Friday, October 1, 2010

Confessions of a Hot Dog Epicure

Or, The Pilgrimage of a Crif Dog fan to famed Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, New Jersey.

There are people who like hot dogs and people who don’t. For me, “Like” isn’t strong enough – it’s really a deeper emotional attachment.

I enjoy hot dogs in innumerable ways: grilled, barbecued, steamé all-dressed à la Montreal, Chicago-style with ten toppings including “sport peppers.” But best of all I like them deep-fried. In batter, I hear you ask? No. The wiener is naked and depth-charged into boiling oil until it floats. The result is a crackly yet chewy skin with caramelized nuttiness on the outside and a concentrated juiciness inside that somewhat defies explanation.

You’ll know it. Like me, you will almost certainly crave that flavor ever after. Actually, I had already consumed and loved the deep-fried dog well in advance of any knowledge about the culinary technique. An acquaintance mentioned a basement place on St. Marks near Avenue A that did a particularly good dog. One afternoon I happenstanced down St. Marks and noted a distinctive "Eat Me" wiener-shaped sign. I ordered a Crif Dog with mustard. Two bites in, I was ordering a second.

On a subsequent visit, a person who turned out to be one of the owners was behind the counter. He filled me in on the deep-frying technique and added that he’d sampled dozens of different wieners along the way. This was a person not only dedicated to the art of the hot dog, but secure enough to share the knowledge.

I have taken at least 10 friends into Crif (you more or less have to be a foodie, because the place is dark, basement-y and air quality can be greasy). My friend Mario Tolentino, a gifted and sophisticated San Franciscan chef, moved to the neighborhood a year ago and asked me to show him a couple of my favorite eateries. Crif was one of the first. Three nights later, I was seated in Crif’s with another local friend. Who came through the door to pick up a take-out order? Mario shook his fist at me and said, “Dude. You did this to me!”

Mario is now a winner of “Chopped” on the Food Network. I’m not saying that eating a Crif dog influenced the events, but there’s little doubt that the man knows flavor.

To take the whole thing further, Crif Dogs opened an adjoining bar called PDT (Please Don’t Tell), a “secret speakeasy’ entered through a telephone booth in Crif Dogs. Inside is a fancy cocktail bar. Reservations are required because everybody knows about the secret bar. Apparently they make unbelievable cocktails and as added incentive, offer special items you can only order from the bar side – designer dogs by 3 hip chefs. Talking Wylie Dufresne of WD50, David Chang of Momufuku, whose version contains kimchee purée, and Kevin Patricio of Choptank.

In fact Alton Brown, famed host of the Food Network, crowned Crif Dogs and PDT as one of The Best Eating Destinations in the USA (this may be overstating the case a tad). But you get the idea. While I’m sure the drinks are fine in PDT, this entry isn’t about the bar. So let’s get back to matters that fit between the halves of a bun.

In describing the pleasures of Crif Dogs to a friend who grew up in New Jersey, I learned of a place called Rutt’s Hut in Clifton. Rutt’s has been serving deep-fried hot dogs for generations in an original roadside stand, a living throwback to a bygone era. Crif Dogs’ owners are on record as having had role models in the form of traditional Jersey hot dog joints, including Rutt's.

The Ripper.

On a recent glorious fall day, the kind that makes everyone want to move to Manhattan, my wife and I were instead driving through the Holland Tunnel and under the Hudson River to New Jersey, on a shopping expedition to a suburban mall. Not being a lover of shopping, I begged for a lunchtime respite.

Rutt’s Hut (see link below) has a roadhouse feel straight out of 1940’s film noir, especially the dark, claustrophobic wood-paneled bar and sit-down restaurant. By rights, this should be a national heritage museum. My wife and I opted for the takeout side, which has a more modern atmosphere. You're now in a 1960’s bus counter. Here you order The Ripper and eat standing up.

What makes it a Ripper? Immersion into hot oil explodes the wiener, slashing the skin.At this point, your Ripper is done, unless you prefer the taste of carbon in which case you can have the thing “cremated.” The fact that the counter guy doesn’t approve of this level of char does not prevent people from ordering it with enthusiasm. Said counter guy also volunteered that it’s not the Ripper that makes the product. It’s the legendary relish.

As a fairly adept home cook, I’m guessing this relish is a simple melange of yellow mustard, chopped pickles, simmered onions and maybe a little cauliflower to give the blend some fiber– a piccalilli. Verdict? Maybe you have to grow up with it.

Ripping into Rippers.

We demolished several dogs. Back at home I conducted research. There’s a prevailing web theory that Rutt’s fries their wieners in beef tallow. Does this bother me? When I lived in England, lard at one time was the main fat used in making fish and chips, and they were generally delicious. McDonalds also used beef fat. In fact, they were successfully sued by vegetarians in 2002 for using beef essence sprayed onto their fries as a flavoring compound, which were then finished in “vegetable oil.” Mickey D’s got rid of the compound. But few carnivores would debate that beef tastes good, and tallow is simply beef fat.

