Friday, September 29, 2006

anchovies suicide; Caesar salads in peril!

The AP is reporting on a tragic story. Millions of young anchovies have washed up on the shore in Northern Spain and died. The speculation is that they were fleeing from predators (chefs in submarines?) and beached themselves. The fish are actually endangered in the region, and fishing of anchovies has actually become restricted to allow the species to bounce back.

If the beached specimens had grown to full maturity, they would have represented more than 100 tons of potential breeders.

"It's a bit of a disaster," said [Luis Laria of a Spanish marine protection organization]. "We can't fish them because they're so rare, and now they've killed themselves."

This of course is a threat to important culinary classics as well, including pizzas, puttanesca sauce for pasta, and caesar salad. On a personal level, my mom makes the best caesar salad ever for holiday meals, and this year just won't be the same if the anchovies grow scarce. Fortunately, that population of anchovies is only one of several worldwide, and exports from the West coast of South America are thriving.


Monday, September 25, 2006

urban renewal and Union Square

One of the topics I find really interesting is New York City's processes of urban renewal, as it comes back from the blight of the 70s and 80s (click on the famous image to the right for background), and expansion, as its population rises rapidly to record levels. The New York Sun has an article today about the history and development of Union Square.

In 1979, architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote that Union Square "can accommodate flamboyant showoffs and it can accommodate derelicts, but not genteel matrons."

The vibrancy of earlier decades, he wrote, had died down, leaving a "dreary park" and a surrounding area that was "tawdry with no particular charm."

The article talks about the processes that led to a revival of the neighborhood, from rezoning in the 1980s, leading to a private developer taking the risk putting in condo highrises before anything else had improved, to the foodie culture supporting Union Square Cafe and the farmer's market, to NYU's expansion North and the rise of Williamsburg as a hipster locale just a short subway ride from the Square.

The area is now a development mecca, with new buildings and conversions happening continually. (Including the ongoing foodie-central nature of the neighborhood, with a Whole Foods, a Trader Joes, and (my favorite) a Garden of Eden all within a few blocks of the Greenmarket and several top-notch restaurants.)
The chairman of Prudential Douglas Elliman's retail division, Faith Hope Consolo, said rents around Union Square have tripled in a little over a year. Storefronts that used to rent for about $100 a square foot are now going for $250 to $300 a square foot, comparable to parts of Midtown and SoHo, she said.
Of course, with any rapid development, there are problems and growing pains, and the article points those out too.

An architect and a board member of the Union Square Community Coalition, Leo Blackman, said the area's rebirth is commendable, but it is taking a toll on the neighborhood, particularly the park.

"The demand on that little piece of green has really doubled," Mr. Blackman said. "The park is absorbing more people with more commercial activity on the southern edge.... From a business point of view, you want to jam people in the park... At a certain point it becomes unpleasant and less of a resource for people who live in the neighborhood."

Here's a map from New York Magazine:


Monday, September 18, 2006

Review: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

Exactly one year ago today, I posted here about the filming of a movie in the neighborhood. That movie, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, written and directed by Astoria-native Dito Montiel, has its official premier today downtown, and opens in New York and LA on September 29th. It won two awards each at the Sundance and Venice Film Festivals, and had a sneak preview last weekend here in Astoria, at the Museum of the Moving Image, with Mr. Montiel and actor Chazz Palminteri in attendance.

Along with a number of neighborhood friends, I got to see the movie last Friday night, and am very pleased to say that I very much enjoyed the film. (Contrary to my predictions of a year ago...) The movie tells a dramatized version of Dito Montiel's life as a teenager in Astoria in the mid-1980s, the violence and family drama that propelled him away from Astoria eventually to LA, and the experience of returning home from LA, 15 years later, to see his ailing father. Although Astoria, Queens was not exactly the center of urban violence in NYC 20 years ago, Dito and his friends were definitely on the rough side. There is plenty of violence and anger in the film, including several beatings, several murders, and much domestic strife.

