Five Things To Eat Before You Die

29 Aug

Melissa tagged Ximena and Ximena tagged me! Yay! I love a game of tag! Especially when it has to do with food! And no running! It’s kind of like virtual duck, duck, goose.

All games aside, this is one cool project. Melissa was motivated to create this project by the BBC. Generally, I love the beeb, especially when they’re exploring whether or not cows have regional accents (moo-cents?) but on this one occasion, they really let the world down.

Granted, I’ve had many of the things on their list and agree heartily that they should be eaten at least once; lobster, cornish pasties and cream tea are things I’ve had just a few times (okay, I’ve had lobster more than a few times, but not often enough) but, come on!

Chinese food? Sandwiches? Pizza? Let’s be a little more specific! Chinese food at Congee Village, that I can buy. A cubano from Clinton Restaurant, probably not the best, but really darn good… Pizza from Lombardi’s? Yeah, that I heartily endorse. But this list, with no specifics? Kinda sad… We can do better than this!

And so, I hereby humbly submit my five foods to eat before you die. They’re all simple but sometimes the best things in life are life’s simplest pleasures.

I. Sometime around mid-November as the days are getting shorter and the impending weight of the holidays begins to bear down, a tiny thought begins tickling my brain. Without even realising I’m doing it, my walk home begins to shift subtly. I walk down Second Avenue, past the sad, shuttered shell of the 2nd Ave. Deli, and then my heart soars. I can just begin to see the warming yellow glow of possibly my favorite restaurant in the entire world, Veselka.

My heart begins to beat faster, is today the day? I get to the corner of 9th Street and wait to cross, can I see the sign? Is it there posted to the wood panelling above the old codgers at the bar straight out of Nighthawks? No. I’ll have to wait at least one more day for the world’s best soup to reappear into my life; Christmas Borscht.

Impossibly clear, the deepest ruby red, redolent of spices and earthy mushrooms, Veselka’s Christmas Borscht appears for maybe 45 days a year sometime around Thanksgiving and disappears with the New Year. Born out of the meatless Christmas eve dinner customary in Eastern European countries, the broth is made of beets, laced with vinegar and savory spices and is served with a few tiny mushroom pierogis and a delicate dusting of dill. I could eat this soup every day for the rest of my life and when it’s around I do my best.

II. When I was young (we’re talking single digits here), my family would rent a cabin up in Maine every summer somewhere in the shadow of Mt. Megunticook, just north of Camden. We would travel up and down the coast. I don’t remember much of what we did. We’d visit Andre the seal (before he was dead), the blueberry festival and my mom and I would beachcomb for hours (I can’t remember at all what my dad would do, I’m assuming he’d play golf). But the thing I remember the most, and this should come as little surprise, are the clams.

Steamers to be exact. I think I remember once (I’ll have to check in with my mom to make sure I’ve got this correct), I was little, maybe 6 or 7 and we were in a restaurant. All I wanted were clams so I ordered 50 or so steamers. The pile of bivalves came, I remember being very excited and I also remember the guy at the table next to us leaning over to my parents and saying, “You’re not going to let her eat all those, are you?” Either my mom or dad replied, “Why, yes, yes we are.” Guy, “She can’t possibly eat all those!” Parent, “Oh, yes she can and she will!” Guy, “Well, this I’ve got to see, and if she does, I’ll buy her dessert!” So, he watched and I ate, methodically, rhythmically, happily. Pry open shell, peel off the “turtleneck,” swish in sea water, dip in butter, pop in mouth, chew happily, repeat. I finished them all, the guy was agog, he stood by his offer, I flatly refused, unless of course by dessert he meant another round of steamers.

III. Both my mom and my dad grew up near Syracuse, and both their families still live up there. Syracuse is a funny place. It’s really cold and really snowy in the winter and ungodly hot and sticky in the summer. There wasn’t much to do up there when I was a kid other than hang out with my cousin. We’d go to the mall, to the Salt Museum, walk along Onondoga, boat on Skaneateles and go to the A&W with our grandmother. But sometimes, someone would have a party or barbecue to which someone would inevitably bring my favorite use of the potato ever discovered, the Salt Potato.

Tiny red potatoes are almost as common in Central NY soil as well, salt, so it was really inevitable over the course of hundreds of years that someone would figure out a way to combine the two. To that unknown person in the past, I tip my hat. Salt potatoes are simply those wee taters boiled in super-salinated water. One recipe I found calls for 1 1/4 pounds salt to 2 pounds of spuds. But it’s after the cooking’s over that the true potato alchemy happens. As the taters are cooling, the salt crystallizes on their surface, you then pop them into a bowl and dip them into drawn butter. Starch + Salt + Fat = Culinary Bliss. Over the years I’ve discovered that while the traditional way is possibly best, variations are also amazing. Last year for his birthday I made the boy salt potatoes with curry butter. You can also replace the butter with warmed olive oil (maybe with some garlic?) or even olive tapenade. Oh, and they’re delicious cold too! Seriously people, salt potatoes are the perfect food!

