Thursday, April 30, 2009

Professional help

I was approached several years ago by the friend of an acquaintance to make some smiley face cookies. It seemed like a benign enough request. She was an English professor at Northwestern and seemed convivial and well-adjusted. And really, how hard could it be to make smiley face cookies? We all know what they look like. So we sat down in my dining room one evening to discuss the matter further. 

She had with her a pad of paper to draw sketches, a few samples of other smiley face cookies that had failed to live up to her expectations, and a notebook filled with various fudge recipes for the facial features. She then revealed this to me.  

"I eat two smiley face cookies a day," she said. "I need those smiley face cookies." She had been feeding her habit with cookies from a local bakery, Judy's. But Judy's had suddenly closed, leaving her desperate and perilously close to withdrawal. 

"I can do this," I reassured her. She was relieved and then wanted to discuss the color of the frosting. 
"I think yellow is the way to go," I said authoritatively.
"Of course! But are we talking daffodil? Lemon? Daisy? Taxicab? There are a million shades of yellow." 

But only 64 shades of crayons, three of which are yellow, and that's what we used for reference. After some surly back-and-forth, we both agreed on Super Happy (she later claimed that she really had wanted Dandelion but that I had coerced her into Super Happy against her will). 

On to the size. I brought out my round cookie cutters which came in every conceivable size, from a pinpoint to the size of Andre the Giant's head. 

"None of these seems quite right," she said, but the look on my face must have convinced her that her choking death was imminent because she then said, "but the 5  7/16" is probably the closest." Fine. 

We were now, after a 45 minute discussion on the color yellow and the incremental sizes of cookie cutters, starting to find some common ground. We both liked the idea of using a ganache for the mouth and eyes. Which brought us to the facial expression itself. 

"Could you vary the expression?" she asked. 

I looked at her face, trying to find the smallest scrap of humor or irony, but there wasn't any.

"You could do the Edvard Munch 'Scream' painting. Wouldn't that be fantastic? And then you could do other famous paintings like the Mona Lisa, or American Gothic." At that point, Van Gogh's self-portrait came to mind, simply because of the insanity connection. I told her I would give it a shot. 

I would like to able to tell you that this had a happy, painterly ending, with me delivering 60 frosted cookies with a variety of famous faces piped in chocolate on them. Not the case. We ended up going back and forth on the color of the frosting and the ganache recipe, and at that point, $100 per cookie would have been fair compensation. We finally agreed that I would bake 90 cookies and deliver them plain, for $2 a piece. She would worry about the decoration. 

It took me two days to roll out and bake 90 large cookies in my kitchen. I stacked them all in a cardboard moving box and brought them over to her house.  She expressed her thanks, and I expressed a concern for her mental health, and that was the end of that.  

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah (and it clearly isn't Rick Bayless)

So, I've been twittering or tweeting or whatever it's called lately. I have one follower. He's my friend, so he has to follow me. "Following" me isn't that interesting because it means following me around the house while I pick up all the crap that my kids should be picking up. I'm not leading a whirlwind lifestyle, flying from coast to coast, doing engagements and talk shows and food demos and magazine photo shoots. But I know someone who is: Rick Bayless. 

Rick Bayless is the boyish middle-aged chef of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, and he's kind of a hometown hero. He's incredibly energetic and passionate about Mexican food, which he reinvented single-handedly. If the salsa industry has anyone to thank for its mind-boggling sales boom, it's him.

He's also on Twitter all the time. For every one time I go on, he's been on twelve times. I pretty much know every move he makes because he tells me, in crazy cryptic Twitter shorthand. I know what he's having for lunch today. I know what his favorite thing in the whole world is (sweet corn tamales steamed in banana leaves. At least it was yesterday). I know that he's a yogahead, his brother is a famous sportswriter, and that he actually uses the expression "super delish." 

I believe he also coined the phrase "tweetcipe." A tweetcipe is a stenographer's version of a recipe. It also happens to be the most cloyingly cutesy word I've heard in a long time. Ick. 

A tweetcipe has to be 140 characters or less, and still tell the whole story. Here's Rick Bayless' tweetcipe for Olive Oil Cake: 

5/4c sgr,2 lime zst,4 egg,beat 5mn. Fold n ordr: 3T milk,1 3/4c flour, 1 1/2t b.pwdr,2t lime,3oz ch gngr,7T mltbuttr,2/3c OO.2x9"pan. 325/30

I love Rick Bayless and I love his food, but his tweetcipes are annoying. And so are his posts. And why isn't he in the kitchen, where he belongs, instead of on his Blackberry or IPhone, running through airports, drinking Illy espresso and then tweeting about it? 

Probably because it's way more fun to tweet in the DFW airport than it is to sweat your ass off in a hot kitchen for 16 hours a day, enduring second degree burns, carpal tunnel, and varicose veins. Just a guess. 


Monday, April 27, 2009

An open letter to the parents

To the Parents of our Fabulous School, 

It's that time of year again, when we're all supposed to bring healthy snacks to baseball games and certifiably organic, kid-friendly, hypo-allergenic, environmentally responsible dishes to all our respective class Potlucks (in reusable containers, of course!). 

In years past, I have put forth a Herculean effort, driving all over town, trying to find the one Costco in Downer's Grove that has whole grain granola bars - the low sugar kind -  and pretzels without high fructose corn syrup. I have spent hundreds of dollars in gas alone, just to make sure the string cheese has no GMO's or HMO's or whatever it is that causes you to grow a sixth toe. 

God forbid your child consumes sugar. But I made sure that wouldn't happen. I bought the juice boxes sweetened with agave. They taste like camel piss, and no one will drink them, but there won't be any obesity at this school! Remember those super duper healthy "tofu-toffee-taffy" bars I made that one year, with dates and brown rice syrup, that got stuck in the pan and it took me two hours to pry them out? You may have loved me, but your kids keyed my car. 

Well, I am done. This year, I'm bringing kool-aid, cans of fake whipped cream, and red dye #2 in as many forms as I can find at the convenience store behind my house, which also has super real-looking Kalashnikov water assault rifles. Pretty cool, so I got my kids a couple, along with a pocket knife and some M80's. We'll be calling you for a playdate real soon. 

By the way, I'm running for PTA President next year. A vote for me is a vote for change!

Here's to a great season!


