Contrarian TM_FC_SIDEWLK_FI_002

Ah, spring is here and sidewalk cafés are again blooming across America! Some of my friends are thrilled at this seasonal turn. I am not.

My memories of outdoor dining skew toward the mildly traumatic. Such excursions often begin with companions who all but squeal “Let’s sit outside!” Confronted with such enthusiasm, it’s hard to argue for an indoor seat, and if I do I’m accused of being a troglodyte and killjoy. Enduring a long, silent, and pouty indoor meal is never fun, so I usually capitulate and go outside. Thus I leave the comfort of civilized shade and air-conditioning, and take my seat in the petting zoo set aside for masticating humans.

And here I sit — next to an overflowing dumpster screened partially from view but not in the least from aroma by cheap latticework from Home Depot. Or I’m curbside on a city street where every few minutes a bus passes and emits a great sooty plume of diesel exhaust, which gently alights upon my meal like finely ground pepper. Or, perhaps in the saddest tableaux of all, I’m sitting outside in front of a strip mall, corralled by some cagelike ironwork posted with stern wording against seating yourself, and overlooking an asphalt lagoon consisting of thousands of car windshields each reflecting the sun’s rays directly at me, as if I’m part of an experiment involving thresholds for scorched retinas. I once had to wear two pairs of sunglasses to make it through a lunch.
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First Person TM_FP_PORKCHOP_FI_001

I have to admit, I’m not that big on the pig. Sure, I love bacon — who doesn’t? But when it comes to any other pork products like loins, roasts, or chops, I’m not a fan. What turns me off most is the texture. Too many times have I experienced a dry, chewy, stark white block of pork. And too many times have I tried to cut into a piece of pork only to find my knife pulling at the tough, stringy sinews of the meat. After numerous letdowns, I pretty much stick to beef, poultry, or fish. Rarely does the other white meat find its way onto my grocery list.

However, there is only one instance when I eat pork — when I’m home. My mother’s pork chops are the only pork product that I’ll let touch my plate. Her pork chops are tender, juicy, flavorful and a far cry from the usual over-cooked blocks of saw wood that I’ve sworn against eating. Like listening to my Dad’s favorite Elvis album, the taste of my mom’s pork chops is a strong reminder of home. They were a common dinner staple when I was growing up and I didn’t realize how much I had taken them for granted until I moved away from home. So when a recent bout of homesickness set in, I decided to make an exception to my pork rule. I felt compelled to try to recreate Mom’s famous pork chops myself. When I got to the butcher shop, I saw they had pork chops on sale. I ended up walking away with over three pounds of pig.

Her pork chops are a traditional Polish fried version. She dips them in an egg wash, then coats each chop in a mixture of bread crumbs, parsley flakes, and nutmeg. The nutmeg is a perfect touch that adds a depth of flavor to an otherwise simple breading. But her secrets don’t stop there. The key to keeping her pork chops tender and juicy is by steaming them. Yes, that’s right, steamed pork chops. By only quickly frying the pork chops to partially cook them, she finishes the process by steaming them using a double boiler, ensuring that they don’t dry out or become too tough. The result might not be the crispiest pork chop, but it’s certainly the most tender.
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Dispatches TM_DY_STREET_FI_001

It was a busy Friday night and the street was packed with vendors – food carts called lahris, and people enjoying a relaxing evening. Music was playing, a different song at each lahri, everything from the latest Bollywood hits to the classics. Oil sizzled in pans and aromas at each lured the hungry. And the price at the restaurants on wheels? Less than a dollar for a hearty portion. A bargain, but a healthy, strong stomach was a prerequisite.

There I was, among the carts and people, fanning my face frantically, as it was getting abnormally warm for the rare, cool night that Vadodara city was having. The pani puri, full of spices and flavors, was the most delicious that I had ever tasted, but it was also the hottest.

“Another?”

