Spices make everything better

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It’s all in the seasoning

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past year that I’ve spent attempting to make myself a better cook, it’s that spices make all the difference. Yes, salt and pepper always, but lots of other spices too. Thyme, rosemary, cumin, turmeric, anything and everything helps make a boring dish better.

My sister sent me a text recently, complaining about a bland plate of rice and beans she had made herself for dinner. When I asked what spices she’d used she said none. Two things you should know here: one, poor cooking skills do in fact, appear to be hereditary in our family and two, I felt like quite the freakin’ pro when I went off on a text rant about how she had to use spices and seasoning in her cooking or else everything was going to taste like wet cardboard.

But you know what, at the end of the day I’m not a pro (or even remotely close to one), so don’t take my word for it. But you could, and should, take my talented and worldly friend Mark’s word for it, because he just wrote a beautiful book called Cooking with Spices: 100 Recipes for Blends, Marinades, and Sauces from Around the World. 

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Mark’s an old friend I met in Italy when I first studied there in college, and since then— oh so many moons ago— he’s been pretty much all over the world, working and adventuring in Africa, South America, hell even Antarctica! The man’s been everywhere and he’s accumulated tons of stories and knowledge about the world’s cuisines and specifically the spices that make each of them unique.

It’s a beautiful book full of information, recipes, pictures and stories that will make you want to hit the road and eat your way around the world. Or if you’re like me and can’t actually leave it all behind, you can start in your own kitchen with this book as guidance.

Leave a comment in the section below and I’ll pick someone at random by the end of the week to receive their very own copy of Mark’s Cooking with Spices! If you weren’t already with me in suffering from culinary wanderlust, this might just get you there.

 

Born again sticky bun lover

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Sticky buns, where have you been all my life?

My first real job as a teen—first to pay me an actual check and not  involve tutoring church kids or reading mail to the legally blind old woman who lived next door—was as a cashier at a Panera rip-off in Miami.

As would become the pattern of my work life, I hated it. The ugly khakis I had to wear, upselling bread bowls, even the fact that my sister worked there, too. I hated all of it.

All of it except one thing. Even more so than my meager paychecks, the one redeeming perk of the gig were the pastries I rescued at the end of each shift. Muffins, cookies, croissants, cinnamon rolls, danishes—they were all up for grabs at the end of the night and I rarely left without a bag. (Shout out to the thousands of calories consumed without so much as thinking of working out. Ah, youth!)

There was one thing, however, that never appealed to me: sticky buns. All that shiny, sticky gunk reminded me of the rubber cement I’d used as a kid, each bun a tacky tar trap of molasses. And those nuts, stuck in the gluey goo? A warning to my teeth.

Maybe it was all those neglected sticky buns I left to be tossed, all those passed over pastries, that subconsciously drew me to the sticky bun at Little King’s coffee window a few weeks ago. Maybe it was divine intervention.

Normally a cocktail bar with a small menu, Little King recently opened a walk-up window, selling Intelligentsia coffee and Roberta’s pastries to L train-bound locals weekday mornings. Glad to have an option that wasn’t Dunkin or bodega brew, I stopped for a coffee one day, and on a complete whim, a sticky bun to go with it.

Palm sized and more popover shaped than the swirled rolls I was used to, these sticky buns from the hipster mecca Roberta’s, were airy and fluffy, all buttery brioche under their salt-flecked, caramel glaze.

I am addicted. I’ll drive myself into financial ruin buying these every morning. Sometimes, I wake up and count back to when I last had one, trying to justify if it’s been enough days to treat myself to another one. If I have a run planned later, I’ll grab one and chalk it up to carbo loading. I daydream of that soft dough and buttery, salted caramel.

I would say I’m sorry to all those sticky buns of my youth, the ones that got away and got chucked, but I’m pretty sure they were nothing like these doughy, sweet buns I now constantly crave. I can’t imagine there are any left over each day, but if by chance there are, I hope whoever’s in charge of clearing them away knows how very lucky they are.

 

Hey fall, what’s the hold up?

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Fall, I’m waiting. Drink in hand.

Dear fall,

It’s a been just over two weeks since you were supposed to show up.

Everyone runs late sometimes, so I let it slide, didn’t make too big of a deal about it. I even took off for the beach to enjoy a last bit of summer and give you time to get here.

And nothing.

