Smells Like Hell, Tastes Like . . . Chestnuts Sort Of

The ginkgo tree was always a mystery to me. One, it's a dopey tree. Yes, the leaves are beautiful and graceful — like a delicate fan! — but the trees themselves just kind of poke up out of the ground like a giraffe, or the erect trunk of a Snuffleupagus, and provide little, if any, shade. That spindly unshadeworthy piece of parsley in the middle of the picture below is a ginkgo:

Spindly-Ass Ginkgo Tree, Vernon Boulevard, Hunters Point, Long Island City, Queens

They're even lamer than London Plane trees in this respect, which is saying a lot. One, the London Plane has ugly bark — like a cement leper — and two, the London Plane's leaves just kind of shrivel up and get brown during fall foliage season — fall being basically the only reason to think about trees in the first place.

The female variety of the ginkgo tree is particularly maligned, owing to the distinct smell of its fruit. Indeed, there is not much love for female ginkgo trees in New York.

Which is to say, it came as a bit of a surprise yesterday morning when I saw an Asian woman collecting fallen ginkgo fruit along 49th Avenue. As soon as I saw her, I knew what she was doing, but I kind of forgot that people actually used the fruit for anything. She had a huge plastic bag full of the ginkgo fruit and my first thought was that she was doing a good deed — the less ginkgo fruit the better, as the smell is one of the worst things about this time of year.

Of course it got me curious.

I went back inside to Google "ginkgo fruit," then "ginkgo nut," then finally "ginkgo nut recipe." Within 15 minutes I was back outside with my own plastic bag to collect some.

This was the closest tree:

Ginkgo Nuts: Female Ginkgo Tree, 49th Avenue, Hunters Point, Long Island City, Queens, November 8, 2010

And this is what the sidewalk under that tree looked like:

Ginkgo Nuts: Ginkgo Fruit, 49th Avenue, Hunters Point, Long Island City, Queens, November 8, 2010

I moved carefully around the base of the tree so as not to get too much of the smashed rotting pulp on my shoes and fairly quickly collected a couple dozen of the unbruised, intact fruit.

As I walked back to the apartment I hoped for two things. One, that the landlord would not smell me coming in. Two, and more importantly, that whatever smell there would be would dissipate by the time Jen returned. That said, there's something exhilarating about taking something really stinky into your home, and I hope to revisit the feeling when I finally try making tripe, which I've been told smells like total ass.

Part of doing this involved me wanting to reprogram the smell in my own mind; if what I made was awesome, or even just palatable, then maybe I won't be grossed out every time I walk by a pile of rotting ginkgo fruit.

During this experiment I kept thinking of durian, the similarly icky fruit that is popular in Asia. There is a famous saying about durian that it "smells like hell, but tastes like heaven." Before we visited Thailand in 2005, we had read that hotels have signs banning guests from bringing durian into their rooms. We didn't see any of those signs when we were there (at least I don't remember any now), but we did get a chance to try durian. It definitely has a pungent smell. As for the taste — not quite "heaven," but I admit it's still pretty good — it's kind of like a pungent avocado. (If you have avocado in your mind when you eat durian then you won't be grossed out by the smell, color or mouthfeel — maybe just less grossed out, I guess, since smell, color and texture are all pretty important.) I've ordered durian stuff at least twice since first trying it in Thailand — once was a sweet dim sum dish in the San Francisco area and another time I had it in a drink form at the Queens Indonesian restaurant Minangasli.

Back to the ginkgo. Some people online suggest wearing latex gloves when working with ginkgo fruit, but after opening my bag and spreading out some of the (intact!) fruit on the counter, I decided it probably wasn't necessary — it seems that the (intact!) fruit does not actually smell all that bad. Yes, there is the faint smell of puke (and worse, as the commenters here describe the ginkgo smell), but after taking the ginkgo inside, I've come to the conclusion that the notorious ginkgo smell comes from rotting fruit and not fresh fruit:

Ginkgo Nuts: Ginkgo Fruit

So no smell — so far so good! — until I take a pile of them into the other room to get better lighting for one of these photographs:

Ginkgo Nuts: Ginkgo Fruit

As I balanced the cutting board and the camera, three of the ginkgo fruits fell on the floor and rolled under our kitchen island thingy. I should probably say "three or four" because while I'm pretty sure I recovered all the fruit that fell, I'm not completely sure. I suppose we'll find out soon enough.

