Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Undeservedly Underappreciated

I've never understood those who claim they never liked brussel sprouts. I have always had a soft spot for those little green nuggets. I suppose I was always a vegetable fan, though. My parents never had to trick me into eating them, and I never had to hide half-chewed greens in napkins or feed them to an ungrateful dog. (Milk, on the other hand, was an entirely different story - my grandmother soon realized that triggering my competitive side was the only way to get me to down a glass of that stuff...but enough about that.)

It's hard to really dislike something that comes to you bathing in giant pools of butter. And that's always how brussel sprouts were served when I was young. My impression is that most people have memories of overcooked, bland, soft, mushy little things. Such things never taste good, regardless of what they are. Soft, mushy, bland and overcooked anything is going to be a loser in any kid's eyes. Not to mention that when overcooked, brussel sprouts emit sulfur compounds, the smell of which would turn most people off. There may also be no other food on earth that looks so - I don't know - just so good for you, which to most kids equates with gross. It seems I have to take back my earlier statement - I do understand those who claim never to have liked them; I just feel a bit badly that they've lost so much time with such a delicious little vegetable.

My appreciation for the alienesque green sprouts has not died out, not in the least, but it has surely matured. I am no longer satisfied with the little packages of frozen sprouts emerging doused in "butter," piping hot from the microwave (though I do admit that such things are sometimes totally called-for). Nope, now I take 'em roasted, pan-fried, hashed, whatever; as long as they're slightly browned and crispy, and cooked perfectly to ensure that their nutty, complex flavor really shines through, they are truly without equal.

These little guys I found in the Union Square Greenmarket. They just looked so dainty on their stalk, almost elegant. Such a far cry from the bad-smelling, shrunken cabbage heads that have given brussel sprouts their bad name. There was no question - they were coming home with me.

I was unsure how I was going to cook them, though I was pretty sure a simple roasting would pay them the homage they truly deserved. A quick saute in a pan to develop a crispy golden crust, a quick pop in a hot oven and that would be that.

Honestly, though, what is not better with a little bit of bacon?* Add the golden, rich, unctuous liquid of a runny egg yolk (a/k/a egg butter**) to the equation, and all the makings of a homey, rustic, delicious meal were in order.

Pan-Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Bacon and Poached Eggs

There's really not much of a recipe to be shared here, but I will try my best to quantify it. The key, really, is to make sure that the brussel sprouts are browned sufficiently, because that's pure flavor.

Also, choose smaller brussel sprouts, with tight leaves. Larger brussel sprouts tend to have less flavor and be a bit tougher.

If you've purchased your brussel sprouts on the stalk, like I had, simply cut the sprout from the stalk just below the base of the sprout. I found, after realizing how long this was going to take me, that twisting the sprout until it pops off is another good option.

1 1/2 to 2 pounds brussel sprouts (I truly have no idea of the weight of the brussel sprouts I used, though I'd venture to guess it was around this amount)
3 rashers bacon, chopped
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
Salt and Pepper
Parmagianno-Regianno Cheese
4 eggs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the stem off of the base of the brussel sprout and peel away any tough, outer leaves. Slice each sprout in half.

Cook bacon in an oven-proof skillet over medium heat until browned and crispy.

With a slotted spoon, remove bacon from skillet and place on a plate covered in paper towel to drain. If desired, remove a bit of the rendered bacon fat from the skillet, but keep a good amount in the pan to cook the brussel sprouts. If your pan is a bit dry, melt the tablespoon of butter in the skillet.

Place the brussel sprouts, cut side down, in the skillet. Cook for about 5 minutes over medium heat, until browned. Don't be tempted to move the brussel sprouts around, since they won't brown properly that way. If you're scared they're burning, check just one of them. Place the skillet in the hot oven for about 3-5 minutes. Remove, and return to medium heat, flipping the brussel sprouts with tongs to get a bit of browning on the other side. Return the bacon to the pan, season liberally with salt and pepper, toss around the brussel sprouts and divide among two plates. Grate to taste with cheese.

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet of water to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer. Add a tablespoon of vinegar to the water to help the whites to set. Remember, the fresher your eggs, the better they'll set. Add the eggs, two at a time, gently into the skillet. Cover and allow to cook for about 3-4 minutes, or until the whites are set and the yolks are still runny. With a slotted spoon, remove the poached eggs from the water and place atop a pile of sprouts. Repeat with the other two eggs. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Make sure to serve with great, crusty bread to sop up all of that deliciousness.

