Thursday, February 24, 2011

Rowan Jacobsen, “American Terroir” and Taste of Place

Here's my article from Edible Manhattan's blog.

Greg's dad says, "It was genial and germane. Excellent work."
I think that's a pretty good write-up, for what it's worth.

The Taste of Place of an Oyster; illustration by Bambi Edlund

The night began at the bar of Savoy with a round of deeply cupped morsels of Shibumi oysters from Washington State’s Puget Sound. These were the oysters before the oysters. I had showed up early because I was nervous and needed a cocktail. I am a cook at chef-owner Peter Hoffman’s Back Forty, and was invited to Savoy, his first restaurant, for the most recent installment in their 17-year-old dinner series. The guest was Rowan Jacobsen, author of the new book American Terroir, and the dinner was appropriately called “Taste of Place.” Peter and Rowan met over oysters at a tasting panel and became friends. There is a chapter in the book that recounts the tasting and Rowan’s visit to Washington to see the Totten Inlet virginica oyster in its crisp, taste-giving waters. That tale and the others in the book make Peter and Rowan great mutual advocates, and as Peter mentioned several times, while chuckling, to check out his blurb on the back of the book, which reads “American Terroir removes the mystery yet holds onto the romance about superlative ingredients and their source of great flavor.” Oyster tasting builds friendship.

It would be a safe assumption that, as the author of a James Beard Award winning book called The Geography of Oysters, Mr. Jacobsen had met many people while dining on oysters. I was glad to be another one. I have eaten a fair amount of oysters, but that night was my own first introduction-on-the-half-shell. Peter offered me the final oyster, which I was hesitant to take. “Someone other than Rowan can have a third,” Peter encouraged me, but it was not to be. “Oh, okay,” Peter said, somewhat surprised, after Rowan picked up the final intensely curved shell, bringing the sweet meat, and brine to his lips. “There’ll be more oysters upstairs,” Peter assured me as Rowan savored the final bivalve. I had hesitated, and I guess he just wanted it more. But I couldn’t have cared less; I was just happy to be there and was sure that the night would be a joy.

We finished drinks and were ushered up to the second floor dining room of Savoy. The warmth was perfect upstairs, though the beautiful fireplace had not yet been lit for the season. The mantle, however, was bedecked fittingly for the dinner with goldenrod, pumpkin, and linden honeys, a basket of wild mushrooms, another basket with Ozette potatoes and copies of American Terroir.

And though the fireplace was untouched the same could not be said of the apples Savoy had set out, especially the Golden Russets. For me it was a revelation. The rough potato-like skin and complex interior were the least like what I expect from an apple. Not unlike an Asian pear in appearance, but with an apple attitude. It was neither too sweet, nor too tart, and super juicy. Like crisp, fall earthiness in one’s mouth. The Winesap apple was more popular, and with good cause. It was intensely tart and sweet with an insane crunch and bright red color and streaks of green. The Calville Blanc lost the gastronomic popularity contest due to mushiness from late picking. Perhaps it was a replacement apple for the ones accidentally used by the pastry chef for the day’s crisp. No event goes perfectly.

At times the crowd got rowdy. After Gruet Blanc de Noirs bubbly from New Mexico (“best in New Mexico,” said Jacobsen), the biodymanic “Ca del Solo” Albariño by Bonny Doon from Monterey, California (“one note like a zen gong”), and a “Bien Nacido Vineyard” syrah by Qupé in Santa Marta, CA (“this is the syrah from California”) a food and wine oblivion set in. “So who liked the russets? Who liked the winesaps? Who’s not listening?” Peter tried to get the dinner party refocused after the apple, cheese, and honey course. Wine and dessert have a distracting affect on people. I was still anxious for Jacobsen’s words on coffee. He spoke of a man named George Howell’s intensity to give coffee its truest representation, even though he’s not likely to make money doing it. In Rowan’s book many of the product tales talk about ideals, perfect environments, and ‘oh, wow’ moments, however he always stresses the economic viability of keeping those products alive.

