Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Sunday, December 13, 2009

This is How You Eat

This week I created a survey based on culinary Top Threes- homemade dinners, desserts, breakfasts, childhood foods, and so on- and sent it to several dozen of my faithful friends. I was giving them the privilege of acting as representatives of the under-appreciated twenty-something-year-old demographic who in my opinion lives in a culinary limbo. We are too poor to have access to ingredients more expensive or exotic than the occasional steak (usually paid for by our parents anyway) but who have shed the simple tastes and invincible (or useless, in the case of D and myself) teenage metabolisms that made several weekly trips to Wendy's OK. A handful of this underrepresented demographic replied, making me realize that their under-representation is probably self-induced since most moaned about how they don't like thinking. But they were good enough to answer and their answers will become the basis for my case study in the changes in gastronomic preferences of a generation in transition. Big words!

Almost all my subjects are New York based, which does influence their responses for a number of reasons: seasonal and local availability of ingredients, NYC as culinary mecca, NYC as prohibitively expensive, distance from family. My friends who replied also had very varied backgrounds: Colombian, Mexican, Guyanese, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Libyan, white. Despite the difference there are a number of patterns that emerged which I will go on to analyze because its Sunday and I really have nothing better to do.

What we can feel good about, though, meaning us NYC-dwelling 20-something-year-olds, is that we still honor our food traditions but our diets have progressively gotten better. We may actually avoid becoming fat like our parents. Here's why (don't worry, I'm only going to list the more interesting sections):

Homemade Dinners:

"Some kind of pasta with marinara sauce."
"any kind of pasta"
"pasta, chicken, vegetable"
"grilled chicken (maybe with a side of broccoli, probably not)"

If you're going to invest in anything this year make it either chicken, pasta, or vegetables. Rice came at a close second as did soup. There were a handful of anomalies, more complex dishes like tagine, stuffed pepper, and other mostly North African dishes or simple Chinese fare like tofu and vegetables.

Dinner Ordered or Eaten Out:

Asian food was overwhelming mentioned, from Chinese, Thai, Indian to specifics like veggie lo mein and sushi. Pizza and burgers were in second place followed by the word occassionally. Most of these people even hold gym memberships. (That's right, none of my friends are fat.)


This category for reason confused some of my subjects. By top three some thought I meant four or more which they somehow turned into three by combining two things into one like "cheesecake/pie" or "cookies/brownies." Chocolate, cookies, cheesecake, and ice cream were the highest rated, with two practicing Communists saying they don't really care for desserts.

Blow-Out Feasts Eaten Out:

One word: Steak. Steakhouse, Outback, Churrascaria... the biggest blowout for my friends and I involves bloody, red meat. Second place went to Olive Garden and Max Brenner. Meals eaten abroad and paid for by someone else also came up which only confirms that if you're traveling and someone else is paying, you can eat as much as you want.


Christmas and Thanksgiving were prominent but what was interesting was how they specified that what made them special beyond just the food was the gathering itself with family or friends. Interesting because so many people hate these holidays for precisely that reason.

Most Hated Foods:

This was the Freak Show portion of the survey. The most mundane: Broccoli and cabbage. The most bizarre: sea urchin, bone marrow, chinese buffets, and "the Large Fish Eggs, the smaller ones I can live with on sushi because they blend in. but the big ones taste like suicide in your mouth." That's right, suicide in your mouth. An oddly common one was raw onion.

Guilty Pleasures:

We're still kids at heart:

"Peanut Butter Cups Sour Gummy candy Cookies!!!!! OH MY GOD YES"

"Ice cream with unlimited toppings ... like cookies, cereal, fruit, chocolate fudge all at the same time.. ON.. a hot brownie/chocolate cake"

"butter<--spreading too much of it on bread, cooking with it, baking with it, LOVING IT"

"the occasonal fast food dose. Like that time we went to McDonalds... Sometimes you just need a dose of gross."

One of the Communists left this section blank. Other notable items aside from the fast food and dessert orgams above were french fries, hostess cupcakes, and cheetohs. Mmmmm processed foods.

The last three sections all realte to each other as they prove three things:
  1. We are shedding college habits like fast food and hard liquor (with the exception of those who listed fast food as a guilty pleasure, which is still indicative of a reduction).
  2. We grew up on processed foods like pop tarts and slim jims which we don't eat anymore but which we remember fondly.
  3. There is a definitely vegetarian slant in what we have recently started eating with many vegetables like kale and brussel sprouts coming up and a sharp decline in meat.
I actually have to water down some of the self-congratulatory sentiment I felt when beginning this article. I was speaking to one of my friends/subjects while finishing this piece and celebrating in what good shape our generation is food-wise until he corrected: "at least the middle/upper class college educated generation." And sadly, that's the truth in a nutshell. My subjects are hardly a worthy sample of the whole of our generation and much less our country. Like I said, I don't have any fat friends and most live in NYC. Beyond simply being educated on better nutrition and eating habits we also have the resources to make those decisions. But then at the same time, considering what most of us earn per year, what's really missing in the decision-making process of the most of the nation is the inclination to make better food choices. I really hope Jamie Oliver and Mark Bittman can make this happen. Until then, keep up the good work, guys.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Recipes for the Ungodly Hours

This morning I woke up at 6 am and made soup. No, I wasn't particularly craving soup for breakfast, in fact I had a breakfast engagement at 8:30 in the city. So why on earth, you may ask, was I watching dawn light creep up over the cemetery trees while chopping onions and boiling squash?

I was making my lunch.

Since I lived in Spain with a mind for finances and the love of vegetables and cooking, I've been an early morning/late night cooker out of necessily. I've just as readily come home at 8:30pm and pulled out the chopping board when others would've pulled out the take out menu. I'm not trying to build myself up as some supernaturally powerful, sleep-dreprived home cook who hates herself. It's not like I'm baking a wedding cake before R gets up just for kicks.

My budget is, how should I say, limited, at best, and my ability to manage it is, let's see, um, inept. Because I like to cook and because I overbuy at the supermarket, I'm often forced, for lack of a better word, to put my pots and pans into high gear. Often I end up producing an inordinate amount of dishes to wash for only two people eating, but that's on the good nights-- when I get home early, make that quiche crust, boil those presoaked beans, or dice that half dozen vegetables. Usually I get home and my brain can't really process more information than chop onion, heat olive oil, add tomatoes... now what? And sometimes it one of those week when I fell asleep before I could make my lunch, there are no leftovers to pack, and I forgot to factor in the ConEd-Time Warner-National Grid bills before I bought those new gloves, that new hat, and that knife skills classes. So I have not choice but to make myself something for lunch, usually the morning of. And, sadly, PBJs have never quite cut it for me. Then again a I'm not going to try to make Cassoulet at 5 am on a Wednesday.

