Tag Archives: Brooklyn

The fig trees of autumn

17 Sep

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I never should have left Brooklyn.

Jersey was okay. It is the Garden State, after all. And my small plot of Hudson County earth produced respectable amounts of fine vegetables the years that I spent there.

But Maine? Completely different story.

Most irritating to me is the climate’s absolute refusal to accommodate fig trees in their natural habitat—that is, the ground.

Those of us who wish to grow figs here in Plant Hardiness Zone 5, admittedly a very small group, must instead keep our trees confined to pots. These pots may spend the warm-weather months outdoors but if left out in the harsh Maine winter, the trees will freeze solid and most probably die.

Not so in the land where I was raised.

In horticultural terms Brooklyn, New York, is known as Plant Hardiness Zone 7, meaning that its coldest average temperature in winter is 20 degrees warmer than it is here in Southern Maine. Fig trees grow all across Brooklyn, always have and always will. They grow in gardens, alongside front porches, behind wire fences, even out of concrete sidewalks. Sometimes the people who tend to these trees cover them in winter for protection, sometimes they don’t. In my experience, which is meaningful, the results aren’t all that different.

Fig trees are allowed to live freely in the grounds of Kings County.

Here in Maine my fig trees—four of them currently, though once there were as many as eight—spend late October through March in an insulated garage, tucked against one of two motorcycles that also go dormant in winter. In early April I move the trees to a sun-filled window seat in an upstairs bedroom where they can slowly move from dormancy back to life. The trees do not leave the comfort and protection of my home until well after the last threat of frost has passed, mid-June normally.

I don’t dare keep the fig trees on my own property in summer, as the wildlife that roam freely and hungrily all around would strip the trees bare well before their fruit has had a chance to ripen. Instead, my fig trees spend their summers in a fenced-in community garden a few miles from my home, the same garden where I grow tomatoes and garlic and other vegetables, and where unobstructed sunlight is abundant all season long.

I transport the fig trees to and from their summer residence in shifts, as their size prevents them from fitting together in any vehicle that I own currently. Sometimes the trees return to my home in autumn after a good season, but many times, as with this season, they do not.

You many wonder, then, why a person might put himself through all the trouble.

I wonder the same thing myself, more often than is gratifying.

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But then there moments like these.

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And these.

I am a hopeless sentimentalist. Plain and simple.

The (not so) great cocoa caper

2 Jun

I’ve done a lot of things that I’m not proud of. Some were meanspirited, others unkind, several idiotic, many blatantly unlawful and dangerous.

But how do you explain robbing from the church, in the dead of night, just to get a fix? Worse, being pinched in the act by a nun with good vision, a strong moral compass and a very bad case of insomnia.

What kind of word is there for a thing like that?

The addiction I struggle with is not to drugs or alcohol, but to cocoa. Leave a fine chocolate, particularly a very dark fine chocolate, unattended and don’t come crying to me when it vanishes. Well, you could come crying to me, I suppose. Just don’t expect me to give a good goddamn.

If it’s chocolate, I don’t care if you brought it, paid for it, or made it beneath your ancient Tuscan villa using the finest Criollo beans: If I’m anywhere in the vicinity then the chocolate is mine, not yours. So get over it.

Such was also my harsh position on that cold, dark night during my sixteenth year when I and several pals broke into a Catholic elementary school and cleaned it out of thousands of dollars’ worth of World’s Finest chocolate bars.

Yes, those World’s Finest chocolate bars. The ones that schools and churches and community groups and daycare centers and other earnest institutions have long relied upon to raise much needed funds for many worthy causes.

I said I wasn’t proud, remember?

It may be worth mentioning that we had not set out to steal anything from anybody, least of all the parish where we ourselves were reared. What’s more, there wasn’t an awfully bad seed among our group. We were teenagers hanging out in the schoolyard, that’s all. But it was cold enough outside that when I accidentally discovered an unlocked door at the school’s side entrance we all agreed that warming ourselves inside the furnace room was preferable to making a night of it and going home.

