Saturday, January 31, 2009

Is It Possible To Make A Healthy Cookie That Doesn't Suck?

You're all probably thinking that my answer is an unequivocal yes here, but the jury's still out. Fool around with whole-wheat flour for a few days and you, too, will learn that there's a trade off for making things brown. Whole-wheat flour is more dense and will turn even the most delicate of cookie recipes into a scone-like consistency. And I don't mean that in a good way.

My first experiment was an adaptation of a vegan recipe. Vegans, however, don't eat chocolate, since it generally has milk in it, so they supplant chocolate chips with carob chips. That's going too far, even for me, so I used the recipe with real chocolate chips. Three cups of whole-wheat flour (this seemed like a lot; I should have known better) goes into a mixing bowl with a teaspoon of baking powder. Wet ingredients, which included unsweetened applesauce (one cup), agave nectar (one cup), and vanilla extract (two teaspoons) were mixed separately and then integrated into the dry. I used my hands to create the dough and used my hands again to incorporate one cup of chocolate chips and one cup of chopped walnuts.

Wheat flour prevents cookies from spreading, so if you don't spread them by hand (and stupidly, I didn't), what you get is a brown exterior and a play-doughy, undercooked interior. I know that this is more the dough, which seemed too chewy even when I dropped it onto the cookie sheet. I threw the whole batch away.

Pluses of this baking disaster? The batter contains no eggs, which means that you can eat it without fear of contracting salmonella. Also, the dearth of creamable wet ingredients makes this a stand mixer-free recipe, so if you have no dishwasher (yours truly), you'll have fewer things to wash.

Minuses: even if you are a dough-eater, like me, you wouldn't want to eat this gummy concoction. And the cookies were inedible. Truly.

Round two. I decided to adapt the recipe on the back of the Toll House package for healthier purposes. Instead of a combination of white and brown sugars, I used dark agave nectar. Agave nectar is roughly twice as sweet as regular sugar. You have to cream the butter together (yes, in a stand mixer) with butter. Recipe calls for two sticks (otherwise known as 16 tablespoons), so I used 16 tablespoons of Smart Balance, a low-cholesterol butter substitute that very much resembles butter. Smart Balance is salted so I skipped the teaspoon of salt with the dry ingredients. I'm not sure whether or not that was wise. I don't think, however, that salt has anything to do with the leavening properties of baking powder.

Because the agave nectar isn't granulated like sugar, the butter and nectar don't cream together quite right. Oh well. I add a teaspoon of vanilla extract and two eggs anyway. To that, I slowly beat in the dry ingredients that I have mixed on the side: a one-to-one ratio of wheat flour to white flour (two and a quarter cups total) and one teaspoon of baking powder. The dough that forms looks and tastes more like a normal cookie dough. I add the chocolate chips (one cup) and walnuts (one cup) by hand.

I notice, after a few minutes in a 375 degree oven that, once again, the cookies aren't spreading. I guess a cup and an eighth of wheat flour goes a long way. I decided to pull the cookies out and flatten them with the back of a spoon. This worked a little better, but the chips on top got all mangled so that, by the end, they looked more like chocolate chunk cookies than the pictures on the front of the Toll House bag.

They are still a bit doughy on the inside but a vast improvement over my previous attempt at veganism. And by my rough calculations, they come to a paltry 120 calories a pop, worth it if they're yummy and completely not worth it if they suck.

I think my conclusion is this: if you're looking to make pastry healthier, don't. Either eat them or don't, both at your own peril. But making bad cookies is way worse than not making cookies at all.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Martha, Martha, Martha

I ripped a recipe out of my mother's Martha Stewart Living over the weekend for experimental purposes.  The recipe was for a chicken, leek, and mushroom casserole, Martha's take on the traditional Campbell's recipe termed loosely as 'chicken with canned cream of mushroom soup.'  Last night, I attempted to modify the recipe to see what would happened.  

Part of my goal in modifying the dish was to make it less unhealthy.  The other part of my goal was to make the dish suitable for one person as opposed to six, which is hard to do with a casserole.  

I did not exactly cut the recipe in half.  The recipe called for a pound and a third of chicken breasts; I had a freezer-burned package of chicken breasts that I'd been avoiding using.  The whole package weighed a pound (two double-paned breasts).  I used one double breast, at about eight ounces, less than the recipe called for.  I seasoned the chicken with salt and pepper and cooked it in a frying pan with a tablespoon of olive oil until it was brown on both sides and cooked through.  I then sliced the chicken and put to the side. 

Next, I sauteed one leek, one rib of celery, and a package of cremini mushrooms (eight ounces, though the recipe called for ten) in olive oil with a little kosher salt.  About ten minutes later, when the mushrooms had released their water and the leek and celery were tooth-tender, I added one and a half tablespoons of flour.  Here's where it gets tricky. 

The recipe, of course, called for all purpose white flour.  I decided, however, to try my luck with a brown flour from the health food store.  I knew that this switch had a high potential for failure.  The purpose of the flour in the recipe is to thicken the mixture.  First you sprinkle the flour over the vegetables, cook it off for a few minutes, and then add the liquid: a few tablespoons of dry sherry, a cup and a quarter of chicken stock, a cup and a quarter of milk (whole substituted with skim).  And a bay leaf.  As with gravy, the mixture should develop a thick, condensed consistency within a few minutes on the heat.  But the brown flour didn't want to thicken the sauce and instead grew grainy.  I had to rely on simple reduction as a thickening aid, but by the time the sauce was of a consistency that pleased me, it had reduced by well over half. 

Next, Martha called for eight pieces of multi-grain bread, crusts removed, as the liner for an oval baking dish.  I actually like the way the crusts cook up, like in bread pudding, so I left them on.  And I used three slices rather than eight, or even four, because over the course of two meals no one really needs to eat that much bread.  I spooned half of the veggies over the bread and topped them with all of the sliced chicken.  I topped this with the rest of the veggies and sauce and sprinkled parmesan cheese and fresh parsley on top.  

The casserole, however, looked dry, so I decided to moisten it with an extra half cup of chicken stock before putting it into a 350 degree oven, where I left it heat for 20 more minutes. 

As far as the final product is concerned, it actually tasted amazing, more like a Thanksgiving stuffing with the chicken folded right in than an adaptation of cream of mushroom soup.  I was right to leave the crusts on the bread; they offered superb texture.  I'm sure the reason the meal was less thick and gooey and more moist and stuffing-like had a lot to do with the flour debacle, but I actually preferred it.  Which isn't to say I'm right, but I wouldn't call the experiment a failure, either.  

The chicken, I will admit, was past its prime, though, like any Jewish woman, I would have felt terribly guilty disposing of a package of chicken regardless of how long it had spent in my freezer.  In the future, maybe I'll make such untasty frozen packages into sausage, where you can't tell how long they've been hanging around unnoticed.  

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Another Lesson In Cooking For One

I went back to the fish markets yesterday, despite the nasty weather.  I did not return to the market that sold me the fishy scallops.  It should be noted that when buying fresh seafood one unsatisfactory product does not necessarily speak poorly of the place (sometimes the fish just isn't good), but Astoria teems with options, so I explored mine.  

Actually, the fish market I went to had fillets of tuna already wrapped in cellophane for easy purchase.  The fillets were large--nine to ten ounces apiece--and they were also exactly what one looks for in a piece of tuna.  They were pinkish red with no discoloration and the sign said they had been caught that day.  

These things are important when it comes to tuna in particular, because most people don't cook tuna all the way through.  If you're going to buy it for your own use, then, you have to make sure the product is really top rate.  

I stopped by my favorite vegetable stand for some scallions and green beans.  Back home, I combined a few tablespoons of sesame oil, soy sauce, wasabi, pickled ginger, ground ginger, sesame seeds, fresh lime juice, some baby bok choy, and one sliced scallion in a tupperware container.  If you're wondering why I keep wasabi and pickled ginger in my house, well, I don't.  I saved the leftover wasabi balls and condiments from the previous night's sushi, figuring I'd use it eventually.  

I cut my tuna steak in half (the recommended portion size for a piece of tuna is four to six ounces) and coated it with the marinade with my hands.  I then put the fish in the tupperware, closed it, and left it in the refrigerator for the rest of the day.  

Which meant that, hours later, when I returned from a rigorous workout at the gym, the fish was ready to go.  I heated a frying pan and wilted the bok choy for a few minutes before getting the fish on the heat.  On a very high flame, I seared both steaks, one minute on each side.  I ate the steak over brown rice with green beans that I had steamed.  For extra flavor, I added tamari to my rice.  

For me, tuna is the perfect substitute for a grilled steak.  It is substantial in a way that some fragile white fish are not and it offers a comparable mouthfeel to meat.  Seared rare, it's almost as good as a rib eye.  Almost.  

The fish was very fresh and the bright, spicy marinade proved the perfect counterpoint for dense the meat.  Perhaps the best part is that last night's leftovers will be today's lunch, not bad for seven bucks at the local fish market. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Something Fishy

It's been a while since I delved into project 'find decent sushi in Astoria,' so I decided to try my hand once more.  I noticed from their online menu that Sakura Sushi on Ditmars had a more substantial selection of sashimi than its Astorian brothers.  Sakura it was. 

1. Sakura was not as inexpensive as Watawa Sushi or Go Wasabi, both of which had supplied average sushi in the past.  One vegetarian roll (in this case, asparagus with brown rice), five sashimi selections, and a clear soup came to $20, and it didn't come to what I would consider an abundance of food.  

2. Sashimi was fresh.  I was happy that they offered a different selection of fishes.  I ordered red snapper, which I rarely see on sushi takeout menus.  I also ordered yellowtail, which was simply average, sea scallops (came with the welcome addition of black caviar), small sweet shrimp, and large sweet shrimp.  The real bonus here was that the large shrimp came with one deep-fried shrimp head, one of my favorite Japanese treats.  

3. Delivery took just over 30 minutes, a totally reasonable wait considering the distance between Ditmars and here.  

4. They sent me a complimentary Diet Coke.  Diet!  My favorite!  

5. I leafed through the rest of the menu and found more variety than I usually find in my standard udon/sushi/tempura Japanese menus.  

All in all, I'd be more likely to order from Sakura again than I would from Go Wasabi, where I'm convinced they keep their "fresh" fish for days at a time.  Not a bad option for a neighborhood afflicted with a serious case of Bad Asian Foodism.  

