Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Year in Eats 2010

Favorite Restaurants in 2010:

Eleven Madison Park (Manhattan)
In 2010, Eleven Madison Park was awarded a Michelin star, an award that many thought was long overdue. Having finally eaten a two-course lunch there earlier this year with my sister, I can easily say that the food and service were impeccable. The entire experience at this gem among upscale restaurants was the shining-est star of my culinary year.

Sadly, though, part of me does understand why it went so long without a star. When I booked the lunch, I had to call to ensure the restaurants was still offering a two-course weekday meal at all (we didn't have the luxury of time that day and had to be in and out in under 90 minutes). The web site didn't match other information online, but the hostess assured me, yes, two-course lunch for two, no problem. And within six weeks of dining there, all the online information had changed again. The restaurant changes its basic offerings every few weeks, but it shouldn't. New Yorkers love it. Out-of-towners love it. I've got to assume profitability is the driving force behind the constant change; if only Eleven Madison could just float on doing what it does best, it would be far and away my favorite restaurant of all time.


Mary's Fish Camp (Manhattan)
My god Mary's Fish Camp is hip. The food—elegant yet soulful platters of fish—is fresh and perfectly cooked, which is all you can hope for in a fish restaurant. The setting is casual. The servers and hosts are on the ball. The scene is swinging. I felt like I could laugh, and drink, and rock to the buzz of the place all night, except that I was distracted by a crisp fillet of John Dory with a summery sweet apricot sauce and a scoop of cous cous to help soak it up.

Chiyono (Manhattan)
Ages ago, a girl at a party recommended I try Chiyono. "It's Japanese homecooking. This one woman cooks everything herself. Get the miso cod. I have been there so many times and I always order the cod, and the woman always yells at me that I have to try something else."

I dare say that recommendations like these are easy to ignore, especially when the person suggests you spend your hard-earned dining-out money on some unknown East Village hole-in-the-wall. Chiyono is a treasure for creating affordable yet composed main courses in a peaceful atmosphere. Smooth stones act as chopstick rests. Large wood tables are inviting. The saikyo-yaki (cod broiled with miso) was everything I had hoped for a mere $13!

To any of my New York-based friends (or potential visitors) who are reading this: I will gladly return to any of these places. Pick a day. Let's eat.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What an Inexperienced Cook Sees

Monday night is Boyfriend's turn to cook. He volunteered to take Monday dinners on a regular basis, realizing that he could often plan ahead and do most of the shopping and work on Sunday, when there is no rush.

So now on Saturday, he'll ask, "What should I cook on Monday?" and we'll flip through cookbooks or brainstorm together. He likes to try recipes that are just a little outside his comfort zone without being too far or too intimidating (teachers might recognize this as "ZPD" or Vygotsky's zone of proximal development). He's got the basic braising technique down to the point that he now seems to veto most one-pot slow-cooking meals. He can already do that, and he wants to try something a little more difficult.

This Saturday, I was sipping coffee and flipping through a new issue of La Cucina Italiana magazine. "Anything good in there I can make for Monday?" Boyfriend asked. I skimmed the pages, found the issue's special section, and said, "Ah frittatas! You love frittata. We haven't made tortilla [Spanish frittata] in a while. Let's do one of those." I sped-read some more. "How about a risotto frittata with gorgonzola? It's just eggs, cheese, rice..."

"No no no," Boyfriend said. "I'm not doing risotto. And besides, you don't like risotto."

"You're right. I don't like risotto as a dish in itself. But I don't mind it in things. Remember how much I liked those risotto cakes?"

"No," he said. "I'm not making risotto."

My head down, I glanced over the recipe one more time. It really seemed quite simple: cook rice, whisk eggs with other stuff, tap breadcrumbs around a pan, pour it all together, and bake. Done.

Then I realized how long the instructions were. They bled onto a second page. I read over sections of the recipe more closely and saw how needlessly complicated it all must seem. The instructions for cooking risotto require the cook to measure out precisely half a cup of piping hot half-water-half-stock every 10 minutes and slowly pour it into the rice and stir and stir. The inexperienced cook will read that and see a list of complicated steps that require multiple pots of ingredients and carefully timed actions. And that's not even the whole recipe. That's just one part!

The experienced cook, on the other hand, sees "Rice in pan. Hot water in another. Add water to rice here and there. Easy. So, what else can I be doing while that part is working itself out?"

Experienced cooks can read short-hand. Here's an example of recipe short-hand in action. A friend on Facebook asked for a recipe the other day, and I wrote:
Recipe: graham cracker crumbs + butter. Mash into bottom of square or rectangle baking dish=crust. Layer walnuts, choco chips, coconut. Drizzle with sweetened condensed milk. Bake until ... baked. For more precision, Google "seven layer bars" or "magic cookie bars" and omit butterscotch chip, because butterscotch chips are nasty.

An inexperienced cook would panic. How much? What does "mash" mean? Don't I have to preheat the oven for baking? How many minutes does it need to bake?

The experienced cook sees that this recipe doesn't actually require any proper baking at all. It's an assembly job with heat added to help hold it all together. There's no chemical composition change. Sure, the top gets toasty, but that's about it.

Notice how in this post I used the terms "experienced" and "inexperienced" rather than "good cook" and "bad cook?" Those words actually got drilled into me when I was taking master's level courses in composition. We always referred to "experienced writers and inexperienced writers," in part, I think, because it leaves the understanding that anyone can become experienced. It's not about talent. It's about how much practice you've had, and cooking is the same.

Sometimes with cooking, I personally view it more as "competence" that comes through experience. Once you've gained a certain level of competence, it's very easy to practice and become more experienced; but before you've reached competency, the curve is quite steep.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Tech and Home Ec. Gold Medal

In eighth grade, I won a gold medal for being the best student in "the technology and home economics classes." As far as I know, the award wasn't based on grades. It was sort of a "teacher's choice" award given to someone who showed a keen interest in the subject and some kind of promise.

After I had received the award, my mother teased me mercilessly. "Ha ha. Got the gold medal in home ec., did you? So, you're the best there is in the eighth grade at baking cookies and sewing teddy bears?" This was the early 1990s, before having an interest in food and cooking, or hands-on crafts, was cool.

What I didn't ever tell anyone is that I was really proud to have won the "tech" part of the award. Technology class was actually two courses: wood shop and metal work. In wood shop, we spent several weeks learning how to do mechanical drawings, which are essentially simple blueprints. I could have done mechanical drawings all day long. I loved it so much, I began entertaining the idea that I might study architecture in college. I remember being able to look at my work and see that it wasn't perfect. I felt slightly frustrated that my hands weren't as steady as some of the other students'. But the desire was there to improve. I wanted to work on them. I wanted those drawings to be better. And I think that's what showed through to the teacher.

Home ec., on the other hand, was a breeze. To get an A in the class, all you had to do was not cut class, follow both written and oral instructions, demonstrate basic time-management skills, and not set anything on fire. In a typical class, students would receive on paper a recipe or sewing pattern, hear additional oral instructions from the teacher, prepare their workspace with other students in their group, follow the instructions, and clean up. Complete this in 50 minutes, and you got an A. The students who got B grades were the ones who threw flour at each other, didn't wash their utensils thoroughly (or at all), screeched and squealed while working, forgot to preheat their ovens, and gossiped when they were supposed to be sewing. The projects we completed were ridiculously simple, too. The grand finale in sewing, for example, was to make a stuffed toy "ghost," a single-colored, single-fabric, amorphously shaped blob stuffed with cotton, in two weeks. It was a joke class for me, and I sometimes resented that it was required.

Not my photo; image from Wrapables.com.

But wood shop challenged me. I remember talking to the teacher — Mr. Scarpetti was his name I think — the way I couldn't talk to any other authority figure. He looked like a middle-aged, skinny, Canadian version of Freddy Mercury, with a bushy mustache, a curly mop of hair, and a red flannel button-up. We had actual dialogues, back-and-forth conversations, in which we said what we were actually thinking. We thought through ideas that were both related to the class and on the very periphery. We talked about intellectual curiosity. It wasn't so much Mr. Scarpetti's demeanor that set him apart. I'm sure plenty of other teachers engaged with the students this way during extra help sessions or after class. It's just that I couldn't or wouldn't talk to other teachers in the junior high like this. What made me able to talk to him was the nature of the class. It was wood shop. We walked around and got the tools we needed when we needed them. We worked on projects at our own pace. It was free-form and independent with basic ground rules. I loved it.

