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Archive for September, 2006

No bamn good

bamn-inside4.jpgNew York is a fast city. People here walk fast, talk fast, think fast, and yes, eat fast. Whether or not this is actually a virtue can be argued, but the fact remains that for many hungry New Yorkers mealtime is just another tiresome task. Take a look at the faces of the people tapping their feet while waiting in line – there’s one thought written clearly across their brows: “Listen, buddy, you’ve got to pick up the pace. You have exactly 30 seconds to assemble that Free-range Chipotle Smoked Turkey Wrap, because I have to get back to my cubicle!

According to the website of Bamn, New York City’s brand spanking new automat, the goal of the eatery is to offer “tasty, inexpensive, real food for people on the go.” The main problem with that objective is that New York already does that quite well without coin-operated machines. And the choices are endless. Sure there’s the standard fast-food joints, but there are also scores of independently owned restaurants specializing in virtually every flavor of carry-out – sandwiches, salads, pizza, sushi, Mexican, Korean deli buffets, etc. And let’s not forget about the vast prepared foods section of Whole Foods.

Okay, so the concept of the automat is nifty. I can imagine that back in 1902, when the first Horn and Hardart automat opened in Philadelphia, the process of sliding a nickel into a slot and being able to fetch your own portion of food was novel. In today’s world, however, nearly everything is automated… perhaps a bit too much. Metrocards have replaced tokens, paychecks are strictly direct deposit, and debit cards are inching us towards a cashless society. I’m not feeling nostalgic for something automated. If anything, I’m feeling nostalgic for some slow food – you know, a tablecloth and a real, talking waiter.

Bamn certainly fits into its living quarters on its kitschy neon stretch of St. Marks Place. Passing by tattoo shops, Tokyo style beer halls, and NYU students rocking the latest post-new-wave fashion statements, the obnoxiously pink exterior and interior of Bamn is rad. When I stopped by, the gawkers outnumbered the eaters by at least 5 to 1, but I was ready to pony up to the change machine to stock up on coins.

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Five dollars and a few greasy bites later, I realized that the slogan of Bamn should be: “Bland, deep-fried food for those who don’t mind being suckered out of their laundry quarters.”

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The choices are mostly standard – chicken nuggets, burgers, grilled cheese – with a few interesting additions, like a spam sandwich and the macaroni and cheese “kroket,” a deep fried lump of the cheesy noodles. The flavors, however, were best left in the garbage can. It’s not often that I find myself thinking, hmmm, you know, McDonald’s really does that better. And the macaroni and cheese kroket seemed a little too much like Kraft Mac N’ Cheese, so much so that I wondered if it actually was. I mean, come on, can you at least make your own?

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I can’t really imagine that Bamn will have any repeat customers, unless they of the college-age drunken variety. With so many other good cheap choices in the area, the cuteness of the pink automat quickly dissipates. What else can I say? I was suckered.

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Lucca, we only just met

lucca-house5.jpg When I bought the Sunday Times today and was practicing my customary flip-through spot check to make sure that all sections were intact, the cover of the travel section suddenly looked very familiar — hey! I’ve been there! Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s onto the charms of Lucca, Italy. In today’s paper, food writer and minimalist Mark Bittman explores why Lucchese cuisine is richer and more deliciously complex than that of surrounding Tuscany. Bittman even dined at Trattoria Da Leo, where I also spent my first evening in Lucca, savoring rustic Chianti and tortelli e brodo and listening to Italian women at the next table profess their love for the most beautiful bambino the Lord ever created.; The food in Lucca is certainly rich, and wonderfully satisying in a simple, straightforward way. As for the town itself, from the quiet shuttered houses to the ornately carved churches, Lucca is quite simply, lovely.

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Freestyle cooking

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I have a confession to make. My eyes are bigger than my stomach. No matter what’s on my mental shopping list, a few extra ingredients always make their way into my basket. It’s not potato chips or sweets I’m after, though. I love ingredients – spices, grains, sweeteners, etc. The quirkier, the more obscure the ingredient, the more I’m drawn to it. Foreign lettering on the package and/or ventures outside of Manhattan to buy the food items are a plus. Doesn’t every dedicated chef need millet, quinoa, Israeli cous cous, wheatberries, farro, bulghur, corn meal, corn flour, hominy and rolled oats to make their kitchen complete?

