Coffee and Bagels

November 12, 2007

For an incorrigible snob I like a fair number of decidedly unsnobby foodstuffs. Or rather, I can be surprisingly undiscerning in regards to the quality of even my favorite consumables. For example, despite appreciating a really exemplary cup of coffee, I'll guzzle down diner coffee, bodega coffee, instant coffee with condensed milk with equal appreciative gesticulations for all. This contradicts my inability to eat dumplings from anywhere except Prosperity Dumpling without mentioning that better dumplings could be had, or to derive equal pleasure from Gordo's and El Farolito. Maybe a leniency when it comes to coffee as opposed to burritos is attributable to a crippling need for coffee however I can get it and an undeniable attraction to someone dumping mass quantities of cream and sugar in my cup without batting an eyelash in judgment.

Despite my equal opportunity approach to coffee I am still baffled by how many New Yorkers seem numbed to whether or not their coffee is tasty. Given the superior attitude of New Yorkers (I'm not knocking it, assuming said attitude in good company is one of the reasons I like living here) I'm not sure why they don't seem to have demanded excellence where coffee is concerned. Plus, coffee is such an easy thing to wax snobby about, effortless elitism! For people who will rant about fluffy bagels until the cows come home, lattes masquerading as cappuccinos and abominable chai don't seem to irk them much.

Which brings me to bagels, an article to which I claim absolutely no attachment. Bagels were not part of my regular childhood diet, I have no fond memories of getting piping hot bagels with my parents every weekend and piling them with lox and whenever I found myself in Noah's I usually got a bialy or some rugelach. That said, I still understand the controversy surrounding traditional bagels versus the puffy interlopers. My problem with the puffies is not that they buck tradition, but that there is absolutely no point in eating a bagel unless it is of the small, dense, crisp variety and liberally piled with a cream cheese varietal and preferably some smoked fish. With these combined elements, a bagel becomes something special, an actual dish. Without them, you might as well eat a piece of good toast or munch on a baguette. You could get away with just buttering a bagel, but it had better be a damn fine bagel or it is a veritable waste of caloric intake. I'd rather eat slices of flank steak plain than construct a sandwich of wonderbread, and I'd rather eat lox with my fingers than put it on a pillowy excuse for a bagel.

End rant.

Lucky for me there are two places in the Southish Slope that allow me to feel superior in both my coffee and bagel intake. The first is Café Regular, a pint-sized little gem that serves up La Colombe coffee straight and to the point. Aside from orange juice and an assortment of pastries from Baked and Sullivan Street, the offerings are coffee and only coffee. While small enough that you can reach over and touch the bar from the bench running along the wall, it is a pleasant place to sit and steeped in faux-Parisian-ness. Clichéd as it may be, you can't argue with the comforting nature of the décor and the cumulative effect of warm wood panelling, bric a brac that could have been lifted from a grand-mère's attic or twentieth-century train station and a piping hot double cappuccino.

After securing your caffeine, hit up the Bagel Hole. Don't be dissuaded by the lack of ambiance, the energy here goes into the bagels. Sporting little other than a counter and wire baskets of bagels, the Bagel Hole serves up the densest, most flavorful and inevitably warm from the oven bagels I've found in New York. They don't need a toaster because the bagels are always warm and crisp, they don't skimp on the spreads and the price is right. I don't see myself regularly trudging down to the Bagel Hole, but if I do eat a bagel I make it count.

Demand the best! Enjoy the worst! Here's to inconsistent yet unyielding snobbery!

Café Regular - 318 11th Street between 4th and 5th
The Bagel Hole - 400 7th Avenue between 11th and 12th

We Are Celiac

November 6, 2007

Roommate John had confirmed last week that he has celiac disease, a revelation that was welcome in that it finally answers why he hasn't been feeling too hot but unwelcome in that it strikes things like soba noodles from his diet. In the spirit of continued indulgence in the face of perceived limitations, I decided to make him a treat to show that living gluten-free does not have to mean living treat-free.

I settled on cookies after realizing that any bread or cake-like enterprise would involve at least two types of flour. Eschewing flour altogether seemed even more decadent than layering several varieties, so flourless peanut butter cookies it was. Though the dough gave me some cause for consternation (being essentially a wet blob of sugary peanut butter), these cookies emerged from the oven solid and delicious. The recipe can be simplified or dressed up however you like, and made glutenous if you must.

