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Brooklyn Represent!: Red Hook Ball Field Vendors

October 7, 2010 1 comment

I’m not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to sing the praises of the Red Hook vendors.  The food vendors at the Red Hook ball fields have received extensive coverage on the internet, which you can read about here, here and here.

Red Hook is a neighborhood in South Brooklyn that should be known for its old school Brooklyn charm, art scene and views of the water but is, sadly, more known as being home to the only IKEA in New York City.  Red Hook is also notorious for its lack of transportation options.  Unless you have a car, you’ll find yourself relying on the B61 bus or the IKEA shuttle or schlepping a bit from the F/G trains at Carroll Gardens or Smith/9th Street.

For those of you unfamiliar, the Red Hook vendors started off humbly enough in the 1970’s.  Semi-pro soccer games at the local recreational fields drew a good crowd of players and spectators from various Latin countries.  Food vendors popped up to feed the masses after realizing that there was a sizable market of people who craved treats from home countries like Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Over the years, the makeshift “stalls” (read: tables underneath tarps set up in front of vans or cars) then became more well-known than the soccer games.  More recently, with growing popularity thanks to foodies and blogs (whoops!), the Department of Health cracked down on the vendors with city regulated food preparation guidelines, and many vendors were forced to buy and operate out of food trucks, which cost around $50,000 each.

While many lament the loss of the “authentic” stalls and question the growing number of “outsiders” showing up every weekend (like many neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Red Hook has gentrification issues), there is no doubt that the food is still authentic and delicious.  But no food can be declared worthy until one of the members of Allegations of Deliciousness judges it so.

The vendors are usually open every Saturday and Sunday from May until October, with October 31 being the last day for 2010.  Hoping not to miss out this year, I went last weekend to try out the pupusas from El Olomega.  A pupusa is traditional Salvadorian dish made with thick, hand-made corn tortilla filled with cheese and meat/beans/veggie.  I got mine with cheese and beef while Edna Krabappel got her’s with cheese and spinach.

Pickled cabbage (I gave my share to Edna since I can’t stand cabbage), pickled jalapenos and a not-so-spicy tomato sauce accompanied the pupusas.  They were both delicious.  The pupusas were not too heavy despite their thickness.  The outside had a slight crisp before giving into the fluff of the tortilla and melty, cheesey goodness inside.  The beef was well seasoned while the spinach melded well with the cheese.

If you live in New York City and have yet to visit the Red Hook vendors, hurry down and try.  Other vendors sell huaraches, tacos, ceviches, elotes and fresh pressed juices.  You only have a few more weekends to enjoy before the trucks close down for the season.


The Last Meal

October 5, 2010 7 comments

One of the most heated topics of debate both in legal circles and the mainstream is the death penalty.  Regardless of one’s personal stance on the death penalty, many people often have difficulty answering the question “What would your last meal be?”

On September 23, 2010, for the first time in almost 100 years, the commonwealth of Virginia executed a woman, Teresa Lewis, who pleaded guilty in 2003 to two counts of capital murder for hire of her husband and stepson.  For her last meal, Ms. Lewis requested fried chicken, sweet peas, Dr. Pepper and either German cake or apple pie for dessert.

I had always assumed that prisoners can request whatever he or she wants, but Slate has an interesting article that debunks that myth and gives the basic ground rules, notably:

Final meals are generally limited to food that can be prepared on-site. Virginia prisons have a 28-day rotating menu—for example, hot dogs on the first day of the cycle, chili on the second day, etc.—and prisoners facing imminent execution are limited to one of the 28. Other states are more flexible. In Texas, the chef at the Huntsville unit where executions take place tries to accommodate any order. But sometimes that means cooking a close approximate. When an inmate requests filet mignon—which happens a lot—the chef will instead cook up a steak hamburger, since that’s what they already have in the kitchen. When a Texas inmate requested 24 tacos, the chef made four. In Florida, last meals must be purchased locally and can’t cost more than $40. Alcohol is almost never allowed, since the prisons don’t want rowdy inmates on their hands.

Slate also notes that “[t]he most popular request is a cheeseburger and fries. Steak, fried chicken, and ice cream are also common.”  Notorious criminals have had interesting requests.  John Wayne Gacy asked for shrimp, fried chicken, French fries, and a pound of strawberries. Timothy McVeigh ate two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Curious, I asked a number of people what their last meals would be, assuming the above rules did not apply.  The food items rattled off usually fell into one of two categories: (1) decadent foods (i.e., price is no object — steak, sushi, oysters, caviar, etc.) and (2) comfort foods (i.e., what favorite dish you grew up eating).

