Monday, September 28, 2009

Alphabet City

My first apartment in New York was on 14th and Ave. A, right on the edge of Stuyvesant Town, and while the East Village, specifically Alphabet City, might be more infamous for heroin dens, clubs, the late night scene, and eco-friendly hipsters, it holds its own gastronomical delights, and some of my favorite haunts are in the nether-reaches of this quirky neighborhood.

One of the main drawbacks of Alphabet City is simply the fact that it is such a pain to get to. But certain places make it all worth while--I Coppi on Ave. A and 9th street serves marvelous Italian food and has a romantic back garden that is open year-round. It has a special "home-y" feel, most likely because the owners, a Tuscan husband and wife team, built much of the restaurant themselves, including the brick oven, where bread is baked without salt, as per the Tuscan tradition. Everything on the menu is excellent, especially their chestnut soup and but my absolute favorite thing is their gnocchi with an orange and gin sauce and lump crab meat. Divine, and unlike any other dish I have had, anywhere in the city. Their gnocchi is so light and delicate, every other formulation seems clunky and heavy by comparison.

Matilda, on 11th and Ave. C, is a wildly original Tuscan and Mexican fusion restaurant that my roommate discovered. The flavor combination are so perfect, it is amazes me that I've never had prosciutto and basil in a quesadilla before. And to make it even more lovely, the two owners, one of Tuscan decent, the other from Mexico, met while working at the aforementioned i coppi.

This same roommate is also obsessed with Death & Co. , purveyor of decadent cocktails, and I recently discovered a fun little place on Ave. B, Rue B., which has great fresh-fruit infused cocktails, live jazz every night, and tasty paninis.

Ost Cafe and Atlas are two of my favorite cafes in the whole city. Ost has wonderful coffee, and you can sit and read/edit/work unmolested while people watching out the gloriously large windows. Atlas has all sorts of delicious Mediterranean inspired food and an unbelievable variety of soups, salads, and sandwiches at amazing prices, with a non-intrusive staff that will let you munch and work quietly all day.

I will say, however, that the best way to explore this neighborhood is to simply walk around. One of my favorite New York "memories" is the day when Vronsky and I decided to walk off a hangover one morning and mill around down Avenues A, B, and C, through the LES and into Chinatown. We discovered an urban farm on Ave. B, complete with koi pond to "eat" the run off (koi are basically aquatic pigs...they eat anything and everything and are the basically swimming garbage disposals), a place with vegan cookies that also sold bongs, and fabulous little vintage shops that sell everything from shearling pimp coats to bird-cage veils (both of which I want). We even found a VHS of the movie "Clue," which is one of my favorite movies of all time. Tom Curry rules, and I really want to go to the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" sing-along sometime this winter. Any takers?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Happy Birthday to Vronsky

Today is a very special day. It's Vronsky's birthday! I mean, why the rest of you aren't off work on some sort of national holiday is just beyond me. Sheesh.

But seriously, birthdays are happy news, and I think it is fitting to have a little post in honor of this momentous occasion.

When I first moved to New York, I was more nervous than I had been upon entering Princeton or even high school. I guess it was because, in my experience, I had at least an inkling of what to expect for those two previous "thresholds." I had friends and swim teammates who had traveled the same road, and the entire infrastructure of academia is structured in such a way that they do not want people to fail and get lost. They want you to succeed. The whims of your peers is an entirely different scenario, one that is very much sink or swim, but that, in its own way, is also ubiquitous and part of the American coming-of-age experience, for better or worse. Both times, I knew what to expect and could gird myself accordingly.

When I moved to New York, however, I was completely adrift. All the novels I had read and Woody Allen movies I'd seen be damned. But there was also a slight sense of solidarity. While everyone was indeed pursuing their own particular goals and dreams, everyone was also united by the common perils of city living. Yet what I think united most of us in that first year was the thrill and the terror of our first year out in the "real world."

The two girls I lived with, Jamie and Rachel, were perfect companions for such a journey. We all had different goals--med school, publishing, fashion--but we all had a strange brand of self-deprecating humor that helped us survive that first year of sub-minimum wage salaries and the daily battle against the roaches roosting in the coffee maker each morning.

It was a weird first year, and I truly believe the reason I reflect on what could have been an all-out horrifying time with fondness is no less due to the company of such friends than it is to Vronsky's sudden presence in my otherwise chaotic life.

