Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Snow day treats part II: Consider Sriracha Sauce

While I am on the subject of yummy snow-day treats, I think that a great way to get warm is to eat something hot. And I don't just mean temperature hot, but a burn-your-mouth-and-your-gut-additively-spicy hot, courtesy of Sriracha sauce.

My family has been eating Sriracha sauce since I was in elementary school, and it finally seems to be trickling out into the mainstream. Sriracha has been popular amongst the Asian-American community since the 1980's, and you can now find it in suburban grocery stores and even Applebees serves some sort of shrimp with a Sriracha-infused dipping sauce. When Sam Sifton of The New York Times asked several prominent chefs what they always had in their fridge, Sriracha sauce was right in there, along with eggs, dijon mustard, and full-fat Coca-Cola, in case of hangovers (best cure on the record!). And Sriracha was in this week's New York Magazine's Approval Matrix, which I always find hilarious, yet charmingly astute.

I just snarfed down a delicious bánh mi sandwich at Hinco's in Cobble Hill (Bergen Street & Smith), covered in Sriracha of course, to beat the chill that comes with tromping through slush and snow. Vronsky became addicted to Sriracha after having it every day with my grandparents out in California last spring. It is currently the only thing he has in his fridge, minus a few stray packets of ketchup and soy-sauce. My Po-Pop and Gung-Gung always put it on lo-mein and anything that is leftover. It really will make anything taste better! They say that at their age, nothing has taste like it once did, so the sauce gives it some zip. Po-po also says this is why she only likes to drink scotch versus beer, wine or another sort of liqour, ha. Me too, Po-po. Me, too.

But Sriracha has an interesting back story that helps explain some of its mass appeal. Sriracha is manufactured by Huy Fong Foods and was "invented" in 1984 by David Tran, the founder of Huy Fong, who admits he is both proud of the products popularity and slightly bemused. Hung Foy gets fan mail and fan calls everyday, from people who are suggesting new ways to use the sauce (on multigrain snack chips in lieu of salsa), or a drunk guy who can't even pronounce Sriracha in his current state and just yells "I LOVE ROOSTER SAUCE." (Sriracha's packaging has almost remained unchanged in its 30+ years: clear red bottle, several different languages printed on it, from English and French to Chinese and Vietnamese, all setting off a giant rooster).

Many chefs regularly admit to using it as a "sleeve trick," and Sriracha is now even carried in Wal-Mart after hiding in Asian grocery stores and metropolitan "ethnic food aisles" for years. It is now part of chain restaurants like PF Chang's, and is in food/street meat carts from New York to LA. Yet Tran never had such a broad fan base in his sights when he created Sriracha.

He maintains that he created the sauce with the Asian-American community, especially the Vietnamese community, in mind. He felt that even in America, they would be yearning for hot sauce to put in their pho, the beef-broth and noodle soup that I, too, adore. And yet he did not want to make an exact copy, and drew on many different Asian flavors and techniques. The name "Sriracha" comes from the Thai town, Sriracha, which is know for its home-made chili pastes. And the Sriracha bottle includes serving suggestions for everything from pho to hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, pasta and sauces to give it a nice bite.

Tran had always toyed with chili and pepper sauces, and when he finally struck on the winning combo of chili, sugar, salt, garlic and vinegar, a world-wide phenomenon was born. People dress up as Sriracha bottles for halloween and their are fan clubs that are hundreds of thousands strong.

I should qualify all of this and say that I am not a huge spicy food fan. I have never really taken to tobasco or jalapeno peppers, yet this is exactly the right kind of "heat" for me. Pick up a bottle today and see if you too will be converted!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Savory snow day treats

For all of you living in California, Florida or more temperate climes, you may have read in the news about the intense snow storms up and down the east coast the past few days. From Charlotte to Boston, there are several inches to almost several feet of snow, leaving many people stranded, hopefully at home at not on a train or subway or airport.

Me? My flight back to NYC was canceled so I have two more glorious days at home, lazing about in my fuzzy pj's, drinking hot tea or a nice malbec (depending on the time of day), reading, and getting creative in the kitchen since no one wants to bother with going to the store.

If you have been a follower of this blog, you already know that my family makes pizza for Christmas instead of a more "traditional" meal. My mom and I favor lots of veggies and tomato sauce with minimal cheese and perhaps just a sprinkling of ground beef sauteed with onions, garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. My dad on the other hand, piles his so thick with peperoni, ground beef and cheese that it takes twice as long to cook and is almost 3 inches high after cooking, when supposedly everything has settled.

Well, there is always an interesting smorgasbord of leftovers once the pizzas have been finished. There's always a plethora of the beef and onions left over, as well as diced peppers and mushrooms and hopefully a tomato or two that hasn't been sliced. Unfortunately, sliced veggies never seem to stay crisp the next day, so we'll either put them in an omelet or make a modified frisee salad. Here is an excellent recipe, courtesy of Saveur. It reminds me so much of what Vronsky and I would eat when we were in Paris. We'd have that salad or haricot vert for lunch each day to make up for the fact that we had had champagne, eggs and lovely rich coffee for breakfast.

We usually don't have any bacon on hand in our house at home, although we always have eggs. If we had bacon, it would be eaten by my dad in one sitting. One year, I got him a "bacon of the month" club membership from Zingerman's, and my mom yelled at me. (Are you trying to kill him or what?!). Fortunately, the ground beef makes a nice substitute, and and the egg and always crisp frisee makes up for the fact that the peppers and tomatoes are getting a bit limp.

I often try to perk the peppers up by soaking them in some cold water for a bit, but the tomatoes tend to be beyond salvaging. If you have any hints, let me know! Otherwise, I just cover them in some balsamic glaze and eat them with a glass of red wine.

I also love making my own hot chocolate, heating some milk, semi-sweet cocoa powder, cinnamon and sugar in a saucepan. I have contemplated melting-down a Hershey bar in the past when we ran out of cocoa powder due to my sister baking enough chocolate cookies with white-chocolate chips and macadamia nuts to feed an army, but my mom said that if I ruined her pan she'd kill me, so I desisted. After all, we're trapped in the house all together, so it is probably best to keep the peace at all cost.

Rice is always in plentiful supply, and we've made a nice dent in our 15 lb sack to eat with my mom's delicious brisket, which takes 2 days to make and keeps for nearly twice as long.

There's also tons of charcuterie lying about, courtesy of several gift-baskets our family had been sent for Christmas, and while we've run out of proper toast points, baguettes and farmhouse bread, I admit that they are not half-bad with a Triscuit! Plus, my mom bought a huge wedge of Manchego cheese and some delicious gouda from the Netherland's to go with it while she bought a dozen bottles of wine as Christmas gifts for various acquaintances.

The one thing missing is a steady supply of fresh fruit. We've worked our way through bananas, our stash of apples, the cantaloupes and the Edible Arrangement Vronsky set to my parents. I suppose we should make plans to venture out at some point though, if only to cash in on the gift cards and take advantage of some sales!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Simply the Holidays

A few years ago, Pegasus published a marvelous little book entitled Provençal Cooking: Savoring the Simple Life in France by Mary Ann Caws. I absolutely loved working with Caws on this charming combination of memoir, cook book, mini-travelogue, and philosophical treatise on the joy of living simply.

Complex does not necessarily mean better, whether it is food, prose, art or music. Sometimes the most pleasing meal is one that is the simplest to prepare and maybe only has a few ingredients. When Caws lived in Provence, she lived without electricity in half her house and no plumbing. Needless to say, she had to completely revamp her approach to cooking. It's much easier to make do without a modern kitchen when you are in the middle of the French country side and you can walk right outside your door and partake of the fruits of the earth (and perhaps your neighbors vineyard), versus in, say, a budget NYC apartment, which might have plumbing an electricity, but the stove and oven are patchy at best and your closest thing to local produce is a pack of Marlboros and a bag of Fritos from the vermin festooned mini-market around the corner.

But what I found the most appealing in Provençal Cooking was Caws' call for simplicity. In today's world, almost any one at some point will bemoan the fact that their life is too complicated. They are trying to be too many things to too many people. I have certainly felt that way from time to time, and it usually rears up in instances of feeling inferior because someone else has managed to start a non-profit that is about to spear-head a cure for AIDS, published a collection of poetry, qualified for the Boston Marathon, is a classically trained oboist, a volunteer at the ASPCA, and has managed to bake a pie from scratch and bring it to the church pot-luck. Meanwhile, I'm standing there with a plate full of uneven slice-and-bake cookies because I could not get my sh*t together in time to make anything better.

