When the spirit moves me

I always have to correct people when they assume I know how to cook, or even that I enjoy cooking. I don’t. I just like to eat. And dammit, I’m great at it.

But every once in a blue moon, something’ll inspire me or circumstances will leave me with no choice, and I’ll have to actually make something in the kitchen. Now, don’t go getting any crazy ideas. If I’m “cooking” it’s usually something pretty basic, something with only a couple of ingredients, something pretty idiot proof… Cause that’s my kitchen style.

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Pretty good, huh? And I didn’t even burn the house down!

A couple of days ago, while visiting my sister and being trapped at her house while she was at work (no really, I was trapped in her gated community with no key for the stupid gate. When I went for a run that same afternoon, I had to wait for cars leaving and coming back in so I could chase behind them. You can keep your suburban life and I’ll keep my city freedom, thanks.) I decided to whip something up I’d seen on Instagram: baked pears.

I had picked up the ingredients earlier when we went to the enormous, sprawling Publix where she does her groceries. Once I had run, failed at going to the pool (cause again, no key to that either), watched all the garbage tv I could stomach, napped, read my book and played with the dog, I decided I should eat.

I took out a pear, sliced it in half longways,  and scooped out the seeds so it made a little hollow. Next, I popped both halves on a small baking sheet, sprinkled them with pumpkin pie spice mix (since my sister didn’t have the plain ol’ cinnamon I was looking for) and a little drizzle of honey and set them to bake for  about 30 minutes at 400 degrees. (All numbers I chose at random, cause I never fully know what I’m doing.) When they were done, I plopped some creamy, cool, large curd cottage cheese in the hollows, sprinkled more spice over them and drizzled them with more golden honey, and sat down to hoover it all down.

Warm, creamy and spicy, with all the smells of the soon-to-come autumn I love so much (even if only back at home in New York and not in the forever summer of Florida) I was pretty proud of my little kitchen creation.  A no brainer, sure, but I did it myself, unsupervised, and it was delicious!

Now that oughta hold me over for at least another couple of weeks until I get my next burst of inspiration.

Cambodian sandwiches: another fantastic find

Dreams of pursuing a career in journalism are what brought me to New York, but it’s the food that’s keeping me here.

Plenty about this city has disillusioned me and frustrated me since I moved here, but the food? Never. This city’s eats have been my rock. I know that no matter how stressful my job gets, how quickly my paycheck disappears, or how freakishly close my bedroom walls seem to be to each other, I can go anywhere in the city and find something good to eat. And for someone who often seeks comfort in food, that’s a godsend.

Five spiced pork belly with pickled Asian pear

What amazes me about New York is the variety of food it offers and the places to find it. From five star restaurants with celebrity chefs and impossible reservation lists to the dodgy hole-in-the-wall places, there’s always something good. Just this week I ate somewhere that was so great and so unassuming that even though I had been griping all day about random things, everything was cleared from my head and all I could think of was, “God I love this city.” (Someone cue Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.)

My friend Vanessa, a consistent source for fun things in New York, suggested I try a little sandwich shop nearby called Num Pang. Cambodian sandwiches, she said, and I was sold. Though she didn’t come with, I did have my usual sidekick there with me, my adventurous-eater boyfriend.

I ‘d been warned the place was small but I was still surprised by how tiny it was: just a walk-up window, with a spiral staircase leading to a few seats and a stand-up bar. As we finished giving the guy our order, a group of people poured down the stairs, emptying the place out and leaving the whole seating area to just Flaneur and me. (Win.)

Grilled skirt steak with crushed coriander and peppercorn

A few minutes later, when our order was called, Flaneur ran downstairs to get our food. I clapped my hands together and rubbed them in excited preparation. These bad boys looked good.

Now, I’ve always been a little iffy about pork belly but ever since having it at Fatty Crab, I’ve become a fan. When I saw it listed with the specials, I had to have it. Plus, it came with pear, which happens to be my favorite fruit at the moment. The sandwich came on a pretty, mini baguette and was toasted to a nice crispiness so that every bite had that great, satisfying crunch of perfectly toasted bread. Inside, the pork belly was juicy and tender and paired nicely with the sweetness of the pickled pear. To add extra kick to the equation, there was zesty parsley, thin slices of cucumber, and a delicious spicy (but not too spicy) mayonnaise. If ever there was a prize for successfully mixing of colors, tastes and textures, this sandwich would get it.

Flaneur, meanwhile, was working on his sandwich of grilled skirt steak. Served on the same crunchy, warm baguette, his had large chunks of the crushed coriander and peppercorn covered steak jutting out from underneath the bread. More parsley, sliced cucumbers and shredded carrots complemented the meat.

Not your standard corn on the cob...

We finished our sandwiches, enjoying the last bits of it as we picked up stray crumbs and licked spicy mayo off our fingers. The grilled corn on the cob had been recommended so we got one to share. Vanessa had said it was really good but when we unwrapped it, I knew it would be better than expected. A bright yellow corn on the cob except for a few browned kernels from where it had almost been burned was covered in a thick coating of more spicy mayo,  chili powder and coconut flakes. It was loud and intense, both in appearance and taste. The creaminess of the mayo mixed in with the meatiness of the corn and the slight hint of sweetness from the coconut to make for a wildly delicious to our Cambodian dinner.

With Flaneur by my side, I walked home, full and happy, my mouth slightly tingling from all the chili mayo, and thought to myself, “Dammit New York, you won me over, all over again.”

Surprise!!

Unassuming and delicious

I generally don’t like surprises. I don’t like surprise birthday parties or when people show up unannounced or any other time that life leaves me blindsided. But every now and then, I get surprised and love it.

