October was not at all the month I expected it to be, full of waiting, struggle, and stress. It became a month of transition and doing and planning, a month of many memorable experiences, some of which seem surprisingly far away now. Nonetheless, I wish to recall two of them for you before the rush of the next two months pulls their relevance away entirely. Out of consideration for you, reader, I have broken these events into two separate posts. The first is below.
I want to start by saying that I’m very glad that this is something that Chris and I decided to do. There are so many wonderful events that happen throughout the year in our city, and we have the unfortunate tendency of letting them pass right by. Part of it is that we’re busy people, part of it is just that we’re both pretty low-key and perfectly content to spend our rare and prized weekend days at home. When I started seeing the posters this year, though, I knew we couldn’t miss it. Tickets were booked in August and the excitement was immediate. I wanted that day to be here now.
I chose our events based on what was available (those featuring the likes of Giada, Rachael, or Alton were completely booked) and what looked safe and enjoyable for the gluten-free. There was a cheese and olive oil tasting that I knew we both would have loved, but I assumed the vehicle for the oils would be none other than bread. Not ideal. So I booked us for a culinary demonstration by Rocco DiSpirito and a “Tour de Beef.” The latest studies tend to agree that cow is gluten-free.
We arrived at the culinary demo and it was packed. Now, I can’t say that I really know Rocco DiSpirito’s work or cuisine, but I’d seen him on various shows and sometimes it’s fun to see someone that has a name, just because. The whole thing was very entertaining. Rocco came out and immediately told everyone to ignore the guy who had just said that we weren’t to take any pictures (My one regret of the day—that I didn’t bring my camera. Not that mine is anything special, but the iPhone can only do so much). He said the setup made him feel like John Edwards and began “reading” the audience, going around from person to person, making all the young girls blush and giggle.
He demonstrated a few recipes from his new book, the premise of which is to create diet-friendly versions of unhealthy foods. A girl in the audience raised her hand and asked if any of the recipes would be gluten-free. Rocco said that, while it wasn’t a goal of the book, a few of the recipes wound up being gluten-free as a byproduct of making them healthier. How do ya like that? I’m not sure what the title of the upcoming publication will be, but here’s a little blurb on it for those of you with interest.
I didn’t learn anything significant in the maybe 45 minutes spent at the demo, but Chris and I both had an enormously fun time. We laughed and left smiling and feeling completely charmed. Not to mention, we also received an armload of free samples on the way out the door—chocolates, an energy drink, copies of Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure magazine. Not a bad way to start the day.
We had some time to kill between events, so we spent a few minutes strolling around the Meatpacking District. It’s amazing, you can live in New York for years, think you know it so well, but there are always these places that you just never frequent and never really take the time to explore. The west side in the teens and twenties is one of those areas for us, and I don’t think either of us fully realized it until we had walked half a dozen unfamiliar blocks. The area has such a cool vibe, a bit like SoHo, only less populated and more industrial. If you don’t already know it well, I’d highly recommend spending a free day wandering around and checking out the new High Line Park. But I digress….
Our next event took place at De Bragga & Spitler, a butchery that has been around since the 1920s or so. It doesn’t seem that much actual “butchering” is done there these days, as much of the meat arrives already in pieces, vacuum sealed, and packed into carboard boxes. Rather, they’re known for their dry aging of meat. In fact, De Bragga supplies many well-known restaurants around New York with their dry-aged steaks, including: Tom Colicchio‘s Craft and CraftSteak, Tao, Artisanal, and Balthazar.
We were given a tour of their dry aging rooms and shown what happens to meat at the various stages of aging. Also, neither one of us knew–and maybe some of you don’t either–that all meat is aged to a certain degree. The flavor and texture of the meat ultimately depends upon whether it’s wet aged (in a vacuum package, most meat is aged this way) or dry aged. As meat is dry aged, it loses moisture, becomes more dense, and the flavors mature and concentrate. This loss of water and consequently weight is measurable and can be significant, which is part of why these steaks are more expensive by volume than ordinary wet aged meat.
Also discussed during the tour was the question of where the meat comes from and how it is raised. Not surprising, since this is such a large issue as of late. De Bragga takes in meat from both factory farmed (catering to the consumer who is not yet willing to pay more for their meat) and naturally raised cattle. One of their suppliers is the well-known Niman Ranch. Niman raises their livestock humanely, with no antibiotics or hormones, however it is grain finished. Feeding cattle grain as opposed to grass produces a higher fat content, and doing it over a longer period of time creates optimal marbling for great tasting/textured meat. I respect that and am glad for the conditions in which the animals are raised (especially over CAFOs), but am still a big proponent of grass-fed. It’s what cows have evolved to eat. We may need to learn new (or relearn old?) techniques when it comes to cooking to this much leaner grass-fed beef, but my opinion is that it’s worth it.
At the end of the tour, there was a tasting. Wet aged beef versus dry (as well as a few Coppola wines). The wet aged beef was bright red, meaty and fleshy textured, clean and fresh tasting. The dry aged beef had a darker winey color, was dense yet velvety in texture, and had a deep complex beef flavor. I didn’t expect there to be such a significant difference between the two, but it was marked.
The men who run De Bragga were friendly, open, and knowledgeable, and I was surprised at what a learning experience the tour turned out to be. I just went in expecting to see and eat some beef. I would highly recommend this next year to anyone interested in the seeing, eating, or the learning.
After we finished the tour, we made our way over to the Chelsea Market. This building is the home of the Food Network and boasts a main level full of wonderful specialty shops and eateries. It’s a good thing too, because at this point, I was hungry. Those two little slices of beef had only served to get my stomach working. And where is a gluten-free gal to go for a safe bite on the west side? Why Friedman’s Lunch, of course! I won’t go into great detail for a full review (perhaps at a later date), but I will say that I had the BELT (bacon, egg, lettuce, and tomato) sandwich and GF fries. The fries were crisp and delightful, and the sandwich was toasty and dripping with runny, eggy goodness (which is the reason I have no photos).
I also want to point out one of my favorite shops in the Chelsea Market, maybe even in all of New York: Buon Italia, a store full of Italian imports. Going in this time, I was more than a little concerned that all of the fresh pasta was going to be a source of huge disappointment for me. Much to my surprise, though, there was a decent variety of GF flours and grains, and even several boxes full of imported Italian gluten-free pastas! They had white rice, brown rice, and corn varieties. I was so tickled. They were expensive, but we picked up a couple packages anyway. Let me just say, the Italians know their pasta. Even the gluten-free stuff. This was some of the best GF pasta Chris and I have ever had. If you make it to Buon Italia, buy yourself even one bag as a treat. I promise you won’t regret it.
We closed out our day with a trip to the Union Square greenmarket, with rainbow carrots, and yellow onions, and a stalk of brussels sprouts. Few days–and I believe Chris would agree–have felt quite so satisfying and complete.