The movie managed to create a series of remarkably compelling characters in only 98 minutes, including Dito himself, his violent friend Antonio, his sorta-girlfriend Laurie, and his old-school father and rather sweet mother. The cast was uniformly well-cast and remarkably good, especially the core actors, Chazz Palminteri as Dito's father, Diane Wiest as his mother, Robert Downey Jr. as the older Dito, and Shia LaBeouf as the younger Dito. The film-making and editing showed a number of non-traditional turns that worked for me, although friends disagreed. The beginning of the film was an Altman-like set of overlapping conversations. There were dramatic blackouts in one scene, and dreamlike offset dialogue and video in another. About 20 minutes into the movie, several of the major characters introduce themselves to the camera. All of these gave a feeling of recollection to the movie, rather than a feeling of being on the scene as it happened. A signficant draw, of course, were the location shots.

The movie was shot entirely (I think) in Astoria, with many of the outdoor scenes less than a block from my house, and Dito's house an actual neighborhood house, not a soundstage. Although this gives a striking realism, it was also quite distracting to viewers familiar with the neighborhood! It was somewhat difficult to stop saying "ooh, look, the corner deli!" in order to concentrate on the dialogue. Several scenes were shot at night on a building 100 feet from my apartment, and the back of my building was visible in a wide shot for about a second. This alone would have made the film worth the cost of admission, but it was a compelling drama above and beyond that. This was Montiel's first film of any sort, and it will be interesting to see if the likely success this movie will have will push him to make additional movies.

Three and a half out of four lamb chops.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

tomato and red pepper tart

Once again, Deborah Madison saved the day when the CSA assortment of vegetables came in yesterday! The share this week was lettuce, fennel, (lemon) basil, eggplant, a yellow bell pepper, and roma tomatoes. With the help of a friend who came over to help eat the haul, I made use of all but the lettuce and eggplant, supplementing with a few other vegetables, in a fantastic (and rather photogenic) tomato and red pepper tart. It's an interesting dish, halfway a tomato pie, halfway a vegan deepdish cheese-less pizza, and exceedingly tasty. I made two small changes to D.M.'s recipe, adding a little whole wheat flour to the crust, and replacing the anise seed with fresh fennel. The resulting recipe was delicious, despite being a bit complicated and a bit lengthy. The tomatoes were ripe and flavorful, the peppers roasted up perfectly, the fennel and saffron added a bit of complexity, while the olives added a bit of bite. The crust was a simple single-rise yeast dough with some olive oil for flavor, and it managed to be light and crispy. A great find.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

spicy foods: good for diabetics, don't cause heartburn

Some good news on two fronts for fans of spicy foods!

First, as I saw in Science News (subscription only), researchers in Australia found that regularly eating chile peppers as part of meals significantly reduces the amount of insulin produced as a response to eating. (summary) In people with diabetes and pre-diabetic conditions, the pancreas tries to compensate for insulin resistance, an inability of cells to use the sugar in the blood, by increasing insulin production. Eventually the pancreas can't keep up, blood sugar starts fluctuating, and diabetes results. The authors of the study suggest that eating chiles regularly may, by the action of chile-related chemicals in the bloodstream, increase the ease with which insulin can enter cells and trigger metabolism of sugar, thus reducing insulin resistance. This study is part of a series of recent studies that have tended to show that eating chiles increases the metabolism of food, reducing obsesity, and it makes a novel contribution by showing that regular consumption is more helpful than just single spicy meals.

Of course, spicy meals are no good if they give you heartburn or other problems. The researchers in the insulin study report than their previously bland-food-eating participants stopped having noting GI symptoms after just a week of regular spicy meals. This is corroborated by a meta-analysis reported in the New York Times recently, a Stanford study showing that "cutting caffeine, citrus fruits and spicy foods did not eliminate heartburn symptoms." Alcohol and tobacco seem to be causes of heartburn, not chiles.

Refreshing news for those of us who like a little burn with our food...