I never have a specific meal in mind, but rather a fuzzy date in the future when I will wow my friends with ingredients they can’t even pronounce. Every now and then, when the packages are beginning to grow a bit dusty and when opening a cabinet means getting smacked in the head by a package of pomegranate seeds, I know that it’s time for freestyle cooking. This is when I thoroughly examine the cupboard and pick out a new ingredient or two. I throw in a few things from the fridge and maybe a piece of fish or meat and, well, hope for the best.

I’m an amateur, and I don’t claim to be otherwise. Most of the time, I have no idea what I’m doing. But with the subconscious knowledge of food gleaned from many a magazine or newspaper article, along with the tidbits I’ve learned in restaurants, I mix and match my ingredients as I go. I believe that with a little bit of information and a big craving, the results will always be at least passable.

Last week, I broke out two of my ingredients that had been languishing in the back of the cupboard – Himalayan red rice from Kalustyans (a.k.a. the hoarder’s mecca) and Japanese panko bread crumbs. Sort of related, right? Okay, not at all, but here’s how things went… First, I assembled all of my other ingredients – a fillet of wild Alaskan salmon (in season right now), shitake mushrooms, ginger, limes, garlic, soy sauce, grapeseed oil, celery, onion, chicken stock and fresh spinach (yes, it’s in a bag, but last week = pre-spinach-paranoia).

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Most of this meal took very little time to assemble or cook. The Himalayan Red Rice was by far the slowest item. It took much longer to cook than ordinary rice, maybe even a bit longer than brown rice. Let’s just say that I was able to answer the final question on Jeopardy, respond to about ten emails, update my podcasts and read the entire day’s gossip on Gawker. Once the rice had thoroughly absorbed the stock, I popped the salmon in one pan, the spinach in a second, and the sliced shitakes in a third. Five minutes later, voila! Instant presto freestyle meal number one.

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Lest I forget about the wine, for my cobbled together freestyle meal, I took myself down to the local wine shop to see how far a ten dollar bill could go. In the back of my mind, I was thinking New Zealand sauvignon blanc, because I wanted a crisp, light-to-medium bodied white wine with tropical notes. Unfortunately, the New Zealand shelf contained nothing under $15, so I picked the next logical choice for well-made, inexpensive whites – South America. manta-wine-bottle2.jpgA torrontes from Argentina flirted with me, but I didn’t want to risk opening a wine that was too floral for my gingery soy sauce flavored salmon. After considering some steel-aged chardonnay, I went back to my first grape varietal – sauvignon blanc—but this time from the Central Valley of Chile, a great place to find very inexpensive, simple table wines with character. Made by Casa Julia Estate, the wine I chose was named “Manta,” a reference to the traditional work apron worn by the indigenous peoples of Chile, according to the label. In fact, the wine is even dedicated to the estate’s harvest workers. Casa Julia Estate also practices sustainable winemaking. Truly, have you ever seen another wine so perfectly marketed to Upper West Side NPR-listening New York Times-reading oenophiles? I wonder how much of the wine the workers actually get to consume… Anyway! The good news for me is that the wine came in at $6.99, well below my target price. As for tasting notes, it was a perfect match for my meal. The wine was light-bodied, with fresh acidity and a multitude of fruit notes – mainly lime and citrus, with undertones of tropical fruit and even some herbal notes. All in all, thanks migrant workers for a tasty quaff!

Oh, and on a final note, since the rice went forth and multiplied like nothing I’ve ever seen, I had plenty for a late breakfast/early lunch the next day – gently rewarmed in a little bit of butter, topped with spinach and a big ole fried runny egg.

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In recent edible news

modern-spork.jpgJust when you thought that the spork couldn’t possibly be improved upon, the New York Times reports that Swedish designer Joachim Nordwall has created an updated version for a hiking gear company called Light My Fire. Rather than combine the bowl of the spoon with the tines of the fork, Nordwall has placed each on opposing ends – think kayak paddle – and added a serrated metal edge to one side of the fork end. This sturdy plastic new all-in-one utensil comes in a Lifesavers array of colors, and while it’s meant for camping, it might also find a home in the lunchbox. One question though – how are you supposed to use the knife if you have without something to anchor the food? Hmmm…

What do the results of the recent presidential election in Mexico have to do with the country’s steadily declining consumption of traditional masa tortillas? In a fascinating article for Grist, Tom Philpott draws the connection between conservative Mexican policies and the rise in price of handmade corn tortillas. Apparently, cheap white bread is making headway in Mexican supermarkets. Just the image of a taco wrapped in Wonderbread gives me the willies.

