November 19, 2010

Kitchen hit parade

David's picture of Julia Child's kitchen, now on display at the Smithsonian
A nice piece of kitchen synergy: I wrote this Edible Manhattan article about Counterspace: Design and the Modern Kitchen an enticing box of eye candy now on view at MoMA for those who love design, architecture and cooking. Then my friend David Craig, featured these classic kitchens in his blog. If you're longing to be in the kitchen but powerful forces preventing that from happening, here's the solution.

November 14, 2010

The West Village's real meat market: Florence Prime

One of my favorite West Village rituals is to drop in on Florence Prime Meat Market (5 Jones Street) on a weekday afternoon. Free of weekend lineups, the crew, fronted by the efficient Maria Alava at the register, is cheerful and relaxed, its mood enhanced by the soothing classical music that always fills the store.

It’s the kind of place with sawdust on the floor, framed charts of beef cuts on the walls, handsaws hanging from hooks. The wooden butcher blocks have been worn concave with use, and the scales and meat case date back to the FDR administration. Many of Florence’s employees have been there as long as owner Benny Pizzuco, since 1995. “Once in a while one or two of the delivery boys change, but they all start out with a broom,” says Benny. “We we don’t start with butchers; they come with bad habits. They have to be taught our way.”

Although Benny worked as a butcher on Long Island before coming to Florence, he still studied the Florence way as an employee for several years before buying the shop in 1995 from previous owner Tony Pellegrino. Tony took over in 1975, but the shop has been around since 1936, when a butcher named Jack Ubaldi first opened its doors.

“We’re one of the last actual prime custom shops in the city,” says Benny. “Walk into other places and everything is cut already.” Pizzuco says he has one or two customers who have been coming to the store since it opened (or their parents did), though most are gone. A number of long-time customers have moved to the suburbs, but still make the drive in on Saturdays to pick up their weekly order.

Pizzuco takes pride in his beef, dry aged for up to three weeks and hand cut to order, handmade sausages, and his seasoned veal roasts, offered two ways: one with prosciutto, pepper, rosemary and garlic, and the other with spinach, sausage and herbs. “The seasoning goes where it belongs, on the inside,” he says.

This Thanksgiving , as every year, Florence is taking pre-orders for natural fresh turkeys, fresh duck, squab and quail, which Benny gets from a farmer in Pennsylvania with whom he’s had a longstanding relationship. On my last visit, one regular wanted to make sure that her turkey would be a wild one. They’re a little tougher, and a little gamier, an acquired taste that is a badge of honor among those who possess it.

Certain info is proprietary at Florence, such as the name of Benny’s turkey supplier, and how exactly he cuts his Newport steaks. The Newport, said to have been invented at Florence, is still one of its top sellers. It is a type of tri-tip, normally a grainy, triangular-shaped muscle from the bottom sirloin of the cow, but somehow rendered much more appetizing by the butchers at Florence.

“When Jack opened the place, it was very bohemian around here,” Benny explains. “People were really starving artists. He came up with this fairly reasonable cut.” (Still reasonable, it sells for $7.99 a pound at Florence.) The name came from the package of Newport cigarettes, which featured a half moon logo. “Back then it was fashionable, though today it might bother people.”

Don’t even get Benny started on the vagaries of outer-borough food stores and cheap meat. “To be honest witcha (one of Benny’s favorite sentence starters) all of those businesses, the meat market, the food store, the fish store, once you leave Manhattan, they’re gone; not enough people are interested in food to support a place like this. The stuff at Costco is horrible, untrimmed, in a bloody plastic bag. Why would you want to spend six-ninety-nine a pound for a steak when you eat only fifty percent of it?” he asks.

Anyway, back to the secret of that tender Newport. Benny will reveal that it is only partly tri-tip, and so more prime and tender. But he prefers not to divulge this “seventy-something-year-old secret.”

That’s okay with me. I’m happy that Benny has such secrets, and that Florence is still here to maintain them.

