The first time I ever went to the Red Hook Ball Fields was the final year before the city forced them into trucks. There were grills and makeshift stoves around the park, some of them under tarps but most spewing cooking smoke into the open air. Things changed quite a bit when the trucks came, but you still had your pick of amazing food from Mexico, as well as a few Central and South American countries. As the years have passed the trucks gained in popularity and some of the vendors opened their own restaurants or expanded to other venues. Towards the end of the season last year I noticed a change. There were fewer trucks than there used to be, which meant less variety in the food. The 2015 season started just a few weeks ago, and last weekend I made my first visit of the year. Those missing trucks were still gone, though the parking spaces for them were left vacant as if everyone was hoping they might magically appear. And while I still had some tasty tacos and some fantastic fried plantains, things weren’t the same. I missed the multiple trucks where I could get the deep-fried palm known as pacaya, or the truck with almost a dozen kinds of juice. It’s true that the nature of living in a city like NYC is that things change, but this truly feels like things are winding down at the Ball Fields — so make your way out there at least one weekend this summer, because who knows how much longer things are going to last?
Hello again! I am back in Brooklyn, just in time for ramp season. Ramps, a variety of wild garlic that’s only available in early spring, explodes across the NYC food scene every year. And every year I buy a bunch, and every year I am disappointed in the lack of flavor the ramps yield. This past Friday I was at the Union Square Greenmarket and saw ramps on sale for $4 a bunch. I decided to buy them, though I was thinking, “Here we go again.” But then something happened that changed the way I feel about ramps. A customer in front of me, who was not familiar with ramps, was asking the vendor how to prepare them. “You should cook them,” the vendor said. “They’re pretty sharp raw, and cooking mellows them out.” A bell chimed in my head. What if I didn’t cook them? What if leaving them raw was the key to my enjoyment of ramps?
Turns out that was the right way to go. I made a simple pesto, using the raw ramps combined with olive oil, lemon zest, kosher salt, and a little pecorino romano cheese. I just put all of those ingredients into my small food processor and blended them coarsely. Then I tossed the pesto with some freshly cooked brown rice pasta, squeezed a little fresh lemon juice over the top, and sprinkled some more pecorino over the top. The result? The ramps were indeed sharp, almost spicy in the way fresh garlic can be. Balanced out with the saltiness of the cheese and the sweetness of the lemon the dish was a knockout. So it turns out the secre to cooking with ramps is not to cook them at all.
Hello everyone! There won’t be any updates to the blog for a couple of months because I will be traveling outside of the country. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing, please follow me on Twitter, where I will try to check in periodically. I leave you with this image of the spicy & sour spinach dumplings, consumed at the newly opened Xi’an Famous Foods in Greenpoint. I’ll be back in May, at which time I’ll hopefully have a few new projects to tell you about. See you then!
Xi’an Famous Foods Greenpoint — 648 Manhattan Ave
I have a fairly eclectic pantry. In addition to the standards — olive oil, salt & pepper — I have bags and jars of spices and condiments from the wide world over. In my cabinet a container of sichuan peppercorns sits next to a bag of black mustard seeds. In my fridge a jar of Vietnamese chili & peanut paste keeps company with Indian ghee. Not to mention the myriad alternative pastas I have accrued. I enjoy using all of these, and more, and I’m happy to throw them all together in different combinations. And yet sometimes I crave the simpler things. And this time of year, especially considering the weather we’ve been having, I turn to my oven instead of my stovetop. Take, for instance, this small head of cauliflower. I trimmed the leaves and the bottom, and removed part of the core before drizzling it with olive oil and salt and pepper. Then I put it in the oven at 375 degrees until it was nicely browned. The outside was nicely crisp, the inside just beginning to get tender but not overcooked. I had originally intended to cut it into pieces to mix with something else, but as I tasted it I decided it didn’t need anything and just ate it as is. A week earlier I did the same with a large oyster mushroom — split in two, drizzled as above and roasted until it was nearly charred on the outside, it made an incredible main course. Sure, fancy international ingredients can add a lot to dishes, but you don’t need them to make great food. Sometimes, simpler is better.
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I have no problem with unusual toppings on pizza. It’s true that my ideal pizza is a simple Margherita, but I also think that pineapple chunks give a nice acidic sweetness to a slice. On a recent trip to Emily I saw a pizza called the Sophier. Sauce, cheese, herbs, got it. And… mustard? W-w-w-what? I had to try it. And when our server dropped off our order, she didn’t refer to it as the Sophier, she called it the “mustard pizza.” When I ordered it I wasn’t sure how it would work — added before or after cooking? Big yellow dollops? So the mustard is applied before cooking, and it sort of melds into the tomato sauce. Biting into it you get the fragrance of mustard, but not the sharp bite on the tongue. The heat builds into the familiar sinus-clearing sensation that mustard brings, but it’s never overpowering. It’s a surprising combination, but one that works well. Next time I go to Emily, I’m hoping to get one f their “green” pies, made with tomatillo sauce instead of the regular tomato.
Emily — 919 Fulton St
On a bitterly cold January afternoon I walked into Polonica, a Polish restaurant in Bay Ridge. The wind had been blowing, and when I entered the restaurant my glasses immediately fogged up. Sitting at a table I struggled to shake off the cold. It helped that the menu noted which dishes were vegetarian, a trend I’ve been seeing more ofter at Eastern European restaurants around the city and one that I hope continues. There were no less than three borscht options on the menu, but only one is vegetarian: the Ukranian borscht. It was exactly what I needed to beat the freezing temperatures: piping hot, both sweet and savory, and hearty with mixed veggies. Beets, of course, cut into rustic chunks, but also bits of potato, onion, a lone kidney bean at the bottom of the bowl. It’s one of the best borscht’s I’ve ever had. I also got an order of assorted pierogies; the oversized dumplings boiled and served with sour cream and sauteed onions. The potato and cheese filling was smooth and mild, the sauerkraut and mushroom slightly sweet and a little tart, but the best of them all was the mushroom and potato. Walking back out into the cold after I was done the warmth of my meal stayed with me, at least as long as my walk back to the subway.
Polonica — 7214 3rd Ave
Adam Kuban, the biggest pizza enthusiast I know, had been operating a pop-up pizza restaurant out of Emily for a few months. He’s serving a style of pizza he calls “bar pizza.” There’s a whole section on the Margot’s site dedicated to defining just what bar pizza is. In addition to the physical attributes of bar pizza — ultra-thin crust, crisp, toppings almost all the way to the edge — what Adam is after is a feeling. It’s nostalgia for a specific atmosphere, and the kind of pizza he remembers from his youth. I have no experience at all with bar pizza. The pizza from my youth was all chain delivery places, and they were pretty dreadful. In my more recent experience, I’ve become a big fan of the new Neapolitan-style pies that have become trendy here in NYC.
So how was the pizza? The crust, as promised, was razor-thin and crispy, but still had a pleasantly sour fermented dough flavor. I saw some of the dough before being rolled out, and it was puffed up like over-sized Parker House rolls. I’d imagine that the only way to get it so thin is by brute force, and that it crisps up within seconds of hitting the wood-fired oven. There’s a nice balance of sauce and cheese, and it didn’t become soggy over time. I got the standard Margot-rita, along with a delicious kale salad from Emily. It’s all part of the ticket price. Oh, I forgot to mention, but right now you need tickets to attend a Margot pop-up. You can sign up via the website, linked below, to be notified when tickets go on sale. You can also enter a ticket lottery, which is how I managed to get my own ticket. Adam is hoping to open his own place eventually, but it’s worth seeking out a ticket to Margot’s right now.