August 28, 2011

Chef Kevin Adey's Carrot-Top Pesto

Chef Kevin Adey's carrot salad dressed with carrot-top pesto

Not too long ago, I wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal on resourceful New York-area chefs who practice “top-to-tail” vegetable cooking. They love their farmer’s market produce, in other words, and don’t want to waste a scrap of it.

My inspiration for the article was chef Kevin Adey of the Bushwick restaurant Northeast Kingdom. Farmer Ben Flanner of Brooklyn Grange, the rooftop organic farm in Long Island City, Queens, tipped me off to Adey’s carrot top pesto, an ingenious way to use every part of Brooklyn Grange’s lovely specimens. So I hopped on the L train and took the trip to Bushwick, where Adey gave me a demo of his dish.

The chef had just received a sack full of carrots from Brooklyn Grange in the wee hours of that morning, so they were super fresh. Because the rooftop placement of Brooklyn Grange means a fairly shallow soil bed, its carrots, while packed with flavor, are petite, each no more than five inches or so in length. 

Pesto building blocks
 The first thing I noticed was how much salt Adey tossed into the stockpot full of boil water for blanching the carrots. Aggressive salting is one of the traits that separates the home from the restaurant cook, Adey acknowledged as he tossed in carrots that ranged in color from golden to orange to persimmon colored into the pot. “You don’t want to cook them, just to set the flavor,” he explained.

Adey and his raw ingredients
 Next, he blanched the carrot tops in the same pot, then shocked them in cold water to set their bright green color and squeezed the water out. (Freshness is key in using carrot tops; other chefs told me they don’t use them because they tend to turn bitter fairly quickly.) Adey loves using cashews instead of pine nuts or walnuts in his pesto, he said, for their great flavor and mouth feel.

 Adey then piled all the ingredients in his Robot Coupe and whizzed them. He uses basil as a foil to the slightly more bitter carrot tops, and notes that a pesto “has to have chunk.” That means don’t overdo the olive oil, so that instead of coating pasta or vegetables like gluey paste, your pesto will coat them, jewel like. 

Note chunkiness of pesto!

Finally, it was just a matter of quickly plating the gorgeous carrots and some greens, also from Brooklyn Grange, and drizzling them with the thinned-out pesto. The result was an explosion of flavor and crispiness, with the fieriness of the garlic and the unctuousness of the olive oil offset by the sweet and bitter accents of the basil and carrot tops and the umami of the grated Parmesan.

Carrot Top Pesto

2 ounces roasted cashews
1-1/2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
1 ounce garlic cloves
2-1/2 ounces extra-virgin olive oil
3 ounces clean carrot tops (blanched and shocked)
3 ounces basil leaves
fresh black pepper

In bowl of a food processor, place the cashews, garlic, carrot tops, and basil. Start to process, and drizzle in oil, continuing to process until desired texture is reached. Stir in Parmesan, and season generously with pepper and salt to taste.

To use as a dressing for a blanched green market carrot salad, thin pesto with olive oil and drizzle over salad. Or use to dress cooked pasta.

Yield: 1 pint, enough for 8 people 

August 17, 2011

Hudson Street's Sanpanino: Superior Sandwiches, Friend to Local Students

Part of the charm of walking into Hudson’s Street’s Sanpanino, besides the stand-out grilled panino sandwiches, is its neighborhood vibe. Seating is minimal, and on “meatball Wednesdays,” the line-up for San Marzano tomato sauce-covered meatball sandwiches can stretch out onto the street.  It is in early September, though, when the real local action begins. That’s when school opens at P.S. 3 directly next door to the shop,at St. Luke’s School across the street, and at Village Community School around the corner on West 10th Street.


Sanpanino owner Leonardo Scarpone 
Starting around 7:45 a.m. hungry students and their parents begin filing in to buy a bagel, croissant, or a sandwich for lunch. (Invariably, the greatest rush comes during the few minutes before the bell rings to signal the start of class.) When school lets out for the day, another crowd of kids converges on Sanpanino. “Yeah, you get to know them,” says owner Leonardo Scarpone. The kids can be funny. “They’ll come in and ask for forty-five cents back. I’ll say, ‘I know that’s your change, but what did you order?’” They’ll ask to use the shop’s phone to call their mom, or they'll use Sanpanino as a rendezvous point with parents. On occasion, adds Scarpone, “a parent will call me up because they forgot to pack a lunch.” Scarpone doesn’t mind making a sandwich for the lunch-less child and delivering it to the school security guard. “We’re almost like the annex to P.S. 3,” he says.

