Fish in Spain, Wedding Cake in California, and More (Food Memories of 2011, No. 31)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year. 

2011 gave me plenty to be thankful for. In January, I started a new job where I feel more appreciated for my talent and the kind of hard work that I do than anywhere else I have worked. Sure, I've succeeded at jobs before, but I this particular environment fits better than any other. I get to write every single day. People care what I think. My boss values my ability to write as well as the content. I learn all the time, constantly. And the neighborhood where my office is located is sublime. It's lunch heaven. 

March brought a trip to Barcelona and Valencia, with more than one amazing Spanish restaurant experience.

Skewered morcilla and roasted vegetables,
 Valencia, Spain.
This summer, I started bicycle-commuting, a highlight of May, June, July, August, and September. Riding a few miles every day also increases the appetite, which I don't mind one bit.

Fish and fish and fish, Vigo, Spain.
In August, two friends got married in Vigo, Spain, prompting another trip to one of my favorite countries. Vigo, the largest fishing port in the world, served up more fresh seafood than I have ever eaten before in just a few short days. This trip occurred right at the end of the month, when Hurricane Irene tumbled through New York, thankfully not causing any damage whatsoever where I live. But the storm left us trapped in Spain, in our connecting city of Madrid, for two days with free accommodation and meals. The free food turned out to be a double-edged sword, as the very first meal Boyfriend and I ate left us doubled-over for nearly 24 hours. We rallied the following day, though, and spun through Madrid to make the most of our time there.

September, more wedding bells beckoned us to a long weekend in the Russian River Valley in California. Rather than seafood galore, this reception was filled with from-the-heart goodies: a homemade wedding cake and a very special keg of local beer that we literally cannot get in New York.

2011 was a year of visitors, too, although it seems like since moving back to New York, every year brings dozens of guests. I love it. I love that people will come from the west coast of the U.S. as well as Europe to visit. The flight from California to New York takes almost as long as the flight from the U.K. to New York.

Beer (Food Memories of 2011, No. 30)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year. 

2011 was the year that I came to the following conclusion: Drinking wine is equivalent to me giving myself a rophy. I love wine, sparkling wine and red wine in particular, but if I try to drink it, more than a glass with dinner, I basically knock myself out. My eyes won't stay open. My body feels heavy. I slump into slumber wherever I am.

Not so with beer.

Beer and I have been good friends since at least 2003. I liked beer earlier than that, but my understanding of beer only started then, when Boyfriend and I first traveled to Belgium. 

We're veritable beer snobs now, going out of our way to try new craft beers from microbreweries in the U.S. and Canada, or far-flung European ales, porters, and bocks, usually of German and Belgian origin.

This year, I didn't obsess over beer, as I did to some degree in 2009 and 2010, but I did manage to eke out my taste a bit more, learning what I like and most important of all, figuring out which glasses to use. If you don't think stemware makes a difference with beer, open a Leffe Blonde and take a swig from the bottle. Then pour it into a glass -- it doesn't really matter what kind, although a goblet is what I would choose -- and taste it again. Leffe needs to open up and breathe. You don't have to have refined taste buds to get that.

My favorite beer this year has been the Founder's Red Rye, which I wrote about earlier this month. 

Paulie Gee's Bizarre and Experimental Pizzas (Food Memories of 2011, No. 29)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year. 

One night in August, some friends and I planned to set out for Paulie Gee's, a pizza restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We initially thought we might ride our bicycles there, as it's only about five miles from where I live. Just as we were leaving the house, the sky looked dark but only on one side. Then we noticed it was more than just dark, it was black, like a twister was coming. It was the kind of sky you might imagine seeing in a Michael Bay movie.

Bikes securely back at home, we set out on foot for the subway. By the time we reached the train, we could smell the rain. By the time the train left the station, it started coming down. By the time we reached our exit point, water was falling from the sky in torrents. 

Even with umbrellas, everyone got soaked. 

Eventually, in the lobby of Paulie Gee's, Paulie himself made a few rounds to say hello to his wet, waiting guests. He brought us pomodoro pie to nibble. We nibbled. 

Later, finally seated, we ordered widely, picking at least one pie that came recommended: the Hellboy, a tomato sauce and fior di latte cheese pizza with sopressata and hot pepper honey drizzled on top. We also tried some of the more experimental pizzas, like a super cheesy one with blops of bacon marmalade and sliced red onions (shown) -- hold the tomatoes.

Ramen (Food Memories of 2011, No. 28)

Minca Ramen, New York.
Image from,
Creative Commons license
Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year. 

The word "ramen" falls flat on a lot of ears. Anyone who assumes all ramen is of the Top Ramen variety (that's the infinitely shelf-stable freeze dried brick you'll find in many a college dormitory) is sorely missing out. Ramen just means noodles, but when hand-made and served right, they dance in a steamy bowl of richly flavored broth, bobbing scallions slipping through their strands, a smattering of other ingredients from soft poached eggs to pickled mustard greens filling out the enormous bowl that you always think will be endless and never is.

See and be seen (because you'll be waiting upwards of an hour and a half) at Ippudo (65 Fourth Avenue, at East 10th Street), where a spicy red broth won me over on my first visit. My favorite ramen dish at Ippudo serves a ball of freshly grated ginger in the middle of the soup, although I fish out some of it and only stir about half of it into the soup. Midtown on the east side, try Hide-chan (248 East 52nd Street near Lexington), a quieter upstairs affair with a menu that ranges well beyond soups. On the west side, the same group that owns Hide-chan has another, more cramped downstairs hole-in-the-wall called Totto Ramen (366 West 52nd Street, at Ninth Avenue), where the noodles and broth are just as good, but the atmosphere feels cruder. Another favorite, Minca (536 East 5th Street, between Avenues A and B), gives you a close-up view of the technique for charring that char-siu that sits on top of the noodles. The cooks in the open kitchen take a brulee torch to most bowls before serving them.

