Miss Ginsu: About/Bio


The Donut Wars

I will preface this piece by letting you know this: I'm not a donut person, per se. That said, I will also tell you this: I love donuts in concept.

I love the way donuts are round. I love the way they curve in the palm of the hand. I love the hole in the center. I love that you can sometimes peek through that hole in the center and peer at the someone with whom you're sharing donuts. Maybe you also make a face or a silly noise at that moment. Donuts can be funny. But donuts also show up at wakes and church socials. Donuts can be somber.

Tres Leches Donut
The delightful Tres Leches Donut from the Donut Plant

What I love best about donuts is the idea of donuts and coffee. There's something so classically Americana about donuts and coffee.

The donut of my platonic ideal is the fresh-outta-the-fryer, crisp and steaming cake donut handed to me on a paper towel by an elderly someone who warns me that it's hot, and that I should be very careful not to burn my mouth. Said elderly someone has imbued this donut with his or her old-fashioned care, affection and pride. Needless to say, those donuts are rare as hen's teeth.

Donut Plant Dozen
A recent Donut Plant Dozen... Top left, clockwise: Pomegranate, Ginger, Coconut, Classic Glazed, Valrhona Chocolate, Rose Petal. In the back, Tres Leches, Blackout and another Valrhona.

My next-favorite donut is much more accessible. It's down at the Donut Plant and the cherubic counter man will sell it to you for a dear, but ultimately quite fair, price. Donut Plant donuts will not arrive hot from the fryer, but they are made with old-fashioned care, affection and pride as well as inspiring seasonal ingredients. Donut Plant donuts are taste adventures, and I like that in my food.

My boss liked Donut Plant donuts when I brought a tasting into work recently. He especially liked the Tres Leches donut. But what he REALLY likes are donuts from Peter Pan Bakery on Manhattan Ave. in Greenpoint.

After inhaling his first sampling of Peter Pan donuts just recently, he returned the next day. And the next. He demanded to know why I'd been holding back valuable Peter Pan donut insights for so long. It's not like I was plotting against his happiness. It's just that I'm not a donut person and because Peter Pan donuts were not my first-choice or second-choice donut, their little jellied and powdered gems made a much smaller blip on my personal radar.

One fateful day last week, my boss brought a stack of boxes into work. Boxes filled with donuts. Chocolate Glazed, Powder-Dusted. Some filled with berry jam. Some filled with Bavarian Cream. Cinnamon-Apple Cake Donuts. Strusel-Topped Donuts. Coconut-Flake Donuts.

A Mountain of Donuts from Peter Pan
A Mountain of Donuts from Peter Pan... Top left, clockwise: Chocolate-Glazed Eclaire, Cream-Filled Coconut, another filled eclaire, two custard-stuffed creampuffs, a Glazed Donut and a Strusel-Topped Donut

My coworkers went into a Peter Pan donut frenzy. They yelped. They swooned. They gorged. They ran to their phones and texted significant others with messages like: "OMG!!! We're getting up early Sat 4 DONUTS!" One coworker claimed that these were the long-lost donuts of her childhood, the like of which she hadn't seen in decades. She wrote to her mother about them.

And, yes... They're great donuts. Everyone says so. They're actually much closer to iconic American donuts, raised and glazed, fried fresh every day with good-quality fillings and (presumably) good-quality dough ingredients. (And they're dead cheap. This is Greenpoint, after all.)

The Peter Pan donut is probably very similar to the goods that the very first Dunkin' Donuts shop made waaaay back before they went corporate and started using cheaper fillers, cheaper sweeteners, cheaper fats and mass manufacture. The Peter Pan donut may not be available at every corner, but it really is the pastry of the people.

Admittedly, I felt crushed that my beloved Donut Plant donuts had so quickly rolled to the wayside in favor of a mighty Peter Pan onslaught. It was immediately clear that most people weren't really interested in pomegranate donuts, rose-petal donuts, Valrona chocolate donuts, ginger donuts, coconut-cream donuts or peanut butter and jelly donuts. They didn't want experimental donuts. They wanted donut donuts. They wanted tradition and comfort and sugary cream fillings.

So it seems the traditionalists won the war for the (clogged) hearts of my coworkers.

Down in the trenches, covered in a dusting of powdered sugar and sweating off the sugar-crash shakes, I reflect and find I've learned a few things.

I have strong donut opinions. I may have a delicate donut ego. And I guess I just happen to have a slightly off-the-mainstream donut perspective. And if I have all that, well... hell. Maybe I really am a donut person after all.

Peter Pan Doughnuts & Pastries
Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop on Urbanspoon
727 Manhattan Ave
Brooklyn, NY

Donut Plant
Doughnut Plant on Urbanspoon
379 Grand St
New York, NY

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The Seeds of Hope Within Dank January

Ever circle a toy in a catalog with a marker and imagine your future self loving and enjoying it? I imagine a lot of kids have done something like that. Of course, these days they probably just make Amazon wishlists or send out URLs of their favorite things prior to the holidays.

