Sometimes, I don’t know why but I don’t think it makes me weird (other things make me weird–sure–but not this one), I look around for what’s wrong or incongruous in a situation before pinching myself to confirm that I’m not dreaming and in fact there is nothing “wrong,” and that everything is as great as it seems.
No, I have not just found Jesus but props to the many who have. Instead I’ve come back from a “nothing wrong” weekend with 8 of my closest friends from college and hence, because I enjoyed college and was lucky enough to go with a whole bunch of awesome people, favorite people in the world. I hope some of them will read this so I don’t have to actually tell them how I feel about them in person–God that would be embarrassing.
Anyway, we got a cabin and spent our Memorial Day Weekend in the mountains of Colorado on a Lake named Dillon that I can only describe as big, blue and wet. I was told we were 10,000 feet up, and I’ll take it on faith that my graduating from Harvard law school friend who, while she doesn’t know everything, probably didn’t makeup the elevation of a location in a state she grew up in. We had a cabin, a hot tub and lots of provisions which thankfully included gin but did not include cilantro. Actually that isn’t entirely true.
With the $300-something grocery tab (9 people, 3 1/2 days, pretty good if you ask me–no this did not include beer) we purchased lots of things that generally fell under these categories: meat, carbs, (both refined (hot dog buns) and unrefined (7-grain hot dog buns)) cheese (including my new once-a-year favorite–Salsa con Queso), condiments, (I correctly insisted on full-fat mayonnaise) bagged and pre-washed salad mix, and Oreos, which were consumed with such abandon as to require a group of their own. A category we did not entertain the use of was herbs, which if that means no cilantro is just fine with me.
Of course, when it came time to make extemporaneous use of the (somewhat) well-stocked pantry of the cabin we stayed in, anise seed made no appearance–a slight disappointment to my doctored-up leftover hamburger baked ziti. What they did have was two containers of dried cilantro. You know who else has two jars of dried cilantro? My folks. You know who else? I’m guessing a lot of people. But here’s the thing: neither container had been used much, especially when compared to the others, especially when considering there was only one jar of most of those.
What I’m thinking is, as cilantro is now everywhere, people buy it, forget they bought it because they never use it, then buy it again because they think this would either make them fancier human beings or be something they might like to use. In either case they are wrong because those who like cilantro know it tastes better fresh and those who hate cilantro know that it always tastes terrible.
In any case, I’m very proud to report that we put a dent in neither dried cilantro jar–the gin’s another story.
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The great thing about the regular place concept–whether a bar, cafe, AA venue or restaurant–is the familiarity, the safety, the knowing what you’re going to get and, unless you’re an idiot or a masochist, probably like it. For my friend and I, Evergreen serves as a near weekly regular lunch place. A reliable, noteworthy for its lack of things that suck and prevalence of things that are fast, midtown diner spot, Evergreen is perfect for a quick, decent, cheap lunch. That is, it was.
Knowing I’m in for a delicious BBQ dinner at Brooklyn’s Fette Sau this evening, I opted for a lighter midday fare: Manhattan clam chowder and tossed salad (a stupid term really, as it is so rarely actually tossed). I considered the New England chowder which they were also offering today, but 1) back to light fare thing 2) the waiter said he preferred New England clam chowder, but that the Manhattan was good. When waiters tell me what they like, it’s not so much that I don’t care for that as much as that I find it totally irrelevant. What I was asking was which was better, not whether the (very nice) waiter preferred cream or tomato-based soups. 3) My mom will no be surprised by this as she knows whichever outfit she likes better will be the one I do not wear; sorry mom, but you’re right in observing that — no contradiction there. 4) I do quite enjoy a good Manhattan clam chowder and I find they vary so much from place to place, it’s worth seeing where what you end up with ranks.
This one did not rank so well. The soup itself is what I would call diner-style vegetable soup with clams, which is probably what most diner Manhattan clam chowders taste like, come to think of it. I was actually ok with that. It sort of invoked the (not good) vegetable soup at Big Boy‘s I loved growing up; an excellent pairing with the (maybe good?) fish sandwich. The clams added a nice chewiness. It was good enough and more or less what I expected. The thing is, though, that a few bites in I thought to myself: “No, it couldn’t be. Really. Is this a joke? Who puts cilantro in Manhattan clam chowder?” Plus Friend and I were having a nice conversation and I didn’t want to interrupt with my food neuroses. But then, several bites later, that same, familiar ineffably bad flavor attacked my palate and this time it wouldn’t let go.
“OK. Enough about your life, you must try this soup. I swear. I think there’s cilantro in it. Try it. No not that bite, there’s nothing green. This bite. Try this bite.” Dutifully, she did: “Probably. I guess. Uh, maybe that’s cilantro.”
