Monday, September 01, 2008

Throw Me Some Peanuts and Crackerjacks...

Earlier this summer, Husband and I went to a Yankee game (my second baseball game, ever). I couldn't wait to go - not necessarily to watch the Yankees play, but to eat the ballpark snacks and to set foot in Yankee Stadium once again before it gets torn down.

Upon arrival, we bought hot dogs from the concession stand and found our way to our Bleacher seats, braving the rest of the Creatures and their antics. The Yankees did not play very well that day. In fact, the Red Sox killed them. Luckily, my attention was not on the game, but the stands that evening. I watched each vendor hawk his wares, impressed by their wit and good humor (if I was hauling around a heavy, steaming box of hot dogs in 97 degree heat, I would not be so personable). After a few innings, Husband noticed that I looked disappointed.

"I'm sorry that the Yankees are losing," he said. "I know that you were excited for this game."

"Oh, I'm not upset about the Yankees..." I sighed.

"You're not?" He asked. "Well, then what is it?"

"Nobody is throwing anything," I complained.

Husband looked at me, blankly. "Lots of balls have been thrown," he said, patiently.

"I don't mean the game," I tried to explain, "The vendors are supposed to throw peanuts into the stands when people buy them. Or crackerjacks, or hot dogs..."

Husband burst into laughter.

"I don't think they do that anymore. And if they do, it's only peanuts. They definitely do NOT throw hot dogs."

"Well, they should throw everything." I insisted.

"You are the only person I know who goes to a baseball game and doesn't care if the home team wins, only that the vendors throw food!" Husband said, amusement in his eyes.

I shrugged. "Isn't that the whole point of a ball game?"

Husband just shook his head.

After a few more innings, I finally gave up on the vendors and found that I was actually getting into the game - learning the players, the rules, etc. I was enjoying myself and decided then and there that I loved the Yankees and would forever be a die hard fan (even though they really did play terribly that day). I turned to Husband to include him in this revelation and, from the corner of my eye, I saw a vendor throw a pack of peanuts towards the rear of the bleachers. I cheered and clapped my hands in personal victory, much to the confusion of those around me.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Eating my way through Southeast Asia - Chapter 4: Vietnam, baby!

Ok, so if you have read any of my other posts, you know that Vietnamese food is my absolute favorite type of cuisine in the world. Needless to say, this was my favorite leg of the trip.

I will not subject you to photos of everything we ate, because, well, to be honest, we ate tons. Seriously. My knowledge of the vietnamese language is definitely lacking, but I am pretty sure that our waiters were laughing at us at every restaurant we went to, because we always ordered at least four or five dishes, even though there were only two of us! Here are photos of our old favorites (dishes we have loved for years) and new, exotic flavors that we tried.
The Old Favorites

Cafe Sua (Vietnamese coffee) -
A small cup that packs a huge punch. Sweetened with condense milk, it is sure to give you a burst of energy for lots of sightseeing.
Pho Bo -
A hearty, yet comforting beef soup with vermicelli noodles.

Nem Cua Be aka "Cha Gio" in the south (fried spring rolls) -
These are literally my favorite things on earth. Usually a combination of pork, shrimp (or crab), vermicelli, mushroom and bean sprout wrapped in rice paper and then fried to crispy perfection.

Spring roll upclose (mmm....)

The Exotic

Ca Sua Nuong Rieng Me (Crocodile fillet grilled with ginger and fermented rice) -

This was the first time I ever ate crocodile. It has a consistency that is in between calamari and chicken. A pretty good adventure, but I am not sure if I would order it again...

Den Men Chien Cari (Curry fried crickets) -

I know it sounds gross, but they were quite tasty! The worst part about eating them was finding cricket exoskeleton in between your teeth hours later...

Cricket up close. I don't think I can ever watch "Pinnochio" again...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Eating my way through Southeast Asia - Chapter 3: Kuala Lumpur

Feeling hungry in Kuala Lumpur? Head to Jalan Alor, an entire street dedicated to hawker stalls. This street is very popular with the locals, and is as you can see from these pictures, it is always busy - day and night.

It's so busy that it is hard to find a table!

No one seems to mind eating right next to traffic...

I loved this guy. He serenaded us during dinner.

The best thing I ate in KL was the satay. Oh man, do the Malaysians know how to grill meat on a stick!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Eating my way through Southeast Asia - Chapter 2: The not so tasty...

Unfortunately, not everything was quite so delicious in Singapore. Ice Kachang is a popular dessert in Singapore (and Malaysia). It is a cup of shaved ice which is then drizzled with brightly colored flavored syrups and topped with the customer's choice of toppings. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it? I thought so, too, and was expecting a slight variation on a Sno-Cone sort of experience.

Here are the photos that LYL took of me trying Ice Kachang for the first (and only) time.

The Ice Kachang "menu" at the hawker center, depicting all of the fabulous concoctions that they offer.

An upclose look at the toppings. Ice Kachang is most often topped with beans, corn, aloe vera gelatin, grass jelly and other exotic tastes.

We watch as she makes the Ice Kachang.

And now, the tasting:

Husband takes the first bite. He hates it.

Despite his unkind reaction, I bravely take the plunge.

It's... interesting. Feeling adventurous, I go back for another spoonful.

Never mind, it is flat out gross!

Husband says "I told you so" as I try to wash away the taste.

I wish I had never tried Ice Kachang!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Eating My Way Through Southeast Asia - Chapter 1: Singapore's most delicious meal

Anthony Bourdain was right. Sin Huat Eating House was phenomenal. Though our meal there was the most expensive of our trip, it was well worth it and I long for the day when I can return.

An unassuming little restaurant with plastic chairs. What I found most surprising about this fantastic place is that despite Bourdain's mouth-watering profile of the restaurant, not many people have heard of it. I guess there are just so many good eateries in Singapore that they are hard to keep track of!

This is what we ate there:

Scallops on the half shell with black bean sauce.

Sauteed greens.

Garlic Prawns - so fresh that the meat practically slid right out of the shell and into your mouth and oh, such garlicky goodness.

