Archive | November, 2012

Santa’s Got Soul (Courtesy of Picasso)

30 Nov

Harlem’s Picasso that is.

Harlem's Picasso

The master himself putting the finishing touches on his seasonal creation.

Harlem Picasso

And below, a few glimpses of the Christmas collection at Jacob Restaurant.

Jacob Restaurant

Jacob Restaurant

The artist's signature confirms the work's authenticity.

Note the artist’s signature confirming the work’s authenticity.

So there is really no need to brave the midtown crowds for a peek at the windows of Sak’s or Lord & Taylor’s when you can come uptown to Harlem and not only admire Picasso’s work, but eat real good too.

On Pizza, Pomodoros, Putin, and Putinka

27 Nov

I’m a purist in many ways. With few exceptions, I don’t like fusion—unless I’m creating the fusion. When given the choice, as I always am, tap water works for me at a restaurant. I scoff at all the sauces presented to compliment a broiled or grilled piece of prime meat that should need no compliment.  I don’t buy flavored seltzers. If I want lemon or lime, I can easily add my own to plain seltzer.

And the same can be said for vodka. Who needs cranberry flavored seltzer when a splash of cranberry juice will suffice? That is, unless I’m in the outstanding Russian Samovar, sitting at the bar and trying to decide which of their house made infused vodkas I should order. Maybe start with a shot of ginger followed by the coriander? See, there are exceptions. I’m not totally unmovable on this.

The Russian Samovar Collection

The state of today’s pizza, I’m afraid, has been a serious blow to my purist sensibilities. You enter a pizzeria now and the cold, congealed varieties presented under Plexiglas counters are staggering. The pies are covered with everything from broccoli to kale, from barbecued shrimp to Buffalo chicken strips.

I like my pizza with tomato sauce and mozzarella; preferably more of the former and lighter on the latter. I have been known to throw on some anchovies to improve a mediocre pie. Beyond that, I have no interest in sausage, pepperoni, meatball, mushrooms or any of the usual toppings.

Adding to the ever-growing assortment of pizzas is pizza with “vodka” sauce—the spin on penne a la vodka. I know pizza with vodka sauce is not a new phenomenon. I guess I just put it out of my mind,  desperately trying to deny its existence despite it’s increasing popularity.

I’ve made penne a la vodka myself. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of. I use cheap, local canned tomatoes. Who cares about the quality of the tomatoes if I’m adding cream to it—and vodka? And when I go into my vodka stash just to have it fuse with the sorry canned tomatoes and cream I cringe. It’s one thing to waste a few splashes of red wine in a sauce, it’s quite another to use some of the precious Russian clear stuff.

Well, not always Russian. Sometimes it might be Swedish, Danish, or even from some place in Texas.

Penne a la vodka is an amiable and infrequent diversion. It’s like the undercard of a heavyweight bout; the opening act for standouts like Neck Bones Tomato Sauce  or  Neck Bones Anchovy Sauce, pesto, or the perennial champ: marinara sauce.

So why would I ever be interested in the undercard of a topping for pizza? I wouldn’t. Or I thought I wouldn’t until recently. The lure was drawing me in. Was I missing something here? And how could I comment on something I’d never experienced?

The sign said it all: “Home of the famous vodka sauce.” There was even a banner flapping in the wind above Spring Street advertising “vodka pizza.” The place was called Pomodoro and apparently vodka sauce was their trademark. If I were ever going to experience a slice of pizza with vodka sauce, I would guess this would be the place.

I surveyed the countless array of already made pies under the Plexiglas counter for the vodka pie, but my eyes, inexperienced at least regarding vodka pizza, could not identify one.

I asked the man behind the counter for a slice of vodka. He took out a pie that looked like any other “regular” pie and cut out a slice which he threw into the oven to heat. A few moments later it was presented to me.

Vodka slice from Pomodoro

My normal reflex whenever eating a slice of pizza is to grab for the red pepper flakes and sprinkle generously over the slice. I did the same here not knowing that the vodka pizza was already spicy.

The slice was coated with chunks of very good, albeit spicy, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella while the only negative was that the crust was a little on the thick side for my taste. It was a more than commendable slice. Still, I was puzzled. I admit to being a vodka pizza virgin, but was this what a slice of vodka pizza tasted like? It didn’t taste anything like my penne a la vodka. Where was the vodka in the vodka slice?

