Thursday, January 31, 2013

Union Market chicken post dated

It's hard to buy organic chicken in the hood in a hurry. So when I don't have a lot of time to shop I head for Union Market, on Court Street, where I still buy three things: their organic, Murray's and occasional rotisserie chicken, garlic-stuffed olives, and their ancho peppers. I am not a fan of their service, their high fresh produce prices, and their frequently yellowed salad leaves. The unfriendly, sometimes uncouth service just perplexes me, and I assume it comes from the top. Trickle down. Are they treated poorly, paid badly? Or does the ownership just not give a toss about customer service?

I had sworn, after Vince was actually shouted at by a guy in the bakery, that I would never shop there again. Then I crawled back. For that bloody chicken. Quite bloody, as it turned out.

So, I'm there, and I head for the chicken counter. No more organic chicken in sight, and Smart Chicken has taken  the place by storm. Ugh. There is nothing smart about Smart Chicken. There is one row of Murray's chicken. I pick up a packet of wings in which the juice and blood seem rather more copious than usual, and look at the Murray's sell-by date, as I always do, at least since the beginning of the Chicken Wars, with Key Food. [that link is worth visiting]

I can't see the Murray's date, because the Union Market label with its own sell by date and price has been stuck right over the Murray's date. Hm. I pick up another packet. And another. I look at six, seven packets. Every single one has the original sell by date completely obscured by the store label.

So I peel the Union Market label back.

Beneath it, the Murray's label says the sell by/use by is January 27th.

The Union Market store label says the sell by is February 3rd. Six days later.

I go to the butcher counter and ask to see a manager. Why? asks the butcher abruptly. I explain. Loudly. Wordlessly, he goes to the chicken fridge, scoops up every packet of Murrays, and dumps them all on the counter behind his work station. He pulls on a pair of latex gloves, snap! looks at the waiting customers and barks, Next!


Excuse me, I say.

Yes? Pissed off.

I would still like to see a manager.

Wordlessly, turns to his wall phone: Manager to meat counter.

I wait. And wait. And wait.

Does he have to come from far, I ask, politely, and with only one eyebrow raised.

I paged him!

Please page him again.

Manager to meat counter!

I wait.

You should wait by the cash registers, says the angry butcher. Why? I ask. He'll get there faster, he says. The cash registers are about 40 feet away in direct line of site. I watch them.

Finally a man in a white coat makes his way towards the meat counter. I intercept him. Brief annoyance on his face until he hears my story. He is very polite. He says he has only been there two weeks and it was an accident, that the Smart Chicken labels and dates had been put on the Murrays, and that  they would be removed at once.

Really.'s an accident, he is aware of it, and nothing was done about it?

So...interesting that the labels have, without exception, been pasted exactly over the original sell by date, I tell him. I mean, I have never seen that. I can always see the original label. That is the reason I still shop here.

No response to that one.

He still insists, still politely, that it was unintentional.

I don't believe him.

Buyer? Beware.

February 18th: Note response from Union Market in comments.

Previous Union Market Story:

I can't help you, I'm busy  [...also worth reading]

January gardening

I gardened, before the rains and the wind came. I cut back the perennials on the edge: the hyssop, the calamintha, the catnip and the strawberries and I pruned the Abraham Darby (new, last year). Already plenty of dieback, but if my experience with its predecessor (now on the roof, having failed to die), is anything to go by, it will rally.

None of this is strictly necessary in January, but it was all looking very bedraggled. And I'm not usually here to look at, in January. So.

On the terrace floor I attacked the hollow tubes of the lily stalks, the anemones' sticks and the leftover bits of Abyssinian gladiolus, geranium and cimicifuga. I had forgotten I had cimicifuga. I hacked off the blond straw of the Japanese forest grass. I cut back the two clematis, Etoile Violette and the autumn one, which both had new shoots. Stupid weather. Hey...I have three clematis. What about Bee's Jubilee? I'd better go and look for it, tomorrow. It's in the foam flower pot. Or it was.

I'll hold off on the pruning of the fig. And I noted that there will be a lot of root pruning and dividing to do, early in the spring. Chives, strawberries (many). Maybe I should start fresh with new thyme - it gets woody after a few years.