Best Places for Coffee in New York City

Image from Premshree Pillai,
Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Looking for an amazing cup of coffee, cappuccino, latte, or espresso in Manhattan? Here's a quick run-down of my four favorites.

Cafe Grumpy, Chelsea
224 West 20th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues), Manhattan
The tiny and nearly unmarked Cafe Grumpy in Chelsea (there are other locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, too) is my favorite coffee shop in New York City for atmosphere and espresso drinks and coffee. It's on a sleepy side street rather than an avenue, bringing a quiet calm and neighborhood feel. Small hand-written signs inside the cafe will tell you no laptops are allowed, as it would go against the grain of the environment they're trying to maintain. Strong and rich espresso marks the cappuccinos and lattes. Thoughtfulness and patience go into each cup. And the serving sizes remain on the small European size, which I feel is necessary when dealing with fairly strong coffee. It can be a pain to nab a table, as Cafe Grumpy is almost always full, but it's worth waiting for a seat, as the atmosphere is half the draw.

Fika Espresso Bar
Image from the blog Perfectly Pitched.
407 Park Avenue South (at 28th Street), Manhattan
Fika makes my favorite cappuccino in New York City, period. A lot of people disagree, saying Fika's espresso is not strong enough, and while I agree that it's not the strongest espresso Manhattan has to offer, coffee drinks with more punch tend to get muddy and compromise the flavor. Fika has balance, and that in itself is an under-appreciated art. Like Cafe Grumpy, Fika has a few locations, but the one I know best and like best is on Park Avenue (I had a bad experience at the one in midtown; it smelled like burnt popcorn). For atmosphere, I like Grumpy more, but for espresso drinks, Fika trumps Grumpy in balance and flavor. Fika, a Swedish word that can be used both as a noun and a verb to mean "little coffee break," lives up to its Scandinavian heritage by offering one of my favorite little chocoalte treats: the chokladbollar, a rich chocolate cake shaped like a golf ball and rolled in coconut flakes.

Zibetto Espresso Bar
1385 6th Avenue (at 56th Street), Manhattan
This tiny Italian espresso bar in midtown served me one of the best espressos of my life, and I will forever hold it in my heart for that. I have been meaning to go back and eat a miniature cannoli with bright flecks of orange peel for ages. Zibetto's Italian nature is true to form. Most patrons drinks while standing at a thin marble bar, and you pay the bill at the end, after you've finished your coffee. Zibetto is not open late, but it's an excellent stop on a wintry day while shopping.

There is very good restaurant coffee to be hand in the city, and then there is Van Daag. I ordered an iced coffee during brunch one day at this Dutch/Northern European restaurant, took one sip, and declared it a crime if anyone at the table, including my mother, tried to put even one drop of sugar or milk in it. I normally take my coffee with milk, and I typically like a pinch of sugar in espresso, so it is a rare moment indeed when coffee pushes forth with a complexity so divine that I can't bear to see it adulterated. While Vandaag operates as a full restaurant, a bar serves coffee and pastries in the morning and afternoon before it becomes an alcohol bar at night, so it does work when you need a 30-minute pop-in for coffee. It's also one of the most beautifully designed restaurants in my opinion, although I am partial to the simplicity and straight lines that mark Norther European design.

A best-of list for coffee in New York really would not be complete without these few other incredible spots:
Blue Bottle Coffee (Brooklyn)
Birch Coffee
Stumptown at The Ace Hotel
Joe the Art of Coffee
Gimme! Coffee

Slow and Low Cooked Red Meat (Food Memories of 2011, No. 27)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year.

Red meat has never made me feel passionate. Steaks and lamb chops on menus typically don't get a second look  from me. Burgers have crept into the picture a little more this year, but I almost never want to eat a whole one. Lamb, beef, bison, venison, veal all taste too rich... unless they're cooked slow and low.

Braising has shed new light on red meat for me, particularly this year. I still think it tastes best in small portions or when thinned out with other ingredients, like osso buco rounded out with vegetables and red wine, or lamb barbacoa (slow roasted, not technically braised) served in little pinches on a taco (the ones at Empellon in New York deserve an award; shown, image from Bloomberg).

In 2011, I've warmed up to red meat considerably, mostly because I've been open to trying more of it, and through that I've learned that I prefer it braised or otherwise cooked slow and low, and in small quantities. I don't need much to feel satisfied.

Black and White Cookies (Food Memories from 2011, No. 26)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year.

December is the month I bake cookies, and I usually bake a lot of them. Last year (2010), I practiced over and over again making black and whites, the quintessential New York cookie. They're tough to make, but not so difficult as to prove disastrous the first few times around. My recipe for black and white cookies is here.

This year (2011), I switched gears and tried to make pfeffernusse, a German cookie that translates to "pepper nut" because it's the color and shape of a nut, but spiced with black pepper ( as well as a number of other spices).

The recipe I used (well, truth be told, I amalgamated several recipes and riffed off a few of them) contained butter (not margarine and shortening, as I saw in some recipes) and molasses, which gives the pfeffernusse a walnut color and a soft gingerbread-like texture. I heavily sprinkled in cinnamon, but went light on cloves, and left out allspice altogether, mostly because I didn't have any on hand.

After the cookies had come out of the oven and had cooled, I shook them in a bag of powdered sugar to give them a snowy look. Each cookie crackles slightly on top, and the sugar sticks into those crevices to make a random but pretty pattern.

Iced Coffee at Vandaag (Food Memories of 2011, No. 24)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year.

Vandaag, a Scandinavian restaurant in New York, serves some of the best coffee in the city. Over the summer, I had brunch there, and the highball iced coffee took center stage. Other menu items confused me, as many arrived at the table looking more like side dishes than entrees. But the coffee was rich and complex, the kind that it would be a sin to adulterate with milk.

