Monday, May 28, 2007

A summer picnic in New York

Five days left. I've given up on cooking anything that takes more thought than a plate of pasta or a salad. The apartment is a mess, as I try to sort what I'll need in Mexico versus what I need to store in my friends' basements, and living in the mess for the past week has been more stressful than I expected. So it was a relief when Mimi and Alex invited me to come over for a picnic dinner Sunday night.

It had been stifling hot all day, especially for May, but by 6 pm, it was a pleasant, only slightly sultry night. They live way west in Chelsea, almost by the West Side Highway, so we wandered over to the strip of park that runs between the highway and the river. New Yorkers are starved for outdoor space--we picnicked right next to a highway. But there was some good brush between us and the cars, and before us was the Hudson River in all its fullness and New Jersey looking serenely green. There were kids running around, solitary people reading in the cool night air, and more than one couple making out with vigor. Ahh, summer in New York!

Mimi had gone nuts cooking--poached salmon, thick spears of asparagus, roasted peppers in sun-bright colors, marble-sized green and black olives, and a pasta salad full of surprises: peas, caramelized onions, pistachios, and dried cranberries. We drank the last bottle of white wine from their wedding and talked like we could never run out of things to say to each other.

Dessert was mascarpone, drizzled with honey, raspberries and blueberries. There's possibly nothing better to eat when you're sitting on a blanket by the river on a summer night in New York.

As much as I fantasize about never coming back, I'm don't think I could ever give this up.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"Chickpeas and Peppers with Pine Nut Dressing" or "My last hurrah"

My condiments are gone. My refrigerator is practically empty. My freezer still has random fishy odds and ends my mom stocked while she was here last June--so embarrassing--but I've eaten through all my frozen meat, even the last bit of frozen pancetta. I've stopped buying the 3-lb. bag of onions, the big hunks of cheese, the 2-lb. bags of turkey thighs. From here on out, I subsist on what's left in my pantry, comforting myself that very soon, I will be tasting all the famed gustatory delights of Oaxaca.

But I had to try one last new thing, one last tantalizing unknown combination of flavors from Deborah Madison's "The Savory Way." I tried to pick something for which I had almost all the ingredients, hence, "Chickpeas and Peppers with Pine Nut Dressing." The list of ingredients just screams, "California vegetarian," but I trusted her. Besides, how else could I use up the half a can of chickpeas and bag of pine nuts I had in my fridge? The only thing I had to buy was a small bag of olives and a green bell pepper.

My paraphrase follows:

1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked 6 hours or overnight, or 2 15-oz. cans chickpeas
1 onion, quartered and thinly sliced crosswise
1 small green bell pepper, thinly sliced into 2-in. pieces
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 T. virgin olive oil
1 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. paprika
1 t. tomato paste
juice of 1/2 lemon
12 Nicoise olives, pitted, or 6 Kalamata olives, pitted and cut into large pieces
additional paprika for garnish
cilantro or parley for garnish

1/4 cup bean broth (or water or milk)
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 garlic cloves
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 large lemon
freshly ground pepper
2 T. chopped parsley
1-2 T. chopped cilantro

Drain the beans, cover them with fresh cold water and bring to a boil. Boil vigorously for 5 minutes and remove any foam. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add salt and continue cooking until the beans are soft but still hold their shape, about an hour. Drain the beans, reserving the liquid for the dressing.

While beans are cooking, warm the olive oil in a skillet and add the onion, bell pepper, garlic, cumin, paprik, and lightly salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until onion and pepper are slightly softened, for about 3 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and lemon juice and cook for another 30 seconds or so.

To make the pine nut dressing, heat the bean broth, milk or water. Puree pine nuts in a food processor, gradually adding the heated liquid. Add garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and a little salt and pepper and process until smooth. Add cilantro and parsley and season to taste with pepper.

Toss the beans with the dressing. Add the vegetables and olives and toss again. Garnish with paprika, cilantro and parsley.

Since I had only half a can of chickpeas, I haphazardly reduced the amount of all the ingredients. No lemons, but I had two limes. I had just a few measly sprigs of still-green cilantro, and the puny bit of pine nuts I threw into my 11-cup food processor just kept getting flung around. No smooth puree. But the dressing was so good! Nutty and creamy, but without any actual dairy--dare I say vegan? The salad overall would have benefited from more chickpeas to balance out the peppers and onions, but cooking them only slightly was inspired. Their crunchiness added a lively, fresher flavor than the more familiar, mellow taste of long-cooked peppers and onions. My little counter was a mess of parley and garlic bits, and all for a measly bit of chickpea salad, but it felt good to concentrate and follow an odd little recipe. I'm know I'm going to miss cooking in Mexico.

