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Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches

2shovel Nicky’s is just what I had expected from a BoCoCa (I said it) banh mi: lacking compared to its Chinatown counterparts, a touch pricey, yet acceptable in a pinch. There’s nothing appalling about them and the busy spot seems welcome on Atlantic Avenue.

Banh_miTheir stubby subs are smaller than usual and the classic is a buck more ($3.95) than at most of the Sunset Park storefronts. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something wimpy about these sandwiches, maybe the bread is too airy, maybe it’s the fillings. They look okay on the surface but something’s missing (no, not love—I really hate the concept of passion transmitting from body to food like a sentimental lightening bolt). I only recently discovered the grilled pork version at my favorite shop, Ba Xuyen, so it’s hard not to compare it to Nicky’s pork chop rendition, but there’s something more flavorful, possibly sweeter about Ba Xuyen’s rendition. Crushed peanuts never hurt.

Classic cross-section

Pork chop cross-section

One sandwich is often just right, but after eating an entire Nicky’s hoagie, I felt unsatisfied and had to stop myself from tearing into the second one I’d bought for the next day. On the other hand, the spice level was higher than I’m accustomed to. I’m not sure if I got overactive jalapenos or if they just used more.

I’m not complaining because I’m happy to have banh mis encroaching South Brooklyn at all, though I wish Nicky’s wasn’t so close to Hanco’s and more selfishly, near the Carroll St. station. They do satisfy an urge and beat having to spend Metrocard fare, but I wouldn’t call either of these relative newcomers convenient. Anything over a mile is an effort, not a jaunt (Nicky’s is 1.3 miles from my apartment, which feels much further than the 1.1 miles I used to frequently walk from my former apartment to Ba Xuyen. I think it’s all the Cobble Hill strollers–baby carriages and pedestrian slow pokes–clogging up my single-minded path).

Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches * 311 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, NY

Thankfully Yours

For no reason at all, this year I couldn’t bear making a turkey, stuffing, potatoes, pie type of Thanksgiving meal. I did want to cook, though. My alternative criteria included strong flavors, vegetarian-friendly and not Asian (my usual inclination). The M’s: Middle Eastern, Moroccan and Mediterranean seemed wise (and had nothing to do with Turkey bird/country puns). I was finally able to use the restaurant cookbook, Moro, a 2004 Christmas present from my sister. Ultimately, I settled on the following:

Squash Fatayer
Turkey Bisteeya
Green Beans with Cinnamon Yogurt
Golden Rice with Cranberries
Pumpkin Flan with Spiced Pumpkin Seeds

I’ve never understood the guilt, family obligation, whatever that comes with celebrating the holidays. I just had a few other orphans over for mini slumber party, low-key Thanksgiving dinner. Where I get this apathy from became apparent when my mom called Thursday and mentioned that she was shirking a family celebration, herself. Those relatives all practically live in Portland so it’s not a long haul travel issue for anyone. It’s very much a case of why bother with things that are unpleasant or difficult (fine for family gatherings but it inevitably extends to concepts like going to the doctor, fostering relationships, exercising and eating well, career advancement and the like).

The best part of the conversation was when I asked what she was doing at that moment. “Oh, I’m baking cupcakes from a spice cake mix.” No harm in that though it only reinforces how cooking from scratch was, and apparently still is, exotic (the last time I went home for Christmas, maybe in 2004, my cousins had done a bit of home baking. Unfortunately, everyone was on an Atkin’s bender and in my mind Splenda and artificial lemon extract cancels out the whole scratch thing).

I was originally going to work Thanksgiving and then said fuck it. I didn’t want to be a martyr but losing a day’s pay also sucks. While I would prefer it to be metaphoric gravy, the last article I wrote could cover two day’s lost wages with a little left over so I took the initiative to be lazy. I probably should’ve worked yesterday (Friday) now that I think about it but I couldn’t get out of bed until 1pm. (Besides, I’m being positive and counting on some good news next week. It would be very strange to start 2007 with another new job especially since I already did the exact same thing this January. I think 2007 will have to be an entire do over of 2006.) So, I had more time to prepare food than I’d anticipated but it still took way longer than expected and there were a few flubs. But there always is.

ThanksfatayerFor the fatayer, which is a pastry typically filled with spinach, I used a combination of butternut, carnival and acorn squash and ultimately hand mashed rather than pureed. Next time I would use all butternut because the other two were a real trauma to peel and I wasted over half an hour messing with them. The end result was probably a little chunkier than called for but that was no biggie. I doubled the recipe and played a little loose with the measurements due to the grams/ounces conversion and made round pastries rather than triangular ones. The strange thing was that I had more than half of the filling left over after crafting eight doughy orbs. Maybe I understuffed, though based on the illustrative photos in the book I was right on.

