49-57/1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die (Birthday Edition)
July means birthdays (mine and Miles’s). Birthdays mean good eatin’.
Italian Ice (49).
I kick off this post by dipping a toe into the “Italian” chapter of the book. We stopped by Rita’s Water Ice on the Upper West Side on my birthday (7/7) to pick up a free birthday Italian ice. I got key lime and Miles got tropical fruit. It was a million degrees and humid outside, and no dessert could have been better for cooling off. Mimi informs us that the tradition of flavored ices is “at least as old as Ancient Rome,” and I gotta say, there’s a reason some things stick around for thousands of years.
Two days later, I went shopping for special birthday breakfast treats for Miles. He doesn’t especially like sweets, so replacing a birthday cake for him every year takes some creativity. This year, I decided to surprise him with an array of traditional treats from the Lower East Side’s best and most famous…
Jewish Appetizing Store (50).
Which is, of course, Russ and Daughters. I’ve been making it a point to stop into this iconic establishment since before I was a resident, and having it now only a short train-ride away on any given day is truly one of the luxuries of living in NYC. I’m dying to try the new R&D Café, but until the morning I feel like waking up at 6am for brunch, bringing their delicacies home for an in-house feast is a sane alternative.
Mimi informs us that the offerings of traditional Appetizing Stores are meant to “awaken sleepy palates and to form the basic menu for non-meat meals.” Preserved fish, prepared salads (egg, potato, etc), sweets, breads, cheeses, pickles, caviar, and a thousand other eye-catching delights can be found here, but R&D is often so crowded that it can be a challenge to even make your way to the counter and place a simple order. However, to my great surprise, when I went in on Friday mid-afternoon, there were only a few other people in the store, and I was able to browse and order at my leisure.
If you refer to the bottom right corner of the photo above, you will see what I bought for a snack (for energy, of course) and consumed on the bench outside:
a Potato Latke (51).
It wasn’t hot and it was no longer crispy, and I’ve had delicious fresh latkes before, so I knew what I was missing. It was still full of potato-y, onion-y goodness, however, and really hit the spot. A good latke is, as Mimi says, “something like hashbrowns, French fries, and potato chips, all rolled into a single addictive disk.” And Mimi is seldom wrong.
I also ate a Knish (52).
As I continued my wander around the Lower East Side that day, I happened upon the Yonah Schimmel Knishery. I’m not overly fond of knish — I find them (at least the potato variety) dry and starchy, with a taste I would describe as “aggressively white.” But this is the knish bakery referenced in the book, and there looked to be lots of variety in the window, so I decided to give it a shot. I ordered a sweet potato knish, in the hopes that it would be less white-tasting. The verdict: better than regular potato, but still so starchy. It was warm and soft on the inside, but too big for a snack and too small for a meal, I think. I don’t believe I’ll be seeking out another store-bought knish. I’d be willing to try a homemade version, however, which Mimi assures us are crispier and less soggy than the ones that sit in bakery windows all day, and are sometimes filled with onions, meat, or mushrooms.
The next morning, I set out Miles’s birthday feast, featuring:
Bagels (53), Cheese Blintzes (54), Pickled Herring (55), Capers (56), and Gravlax (57).
Bagels have been one of my favorite foods since I was a tween. A bagel with cream cheese and lox is my third-favorite breakfast in the world, behind 1) an egg sandwich and 2) chilaquiles. New Yorkers will tell you that the bagels here are far superior to any you’ll find elsewhere, because of tradition, standards, and amazing tap water. Mimi tells us that “New York and possibly London are the last bastions of bagel authenticity,” and that traditional bagels were only edible for about 5 hours after they came out of the oven, before they turned to stone. The ones I bought were still nice and chewy a day after purchase. Mimi also sniffs, “heat your bagels if you wish, but know that you are flaunting tradition and masking what should be the identifying characteristics of the classic ring-shaped roll.” That’s fine. I’ll still be toasting mine.
Cheese Blintzes are among my favorite breakfast indulgences. Not for every day, certainly, as they are basically dessert masquerading as breakfast; pretty much every diner in NYC makes a good one. I like them best with some variety of berry topping, which we sadly did not have on hand. I managed to devour them all the same.
Capers are a necessary component of any bagel-cream-cheese-lox situation, but surprisingly, they are to be found not in the “Jewish” chapter of 1000 Foods, but in the “Spanish and Portuguese” chapter. Fascinatingly, capers thrive in stony, dry conditions, and are incredibly hard to harvest: the capers grow on the end of the plant’s needle-sharp thorns, and they must be picked with ungloved hands: “if the branch is broken, or the silver-green leaves are stripped, the plant will not produce the following year.” I’ll be much more appreciative the next time I simple crack open a bottle and scoop a few out with a spoon.
There were two kinds of Pickled Herring on offer at R&D, and I picked the kind without the cream sauce. Chewy and slightly bland, I can’t say that this was my favorite dish on our breakfast buffet.
I bought two kinds of cured salmon: traditional Jewish belly lox, and Scandinavian Gravlax (which marks my first foray into the “Scandinavian” chapter of 1000 Foods). Gravlax is my favorite kind of smoked salmon, because I’m basically addicted to dill. Gravlax is “named after an ancient curing process in which fishermen preserved their catch by burying it in sand with sugar and salt — the grav means “buried” and the lax means “salmon.” Apparently, the traditional accompaniments are “a tangy sauce of of blended sweet and hot mustards thickened with minced dill” and ice-cold vodka. Upon reading this, I vowed to procure these accompaniments as soon as humanly possible. Luckily for me, Mimi includes a recipe for the mustard sauce. The vodka I already have.