Saturday, April 30

Sweet Potatoes and Yams

Apparently sweet potatoes and yams are different, even if people use them interchangeably all the time.  As I just cooked one of the two and wanted to write about it, I investigated.  Here's what I've learned: sweet potatoes are the ones that taper to a point.  There are lighter-skinned potatoes and darker-skinned sweet potatoes.  Sweet potatoes have a huge amount of vitamin A and a good amount of vitamin C, manganese, fiber, potassium, and iron.  On the other hand, yams are actually not native to the US and they are kind of like bananas/plantains in that there are over a hundred varieties and as really culturally and gastronomically aware Americans, we often get confused.  But no longer!  Yams are usually sweeter than sweet potatoes (whodda thunk) and we all know that yammies and yummy.  In terms of nutrients, yams have a decent amount of vitamin C, potassium, fiber, and manganese.

Baking yams or sweet potatoes is awesome, takes very little effort, and is SO CHEAP.  You can get them for about $0.75 to $1.25 per pound.  The easiest way to cook them is to just stick them, skin and all, into the oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until you can easily slip a knife through them.

The way I do it is a little bit more labor intensive, but not by much.  Peel the potatoes/yams and then cut them into little trapezoidal things.  I'm not entirely sure why, but that's what my mother does.  Coat the pieces with oil, season them with salt and pepper, and stick them in the oven at 350 degrees.

my sweet potato

The great thing about doing it this way is that it the oil makes the outside a little burned and crispy while the salt and pepper taste SO GOOD.  And bam.  A meal/part of a meal/snack thing for like a dollar.  Deliciousness.

I'm going through an Edith Piaf phase.  Here is the video that kind of started it:

video

My grandmother, ladies and gentlemen.  Here's the song she is referring to, Edith Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien":

Friday, April 29

Pineapple

Pineapple is going for $4 at Westside Market right now people!  Like an entire pineapple all for you.  Don't be intimidated by cutting it yourself.  Just cut off the top and the bottom of the fruit, cut the skin off (is it a called a skin?), and cut off the meat of the fruit form the core.  Slice into manageable pieces.

the anticipation was killing me

shazam.  snacks.

This song almost begs to be paired with Jimmy Buffet's "Piña Coladas":

Gracie Mews

The first meal I ever consumed in New York City was at this lovely diner at 81st St. & 1st Ave.  As a diner, Gracie Mews serves your traditional diner food: omelets, burgers, sandwiches, wraps.  The food is all pretty good and reasonably priced, but there are a few things that Gracie Mews does extraordinarily.

a panino with mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil, and pesto
with those normal fries

chocolate shakes

The fries.  The normal potato fries are above average, but the sweet potato fries make those normal potatoes pale in comparison and will bring you to your knees.  They are crispy but gloriously of that mashed potato consistency on the inside.

the way to my heart

The black and white cookies.  I think these are the best B&W cookies in the city, hands down.  The cookie part is cake-like and the icing is perfectly sweet and the icing-to-cake ratio is dead on.

a black and white cookie

The rest of their desserts are similarly fantastic!  I say this from experience.

desserts from my first trip to NYC

Thursday, April 28

The High Line

The High Line is this fantastic park.  It runs from Ganesvoort St. in the Meatpacking District to 34th St. between 10th & 11th Ave.  It was previously an elevated subway that transported food to restaurants.  The story is that this particular stretch of track was the most dangerous track in the city with the most fatalities.  So the track was abandoned and eventually transformed into a park.

You can access the park from Gansevoort St., 14th St., 16th St., 18th St., and 20th St. I would suggest just wandering around. The park boasts some of the best views of the Hudson and Hoboken on the West Side and is lined with benches that are perfect for reading in the sunlight. It is green and lush and there are pieces of art and amazing artists selling their stuff along the path. Check it out!

A-Pou's Taste Cart

Dumplingsdumplingsdumplings.

So clearly I go to Trader Joe's quite frequently.  At school, the closest store is on 72nd St. & Broadway and every time I go I see a couple carts parked right outside.  On the way in I am too excited the proximity of Trader Joe's and on the way out I am laden down with my copious bounty.

the man at work... you can just recognize the reflection
of the Trader Joe's logo in the top right corner...

However, last week, Caitlin and I finally stopped at A-Pou's Taste cart after shopping and purchased an order of their dumplings.  (I think they are technically Taiwanese pot-stickers.)  Since then, I have also sampled their dumplings with my sister.  Oh dear lord they are delicious.

Basically, they offer vegetarian, chicken, and pork dumplings.  Serving sizes range from five to fifteen dumplings with prices from $3.50 to $9.50.  Yes, you can get like four dumplings for $1 in places like Flushing.  Tragically, it's not totally possible to go to Flushing all the time, but this cart will do in the mean time!

ten chicken dumplings, all lined up

Wednesday, April 27

The City Bakery

This is another place off of Union Square.  The City Bakery is on 18th St. between 6th and 7th Ave.  It offers a whole slew of things, from collared greens to mac & cheese, but the best things there are the baked goods (ie the cookies) and the hot chocolate (although I would approve of coffee as well).

The cookies are inexplicably crisp and chewy, especially the chocolate chip cookie.  The hot chocolate at this place... oh where to start.  It is a disservice to the beverage to call it hot chocolate (which you all know I value, immensely).  Almost more of a mud than a liquid, it is rich and almost syrupy and oh so flavorful.  In fact, it is so rich that I would pretty much recommend ordering the smallest serving - maybe like two shots of the ambrosia - if you've had any form of cream within 12 hours (or if you want to finish the cookie without throwing it up).

the frothy brew

Most importantly is the significance of the month of February.  For this entire month, the City Bakery offers a new and brilliant flavor of hot chocolate.  I had the privilege of sampling the Fig & Spices Hot Chocolate on one of the last days.  And during these winter months, don't forget a homemade marshmallow.  It melts but doesn't mix with the liquid/mud/stuff.  Instead it sits on top and waits to be consumed.