One of the things I remember talking about with Mr. Scarpetti was precision. While looking at another student's mechanical drawing, he said, "Those lines are supposed to be a quarter inch apart, but they look more like three-eighths." He pulled a measuring tape from his shirt pocket. "Yep. See?" He showed the student the actual measurement. I peered at the drawing, too.

"How can you tell just by looking at it?" I asked.

"I've been doing this a long time. When you measure things over and over again and over again, when you see it over and over, you can just tell," he said.

"You can tell just by looking the difference between two-eighths of an inch and three-eighths of an inch?"

The idea of developing true expertise in a craft was not something I had thought much of before; but now, seeing it in action, it was absolutely astounding. I had a thirteen year-old's moment of awakening. I realized how much I craved expertise, that it was one of those larger things that unified so many other things I liked and wanted to pursue.

I had forgotten about all of this until recently, when I started to think about learning precision knife skills. When I talk about wanting to master knife skills, I'm not talking about being a competent home cook. I'm already very competent. What I want to do is cultivate a level of expertise that I don't have currently. I want to be able to look at a julienne cut and know, just by sight and touch, whether the measurements are correct. I want to be able to take a jumbo carrot and be able to decide how many batons I can get out of it before squaring it off.

Early next year, I'll be taking a 5-week course called "Fine Cooking 1" at a New York-based cooking school. My goals are to 1) come out with some new skills that I don't have now and 2) have a deeper understanding of some cooking techniques that will allow me to continue learning by asking new questions, as I think that's the real path to cultivating expertise.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Recipe: Burger-Topping Onion Jam

After musing about practicing knife skills, a friend of mine suggested I make onion marmalade as a way to use up several pounds of onions after I would presumably dice them to practice more knife skills.

One look at the onion marmalade recipe, and I was sold. It is divine as a burger topping and just as good as a condiment on a cheese board with crusty bread.

Onions are my favorite vegetable, and jam (the version I spun out was much closer to a jam than a marmalade, a word that implies citrus to me) is by far my favorite condiment.

I ended up adding chili flakes to my version, but also scaling back the recipe significantly, wanting to try it once before committing to making a bigger batch. I also scaled it back because I remembered that of all the precision knife skills I want to practice, neither dicing nor thinly slicing onions are among them. In an average week, I easily chop, slice, or dice 2 pounds of onions. On the other hand, I really don't care for potatoes, so I have yet to Tourne a single one. I also need to work on the measurements of my julienne and brunoise cuts. But onions? I am masterful with onions and will happily keep a jar of this sweet and spicy jam on hand for burgers, sandwiches, and cheese boards for the rest of my life.


Burger-Topping Onion Jam
Makes about 1 1/2 cups, or two small jars' worth.
Note: This recipe can be doubled or quadrupled.


1 pound onions
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes


1. Peel and either thinly slice or rough chop the onions. Rough chopping them will result in a chunky jam with more oniony zip, while thinly slicing them will yield a smoother and more mellow product.

2. Heat a large Dutch oven or heavy skillet over low to medium heat. Add the olive oil and onions, and stir to coat them. Partially cover the pot or skillet and be patient as they sweat. Stir the onions ever 5 minutes or so, until they are soft and perhaps beginning to brown just a little, about 15 to 20 minutes. If the onions have not browned at all, uncover them and raise the heat ever so slightly. You don't want to see any crisping or burning — just a color change.

3. Raise the heat to medium. Give the onions a few final tosses while the temperature inside the pan rises, then add the wine immediately and deglaze anything that may have stuck to the bottom of the pot.

4. Add the sugars, salt, vinegar, and chili flakes. Stir until the sugar has dissolved and the onions are well coated. Continue cooking, uncovered, until the liquid becomes syrup-like, bearing in mind that it will jell a bit more after it cools.

5. Leave the pot uncovered while the jam cools slightly, then transfer to sterilized jars (while the jam is cooking, drop the jars and lids into a pot of boiling water for a minute or too and then let them air dry). Store in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Testing: Recipes and Web Sites

In my day job, I've been building web sites. Well, I don't actually build them, but I guide the process and oversee the development. Two out of four are done, with the other two scheduled to be in testing early next year.

Before any site goes live, there's a fair amount of testing to be done to make sure everything works right. On the most recent site that launched, we had a real problem re-skinning the blog section. It was a task that had been outsourced by the guy we had outsourced it to, meaning that from my perspective, the job was now three times removed — from me to the information systems department, to the outsourced guy, to his outsourced guy... who lives in Australia and works on a wholly different time zone than the rest of us. When the job finally got back to me, I tested it under relatively normal conditions. I tinkered with the blogging tools and pressed a few buttons I would normally press in the course of a few weeks of using the blog tools. I deleted something. I changed something. And then I hit the "rebuild" button. Everything broke. The design reverted back to the default blog style. The site was somehow calling the old CSS.

I wrote an email: "I broke the site!"

Aside from the headache of the thrice-removed, days-long fix, it was actually a rather proud moment for me. What a great bug to find early! More important, this particular bug was an indication that the developer didn't do the job properly. It took a few more go-arounds, but we finally got it working right.

Lately I've been thinking about different kinds of "testing" that I do, and it became oddly apparent how different bug-testing and software testing is from recipe testing.

With recipes, you want them to work. The real trick to testing recipes is identifying things that should be explicit but aren't. In other words, figuring out what's missing as opposed to what could possibly go wrong. For example, does the recipe indicate whether to cook something covered or uncovered? Your also looking for inconsistencies, such as an ingredients that's listed at the top in the ingredients section but never mentioned in the directions. Recipe testing is about verification.

Testing a web site and looking for bugs in software, on the other hand, is much more about trying to break stuff. The part when you're trying to figure out what's missing comes much earlier. Looking for bugs requires a different kind of focus. While recipes are more a set of instructions (and the "user" brings his or her own tools and supplies), a web site or piece of software is itself the tool. Recipes culminate in a final, measurable product, while web sites typically give the user an unquantifiable experience.

I'm sure as I think about this more, I'll start to see more similarities between the two. And maybe this essential difference that I see — how one is almost a challenge to break stuff while the other is more of a "fingers-crossed" kind of approach — is not so much a difference in the tasks themselves but more a reflection of my attitude about how I approach them.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Can Knife Skills be Learned in Class?

Image from Lauren McDuff's The DIY Chef

For years, I have toyed with the idea of going to a cooking school and taking a knife skills class, and the reason I still have not done it is because I know that the primary lesson I'll learn will be "go home and practice over and over again." I've gone through books on knife skills, combing over the diagrams. I've watched video tutorials. I researched different styles of knives to learn how some are constructed in a way that aids measuring (the size of and distance between rivets are not insignificant).

Even in the self-taught instruction I've had so far, the last word is always, "Now buy a sack of potatoes, onions, and carrots so you can practice, practice, practice."

For me, I love being in a traditional, face-to-face, classroom environment. I learn well in this setting because I am motivated by not wanting to appear dumb in front of other learners and the instructor. However, I know I will never actually master any knife skills in this setting. The most I will get out of it is a slightly deeper understanding than I would get from a book or video, and probably more importantly, some real-time feedback about my form and movements. Everything else I would want to learn will only come with 1) focused practice and 2) more repetition than would normally occur a two-person household. Seriously, what would I do with 10 lbs. of diced onion?

The flip side of this is why does a home cook need knife skills in the first place? I have my very basic skills down, and I don't feel that I am slow with prep work. And when once or twice a year I try to impress people with my cooking, I can be nit-picky and push to the side any carrot stick that is not perfectly julienned. But on a day-to-day basis, I really don't care if my dice is precise, just as I don't care if there is a stray dribble of sauce on the side of the plate when I set it down on the table. Dinner at home is not where I'm concerned with wiping rims. And, even if I were to cook three meals a day, seven days a week at home, that's still not enough repetition in a short enough window of time to truly "master" any skill.

The purpose of going to a knife skills class, for me, would be to have a fun night out (or a series of five fun nights out) where I could dabble a little deeper into one of my hobbies, and hob-nob with people whose skills I hold in high regard. I'm sure I would learn a lot being around experts, observing their skills, asking questions in real-time, but I also think it's good to have realistic expectations of what a hobbyist home cook will actually learn in a few hours.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Recipe: Black and White Cookies



Last year, around this same time of year, my sister and I got together and made black and white cookies, one of my favorite New York City foods. They show up in most bakeries and delis in New York and the surrounding areas.

I was worried that a homemade version wouldn't capture that wonderful cake texture of the cookie itself, or that it would be difficult to get right that hint of lemon, or that the icing would be impossible to put on by hand in a small kitchen.

