Category Archives: Experiences

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

Walnuts

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

Honey

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.

Voila!

  • 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

Coffee Nirvana

There are two things that I have sworn against addiction to: one is smoking cigars or cigarettes and the other is drinking coffee.

My best friend Fernando had a baby boy recently, and we all smoked Romeo y Julieta cigars to celebrate. I have to admit it was a soothing, relaxing, delicious experience. I was transformed. The next day I had a massive migraine, and probably will not have another cigar again for a long time. Cigarette smoking interferes with the food and wine palate, and is an obvious no-no.

Coffee on the other hand I do enjoy occasionally, but it is easy for me not to become reliant upon it because so much of it is so bad, even in New York. I lean towards the frothy milk, sweet version with a touch of caffeine, and any real coffee drinker will tell you that doesn’t count for much.

Sometimes providence works in strange ways. I had been looking for a professional machine to make a proper espresso, when my friend Janet gifted me a barely used Olympia Cremina.

Food & Wine magazine just voted the Olympia Cremina as the #1 espresso machine for coffee cognoscienti. There was only one problem, the machine was out of balance, and overdrawing shots.

First I had a member of the Grand Crew to come and tweak the machine for me. He owns a Gaggia and has been the coffee guru of the group for years. Add to that his near Seattle pedigree and you have a veritable barista on your hands.

After three hours, of cleansing, shotmaking, and grinding we just couldn’t coax Olympia back to true form. We even researched for the most effective way to operate an Olympia Cremina, but the coffee was an overdraught disaster.

So I took Olympia to Fama in Hell’s Kitchen, where behind a black door of a typical Manhattan townhouse a Brazilian technician named Valentino apprised me of her fate. “Ah,” he wisped, “a real machine. Let me be frank with you. If it’s the heating element, forget about it. You see Olympia is a Swiss company and they have been out of business for some time. It just so happens that my boss loves this machine, so we carry the spare parts. But the heating element. No one sells this part.”

I held my breath hoping it wasn’t the heating element, and described the symptoms of Olympia’s problem.

“Good,” Valentino nodded, “Let’s not play any games. The price will be $150. and I will replace all the parts. She will work like new. Is okay?”

Of course I said yes and Valentino told me that she would be ready in two days.

“I know some one who bought a used Cremina from California for $600. just for the parts to put into his old Cremina. You could say this measure was a bit extreme. But separate not a man from his espresso.”

As I left, I couldn’t help but feeling that Olympia was left with the right person for the job. Valentino clearly cared about his work.

Less than one day later, I got a call from the secretary with a Northern Italian accent telling me she was ready. Olympia pulled through!

I went to pick her up and she exuded a shiny brilliance. Valentino threw in a free tamper and assured me Olympia was in great condition, but any trouble and I could return her within the next month.

I bought a Delonghi burr grinder and some fresh Illy coffee beans and have been working that manual lever to my heart’s content. I have limited myself to one per day, and refuse to have espresso anywhere else. The Krups machine I use at work is gathering dust, and I find myself worrying about the type of water I’m using and the barometric pressure for the day.

It has still taken me some time to wield Olympia, and more often than not she is wily and finicky. But little by little I’m holding a tazza of great espresso, and I wonder how I’ve lived without such a luxury for all my working days.

Olympia has taken a place of honor in my kitchen, replacing my Delonghi panini press. Making espresso satisfies the chef in me. The process requires great detail, ingredients, equipment and care. I love when my guests enjoy it and ask for more. If your machine is feeling neglected, get to know her and drink life.

ESPRESSO TIPS:

1. Buy a Burr Grinder. Clean it after every use with a brush.

2. Use fresh whole bean espresso roast coffee. Grind only what you need for your shot.

3. Tamp the portafilter with 30 lbs. of pressure.

4. Use bottled water. Pull a blank shot before each brew.

5. If using milk, froth milk after the brew.

6. Know your machine and how to get the most out of it.

7. A golden brown crema means perfection.

A Persian New Year’s Feast

The most famous feast day in March is St. Patrick’s day, but not so for the people of Persia. The vernal equinox occurs precisely at the moment the sun crosses the equator on March, 20, 21, or 22. In harmony with the rebirth of nature, the Iranian New Year’s celebration, or Aide Noruz, always begins on the first day of spring. The tradition of welcoming in the New Year is a time honored custom in almost every culture. Washing away the old, and bringing in new hopes, wishes and luck is universal.For the past couple of years I have been invited to the Gordon household in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey to participate in their Persian New Year’s celebration. Mrs. Gordon was raised in Iran in the 1940’s and continues the tradition today for her family. One of the most important components of the holiday is the significance of the food that is prepared.

