Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A socks-rockin salad-off: The winners, and their recipes

Catch up here!

BigJeff spent awhile counting up the votes, and then we all gathered 'round to hear his pronouncement. Without further ado:

Third Place:
A goat cheese, dried cranberry, pistachio, and couscous salad. Made! I know, I know, I'm family so I probably won illegally, but I'll fight you if you try to take away my prize, a charming pair of metal tongs.

Goaty, Nutty, Fruity Whole Wheat Couscous Salad
by Soopling

2 cups whole wheat couscous (instead of the now-out-of-stock quinoa you were originally aiming for)
1.5 cups dried cranberries (from bag miraculously in pantry when you thought you'd eaten them)
1.5 cups roasted, unsalted pistachios (plus a few handfuls for snacking while you make the salad)
7 or 8 ounces, or 1 large log goat cheese (left over from a Greenteam anniversary party)
1 cup chopped scallions (which sits in your fridge, for soba)
1/2 cup lemon juice (from fresh fruit, or from a bottle when you realize you forgot to buy some)
1/2 cup good olive oil (that your friends brought back from Italy for you)
Mixed greens (that you've stolen from your roommate)
2 tablespoons sugar

Bring two cups of water and a little salt to a boil. In a large pot, measure out two cups of couscous, spilling some all over the counter as you do so. Pour the boiling water over the couscous, stir, cover, and then let stand. After five minutes, uncover and fluff up the grains using a fork. Let cool.

In the meanwhile, combine your shoddy bottled lemon juice (or your delicious, fresh-squeezed lemon juice) with olive oil, sugar, several generous grinds of black pepper, and a sprinkling of salt. Use your couscous-fluffing fork to blend together, or use an actual whisk, you lazy ass. Set aside.

Use a large knife to attempt slicing the log of goat cheese into cute little chunks and become dismayed when the cheese adheres to the knife and does not slice. Give up and break up cheese into large, ungainly chunks with your fingers instead. Set aside.

Add cranberries, pistachios, and scallions (reserving a handful of each to top the salad later) to the cooled couscous. Stir in the lemon-olive oil mixture. When well combined, add the goat cheese chunks and toss gently (again, reserve a handful of goat cheese for later).

Line the bottom and sides of your serving bowl with the mixed greens. Spoon the couscous salad on top, cursing when all the greens sink to the bottom and become obscured. Arrange some new greens around the edges of the couscous like a ridiculous wreath. Top with remaining goat cheese, pistachios, cranberries, and scallions, and a few more grinds of black pepper and salt. Serve at room temp. Feeds 8, or 30-35 rambunctious salad-off participants.

Second Place:

C-Monkey's potato salad, which boasted the addictive combination of bacon, pickled jalapeños, and cumin. He received an bright red, eco-friendly colander for his achievement.

The Squealing Kaiser
by C-Monkey

1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 oz (half-pack) bacon
2 pounds red-skinned new potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon salt
4 large hard-boiled eggs, peeled, coarsely chopped
2 green onions, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped red onion
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 heaping tablespoon chopped, seeded, and drained pickled jalapeño chilies from jar, and 2 tablespoons reserved liquid

Toast cumin seeds in heavy small skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds, and cool. Using a spice grinder, coarsely grind cumin seeds. Transfer to medium bowl. Whisk in lemon juice, then oil. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 2 hours ahead; let stand at room temperature.)

Cook bacon to your preference, and chop or crumble. Set aside.

Place potatoes in large pot. Add enough cold water to cover and 1 tablespoon salt. Boil potatoes until tender when pierced with skewer, about 8 minutes. Drain. Transfer to large bowl.

To the potatoes, add eggs, green onions, red onion, cilantro, jalapeño chilies, bacon, and 2 tablespoons chili liquid. Pour dressing over salad; toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to serving bowl.

Serve warm or at room temperature. This salad can be made 2 hours ahead; let stand at room temperature.

First Place!

