Me, Sher, and Ad

Me, Sher, and Ad
Bro Adam and sis Sher, my rocks!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Caviar 101

When the Ritz Carlton Philadelphia closed and the property was taken over by Starwood Hotels, I was heartbroken. The Ritz-Carlton was a family atmosphere of employees striving to show an incredible experience of care, comfort, and opulence to our guests. I had come to truly believe in the philosophy, or as we said at the Ritz-Carlton, the Basics, of the company.

The Starwood Hotel company transformed the Ritz-Carlton into a St. Regis, their equivalent. I knew after working there a month I would not stay. They just didn’t embody the genuine care and comfort of guests and that family atmosphere that I had grown to love at the Ritz.  I started looking elsewhere. My search for an new employer brought me to a caviar and gourmet foods importer right in Philadelphia by the name of Assouline and Ting, Inc.  The owner was a very handsome short statured French man named Joel Assounline. Joel was friendly, excitable, full of never ending energy, and so likable. His wife, Vibeke, who I believe was Scandanavian, was very active in the family business.  She was also an accomplished architect in her own right who also rented the artist studios on the upper floors of the warehouse where I worked. It was my first experience working directly with a family where not one, not three, but several languages were used in business. According to Joel, the “Mr. Ting” in the name had been bought out years ago and Joel kept the name in the title because it sounded good. Joel owed several shops by the name of Caviar Assouline as well as his warehouse business catering to high end restaurants across the east coast. There was also a mail order business from the Internet which I helped manage.

At Assouline and Ting, caviar was their specialty, but you could also find gorgeous white and black truffles (when in season of course), fine aged balsamic vinegars, various expensive olive oils, quail eggs, duck confit, duck breasts, escargot, and extremely rich foie gras.  There were thousands of other gourmet products. It was a restaurateur’s and chef’s dream!  I worked there for 6 months as an assistant food purveyor. I basically took orders and enjoyed having a fancy title. I was more or less an office clerk who did a bit of everything. It was a small staff, about 6-8 salespeople, clerks, warehouse workers, and drivers who helped Joel run this gourmet foods company.

Although international in terms of business and sales, Assouline and Ting still continued to have a "mom and pop" feel to it. I enjoyed working there immensely but left after I was offered the purchasing position at the new Ritz-Carlton Hotel which opened up next to City Hall in Philadelphia. It was a position I could not refuse and Joel was sad to see me go, but understood. I was very sad to leave Assouline and Ting and owed an immense amount of gratitude to Joel Assouline as he taught me everything I came to know at that point about the high end gourmet food industry. I honestly don’t think I would have been hired as a purchaser of the Ritz-Carlton if it weren’t for what I learned under his tutelage.

One of my favorite memories of working with Joel was when his friend, Boris the Russian, would drive down and visit from New York City. Joel was in competition with another highend caviar/gourmet foods company in NYC and one of his contacts in NYC was Boris. When Boris arrived, you  took notice. He would stroll in scanning the room with large, dark piercing eyes.  He was intimidating in terms of a "mafia" type quality, but this quality was interesting and intriguing at the same time. Women in the office would now faint and swoon. Men would stand up in deference to this Russian with their mouths agape at the sight of him. Boris stood 6’5” and wore a dark black trench coat with black shoes. I remember him wearing all black but whatever he wore was the best quality. His hair, black as coal, hung straight in back and short and spikey in front.  He had a slight continuous five o clock shadow with gleaming white teeth. Boris’s attitude was “Don’t ask where I have been, don’t ask me what I am doing, and don’t ask  me where I am going.”  He spoke with a thick Russian accent whose heavy inflections sent chills down your spine.

Boris would come up to me every time, and say “I am Boris, Joel’s friend from New York, Let him know I am here with caviar.” He would not acknowledge my existence. In one hand would be a black attache case, in the other a black portable ice chest with a lock on it.  Boris would say the same thing to me every time he would arrive. After the 10th time I  cut him off and said to him, “I know who you Boris. Do you know who I am? You never say ‘Hey how ya doin?’”  I was trying to make a point. I was not just one of Joel’s little clerks, I was a person!  I was an assistant food purveyor!  He responded to me, laughing, in that thick accent, “Yes I know who you are. You are that kid I talk to on the phone all the time. So tell me kid,  do you want try some of the best caviar in the world?”  I exclaimed,”Hell yeah!”  “OK, kid, get Joel and see if he will let you try the best Beluga, Ossetra, and Sevruga caviar in world!”

