Wednesday, April 26, 2006


I haven't done a highlights post in a while. Food has not been getting top priority, I am sad to say. Way too many Clif bars of late.

1. Redbones. In Somerville, Mass. this past weekend, checking out Choopville, I was brought to Redbones, a BBQ haven, by people who knew I can appreciate such a place. I didn't order ribs, so I cannot compare it to LC's, didn't even want to. Instead, we pounded down collard greens, corn bread, mac and cheese, pulled pork, and--god bless them!--corn fritters sitting in a gentle pool of maple syrup. We did what you do when you enter a spot such as this: you nauseate yoruself with gastronomic pleasure, eat til you drop, eat til you have to undo the top button, and groan groan groan all the way home.

2. Sesame Pancake. I took the Fung Wah bus back from Massachusetts, and was deposited, at lunchtime, on Canal and Bowery. Trooped my way over to Dumpling House at Eldridge and Broome, and bought myself a sesame pancake with beef. It's a bahn mi meets a scallion pancake, and one of my favorite things on earth. I decided to avoid a second course of fried-ness by not ordering the divine dumplings, and went for the $1 wonton soup instead. Big mistake, becasue the dumplings are insanely good, and the soup, I found out, is not.

3. El Deportivo (Hell's Kitchen). For 5 months I dated a fella who lived on 49th and 9th. Every time we walked by the dingy yet appealing El Deportivo restaurant, he would say: I love that place. Yet we never ate there. A metaphor? Perhaps. Last Friday night, my dinner date sick at home, I popped into El Deportivo after all this time. I sat at the counter and watched the ladies make cubanos, plate up rice and use big silver tongs to drag meat out of heaters. This place makes all their food at the beginning of the day, keeps it heated, then plates it up when it's ordered. There are daily specials, so it's not a huge menu. Not gourmet, but authentic (and cheap), nonetheless. I had roasted chicken, black beans and rice, with a side of tostones. the chicken and the tostones were awesome. The rice and beans were "eh." I'll definitely go back and finally be brave and try something radical, like mofongo, which caught my eye.

4. Hold the pasta. Two nights ago, home after a long night of tutoring, I looked into my fridge at the bowl of blanched broccoli rabe and the half used jar of decent tomato sauce and wondered what the heck I could eat that wouldn't be too filling (it was 10:45 pm). I made a bowl of broccoli rabe parmesan (pour fresh grated parm on top, heat in microwave) and fell in love. Last night I repeated the affair with the only decent vegetable I could find at Key Food at 10:30 pm--zucchini. I roasted the zucchini with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then doused it in sauce, sprinkled parm...voila! a new favorite is born. It's a tasty pasta dish, hold the pasta.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

blind taste tests

In the early 80's, I participated in the Pepsi Challenge. My palate not being refined as it is today, I "failed" the challenge, thinking that the Coke was Pepsi, or maybe it was that I preferred Coke over Pepsi, something that's not hard to do. Now, with 20 years of caramel colored soda addiction under my belt, I can taste the difference between a diet Coke and a caffeine free Diet Coke; I am THAT GOOD.

In college my Polish theatre professor would have a blind vodka challenge at his end-of-the-year party. Senior year I picked the expensive Polish vodka and was thrilled to have passed that particular test with flying colors; it made me feel sophisticated and knowledgeable. I like the idea of eating while blindfolded. Apparently in some culinary programs, this is how they train you to know and understand spices. Would I know the difference between tarragon and herbes de provence if my eyes were closed? Well, I'd like to, anyway.

I love, also, the idea of eating blindly in a more metaphorical sense. I have heard of small restaurants in the italian countryside where you walk in, sit down, and eat whatever Dona Sophia puts in front of you. What a relief not to have to choose! Oh how I yearn to trust a cook like that. A few weeks ago at Cacio e Pepe in the East village, I couldn't decide between the gnocchi and the fettucine. When I asked the waiter for his advice, he replied simply: I'll suprise you! I was delighted and the gnocchi was excellent.