Crab Bee Hoon (Crab with vermicelli noodles). Without a doubt, the most delicious thing I tasted in Singapore. Like the prawns, the crab was extremely fresh and therefore very tender, sweet and not too difficult to pull from its shell.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Eating My Way Through Southeast Asia - Prologue (aka "Thank you, Anthony Bourdain!")

Last year LYL, one of my dear friends from childhood, was presented with an amazing opportunity - to move to Singapore for a year. This past winter, as she was preparing for the big move, she started petitioning her friends to see who would travel across the world to visit her.

LYL and I have been friends since 5th grade, when she moved to our sleepy suburban town. We have remained very good friends throughout the years. We survived middle school, high school and college together (though we went to different colleges). She lived with Husband and I back when he and I were still just living in sin, during the engagement and nuptial planning, and even for a few years after the wedding until he and I finally moved into our own apartment, like normal married people. So, when she asked me if I would visit her in Singapore it presented a bit of an awkward situation. Who could she count on if not me, her loyal friend of 20 + years?

"I'll be so lonely," she pouted, trying the sympathy angle. "I will be leaving my family and all of my friends for a whole year! I won't have any friends there."

I smiled politely and told her I would think about it.

"You would love it there," she promised. "Singapore is supposed to have the best food in Southeast Asia. They are totally obsessed with food. You will fit right in!"

LYL is very smart. She always has been, ever since she was a kid. She knew exactly how to play her hand in order to pique my interest. Unfortunately, there were many more obstacles - much bigger obstacles - to overcome other than just my desire to visit her.

Aside from the financial issues and getting the time off from work, a journey halfway across the world would have to be equally enticing to Husband. This was the deal breaker. Europe has always been the limits of our travels - bearable flying times paired with familiar, western cultures was what Husband wanted from vacation. I knew that Southeast Asia would be a lot to ask of him. As LYL and I parted ways that evening, I knew that in reality, I probably wouldn't even suggest it.

A week or so later, as we were watching tv, I noticed that Anthony Bourdain's travel/food show "No Reservations" was airing an episode about Singapore. I explained to Husband that I just wanted to watch a few minutes of it, since LYL was moving there shortly. He agreed that we could watch it, but only for a few minutes.

It is no surprise that we were quickly hooked by the amazing food that we watched Bourdain eat. What was surprising, however, were Husband's comments about how clean Singapore seemed, how orderly, how very modern. By the end of the show (yes, we ended up watching the entire episode), Husband and I were both salivating, longing to experience the wonders of Sin Huat Eating House for ourselves and he was crowing about how great Singapore looked. I saw my opportunity and pounced.

"You know," I began casually, "LYL asked me if we would visit her while she was over there. She said it is the food capital of Southeast Asia, and now we know that to be true. Plus, you saw yourself that it is modern and nice. It's not like going to India or something" (for some reason, Husband abhors the idea of traveling to India).

"I could go to Singapore," Husband shrugged.

And so the Super-Amazing Southeast Asian Adventure began.

We expanded our itinerary to include a short trip to Vietnam (you didn't really think that I could be in Southeast Asia and miss out on eating my very favorite type of cuisine direct from the source, did you?) with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur. After months of researching and planning, Husband and I were armed with guidebooks (including my very own copy of the Singapore Makansutra, essentially the Zagat of Asian street food) and ready for the feast of a lifetime.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

There's No Taste Like Home

Most people believe that their mothers are the best cooks on earth. Unfortunately for them, this is not true because of one simple fact – my mother holds that well deserved title.

We, the fortunate members of her clan, all have our favorite recipes – be it the prize winning chili (yes, it actually won first place in a chili cook-off) that she makes for Super Bowl Sunday, the meatloaf that made my father fall in love with her (it was the first meal that she ever cooked for him. After eating it, he decided that he had better marry her – “After all, if she could do that with meatloaf, then just think what else she could do!”), or her ever popular, original concoction known as “hamburger gravy” which taught us as children that looks can be deceiving (it looks like a plate of slop, but tastes like pure bliss). Yes, all of these recipes are great. Some are divine. But, if there is one dish that I would call her signature, it is the soup that she makes every year for Thanksgiving.

The soup is a traditional Italian dish which is often referred to as Wedding Soup. This is not because it is actually served at weddings, but the result of mistranslation. The soup combines greens with meat (usually meatballs). When two things go well together, the direct translation in Italian is that they are “well married.” There are probably as many variations on this soup as there are Italian families. Some use spinach, others endive. Some add pasta, others do not. A Google search for “Italian Wedding Soup Recipe” yields over 80 pages of results.

My mother’s version consists of sautéed escarole, carrots, bites of shredded chicken, and mini meatballs floating harmoniously in a rich, golden chicken broth. We top it off with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese which coaxes out some of the subtle, savory undertones of the broth and the meatballs. It sounds simple, but believe me when I tell you that it is anything but.

Growing up, I had no idea that it was a variation on a common dish. My family simply called it Mom’s (or RoRo’s, if she was your aunt) Escarole Soup. In fact, I didn’t learn of its traditional roots and nuptial name until my freshman year at college. I was reveling in the memory of thanksgivings past, describing it to my roommate when she said, blithely, “Oh, yeah, Italian Wedding Soup.” After a pause she added, “It’s ok.”

What did she mean? Other people had made my mother’s soup? My roommate had tasted it before and only thought it OK? In a flash, my world was turned upside down.

Perhaps she did not understand me, I consoled myself. After all, I, too, had confused the soup when I was younger. Our pantry was often filled with canned soup for quick and easy meals that we kids could make on our own if Mom and Dad were out for a night on the town. One such evening, I was thrilled to find a can of Progresso Escarole Soup on the shelf. What a treat - escarole soup even though it was no where near Thanksgiving! I opened the can to find a slimy nest of grey, overcooked escarole steeped in flavorless green broth. Disappointment and revulsion filled my tiny body. I would have been less upset to learn the truth about Santa Claus. This was the first piece of evidence that my mother’s soup was something special, something that I would not find anywhere other than her kitchen.

