Spend this Holiday Season at the #CaptainsTable

pork tenderloin apple sweet potato brussels sprout Captain Morgan glaze Hugh Acheson

This Thursday, millions of Americans will spend hours peeling potatoes, whipping cream, basting turkeys, rolling dough, and whisking gravy to prepare and share a meal with loved ones. They’ll go to great lengths to over-feed guests, impress the in-laws, and relish copious leftovers. Thanksgiving has become for many the only day each year that we make a great effort to prepare an elaborate feast—and to enjoy it with gratitude.

But millions of other Americans—the 14.7 million households who at some point have struggled to put food on the table—will find their Thanksgiving spreads a little more sparse. And they won’t have enough leftovers to enjoy for days afterward—many won’t have enough food to see out the week. Even with government assistance and the generosity of soup kitchens and food pantries, some of our neighbors still worry about where their next meal will come from.

hunger charity celebrity chef Hugh Acheson Captain Morgan rum

The non-profit organization WhyHunger aims to end poverty and hunger (not just in the US, but everywhere) “by connecting people to nutritious, affordable food and by supporting grassroots solutions that inspire self-reliance and community empowerment.” Their multi-faceted work encompasses a variety of efforts to ensure all people have access to nutritious food. At the moment, they’re partnering with Captain Morgan (yes, of the spiced rum) and chef Hugh Acheson (you know him from Top Chef) to raise funds throughout the holiday season. Until February 2014, any tweet, Instagram, or Pinterest post with the hashtag #CaptainsTable garners a $1 donation to WhyHunger from Captain Morgan.

Photo courtesy of Taylor Strategy

Cape Corsair—recipe below
Photo courtesy of Taylor Strategy

A recent press launch for the campaign featured seasonal Captain Morgan cocktails and boozy bites—perfect for getting into the Thanksgiving mood and the spirit of the campaign. As I enjoyed Acheson’s charcuterie and an excellent cranberry cocktail, I was fully aware of the privileged position I occupy—not just at a fun party, but every day. I have no worries about being able to eat, and eat well. Obviously, I wouldn’t be writing this blog if that were the case.

But I have lived in so-called “food deserts” and neighborhoods where the majority of the residents need government assistance. I’ve shopped at the grocery stores where most food comes in cans or boxes and where junk food is far cheaper than fresh. Eating well with those limited resources is possible, sure, but it sucks. You eat the same things over and over because there’s never any variety at the store. Plus, preparing meals from whole foods takes a lot longer than reheating a frozen pizza, and when you work two jobs, time is short. And, frankly, junk food tastes better than what a lot of people—with limited cooking skills, resources, and time—are able to prepare.

So I fully support Chef Acheson and Captain Morgan in their campaign for WhyHunger. And even though I hope they’d donate the money whether or not people use the hashtag #CaptainsTable, I’ll set my usual cynicism aside and join in. It’s Thanksgiving time—and I have so much, and so much for which to be thankful.

To learn more about WhyHunger and issues of food insecurity, visit whyhunger.org. For every #CaptainsTable hashtag on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, Captain Morgan will donate $1 to the charity.

Cape Corsair
Recipe courtesy of Captain Morgan

Ingredients:
12 fresh whole cranberries
1 inch piece fresh ginger, thinly sliced
½ oz. simple syrup
2 dashes orange Bitters
1 ¼ oz. Captain Morgan® Black Spiced Rum
1 oz. cranberry juice
½ oz. lime juice
lime peel to garnish

Directions:
In mixing glass, muddle the cranberries, ginger, and simple syrup. Add the bitters and Captain Morgan® Black Spiced Rum, cranberry and lime juices and shake with ice. Pour into a double old-fashioned glass, ice and all, smash style. Garnish with an expressed lime peel.

Jackson Heights Taco Tour

oreja, pig ear, taco, mi mexico lindo, taco cart, jackson heights, queens, new york city

Oreja taco from Mi Mexico Lindo

Jackson Heights, situated in the heart of Queens, the nation’s most diverse county, is probably my favorite neighborhood in New York City. Roosevelt Avenue seethes with bustle and noise and humanity while, down any given side street, quiet families stroll past garden apartments and co-ops sitting staidly in the shade of tall, green trees. You’ll hear a dozen different languages in the space of a block; your head will turn at a hundred different aromas; and you can get the city’s best momos from a cart and, two minutes later, indulge in the tastiest arepas this side of Bogota.

With so much good food available, you could spend weeks eating exclusively in Jackson Heights and still not exhaust its culinary treasures: South Indian, North Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Tibetan, Korean, Mexican, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Uruguayan, and loads more—I’m sure I couldn’t list them all because there’s so much I haven’t yet eaten.