Gluten-Free Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
Inspired by a recipe from Gluten-Free Girl and doubled and dressed up a bit by me.

Adding two full cups of sugar made me feel a bit gross so I decided to replace one of the cups with half a cup of honey. After the success of the ginger snaps I switched out a bit of the honey for maple syrup at the last minute. There's nothing wrong with sticking to the sugar, but personally I liked the way the hints of maple and honey played with the peanut. In terms of choosing what type of peanut butter to go with, obviously if you prefer not to have peanut chunks then go with creamy, and if you decide on a salted variety then you don't need to add salt yourself. If I'd thought a little bit more ahead I would have put in some fresh chopped peanuts and next time I'm going to toss in some chopped pecans.

2 cups unsalted chunky peanut butter
1 cup sugar
1/8 cup maple syrup
3/8 cup honey
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
1 cup Sunspire rich dark semi-sweet gluten-free dairy-free chocolate chips
turbinado sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 350.

Cream the peanut butter and sugar thoroughly by hand, then add the honey and maple syrup.

Beat in the eggs one at a time followed by the salt and baking powder. Make sure that each ingredient actually gets mixed into the dough and not just pushed around on the sides. Use hands if necessary.

Add chocolate chips and mix.

Roll the dough into balls. I used about 1-2 tablespoons per ball, but acceptable cookie size is open to interpretation.

Dredge balls through the sugar and place on baking sheet lined with wax paper.

Gently press dough balls with fork to flatten them and create a pleasing ridge pattern.

Bake for about 10 minutes. The cookies will be soft when you take them out so leave them on the baking sheet for at least 5 minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack.

Attempt to let cookies harden completely before eating, or just chow down. Milk is advisable.

Wannabe Vegan

October 31, 2007

Many of my favorite food blogs have been posting ginger snap recipes for some weeks now. I have finally caved to self-imposed pressure and perennial yearning for everything ginger and decided that instead of binge eating baggies of crystallized ginger discuses from the co-op I would actually put them in something. I hope the title of this blog would preempt any confusion resulting from the following recipe, but to make it perfectly clear: I am not a vegan. I do, however, really really enjoy vegan goods, particularly vegan pastries. How can one who demands nimbusesque airiness from her crème brulée also go nuts for vegan cookies stout enough to be used in shot put is another of my delightful contradictions, but there it is. I think it is the very ways in which vegan pastries veer from the typical embodiment of pastry that makes me love them. Not that a vegan pastry can't be fluffy and melt as ephemerally across the tongue as the lightest Ladurée macaron*, but I like them when they're thick, a bit savory, uncomplicated and rustic. Something that might be pounded on a piece of slate and seared in a hearth dripping with tar. It doesn't make much sense but all I know is that the vegan cookies at Maxfield's haunt me enough that my two most recent visitors generously toted them in tupperware through airport security mostly to make me shut up, and that I'm long past the point of trying to affect a hoity attitude in regards to vegan recipes.

We arrive at the gingersnaps. These thick little patties hearken back to the co-op days when books like How It All Vegan were godsends for cook crews at the ends of their wits and shaking at the thought of facing a mass of diners deprived of dessert. It contains some blissfully simple and straightforward recipes, of which this is one. I have tweaked and complicated it a bit to include elements that make me happy. The dried fruit held up well and rounded out the flavor nicely.

*this is a lie

Vegan Gingersnaps
Adapted from How It All Vegan and tested on many a dirty hippie
Yields about 36 cookies

If you want this in its ultimate simplicity, eliminate the apple butter and use 1/2 cup of oil, forget the crystallized ginger, vanilla extract, and dried fruit and go for it. They'll still be good. Adding cinnamon and/or nutmeg would also be good.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cups maple syrup
1/4 cups molasses
1/4 cups vegetable oil (I used safflower)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup apple butter
5 Tbl fresh grated ginger
1/3 cup minced crystallized ginger
1/3 cup dried cranberries
1/3 cup dried sour cherries
turbinado (or any form of coarse sugar) if desired for topping
Preheat oven to 350.

Whisk together dry ingredients until uniformly mixed, then add wet ingredients.

Toss in dried fruit at the end and mix until just mixed. The dough will be thick and unwieldy.