IV. I’ve just realised that 3 of my 5 foods to eat before you die involve butter. Hmm… I’m sure Steingarten would have something to say about that… What’s the third? Pretzels. But not just any pretzels, handmade soft pretzels from the Amish ladies at the Reading Terminal market in Philadelphia. I don’t really have a good story about these pretzels… Just a persistent, urgent longing to eat them again. I haven’t had one in just about a decade. Since I moved to the City I’ve developed a rather irrational grudge against Philly. I have no idea why, but it’s kept me from going back. I went back once for work, but I was babysitting a duo of cranky Europeans who turned up their noses at pretzels. Silly, silly men….

These are not generic pretzels. Each one is made to order. You step up, the woman gabs a ball of silky, pliant dough, rolls it out into a snake and then tosses it up in the air in a swirling, twisting fashion, and then it lands on the counter with a light thump, perfectly pretzely. It’s then bathed in butter, cloaked in salt and baked. It comes out of the oven piping hot and is handed to you in a napkin with a little cup of the world’s best mustard, perfectly balanced between sweet and hot.

V. It’s Saturday, somehow I’ve dragged myself out of bed and I’m wandering aimlessly through the Village. My head hurts, my tummy’s rumbling but I’m feeling fantastically incapable of deciding on something to eat, but I must eat… And there, what’s that on the corner? Gray’s Papaya! I’m saved… Time for the breakfast of champions, also known as The Recession Special; two of Gray’s insanely delicious hot dogs and a frothy, creamy papaya juice for $1.95.

I get both dogs with kraut, one with onions on top of that. The kraut-only dog gets mustard and the kraut + onions dog gets ketchup. Why? I have no idea… Remember, any day I’m eating two hot dogs for breakfast and I’m not at a 1:05 game at Yankee Stadium or noshing on a Nathan’s out on Coney Island, my mental capacity is naturally a little low, we’re running on primal instincts here people! And don’t be fooled by the other “papayas” out there. Papaya King, Clinton Papaya, they’re not the same. They don’t have the crispy grilled buns, their dogs ain’t got no snap when you bite into them, they don’t have the recession special and therefore they can never stand in as the breakfast of champions.

So, there you have it, my contribution to Melissa’s fantastic project! I hope everyone joins in, no invitation needed, but in the spirit of the meme, I hereby tag these five folk:

I. Chris of The Electric Stove

II. The Farmgirl of Farmgirl Fare

III. Faith of Mekuno Cooking

IV. The Committee of Tiny Banquet Committee

V. Tricia of Vin. Vini. Vino. and you know what? I’m adding Beau of Basic Juice as well. (hey, winebloggers have to eat too!)

One last thought: Do I really have to go to work today? I suddenly have an overwhelming desire to catch a train to Philly….

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20 Responses to “Five Things To Eat Before You Die”

  1. Julie August 29, 2006 at 11:36 am #

    What a GREAT list! I loved it.

    Christmas borscht is most definitely on my list to try (I see a pilgrimage to NYC over the holidays in my future), and how is it that I’ve spent substantial time in central New York (relatives in the Ithaca area) and I’ve never heard of salt potatoes? What a great idea!

    And I’m oh so with you on steamers. I’m crazy about them and never have them often enough.

  2. Tanna August 29, 2006 at 4:36 pm #

    That list is awesome! I heard about salt potoatoes for years before I made them and they are culinary bliss as you say. Interesting: you call for super-salinated water, my recipe has me bury them in rock salt and bake.
    I’d love to try the borscht.
    It took me 5 days before I could start to blog on this question.

  3. lobstersquad August 30, 2006 at 4:31 am #

    I love your list. It reminded me so much of my only trip to NYC. I went to Gray´s papaya, and loved it. Veselka, too, but it was May, dammit, so no borscht, just an amazing brunch.
    Btw, those potatoes sound an awful lot like papas arrugás, wrinkled potatoes they do in the canary islands. there they dip them in a sauce made of olive oil, chili and garlic. also a good combo

  4. Chris August 30, 2006 at 9:55 am #

    I knew from reading your site and swapping a few emails that we had some similar tastes. Now I can’t belive how common our lists could be. I *LOVE* salt potatoes, Christmas borscht from Vesekla and pretzles made in PA, where I grew up!

    Thanks for tagging me. I have to think long and hard about this and post a reply soon!


  5. Tiny Banquet Committee August 30, 2006 at 11:32 am #

    Thanks for tagging me; this is going to be a fun challenge — I have one or two things in mind right away but hmmm, what else?
    I have been to Veselka often but have somehow missed the Christmas Borscht – definitely will try it this year. I am 100% in agreement on steamers and undoubtedly would agree about the salt potatoes and the pretzels too; both sound super-crazy-delicious!

  6. faith August 30, 2006 at 2:15 pm #

    Great list. I want a pretzel now. And thanks for the “tag you’re it!” Hmmm. This is hard. I will try to come up with things not too many other people have already mentioned. (I wonder how many more people will list Pierre Herme’s macarons? They must really be something!! ;-)

  7. sam August 30, 2006 at 3:33 pm #

    Although I have indulged in Pierr’s macarons, they didn’t make it to my own top 5 list. That’s not to say I wouldn’t go a little bit out of my way to eat them, of course.

