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Two Grinches and a Scrooge Get Happy with Hunan

27 Dec

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“You know what I look forward to most about the holidays,” I said. “January 3rd. Kids are back at school. And best of all, you start seeing dead Christmas trees on the street signaling the end of the holiday nightmare.”

“Yeah I love seeing that too,” Gerry said with glee. “$75 for a tree. Talk about a waste?”

“Happy f…ing New Year,” Zio spat. “What the f..k is there to be happy about. The world is ending for Christ’s sake!”

Zio, Gerry and I were huddled around a table near the door of Happy Hot Hunan, a restaurant the three of us decided to sample while the official food group took a December hiatus. And though there was a distinct draft coming from the front door, the sight of big bowls of food adorned with chili peppers gave us a warming sensation. We were the only non-Asians in the upper west side restaurant which was also reassuring.

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After more griping about the holidays, we settled down to order from the impressively Hunan menu. There were frogs legs, plenty of intestines, tripe, pork feet, drunk chicken, smoked pork and even a General Tso’s sighting. Really, we had nothing to complain about.

“Should I get the hot and spicy pork belly or the hot and spicy pork intestine,” Gerry debated.

“If you ask me, I’d get the pork belly,” I offered.

“I’m not asking you,” he replied, Grinch-like, and ordered pork intestines, also known to Gerry, as chitterlings or chitlins.

“Pork intestines?” The waiter looked at Gerry questionably. “You want that?”

“I want that,” he said, tossing back his menu.

“Most don’t,” the waiter said with a smile, impressed that someone of Gerry’s ethnic origins would take on the challenge that is Hunan pork intestines.

Zio wanted ribs and pointed to a plate a lone diner was devouring at a table near ours. “Are those the spicy pork ribs with hot green pepper?”

The waiter shook his head. “They sweet and sour ribs. You want spicy pork ribs?”

“That’s what I want,” Zio said and the waiter scribbled down his order.

I figured I would order one of the “hot chili dishes” that, in this Hunan restaurant meant a meat or fish in what was described as a “hot creamy chili sauce.” I was intrigued by the idea of hot creamy chili so I veered from pork and chose the fish. Closing out our order we added a vegetable, stir fried Hunan mustard leaf, “to keep us regular,” as Zio made sure to point out.

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Hot creamy chili fish without the cream

First to arrive on our table was the fish. The chili sauce looked like any other Szechuan chili sauce; a deep red broth, dusted with dried red peppers and showered with fresh cilantro. I noticed no cream, however, and after sampling it there was a noticeable, silken, to use a tired food adjective, quality to the sauce. Creamy or not, the three of us were in agreement that the fish was properly lip numbing to meet our Hunan and/or Szechuan specifications.

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Pork ribs with hot green pepper

Zio stared at his pork ribs when they were placed in front of him. “Hmmm they chopped them up,” he said with a bit of disappointment in his voice. The ribs were cut into inch-size pieces that you could only eat one or two at a time, careful not to swallow one whole. But the meat on them was tender and coated with a cumin-heavy, 5-spice sauce that was good enough to forget about the effort it took to eat them.

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Hot and spicy pork intenstines

After gnawing through the donut like spheres of pork intestine, Gerry said, “I should have ordered the pork belly.” I sampled one and though the flavor was very good, my teeth were just not sharp enough to break through the rubbery consistency of the intestine. But Gerry’s teeth, sharpened by many battles with tough squid, ate the pork intestines happily.

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Stir fried mustard leaf

While we ate, all the upcoming holiday madness was forgotten—at least for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until we were bombarded on the sidewalk after dinner with a Christmas carol coming from the open window of a double-parked car and a dollar store selling plastic green and red garlands and cheap chemically unsafe artificial trees that we were quickly reminded of the season.

“See you next year,” Gerry said to us as we parted ways.

“I can’t f..king wait,” Zio grumbled as we walked away from the happiness that was Happy Hot Hunan.

Happy Hot Hunan

969 Amsterdam Avenue

New York

Dining on Diversity Plaza on the Dawn of a Dark Age

22 Nov

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“Did you know this was once a porno palace,” Zio told us, gesturing to a marquee that now headlined Ittadi Garden and Grill, the Bangladeshi restaurant he chose for us on this occasion. We were assembled around a small picnic table on 37th Road, a block closed to traffic between 74th and 73rd Streets in Jackson Heights that is now a place where tables and chairs are set up and locals can sit and chat in a car-free zone.  How Zio knew of such things we didn’t ask.

“I miss those porno palaces,” I said.

“I don’t.” Gerry shook his head. “It’s much better now. You can get your porno right at home.”