For the past 30 or so years, my mother has cooked the bulk of Thanksgiving dinner, which is no small feat since we are a large family of hungry Italians. A typical holiday gathering consists of at least 30 people who have the appetites of 60. This meal requires an enormous amount of preparation. I do not know of anyone other than my mother who starts cooking for that glorious day of gluttony as early as September.

Well before the first whisper of autumn is upon us, while the leaves on the trees are still deep green, my mother has already made 18 quarts of chicken stock. Roasting up sometimes as many as six chickens - feet and all - she then slaves away in front of an impossibly large stockpot (it is actually army issued, to give you an idea of the vast quantity we are talking about) as she sautés several pounds of carrots, celery, and onions for the base of her stock.

Once completed, the broth goes into the freezer (technically, a collection of freezers – most goes into one of the 3 freezers at my parents’ house, the rest scattered between the freezers of my three sisters who live nearby), waiting patiently for the moment when it will be reunited in all of its glory.

A few weeks later, it is time to make the mini-meatballs. When I was younger, it was my job to roll them. Every year it seemed that meatball duty would sneak up on me and instead of going out to play with my friends, I had to spend the day rolling hundreds of meatballs the size of a dime. It was a long day filled with cold, ground meat and messy hands. I hated it, especially since Mom had a great eye for quality control – if the meatballs were even the slightest bit larger than dime sized, she deemed them unacceptable and gave them back to me to roll again. She always taught me that if you were going to do something, do it so that you could proudly sign your name to it like an artist signing their masterpiece, meatballs being no exception.

I rolled as she cooked them, counting each one so that she always knew how many went into the soup. This obsession of hers probably developed from years of people complaining that there were not enough meatballs (more likely a result of certain family members hogging them than actual lack of meatballs). Every year without fail, someone asks how many meatballs are in this batch, and every year she has the exact count. Even though I hated rolling them, my heart always filled with pride when she revealed the insanely large number of meatballs that I had helped make. I still remember the first year that we broke a thousand. I spent the entire holiday crowing about my accomplishment, oblivious to the reality that though they may be the star of the soup, rolling the meatballs is just one small step.

On the morning of Thanksgiving, it is time to join all of the ingredients together to form the mystical mélange that is the fruit of months of labor. This is physically demanding, as she is dealing with impossibly large quantities of ingredients that must be lifted, poured and combined. Eight heads of escarole are sautéed and drained - the final addition to the soup. The enormous pot simmers for hours, blending the fragrances and flavors together until it is the familiar, steaming brew of my mother’s love that we all hunger for and too often take for granted.

My mother is getting on in years and we have all been worried that, in addition to other mounting health problems, she has been wracked with mysterious pain in her back and legs that often makes it impossible for her to walk. Yet, this year, like every other, she went through the many arduous steps of making her signature soup. Shortcuts, such as using canned stock or bouillon cubes, never even entered the realm of possibility. She and my father rolled the 1,100 meatballs without my help. Five gallons of soup were ready and waiting for my family on Thanksgiving Day.

As an adult, I have adopted the philosophy of “Food is Love”, which is no surprise given the environment in which I was raised. This Thanksgiving, as I savored my escarole soup, I could taste every ounce of my mother’s devotion to her family, her unwillingness to let anyone down, and her sense of pride and joy at being able to provide such wonders. I was more aware than ever of how much of my mother’s soul goes into that soup and equally aware that though there may be many versions of it in the world, none will ever hold a candle to hers. Even if her recipe was followed to the letter (an impossible task because my mother never writes down her recipes - each year the formula is adjusted based on her well developed sense of taste), it would never be the same if made by anyone other than her. My mother’s soup lives only as long as she is able to make it.

This year, we again were blessed with its presence on our holiday table. For that, I am extremely thankful.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

California Food Photo Album

Over the summer I went to California to visit Best Friend. I am very happy to finally be able to provide visuals of my favorite California treats (mentioned in previous posts):

The famous Cicero's sausage pizza.

(Please do not be disappointed by the fact that there is only a small amount of sausage towards the tip of the pizza. I am very well aware that I criticized Grimaldi's for inadequate topping distribution. I promise this is not usually the case with Cicero's. This happened because we ordered a pie that was only half sausage, so there is not the usual full coverage that I have come to know and love. I have learned my lesson and will never go halvsies again.)

The obscenely delicious Saigon Style Potstickers from Saigon City.

IN-N-OUT Burger

I have not yet posted about IN-N-OUT Burger, but while in Cali I flew down to LA for a day and was told that I couldn't leave without having said burger. We actually planned out our 24 hours so that I would be able to squeeze one in, albeit in the car, on the way back to the airport. I don't really eat much fast food these days, but this was one damn good burger, so I thought I would include it in my California Food Photo Album. Here's a bit of advice - skip the fries. They are unremarkable. I didn't even finish mine which says a lot because 1) I love fries so much that I can pretty much eat my body weight in fries (or any form of fried potato) and 2) I was raised in a family where it is a sin to waste food. These poor spuds went directly into the trash. Don't tell my mom.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Grim Truth

As you know, I have been having a bit of a love affair with Brooklyn Heights lately. I have found that it is impossible to visit the Brooklyn Bridge area without taking note of Grimaldi's Pizzeria - a small storefront with an everlastingly long line outside. The first time I saw it, I was walking across the street.

"What on earth is that line for?" I asked my Husband.

"Oh, that's Grimaldi's," he said, knowingly. "It's supposed to be the best pizza in New York."

"I thought that was John's. Or Lombardi's," I replied, knowing this only from second hand knowledge as I am not really a pizza enthusiast.

We walked by, continuing on our way.

Over the coming weeks I found that I could not stop thinking about Grimaldi's and the crazy people who stand in line no matter what the weather. Could it really be so good that people would stand in line not only to get a table, but for take away as well? Was it better than my beloved Cicero's in San Jose? I could hardly fathom the thought, but I was desperate to find out.