I was muddling along and clinging to the old and familiar as a way of coping with the onset of a new and risky career that could, quite easily, bring financial ruin, doom and gloom upon my future. Yet it was Vronsky's enduring optimism and sincere faith in the fantastic magic and mystery of New York, be it through the perfect late-night martini at the Village Vanguard, running around SoHo in a snowstorm while making out at every lamp-post, or even decadent nights at the 21 Club, financial ruin be damned, that finally caused me to fall in love with this crazy city once and for all. And to this day, I can't not walk across 9th street or poke into every dusty second hand shop or exotic spice store without feeling that same excitement that we had on our first date. It is this same thrill and terror of the unexplored and unfamiliar that I hope will continue to define my life in New York for many years to come.

And so on that nauseatingly overly-mushy note, happy birthday to you, mon ami.

To quote a quintessential Georgian toast, "may we always have peace in our hearts, peace in our homes, peace in our minds and peace in our bellies."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


There once was a time when I knew very little about Spain and Spanish culture and food. I still cannot speak a word of proper Spanish, but the former was remedied by a good friend of mine, Mike, starting three years ago while back in Virginia.

You see, I had recently graduated and desperately wanted to do the whole "backpack around Europe" tour. I had the whole route planned out (Paris, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Prague, Switzerland, perhaps a stop-off in Naples if the EuroRail allowed) but could not find a single person who wanted to join in. This actually was my second disappointment for my grand post-grad travel dreams. Initially, being a crazy Russophile, I wanted to take the trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Beijing, and I certainly could not find anyone willing to do that with me either.

Mike though, being a Spanish minor, had plans to go to Spain, and while at my house one day eating my mom's spaghetti, I decided to join him. Seeing as our combined net worth was about $11, it was probably a wise decision on my part to limit my adventures to just one country, especially a country where we already had friends living and would have a place to hang our hats.

We planned out a grand tour, starting in Madrid and then heading north to Bilbao and San Sebastian. Incredible artwork (the Parado and Guggenheim are reason enough to book a flight) and beaches aside, I fell forever in love with Spanish food and wine and to this day seek it out whenever possible.

Incidentally, this trip also forever soured me towards Indian food. Trying to be frugal, we flew over on Air India. A ten hour flight surrounded by the smell of cheap airplane-food grade curry while feeling like a raisin from dehydration is enough to turn anyone off to any cuisine. A shame, as I am sure I am missing out, but perhaps in another year or two I will have finally gotten over it. Mike, have you?

Back to Spain. Mike is somewhat of a gastronome himself and so we made the extra effort to try ever possible tapas and pinxtos (Basque for tapas) during our two weeks. From every incarnation of empanada to Catalonian flatbread, Rioja wine, calamari fritas, and manchego cheese, I was in gastronomical seventh heaven.

Not that there weren't pitfalls along the way. Due to the uniquely Spanish schedule of "siesta" we were always a bit groggy after our naps yet wanted to get the party started (seeing as it was now 8pm). So we developed the rather strange predilection for "cafe con leche con whiskey." Yep, coffee with milk and whiskey. Yech. However, it did do the trick of both waking us up and getting us drunk. Heigh ho. Also, Mike almost got robbed by gypsies and apparently the lovely men of Bilbao had never seen a Chinese person before and had a field day trying to talk me. The fact that I spoke no Spanish did not deter them, nor did the fact that I am only half Chinese and therefore, was not even the real deal.

Nonetheless, it was a wonderful trip and served as an introduction to Spanish cuisine that I try to eat whenever possible. I always have manchego cheese on hand and frequently make "Spanish Caprese" in my apartment.

Pour balsamic vinagrette into a small saucepan and reduce (and thicken with cornstarch if neccessary). You can also buy balsamic reduction in gourmet food stores.

Take roma tomatoes (they are smaller than heirloom and usually oval shaped), and slice them into wedges.

Arrange artfully on a plate and sprinkle liberally with goat cheese.

Drizzle olive oil and your balsamic reduction over the tomatoes and cheese and enjoy! MUCH better than "regular" caprese with mozzarella (no flavor) and only olive oil. The balsamic gives it so much more taste and tang than basil, and clings wonderfully to the goat cheese and tomato wedges.