So they called it something other than what it really was. It didn’t matter. I liked the pizza and brought a few slices home to give it another shot. This time I thought maybe, instead of beer, my usual accompaniment to pizza, I would accompany the vodka slice with vodka.

For the occasion I had a Russian named Putinka in my refrigerator. An apparent tribute to Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the Putinka also billed itself as “soft,” vodka, whatever that meant. Was soft vodka the equivalent to light beer? I hoped not. And really, would the former Lieutenant Colonel of the KGB want a vodka named after him that was billed as “soft?”

Soft vodka

Either way, I reheated the vodka slice and poured a shot of Putinka over ice. I sipped and then took a bite. The vodka, soft or not, gave me the familiar and comforting burn that, I discovered, paired brilliantly with the so-called vodka pizza.

I finished the vodka and the pizza a bit too quickly and then realized something that should have been obvious to me—something that conformed to my purist sensibilities. There was no need to search out a pre-made vodka sauce pizza where, most likely, the vodka sauce wouldn’t be up to your own standards. Just like adding your own flavor to your pure vodka, you could do the same with this pizza. All you needed was a warm slice of pizza and a cold Russian in the refrigerator.

Pomodoro
51 Spring Street
NYC

Cuban Chuletas in a Casa in Chelsea

20 Nov

Rick’s choice of a Venezuelan place in Chelsea quickly raised some eyebrows amongst our group when we were notified. A few months earlier, we traipsed to Inwood for Venezuelan cachapas on Dyckman Street Stalking Corn on Dyckman Street.  It wasn’t only the relatively quick repeat of a cuisine that was odd, it was also the location. Chelsea, in its present incarnation, is not a neighborhood where we would think to find our kind of restaurant; meaning one suited more for our penny pinching tastes.

Still, we gave Rick the benefit of the doubt and to El Cocotero we all planned to meet. But a couple of hours before our meeting time, Rick sent an email that read as follows:  “Guys. Just got a call from the wife and we have to go to the hospital! It may be a false alarm, but please go enjoy Venezuelan food without me.”

The false alarm was a reference to the impending birth of his first child; the due date set for early December. We all wished the best for Rick, but his pronouncement was just too sudden and late in the day to stop us from heading to Chelsea.

Before anyone else had arrived at El Cocotero, Zio had scouted it out. “It’s so dark in there, you won’t be able to find your mouth with your fork,” he wrote in a text.

You couldn’t tell that power had been restored weeks ago in Chelsea judging by the lack of light in El Cocotero.

When I entered, I immediately thought Zio was exaggerating. It was dim, for sure, but the flickering candlelight wouldn’t stop me from stuffing my face. Reading the menu, however, was a more challenging issue. Without my reading glasses, the menu print seemed as insurmountable as trying to read a Russian novel without a magnifying glass.    Thankfully, Eugene’s eyes were stronger than mine and he informed all of us that the cachapas were ten dollars—almost $4 more than what we paid at Cachapas y Mas on Dyckman Street.

To make matters worse, the table we were given was so cramped that there was the very frightening prospect of rubbing thighs with Mike from Yonkers while trying to get the food from fork to mouth.

“This is a date place,” Eugene blurted out.

Indeed it was, and Mike from Yonkers was not my date. Since Rick was not going to be joining us, there was no reason to endure eating at a romantic restaurant with the likes of Eugene, Gerry, Mike from Yonkers and Zio—and I’m sure the feeling was mutual.

Our group slunk out of El Cocotero, lamely apologizing to the manager as we exited.

The prospects of finding something Chow City like in Chelsea, we knew, were not good, but we had to try. I knew of a nearby Szechuan place that I liked, though it was probably as expensive as the Venezuelan we just left.

And then I remembered passing a Cuban diner on 8th Avenue on my way to El Cocotero that looked like something closer to our criteria. I mentioned it and our ensemble headed in that direction.

In front of Casa Havana was a placard advertising Thanksgiving dinner for $10.95 and another displaying a glistening suckling pig for $12.95. Eugene didn’t have to see anymore to be convinced. He was halfway to a table when Gerry, still out on the street, whined that he had eaten Cuban food the previous day.

We looked at him. You could never tell whether Gerry was joking or serious.

“Really, I did—in Montclair,” he said.