The next free day that we had, Husband and I hopped on over to Brooklyn and took our place in line with the rest of the hungry masses. I was a little surprised that Husband had agreed to participate in my pizza quest, since he is one of those unfortunate New Yorkers who hates both crowds and waiting in line. After a few minutes of reviewing the take out menu, I asked him to hold our place so I could go across the street and take some photos of the line (my mom would never believe this!). I returned to find him on his cell phone. When I approached him, I asked him who he had been talking to.

"Oh, I decided to just call the order in," he said,stepping out of line. "I got tired of waiting. It'll be ready in 15 minutes."

Seventeen minutes later Husband walked out of the bustling restaurant, pie in hand, while the poor girl who had been ahead of us in line still had three people in front of her. We rejoiced in our success and retired to eat our bounty.

"What? Was this made by a blind man?" I asked as I opened the box and saw the sloppy pizza inside.

Toppings were scarce (we had ordered sausage and mushroom) and tossed on willy-nilly. There were blobs of sauce or gobs of bland mozzarella and you were lucky to get a bite of one topping let alone both. I choked on a naked piece of crust and mozzarella and longed for an even distribution so I could experience all of the elements together. The crust was a little too tangy and way too chewy. The nicely charred bottom and whiffs of fresh basil were lovely, but ultimately, could not save this pizza.

"This is definitely not better than Cicero's," I pronounce, ever loyal.

"No it is not," Husband agrees. "I like Patsy's better than this."

We ate the rest of our pizza in silence. We didn't need to talk to know that we were both disappointed since we had started this day wanting to like the pizza. But we both knew that it could have been worse. We could have waited in line for 40 minutes like everyone else. Somehow that realization made the final bites a little bit tastier.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Digitally Delicious

OK, so the knee saga continues and has taken all of my attention for more months than I care to count. I have not posted in a long time. So sorry. Here is a short one as I try to ease back into my old routines.

The big news is that I have finally purchased a digital camera! Hooray! Rejoice in its splendor!

What to eat in the heat? BBQ, of course! These Kansas City Sweet & Sticky Pork Ribs are from Daisy May's BBQ USA.

These are my favorite ribs. Everything I love about ribs is right in the name.

I always prefer piggy ribs to cow ribs.

The sauce, oh the sauce! I really can't get into dry rub ribs. Or maybe I just haven't had good ones yet. All I know for sure is that I want to have a pile of sauce-stained napkins on my plate by the time I am finished eating. I want to have to lick my fingers clean. I do not want to choke on some powdery dry rub mix that gets stuck in between my nose and throat.

This BBQ sauce is a perfect combination of tangy, savory and sweet. The ribs have a tiny bit of heat that creeps up on you, but does not overwhelm. The meat slides off the bone with the slightest touch and is as tender as a loved ones' whisper. I like to pair mine with Mashed Potatoes w/Red Eye Gravy and Creamy Coleslaw.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Unjust Desserts

I have a list of restaurants which I love, whose food I start to dream about and salivate for as soon as the reservation has been made, even if weeks in advance. Very infrequently does the dessert menu appear in these fantasies. This is probably because I am not really a dessert person. Desserts are more of a luxury than a staple, saved for fancy dinners and special occasions.

That said, there is nothing worse than enjoying an exquisite dinner and then submitting to the temptation of the dessert menu, only to be disappointed by the final taste of the evening.

At 44 & X Hell's Kitchen, Husband and I enjoyed a superb anniversary dinner. Our appetizer was a goat cheese and pistachio souffle, garnished with endive and a pomegranate vinaigrette. This dish was the perfect combination of flavors and textures. Husband enjoyed short ribs with a root vegetable mash, black truffles and a port wine reduction - the short ribs were braised then grilled, full of savory and sweet flavors that mesmerized the tongue. I had crispy sea bass with chanterelle mushrooms, asparagus, and artichokes in a saffron mussel broth which was also quite delicious, even though the artichokes were better in theory than in practice as they were mushy and flavorless.

After relishing our three successful dishes, we debated over dessert and decided to go for it. We ordered the fallen chocolate souffle, with chocolate soup and Tahitian vanilla ice cream. I knew that Husband was looking forward to this treat as chocolate souffle is one of his favorites.

When it arrived I was immediately put off - the chocolate soup had been dumped over the entire souffle, then oozed down to pool at bottom of the dish. I could practically hear the poor souffle crying out for mercy as it drowned. The taste was as unappetizing as the dish's appearance. While the souffle was adequately light and fluffy, the chocolate was neither sweet, nor rich. I drank a full glass of water after sampling it in the hopes of eliminating the chalky aftertaste that was left in the back of my mouth. Unfortunately, I was still tasting it as we walked home from the restaurant.

44 & X is not the only restaurant that suffers from Disappointing Dessert Syndrome. Crispo, a heavenly Italian restaurant, is in the same predicament. After being wowed by the chef's talents at making even the most ordinary entree such as roast chicken a culinary masterpiece, I have continually been distraught over their desserts. Rather than being crispy, light and airy, their zeppole are overly greasy and sink to your stomach like hard little stones. The gelato lacks the smooth, indulgent quality that distinguishes it from any ordinary ice cream that you could get from your grocer's freezer.

Why is it so difficult for restaurants who excel at starters and entrees to provide equally good desserts? I understand that a chef is not the same as a skilled pastry chef and perhaps it is time for chefs to realize that are doing their customers (and ultimately themselves) a disservice in not finding a pastry chef of equal caliber.

In all fairness, I cannot say that these mediocre dessert offerings have ever ruined my entire dining experience (not even I am that melodramatic). I have never vowed to boycott a restaurant based on desserts alone. However, on those rare occasions where I was served a dessert which was as thoughtfully created and well executed as the previous courses, I have left the restaurant not only sated, but elated.

