A whole lot of comforting

My sister and I are separated by roughly 1,200 miles (1,276.3 if you ask Google) and because I have a slight aversion to Miami, where she still lives, and she’s been to New York a bunch of times, we thought we should get together in a whole new city.

Our requirements were that our destination be no more than a couple of hours away by plane, have fun things to do (the younger De Angelis isn’t one for poolside lounging or beach bumming) and have lots of good food. So off we went to Atlanta, to do our sister bonding with a side of southern comfort.

Many a calorie was consumed by way of fried, butter-laden southern specialties, but we both agreed the best meal of the trip (though possibly the worst for our waistlines) was at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, the kind of bright, sunny restaurant that fills up with bustling families and church ladies in their Sunday best, all packed in for heaping plates of artery-clogging southern goodness and tall glasses of sweet tea.

Plain table bread? Psshh, not here, folks!

Plain table bread? Psshh, not here, folks!

Right out of the gate, Mary Mac’s starts you off with a basket of sweet morning buns and cornbread in place of regular ol’ bread. Morning buns, with their sweet cinnamon bun-like swirl of brown sugar, were an interesting way to start things off, almost dessert-y and a nice complement to the more savory butter-slathered cornbread.

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Oh you know, just a little light lunch.

While the options were many, with seemingly endless combinations of carbs on carbs on carbs, I went with the shrimp and cheese grits with fried green tomatoes and my all-time favorite, sweet potato soufflé, as sides. The cheese grits were all of the creamy, buttery, cheesy perfection I needed them to be, with fat, juicy shrimp plopped on top, and the fried green tomatoes, tangy and juicy inside their crunchy, battered shells were the ideal companion. But by and far, my heart was won over by the sweet potato soufflé, all creamy and smooth, caramelized marshmallow sitting on top like a dream.

Fried chicken, dumplings and mac and cheese...trifecta of deliciousness.

Fried chicken, dumplings and mac and cheese…trifecta of deliciousness.

The other De Angelis went with fried chicken (because really, when in Rome…), mac and cheese and dumplings. The chicken, a giant, hulking affair of crispy, crunchy skin and tender white meat paired well with the softer, creamier sides. The dumplings, thick and soupy in their gravy like sauce were like the ooey, gooey, cheesey mac and cheese in rich, over the top southern goodness.

Peach cobbler, cause there's always room for something sweet.

Peach cobbler, cause there’s always room for something sweet.

Finally, even with all of that in our systems, we squeezed in dessert: a shared portion of Georgia peach cobbler. Unlike the cobbler I ate in bed back at the hotel, this one was all fruit, no crust. It was good, the stewed, spiced peaches soft and warm, but definitely could’ve used at least a little bit of ice cream. Cause hell, after you’ve had that many calories, what’s another couple hundred?

We left completely stuffed, ready for deep, long naps, and happily bordering on discomfort by the amount of good ol’ Georgia comfort food we put back.

Mary Mac's Tea Room on Urbanspoon

Comfort me with corn bread

Part of the deal I worked out with the devil in exchange for my boyfriend living in New York with me is that every year, for at least a couple of months, I have to release him back into the wild, back to that intoxicatingly ass-backwards boot-shaped country he calls home. (Kidding about the devil part, by the way.) He goes back to see friends and family and usually to go on some incredible vacation with the rest of Italy when they all go on their usually-month-long holiday in August. (Bastards.) In short, it sucks and I hate it, and part of it, truth be told, is because I’m always just a little scared that he won’t come back. (Yikes, this suddenly feels so much more “Dear Diary-ish” than I meant it to. Food’s coming though, promise.)

As we wind up our last couple of days together before another obnoxiously long (two and a half months to be exact) time apart, I’m squeezing in as many reminders that America, New York, and I (duh) are all awesome and very much worth coming back to.  As part of my plan, I wanted to eat something really great, something I knew he couldn’t get back in the Old World, something to remind him that home was here too: comfort food.

