Sunday, November 29, 2009

The New Austerity

I adore the holiday season, but more out of anticipation for Christmas and the attendant celebrations than out of any particular affection for Thanksgiving. In recent years I have tended to celebrate the gorge-fest in New York more often than I have with my family in California, which I suppose is due at least partially to my frugal, health-conscious family's ambivalence towards a holiday that at this point seems predicated on gluttony more than anything.

This year was no different. Paul and I opted out of the mass migration to the airports and instead chose to enjoy a beautiful dinner at Five Points with friends. As an aside, I cannot recommend this restaurant enough for holiday meals. I had a perfect Christmas Eve meal here last year with my family, who decided that a Christmas in snowy New York would be more fun than one in sunny California,

and Paul and I enjoyed an excellent Thanksgiving meal there a few years ago. He was desperately sad that they had run out of brussels sprouts by the time we sat down, but all was forgiven this year when a platter of the tiny cabbages was presented along with our turkey, suckling pig and squash lasagna.

But I found myself no less stuffed after this restaurant meal than I would have been after a home cooked meal. In fact, when I really thought about it, after a few too many nights out, travel and the requisite restaurant meals that accompany it, it had been several weeks since I had actually been hungry! Appalling. So I vowed a weekend of austerity.

I have so little experience with the austere that I had to turn to an outside source for guidance: the very slender, perfectly groomed and disciplined author of French Women Don't Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano.

I attended a book signing of hers when the book first came out (I believe she has since written several more) at the Alliance Francaise, and recall marveling at the simplicity of her advice. She counseled women to get off their butts, eat less and pay more attention to the true pleasures in life (wine, for instance). She was very charming and I found it absolutely amazing that after the event an entire auditorium of women took the stairs rather than the escalator, a move she had encouraged in the "get off your butt" section of her talk.

A good part of her book revolved around the magic of leeks. She uses them frequently in dishes, but also reveals that (some) french women take a weekend out to eat nothing but leeks as either a kick-off for a diet regime or as an occasional tune-up when their clothing begins to feel snug. As I was in need of a tune-up and my clothing was feeling snug, I decided to give it a try.

I set out on Friday morning (still full from the meal the night before and therefore having skipped breakfast, a virtually unheard of occurrence for me) in search of leeks. I returned home with two pounds of them, cleaned them and, after cutting each one into 3-4 inch sections, I simmered them until they were just tender, about 10-15 minutes. Dinner consisted of leeks drizzled with a bit of olive oil and sherry vinegar, strewn with chopped parsley and Maldon salt. It was surprisingly delicious, as was the warmed cooking water that Ms. Guiliano counsels one to reserve and then drink periodically throughout the day.

I awoke the next morning to an unfamiliar sensation...a growling stomach. Hallelujah! I had officially given my body a break.

Now as much as I enjoy leeks, I simply could not face them for breakfast. Without eggs the idea just seems odd. In anticipation of this, I had taken a page from Laura's Paris Cooking Notebook and made a simple apple compote the day before. I happily had a full drawer of apples that had gone mealy but not bad, which made them the perfect candidates for a cooked mush. I cut up the 6 or 7 apples I had, peeled them and threw them in a dutch oven with the barest bit of water, a scant dessert spoon of turbinado sugar, a pinch of salt and a couple of cinnamon sticks. I covered the pot, set the heat to low and after twenty minutes or so I had a gorgeous applesauce (or compote if you prefer).

It made for a stunningly good breakfast. And then I was back on the leeks. By Saturday afternoon I was feeling lighter and more alert than I had in weeks. I embarked on a cleaning rampage, scrubbing out and reorganizing all of the kitchen and bathroom cabinets, dislodging grime from various tiny crevices, and polishing everything in sight to a high gleam. Perhaps the leeks are in fact magical?

By Sunday afternoon I felt a break in my semi-fast might be in order. After a ham and cheese sandwich and a cup of lentil soup at the Brooklyn Larder with Marissa, the deed was done. I felt unbelievably full, and was back to the leeks for dinner. I have to admit, I'm enjoying the austerity...for now.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Week in the Desert

Day 1: Arrive in Vegas late in the evening. Wait for ages for airport shuttle, unsure why I am doing so as I am saving approximately $5 by not taking a cab. Discover that the MGM Signature suites are much nicer than I would have imagined given expense account restrictions. Meet up with colleagues, wander several hotels aimlessly attempting to find restaurant open past 10:00 p.m. Eat at a Chinese buffet on a facsimile of a New York street. Less said about meal the better.

