Put me in, Coach

I was never a kid with sports talent and was content to be a bystander or watch on TV. It wasn’t that I didn’t love a good game, but that I was not the one to lead the team. I was never chosen in the first round and often stood on the sidelines keeping score. Therefore, it is surprising to friends and family that I coaching my nephew’s soccer team. I knew next to nothing at the start, but it is growing on me and the rules and plays are almost second nature. I even own a pair of top rated soccer cleats to take part in drills while coaching the team. You have to do some groundwork and listen to the pros, but you can be of some real use to a young group.

My nephew is like a second son. More than my own kid, he liked to go around New York with me trying out some of the fine food. We bonded over a plate of spaghetti on the east side. We ate hot dogs on the street, corned beef sandwiches at the best delis, and enjoyed homemade cannoli and ice cream that made our mouths water. As he grew older and his interests shifted to sports, I felt obliged to go with the flow and watch world cup soccer during playoffs. I loved that he developed the skill to play on a local team and that he wanted me to be involved.

Every parent, or in this case uncle, wants to be part of a kid’s life and more often than not it entails some kind of sports. At least I don’t have to go fishing, deep sea diving, rafting on the rapids, or skiing black diamond moguls. The role of a coach is rewarding and rich. You are a combination of mentor, play manager, and cheerleader all rolled into one. My skill seems to reside in rooting for the team and praising them after a game. I like to motivate kids and support their ambition. When you can turn around a weak player, it is a joy indeed.

It didn’t take much to keep my nephew happy. He is all smiles on the field and a great team performer. He isn’t competitive but wants to win. This means he keeps an even keel and lets others shine when needed. I am so proud of him even though I raised him from afar. I like to think that some of my wisdom rubbed off on him as we dined around Manhattan on our weekend adventures.

I am committed to moving forward as the team coach as long as I am needed. If my nephew moves on or relocates, I will be there in spirit for every new endeavor.

What I Would Give for Some Peace and Quiet

Not much drives me crazy. I am a very even keel kind of guy. My passion is roaming Manhattan looking for new eateries with fresh and appealing fare. I am open to almost any cuisine and, as such, I don’t expect to run out of new places. This is going to be a lifelong adventure. When I come home, I am fulfilled, if not fat and sassy, as they say. I am ready to relax and watch TV or read a good book. I enjoy the peace and quiet. This may sound odd for a social butterfly who will talk to any neighboring diner in a restaurant of any style. I guess when the evening is over, I am done socializing and telling stories.

Lately, however, my mood of enchantment has been broken by screaming kids playing basketball right outside my den window. It happens every day after school. A new hoop was recently installed next door and the kids are having a rip, roaring time. I like them to have fun, but I sure wish it was on another block. The dribbling is like Chinese water torture. I have to turn on some music or the TV. I wonder how much more I can take. I will have to stay out later until the kids have to go in for homework or bedtime. When summer comes and it stays light until nine, I will be out of luck.

I am planning to talk to my neighbor, but I hate the role of spoil sport. I will have to find another solution. After some contemplation, I am considering installing an in ground basketball hoop for them in the nearby park. I would have to get permission from the city I suppose and research the cost. It would be a nice gesture for the youth of the neighborhood and would certainly solve my noise problem. I would come off as good neighbor Sam. Little would they know my motivation. My friends think this expenditure is a little extreme, but frankly they praise my ingenuity. One said “if you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.” Ha! I was never a basketball fan as a child and was always last on the high school team. The coach suggested I take swimming or volleyball as an alternative sport.

My decision is pending and maybe you can help me decide. What would you do? Spring for the hoop or sit and shut up. When you live in a family neighborhood, you have to expect the kids to be rambunctious. It is better than roaming about town getting into trouble. Looking at it from that point of view, I may just sit back and try to enjoy life.

Can’t Sleep

The best part of being a foodie is that you are constantly enjoying yourself. You always have a new experience every time you enter a restaurant. You can never try everything on the menu, so there is always plenty of room for experimentation. Each meal is an adventure. This is particularly true if you live in Manhattan, the food capital of the world. If you went to a different eatery every day for ten years, you would not exhaust the possibilities on the list. I haven’t set this as a goal yet, but someday I will take stock of where I have been and maybe write a book. For now, you get a short blog.