35-15 Ditmars Boulevard
Astoria, NY 11105

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Apres Ski

Really, the only thing I wanted to eat after yesterday's ski trip to Attitash Mountain was (you guessed it!) pizza. But due to a number of circumstances, including, but not limited to, my best friend's craving for a 'decent' glass of pinot noir, we ended up at the Barking Dog Bar and Grill, a medium-sized pub in downtown Amesbury, Massachusetts.

Places like this are best suited for no-fuss-no-muss classics, like hamburgers and macaroni and cheese and decadently unhealthy sub sandwiches. I wasn't really looking to eat any of those things, so I sifted through the seafood options. Blackened seafood with pasta. Mediterranean seafood with pasta. Seafood Provencal with pasta. Grilled salmon (I hate salmon; I don't care how good it is for you). Blah, blah, blah.

What I did end up ordering was a grilled seafood plate, replete with grilled (and gummy) sea scallops, grilled shrimp, and grilled tuna. The tuna was overcooked at medium and the salad of 'wilted greens,' really no more than mesclun and roasted red peppers, overwhelmed an already overburdened serving. I ate the tuna and the shrimp and left the rest for the garbage-eaters.

My best friend fared better with her appetizer of kielbasa, which arrived atop flatbread triangles with spicy mustard on the side. The plate, however, was too big for one person. Outside of metropolitan New York, American portion sizes seem designed to feed a family of four rather than one normal human being. The kielbasa was juicy and flavorful, as expected. I was glad to snack on her leftovers.

She ordered salmon for her entree, which I wouldn't have eaten on a dare. She seemed pleased enough, though I noted, once more, that the fillet exceeded ten ounces and sat atop a sprawling spread of potatoes and roasted vegetables that could have sated even the hungriest skier.

I guess even in damaged economic times excess is still the American way.


Barking Dog Bar and Grill
21 Friend Street
Amesbury, MA 01913

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Morning After

My new approach to eating, which involves few refined sugars/carbohydrates, lots of lean proteins and vegetables, and a sprinkling of whole grains, was kind of a dicey undertaking in preparing for my first 09 half-marathon. Note to new athletes: it is never a good idea to make drastic changes to one's diet before an important race. But part of this was experimental; I knew, running yesterday's race, that it would be unlikely that I would beat my own half-marathon personal record of 1:57:45 (Brooklyn Half, April 2007, pace/mile 8:59), not because I was incapable of doing so but, rather, because I had run that race after months and months of rigorous training.

But I only returned to running in early December, after a posterior tibial stress fracture had me casted and grounded for two full months. Recovery to superfitness seemed difficult at best.

I did change the way I went about my workouts and I also integrated much more weight training this time around, as a preventative measure against future bone issues. And then I changed my diet.

I can't tell you how many books have been written telling runners to eat white things--bagels, breads, pastas, etc.--before and after a run. I did a little of that, born more of necessity than anything else (sometimes you just have to eat what other people want to eat). Mostly, though, I tried to cut refined sugars from my diet. I got whole-wheat everything and replaced the sugar on my grapefruit with agave nectar. I felt less hungry all the time, a side effect of the 30+ mile a week runner's regimen. I also felt stronger during my workouts, a change noted by my pilates instructor who, after three years, noticed the most dramatic change in my strength in the past month.

Then there was yesterday. My one mistake during yesterday's race was that I waited too long to eat my fuel gel. I didn't feel the wall coming until mile eight, and by then my body was likely already depleted. In future races, I'll eat my gels an hour in, before the fatigue starts to hit. But, after only two months' training (let it be states that I have participated in competetive running events since 2005), I completed the race with a final time of 2:04:05, a pace/mile of 9:28. Of eight half-marathons, this was my third fastest finish. And I stopped to use the restroom at mile six, which cost me two minutes. My pace/mile was probably something closer to 9:20.

In short, it is my athletic opinion that the reduction and/or elimination of refined sugars and carbohydrates from one's diet contributes to overall improvement in athletic ability. My next half-marathon is February 8, at which I do, in fact, hope to break that record of 1:57:45. Time will tell.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Carb Loading, II

I'm old enough to remember when the space on 8th Street and 5th Avenue was a swanky bar called Clementine; they probably served me one of my first underage New York beverages.  I'm also old enough to remember a time before Mario Batali and a time before everyone south of the Hudson and east of Queens knew what Otto was and wanted to eat there on a Saturday night.  

That reality no longer exists, which means if you choose to go out to dinner in the west village on a Saturday night you are, consequently, choosing to dine with the crowd that the industry affectionately terms "bridge and tunnel," the imports from, well, outside of the City.  I'll say no more. 

Last night was certainly an exercise in B and T lovin'.  We waited an hour and fifteen minutes for our table, but at Otto, that's considered a short wait.  In the meantime, I had my one allotted alcoholic beverage (the definite downside to racing on Sunday mornings), a blood orange bellini.  We ordered a cheese plate and a meat plate to munch on while we waited.  Meats included bresaola, proscuitto, sopressata, coppa, and something that resembled headcheese, to which I have an insurmountable aversion.  Cheeses included Coach Farms triple cream goat (Batali keeps it in the family; his wife is the heir to the Coach fortune, known for their bags and domestic goat cheese), a parmesan, a mild ricotta, a gorgonzola dolce, and a fifth cheese that was never identified.  Otto serves their cheese plate with some of my favorite goodies: black truffle honey, brandied cherries, spicy sweet apricots.

When we did sit, food was fast and furious.  Spaghetti carbonara was just as decadent and evil as its meant to be.  A dish of penne, mascarpone, tomatoes, and eggplant was simultaneously delicate and rich.  Rigatoni with ground sausage reminded me of a better-executed rigatoni dish at Batali's Lupa on Thompson, but nevermind.  The penne with butternut squash and... butter made up for it.  

Pizza's are Naples-style, which means small and crispy, just my style.  Margheritas came with patches of fresh mozzarella and wide, healthy basil leaves.  Pepperoni looked better than anything Ray's ever served.  The pieces are so small and light they go down a stitch too easily.  

But wait!  There's more!  By far Otto's greatest contribution to the culinary world is their heavenly olive oil gelato.  This stuff is amazing on its own, but this time I indulged in the olive oil coppetta, gelato topped with a fennel brittle, fresh blood orange, and lime curd.  The gelato is remarkably fruity and one of my favorite things about this vast and crazy island. 

The other desserts were good but a bit too sweet for my personal palate.  Caramel coppetta combined caramel gelato, brownies, whipped cream, and candied pecans.  The black and white offered up a mousse-like chocolate gelato with chocolate chips and whipped cream.  Like all good New York restaurants, Otto changes their desserts with the seasons.  Right now, you can find huckleberry and Meyer lemon gelato a la carte, as well as a brilliantly colored blood orange sorbet.  

I'd forgotten how much I'd missed this place.  I'll be heading back soon, though probably not on a Saturday. 

Otto Enoteca and Pizzeria
1 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Carb Loading, I

Countdown to the first half-marathon of 2009, which forgives the pizza addiction, because all good runners should overdo the carbohydrates before a race.  Tonight will be a carb-loading sesh as well, but I'll get to that tomorrow. 

Yesterday afternoon I headed to Carroll Gardens for a run with a friend and to visit said friend's husband, who recently had ankle surgery and is immobile.  Immobile, drugged up, but still hungry.  Around six, he announced that he wanted pizza.  If I'd brought my car, rather than making the trek via F train, I would have driven to the bridge and picked up a Grimaldi's pie.  Alas, no car.  According to my friends, the pizza in CG is ubiquitously "fine," with the exception of two exceptional places, neither of which deliver.  So we settled for fine.  

"Fine" came in the form of a very large pie from Francesco's on Henry Street.  Here are some details: the slices themselves were, true to form, real NY slices, cut big, pizzeria style; the cheese was ample; the crust and underbelly were not crisp enough for my liking; the peppers and onions (on half) were fresh though I didn't try the spinach/onion half; the sauce was nothing more than decent.  

All in all, the pizza gets a B.  Sometimes I wonder if I'm being hard on delivery.  Most of the time, pizza is crispiest right out of the oven and this baby was probably no exception.  I think the steamy nature of the pizza-warming bag changes the structure of the pizza, so maybe it's hard to get a good sense of how good the pie is from a delivery environment.  

I will tell you this: I am a big fan of the oversized slice and I was happy to see a solid pie arrive with more than the fast food pizza joint's anemic little slices.  So all was not lost. 

531 Henry Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231

Friday, January 23, 2009

Prehistoric Thursday

I weathered a one-and-a-half-hour wait for bar-b-cue last night.  This isn't the longest I've ever waited for food; once, at The Spotted Pig, I stood around for four hours, consuming more than my share of beer by the pint, in an attempt to experience Fergus Henderson's cuisine first-hand.  By the time I sat, I was a little too drunk to appreciate fully the organ meat extravaganza that was Henderson's cooking.  

So maybe the wait wasn't the worst, though it wasn't particularly pleasant.  One redeeming aspect was that Dinosaur Bar-B-Cue, an import from Syracuse that opened in 2004 on 131st Street, serves rich and foamy Sprecher's root beer on tap, perfect for passing the hours. 

When we finally arrived at our table, we shouted orders at our poor waitress in under ten seconds.  Chicken wings were spicy and sweet and undeniably meaty, served with celery sticks and a blue cheese dressing.  While they would never satisfy a Buffalo wing craving, itself its own beast, the wings did chicken justice.  Fried green tomatoes came sheathed in a light breading and served with fresh grated parmesan and a remoulade for dipping.  Peel and eat shrimp were cajun inflected, medium-sized, and cold, avoiding the finger burning too often associated with the dish.  

And then there was the meat.  For my part, I ordered all three house specialties, the trifecta of Texas brisket, pork shoulder (generally referred to as pork butt), and ribs.  Ribs were dry rubbed first and then glazed with sauce and had ample flavor.  Pork butt was fatty and delicious, though it required an additional serving of sauce for flavor.  Brisket, served with pickled jalapenos, was almost burnt on those coveted edges. 

