How not to close a restaurant

The middle eastern place closed down in my town. I figured this out by showing up two nights in a row at prime dinner hour and finding the door locked, the room dark, with no sign of activity. I called while standing outside and the phone rang and rang. They’re still taking reservations on Open Table, and still selling discount coupons on Local Flavor, but a colleague checked out their other location and got positive confirmation they’re gone for good.

I’m sorry for the personal or financial issues that caused this to happen, but they could have done a better job of saying goodbye. Announce it, for one thing, instead of slinking away. Better yet, since they have another location 20 minutes away, do promotions to draw diners to that location.

Javier’s, a Nuevo Latino place that fell victim to a bad venue last winter, did a much better job of going out of business. They had a series of special nights where you could commiserate at the bar and drink up their inventory at bargain prices. (Apparently you’re not allowed to take alcohol off the premises when you close a place.) They even honored outstanding gift certificates. The result was a reservoir of good will that will follow Javier to his next restaurant.

I know that restaurateurs have a reputation as bad business people, but this isn’t about business. It’s about common sense, and common courtesy. It really shouldn’t be that hard to say goodbye in a positive way.

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Eating sous vide steak with the Emperor

Sous Vide Sirloin

Sous vide sirloins cooked a perfect medium rare. Note absence of grill char.

This weekend I fired up the Anova sous vide cooker I bought on sale at A friend had been hankering for a “steak dinner” so I pulled out a porterhouse, a big sirloin and the last of my treasured Allen Bros. strips. They were salted and peppered; for variation I oiled the strip and tossed some fresh rosemary in the vacuum bag with the sirloin. Then I waited.

The Anova is a sleek machine, but it’s HUGE compared to my trusty SideKIC. I put maybe 4 gallons of water into a Coleman cooler and got a “low water” warning and the device wouldn’t turn on, so I added another gallon. It took an hour (pretty fast, considering) to heat from 61 degrees to the 129 degrees which J. Kenji Lopez-Alt said, in the recipe in the Anova app, would produce the low side of medium rare, then another hour for the steaks in the bath.

The result was peculiar looking because the outside of the steak was exactly the same color as the inside should be, which is why you have to add some kind of a char. Options are a hot skillet, a grill and/or a big butane torch. I opted for the grill because I wanted the grill marks. Also went at it with my crème brulee torch, but that dainty device didn’t have much of an effect.

Anova sous vide setup

My sous vide setup. I was cooking on the porch because I didn’t want a 5 gallon tub of water sloshing around the house.

Rested the steaks a bit, then I served… 2 hours and 15 minutes after the prep began, and 2 hours longer than it would take to cook the same steaks entirely on the grill. You couldn’t argue with the degree of doneness and the taste, but I really missed the crust and the gradation of doneness when the steak is cooked on a really hot grill (the latter being what the sous vide method is supposed to eliminate, of course).

I will add that I know how to cook steaks because I used to do it all night long in a steak house, where I would have been fired if I missed too many times on the requested degree of doneness. (The exception being New Years Day, when hungover diners would keep sending back steaks because they weren’t cooked enough, then finally reject them because they were too well done.) If you aren’t sure of your skills, it definitely is a comfort to know your steak won’t be over or under done. But I will not be doing this again.

I ended up feeling like the Emperor with his new clothes, wondering how many of the folks who laud sous vide steaks have actually cooked one themselves. I’ve had some other successes with sous vide, notably for preps that require sauces to have a chemical effect on the meat, and I’m going to focus on those. I will also reserve my Anova for very large recipes, roasts and such, and continue to rely on the SideKIC till it gives up the ghost.

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Who wants some serviceberry pie?

Serviceberry Pie

Serviceberry pie by Carol Maxwell

Local blogger and grain aficionado Amy Halloran was kind enough to share the semi-secret location of her favorite serviceberry bush. My son Gratis and I picked a quart in about 20 minutes and my wife Carol baked them into a delicious pie.


A quart of serviceberries, ready for the pie

Serviceberries, also known as Saskatoons (apparently they are especially popular or abundant in western Canada) and Juneberries (because that’s when they are ripe) are a terrific addition to your berry repertoire. They’re juicy and sweet and tart with a flavor profile that reminds me of wild blueberries, but a little different.

Serviceberry Bush

I’m not going to reveal this semi-secret location, but there’s a strong visual clue for those who know this area.

