Monday, May 11, 2009

Restaurant Review: Brooklyn Label

Brooklyn Label
180 Franklin St
Brooklyn, NY 11222
(718) 389-2806

We've been through this before. You understand my criteria. I am forever on the lookout for a joint that offers me thoughtful, interesting, and flavorful vegetarian options. One meal during which time these demands are particularly difficult to achieve is brunch. And, we all know that in New York City and the surrounding boroughs brunch is a religion. New Yorkers from the Bronx to the far reaches of Brooklyn pray to the brunch altar like priests in Vatican City pray to their rosary beads. I guess I can order pancakes or French toast for brunch. They are vegetarian. But I'm really more of a savory girl. Don't get me wrong. I am sweet, but in the morning, I'm in the mood for something spicy to kick the day into gear. And, let's face it, Bloody Marys don't really go well with maple syrup, the Bloody Mary being my brunch beverage of choice.

Unfortunately, the one drawback of Brooklyn Label, ironically, is that they fail to deliver on my favorite part of brunch: the cocktail. Boo hiss, Brooklyn Label doesn't have a liquor license. However, they do have a license in kick-ass coffee, serving a variety of tasty, decadent coffee drinks using Stumptown Coffee beans, a Portland, Oregon, based coffee-roaster whose Sumatra, according to Saveur magazine, is among the five best in the world. BL also serves a mouth-watering selection of Italian sodas, my favorite being the grapefruit. Quite refreshing.

Now, let's dish about the food. I've sampled an array of their veggie dishes, ranging from the Cobb Salad (bacon on the side), a welcome departure from the meat product adorned variety you oft see in your neighborhood deli; you know, the pile of cheese, meat, and fat masquerading as salad. Well, BL's actually is a salad. Another fave is the veggie bagel, topped with a dab of creme cheese, slices of fresh tomato and red onion, and a sprinkling of capers. Throw on a bit of BL's homemade hot sauce (I like to combine a bit of the habanero with the mild green chile) and you are ready to rock. It may not be the most creative offering on the menu, but it never fails to please me. Okay, I've basically sampled most of the vegetarian offerings, my most disappointing of which is the Red Flannel Hash, a combo of beets, poached eggs, and hollandaise. I was hoping this entree would not be beet, but, sadly, it could be. Based on the description on the menu, as well as my understanding of "hash," I was expecting about something of the shredded beet variety, flattened and fried into a patty of sorts. Alas, I was served a pile of cubed, boiled beet chunks topped with the other accoutrement. Enticing it was not. However, my disappointment with the beet hash has been remedied time and time again with one of my favorite breakfast dishes in the land, the Organic Tofu and Potatoes, a tasty combo of firm tofu and potato chunks sauteed with green onion and broccoli in light curry spices, topped with melted provolone and pico de gallo. I am not exaggerating when I say that I could devour this dish every day. It is decadent and satisfying, without the inevitable dirty feeling I experience following a typical greasy egg breakfast.

For all of you carnivores, I'd be doing you a disservice if I did not tip my hat to the Homemade Biscuits and Sausage Gravy as well as the Brooklyn Label Cheeseburger, both of which my meat and potato eating husband proclaims to be stellar. He does warn, however, that they inspire his digestive organs to accelerate into overdrive, so you should be stationed near a toilet within a half of consumption. "But," he says, "It's well worth it."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Childhood and Cheese Things

Perhaps the most ironic detail about my lifelong vegetarianism, a fact that I have shockingly failed to admit, is that when I was three-years-old, my family and I moved to Hyde Park, New York, so my father could train as a chef du cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America. Yes, a lifelong vegetarian grew up with a father who not only trained to butcher and prepare every non-vegetarian item possible, but he, himself, was also a vegetarian. Actually, by today's need to classify every nuance of non-meat eating status, he was a pescatarian. And now, oddly enough, after living in Europe for the past 18 years, he eats meat. That's another story altogether, though.

I, myself, was also a pescatarian for a short stint. Until a chewy mussel that I ate at Legal Seafood in Boston sent me vomiting into the night. I didn't eat seafood again for twenty-five years. Even today, I can't handle much more than a crunchy beer battered fish and chip entree, with lots of tartar sauce, of course. The fish and chips are really just a vehicle for the condiments afterall. Have I mentioned that I have an affliction called condimentia?