The hot chocolate and the cookies will cost you (about $8-$9), but it is so worth it.

Tuesday, April 26

Hungarian Pastry Shop

This place is pretty much known by all Columbians.  It is legendary.  Many a-books have been read and written here and many a-pastries have been consumed here.  On Amsterdam Ave. between 110th St. and 111th St., the inside of the shop is dark and cosy - in other words, perfect for holing up in the winter and getting some work done with a nice hot beverage.  During the nicer months, some outdoor tables line the street and offer a view of St. John the Divine Cathedral (and a partial view of that ever-so weird and ever-so entertaining sculpture outside the cathedral).

an illustrious bounty, to be sure
(two hazelnut things, two hungarian coffees, one
cappucino, and baklava)

In my experience, the different varieties of coffee and the hot chocolate are perfect, the apple cider more than satisfactory, the pastries delicious.  I will say that once I ordered some sort of cake that was dry and not very tasty, but haven't had that problem with the cakes since then.  The strudels are lovely and flakey (with the best filling being apple) and the eclairs are delectable.  My greatest discovery at this pastry shop, however, is this hazelnut creme thing.

the beautiful circular hazelnut thing

the inner workings

Somehow, I don't even know the name of this particular dessert.  The only way I can described it is to say that it is a sort-of Its-It.  Basically, a huge amount of hazelnut creme is sandwiched between two wafer-cookie things and the whole sandwich is covered in chocolate.  I love it.

Monday, April 25

The Normal Heart

I realize this blog is about food, which is totally awesome, but I've decided to occasionally make quick posts about things going on in the city.  The other night I saw a whole bunch of really talented actors in The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer.  It's a semi-autobiographical play that is centered around the AIDS crisis in New York City between 1981 to 1984.  I thought it was extremely powerful and emotionally jarring.  The production is here for the next 12 weeks (something like 96 performances) and if you have a chance I would strongly recommend seeing it.

Here is a letter from Larry Kramer about the production and here are some ways to get involved.

The windiest militant trash 
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish: 
What mad Nijinsky wrote 
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart; 
For the error bred in the bone 
Of each woman and each man 
Craves what it cannot have, 
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
              -from W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939"

Sunday, April 24

Risotto

So I'm a little behind, folks.  My darling younger sister Victoria visited me this week which means we ate our way through the city, but also that I have like nine blog drafts to finish and post.  Plus my brain is taking its time returning to normal.  But instead of working on any of those posts, I'm going to post a recipe for Asparagus and Lemon Risotto because Westside Market (at 110th St. & Broadway) is currently selling asparagus for $1.69/lb.  For all of you asparagus fans, GO.  Good asparagus is hard to find on this side of the country for less than $2.00/lb (it usually sells for around $4.00/lb).  This is a great meal to cook with friends, especially the first time around.  For the record, this recipe makes about 4 servings.  For four people, I recommend doubling the recipe.  That way people get seconds and YOU get leftovers.  (As long as you're willing to brave the microwave.)

Asparagus and Lemon Risotto
from Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food

1 lb asparagus
1 lemon
3 tbs butter
1 small onion
1 1/2 cups risotto rice (I usually use Arborio)
5 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Bring the chicken broth to a boil then take it off the heat.  If the timing isn't working out, cover the pot.
Meanwhile, snap the ends off the asparagus.  (Let the asparagus snap where it may.  It knows which part is tender enough to eat.)  Cut the spears diagonally into 1/4-inch pieces.  (Suck it up and cut the pieces diagonally.  More surface area releases the flavor and all that jazz.  And it looks pretty.)
Once that's done, remove the zest from the lemon.  Remove the zest before cutting the lemon because otherwise it sucks zesting.

stirring, stirring, stirring

This is the part you need to pay attention to.  Whoever is manning the stove is pretty much going to be stirring from here on out.  Melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat in the pot you intend to make the risotto in.  It should be at least 2 1/2- to 3-quarts, unless you're doubling the recipe.  
While the butter is melting, finely dice the onion.  Add it to the pot and the melted butter and cook it until the onion is soft and translucent.  Should be about 10 minutes.  Make sure the onions don't burn!
After 10 minutes, add the risotto rice.  Cook the rice, stirring now and then, until they are translucent, about 4 minutes.  If they burn, cry.
Stir in the lemon zest and pour in the wine.  Keep stirring until all the wine is absorbed.

Add a cup of the chicken broth and cook at a vigorous simmer, stirring occasionally.  When the rice starts to get thick, pour in another 1/2 cup of the broth.  Keep adding broth, 1/2 cup at a time, every time the rice thickens.  Don't let the rice dry out!  After 12 minutes, stir in the asparagus.  If you're doubling the recipe, pretty much wing it.  Don't add the asparagus after 12 minutes because then it will be overcooked.  In this case, I usually add the asparagus when there's about 2-3 cups of broth left.
Cook until the rice is tender but still has a firm core, 20 to 30 minutes in all.  When the rice is just about done, stir in half the lemon juice, 1 tablespoon of butter, and the parmesan cheese.  Stir vigorously to develop the creamy starch.  (The cheese and the rice react to get the delicious starchiness that is beautifully creamy.)
Add salt and more lemon juice if you want.  Turn off the heat and let the risotto sit uncovered for 2 minutes.  Feast.

lemon and asparagus risotto... jeebus

Thoughts on this recipe:

  • Use a cheese grater to zest the lemon.  Try to make sure it's on that side that has the tiny little holes that are absolutely impossible to clean without shredding a sponge.  To get the little zests free, bang it on the cutting board a couple times.
  • It is fairly obvious when the rice is ready for more chicken broth, but I have a method you should use nonetheless.  If you stir the risotto, scraping the bottom of the pot, and the rice parts without liquid flooding to the bottom, add more broth.
  • Salt and freshly grated black pepper add a whole new level of deliciousness.
  • If one of the friends you've impressed into service is a vegetarian, go ahead and make this with vegetable stock.  It's still amazing.
  • If you only have red wine, it's not totally necessary to go get a bottle of white.  As long as it's dry, you should be alright.  However, it will stain the rice and make the risotto a lot darker but still delicious.
  • The red wine works best in a Winter Squash Risotto because the red wine naturally complements the squash better than the asparagus and lemon.  MAKE THIS.  It's to die for.  Forget the lemon and the asparagus.  Peel half a small butternut squash and remove the seeds and strings from the inner cavity.  Cut into small dice.  Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a pan and add the squash with a few leaves of sage.  Cook over medium-low heat until the squash is just barely thoroughly cooked (meaning a knife goes through the squash easily).  Take it off the heat and add it to the rice right before adding the parmesan cheese.  I like to overcook the squash because then it mixes into some just-cooked pieces and some mashed bits that mix fairly thoroughly into the risotto.  I realize summer is approaching, but try this next fall or something.  So good.
  • Other risotto variations include everything from mushrooms to scallops to turnips and parsley.  Oh they are all so tasty.

Some dancing music as you work those biceps (STIR, baby, STIR).  Here is Ray Charles and Nat Cole singing "Fever":


Waters, Alice, Patricia Curtan, Kelsie Kerr, and Fritz Steiff. "Asparagus and Lemon Risotto." The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2007. 290-91. Print.

Monday, April 18

Vanessa's Dumplings

My friend Caitlin and I made our way over to Vanessa's Dumplings (located on 14th St. between 2nd & 3rd Ave) last Thursday for dinner.  The prices were low and the food was delicious.  As I continually suffer from San Francisco-style-dim-sum withdrawal, this was an important evening for me.

That said, this place did not serve dim sum, but the dumplings more than made up for that fact.  I bought an order of fried pork and chive dumplings, a sesame pancake, a red bean steamed bun, and a cup of taro bubble tea.  Final price was like $10 or something.  Chyea.

The dumplings were delicious.  There were five of them, they were all cutely lined up together, and I inhaled them.  Caitlin ordered the vegetarian dumplings and I think we managed to exchange a few words in between bites.

vegetable dumplings, boiled

Like I said, the dumplings were gone within minutes and the sesame pancake was similarly consumed.  I think this was my first pancake of this kind and I definitely recommend it.  I can't even really describe it other than to say that the pancake was perfectly doughy (without being too much so) and the various fillings were subtle and delicious.  It was one of those dishes that is good in an unexpected way, and you keep taking bites because you just have to figure it out.  If that made sense.

I was not a fan of the red bean steamed bun.  The bun part was fine, but the red bean paste was artificially sweetened (and not in a good way) and there was very little of that authentically red-beanie texture to it.  On the other hand, the bubble tea was the best taro-flavored tea I have ever had, even if bubbles did stick together in disturbingly frog-egg-like ways.  This was Caitlin's first bubble tea experience, which was worth the trip down to 14th St. in and of itself.  She wasn't enthralled by the little slimy balls of gelatinous goo and that made it all the more entertaining.

taro bubble tea, sesame pancake, red bean steamed bun

This was another one of those hole-in-the-wall places, but it didn't have that charming quality that makes other places, like the Caracas Arepa Bar, so endearing.  For dumplings, I can easily deal with this.

Take-home message?  We like Vanessa's Dumplings.

Sunday, April 17

Smoothies

First of all, I NO LONGER HAVE A BAND AID GLUED TO MY FOREHEAD.  Rejoice, people!  Basically, the ER doctor that derma-glued my gash did not wait long enough to put the band aid on my forehead, which meant two things.  First, I could not remove the band aid for about ten days for fear that I would rip out the glue and reopen the cut.  Second, I had to wear band aids that were big enough to cover what was left of the original band aid, which was glued to a cut that is about 2 cm.  I looked a lot more hardcore than I really am.  This is relevant to this blog because I have to be really careful about exposing the new skin to UV rays or it will scar horribly and now that it is/was warm and sunny, I must be extra vigilant even as I search for the ultimate, refreshing summer beverage.

Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the money to sample every fortifying concoction on this island, so the immediate solution was to make smoothies.  Right off the bat, you need a blender.  I bought my blender for $20, and it is very useful when I make pesto, smoothies, and other beverages that maybe require some crushed ice.  Not that I have anything particular in mind.

As for the smoothie itself, you all know what you like.  I like a beverage that is sweet and a little bit tart or acidic and I don't like any dairy products in my smoothies as they permeate and detract from the pure essence of the fruit.  Not that I feel strongly about this.  This is how I most recently made a smoothie, but obviously there is wiggle room.

Pure, Unadulterated Smoothie Goodness

Orange Peach Mango juice
1/2 apple (something tart like Pink Lady, Jazz, or Granny Smith)
1/3 banana
1 packet of mango puree (courtesy of Trader Joe's)
1/2 bag mixed frozen mixed berries
1/2 bag frozen pineapple slices 

Add the desired portions to get the your ultimate ratio.  Blend.  Bam.  Smoothie.


I spent $20 on this and made two full batches of about 4 glasses each before I ran out of ingredients.  I still have plenty of juice left and 2 more packets of mango puree.  Let the snacking begin.


