Postcard from Belize: Coconut Ice Cream, Manelly's, San Pedro

I should be working right now, but I'm having a horrible time focusing. I just got back from Belize, where I spent about five days with some friends. My whole attitude is completely readjusted, and work just doesn't seem important (though it is, and I do love my job).

Pretty soon I'll manage to get back on track and be all caught up, but until that time, I thought I'd sneak off for five minutes and share this photo of the house-made coconut ice cream I had at Manelly's in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. Creamy, a bit fatty, and full of suspended flakes of real coconut, this ice cream knocked the socks off the gelato I had in Italy last month.

The following night, I went back to Manelly's and tried a cup of fresh banana ice cream. The coconut was by far the winner, but the banana had not a hint of artificial flavoring and was nearly as good.

Billy Joel and Beets

I went out to dinner with my mom the other night and a Billy Joel song came on.

"I can't stand Billy Joel," she said, "but I love this song."

I don't care who you are. I don't care how much you think you hate Billy Joel, when "Leave a Tender Moment Alone" comes on, suddenly, it's the one exception to the rule.

Alongside, "Good night Saigon," of course.

And also, "Ballad of Billy the Kid."

And maybe "She's Got a Way About Her."

You see where I'm going with this. I don't care how much you think you hate Billy Joel. I don't care how much you want to hate Billy Joel. He has good songs.

Just as with Billy Joel, so many people I meet think they hate beets. Only once have I met someone, a friend in college, who told me she hated beets and I finally had to relent and believe her. (I said she probably never had fresh beets or roasted beets, and she said, "Jill! I grew up on a farm in upstate New York! I know what the very best beets taste like, and I don't like them." Touche.)

I don't understand how some people don't like roasted beets. I love pickled beets, too, straight from the jar or the can. Raw beets grated or sliced thin like carpaccio, soaked in vinegar or just sprinkled with salt and pepper -- I adore them.

If you are unsure whether you like beets, here are two salad recipes that, to my taste, brings out the very best in them. Roasted beets or pickled work great. (See below for a quick method on how to roast them.)
Southwest Beet Salad
Salad greens (I recommend spring mix or red leaf lettuce)
Orange segments
Roasted beets
Red onion, diced
Tomatoes, diced
Lime juice and zest of one lime
Red wine vinegar (a few splashes)
Jalapeño or chilies (optional), finely chopped

Combine the red onion, tomatoes, lime juice and zest, red vinegar and chilies or jalapeño and let marinate at least a half hour. This is essentially a pico de gallo. You could also add a handful of white corn, thawed from frozen or from the can if fresh is not available.

Assemble the salad in layers however you like. For a pretty presentation, reserve the orange slices and beets for the top layer, nestled on the pico de gallo. Sprinkle with cilantro. Squeeze additional lime juice or orange juice on top.

Salad with Beets, Fruit, and Nuts

Salad greens (I recommend spring mix or micro greens, Boston lettuce, or baby spinach)
Roasted beets, sliced or quartered
Cambozola or other soft or blue cheese (gorgonzola; brie if you like mild cheese)
Candied walnuts (or almonds)
Sliced pears or apples

Plate the greens. Top with fruit slices. Gently lay the beets on top without streaking red and purple all over the fruit. Sprinkle with cheese and nuts. Serve with balsamic vinegar or balsamic vinaigrette.

How to Roast Beets
Take a few beets, the size of your fist or smaller, clean them, wrap them well in foil, and place them in an oven at 375-400 F. Leave them for an hour or more. (I recommend baking something else while doing this to make use of the oven being on.)

Remove the beets and let them cool enough that you can handle them. Remove the foil, trim the top of the beet off (about 1/4 inch) and carefully remove the skins. They should slip off with a minimal amount of prying. You may want to wear kitchen gloves while handling the beets.

Slice the beets into 1/2 inch thick rounds and, while they're still warm, pour a teaspoon or two of very good quality extra virgin olive oil on them. Set aside.

It's Not Garbage — It's Reusable (Plus It's Mine, Jerk)

A typical tiff in my house might sound something like this.

"Jill, that's garbage."

"No," I say. "I'm going to use that."

"Jill. Throw. It. Out! It's garbage!"

"Those are my things! I need them!"

This usually happens when I decide that something meant to be disposable is in fact reusable. I hate waste. I will reuse anything I can as many times as I came.

