Food Bloggers Against Hunger

2013-04-07 19.31.59The minute I saw Nicole's tweet about TheGivingTable's campaign to get food bloggers to raise awareness for hunger in America, I signed up.  I'm well aware that our food laws essentially work against the goal of keeping healthy food affordable. I first read about it in The Omnivore's Dilemna when Michael Pollan explained it in detail. When the movie Food, Inc. was released, I went to a screening and sat there frozen to my seat in disbelief about how many, many things, in our food system seemed to defy logic. The biggest barrier to access to healthy food is the cost. Government subsidies do not go towards fruit and vegetable producers, but to producers of corn, wheat, and other ingredients that are staples in processed foods. That is why a McDonald's cheeseburger is cheaper than a head of broccoli. That is why, if you rely on food stamps (thee SNAP Program) to feed yourself or your family, you are hard pressed to afford to eat unprocessed foods all of the time. This problem is the focus of a new documentary by Participant Media—the same studio that made Food Inc.—  the film follows three families struggling with food insecurity, and sheds light on hunger in America.

I think the easiest way to eat healthy, and not spend a fortune is to cook at home. That's in part because I've learned how to cook, and possibly because I have no real memory of living on food stamps as a kid, though I did, briefly. I've never had to worry I'd go hungry, and nobody in this country should either. Although, living in NYC makes it hard to plan to eat home (or stick to a budget) all the time, I think it's a good idea to cook something big at least once a week, leaving you leftovers that can be repurposed for another meal or two. I'd do it even if I didn't like to stay home and cook in my free time.

There are tons of resources online to finding budget-friendly meal ideas. And, I'd be amiss if I didn't give a shout-out to Cathy Erway's blog, Not Eating Out in NY, as a resource for recipes and the cost-breakdown of how much it costs per person to make each dish, which will blow your mind, especially if you're used to buying your meals out. This Sunday, I set out to make something that would be cost-conscious and healthy, and last for another meal since I wasn't feeding the proverbial family of four - in my case it's often neighbors and one demanding Chihuahua. I made a Spanakopita, aka Spinach Pie, because it's one of my favorite comfort foods that includes vegetables. It keeps for a couple of days, and all the ingredients are available in any grocery store. I lowered the feta amount, because feta isn't that affordable, and mixed in ricotta which stretches further for your dollar. Plus the leftover ricotta can be used in another dish (Lemon-Ricotta pancakes is what I might do with it). Lastly, the basic recipe, for a baked "pie" wrapped in phyllo dough can be stuffed with so many things - leftover shredded chicken, or other veggies. I hope this post will accomplish three things: 1) Get you to sign the Share Our Strength Petition to support anti-hunger laws; 2) encourage you to cook something at home; and 3) realize that not all food bloggers eat fresh pasta with truffles and artisinal ice cream all of the time. Well, in truth, this blogger might be eating fancy ice cream, but I'm still working on that budget thing.

Spinach Pie - filling

Spinach Pie squared

Spanakopita Adapted from Modern Greek, by Andy Harris

1 package phyllo dough, defrosted Olive oil or melted butter Filling: 2lbs. fresh spinach (frozen could work too) 8 green onions (or 2 small yellow onions) 1 glove of garlic minced 1 tablespoon of olive oil Dill, or a mix of dill and parsley 1 package of feta cheese (mine was 7 oz) 1/2 cup ricotta cheese 2 eggs, beaten 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)

Prep the filling: Wash the spinach, and blanch in boiling water for 20-30 seconds until it slightly wilts. Immediately rinse with cold water to stop the cooking, and leave in a colander to drain well.

Chop the onions and garlic and sauté in tablespoon of olive oil until a starting to soften, about 3-4 minutes. Combine in a bowl with chopped herbs, eggs, cheeses and seasoning. Squeeze any remaining water in the spinach out before adding to the bowl. Mix all to combine.

Assemble the pie: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare the phyllo dough according to the package (normally bringing it to room temperature, and keeping it covered with a damp towel while you work). Take any deep pan you want to use (I used a square 9 inch, but you can use anything as long as it has sides), and start to layer the phyllo dough in the bottom. Cut the phyllo a little bigger than the size of your pan, if you want to fold it over the top, otherwise cut to size (I use the overhang method so the filling doesn't escape). Brush the bottom of the pan with a small bit of olive oil, and continue to brush each layer with a little olive oil to coat. If you use too much it'll be greasy. Be really gentle, the dough tears easily. If it tears, just layer another scrap over it. Do about 6-8 sheets for the bottom layer.