If you're up for it, attempt to form Tablespoon-sized balls out of the dough and roll them in turbinado crystals. I ended up sprinkling the sugar on top of the dough balls and think it worked quite well.

Arrange on baking sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes. Do not be alarmed by their failing to spread, for they are resilient and will not shift dramatically from their blobular state. They also seem miraculously burn-proof.

Pour some soy milk into a jar, read about kombucha, dumpster diving and DIY ricotta in a quarterly months behind the curve (you know I love you, Edible Brooklyn), and contemplate the Master Cleanse.

Triumph and Prosperity

October 30, 2007

I am a bit hesitant to out Prosperity Dumpling as the best dumpling place in Manhattan, but I feel fairly confident that my mentioning it will not send such a clamoring hoard to its door that the dumpling man will up the prices and lower the quality. For truly, forget either the Allen or Mosco Fried Dumpling, forget Tasty Dumpling and Dumpling House, Prosperity Dumpling's dumplings are superlative and put all others to shame. First: they are fried to a delicate crisp that crackles when bitten but does not leave coagulated oil in its wake. Second: they are always served so piping hot that you might have to wait to eat them rather than scarf them down with a quickness lest they become gelatinous blobs of lukewarm fry within seconds. Third: the filling is loosely and evenly packed rather than a dense nugget of vacuum-packed-esque pork that belies a recently frozen state:

An even bigger pull than the dumplings are the sesame pancakes, which put most focaccia to shame. The sesame pancake exits the oven as a large salt-infused disk dusted with sesame seeds and dotted with chopped scallions. It is divided into slices and either served as such or filled with beef and/or pickled vegetables (carrots, cucumbers, cilantro). Pleasantly chewy and only so slightly oily, the sesame pancake is a perfect snack to eat with or on your way to some bubble tea.

Though exalting Prosperity Dumpling is no waste of time, there is greater impetus for this entry: the stuffed pancake. While I was conducting hardcore investigative dumpling research when I first arrived in New York and needed extreme motivation to brave the extreme weather conditions, I happened upon a review of Prosperity Dumpling. Discovering that it was practically ungoogleable, with nary a yelp review or other blog entry devoted to it (no longer the case), I decided that I had to give it a try. Thrilled at discovering the best dumplings of the bunch and a stellar sesame pancake to boot, I was nevertheless dismayed at my inability to get my hands on the fabled stuffed pancake. Visit after return visit I was circumvented or outright rebuffed by the otherwise extremely personable proprietor. After the aforementioned visit during which he reduced me to embarrassing sputters of agitation, I was reluctant to return and embarass myself further but filled with even greater dedication to what had morphed from a healthy curiosity to a crusade. Though I had visions of ambushing the dumpling man at 7:30 am and demanding that he apply himself to a stuffed pancake, I soon realized that I'll sooner seek out random food items at all hours of the night than at all hours of the morning. Maybe if I were up until 7:30 hitting up the dumpling man would be an option, but waking up early enough to do so definitely wasn't. My next tactic was to take someone along and hit the guy from two sides: 1) are you going to embarrass and refuse me in front of my friend and 2) will you risk losing the business of two people instead of one (not that he will ever really be in danger of losing mine as long as the sesame pancake stays on the menu).

Rebecca recently moved to a new place so convenient to investigations that I have barely been able to contain myself. My junior year obsession with bubble tea and spicy chicken reared its dormant head, near incoherent demands for cake issued forth and before anything else I dragged her, willing but falling short of annoyingly obsessive, to Prosperity Dumpling. Dumpling Man again tried to give us the runaround, and this time he too had a "second" in the form of a friendly cook, who boisterously echoed his more sheepish statements of "we don't have it?" and "it is hard to make...". Finally, after hearing that we would wait for as long as it took and happily purchase two of the pancakes, the two of them set off to cook some up.
Here's the dismally anticlimactic kicker: the stuffed pancake is not very good. It's not bad, but it doesn't hold a candle to the variety of dumplings or the sesame pancake with beef. The exterior, despite being piping hot, was rather tough and difficult to maneuver, and the filling sat resolutely separate from the dough and was similarly difficult to puncture. This meant that rather than biting into a wonderful melding of the two, we were forced to pry off pieces of dough and eat them separately from chunks of congealed pork-vegetable mix. I wouldn't be surprised if a forced stuffed pancake is destined to take on the characteristics of its producers and consumers and come out leaden, sullen and dispirited, so I'll keep requesting them in the hopes that I wasn't nursing a pipe dream all these months. Or maybe I'll try if I can get them to make me the equally unavailable chive and egg pancake...

