Friday, June 17, 2011

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pa-pa-Mejicano and Other Random Musings

I've been trying to arrange my posts thematically to give them a more cohesive purpose, but it has made me leave out a lot that has been happening in and around my mouth recently so I thought that I'd go for a more disorganized approach today. Here are some of my most recent thoughts:

1. God created Mexican food for poor, starving, summer Brooklynites like me. Is there anything more delicious, filling or cheap as a good plate of Mexican food? A couple of places I've tried recently include Tacombi @ Fonda Nolita and Calexico in Red Hook. I went to Tacombi for some breakfast tacos and horchata with my gal Amanda EK earlier this summer and I gotta say, Mexican food works at all times of the day. Put some eggs in a tortilla, wrap it up and wash it down with some milky almond horchata (the chilled Mexican answer to chai, as Amanda put it) and you got some real fuel in you for the rest of the day. If you do it Tacombi-style, it's even better. The restaurant used to be a garage but they have since gutted it out and put a little VW buggy in there as decoration. The mood is festive with colorful jarritos lining the walls and blue-and-white ceramic tiles making up countertops. It's always a party at Tacombi.

Calexico started out as a food cart but now has two storefronts in Brooklyn. I went to the one in Red Hook, accompanied by my IHPeeps Sam and Jasmine with Sam's co-worker along for the ride. Their pinto bean quesadilla, dipped in any one of their unbelievable sauces, takes me to heaven, with a short stop in Tijuana. A side of grits may sound slightly unconventional, but believe me, dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, roasted corn and jalapenos, it is the best thing north of the border. Get some beer to sink it all down and you've made a night out of it.

I've also been trying my hand at cooking up some Mexican-style dishes myself. I've found relative success with my take on huevos rancheros, which makes a filling high-protein, low-carb meal for any time in the day. Here's the recipe, for those interested:

1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 medium red pepper, finely chopped
1/2 large tomato, finely chopped
1 can black beans
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 large egg
3 tbs hot salsa
salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste

- Fry up the onions and garlic in plenty of olive oil until translucent. Add the peppers, followed by salt, pepper, cumin and coriander. Keep cooking until aromatic. Stir in tomatoes, followed by the beans. Allow to simmer while frying the egg sunny side up. Spoon the beans into a bowl, top with the fried egg and some salsa. Heaven.
(I tried also topping it with avocado once and it was a little bit too much. If you do add avocado, make sure to squeeze some lime juice onto it to develop the taste some. Also, if you have cilantro lying around, add some!)

My favorite song on the new Lady Gaga album. Not much to do with food; everything to do with my happiness.

3. Cafes I've tried since my last post:
Kava Cafe (West Village): Sleek design with a nice garden in the back, this place is cute, if a little too 'metallic' for the required dosage of cosiness.
Queens Kickshaw (Astoria): Mentioned in my heavy-handed post yesterday, the coffee is absolutely delicious, even if it seems like it came out of nowhere.
Bluebird Coffee (East Village): Accidentally wound up here after I found out another cafe I've been dying to try, Abraco, was closed in Mondays. Probably the best place so far. Adorable, quiet, quaint, airy, small...and the coffee made my day.

4. Best quick bites in the city:
Asiadog (Chinatown/SoHo): Hipsters-meet-Panasian-meet-hotdogs. Who would have thought it would be so incredible when they came together? A sudden hunger pang brought me in here one afternoon for a "Sidney" veggie dog topped with peanuts, cilantro and thai salsa. My plan for the end of the summer? Gotta try 'em all.
La Piazza at Eataly (Flatiron): Who came up with Eataly? An emporium dedicated to all things Italian, this behemoth of a store has little nooks everywhere that turns into dining venues. What seems to be a popular after-work stop is the piazza, where you can stand and grab some cured meats and cheese. I stopped in here with Hannah, Robert fresh from Rome and Elvria (always Italian) for a short afternoon stop in Rome. We gorged on proscuitto, ricotta, bread, fig preserves and the like, while I was the only one who indulged in wine (too common a theme in my life, I must say).
Punjabi Deli (East Village): A tiny place, their samosa and chickpeas almost brought a tear to my eyes. Samosa chaat is my favorite north Indian street snack and this place does it right. And for $2.25, things just got so much righter. I think I'm in love.
Russ & Daughters (East Village): Established in 1914, this Jewish delicatessen is still doing it up old-school. Their cured fish is incredible, so I picked up some curried pickled herring, a latke and some Romanian eggplant salad for a Hebraic feast. Now this is a place with chutzpah.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Food and Its Discontents

The reason why the emerging field of "gastro-anthropology" is so often laughed at is because societies look at food as one of two things:
1. basic sustenance
2. a source of pleasure
Why study it, then, right? You either need, love it or both.
But food says so much about us as people and communities, our traditions and heritages. Besides, as far as sociological development goes, there is something telling about the food establishments that come to shape our city neighborhoods.
You guessed it, boys and girls, the topic on my mind is the urban buzzword du jour: gentrification.