The rest of my dinner wasn't so exciting and actually kind of wrong. Pasta all'amatriciana is one of my favorite things to eat, and something I always have the ingredients for. Bacon, onion, and tomatoes are a magical combination, but I mistakenly thought it would be good with some sauteed mushrooms as well, which were also in my fridge begging not to be thrown away. The mushrooms should have had a strong flavor, but they just ended up chewy disks in the sauce, and worse, they made it practically impossible to taste the bacon. The whole wheat pasta didn't do so well against this sauce--there were just too many flavors that didn't complement each other. Thankfully, everything improved with a big dusting of parmesan cheese.

But now what am I going to do with the leftover pine nut dressing?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Buen Viaje-Take a Condiment Brunch

It was finally time to get rid of my condiments. I sent out a big email to my friends--come say goodbye before I leave for Oaxaca and "Take a Condiment" brunch. I had a few people say, "What? Take a what?", but in the end, I had two friends fighting over the walnut oil and another hiding the ginger spread in case someone else took it. I even had a friend call and say he couldn't make it, but could I reserve the horseradish for him?

As always, what I thought would be an easy, laid-back menu ended up taking more time than I expected and causing me some last-minute stress as I sliced oranges and pineapple furiously for the fruit salad, but there's a part me that enjoys this kind of stress, the same part of me that gleefully makes hour-by-hour schedules for parties, counting backwards from the time my guests are to arrive.

The night before, I prepped the two casseroles: a Paula Deen heart-attack-in-a-pan French toast casserole and a strata I found on an old entry of a SF food blogger. Together, with Candy's chocolate pound cake, I needed 26 eggs!

I decided on three salads: the shockingly good salad of fennel, avocado, and sun-dried tomatoes in a nutty, lemon-caper dressing; a fruit salad of pineapple, strawberries, and sliced valencia oranges with a mint sugar garnish; and a simple green salad with sugar-sweet grape tomatoes.

My sister was enamored of the French toast casserole, which was baked with a praline topping that called for two sticks of butter, a cup of brown sugar, a cup of chopped walnuts, two tablespoons of maple syrup, 1/2 a teaspoon of cinammon and 1/2 a teaspoon of ground nutmeg. I got scared of what Paula Deen would consider sweet, and I didn't use all the topping I made, which was a good thing. (It's unbelievable that she even tells you to serve it with additional maple syrup.)

Others, Louisa in particular, loved the strata with its prosciutto, chard, spinach, and gruyere-parmesan filling. I personally have decided I am not a fan of soggy bread unless it's bread pudding, but I was glad the experiment was successful to my guests. It was definitely impressive when it came out of my oven, all puffed, golden, and glistening.

Leslie and Richard couldn't get enough of the fennel-avocado salad. It really is amazingly good, possibly the best salad I've ever had, maybe because the surprise of seeing something so novel makes it taste even better.

And everyone loved the chocolate pound cake, as I knew they would.

And of my once mighty collection of condiments, I have only red-wine vinegar, white-wine vinegar, the blood orange jam I couldn't give up, some Korean jammy teas, and a couple baking staples. I might have to make another cake before I leave.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Easy Saturday pasta and wine

It was a relief to be at home alone on Saturday night. Work has been draining lately, and with everything I had to do to prep for Sunday's brunch party, I made sure to have no plans other than a bottle of wine and a simple pasta dinner.

For all my talk of good ingredients and organic produce, I'm a cheapskate. Hell, that's a huge part of the reason I cook so much. And for a long time, it was unthinkable to open a bottle of wine just for myself. But for the past few years, I've developed a habit of drinking alone (which I think is quite healthy, so there), just a drink or two when I get home from work. So I'm always on the lookout for cheap wines $10 or less. I don't know enough about wine to find those wines on my own, so I often go out of my way to get to Astor Wines in the East Village. I'm sure there are wine shops in the city that are more intelligent or thoughtful, but I love that the staff at Astor Wines is used to stupid people and that when you ask for a wine that is $10 or less, they don't suggest wines that cost $10.99. Unfortunately, few of the cheapo wines I try are worth seeking out a second bottle, but I was pleasantly surprised by the easy, clean taste of the Spanish Blanc de Nulles.

It was a night of small, happy discoveries, as I also found a whole wheat pasta that actually tastes good. There's definitely been a theme lately of me trying to eat healthier. I finally decided to face the fact that regular pasta is a blackhole of nutrients. But the one time I had tried whole wheat pasta before--I must have been living in California--it tasted so much like cardboard I couldn't bring even my cheapskate self to eat the rest of the box.