Systematically, I’m trying to change that, starting a couple of weeks ago with a progressive meal of Latin American delights. My friends Mu and John live in Jackson Heights, so I tapped into their local expertise about the tastiest spots. Initially, I was going to limit myself to tacos, but my resolve crumbled as soon as the empanadas came out.

empanadas, la gran uruguaya, bakery, jackson heights

Empanadas from La Gran Uruguaya

Mu, originally from Argentina, got these empanadas from a local Uruguayan bakery, La Gran Uruguaya, which she says is about the same as Argentinean and, in this ‘hood, definitely the better offering. (Argentinean cuisine seems to be curiously absent in New York; this blogger posits that one-time immigrants eventually returned to Argentina, leaving a gap in the South American culinary spectrum of Queens.) Unable to verify authenticity myself, I can certainly vouch for their tastiness, especially the tuna and spinach varieties.

Palates sufficiently whetted, we headed to Coatzingo Restaurant (an expansion of Tacqueria Coatzingo a couple blocks down the street). Oh, the glorious vertical spit of roasting pork al pastor! The tender steamed lengua! The homemade tamarindo! I gorged on tacos and a cemita filled with strata of meat, cheese, greens, and sauce and enclosed in an appropriately seedy bun–the kind of sandwich that years from now I will dream of and wake up hungry.

taco, lengua, coatzingo, jackson heights

Lengua taco, Coatzingo Restaurant

cemita, al pastor, coatzingo, jackson heights, mexican food

Cemita al pastor, Coatzingo Restaurant

On our way to the next destination, Sunjay stopped for a quick oreja taco from Mi Mexico Lindo. This was my first experience with pig’s ear and it did not disappoint–chewy and soft at the same time, and deliciously well seasoned.

mi mexico lindo, taco cart, street food, jackson heights, queens, new york city

Worth the wait

Next stop: Terraza 7. Without the guidance of two locals, I’d never have noticed this place. Other than the banner, it’s completely unremarkable from the outside, tucked away on a little side street. Inside, it’s smaller than it seems, shaped by the street into an odd triangle, although the wire loft (which usually houses a band) was surprisingly airy. Patrons can sit on kegs with custom-made cushions, sipping homemade sangria (with canned peaches!) and craft beer (including new Queens brewery Singlecut) and admiring the kitschy décor.

Terraza 7, jackson heights bar, queens, new york city

Terraza 7

downtown manhattan & brooklyn sign, 4 train, downtown 4 train, metal straps, new york city subway, subway, nyc

Just take the stairs to get to the downtown 4–err, the loft.

Our bellies full but still craving one last nosh, we stopped for arepas. Roosevelt Avenue’s famous Arepa Lady wasn’t yet out for the evening, so we had to make do with the second-best in Jackson Heights–which was still pretty flippin’ awesome.

los chuzos y algo mas, los chuzos, arepas, jackson heights, queens, colombian restaurant

“Kebabs and something more,” according to my level 1 Spanish.

arepa de choclo, arepa, los chuzos, los chuzos y algo mas, jackson heights, queens, new york city, roosevelt avenue

Arepa de choclo (maize, not chocolate)

If I’d had more room in my belly, I’d have liked to try a chorizo chuzo, which smelled amazing. The arepahowever, did me in for the night with its greasy, crunchy, cheesy fried goodness. 

I don’t take a trip to any neighborhood without running through my mental list of nearby stores selling specialty foods I can’t find closer to home. In Jackson Heights, every outing ends with a spree at Patel Brothers. No matter how much I buy, I always walk out having spent way less than I feel I should have.

patel brothers, grocery store, indian, indian food, lentils, parathas, chukree, chukli, spices, mango pulp, indian groceries

Shopping at ethnic food stores: my favorite recreational activity

It’s the ultimate satisfaction: a belly full of great food and bags of more great food to take home. Till next time, Jackson Heights.

‘Cueing Up Summer

the difibulators, a bluegrass band from nyc

Is there anything better than barbecue, bluegrass, and good booze to get you excited about summertime? Maybe ice cream. And cornhole. And great company to share in these marvelous things.

bobwhite lunch and supper counter nyc fried chicken potato salad pimento cheese sandwich

What’s better than fried chicken? Cold fried chicken. (Seriously.)

Last week, I got all that and more at Tasting Table‘s ‘Cue Up Summer party. Yes, it’s already late July. But after an intensely oppressive heat wave, I think we all needed a reason to get excited about summer again. With great food by local purveyors, twangtastic bluegrass from the Difibulators, and unlimited booze, it perfectly renewed my love of the season’s simple pleasures. (And it didn’t hurt that the day itself was unseasonably cool!)