“Definitely!” I said and the lahriwala served up another. It was a small bite-sized puri, filled with potatoes, sweet chutney, chickpeas, and doused in a spicy mint water concoction. I had about fifteen of them that night. My nose was running, tears streaked my cheeks, and pictures were snapped to commemorate the time I had my first lahri pani puri.

“This is the best pani puri I’ve had!” I said, caught up in the tastiness of the moment.
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Dispatches TM_FP_Tea_AP_004

As I was sitting seiza, kneeling on thin tatami mats with my legs folded tightly underneath my thighs, my feet began to go numb. Our host had yet to even enter the room, still outside of it preparing the utensils on her tray. I had only been seated in the position for a few minutes and was already concerned about the lack of blood flow to my ankles. I worried I wouldn’t make it through my first Japanese tea ceremony, let alone any of my future lessons.

One of my instructors, Drew, was busy explaining the hanging scroll in the cove in the corner of the tea room — too busy to notice my very visible physical discomfort. On this snowy morning, the scroll featured Japanese calligraphy and the characters for beautiful, moon, and flower. “It serves as a reminder that beauty can still be found even in the depths of winter,” he said calmly, “and that the snow will eventually melt its way into spring.” I did my best to embrace his message as I felt my body shivering from the cold draft entering the tea room from outside.

Below the hanging scroll rested a narrow vase with a simple flower arrangement, which Drew also pointed out to our small class. “The flowers chosen for each tea ceremony will always represent the current season. I picked these from my garden this morning,” he said proudly. Every other student in the room listened carefully and attentively while I fidgeted in my spot, struggling to focus on anything besides the lack of sensation in my legs.

This was my first of many Japanese tea ceremony classes, which I attended for four consecutive weeks at the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia. Early every Saturday morning, I rushed to get ready in my messy studio apartment and make it to my 9 AM lesson on time. When I arrived, I shuffled out of my puffy winter jacket, slipped out of my salt-covered boots, and tied a wide sash around my waist before gliding onto the tatami mat flooring in my mismatched socks.
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Bookshelf TM_BK_KNISH_FI_001_1

Laura Silver is a woman on a mission. When her favorite knish bakery, Mrs. Stahl’s, closed, she embarked on a round-the-world quest for the origins and modern-day manifestations of the knish that would take her from Brighton Beach to Jersey and across three continents. Her forthcoming book about her journey, Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, will be available from Brandeis University Press on May 6, 2014. In this excerpt, we meet, and lose, Mrs. Stahl’s and Fritzie Silver, the author’s grandmother.

The knish situation in Brooklyn is not what it once was. I can say that because I’m third-generation Brooklyn, once removed. Queens, where I was born, had knishes, too, tons of them. I took them for granted, then they were gone.

More than latkes, matzoh, or the apple-and-walnut charoset that crowned the seder plate, knishes were my family’s religion. For knishes, we went on pilgrimages. For knishes, we traversed Long Island, top to bottom, from northern Queens to southern Brooklyn. For knishes, we drove Northern Boulevard to the Grand Central, past LaGuardia to the BQE, through to the Prospect Expressway, which deposited us on Ocean Parkway amid old trees and religious Jews, a straight shot to Mrs. Stahl’s.

A knish is a pillow of filling tucked into a skin of dough. The ones at Mrs. Stahl’s were baked round mounds, each plump with a stuffing, savory or sweet. Each piece — the size of a fist or just bigger — revealed a hint of filling on the top, a bald spot, as if for a yarmulke. But the real secret to the construction of a Mrs. Stahl’s knish remained hidden: Yet if you cut the knish in half, the cross-section revealed a membrane of dough that split the innards into chambers, like those of the human heart.
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Booze TM_BZ_Sake_AP_008

The first time I visited a sake brewery (or kura, as its called in Japanese) I worried I wouldn’t be able to drive home afterwards. The owner wouldn’t let my glass drain. Every time I thought I could get away with sneaking into the next part of the tour without a refill, he would appear, smiling, generously pouring more liquid into my sample cup.

