Saturday, February 28, 2009


Items currently in my purse awaiting a day of snacking at work: 

Dried apricots and dried mango
Pint of blueberries
Container of sliced watermelon
Healthy Valley Organic Granola Bar (they use cane sugar and whole grains)
BLT made from arugula, tomato, Proscuitto di Parma, whole-wheat wrap

As a side note completely unrelated to food, I do not understand why when I hold the big, heavy doors on the back exit of the bus people walk out without taking the doors.  I'm not standing there so that everyone can get off the bus; I'm waiting for someone else to take the doors and then pass it to the person behind them, etc.  I was not hired by the MTA to stand outside every designated bus stop in New York City to make sure the passengers get off safely.  That would be a cool job, but it's not mine. 

The doors are heavy and they need to be held open and I would be a giant loser if I just let the door smash into the person behind me, which is sometimes what I feel like doing.  That being said, what kind of person sees a tiny and overloaded woman standing on the street holding the bus door open and doesn't think, "Oh, I should probably take the door from her"?  

Sometimes New Yorkers aren't as bad as people say.  Other times they are far, far worse.  

Friday, February 27, 2009

Back To The Future

Starting tomorrow, I'll be a gainful restaurant-industry employee once again.  Whether I like it or not, this probably means a massive change in my diet, a move I'm reluctant to make.  

Forget about being thin.  Since I quit refined sugar (and the dreams eventually stopped haunting me), I have slept better, had more energy, and felt less hungry more of the time.  Despite the insane amount of tortuous exercise I have subjected myself too, my cravings never got the better of me.  Sure, pizza still called to me from the slice vendors.  At times.  But those cravings that had seemed insurmountable completely disappeared once the white flour and sugar filtered out of my system. 

Yesterday I ate an entire head of cabbage.  I cooked it--I'm not completely off my rocker--but still, I'm pretty sure you couldn't have convinced me, three months ago, that I could be the type of person who could actually sit down and enjoy a head of cabbage.  But I did.  I found it delicious. 

Like most Americans, I was probably suffering a pretty severe B Vitamin deficiency without even knowing it.  Weight drops off me at the rate of two pounds a week (for those counting, that's ten pounds since I quit refined sugar).  

But I'm going back to a controlled environment, where my food is prepared by other people.  I'm also going back to service, which means ten hours on the floor with little to no food, certainly not in tune with my "eat every three hours" mantra.  

I'm planning the following strategy to combat a relapse: I will stuff my pockets with snacks, I will eat breakfast and pack my lunch, I will eat a very small amount of family meal just so that I don't look like a complete a-hole, and I will stay away from candy, which has always been my go-to decadence when I'm starving during service. 

And no matter how much they tempt me, I'm not making bacon the staple protein of my diet, though it is secretly my favorite thing on earth. 

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Best Sandwich In The World

Is the BLT.  I don't care what anyone says; sandwiches do not get any better than this. 

I made my own "healthier" version last night.  It goes something like this: 

Warmed whole-wheat tortilla
The best tomatoes I could find, given the season
Proscuitto di Parma
Olive-oil mayonnaise

Easiest.  Meal.  Ever.  Warm tortilla.  Spread one tablespoon of mayo on said tortilla.  Lay down arugula, sliced tomatoes, and one to two ounces good proscuitto.  Roll and eat.  

It really doesn't get any easier--or simpler--than this. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Using What You Have

I hear a lot of people say things like "I don't have time to cook," and I completely understand that sentiment.  When I used to come home late from a night of service, the last thing I wanted to do was spend time in my kitchen.  The immediacy of my hunger was often either ignored or placated with a quick fix slice. 

Pretty soon I'll be headed back to my late-night life, which means some internal adjustments.  I'm pretty sure that I've found the answer to feeding oneself well and often and it isn't as hard as I'd once believed.  The key?  Keeping lots of food in the apartment.  

I know. It sounds ridiculous.  Actually, I used to avoid buying fresh produce because it often went bad before I had a chance to use it.  Read: I was too lazy to do anything with it, which is why it so often went bad.  Last night, I got home in the evening after a trip into the city.  I was starving and I didn't want to go to the grocery store.  I decided to improvise with whatever I had in my refrigerator.  

I had one frozen chicken breast, which I was able to defrost under hot water. 

I had one bunch of leftover asparagus. 

I had a whole Texas scallion.  

I had a persimmon.  

I had a cucumber. 

I had an open can of black olives. 

I had a shallot and lemon vinaigrette from the night before.  

I put the asparagus, sliced persimmon, Texas scallion, and chicken breast on a baking sheet.  Then I poured the vinaigrette over everything, mixed it with my hands, salted and peppered the mess, made sure nothing overlapped, and threw it in a 400 degree oven.  I chopped the cucumber and black olives and put them in a bowl and ate them with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper.  After six or seven minutes, I flipped the chicken, but left the veggies to turn scorched at the edges.  Not too long after that, I pulled the whole roasted mess out of the oven and tossed it into one very large bowl.  Ta da.  Dinner is served. 

If you surround yourself with foods that don't require much thought or preparation, you can make a delicious and fresh meal in less than half an hour.  People think too much about ingredients, or amounts, or the time it takes to chop an onion.  But if you're lazy and hungry, like I often am, you'll take the path of least resistance, chop the onion as coarsely as you can, toss everything with a thin layer of olive oil and leave it to its own devices in a very hot oven.  

Cooking is not brain surgery.  All you have to do to make yourself decent meals is care about ad understand your product, whether it be canned olives or an overripe persimmon.  Keep your fridge stocked and force yourself to use what you have.  Nothing is more satisfying than creating something out of nothing. 

By the way, those Texas scallions char really nicely, almost like the onion bits left at the bottom of a Sunday roast pan.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Spring Springing

Here is what any knowledgeable foodie can look forward to during the burgeoning weeks of spring, which are almost upon us: ramps, asparagus, morels, fava beans, spring garlic, sweet peas. Spring harvest is almost here, which means a welcome wish goodbye to all those root vegetables we've spent the winter eating.

As an early celebratory move towards a spring feast, I cooked myself a spring meal last night. I grabbed asparagus from the market. It was from California, and I don't usually like to buy produce that's spent so much time traveling, but I was really craving asparagus, and besides, I had 15 quail eggs in the refrigerator, and what vegetable goes better with eggs than asparagus?

I blanched the asparagus for five minutes in boiling water and then transferred them to an ice bath to retain their color. Then I made a simple vinaigrette of chopped chive, shallot, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a little bit of truffle oil.

The quail eggs were a little more complicated. I decided to make a good old project out of dinner and found a recipe for deviled quail eggs. Boil the eggs for three to four minutes and remove. Cool the eggs under cold water and peel. Slice in half. Removing the yolks is tough; I used my fingers, which seemed to work better than any kitchen tool. I mixed the yolks (from seven eggs) with one tablespoon mayonnaise--I use olive oil based mayonnaise only--the juice from half a lemon, a teaspoon of dijon mustard, salt, cracked black and cayenne peppers.

The final part of dinner involved sea scallops from the fish market. A note to anyone buying scallops for searing: if the market sells "dry scallops," buy them. Sea scallops are brined in order to make them appear more white and larger. As a result, when you put them over a high flame, they release their internal moisture, making it impossible to achieve a proper sear. My market didn't have dry scallops, so my scallops were lightly brown instead of brown-to-black. But they still tasted good. I kept it simple, with salt and pepper the only adornment.

But added to my asparagus with vinaigrette and deviled quail eggs, that was more than enough. I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of spring produce.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Man In Gold

Allow me to recount the high and low points of an entire day dedicated to watching celebutantes strut their stuff on the red carpet.  

Part I, Overpriced Brunch

Here's what Oscar's, the so-called brasserie of the Waldorf-Astoria, can offer you if you're willing to spend a morning there: a Continental breakfast for $25; two eggs with meat, toast, and homefries for $22; a mediocre buffet for $20; a side of 'seasonal fruit' for $14; toast with butter for $5.  

The buffet included runny scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, a fruit selection of flavorless honeydew melon and canned pineapple, various sticky pastries, bagels with cream cheese, granola with berries, and some kind of yogurt smoothie that I chose not to investigate further.  No toast.  No real fruit.  Pretty much nothing I was interested in eating.  The coffee wasn't bad, but even if I were staying at the Waldorf-Astoria, I would never eat at this ridiculous excuse for a restaurant a second time. 

