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Posts Tagged ‘Red Bank’

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My fellow stage-crew friend and I like to eat. And to talk about eating. And, often enough, to talk about eating while we’re eating.* Casey grew up in a family that cooks from scratch—hard core. When they make burgers they start with an actual cut of meat. Then they put it through a grinder and spice it to taste. Yeah. He also has a brother who’s a chef in Manhattan, and his dad’s wife is a pastry chef in Brooklyn. Having a friend like this is wise on all counts.

For a couple of years we’ve been dreaming about a banh mi, a sandwich made at our favorite (so far) Vietnamese restaurant (Pho Le, in Red Bank, NJ). The place only offers it for lunch, and the only time we’re both available for lunch is on weekends. That usually leaves lunch before a Sunday matinee…but most of the time we’re too sleepy to go after working a heap of shows.

Yesterday, before the closing matinee of Peter Pan, we quit whining and made it happen.

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Look at that fat wedge of jalapeño! Tucked underneath like it’s a common dill pickle, humming placidly and gazing skyward! Sneaky little poser.

Pho Le’s classic banh mi is at the top of the page. I have a recipe for one from the long-gone and much-lamented Gourmet Magazine, one that has liverwurst ably pinch-hitting for pork pâté.

This sandwich had the real thing: pâté, roast pork, pork roll, head cheese, cucumbers, jalapeños, cilantro, pickled daikon (a type of radish—pure white and mildly flavored), and carrots.

I’d never had head cheese before, but have always wanted to try it. As a lifelong Laura Ingalls Wilder devotee, I’ve read matter-of-fact accounts of offal preparation over and over, so I’m not especially squeamish about it. I did read up on head cheese as a refresher, though, and learned meat from the tongue, feet, and heart are sometimes added to the flesh from the animal’s head.** Only one complaint about this delicious sandwich: not enough of the pâté and meat. It gave me a little taste of the gaminess I love, but not as much as I’d like.

Casey yawns at squeamish as well; he’s eaten far stranger foods. His sandwich is just above and was more successful. It was a grilled pork banh mi, with avocado, pâté, greens, tomato, and the rest of the lovely vegetables I had in my sandwich. The smokiness of the grilled meat sold us both. And the sandwiches, it must be acknowledged, were served on very fresh, toasted rolls. Concentrating on the fillings and mailing in the bread has almost become a cliché in the food business, but this little place knows it matters. They’re right.

We put these sandwiches away while he told me about the snake-bitten production of West Side Story he did in college. Theatre people never run out of disaster stories, and we’re always ten minutes away from a new one. Then we pushed our chairs back from the table and sighed and headed off to Neverland. Two friends, two adventures, one afternoon.

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*BONUS: I just received a fantastic leftover turkey sandwich recipe, and right now we’re messaging about it. This is surprisingly common.

**Boy, if my mom didn’t stop reading earlier, she sure did now.

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Vintage Pyrex bowls.

Goodness, this was a lousy week.

Even before the tragedy in Connecticut on Friday I was overwhelmed, disheartened and in need of some peace—proper peace, the kind that soaks into the bones. The song ‘Where Are You, Christmas?’ has never been a favorite of mine, but I have to admit that lately I have been wondering the same thing. Here it was the middle of December, and I should have been happily knee-deep in the fun and joy of Christmastime. Instead, stress seemed to have formed a Plexiglas case around me, isolating me from the season I love so much, allowing me to see it but not feel it. It was as if I was watching it all on television.

By Wednesday I was stretched to maximum capacity and utterly exhausted. I crossed everything off my list for the afternoon, drove to the antique district in Red Bank and walked into the red wooden shop at Front Street and Bridge. My blood pressure went down to a simmer as soon as I opened the door of the old building, a mighty garage sale on two floors. It’s a good place to step out of yourself, out of the present, into what (at least) feels like a warmer time. The place even has a calming aroma; the mix of wood, vintage clothes, books and housewares all together in one spot is what I imagine 1958 or thereabouts smelled like.

