Monday, May 11, 2009

Restaurant Review: Brooklyn Label

Brooklyn Label
180 Franklin St
Brooklyn, NY 11222
(718) 389-2806

We've been through this before. You understand my criteria. I am forever on the lookout for a joint that offers me thoughtful, interesting, and flavorful vegetarian options. One meal during which time these demands are particularly difficult to achieve is brunch. And, we all know that in New York City and the surrounding boroughs brunch is a religion. New Yorkers from the Bronx to the far reaches of Brooklyn pray to the brunch altar like priests in Vatican City pray to their rosary beads. I guess I can order pancakes or French toast for brunch. They are vegetarian. But I'm really more of a savory girl. Don't get me wrong. I am sweet, but in the morning, I'm in the mood for something spicy to kick the day into gear. And, let's face it, Bloody Marys don't really go well with maple syrup, the Bloody Mary being my brunch beverage of choice.

Unfortunately, the one drawback of Brooklyn Label, ironically, is that they fail to deliver on my favorite part of brunch: the cocktail. Boo hiss, Brooklyn Label doesn't have a liquor license. However, they do have a license in kick-ass coffee, serving a variety of tasty, decadent coffee drinks using Stumptown Coffee beans, a Portland, Oregon, based coffee-roaster whose Sumatra, according to Saveur magazine, is among the five best in the world. BL also serves a mouth-watering selection of Italian sodas, my favorite being the grapefruit. Quite refreshing.

Now, let's dish about the food. I've sampled an array of their veggie dishes, ranging from the Cobb Salad (bacon on the side), a welcome departure from the meat product adorned variety you oft see in your neighborhood deli; you know, the pile of cheese, meat, and fat masquerading as salad. Well, BL's actually is a salad. Another fave is the veggie bagel, topped with a dab of creme cheese, slices of fresh tomato and red onion, and a sprinkling of capers. Throw on a bit of BL's homemade hot sauce (I like to combine a bit of the habanero with the mild green chile) and you are ready to rock. It may not be the most creative offering on the menu, but it never fails to please me. Okay, I've basically sampled most of the vegetarian offerings, my most disappointing of which is the Red Flannel Hash, a combo of beets, poached eggs, and hollandaise. I was hoping this entree would not be beet, but, sadly, it could be. Based on the description on the menu, as well as my understanding of "hash," I was expecting about something of the shredded beet variety, flattened and fried into a patty of sorts. Alas, I was served a pile of cubed, boiled beet chunks topped with the other accoutrement. Enticing it was not. However, my disappointment with the beet hash has been remedied time and time again with one of my favorite breakfast dishes in the land, the Organic Tofu and Potatoes, a tasty combo of firm tofu and potato chunks sauteed with green onion and broccoli in light curry spices, topped with melted provolone and pico de gallo. I am not exaggerating when I say that I could devour this dish every day. It is decadent and satisfying, without the inevitable dirty feeling I experience following a typical greasy egg breakfast.

For all of you carnivores, I'd be doing you a disservice if I did not tip my hat to the Homemade Biscuits and Sausage Gravy as well as the Brooklyn Label Cheeseburger, both of which my meat and potato eating husband proclaims to be stellar. He does warn, however, that they inspire his digestive organs to accelerate into overdrive, so you should be stationed near a toilet within a half of consumption. "But," he says, "It's well worth it."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Childhood and Cheese Things

Perhaps the most ironic detail about my lifelong vegetarianism, a fact that I have shockingly failed to admit, is that when I was three-years-old, my family and I moved to Hyde Park, New York, so my father could train as a chef du cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America. Yes, a lifelong vegetarian grew up with a father who not only trained to butcher and prepare every non-vegetarian item possible, but he, himself, was also a vegetarian. Actually, by today's need to classify every nuance of non-meat eating status, he was a pescatarian. And now, oddly enough, after living in Europe for the past 18 years, he eats meat. That's another story altogether, though.

I, myself, was also a pescatarian for a short stint. Until a chewy mussel that I ate at Legal Seafood in Boston sent me vomiting into the night. I didn't eat seafood again for twenty-five years. Even today, I can't handle much more than a crunchy beer battered fish and chip entree, with lots of tartar sauce, of course. The fish and chips are really just a vehicle for the condiments afterall. Have I mentioned that I have an affliction called condimentia?

In 1977, when I was five, my father graduated from the CIA and was offered a scholarship to a Hotel Restaurant Management program at Miami International University. And so it was that my parents and I moved to Coconut Grove, Miami, that Spanish became my second language, and that I attended an elementary where I was the white minority amongst my Cuban friends, Sylvia, Jesus, Mercedes, Angel, and Hector. My father worked twelve hour days as head chef at various restaurants, hotels, and country clubs in the Miami area. He prepared Superbowl breakfasts for the Cowboys and Steelers in the Superbowl in 1979 and cooked delicacies for The Eagles when their tour brought them to Miami a year later. After long hours on his feet fashioning filet mignon and adorning plates with mashed potato ribbons, he craved simple, yet satisfying food, which was not meat based. In those days, the last two criteria were mutually exclusive. No one thought that vegetarian food could be satisfying.

