City of Brotherly Sandwiches

We took our first trip down the Turnpike  to Philadelphia last weekend to meet up with Calvin, one of our oldest friends from SF. He knows how to squeeze the maximum amount of fun into a weekend, so while we didn’t have laminated itinerary cards slipped under the door every morning by a guy named Brendan,we did have a pretty epic and enlightening tour of Philadelphia.

Here’s the rundown of the high points:

Monk’s Belgian Cafe‘-mussels and frites, rabbit terrine, charcuterie,  Chouffe Houblon et al.

Reading Terminal Market -Dinic’s garlicky pulled pork sandwich with broccoli raab, buttery pretzels, rows of gorgeous produce, meat, seafood, cheese, cookbooks, coffee and bakeries, delis full of salads and sandwiches

 

 

Strolling down through Society Hill

 

Independence Hall and Liberty Bell

 

Royal Tavern– Bloody Mary, heavy on the horseradish

 

 

The Italian street market – delis and salumerias, houses of cheese (!), butchers and produce stands, whole roast pigs(!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Duelling Cheesesteak Behemoths, Pat’s and Geno’s. We chose the line that only circled the block once. It was cold and I had forgotten my jacket.

Pat’s cheesesteak “Whiz wit”

At the risk of being banned from returning to the city, my least favorite thing I ate was the cheesesteak. I have a pretty low threshold for time that I am willing to stand in line for fast food, time spent waiting being inversely correlated to expectation of deliciousness and general worth it-ness. It was a long, cold wait for a sandwich I’ll give a “meh”rating. Philly has better stuff than the cheesesteak in my humble opinion.

 

Standard Tap– great local draught beer, calves liver with lima beans, more pork sandwiches, Victory Storm King et al.

 

RTM again-  chicory coffee and beignets

Yarn bombing in Rittenhouse Square

Famous 4th Street Deli– dill, half sour  pickles and health salad, zaftig pastrami Reuben

 

Fairmount Park– general wandering and admiring of views; there may or may not have been a rendition of “Gonna Fly Now” played on someone’s iphone in front of the Philadelphia Museum, I admit to nothing.

U Penn, coffee shop

Airport, getting lost as soon as we drove into NJ, Turnpike north.

 

Philadelphia was a nice surprise. We all had a great time, and I can’t say it was all down to the great company. I could have spent all day in any of the markets we visited, the historical buildings were beautiful, bars and restaurants were good, friendly, relaxed. While a little heavy on sandwiches for my taste, the food we ate was really good. The parks were beautiful. I would certainly love to visit again.

 

 

 

 

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Ad hoc cooking

On the flight home Tuesday from The Most Relaxing Vacation Ever, I was looking through my photos and recipe files on my Mac and apparently, I used to be a cook! Unless you dig back several months on this blog, you would never know, since most of what I’ve been doing here has been staring straight ahead with a glazed expression on my face in disbelief and horror that I have actually been relocated from California to New Jersey. That or gibbering about the dismal quality of kitchen in which I’ve been cobbling meals together for (can you believe it) the last three months.

I sat there on the plane, scrolling through the pictures of strawberry rhubarb tarts and bi bim bap, grilled strip steaks, orange-and-garlicky pork roasts with caramelized onions, pad thai and artichokes with clarified butter, creamy leek shiitake risotto and duck and andouille gumbo and lemon meringue pie and potato mushroom gratin and chili con carne….man, that looks GOOD! I wouldn’t mind making that bouillabaisse again! It was like that little flame in the back of my brain flickered for a second, reminding me that it is still there. I guess that’s what a good vacation will do for you.

And about that vacation. We were about 3 years overdue for one, what with extenuating circumstances, so when a very last-minute trip to Grand Cayman to chill, see some family, and celebrate our anniversary suddenly worked itself out, I took about 37 seconds to pack, shook the NJ dust off my feet and headed south to balmy breezes, silky warm aquamarine water, powdery gold sand, palm trees with iguanas lolling in their fronds, and a little tropical storm action thrown in the middle to keep me from getting too sunburned. I read books, basked in the sun, lying supine upon a beach chair as much as possible. It was blissful.

Did I mention the incandescently glowing equatorial sunsets?

And the gaudily brilliant blue water?

