September 18, 2008

The (Ice Cream) Cone of Obliscence

With the onset of winter in the Northern Latitudes, the word over the wires was that ever more friends were planning southward excursions across the equator’s invisible borderline, chasing that then-most-distant season of summer. Mindful that they needed to pack lightly — only a few small steamer trunks, please — more than a few of these friends had chosen Buenos Aires as their destination. And in terms of food, their timing could not have been better.

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But listen: unlike the others, I won’t sit here prattling on about parilladas, organ meats, or that out-of-the-way steakhouse down a leafy side street that’s hit upon the perfect garlic proportion in its chimicurri. It’s the desserts that my taste-memory always returns to. When beseeched for advice by first-time travelers to that Paris of the South, I often parry with a single word: helado.

Just as European milk chocolate has no true analogue here in the States, Argentine ice cream is nothing like the North American variety to which we’re accustomed. (For chocolate, the innovators came up with their own

processes in Switzerland and Pennsylvania that were quickly copied, leading to the establishment of parallel — but sorely unequal — systems in Europe and the New World.)

So ice cream and helado are not the same thing, not close to equal, and nothing here in the North truly matches that Argentine concoction. The great influx of Italians to nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Buenos Aires led to a lot of culinary developments in Argentina — arguably the best was the adaptation of gelato to the Southern Continent, with innovators applying well-established techniques from the Old Country to purely New World flavors, like dulce de leche.

Friendly’s and Baskin-Robbins have not bothered establishing concessions anywhere within the Distrito federal de Buenos Aires. And why would they? With more excellent helado purveyors per square kilometer than any other city in the New World, these North American would-be arrivistes would find themselves sadly outclassed.

The city brandishes its gleaming, marble-lined heladerías like the highly polished gems they are. Freddo, Persicco, and Un Altra Volta are the most well known, with many outlets — and many excellent flavors — between them. But there are smaller chains, like Munchi’s, and many stand-alone helado hawkers as well.

When it came time to return to that shining city of memory last spring, the plan was simple: eat as much helado as possible — without feeling the effects of dairy intoxication, naturally. Steps were taken, all of them warranted, to make certain that excess dairy intake would be countered by the necessary enzymes to process it; an absolute necessity, in order for our expedition to consume the maximum amount of helado reasonably. After all, we did not know when we would be returning to the city of good airs and superlative frozen treats.

The members of our expedition sampled vigorously, and took meticulous notes on our findings (now all lost, tossed out along with the ice cream spoons and crumpled napkins), with several new discoveries in the process. Did we think that coconut swirled with dulce de leche would be quite as mind expanding as it in fact is? Perhaps not. Were we expecting mango sorbet to be quite so enticing? Well, no. Still, fitting for “the Paris of the South,” the classics were . . . the classics. As an ending to the trip, a cucurucho of dulce de leche casero con brownie and chocolate amargo from Persicco was . . . just . . . perfect.

August 26, 2008

Self Promotional: ANP Quarterly, Vol. 2 No. 1

anpquarterlymag.jpg The latest issue of the ever-elusive ANP Quarterly just came out, and if you get the chance to pick it up, you'll find an interview I did a while back with Joshua Ploeg, "the traveling vegan chef." Joshua's been involved with the West Coast DIY/punk scene for quite a few years, playing in bands like Mukilteo Fairies, Behead the Prophet/No Lord Shall Live, and Lords of Lightspeed. In recent years, initially to promote his first vegan/vegetarian cookbook, he hit the road as a touring gourmet chef — and he's still at it. Aside from the food he makes (which is delicious) what really interested me in talking
to him was his approach, which is the antithesis of the mainstream model for gourmet chefs, where they are anchored to a restaurant, and the only room for innovation, and the only way to stave off boredom, seems to be in creating new restaurants.

At any rate, I got to talk to Joshua about applying the DIY model to cooking and quite a bit more, including his new band, Warm Streams. The magazine's hard to come by, but you may be able to find a copy of ANP at Printed Matter or Cinders in New York City, and Ooga Booga or Family in Los Angeles.