When we were living in England, we developed the habit of washing plastic sandwich bags and setting them out to dry, which increased their lifespan by five or six uses a piece. We did this because when you buy something like plastic sandwich bags in the U.K., you might spend the equivalent of $4 USD on a box that contains only 20 baggies. Reusing plastic bags is a habit we've kept up outside of England. Why use them just once?

Here in Queens, Boyfriend and I find it extremely frustrating that New York City's recycling program won't take most plastics -- it only accepts plastics that are considered "jugs," like milk containers and shampoo bottles. In response, we wash and reuse takeout containers and deli containers. We even save the sturdiest ones and bring them back to the market whenever we're going to buy, say, olives by the pound, rather than take a new container when we get there.

The problem -- where the tiffs come in -- is that my idea of what is reusable does not match Boyfriend's. We agree that old glass jars are free reign. If the bag of sugar gets low, I'll transfer it into a jam jar. Too cumbersome to use olive oil straight from that massive gallon tin? Pour some into an old roasted red pepper jar. That's pretty acceptable.

The pens and pencils we keep next to our calendar hang out in a plastic Starbucks cup. I even effectively (and ingeniously) concocted a blockade out of aluminum trays that I crammed into a little opening in the woodwork of the apartment where a mouse had been coming in and snacking on whatever spilled behind the oven. We haven't heard a squeak in months.

No one really complains or even notices about those things, but I think it's just at the beginning edge of where I start to push the envelope for Boyfriend.

On the other hand, getting a drink of water for me means pouring it from the glass bottle that once contained cava and into a plastic cup from the bakery where, two weeks ago, I got a coffee frappe. I then suck the water through the straw that came with the frappe (I really like to drink water with a straw), which has been rinsed and reused several times over. Coffee cans and tomato cans become planters for my indoor lettuces. In the bathroom, the toilet brush is housed not in a toilet brush holder (what a waste), but in a La Yogurt tub.

The other night, Boyfriend began threatening to throw out some of my things, but I maintained that I need them and that there is life yet in them. The compromise is that I will hide my reusable goods in an out-of-the-way spot in the cupboards. The problem now is that my stash is getting to be too large and thus spilling out of its secret location.

We may be due for a spring cleaning.

Opera Cake Part IV: Results

This is the last post in this four-part doozey of a series about opera cake. Making this cake took many long and difficult hours, so it's only fitting that blogging about it is equally arduous.

According to the recipe I used, I should have had three cake layers in my final product, but because I changed the dimensions of the cake itself, I decided to use four layers of cake, two with ganache and two with coffee buttercream.

One tool used in baking that a lot of causal home cooks don't ever think to use is a ruler or measuring tape. To get evenly sized cake layers with level edges, I trimmed my cakes and literally measured them while doing so. I remember one of the first times Boyfriend saw me measuring 1.5-inch square brownies with a ruler. He laughed out loud and then accused me of gunking up his ruler. ("I'm going to wash it," I replied.) That's how you get brownies that are all the same size and in nice portions.

There are other tricks to cutting, too. One is to use the rule of halves. This works especially well for cutting quick breads, like banana bread and zucchini bread. cut the loaf in half. Then cut those pieces in half. Repeat one more time to get 8 even slices. Or, after the first two cuts, switch to eye-balling thirds (a bit more difficult to do evenly) to get 12 slices.

One more trick to cutting: use a hot, clean knife every time you make a cut. In a professional kitchen, there's usually a tea tap available with near-boiling water on hand at all times, which bakers and servers will use to clean their knives before making a cut. But after that first cut, you need to wipe the knife or give it another few passes under the hot running tap, then dry it completely before making your next cut. When people cut birthday cakes and don't wipe the knife between cuts, it makes me batty. All those crumbs of cake and glumps of frosting smear all over the next slice, accumulating more cake chud until it snowballs into a monstrous ball of cake goo, wrecking the rest of the cake in the process.

Back to my cake: It's lovely. I've been eating it for three days and still want some more. I've shared it with Boyfriend of course, two friends, one of my sisters (The Eyes), and my mom. And there's still more to go around.

I also saved the trimmings from the jaconde and popped them into the freezer in a zip-top bag. Dipped in hot coffee straight from the freezer, they are wonderful for breakfast.

