Forget chicken soup for the soul…

For about three days last week the weather was beautiful: cool, crisp and sunny with bright blue skies and all the signs that spring was finally here.

And then it got cold again. So even though it’s technically spring, since the weather is rainy and chilly, I thought it was a good time to squeeze in one more meal I associate with winter and crappy weather: pappa al pomodoro. A traditional Tuscan dish based on the idea of not letting any food go to waste, pappa al pomodoro is a chunky tomato and bread soup. Thick and  pleasantly filling (without being too heavy), it’s the perfect thing to eat on nasty days when you just want to feel cozy and warm.

Flaneur had never actually made it before but when I looked up a few recipes they all seemed easy enough.

First things first, we gathered the ingredients: tomatoes, garlic, fresh basil, stale loaf of bread (In Italy this would’ve been the traditional unsalted, Tuscan table bread. We tried to get something close, and then let it get hard as a rock.), vegetable broth, olive oil, salt and pepper.

The ingredients

Next, we poured some olive oil into a pot, threw a few garlic cloves in (whole, not diced) and let them simmer and brown a little. Once they started to look golden,  we threw in the tomatoes (diced into fat chunks), basil and a good amount of pepper (for a little kick) and let it all stew for about 10 minutes.

Tossing everything together

After everything seemed to mix together into a soupy consistency, we poured in the vegetable broth and let it come to a boil, then let it cook for  another five minutes.

Simmering in the pot

Next we threw in the chopped stale bread and let it cook for another five or ten minutes. Our bread was really hard on the outside but still a bit soft and spongy on the inside, so it soaked up a lot of the liquid, but a bit of water thrown in got it back to a good consistency.

Adding the bread

Finally, we added a little bit of salt, poured it into bowls and garnished with fresh basil and there you have it: a delicious, heart-and-belly warming meal to hold you over till better weather!

Eat up!

UPDATE: After much discussion with my in-house Italian, I wanted to clarify that pappa al pomodoro is not specifically a “winter” dish. Italians eat this any time of year and one thing I read even said it was a quintessential summer food. This is strictly my opinion, but I can’t imagine eating something like this in say August, when it’s 95 degrees outside and you don’t have air conditioning (which none of the Italian apartments I lived in had). Flaneur says you can eat it cold but I think part of what makes this dish great is  eating it hot, and having that fuzzy feeling of being warmed from the inside out.

Penguin party food

When plain cheese cubes and olives are just too boring...

So, this picture’s a bit old now. It was taken at a dinner party at a friend’s house in Lakeland, Florida last Christmas but I just found it recently so I’m putting it up now. Penguins are great any time of year anyway, and these especially, with their little cheese tummies and carrot beaks and feet are even better!

When only Italian food will do

Lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic for Italy, specifically Florence, the city I called home for two years. I miss my Italian friends and my fellow American expatriate friends. I miss my old apartment and the street I lived on. I miss the espresso and of course, I miss the food. Always the food. With no vacation long enough to visit my old stomping grounds or enough money to even buy the ticket if I did  have the time, I get stuck going through old photo albums and reminiscing with the boyfriend about all the good times. (The funny thing about nostalgia is that it conveniently hides the bad memories too, but that’s a story for another day and a different post.)

So to get me out of my funk, I knew the thing to do was eat some good Italian food. My reasoning being that if I could have some good food, then really my two favorite things about Italy would both be here with me. (The other thing being the aforementioned boyfriend.)

When Flaneur mentioned that he had a sort-of relative (one of those people who’s not technically a relative but is more easily described as one) who worked at Morandi in the West Village I took it as a sign that it was where we should go. I figured it had two things working strongly in its favor: one, it was a Keith McNally restaurant and since everything he opens turns to restaurant gold it had to be good and two, no self-respecting Italian could possibly work at an Italian restaurant in America that wasn’t good, right? And as it always gives me great pleasure to say this: I was right.