My black furry friend helped me, and kept the Felcos warm.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wild salmon

Feeling full of pep after my gym session (I go every other day and am one month in...only about halfway through my workout do I stop resenting the fact that I am there), I stopped on my walk home and bought this slab of wild salmon as a treat. A treat because it is expensive, but I don't like the idea of farm-raised fish unless it is organic, and that is sometimes hard to come by. Then I picked up some oranges, which turned out to be the pretty Cara Cara ones, pink inside, and loads of lemons.

I pressed the citrus using the old fashioned method, and reduced the juice with ginger to form the basis of the sauce, which I later poured over the just-cooked fish in its hot pan. And the fish I seasoned only with soy, prior to searing skin side down and then sliding into a 400'F/200'C oven for a few minutes.

It was mouthmeltingly good.

Funny that eating fish has become a treat. It's a problematic resource.

- For two sites that help you determine how sustainable your fish-for-supper might be, visit the Sustainable Fish side bar at 66 Square Feet (the Food) -

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ancho chile paste

I have a new weapon in the winter stew arsenal.

The other night, preparing to make hamburgers, I decided to liven them up a bit with anchos. Anchos are dried poblano peppers. Their seeds are hot but the actual pepper reminds me of raisins, in a smoky way.

I reconstituted two anchos in boiling water, adding to the water eight garlic cloves in their husks, and kept this all at a simmer till the garlic was tender. After removing the garlic skins, the rough little end bits, and the stem and some seeds from the pepper, I pureed them. The result was this dark paste, which I seasoned with salt. Smoky, slightly sweet, rich. Each burger got a schmear of this before it was packed into its bun, and there was plenty left over.

So - last night's lamb neck stew benefited. Lamb neck isn't as frightening as it sounds - it's just the small chops from very high up. Far from the loin chops both in anatomy and in price. At $3.99 a lb as opposed to $18.99 there is no contest. Excellent for slow cooking.

With  a base of tomato paste, carrots and celery, and the addition of a couple of spoonfuls of the ancho paste and a slosh of red wine, it was wonderful.

In which I give succour to mine enemy...

The squirrel. Varmint of summer. Digger of holes and destroyer of young lettuces, whose roots are left high and dry in the digger's wake. Also, the squirrel who - inexplicably - will not steal my summer strawberries.

Of course, this could be another squirrel. A bright squirrel. This squirrel has been hunting through the dry foliage of the strawberries, raking down each stem and lifting each leaf with its little paws, to find dried and frozen fruit. I had so many strawberries that I left the last berries on the plants, and there they stayed until this squirrel ate them. The animal even hunted through each flower pot and inspected the rose canes for any edible shoots. There were none.

The streets below are lined with oaks and I know that acorns are buried three deep in my pots. Miniature oak saplings germinate every spring on the terrace floor. So the squirrel has resources. But the pots are frozen, see. Solid. No. Access. 

I felt bad.

So I left a couple of almonds out for it.

I know.


My feeling is that I will buy some nuts in shells. Pecans, maybe. And toss a few onto the roof. That way the squirrel will think it is finding them, rather than learning to come and wait and look pathetic every day, should it become used to my hand outs.

And then spring will come, and I will plant my pea and fava seeds and the frenetic digging will begin again, and I will stretch tight the chicken wire, and curse the fluff-tailed rodent, and think about making squirrel terrine.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Roosevelt Island, or Mars-on-the-Water

We were tourists for a day. Vince needed water for some long exposures and eventually chose Roosevelt Island, the sliver of highrise-populated land smack in the higher reaches of the East River, between the Upper East Side and Queens, over New Jersey.

We caught the gondola from 59th Street, and Manhattan dropped away beneath our feet. My own feet tensed up, promptly.

Landing on the island we walked to its western bank to look back at Manhattan and the Queensboro Bridge.

There is a cherry walkway I had forgotten, below. We had visited once before in summer, and had found this island dismal and desolate, and I couldn't wait to leave, then. For a place surrounded by water it seemed completely cut off from it, too.

I would like to come back in late April - this will be beautifully pink.