With the exception of peeling the squash (which thankfully, I did the night before) these were pretty easy to make. I whipped them up while guests were watching Iron Chef America. Don’t be scared off by the yeast, rolling and rising (I usually am), it goes quickly.

Pumpkin Fatayer

220g all purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon dried yeast
100ml warm water
2 tablespoons olive oil

800g pumpkin or squash, peeled, seeded and chopped into small chunks
½ garlic clove, crushed to a paste with salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
80g feta cheese, crumbled and mixed with ½ small bunch fresh oregano, chopped
1 tablespoon, pinenuts, lightly toasted
sea salt and black pepper

To make the fatayer dough, place the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Dissolve the yeast in the water and pour the oil into the water. Now pour the water into the flour a bit at a time while mixing. When all the water is added, transfer to a floured surface and knead well. If the dough is still sticky add a little more flour; if it is still crumbly add a little more water. Continue kneading for about 5 minutes until the dough is no longer tacky, but soft, elastic and smooth. Set aside to rest on the floured surface covered by a cloth.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. To start the filling, toss the pumpkin with garlic and olive oil, and season. Place on a baking sheet in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes or until soft. Remove and cool. Puree and taste for seasoning.

To make the fatayer, divide the dough in four and roll into balls. On a generously floured surface, using a rolling pin, gently roll each ball to approximately ¼” thick, making sure the shape is a rough circle about 6.5” in diameter. Put 1 tablespoon of the pumpkin and put a quarter of the feta (with oregano) and pinenuts on top. Moisten the edge of the circle with a little water, then lift the dough into the center around the triangle of pumpkin. With your fingers, gently squeeze the adjoining edges together until sealed. Trim the edges of the triangle of any excess dough and pinch together again.

Place the four fatayer on an oiled baking tray and bake for about 10-15 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the dough begins to color, but not totally crisp.

Serves 4

Recipe from Moro by Sam and Sam Clark. Ebury Press. 2001.

I’ve always wanted to make a bisteeya (b’stilla, b’steeya, whatever) because I’m nuts for sweet savory combos. I can’t understand people who are grossed out by fruit and meat cohabitating. This Moroccan pie would kill them because it’s not even subtle like sweet and sour pork; this monster is strewn with powdered sugar, cinnamon and almonds. It’s a total dark meat danish. I was also drawn to it because traditionally the entrée would be made with pigeon or alternatively, squab. Two birds I’ve never tasted, but clearly it’s about richness, which seemed like a perfect match for dark turkey meat.

I’m all for banishing dry poultry so I ended up poaching three turkey drumsticks as my base. This did prove tricky because all the recipes I found used chicken parts (the only turkey version I saw called for ground meat and that’s just wrong) which would require shorter cooking times. I was thinking I could simmer the drumsticks in an aromatic broth for maybe two hours but it dragged on all afternoon.

BisteeyainsideI adapted a recipe from The Traveler’s Lunchbox, who had already adapted it from various sources. Mine was definitely a mishmash. In a nutshell, you simmer dark bone-in meat in broth steeped with saffron, ginger, cayenne and cinnamon and onions. After the meat is cooked and removed, you boil the liquid down and add beaten eggs mixed with parley and cilantro until the egg is firm. Almonds are toasted, chopped and tossed with cinnamon and powdered sugar. To assemble the bisteeya, you layer lots of phyllo dough (warka for purists, but I wasn’t trying to prove anything) and butter and create layers of sweet almonds, shredded turkey and herbed egg and fold the phyllo sheets around the filling to create a big blobby pie. Then you bake until the pastry turns golden. That’s it. If it wasn’t for the turkey taking an eternity to cook, this would’ve been a fairly streamlined operation.

Admittedly, mine looks naked. I didn’t go the extra step and sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on top. By this point, I’d already had enough to drink that presentation had lost importance and only two people were eating it anyway.

I also needed something green and crunchy to balance the starchiness of the menu. These super easy vegetables did the trick. They look kind of grotesque in the photo, though.

ThanksbeansGreen Beans with Cinnamon and Yogurt

1 garlic clove, crushed to a paste with salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
14 ounces Greek yogurt, thinned with 1 tablespoon milk
1 ½ pounds green beans
sea salt and black pepper

Mix yogurt, garlic and cinnamon. Add salt and pepper to taste. Boil beans for 1-2 minutes, drain and toss with yogurt.

Serves 4

Adapted from Moro by Sam and Sam Clark. Ebury Press. 2001.