To prepare for the New Year, Iranians engage in a thorough Spring cleaning. Many households make new clothes, bake pastries, and germinate seeds as a sign of renewal. Hadji Firuz (troubadours) travel from house to house spreading good cheer and announcing the New Year.

Normally the festivities span thirteen days after the equinox, but the Gordons have adapted the duration to fit their schedules. During the first few days, the younger members of the family visit their older relatives and friends as a sign of respect. These visits are filled with sweet pastries and frosty drinks. On the thirteenth day of Noruz (sizdeh bedar) entire families leave their homes to attend picnics near a stream or river. Sprouts are then thrown into the water bringing an end to one year and bracing for the new year. Last year the Gordons visited relatives near the Potomac River and tossed sprouts as part of the ritual.

Traditionally, sofreh-ye-haft-sinn (a ceremonial cloth) is set on the carpet or table where seven dishes are displayed symbolizing the seven angelic heralds of life: health, happiness, posterity, joy, patience, rebirth, and beauty.
“Noruz is not a religious holiday. Many Iranians are Zoroastrian. When the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, he ordered everyone to place the Koran on every table. The citizens were outraged. He tried to cancel the ceremony altogether. Not even the Ayatollah could match the will of the people,” Mrs. Gordon proudly tells. In its place, a copy of the 50 poems by the famous Persian poet Hafiz is displayed on the cloth.
The number seven has been sacred in Iran since ancient times. The seven dishes consist of sabzeh (sprouts), samanu (a pudding of wheat sprouts), sib (apple), senjed (lotus tree fruit), seer (garlic), somaq (sumac berries), and serkeh (vinegar). These ingredients represent the original basics of Persian cuisine.

Mrs. Gordon prepares the traditional menu of several dishes which are actually served on New Year’s Day. An abundance of small appetizers are laid out on the table to arouse hunger. There’s dolmeh barg (stuffed grape leaves) and nazkhatun (eggplant caviar) nestled next to mast va khiar (yogurt with cucumbers).

She begins the meal with a sumptuous noodle soup (ashe-reshte). The noodles are made fresh and are tied in special knots. Eating them helps unravel life’s problems. This is followed by a serving of nane lavesh (thin flat bread), panir (feta-like cheese), and fresh herbs, to be nibbled for prosperity’s sake. A main course of rice with fresh herbs and fish (sabzi polow ba mahi) is then brought in signifying life and rebirth. Kukuye sabzi is a favorite of all Persians. It is a vegetable casserole supreme, consisting of leeks, spinach, herbs and onions, all tossed with eggs and baked until crisp and brown. The Herb Kuku this year gets an eggplant twist, a mash with garlic, onion rings, and eggs.

This Noruz, Mrs. Gordon is shaking things up a bit by adding khoreshte gormeh sabzi ba polow (green herb stew with pilaf) to the mix. This is a hearty beef stew with sautéed chives, foengreek, scallions, spinach, parsley, and onion together simmered in a broth flavored with turmeric, cinnamon, and dried limes.
Then there is a mad dash for the tadik or sticky part of the rice. The bottom boasts a crispy, nutty flavor and texture, and is the cause of many a family fight.
The preparation of dessert begins two weeks before Noruz is well worth the effort. Homemade baglava and Persian cardamon cookies such as nune shekari (sugar) and badam choragi (almond) and halva provide a sweet-filled ending to the meal. A spice cake and non-traditional flan is also added for variety. Miveh (fruit in season) is offered for the weary tooth as well.

“The secret of the baglava lies in the thinness of the dough,” writes Maideh Mazda, aunt and recipe source to Mrs. Gordon and author of In a Persian Kitchen.

On a full stomach, I realize Noruz will be my third New Year’s of 2006 (Jan. 1st, & Chinese). As to the cycles of life, I believe that each individual’s birthday is the mark of the true new year, or personal rebirth and celebration. It’s a day to reflect on the past year, start anew, and make plans for the future. Perhaps that’s why people feel so special on their birthdays. As for Noruz, eat and drink life.

The old adage goes, “Good thought, good word, good deed – to the year end, happy indeed.”