We were here to see the new park at the southern tip of this tongue of land - it had been under dusty construction the last time we had been here. I had done no homework at all. Walked in cold. Actually, it was very cold. But I had no expectations, other than the subconscious preparation, perhaps, given to me by the most recent parks to have greened New York: the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, parts of the Hudson River Park. 

So I was not too surprised to see chokecherries They seemed to fit the informed plant palette pattern, even if they are so horrible-tasting that even birds won't eat them unless absolutely starving. The first, smaller part of the park features low hills and massed, dried, wintery vegetation - it looked interesting.

And then we passed through another entrance, guarded by a golf cart and heavily insulated park guards. 

Long Island City Queens across the water to the east, above. Which is my way of saying that I did not take a picture of our first view of what I now call the white Mayan temple. Or the great white temple...

Below, to the left, if I had included it in the frame, is a huge set of white granite stairs, leading up to a mound - the white temple. The mound then slopes down, south, towards the water and the end of island. I should have photographed the steps. They are very dramatic. Instead,  it's easier to focus on these five magnificent beech specimens planted down here on the plaza in front of the preserved ruin of the asylum. (Island, asylum. An old, oft-repeated story.) Big trees. Wonder what they cost to bring in and plant. A salary or two. Each.

A triangular lawn. Tapering to...could it be? Are we on a ship? Yes, according to my brief, later reading. We are.

Sorry about the sun. I was pointing into it without a filter. Two allees of trees on either side, granite chips somehow glued together beneath them. This whole place screamed Impermeable Surface.  But again, I should have shown you that - the wide expanses of granite up here, the flanking avenues of granite lower, beside the water. The massive blocks of stone that support this all.

The trees were interesting, and a parks employee (not Parks Department, mind you, this is all private money, again) said that they are littleleaf lindens. If so, I have never noticed this colour in their winter branches, before. I wonder who supplied them. Absolutely uniform, and somewhere around 150 of them, I think. They will smell wonderful in June, if you live on either side of the water and open your window to the air of New York City.

Standing in the prow, at the point and looking back up. It looks good in pictures. But in person, it felt like being on a Space Odyssey movie set - throwback science fiction. Out of touch with the water, super-separated from the water, and the flocks of brants circling and calling overhead. This is denial of water, domination of land, of rock, of monument, by Man, over water. 

This is not about humankind. This is about ego.

Turns out it was designed in 1973. Which may explain a lot. And The New York Times critic loved it (there's a good picture of the great white temple in the link, and some interesting background, too). Which is depressing. Michael Kimmelman, for The Times, called it the city's new spiritual heart..



Cue soundtrack (thanks, Frank - see his comment).

I was hoping, of course, for plants, for connection to environment, and for diversity and creativity and refuge for city dwellers. Instead we walked into a hollow, echoing monument. Roosevelt of course, and here, in the prow of the park is a mausoleum-like chamber where one contemplates both his words - his four freedoms, this is the Four Freedom's Park - and the view, to the south.

Yeah, I get it. But it doesn't work. 

What a squandered opportunity.

This place is dead, and it should be alive and it has nothing to do with winter.

But goodbye to all that. We stopped after our tour of the ode to granite and aid to runoff, and settled on a bench near the water in the more vegetated bit and had our lunch. We huddled and held cups of hot soup. It was fun. It was freezing!

When in doubt: picnic...

Sunday, January 27, 2013

What's the orange stuff?

Bottarga is next door at 66 Square Feet (the Food).

We are not next door. We are somewhere else, with a picnic of hot tomato soup, ham sandwiches and perhaps a sip of red wine.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A winter morning, in sunlight

It's cold on the terrace. The water in the birdbath barbecue braai has frozen. There is still sparkling snow in the pots. In the night, as I lay awake thinking about the lost dolphin, I heard the snowplough scraping the streets, a hollow, metal roar.

The cat insisted on going to the roof this morning. His fur coat did a good job. After he had left the squirrel came and pawed through the dead leaves of the Alpine strawberry. It found what it was looking for - dried berries - and ate them. This is the animal who will not eat them fresh, in summer. I felt bad and put out some almonds for him, in the snow beneath the fig tree.Vince scolded me.

I see things to do: the dry sticks of calamintha, catnip, strawberries and agastache to cut back, roses, clematis and fig to prune, and a tidying of the half frozen tiarella, heuchera and the sodden but hardy begonia. I shall think about ordering some Formosa lilies. I have missed them. The Silk Road and Dunyzades are frozen and asleep in their large pots.

