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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year!

According to recent scientific studies, Porkchop Express readers have 29% more flavor. So congratulate yourself, you sexy bastard... and have a porky new year!

Back soon with brand new food obsessions.

Til Tuesday,

– J. Slab

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


I just watched Ninja Vixens: Forbidden Paradise and–I kid you not–it was as if the filmmaker had placed a videocamera on my back, propped a window to my soul, put my thoughts on MP3, fused my tastes into a delicious new beverage, drank it, then made a movie; it was that biographical.

Hear me out, skeptical reader. NV: FP may seem like just another entry in the “Sexy Ninja Threesome” genre. After all, this is a story of “sensual sisters” who make sexy fun-time with a strapping samurai, then kick an evil demon's ass. (Saturday, chez Slab!) But it's also a poignant parable of an open-minded youngster's search for delicious. Each “vixen” strives upwards and onwards towards a Forbidden Paradise of unimaginable heights of ecstasy and flavor, while conquering dark personal demons.

Makes sense, right? Nothing in this world comes free, and only those who really want it get to taste that sweet, sweet fruit.

It's a lesson The Porkchop Express knows all-too-well, especially in the context of apples. We really like 'em, but there are so many varieties! And they all look more or less the same. How to distinguish? Which are best for eating, and which for baking? What if I want sweet, or tart, or both?
Nature's cruel riddle? The variety of “apple” knows no limits!

These questions aren't just academic. With apple season winding down (final fruits were picked in November) we had to figure out something but fast. So here goes, good reader... a solution whose uselessness is matched only by the time it took to iron out the details: a waxonomy, if you will, pairing apples with people.

In the spirit of Ninja Vixens: Forbidden Paradise, we are putting a face on this Edenic treat, hoping you and us both can remember some names. This should do to round waxy fruit what our Madonna map did to sandwiches, and may very well revolutionize your produce selection process for decades to come. So dig in. We sure did, gathering a few friends and a baker's dozen of apples... results below!
Waxonomy: “Apple” personified, click to enlarge

☺Cameo: What is Larry Blackmon up to these days? If my hunch is right, eating apples. Like this one, considerately named after his band. The Cameo is somewhere between a Macoun and a Gala: sweetness with a bit of tang, to give it some depth. Pretty juicy, and good for the dancefloor.
Verdict: a good eater.
Celebrity Match: Larry Blackmon

☺☺☺ Cortland: Tops amongst several tasters, this apple can clearly hold its own in any situation. Firm, juicy, and a bit more tart than the Empire Red. If you like your apples with a little edge, start here. Good for baking too, since it holds its shape nicely.
Verdict: versatile with character, whether raw or cooked.
Celebrity match: Benecio Del Toro

☺☺☺Cox: A classy fruit. Course skin, but what a wonderful flavor. Made tasters blurt out strange things (banana!), a testament to the complex taste. Sweet but not overbearing, with a clean finish. Too bad it's a rare breed; they're already gone for the year, so catch 'em when you can.
Verdict: a cut above; eat and enjoy.
Celebrity Match: Daniel Day-Lewis

☺☺☺Empire Red: “Now this is an apple,” raved Ms. Slab. Nice, crisp and juicy, with a dry finish. Very well-balanced between the tart and the sweet, with terrific texture. A fave amongst every taster, regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, or favorite UN Consulate. Plus, they bake well.
Verdict: a champ; nice balance; eat or cook.
Celebrity Match: Johnny Depp

Gala: Too sweet for me but the ladies loved it, instantly reminding me of that scene in Houseguest where Sinbad yells “Denzel!!” in an airport to start a riot. “Good for an afternoon snack,” said one sassy woman; oh behave!
Verdict: a sweet eat.
Celebrity Match: Denzel Washington

Golden Delicious: What a tart! Or rather, the first bite was a little tart (much to our surprise). Then sweet all... the... way... thru. Firm texture means good for baking. And while it was a bit much for some of our panel, this apple is pretty hard to complain about. Unless, of course, you're Ryan “ex-Mr. Reese Witherspoon” Phillipe. Ouch!
Verdict: a sweet eat; firm enough to bake.
Celebrity Match: Reese Witherspoon

Ida Red: Tart and mealy, just like Don Rickles. You've been warned.
Verdict: thumbs down.

