Friday, January 29, 2010

Bread is life!

If anyone has seen the great New York movie "Moonstruck," then you will know that Nicolas Cage plays Cher's love interest–Ronnie the baker–who, in a hissy fit about his brother, Johnny, yells out "What is life? They say bread is life! And I bake bread, bread, BREAD!"

Well, I don't know about the metaphysicality of bread, but I do know that while it is the seemingly simplest and most basic food, good bread is quite possibly one of the most satisfying things on this great earth. The smell of it alone is enough to drive me into a frenzy, and there is nothing like squishing your teeth into a perfect slice of challa bread or the crumble of a warm brioche.

Last Sunday, and a rainy one at that, I shuffled down to the nearest Le Pain Quotidien to finish up some editing. This book is a very moving history of the town of Trochenbord which was completely destroyed during the Holocaust, and while I knew exactly how things ended, I was moved to near tears all the same, and then went and bought the biggest baguette they had for sale to lift my spirits.

So there I was, scooting home in the drizzle, sans umbrella, trying to keep my baguette and my manuscript dry. Luckily, before I left, I bought a tub of their Noisella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread that makes Nutella taste like shoe scrapings. Smooth and velventy, without the slight processed after-taste of preservatives that I always experience with Nutella, Noisella was the perfect compliment to the simple slice of baguette on that rainy afternoon. I sat there on my sofa typing out my notes, trying in vain to keep the brown Noisella off of my pristine white laptop (and the sofa).

Why is it that bread and some sort of spread has this kind of comforting effect on us? Is it because it can meet so many different gastronomical needs? It clearly helped my mood the other day, and when I was growing up, I had two slices of whole wheat toast and butter each morning, washing down with an orange juice before swim practice at 4am. Carbs to give me energy, butter to stick it to my ribs, and a bit of orangy sunshine to make me forget that I was so tired I was actually worried I might drown.

And there is no better post-workout treat than a bagel. Period. Wheat or everything, raisin or salt, toast that bad boy up with a little butter or cream cheese or just eat it plain, and it's like those three hours of living hell never happened (almost). I once heard from a cabbie that as he was driving a man back to JFK (he was a former New Yorker now living in L.A.), he had the taxi stop in front of the Ess-A-Bagel on 1st Ave, and, with the meeter running, went in and bought 200 bagels, which he then put in a special suitcase to take back to California with him.

My father has a special bread box, filled with dark pumpernickel, tangy rye, soft sourdough, which he will tear into as soon as he gets home from work and enjoy with a bit of Italian vinaigrette. My mom prefers a thinly sliced baguette with brie. My brother and even the pugs are rye fanatics. Dogs love rye bread. I'm serious. It isn't just the pugs. We had a mastiff who would come barreling through the house, all 180lbs of her, the second she heard that distinctive crinkle of the wrapper being opened. It was like mania. The golden retriever next door couldn't get enough of it either, and her owner used rye bread to train her to stop running through the electric fence over to our house, where, presumably, there was even more rye bread to be found.

Anthony Bourdain kept rehiring a man who was certifiably insane (a drug addict who would show up to work with sperm on his shoe, and that was on a normal morning) despite repeated incidents of insubordination, quite simply because he made the most fantastic bread he had ever tasted. People were coming into the restaurant specifically for this bread. They even started a whole mail order system just so people could enjoy this magic bread in their own home. (For more stories like this, do read his Kitchen Confidential. It is laugh out loud funny and an unparalleled look into the NYC culinary underbelly).

Perhaps the deceptive simplicity of bread reminds us of being a kid, and childhood, in many ways, is deceptively simple. Not to get all Jungian, but this has got to be the case with Vronsky. Bread with jam and butter is his holy trinity. I will forever have this image of him in a London hotel room two years ago, rumpled with jet lag, sitting in pile of bread crumbs, empty jam jars strewn about, with a near beatific look on his face. I swear he had jam in hair. All he needed was a toy dinosaur in his hand. Ah, the answer to my hearts duet.

I suppose the magic of bead will remain one of life's little mysteries. There will be as many ways to enjoy it as there are days in the year, and making my own tartines, garlic bread, even biscuits, will still not be half as enjoyable as poking around bakeries, enjoy someone else perfect creation. All I know for sure is that I'm home for the weekend, pug at my side, trying my best to keep the bread crumbs (challa this time) out of keyboard.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Cravings are funny things. One can crave a lot of things--food, a puppy (boy, have I been craving one something awful ever since the Shiba Inu Puppy Cam came back into my life), sex, a massage, but food cravings seem to be the most common and easily remedied.

