Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holiday Traditions

Everyone has a Christmas tradition or two that they follow faithfully, be it leaving a carrot out for Santa's reindeer, a special ornament for the tree that has to go in just the right place, or a favorite carol that simply must be sung on Christmas Eve (that's "O Holy Night for me in any case).

My family and I are very big on Christmas traditions, some sentimental and some from the lunatic fringe. My father has to watch the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" on Christmas Eve after we return from church. He also managed to convince us that "Santa" would much rather have a ho-ho and a diet Pepsi instead of milk and cookies. And we could always tell which presents "Santa" wrapped, since those were the ones covered in at least 70 pieces of tape, versus the ones from my mother, which were always pristinely wrapped.

We are also very proud of our "ugly" tree. Every ornament and knick-knack from all four children are prominently displayed, including, but not limited to, a green pipe-cleaner ball covered in glue. Some have a much nobler sentiment, like my grandfather's favorite tin soldiers who now hang alongside old baby rattles that my mom just could not bear to part with.
But over the years, new traditions have developed as well, not all of them limited to the family circle.

Three years ago, my roommates and I thought it might be fun to have some girls over for cookie decorating. We broke out a little white wine and icing and enjoyed a couple hours of gossip and sugar highs. Now, people expect this party and have planned accordingly. My roommate literally takes off the night before to bake dozens of sugar cookies from scratch, and then the night of, we make our own icing and go nuts with the decorations, be it sprinkles or red hots, M&M's or food coloring.

To be honest, my cookies suck, at least from an aesthetic standpoint. I just don't have the touch or patience to make beautiful, intricate, clever designs on five different snowmen like my friend Kate. But I enjoy it nonetheless and hell, the cookies taste delicious in the end, so that keeps me happy enough. Plus, it is the one chance we all get to bond as friends over the holidays, no high heels required.

I have found that Christmas dinner is a mixed bag from a lot of people. For Vronsky, it is Thanksgiving redeux, with tons of people and at least two hams. Some people are too wiped out to prepare anything elaborate and they just have leftovers. My family and I fall between the two: we make our own pizzas.

It is certainly not very high-brow, but it is a way for all of us to get in the kitchen together and enjoy both cooking and eating together. And this way, no one person (usually my mom) gets saddled with all the work while everyone else plays with their new toys.

Home-made pizzas are the best. We sautée our own ground beef, select the best chorizo to use in lieu of pepperoni, and have an abundance of onions, mushrooms, olives, sweet peppers, and home-made marinara sauce. I like to load up on the veggies and do just a light layer of ground beef. I love the chorizo, but I prefer that plain with a bit of manchego cheese and Rioja while watching Snoopy and the Peanuts' Christmas special.

My dad and brother on the other hand, load theirs up so thickly with chorizo that their pies take twice as long to cook and are usually burned on the edges, but they say that is how they like them. My mom goes light on the cheese, and my sisters are mushroom fanatics.

Whatever toppings do not make it on the pizzas are parcled out to the pugs, who deserve a little holiday treat as well. The aroma of the baking pizzas are torture for them and we want to make sure they feel included in the holiday cheer, especially since we made them wear those reindeer ears for the Christmas photos.

However, this is what I actually hope to find under the tree. Cute enough to eat!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

William Grimes: Personal Hero

There is nothing I can say about this man that does not come through in this great New York Magazine article that follows him throughout a weekend. Grimes is a former New York Times food critic and book reviewer (he gave one of Pegasus' titles a rave review and that book is still hot, thanks to him), and he is the author of Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York, which is certainly on my Christmas wish list.

Read and be inspired! The man grows his own kale, makes his own Vietnamese-style sandwiches, and has home made coffee-cake every morning, for cryin' out loud!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Santa baby

I got the new Williams Sonoma catalog in the mail yesterday afternoon, which is my guilty pleasure right after the Zingerman's catalog and those weird little SkyMall catalogs you get in the airplanes. I mean, a statue of a giant Yeti to put in your front lawn? Or a scalp massager that also cuts onions? How can you resist?

So, upon browsing through this catalog while waiting for the subway, I saw a few things that I'd love to see under the tree:

An All-clad Gourmet double-burner grill
A new sauce pan or three (in smaller sizes, please, since I have a lot of larger ones)
And I am actually in need of a new pepper-mill

However, there was one thing that caught my eye in this catalog, but not because I particularly want it: there was a whole spread devoted to tools and gadgets to help make baby food. And I'm talking serious stuff. Special silicon trays with "baby food sized" indentations so you can freeze all the heirloom produce you lovingly pulped for your little budding gastronome, who is probably much more interested in what is going on with their diaper than anything you are cooking. Yet they actually have a thing called a "babycook" which is a tiny little steamer and puree-er all in one, and it is not cheap.

I understand the reasoning behind making your own baby food--more economical and you avoid any preservatives or artificial ingredients that might come with regular ol' Gerber food-- and yet this all just seems obsessive to me, even bordering on absurd. I'm all for giving kids a healthy and diverse diet. My parents were always leading by example and exposing us to new foods and never gave us "Lunchables" or nasty stuff like that--we got salami sandwiches with brown mustard for lunch, fresh plums and Asian pears sent over from my grandmother's backyard orchard in California, and we were eating sushi for family dinners long before it became trendy.

But when you do not even have teeth and your day revolves around soiling your own pants, I do not think you are in need of a culinary education just yet. But just to see if my opinions on "baby cook" where valid, I asked my mom, who raised four children who all grew up to be good eaters once they become fully functional.

She laughed out loud. "Make your own baby food? I mean, that's a nice idea, but babies don't eat food. Babies eat what is on the floor or whatever is covered in dog hair. Baby food is for smearing on their face, spitting up, and throwing against the wall." I think for a long time, my mom believed that maybe modern science had it all wrong...babies actually don't eat through their mouths, but rather absorbed the nutrients directly through their skin. Ha! If only...she does have a point though. You see a baby with food smeared all over its entire body, and boy, do they have a huge grin on their face. Sheer delight!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I like coffee, I like tea...

I like the boys and the boys like me...or at least that is how the song goes. But seriously, a good strong hot beverage is a wildly underrated form of comfort. It is cheap, makes you feel better, and can cure everything from fatigue to a bad mood or a sore throat. I feel like coffee gets a bad rap, what with this alleged "caffeine" addiction we are all supposed to be afraid of.

Addiction schmadiction. One of the great joys of my morning is making a cup of French-pressed coffee. No Folgers insta-drip for me. I by whole roasted beans from Garden of Eden, Folgers, Trader Joe's, or even Starbucks if it comes down to it, have them specially ground to "coarse" and use my little French press religiously. It is actually much more economical than a regular Mr. Coffee, since you don't have to use a new paper filter each day, and the difference in taste is beyond compare.

For those of you unfamiliar with a French press, it is this little glass pitcher with a lid that has a mesh "plunger" attached to it. Put a few scoops of your favorite blend in the pitcher, boil some water in your kettle while you eat your cereal/dry your hair/primp, and once the water comes to a boil, pour over the grinds, let it sit, give it a stir or two with a spoon, put the lid on and push the plunger down which pushes all the grinds down to the bottom while the yummy coffee goes to the top. Pour and enjoy.

This coffee is so rich and flavorful, I haven't taken coffee with milk or sugar in years. It has a thickness to it that warms you to the bone, and a good french press will give you those foamy bubbles at the top of your cup. I cannot image starting my day without this little ritual, and if it makes mornings more bearable, what is the harm? I think what has given coffee such a bad rap is all the nasty frappachino blends laden with sugar and lord knows what else that are ubiquitous today, plus the fact that they sell for $7.00. A whole bag of coarse ground beans is at the most $12.00, and it lasts for months. And you can buy a great French press here for $23 and it will last you a lifetime.

On the more wholesome end of the hot beverage spectrum is tea. The good Chinese girl in me has taken my po-po's wisdom to heart. There is nothing that hot tea can't fix. Cramps or insomnia? Chamomile tea will relax your mind and your muscles. Detox or just need to slow down for a minute? Green tea will do the trick, and even cure cancer to boot (according to some). A nice cup of English breakfast or Earl Grey is a perfect way to break up the afternoon and help you get through those 28,349,723 emails that came in while you got up for 5 minutes to make a damn cup of tea. Ginger and lemon sooth a stuffy nose and sore throat, and Jasmine tea, besides tasting incredible, helps prevents cavities.