The answer? A little something my parents and I affectionately referred to as the Cheese Thing. What is a cheese thing, you ask? Simply put, the earliest versions consisted of a tortilla baked to delightful crispiness, topped with melted cheese, chopped tomatoes, and scallions, and then garnished with shredded iceberg lettuce and salsa.

Recently, I've been revisiting childhood favorites, such as the cheese thing and tabbouleh, for example, and had a little chat with my father to discuss these nostalgic noshes. He told me that he, too, still eats cheese things when hankering for a simple, flavorful fix. He also set me straight on the origin of the cheese thing, a birth that I was surprised to hear took place years before even I was born. In the late sixties and very early seventies, my father, still a young long-haired buck, like most hippies his age, traveled across the country and in and around the West Coast. My uncle Peter lived in Tucson, Arizona, at the time, so my father paid him a visit. In a state where the Mexican population and cultural influence was and is very high, it isn't a surprise that Peter was fashioning the Mexican inspired cheese thing left and right. Of course, this was at a time before every convenience store, specialty top, and grocery store chain, no matter the level of sophistication, offered ten dollar designer salsa choices in flavors ranging from raspberry chipotle, to green chile, black bean, and caramelized corn. In the early days, the cheese thing was simple: tortilla, cheese, tomato, scallion, lettuce, delicious. According to my father, as he and his brother continued to eat cheese things on a regular basis, they began to branch out, a foray that resulted in the eventual addition of a slathering of refried beans.

The cooking technique? At first, the boys would set their veggie laden tortillas under the broiler and pull them out as soon as the cheese melted. Eventually, however, they discovered that this technique left the tortilla itself soggy and (gasp) the rest of the vegetables undercooked. They then tried baking the cheese things in a toaster oven set to a high temperature. This crisped the bottom of the tortillas and cooked the other ingredients to perfection.

Eventually, after preparing cheese things for almost a decade, my father began to explore yet another technique. Note that I've adorned the method with some of my own editorializing, but where it is you shall never know. Heat a large skillet to medium-high. Lightly brush both sides of a tortilla with vegetable oil. Lay the tortilla in the skillet and pan roast until the bottom is golden brown. Flip over the tortilla, spread on a thin layer of beans, sprinkle on the cheese, tomatoes, and scallions, reduce the heat to moderate, cover for 5 to 10 minutes, allowing the cheese to melt and the veggies to heat up. Using a spatula, remove the cheese thing from the pan, garnish with iceberg lettuce and salsa, fold in half, and devour. The only drawback is that this method prevents the preparation of cheese things simultaneously. Today, when I make a cheese thing, I just throw on all of the ingredients except for the greens and salsa, toss it in an oven preheated to 425ยบ, and bake for 5 to 10 minutes. Voila.

Looking back, the cheese thing was really nothing more sophisticated than an open-faced quesadilla, prepared in our humble kitchen at a time before every sports bar on Earth offered quesadillas as an appetizer garnished with a scoop of Ortega pico de gallo and a dollop of sour cream. However, for me, the cheese thing is something more. It is a reminder of the simplicity of childhood, of a time when my parents were young, happy, and playful. Eating a cheese thing on a warm, spring evening brings me back to my childhood in Coconut Grove, the smell of the orange trees sprouting their first blossoms, the sights of hibiscus blossoms unfurling their petals each morning and plantains hanging from trees, and the memory of my mother devouring a freshly-picked mango, the stringy pulp dripping down her chin as she deliriously savored the fruit's decadent sweetness. Cheese things remind me of unadulterated joy.

Now, how the hell do you make a cheese thing? It's really quite a simple process, but the main point is to get experimental with toppings and flavor combinations. Here are some hints:

Try a new kind of tortilla. These days, I've been avoiding the lard-based white flour tortilla, substituting them with Tumaro's Gourmet Tortillas, a brand that is not only lowfat, but intensely flavorful. Tumaro's offers a variety of flavors, ranging from jalapeno-cilantro, to honey wheat, to chipotle-chile, to green onion. Not only do they work well as a cheese thing vehicle, but also work perfectly as a veggie wrap.

Bang around a few bean ideas. This week I've been gravitating toward refried beans, but I've also been known to cook up a pot of black beans flavored with garlic, cayenne, cumin, salt. Eat the beans with some rice and veggies or scoop 'em onto a tortilla.

