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.

 

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.

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.

Been travelin’

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A delicious mess of baked eggs, maple bacon, crispy fried onions and coconut milk grits at Pretty Southern in Greenpoint. You won’t read about it beyond this but I wanted to show off this picture anyway, so here you go. Enjoy.

In trying to think of what to write here, what to say to explain myself for just falling off the grid again, I remembered a part in one of my favorite books, All Over but the Shoutin,’ by one of my favorite writers, Rick Bragg. (If you don’t know him, it’s ok to pause here and look him up. He writes these sentences that are so good they make my heart ache. No, really, I have actual physical reactions to his words. I met him once, when I was in college, and I was tongue tied, a sweaty palmed wreck, all over the way he strings together words to form sentences.)

In his memoir about growing up in the South, dirt poor in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains,  he writes about sleepwalking as a child and how his grandmother used to find him doing it.

But sometimes I would come to my senses outside and see her just standing there, beside me. I never cried. I just looked up, wondering. “You’re okay, little man,” she would tell me. “You just been travelin.'”

And that’s how I feel. That’s where I’ve been. Travelin.’ Not really in the way of actually going places, though there was a weekend in Canada with my sister, but more so just travelin’ through life, at times in that sleepwalking kind of way where you find yourself somewhere unexpected, a little dazed and groggy. That’s been life lately.

Today, for example, I woke up and realized it’s been eight years to the day since I moved to New York. All day I’ve been sitting here, figuratively rubbing my eyes, looking around at the life I’m living, the friends, the loves, the jobs, the ups, the downs it’s entailed, all of it.

I just looked up, wondering. 

So yea, in the last few weeks, leading up to this anniversary, though not strictly related to it, I’ve been travelin,’ through my thoughts and my memories, through life. And sometimes when I do that, it doesn’t feel right to sit here and gush about the cheeseburgers and the pork buns, the very many mountains of ice cream, and let me tell you, there have been mountains. They’ve all been there, the food is always there. I just don’t always feel like writing about it. (Problematic, I know, for a self-professed food writer.)

All is well though, great even. It’s like waking up late on a Saturday to the smell of your roommate frying up bacon in the kitchen. It’s waking up exactly where you’d want to.

Unicorn Lattes cause why not?

Ever stop and look at yourself or the life you live and wonder how you got there or what a younger you would think about it if you could travel back in time with a spoiler alert?

I do. All the time.

Like when I ride the train to work in midtown. Or when I listen to anti-slut shaming podcasts. Or when I sign up for marathons. Or when I watch Donald Dump being sworn in as president.

Just things a younger me wouldn’t have necessarily predicted, that’s all.

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::sigh:: Brooklyn…

Last weekend, as I handed over my credit card to be charged $9 for something called a Unicorn Latte at a small coffee shop in Brooklyn, I found myself thinking, “Hmm, bet I never would’ve seen this coming a few years ago.”

I read about The End a few days before, and even though it seemed like another shining example of Brooklyn trying to out-Brooklyn itself, I was intrigued.

A younger me would’ve rolled her eyes at the ridiculous price tag, or the thought of a hot beverage with blue green algae in it, or even just at the friendly surfer/elf/hipster dude that rang it up.

But today’s me shrugged and thought, “Yea, why not. I’m curious.”

So I went and had the whimsical drink and because it was snowing outside, I ordered my Unicorn Latte to stay, which meant it was served in a small glass with a metal handle. (When you pay almost 10 bucks for a drink, you shouldn’t fight the elements to enjoy it.)

I should point out that this is a coffee alternative we’re talking about, so no actual coffee here. Instead, this latte is made of coconut milk, water, lemon juice, honey, Maqui berry, and the magic ingredient which provides the murky blue color, E3 Live, a blue green algae. And on the foamy top, a smattering of pastel sprinkle-type bits.

It had a sort of subtly fruity, milky flavor, almost like heated milk from a bowl of Fruit Loops or Fruity Pebbles. Not bad, not great. I was into all of the benefits they said it would provide, however, including mental clarity and a boost in energy.

Will it become part of my daily routine and replace the usual coffee? No, not likely. Then again, maybe I’ll look back on this one day when I’m an algae guzzling ol’ weirdo (who still looks 29) and I’ll laugh. Silly younger self, what have you ever known?

New attempts in the new year

When it comes to new year’s resolutions, I don’t like making big, sweeping declarations of intent. I’m going to lose weight! (Lame.) I’m going to be happy! (Shut up.) I’m going to cut out sugar. (BYE.)

Instead, I like to start small and set realistic expectations and achievable goals. Doing yoga once a week was my resolution for 2015, for example. Not every single day. Not post about it on Instagram every day either. Just go once a week. That kinda thing. And you know what? That kinda thing works for me. I’ve done yoga at least once every week for the past two years.

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Would you believe I made this?

So this year, ladies and gents, my new year’s resolution is to make a home cooked meal at least once a week. I know, I know. “What?! You don’t already cook at home? Who are you?”

It’s terrible, I know. Trust me, I do. But between working weird hours, not being a great cook, and having the awesomeness that is Seamless at my disposal, I rarely make a proper meal at home. I might steam some Brussels sprouts or heat up a can of beans but rarely do I make dinner from scratch.

So in this here 2017, I’m gonna try and change that. Once a week I’ll give it the ol’ college try and make something that involves using multiple pots and pans, different ingredients and every last cooking skill I can dig up from my limited arsenal.

Back in November for Thanksgiving, and then again in December for our annual holiday party, I made a pretty phenomenal, albeit very simple, baked brie by wrapping a wheel of brie in Pillsbury crescent rolls dough smeared thick with raspberry preserves. I brushed egg yolks on the outside and served the golden, molten cheesey beauty with crisp, green apple slices. It was delicious, gorgeous and a big hit with my friends, so I’m hopeful I can make that kind of magic happen more often. Once a week to be exact.

We’ll see how this goes. Let’s hope for lots of deliciousness in 2017!