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Cereal: I am so confused

If I had to predict, 70% of students (seniors/juniors who have kitchens and no college meal plan; slumming it in the real world) earlier this morning, rolled out of bed, and poured themselves a bowl of cereal for breakfast. Maybe even jazzed it up with some milk. Inhaled that crunchy, slightly soggy, sugary delight. I did the same, at noon, but it was a first this semester. Eating cereal, that is, not waking up at noon. I had even bought my own $3 box of Kashi’s honey toasted oat cereal at Walmart (Yes, I went to Walmart. Also another first.) It took three seconds. Burnt 3 calories making it.

It’s really not good.

IMG_4724Look at this. It’s like doggy kibbles– the same artificially molded, brownish gray, crunchy and requiring back molars to pulverize into a powdery dust containing 1g of soluble fiber, 100mg of green tea, 25mg of grape seed, 4g of protein, 95mg of potassium, 85mg of sodium, and 5g of sugar. Then there are the small print ingredient items. The name of the product has more natural ingredients than the actual cereal contains.

Addressing the elephant in the room… WHAT IS CEREAL?

Seriously. What are you?

You’re so processed, my brain can’t wrap itself around your existence. Does anyone else find you kind of creepy? You don’t need to be refrigerated, and have a shelf-life of 6 months. Not only that, but I also get hungry again 20 minutes after I’ve eaten you. You dominate an entire aisle in the supermarkets. Real food like oranges have to deal with sharing their space with the bananas. You’re easy. Too easy. You’re the “I overslept” food. You’re the “food I bought because it was a complete meal in itself for $3.” Explain yourself.

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Cooking style: The lazy chef

Cooking style: The lazy chef

The extent of my culinary training is eating a lot, occasionally watching my mother cook (in a peripheral, attention-deficit way– mentally wandering far from the preparations happening before my unfocused eyes), and indulging in a little baking thrice a year (on a good year.) Professional cooking: the balletic dicing of peppers, filleting of a sea bass, or the neat julienne of carrots, is a spectator sport to me, much like how football is a spectator sport that most Americans can passionately drone on about but in practice, relegate to non-committal dabbling.

My mother came from a fairly agrarian background, the countryside of southern China in a coastal town where people caught or bred their meats, planted their vegetables, and lived self-sustainably (what the urban food movements are ironically striving for). Her culinary training was not from recipe books, but rather, from memory, from learning from my grandmother, from trial and error and the natural process of learning by doing. As a result, she would impart her knowledge of how to make dishes like, 酸辣汤 (a spicy and sour soup), 醉鸡 (“drunken chicken” marinated in a white rice wine),饺子 (dumplings) to me not in the traditional form of ingredient-measurement, but rather in ingredient-proportion.

And that’s how I cook– on intuition that this amount of this goes with this amount of that. With passion, with the natural curiosity to experiment. With a million different inaccuracies, and a range of variations from one dish to the next. I cook spontaneously, with little patience for academically poring over the intricate recipe of a French cassoulet, a labor intensive Spanish paella, and anything that requires more than 10 minutes to digest the instructions and execute. I cook minimally,  and the result below is inspired by the taste boredom of eating re-heated take-out Chinese food ordered at 4AM (the notoriously dependable New Hong Kong!) and corporate presentation cheese-platters for two weeks before the food lover in me started slitting its wrists to seek attention.

So I rummaged through my refrigerator, for bits ‘n scraps, and somehow, something taste-bud rocking, healthy, and perfect for the lazy cook (the oven does the heavy lifting here) was born:

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What’s in it:

  • 3 lb “kosher” chicken (segmented into 8 pieces by the able butchers at Trader Joe’s)
  • 3 tomatoes (I got 3lbs worth of tomatoes for a $1 from Haymarket two Saturdays ago!!!)
  • 1/2 clove of garlic
  • 1 onion (I used to have them frozen before I chopped them– which is one way to prevent inconvenient weeping, but that was rather unintentional and a trick learned in a slumdog millionaire manner. The refrigerator in my Tokyo flat had only one temperature setting, so I had to defrost everything from strawberry jam to daikon radishes– which were creepy because the water would crystallize in between the meaty parts of the radish, so when the water melted, the daikon deflated and wrinkled like a fetus.)
  • 1 lime’s worth of juice (also, another brilliant 10 limes/$1 investment at Haymarket. Best time to go is around 4-5pm, when all the workmen want to go home and are eagerly getting rid of their leftover wares for way below production value.)
  • a handful of chopped parsley
  • olive oil (enough to coat chicken in a thin layer of the Mediterranean, and so the parsley/additional seasoning adheres more readily)
  • liberal amount of salt and pepper (as you wish)

How it becomes dinner:

Preheat oven to 350 — the hardest part of making this actually. It’s the easiest step to forget.

