Monday, April 23, 2007

Anapestic Does Manhattan

The end of tax season (hooray!) seems a natural time for a short vacation. Or a long vacation, or perhaps a change of career, but a short vacation is a good place to start. And what's a better destination for a short vacation than New York City? It's relatively close, so it's easy to get to, and staying for more than a few days is prohibitively expensive, so it's easy to come home from. And while I know that NYC largely has a reputation for a place people go to relax and get away from it all, there's actually a surprising amount of stuff going on there.

Anyway, Wednesday morning, after taking the kids to their respective schools, I came home, and V. and I put our bags in the car and drove off to New Jersey. Because I realize that most of my readers are American, and because Americans are justifiably celebrated for their geographical ignorance, I will take a moment here to observe that New Jersey is not, in fact, a part of New York. Our usual method of traveling to NYC, however, is to drive as far as Metro Park in New Jersey, and then take a NJ Transit train into the city. A round trip ticket from Metro Park to Penn Station runs about $15, and you can park at Metro Park for $5 for every twenty-four hours, so it's a relatively cheap way to get to Gotham.

We arrived later than usual: around 3pm, which happens to be check in time at our hotel (the New Yorker, at 34th and 8th, a very short walk from Penn Station), so rather than check our bags, we left them in our room and set out for Chelsea and Greenwich Village. I'm going to acknowledge right here that I don't have a very good feel for NYC neighborhoods. V., who went to high school in NYC, however, usually knows where we are, so I just ask him. Still, I get easily confused, so if I happen to say that something was in the West Village, and it is really on the Upper East Side, just remember: God is watching us from a distance.

When we go to New York, we generally have a skeleton of a schedule. It's good to have some things planned, especially if there are things that you don't want to miss, but it's good to leave yourself ample time to wander around without a firm agenda. If, like me, you find yourself mostly confined to the purgatory of the suburbs, you will never be bored in New York, even if you think that you have nothing to do. Anyway, for this two-night trip, we had tickets to see Company on Wednesday night, tickets to see Turandot on Thursday night, and passes to the Metropolitan Museum on Wednesday. The passes to the Metropolitan include admission to the Cloisters, and that was also on the agenda for Wednesday.

We were walking down one of the avenues on our way (probably) from Chelsea to the Village, and I spotted a Balducci's. Whenever I'm on vacation, it's very difficult for me to pass a grocery store without going in. I was going to skip the Balducci's, because there's one just a couple of miles from where I work, but V. noted that it was inside an old bank building, which struck me as highly appropriate, so I decided to check it out. Perhaps not surprisingly, the NYC Balducci's is a lot like the Balducci's in Bethesda, only smaller. It might also be marginally pricier, but probably not, given that a (large) house in Bethesda is probably not much more expensive than a (small) condo in the Village. Anyway, it was a very pleasant grocery store, and I bought a house brand chocolate bar and a jar of pink salt.

I must admit that I have not exactly embraced the notion of expensive salts. I have a box of Maldon that I never use, and I have some La Baleine that I use slightly less frequently than the Maldon, and I have some sea salt from Costco that came in its own grinder jar. I use that last one when I dress my salads at the table, but by and large, it's Morton's kosher salt for me. I'll have to check the salt selection at the Bethesda Balducci's, but I was unprepared for the variety I saw in the Village Balducci's. I went with the pink salt because it was of a finer grain and thus heavier than the other salts, so that instead of paying about ten bucks for five ounces, I paid about ten bucks for nine ounces. It's a souvenir, right?