Some people believe that small coffee houses always make the best coffee in any given city, but I'll put Vandaag up there with the best of them. Vandaag's cocktails are equally mind-blowing.

Apples and Apples and Apples (Food Memories of 2011, No. 23)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year.

In late September of this year, some friends and I rented a minivan, piled in, and drove about an hour north of New York City to New Paltz, NY, to pick apples. With seven of us in on the adventure, we still shelled out at least $25 apiece for the van, gas, tolls, and apples, which ran $1.10 per pound. At my local produce market, I can usually get them for about $0.99 per pound.

Anyone who lives in upstate New York, that area north and west of the city, beyond the Catskill Mountains, might see this expensive venture as ridiculous. If you live upstate, apple-picking is what you do on a whim on a weekend with the kids. It costs next to nothing to drive 20 minutes to an orchard, and those farms will charge less than a quarter of that price. My sister who lives in western New York told me she went to an orchard that charged $0.25 per pound.

But city life is expensive, and there are tradeoffs. Leaving the city to drive into the country is a rare treat, and one I'm willing to pay for because I only do it maybe twice a year. 

We loaded up on about 10 pounds of apples, which disappeared much faster than I imagined: less than two weeks! We ate most of the apples raw, but I did cook a German apple cake that was fantastic and not too sweet.

5 Alternatives to Holiday Cookies

The office is beginning to feel like it might turn into a diabetes clinic. Every day, I think there couldn't possibly be another cookie tray, plate of fudge, or basket of holiday candies, and every day I'm wrong... sometimes twice a day.

I'm guilty of contributing to the problem, though, having wrapped some cookie trays for co-workers as gifts. I saw the problem approaching and had a chance to switch out my boss's cookie plate for a quality bag of coffee instead, but it was too late for the others.

For next year, I've already sworn off giving any kind of sugary gift inside the office.

Here are five alternative food gifts to giving holiday cookies.

1. Good quality coffee. It's a little more expensive than a cookie tray, but the time savings may make up for it. Plus, all coffee drinkers appreciate having high quality beans in their house. It helps to try and found out what kind of coffee pot the person has at home. Tea works, too.

2. Pickles. Earlier this year, I learned a little bit about canning, enough to feel confident making a batch of hot pickled carrots for some friends. Cucumbers aren't the only item worth pickling. Giardiniera (carrots, cauliflower, peppers) is another classic. Another benefit of pickling over baking: you can pickle ahead of time, whereas you would never want to bake more than a few days in advance.

3. Lemon curd. In another canning project, I made a few tiny jars of lemon curd. Sure, it's still a sugary food, but because it's canned, the recipient doesn't have to eat it right away.

4. Savory bread. If you're stuck on baking, consider making a loaf of savory bread, like salty olive bread or even cheese twists.

5. Mixed nuts. If you don't can and you don't bake, you can always mix nuts. Pick a pretty jar or container. Add savory spices, like toasted cumin, a pinch of ground cayenne (red pepper), or even freshly cracked black pepper. Or shake on some cinnamon. Tie a ribbon around the lid and consider yourself done. Be sure to find out if your gift recipients or their family members have any nut allergies.

Chilled Cucumber Yogurt Soup at the Park (Food Memories of 2011, No. 22)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year.

Summer makes me happy. Taking advantage of what summer has to offer makes me happier. There's a big park near where I live that overlooks the Manhattan skyline. Two huge bridges, the Hell's Gate Bridge and the RFK Bridge (formerly the Triboro) demarcate either side of the park. Between them are an enormous outdoor pool, walking paths, and a expansive lawn for picnicking. I make the most of that park all summer long with dinners and lunches on the lawn. I couldn't be more thankful to have it, a grassy haven in a concrete-and-apartment-building kind of city.

I'll pack all kinds of crazy picnics to take to the park during the summer, but for the truly hottest days, it's best to think light: see my recipe for chilled cucumber and yogurt soup. Pop it into a thermos or tightly sealed jar, grab a couple of spoons and a loaf of crusty bread from the deli, and you're set.

Barbecue at Butcher Bar, Astoria (Food Memories of 2011, No. 20)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year.

Boyfriend and I are pretty good about having a weekly date. Sometimes it's a nice dinner out. Sometimes it's a night on the town. Occasionally, we aim high but end up doing something on the scrappy side, but it's comfortable.

Dinner at Butcher Bar, a new barbecue restaurant in Astoria on 30th Ave., was one of the slightly scrappier nights early this month. I like it, though. We shared a sampler of meats: pork belly (which turned out to be American bacon, and not even slab-cut), pulled pork, and brisket. We also had a side of baked beans, which were sweet and sticky, some green beans, coleslaw, and corn muffins.

The restaurant didn't yet have its beer and wine license when we visited, but microbrews are apparently on the way.

Croquettes at Cal Pep, Barcelona (Food Memories of 2011, No. 19)

Every day in December, I'm posting about one memory about food from this year, in part to look back on the year that's about to end with more gratitude for all the superb experiences I've had.

In March, my sister was studying in Barcelona. We promised her that if she studied abroad, we would definitely visit while she was there. Barcelona is not a hard sell.

Both Boyfriend and I had been there. before, which was great because we had already seen a lot of the major sights.

One of the places on our shirt list of places we missed the first time around was Cal Pep. It's a tiny tapas bar, but world renowned. We had to arrive at the unheard of hour 6:15 to get let in at 6:30. There was no real menu. A cook behind the bar just asked if there was anything we didn't like.

Cal Pep is known for shellfish, which was all out of this world, but it also had some mind-bending croquettes, creamy and filled with chopped spinach..

Curry Vinaigrette (Food Memories of 2011, No. 17)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year.

My love affair with curry vinaigrette began this year after I learned to make it at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, where I took some courses earlier this year.