Delaney Barbecue, brisket and ribs.

Serving up brisket and two kinds of ribs, and you still want more.

It all went down in the Elizabeth Street Garden which, under normal circumstances, is lovely enough with its antique statuary and rampant greenery. This evening, marquees strung with fairy lights sheltered tables laden with picnic pleasures—cold fried chicken, potato salad, and pimento cheese sandwiches from Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter; brisket, pork AND beef ribs, and fixins from Delaney Barbecue; some guilt-free gazpacho and veggies topped with Tabasco Buffalo Sauce; and amazing desserts—cookies by Mah-ze-Dahr Bakery; Imperial Woodpecker sno-balls; and massive ice cream sandwiches by Melt Bakery.

Melt ice cream sandwich s'most

There’s a marshmallow hiding in that ice cream sandwich.

And what would an outdoor summer party be without bottomless booze? Guests had their choice of Santa Margherita wines, Goose Island beers, and cocktails made with Monkey Shoulder and Hendrick’s Gin. I’m a big fan of both of the latter and stuck to those. The Hendrick’s lemonade suited my unusual preference for having lemon with Hendrick’s (and only with Hendrick’s—with other gins, it’s always lime), and the Summer Jam, mixing Monkey Shoulder with strawberry jam and lemon juice, was everything a July whisky cocktail should be—cool, slightly sweet, and far too easy to drink. Check out the recipe below.

Joshua Feldman, the Coopered Tot and whisky aficionado

Josh fits right in with the mood lighting.

My buddy Josh, of the Coopered Tot and Morgan Library whisky fame, along with some new friends, ensured that the company was as good as the comestibles. Thanks to Nick of Exposure USA for hosting with aplomb and Freddy of William Grant & Sons for sharing his extensive boozey knowledge. Summer might be half-gone already, but I plan to carry on with the outdoor eating, drinking, and merry-making, getting all I can out of the few weeks we have left.

Summer Jam
1 1/4 parts Monkey Shoulder Whisky
1/2 part fresh lemon juice
1 dollop of strawberry jam
Dash of sugar to taste
Splash of seltzer

Add all ingredients except seltzer to a shaker. Shake well. Strain into a glass with ice and top with a splash of seltzer.

Suite Three Oh Six: A Vegetable Lover’s Haven

daphne cheng suite three oh six supper club kitchen

There are a few reasons I could never become a vegan. Yogurt. Bacon. Honey. Eggs. Steak. Butter. Figs. Gelato. Buffalo wings. Sushi. You get the picture.

It doesn’t help that so many vegetarian/vegan restaurants purvey “mock meat” (e.g. heavily processed soy- or wheat-based foods shaped, dyed, and flavored to resemble meat) as their main attractions. Besides the fact that highly processed food (of any kind) isn’t very healthy and definitely not great for the environment, fake meat just tastes awful to someone accustomed to eating the real thing. And, as an omnivore, I ask myself: what’s the point? If I’m going to eat vegetarian/vegan—and I often do, with gusto—it’s because I love vegetables and grains and regular non-meat foods. (Mind you, I don’t consider tofu, seitan and tempeh to be fake meats. They are delicious in their own right, rest on centuries of established food culture, and are far less processed than the Fakin’ Bacons of the world.)

I was cautiously curious when invited to attend a wine tasting paired with vegan nibbles by chef Daphne Cheng. (The wines, supplied by Trump Winery, were utterly forgettable and, in the case of a certain apéritif, downright undrinkable.) Having been disappointed by vegan offerings in the past, I didn’t know what to expect of the food. Would it be endless faux chicken fingers and sham lamb? Never one to pass up free wine or food of any kind, I went with as open a mind as a skeptical omnivore can muster.

suite three oh six mache carrot salad

Mache with carrot, toasted buckwheat, and champagne dill vinaigrette

Cheng hosted us in her Tribeca event and teaching space, Suite Three Oh Six, an elegant loft hung with contemporary art and showcasing an efficient, glass-walled kitchen. Most of the food was passed in hors-d’oeuvre-style bites–beautifully presented, although occasionally difficult to eat while juggling a wine glass.

But even the fussiest dishes were rewarding. A pastry filled with lentilles de puy and topped with zippy bell pepper sauce was too big to eat in one bite, but so good that I gave up on my fork and just used my fingers. Zucchini bisque, a dish that could easily fall flat, got just the right amount of pep from cilantro and a drizzling of chili oil. Best of all, a crispy yuba (tofu skin) topped with something called “truffled ricotta” (made from almonds, I believe) had me actually waiting by the kitchen door for more.

