Monday, May 19, 2008

raw lasagna stacks

About three years ago, I became intrigued by the raw food movement when I found Raw Food Real World, the companion cookbook to the Gramercy Park restaurant here in New York, Pure Food and Wine. In addition to being a manifesto on how to live raw, the book was also the culinary love story of the restaurant's proprietors and former lovers, Sarma Melngailis and Matthew Kenney. Much like the ephemerality of the raw food movement (which retained popularity for about a year or two, due in large part to Sex and the City), Sarma and Matthew's romance came to a violent and turbulent end, leaving Sarma with the restaurant and a raw food empire to manage on her own.

The recipes in the cookbook are extremely complicated and expensive, but the one to which I have remained faithful is the recipe for Raw Lasagna. There is nothing as delicious as a slice of this raw lasagna on a hot summer evening with a glass of cold, mineral, white wine. Last night I found my roommate's copy of Raw Food Real World, which inspired me to re-create a fast, easy version of Pure Food and Wine's raw lasagna, which I will call a "Raw Lasagna Stack". For the original recipe, take a look at the cookbook, or better yet, go to the restaurant (or takeaway bar around the corner).

What makes this recipe so delicious is the pesto. There are two pestos in my recipe, based off of RFRW's pestos. The basil pesto is a traditional pesto, and the sundried tomato pesto-caponata is simply divine. The pestos are extremely versatile, which make the extra expense for specialty ingredients worth every penny. Be sure to make lots of both pestos and eat them with anything, even just a spoon.


Serves 2 as an appetizer or main course

1 large beefsteak (or heirloom) tomato
1 yellow pepper
1 green zucchini

For the Sundried Tomato Pesto-Caponata:

2 cups Sundried Tomatoes
3/4 cup Fresh tomato
1/2 cup Olive Oil
Juice of 1 small Lemon
1 Tbsp Honey or Agave Syrup*
Salt and Pepper

For the Basil Pesto:

1 cup packed fresh Basil, rinsed and dried
1/4 cup pignoli (pine) nuts*
1/2 cup Olive Oil
Splash of White Wine
Salt and Pepper

*Walnuts can work too if you prefer a creamier pesto

Sundried Tomato Pesto-Caponata: Bring three cups of water to a boil. Place sundried tomatoes in large bowl, pour water over, and let soak while you prepare the other components of the meal, about 20-30mins. Combine all ingredients in a small food processor until mixture is chunky, adding additional oil or lemon juice as necessary.

Basil Pesto: Combine all ingredients in a small food processor until smooth. Add additional oil as necessary for desired consistency.

Cut tomato in 1/2cm- 1cm slices horizontally across the tomato to create large, round pieces. Set aside. Cut large, thin "shavings" from the pepper, from top to bottom. Try to make shavings as flat as possible. Set aside. Cut the zucchini on the bias (on an angle) to make thin, oval slices that are about the same length as the tomato circumference. Set aside.

To assemble layers, place one tomato slice on a plate, spread pesto on top. Arrange zucchini in a layer on top of pesto. Spread a layer of sundried tomato pesto-caponota. Arrange pepper in a layer on top of sundried tomatoes, and spread a layer of pesto. Repeat, keeping or changing order as desired.

Serve with unorthodox, un-raw shavings of parmesan cheese, as well as basil leaves for garnish. Stacks can be kept overnight or for a few days in refrigerator. Enjoy all summer long.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

nuts and berries breakfast

Last summer, I was at a loss of what to have for breakfast. The suffocating heat of the city made me feel sick after eating almost anything that wasn't frozen or chilled. Yogurt gets boring after a while, and with so much delicious produce everywhere at great prices, I yearned for something that would be cool and full of fruit to start my mornings off right.

I came up with this recipe for "fruit cereal" one morning when I had run out of cereal and granola but really wanted something like cereal. The best part of this recipe is that it is incredibly simple, healthy, versatile and quick to make. You can get really creative with ingredients, changing fruits, nuts, and dried fruits, and even granola oats to alter the taste with the seasons. The basic recipe is as follows, but try it with different ingredients depending on your tastes and the seasonal availability of fruit. I like to have three kinds of fruit: a banana, a crispy fruit (a pomaceous or stone fruit), and a "garnish" fruit (berries or kiwi). Be mindful that acidic fruits don't work well because they make the milk curdle. I like to use Almond Milk, but you can also adjust the milk you use to your preferences.


Serves 1

Put all ingredients in a small breakfast bowl. Pour milk over. Grab a big spoon and enjoy right away.

Spring and Summer

1/2 (or 1 small) banana, in large slices
1/2 peach / nectarine / plum, in bite-sized cuts
Handful of strawberry slices / blackberries / raspberries / blueberries / kiwi slices
Walnut bits / almond bits, as garnish
Dried apple bits, as garnish


1/2 (or 1 small) banana, in large slices
1/2 pear, in bite-sized cuts
Handful of late autumn berries / kiwi slices
Walnut bits / almond bits, as garnish
Raisins /dried cranberries as garnish


To make this meal hearty for winter, bake one half of an apple at 350◦ until fruit becomes tender to the touch. Cut into bite-sized pieces and add to bowl with warmed milk.