I had a good friend (who is now on her way to becoming a doctor) who suffered these insane bouts of nausea after a long night. Nothing we tried could settle her stomach, from club soda to toast to pepto bismol (UGH). But one night, I mentioned her troubles in passing to my po-po, who promptly told me to go to a Chinese grocery and find green tea with roasted rice in it. I knew that green tea/tea in general can help settle your stomach, and we had already tried tea for my friend, but she insisted that it was the rice that did the trick. Regular rice settles your stomach, so why not extract that magic property along with the healing power of tea? Plus, it gave the tea a nice nutty flavor that took away some of the inherent bitterness strong green tea, which I usually love but when you're already queasy, might be too much to bear.

Worked like a dream. Funny thing was, for the remainder of the time we lived together, only I had the magic touch required to make this tea that would cure my friend. Every other Sunday or so, I would hear her weak call, "Jess, can you make me the tea?" And even though all this entailed was literally boiling water, somehow I was the only one who could summon up the power.

I have about 10 different types of tea at my office floating inside my bottom drawer. Besides being the coolest person in the office, it has saved me through many a cold and grey afternoons. Buy in bulk at ethnic food stores, whole leaf if you can, (especially for Jasmine) although I like Celestial Seasoning's chamomile and "Sleepy Time" tea for herbal cups, available in all grocery stores.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Leave the gun, take the...pumpkin bread?

My sweet, lovely roommate got mugged the other night returning from a book club meeting (ah, hazards of hazards). That in and of itself is not funny at all. Actually, it is quite scary and serves as a reminder for all of us to be careful out there!

Being the hostess with the most-ess (or rather, the "best guest" since someone else was hosting said book club), she had baked two loves of pumpkin bread. One for the meeting, and one to bring home for us to nosh on while we watched the season finale of Top Chef.

So here she is, tra-la-la, walking to the subway stop way the hell up on 116th street, and a man comes up to her and tells her to give him her wallet. Knowing that it is proper mugging procedure to just give them whatever the hell they want, as nothing is worth bodily harm or worse, she slowly starts to reach into her purse, moving her arm in such a way as to inadvertantly display the plastic baggie with said bread inside it.

The man looks at it, looks at her and says, "Actually, I'll just have that." He then takes the bread and books it the hell outta there.

What?! I mean, this is awesome on a lot of levels, first and foremost being that she was safe, secondly that the trouble of having to replace her ID, credit cards, etc. was spared, and thirdly...pumpkin bread? I love it well enough, but who knew?

The lesson we can all take from this is: when venturing out into rough, sparsely populated neighborhoods, always carry prominently displayed baked goods.

I only wonder if my home-made pumpkin pie would have had the same effect?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tickity-tack glory

I love Chinese food--white rice increases my life force, I could eat roasted duck until I am sick, and get double helpings of bok choy in garlic sauce any day of the week. When I was 4 and going through an extremely "picky" eating phase as a way of punishing my parents for having my sister, Amanda, the only thing I would deign to eat was...wait for it...sea food chow fun.

Needless to say, I was a bizarre child, but my fixation on classic Cantonese-style Chinese food has never left me. I am extremely fastidious about it, and the taste of kung-pao chicken or orange anything repulses me. It's what Taco Bell is to actual Mexican food.

The irony is, in a city of thousands of Chinese restaurants, it is hard to find one that isn't complete tourist fare or squarely in the take-out category, at least in my experience. Back home in DC, my family was devoted to Mark's Duck House, a loud, rowdy, sit-down brasserie that served amazing Hong-Kong style Chinese food. It even got my grandma's seal of approval when she visited, and I literally do not think that we have eaten at any other Chinese restaurant in ten years. It is Chinese food at its best, and I have yet to find a comparable place here in NYC. The fact that I actually don't speak any Chinese doesn't help matters.

However, I think my search might finally be making some progress. Tonight, Vronsky and I went to "Congee Village" down on Allen Street and it was fabulous. Neon lights call to you from three blocks away, and there is a waterfall as you walk in the door. It is Chinatown excess at its best, complete with multiple karaoke bars.

And clearly, the food matched up to the décor. The duck was excellent, although it was steamed rather than roasted, which is still my preference (the skin MUST be crispy!). The pot-stickers were nice and plump, the gia-lan (Chinese broccoli) perfectly sautéed, the scallops nice and juicy. Vronsky and I weren't hungry enough to get into any of the noodle dishes (sea food chow fun is usually my litmus test), nor were we able to try the soups or another vegetable dish, but I have confidence in Congee Village, and will be back for more.

However, I do not think my search for the perfect Chinese restaurant is over. The food needs to stick in my memory so well that I become a bottomless pit the minute I walk in the door. At Marks, for a family of six, we get: sea food bean curd soup, pot stickers, prawns, clams in black bean sauce, seafood chow fun, beef and gia-lan (broccoli), white rice, a half rack of roast duck, baby bok-choy in garlic sauce, plus five-spice pork and friend rice to go. Bring on the sweat pants!

And that entire meal is centered around the duck, which is picked clean off the lazy Susan in about 4 minutes by the Case clan. While the aforementioned steamed duck at Congee Village was nice, I am still searching for that perfect roast duck to center my experience. I think Congee Village is perfect for group dinners, as it has that fun-festive environment that really jives with a family-style meal, but I think the next on my list of restaurants to try is the Golden Unicorn. I went there for dim sum years ago, just a few weeks after I moved into the city and got hideously lost along the way and showed up so flustered and late that I couldn't really enjoy the food, which was cold by that point. Will report back with my thoughts in due course!

Monday, December 7, 2009

At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite...

....I have just discovered a great brand of canned soup. I know, I know, I just waxed poetic about the virtues of making your own chicken soup, and while I still hold that it tastes better to make your own (and healthier too), sometimes you just don't have the time or wherewithal to do so, and damn it, you want soup NOW.

Amy's Organic Soup is where it's at. It is sold nation-wide, even in my dinky little Associated Supermarket on 22nd Street. It is delicious and cheap, so stock up! I love that the ingredients are almost exactly in line with what it would take to make it at home (no MSG or tons of salt or other preservatives), and the serving size is perfect. For example, their cream of tomato: ORGANIC TOMATO PUREE, FILTERED WATER, ORGANIC CREAM, ORGANIC EVAPORATED CANE JUICE, ORGANIC ONIONS, SEA SALT, SPICES. Nice! This is versus, say Campbell's, which has high-fructose corn syrup, vegetable oil, citric and ascorbic acid, and a lot more salt.

It really lacks that "canned" taste, and has a great texture (not too liquidy, like a lot of pre-packaged soups. I am a big fan of the Creamy Tomato, Lentil, and Spanish Rice and Red Bean. They are a great pantry addition for any late-nights or sick days, when you need some hot comfort food but
can't necessarily leave the house for supplies to make your own chicken soup or juk. (Although to be fair, I am never without rice, chicken, and ginger...).

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

It's the most wonderful time of the year

Or is it? For a lot of people I know, the holiday season causes a surprising amount of stress, be it work-related (everyone is trying to get ten thousand things done before everything closes), socially, financially, and yes, gastronomically as well.

The stress of finding appropriate gifts (and not going broke while doing it) and balancing a social calendar (why does everyone I have ever known, socially and professionally, want to have holiday events on December 10th?), I can completely relate to. Yet people stress out about food during the holidays as well, be it what to bring to potlucks, what to serve at parties and dinners, and of course, how do I enjoy myself without putting on an additional 27 lbs?

However, I think food is the best part of this whole crazy season (aside from the presents of course), and I think it is a good time to experiment and try new things, be it new recipes, restaurants, or that strange h'or dourves being passed around.

As someone who does not have much of a sweet tooth, I am always a bit sad that a lot of traditional holiday treats revolves so heavily around cookies and candy. Not that a well-placed macaroon will ever go amiss, and my roommates and I throw a fab cookie-decorating party each year, but I have vowed to always provide savory treats versus another plate of cookies. After a sugar-laden party, when I come home at night, all I want is salt, salt, and more salt, to counter-act the sweetness of the evening.

A healthy munchie to bring to parties is Avocado Hummus. It is a nice spin on traditional hummus and tastes amazing. Plus, it is super easy to make and all you have to do afterwords is scoop it out of the blender and into some fancy tupperware or saran-wrapped bowl, grab a bag of pita chips or slice up your own pita bread, and you are set to go for any potluck, apartment fete, or secret Santa get-together.

