Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ravioli and hot showers

Found in a sign-in book at the Cervecería Artesanal, a restaurant in El Chaltén:

Sunday 20th March 2005-
Dear Mr. Bar Man,

We came in this afternoon and noticed that you were really hot……
…….So we brought our friend back to meet you.

….Only to discover that there was a different (but equally hot guy) behind the bar….

From talking to you the night before we knew a bit about you so we asked the (new) guy if he was your friend and you were traveling together….

…..He seemed a bit confused and so did we…..

……until we realized that you are in fact
THE SAME GUY and must have had a shave!

Patagonia is magical like that.

Hot guys aside, there really is something strange, wild, and magical about Patagonia. Most of it is empty of almost everything but wind. There are no bounds to what you are looking at—the sky keeps going, as does the land. And then, in the midst of all this emptiness, there are the glaciers. There is no way to describe what a glacier looks like, only what it did to me to look at them and to feel some of the strongest yearning I have ever felt for something to exist and continue existing, no matter what were to happen to me.

But after gazing and hiking and yearning, you must eat. And the best place to eat in strange, wild, and magical El Chaltén is the Cervecería Artesanal, the very same restaurant in which we found this funny story.

You could almost miss it from the outside, just another wood-hewn building among others, with no clear sign indicating its name. We might have walked right by it the first day, if it weren’t for the hikers who looked so happy sitting outside drinking the home-brewed cold beer.

When you walk in, though, you can see immediately how much the owner loves her restaurant. The walls are papered in articles and photos, from James Dean to Leo Tolstoy, and there are sturdy, good-looking cakes on the counter. The aforementioned sign-in books are scattered on the tables, and you can spend a very pleasant afternoon flipping through the happy memories of people from France and Australia and Spain while the light streams in the windows. It is always a refuge, whether it's hot or windy, and I'm sure even when it's cold.

That same love and attention is obvious in the food. The salad is composed beautifully and creatively. Everything, the pears, tomatoes, celery, walnuts, blue cheese and cream, tasted clear and sure, cut and placed authoritatively in the bowl.

The lamb ravioli was firm and tender at the same time; no fear of sub-par Argentine pasta here. In classic Argentine fashion, you can pair any pasta with any sauce, but I think I did well in picking the light and tangy tomato sauce.

Bodegon is a good place to have a beer with some complimentary peanuts and popcorn at any time, but I highly recommend going there especially if you have camped for five days eating nothing but Knorr instant food.

That is Patagonia. Yearning for something you can't even identify, and then finding happiness in a hot shower, a bowl of ravioli, and a quiet place to read funny stories.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Nuevo Hermann, or Buenos Aires-speak for very old restaurant

There is no shortage of hipsters in Buenos Aires, kids in high tops with surprisingly good-looking mullets. But there is also no shortage of restaurants like El Desnivel, or Manolo, or my favorite, Nuevo Hermann, restaurants that don’t seem to have changed in 50 years. It’s what makes Buenos Aires feel like a rich city, rich in a diversity of lives and memories.

We walked into Nuevo Hermann almost on a dare. It was just a block or two from our first apartment on Guemes in Palermo, it was our last night in Buenos Aires before we left for Patagonia, and I wanted to eat someplace that wasn’t listed in any of our guidebooks, just walk in blind. I was afraid to risk not just my stomach but also that of my friend Zizou*, but I had to try it.

The waiter was old and gruff. The menu was enormous. There were dishes that were vaguely German and dishes that were vaguely Spanish, and the usual gamut of Argentine meats and pastas. Milanesa, anyone? We asked him, “What would you recommend? What is the best?” And the answer was, “Everything is the best.” This was not said with much enthusiasm.

But it became clear why the question was so foreign to him as we watched the restaurant fill up with regulars from the neighborhood. Elderly and middle-aged couples came in, didn’t even glance at their menus, and ordered their dinners. One couple, according to Zizou, didn’t even order, the waiter just brought their food.

The restaurant was pristine and proud. It wasn’t being retro; it wasn’t even aware its time had passed.

So how was the food? Zizou’s pork chop was overcooked but still strong in flavor. But I was really scared when my Vienna sausage and ensalada rusa came out. I knew that my ensalada rusa, a classic Spanish tapa, would be full of mayonnaise and not in a good way, but I felt this perverse desire to order it. The sausage looked like my worst nightmares, so pink and clean and consistent. But it was delicious. The smoothness of its texture didn’t mean that it was lacking in character. And even the ensalada rusa was comforting and satisfying, because it was exactly as I had expected it to be.

That’s why everyone else was there, to get food exactly as they expected it. To be so sure of having one’s expectations met—that’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?

*Zizou, aka my friend and traveling companion, not Zinedine Zidane.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

My favorite gelato in Buenos Aires

Scannapieco at Avenida Cordoba 4826.

Flavors like Crema Armenia, a boozy fig and anise, and limoncello, as light and refreshing as anything called "limoncello" should be.