Anyway. We wandered around the Village for a while longer, and then we saw and stopped in at the Blind Tiger Ale House for a pint. I had something called Smuttynose Winter Ale. According to their web site, "Smuttynose Winter Ale is a full-bodied, amber beer brewed with a special Trappist ale yeast. Stylistically reminiscent of a Belgian Abbey Double, it features fruity aromas and flavor, balanced by soft Crystal hops." I don't know what a Belgian Abbey Double is, but the rest of the description seems pretty accurate to me. The bar was small, but it had twenty-eight beers on tap, and I chose the SWA for the name. When I asked the bartender what it was like, she offered me a small taste, and I liked it. I also ordered something called "Your Mama's Deviled Eggs," which were pretty good, but I regret to inform you that your mama does not do as good a job with deviled eggs as my mama does. And given that my own deviled eggs are superior to either your mama's or my mama's, these deviled eggs were not exactly a culinary revelation. Still, they were pretty good. After all, when was the last time you had a bad deviled egg?

While we were sitting in the bar, V. pointed out to me a restaurant across the corner. It was called Risotteria and billed itself as a "risotto bar," from which we inferred that it served a lot of risotto. When we were done with our pints, we went over to look at the menu and decided to have dinner there. In addition to a great selection of risotti and other foods, the Risotteria has a wine of the month, which it offers for $15 a bottle. I'm sure this is a very good idea, and the wine itself (something called a Rosso) was quite nice, but I am not much of a drinker, and after having a pint and half a bottle or whine, I was about as drunk as I ever get. Fortunately, I wasn't driving.

Which reminds me: who are these people who are driving in Manhattan? I'll give you a pass if your a cabbie or a truck driver making a delivery, but what about those big black cars who try to cut you off when you're crossing the road and you have a signal? Occasionally, I'll see the driver of one of these cars yelling something and looking very unpleased at the traffic situation, and I'll say, "Dude. You're driving in Manhattan. Duh."

Anyway, in addition to my half of the bottle of wine, I had the calimari, roasted red pepper, and black olive risotto, and it was great. Perfectly cooked and extremely flavorful. I took a picture (It turns out that I have relatively few qualms about snapping pictures of my meals when I'm drunk. When I'm sober, I have more qualms, but I do it anyway), but the flash went off, and it was horribly overexposed. V. had the Wednesday special (parma ham, arugula, and truffle oil) risotto, and he loved his, too. The breadsticks, which were of the chewy variety, were also great.

We meandered out of Risotteria and on down Bleecker Street. I saw a place called Murray's that looked interesting, so I stumbled in. Lotsa cheese. Lotsa expensive cheese. They offered me a sample of some smoked goat cheese. It was yummy, but I was somewhat distracted by my inebriation, so I wandered around the store until I found some pink salt. V. had teased me because the first pink salt I bought was from Bolivia, which, he tells me, is landlocked. The pink salt in Murray's was from the Himalayas. I figured I had to have it, so I bought it, along with a French salt caramel, which I ate too quickly, but which I think was pretty good.

Newly fortified with pink salt but still plenty inebriated, we went in search of dessert. We crossed the street and took a table at Pasticceria Bruno (which I am not linking because a bakery really does not need a fancy flash site that plays Sinatra). I almost always order a cannoli for dessert when I'm in NYC (I almost never eat it anywhere else), and I ordered one there. V. ordered a Neapolitan, and we both had coffee. Yummy cannoli, yummy coffee.

I was impressed with all of the pastries in Bruno's display cases, but above all else, I was drawn to the marzipan, especially the marzipan formed into the shape of a bulb of fennel. I mean, I'm pretty sure that it's fennel. You'll have to judge for yourself because when I asked the young man behind the counter to confirm that it was fennel, he said that he wasn't really sure. Then I asked him whether the figs were figs, and he said that he wasn't sure about that either. It probably would have been nicer not to ask about any of the other fruits, but I did anyway, mostly because he was very cute, and since I only flirt when I'm drunk, it seemed like a shame to waste any opportunity. Anyway, I got six pieces of marzipan, which came to about a pound. They were horribly expensive, but since I was taking them home to the kids, I felt like I could spend more than I otherwise would have. And perhaps they'll inspire me to make some of my own.