Part II, Friends Cook Healthier

My Sunday ladies made their own whole-wheat pita chips (toasted on a baking sheet with spices) and served them with hummus.  Turkey burgers came on larger slices of toasted pita, replete with a homemade tzatziki recipe, which consisted mostly of Greek yogurt, garlic, and cucumber.  More veggies in those burgers: my friend slipped in diced peppers and onions and served the whole deal with crispy baked sweet potato cubes. 

Part III, Sugar Wins After All

Despite our attempts to watch the Oscars without falling into the trap of eating fast food, greasy food, or processed food, our stomachs got the better of us.  Once our burgers were gone, we all craved something sweet.  One of us (name withheld) suggested hitting up the nearby Burger King for a butterfinger pie.  Another of us (that would be me) said that if we were going to eat cakes we might as well walk over to the Neptune Diner on Astoria Boulevard where the cakes were somewhat fresh and where they didn't post the ridiculous and hard-to-look-at calorie count next to the item on the menu. 

So we walked across the highway in the freezing cold and returned with one slice of cherry pie, one slice of carrot cake, one slice of chocolate brownie cake, one slice of cheesecake, one slice of blueberry pie, and one vanilla milkshake. 

The fruit pies were gummy, fortified with way too much gelatin.  Also, none of those fruits are even in season, so I'm sure the fillings came from a can.  Oh, well.  The crust was pre-fab tasting, but still reminiscent of those little pocket pies that came with home-packed lunches, the ones wrapped in wax paper.  

Cheesecake was a success, creamy, abundant, way too large a slice.  Carrot cake had raisins--a welcome addition, as far as I'm concerned--but way too much frosting and, inevitably, sugar.  Ditto for the brownie cake, which my chocobsessed friend declared "too sweet," a turn of phrase I've never heard slip from her mouth.  But really, she was right.  The cake tasted more like a can of Duncan Hines chocolate frosting that happened to have some bits of cake floating around in it.  

The vanilla milkshake was great, but I only had a sip.  We discussed the New England terminology for the same drink.  Up north, a milkshake consists of milk and flavored syrup.  Want ice-cream in your drink?  Order a frappe.  That's what we call them.  

I fell into a sugar coma shortly thereafter.  It didn't come as much of a surprise.  In fact, the whole evening, right down to the dancing Slumdog winners, was utterly predictable.  Not that there's anything wrong with that. 

Oscar's American Brasserie
The Waldorf-Astoria
301 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10022

Neptune Diner
3105 Astoria Boulevard
Astoria, NY 11102

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Time Of My Life

If I were to go back in time and change anything about my undergraduate trajectory, I probably would run for high office of my school's newspaper. For four years, I worked as an Editorial Board Editor and inflammatory columnist (the kind who received copious and likely warranted hate-mail). Our independent paper, free from the staid confines of university tradition since the bold year 1962, held yearly elections at the end of fall session to determine the following year's Managing Board.

I probably would have made a good Editorial Page Editor, and I may even have followed in the footsteps of two of my own favorite editors, both of whom went on to serve as Editor-in-Chief. I was put off, at the time, by the prospect of long hours and by the process itself, which required written recommendations and other generous projects that my 19- and 20-year-old-self wasn't all that into.

I think of this all now in the wake of last night's newspaper dinner, held once a year in February. I haven't attended the Columbia Daily Spectator's Blue Pencil Dinner since I was a lowly sophomore, but it was high time I returned to the geeky fold. Spectator was, in a lot of ways, the community that helped me discover myself. Did I know I could write? Of course. Did I know that so many others could write better? Of course not.

And so, last night's dinner had nothing to do with the limp chicken, pedestrian chocolate mousse, or embarassingly bad California chardonnay and merlot. No, it was an opportunity to meet up with all those people who served time in close quarters to produce a daily, who knew the love and fury of building a newspaper. None of us knew, when we joined, that September 11 would happen on our watch, that some of us would die young, that our plans would change with a changed economy. We had always resisted that desire to look too far into the future.

My most brilliant editor was in attendance last night. She's one of these rare people who has a handle on anything and everything relevant. In one breath, she explained her PhD thesis (which she described as a riff on a David Foster Wallace essay) and two minutes later she was incredulously describing that some of her freshman students hadn't been born when Guns 'N Roses' Appetite for Destruction hit record stores. What more inspiration could I have asked for as a writer than this perfect marriage of low and high cultures?

Sometimes I think that's what food writing is all about, a configuration of high and low that most of us struggle to get our minds around. Many of my friends from the Spectator are writers now, trying to come of age in a medium that society keeps telling us has fading relevance in a modern world. I admire their virtue; they ask me for wine advice. We're all just trying to make peace with a changing world.

Anyway, I don't have too many regrets. If I had been on the Managing Board, my own story probably wouldn't have ended that differently. I don't write for a living, it's true, but I also have always known the place of the pen in my own life, even if ball points don't pay the bills.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Marc-ing Territory

I used to be a regular at Landmarc in the Time Warner Center, partly because I used to work in midtown and Landmarc serves until 2 am nightly.  Also, the hot spot used to be known for this weird trick they pulled with their wine list: no wines served by the glass, and a list dominated by magnums and half-bottles.  If memory serves, there were no ordinary 750 ml bottles on the menu.  

Times may have changed, but Landmarc still bustles on a Friday.  Here's the thing about Landmarc.  In all of my years of late-night stopover appearances, I mostly only ever ate two (delicious) dishes: bone marrow with country bread and a rib eye cooked rare.  With French fries.  My new attempts at self-preservation (and the battle to wear a size 26 without unbuttoning my pants, a goal now reached) mean no tasty white crusty bread, which makes the bone marrow--toasted in the bone and served with sea salt, a demitasse, and caramelized onions--obsolete.  And my personal ban on red meat (for the most part--let's not go crazy here) means no more rib eye, although I allowed my brother to order the hulking 23-ouncer so that it stayed in close proximity.  

My realization, then, was that, without my unhealthy staples, Landmarc just wasn't what I remembered.  I ordered the quail, which came in a vastly oversized portion (honestly, who on earth needs to eat two birds for dinner?) wrapped in undercooked bacon.  Traditionally, quail is snapped at the breast bone and cooked meat side down so that the skin crisps.  The bacon got in the way of any crispy skin, and even the bacon itself, gummy and unpleasant, didn't do the birds justice. 

And why stuff a quail?  The meat should be the point of the game, and my meat was overdone in places and underdone in others.  Quail, like duck, should arrive medium-rare.  Some parts of my bird were cooked all the way through, while others looked as if they'd never seen that long grill in the back.  A stuffing of some kind of bready thing and sausage rendered the dish a gloppy mess.  I wouldn't order it again. 

I subsisted, then, on a tasty bite of my brother's rib eye and two vegetable side dishes, haricot verts that tasted strongly of celery (?) and roasted mushrooms that were perfect but not enough to live on.  Dessert may have been the highlight, and may still be the best sweet deal in town, a sampler of blueberry crisp, lemon tart, creme brulee, nutella eclair, chocolate mousse, and tiramisu, all for $16.  Cotton candy--you have to ask for it--arrived in traditional paper cones.  Flavor of the night was Dimetapp grape.  

I should mention, too, that Landmarc is still a bargain basement when it comes to wine.  We drank the 2005 Beckmen Grenache, because my mother won't drink anything French--"too dry"--or crisp--"I like it big and full-bodied."  Our tastes couldn't be farther apart.  Beckman Vineyards, based in the southern Californian enclave of Santa Ynez, produces rich and ripe wines at a variety of price points.  For $56, this was a great deal for an American wine, if you like that sort of thing.  

In fact, you'll find more than a lion's share of bottles between $50 and $60, nothing to scoff at in hard economic times.  Too bad the quail can't meet the same standards.  Next time, it's back to the drawing board.  Flour ban be damned: I want my marrow back.  

Landmarc at the Time Warner Center
10 Columbus Circle, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10019

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mashed Heaven

Because I live alone, it's not all that often that people are cooking for me. And by cooking for me, I mean people who are not ringing my doorbell at some ridiculous hour with a plastic container of takeout. That's not the same as "cooking."

I was on dog-and-15-year-old-sister patrol last night, which meant zipping to Westchester after pilates (don't I sound like a wealthy houswife, minus the wealth?) for makeshift dinner with my little girls. My dad had asked me if I wanted any food left out in exchange for my services. My only caveat was no white flour or sugar.

And so, in two sealed pyrex containers I found my fate: roast chicken (good, but someone had already stolen most of the skin, which, in my estimation, is really the only part worth eating) and my personal favorite, mashed potatoes.