Tempt your taste buds with different toppings. Here are a few of my favorite flavors:
• sauteed zucchini, chopped into bite-sized pieces
• sauteed baby bella mushrooms and onions or sauteed portobella caps, sliced into strips
• roasted red peppers
• pickled jalapenos
• nopalitos (picked cactus), chopped into bite-sized pieces
• tunafish (Dad's idea, not mine)
• corn
• scallions
• tomatoes
• fresh baby greens
• arugula
• iceberg lettuce
• chopped fresh cilantro
• roasted garlic cloves
• salsa of your liking

Here's hoping that your cheese things offer you the same joyous nostalgia that mine do.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Red Hot and Romantic Cajun Spice

When my soon-to-be husband, Wesley, and I had our first date two and a half years ago, one of the first things he boasted about was his signature dish, Blackened Cajun Chicken. He cautioned me that he knew few people whose palates could withstand the heat of his proprietary blend. I assured him that my ability to withstand the scoville units wouldn't be a problem. I mean, hey, I've been traveling with a purse bottle of Sriracha since I first discovered it 15 years ago. Not really, but I've thought about it. I do, however, collect hot sauces like some women collect purses.

About a month later, only a month and a half into our relationship, Wesley cranked up the heat by inviting me to come home with him for a few days before Christmas. What choice did I have but to accept his gracious invitation. Two weeks later, on December 21, 2006, I found myself disembarking at the Jet Blue gate at Syracuse Airport. I remember the date because it was my 35th birthday. Ten minutes later, I met my soon-to-be mother- and father-in-law, Judy and Dick Dunaway, and an hour after that, we pulled into their driveway in Fair Haven, New York, an idyllic upstate New York village nestled on the banks of Lake Ontario. I spent the next three days in cozy comfort, meeting Wes's childhood best friends, eating Judy's comfort cuisine, drinking Dick's vodka gimlets, and falling asleep in my favorite way possible, to the sound of the television in the background.

On my last morning in Fair Haven, Wes trotted up the stairs to our room and presented me with a gift from Judy, a copy of the Fair Haven Church's cookbook, Recipes and Remembrances. This snappy little spiral bound cookbook, a nostalgic reminder of my first visit to Fair Haven, features hometown favorites like Dick's Pot Roast Braised in Red Wine and another of Wes's favorites, Judy's Chicken Francaise. Most important, however, nestled in the the cookbook's glossy pages, lucky readers can feast their eyes on Wes's Blackened Cajun Chicken recipe–in print.

While waiting for my plane in the airport, I cracked the cookbook for the first time. It immediately struck me that the recipe wasn't necessarily Wes's, but his favorite recipe of Judy's, submitted in his honor. I think that what tipped me off was the use of the word dredge in reference to coating the chicken with the seasonings. I almost peed my pants thinking of Wes sitting at his computer, White Stripes in the background, consciously using the word dredge in reference to his chicken. Either way, the visit, the cookbook, and the subtle gesture intimated by the recipe sealed my fate. I was in love.

Of course, it wasn't for another year that Wes actually prepared his Blackened Cajun Chicken. And, of course, as of this writing, I haven't actually eaten Wes's Blackened Cajun Chicken per se. However, I have dredged tofu in his Cajun seasoning, sprinkled it into a skillet with my zucchini saute, and, as readers of this blog know, perfected the mashed sweet potatoes in my empanadas by stirring in a tablespoonful on a whim.

I highly suggest that you concoct a batch of this seasoning, store it in your spice rack, and throw it in your next dish that needs a little spike. It's a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.

2 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons lemon pepper
1 teaspoon thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons basil

A Few Thoughts On a Few Dishes

It's been several days since my last blog entry. I had several family members in town for a few days and have essentially spent the last ten days eating my way through the restaurants of New York. I've eaten goat cheese in Park Slope, endive in Soho, peashoots on the Upper East Side, and ramps in Greenpoint. There are a plentitude of flavors on which to dish.

For one, I am very excited to report that Five Leaves, my favorite neighborhood restaurant, is beginning to offer an increased array of creative and thoughtfully constructed vegetarian appetizers and entrees. Last week their specials' board was adorned with two flavorful choices, both of which I sampled. The Roasted Asparagus and Arugula Salad with Hazelnut Vinaigrette was rich and satisfying, and had it been a bit bigger, it most certainly would have satiated me as a main course. This is what I'm talking about when I rant and rave about my desire for more interesting salad options. Following this tantalizer, I feasted on the Penne with Artichokes, Ramps, and Poached Egg entree. Can we say ooh la la? This was one of the most delicious meals I've had the good fortune to enjoy in a good, long while. The lemony sauce that adorned the pasta and vegetables was perfectly tangy, without being overpowering, the flavor of which was balanced by the richness of the poached egg. In fact, when I pierced the egg yolk with my fork, the lemony goodness combined with it to form an impromptu, but very welcome, sauce akin to a Hollandaise. All this is to declare that, Vegetarians (and yes, I intentionally capitalize this work), Five Leaves is working to meet our needs. Praise for them.

Second, I made two new restaurant discoveries this week, both of which will soon be reviewed on The Dish (new, more casual nickname for Greenpointdish). Jean Claude in Soho was one of the few French restaurants that satisfied my needs with something other than an Algerian inspired couscous dish that every other French restaurant seems to feature as its one veggie offering. And, Fiore in Williamsburg delighted my brunchtime stomach's gurgles with a flavorful frittata. More on both later.