Miss Ginsu: About/Bio


Beer Respect: May Edition

I'm trying to stick to domestic beers. I really am.

As I continue my "new beer each week" resolution, the price of import brews (and just about everything else, it seems) also marches onward and upward.

Beer Pour

Meanwhile, I know there's plenty of high-quality U.S. beers to sample... I just keep getting sucked in by exotic things like the Innis & Gunn English Pale Ale which is a rich, smooth brew aged in oak barrels. But really, can you blame me? How exciting is that?

So three out of four beer reviews this month cover domestics. The Goose Island and I will definitely meet again. Hair of the Dog scores one yes and one Amy Winehouse-style no, no, no. The last is that crazy oaky Englander... a bit dear at $4.99/bottle. (The cashier at my local grocery store seemed to think I'd separated it from a four-pack or six-pack and was being charged the entire pack price for a single bottle. Sadly, I had to fess up to being the dumb schmuck that willingly pays $5 (plus bottle deposit) for 11.2 ounces of beer at Key Food.)

Goose Island
Belgian Strong Pale Ale
Grade: A / 4.35
I love the farmhouse Belgians, and you could pour me a pint of one of these and I'd be absolutely delighted and fooled into thinking it was an import. Goose Island just keeps doing me right.

Hair of the Dog Brewing Company
American Barleywine
Grade: B+ / 4
It's thick-bodied with a sweet, rich molasses flavor, but it remains entirely drinkable, thanks to some bright balance from the hops.

Hair of the Dog Brewing Company
American Pale Ale (APA)
Grade: C+ / 3.15
Despite a sweet, fruity scent this beer is quite dry with a sour-bitter hoppyness. Frankly, I'm not crazy about it. I feel like it's off-kilter.

Innis And Gunn Oak Aged Beer
Innis & Gunn
English Pale Ale
Grade: A / 4.45
A really fascinating flavor! It's a bit smoky and savory... almost vegetal. There's a lot of aroma in the nose.

Cheers, ya'll!

Labels: , ,


Beer Respect: April Edition

Belgians in Montreal
Now that the Euro is at a record high exchange rate against the dollar, exploring domestic beers seems all the more prudent...

The dollar's drop is depressing (hahaha) for Americans in a number of ways, but it's an especially great sadness for those of us who love Belgian beers. Combine our economic decline with high prices on grain (thanks a lot, biodiesel laws...), and it's practically an act of treason to drink beer these days.

That said, I'm selfishly pushing forward with my goal to try at least one new beer each week and record the findings over at Beer Advocate.

Last month's beer roundup featured two Belgians among crew of domestics. This month, I'm diving into yet more domestic selections from Southern Tier and Smuttynose alongside one cheap local (a Polish import, actually) and a very surprising Irish Stout.

Phin & Matts Extraordinary Ale
Southern Tier Brewing Company
American Pale Ale
Grade: B+ / 3.8
"I'd happily drink it again, but I wouldn't go out of my way to find it."

Smuttynose Shoal's Pale Ale
Smuttynose Brewing Company
American Pale Ale
Grade: B+ / 4
"A sip is crisp with a nicely bitter, dark grain bite at the midsection and back of the tongue."

Lomza Wyborowe
Browar Łomża Sp. z o.o.
Euro Pale Lager
Grade: C / 3
"Lots of carbination... it seems like it might be a nice brew served cold on a hot summer day."

O'hara's Celtic Stout (Irish Stout)
Carlow Brewing Company
Irish Dry Stout
Grade: A- / 4.2
"...there's a lingering flavor that's like moss, tobacco and ashes. It's a fascinating beer... it sort of reminds me of a scotch."

Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale
Smuttynose Brewing Company
English Brown Ale
Grade: A- / 4.25
"A very friendly, drinkable beer. I think it might be nice with grilled meats or barbecue."

Labels: , ,


Beer Respect: March Edition

I've been a fan of Beer Advocate for a while. After all, their official slogan is "Respect Beer." So simple. So direct. So reverently hedonistic.

glowing hefe

As one of my recent resolutions was to drink a new beer every week and record my thoughts about it for future reference, I discovered that Beer Advocate's online review system provided a terrific tool for this purpose. (Though sadly, my daily running resolution hasn't been half as easy to maintain.)

I'm hoping to be able to post my beer explorations here each month. Below you'll find the beer name, the brewery, the beer type and the letter grade I ended up bestowing on each. (Be forewarned that I naturally skew toward Belgian farmhouse styles and creamy dark stouts, so MGD and Pabst aren't likely to earn high marks over here at Chez Ginsu.)