To my great relief, the Bionaturae spaghetti I bought at the Coop had real flavor. Their advertising is truthful--it really does have a nutty, honest flavor, the flavor of good whole grain bread. It's different, the way tofu is different from meat, but once I accepted that, its strong flavor held up well against sauteed kale and crumbled DiPaola's turkey sausage, with a generous grating of fresh parmesan cheese. Me, wine, pasta, and the early Sunday NY Times: it was a happy night.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

International Junk Food, part I

One of the things I love most about traveling is international junk food. Like most people who like to travel, I love things that are different. Maybe I have a bad tendency to fetishize the exotic (and an unhealthy attraction to men with accents), but I can indulge my love of international junk food knowing the risks are low. Yes, it might taste terrible, but it only cost a few dollars! And the packaging is always, always rewarding.

I'm not the only one obsessed with international junk food. Clearly, there are many who love seeing how similar and how different cultural preferences can be, all centered around the universal affinities for sugar, salt, and fat. Everyone likes to use cartoons to sell candy, but Japanese cartoons are very different from American cartoons which are very different from French cartoons. And then, there's always the fun of seeing a blissful disregard for political correctness:

I found this chocolate bar in Astoria. It's made in Croatia and since it's chocolate with rice krispies, it's called "Mikado," and has a picture of a Japanese garden. Makes perfect sense, no? (Incidentally, it tastes like chalk.)

The Peruvians have a very different idea of how to decorate chocolate. The label would make a beautiful, retro poster for Pottery Barn to sell. I haven't tried it yet because I can't figure out what it's for. It might be cooking chocolate.

The great thing about New York is that you don't even have to leave the country to find great examples of international junk food. Before my Indian dinner on Sunday night, I had a little time to kill and started walking up and down Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside. I felt like I'd found Ali Baba's cave when I came across the Butcher's Block, an Irish deli and grocery store.

I love the look on this butcher's face. The cow has no idea what's coming to him.

I bought these Jaffa cookies because of the words on the box: "10 spongy cakes with the squidgy orange bit"! "Squidgy" is an English word but definitely not an American one. I like how gleeful they are, too: "New recipe with lots more orangey centre yippee!"

They smelled very fragrant when I opened the box, and they tasted pretty good, too, though I think you'd have had to grow up with them to love them.

This isn't junk food, presumably. Kellogg is an American company, but Irish citizens are getting cereal that Americans didn't have access to, at least until Irish expatriates began importing it to Sunnyside!

I also bought some Finnish licorice (bad) and something called "Bounty," a Dutch version of Mounds that comes in milk and dark chocolate (delicious). I would have taken so many more pictures, of tea and juice and more candy, but as nice as the guys behind the counter were, I thought snapping a ton of pictures would look suspicious.

Food is such a major part of how immigrants adjust and adapt to life in the U.S. It's often the last thing immigrants' children cling to, so that the only words they know in their parents' or grandparents' language are food-related. It just cracks me up that we need our own mass-produced junk food, too.

In springtime, a young woman's fancy turns to thoughts of bacon.

I haven't been cooking much lately. I bought some nice, fresh produce at the Coop this Sunday, one ear of corn, a bunch of purple kale (which I've never tried before), a handful of crimini mushrooms, and some fresh fava beans, but even the thought of all that produce in my fridge couldn't tempt me home to cook dinner alone on Tuesday, and I went out for beer and sausages with Lina and Leslie. I've been feeling a little subdued lately. Part of it is work-related; I got some bad news for one of my favorite clients. And part of it is a little fear about my upcoming trip, not so much about being in Spanish-speaking countries for six months when I can barely say, "Me llamo Grace," but whether I will come back with any more clarity about my life.

Luckily, fresh fava beans demand so much attention, you have to focus to the exclusion of all other thoughts, even an overdue response to a motion to dismiss. They really are too much work when you're not paying someone else to shell and cook them, but for me, they say "spring" almost more than any other vegetable and I couldn't resist them. And on a Wednesday night, coming home around 8 pm, I still managed to get dinner on the table by 8:30.

First you shell them. Whenever I discard the pods, I feel so wasteful. Not only do I end up discarding a good three-quarters of the weight I paid for, the pods are so spongy and soft, they feel like they should be useful in some other way, like filler for seat cushions or something. Then you blanch them, letting them cool long enough so you can handle them. Then you have to slit their little opaque skins and squeeze out the tiny, bright green beans inside. It's almost a joke when you look at the handful of beans you have and the bag of empty pods. Mmm, $1.94 per pound!