I also have a growing list of favorite tapas places in New York. Alta in Greenwich village is wonderful and if I ever do an Ironman, Vronsky is taking me there and we are ordering everything on the menu for $400 (yes, this is something the restaurant actually allows you to do, which makes me love it even more). Make sure you get the bacon wrapped figs and olives to start.

Casa Mono
in Gramercy is fantastic and has great wine. Their sweetbreads are incredible, and the head chef used to be the sous chef at Mario Battali's Babbo. The creation of Casa Mono is discussed at length in Bill Buford's excellent book Heat. (Food featured in picture above)

Flor de Sol in Tribeca has flamenco dancing and great atmosphere, and Pipa: Tapas Y Mas has the best calamari in all the land. I am not making this up. It is also decorated with beautiful chandeliers from ABC, so when you are reveling in the calamari and enjoying your Rioja and therefore in a fantastic and generous mood, you can contemplate what that gold crystal one would look like in your 3 ft by 10 ft bedroom. Obviously, it would look awesome.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Consider the...pomegranate

As the weather slowly beings to turn towards autumn here on the east coast, I feel it is appropriate to embrace fall foods the same way I embrace the start of college football season and the return of my beloved Michigan Wolverines, fall fashion, and the fact that my apartment is actually a sleep-able temperature again.

No single food embodies seasonal change like the pomegranate. I am not speaking specifically to the flavor profile here--for that, I think butternut squash soup captures the earthy essence of the season--but rather, the mythology surrounding it.

It is a fairly well-know tale, but for those of you not well-versed in antiquity, the story begins with Demeter, goddess of the Harvest, and her lovely young daughter, Persephone. The two were frolicking about in a field somewhere when Hades, god of the dead, saw Persephone from afar and instantly fell in love with her. Knowing she would never go with him willingly, Hades decides to kidnap her the second she strayed out of sight of her mother.

When Demeter realized her daughter was gone, all living things on the earth wilted with her grief. Zeus could not leave earth and all living things on it to die, and so he commanded Hades to return Persephone. Yet while he and Hades argued, Persephone, pining for her mother and warm sunshine in the Underworld, cracked open a pomegranate and ate four seeds to remind herself of the fruit of the living. She did not know that it was the rule of the Fates that anyone who ate the food of the dead was condemned to stay in the Underworld. Fortunately, Zeus was able to negotiate a compromise with Hades, and Persephone return to her mother, yet she had to spend four months of every year with Hades, one for each seed.

While she is down there, Demeter and all the earth mourns her absence. And that, is why we have autumn and winter. So says the Greeks, anyway.

It is a great story, and fits the strangeness of the pomegranate itself, which has no "fruit flesh" to speak of. Instead, it is seeded and either the seeds are eaten as they are, or juiced. The first time I ever ate a pomegranate is burned in my brain, as when my mother went to slice it open, a trickle of dark red juice came out of the incision, and all I cold think was, "holy batman, the fruit is bleeding..." (I was seven, so "holy batman" was my expletive of choice not knowing any larger or more vicious vocabulary).

I love the seeds straight up and will snack on them late night while doing work or watching television. They are also great sprinkled over yogurt in the morning or over a big salad, and while the juice is too tart for me, I know plenty of folks who love it and drink it just for the tremendous health benefits (pomegranates apparently can help lower blood pressure, prevent heart disease, is loaded with antioxidants, and even helps reduce dental plaque!). Heck, I've eve seem "pomegranate shampoo" at the Duane Reade. Thickened and sweetened, it is also the key ingredient in Grenadine syrup used in a multitude of cocktails.

It can sometimes be tricky to seed a pomegranate properly without squishing lots of seeds in the process and making a mess. I find that cutting the fruit in half and then submerging it in a bowl of water helps, as the seeds float up to the top and you don't have to jiggle them out as roughly. Remove the rind and strain and you're good to go!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pizza, pizza!

"I think there's a difference between like and love. I mean, I like my sketchers, but I love my Prada backpack."

"But, I love my sketchers."

"That's because you don't have a Prada backpack."


It is "10 Things I Hate About You" if you must know. 90's teen flick extraordinaire and purveyor of wise words of wisdom for all.

But seriously, when it comes to pizza, I like pizza, but I love pizza from Posto Thin Crust. I love it so much that after my triathlon on Sunday it was the first thing that popped into my head (after acknowledging my desire for a shower and a nap, anyway).