Latecomer HertzSoGood slipped in with a savory barley, wild rice, and asparagus salad, and managed to take top prize, winning a pair of beautiful wooden salad servers. Hooray!

Barley, Wild Rice, and Asparagus Salad with Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette
adapted from Once Upon A Tart...
by HertzSoGood

2 cups cold salted water (for rice)
1/2 cup wild rice (rinsed in a bowl with cold water and drained)
4 cups cold salted water (for barley)
1.5 cups barley (also rinsed in a bowl with cold water and drained)
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and julienned
1 pound fresh asparagus (break off tips and cut diagonally into 2-inch pieces)
1 teaspoon salt
1 ripe avocado, halved, pitted, and diced
Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette (see below)

Place 2 cups water and rice in large saucepan and bring to boil over high heat. Lower heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 40-45 minutes, until the rice is tender but still chewy. (DON'T OVERCOOK!)

While rice is cooking, put 4 cups water and barley in a separate saucepan and bring to boil over high heat. Lower the heat, and simmer, uncovered, for 25-30 minutes, until barley is tender to the bite but not mushy. (DON'T OVERCOOK!)

Remove both pots of grain from heat and drain each separately in a colander. Then dump both together in one big bowl. Warm oil in a large saute pan or wok over high heat. Add the ginger and saute until until golden brown. With flame still high, add asparagus. Stir frequently until asparagus is tender. (DON'T OVERCOOK!) When it's done, dump everything in the pan on top of the grains.

Just before you serve the
salad, pour the vinaigrette over the grains and vegetables, add the salt, and toss it all with your hands (or a large spoon if you're too wussy to use your hands). Add the avocado cubes midway through the tossing. Serve right away, at room temp.

Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette
Juice of 1 lemon (3 tablespoons-ish)
1/4 cup apple-cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
1/4 cup tamari or soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup canola or vegetable oil

Whisk together all the ingredients except the oil in a bowl. Then add the oil in a slow, thin, steady stream while whisking. Try to form a smooth, creamy emulsion, so that the oil doesn't separate later and sink to the bottom of the

And so...
Runaway birthday balloons, floating off into the sky.

We had spent many great, joyous hours in the park, but after the winners were announced it was pretty much time to call it a day. Happy birthday BigJeff, and congratulations everyone! If there's a future salad-off in the works, you can bet I'll show up with my grain-game on. Wooden salad servers, you SHALL BE MINE.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A socks-rockin' salad-off

For the "friend" segment of my brother's birthday celebration (vs. the "family" segment), peeps traveled from all corners of the city to Prospect Park in Brooklyn for a blow-out picnic salad-off. (Yes, my brother has surely changed his ways; once upon a time this would have been a wing-off instead.) It was a windy day, as you can see from the angle of the balloons above, but the sun was shining brightly and everyone was in high spirits. In addition to all the picnic supplies, my brother had brought four different types of salad he'd made, and I'd provided a hoard of carbohydrates: whole wheat flatbread, puffy white pita bread, a crusty garlic loaf; and a crusty plain white loaf. We were ready to SALAD.
People arrived on bike and foot, bearing their creations. Our posse was doubled by the addition of a renegade group of salad-crashers headed by BH, who had come with their own food but who were nonetheless enamored by the array of dressed veggies glistening in wooden bowls on the blanket.
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I couldn't keep track of all of them, but here are a few up close (clockwise from top left): crunchy fruit and vegetable salad (recipe here); tuna salad; cauliflower, zucchini, orange, and basil salad; feta, grape tomato, cucumber, and red onion salad.
Ready for self-service.
Yes, this was a salad-off, with winners (and losers) to be determined at the end. But then again, there was also a beautiful birthday cake. Chewy-crisp chocolate chip cookies. A moist chocolate cake. And delicious homemade smoked salmon. I'd say these were decidedly non-salad entrants, but no one, no one is complaining here.

We spent the day eating, making new friends, playing sports, and even shucking oysters. We sampled the different creations people had whipped up and submitted the names of our top three favorites.
Dogs like salad, too.

