Friday, October 1, 2010

Biking Through Queens: Adventures in Corona/Flushing

Flushing Chinatown
I've been meaning to post about our bike trip last weekend for well, almost a week now, but other obligations have been getting the better of me! So here goes . . .

In an attempt to take advantage of some of the last days of nice weather before NYC winter (read: windchill) sets in, we decided to keep it local and bike out to Flushing, Queens. I'll have to say the ride was much more pleasant than the subway ride on the 7 "International Express" train. I do heart you 7 train, and you are a landmark, but I ride you every day, and the trip out to the end of the line in Flushing always seems long and crowded. Although I wouldn't recommend riding bikes as we did in the very cluttered Flushing Chinatown area which was challenging to navigate amid the throngs of busy pedestrians clogging the sidewalks. Interestingly, I noticed we received many comments and curious stares as (non-delivery person) bicyclists are not such a common sight in these parts, compared to northwest Qns, Hipsterville Brooklyn and Manhattan where nobody bats an eye. Our little one in her Co-Pilot toddler seat was also a big hit with passers-by who kept on waving and talking to her and apparently weren't used to seeing a kid hitching a ride on the back of a bike.

By the time we got to Corona, we realized we were already famished and wanted lunch, but I am not so familiar with the area, although I occasionally run across some recommended places. [Note to Self: I need to start some file for this kind of thing to store away and access when needed.] A quick perusal of the NYC Bicyclists Map and we realized we were only about 10 min. away from Chinatown where there are dozens of decent food options on every block. Hurrah! So we got back on the road, heading toward one of our favorite destinations I mentioned here in a previous post, but then along the way, we got sidetracked as I spotted Ramen Hakata that looked enticing. Consulting the menu hanging in the window, we saw it was also very reasonably-priced. I learned later when I looked it up that it doesn't seem to very highly-rated on Yelp, but we were quite pleased.

I got one of the many Ramen selections with a succulent garlic Shoyu broth, bean sprouts, shredded carrots, scallions, and pieces of well-seasoned, tender sliced pork (chashu). You can also order additional chashu for $3, but I decided to forego that, although after trying it, I wished I had splurged for the extra. I also was pleased to notice a little sign on the window saying they had kimchi (hmm, more Japanese-Korean fusion?), so I got a side of that as well.

RR got the bento box with salmon teriyaki, which was well-prepared and flavorful, but not filling enough, especially when you have a hungry toddler who decided she loved it and wolfed down most of the already humble portion. Not the best selection of other items in the bento, so if you go, I would say it's better to stick to the soups. We ended up ordering a second salmon teriyaki bowl, mainly for the little one. Looking around, the almost exclusively Asian customers were enjoying interesting, colorful looking dishes and as always, I wished I could try a bite of everything on the menu. I guess we'll just have to return. And I've been craving Ramen ever since I had it, especially with the rainy weather we've been having. Or more likely, we'll pick another place to try next time . . .

Next door, there was a quirky cafe serving bubble teas and selling collectible Japanese toys. Little M of course dashed in. We had to avert concerned looks from the nerdy bespeckled guys behind the counter and remain vigilent, "No, don't touch, only look . . ." Needless to say, we didn't feel very welcome, so decided to head on.

Hopping back on our bikes, in search of some ice cream, we went in search of the Flushing branch of the famous Chinatown Ice Cream Factory I've mentioned in a previous post. We had been there before, but not for several years, as it was not centrally-located and I remember having to foot it and then take a bus to get there from the subway stop. Probably not the smartest location. It showed up on the map on RR's Blackberry, but as we hit the location, then circled back a few times searching, it was nowhere in sight. After asking a few people milling around, we realized it had closed down and maybe for good reason judging by the disparaging Yelp comments about melting freezer-burned product and even insinuations that maybe it was even bootleg. Wha?! Now in its place was the promising and more authentic-looking Dessert Bar so we decided to give it a go.
The menu seemed overwhelming and scattered - there wasn't just one menu, but several of them, plus whatever they had posted around the place and behind the counter, so it took me a while to figure out all the options and then decide what I was in the mood for. Our little one fixated on a generic picture of a blue drink hanging on the wall, and I had to try to explain to her that it was only a picture and not something they had on the menu - believe me, I looked! But with her toddler resolve, she kept on pointing at it and saying, "Blue" (well more like "Bu"), which is her favorite color. And then the cutest thing - when the waitress came to take our order, Little M went right up to her to try to tell her in gibberish interspersed with "Bu" what she wanted. Instead I ordered her vanilla ice cream with fruit jellies, which she ended up spitting out. Oh well, sorry Little M! I really did want to get that blue drink for her. Immediately I spotted on the menu the yuzu honey jelly and ordered that. It was light and nicely flavored with real yuzu. Perfect since I was still pretty full of Ramen.
Dying of thirst, I also ordered an incredibly refreshing frothy "Verdant Cooler," which was a combination of green tea (probably matcha), passion fruit juice and honey and indeed it was verdant and cool, colored a bright but not off-putting shade of green (sorry Little M, not blue). I'm sorry to say I was so thirsty that I drank it down forgetting to snap a picture first. I also ended up drinking most of RR's lychee "smoothie," which to his disappointment was actually a slushie (he had wanted something more like a milkshake).
Little Miss who loves ice (and she always says the word in this cute pronounced whispery way) also had some - that is in between her visits to the table of young women sitting behind us and chatting them up, the social butterfly that she is.

