Tag Archives: Romance

#15/52: Pasta Prep at Centro Vinoteca

Summer is officially over.

Summertime – a season truly carefree in character – has ended.

The 90 degree days have faded fast and I have started to feel those fall winds begin to blow. My strappy sandals are quickly replaced by my newly bought boots. Gone are the days of sweltering city walks, dips in my parents pool and trips to the beach – both Long and Brighton.

As the mercury hits the high 50’s for the first time, I turn off my overworked air conditioner and open the window by my bedside, allowing the cool courtyard breeze to enter.  I look longingly at my unused fireplace and survey my cabinets for soups, stews – and pastas too. With fettucini in my future, saying goodbye to Summer is suddenly less stressful.

Pasta – the ultimate Italian comfort food – has found its way into my Fall fantasies. But my kitchen survey reveals sad results: one half-full, half-eaten box of De Cecco brand Rigatoni no. 24. My pantry is paltry. My dried, boxed, decade-old pasta leaves me disappointed.

In my quest for perfect pasta, I spent last Thursday learning the art of making and molding fresh pasta at Centro Vinoteca.

It is Noon on Thursday and as I stand on the stoop of my Cornelia Street apartment I can hear the church chimes beckon me towards my next assignment. As the first fall breeze blows, I quickly cross over the cold and congested 7th Avenue to the calm and quiet streets on the other side. Our Lady Of Pompei rings her last bell, and just in time, I arrive at the sleek and stylish restaurant at 74 7th Avenue South.

The alluring entryway - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I round the red brick corner and arrive at the open doorway – the cool, calm, strikingly clean interior draws me inside. The inventively shaped corner building and movie theatre marquis above the front door inform me that I am in store for a show unlike any other. Centro is stylish, swanky and smooth – as are the two brothers at its helm – Enver and Rizo.

Bar stools begging for attention - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Liquid eye candy - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Everything is bright and white as the light floods in through the floor to ceiling window panes. Each curve and bend of the oddly shaped bar begs you to join her for a drink. The aromas from open kitchen tease, tempt and toy with you as they urge you order something more. The colorful chalkboard menu demands that you dabble in the dolci of the day: Fresh Ricotta Cheese Cake with Slow Cooked Apricots & Mint. The only thing that would make that dessert more delectable is if Enver or Rizo would deliver it to you.

Tempted? - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Tempted again? Enver and his wines - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

In here, it’s comfortable but cool. In here it’s classy but casual. In here it’s airy and open and always inviting. In here, it’s almost always summertime. And brothers-in-charge Enver and Rizo would be your ideal beach companions.

The other half of the brothers Boljevic - Rizo

As quickly as I arrive I am shuttled to the lower level to begin my pasta prep.

The prep kitchen is as clean as my apartment – only after my parents arrive for a visit. Shiny equipment, stainless steel pasta dough mixers, and enthusiasic workers fill the space. But those cool afternoon winds never wind their way down here. Busy workers and boiling bowls of red sauce raise the temperature by 15 degrees. My only escape is the refreshingly cold but painfully brief breeze I feel from the oft opened freezer door. Despite the heat, I attempt to explore the endless possibilities presented by pasta – which starts so simply with eggs, flour and salt but becomes so much more.

An intense environment for our pasta prep - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I meet Humberto – affectionately know as the pasta  guy – and he talks me through the series of shapes we are about the prepare – six in all. I love the idea that by simply changing the shape of the pasta – the tabletop is transformed. Cavatelli cups its sauces. Papardelle playfully dances with its braised lamb. Ravioli wraps around its ricotta. Same ingredients – yet such dissimilar results. But I am suddenly humbled by Humberto. My formative pasta years involved a battle between Ronzoni brand Spaghetti versus Ronzoni brand thin Spaghetti. There was little diversity in our dishes and I have so much to learn from my new friend.

My pasta guy, Humberto - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Humberto explains the seemingly simple steps and the types of pasta we need to prepare for tonight’s menu. There are so many that my mind is racing and I am ready to run home to grab that box of dried pasta from my shelf and dump it into a bucket of boiling water. But I wait, and make an attempt to learn these lessons – with Humberto and his 3 years of pasta prep hovering over me all along the way.

I lay one thin sheet of pasta dough atop my new favorite tool – the italian ravioli maker. The pasta is so thin – so delicate – I can see my fingers clear through the other side and fear I might tear it if I tug too much. Humberto assures me my sheer strength won’t damage this delicacy. I brush the pasta with a light coating of egg mixture and dot each chamber with a concoction of cream, chives and shrimp. I place one pasta sheet on top to cover my creation and our ravioli is mere moments away from being born.

We pinch and seal each side and roll the fluted pastry wheel (also know as a ravioli cutter) along the edges and between each piece. My unsteady hand seems to snag the ravioli ending in an uneven and imperfect pocket. Humberto corrects my work and guides my hand along the way. Making pasta is a delicate dance – a tender twist as I try not to tear or tug the soft sheets of dough. At the end one of session – we have only 12 raviolis to speak of. We’ll need many more if this dish is on the menu tonight. I’m losing hope in my pasta prep but Humberto and I continue to work side by side and make some more. Each little pocket is looking better than the one before: the filling is just right, the sides are sealed tight and the perferations are now perfect.

Early lessons - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Ravioli rules - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

A dab of egg - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Careful not to tear - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Shaky hands - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Sealing the sides - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The word Ravioli is said to have originated from the word Rabiole – meaning things of little value or left-overs. On long journeys by ship, sailors – not wanting to be wasteful – collected and chopped up all the left-overs (the rabiole) from their meals. They stuffed those leftovers into little envelopes of pasta dough.

I, too, have found myself feeling much like the ravioli I have just crafted. On my best days I feel firm and presentable on the outside. And on the inside – and on my worst days – I have felt glimpses that are reminiscent of that ravioli: that I have little value or that I have been passed- or left-over. Chalk it up to those unpopular junior high school years. Or maybe it was that moment, when one year ago I sat down across from my live-in boyfriend of two years and by the end of the evening I was not only short the $25 dollars for the cost of the meal, but I had to subtract one boyfriend and one apartment from that scenario. Homeless, aside from my sisters couch, I started to feel a bit like those ravioli of yesteryear.

Ravioli, however, has come a long way. Gone are the days of leftovers encased between two thin sheets of  pasta dough. No longer are they filled with things of little value. Now their inner workings are so precious and filled with such worthwhile ingredients – think: shrimp, chives and cream at Centro Vinoteca – that our main task (Humberto’s and mine) as it relates to ravioli is to be sure that those insides don’t escape their safe shell and find themselves floating around a hot pot of boiling water. After we fill the ravioli we press the edges to ensure they are sealed. We press. And we seal. And we press again. This small task is life or death for our dish. And we learn that even though something starts out being undervalued or looked over, the world eventually comes around to getting it right. We are no longer in high school and gone are the days of that disasterous Greek meal on Amsterdam Avenue. Our ravioli is sealed with goodness inside. No shrimp will dare swim away. And your tastebuds will be the better for it.

Humberto and I continue with Cavatelli. We slice our pasta dough into a long sections about 1/3 of an inch thick. After a quick lesson, I begin to roll the dough gently through the italian imported cavetelli maker and spin out a series of shapes that are ripe and ready to be joined with broccoli rabe. This task is remarkably easier than the one before. And while cavatelli is traditionally made by hand (think southern italian or sicilian grandmother cooking in her home kitchen) I have a newfound appreciation for the tools of the trade.

The Cavetelli connection - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Perfect little pieces - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Humberto's hands - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The word Cavatelli is derived from the Latin word cavum. Cavatelli means a hollow or cave; a hole, a cavity or a depression.

