Sunday, August 29, 2010

A night in Little Italy

Natalie came up the other evening for a night in the city. Even though it was a Saturday, I had to stop by the office for a few hours to get some work done and hadn't eaten much throughout the day. By the time she got here I was so hungry and I was craving Italian food and wanted to go down to Little Italy.

I haven't been down to Little Italy in years, so we headed down there with the mission to find the best pasta we could. After a few parking debacles (namely finding a spot two seconds too late and getting it jacked from us by some Canadians) we finally strolled down the streets of Little Italy and came across Grotto Azzurra, a restaurant that has sat in the heart of Little Italy since 1908. Yelp reviews waver on this establishment, but that evening, it was perfect for two hungry ladies who had a penchant for heaps of pasta. The host lured us in with promises of half priced drinks so we took an outdoor seat and people/tourist watched and sipped cocktails.

I had a blood orange martini which was divine and Natalie's mango pear martini was also delicious -- so delicious that a tippling fly dove right in for a sip (and its death). Natalie and I have been best friends since the 6th grade, so something about that evening was really significant to me as we chatted about our lives and some major turns they have been taking. I think that at that moment I was struck with a moment of true, unadulterated gratitude for life, a best friend, good food and drink, a job that paid for this all, and the opportunity to live in this wonderful city. I felt like we were finally women, grown from the days that we bickered over who would call Domino's Pizza for delivery or cried over broken teenage hearts.

The food came out and it was one of those thrilling food moments -- to see so much food piled on your plate. Definitely one of those eyes bigger than your stomach moments. Natalie had seared scallops on pesto risotto and I had gnocchi with gorgonzola and walnuts. We washed it down with a bottle of French chardonnay and I ate until my stomach hurt.

After dinner we skipped dessert and desperately needed to walk around so that I didn't feel like a potato sack full of wet dough. We searched for bubble tea, but the strange phenomenon of Chinatown seems to be that it shuts down at 8PM. Even on a Saturday night. We found a place that was serving papaya bubble tea but then they realized they had no more tapioca so Natalie was left with papaya tea that was ultimately, not very good.

Nonetheless, the dinner was delicious and was warm and satiating and exactly what I had been craving all day. That, in and of itself, is one of the greatest feelings in the world but it was coupled with a lovely moment with a best friend and I couldn't ask for anything more than that.

Next step: make my own gnocchi and make it ten times better!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A warm house

Back in July, as a "thank you," I had a housewarming party for the people who had helped me move in to my new apartment in Harlem. It was an exciting event for me because it was a) my first dinner party in my new digs, b) the first time some of my closest friends would be meeting my boyfriend, and c) an experiment in gathering some people who did not know each other well and who's only connection was mostly me.

I've always been intrigued by the challenge of throwing the perfect dinner party -- inviting the right mix of people, maintaining interesting conversation, coming up with a menu that pleases all guests, providing enough wine/cocktails, and being able to cook, socialize, mingle, and entertain all at the same time without breaking a sweat. Needless to say, I broke a sweat.

I had invited my boyfriend Andrew, my best friend from since childhood Natalie, my best friend from since high school Jan, and my college roommate (and the best penpal) Kari (theme: people from different stages of life?). Natalie brought over Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre (one of my favorites), sorbet from The Bent Spoon, and a toy for my cat. Jan, knowing the kind of wino that I am, brought me an amazing 8-glass set of Reidel wineglasses, which truly make the perfect "ting" when set down on the counter. Kari had made from scratch one of the most amazing cheesecakes I've ever had in my life and hauled it all the way from Brooklyn. Andrew provided labor, assistance, and the coolest turkey/bird of paradise constructed from two pineapple.

The menu was organic pork chops with a pineapple-honey sauce, served with brussels sprouts salad and whipped cauliflower.

To start with, I made hummus as the appetizer, just a little to whet the appetite. I usually try to keep myself stocked with cans of garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas) and tahini so if I have an unexpected visitor or hunger, I can whip up hummus real fast. I just dump a can of garbanzo beans (with the liquid) into a blender, add a ton of tahini and olive oil, a clove of garlic, a pinch of sea salt, some lime juice, and then blend away. I like to serve the hummus on a flat plate with a little well in the middle for some olive oil and then sprinkle the edges with paprika (and no, you cannot substitute chili powder for paprika). What was sad was that I had bought and cut into triangles whole wheat pita from Whole Foods and it was disappointingly stale.

