Monday, October 29, 2007

Big Ol' Pot of Sunshine

When weather changes for the cooler, as it stubbornly has here, it immediately makes me think of comfort food. So this past Sunday, I decided to kick off the fall cooking season by mixing up a vat of chili for some friends. I've been preparing chili with the same basic formula since the first time I rolled up my sleeves and decided to give it a go. It's not a Johnson family secret handed down by my Grandmother or anything, it's simply a three-step process that can be tweaked to fit my mood, the tastes of group of people I'm cooking for, or to accommodate what meager ingredients I have stowed away in my cupboards.

Step 1: Cook Ingredients That Need to be Cooked

In this case, 2 lbs. of ground beef, one medium/large onion, 2 stalks celery, and 2 cloves of garlic. Cook all of these together with salt and pepper until the beef is cooked through. Remove from heat and drain pretty much all of the excess oil. When using a less expensive ground beef (typically 80-20 meat to fat percentage), there will be plenty to drain. I find the leaner meats don't have as much taste, but utilizing alternatives (i.e.- turkey, chicken, mixed canned beans for the veggie lovers) won't compromise the overall taste too much and can give you a chance to experiment with complimentary flavor combinations.

Step 2: Add Liquid Ingredients

True traditional chili is just meat and dry spices and water or stock. But since this isn't a Nationally sanctioned chili cook-off nor do I run a chuck wagon in Oklahoma, I like making a chunky, tomato-based chili. Canned diced tomatoes add all the flavor base and liquid content I need. I used one 22 oz. can of regular tomatoes and one 10 oz. can of tomatoes with chilies just to add a little heat. The next liquid ingredients are added in no particular order and in no particular amount. Hot sauce, chipotle Tabasco sauce (if you haven't tried this, I highly suggest it), Worcestershire sauce, and barbeque sauce (I had some leftover honey-garlic sauce in the back of the fridge). All I try to do is add the correct amount to balance the heat and sweet aspects of the sauces. Don't be afraid to taste early and often to make sure the balance is up to snuff.

Step 3: Add Dry Ingredients

With the exception of salt and pepper, I only use chili powder and brown sugar......again, the sweet and heat thing.

Once everything is in the pot, lower the flame and simmer away. If the chili looks too watery, cook at a higher temperature with the lid off to reduce the liquid and concentrate the flavor. All good one pot dishes take some time on the stove to complete. This gives ample opportunities to check seasoning levels. I always keep my spices and sauces at the ready in case something seems to be missing from the party. When all but the cooking time is completed, kick back with tasting spoon in hand and feel free to taste over and over wouldn't want to serve up a poorly seasoned chili now would you? Watch out for the magma-like temperatures a covered, steaming pot of chili can create. If an accident does occur, immediately douse affected areas with ice cold beer.

For the finishing touch, garnishes can run the gamut from a cool dollop of sour cream and grated sharp cheddar (my favorites), to a more adventurous avocado mash or red onion relish. Heap it on and spoon it down.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Croxley Ale House (28 Avenue B)

A shitload of beer? Yup. Flat screens in HD? Roger. Cool staff (yeah, I'm talking about you Nicki & Lydia)? Most Def. 10 cent wings on Mondays & Fridays? Yes!

I've been spending an ungodly amount of time @ Croxley Ale House (28 Avenue B) sucking down beers & stuffing my piehole with insanely cheap wings. The beer selection there is insane - they pretty much have everything under the sun & trust me - I've never met a beer I didn't like. The clientele is decidedly low-key & the place gets pretty darn rowdy when games are on (particularly Monday Night Football), you can literally smell the hot sauce on the wind a block or two away.

They used to have a garden next door which was awesome to sit out in in the summers, but wouldn't you know it, Community Board 3 put an end to that... Thanks! Good bar food & excellent beer make Croxley Ales an excellent destination for a quick bite to eat & a few pints.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

My cousin Alesha (often a guest at the club meals I cook) recently got a job at Snooth a pretty cool new website. Think of it as a mix between social networking & a wine review site. You can post reviews of wines & Snooth will give you recommendations based on your ratings. You can search by price, vintage, type, region, varietal or user-submitted tags. It's also possible to buy wines directly over through the website. I haven't had a chance to review any wines myself, but the Thursday Club crew have always been saying that we were going to review the wines that we drink at every meal (& trust me, we drink A LOT), so hopefully we'll start using Snooth.