“But what about the people who used to work at those places?” Eugene questioned. “The ticket takers, the people who cleaned up, the projectionist. Now they don’t have jobs.”

“Yeah, someone should do something about that,” I said. “We need to make porno great again.”

While we were discussing the golden years of pornography, a man in a red jumpsuit (courtesy of the Jackson Heights/Corona Business Improvement District) came and folded up our table—37th Road was apparently closing for the evening, at least in terms of the outdoor café it had been. Still, men in traditional, Indian and Pakistani clothing along with many wearing jackets and ties, lingered, smoking cigarettes and sipping tea, standing now instead of sitting. Bengali, Arabic, and Hindi blared from the nearby stores. No wonder the block was also referred to as “Diversity Plaza.”

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Diversity Plaza

The removal of our table was a signal that we should stop lingering and start eating, so we made our way into Ittadi Garden, down a narrow aisle and past a long counter of prepared foods behind glass and kept warm on steam tables. A man with a very wide smile and wearing a hair net guided us to a table. “What do we do here,” Eugene asked Zio. He wanted to know if we ordered from a menu or chose from the offerings under glass on the steam tables.

Zio, assuming the heavy burden that comes with making a pick for our group, got up to inquire about the ordering procedures. He returned a few minutes later with our host with the hair net. We were to follow him and point to what we wanted under glass and then our food would be brought to us. The offerings were staggering and we had no idea what most of what was in those steam trays. I had my eye a mound of rice with pieces of goat meat and whole hard boiled eggs labeled goat biryani, but then, like Zio and Eugene, pointed to the restaurant’s combo of rohu, a carp, that was sliced and cooked with squash and spices. With the combo we chose a vegetable—spinach, mixed vegetables and sauteed papaya. We also added two orders of garlic nan. Gerry was the only one among us who deviated from the fish, instead ordering what looked like mash of shrimp in their shells in a peppery stew of unidentifiable greens.

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A few of the unidentifiable foods under glass

We returned to our seats and almost immediately our food, delivered on paper plates and with plastic utensils, began to arrive at our table. With our orders there were two mountains of white rice and a bowl of lentil soup we were supposed to share among the four of us. Our table was so crowded we had to put one of the platters of rice and the bread on the bench next to where I was sitting.

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Rohu fish and plastic utensils

Our host with the hair net returned, smiling broadly and inquiring if everything was all right. “Do you want more bread? More rice? Soup?”

We decided on another bowl of soup and with it he brought a salad of iceberg lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, and topped with tiny green chili peppers. Using the plastic fork to put some of the salad on my plate, I made the mistake of also letting one of those peppers camouflage itself within the greens and eventually into my mouth. The burn was intense and water wasn’t helping to put out the fire. I began to shove rice into my mouth and then another piece of bread before the paid subsided.

“Pass me a slice of that pizza before you eat it all,” Zio grumbled.

“It’s nan,” Gerry corrected him.

“Indian pizza. Give it here.” Zio’s small hands reached for it greedily.

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Bangladeshi papaya

Once our table became strewed with the remnants of our meal; pieces of rice, salad, yellow papaya, and spinach, we followed the host with the hair net to the dessert section of the restaurant and picked out a few “sweets” including two pieces of syrup soaked gulab jamun; the others were tasty but unidentifiable to our not so diverse minds.

When we emerged from the former porno palace, Diversity Plaza was quieter. Despite the holiday lights, the Plaza seemed dark. There was a super moon up there somewhere. We just didn’t see it.

Ittadi Garden and Grill

737 37th Road

Jackson Heights

The Third Wonder of Woodside Avenue

24 May

 

DSC00548.JPGLittle did we know when we first visited Woodside Avenue in the fall of 2015 and the Filipino karaoke joint, Papa’s Kitchen (Papa’s Karaoke in the Kitchen Blues) that we would return again to this now fabled food boulevard two more times within the same year. We had no idea that there were three food wonders—all within a two and a half block radius—on Woodside Avenue in our food group’ mecca: Queens. I should have picked up on the hint in Zio’s email after I announced Renacer Bolivian (A Beef Rebirth at a Bolivian Restaurant in Queens) as our last destination: “That was gonna be my pick,” he wrote. “I saw it just before we were accosted by the karaoke queen. I guess I’ll go with the Bhutanese place.”

“Bhutanese?” I wasn’t paying attention until we filed out of Renacer and he pointed to the restaurant on the corner. “That place,” he said.