For me (still assuming there are no restrictions), I would start the meal with a dozen Kumamoto oysters with a good, crisp ale.  The menu would also have to include a perfectly grilled ribeye steak (rare) paired with a lobster tail and grilled corn.  Some other items include crab cakes, nigiri sushi with toro and uni and Chick-fil-a.  A bowl of my mom’s pho would also be thrown in there somewhere.  I know this sounds like a ridiculous amount of food, but it’s all a hypothetical, and I’m just throwing out some of my favorite foods.

So, given no restrictions and knowing you had only one meal left, what would you want?

Road Trip Montreal: Cake Wars

September 16, 2010 1 comment

Sticking to our inadvertent Montreal-based theme for the day, I provide you with the following review of select Montreal restaurants written by one of my regular dining companions, known on these pages as Kristen Wells.

So I had this bet.  The prize was a slice of one of the most delicious cakes in the borough of Brooklyn:  Cake Man Raven’s red velvet.  (Scrape off some of the over-abundant frosting and thank me later.)  Some controversy arose, however, surrounding the terms of the wager and my betting partner – let’s call him T-Bone – and I did what all reasonable people do in these situations.  We went double or nothing.

The subsequent bet was not, strictly speaking, a true double or nothing, as T-Bone and I agreed two slices of cake was more than either of us wanted to eat (at least in one sitting).  How, then, to double?  We decided the loser would have to (1) buy the winner a slice of the best cake in Brooklyn (i.e., the original prize) and (2) research, identify and buy the winner a slice of the best cake in a city of the winner’s choosing, and coordinate the logistics of the associated trip. 

I talked a whole lotta trash that week, sending T-Bone pictures of cake possibilities from around the world.  Boston cream pie?  Jamaican black cake?  Parisian madeleines?  Whatever city would I choose?  Thankfully, I would indeed eat cake and not crow;  I won the bet and picked Montreal.

They say “to the victor go the spoils,” but in my case, the loser’s burden of travel-foodie research may have been a spoil.  I love to study up on destinations, mapping out what to see, eat and experience.  I had to summon all of my (Wonder Woman) powers to restrain myself and not research Montreal’s cake options.  I called upon my faith in T-Bone, that he would live up to his end of the bargain and, despite his disinclination for such granular planning, investigate thoroughly enough so we’d enjoy the best cake as recommended by sources other than Yelp.  That said, I couldn’t help myself entirely and made one dinner reservation.  Since the rez was for dinner and not cake, I figured I wasn’t diminishing T-Bone’s burden as loser of the bet.

I’m happy to say T-Bone came through like a champ.  Leading up to the trip, I posed the philosophical question about how I’d be able to determine if the cake T-Bone chose was, in fact, the best in the city.  If it’s the only cake I sampled, how could I really judge?  To round out the experience and provide some comparative data, T-Bone picked three destinations (for two days in the city).

As it turns out, one of his choices must’ve been very popular.  We arrived within the operating hours of Cocoa Locale, but the doors were locked.  They’d sold out of that day’s batch of baked goods.  No worries, as our next destination was nearby:  La Croissanterie Figaro

First, we had a late lunch, and my goat cheese and tomato quiche was excellent –really flavorful with perfectly roasted tomatoes and a tender, buttery crust.  As for dessert, T-Bone indicated the “go to” order was chocolate mousse cake, with a possible second place for carrot.  I looked at T-Bone quizzically because I warned weeks prior that I’m not fan of chocolate cake.  Was it wise to steer me in that direction?  We ordered one of each and, lo and behold, the chocolate mousse cake was phenomenal.  (The carrot was good, too, but really didn’t compare to the chocolate.)  Layer upon layer of a soft and light chocolate cake, smooth chocolate mousse that was a bit richer with chocolate than the cake, and a frosting that upped the chocolate ante, all dusted with really good cocoa powder.  I’m not a fan of chocolate cake, but this was hella good.  +1 for T-Bone.