In 1977, when I was five, my father graduated from the CIA and was offered a scholarship to a Hotel Restaurant Management program at Miami International University. And so it was that my parents and I moved to Coconut Grove, Miami, that Spanish became my second language, and that I attended an elementary where I was the white minority amongst my Cuban friends, Sylvia, Jesus, Mercedes, Angel, and Hector. My father worked twelve hour days as head chef at various restaurants, hotels, and country clubs in the Miami area. He prepared Superbowl breakfasts for the Cowboys and Steelers in the Superbowl in 1979 and cooked delicacies for The Eagles when their tour brought them to Miami a year later. After long hours on his feet fashioning filet mignon and adorning plates with mashed potato ribbons, he craved simple, yet satisfying food, which was not meat based. In those days, the last two criteria were mutually exclusive. No one thought that vegetarian food could be satisfying.

The answer? A little something my parents and I affectionately referred to as the Cheese Thing. What is a cheese thing, you ask? Simply put, the earliest versions consisted of a tortilla baked to delightful crispiness, topped with melted cheese, chopped tomatoes, and scallions, and then garnished with shredded iceberg lettuce and salsa.

Recently, I've been revisiting childhood favorites, such as the cheese thing and tabbouleh, for example, and had a little chat with my father to discuss these nostalgic noshes. He told me that he, too, still eats cheese things when hankering for a simple, flavorful fix. He also set me straight on the origin of the cheese thing, a birth that I was surprised to hear took place years before even I was born. In the late sixties and very early seventies, my father, still a young long-haired buck, like most hippies his age, traveled across the country and in and around the West Coast. My uncle Peter lived in Tucson, Arizona, at the time, so my father paid him a visit. In a state where the Mexican population and cultural influence was and is very high, it isn't a surprise that Peter was fashioning the Mexican inspired cheese thing left and right. Of course, this was at a time before every convenience store, specialty top, and grocery store chain, no matter the level of sophistication, offered ten dollar designer salsa choices in flavors ranging from raspberry chipotle, to green chile, black bean, and caramelized corn. In the early days, the cheese thing was simple: tortilla, cheese, tomato, scallion, lettuce, delicious. According to my father, as he and his brother continued to eat cheese things on a regular basis, they began to branch out, a foray that resulted in the eventual addition of a slathering of refried beans.

The cooking technique? At first, the boys would set their veggie laden tortillas under the broiler and pull them out as soon as the cheese melted. Eventually, however, they discovered that this technique left the tortilla itself soggy and (gasp) the rest of the vegetables undercooked. They then tried baking the cheese things in a toaster oven set to a high temperature. This crisped the bottom of the tortillas and cooked the other ingredients to perfection.

Eventually, after preparing cheese things for almost a decade, my father began to explore yet another technique. Note that I've adorned the method with some of my own editorializing, but where it is you shall never know. Heat a large skillet to medium-high. Lightly brush both sides of a tortilla with vegetable oil. Lay the tortilla in the skillet and pan roast until the bottom is golden brown. Flip over the tortilla, spread on a thin layer of beans, sprinkle on the cheese, tomatoes, and scallions, reduce the heat to moderate, cover for 5 to 10 minutes, allowing the cheese to melt and the veggies to heat up. Using a spatula, remove the cheese thing from the pan, garnish with iceberg lettuce and salsa, fold in half, and devour. The only drawback is that this method prevents the preparation of cheese things simultaneously. Today, when I make a cheese thing, I just throw on all of the ingredients except for the greens and salsa, toss it in an oven preheated to 425º, and bake for 5 to 10 minutes. Voila.

Looking back, the cheese thing was really nothing more sophisticated than an open-faced quesadilla, prepared in our humble kitchen at a time before every sports bar on Earth offered quesadillas as an appetizer garnished with a scoop of Ortega pico de gallo and a dollop of sour cream. However, for me, the cheese thing is something more. It is a reminder of the simplicity of childhood, of a time when my parents were young, happy, and playful. Eating a cheese thing on a warm, spring evening brings me back to my childhood in Coconut Grove, the smell of the orange trees sprouting their first blossoms, the sights of hibiscus blossoms unfurling their petals each morning and plantains hanging from trees, and the memory of my mother devouring a freshly-picked mango, the stringy pulp dripping down her chin as she deliriously savored the fruit's decadent sweetness. Cheese things remind me of unadulterated joy.

Now, how the hell do you make a cheese thing? It's really quite a simple process, but the main point is to get experimental with toppings and flavor combinations. Here are some hints:

Try a new kind of tortilla. These days, I've been avoiding the lard-based white flour tortilla, substituting them with Tumaro's Gourmet Tortillas, a brand that is not only lowfat, but intensely flavorful. Tumaro's offers a variety of flavors, ranging from jalapeno-cilantro, to honey wheat, to chipotle-chile, to green onion. Not only do they work well as a cheese thing vehicle, but also work perfectly as a veggie wrap.

