Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Photographic Success and Culinary Failure

Also known as: how can it look so pretty, and taste so disappointing?

Let me provide some background here. For my birthday a while back Ash took me out for dinner at Jarnac, a little French restaurant in the West Village. We shared a salad. Fresh figs stuffed with robiola cheese wrapped in prosciutto on a bed of arugula with a balsamic reduction. Suffice it to say that it was one of our food highlights of the year. Since then I've been calculating how to recreate it. Pretty simple ingredients, after all. And I had downloaded recipes from The Food Network and Epicurious for figs wrapped in prociutto with this filling or that filling, and it seemed reasonably intuitive. How hard could it be?

Harder that it looks, is the answer. Perhaps my confidence way buoyed by some surprising successes I've had this week in trying out some new dishes. Perhaps I was feeling . . . cocky?

As soon as I cut open the figs last night and saw how pretty they looked inside, I decided I needed to photograph the salad-making process. I scooped out a tiny bit of each fig half and filled it with robiola--a cheese I expected to be very mild, but was in fact extremely pungent. I was a little apprehensive about that, but plunged onwards. Each fig half was wrapped in a 1 inch wide slice of prosciutto. Then into the oven for 10-12 minutes.

Although the final product looked pleasant enough, I couldn't eat more than a few bites. The cheese was just too strong for me! Did I use too much? Poor Ash polished off the dish and insisted it wasn't bad. Either he was just being nice, or living in France increases a person's cheese tolerance. Maybe both.

So, it turned out this wasn't a dish that needed documenting after all, but I was so pleased with how the photos captured each stage of the process, that I felt I should post them anyway, with a warning to readers that if you are going to try this dish--do something different! I don't know what, but something.

Key lessons learned here:
1. A little humility in the kitchen is a positive thing.
2. When it comes to stinky cheeses, go with your gut.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


There is something about going to an international school, particularly a unique little school in a somewhat remote Himalayan Kingdom, that creates lifetime bonds. I grew up in Nepal and spent most of my school years studying at Lincoln School. It was tiny. 250 students, kindergarten through 12th grade. 65 kids in the high school. Everyone knew everyone else--well.

As is typical with international schools, Lincoln's student body was transient. Parents moved to new diplomatic posts, contracts ended and families returned to their home countries, graduates went off to university in all different parts of the world. Nonetheless a bond was forged among the students that transcended that transience and brought us together in a shared love for Nepal and an appreciation of the freedom we had, the diversity we were exposed to, and the youthful hijinks that we could not have gotten away with anywhere else.

This past weekend, thanks to the amazing connective powers of Facebook and the initiative of one person in particular (thanks David!), a group of Lincolnites got together in New York City for a mini-reunion. We had some folks visiting from Nepal, some from Canada, and a number from the northeastern United States. Graduating classes ranging from 1995 through 2007 were represented. We tramped around chilly New York City together, seeing the sights and seeking out restaurants and coffee shops that could accommodate groups of 15 or more. We caught up on the last decade's worth of news. (He's a chef? She has 4 children? They moved to Indonesia? Who got married?!?) We reminisced about Nepal days and the things we missed. (Oh, for a Wai Wai, a cup of Nepali tea, and some tasty momos!)

Here is a photo of some of us that we took to document the occasion (or maybe for the alum newsletter, if there ever is one?):

People looked just the same for the most part, but as I sat there listening to someone who was in 7th grade when I graduated from high school tell me in detail about the long-term economic effects of the sub prime mortgage crisis--a conversation I could barely follow--I realised that we really are all grown ups now. Easy to forget sometimes. But that makes it all the more amazing to me that in spite of the 12 years that have passed since I graduated from Lincoln and the thousands of miles that separate me from most of the friends I had there (not to mention my terrible correspondence skills) I still think of the students at Lincoln School as my brothers and sisters, and I'd venture to guess that's a pretty common feeling among my schoolmates.

Now that's something special.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Experimenting in Union Square

Last night while wandering through Union Square the light falling on this spindly leafless tree struck me as quite pretty. I experimented with f-stops and shutter speeds to get a picture that captured the effect, and finally managed this one at f4.8, 1.3 seconds, ISO 400.

'Tis the Season

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, there are some things about this season that are irresistible. For me it's O Holy Night, the piney scent of the fir trees for sale on Montague Street, and Christmas cookies.

For weeks I've been planning to make Christmas cookies to give as little gifts to some neighbors in my building that I have become friendly with this year. The other night I finally had a few spare hours to devote to it. I doubled my gingerbread recipe and planned to make loads of little men, charmingly decorated with buttons and holiday smiles. I didn't recall that the recipe made quite so many cookies. Four hours later I had about 150 gingerbread men. Some went immediately to the test subjects bowling on the Nintendo Wii in the living room. The rest were put aside for decorating. I also made shortbread maple leaves and sprinkled them with red sugar--a Canadian-themed Christmas cookie in honor of my Canuck husband.