And a month later we were seated in Bhutanese Ema Datsi,  the restaurant on the corner a few doors down from Renacer Bolivian and across the street from Papa’s Kitchen. The restaurant was deserted and the limited decor featured panoramic posters of villages tucked into Himalayan mountain tops.  The menu was separated into three cuisines: Tibetan, Bhutanese, and Indian. Why go to a Bhutanese restaurant and order Indian food? None of us did. In fact, only Mike from Yonkers veered from the intriguing Bhutanese column on the menu when he ordered the Tibetan beef with oyster mushrooms.

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A Bhutanese retreat

We were without Eugene this evening meaning, because of his bizarre aversion to fungi, we were without guilt  in ordering dishes with a plethora of mushrooms.   Not that it would have stopped Mike from Yonkers—or Gerry for that matter—from indulging in the options on the Bhutanese menu. Gerry’s mushroom selection was the specialty of the restaurant, the ema datsi with mushrooms; a stew of vegetables along with the mushrooms and very hot green chilies combined in a mild gooey cheese sauce that was nothing like what you would get on a Philly cheese steak sandwich.

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“Dry” pepper chicken

Before ordering our entrees, however, we got started with two appetizers: the “pepper chicken dry,” a fiery plate of stir fried boneless chicken and peppers, and the sooji deep fried pomfret (fish).

“What’s a pomfret?” Zio inquired of our gracious, yet soft spoken to the extreme, waiter. Could it be that he was fresh off a vow of silence stint at a Buddhist monk training camp? No one knew for sure, but the words he mouthed after Zio’s question were inaudible to all of our aged ears. When the pomfret arrived looking like slightly upscale fish sticks we quickly sampled. One taste and all of us agreed that the pomfret  tasted suspiciously like tilapia—as if tilapia has any taste at all. Thankfully the fish was served with a house made chili sauce which gave it much needed flavor.

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Bhutanese fish sticks

 

Zio and I choose “dry” items on the menu. He went with the dry pork and I tried the dried beef curry “moapa” style. Zio’s appeared first; slices of dried fatty pork belly in a stew of thinly sliced potatoes. “No these aren’t potatoes,” Zio proclaimed after taking a bite. I sampled one. “It’s a radish, ” I told him

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Dried pork

The potato like chunks in my dried beef stew were indeed potatoes but the stew was devoid of the familiar flavor of curry. Not that it mattered; the dish was hearty and fiery enough to sustain a man on a frigid night in the Himalayas. I wondered why the waiter deposited toothpicks on our table along with our platters until I began picking pieces of the dried beef out of my teeth.

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Dry beef stew “moapa” style

Lastly, small bowls of from what I thought the waiter whispered was “seaweed soup” were given to all of us. I took a sip. I had heard correctly. Zio, however, heard nothing.

“I’m not sure if I’m supposed to clean my hands with what is in this bowl or eat it?”

Where do they get seaweed in Bhutan, I wondered aloud. No one answered. No one cared. Sometimes we need to put our heads down and just eat.

After cleaning our platters, our check arrived. We thought we might be helpless without Eugene present to tally up the damage. But there was no damage. We were well below our $20 per person allotment. And for all the very satisfying food we ate, that was a wonder in itself.

Bhutanese Ema Datsi

67-21 Woodside Ave

Queens

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Neckbones’ Calcutta Christmas Carol

23 Dec

Calcutta Wrap & Roll

Gerry, when he announced his pick, called the location we were to visit the “childhood home of our fearless leader.” The fearless leader he was referring to was me and I wasn’t so fearless in anticipation of driving out of the city at rush hour during the Christmas gridlock alert days but it was something I expected knowing Gerry’s sadistic tendencies. So when I knew I would be traveling to Ardsley, normally less than a half hour drive from my city home, and knowing there would be holiday traffic, I gave myself about an hour and a half to get there. I had the pleasure of Zio’s company for the ride out. Our destination was a joint called Calcutta Wrap & Roll, in the small town plaza surrounded on either side by the Saw Mill River Parkway and the Major Deegan Expressway.

Ardsley was my home in the middle years of the last century. In the Leave it to Beaver days of my youth, like the television in our living room, Ardsley was a black and white town, minus the black—or any other color.  I explained all this to the Bronx born Zio as we arrived about a half hour early narrowly escaping the hellish transverses out of Manhattan.

That front entrance looks very familiar.

That front entrance looks very familiar.

Since we had extra time, I took Zio past the modest suburban home where I spent my early school years. I noticed there was a Santa Claus with eight tiny reindeer on the roof of the house. All those years anxiously tossing and turning on Christmas Eve on the top bunk of the bunk bed in the room I shared with one of my brothers hoping to hear Santa on our roof, I never did. On this night when I planned to feast on Indian food there he was. And I no longer cared.