The absolute standouts, though, were the sweet offerings. A simple half-hulled rambutan, the muppet of fruit, served as a bright palate cleanser. Rosewater “yogurt ice cream,” paired with apricot, slid down as easily as the “real” thing, with a refreshing lightness I’ve only found in certain gelati. And I couldn’t stop gobbling chocolate truffles, made with mezcal and topped with a thumbnail of crunchy coconut.

I kept forgetting that everything was vegan, and I think that was the idea. Cheng’s philosophy is that food should look and taste good, and just because her cuisine happens to feature vegetables in starring roles doesn’t make it any less appealing. The entire evening featured only one item I would consider faux—a cashew “cheese”—and even that wasn’t tricked out to resemble real cheese so much as it simply stood in the place cheese would normally occupy in a meal. (For the record, it was really tasty—not cheesy at all, more like a smooth, mildly nutty paste. I’d like to eat it on toasted cinnamon raisin bread.)

rambutan muppet fruit asian

Rambutan, the muppet of fruit

As an enthusiast of eating real vegetables, I enjoyed Cheng’s food very much. And as I’m constantly advocating for people to eat what tastes good, I applaud not only her culinary skill but her efforts to bring tasty veganism to the fore. Besides hosting regular supper clubs, Cheng also offers vegan cooking classes. If her educational repertoire is anything like the menu I tried, students will come away with some impressive dishes under their belts. Cheng is also seeking to open a restaurant in the near future. When she does, I look forward to returning for more tasty veggie-centric fare, confident that there will not be a pretend pork chop in sight.

An Evening of Scotch & Chocolate

Photo 5

What’s better than a whisky tasting? A whisky tasting with chocolate.

The last time I attended a whisky event at the Morgan Library, it was hosted by Gordon & MacPhail and featured five of their independent bottlings plus a Benromach. Last Friday, Josh Feldman (aka writer of the Coopered Tot and personality extraordinaire) presented six unique whiskies coupled with stunning chocolates by Pacari. In a warm, inviting atmosphere, attendees softened chocolate between their fingers while learning from Francisco Vivar of Pacari about the origins and characteristics of each variety and from Josh about the whisky pairings. We nosed and sipped and tasted in various combinations (whisky first, then chocolate; now chocolate first and then whisky; now together!) to determine the impact on flavors resulting from each order. Surprisingly, it does matter which goes into your mouth first. Even simply placing the chocolate on your tongue, allowing it to melt a bit and then nosing the whisky can radically alter the evident dominant flavors.

Pacari is a company that seems relatively unknown to the average US consumer but has captured the spotlight of the chocolate world. Based in Ecuador (Pacari translates as “nature” in local language Quechua), they make 100% organic chocolate and adhere to “fair and equitable standards” of production while aiming to preserve traditional methods of cacao farming. The importance of this becomes clear when tasting Pacari’s different varieties of chocolate, several of whose unique flavors showcase the diversity of the local terroir. And all this isn’t just talk; Pacari really puts its money where your mouth is. The company is the first chocolate producer in the world to earn the Demeter Biodynamic Certification and, what’s more, Francisco’s sincerity and authenticity—he uttered not a word of industry jargon or marketing language—spoke volumes about Pacari’s confidence in their products. Indeed, with or without whisky, this chocolate shines.

Clay, Allison, and I replacing evil with whisky

Clay, Allison, and I replacing evil with whisky

Joining me in flavor exploration were pastry chef/food writer Rebekah Pizanaauthor and chocolate expert Clay Gordon, and Allison Patel, Whisky Woman and producer of Brenne Single Malt. We formed a cozy little pack of nerds, exchanging notes and learning from each other throughout the evening. As I know next to nothing about chocolate (except that I enjoy it!), it was truly a privilege to taste alongside someone as knowledgeable as Clay and learn from his insights. It was also a treat to hang out with Allison—and even more so when Josh pulled out a bottle of Brenne to share with the room! For the unlucky (aka non-New Yorkers) who don’t yet have access to it, Brenne is a delicious, different kind of single malt produced in Cognac, France. It always surprises first-timers—even whisky connoisseurs—in a pleasant way and as other guests mobbed Allison to heap effusive praise on her whisky, the night culminated in a truly magical moment. Big ups to Josh for his perfect timing!