What didn't make it into ANP were the addresses for Joshua's website and blog, as well as these sample menus that he provided, so I'm putting them here to give you a sense of the kind of food he makes (which is the furthest thing from boring, fried vegan food imaginable):

Fall Menu
Cranberry-Pecan and Sweet Potato Wontons with Spicy Plum Cider Sauce
Apple, Spinach, and Beet Salad with Dried Cherry Vinaigrette
Breaded, Herbed Seitan with Creamy Wine Sauce, Peas, Fried Onion Strips, and Grilled Marinated Artichoke Hearts
Sauteed Winter Greens with Mushrooms and Sun-dried Tomatoes
Roasted Potatoes and Parsnips, clove accent
Fig and Pumpkin Tarts with Chocolate Sauce and Spiced Rum Glaze
Peppermint Hot Chocolate with Vegan Super White Chocolate Minty "Whipped Cream"

Spring Menu
Broiled Eggplant Roulades with Mixed Olive Tapenade, White Bean–Garlic Spread, and Roasted Red Pepper "Mayonnaise"
Black Lentil Napoleons with Spicy Orange "Cream," Seasoned Greens, and Sesame-Onion Relish
Blanched Daikon Radish and Beet Hearts with Watercress, Mizuna, Spring Leeks, and Rose Vinaigrette
Wild Mushroom-Herb Soup ladled over fried, seasoned bread
Seaweed-Wrapped, Marinated Grilled Tempeh in Red Wine Sauce with Garlic Linguine Rosemary-Almond Fritters, Sauteed Broccoli with Garbanzo Beans, Spicy Tomato, and Baby Carrots
Lemon-Ouzo Spritzers
Thyme-Tangerine Iced Tea with Lavender
Dessert: lets go with the Chocolate Cassis Cake Parfait with Cocoa "Cream," Berries in Sweet Wine, Chocolate Liqueur, and Shaved Chocolate

March 10, 2008

Reprieve Granted!

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With only a month and a half left before the traditional start of the Red Hook Soccer Fields season, it was a huge relief to learn this afternoon that the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation has allowed the decades-old institution to continue . . . not for one year, but for six!

It's something of an affirmation, not only of the fact that the pendulum of change sometimes does correct itself if it swings too far in one direction, but also of the one that New York City agencies aren't, in fact, systematically trying to sweep away every aspect of this city that makes it interesting and unique. At least, not in the outer boroughs. (See also: the rezoning of Coney Island to preserve Astroland.)

Still, while the Red Hook vendors have managed to keep their venue, they may now face a much larger task: complying with the painfully arbitrary laws of the city Department of Health (DOH). Soon after the Parks Department announced last June that the vendor licenses would be opened up to bidding, a great deal of public attention focused on the Soccer Fields. Within days of the announcement, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, the "Senator from Brooklyn," held a press conference there calling on the Parks Department to preserve this institution. While Schumer's involvement, the subsequent media attention, and the increase in visitors to the park surely helped the vendors win their new license, it also brought them to the attention of the DOH.

That's the bad news. The Department of Health may mean well, but as with most vaguely ineffectual state agencies, the organization creates and enforces rules designed to assure itself — and others — that it is doing its job well. Last year, the DOH was embarrassed by a news report on rats more-or-less running a Taco Bell that had recently passed inspection.

Soon afterward, the Department of Health began proactively shutting down "health hazards" of all types, including NYC institutions both real (Di Fara) and imaginary (read: touristic, such as Magnolia Bakery). With the DOH zealously protecting the health of New Yorkers through odd mandates — such as forcing food preparers to wash their hands before putting on rubber gloves (regardless of how dirty those gloves might subsequently get) — the Red Hook vendors have had to adjust their procedures considerably to match the DOH's restaurant-level standards, which somehow fail to apply to other vendors, such as hot dog and halal meat hawkers.

While I don't envy the Red Hook vendors the months of compliance fun they still have ahead with the DOH, the Parks Department's decision is important: it means that public attention can make a difference in how city agencies handle the Soccer Fields. And more importantly, it gives us something else in the face of this latest problem, which is difficult but surmountable: hope — that the Red Hook Soccer Fields will continue, not just for six years, but for many more.

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February 19, 2008

Dim Sum Diamonds

And so we decided to begin the new year with dim sum. Manhattan's Chinatown wouldn't do — we'd been through that before: the tired waitresses; the faded, threadbare carpets; the subpar food. So, on the last weekend of 2007, we accounted it high time to get to Flushing, Queens, as soon as we could.