Perhaps I am the only one who feels this way, yet I have a feeling that I am not alone. It seems like the holidays bring out this feeling more than any other time of year. There is the stress of giving gifts and perhaps preparing the holiday meal. Family can certainly make this worse more often than they make this better, and while there are always pithy little sayings like "Christ is the Reason for the Season" or Linus' monologue that are bandied about to try and calm us down, I find that the best way to savor a bit of simplicity can be through food.

Whether you celebrate Hanukkah or Ramadan or Christmas, if you look back to the basic rituals of these faiths' social foundations, you find an extremely simple meal. Whether it is Jesus breaking the bread and sharing it with his disciples over some wine, fish and challah bread on shabbat, or bread, fruit and stew after a day of fasting, these meals are completely no frills but nourishing in every sense. And they are all meant to be shared with people, as holiday meals are today. Communion is always meant to be taken with your spiritual community, the sabbath meal is traditionally the family's main gathering point for the week, and the sunset meal iftar is an incredibly social occasion, with people meeting at family homes or mosques. There was no prize for who could make the best bread or bring the most exotic fruit. It simply was not the point. You were there to share the food with those you cared about and reflect on what mattered most to you--the simple, often blessed, things that should be remembered but often get lost in the complexity of day to day life.

Remembering the roots of this whole crazy season, no matter what faith, helped me keep my sanity this year more than ever before. Between work, family and social obligations, I had been sleeping on top of my laundry for several days because I literally could not find an hour to put it away. But what made me feel even better than an extra hour of sleep (or even putting my clothes away), was the twenty minutes I spent making icing last week.

Every year my roommates and I host a cookie decorating party, and while my designs are probably the worst of the bunch and I spent most of my time this year trying to keep my new puppy out of trouble, there was something really lovely about standing there, idly chatting over some B-grade white wine, mixing sugar and water. I had not spent any real time with them for weeks, and I had had this nagging feeling for months that my friendships, more than anything else, were being neglected at this point in my life. Wedding planning can do that, but it doesn't mean it should. But finally, here we were, playing with sprinkles and candy cane crumbles, slathering icing onto sugar cookies. It was simple, it was delicious, and it finally felt like Christmas.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Early Bird Special at Maialino

It is a running joke between Vronsky and me that I like my men like I like my wine: full-bodied and furry. While he's actually on the side of quite slim and really not that hairy, I really do like spicy, tannin-laden wines, and the wine I had tonight at Maialino, the restaurant that is a part of the Gramercy Park Hotel, was just that. It was a Sicilian wine, "Fastaia," and the perfect complement to the Roman cuisine we stuffed our face on at 5:30pm, because we could not get a reservation at any other time.

I was actually alright with that, as my day was so crazy that I literally did not have a moment to eat lunch, so by 5:00 I was starving and the fact that suckling pig was the house specialty was music to my ears. But first, I had to gorge myself on the delicious sampling of bread and olive oil that graced the table. The oil was a bit too salty for my own personal preference, but the bread was so perfect that I actually preferred it alone.

Then came the salumi mista, along with a generous sampling of olives, which Vronsky does not like, so I got to relish them all myself. The salumi station is actually next to the bar, so you could see the meat being sliced with loving care. After reading how salumi was made in Bill Buford's Heat, I appreciate the explosion of taste in each bite even more.

Next, I had the agnolotti di zucca, which was essentially pumpkin ravioli with balsamic and pine nuts. It was delicious, but not not original, and I had a better version of that same dish at another Danny Meyer restaurant, Union Square Cafe. Vronsky's dish however, the bucatini all'Amatriciana, was excellent. The spicy tomato sauce was just that: spicy and tomato-y, and the bucatini was perfectly al dente. There was just a bit of Guanciale to give it some richness that cut the brightness of the sauce a wee bit.

Then came the suckling pig, which is not for the faint of heart or stomach. It is incredibly rich and the fat is almost as thick as the meat. As someone who is used to the Cantonese style of pig or duck in this manner, where the fat is almost completely rendered, seeing that snowy layer of fat just under the crackling was a bit surprising, although it does make everything delicious. In the end, however, I separated the fat from the meat and crackling and went to town. It is rich and flavorful and the roasted brussel sprouts were the palate cleanser.

For desert, we managed to make room for the torta sbrisolona, an almond and apple crumb cake with caramel gelato. Pure heaven for someone who loves anything pie-like, fruity or nutty. Round that off with a bit of espresso, and I can't wait to come back for the early bird special again!

Do not be intimidated by the location of the restaurant. While it certainly is not cheap, it is not necessarily expensive for a night out, as the portions are Continental-sized and served family style, so go with someone who is willing to share and you'll be able to try lots of things within a fair price range.

Next time, I would like to try a different secondi (I can only take suckling pig once every year, if that) and I would also like to try a more authentically Roman past dish, which tend to not be as saucy as the country Italian fare and more egg-based, like the bombolotti alla Cricia, which is pasta, egg, some Guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon), and pepper. I would also love to try a cheese selection as well...I could scare enjoy my espresso because I was eyeballing the cheese tray of the people next to us, but my stomach was simply too full!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Girl crush: Christina Hendricks

Christina Hendricks rules. Not just because she's a great actress, super sexy, and comes off as funny, warm and witty, but she's quite the foodie too! I won't spoil this great interview with New York Magazine's Grub Sreet, but I will pre-empt this and say that I should have a girl-date with her. She likes scotch neat, I like scotch neat. She likes goat cheese, I like goat cheese. She can cook a New Years dinner for 40-50 people, I cannot do that, but would like to hear all about it! Her hubby bakes delicious bread, and Vronsky can make a mean bowl of cereal. See! We're totally destined to be besties.....

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bountiful Bolivia (and Venezuela too)

I do not know very much about South America or South American cuisine. There is an Argentine place Vronsky and I used to visit in Tribeca, but ever since he moved, we have not had the chance to visit as frequently, although they had the best rosemary lamb chops I have ever tasted, and a killer wine list to boot. I love Chilean wines as well and we have toyed with going to Buenos Aires and then to Chile for our honeymoon (a little culture, a little skiing, a little viewing-of-Penguins), but that is as far as my knowledge of that vast and vibrant continent goes, unless you count the tales of life in Rio that my Brazilian literary sub-agents tell me, in which case, I am packing my bags!

But a literary life on a Brazilian beach in a thong aside, over Thanksgiving, my parents took Vronsky and I to the most charming restaurant in Falls Church, VA, La Caraquena, which features authentic Bolivian and Venezuelan food. My mom and dad love trying new food and La Caraquena had received rave reviews in the Washingtonian and Washington Post and so as a nice pre-Thanksgiving meal on Wednesday night, squeezed into a booth in the petite, but homey, restaurant, and boy, were we in for a treat.

The head chef, Raul A. Claros, based the menu around traditional Bolivian and Venezuelan food, as he he was born in Venezuela to restauranteur parents, and then moved to Bolivia as a young man. The highlight of the entire meal was the Salteñas, which is essentially an empanada on steroids. They are tennis-ball sized "turnovers," and the crust is flavored with a mildly bitter seed called the achiote, but it sets off the flavor of the filling to a tee: robustly flavored beef with diced potatoes, carrots, peas, an olive or two and a chapped egg. I think I could have easily ordered 4 of those as a meal with a nice red wine and been perfectly satisfied.

But then I would have missed out on the arepas, which are the Venezuelan staples on the menu. Arepas are flat, white ground-corn cakes amendable for stuffing, and stuffed they were, as there are close to a dozen fillings to choose from on the menu, from black beans and grated white cheese to "Sifrina" (chicken salad with mayonnaise and avocado, and the "Perico," which is egg with chopped tomatoes and bell peppers. Then there is "JP's Favorite," which was my favorite too: thin slices of garlicky steak with onions and cilantro.

My sister had the peanut soup, which was quite delicious although I don't know if I could have taken an entire bowl of it. I loved their black bean soup, mopped up with some of their yuca fries, and while we were busy stuffing our faces we were also angering our livers with some of their delicious passion fruit or mango margaritas.