The first thing I did after photographing the "pristine" fruit was rinse them with one of those vegetable washing soaps — I collected these from the sidewalk, after all, and even if I'm skeptical in general about stuff like "vegetable wash," it seemed like a good time to try it.

After washing and rinsing the fruit, I separated the fruit flesh (incidentally, the phrase "fleshy fruit" kind of skeeves me out) from the nut within. I started out cutting the fruit away with a knife, but the knife is unnecessary — the fruit is easily removed from the nut. The result looked like this:

Ginkgo Nuts: Ginkgo Fruit Removed

I then washed the nuts. Here is what the ginkgo nuts look like clean with all the fruit removed:

Ginkgo Nuts: Washed Ginkgo Nuts

Back in its plastic bag, the fruit flesh looked tempting; I debated doubling down and making a ginkgo fruit jelly, but I didn't want to press my luck that way. I instead took it out to the garbage can on the corner.

So with no discernible puke smell permeating the apartment, I scrubbed my hands and returned to the computer to consult some recipes. A feature on Gourmet Magazine's website was a start, but it seemed to come to the conclusion that the only thing you really want to do with ginkgo nuts is fry them, which was an unsatisfying option — even a baby diaper tastes good fried, and I wanted to actually taste the ginkgo nut.

There were a few threads on Chowhound about using ginkgo nuts. One suggested basically toasting them and that they were good with beer, with one commenter noting that they are "waxy, chestnutty, medicinal to me, but they're beautiful and are kind of addictive" — wow, they had me at "medicinal."

Another Chowhound thread provided a link to a Times article about one of the chefs at Masa who likes/liked to use them. The Gourmet piece mentioned it as well, but the writer had no success with the method. I decided to try toasting some and boiling some.

I toasted the nuts in their shells in the oven. After a few minutes, I tried one:

Ginkgo Nuts: Toasted Ginkgo Nuts

The taste was pretty good actually — a lot like a chestnut (and a lot easier to prepare than a chestnut, which if you don't buy shelled are a complete pain in the ass).

You'll see that some quick toasting gives the fruit a brownish color:

Ginkgo Nuts: Toasted Ginkgo Nuts

Next, I tried boiling the nuts. I was thinking about the boiled peanuts we had in South Carolina, and was aiming for that. Boiling them for a few minutes gives you a nut that looks like this:

Ginkgo Nuts: Boiled Ginkgo Nuts

The boiled nuts are only OK — gummy and fairly bland, which seemingly confirmed the Gourmet writer's experience with ginkgo nuts. I put the boiled nuts aside and went back to toasting the other nuts.

I was intrigued by the Masa chef's recipe, however, so before Jen got home I decided to work that angle. The Times piece had the chef cooking them in a little water, just enough to partially immerse the nuts, with salt. His recipe involves cooking the beans until all the water has evaporated out of the pan and the nuts are dry.

I went a little different direction, using half water and half liquid from an earlier beef and vegetable stir fry — along with not a little bit salt. I boiled out all the water the same way and tried one. Lo and behold, the gumminess had disappeared and the salty beefiness gave the nut some slight but not too overwhelming flavor. This was good.

I don't think it matters exactly what liquid you use — probably any generously salted gelatinous stock would work fine — or any slightly flavorful, slightly fatty liquid. All I used was old stir fry juice, and it tasted good. The toasted version is on the left and the Masa chef's recipe is on the right. We drank beer with these:

Ginkgo Nuts: Toasted Ginkgo Nuts and Boiled Ginkgo Nuts Braised in Stock and Salt

You'll notice the toasted nuts in the above picture are much darker than the first toasted trial — these were crunchy and less chestnut-like. I preferred the less-toasted version, and if I were to do this again, I'd make sure the nuts retained their softness and would pull them out of the oven sooner.

And a cleaned-up version of this post is on the cookery section of the website, in case you ever want to consult it.