I love this dressing so much, and curry powder is a superb health food, so it's great to work more of it into my diet. It goes very well on dark green leafy salads, like chopped raw chard with almonds, or baby spinach and hard-cooked eggs.

Recipe for Curry Vinaigrette
Make a basic vinaigrette however you like. If you're lost, try:
  • 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon prepared mustard (any kind is fine)
  • 1 tablespoon shallot, minced
  • 2/3 cup olive oil 
  • 1 pinch of sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon toasted curry powder
Whisk together the first three ingredients. Slowly whisk in the oil. Whisk in the rest.

To toast the curry powder, put it into a dry pan, and set the pan over medium heat. And open a window or turn on your oven hood fan if you have one. It won't burn your eyes or nose the way dry chili peppers or chili oil in a hot pan will, but the smell of curry does tend to linger. Stir the curry powder so it doesn't burn, and turn off the heat when the color of the curry starts to change. It happens in about two to five minutes.

Let the curry powder cool a bit, then whisk it into your vinaigrette.

Sorriso Italian Salumeria (Food Memories of 2011, No. 17)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year.

Over the summer, Boyfriend and I made a journey to the Italian side of Astoria, which is typically known as being a very Greek neighborhood. (In reality, Astoria is more and more diverse all the time, and it's not merely Greek or Italian, but a nice mix of different cultures, age ranges, and types of people.)

We had heard about this market called Sorriso, which supposedly made killer sandwiches. It does. Sorriso makes these enormous cold and hot heroes that hit the mark for balancing flavors. I must admit that the quality of flavors and how they were blended totally exceeded my expectations for a pretty average looking Italian deli. 

A "hero" is what I always called a "sub," or submarine sandwich, as a kid on Long Island. I don't think I heard the term "sub" until college. I also remember hearing the word "hoagie" on The Cosby Show when I was young and puzzling that for a while. For those of you outside the U.S., a sub, hero, hoagie, or grinder is a sandwich made on a long loaf of bread, about 30cm long. Those long sticks of bread were called "hero rolls" where I grew up, but they also resemble submarines, hence the name "submarine sandwich" which is shortened to "sub." Don't ask me how the words "grinder" and "hoagie" originated. I don't know.

Sorriso's famous cold hero, called The Godfather, piles a variety of cold meats, cheese, pickled peppers, sweet Balsamic vinegar, red onions, and all kinds of other mildly stinky but delicious ingredients, but balances them all just right. At one bite, it seems like the spicier meats will be overwhelming, until your tongue hits a dash of sweet balsamic vinegar to cool it off. The onions come on strong in other bite, until you keep chewing and hit the peppers that contrast in flavor and texture.

The shop also is a market, so you can buy all kinds of Italian specialty items. On another visit, we picked up some house-made soppresata with orange peel and fennel. Delicious.

Sorriso Italian Salumeria
44-16 30th Ave.
Astoria, NY

Bulgarian Hot Cranberry Cider (Food Memories of 2011, No. 16)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year.

Rather than look too far back at the year that's almost over, I wanted to share a very recent event today. On Wednesday, I met up with Boyfriend and one of our friends to see some of the beautiful holiday decorations in New York City, the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the ice skating rink and holiday market at Bryant Park, the windows at Bergdorf Goodman (one of my favorites is shown here), and some of the other lights and displays outside other high-end store along Fifth Avenue.

The idea is we would walk around to see all these sights and get hot chocolate. But earlier in the day, I had eaten my fill of chocolate and was filling a little sugared out. I still wanted a hot drink, but I wanted something lighter. Even hot mulled apple cider sounded too sugary. 

Then I found a vendor who had "Bulgarian hot cranberry cider" ($3 per cup at the temporary outdoor markets at Bryant Park). It smelled like mulled cider, full of cinnamon and other spices, but it tasted very tart, which I liked. The cranberry flavor was bolstered by a shock of lemon, adding to the sour tartness. Spices came through in smell, but were less apparent on the tongue.  

I'm always amazed when people say, "When you live in a city, you never fully take advantage of it. Only the tourists and visitors do." I couldn't disagree more! 

Having lived in three major cities (New York, San Francisco, and London), I can easily say I've taken full advantage of what they have to offer, from museums to festivals to learning a little about monuments and architecture.

To see more images of the Bergdorf Goodman 2011 holiday windows, see the blog Embarrassment of Riches (it's not a blog I read regularly, but I found it while searching for images). I especially like the giraffe!

Lunch Club (Food Memories of 2011, No. 15)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year.

My post today isn't so much about one meal or dish or drink I had this year as it is about a concept. In January, I started a new full-time job, which I love, where many of my co-workers share my interest in eating good food and exploring some of New York's finer restaurants. 

Based on those simple points, I started Lunch Club.

Lunch Club is a group of people, which changes every time we meet, that dines out for lunch six times a year at one of the nicer restaurants near our office in the Gramercy or Flatiron neighborhoods of Manhattan. The average lunch costs $30 per person. We go stag. And when it comes to deciding the restaurants, the rule is you have to have participated in the most previous Lunch Club to get a vote on the next one.

Typically, about six people are interested in going out, including me, although the group has been both smaller and larger. Some of the meals were disappointing (Resto didn't live up to my expectations in quality nor service), and others were excellent, like a very long tasting menu lunch at Gramercy Tavern. My favorite so far might be Maialino (shown above; image from Zagat), mostly because I lucked out on ordering the special, a porchetta sandwich with au jus dipping sauce and broccoli rabe, that also came with minestrone soup starter.

Lunch Club started in April, but we managed to fit in five outings this year: 

  • The Breslin
  • Blue Smoke (which has an outstanding burger)
  • Resto
  • Maialino
  • Gramercy Tavern

Founder's Red Rye Pale Ale (Food Memories of 2011, No. 14)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year.