I've been thinking about this more and more, especially since I live in Brooklyn, where swaths of the cityscape have uber-cool cafes and vintage shops blossoming amidst some characterful grit and grime. Williamsburg has become a national poster child of the G-word, and its "successes" continue to spread south. My neighborhood of Sunset Park seems to be relatively free of organic-obsessed tattooed hipsters, but I have a nasty feeling that it might be headed in that direction regardless.

But this phenomenon hit me a little further afield, when I took a trip over to Astoria, a district of Queens that has been up-and-coming for a while now. And though it seems like it is taking forever for it to finally "arrive", there are some noticeable changes that are taking place as we speak.

The other morning, I met up with Ellen at the Queens Kickshaw: a cafe on Broadway that specializes in great coffee and artisanal grilled cheeses. Yes, that's right: artisanal grilled cheeses. Sandwiched between bodegas and nail salons, its industrial-cool feel seems slightly out of place. When I asked for a latte with skim milk, I was told they only had, "Delicious, whole organic milk." I have to say, the latte was delicious. So was the gouda grilled cheese with caramelized onions, served with a side of Napa cabbage slaw. But I felt strange paying $8 for a sandwich and $4.50 for coffee in a place where that could buy a three-days' worth of groceries.

What does this mean for Astoria? Higher rents? People moving out? Who is going to pay eight-frikkin'-dollars for some cheese between two slices of toasted bread? (Delicious as it may be). And why is it that I get delight from grabbing breakfast in an "avant-garde" part of town? (A large part of its appeal, I'm sure). Who is this for? Who is living here that wants a piece of this action? How do the Hispanics and Arabs who dominate the cultural scene feel about it? Or do they not notice it at all?

This brings up a question of ethics, heavily intertwined with food. Can food actually precipitate gentrification? What actually comes first in this chicken-and-egg situation? And should we more thoughtful of the institutions we support? Or is this just the natural course of things?

So many questions. Too few answers. But this is a reason why I think gastro-anthropology is such a wonderful field of study. When coupled with economics, there's some thing to be learned from my day in Astoria, I'm sure. The trend of food establishments that start up in different parts of a city can tell much about the type of people moving in and out and a lot about identity construction among these micro-societies. What does a delectable grilled cheese say about a Queens Kickshaw patron?

I can't answer on a bigger scale, but as for this one patron, I have to say: as soon as I get past a small feeling of guilt, I'm left very, very satisfied.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

It's Getting Hot in Here

Yup. It's actually a thing. Ran into it at Union Square pretty serendipitously on a day when the mercury was threatening to burst out of the thermometer.
What makes this simple ice-cream truck so gay? The fact that it is FABulous. The flavor I chose? The Salty Pimp: vanilla softserve, dulce de leche, sea salt, all dipped in chocolate. I practically had to put it all in my mouth at once because it was melting so fast, but it left me uber-satiated. Totally worth the HALF-AN-HOUR wait. Seems like New York likes things big, gay and sweet.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Crazy for Caffeine

As the hipster revolution continues, coffee rises to divine status. There is food out the wazoo in this city, but sometimes all you want is some delicious bean-y goodness. (Side note: who was the first person who looked at a coffee cherry and said, "I will peel this, take the slimy green bean inside, put it over a fire, add really hot water, let it steep and then drink it?")

