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I really dont get the appeal of overstuffed burritos, particularly ones rife with rice. But I was looking for something quick, cheap and near Sixth Ave. and 12th St. where I would be attending a Halloween party an hour later. So, I went the taco route instead. But I wasnt aware of all the options, I dont like fast food places like Subway or those salad counters where youre on the spot and have to pick and choose. Choice is nice, but I'd rather just have some solid standards. I ended up with three sad soft tacos with some shredded pork, hot sauce, white cheese and sour cream. Each bite was dominated by the chewy creamy combo of flour tortilla and dairy, like an unbaked quesadilla. It certainly didnt kill me, and provided padding for a not-smart-for-a-Monday-night drinking binge.

Chipotle * 510 Sixth Ave., New York, NY

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday, Ikea. I realize 15% isn't much, but it's not often there's a storewide sale, so I took advantage. Oddly, only the Paramus location was participating, which was fine by me since Elizabeth is busted and rife with NYCers and Hicksville feels far on the LIE. At Paramus the workers are grown up white people, that's how you know you're in a real suburb (as opposed to ratty Elizabeth). Jobs that only minority teens will do in the city are performed by joe schmos in most parts of the country. I know I've lived here too long when smiling, helpful workers make me suspicious.

Everything is efficient, clean and well stocked, the dead opposite of picked over sour puss Elizabeth. There was a cart guy who actually offered to take ours as we were pushing them back to the store after loading our car. A woman comes around and takes plates and washes the tables while you're dining in the caf. The coke-bottle-spectacled cashier who seemed like a library shelver reject made small talk about the Hella Jongerius vase I'd purchased. "Do you read the Bergen Record"? Uh, no. Apparently, there had been an article on these vessels, which is why the stock had been nearly depleted–the white one I'd wanted was gone and we got the last pink one.

They had free sheet cake and there was more than enough to go around and there wasn't even a line (I could only imagine how this would play out in the Red Hook location, if it ever opens. It would be a messy mob scene, for sure) Um, I could do without their house reggae band, Verdict, who has been playing bad covers on more than one occasion. But that's a small price to pay for an otherwise sane shopping experience.

Ikea * 100 Ikea Dr., Paramus, NJ

The Bard of Snacking

We took a break from Westfield and went back to our original New Jersey locale in Westwood (apparently, having west in your township's name guarantees a Trader Joe's will set up shop). It's less mobbed than Westfield, but lacks a liquor license, which might have something to do with the huge A&P Liquors immediately next door. Westwood is cute and Martha Stewart-ish, they a small town shopping strip with two candy stores and a grassy gazebo. Oh, and a Melting Pot restaurant. I thought that chain had totally died out in the '80s.

I was pretty restrained in my buying. I used to go nuts buying unnecessary frozen items and sauces. I mean, I live in NYC, I don't need prepackaged pizza and Chinese food. I now stick to things that are more expensive and specialty here like maple syrup, vanilla beans, certain cheeses, spiced nuts, etc. And I always go overboard on sweets and snacks.

This time I was suckered in by a tin of the new stupidly named Monteblue & Populet (the original is Rosencrunch & Guildenstern) a walnut and blueberry caramel corn. Caramel corn is my nemesis, I absolutely can?t stop eating it once I start. (At Target I go crazy for their version with cranberries, and it's dangerous because it's packaged in this huge clear plastic container and priced cheaper than the smaller Poppycock.) I ate all eleven Monteblue & Populet servings in twenty four hours. Damn those Shakespearean puns and their tasty popcorn.

Trader Joe's * 20 Irvington St., Westwood, NJ

Everyone Needs a Pound of Poppers

Every Costco has a vibe. For instance, my old walking distance Sunset Park location was pure ghetto. Eh, not completely, but it's busted and crammed, there's that annoying cart conveyer belt to get to the second floor, and you can't browse or look at any single item for more than about two seconds because you?ll be forced out of the way by the endless crush of aggro shoppers. And I thought Costco was supposed to be all about food samples, which never seem have caught on in Brooklyn, or else the free tidbits were decimated by the time I showed up.

