May 31, 2011

Early Morning Brooklyn Breakfast in Two Parts

Perch, where the coffee's strong and the people are smiley.
I landed at JFK at 7-something a.m.  By the time I reached Park Slope, I knew I needed a quick breakfast before the 11:00 wedding I was there to attend.  I asked a young couple, out for a stroll with their baby, where I might catch a good cup of coffee and something to go with it.  I asked the right people.

First, they sent me over to a French-style patisserie called Colson, where the pastries were so fresh I could smell them from outside.  It was tempting, no doubt.  But if I was going to make it until 11, I would need something more substantial.  I indulged in a fresh, iced apricot tea, read some of my book, and walked on.

Back on 5th, I found Perch Cafe.  I always appreciate it when no one rushes you into a decision; maybe because it was Memorial Day weekend, or maybe it was the heat rising (it was already a muggy 87 degrees), or the music that was on, but these very friendly folks allowed me to linger over the menu, and after finishing my food, to linger over my coffee for a while.  (I am trying to prepare to go back to teaching in September, and need to get through The Odyssey before then.  I read two chapters, made notes, and then edited some writing--work I'd never be able to do in peace at home!)

The best food is often the most simple, and I'm not sure this breakfast qualifies as simple: it seemed that there was a lot going on, and I loved all of it.  Rosemary foccacia, smoked salmon, leeks, and a bit of cream on it.  Maybe it was just deceptive--rosemary can do that to me.  Not too heavy (though it sounds so), fresh tasting stuff.

Thanks, Colson and Perch, for starting my very long day off just right.

Charleston's Kitchens

{My husband and I just went away for a few days.  We left our kids in the charge of their competent, loving grandparents, and so were able to enjoy some peace of mind, comforted if only by the fact that The Guard are expert huggers and kissers and food-makers.  For the essay on what it meant for me to leave the kids, please kindly stand by as it's just been accepted for publication elsewhere.}
The beach at daybreak.  Why was I awake at this time?

When I travel--and make no mistake, I love to travel--the two things I look most forward to are the people I'm going to meet and the food I'm going to eat.  It goes beyond having to figure out what to make for dinner, though it's nice to be waited on for a change; it's fascinating how food, culture, and the personality of a city all go hand in hand.  In hand.  It's a bonus if there's an ocean to rest by, too.

We went South.  Not the kind of South where people's accents change and you can still find delicatessens around every corner--but Charleston, South Carolina, seat of the first shots of the Civil War, home to many a standing plantation, where the skyline isn't skyscrapers, but Episcopal Church spires.  Charleston is a beautiful city, and its people are so very pleasant to talk to.  But let's face it: there were two priorities on this trip for Heath and me.  Beach and food.  We stayed on Folly Beach (aptly named, I might add) so that we could take in the sea air, the waves, the general beach vibe.  But then we got our eat on.

Charleston's scene is referred to as "lowcountry," and the cuisine is heavily influenced by Gullah culture, cultivated over hundreds of years by descendants of the slaves who were brought here.
Here are three places not to be missed when you're in Charleston.

Martha Lou's Kitchen

Anything with a first name and the word "kitchen" in it, in this town, implies that you're in for some serious soul food.  Martha Lou, an octogenarian with a chicken batter from heaven, works out of a small, modest kitchen with nothing more than the usual appliances (none of them up-to-date).  We found her, arm akimbo, one hand on her griddle pan over a hot stove on an already hot day, as we walked in to this tiny living-room of a restaurant.

Martha Lou's daughter told us to sit anywhere we pleased, and we found ourselves toward the back of the place, within earshot of the television (the TBN network was to be on, we suspected, all day long).  The decor here is no more modest than some articles about Martha Lou's Kitchen from Saveur (read here for more about Lowcountry and Gullah cooking) and The New York Times on the wall, some prayers posted between them, and a painted mural, some potted plants, and a small mirror.  The tables are set with real linens, as though you're really in someone's home.  And that's just how we felt.  Martha Lou's daughter brought us some iced teas she'd concocted herself "in the back," and when we told them how good we thought they were, she did a little dance.  Aw, yeahhhh, that's how we do it riiiiight, she gleefully exclaimed, and pranced back to the kitchen with our orders.

Sweet tea.  Lima beans.  Corn bread.  Bread pudding.  And, chile, fried chicken.  My lord, too tasty for words.  We ate so quickly that I can only offer you the photo of our finished plates.

Fat Hen is located on one of the many islands off the South Carolinian shore, on a road you'd never think to look for a brunch joint that boasts the best French-influenced brunch this side of the Mason-Dixon (read: you pass about seven Baptist churches and go under a lot of those beautifully eerie, mossy magnolia trees on your way).  We're sure glad we found it.