Summer is coming, people.  Heads up!  And later please remind me, in a downtrodden state, of my current exuberance.  Here's Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World."

Saturday, April 16

Neiman Marcus Cookies (Chocolate Chip Cookies)

This is the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies that I have ever found.  Without a doubt.  Even better, it requires less butter and sugar than the cookies on the back of the Toll House bags.

neiman marcus cookies (chocolate chip cookies)
from 500 Cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup light brown sugar
1 egg
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. instant coffee powder
1 1/2 cups (8 oz.) semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Beat the butter and sugar together, and add the eggs and vanilla.

butter, sugar, egg, vanilla.  yum.

Sift together the remaining dry ingredients, including the coffee powder.  Stir the dry ingredients into the butter mixture and mix in chocolate chips.
Roll into balls.  Use your fingers to flatten onto a non-stick baking sheet 2 in. apart.  Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.  Cool for 5 minutes.

look at 'em with all their current and potential goodness

Store in an airtight container for 4 to 5 days.
Makes 2 dozen.

***
Okay.  Comments.  I do not sift things, especially not in college.  First of all, who has a sifter?  And secondly, why would I dirty another bowl AND a sifter?  However, the point of mixing and sifting the dry ingredients is to ensure that the ingredients of lesser proportions (ie. the salt, baking soda, coffee powder...) are evenly distributed.  Oh, and that there aren't any clumps.  I can deal with the clumps (I'm wicked with a spatula) but the apparent homogeny thing is a bigger deal.  My solution is to add the flour last.  That way you can mix the other dry ingredients thoroughly into the dough.  When you do add the flour, do not panic.  Against all odds, the butter and egg will work their little hearts out and absorb all that flour to make delicious cookie dough.  Go ahead and try some.  You know you want to.

I will say that I also make my life easier by softening the butter in the microwave.  Clearly remembering to take the butter out hours before making cookies to soften is just as hard as remembering to preheat the oven before starting.  Also, don't freak out too much about the brown sugar.  Sure, the cookies are better and more delicious with light brown sugar, but if you only have dark brown sugar, the cookies will only be slightly inferior.  Finally, this recipe doesn't call for an entire bag of chips.  But I think we can all come to terms with that fact that there is extra chocolate in the room.

ooh yeeaaah

You will need more than one baking sheet if you mind waiting for the cookies to bake and cool.  Although the recipe says 8-10 minutes, I usually have to keep them in for another 2-4 minutes.  I hate overdone cookies, which usually results in underdone cookies.  When the cookies look perfect to you in the oven, it's possible that you've over cooked them.  I look at the bottom of the cookie.  When the edges are crispy-looking and browned and you flattened the cookies before putting them in the oven, take them out.  If you didn't flatten them and they are nice and puffy, wait another couple minutes to make sure the center is baked enough.

The first time you make cookies, or bake anything for that matter, it is going to set you back a couple dollars.  I think all of these ingredients cost me in the range of about $25-$30, and I already had the coffee powder and salt.  Plus, the baking sheet itself costs about $10 and you need a bowl, measuring cups, and maybe a spatula.  It's okay to be frustrated.  But these are start-up costs.  You'll use the baking sheet and utensils forever and now you can make cookies whenever you want, usually for the additional price of a bag of chocolate chips and possibly some brown sugar (these are the two ingredients that go fast).

The first thing I did today was make cookies so I can bring some to my sister when she flies in this afternoon.  And in celebration of morning cookies and anticipation of the fantastickness that is to be this week, I've been listening to Ida Maria's "Oh My God".  I first heard this song in the trailer It's Kind of a Funny Story and it got me through finals last semester.  It pretty much requires jumping up and down.  And cookies.


Vanstone, Philippa.  500 Cookies: the Only Cookie Compendium You'll Ever Need.  Portland, Me.: Ronnie Sellers Productions, 2005.  Print.

Wednesday, April 13

Breakfast of Champions, Or At Least Of Old Ladies

So my concussed self is still recovering.  Womp womp.  I've been taking it pretty easy for the past week and a half.  We (me, myself, and I) are at the point where I'm starting to feel massively guilty about it - and then I go up a flight of stairs and I'm exhausted.  (Translation: I've become that obnoxious person that takes the elevator up two floors.)  Anyway, I came back from my first class of the day hungry and cranky, so I made myself the best breakfast EVER - the breakfast of champions: toast with jam and cheddar cheese (what up, my Vermonters) and a massive cup of black tea with milk and honey.  There may have even been a teapot and a makeshift tea-cosy involved.

Makeshift tea-cosy/champion of the rectification
of a botched consideration of Bernoulli's Principle

Dobby and his tea cosy hat
The towel is actually there because it's a crap teapot that has a tendency to drip during the sacred act of tea pouring.  It also has the lovely effect of keeping my tea warm.

Another great tragedy of dorm-life is the lack of toasters.  As someone who considers toast to be a gift from God right up there with Jesus (it's warm bread), I was enthralled to remember how my grandmother maintains her most civilized breakfast habits without a toaster (or, for that matter, a microwave, not that breakfast usually calls for a microwave). She uses the oven.  Gasp.  So here I have adopted her methods to make my toast and do my best to not unknowingly find myself in the infernal abyss of pop tarts.