The restaurant itself was rustic-casual with a lively, fun atmosphere and upbeat jazz pouring from the speakers and mixing with the chatter and clinking of dishes and glasses. The menu had lots to choose from and even several things that I hadn’t seen in months on any other menus.

One of the specific things I’ve been nostalgic for recently are fried artichokes so when I saw them on the menu I didn’t even think of starting off with anything else. I love most things that are fried but artichokes are some of my favorite and these did not disappoint. Fried to a nice warm brown, and sprinkled with a bit of lemon juice, they were light and crispy with an almost buttery after taste.

Carciofi alla giudea

Carciofi alla giudea

Flaneur got the burrata, which I was happy about because that would’ve been my go-to appetizer had the artichokes been missing from the menu. The creamy white ball of cheese came with three roasted cherry tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, all of which quickly disappeared from the plate.

Burrata e pachini

For the entrée, I knew I wanted pasta. If a place can’t do pasta right then it shouldn’t have the claim to italian food, so I went with another one of my old favorites from when I lived abroad: pappardelle al cinghiale. The long, ribbon-like noodles and rich, meaty wild boar chunks were delicious, just as good as some of the best I’d had in Florence. With each forkful of the pasta and soft, juicy boar, I felt like I was catching up with an old friend.

Pappardelle al cinghiale

Although he thought about getting a second course (meat or fish), Flaneur took my route and went with a pasta dish: pici al limone. I was ready to be critical of these because pici (especially the ones I’ve eaten in Siena) are some of my most beloved noodles, but these left no room for skepticism or complaint. Simple and delicious, like the best italian pastas usually are, the thick, round spaghetti-like noodles were both tangy and cheesy under their blanket of parmesan cheese and lemon.

Pici al limone

As usual though, it was going to take the desserts to really seal the deal with me and steal my heart, and Morandi, with its dessert menu of vin santo and cantucci, budino di riso and other sweet treats, had pretty much won me over. I went with the frittelle di ricotta and sure enough, they were the perfect way to end the meal.  The five golfball sized ricotta fritters dusted in sparkly brown cinnamon sugar  were soft and warm, with moist, fluffy insides like little clouds of sugary perfection.

Frittelle di ricotta

Finally, because he loves pine nuts (and even kind of has a pinolo shaped head), Flaneur opted for the crostata di pinoli, a moist pine nut tart under a snowy layer of confectioner’s sugar, surrounded by a drizzle of spiced honey and topped with a dollop of creamy pear gelato (which was also, for the sake of continuity, shaped like a pine nut). The whole thing was subtle and light, with the gelato giving the warm cake below a nice cool creaminess.

Crostata di pinoli

So until I get a nice chunk of time and a great deal on a transatlantic flight, I think I’ve figured out the cure to the missing-Italy blues.  And based on my dinner at Morandi, I have to say, it seems to do the trick.

Just in case you forgot it was Mexican…

Green, white, red and delicious!

Even though dinner at Mòle in the West Village was delicious I wasn’t planning on blogging about it. (No particular reason, just wasn’t going to.) But the chicken enchiladas I ordered practically begged to be photographed… and then devoured like they were the last enchiladas in New York.

On Saturday night Mòle was packed, with people taking up every inch of free space in the restaurant and bar, but I’d say the food was worth the wait. These enchiladas, smothered in hot gooey cheese and dressed with both spicy green and red sauces, made a delicious edible representation of the Mexican flag.

“Mmmm doughnuts…”

The other day, while randomly thinking about food (which happens with the same frequency as teenage boys thinking about sex), I was struck by a thought.

I could really go for a doughnut right now. Hey wait a minute! When was the last time I even had a doughnut? I don’t think I’ve had one in months! How did I let this happen?

The simple and classic vanilla glazed doughnut

After a thorough Google search, several dozen online reviews and many happy customer comments, I decided on the place to satisfy my doughnut yearning: the Lower East Side’s Doughnut Plant.