In my hometown of Hampton Bays the day after Labor Day was referred to as Tumbleweed Tuesday. It was always a sad day. A sense of loss prevailed – a loss of the freedoms that summer afforded us. Summer has indeed ended and a palpable shift has take place – here in NYC and in Hampton Bays too. And with its passing I am left with an empty space, a deep void — a cavum. But within that loss there is now a space for something more to enter in. In that cave – that hole, that depression – enters something new: new friends, new classes, new goals and a new space and clean state to begin again. In that space of our cavatelli – in that soft and subtle void of our pasta shape – there is space for sauces: for pestos, for browned sage butter and for bolognese too. I am beginning to rethink the very definition of depression.

With ravioli and cavatelli completed, we move on to long strands of papardelle and pici, to roasted mushroom stuffed cappellacci and spin out some beautiful black tagliatelle.

Cappellacci class - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The tricks of the trade - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

A perfect little hat - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Strands of pici pasta - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Papardelle means: To gobble up - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The final task: Black Tagliatelle - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

My arms are getting tired and my fingers are freezing up from all this pressing and pushing and molding and manipulating of these pasta shapes. I will never look at a plate of pasta without imagining the hours of labor involved. I run upstairs to take a breather. On my way, I hesitate for just a moment and stand in awe of the hundreds of bottles of wine that line the walls – all Italian and from regions of Italy I have yet to discover. I imagine a warm red would be the perfect pairing for the pasta I have just prepared. I must admit my wine knowledge is a little lacking and standing there with these bottles towering over me, wondering what I would choose  – my confidence is shaken and my knees are feeling weak.

The wall of wine - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Enver leans in close and whispers wine to me. He enthusiastically explains how he chooses his wines from lesser know regions, like le marche, based on its agricultural advantages. Speaking of advantages, Enver is an expert with his wines and you’d be remiss to not mark your calendar and schedule your own private tutoring session.

The underrated regions - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Enver enthusiastically explains - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

And if there is anything to get you out of your cavatelli cavum, your depression – it’s brothers Enver and Rizo, a seat at the bar and a glass of my favorite – and house favorite – bubbly: prosecco di valdobbiadene, terra serena.

After my lesson in libations, I turned my attention to Greg Pollio for the final phase of my cooking class. Greg, the former student of ornithology (think birds) and herpetology (think reptiles) turned Sous Chef, guides me as I plate my well-made papardelle. Greg’s study of the sciences makes him a master in the kitchen as he teaches me about the subtleties surrounding pasta shapes and their contrasting cooking times. My pasta hits the hot water and hovers there for mere moments. All the while I am sauteeing Greg’s braised lamb bolognese and seasoning it with white wine and mint while my pasta cooks for what seems like a split second. Before I plate the papardelle I stop and perform my most important task: The taste test. I bring the sauce straight from saute pan to the spoon and into my mouth before it ever reaches the dish. There is nothing quite like that first forbidden kitchen bite – and the assurance that you did everything just right. Greg’s bright eyes, even brighter smile and his easy and natural way around the kitchen make you want to take him home along with your leftovers. If you visit Centro Vinoteca I’m sure you’ll agree that Greg only adds to the atmosphere inside. And I’m doubly sure you’ll understand the sentiment: Thank you open kitchen.

Watching and learning with Greg - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Did you run to make your reservation? - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Prepping the Papardelle - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

So it doesn't stick - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The taste test - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Spinning and swirling - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

When I left Centro Vinoteca I noticed a few leaves had fallen and the winds began to pick up and swirl around the sidewalks. I held a sense of renewal in my heart and a flutter inside for what might be to come. With these fall winds beginning to blow and the new year upon us, I have started to feel far away from any resemblance to those left-over filled ravioli. I’m not sure if it was the change of seasons, or the bright and futuristic chandeliers floating overhead at Centro Vinoteca or the smiles on the faces of Enver and Rizo and the regulars than dine there, but now I am feeling much more like the one pasta I didn’t even prep: farfalle, and its literal translation: butterflies.

Proud plating - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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#9/52: Bellavitae

I don’t like alot of things.

I’m not into sports (playing, watching or even the Superbowl), I don’t get swept away by island vacations, and after seeing the wonder that is the Taj Mahal I was, sadly, not moved. I have often felt that the things I was supposed to enjoy – the things that other people seemed so excited by – just didn’t click for me.

I can count, on one hand, the rare few things (aside from the obvious friends and family) that never do me wrong and always make my heart beat a little faster. Here is my list:

1. NYC – anytime, all the time.

2. Farmers Markets, Specialty Food Shops, Street Food Vendors & Roadside Farm Stands.

3. Knowing my neighbors by name.

4. The painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth.

5. Google-ing and finding answers to random questions at 3AM.

These five never fail me.

But, from the moment I walked into Bellavitae Restaurant one year ago, I found myself not wanting to leave. Something clicked. Something felt right. A possible #6 on my list? I wasn’t able to put my finger on it just then, but I knew I was on to something big.

Front entrance of Bellavitae on Minetta Lane - this shot and the interior also featured on Saturday Night Live (Season 34, Episode 8) - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Over the next year I recall telling the owner, Jon Mudder, how much I adored his place in the hopes that maybe he would grant me a permanent reservation at stool #5 around the Chefs Bar. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work there or eat there or maybe I could simply move in to the cozy corner near the brick oven and take up residence. Are there still laws in support of squatters rights in NYC?

The charming Jon Mudder. Who wouldn't want to hang around Bellavitae? - Photo by Sandy Hechtman

I wondered and brainstormed about what it was that made Bellavitae so appealing. And then it dawned on me. Bellavitae is everything I am looking for in a partner. If I were going to describe my perfect mate it would most closely resemble my first impression of Bellavitae:

SWF seeks SWM who is: Charming yet unpretentious, simple yet elegant, rustic yet refined, sexy yet sophisticated, intimate without being too intense. Must like being surrounded by family and friends. Must reside in the NYC but enjoy weekend visits to farms and wineries to scout out and bring back the finest food and drink. Should enjoy a day of food shopping for the best ingredients and then cooking dinner for friends. Your door is always open and you are inviting of new friends and adventures. Above all, you are warm… much like a brick oven.

A preview of the brick oven at Bellavitae - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

After spending last Thursday evening at Bellavitae, I realized the importance of being with the right people and in the right space. I also learned that those right people, places and spaces thankfully do exist. The search is over.

I arrive at 4pm to Bellavitae at 24 Minetta Lane – the quiet and hidden oasis just steps from crowds on both sides: the taxi-cab filled Sixth Avenue at one end and the pedestrian playground of MacDougal Street on the other. As the winter sun begins to set and the chilly air chases me around the corner, I stand, for a moment, in awe of this small and shadowy street. I am only a stones throw from the West 4th subway station but suddenly I feel like I am a world away from the chaos of a typical Thursday night in Greenwich Village. This is a good thing.

Aged balsamics & wines at Bellavitae's entrance - Photo by Sandy Hechtman-sandyhechtman.com

I enter the restaurant through the wooden doors and walk past the barrels of aged balsamic vinegar and bottles of wine from family owned vineyards. The click-clack of my boot heels against the large wooden plank floorboards in the ample and open space reminds me more of a rustic farm-house than a downtown restaurant. I slide my gloved hand along the sleek and smooth Tuscan marble bar and I greet Jon, Bellavitae’s owner, at the other end. Luring me into the back, along with Jon’s obvious charm, are the Venetian style lamps – handmade with silk and hand painted with gold – dotted throughout the interior. This is the kind of place you’d find (and I did find) in the hills surrounding Bologna, not just off Sixth Avenue. But sometimes… we New Yorkers… we get lucky enough to have it all. Country comforts in an urban setting.

