A Cook’s New Year’s Resolutions

I never take much stock in New Year’s resolutions. I think last year it was “take more naps,” which if you know me is hilarious because I wake up at first light and fall asleep absolutely no later than 11 p.m. solidly and routinely. There’s no margin of error naps.

This year, I’m making a few food and cooking resolutions.

When I moved to London, I vowed to cook more widely. Lack of equipment has dictated much of what I can and cannot make. There were only so many pots and pans I was willing to lug overseas for a one-year stay. The Le Creuset cast iron Dutch oven, my prize piece, has found a temporary home in the back of one of my mother’s cupboards. The Cuisinart blender-food processor combo I got for Christmas two years ago is packed up neatly in a box in my best friend’s basement. Anything electrical is stashed somewhere in either New York or California, and other than a cookie sheet, no bakeware made the trip across the Atlantic.

I wanted to try my hand at Yorkshire puddings, but didn’t feel justified in buying new muffin tin pan in the U.K. when I have a perfectly good one sitting in my boyfriend’s mother’s basement back in San Francisco. Gnocchi was on my list of things to try making for the first time, and I did manage to pull together everything I needed for that one: Twice now I’ve made spinach ricotta gnocchi (or what some Italians might prefer to call “gnudi”). Still, I don’t think I’ve made as much headway as I would have liked by this point.

On that note, here are my cooking and food resolutions for 2008:

1. Make chicken liver pate.
I talk a big game about chicken liver pate, but if I told you I’ve made it before, I lied

2. Roll my own pasta. I don’t know if I will really accomplish this unless I have access to a hand crank machine (about $30) or a Kitchenaid mixer with pasta attachment, but I’ve seen pictures of Lidia Bastianich rolling pasta by hand with a wood pin, so anything is possible.

3. Buy one good bottle of wine
($30-$50 retail price range) to enjoy at home or while traveling with my boyfriend.

4. Eat offal at St. John Bread and Wine. (Ox heart is on the Winter 2008 menu.)

5. Buy and cook with an ingredient I’ve never heard of before
without first looking for something that fits that bill, i.e., stumble across something new in a market or while traveling and then later figure out how to use it.

6. Make one really impressive dessert.
An “impressive” dessert must contain several steps of preparation and be something that could potentially be royally screwed up. Examples include opera cake, strudel, cheesecake, or some elaborately decorated cake with homemade fondant.

Spotlight On Bodum

For about a year, I’ve had my eye on some particular glassware by Bodum, a company that consistently takes home design awards for its pieces. The glasses I’ve been ogling are from its Pavina collection of double-walled, hand blown glass, which keeps hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold.

The design is modern and sleek, very Scandinavian; the parent company is Swedish. I find the size of the glass in my hand to be just slightly larger than I prefer, similar to Riedel’s stemless wine glasses, but I’m willing to overlook it because of my high appreciation for their form-function balance.

The only reason I haven’t picked up a set for myself is because of how much I’ve been moving around. But because a good thing usually disappears the moment I set my sights on it, I’ve decided to grab a set now while I can and stash them at a friend’s house until I can move back to the U.S. for good and not worry about shipping glassware all over hell and back.

Two 12 oz. glasses sell for $19.95 directly from the company’s web site or at brick-and-mortar stores, including Crate & Barrel ($9.95 per glass) and Macy’s, which sells them for $19.98 for a set of two as “everyday value” or EDV items, meaning Macy’s discounts don’t apply.

What’s the Difference Between an Herb and a Spice?

And where does lemongrass fit in?

Hooray for Alton Brown on Good Eats, who recently answered a question that I think many of us would know the answer to if we ever thought about it hard and long enough: What’s the difference between an herb and a spice?

It’s funny; we can name them. We can put them in one or the other category, but we often do this without considering what the criteria is.

It’s simple.

An herb expresses its essential oils, and thus flavors and aromas, in the leaves, whereas a spice expresses its flavors elsewhere, such as in its seeds, roots, bark, or unripened berries. Ground ginger or turmeric are rhizomes=spice. Cilantro (or in British English, “fresh coriander”) is a leaf. Basil, parsley, bay leaf, mint? Herbs. Cinnamon, vanilla, cayenne, cumin, mustard seed? Spices.

What’s lemongrass? It’s a “grass,” and grass is leaf-like (chives are an herb, afterall), but it’s really more a stalk, which is a bit tough to actually eat; so in use, it’s more like a spice, right? Like a vanilla bean, it can be steeped. Well, Wikipedia refers to lemongrass as a herb in the first paragraph, and someone known as The Veggie Lady (http://www.theveggielady.com/lemongrass.php) named lemongrass the “herb” of the month at one point. So I guess it’s an herb, even though it’s not quite a leaf.

Struffoli: Learning to Cook From Discrepancies

One of my most basic tricks of learning to cook is to read many different recipes of the same dish before whipping it up for the first time. If you look at the variations that are out there, you come to realize which ingredients are essential and which might make the recipe come out better or more stylized or what have you.

I’m in Astoria, New York again for the holidays (I was here for a few weeks this summer, too), where I’m guessing there are more bakeries per capita than anywhere else in the United States. There are Greek bakeries with spinach pies, French bakeries with croissants and palm cookies, European generalist bakeries with long loafs of bread and fruit strudel, and Italian bakeries with Napoleons and cannolis.

With Christmas a few short weeks away, all the bakeries in this neighborhood have gorgeous displays of specialty items that customers should pre-order for the holidays. I was walking today and came across a window with struffoli: tiny fritter balls (think mini doughnut hole) that are stacked in a pyramid and covered in honey and candy sprinkles. My sister and I had struffoli years and years ago at a holiday get-together hosted by some people my father knew. For such an otherwise unmemorable event (Who were those people? Where did they live?) it seriously impressed me that my sister can describe in vivid detail those little honeyed balls 15 years later.

So when I saw the struffoli today, I first thought I might just place an order and pick up a tray a few days before Christmas when my sister comes to town. Then instead, I thought I’d look up some recipes and see if struffoli are something I might attempt to make myself.

The recipes I found varied pretty dramatically in terms of what goes into the dough. We always hear that baking is a science (though these doughnuts are technically fried, I still think struffoli go in the “baking” category), and that the ingredients must be exact. I would expect the honey-based syrup that’s poured on the mound of fritters might vary dramatically from recipe to recipe, but not the dough. Let’s compare some of the doughs.

The first really simple recipe I found, from grouprecipes.com, calls for only four ingredients, if you don’t count the oil for frying:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
Vegetable oil for frying

The next one, from recipeland.com, calls for softened butter in the batter as well as baking powder:

3 large eggs
1 tablespoon butter, softened
½ cup sugar plus one teaspoon
2 cups flour, all-purpose
½ teaspoon baking powder

Mario Batali’s recipe, which makes a whopping 40 to 50 struffoli, uses no butter but a dozen eggs and Limoncello:

3½ cups all-purpose flour
6 egg yolks
6 eggs
Grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon Limoncello
4 cups canola oil, for frying

Another recipe from About.com does include butter, though the quantity is not a proper measurement, and adds grain alcohol. Gross. Oh, and it specifies to fry the dough balls in olive oil rather than a flavorless one.

4 cups (400 g) flour
4 eggs
1 teaspoon grain alcohol
A chunk of butter the size of a small walnut
1 tablespoon sugar
The zest of a half a lemon, grated
The zest of half an orange, grated
1 pinch salt
1 pot full of olive oil for frying

These recipes vary quite considerably. But here’s my assessment. Obviously, the dough is flour-based, and no recipe calls for anything other than all purpose white flour, so that’s in. Second, I bet that using more eggs makes the struffoli fluffier and chewier. Normally, the amount of eggs I use in a recipe might change depending on whether or how I’m going to lighten the recipe for health reasons, but since these are once-a-year treats (and they’re already deep fried), I’m going to work off the recipes that call for a good amount of eggs. The same can be said for my feelings about the butter. Using a small bit of butter probably does add to the taste and texture, so it’s in.

Not all the recipes call for sugar, and the ones that do call for very little. I’m not worried about whether the struffoli will be sweet enough since they are bathed in honey before eaten; but in baking, sugar is considered a wet ingredient because it melts into a liquid once heated. So I am concerned about the ratio of wet to dry ingredients. Luckily, since I’m opting to use a recipe that’s heavy on eggs and includes a bit of butter, I doubt the dough will be too dry. (Additionally, some of the recipes indicated in the preparation section that more flour can be added while working the dough if it’s too sticky -- hence, the dough is not going to suffer from lack of sugar as wet ingredient.)

Two recipes call for alcohol: Limoncello in one and grain alcohol in the other. The alcohol will burn off during cooking, I’m sure. The Limoncello is likely only included for flavor. I honestly can’t make too much sense out of the grain alcohol, but maybe it thins out the batter just a bit more. Whatever the case, I hate the taste of Limoncello, so I’m going without alcohol. But somewhere in the back of my head I’ll remember this and might try the recipe with a teaspoon of vanilla extract, which makes all bakery items taste extra special in my opinion, and would have a chemical effect that’s pretty close to Limoncello or grain alcohol.

My point is that this recipe feels very flexible, but since it’s not something I’ve made before, I do want to refer to at least one recipe, even if I decide not to follow it to a tee. I’ll probably add a small amount of baking powder and a pinch of salt, too.

Here’s my version of the dough recipe, which I’m hoping to try out before December 25. Essentially, I’ve cut Batali’s recipe in half and then made a few other minor adjustments. I’ll update with notes after I test it out.

Struffoli Dough, jilleduffy's version
3 egg yolks, at room temperature
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon butter, softened
1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
¼ teaspoon salt, whisked into the flour
½ teaspoon baking powder, whisked into the flour
Zest from ½ a lemon and ½ an orange
2 inches canola oil (or safflower or vegetable oil) in a deep pan, for frying

My "Mom's" Sausage Stuffing Recipe

According to my sister, this recipe is from Cooking Light magazine, though altered I'm sure by shorthand. Secret? Eggs!