According to Newsday, New York State is about to receive a bumper crop of apples – an estimated 25 million bushels! apples.jpgFrom Newton Pippins to Jonagolds, local farmers’ markets will soon be bursting with varieties beyond the standard Red Delicious. Since a little cold storage goes a long way in keeping apples fresh well into the winter and spring, there’s time to try them all. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but what about apple pie, apple strudel, applesauce, apple chutney, apple butter and of course, apple cider? Let the recipes begin!

jancisnew.jpg In her column in London’s Financial Times, world renowned wine geek/goddess Jancis Robinson details the process of editing the third edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine, which now contains some 3,900 entries. While to some, the hefty tome seems like a killer doorstop, to most in the wine world, it’s as good as the Holy Word. New entries include winemaking advances in Denmark, thanks to global warming, as well as a description of the decrease in Russian wine consumption partly caused by an aggressive anti-alcohol campaign headed by former Commie Ringleader Gorbachev.

And lastly, one of my favorite food magazines, Chow, was recently reborn as an internet publication. Though it’s print days were glorious but short-lived, the first pages of the new internet edition seem promising. Since the company that nows owns Chow also recently acquired Chowhound, the two websites are now linked together. Welcome back, Chow!

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schooldesk2.jpgWhen I walked out my front door this morning, uniformed children were galloping in through the gates of the school across the street, lunchboxes swinging in little hands. The air was just a touch cooler, the sun a bit more golden. Combine those facts with the box of ginger snaps sitting in my cupboard, and there’s one indisputable conclusion. Summer’s over! Today was day number one at my new job. I’m working in the office at a fancy schmancy wine importer in Manhattan, where I’ll hopefully begin to learn about the business of importing and distributing fine wines across the New York area and beyond. The importer’s portfolio is pretty nice — heavy on the Old World wines with a definant slant towards modern vineyards that employ traditional, natural methods. And there’s even a few loony moon worshippers in the mix.

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What does it all mean?

Spotted on my walk home a few months ago, propped up against a lamppost on the sidewalk…

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And then yesterday evening, I walked along the edge of the marina. On the left, a fence guards the stone walkway from the brackish water. On the right, baby trees nestled in woodchips stand before white balconies that peer down upon the ranks of sailboats. Out of the darkness a bench jumped into view. One of these things is not like the other… Piled in front was a haphazard stack of vintage clothing patterns – a size 6 here and size 12 there – perhaps 60 worn-edge packages in all. On this otherwise manicured path, the musty pile stood as a rebuke to everything ordered and ordinary. I sat down and picked up the pattern lying on top.

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ecoli.jpgGetting children and some adults to eat their veggies just got a little harder. As you read this, refrigerators across America are being yanked open and bags of fresh spinach are sailing into the garbage can. Since last week, states from coast to coast have reported over 100 bacterial infections caused by the dreaded E. coli bacteria, with one death in Wisconsin. The source has been traced to Natural Selection Foods, an organic grower based in San Juan Batista, California. Natural Selection sells their spinach and other salad greens under a host of private labels, including all the big names – Earthbound, Ready Pac, Trader Joe’s and about fifteen others. As a precaution, the FDA is advising all Americans to toss all pre-packaged bags of raw spinach.

This unfortunate situation points to a much larger problem. According to the Department of Agriculture, more than half of our country’s spinach is grown in Monterey County, California. And though it’s the height of harvest season nationwide, this tainted Monterey County spinach has found it’s way into kitchens from Connecticut to Utah. When we centralize our food system to this degree, and giant industrial farms produce giant crops to be cleaned and packaged in giant facilities, outbreaks such as the current one will be widespread and hard to contain. Spinach today and what tomorrow?

And the fact that this mess has been traced to an organic farm is just the ironic icing on the cake. The organic label was originally created to indicate a product outside the industrial food chain and therefore a wiser choice. When organic farms become large-scale international operations plagued by the the same problems that caused them to abandon the original food chain, then what does the organic label really mean anymore?

I’ll be at the greenmarket looking for local spinach if you need me.

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