The Grub Street Diet

Jeffrey Steingarten Cooks Goat Sous-Vide, Disdains Brooklyn Boosterism

Steingarten tipples at PDT.
Steingarten tipples at PDT. Photo: Cynthia Chung

“I ingest, and then they pay me to write about it,” explains Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten. “I’m not doing an article for the November issue, so I’ve had much more time to eat than I ordinarily do. It’s a great time of year for snacking.” Steingarten is co-hosting a whiskey tasting with David Chang at the Andaz Fifth Avenue for Fashion’s Night Out on September 10. “We’re going to have largely local whiskeys, and I hope lots of it. Four bars, so no one has to wait more than a minute for their whiskey — and I expect them to be poured in liberal amounts.” The enthusiasms and appetites of The Man Who Ate Everything are legendary, and his account of a week’s food and drink tips the scales as our most extensive Grub Street Diet yet.

Wednesday, August 25
I started the day with a big piece of cantaloupe, sweet and ripe, from the Union Square Greenmarket. I also had a peach and a cup of coffee.

For lunch I had something I eat quite often. It’s a piece of toast, brushed or slathered with olive oil, and then sliced tomato on top. Sometimes I’ll put a little herb of some kind over the top, and salt and pepper. It is heaven. It has to be a perfect tomato, obviously. In my experience, heirloom tomatoes are very, very often inferior in taste and texture.

For dinner I went to the press preview of Eataly. [See his full take on the experience here.] After I left I went to Rye House with my wife. For the event at Andaz, I asked Jim Meehan of PDT to get some local whiskeys together and I tasted about six of them — from the Hudson River Valley and from the Finger Lakes. Then I asked the Brandy Library to arrange another whiskey tasting, where we did a blind tasting of ten things, one or two of them from Brooklyn, which I’m afraid did not score well. Whiskeys need to age, and that’s something that’s almost impossible for the local people, simply because they haven’t been in business long enough. So at Rye House, Kevin, the bartender, set out a number of things that I hadn’t had before. The really exciting one was a distillery called Laird in New Jersey that makes apple brandy and applejack.

Thursday, August 26
My wife hand-squeezes orange juice every morning. That’s the main cooking she does, since I kind of displace her, I’m afraid.

Three or four months ago I prayed, not particularly to any god, that I would not become a coffee geek. Because I was writing an article about coffee and I was spending a lot of time investigating it. The emphasis has shifted to brewed coffee from espresso, and I’m happy about that. I enjoy espresso very much but the intensity of espresso and also these very dark roasts at almost all espresso bars seems to me to make it hard to actually taste the floral and fruity character of the beans, though some of the darker more minerally tastes do persist. The two methods that we’ve been doing at home are the pour-over, almost always into a paper filter: Grind the beans, put them in the paper filter, use this special Hario water kettle which has a very fine spout so you can aim. See? I have become a coffee geek, and I have to get over this. There’s even a disagreement over the proper pattern to pour the water over the grounds. I’m very serious, I thought it was ridiculous but now I’m very careful to follow the spiral method, out to in and in to out.

The other method is the siphon method, which is not entirely appropriate unless you have an assistant who’s a coffee fiend, because it takes you twenty minutes and you’re just standing there. I don’t really get up too much earlier than the absolute moment I have to be at my desk, so it’s hard to be able to spare that time to watch the coffee brew. But if you have an assistant who’s a coffee fiend — and now, of course, it’s no longer an insult to a female employee to ask her to make coffee.

For lunch I had tomato on toast, and also a little cheese that I had bought the day before at the Greenmarket from a cheesemaker called Cato Corner. Their prizewinning cheese is called Hooligan, and I especially enjoy it when it’s nice and ripe.

Around four o’clock I was picked up by Josh Ozersky, who has a weekly radio show on the Heritage Food Network, which is located in a shack behind Roberta’s restaurant in Brooklyn. Also in the car was the other guy being interviewed, John Fraser, who is the chef at Dovetail, which I believe brought good refined modern food to the Upper West Side for almost the first time. So one incentive for going all the way over to Brooklyn for this radio show is the food at Roberta’s, which I just love, even though it’s very far away.

