Monday, October 20, 2014

"Great Dumplings of New York" Tour

I led a "Great Dumplings of New York" tour last weekend, and I thought I'd share the itinerary. Considerable time and advance research was invested in the venue choices:

Pirosmani (2222 Avenue U, Brooklyn; 718-368-3237)
...for Georgian khinkali (steamed soup dumplings full of soulful ground meat* and dill-flecked broth, with a doughy button baked in for easy hoisting). These are good ones, achieving the trick of being sturdy yet melting. It killed us not to dig into a host of other great Georgian treats (platters of garlicky roast potatoes and shimmering katchapuri kept sweeping by), but a dumpling tour's a dumpling tour. Onward, to....

* I'd always assumed khinkali were made with lamb, just out of sheer blind idiotic assumption, but I just realized with a sudden epiphany that I've never eaten one with the least lamby flavor (I see my food knowledge as perennially blurry, and always coming into greater focus.....and contentedly so, because I long ago resigned myself to the fact that no one can possibly know everything about cuisine). Wikipedia says it's pork and beef, and, of course, Wikipedia's never wrong).

Li's Henan Food (136-20 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, Queens at the New World Mall, stall 12; 718-888-9393.
I found out about Kaifeng-style dumplings only recently. Take a look:


Photo (and venue discovery) credit: ace trumpeter Jerry Sokolov


Viewed from the top, it's a huge mottled, crunchy, oily crepe, but flip it over and you'll see that dumplings adhere. My guess is they fry up a starchy slurry along with the dumplings, creating an irresistible crunchy mass. I'm pretty sure this is the only place you can find it in NYC. Read more discussion (including, alas, much baseless conjecture further down) in this Chowhound thread. Nice review (with photos) of the venue here.

Note: I've been tracking Flushing shopping mall food court food for many years, and New World Mall is really the apotheosis of the genre. One of our group had recently been in China, and said this enormous, almost overwhelming basement felt more like China than many places she'd seen in China.

Henan Feng Wei (136-31 41st Ave, Flushing, Queens; 718-762-1818 )
Alas, we couldn't get here before closing. A shame, as these may the best B-flat boiled pork & chive dumplings in town. Interestingly, this place is from the same province as Li's Henan Food, but they don't make the weird crepey dumplings (I showed the staff a photo once, and they wagged their heads ruefully, clearly recognizing the dish).

Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao; 59-16 Main St, Flushing, Queens; 718-)
These are my current picks for XLB right now (conveniently right off the LIE exit for Main Street, perfect on the way to the airport). Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao on Prince Street in Flushing is the more popular contender, but I tasted both back to back last week and there's no contest. As I reported on Chowhound:
"every time I go [to Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao], I'm less and less happy and this was no exception. Service was horrendous (there's a very strong not-giving-a-crap vibe, though when they first opened - I was one of their first customers - these guys were fastidious). The crab/pork XLBs were extra crabby, but it was a trashy crabbiness, tasting as much like shell as crab meat. Whatever the opposite of "refined" is, that's what they were. Unfocused, with thick and extra sticky wrappers. Just not real good.

Immediately after, I hit Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao. Huge diff. Night and day. There was a cleanliness to the flavor utterly lacking at Nan Xiang. Really true crabmeat flavor, more generous broth, and better textured and flavored wrappers.
Alas, the XLB cook had left early, a mortal wound to the heart of the tour. We could have sampled some of the fine-looking Shanghai cold appetizers, but instead we moved on to....

Gangjong Kitchen, 72-24 Roosevelt Ave, Woodside, Queens; 347-848-0349)
I predicted over a decade ago that this micro-nabe would become Little Nepal (and that Elmhurst would be Little Banghkok), and I guess I was right. You could throw a tennis ball at three, maybe four Nepali or Tibetan eateries from here, and this tiny one's the least well-known and least presentational. But I love everything about it, especially their devastating red sauce. Tibetans feel unrestrained pride and affection for two things: their Dalai Lama and their red sauce....not necessarily in that order. There's no one recipe - each sauce is a snowflake - and the one here is great.

We got chicken momo because it was all they had left. Also, they steamed them, though I'd asked for fried. The chicken wasn't quite robust enough, and without the requisite pan frying, they reminded us of mini kinkhali. But damned good mini kinkhali! Their fried beef momo, though, are devastating.