Joel, Boris the Big Russian, and I went to the kitchen. Boris pulled out three huge kilogram tins of caviar and my instruction in Caviar 101 began. I leared that Sevruga caviar was the smallest. Small black eggs, briny, and intense, which popped in your mouth releasing what seemed like a mouthful of the ocean bursting onto your palate. We tried Ossetra next, which turned out to be my favorite out of the three. Medium sized fish eggs, these were light brown to dark brown in color, with an nutty assertive flavor. Lastly was the best of them all, Beluga!  This was before the 2005 ban on Beluga to repopulate the precious sturgeon fish which spawn these eggs. The Beluga were light grey, large, pearly and glistening.  They were mild in flavor, with a buttery taste. Absolutely scrumptious …. and as with all caviar, an aquired taste. It is a taste I was so luckily to have developed under the instruction of Joel the French importer and Boris the Russian caviar dealer.

I also learned about why caviar isn’t served in metal bowls, and served with horn, ivory, and glass spoons. The metal imparts a distastefull metallic flavor from oxidation. I learned that it can be consumed with mini-toasts, on blinis with sour cream, on bliss potatoes, with onions, salmon, creme fraiche and other various accroutrements. But I learned there is nothing wrong with taking a small horn spoon and just digging in, savoring the flavor of the bursting eggs between the tongue and the roof of your mouth. Lastly, I learned from Joel and Boris that you don’t DOUBLE DIP!  I think I was cursed in Russian and French at the same time.  I reminded Boris that as he stated, I was just a kid who didn’t know any better. He let out a hearty laugh and the called me something dirty in Russian with Joel guffawing, saying in English, "Good one Boris. Hey Marco ... he got you good!" I responded rolling my eyes, "Uh ... OK, whatever, remember I don't know what you are saying to me! Just give me more caviar!"

I think Joel, Boris, and I consumed around $500.00  worth of caviar that afternoon. It is something I will not soon forget. I miss those days working with Joel Assouline. He was so knowlegable about "the business." He was fun to work with as well. Alot of what I learned has since faded to the back of my memories but there is two lessons I won't soon forget. NEVER use a metal spoon when eating caviar and NEVER double dip!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Thoughts as My 40th Year Comes to a Close

I have learned a lot during my 40th year. Some things are good, some ... I wouldn’t say are bad … but let’s just say are not so good. Physically, it does take getting used to accepting the aging process. Albeit someone in their 50’s or 60’s may laugh at my minor aging issues, but they are still significant to myself. You take mental pause when someone first tells you, “Oh my gosh, you are turning gray!” You start to notice with a deep sigh that you need to adjust the paper in front of you in order to read the fine print. And you definitely don’t bounce back like you used to after a night of drinking and dancing.

I worry about life going by too fast. I am fearful I won't do everything that I have always wanted to do. As friends and family members pass away, I realize how precious our time here is. You realized that in the blink of an eye, it can all be taken away from us. I never dreamt my mother would die so young. I feel I am blessed to have her with me as long as I did but I feel for her loss, for in just two years since her death, so much as changed to my brother's, sister's, and my own life. The hard part is that she will never know about it.

I have learned that it is sometimes lonely getting older. There are not as many people to call or go out with at a moment’s notice on a Friday night. Yes, Facebook and other social media have helped change that “out of touch” feeling, but as you get older, so does your core group of friends. A lot of them have families of their own and some work longer and harder hours than you do. You just don’t get together as often. We seem to get wrapped up in our own smaller worlds.

Also, when I was in my 20’s, I thought nothing of taking the train up to New York City for a quick weekend getaway at the last minute. Now, I have to plan, budget, and calculate. Who is going to feed the cats? Can I put off mowing the lawn? Should I pay mortgage and electric or go to NYC instead? UGH! I sometimes joke that I hate being a grown-up! All these decisions and all these bills!

I still find it hard to believe I am 40. I never thought I would get to this age. I remember my mother turning 40 and her joking to her friends that she was turning 29 again. Like my mother, I often use this joke and receive the same groans from my friends that my mother's friends gave her. I will tell you that my mind feels 29, or even younger. It is only the body that gives away its age. I do enjoy the confidence and wisdom one develops as they get older. I don’t get nervous walking into a crowd at a friend’s party. I plunge in, looking for people I know, the bar, or the food table and go from there! Maybe I hit the bar first. OK, I definintely hit the bar first, then food, then people I know but I am definitely not intimidated like I used to! 