1/2 apple, in bite-sized bits
Walnut bits / almond bits / granola, as garnish
Raisins, as garnish

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

cannenelli bean salad with chorizo and mint pesto

So you've invested in the chorizo for the scallops português, and now you have leftover links sitting in your freezer that you're afraid you'll never use. Not to worry, your money and the tasty chorizo have not gone to waste. Defrost one chorizo link immediately and let's get cooking.

I saw a version of this recipe on Food & Wine as white bean and chorizo salad with olives. My recipe uses cannenelli beans, the leftover chorizo from your scallops, asparagus, and mint.

I decided to try making a mint pesto, the freshness of which I thought would be a great contrast to the spicy chorizo. My first attempt at making the pesto was a disaster: I chopped mint, olive oil, walnuts, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper using my Cuisinart, and it came out tasting like the bastard child version of basil pesto. The olive oil was too overpowering for the delicate flavor of mint, and the cheese and nuts completely obliterated any discernible mint taste. The pesto came out white from the cheese and the nuts and from over-processing the mint leaves. My second attempt was better: I used a bit of water, walnut oil, salt and pepper. The result was better; as I suspected, the sparse use of mild walnut oil was less pungent than olive oil, and the water helped to make it more into a paste. I also didn't chop it in the Cuisinart for long, just enough to chop the leaves finely, and then I finished the mixing by hand. This time, the mint was more flavorful, but it still was not quite right. I succeeded in my third attempt when I minced the mint by hand, then mixed it in a bowl with walnut oil and water again by hand, adding a pinch of salt (no pepper) to enhance the taste, and (secret ingredient!) a hint of lemon rind for freshness. More rustic, more minty.

It seems to me that mint is a very delicate, self-effacing little herb that is brilliant on its own, but doesn't mix so well in a crowd. However, by using this more rustic, hand-made preparation, the fresh mint succeeded in providing a tasty contrast to the rich beans and chorizo. Served either cold or hot, this dish works in all seasons.

And see? You used your chorizo again.


Serves 4 as a side

For the mint pesto:

2 c packed, fresh mint leaves
Walnut Oil (or another mild oil, i.e. canola oil, almond oil)
Lemon rind
(all to taste)

For the beans:

1 small, thumb-sized shallot
2 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 link spicy Chorizo
4 (or more) Asparagus stalks
1 can (about 2 c) Cannenelli beans, rinsed completely
Olive oil
Salt & Pepper, to taste

Rinse mint, and dry by rolling in paper towel. Mince leaves into fine pieces. Be careful not to overwork. Transfer mint to a small bowl, mix with walnut oil and water, just enough of both to create a manageable paste. Grate in a pinch of lemon rind, toss in a pinch of salt, to taste. Set aside.

Cut the link of chorizo into bite-sized pieces. Set aside. (If using uncooked chorizo, the interior will crumble when you cut it. To avoid messy meat, you may want to roast chorizo in the oven at 400◦ Fahrenheit until link is firm and mostly cooked, about 20-30mins. Once chorizo is firm on the inside, it will cut neatly and easily.)

Bring water to a boil in a small pot. Salt water, add asparagus stalks and blanch until just tender, about 1 minute. Strain and immediately rinse in cold water. Cut stalks into bite-sized pieces, angling each cut on the bias. Set aside.

Heat a medium-sized sauce pan on medium heat. While pan is heating, remove skin from shallot. Cut shallot in half, lengthwise, set aside. When pan is hot, add olive oil to pan, enough to cover bottom. Returning to the shallot, use your fingers to peel it apart, and toss in whole pieces to the pan as you go along. (This preparation will lend an onion flavor to the dish without leaving behind fibers of onion that would distract from the simplicity of the dish.) Add garlic, reduce to medium heat. Cook until shallot pieces become transparent. Add chorizo and asparagus, and sauté until they brown.

For a hot dish, add beans directly to pan. Add about 1/3 cup water or chicken stock, and turn down to a simmer. When liquid is mostly evaporated or thickened, turn off heat. Remove pieces of shallot and garlic, discard. Transfer beans to a large mixing bowl, and toss with mint pesto. Add spoonfuls of mint pesto to your taste. Serve warm.

For a cold dish, turn off heat in pan and remove pieces of shallot and garlic. Transfer chorizo to a large mixing bowl, add beans. Toss with mint pesto. Serve with a garnish of mint.

Monday, May 5, 2008

fava bean salad with mesculin greens

I have a particular aversion to leftovers. After putting so much effort and love into the original dish, I feel as though there is no way that leftovers can compete with taste memory. I'd rather let leftovers wilt into a nutrition-less mess in the trash can than re-heat and re-eat.