After we waddled off home, Vronsky and I were fairly dead set on honeymoon-ing in Bolivia just so we could stuff ourselves with salteñas. While that might not eventually come to fruition (Greece might still call my name), we'd like to keep exploring Latin American, if only on our dinner plates!

There is Boca Chica on 1st Ave near Houston that I have heard is quite tasty, and then there is El Cocotera for traditional Venezuelan food in Chelsea. Industria Argentina is that place in Tribeca that I now have a yen to return to, and if any one has any other recommendations for places in Manhattan or Brooklyn, let me know in the comments! Till then, I'll be pining for those La Caraquena salteñas until I am home again for Christmas.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

D is for Dominate

If you have ever toyed with the idea of running a marathon, please do so! I had such an incredible time last Sunday, I have still not come down from the endorphin rush. It was an experience beyond compare. When Vronsky saw me come up 4th Street around mile 10 in Brooklyn, I had this big dopey grin on my face, one that I held all the way to the finish, fatigue and the fact that I really had to go to the bathroom be damned! If there was any doubt in my mind that New York was NOT the greatest city in the world, then it has surely been eradicated by this point. The way the entire city turns out for the marathon is incredible. From the tip of Brooklyn to the Bronx and everywhere in between, the marathon shows what makes NYC one of a kind. The diversity and spunk is evident for all 26.2 miles. From the elderly deli owner yelling "run faster, my friend!" to the fire fighters and cops, to the little kids holding out their hands for high-fives, flags being waved from every conceivable country, a little Dominican grandma handing out paper towels, hipsters handing out lollipops, gospel choirs, random folks handing out orange slices, and the sheer fact that people are tailgating this thing, complete with cook-outs and bands, never ceased to amaze me over the entirety of the course.

And don't even get me started on the racers! A lot of people were just like me based on outward appearance, relatively fit and looking to go a solid time and challenge themselves. Others were running for a cause, be it the Robin Hood Program, cancer, MS, in memory of someone, injured or fallen soldiers, the causes are endless, each and every one unique and admirable. And then there was Team Achilles, who guided along disabled athletes, from those who were blind or deaf, missing limbs or were pushing through some another, less visible disability. The sheer joy on their faces was enough to bring tears to my eyes, and really made me savor just that much more the cheer of the crowd, the perfectly sunny day, the friends that came out to support me, the feel of the ground beneath my feet. I was even savoring the mushy bananas that the race volunteers were handing off as we turned the final corner into the Park.

But what brought a real smile to my face, besides a triumphant finish in a better than expected time, was a random voice in the crowd shouting out that they couldn't wait to "dominate a pizza." I knew exactly what he meant! I was starving and have remained ravenously hungry for the past 5 days.

Immediately after finishing, I inhaled the two apples that came in our goody bag along with the complimentary Gatorade and water. I then shuffled 10 blocks downtown to Josephina's near Lincoln Center to meet Vronsky and inhaled a fruit bowl and their "tangle of angel hair pasta" that came with a wonderfully tomato-y sauce, covered in Parmesan cheese. To put it succinctly, I dominated it.

A few hours later, after Vronsky and I had finally made it back home, I dominated some Indian food. I was craving some naan and some nice and spicy chicken, lamb and veggie kebabs.

And in the morning? I dominated 3 bowls of Kashi's Autumn Wheat cereal and a banana and barely made it the three hours that stood between me and lunch, which was Building on Bond's amazing "Black Friday" sandwich, which is a delicious Thanksgiving medley of shaved turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing. Mmm, mmm, good.

Tuesday I dominated some Korean BBQ and then last night it was the fillet Mignon at 21. Usually I find 21's food much to rich, but I guess when you are inhaling everything in sight and buying candy from those kids that come on the subway and sell you bags of M&M's and candy bars for $1 a pop, a little extra bacon grease on that burger isn't going to thwart you. Today I dominated a bowl of turkey chili for lunch (as well as the leftover pickle from the author I was having lunch with...classy) and a burrito from Chipotle along with a bag of chips and spicy salsa.

I suppose dominating that pizza or a sandwich or the entire contents of one's fridge is just reward after dominating your own fears and your prior notion of what the body can achieve. Even Shalane Flanagan, the American woman who finished second in her marathon debut, said that the first thing she planned to do was have a burger and a beer. I think it is refreshing sometimes to revert back to our most carnal and base attitudes about food. Not all the time, of course, as I think it is equally fun and rewarding to really think about what your eating, from ingredients and taste to how it is prepared (or how you plan to prepare it), and savor every morsel, but there is something about the sensation of stuffing warm pasta into your face like there's no tomorrow that knows no equal.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Food is fuel!

That is something that I have had hammered into me since I was probably about 12 years old. I was so incredibly skinny that my nickname at home was "Jangle Bones" (J-Bones or just Bones for short) and my swim coach put me on a "milkshake-a-day-plus-instant-breakfast-mix diet" in addition to what I regularly ate, lest my body start to "eat itself." Needless to say, all this turned me off strawberry milkshakes for years to come and don't even get my started on Carnation Instant Breakfast. Yech.

When I get pregnant I'll have to bump up my calorie count some other way. Perhaps I will just sit down and eat an entire roast chicken right out of the pan, a la one of my favorite professors at Princeton who stated this proudly (yet another tick on the very long list of why she is amazing).

But this whole J-Bones era raises an interesting point. In a culture where we are so obsessed with dieting and being thin, I think we forget that food is fuel. I know I wax on and on about it fueling the soul and the psyche, but let's not forget--it's gotta fuel the body first and foremost!

Why talk about this now? Well, after a mad three weeks (Vronsky and I lost a house we were trying to buy, scrambled to find someplace else to live, all with our new puppy in tow, plus the fact that work has been cah-RAY-zay), yours truly is running the New York City Marathon on Sunday! I am more worked up about this than any of the triathlons I've done, perhaps because this marathon will easily take at least four hours, whereas an Olympic distance triathlon, not so much (that's a pic of me from this fall's Nation's Triathlon). But I have wanted to run one for some time now and the day is fast approaching!

I've become more cognizant of the fuel aspect of food in recent months, especially once my runs started getting longer. To complicate things, running is a bit different from swimming in terms of how my body handles food. At the height of swim training back in college, or even high school, I would just stuff myself with anything and everything I could get my hands on, from delicious fajitas to stale cereal right out of the box. It is a fairly common thing for swimmers to do. Andy Potts, now a pro triathlete but former captain of the University of Michigan swim team, stated in Triathlete magazine that he still eats like a college swimmer. In fact, the other day he just sat down an ate a Costco-sized back of peanut M&M's just because he was bored!

For me, my eating habits have had to change a bit leading into Sunday. I'll tend to get a bit of an upset stomach if I eat too close to my long runs, so loading up on the heavier carbs and proteins means must be done the night before, and then I will eat a solid breakfast and a blander lunch than I'd usually have just to be safe, with a cup hot water with ginger, lemon and honey just before I hit the road. It calms the tummy and gives me a last little burst of glucose.

The past week I've made sure that I am getting enough fruits and veggies along with the more obvious carbs and protein. I'll be sticking with variations on my mom's spaghetti sauce and chicken fried rice as Sunday approaches. It is not a time to experiment, but to go with the tried and true.

And while I am a big believe that real food is always the best thing, gels and drink powders do have their place. I've heard veteran Iron Men wistfully recall the days when Gatorade didn't exist and they accomplished miraculous feats in Kona with orange slices, water, and peanut butter M&M's (perhaps Potts was onto something after all!), but I fully admit that I am no Iron Woman. A few well-timed energy "bloks" from Clif (which are just jacked-up gummie squares) and some GU packets will never go amiss in my book. And I'm quite loyal to my Lemon-Lime Accelerade as a drink mix. I find Gatorade and other sports drinks too sweet and when you look at the labels, it's mostly sugar and salt. Conversely, the powders tend to have a lot more vitamins and whatnot, even though I know a lot of people have trouble with the slightly thicker constancy, but I don't mind it, nor the fact that Accelerade is an unearthly bright green color.

I say all this, but I will share one little anecdote in closing that basically negates everything I've just said in the last paragraph. While I was on a long bike ride earlier this summer, I shakily reach into my jersey pocket and pull out a shot block or two, pleased with myself that my cycling skills seem to be improving. I've managed to suck down these little gummies without crashing after all! Just then, a man whizzes by me, and what is he eating to fuel up for a long ride ahead? No goos or gummies for him. He is deftly eating what I perceive to be a turkey sandwich. On wheat bread. With lettuce. I swear I even saw a bit of Dijon mustard.