Sunday, April 26, 2009

If this isn't heaven, it's a close approximation

I never thought in a million years I'd want to go to Fresno. But then I read about the Chicken Pie Shop. Just the thought of a place that sells only chicken pot pies is enough to get me on the internet looking for cheap fares. The Chicken Pie Shop apparently has other stuff, too, but who cares? It's not like you're going to go there and order a reuben. That's like going to Al's Beef and ordering the southwest turkey wrap. Come on. 

I have a long and deeply felt connection to chicken pot pie. Let's travel back to Marshall Field's, The Walnut Room, 1970. I'm wearing a brown velvet dress and way-too-tight party shoes. My hair is in Shirley Temple curls after an entire bottle of No More Tangles and demands to "sit still!" I'm probably still crying as my mother tries to take my picture with the huge Christmas tree in the background. But then the waitress brings me my first chicken pot pie. The crust is very flaky, and the smell is pure chickeny goodness. There are peas and carrots inside, the only vegetables I'll let near my mouth, and they have obviously been diced for a five year old. How did they know I would be visiting today? 

So now you know: I'm invested. I'm opinionated. And here's what I think. The inside of a chicken pot pie should be colorful and crowded, like a Puerto Rican wedding. The sauce's role is to make sure everything - the peas, carrots, and the chunks of white meat chicken - peacefully co-exists. The sauce doesn't have an ego. It is there to make everyone else look better.

There's only one crust you can put on top of the perfect pot pie filling: rough puff pastry. It's a cross between puff pastry, which itself is too high-falutin', and pie crust, which isn't flaky enough. 

I have had this chicken pot pie. A family in our neighborhood has a post trick-or-treating Halloween Hoo-Hah (sophisticated word for a gathering) where they serve, among other things, a chicken pot pie that they get at a top-secret, still unnamed specialty food shop. I actually stop speaking when I eat this pie. I sit in quiet reverence and wonder, would it be unseemly if I had more than three helpings? The filling is a colorful and crowded 10, the crust is a 9.95 (a little more flake would vault it right over the top), and I just do everything in my power to remain in their good graces, because I do not want to be left off that invitation list. 

But since Fresno is far away, and Halloween even farther, I'll just think about chicken pot pie right now. Or maybe I'll make one. I'll keep you posted.  



Friday, April 24, 2009

Mmmmm, steak (as only Homer Simpson would say it)

If I wasn't so afraid of angioplasty, I'd be having a steak right now. I think steak is the elixir of life, even if it's also the hastener of death. Life is full of ironies. 

My first experience making a steak was with SteakUmmm's (I can't remember how many m's there were, but the more m's it had, the tastier it was). Whether SteakUmmm's was truly steak is up for discussion. I think it contained some steak or it would have been called Steak-likeUmmm's or SavoryUmmm's or some other innocuous name the chino-wearing brand manager conjured up during an alcohol-fueled dinner meeting at Applebee's. I know that White Castle calls their "fish" sandwich the DeepSea, and if that doesn't alarm you, I don't know what will. You could be eating breaded coral, or fish leavings, or toxic waste, or pieces of electrical cable that have fallen off an oil tanker. If you're Jewish, you would call this sandwich the BottomDweller. 

As for my SteakUmmm's, I would cook the thinly sliced steak-like product in a teflon pan, and then layer it on a toasted sub roll with sauteed onions, a sprinkling of parmesan and a little mayo. There were no juices to mingle with the mayo and the onions, but the idea was there. 

I've recently discovered the flat iron steak. Apparently, it's the new darling of the restaurant kitchen. It's also the new darling of my kitchen. As an affirmed flank steak lover, I found it pretty hard to believe that there was a better cut for me. But the flat iron is so great, it's almost as great as chocolate cake. It's flavorful, tender, easy to eat, and doesn't have troubling pieces of fat or obvious blood-filled veins running through it, a definite drawback with flank. Also, you don't have to chew each piece for 20 or 25 minutes just to get it into a digestible state, like you might with skirt steak. 

Of course, now I can't find it anymore. Whole Foods, those nasty bastards, carried it for one glorious week but now that bbq season is here, it's gone. If you see one, please call me. It's in a cryovac bag and it's as handsome as George Clooney, and apparently about as available. 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Adventures in hot dog land

I frankly think it's a crime to serve someone ravioli filled with air and then charge them for it. There are a lot of chefs doing that these days. Grant Achatz, of Alinea, has lavendar air in one of his dishes and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he wanted 75 of your dollars for it. Ferran Adria, the Spanish chef who's the father of foams, mists, auras and other futuristic affairs - and who injects eucalyptus air into his ravioli  -  asks for hundreds of dollars, but for what?  So you can smell the food at his restaurant, El Bulli?

I say forget about peanut butter smoke and liquid olives and all the other food borne out of the electric kool-aid acid test kitchen. You want to know what the food of the future is? 

The spaghetti hot dog.  

A friend of mine, Byron, sent me the link to this picture and when I saw it, I thought, 'genius.' Well, actually, my first thought was 'eeeeewww.' Then I thought 'genius' because I remembered my daughter's class is having a potluck next week, and I have to bring a main course. Have you ever tried to feed 18 6 year-olds one main course, not including pizza? 

It took me a minute to figure out the ergonomics of the thing (poke uncooked spaghetti through hot dogs, boil for 10 minutes, voila!). The fact that it looks like the alien in "Alien" or a killer squid just adds to the whole freakish-yet-fun gestalt of the dish. 

I figure a little knob of cheez whiz on top will make a nice cheez-y sauce. Real cheez whiz, not the essence of cheez whiz, or cheez whiz mixed with carbon dioxide to create a floating orange cloud that hangs over each kid and then bursts into a technicolor fireworks display. Although that would be pretty cool. 

Anyone know where I could get some carbon dioxide?


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Stalking Nancy

If ever there was a good time to talk about Nancy Silverton, it's now. My last handful of posts have been about disgusting food, unfulfilled food pilgrimages, and being called a "motherfucker" in cooking school.  

It's time for a post about good food. Even though I claim not to be a foodie, I do love good bread and good olive oil and good cheese and good ham, and desserts that aren't too sweet or too fancy or too much, and all those things mean I love Nancy Silverton. She is my sister in palate. Hers was the first dessert cookbook I ever opened. I cooked and baked my way through it, which is no small feat because Nancy Silverton is a bitch for the details. Her recipe for starter, which is the fermented flour and water first step in bread making, is 9 pages long. 

Among countless other things, Nancy started LaBrea Bakery in Los Angeles. LaBrea Bakery is why you're not eating Wonder Bread anymore. It set the wheels of the whole 'good bread' movement in motion.  