Bang around a few bean ideas. This week I've been gravitating toward refried beans, but I've also been known to cook up a pot of black beans flavored with garlic, cayenne, cumin, salt. Eat the beans with some rice and veggies or scoop 'em onto a tortilla.

Tempt your taste buds with different toppings. Here are a few of my favorite flavors:
• sauteed zucchini, chopped into bite-sized pieces
• sauteed baby bella mushrooms and onions or sauteed portobella caps, sliced into strips
• roasted red peppers
• pickled jalapenos
• nopalitos (picked cactus), chopped into bite-sized pieces
• tunafish (Dad's idea, not mine)
• corn
• scallions
• tomatoes
• fresh baby greens
• arugula
• iceberg lettuce
• chopped fresh cilantro
• roasted garlic cloves
• salsa of your liking

Here's hoping that your cheese things offer you the same joyous nostalgia that mine do.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Red Hot and Romantic Cajun Spice

When my soon-to-be husband, Wesley, and I had our first date two and a half years ago, one of the first things he boasted about was his signature dish, Blackened Cajun Chicken. He cautioned me that he knew few people whose palates could withstand the heat of his proprietary blend. I assured him that my ability to withstand the scoville units wouldn't be a problem. I mean, hey, I've been traveling with a purse bottle of Sriracha since I first discovered it 15 years ago. Not really, but I've thought about it. I do, however, collect hot sauces like some women collect purses.

About a month later, only a month and a half into our relationship, Wesley cranked up the heat by inviting me to come home with him for a few days before Christmas. What choice did I have but to accept his gracious invitation. Two weeks later, on December 21, 2006, I found myself disembarking at the Jet Blue gate at Syracuse Airport. I remember the date because it was my 35th birthday. Ten minutes later, I met my soon-to-be mother- and father-in-law, Judy and Dick Dunaway, and an hour after that, we pulled into their driveway in Fair Haven, New York, an idyllic upstate New York village nestled on the banks of Lake Ontario. I spent the next three days in cozy comfort, meeting Wes's childhood best friends, eating Judy's comfort cuisine, drinking Dick's vodka gimlets, and falling asleep in my favorite way possible, to the sound of the television in the background.

On my last morning in Fair Haven, Wes trotted up the stairs to our room and presented me with a gift from Judy, a copy of the Fair Haven Church's cookbook, Recipes and Remembrances. This snappy little spiral bound cookbook, a nostalgic reminder of my first visit to Fair Haven, features hometown favorites like Dick's Pot Roast Braised in Red Wine and another of Wes's favorites, Judy's Chicken Francaise. Most important, however, nestled in the the cookbook's glossy pages, lucky readers can feast their eyes on Wes's Blackened Cajun Chicken recipe–in print.

While waiting for my plane in the airport, I cracked the cookbook for the first time. It immediately struck me that the recipe wasn't necessarily Wes's, but his favorite recipe of Judy's, submitted in his honor. I think that what tipped me off was the use of the word dredge in reference to coating the chicken with the seasonings. I almost peed my pants thinking of Wes sitting at his computer, White Stripes in the background, consciously using the word dredge in reference to his chicken. Either way, the visit, the cookbook, and the subtle gesture intimated by the recipe sealed my fate. I was in love.

Of course, it wasn't for another year that Wes actually prepared his Blackened Cajun Chicken. And, of course, as of this writing, I haven't actually eaten Wes's Blackened Cajun Chicken per se. However, I have dredged tofu in his Cajun seasoning, sprinkled it into a skillet with my zucchini saute, and, as readers of this blog know, perfected the mashed sweet potatoes in my empanadas by stirring in a tablespoonful on a whim.

I highly suggest that you concoct a batch of this seasoning, store it in your spice rack, and throw it in your next dish that needs a little spike. It's a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.

2 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons lemon pepper
1 teaspoon thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons basil

A Few Thoughts On a Few Dishes

It's been several days since my last blog entry. I had several family members in town for a few days and have essentially spent the last ten days eating my way through the restaurants of New York. I've eaten goat cheese in Park Slope, endive in Soho, peashoots on the Upper East Side, and ramps in Greenpoint. There are a plentitude of flavors on which to dish.