You will feel 'at home' at Bellavitae. The space reminds me of a farmhouse I visited in Umbria - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

At Family Meal Jon introduces me to the staff, sets the stage for the evening and offers a casual quiz on some Italian food vocabulary. (Q: Parma is? A: A city in the Emilia-Romagna region. Q: The pasta which translates into ‘little ears’ is? A: Orecchiette.) After a few bites of pasta – only a preview of the food fantasy we are about to create – and with our Italian adjectives in tow we scatter to our stations. My assignment for the evening is to work behind the Chefs Bar with the lovely Liza – the two of us will be on display all night in true open kitchen style. Any mistakes or missteps will be easily identified.

Amy & Liza preparing for the evening at the Chef's Bar - the best seat(s) in the house - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

At 6pm the double doors fling open, the diners are greeted, the coats are checked and the first party is seated. The waitress sends us a wink and within minutes the first order of the night pops up at our station. The sound of the ticket printing is like a morse code or a magical tune with a meaning that only we know. The dishes on the ticket are written in Italian and, for once, I am thankful for my month-long intensive Italian language lessons at Scuola Italiaidea near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Jon Mudder is warm and welcoming. Here we are studying the first food ticket of the night - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

A tinge of fear flies through me as I read the order. It’s time for Gnocco Fritto: Fried pillows of puffy dough pockets served with hand sliced aged Prosciutto di Parma Grand Reserve. Some things in life taste better when you work hard to get them. This is one of those occasions.

Liza guides my hands on the Berkel imported hand slicer – which a work of art in its own right. I need both arms to garner enough strength to pull this off.  It feels as if I have the weight of the whole animal to slice through. I’m getting stuck at the top and can’t even finish one rotation successfully. Little bits of Prosciutto are being shaved off – certainly not pieces worthy of plating at Bellavitae. Eventually, I complete one fluid motion after another and begin to churn out tender slices of our 6-month dry aged Prosciutto. Around and around the wheel goes as tender, delicate slices of velvety rich meat flow free.

Do I have the strength to slice through that? - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Getting stuck on the Prosciutto - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Finally getting the hang of it - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I gently swirl the slices – eight in all – around the edges of a small white place and step over to the fry station to quickly deep fry and plate the crisp doughy bread pockets. In a flash the pockets rise to the surface and the dough is done. At the table, our diners tear open those bread pockets and fill them with the newly sliced Prosciutto. A better sandwich has not been born.

Prosciutto Plate Art - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

This is where the word FRITTO comes in - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Presentation matters: Marc Levinson & Amy Bandolik arranging the Gnocco Fritto on the plate with the Prosciutto - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

And off she goes - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Moments later, some friendly faces prop themselves up to the Chefs Bar. Watching their meal be prepared makes it all the more meaningful – for us and for them. Appetizers of Arancine, Polpettine and Mozzarella di Bufala fly from the kitchen. The couple at the bar chooses the Il Polletto – the de-boned young Chicken with Italian Herbs roasted in the Brick Oven with Fennel and La Costoletta di Maiale al Forno – the Pork Chop (also) roasted in the Brick Oven with caramelized Onions.

La Costoletta di Maiale al Forno. My photographer was hungry so I made one for him! - Photo and full belly by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

However enticing these dishes may sound and however tasty to the tongue, (and they are. I ate both later that night.) these menu choices represent a conundrum for me. It means that I will be, once again, lunging into a 600 degree brick oven. I can only hope my arm hair will stay intact.

Liza coaches me through the rules of the game as a gear up to tackle the oven. Jon stands by my side to quietly root me on.

Moral support from Liza - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I pour a drizzle of olive oil on two silver sizzle plates and slide the plates deep into the hottest part of the oven. My hand instantly turns red and remains that way the rest of the night and into the morning. I prepare the meat (one pork chop and one baby chicken) and place them on to the metal plates – being sure to coat the sides and all the edges with the sizzling hot oil. Sparks are flying (and not of the romantic variety) and hot oil is splattering everywhere. Liza seems cool and unaffected while I am ducking for cover and shielding my chef’s coat from going ablaze.

Making sure the edges of the pork chop are dipped in the sizzling olive oil - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Clearly, I am afraid of the oven - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Into the oven they go – but this time I beg Liza to do it for me so my hands can cool down. Moments later I dive into the oven again to turn the meat and add some fennel to the chicken and caramelized onions to the pork chop. A few quick minutes and the dishes are done and I am out of harms way – at least for tonight!

Plating it - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Careful not to forget the juiciest bits - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Cavemen were on to something. So is Bellavitae - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

A job well done (Liza helped) - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I am convinced I was a cave-woman in a past life because I seem strangely drawn to fire. But I am not alone in acknowledging its effects. With the warmth of our food-filled-fireplace burning in the background, those strangers at the chef’s bar became friends and their quiet conversation turned to laughter. They linger a few hours in the glow of the tapering flames and as the clock nears 11pm they leave the restaurant having completed the quintessential New York night – a perfect 2-hour dinner. Amazing what some flames and some Finocchio al Forno will do.

Even at home, in my new apartment, I don’t feel as if the night is complete without the fireplace raging in the background. With no TV, the fireplace seems to serve as my visual entertainment. I am however no expert in the field of fire-starting. And I do recall my first fire being a bust as I tried unsuccessfully to light a few logs absent of any kindling. Thankfully, Bellavitae has a better handle on this task.

Later that week as my fire was slowly dying out, my night was just getting going. My new neighbor Tim knocked on my door to celebrate the fact that we are the two newest tenants in the building. We both moved in within weeks of each other in January. I suppose that is cause for celebration, no? After scouting a few local places we ended up at a little spot around the corner on Jones Street. Our tapas style meal was met with all the obvious introductions and all the common get-to-know-you games. Tim is pleasant, bright and a true gentleman. A perfect neighbor to have. He’s also a bit rustic and kinda charming. Reminds me a little bit of Bellavitae.

My (fire)place on Cornelia - Photo by Amy Bandolik

If you’d like to meet my neighbor, Tim, you can find him on Cornelia Street. If you are looking for a great Italian meal near a romantic brick oven fireplace, you must go to Bellavitae (http://www.bellavitae.com/) since Tim’s kitchen is currently under construction. And if you want to taste Bellavitae’s Ricotta Cheesecake, you can also find it here on the Foods of New York Central Village Food Tasting Tour: http://www.foodsofny.com/village-soho.php

Busy hands - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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#8/52: Recipe Testing at Suenos

Nothing is perfect.

At least, nothing starts out that way.

The caterpillar becomes a butterfly. The student becomes a scholar. And a pot of vegetables and beans becomes a vegetarian chili worthy of its very own page in a cookbook. Most things don’t start out perfect. But luckily for our taste buds – some end up that way.

A marriage of flavors at Suenos - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I spent last thursday at Suenos Restaurant performing Recipe Testing with Chef/Owner Sue Torres, as she perfected the pages of her upcoming cookbook.

I arrive at noontime to West 17th Street and I am feeling a little lost. Granted I did, only recently, return home (jet lagged) from 22-hour plane ride from India and, in general, I do have a very poor sense of direction – but I usually know my way around the city better than this. From the corner of 17th Street and 8th Avenue I happily spot the maroon colored awning that reads: SUENOS in a funky teal green block lettered font. And from street level in front of #311 I can see a small window that leads to the long and narrow subterranean kitchen. All the signs say I am surely in the right place… but I cannot find the door.

