Throughout my entire life, I’ve gotten strange looks when I tell people I’m Jewish. It’s not because to be Jewish was incredibly odd or out of the ordinary in Colorado. It’s because I don’t really look Jewish. I guess it must be because my Asian genes are a bit more apparent than my Jewish ones. But, I am genetically Jewish. My mother is Jewish and therefore, so am I. So, that means when March comes around, we don’t bust out the ham and the chocolate for Easter, we bust out the charoset and the matzo for Passover.
My favorite part of the traditional Seder has to be matzo ball soup. It’s basically chicken noodle soup minus the noodles and plus dumplings made from ground up matzo (the cracker-like bread traditional to the holiday) and egg. Coming to New York was a sort of revelation to me-every diner I’ve ever been to here has matzo ball soup on the menu, something that was a bit out of the ordinary for a girl from the west.
I should have known that my favorite store in the world-Westside Market-would of course have matzo ball soup. I have yet to be disappointed in the goods at the market so when I was wandering around after getting back from spring break and getting pretty hungry, I decided to explore the shelves of Westside to find something delicious for dinner. It was rather cold and I had spent the entire day on a stuffy plane, so a good cup of soup was just what I needed. I spied some matzo ball soup and my mind was made up. The soup was chock full of chicken, vegetables, and best of all, gigantic matzo balls somewhere between the size of a baseball and a golf ball. It made for a wonderful first meal back and a good way to start the end of the semester.
Having had the opportunity to live with a Danish host family over the last two months, I have come to recognize that the Scandinavian relationship with food is quite different from that in other parts of the world, especially the United States. Here are a few adjectives that I would use to characterize this Scandinavian culture of eating.
Scandinavian cultures place a lot of emphasis on time spent with the family, as evidenced by their work days, which typically end in the mid-afternoon. Families will often go to extreme lengths to make sure that everyone can be home for dinner together each night.
Perhaps the most informative way to look understand this emphasis on togetherness is through the Danish concept of hygge. The word is typically considered to be un-translatable, but perhaps the closest word we have in English is “cozy.” Hygge is a verb (sometimes even reflexive) and a noun, and can also be used as hyggeligt, which is an adjective describing the state of hygge.
Linguistic properties aside, hygge is a very important concept to the Danes, who strive to achieve it in nearly all aspects of life. Hygge is characterized by a warm sense of tranquility and calm, especially in a group. You can’t be hyggeligt when someone is missing! So, of course, there is a tremendous emphasis on inclusiveness in society generally, which even extends to meal habits and the importance of being together during meal times.
By and large, Scandinavian dinners are prepared from scratch at home, and this is especially the case in family units. This norm likely comes from a variety of social and cultural influences.
Most simply, it is simply a result of the high cost of eating at restaurants. To give you a sense of the cost, one could expect to pay at least the equivalent of $10 (USD) for a modest meal at McDonald’s, and it is quite rare to find a sit-down restaurant with meals for anything less than $30 (USD); based on my travels, I can also say that this is not only true in Denmark, but also in Oslo, Helsinki, and Stockholm. Those prices even make New York look reasonable!
But perhaps more importantly than simple economics, cooking at home is simply more hyggeligt. The delicious smells from the kitchen slowly intensify as dinner approaches, and as you sit down to dinner the whole family has the satisfaction of sharing from a common source of food lovingly prepared by one of the family members.
As a side note, fitting with Scandinavia’s progressive attitudes towards social matters, it is typical for both partners to share cooking responsibilities, or for the task to be delegated on the matter of simple preference rather than gender roles. When dating, men will often invite women to their homes for a homemade meal to show off their cooking skills. The goal for these suitors is to make complex meals but act as though it were no effort at all. Special schools have even formed in a lot of the larger cities that specifically cater towards adolescents for this reason.
Everything about food is taken very casually in Scandinavian cultures, with an emphasis on leisure and relaxation. Cooking at home is a good example of this mentality: cooking is a very leisurely activity, only to be undertaken by those who have the time and mental energy to devote to its execution.
The meals themselves are also consumed at a leisurely pace, with plenty of conversation lasting long after the food has finished. It is not uncommon to sit at a Danish dinner for an hour or longer.