But, back to that little flicker in the back of my brain.

I’m still in boxes here, those mysteriously labelled boxes of small paper-wrapped lumps that contain, somewhere in their depths, all of the tools I’ve collected over the years. I am reluctant to do a full-scale unpacking yet, since there really isn’t anywhere clean to put things away until the work in the kitchen is finished, so I’ve been digging through and trying to find the absolute necessities as much as I can. It was a tearful reunion when my two small cast iron skillets surfaced, but a sieve or strainer has remained resolutely beyond reach, so when I decided to blanch  broccoli raab to saute´ with a pork roast and sweet potatoes, red peppers, and pearl onions, I improvised with a little green strawberry basket to stand in for the strainer. It didn’t actually work that well. It was a little flimsy. We did, at the end of the day, have steamed broccoli raab, which was a deliciously peppery counterpoint to the sweet potatoes and bell peppers.

 

Simple and good, I give you-

Pork Roast

1 boneless pork loin roast

oil

salt

black pepper

sage

paprika

1 onion

 

Preheat the oven to a blistering 450 F.

Using paper towels, thoroughly dry the surface of the meat.

Drizzle a spoonful of oil and coat the surface lightly.

Liberally season with salt, pepper, sage and paprika.

Slice the onion into thick rings and make a “rack” in the bottom of a cast iron skillet

or whatever suitably oven-proof dish that will hold the pork roast. Put the pork roast on top, fat side up.

Place in the hot oven for about 15 minutes and then reduce the heat to 250 F and continue

to cook for about an hour to an hour and 20 minutes or until your thermometer reads about 150.

Allow the meat to sit, loosely covered for  10-15 minutes. Slice and serve.

Make a sandwich with the leftover pork and onions the next day.

 

I’m back in the saddle.

 

After the after-after party-

I’ve had quite the busy and momentous few weeks since last I posted! My sister and her lovely new husband threw a sweet and wonderful wedding weekend at a fabulous cabin in the Appalachian mountains, complete with beautiful sunsets, velvety-black skies perfect for lying under on the driveway while watching the meteor shower above us, wonderful time spent with both families, great company, food, and music that we danced all night to. It was a perfect and intimate wedding, exactly them.


We’ve also settled on our new digs in the meantime after an exhausting whirlwind apartment search. Just when I thought we were going to have to settle on a tiny dark shoebox, the clouds lifted and I found a place that has (wait for it ) a KITCHEN WINDOW! I know! I can hardly believe it myself! As with all urban apartments, there are trade-offs, which we are making in the form of multiple flights of stairs, but did I mention the windows? We’ll be moving in mid September and I can’t wait to get my saucepans and skillets unpacked.

Hot on the heels of that exciting turn of events, Grace visited on her way through town, our first visitor since the move. It was especially sweet since she is moving to Vietnam for a year’s adventure with the aforementioned lovely new husband and we won’t get to see her for a while. We had a wander ’round my new neighborhood and then Scott took us out for an Indian dinner in Greenwich Village. We caught up on what we didn’t have time to at the wedding and I introduced her to Italian ice and a cannoli. Seeing her off in the train station was bittersweet- although a tiny  and slightly acerbic portion of my brain was telling the weepy me that it was being made all the more poignant  by the drama of waving goodbye to a loved one in a choo-choo train station; goodbyes don’t come grander than that. I will miss her ridiculously. I’m sure we will be putting skype through its paces.

One really nice thing about the wedding was that we all cooked together, chicken and vegetable skewers, salads, corn on the cob, boiled peanuts and watermelon, sangria and my mom’s cheesecake. I made a favorite salad of mine that was really good. Here is the recipe.

Black Eyed Pea and Rice Salad

1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

2 cups cooked short grain brown rice, still warm

2 cups black-eyed peas (if canned, rinsed and drained; or fresh, cooked until tender; frozen, cooked until tender)

1 medium cucumber, peeled and diced

1 mango, diced small

1 avocado, diced

1 red onion, diced small

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 can diced green chiles or a hot pepper (jalapeno or serrano perhaps)of your choice, minced

large handful of cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

In a bowl large enough to toss all of your ingredients, mix the salt, cumin and rice vinegar until the salt has dissolved. Tumble the still-warm rice into the bowl and gently toss the rice in the vinegar until the rice has soaked up all of the liquid. Taste the rice and add a bit more vinegar at a time if needed until there is a distinct but subtle twang throughout the rice. Gently toss in the black-eyed peas.If you have flame proof hands like mine, use your fingers to lightly mix everything so the rice and peas don’t turn to mush; otherwise, a pair of forks, if wielded gingerly, should work very well. Set the bowl aside and allow the mixture to come down to room temperature.