Put everything in a baking pan and mush it all together. This is my favorite part.. getting all in there, the front lines, fingers coated with oil and raw ingredients. Bake for ~45 minutes, then open the oven and turn the pieces of chicken over. Might as well move around the tomatoes in the drippings/sauces so they don’t dry out. Bake for another 10-15 minutes.

Serving Size: 4 extremely ravenous people.

Food Cost: $13 (opportunity costs/trade-offs: one dessert at Finale Desserts; 2 pork buns at Momofuku; or 3 McGangbangs.)

Lazy points: 9/10 (Subtract 1 for having to peel garlic. What an annoying prep necessity.)

Referenced Locations:

Trader Joe’s
(various locations)
1317 Beacon St
Brookline, MA 02445
(617) 278-9997

Haymarket
Blackstone Street, around the corner of Quincy Market
Boston, MA
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Confessions of a hater

While I forget what situation it was in when I encountered this statement that slowly integrated itself into my life philosophy, it redefined my perception of hate and what the word means to me:

“People hate the things and attributes that they can also see in themselves.”

I can’t help but see how it manifests itself as truth in many circumstances. Like, the whole Kanye-Taylor Swift MTV awards drama, everyone rushed to condemn his actions (as I did as well) and it’s so easy to judge and to criticize and to hate. To be honest, what Kanye did, albeit on an epic level, is what I’ve seen plenty of people do here in America, land of rugged individualism. Observe how Americans (and possibly other cultures, but I’m going to stick with what I know here) interrupt each other all the time (of course this became only a more apparent contrast when I had stepped out of this social climate for a bit, and lived in a country where everyone nods and smiles and waits a second to make sure you’ve finished before continuing). There were several times in the past month when I was in the middle of a story, and someone interjects, “OH YEAH, BUT THERE WAS ALSO THE TIME WHEN I…” Hi thurr, did I enter a time warp? I was still talking.

Of course, I’ve fallen back into the habit as well, so I hated what Kanye did. What I do. What everyone does.

And again, it’s so easy to judge and criticize others at a moment’s thought.

I was laying in my bed last night,  trying to get over a wine-induced insomnia, thinking about how much I wanted Eggs Benedict for Sunday brunch, which then segued into thoughts of all the times I’ve eaten eggs benedict. Then I remembered that one crispy fall morning two years ago at Taverna Banfi in the Statler Hotel, Cornell University, where the eggs on the eggs benedict was served to me with a solidified yolk and not poached as it should be. I sent it back, and despite the restaurant being nearly empty of customers, it took another twenty minutes before  another a soggy failure came out in a small ramekin.

People, I was angry because I felt entitled to have the eggs benedict of my dreams. The kind where the egg should be properly poached as exemplified at Momofuku– a yolk that is liquidy and hot suspended in the middle of the perfectly oval, snow-white solid (I’ve asked the Momofuku chef once how such perfection is achieved, and he replied that their poaching is done by a machine, a bit like a centrifuge, that spins the egg in its shell at a specific temperature, specific acceleration, for a specific time.) In retrospect, maybe two years belated, I forgive them.. after all, the Statler is staffed with students in the Hotel school, possibly a pimply freshman poaching for the first time in his culinary career.

(Not to dump on the Banfi. A dinner I had there was fantastic.)

If you’ve never poached eggs before, it is difficult to not mess up. It’s been said that you can tell the skill of a chef by observing their basic skills, and making Really Good Eggs is one of those tell-signs. I remember that later that year, after the Statler Incident, when I endeavored to make eggs benedict at my house one morning, it took an hour to poach 6 eggs– the toasted english muffins were growing cold and the hollandaise sauce started collagulating from sitting too long. I broke down halfway in frustration, threw a hysteric fit, and my boyfriend at the time took pity and finished poaching the rest. I realize then, feeling profoundly humbled, that I can’t jeer at people who can’t poach eggs unless I’ve mastered it myself. I’m only hating on sucky egg poachers because their shortcomings are an extension of mine.

