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Every so often, I have this irresistible urge to cook and eat the way people with more discipline and higher principles do.  I’ll make kale, quinoa and chick peas for lunch.  I’ll try doing a cleanse.  (Though I still maintain that was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.)  I’ll go to yoga class feeling incredibly self-satisfied and healthy before I just give up and eat Popeye’s fried chicken and watch four episodes of The Wire.

Not since high fructose corn syrup has something been as demonized as gluten.  Some believe it is the source of all evil in the world.  I’m only being a tiny bit facetious because one of my best friends suffers from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing nutrients in food that are important for staying healthy.  It’s not just a wheat allergy or “sensitivity.”  It’s a serious disease that makes consuming gluten dangerous.

So to give myself a challenge to eat more healthfully and to practice for the next time my friend is in town and crashing at my place so I can be the best hostess ever, I decided to experiment with baking gluten-free muffins.   I adapted this recipe from an unlikely source but with a few tweaks, they ended up being pretty delicious: incredibly moist, light, fluffy and not too sweet.  And maybe it was my imagination, but I didn’t feel as weighed down after eating them as I would have with a wheat-baesd muffin.  

Gluten-Free and Sugarless lemon blueberry muffins

Ingredients:

  • 3 eggs (room temperature – important)
  • 1/3 cup coconut flour
  • ¼ cup melted butter
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract (I scraped the seeds out half of a vanilla bean instead)
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup brown rice syrup (available at health food stores)
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½  teaspoon baking soda
  • 2-5 tablespoons water (see below)
  • ½ cup raspberries or blueberries
  • 2 tablespoons grated lemon zest

Preparation:

Heat oven to 375° F. Prepare pan with a generous amount of butter. This recipe makes six “regular”-sized muffins.

1) Whisk or beat the eggs until whites and yolks are well-mixed. Stream in the butter while continuing to whisk. Add salt and vanilla and mix until combined. Add brown rice syrup and stir.  Add lemon zest.

2) In a separate bowl, mix the remaining dry ingredients — coconut flour, baking powder and baking soda.

3) Mix the dry and wet ingredients together. Now you will whisk in water, one tablespoon at a time. The coconut flour will absorb the liquid from the wet ingredients. You want to get it to a consistency that will hold up the berries, but not be too thick.  (Usually around 4 tablespoons)

4) Gently mix in the berries and divide among 6 muffin cups. Bake for about 15 to 18 minutes, or until just turning golden on top.

 
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Dragon’s Beard Candy

Okay, I know I begin every entry apologizing for not updating more often and at this rate, I should just stop calling it a blog and publish it on a Gutenberg printing press and hand deliver it to all of you on a yearly basis.  I’m sorry.  Trying to make it as a writer/actress/filmmaker is very difficult and time-consuming and since the financial rewards at this stage are scant, I haven’t had much to write about in terms of food unless you consider adding fresh kale to your ramen noodles noteworthy.

But this past weekend, I took a break from writing and I went with some friends to Flushing for some Lunar New Year dim sum.  We stopped into the New World Mall and on the second floor near a partially disbanded dragon dance troop of bored-looking teenagers, there was a small stand selling something called Dragon’s Beard Candy.

Also called “Chinese cotton candy,” legend has it that dragon’s beard candy was created for the emperor during the Han dynasty.   According to the story, while tasting a confection that was made for him by the court chef, strands from the candy got stuck in the emperor’s beard.  Since the dragon was an imperial symbol, it was named Dragon’s Beard Candy.  Centuries later, the sweet treat was outlawed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as the Communist Party sought to outlaw any vestiges of the decadence from the Han Dynasty.

Many decades after that, we found ourselves in a mall in Queens, where a crowd gathered around a man stretching candy by hand into gossamer sugar threads.  The technique is similar to hand-pulled noodles but the product is far more delicate.  The thin strands of sugar are wrapped around sesame and coconut and shaped into cocoons.  It’s hardly ever mass-produced because it basically disintegrates after a few minutes.