So for those days when I'm half-awake and armed with a chef's knife, I have a handful of simple, quick recipes for quick meals that are hot and/ or reheatable. Here are three of my more effective ones, which can be made at any time, one under an hour and two under half an hour.

Black Bean and Squash Soup

** This is why this dish is wonderful: its a filling lunch or dinner and its ready in under an hour, mostly unattended. The starchy, salty beans are balanced by the sweetness of the squash. The spices soften the flavor while also filling it out, making it almost earthy. The vinegar is almost imperceptible but gives it a nice kick. I made it this morning and had all of it.


- 1 can of black beans with liquid or 1 cup dried black beans, soaked overnight
- 1/2 butternut squash (can also use calabaza, acorn, or any other sweet squash), peeled, seeded, and cubed into 1 inch squares
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 leeks, chopped, or 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp coriander
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1 tbsp cider vinegar (optional)
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil

In a pot or crockpot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions and leeks or garlic and cook stirring until softened. Add oregano and allow to cook for another minute or so. Toss in the squash, cumin, and coriander. mixing all elements together. Cook for a few minutes, then add beans, salt and pepper, stir together. Pour chicken broth, stir in vinegar, and bring to a boil. When bubbling, cover and lower the heat. Simmer for half and hour to 40 minutes or until beans and squash are soft and squash is fragrant.


** This is a Libyan breakfast served throughout the Middle East. I made it for the first time with julienned green and red pepper and with cayenne rather than jalapeño. It was a recipe from a North African cookbook I own which, along with my half-Libyan friend Eissa and my friend Sam's Tunisian husband, opened my mind to what is now my new favorite food: North African food. Its spicy, flavorful, filling, from eggs in spicy tomato sauce to stuffed peppers to tangine, as of now anything that contains cumin, paprika, cayenne, or allspice is good in my book. This recipe is my favorite.


- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 jalapeño, seeded, cored, and chopped or cayenne to taste
- 1 can diced tomatoes with liquid
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 4 eggs
- 2-4 slices of bread, toasted
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

Heat olive oil in a skillet or pan with a lid. Add onions and jalapeño and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, paprika, and cumin and cook for a few more minutes until fragrant. Add tomatoes and water, stir, and bring to a soft boil. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, until sauce is slightly thick then stir in parsley. When ready, use a spoon to open 4 spaces in the sauce and crack an egg into each one. Cover and cook eggs until whites are set but yolk is still runny. Serve eggs with sauce over bread.

Curried Egg Salad

** I made this for our plane ride to Puerto Rico last week and they worked out really nicely. My favorite chutney to use with this is Beth Farm's Spicy Tomato Chutney available at the Union Square Farmer's Market. Its far tastier and more interesting than a regular egg salad or cold cuts sandwich and very filling. Probably my favorite sandwich.


- 2 pieces of bread, toasted (rye bread is particularly good for this)
- 2 eggs, hard boiled
- 1 tsp curry
- 1/2 tsp tumeric
- 1/4 tsp allspice
- 1/8 tsp cayenne
- 1/4 onion, chopped
- 1 tbsp mayo
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tomato, sliced, preferably roma (optional)
- Several leaves of spinach (optional)
- Chutney (recommended)

Spread chutney on one piece of bread. Crack hardboiled eggs and remove skin, crush the whites and yolk together with a fork. Add mayo, onion, and spices until it becomes a paste. Spread over bread without chutney. On top of egg salad, arrange tomato slices and spinach. Close the sandwich, wrap up, and get to work.

All pictures are from internet, not mine.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Home's Cooking

I'm getting the impression that the only culture that truly accepts vegetables as food and not seasoning for meat is the Indian culture and the liberal urban well-to-do hippie culture. And my cat, Tito. Or maybe I've decided to make a sweeping generalization because I've been living in a bubble of Hispanic and Middle-American culture for the past week. Or because I've frequently been attacked by some of my close friends (Mexican, Guyanese, Libyan, respectively) for proposing that meat, like cookies, is a "sometimes food." Or maybe its just them and my family who regard me as the vegetable-eating black sheep. Like my cat, Tito.

Circumstances have conspired against me, and high cholesterol or not, I've been in a meat-induced high for days. Texas was only different because my sister-in-law humored me and let me add some braised cabbage and a salad to the Thanksgiving menu.

Vegetables just aren't part of my family's gastronomic repertoire and they aren't really part of Puerto Rican culture's repertoire either. The Puerto Rican diet consists of fast food, plastic wrapped cookies from boxes, chips, meat, rice and beans, root vegetables like potato, yuca, calabasa, either fried or boiled, meat, bread, cold cuts, meat, some heavy pastas like lasagna or spaghetti bolognes, pasteles (which are like tamales made with plantains and meat), and did I mention meat? Now, don't get me wrong, Puerto Rican food is delicious, so delicious in fact that vegetables actually taste boring, even nasty, in comparison to its meaty, fatty goodness. Take my brother.

My younger brother, whose body is composed primarily of burgers, decided to try salad for the first time during Thanksgiving because he found a dressing that reminded him of the Sweet Onion sauce from Subway. He took one bite of spinach and tomato and spit it out immediately, swearing to never to eat salad again.   

Going back to my sweeping generalization, there is a cultural defensiveness that comes over people when you threaten their meat consumption. I'm obviously discarding from this equation vegetarians, Indian people, French people (the bastards), and anyone who has ever lived in New York or California. But most typical, traditional, family meals have some sort of meat at their center. I understand that urge to anchor down a plate with a protein.

Since I started eating meat again I've realized how nice, how complete a dinner feels when you can include some sort of well-seasoned, tender animal flesh along with your vegetables. I usually try to make due with just with cheese or eggs but nothing really beats the saltiness, the firm texture, and the fullness that comes with eating meat, be it chicken, red meat, pork, or fish. I mean, what plant could ever replace the sweet-salty-perfect flavor of bacon?

