Friday, January 21, 2011

How to Pickle, Ferment, and Jar

So, apparently, I've been under a rock for the past ten years that I've lived in New York and I have, accordingly, not discovered a funky and informative little (well, not so little) publication called Edible Brooklyn.  Edible Brooklyn, a free publication, is a veritable road map of the restaurants, bars, co-ops, markets, grocery stores, and bodegas in the Brooklyn area and, unlike most food publications, has a pretty decided outlook on all things edible east of the East River.  It's a tributary of the larger Edible Manhattan, but, appropriate to its readers, it has a bit more of a crunchy granola bohemian hipster feel.  Here's the best thing about said funky little publication: they have fun and funky little events as well.  A few nights ago, my fabulous husband and I happened upon one of these events at the Brooklyn Brewery and stayed to sit in on a series of lectures.  Now, if the word "lecture" makes you think of college, florescent lights, and exams, I would say this was not the night for you.  But, I must say that there was no exam, the room was dimly lit, there was beer, and before the night was over, Victor and I learned "How to Pickle, Ferment, and Jar" and made a few new friends.  Not a bad evening of lectures.

The event was held in a cavernous warehouse-like structure that was apparently part of Brooklyn Brewery.  Contrary to what one might expect, the "tasting room" (if you'd call it that) at the brewery looks more like an unfinished basement than a receiving room for one of the most popular breweries in the area.  But, then, perhaps that's part of the charm.  Victor and I arrived a little late, purchased a few tokens (they can't legally sell you beer, but they can sell you tokens to trade for beer), and snuck into a lecture that was already in process.  A hundred or so chairs had been positioned to face the bar at the end of the room (of course they were) and a full group of folks listened intently as local food artisans stood in front of said bar and talked about their products, tips on home pickling, jarring, etc, and generally joked around and had a grand time.  The left side of the room was lined with local merchants selling their wares: pickles, jams, cheeses, and teas, and after the current lecture finished, we moseyed over to check it out.

Yes, PLEASE!  Samples galore.  I had a Horman's hot and spicy pickle, some grapefruit and smoked salt marmalade on foccacia, and some red ginger kombucha.  All brilliantly tasty (believe it or not, including the kombucha).  The best part, though?  Each was served up by their respective makers.  No second, third, or fourth-hand distribution.  Hand to hand to mouth.  I met and spoke to the creator and jam-master of Anarchy in a Jar (Laena McCarthy) as I munched on her, I must say, innovative jam.  (I had missed her lecture in my tardiness, but I hear it was fabulous).  She was sweet and engaging.  I wanted to buy her products not only because the jam was to die for (and it was), but also because I liked and trusted her and wanted to support her business.  I thought of the year-old Smuckers that was hanging out in my fridge and wondered: who made that?  Would I like to talk to him/her?  Would I trust him/her?  Hmm.  Literally . . . food for thought.

Victor brought over a couple Brooklyn brown ales and we settled back into our seats for a rousing lecture on how to make Kombucha.  For those of you who have been under another rock for the past five years (it's okay, I was under the Edible Brooklyn rock), Kombucha is a fermented tea that is becoming more and more popular for its health benefits that include it as an antimicrobial, cancer-fighting food, and a powerful antioxidant.  Sounds good right?  Except for the fact that you make it by adding sugar to green or black tea, adding a Kombucha culture or SCOBY, letting it ferment for a few weeks until it gets a mushroom-like calamari-textured film over it, and then DRINKING it.  Yeah, I know it's popular, but . . . ew.  Well, anyway, the founder of Kombucha Brooklyn and self-proclaimed "Kombuchaman" Eric Childs told us all about it - alternating pertinent home-kombucha-brewing information (kombucha should be fermented at a pH of 3.4 or less), disgusting details (you don't want to know), hilarious audience participation, and sips of his beer.  Folks shouted out questions, laughed, and had a pretty generally fun time of it.  Note to self: come to more of these kooky lectures - I could learn something.

