Down in the BK

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Any creative writing class will tell you to start with writing what you know. Tonight I was supposed to be writing about my travels – about places far away from here, their cultures, and their foodways. That ain’t how this one’s gonna go down. I’m in the BK, Brooklyn, and I’m feeling a bit detached from the world outside my neighborhood right now. Today my mind has covered several continents, but in the end, I came home alone to this place that I love and that feeds my soul. So, I’m giving it it’s props.

NYC is a lot of things – a lot of cultures, food, people, experiences – all rolled into one. After a day in lower Manhattan taking in the sights and sounds of a warm sunny day spent with loved ones, the night didn’t turn out as planned. Instead of fighting it, I turned home to Brooklyn.

Where do you go when the world feels a bit too big, a bit too intimidating, a bit too cold? Where do you go when you are alone and need a reminder that you are part of something more? Brooklyn is a series of neighborhoods, each with its own haven, mine is the Donut Shop a.k.a. the Seventh Avenue Diner – a 24-hour diner that hasn’t changed a bit since the 60’s, and is just as clean and welcoming as I imagine it was back then as well.

I pass my diner every day at least once, and every time I walk by, I wish I were inside enjoying a perfect cup of coffee served by any of the ever-present waitresses who’ve been there decades longer than this neighborhood has been cool. The owners must own the building, or this place would have been gone a long time ago – victim to gentrification… a sad but necessary part of life in NYC. Though I’m fairly certain the place will far outlive my time here, I feel obligated to support it every chance I get… most of my meals out in my ‘hood are spent here.

Tonight is Friday and I am heading home at the time when my neighbors are just considering the train ride into “the city.” The diner is empty except a couple of die-hard regulars sitting at the counter… but not for long. By the time I order my grilled cheese and bacon on rye with a cup of coffee and a glass of water, then settle in with my book, the place is filling up with regulars.

I live in an area where you are either from here or you are obviously not. I, fortunately, look like I’m from here, so nobody notices me in my corner booth. This area was an Italian immigrant stronghold for some time before an influx of Latinos, followed by urban settlers looking for cheap real estate and good schools. Now, aside from its reputation for pseudo-intellectual, moneyed, super-breeders, it’s a pleasant mix of cultures, colors, languages, and foods… and we all enjoy the Donut Shop.

As usual, tonight’s meal hit the spot. I left feeling comforted that old Brooklyn still exists in a small storefront on Seventh Avenue and that I can get to it easily on my way home. I found myself content, even happy to be home in a place where, even alone, I am part of a neighborhood that goes on to the beat of its own drum regardless of time and changing faces. I may come and go, but the diner lives on.

Can’t wait to enjoy my marble stick donut tomorrow morning with my coffee… did I mention they had the most incredible homemade donuts ever?

Support local history… eat at a neighborhood dive!

Reading: The Next Best Thing…

… To being there, to tasting it, to seeing it in person?

For me, sometimes it’s just nice to read for its own sake. There’s so precious little quiet time in my life lately, that reading has become a special escape for me. Being an unapologetic food geek, most of what I read is definitely food related.

Lately I’ve been reading for inspiration to keep this blog going, to remind myself how much I love what I do for a living, and how much I love living, period. I’ve been reading my classmates’ blogs with awe and inspiration; I’ve been reading Eater (a bit too much, I’m sure – it’s kind of an addiction); and I’ve been reading Filipino cookbooks for research for our upcoming class (I will be as prepared as possible).

Yesterday I shared a link to one of the books I’m using for research for the cooking class. Today I’ll share a few other bits.

Inspiration for this blog:

When I returned from my most recent vacation, I was less than enthusiastic about being home – I would have done almost anything to stay (indefinitely), but even I have a reasonable enough grasp on reality (giggle if you like) to know that I had to come home (for now!). When I arrived, New York Magazine’s “My First New York” issue was waiting to remind me how much I love this city. In it, there is an article, “The Everything Guide To: Brighton Beach” that made me want to do some serious exploring of an area now referred to as “Little Odessa.” Posts on “tasty meat-filled starches” will ensue!

Inspiration to eat more exotically:

Not that I need a whole lot of that! Unlike many of my friends and relatives, it took me a little while longer to acquire a taste (now a longing) for uni (sea urchin, ricci, etc.). Must have been a bad sushi bar experience while in a land-locked state (land-locked and I don’t do well together, no matter how beautiful or how good the skiing is!). Anyway, there was an article in the NYTimes Dining Section this week about the many glories of sea urchin and its countless contributions to deliciousness (and aphrodisiac-ness!). In “Escape from the Sushi Bar,” Julia Moskin provides fundamental information about the sea urchin as well as plenty of food porn of the briny-silky-yummiest kind. Read at your own risk!

Inspiration to laugh my ummm… tuckus off!

If you haven’t read any of my dear friend Mindy’s posts on either of the two blogs she is working on, now would be the time to do it. See the links in the next column for “Mindy’s Recipe for Disaster” and “Cooking Issues.” No matter what she happens to be writing about, from menacing mangoes to hydrocolloids, Mindy has a way with words that makes me laugh out loud every time! Thanks Mindy – needed that!