Thanksrice At the last minute (ok, the night before but that’s cutting it close) I decided we needed a side starch so I made do with things on hand and bastardized this Golden Basmati with Apricots. I used jasmine rice rather than the recommended grain (I only had half a cup) and dried cranberries instead of apricots since that was what was in the cupboard. It came off without a hitch and seemed more seasonal with the berries anyway.

I didn’t want to fuss with a crust so pies were out of the question, but this seemingly straightforward Pumpkin Flan with Spiced Pumpkin Seeds turned out to be a real pain in the ass. You’re essentially making a flan and combining a custard with a can of pureed pumpkin. Easy right?

Er, no. You’re supposed to push the mix through a metal sieve, but there was no way all of my goop was squeezing through the holes. Nowhere did the recipe say to discard solids either, so I spent at least 45 minutes fussing, forcing, trying different mesh strainers to no avail. I eventually gave up, and threw the remaining cup of too-thick batter into the dish as is. At the rate I was going the six-hour set time wasn’t going to be until after midnight (which ended up being fine since we weren’t ready for dessert until after 12am anyway). Not only did the flan not gel completely, it wouldn’t come out of the dish. I ran hot water over the back of the pan until it finally plopped out in an oozy block. I didn’t take a picture because it looked like shit.

Food aside, I’m always baffled how these types of evenings progress. Originally, there was a loose plan to play board games and watch hot gay teen hustler flick, Mysterious Skin (a perfect double feature would’ve been Brokeback Mountain, but that doesn’t air on cable until this Sunday. Though we did get a little unexpected man-kissing when we randomly clicked on original Cronenberg Crash, [I love how the decade-old website still exists] not cheesey Oscar Crash. I still think it’s weird how Elias Koteas ended up in all these arty flicks because I can only think of him as skinhead Duncan in Some Kind of Wonderful, which happened to be on TV today) but none of that happened. Five bottles of wine and a pack of Kools (I’m still not clear on the whys of how a friend started carrying menthols. For the record, I’ve only been smoking one-to-two cigarettes a week rather than a day so I figured a holiday binge wouldn’t kill me) will cloud good judgment.

Somehow we got sucked into the truly amazing, Kirikou and the Sorceress on the Black Family Channel (this French animated film is bizarre and charming in its utter un-American style. Without spoiling the story, it’s kind of about a precocious brave baby that’s born walking and talking and saves his village. That doesn’t sound terribly enticing, but one of my friends ended up having Kirikou show up in her dream the next night. It sticks with you). Next thing you know, I was watching the kind of crap that I’d normally chide James for putting on like Control, and marveling at Willem Defoe’s weird beauty. Then it was 6am and I was unable to turn off VH1 Classics, showcasing the hideous slightly before my time Rush, as well as the hideous firmly within my era Soundgarden. Somehow the night always ends with VH1 Classic (I have photographic reminders of how I practically cleared a room with my dancing to George Michael’s “Monkey”).

I’m not one for people photos but I wouldn’t want anyone thinking I was a true Thanksgiving orphan (no, I’m not pictured).

Smoke Joint

I'll admit to being fascinated by the smoked vs. deep-fried throw down over on Grub Street. For me, there’s no question. Fried anything beats all (in fact, just two nights ago there was an impromptu canned biscuit frying session that erupted in my kitchen). I’ll dabble in the smokier side every now and then but I’m not passionate about barbecue. Though after seeing Little Children (admittedly, a more conventionally satisfying film than Old Joy, the last one I saw. I can’t resist those movies about nothing, especially when they’re steeped in northwest-ness) at BAM, it seemed silly not to check out nearly new Smoke Joint up the block.

Smokejoint For once, our timing was right. There was only one other table occupied and the order counter was free and clear. Of course, after we grabbed a four-seater and our food arrived, the fairly small space became completely swarmed and guilt set in for occupying a large table with two unused chairs (but then I force myself into inconsiderate, oblivious NYC mode and all is well). The circumstances did cause me to eat faster than usual. At prime dining times, I can see the set up definitely lending itself to take out.

It probably wasn’t the wisest to order two pork dishes but it happened. We tried the ribs and the hacked pork. The loose meat came with coleslaw and an assortment of pickles. The bones stood alone. I didn’t have a problem with either, though the ribs had a slight edge over the shredded meat, which leaned towards dry. Or maybe that was just the relentlessness of pure unadulterated flesh that got to me. I had to intersperse bites with the cabbage and cukes to stay sharp. We rounded out the meat with fries and corn on the cob, both chile spiced.