Cravings are often irrational and can be alarmingly specific. My dad told me that when my mother was pregnant (he did not specify which child), she would crave Hungry Man brand TV dinners, specifically the Salisbury Steak kind. Eugh. Lord knows why she wanted those, but luckily enough, the chemicals lacing those meals did not leach into the baby. Too much. Perhaps this is why my dad won't tell us which one of us this craving was connected to. I do have a funny mental image of him in his pajamas at 1 a.m. trolling the frozen food aisle, asking the lone grocery store staffer, who is probably stoned at that hour, if he has any more Hungry Man Salisbury Steaks in the back. Other than the 5 he already has in his cart, thank you.

Granted, the hormones in this particular case are not as useful for our purposes, but cravings are funny things, and often linked as much to memory as they are to taste, and sometimes, it is extremely difficult to vocalize exactly what the hell you want (salt? sugar? salt and sugar? Is there a chocolate covered pretzel in the house?).

I recently finished a charming little tome entitled Gourmet Rhapsody by French writer Muriel Barbary, the author of the bestselling Elegance of the Hedgehog, which is marvelous. Funnily enough, her editor here in the States is actually a good friend of Vronsky's and mine, and is an excellent cook himself.

In Gourmet Rhapsody, the snooty, difficult, and aloof Pierre Arthens lays dying in apartment on the rue de Grenelle. Pierre also happens to be the greatest food critic France has ever known, and as he reflects upon his life in his final hours, he finds himself searching for that one last taste, a taste he cannot quite define or specify, but that he yearns for with all his waning strength.

I doubt it was Hungry Man Salisbury Steaks.

But as I said, cravings are powerful things, and Pierre sifts through a lifetime of memories surrounding food. From the perfect brioche to his first taste of sushi, for him, food is an inseparable combination of the sensation of taste, texture and association. He believes that the best chefs in all of Paris are striving to capture that same magical emotional response they first got from their grandmama's beef bourguinon, and what finally satiates Pierre's craving will surprise you.

I've had all sorts of bizarre cravings in my life, usually centered around something cheese related. I know, I'm a freak. Who craves cheese? This must be a sign of some sort of nutriet deficiency. I am half-Chinese, after all, and petite--a walking poster child for early-onset osteoporosis--but still. I am clearly getting enough diary between my greek yogurt, granola and banana parfaits in the morning and this constant search for cheese. Brie, manchego, Dublin cheddar, you name it, I will eat it. I had these amazing goat-cheese and leek crepes from Le Bonne Soup last week that were incredible. Mmmm...I wish I had some brie right now with some some raspberry quince jam or dried apricots. I must make a trip to the store.

I don't usually crave sugar, but every once in a while I will get an intense yen for strawberry ice cream in a cake cone. Not the fancy waffle cones. Those artificial beige cake cones. The kind they used to serve at the old school baskin robbins. Or chocolate covered almonds. Mmm.

Sometimes cravings are obviously nutrition related. After a nasty bought with the stomach flu, I craved some perfectly blanched broccoli with lemon. I love broccoli, but it was probably also due to the fact that I had nothing but saltines and tea for two days and needed some actual vitamins.

I went backpacking for a week up in Isle Royale, which is about 3 hours each way smack dab in the middle of Lake Superior, so obviously we had to pack in all our own food, and at the end of the week, I would have killed some one for some clementines and pineapple. After every triathlon I've ever done, I crave BBQ chicken pizza.

One day at work I had a craving for a turkey sandwich on rye bread with tomato, sprouts, and a little spicy mustard. April Bloomfield of Breslin apparently craves tea and biscuits (that's cookies to us non-Brits) on a regular basis. Vronsky has craved miso soup. My roommate currently has a craving for cauliflower mashed potatoes, and we planning on making some Sunday night.

What about you? What are some of your weirdest cravings?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Back to reality

As many of you may know, my relationship with skiing has not been nearly so smooth as my relationship with food, or little else for that matter. However, Vronsky is determined to make a skier out of me yet, and after a little stint in Aspen, I think I finally have gotten to the point where I get a little bit of enjoyment out of this lunacy! Hallelujah!

But as is often the case with ski trips, sometimes the best part of skiing is not necessarily the skiing itself. Sometimes it is the massage or hot-tub after a long day on the slopes, or the fact that the altitude makes it so that you get buzzed off of one glass of red wine, or a blissful mountain-side meal at a little Swiss cabin, as was the case the first time I went skiing. However, Aspen is a bit too refined for such discoveries, but it is still filled with culinary delights. It is home to the "annual Food and Wine classic," as touted on "Top Chef," and several five-star restaurants, including the incredible PiƱons and Pacifica.

