Pork rolling right into the weekend

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Ah, good morning indeed. 

If you looked at this first picture here and were thoroughly unimpressed, let me explain. That’s not the badly composed food pic you think it is, taken at a not-so-great angle with maybe not enough detail of the edible subject at hand and possibly too much uninteresting negative space behind it. Nope, that’s not it.

It’s a picture of a freshly made, just unwrapped, warm and toasty pork roll, egg and cheese about to get wolfed down from the comfort of a damn near magically comfortable hotel bed where I was burrowed underneath a fluffy white down comforter that because of the delicious powerful air conditioner in the room made every inch of it feel like the cool side of the pillow. THAT’S what that is.

And maybe because I’ve extended Meatless Mondays to be Meatless Monday through Fridays for about the past six months, or possibly because I never EVER eat in my room much less in my bed, or because this room was luxuriously cool unlike my room at home which even with the AC going only ever feels a degree below comfortable room temperature… but let me tell you, that pork roll in bed? It was DELICIOUS.

So what’s a pork roll and why was I eating one in a hotel bed? Well, it’s what they call a particular “processed pork product” (that’s per the interwebs) also known as Taylor ham in the fine and often maligned state of New Jersey, where the BF and I were for his birthday last weekend. It’s served on a big round Kaiser roll, which you can usually get seeded or not, and includes eggs and cheese. It’s the kind of thing you order at a bodega or a diner, a low budget, quick and easy eat, perfect for weekends and hangovers and enjoying in bed.

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When in Asbury Park, eat as the New Jerseyans.

The one in bed was from The Counter at The Asbury Hotel where we stayed for the weekend (and you should too sometime cause it’s a great little hotel and if you’re in NY, Asbury Park is a super fun, cute and easy-to-pull-off weekend getaway) but we also had one a different morning at Frank’s Deli & Restaurant, a great, no frills, old school diner near the beach. (A little fun fact for you: if you’re like me and still mourning the death of the great and so very sorely missed Anthony Bourdain, he ate here while filming a New Jersey episode of “Parts Unknown” a few years ago. And no, I didn’t know that before going. I like to think he’s just my spirit guide when I travel and eat out of town.)

I won’t eat them very often I don’t think, and even if the corner bodega started selling them in Brooklyn I certainly wouldn’t have them in bed, but the memory of enjoying them on a weekend away with the beau will always be delicious to me.

 

Grubbing in Guatemala

I must’ve been a true wanderer in a past life or rolled with some sort of nomadic tribe, because if it were up to me, I’d roam the earth and live out of a suitcase.

If I had the right kind of job, or the right kind of bank account, I would probably do just that but since I don’t, whenever I do get the chance to travel and go somewhere different, somewhere new, somewhere far, every particle of my being revels in it.

And in what will be surprising to pretty much no one, one of my favorite aspects of traveling is eating. Even in a city like New York, where the cuisines of the world are available to me, still nothing beats eating local.

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I’m always happy to go.

When a good friend decided to get married in Antigua, Guatemala, a Central American country I’d never been to, I was just as excited about being a part of his big day as I was about exploring and eating my way around town.

There was lots of good food involved over the course of the long weekend I was there, everything from junk food like Doritos with funny names and peanuty snacks called Double Nuts to elegant and delicious wedding rehearsal and reception dinners to some pretty serious drinks, like the hilarious-to-say Cuchurucho, a cocktail of tequila, rum, vodka, triple sec, gin, red wine and hibiscus liqueur. (The Guatemalan Black Out, if you will.)

But my favorite meal of the trip, due to price, ambiance, and most importantly food, was a casual lunch at Rincon Tipico.

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Chicken, potatos, and guac with a cup of horchata? Si por favor.