After finding a friend, Jeremy Morgan, and his adorable partner and grabbing some more Horman's horseradish pickles (the best!), we settled in for a lecture on kimchi.  Yeah . . . not as informative.  Mr. Kimchi-lecturer, as the last of the evening, had sampled too much of the brown ale and was wholly unhelpful in the kimchi-making instruction.  What he lacked in public speaking skills, though, he made up for in charisma.  I didn't know whether we were laughing with him or at him, but he was hilarious!  People were laughing, toasting, and yelling out words that he forgot; things like "table", "parsley", and . . . "kimchi".  After a rambling account of God-knows-what, he sauntered off and we commenced finishing our own beverages.  Folks milled about and chatted about co-ops, gardens, and sustanability.  I realized that I was completely out of my crunchiness depth, but I had a great time with a lot of good people anyway.  And, hey, I learned a LOT.

With every year that distances me from the institutions of learning that I attended, I exponentially appreciate the value of a good old lecture.  Heck, I even turn on the history channel from time to time.  Learning, I would venture to say, has become a little hobby of mine.  If someone's going to invite me to sit in for free while they impart their knowledge (on any subject) to me, I am all the better for it.  And if I meet new friends and they serve beer, jam, and pickles in the meanwhile, bust a move.  Thanks, Edible Brooklyn.  I'll be seeing you again sometime soon.  Who knows.  I might even attempt to make some kombucha someday.  Maybe.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Manhattan to the North Pole

If you're amongst the many that are waxing nostalgic for the merrily youthful excitement of the holiday season that is quickly receding into the fabric of the past, I have one more festive Yuletide experience to impart to you.  The Holiday Train Show at Grand Central.  The Train Show features a two-level 34-foot-long miniature train that runs from Manhattan up to the North Pole until January 17th.  It's not the most brilliant model train I've ever seen, but if you happen to be in Grand Central, it's the perfect place to revisit the vernal wonderment of the holidays.

Victor and I headed over to 82 East 42nd street a few days ago and quickly found the train exhibit in the New York Transit Museum (which, by the way, is not a museum as far as I could tell - it's a place to hock subway-themed tchotchkes).  It was sweetly adorable - just short of fabulous.  The ceiling of the store was bedecked in hanging ornaments, lights, and holly while the model of midtown Manhattan stretched up to meet it.  The painstakingly painted trees, pedestrians, trucks, and signs would have been even more endearing, though, if all of the trains had been actually running.  Unfortunately, someone affiliated with the MTA was trying to save power because only one of the (I spotted four) trains was moving.  The rest sat unimpressively dormant.  Now, I'm a fan of a model train set, but a large part of the fun is that the trains move.  Maybe we had come at the wrong time, I thought.  Nevertheless, the display  was at least cute, festive, and interesting.  We walked around to the other side of the model and followed the train tracks from midtown, around a hill, and up to the North Pole where a quarter-sized Santa loaded gifts onto his sleigh.  I wished again that all of the trains were running.

Oh well.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?  In short, if you're in Grand Central and you need a little something with which to pass the time, definitely go check it out.  Why not?  If you are somewhere other than 42nd on the east side, don't make the trip to see it.  It did, though, make me feel a little more juvenile and a little more cheerful.  Like the lingering aroma of a good home-cooked meal after the dishes are done, this little train set made me remember my holidays with contented fondness.  In January.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sushi's not just for summer

Warm chestnuts over an open fire.  Your grandmother's chicken pot pie.  Mulled cider and warm apple pie.  Butternut squash soup.  A spicy tuna roll.  Okay, one of these things is not like the other . . . and you can bet it's not the chestnuts.  Yup.  Sushi.  Now, I will willingly admit that cold, raw fish and seaweed are not generally what I crave after a day in the cold January wind, but I will also admit that Sushi Damo did a lot to change my perception of the winter consumption of this Japanese favorite.