Pizza is a quintessential New York food. I know there are Chicago folks out there who will try and claim it as their own, and while deep-dish can be great, nothing beats a true New York slice. It is suitable food anytime of day, be it a mid-afternoon snack or 3am necessity. I love that New York pizza places are not only ubiquitous throughout the city, they are all fairly unpretentious. Raoul or whomever is manning the ovens will toss your wide, hot, cheesy slice into that funny paper bag/paper plate combo without so much as a grunt, often suppressing a smile at your drunk desperation (or maybe that's only in my case).

And while I thoroughly enjoy this little ritual, sit-down pizza is it's own experience, and one I believe is best had at my beloved Posto. Grimaldi's in Dumbo, Brooklyn, near the waterfront, gets a lot of hype and good press (the line is winding around the block by 5pm and forget it on weekends). I've been there a few times, and yes, it is classic New York pizza done to the hilt, but for pure taste and variety to suit every palate, Posto is for me.

As indicated in the name, all of the pizza at Posto is thin crust, which is light and pleasantly crunchy, never soggy. The tomato sauce is hand-made and there is just enough cheese to hold everything together without dominating the other ingredients (there is an Italian saying that American pizza is just a vehicle for the cheese, which I think rings fairly true in most cases). You can either choose from a great selection of house pies (Big Pineapple, Meat Lovers, El Greco, Chix-potle, etc.) or make your own. Their topping list is extensive, ranging from andouille sausage and home-made meatballs, to grilled baby eggplant, artichoke hearts, shredded basil, and portobello mushrooms. The possibilities are endless! The also have solid wine selection, vintage-style sodas (creme soda, root beer, etc.), and killer desserts (if you even have room by that point).

I insisted Vronsky meet me there for dinner last night and I hoofed my way over there after work, sore legs be damned. On the train back to New York yesterday morning, I had already determined what pie I was going to order: shredded chicken braised with their home made chipotle sauce, sauteed onions and peppers, pineapple and fresh basil. Sounds intense but don't knock it 'till you've tried it.

Posto is located on 18th and 2nd. A bit of a no-man's land neighborhood-wise, but I suppose it's technically Gramercy. I discovered it while meandering about looking for apartments two years ago. If you live within the delivery zone you can enjoy your Postos and Project Runway at the same time, but I think the food tastes better fresh from the kitchen, and the ambiance at the restaurant is quite nice. There is even a jukebox to browse through while you wait.

Also, Jimmy Fallon was there one night, yelling and talking shit and in general being a total tool box, and the owner threw him out. This just makes me like the place even more.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"How to Cook a Wolf"

The title of this post, "how to cook a wolf," comes from MFK Fisher's collection of essays by the same name. Obviously, neither she nor I mean this phrase literally. Rather, "the wolf" is a metaphor for hunger, fear, loneliness, or any similar emotion that threatens to engulf you, much the way a literal wolf actually can.

MFK believed that one could "cook" away these emotions, your wolf, as it were. In her particular case, this was a good move, as the essays from this period were all written during World War II–a time of food rations and much hunger, loneliness, and fear.

On a day with a history like today, such emotions are equally appropriate, and I believe, like MFK did, that food can provide at least a modicum of comfort to those facing down some wolves of their own. For me, food is a strange amalgam of comfort, love and family. As an old Russian proverb goes, "And as I say 'I love you,' so too I say, 'come eat.'"

And more to the point of wolves, one of my favorite books that I have had the privilege to publish is a memoir entitled The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands. In this instance, the wolf, Brenin, is Mark's companion, and embodies what is noblest becomes a sort of metaphysical ideal that Mark strives to engage with, both as a man and as a philosopher (he is currently a philosophy professor at the University of Miami).

To wit, Mark and Brenin find themselves living in the south of France midway through the narrative. The two have settled into the peculiar routine of walking to town each morning and getting two plain croissants at the little village patisserie –one for Mark, one for Brenin. Luckily, the pastry chef is not the least disturbed by the incongruous pair.

After about a month of daily croissants, Mark realizes that Brenin is as grateful and joyful to eat his croissant each morning as he was the day before. He is as happy as teh day he tasted that first croissant.