Sometimes it will be about food and others about people I meet. Among my favorites are chefs and fellow gourmets. We have a lot to share. Where do you stand in this continuum?  Suppose we all like to eat and discussions of great meals are always welcome. When I am online, I always look for tips. I used to read New York magazine for the restaurant lists, but now you can find them in seconds. It’s a good thing there are all sorts of interesting feature articles to keep me coming back for more.

I just got through a stifling hot summer which put a damper on my daily outings. I had to wait until nightfall when the temperature dropped enough to brave the sidewalks of the city. It gets so humid and walking for several blocks will make you sweat buckets. You can’t go in a nice restaurant that way! The misery continues at night when it is time to go to bed. The room still retains the heat of the day. I suffered in silence for a long time until I got a ceiling fan for my bedroom. This is the only way I can get some shut eye with comfort. I made the mistake of installing a used fan that cooled the air but made a constant rumbling noise, akin to a rattle. Maybe there was a loose bolt.

A bad ceiling fan is defined here as one that keeps you awake. Wouldn’t you agree? I stayed up night after night venting my frustration in my blog. I couldn’t keep it to myself. On the other hand, a good one is quiet, effective and works on a remote control. After all, a device of this type should be for more than décor. Sure, they look cool; but they also have to make you feel this way. It is all about ease and comfort. I don’t even want to get out of bed to turn the darn thing on. I love that my new fan has a central light fixture so I can dim it for ambiance or rev it up for reading purposes. It is the best feature of my room.

What Makes a Great Deli?

In New York City, we don’t really have “convenience stores.” Mostly we have corner delis or bodegas, depending on the neighborhood and the owner of the store. They are a little like a convenience store in that my mom would send me there to pick up a carton of eggs or some milk whenever we ran out and my dad always stopped there to pick up his evening paper, but there was more to it than that.

Like the deli section of your grocery store, there is often a variety of meats, breads, and cheeses available for purchasing or slicing. There’s always a load of snacks, too. The better, bigger delis would also have fresh fruits and vegetables (all the better to put on the sandwiches they sell).

The thing that makes a great deli isn’t the selection, believe it or not. Most places will have at least the basics in a decent quality, so that’s not it. It is the quality of the employees. You need somebody that can cut meats thin or thick, that can tell the difference between a hot sausage or a sweet one. They have to be able to add a good ratio of items in a sandwich in order to make a good sandwich. And that’s something you simply have to learn over time.

Another thing that marks a good deli, and again speaks to the quality of the employees, is that the good stuff is made from scratch. Pesto sauce, hummus, potato salads, all that good stuff. It’s better when it is fresh, and what’s fresher than something made in-house? Nothing, that’s my point.

They also need to make a great cup of coffee. That’s something that I consider non-negotiable. I don’t go for that super fancy chain place crap. I’m not looking for something cold-brewed in a seasonal cup using flavored syrups. Just a well-made cup of regular coffee. Fresh, not super bitter, and certainly not burned. It doesn’t sound hard but apparently it is, considering how hard it can be to find.

I don’t care about the size of the store: I’ve been in several that were great and you could honestly say they were the size of a midwestern home’s living room. I also don’t mind a line as long as it moves. Lots of customers often denote the quality of the deli. The more people willing to patiently wait in line, the better the deli probably is (unless it is a tourist trap, and then all bets are off).

Do you have anything that you consider a must-have in a deli? Disagree with any of my statements? Let me know in the comments below, and we can have a nice debate about it. You know, like we would in line at the corner deli if we were neighbors!

Making a Great Reuben

I practically grew up in delicatessens, so I know my way around a good Reuben. There are some tricks to making them at home, even if they are never quite as good as you can get at your local deli. If you’ve never had a Reuben, I recommend you try one. Just be careful asking for them at a Jewish deli, as those that keep to their strict dietary rules won’t make ‘em. Corned beef + swiss cheese = nope.