In theory, a blind date should hold the same appeal. My own ability to choose between the male equivalent of the gnocchi or the male equivalent of the fettucine is questionable at best. The friend (or in my case, usually the friend of the mother) can be the helpful waiter (or Dona Sophia herself), making culinary decisions for me. But my helpful waitstaff keeps sending me dishes I don't like, and I don't think I am even such a picky eater. Some friends of mine might argue that in fact I have a predilection for....say...cappelini in a lemon butter sauce, and that even when I think I am ordering something different, a closer look will reveal cappellini, and butter, and lemon, in some combination or other. Perhaps they are right; but I simply don't like tuna melts. I think they are nasty, and morally wrong and no amount of nose holding or forced swallowing will change my mind. Have I dragged this poor metaphor out long enough? Basta.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

cheese, glorious cheese

In the 80's, on TVs here in NYC, ran a series of commercials paid for by the American Cheese board, to the tune of "Food, glorious food," from the musical "Oliver!" It was the first time I noticed that commercials were allowed to buy a perfectly good song, and then put in their own silly words to help sell a product. Remember Minute Maid's "You are the sunshine of my life" campaign? It was years before I knew that was a terrific song by Stevie Wonder.

The truth is, though, that those cheese board guys are right. Cheese is glorious, especially when you make it into a cake. It's a no-brainer, really: cheese is glorious, cake is glorious, hence cheesecake= double glorious. I love all kinds of cheesecake. There's the NY style straight-up cream cheese cake. There is the Italian-style ricotta cheesecake at Venieros that I love so much. There's the cheesecake at Cafe Lalo on the UWS that Billy and I used to share, latenight. I even like the vegan pumpkin cheesecake at Candle Cafe.

A few nights ago, for my friends, glorious friends, I made a chevre cheesecake, modified from a recipe that Gourmet printed. It is apparently from Mecca, a restaurant in San Francisco. It calls for a separately made shortbread crust which I have omitted. Also, the recipe for the poached pears calls for cardomom pods, which I did not use, and it still tasted great.

For cheesecake:
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 vanilla bean
8 oz. soft mild goat cheese
1 8 oz. package cream cheese, softened
3 large eggs

For spiced poached pears:
1 cup Ruby Port
1 cup sugar
1/4 cups water
5 strips orange zet
5 strips lemon zest
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 cinnamon stik
1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1 1/2 tsp cardamom pods
1 1/2 tsp juniper berries
1/2 vanilla bean
2 firm ripe Anjou pears

Preheat oven to 325 degrees
Wrap outside of 9 inch springform pan with a large sheet of heavy duty tin foil to waterproof it.
Butter the pan and line the bottom with a round of parchment, then butter it
Gently dust pan with sugar (oh wow, I forgot this part)
Boil cream with 3/4 cup sugar in a heavy suacepan over a moderately high heat, uncovered.
Stir occassionally until reduced, about 8 minutes.
Transfer cream to a metal bowl and set the bowl in a large bath of ice water, cooling it to room temperature.
Halve vanilla bean lengthewise and scrape seeds into a large bowl.
Add goat cheese, cream cheese, then beat with electric mixer until fluffy, 2 minutes.
Reduce speed to low and add crream in 3 batches, mixing well after each addition.
Add eggs, 1 at a time, mixing well after each one.
Pour batter into springform pan, put in a roasting pan, in 1 inch lukewarm water (this is called a "bain marie")
Bake until cake appears set but still trembles slightly at the center when gently shaken, about 1 hour.
Run a knife around edge of cake to loosen it, cool completely in springform.
Chill for 8 hours or as long as you have time for before your guests arrive!

