“The cost of bringing the Absolute into the kitchen is to soil it. The pretensions of Good Design require us to bring the noblest concepts of the humanistic tradition into direct confrontation with scrambled egg and soiled nappies… The big white abstractions must be devalued, ultimately, by these associations with dirt and muck and domestic grottitude.” – Reyner Banham, “Household Godjets,” 1970
This quote adorned the wall at Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It speaks to a universal truth about the most thoughtfully designed room in the modern household — that the most successful and pristine design fosters the making of messes. I just love this.
Maureen and I ventured to MoMA specifically to see this exhibit, which is a celebration of the influences and factors of kitchen design in the modern age – not just technology advances and new gadgets and labour-saving devices, but the changing purpose of the room, from work room, to spartanly functional “housewives'” haven, to modern social nerve centre.
Because it was MoMA, there were paintings, photography and sculpture that were kitchen-themed, in addition to the samples of kitchenware, gadgets and even fully functional kitchens from post world-war 1 Germany and early-60’s Italy.
It was a little troubling, but also kind of fun to see relics from a different age and reminisce. “Hey, remember those, we had those when we were a kid!” Noticeably absent: Chip-and-dips, and avocado green fondue sets. It does remind of us of the incredible social, cultural and familial connection we make to our kitchen, our parent’s kitchen (maybe even our grandparents’ kitchen) and its power as a memory maker and daily tribute to form and function.
Most of these pictures are self explanatory. But when you look at them, experience the design elements and then look at your own kitchen and marvel.
It is warm and sunny on this New york day in mid-April. After an afternoon of shopping, we found ourselves wandering around our “neighbourhood” taking a few pictures and popping in to this shop and that. Russ and Daughters, a New York institution, is just blocks from our hotel. We have seen this place memorialized on “No Reservations” and read Calvin Trillin waxing poetic about his memories of pumpernickel bagels in his excellent pioneering foodie book, The Tummy Trilogy.
We decide it will be a perfect afternoon snack. The interior of the shop is crowded with cheerful Saturday afternoon shoppers, gathering groceries, grabbing a sandwich or waiting for an egg cream. If we lived here, we would likely be here every weekend to stock up on smoked salmon, smoked trout, beet salad, scallion cream cheese, pickles, New York bagels, herring in cream sauce, chocolate babka and fresh baked rye bread. There is no seating in Russ and Daughters, so we take our bagel with Nova (traditional smoked Gaspé salmon) and scallion cream cheese outside into the sun to share. The salmon is truly a marvel. Sliced transparent, it melts in your mouth. Perfectly, delicately smoked. Luscious.
After our huge lunch at Katz’s deli on our first day in New York, we were not hungry for a big meal in the evening. We ventured out around 9pm to the corner of Rivington, steps away from our hotel. Spitzer’s Corner is a Lower East Side neighborhood joint.
The vibe is young, the decor urban rustic, the volume set to 11. Long wood plank tables provide a communal dining experience as well as an awkward exit from the table, especially for the ladies. Do not wear a skirt. We were penned in for the duration. Conversation is difficult unless you are interested in your neighbour’s chat. We were not, and yes, Tony it is you, by the way.
The beer was local, cold and good, and the sandwiches were inspired and perfect for a light meals. Spitzer’s is a great way to try new beers. They have 40 on tap and more in bottles. The sliders, apps and small plate selections compliment the brews. The Pickle Guys, a Lower East Side purveyor of pickles, supply the half-sours.
At 9 pm we were advised of a 20-30 minute wait. After a comfortable 10 minutes with a Chelsea Blackberry Wheat beer, locally brewed, we were seated.
We ordered a bowl of the pickles and a sandwich each. I opted for the Salt-Baked Shrimp (cucumber, housemade tartar sauce, parsnip, scallion, arugula) and Rob chose the Braised Pork Belly (ginger, soy, garlic, chilies, cucumber, scallions, arugula). The sandwiches were both well made and peppery with arugula. We shared an interesting Sea Dog Blueberry wheat beer from Portland Maine, paid the bill and went out into the bustling Saturday night in New York City to recover from the noise.
We left sunny, warm spring-like Ottawa at the very civilized hour of 11 am. After a quick and bumpy ride, we arrived in the Big Apple just after noon to a cloudy day. Our flight landed at Newark NJ, so we taxied to Manhattan. The ride gave us a bit of a view of the Lower East Side where we are staying for the weekend. Neither of us is familiar with this part of the island.
We reached our destination, the Hotel on Rivington, unpacked, grabbed cameras and set out on foot to Katz’s Deli two blocks away. Katz’s is famous to New Yorkers for it’s fabulous deli offerings and famous to the rest of us because this is where Meg Ryan had her famous public orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally”. We recently watched Anthony Bourdain chow down here on “No Reservations” and decided that Katz’s was a must this trip.
Katz’s Deli NYC 2:10 pm Friday. The place is chaos. We enter through a single door over an inlaid stone surface, all but worn away with time and foot traffic. Two uniformed but casual security people hand us a green ticket each. “Don’t lose it, it’s your only way out.” they say as we are being hustled further inside by the swell of people coming into the joint behind us. Directly in front of us is a deli counter four rows deep with people. Menus are overhead and small.
There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the ordering process that we can suss out immediately. Rob overheard somebody say there was waiter service at some tables. After circling the area like sharks for 20 some minutes and glaring at a well dressed ignoramus hogging a table for four with one empty glass on it and his nose in a book, to no avail (guess they are used to that in the big city), we pounced on a table with two gentlemen in mid-rise from their seats, with two other couples breathing down our necks.
