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Posts Tagged ‘rye’

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Hot pastrami on rye, Ben’s Best, Queens.

It’s not like it ever stops, but lately it seems societal angst about food has been escalating, spinning off madly into illogic. It’s worrisome, and it’s not necessary.

Here’s the thing, and I’m speaking as someone who knows from illness (most of my 30s) that kept me from eating a lot of foods, and from being overweight (through high school and college). I learned a lot from being fat and from being sick. The answers are actually pretty simple, so let’s not make it any harder than it has to be.

1) Food is about balance. It’s not about eliminating entire food groups, or about denouncing natural ingredients, or about imposing senseless deprivation upon ourselves. Let’s keep sugar, fats, and carbs off the cosmic dartboard. That’s no way to live.

The body can manage short bouts of overdoing the fat and calories. While in Scotland for a week I watched my ex eat a classic UK breakfast: bangers, buttered toast, eggs, the works. This meal was for centuries the rich but wholesome foundation of a working farmer’s day, and that farmer needed every calorie. My ex is not a farmer. Yet he survived. For a week, the body can handle almost anything.

Historically, the human race has more or less structured their lives around eating moderate portions of wholesome foods plus the odd treat during the week, and blowing the lid off a bit on weekends (Sunday dinner) and holidays (eggnog). This system worked pretty well. It’s when we started to eat as if every day was a weekend, as if every day was a holiday, that we got ourselves into trouble.

Now a lot of people hand out stickers on Halloween instead of candy. This is a tragedy and a travesty, an adulterated—and I use that word deliberately—slam in the face of tradition. Part of the euphoria kids feel on Halloween is based on indulging in treats—treats that, during the year, they’re only allowed on occasion. Adults need to act like adults again. We need to re-establish moderation, to maintain balance in everyday eating. Lose the damn stickers. For one night a year, bring back the Milky Ways.

2) Food is pleasure. There is nothing quite like experience of eating the first slurpy peach of the season, or a warm fat heirloom tomato pulled off the vine. But neither is there anything quite like Aunt Rosemary’s lasagna fresh from the oven, or Mom’s sour cream coffee cake. These foods deserve honor, not our projected castigation and reproach. Too much of anything is no good, be it Pop-Tarts or fresh blueberries. Enjoy rich foods, every single mouthful. Eat them slowly. Appreciate them. Write about it and describe it passionately, if you’re as nutty as I am. Treat them like the treats they are. 

3) Food is connection. Food is not just for silencing hunger. Other hungers are fed as well: our need to express love and to feel loved, to protect and to feel safe, to share memories and to remember. I love cooking for people, and I love tasting other people’s gifts of food. Everybody gets so excited. It’s powerful. I love sharing what I’m eating and being offered bits of my friends’ food. Some people hate that, but not me. It’s a sign of intimacy. When you go out a lot to eat with actors, food gets passed around. I have one friend who never wants his pickle, so I take it. Recently I picked all of the peaches out of his fruit cocktail with my fingers. It’s not classy, but it’s home—even if you’re away from it.

Go easy on yourselves, everybody. Keep balance in your eating. Enjoy everything. We’re supposed to be happy on this planet.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a peanut butter moose tracks cone. And I’ll live.

 

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Well, hiya!

Finally, after three weeks of Hurricane Sandy-imposed Luddism, my internet connection has been reinstated. (Being disconnected was a drag, but there was certainly one bright spot in it: I missed the graphic photos, videos and commentary about the destruction, especially here at the Jersey shore. I saw plenty just walking around my own neighborhood.) And after having no power for 11 days, staying in the dark and cold for six of them, and panicking about weather, losses among my friends and neighbors, endless gas lines and more, let’s put it this way: I’d rather direct my attention to comfort. Hence this post.

Below are shots I took on a recent, pre-Sandy visit to Ben’s Best in Queens, that despite its size (tiny) is an institution when it comes to authentic Jewish delicatessen. My brother and sister-in-law took me there for a belated birthday present. Clearly they know me well.