And the first time we made them, I have to admit, they didn't come out great. We realized too late that we were out of baking powder, and thus simply left it out, causing the cookies to come out more like chewy pancakes. We didn't have cake flour either, so we just used more all-purpose flour. Then there was the snafu with the sugar — it got sifted into the dry ingredients accidentally, rather than beat into the butter and eggs. And the icing... we must have used up almost an entire box of powdered sugar trying to adjust the viscosity.

This time, I adjusted the recipe a little bit beforehand (less flour, more lemon extract, a dash of vanilla in the icing, and a total re-do of the chocolate icing), made sure I had all my ingredients, and got to work.

It's not so hard, and they came out great. I came up with a few new tricks, which are in the directions below.

Black and White Cookies
Makes 18 medium-large cookies
For the Cookies
3/4 cups plus granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature

2 large eggs at room temperature
3/4 cups whole milk or half-and-half

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1 cup cake flour or pastry flour

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt


For the Icings
1 cup powdered sugar (confectioner's sugar)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
boiling or very hot water

1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate (chocolate chips work fine)

1 tablespoon half-and-half, cream, or whole milk


1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Prepare one or more cookies sheets or baking trays by either using a Silpat, parchment paper, non-stick cooking spray, or butter.

2. In large bowl, combine sugar and butter. If using a stand mixer or hand mixer, beat on low to medium; if beating by hand, prepare to use some elbow grease. Beat until the butter and sugar are fluffy and pale yellow. Add the eggs, one and a time, and beat until well incorporated, then add the milk. The batter may appear to "curdle," and that's okay. Add the vanilla and lemon extracts, and beat until very well combined. The batter may still look curdled, especially on top, but don't worry. It will look smoother once the dry ingredients have been incorporated.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk or sift together the cake flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt.

4. Working in three or four batches, add the dry mixture to the wet, beating the batter by hand or with a mixer after each batch. The batter will become very thick, but it should not feel stiff. If it starts to feel stiff, withhold some of the flour, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and continue beating. If the dough relaxes and becomes loose again, add the rest of the flour; if not, leave it out.

5. How you decide to scoop the cookies onto the prepared baking sheets is up to you. Some people like to use an ice cream scoop for reasonable approximation of uniformity. I usually use a tablespoon, like an ordinary soup spoon (but not a Japanese or Chinese soup spoon!). Whatever method you use, drop a few tablespoons of batter onto the baking sheets at least 2 inches apart. To give you an idea of how much room that is, I fit no more than 6 cookies on a half-sheet pan. Gently swirl the back of the spoon on each dollop of dough to coax it into a more perfect circle shape.

6. Bake the cookies in the center or upper racks of the oven just until the edges begin to brown, about 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.



7. Make the icings. Place the confectioners’ sugar in a bowl, preferably glass or Pyrex, but metal or ceramic will do fine, too. Plastic bowls tend not to be the best option, but it won't ruin the recipe by any means. Add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract plus a few teaspoons of hot or boiling water, and stir until you reach a paste-like consistency. You might need to add more water, but do so very slowly and cautiously. If you add even a teaspoon too much water, you'll end up with a runny mess and will have to add another 1/2 or full cup of powdered sugar to compensate. It's a vicious cycle thereafter of adding water, sugar, water, sugar, until you have more icing than you know what to do with! Work slowly.

8. Using a double-boiler or baine-marie, melt the chocolate over barely simmering water. This will take 10 minutes at least. If it takes less than 5 minutes, you're probably going to burn the chocolate. Work slowly!You can move onto step 9 while this is happening. When the chocolate is nearly melted, dribble 1 tablespoon of half-and-half, cream, or whole milk down the inside of the bowl so that it warms up before it hits the chocolate. When it meets the chocolate, stir it in gently. If your chocolate burns and "breaks," or separates into oily chocolate clumps, lower the heat to as low as you can get it or temporarily remove the chocolate from the heat all together. Add a teaspoon or two of boiling water and stir. If the chocolate doesn't look glossy within a minute or so, repeat. Return it to the very lowest possible setting over the baine-marie -- remove some of the water from the baine-marie if necessary, or if you suspect your bowl is too thin or too low to the water, stick a wooden spoon between the bowl and the pot containing the water to create more space between the heat source and the chocolate.

9. To spread the icing, I found a cheese knife in combination with a wetted finger works exceptionally well. Using the cheese knife, scoop a small amount of white icing on half of the flat side of each cookie. Dip your finger in hot water, then use it to sort of half spread and half "melt" the icing into place. It should look shiny, and it will dry to a nice sheen. Let each cookie's icing set completely before putting chocolate on the other half, which you can do with just a knife (no fingers). Leave on a wire rack at room temperature or in the refrigerator to set.

When I worked in delis and bakeries, we always kept the black and whites in the refrigerator over night. To this day, I have a special place in my heart for a cold black and white cookie.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Carrot and Apple Salad

One of my favorite autumn salads is one made with carrot, apple, raisins and cumin. The recipe has plenty of room for experimentation — add nuts for crunch, try cilantro for a more savory taste, switch out lemon for lime, add grated ginger for zip, use sour cream instead of mayonnaise, add a drizzle of honey if the apples are too tart, mix in some shredded cabbage to turn it into a slaw...

Carrot and Apple Salad

1 large carrot or 2 medium-sized ones, shredded or julienned
1 large apple, julienned or cubed
Juice from half a lemon or 1 whole lime
1/4 seedless raisins
1/2 teaspoon cumin
2 tablespoons mayonnaise or sour cream
Salt and pepper to taste


Soak the raisins in the lemon juice for about a half hour until they plump. Drain the raisins, but reserve the juice. The excess sugars that dissolves off the outside of the raisins and into the citrus will add some sweetness to the dressing. Alternatively, for a less sweet salad, soak the raisins in 1 cup warm water, then drain and discard the liquid.

Stir together the citrus, cumin, and mayonnaise or sour cream until well blended.

In a large bowl, toss together the carrots, apple, and raisins until well incorporated (hands will work best). Add the liquid and toss gently to dress the salad, adding a pinch of salt — and pepper if you like — to taste.

Options: Add a hnadful of toasted, slivered almonds, Marcona almonds, walnuts, or candied walnuts for crunch. Or, add cilantro and another squeeze if lime juice on top to make the salad more savory. Or, add a 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, grated, to the dressing.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bread Lines

The abundance and availability of food in the U.S. (and the U.K. for that matter) are two things I take for granted.

Storytelling is one of the only things that will ever help me come close to understanding what it's like to not have these things. I can read all day long about the recent exorbitant cost of napa cabbage in North Korea, or the years-long problem that country has had with a lack of food in general and massive deaths due to malnutrition and starvation, but it's only when the horrors are told through a story that it resonates and has true meaning and value.

(One of the magazines I work on in my professional career is about learning, and a columnist has been writing about why storytelling should be used for not only education but corporate training, too.)

A friend who is from Tbilisi was visiting the U.S. just a few weeks ago. I was asking him what he found most different between a major city in the U.S. and his hometown, the capital of Georgia. The variety and availability of thins to purchase, he said, was most astounding here.

He said he remembered a time when he was a teenager, just before the Soviet Union collapsed, when he had to wait on a bread line for two days straight. "They wrote a number on your hand, and you couldn't leave the line for very long," he said. "I remember my feet," he stomped in place and wrapped his arms around himself, bracing from the memory of cold, "I couldn't feel them! There was a big bakery where we waited. My friend and I used to sneak around to the back of the bakery, and the workers — there was a little hole in the wall, and they would sometimes squeeze through the opening a bit of uncooked dough." He feigned with his hands how they delivered the dough, like feeding a rope through a hole.

When food was particularly scarce, he said, people used to take plain bread and soak it in salt water, then fry it in a pan and pretend it was khachapuri, Georgia's famous cheese bread (imagine something like a cross between a quesedilla and the most lovely white pizza you've ever eaten).

But it's not just that he told me these stories. It was the disgust on his face at the thought of eating bread soaked in salt water then fried. It was the shivering and stomping of feet that he could remember and act out. And for someone like me who has never experienced anything close to a life like this, it is still very hard to imagine, and even harder to be conscientiously thankful that I never did have to go through these hardships.

Maybe in the coming weeks I'll ask my friend, who is back in Georgia now, via email to elaborate more on what his country was like before the Soviet collapse. For instance, we started a really interesting conversation about the wine market out there, wherein I speculated it could be a huge force for the economy if vinters figured out how to export and sell it to Americans, and he explained a number of problems that would prevent that.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Trends in New York's Food and Restaurant Scene

One the biggest trends I've noticed in New York City's food scene is the shift toward small shops that specialize in only one thing, but attempt to do it very well.