The first time I had one of her desserts, I loved it so dearly, so completely, so unconditionally, I ordered a second one after licking the first plate clean. When there's a promise of getting more of Nancy's warm, sugared donuts with vanilla ice cream and huckleberries, any self-consciousness I may have about looking like a gluttonous pig completely evaporates.   

On another visit, I begged the waiter to ask Nancy to come out. She was very accommodating (and perhaps a touch apprehensive because apparently, I can sometimes look like a stalker, or so I've been told). She talked about how she slept in three separate shifts everyday so she could be at the bakery for each of the three bakes. I was so enthralled, so starry-eyed, so rapt, they probably made a notation in the margin of the reservation book about me: FRIGHTENING AND UNSTABLE!!!!! KEEP THIS WOMAN AWAY FROM NANCY!!!!!!

At subsequents visits, I would peer into the open kitchen, hoping to get a glimpse of her. What is she doing now? Is she making caramel? Saucing a plate? I wanted to yell, "Hi Nancy! It's me! Remember me?" I would spend the entire meal with one eye on my dinner companion and the other on the kitchen, Marty Feldman-style, while eating Nancy's focaccia, which, by the way, is spectacular, with just the right amount of rosemary.  

But I assure you, I'm not a crazy stalker. Just a fan of a great tart crust (hers is the best I've ever had) and the best gazpacho recipe ever (she's multi-talented, which you have to love  -  I do). So if you're in LA anytime soon, she has a new venture, Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza. Could you tell her Wendy says "hi"? 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Family Meal

You'd be amazed at how quickly a cook can put together a meal for 30.  I regularly witnessed entire meals - salad, main course, sides - assembled in 10 minutes. That's about how long it takes most cooks to assemble family meal, the meal served to everyone - the kitchen staff, servers, bussers, and anyone else looking for a free meal - right before service starts at 5:30. 

Whether family meal was edible or not depended on who assembled it. Sometimes the sous chefs would take their turns, and the meal was pretty good. They always had a hidden stash of something tasty - meat sauce for pasta, a complete lasagna for 30, roast chicken. The younger cooks were afraid of getting yelled at by the chef for using expensive ingredients (they were afraid of getting yelled at for breathing), so they always made rice with the leftover lentils and wilted salad.  

I took my turn at family meal after months of begging. The idea that a pastry chef - the pale and uncoordinated step-child of the kitchen - could put together a meal was laughed at by some, particularly the waitstaff when they saw I had made sloppy joe's (as if sloppy joe's were somehow beneath these petty thieves and winos). Of course, it gave me the opportunity to say what I had always dreamed of saying in my advertising career but couldn't: Shut the fuck up. 

But no person's family meal was more feared than Mauro's. Mauro was the in-house butcher, and his job was to accept the shipments of meat, chicken, and fish and then break them down (i.e. hack them up). His station was in the basement, and he worked by fluorescent light, cutting up carcasses all day long. 

Mauro was a cute, boyish Argentinian who couldn't have been more than 23 or 24. If he shaved at all, it was maybe once every couple of weeks. He had a nasal-y voice that screamed deviated septum, and I had to stifle the urge to offer him decongestant and/or surgery. 

His first family meal was a big pot of soup. We all stood in line with our bowls. I was at the end of the line but I noticed that the people up at the front were staring into the pot. I pushed my way forward to get a better look. 

Another 30 seconds of uncomfortable silence, and then someone finally asked what we all wanted to ask.

"Dude, are those teets?"

Mauro had cut up the skin of a pig in 1" squares and made a soup with the offending pieces. Some people just spooned the broth into their bowls, leaving the floating teets behind. One cook was chewing energetically. I didn't keep track of that journey, but if he did swallow it, I'm sure he's still digesting it today. 

I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Sympathetic to my plight, the garde manger (the guy who does appetizers and salads) made me a nice little salad during service. Having access to all the parts, Mauro continued to present the weird and exotic when it was his turn to make family meal. So I got my own stash: peanut butter. 

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Anyone for lutefisk?

Whenever I see the word "delicacy," my yellow flag (also known as my gag reflex) immediately springs into action. Maybe it's because things like eyeballs and the scrotums of barn animals are delicacies. Delicacies are never what they ought to be: dainty chocolate truffles and sugared citrus rinds. They're usually things that make you retch.  

In Scandinavia, there's a delicacy called lutefisk. I was first introduced to lutefisk on CBS' Sunday Morning years ago. The very droll reporter Bill Geist was up in Minnesota eating the stuff with a bunch of Nords and Swedes. Or rather, he was trying to good-humoredly choke it down.  

Lutefisk begins as plain old cod fish(or other mild white fish, like ling). The cod is dried, and then soaked in cold water for five days. For the next two days, it soaks in a water and lye solution. Lye. The caustic chemical used to unclog toilets. The caustic fish is then soaked in fresh water for six more days, at which point it is ready to be cooked (and presumably taken off Poison Control's top ten list). 

The resulting texture is - and I'm being very generous here - wobbly. Gelatinous. Like a fishy Jello mold. Depending on where you're from in Scandinavia (the north or the south), it's eaten with either a cream sauce, melted butter or mustard sauce. It's served with boiled potatoes, peas, and lefse, a Norwegian flatbread. A beiger plate you will not find. 

So you already know what I did. I went to Erickson's Delicatessen in Andersonville and got me some. I also bought a tube of Arctic Caviar, which is smoked cod roe. I should have gotten the creamed and pickled herring, and had a stinky fish fest, but I was already starting to feel a little gag-y. The plump, preternaturally blond Norwegian woman at the counter gave me detailed directions, which I followed to a T. She confessed to me that she had never tried lutefisk, but that her sister and mother loved it. Here's what I think is really going on. No one in Norway eats lutefisk. It's like one of those "let's fuck with the Americans" games that the French like to play. 

I did everything the package told me. I used a glass baking dish. I put foil over the top. I baked it for 30 minutes at 375 degrees. The package said the fish would be flaky. My lutefisk was gooey. And the longer I left it in the oven, the gooier it got. So, I finally decided to taste it as is. 

I can't believe I was actually thinking about creating a real Scandinavian meal with lutefisk as the centerpiece. Nothing, not melted butter or mustard sauce or the best tartar sauce in the world, would make this stuff palatable. Which, I guess, is what Garrison Keillor was thinking when he called lutefisk "the biggest hunk of phlegm in the world." 