So the question now is: who will hand me a turkey sandwich (or perhaps a nice piece of pizza) on Sunday??

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Consider figs in Frankfurt

Ah, it is lovely to be back in New York again....

Don't get me wrong, I love to travel and would never forsake a trip to a new place for anything, but I have heard that one of the pluses of traveling is that it makes you appreciate home that much more.

The past two weeks have been quite the whirlwind. I think I've slept in my bed 3 times in the past three weeks. Granted, it has been almost entirely of my own making, and while my Sleepy Bear is probably a bit mad a me, it's been completely worth it.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is always an intellectual rush. To be at the center of the international publishing scene and hear what's happening in countries all over the world is such a thrilling sensation--it always serves to remind me why I am doing this. Unfortunately, it is not a huge gastronomical rush. Not to say that I didn't eat well--I stuffed myself each morning with the buffet breakfast and then with heavy schnitzel and beer each evening--but I never found myself trying something new and exciting.

While I was a bit tired of meat and starch by the end of the trip (I always feel like I come down with scurvy a little bit during the fair, between the heavy party food and the pre-packaged convention center food), the buffet breakfast each morning was superb. And it was not as if we were staying in some wildly plush hotel. I have found that breakfasts at most European hotels are excellent. Whereas in the States you'd have some watery coffee, generic brand OJ and some most Eggo waffles served with egg beaters, European continental breakfasts are first rate, even at the hostels.

Cured meats and a variety of egg preparations (soft boiled, hard boiled, scrambled or fried), pastries and bread for toast, seasonal fruit, yogurt and various dried fruits and nuts, muesli, a bevy of cheeses, and my favorite of all, figs.

I am crazy about figs. One time I bough my roommate a fig-scented candle for her birthday just so she'd light it and then the entire apartment would smell like figs. Then she decided to keep it at home in Connecticut. Blast!

But seriously, I think figs are tremendously under utilized and appreciated here in America. It takes a trip overseas or mingling with someone from say, Turkey, to bring out the figs and dates. They're so sticky, delicious and integral to human history.

There is the old biblical story of Jesus himself reviving a fig tree (aka a ficus) and Adam and Eve clothed themselves in fig leaves after eating from the Tree, but the relationship between mankind and figs predates Him by a could thousand years. The fig was one of the first plants that were cultivated by humans. Apparently nine fossilized figs from about 9,400 BC were found in a Neolithic village just outside Jericho, predating the domestication of wheat, barley and legumes, and thus fig cultivation might be the first known sign of agriculture.

So, basically, figs and there awesomeness was what brought us down from the trees...and yet they themselves don't travel very well and are rarely served fresh if not grown locally. They are usually dried (as I had in Frankfurt) or candied and turned into dates. That's ok though, and as my primary fruit source in Germany, I was served quite well nutritionally.

Figs are one of the highest plant sources of calcium and fiber. According to USDA data for the Mission variety, dried figs are richest in fiber, copper, manganese, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and vitamin K, relative to human needs. They have smaller amounts of many other nutrients. Figs hare also a good source of flavonoids and antioxidants.

So what to do about figs gastronomically? You can make fig jam and there are ways to make fig reductions and even cocktails that I can only dream about. Ducks are fed figs to prepare them (and their liver) to be made into foie gras. Yet I have only ever enjoyed figs of my own devices dried or fresh, and even in the early jet lagged mornings of Frankfurt, I don't think I'd have it any other way. After all, 10,000 years+ of perfection is hard to mess with....

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Excuses are like assholes...

...Everyone has one, and they all stink. That's a bit of wisdom from the Gastronomical Dad, via the Marine Corps. It's funny, a bit crass, and quite true. It's my dad's birthday, and he himself is quite the food fiend. He introduced me to the wonders that are Coney Island hotdogs, which are not from Coney Island, as one might think, but from Detroit. Go to Athen's Coney in Southfield for a decadent treat: a wiener with all beef chili, spicy mustard and onion served in a hot dog bun. Eat with a fork. It's as awesome as it sounds and recently an editor at Saveur, my favorite magazine, caught onto this too.

My dad is the person who made me wait for blueberry pies after swim practice(so I could enjoy them properly). He has his own personal stash of artisan bread, has been known to bring home a box of cup cakes only to eat off all the tops before anyone else gets to them, and has an epic knowledge of place to get the best anti-pasta and other gourmet goodies. When he made us lunch, PB & J's were anathema--we all got salami sandwiches, sliced extra thick. If we were lucky, we also got a Ho-Ho tossed in alongside our apple.

My mom has waged a 25+ year war against him to eat more fruits and veggies--battle of the Asian diet versus American midwest, and while she's succeeded in part (he now craves edamame), his preferences still run towards kielbasa's and pastrami sandwiches given the opportunity. He's snuck away from business dinners while in NYC for work to go to the Astro diner so he could get a real sandwich and a proper Greek salad. He once gave our dogs rye bread for treats because he thought they might like the taste (he was right....they are now completely obsessed with it and go nuts the minute they here the distinct crinkle of the bag opening).

And despite his affinity for food of the Germanic-Polish-WASP persuasion going back to his childhood, we were eating sushi long before it became trendy in the 90's, he snarfs down Chinese food and was the one who discovered Pho soup, something that has been a staple of our family diet since I was in middle school. Afraid to try new things he is not, and there is another thing I share with my dad when it comes to food: a distrust and dislike of anything even resembling mayonnaise.

While his usual mantra has been cribbed from Garrison Keillor (Be well, do good work, and stay in touch) and other pithy Marine sayings aside, when I first moved to New York, he told me that there was simply no excuse not to eat well in the city. And he is right. There really isn't.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Delicious Denmark

I had a lovely lunch on Friday with Denmark's reigning "crime queen," Sara Blædel, to celebrate the acquisition of her books for the American market. I decided to take her to the 21 Club in midtown, very "Americana" and a New York classical, although I will come right out and say it: the food is WAY to rich and buttery. It is a favorite of Vronsky's family, so I eat there a fair amount, usually around the holiday season, but lord did I forget about that little tidbit. Everything there has butter, and too much of it at that. The Dover sole was swimming in it. My vegetable risotto was so oily with it it wasn't even clumping up. The burger is literally marinated in it. It's a shame, but I always walk away from there feeling slightly nauseous, although my plum-almond tart was a shining gastronomical delight on the whole affair.

To top off the fact that Sara is an incredibly delightful, charming woman (she and her husband, Lars, could charm the fur off a dog), she brought me a huge bag full of traditional Danish food after hearing through her agent that I ran this here little blog. It was the sweetest gift I'd ever gotten and I dove into this veritable bag of goodies the minute I got home and my meal of butter had subsided.

This bag was like Mary Poppin's carpet bag. Lovely things just kept coming out! A box of chocolates from a Copenhagen chocolatire, some Danish gummy candies, two huge jars of delicious pickled herring (which you MUST eat with slices of raw onion), lovely smoked salmon, and a loaf of thinly sliced black rye bread on which to eat said herring and salmon, and some Akvavit (a strong liquor drink served EXTRA cold).

Pickled herring has been a traditional Danish staple since the Middle Ages, and to this day, it is traditional to have some pickled herring (with onions atop Danish-style rye) for Christmas lunch before any hot dish is served. Herring is referred to as the "gold of the sea" and is also very popular when smoked (but doesn't travel as well as the smoked salmon).

And a note about this Danish rye bread: it is the only thing with which the traditional Danish open faced sandwich (smørrebrød) can be served. It is incredibly dense and sliced very thin and takes more than 24 to prepare and bake. It has a strong smell but it sets of the saltiness and "slimy" texture of the fish to perfection. Don't get me wrong...I love smoked salmon and pickled herring, but it definitely has its own "unique" texture.

Vronsky and I already worked our way through one packet of smoked salmon and half a jar of the pickled herring the next day (I ran out to Trader Joe's and got a giant onion) during the Bowling Green-Michigan game (21-65 Michigan, whee!!). Nothing like a super salty, omega-3 laden brunch to off set Vronsky's birthday party festivities from the night before...I think a trip to Copenhagen is now in order!