The next day we ventured to the most charming croissant shop I’ve ever stepped foot in, Kouign Amann, named for the Breton cake we’d be sampling.  A tiny store with fresh baked goods on a couple of shelves, bakers in flour-dusted aprons forming croissants by hand behind the counter, and a really friendly and lovely woman working the register.  T-Bone is a big fan of croissants and I’d told him I don’t really understand them.  The ones I’ve had in the U.S. just don’t seem to be worth the fat expenditure.  Trying a warm, fresh croissant from Kouign Amann, however, has made me a believer.  Make this a must-stop on your next trip to Montreal. 

But that’s not why you came.  We weren’t sure what Kouign Amann cake is exactly, but we got one to share.  It looks like…this picture.  It tastes like sweet, buttery bread baked with a slightly caramelized crust.  Sounds simple, but the layering creates a really pleasing texture that I couldn’t replicate if I tried.  This cake was unique and, if you like buttery, sweet, baked goodness – and who doesn’t?  – you’re going to be really happy with Kouign Amann from Kouign Amann.  (I keep typing it because I’m still trying to figure out how to pronounce it.  Kouign Amann.  ?)  +2 for T-Bone.

Our last night in Montreal was the night of my one contribution to the chowhound itinerary, dinner at Au Pied du Cochon.  Although I’d read and warned T-Bone that we should arrive amply hungry, the afternoon cake (and, don’t tell, but later a shared almond croissant) kept me satiated for a long time.  Sadly, I wasn’t terribly hungry by reservation time so didn’t order as many dishes as I might have wished.  We shared a great blue cheese, apple, and endive salad.  For mains, I ordered a swordfish special and T-Bone ordered one of the more notorious entrees:  Duck in a Can.  My fish was amazing.  Perfectly cooked with a salty, buttery cream sauce, mushroom, and beans.  A combo I would’ve raised an eyebrow at had I known in advance, but it was really delicious.  Probably the best thing I’d had since the crab and jalapeno spaghetti at Del Posto.  About the Duck in a Can, you can Google search it to learn about the unusual preparation and presentation.  (Actually, here you go:  All you need to know is when they poured the can out, I thought “Goodness gracious, that’s a lot of food.  T-Bone might get halfway through that.”  Fast forward a bit and I thought “O.M.G. that must’ve been really delicious.  I can’t believe he ate the whole thing.” 

Seriously.  Did you watch the video?  T-Bone ate THE WHOLE THING.  That’s how good it was.  (+1 for me.)

Moral of the story?  Make some food bets with your friends.  Good times, and no one really loses.  Also, Montreal is a great eating town.

The Art of Grilling

September 1, 2010 1 comment

As you may have noticed, J. Frankfurter and I have been somewhat lackadaisical with posting over the past few of weeks.  With various vacations, moving for the Frankfurter clan and life generally, we’ve been distracted by the norms of summer.  We’re going to try to enjoy the last few days of the season and ease into fall with a few posts here and there.  But don’t worry.  Once the cold settles in on New York City, we’ll be hovering around our computer monitors for warmth and posting frequently once again.

With Labor Day right around the corner, many people are preparing ritualistic cookouts and barbecues to say goodbye not only to summer but to their grills as well with.  While people will always debate charcoal vs. propane, your esteemed blogging jurists both prefer charcoal for the smokey flavor that cannot be duplicated by propane.  J. Frankfurter uses the old-school Weber grill, which is easy to fire up with the help of a charcoal chimney.

In my humble opinion, one should avoid using lighter fluid or the equally flamable Kingsford MatchLight charcoals.  Whatever you grill will end up having that odd and less than delicious lighter fluid aftertaste.  The shortcut is not worth it if your food comes out tasting like chemicals.  Rather than using a chimney to light up my charcoal, I cheat a bit with the Weber Performer, which combines the aforementioned Weber grill with a propane starter.

If you haven’t done so already, check the series on Serious Eats about how to properly prepare charcoal grills for cooking.  While propane out grills are admittedly more convenient and capable of creating just as tasty meals, if done properly, the time commitment for lighting, using and cleaning charcoal grills can be minimized.

Road Trip Cambodia: Itsy Bitsy Spiders?

August 20, 2010 2 comments

This is the post many of you have been eagerly anticipating.  I mentioned in a previous post that deep-fried tarantulas are sold as a roadside snack in Cambodia, but I was not about to try those in particular after seeing the layers of dirt that coated them after vehicles went flying by.  In Phnom Penh, I was able to find them on the menu at Romdeng, a reputable restaurant that I wrote about before, which serves fried tarantulas in a more sterile environment.