This is a typical scenario for me. I can see exactly where I want to end up but for some reason I cannot get there. Or at least, I cannot get there right away. Eventually, I arrive. I just take a little longer.

The hidden door to Suenos is down this narrow alleyway - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I did finally arrive at Suenos. I found the hidden door – through the nondescript alley, down five steps and onto a metal grate  – a secret entryway known only to those who are deserving of Sue’s inventive Mexican plates.

Sue sits me down at the bar and outlines our agenda for the day. She is organized, meticulous and hyper-aware of every detail of her business. Nothing gets by Sue Torres. Plates of mediocre food: BEWARE! Only succulent dishes – like shredded beef mini tacos and tequila-flamed shrimp – need apply.

My absolute favorite menu item: The Shredded Beef Mini Tacos - http://www.suenosnyc.com

Sue is in the process of writing a cookbook and today I am responsible for assisting her as she perfects (and documents!) a few of her favorite recipes.

We begin with Vegetarian Chili. Side by side, Sue and I chop vegetables. Sue instructs me on how to chop properly – and I certainly need her help. I have never seen a carrot so large and misshapen. Too many years of those bags of pre-peeled, pre-washed baby carrots, I suppose. I don’t know how to begin to attack it without the knife attacking back at me and julienning my finger. Sue guides me like an older sister – firm but friendly, kind and caring.

Watch and learn - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Getting the hang of it - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Making peace with the unusually large carrot - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

When it’s time to chop onions, Sue shows me her special technique for slicing. I certainly have met many an onion in my 35 years, but I suppose I had never been formerly introduced in this way. Sue advises me to keep the root intact so the onion doesn’t fall apart. [Coincidentally, I had made the very same suggestion to some of my clients in my 10 years as a counselor.] We make several slices 3/4 of the way through and then, holding the onion firmly, we chop in the opposite direction yielding finely chopped squares. I tried this at home a few nights later when making a pot of Rosemary White Bean Soup from a recipe I found online. Let’s just say that my onion chopping skills are not as award-winning as Sue’s and that some of that onion somehow ended up on the floor – but only a few casualties.

Finally, onions, garlic, salt, celery, carrots, beans and smokey, savory chilis are married in a large pot. We measure, weigh and record each ingredient with such precision you might think we are performing surgery. Our recipe has got to be cookbook worthy. Every seemingly small step along the way – from the tender slice of the onion to the use of local, seasonal, organic beans and vegetables – is critical to the taste and texture of our final product. There’s no room for skimping. Tastebuds do not lie.

Carefully calibrating the scale - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

While I do enjoy chopping, seasoning and stirring, the best part of recipe testing – is recipe tasting.

Sue and I grab fresh spoons every hour and steal a taste like two teenagers sneaking into the covered apple pie resting on the kitchen countertop. We give the pot a stir and a sample. One moment it is coming along nicely. Another taste – and the heat from the chilis goes to battle on our tongues.

Is it ruined? Is all our hard work for naught? Can we perform time-travel in order to alter our recipe? Can we somehow repair the damage? And in that moment, I became a little sad. I happen to be very good at making that quick mental jump from complication to catastrophe.

But this, my friends, is where Sue stands out from the rest – in both her ability to sooth my nerves as well her capacity to create. She recognizes that her chili is a living breathing element and she carefully coaches (but not controls) it at each stage. Sue is never on automatic pilot. She is always thinking, always on task. Although we cannot go backwards, we can continue to alter and grow our recipe until it reaches perfection.

Giving the pot a whirl and getting ready to dive in - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Serious concerns: Is the chili too spicy - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Can we fix it? Sue shows me how - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

So with a corrective cooling measure in mind, we add some sweetness to combat the spice – more carrots, celery and some beets (both pureed and in solid form) seem to do the trick. Sue feels strongly about not adding sugar to get the spice to surrender – she thinks there are more natural and healthy ways to add that sweet flavor back. So we add that to the pot and we jot it down on the recipe. Quick thinking as she is, Sue remembers to fish out those chilis – making sure they don’t continue to turn the heat back up. And we document that step as well.

What isn’t documented, however, is the part of cooking that cannot be measured – the part that is fun, playful and inventive. What can’t possibly be tabulated in our notations is that moment when cooking becomes crafting. It needn’t be a race to the finish or a challenge steeped in potential failure. It should be fun. And we, as chefs, should be bendable, flexible and pliable. I suppose you could say we should be soup-y or chili-like… never too firm and always ready to adapt to the blend of ingredients. Sue teaches me to play with my food. And never be afraid to fail. She teaches me that there will always be a corrective measure that will save my soup.

Between all the chopping, stirring, tasting, adjusting and tasting again – I am ready for a break. Luckily for me, it is time for Family Meal – one of my favorite traditions. And luckily for the staff, we are eating that perfectly perfected, not-too-sweet, not-too-spicy Vegetarian Chili. So I join my first family meal – a time for the staff to break bread and discuss the evening ahead. The vegetarian chili is a hit with the staff. No mouths are aflame and it seems spiced just right. It took several tries, but I think we finally got it. Spicy. Smokey. Smooth. Hearty and healthy too. Perfection.

The hard job of perfecting... and the reward - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Good things. like the chili, take time. In my last 6 years in New York City I have lived in 5 apartments, dated 4 significant boyfriends, held 3 different careers and cooked 1 pot of vegetarian chili. None of it started out perfect. But it gets better every time. Even the chili took 4 hours to get right. In fact, that pot of chili and I have a few things in common. Spicy. Smokey. Smooth. Hearty and healthy too. Perfection. Life is cooking up quite nicely as well. I’ve just got to simmer a little while longer.

Our meal has come to an end – and now it is time to feed our friends. As quickly as we clean up our dishes and wipe down the tables, the crowd arrives at our doorstep. 4-top after 2-top after 6-top – the crowds flood in and the wait-staff begins to circulate.

The lights come down low. The 5 orange lanterns above the bar begin to twinkle and tease as they draw the crowd away from the drafty door and into the main dining room. I’m not sure which casts a more powerful spell on our diners: drinks like Suzy’s Smokin’ Margarita cocktail or Nick, the scruffy smoldering bartender who mixes them. Jorge hits the music. The hot pink painted wall is illuminated. The bright blue bar stools stand ready to comfort our thirsty guests. And the action begins. Alisia stands in the corner of the restaurant on a raised platform stage as to highlight the star of the show: the fresh corn torillas. The theatre is alive and well in New York. And broadway is no match for the show at Suenos.

Not sure which is hotter - the pink wall or the tasty torillas being rolled - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Adding some flavor with cilantro - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

As the dinner service is winding up, my night is winding down. I pop into the kitchen one last time and already the pace is at lightening speed as plates of Avocado-3-ways, Tamarind Glazed Hanger Steak and Halibut, Halibut, Halibut come flying past me. Sue is right in the thick of the battleground expediting orders and making sure everything is timed to perfection. I sneak one last bite of the leftover Vegetarian Chili before heading out the door and I begin to think about that great big pot filled with beans, vegetables and hard work.

There were moments when I didn’t think we could resurrect that chili. There were times when I was frustrated by its flaws. So many of us, in chili and in life, erroneously expect perfection from the start. We expect that by 35 we will be a finalized complete package. But life is a constant re-adjustment. If we overdo it – we need to tone it down and bring it back to center. Sometimes we just need to round up some more flavor. And sometimes we just need to figure out a way to sweeten the pot.

Finally getting it right! - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Back at home, I tested a recipe of my own. It was Tuesday night, late in the evening. After a quick cup of coffee with a friend, I was home in my month-old apartment on Cornelia Street. I was settling in to a cold winters night – surrounded by boxes and sleeping on a mattress on the floor because the box spring didn’t make it up the narrow staircase during the move. Then, rising up from the courtyard below I heard echos of laughter and conversation. I was at a crossroads.