Read the other posts in this series:
Opera Cake Part I: Preparation

Opera Cake Part II: Cakes
Opera Cake Part III: Fillings

Opera Cake Part IV: Results

Opera Cake Part III: Fillings

This is the third post about making an opera cake: making the fillings.

There are three fillings: coffee buttercream, ganache, coffee syrup. There's also a chocolate glaze for the top of the cake.

The coffee buttercream might be one of the best sweet things I've ever made in my life. It took a long time to make, but it came out gorgeously. Most buttercreams have a grittiness to them, usually because they contain shortening. This buttercream is all butter. It has eggs, too, and boiling sugar, and instant coffee.

Accidentally, I had espresso powder instead of coffee granules. It was a fortuitous error to say the least. I think that's the main reason the coffee buttercream came out so tasty. The instant espresso I have in the house is good stuff. This is not espresso that I bought specifically to bake with. I drink it.

I don't have many photos of the buttercream-making in action because it required both of my hands (I have only a hand-held mixer) and all of my attention. The most dangerous part is pouring the 255-degree boiling sugar syrup in a thin stream into a bowl of a eggs that are being whizzing around the bowl at high speed.

But this is how the buttercream looks before the espresso/coffee is added.

And this is the color after adding the flavor.

Making the other fillings was a breeze. A coffee syrup is used to moisten the cake layers, and it's nothing more than dissolving sugar and coffee/espresso powder in hot water.

The ganache was a snap, too. Ganache is an old friend of mine. When I used to work at a bakery and sweet shop in Buffalo, NY, in my college days (and about a year post-college), there were always ganache everywhere. Anytime you'd open a cabinet that was away from the heat, not near the stoves or the coffeemakers, there would be a bowl of this thick, fudgy stuff staring you in the face. The pastry chef would stash enormous metal bowls of ganache throughout the store, wherever he could find a few more inches of free space. We went through oodles and oodles of ganache daily. And I love it. It's just fat and chocolate. But it's divine. It's easy to spread. It keeps well. And it's hard to mess up making it. You just pour hot cream (in this case, a combination of cream and whole milk) over broken pieces of dark chocolate and add melted butter. You can also make it over a bain marie, but I think most home chefs use the heated cream method, which eliminates any possibility of burning or breaking the chocolate.

The final filling is actually the top coating of chocolate. I wasn't especially happy with the one in the recipe. It didn't come out glossy and luscious, though it tastes fine and set quickly and cleanly.

Tomorrow I'll finish with Part IV: Results, which will also give a little bit of background about how I got through the first 90 percent of this meticulously opera cake-making venture sober. The last 10 percent is another story.

Read the other posts in this series:

Opera Cake Part I: Preparation

Opera Cake Part II: Cakes
Opera Cake Part III: Fillings

Opera Cake Part IV: Results

Opera Cake Part II: Cake

The opera cake making adventure went pretty well, but it was very time consuming and expensive. A lot of things can go wrong, starting with finding ingredients.

I went to three different stores in search of almond flour. In the end, I knew the organic market in my neighborhood would have it. I didn't know it was going to cost almost $12 for the one-pound package. I thought about grinding blanched almonds at home on my own but because I was making this very complicated recipe for the first time, I didn't really want to risk messing it up with a homemade concoction for one of the main ingredients. So I sucked it up and paid my 12 bucks.

So far it sounds like making the jaconde layers was probably a pain, but in fact it was one of the easier steps. It certainly took less time than making the butter cream or the ganache did.

Jaconde is a thin cake, made with whipped egg whites and nut flour, baked at a high temperature for a short amount of time. The jaconde in the opera cake is an almond cake, made by folding the eggs whites into a very eggy, runny batter.

The recipe I used called for six large egg whites and six large eggs. That's a lot of eggs. The dozen I bought were jumbo, and I mean jumbo! I cut down to five and five, and still, that was a lot of egg.

There's a scant amount of all-purpose flour, a good amount of powdered sugar (that's the "icing sugar") and an equal amount of the pricey almond flour, which had to be sifted. When I ran that through the mesh, I found that there were small pebbles of almond meal that were too big. I measured them off, set them aside, and poured out a new amount of almond flour to compensate. This was a little bit of a pain, but not too bad.

I whipped the whites and set them aside. Then I mixed the other ingredients separately. I folded the whites in and was ready to pour the mixture into my prepared pans. I used an offset spatula to achieve even, thin layers.