Here I'll file for the "weird kid on the block" title once again. For most of my life, the end of January has always created great anticipation of the season of seed catalogs.

Marker in hand, I'd circle pages and pages of tomato seeds, lettuce seeds, peapod packs, squashes, sunflowers and mystery flower envelopes. I'd puzzle over whether bicolor, yellow or Indian corn would look better growing up along our garage wall. I'd ponder their packs of live ladybugs and mantises. I'd grid the garden and feed the compost pit with starry-eyed anticipation.

I wonder now if seeds helped those ancient generations of pioneers survive cold northern winters prior to the age of reliable heat, merino wool and internet access. I imagine them looking at their seeds, dreaming about their summer gardens and filling up with hope, even during long months passed with nothing more than grandma's root vegetables and one unending game of gin rummy.

I know some of my darkest, dankest, most hopeless days of winter were annually made colorful and vivacious with pages of plantable potential. After all, hope is really what seed catalogs are all about.

Tragically, my Brooklyn apartment does not come equipped with a garden, and my Januaries tick-tick-tick along without those life-restoring seed catalogs.

CSA lettuces
Beginning of the CSA summer season

But lo! There's still joyful options for sad, cold city dwellers lacking access to both personal and community gardens. For me, hope arrives now in the form of my CSA, which I'm happy to report, I signed up for this very evening.

For any who don't know, a CSA is a community supported agriculture group, which essentially works like buying stock in a farm at the beginning of the growing season. CSA members (the investors) pony up some cash and determine their terms. The farmers return dividends over the course of the season in veggies and also sometimes (if the farmer/s have relationships with other nearby farms) fruit, farm-fresh eggs or meat and flowers.

Like the stock market, the vegetable market is variable and returns are not guaranteed. Sometimes there's nothing but lettuce. Sometimes the lettuce gets washed away and it's all kale and kohlrabi. It helps to have a good attitude about adventurous eating before joining a CSA.

Different CSAs are run differently, of course, but as half-share member of the amazingly well-organized Greenpoint-Williamsburg CSA for this season, I'll pick up my goodies once every other week from mid-June through mid-November at the appointed location and I'll volunteer for a distribution shift at some point during the season.

There's also the option of going on a field trip to the farm that's supplying my veggies, and there's apparently some other social occasions (Kohlrabi fest?) during the year.

Close of the CSA summer season

No, I won't be paging through seed catalogs this year, and I won't be plotting out my garden patch. I won't be puzzling over how to keep my beneficial insects from flying over into the neighbor's garden instead of eating the fat little aphids in my garden.

Chris and Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht will be doing all that. But I'm still supporting a sustainable, certified organic business and enjoying very competitively priced local fruit and veggies picked fresh off the farm. I'll pick up 12 nifty shipments filled up with color and flavor and life. And actually, I get nearly the same happy tingle of late-January hope just thinking about that.

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Eating local. Like, really local.

Busy Bee Pierogies

Chez Ginsu is currently located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and contrary to what that moniker might lead you to envision, large swaths of this place are dirty and decidedly industrial.

Though certain sectors of the 'Point are hip these days, my end of the hood remains cheap and old-school (in good part because we sit squarely in the middle of the largest land-based oil spill in U.S. history. But hey... cheap rent).

My closest thoroughfare, Nassau Avenue, features a charming Luncheonette, a couple of pizza joints, several examples of the ubiquitous Chinese takeout counter and a fleet of Polish eateries.

Polish food has never been one of the world's most beloved cuisines. Ask anyone — even those who are fairly well-versed in food — to name all the Polish dishes they know. The most you'll likely get from them is pierogies, kielbasa and maybe Zywiec, Greenpoint's Pilsner of choice (though most are unlikely to pronounce it correctly... the company's begun advertising the stuff as "Z-Beer" for the tongue-tied American market).

So although I'm a big fan of local food sourcing, eating locally (as in, eating in the neighborhood) hasn't exactly topped my priority list.

Recently, I wondered if maybe that position was wrong-minded. I decided to give some serious examination to local foodstuffs. Making a stop at Nassau Ave's Busy Bee Food Exchange, I purchased meat pierogi (pierogi z miezem) and beet-horseradish condiment (cwikla). The Bee deli case also featured a few creamy salads and pints of "bigos," which is supposed to be a hunter's stew made of beef stock and sauerkraut.

Pirogi, for the uninitiated, are Eastern European dumplings... tasty little dumplings filled with a variety of substances.

When I lived in Minnesota, we frequently went out for Friday lunches at the Ukrainian Catholic Church gymnasium in North-East Minneapolis. There, little old men served endless cups of coffee and took orders while little old ladies tirelessly produced phyrohi (potato, kraut-pork or plum... your choice). It was great. Cheap, tasty comfort food made by little old ladies. You really can't beat that.

Those memories flowed back to me as I prepared my pierogi. Pierogi can be served boiled or pan-fried, like potstickers. When I tested The Bee's meat pierogi, I pan-fried 'em and was very pleased with the results. Served alongside the bright-magenta cwikla with a cucumber & sour cream salad? Good eats at a good price.