My decorating plans for the gingerbread men didn't go quite as I'd hoped. I confess I was not using the proper equipment (pastry bag, tips, etc.). I figured it was my first time decorating anything and I could just do it on the cheap, using a plastic bag filled with frosting. After all, I wasn't making sugar art, right? Just a few smiley faces. I should have followed the advice of Bittersweet. On about the fourth cookie I had a frosting explosion. Seriously. Ziploc bag seams are not as sturdy as one might imagine. As a result, the decorating was put aside. The little fellow above did not even get the smile I intended for him! Oh well, gingerbread men mean "peace on earth and goodwill towards men" even if they are not frosted, right? Especially if they come in little bags tied with red ribbon?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Kimchi! Finally!

Faithful readers of this blog (yes, all two of you) may recall that some months ago I experimented in the kitchen with my favorite Korean dish, jap chae. It was tasty, but conspicuously missing was the must-have accompaniment: kimchi. Since then I have been doing some recipe reconnaissance: reviewing cookbooks, checking blogs (like these three), wandering Koreatown markets, and consulting sources both historical and personal (my friend Tanne was kind enough to pass on his mom's recipe).

Finally, last week, I felt ready to undertake the project. I assembled the necessary ingredients: salt, cabbage, scallions, garlic, ginger, anchovy sauce, salted shrimp, and Korean chili powder, and went to it. This was last Thursday. After mixing, I left the whole concoction out for 40 hours. (I have to note here that my brother and husband were very tolerant of my project. Kimchi is pungent, to say the least, and not everyone would want its unique aroma wafting through one's apartment for 40 hours straight.) Then it went into the fridge, where apparently the flavors continue to deepen day by day. Today is day 3 of KimchiWatch and I decided it was time to put it to the test. We had it at dinner, paired with some of the aforementioned jap chae, and it was quite a hit. I'm already planning my next batch.

If you want to try this at home:

1 head of cabbage (Napa is most commonly used); 1/4 cup coarse salt; 14 scallions, roughly chopped; 1 tbsp Korean ground red pepper; 1 1/2 tbsp anchovy sauce; 1/4 cup minced garlic; 1 1/2 tbsp grated fresh ginger; 1/4 cup sugar; 2 tbsp salted shrimp (you probably want to mash them into a paste to avoid having their little shrimpy eyes look up at you out of your kimchi)

  1. Layer the cabbage leaves in a colander and sprinkle the salt between the layers. Let it sit over a bowl for 4-6 hours. Then rinse and dry.
  2. Mix together all other ingredients, then roughly chop the cabbage and toss it with the spice mixture, ensuring the cabbage is covered in the spices.
  3. Store the kimchi in a container and leave out (of the fridge) at least 24 hours. Thereafter refrigerate. The flavor will continue to grow stronger daily.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Snack to Swoon Over

Everyone has got a snacking weak spot. Something that you absolutely cannot resist. If, by some great misfortune, it is not available in the United States, perhaps it's something you dream longingly about, scour the Internet for, and beg overseas travelers to bring back to you. That, friends, is what Wai Wai is to me. The tastiest, spiciest, crispiest, most delicious of all snacks. Add to that the nostalgia factor of it having been my most favourite snack from the time I was about 5 years old, and you have a veritable drug. The tragedy is that Wai Wai comes from Nepal and can only be found in select parts of Asia. That is why I am forced to bribe people to bring it back to New York for me. Believe me, the entrepreneur who has the foresight to introduce Wai Wai to the U.S. market will be raking in the millions one day. Perhaps that's the brilliant business idea I've been looking for?

Wai Wai is essentially ramen--packaged dried noodles. It can be made into soup, but (in my opinion) is best eaten dry with the accompanying spices mixed in. It's a product of Chaudhary Group, and a quick Google search reveals that it's one of the company's biggest sellers. From the CG website:

CG Foods (Nepal) Pvt. Ltd. is the introducer of the most favorite brown noodles WAI WAI. It holds the top brand position in Nepal for past many years.Wai Wai is a brand that not only rules the national market, also leads and holds a remarkable position in the international scenario.

Well, I hadn't realized it held "a remarkable position in the international scenario," but I think that sounds very promising. For this batch of Wai Wai (already almost gone) I have to thank my brother Grady, who brought it all the way from Nepal, and managed to resist eating it on the long trip. Thank you!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

On the Topic of Cookbooks

Cookbooks. I love to buy them, read them, even take pictures of them. But now there is something new on the horizon: the prospect of making a cookbook.