Full of fruit slushies and jelly, we hopped back on to head to the large park in the area, Flushing Meadows Corona, the site of the huge globe structure called the Unisphere, apparently the biggest globe in the world and even has its own website.

The Unisphere
Although there is a lot here, in general, it always seems like a waste of space and has a kind of sad, deserted, dilapidated Soviet feel to it. Mainly it seems to be over-run by people using any available space to have barbeques and play soccer, even in the un-operative fountains. This time we happened to see several different groups of Latino dancers practicing, which was interesting to watch.

Interesting to note, this park was a former "dumping ground labelled a 'valley of ashes' by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 'The Great Gatsby'" and also the the site of the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair. Among many other things, it encompasses Citi Field, a Hall of Science, Queens Museum of Art, a lake and many odd decaying metal structures from former fair pavilions, which really remind me of something you would find in the former Soviet Union.

Again, seems like a waste of space, since these structures appear to have no function at the present.

Apologies this is a departure from food-related talk, but I thought it was interesting. We also managed to visit the petting zoo at Queens Zoo where Little M kept busy feeding the animals small pellets of food - one. pellet. at. a. time.

In the same area, we rode a really cool old carousal - little M's first! Although she immediately saddled right up, choosing her horse, she cried a bit at the beginning when it started to move fast, but eventually got into the groove.
We managed to avoid the cotton candy, although it's usually one of my favorites. Then we headed back home. After all that exercise and sightseeing, I was craving a martini, so when we got home, I made a Ginger Lemondrop by 1) making a simple syrup out of equal proportions water and sugar + crushed ginger, heated just to boiling, then allowing it to cool. 2) combining 3 oz. good quality vodka, 1 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and 1 oz. of the ginger simple syrup with ice in a cocktail shaker and 3) shaking and pouring into a martini glass. Yum, very refreshing. And I had some help squeezing the lemons.

And sometimes you just want to return home and enjoy a nice steak dinner.

Steak was a sirloin from the Butcher's Block (in Sunnyside) I had marinated earlier and roast potatoes (LOVE the convection roast feature on my Bosch oven) and sauteed garlicky greens from our CSA box.

Friday, September 10, 2010

My NYC Food Bucket List

I've been thinking about an article I read recently about the death of the word "foodie," which has become overused and many people apparently think has a negative, snobby connotation. That surprised me since I always thought of a foodie as just an amateur who has a great love and appreciation for all things food-related, and is interested in finding out more about and trying out new and especially unusual eats. I've never thought of it in a negative sense. Definitely some people are annoying about food, such as the ones described in the article (and I sincerely hope I never turn into that!):
A foodie is now someone who takes food to extremes: Tweeting every course of every meal, obsessively discussing Top Chef Masters and Hell's Kitchen episodes on Internet forums, forcing the entire group to wait as they take pictures of every dish that hits the table and rushing to upload them . . . grilling wait staff to find out the exact provenance of every ingredient in a dish and revering chefs as if they were Lennon and McCartney. Then there's the arguing ad nauseum about whether sous vide is the greatest cooking technique since cavemen created the open flame, whether that bubbly-looking snot on the side of a dish is a foam or an emulsion, whether or not to call themselves "slow food" connoisseurs or locavores, and whether pork cracklins or morel mushrooms will be the next foods to take the culinary world by storm (since bacon and cupcakes are now passé, natch).
I decided to do a search for "foodie" to see what popped up. Then I got distracted reading several blogs that came up in the search. This blog entry on "The Top 10 Things Every New York Foodie Should Do" inspired me to create my own kind of Top 10 "bucket list" for food experiences in NYC. It's incredibly hard to pick just 10, but here goes:

  1. Dim Sum in Manhattan or Flushing Chinatown: Sweet-n-Tasty Cafe makes to-die-for melt-in-your-mouth watercress and shrimp shumai and dumplings, steamed shrimp and crispy scallop dumplings, fluffy steamed roast pork buns, and fresh homemade soup noodles. You can also watch them making the food. And then of course a stop to Chinatown Ice Cream Factory for a scoop of cherry pistachio, avocado, or almond cookie ice cream, or any Chinese bakery for a taro milk bubble tea. The trip wouldn't be complete without a visit to one of the many snack shops where you can sample the goods and then serve yourself a sack of assorted exotic candies. My favorites are the Thai coconut milk caramels wrapped in colorful little tissue paper; and the lychee gummies.
  2. Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens: Everyone has to make this trip at least once to experience sitting outside sharing picnic tables with friends and strangers alike and enjoying some fresh draft Pilsner Urquell and a knockwurst sausage or grilled klobása with spicy mustard and crunchy pickles. You might want to make a day of it.
  3. Middle Eastern Pastries + Coffee: If you're in the mood for something sweet, another Astoria stop is Laziza pastry shop on Steinway Street for a plate of Middle Eastern goodies and an cheap yet decent espresso. Get one of each kind, sit down and sample the goodness. Two words as you savor all the lovely knafeh, mamoul, baklava, etc.: sugar coma! Unfortunately, I haven't been here in a long time, and when I was searching this place recently, I turned up several reviews saying it had changed ownership and sadly not as good as it used to be. Let's hope it's not true!
  4. Saint Agatha’s Nipple Cake from the East Village: There is an Italian bakery in the East Village that makes these special cakes I haven't been able to find anywhere else. Whenever I'm in the neighborhood, which is very infrequent now, I stop by this little old-school Italian pastry shop. These are so decadently sweet they will give you a sugar headache. I get a kick out the naughty breast-shaped design, but no matter what they looked like, the combination of white sugar icing and cake similar to the a Black and White Cookie, but then add rich ricotta filling which is used in cannoli and bright green marzipan. The literal cherry on the top is the maraschino "nipple" I like to save for last. I found a blog post about this a while back when I was looking for pics of this unique cake if you're interested.
  5. Spanish Tapas and Sangria: I haven't been out for tapas in years, but it remains one of my favorite meals, especially when you're out with friends.  I don't even have a specific restaurant in mind it's been that long. We used to frequent one in the East Village when we first moved to NYC called Xunta, but they've since moved across the bridge to Williamsburg. One of the reasons I like tapas is you get to try a little bit of everything and if you're still hungry, you can just keep ordering more. Some of my favorite tapas dishes are bacon-wrapped dates; salty cheese and stuffed olives; and chorizo al vino.
  6. Japanese Shabu-Shabu: Another fun dining experience, especially with a group of people is where you have your own little hot pot embedded in the table in front of you to make your own soup to your liking using a variety of thinly-sliced meats, fish or shrimp, thin cellophane noodles, veggies and condiments. I like Minni's Shabu Shabu in Flushing. They have a condiment bar where you can pick up little cups of red-hot pepper sauce, sesame oil, scallions, garlic, and other trimmings to give the soup some pep. Interesting note that shabu-shabu directly translates to "swish-swish" because of the sound made when swishing the soup around when you're preparing it.
  7. Korean feast at any of the great restaurants in Little Korea/Koreatown: I love the number of little side dishes (banchan) to start off the meal and keep you busy, and the fact that kimchi is served at every meal. Korean barbecue is fun with a group of people, although usually a bit on the pricey side. Kum Gang San in "K-Town" has two floors and a huge waterfall. I believe it's open 24 hours and is always a fun experience. Last time I was there, I ordered some kimchi sushi which was incredible. Some of my favorite dishes are japchae - noodles with spinach, julienned beef, sliced onion, and julienned carrots mixed with seasoning made of soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar; the different varieties of stew served in a stone pot and still boiling when it arrives at the table - I like the spicy stew with soft tofu, beef and fish. Here is a good guide to K-Town from Paper Magazine.
  8. Polish Breakfast in Greenpoint: Artery-clogging, heavy Polish breakfast or brunch at Christina's on Manhattan Avenue, a little dive that never changes (in the decade we've been here anyway) in Greenpoint, Brooklyn means stuffing your face with blintzes, pirogi, eggs, and of course, always a side of the heavenly perfectly-crisp-on-the-outside kielbasa with mustard. And it tastes all the better washed down with a chilled Żywiec beer.
  9. Authentic Thai in Woodside, Queens: Try one of the many restaurants, such as Sripraphai, Zabb (which is closer to Jackson Heights) or I Am Thai for high quality and spicy Thai. Woodside, a virtual melting pot of ethnic groups, among others has a kind of sub-Southeast Asian neighborhood with Thai and Filipino restaurants and shops. Depending on my mood, my top picks for dishes would be: sauteed Chinese broccoli with crispy pork; Bangkok street food style noodle soup with rice noodles, fish balls, ground chicken, bean sprouts, scallion and cilantro in a spicy and sour broth; papaya or mango salads; and of course, sticky rice. A Thai iced tea or Singha beer round it out. I feel lucky to live close to so many fantastic Thai options and could seriously eat good Thai food almost every night of the week (and almost do!) That and taco truck tacos are saviors.
  10. Freshly-Baked Donuts from Donut Plant on the Lower East Side: There is clearly a love for the art of making donuts here. Flavors rotate and all ingredients are fresh and seasonal; many are organic (making you feel less guilty about all the fried dough you're about to consume!) Although the place has grown in popularity over the years, it fortunately has not yet been ruined. I remember reading that the guy who owns the place used to make fresh the donuts early each morning in some basement and hand deliver them to Dean and Deluca and other businesses on his bicycle. This is one of those places that makes me wish I lived closer to the LES so that I could visit more often! When we were living in Brooklyn, sometimes we would walk over the Williamsburg bridge just to go here. You can get them at other places, but they sell out fast and there isn't as much of a selection. Some examples of flavors: peanut butter and jelly and tres leches.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Labor Day Weekend Jaunt: Brooklyn Brewery and Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory

We decided to take advantage of the last real weekend of summer by going on an intensive 2-day bike ride through 3 boroughs. Day One included Queens and Brooklyn where we visited our old neighborhood of Greenpoint, surprisingly close to our 'hood in Queens. We stopped by one of our fave former haunts we hadn't been to in almost a decade, Brooklyn Brewery. It was reassuring to see that things haven't changed that much, except for us, as now we have a toddler in tow, so enjoying some brews was a little more challenging and definitely not the leisurely experience of years past. Luckily the brewery is a very family-friendly environment and though seemingly illogical, they actually encourage the presence of kids. Nonetheless, we were the only ones there with child (crazy handful of a child at that, running amok!) The guys working there were very attentive and helped us to entertain the little one, even throwing in a gratis soft drink for her, Saranac Sparkling Organic Acai Berry (and amazingly only some of it got spilled on the floor!) and some cute little plastic cups to play with. The barrels also provided many minutes of toddler entertainment. The mostly '20-something hipster patrons' reactions were divided - either 'ignore the child, i do not see her' or that wistful look of those who you can tell like and someday want children. I definitely would have been in the former camp pre-kid, but I hope we didn't annoy people too much. I know there have been a lot of big, bitterly-divided debates recently over whether or not it's appropriate to bring your child into a bar. Luckily we live in a neighborhood with a sizable Irish population, and with pub culture it's not as much of an issue. Overall, it was a really fun and pleasant (and nostalgic) pit stop. Brooklyn's Weisse beer is still one of my favorites and you can only get it on tap as far as I know. Their lager comes in a close second. We didn't try either of the two new high alcohol content beers they had on tap (I believe they were called Blast! IPA and Detonation Ale around 10% alc/vol), but then on Monday, we ended up buying another high alcohol beer (to go with some fabulous chili that I made) from River Horse called Tripel [sic] Horse Belgian-Style, which got me wondering if this is a new brewing trend. Basically one beer has the alcohol content of two regular beers, so you have to be careful!

Later in Greenpoint, for a bigger hit for the little one who loves cold, sweet treats, we ended up visiting a newer place (opened in 2007) I had read about and we hadn't yet been to - the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. This is the second outpost, the other one is in DUMBO, under the bridge in a different part of Brooklyn. Although the selection of flavors was not so extensive or exotic (they only have 8 flavors) and it is located in a rather desolate industrial stretch that is hard to find, it was fun and the ice cream hit the spot. I noticed the root beer floats were a popular selection. The little one had peaches and cream, RR had vanilla chocolate chunk and I had coffee, which helped balance out the effects of the beer a bit and prepare me to get back in the saddle to finish the ride. Since the weather was beautiful we took our cones outside. And then on we rode.

Salads 101

Disclaimer: Okay, I've been working on this post on and off forever now and it's getting frustrating because I keep losing formatting and links. I was almost going to abandon it, but decided to just get it over with and move on! Still getting the hang of blogging, so bear with me . . .