The beauty part is that the serviceberry bush is often used as an ornamental outside institutional buildings because it grows quickly, is easy to shape and requires little care. So you may be able to pick some berries from the median at your local bank… take a look.

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Shmaltz Brewing Company throws a party…. and it’s on sale!

DOUBLE_FEATURE_FESTOn Saturday afternoon June 27 I’ll be at Shmaltz Brewing Company in Clifton Park, NY, which is celebrating its second birthday at the location with a double beer fest from 1 to 5. The first feature, from 1 to 3, features session beers from around New York State, and the second from 3 to 5 double IPAs and imperials from New York State and beyond.

You’ll find me at the cask conditioned/barrel aged section, where you can taste:

Casks including
Slingshot American Craft Lager with Raspberries (ok, I’ll skip that one)
Wishbone Session Double IPA with Pineapple, Mosaic + Nelson Hops
Hanukkah Dark Ale with Vanilla Bean and Maple Syrup

Barrel Tastings of
Hanukkah Dark Ale aged in Heaven Hill Barrel
Bittersweet Lenny’s RIPA aged in Jim Beam Barrel
Death of a Contract Brewer Black IPA in Heaven Hill Barrel
Sour Jewbelation 19 in Buffalo Trace Barrel

There’s also music from SIRSY and food trucks on hand from The Ruck (wings I hope) and Esperanto’s (an opportunity to try Saratoga’s notorious drunk food, the Doughboy, in a non-judgmental setting) and a commemorative glass to take home.

The price for this all? $25 for admission to both events with six drink tokens with $15 designated driver available. That’s a real bargain compared to the average tasting event and with a chance to taste some very hard-to-find beers. For my readers in the city, there’s a bus that departs Brooklyn for the event at 9 am and starts the return trip at 5:30 pm. The blurb says that costs $70 including admission but the Eventbrite site seems to be selling it for $50. Either way it’s a bargain. Like MegaBus… but with beer!

Tickets are available here.

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Recipe: Grilled Asparagus

Grilled Asparagus

Grilled asparagus topped with chopped lemon and a bit of garlic

I prefer grilling to steaming for asparagus because I can easily do it alongside other grilling tasks, but also because it’s more forgiving. Oversteam asparagus and it gets flaccid; leave it a minute too long on the grill and it gets a nice char but retains flavor and texture as the skin tightens around the flesh. Serves four.

1 lb asparagus
Extra virgin olive oil (this recipe deserves the good stuff)
Lemon and/or fresh lemon juice
Garlic, a clove or two, peeled and chopped, optional
Salt and pepper

Grill basket and tray

If you grill outdoors you need a setup like this one so asparagus doesn’t fall through the grill; read more here.

Method: wash asparagus and cut the dried off ends off the stalks, about 1/2 inch from the bottom. Using a peeler remove the outer layer on any very large, woody stalks. (Optional: I’ve hardly ever encountered a tough, chewy asparagus skin but it’s unpleasant when it happens.) Toss in olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and a bit of lemon juice and grill under broiler on high or on outdoor grill until lightly charred, turning frequently. This process takes 10 minutes or less. Garnish with chopped lemon peel or whole lemon chopped with seeds removed plus maybe a bit of finely chopped garlic.

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How do you like your olive oil to taste?

California Olive Ranch labels

Test marketing labels for California Olive Ranch

The folks at California Olive Ranch are conducting an interesting marketing experiment. In my supermarket currently are 500 ML bottles of their Extra Virgin Olive Oil, evenly distributed between olive oils that say “Mild & Buttery” and “Rich & Robust”. (There’s also a label that says “For Everyday meals” which is the language on their larger bottles; I expect it’s left over from the previous batch.)

As far as I can tell, the olive oil within each of these bottles is the same. So what is California Olive Ranch up to?

This is an excellent oil I buy in quantity when it’s on sale. Though it is not a throat-burner it’s definitely higher in phenols than most olive oils on the shelf so no way is it “Mild & Buttery”. If people buy bottles so labeled, and don’t return them or complain, what have we learned?

a/that consumers really like a milder oil, so California Olive Ranch should change its configuration. (For the test, it’s a lot cheaper to just change the label.) Or,
b/that consumers have more sophisticated taste buds than we expect and don’t fear strong flavors. (No, in that case they’d choose the “Rich & Robust”, yes?) Or,
c/that many people don’t really pay attention to what they’re eating and will agree it tastes like whatever you tell them it tastes like. (This is the cynical marketing strategy used by mass-market American beer brands.)