We breakfasted together, all three of us, in the sunlit room, and ate bagels and smoked salmon and drank coffee. We decided that coffee does not go with smoked salmon. Sparkling wine is far better.

Soon,  I'll go and visit the farmers market and then I must do something terrible: buy fresh apricots at Pacific Gourmet. I know. Northern Hemisphere + Apricots = January. No. Although, ironically, this cake evolved in Cape Town, in January. I'm buying apricots because I panicked when re-reading a recipe in The Book where the editor queried a sugar measurement, and I need to re-test my apricot cake instructions for The Book.

And perhaps I'll buy a bottle of something with bubbles in it...

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Gowanus Dolphin

Sewage discharge pipes and a lost dolphin

Update: I'm sorry. According to The Times and other sources, the dolphin died before 6pm. Vince was there at the time and he later wrote this post, which is far more to the point than mine, below. 

This is the most-photographed, and  perhaps the saddest, dolphin of the young year. News of its presence in the notoriously polluted Gowanus Canal spread fast after a morning tweet by Red Hook Lobster was picked up by Gothamist, and then The Times.

The canal is a twenty minute walk from home and I was reluctant to go and have a look, thinking it would 1. make me very sad, 2. make me yet another useless gawker and 3. be freezing (it is snowing as I type).

Union Street Bridge

I went. I was sad, I was yet another useless gawker, and it was freezing. News crews packed the cold steel drawbridge at Union Street and so I slid down a side street, not realizing that the poor dolphin - a short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) - would be right there, in front of me, in the horrible chalky muck of the stagnant canal.

It surfaced often, every few seconds, for air, and never left the area right at the end of Sackett Street, moving in sluggish circles and stirring up inky sludge in its wake. The water appeared to be very shallow and there was dark, silty muck on the dolphin's beak and head. The dolphin was very near the landlocked and foul end of the canal, and it was incongruous to see a marine mammal so close to the enormous storm water pipes that deposit raw sewage in the waterway after heavy rains.

Short-beaked dolphin surfacing

More and more people had arrived. They were all quiet and respectful.  As we watched the dolphin an explosion of feathers on the opposite bank caught our attention. A Cooper's Hawk (thank you, JPLatimer for correcting my ID - see comments!] had struck a pigeon in an industrial lot across the road.

Red tailed hawk

It missed, and settled on an upturned tire. Ten feet below it the dolphin surfaced again. Only in New York?

After about an hour the dolphin seemed to be moving more easily than it had at first, more swimming and less wallowing in place, possibly because water levels had been rising due to the effects of an incoming tide - high tide is at 7pm tonight.

View from the Union Street Bridge: dolphin is on left past the bare tree.

Vince went off to see the dolphin, too, very sadly, and reported when he was walking home at 6pm that there was still no sign of a rescue operation. I know. One dolphin. A rescue operation. Our collective guilt at having created this horrible environment. He has worked with dolphins closely in his diving life and could not understand why the animal was not being guided out of the waterway by a small rowing boat. He insists that they are intelligent enough to sense that kind of help, and to follow.

I spoke to a Parks ranger on the scene, who explained that she was there to "monitor the animal's well being" but that this was not a park, so not their jurisdiction.

There was talk of the Riverhead Foundation trying to rescue the dolphin, but no boat, seven hours after the first sighting was reported.

I don't know - we'll find out soon, I suppose. The floating barricades on the canal (to contain surface pollutants or oil?)  might have been hampering the dolphin. The water was very low and it might not have been able to swim beneath them and out.

It is still snowing. The canal will look pretty tomorrow. 

Where will the dolphin be?

Postscript: When Vince was there the dolphin had moved right beneath the Union Street Bridge. So it had managed to swim beneath that floating barrier. I feel so bad. There we were with our cameras, taking pictures of it as it was dying. And dying such an undignified, dirty death. The only comfort in it is that everybody there wanted to help, and no one knew how. 

Updated 01-26-13, the day after: In the City Room section of The New York Times Andy Newman reports on The Hard Decision not to Rescue an Ailing Dolphin, and publishes excerpts from an interview with Robert DiGiovanni, the Riverhead Foundation's director.