But honestly -- can I really afford to throw out food? No. Moreover, I feel ethically responsible to eat all of the food I purchase, not only for economic reasons, but for environmental reasons as well. After reading an article in New York Magazine about subsistence farming in Brooklyn, I became extremely conscious of the incredible amount of effort and resources it takes to grow, say, one pod of fava beans. Throwing away food is more of a waste than you may realize.

So to discard leftovers is, for me, a truly ethical dilemma. On one hand, I loathe the idea of eating food that has lost its nutritional value and taste from both the elapse of time and re-heating. Yet on the other hand, I lack the peace of conscience to throw away perfectly good food. The solution? One can begin by making smaller quantities from the outset. Otherwise, you can follow Darren Darlin's advice on saving money and make enough of a meal to take as a brown-bag lunch the next day. Not only will your conscience feel great about saving money and the future of food, but you will also become the envy of the office.

The trick is that you need to refresh your leftovers with new ingredients. Here's a simple example of how to do turn last night's side dish into this afternoon's lunch.


Serves one very happy employee

Leftover Fava Bean Salad
Half a dozen fresh grape tomatoes, cut in half
Fresh parsley leaves

Mesculin greens

Feta cheese, optional

Re-using the storage container in which you have refrigerated your fava bean salad, toss in grape tomatoes and some more fresh parsley leaves to the leftovers. Re-seal container and plop in your lunch box.

In a separate container large enough to serve the salad bowl from which you will eat, add a handful of mesculin greens. Seal container and add to lunch box.

Cut off a portion of feta cheese, and put it in yet another container or plastic bag to go in the lunch box.

At the office, remove containers. Top mesculin greens with leftover refreshed fava bean salad. Crumble feta cheese on top. Bring to conference room, kitchen, or your cubicle. Revel in your co-workers' compliments -- and don't forget to tell them about that it came from the gourmet dinner you had last night.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

scallops português and spring fava bean salad

Sunday at Whole Foods is madness and mayhem. But for me (if I'm in the right mood), it's a form of meditation. I spent an hour shopping today, selecting a bunch of bananas with the perfect green-to-yellow ratio, slowly peeling back the husks on ears of corn, and sniffing through the plastic wrap of cheeses. Even when the enormous woman with the "WHERE'S MY ORGANIC COOKIES?!?" bug-eyes almost ran me over with her cart, I wasn't unnerved; I was far too enraptured by the lazy mood of the warm Sunday afternoon, and far too inspired by the food around me as the perfect dinner took shape in my mind.

May is "Explore Portugal" month at Whole Foods. Lucky for me, I don't need to explore it; I am Portugal (well, half-Portuguese, at least). Portuguese ingredients like chorizo, seafood, olive oil and sardines are part of my regular diet. I grew up on Portutalian meals made by my mother, whose self-taught cooking was always a spectacular gourmet amalgamation of my parents ethnicities, Italian and Portuguese. My Portuguese grandmother, however, was more of a purist; her signature dish was a very simple and delicious chicken and saffron rice. If she really persisted, she was allowed to make the delicious croquetas de bacalao that the made the whole house stink of salted cod (which freaked out my father). Her masterpiece however was rice pudding, which she made by the batch in a dozen little ramekins. We used to all hang around the kitchen, smelling the sweet, creamy rice cooking on the stove and eagerly waiting for her to serve it piping hot. We would eat a serving for breakfast, snacks, and for dessert at both lunch and dinner until the batch was gone. More often than not, we'd eat it cold, straight out of the fridge, without bothering to even re-heat it. If we were really lucky (read: obedient children), she'd whip up another batch and the rice pudding feast would commence again.

Last night I was feeling a bit nostalgic for family, my loved one, and my dear Nona (no longer here), so I decided to make myself a Portuguese dinner. My mother would have loved it, but my Nona would have called it decadent. I call it delicious, and worth the bit of a splurge for ingredients.

The Scallops Português are made using two Portuguese specialty ingredients: scallops and chorizo. At Whole Foods, I bought 1/4 lb (4 scallops) fresh scallops, which came out to just over $5. You can buy a whole bag of frozen scallops for $14.99 at Whole Foods, or for $10 at Trader Joe's. The chorizo cost $4.99 for five links. You can buy chorizo fresh or dried; if you buy it fresh, you can freeze the leftovers and then thaw them to use in a variety of dishes. Trader Joe's makes a great chicken chorizo for those of you who don't like pork. The Spring Fava Bean Salad makes use of this delightful seasonal vegetable, and is a nice way to cool off the heavy and spicy sauce of the scallops. I bought some fresh olives from the olive bar at Whole Foods, so I poured a bit of the briney juice into the salad, which gave it a really unique flavor.

Overall, the cost for ingredients in this dish is a bit more expensive than the rice and beans recipe. But the scallops are worth the price, just as the chorizo is a great thing to have in the house to add an extra dimension to just about any dish. You'll see.