Posted: November 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Feed | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The Sun Also Rises . . . Later

A common complaint this time of year is how early the sun sets now that clocks have fallen back an hour. People usually make some comment like, "Boo hoo, it's so depressing" or some such thing.

The other day I carped about how late the sun will rise on November 6, 2010, thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Well, this historic day has arrived — depending where you are, and in most places it seems, this is the latest the sun will rise all year (notable exceptions to follow). (And I say "historic," but this great piece on the National Geographic website notes that the United States observed Daylight Saving Time year round during WWII, which must have been weird.)

The other day I also took the liberty of agonizing on behalf of school bus-riding children who had to walk to their stops in the dark, and noted that in New York City, the sun would rise at 7:31 a.m. But looking at a time zone map, and using the Google along with Steve Edwards' excellent (who is this Steve Edwards guy? I kind of want to interview him under the rubric of people who heroically devote a great deal of time to making the Internet awesome for what appears to be no recompense*), I found some of the more extreme examples of how late today's sunrise is across the United States. In Forks, Washington (yes, that Forks), for example — which is one of the more western and northern municipalities in the Pacific Time Zone — the sun rose today at 8:09 a.m.

But Forks has nothing on some other places.

In Vale, Oregon — 600-some-odd miles to the southeast of Forks — the sun rose today at 8:31 a.m. Vale is of the more westerly located municipalities in the Mountain Time Zone, since Oregon's Malheur County is the only county in Oregon that is in the Mountain Time Zone. (McIntosh, South Dakota, also in the Mountain Time Zone, will see the sun rise at 7:31 a.m., a full hour earlier than Vale.)

Ontonagon, Michigan — owing to its location on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and not being one of the four counties up there in the Central Time Zone — saw the sun rise at 8:46 a.m. Meanwhile, Fortuna, North Dakota saw the sun rise at 8:49 a.m. this morning, Fortuna being one of the most northerly and westerly municipalities in the Central Time Zone.

Then there are the outliers. Adak, Alaska, which is the westernmost municipality in the United States and part of the Hawaii-Aleutian Time Zone, will not see the sun rise until 9:48 a.m. Earlier I noted that, in general, today is the latest the sun will rise all year, but this is actually not the case for Adak, whose latest sunrise will be from December 26 through January 4, when the sun will rise at 9:53 a.m.

But all this pales in comparison to Wales, Alaska, which is the westernmost municipality on mainland Alaska (or in fact mainland North America). Located in the Alaska Time Zone, the sun rose in Wales today at 11:20 a.m. And that's not the worst of it — from December 23rd through the 26th the 152 residents of Wales will not see the sun rise until 12:37 p.m. Holy moly. (Check out these other strange bits of trivia about the Alaska Time Zone — in summer the sun can set in Fairbanks at 12:47 a.m. the next day.)

As loopy as time zones are in the U.S., we have nothing on China, which went from having five time zones to only one time zone after 1949. China does not observe Daylight Saving Time, but you might be interested to know that the sun rose today in Haiqing, basically the easternmost city in China, at 6:25 a.m. Meanwhile, in Atushi (or Artux) way out in Western China (couldn't find sunrise information for Wuqia, which I Wikipediaed was the westernmost point in China), the sun rose around 9:30 a.m. Same time zone. Now that is really weird.

*For example, there is a guy in England named Tony Peart who transcribed guitar tablature for over 100 Hüsker Dü songs — including every chord of the absurdly zany Land Speed Record LP — which is a tremendous undertaking. He had a Geocities site for years until Yahoo! finally got rid of Geocities in 2009. (Yet more heroic folks are busy trying to preserve this part of Internet history.) Peart's work has been preserved here and he provides an introduction for the tabs here — Peart says that it took a minimum of four hours to transcribe each song. That's 400 hours, not including the time it takes to put together and update a website. Like, I said — heroic. One more example and I'll have three . . .

Posted: November 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Go Figure | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

You Know What The Problem Is, Brucie? We Used To Make Dreams Out Of Things In This Country — Now We Just Dangle Prepositions Like It's Totally Obvious What Anyone Is Talking About

The other great thing about the Yankees' ALCS collapse is that we're basically in the clear from having to hear "Empire State of Mind" any time soon.