I showed Zio the route I would take with neighborhood friends from my house to the very small main street where we would plunder bubble gum dispensers not for money, but for the tasteless balls of bubble gum. I pointed out the small store that was called Big Top where I bought my baseball cards, comic books and my first 45 records, including the one below. Big Top was now a bagel shop.

Across the street from the bagel shop was a Mexican restaurant, a Thai place and Calcutta Wrap & Roll. Even the mention of such exotic cuisines when I lived in this town would have been incomprehensible. Exotic to me when Ardsley was my home was a soft serve chocolate ice cream cone at that local Carvel that was topped with chocolate sauce that hardened over the ice cream called a “brown bonnet.”  The Carvel was still there, though now sharing the space with a Subway sandwich shop. It looked nothing like the grand ice cream parlor I remembered.

Hunger thankfully ended my tour down memory lane and soon our group was seated in Calcutta Wrap & Roll deciding whether to go for the mysore masala dosa “hot!” exclaimed the menu, or the Calcutta lamb roll “house special” of which there were many on the menu. We decided on the latter, much to Zio’s disappointment. For reasons never explained, he had his heart set on that baseball bat-like dosa.

Along with the lamb roll, we ordered the Calcutta vegetable chop—also one of the house specials. The vegetable chop, a sphere of fried potato reminiscent to a extra large tater tot  but with Indian accents.

Vegetable Chop

Vegetable Chop

For my entrée, I chose “Dr. B’s chicken chutpata “hot!” the menu exclaimed but without a mention of who “Dr. B” might be. Eugene stuck to the traditional, though not for Ardsley circa 1964, chicken biryani while Zio wanted his Indian rice with goat meat.  Mike from Yonkers, who had to eat at an unusually, for him, rapid pace due to an appointment he needed to get to, chose the malai kofta, mentioned as “Piyali’s Choice,” again without a hint as to who Piyali was. This offering was garnered a “chef’s special” as opposed to the more mundane house special. Gerry rounded out the ordering by picking the Goan fish curry, which though “hot” was nobody’s special.

“Tilapia or salmon,” the waiter asked, giving Gerry a choice.

Gerry chose the tilapia and soon our food, dished out in plastic take out containers and served on cafeteria trays was in front of us.

Goat Biryani

Goat Biryani

Though the two starters, the lamb roll and the vegetable chop were pedestrian, the entrees were a cut above standard Indian take-out.  Coated in a blood red, “special hot sauce,” Dr. B’s chicken chatpata was the Punjabi equivalent of Buffalo chicken wings. All I needed was a beer and either a blue cheese sauce or at least an order or raita to offset the hot sauce. I had neither.

Dr. B's Chicken Chatpata

Dr. B’s Chicken Chatpata

Gerry’s fish curry was lip numbing and even the biryanis had a bite to them, while “Piyali’s choice,” the malai kofta; paneer with vegetable dumplings in a yellowish-cream sauce would have put out any fire it was that mild.

Piyali's Choice: Malai Kofta

Piyali’s Choice

For what was very good take-out Indian food, the prices were not very Calcutta-like. But we were in Westchester—Ardsley to be exact and real estate doesn’t come cheap in these parts no matter the ethnicity.  As we headed back to the city there remained a tingle on my lips from the heat of the countless chilies consumed and that was a good thing.  My only regret was that we didn’t stop at Carvel for a brown bonnet to help put out the fire…and for old times sake.

The brown bonnet

The brown bonnet

Curry Exotica

2 Jan

Amarin Cafe

“Why did you pick this place,” I asked Eugene as we warmed up inside Amarin Café, the “modern” Thai restaurant he chose that was surrounded by Polish restaurants in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

“Because  we haven’t had Thai in a while and I looked at the menu and it’s cheap,” he replied.

I tend to struggle with my picks for our group; trying to find something a little different, unique in its own way and of course meeting our group’s budget criteria. Unlike mine, Eugene’s process seemed effortless. Why had I not thought of it before?

There were four of us waiting in the small restaurant; an open kitchen providing well needed heat. Rick had put himself on the temporarily “inactive” list for our group as he dealt with family issues. But Zio’s absence was a mystery. No one had heard from him. I texted to see if he was on his way.

In the meantime, we went ahead and ordered appetizers; fish cake, Thai spring rolls and something I had never seen before on a Thai menu, mussels “a la mariniere.”

There was no response from Zio, so I tried calling him. He picked up after several rings. “Where are you?” I asked.

“Home,” Zio said as if my question was a dumb one.