Howell was a special situation because he was set for cash when he sold his cafes to Starbucks in the nineties. Then after years of a non-compete clause with his buyer he began selling his reevaluated vision of coffee perfection. In American Terroir, Howell is quoted as saying, “we’re still in the dark ages. Maybe we’re at the doorstep of golden age.” His job seems to be less of businessman and more the coffee industry’s most progressive beacon of change. Howell light roasts all of his beans except his espresso. He won’t take his coffee to that dark nutty place known and expected by the coffee consumer. Those flavors are more dependent on roasting and less on the subtle quality of sun-dried beauties of terroir that are coffee beans. Their “taste of place” can be masked by the caramelly notes of darker roasts. The night ended with Tarrazu Costa Rican Single Estate coffee, which made a strong case for Howell’s argument, and his appropriately named Terroir Coffee Company. The cup was rich and perfect for dessert and the accompanying chocolate cookie. Jacobsen told us about the attention, labor, and location of the unobstructed naturally bright-tasting beans. The coffee single-handedly made the point for Jacobsen’s book and the dinner: What is flavor and where does it come from?

Jacobsen’s mission seems to be showing off people, lands, and tastes that are disparate from the expected, the industry standards. Jacobsen makes the argument that divergence and contrast are what make great food. In a recently aired interview on WNYC Leonard Lopate asked Jacobsen if it wasn’t elitist to pay such attention to food. To which, he responded, “Isn’t it elitist to have food shipped everyday from Chile?” The Dinner Series rejoiced as the author retold the story. We were satisfied by his rebuttal. The difference between locavorism, or regionalism, and terroir was also on the menu. Locavorism is an environmental choice, but terroir deals with detecting the flavor of where food comes from. Jacobsen noted the advantage of consuming local, but not in a restrictive way. His notion was to take advantage of places that do things well.

Chef Hoffman’s wife Susan later asked me how I’d enjoyed myself. “Anything I could complain about before, I won’t.”

“Who’d listen?” She rightfully determined.

“Seated between Rowan and Anne Saxelby wasn’t such a bad way to spend a Tuesday,” I said.

“Isn’t that elitist?” she countered.

“What? Name dropping and talking about food?” How could I resist?

It is a luxury to be able to discuss food and its intricacies and nuances. However, that was not the only point of the “Taste of Place” dinner. “Interesting flavors are a cooperative effort,” Jacobsen said on the radio. The crux of the dinner was attention to places with special circumstances that productively create superb food. Sure, discussing flavor profiles might seem haughty, but that flavor is only one of the end benefits. Maybe the Peconic Bay scallops we enjoyed were a short seasonal autumn indulgence that many may not have the chance to enjoy, but those Golden Russet apples are only $1.25 a pound at the market. So just about anyone can decide what the fuss is about.

At the end of the night Rowan sniffed a basket of wild forest mushrooms with dirt still on them. “Food is more fun,” he said, ”when it comes with a story.”

Brunch at Last

"It doesn't take a lot of people to kill people." Don Rummie on the Daily Show. Part 3 is amazing and makes me want to read a Donald Rumsfeld book. I feel weird.

Time for soup leftovers. But first...

Tonight's beverage is brought to you by the following.

And now back to Leftover Theater.

I sit here reheating Cantonese soup. It was delivered last night by Amy's Restaurant on 207th St. in Manhattan. Roast duck noodles wasn't the best, but soothing and affordable. They have solid tofu dishes to please my girlfriend and a $6 dollar soup is nothing to complain about when it serves as a second meal. Alone in my apartment I can't help reminiscing of recent dragon sightings and noodle slurping. Sheng Wang doesn't need my praise, but deserves it. And in the Girl Who Ate Everything didn't even have the peel noodles. And I would be a proper ass to not mention Phil's spot. Sun Sai Gai for char siu. Cantonese bbq pork and duck. Pig candy and fatty duck! And of course there was my work party below. A feast of dragonian proportions. Followed by a Sheraton lobby bar, and a crowded East Village one bedroom. Chinese New Year has been a good one. Stay tuned for New Years of the World. Next week we'll be celebrating the New Year Aymara-style in Bolivia. And if we're feeling motivated, the week after that will be Guatemala.