And that’s all we had in mind, I swear.

Of course, it wasn’t very long before things took another turn. Soon we were inside the storage area where the crates of chocolate were being stored, busy designing an efficient way to extricate them from the premises. Inside an hour my five associates and I had relocated all the chocolates to a new storage facility around a hundred yards away and in the basement of the apartment building of one of our crewmembers, confident that the night’s score was very big and the coast, as they say, very clear. To celebrate we cracked open one of the cases, went out onto the sidewalk and started to devour our treasure and calculate the total street value of our haul.

But then, out from the blackness of the fenced-in schoolyard, appeared the all too familiar figure of a woman whose appearance could only mean one thing: We got caught.

Her name was Sister Miriam. She had been the second-grade teacher to many neighborhood people over the years, including me and others in our nighttime crew. A big woman, Miriam was not known to be at all unkind, and in that way she differed from at least a few of her fellow sisters. But 1 a.m. is not the time you want to see the imposing frame of even the most benevolent nun — attired in full habit no less — staring down at you. Certainly not when your mouth is filled with purloined chocolate from the very parish that she herself so devotedly serves.

“Louis,” she called out, addressing one of the members of our crew. “Would you come over here, please?”

These were the only words the rest of us heard the nun utter about the evening’s events. And I doubt she discussed it with Lou for more than a minute, because no sooner had he walked over to her that she disappeared back into the darkness and he was back telling us what was what.

Turns out that the sister, unable to sleep, had witnessed the entire caper from her convent window. She saw the white cardboard cases being carried out the side entrance, run across the schoolyard, tossed up onto a garage roof in order to exit the fenced-in yard, tossed back down from the roof and into a side alley, and then (this she could not see due to her field of vision, I am sure) shuttled across a couple of backyards and then down into the chosen basement for final storage.

“Why the hell didn’t she come out sooner?” I snarled, polishing off what turned out to be my last World’s Finest chocolate bar for some time. “She could’ve saved us all a lot of trouble.”

Which, as it turned out, was the sister’s point. The deal she struck with my friend Lou was this: We put the chocolate bars back where they belong and nobody ever hears about the matter again. The boxes had to be brought back immediately, though, which made for an awfully long night for us all.

Recently I received a note from my old friend Lou.

“I just visited the actual site this past Memorial Day, and pointed out to my mother and daughter the exact spot where Sr. Miriam stood,” Lou wrote. There was no need to clarify which “site” he meant; I knew.

“This was a pivotal moment in my life because I quickly realized a life of crime was not for me,” he went on. “And it was the first time I was able to tell my mom about it.”

Then Lou reminded me of something that made me about as ashamed of my cocoa addiction as ever I have been.

“Remember, she paid for the chocolate bars that went ‘missing.’ And never told a soul about it. As far as I know.”

Homemade espresso soda

25 Feb
If I drink more than a six-pack of soft drinks in a year, that’s a lot. Odd considering that I grew up mixing all kinds of sodas in my family’s fountain service store in East New York.
But when my friend Dante shipped me a really swell beverage carbonator a few weeks back, for the purpose of trying my hand at carbonated cocktails, all I was able to think about was making some soda.
And not just any soda. It had to be this one: Manhattan Special.
Not exactly a household name, I know. But they’ve been making this stuff since 1895. The company that produces it is still family owned, and the manufacturing plant is where it has always been: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Here’s a story the Times did a while back.
I used to drink a ton of Manhattan Special (we just called it “coffee soda”) when I was a kid, but now only treat myself to a taste occasionally. 
Dante’s very cool gift seemed the right occasion. (Sorry, man, but I don’t do cocktails. I’m a straight-up kinda guy when it comes to my whiskey.)
So, here you’ve got the contraption. It’s called Twist ‘n Sparkle.
It’s a snap to use. All you do is insert a CO2 cartridge into this wand here, then drop the wand into the plastic bottle.
When you screw the wand into the bottle the gas is automatically released from the cartridge. To make my coffee soda I brewed about three and a half cups of espresso in a regular coffee maker and added 6 tablespoons of sugar. The sugar part was a little hard to cope with, as I never use it in my coffee. Oh, and the whole thing needed to be chilled before carbonating.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I wound up with a drink that really was very close to the original. I think that if I played around with the coffee-to-sugar ratio a bit more I might even get it precisely right.
Or, I could just head on over to Williamsburg and get the real thing. 
Tough call.