The night held other surprises too, not all of which I can reveal just yet. (Check back in a couple of months for something exciting that perfectly marries the realms of chocolate and spirits.) Clay generously shared some unique products with me—the beautiful 100% cacao Il Criollo by Domori, a bit of the ridiculously-addictive (and tragically not available for purchase) dried cacao fruit, and strangely awesome dark chocolate-covered, jalapeño-dusted corn nuts from Fruition Chocolate. (Yeah, corn nuts, I know—you have to try it to believe it.)

Dried cacao fruit might not look appetizing, but is worlds ahead of your run-of-the-mill fruit leather.

Dried cacao fruit might not look appetizing, but it’s worlds ahead of your run-of-the-mill fruit leather.

Just as at the Gordon & MacPhail tasting, a comment from the evening perfectly reinforced the philosophy behind this blog, and behind my explorations of food and spirits in general. In the midst of the writers’ geekery over the pairings and our attempts to verbalize the tastes and feelings swirling around our palates and minds, Clay sagely intoned,

“You can take the whisky seriously. You can take the chocolate seriously. But you can’t take yourself seriously.”

How right he is. No matter what tone of “authority” I might take on this blog (and I do hope there’s not much of one), I earnestly believe that eating and drinking should be primarily about enjoyment. Tasting notes and philosophical rhapsodizing help me sort out the mechanics of food and drink, provide an outlet for my natural interest, and enable me to organize my emotional connections to the act of cooking, eating, and sharing. But I don’t have to deeply contemplate a dessert or compose an ode to a dram to enjoy it, fully and truly. In the end, what matters is the pleasure received from tasting what’s good, and that’s it.

All that being said, now I’m going to share my tasting notes. Ha!

Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or 12yo with Pacari Piura 70% Regional
The Piura chocolate is made from Peruvian white cacao beans and is an unprocessed as possible. By itself it had a strong fruitiness—notes of berry, cherry and green apple. Paired with the Glenmorangie (which displayed typical sherried notes of golden raisins on the nose and spiciness on the palate), the two produced a honeyed butterscotch flavor with the fruitiness coming out as peaches, and a hint of underlying white pepper.

Compass Box Hedonism with Pacari Lemongrass
My favorite combination of the evening, best taking the whisky first. Hedonism is an all-grain blend with a sweet nose of marshmallows and gorse flowers and a tropical palate full of coconut. Josh described it as a “500 thread count silk pillowcase” and it is, indeed, indulgent. With the chocolate, the citrus notes of the whisky came out in full force beside the lemongrass along with a crisp freshness—to me, spearmint—which lingered on the finish. As the whisky breathed (and as we tasted other chocolates), the gorse scent (some smelled it more as jasmine) became stronger and more developed and lingered sweetly.

GlenDronach “The Revival” 15 yo with Pacari 65% Manabi Regional
Another sherried malt, the Revival gave off strong plum and raspberry notes on the nose and a palate of dried fruit, orange peel and a hint of hot paprika on the tip of the tongue. With the chocolate, strong gingerbread notes emerged which deepened both elements.

Aberlour A’bunadh Batch 42 with Pacari 65% Manabi Regional
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Aberlour and especially their A’bunadh series. Paired with this chocolate, the dram that displays some of the richest sherry notes I’ve tasted takes on an earthiness entirely new to me. The familiar cooked fruits now seemed roasted rather than stewed—bolder and more complex. This was one of the most interesting combinations of the night, as the chocolate and the whisky completely changed each other.

Ardbeg Uigeadail with Pacari Salt & Nibs
The pink salt in this chocolate comes from Cuzco, where people dig ponds, fill them with water, and let the water evaporate, leaving this salt behind. Ardbeg, an Islay whisky, also incorporates parts of the earth where it’s made, displaying characteristic peatiness. Together, these two elements created a total explosion of salt and peat: dissonant at first, but which soon mellowed to a sweet, honeyed harmonization. A very fun combination, especially since this was one of the few chocolates we were encouraged to chew (the “nibs” being little bits of the cacao bean).

Balcones Brimstone with Pacari Fig
By this point, I was so caught up in the general atmosphere of excitement (this was right after Josh produced the Brenne and the whole room went wild), I neglected to take very comprehensive notes. As you might have guessed, the chocolate contained chewy little niblets of fig. Its sweet fruitiness married nicely with Brimstone’s uniquely smoky profile, achieved via Texas scrub oak (whatever that is—tastes sort of, but not really, like mesquite). It was like drinking a barbecue sandwich topped with fig preserves—and therefore awesome. The Brimstone also paired fabulously with the aforementioned corn nuts, leaving me in a state of near-delirium and joy.

PS—Read Allison’s beautiful take on the evening here