But above and beyond the physical addiction that the utter and thorough deliciousness of well-prepared meat created in the human brain and body, there is also an entitlement that comes down from as far back as the cave paintings where picture-stories about packs of men hunting of bison, mammoths, and tigers decorated stone walls. Consider the Greek and Roman orgies where the blood of cattle flowed or the simple peasant's sacrificial lamb offered up the gods then greedily consumed by the worshipper. Hindu and Christian fasting usually consists of abstinence from meat and alcohol, Muslim fasting culminates in massive, meaty feasts, and all holidays have an animal assigned to them.

Unfortunately, unlike the warring Greeks, the nomadic tribes of cavemen, or the peasants, physical labor has all but disappeared from daily life as medical science has ballooned over the decisions people make about what to eat. And medical science is under the constant assault of the industrialized meat industry and the stubbornness of traditions. Trandition and money met and as they say in Spanish, el amor y el interés fueron al campo un día... (love and private interests went to the country one day...)

As I learned from Michael Pollan, the meat industry lobbied long and hard against the discovery that doctors made several decades ago that over-consumption of meat was responsible for the number one cause of preventable death: heart disease. The meat lobbyist weren't buying it so they demanded the scientists boil it down to something they could work with. So the white coats determined that it was the fat in the meat that caused high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high rates of preventable death. The meat lobbyists thought it over, nodded, and went to press with the story: Fat is Evil! And so was born the fat-free industry. Everybody wins.

Well, guess what's fat free. That's right. Because of the lack of government subsidizing which make them expensive and their more complex flavors which make them challenging, vegetables need to step up their game in order to beat this iron-clad money-tradition meat combo. I propose a few ways to counter the meat monopoly over the gastronomic preferences of the world:

1) Visit New York with someone who has lived there. California works too.
2) Eat Indian food.
3) Pick one day a week to not eat meat.

This last one I'm stealing from a litany of food writers who are better versed than me on this subject. But the brilliance of this suggestions, beyond its obvious health and environmental benefits, it also creates the ideal scenario of invention by necessity. You can do as much and often more with vegetables than you can with meat. If you're looking for a starting point, create traditional meals with meat but add vegetables you've never tried or prepare vegetables you know in a way you're not used to. If you want to go a step further eliminate the meat from the center and make up for it with new dishes of vegetables (use cheese and eggs if you're scared). For the more adventurous I recommend experimentation with curry, cumin, cayenne, and tumeric. Once you go down this road, you'll never go back. The point? Just try new things.

Be like Tito.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Food Blogs

On Tuesday night my long-lost friend Lisa, who had been hiding in New Hampshire for two years and now works for a comedy agency, invited R and I to come along with her on assignment to Housing Works Bookshop's Tuesday night comedy show. Overall it was very good, a super funny line up and a surprise performance by Jim Gaffigan. The only joke I can remember, though, came from the least funny comedian in the show. He was talking about blogs and pointed out that almost everyone he knows has a food blog and how its the equivalent of telling someone that you're going to write about the restaurant you went to in a diary, take pictures of the food, stick them in the diary, then hang it out the window of your apartment so everyone can read it. For some reason everyone laughed, he was probably getting the residual laughs from Jim Gaffigan's set, so mostly we were laughing because we'd been laughing before, but the blog joke struck a chord with my little troupe for... obvious reasons. R and Lisa both looked at me smiling and I laughed along with them because if you show people you can make fun of yourself they like you. But really I was thinking, Sigh, it so f-ing true.

Since my discovery of food writing and subsequently the food blog culture, I've come to realize I'm paddling a small raft in a big ocean full of ocean liners, pirate ships, yachts, Coast Guard boats, abandoned kayaks, and runaway jet skiis, but aside from the wide-range of vehicles traversing these oceans you can't help but notice the sheer amount of boats. There is actually such a thing as foodblogblog.com, which serves as a directory exclusively for major food blogs run by professional writers and photographers. Then there's the little guys like me that simply want to obsess about food in hopes of somebody hearing me and thinking its funny. And then paying me. Unfortunately that's also what the big guys are doing and they have nicer boats that actually fit a genre.

What I mean is there are several categories food blogs tend to fall into. If you look at Delish's Best 20 Food Blogs you begin to notice a pattern: recipe blogs with professional looking photography like SmittenKitchen, baking blogs with professional looking photography like Bake or Break, recipe/musings blogs with professional looking photography like Orangette, fun vegan blogs with recipes and professional looking photography like Vegan Yum Yum (I'm not kidding), food travel blogs by inherently odious people with semi-professional looking photography (no control over their lighting situation, I'm afraid) like Traveler's Lunchbox, and the English-writers based in foreign countries like Lobster Squad, who who writes about Spanish food and is based in Madrid. She does drawings. There are also the handful of unique career-launching blogs like Wine Library TV (which became a multi-million dollar one-man corporation on how to become successful doing what you love... and you know selling wine). But I won't go into the beverage blogs, they're a whole other ball of wax.

Basically what I'm trying to point out is that blogging is no longer, and hasn't been for years, the turf of 19 year olds Live Journaling their romantic forays and mishaps... or more to my point, about what kind of cake mix they used to baked cupcakes last Saturday. Blogging is now the terrain of professionals looking to maintain a presence online (or amateurs trying to go professional by maintaining a presence online), by writing and photographing (well) what obsesses them, tweeting about it, and hoping people respond. And they do. Its becoming so that readers now trust bloggers as much or more than professional, published food writers. And the reality is, bloggers are now becoming their brethren and vice versa. Since the advent of Julie Powell, this has been the dream, but then where does that leave the food magazines like Bon Appetit and Food & Wine? And the proper websites like Leite's Culinaria and Epicurious, are they now just more sophisticated blogs? I should hope not.

An observation my teacher David Leite made when he was forcing me and my classmates to exit our comfort zones and interview food industry professionals and stuff hours of primary resource material into an eloquent 999 words that might never see publication (while we wondered, is this what I signed up for? We just want to obsess about food!) was that the presence of blogs was actually a very positive thing for professional food writers. In his reasoning, it would force them to actually do their jobs and be reporters. Leave the op-eds and the recycled recipes to the home cooks, food writers are supposed to inform and innovate! But a big problem that has arisen within the publishing world is that professionals are no longer getting paid what they used to and that was pretty meager to begin with.

So what's going to happen to all of us? Will we suck all the oxygen out of our ocean? Will we reach the firm land of professional food writer-dom only to realize we're walking on a melting glacier?

I think the more interesting question is, why are we all doing this in the first place?