During the interview we had a little of their excellent pizza and a glass of wine, but it was mainly afterward that we had a really fine spread cooked by the chef, Carlo Mirarchi. Carlo was extremely generous with making a lot of food for us — I mean in quantity, naturally I paid for it. I’m sure there were dishes among those we tried that I didn’t have to pay for, but with the recent controversy about people taking free food and everything … as I told Julia Moskin at the New York Times, who was on the case, she and I and a handful of other people can afford to be sanctimonious about it because we work for publications that are still paying for our food, but otherwise it would be very difficult to keep up.

Carlo made us seared cuttlefish, tender and crisp — I don’t think I’ve ever had cuttlefish like that. Naturally we had excellent pizza: one margherita, because that’s what I like, and another that I never thought I’d like because I view myself as sort of a purist, it has guanciale and egg on top. There was a dish of sea urchin and shredded burrata, which was unusual and quite delicious. There was seared pork jowl that Carlo makes very well. He roasts it for a long time at a relatively low temperature and it becomes perfectly soft and melting, although it does have some crunch. He then slices it and sears it in the pan. Then we had a big rib steak. I was surprised to hear from Carlo that our particular steak came from Niman Ranch, and this is not for me a usual source of the best rib steaks. I really am addicted to LaFrieda, but this was wonderful, really wonderful.

Our meal took a long time, I don’t think I got home until 9, but I had brought home a pizza from Roberta’s for my wife, and I was able to have a little midnight snack.

Friday, August 27
I ate fruit all day. I had peaches from the Greenmarket, and also peaches from California — the day before I’d gotten a carton of the Cal-Red variety from Frog Hollow farms. They’re organic, which I favor, and perfect. I had some watermelon. I had some squash, because I was trying to duplicate a dish I had had at my favorite new Manhattan restaurant, ABC Kitchen, but the squash is not yet really in season so it was not quite right.

I had some bread to break things up throughout the day. For my bread, I use only homemade bread. I bake about twice a week, usually using my variation that I published in Vogue, of Jim Lahey’s method, as introduced to the wider world by Mark Bittman in the New York Times. You have to mix it up the night before and wait 18 to 22 hours, but mixing it takes about two minutes by my watch, and that includes the travel time between the counter and the refrigerator where I store yeast. The only tricky part is forming the loaf; I think that is key to the success of the bread.

My assistant Rachel is a big booster of Brooklyn, where she lives, and I find it a very dangerous thing to be a Brooklyn booster. It’s dangerous for friends of mine who work for the New York Times — I’m not naming any names — but the food editor for the magazine, who is one of our best food writers, and the restaurant reviewer of the newspaper all live in Brooklyn, and they are relatively uncritical of things in Brooklyn the way that sometimes — but not often — Frank Bruni became a little uncritical about things on the Upper West Side. It’s because he really wanted to find things, but I’ve always felt that if you eat out a lot then you should not live on the Upper West Side, or you should have a chauffeur.

But the dangers of Brooklyn boosterism: Rachel had gone to a bakery that has gotten good reviews in Brooklyn, I won’t mention the name, but it’s been reviewed as having the best croissant and breakfast pastries. She brought a whole bunch over, and the croissant was only acceptable. I do feel that people should, before they blog about how good something is, they should really take time to think about the best they’ve had and really compare it to that. Long after the whole croissant craze started in New York, fifteen years ago, I had a little television show with Ed Levine, and part of it was comparing croissants all over the New York area. We had Pierre Hermé on the show, and he showed us what he thought were the important characteristics of the croissant: a very flaky outside, very light in the hand, you had to be able to tear it in half and not have the insides go all in one way or the other, you had to have layers, and most of all, there was the taste. So I asked him what is the main taste of the croissant, and he said “Butter.” And what does butter taste like? “Acidity.”

It is not easy to find good oranges these days, sweet and not bitter, even sometimes in the winter. But my wife has discovered them at the new Trader Joe’s on 27th Street. While I was there, I had bought a frozen tarte tatin made in France — I was kind of intrigued by the idea. I made it, and it was okay. I also had a frozen dessert product based on a fudgesicle that’s called Skinny Cow. They have a mini-size which is only 50 calories, and I’ve gotten used to those even though I was against the idea of the artificially sweetened things.

Saturday, August 28
I never get to the Greenmarket in the morning. I think that it’s bigoted of farmers to get up so early. I don’t think it’s necessary; I know farmers in Europe who don’t start until 9 a.m. with their market stores. There’s no reason for the earliness, it’s just machoness. So you get to the Greenmarket, and if you haven’t ordered ahead of time, people are sold out? That’s wrong! I happen not to be a morning person, but I deserve to eat as much as a morning person deserves to eat. When you prick us, do we not bleed? Seriously.

