Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Halfway To Hong Kong

When my sister and I were young, we got dragged around to what felt like hundreds of different food stores.  My mom was of the mind that different stores had different strengths, and as such, a shopping trip by definition had to include multiple stores.  And when it came time to buy seafood, we went downtown to Chinatown.  Oakland Chinatown, that is.

My most vivid memories of these little jaunts all involve buying crabs, which we did often during crab season.  We always bought live crabs, but my mom couldn't stand boiling them live at home so she had the fishmonger cleaver them in half for her.  Of course crabs have quite decentralized nervous systems so the legs continued to flail long after the cleaver had fallen.  And as they always gave us the crabs in a plastic shopping bag, any residual leg movement was make audible by the crinkling plastic.  Driving home with the bag in the back seat, crinkling away (in retrospect I'm sure most of the crinkling had to do with the movement of the car, not of the crab) I was totally traumatized, but the trauma was forgotten by dinnertime that night.

So all of this is to say that I have no fear of shopping for food in Chinatowns generally.  However, New York Chinatown is certainly not Oakland Chinatown.  New York's is more crowded, less orderly and there do seem to be more...unfamiliar, shall we say, items on display.  So I have always been reluctant to really delve into the bowels of the place, even though I know there are real gems to be had.  But I've found my stepping stone...the Hong Kong Supermarket.

This is apparently a chain in New York, and there are locations from East Broadway to Flushing, but my store of choice is the one on Elizabeth and Hester.

The place is truly a supermarket...one stop shopping for anything and everything Asian.  And some things British (much like Hong Kong itself!).  McVities Biscuits, every Thai, Chinese and Japanese condiment you would ever look for, detergent, cheap Shiseido hair products, Korean candies, veggies, and the list goes on.

One of my favorite parts is the noodle/won ton wrapper section.  Udon noodles, little egg noodles, tofu sheets, won ton wrappers in every shape imaginable.

And the fish section is really lovely (and CHEAP).

You can order one of the live fish swimming around in the tanks, or choose from the dead ones.

The flash got in the way in this photo, but the eye on that red snapper was perfectly clear.  And the thing was only $3.99 a pound.

The prices on these shrimp are pretty hard to beat.  I bought some of the ones in the back for $4.99 a pound.  And they were great!  And much much cheaper than the comparable product at Whole Foods, which was $15.99 last time I checked.

The meat selection is pretty extensive and really cheap, although I'll be honest, I tend not to look for bargains on meat.  You hear so many horrible stories about mistreated animals and unsanitary practices all in the name of cheap meat that I prefer to stick with my west village butcher when it comes to roasts, pork chops and the like.  But if you're looking for something a little out of the ordinary, like silky chickens, this is your place.

Additionally, they sell both young and mature chickens if you're interested in a stewing hen.

And have you been wondering where to get your beef pien?  Look no further.

So perhaps after a few months of shopping here, I can move onto the stalls with the fish flopping around in the styrofoam boxes and the chickens with the head and feet still on.  One can dream, at least.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Spring Is Springing

Spring is nearly here...we haven't had that one glorious day yet when the sun is out in full force, people are out in full force and the city hums with the promise of warm, sweater free days...Mother Nature seems to be taking baby steps this year.  The bone chilling temperatures are seemingly a thing of the past, but the sun is not out on any regular basis and there still isn't anything green at the farmers market...I can't take the potatoes anymore!

But this past Saturday in Union Square there was a glimmer of hope.  Flowers flowers everywhere!

Loads of tulips:

And daffodils...

...I'm less excited about the pussywillows, which have been around for a bit and I'm hoping are on their way out.

I adore the magnolia boughs and came quite close to buying a bunch (only $10!) but thought they might compete a bit too aggressively with all of our giant plants (and the giant pile of detritus on the table on which they would have sat), plus I didn't feel like carrying them around during the rest of my errands.

Instead, I settled on some beautiful pink tulips...only $5!


And sitting happily on my bathroom sink.

I love flowers in my bathroom.  I made a habit of keeping a bouquet there this past summer (the last time the farmers market had flowers, I suppose) but fell off the wagon when the weather got cold.  Somehow New York seems to be lacking a mid-priced florist.  It is either bodega flowers or $100 bouquets, nothing in between.  My experience with flowers at various gourmet food shops was also highly disappointing, so I gave up on the whole thing, since my efforts brought more stress than pleasure after a certain point.