We walked up and down 39th Avenue looking for Gum Fung, but no luck. Just as we began to worry that it had closed, we noticed the rather large eating establishment looming over us at the address we had for Gum Fung: Jade Asian Restaurant. Gawking at it from the sidewalk below, we decided to call up Gum Fung. Same address, same place. The management may call it Jade Asian Restaurant now, but the hostesses know it's still ol' Gum Fung.

And it was — surprise! — fantastic. Eating at Gum Fung/Jade Asian Restaurant was pretty close to what I'd experienced at restaurants in China. (And not only because I could barely communicate with the staff.) I was one of the few non-Asian customers, and the place actually kind of felt like the fancy hotel dim sum parlor I'd been to in Beijing. (That hotel caters to many Southern Chinese visitors, so it's known for good dim sum, which is traditionally a southern cuisine.) Of course, it helped matters that the food was excellent — on par with the aforementioned Beijing dim sum, and far better than most Chinese food I've had here in New York.


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Also, the restaurant looked like it could have been in China — except that the television was blaring bad American courtroom programs that were ignored by almost everyone nearby.


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We liked the restaurant so much that we returned a couple of weeks later with our friend Suzy. For the record, dim sum, at least at Jade Asian, isn't just a weekend meal. The restaurant didn't seem much less crowded on a Tuesday at lunchtime than it had on a Saturday afternoon.

This time we were seated in dim sum–parlor Siberia (or should that be "Outer Mongolia"?): too far from the kitchen, so the food wasn't as fresh, and we got to choose from among the leavings that hadn't been scooped up by customers at the other tables.

First thing we ordered was one of my favorites from the previous visit:


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Cheong fun — broad rice noodles filled with shrimp and doused in soy sauce (left). The rice flour gave the noodles an especially satisfying texture, and their juxtaposition with the shrimp and soy sauce made them nearly irresistible.


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Another variety of cheong fun that we ordered consisted of the same noodles filled with yu tiao — fried, cruller-like bread — and smeared with hoisin sauce. This style of stuffed rice noodles was very different from the shrimp-and-soy-sauce variety, both in taste and in texture. But it was just as good.


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Four more varieties of dim sum (from left): seafood dumplings in broth; fried tofu skin stuffed with chicken; sticky rice filled with chicken and wrapped in lotus leaf (known as lo mai gai, nuo mi ji, or zongzi); and har gau: steamed shrimp dumplings.


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I barely touched the greens, and was strangely fascinated with the pear-shaped items that actually turned out to be fried, pureed potatoes filled with curried meat. Like Shepherd's Pie, as Suzy noted; a Chinese analogue to Shepherd's Pie.

Notice the unloved egg custard in the background. This was the only major disappointment. I had been expecting greatness — on our first visit, we had missed getting the last egg tarts by about twenty seconds, and kept asking the woman who wheeled the dessert cart around if she had any more each time she came by (so much so, in fact, that she remembered us several weeks later).

This time, we ordered egg custards as soon as we spotted them . . . and didn't finish them. Ah well, at least there are decent varieties available at the Egg Custard King and any number of other Chinese bakeries around the city. There's even an outpost of Fay Da Bakery right down the block, though each time we strolled on past Fay Da as we'd strolled before, far too full from Jade Asian to eat anything else.

September 7, 2007

Sorrel Lemonade

Labor Day: though it comes about three weeks before the end of the season, it feels like summer’s summation. It’s one last day of long stretches spent in the blazing sun, and beaches massed with people seeking . . . relief, sure, but also the feeling that summer could go on.

This year in New York, Labor Day also marked the 40th anniversary of the West-Indian Day Parade. So, after a ritualistic, pleasantly languid visit to Fort Tilden Beach, my girlfriend and I got off the 2 train at Grand Army Plaza, in Brooklyn. The parade ran along Eastern Parkway, ending at the cluster of roads between the Brooklyn Public Library and Grand Army Plaza. Stepping from the subway station into daylight, our senses flooded with stimuli — women in extravagant, golden outfits, their exposed skin alight with glitter; concussive music booming from mobile soundsystems: mountains of speaker stacks piled high atop flatbed trucks; and the waft of grilling meats, their juices cooking in complex spices.

But the smells, at least, were misleading. We were searching for roti, that curried Caribbean delicacy of South Asian origin. What we came across, as we walked uphill toward the procession’s northern limit, were halal street meat vendors, who were largely ignored by the parade-goers.