Yet the one dish that will probably define this trip for me is a steaming hot bowl of chili. It is not the most glamorous of meals, and I doubt one would ever find a fur-clad Aspenite cuddling up to this meaty, spicy, vegetable laden concoction, but it warms my tired, bruised bones like nothing else and is the best thing served slope-side. The new Viceroy Hotel served up a great version, as does Cafe Suzanne and Brother's Grill, all on Snowmass mountain. I am sure there are other great places to score great chili, and perhaps other things as well (apparently Sam's Smokehouse has great baked beans), but those are the only two places I can ski to without killing myself or others.

Every day, as a reward for being one of the top-5 slowest skiiers on the mountain, I would enjoy some hot chili with some nice toasty bread. Seeing as it feels colder here in NYC than it does on the mountain, I see no reason why I should not reward myself for say, sending some emails or not rolling my eyes too hard at the person on the subway who does not feel the need to tell their toddler to stop shrieking as loud as they can for no apparent reason.

My mom gave me a great recipe for home-made chili that is not too spicy (heartburn, anyone?) and chock full of tasty goodies.

You will need: 2lbs of preferably organic ground beef
1 1/2 large white onions
soy sauce
Worcestershire sauce
2 cans of tomato sauce
sliced celery and carrots, to taste
dark red kidney beans (canned OK)
Italian seasoning blend
chili powder

In large sauce pot:
Brown ground beef in olive oil, and add 1/4 cup of sugar as beef starts to brown.
When meat is brown on both sides, add 1/8-1/4 cup of Worcestershire sauce, then 1/4 cups of soy sauce.
Continue to browning until sugar and soy sauce are semi-caramelized
Add diced onions and sautee until transparent
Add celery and carrots
Add boiling water to cover meat and veggies and bring to boil
Add diced tomatoes and garlic (to taste) and large dash of Italian
Stir well and bring to a boil
Add 1-2 cans of tomato sauce, depending on how thick you want it
Bring to boil again, add just a pinch of chili powder, and then immediately bring down to a simmer
Thicken with cornstarch if desired, mix, then take off heat

Enjoy with a plain sliced French baguette or corn chips a side of something crisp (a nice salad or perhaps some green peas?).

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Consider the...egg

Am I showing my age when by admitting that when I titled this post, the commercial jingle "the incredible, edible egg!" popped into my head? Hopefully not, but I suppose I can stop by Sephora for some anti-wrinkle cream on my way home.

But seriously, the egg is an amazing little vessel of gastronomical delights and under appreciated potential. The great Escoffier himself devoted an entire chapter of his definitive cookbook to the glorious egg. The other chapters were broad headings like "sauces," "meats," "soups," or "garnishes" (aka vegetables). I know this because my lovely little sister, Amanda, scoured New York for the original English translation of the great Frenchman's 1902 masterpiece, which was to become my Christmas present. It was incredibly thoughtful, and I kind of felt like a butthead for getting her a nice, but generic, J.Crew sweater.

But back to eggs. Eggs are the core of so many wonderful things: cookies and cakes, quiches and even pasta. Yep, that's right. True pasta is made one part egg, one part flour, no water at all. Enjoy such pasta at places like Po or Babbo, and you really will taste the difference.

Yet I think what makes the egg so great is that it is probably best when allowed to be the focal point of your meal. Fluffy scrambled eggs are hard to beat, (har!) and all you need is a little bit of milk, butter and a non-stick pan. A fried egg with some toast, bit of cheese and bacon is the breakfast of drunk champions, and a nice frittata or omelet can make up an entire meal. A good omelet with tomatoes, onions, red peppers, and mushrooms is a near religious experience for me. Crush a little black pepper on there and my day is only downhill from there.

Poach an egg, grill some bacon, and stir it all together with some pasta and olive oil and you have pasta cabonara. Easy and yet it will easily impress your dinner guests! I find that poaching the egg in your pasta water (after the pasta has been taken out of course) gives it a nicer consistency. To keep the egg from falling apart, I break it in a wide-lipped bowl and then quickly tip it in.

Hardboiled eggs are a great source of protein and other nutritious goodies for you athletes out there, especially those of you engaging in endurance sports. A friend of mine who is a die-hard cyclist and rides for hours says that a hardboiled egg, a banana, and a carb of your choice will give your body everything it needs for seven hours in the saddle.

Vronsky is crazy about eggs Benedict and deviled eggs. I myself am sort of skeeved out by hollandaise sauce, which is no doubt rooted in my extreme dislike of mayonnaise and all things "mayo-like" in texture. This includes ranch dressing and sour creme. However, I do enjoy deviled eggs, even though I know mayo is a part of the recipe (thankfully, not too large a part).

The Spotted Pig has incredible deviled eggs (along with everything else on their menu), and while it is extremely difficult to get a table, or even a seat at the bar, it is worth the extra effort to sample any of their amazing wares. Luckily, a die-hard fan and contributor to New York Magazine managed to recreate their deviled eggs at home. How she managed to smuggle a few out (tupperware?) is beyond me, but once she broke down the recipe, it seems fairly easy to manage with things I have in my own kitchen. Will keep you posted on the results!