We headed back uptown to the hotel and then up to the theatre, passing the building you see here on the way. It reminds me of some of the competition cakes that you see on the Food Network. I am, generally, a fan of whimsical architecture, but I can't help imagining the resident of that very top corner office: he has to climb a long ladder to get to it, and he has to sit hunched over at his desk, but, admittedly, the view must be terrific.

Speaking of terrific, I'd never seen Company before. (V. had played the soundtrack for me on the drive up, so that I'd have some idea.) The whole production was just great. It was directed by some guy (I am not looking it up, I am not looking it up, I am not looking it up. Oh, all right: John Doyle) who had directed the revival of Sweeney Todd that V. caught last year. As in Sweeney Todd, the actors were also the orchestra. I didn't really see how this was going to work, but it worked very well indeed. Apparently, it is not that hard to find actors who are also able instrumentalists. Go figure.

The next morning, we were up at a somewhat reasonable hour to head up to the Upper East Side (I have no idea what the proper capitalization here is. I would try to find out, but there's a chance that I would step into the middle of a grammatical dogfight, and I hate doing that when I don't have a strong opinion to smack people around with.) ostensibly for brunch and a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but mostly because this person said that if you were only going to be in NYC for two hours, the place you really ought to go is Kitchen Arts and Letters.

There are a few things that I already knew that I had driven home with greater force on this trip, and I hope that I remember these lessons:

1) There is no point in my bringing V. with me to a culinary book store. After about ten minutes, he'll be all "we can stay as long as you like," but he'll be looking bored, and I'll feel like I need to hurry up and buy things and move along. Otherwise, he'll act like nothing's wrong, but then when I'm buying my books and the owner remarks that I certainly have eclectic tastes, I'll say that I would have liked to buy more but that I was on a budget, which will cause V. to remark that I could just buy the other books I wanted online to save money, and I will just want to die right there on the spot. This will lead to me biting my lip and looking apologetically at the owner who will give me a look that appears to say, "Don't worry. I reckon you've suffered enough."

2) If I try to go to a museum with V., I will surely want to kill him. It took him almost two hours to get through five rooms in the "Venice and the Muslim World" exhibit. The man cannot pass any piece of curatorial text without reading it. I found the VatMW exhibit fascinating for about twenty minutes. I am just not a very visually oriented person, and I don't find standing in one place for very long comfortable. I suppose that I could walk laps around the exhibits, but I fear that other viewers might be annoyed. I really should have sent him along to read about Venice and stayed at the bookstore.

3) Kitchen Arts and Letters is not something you can really absorb in a single visit. I was overwhelmed by the choices. The staff were very knowledgeable and very helpful, and that certainly helped, but I really need to get back there. By myself.

4) Either V. is going deaf, or he has learned that so little of what I say is to the point that he just ignores me. I swear to Julia Child that I told him no fewer than four times that Kitchen Arts and Letters did not open until 10 am, and he still acted surprised when we got there at 9:45 and they weren't open.

Fortunately, Sarabeth's was open, and we didn't have to wait for a table. V. had eaten there on his last trip to the city, and had suggested it when I said that I wanted to visit a bookstore in the area. I ordered a spinach and goat cheese omelet and a bran muffin. Very good indeed. The muffin came with butter and some of Sarabeth's own peach-apricot preserves. You can buy a jar of preserves at the restaurant, but you can also walk next door to the small grocery store (which does not, alas, carry pink salt) and buy the same preserves for slightly less. I didn't buy any at either place, though, because it didn't seem wise to schlep them around the city.

Anyway. After the late breakfast at Sarabeth's (It seems wise, when in NYC, to adopt a two-meals-a-day strategy, particularly if you're likely to be up late. If you have a late, but large, breakfast, and an early dinner, you don't wait as long for tables, and you get more done. Also, you can snack more.) and the too-short visit to Kitchen Arts and Letters, we strolled down the avenue (Fifth) past other museums and to the Metropolitan, where, as I mentioned earlier, I came face to face with the hard fact that I am just not a museum type of guy.