Meanwhile, all of the other vegetables can be cut up; I like to dice everything to roughly the same size as the black-eyed peas so that no one flavor overwhelms the forkful. While a ripe and juicy mango and guacamole-ready avocado are usually preferable, in this case it is better to err  toward a slightly firmer fruit in order to keep them from dissolving into the salad. While the cucumber and onion provide the pleasant contrast of crunch and the mango and red pepper are bright notes of sweetness, the avocado should be buttery nuggets of richness in lieu of oil in the dressing.

When the rice and peas are cool, add all of the vegetables, chilis and cilantro into the mixing bowl and, again, gently incorporate until thoroughly combined. I prefer to allow the flavors to mingle for at least an hour before eating, but it will keep well for several days. Since it is most flavorful at just cooler than room temperature, it is ideal for picnics or a one-dish lunch at work.

Something to remember about the type of rice you choose: long grain rice like Basmati or Jasmine has a different type of starch than shorter and stickier rice. One characteristic of long grain rice is that it is very firm when it is chilled- almost crunchy. For this reason, I usually use short grain rice for this recipe, since it is usually eaten when at least slightly chilled. The sciencey version of why this happens is explained here.

Celebrating sisters

I just got back to New Jersey last night from a fabulous weekend trip to Atlanta and points south for some pre-wedding celebrations with my sisters. Grace is getting married next week! I flew down Wednesday and Grace picked me up at the airport. The four of  us piled into Joy’s car, turned the air-conditioner on High and drove south through Alabama to a cottage on the Gulf coast.

It’s high summer in the South and produce stands are burgeoning along the highways. I find it nearly impossible to ignore a hand-lettered sign on the roadside offering watermelons or corn (picked today!) or peaches, but add “hot-boiled peanuts” to the signs and it’s like the car drives itself off onto the dirt verge and stops in front of the stand of its own volition. We got a watermelon, a bag of tomatoes, a bag of boiled peanuts, and a half sack of peaches. The gentleman who sold them to us said that the only problem was we’d wish we’d bought a whole sack. He had photos on the stand of the project his produce was funding – corrugated metal homes in Guatemala. When he asked is we were going to the beach, we said yes, to celebrate our sister’s upcoming wedding, and he said to Grace, “Well, I’ll give you some of my wife’s peach cake for a wedding present.” Moist yellow cake with nuggets of tangy Alabama peaches; pretty sweet wedding gift if you ask me! The cake and peanuts were fallen upon like a swarm of locusts.

The next couple of days went by too fast, sitting on the dock at night watching the lightning out over the Gulf and shooting stars overhead and talking, catching up on our lives, floating around in the blissfully warm buoyant Gulf water, getting a little sunburned, eating watermelon on the dock and spitting the seeds into the water, laughing, watching the fish and porpoises and shrimp boats and barges on the Intercoastal Waterway.  When the beach got a little too hot, we went shopping and found a sophisticated blue dress for Michal, who looked incredibly beautiful and also impossibly grown-up in it. We cooked together in the evenings, grilling corn and steaks which we ate with blue cheese butter and juicy wedges of  tomato, and made ceviche, fresh and cold with chunks of mango and avocado on crisp tostadas after that hot day at the beach.

Friday evening, we headed back through a couple of rainstorms which left the air feeling as if it had already been breathed. This humidity is taking some getting used to. I felt like I was submerged in water, even when I wasn’t. After the rain, the air had that soft, fragrant quality that I think of as so evocative of the South I grew up in. I think back, thinking about  the girls when they were my “little” sisters, and am so happy to have had this time to spend with the truly lovely women they have all become. I’m looking forward to this weekend, the wedding, spending more time with my family, grabbing a few more of these great, fun moments as they whip by.