Overall, I was very pleased with what I found this month, though I'm sorry to report that the Raspberry Porter from the Southern Tier Brewing Company ended up being a low point.

Gulden Draak (Dark Triple)
Brouwerij Van Steenberge N.V.
Belgian Strong Dark Ale
Grade: A / 4.45
"A beautiful beer. And damn fine with barbecue!"

Smuttynose Hanami Ale
Smuttynose Brewing Company
Fruit / Vegetable Beer
Grade: B / 3.7
"This one's a challenge. Could be great with roasted duck."

IPA (India Pale Ale)
Southern Tier Brewing Company
American IPA
Grade: A / 4.3
"A very drinkable IPA. Great with curry (go figure)."

Raspberry Porter
Southern Tier Brewing Company
American Porter
Grade: D / 2.2
"Not really sure what this beer would go well with..."

Brooklyn Local 1
Brooklyn Brewery
Belgian Strong Pale Ale
Grade: A / 4.4
"A lovely brew with tiny, delicate, champagne-like bubbles that zip up the glass in long strings"

Brasserie Dupont
Saison / Farmhouse Ale
Grade: A / 4.45
"Ace. This crisp blondie is one of my all-time favorites."

You can read any of the full reviews at BA. Meanwhile, if you're already a beer advocateer, make me your buddy! I'm MissGinsu, naturally.


Labels: , , ,


Podunk: a nook for tea and decorum

Tea at Podunk
Cream Tea (scones, fresh whipped cream, berries, strawberry jam, apple butter, cream and sugar) at Podunk

When we walked into Podunk, a tiny tea shop on a strangely quiet block of 5th Street, J and I were desperate for cardamom cake.

The proprietress seemed tickled that such a craving might force people to canvass the city. She asked if we'd found her shop via Google. Indeed, we had, but more precisely, we found her shop through Halldór Laxness, an Icelandic writer (and Nobel Laureate) with a talent for food description that drove us drooling mad with cardamom-infused daydreams.

The Citysearch reviews for Podunk were puzzling. A flood of gushing praise (cute decor! lovely owner! amazing cakes!) peppered with venomous tales of a witchy woman who flies into rages and throws customers out into the street.

Our experience had been so thoroughly positive (and the cardamom cake so unequivocally delicious), that we left puzzled. That sweet lady in the apron and disheveled bun was obnoxious? A mad woman? It seemed improbable.

On another occasion, strolling past 5th Street, we were taken by a sudden whim for tea cakes. We stopped by and found Espeth (the afore-mentioned tea mistress) brandishing the last piece of her apple chai tea cake — a surprisingly spicy confection layered with chunks of fresh apples. We talked about that day's sudden autumnal yen for apples and spice. Though the piece was much too large to offer as a single slice, and slightly too small to divide, she gave us the whole grand thing for the price of a single. Rude service, indeed!

On our third visit, we arrived for the tea. Nestling into chairs, we reviewed the menu, ordered the cream tea, and looked through a few of her vast array of children's books. The tea service arrived lush and beautiful. Her strawberry jam packed a peppery whollop in the back of the throat. The scones were airy, crisp and tender. The whipped cream was freshly whipped and begging for juicy berries.

As we sipped, a woman burst through the front door, fresh off her cellphone with that unmistakable air of patented New York impatience. We looked up from our steaming cups.

"Can I get a coffee to go?" she asked.

"No," said our tea mistress, "We don't have to-go cups. There's a Starbucks around the corner."

And that's when I resolved the Jekyll and Hyde mystery. Podunk is a reflection of what one brings to it. You don't walk in with self-importance, irritability and an enormous ego yearning to break free.

Tea is a civil occasion. It's a quiet nook in the day for sipping, nibbling and practicing good behavior. Present yourself as well-mannered, warm and friendly. You'll be greeted in kind... and discover some really fantastic tea and cakes in the process.

But honestly, whether there's cakes in the bargain or not, isn't that simply a nicer way to approach your fellow man?

Podunk on Urbanspoon
231 East 5th St (Btwn 2nd & Bowery)
New York, NY 10003

Labels: , , , , , ,


Sea and Crumpets

J, a mouth on the move between Seattle and San Jose this week, reports in from the field (or dock, as it were) on a subject dear to my stomach: quality brekkie.