My home - photo borrowed from my friends at: http://www.lovetoeatandtravel.com

Every New Yorker is plagued by two television shows that will forever ruin apartment living in this town and leave us in a state of perpetual disappointment: Friends and Seinfeld. These shows taught us that we can be best friends with our quirky next-door neighbor and fall in love with the guy across the hall. They preached to us that we could live in a place where friends were always popping by and sense of community was only a coffeehouse away.

These shows lied to us. Or so I thought. And so on this night, I decided to test MY recipe: Can the new girl in the building make lasting friendships? Can she turn her small studio apartment into a home? Will the courtyard space at #15 Cornelia transform from a garbage recycling zone into a shared community garden filled with fresh herbs, tomatoes and flowers? Will my recipe for life turn out to taste as good as I imagine it?

(Even Kramer recognizes the challenges of getting that recipe right!)

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Eager to test MY recipe and to meet my new neighbors, I put on my coat and hat in a flash and raced to the courtyard with a faux errand in mind. This seemed to me, even in the moment, like a Seinfeld episode in itself. I walked through the courtyard, pretending to be on my way to the corner deli. I said my hellos and made my introductions to my neighbor Ollie, his dog Tucker and his visiting Connecticut friends. Turns out – tonight is Ollie’s 35th birthday and within 5 minutes of conversation, I am invited to Daddy-O’s – a bar one block away. I said “maybe” and carried on my way to the deli, pickup up something I didn’t need and headed back to my apartment. An hour later I decided to follow through on my recipe plan and I met the group at the bar. Lets just say that by 2AM I had a made a few friends, got a few phone numbers in my pocket, some email addresses in my blackberry, a lunch date and some plans with Ollie for a garden renovation.

My recipe worked so far. I bonded with my neighbor and brought myself one step closer to feeling at home. I might have to add some other neighbors into the mix and stir that up for a while. There’s always the chance my recipe might veer off course. But so far… this recipe… Perfect!

And if it’s not perfect… I think I’ll know how to salvage it. Thanks go to Sue Torres for that one.

They're house made - and they're spectacular - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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#6/52: Joe’s Dairy

 

I am blue.

But don’t fret. There is no cause for alarm. I am not blue as in sad. I am blue as in the cheese.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, with the moon still beaming bright, I find myself unable to sleep. It is an unusually warm winter night yet the heat persists in pumping up through the pipes only to settle in my sweltering 6th floor apartment. Unable to rest, I open my laptop to see what searches are in store. I come upon a game to get me through the night: A cheese quiz. In preparation for my day of cheesemaking, I eagerly fill in the multiple choice form – curious to know my cheese identity. Try it for yourself: http://cupped-expressions.net/cheese/quiz/

The results of my cheese persona are in. It turns out I am a Blue; mellow, knowledgeable, a little crumbly but wise. Not bad – aside from that crumbly part. I examine the other cheese descriptions and notice the mozzarella is most becoming: soft, imaginative, creative, young, flexible and fresh. Mozzarella sounds so dreamy… so delicate. Oh how I wish I was a Mozzarella.

In an effort to learn the art of cheesemaking, as well as make a major personality conversion, I spent my Thursday at Joe’s Dairy at 156 Sullivan making fresh and smoked mozzarella and falling in love – with Anthony, Vincent, Frank, Ro, Luis & Luis (yes there are two of them).

Joe's Dairy at 156 Sullivan Street - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

I walk into the shop and I am instantly transported to a simpler time and place. Handwritten love letters line the walls: a pound of Cabot Pepper Jack for $4.49 and Rosemary Crusted Goat for $14.99 are casually written, scratched out, and re-written on white sheets of butcher paper. Scattered among the glass showcases filled with cheese and propped up on the wooden shelves next to the pastas, imported olives oils and balsamics are photos of family and just-born children. And like any Italian household 3 weeks before the holidays, you can hear Bing Crosby belting out White Christmas from the speakers of the 1980’s style boom box in the back.

Hand written cheese notes - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

I am greeted by Anthony Campanelli (the shop owner) and Ro Pianoforte (a family friend) who is behind the counter – and has been for 10 years. Anthony is busy packing and unpacking mozzarella deliveries for Luis to transport to nearby restaurants and Ro is tinkering with her cheeses and checking the refrigerator temperature to make sure it is calibrated correctly. While they work – and without skipping a beat – they carry on a cheerful conversation about their holiday gift giving ideas. Among the feta, the manchego and, of course, the mozzarella they chat about snow globes and fairy tale figurines. Joe’s Dairy is a fairly balanced blend of family and fresh mozzarella.

Ro unwrapping her cheese - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Out pops Vincent from the clear plastic partition which separates the shop from the kitchen where the mozzarella is hand crafted. Vincent is Anthony’s older brother. He is lively and bright-eyed and full of philosophies on everything – from family life to mozzarella making.

Vincent - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Do you do any ballet?” Vincent questions me. If you thought he was commenting on the graceful line of my neck as I initially did – you’d be wrong. “It gets pretty crowded back there – and we’re not tiny.” Vincent was right. I did plie and arabesque  – and also slide, and slip, and almost fall to the floor all throughout the course of my day. Thankfully, Vincent was there to quickly catch me on those first few futile footsteps.

I am crushed in the corner of the tiny kitchen clutching the steel basin of the sink as I try to avoid making a fool of myself and sliding on the slippery, wet floor. Luis is standing over a large pot of nearly boiling, 185 degree water – making mozzarella by hand. Hot milky water is flying in front of me as I attempt to delicately hold my position to keep out of the way. With a twinkle in his eye and a big smile on his face Luis shifts his focus from his work and quickly rolls and ties a tiny ball of mozzarella, dips it in sea-salted water and hands it to me. It looks like a perfectly wrapped present – a bocconcini with a bow. The milky, warm, creamy mozzarella melts in my mouth. I have been to Italy and back and never once tasted something so invited. It is meltingly good and undeniably fresh. My knees are buckling – but this time not from the fickle floor. Luis, watching my delight, gives me a nod. And with this one gentle gesture he initiates me into this private club and my work can commence. But of course, I must start at the very beginning.

The cow’s milk cheese curd comes to Joe’s Dairy by way of Buffalo, New York. I am responsible for first grating the cheese curd in order to create more surface area so that once these tiny pieces of curd hit the hot water they will melt more speedily. Using a Guitara or Harp – otherwise know as a cheese grater – I push pounds of curd through the metal strings – careful not to cause any cuts on the few jagged edges.

Using a harp to grate the cheese curd - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Like a school teacher (which he was) Vincent helps me polish and perfect my technique and advises me to keep the curd towards the center of the harp. He even holds a pen in his right hand – as if he is about to correct my first assignment. Vincent encourages me not to be afraid of the cheese – just dive in and get dirty is his best suggestion. I never thought of myself as fearful of cheese but after he mentions this I can sense my own apprehension. After a few minutes I relax my shoulders and I realize I quite like this ritual and pressing and pushing – especially to the tune of Vincent’s philosophies. “You gotta be insane,” he insists to be in this business – to put your hands into a nearly boiling pot of water and commit your life to making mozzarella for 19 hours a day. Brothers Vincent and Anthony recount stories of those early days when they would work around the clock – then take a break to run home and shower – only to repeat the cycle again the next day. While I am working out my biceps and triceps on the countless cups of cheese curd, I am enjoying the tales of mozzarella past. In this little kitchen there is a fierce competition. Between the cheesemaking and the storytelling – it’s a tie for first.