For the record, they serve Blue Point Toasted Ale in bottles and it tasted nothing like the problem pint at Sheep Station. (I have no qualms about Sheep Station, if it were walking distance, I’d pop in every now and then, but I was amused by this line in last week’s New York Times review, “Make sure the tap lines at the bar are clean!” Ahem.)

Smoke Joint * 87 South Elliott Pl., Brooklyn, NY 

Sunday Night Special: All the Pretty Horses

From scratch used to be a mystery to me. When grade-school-aged, I overheard my mom incredulously telling a neighbor, “Marva makes cakes from scratch. That’s what Ron expects.” It sounded like a dirty secret and I wanted to know what scratch meant. “Not from a box” was the short answer. I had no idea you could even make a cake any other way so this was a startling concept. Looking back, I think my mom was stymied by the idea of going through the extra effort to please your husband.

Time-consuming baking or not, Ron and Marva already stood out on our street. For one, they were the only black people for blocks (possibly miles). Two, Marva had multiple sclerosis and when she wasn’t shaking and stumbling down the cul-de-sac, holding onto signposts for balance, she was riding around in an Amigo. And possibly oddest of all, Ron was a nurse. If scratch was strange, a male nurse was practically inconceivable to me.

Fonduemeat I like scratch now, but sometimes I like novelty even more. Hence, Sunday evening’s instant French-Canadian supper. While in Montreal over Labor Day weekend, we went nuts at run of the mill supermarkets and became fixated with fondue section. There was a freezer case with paper thin cuts of meat, cans of ready to heat bouillon and bottled dipping sauces. No prep to speak of. We even happened to have a packet of powered béarnaise sauce in the pantry to add to the readymade meal. Shabu shabu-style fondue (or steamboat, as they’d say in Singapore and Malaysia) is strangely popular in Montreal. Outside of the suburban Melting Pot chain, I’m not sure that cook-it-yourself meat is a huge American dining concept.

Cooking horses most definitely isn’t an American dining concept. Never having been much of a pony-loving girl, I guess I’m less sentimental about treating equines as a food source (I think pigs are much cuter and yet a plate of bacon doesn’t bother me).  In addition to picking up a tray of pre-sliced beef, there was no way we could pass up the exotica like bison and yes, cheval, a.k.a. old gray mare. And apparently horses are having the best week ever. Later last night I stumbled on this horsemeat taboo article on Chow and then saw a bit on The F Word about horse milk being the new thing. Yes, horse milk.

Fondue_1Honestly, it was difficult to ascertain exactly what horsemeat tasted like. The broth was distinctly flavored and permeated everything dunked in it. Béarnaise isn’t exactly light either (Arby’s Horsey Sauce as appropriate accompaniment?) so any natural essence was doubly masked. It didn’t taste like beef, though if someone fed it to me blindly I would likely peg it as such. The raw flesh is much redder and deeper in color (in photo: note pale beef on the left and burgundy horse on the right). The texture is chewier, maybe slightly tangy (there was a chalky aftertaste that I noticed while trying to fall asleep a good four hours after eating. I doubt it had anything to do with horse and more to do with our poor meat handling skills. Our packs started defrosting while in the hotel mini fridge, and not only were we nearly charged for every item removed to fit in the frozen flesh but blood had leaked all over the remaining tiny bottles and snacks). I forgot to take cooked photos. I’m so not a dedicated documentarian when it’s time to eat.

Eating horsemeat freshly prepared by an experienced chef would probably be a fairer assessment of its charms (or lack thereof). But I don’t see that happening any time soon in NYC. Leave it to those freewheeling Canadians. I swear, if Americans knew what carnivorous horrors were going on up there, they’d build a 700-mile wall along our northern border too.


I never thought I’d attend a party walking distance to Sahara but that’s the benefit of a boyfriend who works with numerous non-American-born folks. Hipsters, god bless them, don’t live in Gravesend. (While it’s fun to try Ukrainian food—cabbage turnovers, caviar crepes and imported smoked ham—it’s not so fun to play board games with Eastern Europeans. It reminded me of how no one would let me and my sister play on the same Pictionary team because we thought too much alike. At this beer tasting party, they had some random game called Apples to Apples, which is totally subjective, hence, hard to play with foreigners. People didn’t know what the Challenger explosion was but agreed on nonsensical things like a Hiroshima being Spicy. They also all knew about some game called Puerto Rico, which sounds made up to me, but then, my mom had been going on about a game called Mexican Train which I thought was bullshit and it turned out to be real.)

I would have no idea what Sahara even was if it weren’t for the giant billboard ad that used to be stationed a block from my apartment. It’s not a destination restaurant, the service is nearly non-existent (though I do like the water pitcher on every table—I’d rather help myself than be at the mercy of fickle waiters) but the food is fairly good. I would get take out from the bustling front counter all the time if it were in my neighborhood.