Aside from the use they serve for the blogger, I know blogs are actually super useful for the reader as well. At least the good ones are. Recipes are the most obvious benefit, but they also teach you how people talk and think about food in their own terms. There are no editors, there's no "magazine's voice" or word count they need to subscribe to, this is what they really think and sound like. I think if our comedian friend's observation of the over-abundance of food blogs indicates anything, though, its that there is a very strong demand for food writing, specially during a time when the food industry is stuck between a rock and a hard place, the economy on one side and the obesity epidemic on the other. Cooking is experiencing a reawakening. Julie & Julia, Michael Pollan, and Super-Size Me have forced us back into the kitchen with a laptop propped open on the table in place of a cookbook. This is good for the reader and in a way good for the writer because if you can't get paid for it, at least you have an audience. Of course if after a while we still can't make money off of this then maybe we should consider starting blogs featuring funny animal pictures with captions over them. Put those professional photography skills to good use.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What Makes a Good Cook?

At the Brooklyn Chocolate Experiment, where we sampled three types of chocolate-spiked chipotle chilis, chicken mole, beer marinated pork with chocolate barbecue sauce, and a dozen different types of chocolate desserts from flourless chocolate cake to salt and pepper truffles with peanut butter, R turned to me, uneasily balancing a plate ladden with chocolate inventions and said, "You're totally of this caliber." He was referring to my cooking and I, of course, quickly corrected him by vigorously shaking my head, mouth full of chocolate sticky-rice lollipop. I clarified what caliber I actually was, "I can follow a recipe and make it well." But when it comes to invention, my creations are messy, muddled, unbalanced, chaotic, tasty, and poorly plated. The people at the BCE, even if most were amateurs, knew what they were doing and they were good at it. So while R as my kitchen guinea pig did well in saying I was as good a cook as they were, I don't think he's necessarily right. Which, by the way, is not to say I'm a bad cook. What's a good cook, anyway?

I've been asking myself that since I read a review of Michael Symon's new cookbook, Live to Cook. The reviewer gave it a glowing recommendation, saying it was mostly for beginners, teaching such basics as the difference between sweating and caramelizing, and how to confit pig ears. At this point I realized to what extent I'm still in diapers when it comes to the wider food world. I've only started to understand what confit means and I was surprised to discover a difference between two things that essentially employ the same technique. Apparently I didn't read my Julia's Kitchen Tips closely enough. But what rubbed me, I won't say the wrong way but in a way I'm not sure I like, was how the reviewer described Symon as a very very good cook. A Food Network personality, a restauranteur, a cookbook author, many people are all these things and I don't know that I've heard them specifically singled out as very very good cooks (aside from the implication inherent to their success). Had Symon personally cooked for her that she could make such a claim? Or is a cook as good as his recipes are effective? In that case I'm definitely not a good cook. But while it is widely understood that being a recipe follower does not make one a good cook, does being a recipe writer or creator grant you that gilded title? Is your Mom's chicken pot pie recipe as good as a sous-vide steak studded with black truffles recipe? Some people may argue yes.

Consider two popular Food Network personalities. Michael Symon and Rachel Ray share a national stage but one is
regarded as a good cook (owns restaurants, understands cooking techniques, is a CIA graduate, the culinary school, not the government agency) and the other is more of a domestic role model (she learned to cook following her mother around, does not have good knifing technique, her recipes are soccer-mom-ish) than a cook. But Rachel Ray's cooking and her recipes are for the most part more popular than Michael Symons. Does it mean hers are better even though they're easier and more familiar and are created by someone with no formal training? It becomes a question of elitism in a way. Is Rachel Ray, whose cooking is more popular among the common-folk, less of a "good cook" than Michael Symon whose credentials are industry solid?

And how compare either of them to the brash, young, talented home cook with a well-seasoned skillet? When R and I lived with Joni, a severely precocious 20 something year old Israeli with a subscription to Cook's Illustrated, a shelf full of cookbooks, and a kitchen amply supplied with cooking equipment, spices, sauces, and seasoning from rice vinegar to cumin, he would make these two day opuses of meat that melted away on your tongue in a broth that was thick and flavorful studded with vegetables that never went to waste because their presence in the overall dish was always essential. Nothing wasted, the whole thing better than restaurant quality. He was a good cook because of his audacity and his patience. Like David Chang, what Joni did was care just that much more than the other guy about what he was making and he took the time to do it right, even if it meant he did wrong sometimes. He wasn't magical, he was probably talented, but beyond that he was meticulous and daring.

I think Mark Bittman defines it best, or rather he embodies what for me is the essence of a good cook. A former cab driver with no formal culinary education whose New York Times column The Minimalist is a wonderfully comforting guide on how to make complex food with ease. In a Time Out New York interview Bittman offers this piece of encouragement:

"I am the least impressive cook you will ever see. I am completely without knife skills, I screw things up all the time. When I’m in the kitchen I’m not obsessively trying to create the perfect dish; I’m trying to put dinner on the table. Comparing yourself to the people who cook on television is like comparing yourself to Andre Agassi. If you can drive you can cook."

Most of what keeps the rest of us from being very good cooks is our impatience and the feeling of inferiority borne of being intimidated by a long, delicate process and unfamiliar ingredients. Rachel Ray is anything but intimidating because she cooks things that are familiar, easy, and cheap, she's not a bad cook but she's not a great cook. Mark Bittman elevates the standard by taking the intimidation out of complex flavors, preparations, and dishes through his own simplified techniques and his laid-back, just-toss-this-all-together-it'll-be-awesome writing voice. Michael Symon, like Julia Child before him, teaches the techniques that make the bigger tasks, the dutch oven stews, the three day cassoulets, the obscure alien-looking vegetables as well as the run-of-the-mill ones, and makes them more manageable and more impressive. In a way being a good cook has more to do with how far you're willing to go to challenge yourself and how much you care about getting it right.

I still don't think I'm at the caliber of the BCE cooks but only because I'm still intimidated by words like chipotle and the idea of making my own barbecue sauce. But having started to make my own bread, by following slightly more complex recipes each time and learning from them, by taking time to learn techniques, practice them, even burning a few dishes along the way, I will eventually become their caliber mostly because I want to be. So yes, I'm a good cook in that I'm good at bullshitting my way around a kitchen and as a former roommate once said to me, "Some people's bullshit tastes better than others." But I'm still not as good a cook as Joni (advanced kitchen bullshitter), Bittman (recipe writer), Ray (TV personality), or Symon (chef). For that, you just need to clock in experience in the kitchen. And get an agent. An agent helps.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Two Restaurants

Back when I used to tell people I was a filmmaker the inevitable response was Wow! You should make a movie about this and this and this. Now when I tell people I'm a food writer I'm inevitably met with a wide-eyed proclamation that I should review this or that restaurant. I never have the heart to reply that being a food writer doesn't mean being a restaurant critic or reviewer. Its like saying all dogs are huskies (though they should be-- or pugs, I like pugs).