Sausage Stuffing for Thanksgiving

1 ½ pounds peasant-style white bread (soft sandwich bread – not round loaf)
4 4oz. links sweet turkey sausage
2 teaspoons butter
1 pound mushrooms, cut
2 cups chopped onions
1 ¼ cups chopped celery
1 ¼ cups chopped carrots
½ cup minced parsley
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon minced sage
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 large eggs
14oz. fat free less sodium chicken broth

Preheat oven to 400.

Trim crusts from bread and cut into cubes. Spread on a baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes.

In a large skillet, cook sausage links over medium heat for about 10 minutes or until brown on all sides. Remove and cut sausages into ¼ inch slices. (Don’t worry if the sausages aren’t cooked completely through; they will cook again in the oven.) Reserve the sausage slices and bread in a large mixing bowl.

Reduce oven temperature to 350.

Using the same skillet, melt the butter and add the mushrooms to sautée. Once soft, remove and reserve in mixing bowl with bread and sausage mixture.

Using the same skillet, coat it with a fresh layer of cooking spray and cook the onions, celery and carrots for about 5 minutes. Add the herbs and cooks 1 minute more.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and broth.
Add the bread mixture to the skillet. Add the broth and egg mixture and stir to combine.

Pour stuffing into a large baking dish and bake for 45 minutes at 350.
The stuffing (or “dressing”) can be served as-is, or, instead of baking separately, it can be baked inside a bird.

Sausage: The New Thanksgiving Tradition

We’ve never had any real food traditions at my family’s Thanksgiving dinner. There was the year when my father, with the discriminating taste he has, insisted that the pilgrims probably ate fresh lobsters, being on the eastern seaboard and all. And there was another year when some family friends joined us for dinner and brought the sickly sweet candied yam casserole, a horror-inducing dish so offensive it makes Christmas fruitcake seem like a thoughtful if not scrumptious gesture.

Three years ago, however, when my carnivorous boyfriend joined us in New York for Thanksgiving dinner, my mother decided she needed to win him over with something really special on the table. Seeing as she doesn’t know much about beer, she decided to go the sausage route. Boyfriend is something of a sausage connoisseur. He has a favorite sausage bar in San Francisco and can tell you the best dog to order across the map, from Berlin to Barcelona to London.

Somewhere, somehow, my mother found a recipe for sausage stuffing.

It starts out with raw turkey links, but not the kind used for breakfast, cut into chunks (not crumbled). It requires “peasant bread,” which I thought meant a big round fresh baked loaf of something white and a little squishy on the inside, but apparently refers to some specific type of pre-sliced sandwich bread (as I learned after a punishing grocery shopping trip this year). It takes lots of chopped onions and quartered mushrooms sautéed in butter, as well as fresh thyme, parsley, and sage. There’s chicken broth in there somewhere, and possibly celery—and if there isn’t celery, well then, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

The funny thing is, I don’t know where in the world she’s hidden the recipe, so I only have a loose idea of how to put it all together. I know it’s baked outside the bird. I know the basic ingredients, and I can guess well enough how they all come together. But my mother has become a stickler for this one side dish, insisting, “It just came out so good the first time, I’m not going to risk messing with it.”

I’m not much of a recipe-follower myself. I might cook two or three things a month from a set recipe; the rest of the time I work off ideas gathered from reading recipes as well as my own experience and some common sense about what’s fresh and available. My mother doesn’t cook a whole lot at all, and she certainly doesn’t follow recipes regularly. She never buys fresh herbs, and I can’t remember the last time I came home and found a real onion at my disposal (there’s always a few jars of that powdered stuff in the cabinets).

As much as I pooh-pooh my mother for her lack of fresh onions, garlic, and aromatics, I will keep my lips shut tight when it comes to the sausage stuffing. We’re on year three with it now, and it is just so damn good. It’s fluffy and moist. It’s flavorful. And it’s unexpected. Who wouldn’t be surprised to find sausage on the Thanksgiving table (unless maybe your last name is Soprano)? Despite the fact that she prepared two big casserole dishes of the stuff, every last bit of it disappeared before the table was cleared--and there were only five of us this year! In fact it was the only thing we polished off completely that night. Next year, I’ll try to get my hands on that recipe index card before my mom files it away again.

The Pasty

It’s pronounced “pass-tee,” almost like “Patsy,” as in Kline, if you transposed the tee and the ess sounds. As a word, “pasty” has that awful problem of having a somewhat similar meaning as its similar-sounding cousin “pastry” while still being something completely different.

A pasty is nothing more than pastry with some sort of savory food tucked up inside. It is usually shaped like an empanada or a turnover, though it can also be rectangular or in the shape of a log.

The English will put just about anything inside a hefty butter crust: pork pie, minced pie, bakewell tart, beef Wellington, sausage roll, chicken of tarragon pie, and of course the pasty. You can find pasties with steak and Guinness, steak and kidney beans, beans and vegetables, vegetable and chicken, ham and peas. Just about the only thing I haven’t seen available in pasty form are baked beans, which the English prefer to slather on dry toast and eat for breakfast.

I for one am certainly not going to knock the English for their fine appreciation of pie crust at all meals. In the last two weeks, I’ve ventured to try two pasties, and I’m honestly on point try more; but fitting more pie into my daily routine has proven more difficult than I imagined.

When I do indulge here in London, it’s typically in the chocolate category, and something just feels wrong about munching down both a Cadbury bar and a pastry-wrapped hunk of stewed meat in the same day.

On a business trip up to Nottingham not long ago, I found myself in need of sustenance around 11:45 in the morning, a time when calling up a colleague for lunch is completely out of the question. So I popped into a horrid little chain called Greggs (think low-grade Dunkin Donuts, only with savory foods, too) and ordered a Cornish pasty, which they were predictably out of (in England, 99 percent of the time you can absolutely count on the fact that thing will not go according to plan).

I asked instead for a chicken pasty and scurried away with a hot little piece of something exciting warming my hands through a flimsy wax paper packet. I nibbled the first bite cautiously, as you would a hot dumpling from Chinese soup, and found that method to be in good form. Out dribbled some steaming whitish-grayish ooze. Upon further nibbles, I found the gray matter to be like chicken pot pie sauce, or badly made roux. With the hand-held pie cooling, I chomped a bit more and finally found three or four little hunks of chicken.

It was a somewhat underwhelming experience, eating all that shell and gravy to find less chicken then you would expect to find in a can of cat food. Still, it reminded me of the deep south in America, where people slop chicken gravy on their biscuits after church on Sunday.

The other pasty experience begins at this great Jewish bakery I’ve found up the road from my house in an area called Stamford Hill. The bakery is stellar, with black-and-whites, bagels, challah bread, and miniature doughnuts. Its downfall is that it’s closed on Fridays for Shavuot.

One day while walking by, I stuck my head in to see if there would be any enticing snacks for me to eat on the rest of my walk home. I love eating and walking at the same time. There were two pasty-looking things, one with potato and onions and one with Soya. I got the Soya. The pastry was the butteriest and flakiest thing I’ve ever eaten. It was light as air, but buttery to the touch. The Soya was scant and was all but lost in the elegance of the pastry.

From what I’ve gathered, Cornwall in particular is known for its pasties. Train travelers in the U.K. might recall having seen signs for a chain shop called West Cornwall Pasty Co., as they have a stall in nearly every major station in Britain. The next time I’m in Cornwall (or Victoria station for that matter) the pasty will be at the top of my list. Some sight-seeing …

Postcard from Stockholm

Fika ’Til You Can Fika No More
The Swedes have a way of making life more comfortable in the cold, especially in the autumn and winter, when the sun slants low through the sky, moving in a quick arch along the horizon line, never fully reaching its place overhead. They “fika.”

Fika is both a noun and a verb, according to the web pages I found about its meaning. It either means “to have coffee and a snack” or “coffee and a snack.” It’s kind of like British tea. Teatime is more than just drinking a cup of tea. It’s a break in the day, and should in my mind involve small cakes or a light sandwich. The Swedes fika any time of day or night, popping into cafes and coffee shops -- sometimes mere 7-11 stores with tables and chairs to the side -- warming themselves and refueling with a good dose of caffeine.

I find the concept genius.

I took a weekend trip up to Stockholm not long ago and found the need to make use of this national norm. While walking around the old city, Gamla Stan, the brisk October weather would get inside our coats and under our skin until we just couldn’t take being outdoors any longer; so we find the nearest coffee shop and drop in. We took two fikas on Sunday, once for coffee and a muffin and once for tea, and had we not been anxious to see the city, we probably would have stopped at least once more.

On Saturday, we only fika-ed once, and it was over lunch. Still, I ordered a strong but small cup of coffee and a little chocolate cake topped with a firm shell and sweet coconut flakes so I could say I had a fika. Later on Saturday, we found a huge indoor market that was more for sitting and eating than it was for grocery shopping, and again we would have stopped to fika had we not been bent on breezing through the market and getting outside while it was still light enough to see more of the city. All through the market hall, hundreds of Swedes sat down to little plates of bright lettuces and cold shrimp, or gravalax with dill mustard on brown bread, or coffee and pastries, or white wine with herring sandwiches. This all took place around 3 in the afternoon, so it was neither time for a late lunch or an early dinner. It was fika.

Postcard from London: Borough Market

It’s going to be my home

On my first Friday afternoon in London, having moved to the U.K. less than a week before, I took a walk down through Southwark, just south of the Thames, toward London Bridge Station. I was headed to Borough Market, which I had heard was one of London’s oldest and most important markets, and nearly the biggest. Between what I had read online and what I had managed to piece together from a few travel and food shows on television, I had anticipated a pretty decent farmer’s market, with fruit and vegetable sellers mostly, a few flower sellers, one or two butchers, and maybe if I was lucky some specialty vendors with high-end granola or something.

I was completely under-prepared for the Borough Market experience.

Mind you, it was a Friday afternoon in a mostly business district part of town, and it was sometime close to 2 p.m. at that. Still, the place was mobbed. And it wasn’t just tourists and idle-day amblers. It was jammed with pint-wielding guys in suits and fashionably sensible Londoner women in dresses and heels. Sure, maybe there were some travelers who had stumbled out the back door of the Tate Modern and happened upon the market, but it was predominately local working people, I’d guess, judging from their dress and how they clustered into groups of twos and threes.