The shots below are about bounty rather than loss, bringing together rather than ripping apart, and warmth rather than cold. The trip and the food were both fantastic, but memories of them have taken on an extra layer of significance in light of the mess of the last few weeks.

I’m neither Jewish nor a grandmother; nevertheless, I offer these shots in the spirit of those great comforting women. Warm up with me.

Fried kreplach with caramelized onions.

Stuffed cabbage with tangy sweet and sour sauce.

Kreplach as dumplings in chicken soup. The mug it’s served in has emblazoned on the side: ‘Jewish Penicillin.’

My brother’s brisket sandwich.

My sister-in-law’s ‘Chicken in a Pot’. Huge. Massive. As big as a foot bath. She took half home.

Saved the best for last. This is my pastrami sandwich, fall-apart tender, salty salty, sliced thinly, and served on soft rye. Might be the prettiest thing ever.

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Last week I was driving through Lakewood, NJ when a sudden flash of inspiration hit, and in blinking lights it read Gelbstein’s Bakery. It’s not the first time this inspiration has hit me, but it was the first time in a long time that I could do anything about it. For last week, I was wearing pants instead of shorts.

Crickets, right?

A little explanation: Gelbstein’s is located in the heart of a city made up largely of Hasidic citizens. These folks are strict when it comes to clothing, and when it comes to women, the less skin showing, the better. So when I realized I had on pants, it was a green light to visit Gelbstein’s. I didn’t want to go while wearing shorts because it would be disrespectful, first off. And as it was, I had on my usual summer uniform of t shirt, flip flops and surfer bracelets. Any more and it would have looked like I was filming an episode of The Little Lost Shiksa.

Another reason why I went: I was in the mood for an adventure. Not sure about you, but every now and again, usually when life is going really well or when I need a life shake-up of sorts, I get a craving to do something loopy. This time was a life-is-going-really-well adventure craving. But whatever the motivation, I make myself follow it, and I’ve never regretted it. The bakery, its clientele and its products are unlike anything I am used to. Perfect.

Gelbstein’s has been in business for nearly 30 years. My dad used to rave about them, curling his arms out in front from the waist, and saying, ‘Rye breads like this!’ They still offer incredible ryes (although not as gigantic as hyped) but all of their breads are unique and fresh. You can taste it, honestly.

Something else that’s unique about Gelbstein’s: It’s a small place, yet most of their goods are right out on the floor in bins or packed on full sheet pans, accessible to our greedy little hands. I asked a shop girl who was refilling the bins where I could get a bag, and she pushed a bunch of huge plastic sleeves into my hands. It was Friday—Shabbos—which is punctuated by an evening meal at which two loaves of eggy, braided, pully breads are the stars, so she figured I was planning to load all of the bags to capacity. That Shabbos bread, challah, was featured in easily half a dozen ways, but I chose a few little loaf about the size of three stacked bagels and shaped almost like a brioche, with a lumpy knot on top. I’ve never seen loaves that size or shape. They were sprinkled with sesame and poppy seeds and yummy little bits of onion. I also took a couple of whole wheat buns topped with oats and a little whole wheat baguette.

The service made me smile because it felt as if I was in the city*; it was all business. They’re the type of place that is so busy that there’s not much time to discuss what grade your youngest is in now or whether the rain is supposed to stop on Wednesday or Thursday.

‘How many?’ barked the petite lady behind the counter. She picked up my bag, counted its contents, and dropped it back on the counter. Not placed—dropped.

When I got home, I took the shot above and then pulled off that challah’s fat knot and gobbled it up. Then I sliced the roll in half, loaded it with wild salmon that I mixed a little mayo and some capers into, and ate that, too.

A loopy excursion that ends with a great lunch is my idea of the perfect adventure.

*I know everyone means something different when they say ‘the city’. In north and central New Jersey, we means New York. When South Jersey says it, they mean Philly.

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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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Peach blueberry pie, Red Bank.

Mid-April. We turn our winter weary selves to the strengthening sun and take deep breaths of the sweet air. The world is yawning, stretching, and growing greener. Another spring.