Florence Prime Meat Market
5 Jones Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
New York, NY 10014
(212) 242-6531

November 11, 2010

Joël Robuchon makes magic on 57th Street

Whenever the boss is in town, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the Four Seasons Hotel crackles with an extra jolt of electricity. Today, the Robuchon force field was so powerful that his team of precision alchemists turned out a feast for the ages, what for me was the best meal of my life.

The occasion was hosted by M. Bernard Margez, the French wine magnate who owns 36 vineyards in eight countries and champions the idea of micro-cuvées, limited-production wines from vineyards that lack the cachet of the great terroirs. Margez has teamed up with the exporter Maison Joanne and is ready to spread his message and his product in the U.S.

So there were ravishing wines, notably a 2007 Château Pape Clément white, and double magnums of 1986 Château Pape Clément red, from the Pessac-Léognan region of Bordeaux, where wine has been made since 1252. Magret apologized for his English, quoted Montaigne on friendship, and thanked the Americans, without whose intervention in World War II, he said, “we would be speaking German today.”
Sommelier Jason Wagner

It was Robuchon’s food, however that stole the day for me: sea urchin in a domed glass cup covered in a white tea and carrot mouseline, king crab in a thin turnip ravioli with rosemary, sea bass surrounded by an ethereal lemongrass foam and stewed baby leeks, sliced wagyu rib-eye scented with wasabi. The wonder of Robuchon’s cooking and his menu is its simplicity and perfect artistry. He keeps his descriptions short, and throws in tiny accents, like the unheralded miniature enoki mushroom caps and the crispy pearl onion rings that helped make the wagyu dish soar.
Le Mikado: light chocolate cream with crackly strudel and intense coffee dome

When he made his appearance, the chef, who commands 26 Michelin stars in 16 cities around the world, was gracious and charming, hardly the exacting taskmaster he is known to be in the kitchen. During my interview with Robuchon in 2006 at the time of his New York Atelier launch, he revealed that he has a weakness for gadgets. On this trip, the man who sings the praises of a simply grilled baby lamb over a wood fire and strives to strip food down to its unadorned essence said he satisfied another craving: he bought an iPad.

November 10, 2010

Thai food via Harold Dieterle lands in the West Village

One of the very few disappointments of New York City dining has been the lack of great Thai restaurants. Los Angeles, even Boston, had more to offer in this category when I lived in those cities, the great Sripraphai in Woodside notwithstanding.

Suddenly, however, we Villagers are graced with two pedigreed newcomers. I haven't tried Las Vegas import Lotus of Siam, at 9th Street and Fifth Avenue yet, but happily dug into Harold Dieterle's take on Thai at Kin Shop on Sixth Avenue at 11th Street.. The winner of the first season of Top Chef had no background in Thai cooking, but a trip to Thailand made such a deep impression he immersed himself in the cuisine and made it the animating passion of his second restaurant.

Like Dieterle's first venture, Perilla, on nearby Jones Street, Kin Shop's decor is modest, clean and modern, in this case done up in watery blues and greens and soothing Thai prints.

We loved California's Uncommon Breweries Siamese Twin Ale, a malty, Belgian-style amber infused with lemongrass and kaffir lime. It got along famously with a deeply flavored steamed pork meatball soup with bok choy and a grilled wagyu beef rib cap salad with fiery pickled cauliflower, gooseberries, and mint bathed in a fish sauce dressing. There was vinegary grilled egglplant, showered with sesame seeds and biting black pepper, and bay scallops in a mild curry were marred only slightly by stringy  snap peas (something I've encountered lately in other green market snap peas). A comforting braised goat in Massaman curry showed off what Dieterle's Western culinary training brings to the table, slow cooked meats in favor of the more traditional Thai-style quick-firedproteins.

It's fantastic to have Kin Shop in the neighborhood, but stepping out into the cold on Sixth Avenue reminded us why at any price point, New York is a great eating town. Next door, a man stood in front of Ray's Pizza, an open box in his hand, scarfing a slice while his black lab sat by his side, panting eagerly after a taste. "He's had more pepperoni than I have," the man told us, just a tad defensively..