Flaneur and I headed out early Friday night, braving the blustery streets and taking two different subways to get our (my) doughnut fix. With my hands burrowed as deep as they would go into my coat pockets and hair whipping around my face, I was ecstatic when having resurfaced in the LES, I looked across the otherwise dark, somewhat uninviting Grand Street and saw the lit windows of Doughnut Plant.

We pulled the door open and stepped into the warm, humid shop as the sugary smell of glaze and cake circled around us.

“Sorry guys,” said the guy mopping the floor as we walked in. “We’re closed.”

“Whaaaat?!” I blurted it out in terror. “But… but no… I mean, what time is it?”

I yanked my coat sleeve up and twisted my watch around so I could see the face. 7:30

“Sorry, we close at 7,” said the guy, mop still in hand.

Expletives roared in my head as my heart sank and I looked up at Flaneur with the defeated look of “well, shit, now what?”

Carrot cake alla doughnut style

Either the despair in my face was obvious (which I’m sure it was, because it was genuine) or the guy with the mop read my mind (in which case he must think I curse like a sailor) because as we turning to go, ready to venture back into the cold, windy night with no warm, sweet doughnuts in our bellies, he started to say something.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said as I snapped back to attention, “I’ll sell you what I have. I got sunflower, chocolate, carrot cake, vanilla or orange.”

Feeling like a death row inmate given a second shot at life, I spun back around to Flaneur for a speedy powwow on what we should get. I felt the need to move fast before this guy changed his mind or shooed us out so he could keep cleaning.

“We’ll take a carrot cake doughnut and a sunflower!” I squeaked as the guy nodded and slipped back into the kitchen to collect our doughnuts. A few seconds later he was out with a large white paper bag.

“Here you go,” he said. “The vanilla one’s on the house.”

Awesome! The only thing better than doughnuts when you think you’ve missed them is free doughnuts when you think you’ve missed them!

Not wanting to further inconvenience this kind and generous soul, we stepped out of his way and out of the warm shop to enjoy our treats on the small wooden bench outside.

The quirky yet tasty sunflower seed doughnut

The first one to get pulled out was the large vanilla glazed doughnut. One huge bite into it and I was no longer fazed by the chilly gusts of wind hitting my face. This thing was good, soooo good. It was warm and chewy with just enough glaze that it was deliciously sweet but not so much that it had that white sheen of dried glue. The only thing that could have made this particular doughnut any better would’ve been a piping hot cup of joe to dunk it in.

Between the two of us, that doughnut didn’t stand a chance. It was gone in under a minute and I was already digging through the paper bag for the one I had picked out, the carrot cake doughnut.  Unlike the vanilla glazed, this carrot cake version was rounder, like an inner tube blown up to the point its about to burst. The first bite revealed a moist, cakey cinnamon brown inside, with a streak of creamy white frosting running through the middle. The outside was glazed with a generous coating of crushed nuts and carrot bits. Also gone in a just a few exaggerated mouthfuls.

As I polished off that one, Flaneur was getting to work on his sunflower seed selection. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I was a little disappointed when he went for the oddball sunflower choice over the traditional, hard-to-go-wrong-with chocolate, but when we swapped doughnuts to get a taste of each other’s picks, I knew he’d made the right choice. With less of the plump roundness of the carrot cake and more of the flattened out, circular thickness of the vanilla glazed, this doughnut was just as scrumptious as the other two. The inside was warm and soft and the outside had a thick gooey sweet glaze sprinkled with slightly salty, fat, shelled sunflower seeds. Flaneur, who eats more sunflower seeds than a caged parakeet, chomped his way through it happily.

As I licked the last sticky remnants of glaze from my fingers I thought about running back inside and hugging that nice man who gave us a second chance at these delicious treats. “Thank you,” I would have said while squeezing, “thank you for saving my weekend from being off to a doughnut-less bad start. Because of you and the ridiculously good doughnuts you sold (and gave) us I can go back out into the cold night and go merrily on with my weekend.”

