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Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Great Turduckening

I have a policy of never reviewing the food my friends make. I see it as a largely pointless and potentially harmful exercise. If I say good things about a friend’s food, my readers may think I am merely being nice. If I say bad things, then I may lose a friend, something worth eating many an overdone chicken breast or mystery tofu scramble to avoid. As it is, friends rarely invite me over for a meal. I am left to conclude that this is either because they think my standards are too high, or because they simply don’t cook. But I am going to break my own rule today by describing what is only the latest feat of culinary skill expertly executed by my friend Oyster: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Great Turduckening!

First, a definition: A turducken is a deboned chicken, stuffed inside a deboned duck, which is then stuffed inside a deboned turkey. Actually, the turkey still has its leg and wing bones, but no thoracic cavity. As I found out yesterday, turducken is traditional in Louisiana, which is where the idea of stuffing fowl inside each other allegedly first made landfall on this side of the Atlantic. People outside of the South sometimes eat turducken on Thanksgiving for a change of pace. Oyster was recently in New Orleans, which is where he hatched a plan to bring the turducken tradition back to his friends in the Mid-Atlantic. He would cook enough to feed us all, in addition to providing New Orleans-style beans and rice and a keg of Natty Lite—or was it Miller High Life?

Before I get into the details of this elaborate affair, I must mention some of the other food-focused parties Oyster has had this year. In February, he earned his name, buying 300 oysters from a wholesale supplier, shucking some to put into a delicious stew, some to bake and whole hell of a lot to slurp down raw with a squirt of lemon juice. Then in April, while I was (sadly) in San Francisco, Oyster held a crawfish boil for which he purchased 100 pounds of mudbugs from a dude down in Louisiana and had them shipped up. There were also alligator steaks. Most recently, in July, Oyster went to Cape Cod and caught a bunch of quahog clams. He brought them home and topped them with bacon-herb bread crumbs, baking them until the topping was crisp (pictured here). Again, he invited his friends to partake. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: Oyster is a giver, and all of us who love to eat count ourselves lucky to be among his friends.

For the this feast, Oyster decided to buy his turducken preassembled. If anyone might have figured out how to debone three birds and properly assemble them into this portmanteau of birds, it would be Oyster, but the man has a full-time job. He first tried calling the premium New York meat purveyor Lobel’s, but he was told the two turducken would cost him $275 each. Oyster is generous, but not stupid. He called up a butcher in New Orleans, and his more affordable turducken were put on the next flight out. (I heard from one of his colleagues that the birds were shipped to the office, creating quite a stir.) We had all assembled in Oyster’s cement side yard where we drank beer as we awaited the main course. Eventually, a big pot of delicious andouille-laden beans and rice came down from the apartment kitchen. The first turducken, now sliced into large rounds exposing rings of each meat, arrived soon after. Beer-filled and ravenous, we lost no time in digging in.

The meat was tender, a testament to Oyster’s care, but I found it somewhat bland. It took me a minute or two to puzzle out why. It basically boils down to this: Two of the things that make poultry taste good are bones and crackled skin. By definition, the turducken has minimal amounts of both of these things. Duck, in particular, is nothing without the skin. As a gamier meat, it also benefits from being cooked slightly rare, something that could not be achieved with a turducken because the chicken in the middle must be cooked through.

For dessert, I made a brown butter nectarine cake featured in a Melissa Clark column in the New York Times earlier this summer. I figured we might as well eat nectarines before all the nectarines are gone, and what better way to eat them than atop a brown butter-infused base?

Any criticism of turducken I have detailed here is, of course, not to say that I didn’t appreciate Oyster’s supremely competent effort. Not having tried another turducken, I can only assume that he cooked these to perfection. I would have been so unsure of my ability to prepare one of these that I never would have attempted it in the first place. I may have implied above that the turducken is a flawed concept, and I’m not going to go so far as to moderate that stance. But, flawed or not, I am entirely willing to eat turducken, especially when it is cooked by a good friend.

Many thanks to one of Oyster’s college friends for the top photo. He had a much better camera than I did.