Brothers, Vincent & Anthony - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Getting into the debate with Vincent and Luis - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

And sharing some more philosophies - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

I slide over to the hottest hub of the kitchen. I am nestled close to Luis and a pot of 185 degree water which sits atop a four-burner gas stove – just like the one I have at home. Next to that stove is large empty pot where we pour my freshly grated cheese curd and then bathe it gently with in hot water – one saucer at a time.

Luis being careful not to burn himself with the hot water - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Luis guides my hand as I stir the cheese and watch it melt from hundreds of separated slices into a one 32 pound ball of mozzarella. Waves of water are swishing everywhere – on me – on Luis – and onto the floor. A big splash and then another – and I am soaked. Luis assures me I’m doing okay. Our hands are in hot water as we fish out the large mozzarella ball and begin to stretch it out like bread dough – ever so gently as to not lose the butterfat. And then the games begin.

Stirring the pot of mozzarella - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

It's harder than I thought - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

As if it is an olympic sport, Luis speedily tosses one pound balls of mozzarella to Anthony and me at a quickening pace – and they teach me how to roll them out into a ball, tucking the cheese into itself and then pinching off the neck to maintain the moisture. One after the other after the next, we toss the mozzarella balls in cool water and then into a wading pool of sea-salt – creating a polished and shiny surface. While we work, Anthony and I get to chatting about his business and his life.

Mozzarella rolling school with Anthony - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Watching the master - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Listening to the expert - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Back to the drawing board - trying to understand the technique - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Perfecting my technique - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Anthony and Vincent were raised in apartment #3 – just upstairs from Joe’s Dairy. Although Vincent became a full-time NYC teacher (and part-time philosopher as well) Anthony decided that college was not in the cards. When when the owner of Joe’s Dairy, Joe Aiello, decided to go back home to Italy permanently, Anthony knew exactly what he needed to do. Just 3 weeks shy of his 18th birthday, Anthony put his key in the door of his very own mozzarella making shop. For the first few years he was only inches away from creditors. Then the customers came. At first they came out of professional curiosity – but they stayed for the cheese. And you will too. It is a story of a neighborhood boy done good. Anthony loves what he does. As he put it, “who wants stick your hands in hot water all day?  I do. I do”

Fresh mozzarella - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Getting a nod of approval from the boys - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Anthony, Luis and I continue of shaping and molding one pound and half pound balls of mozzarella in the back, while upfront actor Willem Defoe is buying a large one pound ball of freshly smoked mozzarella from Ro. And I am fascinated, by both the chiseled features and high cheek bones of the Green Goblin as well as the process of smoking mozzarella – something I have yet to see. It is nearing 2PM and after an hour of my continual questions, Luis finally decides to give my curiosity a rest. The two of us retreat downstairs to make some smoke.

Luis and I crawl through the cellar doors and into the dark, deserted alleyway between the apartment buildings. It is here that we smoke our fresh mozzarella by hand – no machines, no chemicals involved. Luis climbs up the exterior stairway and Vincent passes the mozzarella balls out through the window. Back down the stairs Luis and I tie one ball of fresh mozzarella on either end of a short brown cord and hang the cords over a long stick. That stick then rests on the top of a large metal barrel. Luis lets me light the bottom of the barrel on fire and the flames fly free for about two to three minutes until the mozzarella is smoked to perfection. Together Luis an I untie the cord from each ball of mozzarella ball – It feels like christmas-time with a sea of just tied presents all waiting to be unwrapped. The newly smoked mozzarella balls are sent back upstairs, through the window to be washed and sold – all but one. Luis removes his gloves and with his bare hands he rips off a salty, smokey slice and it melts in my mouth. I am a ruined woman. I will never eat from a supermarket cheese section again.

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I grew up in a household where the only mozzarella I knew came from a plastic package, had a rectangular shape and was hard – inside and out. This mozzarella is a world away from my early cheese-eating years. After a morning of stretching, pulling, molding and reshaping the mozzarella I start to think about that cheese quiz I took earlier this morning. I think about those mozzarella characteristics – pliable, soft, flexible and changeable. And I am beginning to see some of those traits of mozzarella in me.

I, like most New Yorkers, am always moving from apartment to apartment, relationship to relationship and job to job. I sway with the wind and adapt to each new crisis – quickly and easily. When I crumble – just like those shreds of cheese curd – I swiftly swirl myself back together into a stable and solid object and continue to create the next chapter. But as I think about Luis – tailoring, tucking and tying off the ends of the mozzarella – and as I watched Anthony toss one pounders into the cool water – I start to think about that polished and shiny surface of the mozzarella. All that shaping, kneading and dipping yields a firm outer layer which protects the milky softness inside. This firmness is a quality I have come to appreciate.

In a changing world – it is quite nice to create a sense of stability, solidity and to feel firm in your footsteps. I am moving next week – to my very own studio apartment about a block away from where I am now living with a roommate. The place is small, with fickle heating and it is up 4 flights of stairs. But most importantly… it is mine. It is mine to make a mess – and mine to clean. It is mine to grow basil in the courtyard garden, mine to chop pesto in the kitchen and mine to wash the dishes when the meal is done. As I place my key in and unlock the door to my new empty apartment – and just like that mozzarella after is has had a swim in the salt – I create a firmness, an outer layer of strength and a stability to my surface. 

So maybe I am not blue after all. Maybe I am indeed quite like the mozzarella that I spent my day alongside. Maybe I am soft and pliable and flexible on the inside – but firm and solid and strong as well. If you are wondering what kind of person you are – go ahead and take the cheese quiz. And if you’d like to be converted, like me, and come over to the supple side of the mozzarella – stop by Joe’s Dairy on Sullivan. One bite and you will never look back.

Happy days at Joe's Dairy - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Frank, Anthony & Vincent's Father - keeping an eye on the shop

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#5/52: The Milk Pail Farm & Orchard

It is the eve before Thanksgiving. My bags are packed and placed at the front door and my heartbeat quickens with anticipation. I am going home. I couldn’t be more excited.

As I lean in to close and lock the drafty window above my bed I notice that familiar scent – of pies being baked – that floats up the interior courtyard of my apartment building. A bouquet of apple, pumpkin, sweet potato and pecan tease me as they gently crawl up the curtain of my bedroom window. The aroma is so alluring I am tempted to stay and beg the family in 5F for a dinner invitation. But I have a train to catch and I have somewhere to be.

I spent last Thursday in Hampton Bays in the home that I was born and raised with family, friends and food. I was also lucky enough to get a glimpse into another very special family – The Halsey Family – who have lived (and farmed) in these parts for over 350 years.

Halsey Family Apples - an antiqued photo

With my belly full from my large thanksgiving feast (two feasts actually – we ate twice!) I ventured East to the area known as Mecox, in the town of Water Mill, in the heart of the Hamptons. This is not the Hamptons of bikini bathing suits and summer houseshares. This is the Hamptons that I know. A Hamptons filled with fields of grapes and green pastures, of open skies and orange pumpkins, of farmers markets and fruit stands – and of backyards filled with apple orchards and peach trees.

I spent a few hours of my Thanksgiving weekend at The Milk Pail Family Farm & Orchard which has been under the watchful eye of the Halsey family for generations.

The Milk Pail Country Store in Amagansett, NY

Over 30 years ago, The Halsey's ran a Dairy & sold milk at their farm stand, hence the name, The Milk Pail

U-Pick pumpkins and apples in Fall

Driving down the long and windy Mecox Road – lined with farms and fields, and bordered by corn crops and pumpkin patches – I feel a sense of provincial peacefulness as I arrive at #723. The grit and stress of those NYC streets are both a distant memory now. As I walk up to the house, along the stone steps, I am greeted by the newest and youngest member of the Halsey family – a blond haired and blue eyed little guy named Will. Will is only 14 months old but – as the 13th generation in a family of farmers – he is already taking a liking to the outdoors, just like his mother, Jenn Halsey.