Quick non-dumpling stop at my beloved Bangladeshi Bread Ladies (aka Tawa Food, aka Dhaulagiri Kitchen, 37-38 72nd St). Like the nabe itself, this storefront is Nepalicizing. Back in the day, it was a time machine portal where Bangladeshi women doggedly pounded out roti and paratha in the back and grilled them on an enormous, ancient grill (Tawa). Then a Nepali concession took a share of the already-tiny space, making a few things better than anyone else in the neighborhood (momo - not as good as the more recent Gangjong - and tsel roti, still the best anywhere and one of the most delicious things available in NYC). We arrived late, and Nepalis had completely taken over the joint. We did buy some bags of alu paratha and whole wheat roti left by the Ladies, but we got very lucky and tsel roti were just coming out of the oil. These are huge loops of crunchy fried rice flour, impossible to analyze or describe as the brain refuses to do anything but undulate during their ingestion. They rated a "10" on my surprisingly unditzy scale for rating foods (and other things) on a scale of 1-10.

We passed the new Arepa Lady restaurant (owned and operated by her kids, who are very nice but who prove Lamarckism wrong with every good-not-great corncake they churn out), and moved on to the real thing. The Arepa Lady, at her cart, was in fine form, though she's making her arepa de choclos (the sweetish crepes made from fresh corn) ahead and rewarming to order. The arepas were better than the tsel roti. Better, in other words, than a "10".

Philosophical question: is pie a dumpling?
We decided that an essential characteristic of dumplings is their compact portability. Which, of course, raises the question of mini-pies.

Forgot to hit: Cassinelli's (31-12 23 ave, Astoria; 718-274-4881) (or, at least, the deli next door, which sells lots of Cassinelli's products, frozen, 24 hrs/day)...for NYC's best ravioli (I like the spinach cheese) and tortellini.

Three great-looking new (or, at least, newly noticed by me) non-dumpling places spotted en route:
Moldova Restaurant (1827 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn; 718-998-2827)
Rural Restaurant (42-85 Main St, Flushing; 718-353-0086), and...
Chicken on Fire (94-09 101st Ave at Woodhaven Blvd, Ozone Park, 718-845-6433)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Walking Shape" versus "Running Shape"

I've always ran to get into shape. I've never been much of a walker. Running's far more efficient, after all. So in active periods, I run (and otherwise drive), and during lazy periods, I drive. I'm a true child of suburbia!

Recent medical problems forced me to temporarily lay off the running, but I was encouraged to walk as much as possible. So I've done 4-5 miles most days, mostly up and down hills. This is very new for me. I've been a sporadic hiker, but it's never been a daily routine.

After a few months, I've noticed something very surprising. Being in "walking shape" isn't, after all, just a cheaper version of "running shape". It's a whole other thing. I live up a hill, and am long accustomed to being a tad winded from the final stretch, even at times when I've been doing lots of running. But lately, when my body begins that climb, a voice inside says "Oh, good!", and I find myself accelerating up the hill, eating the climb like it's absolutely nothing. As if I was driving my car. Even at my physical peak, I've never experienced this.


(the downside is that, even with an incredibly careful diet, I've only lost a few pounds. No running means no weight loss, so I'm starting running again this week).

Fix for Sluggish Mac Performance in Yosemite

Does your Mac seem sluggish after updating to Yosemite? Here's a fix. Go to System Preferences -> Accessibility and check "reduce transparency". Sleep and then wake. You should be better.

Also: make sure you have plenty of empty disk space.

You can also try Resetting the System Management Controller (SMC)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Is reheated pasta less fattening?

Pasta gets more and more glycemic as you overcook it (i.e. it comes to have more or less the effect of sugar on your body; so a plate of overcooked ziti might be thought of as the equivalent of a slice of chocolate cake). That's why al dente's healthiest.

Problem is, while I love al dente pasta, I also happen to love leftover pasta. I always assumed the reheating tacked on glycemic effect, making the pasta less healthful. Aw, contraire!

Courtesy of Slog technical advisor Pierre Jelenc (note: Pierre is not in any way responsible for errors, speculations, or outright lies I publish; he doesn't actually review stuff, he just answers questions), here's a BBC report about a finding that reheated pasta (potatoes, too) is actually less fattening.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

iPad Upgrade Opportunity

Note: all prices below are for wi-fi only models.

You can buy one of the fancy new iPad Air 2s at $600 for the 64GB model (the cheaper 16GB model has too little storage to be viable).

Or you can buy last year's model for $450, with a barely adequate 32GB (Apple no longer sells a 64GB version). (Here's a handy guide to all prices of all options).