Later, I discovered he wasn’t just trying to get me drunk, but was following the Japanese tradition called oshaku, where it’s impolite to fill your own glass, and equally as rude for your host to let your glass sit empty. Sake is a social drink, so oshaku is seen as a way of making new friends.

In America, this social custom hasn’t caught fire when it comes to sake consumption (and for future reference, the polite way to refuse additional servings during traditional Japanese social engagements is to leave a tiny bit of sake in your glass, to not encourage refills). In fact, sake has long been considered a cheap, boozy beverage only suitable for sake bombs and cheap sushi dinners — an image many sake enthusiasts and certified specialists are working to change.
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Dispatches TM_DI_CFFELND_FI_002

The first thing Azeb wanted to know about me was if I was on Facebook. After that she got to the less important stuff: Where I was from, if I was married, had kids, believed in God — and what was I doing in southern Ethiopia? Azeb, a 25-year-old business student with big glowing eyes and long dark hair, was born and raised not far from where we were having breakfast. We ended up sitting together when we realized we were the only people in the dining room at the Lesiwon Hotel in Yirgacheffe, the namesake town of a region known to coffee cognoscenti for producing some of Ethiopia’s highest-quality coffee beans.

As Azeb scooped up pieces of her omelet with torn-off hunks of bread, as is the Ethiopian custom, I stabbed at mine with a fork and told her about my travels thus far in her country. But it was something I mentioned in passing that seriously broke the ice. Until this trip — specifically the day prior to our chance encounter, when I had driven down from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to the southern part of the country — I had never seen a coffee tree.

Azeb’s mouth fell open, her head tilted heavenward, and she let out a high-pitched laugh. “You’d never seen a coffee cherry before?” she said, and then she just stared at me, her mouth still agape, as if I’d just casually asked her if airplanes drive on invisible roads in the sky.
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DIY TM_DY_TEMPURA_FI_002

As I glugged cup after cup of canola oil into the pan, my confidence seemed to dissipate. “This is nothing like baking,” I thought. “How much oil is enough? Is this pan even going to work?” I realized I might have crossed into a whole new, unfamiliar world as I stared at my candy thermometer hoping the oil would reach the right temperature for deep-frying tempura. The oil finally reached 360°F, but then it started to go over. Removing the pan from the burner, I waited for it to cool, but then it dipped below 360°F. So I placed it back on the burner, where it didn’t heat up quickly enough, so I had to crank the heat, and of course, it went over that magic number again. At this point, I was really getting sick of deep-frying and thought I better stick to what I know. And this was before I splashed boiling hot oil into my eye.

You see, when it comes to me and cooking Asian food at home, I don’t have the best track record. I can pipe roses out of frosting, bake three pies in one day, or craft the perfect tart crust with one hand tied behind my back. But I still can’t even get the simplest stir fry right. At this point, I know to just call for take-out or make reservations when I get a craving for Chinese, or Japanese, or Thai – and for a person who loves cooking, that’s just sad. But lately, I’ve been getting a little antsy thinking how much salt and MSG is in my takeout order. So when my latest craving hit, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at making my own tempura at home.
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First Person TM_FP_MANGO_FI_003_

There was a plate of sliced mangoes on our table. Yet again. For probably the twentieth day in a row. This was the tradition for as long as I can remember; mangoes were daily essentials during the spring and summer months in my Indian household.

“Eat mango every day so your body can stock up on fiber for the year!” my mom said to me. She said it like fiber was a tough thing to come across. Plate after plate, mango after mango. By the end of the season I was absolutely sick of them. My taste buds have been repelling mangoes, when taken in excess, for years. By day three of the three-month-long stretch, I’m usually scolded if I don’t finish the golden fruit.