Bay Ceviche

6 white fish filets, minced

or

1 pound bay scallops, quartered

1 tomato, diced

1 avocado, diced

1/2 large red onion, minced small

1 jalapeno pepper, minced small

1 mango, diced

about 1/2 bunch of cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

juice of 3-4 limes

Goya Bitter Orange seasoning to taste

or a splash of orange juice and salt to taste

Mix everything together in a glass bowl once everything is cut up and prepped. Toss to saturate with the lime juice. I lightly dusted the top of the bowl with the seasoning, mixed it in, and then tasted and added a little more just before serving. After everything is mixed, allow it to sit for at least 1/2 hour until the seafood looks white and opaque- which means it is “cooked”. Serve on crisp tostadas with a splash of Tapatio sauce.

We made it

After a 6 day, 3,000 mile end-to-end blitz of I-80, we made it all the way from California into Hoboken Tuesday afternoon.

We rented an immense juggernaut of a vehicle to carry us across the vast width of the country, large enough (but just barely) to hold two months-worth of clothes, two plants, two guitars, cameras, some essential kitchen tools, and the odds and ends that we didn’t feel comfortable entrusting to a moving company.

We only made it as far as Reno on our first day. Wednesday was an agonizing day of loading the big moving truck, renting the car, dropping off our car to be shipped, packing the rental car, closing up our apartment, saying our last goodbyes, and finally taking that gut-wrenching drive out over the Suisun Bay Bridge to I-80 east.

Our first full day of driving through Nevada was surprisingly beautiful, our late, wet Spring leaving a green haze over the immense landscape. We kept timing the distance as far as we could see because the road looked like it went on forever; it was always seven miles from rise to rise. Like Johnny Cash, we stopped in Winnemucca and had some lame stringy BBQ at a restaurant with some kind of slot machines on the bar. Maybe the slot machines should have been an indicator. However, there are not necessarily a lot of options along the interstate for the “culinarily-aware”and it beat another fast-food stop. The mountains quickly dropped away as we approached the Utah border and we sailed down in the huge white salt flats, a strange lunar-looking landscape full of mirages, speed testing tracks and salt factories.

After a night in Salt Lake City, we made it way up through the Wasatch Mountains (with a quick detour through Park City- beautiful!) and on through Wyoming. Wyoming was incredibly beautiful, especially the eastern half as we approached the Medicine Bow area and our destination for the night, Laramie. Scott decided a couple of hours earlier that it was Friday night, he was in Wyoming, and he wanted a steak. I did some looking around on Yelp, and since Yelp agreed with the front desk at our hotel, we ended up with a fabulously good grass-fed steak and a couple of house-brewed beers at Altitude Chophouse and Brewery downtown. We were a couple of hours too late for the annual Beerfest, although we passed a store front with some judging in progress, but the bands at the street party afterward were great. I was really impressed by what good and enthusiastic dancers the Laramians were.

Day three was spent in a long slow descent from the continental divide, beyond the edge of the dry, sere beauty of the West, through the hypnotic monotony of Nebraska (we distracted ourselves by eating “spicy hot” chicharronnes and lurid blue slurpees) and across the Missouri River and into Des Moines, Iowa. When we got out at a rest stop to stretch our legs and switch drivers in eastern Nebraska, we remarked on the humidity, the first we had felt. And then as we drove into the green fecundity of Iowa, it was a distinct regional shift- we were out of the West and had made it to the mid-West, the heartland.

Iowa was remarkably pretty, with chalk-white dirt roads between the greenest fields I had seen in years. There were pretty farmhouses in their groves of mature trees and the verges of the roads were a tangle of Queen Anne’s Lace, blue flax, purple coneflower, yellow buttercups, gold black-eyed susans, indian paintbrush, clover, and orange day lilies. We made a short detour through Iowa City to try the BBQ at Jimmy Jacks’ Rib Shack, which I would characterize as “fusion” style, a little mustard for the Carolinas, a hint of celery seed for Memphis, pulled pork for the South, beef brisket for Texas. It was really good BBQ at an establishment obviously run with a lot of care.

