We Try the Fry Bar

Last week my sister and I went to Pommes Frites in New York.

A Few Words about Pommes Frites
Pommes Frites is on Second Avenue in New York, near enough to the NYU dorms to have some late-night, drunken, college foot traffic.

It is a Belgian French fry bar. The only thing served at this little hole in the wall is fries and toppings and dipping sauces. There is a small selection of bottled drinks, but -- very much to my dismay and a leading factor of the reason I will not likely return to Pommes Frites -- no alcohol.

Given the limited nutritional scope of Pommes Frites, we ate some salad before we left the house. Given the non-existent beer options, I had a Schneiderweiss when I got home.

A Few Words about The Eyes
The sister who went with me is number three, age-wise, of the four girls in my family and heretofore has had no nickname on this blog. I shall call her The Eyes, in honor of her sparkly eyes and in honor of the 30 Rock episode, “The Head and The Hair.”

Unlike me, the Eyes loves French fries. She also has eyes that are much bigger than her stomach and refused to split an order of fries with me when we got to Pommes Frites.

For $4, you can get a “regular.” This portion size is just a few fries more than any fit and healthy person can eat in one sitting, even on an empty stomach. $6.25 buys you a “large,” which is more than suitable for two. The “double,” at $7.75 seems a bit obscene.

If you’re into fries, which The Eyes is, you’ll immediately be dazzled that Pommes Frites’ frites are fried twice. There are two separate vats of oil that you can easily see behind the tiny counter, just in case you aren’t likely to take the staff’s word for it.

The fries are made of real thick cut potatoes. They’re salted, but not heavily, and they are served in paper cones. My favorite part is that there is a bar where you can eat, which has holes in it that are precisely the right size for balancing the paper cone.

The real treat, though, is the expansive list of sauces, which cost $0.75 each or three for $2 if you get them in plastic containers, or three sauces for the price of one if you get them layered into your cone of fries, like a greasy, mayo-and-fry parfait. We tried three in cups: Vietnamese pineapple, horseradish mayonnaise, and pomegranate teriyaki. I thought the Vietnamese one and the teriyaki would be different. They were both just flavored mayonnaises, but the pineapple one was extremely tasty. The horseradish was good, but a little less adventurous, and the teriyaki didn’t taste right on fries, though it would have been killer on a chicken or pork sandwich.

A few of the condiments are complimentary, like plain mayonnaise, the traditional topping for Belgians, raw onions (which I had), jalapenos, malt vinegar (for the Brits), ketchup, mustard, and Tabasco. Another option is the Frites special sauce, which is nothing more than a squirt of ketchup, a squirt of mayo, and a dash of raw onions in a cup.

I didn’t like that almost all the sauces are just doctored-up mayo, but I get that that’s half of what makes it a more authentic Belgian experience. In Europe, people eat their fries with these little wooden sporks – imagine the wood stick you get with an Italian ice, only with tines. At Pommes Frites, I had to ask for a fork, and it was just a plastic one, which detracted from the experience for me a little bit more. Finally, not having a beer to wash that heavy mouthfeel put a significant damper on it all for me. If the place had beer, on the other hand, it would be much too crowded to enjoy. A Belgian beer bar next door that allowed you to bring in your food (similar to the set up at Rosamunde and Toronado in San Francisco, two of my most favorite places to eat and drink in that city) would be the perfect solution, as long as they carded the NYU students heavily… The more I think about it, the more I realize why beer would not work in that particular setting, but damn it, I would never go back to eat those fries again without a beer!

If you're into French fries, though, you can't pass this place up. The place is open until 3:30a.m. on the weekends and 1a.m. on weekdays.

Some Facts

I bought $17 worth of chocolate last night from Trader Joe's with the mindset that I was "stocking up." Three dollars and ninety-nine cents of it was actually vanilla extract, but I bought that only so I could make chocolate chip cookies.

The only granulated sugar that exists in my house is in packets, from Starbucks, which will make it difficult to make chocolate chip cookies.

When I made falafel from scratch for the first time the other night (it's easy, though the yield is quite large), I didn't have cumin, so I used garam masala. Now I have a dozen or so frozen falafel balls that taste slightly like cinnamon.