Day 2: Meet colleagues in lobby, go en masse to breakfast event. Walk into hotel ballroom to find group of Elvis impersonators performing. Amusing, but perhaps too much for 8:30 a.m.? As is the illusionist? Would have enjoyed food rather than performers. Rest of day spent inside under fluorescent lights. Severe dehydration sets in. Gulping water incessantly. Feet hurt, but day is productive. In evening head back to hotel to jacuze. Bliss. Love hotel robe. Head out with colleague and walk Strip, stopping along the way to admire Bellagio water show, which was special, despite cheesy music. End at the Venetian, find other colleagues at blackjack tables, both on winning streak. Head up to Bouchon for dinner. Vow to order something light to counteract effects of terrible food during the day. Trout with cauliflower sounds promising. Is delicious, but sauced with brown butter. So much for purity. Wine is perfect, colleague is loving her martini and mussels. Salad is oddly amazing as well, considering it is made of up only of lettuce and herbs. Discover gondola rides are closed for the day so head back to beds to collapse.

Day 3: Early breakfast event, this time serving food! Big breakfast sets me up well for the day, or as well as can be expected given poor quality of sleep the night before and the lingering dehydration. Another day spent inside under fluorescent lights. Certain my vitamin D levels are heading dangerously low. Dear friend with considerably less restrictions on her expense account arrives in Vegas...take her up on generous offer to share fancy room at the Wynn. At end of day I switch hotels. Arrive at Wynn and find that she is as exhausted as I.

We sprawl out on lovely bed

and chat for a bit. I resolve to track down pillows and purchase them for my own bed at home. We each head out to dinner with our respective colleagues, she for steak downstairs and I for fish at the Mandalay Bay.

Dinner is convivial and tasty, particularly those oysters! And, as often happens when groups of colleagues get together, gossip is exchanged, stories are told, accents are made fun of. We eventually get down to work, discussing and preparing for next day. Get back to room, find friend in a deep sleep and follow suit.

Day 4: Up very early and after a shower and a bit of time in front of the vanity,

which I also vowed to replicate in some future living quarters (love sitting down and putting on makeup!), I was out the door in a jiff. Head back to fluorescent lights. Morning goes well and by midday I, along with rest of colleagues, was on verge of collapse.

Some began taking leave (flights beckoned) and presently I follow suit. Head back to hotel room to catch up on work that had been neglected during the week in the plush seating area in the room.

Couldn't resist doing so in a fluffy bathrobe. Not often that I get to return phone calls and emails in such luxury! As much as I am loving room and incredibly helpful and friendly staff at hotel, I am tired of being tired and thirsty so am not a bit sad when the time comes for me to leave for airport. A brief detour to visit my dad, sister and post-operative mom in Bay Area is exactly what doctor ordered. Get on the plane, fall asleep, wake up in San Francisco. Thrilled to see mom in good spirits and then, that established, fall into bed at 9:00. Delightfully deep sleep.

Day 5: Freezing. Light fire, close ingenious heat saving curtains by entry hall (they keep the heart of the house warm as entry has way too many single pane windows),

and eat breakfast. Go grocery shopping as the food supplies have run a bit low. My dad had apparently been living on...well, I don't know what he was living on...while my mom was in the hospital. Relax, start dinner, sister comes over after work and family dines together. And then sits by fire. In bed by 10:00. Again, deliciously deep sleep.

Day 6: Mom: Maybe you and your dad should have a day out today? Me: Oh no, we can stay here and hang out. Mom: No really, go. PLEASE. Dad and I make way over to San Francisco to check out fabulous Richard Avedon exhibit at SF MOMA. Become obsessed with the portraits of his father for some reason. And portraits of prominent figures circa the bicentennial. Donald Rumsfeld used to be quite good looking! Swing by Ferry Building for Acme bread, some herbed fromage blanc from Cowgirl Creamery and Blue Bottle coffee and then head home. For a nap. Take out Indian for dinner, a quick drink out with sister and her boyfriend (officially become re-obsessed with Lambrusco), and then home for bed by 11:30.

Day 7: Eat wonderful breakfast prepared by dad. Bacon, mushroom shallot and parmesan scramble and my favorite Acme bread toasted with butter. Peruse Sunday papers, putter around house preparing for imminent trans-continental flight, eventually head off to the airport, excited for New York but not for the dehumanizing airplane experience. Back to reality.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


My predictions, as of Sunday night, about my little Vegas adventure:

1) I have spent no more than $20 gambling so far this week - I say this because I'm cheap...the only time I spent any real money at a table was in Macau, and that I think only came about because the money was foreign and I had no concept how much I was spending

2) I have become very familiar with the inside of hotels, ballrooms and conference rooms

3) I have jacuzzi-ed at least twice since arriving

4) I have taken a gondola ride at the Venetian, after kicking myself for ages for missing such unabashedly cheesy fun last time

5) I am looking wistfully at the fake Chrysler building, pining for the real one

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Oddly enough, after surviving for several decades without ever seeing the lovely town of Las Vegas, I am now, as you read this, visiting for the second time in a month.