First good brekkie of the trip today. There's a place at Pike
called The Little Crumpet Shop that rocks unconditionally.

$1.50 for a mug of unlimited refills of freshly brewed loose leaf
tea, $3 for a bowl of groats(!) with honey, milk and currants. Mmm.

My insides are so happy. They had the usual little sign about not
bringing outside food into the place, but they wrote in special
permission to bring fresh fruit from the market. Aw.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Journey to the center of the kalonji

one spice, two spice
One Spice, Two Spice, by Floyd Cardoz and Jane Daniels Lear

One of the fantastic things about attending cooking school is the gateway it provides to great kitchens. To those who care nothing about the construction of food, it might seem silly to want to roam among the pots and cutting boards, but to the food obsessed, the opportunity to seek out behind-the-swinging-door secrets is truly the stuff of salivation.

As a culinary student, one is encouraged to "trail" in as many kitchens as one can without succumbing to exhaustion. A trailing cook simply sets up appointments with chefs or sous-chefs and arrives at the kitchen with knives in tow, ready to work on basic vegetable prep.

Generous chefs generally let the trailing student watch (and sometimes assist with) the set-up for evening dinner service, and they may let the student observe the service period itself (from a safely removed vantage point).

As a student, I trailed at Tabla. I loved the kitchen, the food, the ingredients and the fact that Chef Cardoz had a whole room dedicated to organizing and storing (and to my mind, exalting) the spices. I took an internship there, which turned into a job.

Young cooks tend to switch kitchens fairly often, but I stayed... for years. Indian food was fascinating.

Beyond the pasty yellow curries and soupy palek paneers served in the tiny to-go joints that pepper cities across America, Floyd Cardoz advocated rich braises and light, crisp tandoori breads, bizarrely spiced pickles and chutneys, and soups with more types of lentils than I'd ever seen. He brought me lotus roots and fuzzy melons, litchis, aleppo pepper, long squash and mung beans.

One doesn't often encounter fresh chestnuts in the wilds of South Dakota (where I was reared), but Chef had 'em. And they were a revelation ("Wow... they're nutty. They don't taste like a can at all!"). Every week I discovered five new things I could do with vegetables I'd never before encountered.

After years of daily practice with Indian techniques from making tarkas to pickling, spice toasting, braising and simmering, I've come to a few conclusions about the challenges to preparing delicious Indian foods in the American home kitchen.

The most opressive among these difficulties:
1. Understanding the techniques to layer in the traditional flavors
2. Acquiring good (or even appropriate) ingredients
3. Developing enough experience with good examples of the cuisine

I've clung to my usage-stained copies of Chef's recipes for the years since I left Tabla. Since these are the restaurant versions of his dishes, they all have phenomenally large batch sizes (first, dice 50 tomatoes...), and I struggle in my own kitchen to accurately size them down. No one household needs 4 gallons of pickled ramps, however tasty those little buggers might be.

Chef has now published a book of the very recipes my ugly, wrinkled home volumes contain. Thankfully, his One Spice, Two Spice was also written with household sizing in mind.

I always wonder about the accuracy of chef-written cookbooks. Are the recipes oversimplified? Have the authors reserved a few kitchen secrets? So I was particularly interested to compare my kitchen notes to Chef's published variations.

Having made the great majority of the recipes in One Spice, Two Spice recipe in a large-scale environment, I can verify the content in these small-scale versions is really pretty accurate.

There's a fore-section that explains the importance of the way one treats one's spices. Readers will discover the "whys" behind toasting, tarkas and whole-spice usage.

For home renditions of Indian foods, much of the first difficulty I mentioned above (understanding technique) can be remedied with this book. Unfortunately, this — or any other — book can do very little for cooks like my mother, (for example) who lives in South Dakota, and will still have difficulty with the remaining two challenges: acquiring appropriate ingredients and making an educated flavor evaluation of the finished product.

As much as I love books (and cookbooks specifically), One Spice, Two Spice has forced me to the conclusion that the book is a naturally handicapped tutor.

The core secrets of any cuisine are physical: first, the education of the tongue, and second, the training of the hand. These skills come from spending time in the presence of a skilled teacher. Recipes, even well-written recipes, are at best, simply a collection of notes to jog the memory.

That said, I've retyped one of my favorite basic sauces herein. The more obscure ingredients (like tamarind paste and nigella seed) can be found at most specialty shops these days.