But where to find such yummy things in NYC when I've depleted Sara's generous stash? I did some mosey-ing around Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and found some smoked salmon, although I don't know how it will compare to Sara's yet. Pickled herring might be a bit trickier, but there is a shop on 7th Ave. just south of 58th street connected to the restaurant Petrossian that sells caviar and herring and other gastronomical sundries. It is Russian in style, so it will be a bit different from the Danish version, but I have yet to find a place that is more Nordic in focused. Regardless, always eat your herring with raw onion!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cheese, cheese and more cheese!

I love cheese and crave it on a regular basis. Hard or soft, creamy or stinky, I have rarely met a cheese I didn't like. Blue cheese on my salad or on a cracker with some walnuts. Camembert. Manchego. I'll eat feta straight up. I just finished munching on a bit of hard, crumbly asiago. There is always something new to try and I never tire of browsing the cheese aisle at Murray's Cheese down in the Village (whenever I rally and get down there from my apartment, otherwise it is Trader Joe's) or thumbing through my monthly Zingerman's catalog. There is an entire UNIVERSE of cheese out there, people. British, Italian, French, Spanish, American...goat, sheep, cow...chesire, blue, gruyére, zamorano, cheddar, stilton...the list goes on! I insisted on trying ever cheese I came across when Vronsky and I were in France, gladly forgoing dessert for the fromage plate. (OK, sometimes I just ordered both...)

People become "cheesemongers" I suppose the same way that people become "wine-o" or oenophiles, if you want to get technical. Cheese, like wine, is alive. And great cheese, like great wine, should be variable. It changes over time. It ages and matures. No wheel should be the same, just as no bottle should be exactly the same. You can get so much from just smelling it and it can evoke anything from freshly mowed grass to nuts and fruit.

In her brilliant and informative The Cheese Chronicles, Liz Thorpe takes the "aliveness" of cheese to an entirely new level. She anthropomorphizes the cheeses that sit in Murrays's case--sitting there like little people--and agonizes that some of the fresh cheese might spoil before someone takes them home. But I can't blame her. She knows who makes these cheeses, from quirky and spunky women in Oregon to accidental goatherds in Vermont, and the intense labor and love that goes into ever wheel.

There are several families of cheese, no matter what kind of milk they are made from (cow, sheep or goat).

Fresh: a high moisture style usually eaten within days of its production. They have a creamy texture, no rind, and a milk, neutral smell.

Bloomy: Classic examples are brie and camembert but include all exterior-mold-ripened cheese. As the cheese is ripening/aging, the spores actually bloom like microscopic dandelions on the outside of the cheese, hence the name "bloomy," although you'd rarely see this by the time the cheese reaches you in the store.

Washed Rind: These are the stinky cheeses. They get their smell from the regular washings in brine (salt water) that can be fortified with booze, yeasts, even butter milk.

Then you have your true rind cheeses: uncooked pressed, cooked pressed, and blue. Uncooked press cheese are aged for two to eight months and are semisoft to firm in texture. Spanish manchego, Italian pecornios and English cheddar are examples of this kind of cheese.

Cooked pressed cheese means that while the curd is being stirred it is cut into tiny pieces and cooked in a vat making it smooth and elastic in texture so that it can age for the long haul. Swiss cheese, gruyére, and Parmigiano-Reggiano are made this way.

Blue cheese is a whole family of cheese, not just the kind that goes on your salad. Like bloomy cheese, the family of cheeses has mold introduced in powder form duringcheesemaking, and it needs oxygen to grow. It is only after the cheese is pierced after it ages that the mold starts to grow and the cheese gets its taste. There are so many "blues" out there outside of mass produced Maytag, so feel free to sniff and experience!

And this is only scratching the surface! I can't even begin to tell you all that I learned reading Liz' book, so go on amazon and get it for yourself! Maybe you'll be inspired and sign up for Zingerman's Cheese of the Month Club. Or buy it for me as a gift....either way, explore cheese that isn't mass produced. We left boxed wine behind in college (at least until New Years, anyway), now it is time to explore the wide, wonderful world of cheese!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Peanut Butter Noodles

I admit, whenever I eat pad Thai, I am really just using the noodles, lime and mungbeans as a vehicle for the peanut sauce. And yet a lot of pad Thai just isn't peanut-y enough to satisfy my craving (and often, it is a very strong, irrational craving) and so finally, my dear friend Kathleen provided me with a delicious recipe for peanut butter noodles that I can easily make in my own kitchen whenever the mood strikes.

Take half of a box of thin noodles and bring to boil/cook in pot as usual.

For the peanut sauce, you'll need:

2 tbs of soy sauce (the real stuff...not that low sodium imitator)

1 tbs rice vinegar

1 heaping table spoon of peanut butter (make it the delicious Cream Nut don't need the extra sugar/preservatives for this)

1 tbl Hoisin sauce (this is pretty standard fare now in most grocery stores, but if not, google the nearest Chinese/Asian supermarket!)

1 tsp sesame oil

a drop of chili oil (a little goes a long way otherwise it will get very hot)

1 garlic clove (minced)

Mix all by hand or in a food processor.

Add on chopped ginger, sesame seeds, and chopped scallion to taste.

Then take the whole sauce mix and add to pasta, which by now should be cooked in your pot. Strain, put back in pot, and add this peanut sauce to the hot pot of pasta. The heat will help it coat the noodles evenly. Yummy and quite nutritious.

Serve with some crisp veggies (snow peas is a good choice with shaved carrots and water chestnut) and enjoy!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pre-Tri meal

Time to carb-load and fuel up for my triathlon tomorrow! And what better way to do it than a trip to Wegmans, which has taken the DC area (or at least my house) by storm. My mom, dad, sister and I came back with freshly made hummus, French-style salami, lo-mein, bourbon chicken, sauteed green beans, fresh broccoli, cherry tomatoes and cauliflower (for dipping in the hummus, duh), beautiful crisp local apples, marcona almonds and so much more to nosh on as I fuel up for tomorrow morning.

Why stuff my face now? Well, I sometimes tend to get this little thing called "G.I. Distress" before/during long runs and lordy forbid I get one during a race, because G.I. Distress is a very sterile term for a very nasty thing. Anyway, having it tomorrow would really put a crimp in my spandex so to speak, and half the fun of triathlons are swimming/biking/running in a all-purpose spandex uni, so I tend to keep it very simple and fairly light the morning of.

That means a piece of whole-wheat toast with a bit of butter, a glass of OJ and a banana when I leave the house and then nothing but my Accelerade (the most effective sports drink powder that doesn't taste like chalk...I like the Lemon Line and drink it all through my training as well as on race day) and those gummy chews "Blocs" that are organic and made with brown rice syrup for a bit of last minute carbohydrates right before. And water. Lots and lots of water. The Accelerade makes it a bit easier to gulp down so much water during transitions without feeling nauseous, and all the electrolytes, etc. it has in it helps too.

But for tonight, we feast! I'm busy eating matzoh bread with the delicious Cream Nut peanut butter I love so much, plus a bit of honey. It's making the pugs crazy but they are getting fat so my mom says they are not allowed to have any more treats....I might let them lick my peanut butter spoon later though when she isn't looking!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Roger Ebert: Courageous Soul with a Rice Cooker

Many of us probably best remember Roger Ebert for his film reviews in the Chicago Sun Times and when he retired, probably never thought anything of him ever again. Well, regardless of what you may have thought of his media personality or his criticism, you cannot help but feel a tremendous amount of respect for his courage and joie de vive in how he has handled his battle with jaw cancer as portrayed in this New York Times article last week.

You see, Ebert had to have his entire lower-jaw removed due to a malignant tumor, and while he is no longer able to speak or eat despite several attempts to rebuild his jaw, he has now turned to food writing and is an avid cook in his Michigan home. "Food for me is in the present tense," while "eating" is in the past. He says he has a "voluptuous food memory" that is growing ever day, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that he can now no longer taste anything. Shortly after he was no longer able to eat for good, he found that his taste memory of certain things were surprisingly strong and peculiar. He had an intense "root beer" period, followed by candy cravings, and every meal he ever at at the "Steak N' Shake" of his childhood.

Ebert did not have the proverbial "last meal," because he didn't know at the time that the doctors would not be able to restore his ability to taste and eat, but for me personally, I don't know how he (or I) could ever choose the "last meal" you could ever taste. And would it really matter? I would probably choose my mom's spaghetti with green peas and fresh watermelon and blueberry pie , all things I have had countless times before and already have extremely vivid memories of, both in terms of taste and broader nostalgia.

