Archive | December, 2010

Good luck

31 Dec

Getting your peas and rice ready for the New Year? Here’s a recipe from Sweet Sweetback. It’s a baaadassss one for sure. And don’t forget a dash or three of hot sauce. Just click on the button below and listen up.

Enjoy that Hoppin John and Happy New Year.

Plan #1 or Plan #2

28 Dec

Okay if you take Plan #1, you get 2lbs of fresh neck bones, beef liver, turkey wings along with ground beef  and chicken legs.  You also get bacon, Boar’s Head at that, and a dozen free eggs. All for only $19.95. Now if I spend only $6 more, I can get the same amount of ground beef, neck bones, and chicken legs, plus 2lbs of pork chops, 2lbs of pig feet, 2lbs of chicken wings, which I could cook up for the bowl games on Saturday, along with the one pound of franks, also perfect for the football games. But with Plan #2 I don’t get the liver, bacon, or the turkey wings and that’s a problem; I like to cook my greens withturkey wings.  And instead of a dozen eggs, I get a two liter bottle of soda. I don’t drink soda, so that does me no good. I wonder if they allow substitutions? They don’t make it easy, do they?

Adventures in Chow City will return next Tuesday.

 

 

Christmas Cheer

23 Dec

Sorrel

I first sampled a drink made from sorrel in the early 1990’s on the island of Barbados where I was on assignment for a travel magazine. There I met a woman named Carmeta Fraser; more specifically, Senator Carmeta Fraser. She was a dignitary in that country’s government at the time. Her title: Food Promotion Director for the Barbados Marketing Corporation which is now known as the Barbados Agricultural and Marketing Development Corporation. She also had a radio program that was apparently very popular mainly extolling the virtues of local produce. Her motto was: “Let’s eat what we grow, grow what we eat.” I met with her at her modest home where she showed me her extensive garden and treated me to a number of fruit juices made from her garden’s bounty.

Barbados cherry

Golden apple

I sampled “cherry cool-ma,” made from the Barbados cherry also known as acerola, a slightly tarter version of cherries we are familiar with here and, as she told me, “packed with vitamin C.” Senator Fraser also had me try her homemade golden apple beer, a non-alcoholic drink made from golden apples from her garden. They call it golden apple in Barbados but elsewhere it is known as June plum, and it tastes nothing like our own golden apples. The juice of the fruit, blended with ginger and sweetened with sugar was distinctive and its taste something I just can’t equate. Finally, Senator Fraser brought out a drink made from sorrel telling me that you can drink it all year round, but it’s really best at Christmas time. A member of the hibiscus family, the plant, according to lore, yields its bright red flowers at Christmas. So in Barbados, and elsewhere in the English-speaking islands of the West Indies, they say  it’s just not Christmas without sorrel drink.

Fresh sorrel

I left Senator Fraser’s home with a number of her booklets promoting the benefits of eating local fruits, vegetables and meats. In one of the booklets was a recipe for sorrel drink and the following Christmas in New York, I made my own version and have been making it around Christmas ever since; adopting a tradition that has nothing to do with my own background. I’m not sure why I’ve adopted it; maybe it’s a reminder of sunshine and warmth during a cold, dark time of year. But whatever the reason, as they say, it’s just not Christmas without sorrel drink.

Senator Fraser passed away a few years after my visit. She is still remembered in Barbados as a pioneer in championing local and even organic produce and this past March a store at Grantley Adams International Airport in Barbados selling locally-made products opened and, to honor her work,  was named, “Carmeta’s.”

Here is my recipe for sorrel drink adapted from Senator Carmeta Fraser’s.

2 cups of dried sorrel*

3 whole cloves

1 ½ tablespoons of grated orange zest

1 ½ grated fresh ginger

2 quarts of boiling water

1 cup of sugar ( ½ cup more if you’ve got a serious sweet tooth)

Place the sorrel and the other ingredients except for the sugar in a large crock or ceramic jug. Pour the boiling water over all and let it steep in a warm, dry place for 48 hours. I keep it in my oven, just remember to take it out if you are using the oven during the process. Strain and add the sugar. Refrigerate for another 48 hours. Serve over ice, a wedge of lime, and, though Senator Fraser was a church-going woman and never mentioned it, an ounce (or two) of rum definitely enhances the drink’s Christmas cheer. If you do add rum, I recommend Barbados’s own Mount Gay or Appleton Estate from Jamaica.