Restaurants have never been my thing really. I come from a family that has been going to the same four restaurants since before I was born. They may occasionally swap one out for a new
one that serves the exact same food-- either Puerto Rican, Cuban, or Mexican -- and may have the advantage of being closer to our house. When I started doing high school summer programs in NYC I had many fights with my parents because the only restaurant they ever wanted to go
to was this one Cuban place next to their hotel (which they still go to when they visit me). So I never developed an understanding or a passion for restaurant faire or that industry. Its only recently through my addiction to food blogs and my artist-turned-culinary-student friend that I even know what a Michelin star is. Even when I was in college and it was up to me to choose where to go for lunch, dinner, breakfast, or better yet brunch-- I kinda always just went to the same handful of places on campus (and never to brunch, had no idea what that was).

Now a young (meaning adventurous), working (meaning with an income), aspiring (meaning still too lazy to actually get it together and start but with intentions of doing that before age 30 once the ADD goes away) food writer, I have yet again fallen into the same pattern of going to the same restaurants simply because they are near my house. Unfortunately because of the limitations of my neighborhood (that's a lie, if I walked ten blocks further in any direction I would have more options), there's only two restaurants I really go to: Maria's Mexican Bistro and Korzo, an Eastern European restaurant with a $20 tasting menu on Wednesdays. So here is a testament to why I'm more of the Mark Bittman-Smitten Kitchen-Gastronomica-Savour school of food writing as opposed to the Frank Bruni school.

I think I have invested more money and time on Maria's than any other restaurant I've ever patronized. It got the seal of approval as far as Mexican food in the East Coast is concerned from our Texas friend who is the pickiest eater I've ever met so there's definitely something there. The food is not bad, sometimes its even good, though you're better off ordering simpler faire like burritos, quesadillas, and corn rather than a proper entree which inevitably comes with overcooked meat. Their tacos are particularly good, two corn tortillas filled with meat or spinach, lettuce, and pico de gallo and at $2 you can mix and match. Where they really shine, though, is with their brunch menu which includes the usual list of offenders: tamales, pozole, huevos rancheros, huevos con chorizo which are all very flavorful, generous dishes serves with slightly watery refried beans and yellow rice. During the summer, they transform a Brooklyn backyard with cement floors into a courtyard decorated with brightly colored beer ads and banners, tiki torches, and an inflatable palm tree. The inner dining room is narrow with red walls decorated with framed Diego Rivera prints and Mexican crafts. The bar takes up half the space and is always playing some sort of sporting event on low volume while the rest of the space is bombarded with Latin rock and salsa turned to a reasonable volume. Usually its quite empty and the food is cheap so we wonder how they stay in business but we're thankful that they do. I guess their absence might motivate us to find new places to go out to eat but with a $10.95 brunch menu with unlimited booze and good food, I hope not.

Korzo on the other hand is actually good. Its the type of food that will have you rolling back to your apartment-- greasy meat and potatoes washed down with Czech and German beer. Their brunch is more like dinner with eggs on it but their dinners are lovely. Particularly exciting is the aforementioned tasting menu, created so that people get the chance to try new things which makes sense considering the unsung glory of Czech, Hungarian, and Germanic food. It consists of the soup of the day (potato leek with bacon when we last went), a lighter plate (a gnochi-like thing with walnut pesto-- those gnochi things come up in almost all their dishes and they seem innocent enough but they multiply and grow inside your stomach making you feel like you've eaten several loaves of bread soaked in grease-- but they're great, as long as you only have a few), and a meat-centric dish like seared pork loin. Their goulash was spicy and tasted like the goulashes I would have back in Prague but the meat was cut into small chunks so it was more like picadillos than goulash and it was peppered with those infernal gnochi. While they did help to curve the spiciness, I would've preferred them on the side or even replaced by say bread dumplings. There are several things on the menu I have every intention of trying in the coming months, among them the Hungarian fried bread Langos, dates wrapped in bacon, and the Slivovitz chicken (a chicken made with plum brandy, called Slivovice in Czech, quite big in Bulgaria). The space itself is divided into a front section dominated by the bar and a scattering of tables, and a back dining room with no
windows that makes up for it by becoming an annex to the gallery across the street. Giant, colorful paintings of different styles ranging from Pollock-like paint splatters of female figures to Edward Hopper-like interiors of bars and clubs circa the Roaring 20s open up the space which would otherwise resemble the back of a Polish or Czech beer hall where the long communal tables and benches have been replaced by proper individual tables and one large, low table where you can lounge on couches while sipping Budvar or a cocktail. The lighting in the front is dim and mostly consists of the television and overhead lights turned so low that the other night when R and I were walking towards it we thought it was closed because it looked pitch-black. They make up for it by the having an all glass front wall that lets in the light from the street and in summer they open it up and bring out tables to the sidewalk. While I love Czech and Hungarian food, I know its not for everybody and while this restaurant is far superior to my usual default Maria's, its slightly more expensive and incredibly heavy. You know they mean business when you decide to go for Mexican when you want to eat light.

So those are my walkable, affordable alternative for when I come home in a huff and express no desire to get out the cutting board and mince garlic. Humble, lazy but good and if you ever come visit me, we will probably end up going to one of them. Unless you can convince me to walk those extra five or ten blocks.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bready Goodness

I currently work next to Amy's Bread in the West Village. While this shop also boasts some pretty incredible-looking cookies, cupcakes, muffins, scones, and sandwiches, they really make some stand out bread. What's wonderful about working next to Amy's is that I've realized that bread is not just bread. Bread is white, whole wheat, multigrain, pumpernickel, brioche, croissant, sobao, de agua, Italian, French, black, potato, Challah, and comes in the form of loafs, bagels, nan, rolls, pizza, sticks, toast... Bread is the backbone of culture (where bread is not found in prominence, rice will often make an appearance, but even those cultures have some sort of bread). You can even have it as a drink in the form of beer (every culture has beer). Its as universal as marriage and dessert.