Tis the Season for Gluttony

October 23, 2007

Though the recent weather might be trying its damnedest to make us believe otherwise, it is fall. Lucky for me, I have no attachment to the whole leaves - changing - nip - in - the - air - first - cold - snap idea of fall and instead the change in season manifests itself in the form of newly desired and available foodstuffs. The apple cider donuts at the Grand Army Farmers Market suddenly dominate my thoughts on Saturday mornings and spiced pecans shift from decadent treat to diet staple. Realizing that we had both abruptly developed an unprecedented obsession with pumpkin, Rebecca and I decided to ring in the season by making some pumpkin bread. The resultant loaves or their imminent successors might make an appearance soon, but in the absence of images and recipe I will just say that there was much consuming of batter on my end and Rebecca's loaf nearly fell apart under the weight of its own chocolate chips. As soon as we parted I promptly put half of my loaf safely in the freezer lest I convince myself days that pumpkin bread 3 meals a day is a small sacrifice when facing potential spoilage, and pondered what to do with my leftover pumpkin puree.

In addition to bringing a craving for spicy breads (squash harvest loaf, I'm looking at you), fall carries with it a hankering for stew. With this in mind I set to invetigate pumpkin soup recipes and ended up settling on one that augmented the pumpkin with cannellini beans. Though lacking some of the ingredients suggested by various recipes (fresh sage, basil, bay leaves) and one apparently key ingredient (chicken or vegetable stock), I decided to take a whack at it. What came of my efforts was something in between a soup and a stew and decidedly fantastic. The recipe itself is very simple but the pumpkin not only adds a unexpected dimension to the flavor but actually heightens the performance of the beans. I have made many a white bean soup that turn out more like bean mush which, while tasty, cannot exactly be deemed a veritable "dish." I decided to go with Pecorino-Romano over the Parmesan that was unanimously called for by the recipes I found and believe this was a wise choice. It is both creamier and saltier than Parmesan and melts wonderfully into the soup. The cherry tomato garnish was less an appropriate mixing of flavors and more a nod to what might be the last good batch. Though the passing of summer brings much cause for regret, thank goodness it's time once again to fatten up for winter!

Pumpkin-White Bean Soup:

The following recipe is more than open to experimentation. In regards to the liquid, I used 2 cups water, 1 cup fat-free buttermilk, and then dashed some regular milk in there towards the end. It depends on how creamy you want the soup and clearly if you'd like to use chicken or vegetable broth as other recipes suggested, I'm sure it would be tasty. I happened to like the absence of sodium and chicken flavor, but taste varies.
dollop olive oil
1 medium-sized sweet onion, coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 15 1/2 oz can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
15 oz unsweetened pumpkin purée
3 1/2 cups liquid
~ 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (less if you're not a spice fan)
1/4 tsp dried oregano
dash nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
grated Pecorino RomanoHeat olive oil in medium-sized saucepan.
Toss onion and garlic into medium-sized saucepan with some salt and pepper and simmer until onions are translucent.

Add remaining ingredients and simmer for approximately 8 minutes.

Remove pan from heat and blend approximately one cup of the mixture at a time in blender until the consistency is even, the beans and onions as uniformly pureed as desired. Be very careful with this step, my first attempt sent the blender cover rocketing sky-high along with some boiling soup.

Transfer back to pan and reheat, serve garnished with grated Pecorino and anything else that deserves to be garnish. Perhaps some nice bacon, or...bacon.

The Homage Is Alive

October 15, 2007

Alright, I know there hasn't been any homaging to fromage yet so here's a brief entry just to prove to myself and the ether that contrary to what is suggested by the content of this blog thus far, fromage is my first and truest love. Behold, the cheese plate! Or rather, the cheese that used to be on a plate but is now on the floor!

Les Fromages:

Tomme de Ma Grand-Mère: a mild goat cheese produced just south of the Loire Valley. Its bloomy rind conceals a brilliant velvety interior that carries a hint of salty mushroominess and manages to be simultaneously dry and creamy in texture. Not as complex and heart-stopping as its flashy cousin Tomme Crayeuse but pleasing nonetheless. Wedded with a bit of honey it is scrumptious. Also wins points for sounding like an oath one might hear roared by a medieval baron upon hearing that the goats have fled the fief.