We all hesitated. Eugene came back out of the restaurant. “What now?” he barked.

This was becoming a fiasco and Gerry knew it.

“All right, let’s just go here,” he gamely conceded.

While our Mexican waitress brought the Cuban menus to our ample table, Dominican meringue played over the restaurant’s loudspeakers. Glancing at it, I noticed that the prices were lower than what we would have experienced at the Venezuelan place around the corner, but more than we would have paid for similar food uptown.

There was nothing out of the ordinary on the menu; rice and beans, fried pork, fried fish, roast pork, shrimp in garlic sauce, beef stew, etc.

“Do you have the turkey?” Eugene asked our waitress, referring to what was advertised outside the restaurant.

She shook her head. “No, we just have that for that other day,” she said, meaning Thanksgiving.

Instead, he settled on shrimp criolla while Zio, keeping to his fishy pattern whenever we gather,  ordered the “lubina frita,” fried bass.

After his Cuban meal in Montclair, Gerry eschewed the entrees and instead chose a Cuban sandwich with a small bowl of black bean soup. Mike from Yonkers was rebuffed by his first choice of fried snapper and had to go to plan B: the baked chicken. I decided on the “chuletas,” (pork chops) in red sauce with yellow rice and black beans.

While we waited for the platters to decorate our table, all of us except Zio, who sipped a mango “batido,” had $5 Mexican beers.

Embargo beer options at a Cuban Restaurant.

The food came and we plowed through it without many exclamations. No one complained. No one praised. The chuletas were skimpily thin and swimming in a non-descript tomato sauce that benefited greatly by a large dousing of the house hot sauce.

Shrimp Criolla, yellow rice and black beans

Because the food did not inspire discussion, we had no choice but to listen to Eugene describe the annual Christmas party he attends—the one with the Viennese dessert buffet—as well as the many meals he eats at the all-inclusive resort he frequents in the Dominican Republic.

Who knew Shakespeare vacationed in old Havana?

Gluttons for punishment, to name just one of the things we are gluttons for, we could have just called it a night in Chelsea. Instead, hoping we would find something to praise, we all had dessert. Sadly, even the desserts; coconut pudding, coconut cake, tres leches cake, and chocolate cake, did not surpass uptown standards.

And, as he suspected it would be, Rick informed all of us that indeed the trip to the hospital was a false alarm. If only we could have said the same thing about our trip to Chelsea.

And the Answer is…

19 Nov

On Friday I posted the photo below and challenged you to Name That Place.

I thought it was a “gift” to all of you, it would be that easy to identify. But maybe we all aren’t up on our city history as we should be. No one was able to identify the place in question. No one knew that the “gift” had to do with the history of the place.

There just aren’t that many saloons in this town anymore where a starving writer can create in a “nurturing atmosphere.”

It seems Ludwig Bemelman did a lot of writing in saloons. He has a bar named after him about sixty blocks north in the Carlyle Hotel, while  back on 18th Street, O’ Henry got his own “Way.”

 

Name That Place

16 Nov

After a difficult couple of weeks here in New York, I thought another entry of that  semi-regular game, Name That Place, played here on Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries might lighten the mood.

The photo below should immediately set off whatever bells, whistles or sparks within the cognitive memories of all you dedicated, cocktail-loving gentleman, and ladies too, who call New York home.

This one is so easy, I would be insulting you if I added another photo or offered more hints. Take it as a post-Hurricane, pre-Thanksgiving gift to all my followers. I am always grateful for your support.

As always, reply with your answers in the comments section here. The name of the place will be revealed on Monday.

Injera Ingestion

14 Nov

“In all our time as a group, how have we missed eating at an Ethiopian place?” I asked Gerry, who was with me at an Ethiopian place in Harlem called Abyssinia.

“Too expensive usually,” Gerry responded, referring to our group’s tight $20 per person budget.

I looked at Abyssinia’s menu. Nothing was over $16. “Not here,” I said.

“No, definitely not here,” Gerry concurred.

It was a day after a nor’easter left a few inches of wet snow on the already soggy city streets and a little over a week after the big storm. Our group was scheduled to meet the previous day, but we were currently on hurricane hiatus. Though the group could not gather, Gerry decided to leave his still heatless Westchester home where he claimed there were no lines for gas, to drive into the city for what he hoped would be much needed spicy food.