But now we're back to happier times!

I love the unexpected punch of color you get from a small grouping of blossoms on an otherwise dull, standard rental apartment countertop.  There is something about paying attention to oft-forgotten spaces (we are generally at our least dignified in the bathroom after all, which perhaps makes us want to ignore it) that makes life inordinately more beautiful.  And life really is so much better when it is beautiful, no? 

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Intellectual Type

I recently came across a blog written by the pastry chef at Le Bernadin, Michael Laiskonis, called Notes From The Kitchen and I have to say that I'm finding it totally compelling.

                                                                                                             photo: Gourmet Magazine

Maybe it's because I just finished reading The Reach of the Chef, which provides a look at some of the most exacting kitchens in the country, but I am suddenly fascinated by what happens behind the scenes at high end restaurants, and this very sophisticated blog satisfies this fascination of mine extraordinarily well.  

Mr. Laiskonis seems to be quite the intellectual, so his anecdotes have a distinctly philosophical bent, which is a wonderful departure from the normal you-have-no-idea-how-hot/fast/stressful/glamorous/amazing-a restaurant-kitchen-is that you often get in restaurant-related writing.  His musings cover everything from how he conceives of his phenomenally innovative dishes (his "egg" is a prime example) to how to manage up and coming chefs.  

And if you're looking for recipes, check out his website Workbook, where he generously posts them.  I'm a little obsessed with the idea of his Earl Gray ganache.  Well I'm generally obsessed with Earl Gray, especially after my Earl Gray cocktail at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong last year, which was possibly the best drink I've ever had.  And his bacon brittle sounds unbelievable.  Possibly even better than the chocolate covered bacon from Roni-Sue's.  Or actually, most probably, no offense to the lovely Miss Roni-Sue.  I mean this is Le Bernadin we're talking about here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

That Pesky Wolf

I have a new love...the very great M.F.K. Fisher.  I have heard about her highly regarded food writing for ages, but until recently, had never explored it.  But I recently picked up How To Cook A Wolf from the library, and having enjoyed it immensely, plan to make my way through her other works as soon as possible.

This book was actually surprisingly topical, as it was written in 1942 when wartime shortages were a fact of life, so much of the book is about how one can economize and yet still eat with "grace and gusto".  I must say that, despite our current rather serious national predicament, having read this book I cannot help but think we whine too much today.  Are you concerned about how to craft your own fuel out of clay?  Do you read many chapters in cookbooks titled "How to Stay Alive" that describe a "sludge" to feed yourself and your trusty dog as a last resort?  No, I thought not.  So if nothing else, this book provides some much needed perspective.

But it also provides some quite good advice, especially with respect to eating intelligently.  Her advice?  Eat real food, do not obsess about vitamins, as assuming that you eat real food you will be provided with adequate nutrition.  She rails against processed foods, against items like refined flour and chemically laced food substitutes.  I actually found this whole thing fascinating.  To think she voiced these concerns more than sixty years ago, and the same argument is today seen as something rather new...whole bestselling books are written on the subject!

Now I'll admit that I'm not itching to make many of the recipes in the book.  Tomato soup cake doesn't sound too appetizing, and she does seem to have an odd love affair with pigeons.  Perhaps because it was a cheap way to feel rich by eating a whole bird?  My one experience cooking squab was just too traumatic to repeat (I didn't remove the feet, so when I pulled the poor little thing out of the oven the legs were stick straight with burnt little nubs that had once been clenched feet, it looked as though it had been gassed and died in tremendous pain), even for Ms. Fisher.  And I find consomme (which she highly recommends) to be a lovely diversion, but not worth the trouble of making it oneself.

But the recipes do provide an interesting history lesson of sorts, and are charming in the slightly retro way that many of Nigella Lawson's early recipes were.  In fact, both women advocate for an odd dish called petit pois a la francaise...peas cooked with lettuce of all things!  I can't bring myself to try it, cooking lettuce just feels a bit too odd to me.  But perhaps I will eventually work up the courage to make the bacon fat "wartime cake".  Now that pork is so fashionable, perhaps I can start a new trend.