You will need:
  • 1 large ripe avocado
  • 1/2 lb canned chickpeas, rinsed
  • 6 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons tahini
  • 1-2 garlic clove, crushed
  • salt (to taste)
  • paprika
Cut the avocado in half and remove the pit, scoop out the flesh, and toss into the blender along with everything else listed above, minus the salt and paprika. Blend until creamy. Season with salt to taste, and then garnish with the paprika. You can even slice up some black olives to put on top, or some cucumbers and tomatoes. Yummy for the tummy, and if you do tomatoes, it is even sort of "holiday" colored.

I also really like chili come the winter months...a good base for the stomach, what with all that booze that flows during this time of year, and it is warm and savory. I also love to make a big vat of chicken soup to come home to late at night. It keeps in the fridge for a while and will help ward off any colds that always threaten to throw me off my game as a result of crappy weather and just plain-old exhaustion. It is so easy to make--just some chicken, onions, carrots, celery, salt, pepper, and noodles. WAY better than in a can and the smell it gives off while simmering is as relaxing as any massage or scented candle.

And when it comes to gifts, you can never go wrong with food, be it a basic spice collection, a wine or cheese or even pie club of the month, anything from, or even a nice country ham! ( has some nice ones) A ham might seem random at first, but for people with large families, feeding the entire brood can be daunting, especially when they all come home for the holiday break with rumbly tummies. Plus, ham is nice and salty--a nice addendum to those surgar cookies! Vronsky is sending hams to a lot of people this year, although if he sends one to me instead of something sparkly, he is going to be in for a roasting himself!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Consider the Cranberry.....and Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, perhaps even more so than Christmas. Don't get me wrong, I am a complete sucker for carols, tree decorating, 5-year olds doing a nativity re-enactment, you name it, but Thanksgiving has managed to stay pure and relatively uncorrupted by gross commercialism, to the point that retailers have kind of skipped Thanksgiving and now move right onto Christmas decorations immediately following Halloween.

There are no presents on Thanksgiving, no material gains, and you don't even get a lot of time off of work. But to me, the idea of sitting down for an awesome meal with your friends and family and making a point of giving thanks for it all, makes Thanksgiving the perfect holiday for the tummy and the soul. And while it may seem odd, even hypocritical, to some that we Americans need to set aside a whole day just to be thankful, I think it is a wonderful thing that every year there is a day set aside to remind us how lucky we are.

And yes, viscerally most of us are probably aware of our good fortune in our day-to-day lives, but it always takes some sort of reminder for us to consciously recognize it. Whether it is the annual battle against the crazies that descend on Penn Station each year trying to get back to Washington, only to be welcomed home at midnight by a hot midnight snack and 5 jealous pugs, or your pet wolf's appreciation for his daily croissant, these instances should be savored and appreciated. After all, isn't the fact that we are in a position to take so much for granted, something to be thankful for as well? I am never thankful for clean water, or hell, even my own skin, until I read about dysentery and cholera in The New York Times or I fall off my bike wearing nothing but spandex and have road rash for three weeks.

Every year I always resolve to call my grandparents more often, play the piano more, go to church, not be shy about telling people I care, not be bitter, volunteer more, etc. But of course, I promptly forget about this about two days back into my routine.

I have even found it difficult to truly appreciate things like exercise and a good book on a routine basis. So often, I fail to appreciate the exhilaration of speed on a ride, the solitude of a long run, or the smoothness of a good swim, because the path is too crowded or I am just doing this so I don't die during my next triathlon, or, oh gross, that bum is peeing over there. And too often, when I read, I have a hard time getting the "Editorial Jess" or worse, the "Publicist Jess" out of my head.

The one thing I have been able to slow down and savor on a daily basis though, is food. I am "enjoying my croissant" each day, as it were. I relish my french-pressed coffee each morning, savor every meal with Vronsky, covet every warm sip of home-made chicken soup. I have come to love "carpet picnics" with my girlfriends as much as I love a night out at a Michelin starred restaurant.

And when I sit down at the table tomorrow, what I will savor the most, besides being home with my family, is not the turkey or even the stuffing, but the humble cranberry.

Cranberries are ridiculously good for you, and have a tartness that I absolutely adore. I love that fuzzy feeling on my tongue that my morning glass of cranberry juice gives me each morning, and craisins are a must-have on any salad I make. Yet like many things we should appreciate but don't, the cranberry gets overlooked in the Thanksgiving spread by the more glamorous, showy dishes.

I am not talking about that weird canned stuff that comes out in a perfect cylinder (although that is a sight to behold in and of itself). But the tangy, ruby-red sauce that adds fresh bite to each morsel of potato, turkey, and stuffing, which, without cranberry sauce, is just brown on top of more brown.

Additionally, cranberry sauce is VITAL to any Thanksgiving left-over sandwich, which, quite frankly, is almost better than the meal itself. Or you can be like my father and just dip a cold piece of turkey right into the sauce, and then listen to my mother go ape-shit when she finds turkey bits in the sauce the following morning.

Here is my favorite recipe for classic cranberry sauce. Make it all year round!

You will need:

14-oz. of cranberries, either fresh or thawed frozen ones
1 1/2 cup of packed brown sugar
1/2 cup of orange juice
1/3 cup of Grand Marnier or Cointreau (mmm)
8 black peppercorns
6 allspice berries
5 cloves
1 2" stick of cinnamon, broken in half

Heat the cranberries, sugar, OJ, and Grand Marnier in a 2 qt. saucepan over medium heat. The cranberries will "burst" open once things get hot. Place the peppercorns, allspice, cloves, and cinnamon in a piece of cheesecloth and tie ends with kitchen twine. Add this "spice bundle" to the mixture. Cook, stirring often, until cranberries soften and the mixture thickens, which usually takes about 25-30 minutes.

Once mushy and "sauce like," transfer the mixture to a medium bowl and refrigerate for an hour or more to let the flavors meld. Take out the spice bundle and throw it away, and stir the sauce before serving. Yummy!

If this is too complex for the chaos of your own Thanksgiving, you can make a very basic sauce by first bringing one cup of water, one cup sugar to a boil, adding cranberries, bringing back to a boil, and then down to a simmer for about 10 minutes or until they burst. From here, you can add a bit of cinnamon, all spice, raisins, etc. stir in, then remove and refrigerate as mentioned above.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The best peanut butter has the worst name

I have done it. I have discovered the best peanut butter on the market today. Ironically, it has a terrible name: Cream Nut.

That's right, Cream Nut All-Natural Chunky Peanut Butter , is the best peanut butter I have ever tasted. I am halfway through my second jar and have been eating it on everything from carrots and celery to granny smith apple slices, sandwiches, and straight out of the jar with a spoon.

I cannot decide if the weird name is just sheer hippie oblivion or a genius marketing strategy because I will admit, the reason I picked this up to begin with was because of the weird name.

There is both chunky and smooth, but I definitely vote for chunky here (it has a red cap versus white). I usually am a "smooth" fan, but the chunky kind has a lot more flavor and the texture is perfect. The chunks are not too big either,which I dislike about other "all-natural" brands.

It is sold in the Zingerman's Mail-Order catalog (of course) and in many food-stores around the country. I have found it here in NYC in my local grocery store as well as at Forager's Market in Brooklyn, so I am sure it is easily available.

I have a lot of friends out there who seriously believe that peanut butter increases their life force, as do several editors at Runner's World magazine. Besides bananas, I think peanut butter is a perfect "desert island" food, and endurance athletes swear by it. A half-sized PBJ or with some apple slices is a perfect pre-workout meal, as it is not too heavy or harsh on the stomach, but gives you a lot of protein, healthy fats, and a bit of carbs to fuel you up without giving you cramps or worse.

Also, Cream-Nut is literally 100% peanuts. No chemicals or preservatives and the peanuts are ground in small batches, with just a pinch of salt added for taste. When I compared the labels of my beloved Cream-Nut to Jiff, I was shocked at how many chemicals were added. Ew! I know that sometimes it has to be done, but when you can make such a fabulous-tasting product without it, is there really any choice about which one to purchase??

Sometimes all-natural peanut butters can "separate" at warmer temperatures, meaning you will have a bit of peanut oil rise to the top. Chunky kinds do this less than smooth, and if you dislike having to stir the jar a bit before spreading/eating it, just keep in the fridge.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Game Day Food: Part II of II

I learned a lot of things this weekend while in Ann Arbor, cheering on the struggling Wolverines while simultaneously celebrating their incredible tradition and the strength of my liver.