Of course Stella, my Polish landlady, instantly knew I'd been sullying her building with store-bought pierogi. Polish landladies have special radar for betrayals of that ilk.

The very next day Stella knocked on my door bearing a look of supreme confidence and a plate covered in three types of freshly boiled pierogi she'd just made: cabbage-bacon, potato and sweet cheese. I intended to eat just a few and share the rest with my roomie. But they were good. Really good. I ate them all.

As it turns out, local eating is good, but really, really local eating... now that's superb.

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Yes, you really do want this.

Would a ceviche in the light of bright day tickle the palate so sweetly?

Presenting... the evening's hand-written menu, deftly snatched up and tucked away by my delightful dining companion.

Charmingly erratic capitalization and punctuation left intact. My own garden-variety dining annotation included.

The Queen's Hideaway
DINNER: August 26, 2005

1. TART: crab and corn custard with side of smoked cherry tomatoes; bush basil. 12 (ed note: Sprinkled with rock salt. The smoked tomatoes made the dish.)
2. Albacore Tuna ceviche with Avocado, currant tomato & fresh fried tortilla. 12 (ed note: As seen in the photo above. These folks are not afraid of the pepper grinder. Very nicely seasoned.)
3. BBQ Italian Sausage with Flaky Biscuits and savory summer berry compote. 11
4. Buttermilk & chive marinated Flounder fillet, coated in cornmeal & fried. With hushpuppies, coleslaw & hideaway hot sauce. 12
5. Fried chicken/salt potato Salad on a bed of mesculin(sic). Sides: sauteed okra & sweet sweet Melon. 11

1. Peaches roasted in duck confit with triple-cream KNNiK(?) cheese. Yes, you really do want this. 5 (ed note: oh.god.yes. But why only half a peach? Still... heavenly.)
2. Heirloom cucumber salad with vinegar & dill. 4
3. White corn on the cob. With butter. 2
4. Bobolink diary stinky cheese plate with chicken paté & beautiful seedless grapes. 5 (ed note: Holy cats! Ah do loves me some stinky cheese!)
5. Jersey maers with butter, chives & sea salt. 3

1. Golden Peach & Raspberry Pie 5 (ed note: None left. A deep sadness, indeed.)

1. Coconut/Lime Soda 3

[The Queen's Hideaway has A Bottle Fee (ed note: endearingly scribbled heart appears here) ]

The Queen's Hideaway
222 Franklin St (at Green)
Greenpoint, Bklyn

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The Hipster/Domesticity Link

Enid's (2nd Annual) Apple Pie Contest

I imagine being a hipster must be so trying. I mean, the trend-spotting, look-innovating, show-hopping (so you can be the first to be bored by any given up-and-coming band), cheap-beer drinking and “I’m so done with all the mainstream bullshit” attitude maintenance must be exhausting.

That same cool-factor fatigue must account for the packed house last night at Enid’s in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (oh-so close to nearly-played-out Williamsburg) for their 2nd Annual Apple Pie Contest. Enid’s, home of cheap beer, satisfying Southern-style brunches, old-school arcade games and hipsters aplenty.

I brought a pie, thinking the competition would be easy pickin’s. I mean, please… I live food and couldn’t imagine the Enid’s population in my neighborhood producing much more than frozen pies and limp little tarts on a random Tuesday night.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

Through that double-door poured pies. All kinds of pies. Guys with bushy beards and tight cardigan sweaters carrying pies. Girls with dresses over jeans (yeah, I know you hate that look, K…) carrying pies. Cute little gay boys with their boyfriends carrying pies. At least twenty pies and a half-dozen judges. Everything from a cream-topped apple-peanut butter pie to a domed dessert with a Halloween-pumpkin style face (that one took top honors… damn good!).
Flat pies with crumble tops, one in a casserole dish, and an apple-pizza pie with olives and sausage (surprisingly nice).

The judges tasted. They tested. They rated. They raved. They convened, argued, re-tasted and reconvened. My own humble pie was among the group of re-tastings. The roomie squealed in delight as they picked at the crust and sampled an apple chunk.

I analyzed the judges with a fellow pie-maker, Mason (co-father of the PB-Apple pie), who observed, “It seems like hipsters are really into domesticity lately. Everyone I know is knitting or crocheting and baking. I mean, look around.” Indeed. The place was chock-full of the hip. They circled the pie table like sharks with plastic forks, waiting impatiently to dive in for the kill.

My pie (Granny Smith and Macintosh apples, standard crust, pastry vines and berries with an egg-wash and sprinkled turbinado sugar on top) garnered the “prettiest pie” prize… a title with honor, a T-shirt and two drink tickets.

The winner, one of those bushy-bearded lanky guys in Mason’s posse, looked dizzy with excitement. He gripped his recycled bowling trophy and free brunch tickets. He grinned like a child. And lucky for me, he happily spilled his pie-making secrets with all the passion of a hipster who’s found the coolest new thing.

All I can say is: I’m ready for next year.

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