Turn the oven on.  This is a good first step.  I usually decide to turn on the broiler (which means just the top coils heat to 500 degrees) because it gets really hot really fast and you don't have to heat the entire oven to toast the bread.  Regardless, you do not have to wait until the oven is officially preheated.  Make sure that the top rack is as close to the coils on top as possible.  I put the bread on a baking sheet, but you can put the slices on the rack as well.  If you are using something made of pyrex, check to see if it can withstand the almighty powers of the broiler.  If it can't, it shouldn't be too big of a deal because the oven won't actually get that hot, but still.  Remembering an oven mitt or a really giant wad of paper towels from the bathroom, take the toast out when it has crisped to your pleasure.  Keep in mind that it will look/be more toasted when you take it out of the oven and it cools.

tea, a drink with jam and bread

Pick the jam of your choice (try farmer's market jams... expensive but delicious) and the cheese that speaks to you, although I think extra sharp cheddar always blends perfectly with any jam, be it tart or sweet.  Right now, I have a jar of plum jam, although I'm a fan of most of the berries as well.

the toast, jam, and cheese in all its light-reflecting glory

As for the tea, I like PG Tips - especially their black tea, although Trader Joe's also has some Mango Black Tea that is subtle but sweet when you add honey.  Boil the water, pour the water, add the tea bag, and let it steep for awhile.  I usually add a spoonful of honey and a bit of milk.  Be careful not to add too much, otherwise you will end up with tepid tea-flavored milk.  Consume.  Preferably with music in the background and the paper or a good book in front of you.

There's a bunch of songs that I want to post right now, but none of them are entirely appropriate for breakfast in the traditional sense of the word - just in the weird it's-almost-noon-and-I-haven't-eaten-yet-but-hell-I'm-in-college-and-becoming-nocturnal-except-I'm-not-really-sleeping-during-the-day-either kind of way.  So here's a song that is mellow but also has a good, energizing beat.  It's a song by the artist Brett Dennen, who is kind of folksy in that campfire way.

Tuesday, April 12

Insomnia Cookies

Insomnia Cookies is a night-owl-cookie-lover's paradise.  Open until 2 or 3 am, it is located on Amsterdam Ave. between 79th St. & 80th St.  The cookies are served warm and cost $1 each.  (Unless you order one of their deluxe cookies or their brownies.)

For me, the cookies are perfect.  Warm, gooey, and just crisp enough around the edges.  I recently sampled the chocolate chip cookie and the peanut butter cookie.  Although I've made a batch of each that was better, these cookies are a great late night snack.  The chocolate chip had the perfect ratio of chocolate to cookie and the peanut butter crumbled in that delicious short-bready way without being too dry or too hard.

the peanut butter cookie before consumption

Monday, April 11

Melba's Restaurant

Oh.  My.  God.  Melba's Restaurant was my first experience with Southern-style comfort food (thanks, Jack and Donna!).  Perfectly charming, the restaurant is dimly lit and is decorated with mirrors on the walls, flickering candles, and beautiful lamps hanging from the ceiling.  The black chairs and booths complement the dark wood tables and white walls.  Now that I have dined there four times, I can say definitively that the hostess and the waiters are incredibly nice and accommodating, although most recently we had to wait awhile for the food.

On the corner of Frederick Douglas & 114th St. in Harlem, Melba's is renowned for their Southern Fried Chicken and Eggnog Waffles after a cook-off on the Food Network ("Throwdown" with Bobby Flay) - which they won.  The first time I went for brunch and ordered my first chicken and waffle dish.  So delicious.  The chicken skin was perfectly crisp and the meat was moist and evenly cooked.  (You can choose either white meat or dark meat.)  I am not exactly a waffle connoisseur as they are not my favorite breakfast food, but these waffles were very good, especially with the hint of eggnog.

chicken and waffles with a side of mac & cheese

More recently I ordered their macaroni and cheese with two side dishes for dinner.  The mac and cheese was everything a person could hope to eat in a restaurant that claims to serve "comfort food."  Making my mother cringe, I ordered the side of french fries and the side of collared greens.  The french fries were delightfully crisp and delicately salted, but the most amazing part of the meal was the collared greens.  Eating collared greens was another first for me, and as a result Melba's has probably ruined any other version of them for me because they were so outstanding.  Flavored with turkey broth, the greens tasted just like a Thanksgiving turkey.

Fortunately, there are vegetarian options for those who are less enthused by meat for whatever reason.  Some friends of mine recently ordered the Grilled Vegetable Napoleon and I'm pretty sure that's what I'll order next time around.

grilled vegetable napoleon (sorry it's not in focus)

For dinner, the price can vary from $15 to $25 with tip and tax.  If you order a cocktail (the sangria is fantastic), the bill will ultimately go up about $12 but a glass of wine or a beer will be a couple dollars cheaper.

Sunday, April 10

POPCORN. That is all.

I love popcorn.  Even better, popcorn is actually good for you.  Before you get too excited, I'm not talking about the microwaveable stuff that is saturated with butter and salt.  A kernel of popcorn, in its purest form, is packed with dietary fiber and even a little bit of protein.  This basically means that it is the perfect snack when you're in the most ridiculous of states: you're not hungry, but you cannot help grazing for food.  Well stop foraging.  Make popcorn.

At home we used to have a popcorn machine (named Marcus) that looked like this:

R.I.P. Marcus

It heated up some oil and then popped those golden kernels.  When I went to school I was forced to adjust to Marcus' absence in my life as well as the fact that microwavable popcorn goes for about $5/box, which can add up.  My solution?  A hot air popper.

It cost about $20, but it has payed for itself.  (No, really, it did.)  Bags of loose kernels are about $2.20 and make about 135 cups of popped popcorn.  It takes about seven boxes to hold one hundred and thirty-five cups of microwaveable popcorn.  At $5 a pop (hah, not intentional), it's already cheaper to buy the hot air popper and the bag of kernels.  Oh snap.  Watch me put those engineering skills to use.