This trend isn't surprising, given New York's food history. Signature eateries always include pizzerias, bagel shops, and delis, which are in themselves specialty shops of a kind.

I think the trend is also driven by the "cupcake craze" that started in 2000 or 2001. Dessert cafes have been around for a while, but New Yorkers (and eventually the rest of the world) really took to the idea that a dessert cafe could focus on one special item and make it better than anyone else. Maybe it's more a marketing ploy than anything else, the promise of selectivity and elite status. It also helps that specialty shops can get away with having a smaller space and thus lower rent, which in New York is a business-life saver.

Here are some other New York City speciality eateries that I recognize as being part of this trend:


You could argue that Shake Shack should be on this list, but I think it straddles a fine line. Hamburger stands aren't quite as quintessentially "New York" as pizzerias and bagel shops, but they're up there.

Are there others I've missed on this list? Comments welcomed! What about in other cities? Has anyone else noticed this same trend?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Appetite Devil and Me


The older I get, the more I appreciate balance and simplicity in food.

As a kid, my appetite took the form of a little devil sitting on my shoulder, coaxing me toward the most imbalanced foods you could imagine. I had a proclivity for fatty, sugary foods, like ice cream, brownies, fudge, chocolate candy bars, and "breakfast" desserts like, danishes, doughnuts, and coffee cake.

And the Appetite Devil made it worse.

The Appetite Devil used to tell me that the more crap I amassed from my list of gluttony, the closer I would ascend toward ultimate food nirvana. Ice cream was good, but ice cream with candy bar pieces was better. Ice cream with candy bar pieces was pretty good, but candy-bar ice cream with hot fudge and peanut butter sauce was even better. Build me a candy-bar ice cream, hot fudge, peanut butter sundae on a brownie, and I'm still thinking, "Where the hell's my whipped cream?"

All the while, the Appetite Devil would watch over me, rub her hands together and say, “Just find one more thing to add...” always just one more thing.

Then, I would descend.

Have you ever seen a pride of lions tear into a freshly caught gazelle, or watched a hawk soar down from a treetop and spear a field mouse with its talons, then rip it's little beating hear out with its ? My attack would start with the same vigor, but contained a different level of dignity, which is to say, none.

Still, it was like I had killed the ice cream myself.

I remember loving the feeling of stuffing every cavity of my gaping mouth with food, to the point that chewing became almost impossible. The oral fixation definitely sated some other emptiness, like the worry of being poor and not having food, or the insecurity children feel that her parents don’t love them. As long as my mouth was stuffed full of food, all that unrest was put at ease. My mind would quiet. Food nirvana.

When it was over, when I had shoveled the whole thing into my mouth and slurped and slopped and gobbled and scraped my way to the bottom of the bowl and licked it clean, the Appetite Devil would bound up and down and squeal, “What’s next? What’s next?” The pattern was not unlike addiction.

Descending on an over-indulgent pile of fatty, sugary, chocolately goo was a motivating factor for at least 50 percent of everything I did before the age of 12. Trying to convince me to play my best at the last soccer game of the season? Promise me a trip to Friendly’s if my team wins. Need me to help out with the grocery shopping? No problem, as long as I get to skip off by myself for to the newspaper-confectionary store to spend the 75¢ I tucked into my pocket on a Kudos Granola Peachs-n-Crème square. Want me to join the family on Sunday morning? Easy. Just make sure someone brings a dozen doughnuts.



When faced with a box of doughnuts as a child, I would never dream of taking a cruller. “What’s the point?” First choice was always a Boston cream because it had doughnut and chocolate and vanilla pudding. If for some reason there were no Boston creams, I would look for something with buttercream filling and sprinkles and powdered sugar. In the rare even that the only doughnuts in the box were unadorned — not even a jelly doughnut to be found — I would take two halves (or two wholes if I could get away with it): one glazed and one chocolate.

Sometimes, like when I see a commercial for IHOP or Applebee’s, I wonder if most American kids my age grew up with the same mindset, because if the Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity breakfast can be on the menu of a national chain restaurant for 15 years, I’ve got to think I’m not alone here. (P.S. There is nothing “fresh” or “fruity” about that meal.)

Perhaps the difference is that I outgrew it.

It’s taken years to change, but now when faced with a Belgian waffle drowning in liquid caramel and a spritz of whipped cream, I feel sugar sores developing in my mouth just looking at it.

Don't get me wrong: I still love gooey chocolatey things. Just today, my friend brought over a "David's Cookie Deep-Dish Brownie Cake Made with Real Hershey's Kisses" from Costco, and I was the first one to carve myself a piece. The difference is now I will eat something like "David's Cookie Deep-Dish Brownie Cake Made with Real Hershey's Kisses" from Costco rarely, but more importantly slowly, picking and poking the different bits rather than cramming them all into my yawing face in one great forkful.

The word “overload” now has meaning to me. A really good quality vanilla ice cream can be so divine, but you can’t taste it if it’s buried beneath five layers of goop. Maybe the problem is I grew up eating cheap, crappy food, and the excess was designed to mask the inadequacies of each component (which I highly suspect to be true).

In any event, I now appreciate the approach of eating one or two high-quality things and discovering their own, sometimes more subtle, flavor complexities. There is nothing quite like an exquisite piece of chocolate bundt cake, unadorned or maybe very lightly flecked with powdered sugar. I feel like I can really taste the butter, salt, and caramelized sugars of caramel when it is pressed and wrapped into a tiny cube, then left to melt in my mouth alone, slowly, while I’m doing nothing more than thinking. That slowness, and awareness really, is essential.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Strawberry and Yogurt Tart



For my sister's birthday, I wanted to make a dessert that was a little classic and a little different. She loves fresh fruit desserts. She loves pies and tarts. And she loves desserts that aren't too sweet.

A fruit tart fit the bill.

But of course, even in those parameters, there are plenty of options and variations.

Cookie crumb base, or graham cracker crumb base, or tart dough base?

Pastry cream filling, or lemon curd filling, or just a layer of jam?

Raspberries, blackberries, mixed berries?

What I came up with is this: a classic, all-butter tart dough base, made with the same recipe I use for a gorgeously flakey pie crust, sealed with a layer of raspberry jam, topped with vanilla Greek yogurt, and decorated with an extravagant number of fresh strawberries.

The only real cooking required is baking the dough and melting the jam. The rest is just assembly.

Tart or Pie Shell
This recipe makes two crusts that will fit a 9-inch pie or tart. For a pie, it gives you a bottom and top. For a tart, it gives you a second chance if you mess up the first one.
3/4 cup cold butter, cut into small cubes (when making pies, I often use a blend of shortening and butter, or sometimes only shortening, but for tarts, I think an all-butter crust tastes best)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup ice water

Mix together the flour and salt. Using one of the following: a pastry cutter, two knives held tightly side-by-side in the same hand, your fingers, or a food processor, chop the butter into the flour. When it is crumbly and looking a little sandy, slowly pour in a little of the water, and mix it together. It will become more and more crumbly looking, which is the idea. If you can manage to not use all the ice water, the crust will be even lighter!

Gather the dough into a ball. The less water you've used, the more difficult this will be, but it doesn't have to be perfect. Just scoop it all into the center of the bowl, and gently mash it into a ball shape.

Tear a generous piece of plastic wrap onto the counter. Set the misshapen ball in the center, wrap tightly, and refrigerate for 1 hour. If you are going to save the dough to bake in a few days, pop it in the freezer.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Scatter a handful of flour onto a clean surface, such as a large and flat cutting board, or right onto your countertop. Unwrap the dough, and gently roll it out. Remember, you don't need to flatten the dough all at once. Rather, just push it along, little by little, turning it every so often so it doesn't stick to the surface, dusting with a pinch more flour here and there. Aim for the crust to be about 1 inch larger than your pie or tart pan.

Some people butter their pans, some don't. I like to save a piece of the wrapper from my butter and use that to give the pan just a little grease, then I dust it with flour, too. Set the dough into the pan, but give it room to settle into all the crevices. Again, don't flatten and stretch it — gently help the dough find its way into the shape of the pan. Trim the crust and patch any thin or torn areas with the excess. Poke the dough all over with a fork.