Yes.  Fried pickles.  
We began brunch with mimosas, of course.  And since we were letting ourselves go--in the kind of way you can only do when you're on vacation--Heath asked for some fried pickles.  And that was our appetizer.  These were served with a tartar sauce, and between the tart of the sauce, the buttery dill and the crispy batter, my taste buds were already on sensory overload.
Heath savors a breakfast burrito.

There are just too many choices in a place like this.  Luckily, one of them was--are you ready, Northerners?--bagel with lox and cream cheese, so eliminating that choice helped a little.  After much deliberation and cavorting with our patient waiter (who said butta, not butter, and batta, not batter), I settled on a crunchy, summer vegetable gratin with a side of cheesy grits.  Again, our plates were clean when we left.  I hope to replicate the gratin someday here, maybe for a light summer dinner. The grits?  Delicious, and I just don't think I have that kind of time.  Because we all know that grits take time.

We'd deliberated for no less than two weeks about which of the two most crafty, upscale, Lowcountry food establishments we'd visit on the final night of our stay in Charleston: Magnolia's or Fig ("Food is Good").  We went with the latter because it boasted using only locally- and regionally-grown and produced, seasonal, foods, had a very vibe-ey ambiance, and the drink menu looked ridiculously inventive.  (See it here.  I got the Citizen Stout, Heath got the Green Thumb, and we were both pretty toasted halfway through each.)  

What's really nice about fine dining out (without kids) is how much time you can take to actually savor your food.  And savor we did.  We sampled the Wagyu Cruda for an appetizer, which appeared to be very pink, catfood-looking stuff.  Despite its texture, though, it was delicious, and we're proud of ourselves for eating raw meat and not getting sick.  

Since Heath doesn't eat seafood or pork, his choices were considerably limited, given that most dishes on the menu.  I, on the other hand, enjoy tasting whatever local delicacies are available.  Heath got a pan-roasted grouper with pole beans; I got the fish stew in cocotte, which included mussels, squid, clam, whitefish, and shrimp; cocotte refers to the type of pot in which the stew is cooked and served.  This stew, as it was explained to me, is Provencal cuisine, and it was served with crispy, thin toasts and a dipping sauce called rouille, French for creamydeliciousness.   We split roasted beets and farro as sides, and because we just weren't full enough, split a piece of thick, fig cake for dessert.

One of our last meals on Folly Beach was a quick dinner along the strip at an unsuspecting joint casually called Taco Boy.  It's charm is something like the nonchalance mixed with the most amazing mix of scents of what I think was fresh lime, spilled Mexican beer, hot sea air, homemade chips and guac.  Somehow I'd missed the fish taco craze in college, and I was glad to make up for it in this crowded, glittery bar where the waitstaff might be too busy or too buzzy to realize you haven't gotten a menu yet.  (The fish tacos more than make up for it.)

Somehow I lost a pound while vacationing in South Carolina.  I can't explain it--obviously, we ate and drank like bacchanalian adolescents on a binge.  But we were sure happy in Lowcountry.  And if I attempt any gratins or cocotte cooking, I'll be sure to post all about it on A&B.  

May 28, 2011

A&B is Galavanting Across The Eastern Seaboard

{Dear Readers, please stay tuned ~ the ol' A&B has shuffled off to Charleston and Brooklyn, and will report back with tales of kitchens and happenings there, and whatnot.  Thanks for your patience!}

May 14, 2011

Two Grandmothers, Two Worlds

My grandma, Gramma Anna as we called her, was born in Dairyland, was a child of the Depression, and raised her family on the corner of Main St. in Middletown, NY.  My Bubbe, Sala, was born in Lodz, Poland, spent most of her childhood in Nazi death camps, and moved her family from Germany to Upstate New York when she was 21 years old.  Both women knew how to make kasha varnishkes and other Jewish staples, both could knit and sew, and both made sure we, their grandchildren, knew how much we were loved.
But these women couldn’t have been more different.  Gramma signed our birthday cards in perfect cursive, “with love,” and Bubbe drew zany pictures of flowers and x’s (kisses) and sunshine all around the words “kisses kisses kisses” and “love you mamale,” words she’d spelled phonetically.  Gramma was quiet and contented herself during visits to our house by reading magazines and watching my brother and I play.  Bubbe, who lived less than three miles from our house, spent most of her afternoons making stockpiles of cookies and chicken soup for us, helping my mother with the laundry and ironing, and squaking in Yiddish, over the phone, about who amongst the greenes (immigrants) was shtuping with whom.
{Is it strange that I associate my grandmothers with kitchen appliances?}
Gramma taught me how to say “oopsy daisy” when I spilled something.  She was dainty.
Bubbe cooked in a slip and a sheen of sweat from her forehead to her bosom.
Gramma had great power in her wagging finger.  That’s not ladylike was enough to keep me honest in her care.  Bubbe reminded me, often, to be a balabusta!-- the traditional connotation of this word translates to good homemaker, but she meant it in the sense of being a bring-home-the-kischke kind of woman despite all odds, like starting over in a new country, in a new language, working the night shift at a factory with no air conditioning, and navigating through life without a driver’s license.  When she said the word, balabusta!, she said it with her fists clenched, marching in place.  
Gramma was doilies and teacups, chocolate chip cookies, and ice milk on hot days.  I can remember the whirr of her electric mixer and the smack she gave my "great gramma" (her much older sister, who was like a mother to her) when she snuck her finger into the batter while the mixer was going.