Simple summer salad - a version of Insalata Caprese with sliced tomatoes, sliced mozzarella, fresh basil, and prosciutto on a bed of arugula, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar 

 Salads are one of the easiest and quickest dishes to throw together, and versatile, especially if you keep some basic items on hand. I like that you can 'mix it up' with different variations, so you don’t ever have to eat the same salad twice. Even if you had a salad every night, you probably wouldn’t get bored. (In fact, I’d be willing to bet there’s probably some "salad project" blog out there). A salad is also the most frequently requested dish by RR and usually goes something like this:
Me: What do you want for dinner tonight?

RR’s predictable response: “How about salad with grilled chicken?

Me: [eyeroll] Again?!

simple salad with mixed greens and asparagus dressed w/vinaigrette with Peruvian rotisserie chicken from Pio Pio Riko

I thought I’d share some basic ingredients to have on hand and tricks for throwing together a quick entrée or side salad. In addition to using the staple ingredients listed below to prepare salad dressings, you can also use them for marinades. I usually like to top my salads with some kind of protein like grilled or broiled beef, chicken, or fish using some of the same ingredients for marinade.

Some Tips:

For making salad dressings:
  • Unlike some other dishes, with salad dressings, you don’t have to be as exact with the measurements and can keep tasting and adding until the proportions and flavors seem right.
  • You can use any combination of ingredients as long as you have the basic oil + acidic + spices building blocks. A basic rule of thumb is to have equal proportions of oil and acidic (like vinegar or citrus).
  • Although not completely necessary, it’s best to add the oil in slowly as the last ingredient in the dressing.
  • Get a large, preferably wooden salad bowl with ample room to mix and toss ingredients. We’ve had a basic, inexpensive, but reliable wooden IKEA one similar to this for years. Prepare the dressing in the bowl and add the lettuce and other ingredients after (vs. drizzling dressing over salad). Or, if you prefer to make dressing in a separate container, a great tip I picked up, esp. for making a basic vinaigrette (like the honey mustard one listed below) instead of mixing it in the bowl, is to put ingredients in a plastic container with a lid and shake it. Then drizzle the dressing over the lettuce.
  • Use a whisk to combine the dressing ingredients until the result is well-blended, emulsified and slightly shiny.
  • I don’t remember where I picked up this helpful tip, but years ago, someone suggested using a lettuce leaf to taste dressing instead of a spoon (or your finger), because it’s more accurate.
  • You can prepare the dressing in advance, and let it sit in the salad bowl, with maybe only a quick refresher whisk at the end, but only dress the lettuce immediately before you plan to eat it, otherwise it will get soggy.
  • Decide on the culinary “theme,” for example Asian, Mediterranean, etc. For example, if you happen to find a beautiful feta at the farmer’s market, it might serve as inspiration for a nice “Mediterranean” or Greek salad.

  Other Tips:

  • One of those tips that stays with you as learned in high school cooking class: make sure to cut pieces of veggies uniformly so that you don't have varying sizes.
  • If you’re topping the salad with grilled meat, it’s best to let it rest for about 5-10 minutes on a cutting board. Then when it is still warm, but not so hot as to wilt the lettuce, slice it thinly and fan it out on the top of the salad immediately before serving. The exception to this is a dish like the Thai steak salad (recipe below) where the meat is more the featured ingredient of the recipe, and you want the meat to be incorporated, so you can mix all ingredients together. Leftover rotisserie chicken is a great addition to salads.
  • Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple. One of my weaknesses is to be too heavy-handed with seasoning and add too many ingredients, when sometimes a simple salad with fresh ingredients, even just dressed with oil and vinegar, can be the tastiest. RR loves to make a Moldovan summer salad similar to the ubiquitous Southeastern/Central European Shopska (or peasant’s) salad that consists only of chopped vegetables (bell pepper, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, sometimes garlic and fresh chopped herbs like parsley and dill) dressed only with high quality olive, sunflower, or vegetable oil. When I’m making it, he's never satisfied when I start to tamper with it and add additional ingredients like balsamic. Although there are many versions out there, some people like to add a kind of cheese called brinza similar to feta. We're lucky to live in a neighborhood with a sizeable Romanian/Southeast European population so different varieties of brinza and feta are readily available.
Basic/stock ingredients to have around for salad dressings/marinades:
  • Worstershire sauce (this is especially useful for marinades). You only need a tiny bit of this. It’s a basic, more or less invisible ingredient that intensifies flavors and keeps forever in the fridge.
  • Assorted vinegars like balsamic, rice, red wine, apple cider, and assorted flavored vinegars (like fig, pear, pomegranate, basil, etc.) All of these should be readily available in most supermarkets.
  • Mayonnaise (for when you want a creamier dressing)
  • A nice selection of assorted mustards, such grainy and regular Dijon, spicy yellow, flavored mustards
  • Sweeteners like honey, sugar, and agave
  • Soy sauce
  • Basic seasonings like salt, pepper, garlic powder, and the indispensable all-purpose seasoning -- Trader Joe’s makes a really good one called Everyday Seasoning that comes in a grinder which I LOVE and use in everything, well, every day! They also make a similar 21 Seasoning Salute. I know my mom prefers Mrs. Dash for her basic seasoning.
  • Garlic (I need to keep Costco-sized portions of this on hand as I use so much of it in everything and get nervous when I start to run low)
  • Fresh, frozen or refrigerated herbs
  • Citrus fruits and/or juice (limes, lemons, oranges)
  • Assorted “healthy” oils, such as nice quality olive (again, Trader Joe’s has an excellent and inexpensive selection, my current favorite being the Kalamata variety), walnut, canola, peanut, grapeseed, sesame, etc.