Macaroni and cheese arrived creamy and browned on top, smelling of paprika.  An iceburg wedge salad with blue cheese hit all the familiar steakhouse notes.  Baked BBQ beans were a tad watery for my taste, but still sweet and savory and full of pork.  Fried rice reminded me of Chinese takeout, in a good way.  

Then, of course, came the requisite southern dessert, banana pudding.  Vanilla pudding, fresh bananas, and canned whipped cream sat beneath one large, delicate sugar cookie.  Diets, take leave.  This ain't the place for calorie-counting.  

Dinosaur  Bar-B-Cue
646 W. 131st Street
New York, NY 10027

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Wedding Gift

My cousin, who would never by any stretch of the imagination consider herself a foodie and who does not, for all intents and purposes, enjoy cooking, is getting married.  She's getting married to a man who kinda cooks but neither one of them feels this pull towards the kitchen the way I do.  They don't like getting their hands dirty. 

I decided that part of my wedding gift to my cousin would be cooking lessons.  She could choose the dish and I would teach her easy techniques, how to cook without recipes, and how to work with what you have.  I actually chose the first dish because I knew it would be something she'd like and because I knew we'd need a little advance preparation for lesson one.  

I chose chicken parm.  But part of my goal here is to turn ordinary dishes into really good dishes and, as an extension of that, to make empirically unhealthy dishes very healthy.  So the first thing I made her do was make breadcrumbs.  By hand. 

I wouldn't have made her crush the crumbs by hand if she'd had a food processor, but she didn't.  So, instead, I told her to toast four pieces of whole-wheat bread to deep brown, a firm toast.  She removed them from the oven and broke them into crumbs with her hands.  We mixed that wheat crumb mixture with a quarter cup of fresh grated parmesan cheese, good old Italian seasoning from the bottle, salt, and pepper.  

She said, "We have tons of tomato sauce in the cabinet."  I said, "You're going to learn to make your own."  I showed her how to chop a shallot and how to bruise garlic with the back of a knife.  I added a tablespoon of olive oil to the bottom of a saucepan and sweated the two down.  "This is what they are supposed to look like," I told her.  

"Clear?" she asked. 


Next up, two large cans of peeled Italian tomatoes, salt, pepper, wine (I brought a Chianti), a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, a tiny bit of sugar (I would have used agave nectar, had I thought better of it), fresh basil, and fresh oregano.  They had no bay leaves so I skipped the step.  I left the pot uncovered.  She asked if the sauce was supposed to be shrinking.  I said that was exactly what I wanted it to do. 

We bought a head of broccoli.  She had never cooked fresh broccoli before.  "Break off the florets," I told her.  "Put them on a baking dish."  Her engagement gift spice rack of filled spices gave us chili powder, coriander seeds, and cumin.  She covered the broccoli with, admittedly, a little too much olive oil.  I sprinkled the spices on top.  

I told her to separate three eggs.  She knew how to do this.  We seasoned the egg whites and dipped the chicken breasts in them.  The breasts went from egg to breadcrumbs to baking pan and into a 350 degree oven along with the broccoli. 

"You're going to make your own salad dressing," I told her.  She scooped a teaspoon of dijon mustard into a bowl and added a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.  

"Give me the whisk," I said.  

"I don't have one," she told me.  

"I'm looking at one," I said.  

"Oh.  I didn't know we had that."  

I taught her to emulsify.  "Pour while I whisk," I said.  "The mustard helps bind the oil to the vinegar to the oil, since vinegar and oil constantly want to separate."  I added salt and pepper and put the dressing to the side. 

Next up, garlic toasts.  I minced four cloves of garlic and heated them in a saucepan with a few turns of olive oil and three tablespoons of a low-cholesterol butter spread the had in the house (good for consistency and only 50 calories per tablespoon).  I added a chiffonade of basil and oregano.  When the mixture was just short of a simmer, I took it off the heat and spooned it over three split whole-wheat English muffins,  and put the muffins inside the toaster.  

Thirty minutes into cooking time on the chicken, I removed the trays, topped the breast with thinly sliced fresh mozzarella, basil leaves, oregano leaves, and an ample helping of the tomato sauce.  I returned the chicken to the oven to melt and continue cooking.  

We served the chicken parm, which, by the way, tasted unhealthy enough, with whole-wheat pasta, our garlic toasts, a simple salad, and the roasted broccoli.  Both my cousin and her fiance seemed amazed that we had conquered it all on our own without screwing up.  My cousin was particularly impressed with my refusal to go by any book or recipe.  I told her that all you need is a general understanding of how things work and you can succeed in the kitchen.  

But the real problem was that she viewed the product of cooking--the actual meal--as the point, and I don't abide by that philosophy.  For me, the trip to the market, the creative process, the time getting my hands dirty, these are all therapeutic elements in and of themselves.  I enjoy the whole process of cooking, from start to finish.  I like knowing that I can be inspired by produce at a grocery store and that cooking doesn't always mean being armed with an ingredient list or a list of instructions.  

I was hoping that bringing her in touch with her food would inspire in her a new desire to want to cook, to want to create things that she could be proud of.  And she did take pride in the accomplishment of the completed meal.  I'm still hoping that the result of this ongoing project will be an increased drive to get her hands dirty, to love food a little more than she currently does.  On that point, the jury is still out.  Stay tuned.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I'm No Harold McGee

But man, do I work hard with what I have.  

On Monday, I walked down to one of the fish markets on 30th Avenue, looking for bay scallops.  The first market I happened upon was selling the baby scallops, for a paltry $5.99/lb.  Yes, you read that right.  I paid a scant $3.00 for my half pound of bays.  

Next door, I hit up the vegetable market, allowing myself to succumb to whatever looked fresh.  That afternoon, it was baby bok choy, tiny yukon gold potatoes, green beans, fresh shitake mushrooms, and one hearty leek.  

At home, I made foil packets and chopped the veggies (minus the green beans, which I steamed separately, and the potatoes, which I boiled until fork-tender) and tossed them with toasted sesame oil, salt, pepper, ground ginger, tamari, olive oil, and rice wine vinegar.  I sliced the cooked potatoes and added them to the mix.  Finally, I seasoned the scallops, divided them between two packets, and added them to the veggies with a healthy pour of sake.  I sealed the pouches and put them in a 400 degree oven for just under 30 minutes.  

Here's the thing: the veggies steamed perfectly and the scallops were cooked through and just short of turning rubbery.  And the veggies tasted good, though I should have added more salt at the start.  But the scallops?  They were terrible.  Inedible.  So fishy that I couldn't understand why I hadn't noticed it before I'd cooked them.  

Bay scallops are generally sweeter than divers, but these reeked of bad and still salt water.  I had to throw the half pound away to salvage the vegetables, which, now lacking protein, didn't provide as satisfying a meal as I'd originally hoped.  

Well.  You can't win them all.  Last night, I opted for foods that were already in my refrigerator.  I mixed ground chicken (leftover from last week's stuffed peppers) with worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, minced onion, and minced garlic and formed them into two patties.  I cut two russet potatoes, skin-on, into thick fries and tossed them with olive oil, kosher salt, and fresh-ground pepper.  I put the patties and the fries on a baking sheet and in a 400 degree oven and left them for 15 minutes.  In the meantime, I sauteed wide rings of Spanish onion in a little olive oil, allowing them to char on the bottom.  Then, I added ketchup, Frank's hot sauce, and molasses.  Cooks beware: tomato products burn on high heat, but this was what I was looking for, a variation on a barbecue sauce replete with the burnt taste of actual barbecue.  

I flipped the chicken burgers and fries and kept them in another 10 minutes or so, long enough for the juice to run clear from the burgers' center (you can't cook ground chicken to medium-rare; it has to be cooked through).  I ate the burger atop a whole-wheat English muffin with those ketchupy onions and a half-sour pickle. 

I'm not blaming myself for the fiasco that was scallops-gone-bad.  I honestly believe it was quality of product that marked this dish's failure.  Next time, I'll hit up a different fish market.  As for the chicken burgers, I'll keep that fly-by-night recipe for later low-fat use.  

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yes, We Can

Yes, this is supposed to be a food blog, but today I'll use my pulpit to discuss the incredible historical event that will take place a few hours from now in Washington, D.C.

When I was twelve years old, I went to school on another January 20th. It was 1993, and William Jefferson Clinton had just been elected president. I had been alive through two other presidents, old white men who grew grizzled in office. The first of those two men was inaugurated on a winter day seven months before my first birthday, and then again, seven months before my fifth. The second of those men stood to take his presidential vows during the winter that I was seven. If I watched any of those three inaugurations, I don't remember doing so. Either I was young or my parents imparted on me the great sadness inherent in allowing the country to tack right after so many years of progress.

But in 1993, I was in my social studies class when my teacher wheeled in a television. We had spent the fall conducting a mock election and learning about our candidates. Actually, we hadn't been allowed to vote; we'd be assigned candidates for research and my candidate had been Ross Perot. In my case, there wasn't much to look up.

I remember a few things about that day. I remember that Chelsea Clinton was just about my age standing up there in the cold with her father. I remember learning who Maya Angelou was for the first time as she stood to recite presidential poetry. Mostly, I remember feeling that this president was different from the presidents I'd lived through before. He was white and Christian, yes, but he was also young and dynamic and possessed of a certain rare enthusiasm I had never before seen in politics. It was a very American moment for a little girl who really knew nothing of the world and who felt, suddenly, proud of her country and of her country's moment of change.

One thing that did not cross my mind during that morning in 1993? I never once believed that it could be me up there, taking the oath for my country. Because despite the optimism I had for my America, I had also been imbued with reality. Women didn't become president. Jews didn't become president. Some of my classmates would never become president, either, because blacks didn't become president, not in the United States. There was a limitation on my optimism, even then, because despite how far my country had come there were barriers that remained unbreakable.

From apex to nadir, I watched President Clinton rise and fall and I watched another man, slimy, dishonest, lazy, inexperienced, and disinterested, take his place. I voted in my first presidential election in 2000, the same year that my Supreme Court took democracy out of the hands of the public and handed the presidency to George W. Bush. It was a sad day followed by more sad days, by the expanding knowledge that what was going on in the White House was far from diplomatic policy-making. The more time passed the more we learned that we were torturing prisoners in our country and abroad; we learned that the war we had been coerced into waging was nothing more than American muscle-flexing gone bad; we learned that constant and unrelenting deregulation would lead to a terrible market crash; we learned that the respect once given to us by foreign nations had been revoked due to our unethical and selfish behavior.