“We’re at the restaurant,” I told him. “About to order.”

“Restaurant? What are you talking about?” Zio tends to get flustered, but this was worrisome.

“The food group? It’s today.”

“I didn’t know anything about that,” he said, now comprehending the reason for my call. Apparently, for whatever reason, he never got any of mine or Eugene’s emails. It was now too late for him to get to our table in Greenpoint from Astoria before our appetizers arrived. We would remain only four.

Before I could hang up, the fish cake, spring roll and a steaming bowl of mussels arrived on our table. The fish cake and spring roll were  standard Thai fare, but the “modern” mussels mariniere were nothing like you would find in a French Bistro or a New York Thai restaurant for that matter. The mussels were steamed in a herb broth made up of white wine, garlic, shallots and plenty of chopped Thai basil and chilies. The only thing missing was a loaf of crusty bread to soak up all that glorious broth. The lack of bread, however, didn’t stop Gerry from using his spoon and slurping it down like a soup.

Mussels Mariniere Thai style

Mussels Mariniere Thai style

The entrée decision came soon after we devoured the appetizers. As is our custom, we asked our waiter, one of two women also working the cash register, what the specialties were. She mentioned the “exotic” penang curry with salmon. Exotic curry appealed to me and I ordered it, but with chicken.

“How do you like it? Spicy?” she asked.

“I like it the way you like it,” I replied.

“I like it spicy, she said.

“Then so do I.” I nodded and she noted it on her pad.

“What’s the curry with the coconut milk? I want something with coconut milk,” Eugene barked to her.

“You like red curry then,” she said.

“If it has coconut milk, then I like it. With chicken,” he said, tossing his menu.

Mike from Yonkers ordered the same, but with shrimp while Gerry braved another offbeat Thai selection; the spinach spaghetti with shrimp. We rounded out our order with Pad Thai for the table.

A bowl of what looked like a tomato based curry was placed in front of me. There was chicken and a few other vegetables. I had a small taste. The heat of the spice instantly stimulated the nerve in my throat that controls my hiccupping reflex. The hiccups came despite swallowing some ice water and shoveling white rice into my mouth. Finally, my body adjusted to the spice and the hiccups subsided replaced now by a sheen of perspiration around my forehead. I had settled into hot sauce nirvana.

Exotic Penang Curry

Exotic Penang Curry

Eugene’s hiccups matched my own, though his red curry chicken was no match in terms of spice to my exotic Penang. Mike from Yonkers, deliberately mixing the white rice in with his red curry, taking his time to savor every curry-coated kernel didn’t have the same reaction as Eugene and I. And Gerry’s non-traditional Thai green spinach spaghetti coated in an Asian, cilantro, garlic and basil-based sauce, though not hiccup inducing, was a revelation.

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

“The only thing missing is a cold beer,” Gerry mentioned as we cleaned our plates.

“Maybe so,” Mike from Yonkers said. “But there is crème brulee on the menu.”

“Crème brulee? I don’t think so,” I said, maybe a little hastily after experiencing the anti-Thai mussels and spinach spaghetti. “Let’s go get some Polish vodka instead.” We were, after all in Greenpoint.

“Now you’re talking,” Gerry responded quickly rising from his seat.

Amarin Cafe
617 Manhattan Ave
Brooklyn

 

Porch Pickled Peppers

10 Oct

Porch pickled peppers

The growing season on our terrace was an uneven one. Most of the spring was very cool and wet. By the end of June and early July we entered a brief period of extreme heat followed by an abnormally cool late summer concluding with a warm, dry early fall. The tomatoes didn’t fare so well, but the chili peppers were abundant and as of this writing continue to thrive.

Last year I grew “Portugal Hots,” and “Fresno,” peppers. They too were prolific and, as chronicled in these pages, I used the excess to make pepper sauces. See A Pair of Pepper Sauces.

This year I mixed it up a little planting hot cherry peppers and cayenne’s. As always, I freeze most of the crop and use them when needed; adding the peppers to soups, sauces, Asian or Indian stir fried dishes or anything else I’m cooking that could use a spice kick. But there is always much more than I will need to last a year. So what to do with the excess?

Some of the cherry pepper crop.

Some of the cherry pepper crop.

This year I decided to pickle the peppers. There is nothing like a few slices of hot vinegar cherry peppers on an Italian hero or chopped into an antipasto or baccala salad, so instead of buying a store brand, I figured with all I had, I could make my own.