Brazilian Burgers Redefine Big at Hamburgão

I never thought of Newark, New Jersey as a culinary destination, but every city has its hidden gems. As an intern for Madison Square Garden, Empanada Boy got free tickets to see the New York Liberty, the city’s WNBA team, in their first playoff game. While MSG is being remodeled, the Liberty are playing at Newark’s Prudential Center. Now, I know you hardcore basketball fans are groaning at the very idea of attending a WNBA game, let alone in Newark. But really, what do I care? I’m up for pretty much anything, especially if it’s free. We took the PATH train from the World Trade Center to Newark Penn Station, which dumped us out right near the arena. The game was actually a lot of fun. We cheered on the Liberty, banging our blow-up noise makers at every opportunity, and booed whenever the ref made a call in favor of the Indiana Fever. The Liberty won 87-72, retaining a chance at the championship. We would soon be making a run for at the overeating championship because we were heading to the nearest location of Hamburgão, a small Newark chain, specializing in over-the-top Brazilian burgers, sandwiches and other grilled meat.

As I learned from a little pre-game Internet research, the Ironbound neighborhood of downtown Newark is known as Little Portugal because of the large influx of Portuguese immigrants in the 1910s and then again in the later 1950s. Immigration from Portugal is pretty much nonexistent today, but Brazilians and people from Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa, include Cape Verde, have continued to move to the neighborhood. As a result, Portuguese is often heard on the streets, and many signs are printed in Portuguese and English. The menu at Hamburgão is bilingual, but even if it weren’t, the sheer number of ingredients in each sandwich would have been enough to signal to the non-Portuguese speaker that this place is not messing around. In addition to burgers and burger-like sandwiches stuffed with nearly every ingredient imaginable, the menu features items like a hot dog topped with corn, red sauce, green peas, mayonnaise, potato sticks and grated cheese and a salad of shredded chicken, ham, corn, green peas, raisins, potato sticks, carrots, mayonnaise and olives. Figuring this might be our only trip to Hamburgão, EB and I decided to order what appeared to be the specialities (i.e. nos. 1 and 2 on the menu). EB also ordered a Brazilian soda, hilariously opting for the diet option with the feeble hope that it might help offset the heart attacks in sandwich form we were both about to eat.

What was in these sandwiches? I have been intentionally delaying describing them to drum up the suspense, but here goes: EB’s “Hamburgão Beef” was made with steak, mozzarella, ham, bacon, egg, corn, potato sticks, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. (Whew!) My “Hamburgão Frango” was made with all the same ingredients except for chicken instead of beef. I typically don’t order chicken at a burger place, but reviews I had read online had raved about this chicken sandwich, so I thought I should give it a try. We also ordered a large basket of fries to share. When the sandwiches arrived at our table, I let out an audible gasp at their enormity. We dug in, and I quickly realized that the wax paper wrapper that came around the sandwich was there for a very good reason.

EB’s steak had distinctive meaty flavor, nothing like that of a burger or even a typical American-style steak sandwich, and was a somewhat flaky cut. My chicken was tender, coated in the flavored mayonnaise, but somewhere between the ham and the fried egg, I started to get a little cholesterol overload. It took until I was three quarters of the way done with my sandwich to find the bacon, and by then my smoky, salty, pork limit had all but been reached. If this sandwich had just had the bacon, I could have finished it. I could perhaps have even dealt with the fried egg, but the ham simply set me over the edge. I ended up abandoning part of the bun and a chunk of the egg and ham before giving up. The fries, of course, only added to the feeling of fullness. They were the kind that have an extra layer of uneven crispies on the exterior, which is not a style I particularly care for. We didn’t finish the fries, but we both came close to finishing our sandwiches. Mentally vowing to never eat again, we cleared our plates and started uncomfortably walking back to the train station. I don’t know whether I could ever bring myself to eat at Hamburgão again (at least not for a number of years), but I’m certainly glad I came to Newark to give it a try.