The first time was a mere stopover with a bit of entertainment thrown in, this second time a lengthier stay with more work than fun involved. But at least this time I've got a room with a jacuzzi...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Coming Back Home

I have always been the type of person who gets out of the house to explore. I don't necessarily make it to the far flung parts of the outer boroughs (although often, when in need of some good food and a change of scenery I do), but I tend to be out and about for at least a little while most evenings after work and on the weekends. I suppose I'm what you'd call a stroller. One of my great indulgences is to forgo the subway and walk from my apartment north, twisting and turning as I please, getting up close and personal with the odd side streets I wouldn't normally seek out. I stroll through familiar neighborhoods with an eye out for new additions, but also to stop by favorite haunts.

But lately for some reason, I know not why, I've found myself heading to specific destinations for specific purposes rather than vaguely ambling in some direction, any direction. It began to take a toll on my imagination seemed to have all but shut down!

Vowing to get back in the groove and loosen up my brain cells a bit, I recently opted to start out with a saunter through one of my old favorites, the area joining Nolita, Soho, Little Italy and Chinatown. Home to my favorite library, bakery and bookstore, it always feels like home. And the heart of that home is the cookbook nook at the back of McNally Jackson Bookstore.

Much to my delight, it had been so long since I had been to said bookstore that I was faced with a raft of new options, with the cookbook section offering a particularly rich array.

Of course, given the fawning press surrounding Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc At Home

and David Chang's Momofuku

I was not surprised to see them on the shelf. But I was a bit taken aback by how much I liked the look of the books. Particularly Momofuku...I have heard that the text is laced with some salty language, and although I am certainly in favor of the occasional well placed choice word, I find their overuse to be grating. But a quick flip through the book had me imagining scallion ginger noodles in the afternoon, slow cooked pork at night, and steamed buns in the morning.

I was also thrilled to see a reissue of M.F.K. Fisher's classic translation of Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste with an introduction by Bill Buford.

For some reason I had always recalled this book to be of an imposing length, but the one I saw seemed quite manageable. I may finally have to read this classic text!

I had heard vaguely of Clotilde Dusoulier's new translation of the classic french cookbook I Know How to Cook

and after flipping through it I am totally smitten. Something about the easy elegance of the fish recipes grabbed me and still hasn't let go. Ever so french to give mere housewives the tools to live a completely refined life.

How to Roast a Lamb has been on my mind ever since I read about it in the New York Times recently,

and seeing the book in person has only served to increase my desire to get my hands on these delightfully unfamiliar recipes.

Perhaps the best thing about my little literary haven is that I am always introduced to titles I have never heard of, and this trip was no different. I have officially been turned on to Stephane Reynaud's French Feasts: 299 Traditional Recipes for Family Meals and Gatherings,

a collection of rich French weekend dishes. I have images of leisurely multi-course midday feasts dancing in my head as a result.

I am also mightily intrigued by Artichoke to Za'atar and by The Iraqi Cookbook.

When the weather is blustery and cool as it is now, I find the warm mellow spice of Middle Eastern food to be the perfect antidote. Which I suppose is odd as the cuisine was born of sunny warm weather. But I suppose there's no accounting for (my) taste!

So which should be the first purchase?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Grown Round

Spherical fruits and vegetables seem to be having a moment right now. Winter squash of all sorts are in abundance...acorn squash, turban squash, hubbard squash and of course the iconic pumpkin...they're all spilling out of crates left and right, one last gasp of bounty before the chill sets in. Lovely apples hold the promise of autumnal tarts, crisps and pies, as do those last Italian plums that have stuck around so tenaciously this year.

But I have to admit, as odd as it might sound, that it was the cauliflower that caught my eye most recently. At the market this weekend there were buckets and buckets of what may have been the largest specimens I have ever come across. For reference (and I suppose I should mention that I have quite big feet):

I commented on their heft to the friendly vendor and he proudly replied "They're lookers aren't they!" I couldn't help but bring one home, what with Paul's intense love for all vegetables cruciferous.

It almost looks like an Old Master still life, doesn't it?

Now the first thought that I generally have when I bring produce home is "What dish shall I make?" But with this monstrosity the question is not which dish, but which dishes.

A bit less than half of the hulking head went to a batch of Insalata di Rinforzo,

a few handfuls went to diversify the mix in my favorite green Thai curry, and the rest...well, the rest is currently on standby in my refrigerator. Any ideas for the remnants of the great beast?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Les Mouclades

I used to watch quite a bit of PBS. First Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, then the cooking series from the 80s like the Frugal Gourmet and Jacques Pepin, and then those wonderful David Suchet Poirot episodes and other assorted Masterpiece Theater shows. I adored Diana Rigg's Masterpiece Theater introductions almost as much as my parents enjoyed Cookie Monster's (or rather Alistair Cookie's) Monsterpiece Theater skits.