If you're not feeling the hot air popper, you can make the popcorn on the stovetop.  Add oil (canola, olive...) to a pot that is at least 3 quarts and has a lid.  It should be just enough to cover the bottom of the pot, but it should be no more than a kernel deep.  I would suggest heating the oil over medium-high heat for about two minutes before adding the kernels, but it's not necessary.  Add about 1/3 cup of the kernels, which will make you about 8 cups of popcorn.  Shake the pot over the heat to make sure the kernels aren't burning and that the heat is evenly distributed.  Also, the heat should be allowed to escape from the pot.  But I like the hot air popper because I rarely have to clean it.

My makeshift kitchen (ie. my desk) for making popcorn

The hot air popper does have its drawbacks.  Because it is a hot air popper (as opposed to one that uses oil), there is virtually no other flavor to distract you from the pure essence of the popcorn itself.  This is especially dramatic if you are used to popcorn that is infused with fat and salt and butter.  But people, this is an OPPORTUNITY for popkernel growth.  Here are some toppings I've discovered.  I find that the greatest batches are a combination of these:
  • salt - obviously
  • olive oil
  • a little bit of drizzled honey
  • butter (you'll have to melt this on top of the popper or ever so delicately in the microwave)
  • garlic powder or garlic salt
  • parmesan cheese
  • drizzled chocolate or caramel (not too much though)
  • cinnamon
  • Italian seasoning
  • sugar
  • paprika or cayenne pepper
Of course, as a person with embarrassingly simple tastes, my favorite is salt and olive oil.

Final note on the hot air popper: you may turn off the machine and think the popping is over but you are wrong.  The popping is not over.  Be wary and vigilant.  The residual heat will inevitably heat a lone kernel that will fly out of the machine, into the bowl, and plummet to the bottom.  Just as you decide the popping has stopped, it will decide that it cannot contain its thermal elation and POP, causing the entire bowl to erupt.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

And because everyone needs a little bit o' harmonica in their lives:


Tragically, I cannot find a video with the fast version of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" (featuring only Bob Dylan).  The song was originally more of a lullaby, while this version is a lot more upbeat and more suitable for popping corn.  Here, Will.I.Am does a verse, it's Pepsi's Superbowl commercial from awhile back, and it's less than a minute long.  Either way, Dylan is fantastic.

Thursday, April 7

Bettolona

Bettolona is easily the best place to eat in Morningside Heights and around Columbia.  It is located on Broadway between La Salle St. and Tiemann Pl. (or just south of 125th St.).  I return for four reasons: the food, the prices, the service, and the ambiance.

gnocchi

First of all, the food is unbelievable, especially for the price.  I have eaten dinner there a handful of times now and I have yet to be disappointed.  The first time, I ordered the gnocchi.  Handmade, the gnocchi were the perfect consistency and the tomato sauce was a delicate blend of flavors that perfectly complemented the mozzarella.  Another favorite is the pasta integrale.  Made with seasonal vegetables, the pasta is also homemade and cooked al dente.  It is simple yet the flavors are teased out.  The dish manages to present every vegetable in a way that most exploits the flavor.

pasta integrale

Still, the best part about Bettolona is the pizza.  True Italian style, the pizza is freshly made and has the thinnest of crusts.  Most recently I ordered the pizza regina margherita.  In no way do I regret that decision.  However, the restaurant's best dish (to my knowledge thus far) is the pizza bianca, which is made with ricotta, mushrooms, and truffle oil.  For $12.  It is undeniably the best pizza I have had since I was in Italy.

pizza regina margherita

Like the pizza bianca, everything is reasonably priced.  The final bill, per person, is easily between $13 and $30.  At the cheaper end of the scale, you enjoy an entrée.  At the other end, you can order an entée, a glass of the house pinot grigio, and an appetizer (which are all also delicious).

Another reason I enjoy Bettolona is the people who work there.  Most, if not all of the waiters, are Italian, as is the maitre d' and the owner.  The waiters are friendly and accommodating.  The maitre d' always comes to greet us immediately as we walk through the door and will speak in Italian to me while the owner occasionally wanders around the tables and pours water as he speaks to his patrons.

Finally, the ambiance.  It is absolutely charming.  Strings of lights frame the windows and small candles flicker in the middle of each beautifully crafted wooden table that are next to exposed brick walls.  Incredibly, Bettolona has only been open for about four months and yet they manage to serve food that is polished in its flavor and presentation.

Wednesday, April 6

Tiramisu

"Tiramisu" in Italian literally means "pick me up."  And with a combination of sugar, cream, espresso, and chocolate, that's exactly what it is.  Oh, and the a splash of rum or brandy helps.  It's like the Red Bull of Roman Gladiators.  (We'll just ignore the fact that the first documented Tiramisu seems to be in the '70s...)

Two days ago, at Rugby practice, I managed to be the one of the participants in a mutual head butting.  So now I have a concussion and swelling all around my forehead and nose, plus my forehead split just above my right eye.  But you should see the other girl.  (She was shaken but otherwise seems to be totally fine.)  I went to the hospital, hung out for about seven hours, and the ER doctor finally glued my forehead (apparently this is what they do now instead of stitches) around 4 am.  It looks like I'll have to wear sunscreen or a hat at all times for the next six months to prevent pigmentation (yay for having the pallor of...I don't know...a really pale person).  Regardless, I'll have some sort of scar over my right eye.  Which is exactly where Harry Potter's scar is.  Score.

After stumbling back to campus, taking a shower, and sleeping the day away, a pick-me-up was exactly what I needed.  So my lovely friends came over and we made tiramisu from a website called Cooking for Engineers.  Mock all you want, but the recipes are fantastic and has a well-made chart ever really hurt anyone?!

According to the terms of the website, I'm not allowed to repost the actual recipe and I'm not willing to risk the privilege of viewing this gift from the graphically-oriented culinary gods.  So here is the recipe.  Go crazy.  It's super easy and very delicious.  It's kind of a pain to beat the whipping cream with just a whisk, but this is why we have friends!