Those are mistakes for which we Americans are still--and will always be--accountable. It seemed unlikely, after so many years of so much ugliness, that this nation could ever come together to produce something worthwhile. But, as it turns out, we may have reversed our fortunes. Because the biggest blunders in American history--the acquisition of slaves, the decision to turn people into property, the consistent and unapologetic degradation of blacks starting at this country's inception--may be mitigated by one phrase: Yes We Can.

Electing Barack Obama does not excuse the American past, but it does prove that we are a country of progress and we are a country who continues to want greatness. I believed, when the President-Elect accepted the nomination for the democratic party in summer, that that dream remained an impossibility. I believed that the small-minded would prevail because eight years under President Bush has taught me that small-mindedness wields much power in a good world.

I did not trust that my fellow Americans would look past the color of Barack Obama's skin and see potential for a better future. And I was wrong. I was wrong about that and I was wrong to think that this moment, the product of so much work by so many other black people who came before, would go unnoticed. I was wrong to think that the emotional impact was solitary, or even that it would be nationwide. The election of this president touched everyone, in far-flung countries and far-flung states. The emotion of election day proved the perfect and long-awaited antithesis to the emotion of September 11, 2001; at last, we had something to laugh about.

Then again, America has always been full of surprises. As our 44th President once said in a speech, "In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." And I guess that residual hope that we all felt after eight years of exhaustion finally made an impact. We hoped, we worked, we prevailed. Today begins a new chapter of our history, a chapter where anything is possible, a chapter where any child can wake up and go to school and watch this inauguration and think: That could be me one day. Because this time it's true.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Snow Angels

Another snowy weekend.  Sigh.  Snowy weekends means no car rides to extreme outer borough destination hot spots.  Snowy weekends means sweatpants and--dare I say it?--Uggs.  Snowy weekends means making the best of your own neighborhood. 

For us, that meant a short walk to Ovelia, a shiny and sleek Greek-ish restaurant that opened in Astoria two years ago.  Pros: huge menu with tons of tasty things that definitely aren't on the 1,700-calorie-per-day diet by which I'm hoping to adhere.  Cons: terrible European techno soundtrack that would be much more appropriate if it were night, if it were Saturday, if this were a dance club, and if I were on drugs.  

We sat at the bar.  My girls, to my left and my right, drank red wine while I enjoyed Ovelia's version of the bellini, lychee puree and sparkling wine.  We ordered kobe beef sliders, three to an order (how perfect!), White Castle-sized sandwiches that came adorned with haloumi cheese, lettuce, onion and tomato.  The burgers also came with a side of herbed mayonnaise and thick, fresh potato chips.  

The so-called apple, bacon, and cream cheese toast was actually more like a panini, two thin pressed pieces of toast holding together a sandwich that included all the above elements as well as apple marmalade.  The sandwich's only real imperfection was that sweet overwhelmed salty; more cheese (or a saltier variety) would have offered a more staggering contrast.  But the bacon was fresh and chewy, the marmalade the consistency of quince paste.  The dish arrived with a heaping Greek salad, full of oversized squares of fresh feta, green and red peppers, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and kalmata olives.  The salad satisfied my daily need for ruffage.  

At the request of my chocolate-fiend companion, we ordered the menu's least heart-healthy finale, a deep fried Snicker's bar, something I have only ever seen before at state fairs.  Not that I was ever allowed to order desserts like this growing up, but at least I'd seen them.  With this, the advertising didn't lie.  Two medium-sized candy bars had literally been battered and deep fried.  They melted when cut, although the caramel seemed to rebel against the hot oil and became tougher than normal.  It was gooey, salty, sweet, and the kind of dastardly dessert that I'd prefer not to know the nutritional information on.  

Well, that's okay.  As Jennifer Aniston once said, all dieters need a seventh day.  My seventh day is Sunday.  

3401 Astoria Avenue
Astoria, NY 11103

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Thai Man's Land

I was really planning to cook dinner.  Really.  But when I got back from my run in the afternoon I dawdled and then, suddenly, it was nearly dark and the idea of walking ten blocks in the cold to the fish market, the vegetable stands, etc., was really unappealing. 

I haven't ordered take-out at all this week.  Not that I should get a medal for that or anything, but I've been on as much of a health kick as people like me can ever possibly be on without losing our minds.  Bye bye take-out, hello cookbooks.  

Anyway, last night I went to one of my old standbys: Astoria Thai food.  From Red Basil, I ordered a spicy grilled chicken salad, festooned with julienned carrots and red onions, thick chunks of red pepper, and Thai chili.  The chicken was still warm when it arrived.  I ordered a cucumber salad, slices of cucumber, red pepper, carrot, red onion, and hot pepper in a salty-sweet fish sauce.  Also very spicy.   And I ordered grilled eggplant, which had been basted with--you guessed it--something spicy.  

For dessert, they sent a giant orange, one of the few fruits that doesn't threaten to send me into anaphylactic shock when I eat it raw.  Looks like leftovers for lunch. 

Red Basil
3247 Steinway Street
Astoria, NY 11102

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Flexing My Mussels

On the train to meet my friend for Friday Night Lights, or whatever you want to call it, I flipped to the 'Tables for Two' section in my most recent (ahem, unread) New Yorker.  The week's review was, somewhat surprisingly, for the very restaurant I was meeting my friend to explore, a newly opened seafood joint on the upper east side by the name of Flex Mussels. 

The name sucks, it really does.  It may be one of the worst names and best concepts currently operational in the City.  Flex is actually a Canadian import, eh.  The original Flex Mussels calls Prince Edward Island, the source of the restaurant's ample mussel selection, home.  

If you are truly a mussel lover--the kind that even eats the half-opened ones, the kind who drinks the broth with the mussel's shell, the kind that's in it for the seafood and not the butter--you will like (nay, love) Flex Mussels.  The conceit is successful because it is focused and because it does not veer off into the territory of other bivalves.  Flex offers six oysters on the half-shell, hailing from both the east and west coasts.  They offer a crab cake, a "fish of the day," a steak, and a few nondescript appetizers.  They offer one very good plate of smoked salmon that comes with dressed arugula, chivey sour cream, and a caper tapenade.  

And then there's the mussels. 

I lost count of how many mussels Flex actually offers, but they come in three or four separately priced categories, from about $16 to $20 per pound of mussels.  They range from simple to sublime (the most elaborate and opulent dish we sampled was the Champagne and black truffle variety), but the offerings never trick you into believing that the dish is about anything more than the mussels.  

My friend preferred the obvious luxury of shaved black truffles in our pricier mussel dish, while I gravitated to the rich southern-style suckers, which swam in a broth of ham, grilled corn, butter, and cream.  The night's special was a miso-based broth with sliced duck and ginger, a tempting alternative to my pork-based option, but my friend felt uninspired by the Asian influence, so we stayed more local with our choices.  

Of course, the best part of mussel-eating is the leftover broth and Flex does justice to this byproduct by providing perfect bread with charred edges and a chewy interior, great for absorbing all that butter and wine and who-knows-what-else at the bottom of the pan.  

Desserts were classic, indulgent, and tasty.  I could easily have eschewed restraint and ordered all four, the blueberry-stuffed doughnuts, the red velvet cake stuffed with cream cheese frosting, the caramel apple brioche, and the chocolate float with salty caramel.  But that would have been kind of gross.  So we settled on doughnuts and red velvet cake.  The doughnuts were soft like beignets, piped full of warm blueberry jam, and floating in a pool of vanilla cream.  Red velvet cake arrived looking more like a jelly roll.  The ice cream at its side, butter-and-sugar flavored and topped with salty-sweet pecans, couldn't have been more perfect for my particular palate. 

The restaurant's greatest failure was its wine by the glass program.  Sure, they ordered Muscadet by the glass; not to would have been a criminal offense.  But where were the off-dry rieslings, the chenin blancs?  By the glass, they were nowhere to be found, leaving me and my bivalves to slurp through adequate domestic pinot gris.  

But judging by the line and bar-crowd that had accumulated during the course of a meal, such menial quibbles do not make or break a restaurant.  

Flex Mussels
174 E. 82nd Street
New York, NY 10028

Friday, January 16, 2009

Burger And Beer Nite

When my personal trainer learned of my plans to participate in Burger and Beer Night on the upper west side, the first things she said to me was, "don't eat the French fries."  As if holding back on the fries would in any way mitigate the fat and calories consumed by the burger and beer.  Anyway, she would be proud.  By the time my burger arrived at Community Food and Juice, the hand-cut, skin-on fries were of little concern.  

Even though Community Food and Juice lies smack in Columbia University territory, and even though school is out of session until Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and even though last night marked one of the coldest of the year, Community was packed.  Like many other restaurants aiming to beat the recession, Community has recently added a burger promotion to their menu: on Thursday nights, from 6-7 pm, you can get a farm-raised burger, fries, and a beer for a paltry $15.  We missed the bargain, which made it easier to consider the rest of the menu.  Comfort foods, from macaroni and cheese to panko-breaded chicken abound.  For the health-conscious, Community offers a selection of rice bowls and veggies.  

But we came for burgers, so burgers it was.  To start, we ordered a flatbread pizza topped with two cheeses and fat slices of duck bacon.  And then... the burgers.  Community serves their patties on glossy, buttered, brioche-like rolls.  Accoutrements include house-made sweet pickles, caramelized onions, white cheddar (which I skipped) and watercress.  I could have used a tomato, but 'tis not the season.  Anyway, the patty is full-flavored enough to enjoy in a minimalist manner.  

In lieu of beer, I enjoyed a bourbon apple cobbler, basically a strong marriage of bourbon and fresh cider, garnished with a slice of green apple.  Community places an emphasis of locally sourced and fresh foods, evidenced by their clever drink list.  Even the cranberry margarita comes with real cranberry juice, a departure from the burgundy stuff to which we've grown accustomed.  

For dessert, we sampled both the chocolate and butterscotch puddings, as well as the warm cookie plate.  Butterscotch pudding was tasty but watery and unset.  The dish's best feature was its accompanying toffee chips.  Chocolate pudding, on the other hand, was firm, rich, dark, and garnished with chocolate whipped cream and shaved chocolate.  We made a parfait from the remains.  Chocolate chip cookies were better than Toll House, served three to a plate, still warm. My trainer would be proud to hear that I was too full to do much damage; I didn't even finish dessert.

