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Monthly Archives: March 2008

Hot Dogs Gray’s Way

Gray's exteriorI’ve been in New York since the middle of last week, enjoying the sites and staying with Auntie Pasti and Corn-y Uncle on the Upper West Side. Empanada Boy was with me until early this morning when he left to go back to Chicago for work. I’m staying for two more weeks to take care of my cousin Momotaro while his parents are in Japan. EB and I had a great few days, visiting all of his favorite haunts from his New York days. We went to his old apartment in Park Slope and out to Coney Island (to be featured in another post soon). But there was one place on the Upper West Side that EB had been craving: Gray’s Papaya.

Hot Dogs and drinkGray’s Papaya is a New York City standard. It’s open 24 hours a day, year-round. It serves a few other food items, but it’s mostly known for its hot dogs. These thin little numbers are all-beef and come with grilled onions and sauerkraut. Unlike Chicago dogs, these are traditionally eaten with ketchup and mustard. Gray’s also serves a variety of fruit drinks, including the namesake papaya, orange, grape, piña colada, coconut “champagne” and banana daquiri. The classic order, the Recession Special, includes two hot dogs and drink. EB ordered one with a papaya drink. I had a single dog. The papaya drink was fresh and fruity. The hot dogs had great snap to them, with surprisingly good quality meat. The grilled onions are blended with some kind of red sauce that EB and I had trouble defining. All we knew was that we liked what we tasted.

Gray's counterBeyond the simple fare offered here, watching the guys at the counter can provide tons of great entertainment. After years of doing nothing else, these guys know how to make a hot dog. There is one guy who just stands at the cooking station, rotating the dogs and maintaining a substantial number on the back burner at all times. There is another guy in charge of condiments and another at the cash register. Above them are signs with messages like “Best Damn Frankfruter You’ll Ever Eat” and “Gray’s Famous Papaya is Better Than Dom Perignon.”

EB’s favorite sign was outside the restaurant. Hung in the window was a huge placard reading: “Yes, Senator Obama: We are ready to believe again.” When hot dogs and liberal politics combine, it is heaven on earth for Empanada Boy. There aren’t many other near-perfect things you can get for just $3.50.

Gray’s Papaya (two other NY locations)
2090 Broadway (72nd St.)
New York, NY 10023

Gray's Papaya on Urbanspoon

Top Chef in Chi-town

Top Chef ChicagoI never thought I would be writing this, but my favorite show on television right now is a reality show. My excuse: there’s food involved! As you’ve probably guessed by now, the show is Top Chef. This season takes place in Chicago, and my familiarity with the location only adds to my enjoyment. Amazingly, I’ve even gotten Empanada Boy hooked on it. All it took was the first shot of the Chicago skyline and the season’s opening scene inside Pizzeria Uno to get him excited.

For those of you who’ve never seen it, Top Chef (Bravo, Wednesday 10/9c) features 16 chefs from around the country who compete against each other for the title. Each episode includes a Quickfire Challenge where chefs have half an hour to complete a simpler assignment and an Elimination Challenge where they spend 90 minutes on a more major assignment. The chef who is judged the weakest performer gets set home at the end of the episode. Among the challenges in the first two episodes of the season were a deep-dish pizza competition and a test of the chefs’ knowledge of classic French dishes. In the most recent episode, the chefs catered an event for the staff of the Lincoln Park Zoo where each team designed a menu based on the diet of one of the animals. The penguins won with a table of seafood dishes. It’s a real credit to the show’s creators that they can keep coming up with interesting location-specific challenges. And that’s one of the reasons I’m hooked.

Another reason this show is so addictive is the characters. While watching Top Chef the other day, Empanada Boy remarked that the interactions between the chefs reminded him of working with musicians. In other words, drama is prevalent, and emotions are constantly running high. There are also plenty of prima donnas to keep things interesting. All of these traits are pretty typical of most reality show casts. The difference here is that these people also have a considerable degree of talent to back it up. They may whine about their fellow competitors behind their backs, but they can also completely reinvent duck a l’orange in 90 minutes flat. (Chicagoan Stephanie Izard did this and won on the first episode.)

One final thought about why this show has captured the hearts of so many foodies and aspiring foodies: this is a competition that allows viewers to get a taste of what goes on behind the scenes in a fine-dining restaurant. I’m not trying to imply that restaurants are under the same kinds of start-to-finish time pressures or the same challenge-specific stipulations. But all chefs have to perform under pressure and develop menus that will please guests while also remaining in a given budget range. More significantly, the show allows us to see these chefs in action as they chop, sauté and plate the food. Instead of just seeing the finished plate, we see how it got that way. I’ve heard that many restaurant chefs like to watch the show, mentally putting themselves in the place of the contestants and determining what they would do in the situation.