We crossed the mighty Mississippi at Davenport, Iowa and it all started to blend together in a thousand miles of flat, straight roads, cornfields and rainy weather. I must have seen a million acres of corn on this trip. Illinois was remarkable only for its bad roads and worse traffic. Overnight in South Bend, Indiana, we met a very nice waitress who chatted with us and said that she aspired to visit the South someday, and we encouraged her to visit California too. Then on through Ohio and into Pennsylvania and the Appalachians, with high bridges crossing deep ravines with boulder-strewn rivers at the bottom, fern covered forest floors, and bits of fog catching the edges of the mountains like bushes on the roadside after a cotton truck has driven past.

After one last night on the road in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, we loaded the truck on last time for the final leg of the trip into Hoboken. Almost as soon as we crossed the Delaware river into New Jersey, we were engulfed in a torrential rainstorm- welcome to East coast summers! All the way into Jersey City, we had to drive slowly just to be able to see. The low-lying areas as we finally  left I-80 were flooded, small cars stalled out in a foot or two of rainwater. The rain began to lift as we approached the railroad bridge announcing the entrance to Hoboken and we drove past the weekly downtown farmers market being set up on Washington Street and then around the corner to the Hudson River and our temporary apartment.

So, we made it. Six days and 3,000 miles from one end of 1-80 to the other, and it seems like from one world to another. It still doesn’t feel real- I keep thinking I can go home after this trip is over. It’s a new chapter starting now. We’ll see what happens next.

The other wine country

Livermore Valley

To say that California has a bit of a split personality is like saying that we have a “little fault line” running down our middle. Californians are Botoxed celebrities and middle-aged hippie activists, surfer dudes and ski bunnies, cosmopolitan urbanites and dry land farmers. It’s an afternoon’s drive from skiing to the beach, and from foggy redwood forests to sere deserts dotted with cholla cacti. So I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise to find that California wine country has as diverse a range of personality as the rest of the state.


I spent the last few weekends exploring some of the close- by lesser known wine regions: the East Bay’s Livermore Valley, Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley in the Sierra foothills, and the Delta’s Lodi region. These are not private chef and art collections and $20 wine tasting wine regions like their better known cousins to my north; these are dirt-under-the-fingernails and pick-up truck wine regions where you may be the only group in the winery, talking to the winemaker or his wife about why they love their jobs and what they are excited about sharing with visitors. Wineries and tasting rooms may be cool and elegant, or it may be in an old barn or cellar with tools on peg boards on the wall and folding tables holding a line of bottles for tasting. The grapes that thrive in each specific area are unique because of the weather, the soil, the elevation, even the direction that the valley lies. I was excited to try some wines that I was unfamiliar with: Alvarelhao and Verdelhos in Livermore, the Rhone varietals of Syrah, Grenache, and Mouvedre in Amador, and the Albarino from Lodi, as well as the more familiar Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, and Tempernillo grapes. And I came home with some bottles to try in a price range that made trying some new and different wine less of a risk.

Shenandoah Valley, Amador County

So, if you wake up one Saturday and you’re in the mood for some adventurous, low-key wine exploration and gorgeous scenery and instead find  yourself in a traffic jam behind a bunch of rental cars and stretch limos, take a side road out of there and take off for one of the other wine countries. I plan on spending a little more time looking for wineries on the back roads in the quiet corners and valleys this year.

Lodi, California

Jessie's Grove Winery, Lodi

Some wineries I particularly enjoyed were:
Thomas Coyne Winery
Bray Vineyards
Terre Rouge Wines
Harney Lane Winery

Bray Vineyards, Amador County

Pinch me

After dropping the Mister off at SFO’s International terminal, I headed south through the hills and past the flower fields to Half Moon Bay. There is a nice old main street with a couple of book stores and coffee shops and a kitchen ware store where the owner asked where I was from having perceived an accent. He was an “ex-pat” Southerner himself and told me about the cazuela type clay pots he had there, beautiful black casseroles and paella pans of unglazed clay. I got a cup of coffee and went to look at the beautiful green sea, watching the white horses come thundering in. It’s incredibly beautiful today, warm and clear.