And most importantly, the woman can really write.  Her assertion that the most private thing in the world is an unbroken egg is simply genius.  No wonder W.H. Auden was so taken with her literary prowess.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Our Daily Bread

There's something very satisfying, very basic, about making bread.  Perhaps it is the tactile nature of the exercise (all that kneading is so therapeutic), or perhaps it is the fact that bread is something that civilized societies have been eating for so many hundreds of years that it makes me feel some sort of connection to those who have come before.  To those women who used to gather at the town oven to do their daily baking or something.

So I've been doing it on and off for quite some time.  Often I just make something out of Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone, which has fabulous yeast bread recipes.  But when I decide to get serious, it is generally with something from Nancy Silverton's Breads From The La Brea Bakery.  The book is full of breads to be made with a natural sourdough starter, which per her directions can be developed over the course of two weeks using organic grapes and many pounds of flour.  There is much adding of flour and discarding of starter along the way.  A total pain, but I do recall my mom undertaking the whole thing back when I was in high school and I believe my family has been relying on the original starter ever since.

But frankly, as wonderful as those Silverton breads are (they come perilously close to being as good as my beloved Acme breads) they really are just too much work to be made on a regular basis.  They are almost always a multi-day affair with lots of very vigorous kneading necessary, and I end up with flour in every nook and cranny of my kitchen.  So I gave up on the whole bread baking thing for a while. 

But as it turns out the Silverton way is not the only one.  Dan Lepard has written the most illuminating book called The Handmade Loaf.  He also favors the natural sourdough starter, but instead of weeks, his takes days.  Instead of organic grapes (which are actually surprisingly hard to find) all you need are some raisins and instead of throwing away quarts are starter you throw away none.  

My very active starter (there were more than a few occasions when I left it out, covered, and it busted through the seal onto my kitchen counter):

And even better, the man has essentially eliminated the kneading!  You stir ingredients together, leave them to ferment for a little while, mix again for ten seconds, leave to ferment, and repeat, repeat and bake, et voila, lovely loaf of bread.  Sort of like Mark Bittman's no-knead bread, but with infinite variations.  It was so easy, that I went a little crazy with the bread baking this weekend.

White levain bread:

Just prior to the oven:

A milk loaf (which I used to make David Lebovitz's wonderful orange almond bread pudding out of his book Room For Dessert):

Rye berry bread (this is delicious, so healthy...with all of those whole grains I just feel so...cleansed):

And rye barley bread (barley flour is a prime example of one of those weird things I can find at Integral Yoga):

All delicious.  So now my formerly very organized freezer is stuffed to bursting with bread.  So I'm set for several months.  Bring on the natural disaster.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sailing the Ocean Blue

On Sunday I took another little venture to Brooklyn, but this time by boat rather than subway.  

I was searching for a picture frame for my Keep Calm and Carry On poster which recently arrived from Barter Books, and figured that Ikea would be the best place to find a cheap one.  I'd heard that they ran a free water taxi from lower Manhattan to the Red Hook location, and since I live about fifteen minutes from the pier in question, I figured it should give it a try.

What a lovely way to travel!  The views of Manhattan:

Inside the actual "hook" of Red Hook:

I do hope that some poor misguided developer wasn't planning to turn this building into the next hot condo tower prior to the market collapse!

And, here we are at our destination:

I must say, I don't understand why, given our numerous waterways in New York, we don't make better use of them from a public transport view.  It really is the most civilized way to get around.

Anyway, my Ikea trip was a bit of a bust.  My poster is apparently a somewhat odd size so there was no frame of the appropriate size.  So I came away with some wooden hangers (I love wooden hangers, and at $3.49 for a packet of 8, they are hardly prohibitive if you are willing to make the trip to Ikea), some lingonberry jam, cloudberry jam and Elderflower drinks.

But my trip to Fairway, which is just down the street from Ikea, was an utter success!  At 4:00 on a Sunday afternoon, the Fairway I know and love/hate (on the upper west side) would be packed with frantic shoppers.  But in Red Hook, it was only moderately busy.  I could browse in a leisurely manner through the aisles, which by the way were about twice as wide as those in Manhattan, and never once had to pack myself into that dreadfully slow elevator.  Fabulous!