It’s not a complicated sandwich, in theory: corned beef, sauerkraut, swiss cheese, and Russian dressing on some toasted rye bread. The reason delis can make such good Reubens is in the quality of the ingredients. It can be hard to match, but it is always worth a try.

Start with good rye bread. Read the ingredients. If you can’t pronounce anything in it, put it back. Pure rye bread will have rye flour and no wheat flour. That is some serious rye. If it says “unseeded,” that typically means there is no caraway (caraway is added as a natural anti-gas agent).

The next thing is real important: the corned beef. Now, you can make your own corned beef if you have a lot of time on your hands – it involves seasoning beef and letting it rest for a week in the fridge, then cooking it in a Dutch Oven for 10 hours. For the rest of us, we can order it online or ask for it at a local deli (ask them to slice it for you). If you strike out with the corned beef, you can always get some pastrami.

Then there’s the rest: swiss cheese (get it from the deli when you get the corned beef), sauerkraut, and Russian dressing. Once you’ve got all that stuff, you’re ready to make the sandwich.

Start by warming up the corned beef and the sauerkraut. Everything in a Reuben should be warm. It’s a melt, after all. And since a Reuben is a melt, the bread needs to be toasted. Butter one side of each piece of bread and toast it in a cast iron skillet. Flip it when it reaches your level of doneness so you can toast the other side. Then you layer the ingredients:

  1. Put Russian dressing on each piece of bread.
  2. Next, add the corned beef.
  3. On top of that goes the sauerkraut.
  4. Last, add swiss cheese on top of that.

Once you have everything on there, put it in the oven for a few minutes to melt the swiss cheese. This step is important. Take the sandwich out and put it together. The cheese will melt together and help keep the sandwich together while you eat it. And there you have it, a good Reuben.

My Favorite Meal

Like anybody who considers themselves a foodie, I like different dishes from all over the world. My friends all joke that I’ll try anything at least once, even if everyone else thinks it shouldn’t even be called food. You never know what you’re going to like unless you at least taste it. That’s my motto, anyway. There is so much out there the average person would think was weird or exotic and avoid it just because. Luckily here in New York City, there are people from all over the world who bring their different dishes here and let the rest of us experience their culture first hand.

It’s really amazing.

But there’s always a favorite dish, right? Something that brings you comfort or reminds you of a specific person. Every time you eat it, it takes you back to a special moment or brings out a certain emotion.

For me, that’s chicken cutlets. It’s a pretty straightforward meal, and it was always popular at my house. When my mom was frying the cutlets, I always knew. The smell would greet me on the stoop before I even opened our front door. Have you ever seen those cartoons where somebody floats through the air because of a visible scent? That’s what it felt like to me. Other kids would make fun of me at school when I had leftovers because the paper bags she sent me to school with weren’t strong enough to stop the scent, either. But I didn’t care. They were worth the teasing.

Cutlets are pretty simple to make. You pound chicken breast flat, dip it in beaten eggs, coat them with breadcrumbs and then fry them in oil. Just a few ingredients and you have a great chicken dish. The best part is that because they are so “plain,” they are quite versatile. You can add them to all kinds of things and make a complete dish. They go great in sandwiches, with tomato sauce and some mozzarella cheese as Chicken Parmigiana, even on pizza! There was a restaurant near me for a while that used to serve a chicken cutlet sandwich with fresh spinach on focaccia bread. They also made a great Fra Diavolo pizza with chicken cutlets on it as well. It was heaven.

Although, I have to say that my favorite will always be my mom’s, made with some mashed potatoes and some corn. If there were ever a dish that tasted like home to me, this would be the one. I make them myself now that my mother has passed on, but it is nothing like when I was younger and would be smiling before I even walked in the house. It is a little different when you have to do all the work I guess. It does remind me of her and of everything that made her such a wonderful person, though.

We Make a Better Bagel

Lots of places claim to have the best of something. Then people who live in those places come here and try our version, and are put to shame. Take bagels, for example. It doesn’t get much better than a warm, bakery-fresh New York City bagel. If you haven’t had one, boy are you missing out.