Hamburgão
288 Lafayette St.
Newark, NJ 07105
973.465.1776
(two other Newark locations)

Hamburgao on Urbanspoon

From Assyrtiko to Sardeles: A Greek Feast at Agnanti

I am part Greek. One-eighth, to be exact. I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned it here, but it’s the only part of me that’s not Jewish. I went to Greece when I was in college and visited some relatives who took me to Medea, my ancestral homeland in the Peloponnessus, and to other parts of that region. I also spent some time traveling to the Ionian islands of Kefalonia and Ithaca. The food I ate in Greece was fresher, more vibrant and more distilled to its glorious essence than almost any cuisine I have tasted, and I have been looking for those flavors at Greek restaurants in the States ever since. Most of the time, of course, I am severely disappointed. So often meat is overcooked, salads lack acidity or fish is not as fresh. And sometimes there is just something indescribable (the breeze off the Mediterranean, perhaps?) missing that causes the meal to fall short. I had high hopes for Agnanti, one of the few authentic remnants of what was once a solidly Greek community in Astoria, Queens. The restaurant was listed at #17 on New York Magazine’s list of the top 20 cheap eats destinations in Queens. My friend Oyster had asked if I wanted to join him for dinner in Queens before a show he was going to in Astoria, so I seized on the opportunity to bring my total to four out of 20pretty weak, but starting to approach respectability.

Empanada Boy decided to join in, and we met up with Oyster about a half hour after we had initially planned. He had to stay longer at work than initially planned, but as Oyster jokingly chided me, I also happened to pick a restaurant that’s far away from pretty much everything. It was already becoming clear that Oyster would have trouble making it to the show. Still, he had come this far, and he wasn’t turning back. The restaurant was packed, with both indoor and outdoor tables filled. We waited in a disorganized jumble with other patrons for about 10 minutes until our server—who somehow remembered who had arrived when—came to seat us. We sat inside the restaurant, which looked like you might imagine a quaint cafe in a fishing village might look: simple wooden tables, thatched chairs, white walls with a few antique-looking tchotchkes on them and a little wooden hutch where the servers congregated.

The first step was to order wine. I have tasted a fair number of Greek wines, and while most of those available here are pretty mediocre, there are a few really great ones. Those weren’t on the list, and I didn’t recognize any of the ones that were. I asked our server about a wine from Santorini made with the varietal Assyrtiko. She said they didn’t have the one on the menu, but they had another one by a different producer. “Which producer?” I asked. She scurried off to find out. “Does it really matter? I mean, are you even going to recognize it anyway?” Oyster asked with his typical candor. He was (of course) right. I didn’t. But we ordered the bottle anyway. It was fine, not great, just as I expected. My expectations were higher for the food. We started with ntakos, a dish make with a cardboard-like Cretan cracker called a rusk topped with fresh tomatoes, feta cheese, olives, capers, oregano and olive oil. The tangy tomato juice and fruity olive oil soaked into the blank slate of the rusks, imbuing them with flavor. This was probably my favorite dish of the night. It was incredibly simple, yet pristine in its definition and very satisfying.

Next came the Greek sausages, which could be ordered with oranges or leeks cooked into them. I opted for leeks, and Oyster and EB went along with it. These charred knobs of sausage were beautifully spiced and juicy enough to deliver a burst of savory depth with each bite. From the portion of the menu somewhat distressingly headed “seafood creations” we ordered sardines, called sardeles in Greek. These were snappy little fish with bones still in, simply seasoned with salt, lemon juice, olive oil and rosemary. EB maintained that the bones were good to eat, but Oyster and I opted to remove ours. I did, however, eat the tails, which were crispy and salty like a potato chip from the sea. Our final selection was apparently the house specialty: a rooster cooked until tender in a tomato sauce and topped with little squares of pasta. EB thought that at least one of the large pieces of rooster wasn’t tender enough. I liked the rooster for its richness and slightly gamey chewiness, but I found the rest of the dish a little underwhelming. The pasta squares were buttery and al dente, but the sauce was pretty one-note and the dish as a whole could have been more lively with some fresh herbs or spices.

At this point, we might have ordered dessert, but our server was nowhere to be found. She eventually showed up carrying a complimentary plate with three pieces of halva politiko, the Greek version of halva. This is a semolina-almond cake, soaked in butter and orange syrup. It was served with yogurt topped with stewed cherries. The cake was not very sweet and perhaps a bit too hearty after a full meal, but it was a fittingly distinctive ending. We managed to flag down our server to pay the bill. Then we began the walk back to the subway, our mouths a bit salty from the food and the irregular water refills. The food hadn’t quite lived up to my Ionian taste memories, but it came close at certain points. By that time, it was past 10:30 pm, and Oyster had clearly missed his chance to see the show. I apologized again for keeping him from it with my hard-to-reach restaurant selection, but I was glad the show had motivated us to hike out to Astoria for a taste of Agnanti.