Friday, April 17, 2009

Rosemary-scented victory

Apparently, the magic hour is 11:20. That's when I arrived at Hot Doug's on Friday to find a medium-short line, similar to the one above. I've decided that the waiting part, or the 'pre-meal' as I will now call it, is akin to waiting for your meal at an ordinary restaurant, except that you haven't ordered yet. And you're standing outside. A stretch, I know, but you have to come up with some semi-credible explanation as to why you're waiting in a line this long for a hot dog. 

Forty minutes later, I ordered the Sandra Chase, which was "Today's Celebrity Sausage." I have to confess: I have no idea who Sandra Chase is, so I googled her. There's a Sandra Chase who has a homeopathic medical practice in Fairfax, Virginia, and another with a general dentistry practice in San Diego. A different Sandra Chase gave $1250 in political contributions in 2008, but to which candidate, only Sandra Chase knows for sure. I should have asked, "To which Sandra Chase are you referring?" because if my sausage had been named after Sandra Chase, the one-armed albino serial killer, or Sandra Chase, the pathological liar, I might have chosen the Dave Kingman (my friend, Bob's, choice) or the Keira Knightley (mighty hot!) instead.  

Sandra Chase, the sausage, was a rosemary-smoked chicken sausage with rosemary-garlic mustard and caruchon cheese, which is a fancy sheep's milk cheese from France (had to look that one up). It tasted better than it looked. I think it's fair to say that all sausages fall into the "has a great personality" category. Sausages do not possess the physical beauty of, say, a ripe peach. When someone says, "That's a good-lookin' sausage," what they really mean is, "I've had a few beers, and by a few, I mean 27." 

Bob and I shared some duck fat fries, which, ironically, were good lookin', and tasted good lookin', too, although I don't think I could tell the difference between duck fat fries and non duck fat fries in a blind taste test. 

We paid $10 for the meal and at first, I thought it was because I know Doug. Well, I used to know Doug, back in grade school. He was my brother's friend, and I have a distinct memory of all of us, with the addition of their friend, Ziggy, standing around in my kitchen while Ziggy put the needle nose pliers into an electrical socket. We all lived. But, no, the cheap meal was not an isolated incident of post-electrocution favoritism. Doug likes to make up prices as he goes along. So if he charges you $75, figure it's because he doesn't like you. 

Hot Doug's, the Sausage Superstore. Worth the Wait.   

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hot Doug's - back at it

After the Pizzeria Bianco fiasco (see former posts), you'd think I would have learned my lesson regarding long lines and food pilgrimages. But seeing that I've been wanting to try Hot Doug's for years, it seems crazy to throw in the towel at this point. Besides, I'm getting good at this. If waiting in line for food becomes an endurance sport, I want to be its most accomplished athlete. 

So I've cleared the calendar and I'm heading back tomorrow with the same friend who accompanied me on my first fruitless trip. I'm sure Bob and I will have the same endless argument we had the last time: which chocolate is better, milk or bittersweet? The obvious answer here is bittersweet. It's kind of a no brainer. But many fine points can be made either way and that should carry us through the hour or so wait. Let's just hope it doesn't get so heated that we come to blows. 

I fished around on the internet and found the above picture. Can I be frank? It looks like the cat rejected its Friskies Buffet on top of that sausage. Maybe it's just an unflattering picture. Maybe the lighting was all wrong. How many of us are truly photogenic? On the other hand, maybe it's just an ugly sausage that tastes damn good. I'm so willing to concede that.   

The next Hot Doug's post will be a clear and detailed account of encased meats, duck fries, long waits, arguments about chocolate, and the winner of those arguments. I promise you, I will not come back empty handed. 

Subscription glitch

If you subscribed prior to Wednesday the 15th and have not gotten any posts in the past day or two, please re-subscribe. It seems, in my infinite technology wisdom, that I have deleted some subscribers. Thanks! 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In an Albert Brooks world

I'm starting to think the world would be a better place if Albert Brooks took over. Not because I think the world stage needs more (and better) comedians, which I do. God knows, I almost voted for Ross Perot thanks to his "I'm all ears" comment. 

I'm leaning this way because Albert Brooks, in Defending Your Life, proffered a concept so revolutionary, so thrilling, so game changing that he is the most deserving heir apparent. 

The concept: eat all you want and never gain weight. 

In an Albert Brooks world, there is no saturated fat count. Or fiber considerations. Or sodium intake. In an Albert Brooks world, we eat for pleasure. 

I, of course, have already mapped out my first day of pleasure eating in the new world order and it looks something like this. 

For breakfast: a pound of pasta carbonara. Carbonara is like fettucine alfredo but with eggs and bacon in it. A nice tip of the hat to breakfast. I can always have some alfredo later, as a mid-afternoon snack, between the buttery almond tart and the bag of Cape Cod potato chips. 

Mid-morning snack: a large slice of pizza, but not from Pizzeria Bianco (see former posts). There's a place in Pelham, New York called Four Corners Pizzeria and the slices are standard legal size, 8 1/2 by 14, and dripping with oil. I'll have one of those, please.  

Lunch: a caesar salad, fully dressed. From now on, there will be nothing offered on the side. Terms like "light on the....", "just a touch of....", or "hold the......" will be expunged from the language, as will the silly words "Lowfat," "Diet," and "Lite." 

Mid-afternoon Snack: a toss-up between chili cheese fries from Red Hot Lovers and queso fundido. Maybe I'll just have both. 

Luckily, I've saved my appetite for dinner. I'll be having the following: cream of mushroom soup (a bowl, not a cup), fried shrimp, lobster ravioli,  saganaki, a perfectly grilled Flat Iron steak with herb butter, a mound of well-salted frites, and for dessert, Albert Brooks Brownies (see recipe below) with Pierre Herme's truly hedonistic creme brulee ice cream. 

The best thing about an Albert Brooks world is that since you're never really full,  you can always go back for more. 

Albert Brooks Brownies

These are so unvirtuous, I save them for special occasions. How very un-Albert Brooks of me. 

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate*
3 Tbs. unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 1/2 Tbs. water
2 eggs
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. salt
2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts (totally optional)
confectioner's sugar, for garnish

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Coat a 9" square pan with butter. 

Chop the chocolate into rough, small chunks with a large, heavy knife. Combine half the chocolate (no need to measure here; you can just eyeball it) with the butter, sugar and water in a metal bowl or double boiler. Put the bowl over simmering water and stir until melted. Set aside to cool for five minutes.
Transfer the chocolate mixture to a large mixing bowl if the first bowl isn't large enough to accommodate remaining ingredients. Whisk in the eggs, then stir in the flour, salt and optional nuts. Fold in the remaining chopped chocolate. The batter will be lumpy. 