Though it might not be Seattle, Portland or SF, there is no dearth of options here for coffee in this city, especially in Brooklyn, where organic-minded, PBR-obsessed hipsters all want the best brewed cuppa in town. I cannot claim to know much about coffee, but I'm a big fan of cafes -- just think about the number of times you've been to Tunnel City and have seen me crouched away in a corner.
My first stop in Brookyn was Park Slope's Gorilla Coffee. It's iced coffee season north of the equator, so I sat down with some cold brew and watched the world go by. There was a constant flow of people in and out of the shop and it made you want summer to last forever despite the unbelievable temperatures. There's something about sipping away on iced coffee as people saunter by that transports me to a very happy place. And so I continue to search for this feeling across the city.
Stumptown Coffee is slowly building an empire in this city and New York is lucky enough to have its own cafe in the Ace Hotel (Midtown) where tattooed, fedora-wearing baristas pour out some delicious drinks. Their iced coffee is just okay, but their mochas, made with Mast Brothers chocolate is otherworldly.
But perhaps quite unexpectedly, the best iced coffee I've had in this massive city so far is at a little spot named Saturdays Surf in SoHo. A surf shop smack-bang in the middle of an urban jungle, it somehow does not seem at all out of place. The store carries boards, clothing, books, bric-a-brac and some delicious coffee from a bar at the front of the house. Maya and I stopped in during a day of concrete-pounding shopping and it provided us with some much-needed respite. Grabbing a tall cup of their iced caffeine, dousing it with simple sugar and cream, I took it to the outdoor patio in the back where we city melted away into the swirls of my coffee.

Of course, in a discussion about the delights of coffee, I cannot leave out the cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk) I've had during my search for some authentic South-East Asian eats. The first, which was maybe better than anything I had in Hanoi, was at Ba Xuyen - the sandwich shop around the corner. The second was made all the more fantastic with the company of Jasmine, my friend from my study abroad program. Eating some pho ga, sipping on some iced coffee, sitting on metal stools (though decidedly more for the cool effect here than cost-effectiveness), we went from the Lower East Side to its antipode in minutes. An Choi, on Orchard Street, translates the Vietnamese street food scene into 'Manhattanite', giving it an hip gloss that does not detract from the pretty authentic food.

Funnily enough, my favorite cafe is one at which I did not have any coffee. About two days ago, Eben showed me to a small neighborhood spot in Brooklyn Heights named Iris Cafe. It was very close to my idea of heaven. Set in the middle of a residential street shaded by trees, the cafe's door was set ajar to let the breeze waft through. We sat on rustic wooden seats eating simple but delicious egg salad sandwiches. The place was alive with a quiet energy, full with a love of good weather, good food and good drank. Absolutely adorable.

Since I don't know much about coffee in all its technicalities (brew? roast? what?), I just continue my search for the a place that really fits: where the drink meets atmosphere in a perfect union. And thankfully, there's no shortage of places to try, so I'm going to keep the ball rolling on my caffeine-driven adventures.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

New York to Italy, via Long Island

My best friend from high school tells me I'm pretentious (she often points to my blog as evidence). And I have feeling she's right, because the delight I took in escaping to the East End for Memorial Day weekend, Great Gatsby-style, was all too palpable when I walked into Elvira's house. Okay, so it wasn't the Hamptons, Montauk or Fire Island, but Elvira's town of Shoreham is the quintessence of suburban delight. Even after only a few days in the city, I was happy to escape away to spend some quality time with friends... and of course, food.

Elvira's family is from a small town of 800 in Calabria and despite being an ocean away from home, her mom brings Italy to the dining table every day. Over the course of my four nights there, I had three different types of pasta: spaghetti with a zesty nut sauce, farfalle with zucchini and penne with eggplant. On the last night there, it was a Mediterranean smorgasbord of prosciutto and melon, cheeses including the deliciously pungent pecorino (which sparked quite the heated debate) and grilled eggplant with mint (as simple as it sounds, but exponentially more amazing). I had been transported without ever having to risk a flight with Alitalia.

I myself had two contributions that weekend: the lemon sabayon with berries and grapefruit that I helped Elvira make for Sunday dessert, and the pitcher of mojitos I made for a trip to the beach. I thought both went off without a hitch, but Elivra complained that the sabayon tasted metallic and Taida insisted there was not enough alcohol int he mojitos. Turns out sometimes you are not your own biggest critic.