 Some Other Additions:

  • Fish sauce for Thai salads
  • Onions, shallots, and chives
  • Spicy chili or chili garlic sauce like Sriracha 
  • Anchovies or anchovy paste for Caesar salads
  • Ginger 
  • Nuts
  • Cheeses 
  • Olives

Some Recipes:

Thai Grilled Steak Salad
Thai Grilled Steak Salad

About 1 lb. top-round steak, about 1 to 1 1/2-inches thick
3 tablespoons lime juice
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
3 tablespoons canola, olive or grapeseed oil
2 tablespoon sugar
Several cloves of minced garlic to your taste
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon (or to your taste depending on how spicy you like it) chili-garlic sauce
½ to one head Romaine or leaf lettuce, torn
½ medium red or white onion, thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup) and/or ½ cup green onions, thinly sliced
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
½ cup sliced cherry or grape tomatoes

½ cup chopped basil leaves and/or mint leaves
½ cucumber, sliced thinly
1 carrot, julienned
About ½ red, orange and/or green bell pepper, julienned
1 small bunch watercress, and chopped roughly, with thicker stems discarded
Chopped peanuts to garnish

Put the meat in a large, sealable plastic bag (or medium size bowl), with about 1/2 of the first 10 ingredients. Seal tightly, and marinate in refrigerator at least 2 hours or overnight. Use the rest of the ingredients to dress the salad. When meat is done marinating, spray grill or grill pan with cooking spray and preheat. Grill steak about 5-10 minutes per side, depending on desired doneness. Let rest, then slice thinly against the grain. Make dressing with remaining ingredients.Then the rest of the ingredients to the salad bowl. Mix well and garnish with chopped peanuts if desired.

Spicy Caesar

This is one of my favorite salads from a Food and Wine recipe, which I’ve gotten enthusiastic reviews on every time I’ve made it. I more or less follow this recipe, but as I do in almost every recipe, I improvise and add my own touches to experiment and have always met with success.

Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette with Butter Lettuce

For a very basic but satisfying side salad, especially during the summer, I recommend this one. I am a fan of the delicate butter (or Boston Bibb) lettuce, especially the “living” kind now fairly widely available in the supermarket that comes with in a plastic shell with the roots intact and keeps for a long time in the fridge.

2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons grain mustard
2 tablespoons regular Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon balsamic or red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove of garlic, smashed and very finely pressed or minced
Salt and pepper to taste

Either mix all above dressing ingredients in a mixing bowl with a whisk until well-blended, and then add lettuce (optional: add tomatoes or shallots), or put all of the dressing ingredients in a plastic container with a lid and shake well. You can also use a blender or food processor.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mom and Pop Sushi & Other Adventures