Serves 4

For the Fava Bean Salad:

6 pods Fava Beans
1 handful String Beans
1/2 cup fresh Fennel, sliced thinly
1/4 cup chopped scallions or spring onion
1/4 cup fresh Parsley leaves
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Water from Olives
Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

For the Scallops:

1 link Chorizo
1 small shallot
1/4 c Red Wine (from the Portuguese wine you'll be drinking with dinner, i.e. Duoro or Ribatejo)
4 Large (Diver) Scallops
1/4 tsp minced Parsley
1/3 tsp Brown Sugar
Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

Extract the fava beans by using your fingernails to pry open the thick pod around to the large beans. Remove the beans and set them aside. Rinse string beans, and cut them in half.

Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Salt the water, add the fava beans. Cook for 1 minute, add string beans, and cook until string beans are just tender, not rubbery and overcooked, about 2 minutes max. Strain completely and immediately rinse with cold water to preserve color and to arrest cooking.

Slice fennel into paper-thin crescent shapes. Toss together in a serving bowl with beans and parsley leaves, lemon juice, olive water, a drizzle of olive oil, and salt and pepper. Set aside.

Remove outer skin from shallot. Slice shallot into thin circles. Set aside. Cut chorizo into thin slices or chunky dice pieces. Set aside.

Heat a small sauté pan. Add olive oil just to grease pan, add shallot and chorizo together. Sauté until chorizo is cooked and shallots start to brown. Add wine, bringing to a boil. Turn down heat to simmer and reduce until wine becomes a thick sauce. To reduce the potency of the flavor, add some chicken stock or water, and a touch of sugar or honey for sweetness. Add salt and pepper to taste.

While sauce is reducing, pour a small circle of olive oil on a small dish. Add minced parsley, brown sugar, salt and pepper to make a rub. Dip or rub both flat sides of the scallops in the rub. Set them aside. Heat a sauté pan on high heat to make it very hot. Add a drizzle of olive oil to grease pan, then place scallops in pan on one of the seasoned sides. Cook for 1-2 minutes, then turn over to other side, about 1-2 minutes. If scallops are still undercooked, turn off heat and cover with a lid for another 3o seconds to 1 minute.

To plate, arrange scallops on plate with a serving of bean salad and some rice. Spoon a bit of chorizo and shallot on top of scallops and drizzle the wine reduction sauce on top and around dish. Serve immediately.

Friday, May 2, 2008

food news: julie & julia

Between having one foot firmly planted in New York and dipping the toes of my other in Los Angeles, I operate simultaneously on two different time zones, follow two separate weather systems, and keep up on two different news scoops on the same entertainment biz. So when my two coasts collide in the form of a movie set on location in the streets of New York (as they so often do), I am rarely surprised. Excited, yes, but rarely surprised.

On my walk home from work last night, I noticed a number of shiny trailers lining Prince Street in SoHo. I immediately assumed they were filming yet another episode of Law & Order. But then I heard a fabulous voice say: "Julie & Julia? Like, Julia Roberts, Julia? Where aare yoouuu, America's Sweetheart?!?"

Upon hearing this call, I immediately recognized the name of the upcoming food movie, Julie & Julia, and the street licenses confirmed that it was indeed filming here in SoHo. But no, the movie isn't starring Julia Roberts. Rather, it stars America's perennial mother-figure, the talented Meryl Streep, as Julia Child, and America's new funny-gal sweetheart, Amy Adams, as Julie Powell.

Julie & Julia started filming yesterday on location at Provence, a restaurant très français on MacDougal and Prince. The film is inspired by Julie Powell, whose blog-turned-book-turned-movie tells the story of how she endeavored "to revitalize her marriage, restore her ambition, and save her soul by cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, in a period of 365 days" (says Julie's blog, "What Could Happen?", can be found at

The movie is being directed by Norah Ephron (foodies and romantic comedy lovers rejoice!), and is now filming all over New York City streets. You see, here in the city, we don't have wide open, private back lots and sound stage space (though we do have Silvercup Studios in Queens), so we film on the street. Apartments and restaurants and retail stores are turned into movie sets faster than you Angelenos can make it through freeway traffic.

So next time you're out and about in SoHo, you shouldn't be surprised to see Meryl Streep or Amy Adams. Also on set is one of New York's favorite actors (and "veteran subway rider"), Stanley Tucci (as Paul Child). No celebrity sightings for me yet, but I'll keep you posted if I see Meryl cracking eggs and making crèpes suzette flambée on the sidewalk.

Julie & Julia is currently in production in New York and will come in theaters in 2009. Julie Powell's book of the same title can be purchased here:

Many big thanks to New York Magazine's Grub Street for the shout out!
Grub Street, 5/2/08: Meryl Streep/Julia Child Movie Shot Footage at Provence

Thursday, May 1, 2008

would you eat lunch from this man?

Photo credit: Ben Stechschulte, New York Magazine

Would you eat a lunch from this man?