Like a sweet good night kiss on a first date, a good dessert has the ability to transform an enjoyable night into a heavenly one. Likewise, a weak offering may not turn you off forever, but you may think twice before again subjecting yourself to the boorishness of the slobbery, unpleasant kiss of a chocolate drenched suitor.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Fat 'n' Happy Once More

In early August, I was having tummy troubles and therefore was not eating much. I was nauseated, had terrible stabbing pains in my stomach and had simply lost my appetite. By the end of the month, my knee (clearly jealous that my tummy was hogging the spotlight) decided to rebel in a dramatic fashion and began to hurt and swell to the size of Charlie Brown's head for no apparent medical reason.

Following doctors orders, I started throwing back high doses of ibuprofen and percacet. The pain in my knee was so intense that I lost what little appetite I had regained in the few days since the tummy troubles had finally begun to subside. I was advised to take my many pills with food for fear of wreaking further havoc on my delicate stomach lining. The only thing I could bear were triscuits.

After two weeks of triscuits, pills and ginger ale, I was told that knee surgery was necessary. The post-surgical recovery prolonged my nauseated state, and the triscuit diet was continued until I could finally tolerate light meals. While Husband enjoyed full dinners and dessert, I pushed away half eaten bowls of salad, sick at the thought of having to eat another bite. I only ate enough to cushion my stomach from the harsh pills that I was continuing to gulp down. The thought of real food filled me with disgust. What was happening to me?

My stomach had shrunk. It had been well over a month since I had eaten to my usual gluttonous capacity. I was losing weight. I became skinny.

Although I am no where near overweight when my appetite is healthy, I am not 'toned' and do occasionally succumb to the insane standards of beauty that are thrust upon us by society. My lack of contact with reasonable humans in the outside world and the endless hours of television that I was watching did not help. In order to distract myself from my loneliness and the depression that I could feel creeping closer every day, I spent time admiring the fact that my pot belly was now flat and that my clothes were looser. I wondered how much weight I was actually losing and if I could keep it off once fully recovered.

I was soon told that I had to start Physical Therapy in order to regain the range of motion in my knee. Three times a week I am subjected to an hour of torture with a certified Physical Therapy Sadist. Three times a day I must perform agonizing exercises to strengthen muscles and increase flexibility. At first I cried and howled in pain every time I did them. I was convinced that my neighbors would call the police to report abuse.

One night Husband and I were sitting on the couch. I started the lengthy process of grabbing my old lady cane, standing up and shuffling into the bedroom for nightly exercises.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"Time for torture," I told him.

His face fell. "Oh, I was going to make myself an ice cream cone. But I can't sit out here eating ice cream while you are in there suffering."

"I want one!" I demanded, even though I knew that my stomach was indifferent to - perhaps even slightly opposed to - the idea. But my brain told me that I deserved it after surviving a month and a half of hell and brain finally triumphed over stomach.

"We'll have them after you finish your exercises," he promised.

And so it began.

Now every night after I finish my third and final round of exercises I am treated to an ice cream cone. During the day when I am blinded by pain and home alone, I will hobble to the freezer and eat ice cream straight from the container. Who needs percacet when you have a gallon of chocolate ice cream?

Somewhere along the weeks of ice cream trophies I began to crave sushi, pork chops and mashed potatoes, roast chicken. I remember the first time I ate a full meal. I could actually feel my stomach stretching back to its original dimensions. It was extremely uncomfortable, yet I was pleased. After almost two months, I was starting to finally feel like myself again. It was as though the ice cream was a frosty wake up call to the part of my soul that had remained under the spell of anesthesia, reminding me that food is more than just sustenance. It is a reward, a comfort, a delight.

Though my knee is taking its own sweet time to heal, my appetite and Buddha belly are back. I wouldn't want it any other way. I'm not called Fat 'n' Happy for nothing.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Deep Fried Friendship with Cheese

There are some people who have "drinking buddies", friends with whom they cannot be around without finding themselves completely drunk within moments of contact, which is why recovering alcoholics try to find a new social scene to break the habit. I, in fact, have a few "smoking buddies" - I instantly crave a cigarette whenever I am with them, talk to them on the phone, or sometimes just think about them. When I was growing up, many of my friends joked that I was their "eating buddy" (which I guess is no surprise since I grew up in an italian household which had not one, but two full sized refrigerators plus a free-standing freezer, all of which were fully stocked at all times). I don't think the feeling was ever mutual since I ate with all of my friends. But looking back, if I were to choose one person to be my own personal, #1 enabler when it comes to food, it would be my good friend, L.

L and I grew up in the same tiny suburb of NYC, so we were aware of each other's existence forever. We became good friends in Middle School and have been pigging out together ever since.

While normal hungry teenagers would pop a frozen pizza in the oven, L and I would fry up a pound of bacon, add it to a bowl of iceberg lettuce and drown it in mayonnaise. We would proceed to eat the entire "salad" while watching the latest antics on "Days of Our Lives" then wash it down with a coke and a bag of potato chips.

At the diner (the reigning social scene in our town from middle school until they banned smoking in restaurants in the early '90s) we flirted with boys over orders of cheese fries with gravy, toasted bagels with melted cheese and bacon, chicken fingers, BLTs with extra mayo, fried zucchini sticks, you name it. If it could be deep fried, smothered in cheese and/or topped with bacon, we would devour it.

Many years have passed since high school and even college. L now lives in Boston and we get together a handful of times per year, if we are lucky. We always tell each other that no matter how much time has passed, when we do get to see each other, it is though nothing has changed. It is true. Even though our lives have taken us on different paths, our conversations are always free and easy. We laugh as hard as we did when we were kids. And we still eat as though we had the metabolisms of twelve year old girls.

The last time she was in NYC, we went to Say Cheese, a restaurant in my neighborhood which boasts it is "home of the grilled cheese sandwich". They offer eleven different variations on the traditional grilled cheese as well as a build your own option. I had lived in Hell's Kitchen for two years and had barely acknowledged its existence. L is in town for twelve hours and somehow all other options are null and void. We fell into our usual porcine pattern, each of us ordering a grilled cheese with plum tomatoes, bacon and garlic mayo on olive bread.

"Mmm... they have curly fries," L says, her nose still buried in the paper menu.