Pour the filling in, and spread evenly around the pan. Repeat the layers for the top, and fold over any that you had from the bottom layer. Sprinkle water on the top to prevent burning, or brush with milk. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until golden. Let cool before cutting.

A Place at the Table premiered on March 1st, 2013.  You should watch A Place at the Table, to better understand the problem, and why we need to push for legislation that will subsidize the things we should be eating, not those that we shouldn't, so that everyone can have access to healthy food. It's available for download at any of these sites:

Amazon: http://amzn.to/ZVvEPk OnDemand: http://on.fb.me/XbxtaC Google Play: http://bit.ly/10XSwAG iTunes: http://bit.ly/APATTiTunes

SNAP—the nation’s food stamp program—is at risk for severe cuts that would impact millions of families, especially children, that rely on school meals and food stamps to survive. In response to the film, the country's leading anti-hunger organizations, Share Our Strength, Bread for the World, Feeding America, and The Food and Research Action Center, are asking supporters to help spread the word.

Private sector programs and charities aren’t enough. The only sustainable solution is for government policies to change, so we must make our voices heard.

Please take a moment today to tell Congress to support anti-hunger legislation by signing this petition that the folks at Share Our Strength are introducing to protect Federal Nutrition programs for kids.

 

Pink grapefruit to keep your cheeks rosy

Grapefruit Yogurt CakeIt's that time of year when an extra dose of Vitamin C is needed. Flu epidemics, coughing, sneezing people on crowded subways, and bleak weather are just some of the facts of life during February in New York City. That, and the beautiful yellow-green undertone in my face. I need sunny things, bright colors, and bracing flavors but not another roasted root vegetable. This is why I crave citrus at this time of year. Citrus in the form of food. A glass of OJ doesn't cut it. I want citrus salads, citrus desserts and most recently citrus-flavored cocktails. When I was a kid, one of my Floridian great-aunts used to send up a package of pink grapefruits every winter. I didn't appreciate it at the time, thinking then that grapefruits were too sour to be edible, but the thought of a package of grapefruit arriving at my door now seems like the best mail you could find, unless of course that package also included a plane ticket to somewhere warm. To hold me over another month or two,  cooking food that evokes warm weather (tacos anyone?) and eating bold flavors (acidic, spicy, pickled to name a few)  is the only thing I can do to keep my taste buds from sinking into hibernation for good. One easy baked good that I make fairly regularly when my Grandma comes for lunch is a simple yogurt cake (aka Gâteau au yaourt that I found on Foodbeam's original blog ages ago) but doused with pink grapefruit juice and flecked with grapefruit zest. You can use any citrus you like, but pink grapefruit is unexpected, and sweet, and tart at the same time. It also smells divine. Before you serve it, pinch your cheeks for an added glow of health. Grandma-ma will approve, even if she tells you, you need a haircut.

Pink Grapefruit Cake From Foodbeam.com 1/2 cup 2% or full-fat yogurt (I use Fage) 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder pinch of salt 1 1/8 cup sugar 3/8 cup vegetable oil (1/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons) 3 eggs Zest and juice of 1 ripe Pink Grapefruit

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Prep an 8-9 inch pan with parchment (can use a bundt pan but cake won't be that high). Mix yogurt through sugar in a bowl. Mix in oil, eggs and zest until thoroughly incorporated. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake cake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Flip the cake out of the pan onto a platter and drench with reserved grapefruit juice. (The cake will be very moist, and continue to soak up juice as it cools).

 

New Amsterdam Market trip

One of the most unique food markets around is the New Amsterdam Market, downtown where the old Fulton Fish Market used to be in Lower Manhattan. Besides the history of food markets in this area, this isn't really your standard farmer's market (there are only a few produce stands) but more of a local food business market. The market is held every Sunday, and often has a theme for that week. Two weeks ago when I visited, it was Slow Food NYC's Slow Food Show. This coming Sunday they will have the author of Four Fish, Paul Greenberg signing copies of his book, and a dozen local fish vendors.

Most real New Yorkers know that the South Street Seaport is a bit of a tourist waste-land, pretty but also pretty useless. It's always seemed like such a waste to me to have one of the few well-preserved neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan serve as home to Pizzeria Uno and Abercrombie, but that's the way it's been for as long as I can remember. When the fish market departed, the awful stench that used to greet visitors as they walked down Fulton Street disappeared, but so did a real purpose for the area. With the exception of a little maritime museum and the historic boats you can visit on school trips (the only time I ever went), it needed another purpose.