I know so many people who say things like "I make the best mashed potatoes in the world," or, "my mom makes the best mashed potatoes in the world," or "the instant mashed from my high school cafeteria are the best mashed potatoes in the world" (in my hometown, one in ten students received most of their daily nutrients from insta-mash). But my dad actually makes the best mashed potatoes in the world.

In a flavor competition, I have no doubt that we'd reach an impasse. I rarely use skim milk if I'm doing potatoes for a crowd and my secret ingredient--nutmeg, there, I said it, you dragged it out of me--always inspires a bunch of oohs and ahhs from the crowd. Long ago, I learned the secret of good mash lies in the temperature of the added ingredients. Warm milk and butter will incorporate better into mashed potatoes than straight-out-of-the-container leche.

The other rule to live by when making mashed is what kind of potato to use. Mashed potatoes taste best when they come from a high-starch, unwaxy potato. Fingerlings, purple potatoes, new potatoes, and pretty much any other pretty little potato will not do. I prefer Yukon Gold potatoes when I cook because they yield a buttery yellow color reminiscent of the key ingrediant. Russets, a more traditional option, hold up fine, too, and are usually easier to find and less expensive (though not by much; potatoes are never really expensive). But the reason my mashed are always good and never sublime (and to my two lovely guests who came over for pork and mashed two weeks ago, that was an unfortnate mistake owing to an attempt to draw salt out of my potatoes, which I'd bastardized, and so they turned out watery and not very good, not a reflection of my true mashing abilities) is because I do not own an egg-beater or hand blender and am far too lazy to dirty a kitchen aid to puree my potatoes.

I let them cook until they are especially fork-tender, yes. And I always put those gym workouts to the test with vigorous and serious dedication of masher to potato. But if you rely only on human ability and put the toys aside, well, sometimes you get lumps.

The thing is, I know my dad uses an egg-beater. I've seen it. That's why his potatoes are always 100 percent lump-free. I also know he's not stingy when it comes to butter and--let's face it--with potatoes, butter is the only condiment that'll do.

In any case, they were reliably delicious. I forewarned my sister that there had better be mashed potatoes waiting for me when I got home, or I'd be one unhappy camper. I know how 15 goes; food disappears before it has left the grocery bags.

She was kind, though, and left a family-of-four sized portion for yours truly. It took willpower to prevent myself from going back for thirds.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Quick Fix

I was running around like a crazy person yesterday, trying to do all the things I hadn't done while out in Arizona.  I didn't have time to do a whole elaborate dinner for myself, so I improvised with things I found at the market.  I had about ten minutes to spare at the vegetable stand, where I bought things that inspired me: a carton of persimmons, a Texas scallion (looks like a cross between an onion and a scallion, with a large white bulb at the end), a few kirby cucumbers, a jalapeno, a red pepper, Boston lettuce, and some cilantro.  Large shrimp at the fish market actually lived up to their name, so I took home a quarter pound, plenty of shrimp for one person to stretch over the course of two days.  

I assembled the framework for my dinner in the afternoon.  It took less than 20 minutes, proof that even the most time-pressed career person can get a home-cooked meal on the table.  I poached the shrimp in boiling water until they turned pink (roughly five minutes).  In the meantime, I chopped my purchased veggies, with the exception of the lettuce and with the addition of some celery I found hanging out in my vegetable compartment. 

Cooked shrimp was drained and cut into thirds.  I added it to the container housing my chopped vegetables.  Next, some canned pineapple--minus the juice--two heaping tablespoons of light sour cream (more than enough, trust me), one tablespoon of sriracha, some kosher salt and, of course, fresh ground pepper.  When I came home from the gym later at night, I picked some lettuce leaves and rolled the creamy mixture up into it, using the lettuce like a wrap.  Actually, iceberg would have worked a little better, but I really hate the watery taste of iceberg lettuce, with one notable exception: as lining for a good old traditional BLT. 

Really, the greatest thing about doing something like this for dinner (apart from the convenience factor) is that it's the easiest possible way to integrate a wide variety of vegetables into one's dinner.  And really, you could sub in or out any fruit or veg.  Grapefruit could have easily replaced the persimmon.  Red cabbage could have provided color instead of red pepper (I grew up surrounded by pepper-haters).  Shredded carrot would have offered a beta-carotene kick.  

So there you have it: dinner for one very busy individual, done quickly and healthily.  And did I mention that the final product was creamy, spicy, crunchy, and completely delicious?  Or maybe that goes without saying. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Texas Hold 'Em

For what feels like a lifetime, I've been flying from west to east at the end of any given trip, losing daylight.  That's what happens when you fly east; the hours slip away right before your eyes, the sun setting over the horizon as you watch clouds turn gold and then pink in a higher level of atmosphere.  There's this sad little moment before landing when the city you call home presents itself, a matrix of lights beneath plane wings and the gravity of home hits.  Here you are.  Wherever you were was yesterday.  Now you are home.  

I spent a lot of time in airports growing up and I remember those dark flights home on Sunday evenings, wishing for a plane delay or cancellation, some finite extension of my trip.  I'm not sure that feeling ever really goes away.  No matter how much we long for home, doesn't a part of us always want the sunset to last a little bit longer, before we hit the final time zone of our destination?

It wasn't dark yet when I landed in Texas yesterday afternoon.  I had the best kind of layover, the kind that merely requires the collecting of one's things and the immediate departure from another gate.  My gate of arrival was C2 and my new gate of departure was C20, a miracle in Dallas-Fort Worth, where terminals can fall in four quadrants and require a light rail to get to.  
But I had a short walk in front of me, about seven minutes total from where I landed from Phoenix to where I would depart to New York.  In that seven minutes or so, I passed the following eateries: 

2 McDonald's
1 Taco Bell
1 Wendy's
1 Chili's
1 TGI Friday's
2 Pizza Huts
3 Starbucks
1 Texas rib joint
1 Blimpie
4 Magazine/Candy stores

Of these fine establishments, exactly two sold fresh fruit (well, I'm not sure how fresh, but anyway) and very few offered the kind of food I'm used to eating: unprocessed.  I made my first ever stop to a Blimpie, figuring I could get a sandwich on whole-wheat, and I did, but I'm pretty sure the bread was just white bread dyed brown.  

Texas is home to eight of the most overweight cities in the country and Houston is the second most obese city in the nation.  People drive everywhere and even in the airport a person can't get from destination point A to point B without encountering a million saturated fat temptations.  New Yorkers may have scoffed when a bill was passed last year requiring all fast food restaurants to post their calorie counts next to their selections, but it seems to me that a state like Texas, where the options range from pizza to burgers, would benefit from such legislation.  At least that way people would have no one to blame but themselves when they put on weight from a 1,200 calorie lunch. 

When I finished my disgusting sandwich, it was time to go home, and even though I was sad about that darkness creeping up as the plane headed east, the ultimate reminder that my trip had ended, I wouldn't have wanted to spend much more time in Texas.  When the lights of New York appeared beneath our plane, I was swallowed by the elusive sense of relief one seldom feels when home is near.  

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cactus Isn't Only Decorative

It's edible. And delicious.

I learned this on a lunch time trip to Maya Mexican Restaurant in Prescott, the true definition of a local hole-in-the-wall. Tiny and locally owned and run, Maya makes "authentic" New York Mexican food seem like a Taco Bellian experience.

Tucked in a back booth, we ordered guacamole to accompany our complimentary chips and salsa. The guac was thick and full of fresh and ripe avocado. A horchata--rice milk on ice with sugar and nutmeg--washed down the spicy salsa.

One house specialty included an eggplant and cactus burrito, a foreign delicacy for this New Yorker. Ribbons of tangy cactus provided bite next to pureed eggplant, all of which arrived rolled in a flour tortilla, swimming in red enchilada sauce, and adjacent to a heaping portion of refried beans and yellow rice.

The bill for three was an incredible 30 dollars, despite our add-ons (horchata, guacamole, Mexican hot chocolate, an additional shredded beef taco), though we had to travel elsewhere to find the optimal afternoon dessert, a certified Mexican Coca-Cola. If you know where to look, you can find 12 ounce glass bottles of Coke, imported from Mexico. Mexican Coke contains no corn syrup, a hold out to sodas of the past. They use actual sugar, something we Americans see very little of in commercial drinks. But the sodas, like so much else of our meal, felt authentic and a tad hedonistic, especially for those of us who have sworn off white sugar and flour in favor of a healthier existence.

But never mind. You can't win them all.