Until then, enjoy Asian Jewels Seafood.

Had I renewed my Center for Fiction membership sooner I'd be hearing Philip Roth with a crowd of fifty. Instead, I'm here, my girlfriend's on a plane to Charleston, and the reason I began writing is regaling the Mercantile Library. Why didn't my groupon come sooner?

At least I have this doctored up leftover roast duck noodles. I added the egg, my spicy plum sauce, some chiffonade of kale, and some "Everyone Says Good Good Eat" ramen crackers. Better than yesterday, and now half the cost.

And now that my appetite is satisfied I must rest. This closes the evening for Leftover Theater. Catch us tomorrow when we bring you "My Biscuit-making Days are numbered." I look forward to the accidental box of basil I have to use up for family meal tomorrow. Basil rice and lemongrass beef. Vietnamese fish sauce beef with basil carrot salad. I am on short time, and making the most of it. Two brunches and counting.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My First Year in Lunch

You go somewhere for many reasons. For instance, I'm in New York because of my girlfriend, food, family, immigrants, urbanity, and to entice a friend to move here. Whatever aspirations we lay out for ourselves come together over food, or because of it. May next year bring more of what we want. Before I begin on my personal food highlights, may I leave you with my dim sum greeting. "Let's eat some dumplings, guts, and buns." May y'all get the nibblins' you desire most. Happy Lunch!

Ost Cafe, Moishe's poppy seed strudel
Dessert Del Posto
Cotechino del Posto
Foie at Jean Georges

Fried som tom at Thailand Center Point


Lunch special in Sunset Park


quail at Husk

New Catch at Russ and Daughters

golden russet apples

lunch with Andy at Public

Grandma Slice at Ny Suprema Pizza

3 gorditas for $6 Rancho los Compadres

Chia and pupusa

Ippudo lunch set

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Behind-the-Scenes Kitchen Tour of Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon

Pok Pok opened in Portland, Oregon, in 2005 as a side-of-the-road shack selling a few Thai street food-inspired items, but it didn't stay a secret for very long. In just a year, chef Andy Ricker's to-go window and rotisserie with just a few outdoor benches transformed into a full restaurant in his adjacent home on Division Street. And this was before anyone had ever tasted the Vietnamese fish sauce wings, now a cultish dish.

From the onset, the goal of Pok Pok was to change how people thought about Thai food. When I worked in the kitchen, chef Ricker insisted that it wasn't a Thai restaurant per se, though most of the food served there is Thai. The full restaurant found its legs when the Oregonian named it restaurant of the year in 2007. The crowds have not since diminished.

With so many people waiting for tables, in 2009 Ricker decided to open Whiskey Soda Lounge across the street, a bar and snack spot for Pok Pok diners-to-be or those too hungry to wait. It's also a place to try exciting dishes that might not fly at Pok Pok: think five-spice stewed and fried chitlins or curry brains cooked in banana leaf. After all, you wouldn't want to ruin your appetite before you head across the street, but how could a few snacks hurt! What was once Whiskey Soda Lounge, retained just the name Pok Pok.


As a former cook of the restaurant, I recently visited my old kitchen, which has changed dramatically since I left a little over a year ago.

In the ground floor space, many pots were bubbling away. Kaeng hung leh, the Burmese-influenced sweet northern Thai curry of pork shoulder and belly, cooked alongside peanut sauce and raspberry drinking vinegar. Each cook had plenty of counter space (not the case when I was there) and even better, they didn't have to fight with Iggy, the daytime hot line cook, for the only gas ranges. Carrying 20 quarts of hot liquid down steep backyard stairs was no longer a necessary hazard—everything could just go out the back garage door to the cooler.

Outside the kitchen on the other side of the bar, they have two "bia wun" or "jelly beer" machines. Two plastic barrels made to look like wood, with elephants carved into them, are attached to a base with a motor that makes them spin. Bottles of Singha beer get submerged into water, ice, and salt until they're frozen a few minutes later. Tap the bottom, open the top, insert extra long straw and voila "bia wun" or "jelly beer." The beer goes opaque and slushy, a 22-ounce bottle was great to pass around the shaded back patio.