The market is held in one of those indoor-outdoor spaces: it’s covered on top but is open to the elements on all sides. It takes up two full blocks (though in England, they don’t count by blocks, so don’t go telling that to the locals). As I picked my way through the multitude of vendors, I was so overjoyed by variety and quality of the food, I actually got goosebumps.

My first week in London, prior to checking out the market, had been mostly a disaster. I flew out from New York, where I had been enjoying the last days of summer, on a Sunday and was set to show up to a new office (same job, new office) on Monday. And Monday at the office didn’t go well. Despite the fact that I had been planning for this office transfer for four months, double and triple checking my visa, my work permit, my status with the U.S. human resources, and so on, I showed up to the London office to blank stares. Apparently, no one knew I was coming. It was a complete and utter letdown. It was as if all my hard work and planning had been for nought, and on top of that, these people had no idea how much time and hard work and planning I had put into the affair. They had (and still have, sadly) no idea that I am an overtly organized and methodical person, that I am the kind of person who double and triple checks her visa and work permit, that I am precisely the type of person who does not let this stuff happen to her. And yet, there I was (and still am) sitting among strangers who haven't the slightest clue why I’m here or what I do or what kind of extreme A-type personality I have.

So that’s why the market nearly brought to me to my knees in elation. It was like I had found a place where I belonged.

And not only would I appreciate being there, but the market wanted me there. It wanted another amateur gourmand to eat and drink and pay for those pleasures.

That fateful Friday, there was a line maybe 20 people long for wild boar sausage sandwiches. I made a mental note, and when I came home that night, I told my boyfriend we had plans for lunch tomorrow.

We ate those wild boar sausages (£2.50 for a small, £4 for large) when we returned late the next morning. They were served on long chewy white rolls with arugula (better known as “rocket” in these parts) and sweet roasted onions, dashed with dipping sauces. We shared a rich dark coffee brewed to order in one of those over-the-cup filters. I bought a few sticky Turkish desserts (about £2.70 for three), which I polished off before the day was through. One was like baklava with walnuts, one was a shredded wheat log held into shape by honey, and one was a nest made of shredded wheat filled with petite diced almonds and dried apricots. Meanwhile, Boyfriend delighted in a dense maple syrup cookie bar.

We wandered through the stalls and picked up a “punnet” (a little more than a U.S. pint) of strawberries that were small and natural looking, not at all like the monstrous ones we find in most grocery stores that look like that are trying to mutate. I got a punnet of plump blueberries for a pound as well. And we found fresh eggs with bright orange yolks at 99 pence for a half dozen.

The rest of the time we spent there, we just walked around and ogled. There was one vendor who had luxurious casks of hot spiced cider, the autumn scent wafting down through the stalls. We tasted bits of cheese from both England and France, cured meats, dried fish, jams and preserves, a dab of harissa that reminded me (after a week of eating pretty mild foods) that indeed my taste buds can handle heat! We watched two young girls make “roclettes” by setting a half-moon wheel of cheese under a long blue flame until a good inch of cheese lava had begun to bubble; they then heaved the wheel of cheese into their arms (I don’t know how they weren’t scarred up and down with burns), tilting it to an angle, and scraping the scalding liquid onto a pile of boiled potatoes and cornichons.

And since, I’ve been back two more times to just wander in and out of the halls and see what’s fresh. I’ve been comparing prices among the four or five vendors of English savory pies, like pork pies only more elegant with sage or apples or both. I went back to taste more cold pressed olive oils from Tuscany. I went back to taste a pear and vanilla butter that was heavenly and smooth as baby food. Down on a side street just next to Borough Market, I’ve popped my head in time and time again to see the foot-ball sized meringue cookies flavored with chocolate or blackberry jam or raspberry coulis. There’s a fish vendor you can’t miss who has had on display 1) a gigantic butchered tuna, 2) a monkfish’s head, and 3) a small shark, mouth agape.

In the coming months, I’m sure I’ll be visiting and writing about the other markets and speciality food shops of London, but Borough Market will live on in my heart, with great bias, as the saving grace I needed so badly in my first week here.

10 Things I’ve Learned about Food

In the last five years, my relationship with food has matured dramatically. I was something of an novice cook in my teenage years, having learned a thing or two from working behind deli counters, pizzeria ovens, and bagel cream cheesing stations. In college, I worked in two dining halls as a short-order grill cook and as “the salad bitch,” or what would be known in the professional world as garde manger, though the former is a more accurate description. And in my first year as a graduate, I continued to work for several months in a sweet shop and bakery, returning home at night to cook meals for my roommate and me that were simple, but just on the verge of experimentation. And for the last five years, I lived in San Francisco, where being mindful of food is part and parcel of the lifestyle for many.

After all of that fairly limited experience, here are 10 things I've learned:

1. Be mindful dicing and slicing. As much as I’m an advocate for dinner in 20 minutes or less, never rush a dice or a slice, especially if you’re having company. What might take you 3 minutes to chop in haste will only require, at most, 8 minutes to chop conscientiously. Because the quality of the final product will be improved noticeably -- it will look more professional and, if the ingredients have to be cooked, they will come out more uniformly -- you’ll be happier with the more impressive dish.

2. Use the broiler. I don’t know how many friends of mine have never even opened their broilers, but that sliding compartment under the stove is one of my secrets to giving something a nice crust. I use it for finishing already cooked foods, as well as charring a thick fish steak. I use it in place of an outdoor grill to crisp up barbecue sauce on chicken, and I use it to make toast when I don’t feel like pulling out the electric toaster.

3. Know when to walk away. For omelets, rising breads, creme brulee, melting chocolate, and other temperamental foods, know when to leave it alone. Chocolate can take a long time to melt (I burned some truffle filling just this weekend), and it really doesn’t need constant stirring, so set it on super low heat over a double boiler, and leave it alone for 10 minutes. Don’t fidget with an omelet that’s not yet set. Give bread its full allotted time to rise rather than eyeballing its size. Trust the food to do its thing, and then give it the space to do it.

4. Enjoy your tools. I often get by in the kitchen with makeshift equipment, like an old mayonnaise jar filled with ice for a rolling pin (which works wonders on pie crust), a household hammer instead of a meat tenderizer (which doubles for crushing nuts), and a fork and my fingers for juicing lemons and limes. But for some jobs, the work is more pleasurable if I use a tool that I like. Cooking is not just a routine of following directions and picking the right tool for the job; it’s also a psychological and social affair. I’m more likely to hit the gym if I’m wearing a new and adorable, fitted and flattering pair of Puma yoga pants than if I’m in my pajama bottoms. Likewise in the kitchen, I’m likely to spend a bit more time and effort making sauce in my cobalt blue Le Crueset cast-enamel oven.

5. If a cardinal rule doesn’t work, break it. I don’t know how many times I tried salting and rinsing eggplant before coming to the conclusion that the Italian eggplants I buy are just fine (or in fact much tastier) grilled, pan fried, roasted, or deep-fried without any initial salting. And I don’t know who came up with the rule that one must only use flat leaf parsley and never the curly variety, but I like curly parsley. I like it tossed with toasted bread crumbs and olive oil over pasta, and I really like it in tabouleh because it grabs so much lemon juice in its little tentacle-like curls. I have yet to meet another curly parsley enthusiast, but so long as I’m cooking for myself, that’s what I prefer to use.

6. Add cayenne last (or to liquid). I’ve teared up many an eye and choked many a throat by putting a triple pinch of cayenne in a nearly dry pan over moderate heat. I still mess this one up at least once a year.

7. Cook from memory. Recipe-followers are slaves to the page. If you learn to cook from memory, loosely, you’ll learn how to make variations on a recipe -- and that’s the heart of being a decent home cook. Working from memory allows you to tap into what you remember liking about a dish, while becoming blissfully ignorant of what you didn’t like. It’s amazing what you can learn about your own preferences by cooking this way. You’ll happily forget the olives or capers that made the dish too salty last time, and you might go overboard with the stock if you remember enjoying the broth more than the food. This method can backfire -- I occasionally get halfway through a meal before shouting, “Damnit! I forgot to add lemon zest!” but it’s a wonderfully intuitive way to learn more about everyday cooking.

8. Buy good bread frequently and in small quantities. Almost no one makes their own bread on a consistent basis. It’s difficult to make in small quantities, and it requires the baker to be home every few hours to knead, cover, uncover, and so forth. Buy good quality fresh bread, and buy it in small quantities every other day. This is one area where urban people have a major advantage over suburbanites, as we usually have bakeries and patisseries within walking distance. Suburbanites and rural folk who have to drive a few miles to a grocery store tend to stock up on breads with a longer shelf life, which are hideous to eat on their own (they’re fine for bread crumbs and puddings, though). If you don’t have a fresh loaf, consider skipping the bread altogether.

9. There is no replacement for real vanilla.
I use a pretty high-grade vanilla extract for most of my baking, but there is no replacement for real vanilla bean. Good quality extract (think $8 to $10 for a 1 or 2 oz. bottle) will work, but don’t ever buy vanilla labeled "imitation." It’s almost as bad as buying cheap coffee.

10. If you don’t drink coffee, don’t keep that cheap shit around for guests. This isn’t something I’ve “learned” so much as something I feel is my duty to tell others. Coffee drinkers can tell when a pound of grounds has been sitting in the freezer for six months. In fact, we can usually tell if it’s been in there a week.

If you’re having a dinner party and want to serve coffee at the end of the meal, go to Starbucks or your local coffee shop (although realistically, Starbucks is everywhere and it’s reliably good) and buy a quarter pound of freshly ground coffee for $2.50 no more than three days in advance. Either get good fresh coffee or don’t serve it at all. There is nothing worse than ending a meal with cheap or freezer-burned coffee. It’s a complete waste to make it.