"Do you wanna split a basket?" I ask.

"Yeah," she agrees. "Oh, they have mozzarella sticks, too. I love them." I already know this. L has always had a weak spot for mozzarella sticks.

"OK, do you want to get those instead?" I ask, a bit sad since I am more of a french fry girl, myself, but after all, she is the guest.

"We could get both," she suggests.

"Do you think that is too much?" I ask.

"Yeah, it is kind of gross," she agrees, playing along with the charade. We pretend to weigh our options, though we both know perfectly well that we will end up with a basket of each.

After our hour of intoxicating gluttony, we crawl back to my apartment about to burst. We complain about how full we are, what pigs we are, how gross we are. We will never eat again.

"Yeah, but it was good!" one of us declares.

Our complaints soon turn into praise for the deliciously greasy food that we just inhaled. The grilled cheese was excellent - the garlic mayo of which even we were skeptical was a fantastic accompaniment to the sandwich. The curly fries were wonderfully crisp and golden, not a soggy one in the bunch. The mozzarella sticks some of the best we'd ever had. The breaded shell was crisp and golden like the curly fries, while the cheese inside was dangerously hot and oozed down your chin as you bit into it.

We collapse onto the couch, too exhausted from eating to do anything else. I turn on the television. "Pretty Woman," our high school favorite, is playing on TBS. The movie has only just begun. We squeal at our good fortune and lay paralyzed in front of the tv.

As the movie ends, I get up to answer my ringing cell phone. I quickly switch into professional mode to discuss an upcoming project with a producer. Once I hang up the phone, I return to the Saturday sloth that I have become. I go back into the living room and see L with my binder of take out menus before her.

"Hungry?" she tempts me.

Are you crazy? I think to myself, We just ate a disgusting amount of food two hours ago!

"Really?" I ask, incredulously.

"Yeah, I know, it's sick," she gives me a sheepish smile.

"I'm not really hungry," I tell her, "...but... I could eat."

So we order some burgers - with bacon and cheese, of course.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Delivery Challenge

Like most New Yorkers, Husband and I enjoy eating out but much prefer ordering in. The past five years of marriage has turned us into the proverbial "old married couple" for whom a fun Thursday night consists of eating take out as we watch our latest DVD rental, as opposed to drinks downtown at a trendy lounge with the masses.

We had recently dined at El Centro, the newest Mexican restaurant in our neighborhood, and loved the food. I grabbed the delivery menu on our way out and declared that the next week we would put El Centro to our ultimate test - delivery.

What is so difficult about delivery? Well, for one thing, Husband and I are challenged because neither of us work standard 9 to 5 jobs, so we tend to eat at unconventional hours, with dinner usually around 10pm or later. It is not always easy to find a place that delivers that late. El Centro easily passed that test when I saw that they deliver until 11pm every night of the week!

The next hurdle is, of course, how well the food itself travels. It is easy for food to be tasty when it has been freshly prepared in the kitchen and only sits around for 5 minutes or so before reaching the customer at the table. However, take that short 5 minute trip and increase it to 25 minutes or however long it takes to get the customer's home and a whole other set of factors come into play.

First of all, there is the cooling of the food, so sometimes it is lukewarm upon delivery. More importantly, there is the fact that the food is more or less continuing to cook as it travels, as the heat and steam are locked into an airtight container, which is usually the reason that foods which are meant to be crispy, such as french fries, often arrive soggy and lifeless. And finally, there is the aggravation factor - the general risk of becoming incredibly annoyed when your food arrives far later than expected or the order was messed up, but you did not realize it until the delivery guy has long gone.

We both ordered Burro Oaxaqueno, a burrito filled with grilled skirt steak, guacamole, monterey jack cheese, red rice and black beans. Husband had ordered it the night that we ate at the restaurant and it was sublime. We also splurged on an order of chips and guacamole and a side of plantains. The food arrived promptly and with no errors. Another point for El Centro.

The burritos are a work of genius. Every component is well thought out and executed perfectly. The flour tortilla is homemade, and lightly pan fried. I am more accustomed to the steaming of the tortilla, which can sometimes produce less than stellar results as oversteaming often causes the tortilla to be overly chewy or gluey in consistency. The frying eliminates this problem altogether while also providing a slight crispiness to the dish, without being too crunchy. The frying also gives the burrito a bit more structure so it can withstand the aforementioned steaming-while-traveling danger. But the icing on the cake is that they taste good. Whoever makes these fantastic tortillas obviously puts time into it, considering them as a way to compliment the dish as opposed to simply edible wrapping paper.

The steak is packed with flavor from the marinade and is perfectly charred with a whisper of smokiness that tantalizes your mouth; the warm recognition of comfort food spreads through your chest like a bear hug.

The saltiness of the rice and bean combination is the perfect accent for the savory flavor of the meat. The beans themselves are a work of wonder. They are firm yet tender, so that when your teeth breaks their skin it is almost as if they burst in your mouth. They are not drowning in a soupy mess that bleeds onto the plate, but have just the right amount of moisture to them.

This dignified burrito is not oozing with cheese. In fact, at first you may forget that there is even supposed to be cheese in there. But once you dive into the heart of the burrito, you get a taste of cheesy goodness to add to the symphony of flavors.

"Oh my God," Husband purrs as he eats, "This burrito is just as good room temperature as it is hot!"

Moments later he announces that it is the best steak burrito he has ever had. I try to agree with him, but my mouth is full.

We move on to the plantains. They, like the burrito, seem to have a touch of class to them while still remaining true to their simple roots. I love plantains, but they can easily be too sweet for my taste, drenched in a puddle of syrup. I was happy to see that there was not an ounce of syrup lining the container. The plantains were dry, yet perfectly carmelized on the outside so that the very edges were crisp. They were not overripe, and therefore not mushy.

The only disappointment of the evening was the guacamole, which was under seasoned and in my opinion, the avacadoes were not mashed enough. I tend to like my guacamole on the chunky side, but the chunks have to be manageable. These were monstrous. It was disappointing, but really, not terribly upsetting. It isn't as though the guacamole was inedible, just a bit uninspired.