But then for a good ten years I all but abandoned the network. I suppose this coincided with the rise of bad reality TV, to which I am tragically addicted. But recently, inspired by Terry over at Blue Kitchen's enthusiasm for the current crop of cooking shows on PBS, I've become a bit of a public broadcasting devotee.

First I began to DVR Lidia Bastianich's show and now as a result know more about the starch content of carnaroli rice (better than arborio apparently) than I ever thought I'd care to. The latest Ken Burns mini-series appeared (although I've been to Yosemite countless times the national parks special has ignited in me a great desire to go back again), and Eric Ripert's show Avec Eric has got me all concerned about the seasonal nuances of my olive oil.

But perhaps my favorite PBS discovery is Ruth Reichl's new show Gourmet Adventures With Ruth. In each episode she visits some fabulously informative food person with a famous, but not too famous food-oriented friend of hers. The amount of entirely new information (to me at least) that is conveyed in these shows is unbelievable, and quite heartening really. There's so much to learn!

On her seafood show, set in Seattle with Tom Skerritt and an unbelievably knowledgeable fisherman whose name currently escapes me, she and her gang demonstrated a mussel cooking method that intrigued me...just throw them in a dry hot pan and wait for them to pop open!

Faced with one of those delicious evenings where I had no plans to go out, the apartment to myself, no errands or household tasks planned and sufficient energy to cook a relatively involved meal for myself, I opted to give the mussels a try.

After scrubbing a pound and a half of Prince Edward Island mussels, I threw them in a screaming hot cast iron skillet.

As each mussel popped open, I removed it to a large bowl with a pair of tongs.

There were a few holdouts...

...but eventually, after much sizzling, they relented.

I took Alex Guarnaschelli's very good advice to throw in a little crunch in the form of toasted bread crumbs (I have been loving panko lately...irrationally I find making breadcrumbs to be totally onerous) and some freshness in the form of parsley and mint.

By the way, I would never have considered mint as a good pairing with mussels but the idea is genius.

I've eaten a lot of mussels in my day, but these were special. Delicate but just a tad smoky from all of the scorching. And tender beyond belief...perhaps because I plucked eat one out just as it was done so there was no overcooking?

I was in an oddly European mood so I followed my wine, mussels and buttered baguette with a bit of salad and Tomme de Savoie. And then blew the whole thing with a Whippet at the end...the Canadian version of a Mallomar in case you are not familiar, as I was not until I saw them on the shelf at Citarella. Why Canadian cookies are being sold in New York I know not, but regardless they are delightful, both alone and as the cap to a lengthy meal.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

All Hallows Eve

The scent of deepest autumn was undeniable this weekend. The bouquets of flowers at James Durr are quickly giving way to tangles of leafy boughs, and I couldn't resist picking up a lush bunch of eucalyptus for my front room. With my nose involuntarily buried in the fragrant leaves the whole way home (crowded subway cars rarely provide such lovely aromatherapy experiences) I couldn't help but relish the change in weather, in scents and in routine that the progression of the seasons induces.

So perhaps fittingly, Paul and I chose this weekend to break our strict "no fun on Halloween" tradition. There was a party that promised to be great fun to attend, so Paul dragged out an outfit he had bought in Dubai recently and I got to work cobbling together a costume using a gold lame leotard leftover from a costume party in graduate school and a pair of track pants as a base.

I figured my best bet was one of those interpretive costumes...the kind where you just wear something odd and let others determine who it is you have dressed up as (the consensus from absolute strangers seemed to be Lady Gaga...sure, might as well). Coming up with my own idea was much too stressful on such short notice! So I swung by the makeup mecca that is MAC to pick up some oversized false eyelashes (and immediately vowed to come back in short order for more browsing and is a truly inspiring store) and then braved the Ricky's madhouse in search of a wig.

Presently, it was time to go. Paul looked very imposing in his caftan and head scarf (although he was a tad apprehensive about going out in the get-up for fear of offending someone) and I looked shiny.

Just outside of the party we looked across the way and noticed a man standing in the street wearing Paul's exact same outfit. Paul was a bit miffed..."Is he wearing it better than I am?" he wondered. I looked closer...he was an older man with those 1970s big square glasses with thin wire rims..."Babes I think he's an actual Arab." "Really? Are you sure?". And then he got into a Bentley and drove away. "Yes, I'm sure."

We enjoyed an evening full of sword eaters and fire jugglers and women on stilts with friends and a couple of bottles of champagne. The festivities eventually wound down and we made our way home very slowly on the subway, as cabs were simply a lost cause.

Paul removed his kaftan shortly after we arrived home, but I have to say I was really feeling my wig and eyelashes and couldn't stand to toss them aside quite so soon. I spent a good while taking photos of myself to delay the inevitable return to normalcy.

Perhaps I could entertain a second career as a drag queen?
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