For overnighters, always ask them before they arrive if they are coffee drinkers, and then buy fresh coffee, a small container of half-and-half, and white sugar. Or better, tell them to bring their own. I have a small Italian stove-top coffeemaker that fits in any piece of luggage, and if I am visiting a non-coffee household, I bring it and a container of ground coffee with me. When my hosts asks if I need anything while I'm there, I usually say, "Do you keep milk in the house? I'll bring my own coffee, but it would be great if you could pick up a quart milk."

Finally, if you do not regularly make coffee, let your guests put the pot together. They won’t feel put out. In fact, they’ll probably thank you.

Bakery Land, New York

Martha's Country Bakery and Black Hound Bakery

My time in New York this summer has largely been spent exploring the streets in search of pastries. Astoria, Queens, where I’m staying, has a miraculous treasure trove of pastry shops, so many in fact that I’ve been puzzling over how they all stay in business.

This area, in and around Ditmars Boulevard and 30th Street, has a strong Greek population, not to mention a remarkable sense of community, and many of the bakeries show that influence. Fresh baked breads compete with flakey phyllo pies for prime positioning in bakery windows. A doughnut and breakfast baked goods carts on 31st Street loses customers around 11:30, when pedestrians shift their gaze to the souvlaki cart on 33rd.

Many of the shops have a somewhat run down, hole-in-the-wall, function-over-form appearance. Then there’s Martha’s. Martha’s Country Bakery, which has two locations in Queens, caught my eye early in my stay, and I’ve been back to try their cakey scones, traditional East coast bakery cookies (the oblong shaped butter cookies with jam in the middle and chocolate and sprinkles on one end for $9 per pound), joyful cupcakes (they had a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting that I just couldn’t pass up), and mediocre coffee and iced coffee (it’s nothing to write home about). But the real appeal is that Martha’s looks more inviting than many of the traditional community bakeries. I wanted to sit in Martha’s and watch the commuters on their way home from the N/W train stopping in for bread puddings at 6 o’clock in the evening. I wanted to sit on the bench and lay my laptop on one of the petite rounded tables that face the bakery counter. I wanted to take my time browsing the rows upon rows of cupcakes, cookies, pound cakes, and decorative cakes.

The problem, unfortunately, when I tried to do this, twice, is that Martha’s air conditioning system can’t overpower the 350-degree ovens, so it was too hot and stuff to enjoy the atmosphere in the late August days. Another time, when the thermometer outside dropped to a comfortable 75 degrees, I tried again and took a seat by the window; but sadly, I found myself dodging big plops of water that dripped from the vents above the seating area.

Still, Martha’s is just too appealing to pass up. There’s no high art food, but comparative to the rest of the area, it has an interior and exterior design, an atmosphere, and sensible prices to boot.

Martha's Country Bakery
36-21 Ditmars Blvd.
Astoria, NY, 11105.

Last night, the decadent wagon got me.

Because we were in the area, my friend dragged me over to what he called “Bee Cake.” New Yorkers will better know the Second Avenue shop at Black Hound Bakery, though I think Bee Cake is a more memorable, given the boutique cakery’s signature dessert: the busy bee cake.

The two of us shared a mini busy bee cake ($6.50), which is an absolute must for anyone with a taste for marzipan (my go-to everyday sweet is Rittersport dark chocolate with marzipan, so this cake was like a dream come true for me).

Three very thin and silky chocolate butter cake pieces are stacked with two almond butter cake layers, two layers of bittersweet chocolate mousse -- which blends with the cake giving it a gooey undercooked appearance -- and one layer of marzipan. The larger-than-a-fist sized cake is completely covered in yet another layer of marzipan and finished with a smooth poured bittersweet chocolate. Tiny almond petal bees sit atop the pretty little piece of perfection.

Black Hound Bakery
170 Second Ave.
New York, NY

Postcard from Long Island: Wine in the Courtyard

I had the pleasure of attending the largest annual wine tasting event on the east coast last week, Wine in the Courtyard, held at the Vanderbilt estate in Centerport, NY. Spread across the cobblestone courtyard and north estate lawn, the tasting brings local restaurants, bakeries, and wine distributors who bring with them several labels -- not all the wine is native to Long Island, though much of it is.

My two highlights of the tasting were pulled pork and barbecue baked beans from Smoking Sloe’s, a one-year old southern and soul food restaurant, and a Sicilian red wine from Feudo Arancio, a nero d’avola. Even on a hot summer night and in a crowd of about 800 people, Smoking Sloe’s warm, hearty, and meaty plate of pork quenched something needy in me. I tried the pulled pork, which needed no sauce, alongside a helping of sweet and meaty baked beans and collard greens made refreshingly piquant with lots of lemon juice.

After many glasses of familiar Californian wines (I just couldn’t pass up a large pour of hefty Coppola pinot noir), I finally landed upon something a little different, a Sicilian red served at just the right temperature, which on an 85-degree day makes a world of difference. The gentleman pouring the wine first swished my used glass clean with a few tablespoons or so of the wine, then served me a nice 2.5 oz. taste. It was slightly chilled. When another taster asked the man why the red wine was cold, he said, “Wine is made to be served at around 60-65 degrees, an on a hot night like this, anything else is soup!”

I’ve been reading that Sicily, unlike the rest of Italy, lost its international wine presence until only recently. But in the past five years or so, the region has seen something of a Renaissance, and the nero d’avola grape is helping bring it there. Nero d’avola is said to be one of the “new” grape varietals coming from the region, and some compare it to syrah. The wine I tried tasted distinctly like dark cherries and red other heavy red fruits.

The event, run by the Rotary Club of Northport, donates all the net proceeds to charities such as The Gift of Life, The Guide Dog Foundation, Polio Plus, and The Ride for Life. Wine in the Courtyard takes place each year in August and tickets generally sell out in advance for about $100 a pop.

Smoking Sloe’s

847 Fort Salonga Rd.
Northport, NY 11768

Feudo Arancio Nero d’Avola, Sicilia
brought to the event by Port to Port Wines & Spirits
395H Fort Salonga Rd.
Northport, NY 11768

Meat-Free San Francisco Reviews

The low-down on some of San Francisco’s most notable vegetarian restaurants

Cafe Gratitude
For all the positive reviews I’ve written of places that were slightly less than perfect, for every overlooked flaw in flavor, for every forgiven server who was blindly ignorant of the menu -- for every criticism I have held back about a restaurant or dish, I am here unleashing. And why not? When a restaurant not only names its entrees “I Am Elated” and “I Am Sensational,” but also demands that customers order using those bitterly granola-crunchy euphemisms, that business is setting itself up for pot shots. I highly doubt that a place so nice and spiritual would respond to my negativity with anything less than an embracing ahimsa, and so it is with this guileless sense of security that I am about to plainly rip into Cafe Gratitude.

Cafe Gratitude is a raw food restaurant in the Bay Area with at least three locations: one in the Mission, one in the Inner Sunset, and one in the East Bay.

The most treacherous problem for this eatery is the menu naming convention. When I eat out, I want to enjoy myself. I want to feel immense pleasure and maybe just a touch of gluttony for my food, and I want to bitch with my dining partner about life, work, significant others, local politics, and the last three movies I’ve seen. I like complaining -- maybe not all the time, but there is a certain balance that comes with griping from time to time over a glass of pinot grigio. It keeps my life and my sanity in check.

Cafe Gratitude, unfortunately, is like that hippie friend we all had in college who became so perpetually stoned by the third semester that she had all but obliterated her own sense of humor. One would hope that somewhere among the “Contentment” and “Cheerfulness” and “Prosperity” on the menu, there might somewhere linger, possibly among the desserts or smoothies, a dish called “I Am Pissed at my Boss” or “I Am Having a Bad Hair Day,” something a normal person would say, something to show that Cafe Gratitude is in touch with reality and doesn't take itself too seriously.

Yet, this lifeless vegan disaster limps far from reality.

I “get” that restaurant food or take-out food can, and often should, be healthful. I get that. Consumers require choice. I also get that vegetarians and vegans should have plentiful options. I get that. What I don’t get is why a restaurant would sap all the enjoyment out of a meal, from the presentation (it’s about a nice as first-class airplane food) to the temperature (everything was stone cold) to the texture (I ate something that was indistinguishable from Robin Hood’s green felt hat fabric) in search of reinventing vegetarianism.

My friend and I, on a Tuesday night out for dinner started with the “I Am Insightful” green samosas ($8), a glass of Prosecco ($6) for me, which was haplessly served in a standard wide-mouth wine glass, and a glass of house red wine ($8) for my friend. Four triangles, dark green not unlike the color of algae in a neglected fish tank, were each dotted with a lighter green blob. They were fanned out on a small salmon-colored plate. We stared at them as if they were thoroughly dead things for a full minute before putting them to our mouths. The blob, a fresh mint chutney, was wonderful, spicy, and fragrant. Inside, the samosas were filled with a fine hash of parsnips, macadamia nuts, and carrots. I ate with an open mind, but was entirely turned off by the fact that the filling was chilled. Those garnishing light green mint chutney blobs were the highlight of the whole meal.

The “I Am Passionate” marinara pizza ($10) resembled pizza about as closely as the cold green triangles resembled samosas. Imagine a slab of uncooked brown bread, that dense and mealy staple of Eastern Europe, layered with greens and dotted with halved cherry tomatoes. This clearly was not pizza. A squeeze-bottle swizzle of unidentifiable white sauce zigzagged across the top. Nothing about the dish carried flavor or heart or soul. And again, everything was stone cold. Not even the greens were at room temperature.

My friend ordered the vegan lasagna with an equally stupid name, which was prepared with “cheese” made of cashew nuts. We eyed the plate hesitantly before eating it, imagining how much fat must be a serving of “nut cheese,” as if nuts or cheese aren't fat enough on their own. The lasagna noodles were a pale green, and again the dish just didn’t have any significant flavor. She ate less than half of it and took the rest home. Two days later I asked if she had returned to the weird vegan leftovers and she said, “No. I just threw it out” -- the hallmark of an unpleasant meal.

