Tuesday, December 28, 2010

(Unexpected) New York Times Nostalgia -- "Correspondents' Choice: Restaurants and Recipes From Around the World"


     I haven't enjoyed reading the New York Times for a long time.
     Although I still marvel at the enterprise and energy that goes into publishing a daily multi-section broadsheet newspaper, and I admire unreservedly the reporting of certain old-style journalists like John Burns, the paper's London bureau chief and great Middle East correspondent, the internet era Times is basically an embarrassment, a sort of snootier version of the Daily Kos, less entertaining even than online journals like the Daily Beast (it's sad the way that publication co-opted and is ruining for a new generation of readers a perfectly good Evelyn Waugh literary invention) and Salon, which can sometimes be informative and entertaining, Joan "Peter Principle" Walsh notwithstanding.

 John Peter Zenger trial, New York City, 1735 

     The Times' main problem lies in its deliberate, determined and complete failure to respect the division between news reporting and editorial opinion.  Everything occupies (at best) the gray area they dishonestly and inconsistently identify as "news analysis", i.e., editorial writing disguised as straight reporting.  This is supposed to be John Peter Zenger's legacy?  It seems much more like Walter Duranty's.

Walter Duranty 

     The Times'  daily and Sunday "Op-Ed" pages are the sorriest of sorry messes.  Years ago, when Spy magazine was still being published, before Graydon Carter and Kurt Anderson both turned into Twilight Zone-ish self-parody robots, they would make cruel fun of former Times Managing Editor and later Op-Ed columnist (the page is sort of an elephant's graveyard for former Times reporters and editors) Abe Rosenthal by calling him Abe "I'm Writing As Bad As I Can" Rosenthal.   Now the paper publishes an entire page of writers competing with and beating the late Mr. Rosenthal for that title:  Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman, Nicholas Kristof, Maureen Dowd, the unbelievably bad Charles Blow, Gail Collins (a close second to Blow for dumbest person and worst writer on any editorial page ever), and the scary-awful Frank Rich, whose preening moral exhibitionism actually exceeds that displayed by all of the preceding writers, a Guinness Record level achievement.

Abe Rosenthal

     Rich's December 11th article, Gay Bashing At The Smithsonian, established what might be an all-time low, stating as it does (without evidence or causal linkage because there is none) that since "most of the recent and well-publicized suicides by gay teens have occurred in Republican Congressional districts", the U.S. representatives in those districts bear special and specific responsibility for these tragedies. (Rich does not assign similar blame to congressmen in Democratic districts where suicides occurred.)  This article, which veered from thoughtlessly oversimplifying possible public funding implications on museum exhibition practices, to making libelous generalizations about human nature as it exists outside Frank Rich's small circle of friends, to a truly incredible discussion of the Rich family's preferred itinerary for mourning deceased AIDS victims they have known, which doubtless includes Times-funded first class travel to the west coast just so he can harp on it later in columns seemingly written without leaving bed, really needed to be read to be believed.  (Message:  Frank Rich's mourning is worthier than yours.) However, if I were you I wouldn't read it.  And I would also keep the television turned off until the Times permanently discontinues its ur-cute "and what section of the Times are you fluent in?" advertising campaign unless you've swallowed something caustic requiring the immediate administration of a drastic emetic.

     But, as I hoped to be saying earlier in this post than now, this is meant to be a happy article based on my rediscovery of the excellent New York Times book, Correspondents' Choice: Restaurants and Recipes From Around the World (ed. Lee Foster; Quadrangle Books, 1974), a circumglobal tour of restaurant recommendations and recipes collected by New York Times reporters 35 years ago during the now-vanished era of multitudinous news bureaus in international capitals staffed by old-style foreign correspondents who opened windows and shed light for American readers (including this one) on far-away, romantic-sounding places.

     The book covers 62 countries  -- from Argentina to (former) Yugoslavia -- and a great many cities within those countries.  As the subtitle indicates, intrepid Times reporters provide essays and recipes telling how to eat enjoyably and comfortably in these sometimes familiar and sometimes extremely exotic locations. It is an extremely interesting, entertaining and well-written volume and I'm surprised it has faded into such obscurity that I was easily able to pick up several copies on the internet yesterday at very reasonable prices.