What would Italian dessert be without Italian music?  Here's a popular Italian song by the artist Neffa.  It's called "Cambierà" (which means "things will change"):


It reminds me a tiny bit of Randy Newman, at least in the beginning.  If you like song, listen to "La mis signorina," which I also like.  It's interesting because Neffa's songs are classified in a range of genres, from funk to R&B to hip-hop and rap.

Caitlin mixing the mascarpone, sugar, and rum 

The soaked lady fingers

For those of you that do not know, tiramisu is a dessert that is composed of layers - usually two different layers repeated twice.  The first is a layer of lady fingers that have been dipped in a mixture of coffee and espresso.  The cookies are extremely delicate, so they absorb the liquid and begin to fall apart, especially under the weight of the rest of the dessert.  The second layer is generally a combination of mascarpone cheese, sugar, rum, and eggs, although in this case we used heavy whipping cream (and thus did not eat raw eggs and toned our biceps).

Whipping the cream.  This took awhile.

Still whipping the cream.  Ariana is laughing concernedly.

Caitlin's hands folding the mixture.
What would her mother say about those chipped nails?

One thing I will say about the recipe: I've made this recipe twice now, and the type of lady fingers you purchase really makes a difference.  The first time my sister and I made it, the lady fingers were incredibly light and airy, so dunking them in coffee sometimes resulted in their disintegration if we weren't careful.  Last night, the lady fingers I bought had a layer of sugar on top that made it more difficult for the cookies to absorb the coffee and espresso mix.  It resulted in a tiramisu that had some very cookie-like layers.  That said, the lady fingers became spongier over night, so it didn't really matter.  And guess what?  Pretty much all of the ingredients can be purchased at Trader Joe's!

The extra lady fingers and the tiramisu, in all its glory

Monday, April 4

Veselka

Do you know those giant refrigerators that are just about the right size for a body?  They make occasional appearances on TV shows like Dexter or any of the Law and Order series.  My grandmother (Grandmama or GMM for writing purposes) has a refrigerator that is about one size smaller than its body-sized counterparts.  Thankfully, she only stores soups and the occasional carton of ice cream.  The ice cream usually disappears quickly (especially when the rest of my family is at my grandmother's house) but the soup tends to hang out for awhile because my grandmother hates to throw anything away when she can simply toss it into a soup.  As a result, her refrigerator is Maine's version of Mary Poppin's bottomless carpet bag.  (All of these factors culminated last May in a soup GMM offered to me that was labeled, "Turkey Soup - 2004."  I chose the recently frozen potato leek soup instead.)

Anyway, over Winter Break, tucked away in the cosy woods, GMM reheated a container of borscht from her magic refrigerator.  It was the first time I had ever tried the earthy and beet-y stew and I loved it.  So when one of my professors mentioned Veselka, vendors of New York's premier "Ukrainian soul food," I jumped at the chance to rediscover borscht.

Veselka is in the East Village, on the corner of 2nd Ave. and 9th St.  I've been there twice thus far and each time I ordered take-out.  That said, the interior is casual and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.  Both times I ordered a bowl of borscht and a small iced apple cider, all for about $8.

First of all, the apple cider was hardly small but it was delicious.  The perfect blend of spices and sweetness, this was one of the first times the supposed cider was more than just apple juice.  The borscht was unbelievable.  It wasn't the vegetarian version (although I've heard that both the vegetarian kind and the kind with meat are considered traditional borscht), but the beef was perfectly tender and balanced the earthy flavor of the broth.  One of the things I love about borscht is the deep crimson color of the soup and the way the flavors meld into a stew that is not overpowered by the beets.  Moreover, the bowl of soup came with not one but two pieces of warm bread that completely satisfied my soup-absorption needs.

a Bowl of Borscht

If you ever have a chance to drop by, you definitely should.  If it's too crowded, don't despair - there is the beautiful St. Mark's Church nearby at 2nd Ave. and 10th St. (you can see it from the restaurant) that has lovely benches.  Also, Tompkin's Square Park is two blocks over at Avenue A and 9th St. (just exit the restaurant and turn right so that you walk two blocks east along 9th St.).  The park is full of trees and perfect for a casual meal outside, especially now that spring is (theoretically) here!

Sunday, April 3

Pesto Pasta with Chicken

Remember how my mother ruined me and condemned me to a life centered on an insatiable need to experience only the best food?  How about my grandmother for that matter?  A major factor for this is my mother's recipe for homemade pesto sauce.  My roommate, who doesn't like pine nuts and who wasn't hungry in the first place, had three bowls of pesto pasta:


"Blender Pesto"
(a food processor is better, but a blender works as well)
from The Classic Italian Cookbook: the Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating

2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tbs pine nuts
2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed with a knife handle and peeled
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbs freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
3 tbs of butter softened to room temperature
1 tbs pasta water

Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt in a blender and mix at high speed.  Stop from time to time to scrape the ingredients down toward the bottom of the blender.

Blenderful of ingredients in my floor's charming kitchen

When the ingredients are evenly blended, pour into a bowl and beat in the two grated cheeses by hand.
When the cheese is evenly incorporated, beat in the softened butter.  (Use a wire whisk if you have one.)
Before using the pesto, add one tablespoon of warm water to the mixture.  If you are making the pesto for a pasta dish, use the water used to boil the pasta.  This amount of pesto is enough for about 1 lbs. of pasta cooked al dente (fusili are my favorite).

The pesto sauce

The pasta!  Notice the use of the same bowl.