Or you can buy last year's model, with a full 64GB, second-hand on eBay for $550-600 (wuuuh???).

So what I don't understand is this: why would anyone in the market not buy a 64GB refurbished iPad Air from Apple for $439, with full warranty? You save $161 over the newer model (touch i.d. is cool, but not $161 cool). You save a few bucks over the previous model with half the storage, and you're beating even scuzzy eBay prices by miles.

Unsung Massive Societal Changes

I'm enjoying "How We Got to Now," a six-part PBS series (here's a NY Times review) explaining how things we take for granted about the modern world came to be - often with much struggle by people we hardly remember.

A mere 150 years ago, for example, we traipsed through human and animal excrement whenever we went out. Modern waste management was grafted on more recently than we recall, and only via herculean effort (series host Steven Johnson tells the tale of a planner in Chicago named Chesbrough who hatched a plan to jack up the entire city by ten feet to allow run-off).

It's amazing how clean our world is (cleaner even than my childhood, due to the demise of unleaded gas and smoking and to the clean air act), but we've forgotten to appreciate it. Humans have a peculiar amnesia for major shifts. At age 50, a few such shifts have occurred during my lifetime. And not all of them, of course, have constituted progress. The most fundamental shift has been so all-encompassing that it seems hardly anyone even noticed it.

A friend recently made a flatly incorrect remark about something I know a great deal about. I argued against her statement with vehemence and passion. Midway through my spirited rebuttal, I realized that people don't do this anymore. Have you (those of you over 40) noticed that hardly anyone argues these days? If someone's wrong, and you know with certainty they're wrong, the polite, friendly, enlightened, modern move is to blandly smile and feign agreement (while internally registering one's "superior" understanding). Better to let erroneous conclusions stand than to risk friction.

And that's new. We used to treat only incorrigible morons - those who couldn't be made to see reason - this way. It was a response born of disrespect. Nowadays, one winces at the very word "moron". The distinction is unfashionable, so we disrespect everyone like morons, and deem ourselves more civilized for it.

As I wrote a few months ago,
To grimace at someone after they've said something silly - and ask them whether they've lost their mind - is a demonstration of respect. It shows you normally expect them to say sane, smart things, and it invites them to clarify or re-think. We only react like this to people we highly esteem.

If, on the contrary, someone says something batshit crazy and you respond by smiling blandly and nodding your head in feigned agreement - never flinching or questioning - this means you hadn't expected any better. This is how one reacts to known crazy, beyond-the-pale people.

Yet these two reactions are interpreted backwards. These days, patronization feels like gentleness, while respectful challenge feels like disdain. This is a new thing.
I attribute it to the increasing influence of corporations. Corporations once seemed like incredibly odd places where friction (with coworkers, with customers, with everyone) was avoided so strenuously, and at such great cost (of accountability, of honesty, of humanity), that they were seen as suffocating environments. In my lifetime, corporation culture has become omnipresent, and a tipping point was passed where corporate-style communications became the prevalent mode even in social and private lives. The world is now corporate. In fact, the very term "corporate" is hardly used anymore, because there's no longer a distinction to be drawn. The dryly uptight, creepily artificial culture described by that word has become our culture, inescapable even for those holdouts still working outside that system.

Ever since it became fashionable to adopt the mores of corporate customer service representatives, we rarely contradict each other. We pamper, placate, and pander even friends and loved ones. The sole reprieve is when conversation takes place under the cloak of anonymity (i.e. on the Internet). In such cases, the popular move is to excoriate, with infinite savagery, anyone who's so much as omitted an apostrophe. Online trolling, flaming, and general snark has become a suffocatingly corporate society's sole outlet for conflict.

In corporate work life, the avoidance of conflict and contradiction has given rise to the notoriously imperious American consumer, relishing life in an artificial ecosystem where they're denied nothing, challenged never, and flattered perpetually.

In corporate private life, the inviolable expectation to never be challenged or contradicted has given rise to the strange custom where a great many people would rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ridiculousness

Last week I had a chance to meet with a top executive of a very well-known company. I didn't go in with my hat in my hand; the idea I was proposing wasn't for my own direct benefit, so there was no reason for deference. I could be honest and cordial, rather than solicitous.