Sometimes I swear I feel you right around the corner. I dusted off my booties (coated from months spent underneath my bed), bought a new coat, and got mini pumpkins to decorate the office.

The shoes are getting dusty again, my coat looks rumpled from being kept in its shopping bag, and the pumpkins just look lost.  What, did you get lost?

This weekend, even though it was muggy and warm, the air heavy without a trace of you near, I thought maybe if I did one of the things I enjoy most when you’re here that maybe you’d just show up. Surrounded by several Brooklyn coffee shops, I instead went to Starbucks. You hear me, fall? I went to Starbucks and ordered a pumpkin spiced latte. Hell I even got the limited time only PSL whipped cream, all in hopes that it might conjure you up.

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For the season that just won’t come.

I didn’t walk down the street with my drink in hand, nor did I hear the crunching of fallen leaves underneath my shoes. I didn’t burrow into a scarf or tie my coat tighter around me. I didn’t think, ” God I love fall. Isn’t this the best?”

Nope, I sat in that damn Starbucks instead, because they had air conditioning and enough ads for maple pecan this and caramelized apple that to make me almost forget that you are just taking your sweet, pumpkin-loving time getting here.

It’s cool, though. Take your time. Really, I mean it.

When you’re ready, I’ll be here. Probably blotting the sweat from my brow as I finish another pint of pumpkin ice cream, but I’ll be here.

Pura Vida

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Typical Costa Rican breakfast for a typical great day.

A month ago, sitting alone in front of a breakfast plate of rice and beans and a couple of fried eggs, staring out on to a mostly deserted Costa Rican beach, I thought of Kanye.

“Yea, sometimes I romance the thought of leaving it all behind…” he says on the song Gone from the genius Late Registration. (I don’t care what you say, that album is everything.)

:: Sigh :: Me too, ‘Ye. Me freakin’ too.

I have so little to complain about: a healthy body that puts up with the masochism of marathon training, a cute apartment in a neighborhood I love, the best roommate I could ever ask for, a handsome beau who — gasp! Wait for it — actually seems to like me, a job that affords me trips to sit on deserted beaches and contemplate Kanye lyrics. I have it pretty good, I know.

But yet sometimes, maybe because the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket these days, I really do romance the thought of leaving it all behind.

You know? Forget the midtown office job, the astronomical rent, the moronic subway riders, the bitching, worrying, complaining, hustling, stressing. To hell with all of it.

Just give me a quiet beach tucked away from the world and a desayuno typico, cause at the end of the day your girl’s still Costa Rican and can always go for a plate of gallo pinto (rice and beans mixed together). Well and maybe some company, too, so  people stop asking me why I’m alone and wondering what’s wrong with me.

Maybe chalk it up to me being a Libra — if you believe in that sort of thing — but I always crave balance. I want the madness of New York city but then also the peace and stillness of a place like Costa Rica. I want the whole entire world’s cuisines available for my breakfast options but sometimes I also just want gallo pinto, a fried egg and some tangy Salsa Lizano.

In Costa Rica, there’s a Hakuna Matata-like catch-all phrase people use for greetings, toasts, and thanks among other things: Pura vida. Translated literally it means pure life, but more than that it means enjoying the simple things, being stress free and happy, and appreciating what you have.

I gotta tell you, pura vida sounds as delicious as that beach side breakfast.

Eating, not cooking, is what I’m good at

Remember that time I made cooking my new year’s resolution for 2017?

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Believe it or not, I made these here beef and cheese empanadas.

Well, I did, and like most other new year’s resolutions meant to somehow improve your life or take it in a new direction, this year’s has been tough.

I’ve stuck with it, making at least one, sometimes two, homemade meals a week, usually with my roommate or the boy as my guinea pig and taste tester, but if I’m being completely honest, I haven’t enjoyed it.

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Not ideal for a hot summer night, but I made it anyway: shrimp and corn tortilla soup.

I love eating but dammit, I just don’t like cooking. It’s been stressful and messy and hot, and one time, even painful. (Special shout out to the chicken breast that sent scalding hot oil flying on to my wrist, leaving me with an ugly brown scar that just narrowly missed my tattoo. Yea, big ol’ F-U to that chicken breast.)

Some people find cooking meditative because it takes your mid off other things and forces you to focus on the task at hand. I rather just meditate.