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Tokyo reverie

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On top of the world, Tokyo 2009

My emotions are so bound up with this city and especially magnified now that I have left it (unavoidable human feelings stemming from retrospectivism and nostalgia.) I feel electrocuted when I see a photo floating out of nowhere on facebook of Heiwadai, the quaint radish-valley where my hovel was; chancing upon a picture in a Taiwanese model’s blog, of her posing in front of Shinjuku station and wishing I could take her place; walking past Book-off, Chiyoda sushi, and Beard Papa in New York; Tyler describing to me an article in Maxim about yakuzas running the red light district in ikebukuro (10 min. from my ‘hood); or meeting a friend made in Japan in an American context. It triggers a slippery slope of memories: of riding the eerily punctual trains everywhere (only made un-punctual by the occasional “human accidents/人身事故”), of the language in its many forms (casual speech, formal speech, japanglish), but most overwhelmingly, of the times I spent with the people there (the Finns, the Americans, the U.K. corner, the Frenchies, the westernized Japanese youth) rendezvousing in the public parks outside Sophia University and in Kichijoji, karaoke bars in Shinjuku, and izakayas (Japanese-style bars) in Shibuya– being young, beautiful, crazy, and in the moment.

The irony is that when I first arrived in Tokyo, I was constantly comparing its gastronomic landscape to New York’s– how it didn’t have proper pizza, bagel, and how decent italian food could not be found (What is tobiko and nori doing in my spaghetti? Why does my spaghetti come from a box imported from America?) Why is Chinese food 1500 yen ($15) and so inferior to New York’s Flushing (a mecca of Chinese stuffs) when Tokyo is a short 3 hour flight away from the source? Why does demiglace used by restaurants to top off the “hambagu” with rice come from a metal can and packaged by Heinz? Why does an apple cost 500 yen ($5) and a watermelon 3000 yen ($30)?

Unfortunately, I spent my first month or so in this querulous, close minded haze until my friend, an American expat living in China, verbally slapped me out of my self-righteous stream of blahblahblah about the superiority of New York’s food culture. Then the clouds parted etcetera. Sample enlightenment:

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midnight walk to fruit stand in Phuket

“I want mangoes. There aren’t mangoes around here worth my yen.”

“Fool. Go to Thailand dude. Just take a one week trip and gorge yourself.”

Ok. — fast forward a few months, I fly to Thailand… Finding myself in fruit paradise, where all mangoes come to die, slurping on mango shakes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and fourth meal. Brilliance. Everyone needs to go to food counseling now and then.

But his other advice was more sensible and rocked my stubborn mindset straight to the core (direct quote minus all the cussing in between):

“If you’re trying to recreate an American lifestyle there you will find it takes a lot of effort. But why would you want to do that? Just enjoy the great Japanese food that is both ubiquitous and cheap.”

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Moved to Boston, ate some stuff

The top five things I learned about food this week:

1. Soul Fire BBQ, on Harvard Ave/Beacon Street has All You Can Eat WINGS! on Mondays for 6.99 dolla dolla billz. If Jean-Georges ever have a tabehoudai (食べ放題) of Seared Skate, this is the wings equivalent– mild exaggeration, but they produce just as much happiness points on my satisfaction curve. Under cost-benefit analysis: benefits for the win!, because these wings are unbelievably juicy (the drumsticks are less so, but still does the job) and available in four delicious homemade sauces: (ordered in descending favorites) Pit-Boss (a Soul Fire blend of bbq and a sweet n’ sour sauce); Spicy Honey; Golden BBQ; and Buffalo. Every Monday! Who! Is! With me?!

2. In a perfect universe, I would never order again at Mickey D’s in America (especially having more than my fill in Tokyo, and under peer pressure from my America-lovin’-European-friends)– but I can still watch, in abject horror, Victor do a midnight drive-thru McMassacre on this new (new to me at least, the recently re-patriot’ed) Franken-burger:

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The McGangBang.

I don’t really care enough  to remember the official name or google the ingredients composing this monstrosity, but it’s like a turducken: two beef patties flanking a breaded chicken patty, with tasteless iceberg lettuce (that may or may not have been there. Might have hallucinated it just so my mind does not explode from the overwhelming mental image of lotsa bad meat) and condiments.