Maya Mexican Restaurant
512 Montezuma Street
Prescott, AZ 86303

Monday, February 16, 2009

Cowboy Country

Prescott, Arizona, two hours noth of Phoenix, bears no relation to the desert cities. When you're leaving the Phoenix valley, the cacti grow tall and green scrub vegetation spreads out over the desert. But the climb in elevation, rising to a mile when you hit Prescott, changes the topography of the land. Tall cacti are replaced by prickly pear and snow-capped mountains. Keep driving north and the land more closely resembles Colorado, with colossal pine trees rising from clay soil.

Prescott is one of the original western mining cities and still capitalizes on history and old architecture. Downtown, near the straight-out-of-Back to the Future court house, the so-called Whiskey Row dominates the town. Old saloons have been renovated into new saloons. Candy shops selling hand-churned ice-cream and popcorn replace boutique coffee joints or delis.

In the heart of this western square lies the ancient and tourist-attracting Palace Restaurant and Saloon. It was once a hotel and brothel, replete with a long bar and a host of heavy gamblers ready to dedicate their fortunes to the dealing of the cards. Wyatt Earp and his brother, Virgil, spent a good deal of time at the Palace before retreating south to Tombstone. The space is reportedly haunted by its past and has the authentic bullet holes to prove it.

Like any good slice of American history, the Palace stores its treasures in glass cases so onlookers can admire postcards, coins, and slick silver guns from the Wild West. They also serve western steakhouse fare to a market of eager tourists.

I ordered a thick corn chowder to start, which came adorned with thin and smoky ribbons of fresh bacon. The soup was roux-thick and most certainly not the kind of cuisine that keeps you thin or healthy. My friends ordered a 'calamari steak,' double-wide planes of calamari deep fried and served with a pineapple salsa. I couldn't bring myself to eat calamari that was both genetically altered to resemble a steak and also clearly not even close to native.

But I could bring myself to order a rib eye, and the 12 ounce steak came with decent skin-on mashed potatoes and boring steamed zucchini. I should have taken my other option, ranch beans, slow cooked beans resembling the refried variety and fortified with fresh corn.

My steak was thinner than I expected, but still marbled and tasty. In the west, the meat is good enough to stand alone without the sauces or silly fanciness we rely on back east. That's no real surprise, given the wide swaths of land dedicated to free-grazing cattle, likely some of the happiest cows in the world.

The Palace would benefit by giving up the shtick and focusing on food alone, but that's probably an unlikely expectation. In the end, theyb serve a good (if kitschy) steak.


The Palace Restaurant and Saloon
120 South Montezuma Street
Prescott, AZ 86303

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Raising Arizona

After confusion, connections, and an overall bad travel day, I finally arrived in Phoenix, where thermometers boasted a bright and dry 60 degrees. It was one in the afternoon, Arizona time, which translated to three on my body's clock. Also, I'd been up since 5:30. Translation: I needed something to eat.

We ended up at a nearby Tempe restaurant called Z Tejas, where we could enjoy the sunshine. Food, as to be expected, fell into the category of Tex-Mex (my friends have promised to show me the best AZ has to offer while I'm here, which, in their estimation, comes down to beef and burritos), fine by me.

Cornbread arrived in its own small cast-iron skillet and full of actual pieces of corn. Fresh corn tortilla chips came with three salsas, a salsa verde and two red salsas, one of which hit high notes on the heat scale.

As for my meal, I ate a small salad with tomatoes, red peppers, lettuce, and a fiery mango dressing. Tomatoes were the kind of red easterners only see in August and September. I also had a small piece of pepper-crusted rare tuna, served in a wasabi sauce. The sauce was grand and sinus-clearing, though the tuna itself was just okay. It occurred to me later that only idiots order fish in landlocked states.

The meal's highlight, the true western experience, came in the form of tried and true tequila. My margarita arrived on the rocks and adorned with a rim of kosher salt. There was no Rose's Lime Juice in this cocktail, and it wasn't weighed down by any sugary sweet margarita mix, either. What I got, instead, was the vegetal hot tequila, interrupted only by the clean kick of citrus. Outside, in the sun, I couldn't have asked for anything better.


Z Tejas
20 West 6th Street
Tempe, AZ 85281

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Not All Solo Diners Are Food Critics

And I'm the case in point.  I was stuck on the island between appointments yesterday afternoon and decided to have a bite to eat in Gramercy, one of my old stomping grounds.  Even though Haru's been open for some years now, I'd never stopped in before.  Somehow, I'd been distracted by the other neighborhood attractions: Gramercy Tavern, Craftbar, The BLT Fishshack, Big Daddy's Diner, etc.  But no matter.  Fish was in order and fish it was. 

Haru wasn't particularly full, even though it was 2pm on a Friday, prime time for midday business eaters.  Maybe it was the neighborhood.  My two servers, one male and one female, cane quickly and enthusiastically.  No sooner had I ordered a cup of green tea did a vibrant jade mug appear before me, denser and more wheatgrass-green than any tea I've ever seen.  

Seaweed salad came nestled in a cup of radicchio and flanked by long strands of carrot and jicama.  Yuzu juice added a final, welcome touch to a hard-to-hurt classic.  I love the texture of seaweed salad, the brininess, the weight of it in my mouth.  I don't like how it gets stuck in my teeth and think it should be mandatory for Japanese restaurants to serve the dish with toothpicks. 

For a light lunch, I had a tuna ceviche, citrus marinated tuna with grape tomatoes, cubed apples, onion, and rich avocado.  The tuna itself was meaty and substantial and the bright vinegary sauce offered a nice contrast to crunchy fruits and vegetables, not to be outdone by the traditional (and exceptionally creamy) avocado.  I could have eaten two of these, the perfect dish for tuna lovers who need to be reminded that simple preparation often makes the most sense.  

Perhaps it was because I dined alone, or perhaps the economy has waged a war on tip percentages, but regardless, my server seemed even more accommodating after he had collected my check (20 percent, in case you were wondering).  I found the alacrity both amusing and confusing.  I guess I'm not used to such striking hospitality.  

Haru Sushi
280 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10017

Friday, February 13, 2009

Air Travel

My flight for Phoenix leaves at 7:55 tomorrow morning.  Fortunately, I live just five minutes from the airport.  But I know myself well enough to know that I won't be waking up any earlier than I have to, which means no breakfast before I reach the dreaded airport. 

Normally, this wouldn't be much of a problem, but I started thinking yesterday about the limiting culinary options available in airports, about the new and asinine policies created by wayward airlines: six bucks for a sub-par sandwich en-route, unless you happen to be part of the first-class elite. 

What does a person who is trying not to eat white flour, processed foods, or refined sugar do when stuck at an airport and faced with a day's worth of travel?

My old fallback plan used to include Dunkin' Donuts and American cheese, neither of which I'm keen on putting in my body these days.  I'm thinking I'll be lucky to find a piece of fruit that hasn't been mauled in the shipping process. 

Seriously.  This is the great American crisis.  Go to Italy and you'll find airports stocked with fresh pasta and veggies.  Even London, the holy grail of mayonnaise and butter, puts more effort into their commuter cuisine than we roly poly Americans do.  We have unhealthy diets, made worse by the constant and unrelenting availability of unhealthy options at places where we have no choice but to partake.  Nutritionists always say that it is a choice, that when you're in an unhealthy restaurant you can still choose the healthiest option.  But let's be honest: ordering a wilted salad at Burger King will not fill you up and it will not make you a healthier human.  

We are a fat and dying country, afflicted with diseases of the poor even as we count ourselves among the very richest nations.  We are addicted to sugar and flour, coerced by saturated fats and processed meats.  The slow food movement is no longer nascent, born in the 1970s when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, but middle America still has no option when immediacy wins out.  

I know this.  I live in New York.  No one ever has enough "time."  I can't tell you how many people tell me that they would cook for themselves, but they don't have enough time.  They would eat more vegetables, but they don't have "time" to prepare them.  They order take-out because it's so "time" efficient.  It might be the greatest American myth, that to eat well one needs to be unemployed or a stay-at-home parent.  

People in airports are a captive audience: they will eat what you give them.  If there were fruit stands, or produce stands, or a man selling fresh sushi (and I mean fresh sushi, and not those disgusting pre-packaged California rolls they sell at the grocery store) instead of--or at least in addition to--the Sbarro's and McDonald's of the world, people would eat better.  They just would.  I love French Fries as much as the next girl, but if I were in an airport with fresh plums, I'd eat them instead.  I just would.  It's a combination of making good choices and having good options available.  

As for tomorrow, who knows what the future holds.  I'll be lucky to find a decent banana for breakfast, something to carry me over until the captivity of the plane and the bad/expensive sandwiches that will almost certainly follow.  Maybe someday we'll take food more seriously, like the Italians do.  Fresh pasta for breakfast is something I can stand behind.  