My dietary advice.

Don’t eat deep-fried hot dogs every day. While Crif’s East Village clientele tend to be skinny, stylish NYU students, your average Rutt’s fan is other than tiny. At Rutts, many wear workout clothing not because they came straight from the gym but rather because of the profound stretchiness of sports fabrics. That said, Rutt's customers smile a lot.

Both of these establishments could send you to the fat farm.

You might be able to chop a few calories out by omitting side dishes, relatively unmemorable. Neither offers a hand-cut French fry. At Rutt’s I might skip French fries with gravy and opt instead for onion rings. Likewise, at Crif’s, order the tater tots but split them with a friend. Recommended: the Two Crif-Dog Special, with red birch beer as your beverage.

I prefer plain old mustard and green relish. Chef Mario Tolentino craves the Chihuahua, a bacon-wrapped house dog covered with sliced avocados and sour cream. Brooklyn artist David Delmonaco likes the Tsunami, again a bacon-wrapped wiener under chili, cole slaw & jalapenos.

If you’re a hot dog lover and you’re anywhere near Clifton, NJ, stop at Rutt’s Hut. And if you find yourself in the East Village, Crif’s must be your stop. I’m the guy in glasses, standing near the condiments.

Crif Dogs, 113 Saint Mark’s Place, near Avenue A Manhattan, New York 10009 Tel: 212 614-2728

Please Don't Tell,

Rutt’s Hut, 417 River Road, Clifton, NJ (13 miles west of Manhattan, Route NJ-3W. 973-779-8615

Helpful links:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Hot Sauce. I did it my way.

First, why bother?

Hot sauces are cheap and readily available in an absurd number of varieties. And doesn't the idea of handling hot peppers seem best left to people who get paid for accepting the risk as a job hazard, or those who actively solicit pain?

Let's put reservations aside for a second. I have often read labels on hot sauce bottles and found myself wondering how difficult it could be to create a personalized version of what is, for me, a crucial condiment.

It started at Union Square Market.

My wife, Kathy, and I have been growing pepper plants on our East Village rooftop deck this summer. The plenitude of serranos has been alarming. Bought as mere seedlings at Union Square, they required nothing but water and potting soil. Whammo! A month later the branches were hunched over, weakened by quantities of beautiful, shiny green peppers. Serranos start out mild and then turn scarlet and transform into something more piquant. I find them more flavorful than jalapeños, but they're in the same heat zone.

An almost unheard-of culinary combination: Fast, Easy and Good.

Although planted for aesthetics, I began to harbor fantasies of doing something with our bumper crop. When I spied an article by Melissa Clark in the New York Times on August 25, Playing with Fire: Hot Sauce (link below), I was prodded into action.

On a visit to good friends in Medford Lakes, NJ, in early September for an annual peach-picking and home-canning weekend, I brought along a bag of our fresh red serranos and a copy of Melissa Clark's food column. Let it be said that millions of people around the world prepare their own hot sauce daily. In fact, my Swiss neighbor claims that his Peruvian father attained local fame for spreading a particularly lethal homemade hot sauce concoction on bread and eating it with gusto in public. While the concept of homemade hot sauce had been entirely alien to my North American upbringing, I felt I was now sufficiently psyched for the challenge.

During a trip to the new and quaint Medford Lakes Farmers Market, inspiration struck. Piles of tiny Scotch bonnet peppers in alluring colors caught my attention. Scotch bonnets are essentially useless to all but masochists who savor the concept of searing their own lips off, but I found myself buying a basket.

Next purchase was a fat clump of fresh ginger root. In the Caribbean, if you eat jerk chicken or Jamaica patties, you'll find that Scotch bonnets, garlic and ginger will make their presence known without apology. I love Jamaican food and am somewhat of a ginger freak. In fact I often stop into the basement of Grand Central Station specifically to pick up a few curry beef patties that I will drip sparingly with a tiny plastic tub of special gingery hot sauce, a blend that the ladies behind the counter will unfailingly warn me about and which can be relied upon to make the eyes water. After handling this elixir, you must be diligent about not touching your eyelids (or any other, let's say, tender parts of your body) for hours. My intent was to create a sauce of my own that possessed character, but one that less hazardous to soft tissues.

The customized result.

My recipe follows, a minor modification of Melissa Clark’s Red Chilli sauce, but one that lends it a Jamaican inflection. Melissa Clark's stroke of genius is in the addition of regular red bell peppers to both dilute the heat from the serranos and cut down on the added sugar that many recipes recommend.

If you wish to follow in her footsteps, or my own, hot peppers abound at farmers markets, or even supermarkets, throughout fall. You could substitute jalapeños for serranos, but of course, your sauce will be green. Which is fine.