We didn’t see fried tarantula being sold everywhere in the country.  Our guide in Siem Reap told us that they are the local delicacy of Skuon, a town about 45 miles outside of Phnom Penh near where he grew up.  They appear to be abundantly available there in the local forests, although people also breed them.  While no one really knows how fried tarantulas became a food source in Skuon, many believe that the starvation faced by millions of Cambodians during the dark era of Khmer Rouge rule has something to do with it.

So what do deep-fried tarantulas taste like?  I found them rather tasty and would definitely eat them again.  The chefs at Romdeng cover their version with a savory/sweet coating, almost like a watered-down barbecue sauce, before frying them to a crisp.  The tarantulas were served with a pepper and lime dipping sauce that added heat while enhancing the savory/sweet coating with brightness from the citrus.  The tarantulas themselves were very crunchy on the outside, while the inside was somewhat neutral in flavor (akin to chicken) with a nutty aftertaste.  I think they would pair nicely with some cold beer while watching football.  Spiders don’t scare me, so I had no trouble eating them.  As a young child, I was already eating a variety of animals and their various parts long before consuming unique foods or offal became popular with foodies.  Edna Krabappel had a little more trouble, but I give her credit for trying a small bit of the leg before giving up.  Although Edna is usually an adventurous eater, the look and feel of the giant spiders were just a bit too much for her to fathom ingesting.

Downtown Dining: Del Posto

August 4, 2010 1 comment

After two weeks in Cambodia and eating predominately Khmer food, I was ready for some tastier meals.  Luckily, one of my friends had a dinner reservation at Del Posto just two days after I got back to the States.

As you may know, Del Posto is the highly acclaimed Italian restaurant from Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and Joe Bastianich.  After one too many bowls of rice, I was ready to dig into some pasta and enjoy other tasty Italian dishes.

My friend (let’s call her “Kristin Wells,” shall we?) and I opted to go with the five-course menu (Il Menù del Posto) because it appeared to be the best deal given the prices on the a la carte menu.  Each person gets to pick an antipasto, secondo and dessert while splitting two pasta dishes.  For my antipasto, I ordered the carne cruda because I was craving high-quality beef (the cows in Cambodia, which are comparable to cows throughout Asia, were on the meager-looking side).  Kristin Wells opted for Lidia’s lobster salad (pictured).

One fantastic part of the dining experience at Del Posto is the bread basket.  The bread comes out piping hot and tastes as fresh as can be.  To enhance the experience, the bread is served with your choice of butter or lardo.  Being that Kristin Wells doesn’t eat pork, I got the lardo all to myself.  There’s nothing like spreading whipped fat that tastes just like delicious bacon on oven fresh bread.

Following the antipasto course, Kristin Wells and I split a very over-salted pasta dish (pennette with porcini, preserved tuna & tomato strattu) and a spaghetti with with Dungeness crab, sliced jalapeno and minced scallion dish that made us both pause and take a moment to enjoy because it was so good.  Kristin Wells declared the spaghetti was the best pasta dish she had ever eaten and that girl has been to her fair share of good restaurants.

For our main courses, Kristin Wells had the roasted turbot (foreground) while I got the wood-grilled lobster (background).  Hands down, the lobster was the better of the two dishes.  It was perfectly cooked and well seasoned while allowing hints of smokey flavor to come through but not overpower the sweetness of the lobster.  We finished off the meal with some very well-prepared desserts, but since neither one of us are big sweets people, we weren’t mesmerized by them like the savory dishes of the meal.

If you are looking for an amazing meal for a special occasion or just want to be treated to a nice night out where the food is delicious and the service top-notch, Del Posto is a great option.  And unlike other Mario Batali joints, the music is not cranked up to ear splitting decibels.  You can actually hear what your dining companion says to you and won’t need to shout a response back.

Ice Cream or Steak?

August 4, 2010 Leave a comment

The New York Times had an interesting article today about the high costs of artisinal ice creams and whether such costs were justified both from the buyer and seller viewpoints.  It seems that the price of being part of the current food movement that urges the use of fair trade, local, seasonal, humane and quality ingredients is not limited to New York City, where many of us have become accustomed (and even jaded) to the prices and marketing schemes of the latest and greatest food products.  The article resonated with me in particular because of my write-up earlier in the summer on the similar treatment popsicles are getting the food world.