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Amateur Night

*Disclaimer: I do not hate people from Long Island or New Jersey.  

In the restaurant industry, the busiest night is also the most frustrating one.  Saturday nights in the city go by the insider moniker "B and T," a reference to the non-city-dwellers who migrate in for their once-in-a-while dining experiences.  B and T, like Bridge and Tunnel, the way by which Long Islanders and New Jerseans reach our island.  It isn't that we're geographically biased, per se; it's more like years and years of uphill battles have made us cynical.  Saturday nights are not teeming with foodies looking to explore uncharted territory.  Saturday nights are rollicking and ridiculous and filled with people with riotously high expectations that can never adequately be met.  We call it amateur night. 

But if you think Saturday nights are bad, with their butterflied well-done filet mignons, you should check out the other most amateur dining night of the year, the dreaded Valentine's Day.  Every romantic relationship in the city goes public on the 14th, flaunting love with dollars/truffles/glasses of Bordeaux.  Like Saturday night eaters, the people who dine out on Valentine's Day are not run-of-the-mill New Yorkers accustomed to a night on the town.  No, these people prefer to go out on special occasions.  They don't experiment with foods that scare them.  They go out with the obvious intention of making a good impression on their dates, which means treating service staff like the indentured variety.  

I've always hated working on Valentine's Day.  It's not like I have somewhere better to be or anything.  I just happen to know that there isn't any money in it.  Tippers are parsimonious.  Googly-eyed lovers couldn't care less about the impact made on someone else's income.  Not that it's better to be a diner.  No.  New York becomes land of the prix fixe, a hundred bucks for dinner anywhere, a spit-in-the-eye insult to those of us who are voluntarily single. 

So imagine the possibilities if the two most un-dinerlike situations were to converge, say Valentine's Day on a Saturday night.  Mayhem, riots in the streets, the cast of the Sopranos whipping out AmEx black cards on white-tableclothed Italian joints on Mulberry.  Ok, maybe not, but it wouldn't be pretty, sort of the apex of what it means to be an unwitting eater in New York.  

And the moment is upon us.  

It's like anticipating the apocalypse.  How many people will complain about offal offered on their delicate V-Day menus?  How many 10 to 15 percent tips will servers drag home at the end of the night?  How many guests will ask to see a manager because their steak is undercooked?  How many entrees will head back to the pass, uneaten?  How many tables will refuse to turn, despite the wait, because of the long and loving stare they've locked into?  

I get goosebumps just thinking about it.  

So for all you singles out there wary about braving the foam-at-the-mouth masses on this upcoming holiday, fear not.  My advice is simple: Delivery.  When was the last time you had the opportunity to watch Saturday Night Live when it actually aired?  Don't you have a bunch of Netflix movies to catch up on?  Don't you want to hit the sack early and have a nice, long Sunday to yourself?

As for this blogger, I'm headed to Phoenix, where the masses surely will not follow.  For all the New York lovers out there, good night and good luck.  It's a battlefield out there.  

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

More Tricks Of The Trade

My cousin told me that for our second lesson in culinary greatness she wanted to cook something "Asian."  This presented a few problems.  One: her stovetop doesn't get hot enough, which means that searing anything, or browning anything, or caramelizing anything by heat is nearly impossible.  It literally took over 30 minutes to boil water the last time I was over.  This means that the trademark high-heat dishes that we all associate with "Asia" would be difficult to replicate.  The second problem?  My cousin doesn't eat pork.  And pork is what every kitchen maven wants to get her hands on when it comes to dabbling with soy sauce. 

Ah, well.  You can't win them all.  I decided to take her to a very large grocery store to find inspiring ingredients. 

Me: This is Savoy cabbage.  We're going to cook with it.
Her: It looks like lettuce.

And so on.  

Perhaps because we were in New Jersey there was no fresh ginger.  There were no scallions and I walked around the store about a hundred times before I located sesame oil.  Sometime amid those rotations, my cousin informed me that she wanted to make a soup.  She bought canned chicken stock.  I bought cilantro.  

Back home, I had a few ideas.  Lettuce wraps with ground turkey, snap peas, and red peppers.  Sauteed sweet and sour cabbage.  "Clear" soup with broccoli, snap peas, cilantro, rice noodles, baby corn, and water chestnuts.  I had bought my cousin a steam basket.  She had never seen a steam basket before.  I told her that a steam basket made cooking fresh vegetables very easy.  She looked at me like I had three heads. 

I steamed fresh broccoli and snap peas, putting them aside to use later in the soup.  I made a soup base of sauteed onion and garlic and then added the stock, some soy sauce, some honey, some ground ginger, and a little bit of sesame oil.  I let the soup come to a boil and then left it alone. 

I told my cousin to brown the turkey with salt, pepper, ground ginger, and red pepper flakes.  We put the finished product aside and did the same with sliced peppers and snap peas, adding soy sauce, more honey, and some apple cider vinegar.  I took the cooked veggies off the heat and combined them in a separate saucepan with the turkey, mixing the whole lot together.  My cousin's finace wouldn't be home for a while and I planned to re-heat the turkey at the last minute.  

Finally, when said fiance was en-route, I browned (or attempted to brown) garlic and onions on a not-hot-enough stove in a blend of sesame and olive oils.  To that, I added one head of sliced Savoy cabbage, cooked until soft.  Next up, two heaping tablespoons of soy sauce, two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, one tablespoon of honey, and a handful of red pepper flakes.  I covered the skillet for a few minutes to let the sauce reduce.  

The problem in our final execution had to do with timing.  I thought the man of the house would be home earlier than he was, so I added the steamed vegetables and rice noodles to the soup too far in advance.  What happened, then, was that the broccoli and snap peas turned soft and lost their vibrant green and the noodles began to absorb too much broth.  

Ditto for the turkey, which sat too long in a covered saucepan.  Lost was the crunch of lightly-sauteed vegetables, although the flavors turned out just fine.  

The cabbage came out fine, though it lacked the brown lacquer achieved by a hotter flame.  Not that it mattered.  Both my cousin and her hubby-to-be refused to eat it.  I should have just told them it was lettuce. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pizza Pie

I have never made pizza before and, as you all know, the past few weeks have found me in the kitchen, experimenting with recipes/cookbook/forgotten kitchen equipment.  I decided that pizza was an important stop on my journey to learning how to cook.

The other day, on television, I saw a recipe for a pizza dough made with whole-wheat flour and sweet potatoes.  I tracked the recipe down on the Internet and made myself some pretty decent (and surprisingly healthy) pizza. 

The dough is easy, if a little time-consuming.  Peel, chop, and boil a large sweet potato until past fork tender.  This should take between 15 and 20 minutes.  Drain the potato and mash it immediately until smooth.  Put the mashed potato in the refrigerator (or, if you're in a rush, the freezer) to cool.  

While you're waiting, you can always make an easy tomato sauce.  It amazes me how readily most Americans fall back on canned tomato sauce when making one's own is so incredibly easy.  I like to use a combination of diced and crushed tomatoes (crushed tomatoes are close to a puree in consistency) for better texture.  Make a base with olive oil, garlic/white onion/shallot/a combination of all three and once the veggies have become translucent add your canned tomatoes.  Last night, I used only diced because that's what I had on hand.  Add spice.  I ripped up some fresh basil and added dried oregano, salt, course ground pepper, and red pepper flakes.  Add alcohol.  What I happened to have open was Amontillado, a dry and nutty sherry.  Add a dash of balsamic vinegar for depth.  And last but not least, add some kind of sweetening agent to balance the acidity of the tomatoes.  I threw in about a tablespoon of agave nectar, but any sugar or sugar substitute will do.  That's it.  Leave the pot uncovered to thicken for about 10 to 20 minutes and you have a better sauce than Ragu could ever produce. 

Moving on.  Once the sweet potato has cooled, put it in a large bowl and add to it two cups of whole-wheat flour and two teaspoons of baking powder (this will allow the crust to rise slightly).  Also add some kosher salt to taste, ground black pepper, and dried oregano.  Mix this together either by hand or with a wooden spoon.  Once it comes together, add nine tablespoons of cold water mixed separately with two tablespoons of olive oil.  The dough should be moist, but not sticky.  If it is sticky, add a bit more flour.  

You can use the dough right away or you can coat it with a thin layer of olive oil, cover it with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it.  For my pizza, I used only 1/3 of the dough.  Half the prepared dough would yield a large pizza.