Wedged amongst the middle-aged Jewish families, large Arabic parties, petite tracksuited women with abnormally large breasts, and young Brooklyn girls (we were sandwiched by two groups of them who kept shooting the other table dirty looks) who share salads and dips and shun the bread, I felt conspicuous snapping photos. Please excuse the blur.

On this visit, we kept it simple with a shared fried eggplant dish from the cold side of the appetizer list. One of Sahara’s selling points is their freshly baked Turkish bread that I think is called pide (sounds like pita, but is nothing like the thin pockets most people are familiar with). I also had the adana kebab (it’s really hard for me to not say Adama. Wow, I just made a totally unnecessary Battlestar Galactica reference, which is why this is called Project Me rather than Very Informative Restaurant Critiques) which is lightly spiced ground lamb that’s been formed around skewers like logs, then grilled. Most entrees come with rice, herby onions and a char grilled tomato and surprisingly hot long green pepper. Everyone seems to order the feta-laced salad. We didn’t but will likely give in on our next Sahara excursion.

I love how the “Sultan of all Kebabs” has his fez-topped mug plastered everywhere including the tiles on every tabletop.

The giant, glowing meat sundae (see 1/16/05 entry for explanation) beckons all who pass by

The next evening I caught Head-On on cable, a film about two suicidal Turks living in Germany. (On the edible angle, they do mention kebabs and raki.)  I had wanted to see this when it came out a couple years ago but it had a limited run and last year when I remembered it at Blockbuster, someone had already rented it. Despite all the foulness and initially unlikable characters, it’s really about love, sad love. I saw two movies Saturday where a mismatched couple vows to meet and run away together and one member chickens out. That’s always bothered me. But then, I guess these films wouldn’t be alluringly tragic if people found happiness running off on buses and trains for something unknown and potentially better.

So, DVR Head-On, grab some kebabs to go, invite Ukrainians over for board games and beer drinking and see what shapes up. (11/20/06)

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$38.10 Worth of Thanks

Being the last Wednesday before Thanksgiving where you can do actually something about what you’re being told by food sections, it’s been a turkey barrage. I’m not turkey crazy in the least but I’m starting to feel the bland, meaty tug, especially since last year I went out for dinner and ended up missing picking at leftovers over the three-day weekend.

Turkey1At work we were trying to find historic turkey prices and I was moderately surprised by the statistics coming from the American Farm Bureau. They’ve pegged the cost of this year’s Thanksgiving dinner for ten at $38.10. That is totally doable if you have simple tastes but otherwise it’s kind of a sad meal. They’ve broken it down by individual items so you can see how they’ve arrived at the figure. I’m thrifty as hell and yes, New Yorkers tend to be out of touch spending-wise (I don’t need to re-remind you about New York magazine’s cheap $500 holiday party for eight do I? Ok, I do.) but come on, a 59-cent relish tray of carrots and celery?  That’s dietetic and depressing.

$1.86 for a 30-oz. pumpkin pie mix and $1.89 for two pie shells…eh. While there’s no way in hell I’m coughing up $28, you can still make a quality dessert from scratch for under $5, ten dollars if you live it up. And no, most people including myself, don’t use fresh pumpkins for pies but a home made crust likely uses ingredients already in your house: flour, eggs, shortening, butter, salt, sugar, water or some variation of these. Extras like nuts or whipped cream add to the price, but only marginally. Even if you’re tempted to buy a ReadyCrust (I used to totally covet the chocolate crusts in the store when I was a kid. I could so imagine a green misty grasshopper pie in the preformed shell) read what the New York Times has to say about crust perfection.

So this year I plan on cooking some basics but probably not until Saturday and likely only for myself (Thanksgiving proper I’ll be working so no prep time and that evening I’ll have a few holiday orphans over for a turkey-free slumber party). I envision a small poultry item, stuffing of some sort, a green vegetable and possibly a potato-based dish and that’s it. I might even forgo dessert because there’s already enough sugariness in the house. But I suspect I’ll still overspend the $38.10 average.

I was just looking at heritage turkeys you can order through Fairway and even a small one, at $5.99/lb is around $70. People have been heritage gaga for the past few years. I’d like to give in to history and wild birds but this isn’t the year for financial risk. Maybe I’ll get my taste of Bourbon Red or Standard Bronze in 2007. It’ll be an antibiotic-free free-range vegetarian fed turkey for around $25 and I’m guessing I can put the whole meal together for less than the price of one heritage turkey, tasty as it may be. I’ll add it up next week and see.