This antiques shop relaxes me because the stuff within is not so much precious as homey. There are the odd mahogany end tables and gilded mirrors, but there are far more simple things, ones that waft good memories around me like a May wind. I love seeing the type of 1960s porcelain figurines my aunt used to display on her dresser, the ones of ladies with updos, wearing broad sweeps of black liner on their upper eyelids and real dangling earrings. I love seeing the same miniature Madame Alexander dolls I used to collect, and the kind of metal lunchbox my sister used to carry to school.

The vintage kitchen stuff soothes me most of all. The nooks and alcoves piled floor to ceiling with kitchenware are quiet places where you can step in and feel enveloped by women, long-gone, who imprinted themselves on the worn goods they left behind. Here the potato masher and wooden spoons with well-used handles, there the scratched ceramic bowl in which of hundreds of loaves of bread rose. Corningware dishes that saw countless Thursday night meatloaves, birthday-dinner chicken fricassees, heaps of peas from a carefully tended garden. Within these humble, common possessions were the spirits of generations of women who worked their whole lives to keep their families well fed and protected. I felt that spirit, decades later, and felt the safety they provided transfer to me.

Depression glasses and plates are stacked by color, and they make muted rainbows on the shadowy parts of the shelves. Utensils are in spatterware buckets and inside drawers of wooden hutches. The place is a mishmosh, granted; but there IS order, there IS a layout, and I found that comforting, too. What Holly Golightly appreciated about Tiffany, I appreciate here.

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I liked these as a kid, but my mom wouldn’t let us get them because she heard a rumor that they contained lead. Was that true?

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Jadeite vases, coffee cups and bowls.

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Rolling pins.

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Enamelware soup ladle, made to accommodate a deep stock pot.

Christmas decorations are all around the shop, too, most from 1960 and earlier. I loved peering into the cabinets full of candle choirboys, never lit so they would always stay perfect, and grinning Santas. My mom has Christmas things she loves putting on windowsills every year, and so do I. I imagined the sweet-faced angel below being someone’s mom’s favorite. And once again I felt enveloped and safe, even though it was through an image of someone I had never met, from a time before my time. It didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense on paper; it worked.

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Shiny Brite tree ornaments.

Many years ago I was at this very shop and fell in love with a tiny bottle brush Christmas tree. I came back a couple of days later to buy it and it was gone. Amazing how the loss of something that cost three dollars could have made my heart sink like it did, but it did.

On Wednesday I turned a corner and saw another bottle brush tree. At just two inches, it was tinier and even cuter than the one I lost all of those years ago. Three and change. Done.

I stayed for an hour and left the shop feeling much looser and calmer. Yes, the rest of my week got hairy from time to time, and I’m sure it will again. But I have my little bitty tree right here on my desk, and it helps to remind me of the joy and peace this season is supposed to have.

I’m not sure I believe in sweeping generalizations like great joy is all around us, if only we reach out and grab it. Would that it were. At times like this it seems even more implausible, and that’s coming from a pretty enthusiastic optimist. But I don’t think that’s how it works.

Instead, I think we should seek out any bright little glimmers of joy we can find. Those are all around us, and those we should grab. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmastime or any other time of year. Hang on to them and let them sink into your bones. They’ll fortify you. When necessary—before it’s necessary, really—I recommend taking a day, or an afternoon, or even an hour, to play hooky from the world.

And I figured this out: Maybe stress is best diffused just by seeking out anything or anyone that can help us to feel safe. Maybe that’s where peace comes from, too.

I hope you figure out a way to find it—all year long but especially now.

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I was wandering around in Red Bank’s Galleria last Sunday morning, looking for a little tiny snack to have before going to the farmers market out in the lot adjoining (very dangerous, waistline-wise and wallet-wise, to shop there while hungry), when I passed a little eatery called The Danish Cafe. Immediately I said to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this was an actual Danish place, as in Denmark Danish, with Scandinavian cuisine, instead of doing what it probably does, which is to offer scary yellow ‘Danish’, sodden and leaden, with that ghastly colored gel in the middle?”*

But guess what? It actually WAS an actual Danish place! As in Denmark Danish! Totally brand new to me, unless you count the cute little Scandinavian bakery in EPCOT.**

This place—wow. Smorrebrod! Red cabbage! Rye bread! But now, remember–I was just there for a snack. So I didn’t try any of that (this time), but instead asked the server about the pastries in baskets on the counter, all of which looked as though they had advanced degrees in integrity. There were nicely-browned cinnamon buns and Danish, with several varieties of filling in the latter. I asked if all had been baked that morning. He nodded. Good answer.