Lately I've opted for more savory baked goods as my mid-afternoon, I'm-going-cross-eyed-but-have-no-desire-for-coffee pick-me-ups and for some reason I feel guiltier after eating two bread twists or half a mini-loaf of some delicious bread (they even contain seeds and healthy things like that) than if I'd eaten a whole chocolate chip cookie from Jacques Torres or City Bakery (big, big cookies full of butter and chocolate). And I'm slightly outraged by this. I've fallen into the cultural trap of hating bread. I've been well-aware of this for many years but I really thought I was over it. I want to make a case for modern Americans, myself included, not to hate bread.

For centuries bread has been close to holy. Challah is eaten on high holy days and blessings are read over loaves as big as a medium-sized dogs. To invite someone to break bread with you is an indication of trust and affection. Everything cool that has been invented is called the best thing since sliced bread. For so many years bread in America was as wholesome as white bread.

In the Middle East, bread is eaten with every meal even if that meal already includes rice or couscous or pasta. In Ethiopia it replaces cutlery. Even in Europe bread is a daily part of life. For breakfast, for lunch, for dinner as baguettes, sandwiches, or creating a bread crumb and cheese crust over a cassoulet or a gratin. My friend Marc, whose culinary habits I find intensely curious specifically because he is French, would sometimes eat nothing but a bagel all day. Then have another one with us after several rounds of beer. Bread and peanut butter were his food of choice. And yes he was skinny (stupid French people).

Bread often makes top ten lists of favorite things about being alive. A warm loaf out of the oven, the smell of bakeries, the way butter melts and becomes yellow and liquid on softly browned toast, the tart crust and the soft sweet insides. They look attractive, be it speckled with whole wheat, dark and black, pure white and yellow, their insides flaky or crumbly, magically leavened by yeast. So what happened, people? Bread was been basterdized (like everything else was) by the food and diet industries.

I started making my own bread recently because I wanted to save money and because I really

don't like it when things in my life are too easy. The ingredients in the recipe I found include whole wheat, yeast, honey, salt, milk, eggs. A stark contrast to the bread I would buy at the supermarket that for some reason contained high fructose corn syrup, sugar, natural flavors, and coloring. The good news is that like everything (the best thing to happens to organics since profits), certain brands are embracing the Obama-Vegetable-Garden, celebrity chef with a cause, 20 and 30-something-year-old urbanite mentality that processed food should still be food and taste good, so you're seeing a drastic reduction in their ingredients lists. Score one for bread! But why is bread still the bad guy?

Basically, bread still hasn't found its margarine.

Back in the days before trans-fats, butter became Public Enemy Number One and margarine came on the scene as the savior of both our taste buds and our arteries. Of course chemically produced spread made with hydrogenated oils were better than rendered dairy solids! Except, they were better in the way that guns are better than knives. Once margarine was ousted as the real enemy of your heart, butter came back into the good graces of the public or at the very least stop being attacked.

Since Atkins, bread has not found a satisfactory scapegoat to blame fatness on because the problem is Atkins actually worked. It didn't work the way Atkins followers believed it worked (all they were really losing was water), but people were becoming thinner. And while nutritionists brought people down from the bacon and eggs enduced highs and told them they needed to start eating fruits and vegetables again, bread remained black listed. It feels too filling, you know? It expands in your stomach. Its so easy to overeat it. Yes. But you can say that about anything we like to call food, specially if it contains sugar, alcohol, or cheese.

At the height of my own diet-craze I came to stark realization: What's life without sugar, alcohol, and cheese? Dull. And living without bread, while it would mean I would be skinny, would also mean missing out on one of the better things in life. I don't have to eat it three times a day but why feel bad if I do? We eat corn flakes, for god's sake, and that doesn't make any sense either if you think about it nutritionally and in terms of flavor.

So go out right now and eat some bread! And I'm not talking the sliced stuff from the supermarket. There are still bakeries in abundance. Don't worry, you'll walk it off on the way there.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Halloween has passed and the leftover debris of that nigh of sugar and alcohol fueled debauchery now sit in neat little boxes at office reception areas where people waiting pick at fun sized bags of chocolate and candy. They don't serve the leftover alcohol at these reception areas because there wasn't any leftover alcohol. But post-Halloween candy is always in abundance. As kids we understood that that was the whole point. On Halloween you created a stash, a bag or a bucket full of refined sugar, something to hold us over until Thanksgiving. But now candy is bad.
Except its really not.

Candy is such a visceral experience, innocent as childhood, fun, impulsive, pointless, and sweeeeeet. The stigma around it is undeserved, I feel. The only reason kids binge on candy is because they are not allowed to have it or they are allowed to have too much of it. Instead of celebrating it as a treat, kids scream and kick and demand it when they pass it at the pharmacy or supermarket or deli, and if parents give in or if kids are forced to sneak candy on they side, they gorge on it, taking its delicate magic for granted. This is not the kids' fault. Kids don't understand the consequences of too much of a good thing they just know what they love. Parents in this age of over-abundance have forgotten how to eat properly or they eat too properly, so they are rendered useless when it comes to teaching their child how to eat candy properly, and there is a way. Candy is an impulsive desire, a rush of happiness that should be savored not abused, and that becomes deadened if candy is handed out too often or not at all. The easiest solution would be to have more candy stores and less candy aisles.

New York City has several candy meccas: Dylan's Candy Bar, Economy Candy, the Hershey Store, and Max Brenner. Other notable candy shops I've visited are The Olde Candy Shoppe in Boston, with walls lined up to the ceiling with jars of candy and eccentric antiques like stuffed leopards and weird lamps; a candy store in Madrid that had every inch of wall covered with displays of colorful, barely identifiable candy, dried fruit, and nuts, and of course the candy store in the biggest mall in the Caribbean, Plaza las Americas, where as a child I would always buy a bag of gummy worms and eat them as I followed my mom and my aunt to boring stores. What they all have in common: sheer, beautiful, colorful quantity and variety.

Candy stores, like Halloween, are once in a while explorations. To do them more often than once is to kill their magic, which is exactly what the overabundance of candy aisles has done. They create the possibility of candy so often that a treat becomes a threat. There is something incredibly thrilling about seeing stacks and stacks of candy, gummy bears, coconut chocolate turtles, sour patch kids, twizlers, malt balls, hard candies, M&M's arranged in blues, reds, pinks, yellows, greens, gummy sharks, chocolate-covered peanuts... it goes on and on and on... then dipping a small shovel into a chosen bin and scooping out loot. Once again you're creating a stash. Its like a mini-Halloween, an event and a trip, instead of a bad idea. Because the other thing these stacks and stacks of candy do to a child is they overwhelm them. They couldn't possibly have all of it, much less stuff it all into a bag, so they become selective. They create assortments that won't bleed into the rest of the week because the portion control is built in and more than anything they are getting exactly what they want.

