Sunday, November 20, 2011

Being generally about food

This post is going to be primarily gastronomical in nature. Given that we are headed into Thanksgiving week, I don't think this is inappropriate.

This past week the entire Army War College class went to New York City. Spouses were encouraged to accompany their students and although MP was not really in a state where she could be left, I boarded her at the vet and joined T for two of his four days up there. We won't talk about her experience - suffice to say she is home and hopefully past the trauma.

I arrived in Manhattan on a rainy Wednesday, dropped my bag at the hotel and within 10 minutes was on a Bronx bound commuter train with T in tow. We were headed to the Fordham station, a short walk away from that gastronomical wonderland known as Arthur Avenue. Billed as the "Little Italy in the Bronx," it is a compact neighborhood of Italian bakeries, grocery stores, restaurants and butchers. There are a few touristy shops, mainly new places that have popped up since the first visit I made up to Arthur Avenue when I was living in NYC as a graduate student at Columbia.

I have my routine down pat now. Eat at Dominick's, buy Sopressata sausage at the Calabria Pork store, eat pastries and drink tea at Egidio's Pastry Shop and wander through the municipal market. When I lived in NYC I would go home with a backpack full of perishables - vegetables, fresh homemade raviolis, fresh bread, succulent lamb chops, etc. However, now that I travel there and back as a visitor I have to limit myself to items that will not spoil during my stay.

The meal at Dominick's was probably one of the best I have ever had there. The restaurant was relatively empty, it being 1500 on a Wednesday. Still there were a fair number of people lined up shoulder to shoulder on the long communal tables. A large group of business men dominated the dining room, eating a late lunch/early supper. They had plates mounded high with mussels in marinara sauce. I couldn't resist this. However, first we started out with the first dish I ever ate at Dominick's, the artichoke braised in butter and stuffed with Sopressata sausage and breadcrumbs. I had it the first time with my good friend Michelle. It was as good as I remembered it to be and I wished Michelle had been there with me to share it again. It was so good in fact that it was all but gone before I remembered to take a photo.

The main course was grilled lamb chops with fries, braised broccoli rabe and those amazing, garlicky mussels in marinara. Excellent as always. I can't wait to get back up there.

Dominick's is on the main drag in Arthur Avenue, directly across from the Calabria Pork Store. You can't miss it. Or should I say, you shouldn't miss it.

As I said, across the street from Dominick's is the store which draws me back to Arthur Avenue again and again. The veritable Calabria Pork Store.

This store specializes in cured pork, cheeses, olives and some fresh sausage. But mainly it is known for its cured pork.

In fact, the pork lures you in from the street and then all but assaults you with its musky aroma the second you walk into the darkened interior. It isn't that the lights are turned down. In fact, they are turned up all the way. The reason for the darkened interior is the fact that sausages hang from the ceiling to cure, turning the entire store into a sort of meat cave wonderland.

I don't think I can say much else besides the fact that I love the Calabria Pork Store and in particular, their spicy Sopressata. My bag will always be heavy on the walk back to the metro/train station from Arthur Avenue because it is inevitably full of Sopressata from the Calabria Pork Store. It is the one time I really don't mind lugging heavy shopping bags.

After loading up with enough spicy Sopressata to feed a small army, we went over and down one block to the Egidio Pastry Shop.

Here we fortified ourselves with caffeine and sugar. Specifically with fresh canollis and chocolate cream puffs.

Egidio's is about to celebrate their 100th anniversary. I am not surprised. With pastries as delightful and fresh as theirs, and window displays that are enticing, nostalgic and mouth-watering I am sure they will be around for another 100 years at least.

My Mom turned me on to Arthur Avenue. She had read about it in the March 2002 Saveur magazine. I remember making that long trek up there through the Bronx on train then bus for the first time wondering if it was going to be worth all the trouble. It was. I have been back more times than I can remember and even considered getting an apartment there when I was in school in Manhattan but decided against it, due less to the distance to campus than to the fact that I would probably have put on five pounds a week if I lived up there. Here is that article:

There is also a great guide/cookbook on Arthur Avenue by Amy Volkwein:

My advice to anyone traveling to New York City hungry for Italian food is to steer clear of Little Italy in lower Manhattan and make straight for Arthur Avenue. Yes, it will take longer, but it will be a trip you will remember for the rest of your life.

Back at home now I did a fair amount of cooking today. Part of it is gearing up for Thanksgiving. I am cooking for three men and would like to not be run ragged on Thursday. Therefore I am starting early. Today I mixed the homemade sausage for stuffing, peeled and minced three heads of garlic, cleaned and prepped two bags of Brussels sprouts, made bread crumbs from stale homemade bread and roasted and prepped a spaghetti squash. Tomorrow I'll make the vegetable and sausage mix for the stuffing and perhaps start to prep the spaghetti squash souffle.

Spaghetti squash is such an under-appreciated vegetable. I am going to modify an old recipe I have for corn souffle and see how it turns out. I'll let you know.

The other thing I did in the kitchen tonight was try two recipes from a new cookbook, perhaps the very best hostess gift I have ever received. Last weekend I had some women I met on the internet over for a stitcher's get-together. One of the women was in town from California and she brought me a fantastic Indian cookbook written by a member of India's Parsi community. Parsi's are the descendants of the Zoroastrians who migrated to India from Persia long ago. The food in the book seems to be a marvelous mix of Persian and Indian cooking, with a California twist. The book is by Niloufer Ichaporia King and is called My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking. It is wonderful.

I made two dishes from the cookbook tonight - the Thanksgiving Brussels sprouts and the cardamom cake. The Thanksgiving Brussels sprouts are simple yet tedious. First you must separate the leaves of the sprouts. Since I was cleaning two bags of sprouts for Thanksgiving dinner, where I plan to saute them with butter, lemon and oregano (in the style of NYC's Casa Mono restaurant), I decided to go ahead and trim the outer leaves for use tonight. I ended up with a colander full of tiny green leaves, as well as more than enough for dinner on Thursday. From this point on, the preparation is easy.

Mustard seeds in hot oil with ginger, some chili and salt. I added some garlic in for good measure. The trick I think is to toss the Brussels sprout leaves until they are just tender, being careful not to over do them. I think I got them just perfect.

I ate them with couscous, a stuffed pork chop and a Côtes du Rhône red wine. They were by far the highlight of the meal.

For dessert I made the cardamom cake, which calls for an entire tablespoon of crushed cardamom seeds.

The recipe says to use a nine-inch spring form pan, but I chose to use three six-inch pans instead, so I could share the cakes. First the pans get dusted with sugar and almonds.

Then the simple batter is prepared, with help from the standing mixer.

Divided into three, with bits of cardamom dotting the creamy batter.

It had to be tasted directly out of the oven, the smell was so incredibly divine. A little embarrassing that I didn't even get a photo in before the tasting.

This cake was lovely and will definitely be made again. However, I found it a tad bit too sweet. Next time I am going to reduce the sugar and may substitute the almonds with a generous layer of crushed pistachios.

In the meantime, I discovered that serving the cake with plain (unsweetened) Greek yogurt cuts the sweetness and adds a fantastic complexity to the cake.

Good thing I went running today.

Thank you to Veena for this amazing cookbook! I am not done experimenting and it is going to bring me many afternoons of pleasure in the kitchen.

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