Also in the falafel-making experience, I didn't have any flour (again, this is making the chocolate chip cookie thing next to impossible) or breadcrumbs, so I whirled some oatmeal in the food processor and made "oat flour." It tasted totally fine. I was proud of my innovation.

I eat things I don't really like because I don't like to be wasteful.

One time when I was in college, some boys who lived down the hall and I were coming home from a frat party and decided we missed those old school lunches of sloppy joes. In fact, I had never once eaten a sloppy joe, but I did like the boneless ribs that were served on Wednesdays. We went to the grocery store at 3 o'clock in the morning and bought a can of sloppy joe. We bought buns, too. We took everything back to someone's room, set up a toaster oven, toasted the rolls, found a can opener, and prepared to eat sloppy joes. This is how I learned that canned "sloppy joes" just means the sauce, to which you are supposed to add meat. But we had our hearts set on it, so we dipped the toasted buns into what was essentially tinned catsup and called it a night. At least we weren't wasteful.

If I go on and on about how bad something is for you, I inevitably get a craving for it within 24 hours. One time I told my friend how I hadn't eaten a muffin in years because muffins are nothing more than cake -- in fact, they are worse than cake! They are buttery mounds of glutton! The next day I ate a cranberry muffin and it was so good.

I don't keep jam in the house because I will eat it all, an entire jar of it, in less than five days. That is not an exaggeration.

Sometimes I get drunk on food. It only really happens when I'm alone. It happens when I get really hungry and then eat something yummy, but not enough of it, so then I want to eat more, but I don't just want to eat more, I get tipsy and light-headed and start coasting around the house and grazing on food, like when you get drunk at a party and eat all the chips and salsa. Then I feel drunk and say to myself, "What the hell?" and realize that I haven't had a drop of alcohol all night.

I love coupons, even though I hardly ever use them. I think they make me seem cheap, though, so I try not to let people see my stash of them.

Another college story: A girl who lived down the hall from me in the dorms one time asked me to teach her how to cook. She said, "I want to learn how to cook. I don't know how to make anything." I said, "Okay, what do you want to learn to make?" She said, "I don't know." I said, "Just pick one thing for us to start with." She said, "I don't know." "Well," I said, "you have to give me at least some idea. What kinds of foods do you like to eat at home?" She said, "Chicken. But I'm scared. I've never actually seen or touched raw chicken meat. I've seen it in the store, but it grosses me out, so I never go near it." I said, "What do you mean you've never seen it? You've eaten it at your home, but you never saw it?" She said, "My mom never really let us in the kitchen with her." I honestly started to think that this girl grew up with a housekeeper and cook and was lying to me about her mother cooking. "I bet her mother walks around in fur coats all day long," I told myself. After that conversation, she bought some canned soup and a few boxes of pasta, and I tried to not make eye contact with her from that point on. I pity her to this day.

Make or Buy?

Pizza: Make or Buy?
Buy. I know that making pizza at home can be a glorious thing. You can put on as much sauce or cheese as you want. You have free reign with toppings. You can control the thickness of the crust (if you’re good at stretching dough). And making pizza at home costs pennies in comparison to what it costs to buy.

However, I have never had an oven that got hot enough to make a really satisfying crust. Also, making my own dough at home is a complete toss-up, as it comes out drastically different depending on the temperature of the air, the temperature of the water, the freshness of the yeast, and so forth.

My sister and her fiancé are home-pizza devotees. For her bridal shower, all the bridesmaids and I (I’m her maid of honor) put together a gift basket that contained a pizza stone, pizza wheel, pizza peel, pizza cook book, and a couple of other tools. If you are going to make your own pizza at home, the pizza stone is an essential tool, as it mitigates the problem of working with a home oven that might not be able to sustain 450 to 500 degrees.

Hummus: Make or Buy?
Make! Before I owned a food processor, I would have said “buy,” but hummus is so easy to make, so delicious, such a crowd-pleaser, and keeps so well in the fridge that there is no reason not to make your own.