We couldn’t resist and bought a box for $3.  They felt like powdered sugar covered gauze.  It was a little difficult to pick them up  in one piece but they were delicious– nutty and sweet without being too sweet.  But like summer loves and shooting stars, dragon’s beard candy is ephemeral and fleeting.  We took the remaining candies home and they had already melted.

Such is life, I suppose.  Nothing is permanent.  Have a Happy Lunar New Year, nevertheless.  May this year bring you health, wealth and plenty of dragon babies!

Kristen fell asleep on the car ride home from the beach last Sunday. Usually I have to kind of beg her to eat on Division Avenue in Grand Rapids — but this time, since she was sawing logs, all I had to do was follow the signs for exit 81 on US 131.

Mariscos Veracruzanos was closed so we went to a pupusería called El Salvador. They had Kolashanpan, the unofficial national soft drink of El Salvador. It smelled like bubble gum. Me and Kristen really liked it and *almost* ordered a second round.

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The most delicious pupusa was the loroco flower one. The loroco flower is a little bud that grows on a vine. It looks a little bit like the top of an asparagus spear and, paired with the gooey cheese of the pupusa, it was delectable.

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Pupusería El Salvador La Original
4639 Division Avenue South
Grand Rapids MI 49548-4308
(616) 257-1092

My handsome friend Edison took me to Barzola (92-13 37th Ave, Queens, NY 11372) a few weeks ago and I had some unbelievably delicious Ecuadorian cuisine from the coast. If it’s the right season, you can order the cangrejada, stewed whole spider crabs.

If you order the cangrejada, they bring out a basket full of equipment (like this wooden mallet).

I learned that every soft part of the crab is edible. Even the what Edison described as the “fecal matter” inside the carapace.

The flesh is unlike the flesh of crabs that I am familiar with. These spider crabs have a veiny, gray appearance; HOWEVER, they were exceptionally delicious!

By the way, Edison is going there for fanesca on Sunday — but I wasn’t invited!

This is the story of how I undertook a 3 day juice cleanse and why it was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.  Let me begin by saying that I don’t diet.  Even when, for a foolish few years when I was a struggling actress and I thought modeling would be a good way to earn extra money and exposure, I could never bring myself to limit my food intake.  It just never seemed worth it.  Food is one of the greatest pleasures life has to offer.  How can being in ad for Target possibly compare to Popeye’s fried chicken?

But lately, it seems like everyone I know is on or has gone on a juice cleanse.  Don’t judge me as I judge you, but it always struck me as strange that while there are millions of people starving in the world that someone who lives in a developed country and has enough food to eat (and presumably doesn’t suffer from an eating disorder) would starve herself.  Not just starve herself, pay a whopping $65 dollars a day for the pleasure of starving herself.

I guess I wasn’t sure if I believed in the contention that your digestive system needs a “break” or that your colon needs to be cleansed.  It’s a colon for god’s sake.  How clean does it need to be?  It’s a bit like asking the garbage man to wear a three-piece suit and aftershave to work– what’s the point?  But I suppose I was curious and wanted to see what all the fuss was about and I must say that I love a challenge and a chance to test to my willpower.  When I put my mind to something, I do it.  It’s how I’ll systematically achieve every single one of my life goals and finish reading all of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time… one of these days… so I tell myself.

But I still couldn’t justify the expense.  My brother’s girlfriend Ashley and I decided to try to see if we could replicate the juice cleanse at a fraction of the cost.  Why couldn’t we just buy the ingredients and juice/blend them ourselves?  We looked up all the ingredients for one of the more popular 3 day cleanses and bought them.  The plan was to meet on Sunday morning, make the juices and be on our way to feeling lighter and having cleaner bodies and clearer heads.

We should have known this would be the case, but the juices took a really, really long time to make.  We got a late start and because it was technically day 1 of the cleanse, we refrained from eating anything all morning.  You’d think this goes without saying, but washing, chopping, juicing and blending enough spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, parsley, cucumber, celery and green apple for two people to drink twice a day for three days is incredibly labor-intensive.  By the time we finished making our first juice of the day, it was almost 3 PM.