The site is still in Beta, so I'm sure that plenty of other awesome features will be added soon. If you sign up, add me as a buddy (

Grant fires up the fryer!

It was Grant's (Big Mac to you guys) turn to throw down this week & trust me, the boy did not disappoint! We were treated to a meal with a decidedly Asian flair & fueled by boiling hot oil! Unfortunately, Mike was preparing for his pending wedding, so it was just myself, Adam, Grant, Teddy & newcomer Chris (he's still getting settled into NYC, but rest assured that he'll be spinning up some grub soon).

Upon arriving @ Grant's with enough booze to sink a ship (8+ at last count), we could all see that Grant had been a busy boy. Like a poster boy for mise en place, Big Mac had everything set up & ready to roll.

- Chilled King Prawns with Salmon Caviar on Bed of Avocado Salsa with Lime & Chili Dressing.
- Thai Pumpkin Soup with Crab Meat & Bread Dumplings.
- Gingered Salmon Spring Rolls with Orange Dip.
- Sweet Chili Soft-Shelled Crab (Kepiting Bumbu Roedjak).
- Ying & Yang Orange & White Chocolate Mouse Cake.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking - Christ on a bike! We knew we were in for a treat! The first course was assembled & we sat down to eat; Pure Heaven. The lime & chili dressing really brought out all of the flavours, but the Salmon Roe was my favorite.

Next up was the Thai Pumpkin soup which I was really looking forward too as I've never cooked with pumpkin. Grant fried up his own seasoned bread dumplings set them atop this excellent soup. Rich, flavorful & bursting with crab, this really hit the spot!

After a bit more frying, we were ready for the Spring rolls. Grant had meticulously seasoned & wrapped these himself, but unfortunately the Orange dip didn't come out as planned. Crunchy & mighty tasty, I was beginning to get full.

Now onto the main course. I haven't had soft shelled crab since my trip to Asia earlier this year, so I was very excited. Grant sauteed up an extremely dangerous-looking mixture of chili peppers & spices which would serve as the sauce when coconut milk was added.

Then it was time to introduce our little crustacean friends to the hot oil. After a short, fierce fry, they were ready. I almost cried when I was served. I'm not sure if it was tears of joy or the near-toxic, spicy fumes assaulting my eyes. Either way, I was a happy man. Insanely spicy (as it should be) & tastier than I could ever describe, we all devoured this dish!

With next to no room in our stomachs, we tackled the final course; Orange & White Chocolate Mouse. I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but this was an excellent final course. Topped with raspberries, it really helped to take the heat off of the previous course.

All in all, an excellent night!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

AOC Bistro, Park Slope

On arrival at 8.30pm, we found a suspiciously quiet restaurant and in true Gallic fashion, it's 2 waiters were standing outside smoking. So far so good. This place might be the real deal.

Instead of the thumping French pop music and heaving crowds others had described, there was only a handful of customers (well, it was Sunday) and they'd taken note and switched the Eurotrash for some sort of dinner jazz compilation. Our waiter sat us at a table for two, prodded us with a couple of large menus and asked us what we'd like to drink. Like other French rip-offs in New York, AOC Bistro on Fifth Avenue has a classic 'French' menu and without even looking at the damn thing, I knew what was going to be on it. Yes, there was French onion soup. Yes, there was onglet and fries with a choice of sauces, and yes, (yawn) there were burgers and salade Nicoise. There were very few things worth a special mention, but the menu did promise some fresh fish, a lobster risotto and a traditional French cassoulet. After a brisk walk from 6th Street in the cold air I thought cassoulet would be just the thing to put the blood back in my cheeks.

I really wanted to find out what the bloke in the kitchen could do and I was intent on testing his mettle so I ordered French onion soup and a herring salad to start, while the wife opted for a chicken salad and the onglet. With the cassoulet, we had all the bases covered.