Community Food and Juice
2893 Broadway
New York, NY 10025

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Black Plague

Yesterday morning, right around get-up-and-get-your-coffee time, announced what most of us in the industry regarded as very big news.  Fiamma, the twice-incarnated B R Guest Italian Mecca in SoHo would be closing.  For good.  

Fiamma (originally known as Fiamma Osteria) was first reviewed in 2002 by William Grimes, the infamous New York Times restaurant critic who would eventually groom his protege, Frank Bruni, to take over the post.  Grimes awarded Fiamma and its chef, Michael White, three glistening stars o' Italian bliss.  

Bruni went back to Fiamma in the fall of 2007, once Michael White, setting sail for Scott Conant's L'Impero an Alto, was replaced by Washington D.C. import Fabio Trabocchi.  Bruni's review revealed a dazzling culinary performance by Trabocchi, plenty of organ meat and unexpected menu twists, an allegiance to Italy without a reliance upon traditional dishes that so often become public pleasers.  The little red monster, the Michelin Guide, also awarded Fiamma a coveted--and rare--single star during that same season.  

But in March of last year, Bruni followed up on his glowing three star review, offering pointed criticism to Fiamma, who had raised their prices in the wake of good press.  Once marketers of the $75 prix fixe meal, Fiamma boosted the dollar signs to a prohibitive $92 prix fixe meal, roughly the same price charged for a five course tasting menu at four star Jean Georges.  

They eventually dropped their prices again, and this fall Fiamma introduced a different kind of option, less expensive and more traditional "comfort" foods for American diners suffering from market collapse syndrome.  The bargain basement idea did not work and yesterday Steve Hanson, the restauranteur responsible for such monstrosities as Blue Water Grill and Ruby Foo's (the uptown branch of which was also a casualty in yesterday's Black Wednesday budget cuts) announced his plan to close what had always been regarded as B R Guest's star player. 

I've heard through the grapevine that the closings has some people down, most notably the company's wine director, Laura Maniec, who spent a great deal of time emphasizing quality Italian wine matched by superior wine service at Fiamma.  Certainly none of the group's other large/loud/lacquered restaurants live up to the sheer quality of Fiamma.  And in time, it's possible to expect more of those shiny hot spots to close as well. 

The board posited that what Fiamma's closing indicated was a possible sea of trouble for the City's three star restaurants, of which there are now about 40.  My prediction is probable closings for the following members of the triple S club: WD-50, Dovetail, Adour Alain Ducasse, Corton, Picholine, Town, and Perry St.  

Why the pessimism, you ask?  For one, the three star, as I've written before, belies a special experience, and one that is reserved for more economically fortunate times.  People save up to eat at three stars.  They make reservations for anniversaries and birthdays, but they don't dine in these tableclothed havens on the regular.  The three stars most likely to succeed are the New York institutions that do have followings from the locals.  Gramercy Tavern ain't going anywhere, and Momofuku Ssam Bar isn't, either.  Gotham Bar and Grill, Eleven Madison Park, and Union Square Cafe may cost a pretty penny, but don't expect them to fold anytime soon. 

The newer and more experimental restaurants face the most trouble.  Restaurants who once eschewed food cost so that they could "bring exciting food to the public" may eventually change their tune.  Think Momofuku Ko makes a killing with their $100 tasting menu?  With high end items like uni, caviar, and truffles on the menu, you can think again.  Expect either a reining in of unusual and special foodstuffs or an inevitable menu price hike, which is exactly what people don't need right now. 

All around the city prices are dropping.  For a foodie, it's wonderful news.  In order to survive, expensive spots will have to concede to the demand generated by rising unemployment rates.  That is to say, they're going to have to offer the dreaded "deal."  

This might be good news, it really might.  All of the Frank Brunis out there, who desired a level playing field, may get their final death rattle of a wish.  I won't be holding my breath for Per Se or Masa to drop the prices on their tastings (respectively $200 and $300 per person, before alcohol), but there may be other silver linings to look forward to in lean times.  We'll just have to wait and see.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cooking 101 For One

I like to go to the grocery store and feel inspired. Feeling inspired, however, at the junky Key Foods near my apartment remains difficult. It isn't like being in the Union Square greenmarket, where everything feels vibrant and fresh. I'm never blown away by the array of colors, the unbruised produce, the diversity of food. I take what I can get.

The one thing about my neighborhood, though, is that it's ethnically diverse. This means that the local grocery stores house products--both grown and packaged--that would probably never appear in the bright and antisepctic aisles of the suburban American supermarket. Key Foods may not be known for their produce, but they sell Queso Fresco, a Mexican cheese. They sell fresh Greek yogurt and all kinds of pickled and preserved fruits that I've never seen before and strange gelatin packets in flavors like chocolate and coconut. They sell the European-style nectars in tall glass bottles in flavors like Italian prune, apricot, and pear. They sell packaged chicken feet, which I would buy if I knew what to do with them.

They also sell tomatillos and slices of cactus and many, many different kinds of peppers. Habaneros, jalapenos, red and green bells, orange Dutch peppers--Key Foods has them all. Therein lay the moment of my inspiration when I found myself in the grocery store yesterday afternoon. I had been craving vegetables as it was and was trying to think of a way to make a dinner for myself that contained a fair amount of protein and very little starch. Right there in the vegetable aisle I decided to make stuffed peppers.

Back home, I gutted three peppers, one yellow, one orange, and one red. At the store, I had purchased two tomatillos, one fresh jalapeno, and one package of ground chicken meat. I browned the chicken, adding salt, pepper, cayenne, cumin, chili powder, and dried cilantro. The meat was very lean and started to stick to the pan after a few minutes, at which point I added a teaspoon or so of olive oil.

I put the browned chicken to the side. Using the same frying pan, I sauteed the chopped tops of the three gutted peppers (stems removed, of course), the jalapeno, one half of a Spanish onion, three cloves of garlic, the tomatillos, and half a cup of thawed frozen corn. I added to this mixture the same blend of spices that had seasoned the chicken along with a healthy dose of Frank's Red Hot, some worcestershire sauce, and a few tablespoons of ketchup. I sweated this mixture down until the peppers were soft (but not mushy). Then I added the chicken back in.

I stuffed my three peppers with the meat/veggie mixture and placed them in a Pyrex casserole dish. Over the top, I drizzled some olive oil to help expedite the cooking process. Into a 350 degree oven the peppers went for about 30 minutes (I checked on them in between). They were ready when the peppers felt pliable when stabbed with a knife.

On the side, I steamed a head of broccoli with red pepper flakes, salt, and course pepper. Unfortunately, I was out of chicken stock, or I would have steamed the veggies in stock. Stockless, I went with water instead.

Now, I am not a calorie counter, but it should be noted that this entire meal--I ended up eating half of the broccoli and two peppers--hovered around 400 calories. The chicken I bought came to 180 calories for a quarter pound; I ate about a third of a pound, or roughly 240 calories. I used about two tablespoons of olive oil in the entire meal and ate about 150 calories' worth of that oil last night. Veggies are virtually calorie-free, but are rich in fiber. It turned out to be the perfect meal.

I do wish I could do things like this more often, living off of vegetables and small amounts of lean protein rather than relying on starch or fatty meats to sustain my diet. The American belief that meat and potatoes provides the requisite heartiness for a healthy diet is an invention; humans can survive just fine without a daily intake of red meat or starch. All we need is the inspiration to change what we eat.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lunch Of Champions

The perfect lunch is one shared with friends. 

Correction: the perfect lunch is one shared with friends who happen to be French and spend their free time buying goodies at the Brooklyn Fairway.  

I visited my friend in Williamsburg yesterday, where she put out the spread of the nascent year.  Two types of triple cream cheese, a toasted baguette, leftover French-cut and pan-seared chicken breast with white beans from Gemma, salami, and burrata with cherry tomatoes.

I do not know how French and Italian people eat these types of lunches without getting fat.  Maybe it's the cigarette smoking, or the non-American portion sizes.  Or maybe drinking a lot of wine with one's meals curbs the appetite.  

Regardless, I was able to convince myself that my cheese-and-animal fat lunch left me skinny as a black-beret-ed French model.  If possession is 9/10 of the law, I believe self-delusion is 9/10 of reality.  

Viva the health food of France! 

Monday, January 12, 2009

They're Not Going To Go All The Way

The Giants, that is. Is it criminal to expect a repeat performance in the game defined by the adage "Any Given Sunday"? Would it have been so completely bonkers to watch Eli Manning manning it up (pun intended) against the Eagles to finish what has certainly been an impressive season?

While the Giants were busy making their mistakes yesterday afternoon (stop passing up the middle already!), I was busy making some mistakes of my own. It might actually be impossible to watch American football in the company of food that is not fried, beige, and generally unhealthy. And any teetotaler will tell you that football season is the one exception to the "don't drink on Sundays" rule.

I ended up at a sports bar in Astoria. I had one criteria when choosing this particular bar: Buffalo wings. My friend, more moved by the game than by the game food, figured that Broadway Station, a pub located at the Broadway stop on the N train, would be big enough to guarantee a seat during a high-octane hometown game.

We did get a seat and we did get wings. They were small (strike one), breaded (strike two), and not nearly spicy enough (yerrrrrrrr out). Baby back ribs met with more success, fatty beef ribs falling off the bone and lacquered with sticky sweet BBQ sauce. The ribs came with vinegary cole slaw festooned with mustard seeds.

To continue my artery-clogging afternoon, I supplemented our meaty snacks with a plate of onion rings (bread battered, not the beer battered variety) and a Caesar salad. The lettuce itself was pretty unremarkable grocery store greenage, but the dressing was thick, tangy, and surely made with plenty of mayonnaise.

I washed this down with a Magic Hat No. 9--apricot-flavored hippie beer from Vermont--a Diet Coke, and a glass of water, because variety is the spice of life.

And by the way, the Giant's loss did not provoke better eating habits in the evening; for dinner, we watched 24 and ate Toll House cookies (from the tube) and a very mediocre Domino's pizza. This is why I love my country: none of the foods we invented will ever help perpetuate a long or healthy existence.