Durrus: a washed rind Irish cheese made from raw cow's milk that thankfully makes its way into the states. Smooth and and slightly gummy, it leaves an uncomplicated but lasting taste with a faint after-kick of salt.

Lincolnshire Poacher: a sharp smoked British cheddar named after this fantastic ditty, the poacher packs the punch of an aged cheese without being too crumbly or salty. Smooth but yielding a satisfying snap, it went perfectly with the membrillo and hot coppa.

Gres de Vosges: somewhat like a Camembert or Munster and graced with a decorative fern leaf, the Gres de Vosges is oozy but not runny or offensively stinky. The mellow saltiness melts across the tongue and lacks the bitter aftertaste of so many stinky cheeses.

Les Accompagnements:

Membrillo: quince paste, of Spanish origin and preferable to the increasingly popular guava paste. Complements salty cheeses such as Manchego, Idiazabal, Cheddar etc.

Hot Coppa: I don't know much about meats, but this had a full and very slightly salty taste that went especially well with the Poacher.

Air-Cured Genoa: see above re I know nothing about meats. This had a lighter and less salty flavor than I have come to expect from stiff salamis. It was inoffensive and went nicely with the dried fruits.

Honey: see "delicious."

small treats: dried cranberries, dried cherries, hazelnuts, tamari roasted almonds. I'm running out of bluster and gustatory foofery: these were all super good.

disclaimer: I've been known to eat my fair share of cheese in one sitting but lest you think I laid this out on the floor to allow for solo reclining and gorging in order to circumvent the whole "how do I get up from the table now?" conundrum, this spread actually was moved to the floor to yield the table to a masterful meal whipped up by Blake and Elin. Taster Matt and I could probably get away with saying we helped, but the help was mostly in the form of unintelligible supportive noises, i.e. "oooooooo!" "aaaaaaaa!" "whaaaaa?!" "butter!"

Cooking vs. Invetigating

Lately I have been so torn between various extremes that I might as well recalibrate to zero and call it “grounded” rather than continue in this stomach-churning state. While not the bulk of what contributes to the churn, deciding whether to apply myself to cooking or to seeking out the fine cooking of others is one quandary that makes up the grand recipe of unrest. Often the factors of time and wallet plumpness make the decision for me, but both of those fail me when it comes to fast food. Street food can be purchased and eaten in a hurry for a fair price, just as a bowl of quinoa and onions can be whipped up in a few minutes flat and leaves some change for a dessert of candied ginger discs. Luckily my itchy invetigation foot usually kicks in to give me that deciding boot out of the kitchen and typically lands me far from my home. Call it martyrdom or self-punishment or misplaced reward syndrome, but the sorer the feet, the damper the brow, the tastier the reward. An invetigation that combines food with the exploration of new terrain is the best one there is.

A few weeks ago I experienced premature Red Hook withdrawal. Though the ballfields vendors were safe for another month or so I still felt the impending onset of pupusa tremors. I have a few Sunset Park destinations staked out for snowy late night fixes, but suddenly even those seemed tinged with potential disaster. What if Ine’s closes? What if Rico’s gets snowed under? I need further back-up. Having found my first torta of New York after doing some stealth recon in Astoria (the foolproof equation of [observed passing torta - amount of torta consumed by consumer = possible distance from torta vendor] led me straight to Atlixico and a middling but welcome chorizo infusion), Queens seemed to be the way to go. After consulting the internet, Taster Matt and I set out for Jackson Heights with a tentative list of vendors who, unbeknownst to them, would soon be auditioning for the roles of Team Red Hook alternates.

First on the menu was a beverage at Aqui Colombian. “Beverage” turned out to be a misnomer, these colossuses were meals. While Taster Matt went for the cholado, I went for the supposedly less rich champus. I’m not sure what part of two cups of sweet corn kernels immersed in what is best described as an icy cinnamon gazpacho translates into “light,” but all of it translated into delicious. The champus isn’t as much of a looker as its cholado companion, whose fruit-studded condensed milk-drenched shredded coconut self required both fork, spoon and straw, but both performed equally well.