Me? Hell no. No offense, Esquites Man (located on Fifth Ave nr. 53rd Street in Sunset Park, Brooklyn), but I don't trust your esquites. Even though New York Magazine calls your fare "irresistible Mexico City street snack of corn kernels sautéed in butter and lard or vegetable oil and flavored with fresh epazote", I can't help but notice you're serving them out of a pilfered shopping cart from Lowe's. It irks me that epazote means "dirty skunk." I might be on a budget, but I'm not so broke that I'll eat a ladlefull of soggy corn served in a styrofoam cup from an old orange watercooler. Yikes.

(Not that I don't love how -- in such quintessentially New York fashion -- the Esquites Man got a shout-out as one of the 20 Best Food Carts in the city. ¡Bravo!)

Enter the Calexico Cart in SoHo on Wooster Street near Prince. Three SoCal brothers prop up shop on one of the cities most bustling and hustling street corners, bringing along with them the sweet, spicy flavors of Cal-Mex cuisine to us Eastcoasters, so far from the southern border:

In the middle of the California desert, about 2 hours from the coast, you’ll find twin cities straddling the border of California and Mexico. The city on the Mexican side is called Mexicali; the one on the California side is called Calexico. Everything about the place is a mix of California and Mexico – especially its food. Equal parts Mexican taqueria and American Barbecue Pit, Calexico’s cuisine is down-to-earth and full of flavor, familiar and unique at the same time. When we came to New York we were blown away by the food. But for all its great restaurants, we couldn’t find anything that quite matched the flavors of Calexico. So we took it upon ourselves to introduce NYC to Calexico style cooking.

So finally, after passing by the cheery orange-and-yellow cart dozens of times and lusting after the meaty aroma coming from the grill, I decided to try it. Armed with my colleague from work and another friend who recently moved here from Mexico, I figured that we -- the two frugal gourmets and the authentic connoisseur -- would be ready to determine whether or not these guys were the real deal, or just another bunch of wheeler-dealers-on-wheels.

We discovered that the Calexico Cart is a little gem. The grill is manned by one guy, another one plates and garnishes, and the third takes orders from customers on a little waiter's pad. The wait time for food is anywhere from 5-10 mins because everything is made fresh for each customer's order. Street diners choose from three different formulas: soft corn tortilla tacos ($2.50 - $4 each), quesadillas ($4 - $7 each) or burritos ($4 - $7 each). Each formula can be made with pollo asado, calexio carne asada, chipotle pork, or vegetarian black beans. The chicken and the steak are dressed with pico de gallo and avocado sauce, while the pork and the vegetarian are dressed with tomatillo salsa and mexican crema. For about $2 extra, you can turn your meal into a full plate, complete with mexican rice and beans and a scoop of guacamole. Sides are also available for an extra, small charge. There are daily specials available too that take adventurous culinary liberty with the menu's taco/quesadilla/burrito formats.

Between the three of us, we sampled the pollo, carne and vegetarian tacos. (I regret not tasting the pork... definitely next time!) The meat of the chicken and the steak was fresh, juicy and deliciously flavored by the smoky grill. The beans were rich and creamy, made spicy with lots of chipotle chili. The soft corn tacos were remarkably fresh, and their grainy tang of corn complemented the simple flavors of the meat. I can't help but wonder if they are hand-made. The pico de gallo was refreshing, and the tomato salsa was mild. I would have loved to have more of the condiments to brighten up the flavors a bit, but overall, I thought these bitty tacos were muy delicioso.

The taco is served with two tortillas in a small hot-dog-like carton. I couldn't help but question the necessity of two tortilla flats. But as I kept biting hungrily into the meat, the bread gave way to the juices and began to tear. Thanks to the care and attention of the Calexico Cart chefs, I had another tortilla to rescue the chicken from the boring fate of being eaten politely with a fork.

The boys of the Calexico Cart have something special going on. They pride themselves on making good food and go the extra effort to give it a gourmet touch and a charming presentation. Waiting for "street meat" may seem initially antithetical to the whole dining-cart experience. But the wait time creates a little community around the cart as the regulars say hey and get their usual orders, and newcomers scan the menu slowly, everyone waiting with hungry anticipation for their meal to be cooked. With its convivial atmosphere, high-quality food, and friendly staff, the Calexico Cart is an outdoor restaurant and a neighborhood phenomenon. Reservations are not accepted, and seating is limited on the steps of the Apple Store and J. Crew.

One taste of a taco tells you that these SoCal boys love to cook -- and we New Yorkers are so glad they've expatriated from the California Republic to set up cart on these streets that are as much our dining room as they are our home.

The Calexico Cart
Wooster Street, nr. Prince
SoHo, New York

MexiCali cuisine, $2.50 - $8

Speaking of Mexican Food and California, see this article from the 5/2/08 online edition of The New York Times: Hungry Angelenos Rally Around the Taco

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

baked feta with roasted tomatoes and greek olives

I've been craving Greek food ever since Michael Psilakis became New York's most-favored chef this winter with the nod from Food & Wine for "Best New Chef". I've visited his Upper West Side restaurant, Kefi, and loved it both times (and reviewed it on my former blog, Goûter), and I am dying to try Anthos. He must be doing something right, because Anthos is one of the only two Michelin-rated Greek restaurants in the world. Then, last night during my weekly romp around Whole Foods, I found the inspiration I needed to make my own Greek meal when I found a big, fresh, milky block of feta cheese.

