Monday, October 26, 2009

Pull Your Own Pork

For a change, I've decided to write a post while watching food-related television.  I'm just wrapping up an episode of The Next Iron Chef (America), which - on first viewing - comes off as the unholy love child of Top Chef and The Next Food Network Star.  I can't tell you if I'm hooked yet, but I can tell you that Alton Brown is looking really gaunt.  Isn't this the Food Network? Isn't he in moderate proximity to, umm, FOOD?  Eat some of it.

His face has more leftover skin than the deep fryer at a KFC.

(FYI: Alton hosts.  The judges include some chick I've never seen or heard of (the website says it's Anya Fernald - but I don't know who that is), Jeffrey Steingarten - that queeny, fussy guy who judges Iron Chef America (not a judgment.  I, too, can be queeny and fussy,) and Donatella Arpaia, who has created some of my favorite New York restaurants - Mia Dona, davidburke and Donatella, Bellini.  She's totally cool, though she's at risk of becoming known as the black widow of the New York restaurant scene for partnering with extremely talented male chefs, creating multi-star restaurants, then ending the relationship.  She's done it twice in five years (David Burke and Michael Psilakis) and she's showing no sign of slowing down.)

I'm rooting for Amanda Freitag, whose restaurant, The Harrison, is one of my favorites.

Friday night we at a local restaurant called Citrus, which bills itself as offering Latin fare with an Asian flair.  As far as I can tell, that means that they serve sushi and tortilla chips in the same restaurant.  Other than the sushi there isn't much Asian flair, and I'm not sure where butternut squash soup or spaghetti and meatballs fit into either cuisine.  Still, the food is pretty good, so whatever ethnicity they want to claim is fine with me. (Here is where I should explain that my mother is adopted and has, at times, speculated about possibly being Italian, Spanish, and a range of Latin American options - to the point where she once encouraged me to select "Hispanic" on a law school application.  I did not.  But I am OK with claiming any heritage you want as long as it's not dancing the ethical line of a resume or college application.)

My non-Latin, non-Asian butternut squash soup was non-delicious.  (At least it wasn't non-hot, my pet peeve.)  It was bland, with little discernible flavor other than an underlying sweetness.  However, my roasted half Chicken in natural jus (also neither Latin nor Asian), was delicious.  Crispy skin, juicy and tender meat, well-seasoned and served with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables.  Neil had their chopped salad and a quesadilla (finally, some Latin fare) which he characterized as "just OK."

I kicked off Saturday at Equinox 19th Street, taking a cycling class with Shaina.  I've known her since she started at Equinox and her classes are terrific.  She's got a background in exercise physiology and her classes use a technique called periodization - periods of intensity followed by active recovery, resulting in greater strength and endurance.  Her classes are terrific, balancing intervals, hills and speed work, and Shaina has fantastic energy ("You can do ANYTHING for FIFTEEN SECONDS!"  I am fairly certain she'd feel differently if she'd experienced waterboarding.  Or a Brazilian Wax.  Not that I know.)

Plus, her music is great, which is saying a lot at Equinox.  During my last workout I noticed that the nearly three month marathon of Taylor Swift's "Love Story" had been supplanted by "Walk This Way." Having sweat most of my bodily fluids on the cycling room floor, I needed to refresh and replenish.  With a cheeseburger.

I called Neil and agreed to meet him in the West Village.  I walked over and was about to sit down with my newspaper, when I heard a cheerful voice call out my name.

Those of you who've been reading this blog for a while now know that I am not describing my husband.

You know how there are some people who you simply can't stand, no matter how nice they are?  Neil made a friend at the gym several months ago - a very friendly, nice-looking European guy whom I find irrevocably irritating.  He's unfailingly charming and polite, always saying hello and making small talk - but he has an overly gallant and theatrical manner that I find off-putting; his voice a cross between Julia Child and Hercule Poirot.  I realize this is unkind and says more about me than it does him, and I'm ok with that.  I can live with not wanting to be greeted like I'm the Queen of England.

The truth is I was also having a pretty bad weekend.  I knew that this career change was going to have its ups and downs, and include periods of rejection along with a feeling of being unmoored due to the lack of structure.  However, the past few days have been particularly difficult - William Morris Endeavor passed on representing me, which was not unexpected nor surprising - an audition and callback didn't lead to further interest, and I was beginning to feel frustrated by the effort of getting more on-camera experience, making contacts, developing and pitching my shows, all while trying to run my consulting practice.  I was starting to become nostalgic for my airless, exhausting, lucrative former career and just wanted to sit with the advance sections of the Sunday paper - Real Estate, Travel - and dream about the things we used to spend money on; the spoils of a corporate life that balm the barren soul.