 

Eels or anchovies?

22 Dec

Do we have to choose?

Or can we have both?

The Greek Uncle (R.I.P)

21 Dec

When Zio picked Uncle George’s in Astoria, the restaurant really didn’t qualify for our criteria. This was late 2003 and having been around since 1985, it was well known among the burgeoning foodie crowd. But we hadn’t done “Greek” yet and it was cheap, so we let Zio slide on the pick. As you’ll read below, that was our mistake.

Uncle George’s Greek Tavern
33-19 Broadway
Astoria

Is Astoria now to Greek restaurants what Little Italy is to Italian restaurants? Are they just there to appease the tourist or wandering foodie; to present a pale imitation of what Greek-American or Italian-American cuisine was like 40 years ago. That’s what I was afraid of when Zio choose Uncle George’s as the next destination for our group of intrepid eaters. Uncle George’s had a reputation as one of those authentic Greek restaurants, but my sources had warned that the food had there had gone downhill. This was Zio’s choice, however, and it was not my place to interfere.

When I entered Uncle George’s, the fluorescent-bright interior looked much more like a dingy diner than a Greek tavern. This was a good sign, I thought. There were other good signs: men with bushy forearms reading newspapers with undecipherable, to me, Greek lettering, a bilingual menu in English and that same undecipherable Greek on the wall, a surly, casting-couch Greek waiter who scoffed at Gerry when he inquired about a glass of ouzo: “No ouzo here! Whattya think? This a bar?.”  Lamb head on the menu. I was encouraged. Maybe Zio picked Uncle George’s truly for the food and not just for the convenience; surely that it was only a couple of blocks from his Astoria love shack was not a factor at all.

After we finally all assembled and sipped retsina; bad Greek wine served ice cold out of an olive oil container, our brusque waiter took our orders. Of course most of the items we desired were not available. The waiter recited what was left and when one of our large, slightly deaf, contingent inquired again about something not on the menu, he became exasperated with us. Still, there were plenty of items to choose from—lamb head, sadly, was not one of them.

 

 

We started with the typical Greek dips; fish roe (taramaslata) yogurt, garlic and cucumber (tzatziki) and the very garlicky potato dip (skoradilia). All were very good and served with warm pita bread. Gerry tried the fried cheese and Rick was curious about the spinach pie, which was not anywhere near the equal of what I commonly ordered at Big Nick’s Burger Joint on the Upper West Side, not to be confused with Uncle Nick’s in Hell’s Kitchen, which also had a better spinach pie than Uncle George. I erred badly by choosing the baked macaroni and octopus. The macaroni, baked to a mushy consistency, was the antithesis of “al dente” and the octopus, canned and accompanied with an overdose of dill. Gerry had a similar unfortunate experience with his pastitio, the Greek version of baked ziti. Eugene fared better with the grilled whiting as did Rick with the barbecued baby lamb. Zio tried the lamb stew with spinach, which reminded me of one of the many common themes on meats, whether beef, pork or veal, that was the few dinner options at my college dormitory. Charlie’s roast leg of lamb was if nothing else, slow-cooked tender and highlighted by a large portion of lemon potatoes.

The food was certainly plentiful, but we’ll leave it at that. Zio had a “sheepish” look on his face as we left and it had nothing to do with our consumption of lamb. He shrugged. “They make good eggs,” he said. And to that we had no response.

No lamb head today!

Uncle George continues to thrive 24 hours a day in Astoria. It’s been “remodeled” since we visited in 2003, but the menu remains the same. Now, I think, the restaurant is more a guilty pleasure to its followers; like Wo Hop in Chinatown or Vincent’s Clam Bar in Little Italy. They are comforting reminders of the past that are knowingly not very good, but still irresistible for, if nothing else, their continued existence in an ever-changing food universe.

Baccala Blues

17 Dec

Baccala Blues

baccala-005

When I was a little boy,

‘bout the age of five.

I’d get real excited,

when Christmas was soon to arrive.

But one year, I’ll never forget,

Something happened that still makes me sweat.

 

It was a few days before Christmas,

We were by the fireplace, putting up our socks,

When my Granny came to the house carrying an

old wooden box.

I crinkled my nose.

From the box there came a smell.

An odor so strong and so bad,

it was enough to curl my toes.

What was in that box even smelled worse

than that fish they call lox.

Baccala

I had to know.

“Tell me, Granny, what’s in that box,”  I cried.

“Never you mind,” Granny said.