This version (as it appears in One Spice, Two Spice), when properly seasoned, will make a good product. At Tabla's Bread Bar, it's called Kalonji and it's served with cheddar-cheese stuffed naan. If you don't have a home tandoor (and frankly, few Americans do), you might try dipping your cheese sandwich, flatbread or breadsticks in it. Or serve it alongside beef or lamb braises.

Warm Tomato Chutney (Kalonji)

Two 28-ounce cans whole or chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon nigella seeds
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons finely chopped peeled ginger
1 cup finely chopped white onion
2 small dried red chiles, crumbled
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons tamarind paste
1 tablespoon sugar

Roughly puree the tomatoes to a medium-coarse consistency in batches in a blender or food processor.

Heat the oil in a 4- to 6-quart pot over moderately high heat until it shimmers. Add the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and nigella seeds, shaking the skillet, and when they pop and are fragrant, after about 30 seconds, quickly add the garlic, ginger, onion, and chiles. Immediately reduce the heat to moderate, and cook, stirring, until the garlic and onion have softened. (Don't let them color.) Stir in a pinch of salt and the tomato puree. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour.

Stir in the tamarind paste, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste, then remove the chutney from the heat. Serve the chutney warm.

The chutney keeps in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 weeks or in the freezer for 1 month.

Note: I prefer Muir Glen organic tomatoes, either plain, or for a little more kick, the "Fire Roasted" variety.

Labels: , , ,


Caracas Arepa Bar: Now featuring twice the yum.

Hot, crispy arepas

banana batida
A batida that's built for two

There are only a handful places that I feel meet the test of "consistently delicious bang for the buck," and that's kind of a shame.

I know it's tough to run a restaurant day in, day out, while maintaining high quality, infusing the food with love, and making everyone feel welcome and valued (not to mention trying to turn a buck in the process), but as a diner, that's what I'm seeking. I have high standards, namely: I want them to care about the food, and I want to feel as though the food is as delicious as (or, gosh, maybe even better than) what I could make at home.

I hope I'm not jinxing my good luck as I type this, but Caracas has always delivered the goods. On nearly every occasion I've had opportunity to visit their cozy East Village shop, there's always been a line of the hungry salivating just outside the door. After getting through the skinny door and squeezing behind a tiny table, I've always found the breathless staff to be friendly folks with agile bodies that maneuver with masterful elasticity between tight bag-filled corridors and stabbing table edges.

The arepas — crisp corn cakes opened like steaming round envelopes and stuffed with all manner of tasty fillings — are fresh, hot, and made to order, as they should be. The salads are crisp and inviting. There's food for my vegetarian friends and food for my meat freaks. The batidas (light shakes) are thick, cool and creamy. The lunch specials include fresh juice and your choice of arepas with a side of either soup or salad, all for slightly less than a ten-spot. (Why, oh why do I work in Queens when such delights beckon in the East Village?)

Leaving Caracas, I slide out the door (seeing the patiently hungry on the outdoor bench eye my newly emptied table) and stretch out in the sunshine on the nearby corner at 7th Street and 2nd Avenue feeling satisfied. Full, but not gluttonously so. Satiated and ready to take on the afternoon.

And now, Caracas is doubly delightful. With expansion in a storefront just two buildings away from the original nest, there's extra seating and reduced waiting in the new spot and a to-go counter in the old (though it seems you can still grab a table and eat there for lunch).

Best of all — despite nail-biting nervousness over potential growing pains in one of my favorite spots — success appears not to have spoiled the magic. Ah do believe there's still a great deal of love in them there arepas.

4 spoons

Caracas Arepa Bar
Caracas Arepa Bar on Urbanspoon
91 East 7th Street
East Village, NYC

2008 UPDATE! There's now a Caracas branch in Williamsburg, BK (291 Grand St.) More space, same great food. Yay!

Labels: , , , ,


Swept up in the Mistral

Ramble down the length of Sant Antoni, and you'll spot a beguiling little bakery with a name that conjures a cool mountain wind whipping across the Mediterranean.

The windows are lined with temptations, and yet, you may hesitate. After all, you've been burned before, haven't you? Croissants made with vegetable shortening. Cloying pastries. Loaves that seem artisanal at first, only to later reveal loveless manufacture.

Fear not, hungry one! Mistral's squat peasant loaf has a stone-oven crispy exterior and a chewy, slightly tangy bite that fills the mouth with the flavors of warm grain. Have 'em slice it, pair with a friendly neighborhood cheese and you've got a picnic on the fly.