We took a break to sit down and drink the first juice.  It wasn’t easy.  It tasted like grass, like we were eating mulch, like someone just emptied a lawn mower into our glasses.  Ashley had tried and enjoyed the kind of green juices they sell in stores and claimed they were delicious.  I always avoided them because I imagined they tasted like what we had just made.  After a few torturous sips, it started to become tolerable.  It was fresh, healthful, it was a bit like drinking a salad or cold cucumber soup.

Ashley had a harder time getting it down.  “Maybe you should put it in a bowl and eat it with a spoon like it’s soup,” I suggested.  That didn’t help.  It just made it seem like there was even more of it.  “Maybe you should try drinking it with a straw,” I tried.  “I don’t have a straw,” she replied despondently.  Eventually, she drank some more and we went back to work.  By the time we finished making the remaining juices (Pineapple Apple Mint, Spicy Lemonade, Carrot Apple Beet and Cashew Milk), which were all surprisingly delicious (especially compared to the green one) it was almost 7 PM.  I was already half an hour late to meet my family friends for Sunday supper and my back was aching from all the standing, chopping and juicing all day.  Now I understand (though don’t condone) why Mario Batali wears Crocs.

When I got to their apartment, my willpower was put to the ultimate test.  Let me tell you, watching someone eat a steak when all you’ve had to eat all day (or will eat for the next two days) is juice is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.  I went home thinking sleep was my only escape from my hunger.  Boy, was I mistaken.

When I first graduated from college, I was in a long-distance relationship. I had a re-occuring nightmare in which I accidentally cheated on my boyfriend.  I dreamt that I kissed someone else and then suddenly realized what I had done and spent the rest of the dream burdened by guilt.  My first night on the juice cleanse, I had the same thing with food.  I dreamt that I was eating a sandwich and all of  sudden, realized that I wasn’t supposed to be eating solid food and felt terrible.  But I justified it to myself by saying that it was just alfalfa sprouts and avocado and it wasn’t that big of a deal but then, all of a sudden, without realizing it, I was eating a bowl of ramen noodles.  Oh, no!

I woke up the next day feeling a little woozy and weak and seeing the kind of sparkles I usually see after I give blood as I’m about to faint.  When is the mental clarity supposed to set in, I wondered?  As the day progressed, I came to two realizations: 1) When working from home, I spend a lot of time making and eating food and then washing the dishes, pots and pans I use to make and eat my meals 2) I do a lot of mindless snacking when I procrastinate from writing.

So because I was only drinking juices that had already been made, I had a lot more time to write and because I was so determined to stay on the cleanse, I felt even more focused on getting my writing done.  I also felt more aware than ever of what I was putting into my body and self-satisfied knowing that I was consuming only raw, organic fruits and vegetables.  But I was still hungry enough to strangle a deer.  Mmmm…. venison.

Anyway, by the time the evening rolled around, I did something even stupider than going on a juice cleanse– I went to a yoga class while on a juice cleanse.  I chose an easier than usual class to take it easy, but as I was walking up the subway stairs, my legs felt like they each weighed 100 pounds.  During the class, I saw more sparkles as I got up from my downward dog poses.  I was still determined to get through it but secretly feared I’d pass out like a teenage Tracey Gold in after-shool special about eating disorders.

After class, I slumped into a bean bag chair in the lobby and savored my last juice of the day like it was nectar of the gods.  I texted Ashley to see if she wanted to see Blue Valentine the next day so we could distract ourselves from our hunger.  “I’ll go see the movie with you…” she wrote back, “But I won’t be hungry.”  Apparently, my brother brought home chocolate truffles. I couldn’t blame her, but my resolve was weakened.  I felt like a soldier during boot camp who sees his friend fall into the mud and give up.  I wanted to give up too.  On my way home, I went to see the latest Woody Allen movie, trying to ignore the intoxicating smell of popcorn the way the way I tried to ignore the dozens of pizza parlors, ramen noodle shops and bakeries on my walk home.