But the little buggers tasted so good, especially with pancetta and meaty crimini mushrooms. It wasn't planned. I just had some pancetta in the freezer, which was older than I'd like to admit, and the mushrooms I had bought on a whim. While the water for the pasta boiled and the mushrooms and pancetta were cooking, I squeezed the little green babies out of their skins, giving the mushrooms a stir every once in awhile. The mushrooms got so infused with pancetta fat they started to taste like pork, so the fava beans were the perfect counterpoint, so green I could just feel the vitamins bursting from them. A shaving of parmesan, also older than I'd like to admit, rounded out the dish.

It would have been better with a small, shaped pasta, like orecchiette or those ruffly ones, but the spaghetti was good enough for conveying the salty, fatty, green taste of spring.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Waiting for Indian food

My friend Raj has been tempting me to go try Indian-Chinese food in Queens for months now. He and his girlfriend frequently zip up to Queens from their place in Brooklyn to sample such tantalizingly named dishes as chicken lollipops (well Raj does, Allison is vegetarian). We finally planned to go on Sunday night, and he enlisted some friends to join us so we sample a good portion of the 200+ items on their menu.

His usual choice, Tangra Masala, is a tiny place, and so Raj suggested we meet at their cavernous sister restaurant, Tangra Asian Fusion, just off the 40th St. stop on the 7 train.

Unfortunately, this view of their over-the-top interior was as close as we got to eating chicken lollipops that night. Perhaps eating Chinese food is an Indian tradition on Mother's Day, but for whatever reason, a restaurant that is normally empty was packed at 8 pm on Sunday night, with the crowd impatiently spilling onto the sidewalk.

We put our names down at 8 and were hopeful that we would have a table by 8:30. It was a nice night, and we stood on the sidewalk chatting amicably. Then 8:30 came and went. When Raj went to check with the host and showed shock at the long list of names ahead of us, the host tried to reassure him, "Don't worry, people eat quickly!" When more time passed, Emily decided to fight her way through the throngs to ask when our table would be ready. Fifteen minutes later, she returned with the news that if "Houd" was gone, the next table would be ours! Unfortunately, "Houd" was very present.

It was time for Plan B. There was a "Cafe Romania" across the street, a Turkish place a few doors west, a Japanese place a few doors east, and another, small, bare Indian restaurant on the same block, Vicky Punjabi Haandi. Emily, who lives in Sunnyside, said that she had gotten take-out there before and that the food was fine. By that point, that was good enough for us.

I only know the name of the place because I took a photo of the small, photocopied sign taped to the front window on my way out. There is no larger sign declaring the actual name, though neon letters make clear that you are there to eat "INDIAN CUISINE."

The decor inside was similarly schizophrenic. The tabletops were shiny with a huge, blown-up photo of blowsy pink roses on each one. There were a few tapestries tacked high up on the walls and a TV in the corner playing Bollywood movies, but the room was otherwise more stripped down than a Chinese take-out place with bulletproof glass. Vicky was obviously catering more to take-out customers. Still, nothing was out of the ordinary, and we could smell good things from the kitchen.

We only began to realize we had entered a Twilight Zone of Indian restaurants when we began to order. One lamb tikka, one chicken tikka masala, one fish goa, and then, Raj, the only Indian, tried to order bhindi masala. "Bhindi masala," he said. "No, bhindi masala," the waitress said. At first, we thought she was telling us there was no more bhindi masala, but no, she was correcting his pronunciation. Raj was too nice to tell her his family is from the south and they don't speak Hindi.

Things got stranger. A group of three kids came in and she walked over to them with an obvious roll of the eyes. I thought she knew them, but no, she was just unhappy to see them. Then a group of 14 came in, of which 5 were under six, hungry, and cranky. Tangra Asian Fusion was clearly overflowing into Vicky Punjabi Haandi. We heard the children scream and cry, "We waited over two hours!" "I didn't eat today!" The waitress was really unhappy to see them.

It became quickly obvious why. We waited and waited and waited for our food. Tangra Asian Fusion called my cellphone to tell me our table was ready at 9. We laughed and relinquished it, believing our food would be on our table at any moment. We waited and waited and waited. Emily and her friend Lory got antsy. They became the cranky, hungry children at our table. I have never heard someone "hmmph" and sigh with as much gusto and repetitive speed as Emily did that night. Other parties started getting up and switching tables for no explicable reason. I tried to start conversation topics that weren't about food or hunger, but only Raj answered my questions. Every 10 minutes or so, our table would watch the waitress come out with plates of food, and we would sing in a hopeful crescendo, "Oh--oh--oh," only to let out a deflated "nooooooo" when she put the food on a different table. Twenty minutes after they arrived, the party with the starving children were asked what they wanted to eat. We waited and waited and waited.