That's exactly why I think that N.A.M's vision for this area is really exciting, and they're looking for supporters and volunteers (hint, hint). There are lots of vendors that are also at the many other spots around town (Luke's Lobster, Blue Bottle Coffee, Liddabit Sweets, King's County Jerky and more) but there are also other weekly rotating vendors you may have never seen, such as Hudson Valley Harvest  and Morris Kitchen, who were both part of the Slow Food Show, that I discovered on my last visit.

Definitely make an afternoon out of visiting this market, and supporting a little market that has big plans to improve an entire neighborhood. There is only one more market day left in 2011, and that's tomorrow, Sunday December 18 (did I mention the dozen local fisheries?!). You should go now before you'll be braving serious winter weather to check it out in early 2012.

Give Back Friday

I have two traditions that I keep year after year on Thanksgiving weekend. One is baking a homemade pumpkin pie, and eating it for days after the holiday. And the second is making sure to donate to a hunger-related charity at some point during a holiday weekend in honor of food. I know that many people take a moment to be grateful for what they have, and I think that's great. But, I think we can all do better than that. There are even people that go the extra mile and volunteer in a soup kitchen, but that's not feasible for everybody. This is one time that logging on to a website and posting a $25 donation isn't a lazy form of support. It's exactly what you should be doing in between online shopping, wish list making, and eating leftovers. There are so many charities to choose from locally and nationally. In NY, I normally donate to Meals-on-Wheels, or the Foodbank of NYC. But if you're not sure where best to donate, you can always check CharityWatch or Feeding America for suggestions and a rating system on good organizations devoted to hunger issues around the country. It's something small that everyone can do between other less-than-ideal traditions such as, stampeding chain box stores and gorging themselves on food till they fall asleep. Feeling grateful for all that you have shouldn't end with navel-gazing at how content you are with your own life, but really extend into giving back just a little, because people going hungry in this country does not have to happen.

Lucid Food at my local library

IMG_1121.JPGOne morning I was on Twitter when I saw Louisa Shafia mention an event she was doing that afternoon to help support the Brooklyn Public Library. Louisa is the author of Lucid Food, a phenomenal cookbook specializing in local foods and seasonal eating. The recipes are all accessible to cooks of any level. I had known about her cookbook for awhile, but I had never picked up a copy, having borrowed one from the library in an effort to curtail my cookbook buying addiction. After learning that we share a local library (the same one from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn!), and that she'd be doing a demo sharing her knowledge of cooking with farmer's market ingredients, I was in. Going to the library to talk vegetables was suddenly more exciting than I could have possibly imagined. DSCN0965.JPG Louisa came armed with samples of all her favorite seasonal ingredients currently available at the greenmarket that we passed around, smelled, and tasted when possible. I realized there are a lot of leafy greens I have been skipping right over at the market. Hello sorrel, how have I been ignoring you all this time?! They sell locally grown Shiso leaves in Union Square? I guess I was going, but falling into the trap that she mentioned, just going straight for my favorite (safe) foods, without really seeing the bounty of what was available.

When faced with a new vegetable she said you can always ask the vendors for cooking suggestions. About 99% of the time, someone will suggest to saute it with butter or olive oil and garlic. And, truth be told, when doesn't that work? It reminded me that, I don't need a recipe in mind to buy something I've never cooked before. In fact, later that week, I (finally) had the courage to try cooking the radish greens that I had been shamefully discarding. As a child I was utterly disgusted by leafy greens, but I've been working hard to get over that fear even if I find it subconsciously influences my cooking from time to time. I'm pretty much cured at this point, happily eating spinach, all types of chard, kale and...now radish greens! Seriously, they were so much more flavorful than I expected. And, yes, I sauteed them in olive oil with garlic, onion, and lots of salt and pepper. Proof here.

Louisa gave so many wonderful tips about the ingredients in season right now that, I've listed the highlights for you at the bottom of the post. To really learn all she knows, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Lucid Food. As all my trips to the library end, I came out a bit smarter than I went in...and this time with an arm full of recipes to try. She encouraged all of us to force ourselves to explore at the market, and I've been heading her advice every week since. IMG_1120.JPG

Summer produce to try

Shiso Leaves - release the aroma by rubbing the leaves. Sometimes called Beefstake plant. Use to add a meaty flavor to dishes. Throw them in at the end of cooking, like an herb.

Garlic Scapes - they are the green end of the garlic head. Great pickled. (I like using them to make a pesto.)

New Young Garlic - sweeter than older garlic found in the supermarket. You can use the whole long stem like a leek. (I had no idea!)

Thai Basil - used in South Asian dishes, super fragrant. Combines well with mint. Try it in a stir-fry, or summer rolls.