November 7, 2010

Pots and Pans 101

Since I love cookware, I jumped at the chance to interview the owner of Broadway Panhandler, Norman Kornbleuth, who’s been in the business of outfitting New York kitchens since 1976. He knows a thing or two about pots and pans, since he’s been surrounded by them since the early 1940s when he was a five-year-old at play in his father’s institutional kitchen supply store on the Bowery.

Some of the more inside-Kitchen-Stadium details I picked up during my tour of BP with Kornbleuth didn’t make it into my Edible Manhattan Story, Worth the Trip. So for those of you who live for discussions about the conductivity of aluminum, copper, or cast iron, this blog post is for you.

The cast iron corner of the store (65 E. 8th Street) is given over to Lodge Logic brand pots, pans and other specialty items, such as molds for baking biscuits and corn-shaped cornbread. The company has been around for over 100 years, and Kornbleuth loves the fact that it’s still family owned, as are many of the businesses with which he maintains decades-old ties. The Pittsburgh, Tenn.-based company’s griddles have been a staple of military kitchens through many a foreign war, can take heat at full blast and leave impressive grill marks. Plus, as they become seasoned, they develop a non-stick quality without the chemicals of treated surfaces. If you think plain old cast iron is too campfire for your kitchen, French maker Le Creuset dresses it up in colored enamels, akin to throwing a sparkly jacket over your jumper to go from office to evening out.

It is copper, however, that is the king of conductivity, if expensive (a 3-piece starter set will run you $900) and high maintenance. It heats up with lightning speed and cools down almost as fast, so delicate foods and sauces don’t overcook. It’s so conductive, in fact, says Kornbleuth, that first-time users often burn foods. The Bourgeat brand that Broadway Panhandler carries is lined with a very thin layer of stainless steel; when copper comes in direct contact with food it emits harmful chemicals. Unlined copper, however, Kornbleuth told me, is extremely good for the non-reactive processes of melting sugar and beating egg whites. In the old days, copper was tin plated on one side, and nickel plated on the other, which meant that you had to re-tin your pots periodically. Two other drawbacks are that copper is a very soft metal and scratches easily, and that with use, it oxidizes and turns a dark, greenish hue.

The next best thing in kitchen conductivity is aluminum. BP sells inexpensive, straight aluminum cookware to restaurants. Yet since it also is reactive (for example it can discolor a white sauce and impart a faint metallic taste), most aluminum these days is coated. In the late 1960s, an American named John Ulam patented a bonding technology that used heat and pressure to create a non-reactive sandwich of stainless steel and aluminum. His invention became All-Clad, which is manufactured in Pittsburgh and now includes a copper core line. It’s great at delivering heat evenly and efficiently, and is one of my kitchen standbys.

Although he looks at every new pot and pan on the market, Kornbleuth remains old school in his preferences. Except for delicate fish filets and egg dishes, he asserts, there is no need for treated surfaces if you bring cooking oil up to the proper temperature before sautéing or frying and avoid cooking foods straight out of the refrigerator.

“We don’t’ believe strongly in coated surfaces,” he told me, “but we have started to sell ceramic coating, which Is an excellent substitute for non-stick.” Although it seems to me most chefs turn a blind eye to the evidence that Teflon emits toxic gases (after all, these are the people who bring all their imagination to bear on pork belly and turn humble ingrecients into cassoulet; they’re devoted to making the life we have enjoyable, not necessarily longer), it is good for us home cooks to know that newer ceramic-coated pans use none of the chemicals found in Teflon. Kornbleuth says the Swiss-made Swiss Diamond line features the best of the non-stick surfaces (its surface is actually infused with diamonds and it comes with a lifetime guarantee). He also carries non-stick lines from Cuisinart and Tramontina, and two new Italian lines from Bialetti and Mepra.

Happy cooking!