His hopes were quickly realized. Not only was the small restaurant deliciously fragrant, it had heat—lots of it. And adding to the warmth from the clanking radiators was the heat from the meat “sambusas” brought to us by our pleasantly quiet waiter.

Similar to the Indian “samosa,” the sambusa was fiery and though berbere sauce, Ethiopian hot sauce,  accompanied it, the added spice was not needed.

Sambusas with Ethiopian hot sauce.

To get a good sampling of the meats, we ordered the “meat combo,” featuring three meat options along with a separate order of yebeg awaze tibs, cubes of lamb sautéed with onions and jalapeno in an awaze (berbere) sauce.

The meats came assembled on a colorful platter with each individual meat dish in a small mound along with a few vegetable sides and layered on top of the spongy Ethiopian bread known as injera.

The Abyssinia meat combo platter.

Along with the platter, we were given an additional plate of injera. There were no forks, spoons or knives on the table. With bread like this, who needed utensils? We scooped up the meat and veggies with the accompanying injera and shoved it into our mouths, doing our best not to let anything fall our already food-stained clothes.

These meats were not on the day’s menu at Abyssinia.

The doro wat, a chicken leg in a rich berbere sauce was tender, falling off the bone, the sauce identical to what coated the beef in the ye siga wat. The lamb, though not as tender as the beef or chicken, was aromatically addictive. Soon our “utensils” were gone and our waiter returned with another fresh plate of the injera for us.

We went through that plate as well and still much of the meat remained. We were not ones to waste anything, but we just could not continue. It was as if the injera had expanded in our gullets.

We ate all the “utensils.”

The waiter came to our table. He smiled slyly and examined what was left and then shook his head. “This is the best part,” he said, indicating the injera that the meats were layered and now saturated with their juices.

What was left did look delicious, but regrettably, any attempt to taste it might have resulted in a not very pleasant finale to what had been a much needed most comforting, post-hurricane meal.

As he took away the platter, I stared at it longingly. We both knew we erred, but if you do not learn from your mistakes, you are destined to repeat them…or something like that.  It would not happen again.

Abyssinia Restaurant
268 W. 135th
Harlem

A Pair of Pepper Sauces

12 Nov

I heard tell there was a big wind coming our way. A super storm they were calling it. The terrace had to be cleared of potentially dangerous projectiles. The few herbs that remained were not a threat, but the never ending procession of hot peppers that were still going strong in late October had to be “terminated with extreme prejudice.”

In May I planted two types of hot peppers I bought in the Arthur Avenue Retail market in the Bronx including one I’ve grown before called “Portugal Hots,” a long thin pepper similar to the cayenne. The other was labeled an “Italian chili pepper.” I wasn’t sure what an “Italian chili pepper” was but hoped that it was similar to what was sold in the same retail market in the fall; bunches of slender, one-inch long red, fiery chilies still attached to their stalks. I was assured by the salesperson that it was.

Portugal Hots

In the abnormally warm spring and hot summer, the plants grew fast and when the first fruits began to appear, I was surprised by what I saw on the so-called Italian chili pepper plant. The peppers were growing upright and looked something like jalapeno peppers. Once they were green and fully formed, they were definitely not the Italian red chili peppers I had hoped for.

I scoured the internet to find a match to what I was growing. What I discovered was that the peppers were called “Fresno” and, according to my research, similar to a jalapeno. I was disappointed. I didn’t want a jalapeno or anything “similar.” The plants were healthy and the numbers of peppers on them countless. When the first pepper turned red, I tried it. It had very little heat adding to my disappointment.

A few weeks later, as more turned red, I cut up another. This time I was blasted by heat. And as the summer wore on and the peppers matured further, their fire became explosive—much hotter than a jalapeno, Serrano, and spicier than the Portugal hots that were growing next to them. I had some serious hotties on my hand. If the Scoville scale that is my tongue was any indication, these Fresnos were just a notch behind the habanero in heat quotient.

Fresno peppers

As both the Portugal hots and the Fresnos prospered throughout the summer and into early fall, I bagged bunches and put them in the freezer where they would last a year. Frozen, I use them in stews, sauces and anything else that required a blast of spice. I had more than enough already to last a year so I gave bags away to others who, like me, get masochistic enjoyment when the inside of their mouths are blistered.