If “raw” food must never be heated to more than 106 or 116 degrees for fear of killing off enzymes, then at least heat it to 102 so it’s not stone cold and dead on the plate in front of me. If you’re going to describe the food as “pizza,” at least pretend to heat and melt the thing that’s posing as the cheese. If samosas are to be prepared in the kitchen, but they cannot be deep fried, at least coat them in a luscious and fruity olive oil so as to at least fake their decadence. And for the love of all things delicious, if I order a glass of Prosecco, at least have the decency to serve it to me in a champagne flute.

The next time I’m looking for something raw in the Inner Sunset, I’ll go to Pluto's and, for less than $6, order a big salad with whatever I like in it. And I'll take a Fat Tire in the bottle. Thanks.

The docile sheep who flock to -- and work at -- Cafe Gratitude can keep their “Sacred,” “Inspired,” and “Joyful” ways, but count me out. At least the experience has taught me one thing: never eat anywhere that requires you to order your food on their terms, whether it’s the Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity Breakfast or an I Am Grateful dinner. It smacks of affectation, degradation, and cult-like behavior.

Golden Era Vegetarian Restaurant
Speaking of cults...

One of my co-workers who counts himself among the world’s pickiest eaters and a strict vegetarian at that, started raving about a place called Golden Era in the Tenderloin when I told him I was working on this article. He said, “The food is so good. They even have a vegetarian pho. The best part is it’s owned by a Vietnamese vegetarian cult and there are pamphlets in the front of the restaurant in a couple of different languages about ‘The Supreme Master,’ a bleach-blonde Asian woman who’s the head of the cult! It’s freaking great!”

"Oh my god, I’m in!” I said, adding a little squeal of delight.

So one day at work, we called in an order to pick up. Perusing the menu and reading some recommendations from other food enthusiasts online, my heart was torn in three or four directions at once. First, because I adore Vietnamese food but tend to not eat beef, I was immediately drawn to the vegetarian “beef” pho ($6.50). Second, I lingered over the descriptions of a couple of specialties, like house rice clay pot ($7.95) with “chicken,” and steamed soy “fish” dish described as “make your own spring roll,” with rice paper, lettuce, cilantro, and mint ($11.50). A gourmet “chicken” over rice dish topped with lemon grass sauce ($7.75) caught my eye as well.

In the end, I felt overwhelmed with options and ordered vermicelli with fried rolls and tofu ($6.50), only to realize later that I my lunch was rather unadventurous (even though it was delicious and absolutely fresh and fragrant), given the emphasis of this particular restaurant on fake meats. Golden Era adoringly puts in quotation marks around all its "chicken," "beef," "fish" and "pork," and upon my first visit, I had failed to venture into the world of quotation-marked meat.

So I went back.

On visit number two, I couldn't help myself and got the pho. I’ve never had real pho before because I generally steer clear of beef, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. A two-pound container of broth was almost clear and slightly sweet and contained two kinds of tofu and a few slabs of pink “meat.” I dumped a small Chinese food take-out box of noodles (since we ordered to go, the noodles were kept separate to keep them from getting soggy) into the broth and loosened them with a pair of chopsticks. The two varieties of fried tofu were superb: chewy and flavorful. The pink meat, however, was Spam-like, and since Spam is already widely known as “fake meat,” I’d call this stuff fake fake-meat. It had the striating marks of slab-cut ham or pressed chicken, with small strings of fake fat and everything. It was both intriguing and disturbing.

Golden Era on the whole serves great traditional Vietnamese appetizers and entrees, with mint, cucumber, lime, peanuts -- all those refreshing flavors you would expect to find in this eastern cuisine. The only difference is there’s a healthy helping of fake fake-meat top. The value is high, with most plates costing about $7 for a heaping portion. For lunch, you could easily split one entree and one appetizer between two people and feel satisfied. Try any of the appetizer rolls, the pho, or the vermicelli. My fried ordered (though I missed out on trying) the “chicken” drumsticks, which were deep fried to a cherry-wood-colored crisp and served on sticks -- or should I call them, “chicken” “bones?”

Greens Restaurant and Millennium
On the higher end of vegetarian dining, San Franciscan have two competing, yet distinct options: Greens Restaurant in the Fort Mason Center and Millennium in the refurbished Hotel California. Both restaurants serve sophisticated California-style food, and both strive to intimate a more classic dining room ambiance, Millennium in the form of a New York steak house bistro, and Greens as a view-of-the-harbor seafood restaurant. Of course, there’s not a porter house, filet mignon, surf-and-turf combo, nor trout almondine anywhere on either menu.

I went to Millennium almost two years ago and remember having one of the best servers I even encountered, a fellow who was courteous, laid-back, and never stuck up his nose at any of our questions about oddly named foods, all of which were inevitably a different kind of mushroom. (Millennium strongly plays up mushrooms in almost all its dishes to add an earthiness to the vegetarian fare.) I remember with drooling accuracy a chowder made of black and red beans that was like a southern chili in all its Creole-spiced glory. And I remember my food unconscious waking up with a new breath of life from the sorbet trio at the end of the meal, which paired black pepper with lush summer fruits and cabernet.

Since then, I’ve read a number of reviews of Millennium that lambasted the wait staff. Was I lucky that night two years ago or has the service gone to the dogs? It’s been too long to directly compare Millennium and Greens blow-by-blow, but I think the overarching decision between the two comes down to location, atmosphere, and most importantly, their extremely different philosophies on how to craft a vegetarian menu. Millennium, as I mentioned, holds a strong suit when it comes to exotic mushrooms, but Greens offers a more simplified, and in my book, a possibly more polished lineup. Take a look at the online menus: Millennium’s makes me want to research ingredients and set my mind wondering on how certain pairings really work, while Greens’ makes me daydream about the next time I can eat there.

My friend and I enjoyed a two-hour long dinner at Greens not long ago and had both decided well before our 7:15 reservation precisely what we wanted to order. For me, it was “anything that comes in filo dough or puff pastry” and the mesquite grilled tofu and vegetable brochettes served over Israeli couscous (sometimes called pearl couscous) with pistachios and cherries. My friend homed in on the fresh pea raviolis, enormous and soft pillows filled with peas and fava beans, glistening in meyer lemon butter with herbs and Parmesan Reggiano. We began by splitting the Mediterranean sampler appetizer platter, which had one item in filo. Also on the plate was a wonderful French green lentil salad, beets and mache, and a few other scattered items, all of which offered pleasant bits and bites but wasn’t by any stretch bountiful. I think we shared four little quarter-cut pieces of beet between us.

For my entree, cherries and pistachios remind me of a childhood dessert I used to eat around Christmastime, when my mother would (and sometimes still does) make cherry Jello with a blob of pistachio pudding floating in the middle, so the couscous dish definitely strummed my nostalgia strings. The brochettes, which were more or less skewers, also brought out the kid in me as I decided whether to pick them up by the stick and nibble away or slide the near golf ball sized hunks of zucchini, corn, mushrooms, and tofu off with a fork (summoning up my sense of decorum, I chose the latter). My girlfriend’s pea ravioli was positively heavenly, the raviolis themselves green from what I presume was pureed peas mixed directly into homemade pasta, the meyer lemon butter sauce not overly buttery nor acidic, and the fava beans al dente.

Throughout dinner, the service was somewhat negligent; my friend had to ask multiple times before receiving a second glass of wine, though by the time we rolled around to munching a dessert plate of three different biscotti (a classic anise almond was the standout cookie for me), my coffee cup was filled every time it reached below the halfway mark.

Still, something is lacking in the overall look. From photographs, it seems as if the seating provides a scenic view of the harbor and yachts -- but that’s only if you’re lucky enough to be at one of the tables directly next to the windows. Otherwise, the view is hampered by at least two rows of diners.

All the buildings in the Fort Mason Center are a bit odd, often covered in that no-shag library carpeting, and Greens tries to set itself a cut above with installed wood beams and rustic pane glass. But something doesn’t come together and the places feels a bit off. The chairs are straight backed with a thick straw weave seat, which certainly beckon to a seaside clam shack but are uncomfortable and out of place. However, the food outshines all this, and if I were to return, the only change I’d make is to request a table at the window way ahead of time.

Note: Although I had originally saved a menu from Greens to record the price of the dishes we consumed, I must admit that it became lost in a recent cross-country move. However, from what I remember, the sampler appetizer plate cost somewhere in the $13 range, and each entree was between $15 and $22, roughly speaking. My apologies for the lack of accuracy.

Herbivore is the little black dress of vegetarian restaurants. It’s dressed up even when it’s dressed down, and everyone can pull it off. The menu is a bit all over the map -- you can order a burrito, or an Indonesian noodle salad, or shawarma as I did -- but at least you can order something that tickles your fancy at the moment. This restaurant now sports three locations in the Bay Area, though I went to the one on Divisadero. There’s a long hallway for a dining room stretching way back to a back patio, so don’t be deceived by the narrow look of the place from the outside.

My friend and I headed over to the neighborhood for dinner on a Saturday night and had no problem getting a table right away. Zataar on grilled French bread ($3.95) to start was a bit heavy on the spice blend for my taste, though my eating partner wiped up every bit of it that fell from the bread. I was pleased as punch that Herbivore had Fat Tire on draught, but lo and behold, the tap had run dry. No matter. A $4 Blue Moon served with the orange slice sufficed in its place.

If I thought I had a hard time deciding what to order at Golden Era, the same could be said for Herbivore. I wanted the moussaka ($9.25) for the eggplant, marinara sauce and crostini. I wanted gnocchi with my choice of sauce, but thought that was too safe an option at a vegetarian-only restaurant. I really wanted to want the lentil loaf ($9.95), a take on traditional meat loaf starring my favorite legume, but it seemed a bit too warm that night to hunker down with a bed of mashed potatoes. Thankfully, the lentil loaf ended up in front of my friend, so I did get a nibble of it. What I settled on was the shawarma ($7.25) with grilled seitan (a wheat gluten that is tofu-like in texture, also sometimes called “wheat meat”) with a simple side salad topped with shoestring-cut beets. The seitan had been marinated in lemon, if I’m not mistaken, but the smell and taste of it gave off a chemically smell, not unlike certain perfumes. I liked the shawarma much better when I dug out some of the wheat meat, which was snapped up by my zataar-loving friend. The flat bread spiked with pickles, tahini, hummus, and onions was good enough for me to enjoy on its own. That same dish can be ordered with eggplant and potatoes, though I’m not sure if that’s in place of or in addition to the seitan. The lentil loaf was more like a lentil griddle cake, but it was homey served aside a heaping of mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, sautéed greens, and two slices of crostini served with a choice of beet sauce for dipping or tomato relish; she requested both and they were equally good, though very different in their levels of sweet (beet) and savory.