This is not to say, though, that there are not ‘rules’ during Danish meals. There are some strictly regimented idiosyncrasies of Danish meals. Here are a few:
Toasts are usually offered after a few bites have been taken already, rather than at the very beginning of a meal.
Glasses are not usually clinked at toasts; it is more common to make eye contact with each of the other members of the table.
Smørrebrød sandwiches (to be covered in a later post) are eaten with a fork and knife and are consumed in a certain order (fish first, then meat).
Every meal ends by thanking the cook.
Yet despite these ‘rules,’ Danish meals are still a very casual affair, even at dinner parties
The emphasis on leisure extends far beyond the home, as well. The concept of ‘to go’ is not well understood in Denmark; as a symbol of this lack of understanding, there is not a commonly used Danish term for the concept, so people just say ‘to go’ in English. When people do buy food ‘to go,’ it is usually to take it somewhere else to eat. Around hotdog stands, you will often find crowds of Danes standing around and eating the hotdogs they just purchased. It is quite uncommon to see people carrying cups of coffee on the street. Food is to be leisurely enjoyed to the Scandinavians, not eaten quickly on the way from one place to another.
One also finds this emphasis on leisure in the café culture. Like much of Europe (and indeed, most of the western world), people will gather at cafés for hours to leisurely chat with friends over coffee and a pastry. Perhaps nowhere is this better expressed than in the fika in Sweden, which Amanda excellently covered in her first Fika Friday post.
As I mentioned previously, in Danish households, it is customary to end every meal with the phrase tak for mad (pronounced “tock fo mel”), which literally translates to, “thank you for the food.” This simple, almost formulaic phrase, though, is just one manifestation of a deep-seated reverence for food. As I have written, Scandinavians take their time to focus on the food they are preparing and consuming, and almost always do so in the company of others. Very little is wasted, generally through carefully tuned proportions that end up being the perfect amount of food for the table.
The romantic, and probably somewhat valid, explanation for this thankfulness and reverence is the paucity of material abundance in the cold and rough Nordic regions, which causes people to be more thankful of what they do have. Alternatively, maybe it has something to do with the historical (and continued) importance of agriculture in the Scandinavian economies. Regardless of the ‘real’ reasons, though, I cannot help but hope that this overall mentality towards food becomes a more important part of Stateside culture than the lip service we pay at Thanksgiving.
So, what do you think of the Scandinavian way of eating? Let me know in the comments!
Who knew that I would literally stumble across a Creole and Cajon restaurant in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day?! No one, but my friends and I sure were excited to find such a gem just around the corner from the famous Temple Bar in central Dublin.
After almost walking past this quaint joint, we all decided to take a break from out St. Patty’s Day festivities and just find some real food. We did just that when we walked into Tante Zoe’s restaurant. The atmosphere was great and it served as a nice break from the craziness of Temple Bar and the surrounding area. We sat down and all I know is that I saw the word, “corn bread” and I knew I was going to be just alright. Ahh, the simple things that remind you of home while being abroad!
We received the menu and one of the first things that caught my eye was the Jambalaya, which is a blend of colorful rice and mixed vegetables. Jambalaya was created by French and Spanish inhabitants in New Orleans but, of course, Jambalaya’s roots originate from the slaves of the deep American south. In addition to the rice and veggies, there are other ingredients that can be added to create this amazing dish and the one variation that I wanted wasn’t going to be ready for some time, so I settled for the Tante Zoe Jambalaya, which included fresh fish, smoked fish, and shellfish.
After waiting 45 minutes for our food (-_-), the waitress brought out my HALF serving of Jambalaya. I could only imagine what an actual FULL serving of this Jambalaya looked like. It came with a serving of corn bread and one huge pepper that I quickly sat to the side. The fish and shellfish were amazing and tasted so fresh. The Jambalaya dish, overall, was amazing! However, the cornbread….let’s just say they gave it their best shot! We all can’t be perfect, right? Right.
For eight days there might be just a bit more bread on campus than usual.
