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Pumpkin Pie Teepee

Ok, I was just dogging that newish Ritz commercial that uses "Melt With You," (click the news tab and look in the lower left corner) and I got sidetracked in my disgust. But upon further viewings, I must admit that I actually like their use of cartoony line art combined with larger than life Ritz crackers as other objects like Christmas ornaments, serving tray and hat. It's very '60s, despite using the '80s music.

The style reminds me of a cooking pamphlet "Let's Bake," printed by Robin Hood Flour (I think the brand only exists in Canada now) that I've always admired for its illustrations. I love photographed objects and textures placed into hand drawn settings…though off the top of my head I'm having trouble coming up with any other examples.



Nothing in Common

'Tis the season of design bazaars, boutique sales and the like. And I always have the intention of attending a few, but inevitably end up at an outlet mall. The suburbs are genetically coded in me. A. I'm cheap. B. I'm a chunk. Like I said, suburban. While I admire the charming, well-curated, indie ethos, mass produced items tend to fit me and my pocketbook a little better.

Woodbury Common is almost like a little ski village (not that I've ever skied or visited a resort town) with a cluster of outdoor stores nestled at the foot of a mountain. I suppose I'm equating the set up with a series of alpine lodges since I only seem to visit around December when it's frosty and bone chilling. The piped in music is kind of unsettling. They really seem to be playing that bouncy Paul McCartney "Wonderful Christmastime" song an awful lot this year. It has never driven me so insane before.

I don't even hit half the stores. Some are irrelevant like Yankee Candle, Sunglass Hut (they also have a Sunglass Station) or NauticaKids, the whole designer row with Dolce & Gabbana and Versace does little for me, and some like Lladro just baffle me (the word always registers in my brain as lardo, and the porcelain figurines are equally confusing. They had these stores when I was in Hong Kong, which seemed even weirder than being in the Catskills).

I really didn't buy much, but I?m more about the experience (and the Applebee's). I settled on a green and white striped wool sweater from Banana Republic, purple velvet blazer, turquoise sequined cardigan and ruffly mint green sheer blouse at Gap, crazy puffy (not furry) white Khombu boots at Famous Footwear (I normally wouldn't look twice at these, but the snow had affected my brain) and red sturdy slippers at J. Crew (as a gift for James, he bought me the green version. Never mind that they were men's). So, I basically bought gifts for myself and will probably do so again in 2006.


Woodbury Common * 498 Red Apple Court, Central Valley, NY

Mustard Seed Magic

Sunday evening I was inspired to make a few recipes from the January 2006 (typing 2006 is really frightening) Food & Wine. You never know what will jump out at you, but I liked the simplicity and flair of Sai Viswanath’s Indian inflected creations from DeWolf Tavern in Rhode Island. I decided on replicating two dishes, the garam masala-crusted chicken with fig jus and green bean-chile stir-fry. The tumeric-ginger cauliflower also sounded appealing, but I figured I’d save that side for another night.

Ingredients_1  I was hoping to use things I had around the house. All I had to run out in the freezing afternoon cold for were green beans, dried figs (which I thought I had—I swear I have every other dried fruit known to man all baggied up in the cupboard) and a jalapeño (I always have birds eye chiles on hand, but didn’t want to deviate. As it turned out, I could’ve gotten away with a little extra heat, the jalapeño was nearly imperceptible in the beans). The recipes were straightforward enough that this could’ve been a weeknight dinner (I try to reserve Sundays for time consuming endeavors) though you can’t totally ignore the chicken, it needs a little tending to.

Roastchicken James asked if I had used five spice, which I hadn’t, it was garam masala. But that made sense. It had never occurred to me before that the combo of cumin, coriander, black pepper, cloves and cinnamon (of course, there are countless variations) is totally an Indian five spice powder. I didn’t make my own, but went with a scoop from a 99-cent packet of Swad brand blend. I’m obsessed with Swad, seriously, but I’ll save my fervor for another time. The oil and spice slathered bird smelled very sweet as it roasted.