From the Metropolitan, we walked over one and up two blocks to the bus stop for the M4. (The stop just happens to be in front of the Jonathan Adler store, which is a very good place for window shopping. Or, I suppose, for actual shopping, if you happen to be wealthy. Which I am not.) I'm not sure that I'd ever taken a bus in NYC before my trip from the UES to the Cloisters. It was a pleasant enough experience, and it does take you right to the entrance to the Cloisters, but what the museum web site doesn't mention is that the trip takes almost an hour. You do get to see a lot of Manhattan on that ride, and that's a good thing, though in my case I just saw a lot of places where I wanted to get off and look around, and I couldn't. Oh well.

I'm certainly glad I made the trip. If there's one place where a museum kind of guy and a non-museum kind of guy can co-exist happily, it's at the Cloisters. I did look at some of the art, especially the very large unicorn tapestries, but mostly I let V. stay inside and read compulsively while I sat out in the courtyards and gardens. It had been quite cold when we arrived in NYC, but when we were at the Cloisters, the weather was perfect. Sunny and clear, but still cool.

After a nice spell of sitting in the sunshine, I found V., and we made a quick tour through the Cloisters' treasury and then walked to the subway station and headed back to the hotel to change for dinner and the opera. By the way, when I say change for the opera, I don't mean anything fancier than clean cotton slacks and non-athletic shoes. Most men will wear at least a suit to the opera, but then most of the men at the opera are at least twenty years older than me.

When we were at Kitchen Arts and Letters, V. had picked up the 2007 Zagat guide, and he'd found a restaurant that offered a prix fixe, three-course, pre-theater dinner for $24 per person, including a bottle of wine (for two diners). The restaurant was just far enough from the hotel that I could legitimately refuse to walk the whole way, so we hopped on the subway (Even though there is a subway stop at the corner the hotel is on, V. almost always wants to walk. I am sure that he tries to pick a restaurant that is just within the range that I'm willing to walk. I would go along with this plan more readily if I didn't know that step two of the plan would be walking from the restaurant to Lincoln Center, so that I'd end up having walked thirty-five blocks.) and then walked down to Basilica.

The prix fixe menu at Basilica is not ambitious, but it's very well executed, and I was very hungry, so I didn't even go for the least un-ambitious option. I ordered a mozarella caprese and some chicken parmesan. They started us off with some very nice olives and some just-right crusty bread as soon as we sat down, so that I was no longer ravenous by the time the starter arrived, and I was able to enjoy the food properly. Given the price of dinner, I had not expected much from the wine, but it was a 2003 Cabernet made at one of the Sebastiani vineyards, and it was the soul of quaffability. The tomatoes accompanying the mozarella were not as ripe as they should have been, but otherwise, dinner was great. The chicken parm was delicious and ample, and it was served on an equally ample portion of penne that had been cooked to the sort of al dente that you want to take home with you so that if someone asks you what al dente should be, you can hand them a piece and say, "it should be this." I chose the cannoli for dessert. It was good, as was the coffee.

We had gotten to Basilica fairly early (the pre-theater dinner is available only if you're seated before 6:00), and the service had been very prompt indeed. We ended up getting to Lincoln Center at just after 7:00, and the curtain at the Met wasn't until 8:00, so I sat outside while V. went off in search of a restroom. I used this time to ponder some very important matters. To wit:

1. People in NYC wear a lot of black. People going to the opera in NYC wear even more black. They should get over that.

2. "New York" is an iamb, but the most common nicknames for New York are or contain trochees. "Gotham" is a trochee, and "The Big Apple" ends with a trochee. The trochaic sobriquets are mainly a problem because there aren't really many good rhymes for "York." So -- and I cannot stress firmly enough that this is a purely hypothetical supposition -- if you happened to be sitting on a slab of granite in Lincoln Center and you happened to be mentally composing alternative lyrics to "I'd Like to Visit the Moon," and you happened to get to the line where Kermit would be singing "So while I might visit for an afternoon," then you'd be pretty much stuck, because you'd be coming up with lines like "so while I might visit and chow down on pork" or "so while I might visit if armed with a fork" or even "so while I might visit on my way back from an impromptu trip to County Cork" and you would be disgusted with yourself when you realized that the very best couplet you could come up with was "I may be provincial and even a dork/But I don't want to live in New York."