The Jewish holiday Passover, which commemorates the Jews’ exodus from Egypt and began this Monday, prohibits consumption of leavened bread. For those observing, this involves replacing the traditional cereal or toast breakfast with a thinner, crunchier, and–quite literally–holier variety.
Matzoh, a cracker-like sheet, constitutes the most symbolic and largely consumed food during the holiday season. The process of baking matzoh must take fewer than 18 minutes–from the initial mixing to the final moments of baking–in order to be considered in accordance with the holiday’s dietary restrictions. To prevent rising, small, fork-like pricks are embedded into the unbaked dough, resulting in puffed, evenly spaced pockets across the sheet’s surface.
Matzoh today is mass-produced in factories, their strict baking requirements attended to with Taylorism-like efficiency. While it is most commonly associated with the Passover holiday, my family and many others eat it year-round, using it as a neutral platform on which to load dips and spreads of various flavors and spices. Hummus, salsa, baba ghanoush – an eggplant and chickpea mix, and matbucha – a savory-sweet vegetable chutney, are all dollopped on with vigor.
What is not as common, and perhaps entirely particular to my own palate, is a combination of rice, chicken and tomato sauce layered onto a sheet, one atop the other. Seasoned heavily with freshly cracked black pepper and a splash of Tabasco for extra zing, the dish has been ideal for Saturday lunches, when leftovers from the previous night’s dinner are stacked high and tall in our single door white fridge, and grumbling stomachs demand instantaneous reward.
Though not as likely to whet the appetite as, say, a molten-lava cake, the dish serves as a delicious and simple reminder of home, and provides a taste of the special time of year when the sheet beneath the toppings takes center stage.
My biggest concern before arriving in Argentina was how I’d get along with my host family and the type of food I’d be eating with them. I’d heard a lot about the argentine love affair with beef (as we all have) and a bit about its rich Italian influence. What’s more, my trusty guidebook warned about the lack of vegetables, which it said the argentines consider a simple garnish. In my mind this translated to an extreme, protein-and-starch diet for the duration of my stay here, so during my last week in the States, I prepared to say good-bye to fresh greens, savoring every last salad or raw vegetable I could get my hands on.
Once in Argentina, I quickly realized that the food here is nothing to worry about. There are salads abound, the fruits are ripe and the vegetables fresh. And as for the beef, and especially for the abundance of Italian food, the Italian immigrants have done justice to their European heritage. My apprehension was clearly misplaced.
In fact, a few days ago I awoke to find my host mom making ñoquis caseros (home-made gnocchi). I was quite impressed: she was boiling and mashing the potatoes, adding in an egg, spices, and (best of all) chopped parsley. Before beginning to knead the gnocchi dough into flour and shaping them into the classic gnocchi shell shape, she even set a pan of tomato puree to simmer and reduce with onion, bell pepper, left-over chorizo, and more spices. It was going to be a fabulous lunch.
And indeed it was. I’d never really appreciated gnocchi before this meal because I had always found them heavy and tasteless. These, however, were something else: because they were made with very little flour, they were much lighter than expected. And paired with the reduced tomato sauce, the combination was more than perfect. Argentina has outdone itself once again.
Paris is full of wonderful chocolatiers. From the big names like the Maison du Chocolat and Jaques Genin, to neighborhood confiseries and chocolate shops, you don’t have to look far to get your chocolate fix in this town. Paris has everything chocolate — from fine, delicate pralines, to nutty rochers to giant, kitchy bunnies for Easter and long strands of chocolate-covered “guimauve” (or marshmallow).
However, up until about a month ago, Paris lacked one thing : an actual chocolate manufacture, where everything from sourcing and roasting beans to the final enrobing of chocolate happens in the same place. And not only do we have our own chocolate manufacture now, but it just so happens to be under the auspices of Alain Ducasse himself.
Visiting the chocolate manufacture of Alain Ducasse feels a little bit like being Charlie when he finally enters Willy Wonka’s factory (minus the oompa-loompas, of course). Walking in from the noisy, bustly (and slighly sketchy) streets of the Bastille area, the chocolate manufacture is located in a small courtyard, sheltered from the noise and confusing of the neighborhood. The building is also, in large part, made of glass, which permits one to see everything from the sacks of raw beans to the roasting machines to the chocolates in the process of being made.