Lesson #1: Zingerman's is still the greatest single foodie mart/delicatessen in all the land. My friend Mike and I cruised their balsamic vinegar aisle and sampled "vintages" that were 10, 35, 60, even 100 years old. The taste difference is remarkable--from an extremely sharp vinegar edge in the younger versions, to ones that were almost like a syrup and were so sweet, it bordered on tasting like dark chocolate. Mike also introduced me to another delicious Zingerman's creation, the #85, the Detroit BBQ sandwich, complete with baked beans on the side. However, my heart still belongs to the #11 pastrami on rye with caramelized onions, brown mustard, and melted swiss. We ate our faces off and he even let me have his pickle, which gave me enough fuel and sustenance to make a smooth segue into my next "teachable moment."

Lesson #2: Just because you say you are turning into a pumpkin at midnight in an attempt to not be obscenely hung-over for game day, does not mean you can't do enough damage in 90 minutes to make you question your decision to go to a cheesy "undergrad" dance club the night before the game.

Lesson #3: Bacon cures everything. So does Irish coffee. My friend Pier hosted a sweet tailgate that included all these things and brought a bit of Princeton up to Michigan by making cheesy eggs. Unfortunately, he learned the heard way that you can't make cheesy eggs 24 at a time in a stock pot. The skillet is a required tool for successful scrambled egg making, and to try anything else will result in cheesy eggs with little black burned bits throughout that taste like pencils. Thankfully, there was plenty of other breakfast meat and doughnuts to go around, and we went off to the Big House with full bellies and high-spirits to battle the Buckeyes.

Lesson #4: I really hate Ohio State. And Tate Forcier, I like you a lot, but you really need to get your shit together.

Lesson #5: Bratwurst "sandwiches" are great tail-gate food. Your hands don't get messy, they are way better than hot dogs, and if it is a spicy wurst, you don't need any sort of condiment that could splatter all over your favorite maize sweatshirt.

Lesson #6: Mediterranean food is a surprisingly good way to get your "second wind" back. After the game, Mike and I took a 3 hour nap, waking up at 7pm groggy as hell and both trying our best to rally for the night ahead. I was completely greased-out and so we went to Jerusalem Garden and had some great hummus, falafell balls, rice pilaf, and some amazing lentil soup. The spice and potent flavors and relative "lightness" of the food really revitalized us, and I am resolving to integrate more tahini in my own cooking. We went on to party it up until 4am, complete with "beer monster" chugs, festive "Ole! Ole, ole, ole!" chants, boots of beer, and the hilarity of seeing my friend Paul in pigtails, who was in rare form upon being reunited with all his old wolverine teammates.

Lesson #7: I am old and can't hack it like I used to. But it was totally worth it!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Game Day Food: part I of II

This weekend signaled the beginning of what I can only term Jessica's Wild Adventures in the Wide World of College Tailgates. To start, I went with Vronsky down to the lovely town of Chapel Hill to see the UNC Tarheels battle it out against Miami in football on Saturday and their basketball team take on Valparaiso on Sunday. They were victorious both times (hooray!) and I got to book-end both games with more soul-food and BBQ than I've ever eaten in my whole life over a two-day span.

I love baked beans and pulled pork, and while I don't share Vronsky's love for black-eyed peas, please don't come between me and applesauce or fresh biscuits. That said, the highlight of this little trip, gastronomically speaking, had to be our visit to the legendary Mama Dips for Sunday morning brunch.

After tailgating all day and celebrating all night, my body was craving grease with an abnormally high level of urgency. Mama Dips serves the entire gamut of what can be called soul-food, from chitlins to sweet tea and grits, plus traditional all-American breakfast fare, but what they are best known for is their friend chicken. When I am in the throws of a grease craving, I usually go for my standard cure-all: veggie omelet with a side of bacon, home fries and a ice-cold, full-fat coca-cola. While all that greasy loveliness was an offering on the menu, I decided to take a risk and try their "fried chicken breakfast," which included 2-eggs any style, grits, bacon, and two pieces of fried chicken smothered in gravy. Somewhere, a cardiologist is weeping.

I say, let him weep. The food was incredible, and bear in mind, this is coming from someone who actually doesn't like fried-chicken all that much. I usually find it to be too dry, but something about that gravy and "Mama's" secret batter put me over the edge. Plus, pair that Mama's some fluffy grits, warm, buttery eggs, and perfectly crispy bacon, and you can consider the day seized. I can see why the restaurant has earned accolades across the board, from Road Food to

My fried chicken brunch was the perfect mid-way meal for what was a long, exciting weekend of fight songs and cheers. It is a good thing I just bought some new winter "bike gloves," as I am going to have to hit the road long and hard to prep my arteries for next weekend, as I will be journeying to Ann Arbor, MI, one of my favorite places in all the world, to watch my struggling Michigan Wolverines try and upset the evil Ohio State Buckeyes. I believe in miracles!

And if the game starts to suck, I already have a back-up plan: a Zingerman's #11 and rounding off a bottle of scotch with my friend Mike. Plus, my friend Paul, a former Michigan football-er himself and the man who found me tickets (thank you!), always has the hook-up with the best tailgates in town, and so regardless of the outcome, I will be well fed.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Leçons de choses: Lessons from Things

I wrote my first fan letter last week. And yes, it was to New Yorker writer and acclaimed author Adam Gopnik regarding his marvelous little book, Paris to the Moon. Make fun all you want, but I don't think this is more laughable than those of us who have written fan letters to The Backstreet Boys or New Kids on the Block, or the like. (And you know who you are!). PLUS, I got a response from Gopnik. I doubt Nick Lachey ever wrote back.

Anyway, Gopnik's charming book is a loose collection of vignettes and meditation from his time in Paris, where he lived with his wife and young son for several years. There is an old Oscar Wilde saying that goes "when they die, all good Americans go to Paris," and indeed, for all its ills, Paris still embodies a sort of paradise in the American cultural psyche. Nobody gets fat, everybody has something profound to say, and the food is always amazing.

Many parts of Paris to the Moon are laugh out loud funny, from when Gopnik joins a Parisian gym (and the term "gym" is used very loosely here), to his month-long battle with French Christmas-tree lights that borders on existential (French lights are very different from American lights, you see). But the part of his book that I found most remarkable was a section entitled "Lessons from Things."

Luke, Gopnik's young son, is enrolled in a local pre-school. Part of the curriculum is something called leçons de choses, which gathers valuable wisdom from the process of turning stuff into things. Bricks (stuff) being turned into a house (a thing). Seeds, dirt, sunlight and water (more stuff), will all somehow create a flower or a plant (another thing). How does it happen? What is the lesson from it? It is a oddly lyric way of approaching the world, and Gopnik marvels at the "lessons" we all learn from these "things" when we take a similar approach has these pre-schoolers.

For example, it almost seems just short of divine when you think about how pots of paints and brushes (stuff), when put together in just the right sort of way, with the right kind of vision, becomes a priceless painting (a thing). Lumps of stone somehow become beautiful sculptures, letters and words, formerly gibberish, become books and poems. Musical notes, put together one way, its mere cacophony. Another way, it is symphony or a song. Indeed, there are a lot of lessons we can learn from the process of transforming stuff into things, but no where more does Gopnik find this more profound than when it comes to cooking.

Mere mortals probably don't have what it takes to put stuff like musical notes or paints into too amazing of a "thing." But most people can put together "stuff" like bread, mustard, turkey slices, and lettuce into a damn good turkey sandwich. You don't even need the trans-formative power of heat to make a good salad, just the proper selection of stuff, to make a marvelous thing to eat.

When Gopnik moves beyond the very elementary level of sandwich and salad making, however, the magic of "stuff into things" becomes even more incredible. The lumps of raw meat and bevy of mysterious bottles filled with spices on his counter somehow becomes an delicious roast chicken. Vegetables with dirt still on them eventually become soup. Seemingly disparate ingredients somehow become a tasty crepe. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from these things indeed, and I am a firm believer that cooking and understanding food at its most basic level makes one appreciate their meal on a whole new level. I would have enjoyed my evening at Savoy no matter what, but the fact that I have still not yet achieved a perfect crack-ly skin on my roast chicken, despite many valiant efforts, made me savor the marvelous texture of Savoy's salt-crust baked duck even more. What else could I learn from the marvelous things on my plate?

Perhaps nothing else, perhaps just the fact that cauliflower is an under appreciated vegetable in my kitchen, or that raisins go with a lot more than just oatmeal, or that I really need to expand my horizons when it comes to cured meats, as there are some awesome things out there besides salami and chorizo.