Sorrel - used to be more popular. It's flavor is sour and lemon-y. Will add a lemon flavor to dishes, great with shrimp, and you can make soup out of it.

Rhubarb - little too late right now for this, but when you find it, use it in sweet (compotes or pies) or savory dishes, such as paired with a fatty meat. Don't eat the leaves, they are toxic. Contains lots of Vitamin C.

Baby Beets - sweeter and more tender than larger ones. Leaves are delicious too, if cooked like spinach. Try them in a salad, sliced thin. Lucidfood.com has a beet burger recipe.

Fava Beans - have to take seeds out of the pod, boil them for 10 minutes, then pull the membrane off. Grill them whole, or puree them like a hummus. (Note: these may be gone by now - check your market).

Sugar Snap Peas - great raw for a snack. Slice them thin for a salad.

Avocado Zucchini - it's a type of zucchini shaped more like an avocado. Contains less water content than the usual variety.

Chickpea Salad - Picnic posts

Chickpea Salad

It's officially summer. Summer makes me think of picnic-ing in the park, reading a book by the beach and running after the ice cream truck when I was a kid. That's my idealized summer. In reality, summer for most of us still means going to work even if it's gorgeous out, and squeezing in some outdoor time during the week. I love the concept of picnics but the closest I've come to one this year, was last week when I bought a taco from the Endless Summer truck and ate it sitting down by the parking lot around the corner. That's why I'm going to do a series of posts this summer on perfect picnic food. Hopefully to encourage you, and me, to plan some meals in the great outdoors, or at least near a tree. I made this little salad one night when it was too humid to think about using the stove and I had a lot of leftovers from the mixed greens salad I made for dinner. I threw this together thinking it would benefit from a night in the fridge and I'd have another lunch (or dinner) without cooking. It worked. I decided to make this my first post in the picnic series, because even though it's not novel, it's easy and hearty, no need to cook pasta or another grain. It's the type of salad that you can and should dress the night before. It's an all-in-one package picnic food, no need for separate bottles of salad dressing or a knife. Unless you're the type that has a wicker basket, and a wine glass holder for the grass (I've seen this in person), unfussy food is the only food you should picnic with. And, if you are that person, here's hoping the cops arrest you for so unabashedly drinking in the park.

Chickpea Salad

Make this the night before or at least a couple of hours for the flavors to combine.

1 can of chickpeas

1/2 of a large red bell pepper, diced

1/2 of a red onion, diced fine

1 garlic clove, minced

Large handful of cilantro or parsley, chopped

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/2-1 teaspoon cumin (or to taste)

Drizzle of honey

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and Pepper to taste

Juice of 1/2 lime before serving

Rinse the chickpeas well and place in a large bowl. Set aside. Meanwhile boil 1 cup of water. Place chopped onion and garlic in a small bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Let sit for 1 minute to mellow out the raw onion, garlic taste. Strain.

Combine chickpeas with the chopped red pepper, onion, garlic, and cilantro. Next make the vinaigrette by combining the vinegar, cumin and honey in a bowl. Whisk as you pour in the olive oil to emulsify. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour over the salad and toss well. Taste again to see if it needs more salt. Before serving, squeeze half a lime over it to brighten the flavors a bit.

Smorgasburg Saturdays

Liza Queen's Danh Tu StandI went this past Saturday to visit the new food-only market from the Brooklyn Flea that opened about five blocks from my apartment. I went by to take it all in, survey the options, and try Liza Queen's offerings. I had read all about her years ago when she was running the Queen's Hideaway in Greenpoint, but unfortunately it closed before I had a chance to eat there. Now, that she was back in Brooklyn cooking Vietnamese, I amazed myself by resisting the mac-and-cheese stand right next to hers, and stuck to my plan. Radish stand The market is one part prepared food stands, one part Greenmarket, so after you eat lunch you can grab a pint of strawberries or a bunch of rhubarb on your way home. I love the idea of combining these two things in one place. It's also in a giant lot on the Williamsburg waterfront, where you can take your food to the park next to it and sit and stare at the skyline along the East River while you polish off your meal. Mimi&Coco

MarketShare

Gazpacho stand!

PeanutButterJellified and ScratchBread stands

There were way too many things to sample in one trip. I plan on heading over to Smorgasburg every Saturday I am in the city this summer, where I will try to find a new dish or product to highlight for you. This is a really exciting market. Go hungry.

Switzel Stand

Reasons to drink Switzel

Highlights this trip:

I ate a refreshing Vietnamese cold noodle dish: Bun Thit Nuong at Danh Tu

I sampled some delicious local oatmeal: Ultimate Organic from Farm to Table

I purchased my favorite artisan jerky: Korean Beef - Kings County Jerky Co.