But wait... have they burnt the brioche? No, dear — that dark, buttery pastry is twice-baked to cultivate a crispy demeanor that dances blithely across the edge of bitterness. (Think: Stephen Colbert on a good day.) It's not one for the kids, but you, lover of biting greens, tannic wines and bold stouts, will revel in its depth. It wants... a cortado, a latte, a cup of chocolate to complement its sophisticated flavor and inviting crunch.

Alas... if only the Mistral blew its delights a bit closer to Brooklyn.

Forn de Pa Mistral
Ronda Sant Antoni 96
(or Torres i Amat 7)
Tel./Fax: 93.302.41.39

Labels: , , ,




Wooden Rooster

hot clams

Lobsters, chickens and clams! Oh, my!

Born in the late 1800s in forges, foundries and rail-yards, Newark, New Jersey's Ironbound district is now lined with Portuguese and Brazilian salons, fish markets, pastry shops, churrascarias and sporting goods stores brimming with football gear.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we wandered, pointed, peered and purchased olive oil and dried salt cod for later experimentation.

Hungry and tired, we landed at Sagres Bar & Grill (44 Prospect St.), wooed by the promise of beer and sidewalk seating. Unfortunately, beer and sidewalk seating is about all the place has to offer. With a draught beer list mournfully lacking in charm, I settled on the Sam Adams.

We ordered a seafood soup, the clams in cilantro and garlic and the bacalao in peppers, potatoes and onions. The clams and soup were good, if salty. Sadly, the potatoes and onions turned out to be more interesting than the bacalao.

The kitchen's impulse to fling fresh herbs (parsley and cilantro) was a good move, but across the board, the cooks seemed to rely on a one-two punch of chicken stock and salt in place of more carefully nurtured flavor.

The comp breadbasket turned out to be the winner here, full of hearty, chewy slices that enjoyed a good dunk in the seasoned clam juices.

After further reflection and research, I think perhaps Forno's of Spain, Spanish Sangria or Fernandes might have been better choices. Any fellow travelers have good luck in the district? Leave a comment!

Bon appetit!

Labels: , , , , ,


Brown + Orange = Breakfast Bliss

Brown Cafe
Baked Eggs
Latte at Brown
Wheelbarrow Tomato Plant

To those who might secretly harbor notions that Paris or Milan have already cornered the market on enchantment, I submit Brown — a shoebox cafe on the Lower East Side with fantastic fresh food fare.

Details are affectionately observed. Fussiness is turned away at the door. Coffees and brunch are crafted with love and presented with the most quiet, subtle panache.

If you're curious about the food you'll be eating at Brown, simply stop by its petite next-door specialty-shop sister... Orange. Here's where you'll see the walls loosely lined with exotic, imported oils; the counter lineup of rich cheeses supplied by Mitica, the savory, fennel-scented sweet Italian sausages; the delightfully spicy chorizos; the juicy, organic cherry tomatoes. Lucky you... these are the components you'll soon see on your plate.

Morning sunshine. Outdoor seating. Eggs baked in tiny skillets. Idyllic, yes? Better yet, my dining companion informs me that a third sibling will soon be added to the taste triumvirate.

A sweet shop, he thinks. Guilding the latte, I think.

Brown & Orange
Brown on Urbanspoon
61 Hester St
(btwn Ludlow & Essex)
Lower East Side, NYC

Labels: , , , , ,


Oh! Sweet. Fleeting. Spell...

Brunch is a safer bet if you really want to score a seat.

Barrio Chino on the NYC Lower East Side:

  • A rich, smoky reposado tequila, flanked by sangrita, mango and jicama.

  • Exposed brick walls that float fancifully suspended cocktail umbrellas.

  • A cool mojito with coconut. Take it sweet or savory. They mull your mint and pinch your juicy lime wedges to order, naturally...

  • Fish tacos the like of which you haven't seen since that week on the Yucatán.

  • Sangria that rolls heady and silken across the tongue with easy, even balance such that a first sip is enough to renew your sense of wonder at how people can drink — much less claim to enjoy — the world's lesser cocktails.

Arrive at 7. This laid-back shop of delights is all yours. But don't get smug. You'll find your little treasure must be soon be shared with the rest of New York, all of whom will attempt to press their shapely frames through the door within two hours' time. Sip your nectar slowly and savor the moment while you can.

Barrio Chino
253 Broome St.
(Btwn Orchard & Ludlow)

Labels: , , , ,