November 26, 2009

Brussels spouts: what's the big deal?

I'ver never really liked brussels sprouts that much until recently. Husband likes them, so I've experimented with them and finally hit on a style of cooking them that I like: caramelized  in oil and buttter until they are dark and crisp. I got to thinking about how they are such an autumn vegetable, associated with Thanksgiving and other holiday repasts when chef Jonathan Waxman (who really knows how to cook the little sprouts) recently outlined his Barbuto Thanksgiving menu for me. He says he's had some of the best brussels sprouts of his life in the Haut-Savoie region of France. Food historian Alan Davidson says the mini cabbage heads popped up in French and English gardens only at the end of the 18th century and a little later in North America. I recently tried and liked this method of cooking the bittersweet balls, chef David Shea's version, carmelized with bacon, butter and lemon. Davidson says they are traditionally cooked with roasted chestnuts in Belgium, so that's next!

November 25, 2009

Sarah Bunting, Tomato Nation fundraising powerhouse

I want to tell you the story of Sarah Bunting, an inspiring woman I came across during my adventures in reporting. It’s a story about giving back, so it seems like an appropriate Thanksgiving post. Sarah is the socially conscious (yet funny) blogger who somehow managed to convince her followers to give a lot of money to, a smart organization that allows public school teachers to post their classroom needs on its website. Potential donors can select the worthy project of their choice and donate to that. This year, Sarah inspired 1,128 of her followers to donate $354, 215, which directly helped close to 70,000 students.

Sarah’s the Brooklyn-based co-founder of the site Television Without Pity. When Bravo bought the site in 2007, she retained a good number of readers on a blog she launched, , a kind of “humor, pop culture, catch-all blog,” as she describes it.

The blog and her 10,000 to 15,000 followers came in handy when Sarah learned about Donors Choose five years ago. “At the time, my brother’s girlfriend (now wife), was a public school teacher in a low-income neighborhood on Staten Island,” Sarah says. “She told me her school had run out of paper by October first, and she was giving pop quizzes on paper towels.”

Feeling frustrated with a political climate and administration she didn’t think valued education enough, Bunting was drawn to the educational focus of and issued a call to her followers. “I said, ‘Why don’t we buy these kids a bunch of copies of George Orwell’s 1984? Wouldn’t that be funny? Or how about The Diary of Anne Frank ?’” Although Bunting was joking about the titles she wanted to buy in protest of the Bush Administration, she did make a contest out of the pledge drive in November and December of 2004. To her surprise, her readers donated a total of $23,000.

Curious, a rep from Donors Choose called her, wanting to know where this large donation came from. Bunting explained that although she contributes to a number of causes, most were not transparent about operating costs, and donors couldn’t see how their money was making a difference. She liked that at Donors Choose, teachers can post pictures of their completed projects and donors routinely get thank-you notes from the classes they help.

In the spring of 2006, Bunting told her readers that if they raised $30,000 she would shave her head. Twenty-two days later, her readers had raised the money, and the next day, Bunting shaved her head and posted the video on YouTube

Giving back, explains Bunting, was just part of how she and her brother Dave were brought up: her parents were active in non-profits and they used their children as free envelope stuffing labor.

Donor’s choice, in awe of Bunting’s ability to leverage her social media networking skills to bring in donations, asked her to be a consultant as they launched what they called their Social Media Challenge. Bunting advised Donors Choose on everything from dropping the minimum donation from $20 to no minimum (a lot of small donations can be just as powerful as a few large contributions) to more technical programming issues.

Two years ago, Bunting rented a tomato outfit and did a dance at Rockefeller Center. Last year, Bunting took the plunge and bought her own tomato suit and made good on her pledge by traveling in it to the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

In the five years she has been clowning for a good cause, Bunting has raised a total of close to half a million dollars for Donors Choose.

Every year Bunting creates a launch video for the drive. This year’s is called Bunting’s 11a spoof on “Ocean’s 11.” For meeting this year’s Donors Choose fundraising goal Sarah has promised she’ll go to Atlantic City and play blackjack in her tomato suit. When’s it gonna happen, Sarah? We’ll post the video here when it does.

November 14, 2009

Old school Brooklyn pizza, or newfangled West Village Slice?

I’d been to Grimaldi’s Pizzeria in DUMBO before, but never with a native Brooklynite sporting a tattoo of the Verrazano Bridge and “BKNY64” on his forearm. He was Tony Muia, the mastermind behind the “A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour,” and he peppered our little group with Brooklyn trivia, mob lore, clips of famous movie scenes shot in Brooklyn (“Scent of a Woman,” and “Saturday Night Fever”). Our authentically accented guide pointed out the Army yard where Elvis shipped off Europe during World War II and the kiddie golf course where Tiger Woods first took a swing at a golf ball. He was opinionated, railing against the “Manhattanization of Brooklyn” (ugly high-rises) and shaper-of-New York City Robert Moses (“For his role in us losing the Dodgers to L.A. alone, he should burn in hell”).

