Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Papa Joe's (Westminster, MD)

It has come to my attention that, despite having lived in Westminster for almost a year and a half, I have yet to review my favorite restaurant here! This must be remedied, especially since I'm home from work today with some yucky feverish achy illness and have nothing to do but write restaurant reviews, catch up on lesson planning, and watch back episodes of "Glee".

In a town where almost every restaurant features an practically-interchangeable menu of traditional American fare that one would expect from a small rural area, Papa Joe's is an anomaly. This little Mexican restaurant faces the back entrance of Westminster's historic Main Street, fairly well-hidden unless you're coming through the back parking lot. Noah and I happened upon it last year when we were looking at Westminster apartments, and though we didn't expect it to be any good, we were tired and hungry and decided to take our chances.

Luckily, Papa Joe's is a pleasant surprise! Apart from lettuce and sour cream-laden American tacos and the like, Papa Joe's does a nice variety of traditional Mexican standards. Their Mexican-style tacos, with just meat, cilantro, and onion, are a standby order for me. I also tend to order their tortas, particularly the egg and chorizo laden down with jalapenos and avocado and all manner of other goodies. It's hard to even eat the thing without bits of everything falling down on the table (and, in the winter, down your sleeves--my least favorite thing about long-sleeved shirts).

The real time to go to Papa Joe's, however, is on the weekend when they have off-menu weekend specials. Here's where the real traditional food comes out, like pozole and menudo and more authentic tostadas than the ones featured on their regular menu. Here's an example of some tostadas we had over the summer:

Although I don't see nearly enough people ordering the more authentic dishes, the restaurant is extremely popular and frequently has a wait, especially on weekends. The real test of its excellence? Noah currently lives in Jackson Heights, the hotbed of traditional Latin American food in Queens, and he still looks forward to going to Papa Joe's when he comes here. What higher praise could you ask for?

Papa Joe's
27 E. Main St. (in rear municipal parking lot)
Westminster, MD 21157
Mon.-Thurs. 11am-10pm
Fri. and Sat. 11am-11pm

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Local Sprouts (Portland, ME)

We're back, with news from Portland, ME!

"Wait," you say. "Maine?? Isn't this a Maryland/New York food blog?"

Well, it is. But it just so happens that earlier this year Noah and I went on a fantastic vacation, exploring New England. And by "exploring New England", I actually mean "eating our way through New England", because that's what we do. We even planned our trip primarily around a book, Jane and Michael Stern's 500 Things to Eat Before It's Too Late. This wonderful little book was our primary source of good eats around the country (we're hoping to eat our way through as many of these as possible one day), but once we got to Portland, there wasn't much in the book to guide us. Luckily, as we soon realized, Portlanders are rather fanatical about their food. Every single place we went clearly put extensive time and energy into putting forth fantastic food--even the smallest of restaurants are run with great care, and everywhere from bars to cafes serves locally brewed beer. Even The New York Times praises its food (though we didn't actually go to any of the restaurants featured in that article).

We were in Portland for several days, and we would frequently pass by a small cafe near our B&B called Local Sprouts that looked extremely interesting. On one of our last nights in Portland, we finally had a chance to stop in and eat, and we're very glad we did. When you first enter the cafe, you notice the kind of artistic, slightly all-over-the-place atmosphere that a good cafe does so well. The walls were covered in art from local artists, every table and chair in the building was a unique piece, there were shelves of things to read, and children ran around and even played with us at our table. Everything was very laid-back and friendly, and that demeanor extended to the staff. We ordered a jerk chicken plate and a roasted vegetable soup, and while we were ordering we chatted with the person taking our order, and I told him I was getting the vegetable soup specifically because there was eggplant in it (eggplant, for those of you who aren't aware, is my favorite food). When he told him that he said, "wait here. I can't promise anything, but I might have something for you." To my incredible surprise, a minute later he came back with a huge eggplant sandwich, and proceeded to give it to me--for free. He said they sometimes have food leftover at the end of the day, and if the opportunity arises they give it away to a good home. It made a spectacular lunch in the car the next day.

Now, onto the food. The jerk chicken plate that we shared was excellent--well-spiced, and plenty of food. It was served with a cabbage salad that I honestly don't remember much (I ate most of the soup, and was in a soup-related trance for much of the meal, so I don't remember much about the jerk chicken other than that I liked it), and rice. One thing you definitely notice when you eat at Local Sprouts is that you're getting plenty of food for your money, as the bowl of soup I ordered was probably enough for at least two people, not the small perfunctory bowls you get at most places. The vegetable soup was tomato-based, and had eggplant and zucchini and all manner of other vegetables. Big, huge chunks of vegetables. The kind of vegetable soup that makes me wish it were winter all the time so it would be seasonally appropriate to sit around and eat this stuff all day. By the end of the meal, with the combo of jerk chicken and vegetable soup and the promise of an eggplant sandwich later, I was in a happiness coma.