As the sun became obscured by clouds and the wind began gusting, people started pulling on sweatshirts and huddling in closer and closer to one another. It was only a matter of time before we would have to surrender to the cold and pack up. And so it was decided: time to call voting to a close. Salad-off, tally ho!

Up next: The winners, and their recipes

Soul Fixins': Chicken for the comic-weary

After several hours gallivanting around New York Comic Con (where I posed next to The Hulk, got decontaminated, bought several tee-shirts, and acquired a new toy for my collection), TC, DL, and I walked over to Soul Fixins' for some non-comic sustenance. According to DL, who has had to suffer through many an expo at the Javits, this restaurant is pretty much the only place to get a good meal in the area.

And a good meal it was: the smothered chicken was juicy, the huge portion of mashed potatoes impossibly buttery and smooth, and the sweet, tangy collard greens meltingly tender. The fat square of cornbread was moist and pleasantly rough-textured. This tiny place would hold its own in any part of the city, not just that far-west food wasteland.

I had been eying the wedges of red velvet cake sitting on the counter, but after tackling that enormous plate, there was no way. Instead, having been joined by RH and LT, we made our way across the street to see Forgetting Sarah Marshall instead, all of us happily stuffed.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Yup, this is how we eat

For my brother's thirty-first birthday a few weeks ago, we kids returned to the nest for the weekend. I've written before about how my family loves food, and how my mom always cooks up a storm whenever we come home. Well, for celebratory occasions our meals get even more elaborate.
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This time, my mom decided to prepare eight or nine different items. I didn't photograph everything, but above were some of my favorites, clockwise from top left: Tilapia steamed with scallions, light soy sauce, and a salty, tangy pickled berry (I don't know what it is in English, but my mom calls it lam-pu-gee in...Taiwanese? Hakka?); sweet steamed Japanese eggplants scattered with garlic, soy sauce, and cilantro; a stir-fry of wheat gluten, wood ear mushrooms, and carrots; and shitake mushrooms stuffed with fish paste.
Noodles are good to eat on birthdays, as their length is symbolic of wishes for a long life. For this version of cold sesame noodles, my mom first grated carrots and daikon radish into thin slivers and then salted them so they lost their crispness. Once they became pliable and limp she mingled the veg with shredded chicken, and stirred in a stellar chili-oil hot sauce studded with nuts and seeds that she had brought back from Taiwan. After spooning the mixture over a pile of snowy white rice noodles, she drizzled on sesame paste and added chopped cilantro and a few droplets of black vinegar on top to finish. The resulting bowl of noodles was cool, rich, flavorful, full of different textures, and just a bit spicy.

We didn't eat everything you see on that table, of course; as I mentioned in the last post, my parents cook with the idea of having leftovers for us to bring home. So I guess it's no surprise to anyone that my brother and I were able to eat happily for a full week afterwards….

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Woorijip, Gahm Mi Oak, and Kunjip: If you are what you eat, I must be Korean

Several weekends back (okay fine, all of my posts are from meals I ate eons ago, I'll just stop pointing that out) I found myself on an inadvertent Korean food kick. Aside from a burger and some cookies at the 3rd Ward Open House, all the other meals I had were from the Country of Kimchi.

Early Friday night, with MH and DT, there was dduk bok-ki at Woorijip, chewy rice cake tubes in a sweet, spicy sauce. The container I grabbed turned out to be vegetarian, so instead of the fish cakes I had expected to be mingled in, there were chunks of cabbage. I love dduk and other items based on pounded glutinous rice, but I try not to eat too much of them as they're calorie-dense and according to my folks, difficult to digest.
Sulongtang, Gam Mee Ok
Then, after we spent the rest of the night drinking, there was sul-long tang at Gahm Mi Oak, a specialist in this restorative ox-bone soup. Sitting at the bottom of the milky white broth were scatters of rice and noodles, along with some flat, wide ribbons of beef. Containers of chopped scallion and sea salt were on the table so the flavor of the sul-long tang could be adjusted to our preferences.