Nothing Krafty About It

Maybe I misunderstood this Wall Street Journal article on how today’s People contained scratch and sniff Kraft ads. As a lover of the fine publication, Kraft Food & Family, this seemed like a dream come true. I thought they meant that Kraft was sponsoring this week’s magazine so I couldn’t wait to flip through it at work this evening (I don’t need to subscribe to gossip rags—they’re practically the only periodicals we get at the Post) but it was just a plain ol’ People with a Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe cover that simply smelled liked glossy paper not an aromatic holiday edition.

Casserole I did get excited when I saw a Campbell’s ad with a recipe for green bean casserole. I know, not Kraft but a whiff of cream of mushroom soup and French’s French Fried Onions would’ve been welcome and I don’t even like soupy casseroles (I’ve been trying to detox after overindulging in alcohol and battered fried treats this weekend and eating carelessly in general the past few weeks. I so couldn’t handle the CR lifestyle. As of 8pm I’ve eaten blanched cabbage, green beans and carrots with a little peanut sauce, ¼ cup of spiced pumpkin seeds and a small box of golden raisins and I’m so starving that I’m practically hallucinating. And the peanuts and pepitas probably contain too much fat. The only thing keeping me on the wagon is that I’m working solo until midnight and can’t sneak out for a snack. I do have an emergency orange in my purse because I knew I would have a freak out).

But smelling synthetic food scents is safe, so where are my Krafty advertorials?

Sweet Smell of Excess

I told myself that if I ever get to take a substantial vacation any time soon (which doesn’t seem likely in my current state) that I’ll only go to one city (ok, possibly two) and explore the hell out of it. I always try to cram in as many places as possible in my allotted amount of time off and never feel settled in any of them (Spain and Wales in ten days wasn’t enough and even two and a half weeks for Hong Kong, Singapore, Penang and Kuala Lumpur was too brief).

KitchenThat’s also how I feel about throwing parties, even low-key ones. I want to make a million things, and I often succeed despite space constraints (I can’t complain about the size of our apartment—it’s vast by local standards, but the kitchen is as tiny as NYC stereotypes would have you believe. Witness dirty aftermath in photo to the right. There’s a mere 18” of workable counter space, which is better than the zero inches I’ve had in the past). The trouble arises when I have my hands full literally, prepping snacks and sipping drinks. The last thing I’m capable of is taking pictures. Photoblogging and I are natural enemies. My antisocial nature becomes apparent when over the course of six hours I only manage a few food shots and not a single image contains humans. For all anyone knows, my Saturday night soiree was a party of one (does anyone else think it’s weird that two former Party of Five actors with animal surnames both play doctors in back-to-back ABC dramas?) when I’d estimate that thirty odd guests came and went over the course of the evening.

Deep-fried candy was intended as the main event, though judging from the heaving bag of leftover bars in the downstairs fridge, we didn’t make much progress. More attention was paid to battering and cooking oddball items like Sara Lee Cheesecake, Entenmann’s Blackout Cake, caramel apples and Hostess Sno Balls. Anyone interested in recreating the greasy decadence in the privacy of their own home can follow the recipe I posted from a previous venture a few years ago.

Raw caramel apple

Cooked Sno Ball

On the non-sugary front, I whipped up two easy drinking snacks to go with the Jalapeño Margaritas. Supposedly, I squeezed enough limes for 18 drinks (it’s a good idea to not save the task of juicing 30 limes until the last minute) but the pitcher was gone in a flash. Cocktails are like that. I thought I’d counter the Three-Pepper Spiced Pepitas, which was part of a Food & Wine feature “Bar Snacks for Food Snobs” with a common people Rachael Ray Spicy Chickpea Snack Mix. I don’t want to be a hater, but the garbanzos were kind of eh. It’s hard to compete with smoked Spanish paprika though.

Wings_1 I made a Fatty Crab recipe, Malaysian Glazed Chicken Wings, against my better judgment (ok, that’s a weird thing to say. I apologize for my completely irrational aversion to Zak Pelaccio, who apparently is opening a new restaurant in London). I’m crazy for fish sauce, chiles and sugar, so no complaints. In fact, I ate extra chicken last night for dinner and I’ll probably eat a few wings this evening. James was disappointed that I baked the poultry when we had a tub of hot oil at the ready. One can only fry so much.