The one complaint I notice from online reviews is that you wait a very long time for your food, even for food you wouldn't expect to take a long time. It is true that the service is one of the most relaxed parts of the place, but it's easy to deal with if you don't expect to rush in and out. Sit down, look at the art, read a book. Listen to the live music, if they have it, which they sometimes do. Chat up your 7-year-old seat neighbor. Local Sprouts will make it worth your while.

Local Sprouts Cooperative
649 Congress St., Portland, ME
Mon.-Sat. 8am-10pm
Sun. 9am-3pm

Local Sprouts is a Community Supported Cafe, which means that you can pay to become a member and get discounts on food and things like that. All their food is produced locally--if you want, you can even look on their wall, where they have a map of every farm and local producer where they got every ingredient they use. It is also worth noting, particularly if you are into making life happier and more enriching for individuals with disabilities (as I am; it's only my career), that the Bomb Diggity Bakery also runs out of this place. They provide a baking and arts program for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Pretty cool stuff.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Revisiting a Dumpling House in the Heart of Queens

Since I moved to Queens eight months ago, one of my and Florence's favorite places to eat is a dumpling house on Broadway called Lao Bei Fang. I've written on it before, but never in any great detail. It's one of those places that seemingly reveals more everytime I go - I first went for the obvious dumplings, but quickly realized that they do a lot more. Next up was the la mian noodle soups - for an average of about $5, you can get a big bowl of soup and hand-pulled noodles, filled with anything from shredded pork to seafood to tripe and tendon.

Getting more adventurous, Florence and I decided to try out the restaurant's cold case. When you walk in, you are immediately confronted with what looks like a steam table - six or eight metal trays of food behind glass - but on ordering, you quickly realize that the trays are over ice instead of burners. Here the multiregionalism of the restaurant starts to show itself - although ostensibly a northern Chinese dumpling house, the cold case boasts such Sichuan classics as fuqi feipian (literal translation is "sliced lung by the married couple"). Here it is thinly-sliced beef tripe and tendon, dressed mostly with chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn. I already enjoyed tripe, but this dish has converted me to tendon. It straddles that line between chewy, gelatinous, and tender, and the flavor imparted by the chili oil gives it an addictive kick. In the non-Sichuan portion of the cold case, we've had liangban huanggua (cucumber with raw garlic and sesame oil), and several other combinations dressed the same way (another notable one is celery with slices of smoked pressed tofu).

Frequently at the end of last year's winter, I saw people getting bowls of soup covered with curls of sliced beef, was never able to find it on the menu. Last week we finally saw it being eaten by an English speaker and asked, and today for lunch I ordered "hot and spicy beef soup". Only appropriate, given that it's snowing outside(!). From leaning over the steaming bowl as I picked it up, I discerned that it was made ma la style, with chili oil and plenty of Sichuan peppercorn. Don't get this soup alone - even more so than the other dishes here, it is a gargantuan amount of food. The bowl is absolutely stuffed with ingredients: beyond the sliced beef, there is tofu, tofu skin, fried tofu (are we in Malaysia now?), zucchini, round bean thread noodles, bean sprouts, unidentified crunchy vegetable, lotus root, thick round coins of rice flour dough (like big round noodles), and plenty of cabbage ribbons and spoonlike leaves of bok choy. Lao Bei Fang also adorns the soup (as if it needs it) with two semicircular slices of soft, fatty, and very flavorful pork sausage.

I was going to say that the only thing I haven't had here is the hot pot, but just today I saw somebody eating what may have been a shaobing of some sort. It was a thin, crescent-shaped flatbread filled with what looked like Chinese chives. I'll have to find out what it is next time - this place always has something new for me.

Lao Bei Fang Dumpling House
83-05 Broadway, Elmhurst, NY

M/R to Elmhurst Ave. - Lao Bei Fang is located directly on the other side of the overhead LIRR tracks

Highlights: Fried dumplings, 4 for $1.50; La mian, $4.50-$6; Hot and spicy beef soup, $5.75; Scallion pancake (take it home and re-fry it for even better results), whole round for $2.50; Plates from the cold case, $2.75 for veggie only and around $3.50 for meat (plus you can get multiple items on one plate!)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Breaking News: Tuna Salad I Actually Like!

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, it's going to come as no surprise to you that I have a long-standing dislike of tuna. Particularly tuna salad--most tuna salad, in my experience, is all tuna all the time, and there's nothing to balance out that taste for me. My dislike only really applies to canned tuna, also, because I liked the fresh tuna that Noah and I ate in Italy. But that's to be expected...does it really surprise anyone that fresh tuna, prepared well in a beautiful Italian restaurant tastes better than the canned stuff? I didn't think so.

