In honor of our 44th president, SYB’s monthly potluck dinner featured foods from Chicago and Hawai’i (but not Indonesia or Kenya.)
It was a snowy Sunday when we all gathered in Sunnyside… complicated further by travel detours due to the seemingly endless track work on the 7 line. No service between Queens and Manhattan until March? Why do these disruptions always seem to coincide with Chinese New Year?
But I digress. JL already had signed on to bring the Chicago-style deep-dish pizza (one of the 20 Worst Foods in America?), so when the prospect of tracking down the curiously extensive array of toppings that go into a Chicago dog proved too daunting, I went the Hawaiian route instead. Also, admittedly, I just didn’t know what else qualified as uniquely Chicagoan fare. (Um, sauerkraut?)
Tonight marked my first attempt at making a pineapple upside-down cake, and aside from the nerve-wracking sequence of inverting the cake pan layers atop one another (parchment helps a lot), I think it turned out pretty well.
I first heard of this dessert on The Jetsons animated series in the early 1980s — it was Rosie the robot maid’s specialty! — not realizing then that it was an actual cake and not some fanciful futuristic Hanna-Barbera invention. Much later than I care to admit, I learned that, in fact, it’s an American classic with origins dating to the turn of the last century.
SYB provided the ice cream to accompany my cake: vanilla, though, not Yes Pecan — Ben & Jerry’s “Inspirational Blend” of “Amber Waves of Buttery Ice Cream With Roasted Non-Partisan Pecans.”
Maraschino cherries, by the way, are maddeningly difficult to locate in a supermarket if you’ve never had occasion to buy them before. In the canned fruits section? Baking supplies? Pickles? Drink mixers? No, no, no and no. At my local Food Emporium, at least, the bright red jars are located just off the ice cream freezer cases, near the colored sprinkles. Well sure, that makes perfect sense… in retrospect.
Snowy Bliss Street Station on the ride back home:
From one of my favorite magazine features: New York’s annual “Reasons to Love New York — Especially Now” issue. Reason #1: Because Obama Is One of Us, Despite All That Business About Chicago.
Tropical storm Hannah blew in late this afternoon, dumping 3-4 inches of rain onto the city in a matter of hours, flooding the streets of Flushing and halting play at the U.S. Tennis Open Tournament nearby.
At the corner of Prince Street and Roosevelt Avenue sits Sifu Chio, an unassuming restaurant which my parents introduced to me as one of the best places in town to get a bowl of authentic Hong Kong-style wonton noodles – a simple thing, done very well. (Chowhounds like the dumplings.) The restaurant isn’t quite a dive, but the aesthetic is rather plain and utilitarian: open kitchen, florescent lights overhead, menus on the table under glass and every dish served in disposable plasticware. We were the only ones in the shop this evening, probably owing in no small part to the river of wretched rainwater coursing along the sidewalk in front.
What had started out as an order of a few bowls of wonton noodles expanded to include a side of Chinese beef brisket, a dish of Chinese broccoli, a bowl of noodles and fish balls, and a bowl of shrimp watercress dumplings. As the driving rain pounded against the darkened windows, we eagerly scarfed down every bite.
Hard to pinpoint precisely what sets these noodles apart from the hundreds of other bowls I’ve eaten over the years. Dumplings made to order — delicate, tender skins with deliciously fresh filling — are certainly one factor. Mostly, I think, it’s the perfectly textured noodles. In Cantonese, the word to describe them is “song,” a wonderful adjective which has no true English equivalent. Song can be used to describe a bitingly crisp wedge of fruit, a firm yet succulent shrimp, or here, snappy, springy noodles. Al dente in this context comes close, I suppose, but doesn’t quite get to the heart of the irresistibly pleasurable sensation: of tooth meeting initial resistance, then bursting through to tender, juicy center. “Toothsome” (definition 2) is the best general English translation, though I find it lacking in the poetry of “song“.
Later that night, the second annual Sunnyside Shorts Film Festival, which had been scheduled to take place at The Sunnyside Gardens Park, was driven indoors to the newly inaugurated Sunnyside Senior Center at Sunnyside Community Services (Note to self: 39th Street — not the same as 39th Place. A girl raised in Queens should know this. I plead temporary rain-blindness.)
We sat at round formica-topped tables to watch the 16 submissions by filmmakers hailing predominantly from New York — among them a few Sunnyside locals — with contributions from Europe and South America. Several of the short films were set in New York City, and covered an array of genres: animation, documentaries, comedic skits, one painfully earnest teen film student exercise, a sock puppet music video…
Quality varied widely. My favorite was Yolanda Pividal’s 16-minute “Two Dollar Dance” — a poignant examination of the Latino clubs dotted along Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights where a clientele of immigrant men, isolated from mainstream society, gather in the evening to pay for female companionship, if only for the duration of a song — an update of the “dime a dance” girls of the taxi-dance halls of the 20s and 30s. (Unsurprisingly, the workers at these places are often exploited.)
But as credits rolled on the experimental “interpretive dance” short (oof), I discreetly slipped out with SH and AP, in search of the less challenging pleasures of frozen yogurt: green tea and blood orange for me.
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit and the Papal Mass at Yankee Stadium may have thinned our dinner ranks a bit, but those who made it to Sunnyside for SYB’s potluck were treated to an evening of good, clean fun. In honor of 4/20, the theme tonight was munchies/baked things. Hey, it’s a mainstream media event now.
Now I’ve been known to bake a cake or two, so pretty early on I had decided to take up that portion of the cooking challenge. But in the final days leading up to dinner, concerned about a potential spread of Twinkies and Frito Pie, I decided to bring something I could eat for dinner myself. (I needn’t have worried, as it turned out: there were salads, quesadillas, pita chips and guacamole, sweet & sour pork and cannoli. Also: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made with AP’s wonderful homebaked bread.)
I had a surfeit of cheese on hand due to back-to-back runs to Murray’s Cheese and the Fairway fromagerie: two types of cheddar (New York and Australian), plus selections from J’s birthday cheese platter: Asiago, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano. (I made the executive decision to leave out the Saint Agur blue and the chèvre. You’re welcome.)
There are many recipe variations on mac n’ cheese, but knowing SYB’s preference for the casserole-type dish over the stove-top variety (and in keeping with the night’s “baked” theme), I used a recipe similar to Alton Brown’s, which begins with a roux and is topped with panko. The “Good Eats” guy recommends cutting the leftovers into chunks to be dredged and deep fried for Next Day Mac and Cheese “Toast” — an intriguing, if not very heart-healthy, option.
So why is cheese such a crowd pleaser? One chemical explanation is that when dairy proteins break down, they release casomorphin, an opioid, and tyrosine, a non-essential amino acid. (Tyrosine comes from the Greek tyros, meaning “cheese,” and is also the root of tyrophile, or turophile — “one who loves cheese.”) Tyrosine is in turn converted into the pleasure/rush-inducing dopamine and norepinephrine.
A natural high, if ever there was one.
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