The herring and potato salad came to our table under a pound of grated carrot and I didn't really see the point. It was not seasoned, it didn't add anything and it just made a mess. Good job then, that the herring was nicely cured with good flavor and some give in the flesh. The dressing was good, and the spuds were, well, spuds. I wasn't sure how to tackle the onion soup, as it's cheesy hat looked like it might be about an inch thick.I needed something to pierce the thing to minimise the risk of spraying the table and my dining companion with boiling onion liquor. A steak knife was the answer, and as I drilled down through the gooey crust the aroma of the sweet onions came up in little puffs. It smelt great, but the sea of earthy richness I was expecting just wasn't there. I think there was about a cup's worth of the soup itself and the rest of the bowl was filled with soggy bread glued together with cheese. Most disappointing. I heard no complaints from the wife about her chicken salad. It was enormous. They could probably serve a salad half the size and it would still be a generous portion. They might even sell more main courses.

Our man rushed over a sizzling steak with fries which looked and smelled brilliant. The meat had a nice dark crust on it, and the wife enthusiastically sliced into it to reveal perfect medium cooked steak. Her fries weren't bad either. My cassoulet tasted pretty good, although I suspect the chunky items in it (garlic sausage, duck confit, smoked pork) were cooked individually and added to the white beans a la moment. There was no trace of a skin (that wonderfully thick skin that forms on a real cassoulet) and the beans looked too much like beans, possibly meaning they'd not been cooked long and slow, but it did taste great as I said. What could go wrong with mixed meats and beans?

Our waiter did a great job of tempting us with the dessert menu and coffee. In the end we gave in to his persuasions, despite full bellies. He waxed lyrical about the tarte tatin, another French classic, and I went with that and nice big coffee, ditto for the lady. What turned up wasn't tarte tatin, it looked more like a soggy apple pie minus the lid. Surely the pastry in tarte tatin should be crisp? Well this wasn't and it had the texture of wet cardboard. Still, it didn't taste too bad and I managed to eat half of it.

Clearly, there's some room for improvement at AOC. The menu is brief, there were no specials on the board on the evening I went in and honestly, if you're going to have a French bistro, you'd better get the basics right. The service was great but the food just wasn't up to scratch. There's far too much competition on 5th Avenue and frankly if you're churning out average meals, you're a goner. I'm disappointed I chanced on a new pretender rather than walked a couple of blocks further and dined in a proper French place.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Henderson circus hits town

I've been busy recently, writing an article for this food journalism course I'm taking, under the expert tutelage of Alan Richman. I wanted to write a few words about why the gastropub movement here in the US is taking off, and why it's here to stay. Of course the mighty Spotted Pig got a couple of mentions and while thinking about going there again and checking out their menu, I noticed something on their website. There was a little bubble on the front page saying that offal magnate and St. John chief Fergus Henderson was in town to cook up some brilliant grub, with April Bloomfield as sous chef. I couldn't bloody believe it! One of my favourite chefs ever and all-round British cuisine superhero was coming to my town to dish out some refined offal and gristly bits. I couldn't round the chaps up fast enough. Adam and Grant agreed to come but JB couldn't make it sadly.

The Spotted Pig doesn't take reservations unfortunately, so we'd have to troop down there on a sunny Wed night and chance our arm with the rather brusque chap on the door who decides who eats and who doesn't. With a 5.45pm ETA, we thought we'd be straight in. We were not unfortunately. The place was overrun and Matey on the door told us we'd have a 40 minute wait. Well what the hell, we'll just hang about a bit, drink some ale (about a dozen pints of Spotted Pig Bitter and Old Speckled Hen between us) and psyche ourselves up for some ace food. We descended on the upstairs bar. The bar staff at the Pig really look after their beer, which is what you'd expect from a eatery claiming a gastropub denomination. Clean beer lines and correct temperature bring out the best in beers, and both ales we tried were marvellous. Hoppy, fruity, creamy almost, eminently quaffable and entirely moreish. After polishing off ale number four, our mate on the door, presumably the Maitre d' and not just some random bloke who fancied impersonating somebody useful, came to and remembered we'd been in there for 2 hours and we still weren't seated. I wasn't that bothered to be honest that we'd been in seating limbo for 2 hours, the beer was good and the conversation was stellar. I didn't mind if it was "so we don't hammer the kitchen" either. Good food takes time.