What also makes the chocolate manufacture of Alain Ducasse a unique place is that not only is the chocolate itself produced on site — but all chocolates are single-origin, coming from places as diverse as Java, Madagascar, Peru, Equador, the Cote d’Ivoire… the list goes on and on. What’s more, even the fillings (what the French call “praliné” is made in-house (something that few manufactures do, apparently) and comes in incredible flavors like “pate d’amande pistache” (almond-pistachio), “pralinee croustillant, mousse caramel” (crunchy praline-caramel mousee) and “noix de coco fruit de la passion” (coconut-passionfruit).
Although these chocolates are expensive (4 bars came out to about 50 dollars), the price is honestly not incredibly outrageous for the product. This is seriously some of the best chocolate I have ever had — for one of the first times in my life, I actually tasted flavors of coffee, red-fruits etc. that all the chocolate connaisseurs tell you that you “should” taste. It’s amazing how incredibly complex these chocolates are. And even if they were double the price, I’d still go out of my way to buy them.
Hungry for some noodles? Well, you can’t go wrong with giving Xi’an Famous Foods a try. X’ian Famous Foods is a small restaurant line in New York, with locations in Chinatown, Flushing, East Village, and Brooklyn. Described as a “fusion of Middle Eastern and Chinese foods,” its food has earned the restaurant critical acclaim from sites such as Serious Eats, USA Today, and The New York Times, and with good reason. Before going back home for spring break, I visited the location in Chinatown with some friends to check out what the buzz was about. Overall, I was quite pleased with my experience.
Considering its reputation as a hole-in-the-wall kind of place, the restaurant was surprisingly comfortable. The restaurant was actually fairly spacious, and there was ample seating available when we arrived. Service was decent too. The woman at the counter was polite and quick to take my order, and within minutes I had my food.
I started my meal with an order of the Liang Pi ($4.50). A light but delicious dish, the Liang Pi has a large variety of taste within one small plate, consisting of translucent noodles and thinly sliced strips of cucumbers, bean sprouts, and cilantro in a special sauce. The sauce is outstanding, containing a mixture of various flavors that beautifully come together. It is sweet, spicy, nutty, and tangy at once, and it is terrific. Next time, I would like to try the stir-fried version of these noodles. I was still a bit hungry after devouring these noodles though, so I ended up ordering a couple more dishes of food.
I followed my order of Liang Pi with an order of the spicy cumin lamb burger ($3.00), which I split with my friend. This was pretty great too. Though it may not be very large, the spicy cumin lamb burger is a sandwich seriously packed with flavor. I loved the lamb stew inside the burger. The soft meat practically melted in my mouth and just had the right amount of seasoning. The onions, on the other hand, were sweet and crunchy and complemented the savory and soft lamb well. My only minor complaint about the spicy cumin lamb burger was that it was a bit oily. The cumin sauce leaked out while we were eating the sandwich, and we had to grab a bunch of napkins to clean up the resulting mess.
My last dish was the spicy and tingly beef noodles and soup ($6.50). These were okay, if a bit disappointing. It’s not that the spicy and tingly beef noodles and soup dish is bad. It’s just that it wasn’t anything particularly special. I can’t really complain though. After the Liang Pi and the spicy cumin lamb burger, I was a satisfied customer, and I look forward to coming back to Xi’an Famous Foods soon.
I’m always pretty skeptical of “cheating recipes”: recipes that claim to provide a way to enjoy everything from brownies to pudding by replacing all the good stuff (butter, flower, cream, chocolate, etc.) with vegetables. I had an especially bad experience last week with a recipe for Cauliflower Pizza Dough. The only ingredients were cauliflower, eggs, herbs, and a little bit of cheese. Red flags should have gone up, but the excitement about the possibility of a bread-free pizza that I could eat without abandon was too overwhelming.
They were horrible. Horrible actually doesn’t even begin to cover it, inedible would be more accurate. So when I came across a recipe for Avocado Chocolate Mousse, although I was curious, I didn’t have even mildly high expectations.