It's true, most Argentine gelato is too sweet, but it's hard to fault a city where ice cream gets delivered by bicycle.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

La Cupertina

There were moments in Buenos Aires when I thought, “Thank God, I chose to study Spanish in Mexico.” These were not the moments when I was dancing till 4 a.m. or eating luscious steaks for criminal prices. I missed small-town Oaxaca the most when I sat staring at my “ensalada caprese,” a sorry mass of tasteless arugula, hunks of “mozzarella” or pizza cheese, and the saddest, blandest tomatoes to ever bear the name. To be fair, I was at an all-night eatery, as Zizou* and I had few choices after getting back to BA late at night. But Argentine traditional cooking just can’t compare to the zingy surprise of a street emapanada de mole amarillo or the complex curiosity of mole negro.

When there wasn’t steak, there were Argentine empanadas, and as Zizou found, most empanadas were a doughy excuse to carry some meat around in an easy way. When she complained the dough was utterly forgettable, we imagined gauchos carrying them cold in their saddlebags, caring little for texture or flavor.

This is where La Cupertina came in, to make us more gracious towards our host country. Located in Palermo Soho, and specializing in food from the province of Tucuman, La Cupertina is a very pretty place—heart cut-outs in the wooden chairs, green plants spilling over an antique stove. The owner, whose fame is apparent in the framed articles on one discrete wall, clearly cares a lot about what she is doing. I love people who care, and I loved her food as much as I’d hoped as we sat waiting in the sunny dining room.

The empanadas were baked, the ham and cheese empanadas with sugar. The tamal, more meat than masa, was moist and so good we ordered another one after finishing the first. The locro, though, was my favorite. A traditional stew of whole corn kernels with white beans, beef, and sausage, there was an intensity and range of flavor that I’d been missing while chewing the excellent Argentine beef.

Their desserts, too, are beautiful to behold, and although they were as sweet as all Argentine desserts, they weren’t so singular in their sweetness.

(But to be totally honest, the best empanadas we had the entire time we were there were from El Mazacote, the corner pizzeria in Montserrat. Flaky, buttery, revelatory—Zizou felt vindicated—“I told you the dough could be flaky!”)

* aka, my non-“French soccer star” friend and traveling companion.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Learning to love food for what it is and not what you want it to be

Most people who love to travel are running away from something. I know this because that’s why I travel. That can be bad, when you’re avoiding persistent problems in your life, but it can also be good, when you ignore your preferences from back home and learn to accept things on their own terms.

In short, Argentinian pizza is quite good if you accept it for what it is. Not New York pizza. Not Neopolitan pizza. Not Chicago-style, nor New Haven. But Argentinian.

Our first pizza experience horrified Zizou,* and she didn’t even taste it. We had gone to Kentucky Pizza (what a name!) after lots of dancing to La Bomba de Tiempo at Ciudad Cultural KONEX with some new friends. I was so hungry I ate my pizza without comment or even consciousness, but Zizou could not forget it. “It was so thick and doughy! It looked disgusting!”

She wasn’t mollified when I ordered the above fugazetta, an onion-intense pizza at Bodegon, our favorite restaurant and local brewery in El Chalten. We had just come off five days of camping, where we ate nothing other than instant oatmeal, Frutigram cookies, and gummy Knorr-mix pasta. I was not going to complain about the crazy amount of cheese or the flatbread crust. It wasn’t the most delicious thing I had ever eaten, but it was good enough that I ate it cold for breakfast the next day.

When we got back to Buenos Aires, and I mentioned that my former boss’s grandmother had invited us to have pizza, Zizou looked scared. But it was she in the end who steered us, even before we went to dinner with Nilda, to El Cuartito, one of the oldest and most famous pizzerias in Buenos Aires.

The look of relief on her face when she bit into her slice! “It’s good!”

The cabresa was layered with cheese, many pieces of longaniza (essentially pepperoni), and a strongly tomato-flavored tomato sauce, which is not a redundant thing to say in Argentina. (For a country populated by Italian immigrants, they have sadly forgotten the taste of a true tomato.) The crust was crunchy, but not doughy. The famous faina, the thin chickpea flour pancakes Argentines like to eat literally on top of their pizza slice, was tasty, too. It must be a descendent of farinata, no? It wasn't like any pizza we'd ever had before, but it had everything right-cheese, bread, and sauce.

El Cuartito itself is wonderful. It proudly declares that it began in 1934, thanking its customers, their parents, and their grandparents for their patronage. The walls are covered with memorabilia, except unlike TGIF, the memorabilia has age. Marilyn Monroe sits next to Diego Maradona, as well as Muhammad Ali.

But the crowning moment for Argentine pizza came on our last night, at dinner with Nilda, an 84-year-old former human rights lawyer who I would call feisty if that word didn’t sound so inadequate when applied to a woman like that. Sitting at her kitchen table with her pale gold hair, she watched closely as she asked us, “What do you think of Fidel Castro?” This is a woman who said, “Of course I am not Communist, just in my thoughts!”

The pizza she served us, urged on by my former boss, was from the family’s favorite pizzeria, El Mazacote, a neighborhood place in Montserrat on the corner of calles Chile y Jose. It was a revelation. The dough was yeasty, chewy, flavorful. The sauce and cheese were sharp with salt. We loved it, the Argentinian pizza.