There was lots of pizza, too. Grimaldi’s, we learned, is home to the only remaining coal burning pizza oven in the city. The San Marzano tomatoes of its Margherita pizza are pureed but not cooked, the crust is thin and chewy and the mozzarella is fresh. The simplicity, economy of ingredients and deliciousness of this pie are hard to beat.

After a drive-by tour of Red Hook, Bay Ridge, and Bath Beach we ended up in Bensonhurst for our second pizza pit stop: L&B Spumoni Gardens. We’d been marinating in so much Brooklyn lore that we felt we were almost a part of the Gambino crime family, and our palates had been opened to the possibility of crust that was not thin.

L&B has been around since 1939, and luckily has not shortened its now unfashionably thick crust Sicilian-style pizza one millimeter. The crust is almost like focaccia, but a version crafted by a Sicilian grandmother with ties to heavenly beings. The tomato sauce was thick and sweet and the way it blanketed the mozzarella underneath made the cheese seem like a sticky and mysterious extension of the crust. After sprinkling it with Pecorino Romano and eating it, I had to wonder if the thin-crust craze was manufactured by a bunch of low-carb zealots who just wanted everyone else to suffer, too.

But wait, what does all this Brooklyn stuff have to do with my main beat, the West Village? Where we lost Hudson Street’s Pizza Lucca, and will soon be getting a pie place called “Slice,” which specializes in “natural and organic” pizza “that won’t drench your stomach or face with grease”? Slice’s menu touts herb crust, part-skim organic mozzarella and vegan and nut-free basil pesto among its pizza offerings (rice mozzarella and “Vegan Mozz” $2 extra per pie).

There are a lot of great things about the West Village, but Brooklyn pizza is not one of them. As far as I know, there haven’t been any gangland killings here, either.

November 2, 2009

Johnny Iuzzini's dirt cups aren't like your or mine

With his modified pompadour and mutton chops, Johnny Iuzzini resembles a flying Elvis more than the four-star,hydrocolloid-flinging pastry chef that he is. Iuzzini, who creates fantasy desserts for Jean Georges in Manhattan, entertained and fed a crowd yesterday at the annual Chocolate Show, held at the Metropolitan Pavilion on West 18th Street.

I can write about it this event now that I’ve awoken from my cacao- and sugar-induced coma. From what I remember, Iuzzini’s stage patter was highly entertaining and his performance a combination of magic and science show, complete with lovely assistant and chemical compounds. He told the assembled crowd that he grew up in the Catskills, loves Kraft mac and cheese and would just as soon put a perfect peach on a plate as is than gussy it up with fancy chef tricks. He pooh-poohed the term “molecular gastronomy.” The audience could relate to him.

Iuzzini even picked a classic kid’s dessert to adapt, the Dirt Cup, which I know about because Son and his cooking pal Matt love them and make them, usually with Cool Whip, packaged chocolate pudding mix, crushed Oreos and a lot of chocolate syrup. Iuzzini took this supermarket kids’ concoction and decided he would ditch the typical “make at home” cooking demo. “I’m going to make something there’s no way you could possibly do at home,” he told the crowd.

The tattooed chef brought out the peristaltic pump, the seaweed extract iota carrageenan and the hand-held blender and gave the crowd a little chemistry lesson, explaining how how hydrocolloids need water to be activated, how gums are sheared into liquids, and how they “swell, gel and give viscosity” to the chocolate pudding and chocolate gummy worms he was making. Putting eggs in chocolate pudding is for amateurs, said Iuzzini, because although they lend creaminess, they mask the “true in-your-face-smack-you-up” chocolatey-ness of the dessert. Instead, a bit of iota carrageenan, which binds best with dairy products, give the pudding its body without sacrificing flavor.

After demonstrating how to make the gummy worms and the pudding, Iuzzini had his bevy of young female assistants hand out the finished Four-Star Dirt Cups, multi-textured extravaganzas that included a cake-like base, the eggless pudding, cocoa nibs and wheat-based chocolate “pearls” for crunch, some micro basil leaves, Maldon sea salt, chocolate agar sponge rectangles, and the extruded chocolate gummy worms.

Iuzzini was right: it was nothing I wanted to attempt at home. Copies of his book, Dessert FourPlay: Sweet Quartets from a Four-Star Pastry Chef, however sold out at the fair’s Barnes and Noble booth. There are plenty of people, it seems, who like the idea of kitchen chemistry.

Every year, the Manhattan Fruit Exchange at Chelsea Market puts on a great display of carved pumpkins, like the one on the right. The overhead fall foliage graced a walk in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Then of course there's the great Jack O' Lantern display in Abington Square Park every Halloween. Pumpkins are set out a week before the big day for residents and local businesses to take and carve. On Halloween, they are returned and the park lawn fills up with pumpkins. I took the picture at the far left early in the evening, before all the pumpkins had come home to roost.