3. What does a guy have to do to find a fake Rolex in this town, anyway?

And speaking of anyway. The Zeffirelli Turandot was a magnificent spectacle. Hei-Kyung Hong (as Liu) was terrific; the other leads: not so much. Still, it was a lot of fun to watch.

On Friday morning, we went down to Washington Square to have breakfast at a cafe that V. wanted to try. As it happened, this place wasn't open for breakfast, so we wandered around Washington Square for a bit and then headed over to what may or may not have been part of the West Village until we came across the Sullivan Diner. It's on Sullivan Street. One supposes that the name and the location are not entirely coincidental. It was nearly 10 am, and I was, once again, ravenous, so it was a good thing that there were not many people there and that the service was very prompt. Good coffee, good food, good service, and reasonable prices: who could ask for anything more?

I ordered the Eggs Florentine: essentially, Eggs Benedict with a layer of cooked spinach between the egg and the English muffin. They were accompanied by spicy hash browns. I was a happy, happy man.

After breakfast, we decided to head back uptown so that I could pick up some souvenirs for the kids. It's pretty easy to get souvenirs for the kids in NYC: L. loves pashminas, and A. always wants a keychain. I got several of each: altogether, they cost about the same as the pound of marzipan that I'd gotten from Pasticceria Bruno.

After I was done with my shopping, we still had enough time to walk through Central Park for a bit before we had to head back to the hotel and check out. It was a beautiful day, and I wished that I had a few more hours to enjoy the park and the city, but I think that I enjoy New York more because my visits there are usually too short. In any case, after walking around and seeing a number of cute dogs and watching some kids doing double dutch, we did hop back on the subway, finish packing, check out, and lug our somewhat heavier bags over to Penn Station to catch the NJT train back to Metro Park.

All in all, it was a great trip, but there was one big question that I never did learn the answer to: what the hell is up with the apostrophe on this sign? I am pretty sure that this is an actual news stand and not a stand run by some guy named "New." And, yes, I checked: that is an actual apostrophe there, not just a smudge. The New Yorker is undergoing some renovations at the moment, and I hope that, when they're done, they will no longer promote improper apostrophization. God knows there's enough of it out there without their assistance.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tomato Soup

There really wasn't any reason for me to cook last night. Dinner had already been made (not by me) and eaten, and I had the next day's lunch all ready in the refrigerator. And V. and I are off on a short vacation Wednesday morning, so I didn't need anything for the rest of the week. But I felt like cooking something, and I had the time to do so.

I haven't really had anything resembling free time for the last two months, but busy season was pretty much wrapped up late last Friday afternoon. When I got up Saturday and didn't have anything that absolutely had to be done, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the prospect, so I went back to sleep, and then I got up and took a long walk, and then I did nothing at all for most of the day until it was time to pick up the kids. I may have watched some TV, and I may have read something (I know that nobody keeps such close track on what I say here, but on the off chance that somebody does, whatever I was reading was not Villette. I finally finished Villette sometime late in March or early in April. It was almost -- or just over -- three months of hard work, but I persevered.), and I'm pretty sure that I wandered aimlessly around Costco for a bit, but mostly I got in touch with my inner vegetable. (My inner vegetable, in case you're wondering, is a fava bean.)