A few days ago I made a batch of hummus using tahini for the first time (I used to always leave it out because I never remembered to hunt it down in the grocery store, but now I live in a neighborhood where it’s widely available). Here’s my quick recipe: 2 cup2 of chickpeas (1 cup dried) also known as garbanzo beans, soaked, boiled, and skins removed; juice of one lemon; 1 tablespoon or more tahini; 2 cloves of garlic, chopped and sautéed in about two tablespoons of oil; salt; paprika; and cayenne. It all goes into the food processor, and if it’s not milling, you add a drizzle of warm water until it does. Easy, right? And you can add any other flavors you like, such as roasted red peppers, sun dried tomatoes, more garlic, more lemon, olives, whatever.

The only real trick is remembering to soak the chickpeas a day ahead of time. Alternatively, you could buy canned chickpeas which have been already soaked and boiled, but the inexpensiveness of the dried ones are what really make it worth it to make your own hummus.

Salsa: Make or Buy?
Make! Fresh salsas are worlds away from jarred ones. There are a few good brands on the market that you can easily find in most all grocery stores, the kinds that come in plastic containers and are displayed in a refrigerated case near fresh pasta sauces and raviolis, or near produce that needs to be refrigerated. These 16oz tubs cost between $5 and $7. For half the price you can make double the amount of salsa at home, and it takes hardly any time at all.

I make my own salsa all the time, and I eat it with omelets, crostini, broiled fish, rice, polenta, and chicken breast, as well as chips and tacos.

Here’s the quick recipe: a couple of tomatoes, any kind, diced; about a cup or cup and a half of diced red or yellow onion; a handful of cilantro (also known as fresh coriander), chopped; the zest of one lime; the juice of one or two limes; a splash of red wine vinegar; salt; cayenne pepper. If you like saucier salsa, you can add a few teaspoons of prepared ketchup to the mix, or you can put the salsa in a blender or food processor and whirl until the consistency is how you like it. I like my salsa really chunky and juicy.

Bread: Make or Buy?
Buy. I make breads a couple of times a year, cornmeal dusted batons, a half-risen sage and sea salt round loaf, and on one occasion, a super crusty peasant loaf that took almost 24 hours to rise and re-rise (it looks like a messy blob while it's rising; see image). When I make bread, though, it’s usually because I’m in the mood for a project, not because I want to eat bread. The quality of fresh store-bought breads is reliably good, and bakery breads or loose rolls sold at many small produce markets are even better. The amount of bread I eat probably accounts for only $3 or $4 of my weekly food budget; the cost of buying far outweighs the cost of labor to make my own.

Cookies: Make or Buy?
Make. I make delicious oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and the thought of eating desiccated Keebler elves instead is just nauseating. There are some decent packaged cookies (Entemann’s comes to mind), but 90 percent of the time I’d rather eat my own soft cookies, either fresh from the oven or in chewy luxurious dough form.

Once in a while, I buy one of those giant, soft, bakery cookies, which I love, but on the whole, when it comes to cookies, I make my own.

Coffee: Make or Buy?
Make. The older I get, the less coffee I drink. I used to be one of those people who really enjoyed having a cup of coffee out in the middle of the day or in the early evening. Now, I’m becoming more sensitive to the shortcomings of coffee drinking: bad breath, acid overload in the stomach, jitters if drunk on an empty stomach.

I love having morning coffee while I’m still in my pajamas while listening to NPR, and I enjoy that ten times more than having a cup of coffee out at a shop. It’s not an absolute rule to always make my own coffee over buying it, but in general, I prefer it.

Beer: Make or Buy?
Buy! I fear that one day my kitchen will be overrun with buckets, hoses, bottles, and homebrew kits. Making your own beer seems like a messy and fairly expensive habit. From what I’m told, it’s a good three to six months before you break even, and that’s only if you actually like you homemade beer well enough to drink it regularly.

I’ll happily drink someone else’s homebrew, but I’m not bubbling any beer in my house!

Soup: Make or Buy?
Make. Soup is a joy to make and a joy to eat. When you buy soup in a can, it’s laden with sodium. I won’t deny that there are days when I’m at the store, famished, and too beat to cook that I pick up a can of Progresso lentil soup and call it a night., but those are dire straights.