Broadway Station
3009 Broadway
Astoria, NY 11106

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tune In, Tune Out

I was supposed to go out last night and I probably would have, but the snow made it difficult to conceptualize a trip downtown in the cold.  There's the ten block trek to the train station, the open-and-breezy elevated train, the pink tape I'm so accustomed to encountering when planning weekend travel.  And so I did what I have been doing since I was a very little girl, a latchkey kid left to her own devices on snow days: I made boxed pasta and ate it with cold, canned tomato sauce.  

I suppose that, when you're talking about comfort food, it could get a lot worse than whole wheat pasta (it was all I had) and almost-fat-free tomato sauce.  Not that I'm trying to pass this off as health food, but still.  I wasn't sitting around wondering how I had conceivably eaten an entire pizza instead of leaving my apartment.  That would be cause for alarm.  

Even the most high-minded foodies have their vices.  Mine tend to be junky and prepared.  I love candy with high fructose corn syrup.  I love diet soda.  I love the artificial cheese on certain kinds of chips (you know which ones I'm talking about).  I love the canned soups that are loaded with MSG and I love canned tomato sauce.  I love it in an entirely separate and different way than I love real, homemade tomato sauce.  To me, they aren't even remotely related.  Yes, they both come from tomatoes, and yes, they both go over pasta.  But one has preservatives, salt, sugar, and those little mushrooms that taste like they come from a can.  And the other tastes like someone actually spent time giving credit to the almighty tomato. 

Foods trigger memory, perhaps more than any one thing.  I remember that when I was a teenager someone told me that the sense of smell was the sense most commonly associated with memory.  Maybe that's true.  Maybe that's why I'm reminded of childhood Saturday afternoons when I walk into a McDonald's.  Maybe that's why cherry Blistex reminds me of my first kiss.   I think maybe taste is just as relevant a trigger.

Like how half-decent pizza reminds me of the drives home I used to make on alternate Sunday evenings with my stepfather, who could be easily convinced to stop at Papa Gino's and who probably wouldn't tell my food-restricting mother about it.  Or how Campbell's vegetable soup--even the low-sodium variety--reminds me of the other part of that journey, Friday evenings in my father's kitchen with the New Yorker, where I'd sit at the table after a flight from Boston reading cartoons that I didn't really understand.  Or maybe I did and my parents missed a good opportunity to enroll me in MENSA. 

So for me, boxed pasta and canned tomato sauce conjures the snow collecting on my back porch when the schools have long-since been cancelled. I know I will have to go shovel the driveway before anyone comes home.  I know I have to go shovel the stairs.  But it is cold and we have cable and for now I can enjoy the most corporeal pleasures from the comfort of the living room: cable television, processed food, a glass of soda from my mother's secret stash.  

I didn't go out last night because it was the type of night that reminded me of my least solitary solitary moments, the quiet of nothing and the responsibility of no one.  

Saturday, January 10, 2009

For The Love Of Arepas

I was looking for a complete departure from Thursday's day of health, which led me to 1.) attend a matinee of Bride Wars where my friend and I happily consumed one oversized bag of popcorn, one bag of twizzlers, and one Diet Coke (calorie free!) and 2.) brave the cold for a visit to the east village's Yerba Buena, where almost everything is fried.  In a good way.  

What's in a name?  Yerba Buena refers to the plant by the same name, a member of the mint family sometimes found in Latin American cooking.  Literally translated, it means "good herb."  There were no signs of the so-called good herb in my initial cocktail, the Poquito Picante.  That other herb, cilantro, stole the show, along with Tanqueray, jalapeno, cucumber juice, and Cointreau.  It was clean, fresh, and garnished with a dried chili that I was tempted to consume.  I was warned against it.  

For dinner, we shared a number of appetizers and one entree, the rib eye.  In retrospect, I'd probably skip the perfectly fine--and perfectly ordinary--rib eye in favor of more small plates.  First came the picada, a paper cone filled with fried goodies like yucca (a root vegetable), tostones (fried plantain), chorizo, and chicharron (fatty pieces of pork) and served with a spicy salsa.  

Rings of calamari dusted with blue cornmeal were fried and served over a tomato and onion salad.  They were neither chewy nor greasy, a feat in and of itself.  Our pizza cubana contained all of the necessary elements of a Cuban sandwich: sweet pickles, swiss cheese, pulled pork (in this case, suckling pig), and ham.  The pizza's "crust," a crispy wafer-thin bread, did not buckle under the weight of its toppings.  

Arepas were the star of the evening, two barbecued beef short rib sliders on biscuits with a cabbage slaw and pickled jalapenos.  A little less successful were the empanadas, pastry pockets filled with spinach, manchego, and figs and served with a boring vinaigrette.  True, the empanadas were not doughy or dripping with fry oil, signs of a poorly-executed pastry.  They were, however, distinctively indistinctive.  

The rib eye was a rib eye; I wouldn't order it again.  But vegetables made a stronger impression.  Roasted wild mushrooms, called hongos, arrived drenched in a spicy aioli.  How could I possibly decry the marriage of two of my favorite foods, mushrooms and mayonnaise?  I was less moved by the platanos, fried sweet plantains with truffle cream.  They weren't served hot enough, although the flavor ultimately prevailed. 

For dessert we settled on a second round of cocktails--for me, the Jamaica 107: hibiscus tea-infused whiskey, egg white, and lemon juice--as well as the fondue and tres leches cake.  Fondue combined chocolate and dulce de leche in a miniature fondue pot.  Dipping items included fresh strawberries, coconut marshmallows, dense chocolate cakes, churros, and bananas.  The tres leches cake, coconut-flavored and literally soaked in three milks, just tasted soggy.  

But the restaurant, if slightly uneven, is warm, welcoming, and intimate.  If I lived in the evil EVill, I would no doubt make frequent visits, for the arepas alone.   

Yerba Buena
23 Avenue A
New York, NY 10009

Friday, January 9, 2009

Health Food?

On Wednesday, Frank Bruni reviewed Rouge Tomate, the Belgian import that recently opened in the former Nicole Farhi space on 60th Street.  Rouge Tomate has a lot of things the traditional New York restaurant does not.  They have a mission statement, for one.  The Belgian charter S.P.E. (Sanitas Per Ectam, or Health Through Food) is threefold, placing an emphasis on the sourcing of food, the preparation of food, and the so-called enhancement of food.  Foods are seasonal and local; S.P.E. cooking techniques eschew the use of butter, trans fats, anything highly caloric; final dishes are presented keeping in mind the highest nutritional value of the dish.  

I had been invited to attend the Rouge Tomate friends and family in the fall, but a scheduling conflict had prevailed.  I promised my manager buddy that I'd return once the restaurant was on its feet, and last night seemed perfect, given that the heavy-hitting reviewers have done their damage.  Bruni awarded Rouge Tomate one star on Wednesday, marveling at the restaurant's interior but writing less enthusiastically about the food.  

I'm going to have to disagree. 

It must be said that the restaurant is spectacular to look at, even if the servers-wearing-red concept is a little too midtown modern.  Billowing red curtains open into an enormous space with clean lines, blond woods, beige banquettes, high ceilings.  The rooms--both upstairs and down--feel airy and almost Asian in their execution.  No wonder this used to be a clothing store.  

Drinks are served at a curvaceous bar by bartenders who tailor their drinks to their guests' needs.  I ordered a drink called the P.S.T., a combination of pumpkin juice, sake, celery juice, and cucumber.  My friend ordered a blood orange cocktail, which, the bartender informed us, only contained an ounce of alcohol.  "You look like the type of person who wants more than an ounce of alcohol," the bartender said.  "Can I add some vodka to that for you?"

Why in a million years would we say no?

The food will make you forget about S.P.E. or the fact that a three-course meal at Rouge Tomate cannot--and this has been mathematically tested by the Rouge Tomate lab people who create dishes according to the charter--exceed 1,000 calories.  As my friend reminded me last night, the pan-seared skate at Bar Americain, a single entree, weighs in at a whopping 2,700 calories.  So three courses for under 1K is no small feat.  

Amuse bouche for the night consisted of a tasting of beets, a sweet beet puree, a beet gelee with spicy horseradish foam, and a beet tartar.  The market potato and farm egg feels weightier than it is.  A slow poached egg, runny at the core, tops a thick potato pancake.  A side of meaty foraged mushrooms steps in for bacon/sausage/another unidentifiable breakfast meat.  There's no toast here, but if your egg yolk remains on your plate after the potato is gone, there's always the multigrain bread, served with a caramelized onion and crispy sage spread to sop it up with. 

Yellowtail crudo has the consistency of ceviche and is garnished with mung beans, mangoes, and kefir lime juice.  The cleanliness of the dish speaks to the restaurant's belief in good product.  A midcourse of bass blew us away.  Skin-on black bass sat atop a cauliflower puree with miniature heirloom cauliflowers, slivered almonds, reconstituted raisins, and grapes.  The dish more than made up for the fish we ordered for our entree, a disappointing black cod that was a thing of beauty to look at and less exciting to eat. 

Rice paper and a triptych of basil leaves decorated the cod, which arrived in one of the most gorgeous platings I've ever seen.  Baby turnips, crosnes, napa cabbage, and kohlrabi danced colorfully around the cod.  Unfortunately, the dish was bland and undersalted.  When I raised the point at meal's end, my friend assured me it was coming off the menu sooner rather than later. 

We had rabbit, too, the "farm raised fleischnacke," three wheels of rabbit served with celery and crisp apple.  The rabbit was rich, a combination of white and dark meats.  Chestnuts provided textural contrast.  It seemed impossible that this dish could actually be healthy.  

Before the arrival of our desserts, we were presented with two cold and perfect glasses of fresh pineapple juice, our "palate cleanser."  Desserts, a caramelized banana topped with chocolate sorbet and served with a banana cake and hot chocolate with fresh marshmallows, certainly didn't taste like spa food.  The hot chocolate more closely resembled very good pudding, a drink my friend deemed "too rich" for her blood.  Finally, forgettable pistachio crepes came with unforgettable sheep's milk semifreddo, tart and Pinkberry-ish and topped with slices of ruby red grapefruit. 