Despite moving up figuratively and geographically, this is still the closest Costco. We'll try others at all costs. As usual, any chain location not accessible by public transportation and even better, not in NYC, is a good bet. Staten Island, which I've tried once, wasn't horrible. But if you're going to pay the nine freaking dollars to cross the Verrazano you may as well go the extra mile into New Jersey (hmm, more than a few extra–I didn't realize Edison was 22 miles away, the same as the Yonkers Costco across from Stew Leonard?s, which takes twice as long to get to). Paramus used to be our NJ hot zone, but recently Edison has won us over with its unassuming charm, plus it feels more convenient (yet also not closer in distance).

Apparently, this is the Asian Costco (yes, Brooklyn's is the black and Hispanic one while Staten Island's is teaming with working class white folks) which was different, though not unexpected. This area is also home to the best Hong Kong Supermarket ever, and countless Indian restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, it?s not like Western Beef where they carry items to reflect the neighborhood. And no, T.G.I. Friday?s frozen Southwestern Egg Rolls don't count. I made due (or is that do–I'm always confounded by this phrase, though I certainly get the difference between bare and bear feet) with the woman independently selling eight varieties of caramel apples in the middle of the store. I don't know the logistics of that, but it reminded me of how you see in Malaysian malls. It felt foreign and old-timey at the same time.

We hit the bonanza. This is the only Costco I've been to with a comprehensive wine and alcohol section inside (as opposed to the Sunset Park one with an adjoining run of the mill liquor store). And the only one to stock the elusive-since-leaving-Portland, giant box of frozen jalepeno poppers. Ole!

My only complaint with Costco (because there must be at least one), once the crowd issue is eliminated, is the carts. They're impossible to push and/or steer when filled even modestly with the economy sized products on display.

Costco * 2210 Route 27 N., Edison, NJ

Cedar Tavern

I never know what to call this sliver between the east and west villages, below Union Square. I think some call it Greenwich Village, but Ive always thought that was a bit more west. I do know its kind of unexciting for dinner options, maybe its the NYU proximity. I worked on Fifth Ave. and 13th St. for a few years, and it was fine for lunch, but evening meals in a three-block radius were baffling. Fourteenth Street is lined with fast food, including Manhattans only Little Caesars. There are also plenty of mediocre Asian chains: Café Spice, Lemongrass Grill, LAnnan (Indian, Thai and Vietnamese).

I wanted to eat something inexpensive and non-bad before seeing Thumbsucker at the nearby Quad Cinema. (In the ‘90s, the façade was completely mustard yellow ‘70s and then once 2000 hit they finally gave it a remodel, which amusingly bumped it up a decade. Now its shiny, glass and metal ‘80s.) Cedar Tavern was it. Burgers, fries and beer. The cheeseburger was a prime specimen, though the limp greasy fries werent up to the same level. Of course, that didnt stop me from eating all my soggy starch strips anyway. I have the worst time turning down food.

I just remembered that I had been to Cedar Tavern once before, but I didn't eat. I went for drinks with a writing class after our last session. I was put off by how our instructor (who is clearly good at self-promotion–I see her face and byline all over the place) spent the evening sucking up to one of the young students whose father was a high powered editor. Unsurprisingly, this girl had just gotten a book deal. I've kind of soured on writing classes, if that isn't obvious enough from my stunted writing style.

Cedar Tavern * University Pl., New York, NY

Grilled Cheese Salad Can’t be Far Behind

This was the best McDonald’s salad I’ve had so far, and that’s not just because my head cold has rendered my taste buds numb. None of the lettuce was browning or wilted and I actually received croutons and ranch dressing with my BLT Ranch salad, which has never happened before. I didn’t even know McDonald’s had croutons (though when I get them with my Wendy’s salad–every time, thank you–I stash them in my drawer because I can’t bear to throw food away even when I don’t need or want it. The mini packs came in handy one night when I stayed late at work and was starving). Weird. Aren’t there rules and guidelines for franchise consistency? I mean, this isn’t a case of every order being different because it’s handmade and artisanal. This is characterless, prepackaged fare and I'm not going to stand for deviation.


Tom Yuck?

Ok, it might seem hypocritical to talk about something like tom yam pizza after just dissing Rachael Ray’s boo-sotto, but I never said I was classy. I’m harder on Americans than foreigners. I love the home cook, I hesitate to say house wife, geared sections of SE Asian publications like The Star. The food is almost all novel and atypical to me, so I don’t have issues if they’re oversimplifying or bastardizing recipes. 

