“I’m hungry. Can someone please help me? Please. This is serious. I haven’t eaten since early this morning. Please.” The plea came from a diminutive man I had just rushed passed on 8th Avenue in New York City. He was wearing a grey cap pulled down over his forehead and held a tattered white plastic shopping bag. It was 12:30 a.m. A hard March wind was blowing through Chelsea and everyone who passed this pleading man, was hurrying to someplace warm, including me.
I had just eaten at one of my favorite joints Casa Mono. I started with the pulpo with fennel and grapefruit and followed with the dorada with artichokes and langostinos (the langoustine tail meat was a bit mushy but still flavorful.) My belly was full and I still had the glow of a quarto of solid Spanish red.
For a reason I still do not know, after getting a few steps past this man, who was all but invisible to passers-by, I stopped and waited for him to catch up. When I offered a dollar bill to him, he said, “No man, didn’t you hear, I’m hungry. This is no joke. I don’t want money. I’m just very hungry.” “Really, no bullshit?” I said.
One of the problems with sushi bars is that they have weaned us away
from enjoying cooked fresh tuna. I know some restaurants serve grilled
tuna studded with black pepper or accompanied by some exotic fruit
salsa – de rigueur for any California joint that sells fresh fish. But
really that’s about all the variety you get in most joints. But you are
really missing something if you haven’t tried a real tuna fish
sandwich. The great thing about sautéing tuna is that it really soaks
up the flavors in which it is cooked. Here’s a recipe I have every
summer during albacore season but you can use any fish in the tuna
family. This recipe borrows from Italy, Mexico and Japan.
12-16 ounces of fresh tuna cut into 2 equal pieces
juice of 2 medium lemons
2 minced garlic cloves
2 green onions cut into about 1/4 inch pieces
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger (about an inch piece grated)
2 roma tomatoes thinly sliced
1/4 cup minced Kalamata olives
1 small to medium minced jalapeño pepper
1 teaspoon Kosher or coarse salt
2 tablespoon sherry or sake
olive oil or grapeseed oil
There’s no denying it – I am a pork-man through and through. Though I am not one of these 20 or 30 something dudes with a pig’s head tattooed on his forearm who from time to time is adoringly featured on Food Network, pigs and me go way, way back. Though I am a Jew, blade-cut pork chops, pickled pigs feet, Canadian bacon, rolled pork butt, breakfast sausage and the piece du resistance of my childhood – spare ribs (usually slathered in Duk Sauce – a sugary, vaguely fruity tasting, thin jelly with chunks of plums and something I later learned was ginger, that came in a tall jar with a label featuring a racist caricature of a smiling buck-toothed Chinese man wearing a coolie hat and sporting a queue [the Chinese government abolished the queue in 1911 but it seemingly persisted on labels of Duk Sauce at least through the early 1970’s]) were a staple of my New York childhood.
I carried on my affair with pigs when I went to the pork bastion, North Carolina, for law school. One Saturday in the fall of 1974, I was invited to a ‘pig pickin’ in Chatham County, outside of Chapel Hill. I arrived early in the day, fascinated by the prospect of actually witnessing the roasting of a whole hog – a feat that had fascinated me since my mother told me the story about how the Chinese created roast pork: Many thousands of years ago there was this Chinese farmer whose barn burned down. Unfortunately, he was not able to save his beloved pigs so the morning after the inferno, he went to survey to what was left and was overwhelmed by the delicious scent. He bent down between the still warm embers of his barn and pulled a piece of charred meat off of one of his now roasted pigs and voila – roast pork.
When my oldest son left for his senior year of college in September, he was leaving the comfort (or more likely uncomfort) of on-campus life and trading it for a 4-bedroom apartment. No longer able to rely on cafeteria food, he was going to have to cook for himself. Over the years I had taught him a few basic things about cooking but never really gave him anything resembling real lessons. I guess I was just hoping he was going to pick it up by osmosis. Though he has watched me cook over the years and picked up some basics I wanted to give him a little more formal culinary send-off. Starting in early August I began to think about what he liked to eat and what specific skills he would need to cook those dishes. We spent a few days going over the basics – heat control, knife techniques, etc. I also knew that there were certain basic tools and ingredients he would need for his kitchen. Stuffed into his luggage were three knives, a spatula, frying pan and pot. Finally, I drew up a few basic recipes and cooking techniques that I emailed to him. The result was a sort of mini- cooking "Cooking 101."
So what to cook for Father’s Day? Pork belly sliders have been all the rage for the last few years. Made über popular by food dude David Chang of Momofuko fame, this dish has popped up on menus throughout the US. And we know the French and the Germans also love their various preparations of this cherished cut of swine. However, truth be told, this deliciously rich delectable treat has been cooked in China for eons. But certain restaurants exploit the average human being’s addiction to fatty pork – you know which ones I’m talking about – these joints know their patrons can’t get enough of that heavenly mix of tangy sweet fatty meat all sauced up in basically a fancy hamburger roll, so they price these little ditties as if they were serving Kobe beef (even though belly is rarely more than 3 bucks a pound, if that.)