I used a half sheet pan, which I realized I could fit into my oven on the very top rack and have the pan still be level, and I used a quarter sheet pan, which I bought for this purpose, twice.

They took a little longer than the 5 to 8 minutes recommended by the recipe to look golden.

I took them out of the oven and let them cool a slightly. Because I needed to use the smaller pan again, I flipped that layer out while it was still warm.

The warm cake was a bit easier to turn out than the cooled cake. Even with the parchment paper and a good amount of butter greasing the pan, the cake clung to the parchment. One of the layers was particularly sticky. Very patiently, I peeled off the paper until I had my four cakes. Don't the bottoms (in the photo above, they are upside down) remind you of the blisters on a crepe? I cut the larger one into two pieces, making all the layers nearly the same size.

Later, when it was time to assemble the cake, I trimmed the cakes further and used a measuring tape to ensure they were all as uniformly shaped as I could get them.

Even with the parchment.

(For the recipe, see Opera Cake Part I: Preparation.)

Opera Cake Part I: Preparation

Damn it. I'm making opera cake.

This is one of those things I've been wanting to do, and putting off, for some time now, about 14 months. Making an opera cake always seems like it will required more shopping, preparation, and concentration than I have time or patience for, and I just keep saying, "Maybe next month."

But today is economic stimulus day. I just got my federal tax refund, and I want to celebrate by doing some baking and buying some things for my kitchen.

First, I need a recipe. There's one from a la Cuisine that I've had my eye on.

Next, I'll need some equipment. Although I own a half sheet pan, it doesn't properly fit in my oven, which is pint-sized. I use it all the time anyway, sliding it in at a tipped angle. This works well enough when baking cookies because they stick to the Silpat mat, but if I tried to bake a cake like this, all the batter would run off.

So I'll need a pan. I know opera cake is traditionally made in rectangles, but maybe I'll buy a spring form pan and make a round cake instead. I was inspired by this cake, which that shows you can achieve very thin cake layers in a round spring form pan.

I also need an offset spatula.

Third, I need to go to the grocery store and buy almond flour, eggs, butter, heavy cream, and a few more ounces of dark chocolate (I have a bar of Green and Black's 70% in my cupboard). I'll be using organic free-range eggs, which are almost twice as expensive as non-organic caged eggs, but worth it. They are far superior.

Finally, I need aspirations. I'm the kind of person who learns best when I see someone else model a behavior or technique. In this case, I've been looking for images of both the process and the final product.

The ultimate aspiration is to have it look like this:

On the other hand, I'll kill myself if it looks like this:

And I'll settle for something like this, a picture I found on someone's blog taken while she was traveling in Vietnam:

I have a minor obsession with wanting to go to Vietnam for the food and culture, and now that I know there is opera cake there, well, it's on my agenda! Hopefully I can get there faster than I can make an opera cake (14 months in the planning).

The Recipe (from a la Cuisine)
4 tbsps (60g) unsalted butter, melted
6 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 tbsps (30g) granulated sugar
2 cups (225g) almond flour or finely ground almonds
2 cups (225g) icing sugar, sifted
6 large eggs
1/2 cup (70g) all-purpose flour

Coffee Syrup
1/2 cup (125g) water
1/3 cup (65g) granulated sugar
1 1/2 tbsps (7g) instant coffee powder

Coffee Buttercream
2 tbsps (10g) instant coffee powder
2 tbsps (15g) boiling water
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 cup (100g) sugar
1/4 cup (60g) water
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
14 tbsps (200g) unsalted butter, at room temperature

8 oz (240g) bittersweet chocolate (70% +), finely chopped
1/2 cup (125g) whole milk
1/4 cup (60g) heavy cream
4 tbsps (60g) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Read the other posts in this series:
Opera Cake Part I: Preparation (current page)
Opera Cake Part II: Cakes
Opera Cake Part III: Fillings

Homemade Peanut Butter

You would think that after reading about the tainted peanut factory for the past few weeks, no one in their right mind would be looking to eat peanut butter anytime soon.

For me, the opposite happened. Hearing about peanut butter gave me this undeniable craving for it.

Yesterday, I just had to have a peanut butter and jam sandwich, but I couldn't bring myself to buy any peanut butter. However, I did have some roasted peanuts in the house. I decided to experiment.

