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Archive for April, 2008

So, I’ve been pretty positive in my blog thus far (save for one passionate expression of disgust). In fact, for those of you who remember Alec Baldwin’s guest appearance on Friends, at one point I feared I was starting to sound like Parker. The truth is that not everything is wine and roses, and it was never my plan to only talk about the good-tasting.

This evening, as I was scrolling through some of the working photos/posts I have in queue, I came across this muffin photo – unviewed, ignored, and evoking feelings of mild irritation from the lackluster impact it left on me when I ate it for breakfast almost 2 months ago. I haven’t had any desire to write about it because there wasn’t anything great to say – and then it dawned on me that I had adopted some strange, unintentional pattern of optimism in my posts. I made the decision right there to feature more objective evaluations moving forward – and I’d begin with Le Pain Quotidien’s Blueberry Muffin.

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I was interested in this muffin from the start – I pass by Le Pain Quotidien pretty often and every time I would see those craggly, blueberry-studded mountain caps I was captivated. And to be fair, the rustic, sugar-crusted tops did have a pretty cool texture – but everything else fell flat. There was no life to the taste at all – the blueberries were just there, trapped in a dry batter, deceptively promising in their giant size…but they were deflated, un-punchy…kind of like poor, sagging, day-after-your-birthday balloons.

The crumb had a strange damp-stale texture. Though there was no crumbling – when I broke off chunks they held together fine – it was not moist in a way that yielded any sort of satisfaction. With the whole grains, I knew it was meant to be and taste of a “healthy” sort of muffin – which is fine, I am all for “healthy” – but it so lacked the fresh, sprightly taste that one expects from wholesome, healthy ingredients that I just found myself feeling annoyed at the thought of all the delicious muffins in this city that I could be eating instead. When it comes to baked goods, the opportunity cost can be high.

Though I was disappointed that they didn’t deliver, in my own sick way I was slightly relieved because the last thing I need is another baked good to get hooked on.

Le Pain Quotidien
124 7th Avenue (between 17th & 18th)
New York, NY 10011

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Last week, I was given a box of chocolate – literally. Four semi-sweet chocolate walls that formed a box filled with rich, fluffy milk chocolate mousse and sweet raspberries peeking out underneath a chocolate lid with a decorative chocolate and edible gold leaf handle.

I was simply delighted when it was set in front of me. It was more than just being excited about dessert – it was the fact that I was presented with a chocolate box – complete and packaged, mine to own and consume from start to finish. I had received a gift, and it was pretty, and it was edible and delicious, and it was mine (god that sounds materialistic and gluttonous, but it’s the truth).

This dessert, in taste and form, encapsulates the thought behind my blog: total preoccupation with the consumption– physical/visceral/intellectual/emotional– of “things.” Validating a theory that as creditable human beings, we desire not only the things needed for decent life, but something extra, something superfluous or sentimental or luxurious. Something to add “oomph” to our existence beyond the biological, to remind us that we are part of a social construct where there is a consumption and exchange of material goods and sentimental gestures.

So back to last week – at the annual Catalyst Award gala at the Waldorf=Astoria, 1600 people were given a box of chocolate at the end of their meal, and it was a beautiful presentation. It was also undeniably superfluous and totally luxurious…it was delectable, and I loved it!

Janet- thanks for the photo (and the company)!

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(Platter, from top, clockwise): stuffed grape leaf, babaganoush, falafel, hummus, chickpea salad, lentil salad, tabouleh (center): Israeli salad

Pita Hut has been a staple of mine for quite some time. It’s a tiny, unassuming hole-in-the-wall along the commercialized mall strip known as 23rd Street, and if it ever closed down, I’m not quite sure what I’d do because it’s truly my go-to, default dining choice. The food is freshly and authentically prepared by two brothers (?) that are just the nicest. Salads are brightly seasoned, falafel is crisp and piping hot, hummus is thick and creamy, baklava is delightfully drenched in sticky sweet honey…all so delicious!

My typical order is the vegetarian platter to go – a styrofoam clamshell loaded with a bountiful selection of salads, spreads and 2 falafel balls, with 2 pieces of commercial brand pita bread wrapped in a sheet of wax paper. A full order is definitely too much for 1 sitting – I typically eat straight out of the container and save the rest in my fridge. Recently however, I discovered a new way of enjoying this meal: I spooned out a portion of each salad and spread onto a real, actual plate, and then, with a pair of tongs, I held the pita over an open flame on my stove, letting it puff up and transform into a warm, toasty, chewy homemade-likeness.