Pay 10 bucks or whatever exorbitant price for 2 ounces of pork if you must, but these are really easy to prepare for a crowd. And the great thing about cooking pork belly sliders is that there is really no heavy lifting in preparing them. In fact it is almost impossible to screw it up because pork belly can be cooked and cooked and even (as I have done on occasion) forgotten about and still come out perfect. The most important thing you need to know about this dish is that pork belly loves sugar and soy sauce – and so even if you screw up on the following proportions it will still come out just fine. (One note in buying pork belly look for the meatiest pieces.)
In the summer of 1966 I worked as a dishwasher in a summer camp near Hunter Mountain in upstate New York. This was in the pre-automatic dishwasher days meaning dirty dishes were dumped in a super hot sink of soapy water and washed and dried by hand. I used to come in around 6 a.m. to clean the breakfast pots and pans. Henry, a very tall, rail thin man who had been a cook in World War II in Europe, had gotten there at least an hour before me; I usually found him smoking a filterless cigarette and slowly beating powdered eggs and water in a huge stainless steel bowl or ladling out pancakes on the football field-size griddle.
Though he was cooking for well over 150 people every morning he never seemed to be in a rush. Though there was no air conditioning and an eight burner stove going full blast, Henry barely broke a sweat. I started sweating from the moment I got there; and being a not very bright 14-year-old, I often compounded my problems by forgetting to use an oven mitt when picking up a hot pan or getting scalding hot water in my rubber washing gloves.
This summer marks my thirtieth year as an attorney. But when I think back to the summer of 1978 it is not a courtroom that I see; rather I recall a brilliant sunny July day barbecuing at the base of the Seattle Space Needle on a Weber grill. About twenty of us from the country’s largest pork producing states were vying for first place in National Pork Cook-Out Contest. Truth be told though the southern states, principally North Carolina, Texas and Tennessee are known for barbecue the big boys of pork are Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska and Kansas. They were the guys to beat.
For me the event was the culmination of a 2-year grilling odyssey that began in 1976 when I entered the North Carolina State Pork Cooking Championship and came away with a respectable but disappointing third place for Orange Flavored Pork. Despite the loss (and despite my New York Jewish heritage), I knew I had it in me to bring home the bacon so to speak. Though I had always loved pork – mostly in the form of ribs slathered in ‘duck sauce’ from the local Chinese take out joint – I really never really embraced the true pig in me until I had come to Chapel Hill, North Carolina two years earlier to attend law school.
Even in turbulent time like these there are certain constants in life – like noodles. Noodles have played a very important role in my life. Whenever I got sick my mother would cook luchen (‘luxshun’ for those jews and non-jews unfamiliar with yiddish pronunciation) and cheese. I have vivid recollections of her bringing me a steaming bowl (not just a bowl but a BOWL) of wide egg noodles (like pappardelle but eggier and chewier) bathed in butter, cottage cheese, cream cheese, cinnamon and a touch of sugar and salt. It was the only thing I had to look forward to when I got sick. If the noodles were hot enough, the sugar and butter would melt into a glaze over the whole dish. And in college when I got sick I would routinely make myself a bastardized version of the dish usually with just spaghetti, salt, butter and cottage cheese. As I got older and began moving around the country for different jobs the luchen and cheese unfortunately receded into my history.
Luckily noodles crept back into my life. It was the first date I had with my wife Niki. We had just seen a late movie in Santa Monica and were starved but nothing was open that appealed to us so I said something like, ‘let’s go back to my place and I’ll cook us up something.’ When I said that I really didn’t know what I had in my refrigerator, however I was out to impress her with my cooking skills. Upon getting back and examining the provisions all I had was Hebrew national hot dogs, spaghettini and celery. So I thinly shredded the dogs and celery, boiled and drained the noodles and fired up my ancient wok. A few drizzles of soy sauce, pinch of black pepper and a little maple syrup and voila! A first date meal that won her heart.
What do you call a guy who:
- loved food so much he made his mother get him a subscription to Gourmet when he was in elementary school;
- paraded around in a purple suit when he was 11 and wears a version of that same suit 25 years later;
- is from rural Connecticut but is now so much a part of the fabric of the Bronx that Ruben Diaz Jr. the Bronx Borough president has named him a cultural ambassador;
- has an encyclopedic knowledge of the eclectic Bronx cuisine that includes the best places to eat Dominican, Liberian, Albanian, Sierra Leonean and old time Arthur Avenue Italian food;
- drives round in a purple tricked out roadster;
- regularly hangs out with a Haitian voodoo queen and sees himself as the incarnation of a mischievous voodoo spirit who loves to drink rum laced with hot peppers;
- will never eat at a restaurant if it has a Zagat rating and has the longest running food show on Bronx Cable TV and now has a special on the Cooking Channel - The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia?
There is only one answer – you call him Baron Ambrosia.