The jelly beer machine is just one of the many items that chef Ricker has brought back with him from Thailand. He has also lugged back a bird rotisserie, multiple coconut presses, spices (Northern Laap spice and fermented bean discs were stacked to the ceiling) and chiles, and of course the recipes. I remember unloading the new rotisserie and coconut presses from the truck when I worked there. Oof!

After getting the slushy beer demo, I watched kitchen manager Brian Marcum fill bottle after bottle of drinking vinegar. Initially, Andy bought up any drinking vinegar that was available at Portland's Asian markets—now they make most of it themselves. I remember small test batches with strawberries when I was there; the operation has obviously grown since then.


Back in the Whiskey Soda Lounge kitchen, one of the cooks was frying chicken wings. The restaurant makes 1,800 pounds of the wings each week to supply WSL and Pok Pok. That number will likely grow with Pok Pok Noi, the upcoming take-out spot slated to open in North Portland 2011.

They now have a vacuum tumbler to reduce marinating time from 24 hours to one. Instead of carrying the wings upstairs to cut, then downstairs to marinate, then upstairs to fry, then back downstairs to cool (only to return upstairs to freeze) they're all prepped in one place in massive fryers and wheeled to the nearby freezer. How luxurious!

Ricker was actually in Thailand during my visit; he visits often. Five years ago, he had a house with a food stall—now it's a full-blown restaurant, adjacent bar and production kitchen, a downtown Asian pub called Ping, a Pok Pok take-outerie opening soon, a cookbook in the works, and a 2010 James Beard best chef Northwest nomination.

Pok Pok

3226 SE Division Street, Portland OR 97202 (map); 503-232-1387

Whiskey Soda Lounge

3131 SE Division Street, Portland OR 97202 (map); 503-232-0102

Pig head? Check. My pozole verde recipe.

Back Forty's Pozole Verde

Yield: 12


1 half pig head rinsed well, or two jowls (call your butcher ahead of time to order)
2 pig trotters (same deal as above)
4 pounds pork ribs
2 onions, halved
1 head of garlic, halved
2 carrots
2 stalks of celery
2 pounds dried pozole corn (descabezado, with the tip or pedicil removed)
2 1/2 tablespoons cal, slaked lime powder (available at Kalustyan's)
6 jalapeños, stems removed and chopped
1 cup hulled pumpkin seeds
10 bibb or romaine lettuce leaves
10 red mustard greens (kale or chard are fine, too)
1 pound tomatillos, husks removed
1 bunch cilantro, roots and stems chopped
1/4 cup vegetable oil
salt, to taste

Put the half pig head, trotters, and ribs in a large pot and cover with cold water. Over high heat, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer, skimming any foam or scum that appears. Add onions, garlic, carrots and celery, and simmer 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until a knife can go into the meat easily. Remove the meat, strain the stock, and let cool.

Pick the meat, fat, and cartilage from the head and trotters. Rough chop or shred head and trotter, cut ribs (removing bones if you'd like), then set everything aside. (This part can be done up to a week in advance.)

Soak the pozole in a large bowl of water overnight, and drain. Fill a stainless steel pot with 2 quarts water and, over high heat, bring to a boil. Dissolve the cal in the boiling water, and add the pozole corn. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce to simmer for about fifteen minutes, or until the corn is yellow and their skins loose. Drain the corn in a colander, and rinse thoroughly under cold water. Rub kernels between hands to remove any remaining skin. Put corn in pot and cover with cold water by three inches. Bring to a gentle simmer, and once corn begins to soften and "flower" or "pop," you may salt and cook it until your desired tenderness (approximately 1 to 2 1/2 hours). Strain, and reserve liquid. (This part can be done a few days in advance.)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Queens, I'm Sorry

Taiwanese shaved ice at Yee Mei Fong Bakery

Queens always seemed like where people moved before they ended up in Long Island. My aunt and uncle talk of there sweltering Forest Hills apartment that preceded there Dix Hills homes. My recently married cousin also lives in Forest Hills, I imagine Long Island isn't too far off. I am aware that both Queens and Brooklyn are in Long Island, but I figured the likelihood of time in Brooklyn far outweighed my chances of hot days in Queens. I hated the Mets as a kid, the World's Fair ain't happening anymore, and aside from airports why bother. So I thought.