*Zizou, a pseudonym for my good friend who wishes to remain anonymous, and not an indication my good friend is Zinedine Zidane.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Desayuno en Argentina

Medialunas (literally “half moons”) are the Argentine version of the French croissant, except they are very different and very delicious at the same time. They come in three variations—de grasa, de manteca, and dulce.

The first kind is my favorite, the skinniest, more of a thin crescent than a half moon. They’re almost crunchy while also being flaky and more than a little salty.

The second and third, I have to confess, I have a hard time distinguishing. They both flake in softer layers and have a shiny wash of sweetness.

All of them are small and lovely.

I had a bagel this morning in commemoration of my return to New York, but I miss my café con leche con tres medialunas.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Argentine cookies

You may have already heard my theory on how a country's junk food reveals a lot about its culture. Ta-da, here is Argentina's rendition of the Oreo:

An alfajor is two cookies bound together with a filling, dulce de leche in Argentina, and then covered in a thin layer of chocolate. Like all Spanish words that start with "al," it's derived from the Arabic word for "relleno" or "filled," and entered Spain with the Moors during the time of Al-Andalus. Hmm, that would explain their extreme intense sweetness.

And then there are the chocolate cookies with beef fat in them:

And cows everywhere:

The best drink in the world

I don’t want to sound like an ass, but you haven’t lived until you’ve had some whiskey on ice from the glacier you’re standing on. It doesn’t even need to be good whiskey. It can be Famous Grouse, and it will still leave you with a weird and wonderful feeling of chilliness, warmth and delirium.

Zizou* and I arrived in El Calafate in southern Patagonia bleary-eyed and dog-tired. We’d stayed up all night drinking with new friends before getting on a 5 a.m. flight, which was unfortunately dominated by a very loud and boisterous group of French tourists. Despite being half-awake, with only one eye open, I distinctly remember hearing one of them say, “J’ai peur! J’ai peur!” (“I’m afraid! I’m afraid!”) as the pilot went for a second try at landing around the giant lake. I was especially surprised that I understood what he was saying, because I don't understand spoken French.

But we somehow managed to haul ourselves to our hostel, America del Sur, and to book ourselves for a “mini-trekking” trip on the glacier the next day from Hielo y Aventura.

We approached the ice by boat on water that was a milky blue from the sediment in the glacier. Marco, our guide, was waiting for us. As Zizou said, “Good God! You get off the boat and there’s a handsome Argentine waiting for you on the dock!” There is mucho eye candy in this country, mucho.

The guides tied crampons, giant metal teeth, onto our boots, and we soon marched onto the ice in groups of ten. The crampons felt fantastic—we could walk up steep slopes like we had been given Spidey powers. Our group was the “English-speaking group,” though it was mainly Germans and French people, which meant we got to hear Marco say in his very flat and funny way, “Now we go hi-gher,” with a hard “g.”

We marched up, we marched down, in a quiet single file, too awed by what we were seeing to say much. We walked around pools of water and looked down deep blue holes. We cupped water into our mouths, and I surreptitiously crunched on ice. The glacier, as smooth as the ice looked from far away, was made up of tiny little bits of ice, so that we were walking on a path of crunchy glass shards. We were told to wear gloves, despite it being a warm day, because if we fell, we could cut our hands.

There is so much more texture and color and variation in a glacier than I’d ever imagined. I had learned, from a book, that glaciers move, but nothing could have prepared me for the sense of movement beneath my feet. From the viewing balconies, the peaks had looked like giant teeth crowded and pushed against each other. Up close, there were also soft, undulating waves that reminded me of Gaudi.

Near the end, we marched up one last slope and found a little tableau, like a movie set, two small tables with glasses, a bucket, and a few bottles of whiskey. We stood around, finally laughing, while Marco poured drinks and we ate alfajores, the national sandwich cookie.

The whiskey tasted sweeter than any whiskey I’d had before. I could feel happiness spreading through me. It was the best drink I have ever had.

*My friend has asked me to identify her as "Zizou" to protect her privacy. I, unfortunately, am not a traveling companion of the great Zinedine Zidane.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Those first nights in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is a funny city. It has that big-city vibe big-city dwellers always love, but it doesn’t have the mad crush of Mexico City or the ghosts of Paris or the constant hum of New York. It has beautiful old buildings with black filigreed balconies, the kind of balcony you can imagine a Edith Wharton character standing on, and then clunky modern buildings with uglier terraces right next door. Their Jardin Botanico is overrun with abandoned cats, who’ve gone feral by the looks in their eyes, despite the baggies of food and water that are put out for them. And most astonishing to me, their bus system is cheap, fast, and frequent, but it’s impossible to get on a bus because there are not enough coins or monedas to be had anywhere in the city, and they won't accept bills. People are literally hoarding them. A girl we met last night told us her friends gave her, as a birthday gift, a roll of ten 1 peso coins. The bank restricts its coins, giving only six pesos per person. There are rumors the bus company is selling the coins they collect on the black market, 100 pesos in coins for 105 pesos in bills.

As the graffiti declares, “¿Donde están las monedas?”

This is Buenos Aires’s way of being a big city. Even though it’s frustrating for porteños, from a tourist’s perspective, the city wears its problems well, with grace, good looks, and lots of very good steak. There has been no surprise there, only in that it has been even better than I expected, and so cheap from a New Yorker’s perspective, we’ve ended up in hysterics with the arrival of each check. We’ve been to two parillas, or grilled meat restaurants, so far with several more on our list.