Bake for 30 - 35 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the sides pull away from the pan. Start checking after 30 minutes to be safe. Set aside to cool for 30 minutes, then cut into squares, dust with powdered sugar and eat immediately if possible. These will store for a few days, well wrapped.

* As for brands of chocolate, I use Callebaut, which I find in 1 pound chunks at Whole Foods. It's very reliable and the flavor appeals to everyone. You can find it online, too. Just Google  it. It's worth going out of your way to use good chocolate in this recipe. 



Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Getting reviewed

If you're going to fail, do it in front of several hundred thousand people. That way, you can get the crippling fear of not just failing, but doing it in front of several hundred thousand people, out of the way and get on with your life. 

I had my first critic's review 5 weeks after I started my first job as "Pastry Chef." My biggest achievement at that point was getting the desserts onto the plates. And figuring out the chef's brioche recipe. No small feat, since he had a habit of handing me a piece of paper with some ingredients on it - and nothing else - and saying, "Here, make this." I had also talked him out of serving a darkly nauseating cocoa sorbet. My argument: why not just send out a spoonful of unsweetened baking cocoa and an ice cube?  

My professional experience thus far had been in a pastry shop, where we made whole tarts and cakes. There were no squiggles of sauce or fanciful garnishes or curly caramel doodads to put on the plate because there were no plates. Everything left the shop in a box.  

So there I was, 5 weeks in, an hour before service, and the chef walks over to my station. He hands me the newspaper and says, "Read this." The kitchen was bustling. Cooks were prepping their stations, servers were folding napkins. The co-sous chefs were nervously pacing. 

I looked at the review. An impressive 3 stars. That rarely happens three weeks after opening. The review began something like this: "Chicago has waited a long time for this illustrious chef to open his own restaurant....." As I read on, it became clear that there was some serious, swoony man love going on. The arctic char made him giggle with delight. The lamb was not of this world. Everything the chef touched turned to edible gold leaf. Now I was riding this groovy wave of unconditional love. Then I got to the desserts. 

"The desserts, although fine, are the weak link in this kitchen........"  My heart sank, along with my pancreas, gall bladder and one of my kidneys. I wanted to cry. But you don't cry in the kitchen. If you lose your finger in the meat slicer, you don't cry. If you lose an entire arm or leg, maybe you can cry. A better choice would be to lose consciousness and forgo the crying altogether. 

So now, I'm the guy who ruins it for the whole team. I'm the receiver who fumbles on the 1 yard line, only to have an overfed defensive tackle named Jumbo pick it up and hobble it back for a touchdown. Better yet, I'm Steve Bartman. 

I now know the chef had me read the review in front of the whole kitchen to humiliate me. And he succeeded. But lest you think it ended on a sour note, there is a happy post script. Several months later, when Chicago Magazine was putting together their annual Best Restaurants issue, we were chosen as one of the best new restaurants of that year. Much to my chef's dismay, the critic picked one of my desserts for the featured photo. So there. 


Monday, April 13, 2009


When I worked at the pastry shop, new employees were a frequent occurrence. On a couple of occasions (it's hard to believe this happened more than once), the new employee would announce at 8:00 AM, 2 1/2 hours after he started, that he had to go feed the meter. He would walk out the door and never return. These people were fleeting, barely a memory. 

But there is one person who stands out in my mind, mostly because of her hair and nails. Ideally, in a kitchen, you have neither. But she had a head of wild black hair and a perfect French manicure. Immediately suspect. Anyone worth their sea salt in a kitchen has no nails - or ugly nails - and lots of scars. And burns. And, if you're missing a digit, you immediately go up two notches. In a professional kitchen, he who endures the most pain and disfigurement is king. 

And she who comes to work at 5 AM with perfectly applied eyeliner and hair like Janet Jackson is hiding something. I'm going to call her "Amber."  "Amber" walked around like a woman who had just come out of a salon after having a manicure, with her hands out, ready to scream, "Don't touch me!" if someone was stupid enough to try. "Amber" couldn't use a pastry bag. She couldn't roll dough. And I've never seen anyone hold a knife like she did, with her fingers jutting straight out rather than curled around the handle. Apparently, it was preferable to risk cutting off a finger than it was to chip a nail. 

We all thought the same thing on a daily basis: Who is this person, and, why is she here? And on my own, I wondered if her hair was real. Just a hunch. She and her nails and her fountain of hair were obviously not cut out for kitchen life.  As intriguing information has a habit of doing, hers started trickling out a few days later.  

Her employ was a favor to one of the shop's investors, a retired cop and one-time moonlighting security guard at a popular gentlemen's club in Chicago. She worked there, too. Her stage name was "Ambrosia." A cheap, tawdry dessert best known for its marshmallows. 

The hair and nails started to make sense. But the fact that she was working for minimum wage didn't. She never let on that she spent evenings on men's laps. Ironically, her station (which was really just her place at the worktable) was right next to the plumbing stack, i.e. a pole. So we all sort of hoped in a perverse way that she might show us some moves purely out of habit. Never happened. 

Ambrosia only lasted a few weeks. She was gone as mysteriously as she came. I think the job was just too hard on her nails. 


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Standing on principle

Here it is, the scene of the crime. This is before the doors of Pizzeria Bianco opened, around 4:45 pm on Friday. Imagine this scene in August, when it's 108 degrees. I know -  it's a dry heat. But dry heat stings your skin like a mo fo, like you're standing naked in the middle of a stovetop burner on high. Or in a 700 degree pizza oven......

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Pizza unrequited

I don't need you, Chris Bianco. 

I don't need your pizzeria and your pies with charming names. I don't need your house-smoked mozzarella or peppery arugula or fennel sausage or fruity olive oil, and I especially don't need your bubbly, toothsome crust made with spring water from the streams that babble beside Mount Vesuvius. I am so over you. 

Here's how it unfolded. Thursday. We arrive at Pizzeria Bianco at 5:10. We get a spot in the parking lot, which is a minor miracle since there are only 14 of them. There's a short line of people in front of the restaurant - 8 or 9 - waiting to give their names to the hostess. Five reasonable minutes later, I give her my name. She couldn't have been cuter or nicer. I have good, uplifting feelings already (the fact that I listened to a Jesus rock station on the way there, which touted itself as "positive, encouraging KLUV" may have contributed to the I-love-everyone vibe). 