When we weren't eating, Elvira, Taida and I were either on the beach, napping, taking 4-mile runs or watching movies. A beautiful weekend away from the buzz of the city that left me delighted and obsessed with Italy all over again. Ciao, ragazzi!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Apples Baked In Brown Sugar: New York Edition

To all the chicas and chicos in my life: it's true, this papĂ­ moved to town a week ago. And it's about time I started blogging.
I'm living in Brooklyn's Sunset Park for the next two months - a place where you can go from hola to nihao to xin chao and back all in the space of a couple of blocks. Eclectic and diverse, with a side of flavorful grit, this is going to be my hood. A stroll through the actual park affords a view of lower Manhattan, Jersey City, the water and none other than the Statue of Liberty -- this is prime property, but let's just hope the hipsters don't find out or out goes much of the down-home ethnic eats. A Vietnamese banh mi (sandwich) place just down the street transports me back to the streets of Hanoi for only $4.00. I have a feeling I'm going to like it here.
I've been getting into the groove of living in Brooklyn - perhaps a little too comfortably. I've been hitting up gourmet grocers, snobby I-know-more-about-coffee-than-you-do cafes and vintage shops like I've been living this life forever. Needless to say, it might be the end of me ... and my wallet.

Dulce de Leche from Court Street Grocers (Cobble Hill); Grapefruit & Smoked Salt Jam and Pickled Okra from Green Grape Provisions (Fort Greene)

Though it might sending Abe's flying out of my pocket, taking control of my diet has been one of the most liberating parts of living an 'adult' life. Finding myself near Chelsea Market, I stopped by and waded through the tourists to go to the fruit and vegetable store - expensive, but the quality is top notch. I picked up a mango, an asian pear and some figs -- fruits that I couldn't even dream of in Driscoll. And all in season and delicious.
In my little time here I've also dropped in on some great New York dining gems. My friend Pinsi and I visited the Brooklyn Pharmacy and Soda Fountain before indulging the in the cinematic buffoonery that is Hangover II. The Brooklyn Pharmacy is an adorable '50's style place for egg creams and cherry lime rickeys, done up with hipster flair (what else could you expect for Brookyln?). This morning, after a run with my roomie/brother-by-a-cappella Eben up to Gowanus, we undid all the exercise by making our destination Four and Twenty Blackbirds, an incredible place for, say, Salted Caramel Apple, Lavender Honey and Lemon Chess pies, baked fresh every morning. What a way to start the day. And of course, at the Mexican place around the corner, where a hunk-o'-burrito costs six bucks, you leave satiated, satisfied... and slightly gassy.
Here's to a summer of great food and wonderful finds! Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Caffeinated in the Caribbean

It never ends. After returning to the Purple Valley in January, I thought it would be a while before I would have any adventures to talk about. But apparently, there's always an expedition lurking around the corner. I recently returned from a week in the Dominican Republic: now sunburnt and satisfied, I recount to you the spoils from my wanderings...

Few people know, but I write for Gusto!, the campus gastromic society. For spring break, the gastronomes decided it was time that we really understood our food. Food is, of course, incredible... we can continue to talk about how delicious the black truffle oil is on this quiche or in that pasta, or how to make the perfect hoisin glaze for your pork this evening, but there is a growing consciousness that our food doesn't just grow on supermarket shelves: it comes from living, breathing, working communities. So, in hopes of exploring the process of farming and the ways it effects the people involved in it, Gusto! organized a trip to Finca Alta Gracia: a small-scale, fair-trade, organic coffee farm in the mountains of the Dominican Republic. The farm is owned my famous novelist Julia Alvarez and her husband. It is about an hour and a half away from the nearest big city (Santiago) and forty minutes away from the closest town (Jarabacoa), up in the tiny village of Los Marranitos (The Little Piglets), population 400.

10 foodies from all different walks of life converged on this rural farm last Saturday, huddled in a cold cabin in the mountains. Who said the Caribbean was warm? Headed by Deanna, a Middlebury graduate working as a volunteer in the community, we started a five day-long exploration of a community whose labors and lives can be found in our mugs every morning. Through our crazy experiences, not only did we get to have one of the most informative breaks ever, but I got to make 9 friends for life :)

Surrounded on all sides by glorious vegetation and idyllic mountainscapes, we were in nothing short of paradise. But even in this land up in the clouds, the workings of global capitalism has made its marks with the good, the bad and the ugly. Expecting a micro-farm handled by loving owners, we were instead met with one that had been incorporated into a large network of Dominican coffee farms owned by the Ramirez company. Turns out Bill and Julia just couldn't keep up with the maintenance sitting at home in the US.
The farm has maybe one full-time employee: all others are hired on a day-to-day basis. Workers show up at the farm's gate and if there's work, they get paid by the pound of coffee cherries. Preference goes to Haitian immigrants, since they will work at a lower wage. (So much for fair trade, huh?) Hardly any of the processing takes place on the farm -- after the beans are picked, they are taken to Jarabacoa for most of the processing. Beans from Finca Alta Gracia mainly go to Vermont to be packaged under the Cafe Alta Gracia label, certified organic and fair trade. Very little of the coffee actually stays inside the country.

