May 27, 2011

Food Truck Madness

You can barely toss an arepa in New York City these days without hitting a food truck of some sort or another. Now there’s a whole book about it, Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels, by Heather Shouse.

One of the nice things about this book is that it covers the two ends of the food truck spectrum: the Jamaicans, Cubans, Indians and other immigrants whose trucks cater to their own communities, and “the gourmand with social media savvy and a flush audience of followers.”  The first category entered its golden age after immigration quotas were lifted in 1965, writes Shouse. Up until then, street vendors consisted mostly of Greek and other European immigrants (not that there’s anything wrong with gyros). Today, there are halal carts in Midtown, and pan- everything: pan-Latin, pan-Asian and pan-Arab carts. You could never sit down at a restaurant and eat pretty well for a year, I bet.

For would-be food truck moguls, the big problem in New York is obtaining a permit to legally operate these rolling cash generators. There are 2,800 permits available for the entire city, Shouse reports, plus an additional 50 per borough. The waiting line is longer than the Brooklyn Bridge, she adds; I've heard hopefuls who claim it takes special pull at City Hall to somehow actually snag one. Shouse says that on any given day, you can buy a “turnkey” mobile kitchen for $20,000 to $30,000 through Craig’s List. But the operation with a two-year citywide permit? That will cost you $80,000.

Food Trucks covers the country, and in New York, highlights NY Dosas (which has fan clubs in Japan, Canada and San Francisco!) run by Sri Lankan immigrant Thiru Kumar; The Arepa Lady, 65-year-old Columbian  Maria Piedad Cano, who turns out cheese and chorizo cornmeal arepas; Jamaican Dutchy, the Bob Marley-blasting jerk chicken slinging brainchild of O’Neil Reid;  Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, the passion of Juilliard-trained classical bassoonist Doug Quint, and Abdul Sami Khan’s Trini Paki Boys halal curry chicken cart at 43rd St. and 6th Ave.

At a recent event I attended sponsored by the catering company Great Performances and Edible Manhattan, GP CEO Liz Neumark proudly announced that her company now has its own The Katchkie Truck. Named after GP’s 60-acre organic farm in Kinderhook, NY, it spends six days a week at Wave Hill and Mondays at GP’s 304 Hudson Street headquarters (between Spring and Vandam Sts.). The emphasis is, fittingly, on vegetarian dishes, including a veggie slider with feta cream on a brioche bun and a mozzarella and tomato sandwich with Katchkie Farm pesto on ciabatta.
The Katchkie Truck

Finally, just as I was about to write this little report, I saw Rozanne Gold’s latest post, on a discovery her son made: The Roamin’ Cannoli truck in San Bruno, Ca. Sounds right up my alley. Maybe not as exotic as the braised lamb cheeks sandwich from Spencer on the Go in San Francisco, or the potato poutine from Potato Champion in Portland, Ore., but one that Ferrara or Villabate could do well with here. Get in line for a permit, guys! 

May 16, 2011

Rick Bishop on the challenges of growing the perfect strawberry

Rick Bishop, left, and one of his many fans, chef Dan Kluger, whose ABC Kitchen just took home the best new restaurant James Beard Foundation award
Although the term “farm to table” has become a clichĂ©, what it stands for has not. Sophisticated, big-city dining has put the small organic farmer at the center of its universe. In the competition for the first, best and most rarified crops of the season, a good relationship with growers is crucial to chefs.

One of my favorite recent interviews was with Rick Bishop, the extremely talented farmer behind Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in Roscoe, NY. As I detail in this Edible Manhattan story, Rick is beloved by Manhattan's best chefs because he's passionate, engaging, and highly knowledgeable about farming. Most importantly, he can deliver the goods.

Among Rick's most prized crops are his Tri-Star strawberries, a small, delicate and extremely flavorful hybrid that was first introduced by Federal agriculture department breeders in 1981. It doesn't require long sunlight hours like most strawberries, so it can grow over three seasons, from May through October. The Tri-Star thrives in cool climates, perfect for the Catskills, where Rick's farm is located.

To hear Rick talk about what it takes to grow a crop like this is to get a tiny glimpse into the challenges of the small farmer that we hear about, but don't understand on a gut level.

One of the biggest challenges of this berry, for example, is its small fruit size, which means pickers have to pick 45 to 52 berries per pint, compared to only 12 to 15 of the California behemoths were used to buying in grocery stores. More berries, more work.

Second, the Tri-Star has no real forage capacity. Instead of sending roots out far and wide to gather nutrients, as a wild berry would, plants have to be placed in raised beds lined with black plastic and watered with overhead irrigation. Because the Tri-Star is a very dense berry, though, with high soluble solids and sugar content, they also mold easily. (These, by the way are exactly the qualities that allow the berry to pickle up so well, which is what the chefs at Momofuku and Corton like to do with them.) To prevent mold, Rick has to be fanatic about cleaning out all dead or rotting berries, pruning off all runners, and laying down straw between rows to make sure no dirt splashes back onto the fruit. His field has to be meticulously maintained, in other words. 