Lessons in pesto

The goods

The best thing about having an Italian boyfriend is that his standards for Italian food are ridiculously high. He would rather eat a sock than dinner at the Olive Garden, never buys pasta sauce in a jar, splurges on “good” olive oil, and like me, he thinks that alfredo sauce is weird and gross. Tonight for example, he wanted to make pesto. Great, I thought, I love pesto! So off he went to the supermarket down the street but instead of coming back with a small jar of the oily green stuff most people would’ve bought, he came back with a wedge of Parmiggiano-Reggiano (aka Parmesan), a fat head of garlic, fresh basil, pine nuts and olive oil (Italian of course).

Apart from grating the cheese and documenting this whole process with my camera, I didn’t really do much. I observed and was greatful. That was about it. Flaneur on the other hand, got to business. He finely diced a couple cloves of raw garlic and added them to the bowl of grated Parmesan I had finished.

Mixing ingredients

Next, between tossing several of them in his mouth and marveling at how good they were (even though they were from Spain), he chopped up the pine nuts and also added those to the cheese and garlic mix.

Chopping pine nuts

Up next were the basil leaves, which he plucked off their long stems and minced with the sharpest knife my small kitchen had to offer. Once the basil was chopped into small enough pieces it went in with the cheese, garlic and pine nuts.

Chopping basil

After getting a generous pour of olive oil (and then a couple more for good measure), he stirred everything around until it was a thick, even green mixture with an aroma so rich and powerful it filled the whole apartment. (It’s now hours since we ate and my room still smells of garlic and basil in a wonderful pesto-scented Yankee candle kind of way.)

Stirring it all up

Finally, he cooked the pasta, De Cecco fusilli (his favorite brand and the only one he eats at home in Italy). After draining it he threw it back in the pot, mixed in the pesto and served it. We sprinkled on some more fresh-grated Parmesan and sat down to enjoy our delicious pasta with authentic homemade pesto. Mmmm mmm!

Buon appetito!

The mysterious egg cream

Behold, the egg cream

What first drew me in to the classic soda fountain drink most often associated with New York (or Brooklyn more specifically) was its apparent identity crisis. Called an egg cream, it had neither eggs nor cream. Didn’t seem to right to me, yet people seemed to love it. During an episode of Unwrapped on the Food Network, a woman sitting at an old school counter at a drugstore soda fountain went on and on about how great these drinks were.

I, of course, wanted to form my own opinion so recently, I went in search of one to try. Since I was already taking the subway at Grand Central station, I decided to drop by Junior’s on the dining concourse and grab one to go.

I had done my research and knew it was made with milk, syrup (in this case chocolate) and soda water, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect. A big first slurp revealed an unusual taste. Slightly chocolatey with a fizzy, frothy consistency, it reminded me of a Coke float when all the ice cream has melted into the soda. Flaneur didn’t like it but I thought it was interesting. Not particularly great but not too bad either. Nothing involving chocolate can ever really be that bad.

Un petit roadtrip

Le Petit Bistro, Rhinebeck, NY

Last Saturday spring finally sprang, and while all of New York headed outside in a celebratory exodus to the parks, streets and any open spaces with a ray of sunlight shining down on them, Flaneur and I decided to leave the city all together.

We had been talking about escaping the city one weekend but because of all the time that goes into planning even just a two-day trip, I kept putting it off. You have to pick a place, figure out how to get there, then find things to do while you’re there, places to eat (always an important part of the research) and where to stay if you’re spending the night.

But then, as if he read my thoughts, someone at work asked if I’d ever been to Rhinebeck, New York in the Hudson Valley. No? Well I should go, he said. And while I’m there I should stay at America’s oldest operating inn, the Beekman Arms, and I absolutely must eat at Le Petit Bistro.

“Ok,” I agreed easily. “I’ll go next weekend.”

And just like that Flaneur and I rented a car, booked a one-night stay and said, “See you later, Manhattan. We’re outta here.”