And that is what Ebert actually really misses. The wider context of eating. Laughter, jokes, earnest conversation. The camaraderie of eating. Because food as an experience is so much more than taste, it's who you're with, where you are you, perhaps even the peripheral smells. Crisp pink lady apples on an equally crisp fall day? Your memory of that moment will be forever intertwined with that specific autumn smell of burning fires, fallen leaves and whatever else gives that time of year that wonderful aroma. If I could bottle it I would! And of course, perhaps your tromping through the crunchy leaves munching your apple with someone special. Or a furry friend.

Ebert might not be able to enjoy this camaraderie in the traditional sense, but forever undeterred, he's persevered in the most incredibly inspiring way possible. He has written a book (always an A+ move in my mind) about his rice cooker. That's right, people. He has not just written an ode to his write cooker on some blog, he has written an entire book called The Pot and How to Use it: The Mystery and Romance of The Rice Cooker. You see, when Ebert was on the road writing in his early days as a critic and journalist, he got sick of eating crappy room service food and/or the same old diner food every week, so he got creative and started hauling his "pot," or rice cooker, along with him, and learned to cook a myriad of meals in his room while he worked. Plus, it's a hell of a lot healthier, too.

It's a wonderful machine and even I am shocked as to how many different things you can prepare in "the pot." Ebert has a devoted following on Twitter and Facebook and has learned even more recipes from his readers and fans, giving him back a bit of that camaraderie he misses. He still cooks meals for his friends and family in his pot because he's made so many meals in it over the years, he knows the recipes by heart and does not need to depend on tasting and smelling as he goes, something all of us home cooks surely take for granted. He makes everything from sauces to soup, stews and full scale entrees.

At the close of the article, he's preparing some sort of pork dish while his wife, Chaz, a lawyer who also loves to cook, prepares Ebert's Isosource, the nutrient mix that keeps him alive via his feeding tube.

While he’s in the chair "eating," she tends to the pot. After about 15 minutes he walks out and scribbles her a note asking if the pork was cooked properly, followed quickly by an apology.

“I come across as a tyrannical chef because I never speak and am in a hurry because of my shoulder.”

No worries, chef, she says, and lifts the lid from the pot. He pours a little spicy Saigon Sizzle sauce from a bottle and stirs it in. He gives the thumbs up, and it is time to eat.

I could not have said this better myself

I read a wonderful article on Svelt Gourmand this morning that completely echos my own sentiments with regards to sustainable eating/ethical meat/humane/organic/grass-fed...all those terms that are bandied about these days. What exactly does it mean for the rest of us, who enjoy food but are not necessarily made of money and live in an urban environment?

This wonderful post on Svelt sums it up perfectly:

Basically, eat less meat day to day but buy better quality when you do, be it for your own cooking or in a restaurant. It is healthier for you and for the earth and it sure as heck is better for the animal, not to mention the fact that it is tastier too. In essence, take a minute to think before putting those eggs in your shopping cart. Cage free or not? Murry's versus Purdue? Am I short on cash? Maybe just skip buying chicken this week and make something with beans instead. A lot cheaper and a nice batch of refried beans are delicious and gives your body more of what it needs than a piece of factory chicken. Eating meat less frequently is a great way to explore other options, from beans and veggies to fruit and mushrooms, and expand gastronomic horizons.

And we're not all perfect. I will certainly order a sloppy BLT from the deli that is neither organic nor humanely raised at some point in the near future. But it always begins with "a day of small things" and the more I think about where my meat and eggs are coming from, the more likely I am to make different decisions when I sit down to the table or enter the kitchen. Silly pun aside, it really is "food for thought!"

Monday, August 30, 2010

За ваше здоровье!

To your health! That's the classic Russian toast and one I plan to be using frequently now that I have finally gotten off my butt and ventured out to Brighton Beach. While За любовь! (to love!) has a bit of a more poetic ring, "to your health" is the real McCoy and I think my journey out to Brighton did much for my health indeed.

I have always know Brighton Beach was a very Russian neighborhood, and I knew it had a beach to match, but it was just one of those things I had always wanted to do, but never got around to, since moving to the city. This Friday though, Vronsky and I decided to play hooky and hopped on the Q train. The beach is fantastic! I can't believe you can take the subway there, lickity split. Easiest trip to the beach I've ever taken. Yeah, there is a bit of trash and the seagulls are uber aggressive, but the beach is wide, the water calm and there's random guys and one babuska (Russian for grandmother) walking by and selling ice cold beers. The fact that they yelled out "beer!" in both Russian and English just thrilled me even more. It truly is "Little Russia," as our waiter, Sasha, can attest. He said that though he's lived here ten years, but when his friends back home ask him what it is like to live in America, he says "I wouldn't know...I live in Brighton Beach!"

People watching on the boardwalk, or any boardwalk, for that matter, is always a funendeavor, but it is ten times better when you are drinking an ice cold glass of Baltika (sorry, lush that I am, having vodka at high noon too much even for me) and stuffing your face with smoked herring marinated in vinegar and oil with sliced onions on the side, dark bread, and all the pelmeni you can eat (that's dumplings for you non-Russophiles, vareniki if you're eating someplace Ukrainian). Vronsky got the meet pelmeni but I prefer the potato, which is more typical of Ukrainian cooking. It was too hot for any soup, but shchi, cabbage soup is classic, although I don't particularly care for the big dab of smetana (essentially sour cream) that is added in, preferring borscht.

And then there is glorious shashlyk, meat skewers, where the meat is marinated in a combination of spices I have yet to find anyplace else. The combination of the slight heat from the shashlyk and the salty herring just make you want to suck down as many Baltika's as possible in preparation for a quick "sober-up" dip in the water. There were also blinis and pirogis, and an amalgam of side dishes, but by that point Vronsky and I were way to stuffed to eat another bite.

We waddled our way back to the beach and from there on to the subway, thrilled with our new discovery. Until the weather turns, you can find me in my crazy creek out on the sand within a stone's throw of Tatiana's, the Ocean View Cafe, and Primorski's, which is a must-hit on my next trip.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of "traditional" Russian food because to be perfectly frank, there is no such thing! Russia is so huge and filled with so many different cultures, from Siberian to Crimean to the "urbanites" in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Preparation of even the most basic foods like kasha or borscht or blini will vary region by region, and if you'd like some recipes, is a great place to start. Vronsky and I are contemplating going to Russia for our honeymoon, and getting out into the countryside to get a glimpse (and a taste!) of Russia outside the cities is a must. Until then, до свидания!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Lobster and salty sea air

Vronsky and I went to Sag Harbor this weekend for a quick mini break to cure the end-of-summer blues and it was the first time either of us had the pleasure of enjoying that part of Long Island. Vronsky and I usually high-tail it down to Figure Eight Island in North Carolina, where is family has a house, when we are craving sand and surf, and as you already know, I am a devotee of the Great Lakes, but Sag Harbor has its own unique pleasures and is easy to get to from NYC without the chaos and "cheese" factor of the Hamptons.

It has a nautical, austere, rocky-beach kind of beauty, and the air has this wonderful salty smell that only made me crave beer and then more salt, which I tried to cure with some delicious fresh sea food. And this is a different sort of sea smell than what I smelled in say, the Caribbean or when I am down in Palm Beach. It is something I have only experienced along the sea-scape of the northeast, be it Nantucket, Main or, now, Sag Harbor.

It is amazing how connected our sense of smell and taste are. In fact, "retronasal tasting," or tasting with your nose is of utmost importance. If you read Liz Thorpe's (Vice President of the amazing Murray's Cheese) incredibly charming and wildly informative The Cheese Chronicles, she spells out the relationship between taste and smell with particular regard to cheese. When you eat cheese (or any food for that matter), there are very specific phsyical sensations associated with taste: sweet, salty, sour/acidic, bitter...but the mouth is actually quite limited outside of those taste sensations. Most of the romance of food, Thorpe maintains, comes after it's been swallowed. You exhale and the breath rushes up the back of your nasal passages and out your nose, and suddenly there are a million sensory impressions, most of which have to do with smell: grass, hay, stone soil, leather, soap perfume, swimming pool, chalk, pencil eraser, on and on. Smell is so tremendously linked to memory, and it is the smell of the harbor that colored all the meals I ate while I was in Sag. I wanted to taste the sea, but really, I wanted to eat food that capture that some amalgam of feelings that come with smelling the sea.