Homemade soup is one of my favorite leftovers to have on hand in the fridge or freezer. If you keep a couple of bouillon cubes tucked away in the cupboard, you’re never more than 15 minutes away from having a quick and homey little something to eat.

Sandwich: Make or Buy?
Buy! It’s not like I don’t make my own sandwiches, but I love treating myself to a big fat deli sandwich on a hard roll with pickles and all the other fixings.

Granola: Make or Buy?
Buy. Homemade granola never has those wonderful crispy clusters that you find in packaged cereals. It requires the oven to be on for a long time for what seems like a pretty worthless outcome. When making your own granola, you realize just how much sugar goes into it, and personally, I’d rather not think about that. Another thing I’d rather not think about is the fact that the best tasting granolas are the fattiest ones (when I buy granola, I get low-fat).

If you like granola but never paid any attention to the nutritional information label, my advice is: don’t! And if you do read it and think it’s not that bad, take another look at the serving size. It’s bad. Granola should be eaten sparingly and with a little bit of denial. Still, don’t bother making it at home.

Baklava: Make or Buy?
Buy. I really really love baklava, but I don't make my own. Here's why: One time I thought I was going to make my own because I saw someone on Food Network do it and it seemed relatively simple. Then I went to the store to buy ingredients, realized how ridiculously expensive they are, and promptly decided it wasn’t worth it.

Phyllo is not too expensive, but to make a sheet of baklava you need at least two boxes of it. You also need good quality butter and a lot of good quality honey. Then there are the nuts, and whether you go for walnuts, pistachios, almonds, or a combination, they cost a fortune – and you need a lot of them, too.

In the end, how many pieces of baklava can one person reasonably eat in the course of, say, a week? I adore the stuff, but I even I have a pretty low ceiling for how much of it I can cram down my throat. Seeing how pricey all the ingredients are definitely made me appreciate the price Greek and Turkish bakers charge for the stuff. A single piece of baklava or kataifi can easily cost $2.50. (A friend of my turned me onto a market in Astoria that sells homemade kataifi for $1 apiece. That’s a steal!)

I’d rather buy a few pieces for five or six bucks and be satisfied for a week than make a whole tray for $40 that I could never in a million years finish. I suppose you could make the argument that it would be worth it to make a tray for a party or family gathering, but of all my friends and family, only a few of them would be into it. Baklava is not worth making at home.

Make or Buy?
What other things do you feel strongly about making or buying?

My Smell Party: A Wine Tasting Game

About a week ago, I held a little wine tasting at my house. Of everyone who was there, only two of us had been wine tasting before.

I wanted to think of a fun activity that would introduce the people who had never been wine tasting before to the idea that it isn’t a snooty elitist thing.

So we played a game, a smelling game.

Everyone divided into two teams, and I was the referee. In the kitchen, I had prepared a few different things to smell. The players were gathered in the living room, so they couldn't see, hear, or smell what I was doing. One person from each team was blindfolded. Then, I brought in something to smell, two of the same item.

To keep the blindfolded person from feeling the item, it was either placed in a cup (which they could hold) or given to another person on their team to hold beneath their noses. On my count, the two blindfolded players began smelling. Whoever could identify the item first won a point for their team. If after about 30 seconds or so no one could name the item, they were allowed to tasted it and touch it.

The idea was to let everyone realize just how hard it is to pick out smells, not only in wine but of real things in nature. Sure, you know what strawberry candy smells like, but could you identify a real strawberry if it were placed under your nose?

I picked smells that were likely to be in the four bottles of wine we had lined up to taste:
Strawberry (grated to release more fragrance)
Honey (placed on a spoon to get it close to the nose)
Black licorice (Panda brand)
Pear (grated)
Black pepper
Dried rose petals

I think the only smell that the players were able to identify quickly was black pepper. Licorice was astonishingly difficult for anyone to get, given that most people think it has such a strong and distinctive smell.

The strawberries were pretty easy, but the pears were very hard. Neither blindfolded player was able to identify the plum, but one of them admitted he had never actually tasted plum before in his life.

The players who got honey had serious difficulty figuring out what it was, until the moment they tasted it; then they knew immediately.