We walked from 37th to Roosevelt to get started with savory. I was hell-bent on pupusas, which for some reason I insisted would be sold at the “two ladies taco cart” mentioned in a fantastic map posted to Chowhound**. I can only ascribe this conviction to brain fever or hunger-induced daftness because there was nothing in our research to indicate that this was so. In the spot designated to the two ladies, we found a cart manned by one lady with a sign indicating both sopes and pupusas were imminent. I approached the cart with gusto but was thrown by said lady’s deflated preemptory order confirmation: “tacos? SIGH!”. Her countenance shifted dramatically upon my rejoining with “No! Pupusas!” Our ensuing chat revealed that, though she is Salvadorian and a confirmed whiz at pupusa production, her most common request (which she attributed to the ethnic make-up of the neighborhood) is for tacos. The resultant pupusa was resplendent and topped with shredded lettuce, crema and cojita rather than pickled cabbage or onions. Its pancake-like appearance was deceptive and hid an impressive quantity of beans in its crispy folds. After Taster Matt bowed to my needling and tried the sopes (practically identical to the pupusa except with the beans outside instead of inside the masa patty), we moved on.At this point we encountered the nadir of our invetigation in which I was brought to the edges of a despair felicitously dispelled by our happening on a jolly arepa cart.*** I wish I could give a more accurate address for the arepa cart but all I remember is that it was on 37th and came equipped with a cooler full of seven different unmarked sauces hanging off the grill. We were lucky to even get a picture of this one considering how quickly it went. It by no means quelled my determination to make a trek out to the famed Arepa Lady one of these weekends, but it was crisp and plump with meats.Next Taster Matt was thirsty and decided on a Malta Paisa, “a non alcoholic cereal beverage.” I’d like to say that this purchase was the product of impetuousness but honestly it was the result of much deliberation and ultimately won out over other offerings by virtue of its containing no high fructose corn syrup. I think my expression says enough.
Still addled from the lack of fine dessert offerings and a fruitless search for a coffee that met my high standards for purchasing, we settled on a chalupa of all things for “dessert.” The mob surrounding the cart at the base of the stairs to the 82nd St. stop was promising, but as is often the case with such foodstuffs the quality of the chalupa was somewhat unevaluatable because of the overwhelming qualities of heat and fry. Neither of these are ever cause for quibble or woe, and the chalupa was deemed an innocuous but satisfying end to the invetigation. And so concluded the journey to Jackson Heights: while not a Red Hook equal, certainly deserving of the title of “understudy.”



***A brief word on the despair: it was brought about by a niggling feeling that there existed some tarte tatin-eclipsing Central/South American dessert or pastry that I just hadn’t yet laid eyes or hands on. Dutifully scoping out every bakery on my list, I still didn’t find anything that even piqued interest in my tastebuds let alone promised to topple my existent hierarchy of pastries. Dismayed at my complete disinterest in trying any of the alternately desiccated or oleaginous offerings I began to think that my stomach was either racist or cowardly. Patient in the face of this utterly ridiculous parody of a quandary, Taster Matt gently suggested that maybe I just don’t have a taste for the most ubiquitous Central/South American desserts. I added conchas to the short list of desserts I no longer bother insisting on liking (see glutinous rice) and resigned myself to concentrating my searches to the savory.

End of Summer Denial

September 19, 2007

A quick entry because summer is fading and I, contrary to all expectations, am actually feeling pangs of regret. Though perhaps those pangs are less regret at the loss of summer and more impending terror at the imminent cold with which this Californian had a tormented relationship last winter. There was lots of cursing and nary a hole-less pair of shoes, lets just leave it there.

Never having spent a summer in New York, I entered August somewhat unfamiliar with the sensation of unrelievable weather-prompted discomfort. Air-conditioning was no substitute for an ocean breeze and generally resulted in the infuriating condition of being constantly on the verge of illness despite a mean outdoor temperature that should have left any parasite ready throw in the towel. Having neither lake, pool, nor sprinkler to throw myself into, I found myself searching for other extreme methods of warding off brain fever.