I chose a cheese Danish and took it outside. Maybe you’re the same; when I think of Danish, besides the gruesome descriptors above, I think of it as sort of doughy and malleable, as if you could, with a few squeezes and pinches, make an ashtray out of it for your auntie. One bite of this told me otherwise: It crackled and shattered in my hands, revealing it was made of many, many buttery layers. And the cheese within was soft, fresh-tasting, delicate and tangy; in other words, it did not taste like an afterthought, as I am (and I suspect most of us are) used to.

Nothing puts a smile on my face like finding out people care. Nothing makes me GRIN like knowing where those people are. Looking forward to an open-face roasted pork on rye.

*As any qualified mathematician can tell you, jaded + hungry = cranky.

**Which I love, and I gobble their lefse (sweet dough slathered with butter and cinnamon sugar and rolled up) without fail every time I get down there.

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That’s Dana above, stirring onions for our spaghetti sauce.  She came over yesterday with my other friend Casey, just because we felt like cooking together.

Cooking with these two is new. But working with them isn’t. We’ve done lots of local theatre shows together—not as actors, mind you, but as crew. We’re stage technicians.

Many people aren’t sure what that means, so here you go: During a show, have you ever seen the lights onstage dim or go out entirely…and then you see faint shadows of people moving set pieces on and off stage…people rolling, pushing, lifting, spinning a bunch of things into place for a scene, usually within seconds? That’s us.

Working in close quarters backstage, having to whisper, feeling the pressure of having to get something right night after night in the dark, in a scant amount of time, trying to avoid injury to ourselves and to the actors who are trusting us, you can imagine it feels like a war zone at times.

But there are plusses inherent in this work, too: We become very, very good at reading each other from across the darkened wings, at knowing each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and we build trust whether we plan to or not. (Not surprisingly, it’s my theatre friends who gave exceptional, much-needed practical support and know-how when I’ve changed addresses, or when, say, when I’ve gotten into an accident.)

When the rapport’s not there, it will be a nightmare backstage, guaranteed. But when you click, and everything moves like a Rolex dipped in extra virgin olive oil, there’s no high like it. It’s GOLDEN.

In planning this lunch, I asked Casey to bring pasta and a colander and Dana to bring soda. I did not worry about them bringing the wrong thing or about forgetting entirely. And they did not.

So here we are in a kitchen. A real one for once, not a two-dimensional set.

Casey’s in his thirties and is comfortable in the kitchen; Dana’s a teenager and is not. Yesterday I taught her how to slice an onion, and she did it beautifully. Then we all went across the street to a patch of herbs I planted years ago and snipped off some thyme and oregano.

I made the sauce a few hours earlier from pureed fresh tomatoes that I bought at my favorite farm. Seemed incongruous to buy canned tomatoes in high summer. (Well, it is. Especially in New Jersey.) The tomatoes took a while to cook down, though, full of water as they were. I added a bit of tomato paste for its intense concentrated flavor.

Then we all tasted the sauce to see what it lacked, and Casey thought we should add a bit of sugar. I come from a family that would throw your clothes out onto the street at such a suggestion, but like I emphasized above, I trust this guy. So we put in a couple of pinches of brown sugar.

This is Dana and me above, pulling off bits of fresh herbs and dropping them into the simmering sauce.

While we waited for the pasta to come to a boil, I painted musical designs on Dana’s arms. (She’s a techie AND a singer.) As I painted, Case manned the pasta.

And this is the two of them tucking in.

Later we went to the beach, ate some junk food, played vintage video games and pinball, and then dropped Dana off to the show she was crewing in Red Bank. It was a good day.

P.S. The sauce was pretty good with the sugar.

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