Agnanti
19-06 Ditmars Blvd.
Queens, NY 11105
718.545.4554

Agnanti Meze on Urbanspoon

Noodles So Tasty Hurricanes Can’t Keep Me Away

If you are a human being on this planet with access to broadcast media, you undoubtedly know that a hurricane swept up the East Coast last weekend. To be precise, Hurricane Irene had become Tropical Storm Irene by the time she reached New York City. While the storm took its toll on other parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont, the city was showered with more media hype than actual damage. In hindsight (and perhaps foreseeably) New York City politicians overreacted, evacuating thousands of residents and shutting down the subway from noon on Saturday until early morning Monday. After all, a politician has never been voted out for being overly cautious ahead of a natural disaster, but the alternative is tantamount to political suicide. Being the skeptical journalists that we are, my good friend Oyster and I had made a bet that the hype would be for naught. We scheduled a dinner meet-up at Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles in Manhattan’s Chinatown for Sunday evening—a time when, if you believed the talking heads, we might have been floating toward the sea along with all our worldly possessions. I jokingly wrote to Oyster: “I would brave a tropical storm for hand-pulled noodles, but a hurricane might be a bit much.”

As it turned out, the storm had almost entirely passed by Sunday afternoon. There was one problem, though: We were in Brooklyn; the restaurant was in Chinatown and the subway wasn’t running. That problem would have been insurmountable for the weak and unresourceful, but not for us. We hopped on our bikes and pedaled over the Manhattan Bridge—enduring a few minor gusts of wind—to this hole-in-the-wall spot on Doyers Street. The restaurant was packed when we got there, and based on the number of helmets hanging off chair backs, it seemed we weren’t the only ones with that idea. The restaurant has a ground floor dining room, which offers views of the noodle-making master as he kneads, stretches and, with one pull, miraculously separates the noodles into strands. But there were no empty tables upstairs. Our server led us down the stairs, past a table where a woman sat stuffing dumplings with seasoned raw meat (awesome but definitely not up to code), to the last table in the back of the basement level. We sat next to some industrial-sized boxes of napkins and paper towels that were stashed in the corner. Clearly, this was the perfect ambience for some seriously good noodles.

In the wake of the storm, the air had cooled off a bit, which made the idea of ordering soup feel more bearable. From a list that included options such as oxtail, short rib and mixed fish ball, we selected our proteins. Oyster ordered roast duck, and I went for beef and beef tendon. We then had to select our noodle thickness and composition. Every soup and pan-fried noodle dish can be made with regular hand-pulled noodles, fat-wide hand-pulled noodles, knife-peeled noodles or big or small rice noodles. I went with regular hand-pulled, while Oyster opted for fat-wide. We also ordered a plate of steamed pork and chive dumplings, a cucumber salad and two Tsingtaos. Our server was largely absent throughout the entire meal. It took us walking up the stairs to the front desk to successfully put in our order, and the food took more time to come than one would expect with a soup for which most of the ingredients are premade. Oyster said the pace wasn’t typical, and we later overheard our server telling other diners that it was his first day on the job.

It was certainly worth the wait. The noodles had the wonderful chew that allowed me to bite into them without having them disintegrate in my mouth. The broth was flavorful, filled with herbs and scallions, and the meat added depth. The beef was rich and comforting and the tendon melted on my tongue. Oyster’s duck, which had the bones still in, fell apart in tender sections. The dumplings had the same snap to their shells as the noodles from the soup, and the pork filling was nicely seasoned. Cucumber salad was refreshingly crunchy and tangy in its vinegar-based dressing. All-in-all it was a near-perfect meal.

We paid our meager bill and started walking our bikes back across the bridge, chatting and enjoying the relative quiet of the city and the calm of the water below. At about the mid-point, we climbed back on our seats and rode back toward home. After all, a brisk bike ride is the perfect cure for hand-pulled noodle overload.

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles
1 Doyers St. #1
New York, NY 10038
212.791.1817

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles on Urbanspoon