We wave goodbye to Will, and Jenn takes me on a gentle drive through her 20 acres of apple trees as we chat about apples and about family life on the farm. In the US there are over 100 varieties of apples that are commercially grown and New York State is the 2nd largest apple producer. The Halsey orchard is filled with a small but well chosen 26 varieties. All of the apple trees here are semi dwarf trees reaching only about eight feet in height – perfect for apple picking – no ladders are required! And at 5’7″ I could eat apples for days without ever going hungry.

It is a windy and rainy day and off in the distance the water level from the picturesque Mecox Bay is rising as we ride along. Jenn and I retreat inside the country store to warm up and to get a glimpse of the fruits born from these orchards. A sea of apples in every variety – sweet, crisp fujis and tart, juicy Jonagolds – are propped up and packaged in small white bags with a handle atop. Perfect little briefcases of Braeburns. Everywhere I look are apples in every form imaginable; homemade apple crumb pies, freshly dehydrated apple slices, jugs of apple cider by the gallon and apple cider donuts sizzling hot and fresh, just out of the fryer. Biblically speaking, apples are a symbol of temptation. They remind us of the innocence we once had. They are also that perfect present for your favorite teacher. They are wholesome, hearty and sweet – just like the Halsey’s.

Perfect little briefcases of Braeburns - and peaches too!

I am standing in the most coveted corner of the country store where I am put in charge of monitoring the apple cider donut making process – a fairly simple process where donut mix is blended with apple cider instead of water to give it that unique flavor. Simple or not, the moment that delicious dough hits the hot oil, the chimes on the front door of the shop begin a continual track of music as customers come running to my corner to collect their hot, fresh treats. I feel like the most popular kid in the class as the donut hungry shoppers glance through the glass window to get a glimpse of me and my donuts. Although I am sure that between the two of us – the donuts definitely win the prize.

Apple Cider Donuts

Almost ready...

Time to eat!

In between the ringing chimes and the rush of customers – and off in the corner by the the Granny Smiths and the Golden Delicious – I can hear Jenn and her sister Amy discussing plans for Amy’s upcoming wedding. They’re so busy they didn’t even see me sneak a nibble of a donut – hot out of the fryer. This is half the fun of my job. The pace is steady but slow inside this little shop: the 40-year old donut machine continues to drop perfect rings of dough into the boiling hot vegetable oil and the girls continue to chatter about the upcoming nuptuals – both filling the shop with a sense of sweetness. And I realize… the lines between work and family are blurred here – and that’s the way the Halsey’s like it.

The Halsey’s have been farming for over 350 years on this land. Generations #11 and #12 – John & Evelyn Halsey and their two daughters – all live within 20 paces of one another on the orchard. It seems as if everything they need is only steps from their back door. It makes me think about my own far and wide search – when sometimes what I am looking was already within reach.

I have traveled the globe in search of new friendships, when my very own sister is a 50 minute train ride away. I have looked for wisdom from my neighbors who pontificate on the stoops below my building, when my own wise aunts and uncles are just over the Brooklyn Bridge. I have sought the solace of a father figure when my own father is only a phone call away. I even ask netflix for advice on which films might perfectly fit my personality, when my very own brother-in-law always seems to know better. This gets me thinking – about my efforts to Google every answer to every question when my own unlived life awaits. In fact, maybe everything I need is right in front of me – just waiting to be harvested.

Of all the things I experienced in my day on the farm, I am most awed by the process by which apples are transformed into apple cider. Red, ripe and perfectly round apples are hand-picked, washed and ground – seeds, core, stems and all – into a mash or pulp called pomace. Layers of apple pulp are wrapped up by hand like christmas presents, packaged in cloth and placed between metal racks – 13 layers in all. A hydraulic press squeezes down –  2,200 pounds of pressure per square inch – and the juice flows free. It takes alot of apples – about 36 – to create just one gallon of apple cider.

With my hands still scented with the sweetness of those cider donuts – and as we are layering and pressing the apple pulp – I learn that apple cider is essentially apple juice that is unfiltered so it retains all that apple-y goodness – course pulp and sediment included. Most juices also add additional water and other ingredients to maintain a lighter flavor and a clarity of color. Trust me, once you taste the rich and hearty taste of apple cider – watered down juice will simply not suffice.

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Pure, unadulturated, unsweetened, unfiltered, undeniably good apple cider is born. But 2,200 pounds of pressure is a significant amount of stress on those sweet shiny apples. Which gets me thinking about pressure and how much of it we place on ourselves and on our loved ones.

I sometimes seek a stress-free life. In the past, when my friends and family would place demands on me I felt weighed down by the pressure of those obligations and responsibilities. But as I watch those 2,200 pounds squeezing the life from those apples, and I taste the sweet apple cider that results – I am reminded that in order the get to the good stuff – those deep and meaningful relationships – sometimes we have to endure a little pressure.

In apple cider making – much like in family life – even though it might sometimes feel like you are being squeezed by a force of 2,200 pounds, you have to remember – that’s how you get to the juice. The Halsey Family knows this well.

My afternoon is winding down. I covered alot of acres and learned alot of apple lessons today. And although those apple cider donuts are calling my name, there are thanksgiving leftovers waiting for me from my own family. But the next time you find yourself way out east on the end of that very long island you must promise me you’ll swing by The Milk Pail, say hello to John, Evelyn, Jenn, Amy and little Will – and stay for a while. You will surely satisfy your craving for fresh squeezed apple cider, hot apple cider donuts and for family-time too.

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A little Seinfeld apple/farm reference – watch the first 2.5 minutes!

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#4/52: Van Leeuwen Ice Cream Truck

The best single food item I ever ate was a knee-buckling, life-altering, chocolate crepe from a street vendor on the Boulevard du Montparnasse on the left bank of Paris.

Maybe it was so good because I was cold and it was warm. Or maybe it was because I was 25 and it was Paris. But maybe – just maybe – it was so downright delicious because it was so unexpected, something I just happened upon while wandering down the street on my very first night in the city of lights.

I never found that crepe stand again. And that too was part of the allure.

The search and the find – and sometimes even the loss – makes the treat that much more desired. Crepe stands are a dime a dozen on the boulevards of Paris. The Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Truck is a touch harder to track down.

I spent my Thursday in confined quarters alongside gallons of all-natural artisan ice cream, meltingly delicious Michel Cluizel hot chocolate and perfectly brewed Intelligentsia coffee.  I also got cozy with jumper cables and power cords – proving that the life of a Food Trucker is truly a challenging one.

I am up before the sun at 4:30 in the morning. I take a drowsy shower and pray that the scalding hot water snaps me out of my sleeping state. No such luck. I travel deep into an unknown, unexplored and undesirable part of Brooklyn. By 6AM it is still dark and I am still cold. I am standing on a street corner in an industrial section of Bushwick. I am alone, with the exception of a few hooded locals who brush me by. This is not the friendliest neighborhood. But granted – it’s early.

Finally, I set my eyes on two welcoming sites moving speedily in my direction. The first is Mandi, a 5 foot 9 inch, slender, graceful, willowy, blond-haired former model turned college student. She wears no makeup but is simply and naturally stunning. With peaches & cream skin and strawberry lips – she’s as delightful as the ice cream she will be serving later today. To call her beautiful is an understatement. I prefer the word angelic. Trust me – if you see Mandi in the window of the Van Leeuwen Ice Cream Truck, you would definitely want to buy a scoop from her. Maybe even two. Even in the cold.