Place the dough on a floured surface and roll out from the center.  I like a very thin crust, so I rolled out until it was quite large.  Place rolled dough on a baking sheet that has been oiled or sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.  In order to prevent soggy pizza, I recommend par-cooking the crust first, about five to ten closely-watched minutes in a 400-450 degree oven.  Once the pizza looks slightly brown at the edges, remove it from the oven and top with sauce, veggies (I used red onions and orange and yellow peppers), fresh basil, and thinly sliced fresh mozzarella.  Cook until the cheese melts and the vegetables wilt at 375 degrees.  

You can freeze leftover dough for another occasion, or you can pre-prep a second crust for the next night's meal.  I left my ball in the refrigerator for use later in the week.  The crust didn't taste like sweet potato at all, and although it wasn't quite as toothsome as the pizzeria variety, it went down just fine.  

Monday, February 9, 2009

Run To Eat

It's my abiding philosophy.  Well, most of the time, anyway.  Yesterday afternoon, after a sunny, warm, and altogether forgiving run in the Bronx, my friend and I took a drive to the east village for some serious rewards.  

Our destination?  Ippudo, the Japanese ramen import unlike any other ramen joint run in the city.  For one, the space is enormous.  Cavernous might be more accurate.  There's nothing delicate or subtle about the decor, a high-ceilinged, mirrored, red and black monstrosity that must seat over 150 noodle-slurpers, easy.  

Weird noodle sculptures and rhinestone hanging artwork abound, but, let's be honest, no one comes for the bad Asian decor.  We're here for the noodles, bowls and bowls of the hand-cut variety.  Ippudo's menu has grown since its inception last spring, but the focus remains: If you go, it's gotta be ramen.  

So ramen it was, though we started the meal with gently fried shisito peppers that came with fresh lemons and a lemon salt for dipping.  Shisito peppers are mild and you can often swallow them whole.  But the spicy ones, few and far between, are considered good luck in Japanese culture.  It was my good fortune, then, to encounter a piping hot little sucker, only one on a plate of ten.  It was as fiery as a jalapeno.  The waitress laughed and told me I'd have good luck.  I could probably use it. 

Then the ramen arrived, giant hot bowls filled with noodles and broth.  My friend ordered a shrimp ramen special, a shrimp stock with fresh noodles garnished with shrimp and bamboo.  I ordered the spicy tonkatsu ramen, filled with ground and sliced pork, a roasted pork bone broth, julienned wood's ear mushrooms, and chili paste.  Traditional ramen arrives with a sesame seed grinder designed to garnish any soup with fresh ground seeds.  It made the broth nutty.  Fresh noodles like this are springy and toothsome, making the average eater wonder why anyone would ever settle for dried ramen sold at dollar stores for 30 cents a package.  

We slurped our soups to the sorry bottoms.  In Japan, it's considered appropriate and respectful to slurp and drink your last drop.  Wide spoons and spoon rests are provided for such glorious slurping.  The saddest part of the day was when we reached the bottoms of our bowls.  

But we'll be back.  Salty divine ramen like that can't keep me at bay long. 

65 4th Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Cookie Monster

(Guilty as charged.)

If you're wondering why I spend so much time thinking about and trying to bake cookies, well, it's because I love love love cookies.  Love them.  So yesterday, after a long and labored conversation with a fellow cookie baker, I decided to try a different tack. 

Instead of whole-wheat flour, which, I learned last week, creates a cookie with the density of a steel ball, I used the finer ground whole-wheat pastry variety.  Pastry flour, like cake flour, works well in pastries but can't be substituted for things like bread and pizza dough.  It's too light and airy to be substantial. 

This time, my cookies came out much better.  I substituted all of the flour in the Toll House recipe for pastry flour.  I used half of the butter required and substituted the rest with unsweetened applesauce.  Dark agave nectar, twice as sweet as regular refined sugar, did the job of both white and brown sugars, cutting the sweetening agent down by half.  I did add, for consistency's sake, a teaspoon of evaporated cane sugar, an unprocessed natural sugar found at health food stores everywhere.  Note to bakers: when you cream together butter and agave nectar, it does not reach that buttery consistency you're accustomed to seeing in regular cookies.  Even when you add the eggs, the dough can look off.  But as soon as you add in the dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking powder), the dough comes together like any other dough.  

Chips go in last.  I eliminated walnuts this time around.  This dough was looser than the last two doughs I've made, a good thing.  When spooned onto the baking sheet (when you're using less butter, you'll want to spray your sheet first with a non-cooking spray), they begin to spread out a little, a harbinger of more normal cookiedom.  

This version cooked on the lower end of the 9-11 minute suggested Toll House time (375), browning at just about nine minutes.  They aren't exactly chewy, but they do have an airy quality that I like.  As for the sugar, flavor would never cue that it's missing.  Texturally, they're a little softer than normal cookies, but you'd never know that most of the bad stuff had been eliminated.  

My friend wrote about her peanut butter oatmeal cookies the other day and added a disclaimer to her post.  She wrote that although her cookies were a healthier version, "they do not fight the flu, they do not help you lose inches from your waistline, they will not improve your digestion... but they do taste damn good.  So eat 2 or 3 of them, not 12 or 13."  

I'm going to have to agree with that philosophy.  These cookies, though less evil than most, are still 130 calories a pop, so you don't want to eat all 32 in a sitting, unless you're looking to fit into those pants you relegated to the back of the closet five years ago (yes, your fat pants).  Refined sugars cause cravings, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.  The sugar in refined versions converts to fat because it's an immediate kick without long-lasting energy potential, not far off from the white bread/wheat bread equivalent.  In the 1900s, sugar cane farmers noted that island natives who chewed on sugar cane daily did not develop diabetes, whereas cane farmers who ate the processed result daily developed diabetes almost 80 percent of the time.  Diabetes is one of the great preventable diseases and it's also a disease that afflicts more--and not fewer--Americans every year, despite our knowledge of what causes it and how to keep from developing it.  

So no, eating my cookies will not make you skinny and if you're sick they aren't the equivalent to bed rest and Vitamin C.  But if you're the type of person who can't imagine a world without cookies (me, me, me!), these cookies could help you live a little healthier. 

And just one more note about refined sugar, before I hit the trails for the Bronx Half-Marathon.  Ever since I decided to eliminate most refined sugars from my diet, I've been having strange dreams.  Two in particular have found me in homes with stockpiles of candies and chocolates, unable to control myself.   I have always had vivid dreams, ever since I was a little girl, but usually they point to something going on in my life.  When I prepared to go to Belize in 2000, I took a six-week regimen of Malaria pills, which provoked psychedelic dreams.  Before a major race, I generally dream that I've slept through my alarm clock.  But this week, my dreams have centered on sugar binges, the kind one can only justify around Halloween.  Internet research provided a somewhat questionable answer to why my dreams had changed: according to some, sugar withdrawal can create effects similar to opiate withdrawal, causing headaches, muscle pains, debilitating cravings, and strange dreams.  

Basically, if the Internet holds any validity, I was addicted to heroin and didn't even know it.  Food for thought.  

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Kraft Doesn't Do It Better

I've been craving macaroni and cheese.  Really, what I want is the old boxed variety made with whole milk and lots of butter but I have no control mechanisms when it comes to Kraft and I'm afraid I'd eat the box in one sitting.  

But I did come across a recipe the other day that involved the introduction of one very Kraft-orange vegetable to a basic macaroni and cheese recipe for astounding results.  I cut said recipe in half (no single person needs to make an entire pound of macaroni for dinner unless she plans on eating it for the next week) for a more manageable meal.  

Here goes: cook half a pound of pasta (the equivalent to half a small box; in this case, I used Barilla's enriched macaroni, which has more fiber and protein than normal white pasta.  They were out of whole-wheat) and drain but do not rinse.  The starch in pasta--let this be a lesson to all drainers--helps sauce and cheese stick to it.  While the pasta's a-draining, melt one cup of skim milk and one package (generally between 10 and 12 ounces) of frozen, pureed winter squash.  Bird's Eye makes it, and I'm sure every health food store on the east coast sells it.  You can use two percent milk for a little more creaminess, if that's what you desire.  I happened to have skim on hand.  The end product should be bright orange and fully integrated.  

In a separate bowl, grate a cup of extra-sharp full-fat cheddar cheese and a third of a cup of Monterey Jack.  Add to this a quarter cup of part-skim ricotta, a half a teaspoon of course salt, a half a teaspoon powdered mustard, and a quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper.  Grind some fresh black pepper over the mixture and pour the warm squash/milk mixture over the cheeses.  Mix the cheese and squash until the cheese has melted completely.  Add the cooked macaroni. It will seem watery at first, but the oven will evaporate the extra moisture.  