52nd Sushi (52-21 Roosevelt in Woodside) is one of our favorite quick take out places in the neighborhood. A Korean-run sushi spot, it serves up cheap but impeccable sushi rolls and a few Korean dishes like Hwe Dup Bab and Bulgoki. A hidden gem located on a lonely, sometimes sketchy stretch under the elevated 7 train tracks, it's wedged among bodegas, dollar stores, and a liquor store (that conveniently carries a great selection of Korean soju and sake). From the beginning for us, it took on the nickname of "Mom and Pop," as it's a tiny family-owned place run by, well, a mom, a pop . . . and a son. Although the whole family is extremely friendly, the son, in his early '20's, is the only one who speaks English well and is usually the one to make the sushi. He always does an excellent job. (As a sidenote, the language barrier is a frequent dilemma around here when ordering on the phone for delivery or take out at many places in the 'hood). If we call and get mom, a comical conversation ensues that Margaret Cho would be proud of. The other day we called to compliment Mom and Pop on the sushi we ordered (the special 52nd Roll, which is a tempura shrimp and crab salad roll, and Rainbow Roll, both pictured above) and it went something like this:
Mom: Hey-aayyye?
RR: Yes, we just ordered some sushi from you . . .
Mom: No, no closed
RR:  No, we just ordered . . .
Mom: No mo' sushi, we close
RR:  No, we already ate sushi that we ordered there tonight and wanted to tell you we really   liked it - it was very fresh and good
Mom: Wha-a order?
RR:  52nd and Rainbow - they were very good
Mom: Ah! ok
I guess it's been a Korean (or Korean-Japanese fusion?) kind of week, because after ordering the sushi rolls several nights ago, last night we ended up going back to Mom and Pop for some Bulgoki and short ribs, (both pictured below). I was somewhat disappointed with the Bulgoki this time. It was a bit dry and wasn't as rich in garlic and spices as usual, but it still delivered a satisfying last-minute meal. The bento box version comes with salad, assorted pickled veggies, shumai, dumplings, California rolls, unagi (eel) sushi, seaweed salad, rice and miso soup. All this for only $12! What a steal. If only it were completed by Kimchi, then I would be in heaven. Maybe I'll suggest that to them - it's that type of place where they would probably throw it in upon request. The non-bento box version comes with rice, salad and soup and I believe is only about $8.
Beef short ribs from Mom and Pop
Mom and Pop's Bulgoki Box

As an aside, it's unfortunate that in a neighborhood with a sizable Korean population, there aren't more decent Korean options. For my Korean fix, I prefer to go to Midtown for restaurants in Koreatown (or Little Korea) where I'm never disappointed.

To continue the Korean (and Asian) theme, we also recently went to one of our absolute all-time favorite places anywhere - Spa Castle, a resort-like 5-story Korean spa located in College Point, Queens. You take the 7 subway line to the end (Flushing) and then a quick, free shuttle bus ride to get there. I was so mad that we forgot to bring the camera to capture the tasty Korean food we ate there in between sauna visits -- RR got the hot beef stew and I got the cold buckwheat noodles. As always, we ordered a bottle of Korean soju (a usually rice-based beverage similar to vodka and served neat) to compliment the meal. For dessert, we both went "green" - I had a honeydew bubble tea and RR, pistachio ice cream. Usually the Korean restaurant option is dominated by Koreans, with the rest of the spa crowd choosing the more typical hamburgers and french fries type of fare. For the life of me, I don't understand why, when you have the choice, you wouldn't go for the full experience. Korean food when done well is so comforting and satisfying and lends itself well to a spa atmosphere, especially the fortifying comfort food options. I love all the different small dishes of odds and ends you get as a starter, which is fun.

We did end up taking some pictures (below) on RR's Blackberry of our traditional pre-spa stop, Paris Baguette in Flushing, where we nourish ourselves with coffee and pastries before we embark on the taxing day ahead. This time, the red bean sugar donut was so fresh, I wanted to eat ten more. It's hard to restrain myself from taking one of each different kind of pastry just to try them out. Sometimes it's hit or miss. I ended up with two more choices beyond the donut - a somewhat mediocre tapioca stick donut and a soft and flavorful mango roll. RR chose a pineapple pastry and a walnut danish sprinkled with black sesame.

top left: red bean donut; top right: mango roll; bottom front: pineapple pastry

Paris Baguette pastry line-up

More pictures of Paris Baguette - it's a serve-yourself set-up. Those are cheescakes in the front.

To top off the experience, post-spa, before we jumped back on the 7 train, we were so thirsty we grabbed a few tapioca bubble tea slushies from the conveniently-located chain Quickly the "New Generation Asian Fusion Cafe." Lychee was the best, mango a close second, but green apple was too artificial. They sure hit the spot.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Edible Souvenirs