I imagined this recipe all the way home on the subway, and it came out just as I had imagined. The ingredients in my Baked Feta with Greek Roasted Tomato Salad are simple; the creamy, salty feta cheese is complimented perfectly by the sweet, juicy red tomato, tangy red onion, and briney olives. With a drizzle of fine olive oil and a sprinkle of spices and lemon rind, this dish takes simple ingredients and makes a delicious Greek gourmet snack that anyone can make -- whether or not you're Michael Psilakis.


Serves 2 as an appetizer

1 block Feta Cheese
1 large Tomato
1/2 small Red Onion
Greek Kalamata and green olives
Fresh Oregano, minced
Lemon rind
Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

Pre-heat oven to 400-degrees. Put a small roasting pan (or better yet, a clay pot) in the oven to warm.

Cut the tomato into large chunks. Slice the onion into paper-thin, half-moon slices, and separate. Toss together with a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper. Set aside.

Take out warmed pan from oven. Drizzle a bit of olive oil on the bottom, and place the feta block inside. Drizzle the top of the cheese with olive oil, and sprinkle with fresh oregano, lemon rind and pepper. Arrange tomato salad alongside the feta inside the pan.

Place pan in oven and cook until cheese begins to sizzle, about 7-10 minutes. (If using a clay pot, cook with cover on.) Once the cheese and tomatoes have become soft, transfer entire pan to broiler (remove lid if using clay pot), and broil on high, about 2-3 minutes, until cheese begins to brown.

Serve immediately with warm pita bread. Shots of ouzo and occasional plate-breaking are optional.

Monday, April 21, 2008

the perfect pantry

Spice table at Saxe-Breteuil market in Paris, 2005

The one thing that distinguishes a frugal gourmet from the rest of the hungry masses is a well-stocked pantry. Having a pantry full of ingredients, rather than snacks, paves the way for culinary innovation under any budget. The perfect pantry is an investment, and may initially cost a bit more than your regular trip to the grocery store. But once your pantry is stocked, your weekly grocery bills will decline, and the majority of your spending will be on fresh, seasonal produce, which is not only fresh and nutritious, but inexpensive.

As Michael Pollan writes in his book, In Defense of Food (Penguin Press, 2007): "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This dietary trope has become an increasingly popular credo for cooks and eaters who are becoming more conscious of the importance of knowing the origins of their food. According to Pollan, a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, grains and the occasional animal protein, feeds the human body as it was meant to be fed, with food food, not cellophane-wrapped synthetics.

The additional benefit to this earthy way of eating is that it costs comparatively less. Anything that comes in a box can be sold at a higher price point than things that come in crates. Consider this: not only are you paying for the producer's name-brand label on the box, but you're also paying for the cost of packaging materials. So if you're trying to "make ends meat" and your shopping cart is regularly filled with grocery items instead of things from the produce section, try the following experiment. Take note of how much you spend on a regular grocery trip. Sometime in between shopping trips, go shopping for the items to put together The Perfect Pantry. Next shopping trip, only visit the produce, meat, and dairy sections (according to your taste). These items will become the main focus of your dishes, and your perfect pantry will supplement each meal. You'll see that your grocery bill will be significantly lower. Just remember that the items from your pantry trip are an investment, which in the long run cost you nothing. In economic terms, this is your deadweight loss, which ultimately is your culinary gain.

So what to buy for the perfect pantry? I've divided the contents of the pantry into seven groups: Grains, Legumes, Flours, Canned Goods and Butters, Nuts and Dried Fruit, Oils and Vinegars, and importantly, Spices. These will provide the backbone to any dish, allowing you to be creative with your fresh ingredients.

Here is a starter grocery list of my favorite and trusty items that will transform your snack cupboard into a chef's stockroom.


  • Bulgur
  • Couscous
  • Rice
  • Farro
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Pasta (a box or more each of long form pasta, ribbon pasta, and tubular pasta)*
Legumes (canned or dried)
  • Chick peas
  • Cannenelli beans
  • Black / pinto / butter beans
  • Lentils
  • Unbleached white flour
  • Whole wheat flour
  • Whole wheat / unbleached white pastry flour
Canned Goods and Butters
  • San Marzano peeled tomatoes (look at cans to be sure that the variety is San Marzano)
  • Tomato paste
  • Capers
  • A nut butter (peanut, almond, cashew, etc)
  • Tahini (sesame butter)
Nuts and Dried Fruit
  • Raw Walnuts
  • Raw Almonds
  • Pignoli (pine) nuts (can be quite expensive)
  • A variety of seed, like pumpkin
  • Raisins / currants
Oils and Vinegars
  • Olive oil (for cooking)
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Sesame Oil
  • Nut oil (i.e., pumpkin seed oil, walnut oil)
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • White wine / champagne vinegar
  • Rice wine vinegar
  • Peppercorns (use only freshly ground pepper)
  • Salt (kosher salt for cooking, and a sea salt variety in a grinder for flavoring)
  • Cumin
  • Cinnamon
  • Bay Leaves
  • Chili powder
  • Nutmeg
  • Saffron
  • Curry powder and/or Garam Masala
  • Coriander
  • Mustard
  • Tumeric
  • Dried oregano
  • Dried rosemary
  • Dried thyme