What food best capture that for me? There was the incredible lobster bisque Vronsky ordered from B. Smith's, but it was my own steamed lobster with corn on the cob and sauteed vegetables that really tasted like sea to me. I am usually not a huge fan of steamed lobster, if only because I am an idiot and can never seem to get it out of the shell without making a huge mess and almost loosing a finger in the process. The same goes with crabs, but at least I can suck off the old bay in the process. However, with Vronsky there to lend a helping hand, I was able to suck out every last bit of succulent meat and enjoy that briney, salty, unique flavor of whole lobster that is impossible to enjoy in any other preparation, be it bisqued, fried, or on a roll (especially on a roll...all you can taste is mayonnaise!). And while I did not learn of any specific dish or culinary tradition that was unique to Sag Harbor, I certainly look forward to coming back to B. Smith's on another weekend hiatus, hungry for another taste of that crisp, salty air.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Consider saffron

One of the neatest "thank you" gifts I have ever received from one of my authors was a tiny jar of greek saffron. I had never used the spice before in my own cooking, and for good reason. It is without question, the world's most expensive spice by weight and it is so rare and precious that it is seriously being touted as an alternative to opium crop in drug cultivating regions, especially Afghanistan.

Actual saffron comes from the thin and delicate red stigmas of the crocus flower, which must be manually extracted. Just a pound of dry saffron requires some 50,000 flowers! That is an entire football field of crocuses. The largest saffron cultivator today is Iran, but it is native to Southeast Asia and was first commercially cultivated by the Greeks. Spain is also a significant cultivator of the spice today, and there is a bit of cultivation in the United States and New Zealand. It has been used as a seasoning, fragrance, fabric dye, even medicine over the centuries, and today (unless you a practitioner of ancient medicine), the best quality saffron is saved for cooking.

Because of its preciousness, I feel that recipes that really immerse the dish in the flavor of this rare spice is the best. No sprinkling on top or using as a garnish in this instance. It has an earthy, slightly sweet, almost grass/hay-like flavor, but in deliciously unexpected way. Perhaps it is because saffron is still a relatively rare treat for my palate, but it truly does taste exotic to me in a way few things do, allowing me to picture myself in some exotic suq or bazaar, or soaking up some sunshine on the Mediterranean.

Since my saffron was specifically Greek saffron, and I have been on a huge Greek kick as of lately (both as a possible honeymoon destination and also because the latest issue of Saveur features Greek cuisine), I specifically sought out Greek recipes that incorporated saffron. The most popular one was for saffron rice, variations of which are also present in southeast Asian, Chinese, Indiana, Iranian and other middle Eastern dishes. This is one of the few times I made rice without my trusty cooker, so truly a momentous event! I was extremely pleased with this dish. It is simple, very easy to make and intensely flavorful. I think next time, I will add even more saffron to really give it color and kick!


About 25 saffron strands
1/2 cup of hot water
2 tbsp of olive oil
1 1/2 cups of basmati rice
2 1/2 cups of water
salt to taste

Soak the saffron in the hot water for 10-15 minutes until completely plump and waterlogged. Rinse (and re-rinse) your rice in a bowl under warm water until it runs clear. Rinse again under a shot of cold water and drain. Heat your olive oil in a saucepan and add the rice. Sautee rice slowly until it becomes translucent. And the remaining 2 1/2 cups of water and salt and bring to a boil and then add in the saffron infusion.

Stir and cover tightly and then leave to simmer on a VERY low heat for about 20 minutes. Too hot and you will burn your rice. After about 20 minutes, craters will form on the surface. Place a piece of cheesecloth or a thin (clean) dishtowel over the top of the pot and then cover again with the pot lid and leave in a corner of the stove to rest for another 10-15 minutes. The cloth will absorb the steam from the rice and allow the grains to separate while also allowing them to absorb every last bit of flavor.

I think next time I might sprinkle some green peas and maybe even some sliced cashews on top...

Sound tasty? Here are two other saffron recipes to try when you get your hands on this incredible spice. Saffron Butternut Squash Soup from scratch and if you are feeling really ambitious, this recipe I saw on Guardian UK, saffron cous-cous, chickpea and lentil salad.

Is this love that I'm feelin'?

Love is a funny thing. It certainly did not take a whole lot of love on my part to follow Vronsky down to Nassau in the Bahamas for a few days while he fed his own insane love of UNC basketball by watching them play two Bahamian teams on a pre-season training trip. I enjoy watching the games with him almost as much as I enjoy watching that vein in his forehead throb with every missed shot or un-called foul, but that is a whole other post for another time.

I have only been to the Caribbean one other time, and that was two years ago when Vronsky and I rented a house in Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands with 3 other couples. I feel that is a bit unusual, given that it is so easy to get down there, it's damn gorgeous, and my mom actually spent her high school years in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Nonetheless, this trip to the Bahamas was only my second time, and unfortunately, it did little to change my admittedly preconceived notions about the region.

While I have no doubt that Nassau is rich in its own unique culture and traditions, I found myself a bit hungry for even a hint of something below the otherwise glossy "resort-town" surface. I am completely aware that us Americans/Europeans have done absolutely nothing to encourage the growth of Caribbean/Bahamian culture over the centuries, and perhaps it was a lingering bit of guilt that made me so cognizant of the fact that the primary industry there is by far and away tourism, that local restaurants make way for McDonalds and Wendy's, and that people rarely leave the mega-resorts that are akin to war compounds--the only time you really ever need to leave is to get to and from the airport, stifling perhaps any urge to seek out something beyond the walls of your respective hotel. And don't even get me started on resort food. It is just plain old depressing from a gastronomical perspective, akin to airport food: limp fries, overdone mass-produced steaks and burgers. In keeping with every bad stereotype of the American tourist, I saw one girl at our hotel order a Domino's pizza delivered to her room. The food at the Angus Beef restaurant in the hotel was apparently too exotic.

Hanging out at the basketball arena with a smattering of obsessed UNC fans and Bahamian basketball fans was one of the highlights of our trip for me, and our short time on the island did not allow for much exploring, especially as the gorgeous beaches were enough to keep me occupied for several hours everyday. But no trip for me is ever complete without at least a valiant effort to find great local cuisine, and there were two places that did not disappoint.

The first one was a little haunt called The Fish Fry that served fresh-caught seafood right on the beach. Fried conch and fried lobster were personal favorites of mine--the lobster is specific to the Bahamas and has a richer, albeit chewier, taste and texture than New England lobsters and is smaller in size. I was already in love with conch from my trip to the Turks and Caicos Island, and was beyond thrilled to enjoy it again.

The other place was the restaurant and the Marley hotel. I know, I know, I just went on a mini-rant about getting away from these resorts, but the Marley doesn't quite fit the mold of an Atlantis or a Sandals.

The Marley is owned and run by the Marley family, of one the great Bob Marley acclaim. I have always loved Marley's music, along with millions of others, and even though I've heard his songs a billion and one times, they never get old and I enjoy them tremendously. Some, of course, find an even deeper spiritual meaning in his music, and one of the managers of Marley's told Vronsky and me a bit about what it really means to be a Rastafarian, and it isn't just about smoking pot and wearing dred-locks, although he himself did both.

Marley's is nestled on a cliff side in Cable Beach, overlooking the water and surrounded by rich tropical foliage. Only 16 rooms are available, giving it a very intimate vibe, and the strong scent of patchouli put me in a groovy mood the minute I set foot on the premises. The menu is small but every dish I ate (and we ate there three days in row) was absolutely incredible.

My personal favorites were the Marley salad, the spicy grilled shrimp, and the "catch of the day," which was red snapper for us. The lobster duo was also spectacular, if pricey. For starters, everything, even the salad, capture what I always imaged to be "island flavor," that indelible mix of fruity yet spicy that is somehow exactly what you are craving on a muggy night. Wash it down with a super-chilled white wine or Kakalik, the Bahamian beer, and I am in sheer heaven!

I usually don't care much for coconut, but when it is toasted and shaved on my salad, it is the perfect touch of sweetness to counteract the ginger in the dressing and tang of the citrus wedges in the salad. The same can go for the sweet corn that came with the chili-glazed shrimp, or the polenta under my snapper (with the most amazing vegetable garnish on the side). It was the first time that I was really aware of the different flavor pairings and profiles and how it all matched together to complement the other elements of the dish: acid, sweetness, texture, heat...all those terms that are bandied about so frequently in "food speak" came through clear as a bell.