From this point on, these instructions are for making a pre-baked tart shell (not a pie crust):

Crumple a piece of aluminum foil and lay it on top of the crust, then fill it with pie weights, dried beans, or two handfuls of loose coins. Bake it in the center of the oven for at least 15 minutes, possibly longer. It's tempting to take it out when you can smell the butter wafting in the air, but trust your timer and leave it in there. The idea is to let the crust get pretty dry before you remove the weights, otherwise the crust will shrink, which happened to me this time around. I thought I was trusting my nose, but the crust was still very buttery and wet looking in the middle when I removed the weights.

When the crust is indeed dry, remove the foil and weights carefully, as they will be dangerously hot, and return the crust to the oven for another 8 minutes or so or until it's brown. Cool on a wire rack.




Baking the crust might take 20 minutes total, or it might take 50. The crust needs to be very dry before you start adding fillings and fruits.

Once the crust is cool, you can seal it with a thin layer (maybe 1/8 cup) of apricot or raspberry jam, cooked on the stovetop until it's melted. You can mix in a little water or a little lemon juice to thin it out, too.

I sealed the tart with raspberry jam, then added a layer of vanilla Greek yogurt and fresh strawberries. In a perfect world, serve the tart immediately after assembly, but if you can't, be sure to refrigerate it until it's time to eat. Enjoy with a tall glass of prosecco, and the next day, with a morning mug of coffee.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Harvest Season in Montreal

The harvest has already begun in Montreal!


Over Labor Day weekend, Boyfriend and I scooted up to Canada for a few days. We spent a good chunk of our time at Jean-Talon Market, which is Montreal's largest farmer's market, and Atwater Market, located just a few steps north of the Canal de Lachine.

These pictures are all from Jean-Talon (except the last very one).



One of the first signs that the harvest is beginning in North America: apples!






I was surprised to find baskets and baskets of peppers drying in the sun in a place as far north as Montreal. These were all out in the dry, cool, open air. My assumption was hot weather would be necessary, but I guess not.



Boyfriend had never seen purple peppers before and wanted a photo of them. Gorgeous colors!




Before this trip, if someone had told me that Canada had fruit that I had never seen before, I would have shook my head and said, "No way!" And yet, behold: ground cherries. They have a tomatillo-like wrapper that protects a little yellowish-orange fruit, which tastes like a mild or slightly sour cherry with a tight skin that pops like the grape tomato. Ground cherries, or cerise de terre, are popular in pies and jams, apparently. I tasted one or two raw. Not bad!

Cutting to the Chase
Bring up Montreal, and the one thing everyone really wants to talk about, food-wise, is poutine.

I've had poutine before, but seeing as it was Boyfriend's first time not just in Montreal, but in the country of Canada itself, yes, we did eat share a dish of poutine. Voilà.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Skinny: Part III


[This is the third and final post of a three-part blog. Part I can be found here and Part III can be found here.]

The summer I lost six pounds was the first time in my life I truly lived alone. I grew up in a large family, the kind where someone was always around, always knocking on the bathroom door, always calling dibs on the front seat of the car, always scooping up the last spoonful of ice cream from under my nose. Then, in my college years and quite a few thereafter, I lived with roommates and housemates. When I finally moved on from roommates, I shacked up with my live-in partner. We've been rooming together since November 2003.

In 2008, Boyfriend was in London finishing his master's degree. I was living in London, too, but I was unhappy and wanted to go back to New York. My job, somewhat unexpectedly, turned into a work-from-home situation while I was in England, so it didn't matter if I was in London or New York. My sister was planning her wedding, and I wanted to be there for her during the lead-up to her big day. There were a number of factors. So I packed up and moved. It was hard.

I found a one-bedroom apartment that was affordable for me on my own without being too small for two of us when Boyfriend was ready to join me three months down the line.

Control Freak
Living alone afforded me complete and absolute control.

I have control issues. I am well aware of them.

For a control freak, living alone is heaven—full-on junkie heaven. It is more than you could ever dream. No one questions what you do, when you do it, where you're going, how much food is in the cupboard, whether the air conditioner should be on, whether you've exercised too much or too little, whether your laundry is in the way, whether taking a shower would disrupt anyone else, and most important of all, what, and when, and how much or little you eat.

Everything.

Living alone was a control indulgence. Bear in mind that I was also working from home, so I lived in a bubble of isolation. Working from home creates a very different rhythm. No settling in every morning. No vending machines or water coolers. No cake for co-workers' birthdays. No chit-chatty coffee breaks. No senseless meetings because no one asks you to dial in to a meeting unless is necessary. Sometimes I felt lonely, but I had so many things to keep reign my controlling command over that it diverted my attention.

Other elements of my lifestyle changed, too, like the fact that I suddenly enjoyed returning phone calls because my daily interactions with other human beings was fairly limited. I'm not a highly social person, so although I did (and still do) have a core group of friends and family in New York, there certainly were many days when I didn't see or talk to any of them.

Having control over everything meant I could have super detailed control over a few things, so I picked exercising, eating healthful foods in small portions, and monitoring the exact number of my weight in pounds and ounces. My new neighborhood had a free, outdoor, public pool with adult lap swim on weekdays. I started swimming. It also had a track. I started jogging at night and walking in the morning before work. It also had two high streets, as they would call them in London, or main roads with businesses that I was interested in getting to know well. I took up walking on my lunch breaks to explore them.

Actually, I had tried to take up jogging in the past, but I am a terrible runner and I never enjoyed it. This time, I came up with a new strategy. As I ran, I would coach myself by saying, "All these out of shape people join the Army and within 2 days of basic training, they are able to run 3 miles. If they can run 3 miles, so can I! I am young and fit, and if they can do it, damn it, I can do it better!"

My neighborhood also had two or three fiercely competitive produce markets. When I moved from overseas, I didn't bring with me any pantry items, such as flour, sugar, spices, vinegars, and canned goods, as one would when moving locally. Aside from the fact that all those things are heavy to carry and I did all my grocery shopping on foot, I thought to myself, "The pantry is already empty of all processed foods, so I might as well try to keep it that way as long as I can." My diet that summer consisted about 85 percent of fresh food: vegetables and fruit, dairy (mostly yogurt and milk, and feta cheese), and eggs. I ate pita bread, a brand that was made locally, half a piece at a time, so that a bag of 10 would last me nearly two weeks, and I ate cold fish, like tuna, herring, and smoked salmon. The temperature that year was blisteringly hot, so I avoided cooking as much as possible. From time to time I grilled some zucchini or boiled an egg, but mostly, the stove was off.

Halfway through the summer, I lugged home a sack of flour and baked a few batches of homemade bread. Seeing as it was 90 degrees and humid in my kitchen most days—ideal conditions for getting bread to rise—I figured I might as well make use of it. It didn't last long. I gave up bread baking the day my glasses literally slipped off my face from sweat.

I still ate a little bit of chocolate, and dried fruit like raisins, figs, and dates, muesli if I was feeling fatigued, but there really wasn't much packaged food in the house. It's hard to see how much food we have around us at any given time, but take a peek in your cupboard or refrigerator. Now imagine it without all the items that are in a can, bottle, jar, or box.

Hungry
Another thing I started obsessing over was feeling hungry. I don't want to use the word "hunger" because it's not like I was starving. What I'm talking about is the "hungry" feeling one gets after exercising for a long time, but not being able to eat for another hour or two afterward.

When weight loss people—and by that I mean advertisers, product vendors, self-promotional weight loss authors/doctors/fitness experts, and people who give testimonials about losing weight—proclaim that you can lose weight without ever feeling hungry, I think to myself, "Well, okay, you're not really going to lose all that much weight then." You can lose weight without feeling hungry if you just want to lose some weight; but if you want your body to be small and to have a minimal amount of fat on it, feeling hungry is crucial.

(Okay, there might be people out there who have always been skinny and tend to not feel hungry often, but the majority of us just aren't like that.)

Weight loss people make it sound like having a hunger pang or two, or having an empty belly ever, is not an option. It's off the table.

But why?

The reason advertisers say you can lose weight without ever feeling hungry is because they're trying to sell you food! They want you to eat more (of their product), not less. Companies that sell diet food must convince people to eat it—a lot of it.

If you feel hungry, then your body is going to start using the calories that are already on your body. This is what I started thinking about all the time. In fact, I developed a mantra to remind myself that this feeling was positive and that feeling hungry means results: "Eating the fat, eating the fat, eating the fat." The body is burning its fat.