Sushi Damo, from the outside, looks as cold, grey, and unremarkable as the rest of the west side of 58th street.  Located right across from the Time Warner Center, its facade blends into all of the other impersonal glass that is slowly encompassing Columbus Circle.  Once I passed through the glass door and into the restaurant, though, it was a different story entirely.  The interior of Sushi Damo is warm, cozy, lined with bamboo and black leather, and dimly lit enough to provide optimum lighting for a romantic evening.  We were immediately and gracefully greeted by a soft-spoken young Asian hostess that gently led us (me and my ever-adventurous cohort, Hiatt) to a quiet corner table and brought us warm lavender-scented moist towels for our hands.  I felt slightly like I was in a spa rather than a sushi joint.  Our adorable server glided over, introduced himself, informed us that he was new, and proceeded to tell us that it was happy hour.  Score!  I ordered a $5 asian pear martini and perused the rest of the menu.  Pretty classic Japanese.   A little pricey, but not overly ridiculous considering what I'm sure the real estate near Columbus Circle is putting them back.  If you're like me and you price a Japanese restaurant by its spicy tuna roll, this one was seven bucks.  If that helps, I'm glad.  If not, there's a priced menu online.  

Anyway, after sampling my perfectly prepared pear concoction and chatting with Hiatt a bit, I ordered an avocado and mixed green salad, a spicy tuna roll (for comparison with other Japanese joints), and a fabulous creation called a Neo roll that featured yellowtail, jalapeno, and kaiware.  All of it was tasty and artfully presented.  The fish was fresh, the salad dressing was (as in most sushi joints) liquid crack, and most of all, the service was exceptionally attentive without being obtrusive.  Sometimes I think that's key.  Was Sushi Damo the best sushi I had ever had?  Not quite.  Was it close?  Potentially.  I'm a diner with which ambience goes a long way, so, because of that, I will be frequenting Sushi Damo (despite its slightly higher-priced menu).  It was a far cry from the rudely bustling cafeteria atmosphere of Kodama and I was very thankful for both the anonymity of the table setup and the quietly bubbling zen music in the background.  Hiatt and I had a relaxing and peaceful dinner in a warm and cozy atmosphere and while I still wouldn't think longingly of a Neo roll in a blizzard, I will definitely not shy away from another winter visit. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Veganista - The Verdict

A friend recently gave me some wise advice that was imparted to him by his father: "Do everything in moderation . . . including moderation".  I think this is the best advice I've heard in a long time.  You see, most folks deemed me crazy when they heard that I was going to spend the month of December as a raw vegan, blog or not.  "How are you going to eat food that hasn't been cooked for a month?" "Can't you wait until January and make it a resolution?".  I do understand that it WAS a little extreme.  I realize that.  And I accept that . . . with open arms.  But if there's one thing I've learned (well, two, actually), it's that sometimes if you jump in the deep end, you find that you're a fabulous swimmer and you never truly know about something until you try it.  So, I tried it.  Wholeheartedly.  And I learned more than I ever expected to learn.  Ever.

A few words on the plan.  My intention was to eat only raw (not cooked over 115°F) food that contained no animal products or animal byproducts for thirty days (not including Christmas dinner and one other pre-arranged dinner party - I didn't want to be a bad guest and I can't turn down my Mom's cooking).  Why would I try something like this?  Well, a few reasons.  First, it's trendy and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  Second, it's really freaking healthy - food loses tons of nutrients when we cook it.  And, so, if we're taking out the nutrients, then we basically are eating empty calories and I might as well eat cream soda flavored Jelly Bellys 24/7, right?  (Okay, maybe it's not all that extreme).  Anyway, here's an example.  In a 2005 study, the folks at the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that when you microwave, for instance, broccoli, it loses 97 percent of flavonoids, 74 percent of sinapics, and 87 percent of caffeoyl-quinic derivatives (I know, what the hell are these, right?  Well, they're antioxidants. And they're kind of important).  And that's just broccoli.  And a third reason?  Why the heck not?  So, on December 1st, I set out to give it a try.  How hard could it be, right?