Who needs Tuscany when you have this delicious corn bread? Not this girl (or at least that's what I'm telling myself.)

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Mama knows best

Earlier this week, when I opened the cupboard and found nothing but dust bunnies, and knew that the only thing in my fridge was a bottle of mustard and a root beer ice pop in the freezer, all I wanted was a plate of good food that tasted like home. Not a big going-out-to-eat ordeal with a hostess to walk us to our table, a long menu to sort through, and servers to listen to. I just wanted a good, simple home-cooked meal… from someone else’s kitchen. And because we recently sold our kitchen table (in preparation for moving), I also wanted to eat it at someone else’s table.

And for that, we went to Mama’s Food Shop. It certainly didn’t taste like anything my mama ever made (i.e. because it was actually de-friggin’-licious) but the slamming screen door, ceiling fan circulating warm air and the homey dishes our food was served on made it feel like I was over at someone’s home. Somewhere far away from the city, in the south maybe.

Mama’s is simple. You can have basics like chicken (roasted or fried), meatloaf, tilapia and pork shoulder. With that you get sides: collard greens, mashed potatos, corn bread, mac n’ cheese and potato salad to name a few. There’s no waitress. but it’s definitely not fast food either. You just order up at the front and take your plate to your table. It’s no frills and it’s great.

Fried chicken and macaroni and cheese

There were lots of veggie side options but I went in with the ol’ go-big-or-go-home mentality and got the  fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. I’m not a huge fried chicken fan in that I rarely order it and don’t even really crave it often but this fried chicken was incredible! I’m not only going to crave this from now on, I’m going to dream of it when I sleep and fantasize about eating buckets and buckets of it when I’m awake. (If my eyes are glazed over and I’m drooling, now you know what I’m thinking about.) The chicken meat (I went with white over dark) was tender and juicy, but what made this fried chicken phenomenal was hands down the thick, crunchy, batttered, seasoned-with-herbs-and spices fried skin. Not rubbery or fatty, just perfectly crisp with little bits of rosemary like I’ve never seen on fried chicken before. This was NOT the colonel’s recipe, that’s for sure. Continue reading

Comfort food for hot weather

Even though it’s not officially summer for almost another two months, Sunday in the city felt like summer had come early.

Up till now, warm days have still brought a cool breeze with them, the kind that have you toting around a light sweater or give you goose bumps if you sit in the shade. But not this Sunday. Even as the sun slipped away for the night, the air felt thick and hot. The slight breeze, like when you turn a fan on in an unairconditioned New York City apartment, didn’t do a lot in the way of cooling.

When the weather starts to get hot like this, I generally don’t like to do much. Movement equals sweating and sweating equals cranky, frizzy haired, shiney-faced Angie. But if there’s one thing I think is only made better by rising temperatures and sticky afternoons, it’s eating barbeque. The sweet tanginess of barbeque sauce smothered over a hunk of meat and the refreshing bite of a cold beer were absolutely made for enjoying in hot, humid weather. When the weather gets sloppy, turn to sloppy food.

Which is why on Sunday, when the sun poured into our bedroom while dust bunnies collected in the kitchen cabinets, Flaneur and I decided to venture north to Harlem for lunch at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.

The walk to and from the subway and through the quiet streets of Harlem under the Riverside Drive Bridge was enough to get a healthy sheen of glistening sweat going on our foreheads. As we turned the corner on Dinosaur’s street, the thick, sweet smell of barbeque wafted out, heavy on the warm air. This had been the best idea ever.

We started off our uninhibited Sunday lunch feasting with an order of fried green tomatoes, a Southern staple, and another food that conjures up images of slow, summer afternoons for me. They came battered and fried in a golden, not-too-thick layer of crispiness and were topped off with shaved Pecorino romano, a strong, salty cheese that played off deliciously with the unripened tomatoes inside. Usually I’m not crazy about ranch dressing, but the cayenne buttermilk ranch dipping sauce that came with these added the perfect little kick to each fried tomato bite.