After plonking ourselves down on probably the cosiest table for three ever, we found ourselves surrounded by some serious foodies. To my right, Jeffrey Steingarten. To my right also, Hung from Top Chef. To my left Andrew Knowlton from Bon Appetite magazine. Clearly, news of Fergus' NYC arrival hadn't gone unnoticed. Or perhaps they always dine there and the Spotted Pig is a celebratory hangout? The only person missing I suppose, and one who claims his death row meal would be cooked by My Henderson, is Anthony Bourdain. I can't believe he'd pass up an opportunity to eat glorious variety meats cooked by his hero. Perhaps he'd been a clever chap though, and came later on after the crowd died down?

Our server took orders for some more beer and passed us our menus. There were about 8 Fergus dishes on the menu, and we were determined to try them all plus what Grant describes as one of the best dishes in the World, April Bloomfield's faggots. Without hesitation, we ordered: chicken liver toasts, roll mops, bone marrow and parsley salad, crispy pig's ears, duck hearts with bibb lettuce, roast trotter with bacon and prunes and finally the faggots.

My my, we were hungry when things started to turn up. We'd been eyeballing other customers plates as they came out of the kitchen while at the bar, and there's no better appetizer. We'd seen whole golden split pig's heads whizz past, piles of upright bones releasing their seductive odour. The chicken toasts came as a thick slice of homemade bread, toasted of course, and smothered in a delicious liver paste. We were ravenous and the plate hardly touched the table before the were knives and forks were slashing at the toast and piling up the pate greedily on certain corners before slicing it off selfishly and stuffing it in. The rollmops were served all rolled up and doused in a cream dressing (I assume made with shallots, vinegar and cream?) and they were pretty damn delicious too. You can't go wrong with herrings, they just taste brilliant however they come. As our roast marrow bones turned up, there were murmurs of delight from the table next to us (a lovely couple from Billyburg) but nobody had prepared themselves for the arrival of the crispy pig's ear. Like a giant misshapen pork scratching, the skin was blistered in places concealing unctuous layers of golden pig grease. Then the duck hearts arrived, four small burgundy nuggets glazed with what tasted like a rich duck-stock and red wine reduction. We were almost overwhelmed to be honest. Our table looked like a medieval banquet. I sliced off a crispy sliver of the pig's ear and bit into it. Then again and again. Piggy ear fat seems to be a powerful adhesive and I found myself, between moans of delight, picking at my back teeth trying to coax the stuff back down into the mouth itself. Salty, crispy, greasy and everything you secretly really want in a mouthful, we agreed. The pig's ear dissapeared fairly quickly and we were sawing away at the duck hearts. Unique texture on that, I reckoned. It is after all, the hardest working and therefore leanest muscle in an animal's body and if you can imagine biting a boiled squash ball, that's my first impression. But when I chewed on it, I could feel it slowly fall apart in my mouth, releasing it's duckiness and reduced sauce that had collected in the ventricles. I was eyeing those lovely milky white bones with their hidden treasure. I took the marrow out in one melting lump, spread it thickly on not too much bread and dressed it with a touch of salt. I closed my eyes and savoured the carnal essence. We were literally wowed into silence by this point, and happily there was just a bit more to come. The faggots were dressed in just the tiniest drizzle of mustard and that's all they needed. All their ofally richness was encapsulated in that thin crepinette casing and I couldn't wait to puncture it and watch the faggot's steaming entrails come tumbling out. Great that there was three of them too. By my math, that was roughly one each. We dispatched the faggots with speed and gusto, as Grant had nearly demolished the trotter with bacon and prunes and I was not going to miss on that. A fine balanced plate that it was. With a good swidge of creamed spud and a light sauce, the pork and prunes was a classic combination.

Our server came over to ask how everything was and clocked our silly satisfied grins. Three highly plump, drunk chaps with glassy eyes. She knew the answer to her next question before she asked it: "Want any dessert lads?" To be honest, we were far too interested in watching Mr Steingarten plunge his cutlery in and out of half a pig's face on the table next to us. Damn it. We really wanted one of those but they just didn't have one left when we ordered. Anyway, he looked like he was having a great time. Strange though, that one of his dining companions was eating a burger and fries.
I can't wait to go back. It's inspiring stuff, Fergus Henderson's cooking, and I'm anticipating his new book coming through the door, fresh from Amazon. You just have to admire his philosophy that if you're going to kill something, at least be respectful and use all of the damn thing. And why not when the unuseable stuff can taste this good?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Wells Ales & Lagers

Shortly after stuffing ourselves silly at Teddy's house (see Adam's previous post), we all headed out to Williamsburg for some much needed liquid refreshment. We were lucky enough to stumble across Wells Ales & Lagers (303 Bedford Ave. @ South 2nd). I could feel my eyes welling up a bit when I looked up & saw the insane selection of beers. I can pretty much guarantee that Teddy, Adam & Mike felt the same. Sitting @ the bar, we asked our knowledgable bartender to basically give use a tasting of his favorite beers.