La Dorita was our first happy surprise, a homey, comfortable place with two locations catty-corner from each other in Palermo Hollywood.

We got a tabla of meat for two, with a choice of three meats—vacio or sirloin, entraña or skirt steak, and asado or short ribs, and then we added half an order of “baby beef,” their funny English translation of “bife de chorizo,” a uniquely Argentine cut of rump and sirloin. I am not a meat connoisseur, able to describe the particular qualities of a supremely good piece of beef, but oh, it was so good! It didn’t matter that they hadn’t actually been cooked “al punto” or medium rare. It reminded me of the chicken in Mexico—only when your meat is crappy do you have to worry about drying it out. Its flavor was there, regardless of whether it was red and raw.

With a good and cheap bottle of Malbec; quite a decent salad with spinach, pumpkin, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and parmesan; and two scoops of ice cream, we ate until we were quite satisfechas for something like $17 per person. I felt almost embarrassed.

The next night, we went slightly more high-end to La Cabrera, another place so popular that it has two locations across the street from each other. We ate at La Cabrera Norte, which looked a little cozier, and sat on the sidewalk on a perfect summer night. We had to wait awhile, though the restaurant provided everyone waiting with free glasses of champagne and bites of sausage or stuffed olives. (We’ve dealt with the late-night schedule of porteños by living on New York time—when you sit down to eat at midnight, BA time, it’s only 9 p.m. in New York!)

The meat here, of course, was also fantastic, with the ojo de bife or ribeye making their bife de chorizo seem almost tasteless in comparison. Their morcilla, or blood sausage, had a crackling crisp casing, a better snap than any hot dog I’ve ever had, and that smooth taste that’s so familiar to me from soondae, Korean blood sausage. They also have provoleta as an appetizer, a grilled skillet of cheese with herbs that is just a salty luxury. But the appetizers were almost superfluous compared to the dozen or more little ramekins they gave us filled with things like tapenade, apple sauce, roasted garlic, green beans, potatoes in aioli. There’s just something so happy-making about a whole array of side-dishes.

We topped off the night with glasses of champagne and lollipops from their lollipop tree. There's so much about this city I still don't understand, but champagne and lollipops, that was easy.

Friday, November 7, 2008

One nation, indivisible

In all the news coverage following the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, one small blip involved Oprah Winfrey talking on her show about the middle-aged white man she had been leaning on, literally crying on his shoulder, during the celebratory rally in Grant Park, Chicago. Everyone called her, asking, “Who was that man?” And she confessed she didn’t know who he was, that he was simply Mr. Man. But of course, because she is Oprah, Mr. Man was soon identified as Sam Perry, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Obama campaign volunteer, and he appeared on her show.

It’s such a small thing, Oprah leaning on the shoulder of an unknown man while she cries listening to President Obama’s speech, but the more I think about it, the more it encapsulates what I saw in this campaign.

We won this together. We won, not just with friends and family we cajoled, but with complete strangers across the country. We won with Oprah, media mogul and superstar, and with my friend Mimi who had never volunteered for a campaign before. We won with Shaddai, a lawyer from Brooklyn, and with Joe, the union dry-wall finisher, who stood outside our polling site with me all day. We won with Chung, the woman my mother’s age who made phone calls to Korean-American voters for hours, and if you are not impressed, it’s because you don’t know what it takes for a Korean person to call strangers. We won with the stream of men and women who came into Childs Elementary School in South Philly to vote, African-American mainly but also white and Vietnamese-American and Chinese-American. I had never seen any of them before in my life and will probably never see any of them again. But like Oprah, we felt a connection to each other that moved us to hug each other, cry together, and celebrate together. Even three days after the election, as I walk around my Brooklyn neighborhood, I smile at strangers and they, miraculously, smile back.

Obama didn’t just declare that we are one nation, we are one people. He made us feel it and know it in our hearts as well as our minds. I thought I had always loved my country and the ideals on which it was founded, but now I know, this is love.

"So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other."

Monday, June 2, 2008

The last dessert

Despite all my complaints, there are several things I’ve enjoyed as an immigration lawyer. My clients, for the most part, have been wonderful people with stories I feel truly privileged to hear. Winning, of course, always feels great. But almost as much as winning, I’ve loved the opportunities I’ve had to eat with my clients. I’ve eaten Dominican food at the home of the warmest Dominican family. I’ve been given cooking tips by an Egyptian caterer. I’ve tasted a crumbly and sweet anise-scented Palestinian dessert that is such a homey item, you can’t buy it in stores. This one case took over my life in the weeks leading up to the trial, but I ate very well, the Middle Eastern food that I love, culminating with the amazing strategy meal I had at Assayad Restaurant in Clifton, New Jersey.