For one, I am very excited to report that Five Leaves, my favorite neighborhood restaurant, is beginning to offer an increased array of creative and thoughtfully constructed vegetarian appetizers and entrees. Last week their specials' board was adorned with two flavorful choices, both of which I sampled. The Roasted Asparagus and Arugula Salad with Hazelnut Vinaigrette was rich and satisfying, and had it been a bit bigger, it most certainly would have satiated me as a main course. This is what I'm talking about when I rant and rave about my desire for more interesting salad options. Following this tantalizer, I feasted on the Penne with Artichokes, Ramps, and Poached Egg entree. Can we say ooh la la? This was one of the most delicious meals I've had the good fortune to enjoy in a good, long while. The lemony sauce that adorned the pasta and vegetables was perfectly tangy, without being overpowering, the flavor of which was balanced by the richness of the poached egg. In fact, when I pierced the egg yolk with my fork, the lemony goodness combined with it to form an impromptu, but very welcome, sauce akin to a Hollandaise. All this is to declare that, Vegetarians (and yes, I intentionally capitalize this work), Five Leaves is working to meet our needs. Praise for them.

Second, I made two new restaurant discoveries this week, both of which will soon be reviewed on The Dish (new, more casual nickname for Greenpointdish). Jean Claude in Soho was one of the few French restaurants that satisfied my needs with something other than an Algerian inspired couscous dish that every other French restaurant seems to feature as its one veggie offering. And, Fiore in Williamsburg delighted my brunchtime stomach's gurgles with a flavorful frittata. More on both later.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yes, I am a vegetarian. No, I'm not on a diet.

As I've noted on several occasions, a quality that most impresses me in a restaurant is a healthy selection of vegetarian choices. What I appreciate are thoughtful offerings that show that the chef and owners have taken the palates of what has become a large majority of the eating population into consideration. Too often, the vegetarian choices are limited to pastas, salads, or sides. First of all, one would think that a quality restaurant with an eclectic menu could think of something more creative to offer vegetarians than items such as pasta primavera, mushroom risotto, or butternut squash ravioli. At one point, these items were creative, but now they are cliche. Just like at one point goat cheese as an element of a dish was new and intriguing to our shores, now, when you see it on the menu in the portobello wrap at Bennigans, its just predictable. Second, just because I'm a vegetarian, it does not mean that I'm on a diet. I like to eat, dammit. Most days, I wake up and immediately start scheming about what delicacies I will feast on in the coming hours. Most of what I think and do revolves around food. Yes, I do love salad, but not as my only choice on a menu. Usually, when I make the choice to go out to dinner, especially at a time when the $20 bill is the new $1, I want to eat. And I don't mean a chicken Caesar or a cobb salad. And, if you are going to offer these old favorites, and I understand that they are favorites, give it a twist, mix it up, play with my expectations.

But I digress. As a vegetarian, living New York City, the "greatest city on Earth," I expect more from its restaurants. I expect to be able to go to a restaurant other than one specializing in vegan and raw foods to have my needs met. This is why vegetarianism and how it relates to my dining adventures will be a predominant theme of this blog. Don't get me wrong. I don't expect to eat more than a tomato salad if I go to Peter Luger's. I know my limits, but I would expect a bit more from restaurants whose claim to fame is not steak or seafood. Vegetables offer endless possibilities for culinary creativity. So, my challenge is for chefs and restauranteurs everywhere to open their cookbooks and their minds, pick up a fresh bunch of beets from the local farmer's market, and make something a little more innovative than borscht. Which I do like, by the way. But not for my entree.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Restaurant Review: Enid's

560 Manhattan Ave
(between Driggs Ave & Nassau Ave)
Brooklyn, NY 11222
(718) 349-3859

Let me start out by saying that I RELISH their bloody Marys. No one concocts a tastier spicy Mary than this joint. What also dazzles my taste buds is the garnish sculpture of gerkins, capers, olives, and celery that accompany each cocktail....a combination that helps to keep the hunger pains and growling beast in my belly satiated until I feast. I have enjoyed brunch at Enid's on about 5 occasions, each time indulging in the leek potato hash, which has only disappointed me once. I have also shared the veggie biscuits and gravy, the quality of which is usually dependent on the quality of the biscuits--one time they were rock hard.

During the dinner hour, my veggie-friendly choices are fairly limited. It's either an assortment of side dishes, an option that just hurts my feelings, the Sweet Potato Quesadilla, or the Veggie Burger. I usually opt for the quesadilla, which, though an innovative option, is a bit bland. Picture mashed sweet potatoes slapped on a tortilla, topped with some cheddar cheese and thrown on the grill. It is a tasty combo for sure, but it just needs something else to kick it to the next level of tastiness. Wesley, my beloved carnivore, regularly indulges in the Chicken Fried Chicken, which, is the perfect cardio catastrophe. He also raves about their mashed potatoes and proclaims their gravy to be the best in the borough.