“Memories of Philippine Kitchens”

Memories of Philippine Kitchens

This beautifully produced and extremely well written book is one of the main resources I’ve used in preparing for the market tour and cooking class I’ll be offering for my fellow students in the first run of Food Blogging with Steven Shaw. I’m hoping most, if not all, of you will be able to attend.

 I am proposing we have the class at the International Culinary Center on Sunday, May 31, 2009… we’ll meet at the school at 10:00 a.m. and take walk through Chinatown to procure some of our ingredients; we’ll then return to the school for a hands-on cooking class followed by a lunch buffet. We should be finished by about 2:30 or 3, depending on how much talking we end up doing!

 The dishes we’ll prepare are inspired by some of my favorite meals enjoyed in the homes of family and friends during my most recent visit to Cebu, Manila, and Alcoy. I will be accompanied by my very talented, food-loving brother-in-law Benjie, whose family has so lovingly adopted me into their homes, and kitchen memories.

 Please reply by comment or email to me at nettomei@yahoo.com

If necessary, we can change the date… if there is a date/day/time that works better for you, let me know. I will confirm the date in next week’s class.

 Hope you can make it!

To purchase the book, please click: Memories of Philippine Kitchens: Stories and Recipes from Far and Near [MEMORIES OF PHILIPPINE KIT]

Not Chef’s Day Off (or, a Tale of Two Chefs)

Technically, yesterday – being Monday – was supposed to be a short, sweet post for Chef’s Day Off. As it turns out, yesterday was anything but that for me. I will spare you the boring details of my all-too-full day and skip to a tale of two chefs.

First, note that chefs are chefs, no matter where in the world they are. They work long days then proceed to celebrate (or salvage) these days with equally intense debauchery. A dear friend of mine is a chef in the Philippines, which puts him pretty much exactly on the opposite side of the planet and exactly 12 hours time difference from me, which makes for a perfect friendship when you keep strange late hours. The catch is that one of us is just getting started for the day while the other is just getting rolling for the night… that’s actually the fun part, and where my day began yesterday.

I was in my office in between projects, texting with my friend before getting on with my crazy day. He was finishing dinner at his restaurant with a group of friends, including a Kiwi wine collector from Los Angeles (nobody’s ever from just one place in this business). They had been enjoying what seemed like some pretty amazing wines including a Tamesis Pritchard Hill Cab  (from an exclusive area of Napa Valley) and Mollydooker’s “Carnival of Love” Shiraz from McLaren Vale, Australia, two wines I would have loved to try – especially with that crew. When I said as much (by text) my phone rang and I ended up talking with the enthusiastic Kiwi wine collector about everything from great Shiraz to various cult Pinots from California, to a point where I was craving a big fruity, spicy red to replace my morning coffee! If I can’t get back to the Philippines any sooner to enjoy one of those wine dinners, I will at least need to make a trip to LA sometime in the near future.

Fourteen hours later (yes, that’s how long my work day was!), it was my turn. Our event for the Philoctetes Foundation (mentioned in the previous post) was a great success so we celebrated with a few rounds of our new favorite house cocktail, “The Swedish Chef”, a Nils and Dave special – carbonated caraway vodka, clarified apple juice, cucumber juice, Dolan vermouth and elderflower liqueur. After a couple of these at the end of a long day, I could barely keep my eyes open. My friend, on the other hand was just finishing a morning swim and sent a “sweet dreams” from the other side of the world.

Road Trip (Part III) – Home again!

random-0111So happy we went out to the Island a day early – today was so wet and rainy and went by way too fast! I started the day with coffee in the rain on the beach. There was an oyster farm next door to our lodging, so I watched an old oyster-man clean cages and sort the contents while a boat loaded new cages to place back in the water. It was so peaceful.

Breakfast was at a 80+year old landmarked local diner, the Cutchogue Diner – I had the most delicious old-fashioned banana pancakes. A perfect breakfast before wine tasting! First stop, Paumanok Vineyards. We tasted 8 different wines, all quite lovely – the one I want to note is their Chenin Blanc. They are the only winery on Long Island making wine from this grape, as far as I know… Vouvray it is not, but it is intensely fruity and refreshing enough to drink all summer long. The 2007 is sold out and the 2008 is just coming available. Save some for me!

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Next stop, Peconic Bay Winery. Again, the wines were very tasty. Especially the barrel sample of the ’07 Merlot we were treated to. Apparently ’07 is the vintage to look forward to. Peconic Bay has a great set up with high service standards, great snackies, and live music – would have liked to hang out longer to enjoy it, but we were moving on.

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I should note, this day was hosted by the generous people at Mercer Cutlery for the chef instructors at FCI… it was a spectacular day that even rain could not dampen! OK, bypassing the bad pun – the highlight of the day was the beautiful lunch (paired with a great selection of wine) prepared for us by the talented chef/owners of the North Fork Table and Inn in Southold. Foie gras, truffle-crusted grouper, lamb with homemade smoked merguez & beluga lentils, and the most amazing dessert I’ve ever eaten (Claudia Flemming is a genius)… Creamy, sticky, gooey, but very grown-up Chocolate Caramel Tart with a delicately salted caramel ice cream.