We moved past them, toward the parade and its crowds, watching people walk the other way bearing Styrofoam containers overloaded (we had no doubt) with West-Indian food. We knew we were getting close, but each potential roti stand that we sighted through the throng turned out, upon closer scrutiny, to be a mirage: a water ice stand, or a tent offering photos. We pressed onward, deeper into the sea of people.

Along Eastern Parkway itself the air was electric, and thick with revelers sporting the colors of their national flags: bandanas, hats, pristine sneakers, whole outfits flashing Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, others. We spotted a West-Indian food stand at last — a table heavy with aluminum pans, a very long line ranged out before it. That was the first one. Beyond it, in the thickening crowd, we saw many more tables, each one swamped, each one offering the cuisine of another island country.

We flitted from table to table — this one? this one? — each with aluminum pans offering up grilled meats, fried chicken, escoveitched fish, tostones, rice, platanos, beans. Riotous sounds and colors shook at the periphery of our senses, but we were concentrating on the food. Six or seven stands in we found roti at last. My girlfriend got in line and I doubled back, bopping along Eastern Parkway’s service road — more room to walk here, behind the tables and massed people watching the parade and waiting for food — to a drink stand we had passed earlier.

I had hoped for fresh pineapple juice. Though a copse of pineapples separated the woman who ran the stand from her customers, the sign hanging in front of her table offered only sorrel and lemonade. One pitcher before her was yellow, the other a dark, near root-like color that recalled Chinese medicine. Just to make sure, when my turn came I asked about the pineapples. She replied that the lemonade had some pineapple juice in it; the sign stretched behind her added that it was made with brown sugar. Then she asked me if I wanted a combination of sorrel and lemonade. What an idea. Of course I wanted a combination of sorrel and lemonade, if only I’d thought of it.

The drinks came in two sizes: small and, well, massive — not quite film concession-sized, maybe, but definitely more than enough for two people. It was so large, in fact, that the lid that came with it wasn’t perforated for a straw, possibly because the container and lid had been designed for soups and sauces, not beverages. She added just enough ice to a large cup, and topped one-third of a cup of lemonade with two-third’s cup of sorrel.

I hauled the sorrel-lemonade potion back along the service road, behind the crowds and tables once more, to our meeting place right behind the roti stand. My girlfriend was already there, sitting curbside, away from the crowds, a Styrofoam tray in her lap loaded down with roti, chicken, beans, and plantains.

The roti itself was a little disappointing — the bread wasn’t fresh (most likely it was pre-made), and the curry flavors weren’t quite soaked through — but satisfying enough. It suited the occasion. And the combination of sorrel and lemonade — ! Perfectly refreshing: like an Arnold Palmer, only far better. It was hard to tell where the lemonade’s flavor ended and the sorrel’s began. The sweetness and tartness could have belonged to either one, though the fruity hint of pineapple and the gingery kick came from the lemonade.

We sat, watching the parade-watchers, feeling the parade itself roll by in a slow, steady movement, its bass frequencies hitting us in the sternum as the sound trucks passed, and ate, enjoying the “summerness” of it all and the food and drink. It was far too heavy for summer, but fall was coming quickly, not quite in the air but definitely behind it.

August 2, 2007

Falooda Found

When the definitive ranking of the world’s best ice cream is finally tallied, the case for the South Asian variety will be especially strong — at least in part because of the milkshake-like treat falooda. I first heard about the drink from my girlfriend, who had discovered it in Chicago as a teenager when she’d asked a waiter in a Pakistani fast food joint what someone else was drinking. When she tried it, the shake was mysterious and delicious: a heavy, intensely sweet concoction of rose-flavored ice cream, milk, rose syrup, vermicelli, and basil seeds.

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Years later, on our first trip together to Chicago, my girlfriend took me to find falooda in the South Asian area near the intersection of Western and Devon. But the Pakistani fast food shop was gone, or had relocated. And since she had not ordered it by name, and hadn’t had the drink in years, we weren’t even sure what the shake was called: “faludi”? “falooja”? We walked up and down Western in vain that day. Many waiters gave us uncomprehending looks when we asked if they served the drink. With that disappointment, tracking down falooda became a bit of an obsession for us.

We thought we’d found it a month later at Bombay Ice Cream, an Indian ice cream shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco. But the

closest we came that day was a rose-petal flavor. We might have been closer than we suspected, but it took us another year to finally track falooda down.