First day, I went to the grocery store and bought tons of fresh fruits and veggies.  Ooh!  Avocados!  Red peppers!  Olives!  Asian pears!  This wasn't going to be hard at all.  I came home and ate an avocado for breakfast - with a spoon.  I then made a yummy salad with my grocery goodies for lunch, opened a can of chick peas to top it off, and poured some of my low fat raspberry vinaigrette on top.  Good job, raw veganista me.  I sat down and started reading the back of my dressing as I munched.  Hmm.  Xanthan gum.  Now, normally, I would ignore this random additive.  But this time, I decided to check it out online.  Um . . . glad I did.  So, Xanthan gum is a food-thickening additive that is produced by the fermentation of glucose or sucrose (sugars) and then chemically doctored beyond belief (dude, seriously, wiki it).  First of all, ew.  Second, all the processes included high temperatures that precluded the xanthan gum and, consequentially salad dressing, from my raw vegan diet (which, by the time I was done reading, was the least of my worries).  Okay, so no salad dressing for me.  The next time I went to the grocery store, I read the ingredients of all of the salad dressings.  Dude, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, calcium disodium, dextrose and malodextrin.  The list went on.  So, okay, ix-ne on the dressing.  Apparently, the only thing I could slap on my salad was oil and vinegar.  Okay, I could deal with that.  I bought some balsamic vinegar and went home.  Lesson number one learned.  I told a friend about my fabulous first-day salad and he wisely commented, "You should look at those chick peas".  Crap.  Canned chick peas.  COOKED chick peas.  With preservatives.  Fine.  Whatever.  So, no chick peas either.

Day number two, I was discussing my newfound healthy lifestyle with my castmate, (the velvet-voiced Kevin Earley), over a cup of Starbucks.  He listened patiently and responded, "What about that?", nodding gently toward my coffee with one raised eyebrow.  Beat.  Beat.  Shit!  NO, dude!  Not my coffee, too!  No!  You can't take that from me!  Not coffee AND bacon!!!  I started to tear up.  No coffee for a month?  WHAT!?!?!?!  I took a deep breath and headed toward the ever-informative internet for a little research.  Turns out, coffee in small quantities IS good for you.  It's been found to reduce the risk of Alzheimers, gallstone disease, Parkinsons, it's an anti-diabetic, it's good for the liver, it's an antioxidant, it has been linked to reduced risk of some types of cancer, and it improves cognitive performance (obviously).  Okay, so it's not raw, but it's good.  And I wasn't going to eat raw coffee beans for a month.  Fine.  I would allow myself this one cheat.  Okay, maybe two.  While I was cheating a little, it was the holiday season, so I decided to allow myself to imbibe alcoholic beverages from time to time as well.  (Incidentally, wine is raw and vegan - who knew!).

Over the next week, I slowly, but surely, I began to find foods and snacks that I could (and wanted to) eat.  I added nuts, seeds, and sprouts to my list of Veganista-friendly foods.  Cashews, walnuts, sunflower seeds, coconut, crunchy sprouts, tamari-sprinkled pumpkins seeds, figs, and may other things that I would never have thought to buy before December 1st  became fun and tasty finds.  I became a Lara Bar addict and found some yummy carob-almond-fig energy squares at my local market that were perfect to down before a workout.  I picked up raw almond butter and spread it on slices of Asian pear when I wanted something sweet.  I became a veritable Kalamata olive fanatic and took to slicing them and adding them to my already diverse salad concoctions.  And, if you were wondering – Hallie, yes, I had some pretty serious flatulence for the first few days, particularly because I was taking two shots of wheatgrass per day, but after about a week, it subsided (thankfully)!  Well, for the most part, anyway.  And after a few tries, I became a pro at ordering when dining out and actually found that it was so much easier to know that I would only have a few options from which to choose and I sat peacefully while my friends deliberated over what to order.  Now, don’t take me the wrong way.  It was a little difficult to eat my salad while my friends gnawed at BBQ wings, but I actually, after two or so weeks, started to crave raw food instead of french fries (and also to be a little grossed out by ingesting dead animals).  It was hard to watch television at night without my favorite snack of kettle corn, but I sprinkled cucumber slices with kosher salt and pretended.