“Go outside,

go enjoy the snow.”

 

But now I knew I just had to see.

What was in that box,

that was such a mystery.

I knew I shouldn’t, but I looked anyway,

And what I saw, is why I never forget that day.

There was salt, skin and bones.

It was some kind of a fish,

but this fish was as hard as a stone.

It even had what looked like a tail.

And a dead mouth that let out a silent wail.

baccala

Then Granny came back

and took the box to the bathroom.

I could hear her filling the tub,

and then a splash,

followed by a sickening thud.

When she left, I opened the door.

The smell was so smelly, I almost fell on the floor.

 

But  soon I forgot what was in the tub.

Christmas was coming.

I was distracted by joy.

I couldn’t wait for Santa to bring me my toys.

Then on Christmas Eve morning, when my

Granny appeared.

The moment had come,

the one that I feared.

I remembered that thing in the bathroom,

the fish that was no trout.

I knew that today, was the day it would come out.

 

I watched from a distance as Granny took it from the tub.

The sight of that hideous fish,

was making my little left eye twitch.

She put it in a pot

covered it with water,

and then on the fire to get it hot.

What would happen to Christmas, I wondered.

Would it still go on?

Would Santa come to a house that smelled of rot?

 

Santa please,

I cried and moaned.

Please hear my plea.

Don’t let that funky fish,

keep you from bringing my toys to me.

Please, Santa, no baccala.

Please, Santa, no baccala.

 

Finally we all sat, for the Christmas Eve feast.

On the table were clams and chestnuts,

spaghetti and shrimp.

And there was that thing, that fish,

the one that reeks.

Granny made sure I had a piece on my plate.

I stared at it in horror,

and silently prayed that that piece would disintegrate.

 

What’s it called, I wanted to be told.

“Baccala,” she said, “now eat it, before it gets cold!”

I put it on my fork and slowly brought it to my lips.

I opened my mouth, and took a tiny nip.

I hurriedly reached for my water,

forcing it down.

I drank so much, I hoped I wouldn’t drown.

Everyone at the table laughed and made fun of me.

Even my old Gramps was full of glee.

I felt silly and sad.

I didn’t want to make Granny mad.

That’s when Gramps hugged me tight and looked me in the eyes.

“It’s okay, boy, you just paid your dues,” he said

“‘cause now you’re hooked,

you got the baccala blues.”

baccala

Now that I’m a man,

I’ve learned that Gramps was right.

When it comes to baccala, I’ve seen the light.

It smells and it’s fishy.

It’s got salt by the pound.

But these days I like it so much,

it doesn’t have to be Christmas

to keep it around.

I’ll eat it fried or baked,

in a salad or made into cakes.

The taste of that salty fish is one

I never want to lose.

And that’s what happens,

when a man gets the baccala blues.

Buon Natale

Buon Natale

 

BBQ in the ‘Burbs

14 Dec

Our first out-of-town odyssey with Gerry was our venture just across the bridge to Fort Lee and the Korean, Masil House (see archives for November 9). When his turn to pick came up again, he took us further, a continuing theme for Gerry, when we traveled to Westchester for the not very exotic, though maybe it is for Westchester, barbecue. Here is what we experienced in the in Valhalla, New York in the fall of 2003.

Southbound Bar-B-Que

R.I.P.

 

 

It was a bit confusing to begin with. We were heading north looking for the Southbound Barb-B-Que. And north, in this case wasn’t the Bronx, it was Westchester, Valhalla to be precise, conveniently Gerry’s hometown as well as the final resting place of Babe Ruth. Rick had obliged to haul those of us who lived in the city in his all-wheel turbo Ram out of the bright lights and into the dark roads of Westchester. Gerry is a bit of a barbecue aficionado, so we all very much anticipated his choice despite the schlep out of New York City’s environs. Using my increasingly fading memory of Westchester and the vague directions Gerry gave me, we were able to find the restaurant without too much trouble. Stepping out of the “Ram,” I sniffed. There was nothing yet. . .nothing to indicate that we were in very close proximity to a self-proclaimed “butt kickin’ rib joint.”  But as we got closer two huge exhaust ventilators were spewing the reassuringly familiar perfume of smoking meat.