I deliberated over what then to do with the cayenne peppers. I was very tempted just to make another pepper sauce, maybe something very much like Tabasco, which uses cayenne peppers. Instead I took a much easier path deciding to chop up the fiery red peppers, squeeze them into decorative jars, add hot white vinegar and let the vinegar infuse in the spice of the chilies.

My estimation is that after two weeks, I’ll be able to sprinkle the vinegar on collard greens, Swiss chard, rice and beans or anything else that might welcome the combination flavors of hot and sour. Check back with me later on that prognosis.

Here are the very simple recipes for both.

Pickled hot cherry peppers

Cherry Peppers

1lb of red cherry peppers

2 cloves of peeled garlic

2 bay leaves

20 black peppercorns

2 cups of white vinegar

¼ cup of water

1 tablespoon of sugar

½ teaspoon of salt

Add the vinegar, water, sugar and salt to a saucepan and bring to a boil.

In the meantime, make a few incisions near the stem of the cherry peppers.

Make sure the jars and tops are sterilized by boiling them or putting them in the dishwasher.

In each jar (how many you use depends on the size of your jars) add one whole peeled clove of garlic, a bay leaf and a bunch of the peppercorns.

Stuff in the cherry peppers tightly.

Cherry Peppers

When the brine has boiled and the sugar and salt has dissolved, pour the liquid into the jars covering the cherry peppers leaving about ¼ inch of the jar empty.

Seal the jars tightly.

Can in a water bath for about 15 minutes.*

A cherry pepper water bath.

A cherry pepper water bath.

Remove the jars and if you hear that pop signifying that the jar has been vacuumed-sealed or you see that the lid is slightly indented, chances are very good that your pickled cherry tomatoes are properly sealed.

*I had never done the water bath thing before. I have always been wary of improperly sealing the jars thus imperiling my loved ones with contaminated food. This time I took a chance and all the signs seem to indicate that the canning was successful. Again, check back with me later on that.

Cayenne Pepper Vinegar

Cayenne peppers

Cayenne peppers

White vinegar

Chop up the peppers, making sure to use gloves before handling them.

Bring the vinegar to a boil. How much you use depends on how many peppers you have, and how big or also how many jars you intend to make.

Stuff the chopped peppers into your jars. I used a decorative salad oil/vinegar receptacle.

Using a funnel, unless the top of your jar is wide enough, pour the hot vinegar over the peppers leaving ¼ inch of space from the top.

Cayenne pepper vinegar

Put the top on and store in a cool dry place for at least two weeks before using.

Because you’ve made vinegar, a natural preservative, there is no need to seal these jars. The vinegar should last months, if not years, but you will probably finish it before you’ll have to worry about such things.

Porch pickled peppers

The French Szechuan Connection

13 Mar

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I was curious about the connection between Szechuan food and France that could have spurred the curiously named restaurant La Vie en Szechuan that Zio and I visited on a slushy March evening. It was supposed to be a get together of Hawkeye, Fonzie and The Coach (see Hawkeye, Fonzie and the Coach Eat at Margie’s) but Fonzie, also known as Gerry, surprised us all by sending a text earlier on the same day we were to meet stating that instead he was going ice fishing.

At first I thought this could only be another of Gerry’s sick jokes; after all, the idea of sitting outside in frigid temperatures in the middle of nowhere waiting for something to nibble your rod through a deep hole in black ice could not possibly be more enticing than choking on hot peppers with two of his fellow gluttons. After some prodding, however, we found out he was indeed serious. We were getting close to the end of this very long winter, but Gerry wanted more. And who were we to deny him his pleasure—not matter how perverse it might be?

Gerry's preference.

Gerry’s preference.

Upon entering La Vie en Szechuan, I looked around the dining room for some connection to France in décor.  There was none.  I peered at the clientele dining in the restaurant. No Edith Piaf lookalikes anywhere.  And then I scoured the thick book that passed as the restaurant’s menu. There were frogs, but not done with butter, garlic and parsley. There was duck—not confit though. And there was steak. Not with frites, but coated with Szechuan chilies, and your choice of rice, white or brown. Was there a French Connection lurking somewhere? If so, I couldn’t find it.

Duck tongue, not duck confit from La Vie en Szechuan's illustrated menu.

Duck tongues, not duck confit from La Vie en Szechuan’s illustrated menu.

Since Gerry had deserted us for arctic climes, Zio and I were somewhat limited on how much we could order. The possibilities were vast, but we were confined to just an appetizer and two entrees. Any more than that and our gluttony would have even raised the eyebrows of the table next to ours who, despite their large party, were holding their own in that department with enormous platter after enormous platter arriving in quick intervals to their table.