*Alternatively, you can make your own delicious, inexpensive, homemade pasta using the flour from your pantry if you have a pasta machine.

** Instead of wasting your money and your potential for flavor on dried herbs, garlic power, onion power, and powdered ginger, buy these ingredients fresh, when available. However, if the availability of fresh herbs is scarce, dried herbs are just fine, such as the ones I've suggested. Try to avoid buying dried leafy herbs, such as basil, cilantro, and parsley, as they dramatically lose their flavor and utility when dried.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

poor man's rice and beans fit for a raj

There's a place on Lafayette Street called La Conquita that serves up the cheapest food that money can buy: rice and beans. There's always a line around the block and into the door of this little shack where, for just $4, you can get a heaping pile of white rice or yellow rice with black beans or red beans garnished with sweet fried plantains and vineagared onions. And if that isn't enough to feed you for the next three days, for $2 more you can top it off with roast pork, barbeque chicken or goat stew.

Rice and beans is widely considered the perennial poor man's food. Rice is cheap, beans are cheap, and you can make them in large enough quantities to provide sustenance and complete protein nutrition for lots of people. It is, next to ramen noodles, the standard meal for those trying to make ends meet. What better what to kick off this blog than with a recipe for my version of rice and beans?

With a little bit of spice from the spice rack and some fudging on the traditional ingredients, I turned rice and beans into a nouveau-Indian gourmet meal. The basic ingredients are very inexpensive; the only things that will cost you are the spices and the wine. A good spice rack, however, is an essential investment for any kitchen, and if you have old wine left in your fridge, it's good enough to use here.


Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a an appetizer

For the "Beans":

1/4 cup Spanish or Vidalia Onion, chopped
2 cloves Garlic, crushed
1/4 cup Tomato, chopped
1/2 tsp Cumin
1/2 tsp Curry
1/4 tsp Garam Masala
2 medium Bay Leaves
1/4 tsp Red Chili Powder (optional)
1 can Chick Peas
1/2 cup Water
1/2 cup Chicken Stock
Splash of leftover Wine, red or white
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper, to taste

For the "rice":

1/4 Raisins or Currants
1/8 cup leftover Wine
1/2 cup Chicken Stock
1/2 cup Water
1 cup Cous Cous
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper, to taste

One handful of Arugula per plate

*Cook's Note: Anytime you cook with beans from a can, you must rinse them well in a colander under fresh, running water. You will notice that bubbles will appear; rinse until bubbles are gone. These bubbles are the gas bubbles in the beans that -- if not rinsed out -- become gas bubbles in your body.

Heat a small pot. Add olive oil at room temperature on medium heat. Add onions, and cook until just transparent. Add crushed garlic and tomatoes, sauté until tomatoes are soft. Add spices and stir. Add chick peas and mix to coat in oil and spices. When chick peas start to sizzle, add a splash of wine. Once wine has let off its liquor, about a minute, add water and chicken stock. Cover partially with a lid and turn down to a simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir occasionally until chick peas reach desired softness, with enough liquid remaining to constitute a sauce. Additional stock and water may need to be added throughout the simmering process.

In another pot, heat a small swirl of olive oil on high heat. Add raisins and cook about thirty seconds to one minute, until raisins start to lose their wrinkle. Add wine, turn heat down to low, and reduce to allow wine to become absorbed into the now bloated raisins. Once the wine has evaporated completely, add water and chicken stock. Bring liquid to a boil, add couscous and stir. Turn down heat to low and allow couscous to absorb liquid, fluffing occasionally with a fork, about one minute. Turn off heat, fluff couscous, and allow it to absorb remaining liquid. Add salt and pepper to taste.

To arrange on a plate, take a serving of couscous (about 1/2 to 1 cup) and pack tightly into a measuring cup or a similarly round, flat-bottomed vessel. Quickly turn over cup onto a plate, and tap the bottom to release a molded mound of couscous. Arrange a small handful of arugula in a bunch on top of the couscous. Delicately spoon a helping of chick peas on top, dressing with a spoonful of sauce from pot on top and around the dish. Garnish with mint, if desired.

beginning advice

Photo © 2006, Conor Dubin

In 2006, New York Times reporter Darren Darlin wrote an article for soon-to-be college graduates about how to save money. His advice was: "Let's Start With That Daily Latte Latte". So often, especially here in New York, we get ripped off for things that become "luxury items" because of name brands, popularity, or even the affluence of the neighborhood in which you are purchasing. A coffee at a bodega in Harlem costs far less than a coffee at a bodega in SoHo. It's no surprise then that many of us in this food-obsessed city pay out the majority of our income on food-related items, whether on groceries, a fine meal, or your Starbucks addiction that only got worse since the corporation went coffee house.