But now the hearing is finally over. There’s still a written summation to write and the judge won’t render a decision before September, but four days of testimony have been completed. And I am no longer a lawyer. It may not be the last case I work on, but it is for the foreseeable future. So it seems like a good time to end this blog as well, for the few of you who were still expecting something new to be posted. I’m hoping to have other opportunities to write now, including working on a book on regional Korean food with a good friend of mine. But thank you to everyone who faithfully or even sporadically checked in. It was nice to have an audience!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Easy enchiladas

Since I got back from my travels, I've been drawn to simpler meals and simpler flavors. Partly, it's because working two part-time jobs is exhausting. But mostly, it's because the trendy American obsession with food--and my obsession with food--has gotten a little exhausting as well. One of the things I loved most about eating in Mexico, Spain, and Korea, was how good food felt very easy. I didn't have to search for it, I didn't have to pay a lot for it, and most of the time, it came from a stand or restaurant that specialized in one thing. More and more, I want to feel that way about the food I cook and eat. I'm still drawn to recipes for Georgian chicken broiled with yogurt or Tunisian chickpea stew, things I can only cook with a carefully drawn out grocery list and a propped-open cookbook, but I'm not making three-course meals for myself these days. My favorite food memories are small and singular, one dish or sometimes even one new, bright fruit, and it feels good to be building new memories that way at home.

So in that spirit, I've been cooking things like pasta in tuna-tomato sauce, or squid sauteed with bitter greens and a splash of soy sauce and lemon juice. And when I'm feeling up for a challenge, like a Rick Bayless fish enchilada recipe, I'm happy not to take on a salad, rice, and a roasted meat at the same time. That way, I can reserve energy to make my own tortillas.

I can't say that I've mastered them, as easy as they are supposed to be with masa harina, the instant tortilla flour. (You can't make truly authentic tortillas at home without fresh masa dough, and because fresh masa dough goes bad so quickly, you can only get fresh masa dough in the U.S. by living next to a tortilla factory.) But they were better than the last time I tried, more flexible and less doughy in my throat. Making tortillas is almost therapeutic, to roll each ball of dough, flatten it in the tortilla press the way I'd seen women do all over the streets of Oaxaca, and toss it on a cast-iron griddle.

The filling was a bit more work. There was the tomatillo-serrano sauce, made by first broiling 12 ounces of tomatillos and 2 serrano chiles under a broiler, about 5 minutes on each side. The tomatillos and chiles then melded in a food processor. In the meantime, I sauteed half a diced white onion until rich and brown, stirred in 2 chopped cloves of garlic, and when that had just cooked a minute more, the onions and garlic got added to the tomatillo-chile mixture and pureed until smooth. The whole sauce had to be transferred to a skillet to be fried, its flavor getting deeper with a bit of fish broth.

Then there was the half a pound of sea bass I bought to poach. I ignored the potatoes in the recipe and focused on the fish, flaking it and then mixing it with half a cup of the tomatillo sauce.

Finally, following Bayless's recipe, I added a bit of thick Greek yogurt to the remaining tomatillo sauce, since I couldn't find any creme fraiche or sour cream at the corner bodega.

The assembly was the easiest part: spoon some fish on a tortilla, fold it over, and then ladle on more sauce with a sprinkling of crumbled cotija cheese (my substitution for the queso anejo I didn't have) and some chopped raw onions and cilantro.

I ate nothing else that night, just these enchiladas with a beer. I was very happy.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Living it up, San Francisco-style

When I told my friends I was coming to San Francisco, Erin suggested that we cook a big dinner together and invite the rest of my San Francisco friends. She and her roommate, who I will continue to call "Zizou" out of politeness to her and fantasy for me, share a beautiful apartment with the kind of kitchen only rich New Yorkers can dream of. It's filled with light, equipped with an island and even a prep sink, and the stove has some gaseous power that I can't even grasp, something about BTUs. All I know is that it boils up water like you wouldn't believe.

We started our shopping at Alemany Market, my favorite farmers' market in San Francisco. Unlike the famed and rather bourgeois Ferry Building, Alemany doesn't truck in artisanal chocolate sprinkled with grey sea salt. So there are few tourists, and instead plenty of resident yuppies, Chinese bargain-hunters, and those who really want a live chicken, which probably overlaps more with the Chinese bargain-hunters than the yuppies. While Erin and I bought meyer lemons, strawberries, asparagus, and lilacs, Zizou took it upon herself to buy a few dozen Kumamoto oysters. She doesn't cook, but she sure knows how to eat.

The rest of the meal we picked up here and there, from the prosciutto I bought at the Cafe Rouge meat counter (not so exciting) to the walnut bread Lika picked up from Tartine (unbelievable, made me feel slightly less annoyed at Tartine).

And Diane brought the wine from Sonoma. She had called me the night before, telling me she was packing and wanting to know what I was serving for dinner. I momentarily forgot she makes wine for a living and asked, "Does the food you're going to eat affect what you're going to wear?

But what really amazed me is how relaxed I was planning and cooking the dinner. Partly it was that Erin was there. I don't normally cook well with others, but I trust her cooking judgment, especially when it comes to risotto. It's nice working with someone when you don't have to worry that she'll "dice" carrots into uneven chunks. And partly it was that after we baked our anise-almond biscotti, we took off to go eat sausages at Rosamunde's and then went for a walk at Crissy Field, where it was unusually sunny and characteristically gorgeous. I've never done that before, go somewhere in the middle of cooking an elaborate dinner for anything other than a missing ingredient.