Today, though, I had a tuna salad that changed my mind. Back when I was totally broke, my best friend sent me the link to the blog Poor Girl Eats Well, and I've been reading it for months. I'm actually doing fabulously budget-wise right now (and by "fabulously" I mean that I have between $2000-3000 in the bank; I don't need much to get by) due in part to a brand-new job in my career field (I work as a part-time care provider for adults with disabilities. Working with people with disabilities is the career I'm studying for now. It doesn't get any better than this!), but it's still good to have ideas for food I can make without being able to feel my bank account wincing. The writer of the blog recently posted a recipe for Mediterranean-style Tuna Salad, and I made it tonight. I was expecting "this is something I could eat and be okay with", and the first couple bites were that way. As I kept eating, though, I found myself legitimately thinking "I love this!". The idea that I would ever love anything with tuna is a pretty astounding achievement in and of itself. I will definitely make this again! So thanks, Poor Girl Eats Well, for helping me like tuna!

Mediterranean-Style Tuna Salad
(The only change I made to this recipe was that I had a 1/2 pound of chickpeas that I had soaked and wasn't sure what to do with, so I cooked them until they were tender and added them to the salad for even more protein and taste variation. I'll probably do it every time I make it! Because I will definitely be making this more than once.)

2 cans tuna
2 tomatoes
1 small cucumber
1/2 red onion
5 oz low-fat feta cheese (she calls for 4 oz., but I used all 5 because I had the chickpeas)
1 c baby spinach
Salt & pepper to taste

Chop all veggies into 1” chunks and place into a bowl. Drain the tuna of its water and add it to the veggies, followed by the baby spinach. Crumble the feta onto the rest of the ingredients and toss lightly until everything is completely coated with the feta. Add salt & pepper if needed.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

But Where Did the Chometz Come From? (Rego Park's Tandoori Bakery)

After reading this post from Taxi Gourmet, Tandoori Bakery in Rego Park, Queens, immediately went on my "to go" list. Today Florence and I decided to try it out - remembering only on the way that Pesach starts tomorrow evening and that Tandoori very well might not be making anything involving chometz. (The restaurant is kosher and is closed on Shabbos.) This feeling was compounded on the twenty-minute walk there first by the multiple closed kosher shops we passed and then by at least five signs on Tandoori's window proclaiming that it is kosher, kosher for Pesach, and closed for the entire week of the holiday. Oh, and that all of the its chometz has been sold.

So, happily and confusingly, the first thing we saw when we walked in was bread everywhere! Lots of what we later learned was lepeshka - Bukharan bread - and a few samsas, or the Central Asian baked version of samosas. It took a few minutes to get anybody's attention as the counter was quite crowded, but we managed to secure ourselves a table. This in itself was unexpected, as given the name (Tandoori Bakery) we were expecting some sort of counter-only place. But no, there were plenty of tables, and in fact one group of men by the window looked as if they had been there since about 9am and planned to stay all through the afternoon and well into the night. (We got there around 12:30pm.) It really was like walking into a different world in a lot of ways: one where everything was written in Cyriliic, about half the men were wearing yarmulkes, and vodka was not only accepted but standard for lunchtime. I later mentioned to Florence that it seemed like the Uzbek version of Vin Cafe, the restaurant in Alba, Italy, where we whiled away far too many nights with dinner and wine. Not usually the mornings, though.

We pored over the menu for awhile - I tried to figure out what the Cyrillic side said but am not very good at that alphabet yet - and settled on a few items. A pot of tea (mandatory, I think), lepeshka, two samsas, and marinated cabbage salad. I took the waitress' industriously scribbling silence as a good thing, but what arrived - tea, bread, one samsa, and carrot salad - proved me otherwise. No matter - it was all fantastic. We requested another samsa, but when I picked mine up it soon became apparent that we had a small mountain of food on our hands. As we saw the other tables lingering over their meals, we relaxed - this was not a place to tear through and leave in a half hour. Spending a few hours here listening to the chatter and people-watching would be just fine, thank you. Especially when we could watch the corner table repeatedly get up and stumble out the door (did I mention they had Absolut AND Grey Goose?) to say goodbye to one of their number.

A bit of research tells me that lepeshka (think nine-inch-diameter bialy) is baked in a tandoor, as are the samsas. Both have the combination of crispy bottom and chewy top that clay ovens do so well. The samsa filling was beef, onions, and cumin - kind of an Uzbek empanada, as I've seen some other places call it. The carrot salad is called morkovcha and is, according to this Times article, "a legacy of Stalin's mass deportations of ethnic Koreans from the far eastern Soviet Union to its western frontiers." It consists of shredded raw carrots in a dressing that is mostly vinegar, green onions, and raw garlic. In that it is surprisingly similar to liangban huanggua, the Chinese salad of sliced cucumbers dressed with sesame oil and raw garlic that we'd had the night before at Lao Bei Fang. The morkovcha was delicious, although there was a ton of it. But we did pretty well with our small mountain of edibles, and when we left, the last guy at the corner table had just gotten another pot of tea to work though. I have a feeling there was more vodka coming as well.