* Answer: Very, very few things.
** That is a technical term, obviously.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In Which I Come Late to the Shake Shack Party

The praises of the Shake Shack have been sung far and wide. I realize this, and I am going to add my voice to the chorus regardless, despite the fact that the Shack has received so much exposure that it's blossomed into a full-blown tourist attraction - a stop on almost every non-New Yorker's culinary expeditions, particularly when the weather is cooperative. This has had an unfortunate repercussion, however, since the Shake Shack is as notorious for its line snaking around Madison Square Park as it is for its burgers. This prompted the installation of the Shack Cam, a camera with a live feed on the Shake Shack website that allows any potential Shack-goers to track the line for the optimal Shack-going experience. And honestly, when it's 75 degrees out, standing in line for an hour and a half for a burger in the middle of a beautiful park with dogs running all over the place and children playing around you with your lovely friend Anne-Lise (who, by the way, took that picture of me digging in, as well as that of the wreckage down below) is pretty damn far from the worst thing in the world.

Formerly opened only during the summer months, the Shake Shack's popularity has led owner-operator Danny Meyer to keep cranking out burgers year-round, which works out spectacularly for me, since my apartment’s proximity to Madison Square Park means that I can take my burgers and custard to go when I please. Admittedly, though the Park is the place to eat at, since the enjoyment of burgers and the time allowed to sit around are clearly inversely correlated, and while the heat lamps that are brought out during the winter months help a bit, eating outside at that time of year is just not as enjoyable. For the custard, though, this could not be more ideal.

You see, I walk to and from work every day, and I often find myself craving some custard as I approach my apartment. The weather now is perfect for this too, since the B-line (from which only custard, drinks and concretes can be ordered) is always non-existent, I can walk right up to the window and order immediately, and the chill in the air allows me to slowly savor my purchase on my entire walk home (and often for a couple of days afterwards, since the custard is so rich I find it hard to eat a ton of it in a single go). I do this constantly in spite of my pitifully sub-par circulatory system and my Reynaud’s-addled fingers, which are always an admittedly unbecoming shade of, well, white, and which I can never quite feel as I make my way into my apartment building. I can see my fingers pressing the button in the elevator, but I can’t really feel my fingers make contact with the cool metal. But I hold onto that cup of custard anyway because it's just so damn delicious.

You see Shake Shack – you see what I do for you?

I think it's beyond argument that a well executed hamburger is one of life's simple pleasures. It's amazing how something so innocuous can elevate your mood (well, my mood at least - perhaps I'm being a bit presumptuous in assuming that everyone else can have their day turned around with a single bite). I am not a large person, and I don’t really share the appeal of ten-ounce monstrosities, since I can’t really eat the entire thing and the sheer amount of meat is overwhelming and makes it impossible to taste everything else at play.

A burger, after all, is a sandwich, and the key to a good sandwich is the interplay of its components. If all I wanted to eat was a giant hunk of meat, I would have meatloaf, and I would be happy about it. But when I eat a burger, that’s not what I’m after.

The Shake Shack burger is a thing of beauty. It’s smallish, and more reminiscent of the West Coast-style burgers that In-N-Out has popularized than anything you’re likely to find on the menu of a New York restaurant. The meat, which comes from Pat LaFrieda is of good quality and is ground across the street at Meyer's Eleven Madison Park. It’s cooked on a well-seasoned griddle and allowed to develop a char, which means a salty, flavorful, crispy, caramelized meat crust. Is there anything better? If you go with the plain hamburger or cheeseburger, you’ll receive your burger in a cutesy wax-paper envelope. It comes naked, so if you’re wanting some tomato, lettuce onion or pickle on your burger, you’d best speak up (the onion and pickle will be given to you in small plastic tubs as opposed to on the burger). The bun is of the squishy-soft variety, and is slathered with butter and thrown on the griddle with the burgers to achieve the requisite squishy-buttery-crunchy taste trifecta of a great bun. The namesake Shack Burger is a cheeseburger adorned with lettuce, tomato and some Shack Sauce, which is really a glorified-thousand-island-type-dressing-with-a-garlicky-tang-that-is-really-so-much-better-than-thousand-island-I-feel-almost-bad-drawing-that-comparison. Suffice it so say that it’s ketchup and mayo based, and it’s awesome. With or without the Shack Sauce, this is one of the best damn burgers in the city.