I found a new favorite beer this year: Founders Red's Rye Pale Ale. Throughout the year, I've encountered a number of different beers from Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Founders Brewery. The Dirty Bastard, for example, wowed me with its high alcohol content (8.5 percent) and complexity without being overwrought.

But the Red Rye was really shocking. The word "rye" is usually enough to turn me off. I hate caraway, and when I hear "rye," I psychologically taste that bitter seed, regardless of whatever is really happening in my mouth.

The first time I tasted the Red Rye, it was on a whim at a bar in New York. Nothing else on the beer board spoke to me that day, and I had had nothing but good luck with Founders in the past. So I slogged back a 3 ounce taste and said, "That's good. I'll have one."

Red Rye is fairly hoppy (70 IBU) and is balanced with an alcohol content (6.6 percent) that gives structure without being hot. The brewery describes its bouquet as "grapefruit" and good malt notes. The color is rich, while the beer is still light. When describing a beer, I always ask myself whether I A) shave to put it down often while trying to finish the first one, B) could finish one but only one, or C) drink more than one back to back. Red Rye falls somewhere between B and C for me. When I finish one, I sort of want another, but it's flavorful enough that I'm unsure whether I'll be able to finish it.

Coconut Blackberry Icebox Cake (Food Memories of 2011, No. 13)

Every day in December, I'm writing a short post about some food memory from 2011, mostly to be more thankful for all the great food and drink I've been lucky enough to have this year.

Someone, and I dare not point fingers, posted this gorgeous photo to Twitter one day of a coconut cream icebox cake. My reaction: "Mine! I must have that cake!"

And so I made it, sloppily the first time, in an 8-by-8 inch Pyrex baking pan. In dim light, the shredded coconut piled on top of the dark blackberry syrup (I screwed up the layering) resembled uncooked shredded mozzarella on top of reddish-purple wine-stained tomato sauce. It looked like a freaking lasagna.

But it didn't matter because it tasted so so good. (Find the coconut icebox cake recipe on Seven Spoons here.)

The layers are homemade coconut custard, graham crackers that dissolve a bit under the weight of the cream and soften into a thin cakey strip. Blackberries, strained of their seeds, make up the thinnest layer providing just a hint of fruity sweetness but a lot of color as the purplish black juice seeps into the layer below it. On top there ought to be a hefty layer of fresh whipped cream, but seeing as I'm not a huge fan of it, I just topped it off with more coconut custard and a light coating of whipped cream, just for looks.

Everyone loved it, and it didn't take too much effort to make. Because it's in an icebox cake, you can make a lot of the elements ahead of time and assemble the cake a few hours before you're ready to serve it. So I made it again.

And I think a third time. I've lost track. But the requests have started coming in again, and I think I'm due to repeat this one again soon.

Sea Urchin Toast at Aldea (Food Memories 2011, No. 12)

Uni toast at Aldea
Uni toast at Aldea, New York.
At Aldea, a Portuguese-inspired restaurant in New York, there is a starter course of sea urchin toast ($10).  Sea urchin roe, or uni as it's called in Japan (I'm most familiar with it in sushi form), is nothing short of the butter of the sea. The taste conjures up a vision of eating butter while on the beach. While not quite salty, you can feel the salt spray in the air when you in hale.

When I dined at Aldea, I had one bite of the uni toast, with cauliflower puree and mustard seeds that pop as if they are trout eggs, and wanted to close my eyes and just relax, let the stress drain from my shoulders as the buttery roe melted across my tongue.

Midway through this experience, our server approached the table to check whether everything was all right. I literally said to her, "We're not ready to talk yet." She giggled very quietly and seemed to say, "I'll leave you to it, then."

Arancini at Rubirosa (Food Memories of 2011, No. 11)

Each day in December, I'm remembering and giving thanks for some food experience from the year. One of my favorite new restaurants in New York  in the last year or so is Rubirosa, a small Italian-American restaurant in that area of New York that's half Little Italy and half Soho.

One of the most surprising things I ate there (twice) was arancini ($9). Arancini are deep-fried rice balls. It's not a food I typically enjoy all that much, and I would never have eaten them at Rubirosa except that other people at the table wanted to share an order. They were by far my favorite thing at the restaurant. The rice was moist and gooey, held together with butter and two kinds of cheese, with bits of prosciutto strewn throughout. They're rich and heavy, but so divine.

I loved them so much, I coaxed Boyfriend into going back to the restaurant within a month of the first time we ate that. There's unheard of for us. We try to go somewhere different as often as possible. But I loved those deep-friend rice balls so much, I just had to return pretty much immediately.

Affogato (Food Memories of 2011, No. 10)

Every day in December, I'm blogging about one food experience from this year and being thankful for it.

Affogato, as simple as it is, always wins me over. It's a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over it. What can I say? I'm a sucker for classics.

One day over the summer, I stepped out from my job to take a long overdue break. When I left the building, I didn't know I was necessarily in search of a snack, but I ended up walking to a gelato shop on Third Avenue in New York and heading in.

I ordered an affogato, even though I wasn't that hungry. I just needed the break and needed a reason to dally away from the office for an extra 15 minutes.

Food isn't eaten only to fulfill hunger . The buzzy caffeinated affogato that I had on the day is a perfect example.

Poached Egg Ravioli (Food Memories of 2011, No. 9)

Every day in the month of December, I'm remembering and being thankful for some food experience from this year.

A few months ago, I started volunteering at the Brooklyn Kitchen as an assistant for cooking classes. About once a month, I hang out during a three-hour cooking class and help the instructor. It's lightweight work, made easier by the fact that I worked in food service for years and years. I feel very comfortable in a working kitchen.

One of the first classes I assisted in was a homemade pasta class. I've made pasta at home before, many times, but I did pick up some new tricks from the instructor. In the class, we made hand-cut linguine, pasta machine-cut linguine, gnocchi, and cheese ravioli. We also made one special ravioli that had an egg yolk nested in the center. The ravioli has to be gigantic for the egg to fit, so they are comically big, which I think is makes it all the more fun on the plate. You can find the recipe for poached egg ravioli here.