The summer that I got skinny is the only time in my life I ever embraced the feeling of being hungry. It's tough to do, but being in an isolation bubble made it easy. I tried to make sure I could feel an empty or near-empty stomach before every meal. At night, as bedtime was nearing, I would sometimes feel a bit hungry and I would sometimes eat a quarter cup of muesli with skim milk, a light a nutritious snack. But as I began to embrace the empty stomach as a sign of weight loss, I turned my thoughts around. Being hungry before a meal also became something I looked forward to because I truly enjoyed eating so much more that way. So before bedtime, if I had been feeling hungry, I'd think: "Hungry is a sign that I'll be losing more weight. And, it will be easy to get through the next 6 or 7 hours of feeling hungry if I do it while asleep. Plus, if I go to bed a little bit peckish, I'll wake up more excited than ever to eat breakfast." Win-win-win.

Another discovery: exercising on an empty stomach doesn't make you feel immediately famished. Rather, it kills your appetite for a bit. This bit of wisdom was something I learned through experience a few years earlier when I first started working out at a gym. By the time I arrived at the gym, I'd want a snack; but I wouldn't have anything on hand. So I'd pump my arms and legs for 40 minutes on the elliptical machine, jog a mile, curl my biceps a few times, and drink a lot of water. By the time I finished my workout, I wouldn't even be able to think about food. There was a 20- or 30-minute window when I just didn't feel like eating. But combined with the whole exercise session, this 20-minute window could easily grow into a two-hour period all told. Two hours of not thinking about food? That was a real new tactic.

Basically, I started doing any activity or practicing any state of mind that helped me feel good about the lack of food in my belly. Shopping (though mostly it was window-shopping) worked great, too. I could be away from home, and thus away from the refrigerator, for several hours, on my feet, walking around, navigating aisles, climbing escalators, carrying heavy bags home (when it was grocery shopping), and not having an excuse to eat for hours. I'd have a dinner meal planned on my head for when I got home, which meant I had no excuse to eat take-away food in the department store cafes, or the bakeries that were en route between the subway stop and my house, or any other junky fast food.

Losing weight has become more important to Americans than being thin. No one cares so much anymore about “thin.” Now we care about “weight loss.” Dieting products, not to mention entire industries, have thrived for decades on weight loss, but now more than ever, we are truly captivated by it. We treat weight loss as an accomplishment. Several television shows are dedicated to watching bodies drop weight. Winners of reality TV shows are rewarded for weight loss, not for their final size. We no longer care so much about the final result, as long as the total loss is a sizable number. “But she lost 150 pounds! Who cares if she’s still a size 10!” It’s, “look at the deduction,” rather than, “what size should this person be?”

So big deal. I lost six pounds. That's not a big enough number to be significant to anyone but me.

However, the whole journey meant something, and having a smaller body meant something. It was not a black-or-white, good-or-bad experience. That snapshot of my life reminds me what I'm capable of, while also reminding me what I'm not doing now. Any time I am being hard on myself, I turn around this notion of what I'm not doing now to mean I'm failing. Can I control these thoughts and feelings, the same way I was able to control my weight? I don't even know any more. My fear is to admit that they might be controlling me.


I owe Boyfriend a very special thank you for putting up with me, and for his gentle efforts every day to help me see myself through his eyes.


[This is the third and final post of a three-part blog.
Part I can be found here and
Part II can be found here.]

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Skinny: Part II

[This is the second post of a three-part blog. Part I can be found here and Part III can be found here.

My mother took great pains to teach me that being a nice person is more important than anything else, especially more important than being rich, pretty, or thin. A woman of the Civil Rights era, she drilled into my head concepts like equality and fairness, reminding me all the time that everyone should be treated equally and fairly by every person. This wasn’t political stuff. They were day-to-day life lessons. Instead of teaching me that the government should treat all people equally regardless of their differences, she brought it down to the schoolyard level. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated. It doesn’t matter how they look, who they are, how little money they have.

The lessons my mother taught me were never explicitly about race or gender or sexual lifestyle, but they did explicitly cover less attractive people, physically and mentally disabled people, unpopular kids, smelly kids, and poor kids. “You don’t have to like everybody,” she used to say, “but you do have to be nice to everybody.”

But as with all parenting, there is a “do as I say, not as I do” factor that crept into all these things my mother taught me. So despite my mother's insistence on being nice to people from all walks of life, there was one person she did not treat well—herself. And she was especially mean to herself when she ate.

You Can Never Be Too Thin
There’s a saying, “You can never be too rich, too pretty, or too thin.” My mom taught me this phrase jokingly. It was something her mother used to say, a woman who cared deeply about not only being thin, but also being perceived as a thin person. Thin people decline dessert. Thin people don't take second helpings. Thin people order salad with no dressing as an entree. They keep margarine and diet soda in their fridge.

Despite trying not to become like her mother, my mother has her own habits that express her thin lifestyle. She has always loved turning down food when people offer it, then eating it later in private, in secret. Every year for 40 days during Lent, she denies herself all foods and drinks that contain added sugar. No sugar in her coffee, no cookies, no jarred pasta sauce—and she's not even Catholic. Sometime around 2004, after the Atkin's diet had its resurgence, a basket of warm, squishy dinner rolls was circulating the table, when my mother announced, "Oh, I don't like bread."

To make matters worse, my mother had been anorexic when she was younger. It wasn't a "she's too skinny" case of anorexia, but "missed a semester of college due to hospitalization" one.

She told me a story once about how she and her mother went to a dieting camp together, like a health retreat. I think she was a young teenager at the time. I picture them walking side-by-side up a grassy hill at a clip, pumping their arms the way my mother taught me to do to power walk and burn more calories.

In the story, the way my mother tells it, she is proud to tell her mother that the only thing she ate that day was grapes. “Oh yeah?” my grandmother replies, “Well, I ate nothing!”

Touché, Grandma.

What My Momma Taught Me
So although I certainly did learn to be nice to others, what I also learned is this: eating is shameful. Eating is shameful because eating is a sign that you are not a thin person and therefore won't be perceived as a thin person. However, the shame only extends to oneself. I have never thought ill of other people eating, and I don't think my mother has either. It's purely reflexive.

Without looking at other factors (advertisements, Hollywood) that have been hugely influential in shaping the way I think about food and my body/self, I wanted to point out the enormous effects that family psychology or parent-child relationships can have on a person. In my personal case, it's pretty easy to identify what happened and point to the residual effects, though I'm sure for other people it's not so simple. It's pretty easy to see why, for me, dropping six pounds was such a meaningful experience, why it's something I still hold onto.

[Continue to Part III.]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Skinny: Part I


[This is the first post of a three-part blog.
Part II is available here.
Part III can be found here.


In 2008, I got skinny.

My overall size is what I would call “normal,” and when I got skinny, I didn’t weigh much less than I do now or did before.

Six Pounds
It was just a few pounds and a couple of inches, but it meant everything to me and how I thought about myself.

As I explain how I got skinny and how I felt about it, I realize that it will sound like I was a little obsessed, or at the least, fixated in a way that bordered on unhealthy.

What's important to note is that everyone I know sees me as a highly rational, cautious, levelheaded person. My sesibility is perhaps the quality that other people value most in me. Clarity in thought begets confidence, which begets solid decision-making skills, which turns into sensible actions — and that's me.

Anyone who knows me would expect that I look back on the summer of 2008 and say, “Yes, in hindsight, I focused too much on a trivial amount of weight. Yes, six pounds is a ridiculous thing to treat with any reverence. And really, yes, I’m a much happy and better adjusted person now."

But that would be one big fat lie.

The truth is, I liked it. I liked being just a little bit skinnier. I liked it more than I like what I am now. I found a body that I didn’t mind seeing in a mirror. I found a magic number that gave me a little extra confidence.

One Hundred Thirty-Nine
The summer that I got skinny, I weighed 138 or 139 pounds most days, with 137 the lowest number I saw on the scale. The first time I saw 137, I said out loud, “I see the light!” And raised my arms overhead. I was joking with myself when I said it, but those words do capture the sense of how I felt in the presence of that number, like it was a miracle, something that could not have happened, happening. Imagine that: something that cannot happen, happening. I haven't experienced anything like that before or since.

Mathematically speaking, at 5 feet 8 inches tall, 137 pounds is “normal.” At my height, I could be healthy at as little as 122 pounds, which would make my body mass index (BMI) 18.5, just over the cusp of “not to worry” weight.

For my actual body structure and shape, I can admit that 122 pounds would be too light, perhaps even frail, but I did like to keep that number in my head as a frame of references. “I’m 15 pounds away from being one of those girls who is too skinny,” I’d say to myself. “There’s no danger of hitting that low. There’s nothing to worry about.”