Bubbe was glasses of coffee and sugar packets, mandel bread, and warm milk when we couldn’t sleep.  I can still see her turning out little rows of batter, through a metal hand crank, that she would form into "o" shapes as her own special cookies. I can still smell that buttery batter.
It never occured to me, growing up, how lucky I was to have known my grandparents--all four of them.  I didn’t appreciate the disparate, cultural legacies I was inheriting: my paternal grandparents’ American Jewishness (literally, from the dairy farm) and my maternal grandparents’ European Jewishness (the world that Sholom Aleichem so beautifully illustrates in his stories, though our family was not from the shtetls, but from a bustling, thriving metropolis prior to World War II).  In college, every Sunday, I made the requisite call to both sets.  By graduate school, I’d lost my Grandpa and Zaide, and both of my grandmothers deteriorated more quickly than I could grasp.
On Mother’s Day, last week, I was missing my grandmothers, and wishing very much that I could hear them over the phone again.  Our relationships were not fostered during the digital age, so if I want to hear them, I have to find a VHS tape of my Bat Mitzvah (and as luck would have it, my Bubbe told her story of her time in the Lodz Ghetto and subsequent moves to various Nazi camps for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, also preserved on VHS).  I think often of their approaches to raising children, their cooking, their faces and their voices, especially when I call my little girl my mamale, or when I blurt out oopsy daisy when she falls.  

This post appeared on offers a Jewish twist on parenting, everything a Jewish family could need for raising Jewish children--including crafts, recipes, activities, Hebrew and Jewish names for babies...and advice fromMayim Bialik.

May 5, 2011

I Got {Circadian} Rhythm, Who Could Ask for Anything More

Complex sciences and math such as astrophysics and biochemistry are totally elusive to me, as is the perfect equation regarding my son's ability to sleep for more than 45 minutes for naps and more than four hours at night.

As any good scientist would, I've experimented with a variety of combinations of food intake, amount of environmental light/sound, pre-nap rituals (including baths, books, and closely whispering please let this be the night you sleep all the way through) in order to find which will produce the most favorable results.

And as a good scientist would, I've made a record of my observations in order to form a hypothesis.

The most recent observations are as such:

Do everything the book(s) tell me to do for a 4/5/6/7/8- month-old
10-30 minute naps at best, usually twice a day, 4-5 hour stretches of sleep at night
so busy trying to follow the book that I’m totally in my head; toddler may need breakfast/snack/etc. at same time baby needs nap. Also, coffee may be unavailable to help with focus throughout day unless I can get to the Dunkin' Donuts drive-thru.
nurse the child at first sign of upset
10-20 minute naps 2 x day, 2-4 hour stretches of sleep at night
unhappy breasts, exhausted mommy, unhappy/exhausted daddy, bottles & formula become a joke to the kid; wine, not coffee, becomes drink of preference (limited amounts so not to affect the many night feedings ahead).  Cannot seem to let the baby C-I-O, it makes me want to wretch.
MUST take into account variables that hinder shallow sleep, such as 102 year-old floorboards that creak all over house, a**holes who crank the bass in their car stereos at 1 pm, sirens, dogs, lawnmowers, etc.
feed every 3.5- 4 hours (with solid food before or after), nap following no less than two hours later
45 minutes to 1.5 hr naps, 2-3 times a day, 5-6 hour stretches of sleep at night

easier to get to the bank, grocery store, etc., easier to concentrate on needs of toddler without coffee or wine (no--seriously, I got a caffeine withdrawal headache yesterday because I hadn't had any coffee in two days)
stop worrying so much about it, concentrate on having a good time, feed every four hours (solids when the rest of us eat at the table--if these coincide, all the better), naps at first sign of eye-rubbing PLUS kvetching PLUS no longer happy anywhere
1-2 hour naps anywhere, including sitter service, car seat, crib, etc., and full night’s sleep with only 1-2 minor wakings for pacifier replacement...
YES!!!!  Hooray!!
pacifier and velvety lovees help falling asleep process along nicely; white noise not totally necessary but doesn’t hurt; baby prefers darkest environment possible.
A margarita is in order.

