Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Eating the Neighborhood

I cook everything. I want to hang out and cook with everyone's Grandmother. I want to share their comfort and pride. I call my cooking Global Neighborhood Cuisine.  It is dedicated to the heritage of flavors brought to America. I love the concept that immigrants bring their idea of comfort food to America and open small shoestring budget restaurants to share it.  It is a great story.
Eating the Neighborhood is my story.

It was oddly warm and damp for a November afternoon as I prepared to zip to NYC and back in my muddy C-RV. I first did my usual morning chores at New World--bank shuffling, vendor groveling, personnel coddling--then sped off to Manhattan to a brain storming meeting with my new agent, Linda Epstein, and her boss Jenifer DiChiara. I have a previous connection to Linda. Her brother David is a friend from Woodstock. He is involved with the Indy program in our school district. No, not formula one racing car stuff, but Indy as in independent art, film, video etc. He is also a teacher. He's an all around nice sensitive guy, a foodie, and fun to hang around with. I met Linda at New World Home Cooking a few times over the last couple of years. She is a fan. She is also an editor turned agent. That is good. We have chatted in the past about teaming up. It is finally happening.

I arrived at East 32nd street, Suite 300-- a few minutes early and waited on a small polyester chair that could have been chopped from a Budget Rent-a-car Toyota Yaris. It didn't nearly fit my manly back and it made me itch. It also, when combined with my five block hurried walk from the parking lot, had me a little bit dewy with sweat. Thankfully, after three or four minutes, Linda and Jennifer emerged from behind the receptionist's cove, Linda chuckling happily.  I like people who laugh so freely. Linda has a strong Jewish face with nice lines and a sturdy structure. Her eyes are creased in a perpetual grin. Jennifer was short with milky skin and black hair. She wore only black and look like a grown up goth girl. We all meeted and greeted, and then journeyed three or four steps into a shoebox of a rental office that smelled oddly of Campbell's chicken soup. The previous tenant who smiled as he departed the room for us obviously enjoyed microwaved soup for lunch or had KFC farts.
Am I excited yet? 
We settled into the small darkish room around a brown table. I felt like I was in a college radio DJ booth. The girls sat on either side, Linda on my left and Jennifer on my right with me on the end. It was the only place I would fit. 
We quickly fell into an enthusiastic chat about what should be done with my media aspirations. Should we develop and market a TV cooking show, a reality show, a hybrid show, book, graphic novel, blog, kids’ book? And then of course we batted around the next step: which project first, which network to work? Yea, I can be a pain in the ass to marketers, but in a good way (I think). I have too many ideas. I guess I have a little Darren Stevens streak in me. I could spit out valid concepts rapid fire, keeping up with the best of ad men. What makes me different from a real ad man is that I truly love and believe in the possibility of every idea like it was my first puppy. 
We chatted around the table for precisely one hour. The discussion was well engaged and we all contributed, though I did talk a little too much as usual. We debated about whether we should focus the project on my love and knowledge of chiles and spice and my "Ric-Ter" scale, or my dedication to local, organic and "clean" food, or my life as a renegade Woodstock musician turned restaurateur, or .. or...or what?
The dial stopped spinning somewhere between the Clean Food concept and The Ric-ter Scale idea with some Woodstock history lubing the edges. They all had potential, but I left the meeting a little confused. I want to move forward, but I wasn't as sold on any of the ideas as they were. They all have merit, but the overall direction seemed lacking a hook. 

I left the office at 4:05 pm and hustled 5 blocks to my car. I dreaded being stuck in get-out-of-the-city hell. If, when I got to the West Side Highway the traffic was already jammed, I was resigned to parking the car in Chelsea and hanging out in the city until 6:30, eating, drinking and spending money, to avoid sitting in rush hour traffic. Fortunately, I jolted across town in astoundingly short time and got onto the West Side highway by 4:25. I shot north, passing cars and switching lanes left and right contrary to my normal driving habits. The aggressiveness paid off. I made it over the GWB and onto the Palisades Parkway before the 5 o'clock rush. What a relief.  I grabbed a coffee and a bag of insipid chili-lime pork rinds (too hard, not puffy, rude) at the Citgo and headed home to my country house, my wife Liz and our Portuguese Water Dog Gambit.

I made great time getting home, arriving at 6:40.  I was home before Liz, who stopped off at Hurley Ridge Market to get a couple of Campanelli's chickens on her way home from her law job in Poughkeepsie. When I hopped up the side stairs to the French doors the house was literally vibrating. Nautilus was practicing in the basement. Nautilus is a band. Our son Terry generously offers our basement to local death metal bands to rehearse in exchange for considerations we'd rather not know about, as long as they clear out the empties and are done playing by 7 PM.

Liz arrived right at 7, just as the music died. She dumped the groceries on the kitchen island and promptly took on the chore of concocting two blood orange-pomegranate martinis, chatting all the time about law office drama. I fell into restaurant mode, nodding and smiling. I cranked the convection oven to 475, whipped up a quick Moroccan rub; sea salt, fennel, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, coriander, cayenne, long pepper and cinnamon, then rubbed up the chickens with olive oil and some of the spice mix, stuffed each with a clementine split in half and slammed them in the oven to roast. Thirty-five minutes from heaven, I diced up an onion, some garlic, an eggplant (scored with a peeler but not fully peeled), a big carrot (oblique cut), a half dry Italian hot pepper from the garden and a red bell pepper. I dumped it all in a heavy pan with some olive oil and some of the spice mix. High heat. Once softened, I added the juice of a lemon and a clementine, a can of plum tomatoes (squished through my fingers) and a little water and let it simmer away. I also started a pot of brown rice (Liz is of the Gluten Free persuasion and cannot enjoy cous cous). The almost Moroccan meal was rolling in the oven and on two burners in the time it took Liz to suss out her issues with the blood orange juice and finish the drinks. She rejected it on the grounds that it was full of food coloring and sugar, then redesigned the martinis and got them into chilled glasses.
I set the oven timer for 30 minutes and we retreated to the cool leather couch in the formerly garage - now family-room to chill out and reflect upon our frenetic day.