I was also bummed that I hadn't had enough time or money at the time to go out and buy materials for cocktails. I like to be able to provide a gin and tonic or vodka and cranberry if one doesn't want wine or beer, but moving is hard and one has to make priorities. Unfortunately, hard liquor was not on the top priority list of "things to buy" at the time.

A few hours prior (around 2PM), I had trimmed the pork chops (when preparing meat, I always go organic; I'm uncomfortable with conventional meat) and marinated them in Yellowtail Chardonnay, crushed black pepper, slices of garlic, and a very small amount of sea salt. I marinated both sides of the meat for about 1-2 hours on each side. I pan-seared these babies in olive oil -- it took forever and I wish I had a grill or was more confident about broiling. I served the pork chops with a sauce that was made out of pineapple, wildflower amber honey, dijon mustard, and a clove or two of garlic (I had blended it altogether). I was generous with the dijon mustard which gave it a good kick and an interesting component. I would have liked to marinate the pork chops in this mixture -- I think maybe next time I would just combine the pineapple sauce with the white wine and marinade the chops for like, 2-3 hours each side.

The brussels sprouts salad is nice because it seems fancy but is the most ridiculously simple dish. I don't know why everybody hates on brussels sprouts when they are adorable and delicious! Anyhow, I quartered brussels sprouts and cooked them until they were at the cusp of tender (but still crispy) in olive oil. Then I tossed in feta cheese, chopped walnuts, and slices of cherries (if cherries are out of season, dried cranberries would work too).

Unfortunately the second causality of the night was the whipped cauliflower. The point is to cook the cauliflower and garlic in olive oil until brown and then whip it in a blender/food processor. It comes out the consistency of mashed potatoes and the cauliflower has a natural buttery taste that melta in your mouth. I've done this side dish a few times but this time it was a disappointment because I was feeling the time crunch and didn't cook the cauliflower long enough. As a result it did not whip/blend well and instead caused Andrew to battle with the blender for a while (I really need a quality food processor). Anyway, lesson learned with the cauliflower -- got to make sure it is cooked thoroughly.

Ultimately I was thrilled with the dinner party -- we ate well and then sat around talking and sharing stories. Natalie cracked us up with some hilarious tales and Kari awed us with the most delicious homemade cheesecake I have ever tasted (truly comparable to the cheesecake at Cafe Fiorello). Seriously. It was everything a cheesecake should be (creamy, cheesy, sweet, perfect graham cracker crust) and I am in awe of the Cheesecake Queen because as much as I like cooking, I'm a mediocre baker. Jan kind of just stayed quiet (suddenly shy?) and Andrew revealed some embarrassing secrets about me. It was truly good company and they were all great sports about not having a large table to sit at or an air conditioning unit to keep us from melting under the hot halogen track lighting in my living room. It was honestly one of those nights where I felt like the luckiest girl in the world and my house was truly warmed by friends, food, and the stove. Now, if only the cauliflower had been fluffier...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Kale over Chinese style noodles topped with a fried egg

The other night, my mom and my sister came to visit me in Harlem. My sister -- who is also my best friend -- is about to move to Ann Arbor to get her Ph.D at the University of Michigan. We are so proud of her and this was our last gathering as the Kang women for a while and of course, I wanted to feed them. I decided to go with a dish that my mother taught me when I first started cooking -- kale sauteed with onions, garlic, and soy sauce served over Chinese style noodles, topped with a fried egg.

I chose this dish because it is a comfort food, both in the sense that it always makes me happy and also in the sense that it is a safe dish for me -- I’ve made it more times than I can count. But mostly, the kale and noodles remind me of my mother’s love and evenings spent around our round kitchen table in the house of my childhood. What better dinner to make on my last night with my sister?

I started out by opening a Corona with lime for me and my sister. Then I set a large pot of salted water to boil for the noodles. I also set some low-sodium organic chicken broth to heat. I cut the kale into sizeable strips, chopped half a bulb of garlic, and minced 1/3 of a red onion.

I then sliced some organic beef round eye steaks into thin (though not thin enough to my mother’s standards -- her one complaint!) strips and marinated it in soy sauce paste with half of the chopped garlic. I set that aside to marinate for a little.

To prepare enough broth for three, I chopped three stalks of green onion and put that at the bottom of the bowl. I added a sizeable glob of soy sauce paste, two capfuls of Marukan rice vinegar, a generous dash of sesame oil, and white pepper.