Tandoori Bakery
99-04 63rd Road
Rego Park, Queens
closed on Shabbos - sundown Friday to at least one hour after sundown Saturday

Saturday, April 9, 2011

An Ode to Dumpling Soup

I did promise to talk about som tam, but I haven't been able to find myself at many of the neighborhood's Thai places in the past week or two. Instead I've been eating a lot of dumplings and soup. I think that's what happens when "spring" turns out to be day after day of 45 degrees and grey drizzle. I thought I wasn't in Michigan any more, but maybe the greyness follows you after you leave.

So: dumplings. Yesterday I got off work and I really wasn't in the mood for cooking anything. I was, in fact, in the mood for curling up at a bookstore for a couple hours (which I did!) and then for going to my favorite Elmhurst dumpling house, Lao Bei Fang. I walked in fully intending to order boiled dumplings and eat them with plenty of chilies in oil - and then I smelled the soup. As far as I could tell, every single person in that place was either having soup or hot pot. Given that it was just over 40 degrees with that sort of chill damp outside, I couldn't blame them. But I wasn't hungry enough for noodle soup, so I went with dumpling soup.

For $3.50 there, you can get eight dumplings in a bowl of pork broth, with scallions, cilantro, and bok choy - Shanghai choy, I think - to add some green to your meal. The leeks and chives in the dumplings also help, but the dumplings have a slightly higher pork-to-green ratio than I would like. Nevertheless they are excellent - the wrappers are thick as I like them (I think they're wheat, but I'm not sure), and there is enough deliciously porky juice inside to make you think that Lao Bei Fang could turn out some fantastic soup dumplings if they had the inclination to do so (and any Shanghainese on staff, which I'm sure they don't). The meat is good quality and is just barely cooked, not rubbery or compressed.

The soup itself is a clean and clear pork broth, slightly salty but not too much so. Last night I had half the soup unadorned and then added a spoonful of chilies for the extra smoky and spicy notes in the second half - I like it both ways and didn't want to choose. The cilantro is an unusual flavor for me to associate with Chinese food and helps to cut the richness of the dumplings, and the few stems of bok choy make it feel like you're eating some semblance of a balanced meal. This is definitely winter food, but appropriate as it may as well still be winter here in New York.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's hard to say how long Chinatown's dumpling houses have been around, but as I remember they really started becoming well-known five to ten years ago. Of course, this coincided quite well with the time I spent mostly outside NYC (six years before this past August), so I never really had the chance to try any of them. Not that I didn't make an effort. Several of my holidays from school involved long meandering trips around Chinatown, in vain search of a dumpling. I'm sure I passed a few places, but for one thing I don't think I was in the right part of the neighborhood, and for another all the places I passed had Chinese-only signs. I wasn't quite ready for that (I'm still not really ready for that, actually - does anybody around here read/speak Chinese and want to go on a food adventure with me?).

Now I love Ann Arbor and its food scene, but one thing it does not have in abundance is good Chinese food. Korean, yes - there are several excellent Korean restaurants around the campus area. But most of the Chinese is the greasy American variety - good sometimes, and especially for college students, but not for dumplings. Kansas City is similar if you replace "Korean" with "Vietnamese". Certainly no great Chinese there that I ever located. And rural Maryland...not so hot in general on the ethnic food (except for one excellent and surprising Mexican restaurant).

But back in New York since late summer 2010, I had plenty of chances to do my research properly and go find some dumplings. The first thing I learned is that Eldridge Street seems to be the dumpling locus for Manhattan's Chinatown. You have Vanessa's Dumplings, which is a wee bit touristy but still cheap and good; Prosperity Dumpling, which is a tiny shack of a storefront and probably the cheapest of the lot; and Shu Jiao Fu Zhou Cuisine (or just Fu Zhou), which, per its name serves shuijiao (boiled dumplings) rather than guotie (potstickers). Sadly I have not had a chance to try Prosperity's dumplings yet, although I will probably be doing so this Friday evening. Their pork buns (seasoned differently and round instead elongated, and I think pork buns are from Beijing as opposed to other parts of northern China) are excellent, though: crisp, juicy, and 4 for a dollar.

Fu Zhou merits special mention because of their menu and mode of dumpling-making. For one thing, you have two choices as far the dumplings go: "small" (7 for $2) and "large" (11 fo $3). None of this weird filling or fried/boiled stuff. The filling is standard (pork and chives), and the the wrappers are much more delicate than most, almost translucent. I normally like thick-skinned heartier dumplings, but these were an excellent change of pace.

After my few weeks of adventures in Manhattan's Chinatown, I moved to Elmhurst, Queens, and promptly found myself smack in the middle of another Chinatown. This one is a little more varied - so far I've seen Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Malaysian. I'm not sure it's possible to get a bad meal here, actually (with the possible exception of the pizzeria, but I haven't tried it so I can't say for sure). My first night here I went to a Vietnamese place for pho with my roommate, and we took a walking tour of the neighborhood on the way back to the apartment. He pointed out a dumpling house down one of the streets (Whitney St., I now know) and I made a mental note to try it. A few days later I got off at Elmhurst Avenue and tried to find the shop. I succeeded and was rewarded with four large and well-fried dumplings, along with a fantastic house-made chili sauce. I think the sauce is a variant on la jiao - it seems to be roasted or slow-fried dried chili bits in oil along with sesame seeds. It gives this amazing smoky spicy flavor to whatever it touches. Naming this dumpling house is a little more complicated - I think it's an outpost of Lao Bei Fang, which is down the street and is the subject of my next paragraph. However, at my last visit they had taken down the Lao Bei Fang sign, so it's hard to say for sure.