I fell in love with this concept immediately, as there's nothing better in my book than a warm, runny egg yolk. A few days after the class, Boyfriend and I made  poached egg raviolis at home and served them on top of a big sloppy dinner salad. Cut into the ravioli, and the yolk spills out to create a dressing over the greens.

Breakfast and Why I Love It (Food Memories of 2011, No. 8)

I typically don't have bad days. Of course I have days when things don't go my way, but the things that get under my skin are high-class, first-world problems, and I have no business complaining about them in earnest. When two cars in a row run the stop sign in front of my apartment building, that really burns me. Or I'll feel a pinch of stress on a morning when I wake up to a sink full of dirty dishes. I'll curse under my breath when someone litters. These are not "problems."

All the real hard stuff, like illness and traumatic family relationships, I already went through when I was younger. My theory is that I got that stuff out of the way when I was young. I paid my dues, some of them pretty high, and now I'm in the clear.

Today, I can't say I faced any real problems, but there certainly were some hiccups. And just when I thought I had them under control by stretching myself thin to correct the course, things went awry again.

Some important documents went missing in the mail, and I'm on a deadline to get them back. Luckily, I had made a copy of them for my own records before sending them off to another party to be counter-signed. The counter-signers dropped them in the mail about two weeks ago, and they never arrived at their destination. No tracking number was used on the mail. They're just gone.

Plus, before the documents went missing, I found numerous errors on them, which had to be corrected. After that, another line was wrong because something had changed from the time the documents were first written. So we had already been through enough.

Because I'm on a deadline, I decided to expedite everything. I scanned the copy of the document I had, emailed it to the counter-signers, instructed them to print and sign everything and told them I'd be by the next afternoon to pick them up. This all worked. Then I dropped the documents off to the next person who looked them over and declared that there was a page missing.

It's not the end of the world, but this snafu caused a lot of stress and frustration.

That little story was my preamble to Food Memories of 2011, No. 8.

Every day in the month of December, I am remembering and appreciating some food moment from the year that's almost over. It's a way of giving thanks and showing gratitude for what I have and everything I have had.

Given the effects of today's events, I would like to do nothing more than relish the memory of something homey and comforting. For me, I feel most at home and comforted when I am alone. Serenity doesn't happen for me when other people are around. I need quiet and solitude.

A long time ago, I learned that the best time for quiet and solitude is early in the morning. Especially when you're young, it's easy to have an hour to yourself if you're willing to get up at 6 a.m. The food memory I want to appreciate and share today is weekly breakfast.

I get up at 6, make a pot of coffee, and shuffle around. Most days, I flip on the radio to listen to the news at a hushed volume. The dog's claws clack on the kitchen tiles as she find a comfortable position to sit. I put together breakfast, usually yogurt or kefir and fruit, but sometimes a steamy bowl of old fashioned oatmeal, or a slice of toast slathered in peanut butter. This ritual takes at least 30 minutes, but it's my favorite 30 minutes of the day.

After that, things speed up quickly, and I'm out the door walking the dog. Sometimes it's the dead of winter and dark, with the wind whipping over Manhattan and across the East River to sting my cheeks. In the summer, the sun is already rising by 6:30, glinting off the bridges and dancing through the leaves.

I don't think I could make it through the rest of my busy day without that half hour to myself with a little something to eat, always something very simple and comforting, and a milky cup of coffee.

Bacon Broth at Recette (Food Memories of 2011, No. 7)

Every day in December, I'm blogging to remember (and be thankful for) something I ate this year.

Way back in January, Boyfriend and I went to Recette in New York for dinner. This tiny but stellar restaurant exceeded my expectations in so many ways, but it was strange because it caught my interest with flavors and foods that I am not typically drawn toward.

One is bacon. I get it. Everyone adores bacon. Bacon is just so wonderful and makes everything taste better... unless your taste buds don't get excited by salt or grease, which pretty well describes mine. I like bacon fine, and in some circumstances it's extraordinary, but I prefer it small, balanced doses.

Recette had a soup that had bacon broth. It wasn't just broth made with bacon, but a warm and smokey liquid that created a base for other flavors.

Thinking back, it's hard to remember exactly how it all worked. All I really remember was bacon flavor in a light broth, with no chunks of meat, and foam of some kind. My notes about the dish read like this:
"autumn squash espuma, or a smooth soup that had been whipped and aerated almost into a foam, and in the middle, blanketed by soup, lay a single piece of roasted foie gras; a scattering of brussel sprout pieces added chew, and a bacon broth added tableside enveloped the whole thing with salt and depth."

Kofte at New Yasmeen, Dearborn, MI (Food Memories of 2011, No. 6 )

One of my favorite food memories from this year (I'm posting one a day for the month of December) was a solo dinner from New Yasmeen Bakery in Dearborn, Michigan.

Dearborn and I aren't old pals. I had never been there until a business trip in May. One of the few things I had heard about the greater Detroit area was that Dearborn has a huge Middle Eastern population, and in particular Lebanese people, and hence, authentic Lebanese cooking. I think I found New Yasmeen just on a Web search. It's a bakery that also sells hot sandwiches to eat in at little fast-food tables or take away.

The small kofte sandwich cost only a few dollars, but tasted so flavorful. Pungent pickles contrasted with lovely spiced, charred meat, still hot from the grill. The soft lavash bread hugged all the ingredients together, and melted the garlic whip (sometimes painfully called "white sauce" at New York City Halal food carts) every so slightly.

While at New Yasmeen, I also grabbed a hunk of dessert made of shredded wheat filled with a mild sweet cheese, the texture of thick yogurt, topped with ground pistachios and drizzled in warm syrup. 