One particularly painful afternoon while trudging up my block after a fruitful but incredibly ill-advised solo trek to Red Hook, I was consumed by a desire for, of all things, an apple. But not just any apple, I wanted the COLDEST APPLE IN THE WORLD. Without any companions handy to make helpful suggestions like “why don’t you take a nice cold shower” or “let’s go stand in the freezer section of the co-op for a few minutes,” I instead stood with sweat-matted hair and sunblock-clogged pores losing my last unfried brain cells to imaginings of apples trucked in from the Siberian tundra. I briefly considered a smoothie but quickly realized that I didn’t want any sickly warm banana or even frozen yogurt to contaminate the purity of my arctic apple. Thus was born what became my go-to snack of the summer: the apple icee.

Apple Icee
2 red apples, cubed. I prefer something with a bite, Empires work well.
1/2 cup soy milk
~ 14 ice cubes, preferably smashed up a bit
dash cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract (note: I was convinced that this was a good idea and persisted in adding it to my icees. Upon reflection I realized that vanilla extract added to liquid does not result in a vanilla-flavored beverage, but still had a hard time giving up adding just a bit to the blender)
2 spoonfuls blackberry-merlot sorbet
optional: dollop honey, sugar, maple syrup
Mix ingredients in blender and pulse until well-blended. The apple icee retains its deliciousness regardless of how emphatically one punches the buttons on the blender. I prefer leaving a few apple and ice chunks but a nice frappe tastes great too.

Everything Tastes Better With Peanut Sauce

September 3, 2007

I have always been an excellent and thorough eater. The Mom professes that my first word was “eat” (although I wouldn’t put it past her to pull my leg on that front). She also reports that with the onset of mastication came exclusive and vociferous demands for cheese, grapes and baguettes. The Dad, big fan of pre-dinner nibbles, lavished paté and shot glasses of wine on my burgeoning palate. I ate the three vinegary piles of shredded beets, carrots and zucchini that accompanied the croque monsieur at my favorite childhood café, not because of a grudging acceptance of the nutritional value of veggies but rather an early-established affection for a cleaned plate. And, according to the two meal-providers of my formative years, even when I was still demanding a cup of crayons along with my appetizer I was routinely ordering the best items on the menu.

As stated, this appreciation for foods and ability to pick the doozy off of any menu did not necessarily go hand in hand with refined tastes. Case in point: at age 6, already filled to the knee socks with snobbery, I ran out of mayonnaise one bread slice into a turkey sandwich. Shortly thereafter I was spreading peanut butter on the other slice of bread, having thought no further than "what else in this kitchen is spreadable?" Peanut butter popped up before mustard, so peanut butter it was. And I kept making my sandwiches this way. For awhile. Now, peanuts have a place alongside cream and meat, but the point is that my brain went no further than mayonnaise = spreadable = peanut butter. A more recent example: A couple weeks ago (faced with a nearly empty kitchen and very empty wallet) I spread honey mustard on one side of a two-month-old spinach tortilla and cracked brown mustard on the other, evenly distributed slices of packaged provolone on the canvas, and, as an afterthought, added a spattering of sweet and tangy simmer sauce before heating the whole thing in a skillet. And I have been considering making this again.

I don't know if I'll ever hone this baffling combination of discerning and completely blind taste, and in my heart of hearts I think I'll always have these bursts of fondness for utter crap. Not "bad for you but still so good" crap like fried dough balls and jaegerschnitzel, but "who in their right mind puts those ingredients together and calls it a success" crap. Consequently, I'm going to try to be careful with what I post here and indicate if something falls into the "only appreciated by the bat-shit crazy or ageusiac" category. Now on to the recipe:

Though there will be a great deal of homaging to fromaging in the days to come, I'm going to kick off with one of my favorite non-cheese toppings to virtually any dish: peanut sauce.

I decided on this peanut sauce partly because it required me to get more Bragg's, which is always exciting, and partly because I was almost out of sesame oil so had even more reason to try a new market in Chinatown I've had on the list (which in turn allowed me to stock up on enough soba noodles to hold me until April and suspiciously took me close enough to Prosperity Dumpling that it was pure obligation that forced my foot in the door*).

But ultimately I chose this as my first recipe posting because the first time I made this sauce is my first memory as a "grown-up" of having produced something from scratch that made lots of people happy. It wasn't until I lived in a co-op my sophomore year of college that I began to really discover the kitchen. Cook crew involved 4 people preparing a meal to feed approximately 80, which was daunting but infinitely satisfying. The first time around it was purely daunting, left me all but paralyzed with anxiety, and with half an hour left to go I struck upon this recipe for peanut sauce and thought wildly "everyone likes peanut sauce! They can slather peanut sauce all over everything and all will be delicious!" The resultant 5 pitchers of sauce dogged me for the rest of the year, but the constant invocations of “that peanut sauce” were, I like to think, equal parts teasing and hope for another batch.