We had our chat, he seemed to like my idea, and he walked me to the elevator while telling me about a mysterious restaurant he'd recently ferreted out. The story drew to a close, I got on the elevator, and we said another quick goodbye, instinctively moving to shake hands even though we'd already done so a few minutes before. But the elevator door closed right at that moment, making us jerk our arms awkwardly back. I chortled at the slapstick, assuming he'd share in the humor. But he did not. Nary a grin.

As the doors closed, I saw him shudder at the echo of my unilateral guffaw, which seemed to resonate throughout the elevator shaft and building as a whole. I was Satan himself, roaring forth with infinite derision while descending back to my subterranean palace of fiery lava.

Ever since, I've been trying to work out what the hell happened. I'd like to conclude that my ability to laugh at myself was a good thing. But there's more to it than that. As my friend Leslie succinctly put it, awkwardness is not the image this fellow wants to project into the world. And the thing is that I've never been big on image projection.

It started with my father, who couldn't stand the thought of ever seeming wrong. I remember the desperate maneuvering required to perpetuate this image of infallibility. It goes without saying that everyone around him was painfully aware of both his failings and of the desperate cover-ups. And I noticed the anger and exhaustion which gradually built in him, as it does in anyone flailing to maintain an ego-crucial image without the release valve of humor and self-awareness. This is exactly why self-serious characters are comedy mainstays. We, the audience, enjoy the awareness and release on their clueless behalf.

With image cultivation, as with political scandal, the cover-up's always worse than the crime. We're never so silly as when we struggle not to seem silly (if you've never seen "Fawlty Towers" - e.g. on Netflix Streaming - watch it right now. I'll wait!). I'm even more vain than my father. I so hate to be ridiculous that I spare myself the worst of it by owning my fallibility (it's something like this).

And so I've always been proudly informal. But perhaps informality isn't always a greater good, and pretense isn't always an atrocity. I've suffered from my lack of gravitas, really. I have a very hard time being taken the least bit seriously by people unless I trumpet my supposed "accomplishments" (something I'd never do). As I wrote a few years ago:
"If you don't project superiority - if you're not a pompous, boastful, stuck-up "Do You Know Who I Am?!?" prick, leading with your accomplishments, playing the part, and prepared to pee at least as hard and as far as any alphas in your midst, it's surprisingly tough to be taken the least bit seriously by anyone. "
Goofy informality hasn't really worked out for me. As I once apparently remarked (I was in a drunken stupor and don't remember saying it): I've tried all my life to come off as nobody special, but I never imagined everyone would actually buy it!

So I can't say I was right and he was wrong; that I was "real", grounded, and human while he was stilted, uptight, pretentious. Cool composure has its benefits, but I go too far the other way. In this situation, maybe I truly was the guffawing jackass.

Worse, my mogul-blanching snigger surely registered as my laughing at him. We could call it a misunderstanding, since I was, after all, laughing at both of us. However, he was indisputably half of "us", so I can't say I wasn't laughing at him - and I'm guessing that's not something he's accustomed to. So I was inflicting my rueful self-deprecation on him. While in the big picture we were, indeed, acting like a vaudeville team, I'm not sure I had the right to frame the scene. In his milieu, irony is an unacceptable indulgence - perhaps rightly so, given that even innocent laughter, I've just discovered, can deflate.

But here's the really weird thing. In the middle of writing this, I ran out for some groceries. Distracted by some particularly toothsome-looking broccolini, I returned to my cart, which I began to push, when an agitated-looking woman rushed over to point out that I was pushing her cart. My normal reaction would have been to chuckle sheepishly at my own foolishness. But for some reason that didn't happen. I quietly apologized, grabbed my cart, and puttered away with bland, deadpan seriousness.

Aslan and Arepas

Two important religious discussions from today's NY Times:

1. Reza Aslan, one of my favorite talking heads, offers his usual clear-headed sanity in an Op Ed about the misunderstanding of religion, generally, and Moslems, specifically*. It goes well along with my brief look at atheism ("God as Dude") from a few years back.

2. The dining section covered the Sainted Arepa Lady, focusing on her kids' new brick/mortar restaurant. (I appreciated the shout-out, but I "helped found" Chowhound?)


* -Aslan's so clear and so reasonable that it's easy to conclude he's stating the obvious; but if you read carefully, you'll see he's clarifying a host of challenging issues with masterful economy in this short piece. Extra bonus: watch Aslan politely and deftly annihilate an ignorant, bigoted Fox News anchor:



Monday, September 29, 2014

Reheating Triumph, Recounting Failure

I don't mean to brag, but I'm a virtuoso of reheating. When I'm really "on", I can do more with leftovers than many chefs can from scratch. It's a product of necessity; having authored enough guide books and nabe-survey articles for my refrigerator to have hosted a dizzying assortment of greasy takeout bags and boxes, I've invested way more time and energy into learning to reheat than I ever did learning to cook. My analogy is to hip-hop studio guys who sample, mix down and otherwise reuse preexistent material. They may not be able to compose or perform, but they've developed an uncanny ability to repurpose and recycle.