Jonagold: Sweet, winey, moist and crisp. Versatile, coy and suave. Chow, Yun and Fat. Pretty smooth skin, too. An apple for any occasion? A good baking choice to boot.
Verdict: tasty, slightly tart cousin of the golden delicious; eat or bake.
Celebrity Match: Chow Yun-Fat

Macoun: What a tart! Yet with a sweet, sensitive heart. Extremely crisp when in season (a short Fall season, at that). Try baking with this one, especially if you want to mix up that pie filling.
Verdict: crisp; short Fall season; eat or bake
Celebrity match: Grace Park

Rubinette: I had my buddies Ruben and Jeanette try this one, as it combines both of their names. This apple is actually a cousin of the Cox, and it put up a solid front. Not as complex, but good flavor and firm texture.
Verdict: the poor man's Cox; a good eat.
Celebrity Match: Liam Neeson

Shizuka: The Jennifer Anniston of apples. Looks fine, but so freakin' boring. Is this even an apple? I literally fell asleep while eating it, and woke up somewhere in the desert with extremely dry lips and no idea what happened. The lesson being, eat at your own risk.
Verdict: who cares?

Winesap: Classy name, but surprisingly grouchy taste! Our panel pulled no punches: “unpleasantly tart”; “coarse-skinned”; awkward bursts of liquid; tannic; musky. You get the gist.
Verdict: why so tart?
Celebrity Match: Gwyneth Paltrow

Since I know you're just dyin' for an apple now, let me suggest Tree-Licious Orchards. They are run by James Edwin Jesler, whose family has been farming for 7 generations (originally in West Virginia). In addition to being a true southern gentleman with a razor-sharp memory (watch how he greets his customers), Ed also has a degree in engineering which he applies to the pursuit of the perfect apple. He is always exploring and often grows new strains, so his selection (15-20) varies weekly. Depending on the season, Ed also sells Quince, Plums and Pears. Tree-licious is located in Jersey, but they hit the NYC greenmarket circuit three times a week. Click here for their Brooklyn and Manhattan schedule, and start your very own sexy-fun apple adventure today!


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

International House of Pancake

Something strange is afoot in Washington Square Park, good reader: delicious vegan food.

Although The Porkchop Express never rarely associates the word “vegan” with “delicious,” Thiru Kumar (the world-famous “Dosa Man”) has forced us to reconsider. Simply put, he serves some of the finest non-meat eats the city has to offer: dosas, to be precise.

To the uninitiated, dosas are thin Southern Indian crepes made of soaked, stone-ground lentils and rice, often stuffed with curried vegetables or dipped in a chutney. And rumor holds that Thiru makes the city's tops. He has been recognized by food writers (American, European and Asian alike), the Vendy Street Vendor awards (he was two-time runner-up), tour guides (his cart is a stop on the Washington Square Park circuit), the Food Network, and Oprah. But, sad to say, The 'Chop had never checked him out. So on a recent, temperate November day we headed down to the corner of Washington Square South & Sullivan St., to see what the fuss was all about.

The first thing that struck us? The Dosa Man is also The Man. He is truly one of the most likeable folks we've met on the search for delicious, hardworking and gracious, easygoing and generous, able to keep conversations while swirling dosas and prepping plates. This is fairly slow fast food, yet the constant stream of 15 or so lunch-hour line-dwellers never looked agitated. Thiru handles food and fans with equal agility, and folks seemed more than willing to wait.

Thiru hails from Sri Lanka, a small, predominantly Buddhist island (pop: 20 million) about 20 miles off the southern coast of India. It was there that he learned to cook from his mom and grandmother. He worked in a travel agency and taught driving and diving, yet it was his role as swimming instructor that started him down the path to culinary fame. As Thiru put it, people get real hungry swimming all day. So he started fixing up snacks (mostly noodles), and quickly caught the food bug. After immigrating to NYC in 1995 with his wife and daughter, he worked as a chef at Flushing's famed Dosa Hutt. In 2000 he became a citizen, acquired a street-vending permit, and (soon after) opened his own Dosa Cart–the first and, to this day, only of its kind in America.