All in all, the meal was a great success. El Centro passed the delivery test with honors. Husband and I consumed everything (even the guacamole), leaving nothing for our sad, little kitty who watched us with huge, hopeful eyes as we ravaged our food.

The next night we were faced with the inevitable question of what to have for dinner.

Would you believe that we actually ordered the same meal again? Well, as gluttonous as it sounds, it is true (OK, everything but the guacamole). And this time we agreed that we would not start the movie until we had completely finished our meal. Never again will we allow ourselves to be distracted from such a divine experience as El Centro.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

How life is unfair

Best Friend recently got married, so husband and I went out to Cali for a few days to celebrate our little hineys off.

Of course, our visit included a trip down to Cicero's.

Actually, in her infinite wisdom, Best Friend organized a group trip to Cicero's as one of the prenuptial family dinners. Needless to say, I was in heaven and ate like a pig, even though I was surrounded by people I had just met the day before, and I probably should have still been in polite mode. Apparently it is physically impossible for me to be in polite mode when in close proximity to a Cicero's pie. I will grudgingly admit that I was put to shame by Best Friend's neice-in-law. She ate seven and a half pieces of pizza. I only managed six and a half. (In my defense, she is twelve years old and I am... not.)

But this post is really not about Cicero's.

This post is about how life is unfair (not because I lost the pizza eating contest, either).

Our first night in San Mateo, husband and I were on our own for dinner. Vietnamese food is my favorite type of cuisine, so I took husband to the tasty Saigon City, where I had dined with Best Friend and BF's wife (then girlfriend) on my last trip out to Cali.

Saigon City is a simple, no frills restaurant. Good food, reasonable prices. The spring rolls there are good, though a bit too greasy. Since Vietnamese spring rolls are truly my most favorite thing in the entire world, this does not stop me from ordering them first as an appetizer and then in my bun (a vermicelli dish with lettuce, pickled carrots and cucumbers, bean sprouts and fish sauce) as well.

Husband looks over the huge menu, unsure as to what to order. He decides to try the "Saigon Style Potstickers." I pay very little attention to this decision, as I am drunk with anticipation for my spring rolls.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Vietnamese spring rolls (Cha Gio), well, I feel great sadness for you. Do not be fooled into thinking that these are the same as what you get from your local chinese takeout. Those are simply an assortment of vegetables (mostly cabbage) wrapped in wonton skins and then deep fried. They are pretty flat, in both appearance and taste.

Vietnamese spring rolls have a multi dimensional taste. There are variations on the ingredients, but you will usually find minced pork and shrimp (sometimes crab) combined with wood ear mushrooms, garlic, onion and pepper with vermicelli noodles all wrapped in rice paper and deep fried. When executed correctly they are not greasy at all and are delicately crispy and beautifully golden on the outside. I sincerely urge you all to run out right now and try some.

The waitress brought our appetizers to the table.

The Saigon Style Potstickers looked like no potsticker I have ever seen before. Instead of a usual filled wonton or dumpling skin that I associate with a potsticker, these looked like rather large balls of rice that had been deep fried. Weird.

Husband looked at his dish, warily. Then he took his first bite and the skepticism quickly became bliss.

"You have GOT to try one of these," he tells me.

I am not so sure. I do not like to try new things. I prefer to stick with the standards that I love where I am almost always guaranteed success. But, today this strategy has failed me - my spring rolls are not really up to snuff. They are a bit bland and whatever flavor exists is bogged down in a heavy oil taste. I am disappointed, so I accept husband's challenge.

How am I to describe such happiness? The divine secret of the Saigon Style Potsticker is that it is simply a variation on my beloved spring rolls! They are not just a solid ball of rice at all! They are actually a ball of that intoxicatingly delicious spring roll filling (the pork, shrimp, mushroom, garlic, onion and pepper) which is then rolled in rice and deep fried. For some reason, the filling of these potstickers is extremely flavorful, unlike my poor, abandoned spring rolls. And somehow the rice does not absorb as much of the frying oil, and thus they are not greasy or oily tasting. They are light, crunchy and marvelous! They are accompanied by the an amazing hoisin sauce which nicely accents the flavors.

For the rest of the weekend, I rave about my new discovery (ok, so it is husband's discovery... let's not get too tied up in technicalities, ok?). Has anyone ever heard of such a thing? Ever had the chance to taste one? No one knows what the hell I am talking about. I am thrilled to tell anyone who will listen about these little balls of heaven.

The weekend passes in the blink of an eye. Husband and I had a wonderful time. The wedding was amazing, the best I have ever attended. Sooner than it seems possible, the wedding is over and we are back on a plane to NYC.

When we get home, I am haunted by the memory of the Saigon Style Potstickers. I spend two days looking up the menus of every Vietnamese restaurant in NYC online, hoping that I will find at least one place that can supply me with my newest drug.

I searched over sixty restaurants. Not one of them has Saigon Style Potstickers on their menu or anything that fits its description.

It is with great sadness that I realize that this is really just the whole Cicero's fiasco all over again. I will never find what I am looking for in NYC.

So, it seems that my favorite person (other than husband, of course), my favorite pizza, and now my favorite vietnamese dish are all 3,000 miles away.

That is what I call unfair.

I guess I'd better start racking up the frequent flyer miles.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Little Mouthfuls of Maui

Husband and I recently spent some time in Maui. It was an acting gig for him; I just tagged along for the ride. After spending 5 days there, I can safely say that Maui is one delicious island.

I was prepared for the pineapples and the sugar cane, of course. But even the obvious surpassed my expectations. There is a type of pineapple called Hawaiian Gold, which is bred to be friendlier to your mouth than ordinary pineapple. This breed is only grown in Maui. The flesh is golden and tender, so you are not stuck with a mouthful of woody core that must be rudely spit out. The flavor is sweet and juicy, without the acidity of ordinary pineapple so there is no stinging, no feeling that your mouth is under attack and may break out in sores at any moment. Luckily, I learned that this breed of pineapple can be bought at Costco and enjoyed anywhere in the U.S. Just be sure that you are buying Hawaiian Gold, and not some other pineapple that is grown in Florida, California or South America.