But then she delivers the poison: you're looking at a 3 hour wait, she says. You can leave as long as you check in by phone every hour. Go do some errands. Go see a movie. 

I walk back to deliver the news. Before the last sentence clears my mouth, my husband says, "I'm not waiting 3 hours for pizza." But I'm way ahead of him.

"Of course you're not! So here's the plan." When it comes to problem solving, my brain is Usain Bolt fast if I want something bad. 
"I'll come back tomorrow at 3:15 and put our names in. Then I'll drive back to the hotel and get you guys. By the time we get back to the restaurant, we'll just make the 5:00 seating. And I won't put anyone through crazy wait times." Agreed. But also perturbed because an hour has just been wasted in the car, Jesus rock or no Jesus rock. 

After I devise the plan, I spend the next 24 hours going over it in my head. Incessantly. Obsessively. I have trouble falling asleep. 

Friday. I drop my family off at Cracker Jax Fun Park at 3:00. My husband and son have decided to forego their Wiseguys (wood roasted onion, house smoked mozzarella, fennel sausage) for 18 holes. So it's just me and my daughter, who is too young to understand how insane this really is. 

I drive back to Pizzeria Bianco by myself, convinced my plan will work. When I get there at 3:35, there are about 30 people waiting, not in lines, but milling around in the courtyard area. I double park and walk up to the door. The plan is to get my name on the list, then head back to Cracker Jax. But no one's there to take names. My plan is starting to unravel, I just don't know it yet. 

In a perfect world, I would have stayed and waited. I stood for hours waiting for The Who and The Stones to arrive. I could stand here for a few hours for a Sonny Boy (tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, salami, gaeta olives). But my husband's tee time is at 4:30 and I have to chauffeur them from Cracker Jax to the golf course before heading back for my perfect market salad, a few slices of the best pizza in the world and a beer to wash it all down. 

With positive, encouraging KLUV as my co-pilot, I do all the necessary pick-ups and drop-offs and head back to Pizzeria Bianco, daughter in tow. I have now spent two hours driving back and forth and have accomplished nothing. 

As soon as I see the line, I am only slightly discouraged. It's about 100 people long, and now definitely a line. The restaurant hasn't opened yet, and they're still not taking names. It's 4:45. 

Finally, at a few moments past 5:00, the door opens and that cute, nice hostess comes out. The people at the front of the line start filing in. I can feel their anticipation at claiming the elusive prize. I'm also listening to some native Phoenicians behind me telling some visiting Minnesotans how the wait is so worth it. SO worth it. It is so worth it. 

Time passes. 30 minutes. 35. 40. The line is creeping forward as the hostess happily takes names. My daughter is a little bleary-eyed but she's entertaining herself with the games on my cel phone. We're still at least 20 people back from officially becoming members of the seriously disturbed group that would wait 4 hours for a pizza. 

A different hostess, this one obviously the enforcer, comes our way. She yells in a frank tone she's probably become accustomed to. 

"Just to let you all know, the wait for the people at the front of the line is now 4 hours!"

So that means for us, 20 people back, it could be 4 1/2 hours. Or even 5. And that's not including the 45 minutes I've already stood there, shifting my weight back and forth. Or the 2 hours I've zigzagged across the Arizona highway system today. Not to mention the one hour yesterday in the car when I had to listen to some woman on KLUV talk about how she cried when she met Jesus. 

And so my relationship with Pizzeria Bianco ended. It wasn't emotional; it just was. We ended up finding another pizza place, Grimaldi's. They played Connie Francis and Frank Sinatra, and had parmesan cheese shakers on the red and white checkered tablecloths. 

When I asked my daughter how she liked her pizza, she said, "It almost made me cry." So it goes with pizza. 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The best pizza in the world (theoretically)

I love pizza and so do you, and so does everybody, except maybe the lactose intolerant. For them, there's soy cheese, which is something one passively accepts, not loves, because the alternative is either a sad and pathetic life of gustatory abstinence, or cramps and diarrhea. 

So when someone reputable (in this case, Gourmet Magazine) claims that a certain pizza is perhaps the best in the country - if not the world - I, the pizza lover, take notice. It's a pretty dicey claim since every man stands alone in his own personal pizza love. Not that there aren't like-minded groups with whom you might want to share your love: I Heart Deep Dish; I'm in a New York Pizza State of Mind; etc, etc.....But does the universally - and unanimously - best pizza really exist? 

Pizzeria Bianco - Gourmet's theoretical number one -  is in Phoenix. Not exactly a pizza town. But people stand in line for three, four, even five hours, risking John McCain's melanoma in the Arizona sun, for a piece of the pie. 

This is high-minded pizza. The sausage is made in-house. The crust is so bubbled and blistered, it could be a topographical map of the Sierra Nevadas. And the toppings are artisanal and organic. Culinary hoity-toitiness aside, it's still pizza. 

So I'm putting on my most comfortable, standing-in-line-for-an-absurd-amount-of-time shoes and hitting the road. I will time the journey and take copious notes. And regarding its 'best' status....well, you'll be the first to know. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


I should have called this post ¡Carnemania! because that's what Pro's Ranch Market is: an ode to meat. It's also a boisterous fiesta, with streamers hanging from the ceiling fans, Latin music, and lots of families. Big families. With 5 kids all under the age of 6, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in tow. It's a Sunday picnic in Lincoln Park, complete with the smell of smokey carnitas on the grill. The only thing missing is the soccer game. 

But first and foremost it's a grocery store. I first read about Ranch Market when I was searching for authentic Mexican food in Phoenix. It's about the size of a football field, with -erias all over the place. Carniceria, pescaderia, panaderia, cremeria, salsichoneria - and of course, a tortilleria, where little Mexican women with pliable hands make thousands of tortillas everyday. 

We ate at La Cocina, which is like an over-stimulated food court. ¡Pollomania! was the theme of the day. They also had street tacos and burritos, a hot buffet line, and a separate line for chicharones, which are giant sheets of fried pork skin the size of your average throw pillow. I was half-expecting a conga line to form but thankfully, that never materialized. 

We ended up having some of the best salsa I've ever tasted and some of the most average tacos. I blame Rick Bayless for my lofty expectations. Bastard. The kids' meals came with steroid-injected cookies shaped like neon watermelon slices. Utterly nasty. Even my sugar-addicted kids thought so. 

