Lean times and street meat

I was 24 and outrageously broke when I moved to New York almost nine years ago. I’d blown all my money on travel and carbs living in Italy my first two years out of college and even when I landed a job in the city within my first two weeks here, it paid me peanuts. Scratch that. Peanut shells. 

Groceries were expensive and the cheap stuff was mostly a mix of terrible-for-you and terrible tasting, so I avoided it. My roommate dominated our tiny, shitty kitchen and I hated cooking anyway so it wasn’t much of an option to begin with.

Also, because I’d only been to New York once before moving, I knew nothing about the place, nothing about its tricks and secrets, or the hacks to surviving here. When I was introduced to street meat, sometimes also known as halal food, or the chicken (or beef or falafel) and rice dishes sold at food carts around the city, I felt like I finally had something to work with.

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Not winning any photo contests, but it hit the spot

For $5 I could get a pretty big serving of what seemed like a perfectly balanced meal: yellow rice (carbs), tender, spiced chicken (protein), lettuce and tomatoes (veggies) and a couple delicious sauces for a mix of creamy and spicy flavors. I was hooked.

It even taught me a small lesson in the surprising kindness of strangers.

One night after leaving the office, I stopped at a nearby cart on the way home and ordered what would be dinner that night. When I looked in my wallet, I panicked: no cash. I offered to run to an ATM but the older gentleman holding my round aluminum foil container full of food shook his head and said not to worry about it.

“You come back tomorrow,” he said, extending the food toward me. “I trust you. You bring me money tomorrow.”

Obviously I went back immediately the next day and paid the guy and thanked him for a delicious dinner. He could have just as easily said no money, no food that night, or made me run to an ATM, even though I was tired and hungry and probably wondering if an ATM fee would make me overdraft. But he didn’t, and I never forgot that.

A couple of nights ago, walking home sweaty and exhausted from work and the gym, I passed The Halal Guys, one of the actual brick-and-mortar versions of one of the city’s most famous carts. For ol’ times sake I went in and got my old standby, the chicken and rice platter.

I’m happy to report that while it didn’t make for the most aesthetically pleasing photo, it was every bit as delicious, filling and comforting as it was back when I didn’t have many other options. As long as I live in this city, street meat will have it a spot in my heart.

New year, same hot drink

Of the very many hot drinks I enjoy during winter, I don’t think hot toddies are necessarily the best tasting, but at the end of the day I think they’re my favorite overall.

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Hot toddy, happy me.

Hot buttered rum is great, mulled wine makes me feel Christmasy, hot chocolate is pretty much dessert, and spiked cider smells like my favorite time of year, but a good hot toddy, simultaneously sweet and spiced, warming and zesty, soothing and strong, is just my favorite.

I had a good, albeit pretty standard one at Extra Fancy in Brooklyn this week, on the first of the year, and right now I wish there was another one just like it sitting on my desk in place of my water bottle. It had a generous glug of honey in it, making it rich and sweet, playing off the tartness of the lemon juice and the smokey flavor of the bourbon.

Right now it’s about 20 degrees outside and we’re bracing for snow overnight (which is great) and more snow during the morning commute (way less great). Additionally, my throat feels raw and my tonsils achey. I’m at work and I’m sleepy and worst of all, I have a 10k run this weekend that thanks to a pretty awful sounding weather forecast, I’m not especially excited about.

But a hot toddy? All lemony and clovey, warm in my hands and comforting to my throat, fragrant and just strong enough, reliable and everything I want right now? THAT I could be excited about.

 

Easy and sweet, how life should be

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Cannoli always make me happy

A small selection of things I love:

  • cannoli
  • ice cream
  • when things are easy

Any one of these alone would make me happy, but when I found a recipe that combined all three to make no-churn cannoli ice cream? I was over the freakin’ moon!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Plated, the weekly subscription service that sends me detailed, easy-to-follow, illustrated instructions and the ingredients that go with them in the exact quantities needed to turn out delicious and impressive meals. They’ve recently started offering dessert options, which I usually skip because I’m lazy and making dinner is enough effort for me, but when I saw cannoli ice cream I could actually make myself, without a crazy ice cream maker, I had to try it.