That, coupled with a nice swing by the Red Hook version of the Chelsea Garden Center made for quite the lovely afternoon.  Completely worth the journey.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Breakfast: An Addendum

Paul was out of town this past weekend in Texas, so I didn't have much of an incentive to make the Sunday chocolate brioche (making twelve pastries for one person is a little much, don't you think?). But I wanted something a little bit more special than my normal poached egg or museli for my relaxing morning on the couch with my newspapers.

As I was musing over my options, I recalled reading once that Daniel Boulud makes scrambled eggs in a double boiler. Now I'm generally not the hugest fan of scrambled eggs. Most of the time they're too dry, too hard, just overall a pedestrian experience. But Monsieur Boulud didn't get to where is he today by serving up pedestrian food, I so on this, I decided to trust him.

So I whisked an egg with some salt, milk (OK fine, it was cream, but just a splash), and set it over my ghetto version of the double boiler:

A bowl over a pot of simmering water.

I whisked the eggs pretty continuously while they cooked and the result was just fabulous:

Eggs softer and creamier than you can imagine. They practically oozed over my favorite blue plate. I'm not saying they've replaced my love for the brioche, but in pinch, this is nearly as good.

Friday, March 20, 2009

He Is The Man

Last night I spent quite the enjoyable evening with Zenia, Laia and Vivian going to dinner and a movie.  Dinner was good, but the movie, Valentino:  The Last Emperor, was the highlight of the night.

This is easily the most charming movie I have seen in quite some time.  If you're not familiar with it, the film is a documentary covering the last two years of Valentino's career prior to his retirement.  It covers his shows, his relationship with his partner (both in the personal and business sense) Giancarlo, his dogs, his seamstresses and it covers his final blowout party at the Coliseum.  He is a wonderfully fastidious, eccentric, delightfully imperial little man who is simply a joy to watch.    

The craftsmanship that is involved in his clothing is the second star of the movie.  Everything, and I mean everything, is done by hand.  They don't even have sewing machines in the atelier!  I actually came out of the theater totally depressed that he had retired, as it is pretty clear that no one is going to be following in his very talented couture oriented footsteps.

So get thee to the Film Forum before March 31st and prepare to be transported (to Valentino's world...it is his and we just live in it).  

Outside of New York, look for it to open during the month of April.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hippie Dippie

Despite all my years living in Manhattan, I don't think it is any secret that I have a tiny but powerful hippie streak. I don't own anything made of hemp and I do occasionally wash my hair, but I love the whole "be kind to the earth and each other and eat non processed food" ethos that the hippies (if there are any true hippies left anymore) subscribe to.

So where do I get my hippie fix in the yuppie morass that is New York? Why I'm glad you asked. Take thee to 13th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue, and you will find the Integral Yoga Institute. Now as much as I enjoy yoga, I don't come here for my namastes. Hatha yoga is a bit gentle for me...I tend to fall asleep rather than breath through my elbows or whatever odd thing it is they always direct you to do. No, I come here for food.

I don't have one favorite food shop in New York. Rather, I have several that I like for different things. Sort of like a group of friends I suppose. There's Citarella for fish and nice peaches, there's the Union Square Greenmarket for my seasonal produce (at the moment that is basically potatoes), milk, butter and eggs, Florence Meat Market for my meat (delicious bacon), Buon Italia for nut flours, pasta, pancetta and parmesan, Trader Joe's for cheap nuts, dried fruit and their Valencia peanut butter with flax seeds, Fairway when I need a lot of different items and am feeling thrifty, and Whole Foods when I'm too lazy to trek up to Fairway.

Integral Yoga is where I go for honey, maple syrup, rice and barley syrups, pretty much any grain or flour that I'm looking for, and generally anything weird (a specific type of seaweed, for instance or manuka honey).

The place is tiny but packs quite a selection into that little space. With the hippie version of pretty much every grocery store staple, organic fruit and produce, beauty products and a juice bar in the back (I adore the place but for the love of god do not order their crazy green juice combos) you can get pretty much all that you need. But a lot of it is pretty pricey.