At 137 pounds, my BMI was 20.8. At 144 pounds, my current weight (which is a little more than I’d like it to be), my BMI is 21.9. The “normal” range is 18.5 to 24.9 BMI. Think of it this way: For my size, six pounds of fluctuation only equals one BMI integer.

The fact that I can recall most of those numbers from memory speaks for itself about how seriously I took my weight loss and management.

The Accomplice
Six years ago, I bought one of those electronic scales that measures not only weight, but also percent body water. Since the day I bought it, I’ve weighed myself every morning, except 1) when on vacation (unless there’s a scale where I’m staying) and 2) on days when I wake up to find myself facing very low self esteem, which happens about three times a year. That's the only time I give myself a pass.

When I moved overseas, I had to pack the scale carefully in my checked luggage. The first time I tried to travel with it, I tucked into in my carry-on bag, protected by a sheet of bubble-wrap, afraid that it might be damaged by the baggage handlers if I checked it. I learned the hard way that airport security takes one look at this oddly shaped electronic device in the scanner and has no choice but to fully inspect all my bags, and me. “Sorry, TSA! I'm just a nut who travels with a heavy-duty bathroom scale. No need to call the Feds!”

My favorite time to weigh myself that summer wad right after coming home from a long day out when there wasn’t time to eat anything. I would run into the bathroom, empty my bladder, and strip off all my clothes. I’d tap my toe against the scale’s “on” button, and as soon as the zero popped up, meaning the scale was balanced and ready, I’d remove my eyeglasses and set them on a ledge. Then and only then would I step up.

After that, there are three beeps. The first beep indicates that the scale has recorded a weight. The second means it has calculated the percent body water. And the third meatheir has calculated a body fat percentage, too. Three beeps means all the numbers are locked in. There's nothing anyone can do at that moment to change fate.

I still do this every morning. At the third beep, I lift my glasses back up to my face and peer down to learn whether it will be a good day or a bad day. In May, June, July and August of 2008, I had only good days.


[Continue to Part II...]

Friday, August 20, 2010

Michelin Stars Alone Can't Save Restaurants


In a few weeks, Michelin will announce its list of restaurants awarded stars for 2011.

I've been combing through the 2010 list for New York. You'd think earning a Michelin star would shield a restaurant from going asunder, but alas, two of the 2010 one-star winners in New York have already closed: eighty one and Etats-Uni.

Chef Ed Brown of eighty one, which was on the upper west side, was quoted in the New York Post as saying: "We started as a destination restaurant in a destination location... When the world fell apart, we changed to cope with it, with a lower-priced menu and more accessible food. But we weren’t able to change people’s perceptions that we were a special-occasion place — which is why we were always full for special occasions, but not on a daily basis."

Over on the upper east side, on the other hand, Etats-Uni closed in November 2009, mere weeks after it was named to the Michelin star list, even before the year 2010 even started — the year of the Michelin Guide officially put Etats-Uni on that list. Heartbreaking!

A snippet from Eater NY, quoting EatWire, from the time reads: "All Etats-Unis and branches closed this past Friday. Kind of sad. Mostly due to management bad decision: change of key items on the menu, increase of the prices of liquor, change of middle management."

Finally, Shalizar, a first-time recipient of the star in 2010, renamed itself as Shalezeh soon after its Michelin list debut. I don't know what that one was all about, but a name change can be risky business for a restaurant, so I'd be curious to hear why it occurred.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Review: Two-Course Lunch at Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park serves a two-course, prix-fixe lunch for $28 on weekdays. For the caliber of the restaurant, that's a steal of a meal... if you can manage to get over to Madison Avenue and 24th Street on a work day.

Luckily, my sister and I work close enough to the restaurant that we squeezed in a Friday afternoon "business express lunch" (as it's sometimes called when you're in and out in about an hour).

Two courses. Twenty-eight bucks. So what did we eat?

First an amuse bouche arrived: a single cube-cut beet marshmallow, pale pink, slightly savory, and airy in the mouth; paired next to the marshmallow was a foie gras canapé, barely wider than a postage stamp, topped with a dark pink fruit gelée and a dehydrated berry, which looked like a little, shriveled jewel.

Bread service consisted of two personal-sized baguettes, one classic white and one studded with Picholine olives, as well as gougeres, or little, airy puffs of cheesy dough made from pâte à choux.

For our first courses, I chose a bowl of tagliolini, strewn with Alaskan king crab, and tickled with black pepper and lemon. The plentiful portion of egg noodles glided across the equally plentiful crab meat, helped along by the cascade of clarified butter, which puddled in the bottom of my bowl as I ate my way down.

My sister chose späetzle with Niman Ranch pork belly, crispy but luscious, and supposedly finished "with Pommery mustard and spinach." I couldn't detect much green on her plate, but I tasted a rich piece of mushroom that sent my imagination to the Black Forest of Germany, somewhere woodsy and earthy, where wild boars might be heard scuffling about.

We debated about which main courses to order for some time, she and I both dancing around the idea of "herb-roasted Colorado lamb with eggplant, cumin and yogurt." Neither of us got that. Instead, we went for a fish dish: "bouillabaisse of striped bass, Bouchot mussels, manila clams and chorizo," finished table-side with chorizo oil; and a pork dish: "St. Canut Farm cochon de lait with Bing cherries, sweet onion and mustard," which actually had pork two ways as well as a smear of thick yogurt beneath each pitted cherry. The mustard was like nothing I have ever eaten before. It was like mustard seeds that had been lightly pickled, then displayed like caviar, draped over a single, sauteed spring onion.

Both the fish and pork were excellent. The portions were ample, but not exhausting. Service was exactly what I want it to be: attentive, yet respectful of the diners' privacy and conversation.

Could I pick apart this meal a little more? Certainly. The taglionlini did not need to drown in clarified butter. It left a heavy coating on my tongue, and it distracted my taste buds from enjoying the freshness of the noodles. Still, that's one mildly off-putting aspect of an otherwise solid effort.

If you've some extra time and money to spend on a fancy weekday lunch, Eleven Madison Park also offers a three-course meal for $42, or a tasting menu, which takes a full two hours, for $78.

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

100 Dollars to Juice Lemons?

Electric Citrus Reamers: Are They Worth It?

Ina Garten is one of those women I envy. She has an amazing job, a beautiful house with a kitchen that she loves, and most importantly of all for the purpose of this post, she has an electric citrus reamer.


Ina Garten; image not mine; from House Beautiful.

In an old episode of her Barefoot Contessa, she introduces her handy-dandy electric citrus reamer. It lives right on her counter top because she uses it so frequently. It's precisely the kind of tool or machine that would normally make me say, "Bah! What a waste of money! What? She can't use a hand-reamer?"

But that Ina! With her smile and those focused eyes peering up from beneath her swinging bangs, she turned me around.

Given the number of lemons and limes I go through in an average week, my large and decidedly un-dexterous hands are tired of squeezing, twisting, poking, ramming, jamming, kneading, and massaging the juice out of all that citrus. Two years ago, I got a little plastic reamer that sits in a little plastic cup, both of which I cracked almost immediately. Drippy as it may be, I continue to use it. Clearly, it's time to upgrade.

I started looking at the electric citrus juicers in stores, and the lowest models start at around $20. Those cheap ones are constructed entirely of plastic, and to my discerning eye, they look like they will crack if one exerts too much force, which let me tell you, I fully intend to do. I do not have a light touch.


All-plastic citrus juicers sell for $20-$25 in stores, but they don't seem very durable.

The next step up in models jumps right to the $80-$100 price point, and from there, they skyrocket to $125-$200! These are much sturdier looking machines, combining stainless steel and tougher plastics — but where are the $30 and $40 models?

To be fair, I've seen more models online at a range of prices, but not in stores. And just like buying shoes, I prefer to be able to touch and "try on" my cooking equipment before I buy it. So I'm really assessing what's available in stores, and more specifically, in New York City.


The Penguin Citrus Juicer, sold in Europe, costs around 56 euros, or 50GBP. I have not seen it in any stores in New York, but I do like its design!

There's also those "presses," which are typically used more for oranges and grapefruits, but perhaps they work for lemons and limes, too. I don't know.


Hand-press citrus juicers are used more for oranges and grapefruits. Will they work well with smaller citrus, like lemons, limes, and yuzu?

Does anyone have any advice? Who's got an electric citrus juicer that they love: what is it and how much did it cost? Or if you have a hand-crank press, does it work well with smaller citrus?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Congrats to a New Food Network Intern

Enjoying a sundae on New Year's Eve at DBGB in Manhattan.