Still, I bought peaches from three different growers, and two of them were actually ripe. There were huge cantaloupes, which I’m always suspicious of, but they were very good, and corn of course. And Concord grapes have started! There’s little more enjoyable than going to the Greenmarket and everyone has their grapes laid out in the sun. An aroma, almost a perfume rises up all around the market. One thing I discovered two years ago is that there’s one real maker of grape juice, Buzzard Crest Vineyards. They have to freeze most of it before getting to the market because it’s so sweet that it starts to ferment almost immediately. They only had the white kind, and it’s not yet as sweet as it will be, but it’s still fantastic. I had ordered a huge pig jowl from Violet Hill farms, where I get a lot of my meat. Carlo from Roberta’s had given me his recipe, so almost as soon as I got home from the market I started curing it.

We had a guest from India. He’s quite old and he’s a very particular eater, so we went to ABC Kitchen for dinner. And he asked me, “Obviously the chef didn’t have to do much to the ingredients, so why do you need a good chef?” I tried to explain how the cooking was not as simple as he thought it was, it just looks simple. We had many dishes: the Jersey tomato on bread, certainly the squash that’s sautéed with Parmesan.

Sunday, August 29
I had bought the shoulder of a kid on Saturday from a stand at the Greenmarket called Patches of Sky. She’s a goat-cheese maker, but she breeds her own goats. And what do you know, a high percentage — maybe almost half! — of all the kids that are born are male, and a goat-cheese maker has really nothing to do with males. So as a sideline, she sends them to a slaughterhouse. It only happens a few times a year, and then she brings the meat to the Greenmarket. It used to be that I had pick of the litter, as it were, because no one would buy it. But of course goat is really hot now, so I have to lobby to get my share. I’m not particularly good with a knife and I have the injuries to prove it, but I had figured I would break my forequarter down into the shoulder, the neck, the rib, the loin.

I was going to make the shoulder sous-vide. Sous-vide is fading as a method, really. One reason is that the Health Department in New York is brain-dead. You’re allowed to cook something like a chicken or beef or something in a regular oven at the worst temperature for bacteria, they don’t mind that, but as soon as you put it in a plastic bag they monitor it. They have extremely incorrect information about botulism. They really should go to jail, those people, they’re just stupid. There are a lot of people doing sous-vide in New York and they have to hide it.

Alain Ducasse is one of the early chefs who used sous-vide for gastronomic purposes in France. He has a recipe for a kid shoulder with what he calls Moroccan spices — the kind of white people’s French version, which is a bit bland, but still it’s good. So I got all the spices, I ground them in a mortar and pestle, and rubbed the goat with it, put it in a plastic bag with some frozen olive oil, because liquid just gets sucked out of it if you use a food-saver, which is my way of sealing the bag. And I put the bag underwater. That was on Saturday, and on Sunday it was over — we took it out of the water and we seared it, and it was delicious. That was our main food for the day. It was a day, like all days, of peaches, cantaloupe, watermelon, and bread with tomatoes, but when it came time for the meat course, it was the day of the goat.

Monday, August 30
I had ordered some squab from D’Artagnan because I wanted to do some experiments with sous-vide squab. You have to separate the breast, because it should be medium rare. People who are squeamish about that shouldn’t eat squab, because then it tastes like liver and you might as well eat liver. It has to be cooked very accurately: You really do want it to be medium rare like a steak, but you want the skin to be crisp. The various methods that I was going through would be Thomas Keller in his sous-vide book Under Pressure, and a version from David Kinch of Manresa. And then there’s the Ducasse method. He has two methods in his Grand Livre, so those are the ones that I’m trying. The best way to make the legs scrumptious is to confit them, usually using duck fat, and the easiest way to confit is sous-vide.

I had another whiskey tasting at PDT that afternoon, but this time I did not say it had to be local whiskeys, it just had to be small-batch or artisanal, and it didn’t necessarily have to be whiskey, just spirits. We had about ten or eleven, and six or seven were excellent.

My wife hates it when I eat in the kitchen standing up, so I view that action as a great luxury. I would imagine that it’s better for digestion because it goes right down, aided by gravity. Less work for your organs! She was in Texas, so I was able to indulge. So instead of going home from PDT, I got in a cab and went down to Chinatown, to Great NY Noodletown. There was one dish I wanted to have: the steamed lo mein noodles with scallion-ginger sauce.