The Jewish people of Poland are thought to have made the first bagels, but anybody who has eaten a fresh bagel in New York City knows that we’ve perfected them. I wanted to know, why do they taste so good? Does everybody else just suck at making them?

My dad says it’s the water. Of course, my dad’s a plumber, so I’m not all that surprised that he would say that. He also tells me that New York City tap water is the best water in the world. Well, I looked into it and it turns out he is partially right.

The reason New York City bagels taste better is the way we make ‘em. If you’re baking them in an oven the same way you would bake bread, you’re doing it wrong. Sorry but you are. You’re chewing on a small round loaf of bread with a hole in it. Truth.

So how do New Yorkers make bagels?

We boil them. Sounds weird, right? Totally true. When the Eastern Europeans came here, this is how they made bagels: they cooled the dough for a few days, which inhibits yeast from making the dough rise too much. From there, they boiled the dough. That’s how you get the nice, chewy center and a delicious crust.

So what about my dad and his water theory?

New York City water is not too hard (which makes the bagels tougher) or too soft (makes you feel like you’re eating raw dough), but that perfect goldilocks of water: not too hard, not too soft. So we’re at a bit of an advantage there.

But really it is that most places are too lazy to boil their bagels. The problem is that this is not an easy or quick process. It’s hard to automate. Which means people have developed other ways to make bagels. For example, some places bake the bagels and use steam to give them a more bagel-y, less bread-y flavor. Doesn’t that feel like cheating?

You might prefer that type of bagel. You’d be wrong and I’d feel sorry for you, but you can have that (wrong) opinion. Science is on my side here, and the American Chemical Society has a video on Youtube to prove it.

If you think about it, would you rather have an authentic, small batch bagel or a mass-produced bagel made the most convenient way possible?

That’s what I thought.

Pizza: Best Food There Is.

If you ever meet someone who says they don’t like pizza, you shouldn’t be friends with them. It’s cheese and sauce and bread that you can customize any way you want. If you don’t like pizza, you’re just not trying hard enough to find a combination that you want to eat. And if you eat it with a knife and fork, please stop.

Everyone has an opinion on what makes their pizza the best. There are many places across the globe that have their own style or twist on pizza, and everyone thinks they’ve perfected it. I’ve had lots of pizza in my time, and while I like a lot of them, there’s only one favorite for me. I’ll get to that at the end, though, just so you have to read this whole post.

To make a good pizza, you have to start with a good foundation. People from Chicago swear deep dish is the way to go. New Yorkers like pizza so big that we can fold it. Even Vegans can have their own kinds of cruelty-free cheese and dough. There are square Sicilian pies, Margherita, Neapolitan, stuffed crust pies, bagel pizza, the list goes on and on.

Then there’s the sauce. White pies, pissaladière, tomato, barbeque sauce, sauceless. If you can spread it (or not), you can put it on some pizza dough.

Finally there are the toppings, what truly makes pizza both great and a personal experience for everyone. You can have one cheese, like a standard mozzarella, or a blend of several. Some people skip cheese altogether in favor of other toppings. There are plenty of meat choices for those who want it: bacon, sausage, chicken, lamb, pepperoni, ham, ground beef. I could do this all day. Fish, too. Clams, smoked salmon, anchovies all those. Then, for those of us who like more nutritious options, you can put all kinds of vegetables on it. From pineapples to broccoli to olives to onions and peppers to just about anything else you could think of to throw on there, veggies make pizza taste even better.

I personally like a straightforward pizza. I like cheese, pepperoni, and a nice tomato sauce. I prefer New York Style. It should be pretty obvious why: a) it is the best b) it is what I grew up on and c) other than Italy, nobody makes a better pizza than a New Yorker. I like a big slice that you can fold. First, I think it’s better that way. And second, you can make a little channel in the center so that when you tip the pizza toward your plate, the grease comes off. No blotting required. I hate people who blot their pizza. Live a little, folks.

So what do you like on your pizza? Is there a perfect combination of dough style, sauce, cheese and toppings for you or do you mix it up and get different things?