Lao Bei Fang (this time on Broadway) seems to be where the locals go - they have dumplings, noodle soups, hot pot, and various prepared dishes that are definitely not on the menu. The dumplings are very good - typically fried to a crisp, very large, slightly greasy - although that same house chili sauce cuts through that quite well - and slightly more expensive at $1.50 for four, but that's still quite a good deal. But for me the star is the la mian (hand-pulled noodles typically served in soup, becoming well-known from Xi'an Famous Foods and its ilk), the presence of which is announced by the noodle maker thwack-ing his dough on the metal counter near the back of the restaurant. Watching him is a lot of fun - if you really enjoy watching noodle making then the place to go is the Whitney St. outpost, as the la mian chef there is right up front next to the ordering window. The noodles end up chewy, springy, very wheaty, and with that slight variation in thickness that lets you know that they're really handmade. And for the kicker, giant bowls of soup - deceptively large, as you don't realize when you get the bowl that it's 2/3 full of noodles - cost between $4.50 and $6.25. It's certainly worth a stop if you find yourself in Elmhurst.

Vanessa's Dumpling House
118 Eldridge St., Manhattan
Highlights: potstickers, 4 for $1.25

Fu Zhou Cuisine
118 Eldridge St., Manhattan (this doesn't make any sense, but it's one storefront north of Vanessa's)
Highlights: boiled dumplings, 7 for $2 or 11 for $3

Prosperity Dumpling
46 Eldridge St. #1, Manhattan
Highlights: potstickers, 5 for $1; fried pork buns, 4 for $1

Lao Bei Fang (Whitney outpost)
86-08(?) Whitney St., Elmhurst, Queens (address is not exact but should be close)
Lao Bei Fang (main restaurant)
83-05 Broadway, Elmhurst, Queens
Highlights: potstickers, 4 for $1.50; 8 dumplings in soup for $3.25; la mian soups starting at $4.50

Up next: eating my way through the neighborhood, and a possible som tam comparison if I can get myself to enough Thai and Malaysian restaurants.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Minar in NYC

Last week, I went to visit Noah in New York, and when I got off the bus I needed somewhere to eat. Simple, right? Well, not so much. See, the trouble is that it's Lent and so until Pesach (it was going to be "until Easter", but I'm visiting Noah for Pesach and plan to go back to eating meat then instead, plus it's the week before Easter anyway so really I'll just be celebrating religion in two different ways) I'm not eating any meat.

Okay, we're in New York, the center of food life, so this still wasn't really that hard. It's just a little trickier if you're not already aware of where the good vegetarian food is in the city. I don't think I've ever consciously eaten vegetarian in NYC, so I had no idea. So I called Noah at work when I got off the bus and asked him to suggest something. I believe I used the approximate words, "anything between Times Square and your work [on the Upper East Side] is fair game". Noah pointed me to a little Indian restaurant near Times Square called Minar, and I set off to find it.

First things first: this place is small. And unassuming. How do I know? I went to the street it was on, and walked right by it because I was on the wrong side of the street. So I crossed the street and accidentally walked right by it again. Then I almost walked by it a third time before catching myself and going in. It's a small storefront on a street packed with small storefronts. The inside is pretty small, too--a couple rows of little tables, the front counter, a fridge with drinks (and pitchers inside; if you order water to drink you go and get it from the pitcher chilling in the fridge).

I ordered the saag paneer, because it's something I've gotten before at my favorite Indian place (Bollywood Masala in St. Mary's City, MD; I have eaten a ton of Indian food in my time and never will there be a better Indian restaurant) and I wanted to compare, and also because I believe that, unless you're someplace that has a very specific specialty that is highly publicized as The Thing To Get, you should start with something basic when you're trying a new place. If they care enough to do that well, they care enough to do everything well. It's why I always order fries with my meal when I go to a new BBQ place--if they put in the effort to do good fries as well as good meat, I respect them just a little more. The saag paneer was great, and fascinating because it was so different from the saag paneer at Bollywood. They're both spicy, but Minar's is differently so--a little smokier, deeper in different places. Very very interesting. I also had a samosa, which was good too. It had a nice dipping sauce, though at the moment I don't really remember anything about it except that it was delicious. The samosa was a little spicy as well, which was nice because some restaurants can make samosas kind of bland (it's the same "do the small things well and you can do the big things well" principle).

I would definitely recommend Minar to anyone in the city for a meal. I will, in fact, probably go there again if I'm back visiting Noah in the city and need lunch. The food is great, prices are good, atmosphere is good, people at the counter are friendly (I think it helped that I apologized profusely when I had to take a very important call while I was paying at the register).