The next day, my last day on the cleanse, I could barely get out of bed.  I felt ill.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that I couldn’t walk.  I almost fainted.  This is pathetic, I thought.  It’s one thing to be determined, it’s another to starve myself to death.  Panicked, I envisioned my super finding me sprawled on the floor next to an overturned bottle, green juice slowly pooling around my corpse.  Using my last reserves of energy, I opened my refrigerator and found some week-old Spanish rice in my refrigerator.  I ate it like I hadn’t eaten in years.  Then I had a bowl of shredded wheat.  Then another one.  Then another one.  Then I went out and got two slices of pizza.

After a juice cleanse, you’re supposed to ease your way back onto solid food, but I had to listen to my body. It wanted pizza.  Maybe juice cleanses work miracles for some, but it obviously wasn’t for me.

Cost of the fancy name brand juice cleanse: $65/day for three days

Cost of doing it myself: $16/day for three days + $7.50 for two slices of pizza on the third day + my dignity and possibly my health

All of this became a liquid and we drank it... well, we tried, at least

Ask anyone: brunch in New York is as daunting as it is delightful.  You’re hungry and probably irritable because you skipped breakfast (or most likely slept through it) and while you would love to think you have the stamina to wait on the harsh, blustery sidewalks of New York in the middle of winter for an hour just to taste the eggs at Prune or the pancakes at Clinton Street Baking Company or the merguez at Cafe Mogador with your blood sugar dropping and your toes losing sensation, sometimes it’s just too much.

There are some overlooked gems in the neighborhood with excellent, well-priced brunches where there is never a wait.  Paprika and La Palapa come to mind as really solid second choices for the impatient and the hypoglycemic (okay, so I diagnosed myself.) Having said that, I’m like every other jerk in New York and sometimes I want what everyone else wants, so before the holidays, I went to check out Northern Spy Food Co. with my dear friend Steven to see what all the fuss was about.  We got there early, a little before 11, when they open for brunch.  There were already half a dozen people waiting on the benches outside.  You’d think they were giving food away for free, not charging $12 for an egg sandwich.  (More on that later.)

Northern Spy Food Co. is built on ideas that cause most people these days perk up their ears and a few cynical others to roll their eyes.  They try to use as many seasonal, locally grown or produced ingredients as possible. Their beers come entirely from the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern regions and their wine from small, artisanal producers.  Their adorable interior, which looks at once like a cozy New England bed and breakfast, a general store and the sort of diner that exists only in nostalgic recollections, was designed and built by Brooklyn-based firms and is furnished with repurposed materials. The floors are reclaimed hickory boards and their retail cubbies are made from… wait for it… a repurposed chicken coop.  I know.

We started brunch with the butter biscuits and jam, which were pretty fantastic.  I kept telling myself I would only eat one to save room for the rest of the meal, but I guess perfect homemade biscuits are like Lay’s potato chips.  For our entrees, we decided to order two different things to try a bit of both.  This is something my mother does.  When we dine out as a family, she makes us all order different things so we can try each other’s dishes.  It makes perfect sense but I resisted it for years because I found it invasive and I wanted to prove her wrong.  I’ve long since come around to the idea, but don’t tell her.  (Alright, I know she reads this… and follows my Twitter feed… and reads my status updates on Facebook, but I’m not going to apologize to her face.)

I ordered the Corned-beef hash (with heritage beef brisket, confit potatoes, poached eggs)

Steven ordered the Chicken & egg sandwich (crispy thigh, poached egg, chimichurri, market greens)

Both dishes were very tasty and well-made but I preferred the chicken and egg sandwich.  Bless them for using a thigh (my favorite part of a chicken) and for cooking it perfectly so that it was juicy, flavorful and tender and a touch crispy.  And genius to top it with a perfectly poached egg so the rich, silky yoke broke onto that crispy thigh and all that richness was with balanced with clean, peppery arugula.  Oh, and there was chimichurri.  Have I ever told you how much I love chimichurri? (anything with garlic is a friend of mine.)

The only problem I had with what is an otherwise exquisite sandwich was the gigantic bun that encased it.  It was like a diamond ring inside a duffle bag.  To me, a sandwich is all about proportions and I don’t want my first two bites to be just bread.  I tried to understand the reasoning behind it.  I imagined that while testing the recipe,  the yoke ran all over someone’s fingers and they figured it was better to give the customer enough bread to soak it up, to give it room to ooze out, but it still felt like a mistake.