Spicy Peanut Sauce
(originally tweaked from a recipe in Mollie Katzen's Enchanted Broccoli Forest)

This recipe is fail-proof and infinitely tweakable depending on your penchant for spice. Though not one who can lay claim to a spice poker face (being more prone to immediate sweating, reddening and worrisome gasping when confronted with even the slightest excess of chili dust) I like this sauce to rate a "crisp brow beading" on the spice sweat meter. While any spicing agent is acceptable, I have had the best results with crushed arbol or pequin chiles (exercise caution with the seeds!)

1 cup peanut butter (I prefer creamy unsalted)
1 cup boiling water
4 tb rice or cider vinegar
1 1/4 tsp salt
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh grated ginger
4 tb honey or sugar
2 tb Bragg's or soy sauce
4 tb sesame oil
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (to taste)
Place the peanut butter in a medium sized bowl.

Add boiling water and stir patiently until uniformly blended (add water gradually for more control over viscosity).

Thoroughly stir in remaining ingredients and adjust to taste.

makes approximately 3 cups and keeps in the fridge
suggested uses: top any noodle concoction, slather on bread, eat straight out of the jar

* I finally pinned down the proprietor on the mysteriously never available "stuffed sesame pancake" which is rumored to be phenomenal. And by "pin down" I mean exited with a series of cagey and vague answers that didn't leave me any more enlightened than before I put him on ice. This is a rough approximation of the interrogation:

"Do you ever have the stuffed sesame pancake?" "Sometimes."
"Do you know when you'll next have it?" "I don't know."
"Are you ever going to have it?" "I...don't know."
(desperate now)"If I come first thing, when you open, will you have it???" "...I....don't know."

Appearing to feel both guilt and embarrassment at my distress and unsightly piteousness, he followed this last "I don't know" up with "It is very hard to sometimes, if someone wants it, I'll make it" accented by a shrug of the shoulders. Ah-ha, I thought, now we're getting somewhere. It seems I am not one of the hallowed few who merits a stuffed sesame pancake. Having harassed the poor man enough, I trundled away perfectly content with my usual sesame pancake with vegetables. I am however planning a friendly but determined ambush at the crack of opening and will continue the assault until I get my hands on one of those stuffed pancakes.

Beginnings and Confessions

September 2, 2007

I might be a better eater than I am a cooker.

This might not seem like that great an admission but for me it is a nearly constant source of shame and frankly one of the motivations for embarking on this exercise in the first place. I'm a decent baker, I make a mean omelet and pancake brunch double-whammy, have bent the blender to my will in the service of nut-milks and hot sauce and I have practiced a few of my childhood staples enough to be able to rattle them off without too much flop sweating. I just can't claim much in the way of kitchen intuition.

My passion for food, insatiable appetite for recipes and terminology, and the chunk of encephalon dedicated to cataloguing and cross-referencing eateries attests to my gastronomic commitment, but I need practice. As much as I probably wouldn't mind eating cheese samples three meals a day, I want to be more than the master of the cutting-board dinner. I want to reign over my kitchen without needing gimlets to bolster my spirits. I want to have all the burners and the oven going without descending into tight-lipped anxiety because my sides are congealing and fading while my mains sullenly refuse to seize their potential. I want to enhance food prep with conversation (perhaps even laughter) without risking catastrophe, and serve up heaping fragrant plates of deliciousness.

I want to be able to share my love of food with my friends.

While it might be awhile before I can invite anyone over for dinner without barricading myself in the kitchen and entertaining guests with a symphony of bitter oaths and clanging pans, in the meantime I can build towards that glorious day and still share all of my favorites (and my foibles) with you lot.

And so, while I do not profess any great culinary ingenuity as of yet, I set out with equal parts trepidation and temerity to humbly pay homage not only to fromage, but to all of the foodstuffs that have nurtured my gustatory curiosity into what now borders on a compulsion.

Roll on, wheels of gouda, as the great Earth rolls on!