In the spirit of full-disclosure, I'll say the following: Rouge Tomate is expensive if you're going in cold.  I was presented a three-course wine pairing (2007 Thierry Germain Saumur-Champigny Rouge, 2004 Chateau Lalande-Borie St. Julien, 2005 Edmunds St. John Syrah) on the house.  Also on the house were our cocktails ($12 apiece), our bass midcourse, and our two desserts.  The bill came to $95, which, for two people and the amount we consumed, was virtually nothing.  But to eat here regularly and to eat well would cost a pretty penny. 

That being said, if I were a very wealthy woman who wanted to eat well without gaining weight and without concerning myself with the details of self-imposed nutrition, I'd be at Rouge Tomate at least once a week, eating that farm egg and potato over and over again. 

Rouge Tomate
10 E. 60th Street
New York, NY 10022

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Friends, Family, Food

If you do not know what the restaurant term "friends and family" means, allow me to clarify here: before a restaurant opens to the public, they hold a soft opening in which they invite friends and family of the restaurant to dine for free. The length of friends and family varies from restaurant to restaurant. Some places will do a week or a few days. Still others will do one glorious night.

Included on the guests lists of these things are generally restaurant VIPs (chefs, general managers and sommeliers from other restaurants, investors) some members of the press (I've seen Ben Leventhal from at many a friends and family) and family members of the staff. And if you're wondering if everything is really free, well, yes, it is. Food, alcohol, everything. All you leave is the tip at meal's end.

Which brings me to last night. The fortuitous friendships I forged at Grayz, Gray Kunz's casual-ish spot (if you compare it to the now-closed Cafe Gray) secured me entrance into Atria last night. Grayz experienced a host of problems last year, the most dramatic of which included the investors' decision to extricate Gray Kunz from the restaurant and distribute the wealth to chef d' cuisine Martin Brock. Grayz closed and announced that they would re-open as Gneiss, a name that took more than a few blows in the New York press. A month or so later, Grayz/Gneiss released yet another press release, announcing that they would re-open in the winter as Atria.

So Atria it is. I will say what I've said before about the Grayz/Gneiss/Atria/once-upon-a-time Aquavit space: it is warm, atmospheric, inviting. The low ceilings of the bar area make it the perfect place in which to enjoy a cocktail when Jack Frost comes nipping. Downstairs--which was formerly the private dining room space and now, in a flip-flop, is officially the main dining room--a small anteroom opens into a cavernous atrium, where modern art mobiles hang above mesmerized diners. I didn't eat in the atrium because the maitre'd, a friend, wanted to keep me close. Actually, I didn't mind. I prefer the intimacy of the anteroom over the grandeur of the atrium.

All diners chose from a three course prix fixe menu (not that we were paying). We drank yeasty Cava and considered our choices, deciding on appetizers of a mache salad with frisee and lardon and a hanger steak wrap stuffed with pickled cucumbers. The salad was light, refreshing, and kissed with truffle oil. It was tasty, but my friend and I had the same reaction: isn't truffle oil passe by now? Never mind. The meat in my wrap was delectably rare, buttressed by that crunchy cucumber, chiffonaded mint, wide cilantro leaves, dime-sized radish. The sauce on which it sat was savory, spicy, sweet, and as irresistable as duck sauce on eggrolls. There. I said it. The wrap came with fingerling potato chips. I loved the dish, I really did, but it seemed incongruous, surrounded by more formal fare. Also, it was quite large for an appetizer. When I mentioned this to the general manager, he told me that it was an experiment for a burgeoning bar menu. Now that, when I considered it, seemed quite brilliant. Who wouldn't love to eat this little sandwich late night at a bar?

Entrees were good but intellectually uncomplicated. A lobster boullion was more sea than actual lobster, a coconut broth in which swam one shrimp, one sea scallop, a substantial piece of white fish (I'd guess bass if I had to guess) and a few vibrant pieces of asparagus. Braised flatiron steak had the consistency and flavor of a very good short rib and came over agrodolce pearl onions, baby mushrooms, potato, and Brussels sprouts. Both were delicious, neither were concepts never before undertaken in New York.

The desserts, like the wines (in addition to that Cava, I drank a very good pinot noir from the Eola Hills of Oregon), were well-chosen. A chocolate mousse arrived between two layers of crisp chocolate pastry and came topped with espresso powder and tiny coffee gelatins garnished with pistachio nuts. Caramel apples were not overcooked and came with a a salty apple cake and fresh apple sorbet, the perfect palate cleanser.

Flavors were unanimously clean and sharp and, knowing Martin Brock, they'll stay that way. What I wonder is whether or not a restaurant that has weathered so many incarnations can survive such desperate economic times. I suppose it remains to be seen.

13-15 W. 54th Street
New York, NY 10019

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Employee At Will

There's a pervading belief in New York that, if you lose your job, you can always wait tables. Maybe that's the true New York love story; even in the toughest of times, people still gotta eat. I don't think a market in free fall will discourage New Yorkers from dining out. Will they change their standards? Perhaps. Will they order fewer appetizers and more cheap light beers? Almost certainly. Will the gluttonous, investment banker days of yore return to us anytime soon? Almost certainly not.

Open or even the New York Times' database and you're sure to find hundreds of open positions. Server Wanted. Bartender Wanted. Hot Female Cocktail Waitress Wanted. (Don't doubt it: there's ads like that out there.) Even in an economic blackout, people are still hiring.

Okay. Fine. Nice work if you can get it. The applicant pool is stronger this year, of course, because so many qualified people have lost jobs. Now the resumes in circulation mention Ivy League universities rather than state or culinary schools. Now they boast a long list of prior accomplishments: Speaks fluent Korean; Wrote a dissertation on 19th Century European painting; Recently left a position as Associate at Davis, Polk, and Wardell.

Actually, the pool is only part of the problem. The mistaken belief that you can always fall back on table-waiting has been debunked in recent months. Three of my friends lost their service jobs less than a week before the Christmas holiday. One such friend had worked at his restaurant for over two years, had seen it through two sets of New York Times reviews, one renovation, and several menu incarnations. He worked over 50 hours a week for this particular restaurant, showed up an hour late to work five days before Christmas and lost his job. It wasn't an offense that would have rendered him jobless in normal situations. In normal situations, he would have been written up and possibly sent home for the shift, but no server ever loses his job for a minor (and non-habitual) temporal infraction.

Why did they fire him? Why have many capable servers lost their jobs in recent weeks? Because the pool has officially infiltrated restaurants. They can do better, and they know that. Why not take a fresh new face, someone unjaded, someone who has not yet developed the bad habits that veterans inevitably develop? Why not take full advantage of an oversaturated market by cherry-picking the best of the best?

I won't get into the concepts of loyalty and decency, which are foreign to many a well-oiled machine, er, restaurant. Loyalty means taking care of employees who have dedicated their blood, sweat, and tears to the progress of a company. Decency means keeping even the most unfit employees around until after Christmas. Even Scrooge eventually saw the light.

Loyalty, decency, those aren't business concepts or business ideals. Loyalty and decency don't bring in the holy buck. They don't ensure success. Loyalty and decency can sink a ship.

Yes, there are plenty of fall backs in the wide world of New York dining. There will always be a job for the jobless, even if it's in the tackiest Times Square haunt you can imagine. What is gone--what was fleeting before and is almost a whisper now--is the concept of job security. The workforce, we are now meant to believe, is infinitely expendable. Even the best servers are cogs, replaceable when the occassion rises.

How completely unfortunate that America has come to this.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Monday, Monday

I always like to start the year off by breaking my resolutions immediately. I'm not much of a reformer, as evidenced by yesterday's descent into the opium den that is the New York restaurant scene.

First: We were planning on eating lunch at Flex Mussels on the upper east side, which would have changed the course of our day considerably. A call revealed that Flex opens at five daily. So that obviously wasn't going to work.

Instead, we went to TriBeCa for sausage. Lots and lots of sausage. Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner's Blaue Gans specializes in Austrian food and wine and their lunch menu is incredibly affordable. We're talking $8 for sausage and side.

Ambitious eaters we are. We ordered three types of sausage (slender frankfurters that arrived with cucumber dill potato salad, one fat bratwurst, and a sausage whose name I couldn't pronounce if my life depended on it). Sausages came with sauerkraut, shaved horseradish, and sinus clearing mustard.

We also ordered a terrine, flanked by sweet pickles, more mustard, warm bread. We were comped--because the former wasn't enough food?!?--jaeger schnitzel with spaetzle, thinly pounded pork, pan fried and topped with a bacon lardon/mushroom butter sauce and served with scallioned spaetzle that more closely resembled transcendent macaroni and cheese.

We didn't order dessert, but it came anyway: one very large and tasty almond croissant, a perfect apple strudel that was flaky and complemented completely by unsweetened fresh whipped cream, and the house specialty, known as the Sulzburger Nockerl. What is it? Springy white meringue baked over fresh huckleberries.

You'd think that three comped desserts, one entree, and one round of Austrian wine would have sent us and our spared wallets back to the boroughs. But no. Instead, we headed to Chelsea for early evening cocktails at East of Eighth, a warm little dive off 8th Avenue. Once the sun had safely slipped below the horizon, it was time to eat again.

This time, it was appetizers and sparkling wine (ok, for me a champagne cocktail) at Bobby Flay's spacious midtown brasserie, Bar Americain. House made potato chips with a melted blue cheese dipping sauce and grilled asparagus with green peppercorns prepared us for our final destination, a few avenues east.

Where we finally landed for our so-called dinner was Mia Dona, Donatella Arpaia's semi-casual spot. She was actually next to us at the bar while we ate. New York can be such a small place.

Again, free food. We ordered baked clams oreganata and two pasta dishes--gnudi and papparadelle--to share. Before the clams, however, an amuse bouche of fried risotto balls arrived, stuffed with melted mozarella and served with candy-sweet caramelized onions and eggplant puree. And then the clams, topped with a piece of roasted garlic apiece. They weren't my favorite (a little too heavy on the butter, which masked the clamminess of the dish), but the dish that came with them, a freebie plate of mussels served with basil pesto, ricotta salata, and fregola (a tiny ball-like pasta) satisfied our earlier mussel craving.

Then the pastas. Pillowy gnudi with crispy proscuitto and fried sage were, to my taste, slightly undersalted. Their texture made up for that. Toothsome papparadelle came in a light cream sauce with a traditional veal and pork base. Had my stomach any room left, I would have finished the pasta on my own.