I know I’m not the only Top Chef fan among my readers. I would love to hear from you about your take on the show and your predictions for the final outcome. And for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, don’t judge me until you have. You may find yourself an addict like me.

Pannenkoeken: Flatter Than a Pancake

Bacon Cheese PannenkoekenFrom the first moment we saw it moving in on a somewhat run-down stretch of Western Avenue, Empanada Boy and I were intrigued about Pannenkoeken Cafe. Pannenkoeken are traditional Dutch pancakes. They are thinner and lighter than the average American pancake, similar to crepes or Swedish pancakes. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones to whom this sounded appealing; our friends Butternut Squash and Sir Cheesalot invited us to go there for breakfast last weekend.

Apple Ginger PannenkoekenFor a place that’s only been open for a matter of months, Pannenkoeken Cafe seems to have developed quite a following. Or maybe the line out the door when we arrived can be attributed to the fact that there are only six tables inside this tiny space. We were told it would be a 45 minute wait, so we went to Cafe Descartes for some pre-breakfast coffee. Sir Cheesalot’s cell phone rang less than half an hour later, notifying us that our table was ready. We eagerly dashed back to our seats and opened our menus. We all wanted to try the signature dish — the menu also has a couple omelet choices, regular buttermilk pancakes, a breakfast sandwich and French toast— of which there were only five options, making our decision quite simple.

Chocolate Banana PannekoekenAt least half an hour after we ordered, our pannenkoeken finally arrived. How it took so long for the kitchen staff to prepare four thin rounds of batter with minimal topping for one of six tables in the place is puzzling indeed. But we were prepared to forgive the pacing if the pannenkoeken were as good as our grumbling stomachs hoped. As it turned out, they were not. Empanada Boy’s bacon, cheese and mushroom variety was tasty, but a little sloppy looking and not as flavorful as an omelet filled with the same ingredients would have been. Butternut Squash and I ordered similar dishes. Hers had apples and ginger marmalade on top, while mine had raisins baked inside and dollops of ginger marmalade on top. The bright, tangy ginger marmalade was the interesting, flavor-driving element of both options. The apple slices could have been more lovingly caramelized, and my raisins were few and far between. Sir Cheesalot took the dessert-for-breakfast tack with this chocolate banana version. Decadent though it was, the chocolate could have been richer and the presentation more attractive.

Perhaps more significantly, I could have made all of these in my own kitchen in less than half the time. And that just brings me back to my tired old refrain about breakfast restaurants. So few of them are worth the money and the time waiting in line when my own kitchen can produce omelets, pancakes and baked goods aplenty. Still, there are those breakfast places— M.Henry, Cadillac Cafe, and Tweet, to name a few— that make interesting food, giving breakfast the same treatment a nice restaurant would give lunch or dinner. I’m always on the lookout for these wherever I go. And until I find them, I’ll be spending most weekend mornings in my kitchen at home.

Pannenkoeken Cafe
4757 N. Western Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625

Pannenkoeken Cafe in Chicago

Martinis Galore, But Where’s the Gin?

A Faux-tini TrioOver the past few weeks, I have been working on a story for a Chicago publication about newly-opened bars and lounges. I am not usually the kind of person who frequents these establishments because I prefer to spend my money on better food and drink in an atmosphere where I can actually hear the person across from me. Still, it has been interesting to visit these places and take note of some of the major trends. From the prevalence of sliders (mini-burgers) to the new trend of deep-fried mac and cheese cubes, the menus at many of these places have a lot in common. But there is another, more irksome, drink-related trend that has been all but constant through the numerous bars and lounges I’ve visited: the devolution of the martini.

According to Merriam-Webster, a martini is: “a cocktail made of gin and dry vermouth.” In the past few weeks I’ve read bar lists offering: a chocolate peanut butter martini, an oatmeal cookie martini, a key lime pie martini and appletini, among many others. Not only do these sound uniformly repulsive, but none of them, I mean not one, shared the menu with even a drop of gin. Granted, the Merriam-Webster entry does contain a reference to a vodka martini, which the dictionary calls: “a martini made with vodka instead of gin.” While the gin martini is undoubtedly the original version, I will grudgingly grant legitimacy to the vodka version. But the fact remains that these drinks are really mixed drinks made with vodka— not martinis.