IMG_44473. IHOPS still cannot poach eggs. No surprise.

4. Ghirardelli brownies made from the box (with cream cheese added) is a 4AM munchies staple.

5. Eggplants in America are LARGE. At least 5 times larger than their Japanese counterpart. This is not necessarily a metaphor for other things.

Referenced Locations:

Soul fire BBQ
182 Harvard Ave
Allston, MA 02134-2806
(617) 787-3003
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Shake Shack: what all other burgers aspire to be

Burger and Ice Cream, those words are already repeating itself like a mantra chanted by Buddhist monks at five in the morning at a temple in the Himalayas. Except that my backdrop is Madison Square Park on a cloudless blue summer afternoon. I prance up to the Shake Shack line to meet Lisa Famewhore, who is already clutching a bag of Shake Shack cheese fries and saving me a spot on the twenty person deep line. Almost immediately, my vision locks into her cup of Berry Blue ice cream, and on cue, she spoons a bite-ful of intensely blueberry flavored, milky, frosty delicious into my mouth. My eyes rolls upwards and I moaned, “MMMM, SO GOOD!” to my audience of two women behind us, who had completely halted their conversation to watch this entire exchange, and the very intently staring man in front of us who (according to TJ and his male instincts) had thought bubbles visibly emanating, “mmm, yeah, so good, that’s right. You lick that ice cream off that spoon. Now, lick each other.”

Honestly, Shake Shack is SO good, it doesn’t even require two Asian girls and borderline lesbian food play to market it. Just look at this. Instantaneous mental food-gasm. The golden ratio redefined into: 2 butter-coated buns, 1 crunchy fresh lettuce, 1 thick ripe slice of organic tomato, 1 secret sauce (my kryptonite in any food menu. Just write ‘secret sauce’ and my curiosity drives me to own it) and primo-meat (“a proprietary blend of beef by Pat LaFrieda.”)

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Every single Shake Shack Burger consumed, past and present, undoes the heinous evil of Really Bad Burgers (such as the tragic fail that is the McDonald’s Mega Mac exclusively made for Japan.) It’s like every tasty molecule is dying for our gastronomic sins. Imagine, Jesus times 300 units of energy.

Orion, my Confederate-expat (or in more P.C. terms, “Southern”) friend who entertained aspirations of culinary stardom before it was crushed by the economic shitstorm, formerly worked at the second Shake Shack on the Upper West Side where he’d punish French people for being French by forcing them to babble on in their hated language English, make eyes at the gay head-waiter at Dovetail across the street, and receive severe Shake Shack discounts as an employee. He still luuuuurves Shake Shack burgers; which is the most genuine form of compliment anyone can give as an insider to this industry (another acquaintance who had formerly worked at McDonalds, to preserve his sanity, became a vegetarian for 5 years.) Tragically, Orion has since quit, which leaves him nothing but dead to me (jaykay.)

Referenced Locations:

Shake Shack
Madison Ave and East 23rd St.
New York, NY 10010
(212) 889-6600
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Artisanal Bistro

I was hung over in three different ways. I had also unrepentantly pre-gamed Gray’s Papaya’s infamous juicy hotdogs with all the fixings except for sweet relish. But even so, nothing stopped me from truly enjoying Artisanal Bistro, my first Chef Terrance Brennan dining experience (Picholine, raved about by my dining companion, is his other restaurant of well-repute). Nothing, except maybe the nausea that kicked in, and moved me to hand over the accompanying wine to others less peaky. Karma will reward me at some later date.

The really awesome thing about Artisanal, other than the amazingly high ceilings that make it seem like I’m eating in a chapel, the booth seats that sink half a foot down like sitting on foam, or the traditional bistro style weaved chairs, is the pre-/post- theater menu they offer for $25/ or $38 with the “sommelier picked wine accompaniment.” Also, it’s only offered really early (6PM) or really late (10PM), but it’s trendier nowadays to be like the Spanish anyway, with their late dinners and robust partying into the twilight. What other country has nationwide siestas, yet still have a currency stronger than the USD?