Of course, we didn't order dessert, but it arrived anyway, this time sublime vanilla panna cotta with maple syrup, a honeycrisp apple compote, and a anise-flavored cookie for texture.

All in all, the day left me heading back to the drawing board in my quest for a healthier 2009. But what's life without a little excess?

Blaue Gans
139 Duane Street
New York, NY 10013

East of Eighth
254 W. 23rd Street
New York, NY 10011

Bar Americain
152 W. 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019

Mia Dona
206 E. 58th Street
New York, NY 10022

Monday, January 5, 2009

Ten Dietary Resolutions

1.  This year, I will eat things that scare me, like tripe.  Tripe never looks appealing to me.  Never.  But this year, if given the opportunity to eat tripe and if in the company of the type of person who would share tripe with me (because I don't think I can do a whole heaping plate of it on my own or anything) I will eat it.  And I won't make retching noises or spit it into my napkin, either. 

2. I will cook more, even if it's only for one.  After all, I have about 20 gorgeous cookbooks occupying valuable real estate in my kitchen.  Why not use them?  I will prepare things from the two cookbooks I received for the holidays, the new Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow cookbook and the new Giada de Laurentiis cookbook.  If I'm feeling ambitious, I might even try something from the Gourmet tome.  

3.  I will try to be more careful about buying groceries.  I don't keep a lot of food in my apartment because I eat out so much, but when I do shop I tend to buy things at the Key Foods near my house.  Key Foods' produce isn't organic and I'm pretty sure their pigs and chickens and turkeys aren't the free range heritage beasts you see at the greenmarket downtown.  They do sell organic, cage-free eggs and I cough up a few extra dollars when I go shopping to save the caged chickens and their eggs.  But really, I live in Astoria.  Astoria!  Where there's a butcher shop on every corner and rivaling fruit bodegas by the train.  I'm going to get off my lazy butt this year and walk down there to buy food.  (Note to self: this will probably never happen, but at least I'm considering it.)

4. When I order takeout, I will stop buying enough food to feed the entire European Union.  Everyone likes variety, but I do not need five different plastic containers of food that I will never eat, no matter how much I promise myself that I will eat it.  

5.  And as a continuation of Resolution #4, when I order Asian takeout, I will stop throwing the rice away after it has spend three or four patient days in my refrigerator waiting for me to come back to it.  Instead, I'll fry it in olive oil and garlic and serve soft boiled eggs over it and eat it for breakfast. 

6.  And as a continuation of Resolution #5, I will start finishing all of my leftovers, including the miso soup that comes free with Japanese food and which I never seem to get around to eating.  

7.  I will recycle all takeout containers or wash them and re-use them, which I do 90 percent of the time but there's always that 10 percent of the time when I'm feeling particularly lazy and daunted by the prospect of touching thick, MSG-laden sauce with my bare hands and therefore fall back on bad old habits that include throwing away perfectly good plastic even as the environment is folding in on itself.  

8. I will order more fish at restaurants.  I know I'm a carnivore by nature, but I have to start eating more fish.  Actually, I like fish.  I just like meat more.  I don't know why I find it so completely difficult to opt for bass in the face of pork, but this year I'm going to make sure that I order fish out, at a restaurant, at least once a week.  And not at sushi restaurants because that doesn't count and we all know that I eat plenty of sashimi. 

9.  Instead of chasing the next new hot spot, I will start eating more ethnic and street foods.  Ethnic food is, generally speaking, less expensive than French-based New York cuisine.  Also, as I mentioned, I live in Queens, which, a few weeks back, someone reminded me was the "ethnic food capital of New York."  I take advantage of the food diversity of Queens more than most but I still blow most of my food money at cool Manhattan joints when I should be getting on the train and eating in Flushing as much as I possibly can.  Caveat: I am still allowing myself to eat in Brooklyn, not exactly Queens' rival when it comes to ethnic-ness, but rife with Russian food (Brighton Beach), Chinese food (Sunset Park), and Italian food (also Sunset Park).  

10.  I will lose 10 pounds.  I'm not sure how I'm going to do this if I continue to eat all the time, but everything in moderation, right?  For the most part, I'm on the right nutritional track, but I think I'll go farther: more lean protein, less animal fat, more vegetables, less iodized salt, more fruit, less refined sugar, more water, less soda.  If those cats on the Biggest Loser can lose an entire person in a few months, surely I can shed my winter weight before bikini season starts again.  

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Spicy, Tasty, Salty, Sweet

I finally made it back to Flushing for Chinese food.  We couldn't have timed it better; having Saturday night dinner in the outer boroughs means no negotiation with maitre'ds, no hour long wait, no deus ex machina needed to provide an actual table.  

Our destination was Spicy and Tasty, a small Chinese spot off of Roosevelt Avenue to which Frank Bruni awarded two stars last year.  Sitting in Spicy and Tasty, it's hard to imagine the Brunz here with his portfolio bag, notepad, impeccable dress.  Like most Chinese restaurants in Flushing, this one has allowed decor to fall by the wayside.  The service--what little of it there is--consists of servers tossing down menus, bringing us our Tsing Taos, grudgingly taking our order, and bringing (and later boxing) our food.  There's tea, but despite my request, no water.  

As it turns out, the icky service matters very little.  What matters is the spicy, spicy food.  Those of fragile palates, do not fear; when I say spicy, I mean not only the tear-provoking rip of hot pepper.  These dishes are layered, complex, warming, supple, and generously flavored.  There also so, so good. 

We ordered four dishes, which, it just so happens, would have been enough for an army of us--and we were just two.  We defended our ordering to ourselves: how else could we judge the restaurant and all it had to offer?  And what could possibly be better than Chinese leftovers?

Sauteed Chinese cabbage with dried chilis surprisingly took the cake as the night's best dish.  Crisp, generously sliced cabbage came in a sea of brown sauce adorned with dark chilis.  Shrimp with pickled turnips did not disappoint.  The shrimp themselves were smaller than prawns and larger than rock shrimp and danced with large chunks of toothsome and salty turnip, minced ginger, red pepper flakes.  

Spinach almost matched lamb in proportion in a dish called lamb with red chili sauce.  Not to be outdone, fatty and ample sliced pork came with its own peppers, this time small, red, and hot.  Each dish had its own brand of spice and no dish could have ever been confused with its neighbor.  Maybe that's what made the meal so satisfying.  The total price tag for a meal that will likely offer us two days' worth of leftovers?  $63, including tip.  

Of course, we needed something sweet to end our adventure into the belly of Queens.  We considered it fortuitous that the Yi Mei Fung Bakery happened to hock its wares right at the entrance to the 7 train.  Inside, were attracted to a case of creamy looking pastries, tarts, and birthday cakes.  My friend ordered one with a dark chocolate disc on top.  

Here was our confusion: the cake's frosting (light, airy, resembling buttercream) tasted more like actual butter.  We kept eating it to try and figure it out.  Was it a mistake?  Had a young pastry chef accidentally replaced sugar with salt?  The frosting was salty.  Salty!  The cake itself, angel food stuffed with coconut cream, was not salty.  Why, then, was the frosting?

We had to get to the bottom of it.  Maybe this was some Chinese joke on us.  I went back to the counter and ordered a pastry the size and shape of a sub sandwich billed as "coconut creme."  The thing had been dusted with toasted coconut and was split open at the front, resembling a donut's unfortunate cousin.  We used our hands.  And guess what?  The frosting, once again, was salty.  Very confusing. 

Later research conducted by yours truly indicated that Yi Mei Fung's baked goods rival, Tai Pan Bakery is known to produce the best egg custards in all of Flushing, if not New York.  I think next time I'll head there instead.  

Spicy and Tasty
39-07 Prince Street
Flushing, Queens 11354

Yi Mei Fung Bakery
135-38 Roosevelt Avenue
Flushing, Queens 11354

Saturday, January 3, 2009

January Doldrums

What happens to the food world once the holidays have passed?  It is commonly accepted as fact that September through December offers New York restaurants their busiest season.  Even summer cannot compare to the pulse that is autumn.  Even in a damaged economy, New Yorkers come out to play. 

But then.  January.  In every restaurant I've ever worked at, January marked the nadir, the financial crush, the true litmus test of a restaurant's durability.  Servers claw at opportunities to stay on the floor while managers scramble to send servers home so that the slices of the pie are bigger for those working.  If you normally work five or six days a week, in January you can expect your work week to come closer to three or four days.  

Notably, this year will be different.  This year will be different because even the most prodigious spenders will be counting their dwindling dollars from the privacy of their own homes.  It's more than a bad economy; it's a sinking ship. 

The irony is that what a bad economy requires most is for people to keep spending.  Market crashes and apparitions of disaster scare the public into believing that they should be keeping their savings tied in bundles underneath their mattresses.  Ironically, this mentality only makes things worse.  If bad news encourages even the bravest to fossilize their AmExes, who will introduce capital into the market? 

If investment bankers lose their bonuses and fail to spend money in nice restaurants, servers lose their tips and management loses their ability to afford good product.  And so servers are released back into an ever-growing unemployment market, or restaurants close because the operational costs are too great to buttress with fewer guests.  That's just restaurants.  Forget about the rest of the retail industry, who has already reported that this holiday season was les profitable than any holiday season in the past seven years. 

That will be January's misfortune.  A month that already drags on with its unpleasant weather and lack of holidays and general ennui following the hustle bustle of November and December will now demonstrate how truly damaged we Americans are.  In times like these, is it even appropriate to plan one's next dinner out? 

I say yes.  This is not some ludicrous battle-cry in which I tout the virtues of spending $300 on a perfect kobe steak, but one might argue that changing a lifestyle completely in the face of economic tragedy will only make things worse.  One vote, on the largest scale, means very little, one hundred votes can change the course of history.  One dinner out, in turn, means very little, but one hundred people opting to stay in on a Saturday night means a staggering amount of revenue lost.  You get the picture. 

We will all make provisions for ourselves in the coming year, depending on how severely we have been bludgeoned by the market's collapse.  But let us not forget that a drastic change in how we live will have drastic consequences.  There is a difference between frugality and asceticism and knowing that difference just might change the world.  

Although I will say, for the record, that I have retired my American Express card.  For now, at least.