“Finish your mango! They’re expensive and ripe only this time of year!”
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Bookshelf TM_BK_SOUTHERN_FI_002

Brys Stephens’  The New Southern Table explores classic Southern ingredients such as okra, lima beans, peaches, and pecans through recipes inspired by cuisines from around the world. In this excerpt, he tackles collard greens with recipes that go well beyond the “mess o’ greens”. The book is available now on QBookshopAmazon and at your local bookstore.

As a child, I mostly knew collards as that wet mess of overcooked greens in a small bowl alongside chicken or pork chops in a countrystyle meat-and-three (a casual, country-style restaurant common in the South, usually serving a choice of one meat dish and a choice of three vegetable dishes). At home, we always seemed to prefer spinach and cabbage. Traveling in France, Italy, and the Middle East years later and seeing how folks cooked with chard and kale, I realized collards could be incorporated into all kinds of dishes in the same quick-cook way as those greens.

Since moving to the Lowcountry, where collards grow year-round in the moderate climate and sandy soils of the sea islands (including in my garden on Sullivan’s Island), I’ve made collards one of my staple greens. They do well in both the heat and the cold, unlike other greens with more delicate leaves. They tend to be sweeter in the colder months after they’ve gone through a frost, and they are usually less bitter than mustard greens, turnip greens, and broccoli rabe, though more so than chard and kale. They usually take a little longer to cook than those greens because their leaves are sturdier, and younger collards with smaller leaves cook pretty quickly.
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Letter From California TM_ORANGE_FI_001

I grew up in the frigid northeast, so I know what a jerk I sound like to all of you winter-locked folks when I tell you that, as of mid-March, the orange trees behind my Los Angeles house were in bloom. The flowers are early this year – according to the Porterville Recorder (the local paper for Porterville, CA, which is about 160 miles north of LA) an official citrus bloom isn’t usually declared until after April 1. But the recent summery temperatures have brought the bloom on early, and the small white flowers smell amazing. The scent reminds me of opening a bottle of Pond’s Cold Cream as a child – a deep, rich perfume that begs to be inhaled and re-inhaled.

Despite this lovely blossoming, most of the recent news about oranges has not been good. In fact, oranges have had such negative press recently, you’d think that they were Lindsay Lohan on a post-comeback bender*. There are a couple things working against the poor orange. First of all, orange juice sales in the United States have slid by 29% over the last decade. OJ has been losing its place as a breakfast health-food drink** – people have finally realized that juice can have as many calories and as much sugar as soda. And the scandals about how our orange juice is prepared don’t help, either. A few years ago, it was revealed that “not from concentrate” doesn’t mean that juice isn’t processed – in fact, that juice will sit in vats for up to a year, and before it goes to stores, it’s reinvigorated with a taste-boosting “flavor pack” that’s created from oranges, so it doesn’t have to be listed on the bottle as a separate ingredient.***
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The Brew TM_BR_TRAPPIST_FI_005_1

The disciplined lifestyle of a Cistercian monk is structured by a steadfast routine. The first prayer starts well before sunrise. A simple breakfast follows, maybe toast and jam, before the next prayer begins. Afterwards, solitary scripture reading occupies the time leading up to the main prayer of the day. By 10 AM or so, it’s time to do some chores. Maybe you’d have a shift doing laundry for the other brothers or performing some repairs around the monastery. Or perhaps, if you resided at one of a select few abbeys of the Trappist sub-group, you’d fill the time between Mass and dinner dumping malted barley into a mash tun full of what will soon become some of the world’s most highly regarded beer. For hundreds of years monks have sustained their way of life financially through the sale of handmade goods, beer included. Unchanged for many years, the Trappist brewing community was content with brewing a select few beers and brewing them well. Through a recent flurry of activity, however, they have made their high-quality ales more relevant than ever before.
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Bookshelf

Spring by the Pint

Preserving the taste of spring, one small batch at a time

by

TM_BK_PRESPINT_AP_001Table Matters readers will recognize Marisa McClellan from her columns here – The Larder and The Whole Chicken Project – and from her much-loved blog about canning and more, Food in Jars. Her latest book, Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces focuses on canning, not bushels of vegetables, but pounds and pints – amounts we can all get at the farmers’ market. Preserving by the Pint is available now on Amazon and at your local bookstore.