Herbivore has salads, sandwiches, beer, desserts -- enough to keep any vegetarian or meat eater pretty well fed. It feels a bit like a San Francisco creperie/diner ... until it feels a little bit more interesting than that. The vegan carrot cake ($5.50), for example, was extraordinary. The frosting was barely sweet, the cake itself was doused with huge walnut pieces, and the carrots kept the whole of it moist and colorful.

Herbivore is the kind of place where I wouldn't feel uncomfortable with a mixed group of vegetarians and omnivores. Whereas the fake fake-meat of Golden Era might scare some people away, or the heightened cuisine of Greens might put a few meat eaters on edge ("Am I really going to enjoy ravioli without meat?"), Herbivore feel relaxed. The menu is lengthy, but there’s something for everybody.

Cafe Gratitude
1336 9th Ave.

Golden Era Vegetarian Restaurant
572 O'Farrell St.

Greens Restaurant
Building A, Fort Mason Center

Millennium Restaurant
580 Geary St.

Herbivore Restaurant
531 Divisadero

Ananda Fuara
1298 Market St.

Medicine Eat Station
161 Sutter St.

Enjoy Vegetarian (Chinese)
754 Kirkham St.
(no known web site)

Alive! (Raw)
1972 Lombard St.

See also www.vegsf.com for additional recommendations.

Postcard from New York

Long Island seafood, Vietnamese crab, and Korean barbecue

In late June, I spent nearly two weeks in New York for my sister’s graduation, mostly out on the north shore of Long Island where I grew up, but also in Manhattan a bit. After the graduation ceremony, six other family members and myself headed out to a classic Long Island dinner at the Old Dock Inn in Kings Park.

The Old Dock Inn
The Old Dock Inn is situated at the northernmost end of a winding tree-shaded road. There’s nothing but the restaurant and a strip of beach from the parking lot. The feeling is that of being secluded among the scenery and the occasional fishing boat trudging through the marshy inlets. This is not the ocean, it’s the Long Island Sound, a calm body of water facing a curvaceous coastline, marked by sandbars and small bird islands, where sand pipers, cranes or herons (I never learned the difference between them), and common sea gulls take respite.

We arrived sometime around 7 in the evening, the slanting sun casting wonderful light into the dining room, which featured broad pane-glass windows on three sides.

If the setting and view are examples of classic Long Island style, then so is the menu—in both the food and the little nautical drawings that decorate each page. Seafood options are extremely plentiful; even ordinary fish, like trout, are prepared in at least three different ways. There are several surf and turf combination plates to choose from, mixed seafood entrees, and nightly specials—sauer braten was one of the plates du jour on our visit, which so obviously missed the mark that I couldn’t help but wonder if the kitchen staff was growing wearing of broiling lobster tails and boiling crab legs. Duck l’orange is on the regular menu is well, don’t ask me why.

Nearly everyone in my party ordered a classic seafood dish: broiled scallops ($18.95) served in a clay dish for me, two different variations on mixed seafood platter, two trouts stuffed with crab meat ($14.50), one mountain of shellfish with linguine ($19.95), and one meat dish which lost my attention entirely. I’m just too into seafood. Although dinners come with bread and butter (skip the bread altogether), Greek salad, mixed steamed vegetables, and a choice of potato, I say hold off on all the extras and save yourself for the seafood. It’s off-the-boat fresh. Don’t bother to order dessert, either, but do hang out over an after dinner drink and enjoy the view.

The Old Dock Inn
798 Old Dock Road,
Kings Park NY
Reservations recommended

Fatty Crab
Almost a year ago, in New York magazine’s September 2006 “100 Best Cheap Eats” issue, I read about Fatty Crab. I heard it was a sensational Vietnamese spot that specialized in, what else? Crab.

My friend and I easily found Fatty Crab just two blocks below 14th Street on Hudson for a very late lunch (it was nearly 4 when we sat down). Only one other table was occupied, but the staff of five seemed to ignore us for some time after we arrived at the table. The staff were all twenty-something New Yorkers, the majority of them caucasian (there were possibly two people on staff whom I saw that looked Southeast Asian). I don’t point that fact out for any other reason than to set the scene. In my mind, I had expected Fatty Crab to be an authentic Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall, likely family run by first- or second-generation immigrants, with stellar food in the $6-$12 range, and market prices for crab. That’s what I envisioned based on the very general information I had.

Fatty Crab is none of those things. It’s a little bit trendy, but still relaxed and comfortable. Flat red and gold pillows line the bench-style seating against the wall, and the lighting fixtures were kind of cool in a “recycled art” kind of way.

We shared two dishes, the Malay fish fry ($14) and the Dungeness chili crab ($32). Four crispy batter-fried hunks of fish sat atop a small bowl of rice accented with green chiles for heat, cilantro for flavor, and a slightly sweet and sticky dark orange-colored sauce. It’s hard to justify this dish as a “cheap eat” or as a family-style dish because the portion size seemed to say,“Dinner for one.” The crab, on the other hand, was a pile of thick legs and three bodies jumbled into a tall bowl, lathered in spicy red sauce, topped with three thick-cut triangles of white toast. The sauce was wonderful, especially on the toasts, but the crab was messier than any other crab I’ve ever eaten on account of it being completely drenched in sauce. As we cracked through joints and center pieces, I lost some of my discardable bits in the sauce, which for later ended up spooned onto a hunk of bread and then promptly spit out into a napkin.

I would have much preferred the sauce to be served separately—crab is messy enough when it is simply boiled. Our bill, after this and one or two drinks, was $64 ... for two! For lunch!

I’ve heard the duck is worthwhile at Fatty Crab, and I certainly would not turn down another bowl of the Malay fish, but know what you’re getting into before dining here. It’s not a hole in the wall, and it’s not cheap eats. If you can overlook the inattentive service and messiness of cracking crab and losing bits of the shell in a pool of sauce, by all means, have a crack at it.

Fatty Crab
643 Hudson St., New York
Reservations not accepted

Shilla: Korean Barbecue House
My sisters, one of their boyfriends, and I decided one day to meet up in Koreatown in Manhattan and take advantage of the local cuisine for lunch. Shilla is so close to the hustle and bustle of midtown, just two blocks from Penn Station on 32nd Street, but the lunch rush had died down by the time we arrived. The five of us were ushered up a flight of steps, down a half flight, and into a massive second floor dining room. Many of the tables seemed like they could easily seat 10 to 12 people. The windows only looked out across the street to face other windows, but they let in plenty of natural light.

It was a hot day in New York, which took a small toll on my appetite, but I did my best to sample at least half of the little condiment and snack dishes that were brought to us at the beginning of the meal. I happily slurped down a biteful of sesame-sauced cold noodles, squeezed lemon over the meat off a 8-inch fish still completely intact, chomped through something that could have been root vegetable or imitation shark meat, and chewed with a smile through a few morsels of kimchee.

Two people ordered a refreshing bi bim bop ($7.95), this one light and salad-like rather than overrun by egg. The sesame oil coated everything in the bowl without being too heavy. One of my sisters had a dish of stone-bowl cooked rice, which carried the smell and taste of toasted rice (similar almost to the smell of fresh popcorn) throughout the dish. I found it very warm and comforting, but probably not what I would have wanted on a 90-degree day. My lunch was number LB7 ($10.95), a plate of spicy charred pork tenderloin strips and onions sautéed so long, they melted in my mouth; alongside the pork, I feasted upon a huge bowl of cold vermicelli noodles in a clear cold broth mildly flavored with rice vinegar. The noodles held a half hard-boiled egg and two slices of meat (which I’d guess was beef, but may have been pork, too).

The portions were huge, the bill reasonable, and the service very attentive. Though we didn’t specifically have our minds set on going to Shilla when we got to K-town, it turned out to be a wonderfully relaxing and filling lunch, and I’d quickly recommend it to both visitors and local workers in need of a good business lunch spot. A few warnings: the bathrooms were very clean and stylish, but they are a strange set of unisex stalls with sinks outside; many of the English-language menu descriptions sound very similar, so don’t be shy to ask the servers or someone at a nearby table to elaborate.

37 West 32nd St.
New York
Shilla also has a California location as well in Gardena (16944S Western Ave.)

Sparkling, Dazzling, Delicious!

(With bubbles all up in my business)

Two years ago, my friend Sarah (who was in town from the east coast) and I decided to drive up north and go wine tasting together. We rented a car and scooted up over the rust-colored Golden Gate Bridge. It was either late March or early April, when the northern California rains are still at their peak, and when fog banks and low dark clouds piddle on tired locals hourly. By late morning, though, the sky was mostly still holding its waters.

I had written down directions to a few wineries that I had read particularly good things about, and our first stop was the champagne caves at Gloria Ferrer.

We toured the caves with a small group and a completely knowledgeable and Levi-wearing guide who said she had come to work at Gloria Ferrer after many years being “a regular” at the winery. She said that after she moved to a nearby town, she picked up a habit of swinging by the tasting room often, met the owners, and started working for them. She had a love of sparkling wines, she said, and stressed that they had to be neither expensive nor elitist. She said she kept a couple of bottles in her vegetable crisper at all times to pop open when her friends came by unannounced with a pizza.

For all the hubbub that the word “champagne” evokes, I started to get the feeling it didn’t have to be so.

Sarah and I asked our guide what was the difference between champagne and sparkling wine, as Gloria Ferrer’s bottles were all labeled sparkling, but their aging rooms were referred to as “champagne caves.” She told us that champagne, to officially be called such, must come from the Champagne region of France, which was actually a stipulation of the first Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919. However, the United States at that time was in the midst of Prohibition, so the law did not apply. And when the dry spell ended in 1934, the U.S. shrugged and effectively said, “We never agreed to that.” (Most wine makers nowadays do concede to the French, though not all.)