Fried green tomatoes

With every server that walked by, arms extended and strained under plates stacked high with ribs, mounds of potatoes and cornbread rolls, my stomach growled louder and louder.  The smell alone was driving me crazy.

So crazy in fact, that the first thing I did when our food arrived, on two large sectioned plates loaded with barbeque comfort deliciousness, was to accidentally knock my cup over and send the last couple inches of ice water remaining gushing over Flaneur’s half rack of ribs. Clearly, the heat does things to me. Bad things. Things that result in hot meals being doused in cold water.

Luckily, due to some fast thinking, quick spooning out of ice cubes and the speedy response of a dozen napkins, the ribs were salvaged and we got to eating.

I opted for the pork brisket plate, which came with both pulled pork and sliced brisket in addition to two sides of my choosing. I’ll be honest and say right now, that while I enjoy barbeque, I’m more of a sides-fan than a meat lover. I went with the mac and cheese, which was thick and creamy with a warm, off yellow color, instead of being a garrish school-bus yellow. The thick cheese baked on top was a nice contrasting touch in textures and was topped off with just a light sprinkle of deep red cayenne pepper. My other side was roasted whipped sweet potatoes laced with a spicy hint of cinnamon and topped with ground nuts. It was almost mousse-like in its consistency and the taste was buttery and smooth. But the main attraction at this celebration of meat was the soft, juicy pork. The pulled pork, which came topped with a bit of salty, sweet barbeque sauce, was tender and flavorful. Each bite literally melted in my mouth and seemed to soak deep into my taste buds.  The sliced brisket was just as soft and juicy, with the rosy pink color I love in meat. (Well done? Blegh, yuck.)  Just a little bit of fat on the side made it burst with flavor without being too fatty or gummy. And finally, there was the cornbread roll, which although it was a little dry, still had a sweet, buttery taste. By the time I got around to it I was so stuffed, it wouldn’t of mattered how good it was. I had to stop eating.

Pulled pork and sliced brisket with whipped sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, and cornbread

Flaneur, never one to shy away from getting down and dirty with his food, ordered the messiest of all menu items: ribs. The half rack of pork ribs were wide and intense, a meal only for a serious carnivore. He gave me a rib and I ripped off a chunk of meat, getting barbeque sauce all over my fingers and face. It was thick and juicy, dripping with the smoky flavors of carefully seasoned meat cooked over a fire. I think I made the better choices when it came to sides selection but his weren’t bad either. The Creole potato salad was chunky and thick, with fat hunks of potato rolling in an onion-y, spiced mayo, sprinkled with “Creole powder” which tasted like a blend of spices like cumin and cayenne pepper. His other side, another Southern classic, were greens, cooked and served in a buttery, oily blend of spices. These were much better than the potato salad because of how packed with deep, rich flavors they were. Plus, you can get potato salad at almost any deli on any street in any neighborhood in this city, but good greens, now that’s not as easy of a find.

Half rack of ribs, potato salad, greens and cornbread

I had originally wanted to get dessert because there seemed to be some promising items on the list (including a banana and coconut cream pie) but after our plates were taken away with only cornbread crumbs, faint smears of sauce and in Flaneur’s case, clean bones, there was no way I could fit anything else in my stomach. As the sun beamed down on the concrete outside and the warm air blew in through the window, all I wanted to do was take a nap in a hammock somewhere, preferably on someone’s wrap-around porch. But there was none of that. We were a pretty decent way from home, and so with the content lethargy of people who’ve eaten entirely too much,  we started a slow meandering walk on a hot afternoon in Harlem.

The BEST mac & cheese of all time

Skillets full of cheese and happiness.

Most of my italian friends would be horrified if they knew just how much I love macaroni and cheese. They would snub their big aquiline noses at this beloved comfort food of mine and scoff, “You Americans. You just don’t know how to eat.”

