All the ingredients getting ready for their trip to the Dutch oven
When Erin and I first started dating she told me about how she would love if we could cook something together one night. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t too into the idea at first. I tend to be a kitchen Nazi and like things done my way or you aint eating, I’m slowly working on overcoming that. But being that I wanted to make her happy, and we were still in that impressionistic phase, I said “Sure, lets give it a try, what do you have in mind”, with my most reassuring voice. At that point she proceeds to pull out this small pink leather cookbook that her mom had put together for her when Erin moved to NYC and says “Let’s take a look in here!”
I was in awe when I opened it. It was a collection of recipes her mom had perfected and written by hand into the pink lined note book. First off I was impressed, the penmanship was out of control, not like my mom’s scribble (we’ll leave that for another time). Second, there were so many different recipes that sounded so good and you can tell they were tried and tested. As we were flipping through it one recipe popped out right away… Cioppino. I looked over at Erin and I just let her know “We are gonna rock through this recipe together tomorrow afternoon!” with the excitement of a fat kid in a candy store. Erin seemed just as excited telling me it was one of her favorite dishes, as it is mine. Just then I realized maybe this wasn’t gonna be so bad after all.
The dish originates in San Francisco, it’s beginnings attributed to Istrian & Venetian fisherman who worked the SF Bay and would “chip in” their random scraps of seafood they couldn’t sell at the end of their long days. They took these scraps and would make a spicy tomato based stew that was reminiscent of Istrian & Northern Italian seafood brodetto. Side Note: The most authentic Cioppino is served in SF at Istrian run Tadich Grill, yeah my people are all over this dish. This of course is a match made in heaven for me. Fresh fish, shell fish, spicy broth with just enough of a brine to remind you that this is what the ocean should taste like.
Colorful ingredients of jerk chicken
One of my favorite Brooklyn traditions is to go to the East Indian Day parade with my friend Josh Fruhlinger. We do this every year without fail. We meet up around 11am, make sure we don’t have too much money in our pockets (too much cash leads to over eating), and head out to the food carts. It’s our one time of the year to get what we call “the real deal” and to experience the Caribbean influence on our Brooklyn neighborhoods in it’s full glory. If you live in Brooklyn you have to do this at least once for the shear visual craziness… trust me.
The Caribbean influence in Brooklyn is undeniable, from Canarsie to Prospect Heights, the Caribbean people have been such a strong part of the Brooklyn identity for the past 30 plus years. The people, music, culture and cuisine has seeped it’s way into every neighborhood of Brooklyn and livened them up. I remember having my first roti when I was 12 years old somewhere off of Eastern Parkway and falling in love immediately with the richness of the goat curry wrapped in a hand made flat bread. This was a cuisine I never experienced at home and was hooked from the start. But the one part of the Caribbean cuisine that back then, and every time I go to the parade, I yearn for is Jerk Chicken. A really good homemade Jerk Chicken has no other rivals as far as I am concerned. You can’t even step to it… period. The spice, aroma, char and juiciness is a perfect balance of island style and spirit in one simple dish. Each bite grows more and more complex and makes you feel like you are sitting on the beach even in the coldest North East winter.
The first time I ever went to Texas was over a winter break many years ago. It was to be a quick trip but when I got to the airport to come back home my flight had been delayed for a few hours because of a snowstorm back East. Snowstorm… in NYC.. what a surprise. I was pretty pissed and just wanted to get back to my NYC apartment and get under the covers watching tv. Being that I was going to be stuck there for a few hours, I think it wound up being 6, I needed to eat. The person I was with, a native of Texas, took me over to the breakfast place they had in the airport. It smelled pretty good of sausage and carbs as we slowly walked over. I figured some scrambled eggs and bacon would hit the spot. Just as I was about to order she says “Have you ever had Biscuits & Gravy”. Now in my Yankee state of mind and upbringing I thought that meant some brown diner gravy with some Pillsbury instant biscuits. The thought kinda grossed me out and I wasn’t drunk yet to get into that. I said “No thanks, that sounds straight up nasty”. Then she proceeded to explain to me what real Biscuits & Gravy was. A very classic poor man’s dish from the South West found in truck stops where buttermilk biscuits are halved and covered with pork sausage cream gravy. It has both German and Cowboy influences and is a perfect example of the first American fusion food.
I placed my order for 3 biscuits smothered in gravy. As I waited I could smell the familiar baked bread smell that is so penetrating to our primitive senses of hunger. The sausage in the gravy was rich with sage, thyme and pepper deeply penetrated my northern sinuses. As I sat down it wasn’t the most appetizing looking dish, it really never is, but I could tell I was in for a treat. The creaminess of the gravy that is loaded with black pepper and bits of pork sausage layered over flaky buttermilk biscuits is a match made in heaven. That first bite was an awakening in Americana cuisine and simplicity. I will never forget that experience and flavor profile as long as I live.