I learned about the health benefits of a Switzel: Black Tea Switzel at City'Lasses

Let me know your favorites as I can't wait to go back and try many more. Word of caution, mid-day this place is packed. Do not try to take photos, stand in line for ice cream and eat your last purchase all at the same time.

Green tea madeleines and the power of sweets

bakesaleforjapanLast Saturday's Bakesale for Japan was a huge success. It took place in cities around the country and together we raised a lot of money. A lot. Like $124,000 lot. I have always believed in the power of sugary goods.

This is just a quick update to let you know what a success this sale was. Our NYC organizers (Lillian and Celia) did an amazing job, and nationally this sale accomplished what it set out to do, raise some serious money to help with disaster relief efforts in Japan. NYC raised $4644 dollars alone. Not too shabby. Too bad NYC has banned bake sales in public schools, especially when they can really be a great way to raise money and get kids and parents into the kitchen. DSCN0901.JPG I'm sharing the recipe for these Green Tea Madeleines, because they're my new favorite madeleine flavor. They're pretty much the same recipe as the Strawberry Madeleines I made last year for Mother's Day, but using matcha powder instead of strawberry jam. I prefer the flavor of the green tea ones a little better, and they're perfect for people who don't like very sweet baked goods. Now all I need is an ice cream maker to put the rest of my matcha powder to good use...

Green tea madeleines

Green Tea Madeleines

2 eggs 2/3 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1 teaspoon - 1 1/2 teaspoons matcha powder pinch of salt 1 cup of all-purpose flour 10 tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour madeleine pans well.

Melt butter and set aside to cool. Beat eggs and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer till blended. Beat in vanilla, 1 teaspoon matcha powder, and salt. Add additional half teaspoon of matcha till batter is desired color. Add flour and beat until just blended.

Gradually add cooled melted butter to mixture, beating until just blended.

Spoon one tablespoon (or teaspoon if making mini-sized) of batter into each cake shell. Bake until puffed and edges are lightly golden, about 12-15 minutes (4-5 minutes for mini-pan). Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then remove from the pan and finishing cooling on a wire rack.

Bake for Japan NYC

This Saturday, I will be donating baked goods for the NYC support of Bake for Japan, a sale that is happening in cities all over the country to help raise funds for Peace Winds, a disaster relief charity. The sale will be held at the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene.

If you cannot make it out to the Brooklyn Flea this weekend, or have friends that would like to make monetary donations to Peace Winds Japan, please direct them to this page at FirstGiving.  It is the page that is set up to collect the funds from the Bake Sales as well as for anyone who'd like to donate but cannot make it to any of the sales.  100% of the funds will be funneled through to Peace Winds Japan. For more on Peace Winds Japan, or the Peace Winds America, here is where you can read more about these NGOs disaster relief efforts. Also check out Lillian's sale page for an updated listing of all those bakeries and bloggers donating to the sale.

This weekend, the Brooklyn Flea will be moving back outdoors to its Fort Greene location. Come hungry, there will be a lot of sweet buys, including my green tea madeleines.

Donut crawls - hard work on a Saturday morning

Bacon doughnuts I went last Saturday to find out where the best donuts are in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. It was a donut crawl organized by Nicole Taylor, from Hot Grease on the Heritage Radio Network via Twitter, where I've met most of my favorite food-working and food-loving people. It was perfect timing coming on the heels of the New York Times Dining Section's round-up of doughnut shops around NYC. The slide show alone was enough to make even the most diligent dieter reconsider a ban on fried, glazed dough as an acceptable breakfast. We hit up some of the highlights in the Times' article, but also several more. All in all four official stops with a fifth stop for a much needed salty brunch at a restaurant that also happened to offer homemade maple-dipped doughnut bites with crumbled bacon on top. Life's tough.

I highly recommend you and at least 2 friends take this tour, especially if you pride yourself on being able to eat a lot of doughnuts. It was harder than I had imagined. Even with sharing in an effort to maximize the flavors you could sample while saving room for the next stop, a sugar coma loomed near. We took the train between each shop which helped a little bit to work up an appetite on the way to the next one. Here's a few photos (they get blurrier at the later stops, I'll blame it on the sugar) from each of the four doughnut shops on our tour.