Anyway. I felt like cooking last night, but I wanted to cook something slow and lazy, rather than something quick and technical. Tomato soup seemed like the ticket. This is a very easy recipe, and it requires very little attention, but it does take some time. It is perfect for a weekday evening when you have a couple of hours and are doing other low-intensity tasks such as laundry (Laundry is a low-intensity task for me because of my strict no-ironing policy. I am highly tolerant of wrinkles. I attempt to remove my shirts from the dryer and hang them up while they are still slightly damp so that fewer wrinkles will have a chance to form, but once they're there, I just live with them.) and reading a highly amusing book that doesn't mind if you have to set it down from time to time. I am sure that you have just such a book in mind already, but if you don't, you might try this one. I picked it up on a whim in Border's over the weekend, and I can assure you that if you put it down to go and stir your soup, it will be just as funny when you get back. Plus, I read it in just over a day, which, I think, means that it's at least 90 times better than Villette.

Anyway, the soup. I had started off with the intention of making a soup that fell squarely within the Weight Watchers Core parameters, but, alas, I didn't quite get there. (If you are, by chance, on Core, then one serving of this soup [a fifth of the pot] will cost you one extra point. If you're not on Core, then a serving will cost you four points.) When I tasted the soup, it was much too tangy, even for me, and I had to add some half-and-half to tame it a bit. The final result is probably somewhat too tangy for most people (I like it this way, though, and I am, after all, the one who's eating it), but you can make it less tangy in a variety of ways. You could, for example, double the butter and onions and cook them for an extra hour, to let them caramelize. Or you could add more half-and-half or swap out the half-and-half for heavy cream. You could use sweeter tomatoes, assuming you can find some. Or you could just add half as many tomatoes to begin with. I like the tomatoeyness of this soup as it is, though. There are other, less honorable ways to make the soup less tangy, but I won't mention them as I don't approve of them, and you probably know what they are, anyway.

Tomato-Onion Soup with Dill

1 T. butter
2.5 c. sliced onions
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. celery seed
2 T. flour
1 quart chicken stock or broth
28 oz. tomato puree
1 bay leaf
1/4 c. chopped dillweed
1/3 c. half and half
1/2 c. cornmeal
1/2 t. baking powder
2 T. finely chopped dillweed
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 ounce romano cheese, grated fine
fresh black pepper
1 T. olive oil
1 egg

In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the onions, stir well, cover, and cook over low heat for half an hour, stirring once or twice. Add the salt and celery seed, stir, re-cover, and cook for another half hour. Turn the heat to medium, sprinkle on the flour, and cook, stirring constantly, for two to three minutes. Gradually add the chicken stock, stirring all the while. Stir in the tomato puree, bay leaf, and 1/4 cup of dill. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally for half an hour. Remove the bay leaf, puree the soup with an immersion blender, and correct seasoning. Let the soup simmer while you make the dumplings.

In a bowl, combine the cornmeal, baking powder, finely chopped dill, salt, grated cheese, and black pepper. Mix well with a fork, then add the olive oil and stir well again. Form a well in the middle of the mixture, and break the egg into the center. Mix the egg well with the fork, then stir in the cornmeal mixture. When you've got it all mixed up, you should have a mass that coheres reasonably well and that can be handled but is still slightly sticky. Knead this mass slightly, either on a marble, or between your hands, and then roll it out into a cylinder about 3/4 inch thick. Cut into about fifteen pieces, and roll each piece into a small ball.

Drop the dumplings into the simmering soup, cover, and cook for five minutes.

Because there is no wheat flour in these dumplings, they are somewhat crumbly and fall apart easily if you mess with them too much. No matter: they taste good whole or in pieces.

There are a lot of other ways you could go with this soup. You could use basil instead of dill, for example. You could use cheddar instead of romano. You could add some chopped black olives to the dumplings. You could skip the dumplings entirely and instead toss in pieces of a grilled cheese sandwich that you'd cut up. In any case, it's a very comforting thing to consume when the weather's unseasonably cold, as it has been this week.