At Bombay Ice Cream, I liked kesar pista even better than rose. It’s made with saffron and pistachio, and my first taste of it produced an unexpected sensation that my brain didn’t quite know how to process. The texture was clearly that of ice cream, but it carried a flavor that I strongly associate with yellow rice. Other ice creams have a tendency to taste like the flavor they’re meant to be and cream, but in kesar pista the nuts and spice overwhelm any hint of dairy. Eating it is very unusual.

For my birthday that year, my girlfriend gave me a gift certificate for custom-made ice cream. After months of deliberation, I finally came up with a flavor I knew I wouldn’t find in New York: ‘broken coconuts,’ a saffron-almond base with bits of chewy young coconut and crushed ice cream cone mixed in. While really good, it didn’t match the kesar pista we’d had in San Francisco. Too busy, perhaps, or maybe the milk fat content was too high to accentuate the flavors properly. For the time being, with four quarts in our freezer, it was good enough.

Months later, right around the time we’d almost finished the last quart of broken coconuts, I came across an online reference to Bombay Café Kwality Ice Cream, a parlor in the South Asian section of Jersey City, New Jersey. Several flavors caught my eye, including saffron and something called 'kulfi falooda.' Very promising.

The next chance we got, on a sunny late-April day, my girlfriend and I took the PATH train from Manhattan to Journal Square. The neighborhood is filled with South Asian restaurants, groceries, fabric shops, and other stores — in many ways, it feels like the kind of small-town shopping districts that were common, and successful, until malls and suburban sprawl took over. We walked up and down bustling Newark Avenue and stopped in at several shops. We also ate South Indian-style masala dosas at Dosa Hut, a much-lauded neighborhood institution.

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Most fascinating, though, was Singh’s Department Store — an Indian-owned shop crammed with layers and layers of religious paraphernalia. It was once a typical small-town five-and-dime, and beneath and behind all of the Indian items for sale are the dusty but perfectly preserved accoutrements of a late 1970s or early ‘80s variety store: cheap board games and plastic toys, pop music 45s, and walls fully covered in faded t-shirt iron-ons. Singh’s seemed a good metaphor for the neighborhood, with the area’s newer residents building their own downtown right on the remnants of an older one.

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Though it doesn’t look the part, it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine that Bombay Café was built on the site of an old ice cream parlor. It is one of three suburban New York-area parlors for Kwality Ice Cream, a Jersey-based South Asian-style brand. When we visited, the ice cream itself didn’t disappoint. We sampled multiple flavors — kesar pista may have been even better than the one we had in San Francisco. And — at last! — the menu offered falooda.

My girlfriend ordered a traditional one with rose-petal ice cream, but I decided to combine my twin ice cream obsessions and asked for a falooda made with kesar pista. We compared the two on the walk back to the PATH station. Sometimes it might be best to keep your obsessions distinct from one another: my falooda was good, but hers was excellent. The rose syrup muted the saffron flavor of my shake; in hers, the syrup perfectly complemented the rose-petal ice cream.

Last weekend, more than a year after that visit, I returned to Journal Square. My friend Oliver has been planning a trip to India for a couple of years, but he’s had to delay it several times. A visit to Jersey City — and particularly to Singh’s Department Store — seemed like a good way to tide him over. We first stopped at Sri Ganesh’s Dosa House for lunch, trying masala dosas, vegetable biryani, tea, and an especially good mango lassi. Then, sated, we slowly made our way up and down Newark Avenue, checking out groceries and other shops that seemed interesting. Disappointingly, Singh’s itself was closed for the day, but we took an extended peek through the front door, and talked about returning another day.

Finally, on the walk back to the train station, we stopped at Bombay Café and sampled several flavors. Kesar pista was as superlative as I remembered, and ones I hadn’t tried before, like thandai (mixed nuts) and chikoo (sapodilla) were also really good. Though we were still pretty full from Dosa House, Oliver ordered a cup of kesar pista and chikoo. Recalling the lesson I’d learned on my first visit, I resisted ordering saffron and asked for a traditional falooda with rose-petal ice cream. When the counter woman handed the drink to me, I sipped it through a straw, marveling at its complementary textures — light, slippery basil seeds and long, chewy noodles balanced the viscous rose syrup and smooth, dense ice cream. It was a fantastic, top-ranking classic.