At 9:30, 45 minutes after we had arrived at Vicky, and an hour and a half after we had started waiting for dinner, our food arrived.

And the irony of ironies? The food was really, really good. Everything came out hot, like it had just come off the stove. The flavors were fresh and bright, with a balanced smoothness and complexity that showed obvious care. The tikka masala sauce looked real, not pink. The tandoori lamb was moist, the naan fluffy, crispy and chewy all at the same time. As we ate, we could imagine the beleaguered lone cook, talented but unused to crowds, grinding spices and making everything from scratch, methodically moving through the orders one by one.

We ate everything in 10 minutes. We even dared to order more naan, and wonder of wonders, we got it in 5 minutes. We geared up to ask for the check, and when we finally waved her down and said, "We'd like our check please," she replied, "You look like my sister." She was looking straight at Emily, who is East Asian. In case we didn't understand, she said, "She's an Indian woman." She then took some plates and walked away.

When we realized she probably hadn't absorbed our request for the check, we did an estimate of what we owed and just managed to get the check in time to check our math. We had had delicious Indian food. It was time to leave.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

New Haven Love-Fest

It's been 8 years since my friends and I graduated from Yale, but in the way of many Yalies, in those eight years, one of us has been in New Haven in one way or another. This year will mark probably the last Yale-related graduation for us, when Romy graduates from the Yale School of Art with a master's in graphic design. A group of us in New York headed north on Saturday to see her graduating class show and incidentally, to eat some good New Haven food.

Danica offered to drive, citing a need to get back to New York early Sunday morning. As we drove on I-95, however, it became clear that she had other motives for choosing her parents' car over Metro North.

In our four years as undergraduates, we were sadly unaware of Stowe's, just a short drive away on the shore in West Haven. It's easy to forget that New Haven is a coastal city, but Stowe's makes it deliciously obvious. Danica is good at taking every opportunity possible to make up for lost time.

Stowe's has your classics, like fried clams and lobster bisque, but their crowning glory is the lobster saute roll, a version of the lobster roll that Connecticut can be proud to claim as its own.

Unlike the usual lobster roll with mayonnaise, celery, and often unknown filler, the Connecticut version is just lobster meat and butter. "Just" lobster meat is probably the grossest understatement. Served on a soft, New England-style split-top hot dog bun, and offered for only $9.50, Stowe's lobster saute roll is...sublime.

This wasn't our dinner. On our agenda: New Haven pizza.

The best New Haven pizza is a hotly debated topic, with most people arguing vehemently about Sally's versus Pepe's in Wooster Square. I prefer to avoid the long lines at both places, because no pizza is worth waiting 2+ hours for, especially when all the locals know you can get fantastic pizza at Modern on State Street. But a good downtown alternative is the pizza at BAR, which despite being kind of a cheesy place and not even the best of New Haven's pizza establishments, makes a chewy, flavorful crust that blows many a NY pizza legend out of the water. It's also the only place I've ever been that serves pizza with mashed potatoes and bacon. It's best to eat it on a "white" pie (no tomato sauce). Don't knock it till you try it.

One summer day long long ago, Danica and I ate an entire large pizza for lunch, while a table of four middle-aged men looked on us with a mixture of awe and respect. This time, we couldn't quite do it. Four of us ended up leaving almost third of a pie.

The whole day was an exercise in remembering who we had been then and realizing how different we are now. We walked across the New Haven Green to our favorite coffee shop and then got past the locked gate at Timothy Dwight College to look at the home we had shared for four years. The dining hall was full of students eating dinner between finals, who barely noticed the 30-year-old alums wandering among them. I whispered as loudly as I dared, "Don't go to law school!", knowing they would never listen. We wondered where students sat to talk in the courtyard, now that the fence was gone. We mourned the loss of the beautiful tree that bloomed each year just as classes came to an end.

And then we went to Romy's show and presented her with her graduation gift, a Lithuanian coffee cake from Claire's with an obscene amount of buttercream frosting. Romy was the one who came up with our group motto, "FIAGO" or "Fuck it and go on." It was only appropriate to give her a cake declaring, "FIAGO 4-Ever."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Thai food with friends

In three weeks, I will be on a plane to Oaxaca, Mexico. By the time I come back in November, two of my best friends will have left New York. Lina is moving to Providence to be with her husband; Leslie is going to grad school in Boston. During the past two years, both of them have been my family here, friends I can admit horrible, embarrassing things to, because I know they love me. For awhile, I felt bitter about losing my friends, but now, I feel lucky about the time we had together. We met in high school, went to different colleges in the Northeast, and both of them having serious wanderlust, there have been years where one is in Haiti, another in Paris, then in Italy, then in Mexico. We never expected to live in the same city again, all at the same time.