To cook the kale, I heated olive oil and when it was hot, threw in the onions. After a minute or two I then added the garlic. When the air was heavy with the intoxicating smell of onions and garlic, I added the beef along with its marinade. After cooking that for about three minutes, I added the kale. Kale reduces greatly so it’s always a battle of leaves spilling out of the pan and it seeming like you’re going to have way too much and then being disappointed with how scant it seems in the end. A lid was placed over the kale to let it reduce in size and then sauteed. I added some soy sauce (not paste) and a pinch of white pepper.

At this point the water is boiling so the noodles can be prepared while the kale is cooking. I haven’t advanced to handmade noodles yet so I just follow the instructions on the box. Thankfully, Leanne (my sister) was helping me out so she took care of the noodles. When the noodles are done, I usually toss them in sesame oil for flavor and to make sure they don’t stick. The broth was hot at this point too so I asked Leanne to pour that into the bowls and then add the noodles. Hot water is added to the bowls to reduce the heaviness of the broth, especially if the broth is not low-sodium (it happens).

While this was occurring, I fried three eggs in olive oil and dribbled soy sauce on top. The point is to break the yolk over the noodles so I didn’t fry them for long. When the eggs were done, I placed one over the noodles in each bowl. The kale was served in a bowl so that one can help herself and put them on top of the noodles as well. Of course this is eaten with chopsticks and Chinese soup spoons.

Thankfully the hot weather that had been plaguing New York for a few weeks had broken and there was a cool rain and wind in the air so the broth and noodles didn’t make us uncomfortably hot. The effect was exactly what I wanted -- sitting around a table with my mother and sister eating something familiar and nutritious while we talked about our lives, hopes, dreams, and struggles. At the same time, this was something I hadn't made for my mother before so she was thrilled to see how it was translated down to her daughter. We laughed and chatted and slurped down our noodles and ate till our bellies were warm and full. This was comfort and it was delicious.

Monday, August 16, 2010

An introduction

Life is, inexplicably, about food. I learned this the most when I lived for two years in a small village in the bush of Senegal. When we woke, we ate breakfast so that we could have energy to go to the fields to grow millet and peanuts. We ate lunch so that we could then spend the afternoon pounding the millet and shelling the peanuts. We ate dinner at the end of the day because we were ravenous from all the day’s labor. The women talked about dinner as they ate breakfast and meal preparation was a favorite topic of conversation.

Of course in America, our society has developed to be a little different -- most of us work all day not in fields but in offices and our harvest is not grains, but numbers that represent money. This then goes to buying food but we also have the added complexities of art, music, sports, and all kinds of extraneous entertainments to entertain ourselves with. But at every turn and corner, food and drink is still involved. Museums boast cafes. Concerts sell hot dogs. Go to the theater and before curtain call, you can buy wine and candies. Football games without tailgating?

In the past I have had a twisted relationship with food. I was once one of those skinny girls who could eat anything without gaining a pound but when I hit college, my eating habits began to catch up with me. I loved food and eating it, but there was -- of course -- a strong urge to be thin and pretty, which in the end, resulted in many solitary nights gorging on food and spending the next daylight hours eating nothing to make up for it.

Horrified at the path I was following, I made some changes and began working out, made changes to my diet, became more aware about nutrition. Most importantly, I began making food and discovered that I loved creating food. I love the process -- shopping for groceries and lovingly selecting beautiful vegetables, cutting and chopping and mincing, and then combining everything at different temperatures and times and rates with glorious results that please taste, smell, sight, and touch.

I also really love the eating experience. I think eating should be a social activity. Solitary eating still leads me to occasional bouts of gorging and subsequent guilt where there is nobody to keep me accountable and I find it a dangerous activity. When I eat by myself I tend to keep it simple to avoid eating 8 double chocolate chip cookies or a bag of chips as an excuse for dinner. But when I eat with others, I have no fear of fat or carbs or sugar. When I eat with others, I want to have the full experience of fellowship at the table. I think that life is mainly experienced through food and I have always believed that my ultimate expression of love is feeding those I care about. Nothing makes me happier than feeding, good, beautiful, and nutritious (or at least wholesome, sometimes you just need a lot of butter) food.

I’m starting this blog to write about food -- making it, consuming it, purchasing it, hating it, loving it, and most importantly, experiencing it. I’ve never been very good with measurements but I like sharing how I make my food -- I don’t believe in secret recipes and I don’t believe anybody can make the same dish the same way, so one should always share his or her methods without fear that it will be “stolen.” Plus, true cooks give credit where it is due.

I hope you will try out my ideas and share yours as well as suggestions to my little creations. Mostly, I hope you will actually let me feed you someday at a dinner party, an taste-test night, drunk brunch (my favorite!), or a meal out so that we can eat and drink life together! Welcome to my table.