138 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036-8506

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Back in the saddle in Elmhurst

Well, I am sure glad that Florence has been posting to this blog for the past year, because obviously I haven't been doing anything with it. I could use as an excuse the fact that I've moved three times since May, but I actually just got really lazy and also stopped taking pictures. For some reason I don't enjoy taking pictures of my food - when I get something that looks amazing and delicious (either in a restaurant or at home) I just want to dive in with nothing in-between me and the food. Not even a camera for posterity's sake. Florence suggested that I do my posts more restaurant-review style, which I think is a great idea - reviews are typically light on the pictures and heavy on the content. I will endeavor to do the same.

My half of the blog is now being brought to you from Elmhurst, Queens, New York City. How did I end up here, you ask? It's...sort of a long story. I left Kansas City with Florence last May after completing graduate school there, and we moved into an adorable house in rural Maryland of which there are pictures several posts below. Unfortunately rural Maryland is not exactly brimming with jobs. We lived in a farm county, and retail was really the only option. Retail was barely paying my bills as was, and I knew that I had student loans coming up in a few months - I had to get a better job, and the only way to do that was to move home. So back to the NY suburbs for several months, and then a few weeks ago I decided it was time to move to the city. Not Manhattan - I think I would go crazy if I lived in Manhattan (not to mention the rent). But Queens - Queens is quiet enough and cheaper, and I unwittingly moved to an apartment about a ten-minute walk from Elmhurst's Chinatown. (Let me note that good Chinese is one of my favorites of all types of food.) From KC to a no-stoplight town to Westchester to Queens in under a year - it's been a little hairy at times, but I am more than ready to start writing about the foodways and delicious delicacies of this part of Queens.

Up next: dumpling houses, and an exemplary one just down the street.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Novel Food 2011: School Lunch Edition

As I alluded to before, I've decided to write in entry for Novel Food, a celebration of food and literature organized by the blogger who writes Champaign Taste, which is a blog I've actually been quietly lurking in for years now. The Novel Food roundup always interested me, but I was never actually able to get it together in time to enter anything. Well, now I have, in a slightly unorthodox way.

When I thought about what I wanted to make for Novel Food, I thought about the books I've been reading, and then I realized that I have just not been reading a lot of fiction lately. I've really become immersed in the world of nonfiction over the past year or so, and my inspiration for Novel Food tended to lie more in those works. I finally chose to make something inspired by the book I'm currently reading: How to Walk to School:Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance by Jacqueline Edelberg and Susan Kurland. The rules of Novel Food stipulate that the book you read doesn't have to be about food, and true to form my book doesn't mention food anywhere in it (at least not so far; I haven't actually finished the book). Instead, How to Walk to School is a book about school reform based on organizing your community to enhance the quality of already-existing neighborhood schools, which are frequently left behind as parents are taken in by the allure of shiny new charter schools popping up, and leaving the poorest families (who cannot afford to send their children to any other school) to send their children to a school that the community has given up on. The book is an inspiring story of what happens when a group of parents decides to galvanize their resources and turn their school into a better place, and I think it's worth a read, not just by those in the educational system but by communities in general.

So what made me want to cook for this book? Well, it dovetailed very nicely with where my life is now. I am currently working on my practicum (think student teaching) in a high school, dividing my time between two different special education classrooms. One classroom consists of kids with emotional and behavioral disorders, and one is primarily children with more severe physical and intellectual disabilities. Being in the schools all day puts me right in line with a pivotal issue in the education and development of young people: that of what they're eating. I've always been a hardcore supporter of more nutritionally appropriate food in the schools, so this is on my mind frequently.

A couple days after I decided to participate in Novel Food, I was in my Emotional/Behavioral classroom putting up the school lunch menu for March underneath the February menu. As I looked at this month's menu, I noticed all the usual unhealthy suspects: pizza, burgers, chicken nuggets, etc. Then I noticed that for that day, the main course was listed as "cheese sticks". I'm assuming these cheese sticks are fried, much like mozzarella sticks. Note to my school: cheese sticks are not a main course!! Especially when it seemed clear that the school had barely tried to squeeze in a fruit and vegetable side option, neither of which looked at all appetizing. I discussed the issue with my students, and one said "the only thing on the menu I care about is the cheese sticks", to which all the other students nodded. Sorry, buddy. Cheese sticks are not a meal.

Then it came to me what I wanted to do for Novel Food: I wanted to create the school lunch I wished all my kids would be interested in eating. I'm not saying it's what my kids would eat, even if it were offered, but it's what I wish they would eat. I was a woman on a mission. I went out to the grocery store and bought a bunch of vegetables: mushrooms, a green bell pepper, zucchini. I bought some pita pockets and a can of chickpeas (I prefer to buy dried ones and then soak them and cook them myself, but I guess nobody in my area does that, because dried chickpeas are rarely available at my local grocery stores. I chopped all my veggies into very small pieces and threw them in a pan to saute in a little olive oil.