Instead, I was now forced into ritual politeness as I make small talk about my husband (on his way), the weather (awful rain, but better than last weekend's unseasonable cold) and recent headlines (yes, it is frightening in a post-9/11 world that 2 pilots could lose radio contact for 500 miles, overshoot the airport by 150, and there be no obvious military deployment or other activity.)  Finally freed from social convention, we say good bye and a few minutes later Neil shows up (I'm not entirely convinced he wasn't hiding just around the corner, eager to avoid the loquacity.)

We head to Bill's Bar & Burger in the space that was formerly The Hog Pit in the Meatpacking District, and it's here where I need to pause for a little detour.

I know I've written a great deal about the repurposing of comfort food as trendy cuisine.  I'm sorry, but as much as I like meatloaf now, I don't need to pay $20 for the same meal that my mother - and her whole generation - made because it only cost $5 to feed an entire family of four, and that included the valium you needed to slip your kids to prevent them from having a tantrum when they sat down to meatloaf.  Mac'n'cheese, burgers, cupcakes, that Peanut Butter & Co. on Sullivan Street, now fried chicken - we've reinvented an entire category of higher-end dining with casual dining entrees suited to the palette of a seven year old.  What's next?  Fish sticks?  Tuna Casserole?  If some restaurant tried to charge me $8 for a dessert of Jell-O, we're through.

Bill's, however, gets my thumbs up - despite venturing into the burger genre and doing so this late in the game.  Why?  Three reasons:

1.  The prices.  The burgers are in the $6 range, a great improvement over the $11-20+ category that has become pervasive.   A basket of fries is $3.50 and is large enough for 2 regular people or 6 gay men.  Neil and I shared them, with plenty left over.

2.  The quality.  The menu is simple - burgers, chicken sandwich, fish sandwich, hot dog.  A handful of sides, soda, beer and milkshakes.  (That sentence can, and should, be read two ways.  They have beer and they have milkshakes, but they also have beer-and-milk shakes; a stout with a vanilla ice cream float among them.  Ew.)  My burger was well-cooked and well-seasoned (a miracle in a city where so many burgers taste like nothing other than what you put on them; at Bill's the meat has flavor.)  The fries were delicious - warm and salty with a crispy outside but a soft inside; neither limp nor crunchy.

3.  They have American cheese.  Why is this so hard?  So many burger places will offer you cheddar, swiss, bleu - even Gruyere and jack - but very few offer American.  Isn't that the definition of a cheeseburger?

Stuffed and tired, and in no mood to wander through the rain, we decide to hide out in a move theater.  We head over to Union Square to check out the Chris Rock documentary, Good Hair.  Inspired by his daughter's complaint of having "bad" hair, the documentary explores the social and cultural forces impacting African-American women's hair - the products and stylists, the wigs and weaves - folding in the personal experiences of several prominent black women and a 60 year old hair show in Atlanta which includes a styling competition.  It was interesting to learn how much the industry serving African-American women is dominated by east Asian manufacturers and south Asian wig and weave suppliers (the hair being harvested from Indian women.)  Further, the hair show comes down to two men - one African-American, one White, and both so gay the screen nearly burst in flames - but men nonetheless; the two female competitors were practically nonentities.  Thus, the movie offered an interesting, and subversive, subtext about gender, in addition to race.  See it.

After the movie, I needed some couch time with TiVo, and I began by firing up last week's episode of Melrose Place (Hi Jo Reynolds! Bye Jo Reynolds!  You've now done as much for MP2.0 as you did for the alpha version.  Poor Daphne Zuniga; they created a character with so much promise, and gave her so little to do beyond being put-upon.)  After an hour of Ashlee Simpson rolling her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel eyes (cute on a dog, weird on a pop star) at Thomas Calabro (how does he look exactly the same after 12 years?) I progress to Project Runway.

You know, Project Runway really needs to give up the farce that each elimination is solely about that week's competition.  Not that I wasn't happy to see the departure of obnoxious Nicolas with his black humor and his white, sparkly-trashy ice skating costumes.  But cute Christopher Straub has been on the bottom (a familiar position, I'm sure) for three consecutive weeks.  I could understand him surviving the first time, but the past two weeks his work has clearly been the worst, and it's apparent the judges saved him because his haute couture work in the early part of the season was so good and showed real talent and imagination.

I find a similar sin of commission over on Top Chef.  This week's episode was Restaurant Wars, the challenge done each season, generally when there are 8 chefs left (they used to do it with 6, but setting up an entire restaurant in 24 hours is nearly impossible with only three people.)  Thankfully, they've gotten rid of the requirement that the chef's decorate the restaurant.  That segment was always so awkward with the hyper-masculine chefs, accompanied by the occasional butch lesbian or clueless homo, plodding through Pier One and picking out the most tragic decorations like oversize urns (?), scented candles (Ew) and synthetic pussywillow (!).