June 13, 2007

Too Late/Not Without a Fight

Side One
Last week the New York Times profiled Sion Misrahi, a child of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, who has grown up to become that area’s resident powerbroker. The article, which charts his rise from young clothing shop proprietor to older building owner to middle-aged real estate dealer, details his change in attitude toward the neighborhood he grew up in. It describes his attempts in the early 1990s to get the city to refashion the Lower East Side as a historic district — something along the lines of the South Street Seaport. The plan failed, but as gentrification began to set in later in the decade, Misrahi saw the Lower East Side’s incredible economic potential and repositioned himself to help spur the process along. The result, as anyone who has been to the area in the last several years knows, has drastically refashioned the neighborhood.

Gone are many of the Lower East Side’s old hallmarks: Orchard Street’s discount clothing shops (once, in an era of New York City Blue Laws, the only stores open on Sundays); and most of the old-world–style Jewish food purveyors — dairies that served baked farmer’s cheese and bakeries that sold the knotted pumpernickel bagels often rhapsodized about by writer Calvin Trillin. Gone, also, are many of the newer hallmarks — the alternative playhouses, thrift shops, and record stores that came in the ‘90s: the bohemian first-wavers that often precede the full swell of gentrification. Many have been replaced with other businesses, such as bars, but whole buildings have been demolished as well to make way for progress. Misrahi’s biggest time-commitment in the last several years seems to have been brokering real estate deals for others, helping to wholly reshape the Lower East Side landscape. With high-rise buildings replacing one-story shops and parking lots, the skyline itself has changed. Aging tenement buildings are now overshadowed by their new neighbors: high-end hotels and apartment buildings bearing a distinctive, contemporary architectural style that looks dated almost as soon as construction is completed.

The Times article ends with Misrahi eating at Katz’s, the 119-year-old delicatessen that is surely one of the area’s most enduring businesses. Recently, rumors have circulated that the restaurant’s owners are considering selling their property — many real estate developers see vast potential in razing the one-story building at the corner of Houston and Ludlow Streets. Misrahi seems horrified by the idea. As he says in the article, “The soul of the Lower East Side will be ripped out” if Katz’s closes. He seems interested in brokering a deal that will allow Katz’s to remain as a Lower East Side establishment.

But the truth, as almost everyone watching the proceedings knows, is that it’s too late. Even if he manages to help stay the execution for a time, Katz’s will eventually close. At this point, there’s too much money to be made. And Misrahi may be the only one who fails to see that Katz’s closing — the ‘ripping out of the neighborhood’s soul’ — will be a direct result of the very changes that he has brought about.


Side Two
Another sign of how things are going in New York came last week, too. On Tuesday June 5, word spread quickly that this may be the last season to get Latin American food at the Soccer Fields of Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Every weekend — for at least ten years, but perhaps even thirty — immigrants from various Latin American countries have set up temporary food stalls along the perimeter of the Red Hook Recreation Area to sell fruit, drinks, and freshly prepared food to the soccer players gathered there for league games. The horchata, pupusas, quesadillas, baleadas, and other delicacies available are some of the best Latin American food I have ever had in New York. Moreover, the atmosphere there — the mixture of people from different cultures, the intermingling sounds and smells as you wait for your food in the blazing summer sun — is unparalleled. Its overlapping of cultures may be the greatest evocation of New York’s true essence. Since first visiting several years ago, I now make the pilgrimage across Brooklyn to stuff myself often — about once a week during the season, which normally lasts from the last weekend in April until the end of October.

Naïvely, I now realize, I thought it would go on indefinitely.

According to reports by New York Magazine and The Village Voice last week, the Department of Parks and Recreation will not be renewing the food stall vendors’ Temporary Use Agreements, which have allowed them to set up in the park until now. Instead, the vendors will be allowed to stay only until September 8, and then the Department will open up bidding on the concession licenses. The implication, of course, is that the highest bidders — the companies with the most money to throw around, not the individual families who have been selling there for years — will win.

In retrospect, of course, I really should have seen this coming. Low mutterings have issued for several years about the great changes creeping into semi-desolate, out-of-the-way Red Hook. First the high-end Fairway Supermarket arrived, and then real estate prices crept to surprising heights — especially for a neighborhood off of the MTA subway system. And IKEA, the international retailer, tried for several years to establish a location in the neighborhood. Its store is now under construction on a quiet street three blocks from the bustle of the Soccer Fields.