We drank late into the night & headed across the street to Dumont Burger for some much needed red meat. If you like beer & a re in Billyburg, check out Wells Ales & Lager!

The Club Goes Diurnal (daytime drinking)

It's no secret that New York and New Yorkers love a good brunch. When recovering after a hard night of revelry in need of sustenance, where do you turn? If it's Saturday or Sunday the answer is easy, brunch. However, the choices are many......breakfast or lunch food, savory or sweet, sausage or bacon? Just sauntering through Park Slope or the Lower East Side on a Sunday afternoon, you can lose yourself in a maze of sandwich boards pasted with the daily specials.....All-You-Can-Drink Brunch!, Omelet of the day! $2 PBR with fries! Although easy and often affordable to gorge yourself with food and unlimited OJ-heavy mimosas, a homemade brunch is far superior, right? No screaming children escalating your debilitating hangover and ruining your cuss-filled conversation. No suspect looking chef sweating face all over your eggs Benedict........and so on.

So after all this time, Thursday Club finally does brunch with Teddy's menu of:

- Peach Bellini
- Papaya, banana and Grand Marnier smoothie
- Traditional English rarebit
- BBB (blood, bacon and bangers) terrine with tomato butter sauce, truffled potato hash
- Walnut, banana and chocolate muffins with Nutella and Apricot Jam

I have yet to experience a bad day after starting off with a fizzy Champagne cocktail, so I was overjoyed to see a plethora of beverages showcased on the menu. To add a bit more fuel to the fire, Mike brought a few seasonal ales and I contributed a Kir Royal to the aforementioned Bellini and fruit smoothie.

The Trifecta - Mr. Royal, Mr. Smooth, Mr. Peach

Honestly, I'm not a big fan of papaya (a papaya proponent?) or Grand Marnier for that fact, but a cocktail is a cocktail and I desperately needed the vitamins and boozy goodness this elixir had to offer. Emotions were high, voices were getting louder (and a touch slurred), and like a shot we congregated around the table for our first non-liquid course.

When you have ravenous group of lads with a few drinks in them, certain combinations just hit the spot regardless of the time. English rarebit in layman's terms is cheese on toast. Bullseye. In Thursday Club terms, it is a grated cheese mixture combined with Guinness, eggs and spiced with mustard. All of this was scooped liberally on an English muffin (strangely our English host has no recollection of a Mr. Thomas pioneering his home country's booming muffin trade) and broiled until melted and golden brown. It puffed up like a wonderful souffle served on an edible dish. It had everything we needed to get the meal started. Melted cheese. Warm, crisp bread. All slathered with some HP Sauce.

Nothing really prepared any of us for what was in store next. I had sampled Teddy's black pudding in the past and it was up there with the best I've ever had. He took that wonderful mixture and added a few breakfast staples to create a completely original and sensational dish. The terrine had crispy bacon on the outside and mild breakfast sausage links running through the 4 quadrants of the loaf. Once heated through and a light crust was broiled on the top, each rich slice was placed on a bed of crisped potatoes that were tossed in........sigh.....truffle butter. If that wasn't enough (it's never enough), a sweet, buttery tomato sauce was spooned around and over it all. A lot of times you can tell how good a dish is by the amount of ruckus it creates when it is plated and served and then by the silence it draws after the first bites have been taken. There was plenty of incoherent muttering and "I can't believe this is happening" to go around. All the ingredients by themselves would have been terrific, but together they formed one of the best brunch dishes I've ever had.

After another much needed digestion break, we reconvened around the table to the smell of sweet chocolate muffins and brewed coffee. Surprisingly, we had enough room left to devour those and declare war on a jar of Nutella.

The first daytime Club was a complete success. The food was unbelievable, drinks flowed freely and the weather couldn't have been better. Even after we finished up, we had the whole day to kick back, talk sh!t and enjoy the sunshine. Perfect.

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