Things That Make Life Worth Living

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

It’s impossible
to feel poor while eating a well-cured piece of meat. That’s because you’re
tasting the effects of time. Same goes for wine. Scotch. Fine cheeses. With
meat the sense of luxury can be especially acute, because it could just as well
be enjoyed plain. Liberty to delay gratification is the essence of wealth. Curing
is a process of cultural knowledge deftly applied. A good result is not guaranteed,
any more than it is when one pays tuition to an expensive school. The triumph
one hopes to taste is very much like that of education. It engenders a sense
of perspective. A reasoned humility.

If you can
afford a few slices of decent prosciutto di Parma, you’re comfortable.
If you make it a point to do so, you’re something of an aristocrat. How
simple it can be to partake in the very sweetest fruits of civilization has
been the running theme of my criticism–maybe now that gung-ho pursuit of
the coarser kind of wealth is less popular, such knowledge will be more in demand.
I’m not holding my breath, but will continue to humbly explicate the rewards
of scavenged refinement. Much that was secured at great expense is now easily
available, and largely ignored. For that reason, cultivating a sense of taste
is, today, an exercise of the liberal impulse. We are so free and equitable
that everyday crassness constitutes a tyranny. It’s necessary to struggle
against ignorance of freedom’s purpose.

Which brings
us to cured ham. The air-drying techniques used in Parma go back to at least
the Roman Empire. You can imagine history accordioned into those flat strips,
but the truth of prosciutto di Parma is chemical process. The meat’s famously
extreme depth of flavor concluded from epicurean science experiments. Yet it
never tastes like what we know as technology.

I visited the
gourmet store at Sapori d’Ischia seeking a box of salt-packed, large Italian
anchovies, but at the time I could only find oil-packed jars. Still, the Queens
importer (which despite its name doesn’t specialize in products from the
isle of Ischia) supplies some of Manhattan’s top Italian restaurants, so
it was impossible to leave emptyhanded. I asked an employee to recommend something,
and his confidence in the prosciutto di Parma overwhelmed my ethnic reticence
to bring a pork product into my home. I tried a slice outside the store, amid
the Korean auto repair and Spanish live-poultry establishments of industrial
Woodside. It was like eating raw bacon.

Wrapped around
a slice of cantaloupe or sandwiched between leaves of arugula, however, the
marbled fat of d’Ischia’s prosciutto was a mouth-coating delivery
system. The natural seasoning is somewhat subtle for such a rich meat. Even
a nibble made a lasting impression, as if the slices carried more weight than
showed up on the scale. Cantaloupe cooled the prosciutto’s impact and made
it easy to absorb, but also neutralized too much of the meat’s sweetness.
Arugula proved the superior complement–the aged flavor seemed to spill
over the leaves’ sharp edges, the way the sun’s rays do when it’s
eclipsed by the moon.

I’m not
convinced that some New York Italian market I’ve yet to discover can’t
match or surpass Sapori d’Ischia’s prosciutto. I paid $7.88 for my
half-pound, though, and it gave me a lot to think about, so no complaints.

The store has
good prices on a lot of canned and bottled goods (Cirio ceci beans for $1.20
per jar, for example), but doesn’t stock much that you can’t find
anywhere else. The cheese section is probably d’Ischia’s main attraction,
but small blocks are not available. I found a wedge of parmigiano-reggiano that
weighed about two pounds, and it came to $12.20. The aging process had left
it with a dignified crunchiness, and a smoky note of peach. A pound is a bit
much to sprinkle over pasta, but its phantom fruitiness makes d’Ischia’s
salty parmigiano a good cheese to enjoy as Tuscans do pecorino–with some
honey and black pepper.

Sapori d’Ischia,
55-15 37th Ave. (betw. 55th & 56th Sts.), Queens, 718-446-1500.

Al Fresco

The greatest
restaurant value I know of is the $6 lamb palow plate at Muhammad Rahman’s
food cart in midtown. The spot is 6th Ave. at 45th St., and Rahman parks on
the southwest corner. His sign says "Kwik Meal." The place is no secret–at
lunchtime the queue is lengthy. But Rahman stays open past 8 p.m. most summer
evenings. You can visit him for dinner. If all of Rahman’s regular customers
knew how extraordinarily tender and delicious are his cubes of grilled lamb,
there’d be a line in front of his cart every twilight, too. But plenty
of folks just stick to his fine falafel and chicken kabobs. And there are plenty
of unworldly diners who don’t trust street food at all. At least half the
people reading this won’t believe me about the lamb.