Said oil was put to use for Perkedel Jagung (Indonesian corn fritters). I doubled the irresistible recipe given on 'Ono Kine Grindz and should’ve quadrupled it. I don’t even have photos of the fritters because they were devoured as soon as the hit the plate. They were served with Maggi Sweet Chili Sauce that we got at a Carrefour in Singapore. We brought a few bottles back last year because I’m obsessed with the sweet-spicy stuff but you can get versions in Chinatown. It’s even on Amazon, though the bottle is different and the label looks more old fashioned.

Satay_1 I borrowed liberally from James Oseland’s new Cradle of Flavor (which never struck me as absurdly titled until friends saw it on my desk and started mocking it/me with made up names like Bassinet of Taste. I thought my own invention, Snugli of Seasoning was a hoot—too much tequila has been known to influence humor perception) but am unable to reproduce the recipes in full here. No, I didn’t just gain respect for copyright, his recipes are just really freaking long and I don’t have the wherewithal to type them out. I made a shrimp satay that completely fumed up the apartment with its requisite toasted shrimp paste for the marinade. I’m highly tolerant of extremely pungent smells (seriously, I think I have a permanent sinus infection. For better or worse, I can’t smell anything) but James was having a freak out trying to ventilate the place before company arrived. Fans, candles and incense are no match for belacan. Thank god for global warming or else we wouldn’t have been able to keep the windows open all night in November. The dipping sauce was a simple concoction of kejap manis, sliced chiles and lime juice.

GadogadoGado Gado is kind of whatever you want it to be. I briefly blanched sliced carrots, green beans, bean sprouts and also included fresh cucumber and fried tofu. I forgot about the cabbage I intended to add. You can also make it heartier with sliced potatoes and/or hardboiled eggs. Vegans threatened to attend the event so I eschewed the animal byproduct. And just because a good percentage of plain vegetarians did show that didn’t stop me from putting shrimp chips on the side. The deep-fryer had to be put to use as much as possible.

The Javanese peanut sauce that gets mixed with the salad is actually a recipe worth typing out (unfortunately, Cradle of Flavor isn’t on the desk I’m currently occupying—I’ll add it in later). You start by toasting and grinding peanuts from scratch, which is so much better than using peanut butter and I’m not just saying that to be a purist. Shallots, chiles, coconut milk and vinegar eventually are incorporated.

So, next time it’s fried candy and say, one or two Southeast Asian treats. Hypothetically, I mean. It’s not like I’m going to fry candy and grill satay again any time soon–that would be repetitive. I hate paring down, though. Excess makes me happy.

I was also happy to be brought a pair of shoes that were too big for the original purchaser and the size 9 friend she passed them on to initially. I had just been lamenting (in my mind) how much it sucks to be a 9 ½ since inexplicably no one seems to make them (seriously—why the whole jump from 9 to 10?). It’s too bad that I hobble in even near-practical thick 2” heels. I have no idea how I’ll pull off spindly 3 ½ inch heels (note the use of “teetering” in the ad copy), not to mention the skinny jeans that should accompany them. I’d better lay off the peanut sauce and fried food stat.

$70 of Joy

Cover_sepoct2005 When is a magazine worth $70? It doesn’t fight “stubborn belly fat,” so how to justify the expense? The cover price works out to a mere $2.30 or so but the $54 shipping from Malaysia kills me. I love Flavours more than almost any food magazine I’ve found, despite the fact that I’ve never cooked single thing from it. My subscription just ran out and I’m going to have to bite the bullet.

The writing is ok, the thing is rife with advertising/pr blurring usually reserved for small town dailies, they only recently started noting which restaurant reviews were anonymous (and vice versa), but the magazine taps into a twisty culture that I’m fascinated by. When people think Malaysia, they think quintessential street food and they’d be right. In fact, there was just a travel piece in the New York Times on the topic. I had some of the best dishes ever on my visit last year. The region’s residents are food crazy, and rightly so. Eating and obsessing on where to eat is a perfectly acceptable hobby. Makansutra had this niche pre-blog era. It’s no coincidence that many of the original food bloggers were based out of Singapore and Malaysia (I recall reading a few years back when Friendster was the big thing that after the U.S., Malaysia had the highest number of members) and they continue in their proliferation. Singaporean Chubby Hubby seems to currently have the corner on the slick, anything but amateur market.

But there’s not a lot of high-low mingling, it’s either hawker or haute. Western food frequently fills the gap in the middle. Malaysians might take offense at this, but as with many nationalities, their tastes tend to be provincial. They like what they know and are incredibly particular about minutiae like subtle differences in broth at various stalls. Yet they’re not so critical with foreign flavors. I was initially baffled how Thai food could be better in NYC than 100 miles from the Thai border. Most of what I saw tended to revolve around noodles or was something not terribly Thai dubbed tom yum (though I have to admit that tom yum pizza sounds like an awesome invention) in the way we’d stick pineapple on something and call it Hawaiian.