One of the best parts of getting older is that you care less about what people think and more about what is important to you. You succumb less and less to peer pressure. You basically do what you want and if people don't like it, as they say ... screw 'em! As long as I look and smell clean and decent, for most nights that’s all that matters. I have been to art gallery openings where I walk out with half the hors d'oeuvres shmeared down the front of my shirt, but hey, I had a blast! I figure most people won’t even remember if I wore a blue shirt or a red shirt anyway.

The same goes with dancing at the clubs. I used to know all these great dance moves and keep up with who with the hottest pop stars. Side bar ... my sister and I used to have a "dance routine!" Another blog for another time! Now, with regards to how I dance in a club, I could care less. I just wanna go out and have FUN! And besides, these days I am lucky if I can last three songs on the dance floor before my legs start to buckle. Oh that burning in my quads kills me! You all know what I am talking about. If I am not getting winded, my knees and legs are going to give out!

I guess we do get more selfish as we get older, but in a good way. We worry about our own happiness and how we feel about ourselves, and less about how others feel about us. That kind of selfishness is good. I am learning how to deal with this aging thing. Overall, I am calmer about it than I was a year ago. Maybe it’s also just about acceptance. I can’t change it, but I can recognize it, accept it, and possibly enjoy it.

I still do go through my “frazzled at forty” moments though.  I was at my brother's in San Diego last June for my sister-in-law Teresa's and my 40th birthday party. I was talking with my niece Angelica when she was with her friends and one of them asked as I walked away, "Who was THAT?"  She replied, "Oh that's just Uncle Marc."  UGH! I was crushed! (I know she didn't mean it like that but oh it stung!) I also had a mini freak-out when a young coworker told me she was turning 24 and said nonchalantly, that I could be her father. She softened the blow by telling me I was one of the coolest 40 year olds that she knows. OK, not so bad ... I will definitely take that!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Some favorite Impressionist/Expressionist artwork!

The following works of art are some favorite works of Impressionism and Expressionism that I have loved from my studies in the art history program at Rutgers University way back when. Art history continues to be a passion and love of mine! These works move me in one way or another. They are copied for purely educational reasons and obviously I do not own the originals. LOL.

"Starry Night" by Vincent Van Gogh

I did my thesis at Rutgers on Vincent. I didn't do so well on it. LOL. Long time ago. I love this pic. Very forboding, disturbing. Nightmarish.I love it.

"Le Moulin de la Galette"   by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

I love this work because I have always felt the frenetic activity taking place: the dancing, the talking, the drinking, all the fun! It reminds me of myself during my twenties having fun at various restaurants, cafes, and bars!

"La Promenade"  by Claude Monet

Everyone always LOVES the water lillies paintings by Monet but I love this one. It is ethereal, you can see movement by the wind against her dress, her hair. You can feel the cool breeze she is fighting against with her umbrella. Incredible!

"A Bar at the Folies Bergere"  by Edouard Manet

a bar at the folies bergere, Edouard Manet

So much of the reasons I love certain works are personal. They remind me of the years I have spent bartending or waiting tables at fine hotels and restaurants. Especially this one! I see the champange, the fine liquors, the oranges, the crystal chandelier! It brings back memories for me.

"Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte"  Georges Seurat

I love this Pointillism painting by Georges Seurat because of the subject matter, a Sunday at the Park with the ladies all dress in their finery. I also love the details, the monkey in the bottom, the dogs running about. the man smoking his pipe, a young girl smelling a bouquet of flowers, and the ladies with their sun umbrellas!  A perfect "snapshot" of a Victorian Sunday at the park!

"Self Portrait"  by Vincent Van Gogh

I love this self portrait in particular because of the colors that Vincent used and the strong brushstrokes.

Sweet Noodle Kugel: My Comfort Food

Warm, sweet with raisins, tart with apples, spicy with nutmeg and cinnamon. COMFORT FOOD. This is how I describe my Nana’s Sweet Noodle Kugel recipe. Kugel is a Jewish tradition. It is sort of a noodle and egg pie and is similar, perhaps, to a quiche ... but with noodles! It can be savory and made with spinach and cheese or sweet, like my Nana's. The recipe I made is perfect for dessert, or even breakfast.

Now it has been a tough month for me, with the 2nd anniversary of my mother’s passing. So it only figures that I have nursed some wounds during these last thirty days. It is amazing that food from your childhood can evoke such memories, such emotions of love and kindness. No wonder it is called comfort food.