Conversely, attempting to cook news things on my own have made me a better "order-er" in a restaurant. I sincerely believe that cooking makes you want to explore new flavor combinations and take a bit more risk with your dinner, especially when the person in the kitchen is a trained professional. Learning to cook is not as difficult as one might think. Just remember Remy and Chef Gasteau's motto from the great Disney movie Ratatouille: Anyone can cook!

They can and they should. Just start small. Some pasta here, then try some chicken, and maybe an omelet. You'll be braising short ribs in no time. Not only is it more economical, frequently healthier, and a great de-stressor at the end of the long day (Mad at your boss? Get out the big knife and start dicing some onions, pretending it is their face. Or something.), but cooking opens up an entire world of new discoveries, those little leçons de choses that make life (and meals) that much more fun.

Feeling even more ambitious? Check out My Cooking Party. I did this two years ago with two other friends and we had an absolute blast. You basically play "sioux chef" in a real, mini- restaurant style kitchen to a head chef who has put together a 4 course meal. You all pitch in to make the dishes, and once it is done, you sit down and eat it. It is a great hands-on way to learn that is fun and can appeal to all skill levels. Plus, they throw in a few bottles of wine that match the food with the price of the class. Opa!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Team PIE vs. Team cake

What with all the heavy issues dominating the news today, I thought I should address what is obviously a serious cultural divide: pie versus cake.

I am team pie 110%. So is Vronsky, and my friend Emily, who promLinkpted this post by informing me of the delicious pie that was brought into the office today. Pie is fabulous, and let me state that for the record, cobblers, tarts, and basically anything with some sort of fruit filling and a graham cracker/crumbly crust falls squarely in the PIE category. I am even a little bit jealous of those Yankee pitchers who get a "pie in the face" after pitching a perfect game.

I mean, what is Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie? Apple pie is an American tradition. We all know my fondness for blueberry pie, and I will pull over to the side of the road to check out cherry pies sold at road-side stands before I ever pull over to ask for directions. Nothing is better than a key lime pie on a hot day, and don't even get me started on lemon meringue pie. I am sure there are pies out there that I've never tried or even heard of. There is a whole world of pies out there waiting to be discovered!

And cake is, well, cake. I have always thought chocolate cake was over-rated and the uniform texture of cake just can't compete the warm pie crust segueing into the cool juicy pop of the fruit filling, followed by the chill of vanilla ice cream, if you take it a la mode. I understand the sentimentality of birthday cake, but make it a birthday pie for me any year. (Hint, hint..)

Autumn is definitely pie season (actually, every season is pie season), but the warm, savory flavors of pumpkin and apple pie definitely define the holidays for a lot of people, and my aunt makes amazing pumpkin pie from real pumpkin, not the canned goop. A loose recipe of hers is below, which I've tried to duplicate but never quite succeeded.

Go out and buy a pie pumpkin (at a grocery/food store, not from the lots on the street, which usually are raised differently than what you will buy in a market).

Wash your pumpkin with warm water, no soap, and then cut the pumpkin in half (serrated knives work best. If you are having trouble, one time we actually had to use a hand saw. Those rinds are tough!)

Scrape out the insides and save the seeds for roasting if you'd like. An ice cream scoop or melon baller works well for this and get everything nice and clean.

Next, cook the two pumpkin halves by steaming it on your stovetop for about 20-30 minutes. We have a large vegetable steamer so it fits comfortably, although you might need to quarter the pumpkin to make it fit. After 20-30 minutes, the pumpkin "meat" will be soft and you can scoop it out from the rind quite easily with a table spoon.

Pop your pumpkin "meat" into a blender/food processor and puree until smooth. Next, make your pie filling. To do so, you will need:

1 cup sugar
1.5 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. all spice
1.5 tsp. ground ginger
pinch of salt
4 eggs
your pumpkin puree (should be about 3 cups if you use a standard pie pumpkin, which is around 8 inches)
1.5 cans of evaporated milk

Mix it all together and pour lovingly into your pie crust, which for us, has always been pre-bought, oops, but Thanksgiving day is always crazy in our kitchen and no one can find the time to bake a separate crust.

Be warned, this filling may be a bit runny/soupy at first, but it will firm up once cooked.

Bake your pie at 425 degrees for 15 minutes and then turn it down to 350 degrees and bake for another 45-60 minutes, so that when you stick a knife in the center it lifts out clean.

Cool your pie while you're eating the main meal, and then dig in!

Team Pie for life! All you team cakers, you can make a case for yourself in the comments, if you dare.

And for the record, Bubby's in Tribeca has the best sour cherry pie outside of Michigan. (That is an actual picture of it to the right).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Korean BBQ: Kimchi and beyond

Last night Vronsky and I had a little date at Woo Lae Oak, a Korean BBQ joint, which used to be the trendy SoHo restaurant du jour a few years back, but has held its own as its trendiness abates by serving phenomenal authentic Korean food while still staying approachable to diners who might not be familiar with Korean cuisine.

Growing up, my family was actually quite fond of Korean cuisine, and we would frequent the Woo Lae Oak in DC as well as a few places in the Korean neighborhoods in DC and Virginia, which has a large Korean population. My mother always manned the grill in dinners past, and so it was a real thrill for me to finally be my own grill master last night.

For those of you that have never had Korean BBQ, it is fairly straightforward: the meat and/or veggies are cooked right there at your table, which has its own little grill right in the center. It helps to be handy with chopsticks, as wooden ones are provided to tend to the meat, but you can ask for a fork or other utensil of your choosing.

The menu offers a lot of different protein options, but I recommend the bulgogi, (thinly sliced marinated rib eye) which is the traditional Korean preparation. They also have chicken, filet mignon, etc. but something about how the bulgogi is marinated just blows everything out of the water. Plus, because it is so thinly sliced, it cooks very quickly a will get these lovely charred edges, which are my favorite part. I am always tempted to try and lick the grill at the end, but not to fear, I always refrain. I like to wrap the cooked bulgogi in a large leaf of romaine lettuce, like a taco. The crispness of the lettuce compliments the smokey, savory flavor of the meats.

Vronsky was in 7th heaven and was thisclose to ordering another serving. He had always insisted he didn't like Korean BBQ, but I am convinced, based upon his most recent reaction, that the last time he tried Korean food, he ordered the wrong thing.

We also ordered some mixed vegetables (baby corn, shaved carrot, squash slices, snow peas, and some assorted mushrooms) to grill alongside the bulgogi and accompany the bevy of spicy sides that accompany any traditional Korean meal.

The center of this side-dish display is kimchi, which is, according to the latest issue of Saveur, my favorite food magazine in all the land, more important to Korea's culinary tradition than any other food to any other country's culinary identity. I don't doubt it--kimchi is freaking awesome, and apparently you can find kimchi on the table for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, and any time in between, in Korean households.

Kimchi has an incredibly unique texture and flavor: it starts with the crunch and cool taste of the cabbage leaves, followed by the chunks of daikon, which is a type of Asian radish, followed by a chili paste that slowly starts to burn your tongue, and then cools down to reveal a hunt of garlic, ginger, and what I can only describe as sea salt. Some say it heats the belly and cools the throat, preparing the palate for the next part of the meal, similar to how wasabi and pickled ginger are supposed to cleans the palate between different sushi/sashmi rolls.

I myself can only handle a bit of kimchi at a time due to its heat, but Woo Lae Oak offers a bit of milder kimchi as well, which Vronsky and I both devoured. After stuffing ourselves with bulgogi, sauteed vegetables, and these amazing chilled duck rolls with plum sauce (fact: plum sauce makes everything better), we finished our wine by the bar with some green tea ice cream, which came in a bowl made entirely of ice. An amazing idea! It keeps the ice cream cold throughout the languid pace that usually follows the end of a meal when people are finishing off their wine/drinks. I can't believe I had never seen it before.

It is always exciting to turn someone on to a new cuisine, and Vronsky professed that Woo Lae Oak is his new favorite restaurant and that we need to come back as early as next week. I will work on my grill skillz so that next I go out for Korean with my family, my mom and I can duke it out for who sizzles out a better bulgogi.

Woo Lae Oak is in SoHo on Mercer, near Prince St. Or just mill around New York's Korea Town, which is loosely bordered by 5th and 6th Ave. and 30th to 36th Street.