So when we ended up being late getting home, and Anne had to stir the citrus risotto for another hour after all the guests arrived, I didn't really care. I did care how good the Zuni pistachio "aillade" was on the roasted asparagus, which required Lika to pound away at 2 ounces of pistachios for a good 20 minutes, pulverizing them to a dust that I could bind up with a couple of tablespoonfuls of olive oil, a mashed garlic clove, a splash of grappa, orange zest and salt and pepper. If you have a friend with a powerful arm, I can't recommend this enough. The flavors blend together as you let it sit, and it's so much more complex and delicious than you could have imagined. We were torturing Elena, who's allergic to raw nuts, with our oohing and ahhing. The citrus risotto, also a Zuni recipe involving sections of grapefruit and lime, was also surprising and tasty, the tartness cutting the usual heft of risotto in my stomach. It eased the pain when it turned out the scallops were pretty low-grade.

But I think the star of the show was the meyer lemon ice cream we served with anise-almond biscotti and early strawberries. Happy birthday to me!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Har gow and tacos and chaat, oh my!

My friend Lina asked me recently if I’d gotten tired of my blog. I protested that I hadn’t, but I think I had, just a bit. But I recently spent a long weekend in San Francisco and got reinspired. I didn’t have any culinary epiphanies, despite the city’s reputation. In fact, I got seriously annoyed that my favorite bakery, Tartine, is no longer a place to have a quiet breakfast with a paper on a weekday morning. I think it was having an intense, packed weekend of opportunities to share good food with people I love, who I hadn’t seen in so long. One of those friends even ended up taking me on an all-afternoon eating tour of the East Bay.

"Zizou" (as she prefers to remain anonymous) did preliminary research, and as you can see, provided a full write-up as well. So I’m not going to repeat everything she said, just highlight my most lasting memories.

1) We went to eleven places!

2) We only ate at eight. The remaining three, we picked up food to eat later.

3) Zizou packed a cooler for stop #3, the meat counter at Café Rouge. She always carries a cooler, “just in case.”

4) I had ice cream that rivaled Il Laboratorio del Gelato and I do not say that lightly. The Catalan flavor at Ici, started by the pastry chef from Chez Panisse, was so good, I didn’t want it to end. It had a curious flavor that I didn’t recognize immediately, a mixture of anise, lemon, and something else that made it special and absolutely inimitable. I ordered it in a cup, to which Zizou said, “What! You want the cone. She’ll take the cone,” turning to the laughing ice cream scooper. She was right. The hand-rolled cone had a nugget of chocolate at the bottom.

5) Vik’s Chaat is as good as I’d hoped all that time I lived in San Francisco and never went there. I especially loved the chapati that came with the hyderabadi fish special—simple, flavorful, chewy, everything a flatbread should be.

6) Tao Yuen in Oakland’s Chinatown had crispy, not at all greasy, tofu skin rolls that I would never have believed could come out of a take-out dim sum place. I think they were 50 cents or something equally obscene.

7) We found at the Cheeseboard a bigger, pizza-only place next door to the cheese shop, with an elderly musical trio performing and young, happy Californians spilling out of the restaurant and just sitting on the grassy median in the middle of the busy two-way street. Pizza as excellent as ever. I love San Francisco when it just does its own thing and doesn’t worry whether its pizza crust lives up to some NY/New Haven ideal.

8) Taco trucks are the best, always.

I did eat dinner afterwards. I told Anne I had to eat vegetables, and she, former Midwestern carnivore, suggested we go to Greens, where I had a very simple and refreshing salad of greens, celery root, cheese, and butter beans. I was embarrassed that the waiter might think I was the kind of woman who only orders salad, but he praised my choice, saying, “Beautiful! That’s my favorite salad!” I was in such a good mood, I only giggled quietly and was thankful for all that the Bay Area had bestowed upon me that day.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Lucky pig

Remember when I was forced by Mexican airport security to leave my molcajete behind in Oaxaca?

It's now at home with me in Brooklyn!

My friend Katherine, who lives in Oaxaca and was coincidentally on the same plane as me that day, heard the whole story and decided to check if the airline had kept it when she flew back home. The airline official weirdly accused of her lying about being my friend and being on that flight, as if she had the nefarious desire to steal a Mexican mortar and pestle. But he did give it to her and this week, she emailed me to tell me she was coming to NY and did I want my molcajete!

I never imagined I would ever see this little pig again. It must be a sign. I'm not sure of what, but something good, don't you think?

Monday, March 10, 2008

A very sweet gift

I got this last month ago as a late Secret Santa gift from a good friend of mine.

She "published" my blog posts from Mexico and Spain on

I was really touched. I cried! I also felt secretly proud--I had no idea I'd written so much.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Ohio always breaks my heart

Tuesdays, I generally work from home, which meant that instead of obsessively reading every scrap of information coming out of the primaries in Ohio and Texas (and Rhode Island and Vermont), I tried to calm my nerves by making a very slow-cooked chickpea, celery, and porcini soup with pecorino cheese, from Paula Wolfert's “The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook.” I must be the kind of person Paula Wolfert thinks is “passionate,” even all by my lonesome, because I love this book.