The restaurant was painfully bright especially after navigating the black streets of Westchester. Gerry and Eugene were already present and so was our table for six. All of the other tables were occupied making Southbound Bar-B-Que one of the most popular of places we have experienced. Could there have been a little blurb in the New Yorker? Or was it that this was the real deal? Service started off slow, but the delay was more than compensated by very cold mugs of beer, endless baskets of freshly-made potato chips that kept arriving on our table, and recollections by Eugene about his first experience watching ESPN at the former incarnation of Southbound Bar-B-Que, a German restaurant named Franzl’s.

Southbound Bar-B-Que’s former incarnation.

As is the case with most barbecue joints, the menu was not very extensive. Ribs were the advertised specialty and available in a half or  full rack. The other typical barbecue items were pulled pork, smoked chicken, sausage, and beef brisket. With the exception of the chicken, we ordered everything, including two full racks of ribs. Then there were the sides; corn bread, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, corn, and “freedom” fries because the place would have been empty if they used the other F* word to define their fries.

David Wells and his bad back was not good for the Yankees or my appetite.

Our food began to arrive around the first pitch of Game 5 of the World Series. And by the time David Wells left the game because of a bad back, the Valhalla chapter of the Hells Angels had entered the restaurant and took seats directly behind us. But neither the intimidating presence of the Angels nor the unwelcome David Wells’ situation deterred us from devouring the variety of smoked meats placed in front of us. The ribs, though spiced a bit blandly, were cooked perfectly, and the pulled pork was a true winner as was the beef brisket. The sides were nothing more than adequate; the corn bread a bit sweet and the macaroni and cheese unmemorable. The sauces were also a disappointment; all were overly sweet for my palate and the desserts good but indistinguishable. But I guess, despite the shortcomings, ribs cooked very closely to perfection in, of all places, Westchester, is a triumph in itself. I just hope the close proximity to barbecue doesn’t make Gerry complacent and limit his excellent efforts in that very same department.

I’m not sure when Southbound Barb-B-Que closed, but Gerry assures me it’s been gone a long time and that the food, after several visits following ours, went downhill very quickly. So, according to Gerry, its demise was no loss to him. The Yankees lost the World Series a few days later; David Wells’ injury pretty much doomed them and it wasn’t until six years later when they got back to the Series.

*The F word in the fall of 2003 was “French” for French fries. This was during the ridiculous hysteria during the lead up to the Iraq invasion when the French and their anti-invasion stance was vilified by Rupert Murdoch’s minions.

And the answer is…

13 Dec

Johnny Utah’s, http://www.johnnyutahs.com,  right here in New York City where you can fill up on nachos, fajitas and ribs along with “Bull Ride” margaritas before testing your mettle on the bull. But, really, why would you want to do that?

 

Can a mechanical bull look sad and lonely?

 

 

Name That Place

10 Dec

Let’s play, Name that Place.  The first in, we hope, a continuing series.

Correctly guess the name of the establishment in the picture below and win an honorary and, best of all, free subscription to that marvelous new blog Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries.

Dinner and bull riding. What more could one want?

You want hints? Here are two

1. It’s not in Texas

2. It’s not in New Jersey

Did I make it too easy? Put your answers in the comments section below. The answer will appear here on Monday along with the names of the winners.

Have a fantastic weekend.

Across 125th Street

7 Dec

For years I would drive past the M&G Diner on 125th Street and wonder at the restaurant’s flamboyant signs “Soul Food” and “Southern Fried Chicken.” The signage looked authentically from the 1960’s and 70’s and I was curious if the food was, as another one of its signs said, “Old Fashion’, But Good!” Yet I continued to just “drive by;” never getting out of the car to check it out. When it was my turn to pick our destination in September of 2003, the time had finally come. Below is our M&G Diner experience.

M&G Diner: Circa 1974

M&G Diner
R.I.P

If it weren’t for the small poster tacked onto the entrance to the 125th St. subway station announcing an upcoming rally for “Reparations: It’s Time They Pay,” I would have thought I had just stepped onto the set of a 1970’s blaxploitation movie. There was the West African Hair Groomers just a few doors down from Showman’s Café, est. 1942 and on the corner of 125th and Morningside, the big neon “soul food” sign at the M&G Diner. Gerry and Eugene were waiting outside when I arrived. Eugene had arrived first and was marveling at the contrasts found on 125th street where in one store an NBA jacket sold for almost $800 while in another pants were selling for $1 each.

Peering into the spectacularly unadorned diner, I noticed only a few tables; this Harlem legend which I had never experienced was much smaller than I had thought. I suggested we take one of the tables before they disappeared. Rick had already bowed out of this trip due to an attack of either too much drink the night before, some tainted food, or the combination of both. That made five of us—the capacity for one of the tables at the M &G.