Still, many peppers kept coming as summer faded and though some were still green, a super storm was on its way and I had no alternative but to harvest what remained.

As any self respecting citizen should, I have several bottles of hot pepper sauce in my refrigerator ranging from mild to hiccup-inducing hot.  Is there such a thing as having too much hot sauce? I didn’t think so. So inspired by a fellow bloggers at website caled Putney Farm who had a similar dilemma and turned that profusion of peppers into a homemade pepper sauce, I thought I would try it as well. But because I had two different types of peppers, I decided to make two different pepper sauces.

As I do with many recipes, I cull the internet and usually mix and match from a variety I like and try to come up with something my own.  The first, using the Portugal hots, was to be a “fermented” pepper sauce or one I would have steep in a brine for several days before actually pureeing into a sauce.

Since I just used what I had of peppers, the quantities of the ingredients I pretty much played by ear. For the fermented hot pepper sauce, I had enough of the Portugal hots, (green stems removed) to fill up a pint jar.

To the jar I added three peeled whole garlic cloves and two teaspoons of sea salt.

I then filled the jar with water and made sure the peppers and the garlic were submerged before tightening the lid of the jar.

Once the jar was sealed, I placed it in the back of a dark cabinet and let it ferment for about 10 days. You can ferment, from what I gathered, for as little as a few days up to two weeks. I was in no rush.

After ten days, I opened the jar and drained off the water (now a brine), saving it to add back into the sauce. I put the garlic and the peppers into a blender and added back half of the brine along with an equal amount of white vinegar.  Depending on how you like your hot sauce; chunky or smooth, is how long you puree. I wanted mine closer to smooth than chunky so I pureed long enough to get that consistency.

After pureeing, I poured the hot sauce back into the pint jar, sealed it, and put it in the refrigerator. The sauce will last a year—or until you are ready to make another batch next year.

Portugal Hot pepper sauce pureed smooth.

The recipe for the Fresno hot sauce was pretty much identical to what my friends at Putney Farms laid out in their blog post Homemade Hot Sauce. In theirs, they used Serrano peppers. The Fresnos I grew, as I said, were hotter than Serranos, but I didn’t think that would necessitate a change in the recipe.

Their recipe called for 8 ounces of peppers. I had more and adjusted accordingly. Not using rubber gloves, I sliced all the Fresno peppers, but made sure I kept my hands away from my eyes, nose, and private parts until I could sufficiently wash them.

Along with the peppers I sliced one large white onion and minced two garlic cloves.

To a medium saucepan, I put a tablespoon of olive oil. And then, on medium heat, added the peppers, onions and garlic. The recipe at Putney Farms warns of the fiery vapors that will be unleashed from the sautéing of the peppers. It was in the forties outside, yet I opened the windows, turned on the ceiling fan, and commenced the sautéing. For extra protection I wore a surgical mask. After a few minutes, however, I removed it. The vapors were helping to clear congestion in my chest. Just another one of the magical benefits of the revered and cherished capsicum.

After sautéing for about five minutes, I added two cups of water and two tablespoons of brown Demerara sugar.  I cooked all for about twenty minutes or until most of the water was evaporated.

Once the mix of peppers, onions and garlic cooled to room temperature, I added a cup of cider vinegar and pureed in a blender.

I poured the puree through a fine mesh sieve until only the thick skins and seeds still remained and what passed through was a smooth, creamy, pinkish mixture.

Now I had two hot sauces. I tried them both.

The Portugal hot fermented sauce had a mild pepper kick. The Portugal hots, I’ve found, can be inconsistent in terms of heat. Some are very hot while there might be a few that have barely a trace of fire. Knowing that, I still like them for their intensely sweet pepper flavor that when combined with the heat makes a unique taste. The sauce, however, though with a slight, vinegary tang, was overpowered by garlic. I would definitely limit the garlic if I decided to make the sauce again. Still, I looked forward to sprinkling a generous amount over roast chicken with yellow rice and beans.

Portual hots hot sauce

The Fresno pepper sauce on the other hand was everything I wanted. Just a few drops would suffice on any dish, it was that hot. There was also a sweetness from the inclusion of brown sugar and cider vinegar that added to the flavor. If anything, I would cut down on the sugar a bit next time.

Fresno hot sauce

 

Today’s Special

7 Nov

 

So good, it’s worth having twice.

 

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