It was a very slow soup, even when I halved the following ingredients:

1 cups dried chickpeas
¼ t. baking soda
½ oz. dried porcini
pinch of sugar
3 imported bay leaves
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, grated in a food processor
2 garlic cloves
2 cups thinly sliced celery ribs
1/8 t. Italian or Greek oregano
freshly ground pepper
pinch of hot pepper flakes
curls of pecorino or manchego cheese

It had to be started the night before, with the dried chickpeas soaking in water with a little bit of baking soda, and the dried porcini mushrooms soaking in its own water with a pinch of sugar in the fridge. I followed the directions very precisely.

The next morning, I grated a small onion in my food processor and placed it with the chickpeas, 2 bay leaves, 3 T. of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and water to cover the chickpeas by an inch in my small two-quart dutch oven. Paula Wolfert says you’re supposed to use a clay pot like the Italian peasants, though you can buy a sand pot that works just as well in Chinatown. I figured a French-made Staub was good enough.

This part was freaky—I put it in a cold oven, cranked the heat to 450 degrees, and then let it sit for 30 minutes. Then I turned it down to 250 degrees and let it cook for three hours. Yes, three hours.

When the three hours had almost expired, I heated a garlic clove in a pan of hot olive oil for a little bit, then tossed in the celery and oregano for about 2 minutes. I added the drained, chopped porcini mushrooms with the soaking liquid, then the chickpeas and its cooking liquid, and a little more water. I also added a cup of homemade chicken stock, even if the recipe didn’t call for it. It bubbled away on medium heat for 20 more minutes. How easy is that?

And then it was done. Just a good amount of salt, generous amounts of freshly ground pepper, a pinch of hot pepper flakes, and curls of pecorino cheese.

The soup was wonderful. It was warming and satisfying, so much more than you would imagine chickpeas, celery, and mushrooms to be. The chickpeas had an honest texture you never get in canned beans, the mushroom flavor was silky smooth, and the cheese added an intense salty sharpness. I loved it. I love even more that like so many Paula Wolfert recipes, it comes from peasants who can't be bothered by complicated steps, resulting in directions so simple I could more or less recite them to you by heart.

So there was one bright spot that Tuesday.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Unfussy French on a Wednesday night

Have you ever followed a recipe that didn’t make any sense?

I like to think that even if I am not quite a great cook, I do increasingly have a good sense of what it takes to make something bind together, to be fluffy, to rise. In short, to taste good. So I was perplexed when I saw this ridiculously simple recipe from Patricia Wells’s, “Bistro Cooking”:

Tourte Aux Blettes (Savory Swiss Chard Tart) (paraphrased)

1 cup flour
¼ t. salt
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 lb. swiss chard leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 large eggs
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Combine flour and salt; add 1/4 cup water and then the oil, mixing until thoroughly blended. After kneading briefly, the dough will be very moist like cookie dough. Press dough into loose-bottomed metal tart tin.
3. Wash and dry the leafy portion of the chard and coarsely chop the leaves. Wilt the leaves in a skillet, seasoned to taste with salt and pepper. Heat until most of the water has evaporated.
4. Combine the eggs and grated cheese; add the chard and pour mixture into the pan.
5. Bake for about 40 minutes, until crust and filling are golden.

Perplexed, yet intrigued. I thought all pastry crusts had to made with butter and rapidly, to keep the butter cold and the pastry flaky. As I pressed the crumbly olive oil-colored dough into my springform pan (no tart pan), I thought, thank God I'm only making this for myself. Then the three eggs seemed so meager, just barely swimming around the cooked chard. How could it be so easy to make a tart?

It turns out I know nothing about the physics of cooking, because the recipe worked just fine. In fact, it was quite good and as easy as it appears, and the kind of recipe you can follow after coming home after work with only a vague desire to cook that bunch of swiss chard in your fridge, though you do have to be prepared to eat your sliver of a tourte at 9:15 pm. (And that is easy enough if you have only recently returned from Spain, where they do not think of eating before 9 pm.) I didn’t have a glass of crisp white wine as recommended by Patricia Wells, but I did have a glass of refreshing Pernod. God, I love the taste of licorice.

Despite being in my pajamas, I felt almost like one of those French girls that get described as “effortlessly chic.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kimchi, Part II

I tried again, this time with napa cabbage instead of daikon radish. I went the easy route, cutting up the cabbage after brining it for almost 6 hours, instead of the more traditional, more beautiful way of keeping the cabbage whole, with all its nooks and crannies filled and rubbed with spicy paste. But it's still not quite what I was looking for. Last time, it was too much ginger. This time, too much salt.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

It's sizzling!

Raj tried to warn me. “A lot of the sauces all taste the same. Some of the dishes taste better the next day!”

After almost a year of trying to get to Tangra Masala for Indian-Chinese food (the Indian take on Chinese food, the way chop suey is the American take on Chinese food), Raj and I finally made it to Sunnyside, Queens last Wednesday. The friends we had invited to come along had bailed at the last minute, pleading that Queens was too much, even Raj’s friends who live in Queens. I think Raj was worried that I would be disappointed, after all of the hullabaloo. He said, with great earnestness, that Tangra Masala reminded him of better food eaten elsewhere.

