Tuesday, October 12, 2010

the gourmet connection

I met with a rep from Zabars recently.

It was an old e-mail from last winter that I answered out of belated curiosity, in which Sam – that’s the rep’s name – had written, and I quote, “I should like to partner with you with recipes, (and/or) submitted samples of whatever food/houseware items you choose.”

Though through journalistic integrity I could not, of course, accept anything that might color my opinion – of Zabars?? – still I couldn’t help thinking that maybe a new Cuisinart food processor to replace my 1986 model (nesting bowls, maybe easier to clean, but no doubt more shoddily made) from the fairly new housewares department on the 2nd floor down on 80th street and Broadway in New York City, would come in handy.

The first floor of the Zabar's emporium – as I’ve just found out that you probably don’t know – is full of smoked salmon, lox, cream cheese, bagels and herring salad. Olives. Cheese. They do an IMMENSE business. Zabars is probably the first New York City food name I ever learned.

But that was a different time, back in the ‘70s, when I still didn’t know how to make my own lox, or couldn’t buy it in any number of grocery and/or specialty stores. That was before I found that the best bagels in the world (as I know it) are made by a little Burlington company by the name of Myers'es. And that the recently reopened Café Terra (where Sam and I met one drizzly afternoon) serves them just the way I like them – toasted, with lots of butter and a thin layer of cream cheese.

Still, Zabars is, to me, an iconic name, retaining a certain mystical food romanticism from years back. And if Café Terra would spread a little of that Zabar’s lox on that Myers bagel over that cream cheese, and sprinkle that with thin crescents of onion, that would be all the better.

It was founded by Louis Zabar who emigrated to Brooklyn from the Soviet Union in the early 1900s in order to escape the pogroms. In Brooklyn he rented a farmers’ market stall. By 1950, when he died, he and his wife Lillian owned 10 stores. The 1995 obituary of Lillian Zabar in the New York Times quoted sons Saul and Stanley as saying “The business was started in 1934 and now has about 35,000 customers a week and $40 million in sales a year.” A move and expansion in the 1970s made Zabar's one of the largest supermarkets in Manhattan and one of the best known specialty stores.

In our meeting, Sam told me that when he retired to his Vermont house in Pawlet (for years he’d flown himself back and forth from New York City to Pawlet), he’d asked Saul – an old school friend – what he could do for Zabar’s in Vermont. And the reason for our meeting boiled down to the fact that Saul Zabar set Sam to gain more recognition of their on-line site, Zabars.com, and more name recognition, Period.

Oh, I said, everyone knows Zabars.

“Vermonters don’t,” said Sam. He had a bit of a thing about Vermonters and their perceived unworldliness. I was patient. I didn’t correct him.
“Maybe food writers do, but not most Vermonters,” he said.

I gazed at him. Maybe some salmon caviar, or even some nova lox.

“So Saul’s idea was for me to get in touch with food editors and writers and provide whatever they needed – recipes, whatever.”  The list had dwindled, to... recipes. To... whatever! He paused and looked at me and shook his head slightly, “but you don’t need recipes, do you?”

I shook my head. Nor Cuisinarts, either, I supposed. Nor lox. Nor caviar. 

“And you write about local food. Do you ever write about gourmet food?” I thought that oxymoron over for awhile and decided not to even try to go there.

Come to find out, he had sent the Herald newsroom piles of bagels and cream cheese and herring salad, and they didn’t seem grateful. “They even seemed kind of angry about it,” said Sam. And they didn’t even call me, I thought! But, Yes, I said, there’s something about disciplined journalists not accepting...

“They acted like it was a bribe or something,” said Sam.

I shook that off and really did try to help him. But, I said, we don’t raise our own salmon or smoke it. So when someone has a yen for it it would make some sense to go on-line, at least to some people, and order it from Zabars dot com.

“But,” he shook his head dismally, “how to get the name out there?”

As we parted he said, “Remember, Zabars will provide you with whatever you need.”

I said, But we don’t need anything from Zabar’s. Zabar’s needs something from us.
He nodded sorrowfully.

For the next hour I walked around the Co-op, up Center Street, to Depot Park and the Tuesday Farmers’ market, and asked everyone I met if they knew what Zabar’s was. None of them did.

So, maybe a paper cup with Zabar’s printed on it. I’ll settle for that.
That meeting must have been still in my mind because when I read this recipe by Francis Lam on the Salon.com site it jumped right out at me:
Silky Marinated Salmon
•    About 2-3 ounces of salmon per person as an appetizer
•    Lime juice, as needed
•    Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
•    Salt, to taste
•    Green chiles, minced, to taste (optional)
•    Horseradish, grated, to taste (optional)
•    Dill, chopped, to taste (optional)
•    Pink peppercorns, ground, to taste (optional)
•    Shallots, minced, to taste(optional)
1.    Cut salmon into 1/4" – 1/8" strips. Set them in a bowl just a little bigger than you need to hold them. Season with salt and toss lightly.
2.    Combine olive oil and lime juice in a ratio of 2 parts of oil to 1 part lime, enough to cover the fish in the bowl. Heat the mixture with any of the optional flavorings to 110 degrees. Whisk together as much as possible, and toss with the salmon.
3.    Let salmon marinate in the warm liquid for 15 to 20 minutes. The heat won't cook it, but will speed up the marinade's penetration into the fish. Remove fish from marinade and serve immediately with salad greens, toasts, or however you'd like. Or leave the fish in the marinade for a few hours or overnight for a more traditional ceviche effect.

So I picked up some frozen Alaskan sockeye salmon, wildcaught, from the Co-op (good choice on the Monterey Aquarium’s website), and ceviched it. And it lived up to its name, all silky and pink and full of savory sweet salmonness. And I bought some frozen Myer’s Bagels from Café Terra and some Philadelphia cream cheese, and had myself a nice cream cheese and ceviche treat!

I want to say congratulations and thanks to Café Terra’s original owner, Jen Hogan, and new owner, Jake Pluta, for keepin’ on keepin’ on. It has free web connection, so it becomes the place to have some good coffee or tea and a bagel or soup or sandwich while you’re checking Facebook or chatting with a friend. It’s a light and airy place, chock full of original art, and it’s open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. Friday, when they offer entertainment. Just up Center Street east of Wales.

And don’t forget – check out Zabars.com. We wouldn’t want them to think we’re just a bunch of  ungourmeticized Vermonters!
Published in the Rutland Herald 10/12/10 in my Twice Bitten column

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