In addition to all the substantive, meaningful ways they are wonderful friends, they are also good people to have over for dinner. I can feel free to experiment, I can feel free to say, "Fuck it," at the last minute and get take-out. And if I do cook, I know they will eat with gusto.

Last night, we gathered at my place for a casual Thai dinner. In planning the menu, I started with one of my staples, Thai green curry made with store-bought green curry paste. Some of my friends in San Francisco took a beginner's Thai cooking class with Kasma Loha-unchit, and when they shared what they had learned about making green curry, I was amazed at how much more intense and bright the flavors were than 90% of the green curries I've had in restaurants.

In the beginner's class, Kasma just recommends certain brands; the more advanced classes learn how to make the pastes from scratch. I love her strong, opnionated tone. It's very comforting when you're staring at a shelf of products in an unfamiliar language.

The recipe for green curry is very simple and adaptable. I've substituted fish for pork, and last night, I substituted DiPaola's turkey thighs which were in my freezer. Sometimes, I use eggplant and zucchini, sometimes I add green beans, whatever vegetables look good and fresh. The key, I think, is to follow the steps at the beginning: frying up the cream of the coconut milk first until the oil bubbles at the edges and separates and frying the curry paste in the coconut cream to release the fragrant flavors. My friends emphasized tasting as we went along, and it's a fascinating way to see how the flavors balance and change as each ingredient is added. When you first fry up the curry paste, it should be intensely flavored and too salty. When you add the palm sugar (I used regular sugar last night), the curry almost seems to get spicier because it takes on a different note. Adding the slivered Thai chilis at the end adds another dimension to the spiciness. It's amazing how many different ways a sauce can be hot.

For a long time, I was intimidated by Thai food because the unfamiliar ingredients just overwhelmed me. But once you buy the staples, most of them keep very well, and Thai green curry easily becomes something you can whip up on a weeknight with stuff that's already in your kitchen. In New York, the Thai grocer at Mosco St. and Mott St. in Chinatown is wonderful. It's a small store, packed with almost all of Kasma's recommended brands, as well as fresh ingredients like Thai basil, the adorable round Thai green eggplants, Thai chilis, lime leaves, galangal and lemongrass. They're also very nice. (And you can get 5 dumplings for $1 at Fried Dumpling next door.)

As I walked back to the office through Chinatown, I started to imagine other dishes I could add to our dinner. I stopped at one of the fish markets on Canal and bought a pound of squid. Calamari is cheap, delicious, and so much easier to cook than you would think, and it freezes well, too. I looked at this recipe and that one, and then just riffed on them. I sliced up the squid, prepped all the ingredients, and sauteed it with some fish sauce, chopped ginger, chopped garlic, slivered Thai chilis, and thinly sliced red onion right after the girls walked in, then dressed it with lime juice on a bed of mint.

I also had a big bag of green beans in the fridge, and found this easy recipe online, which basically just called for a big dab of red curry paste. Looking at the recipe now, I see I forgot to add the sugar. Oops. I thought something was missing.

Leslie brought beer, Lina brought strawberries and passionfruit sorbet. I cut up some mangos, and we just sat and talked about our day and funny memories and how we would love to live in a commune together and trips we might take next year. Nothing out of the ordinary, and exactly what I love about our friendship.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

One messed-up fish

Tonight was one of those nights I was really glad to be eating alone.

Fort Greene Park's Greenmarket, despite being small in the summer and miniscule in the winter, has a very nice fish stand where they sell a surprising range of stuff, from tender calamari to mussels and clams, as well as several kinds of fish fillets and whole fish, all at very reasonable prices. I'm very fond of seafood, but it's definitely a weak spot in my cooking repertoire because I have a deathly fear of overcooked fish.

Unfortunately, tonight was not the night that I suddenly blossomed into a fabulous fish chef. I wanted to do a simple pan-grilled fish with chermoula sauce, from Claudia Roden's recipe in "The New Book of Middle Eastern Food." But since I'm generally suspicious of fillets, I decided a whole striped bass, just over a pound, would be a good substitute for the cod or hake fillets she recommends.

The chermoula sauce itself was delicious, to the point that I kept dipping a spoon into it and getting intense raw garlic breath, another good reason to be eating alone. So easy, another food processor wonder--I just whirled 1/2 cup of cilantro, 4 garlic cloves, 1 t. of cumin, 1 t. of paprika, 6 T. of olive oil, and 3 T. of wine vinegar (or lemon juice). (Next time, I might use a bit less garlic.)