Pictured above: bulgogi lettuce wraps at top left, kimchi below right.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween happenings

I have never had that big of a sweet tooth. If you look in my freezer, I am still slowly making my way through my Easter candy, having just defrosted another limb of my giant chocolate bunny. And so, for me, Halloween has usually been primarily about the costumes versus the candy. I feel like over the years I have had some fairly successful costumes, from a bunch of grapes to a china doll, leprechaun, and Wonder Woman. My "best" costume ever though was when I went as Maleficent, the evil witch queen from Sleeping Beauty, when I was five years old. I won a local costume contest hosted by this toy store, Kiddie City, and my prize was my first-ever Barbie doll. I was awesome, and my mom, who made this amazing costume was pretty pumped too.

This year, a group of girlfriends and I took a trip up to Boston to attend a charity event for GOTO, which sends underprivileged kids to art camp, sports camp, etc. Our costumes were actually food-oriented, if not necessarily gastronomical. Everyone dressed up as "food mascots." We had a Wendy, a Capt'n Crunch, Popeye, Snap, Crackle, and Pop, a "dairy queen" (she wore a cow costume with a tiara, hilarious), the Swiss Miss, and many more. I was Mrs. Field of Mrs. Field's Cookies. Fitting, as I used to eat one of her white chocolate macadamia nut cookies every afternoon before swim practice my junior year of high school. They always sold them at the gas station where I filled up en route to the pool. The next year, the pool location changed, and that was the end of that.

One of my friends, Dawn, who lives in Boston, is quite the chef and foodie herself, and took us to this fabulous whole-sale market, Russo's, on the outskirts of the city. I was in seventh heaven, and it was all I could do not to stock up on all sorts of delicious produce. I restrained myself at first and only picked up some drunken goat cheese and dried fruit. Stuff I could transport back easily on the bus. But I gave in when I saw the baby bok choy, which was perfect. I managed to get it back to NYC unspoiled and plan on sautéing it tomorrow with a bit of garlic. On this trip, it was only natural that we got to talking about childhood Halloween traditions and memories. My friend Stirling told us that her parent's used to take some of her candy as an "offering" for the "Candy Witch," who would then distribute it fairly to all the poor kids in the world who didn't get candy of their own.

A very philanthropic fairy tale creation. Too bad it was actually just a way of making sure that her candy intake was regulated, not too mention the fact that they got a few treats to eat themselves. My father, who has a huge sweet tooth, did not believe in such ceremony. He would simply poke through our buckets when we got home and pick out what he liked, justifying his findings as "tax."

My siblings and I would then go through the motions of swapping candy, but really we would just fight over who got the Twix bars and any precious dark chocolate Milky-Ways. None of us, oddly enough, are peanut butter fans, so we were always foisting the Reeses cups upon each other in the hopes for something better.

My poor little brother, who was the most adorable toddler, was always being dressed up in equally cute costumes, and the year we dressed him as a tiny little cowboy was by far and away the winner. He was getting way more candy than the rest of us based upon the fact that he was just too damn cute. His bucket was so heavy with candy he could hardly carry it, but he simply refused to let either of my sisters, or my father, help him carry it, as he was convinced they would take some of his candy. He was quite the tiny cynic. He was also right.

And so, there was the entire gaggle of them trapaising through the neighborhood along with all the other local kids. By this point, I was old enough to trick-or-treat with my little group of friends, and when I bumped into my siblings, it was the saddest thing you ever saw: tiny Davey, cowboy hat slipping down his head, his little legs pumping as hard as they can and his arms straining to hold up his bucket, lagging a good ten feet behind the rest of them, fiercely determined not to loose control of his precious wares.

Myself, I have never been too possessive of my candy (see note on lack of sweet tooth), but am fiercely possessive of any of sort of fruit-based dessert, notably baked apples. Candied apples, the standard Halloween fare, are nice too, but something about chipping open the candied coating with your teeth to start has always unnerved me a bit. Eager to re-create baked apples so I can then hoard them all to myself, I discovered a fabulous recipe in Saveur magazine, which is written out below.

Baked Apples with Caramel Sauce

1/4 cup of sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
4 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temp.
2 tbsp. ground cinnamon (I adore cinnamon, and even put it in my coffee to give it some holiday "spice")
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
6 firm Fuji apples, stemmed and cored (I find Fuji apple, which are my favorite any way, hold their shape the best)
Vanilla ice cream for serving

For the caramel sauce:
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup raisins
2 tbsp. of dark rum (mm)

Heat your oven to 325 degrees. Combine sugar, syrup, butter, cinnamon, and salt in a bowl and set aside. Cut a quarter inch off the bottom of the apples so that they sit flat and transfer the apples to a large baking pan. Fill the hollow cores with that sugar-syrup mixture you have set aside. Cover apples with tinfoil and bake until tender, which usually takes about 50 minutes.

Meanwhile, make your caramel sauce by heating the sugar and 1/2 cup of water in a 2 qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce/cook (don't stir) until the liquid is amber colored, which takes about 20 minutes. Remove pan from the heat and let it cool slightly. Add the cream, which will cause the caramel to bubble up slightly. Stir in your raisins and rum and set aside.

Plate your apples and drizzle sauce over them to taste, and add a scoop of ice cream if you are so inclined. A perfect dessert to combat any post-Halloween hangovers, emotional or otherwise.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Consider the...portobello mushroom

In my limited study of human nature, I have found that when it comes to mushrooms, there are three types of people: those that are essentially mushroom-phobic and won't try any kind (Vronsky, I am talking about you), those that love mushrooms, any sort, any preparation, and then there are those that like them when the mood strikes, but still l-o-v-e portobello mushrooms.

I myself fall squarely into that third category. I like button and shiitake's in a stir-fry or at a restaurant where obviously they are integral to a chef's vision of a dish, but I don't seek them out of my own volitions, with one big exception: the large, steak-y, flavorful portobellos.

Portobellos are really just large "crimini" or brown mushrooms. When they mature and grow nice and large (approx 4-6 inches in diameter), they are call portobellos. When they are babies, they are simply called brown mushrooms.

Yet something happens when these "criminis"mature. Their flavor becomes much more intense, giving us a rich, earthy flavor with a firm texture that makes portobellos so popular.

They are excellent in polenta, and I've had portobello fajitas, which were excellent. You can bake them and stuff them with couscous, onions, and perhaps a bit of celery, or quarter them and put them on a kebab alongside red, yellow, orange and green peppers and onions (a good way to please any vegetarians who might be attending your cook out).

Portobellos are rich in potassium, vitamin B, protein, and amino acids, yet low in calorie and fat-free. And don't even get me started on the all of the "magic" powers mushrooms in general are supposed to possess. From Chinese grandmas (who know everything about this sort of thing) to hippies and alternative healing gurus (who know less, in my opinion, but can be right from time to time), mushrooms are where it's at. They've been touted as "anti-cancer" and even my stupidly expensive Yves Saint Laurent eye cream purports to have an extract of some special Chinese mushroom that will help keep those pesky little eye wrinkles at bay. This remains to be seen. If only I could find this special mushroom and eat it (sauteéd with some olive oil and garlic no less), imagine the wonders!

And besides, it is way more fun to eat and prepare mushrooms than to rub it on your face. Ew.

To wit, here is my favorite way to prepare portobellos. It is not terribly elaborate, but easy to do with limited resources and a tiny kitchen.

Take two portobellos and lightly wash them. Top chefs and gourmets say all you need to do is shake them to loosen any lingering dirt and debris, but living in NYC, where odd germs and pathogens coat every part of this fair city, a wash can never go amiss. Don't scrub too hard though, or you'll loose flavor.

Slice into about 3/4 inch horizontal pieces. Toss in a large bowl with about two pinches of sugar, one part soy sauce, 3 parts olive oil, and a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar. Mince a clove of garlic and toss in.

When slices are completely covered, let sit while you heat a pan greased with more olive oil. When it is hot, toss in and start to sauteé, Keep tossing and when the slices start to "blacken" in towards the center, do one more good go round in the pan, and then remove. The slices will continue to cook once removed from the heat.

Serve with a starch of your choice (I like rice as it will mop up that black portobello suace nicely), and for show, put the mushroom slices on long leaves of romaine lettuce. You can make lettuce wraps with them, and it is actually quite tasty.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Veggies, veggies, and more veggies

Ah, Deutchland. You have many virtues, especially in the arena of goulash soup, anything to do with potatoes, breaded meats, sausages, and lingonberries. And your beer is pretty gosh darn excellent too. However, your ability to provide me with fruits or vegetables, that have not been covered in butter and/or "yogurt dressing" (aka mayonnaise with some paprika in it), needs a bit of work.