I’ve never felt confident enough in any recipe to say I could duplicate it without reading the original directions.  I still consult the box when making mac and cheese and have to Google how long to boil eggs every single time I make them.

But no-churn cannoli ice cream? I now have it down pat!

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I made this! And it was so good and so easy that I’ll do it a million times more!

Crush a bunch of pistachios and break up a couple of cannoli shells. Then whisk a cup of heavy cream for about 5 minutes until it forms little peaks and you feel you’ve gotten the most intense arm workout of your life (or you can use a hand mixer), then add in a mini container worth of sweetened condensed milk and a creamy blob of ricotta cheese and blend together. Next, toss in the pistachio bits and crunchy shell chunks and pour into a mold (like the 8×8 disposable aluminum one Plated so kindly sent me). Cover with a sheet of parchment paper (which Plated also sent me, almost like they know I don’t own any of this stuff and would be lost without them) and pop in the freezer for about an hour until it sets.

Right before you decide to eat your creamy concoction of frozen deliciousness, melt some chocolate and coconut oil in the microwave, or if you’re like me and don’t own one, in a small pot on the stove, and pour the delicious smelling chocolatey syrup all over your ice cream.

So. Incredibly. Eeeeeasy. Why can’t everything in life be so simple and delicious? I want to make this again and again, and have it with every meal and for every person who ever steps foot into my apartment.

Things are hard enough these days if you ask me. We all deserve this.

Beautiful breads and my friend who makes them

The smell of fresh baked bread has to be—absolutely HAS to be—one of the best olfactory pleasures a person can experience. It just feels like a warm hug and a soft back rub.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I came home, tired from a Monday at work, achey from a hard run after, and annoyed by the usual batch of idiots I encounter on the train every day, and found a bag on my doorstep, one that when I reached down to pick up, emanated the best, most delicious, most instantly comforting and unmistakable aroma of a fresh baked loaf. I was a hypnotized cartoon character, floating on the scent of this bread, fully under its spell from just a whiff.

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Have you ever seen a better looking loaf of bread? I don’t think so.

My friend Todd, who had just a couple of days earlier brought my roommate and me a delicious spelt sesame loaf when he came to our annual holiday party, had come by again to gift us a cinnamon raisin walnut loaf. (Maybe because our guests, understandably, descended upon his first loaf like a pack of wild dogs. Ok fine, it was mostly me.)

You see, Todd bakes. Recreationally at first, doing it for his own amusement I’m sure, and for the benefit of those of us in his life, but now he’s left his day job and is pursuing this more seriously. It should go without saying really, but I am a thousand percent here for it. I keep asking him, WHERE. DO. I. PLACE. AN ORDER. Just take my money, Todd. Take it!

I was at his place once when he was hosting a group of friends for a wine night, and was wowed by the beautiful arrangement of breads he had accompanying other snacks. Being someone who routinely breaks out Triscuits and Tostitos when friends come over, I was pretty impressed and also fully expected him to say Balthazar or Le Pain Quotidien or better yet, some local, artisanal bakery when I asked where he bought everything. Nope, made them himself.

My mom, notoriously clueless in the kitchen, made bread once when I was a kid. It had the consistency of a cinder block and all the flavor and comfort of sawdust. Not that I assumed every homemade bread attempt ended that way, but what looked, smelled and tasted as good as Todd’s bread was something I assumed only happened at the hands of a seasoned, professionally trained baker, or at the very least a magic wielding wizard.

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Great, inside and out.

The cinnamon raisin walnut loaf was a great big beautiful one, with raisins and grooves marking its crunchy crust, and plump little raisins speckled throughout the soft, doughy inside. It’s the perfect bread for a sandwich with a subtle hint of sweetness, or as a great piece of toast, or if you’re like my roommate and me, sliced right at the kitchen table and eaten with a smear of butter.

It’s awesome seeing friends pursue their passions and succeeding at what they enjoy and are clearly good at doing. It’s especially great when the rest of us get to reap the benefits of that, one delicious loaf at a time.

If you want to check out Todd’s lovely loaves and other baked goods, you can find him on Instagram at @tacokazoo. And if you’re in the city, I highly recommend reaching out and placing an order.

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 was 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.