I then let the fish marinate in half the sauce while I did my laundry, reserving the other half for serving. The problems began when I tried to actually grill the damn thing. I was so excited to use the other side of my reversible grill/griddle, but I didn't heat it enough before laying the fish on. Then, I was so scared of overcooking it, I turned it too soon, ripping the skin off completely, and then I turned it too early again on the other side. I ended up just cooking the top layer on each side, leaving the insides translucent and gray. I didn't even realize what was wrong until I scraped away the top layer and then couldn't get the rest of the fish to fully flake away from the bone. For a moment, I even wondered if this fish had an alien skeletal structure. So stupid. I ended up throwing it back in the pan to finish cooking it through, ending up with a mauled-looking whole fish missing its skin and top layer of flesh, but still edible. I got impatient and started tearing at it with my fingers, even gouging out the tender little cheeks. In the end, the fish was a mess, bones and bits all over the place. I didn't look too good either.

Despite all the abuse, the flavor was great. Bass is such a tasty fish, and in the end, I didn't overcook it. The chermoula sauce didn't overpower it either, as I'd feared it might. And with some bulgur and chickpea salad and some halved radishes, it made a very fresh, spring dinner.

And since I don't have a pretty picture of my dinner, here's a picture of some of the stunning tulips I saw this weekend at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

"I think these are the best pancakes I've ever had."

Leslie is one of my favorite people to have over for a meal. She's appreciative and also not stupid. Some people are impressed just that you've cooked something, anything. Leslie has standards, and when she says, "I think these are the best pancakes I've ever had," I feel justifiably proud.

To be sure, the recipe is not my creation. I did a quick Google search this morning before she came over, and found Bette's buttermilk pancakes from a May 1999 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. And I think my new griddle did a lot of good, too, though I'm still learning to respond to its heat-holding powers. The little pancakes just sizzled up so beautifully as they were dropped onto the griddle.

But more importantly, they were as delicious as they were beautiful. They were actually light, with a tender, just slightly sweet flavor. I love pancakes, but I almost never order them because they're often insipidly doughy and they land with a leaden thud in your stomach. And I rarely get to eat them at home because you can only divide a batter by so much, and even I cannot eat 10 pancakes for breakfast.

I served the pancakes with little patties I made out of DiPaola's turkey sausage from the Fort Greene Greenmarket, which again amazed Leslie, who didn't believe turkey could be so deliciously fatty.

It was a truly bounteous weekend of breakfasts. In addition to "the best pancakes ever" on Sunday, I had the most satisfying brunch of fried eggs, "Moroccan-style" on Saturday. After a 6-mile run, I couldn't imagine a better place to be than sitting in my sunny kitchen with some crispy fried eggs, dotted with deeply spicy harissa and anchovy fillets, a warm pita, and good coffee in my little white cup and saucer. I'm a very lucky girl.

Friday, May 4, 2007

If I could only eat five things for the rest of my life, noodles would be at the top of the list.

My sister and I like to play a game where one poses a question to the other, "Noodles or rice?" "Chocolate or vanilla?" "Cilantro or mint?" Any pair of foods or flavors, with the understanding that you cannot have both, but must choose only one to eat for the rest of your life. Fun game, no?

For me, the question of noodles or rice is easy--noodles forever. Most Korean people I know feel a strange sense of emptiness if they go more than a day without eating rice, and I admit I feel that way occasionally as well, but the thought of giving up naengmyun, soba, ramen, udon, pho, chow mein, all the gazillion types of pasta, it's just no contest.

Last night, Lina, Leslie, and I decided to go see the Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design in midtown. Leslie is the most anal and exact one of us three (and the only trained pastry chef), but she was the most frightened by the precision and concentration required for some of the pieces we saw. Probably the most awesome, in the most literal sense of the word, was the one of three large floor-to-ceiling panels of black rubber or plastic into which the artist had painstakingly cut tiny diamonds and slits to create an intricate pattern of lace using an EXACTO KNIFE. My God.

Leslie had made clear from the beginning that she was only coming for the dinner we would have afterwards at Menchanko-Tei. When I suggested that maybe Lina might want to eat something other than ramen, her work-lunch staple, Leslie got this sad little catch in her voice as she said, "We can eat somewhere else if you like."

Menchanko-Tei makes me so happy. There's always so much more food than I think I can eat, but I just can't stop. I got the "chigae miso menchanko," which came in a earthy, spicy broth that reminded me of Korean daenjang chigae, or fermented bean paste stew, albeit with a Japanese touch. That kind of salty, deep flavor is so addictive, more addictive than any bag of potato chips.