The diced rabbit with chili sauce, we agreed, would make a very good appetizer while I had my heart set on something that caught my eye in the “Signature Dish” section of the tome that was Le Vie en Szechuan’s menu. It was called “spicy chicken with fried dough twists,” and I had to have it just to find out what a fried dough twist might be. Zio’s eyes immediately gravitated to the seafood section and we settled on the braised fish in black bean chili paste.

I stuck with water, but Zio requested his traditional diet Coke with lime only to be very disappointed to be told that they had no limes at Le Vie en Szechuan.

I’m not sure if the addition of lime to his diet Coke would have done anything to alleviate the sinus clearing heat we were experiencing from the room temperature diced rabbit. I know my ice water was useless to combat it as my nose began to run and the table napkins soon were all soggy.

Diced rabbit with chili sauce.

Diced rabbit with chili sauce.

It took awhile, but we eventually got the hang of how best to handle the tiny bones of the diced rabbit. Chewing the tender meat and separating it from the bone with our teeth while keeping it in our mouth and then spitting out the bone.

“Maybe we should just eat the whole thing and not worry about the bones,” Zio suggested.

It wasn’t a bad idea and a few times I did just that, but the habit was just too unnatural for my westernized palate and instead, piled the bones neatly on my small plate.

The chicken with fried dough twists arrived next.

Spicy chicken with fried dough twists

Spicy chicken with fried dough twists

“What are those Chinese cheese doodles?” Zio wondered as he looked at the red pepper tinged fried dough.

They  did look like a cheese doodles, but tasted nothing like them. Instead they tasted just like what was advertised; a piece of very deep fried dough. The chicken pieces that surrounded the fried dough were also fried to crackling dryness; the dish in need of a slathering of something wet, but hot sauce was definitely not an option.

Braised fish with black bean chili paste.

Braised fish with black bean chili paste.

The huge bowl of fish came last; the tender fish surrounded by glaciers of dried chili peppers that were floating in the very wet, soup like sauce. The two entrees were a good contrast between wet and dry and much more than enough for the two of us. With each piece of fish snared, we also dragged out multiple pieces of hot peppers, never daring to actually eat them. We methodically worked through the bowl but eventually it did us in. All that remained on our plates were piles of uneaten peppers.

When our waiter came to clear, he congratulated us on a job well done. “But we couldn’t eat those,” I said, pointing to the peppers.

“Oh, that’s the best part,” he replied, taking a pepper from my plate in his fingers and taking a big bite, seeds flying out of his mouth and all over me. “Mmmm, very good,” he mumbled, still chewing the pepper while clearing our plates.

"The best part."

“The best part.”

There was enough of the fish to take home and I offered it to Zio. “Bring it to the Colonel,” I said.

“Are you kidding,” He scoffed. “One look at those peppers and she might go into convulsions.”

We left the remains on the table and walked back out into the slush that was March. As I was walking to the subway, I heard the ping of a text from my cell phone. I took a look. “Fried fresh perch with hot sauce. Not Szechuan, but pretty good” it read. Gerry was sending me a text from the hinterlands.  “And there are beaver dams, fox dens and beautiful bird life,” he added, thinking that rustic image might justify the ice fishing lunacy.

I thought for a moment as I slogged through the dirty gray slush. Just before heading down into the equally dirty, damp subway I texted him back. “Beaver dams are overrated,” I wrote, clicked send and then made my way to the train with that song (see below) playing in my head.

La Vie en Szechuan
14 E. 33rd Street

 

The Ring of Fire on Roosevelt Avenue

4 Dec

Little Pepper Hot Pot

Little Pepper Hot Pot
133-43 Roosevelt Avenue
Flushing, Queens

“I don’t think I like hot pots,” Gerry wrote in an email after I told him Zio and I were going to spend a Chow City interlude at the Little Pepper Hot Pot in Flushing.

Despite his hasty judgment based on one hot pot experience (Minni’s Shabu Shabu), Gerry agreed to meet the two of us there.

After reading blurbs about the restaurant, I learned that I could park in the garage of the nearby Sky View Center for free for up to three hours. I didn’t think it would take us longer than that to make quick work of Little Pepper’s hot pot so I pulled into the multi-level parking garage and walked through the gleaming, glass enclosed, Taipei City-like mall, passing such culinary stalwarts as Applebee’s and Chucky Cheese on my out to Roosevelt Avenue.

Where am I?

Where am I?

I found Little Pepper Hot Pot across the street from a 1960’s housing development and then recognized it as the location of the great and original Little Pepper (A Cold Sweat in Flushing), which has since relocated to  College Point Avenue.