If you like, find the bottles and do your own test and report back. I’d love to know what California Olive Oil is really up to here.

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Recipe: “Destination” Shrimp

Destination Shrimp

“Destination” Shrimp

Years ago I cooked at a prime rib chain called Victoria Station. Our radio tag was Johnny Cash singing “Destination… Victoria Station” in his deep tremolo, hence the name of this delicious and easy dish. We’d always have a few skillets on hand, ready to fire for the non-meat eaters. Serves 2-4.

1 lb raw shrimp, shells on, the bigger the better
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
3 T melted butter, preferably clarified
3 T fresh lemon juice
3 T dry vermouth

Shrimp mis en place

Mis en place. We’d generally use much bigger shrimp than this, and I’d be more careful with the butterflying for my paying customers

Method: Peel shrimp, leaving tails on, and butterfly by cutting down through the back just to the point where you’re about to split the meat, then flattening. Arrange the butterflied shrimp around the edges of a non stick skillet, tails out as shown, with garlic in the middle. Prep the melted butter/lemon juice/vermouth mixture and keep it warm. When ready to serve, place the skillet over high heat and pour the sauce over the shrimp. The dish is done when the shrimp lose their translucence and become solid white and pink, about 2-3 minutes. Serve immediately over white rice or with some good bread to sop up the delicious sauce.

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My forgotten oyster tasting

Malpeques on ice

East Coast Malpeques, the world’s finest oyster

There is a story about Robert Benchley, or maybe it was James Thurber, in which he was awakened in the middle of the night by a brilliant story idea, scribbled furiously on the note pad at his bedside, then fell back into a blissful sleep. In the morning he looked at the notepad and it bore two words: “write book.”

I feel the same way about my oyster tasting hosted by Finn the Fishmonger a few weeks back, a Yelp event where we tried what were allegedly 3 of the 5 oyster species in the world and washed them down with rare beverages from Remarkable Liquids. I dictated madly into Evernote, was amused at the voice-to-text mistakes (Google’s voice capture app really does have a potty mouth) and then sat down to write this post and for whatever reason it was all gone. But I’ve still got the photos so let’s go from there.

Our host and purveyors

Eric from the Cheese Traveler, Dora from Finn the Fishmonger and Jeremy from Remarkable Liquids… thanks guys.

1. There are probably way more than 5 oyster species in the world but it doesn’t really matter because oysters are total shape shifters depending on growing conditions. Take the same species and cushion it in a hanging net vs let the waves wash over it and you’ll get a totally different result.

2. I finally found an objective reason to be glad to be on the East Coast: Malpeque oysters, AKA Bluepoints. These good sized morsels in tear drop shaped shells are universally said to have the best balance of taste and quantity of meat, and after comparative tasting I totally agree. In the 19th century they were so plentiful that they were eaten like potato chips and if you were in New York you could get them right out of the Hudson; their numbers have declined dramatically through overfishing and environmental factors but good marine husbandry has ensured a continuing supply.

3. For something different, try the Belon. This Is the plate shaped oyster that appears in all your Renaissance still lifes. (Sadly, I failed to take a picture of it.) It’s hard to find and not particularly popular because of an unattractive brown layer and a coppery taste, but it’s worth pursuing if only to try something distinctively different with a history behind it.

Two Roads Workers Comp

Two Roads Workers Comp, one of several appropriately paired Belgians.

4. Though I am an unrepentant IPA drinker, I have to agree with Jeremy of Remarkable Liquids that Belgians with their funky farmhouse yeast are the right beer to drink with oysters.

5. According to our hostess, Finn co-owner Dora, the proper way to taste an oyster is to a/enjoy the initial taste and mouth feel; b/consume it in two bites and see what develops as the outer surface is breached to discover what’s inside; c/watch for an after taste, a few seconds after the second bite has slithered down your throat.

6. If you happen to be in Guilderland, NY (a suburb not far from the state capitol offices) be sure to check out Finn the Fishmonger. The store has that briny but not fishy smell of a good fishmonger. A great selection of seafoods at fair prices, including cook-at-home dinners to take out and eat fresh. And oysters!