I put a handful of roasted and unsalted peanuts into my food processor. I blasted them a few times using the pulse setting until they were well chopped. Then I turned the machine to low and continued grinding them.

For a long time, they just whirled and whirled. I upped the setting to high, and a paste began to form. I added a pinch of salt (though in hindsight, it was either too much or might have been wholly unnecessary) and a pinch of white sugar. One last time, I blasted the paste, and a ball formed, much like when a pie crust comes together in a food processor.

I decided to not add any oil and just taste my concoction. Other than the fact that it was too salty, it was pretty good, and spread on a toasted bagel, it melted just enough to give it a smoother texture.

Houseplants are Food, Too

Nearing 65 degrees today in New York, and the highs 50s yesterday, I got a touch of spring fever in the middle of February.

My remedy was to plant some seeds.

Gardening is not a skill I'm highly adept at, but I've kept the odd pot of herbs alive here and there, and I usually have one or two houseplants within a few months of moving, which I've been doing with some regularity since the mid 90s.

One of my local grocers just set up a rack of seed packets, so I took home a pouch of red kale seeds and one of basil. I also have a four small bell pepper plants, who moved out to the fire escape today to enjoy the sunshine.

These pictures were taken in December (2008), and I've since eaten the fruit. It's a wonder what a little plant can do indoors even in the dead of winter.

The Antithesis of a Good Blogger

I've been reading other people's blogs a lot more recently (I never used to) and have been trying to pay attention to what works.

My self-assessment is that I should be posting more photos, and also that readers like it when the blogger spills her heart on the page (or at least pretends to).

Seriously? That's what people want to read?

Okay, so deep personal thoughts and emotions... Really? Maybe that's just true of people who read pretty food blogs with pink background colors.

Wait. Do over! Let me take it from the top.

Here's a picture of me, happy, on a plane headed for Italy.

I have a Boyfriend, who is awesome, but being that I am not a needy person and I value my space, alone time, and independence, I most definitely never want to be married. I don't want him to hug me too much, either. No fooling, once a day is plenty. Also, I have commitment issues -- could you tell? -- so if he says, "I love you," too often, it kind of freaks me out. We've talked about it and have a good understanding of the situation.

So on this amazing trip to Italy, there was just me and my girl friend. Boyfriend stayed at home. He has a fairly new job and couldn't take any time off work yet, and he continually tells me how jealous he is that I was able to go. I don't blame him. He should be jealous.

Then again, when he traveled all around Europe for two months with his friend and went not only to Italy, but also to Prague, Berlin, and southern France, I was jealous. So there. Ha. We're not even yet, but it's close.

This is the food I ate on the flight from JFK to Rome on Al Italia.

The main part of the meal is fish. I know it looks like a mess, but it wasn't half bad. If I had to guess, I'd say it was haddock. It was smothered in canned tomatoes and canned black olives.

The white lasagna stuff wasn't bad, either. I didn't eat the ham. I saved the dessert-looking thing for about four hours, thinking I might eat it later, but then I fell asleep and by the time I woke up, the flight attendants were serving another meal, so I tossed the cake.

David Sedaris, if I recall, once wrote about how when you take a trans-Atlantic flight, you eat dinner, fall asleep for a little while, and then at 3 o'clock in the morning -- or 9 a.m. local time at your destination -- the flight attendants bounce around the cabin with trays of breakfast, as if eating a cheese Danish at 3 a.m. is somehow going to trick your body into thinking it's morning and that you've had enough sleep.

Did I mention I don't ever want to be married or have children? Does that count for wearing my heart on my sleeve, to say that? Did you get the drift that, when it comes to airplane food, I'm not really all that picky? That I'll eat the stuff and like it? Did I mention, too, that popular bloggers don't always write in complete sentences or pay attention to proper punctuation? And no one cares?

I think I'll go back to my own style now.

Where I'll be Eating in San Francisco (Restaurant Recommendations)

Update: March 9, 2009.
This business trip was canceled (I got laid off two weeks before it!), but these are still some of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco, so I'll leave the post up anyway.

I've been thinking long and hard about where I want to eat the next time I'm in San Francisco, which will be March.

From 2002 to 2007, I lived in San Francisco or thereabout. And once or twice a year, I get to go back for work because, when I left the area, I took my job with me. I consider myself very lucky to be able to work from home (it took a little getting used to, but I love it now and am so much more productive than I was when I spent the day in an over-air conditioned office building) and have an excuse to go back to San Francisco once or twice a year.