While most places took credit cards and dollars, this place only took local currency, the Guatemalan quetzal. A little inconvenient since no one in our group had any, but I took it as a good sign anyway.  Instead of a menu, the waiter rattled of  in Spanish the only three or four options. (Another good sign if you ask me.) The place itself just looked like the real deal. It was homey and colorful, hot under the midday sun and only slightly breezy from ceiling-rigged fans. A no-nonsense looking woman pounded away at fresh corn flour, grilling it into tortillas on a large flat top that was so hot I don’t know how she didn’t melt standing over it.

And when our food arrived, with baskets of warm, fresh tortillas and plastic cups of cool creamy, cinnamony horchata (all you can drink, by the way), I was smitten.

I went with the chicken option, partly because I could see a giant wall of splayed out  chickens roasting in the open kitchen, the fiery heat contributing to the temperature at the tables, and the smell was wafting around me and making my stomach growl. And when it came out, served in a sturdy, no frills, terracotta like plate, the giant chunk of chicken was roasted to a perfect golden crisp, the meat underneath plump and delicious. With it, a generous plop of fresh ground guacamole and juicy, roasted potatoes.

It was simple food and it was great, nothing wildly inventive or groundbreaking, but deliciously satisfying, comforting and filling. And with the bottomless horchata included, it also came in at just about $4.

Even in New York, I don’t know where I would have found that. So maybe I did have to travel 2,000 miles to properly enjoy it and I’m more than happy to keep doing it as often as I can.

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.

 

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.

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.

Southern snacking

Some people can eat their breakfast, lunch and dinner per 24-hour cycle and call it a day, not a single snack in between and it’s all good.

I, sweet reader who probably already guessed this, am not one of those people. (Also, for the record, I’m not one of those people who ever just forgets to eat. It doesn’t matter how busy I am, I always remember to eat. Who are you, people who forget?)

Happy hour's the best hour. Ask this Moscow mule.

Happy hour’s the best hour. Ask this Moscow mule.

My sister and I were already one full meal and several snacks into our first day in Charleston when I realized that this girl right here, needed a snack. And a drink. (Friday afternoon and out of town? Bartender!)

On a trusted friend and local’s recommendation, we popped into The Rarebit, a cute bar with an even cuter draw: $5 Happy hour Moscow mules.

FIVE dollars? Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit! (I love that saying and I don’t ever get to use it, and here I am writing about southern food so I’m rolling with it. Follow me.) It wasn’t some rinky dink mule either. This was a crisp, deliciously cold, wonderfully refreshing Moscow mule made with Smirnoff vodka, Sweatman’s ginger beer, and zesty limeade, served in a traditional, gorgeous copper mug.

No bad time for grits.

No bad time for grits.

And because the point of our afternoon stop was to appease our peckishness, we got a couple things to eat. A sidenote here: I love breakfast. I love it in the morning, I love it in the afternoon, I love it at night. There’s no designated time for it in my book, because any time’s a good time for breakfast, especially if and when it involves one of my favorites: grits.

Fried okra, cause this is the south, dammit.

Fried okra, cause this is the south, dammit.

In addition to being a cute bar with friendly service, flattering lighting, and those beautiful Moscow mules, The Rarebit also serves all day breakfast, which because hello the south, includes grits. Sigh. Be still my heart.

We ordered a side of them (you know, just a casual snack) and they were surprisingly some of the best grits I’ve ever had. Just plain ol’ grits, no cheese or bacon or shrimp or any of those things that make a good thing great, served with no frills packs of butter, and yet…delicious. Not too runny, just perfectly creamy and thick, warm and comforting.

A side of grits would barely be enough for one De Angelis, much less two, so to go with it and to keep with our theme of when-in-Rome-eat-as-the-Romans, we also got fried okra. One of the most traditional southern veggies, these particular green pods were crusted in a crispy, crunchy coating and served with a tangy, creamy sauce.

How, knowing that this kind of deliciousness is out there waiting to be had, could someone not want to partake between meals, or worse, just forget about it all together? I tell ya, sometimes I just don’t know about people.