D. Coluccio & Sons, Brooklyn

9 Feb
I never met Dominic Coluccio, but I know that I would have liked him. A lot.
The business he founded more than half a century ago is among my favorite specialty food shops on the planet: D. Coluccio & Sons, on 60th St. at 12th Ave., in Brooklyn, New York.
It’s where I buy many of my most crucial staples: Italian cheeses and pasta flours and tomatoes and olives and figs and chickpea flour and salted fish and dried beans and anchovies and polenta and candies and a lot of other things. Virtually all of it comes from Italy. Coluccio’s isn’t just a food store; in fact, it’s largely an importer and a wholesaler.
This is no “New Brooklyn” yuppie hangout, friends. It’s the real deal. Old school. English is a second language here. I’m not kidding. Listen to the shoppers walking the aisles and waiting at the cheese counter; many, if not most, parlano Italiano.
I love this place!
The only thing that I don’t get is how far under the radar it flies. I know lifelong New Yorkers who had never heard of Coluccio’s until I mentioned it to them. Some even live in Brooklyn. Recently one of my crew had to inform the chef/owner of a very fine (and known) Manhattan restaurant of Coluccio’s existence; in a matter of days the chef was an enthusiastic and loyal customer.
Shop there. Don’t shop there. Makes no difference to me. Just don’t ever say that I didn’t try and steer you right. Because I just did.
This is only a portion of the pasta aisle. If you are looking for a particular type or shape of dried pasta and it isn’t here, then maybe it only exists in your imagination.
It’s rare that I have to buy flours anyplace else. When I make fresh pasta I use a combination of flours, one of them a very fine semolina that I can only find here. The chickpea flour for making farinata? It’s right here. So are a few different types of polenta that I like.
Italian chestnuts, along with any other fresh nut you may desire.
Dried beans and lentils. The store has about every type you could ever need.
What did I tell you? Even some of the signage is in Italian. (It’s tomato paste, by the way.)
“The Captain” (aka, my favorite cheesemonger) dives into a can of salted fish.
Speaking of which, this is how the front of the store looked around the holidays. Good luck finding a place that stocks more varieties of dry salted fish.
Rarely do I get out of the store without a pound or two of these peppers.
I’d have to say that the cheeses might be the store’s biggest draw for me. These are just some of the many hard Italian cheeses Coluccio’s carries, and there are plenty of others as well. Want to taste a real burrata — from Italy? That’s a very difficult find in the U.S., but  you can get it here sometimes. The Parmigiano-Reggiano at Coluccio’s is excellent and very well priced (trust me, I go through a ton of it). And if you have never had a real Romano cheese (like, from Rome, where not much is produced) then you must try a chunk of the Genuino Romano. It’s another thing you can’t find very often, but you can always get it here.
You don’t go to Coluccio’s to get sliced meats, you go for whole salami and hunks of prosciutto or pancetta, like that. Hey, what can I tell you? They don’t do slices.
This Nutella is different than the kind you see around the country. Because it’s in a real glass jar and because it’s made in Italy. Coluccio’s imports every size jar, even the 11-pound (plastic) monster on the right.
Bakers take note: There’s a ridiculous variety of flavorings in stock. I tried to count them all but The Captain had a very important question about my cheese order and so I had to run.
Frozen sfogliatelle and cannoli cream from Cannoli Plus. I hate to break this to you but a lot of pastry shops buy their stuff this way instead of making it themselves.
And so consider this an enthusiastic recommendation to stop by the store should you be in the area.
If you happen to run into Louis Coluccio or his father Luigi, tell them the Meatball sent you. And that I’ll be by to see them again real soon.