     I can only give a few excerpts of Correspondents' Choice's riches here (my selections would all be nice to sample during our northeast U.S. winter), but if you enjoy these, love reading books about travel, food and the way people who live differently than you do dine, and long for the days, as I do, when journalists seemed like explorers who respected your role as members of a curious, intelligent, paying audience meant to be served, rather than armchair bores hectoring you and high-five-ing each other on 24-hour "pundit television", I suggest you purchase a copy or check one out from your public library.   This book, incidentally, belonged to my mother and I inherited it from her.  After she passed away, our local librarian told me that she was the most disciplined reader she had ever met.   This post is dedicated to her.  She liked the New York Times quite a bit and probably would disagree with most of what I say here.

I.  Greece (Athens) -- Gerofinikas by Mario S. Modiano:

"Wrapped around the trunk of an ancient palm tree that gives it its name, this is the restaurant I like best in all of Athens.  It's the kind of place where each hors d'oeuvre is a masterpiece.  It's also a good setting for a Balkan spy novel as it happens to be a favorite dining spot of domestic and foreign intelligence men.  Those in the know can see them dining here regularly and eyeing one another with ill-disguised suspicion." 

Eggplant Salad (based on the recipe of Gerofinikas, Athens)

At Gerofinikas this cold spread is made with eggplants that have been seared over a hot charcoal fire until their skins are charred.  Purists insist that the charcoal imparts a unique flavor, but cooks without a charcoal fire find that putting the egglants under a hot broiler and turning them until all the skin is charred makes an acceptable substitute.

5 pounds eggplant
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
juice of 3 lemons
1 1/4 cups olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar

1.  Broil the eggplants whole over charcoal or in a broiler, turning them occasionally, until all the skin is charred and the eggplants are tender.  The eggplants are done when a knife goes through them easily.  Remove from heat and let cool enough to handle.

2.  Put cold water in a bowl large enough to hold the eggplants and add 1 tablespoon salt and the juice of 2 lemons.  Stir.

3. Peel the eggplants or cut them in half and spoon out the meat in large pieces. Put the eggplant flesh in a bowl of water.  Let cool.

4.  In a small bowl, combine the olive oil, juice of 1 lemon, 1 teaspoon salt, and the sugar.

5.  Remove the eggplant from the water, place in another large bowl, and mash quickly.  Blend in the olive oil mixture and beat, by hand or machine, until the eggplant spread is smooth and creamy.  Chill before serving.

Yield:  8 to 10 appetizer servings; more as a cocktail spread.

II.  Nepal (Katmandu) -- The Yak and Yeti by Judith Weinraub:

"For many people Katmandu, capital city of the mountainous Central Asian country of Nepal, conjures up visions only of Everest and the Himalayas, Sherpas, Ghurkhas, and hippies.  But for those in the know, the real tourist attaction here is Boris Nicolevitch Lissanevitch and his fabled restaurant, the Yak and Yeti.  An erstwhile dancer with Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, Boris, as he is known to everybody who is anybody in Katmandu, was running a club called The 300 in Calcutta, India in 1951, when he was induced to come here by King Tribhuvana, then Nepal's monarch, to run Nepal's first deluxe hotel.   Its cozy arcaded red brick chimney lounge and high-camp dining room and ballroom (complete with wonderful primitive murals by the wife of a one-time British ambassador) are housed on the first floor of a rambling old royal palace."

Ukrainian Borsch (based on the recipe of the Yak and Yeti, Katmandu)

According to Ashok Sharma, the maitre d'hotel of the Yak and Yeti, the ingredients of a good borsch vary with the season. The two essential vegetables are beets and cabbage, and they are used in greater proportion in winter than in summer.  Conversely, in summer there are more tomatoes in the soup than in winter. Other vegetables that can be used in addition to those listed below are turnips and leeks.

3 pounds soup bones with meat (beef or a combination of veal and chicken)
2 quarts water
2 medium onions, quartered
4 tablespoons butter (approximately)
2 cups shredded cabbage (red or white or a combination)
4 medium beets, peeled and sliced
2 carrots, sliced
2 large potatoes, cut into chunks
2 ribs celery, sliced
2 large tomatoes, quartered
black pepper


sour cream
finely chopped scallions
chopped dill (optional)

1.  In a large pot, simmer the bones and water, partially covered, for 2 hours.  Remove meat from bones, return meat to the broth and discard bones.  Skim the fat from the broth.