Now that I am back in NYC, city of culinary diversity, I am trying to make up for all the greens and spices I had to do without while abroad. That means honey crisp apples and juicy pears, carrot ginger soup, grilled sweet corn, and french green beans (steamed and then tossed in olive oil and a Provençal spice mix--I like the combination of rosemary, thyme, tarragon, basil, fennel, and lavender). I even have a mind to whip up some cauliflower tomorrow.

Yet fruits and veggies alone do not a complete meal make. You need to have a "protein," something that will stick to your ribs. I think a good stir-fry with tofu served over rice is a great way to have a complete vegetarian meal. It is quick and easy to make and even Vronsky, an avowed tofu-hater, will eat this:

You need extra firm tofu, half an onion, 1-2 red peppers, 1-2 yellow or orange peppers, celery, snow peas, and cashews.

Before you start prepping your veggies, put your rice in your rice cooker so it will be ready by the time your stir fry is done.

Slice onions and peppers to your preference of thickness. I actually like them on the thicker ends of things. Chop celery and cut tofu into bite-sized cubes.

Heat pan with olive oil, until it starts to steam. Put in tofu and onions first, as they take longer to cook. Once in pan, toss with soy sauce so that tofu will brown up nicely.

Once onions begin to turn clear, put in celery, snow peas, peppers, toss in a bit more soy sauce and continue to toss until everything cooks and you get that nice stir-fry flavor.

At the last second, toss in the cashews. Take rice out of cooker, plate, and then put your stir-fry on top. Easy squeezy, and a good meal for groups!

[You can add other vegetables to this mix as well--broccoli diced up into florets is really nice, as are button mushrooms or even some shaved carrots. A good way to deal with leftovers that might no longer be crisp enough for salads]

I've also had a few requests for a good mushroom recipe. Will post my favorite one for portobellos tomorrow!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Auf wiedersehen!

I am off to Germany for work all through the week and won't be posting. Instead, I will be busy hob-nobbing with other literary types at the Frankfurt Book Fair and harassing our foreign agents to get us more deals. I really want our Brazilian agents to help make one of Pegasus' books a best seller there, and then I can go to Rio. It's going to happen! (Even if only in my mind).

Frankfurt is not my ideal Germanic destination (I would much prefer Munich or Berlin), but it's a fun town and all the fair-goers congregate at this stunning belle epoque hotel, "The Frankfurter Hof" for champagne, beer, and more schmoozing. Two years ago at this same event, I was propositioned by a German millionaire and a Knight of the Holy Grail (no joke–he had a crest and everything; apparently the holy grail now resides in Valencia, Spain. Who knew?). They were, of course, both looking to publish their respective books.

Last year, I stuck close to Pegasus' French agent, the ever elegant Michele, who is one of the grand dames of the international publishing scene. She can go anywhere in the world and when greeted, she extends her hand palm down to be kissed. Baller. Needless to say, she was very good and shooting a scathing side eye to any lurking declassé folks looking to interrupt our reverie.

I will drink plenty of good beer and eat lots of delicious sausage, schnitzel, saurkraut, and pastries while I am away and regale you with tales of the various meals that contributed to the nice little flotation ring I will be returning to America with.

Auf widersehen!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The greatest deli on the mail!

I know I have mentioned Zingerman's Deli before, but to reiterate, it is one of my favorite restaurants, no, one of my favorite places, in the entire world.

It is a bold claim, but if you are ever in Ann Arbor, Michigan, make sure you stop by. You will not regret it. My friend Mike may have introduced me to Spanish food, but I feel he owes me one now too for insisting he try Zingerman's the minute he set foot on the Michigan campus for grad school.

Zingerman's is not just a delicatessen, it is an experience. Every type of bread, every make of salami, coffee blend, sauce, vinegars, chicken breast, farmhouse cheese, estate-bottled olive oil, and tomato is chosen and/or created by Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig for freshness and flavor, and it pays off, with FOOD & WINE selecting it as one of the "Top 25 Food Markets" in the entire world. Yowza.

The have a wide array of custom sandwiches and other deli fare–you can view the full menu on their website (it is like food porn to me). I maintain that their best sandwich is the #11, J. J.'s Pastrami Special, which is Zingerman's own pastrami on grilled rye bread with Swiss cheese from Switzerland and roasted onions. Add spicy mustard to taste. As is the case with my mother's spaghetti sauce, I have a hard time eating pastrami sandwiches any place else, although the Astro Diner on 6th and 56th is quite nice. I do have to request the onions, however--that does not come standard, and just the level of the ingredients is not quite the same.

Pastrami sandwiches (and really, all sandwiches) from any place else in the world also do not come with Zingerman's coveted "new pickle," which I now happily have a stash of in my fridge, thanks to the aforementioned Pickle Day here in NYC.

My father loves Zingerman's even more than I do. He had just graduated from Michigan's law school when it opened in 1982 and was clerking with judge in Bay City. He always made time for little weekend visits to Ann Arbor to stock up on breads, cheeses, meats, and other goodies from Zingerman's, and I am sure his visits only increased in frequency when my mom became pregnant with me and embraced all the accompanying cravings. Every year we journey to the shores of beautiful Lake Walloon up in the northern part of the state, and my parents insist we spend a few days in Ann Arbor prior. I know it is partly because they enjoy visiting their old alma matter where they met (my dad likes to point out the little bench in the law quad where he and my mom would have lunch between classes, aw), but I have a sneaking suspicion it is also so they can fill up on Zingerman's food.

Today, however, I can satisfy my Zingerman's joneses with their mail-order program. While I also have the wide array of gourmet food shops in NYC at my disposal, the prices through this mail order are very fair, and as my schedule grows increasingly hectic this fall, I have less time to spend hours poking around foodie shops. The mail-order catalog cannot provide me with my beloved sandwiches, but it can provide me with artisan cheeses from around the world, custom blended cocoa mixes, wild honey, coffee and tea, Great Lakes chesire, beautiful breads, and more. You can even order "Zingerman's Big Box of Meat." I mean, if that does not convince you that this place is money, I don't know what will.

Visit to satisfy your every gastronomical whim.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

An Alphabet for Gourmets

Monday was a sad day. Hot off the heels of Pickle Day, I heard some crushing news: Gourmet Magazine was closed by Condé Nast in light the magazine empire's continuing financial struggles.

Working in publishing, I truly do understand the delicate financial situation and tough business model inherent to the business. That said, I loved Gourmet. Not only was the incredible Ruth Reichl at the helm as editor in chief (former food critic of the New York Times and author of excellent books like Garlic and Sapphires and Comfort Me With Apples), but Gourmet was one of the few places left that published true food writing in the style of M.F.K. and other greats alongside more standard fare like recipes and critiques and chef profiles.

M.F.K. Fisher wrote for Gourmet for many years, and one of my favorite pieces of hers that was published in the magazine was the series "An Alphabet for Gourmets." Perhaps someday I will do a mini-series running through the alphabet on my own, but for the moment, her choice for the letter "A" resonated with me, and is perhaps my favorite "letter" in the series.

A is for Dining Alone.

It is clear from so many of M.F.K.'s writings that she loves sharing the pleasure of a good meal with those she cares about, whether she cooks it herself or is in the company of "another" at a restaurant. Yet as she progresses in her career and becomes increasingly well-known, she finds herself in a lonely position atop a culinary pedestal. Friends who would normally invite her over for dinner now no longer do so, and excuse themselves by saying that they simply wouldn't dare cook for her. And dinning out with company becomes an increasingly stilted affair, as the "other" feel inclined to critique and analyze every nuance of her reactions to the food, what she orders, how she sits, to the point that she must reconcile herself with dining alone.

Dining alone is a tough thing. And I am not talking about eating off your knees in front of the television and shielding yourself from your "alone-ness" with the appearance of busyness, be it with the TV on, tidying up, or even eating on the go. Not this does not have a time and place, but this is not "dining" to M.F.K. It is merely eating to live, and she is someone who has always, in true gourmet fashion, lived to eat.

Dining alone means relishing your meal while enjoying the company of ones own self and the passel of thoughts and musings residing just below the surface of the mind. This can be quite intimidating. Not to mention all of the perceived social stigma that accompanies a person dining alone. Often, the sight of a lone diner evokes pity, when it really should evoke admiration that someone is so secure in themselves that they can go out and enjoy a good meal and their own company.