Since I am cheap, the stuff I gravitate towards are the items that they sell in bulk. For instance, you can get a half pint of clover honey for about $1.60. A pint of brown rice syrup for less than that, and a half pint of maple syrup is $3. And I cannot leave out their wonderful nut butters...peanut, cashew, almond, a mixture of all...can be had for less than $2 for a half pint. The shelf o' syrupy yet natural sweeteners and nut butters:

They also have a wonderful selection of bulk grains and flours. I always buy my oats, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds for granola here, my non-white bread flours (stone ground wheat, rye, whole wheat pastry), steel cut oats, and any and all whole grain I'm in the market for. In fact, I recently have been getting into baking whole grain breads and was wondering where on earth I would find wheat berries to make sprouted wheat. But lo and behold, I not only found wheat berries here, but also rye berries and kamut (whatever that is, I will let you know shortly as it is currently sitting on my kitchen counter).

The tiny but well stocked bulk grains aisle, looking into their fabulous organic produce section:

Although I don't generally come here to shop for produce, I must say that their selection is always of high quality, and frankly, if you are very commited to organic, their prices on fresh fruit and veggies are quite fair. So hippie or not, it is most certainly worth a try. If for nothing else, than for their chocolate covered papaya treats!

Things Are Looking Up

I've moaned before about the dearth of decent food options in Lower Manhattan.  And in the same breath I've mentioned the little bright spots on the landscape that seem to be popping up.  Well here's another one for you:  the Banh Mi food truck on the southwest corner of John Street and Water Street.

For those unfamiliar, Banh Mi are basically Vietnamese subs.  They are traditionally served on a relatively soft baguette and are filled with some combination of meats, cucumbers, pickled carrots, mayonnaise and spice, generally in the form of chile sauce.  For years I was a devout customer of Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches, partly because it is delicious and partly because it was across the street from my favorite yoga studio.  But since the studio has moved to private classes only (at $100 a pop it is doesn't quite fit into my budget) I haven't had much of an excuse to go there anymore.

So I was excited to find this little food truck not only because I was entirely sick of the mediocre lunch options in my area, but also because I was looking forward to a reunion with a Banh Mi.

Luckily, the reunion was a happy one.  First of all the truck is spotless, which is always confidence inducing.  Secondly, the menu is pretty extensive.

You've got chicken, tuna, pork, veggie, Vietnamese meatball (my choice for yesterday's lunch)...as long as you're in the mood for a sandwich, you can find something to sate any gustatory longing you might have.

Second of all (and really most importantly if you ask me), the sandwich was scrumptious...and I don't say that lightly.  I don't even like sandwiches most of the time.  

My little pork meatballs were juicy and flavorful.  The carrots were pickled to perfection, the cucumber was nice and crunchy, and the sandwich overall was pleasantly warm.  And there was no mayonnaise, which frankly, as a non-lover of mayonnaise, was a welcome surprise.  And oddly enough, the spice came in the form of lots of pepper rather than chile sauce which turned out to be nice...sort of a more mellow heat than I was expecting.

And although I realize that you could get a much cheaper Banh Mi out in Sunset Park or wherever, I don't think $6 for a high quality sandwich is in any way unreasonable.  Especially as I only can eat one half per lunch...$3 for an excellent lunch is hard to beat.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Modern Kitchen Amenities

Ah, the rice cooker. When friends of mine used to ask me if I had one my response was always, yeah, it's called a pot.

Although I love to cook, I don't like kitchen gadgets. My Cuisinart was manufactured circa 1984 (a hand-me-down from my mom), I don't own a KitchenAid mixer (although I did just break down and buy one of those little $30 hand mixers for making pavlovas...I can't deal with beating 10 egg whites by hand) and I own a pretty minimal number of pots, pans and spatulas. I have my favorite 3 or so, and that's pretty much what I stick with.

Paul, on the other hand, doesn't cook but LOVES kitchen appliances...or just gadgets generally I guess. Our very fancy blender (or smoothie maker as he calls it, completely straight-faced), coffee maker, toaster and vegetable steamer are all purchases that Paul initiated.

When these things show up in the kitchen I generally smirk, shake my head in disbelief and tease him about how often he's going to use whatever it is. Although I have to say he uses the vegetable steamer pretty much on a nightly basis though which I find fairly impressive.

So the rice cooker showed up and my response was essentially oh no you didn't. Eventually, after about a year of it sitting in our cupboard, I deigned to give it a try (Paul sure as hell wasn't going to). And may I say, what an absolutely genius invention. Perfect rice every time!