May 2, 2011

Princesses Can Save the World, Too

{Dear Loyal Blog Readers, thanks so much for your feels-so-good feedback on the princess post; I submitted it to an editor, she liked it, and now you can read it over here, on  mg}

Food Fights

Even the new goldfish, my daughter's new pets, are winning.  They see me coming, they go right to the top of the tank, their tiny goldfish mouths bleating open and closed for their paper thin morsels.  (Who ever heard of bottomless goldfish?)  I give in.  A snack can't hurt.  Right?

It's always been hard for me to say no to food--feeding myself, others, my family, strangers.  There's just such an abundance of stuff we eat that it's hardly fathomable that people still go hungry (even blocks away from where I live).

In high school, I remember a friend coming over to visit, and mentioning how hungry he was.  In an instant, he was sitting at our kitchen table in front of a plate of leftover meatloaf and potatoes, fork in hand, gobbling away while I hoped my dad wouldn't be looking for a midnight snack later on.  After a while, my friend would often just walk in our door and pull himself up a seat at the table, no questions asked.

Come to think of it, food has bonded many of my best friends and I.  If we weren't trying to lose weight while trying to visit every restaurant and diner that boated a two-fer, then we were laughing and crying over pints of Ben & Jerry's.  Food's not just a feminist issue.  It's a woman's issue.

Food is love, we all know that.  It's why my husband proposed to me after a beautiful afternoon of winery-hopping, replete with a tapas-style picnic he'd packed, over a dinner he'd had specially prepared by a chef-friend by the light of the sunset.  Food is romantic, intoxicating, an emotional catalyst for some.  Bad days can dissolve in a forkful of good, creamy risotto; good days can't be that good if your breakfast was dry toast and a glass of milk.

So when Devi, in her two-year-oldness, decides she's done with the dinner in front of her in favor of playing with her dinosaur collection, it's logical to take the plate away so that she understands we've heard her.

I really get that.  But sometimes I leave the plate.  I can't help but think--what if she's hungry later?  Of course, there comes a point where we need to clean up and everything's put away, but when those little eyelashes curl up at me--I wasn't done, mommy!  I'm NOT done!--oh, I am weak.   And am working on that.

Devi has been addicted to popsicles since her worst teething days nearly a year ago, and just the way she says please mommy, can i please have a popfh-si-cahl? has led to numerous discussions between Heath and I about what constitutes a dessert food, when desserts should be eaten in this house, the difference between desserts, snacks, and treats, and when popsicles are given the green light (sore throats, bad days, dog days of summer, etc.).

When I teach my daughter about how to eat, I am re-teaching myself.  I can't believe it, but there it is: simple talks about portions, how much is too much, knowing when to walk away from the table, or how to say no thank you.  Recognizing when you're full.  There's a time and place to eat.  When it's okay to share what's on your plate (or pick at the plate next to you).  And she's only two.  This is not fear of weight (there, I said it).  It's a fear of her developing the wrong relationship with food and recognizing how what she eats affects how she feels.

So really, it's up to me to be the strong one these days.  All done really needs to mean all done, and I've learned from family members that a glass of milk before bed really cures the void of a plate not cleared.   When the goldfish curl their little fish eyelashes up at me, I'm going to have to walk away.  

This Chicken Makes the Mailman Crazy

What's that you say?  Chicken AGAIN?!?  You're so sick of chicken you've given up making new recipes until chicken knocks on your door and make amends with you and your family?  Try this one.  It's cooking right now and it even made MY MAILMAN ask what I'm cooking, because he could smell it down the driveway.  And if the reticent mailman asks... well, you might have a good thing going.

You know I'm not a huge fan of precision, especially in the kitchen, so here's my take on something called Chicken Adobo (not Latin adobo, but Filipino):

Slice up some onions, toss in a pot or slow cooker with a couple of smashed garlic cloves, chopped, fresh ginger, bay leaves, one tablespoon of brown sugar, 2/3 c. of apple cider vinegar, and 1/3 c. of low-sodium soy sauce.  Place 4-6 chicken thighs on top, and let cook for three to five hours.

When all but ten minutes remain, throw in some bok choy and chopped green onion.  Your mail carrier may linger over the catalogs s/he's bringing today.  It will be okay.

(I could get this done in the ten minutes my little guy napped today.)  Serve on your favorite kind of rice, but I have a feeling white or jasmine might be what's in my pantry right now.  A veg like snow pea pods or steamed broc can't hurt you.  Some fresh pineapple, voila, dinner.