I headed north to the top of the gold crescent of the bay, just inside the curve that protects the bay from the giant winter swells that make the Mavericks the legendary big-wave surf spot, to the harbour in search of Dungeness crabs. I’ve never actually cooked a live one myself, and a solitary evening is a good time to allow myself the option of spectacular failure. The first place I stop is a warehouse with a sign advertising fresh fish; they have whole filets of smoked salmon curing in a walk in fridge but no live crabs. Next stop, the harbour and fishing pier where boats are docked. “Jimbo” has live crabs, according to his sign, so I holler over the rail to find out how much and how do I get down there. He had a tub full of lively crabs, two of which made a break for it as soon as he took the lid off.

I was worried about my crab making a break for it all the way home- I kept anticipating an “Annie Hall” moment and honestly, if that crab had gotten out of the bag and out into the car, I may have just let it have the car. This is a big, tough, intimidating crustacean. I’m thinking it could lop of a finger, no problem. But great meals are not accomplished by cowards and I remind myself that someone had to eat that first oyster.

Some Taiwanese friends with lots of crab cooking experience told me that the most humane way to cook a crab is to  put it into a cold pot with some salt, water and seasoning and then slowly bring it up to steam. Having read David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster”, I’m not completely confident about this, but it’s the best idea I’ve heard so far.

Twenty minutes later, out it came,  it’s purple shell now vermillion. I gloved up and cracked off the top shell, pulled out the gills, the mandibles and the apron and cracked the whole thing in half. It’s surprisingly straightforward once you grasp the concept. I don’t have a cracker, so I used a small cast iron skillet to crack the legs. I’ve got a baguette, an herb salad and a glass of wine. I decided it was a good idea to change out of any potentially “dry clean only” clothes, armed myself with paper towels, rolled up my machine-washable sleeves and got crackin’. The reward for my risk? Sweet, fresh chunks of crab – oh, and I found a new use for that clarified butter I was talking about.

Road tripping

After griping about the weather, what could be nicer on a Saturday than a short road trip through the green and pearly-skied Sonoma County countryside.

What could be better? Maybe arriving in Bodega Bay conveniently around lunch time. And knowing that the best fried seafood you’ve had in a long time is (surprise!) right there in Bodega Bay! We’ve made the round trip before just for the calamari- it’s really swell.

If you drive up Highway 1 through town and look for the shop with the flags and kites on the shore side, pull into the parking lot just past it. The Boat House parking lot is reassuringly lined with piles of oyster shells and management has clearly been spending more money on the ingredients than the decor- it’s wood panelling and formica tables all the way. Order at the counter- everything that I’ve had is fresh and crisp, cooked perfectly, but I especially recommend the calamari, scallops and bbqed oysters. Grab a beer while you’re at the counter. A hoppy Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale compliments very well and find a sunny table. If they don’t bring cocktail sauce with your order, ask for it. It’s homemade and has a good not-too-sweet flavor.

It’s probably best not to talk for a while. There are better things to be doing with your mouth and fried seafood waits for no man. All it takes is a little perserverance and dedication and you’ll end up in the clean plate club.

The shop next door with all of the kites sells salt water taffy and retro candy like Pop Rocks and Boston baked beans. We got Zotz for the road.

We meandered back down Highway 1 through Valley Ford, Olema, and Point Reyes Station, stopped and watched the surfers in Bolinas for a minute. Is there anything like fried food and beautiful scenery to refresh the winter-weary soul?

Harold’s

Harold’s New York Deli, Edison, New Jersey- Scott and I ate here on a Friday night during a house- hunting trip to New Jersey. It’s next to a hotel near the business park where his new office is in Edison, right off the highway. As far as I’ve seen, it’s the only place to eat in Edison besides Dunkin’ Donuts and the only place I could almost reliably find from our hotel with out ending up on a divided highway in bumper to bumper traffic for an hour while the GPS indignantly and huffily re-calculates repeatedly. But I digress. The entrance hallway is flanked by the cashier’s booth on one side and a wall of glass fronted refrigerator cases on the other. The cases are full of cakes- layer and cheese on a scale that makes me feel Lilliputian. Seriously huge, the layer cakes are six layers tall in commercial sized cake pans and the cheesecakes are probably six inches deep by eighteen inches across. Scott took me past the hostess stand for a quick look at the pickle bar, a twelve foot buffet with sliced bread, rolls and pickles- sauerkraut, sour, half sour, kosher dill, health salad (oh the irony!) pickled tomatoes, hot cherry pickled peppers, hot garlic dill chips, and maybe a couple more that I can’t remember. We went back to the hostess and she threaded us through several dining rooms of hearty eaters to a long table near the back of the restaurant. The menu recommended sharing sandwiches between two people for a large or up to four people for the extra-large. We ordered a Reuben with pastrami, sized large comes with pickle bar and we order a couple of Dr. Brown sodas. Walking back through the restaurant to the pickle bar, the scale of the food on the tables I pass begins to really sink in- these are massive sandwiches! I see a sandwich with a half a head of iceberg lettuce perched on top, dwarfed by the huge pile of meat underneath. We get an assortment of pickles to try, and they are really good- the sauerkraut has that bitter tang of really fermented cabbage, the pickles are each distinctive in flavor and texture. I really like the tomato and the half sour.