Eat your greens

Sometimes,when it comes to our nightly salad, inspiration flees. While I like salads of pure green, nothing but a leaf in sight, Vince looks at them and gets visibly depressed. So to tempt him to eat them I include layers of sliced raw vegetables, often quick-pickled, or I insinuate some nuts, some citrus segments. But when the chopping and thinking and pickling is too much of a challenge, I fall back on the my secret weapon: Cheese.

I know, it's a cheap shot.

So this is just a heap of wild arugula leaves, matchsticks of Granny Smith apple (because I keep the skin on, I wash the apple with soap, first - unless it is organic, apple skin is nicely coated with pesticides and wax) - both tossed in a vinaigrette. And then a cloud of parmesan cheese rasped over the top with the Amazing Microplane. Given to me by Germaine, my mother-in-law, it is one of the best things in my kitchen, even if my oft-grated right thumb does not agree.

The salad arrives, the Frenchman's eyes light up, and he actually helps himself.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cat on a cold tar roof

Estorbo, on squirrel patrol. He doesn't stay out too long in these very cold temperatures, but both of us like the cold, at least for a while. His latest eccentric habit of drinking water from a glass on the stone table on the terrace has been derailed because the water is frozen.

I should tidy the terrace. It is all rasping leaves and grating brown stems. And, not too far off, I must grit my teeth and prune the fig. Really prune it. It's easy to tell other people to do it to their figs, but I have never pruned the fig's branches, only the roots. It is such a modestly-sized tree. But this year it will undergo both surgeries. Topped and tailed. The fig yield this year was lower than usual, and the pruning will encourage the new, sappy green growth on which the main fig crop grows.

February is around the corner. You know what that means: witch hazels. I would appreciate some more winter, before then. Some snow, for example.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The fallen

The great Christmas tree discard continues.

We still have ours.

I like it. The cat likes it. It sheds needles into his water bowl. I sweep needles up every morning. He sleeps in front of it every night.

Our first Christmas tree. We'll miss it.

A bonfire would be nice...of all the thrown away trees. A new slogan: Bonfires, not guns.

12.09pm, from the wires: I have it on good authority that the Parks Department chipper is at work on Park Avenue, chipping the trees the city erected on the long lovely mall in the middle of Park Avenue. I love the smell of wood chips in the morning?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cold flowers

Brooklyn Heights Promenade, Sunday. Despite the warm January weather - 51'F/ 11'C - there were few people out. The water on the harbor was choppy, the weather already on its way. 

A woman walking with her husband stopped and asked me what these flowers were, after I had straightened from my photographng crouch.

 Hellebores, I said.

...Hee...? she queried.

Heh-luh-bores. I said, more slowly.

She looked blank, but I could see her thinking: Heal the boers. He labours. Heel the boars?


Lenten roses, I offered. And added, They're early.

Thank you, she said, and they moved off.

So what were the flowers? asked her husband, leaning in towards her as they walked away., she said. And then they were out of earshot.

They are in full bloom about month ahead of their schedule (last year I saw them in March, early and late; the year before in February, in snow). And they are in for a nasty shock. So are the azaleas in bud on Montague Street, the camellia on Pacific Street, and the premature and tender shoots of daffodils. I don't think even the toughest, cold-loving flowers can withstand temperatures of 11/F and -9'C.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Neither here nor there

The ugly days of half measures.

If the weatherpersons are to believed the temperature will drop 20 degrees, soon. It's a nasty day, a nagging wind, an overly silver sky, and the terrace's leaves rustling and rattling and neither dead nor alive. There are still green leaves on the Abraham Darby rose, and the crass daylight carcasses of the Christmas lights. One blue pansy, and some white and half-reddened strawberries. The next few days will take care of those.

Soon, sub-sub-freezing. Winter, at last.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Green sauce with brown food

I cook a pot roast a little less frequently than once in a blue moon (which, it turns out, occurs more often than one might think - it's the second full moon of a month and occurs about once every 2.7 years). I make a pot roast about once every 4.3 years.