As a point of fact there wasn’t much cilantro in the soup or I would have smelled it before it hit my mouth, in all likelihood. So my friend’s lukewarm confirmation was as good as gospel to me. Of course I had to keep sampling it to be absolutely sure and each infinitesimal spoonful reinforced what I already knew: this was a Manhattan clam chowder unlike any other I’d ever had, and unlike any anyone else should ever have to have.
But to be fair, this was all my mistake. I should be more pointed in my waiter Q&A sessions. Instead of “Which is better?” I should say “Which do you recommend and by recommend I mean which is either objectively better, preferred by more customers or the chef or all three. Whether you prefer pasta carbonara or alfredo (gross) is of no interest to me. And if there is cilantro in anything, any amount at all, I don’t want it. No, I don’t mind if you check with the kitchen.” But then I’d be kind of a bitch and I used to be a waiter so I don’t like to give them too hard of a time. Perhaps I could prepare a cute flowchart to hand to waiters upon entering a restaurant that begins with: 1) Does this item feature cilantro? 2) if not, do more than 75% of customers like it and do those customers appear to have discriminating palates and/or college degrees? 3) If yes will the item arrive properly cooked and in a timely fashion? And so on and so on. This approach is perhaps no less bitchy, but, you have to admit, it’s pretty hilarious. Flowchart forthcoming.
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I love Mark Bittman (of the New York Times Dining Section) for insisting, relentlessly, to be such an elitist foodie prick; he embodies the effete New Yorker cliche so well, it’s uncanny. If you aren’t familiar with his work (he’s written lots of cookbooks) or have only read his column (The Minimalist) I suggest you check him out in video form because only through this medium does his sincere I can’t help but make it clear I know I’m smarter than you-ness come through. I’m not being ironic or sarcastic, these are actually the reasons I can’t help but like the guy (he does seem to know what the hell he’s talking about and he makes quick meals — the obvious smart guy’s alternative to Rachael Ray — poor thing).
So I used to read his column every week and once in while I read his blog “Bitten,” (hey, even Shakespeare couldn’t resist a pun) but recently I’ve been watching his 3-5 minute videos instead, much to his indifferent chagrin no doubt. This week’s video is for St. Patrick’s Day (aka Monday for all you out there who seem to find it impossible to remember what is the same every year — March 17th guys — Erin go Braugh!). As Bittman introduces the segment, “In honor of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, I’ve decided to cook a Mexican dish, because it’s green.” Just about everything I love about the DB (and I don’t mean Daniel Boulud) is evident from that very first sentence. You kind of have to listen to it, but, trust me, it’s all in the delivery. The pregnant (I once posited that only men used pregnant as a non-literal adjective, so I guess I’m trying to prove myself wrong) pause between “Mexican dish” and “because it’s green,” is done with ironic perfection — that kind of perfect Monty Python beautiful clash between the low-brow ridiculously absurd and the higher-brow intellectually germane — right, ok Mark, sure, and you know what else is green? Marijuana. I’m just saying.
Since the whole dish is about being green and apparently Mexico’s cuisine is also about being green, it shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise that cilantro is but one of many green ingredients. There’s the tomatillos and pepitas, the marjoram (love marjoram, love it) and poblanos, the lime and serrano. So of course, being Mexican and all, and green and all, there’s the cilantro too. Once the chicken has finished cooking in the sauce of tomatillo and garlic and peppers and pepitas and so on (Mark calls them pumpkin seeds, “well actually squash seeds” dismissively. If you watch the video you’ll note the characteristic crotchetiness in the delivery) he questions “That green enough for you? Wait! Some ciiiilantro…” and proceeds to top the dish with various other herbs and green things. He says cilantro with the affect of an American ex pat living in a Spanish speaking country (and maybe he lived in Mexico for 15 years, I really don’t know) — he really gets cilantro, cilantro is Mark Bittman’s homeboy.
My gripe du jour is two-fold. 1) I understand the desire to play off the green rather than decidedly Irish cultural aspects of St. Patrick’s Day, I really do, but for God’s sake my fucking name is Erin, I got Irish heritage, leave cilantro out of a holiday we all really know is not about food but too-much drinking. 2) It seems to me cilantro is becoming an almost de facto green addition to things. Now, I’m not saying it isn’t at home in Bittman’s dish, (although I don’t think even he would argue it’d be fine without it, just add a little more parsley) but in his delivery he makes an I’m sure accidental point, a point only a cilantro hater might notice: not green enough? add some cilantro! For Christ’s sake, if it’s green you’re looking for add some parsley or chives, inoffensive flavors that, sure, have flavor, but it’s, you know, neutral-ish. When you add cilantro you’re not just adding green, you’re adding gross.
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