Greenbeans While at The Met (which isn't great, but compared to the world's most heinous Key Food it's almost heavenly), picking up ingredients, I tried to find an ice cream that would compliment the leftover caramel sauce I’d made the weekend before to go with sticky toffee pudding. I ended up with a pint of the limited edition Haagan Dazs eggnog flavor, but haven’t tried it yet since I was too full after eating dinner and downright tipsy after swigging a bottle of Czech beer, also a party remainder. I didn’t realize how strong the effects of 10% alcohol actually were outside of the celebratory context. I guess that’s why they call it social drinking.

P.S. Did anyone else use the '70s Keys to Reading textbooks with stoner titles like "Mustard Seed Magic" and "Air Pudding and Wind Sauce"?

Outlet Mall Applebee’s

1/2  "It doesnt look like the picture." Well, of course not. I'm not sure when James got the idea that what shows up on the plate should actually resemble the sparkly semi-appetizing promotional shots. What do you expect from an outlet mall eatery, anyway?

Without intention, the Woodbury Common Applebees has become a Christmas shopping tradition. Some might equate Rockefeller Center, classic shop window displays from Macys and Bloomingdales, the skating rink, giant Christmas tree and the like with the holidays. I'm beginning to associate tour busses, Le Creuset seconds and marked down Gap goods with the season.

Applebees is no great shakes, but compared to the food court offerings (Wasabi Jane's Rice and Noodle Works, anyone?) its no contest. Plus, they have alcohol. And if you go after 7pm the wait isnt even insane (why people will wait up to an hour for chain restaurants is beyond me). I'm not scared of Applebees, even after being told by friends a few weeks ago that this very restaurant (not location) made them go vegetarian two years ago after being food poisoned.

I started with a nice Malibu-spiked Bahama Mama. Classy, and it paired nicely with the nachos, which were kind of unremarkable. I wanted there to be more stuff smothering the chips. Lots of stuff, i.e. melted cheese is practically an Applebees hallmark. I then eschewed the riblets and steak and shrimp combos for a sassy sandwich with Latino flair, Ruebens Cuban Panini. Never mind that by definition a cubano is pressed, people are freaking panini crazy like they were for wraps like five years ago. It wasn't horrible, though the ham had a faint chemical undertone. The bread was the strange (yet tasty) component, it almost appeared deep-fried, crisp, spongy and oily at the same time like a beignet.

And speaking of crunchy, sweet dough, we had to finish with their new dessert the Crispy Bread Pudding, despite already being stuffed silly. It also didn't look like the picture. There wasn't any whipped cream, there wasn't any caramel drizzled over the scoop of vanilla ice cream. The dipping sauce came in a plastic to go container rather than a proper serving dish and we were given two spoons instead of forks. How are you supposed to dip the damn sugar and cinnamon crusted bread chunks with a spoon? I like super sweet sweets, but this concoction almost put me into a coma. Of course, we cleaned the plate anyway. (12/10/05)

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What a Sap

I’m so mad that I missed the maple syrup smell again. Last time, I guess it just passed me by. Yesterday, I was home sick and sad to hear midtown sweet scent reports. I’m not even a big fan of maple, it’s just the principle.

Maple Which reminds me of one of my first NYC culture shocks: no maple bars. Seriously, I had no idea this was a regional thing, every grocery store and chain like Dunkin’ Donuts (which are all going out of business on the west coast, despite thriving out here) carries maple bars. It's not like the NW is exactly teeming with maple trees, either. The closest I’ve come in the last seven years has been maple dips at Tim Hortons in eastern Canada. They were typically round with a hole, not long and bun shaped, but the treat was still coated in tan, tree sap tinged icing.

While I’m on a maple nostalgia trip, there was a weird incident in first grade where we’d had maple bars for lunch. And then while playing handball during recess afterwards, this other girl named Krista (Hagen, I think) who came in the middle of the year so she was weird, smiled and her teeth were all brown and maple-y like they were frosting coated. It was kind of obscene, I tried not to stare too hard at her pearly beiges. The thing is, it turned out that her teeth always looked like that and I’d just never noticed until that moment. How did a six-year-old’s teeth get so rotten?