Moreover, changes came to the Fields themselves. With more coverage in the local press last year, it was no surprise to see more visitors every weekend. To a certain extent, this is a good thing — although it means longer lines, and waits, it also ensures getting the most freshly prepared food, and means the vendors are making more money. But the Soccer Fields’ raised profile and steady crowds are probably what caught the attention of the city. This year, Opening Day was delayed by a week, and the vendors were directed to set up in a different place than in the past. Though these were small clues of the Department of Parks and Recreation’s intentions, the evidence now suggests the greater change ahead.

When the news broke last week, the city’s misguided meddling seemed like an attempt to control what had developed organically over time. By offering vending licenses to the highest bidder, the department would effectively sweep out the food vendors who had regularly brought large crowds to Red Hook. The mistaken belief that these crowds would continue coming — or that they would be replaced by legions of IKEA shoppers leaving the temperature-controlled megastore behind for a hot dog, a latte, and a relaxing stroll in the park — suggests a high degree of bureaucratic cluelessness.

Still, the situation in Red Hook, despite initial appearances to the contrary, might not be unsalvageable. Within hours of the news breaking last week, Soccer Fields fans had spread information on how to appeal to city officials about the situation across New York food blogs and internet message boards like Chowhound. If the city was going to try to drastically alter the Red Hook Soccer Fields, it was not going to happen without a fight. Because the park is a publicly held property, some people maintained, a large public outcry could affect the outcome.

Unsure of the park’s future, a group of us went to the Soccer Fields on Saturday afternoon to get in as many meals as we could before September 8. We were surprised to find short lines and no game in progress — the park seemed emptier, as if many regulars had already abandoned it. It took us a few minutes to realize that a big group had clustered in one area of the park. Relieved, we bought baleadas and wandered over. The commotion was actually a press conference by Senator Chuck Schumer (a Brooklyn resident), who was speaking to reporters and TV news crews in support of the food vendors.

As a U.S. senator rather than a local politician, Schumer may have little direct influence on the situation. Still, the quick mobilization displayed in getting his support — and the resultant media attention — suggests that the Soccer Fields might yet have a chance. It’s too soon to know how this will all turn out. But even with the changes that have already come to the neighborhood, Red Hook is not the Lower East Side. With enough public outcry, the Soccer Fields could still be saved.

April 23, 2007

Tropicália

Even more so than the inevitable scent of suntan lotion, it's the taste of fresh coconut juice that marks the beginning of warm weather.

Walking around in a pleasant, warmth-induced daze this afternoon, I decided to make a several-block detour in order to enjoy the first fresh young coconut of the season. Outside of a favorite Chinatown grocery, I stood behind a flirtatiously bantering (proto?-)couple as they waited for the grocer to lop the tops off their coconuts. Ah, spring.

The couple moved on, I asked for a coconut of my own, and waited. But not long; the grocer quickly scalped the fruit and handed it to me with a straw. I began to walk, but at the first taste of the juice — standing on a busy Chinatown corner — I had to stop and get my bearings. Where did I want to sit and enjoy this? The juice was better than anything I remembered. It was sweeter, and fresher, too. Without wandering too far, I sat down on a stoop in direct sunlight, enjoying every sip and trying to make the juice — and the experience — last.

Then I walked the five paces back to the grocer and asked him to split the fruit open so that I could get at the coconut meat inside. He laid the nut on the sidewalk and thwacked it with his cleaver. Short of actually being in the tropics, this was a fantastic way to experience warm weather.

April 1, 2007

Hoy Fanesca

Growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, I never had much use for Easter Sunday. In my town, restaurants and stores closed early as people gathered at home with their families, leaving the empty streets to us bored heathen teens with no better option than to hang out at the local Dunkin Donuts. The day felt interminable. I never looked forward to it.

Now I have a better reason to dread Easter Sunday: it marks the end of fanesca season.

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Ecuadorians celebrate Holy Week, the days before Easter Sunday, by preparing fanesca, a delicious, labor-intensive, and unbelievably rich soup of salt cod stewed in milk. Traditionally, fanesca contains twelve different kinds of grains — including many types of beans, hominy, and even tiny potatoes — one for each of the apostles. Last year, with my curiosity piqued by a Calvin Trillin article that had appeared in The New Yorker six months earlier, I decided to track down fanesca here in New York. It didn’t take much work — the first restaurant that I called assured me that they had plenty of the soup on hand.