Thiru wanted to work outdoors, so he chose a park corner at NYU (the school has a relatively large Southeast Asian population). Then he figured out a menu, and set a few ground rules: daily preparation (he runs out every afternoon); fresh ingredients (from veggies and chutneys to oils and spices); strictly vegan (“you'll sleep better, trust me... better dreams!”); traditional methods (stone grinding); and innovative fare (his special roti curry changes daily, and several of the dosa are his own creations).
Time to make the dosa: Thiru Kumar in action

After taking Runner-Up in last year's Vendys, Thiru invested in a larger grill. He can now cook 2 or 3 dosas at a time. The process is pretty mesmerizing, evidence of a master crepe-maker repeating a time-honed tradition: splash of oil, dollop of batter; twist with spoon, flip; stuff and serve. Booyah.
Dosas-a-plenty: clockwise from left, Pondicherry (x2), Jaffna & Uthappam...
...in a super-mega combo to go

The current bestseller is Thiru's Pondicherry Dosa. If this were Italian, you could call it a primavera dosa. Everything about it is fresh: the crisp, light pancake; the dab of ground red chili paste; the assortment of raw veggies and tasty curried potato masala stuffed inside. The finishing touch? A dollop of dried coconut, and some ginger-laced fresh coconut chutney. Oh yeah.
Pondicherry Dosa

The pondicherry might be Thiru's most popular invention, but he offers other exclusives as well. Take, for example, the wonderful Jaffna Dosa, a great yellow crepe made from ground lentils, rice and herbs. The pancake itself is just as light and thin, but slightly chewier with terrific flavor. I really loved it dipped in the side of sambar, a fresh vegetable and lentil soup whose flavors–like everything served here–were clean, crisp and distinct: a twang of ginger, a hint of chili, dal nestled in a light, tomato-rich broth.

One of the more amazing things (aside from the obvious “vegan food never tastes this good”) was the sheer variety of flavors and textures amongst the pancakes. To wit: the Rava Dosa made from wheat flour, rice flour and onions. A pancake unlike any other we tried that day, the dark batter was ground with something reminiscent of toasted fennel seeds or asafetida.
Uthappam Dosa: with real vegetable goodness baked in!

Just as unusual, and even more enticing, was the wonderfully fluffy Uthappam. Thiru cooks this round white lentil-and-rice pancake with a mixture of the same fresh veggies served in the pondicherry. The result is a minor revelation: a pillowy pancake cuddling crisp peppers and onions. Dip it in a bit of the the green chili chutney, and enjoy.

And then summon courage for a side. The samosa is well-made, surprisingly rich and flaky, stuffed with a savory potato mixture. But the real gem? Something the folks at Pushcart NYC tipped us off to: “veggie drumstick,” or chicken-shaped gluten wrapped around a slice of sugar cane. (It's way better than it sounds.) We dipped one in some of Thiru's addictive, ketchup-based chili garlic sauce, chewed on the cane, and pondered the surprising deliciousness of all-vegan cuisine done right.

But why fight it? His customers–students, professors, local workers, a long time Villager, a former Bollywood model, even the guy who lived in the park–sure don't. As one regular put it, Thiru has “captured the imagination of the neighborhood.” And the stomachs, too.

All-vegan all the time, baby! At least when The Dosa Man rolls thru.

New York Dosas
Washington Square Park, Manhattan
(Washington Square South at Sullivan Street)

Monday thru Saturday, 11:00 am - 5:00 pm (tho food usually runs out by 4:00)

Dosas run between $3.00-$5.00
Veggie Drumsticks & Samosas are $1 each
$2 buys you a Malaysian Elephant Cream Soda
And $15 gets you a stylin' NY Dosas T-Shirt (airbrushed by Thiru's buddy)

You can also call ahead to place an order: (917) 710-2092