"If disease breaks out in week two," he notes, you're done. "To get this berry to come in, when done correctly, it's a treasure." The Tri-Stars are also, he says, "a roller coaster. They can come in and do very well, but they can also take away. Two years ago, the strawberry season was soup, it rained all through."

How did he get through? "I have a day job," he says succinctly (his "more-than full-time" day job is as marketing director of Hudson Valley Foie Gras). "If I just did beans and potatoes, it wouldn't be so bad, but strawberries are like this," he says, his hand describing the up-and-down movement of a roller coaster. "It's ski vacation in Colorado, beans and rice, ski vacation, beans and rice."

When well-heeled customers at fancy chef dinners say to Rick, "Well, if you were smart....." and give him business advice, his answer is, "Being smart isn't always going to help you if this is the weather. If all of a sudden your quarterly reports were 700 percent under last year, what would you do? You'd fold! But not a farmer. It's like Vegas, it's crazy! And you learn to just go with it."

May 8, 2011

Please bring back your wine cake, Rozanne Gold!

 No visit to Rozanne Gold’s grand, bohemian brownstone in Park Slope would be complete without a slice or two of her Venetian Wine Cake. Once sold locally through a bakery in the ’70s, it is one among the thousands of smart, delicious dishes Rozanne's created throughout her career. It’s also the only recipe that she does not give out. Instead, the cake has a permanent home in her airy kitchen, ensconced in a worn green cake tin on an iron stand next to the window.

So when I showed up one morning to interview Rozanne for a profile in this month's Eat, Drink, Local issue of Edible Manhattan, naturally she cut me several slices of her cake and brewed me a cup of coffee. “I had something vaguely like it in Venice,” she said of her creation, “very simple. I came home and kept on experimenting.” It was her husband Michael Whiteman’s idea to add rosemary, which Rozanne points out is more Tuscan, and typical of the Renaissance style of coupling the sweet and the savory. Her family and their guests go through at least a cake a week, and for the past 15 years, her housekeeper Irene has started her weekly visit off with coffee and a slice of wine cake.

In the picture above, you can see the cake on the right, and behind Rozanne, the beautiful collection of china serving platters that Michael has collected throughout his long career as an international restaurant consultant. 

 Rozanne’s done so many things well in her life, that it’s difficult to sum her up. In a way, her wine cake does it best. The author of the best-selling “1-2-3” three-ingredient cookbooks used little more than olive oil, sugar flour and rosemary for this toothsome torta, I guessed, yet there is a keen palate, a knowledge of culinary and cultural history, an entrepreneurial streak, and a poetic sense of refinement at play here.

Although she’s written 12 cookbooks and wrote a column on simplified entertaining for Bon AppĂ©tit for five years, the author candidly confessed as she prepared our coffee, that, let’s face it, entertaining on any scale takes some attention and effort. Being in awe of Rozanne from the outset, this came as something of a relief to me, a little as if Martha Stewart had just confided that she struggles to conquer a secret, messy, room in her home.

Our hours-long interview was fascinating because Rozanne’s life has been a string of adventures and achievements, and because she blazed her own unique trail through the Manhattan culinary world of the late '70s and '80s, when women often didn't get the get the respect and credit that they deserved. But the taste memory of her wonderful cake will probably be the most lasting for me. Let’s hope she brings it back on the market soon.

May 1, 2011

The making of a bespoke watch

It was Dedegumo CEO Bob Guest's idea to take the design from the back of my business card and use it as the taking-off point for a watch design.  Dedegumo's first U.S. store opened recently in Manhattan's Lower East Side, and specializes in handmade watches.

My friend, former Japanese classmate and Dedegumo artisan Kai Bailey took on the challenge of translating card design to watch. He took the negative white space shape of the card's design and reversed it to create the two swooping boomerang-shaped images on the watch's face, outfitting it with jagged-edged black hour and minute hands and an elegant curving red second hand. The gold face is scored with ray-like lines and stamped with the Dedegumo cloud logo. The overall effect is Deco meets industrial, and it's very handsome.

The wrapping up of a Dedegumo watch is an art form in and of itself. Kai arranged the watch's double-length band around a plump beige pillow and placed it in a cloud-emblazoned cedar masu, or sake cup.

Then, he channeled memories of his mother tying furoshiki, and began wrapping. Tied properly, these Japanese-style cloth squares make beautiful and practical satchels, with their knots serving as handles. I picked out this flame-orange and cream colored furoshiki; all of Dedegumo's are made in Japan. "We tried making them here but they just weren't the same quality," Kai told me.

Here's the finished package, looking cute as a button.