Mandi Nadel - ice cream girl - http://theothericecreamman.tumblr.com/ - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The other site I see is equally as alluring: The Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Truck. She is a former postal truck with a gorgeous makeover. Your typically ugly duckling turn swan story. Not only is her exterior striking – she’s got the goods inside as well.

The Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Truck - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Mandi and I unplug the truck from its power source and stock her full of treats. It’s going to be a rocky ride so we lock everything – from cups to cones – in place in an effort to avoid showering the streets of Brooklyn with ice cream and hot fudge. Although, I can think of worse things.

The garage door raises and the first streaks of sunlight begin to appear. We drive, Mandi at the wheel and me in the passenger seat, over the Williamsburg Bridge and up 1st Avenue. We steal a series of snapshots of the Manhattan skyline at sunrise, along the way. It’s a bumpy and loud ride with lots of rattling in the back but Mandi takes the corners quite smoothly. I’m just thankful I’m not driving.

(Great song. Not an accurate account of our car ride. Just a great song)

A shaky shot of Manhattan at sunrise with me at right - photo NOT by Sandy Hechtman

The last time I found myself behind the wheel of a truck was in 2004 when I drove a 16 foot Penske for 24 hours straight. I drove –  75 miles an hour and full speed ahead – desperate to arrive back home in New York after five years of South Florida living. I handled the road with much less grace than Mandi. I have a vague recollection of visiting a gas station in New Jersey and taking its roof with me when I left. I also got lost 10 minutes from my parent’s house in Hampton Bays – a town I had lived in for 25 years. Lets just say that if I was driving in place of Mandi, the world might not have gotten their ice cream.

We park on the corner of 19th Street and 6th Avenue and like any fancy lady standing on a street corner before 8am, the truck seems to attract alot of attention. She is dressed in a soft, pale, buttery yellow with delicate drawings of vanilla beans, ginger and mint leaves dotted throughout her exterior. Large open windows fill the truck with light and confirm that her ingredients have no secrets: Ice creams filled with Sicilian pistachios, pure organic peppermint, Hudson Valley red currants and fair trade coffee beans.

Open for business - Placing the sign on the sidewalk - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Before we have even turned off the lights up front, we have a customer standing at the window in back. It is only 7AM and she has already begun to sing her siren song. As customers walk up to the truck I listen closely to their conversations. I notice bursts of excitement and shouts of glee as they round the corner and set their eyes upon this truck full of treats.”Oh there she is” and “cool, we found it” litter the pavement as they approach. Coffee-deprived customers come to the window and tell us how they have been searching for us all along the stretch of 23rd Street until they finally discovered us here. This is the nature of our business. The truck moves from block to block – never wearing out her welcome and never staying too long in one place –  like a lover playing hard to get. Now that they’ve found her – I can see relief in their eyes.

The truck is like that partner in relationship that always keeps his distance and then decides to re-appear out of nowhere with a bright and smiling face. I lived in Florida for a few years – a brief blip – and I dated a computer science professor named Khaled – also a brief blip. We met in the cafeteria of the college campus where I worked as a counselor. At the time I had fantasies about becoming a ‘university couple’ and the charming half-French/half-Turkish Dr. Deeb fit the bill. Like the truck, Khaled was deeply attractive and darkly elusive – always one step away from my grasp. Khaled was the kind of guy that would call 3 times a day – and then not call for 3 days straight – and then he would repeat the cycle. At that time in my life, there was something exciting about the rush: glancing at my ringing phone, praying his name would pop up on my caller ID and being disappointed when it didn’t. I became like a detective trying to figure out his formula; What was he doing? When would he call next? And when would I not-so-accidentally bump into him in the college cafeteria? The wondering, the waiting, the searching and the finding all drew me into his spell. Later I found out he had several other girlfriends – all of them also eating in that college cafeteria. I can’t help you keep tabs on your man – but here’s how to track down your truck: http://twitter.com/VLAIC

The line forms - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

We are nestled close to the curb on 6th Avenue with a McDonald’s to our South and Cosi sandwich shop to the North. I can see Staples on my left and Burlington Coat Factory up ahead. In a sea of sameness and chain store monotony, this little truck stands out as different. And different we are. Our front door is a window. Our welcome mat is the curb. Our address is wherever we can find a spot. The weather is both friend and foe. We stand in danger of getting side swiped and losing a mirror and when the street sweeper rides by, he rattles our little shop of meals on wheels. Lots of things can happen that most store front shops never think about. We might even lose our generator power or leave the headlights on too long and burn out the battery – which, unfortunately, we did.

In an attempt to move the truck from 6th Avenue and head to 23rd Street we discover a dead battery. I think this is the truck’s attempt to show us who calls the shots in this relationship. She will not be taken for granted.

Surrendering to her power, Mandi and I hop out with jumper cables in hand and attempt to flag down anyone who might give us jump. We stand there, helpless, for about 10 minutes. We offer everything from ice cream to a steaming cup of hot chocolate. We get many rejections. Finally a NYC taxi pulls over with Sharif at the wheel. It takes quite a while to get enough juice to turn the engine over and Sharif patiently waits with us until we have success. In Arabic Sharif means honest and noble – and I think he was.

The truck, the taxi & Sharif - Photo by Amy Bandolik

The truck, the taxi & Sharif - Photo by Amy Bandolik

The truck, the taxi & Mandi - Photo by Amy Bandolik

Jump started and ready to roll, Mandi and I round the corner to 23rd Street near 5th Avenue. As soon as we park, and before we are even ready to serve, the line forms as if we are The Beatles and the fans have been chasing us from 4 blocks away for an autograph. Granted, Mandi is a former model, but this time it’s the ice cream they are after.

“You moved. Why did you move?” they ask, feeling deserted by their dessert. But just like Khaled, we make up for it by plying them with sweetness: pear ginger muffins with brown sugar on top, hazelnut brown butter cakes with mascarpone, and bowls of ice cream in ginger and giandujia (pronounced jahn-doo-yah) and my favorite – Affogato al Caffè – Vanilla ice cream drowned in espresso – perfect for a chilly day.

Working - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Working - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Serving it up - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Working the ice cream truck is nothing new in my family. In the summer of 1960, at the age of 18, my father was employed as an ice cream man for the Freezer Fresh truck. He was stationed in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn and he was required to work every day as long as it wasn’t raining. Weather permitting, he would work from 10AM until midnight – quite a long shift. Unfortunately for him, he happened to start working during a particularly dry stretch of summer – not a cloud in the sky. He lasted only two weeks – considering himself more of a beach bum than an ice cream man. It all worked out quite nicely though. After only three weeks my father found himself hanging out on Manhattan Beach and sharing a beach blanket with a lovely girl named June. I guess she didn’t think he was such a beach bum.  They have been married for 42 years.

It’s afternoon and Mandi and I are a little worn down from our battle with the battery. She’s off to study for an exam and I’m off to sleep. Working on a food truck is not simply about the food – it’s about the truck too. She needs to be tended to and taken care of. After all, she is a highly coveted sight on the streets of NYC. She is also an independent and mobile creature, who doesn’t wait around for someone else to come calling. She goes where she wants to go and does what she wants to do – and if you’re lucky enough to find her – you will indeed be rewarded. And if you happen to make your way to the streets of Paris and you find a fantastic chocolate crepe somewhere on the left bank – say hello for me.

A girl and her truck (for the day) - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Enjoy a little Eddie Murphy – watch with caution – some cursing. 😉

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