One of the shop's strengths is its kid-friendly menu. Half-sandwiches at student prices are available, or soup and sandwich combinations and small bottles of juice.  Another attraction, though, is Scarpone, 38, himself, who welcomes kids and knows a thing or two about them; he taught middle school social studies in West Brighton, Staten Island for three years before succumbing to the entrepreneurial itch. That part of his genetic make-up came from his Puglia-born parents. Scarpone’s father owned a salumeria on 20th Avenue in Brooklyn and his mother launched a bridal shop on Staten Island.  Mom was also a great home cook. Scarpone grew up on her food, and on the products of two other Brooklyn salumerias where his father worked, A&S Pork Store and Bari Pork Store. “They made the best sandwiches,” he recalls. The concept for Sanpanino is rooted in those childhood memories.

When he founded Sanpanino, in 2000, says Scarpone, “there weren’t so many upscale sandwich shops in the city—there was a big void.” He developed a plan for a type of hybrid sandwich that combined Italian and Italian American traditions, but “leaned more toward the Italian.” That meant not “the packed sandwich of six mixed meats,” but one or two meats, fresh mozzarella, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. He stuck the prefix “san” onto the Italian word for “sandwich,” “panino,” reasoning that it “sort of sounded like the patron saint of sandwiches.” Then he brought his dad, Antonio, in to teach him how to make mozzarella, which is still made on the premises.

The most popular of the 14 specialty focaccia sandwiches on the menu at Sanpanino are the prosciutto di Parma with fresh mozzarella, plum tomatoes, and basil; the grilled eggplant, mozzarella, basil and olive tapenade; and the Sanclassico, which involves sopressata, mortadella, mozzarella, roasted peppers and basil, says Scarpone. He tries to stay high-quality and local when sourcing his ingredients. His prosciutto is imported from Italy, and his beef and poultry come from Ottomanelli & Sons meat market on Bleecker Street. The focaccia and almond cake come from Royal Crown bakery in Bensonhurst.

All of this fare is several giant cuts above a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, and Scarpone admits that his kid customers are living large compared to previous generations, or even present generations not lucky enough to live in New York City. “I don’t think I knew what olive tapenade was when I was eight,” he says.

494 Hudson St. (between Christopher and Grove Sts.)
New York, NY
(212) 645-7228

August 9, 2011

A new musical set in Heart Mountain, an indy film featuring Manzanar

Last week, I attended a workshop production of a musical called Allegiance, which tells the tale of the unconstitutional imprisonment of 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent during World War II. The show is being developed by the Old Globe in San Diego, with music and lyrics by composer/producer Jay Kuo and book by Kuo and Lorenzo Thione.

 Having looked at popular depictions of this sad chapter of American history in the decades since World War II, I was interested to see how the musical, directed by Stafford Arima, would tell this story through the medium of musical theater.

The play follows the Omura family as they are abruptly uprooted from their lives as shopkeepers and students in Salinas, Ca. and sent to Heart Mountain, Wyo. Father Tatsuo (Paul Nakauchi) is a defiant Issei (like all Japanese immigrants at the time, barred from becoming a U.S. citizen) who refuses to sign the infamous “loyalty oath” swearing allegiance to and willingness to fight for the U.S. and forswearing allegiance to the Emperor and Japan. As American-born citizens, his sons James (Jose Llana) and Sam (Telly Leung) express the sentiments of the majority of Nisei at the time—the wish to prove their loyalty to America at any cost. James volunteers to fight in the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat team, and Sam throws himself into the camp newspaper, The Heart Mountain Sentinel to write pro-America articles.

The production stars George Takei as old Sam (the story is structured as one long flashback, with a young and an old Sam). Lea Salonga is young Sam’s Japanese teacher and the fiancĂ©e of James.  In Heart Mountain, father and sons are on opposite sides of the tense political divide that separated loyalist Nisei, led by the accommodationist Japanese American Citizen’s League, and the vocal and defiant “No-No Boys,” who refused to sign the loyalty oath and protested their unjust imprisonment.

Opinion about this play will likely be divided among the Japanese American community that watches it, too. First, there is the squeamish uncertainty: is this going to be a Springtime for Hitler-like attempt at concentration camp musical theater? Turning deeply resonant Issei sayings (shikata-ga-nai/”it can’t be helped,” gaman/“persevere, do your best”) into the lyrics for a Broadway-style song-and-dance musical at first struck me as bizarre, and slightly cringe inducing. The songs, though, turned out to be moving tributes to the stoicism and unquenchable spirit of the prisoners.