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Recipe: Grandma Eggplant

Grandma Eggplant with Mandram

Grandma Eggplant with Mandram

Another Southern classic from my friend Judy Cromwell, who writes: My grandmother would cook her dinner in the morning and set it on the top shelf of the stove until it was time for the evening meal. She would make me whistle as I passed the stove to make sure I hadn’t stuck one in my mouth. I learned to swipe one while whistling as I was walking by and eat it as I was going out the back door. That’s how much I loved these patties. Makes about 6-8 patties.

1 large eggplant, peeled and chopped into 1 inch cubes
1 large egg, beaten
2 T melted butter (“1/2 inch thick slice of butter (from the shorter, fatter cubes) plus a sliver”)
1-2 T flour
1 t ground black pepper
3/4 t poultry seasoning
Bacon grease
1/2 t salt*

Method: Boil eggplant chunks in salted water until tender, about 5 minutes after the water returns to boil. Transfer to a colander and squeeze out all the water using the back of a spoon and a paper towel; drain a few minutes to get rid of the last of the water. (Too much residual water and the patties won’t stick together.) Meanwhile, beat the egg in a medium bowl. Add spices then eggplant, then butter (if the eggplant is still warm you can use softened butter instead of melted, thus saving a dish), finally flour. Stir to mix. It should have the consistency of gloppy pancake batter. (If it’s too liquidy to hold together, add a little more flour.)

Grandma Eggplant

Grandma Eggplant

Heat some bacon grease in a non-stick skillet to medium heat and transfer the batter with a tablespoon, carefully depositing a spoonful in the grease and then pressing flat. Patties should be about 4″ in diameter. Cook in two batches (save some bacon grease for the second batch, until brown on each side. Serve 2 as a main course, with mandram or gravy.

* The original recipe did not contain salt, but I think that’s because Grandma’s salted water had a lot of salt in it.

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Battle Mandram: A family history

Judy Cromwell is a longtime friend who frequently comments on my recipes. She agreed to share her Mandram recipe and contributed this bonus description of her family’s tussles with this dish through the decades.

Chef Otis’ interest in recreating southern salads from his childhood brought to mind a southern salad prepared by my family as I was growing up in Long Beach CA. Chef and I discussed Mandram, a relish-like salad that originated in the West Indies at some point before 1900 when my grandfather moved to SoCal from Central Alabama.

Here is the original as made by my mother, and subsequent versions of hers and my Uncle Nip’s. They were competitive with one another, and here Battle Mandram raged.

Mandram – Childhood Version circa 1947 and before
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and rough chopped
2 large tomatoes, peeled with a paring knife, seeded, and rough chopped
1/4 red onion, rough chopped (less if the onion is really strong)
1 green pepper, seeded, inner white parts removed, and roughly chopped
Apple cider vinegar
Vegetable oil to taste
Salt and pepper

Mix all together. Salad can be refrigerated or left at room temperature until serving.
Comment: Way too much vinegar. As a kid, I picked out the vegetables.

Mandram – Uncle Nip’s Version circa 1976
Years later, after my mother and uncle retired, they began to experiment with the recipe. The first change I remember was from my Uncle Nip — the addition of chopped, canned Ortega chiles. In all honesty I don’t remember ever eating this version, but it sounds delicious, similar to salsa fresca.

Mandram — Mom’s Updated Versions – Globalization of Groceries Version circa 1980
No. 1 Then my mother began making it with rice wine vinegar instead of apple cider vinegar. Thank God she did this. The mild, sweeter vinegar was a blessing to the recipe. Now I was able to eat the whole thing, vinegar and all. When I was growing up there was no rice wine vinegar in the supermarket. Culinary globalization at its finest!

No. 2 Once hothouse cucumbers began appearing in the market, they replaced the old fashioned fat, seedy cucumber. This truly transformed the dish by increasing both flavor and crunch, although my mother continued to use both varieties, for no reason in particular that I know of.

No. 3 When Vidalia and Maui became available, they replaced the red onion. What these babies lacked in beauty and crunch they replaced in flavor. So delicious!

Mandram — Nip’s Update circa 1984
I believe that my Uncle Nip also made a version with scallions. My mother made this for us once but I didn’t care for it. The white part of the young onion was too strong and had the same adverse effect as did the apple cider vinegar. The green parts would be delicious, with perhaps a bit of sweet onion also included.


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