Here I am one year into my New York residence, still no NY license, and I'd like to apologize to the borough of Queens. I never imagined that on my valuable days off I'd be craving your goods. Your diversity of food astounds me. I crumble before your food. I crave your acceptance and hope to understand you. To my home borough of Manhattan and my former desired borough of Brooklyn, I'm sorry. From what I can tell, you're great, Bronx and Staten I'm sure are amazing too. But, Queens please don't wait for me. I'm coming soon.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Good Shabbos!

Yelled at the chef today.

Undercooked eggplants, excuse me? First of all, they were perfect. Secondly, I can stop caring any second you want. Family meal can leap back into the Dark Ages. Eggplant salad and grilled pork. You're going to come up here and talk shit? Someone else say something about family meal. Please, take the one thing that makes my workday worthwhile. I insist.

Girlfriend is on vacation and what does a disgruntled brunch cook eat on a Friday night?
Still not lunch, but this will do anytime. The pickles are spicy, so this covers the flavor spectrum. Hot, sour, salty, sweet, and let's not forget bitter. Provecho!

For anyone not at home watching "Man Push Cart" alone with a cilantro pickle bagel and a tamarind whiskey drink, maybe you're out at one of the many Inwood bodegas. Guzman Food Market down the leisurely Sherman Ave.,and past the whitewashed iron work, was near capacity with the Yankee game blaring. A tamarindo there and I was on my way. The doorman and I exchanged goodbyes. The yellow metal marquee box glowed where its multicolored bulbs would allow. The red top and trim gave me the proper accompanying drink to match my low-priced boubon. One can yields three cocktails.

The bagel was from my morning Bagel Boss stop way down by the 1st Ave L stop. Just above 15th. They were a bit less seedy than I prefer, but for an oversize bagel it is tasty and the only real option near work. But seeds on both sides which for me is crucial for a respectable bagel joint.

Family meal was Pok Pok style, or at least my interpretation with what the restaurant has as far as thai ingredients. The bottle of Squid brand fish sauce at my side I worked my way through the large silver mixing bowl of pork chops, ribs, bones scrap, pancetta scraps, and other assorted chunks from various whereabouts. Thai chiles were replaced with jalapenos and a micoplane functioned as my mortar and pestle. Fish sauce, ginger, black pepper, garlic, jalapeno, lemon juice, and some sugar soon coated the pork. Some was reserved as sauce for the grilled meat. The last of the acorn squash, whose skin had changed to orange, had been pureed and then made its way into a thickened curry. The powder was of undistinguished origin and simply said curry powder. The last dish was a roasted eggplant salad, the one the chef said looked underdone. Whole Japanese eggplants grilled until just barely soft then sliced into rounds and topped with lime fish sauce dressing, hard-boiled egg, red onion instead of shallot, mint, cilantro, fried garlic, and fried shallots. It was all served with Uncle Ben's brown rice.

Hours later after Shabbat candles, La Croix du Prieur rose from the bottle, tamarind whiskey, bagel supper, a smoke in the tub while watching Daily Show I did everything in my capacity to mellow myself for the weekend of Mother's brunch. I needed a night cap. Since summer arrived I had not had a crappy chocolate wafer ice cream sandwich. So I went to my second bodega of the evening. The Yankee game was long over at Zuley Deli Superette, but the crowd was still alive. The Broadway and Dongan Pl. establishment had no doorman. They did have ice cream sandwiches. Hershey's Mighty Mini to be exact, not that it was different from any other versions. Two for $.70 was just what I had in mind.

Anything else need to be done? No, don't worry, everyone thinks we're gonna fail. So I feel great. Just don't undercook the eggplant and we'll be fine. Maybe it's the Evan Williams talking, but fuck brunch! What I mean to say is those ice cream sandwiches were all right.

One of these days we'll have lunch.