Then I added a can of chickpeas...

And after letting that heat for a while, I came up with my finished veggie mix!

This got put in the fridge overnight, and here's the finished product that I ate the next day for lunch. I also brought 2 homemade oatmeal cookies, and a handful of dried apricots. At school there was some kind of snack thing available for staff, so I snagged a Quaker Chewy Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip bar as well.

This is what I wish my kids would be eating. That sandwich is packed with delicious chickpea protein (I was actually going to make hummus, but I didn't feel like breaking out the food processor the night before), the veggies are full of nutrients, and there's plenty of carbs and sweet stuff to have on the side with the fruit and the cookies (plus the surprise extra protein and sugar in the granola bar). What did I drink with it? Water. I can't go anywhere without a giant bottle of water.

I know my kids would probably not touch this stuff now, even if it was in front of them. But maybe they would if we taught our kids from the beginning that vegetables were delicious. If we raised our kids to drink water more than soda. If gardening and growing your own food was more heavily emphasized both in school and at home. If kids had a more consistent knowledge of is and is not healthy for them. If fast food were not quite so prevalent, or if local and fresh produce were more readily available to families whose socioeconomic status currently prohibits them from offering such options to their children. My job is to care about my kids, and that includes being concerned about what they eat. Maybe one day I'll be teaching in a world where my students will eat this stuff for lunch every day, and I think they'll be a lot better for it. But for now I just fantasize, and read books on school reform. It reminds me that anything is possible.

I linked in the last entry to the Novel Food roundup page, so check back in a few days and you just may see me on there!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

NYC food adventures, and the best mussels we've ever had

One of the best things about getting to visit Noah in New York (besides, of course, the "getting to see Noah" part) is being able to have days when we just go to the city and try to experience as much of the food atmosphere as possible. The small town where I live is almost stiflingly homogeneous food-wise, so the wealth of options available in New York is intensely refreshing. In early January, I took the bus to New York to surprise Noah with a visit (I had planned it in advance with his parents, and miraculously none of us managed to give away the surprise!), which was a huge surprise for him (he had no idea!) and was a lot of fun. Since he wasn't dong anything in particular that weekend, we decided to take a day and have adventures--or "foodventures", as we like to call them.

Our first stop was Doughnut Plant, where we started our day right with delicious fresh doughnuts. I had a hazelnut doughnut, because I am helpless to the power of hazelnuts, and Noah's was Meyer lemon. Then we went to Kossar's and had bialys. At least, I think we did. My memory is hazy after so many weeks, so I don't remember exactly where we went or what kind of bialys we had, just that we had bialys somewhere and they were really good and there wasn't a lot of seating so we pretty much had to squeeze onto one chair. From there we stopped briefly at an amazing pickle place where pretty much anything you can think of existed in its pickle form. We gaped at the selection of pickled things (I love pickles, so it was like the mothership calling me home), but decided we were going to come back to it. We never did, because we got distracted., Maybe next time! My google searches do not come up conclusive on what the place was called. This concluded Leg One of our food tour: the Lower East Side.

Our next leg was the Chinatown leg. We were only in Chinatown for one thing, and that was super-cheap dumplings. After some preliminary research, we finally decided on a dumpling house called, well...Dumpling House. (I believe my Google search also comes up with Vanessa's Dumpling House, but I can't remember if they're the same place.) We started our time there with 2 orders of dumplings. The dumplings are all crammed together in one small container, and 1 order (containing 4 dumplings) is $1. Can't get much better than that! We followed it up with a sesame pancake (Dumpling House has several varieties, and I can't remember which one we had...this'll teach me to wait so long to write my food blog entries) and some kind of soup--I think it was the pork wonton soup, but again, not sure. Dumpling House is definitely the kind of place I'd be at all the time if I lived in NY--it's super crowded, everybody's pressed together like sardines jostling each other as they eat their delicious (and budget-friendly) dumplings. I'm looking forward to visiting there more times during my regular visits to the city.

We then abandoned Chinatown for a very cold and windy walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, which made me wish I'd brought a hat, but was still exciting because I'd never walked across the Brooklyn Bridge before. We were in Brooklyn for the Mile End deli, where we'd heard there were amazing smoked meats being made. And the smoked meats were really good! After a wait, we ordered the smoked meats and also a house-ground salami sandwich (I tried to get the menu on my computer, but for some reason my computer loaded it really tiny and I couldn't make the window any bigger, so I can't actually read the menu to tell you what the sandwich was called). The smoked meat sandwich was good, but we actually liked the salami sandwich better. If I remember correctly, we also had pickles. And I had a cup of tea, because I was really cold. Mile End is a great place if you enjoy people who put a lot of care into their meat, and if you've got some time on your hands (there is always always always a wait, from what I've heard, so don't expect to just waltz right in). I would definitely go back to try more of their menu, or just eat more delicious salami sandwiches.