A quick word of congratulations to my sister (above), who has landed an internship with the Food Network in New York, starting in September. She has learned so much about food, cooking, and the food-media business in the past few months. Well done, kiddo!

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Cooking with Nothing: Potato Leek Soup

I found an old piece of writing today from 2008 that I wanted to share. I wrote this when I had first moved to England. The night I arrived, we had almost nothing to cook with: no tools, no food, and not much time either.

"Cooking with Nothing" is a theme I return to often, and I wrote this piece in hopes to building a longer work out of it, like a full-length cookbook filled with recipes that follow the same principle. It hasn't happened (yet), but it definitely speaks to my guiding cooking philosophy. -Jill Duffy



Cooking with Nothing
My boyfriend and I have just moved to England three weeks ago. I knew when I initially decided to come that one of the things that would change most about my life here was how I cooked. I’m an avid home cook, though not an overly ambitious one, the kind of person who prepares fresh meals five or six times a week for the enjoyment, the health benefits, and because I’m cheap. I’ve been cooking long enough to be able to competently whip together a pretty tasty dinner out of whatever happens to be in the fridge and cupboards in 20 minutes or less. I don’t have a pantry, but I do have a nice cast-enamel Le Crueset Dutch oven (which didn’t make the journey to England). I don’t have a rolling pin, but I do have two good knives. I might not even have a colander, but I between my spider and metal tongs, I make do.

We’re in England for only 12 months, though I’ve already declared that I might not last more than 10. Boyfriend is attending a career-enhancing master’s program, and I’ve been lucky enough to transfer my editing job with me abroad. So it’s not like I’m hanging around the house all day, taking a year off from life, experimenting with recipes for Yorkshire pudding or chateau briand; we’re average people and we lead lives that are pretty close to the chaotic American norm. The difference is that here we are poorer (the exchange rate is currently about $2 to the British pound), and we weren’t able to bring all our necessities with us.

We brought what we could carry in our allowed luggage plus one extra suitcase at a fee of $100, and we’re trying hard not to buy anything unless we are truly uncomfortable or psychologically maimed without it. So for example, we have no television set and we don’t plan to get one. We need an extra blanket on the bed, but we’re waiting for the temperature to drop another 5 degrees before we cross that bridge. I’d love to have a blender, but I wouldn’t risk using an adapter on my CuisinArt (it’s in a box at one of my friend’s houses until further notice). I might lug my Dutch oven back over the pond after I visit my family in the U.S. over Thanksgiving (it’s the end of September now). And we’ve managed to not complain about our drinking vessels. We've been sipping very inexpensive sparkling wine out of two Chimay glasses my beer-snob boyfriend tucked away in his carry-on bag.

I’ve always believed in teaching people to cook realistically. Whenever a friend or co-worker has asked me to teach them some basic recipes, I always begin by asking, “Tell me the kinds of things I might find in your cupboards,” and I come up with meals that they can make without stretching their boundaries too far from the start. It’s not until after they’ve gradually moved out of their comfort zone that I even tell them about the joys of cayenne pepper or sri racha.

Under these limitation I’m faced with now, in London, I feel most akin again to my new-to-cooking friends. The point of this book is to share the recipes I make while in England with these various constrictions. The recipes at the front of the book contain the fewest ingredients and are the hardest to mess up, while those at the back will come later in my stay here, when maybe I will have broken down and bought a jar of some spice I know I’ll never burn through in twelve months. And in between, I hope to share with you what it’s like, from a personal perspective, to think about what I’m willing and not willing to purchase, what I’m willing to improvise, and how much it all costs in both time and money.

Recipe for Potato Leek Soup
I confess that I was inspired to make this recipe in part because of Julie Powell’s book wherein she cooks all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child in one year. A friend had given me a copy before I left the U.S., and I was reading it on the plane when I landed in Heathrow. When I arrived at my new flat (Boyfriend had arrived early and found an apartment for us), we had in the house only a few basic ingredients. I was not at all surprised that Boyfriend had stocked up on potatoes, one of the few decent staples of old school British cooking, and President butter, a brand imported from France that we used to buy religiously when we lived in San Francisco. But I was a little stunned to see two great big leeks in the vegetable crisper. He loves leeks, but he’s never once cooked with them, and I don’t think he quite knows how to either. I realized then that he bought them in anticipation of my arrival -- he wanted me to make something with leeks.

I guess it was just in the cards that I start in the same way Julie Powell started, and the same way Julia Child started, though I dare not call my recipe by any French name, as it’s more like potato and leek mash soup than anything so foreign sounding at potage parmentier.

Potato Leek Soup
Ingredients
2 leeks
1 tablespoon butter
4 potatoes the size of your fist
1 to 2 cups water
salt and pepper


Tools
cutting board, knife and a potato peeler if you have one (but the knife can also do the trick)
a sauce pan of at least medium size, or a stock pot
traditional wooden spoon (for stirring and mashing -- you can also use any large metal or plastic spoon alongside a potato masher or a ricer)


The first step is to prep the leeks.

If you bought your leeks from a small grocer or farmer’s market, they are probably covered in grit and dirt. If you got them from a large supermarket, they might be pretty clean. Give them a little rinse under some cold water, then set up your cutting board so it is free of all other food. It’s okay if you encounter more dirt in the next few steps, as you will rinse the leeks really well before you cook them. Trim the very bottom white part of the leeks where there may be some roots. Also trim off the very top dark green parts. The part of the leek you want to use is white and light green. The darker portions are tough and stringy, and you can include them if you like, but most people find the texture unpleasant.

Now cut the leek in half lengthwise. Take your time. Leeks are slippery buggers. Start at the darker end and slowly slide your knife down toward the white. Now set each half so the freshly cut flat side is down on the cutting board. This gives you good stability. Now, starting at the white end, cut crosswise strips so you get little half moon shapes. It doesn’t matter if they are paper thin or about 1/4 inch thick. They are going to cook down later, so don’t worry.

Now that the leeks are all cut up, it’s time to finish cleaning them. If you have a collander or “spaghetti strainer,” put the leeks in that and rinse them vigorously under cold water, sloshing them around with your hands until they seem clean. If you don’t have a collander, you can fill a big bowl with water and just submerge them and pull them out onto clean paper towels or a dish towel. If you don’t have a big bowl, you can fill the kitchen sink (clean it first!) with water and rinse them there.

Now the cooking begins.

Put your pot on a large burner on fairly low heat. Add a little nob of butter so that it melts slowly. If the butter sizzles or burns, the heat is too high. If you’re shy about using butter, you can actually just use olive oil at this stage. Once the butter is nearly melted, toss in the leeks. Let them cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occassionally. They should do nothing more than soften and become slightly translucent.

Meanwhile, prep the potatoes.
Peel the potatoes with either a peeler or very carefully with your knife and cut them into medium sized chunks, about six pieces for each potato. As you peel and chop, you can put the potatoes in cold water to keep them from browning, but I never worry too much about that. It should only take you about 4 to 8 minutes to peel and chop them, and by the time you get to this point, the leeks should be pretty soft.

Add the potatoes to the pot, and immediately afterward, add about a cup or two of water -- just enough to cover the potatoes -- it might even be three or four cups of water. Don’t sweat it. Cover the pot and crank the heat to high. If some starchy water blows the top off the pot, it’s no big deal. Just pull the top off and let it continue cooking uncovered.

Let everything cook; leave it alone for at least 12 minutes. The goal is to get the potatoes to soften as much as you would for mashed potatoes. It’s impossible to over cook them, though, so don’t worry if you actually cook them for more like 25 minutes. It’s fine either way.

Turn the heat down to medium-low. Take a look at how much water is in the pot. If the leeks and potatoes are just swimming in it, drain them off a bit. You want to have a few inches of water at the bottom of the pot, but not much more than that otherwise the soup will not be flavorful. Using your wooden spoon (or a ricer or potato masher), mash up all the ingredients. You can do this off the heat too if you prefer. It may be chunky, it may look more like mashed potatoes -- depending on how you like your soup, you can add a few tablespoons of water, vegetable broth, milk, cream, or even sour cream now. Once you like what you see, add 1 or 2 teaspoon of salt and some black pepper. You’ll add more salt later, but start with just 1 or 2 teaspoons for now, just to get an idea of what 1 or 2 teaspoons of salt tastes like.

Continue to mash the soup and stir it with the wooden spoon, and now add another good nob of butter, maybe 2 teaspoons or so. The more butter, the better, unless you’re watching your diet, in which case 2 teaspoons is more than enough. Stir the butter through, taste for salt and pepper, and that’s it. Serve with some crusty bread or chives or chopped parsley.