So, I've finally deduced that it takes me about six months to actually try a new restaurant. Well-intentioned or not, I never seem to get to all the places on my list, even when they're walking distance from my apartment. And in NYC, nobody cares about a restaurant after six months.

I recall good things being said about Taku when it opened this summer. I don't know if they've kept things up at the same caliber, but I was unexpectedly under whelmed. James flat out didn't like food, which surprised me since he's never extremely passionate about anything, let alone cuisine.

My sashimi trio included…um, I can't even say for sure because it wasn't explained well and I'm not a raw fish whiz, I think uni and two different white fleshed fish varieties, along with a couple different seaweed salad tufts. It was fresh and just toothsome enough to remind me that I should eat Japanese food more often.

James ordered the wings, which I was interested in too. The sambal coating and cucumber cream dip sounded like a fun riff on Buffalo wings. They were presented prettily on a long ceramic plate and wrapped with a thin leaf. Unfortunately, the meat wasn't fully cooked, once you bit off the saucy exterior, the flesh was raw. It's a good thing neither of us are panicky about avian flu, or more realistically salmonella. I guess we should've said something, but it didn't feel worth the bother. There was a weird dispiriting vibe in the room, despite the surface soothing tones and music. Nothing overt, but the service managed to feel spacey and clunky, like I didn't want to do anything to further interactions or conversations. So, we kept mum on the sashimi wings.

I enjoyed my Taku ramen, which was ideal for a pork fanatic like myself. The tonkatsu broth was laden with thin slices of Berkshire pork and a nice substantial piece of rasher style bacon. The weird thing is that I expected more flavor, the broth was oddly flat and even the tiniest bit bitter. I think my taste buds could be tainted by my almost daily bowl of cheap Yagura chicken udon. I'm sure the stuff is teeming with salt and msg, but it's insanely savory and addictive. Maybe it's dashi derived vs. pork bone broth? No expert in Japanese soups, I'd always imagined pork broth to be the stronger flavored of the two.

James envied my ramen and loathed his scallops so much that he actually went home and ate a bowl of instant tom yam noodles. I thought his entre looked fine, though I became scared to taste it when he began insisting it was laced with mayonnaise. I wouldn't be surprised, Japanese are a tad mayo crazy, but the emulsified condiment wasn't listed as an ingredient. I only recall apple puree (as a bed for the seared sesame crusted scallops), celery root (a few scattered slices) and holy basil (in the form of lightly drizzled oil) as components. The celery root did appear to be coated in a white creamy sauce. I don't think the quality was poor, it just wasn't what he had had in mind.

Despite being offered a new job mere hours before this meal, we couldn't agree on whether this was a celebratory dinner or not. I said no at the end because it didn't go well and I wasn't feeling elated like I should've been. James said yes, since it ended up being more than we'd (ok, he'd) normally spend on food for a casual weeknight ($81). I don't care what he says, it didn't count–I'm getting another dinner.

Taku * 116 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY


What is up with all the new cheesey commercials (pun totally intended) using decades-old one-hit-wonders? Modern English’s “Melt With You” is not so cleverly being used by Ritz Crackers. I guess it’s been a while now, probably ’97 or so, when they used this same some for Burger King. It’s bad enough when music gets subverted this way, but it’s double annoying when more than one brand attaches their name to a tune, even if it’s eight years later (Currently, there’s a Geico ad where the gecko is made to do a robot dance and I don’t know what song is in the background, but it’s also used in a Revlon commercial). Maybe I’m just hypersensitive because this is the kind of request I’d get at work, making sure that a new ad doesn’t copy older ones. I'm sure my searches aren't exhaustive, but it's not that hard to avoid aping.

But the “Melt With You” inanity is nothing compared to EMF’s (does Kraft know what the acronym stands for?) “Unbelievable” morphing into “Crumbelievable” as a soundtrack to bouncing, tumbling Cheese Crumbles. I absolutely loathed that song when it was ubiquitous on the airwaves, so my reaction has nothing to do with nostalgia or an aversion to sellouts. Perhaps it has more to do with how my gender and age puts me in the mommy demographic who would presumably respond favorably to this ditty, and that makes me feel like hurling orange processed dairy chunks.