  8. faith August 30, 2006 at 4:40 pm #

    I did have a macaron once, but it was a rose-geranium variety from Miette, in SF. It was delicious. I always have wanted to try baking them but all the grave talk about steaming and beating and hot water and feet scares me a little…

  9. sher August 30, 2006 at 7:09 pm #

    That was a great list! And one thing for sure–I’m going to make salt potatoes someday! They sound great. And one day I want to have a dog from Gray’s Papaya. I always think of Kramer on that episode of Seinfeld where he just HAD to have one. Thanks, loved reading that.

  10. ann August 30, 2006 at 9:02 pm #

    Julie — If you make it up here for christmas borscht, the soup’s on me!

    Tanna — It took me a really long time to come up with this list too. Just one question, how does one bury a potato in rock salt? Do you bake it? I think I’ve heard of that for big taters….

    Chris — I knew it too! I love ALL PA pretzels! Especially the hard ones, that my grandmother taught me to use as a spoon for peach ice cream…. Delicious!

    TBC — If you ever make steamers, make the salt potatoes to go along with them, it’s traditional, and no one wants to mess with tradition, right? ;-) Can’t wait to see your list!

    Faith & Sam — What is the deal with these macaroons?? I’m assuming these do not have anything to do with coconut… Faith, you’re more than welcome for the tag, and Sam, your list was awesome!

    Sher — If you take me to French Laundry, I’ll take you out for a Papaya dog… Deal?? Oh, and sadly, you’re not the first person to compare me to Kramer (knowing me or not…) I think it’s the klutzy thing! ;-)

  11. faith August 30, 2006 at 10:50 pm #

    OK I put my list up. Yeah, French macarons are these things I never heard of until I started reading food blogs. They’re more like meringues, made with almond flour and sandwiched with buttercream. They’re very pretty and delicate and come in all sorts of flavors – Herme being famous for all sorts of creative pairings.

    Here’s a picture of some different flavors:

    Plate of Macarons

  12. Luisa August 31, 2006 at 4:18 pm #

    I kind of hate dill, but your description of Veselka’s Christmas Borscht had me salivating. Can’t wait to try it! And those salt potatoes – what a great thing to put on The List!

  13. ann August 31, 2006 at 9:39 pm #

    faith — Macaroons, now I have to try them! They are goregous! Since I’m sticking around the, blissfully, quiet city this weekend, I’ll try and hunt some down!

    Luisa — Thanks for stopping by! I’m sure you can get the borscht without dill, they’ll look at you askance, but I’m sure they’ll do it for you… Or you can always meet up with me and I’ll get all Eastern European on their a**es ;-) (completely kidding)

  14. ann September 1, 2006 at 9:14 am #

    doh! i just realised i never commented back to lobstersquad… doh!
    are the papas arrugás cooked in salty water? we had similar potatoes in Croatia, but they were poached in olive oil and got all wrinkely and were out of this WORLD delicious… potatoes are the perfect food!

  15. farmgirl September 2, 2006 at 3:58 pm #

    Great post, and I’ve been tagged! I’ll get to is as soon as I can. : )

  16. Pamela September 2, 2006 at 4:13 pm #

    Great list Ann!!

    Clams are still one of those things that I keep meaning to try, maybe your recommendation will drive me on to actually doing it this time!

  17. ann September 5, 2006 at 9:22 pm #

    Farmgirl — can’t wait for your list! I bet it’ll be great, hopefully it won’t feature lamb ;-)

    Pam — thanks! go for the clams… they’re awesome!

  18. Kristen December 22, 2006 at 11:46 pm #

    Wow, I actually ate two of your favorite foods in one day.

    Anyway, is that borscht really meatless? Even the broth? If so, I am doubly impressed because that soup was the freakin’ greatest thing ever.

  19. ann December 23, 2006 at 2:36 pm #

    Kristen, did you do what i just did and have Gray’s for breakfast and borscht for lunch??

    Yeah, I’m dubious about the soup being totally meatless… My tastebuds sense some beef stock in there, which, if this recipe I found on Saveur is to be believed must be okay, as it has chicken stock in it

    perhaps the prohibition is simply on the eating of actual meat? seems stock might be okay? The dumplings (uszka) are definitely meatless, made with dried mushrooms!

    Anyway, very, VERY glad you liked it! Merry Christmas!

  20. Kristen December 24, 2006 at 10:03 pm #

    Ha! No, but I had borscht for lunch and then hit Gray’s Papaya on the way home. Good call on the sauerkraut, too, by the way. I thought the kraut would be kinda dicey, but now I’m sure GP can do no wrong.

    Anyway, I was pretty sure I tasted beef stock in the borscht too. And those dumplings? Jesus, I could have eaten ten of them. I’m seriously considering heading over there tomorrow after the gift-opening hoo-ha is over and we’re all wondering what to do with the rest of our day.

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