The tables of the narrow restaurant were all adorned with an electric stove top heater. The menu was attached to a clipboard. What turned Gerry, and most of us off about the other hot pot experience was the chaos for first timers. We had no clue what to do and the servers at Shabu Shabu were just too busy to deal with our hot pot virginity.

The hot pot heating device.

The hot pot heating device.

At Little Pepper Hot Pot our waiter spoke perfect English and was patient with our ignorance of things hot pot related. Still, the three of us, sadly, are not quick studies and at first it was a struggle, especially for the menu-challenged Zio.

“I just have no clue,” Zio said, shaking his head and tossing the clipboard.

I took the menu and studied it. It reminded me a little of the SAT tests where you need to blacken little circles next to the correct answers. Where was Mike from Yonkers, the SAT specialist, when we needed him?

Finally, I think I figured it out and explained to Gerry and Zio that for the table we needed to order one hot pot for $25, which would serve as our cooking device. From there we could choose other meat and vegetable items from the menu to toss into the boiling cauldron.

There were three hot pot options: Szechuan (all spicy), half Szechuan and half “Original” (mild), or all Original. We like to think that we are very brave when it comes to spice. No one can tell us something is too hot for us. And there have been instances when condescending waiters, assuming because of our vanilla visages (speaking about my own only) that we cannot tolerate the same heat as those born with the spice resistance gene.

This was, however, an offspring of the original Little Pepper where they definitely did not pull any punches when it came to spice. So in this instance we decided to take the safe route and go with the option number two: the combination pot.

The pot was brought to the table, placed on the portable stove top and turned on. On one side was the chili pepper red Szechuan while on the other was the clear, milky Original—the two separated by a divider. It wasn’t long before both broths were bubbling furiously.

The yin and the yang of hot pots.

The yin and the yang of hot pots.

A gigantic tray of vegetables came with the pot: watercress, wood ear mushrooms, corn, bean sprouts, cabbage and a plate of “fatty beef.”

The veggies ready for the pot.

The veggies ready for the pot.

Fatty beef

Fatty beef

Using chopsticks, I started to drop the meat and vegetables into the hot pot.

“Use your hands,” Gerry barked. “You’re taking too long.”

I did as commanded and then the waiter appeared with the other items we ordered: fish, parsley meatballs, king oyster mushrooms, lotus root, cabbage, and enoki mushrooms.

More to go into the pot

More to go into the pot

“Now what the hell are we supposed to do with these?” Zio wondered, holding up one of the slotted, net-like spoons that came with the hot pot.

“Fish out the fish,” Gerry said.

I tried to fish out the fish from the Szechuan side of the pot and came up with something—maybe the wood ear mushrooms and some of that fatty beef. I shoved whatever it was into my mouth and almost immediately my eyes watered and nose ran and I quickly spat it all out. I examined what had flown out of my mouth and was now on my plate. In my insatiable haste, I almost ingested countless pieces of dried hot chilies.

“Next time maybe you’ll be more careful,” Gerry scolded.

And the next time I was able to fish out the fish and the other ingredients that were now all cooked through and deliciously infused with the accumulation of flavors the multiple ingredients gave the broth.

A bubbling cauldron

A bubbling cauldron

The piles of napkins on our table were dwindling at the same rate as the honking noise from our collective noses was increasing. Scooping the meats and vegetables from the “Original” side of the hot pot did little to ease the self inflicted pain from the heat of the Szechuan side. But no one was complaining. It was what we wanted. What we came here for.

Soon, with the exception of the dried chilies and a few enoki mushrooms, there was nothing much left in either side of the pot.

“I’ll be back,” Gerry, who was originally skeptical, said inferring that another trip to Little Pepper Hot Pot was needed.

“Yeah, me too, but not with the Colonel,” Zio said. The Colonel, who was Zio’s partner, had, as Zio made it known many times, a zero tolerance policy when it came to spice. “One sip of this stuff and her tongue would be fried. She wouldn’t be able to talk for a week. Though that’s not a bad idea.”

As I made my way through the enormous mall to try to locate the car somewhere in the bowels of the indoor parking garage, I could feel a burn in my gullet. It made me think of the song “Ring of Fire,” by Johnny Cash. I hummed it in the car driving back home.

The next morning the tune was still in my head, but it was no longer the Johnny Cash version I was humming. The burn had lingered overnight and the effects I was feeling the next morning were closer to how Ray Charles handled it: slow and deliberate and with a raw blast of the blues (see below). The burn and the accompanying pain, I knew, would fade but it wouldn’t be long before I, like Gerry and Zio, would eagerly go back for more of the same.

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

 

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