I like to combine the pesto pasta with some chicken, just so it's almost a balanced meal:


Quick and Dirty Chicken
In order to make quick and easy and delicious chicken, I thinly slice chicken into pieces that are about 3/4 in. thick and season them with herb de provence and salt.  Heat about 2 tbs of oil in a pan on medium-high heat until the oil is starting to smoke a little bit.  Another good way to test the heat is to (carefully) flick a drop of water on the pan; if it sizzles, the pan is hot enough.
The seared chicken.  Yum.
Place the chicken in the pan making sure to place it away from you so you won't splash oil in your direction.  The pieces of chicken should be close to each other (something about their mutual sizzling makes it more delicious) but they shouldn't be touching or overlapping.  Sear the suckers (these are the words my mother used when she taught me) for a couple minutes (3-4) on each side in order to achieve that gorgeous and slightly-burned quality.  Because the pieces are so thin, the chicken should be cooked through but still juicy and browned on the surface.

***
This meal was a lot of fun to prepare and the blender was loud (which really didn't affect my music choice but it did intrude a bit), so I played the soundtrack from (500) Days of Summer, which I just checked out at my local library.  It's a great soundtrack and I encourage you to look into it if you have a chance.  Here's the first song, "Us" by Regina Spektor:


I made this pesto for the first time about a week ago.  A couple of things to note:
  • Put the pesto into a large bowl, drain the pasta and then dump it onto the pesto and mix.  Now you have only one bowl to clean!
  • Most ingredients can be bought inexpensively at Trader Joe's.
    • They sell basil containers for a little less than $3.  Gently wash the whole basil branch and pick off the leaves and put them onto a dish towel (possibly the blue William-Sonoma towel you stole from home).  Pat them dry and then dump into the blender.
    • Pine nuts are expensive but totally necessary for any pesto sauce.  At Trader Joe's it was $8 or $9 for an 8 oz. bag of "Dry Toasted Pignolias" but I'm sure you could find them for a cheaper price if you persevered.  Still, the nuts don't expire for a year and I'm hoarding them for pesto purposes only so I'm choosing to view this as an investment.
    • Pecorino Romano is also a little expensive especially if you only need 2 tablespoons of the stuff.  But it's cheese.  It will get eaten eventually.  Especially if Susan or I are in the vicinity.
  • Leftovers are amazing.

Next time I make this combination of pasta and chicken, I might make just enough pasta for one serving each time until I use all the pesto sauce.  Alas, this means that I will inevitably dirty more than one bowl, but then the pasta will be fresh.  (Meaning I won't have to use the wretched microwave plus maybe all the dish-washing will build character.)

Susan and I like to play a game.  Each week I resolutely declare that this week will be different because I will resist the urge to buy bread.  And a few hours later, when I return with bread from the Farmers' Market (Thursdays & Sundays on Broadway between 114th St. and 116th St... Check it out) or from Westside Market, she doesn't laugh at me too much.  With these glorious bundles of carbs, I make chicken sandwiches.  Usually I buy a couple rolls at Westside.  Combined with a slice of chicken and a thin slice of Pecorino Romano, the sandwich is a perfect blend of protein and flavor.  Maybe if you're feeling crazy you can drizzle a little pesto on it.

Hazan, Marcella. "Blender Pesto." The Classic Italian Cookbook: the Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating. New York: Ballantine, 1984. Print.

Saturday, April 2

The Most Dangerous Cake

I am afraid of microwaves.  I clearly just don't understand them.  Whenever I use the microwave, things are not heated all the way or they explode, which is fun.  Some people are masterful with a microwave.  They can cook things, reheat food thoroughly and evenly... I have no idea how they do it.  That said, a couple years ago the lovely Maile Rose sent me the recipe for a chocolate cake that is baked in the microwave.  For some reason, I had all of the ingredients in the room, so I decided to make it.  Which is why it claims to be the most dangerous cake recipe in the world... at any time of the day you are only 5 minutes away from chocolate cake.


5 Minute Chocolate Mug Cake
4 tbs flour
4 tbs sugar
2 tbs cocoa
1 egg
3 tbs milk
3 tbs oil
3 tbs chocolate (optional)
A small splash of vanilla extract (optional)
1 large coffee mug

Add the dry ingredients to your largest mug and mix well.
Add the egg and mix thoroughly.  Pour in the milk and oil and mix well.
Add the chocolate chips (if desired) and vanilla extract and mix.

The mixture with my Peter Rabbit fork

Put your mug in the microwave and cook at 1000 watts (HIGH) for 3 minutes.  Because my mug was funky and Lord knows how to actually use the microwave on my floor, I ended up flipping the cake over and cooking it for another 45 seconds because it wasn't totally done.

Right out of the microwave

Susan and I split the cake.  It was pretty good, even if it wasn't spectacular.  It was kind of a strange cake - it was denser than usual.  I added some chocolate chips, which all sank to the bottom of the mug and had the effect of a gooey chocolate layer on the bottom.  Also, I used olive oil instead of canola oil because I had some olive oil ice cream awhile ago that was delicious.  The fact that I also have a quart of olive oil to use before the end of the year may have been a factor as well.

The finished product on Susan's pretty plate

All in all, not a bad recipe, although it does need some tweaking.  If you are suffering from a major craving and have all of the ingredients on hand, go for it.  But if you have to go out to get some of the ingredients, just buy a cake!  Or, better yet, make a regularly sized cake.

***
While I was "baking," I had the song "My Way" running through my head.  As much as it pains me to admit it, it wasn't Frank Sinatra's original but instead the cover that Robin Williams sings in Happy Feet. That's right.  Happy Feet.  So here it is for your listening pleasure.  I love this clip because it is dubbed over in Spanish (and Robin Williams really does sing the song in Spanish).


I think it's an almost appropriate song for this cake - each is a... well, "adulterated" is too strong of a word, but each is a weird, fun version of a classic.