This season saw the Dirty-Hot Michael Voltaggio, his Uptight-Hot Brother, the clumsy Mike Isabella, and possibly insane redheaded cancer survivor Robin Leventhal not just winning, but blowing the other team away.  It was a pretty bad defeat for the mousy Laurine Wickett, sweaty Eli Kirschensteinengoldenbergenbaum, bearded Leprechaun (Chefrechaun?) Kevin from Atlanta, and their captain: Bitchy Jen from Philly.  Their loss was clearly a failure of leadership and direction, but Laurine got the boot.  Not that anyone's going to miss her, and Jen has clearly been in the top four all season with the Voltaggios and the Chefrechaun.  However, make no mistake that this was a pity save.  Jen knew it, the judges knew it, the viewers knew it.

(Hee.  Chefrechaun.  That's funny.)

Having had my fill of scripted and unscripted soap opera, I head to the kitchen to prepare dinner.  I made a barbecue pork tenderloin that was so good, I have to share the recipe with you.

2 pork tenderloins
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
14 cup ketchup
1/4 cup +1 Tbsp ketchup-style chili sauce
asian chili garlic sauce
sriracha sauce
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp Apple Cider vinegar
ground mustard
hot paprika
kosher salt

You can make this two ways: make the sauce, then chill it.  You can then marinate the meat in it, or glaze it, before grilling it.  Alternatively, you can make the sauce then cook the pork in it, which is what I did this time.

Slice the pork crosswise into 1/4 inch thick slices; then cut each piece into three strips.  Set aside.

Heat a heavy stockpot (I use Le Creuset - it distributes the heat evenly) over medium high heat, then add olive oil - about 2 Tbsp.  When hot and sizzling, but not sputtering or spoking, add the onion and cook until translucent - about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook another minute or two.  Add the ketchup, chili sauce, Worcestershire, and vinegar and stir.  Add a pinch of Kosher salt.  Stir.  After a few minutes, add about 1-2 tsp of Sriracha and 1-2 Tbsp of the asian chili garlic sauce (more if you like hot and spicy food, less if you don't).  Stir in a little ground mustard and hot paprika, along with 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup water and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium, add pork, and cook for 8 minutes, then reduce heat to low.  Continue to cook for at least an hour, stirring periodically, until meat is fall-apart tender.

You can serve this on sandwich rolls, on top of potatoes, or as-is - which is how we ate it; accompanies with some wok-fired asparagus in chili garlic sauce and baked sweet potatoes (2 sweet potatoes, hand cut, sprinkled with a mixture of salt, pepper, cumin, onion powder, garlic powder and cayenne pepper, and cooked in a 425 degree over for 30 minutes, turning once.)  Slurp.

Dinner was delicious - as was dessert.  I made a crostata, adapted from the Barefoot Contessa.  I replaced her summer fruit with a mixture of Granny Smith apple, pear, cinnamon, flour, and sugar.  I also changed the topping, using quick oats ground in a food processor and using brown sugar instead of white sugar.  Otherwise, the rest of the recipe is here.

Sunday morning came bright and relatively warm, perfect for an autumn run in Central Park (no sighting of pink leopard print this time, thank the Lord.)  After a light lunch at Nanoosh - apparently this is the elusive "something fresh" Neil's been referring to - we head downtown to the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams store for free cocktails.  Only in New York would a furniture store have a cocktail party.  Of course, only in New York would people (us and our friends) take two subways and go to the opposite corner of the city for a free drink.  They were serving champagne and Bundt cake (who did the menu? Donna Reed?)  so after an hour we went in search of a real drink. (On Sundays we sometimes go to a place called Niso's - a Greek restaurant in Chelsea where there's nary a patron eating but the bar is so packed you can barely move.)

Between the five-mile run, the champagne, and the rest of the cocktails, a home-cooked dinner was a dream long dead by 7pm, so we ordered a pizza and camped out in front of the TV. The Next Iron Chef is over and Challenge, that show where four chefs have a cake-off, turning pastry into crazy cartoon characters is on.  It's a Halloween episode, and someone is making a coffin and skeleton.  Yeah, that's what kids love: coffins.

You want to really scare those kids - make a meatloaf.


DO THIS, New York:

Eat a Bill's Bar & Burger

Make that BBQ Pork

See Good Hair

Watch Top Chef and Project Runway

Go for a run in Central Park

DON'T DO THIS, New York:

I'm fairly certain it's not a good idea to give kids Valium, though I won't physically stop you.

You can skip Citrus.

I'd advise you not to throw a cocktail party in a furniture store.

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