Put the final product in a baking dish that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.  Top with bread crumbs (I mixed mine with a teaspoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of parmesan cheese) and put in a 375 degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until the sides are bubbling.  Put under the broiler for a final few minutes to brown the top.  To feed more than two or three people, double this recipe, though it probably feed up to four comfortably.

And there you have it.  You can taste the squash, but only a little, and it gives a nice texture to the dish.  Plus, you're getting vegetables, which too many of us skip out on.  Ricotta cheese can be a bit problematic because it becomes a little curd-y when warmed.  I'm wondering if this dish would be better with non-fat Greek yogurt, the extremely thick and tangy variety that's everywhere you look here in Queens.  Something to consider for a follow-up attempt.  

Friday, February 6, 2009

Pork Chops And Applesauce

In exchange for some changed light bulbs (high ceilings/short human), I cooked dinner for a couple of friends last night.  I wanted something that would be hearty and that would make them grateful for having trekked out to the boroughs from the island.  I also wanted to make something that I could do a large slice of in advance.  

I brined a pork loin, my first foray into porcine preservation.  I chose a loin, not to be confused with the leaner tenderloin so often in attendance at parties.  My hefty hog weighed in around 24 ounces (one and a half pounds) with a half-inch layer of fat at the top.  To make the brine, I combined equal parts table salt and sugar over a low heat to dissolve, along with some standard aromatics (fresh rosemary and thyme, a quartered lemon, a few allspice berries, a few whole cloves, ten or so black peppercorns, a handful of whole mustard seeds, a half cup unsweetened applesauce).  When the brine had reached room temperature, I submerged the pork in the pot, weighing it down with a plate.  I left it in the refrigerator, turning it every six to eight hours, for two days.

Pork turns gray when it is brining.  This is not something to be concerned about; basically, it means that the salt has permeated the meat.  When I was ready to cook the pork, I removed it from the brine, patted it dry (no, I did not rinse it off first) and seared it in a frying pan.  I started fat side down to render some of the fat into cooking oil.  Having browned all sides, I put the loin in a roasting rack and large roasting pan, surrounded by fresh thyme, rosemary, and sage.  I glazed the pork with a mixture of molasses, whole grain mustard, and dijon mustard, every 10 to 15 minutes of cooking.  I went for a high heat, though there's tons of debate on this subject.  Four-hundred degrees for what turned out to be about forty minutes (I programed my digital meat thermometer to 150 degrees).  

With the rendered fat still in the frying pan, I tossed in two chopped shallots and cooked them until they were soft.  Next, I added one cup of whiskey and deglazed the now-browned pan.  I let the whiskey reduce for about seven or eight minutes and then added two and a half cups of chicken stock, one quarter cup of agave nectar, salt, and pepper.  I let this reduce for about ten minutes before adding a tablespoon of butter at the end.  

Sides included sweet and sour braised cabbage, fennel and Granny Smith apples, a slow-cooked dish that involved little more than a simmer of balsamic vinegar, agave nectar, whole grain mustard, red cabbage, fennel, julienned apples, garlic, onion, chicken stock, fresh sage, and caraway seeds.  I made mashed potatoes with skim milk and butter, topping them with nutmeg, a personal favorite.  They were admittedly watery.  I would use two percent or higher in the future.  To accompany the pork, I made an apple, onion, and celery butter that tasted delicious but never did quite come together in pats (for some reason, the materials separated; I'm still not sure why).  

The pork was very salty, but that was fine.  The caramelized glaze tempered any salt leftover from the brine.  It was also fairly moist, though not at all pink.  I'm wondering if I should have taken it out of the oven at 145 degrees and let it carry over to 150.  I'm not sure about that.  The meat changes consistency because of the brine, so it isn't that luscious pink and tender meat you think of when you think butcher counter.  But what you get in flavor and moisture is the trade off.  All in all, things turned out pretty good, including the whiskey sauce that brightened  up otherwise boring potatoes. 

For dessert, my friend brought a gluten-free batter for cookie baking.  Oatmeal peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies did not taste at all gluten-free.  She also skipped the refined white sugar.  And, unlike my whole-wheat monstrosities, they did not suck.

Best of all, I now have light again in my bedroom and living room.  You gotta have friends. 

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Where Have All The Diners Gone?

For those skeptics who believed that New York would become a culinary wasteland in the wake of the economic tsunami, well, you're not all wrong.  The recent closings/announced closings of restaurants like Fiamma and Fleur de Sel speaks to a market oversaturated with haute cuisine and undersaturated with cheap eats.  Every day a new closing hits the press, and even the most hailed and established spots are not immune.  Yesterday's New York Times reported that Chanterelle and Gotham Bar and Grill, two New York landmarks, have experienced marked sales drops this January.  And by marked, I mean a drop in sales between 10 and 15 percent.  These restaurants have survived decades of muddy city water.  But survival, even for the fittest, looks bleaker and bleaker these days. 

I'm going to throw a little blame in the direction of the New York Times.  I believe that this moment in time is different from any other moment in the past 20 years.  I believe that this is no mere changed current of economic insecurity; it's a veritable tidal wave.  I believe that New York has to do what it can to stay in the black, even if that means switching out truffles for tacos.  

But I also believe that a complete shift away from fine dining will mean a final and inevitable change in the way we dine.  The luxuries of sitting in a quiet room with nice things will no longer be a luxury afforded the average American.  Do we really want the Chanterelles and Gotham Bar and Grills of the world to close?  Do we really want to sever all ties with the uncommon opulence of classic restaurants? 

These places are sanctuaries and, like any other sanctuaries, they deserve our attention and attempts at preservation.  We put plaques in the silliest of places, honoring the land that our forefathers tread upon hundreds of years ago.  But we dismiss the importance of dining rooms that have played host to our most important Americans, our presidents, our writers, our personal heroes.  No one would ever dream of suggesting we fell the Metropolitan Museum of Art, no matter how bad things get.  Why, then, do we ignore our restaurants when they, too, preserve memories and artifacts of life in this city?

It's Frank Bruni I really want to take to task here.  Week after week, Mr. Bruni reviews tirelessly, offering a do-or-die opinion of New York's scene.  Lately, his reviews have become downright predictable.  If you happen to run a restaurant in the east village, and if your aim is more causal and less haute, you, too can receive two stars from the New York Times.  For the past few years, Bruni has tried his hardest to reestablish the criteria for good eating in the city.  And while such brute ambition is admirable, ambition for ambition's sake alone is not enough.  I understand wanting to make food and restaurants more approachable.  I understand plebian-izing fine dining.  Ok.  I get it.  I do not, however, understand why making the lower end cool must come at the cost of making the higher end suffer. 

I consider yesterday's review the perfect example.  Every review I have stumbled across touted the virtues of the recently renovated and reopened Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel.  It's a restaurant that speaks volumes of New York's history; what little girl didn't own Eloise growing up?

The Oak Room also happens to be the quintessential old New York dining experience, replete with ornate dining room touches, tablecloths, silver, china.  It is the kind of restaurant that is supposed to remind us of the kind of place that this city used to be: dazzling, majestic, opulent, fancy.  It is the kind of restaurant that no doubt stirs in people the same nostalgia I feel when I think back on all the lovely and fancy Chinese restaurants I dined at as a child back before Chinese meant greasy takeout, where the bowls were porcelain and the chopsticks like ivory, where Shirley Temples came in fluted glasses, where lychees and stemmed maraschino cherries arrived with the check.  There is a certain other-worldliness to places like these, reminding us of a past that has all but disappeared in this fast and furious digital age. 

Mr. Bruni gave the Oak Room--who was no doubt reaching for three fine stars--a pathetic one.  Despite all of those other reviews I read, the ones that discussed the technical brilliance of the Oak Room's food, Bruni's single star may be the review that resonates.  

And so people will stop going because, in an economy like this, why would they waste their time and money on a place that Mr. Bruni believes is far from achieving greatness?  And as our critic continues to review the cheaper haunts on the New York beat, people will stop caring about the finer restaurants because they will believe that in an era like this you aren't supposed to care about things like fine dining. The thing is, the cheaper places, well, they would have survived anyway, just like the local pubs will do just fine.  Now, more than ever, it's the pricier places that need a plug.  