After a long night and particularly to ward off (or cure) hangovers, Gahm Mi Oak is the destination of choice for drunken Koreans all over New York City.
The next night, after hanging out with a big group at a bar for a while, several of us started feeling hunger pangs and decided to sneak out for some grub. And wouldn't you know it—my friends wanted Korean food.

JSK had a particular craving for the kimchi gobdol bibimbap at Kunjip, and so that's where we ended up. I followed his lead and ordered the same thing for myself.
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The bibimbap, which comes in a hot stone bowl, arrives looking like it consists only of white rice and a fried egg, with roasted seaweed scattered on top. But once you sink your spoon all the way down to the bottom and start overturning its contents, a rich, dry stew of pork belly mingled with shreds of pungent kimchi appears.
Stir that in thoroughly with the white rice, breaking up the fried egg as you go, and you end up with something like kimchi fried rice…but better.

Considering the number of Korean friends I have, it's not surprising that I frequently end up in Korean restaurants. But aside from when I travel, three meals in two days is more than I've had of practically any cuisine available here. It's one of the beautiful things about living in NYC, I guess—there's so much variety, you hardly ever have to eat the same thing twice.

3rd Ward Open House: Art, hipsters, cookies and 'cue

DL and I made the trek to Williamsburg for 3rd Ward's Open House Party, which promised "All day arts...and crafts swap!" Amid the costume try-ons, nude model sessions, workshops, and badminton, in the narrow alley between two buildings hot dogs and hamburgers were sizzling on the grill. We decided to satisfy our bellies before moving on to explore the rest of the space.
The burgers we got were perfect backyard bbq specimens: homey and satisfying. They came with a side of potato chips, which seemed exactly right.
Black pepper lace cookie Lavendar shortbread
Later, when AT and RA joined us, we tried some of the cookies being sold in one of the rooms. I got a black pepper lace cookie (left) and a rosemary shortbread (right). I'd never tasted cookies like these before, and I was delighted by the herbal or spicy notes paired with buttery sweetness.

We spent the rest of the afternoon trying on wigs and hats and looking around the artist's workshop spaces. If I lived closer to the area, I'd consider a metalwork or woodshop class, but for now only the promise of burgers and cookies is enough to get me out there.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Greeking out at Artopolis

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It was only a matter of days before I would lose my dear roommate AT to the charms of RA and his pup, and though their new home was only a few miles away, our almost-two years as roomies was ending. In the spirit of finally exploring our neighborhood together, we spent an afternoon wandering around Astoria, poking our heads into the numerous European supermarkets in our area and sampling halvah, cheeses, and cream-filled mini croissants.

We had begun heading up towards Ditmars when we came upon Artopolis, a large Greek bakery nestled into the corner of a small, otherwise-nondescript strip mall. The bakery was far from the tiny, down-home operations we had been checking out all afternoon; their goods were beautifully arranged in a series of wicker baskets, clear jars, glass cabinets, wooden boards, and even quaint little cabinets. They had covered their cookies and sweets with clean white netting, which gave everything a rather romantic appearance. Sort of like wedding veils for pastries.
Faced with such a selection, I couldn't resist sampling at least a few. When I learned that I could mix and match at will as long as the cookies were of the same price, I had a jolly time picking out a variety of treats. AT watched in amusement as I flitted from basket to basket, my crinkly plastic glove shielding the cookies from hand germs—or my hand from cookie germs.
With great restraint, I only got six or seven different items for us to try. After ordering an iced coffee for me and a hot chocolate for AT, we were ready to sit down for a cookie break.

I didn't really know what I had picked out, but as we sampled each one, we figured them out—there were a few savory, sunflower seed–covered logs; some pistachio shortbread; a salty sesame twist; a jam-filled walnut cookie; a sugar-dusted nut cookie; and a few varieties of taralli. We couldn't determine what some of the spices and flavorings were, but all of them were pretty good. I liked the iced coffee too—its color was surprisingly light, like the shade of mugicha or boricha, but it tasted clean and strong.