Granted, these are incredible croissants–large and airy, yet packed with a rich, buttery taste that melts in the mouth. Yet Mark cannot help but think that most people would grow weary of these croissants, no matter how lovely and delicious they are. Brenin, however, never thinks, "Oh jeeze, another croissant? When is this guy going to take me to get a bagel? Or a muffin? Or even a scone?" The joy of today's croissant is not diminished by the anticipation of future croissants, nor is it sullied by the fact that maybe that croissant from three days ago was a bit larger. Nope. For Brenin, each croissant is its own little miracle and reward in and of itself. It doesn't need butter or jam, and the fact that he had one yesterday, and will most likely get one tomorrow, God willing, is immaterial. The croissant is good, just as it is.

And, indeed, so are most things. So to everyone out there, I hope you too enjoy and savor your croissant.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pre-race meals

As I mentioned in my previous post about my little flat tire incident that restored my faith in humanity, I have a triathlon coming up this Sunday in Washington DC and I've tried to be very conscientious about my diet leading up to the big event.

Back in my swimming days, the only diet mantra ever I followed was "eat 'till it hurts." Sick, but true. I have always been on the scrawny side (my nickname as a child was "Jangle Bones" and to this day my dad still calls me "J Bones") and the sheer volume of training us swimmers undertake by the age of 13 certainly did not help matters. I would eat steak and cheese sandwiches with bacon, washed down with Carnation Instant Breakfast shakes and barely crack 100lbs (sadly, this is no longer the case). The thought of this today just makes me nauseous, but maintaining your calorie count and protein intake is important for recovery and performance no matter what your age or sport.

Today, it goes without saying that I no longer need those instant shakes, and bacon, steak & cheese sandwiches are reserved only for hangovers. Yet I still try to tailor my diet to ensure proper recovery, carb and protein levels, especially leading into a race. The standard practice prior to an athletic event is carb-loading the night before. I am sure many of you remember those "pasta dinners" with your team back in high school, and I had a friend who swore by a baked potato before a meet. I personally think baked is the worst way to serve a potato--give me mashed, Provençal style, or even au gratin any day. Different strokes for different folks though, and my friend was fast as hell so perhaps she was onto something.

I do not believe that pre-sports food must be simple and bland just to ensure the proper nutrients are there, but should they be overly exotic or adventurous either. The night before a marathon is probably not the best occasion to try out that new curry powder you bought at the street market last weekend. I find that my mother's spaghetti sauce is my preferred pre-event meal: I know it won't upset my stomach, it's got all those nice carbs from the spaghetti, vegetables and all sorts of other healthy bits from the home made tomato sauce, plus a bit of meat for protein, but not so much that it sits heavy in my stomach.

Alas, I can't make this myself as you might remember from my inaugural blog post, and while I will be able to eat her sauce prior to this particular triathlon since it is in my hometown, there are a few things like to I make on my own the night before races or even prior to long runs/rides that anyone can cook easily, my favorite being:
Home-made Fried Rice

First, you will need day-old rice that you will have made in your rice cooker for some other delicious meal. Fresh rice will do in a pinch, but actually doesn't work as well because you want the rice to be a bit dried out, not lovely and fluffy like it will be right out of the cooker, which is delicious, but not right for our purposes.

You will also need an onion, some celery, green peas, olive oil, soy sauce, and a chicken breast or tofu (extra firm) if you are vegetarian.

Slice half the onion and as much celery as you desire into medium-sized slivers. Run peas, if frozen, under warm water in a strainer to defrost and cook and set aside. These won't be tossed in until the very end.

Slice raw chicken breast (or tofu) into strips (or cubes). Toss in olive oil and soy sauce to coat.

Take chicken/tofu and onions and put into hot skillet. Drizzle a bit more olive oil and soy sauce as you stir to keep moist. When chicken is about half cooked and onions starting to turn clear, put in celery.

Sautee for a few more minutes (chicken and onions should be 3/4's done by now), remove from pan and set aside.

Re-coat pan with olive oil and put in rice. Drizzle rice with more oil and start to stir in pan. In a few minutes, the rice should start to crackle and plump up from the olive oil. It should NOT be dry. Drizzle soy sauce over rice and stir to coat rice until it is really crackling and brown from the soy. Put chicken/onions/celery back into the pan with the rice and stir around until chicken is cooked and concoction is thoroughly mixed. Toss in peas and stir again until evenly distributed.

Yummy for the tummy.