There is a year-round farmers’ market just a couple of blocks from my apartment. I go to it nearly every Saturday morning to pick up eggs, honey, and whatever local, seasonal produce is available. In the summer and fall, the bounty is downright flamboyant, with tables piled high to overflowing with lettuces, zucchini, and peaches. Winter means pears, Brussels sprouts, and sturdy orange squash. The most meager time of year is very early spring. The storage apples are sad and good only for baking, and there are still weeks to go before the first stalks of asparagus arrive. It can be a challenge to keep up the weekly market visit when so little is new and truly fresh.
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Bookshelf TM_BK_HARVEST_FI_001_1

Max Watman’s new memoir Harvest: Field Notes from a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food, depicts the author’s quest for real food and real farm life – minus the farm. This excerpt is his cautionary tale of raising chickens – “The Girls” – in his Hudson Valley backyard. Harvest is available now from W.W. Norton and Company, on Amazon and at your local bookstore.

We named our chickens Goldie, Pepper, Karen, and Penguin. Goldie was a Buff Orpington hen, the biggest of the girls and the leader — the top of the pecking order. She was a very good-looking bird, with soft feathers the color of straw — so good looking, in fact, that when I lent her to a neighbor girl who entered her in a country fair, she won a blue ribbon as a perfect example of her breed. I liked to pretend that she lorded this victory over her coop mates. Goldie had been out there in the world. She’d seen things, and she’d taken her prize. She was the most cosmopolitan of the chickens.

Pepper and Penguin were Blue (a color more like slate, really) Ameraucanas, with little pea combs and muffs around their faces; the eggs they laid had pale blue-green shells. Penguin was not much by way of personality, but Pepper was the smartest and most daring of the chickens. She was the one who would hop up onto people’s shoulders and was always out of the coop first when I opened the gate to let them run around in the yard. Karen was a Golden Laced Wyandotte. She was lovely to look at but slightly dumber than the rest: she was easily confused by obstacles — she would stand in front of a twig, unable to go around or over it, or she would doubt her ability to squeeze through a door that wasn’t open all the way. She liked cozy spaces and seemed to find comfort in a slot between a dense bush and the fence. She was very easy to catch. One got the feeling that Karen was a sweetheart.

Penguin died early, before she was two years old, of what I termed sudden chicken death syndrome — she simply dropped. I walked out to the coop and she was lying in a heap by the watering fount. It was a sad, mysterious moment but very much the sort of thing to which one must be inured. To care for chickens is to carry their corpses. They are vulnerable birds. Insects can beat a chicken in a fair fight if they get themselves organized. The birds are susceptible to all sorts of maladies and mishaps. Most of all, everything likes to eat chickens.
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Cheese TM_CH_CHEESE_FI_001

With so many well-stocked and diverse food stores at our disposal, it’s difficult to imagine that we could possibly be missing out on anything – including cheese. In fact, some cheese counters are so daunting, it would take months to eat your way through every option. But the hunks we find at even the most well-endowed cheese shops are just a tiny sliver of everything the world has to offer.

There are several interconnected reasons for the relatively limited selection of foreign cheeses in the United States. Bureaucratic institutions make international compliance with food quality regulations difficult, if not impossible. Small-scale operations abroad rarely have the means or the desire to change their ways to comply with foreign standards, and feel little incentive to give up their traditional methods when there is enough enthusiasm for their product as-is at home.

“They’re not going to make more unless they’re entrepreneurial and value making money,” says Emilio Mignucci, Vice President of Product Pioneering at DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia (and a third-generation member of the store’s eponymous family). Mignucci was, of course, pointing to many cheesemakers’ reluctance to change their traditional ways for capital gain. “They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years.”
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