Discover Donuts

If I had to pick favorites, I'd be torn as they were all so different. I loved loved Dough, our first stop, both because the doughnuts are gorgeous visually, and wonderfully dough-y, the way I like my doughnuts. The second stop, Peter Pan, which I have gone to numerous times, wins for old-school ambience hands down. I love that this place still exists, even if the cake donuts and crullers are more my Grandpa's thing. The third stop, Doughnut Plant would win the award for novelty and probably have to tie with Dough for flavor. These things are seriously delicious. Lastly, Babycakes would win the award for coolest place to take an out-of town guest (or obviously someone who's vegan). It's on a hip street, the inside has a cutesy-retro vibe, and even the clientele are too cool. While we stood there was mostly fashionista/model types (i wonder if they think gluten-free means low-fat?) and one super cool old lady in a turban sitting and eating her gluten-free, vegan treat.

Sorry, I guess you'll have to go to all 4 of them. And, if you find yourself in Williamsburg, give me a call and we can grab brunch at the 5th spot, Traif, where we'll definitely order maple-bacon doughnuts to start the day. Big thanks to Nicole for organizing and Adrian Franks for making the poster. #DiscoverDonuts

The #DiscoverDonuts Tweetup Itinerary Dough - 305 Franklin Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11205 Peter Pan Donut & Pastry - 727 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11222 Doughnut Plant - 379 Grand Street, NY, NY 10002 Babycakes - 248 Broome Street, NY, NY 10002 Traif - 229 S. 4th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211

Valentine's day - Red velvet cupcakes

Valentine's day came and went once more without that fancy box of chocolates. I'm not complaining. It maybe worth noting I like chocolate more than anyone else I know, and somehow the only time I've ever received chocolates on Valentine's Day, I had to specifically request them. I think the words were, "you better not come home without a box of chocolates this year". I could be bitter, but I'm not. Instead, I've found the next best solution. I bake whatever I think feels festive to celebrate the holiday, and than go buy myself my own chocolates post-Valentine's Day for half-off.

I understand that men who don't eat chocolate may not know where to go. I do, really. I'm older and wiser now, and have accepted that some men just can't manage to google "top chocolate stores in nyc" to find an answer in less than 30 seconds. It would be unrealistic to expect them to try and research it. I realized I was setting myself up for disappointment because I assumed guys understand that most women wouldn't walk into a chocolate store and buy themselves a box of truffles without a reason, at least from March through January. It seems guys have been pre-programmed to think that flowers from the corner store is sufficient. And, it is. Especially, if you agree that women of NYC need to lower their (my) expectations, as the writer of this Village Voice article suggests to find love. Truthfully, I'm happy that I get anything at all, because it is the thought that counts. That, and it beats the year I got stood up by another single girlfriend.

Actually this year, I spent a very fulfilling night on Valentine's Eve, and the next morning (get your mind out of the gutter), baking my festive treat of choice, red velvet cupcakes. It's the kind of sweet you need a reason to bake, and this seemed like the holiday for something red and decadent. I have to admit that watching the batter swirl around in the mixer till it turns a deep red is almost more fun that eating it. Every time I've made a batch, the color seems so vibrant and bright, but then it turns a bit more muted once baked. Next time, I'm really going to up the red so that the color of the finished product is every bit as bright as the pre-baked version. I'm aiming for a color similar to the one Pinch My Salt's version achieves with a whopping two bottles of red food coloring! I used a tablespoon which seems very skimpy in comparison.

A note about authenticity - there are many schools of thought on what makes a true red velvet cake, and being Southern in origin, of course there are some strong opinions on what is needed in the recipe. In case you missed it, Nicole Taylor, who's the fabulous host of Hot Grease on Heritage Radio Network, recently discussed the key ingredients to a true Southern red velvet. (The essentials are highlighted in this article by Brooklyn Food activist Adriana Velez). I wish I had found it before I set out to make mine this year. Although, this version is close enough to authentic to please, but not so exact that a good Southern cook wouldn't find room for improvement. Come to think of it, that's the way I like my Valentine's to be, thoughtful and sweet, but not so perfect that it ruins the excitement for the coming year. I'll always hope maybe next year there will be chocolate.

Red Velvet Cupcakes Cream cheese frosting is essential on these.

1 3/4 cup flour 2 1/4 teaspoon baking powder pinch of salt 1/8 cup cocoa powder 1 1/2 cup sugar 3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened 2 eggs 1 tablespoon red food coloring (add more for a brighter color) 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 cup buttermilk 1 teaspoon white vinegar 1/4 teaspoon baking soda Cream cheese frosting to top (your favorite recipe)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line muffin tins with paper liners (makes approx. 18 cupcakes).