Rahman is a
very personable guy. He’s from Bangladesh but went to cooking school in
Toronto. He worked for a while at the late Russian Tea Room (which, the food-cart-phobic
should note, had a reputation among kitchen workers as unsanitary). His technique
involves a combination of Mediterranean marinade techniques–splash of lime,
infusion of vinegar–with the South Asian arsenal of spices. In his chicken
it comes off as a lively sizzle. The Tiger Shrimp ($6.75) are more complex,
galvanized as they are by the presence of chopped jalapenos.

And the lamb
is off the map. The astounding tenderness is achieved, Rahman says, by soaking
the meat in the blended white fruit of unripe papayas. The pampered lamb ends
up absorbing the chef’s unique sauces (which he applies via generic squeeze
bottles) better than his fresh shrimps, even. You end up with red meat as delicate
as seafood, delivering a seasoning strategy that merges the best of both hemispheres.
Be sure to eat near a hydrant or something in case you need to sit down.

Kwik Meal,
6th Ave. (45th St.), no phone.

Fish Bonanza

There is a
large smoked fish factory in Greenpoint that, five hours per week, sells its
products to the public for significantly less than normal retail prices. It’s
a casual operation. Stroll into the loading area of Acme Smoked Fish on a Friday
between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., and go through the double doors to your right. You’ll
see slabs of filleted smoked salmon and sable laid out on long tables. Acme
employees will cut any size hunk you want. There’re also cardboard boxes
full of whole smoked whitefish and trout, and packages of sliced nova, ready
to go out to grocery middlemen if you don’t snag them first.

It’s quality
stuff, and factory freshness is a major bonus. Sable (smoked black cod) has
begun to disintegrate by the time you buy it anywhere besides pricey Zabar’s
or its Upper East Side spinoff, Sable’s. Acme’s product was pure,
solid, oil-moistened fish silk. Like a more precious scallop, it was. The nova
had a pillowy consistency, luxurious in the mouth. You could tear a slice and
get no strings–it actually breaks at the ridges, as grilled salmon would.
Acme didn’t have Scottish smoked salmon at the time, but I’d put their
just-smoked nova up against most importers’ Scottish any day.

The whitefish
was also exemplary–an appetizing partner to our lox. Only of the trout
can I say I’ve had much better. The freshwater fish must require more fragile
treatment than Acme is equipped to provide, because it tasted oversmoked. Considering
what we paid, and what else we got, this was hardly a disappointment. Look for
me at Acme wielding an entire side of nova, ready to impress friends with busted
NASDAQs at a brunch party far less extravagant than it tastes.

Acme Smoked
Fish, 30 Gem St. (betw. N. 15th St. & Meserole Ave.), Brooklyn, 718-383-8585.


Morning to
Midnight doesn’t fit in the theme of this column except in that it’s
retail, and it gives me occasion to mention the premier takeout-sushi deal in
Manhattan. The brand-new Japanese grocery store occupies that East Village corner
near the Sony Theater where a jeans store was "Going Out of Business"
for the last several years. It’s a sizable, interesting market, very clean.

Stop in to
peruse the array of Japanese and Korean frozen items, noodles, sauces, soups,
beverages, magazines and snacks. The store’s employees are friendly and
helpful, and M2M’s managers made other smart business moves: offering free
samples, stocking cakes from nearby Black Hound bakery and providing an eating
area with a microwave, where you can watch street traffic while enjoying pre-packed
sushi or a bibimbop tv dinner. Opening-week specials were well-priced (two-for-one
edamame, for example), but on the whole M2M doesn’t seem out to undercut
its neighbor and rival, Sunrise Market. The older store’s takeout sushi
remains a cut above the competition. If you don’t live nearby, however,
you have to dine on the sidewalk.

Morning to
Midnight, 55 3rd Ave. (11th St.), 353-2698.

Sunrise Market,
4 Stuyvesant St. (near 3rd Ave. & E. 9th St.), 2nd fl., 598-3040.