Now I acknowledge that rice is not exactly a difficult thing to make, but sometimes it just goes wrong. I burn the bottom, the rice is impossible to get off of the bottom of the pot, the rice is slightly undercooked, whatever. Small issues but they kind of ruin your day (or really, your meal). With the amazing rice cooker none of this stuff EVER happens. Brown rice, white rice, short grain, long grain...doesn't matter...perfect regardless! It keeps well for quite a long time after cooking has completed as well, making it the perfect aid for dinner parties. And if you're lucky, especially with brown rice, you'll get a very minor but enjoyable little crust going at the bottom of the rice vessel.

Is just plain rice a little too boring? I present to you a semi-recipe to be made in a rice cooker, inspired by the great Kenny Shopsin's suggestion to melt cheese over your rice in the microwave.

Cheesey Rice In Rice Cooker

1/3 cup brown rice
1 cup water
handful grated cheddar cheese (or whatever you want)
handful baby arugula (I had leftovers from my sausage and pasta, what can I say? Use whatever easily cooked leaf you like)
soy sauce
sesame oil

Put rice and water in rice cooker and press the "cook" button. When rice is done cooking (my only gripe with my rice cooker is that brown rice takes forever, be patient is all I can tell you) and rice cooker is on "warm" setting, throw in cheese, stir, and put cover back on. Let it be for 30 seconds or so (until melted), then throw in arugula, stir and put cover back on. When arugula is wilted (15 seconds or so), pour mixture out into a bowl. Drizzle a bit of soy sauce over rice, mix in. Drizzle some sesame seed oil over the top and eat.

Monday, March 16, 2009

It Was Not Bad!

So Ms. Spears can't dance like she used to be able to, and she sure didn't sing (although maybe she never did?), but the show was an extravaganza. Her dancers were fantastic and the production was very impressive...lots of Cirque de Soleil-esque hanging from the ceiling and the like.

So in the end it was a fun night out with friends:

And an opportunity to get a bunch of free Britney merchandise!

The mousepad will be coming with me to the office by the way.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

And The Countdown Begins

I am hoping that I'm counting down to a Vegas-style extravaganza (I hesitate to call it a concert per se)....

And not an MTV style meltdown.  Or am I?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Be Jealous. Very Jealous.

Where I am going tomorrow night?

That's right. It's Britney's comeback tour. And I'm traveling to Newark for the spectacle.

Jealous? Yeah, that's what I thought.

The Books of Chefs

A fun article in Saveur...what famous chefs have in their cookbook collections. I seem to have the most in common (with respect to book choice anyway) with April Bloomfield of Spotted Pig and John Dorry fame...we both are into Charcuterie, Roast Chicken and Other Stories and the River Cafe books.

I have virtually nothing in common with the rest of these guys, but from the looks of it, I should put an order in for Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, as virtually all of them mention it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sparkling Blue

I've waxed poetic here before about sparkling sake...the pink kind...I adore it in case that wasn't clear.  Although our wonderful wine-giving neighbors are long gone, I came across this bottle that Alex had given us just the other day, I don't know how I'd let it sit on my bar for so long!

This is pink's cousin...Hou Hou Shu Sparkling Sake.  Like the pink version it is light, sweet and gently sparkly (i.e. carbonated).  But there's also a an extra flavor dimension with this one...initially I couldn't place it...it was like a really delicious version of a Necco wafer...but not really.  Then I read some tasting notes that mentioned a yogurt note.  Um...yeah, that is certainly a better descriptor than Necco wafer.  Whatever it is, it is delicious and interesting...a little weirder, slightly more thought provoking than the pink...but most certainly worth checking out, especially if you've got an event worthy of a sparkling beverage coming up! 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Frugal Gourmet

In honor of my post on Monday about how to be cheap, I present to you a frugal dinner for one:  Sausage With Pasta and Arugula.  At about $3.50 per serving, it is perfect for low cash days, weeks (or months, depending on your situation).  Although frankly, to me it feels a little luxurious, in the way that a night in on your own can be...watching whatever weird foreign movie you have from Netflix, eating whatever odd thing you want for dinner, going to bed early (or late!), whatever you feel like.  Heaven.  As is the pork fat and carb fest that is this dish.