In the end, Steven and I agreed that the flavors at Northern Spy Food Co. were spot on (delicious, in fact) but that the portions were tiny.  It just didn’t feel like we were getting a lot of bang for our buck.  I don’t doubt that the reason they charge so much for so little has to do with where they source their ingredients and how it’s all made.  I’m sure I’m getting something of quality that I can feel good about purchasing, that’s supporting local artisans and farmers.  I think these are all important issues and I applaud them, but one of my goals for 2011 is to be more fiscally responsible and a few blocks away at La Palapa, they give you a cocktail, a fruit plate and a pot of tea or coffee with your huevos rancheros.  Just saying.

Northern Spy Food Co.
511 East 12th Street (between Ave. A and Ave B)
New York, NY 10009

212-228-5100

Ode to Viennetta

I love Michael K of the snarky, scathing celeb and pop culture blog Dlisted. Every day, he chooses a “Hot Slut of the Day!” to honor and hilariously, today it was the ice cream confection Viennetta.

As a child, I was certainly taken in by the mass-produced dessert with its airs of being exquisite, elegant, vaguely European. It was rather pretentious for something that came in your grocer’s freezer, but it was a time of excess: big hair, big shoulder pads, big money. Investment bankers out of a Brett Easton Ellis novel wearing suspenders and slicked back hair might’ve eaten it off of supermodel’s asses in the bathrooms at Tunnel.

A few years ago, while reminiscing or making some pop culture reference joke as we are prone to do, my friend Steven and I got to thinking about Viennetta and how long it had been since we’d had it and how delightful we found it as children. We then proceeded to go into every grocery store and bodega around the East Village and Union Square in search of it.

After a few places, we both knew it was probably a lost cause. Why would they stock something no one has thought about in 15 years? The demand for people who suddenly remembered it existed and wanted to try it again out of some sense of kitsch and nostalgia probably wasn’t enough to keep it in production, it seemed.

But I hate being told I can’t have something especially when it comes to food, so I emailed Breyers to get to the bottom of it:

Whatever happened to Viennetta?  As a young girl, I fell in love with this elegant yet accessible dessert– the lacy, arabesque folds of ice cream between thin, crisp layers of chocolate danced on my taste buds like an ice cream dream.  To my dismay, during a recent expedition to satiate my longing for said treat, I was unable to find it at any grocery store.  Has this product been discontinued in the United States?  Say it ain’t so!

I received the following response:

Response (Consumer Help Desk) – 01/10/2006 09:28 AM
Thank you very much for contacting us.  I am sorry to inform you that the Breyers Viennetta has been discontinued.

Many factors contribute to a decision to discontinue a flavor or product,  but they all boil down to the fact that we didn’t sell enough of the flavor or product to keep producing it.  We know that you did your part to keep the flavor or product in production.  Please understand that we would rather not disappoint any of our consumers.

Thank you

So it was true.  We would never again be able to enjoy the premium ice cream and the crisp chocolatey layers.  But that summer, I traveled with my parents to China and there, under the communist government’s nose, Viennetta, surely a symbol of all that was decadent and Western, was alive and well!  In China, it was called “Thousand Layered Snow,” and came in individual portions on popsicle sticks (not in crystal bowls.)  There, it had become a dessert of the people.

In 2008, perhaps after receiving enough messages from ridiculous people like me, Unilever brought Viennetta back to the United States, but it wasn’t the same.  Instead of Breyers ice cream, it was made with nonfat milk, sugars, whey, cocoa, propylene glycol monoesters, cellulose gels, mono and diglycerides, locust bean gum, polysorbate 80, guar gum, natural flavor and carrageenan.

It was only available for a little less than a year.  I never tried it.  It didn’t seem right.  Perhaps one day, the real thing will come back and we’ll all celebrate by dusting off our finest crystal bowls and slicing into a little piece of heaven.  There’s just one problem: one slice is never enough.