To my surprise, the mousse came out very well. The creamy texture of the avocado perfectly translates into a mousse. It is not on par with a proper mousse made with cream, butter, and chocolate, but it’s simple, uses natural ingredients and takes less than 10 minutes. Most importantly, it can quickly get you past those mind-numbing chocolate cravings without doing too much caloric damage.
I made mine by adapting Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe for Chocolate-Avocado Mousseand making a few substitutions based on some similar recipes from health food websites. However, this recipe has so few ingredients that you can just do it by taste.
I started with four ripe avocados, blended them in a food processor and then added unsweetened cocoa powder, melted chocolate chips, honey, and some almond milk to thin it out. I couldn’t even tell you how much of each ingredient I added because I just tweaked it until it tasted right. Add cocoa powder if the avocado taste is too strong, honey if it’s not sweet enough, and almond milk (I’m sure any kind of milk would work) if it gets too thick. I only added about a third of a cup of melted semi-sweet chocolate chips because I wanted to feel no guilt when eating the mousse. However, my finished mousse has an aftertaste with a tiny reminder of the presence of avocado. That didn’t at all bother me but if it bothers you, the more melted chocolate you add, the more you cancel out the avocado flavor. Chill it in the refrigerator for about three hours then serve with berries or chocolate chips.
One of my favorite “get to know you” questions to people is, “do you like bread, pasta, or rice?” The answer I receive says a lot about that person that invites further probing. A bread lover may be a condiment fanatic; a rice lover may be partial to Asian dishes, or perhaps merely Italian risotto; a pasta lover may have a weakness for comfort food. Then there are people like me, who really can’t take their pick – coming from a culture where a meal doesn’t feel like a meal unless I have some form of carbs, it seems that I’ve been pre-programmed in a biological and sociocultural manner to love this food group. A steaming bowl of brown rice goes with sesame sprinkles, lemon and avocado, or Turkish spices. Celebration in physical form is a bowl of thick-cut fettucine with tomato cream ragu, flaked with freshly-grounded parmesan. And who doesn’t love a baguette with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, or with Nutella? This, combined with a love of making bread in my own time (link previous article), is why I was overexcited to be spending a few fascinating weekends working at Le Pain Quotidien, making bread and pastries. I was able to pick up on many helpful tips from the pros in just my first few hours there, and here’s a summary of how to make the bread-making process delicious, from mixing the ingredients to serving it to your loved ones.
Fat is good: The key to any good bread is the fat that is used. European-style butter contains 85% fat, as opposed to American butter, which rages anywhere from 75% to 82% fat. Add the butter in the batter with the “wet” ingredients for your enriched breads (mix the dry ingredients first), and do it in three successive times with your fingers. Always chill your wet ingredients. If you substitute butter for vegetable oil or olive oil, know that vegetable oil is almost tasteless, as opposed to the rich creaminess of butter or the distinct taste of olive oil. All is good, but know what you’re getting into beforehand. Also, when a recipe calls for a certain weight in eggs, always put the weight in yolks first before making it up with egg whites; the yolk is where the fat, and the flavor, is.
Building structure: I’m personally not a fan of KitchenAid, because no matter how great of a hook they make, it’s still mimicking a baker’s hand – it’s not actually a baker’s hand. You don’t want to over-knead your dough, because it’ll start to serrate, and won’t be smooth; a ready-to-use dough should feel not as sticky but still malleable, while a dough that needs more kneading will still be sticky, because you haven’t combined all the ingredients. As the pro bakers say, “it’s ready when your hands hurt.” When making dinner rolls, let the dough relax for at least fifteen minutes; when you can stretch it and watch it recoil back to a lump slowly, then it’s ready, because when it’s too elastic the yeast hasn’t worked its magic just yet. Fold the edges four or five times to build structure, then seal off the ball with your thumb and pinky. Similarly, when checking to see if a bread is ready to bake, press on the side (not the top, because gravity makes this unfeasible) and make sure it springs back slowly.