So yesterday, while browsing through some of my favorite blogs, I happened across this post on 101 Cookbooks talking about how to create your own cookbook. As it happens this is something I have been thinking about for a few years, and the project has become increasingly ambitious as I have discovered websites like Blurb, and now Tastebook, that allow you to put together a pretty snazzy-looking product. My plan has been to create a cookbook out of my Grandmother Walker's collection of recipes. There is a battered notebook in which all of her favorite recipes were written down, or clipped and pasted. I've only gotten a glimpse of the notebook's contents a couple of times, but as I recall her famous lasagna is in there, as is the recipe for African bobotie clipped from the New York Times sometime back in the 1970s, along with countless other dishes. My Aunt Diti and Uncle Bill in Tennessee have the notebook and treat it with reverence, but I'm willing to bet that a nice fresh copy (with no pages falling out, and in entirely legible script) would be well-received by all the members of the family who remember Grandmother's tasty (and quite gourmet) cooking. Then Aunt Diti and Uncle Bill can add the original book to the treasure trove of family heirlooms my grandmother left behind (like the fragment of rope used by some Texas bandits to kidnap and tie up Great-great Grandpa Uriah Lott).

The question is, when will I have a chance to copy all those recipes and get started on this project? Naturally the recipes will have to be cooked (for testing purposes). Photos of the dishes will have to be taken (for cookbook aesthetics). Anecdotes from family members may need to be gathered (for that personal touch). And that's only the first of the cookbooks I would love to make. The second will be "Serbian Recipes from the Govedarica Kitchens"--recipes from my other grandmother and great aunts! I had better get moving. I'm thinking I need to make a visit to Tennessee...

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Above and Beyond

Kimera--it's a store in Brooklyn that has rightfully earned my praise. When I was in there last night, I effusively told the woman behind the counter "This is amazing! I am going to spread the word!" And what better forum than this?

Kimera sells beautiful handcrafted jewelery, clothing, pillowcovers, bags, and other items of artesania, many created by Brooklyn designers or by the store's owner herself. I have gone in a few times to find a gift for a friend, and always come out with just the thing. (I also secretly investigate the ins-and-outs of their pillowcases because I know that, if only I had a sewing machine and knew what to do with it, I could duplicate them.)

A while back I bought a pair of earrings there for a friend's birthday. When she tried on the gift I was so pleased: they looked made for the wearer. Then tragedy struck! (Are you feeling the dramatic tension here?) During the course of the birthday evening, one of the earrings was lost. Knocked out by her scarf? Fallen in the crowded restaurant, or cramped bakery? We'll never know. She'd had them for all of 2 hours! It was so depressing. We pathetically searched around on the street tracing our steps back over 5 blocks or more, to no avail. The restaurant could find no trace of it either.

Our last (and let's face it, slim) hope was that the store would have another pair and would agree to let us have just one. I called Kimera the next day and explained the whole sorry situation to them. They just asked me to call back in a week. When I did call yesterday, the woman on the phone instantly knew me: "Oh yes, the earring. We have one for you!" It was incredible! They had gotten a second pair from the designer and were willing to part with just one of them. When I expressed amazement, the woman just said "Oh, I'll make a necklace out of the other one or something." Talk about going above and beyond in your customer service. The shoe repair place downstairs needs to take a lesson from these ladies. Now you see why I have devoted a post to them--it's well deserved for the efforts they went to on my behalf!

Monday, December 3, 2007

First Snow

Yesterday was the first snow of the year in New York City, and the coldest weekend we've had yet this winter. It was the perfect weekend to stay in, eat warm and hearty foods, knit just a little bit, and watch The Three Tenors on PBS. Still, I couldn't spend the whole weekend on the couch huddled under a blanket next to the electric heater (the heating system in our building hasn't quite worked itself out yet, apparently). I stepped out yesterday morning in my big snowboots to get a few pictures of the blanket of white that covered the neighborhood. There is nothing more peaceful than being one of the first people outside on a snowy morning. There's a stillness and a hush (yes, even in New York) that is absolutely unique. That said, I actually was not one of the first people out--many had already made their footprints in the new snow before I came along.

This weekend was actually momentous for another reason as well. On Saturday I resolved that starting now I am going to use only the manual settings on my camera (switching to programmed auto only if I am truly desperate). Just one weekend, and I'm already feeling a little less intimidated. Maybe I was helped along by the new 50 mm lens I got on Saturday that has introduced me to a heretofore unexplored range of low F-stops (down to 1.8!) These were some of my weekend experiments:

The iron fence in front of St. Ann's Church.

I don't know what this one is, but I've titled it "Cabbage Flower on a Snowy Morning."