That’s why I have no problems with Sylvia Tan’s books like Mad About Food. She doesn’t get too nuts, but does have a recipe for tom yam seafood pizza. So does Anya Von Bremzen in Terrific Pacific, the 1995 cookbook that totally got me started on my SE Asian kick. I’ve adapted the two into my own version.

Malaysians are crazy for anything tom yum, kind of how Americans equate pad Thai with Thai cuisine. By the way, Thai food sucks in Malaysia, it’s either bland and tame or Chinese food in disguise (same with Singapore and Hong Kong). I refused to believe this and couldn’t understand it since they share a border. Penang is less than one hundred miles from Thailand, like from NYC to Philadelphia (though some would argue that we can’t get cheesesteaks right). But Malaysians make anything tom yum: noodles, potato chips, buns, and yes, pizza (at Pizza Hut, no less). Who am I to buck a trend?

I was home alone tonight and trying to come up with Tomyumrawsomething that used up odds and ends cluttering up the fridge and freezer, and this was it. I used enough frozen products to make Clarence Birdseye proud: lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, pizza dough and shrimp. The limes weren’t frozen, but ancient. Unfortunately, the half bell pepper and red onion I also intended to salvage had to be nixed since both were on the cusp of decomposing. I really cleaned house. I’d used up every last wisp of flour while making lamb pies on Sunday, so I had to improvise with cake flour, which was no biggie since it was simply for dusting

Cheese isn’t a must for this dish, but mozzarella is mild enough to not offend. But this evening I only had generic cheddar, American cheese, Chavrie goat, Pecorino Romano, light Laughing Cow cheese and a gruyere on hand (huh, that’s a lot more cheese than I realized, plus there was a moldy fontina butt end in the crisper), none of which seemed wise melted with seafood. But I went wild and grated the narrow remainder of gruyere since this was a pantry streamlining exercise.

Tom Yum Pizza

1 lime
1 teaspoon olive oil

½ tablespoon minced lemongrass

½ tablespoon minced ginger

8 ounces peeled, halved shrimp (squid works too)

2 tablespoons tom yum paste

1 squirt fish sauce

1 teaspoon sambal oelek

1 pound ball pizza dough

5 ounces sliced mushrooms, oyster preferred

Small handful coarsely chopped cilantro

2 kaffir lime leaves, shredded

Mozzarella cheese (optional)

Combine ginger, lemongrass, olive oil and juice from half the lime. Toss in shrimp and let marinade for up to one hour.

Tomyumbowls_1Mix tom yum paste, the rest of lime juice, fish sauce and sambal. Set aside.

Roll out dough and place on lightly oiled cookie sheet (preferably pizza pan).

Spread tom yum sauce over dough and top with shrimp, cut side down, and mushrooms. Sprinkle with cilantro and lime leaves. Mozzarella is optional at this point. Gross as it sounds, I’ve made it that way and it was tasty.

Bake at 500˚F for 10 to 12 minutes.


It turned out satisfactorily, the cheese was just accent enough, but over all the pie was too salty. I’d use less tom yum paste and fish sauce next time, and probably increase the amount of shrimp. Those adjustments are reflected in the recipe above.

I’m a Hater, Not a Lover

I was re-reminded by the recent New York Times article “Being Rachael Ray: How Cool is That?” (which will likely be gone in a few days) that there are two kinds of people in this world: the Rachael Ray lovers (actually, I’m having a tough time finding any proper fan sites whatsoever) and the haters. No in-betweens. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I hate the woman because I’m more mature than that (hate the game, not the playa? What sick game is this anyway?) but yeah, she’s painful to watch.

The last Portland visit where I had conversations with both of my parents, Christmas ’03, Rachael Ray’s name came up totally unprompted. Out of the blue my mom started in on how she couldn’t stand the giggly TV personality. Agreed. She loathes the general population, perhaps even more than I do.

Later that afternoon, I stopped by my dad’s house to be a good daughter, and in an equally unsolicited manner he brought up how great Rachel Ray was. I held my tongue since his middling taste wasn’t exactly news to me, and we had the kind of relationship where it was easier to simply go along rather than create conflict and have to explain why something is so bad. However, if my mom brings up her fondness for things like The View (to be fair, she’s finally given up on The View and now tapes Ellen—at least it’s not Oprah) or The Kite Runner, I will not hold back.