We stayed in a luxury resort that had amazing restaurants, and tried some other lovely local restaurants as well. But the biggest treat was when Husband and I spent a Saturday morning on a waterfall hike through a small rainforest.

At the beginning of the hike, I was a bit impatient when our guide, Kahi, stopped to show us the local flora. We were only 5 minutes into the hike and he was already stopping?! I wanted to get on down to the waterfalls!

“This looks like a peppercorn, but the flavor is of pepper, salt and lemon. We use this primarily to cook fish. Since it has all of these flavors, we don’t use any other spices.” Kahi tore a few of these off of the bush and handed them out. “Here,” he said, “Try it.”

I looked at him dubiously. A typical New Yorker, I am not used to picking things off of bushes and popping them into my mouth. But, I figured I was safe in his hands (he was a professional, after all, right?) and did as I was told. When I made reservations for this hike the week before, I had no idea that it included a sampling of the tastes of the rainforest. Fat ‘n Happy little old me was thrilled. My new motto became “Screw the waterfalls, let’s see what we can eat!"

There was no end to the delights of the rainforest, we were told. Unfortunately, it was March and so not everything was in bloom. We saw the tree where the black avocados grow, but no fruit. We learned that ripe ones become heavy and fall to the forest floor. We looked down at our feet - more foliage. Sadly, we hiked on.

Soon Kahi was asking Husband for help picking a small, red fruit from some trees. (Husband is tall, unlike me.) Kahi handed out the strawberry guavas and I immediately bit into it. Like the peppercorn things, these fruit were loyal to no one flavor. They were a little bit sweet, a little bit tangy, with a pepper-like finish. They had seeds that had to be spit out, but other than that were completely edible. I adored them. Greedily, I ate many throughout the hike.

We saw a small blue flower that Hawaiians add to their salads. "What does this taste like?" Like an over-ambitious student, vying for extra credit, I cried out, "Mushrooms!"

Kahi pulled a fresh ginger root for us to gnaw on. He began speaking of its medicinal uses. I concentrated on its intense flavor tickling my, oh so happy tongue.

When we came upon a bunch of ferns, Kahi plucked a pod from the top. It was tiny, but had a great nutty flavor.

We saw the waterfalls, and they were beautiful. But, the day provided so much more. We learned not only of the edible plants in the rainforest, but of others that are essential for survival - a myriad of medicines, a natural flint, a plant that burns like a candle, a fruit that purifies water. The entire day was ripe with discovery and we, quite literally, ate it up.

As we hiked up the valley, leaving the waterfalls and the rainforest canopy behind, I held Husband's hand and sighed. We soon would be heading back to civilization and hamburgers or some equally mundane food (don't get me wrong, I love a good hamburger, but you have to admit, they aren't very adventurous or romantic...). Reading my mind, Husband pulled his hand from mine and stuck it in his pocket. When his hand re-emerged, it was holding one last strawberry guava that he had saved. With a wink, he handed it to me. Is that true love or what?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Traveling Pizza

My best friend lives just outside of San Francisco. Sadly, I live all the way across the country in good ol' NYC. Whilst adventuring out in SF, she befriended a girl whose family owns a pizza parlor called Cicero's.

Now let's get this straight right off the bat - I am not a pizza lover. Sure, I used to love pizza when it was the center of my 12 year old social life and all that I could afford (slumber parties, a slice for lunch or after the big game), and of course, in college it was a staple (what else can you get in Poughkeepsie at 2am when you are desperately in need of a study break?) . But as I grew older and my palate more sophisticated, I realized that there are many more foods that I would rather eat, even as a New Yorker, with the best pizza in the country.

So, when Best Friend starts telling me about Cicero's and how great it is, I am polite. I listen to her as she raves about the pizza and the family who makes it. I must admit, I do love a good family run business. And as an Italian girl at heart, I especially love one whose recipes are a family secret, passed down from generation to generation.

Deep down, I remain skeptical. Doesn't everyone in the food industry lay claim to "secret" recipes these days? And, family traditions, while valuable, are not always delicious, I remind myself.

The next visit to San Fran, of course, includes a visit to Cicero's. It is a simple, yet friendly environment with the standard pizza parlor decor of simple lamps hanging above leather booths. We wait for our pizza as we watch a baseball game on one of the large TVs mounted in the corner.

When they call our name, Best Friend goes up to the counter to pick up the pizza. She returns with the most lovely little thin crust pizza I have ever seen or tasted. The pie is smaller than the NYC pies that I am used to, but the flavor blows me away. I never should have doubted Best Friend. This little pizza parlor in California has mastered the pizza.

It is really the crust that makes the difference. It is thin and crispy, with the outermost edges almost cracker-like. It is almost as though the crust is fried, kind of like a pan pizza, and sometimes, there is even a whisper of flakiness to the crust.

The sausage pizza is by far the best (though my favorite is to get mushrooms and sausage together). Cicero's grinds their own sausage. And, as is always the case with Italian cooking, homemade is the way to go.

Like most long distance love affairs, this whole pizza thing has become complicated. Knowing that the best pizza in the world is 3,000 miles away haunts me. As a freelancer who is often unemployed, I do not have the means to fly to San Fran each time I have a craving for Cicero's. I have often joked with Best Friend that she should send me a pie via overnight air mail. She just laughs and says that it will spoil before it reaches NYC unless she packs it with dry ice or some equally costly packaging, which she is not inclined to do. I resign myself to my fate - Cicero's only when in the Bay Area, which is a once a year trip, at best.

But, yesterday, my doorbell rang at 9am. I staggered to the door half asleep, wondering who the hell was at my door at that hour. I opened the door to see a smiling UPS man, holding a Cicero's Pizza box with my address on it. No dry ice or special packaging needed. My life is forever changed.