The fries at the Shack I could take or leave. I tried the fries for the first time last summer, and they didn’t really do much for me. Sure they’re salty, but they’re crinkle-cut fries (and apparently frozen), which don’t really do much for me in general. A few weeks, though I decided to give them another go, and went the extra mile with some cheese fries (Time Warner Cable had left me in such an awful, terrible place that an excessive amount of Shack-delivered comfort was required). The fries themselves were cooked much better, and actually had a lovely golden color and delicate crunch. The cheese sauce was surprisingly delicious – it tasted like cheese, and not like the cheese sauce that too frequently masquerades as actual cheese in a little plastic tub atop some stale nachos and three slices of pickled jalapenos thrown atop to establish the Mexicanness of the nachos you’re eating. The Shack’s cheese sauce is made from Cheddar and American cheeses and actually tastes like it, and is not glopped on in such ridiculous proportion that the fries lose all texture and turn into a soggy mess. Still, though, I think it’d be a rare occasion for me to choose the fries over the custard, and it usually is one or the other, since the fries-custard-burger combo would likely prove lethal.

And oh, the custard. Shake Shack features vanilla and chocolate custard daily, which are supplemented by the Flavor of the Day. The Shack prominently hangs their Custard Calendar on the fa├žade of the shack, and every day of the week there is a different flavor of the day. The flavors change on a monthly basis. This month, for instance, features Pumpkin Spice Mondays, “Mulled” Chocolate Tuesdays, and Almond Quince Sundays. I am not a chocolate fan, and I can vouch for the awesomeness of the Mulled Chocolate custard with a rich, only faintly sweet chocolate flavor that is so perfectly complemented by a pleasantly muted spiciness - think something along the lines of a Mexican hot chocolate flavor. Shake Shack drew me back repeatedly last month for the Cinnamon and Roasted Fig custard, as well as the Shiraz Poached Pear and Pancake flavors, the latter of which just tasted unabashedly like batter and was so, so good (as things that taste like batter tend to be).

Last week, I waltzed over to the Shake Shack with an order of pumpkin spice custard firmly in mind. But the Shake Shack has a recurring special that shows up around the autumn holidays, a concrete (think DQ blizzard on crack) made with vanilla custard, blended with pieces of home-baked pumpkin pie and topped with an egregious amount of whipped cream. I was faced with a dilemma – do I go with the pumpkin spice custard, which tastes like fall in all the right ways, or do I go with the concrete, which blends actual pumpkin pie chunks with vanilla custard? And this is where Shake Shack blew my mind. They let me combine the two – I had the pumpkin pie concrete made with pumpkin spice custard. It was going to be pumpkin-overload, and it was going to be sweet. And then, then I was told that they were out of whipped cream and were going to have to whip up a new batch. So I waited patiently. But then I was told that they were out of heavy cream all together. Did I want something else to replace the whipped cream as a mix-in? Of course I did – I took a look at the menu and the marshmallow topping jumped right off the page. Marshmallows are often an unwilling accomplice in the unfortunate sweet-potato casseroles that make an appearance on almost everyone’s holiday table. This was my chance to repent for all of those misgivings – marshmallows would be proud to accompany the pumpkiny glories of that November night. And they did themselves proud.

I know what you’re thinking – that the merits of the Pumpkin Pie Oh My concrete lie in the ability to taste the actual pumpkin pie chunks amidst the vanilla custard, and blending the chunks in pumpkin spice custard was totally going to overwhelm the pie itself. But the flavors in pumpkin spice ice cream and pumpkin pie are the same, and so the flavor of the pie was the same as the ice cream, which was amped-up texture wise by the silky pumpkin pie swirled throughout. Rich, creamy custard plus rich, creamy pie equals pumpkin-induced euphoria.

The Shake Shack serves up comfort food in its purest, basest form. It’s nostalgic, it’s delicious, it’s down-right unhealthy, but it’s got so much damn personality that I don’t even feel the tiniest bit bad about eating it.

The Shake Shack
Southeast Corner of Madison Square Park (Near Madison Ave. and E. 23 St)
New York, NY

Second Location (Recently opened; I haven't tried it yet)
Upper West Side
366 Columbus Ave. (Northwest Corner of 77th and Columbus)

ALSO - There will reportedly be a Shake Shack at the new CitiField, which would combine two of my favorite things: the New York Mets and the Shack. Amazin'.