The tradeoff is that when I travel for business, I try to keep my expenses low, so I stay with friends rather than at the pricey hotels downtown. On the other hand, because I stay out in my old neighborhoods rather than downtown, I get to visit some of the little local spots that are off the beaten path, like Sheng Kee Bakery in the Outer Sunset, Arizmendi in the Inner Sunset, and Boulange de Cole Valley, my favorite place to have coffee and a pastry on the weekends.

Here are some other places I'm hoping to return to, or in some cases try for the first time.

Foreign Cinema Cafe -- oh! My new favorite movie, Man on Wire, will be playing there when I'll be in town!
Blue Plate

Old Favorites and Cheap Eats
Boulange Cole Valley
Arizmendi Bakery
Taqueria Cancun
Little Star, Western Addition (it's not NY pizza, but it's something magical all its own)
India Clay Oven
Tartine Bakery
Wing Lee dim sum
Sheng Kee Bakery
Little Vietnam Cafe
Kara's Cupcakes (hands down: best cupcake of my life, and I didn't want to like it so much because the place is very chi-chi, but hot damn, it's good)
Dottie's True Blue Cafe
Boxed Foods Company, for lunch not far from the office

Haven't Been Yet and Might Go
Fleur de Lys
Gary Danko, I'd love to do the tasting menu

Postcard from Florence, Firenze, Italy: I Ate This

In late January, my friend and I went to Florence for a four-day getaway. Here are a few stories from our trip, told through food.

Pasta: Acqua al 2
The first night, we met up with another friend who was in Bologna for an art conference, so the three of us asked the concierge to phone in a reservation for us at Acqua al 2.

We each got a hefty green salad and a pasta dish. Mine was bowtie pasta with chopped grilled fish pieces, though they weren't fresh.

A second bowtie pasta dish, which looked identical to the first, was mixed with thinly sliced, long stemmed mushrooms and tasted much more delicate. Finally, there was a rotini pasta mixed with grilled fresh artichokes.

Florence doesn't have too many large corporate businesses, and restaurants have little signature elements, like placemats and almost always a house label on their wines, olive oils, and sometimes even vinegar. Who knows if they just make the labels and slap them on products that they buy from an outside provider or if they all are affiliate with a vineyard, and olive grower, etc.

Soup's On in Siena
On a day trip to Siena, we stopped in a cafe for a multi-course, but light, lunch.

We had crostini with white beans and lardo, or cured pork back fat, bruscetta, and soup. I got pappa al pomodoro, which is simply tomatoes simmered into a soupy mixture and thickened with Florentine table bread, which is cooked into the soup until it begins to break down. My friend had ribollita, a traditional Tuscan soup that uses the same bread-thickening method, but contains two or three kinds of cabbages or dark greens, carrots, celery, beans, and other vegetables.

Pizza in Pig Square
We decided to dedicate one meal out to eating pizza. The pizzeria restaurant we went to was pretty unmemorable. If you know Florence at all, I can tell you that it was in the square that has the bronze boar fountain, Il Porcellino.

I ordered a pizza with eggplant (or "aubergines" to the Brits, and "melanzana" to the Italians). Eggplant is one of those menu ingredients that will seduce me into ordering something even if I don't like anything else in the description. If it said, "Disgusting popcorn with sunflower seeds in yucky sauce with eggplant," I'd say, "Oooh! Eggplant!"

However, this eggplant pizza was woeful skimpy on the eggplant.

My friend got a pizza loaded with vegetables. As I've gotten older in my years, I've discovered the secret to great pizza is ordering it with red onions. Something magical happens when the blast of heat from the pizza oven hits those purple-flecked slivers of red onion, coaxing out their sweetness, which marries so well with dark tomato sauce and the dryness of a pizza crust.

Ooh La La-zy Lunch at ZaZa
"I want to take you to this one restaurant in particular for lunch one day," my friend told me one morning when we were planning our day. "It's got great salads. When I lived here as a student, I used always bring people to this place when they came to visit me here."

The long, lazy, and late lunch we had at Trattoria ZaZa definitely lived up to the high expectations I had for this place. I took an hour and a half to graze through this giant salad, studded with salty pecorino, dark raddichio leaves, and spicy radishes.