It was kind of an interesting experiment. After the smelling game, we tasted the wines: a Gewürztraminer, which had honey and rose petal notes; a Pinot Noir filled with bright strawberry and cherry flavors; a Zinfandel with hints of chocolate, licorice, pepper, and smoke; and a Cabaret Sauvignon laden with blackberries and plum.

Just handling all the fruits and other items made me feel more aware of the way things really smell, and I was definitely more in tune with a lot of the scents and tastes in the wines.

The Chicken Story

Once upon a time, I decided to cook a whole chicken.

Why I Decided to Cook a Whole Chicken
I decided to cook a whole chicken to make someone else happy. Someone else was always talking about how much he loved whole roast chicken, how he delighted in picking the bones two and three days after the initial rush of chicken-eating endorphins had subsided. “There will be cold roast chicken sandwiches for many lunches to come!” he exclaimed.

And one day a magazine arrived, a magazine so loyal and true it can even be trusted for baked goods recipes. This magazine on this particular day contained a recipe for whole roast chicken. Anyone who made this magical chicken recipe would be blessedto go on a shopping trip filled with wonders only a cook could imagine: whole lemons, softball-sized onions, fresh thyme, Hungarian paprika, and delicious butter (so I deviated from the original recipe just a teensey bit...). O joyous day to she who might cook this chicken! The kingdom and prince would be hers!

To the Store!
Off to Trader Joe’s I went, reusable shopping bags in tow. The journey was treacherous, and my trusty steed, the number forty-three bus, was slow to trudge up the precipitous San Franciscan hills.

The refrigerator case was now before me! I swooped in and coddled many-a plastic-swathed bird, searching for a petite damsel suitable to feed two. I found her. But lo! And soft… She was marked with true beauty: “certified Kosher.”

The darling hen was but 28 and 20 ounces -- if she weighed but a gram! -- and I guarded her, nested safely in my arms, from the homeless man clipping his toenails near us on the bus on the journey home.

The Rubdown
Oh to hold her! To unwrap her! She was mine! I laid the gorgeous thing, plump breasts heavenward, atop a bed of parsley. She was bathed, naked and glorious, in the kitchen sink, which was thereafter disinfected most thoroughly.

Then I took to my work, sliding subtle fingers against her flesh, easing up the protective garments. As the work became more penetrable, I buttered the butterball and massage her juicy insides. I rubbed whole slices of lemon between those sheets and left them there so their juices ran down her legs and entered her very cavity.

Pricked to room temperature and with a pre-heated oven at the ready, the bird saw the final thrust. Into the oven, where she would roast for 55 minutes, then turned and checked, and maybe 45 minutes more.

Losing the Battle for Love

When it was an hour, an hour and fifteen minutes, and then nearly two hours later and my lady had not cooked through, I cursed the skies. “Damn you, chicken gods! A plague o’er both your henhouses!”

I checked. And checked. And checked. Then I did not check but left the oven door closed for some time. More than two hours had passed. The situation had gone sour. The bird had turned on me. And then it was nigh but three hours.

Oh wretched fowl thing.

Boyfriend came to my side and declared the bird was heftier than a mere 2 or 3 pounds. “By god, she is 6 pounds if she is a day old! She is seven pounds. No! Zounds she is in fact a nineteen-pound turkey.”

“This hen is no turkey, and she be not more than one pound eight ounces!” I cried. “Thou know not thou chicken measurements!”

The night had waned, and I was cross-eyed with hunger. I declared defeat. “I am going to turn off the oven and throw the bird in the garbage.”

“No, we shan’t give in! We must hold our ground against this beast,” he said.

“I know not what you intend to do, but I shall now lock myself in the bedroom and commence a pouting episode, the likes of which you have never seen!” A demon came over me at that moment, and I hissed and bared my claws at him.

At half-ten that eve -- might it even have been closer to eleven? -- I emerged from my lair, scarlet from glowering alone. Boyfriend was cutting the bird, whose arms had dried out considerably but whose nether regions were still comparatively mouth-watering.

“From this day forth,” I began my decree, “I shall but only cook chicken in parts.”