But how could I be disappointed, when I was presented with this?

True, as much as the chili paneer sizzled, it didn’t make me swoon. The vegetable tangra masala turned out to be vegetable fritters in gravy, the “lollypop chicken” to be fried chicken drumsticks in an adorable shape, but with a batter that was a bit too bready. Everything had that yummy, salty, satisfying flavor of take-out Chinese, but with nothing that would make me take the G train to the 7 train for on a weekly basis. Maybe every couple of months or so.

Still, I was so happy to be eating something I had never eaten before, within city limits even. And such video!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Start of Monthly Soup

There is a part of me that not-so-secretly loves Martha Stewart. I get a thrill when I’m having friends over for brunch, and I see the sunlight streaming into my kitchen onto the white tablecloth with the flowers in the middle, the matching cups and saucers, and my beloved juice glasses.

But in the end, this little glee is nothing compared to my deep, adamant, heartfelt conviction that none of it really matters. I may not believe in God, but I believe in breaking bread. I don’t think people should be afraid to have people over because they don’t have space or time or matching plates. Or even because they think they can’t cook. There can be as much fun and happiness over a pot of chili as over a three-course meal starting with foie gras. Given how some of my friends feel about foie gras, probably more.

So as part of my new evangelism, I made a New Year’s resolution to start hosting a monthly soup night. Just soup. I would happily accept drinks or dessert contributions, and not worry about whether they “matched” what I had made. With the money I would have spent on an occasional three-course dinner, I could have more people over more often, and even buy a couple of extra bowls. And since it was a New Year’s resolution, I kicked it off with Korean dumpling soup for Lunar New Year.

Some people ate in shallow soup bowls, some ate in giant salad bowls, and some with teaspoons, but nobody cared. I was so happy. The dumplings could have used more salt and soy sauce, but hey, that’s why you put salt on the table, right?

I'm so excited about March and April and May...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Lina and Ookie say goodbye to pork

That’s not quite accurate, as they’re still saying hello, over and over, to pancetta and bacon and sausages braised with plums. They’ve just recently decided that considering the environmental impact of meat, they will stop eating big, giant chunks of meat. But being who they are, they are saying goodbye with a bang. They said goodbye to beef in December with 20 lbs. of spareribs. And they said goodbye to pork this weekend with an almost 9-lb piece of pork butt.

When I told Lina I was coming to visit her this weekend in Providence, she immediately responded, “What do you want to do? Do you want to smoke a pork butt?” I love Lina. I told her I wanted to leave around 3 pm on Sunday and she said, “No problem, we’ll just get a small, 6-lb. butt and smoke it starting Sunday morning, have a late lunch, and put you on the bus.” But then we got to the store, and Ookie couldn’t resist buying a 8.75-lb. pork butt: “It’s on sale!” He brushed the logistical problems off, saying, “We’ll just smoke it overnight!”

He seemed so excited, I didn’t make my usual protestations as a houseguest who doesn’t want to make too much trouble. This is a guy who lives in a house with no walls, as they’re still renovating it, but owns a 100-lb. gorgeous smoker/grill. Lina and I went off to Boston Saturday night to see our friend Leslie, and as I hesitated over my second drink, wondering if I would be sober enough to rub the butt when we got home, Lina assured me, “You’re worried about the pork? The butt is rubbed!” And true enough, when we got home, the butt was thoroughly rubbed with paprika, cayenne, cumin, and garlic powder; there was a sauce pan of homemade barbecue sauce on the stove; and a bowl of vinegar-based “North Carolina”-style sauce for basting on the counter. I hope one day, like Lina, to marry a man I can trust to rub the butt while I’m out having drinks with my girlfriends.

The next morning, Lina told me that Ookie had gotten up at 5 a.m. to add more coal to the grill. I was so moved. By the time we woke up around 10:30, the fire had gone out, but we just reheated the pork while we roasted some brussel sprouts, made corn muffins (to make it seem more like breakfast), and tossed a green salad.

The pork butt was beautiful. It had a serious crust, excitingly spicy, with tender, fatty pink meat inside. I don’t think I’ve ever had a butt quite like that, not from Daisy Mae’s, not in Nashville. It was the most beautiful butt I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe how well-behaved their dog was, just lying there next to the table. If I were a dog, smelling those smells, I would have been going crazy.

The brussel sprouts were creamy and warm on the inside, the salad was simple and sharp, the corn muffins a little too sweet, but fun to eat. I felt so proud to call Lina and Ookie my friends, and thankful I was not saying goodbye to pork.

P.S. This is Ookie's account of what went into the rub and the barbecue sauce:

"i didn't exactly follow a recipe.

the rub was roughly 1-2 tablespoons each of

cayenne pepper
onion powder
black pepper

and 1-2 teaspoons each of

ground fennel seed
mustard powder (we didn't have any this time)
garlic powder

the barbecue sauce was

2 cups of ketchup
1/2 cup of molasses
1/4 cup of mustard

3 tablespoons of worcester sauce
1-2 tablespoons of onion powder (or a diced onion)

the rest was some combination of the spices used in the rub. previously, we traded some cayenne pepper for a couple tablespoons of tabasco."

Whatever you're doing, it works!