So if you want to boycott anything, boycott the candy aisles and large bags of generic candy shit. Get the good stuff. Its a bit of a walk (all candy stores require a bit of a walk) and the quality is infinitely better. And if you need a fix now, don't go downstairs to the deli, just visit the reception area. They usually have a little bowl of sin taunting the poor receptionist. Or, you know, have a cookie.

Monday, October 26, 2009

When Food Hurts

It happens without you realizing it. Things are hunky dory, life is better than you could ever have expected it could be, and then... you reach the line. Sometimes in the heat of passion, often fueled by alcohol or starvation, you're three miles in before you even realize it and then there's no turning back. Other times you cross it knowing full well what you're doing but praying that maybe this time, maybe today... it won't be so bad. But it is. It always is. Its worse than awkward sex because it lingers and it adds rather than subtracts calories from your already substantial thighs. Its that feeling of eating WAY TOO MUCH.

I'm there right now. Smutty Nose Pumpkin Ale and three... yes, three.. helpings of Savory Pumpkin Pie. There was no need, and no amount of whole wheat crust will ever set things right. Overeating on weekday nights is tantamount to shooting up heroin in some people's minds. I'd venture to say in most. Overeating on the weekend or on vacation or at food events is a relatively harmless offense, often a cause for celebration, an achievement, its fun! But when you cross the line any time from Monday to Friday its the end. You had no business drinking in the first place and who told you to make something so decadent anyway? That's a WEEKEND meal.

Don't get me wrong, it was good. Very good. Even though I burnt the pumpkin and the crust was too thick in places and it tasted mostly of cheese and onion (as if this was bad), the bits of pumpkin that did shine through were intoxicating, and once you cross the one stick of butter threshold you know you're in a good place. So why do I feel guilt ridden and sick?

Heroin. I can picture skinny model-type girls in Gestapo uniforms breaking down the door of my den of decadence and grease, taking away my kitties, while I sit strung out on cheese, too busy shoving homemade quiche and muffins down my throat to stop them. One of them helps R up, takes the pancakes and bacon out of his hands, hell, out of his mouth, gone slack from an intense food coma. She determines his waistline is still salvageable. Handing him a piece of celery and a small container of low-fat Ranch dressing, he crunches down greedily, his lovehandles deflating almost instantly. His eyes come back to life, cleared of the haze of fat and sugar. He smiles. So R and Ms. Skeletor walk merrily out the door holding hands, happy to be rid of the odor of smoking oil and spilt beer.

OK, maybe I'm being just a bit melodramatic.

I've already covered this topic in various manifestations, from how the French do it and stay beautiful, to the place gorging on food holds within all important events and celebrations. In light of both extremes its impossible to miss why the weekday binge becomes such an unpleasant hiccup in the landscape of your self-image. A plague worse than swine flu chokes this great nation of cheeseburgers and French, pardon, Freedom fries.

Obesity hangs heavy and menacing over our heads, threatening like a vulture to inflate an ear, a foot, a nose, a tummy to gargantuan proportions, if ever we neglect to pay attention. Here in New York the dangers of obesity are spoon fed to us, so to speak, in Bloomberg's subway ad, in the calorie-counting menus of chain restaurants, in the food blogs. As New Yorkers we figure we're safe. Just stay out of McDonalds, we say to ourselves, we'll never be fat, we say, chomping down on a bagel with cream cheese and lox, we walk everywhere, we tell ourselves, our mouths full of perfect chocolate chip cookies six inches in diameter, we shop at Farmer's Markets and Whole Foods. That can't happen here.

In California its worse. They ritually purify themselves of their desserts on treadmills and in

weight rooms, exorcising any suggestion of flab from their perfectly toned bodies which threaten to let loose, droop, and swell if ever you dare miss an appointment with your trainer. Everyone knows you die then, alone, hated, judged. The people of the coasts, we walkers, joggers, yoga-addicts, we young and beautiful foodies of the coasts have declared war on this affliction and confined it to the center of the country, to the fat states where the clown and the Colonel to reign unchecked, a lawless land of fried chicken, high fructose corn syrup, and MSG. We beautiful, young foodies turn our noses up at the fat tourists who take up what could've been our seat in the subway, self-righteously congratulating ourselves on losing more and more weight the longer we remain standing, holding onto the pole with out muscular hands. We are the true martyrs of America.

OK, I'll stop right there. I know overeating once in a while is not the fast ticket to death, isolation and obesity. But doesn't it sometimes feel like it, though? It must be those ads on the subway. They make one feel fat. But I know I'm OK because those pumpkins... they came from the Farmer's Market so its OK. Everything will be OK.

***While the first picture is from Flickr and was now taken by me, it resembles the final product that I made. I promise to start taking pictures again.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Baked Goods, Cheese, and Peanut Butter- Eating Alone

My dinner tonight has been the simplest I've had since.... since last time R went away for a video game convention.

Hmmm, what a coincidence.

I ate the remains of meals pasts. Biscuits I baked this morning for our spending-the-weekend-apart breakfast, cheese I bought for a quiche I made for a dinner at the apartment, and some wine leftover from earlier this week when a friend came to visit. I won't go so far as to say I was looking to relive them or found any special nostalgia in these relics of time spent with friends, with R, with the stove. While over the past couple of week meals have involved hours of slaving away, allowing to rise, and special ingredients from Murray's cheeses, whenever R goes away, and I don't have friends over to make up for it it, I usually make due with some baked goods, cheese, sometimes peanut butter, and whatever alcohol is left in the house (no, I don't need it, I prefer it). That's what I eat when I'm alone.