We waited nearly ten minutes for a waitress, when the manager came over and explained that we were not actually in the table service area, but he kindly sent a waitress over anyways. Phew! We are hungry hungry hippos at this point.
We order several deli classics to try but we have no intention of finishing the generous deli portions. Sandwiches are served on rye and club bread. They come naked (ask for mayo at your peril warns the paper placemat menu). No sides, no accompaniments. Pricey at $15.75. Rob opts for the corned beef and I chose the pastrami, both on club bread, so we could compare. As well we ordered potato salad, pickles, fries and noodle kugel.
The pickles arrive first, a large plate of bright, crisp half sour pickles, tasting of cucumber, pickled green tomatoes, and classic, excellent, slightly crisp garlic dills. Inexplicably, the noodle kugel arrives next, hot and steaming. Noodle kugel is much like bread budding except wide, flat egg noodles are used instead of stale bread to soak up a sweet custard. Like good bread pudding the ingredients condense into a uniform sweet chewy layer at the bottom. The kugel is crusted with toasted slivered almonds dusted generously with cinnamon. The dense interior, light on the fork, is studded with peaches and plump golden raisins. Delectable.
With dessert out of the way, we prepare for lunch. Arriving next at our table is an unappetizing plate of potato salad. Never in our experience has there been such a large discrepancy between the looks and the flavour of a single menu item. Rob took one for the team and ventured a hesitant bite. I was not going to waste the calories and as I waited for his verdict of which I was already quite sure, I was surprised to hear him exclaim “This is really good” What!? Katz’s potato salad is not made in house. Sally Sherman supplies the salad to many area kosher delis. The potatoes are steamed, sliced and seasoned with salt and vinegar, then amply dressed in a mayonnaise vinegar sauce. This potato salad is white. There is no paprika. There is no parsley. There is no pepper. White and gloppy. And wow! So this is what classic New York kosher deli potato salad must be. The internet is rife with foodies trying to decipher the secrets of this salad.
Hot and fresh from the fryer, the steak-cut fries arrive crispy on the outside, soft and steamy on the inside. These are surely what ketchup was invented for. Our waitress is back in seconds and places our sandwich orders on the table. We both apply a generous squirt of spicy brown deli mustard and go into the hunch. My pastrami is smoked in-house and is lean with just enough fat to moisten the excellent club bun. The meat is succulent and thickly hand sliced directly from the steamer upon order. This is the best pastrami sandwich I’ve ever had. It certainly out does the pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli, which while excellent, relies on quantity for impact.
The corned beef (a version of the same pastrami that has been pickled in a secret dry cure for over a month) had a mellower flavour, was beefier and less juicy in texture, and while excellent in its own right, the pastrami ruled the day.
$15.75 for meat on a bun? Absolutely. This is the definitive standard by which all others are to be measured. This isn’t steamed over Shopsy’s or the thin sliced, rainbow streaked, over processed meat from your local grocer. This is craft and calling, made perfect by repetition and tradition.
Growing up in the seventies we didn’t eat out often, but when we did French onion soup was usually on the menu, especially in finer establishments. At home, my dad would make it for company. I guess that’s why I view this very rustic soup as elegant and special. It was also memorable because my dad would prepare my bowl with extra cheese and forgo the bread because I didn’t like mushy bread. Now older and wiser, I have learned to appreciate the crusty baguette soaking in the rich, beefy broth.
I haven’t had onion soup in a very long time. Restaurants rarely feature it any more and when they do it’s usually a salty commercial concoction that I find disappointing. I was going through an old family recipe book the other day looking for some comfort food when I spotted my dad’s nearly 40 year old recipe. Paired with a crisp salad or a warm winter roasted tomato salad and a soft zinfandel, it is a perfect mid-winter pick me up meal.
This recipe is classic, simple, and delicious. Rustic yet over the top elegant when flambéed, it is true comfort food.
Dad found this recipe he recalls, in either a magazine advert or brochure for OXO flavour cubes. It contains a secret ingredient: instant coffee granules. The coffee lends a rich, beefy quality but remains unidentifiable in the final dish. Dad tweaked the recipe a little with some booze, and since I’ve never had it any other way than the way he prepares it, the tweaks are no longer listed as optional.
Dad’s Classic French Onion Soup
2 pounds onions, thinly sliced
3 chicken bouillon cubes
3 beef bouillon cubes
1/4 cup butter
5 cups boiling water
1 cup Dubonnet (sherry or Marsala can be substituted)
1/8 tsp. pepper
1 tbsp. instant coffee
4 slices toasted or stale baguette
Mozzarella cheese, sliced to cover top of dish (gruyere can be substituted)
Parmesan, grated to sprinkle over top
4 tbsp brandy or cognac
Saute onions in butter until tender. Dissolve the bouillon cubes in two cups of the boiling water. Add the bouillon, remaining water, Dubonnet, pepper and coffee to the onions. Bring mixture to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Ladle into individual oven proof bowls. Place a slice of baguette on top of each bowl. Cover with a thick layer of mozzarella. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or until the top is nicely browned. Remove from oven and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Place under the broiler for one minute. Remove from oven. Pour a tablespoon of brandy over each bowl and flambe. This last step is both an elegant presentation but necessary as the brandy adds a bite and another essential layer of complexity to the final flavour of the soup.