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.

 

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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.

Binging in the Lowcountry

Hot damn you guys, I just went on a serious biscuit bender. Almost three days spent in the lovely and oh-so-charming city of Charleston, South Carolina, and let me tell you: biscuits biscuits BIIIISCUITS.

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A biscuit fiend

There is many a mile to be spent on the treadmill in atonement in the weeks to come . Yes, weeks. That’s how much biscuit binging went down this weekend. I let southern comfort food snuggle me in its warm, loving bosom and it was nice. Real nice.

My sister and I hadn’t walked more than a few blocks down King Street, one of downtown Charleston’s main thoroughfares, when I stopped dead in my tracks. I didn’t even read the whole sign on the door but I saw “biscuits” and that’s all I needed to know before I looked at my sister and said, “Let’s go in.”

Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits was just a small counter to order from and a narrow bar up against the biscuit themed mural painted wall, with people pressed in tight to get their hands on some homemade biscuits. There were small, slider-sized biscuits,  larger fist-sized biscuits, sweet ones and savory ones, filled and sandwiched. Biscuit heaven in all its southern glory, if you ask me.

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Southern Lovin’ at its finest

We got the gloriously messy Southern Lovin’ sandwich, made with a big ol’ buttery biscuit, a juicy, hunk of fried chicken, a perfectly runny fried egg, and a small sea of warm made-fresh-right-there, sausage gravy. With sticky fingers, crumbs everywhere and a losing fight with a plastic fork, we agreed this was not date food. But dates be damned, this was a sisters trip and that biscuit was phenomenal.

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Biscuits for breakfast, biscuits for dessert

As a slightly sweeter finish to the first of our biscuit feasts, we went with an order of two small buttermilk biscuits, stuffed full and oozing with dark, delicious blackberry jam. Obviously neater and less challenging to eat, these might’ve fooled someone into thinking we were just two nice girls taking a morning biscuit break.

Bless their hearts, they had no idea we were just getting started on a carb-fueled bender.

 

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!

Hot fix for a summer cold

Ladies and gents, I am comin’ to you live from SNOT CITY. That’s disgusting, yes, I know. And I’m sorry— kind of—because you clearly didn’t come here to read about the drama that is my sinus cavity right now, but it’s true. I’m in the midst of an obnoxious summer cold, and it sucks.

Sorry folks, it's not all food porn here.

Sorry folks, it’s not all food porn here.

I’m all red nosed and stuffy, bursting into sneezing fits every quarter hour or so, and I have a cough that feels like there’s a lone Pop Rock lodged in my throat. And so help me God, if I have to eat one more cherry flavored zinc lozenge, I’m gonna vomit.

Yesterday after leaving work, where the indoor temperature is precisely 30 below zero, the only thing I wanted was a hot cup of bone broth. Not only is it pretty much soup I can walk with, but it also has damn near magical healing powers. Bone broth is allegedly full of minerals and other good stuff that help aid the immune system and reduce intestinal inflammation (Woof. How terrible does that sound?) as well as help you sleep better, boost energy and keep you looking young (HOLLA!) thanks to collagen.

A few places in the city have it, but the closest to me at the time was Barney’s Bone Broth, a small walk up window near NYU. I went with Barney’s Signature broth, made from grass fed veal and beef bones, chicken, carrots, celery, onions, thyme, rosemary, garlic and parsley, all served piping hot in a to-go cup.

Even on a warm summer day, the hot bone broth was comforting and delicious, a portable soup-as-cold remedy for a sick girl on the go.