I like this meal because it has everything you need--some protein, veggies, and carbs. Plus, the rice will help settle your stomach if you have any preemptive jitters. And, it is awesome as a leftover the next day when you are too damn tired from said race to cook anything new.

In the morning, I like a banana, juice, two slices of wheat toast with a bit of butter, and a lot of water. A small cup of coffee just to get the ol' heart rate up is becoming increasingly necessary in my old age.

Monday, September 7, 2009

This has nothing to do with food, but....

Yesterday I went on a long bike ride as I won't be able to do another one prior to my triathlon next Sunday down in Washington DC (I have to drop my bike off tomorrow to be shipped down there since I can no longer take it on the train. Damn you Amtrak!)

Anyway, I am about to go over the GW bridge up by 180th street and am cruising along enjoying the emptiness of West Harlem at 7:30am on a Sunday morning, when my front tire explodes with an audible *pop.* Lord knows what I hit--a shard of glass or even a bottle cap at the right angle--all I knew was that I was over 120 blocks from home with an un-rideable bike, and there was a bum laughing at me.

Being an idiot, I had not brought any spare tubes or tire patches with me, so I start to walk. I'm clicking along in my bike shoes (not comfortable for walking, by the way), and after about fifteen minutes, a man in full cycling gear with a charming Caribbean accent stops, asks if I'm ok, and upon seeing my busted tire, goes, "no worries, I can help you fix that. It is easy. I'll show you how."

And so he patches up my tube in no time at all, giving my dumb self a tutorial in the process, not to mention saving me from the worlds longest and most embarrassing walk of all time. The fact that he took twenty minutes when he was obviously out for a three-hour joy ride himself was possibly the penultimate "good Samaritan" act I have ever been the recipient of, and now I can only hope I have an opportunity to "pay it forward" in the near future. People in this city never cease to amaze me, and this was certainly one of the most pleasant surprises I have ever been privy to.

I only wish I had gotten his address so I could send him a pie or perhaps a whole basket of fresh fruit, him being a fit and health-conscious cyclist and all.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Happy Birthday to my little bro, grill master extraordinaire

Today is my little brother's birthday. He's a big boy now at the ripe age of 17 and quite an eater. You would never guess it just to look at him, as he's about six feet with about .02% body fat and a six-pack all the girls at the high school moon over, thanks to swimming.

Growing up with three older sisters could not have been easy, but I like to think we've prepared him for the wider world as best we could. Certainly no girl will ever get the best of him now, not that there is one out there that is good enough for him, anyway.

He is quite the grill master and assumed the place of honor at the family grill in lieu of my father about 2 years ago. We don't believe in gas grills and still use charcoal as everyone maintains it tastes better, even if it is a bit more of a hassle to clean.

One of Davey's greatest "hits" are his steaks and kebabs, which have one praise from all who have eaten them, not just immediate family members. As we are fast approaching Labor Day weekend, I thought this would be a fitting post in case any one of you have plans to assume grill master status yourself this weekend.

Davey grills with tri-tip steaks, which are not too big and thus are quick to cook and easy to manage for larger groups of people. Their smaller size enables you to get that nice seared crust to contrast with the pink-y inside of the meat.

To achieve, marinate in one hour prior to cooking in soy sauce, sugar, finely minced garlic (or garlic powder if neccessary), black pepper and a bit of red wine.

After an hour, your grill should be plenty hot. Take steaks out of the marinade and just before putting them on the grill, brush in olive oil with a little bit of salt/pepper, and if you like the taste, Italian seasoning. The olive oil will attract the flames, causing them to leap up and give the meat that initial flame-kissed taste, not to mention help keep it from sticking to the grates.

Use this same olive-oil concoction to coat your kebabs before putting on the grill. We like to make kebabs with slices of sweet red, yellow and green peppers, lots of onions, and mushrooms. We will use shiitake if we can find good ones, otherwise will make do with portobellos, quartered to fit nicely on the skewers, and coated beforehand with soy sauce, sugar, and a bit of pepper.