There are a couple of guys in our section who are apparently enjoying their first visit to Harold’s also and seem unable to believe their luck. One sits sideways to the table, facing the room as if watching for someone to come up and tell him he’s being punked, making asides to the room- I overhear   “well, you’re not getting ripped of paying $26 for a sandwich here!”

Our sandwich arrives, open-faced and roughly the size of a roast chicken, covered with melted cheese and accompanied by spicy mustard and Russian dressing on the side. When we dig in and start piling it onto our plates, it’s a layer of swiss (?) cheese, a pile of the great sauerkraut and a moist pink pile of pastrami on top of dressing and a slice of bread. It’s the best pastrami I have ever had- juicy and flavorful with just the right amount of fat throughout each slice. The peppery black layer on the outside is delicious. There is easily a pound and a half of meat on the plate. My cream soda and the pickles cut through some of the richness, but really, that’s a losing battle.  I wonder out loud if Scott’s vegan colleague breaks out in hives just driving past the restaurant.

Meanwhile, a couple of guys sit at the opposite end of our table- clearly local based on the accent. They order the “romany” steak which reminded me of the grocery list for King Solomon’s household when it arrived along with about a quart of mashed potatoes.  When I ask what it is and then laugh spontaneously at the absurdity of it all, they go into full swing. They remark how ridiculous it is- disgusting, really- as they dig in. Got any friends in the area, they say, call them and have them help us eat this. One says he’s going to take a baby aspirin as soon as the meal is over, the other says he’s got his doctor on speed dial and sets his cell phone on the table next to his plate. Their wives will no longer come here with them, they say, they’ll have stroke from all the salt in the pickles. It’s pure theatre and they play it to perfection. We made it through about half of our sandwich before calling it quits and turned down the offer of dessert, no thanks, no two-pound slice of cake for me tonight, thank you. A couple more groups come past us as we’re paying the cashier, and the stereotypical bleach-blond cotton candy haired, leopard clothed, perma-tanned, gold encrusted 65-year-old Jersey matron cackles past us saying ”everything here is king-soized!” Her compadres are outside finishing their cigarettes and gossiping.

Jet lag

I knew I was in trouble when my eyes slammed irrevocably open at 4 AM. There is no sheep counting or backwards counting from 100 with jet lag. I’m just awake and will be until I fall prey to narcoleptic–like somnolence at around 7 PM, crashing hard, dizzily trying to keep myself awake until something a little past a toddler’s bedtime.

This is the price I pay for my jet set life style. It’s not pretty, but it’s worth it and I try to make the best of it. I spent the dark pre dawn trying to decide what I’d cook for supper since I was past my limit for consecutive meals eaten out and have been looking forward to the comforting routine of my own kitchen.  I knew I would need something familiar that I could cook with half my brain tied behind my back, something savory, and since the weather has been raw and rainy, beef stew sounded perfect.

Beef stew is familiar and comforting, something I’ve made my whole life and refined as my taste and skills have improved. I’m able to move easily through the process, browning peppery pieces of beef chuck, adding garlic and shallots and then deglazing the pan with wine and tomatoes before putting it into a  low oven with a spoonful of harissa paste and a bay leaf.  About an hour before we eat, I’ll add the vegetables I’ve prepped- cubes of white turnips and creamy yellow potatoes, discs of carrot and snapped green beans.  Add biscuits or cornbread and it’s simple and satisfying, definitely a meal worth coming home for.