During the summer, reviews were everywhere for Deborah Madison's "What We Eat When We

Eat Alone," a cookbook and story book about the liberties people take with their meals when they are eating with no one to judge them and no one to impress. My approach to eating alone is very similar to my friend Marc's who, upon moving into his apartment in Greenpoint shortly after arriving from France, barely had furniture, slept on a mattress on the floor, and lived on ramen, cheese, and peanut butter. When I asked why he has such a spartan diet he explained: "I ate it and then I wasn't hungry anymore." What I realized is that during the past year, whenever R was away, which was often, I usually made due in a very similar way. A slice of pizza on the way home happened frequently, as did a solitary beer at Think Coffee, bread and hummus was a classic, recently a loaf of banana bread and a jar of peanut butter became breakfast and dinner almost every night for a week. The most elaborate solo meal I fashioned was a fake fettucini alfredo and I even went so low as to buy a can of Mushroom Cream Soup. I can't be bothered to stew a chilli or sear meat or chop garlic when the only ones who are going to watch me eat are Tito and Spider, specially since they've eaten already. But it wasn't always like that, which is the funny part.

My love affair with cooking started in my little kitchen in Madrid. I began to experiment with recipes, ingredients, flavors, and cooking styles in order to save money. The semester before I lived in Prague, dining out almost every lunch and dinner, drinking at bars and clubs several times a week, and luxuriating as 25 crowns to the dollar. But when I did my little stint around Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest, and ended up flat broke in Paris at the wrong airport, then flat broke in Madrid with a three day wait for my flight back home, I learned a powerful lesson about my relationship with money: I suck at handling it. So when I went back to Madrid for the next semester, I turned a new leaf. I got a part time job tutoring the inimitable Angel Aragones twice a week for 100 euros, and packed my lunch almost every single day, splurging on drinks and food twice a week with the theater class and only one night per weekend. I guess I should also mention that was my brief stint as a vegetarian (Spain fixed that pretty quickly, though) so it was a necessity for me to provide alternatives to the countless menús del día that included jamón serrano and chorizo.

So I began making rice dishes with vegetables and curry, simple pastas, chilli, baked apples in lettuce leaves (disastrous), roasted potatoes and vegetables, even tortilla española every so often. Not much compared to what I pull off now, but then it was revelatory. When I came back to the world of carnivores, I went so far as to make chicken breast cooked with white wine, tomato sauce, and cheese. I learned to cook alone, cooking for myself. When I began cooking for others my little bubble was shattered, but also my repertoire expanded.

When R is alone all day with the cats, I know exactly what his diet is like: cereal with milk,

pastrami sandwiches from the deli, leftovers from dinner that I remind him to heat up and eat, eggs, and every so often he calls me at the office and asks, "What should I have for lunch today?" and I look through my mental inventory of available ingredients, discuss possible preparations and combinations, and reply, "I'll email you the instructions." When I create this instant recipes I go back to that time in Madrid when I could invent something on the spot with whatever was on hand, some spices, and a frying pan. I can only imagine that I'm able to do for him what I don't for myself anymore because by writing out the recipe for him to follow and asking him how it turned out (usually burned or "not as good as when you make it"), it is a form of me cooking for him but through him.

And just so you know, while I wrote this post, I finished off half a bottle of wine and several spoonfuls of peanut butter. Why can't I have a boyfriend who calls me and offers me a recipe?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

They Need Me to Feed Them

One morning I woke up surrounded on all sides by the three most important men in my life: R, Tito, and Spider. Looking at the three of them all cuddled up to me I realized: I have to feed them every day. They rely on me for this.

There was something strange about that realization because while its a given that cats have to be fed, its odd to think that my human does as well. But its really not that strange, Hispanic and an aspiring foodie I insist on feeding everyone who comes over, like it or not. I've spontaneously made cookies, beer bread, and muffins, the occasion being we had another person in the house. And alternatively, when R goes away on a trip for even as long as three days, unless I have guests over, I eat out my lunches and have toast with cheese and jam for dinner every night. Cooking just doesn't seem worth the trouble. Even making a simple pasta seems a tediously long process during those times. Yet when I have someone to cook for I go all out, like last night: rotini al telefono, braised bok choy, cornmeal cookies with lime glaze, and the dough of a quiche tart. I went to bed at 1:30 am and I'm up at 7 am. Why? My cats demanded to be fed.

Recently I was chatting with my friend Mario about why we cook. A newly minted Culinary Institute of America student with lofty dreams of a Momofuku-style restaurant empire, he and I differ quite a bit in terms of our approach to cooking but are bonded by it (and our mutual love for R). The chef of Savoy Cabbage in South Africa explained it best in an article he wrote for Gastronomica: its the difference between men and women. For men its about showing off what they can do, for women its about making sure people are well-fed and satisfied. This symbol seems to be a motif but its no less true, its yin and yang. Mario and I embody that. He cooks
the way artists paint and actors perform. For him cooking is more than just nourishing, feeding, and palatal pleasure, its spectacle, presentation, and above all experimentation. So I asked him why he cooked, having recently discovered my own reasons for it. Forget about passion and love for food and creativity, if anything that's a given. The question was, what is the driving force that makes you want to cook?

Mario loves working in restaurant kitchens, loves standing around in a small cramped space all day with people yelling. He loves the kind of food you can only get at restaurants, specially the ones that use chemicals to transform them into something completely different from what they were or could ever be in nature. He loves the hierarchy of the restaurant, the chef's coat, and went so far as to admit for him being a chef is a power thing. He loves standing by the table and having people looking up at him, he loves that whole culture of fine dining and innovative cooking. And at 22, he's rather good at it. But at the end he put it quite simply: "I cook to be loved."

For me, restaurants are not my bag. The hierarchy intimidates me, I can't take the structure and prestige of it too seriously because I can't shake the feeling that at the end of the day, its just food, except when there's a business and stocks and employees and benefit plans involved its not just food. Maybe because I don't go to restaurants often, because I don't have a sense of presentation, because I'd rather control my kitchen than be part of the kitchen factory. While I consider culinary school and cooking professionally on a daily basis, an idea borne of the philosophy of making a career from what you love to do, the more I think about entering the restaurant world the less appealing it sounds to me. I like that in my kitchen there are no rules, no pressure, I'm alone and free to do what I want. Its how I unwind and express myself creatively. I cook because I enjoy feeding people and eating good food, but I like sitting at the table with them and eating with them. I'm the home cook to Mario's restaurant chef.

If you boil it down, though, we're not really that different. I had a telling moment a few days ago when my friend D was here. He stood in front of me as I offered R a taste of something I was making for the first time. He says my eyes widened in anticipation in this please like it sort of way, something I wasn't conscious of doing. I'm sure I make that face every time I ask R if he likes what I've made. At the end of the day Mario and I are still cooking for the same reason, even if we approach cooking very differently. Like him, I cook to be loved.