David Chang’s cookbook, Momofuku, which is an excellent cookbook and is beautifully written, contains a paean to Noodletown’s scallion-ginger sauce. The restaurant was very unknown until, if I may say, I took Ruth Reichl there and then she reviewed it [for the New York Times]. And someone, probably David Bouley, took Joël Robuchon there — he tried the scallion-ginger sauce, and he was so in love with it that he brought home several quarts to France.

But I got home with my noodles and I don’t know, this order of lo mein noodles with scallion-ginger sauce was just not good at all. The ginger was in large pieces, the scallion was poorly cut. I guess under current management it’s not one of their signature dishes. To round it out I had got some fried rice with Chinese sausage, and pan-fried lo mein noodles with sliced fish.

Tuesday, August 31
I had peaches for breakfast, and just a piece of my toast with butter.

The New York Times had published a recipe in the Sunday magazine section, an old recipe that had been published in 1985 by Craig Claiborne, for Ann Rosenzweig’s corn pancakes. I decided we ought to do that dish, but I didn’t have much time, so I asked Rachel to do the whole thing. It was very nice comfort food — we ate that with the pork jowl, which had been in the sous-vide machine for 48 hours. I don’t think that my version came out as well as Carlo’s. We had some leftover lo mein noodles, and Rachel and I whipped up David Chang’s recipe for scallion-ginger sauce, and it was just delicious.

The new bread came out of the oven and I waited for it to cool. Almost everybody agrees that you should not eat it warm, which is hard for my wife and assistant to believe, but I remember a paper that says a lot of the flavor of bread comes from the migration of the odors and aromas from the well-done crust to the insides, and that won’t happen well if you slice the bread before it cools. And then if you want more warm bread you can cook it once it’s cooled.

Wednesday, September 1
Cantaloupe for breakfast. I was in a real hurry.

I was taking out a young man — I consider him a young man — to lunch. I have a feeling that, unlike me, he has a positive attitude about most things. He’s a student at Columbia Journalism School, and they assign them all to some neighborhood in the city and he was assigned the Midwood part of Brooklyn. I’ve only been out there to get DiFara Pizza, which — like Tomoe Sushi on Sullivan Street — is way overrated. Anyone who thinks DiFara is a shrine doesn’t know what God is. I’m afraid I’m very immoderate in this, and I actually hate people, hate them, really dislike people who worship DiFara’s. Still, I had told him to go there because it was the only place I knew in Midwood.

For lunch, I had thought about taking him to ABC Kitchen, because he’s from California and might really appreciate that. People from California really are different: They eat avocado on everything. It was proven that day: I took him to Chinatown Brasserie, largely because they have the best dim sum in the city, and there was a new dim sum on the menu that I didn’t love and of course my friend loved it, because it had avocado in it and he’s from California and they put avocado on everything.

We also had steamed pork and shrimp dumplings, steamed roast pork buns, steamed crabmeat and pork shanghai dumplings — I’m not going to call them soup dumplings, I don’t know why they started calling them that, because there’s no character in Chinese for soup. I’m a real addict of well-made spring rolls, and they have the best there, their deep-frying is perfect, so we had the barbecued duck spring roll and the vegetable spring roll. And we had their really good seafood and pork fried rice with XO sauce — fried rice being one of my two foods that will save the world — and very thin egg noodles with wild mushrooms.

I had a Tsingtao with lunch. It reminds me a bit of being in France: The first meal right after I get there, you might have just been able to share a whole bottle of wine with your wife, and then you totter back to the hotel. By your third day, you have to order an extra glass of wine at the end of the meal, and by the fourth day or fifth day, I find that you wake up in the morning and the first thing you want is some alcohol. I’ve been experiencing that a little, though I don’t think it’s serious, with all the whiskey I’ve been drinking. I’ve accompanied some of the past week’s lunch dishes with a shot of good whiskey, something I would have considered totally degenerate before. I think it is degenerate, but who can blame me?

For dinner, I had some leftover noodles with scallion-ginger sauce, a bite or two of squab, and I found in the refrigerator a burrata, quite delicious, and I had too much of that. But I’d had a huge lunch, you know?

Jeffrey Steingarten Cooks Goat Sous-Vide, Disdains Brooklyn Boosterism