It's good, too. I used chuck, browning it first, before adding a waterfall of dry vermouth, some whole shallots and bay leaves. After this had been in a 350'F oven for two hours I added the vegetables - celery, carrots, potatoes. The watercress was whizzed up with garlic and lemon juice, salt and some sugar for a fresh salsa verde/chimichurri/green sauce, which we splattered over the thin slices of meat.

I like to tell myself that, just as the potential artery clogging and carcinogenic meat actions begin to happen, the green sauce packed with vitamins and antioxidants comes along and WHAP! - nails them on the head.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Christmas flowers

...that's what I thought these flowers were called, when I was little. They bloomed prolifically in svelte blue and pink banks beside the narrow road that led into Knysna, the small, lagoon-wrapped south coast town where we spent some summer holidays. I was too young (and too-unborn, for the most part) to remember the earlier time, when my mother's parents lived on Leisure Isle, the little island in the lagoon itself, and reached by a narrow causeway

My grandfather, Lennox Fleischer, was known as Fly by his friends and drove around the island in a "solo car", adapted to hand controls, as he had had both legs amputated. Spinal tuberculosis, I think. His friends built a concrete ramp for him where he could launch his small motorboat, to go fishing. My brothers fished with him. I never knew any of that. For me it is a story. I did not know him. He is buried in the cemetery, there, across the water and on the hill.

Leisure Island remains very, very special in my heart - the small waves of the lagoon collapsing on the sand, the long, low tide, the crests of the breakers between the two headlands. When my father was young and heedless he swam across The Heads and their strong currents. An unpopular move, I gather. Was he thinking of Byron and the Hellespont, I wonder? I never thought about that before...

Knysna is now holiday central and heavily populated. I think we last visited just after Vince and were married [ photos have improved!], staying in an expensive guest house on the island, and fantasizing about what it would be like if my father had bought the modest beachfront holiday house that was offered to him for sale, long ago. It was called Pinky. It was pale pink. One summer our cousins visited and my Uncle Reg played sand lions with me every day on the pale beach where long straight strands of seaweed and chalky cuttlefish washed up, between the water and our summer home.

The lagoon, when I saw it with Vince, was still pale green at high tide, and the waves still flopped onto the beach at night with a sound sinister enough to have made me throw my toddlerhood toys (I had an extensive koala collection) out of my cot, one by one, so that my mother would come upstairs after the very last and very deliberate thump, to see what was the matter. I didn't like the waves. I thought they were coming up the stairs to get me.

And there were island gardens full of Christmas flowers. The hydrangeas pictured were not in Knysna, but at The Food Barn in Noordhoek, in Cape Town in December. I was going to write about food and lamb pies and French chefs. But the flowers made me think, suddenly, this Brooklyn night as I type, about small waves and blue flowers and a summertime when tomorrow was a concept so foreign that it left no mark whatsoever on my sunny, sandy, sand lion life.

Waddup widda rosemary, yo?

Is it Red Hook or is it the rosemary?

It is mid-January. This we know.

Two different rosemary plants, both in bloom. One in a community garden, above, one on a brownstone, stoop, below. Both in Red Hook. Which is actually chilly, because it's the near the water. When it's not under the water, of course. 

Yesterday was colder than it has been for a week, which was reassuring. I walked to Fort Defiance and met my botanist friend, Marielle, there for lunch. I had tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, which seemed about right. She told me of her family's plans to go to Vermont in February to show her two little boys snow. Her eldest is four and does not remember it.

Snowcation. The way forward.

I have been eyeing a cabin in the Catskills, after our friends BonBon and Quasar rented it and liked it. They went snowshoeing. I know. It's not going to happen. It could, though. It's complicated.

Perhaps I should check on my roof rosemary. Since "Bobby" arrived to patch our leaks - if his given name is really Bobby I'll eat the roof membrane; I think "Bobby" was simply what he decided his American audience could deal with - I have not been back up there. Scared, really. Bobby looked with incredulity at Raccoon House's roof, next door, and said, Pipple libs dear? Yes, I said, Pipple libs dear. He wasn't too complimentary about our roof, either. No one has offered to repair our water-damaged closet below. Tick, tick, tick. Maybe I wrote this book just in time.


A bit fell off Raccoon house the other day...

But back to the rosemary. I suppose it thinks it's spring.