The carniceria, however, was fascinating (this from someone who secretly wanted to be a butcher). You can always tell how important meat is in a culture's diet by checking out their neighborhood grocery. Ranch Market has so much meat, my red blood count went up exponentially. Every cut you've ever heard of, plus many that you haven't, was on display. And every edible-but-do-you-really-want-to-eat-it part was there, too. I stared at a whole beef head, and it stared back at me, and for $29.99, I could have continued the staring contest all the way home. The beef feet came with or without skin. And the bin of beef tongue (lengua - thank you, Spanish translation website) was sufficiently stomach-turning that I went psychologically vegan for several minutes. 

Average tacos aside, I was completely inspired to go cook an entire Mexican meal after manhandling every avocado in the bin and realizing they were all perfectly ripe. Too bad I didn't have a kitchen. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Howdy pardner

If you wear a tie to Pinnacle Peak Patio in Scottsdale, they cut it off. It's a kitschy gimmick that apparently started years ago when a businessman came into the joint wearing a suit. The original proprietors wanted to keep the place casual, and so asked the man to remove his tie. He declined. The owner took a butcher knife and hacked it off. 

After that, people came just to get their ties chopped off. When it was my stepfather's turn 30 years ago, they used scissors. Butcher knife or not, I was completely enthralled. I'm sure I giggled endlessly as they took the amputation, along with his business card, and tacked it up on the wall somewhere, never to be found again. 

Last night, after 30 years, I went to Pinnacle Peak to look for his tie. The place still looks like an old western town where a gun fight might break out momentarily. It used to be out in the middle of nowhere. Now, it's in the middle of a development. And there's an air-conditioned mini-storage facility right next store. So much for nostalgia. 

Thankfully, the menu hasn't changed. I had the Wrangler, which is a 10 oz. top sirloin. It comes with cowboy beans (it was really hard not to make a Blazing Saddles joke, so we made one and moved on), corn on the cob and a slice of wheat bread, which was an odd addition. I would have expected the Arizona version of Texas Toast, whatever that might be.

The steaks are good, but you don't really go for the food. You go to get your tie cut off. My husband wore one of my stepfather's ties that my mother had given him after my stepfather passed away 5 years ago. We all felt it was a fitting end to the tie that would otherwise have languished in my husband's closet into eternity. 

The waiter did the honors. He theatrically berated my husband for even wearing a tie in the first place, and then he cut it off, right beneath the knot. I mock gasped and exclaimed something about it being the tie the children gave him for Father's Day. Which made the kids pause for a moment - did they give him that tie? - and then laugh when they remembered they had given him the opportunity to watch an entire baseball game with no interruptions for Father's Day. 

We all laughed, ate our cowboy steak dinners, and then rode off into the sunset. 

Monday, April 6, 2009

A quick Spanish lesson

It's really helpful to have a convincing grasp of the Spanish language when you go to an authentic taqueria. For example, you wouldn't want to confuse sesos with cecina. Cecina is delicious, smokey air-dried beef. Sesos are beef brains. I did this once at a place called Tacos Veloz on Chicago Avenue. It's the kind of place that has orange formica tables with a big jar of puckery Mexican escabeche - pickled jalapenos, carrots and cauliflower -  on each one. 

I have some high school Spanish, and brag (to myself mostly, because no one else cares) about how I was in honors Spanish my senior year. I also have some kitchen Spanish, which amounts to a few insulting terms for the male anatomy and the word for "buttercream frosting." But apparently, Tacos Veloz threw me a Pedro Martinez curve, and I ended up with brain tacos.  

I bring this up now because we're headed to a place in Phoenix called Pro's Ranch Market. It's a giant Latino grocery store that also offers an array of Mexican items to go: fresh tortillas, tacos, corn masa snacks, and agua frescas. So I'm consulting a reputable Spanish translation website. The words for testicles, spleen, gall bladder, and stomach lining will be studied and memorized, and there may even be a test. I don't want to make the same mistake twice. I'll let you know how it goes. 

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Rage against the clown

No trip to the southwest would be complete without a stop at Jack-in-the-Box. Not only are the onion rings a resplendent toast to the deep fryer, but there also happens to be a cute, quick-witted spokesclown with a ready smile. Jack-in-the-Box is definitely pilgrimage material.  So that's where I found myself today, after a 3 1/2 hour flight to Phoenix.  

Coincidentally, my first date with Jack also happened in Phoenix, when I was 11. It was my first date with a drive-thru, as well, and it would prove to be a long-standing, three-way love affair - me, my car and food in sacks. Unfortunately, it was also where my stepfather yelled a profanity at the clown. From that I am still recovering. 

There were three of us in the car that auspicious day,  my stepsister, Liz, my stepfather, Tony, and me. We were all giddy drive-thru novices, drunk with the idea of getting food without stepping foot outside the vehicle.

Tony pulled up into the drive-thru lane. That part we did well. We could see the clown from where we were idling, looking happy and bulbous with the promise of Jumbo Jacks and fries in white paper sacks. He was ready to take our order and we were ready to give it. 

The car in front of us pulled ahead, and it was now our turn. We slowly inched up - another smart move. And then Tony started to talk to the clown. 

"We'll have a Jumbo Jack, three tacos, three fries and a chocolate shake. And a 7 UP." He said it confidently. He was a confident guy. Smooth, in control, self-assured, in a suave Dick Cavett kind of way. Then the clown spoke. 

"Can I take your order?" The person speaking was presumably inside the store just fifteen feet away, but from the distant sound of the voice, could have been in India or Peru or on some atoll in the South Pacific. 

Liz and I looked at each other. Even though we had never done this before, we both possessed the deep genetic, pre-pubescent understanding of fast food ordering. 

Tony had jumped the gun. The clown was supposed to go first. 

"What? I can't hear....," Tony was saying to the clown, his ire rising. 
"Can I take your order, please?" the voice said again.
"I already told you!" he yelled. And then he really let the clown have it. "Goddamn it!!" he yelled at the clown. 

I gasped, and then climbed in the back seat and hid on the floor. Tony pressed on the gas and peeled around the corner. Liz and I were in a state of shock. Our dad swore at the clown.  

We pulled up to the window and were forced to order again, this time in person. I hadn't yet encountered a worse humiliation. As you'd expect, the tacos were greasy, and the special sauce on the Jumbo Jack wasn't so special after all. Sullen and defeated, we drove home. 

Years later, the three of us - me, my car and my sack of greasy Jack-in-the-Box tacos - would discover each other again, after a midnight showing of Rocky Horror. You gotta love second chances. 