If you are looking for a restaurant at which to nibble on something pretty good, drink a glass of cheap, but decent quality organic cote du Rhone, chew the fat with your pals, and play some pinball, Enid's will offer supreme satisfaction. If, on the other hand, you crave something more than high quality bar food, seek out an alternative locale.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mmmm Mmm Empanadas

Last year, I edited a cookbook called Thrown Out of An Italian Kitchen: Recipes from Sweet Basil. Writer Dave Becker, owner of Sweet Basil, an eclectic Italian bistro in Needham, Massachusetts, includes recipes that reflect his take on old favorites as well as his spin on dishes inspired by international cuisines. One of these recipes is Pear and Turnip Empanadas. Let me tell you that, like all the tasty-tidbits in the cookbook, this one does not disappoint. However, a few weeks ago, when shopping for the two basic ingredients, I was met with a selection of root vegetables, none of which were spelled t-u-r-n-i-p as well as a pile of rock-hard pears. What do do? I'd already committed to preparing empanadas, so I needed to brainstorm a plan B. I began to think of different flavor combinations that tickle my fancy. Here is the result.

Spicy Sweet Potato, Caramelized Onion, and Gorgonzola Empanadas

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons agave nectar (see Note)
2 tablespoons Wesley's Cajun seasoning (recipe posted)
1 large yellow onion, sliced thin
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Fresh cracked salt and pepper
8 ounces stinky Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
20 empanada shells (available in the Goya area of the frozen foods' section)
Vegetable oil, for pan-frying the empanadas
1 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
1 teaspoon white truffle oil

First, prepare the sweet potato mash
In a large pot, boil the sweet potatoes until tender. Allow to cool for a moment or two, transfer to a large bowl, and mash the hell out of them. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the butter, 1 tablespoon of the agave nectar, and the cajun seasoning). Taste and add more seasoning, if you so desire. Set aside

Second, caramelize an onion
In a large skillet, heat the oil and melt the butter over moderate heat. Place the onion in the skillet, separating the rings in order to make sure they are evenly cooked. Saute for 10 minutes, or until the onions are softened and beginning to brown, tossing periodically to prevent burning. Add the remaining tablespoon of the agave nectar and 1/3 cup water. Continue cooking until the liquid is reduced, and then add the balsamic vinegar. Continue cooking for 5 minutes, until the balsamic is reduced to a syrupy consistency. Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Third, assemble the empanadas
Arrange the empanada fillings assembly-line style on a work surface in the following order: shells, sweet potato, caramelized onion, and Gorgonzola. Also arrange a small dish of water for sealing the empanadas in the work area. Spoon about a tablespoon each of sweet potato, onion, and Gorgonzola on one-half of each shell, pinch shut, and seal with some water.

Working in stages, heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large skillet over moderate heat. Place as many empanadas as can be accommodated in the skillet, and then fry each side for 5 minutes, until golden brown. Transfer the pan-fried empanadas to dry paper towels.

Twenty minutes before serving, place the empanadas in an oven preheated to 300º. Baked for 10 to 15 minutes, until hot.

Meanwhile, combine the creme fraiche or sour cream with the truffle oil to prepare a topping.

Finally, serve the hot empanadas with the topping and await the oohs and ahhs of satisfaction.

Note: I use agave nectar because it is low on the glycemic index, a factor that has recently become important in the Guernsey Garden Kitchen. However, it can easily be replaced with brown sugar or honey if you don't happen to have this buzz-word ingredient stocked in your pantry.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Restaurant Review: Five Leaves

Five Leaves
18 Bedford Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11222
(718) 383-5345

It is no wonder that Time Out New York recently named Five Leaves as one of the best new neighborhood restaurants. I, for one, am oh-so-tickled to have an indulgence like Five Leaves just 'round the bend from the Guernsey Garden of Greenpoint. For months, as the owners worked arduously to prepare their baby for birth, I walked by with my canine companion, wondering what dazzling flavors would await my taste buds. Finally, in the fall of last year, the love affair would begin. My relationship with Five Leaves began as a retreat at which to share a glass of wine and a snack with a girlfriend. We would sit at the bar, indluge in a glass of Cote du Rhone or Temperanillo, and gobble down a bowl of their truffle fries quicker than you can say hot new place in town. Soon, I began to sample more appetizers and entrees, the titillation continuing. Now, about six months after first sampling the Devils on Horseback (figs wrapped in bacon) and the Truffle Fries for the first time, I have sampled several breakfast, lunch, and dinner selections and declare them all climactic, and I don't meant the literary term. Here's a little poem I've created in their honor:

The steamed mussels in spicy coconut broth will take you away toThailand
Homemade ricotta gives new meaning to the phrase sweet and nasty
Swallowing the last bite will break your heart
Mixed baby greens are sweet simplicity
Beetroot ravioli with burn butter sage sauce are baby-oh-baby so tantalizingly tangy
Truffle fries could easily replace a significant other
Seasonal soups with rustic rolls warm the cockles
Organic chicken and beef burger binged on by beloved
Seem to carry him to another plane
Homemade granola and fresh fruit are a sweet sensation
Scrambled eggs on brioche beg for believers, but
Please no mayo


All of this verbal masturbation is to say that I could easily fritter away an afternoon sipping one of their cappuccinos and noshing on a roll or lazing away a winter evening drinking a glass of their temperanillo and nibbling on some fries.

My one criticism is this: Why oh why does a place that reflects such thoughtful commitment to food and taste only offer ONE VEGETARIAN ENTREE? Would it kill a restaurant to offer two options? And would it break your heart to step out of the pasta box and think of something more creative? I'm just sayin'! Other than this one critique, Five Leaves has my vote as a top notch addition to the hood.

Tempting the Taste Buds with Tabbouleh

This wasn't a very exciting food week for me. For one, I had declared a moratorium on all bread products as of Monday. And two, I was sequestered in the Guernsey Gardens of Greenpoint, focused on two writing projects. Third, I spent three of the five weekdays watching the April showers beat down on my wooden walkway, lighting crackling through the sky, lacking in desire to venture beyond the comfort of my favorite afghan, the warm puppy at my side, and the Macbook perched atop my lap.

Most of my homemade meals this week consisted of assorted grains, such as wild rice and bulghur and a colorful assortment of complementary fresh vegetables. Dinners weren't very exciting, but, for lunch, I reignited my love affair with tabbouleh. When I was growing up as a vegetarian child of hippy parents, I was indulging in hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, and black beans and rice when most kids were too young to pronounce much beyond Chef Boyardee or fish sticks. At one point I considered this a cross to bear, longing for a cookie jar full of Oreos or a cabinet stocked with canned green beans and creamed corn. When I was growing up, vegetarianism wasn't hip and cool; it was different, and it was weird. Now I am grateful for being raised to see the culinary spectrum through a different lense, thankful for growing up in a family that looked at meals as something more a hunk of bloody meat and mound of white potatoes.

A few weeks ago, on a whim, I picked up a box of the Near East tabbouleh mix that consistently stocked my the kitchen cupboards of my youth. For weeks it sat there, tempting me, but the right foodportunity never presented itself. Until this week, when, lacking in motivation to venture into the rain to find anything else on which to nosh, I ripped open the box. An hour later, I combined the grains with some olive oil, fresh lemon juice, cucumber, red onion, carrot, and mushrooms. I tossed the mixture together and then rolled it up in a jalapeno and cilantro wrap, my new favorite culinary accessory, with some spicy hummus and arugula. This lunchtime decadence, I tell you, is a taste sensation. Various recipes call for tomatoes, parsley, scallion, and cubed feta cheese. I say have at whatever you like, as long as it's cold, fresh, and crunchy.

Tabbouleh is nutritious, delicious, colorful, and satisfying.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Restaurant Review: Papatzul

55 Grand St
New York, NY 10013
(212) 274-8225

Mexican food is one of my favorite cuisines. The layered, rich flavors, the spices, the sauces, the fresh ingredients all combine to dazzle my taste buds like no other. However, as we all know, there are few things worse than when Mexican food goes wrong. For one, chances are that if you plan to indulge in a Mexican meal, you probably spent a few more minutes than usual on the elliptical and have braced yourself to walk out of the restaurant with a food baby in your belly. Second, you probably crave something a little more exciting than steamed vegetables or boiled dinner. You crave a thick, rich, smoky mole sauce, a tangy margarita, freshly fried, lightly salted chips, a chunky, colorful salsa, and a fresh, creamy, every so slightly spiced guacamole. When these qualities aren't reflected in your meal, this is an ideal recipe for a crestfallen diner.

This week I had the ironic good fortune of sampling Mexican food from both sides of the quality spectrum. I say ironic because had I not indulged in an atrociously disappointing meal at Veracruz on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (review to come), this culinary dichotomy might not be so prominent in my mind and on my tongue.