Because I was on a business trip, I ate alone. And I was alone still when I returned the next morning to buy a few baked treats to take on the road. 

Braised Celery (Food Memories of 2011, No. 5 )

One of the most unexpected dishes that I fell in love with this year is French-style braised celery. Celery may not seem like a contender for braising, but I assure you that it works. Mild but exquisite with layered flavors from the celery itself, to white wine, lardons, scallions, chicken stock, and butter, it's a perfect early spring dish.

I made braised celery at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, where I took a five-week course. We made the celery in Class 3: Braising, alongside lentils, lamb shanks in red wine, and steamed mussels (which aren't braised, but are of course cooked using "wet heat" which was the overall point of the lesson).

The gist of the recipe is blanch and shock an entire head of celery, trimmed but still intact, in boiling water with a bit of lardons or other bacon-like substance; fish out the bacon bits and add them to a roasting pan with white wine, butter, and aromatics (i.e., herbs); cover and braise in a moderately hot oven; remove the pan's cover and cook a little more to reduce the sauce if needed; be French and add more butter if you like; garnish with scallions and parsley.

You do need a knife to eat this side dish. It's not as mushy as the photo might make it seem. 

Fried Pound Cake (Food Memories of 2011, No. 4)

Here's another recent food memory from this year: the "French toast" I got for brunch last month at a new restaurant in Astoria (NY) called William Hallet. Made with pound cake instead of bread, this French toast must have weighed in at some 2,500 calories or more. The joke was on me. I never order sweet things for brunch, but I always want to, and on this occasion, I decided to go for it.

Did I forget to mention the mound of fresh whipped cream (which I don't care for) on top? How about the apple compote, a sad display of chopped apples sautéed not long enough in butter? Seriously, this monstrosity was too decadent to really eat, but I gave it my best.

I ate one slice during the meal and had to take the rest home. A few days later, I remembered it was in the refrigerator and reheated in the oven (sans whipped cream, of course). That's when it hit the spot.

Wedding Feast in Vigo, Spain (Food Memories of 2011, No. 3 )

The food memory I want to share today is from a wedding Boyfriend and I attended in August in Vigo, Spain. Two of our friends got married, one from Italy and one from Venezuela. Influenced by their diverse background and the local flavor of Vigo (which is one of the largest fishing ports in the world), the menu for the wedding was outstanding.
I didn't take photos of the many many dinner courses that were served, as I was having too much fun enjoying the moment... and because they just kept coming! But I did shoot a few of the dishes from the cocktail hour, and some of the dessert spread. I'll let the pictures do the talking.

Cappuccino at Fika in New York (Food Memories of 2011, No. 2 )

There's nothing like setting your heart on a luxurious cup of coffee. For a couple of bucks, the world can seem right again. A fantastic cappuccino feels more like a little gift that I give to myself rather than a beverage. It's special, hand-crafted, and something that I truly appreciate in value.

For the month of December, I'm posting a food memory from the year, one for each day of the month, to better appreciate what I have. So here's a little story about a cup of coffee, probably my favorite cup of coffee this year.

A few months ago, I visited a coffee shop in my neighborhood for the first time. It's an adorable cafe, a little out of the way, that I had been meaning to try for a year. When I finally got there, I ended up drinking two or three mouthfuls of some of the worse brown piss water coffees I have ever tasted. I dumped the rest in the gutter. What a disappointment.

The next day, to make up for it, I went to Fikka. Fikka is a tiny Scandinavian coffee shop located just across the street from my office in Manhattan. (The business actually has three locations in New York, if I'm not mistaken, but the one I like is on Park Avenue South at 28th Street.) I like that it's small, cozy, and usually pretty quiet. What made the cappuccino that I bought on this day more special than any other was I knew it was going to be excellent. After the complete let-down from the day before, all I wanted was the promise of something great, and then a delivery on that promise.

I don't cut corners with cappuccinos. I'm willing to pay a little extra for quality, in part because I don't buy them very often. I want whole milk. I'll take a modestly sized cup, too, as the balance of an excellent cup of coffee comes from not only the flavor and strength, but also the balance of quantity. Strong coffee doesn't taste as good after about four ounces of it (this is a point that I feel a lot of Americans don't understand, or refuse to even consider).

When I got my cappuccino on this particular day, I remember spending some time just enjoying the look of the leaf-heart shape drawn into the foam. Someone took the time to add this special touch, and I was happy to see it. As I sipped and slurped my way through the milk and espresso, I wasn't disappointed. Creamy, slightly bitter, notes of chocolate...

I'll admit that most days, I drink simple drip coffee at 6 a.m. in my pajamas without even looking into the mug. But from time to time, it's nice to give yourself the gift of a well balanced cappuccino that someone else has made for you.

Cardoons, Olives, Feta at Gramercy Tavern (Food Memories of 2011, No. 1 )

For the month of December, I'll be posting one food memory every day here, and also sharing them on Facebook. To kick things off, I'm remembering something I ate only 24 hours ago: a vegetable course as part of the lunch tasting menu at Gramercy Tavern.

The dish was cardoons, olives, feta, and some dark leafy green cut into chiffonade. Cardoons, if you've never tried them, look like gigantic stalks of celery, but they taste like a mild artichoke. They're always cooked (I'm not sure if it's safe to eat them raw). At Gramercy Tavern, the cardoons were sliced on the bias to create this little angular shpes, like tiny boomerangs.

The cardoons sat on top of a warm pile of chopped black olives mixed with feta and ribbons of some kind of leafy green. What I liked best about it was the texture and temperature. Through and through, the whole dish was warm, but not hot. The olives and feta were soft, providing a contrast to the still-firm cardoons.

2011 Year in Food: The December Post-a-Day Project

For the month of November, a friend of mine writes a thanks-a-day and posts it on Facebook. It's her way of observing Thanksgiving all month long. 

