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??