In order to make ends meat, you have to start by being savvy about your consumption practices. Don't compromise quality, but do make what you are paying for count. I demand quality in what I eat, or else eating isn't worth it to me. I buy organic when available and reasonably affordable, and I eat at restaurants that serve quality food that is worth the price demanded. It isn't worth the dollar less to buy discount produce, nor is it worth it to me to buy a plate full of rice (origin unknown) from the Halal cart that could feed a small family for $6.

There are simple things that you can do to maximize the value of your food. For example, shopping at Citarella might be fun because their bags are so tote-able, but Fairway Market right next door is much less expensive, even if their double-bagged paper/plastic bags are hard to carry. Buying lunch at work is certainly easier than preparing something you can carry on your subway commute, but (especially in Manhattan) you'd save an astounding amount of money if you took the extra effort to prepare your own lunch. Getting ripped off on food is something that can easily be avoided. To begin the first of many tips to come, here is Darren Darlin's advice on economic eating:

Make your own coffee You probably know you spend a lot at Starbucks, a company that collected $6.4 billion from coffee drinkers last year. You probably don't have any idea how much of that total came from you. A calculator at let's you figure that out and also forecast how much you will spend over a decade of coffee breaks. (This Web site contains a treasure trove of financial planning calculators.) Say you spend just $3.50 every workday for your latte. If you drank the free office brew instead, you'd have more than $11,500 to play with after 10 years.

Does coffee shop coffee taste better than the free stuff? Probably, but ask yourself, do you want to live in a roach-infested studio apartment with two roommates your entire life?

By the same logic, if you smoke, now is a good time to quit. Doing so will save you on average $25,600 over 10 years.

Learn to cook Unless you have learned the art of sneaking into conferences at hotels to snag a breakfast croissant or cocktail-hour shrimp, you need to reduce your dining budget. A twice-a-week kung pao chicken takeout habit can easily drain you of about $10,000 over 10 years.

At the very least, learn how to pack a lunch. Taking your lunch to work may seem like the equivalent of sitting with the nerds in the school cafeteria, and going out to lunch with colleagues can sometimes be a smart career move. But bringing your lunch lets you be more choosy about who you are eating with and saves money. How much? Back to the online calculators ( and you'll discover that the savings could be as much as $23,000 in 10 years.

The tally so far: $34,500 (for the nonsmokers), or enough to make a down payment on a $172,500 house. That won't get you much in most big cities, so you really need to exert yourself.

From Darren Darlin, "Advice to All You Graduates: Let's Start with That Daily Latte", Your Money; The New York Times, June 10, 2006.

making ends meat

Late the other night around dinner time, I found myself staring into an empty refridgerator. The past few nights had been Yogurt & Granola Nights, and the night before that was Yet Another Salad. I was determined not to scramble an egg or nibble my way through the pantry; I was itching to cook and to taste something worthwhile. I couldn't buy more groceries for the week, and I also couldn't afford to get takeout. Living in New York City on my notoriously low publishing salary requires me to budget rather frugally. I have no choice but to adhere to it in order to continue surviving here in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world. The problem is, I already spend the majority of my money on food (next to rent, of course), and even though I wasn't going hungry, I was absolutely starving.

I was running out of time and patience as I confronted my new reality staring back at me from the chilly refrigerator: my palate has outstretched my wallet.

New York is the culinary capital of America. The culture here is extremely gastrocentric: restaurants are at the top of the city's places to be seen, and social life revolves around the table (or the bar, since we all love dining at the bar now). Everyone is obsessed with food, and the town is brimming with hungry twentysomethings who define themselves as "foodies", though some of them don't even cook. Food is extremely accessible in the city since every restaurant delivers, from the local greasy Chinese joints to the nation's top gourmet restaurants. As a New Yorker, you can even get your groceries delivered, but if you prefer, you can go down to your neighborhood's and finger through crates of produce. Whatever your food fancy, you can find it in this city -- but you just have to be able to afford it.

So what happens when you're on a low budget but you've got high taste? I grew up in a family of cooks and eaters, so it would be impossible for me to neglect the importance of food. My favorite pastime is cooking, and my favorite urban activity is strolling through the maze of the Columbus Circle Whole Foods. But as of late, I've been out of time and out of money to make my food taste good. So now, more than ever, I am dusting off firing up the stove and my calculator to make sure that I go neither hungry nor broke.

making ends meat
is my endeavor to show you (and in part, to prove to myself) that with a bit of creativity you can eat gourmet meals any day of the week without spending the fortune you don't have.