3 days after I went back to MD from that trip, Noah came to visit me for MLK Day weekend! We had 3 days to spend together, which coincided with an early celebration of our 2.5-year anniversary. (Since we had had feelings for each other for a while before we got together, and because we were a bit hazy on when we actually became an official couple, we chose July 26, 2008 as our anniversary because that's when we believe everything really started.) Because we had an anniversary to celebrate, we decided to go someplace nice for dinner, and after some deliberation we chose a little Bistro in Baltimore called b. It was a great choice for a nice dinner--it was intimate and friendly, and pretty much everything on the menu was strong. We got a selection of appetizers, tapas-style, and then shared an order of moules-frites. The appetizers included: olives (Noah's email reminding me of where we went and what we ate describes this as "roasted olives with lemon peel and some other stuff"), a charcuterie plate with amazingly delicious duck prosciutto as well as really good bresaola and serrano ham, served with fried bread, and a potato appetizer that was reminiscent of the patatas bravas that you get at tapas places everywhere. The potatoes were SO good--the waitress had placed them by me, and I definitely had a hard time sharing! ;-)

The star of the show, however, was without a doubt the moules-frites. The mussels were the best mussels either of us had ever had. They tasted like they had never known the inside of a freezer, and were incredibly fresh and well-prepared. They were served with frites, which were also excellently done. The meal was so good that I wrote a thank-you note to the staff on the back of my receipt and left it for them. There couldn't have been a better way to celebrate 2.5 years together then with good food and wine and the company of your partner. :-)

Coming attractions:
Check back in the next couple of days for my (slightly unusual) entry in this year's Novel Food, a celebration of literature and food organized by a food blog I've been reading for a while now. I'm not sure my entry will be accepted, since I didn't base it on a novel (more of a nonfiction book), but you'll get to see it regardless! I also may talk about an excellent stir-fry I made the other day from an even more awesome cookbook that you should all go out and buy. But that's later.


Doughnut Plant
379 Grand St.
New York, NY 10002

Kossar's Bialys
367 Grand St.
New York, NY 10002

Dumpling House (this address is for Vanessa's Dumpling House, because I think it's the same thing)
118 Eldridge St.
New York, NY 10002

Mile End Delicatessen
97a Hoyt St.
Brooklyn, NY

1501 Bolton St.
Baltimore, MD 21217

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Rice For Dinner

Sometimes you just have one of those days, you know? You go downstairs to make dinner, and you're excited because it's going to be some kind of cool sweet-and-sour thing over rice that you came up with compiled from various recipes. It's really easy, too--just put some random stuff (dates, sugar, water, cumin, tamarind extract, stuff like that) in the food processor and process it until it's done. But, for whatever reason, it doesn't work. It's disgusting. You try to fix it, to balance the ingredients, but it doesn't want to be fixed. It remains inedible. You could try harder-you know you could probably fix this somehow-but your heart's just not in it today. You're all stressed, for whatever reason--your former housemate is exhibiting creepy and potentially dangerous behavior, you're worried about your teaching practicum starting on Wednesday, you may potentially be changing jobs for the third time in the past 9 months, all your housemates are gone for the weekend and you're lonely, you're lonely even when all your housemates are here. All of the above, if you're me. You wonder if you used up all your kitchen mojo making that really delicious herb quick bread a couple hours ago. Either way, your attempt at dinner goes down the drain, the belch of the garbage disposal seeming to say that even it doesn't want it. Your rice, however, came out perfectly.

And that's when you do it. That's when you have plain steamed rice for dinner, seasoned with a little bit of fish sauce and sesame oil. You make some chai tea to soften the blow of your finished dinner product being a bowl of plain rice. You think nostalgically of the days when ruining dinner gave you a free pass to order in...back when you had a guaranteed job and your parents were paying for your schooling and you didn't have rent to pay. You write blog entries where you amp up the drama of the situation, because humor is the best medicine, and you hope that new readers to the blog don't think you're always this overdramatic (and also self-referencing).

The upside: my parents are coming to take me out to brunch tomorrow. And after a dinner like that, I'll definitely be hungry!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Catching Up

Well, that time has come again. The time when, periodically, I deposit a whole bunch of pictures onto this blog, food pictures I never got around to writing about or weren't particularly interesting to write about. Think of it as a bit of a snapshot of the time that's passed since I moved back to Maryland!

Over the summer, while Noah and I lived in New Windsor, we had a burst of DIY inspiration that involved making pickles! They were delicious.

Fresh sage from our window garden! When it got to be winter I dried all the sage by hanging it from a hair tie on the window. I'm really looking forward to doing some more gardening (mostly of things that can be grown in pots, because I'm only renting the house I'm living in now) soon.

Some yummy-looking type of fried rice concoction.

These may not look like much, but they are amazing homemade chicken nuggets! I don't know why I survived on frozen chicken nuggets all through college when I could have been eating these.

Pasta with made-from-scratch tomato sauce! I was really happy with the way this came out. It's such a simple thing to make, but the sauce came out so well, with giant chunks of tomato and lots of seasoning.

Until next time, I hope you had a happy new year!