I'm still far from knowing very much about sparkling wines, but I learned more in that one trip to Gloria Ferrer than I have reading any other magazine or article about wine. I've also begun to venture away from reds and order sparkling wines more and more in restaurants and wine bars (or champagne bars, like The Bubble Lounge). One of the biggest problem with sparkling wines has always been the inability to cork them and save some for later; an open bottle must result in an empty bottle by the end of the night. But half bottles are becoming much more widely available even at California grocery stores, so there's no need to turn into a bubble-headed floozy every time I want a glass of fizz.

I’ve tasted two sparkling wines in particular that I adore: Codorniu Pinot Noir Cava Brut Spain NV (which I had the EOS wine bar on Carl and Cole Streets in San Francisco) and Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs.
Both feel gently fizzy (rather than “poppingly” bubbly like soda) and are pinkish in hue with lush strawberry notes. And both go great with pizza.

Codorniu Pinot Noir Cava Brut Spain NV ($9 by the glass at EOS)
Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs ($20 from Gloria Ferrer, 750ml)

Gloria Ferrer
23555 Hwy. 121 (also called Arnold Drive)
Sonoma, CA
707 933 1917

The Bubble Lounge SF
714 Montgomery St.
San Francisco
415 434 4204

The Bubble Lounge NY
228 West Broadway
New York
212 431 3433

EOS wine bar
901 Cole St.
San Francisco
415 566 3063

Postcard from Los Angeles

“Pinkberry…” In the weeks leading up to a recent business trip to Los Angeles, "Pinkberry" became a magical invocation. The word conjured up images of a swirling lightness, something Milan Kundera could have described, a sweet and willowy uplifting of the soul. I had read about the Pinkberry phenomenon in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times online, in blogs and in restaurant review web sites. One of my L.A.-savvy co-workers even relayed his experience with Pinkberry (and Kiwiberry, a knock-off competitor) to me second hand, which was enough to set me drooling.

I promised the co-workers who were traveling with me that we would make a hajj, straight from the airport if necessary, to this holy land of frozen yogurt in Marina del Ray and gorge ourselves on non-fat frozen yogurt before our $75 per plate dinner at an awards ceremony. We rented a car. We sat in traffic. We suffered through bad radio stations.

Six miles later and 20 minutes later, we found the petite Pinkberry in an outdated looking shopping plaza and eagerly waited in line. The beauty of Pinkberry—aside from its frozen yogurt being fat free, aside from it having only about 25 calories per ounce, aside from the bounty of fresh fruit toppings, like plump blackberries, blush red raspberries, and silky mango chunks—is that its fro-yo tastes as tangy and distinct as real cultured yogurt.

Anticipating that wonderful sour dairy flavor, I scooped into my five ounces of Pinkberry with aplomb. The texture threw me off: I had expected the mass to move like sticky gelato or pull like taffy, but it was more inclined to break than stretch. At first bite, the tang was slightly stronger than I had imagined, and quite marvelously so, but the temperature was unexpectedly colder.

As I dished through the cupful, I became mildly interested in the structure of the frozen yogurt, wondering why it snapped instead of stretched and how it managed to melt unevenly. Unlike ice cream, which melts slower and can be mixed into a silky shake, Pinkberry's frozen yogurt goes from icy to liquid very rapidly, which I'm guessing could be caused by an absence of stabilizers and fats.

The caloric count of an ounce of frozen yogurt can be deceptive to the nutritionally uninitiated. 25 calories per ounce—the amount in Pinkberry's plain frozen yogurt—is about what one finds in a low-carb ice cream. And at 25 calories per ounce, an 8 oz. yogurt weighs in at 200 calories, plus whatever fresh fruits and/or cereals (Pinkberry also has some fattier options, like almonds, chocolate chips, yogurt chips, and crushed Oreos), so let's say conservatively that's 250 calories. That's a sizeable snack, but still pretty decent if you're counting it as dessert. The most common serving at Pinkberry seems to be the 8 oz. cup with your choice of three toppings for $4.95. The smaller 5 oz. cup goes for $2.95 without toppings, about $3.50 with one topping, plus about a dollar per additional topping, making it an economically bad choice to get the smaller cup with three toppings. But since it's really the toppings that sell the yogurt, opting for the smaller cup with only one selection also seems like a poor choice.

Over the course of one weekend, I returned to Pinkberry twice more, though on the final visit the line was so long I had to forgo it.

Pinkberry has at least 13 locations in the Los Angeles area, plus three now in New York. When, o when will one open in San Francisco?

Without much of an agenda for my two days in L.A., I sought out a few "cheap eats" restaurants and decided to just drop the pretenses and make eating the focal point of my trip. On the web, I found references to a place called Marouch that promised enormous platters of Lebanese food for less than $10 per person; in real life, I found a dingy store front in yet another ill-kept small shopping plaza in a very low-income, predominately Latino/a neighborhood.

Boyfriend and I headed over for a very early dinner and nearly turned away after sizing up the neighborhood (while there's nothing wrong with hanging out in a rough hood, it's always wise to know the surroundings pretty well before it gets dark—which we didn't). We thought that at 6 p.m., the restaurant would surely be dead and we'd be the only kids in the house. But even at this Golden Girl eating hour, there were already people seated and more cars waiting for parking spots in the miniscule lot. And by 6:30, when we were just starting to nosh, at least six tables had been filled.

From the inside, the restaurant seemed far removed from the hustle of the street outside. A low table at the front of the house displayed four antique-looking Turkish coffee pots, and an extended bar area toward the back connected to the mostly-hidden kitchen. What struck us most about Marouch was the smell of roasting meat and aromatic spices.

Severs ushered to our table a basket of warm pita bread, a plate of refreshingly pickle-y pickled turnips, purple olives, whole scallions, and pickled hot peppers. My entrée of kafta kabob over rice ($11.99, spiced beef meatballs grilled on skewers, which I’ve also seen written as “kofte,” unless that’s a slightly regionally different dish) measured up in my book as being enough for two. The menu offers a choice of kafta made from beef, lamb, or chicken, which I found odd since I thought kafta specifically was made of beef. I ordered the chicken, and I got beef anyway.

As a rule, I generally don’t eat beef. I don’t like it; I don’t like how it smells; and I don’t like how oily it can be. But I was feeling adventurous and what was laid before just looked clean and simple, so "what the heck?" I thought. And I ate it. Correction: I ate half of it. I didn’t stand a chance against such an enormous portion. The meatballs, which didn't have a single drip of fat left to them, were rich and earthy and full of flavor.

Boyfriend dug into a huge mound of shwarma gyro (spiced lamb, $11.99), shaved into long strips and served with a side of velvety tahini. We both enjoyed the rice immensely, savoring the individuality of each toothsome grain. After delightfully strong and sweet Turkish coffees, and with one beer and one large bottle of sparkling water on the bill, I think we ended up paying about $30 for the two of us, tip included. We didn’t even touch the mezes, though I ogled heaping bowls of tabbouleh ($6.99), which is one of my all-time favorite foods, at nearby tables.

I can’t say enough of about the attentive waitstaff. At Marouch, Boyfriend and I were not only treated like pashas, but we ate like them, too.

13 Los Angeles locations and 3 New York locations

4905 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA

BYOB! Obester Winery

A Juicy Alternative to Napa’s Affluence

The premise of Bottle & Cork is simple: Arrive at the Half Moon Bay bottling business with your own empty and rinsed wine bottles (or buy 750ml bottles on site at $1 a pop) and let the purple-stained staff fill them with the day’s featured wine for less than $5 per bottle. It’s kind of like bringing your own reusable grocery bags to the supermarket, only better.

Visitors to Northern California, and natives themselves, often associate wine tasting with a day trip about an hour or so north of San Francisco to Napa or Sonoma Valley. They rise early, shower, and don their finest linen summer dresses or pair of Bermuda shorts. They go in late August when it’s deafeningly hot, the sunshine pulsating down on tidy yet endless rows of vines, their reflector tags (used to ward off birds) shimmering like knife blades in the light. On an ambling tour around the mathematically maintained vineyards, the idyllic fruit will look pregnant with lush juices, ready to burst at the slightest touch. Wine country visitors will pop off to the local gourmet market to buy stinky cheeses and French bread, nibbling these between flight tastings.

When I first moved to the San Francisco Bay area, it took me a couple of extravagant trips to Sonoma before I learned that there were more outback wineries, often closer to home, both literally and sentimentally. I was informed of the denim-casual wonders of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I was instructed to drive north toward Sonoma but to veer west off the main freeway and head to the Russian River Valley, where the more woodsy locals spend summers lounging in inner tubes that drift them down the lazy river. And sometime during my knowledge growth period, I stumbled across a little place called Obester Winery on Highway 92, a winding little two-lane highway that dips over a small mountain ridge and down a steep hillside into a cool, damp, sun-dappled valley.

Obester is for both casual wine drinkers and connoisseurs... and the crowd that’s not necessarily interested in what the North Bay has to offer... and the earth-conscious who not only recycle in their city bins, but also avidly reuse what they’ve already got on hand (“If you bring your own bottles, they must be clean and washed—we'll do the rest”)... and anyone decked out in $3.99 gas station sunglasses. There’s a sense that not necessarily everyone at Obester has showered that day, nor have their dogs, who are barking from the back of a pickup truck in the driveway. Obester is inviting to all.

A small gravel parking area spills back toward two wood barns. From the road, the barns call attention to the winery, which is otherwise easy to miss when navigating the twists and turns of Highway 92. The larger of the two structures, industrial and utilitarian, serves as a bottling area, housing great steel tanks that loom like totem poles. Barrels guard and hinder access to the far reaches of the barn. Hand-operating corking machinery, dozens of cardboard cases stocked with empty green bottles, and slop buckets of spilled wine are all in plain view. It’s messy, but wine-bottling itself is messy, and I for one appreciate the unadulterated setup. The two-story tall barn opens on both ends like a hangar, and a pleasantly tart odor wafts through the open air. Mile-high pines and eucalyptus trees envelope the surrounding valley, their earthy aromas calming against the sour slippery grape-stained wood board floors. It’s a long way from Sonoma.