Deviled Eggs a la Spotted Pig

12 large eggs
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 tablespoon mayonaise
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon malt vinegar
Maldon brand sea salt (or just regular sea salt if you don't want to shell out for the top level)
Peperoncino chili flakes, pulsed in a spice grinder into approx. 1/16th inch pieces
3 tablespoons of very thinly slices chives (sharpen up that knife!)

Place eggs in a single layer in medium saucepan. Cover with 1 1/1 quarts cold water. Place over high heat, bring to a light boil, shut off heat, and wait for at least ten minutes. Drain the eggs and peel under cool running water. With a thin, SHARP, knife, carefully slice eggs in half.

Place egg yolks in bowl of food processor. Add olive oil, mayo, mustard, and both vinegars and process until smooth puree forms, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. Season to taste with salt.

Transfer mixture to a pastry bag (aka, a plastic zip-lock bag with the corner cut off). Select the 12 best egg white halves (reserve the remaining egg whites for a salad or something), and pipe the mixture into them by starting outside the indentation, completely filling in the indent, overflowing to the other side, finishing with a curled "tail" at the end for show.

Sprinkle eggs with the sea salt, peperoncino chili flakes, and chives. Drizzle with some more olive oil and serve!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Year's Resolutions: "To change the color of my mood ring"

While en route to Washington DC for the holidays I had some down time to browse through about six different newspapers and magazines while waiting for my train, and I had the good fortune to read through Sam Sifton's review of La Grenouille for The New York Times. Sifton actually used to work as the culture editor for the paper and I used to try and get him to review some of my books, but I get the sense he is quite happy in his new position.

Sifton believes that La Grenouille is one of the last great French haute cuisine restaurants in the city, and as he regales the reader with luscious descriptions of each course, he claims that their dover sole, filleted table side, sauced with butter and served with a side of soft, golden mustard sauce "will change the color of your mood ring."

It is a bit of an odd figure of speech, but for those of us that suffered from some middle school fashion crises (skater jeans, any one?) and owned a mood ring, they really are quite nifty and the idea of a single bite being so transformative on ones state of mind is a noble one indeed. After all, that first bite of a perfect turkey sandwich during a Monday lunch can erase a stressful morning. Hot butternut squash soup can chase away a winter's chill, and I am sure the perfect piece of bacon saved many lives on January 1st.

So one of my many new year's resolutions, besides the usual don't spend so much money, don't drink so much, give more time and money to charity, go to church, etc. etc., is to try and have as many mood-ring changing experiences as possible.

Mood-ring changing experience, of course, can embody many things, and I am including some nights out at the opera, ballet, philharmonic, trips to the Frick and Met, and some more marathons/triathlons in there as well. However, those will come few and far between in my daily life, and I believe I can have many mood-ring changing experience with food alone, at any price range.

When Vronsky and I are feeling flush with cash, a trip to La Grenouille will definitely be in order. (There goes that pledge to not spend so much money...)

Nobu Next Door is such an experience and the perfect place to try new things, from a different piece of sashimi to miso cod. Nobu Next Door shares the same kitchen as Nobu, but they do not accept reservations and therefore easier to get into than Nobu proper. Every time I go there is a mood-ring changing moment, and well worth a few trips in the new year.

Jack the Horse in Brooklyn Heights was a great new discovery by Vronsky, and while Brooklyn may seem far-flung to some, it is off the first stop in Brooklyn on both the 2, 3 (Clark Street) and the A, C (High Street). Jack the Horse serves wonderful "gourmet-country" style cuisine, from incredible brussel sprouts, complete with those lovely charred edges, to perfectly braised short ribs and house-cured charcuterie. It is a great neighborhood spot for a Tuesday night, be it a date, a catch-up dinner with some friends, or just an incredible home-style meal to ease your cares away.

Another great spot for a quick lunch-time mood change, if you work in midtown, is Le Bonne Soup on 55th between 6th and 5th. The food there is classic bistro food, from crepes to perfect little quiches and pomme frites, and so damn delicious that Vronsky and I were actually inspired to take a trip to Paris while stuffing ourselves with some of their airy chocolate mousse.

And what if you would like to change your "mood-ring" at home? A quick, easy, comforting thing to make that will also make your apartment smell divine. You can buy pre-made crusts at your local grocery store, and either pulp your own tomatoes with some basil and garlic for sauce or buy a nice looking jar at the store. Sprinkle on a little mozzarella, slice up some pepperoni and sweet peppers, maybe even pre-sautee some onions and put those on as well (they need some pre-cooking since they take so long to cook), and then pop in the oven for about 15 minutes, and voila. Yummy for the tummy.

Here's to 2010!