Inspired by her idea, I've decided to post my favorite food memories of 2011, one every day through the month of December. The reason is to appreciate better what I have, but also to share some of the memories that come with it all. Food is never just about food, but also family, culture, and emotion.

I hope to dig up some good photos, too!

Updating 'I've Eaten Recently At' and 'I'm Eating Next At' Lists

I just finished updating one of the sidebars on the right edge of this blog. The lists show restaurants where I plan to eat next (the one I just updated) and where I've eaten recently.

The "I'm Eating Next At" list now better reflects places I actually will go in the next three to six months. Prior, it named a number of restaurants that were on my long-term list for New York City, meaning a lot of expensive restaurants. It would take me several years to get to half of them. So the list is now more focused on my local neighborhood and affordability.

Image: Chairman Bao from Bao Haus: pork in steamed bun with chopped peanuts. 
Photo by saebaryo via Flickr (CC license).

The "I've Eaten Recently At" list is updated at least once a week, unless I haven't eaten anywhere new. I started it in May 2008. A few comments about what makes that list:

First, it's chronological.

Second, I only add places where I've eaten for the first time. For example, I had dinner at The Fatty Crab in August, but you won't find it on the list under the August 2011 entries because I also eat there several years ago.

Third, it doesn't necessarily mean I enjoyed the meal. Email me if you have questions about a restaurant that appears on the list.

Fourth, it only includes restaurants where I've eaten food. If I only had a drink, I usually don't list the restaurant, although there are a few exceptions. If I go to a coffee shop or bar, I won't list it. But I do include bars and pubs that serve food, when I actually eat there.

Fifth, and last, what appears in the sidebar is only the most recent 25 restaurants. You can see the complete list that began in May 2008 here.

Why I Ate a McRib

For the first time in approximately 11 years, I went to McDonald's.

My last visit happened in 2000. I had been living in London and felt a longing for something from home, and ventured out to find a milkshake. That's when I learned (or as they say in British English, "learnt") that the U.K. version of a milk shake is thick, sugary milk — not blended ice cream. I was so disappointed that I went to McDonald's and bought myself a real American shake. It was... okay, I guess. It satisfied my longing for something from the States, although it had a strange banana base flavor with which I have still not come to terms.

Eleven years later, here I am without a milkshake and instead holding a McRib sandwich. Known in 1980s and 1990s school cafeterias as the rib-a-cue, the McRib is allegedly a slab of processed pork made to resemble a rib-like construction, smothered in sweet barbecue sauce, presented in a roll or bun. The modern day McDonald's version tops the "meat" (there is some controversy over what's in it, so the scare quotation marks are indeed warranted) with sliced pickles and raw white onion so pungent you can taste it hours after ingesting. I've been reading that the pickles and onions appeared in the original McRib sandwich, but I don't remember them, to be honest.

A Total Aversion to Fast Food
The journey to the McRib was an experiment in nostalgia. Aside from the shake, I haven't eaten anything from McDonald's for years. I don't support the company, nor fast food companies in general, nor their business philosophies. On the whole, I think most fast food taste horrifyingly like deep frying oil, salt, and sugar. I can't even bring myself to even inhaling while walking by a McDonald's, as the smell of it alone turns my stomach.

Call my complete aversion to fast food a type of snobbery if you will, and I won't fully disagree. One side of my simply cannot eat that processed garbage, yet the other side of me refuses to for reasons other than first-hand experience. After all, I haven't eaten the food the chain restaurant makes for more than 11 years, so how do I know if it's really as bad as I remember it being?

Young, Hungry, Pudgy
The McRib supposedly first appeared at some test markets in the 1970s, but it hit the McDonald's mass markt in 1981, according to Wikipedia. It was then pulled from the menu in 1985. Years later, it returned, but only in some markets. Now, restaurants can choose to carry it year-round or not, and those who don't must carry it when McDonald's brings it back as a nostalgia food, drawing suckers like me in to spend our $1.99-$2.99 for some disgusting, stinky sandwich that we don't want to so much eat as buy and own like a piece of memorabilia.

What's shocking to me about those dates is just how young I was when I got my hands on a McRib. I was six and younger.

The school cafeteria food version, of course, lasted much longer and may still be on some menus today. By far my favorite school lunch food, the rib-a-cue came in an ever so slightly crusty French roll that held up to the fake ribs and sauce better than the McD's bun. I remember it being tangy and sweet, with sauce that stuck to the edges of my mouth. Ridges on the patty resembled faux bone and cartilage.

When I was a kid, I had the same deep-rooted sweet tooth that I have now, the same one that drives me to eat jam directly from the jar or devour an entire chocolate bar in one sitting. As a adult, I have more restraint and rules for my sweet binges, but as kid, nothing could come between me a the finger-licking rib-a-cue. Before the McRib was an option, my go-to McDonald's food was chicken McNuggets with sweet and sour sauce, primarily for the sauce. I didn't care what I was dunking in that well of goo.

I remember having an insatiable appetite as a kid, but I guess I had convinced myself that four, five, and six years old would have been too young to be such a glutinous pig. But apparently not. If Wikipedia's dates are correct, I was McRibbing it up a much younger age than I realized before.

Today's McRib
Curiosity and a desire to have some first-hand basis for my anti-fast food snobbery are what prompted me to buy and eat a McRib today. My sister and her boyfriend came with me. They eat fast food occasionally, so it wasn't a momentous event for them, although I believe they had never had the McRib before.

How was it? The short answer is: better than I expected, but not as a good as I remembered. The fresh parts of the sandwich, namely the bun and onions, were actually fresh. The meat tasted as much like pork as a chicken McNugget. It might as well have been vegetarian fake meat. The sauce was not as gloppy as I imagined it would be. The pickles were pickles.

I don't regret eating it, but I'd be hard pressed to eat anything else from a McDonald's for the next 11 years.