Somewhere’s about Day 11, I was at the gym with the best personal trainer in the world (Freddie Kimmel – look him up folks – he’s not kidding around if you want a fierce workout) and I crashed.  Like, my arms felt like lead and my vision was closing like a camera aperture.  Freddie wisely recommended I get some sort of protein supplement as most raw vegans have a hard time getting the protein needed to perform daily activities (not to mention doing an eight show week and working out with Trainer Freddie).  Totally fix-able.  I moseyed to the local Vitamin Shoppe and picked up some raw vegan protein supplement powder.  Um, people?  It tasted like chalk, dust, and the slime on the side of the A train stop at 181st mixed together.  And I do not exaggerate.  Not at all.  I seriously would have preferred to pass out in the gym and get a seeing-eye dog until December 30th.  I had to get some protein somehow, though!  And I had paid a pretty penny for that vat of dusty disgustingness.  A few days later, Trainer Freddie introduced me to a great little recipe for “protein balls” that mixed the powder with almond butter, walnuts, raisins, coconut, and sesame seeds.  And they were brilliant.  And a convenient grab-and-go snack.  Woo hoo!  Protein, here I come!  In less than an hour, I felt much better.  For that matter, after my little protein deficiency, I felt fabulous for the rest of the month.  I wasn’t hungry, like, ever, I had tons of energy, and I actually was starting to crave things like olives and apples and cherry tomatoes.  Who knew!

Now, I wasn’t a perfect little raw vegan by any stretch of the imagination.  I definitely cheated a few times.  I had my lovely predetermined “free” dinner and ate my face off.  It was so good . . . for about twenty minutes.  And then, I felt absolutely disgusting.  For the next twelve hours.  Was it worth it, I wondered?  I wasn’t quite sure.  Much like the close talker with the halitosis at the holiday party, I felt like my body was trying really hard to get rid of my dinner as quickly as possible.  The same thing happened every time I cheated.  I had some of a friend’s nachos one evening in a moment of weakness and not only did I taste the (previously undetectable to my palate) chemicals in the cheese, but the texture of the food in general felt gummy.  The same thing happened when I stealthily and guiltily munched the sliver of toast that came with my salad – it felt like it stuck to the roof of my mouth.  What was IN this stuff anyway?  My last and most extravagant cheat: Mom’s fabulous Christmas dinner.  There was NO way that I would pass up her turkey, deviled eggs, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and broccoli and cauliflower salad.  I went to town.  And then had some cheesecake to boot.  It was Christmas, after all.  Now, THAT was worth the icky feeling I had for the next twelve hours.  But that's a once a year kind of meal.  And worth the 364 day wait for it.  But, by Christmas, I had learned an important lesson.  For good.  I realized that had been ignorantly eating, for the most part, processed CRAP for my entire life!  And didn’t have any idea what was in ANY of it.  Really, Michelle?  I could tell you the calorie count of pretty much any food in the grocery store, but I couldn’t tell you if there was dextrose in the wheat thins or nitrates in the lunch meat.  Wow.  Another lesson I learned is that milk products are, basically, the devil.  Now, I won’t go off on how NOBODY should be ingesting milk products EVER, but I will tell you that every time I did, I felt disgusting.  Even the handful of butterscotch chips that I had on Christmas evening felt slimy.  Wow.  I officially didn’t like it.  Lesson number two for the Veganista: no more milk.  Like, at all.  Like, ever.  And not because I won't allow myself to have it.  It's just that after a month without it, I really don't want it anymore.  

So, I know this has been a long blog, but it WAS an entire month after all.  And I kind of had a lot to say.  And I still have more to say, but I won't bore you all with the novel-length version.  I don’t have that kind of time.  Or audience, for that matter.  I will just say, though, that I truly believe that extremes can teach us a lot.  And I definitely learned a lot.  I learned that fresh, real food is exponentially better for me.  Not that I didn’t know that before, but I now know that for myself.  And, never underestimate the power of a lesson learned firsthand.  Second, I know that there are some foods that I used to eat that my body really doesn’t like.  I was forcing them down without really listening to the effects of their digestion (much like most of America).  Third, chemicals taste like crap.  I had a few jelly beans a few days ago and it was literally an assault to my taste buds.  But I wanted to keep eating them nonetheless.  Even though I didn’t like them.  The chemical that the jelly bean company put in the mix that makes my mouth want more was working at full speed ahead.  I stopped, thought, “This is not good at all”, and went for a handful of raw cashews.  Much better. 