“What they do!…they smile in your face…”

“Back Stabbers,” by the O ‘Jays was playing when we entered. We were off to an excellent start.

It had been almost two months since our last venture and judging by Zio’s trim appearance a few minutes later, the layoff had been very good for his waistline. But we were now in a self proclaimed soul food restaurant and we couldn’t worry about our waistlines.  While we waited for Charlie, we perused the succinct menu: fried chicken (leg or breast), short ribs of beef, meat loaf, shell steak, chopped steak, chitterlings, smothered pork chops, ham hocks, fish and grits. With each dinner you were to choose two sides including soul food standards like lima beans, green beans, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, black eyed peas, and yams. Even though the options were not foreign to us, deciding what to order, as it always does, requires deep clear thinking. While looking at the menu, Eugene mentioned jokingly about ordering eggs and despite the music playing loudly from the jukebox, the lone woman behind the counter heard him and barked: “No breakfast served now!” The hand-written signs on the walls announced that the M&G was open 24 hours and that breakfast was served daily but only between 12:00 am until 1:00 pm. You obviously don’t joke about defying the one written rule of the M&G Diner.

We had given Charlie a half hour grace period and he still hadn’t arrived; it was time to begin the ordering process. The woman came from behind the counter equipped with pad in hand. She was running the show; handling all the tables, the counter service and the outgoing orders with brisk, yet good natured efficiency. Now she had moved to our table; she wanted decisive answers—waffling would not be tolerated. After each of us recited our dinner orders, she barked out “Sides?” We were ready for her with our responses and then: “Dinner roll or corn muffin?” Despite her formidable presence and our novice status at the M&G, we handled the drill reasonably well. Zio and Eugene went for the fried chicken, Gerry the smothered pork chops.

“Short ribs,” I said to her when it was my turn to order, but then the pressure got to me and my response of macaroni and cheese and collard greens came out with a slight stammer. I could tell she sensed weakness in me so, in response to the bread query, I rallied with a strong, definitive “corn muffin.”

Charlie walked in soon after we ordered with the lame excuse of being stuck in the office as an alibi for his tardiness. There was no way we were going to risk the wrath of the M&G Queen by summoning her to our table again, so we sent Charlie to the counter to put in his own order.

 

 

With nothing to munch on and the beverage choices being soda or overly sweet lemonade, all we could do while waiting for our food was listen to the Main Ingredient remind us that “Everybody Plays the Fool.” And then the M&G Queen arrived with our orders, carrying a few plates at a time without, as far as I could tell, even breaking a sweat.

The chicken had been proclaimed in our research as a highlight, and judging from what I saw and sampled, that assessment was accurate; tender and lightly pan-fried the way fried chicken was meant to be prepared as opposed to deep fried in a heavy batter. My short ribs were perfectly cooked, the meat separating cleanly from the fat and bones; the brown sauce, however, a bit thick and bland for my taste. The corn muffins were warm and not overly sweet and Gerry’s pork chops, tender and seasoned perfectly.

Despite the gargantuan portions, almost all of us were willing to sample the cakes and pies for dessert. I was the lone dissenter instead choosing an extra fork in which to pick at all the others. I tried a bit of Zio’s coconut cake, a bit more of Gerry’s sweet potato pie and almost all of Charlie’s chocolate cake and immediately regretted my decision in not ordering a slice of cake for myself. So impressed were we by the desserts, we asked if they were made at the diner. The M&G Queen said no and held out for a minute in revealing where they were from. Without too much coaxing, she gave in and, finally, offering us a smile as well, said they came from the H&H Bakery in Brooklyn as if that meant anything to any of us.

Our tab came in well under the $20 limit and as we were leaving, I heard O.V. Wright on the jukebox moaning something about “A Nickel and a Nail.”  We went our separate ways at 125th St, and as I walked toward the subway,  I noticed that the velvet rope was already out in front of Showman’s Café.

 

 

The M&G closed in 2008. A new condo tower had been proposed to be built on the corner where it was located. That project fell through; a casualty of the recession, but the damage was done. M&G was gone and I guess it gave an already struggling business an early out. It’s not easy for something “old fashion’ But Good” to compete with “DD,” “BK,’ “MickeyDs” and the other fast food joints that are now, unfortunately a permanent part of the 125th Street landscape.

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