This recent article in the NY Times about edible souvenirs and the lengths people go to bring them back (and how it's just not the same thing ordering them online) got me thinking about all of the foods and beverages specific to a place that you can't get elsewhere and wish you could. So I came up with a list of some of my top faves from over the years:
  1. Zhivchik (Живчик) Apple Soda from Ukraine: I was surprised to discover there's a Facebook group devoted to this apparently popular Ukrainian beverage. Although I haven't been to Ukraine for several years now, during one period, I was spending an inordinate amount of time there for work and developed a liking to this unique soda, which although marketed to children, Ukrainian friends told me is good for hangovers (which you need after consuming too much honey pepper vodka!). It's also supposed to strengthen the immune system, because it has echinacea and vitamin C in it. I would always bring several cans of this back with me, and beg my Ukrainian friends to bring it when they would visit. I have never been able to find it in the States, but it's stuck with me. It's a very refreshing carbonated natural apple juice.
  2. Dick's Drive-In Cheeseburgers from Seattle: This is one of the classic Seattle establishments that has stayed true since 1954. Every time I fly to Seattle to visit my parents, right after or en route to the airport, it's a tradition to stop off and get our Dick's fix in the form of a Deluxe, cheeseburger, fries with tartar sauce and sometimes a chocolate shake. Well, the fries and shake obviously would not travel well, but you can definitely pick up some cheeseburgers and stick them in your freezer.
  3. Beignets and Coffee from Café du Monde in New Orleans: Although you can now widely buy the Café du Monde products outside of New Orleans, somehow they just taste better bought there. Of course the ideal experience is savoring them al fresco in the French Quarter.
  4. Lebanese Sweets and Wine: Lebanese cuisine in general is some of the best in the world in my opinion! Although you can buy Middle Eastern sweets in our neighborhood (including at our absolute favorite pastry shop, Laziza in Astoria), they don't taste nearly as good and there isn't as much of a selection. You can't beat these sweets (any kind and there are so many kinds) and can conveniently pick them up very fresh (although a bit more expensive) in the Beirut airport to take home with you (and for your friends if they make it!) Wine is one of my souvenir standbys anywhere I travel and I've perfected wrapping and burying the bottles in my checked luggage in a way in which I've never had any break (knock on wood!) If you're in Lebanon, make sure to visit the wineries. I've been to Chateau Ksara and it was a lovely experience. Of course, I ended up bringing a few bottles back to enjoy at home.
  5. Halva Roll Torte (торт с xалвой) from Moldova: This is one of those desserts I've never been able to find anywhere else and it is a fav of RR's. Every time he goes to visit his family and friends in Moldova, he has to bring one of these back. There's something delectable about the combination of creamy sunflower seed paste halva (different from most halva you can get here, which is made from tahini - sesame paste), rolled up in spongy cake. Maybe some day I'll attempt to make one. Here's one recipe I found online.
  6. Canadian Candy Bars: Why is it that candy bars from Canada have always seemed better and more interesting than their American counterparts? Whenever I'm in Canada, I go to a drugstore or grocery store and load up on ridiculous amounts of Nestle Coffee Crisp, assorted Cadbury goodies, and Macintosh's Toffee. On my last trip to Vancouver several years ago, I was so upset when I realized that I had left my big bag o'Canadian candy and candy bars in the airport.
I know there are tons more, but these were the ones that popped into my head first. What are some of your memorable edible souvenirs from places you've visited over the years?

Btw, here is another related article on bringing back food from the San Francisco Chronicle. And here is a list of what you can and can't bring back to the US.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

No Mo' Bacon Bar

I'm the type of person who sees something unusual and is dying to try it, even often if it's just once. Pick the most off-kilter item on the menu, and that will inevitably be what I choose. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but at least my curiosity is sated (until the next thing comes along). The Vosges Mo's Bacon Bar is a recent example. It's milk chocolate with bits of applewood smoked bacon and Alderwood smoked salt. In recent years, among foodies and chefs, bacon seems to be the 'it' thing (the so-called "bacon craze" which several sources such as this declare has "jumped the shark.") For example, bacon donuts like the ones at Voodoo Donut in Portland. But I am a big fan of bacon, especially D'Artagnan uncured heirloom and wild boar bacon, which I was thrilled to find a couple times in our local grocery store.

So yesterday while at Whole Foods, I finally decided to try a pint-sized Bacon Bar after having seen it several times. I was intrigued. Plus, it was strategically placed in the "impulse buy" section (fair play to you, WFs!), I was jonesing for something sweet, and it was on sale for $1.99. What did I have to lose? Well, definitely I will not be purchasing one of these again. The combination of the milk chocolate with the bacon was too sickeningly sweet and for some reason reminded me of bad Easter candy. A lot of times this sweet/savory combination works, especially with bacon. Think: waffles or pancakes with maple syrup served w/a side of bacon. (Actually this was cited as inspiration for this creation). In this case, it just didn't do it for me. The first several bites, I was wondering where the bacon was, as I just tasted salty milk chocolate, and then the chewy bacon bits began to emerge and come on too strong, not really melding well with the chocolate. Texturally, it was pretty gross. So after this, I am starting to believe that creative bacon use may have indeed jumped the shark.

For something similar that does actually work (but does not include bacon), I have to give a shout out to Seattle-based Theo Chocolates Bread & Chocolate Bar, which pairs dark chocolate with artisan bread crumbs and salt.