You know the song — it's the one where Jay-Z talks about all the cool stuff he remembers or patronizes in New York: Tribeca, Yankee Stadium, some McDonalds near Broadway, a "stash spot" at 560 State Street. And then of course there's that "feat. Alicia Keys" part. You know which part that is:

In New York!
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of!
There's nothing you can't do!
Now you're in New York!
These streets will make you feel brand new!
The lights will inspire you!
Let's hear it for New York! New York! New York!

It didn't take long for me to start parading around the apartment belting out this song, and it took even less time for Jen to demand that I stop, not only because it sounds terrible when I try to sing like Alicia Keys but also because she was disturbed that I would never actually tell her of what dreams were made.

"What do you mean?" I stop and ask her.

"Dreams are made of what?"

"It's just 'where dreams are made of' . . ."

"Of what though?"

It goes on like this for a while until I finally Google the lyrics — because lyric sites on the Internet are 100 percent accurate — and confirm it: "Concrete jungle where dreams are made of." (We've had this trouble with Googled lyrics before — one time, in the course of arguing the world's most important questions, I for some reason got stuck on the idea that "this sex is on fire" was way worse than "your sex is on fire" — something about the inherent arrogance of calling "this" sex flammable like you're some kind of coital arsonist; can't really remember the details beyond which to say that we eventually discovered that it happened to be a hotly debated topic; of course in the end everyone agrees the lyric is bad, regardless of whether a possessive or a demonstrative adjective is being used.)

"But made of what?" she demands. "Dreams need to be made of something . . ."

Now I suppose it's possible that Alicia Keys sings "Where dreams are made oh," but even if it is, it's a flawed line — the phrasing demands another vowel-ish syllable to play off the "do" in the following line (to make it sound like "aah" and "ooh"), and it's too lazy to use "oh" to fill it in. Besides, even if it is "oh," our ears want to hear "of" because that's linked to "made." That's how stuff like spoken language works.

I always loved these "feat. [blank]" parts of songs because they're always the most inspired parts of songs. You can see someone off on their own — maybe in the shower, maybe on a run somewhere, maybe waiting on a cold subway platform — sort of humming some line. Maybe it's accidentally stolen from somewhere, in part or in full, but it's always really inspired. And then they get into the studio and the magic happens.

I always picture that scene in Hustle & Flow where Terrence Howard is hassling Taraji P. Henson about singing with more feeling when she is laying down the "feat." line for "It's Hard Out There For A Pimp." I want to think that Jay-Z had to do the same thing with Alicia Keys, and when Alicia Keys let that "of" slip, maybe Jay-Z kind of shrugged and reasoned that the track still sounded good — even if it would make Philip B. Corbett cry.

But that part of the song still sticks out for me. It used to be that dreams were made of something. Actually, dreams were made on something, as in: "We are such stuff/As dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep." (Apparently Humphrey Bogart made dreams of something in The Maltese Falcon — ever since then, dreams seem to be made of stuff.)

The Human League made dreams of stuff — love and adventure, cash to spend, love and affection, two or three friends. Carly Simon made dreams of stuff — slow and steady fires, your heart and soul's desire. Hillary Duff made dreams of stuff — somewhere she belongs and somebody to love. Even Eurythmics at least made dreams of "this," but at least "this" was something. And then we get to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, who are content to just let dreams hang there waiting for someone to ask "of what?"

The "feat. Alicia Keys" portion actually reminds me of a middle-school acrostic:

New York!
Everybody's favorite concrete jungle!
Where dreams are made of! There's nothing
You can't do!
Oh, now you're in New York!
Running these streets will make you feel brand new!
Krazy lights will inspire you — let's hear it for New York!

So as you settle into the sofa on Wednesday night to watch that big Cliff Lee-Tim Lincecum matchup (no sarcasm, either — that's a great matchup) you can rest easy knowing that Fox won't have to hit Jay-Z's tip jar one more time for one of those panoramic blimp shots of Yankee Stadium.

In New York — tiny things you can be happy of! The Yankees won't be there! No baseball in New York! New York! New York!

Posted: October 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Jukebox, Songwriting | Tags: , , , , , , ,