Rhinebeck is a lovely little town, peaceful and quiet with minimal to do other than just plain ol’ relax, which we did a lot of. But our biggest reason for going, the main attraction of our trip and what sold me on the idea, was the cozy French restaurant my coworker had raved about.

As I do with everything else, I Googled it before going. The website was cheesy and dated and the photos of the interior gave it a boat cabin feel, with all the woodwork it had going on. I trusted my coworker, who swore that the restaurant was much better looking in person and that I really did have to go. And good thing I did because he was definitely right.

Le Petit Bistro was cute and inviting, with a soft glow coming from the small candles on each table. The wood on the walls, angled ceiling and bar was actually really pretty and created a warm, intimate feel very unlike the photos on the site.

We showed up for our 9:30 reservations and were seated at a small table toward the back of the restaurant. A few minutes later, we were told that a table by the window had just opened up and if we wanted to we were welcome to move up. A small gesture but it spoke a lot about the kind of service here. I was impressed.

The menu was short, which Flaneur and I appreciated since too many choices just lead to panic and scrambling at the last minute when the waiter shows up. We got our order in and sat back with glasses of red wine. Ah, now this is the life.

Appetizers came out and I was both nervous and excited. Excited because they looked and smelled delicious, but nervous because what I ordered, in keeping with the French theme, was escargots de Bourgogne, and the last time I ordered escargot, at a small bistro in Paris, I spent the entire next day puking in the streets, on the metro and finally on my plane ride back to Italy. It was not pretty but I didn’t want one little bout with food poisoning to keep me from enjoying this iconic dish.

After pulling the first escargot out of its shell and plopping it my mouth, I completely forgot I’d ever been sick at the hand of one of these tasty little delicacies. Juicy and plump without being chewy or gummy, the delicious butter-garlic-parsley combo made each one a scrumptious mouthful. When they were done, I double-checked all the empty shells to make sure I hadn’t missed any. No such luck.

Escargots de Bourgongne

Flaneur’s appetizer, the grilled sardines, was part of the special’s menu (which was written on a chalkboard and explained to us in mouthwatering detail at our table). When I hear sardines I think of the scrawny guppies that come in a can but the two on Flaneur’s plate were big and meaty. With a squeeze of lemon juice over them, they were tangy and delicious, yet subtle and not overly fishy.

Grilled sardines

Small salads (plain with a pour of olive oil and a sprinkle of pepper) were out next, and then the entrees. I ordered the roasted duck, which came on a creamy mound of mashed potatoes, and was topped with asparagus and round balls of what I think was cooked apple. (Could’ve been pear. I was too involved in the whole dish to analyze the fruit too much.) The duck had a perfectly browned, crisp skin without being too heavy or fatty, as skin tends to get. Inside, the light brown meat was tender and juicy, and came off in thick forkfuls. The mashed potatoes were smooth and buttery and with each bite of duck meat, I tried to scoop up some of the creamy potatoes. The fruit, whatever they were, were soft and sweet, adding just the right amount of sweetness to the savory dish. And finally, even the asparagus were great, cooked to a nice tenderness that made them easy to cut and enjoy, especially with the potatoes. (Although really, I could eat shoelaces if they were mixed in with those mashed potatoes.)

Roasted duck with mashed potatoes

Sticking to seafood, Flaneur ordered another specials item: the grilled sea bass. Served atop a simple but delicious bed of wild rice and paired with the same perfectly cooked asparagus, the bass was the perfect blend of buttery and lemony without being too salty or overpowering. Capers added a little zing of flavor to each bite.

Grilled sea bass

Even though we were stuffed, there was no way I was leaving without dessert, so Flaneur and I decided to split one of  my all-time favorites: the creamy, the classic, the delightfully crisp-on-top icon of French sweets, the crème brulee. And as I suspected based on the rest of our meal, this one did not disappoint. Under a golden brown caramelized crunchy top layer (which always makes me think of the scene from Amelie where she tap, tap, taps the top with a silver spoon) was a cool, thick, butter-colored cream. Absolutely delicious and the ideal ending to a perfect dinner.