But if any of them, if any single one of those pasta-snob Italians on that whole peninsula, ate just one forkful of the mac and cheese that I had the great pleasure of eating this weekend, they would never, ever say another bad thing about it ever again. “America, you win this time,” they would say.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Italian pasta (above all other ethnic foods in fact), and on most days I even love most of the Italians I know. So this is nothing against them. But the mac and cheese I had Saturday night at S’MAC in the East Village deserves worldwide recognition. Its praises deserve to be sung from rooftops around the globe. So I’m starting here.

At S’MAC its all macaroni and cheese and not much else. The macs, made with either regular, whole wheat or glutten free noodles, all come in cast iron skillets ranging from the small “nosh” to the humongous “partay!” and can be topped with breadcrumbs or without. The menu lists 12 different variations or the option of building your own from their wide selection of cheeses (gruyere, manchego and pecorino to name a few) and “mix-ins” such as Andouille sausages, roasted tomatoes and kalamata olives.

A forkful of AWESOME

While indecision usually strikes me at moments like these, I knew right away what I wanted when I read the description: the Parisienne. “Mac-n-Cheese for the ‘upper crust’. Creamy Brie, roasted figs, roasted shiitake mushrooms & fresh rosemary.” SOLD.

When it came to the table, the “major munch” I had ordered was a lot bigger than I had expected. The skillet, filled to the very brim with the most beautifully baked-to-a-bubbly-warm-brown crispy gold crust, was big enough to easily feed two people. This was exciting. I knew I would eat every last noodle in that skillet and scrape off every last bit of melted cheese if it took me all night.

This mac and cheese smelled incredible, like a cheese-a-holic’s wildest fantasy, but maddening as it was, that smell didn’t even hold a candle to the taste of that first bite. Thick, creamy, ooey gooey cheesy Brie amazingness seemed to melt in my mouth and into my very heart. It was one of those bites that makes you close your eyes for a second and try and memorize everything about the moment.

Dear God if I had to relive one moment for all of eternity, THIS would be it.

I dug my fork into the cheese-filled skillet, poking through the thick, chewy top crust and resurfacing with dangling noodles covered in creamy gold cheese, peppered with bits of fresh rosemary and the smooth, roasted shiitake mushrooms that tangled themselves amongst the macaroni. I was in heaven. So much so that as I happily chomped along, I completely forgot there were figs inside. (A note about figs: I am obsessed with them. Last summer, any corner fruit vendor that had them got my business and any dish or dessert that includes them is usually ordered my way. When I left Italy and moved to the city, one of the things I brought with me was a small jar of fig preserves to go with the wedge of pecorino I brought my roommate.) When I took another heaping forkful and bit down on a soft chunk of that oh-so-sweet familiar fruit, I seriously almost lost it.

“Oh! A fig! Oh my God, a fig! Oh, I think this might be the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Seriously.”

Flaneur just smiled at me. He knows when to let me just enjoy the moment.

I could eat an Olympic-sized pool full of this stuff.

The mushrooms were laced throughout the mac and cheese but the figs were less frequent, which in my opinion was a great thing. They were so sweet that each bite turned into a deliciously fun game of anticipation. Will this one have it? How ’bout this one? Oh wait, there it is! And just like that, it was a sugary sweet explosion of taste mixing in with the cheese, mushrooms and rosemary. Any more figs would have been overpowering. These were the exact perfect amount.

But like I said, the “major munch” size was massive and after a certain point, beyond the point of my stomach feeling like it was about to burst and my jeans feeling like they were ready to give out on me, I had to stop. I couldn’t go on. They say you should stop eating when you feel feel full and for me that had been about 8 huge forkfuls ago. So I asked for a to-go box (which they had a million of, because I guess lots of people find themselves in my predicament) and packed the last of my delicious mac and cheese to take home with me.

We hadn’t even been home for half an hour when I said, “Oh screw it. I can’t wait till tomorrow. I wanna finish my mac and cheese.” And even at room temperature (because I hadn’t even put it in the fridge yet) and eaten out of a styrofoam container, it was the best damn macaroni and cheese I have ever had.