We arrived at El Tesoro, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, late on Good Friday. Even at that hour, the restaurant was busy, awash in neon colors and packed with Ecuadorian expatriates. Unsure of how big the portions would be — and unaware of how filling fanesca is — we each ordered our own serving, and requested a ceviche for the table. We didn’t realize our mistake until after the waitress had brought us our order. As we ate, we marveled at the meal. It was dazzling — especially the soup, which was nearly overwhelming in its complexity. Each spoonful rewarded us with distinct recombinations of ingredients; there were flavor and textural variations in every bite. But it all seemed like just a bit too much food. Soon our waitress arrived bearing plates of whole fried fish alongside heaps of rice and beans: one for each of us. We hadn’t ordered this, we objected, but she explained that it came with the fanesca. Oh, yes. We had ordered far too much food.

But how could we say no? Everything tasted great, and we knew that we wouldn’t have a chance to eat fanesca again for 51 weeks. So we did our best, only reluctantly setting aside the last of the fanesca to take home. We did that to leave room for the dessert we had ordered ahead of time: humitas, the Ecuadorian version of sweet corn tamales. (Humitas, a close relative of Mexican-American green corn tamales, had been a favorite dish of mine on an early trip to Ecuador, and they were as good as I remembered.)

By the time we left El Tesoro several hours had elapsed, and we were no longer feeling light on our feet. Still, the experience had been worth it — now we only had to figure out how to pass the next 51 weeks idly until fanesca was available once more.

March 23, 2007

The Take-Home Variety

When the nights are long and harsh, and the springtime pleasures of eating Latin American food at the soccer fields of Red Hook, Brooklyn, feel many distant months away, the ready availability of at least one particular item provides great comfort, and makes the time still left to wait seem far less burdensome.

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¶ It has Spanish origins, but in the New World, horchata is a rice-based drink that — like dulce de leche, alfajores, and other Latin American treats — has regional variations throughout the Americas hispanoparlantes. In its most ideal form, the beverage serves almost as a thick, fluid delivery system for cinnamon. The ice-cold drink, stored in large, ubiquitous containers, beckons milkily from many taqueria counters, seemingly one of the more common aguas frescas available. And except in its most inglorious form — throat-scratchingly gritty and straight from a prefab mix — horchata is the perfect beverage: sweet, refreshing, and always welcome.

I’ve tried many kinds — one favorite, slightly earthy and indistinctly chocolaty, comes from a Salvadoran pupusa stall in Red Hook — and have even sampled horchata in a number of rather unconventional forms. Frozen, on a cone, from an ice cream stand in Missoula, Montana; reinterpreted as a basmati-filled ‘shake at a favorite (and currently closed) West Village diner. But until recently I had never tried it at home; as its own experience, completely divorced of its more common food associations.

About a year ago, while scanning the grocery store shelves, I nearly did a double take. There, between the neatly faced Tetra Paks of soy-, rice-, and almond milk, was something new. It was a package with an image of a large, white jug against a cloud-filled background, its friendly, traditional-looking Mexican lettering announcing something that I had never before seen at the store: horchata for sale. It returned my stare from amidst its more wholesome, blandly packaged neighbors. I didn’t know what providence had lead Rice Dream, a rice-milk and fake–ice cream manufacturer, to decide to bottle and sell horchata (with bilingual Spanish and English packaging, no less), but I didn’t question it. Fearing that it would disappear in a puff of improbability, I bought a carton on the spot.

I discovered that bringing horchata home from the grocery store recontextualizes it somewhat, separating it from the delicious meals it often accompanies. It does not, however, make horchata mundane. Even the store-bought variety can be transporting, in some cases calling to mind favorite past meals1.

Even now, a year later, with the Red Hook food stalls on hiatus and the chance to taste my favorite local horchata still six weeks away, I get a sense of relief and happiness when I open the fridge door to find a comforting sky-blue package with friendly lettering sitting on the shelf, just waiting to be guzzled.

1 - A friend who recently traveled to San Diego reports that grocery stores there stock a local variety in plastic milk bottles — and while she says that this kind isn’t especially good, its existence suggests a city with the right priorities, illustrating another reason to move there besides perfect weather and superlative fish tacos.