2.  Saute the onions in butter and add to the broth together with the cabbage, beets, carrots, potatoes, celery and tomatoes. Cover and simmer very gently for about 2 hours.  Season with salt and pepper.

3.  To serve: ladle the soup with bits of meat and pieces of vegetables into large soup bowls. Top with sour cream, chopped scallions and, if available, some chopped dill.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

III. Rumania (Bucharest) -- Bucuresti by James Feron:

"Westerners do not find Rumanian cuisine exceptional, and the Bucuresti is about as good a place to dine as there is in this capital.  Formerly the Capsa restaurant, it was frequented by pre-war society and its pink walls, black-painted woodwork and chandeliers recall the 1930s.  The caviar at the Bucuresti is black and genuine, unlike the poisonous-looking orange stuff masquerading elsewhere in town as Manchurian caviar.  One dish to try is mititei, meatballs made of beef, pork and herbs and grilled over charcoal."


Mititei  (based on the recipe of the Bucuresti, Bucharest)

At the Bucuresti these Rumanian meatballs are grilled over charcoal.  If charcoal grilling is inconvenient, season the meatballs with charcoal powder and put them under the broiler.

1 cup beef stock or canned beef bouillon
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon each of black pepper, dried rosemary, marjoram and savory
1 tablespoon baking soda
1/2 pound coarsely ground lean beef
1/4 pound coasely ground pork loin

1.  Bring the stock to the boil in a saucepan, add the garlic, spices and baking soda; simmer for a few minutes.  Remove from heat.

2.  Thoroughly mix the ground beef and pork and place the meat in a non-metallic dish.  Add the seasoned stock and blend well.  Refrigerate the mixture for 24 hours.

3.  When you are ready to cook the meat, shape it into 4 oblong patties, about 4 inches by 1 1/2 inches.  (As hor d'oeuvres, each patty can be divided into 4 pieces, making 16 small meatballs.  Grill the patties over a charcoal fire or season them with charcoal powder and put them under the broiler.

Yield:  2 main dish servings or 16 appetizer meatballs.

ACravan note to readers:  The Bucuresti is once again open as the Capsa restaurant in Bucharest's Capsa Hotel (pictured above) in post-Ceausescu Romania.

IV.  Italy (Rome) -- Ristorante Nino by Paul Hoffman:

"This always-crowded place -- just two L-shaped rooms -- off the Piazza di Spagna is my favorite when food, rather than profound or confidential talk is the main purpose of the meal.  The tables are so close together that one inevitably picks up interesting snatches of the other patrons' conversations, mostly in Italian. Quite a lot of amusing or shocking things are said in such a way as to allow people all around to share in the fun.  Nino is good for lunch, possibly after a shopping expedition in the nearby Via Condotti with its elegant stores, and even better for dinner.  The best time is after 9 p.m. when models from the high-fashion houses that are all over the area come in and go ravenously through their high-protein diets."

Atomic Hors D'Ouevres (based on the recipe of Ristorante Nino, Rome)

2 whole pigs' feet about 1 1/2 pounds each, cleaned and scrubbed
1 pound boneless lean pork shoulder
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
1 cup coarsely chopped parsley
3 cups thinly sliced red and/or green peppers
10-15 small sharp green Italian olives
3/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup wine vinegar
black pepper

1.  In a large pot place the pigs' feet, pork shoulder, garlic, rosemary, and enough water to cover.  Bring to a boil, cover pot, and simmer for about 3 hours or until meat is tender but not falling apart.  Lift out and cool.

2.  Remove the meat from the pigs' feet and discard the bones.  Cut all the meat into long thin strips.

3.  In a bowl toss together the meat, parsley, peppers, olives, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt and pepper.  Marinate 2 hours at room temperature before serving.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Yak, Katmandu, Nepal

Bucharest "Soul Map"

Gerofinikas, Athens, Interior

Nino, Rome, Exterior

New York Times, August 1, 1884

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