The menu was as such; I’ve bolded our fab choices (and noted why I ruled out the other options):

HORS D’OEUVRES

Choice of:

SOUPE DU JOUR (Lobster Bisque: too safe of a choice)

MESCLUN OR BEET SALAD (Personally never found any salad to be wildly gratifying)

SHEEP’S MILK RICOTTA CAVATELLI A LA CARBONARA

PLATS PRINCIPAUX

Choice of:

MOULES FRITES (Trans: Oyster and Fries)

SAUTÉED SKATE WING

SUMMER VEGETABLE RISOTTO (a simple, do-at-home dish)

DESSERTS

Choice of:

CRÈME BRÛLÉE ‘LE CIRQUE’

BABA AU RHUM

HOUSEMADE ICE CREAMS & SORBET


cavatelliThe first course was accompanied by a sweet white wine, a Torrontes from Argentina. This was fun to drink. The carbonara proposed in this pasta dish deviated from preconceptions– the consistency was not like the traditional Italian-style carbonara (egg-y, thick, and highly adhesive), but rather a really thin sauce that lightly coated the sheep milk ricotta cavatelli (hand-made pasta—truly artisanal!– rolled slightly on the edges, infused with ricotta cheese.) Small, soft chunks of bacon and cauliflower interspersed with the cavatelli gave it a smoky taste as well as a crunchy textural break. It was a decent dish, but slightly reminiscent of a soupy gourmet Mac and Cheese eaten with only a fork.

skateThe defining part of the meal was the Sautéed Skate Wings: a fillet of skate, browned and slightly crunchy, on a bed of capers, croutons, raisins, and oranges marinating in a pool of fruity sauce (blood orange grenobloise) with a dollop of pureed cauliflower blended with mascarpone cheese on the side. This was accompanied by a Grenache from Spain, a dryer red wine that had a deeply contrasting bitterness to the saccharine tanginess of the main course (stabilizing my blood sugar levels.) The sauce by itself may have been a bit too sweet for my taste, but when I add the cauliflower-mascarpone crème fraîche to it, pile it on top of a delicate piece of skate that I have separated by merely poking at the fillet with a single tine of my fork, and then having it melt together in my mouth in one delicious food orgy, all else becomes irrelevant.

babarhumSo irrelevant that I am almost reluctant to move onto desserts: The crème brûlée, and the Baba Au Rhum accompanied by a sparkling Muscat dessert wine (most likely from Portugal, but unsure) “Le Cirque,” follows the dessert title, and I suspected that it was a nod to the recipe that the restaurant Le Cirque created (after all, they don’t keep it a secret– the recipe is revealed on the bottom of the ramekin once the crème brûlée is eaten away and Terrance Brennan had served as sous chef for Le Cirque), but the waiter also seemed unclear on that point. The waiter did, however, offer an apt evaluation of the Baba Au Rhum, citing it as a “B/B+”

I would return to Artisanal for the Sautéed Skate Wings, and the Crème Brûlée (which is as solid as any crème brûlée goes), for the vast wine collection, for the yet-untried cheese intensive dishes, and naturally, not to overlook the cheeses that are aged next to the dining room, making it as local as it can ever get in a city.

Referenced Locations:

Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro
2 Park Ave
New York, NY 10016-5675
(212) 725-8585
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The new chicken of the sea

The heartbreaking pain of leaving the glorious metropolis of Tokyo after 300 days of whirlwind excitement for the humble town of New York City (I jest, I love being caressed in your gritty, yet ample bosom, NY, mi amore) is completely assuaged by the excitement of POSITIVE things that the recession has triggered. Mainly two: the skyrocketing generosity of NY’s temples of haute cuisine, and food sales on gourmet meats such as steak and lobster.

Let me get to the latter first. This is a phenomenon discovered in Queens (Manhattan marketplaces are still in denial), where lobsters are $3.99/lb. There’s a catch, there’s always a catch; but this one is rather inconsequential: the biggest they get are 1.5 lbs. Kind of young, really sweet (They call them “chickens.” I don’t know why). The bigger the lobster, and the meat gets tougher anyway. Nom Nom.

Here’s the cutie I got:

And cooked in a manner far less bourgeoise and in the true spirit of the recession, what I’d like to call the poor man’s Lobster Thermidor: Lobster baked in American Cheese. (not a product endorsement, but I prefer Kraft white singles. More natural looking.)

Don’t recoil in disgust unless you’ve tried it. Fo’ serious.

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