Lina got the "hiyashi chuka," a big bowl of chilled noodles in a bit of broth with chicken, ginger, egg, mushroom and lettuce; Leslie the "tsuke men," also chilled noodles with thick slices of roasted pork, though the spicy miso broth came separately for dipping. I'd never tried the "tsuke men" before, and I loved how it combined what I love about cold soba with the flavor of ramen noodles. Their noodles are seriously toothsome.

After dinner, we wandered west to Hell's Kitchen looking for a drink or some tea. We managed to find Kyotofu, a new Japanese dessert restaurant on Ninth Avenue. The restaurant was a pleasant surprise, with the sort of modern decor that manages to be also warm. The two desserts we shared, the black sesame sweet tofu and the soy-milk rice pudding with goji berries and ginger, were very subtle, maybe too subtle.

Our decaf coffees definitely overpowered them, though I was very fond of the beautiful swirls in my cup and saucer. I'm sure they would have paired better with one of their teas, and I scraped away every bit of both puddings, but I don't think I'll be rushing back, though I am tempted to try their mochi desserts. I think I was hoping more for Chinese-style tofu desserts, which are sweeter and heartier. I did love the little cubes of kiwi jelly they brought with our check.

I might also have gotten overly distracted by the couple sitting next to us. The man would not let his date get a word in edgewise, despite telling her he thought she was very beautiful. I guess he just wanted to look at her.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Shockingly good salad--and it's raw!

I've been craving salads lately. It's getting warmer, beautiful greens and vegetables are coming into the markets, and frankly, now that I'm 30, my body is no longer able to absorb with metabolic abandon everything I throw into my mouth.

A simple salad of bright, flavorful greens dressed in a perfect vinaigrette and nothing else is a beautiful thing, and I'm lucky to have access to farmers' markets with greens that are fresher and tastier than anything in supermarkets, even the Coop. But five minutes after a big bowl of the best greens ever, I'm usually still hungry.

So for one-dish meals, I normally rely on salads that have greens as a base, but are loaded up with nuts, cheese, and tangy-sweet vegetables or fruits. I might add an anchovy or two, some canned tuna, or a hard-boiled egg, but I never make those monstrous salads you see at overly expensive chains, with fried chicken and corn and tortilla chips and enough food to feed a small village. Roasted beets take a lot of time on a Sunday afternoon but no work and keep well in the fridge. My sister taught me how to "supreme" oranges and grapefruit, cutting the north and south poles of skin off, and then cutting away at the skin in strips to remove the pith, leaving only the sweet flesh. In the winter, pomegranate seeds go in almost everything, and sometimes thin, small slices of apple or pear. I'm partial to little cubes of semi-hard cheese, like halloumi or ricotta salata, that add bites of salty flavor, and I always have pine nuts, walnuts, pistachios, or some combination in my freezer. I'm not philosophically opposed to bottled dressing, but I never buy it since I've had some nasty surprises and it's so easy to make a vinaigrette.

My overall goal is to balance the flavors I love best: some peppery notes, a little sweetness, a little tartness, some creamy texture, and good old salt. Every once in awhile, I end up with a not-so-harmonious melange, but I usually avoid that by sticking to ingredients that make regional sense.

So I was really surprised when I saw the ingredient list for Fennel, Avocado, and Mint Salad with Pistachio-Caper Dressing on Chow, from the chef at Pure Food and Wine, one of those crazy raw food places. In addition to all the ingredients in the name of the salad itself, the recipe calls for a good amount of sun-dried tomatoes, lemon zest, and chopped parsley. It was maybe vaguely Mediterranean, except what were the avocados doing there? It was a combination I'd never considered, even though almost every one of the ingredients is a staple in my kitchen. (Well, I didn't have pistachio oil but I did have walnut.)

It felt more labor-intensive than my usual salads, but it wasn't really. I had to boil some water in my kettle to reconstitute the sun-dried tomatoes, but while they were soaking, I didn't chop much more than I normally do. It was almost 9:30 at night, and I was starving, but I wanted to try to plate it in layers as recommended, even though I was the only one to whom it would be presented. So in between bites of leftover pita and Moroccan-style hummus, I carefully laid a layer of thinly sliced avocado in a radiant circle. I piled on some thinly sliced fennel tossed with the sun-dried tomatoes and lemon-caper-nut vinaigrette, followed by a clumsy sprinkling of chopped mint and parsley. How are you supposed to sprinkle herbs with damp, avocado-stained fingers? Again, avocado, fennel, herbs; avocado, fennel, herbs.

Finally, I ate it. Wow. Lemony tart, with the sweetness of sun-dried tomatoes, the crunch of fennel, the fragrance of the mint and parsley, the brine of the capers, the creaminess of the avocado, everything I want in a salad and more. And even better, unlike soggy green salads, the leftovers were almost as good the next day.