Last night, Flaneur and I had to be at a friend’s place in the West Village at 7:30. It was 7:10 and we were right around the corner from her apartment but since we were going to a show and hadn’t eaten dinner, we wanted to grab something quick, lest we get stuck with growling stomachs till close to midnight.

“Let’s just go here,” I said, pointing to a corner sandwich shop whose name I hadn’t even read.

Inside, a large black chalkboard listed mostly salads and sandwiches, all vegetarian and a few vegan, along with a few coffeehouse drink and pastry standards.

Brie, pear and arugula

We quickly decided and gave the bandana-clad girl behind the counter our order: Brie, pear and arugula sandwich with raspberry mustard for Flaneur and roasted vegetable Panini with arugula and goat cheese for me.

The ingredients all sounded good enough but I wasn’t really expecting anything great. I mean, no preparation had gone into this on my part. I’d never seen this place (whose name I later found out from the menu was ‘sNice), no one had recommended it, I had never read a review of it, and until five minutes earlier I had no idea it existed at all.

But then, I was oh so pleasantly surprised. Pleasant actually, is too soft of a word. I was surprised in a great big awesome “WOW! This is friggin’ great” kind of way.

Our sandwiches arrived via a scruffy, t-shirt-and-glasses wearing waiter and right from the start I thought, “Oooh! These look good!”

Roasted veggies, goat cheese and arugula

Each one came with a leafy heap of salad—nothing crazy, just some good spinach and radicchio, carrot shavings and a vinaigrette dressing. The sandwiches were beautiful, served on thick baguette-style pressed loaves. The cross section of mine boasted bright colors of roasted red peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, shredded raw cabbage, arugula and creamy white goat cheese. Flaneur’s, though slightly less colorful, showed off deep green arugula, creamy beige Brie and crisp off-white pear slices.

After swapping halves so we could try both, we got to grubbing. What these vegetarian sandwiches offered in good looks, they then tripled in taste. One bite into each of our respective choices we both stopped and looked at each other , totally surprised by just how delicious these sandwiches were.

The goat cheese in mine offered a perfect tanginess to go with the soft, roasted vegetables. Combined with the warm crunchy bread, this sandwich had me hooked. The Brie and pear combo was just as delicious, and fun to eat too. The smooth creaminess of the Brie, the slight crispness of the pear, the subtle sour zing of the raspberry mustard and the crunchiness of the bread made each bite better than the last, and made the last bite one to make you wonder why oh why do good things always have to come to an end?

We wolfed them down in part because we were in a hurry but mostly because those unexpectedly amazing sandwiches were just too good to put down. Now if only all surprises were this enjoyable.

January: out with a bang!

January can be a rough month to get through in New York. Christmas lights are gone, parties are over, the next extended vacation is God knows when, and winter seems to only be getting meaner. All-around unpleasantness permeates the air.

Ok, so I’m exaggerating a bit. It’s not that bad.  But it is cold. And the lights and parties really are no more. And my next day off really isn’t till May (not kidding).  But thankfully, there’s something to help end the month on a good note: NYC Restaurant Week.

Eating this almost makes you forget you're not on vacation somewhere warm and exotic.

This twice-yearly event, held in summer and winter, invites recreational gluttons like me to food hotspots around the city with prix-fixe lunch and dinner menus.

Flaneur and I went through the list of participating restaurants, read the reviews, looked up the menus, and finally decided to brave the cold and venture out in search of our chosen RW pick, Rayuela in the Lower East Side.

Almost anywhere would’ve been fine, as long as it meant getting out of the cold, but Rayuela (Latin, though not specific to any particular country) was especially nice to step into. Deliciously warm and softly lit, it had a trendy, relaxed vibe throughout its two levels, without trying too hard to be cool. A Spanish olive tree planted on the ground floor and reaching up through the second added a nice, organic touch. But it was something I wasn’t expecting, though, that really won me over: the seats. Instead of the standard type, each was a super comfortable, couch-like chair.

And luckily the food matched the seating in terms of enjoyability.

Before we got our appetizers, a waiter came by with some of the most delicious bread I’ve ever had, and that says a lot because I’ve eaten some amazing bread in my day (I’ll save my praise for the breads of Italy for some other day, but know that I could go on for-ev-er). Each roll was almost perfectly round and about the size of a doughnut hole. Ripping them open let out a gush of steam from the warm, soft middle. As if that weren’t enough, they came with a special butter mix, made with chunks of both manzanilla and kalamata olives.

De-friggin'-licious.

If the roll had been the size of a watermelon instead, I would’ve been the happiest girl in the world… but then also maybe the most disgusting.

Wonder buns were quickly followed by appetizers, mine a ceviche-like tiradito de merluzo. Made from sliced hake (the so-called ugly fish) served in a martini glass of avocado, onion and tangy citrus juices, I don’t care what this fish looked like when he swam the seas, he was taaaasty.

Next up was carne a la parrilla, which is Spanish for awesome hunk of meat. I don’t usually order big slabs of red meat but the menu mentioned yucca and I was sold. (Note: yucca, a potato-like root big in Central and South America, is one of the few things my mom made all the time growing up that I actually love.) The meat itself was great, soft and juicy, cooked to a perfect medium rare, and served with yucca chunks in a crushed-pistachio sprinkled, creamy sage-poblano sauce.

My favorite part of the meal: the sweet stuff.

My favorite part of a meal is usually the dessert, so I had high hopes for this one, and I’m happy to report: Rayuela came through. The pera de caramelo I went with, was a warm, caramelized sliced pear on top of a cinnamon wafer served with a scoop of pecan ice cream.  A great finish to a great dinner.

Once back outside in the blustery night, we hailed a cab, having come to the mutual decision of “screw this, it’s freezing, let’s take a cab home.” No more than a minute after I crawled in and the cab sped off, I was already asleep. Warm, happy and well-fed, like a fat, little puppy.