That being said though, I’ve made some pretty good stuff in the last six months, almost always with the help of Plated and most recently Martha & Marley Spoon. There were some pretty spectacular beef and cheese empanadas, a gooey, cheesey chicken parm, a fantastic pine nut crusted salmon and last night, a delicious shrimp and corn soup with chipotle and tortilla strips that made my unairconditioned kitchen so hot it was about 2 degrees from being a hallucinatory sweat lodge.

Every last bite was enjoyed but the same can’t be said for the process. Yes, I’ll keep at it for the other half of this year, and while I’m sure it’ll get easier and I’ll feel more confident in my kitchen skills, I’m pretty sure the fun for me will always be fully in the eating.

I could be a vegetarian

Twice this week—TWICE!— I’ve thought to myself, “I could totally be a vegetarian.”

Not a vegan. No, not ever a vegan. I couldn’t give up ice cream and cheese. But vegetarian? I could definitely be a vegetarian.

Honestly, it’s a thought that creeps in all the time, luring me with its promises of health and skinniness, but then I smell bacon fresh out of the pan or  a take a juicy bite of a fat burger and I think no, nevermind, what was I thinking.

But then again, twice this week, I thought I could do it, based off delicious vegetarian meals (one vegan actually!) that didn’t make me feel like I was missing anything.

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American butternut squash bowl… cause not everything American is broken

Earlier in the week was a freakin’ great American butternut squash bowl from PureKtchn. Pretty much the kind of dish that begs to be Instagrammed, it was a big colorful bowl of soft butternut squash, roasted cauliflower, kale, chickpeas, lentils, walnuts and a surprise pinch of tangy, fruity sweetness from goji berries. People who force feed themselves salads in an attempt at being healthy, EAT THIS. It was good! It was healthy! There was no forcing of anything!

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Superiority Burger, sometimes vegan, always delicious

Then later in the week, a friend and I had dinner at Superiority Burger, a cramped little East Village spot whose menu tells people to ask because “everything is vegetarian, a lot is accidentally vegan.” Clockwise from the left hand corner of the picture, we shared the smashed spicy cucumber and brown rice  topped with some of the best damn croutons I’ve ever had, the Sloppy Dave, a delicious, saucey take on a sloppy Joe, the zesty and creamy tahini ranch romaine salad that made me forget how lame I think lettuce is and a rich, spicy burnt broccoli salad.

I might cut back on meat and dairy but realistically, I won’t likely ever become a vegetarian. (I’m a Libra, I’m all about balance.) But with meals like these, where I ended full and happy with not a single crumb of guilt or shame, (which isn’t the case when I polish off a pint of ice cream or a whole pizza) I can certainly keep daydreaming about it.

Bitter and sweet, drinks and memories

The first time I tried a Negroni, I almost immediately spit it out like a geyser of blood orange colored booze.

It was worse than the mouthful of CK One I accidentally sprayed myself with in seventh grade. Worse than the bar of soap my grandma shoved in my mouth as a kid. (Because yes, old school grandmothers used to do that to foul-mouthed children.) Worse than the Tylenol I bit into, thinking it was a mint.

It was horrendous, an assault on my taste buds.

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Never thought I’d be excited about a frozen Negroni

Now every time I order one, something that happens way more than I might have ever thought based on that first sip, I think of that night, and how I almost lost all my cool points in front of the Italians I was drinking with, all of them casually, painlessly sipping away at their Negronis.

It took years— it’s been ten since that first stolen sip— but I finally came around. Maybe due to a changing palette or perhaps out of nostalgia for a special time and place in my life, or maybe even because the older I get, the more I appreciate a drink that almost forces me to drink it slowly instead of guzzling it down.

And a good Negroni, with its all-booze-no-mixer blend of Campari, vermouth and gin, all colorful and dolled up with a twist of orange peel, exciting and alluring, a little floral and herbal, bitter yet bright, pretty much demands to be drank slowly.

On a recent humid, sticky afternoon in Brooklyn, reminiscent of so many equally swampy summer afternoons spent in AC-aversed Italy, a frozen Negroni was the obvious choice for me. With frost on its little coupe cocktail glass, and more of a dusty red-orange than the candy colored original, the frozen counterpart was a cute, chilly play on the classic. In the blazing heat of our windowside corner at One Bedford in Williamsburg, it didn’t stay frozen for long, quickly melting into a clear, orangey red.

I knocked it down in a few gulps, remembering a time when a tiny sip had tasted so different.