Eating to remember… and forget

It’s been almost nine years since I lived in Italy and almost six since I last went back to visit, and sometimes I miss the damn place so much.

Let me be clear, there’s a lot I absolutely don’t miss, but sometimes, like last night while eating a homemade dinner of gnocchi in an herbed tomato sauce with olives and capers, I just miss Italy in general. I miss the food, the pace of life, the “not this” of it all.

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Note to self: eat more gnocchi

With Plated‘s help once again (cause you know, I’d be lost otherwise), I made one of my favorite Italian meals, and an easy one to boot: gnocchi, those perfect little pillow-like potato dumplings that are even easier to cook than pasta. My favorite thing about them? You’ll know when they’re ready because they’ll float up to the top of the boiling water they cook in, only after two to three minutes. Bloop bloop bloop.

My recipe card walked me through making a rich and flavorful, deliciously comforting chunky sauce, made with oregano and rosemary, garlic and onion, fat, juicy tomatoes, crushed red pepper, plump, buttery Castelvetrano olives (my faves), and the tiny little bursts of briny goodness that make every dish with them delicious, capers.

It all came together quickly and easily, and the end result was so very good that I think my stomach couldn’t help but remind my heart of all the times I sat around similarly easy, delicious meals, and how they made all the not-great things about Italy tolerable.

When you just need/want noodles

 

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These noodles got me doodling hearts.

Ever have something so good that you’re still thinking about it days later, weeks even, and you stare longingly at the picture you took of it, wishing it was in front of you and you could just enjoy it all over again? No? Really? Just me, huh? Ok.

Well, I’ll tell you this much, a bowl of Xi’an Famous Foods‘ noodles will have you doing just that. I’ve been daydreaming about the deliciously spicy, chili oil seared noodles I had there a few weeks ago and really, I need to just go back and have them again, because at this point it’s getting distracting.

Every lunch I eat, usually boring and healthy, I think, “Why aren’t you noodles?” Every time I’m cold or stressed or bored or need a hug, I think, “Noodles. Nooooodles.”

They were just so…good. So freakin’ good. Simple, wide floppy noodles in a spicy hot oil that not only tasted great but cleared my sinuses and warmed my insides. Comforting, tasting, filling, warming.

I need more of this in my life. I need more freakin’ noodles.

And for my next trick: spaghetti squash!

Ok, I need to ask a serious question here for a second: where— WHERE!— has spaghetti squash been my whole entire life?

Listen, I own one of those little hand-held spiralizers and have actually used it a bunch. I’ve had zoodles and whatever else you want to call noodle shaped food really made out of vegetables and not good ol’ fashioned carby pasta. I’ve had zucchini noodles, carrot noodles, the squash-that-looks-like-a-yellow-zucchini noodles.

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It’s not a great picture, but that’s fully MY fault, not the meal’s.

They were alright. Sometimes, buried under some delicious sauce usually reserved for bowls of pasta, they were even good(ish).  But they were never as good as the real thing. And they certainly weren’t ever something I would rave about and call the most delicious thing I’ve ever cooked.

But spaghetti squash, well ho ho HO, let me tell you… it’s blown my mind. Having it for dinner the other night, thanks to Plated, really felt like unveiling a magic trick. Cut the squash open, pop it in the oven, pull it out and scrape the inside with a fork, and  TA DA! BA DA BING BA DA BOOM! SHAZAM! a delicious, yellow heap of something that looks like noodles, but is in fact JUST vegetabley goodness.

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Again, bad lighting, not great photo, but a damn GOOD forkful. 

I kid you not, folks.

Plated’s recipe  had me make a delicious sauce from tomato paste, sun dried tomatoes, spinach, harissa, cream, garlic and onion which I then dumped the scraped out squash into along with some feta, and mixed together until it was perfectly coated and almost indistinguishable from a plate of angel hair pasta. I then spooned this delicious creamy sauce back into the scraped out squash shells and topped it with another mix, this time made of bread crumbs, parmesan, oregano, before popping it all back in the oven for another 10 minutes.

What came out of my oven was— no exaggeration— one of the best things I’ve ever made… which yea, I know, there’s not a ton of competition in that department, but still! Delicious, filling, vegetarian, and my new magic trick!

Pasta will forever hold a place in my heart, but since it also loves to hold a place in other parts like my thighs, I’m thrilled to have something to substitute it with every now and then that makes for just as delicious of a meal.

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.

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.

Easy like fried chicken

How did it go again, when Lionel Richie sang it? “That’s why I’m easy, easy like Sunday evening?”

Wait, no, that’s wrong. It was morning, easy like Sunday morning.

But for me, well for me it was Sunday evening that was the easy one. Easy and delicious.

I was walking down First Ave. with a certain someone, making our way toward the L train, casually talking about maybe grabbing something quick and easy to eat before heading back to Brooklyn, when I made the suggestion.

“How ‘bout this place?” I asked, pointing to the barely noticeable, easily missable sign on Fuku’s door. “They do a good chicken sandwich. And it’s fast.”

IMG_8718I’d been there about a year before with a couple of friends, and remembered liking it. David Chang can do no wrong in my book. In his Momofuku kingdom, he’s got the Midas touch of deliciousness.

The menu’s small at Fuku and the main attraction is Chang’s chicken sandwich. A couple of sandwiches, some chicken fingers, fries, a couple sides, a few drinks , and that’s all folks! But when things are as good as this, you don’t need a lot of choices, and for someone like me, who struggles with decision-making, that’s a great thing.

Ordering— unlike so many other times at so many other places—was a breeze and I went with the Koreano, a slight twist on the regular chicken sandwich. No fries cause I wasn’t ravenously hungry as usual (and because my partner in crime for the night got some so I thought he wouldn’t mind a couple missing.)

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Deciding on Fuku was easy, ordering was easy and when my Koreano came out, it was easy too. Not a ton of toppings or competing flavors, just a few really great things coming together to make a phenomenal chicken sandwich. The bun, smooth and seedless, was soft and subtly sweet, with a smear of bright flavored chili sauce on the inside. A heap of tangy shredded daikon radish, a couple simple bread and butter pickles, and the star of the show: a huge hunk of absolutely perfect fried chicken.

Perfect, I said. Perfect.  Crunchy and golden on the outside and unbelievably juicy and tender on the inside. I don’t know what kind of black magic was used to pull off this chicken, but I support it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if everything in life was this easy and so so good? Not easy like Sunday morning, Lionel. Easy like perfect fried chicken.