WARNING: Do wear gloves when you’re chopping, and do not breathe in the steam above the cooking pot. Do use a food processor or blender to pulverize the ingredients into a slurry. You may want to cook at night– expect non-hot sauce appreciators to comment on the savory, choking fumes. Taste as you go, but take tiny bites. Even after removing all seeds and white ribs from the insides of the serranos, the sauce initially came out blisteringly hot and required the softening addition of another two red bell peppers. Let the sauce steep in the fridge for 3 days in a covered container.

I would describe mine as along the lines of a sriracha, but far less ketchupy. It has great depth of flavor and a vegetal earthiness that hums a tune of warm exotic climes, with a brightness that pasteurized commercial hot sauces simply cannot deliver. You will eat this stuff. You'll be unduly proud. And as you brag about it you'll feel distinctly fake, knowing that the cooking process was ridiculously easy. But you will want to share your sauce, if only to gather more praise.

Ideal with scrambled eggs, pad thai, shrimp, fish, sausage, rice or anything else that could benefit from a tangy spike. I’m going through my first large jar far too quickly.

Here's Melissa Clark’s recipe for Garlicky Red Hot Chilli Sauce, along with her inspirational article: Playing with Fire: Hot Sauce

My variation:

Watsonator’s Jamaican-Accented Red Serrano Sauce

  • 1/3 cup (10 or 12) hot red serrano chili peppers, veins and seeds removed
  • 2 scotch bonnet fiery hot peppers, any color
  • 4 red bell peppers, medium sized
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 5 large garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3-inch hefty piece of fresh ginger root, peeled
  • 1 cup white distilled vinegar

Wearing gloves, chop all ingredients coarsely, add vinegar and simmer on stove for 7-10 minutes, cool 10 minutes. Place in food processor and pulse at least ten times until you have a smooth yet textured slurry, adding more vinegar and salt if needed.

Pour into a mason jar or other covered container and refrigerate for 3 days to marinate. Will keep for months. Freezes well, too. Sauce is hot, but not searing.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

On writing vs. art directing

On Writing vs. Art Directing

People in the ad business ask me one question a lot: What’s the main difference between art directing and writing? My answer is that both have their pleasures. And their pains.

To make a living as an advertising and web writer, you end up having to do a lot of research.

As an art director, you don't have to get as involved in the nuances of the product, but you need to be extremely fast, good at soaking up new software and highly skilled at archiving in an intelligent manner.

There’s a golden lining to each. Art directing is inherently cool. Writing’s possibly not as cool, but you're definitely being hired for your thinking power.

Why did I switch?

I went from being an advertising art director and crossed the fence to writer in the summer of 2001 after secretly practicing with text for a long time. In reality, I had been writing ad headlines ever since I won an award at Point Grey High school, a few decades ago. Writing wasn’t that difficult for me (my father was a university chief librarian and my mother edited travel guides, for God’s sake). People in cities other than New York seemed to readily accept it if simply told them that I was a combination writer/art director. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to swop roles completely. The reason was quite simple: I was ready for different challenges.

What did it take?

I had to find a whole new set of clients who didn’t know that I’d had a former life and would therefore look upon me as a bona fide writer.

When did the agency people from my past start to accept me as a writer?

When I got nominated for an U.K. literary writing award, the Debut Dagger things got a little easier.

The Debut Dagger. What is it?

My mystery novel, All the Wrong People, was put on the short list for a 2008 Debut Dagger, a UK award for unpublished mystery authors. The Debut Dagger is a competition and is based on your first 3000 words.

The novel is still unpublished. I sent it to several agents. One agent lady didn’t like the opening sentence, the plot, or the characters. I discovered that I hate rejection letters. But I'm working on something new.

At any rate, the nomination seems to have given me a certain amount of credibility when I’m trying to clinch advertising work.

If you have thoughts on advertising versus writing, email me I may set up a discussion thread.

In future blogs:

Finding Clients in the New Economy – My ongoing saga

The Fine Art of Camel Riding – Anecdotes from the trip my wife, Kathy, and I took to Egypt, wherein we were locked inside the great tomb of Giza

Social Marketing 101 – What does the term mean? Can it get you work? ( Yes, is the answer)

• My New Clients – What kind of work am I doing, for what businesses/orgs?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Let the Blogging Begin

Blogging is a new thing for me.

On the other hand, I've been reading other peoples' blogs and recommending them in my column for The Noose, the Mystery Writers of America's New York newsletter, for countless months.

I'm starting the blog largely due to advice from friends. Many of them think I do a lot of interesting activites, and they advised me to blog as as facet of my search for advertising and web copywriting work.

You can expect to see my commentary on a number of topics that will include advertising, travel, books, snowboarding, culinary art, wine, roof gardening and anything else that interests me. Eventually I will learn how to insert videos, travel slideshows and literary snippets.

I hope you'll find my site entertaining and worth visiting every now and again, or often.