I can’t wait until they use “Who Let the Dogs Out” for Ballpark Franks. Um, they haven’t done that yet, have they?

Super Casual Holiday Dinner Party

My Super Casual Holiday Dinner Party was originally intended as a post-Thanksgiving feast since it’s never worth my while to cook anything substantial on the fourth Thursday of November. Everyone goes out of town except me (though this year I was able to rustle up two friends to go to Chestnut). So, I waited for the following weekend, but by this Saturday, Christmas spirit seemed to have taken over. Maybe it was the snow that fell that evening, that December was on the calendar or that we’d bought and decorated a tree that afternoon.

No matter, I was surprised at the number of RSVPers. Usually it seems like 30% will bow out, but I must’ve picked a good weekend because almost all were takers. I initially was anticipating 15 guests, that somehow swelled to 30, then subsided to somewhere in the 20s. I threw a similar shindig last year and attempted table seating, which was nightmarish.

This year it was totally buffet style, a mix of real (“blemished” Thomas Paul aviary plates off ebay, those green, blue and orange Isaac Mizrahi plates that everyone seems to own, and some caprice patterned Eva Zeisel, not the new all-white Crate and Barrel edition) and Chinet plates, classy plastic Costco cutlery that looked like metal, and everyone sprawled out, some in chairs, some on the floor. That’s why I called it Super Casual. I’ve got the food down…presentation skills, not so much.

The bizarre thing is that our apartment is spacious by NYC standards, probably close to 2,000 sq. ft. but the kitchen is woefully small. I would gladly give up the second rarely used bathroom (but never the second refrigerator—that’s pure decadence) for more cooking space.

I hate to admit that most of my recipes came from Epicurious. Cooking is like drawing to me. I can totally render something if I’m looking at it, but I can’t reproduce images from my mind. I like having a recipe to follow. I might know that I want duck and a citrus sauce with some sort of twist, but I can’t envision the exact end product. Instead, I have to browse for something to fit my criteria. The orange honey and tea sauce I ultimately settled on was exactly the type of accompaniment I had in mind but couldn’t articulate.

I don’t really get too esoteric or foody-ish, I’m very much a grocery store girl. A majority of my ingredients came from Fresh Direct (weird because I’ve only used them three times, and only for Thanksgiving) Trader Joe’s and Rossman Farms, nothing fancy. The arugula was organic because it cost the same as regular. I mean, a carrot is a carrot and no one’s going to spaz over my using store brand sour cream. And if they did, I wouldn’t be hanging around them for long. Food, for me, is fun, a social vehicle, not something to show off. 

I’ll freely admit to being a pathetic photographer (instead, I ramble on and on with words). Cooking for 25 can be harrowing, particularly in a tiny kitchen. And my serving dishes and pots couldn’t accommodate the quantity. It was all about batches and hoping for the best. So, just getting the food coordinated and on the table was a feat in itself. After an hour of sating guests with snacks (vegetable pate, duck mousse, muhammara, baked brie, and Asian sweets) and alcohol, it seemed cruel to make them wait while I snapped shots of all the dishes. You’ll have to use your imagination for much of it. Though I suspect attendees might soon come forward with additional photographic illustration.

The Menu:
Spicy Pumpkin Soup with Mexican Cream and Toasted Pepitas
Moroccan Arugula Salad with Beets and Ricotta Salata
Duck Breasts with Orange Honey and Tea Sauce
Carmelized Spiced Carrots
Jeweled Rice with Dried Fruit
Sticky Toffee Pudding
Mulled Apple Cider

Surprisingly good. I kind of hate roasting and peeling peppers, it’s a pain, but the end effect is worth it. It almost looked and tasted like the dip contained dairy, maybe it was the ground walnuts.