Then there is the matter of historical accuracy. One friend, well-versed in Heart Mountain history, objected to the way the “No-No Boys” are treated as a mere plot device to gin up some drama, and their views not fully explained and honored. On the opposite end of the spectrum, viewers at earlier workshops apparently complained that toadying JACL head Mike Masaoka, as played by Paolo Montalban, was too much of a buffoon.

Yet there is a long history of musicals using the raw material of history as fodder for popular entertainment; think Evita, Porgy and Bess (which started as an opera), Les Miserables, and 1776, for example. The first two, especially, were criticized for factual inaccuracies, yet their mass appeal brought small pieces of history—however fudged, cheesed up, glamorized and overwrought the final product—to a mass viewership that most documentary filmmakers and historians can only dream of.

The musical’s outlook on the legality and morality of the mass roundup is in line with today’s views of the evacuation and concentration camps as a gross breach of civil rights and a stain on America’s reputation: JACL leader Mike Masaoka is portrayed as a spineless puppet, the “lapdog of the WRA” (War Relocation Authority, the government body created to oversee the mass incarceration), who suggests that suicide squads of Japanese American soldiers be sent into battle to prove how loyal the Japanese are to America. The camp director installs young Sam as a government mouthpiece at the Sentinel, using him as “bait” to get to the dissident inmates. (In fact, as my friend points out, there was no hiding of the No-No boys; they expressed their views and suffered the consequences of being sent to the even harsher Tule Lake concentration camp.)

This approach is a far cry from Ansel Adams’s 1943 collection of writings and photographs of Manzanar, Born Free and Equal. In it, Adams took pains to both praise the industry and neatness of the prisoners but called the concentration camps “only a rocky wartime detour on the road of American citizenship…a symbol of the whole pattern of relocation—a vast expression of a government working to find suitable haven for its war-dislocated minorities.”

I overheard two people sitting behind me talking about the evacuation and incarceration as a “sad chapter” in American history and “one we don’t hear about.” I hope that Allegiance will get more people talking about it, and send them to the history books to find out the full story of what happened. 


The indy film Littlerock, directed by CalArts graduate Mike Ott, has been pulling in favorable reviews on the festival circuit. I went to see a local screening because it stars two young Japanese actors, Atsuko Okatsuka and Rintaro Sawamoto as a brother and sister (also named Atsuko and Rintaro in the film) stranded in a dusty dead-end California town. Even more interesting to me, it features a trip to Manzanar.

Ott slaps two very Japanese characters down in the middle of Littlerock, a podunk Antelope Valley town where the young people pass the time drinking, partying, fantasizing about getting out, and trying to scrape by. They are befriended by a hapless dreamer, Cory, who pulls them into his circle. While Rintaro soon tires of the scene, Atsuko, getting in touch with her inner slacker and relishing the sheer otherness of this aimless existence, opts to stay behind and explore a budding romance.

Manzanar as their destination, along with San Francisco, is alluded to, but we don’t really know why these otherwise typical Japanese siblings want to visit the site of the former World War II Japanese concentration camp. Although Rintaro’s Japanese is serviceable, Atsuko, from the beginning to the end of the film, doesn’t utter a word of English. Her face is a blank slate; one of the few clues to her inner life comes from her voiced-over letters to her father. We learn that he and her brother are estranged, and that she lies to her father and tells him she is in San Francisco when she’s actually learning to make burritos at Cory’s father’s Mexicatessen.
Themes of racism, cultural difference and language barriers gain new resonance and the tone of the film abruptly shifts when Rintaro and Atsuko arrive at Manzanar, now a National Parks Service site, and tour the interpretive center. There are clips of FDR’s speech after Pearl Harbor, images of racist signs, and the “soul-consoling tower” ireito, or obelisk that marks the prison camp cemetery. It’s an abrupt and jarring shift to documentary mode, and we at last find out that there is a personal connection between the siblings and the camp. Atsuko muses to her father in a letter what her life might have been like had the war and the concentration camps not happened, and had she been born in America. But the final scene, a frustrating farewell phone call between Atsuko and Corey, who still can’t understand a word each other says, hints that the racial and communication divides that caused such trauma continue today.

August 1, 2011

Kenny Scharf's Drive-thru Art Installation, Pasadena

Every time I return to Los Angeles, it seems like traffic has gotten worse. But I like the way this parking garage-as-art-installation at the Pasadena Museum of California Art  takes a big Southern California demerit and turns it into something fun. Painted by L.A.-born artist Kenny Scharf, the Kosmic Krylon Garage was part of a big 2004 Scharf exhibition at the museum and remains as a permanent installation. Almost makes owning and parking a car, at least in this garage, fun.