As we ate, the paranoid AT became convinced that the bakery was a front for Mafia activity, as all around us powerful-looking older men encased in leather jackets and chest hair were loitering, accompanied by young, hot women in tight clothing. I wasn't quite so persuaded, but I was intrigued by the mysterious, heavily Greek vibe in the air that day; we had been passing people on the street all afternoon in blue and white, waving the Greek flag or with the flag plastered on their clothing. Later, when we walked through Astoria Park, there was a hoard of Greek teenagers hanging out by the water, revving their engines and doing burnouts, which filled the air with acrid plumes of toxic white smoke.

The next morning we found out it had been the day of the Greek Independence Parade.
I leave you with this picture. And yes, I am twenty-seven and utterly juvenile.

Bland crab, delicious rice at Canton Gourmet

Inspired by FeistyFoodie's exuberant write-up, I met up with XJS and MH at Canton Gourmet for a Sunday lunch, a clean, brightly lit restaurant on Prince Street in Flushing. We were especially interested in the Dungeness crab over steamed rice noodles FF had written about; XJS had been talking about a similar dish that she'd had (and loved) with the crab served over sticky rice, and both of us were eager to see if Canton Gourmet's version was as good as it sounded.
Both the menu and the decor of Canton Gourmet feature large, food porn-quality pictures of their best dishes, and it was one such picture that inspired us to order the above dish of (golden needle? can't remember the exact name) fried rice, which was excellent. The grains of rice were perfectly chewy and coated with flavor, and along with the yellow raisins, scallions, and eggs, the shreds of scallop/dried fish lent an addictive savory note. I kept going back for more of this one.
We also got an order of sauteed pea shoots, which were delicious. The cooked greens were tender and fresh and seasoned with just the right amount of salt to bring out their natural nutty flavor.
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After we'd made it through most of the rice and the pea shoots, the Dungeness crab dish was delivered to our table. XJS and I dug in excitedly, but MH hung back, stating that she was too lazy to deal with picking out crab meat and scooping out bowls of crab-infused rice noodles for each of us instead.

Unfortunately, the most anticipated dish of this meal ended up being a disappointment (and isn't that always the case?). I had hoped for some really fresh and sweet-tasting crabmeat, but this was average, and even sort of bland. I thought the noodles would fare better, having had a chance to soak up all the briny, garlicky flavor of the crab, but as the meat and its juices were bland to begin with, so were the noodles. I added some chili paste to my bowl in an effort to punch up their flavor, but it didn't help much.

I'd passed Canton Gourmet many times before, in the past on the way to Laifood/66 (which has changed owners since and gone totally downhill) and then later when I became obsessed with the soup dumplings and stir-fried nian gao at Noodle House. Until I read about it on FF's blog, I'd never thought to enter. But now, based on this meal, I'd definitely return again…just not for the crab!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Switching 'wiches at 'wichcraft

I'd heard a lot about the great, albeit expensive sandwiches at 'wichcraft, and when SYB dropped by my office for lunch (and to lend me his iBook) we went for a quick meal at the 20th Street location. 'wichcraft uses cute markers for servers to deliver orders to tables; as you can see, we got Tea and Mayo as ours.
I decided to get the grilled Gruyère, which came on rye bread with caramelized onions. It was good, of course, but I also realized after it arrived that I could have made this exact same sandwich myself. And if it were up to me, I would have added another sweet or acidic element to this sandwich to cut its richness. The caramelized onions were nice, but they weren't much of a presence.
Chicken club, 'wichcraft
SYB and I decided to swap sandwich halves (I love eating with food friends) and his choiceroasted turkey paired with avocado, bacon, onion relish, and aioli on a ciabatta rollwas tasty though not mind-blowing. A good sandwich, for me, is one where the ingredients combine to become better than the sum of its parts, and while I could tell that each element was of high quality, the whole did not become something extraordinary.