During this holiday vacation, I also discovered that both parents seemed to have a propensity for watching westerns, which I’d never been aware of previously. My dad even went as far as claiming that his new bratty Maltese puppy (purchased to keep him company during an unwelcome early retirement) Bianca (odd name choice, considering that years ago I’d been told that was the original name picked for me. How I ultimately ended up with the considerably more mundane Krista, is beyond me), enjoyed westerns. Let me guess, Bianca’s a Rachael Ray fanatic too?

It’s baffling to me how a Rachael Ray lover and a Rachael Ray hater could be married for twenty years. Could “staying together for the children” really trump such fundamental differences? I don’t think I would ever be able to weather a long or short term relationship, knowing that my significant other had no issues with the relentlessly upbeat or asininely cheery.

My oversimplified criteria for deciding if a guy is worth your time or not has always been: 1. Do they make you laugh? 2. Do you want to touch them? Now, I’ll have to add 3. Do they see anything wrong with a dish called boo-sotto? (it’s not for Halloween) to the list.

Sheepish Endeavor

I like cooking, though I probably enjoy planning and eating more, but I don’t revel in the act of preparing food like it’s some sensual ritual or zen process. My favorite thing is fussing around with menu ideas (I’m already fixating on what I can make—duck, not turkey—for a post-Thanksgiving dinner party that I fear won’t be well attended despite not falling on the holiday proper when everyone else seems to have places to be except for me). Perhaps that’s why the idea of being a chef has never appealed to me. Not that I’d want to be a party planner or caterer either. My cooking ambivalence is why I rarely record what I make, plus I use recipes, not things out of my head. But I’m trying to document a random dish here and there, just for the sake of practice.

* * *

LambingredientsWith the temperature finally starting to dip, Individual Lamb Pies from the latest Martha Stewart Living (I read it at work, if you must know) seemed seasonally appropriate. Besides, hers looked so cute with the little holes punched from the crust, and it gave me an excuse to purchase some relatively unnecessary kiwi green Le Creuset petite casseroles (two, rather than four because I’m cheap—I had to scrounge around the apartment in search of two other appropriate vessels, and settled on little Pyrex bowls ).

Everyone knows you’re supposed to read recipes thoroughly before attempting them, but I flaunted convention and there was trouble. I didn’t realize the lamb had to cook for two hours, that the pies had to refrigerate 30 minutes before baking, and I didn’t think to check the rarely used tub of shortening (it had gone rancid). So, I used all butter and barely squeaked by with the stick and a half on hand. I used every last poof of flour, exactly 2 1/2 cups worth. The rolling pin and board had to be dusted with old cake flour.

But it wasn’t a disaster by any means. The crust just didn’t seem as flaky as it could’ve been, and the pies weren’t ready until after 11pm, which isn’t all that unusual for Sunday evening when I always stay up too far past midnight in denial of rapidly approaching Monday.

CookedpiesI made an equally autumnal arugula, goat chese, fig and toasted walnut salad to tide me over. But it was one of those Cooking Light recipes, which are generally better than you’d expect (often the light aspect comes more from portion sizes than ingredients and I end up eating two servings, totally defeating the original purpose), though their salad dressings skew the vinegar to oil proportion in favor of the acid, which can come on too strong.

The benefit of cooking four pies for two people is that you can eat another the following night. The leftover pie was way more flavorful than the original, but didn’t look as charming minus the mini crock.

Mercadito Grove

I'm scared of small plates, big prices kinds of places. Neither hole-in-the-wall authentic nor burritos-and-hard-shell-tacos wrong, Mercadito is akin to La Palapa. The food is pricier, creative and surprisingly good. I was with two friends researching micheladas, and our waiter kept disparaging them and trying to get us to try margaritas. Ive heard theyre good (and more expensive, certainly) but that wasnt the point. I had to have beer cocktails. We shared a guacamole sampler with three styles: traditional, mango…hmm, and a third one I cant recall. I guess I wasnt impressed. This was supplemented by tacos with carnitas, tilapia and huitalacoche (not all together). Tiny and four to a plate, they were more satisfying than you would be led to believe. By the time we left, I'd been dubbed “Chelada” by our schmoozy waiter. I suppose there are worse thing than being called a spicy beer.

Mercadito Grove * 100 Seventh Ave. S., New York, NY