Last night, through a twisted turn of events, my friends and I found ourselves in Papatzul. Ninety minutes later, we were all thankful for this fate. We started at the bar, cocktails in hand, me with a jalapeno margarita. One of my biggest beefs in terms of margaritas is the use of sour mix. It is unconscionable to me that so few bartenders know how to prepare a pure, sour mix-free margarita. How difficult is it to mix tequila, fresh lime juice, and triple sec? Apparently very! So, I grow weary of the sugar laden cocktails that I am usually handed by a bartender, literally weary because I inevitably go into sugar coma shortly after drinking one. Couple this with a heavy, cheesy meal, and I'm ready for bed. So, imagine my joy when the tangy spicy goodness of Papatzul's margarita hit my lips and tongue. Oh, joy!

After a significant wait, we were finally seated. My one complaint, though minor and understandable is that we had to wait well beyond the projected 15 minutes we were given when we first put in our name. Understandable because, come on, this is New York. If you go out on a Saturday night without a reservation, you should expect to wait at least 45 minutes for a table. Build enough for two more drinks into your budget for the night.

Once comfortably seated, we indulged in some of the tastiest, most flavorful, most perfectly spiced salsa and guacamole I've had the good fortune to grace my taste buds. The chips were clearly homemade, warm, and lightly salted. To me, nothing symbolizes good quality as the ability of a food to satiate me more quickly than another. I could have eaten the whole mound of guac, but I didn't feel the need to. A few bites sent me to heaven.

Unfortunately, I wasn't too hungry, so I didn't order an entree. Instead I indulged in the Elote de Coyacan (grilled corn on the cob), which was unbelievably tasty. Anyone who knows me knows that I am somewhat of a fiend for corn on the cob. This past fall, while vacationing on Cape Cod, I made a daily run to the local farm stand. No matter what the menu for the evening's meal, I would eat my corn! Sprinkled with a bit of crema fresca and chile powder, the elote were a taste sensation. Next, I sampled the Sopes con Calabaza, Hongos y Queso (corn cakes with zucchini, mushroom, and goat cheese). These were also mmm mmm good. I also threw on a little dollop of guacamole, which spiked the tasty goodness level.

My companions were equally pleased. Wesley, my beloved, not an ardent lovver of Mexican food, ordered the Enchiladas de Pato al Mole Almendrado (duck enchiladas with mole). There are few times that I have seen Wes so pleased with a meal. In fact, he proclaimed that he would return to Papatzul any time I asked. Though a vegetarian, I deemed it an artistic responsibility to sample the dish and proclaim their mole a product of the gods. Two others at the table both indulged in the Enchiladas Verdes de Hongos y Espinacas (spinach and mushroom enchiladas), which I also sampled and declare to be perfection. The most beautiful thing about these dishes is that they all managed to be both rich and flavorful and light at the same time. None of us felt ready for a nap, none of us felt the need to engage in a purging session. On the contrary, we were all satisfied and energized to embark on the next phase of the evening. That is a success!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Lasagna for Sixty?

Last weekend, I helped throw a sixtieth birthday party for my lovely mother. Always one to bite off a little more than I can chew, I offered to make the bulk of the food. The party would commence at 4 PM, which meant that the natives would require culinary satiation. At first, I thought that an assortment of hors d'ouevres and finger foods would do the trick, the focal point of which would be my now trademark empanadas (recipes to come). However, after some reflection on previous entertaining adventures and subequent burnout, it became clear that lots and lots of finger foods would be labor intensive and likely require me to hover over a hot stove while the masses chatted, munched, and drank wine around me. I didn't want to miss out on the fun...or the wine. The answer, a large portion of a self-serve main course, accompanied by a colorful selection of tasty starters. Another key to satisfying a large group of hungry guests is to serve an assortment of chips, salsa, and mixed nuts, strategically placed at different areas, so that guests' oral fixations are always satisfied. Keep refilling those babies as needed.

Claudia's Sweet Sixty Birthday Menu
Roasted tenderloin (recipe to come)
Baked Gouda (recipe from Thrown Out of An Italian Kitchen: Recipes from Sweet Basil, available at
Caprese salad with sliced fresh mozzarella with fresh sliced tomato and basil, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette
Meat and Veggie Lasagna (recipe below)
Fresh bread or rolls

Meat and Veggie Lasagna

Note: Lasagna for sixty requires two 24- by 12-inch (ish), 6-inch deep aluminum baking pans.