Sift flour, baking powder, pinch of salt and cocoa. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer or stand mixer, beat sugar and butter until smooth. Beat in eggs, one at a time, then food coloring, then vanilla. Mix in dry ingredients in 3 batches, alternating with 2/3 cup buttermilk in 2 additions.

Make a well in center, pour remaining 1/3 cup buttermilk, vinegar and baking soda in center. When you see little bubbles, stir into the batter.

Pour batter into muffin tins and bake about 20 minutes. Cool 10 minutes and then transfer to a rack to cool completely before frosting.

Smoky sweet chipotle cornbread

picnikfile_yHLC8o Today is Superbowl Sunday, and while I confess to only recently accepting that Sundays are were for football watching, I've always been into the Superbowl, for what else? The food. I've progressed (just a little) since college when it was dips and Chex mix that I offered up. The last few years, I've been fortunate enough to watch at friends' houses where their tvs are bigger than mine, and their homemade pizzas or 5 gallon pots of chili are too good to compete with. So, that's why I decided to share with you my recipe for not chili, but cornbread, the perfect partner to chili. Despite this, it is often the overlooked dried-out bore that most people will happily pass over. This version is different, and best of all you'll actually want to eat the leftovers the next morning when you wake up feeling sick from too much wings and beer from the night before.

If you can, I'd suggest trying to find some coarse-ground cornmeal at the greenmarkets. Around the NYC area, there are quite a few farms reviving the local grains options. Here's a list of regulars at the greenmarkets, (check for the Cayuga brand too). Of course, a high-quality supermarket brand will work as well, just look for one that is stone-ground, which means that some of the hull and germ has been left in, which equals better nutritional value and flavor.

This cornbread is moist without being heavy thanks to the use of buttermilk, and is sweet but not cloyingly so. The sweetness really works nicely with the smoky flavor that a small amount of chipotles (the chipotles in adobo kind) diced up will add. You can of course, use jalapenos if you'd prefer. Or, do as I did, and make a double-batch, one half with chipotles, one half with jalapenos. I guarantee the leftovers will not go to waste, and that's the only thing I'll be waging a bet on tonight.

Smoky Sweet Chipotle Cornbread Adapted from Allrecipes.com. This recipe would work great as mini-muffins if you'd rather serve them that way. Just drop the baking time to 15-20 minutes. Serve any leftovers warm with a drizzle of honey for breakfast (or dessert). It also can be easily doubled for a crowd.

1/2 cup unsalted butter 1/2 cup sugar 2 eggs 1 cup buttermilk 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1 cup cornmeal 1 cup all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 chipotles in adobo, diced finely

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease your 8 inch baking pan (or 13x9x2 inch pan, if doubled), or muffin tins.

Melt the butter in the microwave, or in a small pot. While butter is melting, sift together the cornmeal, flour and salt. Set aside.

Place sugar in a large mixing bowl and pour in melted butter and stir together. Add eggs quickly mixing till smooth. Measure out buttermilk and mix baking soda into it before adding it to the batter. Add to the bowl and stir. Add sifted flour mixture to batter and fold in till completely incorporated. Add chopped chipotles and mix till distributed throughout.

Pour batter into prepared baking pan and bake about 30 minutes. Set on a rack to cool before cutting into squares.

Spekkoek means "spice cake you should eat this holiday" in Dutch

As you leave for your holiday vacations, and make a mental list of all the goodies you might bake for a big Christmas feast, or to give out to friends and neighbors, I suggest you make room for spice cake on your list. It's better than fruitcake, it's less work than cookies, and it smells more festive than a pine-tree scented candle that someone re-gifted to you. You can even get fancy with it and bake it in lots of different layers, if you are so inclined, as the original version of this Dutch by way of Indonesia cake is sometimes made. You can make mini-ones for easy gifting, or pour the whole batter into a bundt pan, as I did, and than go do something else, like watch It's a Wonderful Life for the twentieth time.

Traditionally baked in many, many, layers it is often visually impressive. Click here and here for examples of how cool it can look if you want to spend the time. But, the thousand layer presentation is not my reason for posting this cake for you, it's simply the ease of it compared to the countless hours that you can spend decorating holiday cookies. If you're feelings time-pressured, or you happen to be short decorating elves, as I am, this might be a good alternative to the usual cookie sweatshop that I turned my kitchen into last year. Don't get me wrong, I loooove holiday cookie baking, and as I write this I'm still considering how many types I will eventually end of baking. But, this year, for my initial baking tasks, I went with a cake, after a conversation with a friend about what a time-savor it could be. Most importantly, spice cake belongs at the holidays. It's got that holiday smell of cinnamon and nutmeg, and it's not too too sweet for those scrooge types who don't appreciate sweets. I found this recipe a few years back on Leite's Culinaria and have made it once a year every year since because everyone who tastes it seems to approve heartily. It has a perfect light texture, and really could be made in a tube pan, a more decorative bundt pan, or mini loaf pans. I hope you give it a try, and I hope you have a wonderful holiday filled with all matters of sweet things.

photo.jpg

Spekkoek Adapted from James Oseland, Cradle of Flavor. If you choose to make it in mini-loaf pans, I'd adjust the baking time to 30-40 minutes depending on your oven, checking it at the 30 minute mark.