And if you're so inclined, some grilled sweet corn will never go amiss. All of these yummy things on the grill makes the pugs go mad with the smell. Lucky for them, they always get a little nibble from the leftovers, which is probably why they are fat like in this picture. Enjoy the feast!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

An ode to my rice cooker

My rice cooker is probably the most expensive and beloved single kitchen piece I own. Yes, I do use my roommates lovely all-clad pots and pans with a bit more frequency, but I don't own those. Actually, come to think of it, I don't really own much in my apartment. Good thing she is my "heterosexual life partner," because if she ever left me, all I would be left with are two ancient carpets, some mismatched plates and silverware, a bookshelf, and my crappy twin bed, which I hate but am stuck with since my room is too small for a "big girl" bed.

Back to my rice cooker. Do not be fooled, readers, by he high-tech looking cookers/steamers seen online with all sorts of bells and whistles. It is a marketing scam and you will be suckered. The best rice cookers are the kind used in Asian restaurants and they are very simple and all seemed to be designed by some ellow who has a penchant for pink and white flowers.

The construction is simple: the non-stick pot in which you put the rice and water (or whatever else you wish to cook), the actual electronic steamer/heater that the pot goes in, and a single switch that you push to specify "cook" or "keep warm." That is it.

This kind of rice cooker has been found in every Asian household I have been in--Vietnamese to Chinese, young twenty-somethings to grandmothers--and was the kind I simply had to have upon moving to NYC three years ago.

Unfortunately, I could not find the proper kind online, and so decided that a trip to Manhattan's restaurant district was in order. My friends, being sane, had zero desire to accompany me on this sojurn, and I did not have Vronsky in my life yet, so I had to wait until my sister, Amanda, came to visit. In the interim, I attempted to make rice in a pot on the stove, which was disaster. It was dry and bland, not fluffy and sticky like white rice is supposed to be. And so I just had to do without until she came.

When she finally she arrived, I was suffering from some serious rice withdrawl, and without the slightest regard for the weather forecast, off we went. After poking around in several of the restaurant supply store, I finally found the perfect 4 cup cooker. Many of the stores carried the right kind but only in the commercial size (about 12 cups), which was much to large for my needs. After a little of bargaining and inquiry into my ethnic descent (only someone with a po-po would ever haggle over the price of a rice-cooker, and I'm not even very good--she could probably get the price of a diamond down to $11 if she tried), I finally had a rice cooker to call my own.

Resisting the urge to buy more cookware at fabulous wholesale prices, Amanda and I walked further south towards Chinatown, as I needed some jasmine rice with which to christen my new cooker. If we were lucky, perhaps we'd find some lapchong (Chinese sausage) to steam in there as well. Since the cooker in the box weighed a good 15lbs and was incredibly awkward to carry, we stopped in the first grocery store we saw, only to find out that rice only came in 10 and 20 lb sacks.

Undeterred, I bought the ten-pounder and we set out for home. We were a good twenty blocks away from my apartment when the skies suddenly opened and Amanda and I were stuck in a torrential downpour. Luckily, we had covered both cooker and rice in plastic bags. Un-luckily, we were soaked to the skin in about 5 seconds and now looked like two homeless bag ladies. No cab would stop for us, our respective burdens were quite heavy and now we were cold and wet to boot.

We decided to stop at the first restaurant we saw and wait-out the storm. By this point we were on 2nd Ave and 9th Street and the Ukrainian National Home beckoned to us. Figuring that the East Village is home to stranger people than us in our current state, we went inside and were immediately greeted by the gruff, if kindly, hostess who offered us towels to sit on and to dry our hair.

Amanda and I have a fairly decent command of the Russian language between us, and after amusing our waiter with our mad skillz, we warmed our bones with strong tea from the samovar percolating in the corner, borscht soup, beautiful large varenyky (pierogis), and travorg (buttermilk-cheese) blitnzes.

By the time we were finished, the rain had abated and we slung our rice-sack and cooker over our shoulders and made our way towards the door. On the way out, we were met by the chef, a giant bear of a man who would not be out of place in Alfons Muchas' mural "The History of the Slavic People," who said he simple had to know what on earth we were carrying in those two bags.

After divulging the contents of said sacks, he nods and simply says, "Very good. I have just such a cooker myself."

If you desire such a cooker, head down to any restaurant supply store, either in NYC's restaurant district or in a Chinatown (and there's one in every major American city so no excuses). In addition to cooking white rice to perfection, you can steam vegetables (broccoli and cauliflower are my two top choices), sausages, make hard boiled eggs, and eggs over hard/medium, to name a few. My rice brand of choice is Nishiki rice, found in some regular groceries and certainly in any ethnic food store.