Olive oil
1 head garlic, cloves minced
1 large white onion, chopped fine
2 large cans whole plum tomatoes, drained
9 quarts good quality plain red sauce (or you can make your own, but you will need another day)
Dried oregano
Dried basil
Red pepper flakes
2.5 lbs mushrooms (white work well, or mix it up with a combo of baby bella, shiitake, and crimini), cut into thick slices
Fresh cracked salt and pepper
3 lbs ground beef
8 cups shredded mozzarella
8 cups ricotta cheese
4 eggs
4 packages dry lasagna noodles
1 lb fresh baby spinach
1 bunch fresh basil

First, Preheat the oven the oven to 400º.

Second, Prepare the Sauce
In a pot large enough to accommodate the sauce, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over moderate heat. Add one-half of the garlic and onion, and saute for 8 to 10 minutes, until translucent. Add the canned plum tomatoes, crushing into bite-sized pieces with a spoon or whatever utensil you have on hand. Stir, and then add the red sauce. Stir to evenly distribute the ingredients, and then swirl in 1 teaspoon each of dried oregano and basil and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Stir the mixture, and allow to simmer for 20 minutes.

Third, Saute the Mushrooms
In a very large skillet or wide, deep saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over moderate heat. Add the remaining one-half garlic and onion, and saute for 8 to 10 minutes, until translucent. Add the mushrooms, a teaspoon each of dried oregano and basil and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and stir to evenly distribute and season the ingredients. Saute the mixture for 8 to 10 minutes, tossing constantly, until the mushrooms release their juices and are just cooked. It is very important that the mushrooms are not overcooked so that they retain their texture when baked in the lasagna. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Fourth, Brown the Ground Beef
Dump the ground beef into a large skillet, season with salt and pepper, cook until just brown, and drain. Set aside. You'll notice that I don't pay much attention to this step. Meat is my beloved carnivore, Wes's, domain.

Fifth, Prepare the Ricotta Mixture
Dump the ricotta into a large bowl. Crack in the eggs and stir well. Add a teaspoon each of dried oregano and basil, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper, to taste. Stir well.

Finally, Assemble the Damn Lasagnas
Arrange the ingredients, assembly-line style on a large work surface (we used a kitchen table) in the following order: lasagna pan, sauce, ricotta mixture, meat/veggie (have spinach ready nearby) filling, mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, noodles.

Spread a layer of sauce over the bottom of the pan, and then arrange the lasagna noodles (if you arrange the pan widthwise, the noodles should be placed lengthwise in the pan, so that there is a row of about six across the width of the pan). Spread another layer of sauce across the noodles. Drizzle with a layer of ricotta. Add a layer of filling. For veggie, scatter a few large spoonfuls of mushrooms across the lasagna and then top with a thick layer of fresh spinach (it will steam while in the oven). Sprinkle generously with mozzarella. Add another layer of sauce and sprinkle with some torn fresh basil leaves. Repeat the process two more times, top with a final layer of noodles, sauce, and a few dollops of ricotta. Top each dollop of sauce with a whole, fresh basil leaf. Note: There can never be enough sauce. If you see any naked noodles, drown in sauce. If you have any leftover, arrange it next to the cooked lasagna, and allow guests to drizzle it over the final product if they so choose.

Cover the lasagnas with foil, place in the oven, and bake for 45 minutes, remove the foil and bake for another 15 to 30 minutes. The lasagna is ready when the cheese is melted and bubbling, the noodles are cooked, and the middle is hot.

Remove from the oven and allow to sit for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Preparation Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Serves: Did I say sixty?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Soup for the Sickie

This week, I've been sick. With a cold. Lots of mucus. For the third or fourth time this winter. But I guess that it is technically spring. Whatever. This is the soup that I've made for myself twice this week. It is oh-so-comforting, therapeutic, and cleansing.

Miso Magnificence
2 cups water
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/2 zucchini, sliced into thin half moons
1/2 carrot, chopped
2 ounces buckwheat udon noodles
2 tablespoons miso paste
3 mushrooms, sliced
1 scallion stalk, chopped

In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil over high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, zucchini, and carrot. Stir. Add the udon noodles, and then stir in the miso paste. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to moderate, and cook for 6 minutes. Add the mushrooms, and then cook for 2 more minutes. Transfer to a nice, big bowl. Garnish with the chopped scallion, squirt to taste with a bit of Sriracha, and enjoy.

Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Serves 1

Let's Dish

Let's dish about food, restaurants, beefs, bacons, and asparagus. Let's talk food. I have decided that I talk about food enough, share my thoughts and opinions enough, write reviews enough, that it might be time to air my views and reviews and share my recipes in a more meaningful and constructive way than simply shooting my mouth off about what really drives me nuts after a couple glasses of pinot noir. Let the dish begin.