos de Briords. I had recently re-familiarized myself with this old vines muscadet recently by pairing it with Cantonese food at the Phoenix Garden. There were three Domaine du Closel bottles. My favorite Savenniere was an ’04 La Jalousie, young and refreshing, only missing a plate of fresh sea scallops. Both the ’02 and ’04 exhibited tremendous potential for aging. The owner was as charming as her wines.

Then I met one of my favorite winemakers, Monsieur Thierry Puzelat of Clos du Tue-Boeuf. Once I thought his wines to be so off the wall, I dubbed him “the mad man.”

Out of his five offerings my favorites were the 2004 Touraine, Thesee, and the 2004 Petillant Naturel. The Touraine was a bright sauvignon blanc and the Petillant was bubbly and slightly oxidized, but in a pleasing way. I almost asked for his autograph.

Clos Roche Blanche also represented with a Touraine sauvignon blanc, a gamay, and a cot/malbec blend. I have enjoyed these wines for years. They serve as my standby when I want solid, natural wines for good value. They are excellent food wines.

At Table Three I was graced by the presence of Pierre Breton, who produces the not so common Bourgueil. The 2004 Les Galichets was a terroir-driven dream. Everyone treated him like a rock star, a celebrity among men and women with vision.

In the back room at Table Four Frack Peillot was pouring the 2004 Altesse, a former Buster wine from Louis/Dressner. Alternately an ’04 Vin de Bugey, Mondeuse was also being offered. I recall the Vin de Bugey, but fastened á la methode champenoise, a real treat and a wine my friend used as the sparkler for his wedding.

Sylvia and Thomas Morey were quite the dashing couple as they poured the very young 2004 Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Morgot, a white burgundy with plenty of years ahead of it. The more basic 2004 Bourgogne Blanc was a bit green, but drinking well.

As a bonus there were some winemakers present whose wines I had not yet tasted. Monsieur Gregoire Hubau of Chateau Moulin Pey-Labrie offered the 1999 Canon Fronsac, a vibrant merlot fully of earthy flavors and good fruit. I mentioned that a good sheperd’s pie on a cold night would accompany the wine well, to which Monsieur Hubau inquired of the pie’s main ingredients. When I said pommes de terre (potato), he wryly corrected me. “Where I come from the potato is known as the noble tuber (le noble tubercule).” Now that’s a man who knows his food and wine!

Rounding out the tasting at Table Five were three Italian wines illustrating in part the scope of the natural wine movement. Both the Colli Orientali dei Friuli, Clivi Galea, and the Collio Goriziano, Clivi Brazan from 1999 grabbed my attention. These Malvasia/Tokay blends were the types of whites I have been enjoying lately, lively, minerally, off the beaten path type of white wines. I preferred the Clivi Galea to the Clivi Brazan as I found it less austere. Both wines were crafted from 80 year old vines, and exhibited unusual depth.

The last two wines of the night were tasted in a flurry of emotion and fatigue, because I found myself refilling at the other tables quite often. My sense of smell was still intact, and thank goodness so was my vision. Throughout the tasting I had been speaking in my rusty French and getting by quite admirably. Italian is another story, as all I could remember from spending time in Italy was where’s the beach and thank you. Nadia Verrua from Cascina Tavijn poured a very different Barbera D’Asti than I am accustomed too, followed by a 2004 Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato. The Barbera was good and interesting, but the Ruche was complex and layered with flavor. The winemaker was impeccably dressed and I fumbled for words to keep the conversation alive. The Italian accent is a wonderful note to my ears. Her beauty remained, just as the aroma of the Ruche left in my now empty glass, and I blew a kiss goodbye which somehow got lost in translation. Alas, the love of wine needs no translation, and what a magical couple of hours were embraced under a pale moon beaming down Chambers Street.