Mexican Pumpkin Soup
The original recipe made 14 servings and I upped it one and a half times to get 21 bowls worth. But I’m not culinarily savvy enough to get the proportions right. I didn’t think a straight 1.5 ratio would was necessarily correct, as nine cups of onions seemed excessive. I cut it down to maybe 7 ½ and to me, it felt a bit overpowering. I tried to cut the rawness with a little more milk and broth, a dash of sugar. I’d used all the canned pumpkin up, and then remembered a giant gross can of pre-seasoned pie filling that I’d accidentally bought a few years back and didn’t have the heart to throw away. It’d been hiding in the back of the pasta and grain shelf for ever. I tossed in a big blob, and I swear to god it saved this soup from allium overdose.

Salad Moroccan Arugula Salad With Beets and Ricotta Salata
Perfect, except that I didn’t have any serving bowls that could hold four pounds of beets and two pounds of arugula, which I didn’t deduce until after whisking the full dressing amount in the intended bowl. After being eaten down 75%, I threw in the remaining vegetables and cheese crumbles. I ate from round two and it was fine, not lacking in dressing. The first batch probably had a bit extra, whatever, it all works out in the end. Once again, I was thwarted in my quest for designer produce. I envisioned candy striped beets for this dish, but they were out of stock.

Duck_1Duck Breasts with Orange Honey and Tea Sauce
  I have a disproportionate amount of vegetarian friends, so my worries that we’d run out of duck were unfounded. I just wanted to cook poultry that wasn’t turkey. And goose is crazy expensive. Duck breasts were a good compromise, the best part of the bird and easier to manage. No hardcore carving. I knew the sauce takes an eternity to reduce because I did one smart thing and tried this recipe out a few weeks ago (I rarely do that, I know you’re not supposed to use friends as guinea pigs but it usually turns out ok). You need to cook shallots in duck fat, which is rendered after the searing. So, I was smart enough to save the fat from my test run to get the sauce accomplished the day before the party. I only needed to rewarm it and finish it off with honey and a butt-load of butter.

Carrots Carmelized Spiced Carrots
I totally destroyed cookie sheets with this one. There was way more marinade than carrot (despite using six pounds of root vegetable). I felt bad just tossing the liquid, so I drizzled, no make that poured the dark brew over the carrots while roasting. It immediately occurred to me that the sugars in the pomegranate molasses were going to char like crazy, but I just went with it. About half way through I had to rescue the carrots and transfer them to a glass dish. The apartment was totally smoked up and the larger of the two sheets, crusted in black gooey ash. They didn’t taste blackened, however. I’d originally wanted maroon and other colorful carrots for this dish, but didn’t have time to scour farmer’s markets or specialty shops. These were run of the mill orange sticks, but the roasting, spices and sauce darken the flesh anyway, the fuchsia quality would’ve been muted.

Rice Jeweled Rice with Dried Fruit
Pretty simple and nice because it doesn’t need a lot of attention, more than anything it sits. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember to add the pistachios at the end. I made this dish again last night with leftover parboiled rice that wouldn’t fit in the pan during the party, and forgot the pistachios a second time.

Sticky Toffee Pudding
There are many variations on this sweet date cake, but I went with the version from last month’s Saveur. I don’t think it’s online yet. Maybe I’ll abuse copyright and type it out later. I couldn’t track down black treacle (everyone’s got Lyle’s golden syrup, but not the dark stuff) so I substituted molasses.

Sweets_1 At the left, assorted mithai, candied pistachios and Thai marzipan fruit, which is one of the cutest things in the world. Who would've thought to use mung bean paste to simulate ground almonds? By the point in the evening, bolstered by many glasses of wine, I became obsessed with explaining what mung beans were and had to drag out the Visual Food Encyclopedia and totally got librarian on everyone’s ass.

Spirited Hot Apple Cider
James was in charge of drinks and decided on a mulled apple cider. You couldn’t even imagine the trouble it took to track down applejack in our neighborhood (Carroll Gardens, which is hardly off the beaten path). I had this same exact trauma a few Thanksgivings ago when I needed apple brandy for a gravy.