What a way to end the perfect North Fork Wine Adventure Weekend!

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Road Trip (Part II) still from my iPhone!

As I mentioned earlier, we started our North Fork Wine Country weekend at Jamesport Winery. Owner, Ron, and host Jake were very kind, generous and accomodating. The wines were equally pleasing… We tasted pretty much everything they had on offer and at least one that wasn’t. We were particularly interested in there program of supporting SPAT, an organization that promotes the sustainable development of local shellfish aquaculture, with proceeds from their East End Series (loved them all, especially the rose and the Cinq blend).

From there to our lodging, a 1950’s motel in Greenport, Silver Sands. What a treat! Waterfront rooms facing the Peconic Bay with a private beach, clean, cozy, and less than half the typical wine country room rate!

On to our last winery of the day, Shinn Estate. Another great find! They had several interesting (in a good way) whites including a “white Pinot Noir” – essentially a still blancs de noir. Yummy! Even better, a spicy rich Bordeaux-style blend aptly named “Wild Boar Doe”.

For dinner we were craving something equally as retro as our lodging. Too bad Gregg hates seafood so much, some good options here. Instead we opted for Emilio’s Pizza in downtown Greenport… Highly recommend it!

We returned for an evening in the motel’s panelled sitting room (like a 1960’s beach cottage) for an evening of more wine and fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. This is the life!

Road Trip! (Part I) from my iPhone!

Angela, Gregg & I decided to get out of the city for the weekend… Angela & I were supposed to be out on the north fork for a Sunday of wine tasting with the FCI gang anyway, so we came out a day early to get a head start and some beach therapy. Perfect!!
On the way out we stopped at sugar bun bakery in Howard Beach Queens for a special bacon and egg sandwich on huge flat bagels (perfect for sandwiches!).
The drive wasn’t so bad. Actually made good time. First stop, Jamesport Winery… More on this experience soon!

A 21st Century Visit to Ancient Rome

 I mentioned yesterday that I would tell more about the self-portrait found in the “About” section – the photo is terrible but the memories are incredible!

 This time last year I had just finished my master’s dissertation on the foodways of the Italian immigrants in NYC and rewarded myself with a 12-day trip to Italy. I spent four days and three nights in Rome followed by a few days with my father and family in the countryside just south of Rome, then off to Florence for two nights. I finished the journey by spending the last couple days with family before heading home.

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 It was a dream vacation for me – plenty of time for solo exploration and enough family time to banish loneliness AND feel like I actually spent quality time with my loved ones. If you are the adventurous type but have never traveled solo, I highly recommend it – this was my second major solo trip (certainly not the last); though I love having a willing partner in crime, sometimes it’s just nice to go at your own pace.

 I arrived in Rome just after dawn on a crystal blue spring day. I intentionally left home without an itinerary, only hotel reservations and plans to eat gelato at least once every day! I stayed in a beautifully restored 15th century palazzo in the Subura, the oldest quarter of Rome (this neighborhood was ancient and rather notorious in the time of Julius Caesar!). One of my family members lived in this neighborhood for many years (in the 20th century), so I had visited before and had good information on the best off-the-beaten-track places to eat.

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 First stop, a quick walk to the Forum and the Coliseum to appease my inner history geek, and to do some major people watching while catching up on my reading and writing. Wandering through this beautiful ancient gathering place is a reminder of how far I could get from my daily grind while getting closer to those who walked the same stones thousands of years before me – all the while wondering at the silliness of modern-day Roman gods scantily dressed as gladiators for the tourists’ eager cameras!

 When in Rome, there are a few local specialties you shouldn’t miss. Although Rome is the original cosmopolitan, international city, there remain many local delicacies that represent the region and its unique history. For you adventurous eaters, Roman cuisine is known for its creative use of offal – “il quinto quarto” (the fifth quarter), once considered the most desirable cuts due to their rarity (usually only one or two of something per animal). My father loves a dish called pagliata (baby veal intestines served like pasta in tomato sauce).

 For the not so adventurous, bucatini alla carbonara is the pasta specialty of the region, rich with pancetta, eggs and sheep’s milk cheese. Also, carciofi alla giudia (fried baby artichokes) and puntarelle (a lovely local, and very seasonal, green commonly found in salad with anchovies).

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 For a great taste of classic Roman cuisine (minus the more intimidating items), Angeletti in the Subura is a wonderful little neighborhood restaurant that shouldn’t be missed. The food is comforting and made with love. The service is genuinely warm. I eat there every time I visit Rome. It’s worth getting off the beaten path!

 As for the self-portrait, it was taken on the lovely but very tiny terrace of my lovely but very tiny room as I enjoyed an array of treats from the market and a bottle of effervescent, refreshing local white wine. More on the markets of Rome in future posts.