America on a Plate

January 24, 2016

IMG_7312Mitch’s Beans

“I’m going to make my beans,” my friend Mitch announced as we were trolling through the supermarket.  “When I was poor I lived on these.” He began loading the cart with cans, and I looked on, dubious, as he he added a package of bacon.

I’ve always been partial to Buster’s Beans, which I published in my first cookbook, Mmmmm: A Feastiary.  They do, however, take an entire day (and night) to prepare.

Mitch’s, on the other hand, are easy. And – to my surprise – incredibly delicious.

Mitch began by cooking 6 strips of bacon.  When they were done, he removed them from the skillet, leaving just enough bacon fat to saute a chopped onion, 5 minced cloves of garlic and a diced jalapeno (use less if you’d like something milder).

When the vegetables were translucent and aromatic he added 2 cans of pinto beans, a 14 ounce can of tomatoes and a tablespoon of cumin. (He says you need a LOT of cumin.)  Stirring that all up he diced the bacon, threw it into the pot and left it to simmer on a very low flame for a couple of hours.

He added salt and pepper and we ate the beans – with grilled chicken and coleslaw – with enormous pleasure.

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Fast Food Done Right

January 21, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 3.52.42 PMThis soup isn’t what it seems. Despite the sweet setup, it’s not homemade. It isn’t even store bought.  This is Automat soup – that little box is the clue – and it cost a nickel in the coolest cafeteria America ever invented. New York’s great Automats were the delight of my childhood.

Here’s how one looked:

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Here’s another:Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 3.53.05 PM

And this is a really early one, betraying its Gilded Age heritage:

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The first American Automat was a Horn and Hardart, opened in Philadelphia in the late 1890s. New York’s first Automat opened in 1912, and proved so popular that by the thirties there were more than three dozen.

Here’s how it worked. You walked in and purchased a pocketful of change from the sole visible worker.  Then you strolled around perusing the dozens of different dishes on offer. The food, at least in its heyday, was made from scratch; even the orange juice was freshly squeezed (and discarded after 2 hours). It was true-blue American fare: stews, sandwiches, cakes. I was particularly fond of the macaroni and cheese, and they made a mean lemon meringue pie. Everything looked so enticing that I’d walk around and around, pushing my tray along the rail, trying to decide what to eat.

Once I’d finally made up my mind I’d put the coins into the slot and watch the little glass door spring open.  It seemed like magic to me: the workers who scurried around the kitchen, swiftly replacing food in the empty slots, were completely invisible.

Here’s a look behind the scenes:

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The best of the Automats – like the big one on 42nd Street – had wildly inventive delivery systems. I always begged my parents to let me fetch their coffee from the huge brass contraption. You put in a nickel, turned a handle, and the hot dark liquid came pouring from the mouth of an extremely decorative dolphin.

New York’s last Automat closed in 1991, but it was a sad shadow of its former self. The once-fresh food had gone into decline and by then you needed so many coins to buy a simple sandwich that the thrill was gone.

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Winged Beans

January 21, 2016

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Cooking here on St. John has proved challenging.  I came with visions of tropical fish, fresh coconuts and papayas, heaps of glowing green vegetables. What I’ve discovered is that almost everything is imported from somewhere else and I’m shopping mostly in the supermarket, grateful to come upon a decent piece of fruit.

There are a couple of exceptions, but the best find so far is the wonderful Josephine’s Greens, an organic garden on the other side of the island in Coral Bay.  Sadly we arrived too late for the passion fruit – they’d all been sold –  but we did find green papayas, lovely garlic chives, lemongrass, beautiful salad greens and these winged beans.  I’d never seen them before, so of course I bought them.

“What should I do with them?” I asked Josephine.

She shrugged.  “Anything,” she said.

“Raw? Stir fried?”

“Anything,” she repeated.

So I improvised.

I began by cutting the beans into inch long pieces; they’re crisper than they look, and when they encounter a knife they emit a satisfying crunch.

I smashed a couple of cloves of garlic, chopped up a small onion and minced a small knob of ginger.

Coating a large saute pan with peanut oil, I threw in the onions, waited until their fragrance filled the air,  then tossed in the garlic and ginger and worried them about a bit. I added the beans and a bit of salt and stir-fried them for a few seconds.  Somehow it still needed something.  Rummaging in the refrigerator I came upon some leftover canned diced tomatoes, and added them, along with a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Stirred a bit more, tasted, and at the last minute splashed in some soy sauce.

Crisp, delicious, entirely refreshing.

I’m off to Josephine’s to buy some more winged beans.  There are so many possibilities…..IMG_7309

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Vintage Recipes: Old Chestnuts

January 19, 2016

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The September 1984 issue of Gourmet is quite a surprise. In just a dozen pages, you can find recipes for the canonical Brazilian dish, moqueça, Greek moussaka, Japanese enoki mushroom salad, and German spatzel. Pretty amazing for the time. And then there’s an article on Wall Street.

There are also a few hilarious ads. Like this one: IMG_3974

But of all the cool recipes – manioc in palm oil! – at the moment I’m drawn to this seasonally appropriate souffle.

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Vintage Recipes: Forbidden Food

January 18, 2016

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Before I understood that eating shark’s fin threatened the animal’s survival, I ate the famously subtle Cantonese delicacy (they’re prized for their texture, not their mild flavor) with enormous pleasure. But it’s been years since I’ve had shark’s fin, and I’m happy it is now illegal to possess them in many states. Sharks grow slowly, and the practice of fishing them for their fins plays havoc with the ocean’s food chain.

But thirty-six years ago – in 1980 – nobody was giving much thought to sustainability issues, and Gourmet Magazine actually provided the American home cook with detailed instructions on preparing the exotic delicacy for soup. The instructions for making this begin with a march down to Chinatown.

Here’s the rest:

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The same issue offered this recipe for sea cucumber with black mushrooms. I’m one of the few Americans I know with a passion for sea cucumbers, and it would give me great pleasure to find this recipe in a modern food magazine. Next time I find a purveyor of dried sea cucumber, I’ll definitely be trying this.

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(The photograph above accompanied the article; sadly there were no pictures of sharks fin or sea cucumber.)

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