I'm not entirely sure where this dish came from...I can only surmise that it arose purely because when I lived in Philadelphia, my path from school to my apartment was not too far from Di Bruno Brothers, where I could pick up a really nice Italian sausage and some good quality pasta, and Sue's Produce, which sold giant bags of baby arugula for $2.  And of course from the fact that I always kept a supply of wine handy at home.

Sausage With Pasta and Arugula

Serves 1

3 oz pasta (I like orecchiette because the little cups hold the pork fat nicely, but penne would be good too) 
1 tablespoon olive oil or pork fat
1 sweet Italian sausage
2 garlic cloves (smashed and peeled, or if you are feeling ambitious, peeled and sliced thin)
1/3 cup white wine (this absolutely must be at least semi-drinkable, otherwise the whole thing will taste off)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups baby arugula (or however much suits you, I like a lot)

Bring a pot of water to a boil, and salt heavily.  Drop pasta in.

Warm olive oil or pork fat in small skillet (making this was a perfect excuse for me to use my leftover pork fat from my pig experience, but olive oil is perfectly fine).  Take sausage out of casing and put in fat to brown.  Break up meat with the side of a wooden spoon or spatula.  

When meat is browned, throw in garlic, and fry for 30 seconds.  Add wine and salt, and simmer until mixture is reduced by half.

When pasta is about a minute away from being done, drain, and add to skillet and allow to finish cooking in the wine and fat.

When pasta is cooked, add arugula.  

Toss it through the pasta until wilted.  Eat, with parmesan cheese or without (I prefer without, which is odd for me, go figure).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Let There Be Light

How awesome is this?!!

Lit up...

This stunning chandelier is made by a Johannesburg based company by the name of Willowlamp,  and Elle Decor South Africa (from whence I pulled the images above) had the very good sense to honor them in the magazine's annual International Design Awards.  Felicitations to the very creative company!

Core Value

Now that we've had a glimpse, however brief, of spring weather, my mind is jumping ahead to beaches and bikinis (nevermind that it is currently grey and cold outside).  The thoughts are quite happy, although he fact that I have not exactly worked out (unless you count climbing subway stairs) in many months is now is weighing on my mind more heavily than it was when my mind was stuck firmly in winter.

So when I saw an item in New York Magazine touting a special offer of $20 duet training sessions at re:AB pilates studio, I got on the phone immediately.  You see, re:AB is one of those places I tried years ago and really enjoyed, but as a somewhat fickle person when it comes to haircuts, exercise studios, eyebrow waxers and the like, I abandoned it for no good reason, and promptly forgot it existed.

It is probably one of the older studios in the city, which I like.  It is in a vaguely decrepit loft building on Bleecker between Lafayette and Bowery, which gives it a welcome "New York prior to Disney-fication" vibe.

The prices, of course, do not share such a vibe, which is why I was so excited about the recession era offer.

Turns out a lot of other people were as well.  Laia and I couldn't get an appointment for late evening until April!  Although, just FYI, they have lots and lots of late afternoon spots open as early as this week if anyone is interested.

But apparently they have been getting so many calls about the offer that they have started giving another, more easily honored, offer.  3 mat classes for $30.  Given that one mat class is usually $24, it really is quite the deal.  And this evening, I commenced my workout regime in anticipation of swimsuit season with one of these classes.  Needless to say, I got my ass handed to me.  Not sure whether it has more to do with the class being effective or me being woefully out of shape, but for $10 you might as well go and find out for yourself!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Spending For the Times

Perhaps I have just been watching too much Suze Orman lately (I love her, I don't care what anyone says), but I get the sense that there is a lot of anxiety out there surrounding money issues at the moment.  Not just the obvious "the economy is bad my job may disappear" but also "how do I gain better control over my situation".  I cannot claim to be perfect with regards to my money by any means, but after a couple of years of feeling off kilter with my finances (being a grad student with zero income will do that to you), I feel that I now have found a solution that gives me a sense of authority over my money again.

A bit of background.  I was raised by frugal parents, who also were also raised by frugal parents.