This past month I have been plodding through my Nana’s and Mom’s recipes that Mom had so carefully wrote down for me in the last couple years. They include among others, recipes for meatloaf, meatballs, Mom’s marinara sauce, tomato and cucumber salad, cucumber onion salad with sourcream (my Nana’s recipe from Russia), Nana’s stewed chicked, potted chicken, baked chicken, chicken cacciatore (I smell a trend), baked fish with vegetables, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, and of course, Mom’s tuna casserole with cheese cornflakes on top(a family twist!). These recipes rank among some of my most treasured family heirlooms as they are such a direct connection to my past.

The tuna casserole is one of those dishes which with one bite, and I transported back to 205 East Maple Street in Wenonah, NJ, sitting in the breakfast room next to Mom, with Adam beside me, Sheryl across from me, and Dad at the other end of the table. We are eating off of Corning Ware, talking and laughing about the days events at work and school. Gretchen, our shepherd, has to be herded back every couple minutes to the back door to lay on her round braided rug, covered in dog hair. We had a small black and white TV in the breakfast room. Mom would always insist it was turned off for dinner. Mom and Dad taught us how to listen and not interrupt. We would go around the room and one by one, talk about our day or what we learning. It was so hard to not interrupt the others! (I still have that problem, LOL)

I decided to make the Sweet Noodle Kugel this past weekend, but was thrown off when I realized I did not have any broad egg noodles. They must be extra wide. So, I put it off for a day or two and then on the way home from work the other night, made a last minute stop at the food store and picked some up. They did not have any of the Manischewitz brand which Mom used, so I picked up the good old standby Acme brand which my Nana swore by. "It's just as good as the expensive brands!" she would insist. She was also partial to Pathmark store brands too.

Like a science experiment, I put all of my ingredients out on the counter top before I started the recipe. That is where the dutiful cook began ... and ended. I just glanced at the recipe and threw myself into it! Well, let's just say I started messing up real fast. I first realized that I needed to separate eggs. OK, wasn't too sure how to do that. Now I can cook, but when it comes to baking, my skills are lacking, so I should have READ THROUGH the entire recipe instead of just winging it. I called my sister Sheryl and she explained to me how to separate eggs. I did that correctly after instruction but then put the egg whites into the spice mixture when I should have put the yolks in! ARGH! I had to start all over again. Thankfully, I had the exact number of eggs left in the fridge that I needed.  Sheryl couldn't believe I hadn't read the recipe all the way through. Who needs prep in a kitchen? Not me!

I separated the eggs and this time correctly put the yolks where those yolks needed to be. I needed to grease a pan. Huh? After a quick call back to Sheryl, she started laughing at my ignorance and then offered the solution, butter on the pan so the noodles don't stick. OK, thanks! I hung up. Then, I had to beat the whites until stiff. What?? I had already called my sister twice and her hysterical laughter at my baking naivete was being replaced by sisterly annoyance at her inept brother pretending to be a cook. So, I called my friend Marie, who proceeded to laugh at me as well. Marie, for those who don't know her, is an accomplished chef hailing formerly from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Susanna Foo's Asian restaurant, and now worked at the Restaurant School as an instructor. She explained how to beat the eggs until stiff. I had never used my hand blender and it was still new in the box. Marie was in shock when I asked if she thought I needed to wash it first. I played it off, "Yeah, just kidding! Ha ha! Of course I am going to wash it!" Oops! Marie also explained how to fold in the egg whites into the noodle, raisin, and apple mixture before baking. You need to fold the egg whites into the mixture gently. Gently? What, am I putting the eggs whites to bed?

I put the Sweet Noodle Kugel in the oven and baked it for the time stated in Nana's recipe. From baking, the noodles on top get kind of crunchy but the interior is SO GOOD! My mouth waters just thinking about it. It came out perfect, just how I remembered it. From a 9 x 9 baking dish, I cut out 4 huge helpings. One each for John and I that night and one each for us the following day. I sat there in heaven eating it slowly, savoring the myriad of flavors which evoke those memories of past Jewish holidays with Nana or Mom cooking. Each sweet bite was wonderful. The flood of emotions and memories was almost overwhelming as everything else around me just shut down while enjoying the Kugel.

The couple hours that I spent on this recipe were worth it and so important to me as I connected to my past. I regret not making this more! And, for future reference, I have vowed, like a good cook, to start reading the ENTIRE recipe before hand so I don't have to make a dozen calls to Sheryl and Marie during cooking.