I wrote an article about my reheating techniques several years ago, but have never posted it publicly. I guess I'm hoping to one day publish it as an article or book. But last night I killed it so utterly - putting together an excruciatingly delicious dinner from so-so leftovers in under ten minutes - that I feel compelled to share.

My fridge contained:
One overcooked chicken breast
One takeout container of slightly dry hummus
One takeout container of marinated portobello mushrooms
Some scallions
Broccolini

I cut thin 1"x 1" x 1/4" slices off the chicken breast. I chopped the mushrooms and three scallions. I briefly sautéed everything in a pan with just a bit of olive oil at medium heat. I didn't manipulate anything (leftovers don't like to be handled much), didn't even stir the ingredients. I added only black pepper. Meanwhile, I steamed the broccolini.

I spread the hummus around a plate. I dumped the chicken/mushroom/scallop mixture on top of it. I drizzled fantastic extra virgin olive oil on the broccolini, plus some Turkish Aleppo pepper flakes (from Penzeys). If I hadn't used a nonstick pan, I might have deglazed to make sauce. But, really, it wasn't necessary (and I didn't sauteé long enough to gather much browned protein, anyway).

Sometimes the whole exceeds the parts. I live for such moments. In fact, it's literally all I care about. To me, that's magic; that's why we want to be alive; everything else is a function of humans-as-livestock. And this turned out to be a rather extreme example. So much so that I'm questioning whether I should even post this, given how prosaic and uninteresting every move I've described above seems upon rereading (remember "The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies", where I struggled, unsuccessfully, to explain how a guy wielding the recipe on the Quaker oatmeal box was consistently able to produce the best cookies I - or any of his friends - had ever tasted?). How do you explain magic? As the Von tale illustrates, you can't - least of all the magician responsible! The meta-secret is that the magician never reveals his secrets because he has no idea!

As I scarfed this dinner, it sounded like the soundtrack for a porno movie. The deliciousness was a "10". But as with Von's cookies, it's likely that you couldn't recreate it. In fact, I probably couldn't, either (unlike Von, who reliably rang the bell every time). 

I launched into writing this with great brio, confident I'd be sharing something of serious worth. But there's nothing here. I have no insights, no connections...nothing*. I just know that I was (pleasurably) run over by an aesthetic freight train of my own creation, yet, like Von, I have no idea what the hell happened.


* - some pretty good links, however...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Anti-Hounds

I haven't sweated Chowhound's dilution over the years. I never expected the site to last anywhere near this long (we're coming up on twenty years!), so its mere survival strikes me as pretty freakin' dayenu.

But when I see clots of site regulars indignantly and mindlessly railing about how there's nothing good to eat in some locale, when they haven't invested the least effort into sniffing out off-radar treasure - or even considered doing so! - it drives me crazy. How did it become comfortable (much less fashionable) to be diametrically anti-Chowhound on Chowhound.com?

I just interrupted some site "veterans" moaning about White Plains, NY (one of the best - and broadest - little food towns anywhere) by offering a litany of superabundant treasure they've missed. It won't go well, of course. They'll try one or two places, order cluelessly, eat naively (the Sichuan food's too oily/spicy!"), and happily resume their prejudices and false assumptions. Or perhaps not even that (consider how this played out). The only outcome beyond imagining would be for these guys to go out and jubilantly bask in all these great places. If that was their shtick, they would never have gotten to this point in the first place!

I've been making this point forever: the stuff that's pushed at you is the product of devoted pushers, not devoted creators. The best course is to resist the misdirection and proactively hunt for your own treasure; suss out the geniuses, kooks, and hold-outs who do earnest, loving, inspiring work. They're hidden, and uncovering them is your task, not anyone else's. If the only options on your plate are the shiny, obvious, talked-about and passively-received options, you will miss the greatness - and, just as sadly, you'll miss the chance to support the greatness, which is often plied from a precarious foothold. Cream does not often rise!

But, alas, once you've fallen in love with your prejudices and false assumptions, truth feels like poison. People would much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

Blog Archive