As Fisher herself says in her essay:

'“Never be daunted in public,” was an early Hemingway phrase which had more than once bolstered me in my Timid Twenties. I changed it now: “Never be daunted in private,” I said resolutely…"

It is a good mantra, and over the past few years, I have increasingly come to enjoy dining alone, although admittedly I sometimes still hide behind the "shield of busyness" and bring along a manuscript I am editing, book, or magazine to ward off any advances or interruptions to my solitude. I have come to find that when I am stressed, confused, or have the blues, a glass of wine and a hot meal at a nearby bistro is just the thing I need to sort myself out. That feeling of being alone in a crowd is the perfect setting for self and gastronomical reflection, and while I still prefer the company of another, there is something to be said for never being daunted in private.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Happy International Pickle Day!

Today is international pickle day. I love pickles, so I am actually headed down to the Lower East Side where pickle lovers and vendors from around the world will be congregating, at least until 4:30. Apparently there are not only people dressed as pickles, but music and all sorts of fun and games. Should be a grand time.

I love sweet pickles, which are harder to find than regular dill ones. The best pickles I have ever had are the "new pickles" from Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor. I hope they have a booth so I can stock up...

Pickle is also just a funny word. Pickle, pickle, pickle.

UPDATE: I am totally going to Pickle Day next year and recommend you do, too. Not only was it a hilarious pickle-themed afternoon, but they totally DID have my favorite kind of pickle, and so I have bought a giant tub of them. I even found a new "new pickle" maker (does a person who makes pickles call themselves a "pickler?) here in NYC so I don't have to worry about finding a way to get them from Ann Arbor to here. The Zingerman's new pickles are still the best, though, but the ones from Garden of Eden and 2nd Ave. Deli are an excellent alternative as well.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Babbo is my new sweet baboo

On Tuesday, Vronsky and I went to dinner at Babbo with a friend of ours to "pay him back" for writing an introduction to one of Vronsky's books. This was much nicer than paying him a real advance, as we also got to partake. I will say, however, it was probably about as expensive in the end.

But you know what? That's just fine, because Babbo is a New York culinary landmark, and I have been fascinated by Mario Battali's work ever since reading Bill Buford's fantastic book Heat years ago. I know I've mentioned this book before, but here it is again. Buford, formerly of the New Yorker and founder of Granta Books, quit his gem of a job at the magazine (!) and goes to work in Battali's kitchen at Babbo. There are no shortcuts on the New York food scene, and Bill starts out as a "kitchen slave" chopping vegetables and taking out the garbage, slowly working his way up to line and pasta cook, which is no small feat. He then travels to Tuscany and "interns" with a Tuscan butcher and learns the ancient tradition of Tuscan cooking. In fact, even the use of cutlery originated in Tuscany and spread to the rest of Europe when one of the de Medicis traveled to France and took forks and a whole new way of preparing food with her.

It was in this region that Battali (and Buford) hand-roll pasta on oak boards, using no water, just the egg of a wild chicken, which is so rich that the yolk is almost red compared with the commercially farmed eggs we are used to. They learn how to make their own salumi and prepare sweet breads and cheeses. The entire process has such a delicious lyricism to it, and Buford's description of all this wonderful food made my stomach grumble.

Needless to say, I had constructed quite a fantasy as to what to expect when I finally had the chance to dine at Battali's flagship, the mecca of his vision. I am pleased to say, it lived up to its expectation and more!

The three of us decided to be super decadent and ordered the tasting menu with wine pairing.

First up, was duck bresola with parmigiana and aceto manodori, which is essnetially duck bacon and a sort of Parmesan cheese custard on the side. Divine. I wish I could have duck bacon instead of regular bacon for the rest of my life. No exaggeration.

Next up was parpardelle with chanterelle mushrooms and thyme. Here is where that hand-rolled pasta comes into play. It is so smooth and has such a velvety texture, it complemented the flavor of the mushrooms perfectly. Vronsky doesn't really like mushrooms, and I love them, so I got double the pleasure!

Then we got duck tortellini with sugo frito, which is a fresh tomato based sauce. It was incredibley rich and I am glad we only had a few squares, as I wanted to make sure I saved room for what came next: pork tenderloin with pumpkin fregula and a black truffle vinaigrette. Whoo wee did they save the best for last.

The pork was perfectly seared–juicy and flavorful with a tiny bit of awesome chew gristle on the end. And the fregula was light and airy in texture which contrasted nicely with the earthy flavors of the pumpkin and truffles. I really wished there was more of this dish, and hope it is still on the menu when I go back so I can order it as a full entree.

Next came the cheese course, which was goat brie with fennel honey. I love any and all cheeses, and this one was excellent, especially with the fennel honey. I should learn how to make it or at least where to buy it so I can eat all my cheese with it in the future. I even ate half of Vronsky's cheese when he went to the bathroom, oops.

And THEN we had dessert. Three of them. First was a gelo alla siciliana, which was essentially a cold watermelon puree that was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. It was a odd cross between a smoothie and a gelato, and I loved it.

Next came a chocolate tartufino, which was heaven for Vronsky, a chocolate lover, but I preferred our final dessert, the sweet plum belizia with cinnamon fior di latte. I adore fruit-based desserts, and this one was excellent. Plus, cinnamon makes anything better.

By this point, the three of us are so stuffed that we can barely get up out of our seats. We had planned to order some celebratory glasses of prosseco, but I had no room in my belly by that point. Thank the lord I was wearing a dress and not pants or even a skirt without enough give. If only someone would design a stylish skirt or trousers with an elastic waist, I would buy it in a heartbeat and reserve it for all Babbo dining adventures. Fancy!

Visit for reservation information. It takes forever to get through to someone and you have to plan a month out, but it is well worth it. Hit the phones!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Alphabet City

My first apartment in New York was on 14th and Ave. A, right on the edge of Stuyvesant Town, and while the East Village, specifically Alphabet City, might be more infamous for heroin dens, clubs, the late night scene, and eco-friendly hipsters, it holds its own gastronomical delights, and some of my favorite haunts are in the nether-reaches of this quirky neighborhood.

One of the main drawbacks of Alphabet City is simply the fact that it is such a pain to get to. But certain places make it all worth while--I Coppi on Ave. A and 9th street serves marvelous Italian food and has a romantic back garden that is open year-round. It has a special "home-y" feel, most likely because the owners, a Tuscan husband and wife team, built much of the restaurant themselves, including the brick oven, where bread is baked without salt, as per the Tuscan tradition. Everything on the menu is excellent, especially their chestnut soup and but my absolute favorite thing is their gnocchi with an orange and gin sauce and lump crab meat. Divine, and unlike any other dish I have had, anywhere in the city. Their gnocchi is so light and delicate, every other formulation seems clunky and heavy by comparison.

Matilda, on 11th and Ave. C, is a wildly original Tuscan and Mexican fusion restaurant that my roommate discovered. The flavor combination are so perfect, it is amazes me that I've never had prosciutto and basil in a quesadilla before. And to make it even more lovely, the two owners, one of Tuscan decent, the other from Mexico, met while working at the aforementioned i coppi.

This same roommate is also obsessed with Death & Co. , purveyor of decadent cocktails, and I recently discovered a fun little place on Ave. B, Rue B., which has great fresh-fruit infused cocktails, live jazz every night, and tasty paninis.

Ost Cafe and Atlas are two of my favorite cafes in the whole city. Ost has wonderful coffee, and you can sit and read/edit/work unmolested while people watching out the gloriously large windows. Atlas has all sorts of delicious Mediterranean inspired food and an unbelievable variety of soups, salads, and sandwiches at amazing prices, with a non-intrusive staff that will let you munch and work quietly all day.

I will say, however, that the best way to explore this neighborhood is to simply walk around. One of my favorite New York "memories" is the day when Vronsky and I decided to walk off a hangover one morning and mill around down Avenues A, B, and C, through the LES and into Chinatown. We discovered an urban farm on Ave. B, complete with koi pond to "eat" the run off (koi are basically aquatic pigs...they eat anything and everything and are the basically swimming garbage disposals), a place with vegan cookies that also sold bongs, and fabulous little vintage shops that sell everything from shearling pimp coats to bird-cage veils (both of which I want). We even found a VHS of the movie "Clue," which is one of my favorite movies of all time. Tom Curry rules, and I really want to go to the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" sing-along sometime this winter. Any takers?