The predictable sameness of the supermarket isn’t going to cut it this time of year. A farmers market is. Hat, small bills, some cloth shopping bags (French housewives know the stretchy mesh kind are best because they can always fit one more onion), and off you go. Ride that spring momentum.

Like New York City during Fashion Week, the farmers market is a seasonal showcase; specifically, for the local and the just picked. This is what’s in fashion from the earth, right now. Produce sold there is going to be more nutritious, more flavorful, and often cheaper than whatever the supermarket has recently misted with water and glossed with wax.

Young cheese, Red Bank.

This is an opportunity to try stuff you’ve always wanted to, or to try stuff you’ve never even seen before. The blog you’re reading says ‘open your eyes’ at the tippy top for this very reason. If you’ve only ever shopped at supermarkets, going to a farmers market is like entering another galaxy—albeit one right at home—and in the best imaginable way. It’s a way to make your life bigger. Sniff the freshness of lemon verbena now, be dazzled later in the season by the explosion of sweetness in an heirloom tomato. Take in the greens and golds, the deepest, plummiest purples.

One of the best things about farmers markets is of course that they feature farmers. And bakers. And other people who are invested in what they’ve grown or made for you. They’re excited to talk to you about it. Questions are good. (Once a supermarket cashier held up the greens I had put on the conveyor belt and asked me what kind they were. This is not good.) You can talk about butterstick zucchini with the guy who planted it, tended to it, and picked it. This bin of zucchini is his labor of love, not just his job. And the man can give you recipes in his sleep.

Introduce yourself and get his name. After you take the zucchini home and cook it, go back and tell him how much you dug it. Or tell him you fouled the recipe up, if you did. He’ll give you pointers on how to get it right. It’s hard to beat that kind of attention and service.

Local brown and white eggs, Asbury Park.

Collards, Atlantic Highlands.

Ask for a taste. (You can do that there.) Prepare to be surprised. Ask more questions. You’ll find out oddball stuff, like if you add a teaspoon of almond extract to peach pie it will make it celestial. Think about what an almond looks like in its shell and what a peach pit looks like. Pretty similar, right? It’s because peaches (and nectarines, and cherries) and almonds are all cousins. Because of that, they have a natural affinity for each other.

Have you ever bitten into a strawberry that was picked three hours ago? It’s still warm. Chances are it’s also smaller than the ones you’ve seen at the supermarket. Often those are dipped in chocolate—and a good thing, too, because on their own they taste like wet cotton balls. Big strawberries are bred to 1) wow you by their size 2) sit on a shelf for a week. Flavor? Niente.

Taste one that’s small and local. That means it’s bred for flavor, which further means it’s never going to be sold in a supermarket. The farmer grew this variety because he knows he can pick these little guys, pack them in the back of his flatbed and get them into your hands inside a day.

Red cabbage, Asbury Park.

Hot pepper jam, Asbury Park.

If you come across a table behind which stand an elderly woman and her son, and you can’t pronounce their last name, and they make old-style sour rye bread, please buy one.  Ask the woman how long she’s been making bread and why she still does it. She wants to talk about it.

Last summer I met a portly man whose parents taught him to make focaccia and fresh bufala mozzarella, in his hometown of Rome, 50 years ago. I could tell you how good this bread and cheese tasted, but you’ve probably already guessed.

Many of these purveyors are keeping ancient traditions alive. One taste, and both the flavor and the link from past to present will astonish you, bring tears to your eyes if you let it.

Heirloom tomatoes, Asbury Park.

Everyday life can make our heads spin. But farmers markets can bring us back down to earth, literally and figuratively. The growers chatting, your neighbors browsing and tasting along with you, the pooches scooting along beside them—all make a farmers market a bustling place. But paradoxically, it can also give us a sense of peace. The handmade, the homegrown, and the people who offer it have the power to soothe the overwrought spirit as well as to make us feel more alive. It can make us want to stretch along with spring itself.

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