Cut a round of parchment the size of your saucepan, set it aside.
Stir together port, sugar, water, zests, lemon juice, spices and vanilla bean in saucepan and bring to a boil.
Peel and quarter and core pears, then add to port mixture and cover surface directly with the parchment round.
Poach pears at a bare simmer until tender, about 25-30 minutes.
Remove from heat, cool, then chill for 8 hours.
After cooling, take pears out of liquid and pour liquid throuhg a fine sieve, discard solids.
Return liquid to saucepan and boil uncovered over hight heat until slightly thickened, about 8 minutes.
Cool. Add pears again.

Serve cake with pears.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

school food

my elementary school food experience was atypical. i remember little of it, but i can say that there was no processed food, and virtually no pre-packaged food. there was an ice cream freezer and a refrigerated case full of dannon yogurt (we collected the cardboard discs you could pop off the top), but these were the only excpetions. for most american students, however, the food is:

full of trans fats
grade D

this past saturday i attended a school food conference hosted by the baum forum at the CUNY graduate center. for 8 hours, experts in the field of nutrition, sustainability and education gathered to talk about the movement to change the way kids think about food and change the way they eat. most kids eat 2 meals a day at school, so it's a logical place to make a difference, and try to halt the obesity epidemic (did you know that unless trends change, 1 out of every 3 kids born in 2000 will be an obese adult?! it shoots up to 1 in 2 when you focus on blacks and latinos).

the programs represented do everything from teaching cooking and nutrition to kids after school, to including gardening into the curriculum, and then using the fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria. alice waters' edible schoolyard in oakland is a paradigm that many people are beginning to emulate. basically: the way things are now is not the way it has to be. we watched a documentary about school children in rome. when the camera focused on a lunch lady grating fresh parmesan on student lunches, i laughed out loud.

if you want to get involved in the school food movement in any way, let me know and i can direct you towards involvement (e.g.: writing letters to lawmakers in an attempt to get vending machines out of schools).

Sunday, April 02, 2006

love shack, baby

two dress down friday'd business guys pull up at the curb next to me and hop out of a cab. one looks at his watch and the other one sprints to the already significant line that has formed outside the shake shack in madison square park. when the second man and i amble up and join the first guy, he points to his watch, nodding and grinning like the cat who caught the canary, "see? 11:30." i'd felt silly arriving for lunch before noon, but no worries, i didn't get my food until 12:22 p.m., a perfectly respectable time to dig in.

" who has time for this?" the man behind me snarked to his girlfriend, both of them on a strict one hour lunch break. and i am wondering the same. who but me, with my underfilled work schedule can wait an hour for her food? and as i am eating, the line is now twice as long as it was. by 1:15 the line is snaking around the curved paths of the park. the people at the back have a two hour wait ahead of them; maybe fridays are slow at their firms?

don't get me wrong, this food is terrific. i got a "shake shack burger" (which was hard for me, since it comes with special sauce and i am a true blue mustard and ketchup on my burger gal), an order of fries, and a black and white milkshake. i ordered nearly perfectly. next time, i'll get a double burger (i could use the protein, yo), share the fries with a friend (note to self: find friend who can go on midday food excursions), and stick with the divine black and white.

i went to the shake shack once before, a year or so ago and got a chocolate peanut butter concrete ( i was a vegetarian, so had to pass on the burgers). at the time i had never heard of a concrete, and was mystified but its solidity and richness. now i have been to the midwest and eaten at a dairy queen and the famous ted drewes in st. louis, so i am like a pro, or whatever. for this reason, i felt comfortable moving on to the traditional shake, and i was not disappointed. it was crazy creamy and rich and the small size was totally reasonable; i didn't feel like barfing at the end.

it was a beautiful day--68 degrees and sunny, and i had nowhere to be. i'd walked over the brooklyn bridge, and stood behind a dog on line. i was reading a good book, and getting in some good nyc eavesdropping, so all was well. but for you regular people, with regular lives, i am not sure a 2 hour wait is reasonable. the burgers are really good, as are the "probably fried in lard" fries, but i am not sure it's worth, say, losing your job over.