I hold critics to high standards.  I've seen how a critics 500 words can affect the welfare of a restaurant.  The juggernaut of economic loss cannot be controlled or remedied by any one person, but if we value the style of dining that has defined us as a city and if we believe that the future holds a place for these restaurants just as it holds a place for the funkier and fussier molecular gastronomy hangouts, we have to protect what is ours.  In that respect, I think Mr. Bruni has failed miserably in communicating what it will mean if the most important places here cease to exist.  

I love ramen just as much as the next blogger, but I'm not prepared to face a Tokoyan future, where tablecloths are replaced with quick-fix noodle bowls and pork buns.  There is room in this fragile world for remembrance of decadence past.  It is a small window, but it still exists.  For now. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Minimalist

For dinner last night, I stole a recipe that appeared on Mark Bittman's blog, Bitten, last week. I say "stole" because I adapted it so completely that it's almost a different recipe. Almost.

I had actually stumbled upon Bittman's recipe for savory oatmeal on, a website dedicated to both restaurant and home-prepared cuisine. The recipe was simple: cook one cup of dried oats (just regular old oatmeal; steel cut oats take nearly four times as long to cook) in two cups water along with a dash of sea or kosher salt for seasoning. When the water reaches a boil, stir the oatmeal and lower the heat, stirring frequently for five minutes until the water is mostly absorbed. Add two tablespoons of soy sauce and one tablespoon of fresh chopped scallion, stirring both into the mixture. Take the oatmeal off the heat and pour into a bowl, garnishing with a final tablespoon of chopped scallions.

The recipe sounded good (and easy) enough, but why not go farther, I thought. I substituted the soy sauce for tamari and added an additional teaspoon of toasted sesame oil and teaspoon of Frank's red hot. Sriracha would have been more appropriate here, but I didn't have any on hand. I topped this dish with a soft-boiled egg (easier to prepare than poached, but similar in concept). The final result was something approximating congee, a thick porridge that was salty, spicy, and not over-the-top gooey. The egg made the oatmeal more of a meal, adding much-needed protein. And the runny yolk was perfect in the middle of all that spice and tamari.

Savory oatmeal, an idea I had never really considered too deeply, seems like the perfect quick fix for lunch or dinner. I'm thinking of experimenting with other presentations. Bittman also mentioned an oatmeal he enjoyed in Italy, topped with tapenade and olive oil. Delicious.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

All You Can Eat. No, Really.

Hill Country inaugurated "all you can eat Mondays" last night, a deal that will extend until the end of February. And what a deal it is. For the paltry admission price of $25, you get as much BBQ chicken, lean brisket, and pork ribs as you can eat. And then there are the sides. Choose from German potatoes, sweet bourbon mashed potatoes, cucumber salad, cole slaw, pinto beans, black eyed peas, green bean casserole, skillet cornbread with ancho honey butter, and, for two additional dollars, macaroni and cheese, Texas red chili, and bacon baked beans.

Not to mention all the white bread and fountain soda you want.

It was an excellent deal, I discovered last night. The pork ribs were dry rubbed and you could supplement the smoky, peppery flavor with Hill Country's barbecue and hot sauces. Chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender and the brisket was... well, we had to ask for more brisket. And even then, it wasn't enough for my carnivore companions.

I would have loved some beef ribs, pulled pork, and Kreuz sausage to round out the meatfest, but that probably would have been overkill.

I was surprised that our all you can eat menu offered so many unlimited sides. German potatoes resembled a cream-less smashed, with the welcome addition of some kind of crumbled meat. Sweet potatoes were more of a dessert like a side, and the cucumber salad was essentially a welcome cup of pickled cucumbers buttressed by thin slices of pickled white onion.

Baked beans with bacon were smoky and sweet. One member of our party, a Houston native, happily pronounced the experience authentic and praised the restaurant's brisket. That's a big deal, coming from a Texan.

Hill Country serves Texan delicacies all around. Peruse the beer list and you'll find Lone Star, the Texas canned shlock, and Dos Equis, a Mexican beer favored in the south and southwest. On the sweeter side, they serve Blue Bell ice cream, a company that has been churning out high-fat favorites in Brenham, Texas since 1907.

And there's always sweet tea, served in a mason jar, which, the Texan informed me, is not what Texans actually drink out of down south. But hey, it's all part of the rolicking theme-park atmosphere that is Hill Country, a slice of the Texas pits all the way up here on our little island.

Hill Country
30 West 26th Street
New York, NY 10010

Monday, February 2, 2009

Game Night

My all-girls Superbowl party, held at the house of a friend, included some activities that probably would have faced ridicule had there been men around. In the afternoon, we played Hearts and drank Malbec. My friend cooked up fresh sausages, nabbed from her downtown restaurant. We wrapped them in biscuits and topped them with mustard, relish, sauerkraut, and ketchup.

Phase two involved a Mexican dip, courtesy of another friend. It seems my red meat-free diet was torn to shreds in the face of one whopping pound of ground beef, topped with melted cheese, sour cream, taco seasoning, black olives, tomatoes, and scallions.

Luckily, we had the whole afternoon. Next up was a mean game of Taboo accompanied by shrimp lettuce wraps, host's courtesy. She poached a pound of fresh shrimp in hot water and chopped them into bite-sized pieces. She then added a can of drained, crushed pineapple, one chopped scallion, red bell pepper, a few tablespoons of light sour cream, sriracha, cilantro, lime juice and tossed the mixture together with a few ripe and sliced avocado. We put the spicy shrimp mixture on wide leaves of iceberg lettuce and rolled them into miniature burritos.

My chili was a hit, as was the end product of project healthy cookie. When those chocolate chip monstrosities failed to meet my admittedly high standards, I decided to convert them into a bread pudding. I whisked together one egg, a cup of skim milk, some ground nutmeg, and ground cloves. I crumbled the cookies and put them in a glass baking dish and poured the egg mixture over them. At 350, I let the cookies re-bake for about 20 minutes, until I was sure the egg had cooked through. I then added sugar-free vanilla pudding to the dish, mixing the whole thing together in the pan once it cooled. It came together nicely and the whole-wheat flour actually offered nice textural integrity to the dish. My one complaint was that the chocolate chips melted on the second bake, which meant that the desired crunch of chocolate was absent from the final product.

We were all rooting for Arizona, but they lost. Of course, the entire day was nothing more than an excuse to hang around in sweatpants and eat our faces off, which, in my estimation, was a resounding success.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Big Bowl

In preparation for today's game, I did some research regarding the much-contested perfect turkey chili recipe. I'm not going to get into all of the debate between north, south, east, and west regarding what should or should not go into a good chili. Suffice to say I sifted through my own cookbooks and supplemented what I learned from books with information from the Internet.

My first book of attack was, of course, the Gourmet tome, Ruth Reichl's staggering collection of international recipes that will teach you how to make just about anything. Her chili recipe had some interesting components. For one, she used tomatillos, rather than tomatoes, as her base, making her chili green, like a salsa verde. Also, she cooked up four pounds (yes, you read that right) of turkey for her soup, which, in my estimation, couldn't have been much of a soup--or even stew--at all. I liked her use of real chiles, in this case reconstituted anchos, which are poblanos when they're fresh. But I wanted a more traditional version.

So here's what I did: I cooked up one and a half pounds of ground turkey, because that seemed like more than enough. I seasoned it with salt and pepper and put it to the side for later use. In olive oil, I sweated down one Spanish onion, one green bell pepper, one fresh poblano pepper, and one fresh jalapeno (seeds and ribs removed) with a little salt until they were translucent. I then added my seasoning, four cloves chopped garlic, one tablespoon cayenne, two tablespoons chili powder, one tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes, and one tablespoon cumin. I cooked the seasoning in for a few minutes. Then, I added two large cans of crushed tomatoes, one can of tomato paste, 3/4 cup of chicken stock, one tablespoon of kosher salt, a healthy helping of fresh ground pepper, one teaspoon of dried oregano, a can of cooked and drained kidney beans, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, one cup of frozen corn, and two chopped tomatillos.

I brought the chili to a simmer and let it cook for about an hour, by which time my kitchen was utterly destroyed from splattering tomato goo. At the end, I added a few tablespoons of light sour cream for a creamier texture. Before I serve it this afternoon, I will top it with shredded cheddar and fresh parsley.

It is a fairly hot chili and also, notably, a very healthy chili, weighing in at approximately 2,000 calories for the whole pot (it will likely serve 8, or at least 6), making it the ultimate guilt-free Superbowl snack. It seemed appropriate to use the vegetables of the southwestern United States--tomatoes, tomatillos, hot and mild peppers, corn, onions--for this particular bowl, in which Arizona, the quintessential southwestern state, will be playing.

As for the rest of the cooking, well, I'll leave that to my friends.