Why does this bother me? I’ve come up with two main reasons. The first is that I really like martinis— the kind with gin and vermouth (and maybe a little olive juice). The martini earned its classic status; it’s got kick, complexity and sophistication. And it’s a shame that generations to come may grow up never having tasted the real thing. Maybe gin and vermouth is a little harder to swallow than vodka and chocolate, but Shakespeare is harder to swallow than Seventeen magazine.

The second reason that the glut of faux-tinis gets on my nerves is the lack of creativity and laziness on the part of bartenders that they demonstrate. Just because chocolate, Baileys and vodka shouldn’t be called a martini doesn’t mean the drink shouldn’t exist. But the bartenders who create these concoctions should show enough pride in their work to come up with a creative name. Many of the well-known cocktails of history have lasted in part because they had memorable names, such as Manhattan, Bellini and Gimlet. And many of those that have been forgotten are being revived by places like Chicago’s The Violet Hour and The Drawing Room thanks in part to enticing names like the “Gloom Lifter” and “Between the Sheets.” If the faux-tinis get their own names, the worthy ones will be more likely to linger beyond their current status as a passing fad.

Perhaps I am too sensitive about this trend. Maybe I should be less of a stickler about rules and definitions when it comes to something that’s supposed to be pleasurable. But if we have rules about classifying our food, we should expect no less of our drinks. Call it what it is: if it doesn’t have gin (or vodka) and dry vermouth, then it’s not a martini. And if you don’t know what to call it, make up a new name.

Violet Hour in Chicago

The Drawing Room & Le Passage in Chicago

A Stew to Cure Empanada Boy

Fish Stew with breadEmpanada Boy was feeling sick this weekend. His appetite wasn’t up to its normally vigorous level. By dinnertime last night, the only thing he had eaten was a few pieces of French toast at breakfast. When I asked him what he wanted for dinner, he said: soup. As I’m sure the Jewish mothers that came before me would agree, soup is indeed a marvelously curative dish. Thanks to Mango Mama, I have a number of great, hearty recipes that I can usually whip up with what I have around. I have been doing some of my own research this winter, experimenting with fish stews.

One thing that dawned on me as I read through the recipes I found online is that Catholics are particularly looking for fishy options during these weeks of Lent. Growing up in an area not populated by many Catholics, I was only marginally aware of this practice until I moved to Chicago. Obviously, my motivations were different. Much of the fish available to me at an affordable price is flaky white-fleshed fish like cod, which go well in a stew. A stew also makes a little bit go a long way and adds a nice degree of flavor to the otherwise neutral fish. And sometimes we all get tired of meat and potatoes.

Prep bowls for fish stewI found a recipe on the Internet and made it with a few modifications when Mango Mama and Daddy Salmon came to visit. I had some cod fillets in the freezer, so I decided to make the stew again. This time, I added celery and used crushed tomatoes instead of whole ones. The result was a smoother, more tomato-infused broth. Not worrying about Lent and with about a half pound less fish than the recipe called for, I also added a couple of pre-cooked chicken sausages. I sliced and browned these in a separate pan. Other modifications could include adding frozen corn or peas or even adding potatoes. Fresh tomatoes would also be ideal during the summer months. I used oregano and thyme, but other spices could give the soup a totally different flair. What follows is the soup I made for Empanada Boy. Adjust, add and subtract as you see fit.

Fish StewVegetables cooking for fish stew

6 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup of chopped onions
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
2/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1 cup of canned crushed tomato (For different consistency substitute chopped canned tomatoes, fresh chopped tomatoes, etc.)
2 tsp of tomato paste.
8 oz of clam juice (or shellfish stock)
2/3 cup dry white wine
1 lb fish fillets (halibut, cod, sole, red snapper, sea bass), cut into 2-inch pieces
1/2 lb pre-cooked chicken sausage, thinly sliced (other sausage or seafood would work)
Touch of dry oregano, Tabasco, thyme, pepper

Heat olive oil in heavy large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add chopped onion and garlic and sauté 4 minutes. Add parsley and celery and stir 2 minutes. Add tomato, tomato paste and cook 2 minutes longer.

Add clam juice, dry white wine, and fish and simmer until fish is cooked through, less than 10 minutes. Brown sausage slices in a separate pan, and add to stew. Add seasoning. Salt to taste. Ladle into bowls and serve with warm, crusty bread.

Serves 4.