I'd say 'wichcraft is a decent choice if you don't mind the prices; it's not exactly a rip-off, but their offerings aren't bargains, either. For me, I would just as soon skip the place and layer on the turkey myself

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A China 1 risotto no-no, but a high from Little Pie

Braised short ribs and coconut rice, China1
In celebration of BH's birthday, ten of us gathered at China 1 for an evening of dining, dancing, and drinking. Most of us had hung out at China 1 several other times for parties, but no one had ever eaten a meal there and I didn't know what to expect.
Seared scallops and risotto, China1
OL and I split two entrees, the braised shortribs with jasmine rice and roasted carrots, and the seared jumbo scallops and risotto. Both of these were mediocre (and they weren't that cheap either). The ribs and scallops were just okay and the carrots were almost raw, but the risotto was the real problem. While its flavor was good, the grains of rice were hard and undercooked.

Normally I'm not one to make a fuss in restaurants, but the rice was so gummy and stiff we asked our waitress for a more thoroughly cooked portion. She replied that this risotto was her favorite because of its texture, but when we insisted, she brought out a small plate of what turned out to be the same, still-undercooked dish. When she came over a third time to check in, both OL and I just sort of shook our heads. "Still kind of hard," we said, "but it's fine, forget it." It was at that point that another server came over and snootily informed us that risotto "is supposed to be like that." Well, well.
Ben's bday pie
So the highlight of my meal was actually the dessert that JS and TC had collaborated on, Little Pie Company's incredible Sour Cream Apple Walnut Pie. I first tried this when DL brought it to a Thanksgiving potluck several years ago, and I've loved it ever since. It's filled with tender, creamy layers of thinly sliced apple, and topped by an insanely rich and delicious streusel—so thick and hearty it's like having a giant cookie baked on top. It's really sweet, but despite my aversion for too much sugar even I could have gone for a second slice. It's Little Pie Company's top bestseller and a total crowd-pleaser, both for good reason.

This can be a lesson about sticking to specialities—China 1 is a fun bar but a meh restaurant, whereas Little Pie Company, which bakes pastry and not parties, gets a big thumbs up.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hello, cupcake

Red velvet cupcake, 73 Irving
The last bite of a red velvet cupcake from 71 Irving Place Coffee & Tea Bar, where I went on a blind date. Let's just say it was the last for that, too.

The cupcake was a success, at least...moist, and the frosting tasted like cheesecake.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Eisenberg's is an Eisen-don't

When I met up with the ever-gregarious SYB at the origami class he was holding for LB's coworkers, I learned that several days earlier he had befriended two visiting Frenchwomen and appointed himself their official tour guide. So once class was over, we went to meet up with them at Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop for dinner.

Eisenberg's, which recently added "The Spitzer" (hot tongue on rye) to their menu, has always been located across the street from my office, but I'd only eaten there once before. This second time, the four of us ordered a selection of classic sandwiches: a Reuben, an egg salad, a tuna salad, and a grilled cheese. We also got a chocolate egg cream, a vanilla egg cream, and two lime rickeys.
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Both MB and JA seemed to enjoy their egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches, but they wrinkled up their noses at the lime rickeys and vanilla egg cream, saying that they tasted like medicine. I didn't try either one so I can't comment, but I did think my chocolate egg cream was pretty decent.
My grilled cheese with tomato, however, was disappointing. It was nothing more than several mealy, tasteless tomato slices and two slices of American cheese between toasted white bread. I'm down with non-fancy grilled cheese (vs. figs and Gruyère and whatnot, though I love that too) but here the bread wasn't buttery or crisp enough and the tomatoes just really killed it. It wasn't terrible, but it was utterly boring and I couldn't help thinking about how I could have thrown together a much better one at home.
Reuben, Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop
The Reuben was better, although still not anything to get excited about.

Eisenberg's has long been lauded as a quintessential New York institution, but I wasn't impressed when I went before, and it was the same this time. Even ignoring the disturbing fly problem (they were everywhere), their offerings are simply not that awesome. The narrow, old-school coffee shop is an experience to be sure, but if you're in it for the food, the place is certainly more "miss" than "can't."

Especially when Shake Shack is just a block away.