While there are no hard and fast rules about dress code in the North Bay grape fields, women generally wear large straw hats and light linen dresses, strappy sandals, and possibly Dolce & Gabana sunglasses. Men’s attire might include Docker shorts, loafers, and polo tees. Visitors tour dark, damp storage cellars that resemble European caves in climate, but Italian cathedrals in ambiance. A day in Napa ends with a casual, albeit semi-posh crowd lounging around a dark wood bar while bartenders pour an inch of wine into pristine glasses. It’s the see-and-be-seen portion of the day. Credit cards appear. Cases are ordered. Egos are pampered and most go home feeling a little flushed in the cheek and in the wallet.

And for many, this scene is what identifies a trip to the wineries. It feeds the stereotype that Californians seek — and receive — the highest of quality in merchandise and experience. It’s a tannin-flavored sip of the American Dream.

At Obester, there’s a gift shop that doubles as a tasting room, but it resembles more of a country living room than a high-roller’s club. It’s in the smaller of the two barns, a shack-style prairie house selling gourmet mustards, honeys, jams, t-shirts, tea towels, and aprons. It’s modest, and on the two occasions I went to Obester, it was nearly empty. The Obester crowd hangs out close to the slop of the bottling. A few wine glasses are scattered about, and samples are given freely (no need to win back your $3 tasting fee with purchase). The pretenses are lower here too because no one shows up on a Bottle & Cork day without the intention of bringing home a case or two.

The upcoming Bottle & Cork days at Obester Winery are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday April 28 (red wine), Saturday, May 5 (white), and Saturday, June 9 (red). Prices, which include corks and labels are $4.45 per 750 ml bottle, $8 per 1.5L, $17 per 4L, and $18.50 for gallon jugs. Obester bottles great wines grown all over the local region, most recently a 2005 Barbera from Mendocino and a 2005 Chardonnay from Monterey, though they don’t name the type of wine until just before the Bottle & Cork date – check the web site for updates: http://obesterwinery.com.

My Life with the USDA: Part II

Two weeks eating off the pyramid

For the past two weeks, I’ve been using the USDA’s My Pyramid Tracker, an interactive system that incorporates an online food diary, exercise diary, and analysis of one’s healthy eating. My goal was to eat as closely as possible to my daily recommendation, as computed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the government arm that has brought us such memorable guidelines for healthy living as “the five food groups” and “the food pyramid.” About two years ago, the USDA revamped its message, began to incorporate technology, and devised a system that could give individuals a much more balance diet recommendation based on their body, age, and gender (see part one “My Life With USDA,” in the March 2007 archives of this blog for more).

So, for two weeks or more, I have been eating off the recommended food pyramid as generated for me and my 5’8” 20-something-year-old female body.

Sometime around Day 3 of this regimen, I was filled with great expectations of more healthful living—early morning jogs, a slimmer waistline, dinners of home cooked kale and wild rice and precisely 3 oz. of poached tilapia, strong calcium-supported bones and teeth until my 70s, and a smoking bod to fill out my bathing suit this summer. Then I hit Day 12.

Day 12: The Meltdown
“I need a hot fudge sundae!”

“I don’t know what’s happening!” I shouted, my eyes scavenging the area around Powell Station, trying to remember exactly how many blocks away the Ghirardelli store was. My head spun in a flurry, and I jittered like a drug addict in need of a hit.
Desperation: “I need to eat a hot fudge sundae with crumbled up cookies on the bottom, and a brownie, and six pieces of chocolate bars wedged into the top! Right now!”

My face flashed hot with sugar cravings. “What’s happening to me?”
Poor Boyfriend. He’s always the one to put up with this kind of stuff. I was clearly in the throes of a major meltdown (just thinking of the word “meltdown” made me completely fixate on the image of a towering bowl of ice cream again) and he was trying to have a normal, intelligent conversation, trying to explain to me the nuances of a New York Times Online op-ed written by Slajov Zizek, a topic of conversation that made my eyes blink compulsively; the words hit my brain and seemed to bounce directly off.

As the scene occurred, I had a minor out-of-body experience. My body, my physical being could not focus on anything other than an ice cream sundae. My sanity, however, was thinking, “Oh, the poor boy. The very least I owe him is to pay attention to whatever the hell he’s talking about. What the hell is he talking about? And where can we find ice cream?”

I was really losing it.

I realized that Boyfriend probably didn’t fully know what the last 12 days of my food journaling had cost me. For one, I explained to him, I hadn’t let chocolate pass my lips, except for precisely three times: once on Day 1 when I opened a box of just-arrived Girls Scout cookies (the vanilla rectangular cookies with a chocolate strip on the back); once when I sampled a sliver of chocolate while power-walking through the San Francisco Ferry Building; and once while on a business trip to Chicago when I took a break to sip a mocha in Border’s.
Bear in mind, this is coming from a person who had virtually eaten some form of chocolate every single day since she was about 10 years old. I used to squander $0.50 of my lunch money as a child to buy a brownie from the school cafeteria. And now it was as if all the cravings I might normally experience over a 12-day period were crammed into a single moment. I was in major sugar withdrawal… or so I thought.

Boyfriend and I decided to head up to Starbucks and split a skim milk mocha, just to take the edge off. When we reached the cash register, a row of Vitamin Waters caught my e ye, and suddenly, it became clear to me what was really happening: I was thirsty.

Correction: I was really really thirsty.

Earlier that same day, I had eaten breakfast sometime around 7:30 a.m., then left the house for a meeting and didn’t come home until almost 1:30 in the afternoon. I hadn’t had any snacks before lunch (I usually munch on at least an apple or an ounce of almonds), and I had a cup of coffee at my meeting. Then we had lunch at a Chinese food restaurant called Nan King Road (I recommend the “double happiness”). The dishes were relatively healthy, filled with eggplant, snow peas, string beans, bell peppers, lean chicken, and shellfish, and served with steamed brown rice. But the sauces were more likely than not loaded with sodium. Ergo by 3:00 in the afternoon, I was really very thirsty.

I drank the entire bottle of Vitamin Water within minutes. I spent the rest of the day drinking water. When we got home, I drank and drank and drank. I even woke up the next day slightly dehydrated and drank another two or three glasses of water.

I’m still pretty shocked that I hadn’t thought about my state of being consciously enough to recognize that my body needed liquid. My initial reaction (to crave ice cream) wasn’t totally off; I was looking for something creamy, something to quell the salt and satisfy the need for cold liquid. It’s rather amazing how our bodies and brains can fool us about something as simple as ingesting too much sodium.

Counting Calories
Aside from my one major meltdown, my experience trying out My Pyramid has been mostly positive. However, although I’ve been using the tool for more than two weeks, I still don’t feel like I’ve quite mastered it. I continually discover discrepancies about the content of what I consume compared to what the USDA estimated its content to be. For example, the Lifeway brand low-fat plain kefir that I drink has 120 calories, 2 grams of fat, and 14 grams of protein per 8 oz. serving; for the same serving size, My Pyramid calculates 98 calories, 2.2 grams of fat, and only 8 grams of protein. The USDA also thinks a regular pizza pie is 12 inches in diameter and that one slice, or one-eighth of that tiny pizza, contains only about 165 ca lories. Fat chance, USDA!

Another issue is that the nutrient intake does not provide a read out for sugars. Instead, it shows carbohydrates, which doesn’t necessarily comprise only sugar. My understanding of sugar intake has developed by looking at food labels, which always show sugar in grams on the nutrition printout. But I don’t know how “carbohydrates” effectively differ or how I should read my intake of them.

To make a fair comparison, I tried out another online food journal (my-calorie-counter) one day, entering all the same foods that I entered into My Pyramid Tracker. After breakfast, lunch, and snacks, the difference in total calories consumed was only 56, so between the two, I feel like they were pretty close to being in agreement on total energy intake. However, the new food journal calculated my total fat intake at 28 grams, but the USDA reported it as 32.2 grams. Another feature I liked about my-calorie-counter that I would like to see in My Pyramid is a breakdown of basic nutritional information per food consumed (see the image for an example). The downside is that only paying members can see the totals tabulated for the day. And since I didn’t want to pay, I just whipped out my trusty calculator and ran the totals myself.

My-Calorie-Counter is an alternative food journaling tool to the USDA's My Pyramid Tracker, but it's not completely free

Odd Birds
Did you know soy milk counts as meat? On My Pyramid Tracker, it does. Once I discovered this, I felt the need to further investigate the nutritional value of an actual glass of Silk soy milk against the values the USDA assumes. The Silk package calls 1 cup 1 serving, and says it contains 100 calories, whereas My Pyramid Tracker estimates the same amount to have 120 calories.

What I would like to be able to do in My Pyramid is create my own foods to add to the existing database either from scratch or by modifying and renaming existing foods. Then I could lower the number of calories in a glass of soy milk by 20 and rename it “plain Silk soy milk.” If this feature does already exist, I sure haven’t found it, and I’ve been using the tool rigorously for more than two weeks. Here’s another example: The whole wheat (and whole grain) bread that I eat has 100 calories per slice according to the package, but the USDA configures “1 large slice of whole wheat bread” to have only about 79 calories.

The USDA has a pretty comprehensive list of consumer packaged brand foods, from Weight Watchers to Nature’s Valley, but I often can’t find some of the brands I eat on a regular basis. I’d love to the USDA reach out to major food makers and ask them to populate the database with more of their own foods’ nutritional value, too.

If you’ve never kept a food journal, I highly recommend trying it, either with the USDA’s system, or on paper (you can look up the caloric content of each food easily on the web), or with the help of another online tool. Taking just two weeks to watch exactly what foods you consume can be not only a wonderfully eye-opening experience, but also a highly educational one. It’s a shame how little the average person knows about nutrition, and learning the basics doesn’t take much time or effort.

Happy eating!