Eggwash: A pinch of salt beaten in with a whole egg yields a water-like liquid. It can be brushed on bread so that the oven won’t make the bread crust too early, inhibiting its true volume. Dip the brush into the batter, make sure the brush isn’t dripping, then brush the egg wash onto the bread. Make sure nothing is “pooling” in any indentations (ie. where braids come together in a braided brioche).
A word on hydration: For the health gurus out there, whole-wheat flour dries up your bread quickly, because it likes moisture. You can get away with up to 15% of whole wheat flour with white flour, but anything above, you’ll need to tweak the liquid content. If you’re using dried fruit or nuts, make sure you soak them first in water (or, during exam period, liquor) – by giving them their own source of hydration, they won’t suck out the moisture in your bread once it hits the oven.
Work on wood: A bit of cling is always good, and metal or plastic just doesn’t do it. Invest in a nice cutting board that can double as a bread-making surface.
Flour: Le Pain Quotidien uses the King Arthur brand, because it’s unbleached. Also, when using flour to make sure a surface isn’t too sticky, don’t use too much because you’ll disturb the perfectly measured increments of your ingredients list. As somebody who isn’t big on precision, bread can really go wrong if you estimate. I learned this the hard way.
Pre-heat that cookie sheet: It forms a protective layer against your pan. Plus, if you tend to add too much brown sugar and butter in your cinnamon rolls like me, you won’t be picking at the caramelization on the bottom which is a pleasure to eat (made easier by your cookie sheet) and a pain in the arse to clean.
Taming the yeast beast: Choose dry yeast over active cultures. Active cultures have low shelf life, and therefore is a bit riskier; if you’re buying it on day two, good for you, but if you’re getting it on day seven, then it’s not going to work as it professes to. Le Pain Quotidien uses “rapid rise,” as opposed to the active dry type also seen in supermarkets. Typically, recipes that are written for active cultures decrease in weight with an increasing amount of active cultures – it goes from 100% to 40% to 30% in conversion.
I hope that these tips helped for avid gourmet bread-bakers out there! Recognizing that I am definitely a “food snob,” I still think that there’s good reason to scorn Betty Crocker mix when there’s so much attention to detail and tips and tricks that makes you a great baker. More to come in the following weeks regarding making great bread!
I’d usually make my own ice cream to present to you, but this week is an exception. I blame spring break! It has stolen my motivation. And my heart.
Anyway, I’m here this week to pay tribute to my favorite frozen treat in the city: Amorino Gelato in Greenwich Village. As an avid ice cream maker, I’ve also eaten a lot of ice cream. It’s not only different flavors that intrigue me, but different brands and makers. I like to try to pick out the subtle differences between different their textures, try to figure out what exactly makes them distinct. It may be their ingredients, the method used to make them, or the way they are stored. It may be something else entirely that I simply wouldn’t understand, the amateur that I am.
Gelato, of course, is distinct from ice cream to begin with. It’s smoother, more delicate, more homogeneous in texture than ice cream. When it’s scooped out, a perfect u-shaped valley is left with a surface smooth as glass. When you scoop out ice cream, that valley exposes air pockets and inconsistencies in the thickness of the ice cream. Don’t get me wrong—those inconsistencies are delicious. But gelato doesn’t have them, and that’s exactly what makes it so special.
A friend first convinced me to go to Amorino when she told me they had a Speculoos flavor. I had enjoyed a lot of ice cream in my day, but never before had I imagined a frozen dessert could be so magical as that Speculoos gelato. The flavors vary from season to season, but it’s impossible to go at a bad time or pick the wrong flavor. Plus, they’ll put as many flavors as you want into whatever size cup you want. Yes—you can order a “piccola” (the smallest size) with one, two, four, seven, twelve (or any number in between) flavors. Chocolate hazelnut, mascarpone, stracciatella, salty caramel, pistachio (undoubtedly the best pistachio I’ve ever had), mango, lemon—the list goes on and on.
I promise, I’ll be back on my ice cream making regimen next time. In the mean time, just take my advice and give Amorino a try. I make trips to Greenwich specifically for their magical gelato. Seem ridiculous? Then you clearly haven’t tried it yourself! Enjoy, amici.