2 cups sifted cake flour (or 2 cups minus 4 Tbsp of all-purpose flour) 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves or allspice (depending on your taste preferences) 4 teaspoons cinnamon Pinch of salt 1 1/2 cup butter (at room temperature) 1 2/3 cup sugar 4 eggs (room temperature) 3 egg yolks 2 teaspoons vanilla Powdered sugar to decorate

Take your butter and eggs out and let them come to room temperature. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit and grease and flour a bundt pan (unless you have a non-stick one).

Sift the flour, baking powder, spices (nutmeg - cinnamon) and salt. Sift twice.

With an electric mixer cream the butter until very soft, then slowly add sugar. Beat on high for 5 minutes until mixture is pale and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time and beat for another 2 minutes. Add flour mixture in 3 parts beating on low until well incorporated. Add eggs yolks and vanilla. Mix until combined.

Pour cake into bundt pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour. To make sure it's done, test to make sure toothpick comes out clean from thick part of the cake.

Let cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes before flipping out of the pan onto a plate. Let cool completely and then dust the top with powdered sugar.

The Hanukkah post that wasn't

"moto at hanukkah"Hanukkah officially ended yesterday. Eight days of blissful fried food eating and staring at the blurry burning candles as you sink into a food coma. I enjoyed it. I ate a heck of a lot of fried food. I'll admit I'm not a big fan of Hanukkah menus and the ways they try to create a table of exotic flavors, that frankly I have never once seen at a Hanukkah party. They seem phony. Maybe I need to know more Jews from Morocco. I didn't even think of trying to create one. As for what I did fry up this year -

I finally got around to trying a Potato Nik, in place of a million little potato latkes (pancakes) from the New York Times. It was easy and delicious. I'm going to make this more in the future, even if it's not Hanukkah. It's addictive the way a Spanish tortilla is. It's very similar to a Swiss Rösti. Yum. I had some flipping problems and it wasn't a beauty, but it still tasted good. I made some quick homemade apple sauce to serve with it. If you weren't aware that homemade applesauce is a million times better than the stuff in the jars, I'm posting the recipe below.

The other dish was more ambitious and was intended to be a post here. It started when I picked up a gorgeous orange-skinned kabocha squash (seriously I used it instead of flowers for a few days on the kitchen table) at the Farmer's Market. I intended to try a Japanese recipe for Pumpkin Croquettes, basically kabocha squash cooked and mashed and breaded in panko. It seemed festive thanks to the color and it was fried for the holiday, and it incorporated one of my favorite cuisines. Success, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. Either Harry Hanukkah hates me this year, or I don't have any idea how one would take mashed kabocha and attempt to roll it into croquettes for breading. It was watery, which is strange cause I had read that kabocha squash was known to be just the opposite. It was a mushy mess in my hands as I added more, and more, flour hoping to get it to hold its shape. I considered photographing it for anyone reading this to get a good laugh, but my fingers were so covered with orange goo that picking up the camera to shoot this bowl of watery mash seemed even more ridiculous.

I tell you all this cause I had almost forgot about this kind of epic kitchen failure. It thankfully had been that long. But, in the end it was not salvageable, and neither was my enthusiasm for frying anything again. At least for a little bit. Please send me words of wisdom if you know what I did wrong. Looking ahead, the end of the festival of lights means I'm on to other holiday desserts and other festive foods that do not involve squash. If you celebrated Hanukkah, I hope you had a happy, healthy and kitchen mishap-free one.

Potato Nik Reprinted from NY Times. Serve with applesauce and/or sour cream.

Applesauce Take 3-4 apples, tart are preferred, but sweet ones are fine too, the sauce will just be sweeter. Peel them, and core them and cut into big chunks. Place in a pot or a microwaveable bowl. Add sprinkling of sugar if they are sweet apples and up to a teaspoon or two if they're tart. Cook until they appear soft (or microwave for 5 minutes) and can be mashed to your desired consistency. At this point add a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg if you'd like, and cook another 2 minutes. Easy, peasy.