Both of my sets of grandparents grew up during the Depression, and it has always been abundantly clear that their spending habits were heavily influenced by the experience.  Both of my grandfathers had government funded jobs (one an officer in the Navy, the other a NASA scientist) which gave them each quite a bit of financial stability, and yet they pinched a penny like nobody's business.  To this day, my maternal grandparents save the twisty ties from bread bags and find the idea of spending more than $30 on a pair of jeans to be an act of insanity.

My parents have inherited this sense of frugality, and are pretty old school when it comes to spending.  They bought a house in 1982, renovated as they could afford to do so over the course of twelve years or so, and paid off their mortgage before they retired.  They drive their very practical cars until they die (the government paid them $500 to take the car my sister and I drove throughout high school off of the road...it was a year older than I was at the time).  My mother even suggested as a topic for my grad school essay requesting a description of a moral dilemma that I had faced "how you reconcile living in a city where jeans cost $300 when you were raised by Mr. and Mrs. Cheap".  This frugal attitude is, of course, how they were able to send my sister and I to such wildly expensive schools without burdening us with debt upon graduation.  

So, although I enjoy the finer things more than the rest of my family and I occasionally spend more than is really prudent, my cheapo gene is strong.  And now that I am back out in the real world, paying back my student loans on a recession period salary and living in a city with endless possibilities to spend and consume, I have, out of necessity I suppose, come up with what I find to be a very satisfactory, effective financial strategy.  I am posting it not out of a sense of superiority (my spending habits at times mirrored the consumption-mania of the past few years), but because when I mention what I'm doing to friends they often seem to find it useful, and I hope that it can be for you as well.  

Like many things, the whole thing started with Oprah.  A while back, I was watching one of her debt diet shows and a financial guru named Jean Chatzky was on.  She was helping a financially troubled family (they seemed to be leasing everything in their home and had some ungodly amount of credit card debt, I have to say it made me feel quite superior, however unjustly).  After taking the family to task, she imparted this rule of thumb for how to spend your take home income (after contributing to your retirement plan, I presume):

It seemed reasonable to me so I went about seeing how my budget measured up.  Turns out (shockingly enough) that my rent was pretty well in line with what I should be spending on housing, as were my daily living expenses.  Transportation for me is my $81 monthly Metrocard, which meant that I was under-spending quite significantly in that category.  But that was a good thing, considering that my monthly student loan payments well exceed my 10% monthly debt allowance (although luckily, not by more than my transportation expense excess).  The point here is just that everything needs to add up to 100%, not more.  So to adjust the guideline to your situation, just move some around here and there (but do not give the savings short shrift!).

Now you may say, this is all well and good, but am I carrying a pie chart around with me every where I go?  Clearly not.  The problem with every well intentioned budget is always sticking to it.  The way I deal with the discipline issue is this:  I take a quarter of my monthly living allowance out of the ATM every Thursday.  This is what I give myself to spend in a week.  If I run out of money, then I'm canceling dinners out, I'm bringing lunch to work every day and I'm waiting a few days to pick up my dry cleaning.  Period.  Need to buy something for which you can't use cash (yes, Gilt Group, I'm looking at you)?  Just deduct it from the amount you get out the following week. 

As restrictive as this might sound, I actually have found it to be quite freeing.  I have absolutely no stress at the end of the month regarding whether I can pay my bills or not...I always know I'll have the money.  And weirdly enough, by not spending money, you actually begin to want to spend it less and less.  As my mother says, money is like sugar.  The more you consume, the more you want to consume.  

In general, I find myself spending my money in better ways.  I want, if I'm going to spend $60 on a dinner out, for the food be great, so I don't allow myself to be dragged to mediocre restaurants, which means I have fewer options which means I eat out at expensive places less.  I don't spend $2 on a cup of tea when I know that I can make the same thing in my office with the tea bags I buy in the grocery store for pennies a cup.  And if I am going to buy a coffee, it is a delicious cappuccino from Zibetto once or twice a week rather than a big fluffy coffee drink from the-store-that-will-not-be-named.

But the best part of my little plan?  No guilt!  If I go out for an expensive dinner or buy that cute skirt, I don't chide myself for being too extravagant, because I know that I've forgone something else in order to have enough cash to pay for it.  I cannot tell you how empowering this whole thing has been.  I feel more in control than I have in quite some time.  

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