My friend had the ribollita served in an elegantly simple over-sized porcelain bowl. In this photo, you can nearly make out the authentic hand-drawn style placemats, similar to the ones we saw at Acqua al 2.

The Big Steak
Another restaurant recommendation from my friend was Borgo Antico, which we enjoyed so much we went there two nights in a row. The first visit will heretofore be known as Big Steak Night.

I don't eat steak. I generally steer clear of steer. From time to time I'll try it, and I won't turn my nose up at something made with beef stock, but generally speaking, I don't order or eat hunks of cow.

When I first decided to take this trip with my friend, Boyfriend got really jealous. "Promise me -- for me -- you'll at least try the Florentine steak while you're there?"

Boyfriend studied abroad in Florence one summer and fell in love with the city and its food. Florence, and in particular a region of Italy known as Chiana Valley, has a long history of butchery. Without going into too much detail here (read Bill Buford's Heat for a great overview of chianina cattle), basically, Tuscan meat is like none other. It comes from a particular breed of cattle. It's butchered totally differently than how any other culture does it. There actually is no international standardized way of or terminology for butchering, which is why you can't find certain cuts of meat in certain areas of the world.

Anyway, we order a steak for two, a whopping 800 grams of it, though that weight includes the bone. Apparently, it was an amazing steak. "I'm still thinking about that steak from last night," my friend confessed at about 9:30 the next morning. "If we hadn't been in a public place in a foreign country, I would have gnawed the bone!"

Which is how we ended up at Borgo Antico again the next night.

However good that steak was, I really wanted to try something different. I got pork ragu with leeks over polenta, hearty and warm on a winter night.

My friend got a grilled chicken dish. She practically ate it in tears because she was so sad to not be eating one-and-three-quarter-pound steak.

We're So Classy
My favorite moment during this trip was the night my friend (in the monkey shirt) and I got a decent bottle of Nobile de Montepulciano wine (about 12 euros, I think), which is predominately made from sangiovese grapes, I've since learned. We drank it in our hotel while talking over Japanese children's cartoons dubbed into Italian blinking neurotically on the television set.

The first night we got there, we had tried to do something similar, only with a 4 euro bottle of chianti, which tasted like sangria, like there were chunks of food in it (I have a thing against chewing my wine), and some nasty thick-plastic cups provided by the hotel.

"These cups make the wine taste awful! I'm going to do something about that," I said. I took a disposable water bottle and, using the knife on my corkscrew, sliced the top half of it off. "Much better," I said, taking care not to poke myself on the impromptu cup's jagged lip.

Review: Arepas Cafe

Review: Arepas Cafe

Arepa Mami: shredded pork, cheese, and avocado.

Arepas Cafe in Astoria has long been on my list of cheap eats places to check out. I finally trekked down there about two weeks ago and must admit that I loved it.

Arepas are Venezuelan corn cakes, often filled with melted, oozing cheese. This restaurant has a long list of arepas, from savory ones stuffed with shark meat to sweet ones with fried platains.

Between three of us, we tried the national dish of Venezuela, el pabellon, served with rice and black beans with cheese and sweet plantains. Arepas Cafe has a few different kinds of pabellon, but the Criollo, shredded and spiced beef ($11), is the traditional one.

El pabellon Criollo.

Aside from having arepas as street food, this was my first experience with Venezuelan cuisine. To me, it was homey and comforting because there are more soothing flavors and textures than overly assertive ones. For example and as a point of contrast, I would say that certain Thai dishes, like Tom Yum Gai, have more assertive and powerful flavors than comforting ones, whereas the grilled corn cakes and mellow white cheese of the Venezuelan food was much softer on the palette.

The arepas at Arepas Café are filling, but not jumbo American sized, which is great because the staff will recommend you eat two. I tried three, which were all fantastic: mami (pork, cheese, avocado, $6.50); domino (black beans and cheese; $3.75); Guyanesa tropical, which my friend ordered (Guyanes cheese, sweet plantain, avocado, $6).

Two sauces were set on the table, one a creamy cilantro with a just a zing of a back note, and one that was spicy. Both were enjoyable and good for dabbling -- not dousing, as I didn't want to overpower the food.

Arepa Domino: black beans and cheese.

Arepas Cafe
33-07 36th Ave.
Astoria, NY