Here’s what I got out of all of this. For one thing, I realized that even with the leftovers, I was eating way more than I needed to be full (portion control, people!). I also got to enjoy each salad independently, rather than ending up with one giant chickpea/lentil/tomato/ cucumber blend all sharing each other’s marinades in a joint compartment. I learned that actually, I’d be ok without the lentils and that maybe next time I’ll tell them to double up on the chickpea salad. It was also the first time I ate a stuffed grape leaf on its own instead of biting into it between tastes of this and that, setting it on top of the other salads for lack of room. But the best was the pita-on-the-open-flame, because I learned that grocery store pita, which I had never liked, could be transformed into a delicious flat bread that is puffy-chewy rather than elastic-chewy…a true bread to be enjoyed, not a mere convenient dipping device.

So, with just 2 small changes I have a renewed appreciation for something I’ve eaten maybe a hundred times, and I guess what this all means is that even though I wasn’t ever planning on taking my business elsewhere, I have absolutely no plans on taking my business elsewhere.

Pita Hut
225 W. 23rd Street
Store #7
New York, NY 10011

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My grandmother makes her mandoo 100% from scratch, and the whole process is a beautiful execution of labor and love. The filling consists of meat and vegetables, each purchased at their respective specialty markets. Efficiency is no issue – she takes the bus to see Mr. Butcher Man on Irving for the best quality meat, and then she treks over to the market on Geary, that one with the good produce. For assemblage, she combines and seasons the meat (pork and beef), chops and cleans the vegetables, mixes them in with the meat to make the filling, stuffs the filling into made-from-scratch wrappers, and seals them good and tight with a solid, yet decorative pinch. The special part of her process (which makes all the difference) is the most arduous – the meat is hand chopped. Apparently ground meat is out of the question as a grind is too fine and thus flavor is lost. Perhaps more importantly, it’s essential to start with a premium cut.

My grandmother is a food purist – she strives for the best of the best homemade-everything, no matter how labor intensive the process – no compromise. Her mandoo is revered in my family, and what she goes through to make these batches of plump little dumplings is truly a rare process among today’s crazy, time-pressed generation. When I think about how customs evolve and dilute over time, I realize how critical it is to pass down to generations to preserve deeply important and sentimental traditions. So, when I was at home a few weeks ago, my mom, dad and I decided to attempt just that. Though we didn’t hand-make the wrappers (which when you’re making over 100 dumplings, feels impossible) we did everything else. I’m still congratulating myself for having handled the meat dicing – quite a feat as I never thought I could touch cold, raw meat, let alone hack into it – but I did it and was proud to contribute to what my grandmother might say is the most critical part of the process.

The final product was delicious…in taste, yes, but more so from the knowledge that we attempted to preserve a tradition and recreate a masterpiece. While I wish she could have been there, I now have an excuse to go through the whole process again with the original Master, and maybe I’ll even get to make the wrappers.

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I stopped by the market on my way home from the gym tonight and did a double-take when I saw the 1 1b. clamshell packed tight with what appeared to be plumper, deeper-hued-than-usual-for-the-month-of-April strawberries. When I glanced down and saw the sign for $3.99, I cautiously wondered, was strawberry season upon us? After all, it was only a month ago that they were $5.99/lb. and drab-looking.

Well, these ruby-reds almost sparkled underneath their leafy green caps, and cautious hope quickly gave way to excitement. Maybe it was just the lingering endorphins from my run, but the promise of these sweet little gems and the discovery of whether or not we were in fact safely out of winter’s grip was just too exciting to pass up – so I happily picked up a container and practically skipped home.

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don’t they look promising? 

I selected a perfectly conical berry, deep red with its tiny seeds studding nice, firm flesh. I ran it under cold water, took a bite, and…

Sorry friends, not quite there yet. Sweet…but not enough. A good preview…but by no means 2008’s grand debut. The strawberry saw her shadow and my heart sank just a smidgen at the thought of “x” more weeks before this lovely fruit is in season.

The good news, however, is that when you combine a semi-sweet strawberry with 64 degree weather and sunlight at 7:14PM, Winter does start to feel like somewhat of a memory…and the warmer Spring/Summer months do start to feel more within reach.

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