Flavours definitely dallies in the higher end but it is tradition-bound too. The tone is aspirational, occasionally fawning and sometimes misguided. I love the hodgepodge. Picking the January/February 2006 issue off the shelf randomly, the first ad for Maggi celebrates Chinese New Year with the tagline, “customs may change but good taste is forever,” which sums everything up. Honestly, I don’t even know what the original customs are—maybe that’s why I can enjoy how they jumble them all up.

F_koo1 Content from this issue includes "The New Oriental Splendour" and pictures pretty amuse bouches of prunes & bacon with pan-fried potato and cherry tomato with Chinese bbq meat; "New Year with the Nonyas," which features old school dishes like hati babi bungkus (pork liver balls);  "Old-fashioned Favourites," profiling nostalgic snacks from yesteryear like fah sang koh and ham chit soo that are completely bewildering to me; a column from a French chef who teaches at the French Culinary School in Asia on how to cook lamb, the premise being that “Malaysians do not know what to do with lamb.” The roasted lamb rack with tapenade & black olive mashed potato looks pretty good.

Then there’s an insane feature on truffles (Perigord black truffles were quoted at RM3,000 to RM4,000 per kg. Hmm, that’s $400-500 a pound, probably about right) with a recipe for truffle puffs, essentially typical curry puffs stuffed with foie gras and truffles. It’s probably tasty, despite its ostentatious premise. Not so palatable is a cocktail they’ve devised called an azur, which is a glass of Chardonnay drizzled with blue Curaçao.

They review a place called Fondue House and are sure to point out that recipes have been tweaked for local palates, many have low alcohol content or none at all, and the bacon cheese fondue uses beef bacon. Sometimes you forget when reading flashier publications that the country is predominantly Muslim. I recall being surprised that our room service breakfast at a perfectly modern hotel had a choice of beef bacon, turkey ham or chicken sausage. No pork to be found.

I’m enamored with how the mixed culture—Malay, Chinese, Indian, British, Portuguese—all put a mark on local cuisine and how this natural fusion informs how dining is interpreted. It’s a weird scene. Last year, in Kuala Lumpur, we went to Frangipani, a swanky creative restaurant, and were two of only eight diners in the vast space, all Caucasian.

Tk_fishcurry_1  The concept hasn’t been fully embraced yet, and for good reason—it’s really freaking expensive. Our bill was around $150, more on par with a New York restaurant. Meanwhile, a bowl of laska at sit-down Madame Kwan’s goes for around $3.50, and locals complain (you can get it on the street for under one dollar). It’s like these Chinese monster malls filled with luxury goods but necessarily enough clientele. The transition is too fast and unattainable for the mainstream. (Coincidentally, there was just a related discussion on egullet about the lack of high end dining threads.)

I know it’s strange that I don’t enjoy this type of coverage when it’s home grown. Maybe that’s because New York is oversaturated with gloss. Or maybe it’s because Flavours’s style is highly un-American. When they mix Western flourishes in, which they often do, it’s European or Australian. Nods to the U.S. are nearly non-existent (they murder Mexican food—cajun spices, gouda and baked potato with your burrito?) Sometimes it’s fun being an outsider, totally unjaded and learning everything from scratch.

Home Turf

Community20involvement20logoFile this under Who the Hell Cares or Just Plain Petty, but I couldn’t help myself. I’m not community minded, particularly when it comes to cyberspace. Lord knows what most bloggers do in their real lives because I’m not friends with (m)any. And it's probably for the best that I remain in the dark because often the more I know, the less I like. Sometimes I do wonder with food blogs when the authors consistently visit high-end restaurants. I assume they’re either in the industry, well connected or just plain wealthy. Of course, for every L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Gordon Ramsey at The London (Ok, I’ve seen very little on that, give it a few weeks) chronicle there are countless praises for pizza and hot dogs.

Some would say that’s what makes this city great, something for everyone. Uh, the wonderful (financial) diversity. Fine. Maybe my taste is plebian and irrational but I don’t relish reading the food musings of someone who owns property worth $37.5 million. I’m not saying that multi-million-dollar homeowners are hideous folks whose opinions don’t matter, I would just prefer to read other things instead. It’s not envy; it’s nothing in common. Like is drawn to like. It’s not exactly a secret that Manhattan is filled with people who do quite well for themselves but I’m more drawn to people who struggle to pay triple digit rent. Ok, I’ll broaden my horizons because those paying $999 and under anywhere in the city are few and far between.

As a cranky aside, is $500 for an eight-person holiday party really cheap?