Saturday, April 4, 2009

37 pies

I was once invited to judge a pie contest. Not a professional endeavor, with real pie makers, but an amateur venture hosted by some acquaintances who thought it would be novel to have 37 people over with their homemade pies for an old-fashioned, blue ribbon showdown. 

A word about pies: splitting atoms is easier than making pies. 

Making pies is about making pie crust. And you know who is in that crust? The devil. And your third grade teacher who made you feel like you would never amount to anything except a nose-picker and a mediocre speller. The crust is never on your side. 

Back to the contest. I was 6 months pregnant, so I was truly eating for two. The other judge was a friend, also a chef, who looked as skittish as I, at the thought of tasting 37 amateur pies. It was just the three of us: me, my fetus, and Jim. 

The pies were all lined up in the tiny kitchen. Jim and I asked for complete privacy, knowing that we would have to spit out a good portion of the pies after tasting them. You could just tell by looking.  

There were a lot of variations on pudding pies.  Butterscotch with pineapples and Cool Whip, vanilla with Hershey's syrup and chocolate chips. Someone made ambrosia, with mandarin orange wedges and mini marshmallows, and tossed it into a pre-made pie shell. A few people attempted to make savory pies with shredded cheddar cheese, ground beef, and corn niblets. It was a big year for Southwestern flavors. There weren't many entries in the fruit category, but there was one memorable open-faced strawberry pie whose fruit had started to break down. The whole thing looked like bloody intestines in a pie shell.  Jim and I spit out pie after pie.  

We decided we would have to award points for originality. For risk-taking. For showing up. It was hard to pick the best worst pie. I had brought a pie, and at first, we disqualified me since I was one of the judges. But after tasting them all, we had to un-disqualify me. Jim had brought a pecan pie that was pretty good, too, and we were forced to name ourselves the winners.  

There were cries of foul when we bestowed the blue ribbons upon ourselves. But once everyone started to taste what they themselves had wrought, they knew. The trophies - the Star Trek action figures with tiny foil pie pans glued to their little plastic hands - did indeed belong to us.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

You gotta hand it to the French

When I was in cooking school, I had two French chef instructors, Michel and Matteo. They were essentially the Laurel and Hardy of the pastry kitchen. Matteo was a heavyset guy who bore an uncanny resemblance to Bluto (from Popeye, not Animal House). His accent was so heavy, I couldn't understand a word he said. Except when he said this: "Scrape the fucking bowl!" He said, "Scrape the fucking bowl!" so many times, it is embossed on my sound memory, and I repeat it over and over again when I bake. I grab a spatula and scrape the fucking bowl every time.  

Michel, on the other hand, was like a tiny French bulldog with grabby hands and a gold stud earring shaped like a croissant. He always wore the traditional white pastry cap and little spectacles that rested on his nose. If you were a female, he would glance over the top of the glasses to give you the once over. Michel liked the ladies. All the ladies. It didn't matter how hefty, or pimply, or greasy haired they were. He was a diminutive Frenchman doing what Frenchmen do best. Likin' the ladies. 

Both Michel and Matteo referred to us students as "Motherfuckers." Lest you think it was a term of endearment, calling us motherfuckers was totally in keeping with how the French kitchen hierarchy works. We were the motherfuckers. We were the peons who were just barely a step above the cockroaches that scurried across the red tile floor when no one was looking.  

I tried to imagine what my undergraduate experience in college would have been like had my professors adopted the Michel and Matteo method. In statistics: "Please turn to page 175 for an explanation of probability density, you motherfuckers." In political science: "Ok, all you pieces of shit, there will be a quiz today on organizational behavior in post World War I Europe, so sharpen your fucking pencils, you motherfuckers."  

Michel also had a penchant for using the word "pussy" whenever possible. When a male student suggested using cinnamon in an apple dessert, Michel screamed, "The French don't like cinnamon, you motherfucker! They like pussy!" If you were at all thin-skinned, sensitive, squeamish, politically correct, or a feminist, this was not the place for you. If you expected to be treated with respect in a reasonably professional fashion, it would not be in this kitchen. 

A few years later, I heard that Michel had gotten fired for sexual harrassment. Imagine that. If Michel taught me anything, it was how to be inpenetrable in the kitchen, which served me well later in my career. So, thanks, Michel. You motherfucker. 

An obsession with Shopsin's

I found this place, Shopsin's, in an online search when I was looking for kid-friendly restaurants in New York City. It seemed like a casual place in the Village (I love the Village), so I delved further, and clicked on 'Menu.' I read menus like other people read newspapers or magazines or, as is the case with Shopsin's menu, incredibly long novels. It isn't long in the way the Cheesecake Factory menu is long, a glossy tome to corporate cookery. 

Shopsin's menu is globally and gastronomically encyclopedic. In a shock and awe kind of way. The proprietor is Kenny Shopsin who, by all accounts, is an untrusting curmudgeon and, judging from the size of the menu, perhaps an idiot savant as well. Calvin Trillin wrote an article about Shopsin's for The New Yorker 6 or 7 years ago and he claims there are 900 items on the menu. I know there are 86 soups because I counted, losing track twice. And that's not counting the yin/yang combinations, where you choose a soup and then a side to go with it, like bacon corn chowder with refried cheese rice. Or oxtail,cabbage,tomato with cream of garlic rice. If you could see my face now, you would see shock and awe at these combinations. My brow is deeply, deeply furrowed.

He also has 45 nameplate sandwiches, 18 different lunchbowls, 37 different skillet breakfasts, another 37 nameplates breakfasts, and two variations on something called Blisters on My Sisters. That doesn't even include the salads, sides, tex mex options and Sliders. He also will make variations on variations for customers he's fond of. My mouth is now agape. 

I normally hate mixing culinary metaphors, but Shopsin's menu fascinates me to no end. Sometimes, when I'm bored, I pull up the menu on the computer and try to make sense of it, like a mathmetician might try to make sense of a calculus problem. How does Kenny Shopsin do it? How does he manage all these dishes? How does he do the purchasing? How does he remember 900 sort of cuckoo combinations? 

By all accounts, Kenny Shopsin is a screamer. And if he doesn't like the way you look or talk or dress, he kicks you out. You have a party larger than 4? You ain't gettin' in and he don't care. Maybe the anxiety of having to remember all 900 items, and then cook them, is just too much for one man to bear. He has been known to say, "If you can't decide what you want, then this ain't the restaurant for you." 

Ok, so, when I do finally make it to Shopsin's, I don't want any back talk from Kenny. This party of one will be having the Sliders.