I've eaten a lot of great meals and when I cook, I always try and make sure different flavor profiles are represented and what have you, but the chef at Marley's, Mama Lur, and her team, put a tremendous amount of thought into each element of the dish and Vronsky and I were completely blown away. Plus, the relaxed vibe actually lent itself to people actually talking with one another and just "feelin' the vibe." I actually learned a few things about the history of the island and even about Marley's music in the process. I don't know if I will ever be back in Nassau, but if I do, I know where to find an excellent meal and original, exciting, company.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A nice use for those over-ripe bananas

I am one of those weird people that like their bananas super under-ripe. Not completely green, but I definitely like hints of green on the banana and definitely no spots. It is just too sweet for me once the fruit gets to that point, and yet usually the last one or two bananas in the bunch is always past the point that I like to eat it by the time I get to them, especially if it has been warm in my kitchen, which has been everyday this week.

Luckily for me, however, I stumbled across this great and easy recipe for banana bread in Triathlete magazine that specifically asks for overly-ripe bananas, lots and lots of spots a plus, and is incredibly healthy to boot. As I near the date of the triathlon and marathon I have done a pretty scattered job training for, the new few weeks promises to be filled with lots of long runs and bikes to make up for all the mileage I failed to put in earlier this summer.

This recipe is a favorite of Australia pro-triathlete Kate Major:


1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips (I like Trader Joe’s organic, but there's also nothing like classic Nestle!)
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 very ripe bananas
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs

If you'd like, you can always add some walnuts or raisins for additional variety.


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Mix all ingredients together well.

Pour into a greased loaf pan.

Bake for 30 to 45 minutes. Let it cool before serving.

Perfect for breakfast or a pre-workout snack!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

C is for Camp Food

I have just returned from my annual trip to "camp." And yes, I mean that I am an actual grown-up and I still go to summer camp. But this is not just any summer camp. It is this fabulous oasis on the shore of Lake Walloon in northern Michigan that is owned and run by the University of Michigan for alumni and their families. My parents (both Michigan grads) started taking me there when I was six years old, and twenty years later, I still love it. The funny thing is, I am far from the only one. Most people who "camp" there have also been going for 10+ summers, and everyone tries to camp the same "week" so that you can see your friends again year after year. I have become incredibly close with my "camp friends," to the point that one of them is a bridesmaid in my wedding.

Us camp friends think nothing of visiting each other cross country (duh, we're friends from camp is how we explain this to others who look at us like we are insane) and rehashing old memories is half the fun of every reunion (Paul, do you remember that time when I beat you in the "Teen Regatta" when we were 13? Oh yes.) And that's only half the fun. There's windsurfing and sailing and horses. Archery and rock polishing. Booze and campfires. Everything you could expect from a summer camp that caters to people of all ages, and that includes delicious, nostalgia-laden camp food.

What says camp more than s'mores? Whether you are 5 years old, making them for the first time, or trying to impress the boy next to you with your mad s'more making skillz at fourteen, eating the ingredients right out of the bag at 3am while trying not to fall in the fire when you're nineteen, and then back to eating them like a normal human when you're an adult, s'mores are delicious.

There's also crispy bacon and slightly soggy scrambled eggs in the morning. Yeah, they are probably egg beaters, but so what? They are fuel for the big day of activities ahead, and just squirt a little ketchup and sriracha sauce on those bad boys, serve with a side of corn flakes and some spotty banana and you are good to go!

And let's not forget baked beans and corn on the cob and slightly undercooked hotdogs. Nor should we forget burgers that are grilled to hockey pucks alongside veggie burger pucks, for any vegetarians that are missing their daily dose of carcinogens.

There's also the salad bar where the grandmas always take an hour to move through the line, picking out any and all cherry tomatoes, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower florets and lettuce pieces that are not bruised or browned as they go before you have a chance to get any.

And then there is "bug juice!" My dad always told me it was made of bug juices (duh) and for a while I believed him, although what it really means is that those drinks are so sugary that the bugs are drawn to it like a bright red (or yellow or purple) drug.

And of course, there is "Fun Dip" and Pix Stix, Ice Cream Sandwiches and freeze pops of course. Plus those bizarre little ice-cream cups you eat with that wooden stick that is your "spoon." Deserts so blissfully sugary and filled with food coloring, the highlight of the entire experience was not the taste, or even the sugar high, but the fact that it turned your tongue, lips, fingers and teeth a very unnatural color.

It is worth saying that camp food has improved from a gastronomical perspective over the past twenty years. We now have a frozen yogurt machine and taco night, an omelet station and even Mongolian barbecue. And yet I still look forward to "cook out" night, where I don't care if I get baked bean residue on my watermelon, and while I would never eat a burger that was black on the outside, still moo-ing on the inside, ANYWHERE else in the world, when it is on the shores of Lake Walloon, I can simply can't wait to bite in. A glass of over-sugared, sandy lemonade while catching the perfect breeze is just a bonus.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Phab Pho

I have been searching for a good place to eat pho (Vietnamese beef soup) for my entire four years in New York. I am positive that there are authentic, hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese places dotting the city that haven't discovered and quite frankly, don't have the balls to seek out, seeing as I speak zero Vietnamese and authentic in NYC, for almost any "ethnic" cuisine, usually presents some sort of a language barrier. Chinese food is a good example of this. Just go to a non-tourist trap place in Chinatown and you'll see what I mean. Luckily I know the names of all my favorite foods in Chinese, but as far as Vietnamese food goes, all I can articulate is "pho! pho!"

So, that being said, I've tried a few places in search of the perfect pho, but until last night I have been disappointed. In one place, the broth was actually chicken stock (probably right out of a Swanson box), not beef broth. In another place, the beef was over boiled and sinewy, dare I say, old. At yet another place, the noodles were not the delicate, hair-thin kind that slurp down so perfectly. Rather, they were udon noodles. Lovely in Japanese soup, but no for pho.

I grew quite discouraged. My good friend Mike, who is half Vietnamese, half Chinese, has been trying to organize a pho-hunting trip for quite some time, and I am happy to say that I think our search might finally be over.

Vronsky and I went to Nam last night, a chic but not trendy Vietnamese place down in Tribeca that is run by a trio of Vietnamese cooks. There is plenty of other delicious food on the menu, but I only had eyes for pho. It came out of the kitchen, nearly overflowing, hot and delicious, the beef lean and fresh and sliced thin, slightly pink in the middle, which is how pho should be served. You then bury it under your thin rice noodles and allow it to finish cooking, steeping in the broth, which also contains scallions, cilantro, a bit of lime juice, onions and an assortment of herbs and spices. Some people like to put mint leaves in, like my mom. Or dab the beef with a bit of plum sauce (me) or spicy sriracha (Vronsky). Some like to sprinkle it liberally with mung beans (my sister).

In Vietnamese cooking culture, every restaurant/chef/home cook prepares their own pho broth a bit different to have its own "signature" subtle flavors and so the pho I ate at Nam was different from the pho I grew up with at Pho 75, this tiny little place in northern Virginia that is so tiny, all they serve IS pho! You walk in and there are rows and rows of cafeteria-style tables filled with families diving into huge steaming bowls of pho. How my parents discovered it I have no idea, but we've been going there religiously for over ten years, and I am just pleased as punch that I have finally found a pho place of my own here in NYC.

Back when I was growing up, we had pho almost every Sunday night. We would all be too crazed with all the last minute things that pop Sunday night before the school/work week, and there would be nothing like a steaming hot, nourishing bowl of delicious pho to calm us down and give you a great warm and fuzzy food coma to stave off the Sunday night blues, or insomnia if you are me or my father. [It's truly a curse. We would both would go over all the things we had bearing down on us in the week ahead, be it a big deposition for him or, in my case, the inevitable torture of double swim practices on Monday, with the afternoon being "Monday night races," which still makes me cringe (any other Curl Burke-ers out there with me?).] My mom swears it gave her the life-force to deal with a full house of surly teen-agers, and I think it is a great pre-race/pre sporting event food. Protein and carbs galore in the beef and rice noodles. The broth hydrates you and helps settle your stomach. Viola. Pho truly cures all ills and for the blues, insomnia, a sore throat, or even an unusually long hangover, Nam might just be the right place to search for a cure.