Crème brulee

The next day we went back to the city, back to the noise and the crowds and the work routine. But the next time it all gets to be too much, we know where to go, and most importantly we know where to eat.

The politics of snacks

Not sure what they are but I bet they're delicious!

While visiting the birthplace, one time home and final resting place of the 32nd American president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in Hyde Park, New York (about an hour from Manhattan) I came across this funny food find in the visitor’s center gift shop. No, I didn’t buy it, but I did think they were fun. And yes, in all fairness, they did have Republican snacks, though not pictured here.

Cambodian sandwiches: another fantastic find

Dreams of pursuing a career in journalism are what brought me to New York, but it’s the food that’s keeping me here.

Plenty about this city has disillusioned me and frustrated me since I moved here, but the food? Never. This city’s eats have been my rock. I know that no matter how stressful my job gets, how quickly my paycheck disappears, or how freakishly close my bedroom walls seem to be to each other, I can go anywhere in the city and find something good to eat. And for someone who often seeks comfort in food, that’s a godsend.

Five spiced pork belly with pickled Asian pear

What amazes me about New York is the variety of food it offers and the places to find it. From five star restaurants with celebrity chefs and impossible reservation lists to the dodgy hole-in-the-wall places, there’s always something good. Just this week I ate somewhere that was so great and so unassuming that even though I had been griping all day about random things, everything was cleared from my head and all I could think of was, “God I love this city.” (Someone cue Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.)

My friend Vanessa, a consistent source for fun things in New York, suggested I try a little sandwich shop nearby called Num Pang. Cambodian sandwiches, she said, and I was sold. Though she didn’t come with, I did have my usual sidekick there with me, my adventurous-eater boyfriend.

I ‘d been warned the place was small but I was still surprised by how tiny it was: just a walk-up window, with a spiral staircase leading to a few seats and a stand-up bar. As we finished giving the guy our order, a group of people poured down the stairs, emptying the place out and leaving the whole seating area to just Flaneur and me. (Win.)

Grilled skirt steak with crushed coriander and peppercorn

A few minutes later, when our order was called, Flaneur ran downstairs to get our food. I clapped my hands together and rubbed them in excited preparation. These bad boys looked good.

Now, I’ve always been a little iffy about pork belly but ever since having it at Fatty Crab, I’ve become a fan. When I saw it listed with the specials, I had to have it. Plus, it came with pear, which happens to be my favorite fruit at the moment. The sandwich came on a pretty, mini baguette and was toasted to a nice crispiness so that every bite had that great, satisfying crunch of perfectly toasted bread. Inside, the pork belly was juicy and tender and paired nicely with the sweetness of the pickled pear. To add extra kick to the equation, there was zesty parsley, thin slices of cucumber, and a delicious spicy (but not too spicy) mayonnaise. If ever there was a prize for successfully mixing of colors, tastes and textures, this sandwich would get it.

Flaneur, meanwhile, was working on his sandwich of grilled skirt steak. Served on the same crunchy, warm baguette, his had large chunks of the crushed coriander and peppercorn covered steak jutting out from underneath the bread. More parsley, sliced cucumbers and shredded carrots complemented the meat.

Not your standard corn on the cob...

We finished our sandwiches, enjoying the last bits of it as we picked up stray crumbs and licked spicy mayo off our fingers. The grilled corn on the cob had been recommended so we got one to share. Vanessa had said it was really good but when we unwrapped it, I knew it would be better than expected. A bright yellow corn on the cob except for a few browned kernels from where it had almost been burned was covered in a thick coating of more spicy mayo,  chili powder and coconut flakes. It was loud and intense, both in appearance and taste. The creaminess of the mayo mixed in with the meatiness of the corn and the slight hint of sweetness from the coconut to make for a wildly delicious to our Cambodian dinner.

With Flaneur by my side, I walked home, full and happy, my mouth slightly tingling from all the chili mayo, and thought to myself, “Dammit New York, you won me over, all over again.”