Will I continue to be a raw vegan?  Nope.  I don’t roll like that.  Will my diet in general be changed immensely by this experience?  Absolutely.  Perhaps I was crazy for radically changing my diet for a month.  But, now, having been at both ends of the spectrum of eating, experiencing firsthand the ridiculously healthy and the overly unhealthy, I can now find a happy medium that works for me.  I think that’s what it’s all about.  

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Mysterious Bookshop

One of the best things about living in New York is that there is never a shortage of fun surprises waiting around every corner of practically every street.  The problem is, most Manhattanites have their "don't mess with me I'm busy" blinders on pretty much from origin right through to destination.  I, for one, have been just as guilty of lack of observation as most, but I have definitely had my periphery widened by this blog.  In learning to observe my surroundings, I have uncovered many jewels of the urban jungle I previously thought I knew so well.  I LOVE strolling through the streets and inadvertently finding a new "bloggable" experience.  So, on a recent Sunday, I was pleasantly (and bloggably) surprised when I happened upon a little establishment called "The Mysterious Bookshop" on the way to my car after church.  Nestled on Warren Street between a baby store and a spa in a nebulous area of Tribeca, I soon found out the quaint bookshop more than lived up to its surreptitious name.

I, quite literally, would not have noticed (much less entered) the shop if it had not been for the archaic black and gold swinging sign that jutted out toward the sidewalk.  I looked up at the placard; on which a sword formed the T in "mysterious" while the black iron that held the sign was deliciously malapropos on the slick downtown street.   Slightly creepy.  Okay.  I was intrigued enough to petition my husband to take a quick detour from our beeline to the nearest brunch and we entered through a glass door that boasted: "Specializing in mystery, crime, suspense, espionage, and detective fiction".  I took two steps and was smacked in the face with the overwhelming redolence of old books.  There's nothing like that aroma.  And yes, to me, it is definitely an aroma.  It takes me back to my childhood obsession with books and libraries and the excitement of checking out a book just to stick my nose in it and inhale the perfume of literary possibility.  <whiff>  Mmm.  When I was finally able to employ my other four senses, I took a good look around.  The ancient-looking wooden shelves were completely packed with old, new, rare, signed, out-of-print, first edition, and heaven-knows-what-else books - all of the mysterious persuasion.  I spied a section with a cardboard sign over it - Sherlockiana.  Wait.  Really?  I walked up to survey the titles.  Yep.  Just as one would think.  According to Wikipedia, Sherlockiana "encompasses: memorabilia, such as statuettes, drawings, and movie posters, that concern the fictional character Sherlock Holmes, his associates such as Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade, and his dwellings at 221B Baker Street; Non-canonical fiction, not written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that relates to these characters and their world; and reference as fiction, as when characters from other fictional settings refer to the Sherlock Holmes stories as stories."  Dude.  Who knew.  As I had recently read The Valley of Fear for one of my book club's October selections, I fully appreciated the breadth of this collection.  Inspired, I inquired into the history and activities associated with this little gem of a shop.

Turns out, it's one of the oldest mystery specialization shops in America, dating back to its establishment 31 years ago by a gentleman named Otto Penzler.  Mr. Penzler, still the proprietor, is a well-known and richly decorated publisher of all things mysterious, having won the Ellery Queen award, the Raven, and the Edgar Award for his Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection.  The shop itself publishes a monthly newsletter, hosts six book clubs, and has numerous other clubs that provide its members with monthly copies of personally inscribed signed first editions.  All in one little shop about the size of my first New York apartment in midtown.  Impressive.  I took one more lap around the stacks while Victor and my empty stomachs growled along with the track from Sherlock Holmes' The Woman in Green.  Yes.  I could see how everything about this shop could quickly and completely become an obsession.  I thanked the shopkeeper and headed back out the door into the chilly wind to drive to brunch with my patient husband.  I noted the slight spring in my step as somehow, I felt as if I had uncovered some sort of mystery of my own.  Much like Sherlock Holmes used his keen powers of observation to unravel the most complicated enigmas of the late nineteenth century, I had taken the New York blinders off (mostly thanks to this blog) and made a little discovery of my own.  Faber est quisque fortunae suae.