With most of the work contractual and going to Haitians, the rate of unemployment among Dominican men reaches almost 100%. The community is supported entirely by the women, who work in cabanas: elegant country homes for Santo Domingo's rich elite. Rates of alcoholism among the jobless men are high. If theirs is a difficult plight, the Haitian men (many refugees from the earthquake) have it rough, too. Haitian workers live in a slum-like setting - a wooden dorm, built by the Ramirez, houses 80 of them, who all use one latrine.

The schooling in Los Marranitos only goes to third grade, with older kids having to walk to the high school in Los Dajaos over an hour away. School gets out at 12, leaving kids with nothing to do all afternoon. None of these towns have much electricity (what there is is solar-powered) and there is no running hot water for miles.

We spent three out of our five afternoons playing with the kids after school, singing songs, reading to them and teaching them about basic sanitation and the need to keep their community clean (with more back-and-forth taking place between Haiti and the DR, there is a real worry of a cholera outbreak). They really gave my Spanish and my stamina a run for their money. We played infinite games of Duck-Duck-Goose and cooked S'Mores on a gas stove. WTF is S'more in Spanish?

The first morning we were there, we attended a community meeting with Haitians that taught cholera prevention. Another morning, we attended a ceramics workshop with a Spanish woman who teaches the forgotten art of Taino pottery. (The Taino people were the indigenous people of the Dominican Republic who were almost completely wiped out by Columbus' men). She believes that art can be an invaluable tool for women: by taking ownership of an art form, women can derive empowerment through a creative outlet. The women we talked to, however, felt like they didn't have the time for it. They had a whole community to support.

When we were not learning about the wonderful community of Los Marranitos, we were off scurrying around the central DR. We went sit on rocks by a secluded river, trekked down to a waterfall that was featured in Jurassic Park, learned Bachata Merengue in the dark, got stuck in the back of our pickup truck in the pouring rain, hiked all the way to an old stone Taino settlement, explored the nearby town of Jarabacoa, sunbathed on the farm and took a starlit ride out to Manabao (I have never seen so many stars in my life -- the Big and Little Dippers were all up in my grill).

It was a five-day intense experience and it was life-changing. Coming out of IHP, I really felt like I was following up on some of the critical lessons I learned about community organization and local needs assessment. It also brought an incredible depth to an otherwise hedonistic interest in gastronomy. Our food comes from places where people live, fight and suffer. And it is important to know that. Think twice about labels like fair trade -- what does it actually mean? Very little can be done in five days, but most importantly, we learned and I for one am going to work hard to spread the message.

To Prim, Christine, Zara, Fiona, Brooke, Omer, Lily, April, Kim and Deanna: you guys are the best. I cannot remember having felt so refreshed in my life. MORE COFFEE, MORE GREEN BANANAS! For some awesome photos, check out the Williams Expedition Blog.

I left the group on Thursday to go to the beach on the Northern coast. What's a Spring Break in the Caribbean without A SPRING BREAK IN THE CARIBBEAN? I journeyed solo to the seaside surf town of Cabarete, where I checked into a hostel and parked my butt on the beach for two days getting my tan on, listening to music, eating Haagen-Dasz out of the carton and reading. I met a whole host of people: a PhD student at Georgia Tech who put the 'blond' in blond, two crazy Cornell kids on Spring Break, a beautiful Belgian girl who had been island-hopping for two months and a Norwegian girl who had been going kite-surfing every day for three weeks. In the course of the three days, I switched from English with the Americans, to Spanish with the Dominicans, to French with the Belgian girl to Portuguese with this dude who had spent time in Brazil. My brain was one crazy linguistic blur. A couple of mojitos cured that, though.

Before flying back to New York, I spent an afternoon walking around Santo Domingo, the capital of the DR and the oldest colonial city in the Americas. The colonial quarter is a little slice of Spain in the Caribbean: walking around the old buildings felt like I had been transported back to the 1600s when Columbus was running around the country with his men killing all the locals and instituting Spanish iron law everywhere he went... aaah, colonial history: why does it have to be so pretty?

I was welcomed back to the country with a romp through Manhattan with my boys Sam F and Malik!! Delicious breakfast sandwiches at No.7 Sub Shop, an escapade through the Museum of Sex and a whole lotta Chipotle in my tummy. Best morning ever? You betcha.