Wednesday, April 29, 2009

mercadito: the happiest place on earth

subtitle: and the return of friend number two

me (after consuming half a margarita): this might just be my favorite restaurant...ever.
friend number two: you say that everywhere we go.

granted, i am a complete lightweight (aka a cheap date) but mercadito really is one of my favorite restaurants ever. every time i go, i feel compelled to express my admiration for this place--over and over and over again. patience, my friends! the meal will be rewarding enough to listen to me ramble. the other night, i even convinced 2 out of 3 dining partners to include it in their respective top 3 shortlists. (friend number two is a toughie). allow me to explain:
  1. awesome margaritas. have i mentioned my love of margaritas? because i love them.
  2. possibly awesomer food.
  3. a cozy dining atmosphere and friendly service.
what's not to like?! so now, allow me to provide some details based on my recent dinner and brunch a couple of weeks ago.

margaritas: yum yum yum yum yum. this is the kind of place where the margaritas are so good that you might just stop by one day to sit at the bar and have one. several margaritas and snacks later...well, you get my point. although margaritas are regular price during brunch, a mimosa is included. don't miss $5 margarita happy hour, mon-thurs 4-7pm. there's a different kind of margarita for everyone! a few of my tried and true:

tradicional ($9) sadly, i might be that boring person where this is my favorite. it's perfectly tart and has enough tequila so that it's not too sweet. very fresh and full of citrus.
with fresh mango ($11) this one is also great (they all are). i do love mango in my margaritas and it's done so well here because the mango doesn't overdo the sweet factor.
pepino tequila blanco, cucumber, lime, chile de arbol ($10) this one is good but i have a hard time drinking a whole one. the cucumber is quite refreshing but i'm much more of a citrus fan.
tres cítricos with habanero ($10) good flavor with a kick of heat.

guacamole is never optional. i usually opt for the guacamole tasting ($11.50 brunch, $13.50 dinner) but was perfectly content the other night with the mango guacamole with jicama and chipotle ($9.50). the guacamole, again, delicious and fresh, but each one has something a little different as well as a bit of welcome heat.

two of my favorite things in life are seafood and citrus. sounds like ceviche to me! mercadito has a great selection of 5 ceviches. we had the three ceviches tasting ($24.50) with callo (bay scallops, watermelon, key lime-habanero broth, epazote), robalo (wild striped bass, mango, chile piquin, tamarind-apple soda broth) and mixto (shrimp, octopus, scallops, tomato, roasted garlic-jalapeño broth). all were good. i was too hungry to take in the details...

i was in charge of ordering and completely left the corn masa quesadillas out. i am not to be trusted while half a margarita deep. so i've never actually eaten this dish but it looks awesome: corn masa quesadillas one of each with mexican cheese: mahi mahi-tomatillo, shrimp-plantain, wild mushroom-epazote crema ($13.50).

camaron tacos ($15 brunch--coffee or mimosa and rice and beans included, $14 dinner) shrimp, roasted garlic, chipotle mojo, avocado. oh man. the sauce is spicy and thick but not too spicy, a little smokey and almost a little sweet. perfect with the shrimp. this is where i really start to vocalize my feelings.

mole tacos ($14) sautéed chicken, sweet plantain, crema fresca, mole poblano sauce. the sweet plantain really added an extra dimension here, an "ooh yum, what is that?!" if you will. all of the tacos are served 4 per order (they're small) and are on homemade corn tortillas.

enchiladas rojas shrimp, mexican cheeses, plum tomato-guajillo arbol sauce, crema fresca ($23.50) the sauce was delicious, the shrimp were large, fresh and cooked perfectly.

three corn pico de gallo with hominy, white & yellow corn, onion, tomato, cilantro ($5) so fresh with bold flavors and um, hominy is awesome.

pollo tacos: pollo costeño rubbed grilled chicken, piloncillo pickled sweet potato, crispy manchego, chipotle salsa ($14). i'm pretty sure these ones are only on the brunch menu. they're worth tracking down. again, great sauce but i love the pickled sweet potato! i always appreciate a vinegar factor in my food and it pairs well with the crispy manchego.

are you convinced yet? run, don't walk!
179 avenue b (between 11th st and 12th st)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

spelt banana bread french toast (banana bread experiment part II)

you have not read about some of my other experiments (such as the brownie pancakes) because they were complete and utter disasters. but you've got to keep trying because every so often something amazing like this happens. yes, amazing. sadly, i cannot take full credit for this but i can claim execution rights. now, a google search just revealed 280,000 results for "banana bread french toast" but i honestly never thought of it-the boy did.

what to do with that pan of banana bread that's been occupying the counter for the better part of the week THATIDIDNOT eat all in one sitting
(i'm proud)? frrreeennccchhh toast! so obviously, you'll need some banana bread. the one i used was similar to that of the original banana bread experiment. i guess the bread doesn't have to be stale but it will certainly help with that whole holding together factor. then just whip up a simple french toast batter.

spelt banana bread french toast
  • banana bread
  • 2 eggs (for a small batch)
  • milk (yes, i used real live low-fat cow's milk but i'm sure soy would work well too. use this to make it as rich (half and half) or not (nonfat) as you want it.) i don't measure the milk, i just add a bit more than a splash; you want it more eggy than milky.
  • beat together egg and milk in a shallow bowl.
  • i did not add cinnamon nor vanilla because the banana bread was already so sweet-but you certainly can.
  • let it sit for a few minutes (especially if your bread is spelt based).
  • heat a pan and add some butter. fry bread on both sides until golden brown.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

starbucks = gluten-free

news alert:

OH SNAP, you can have your cake and eat it too. i'm putting may 5 in my calendar, everyone. taste test to come...

Monday, April 20, 2009

the urbanite's costco

i had been told about amazon and their grocery savings before but couldn't quite figure out how to use it to my advantage. sure, i love to shop online and even use freshdirect but couldn't quite cross into the land of dry goods. my first thought was to buy my lactaid in bulk. think of all the money i'd save! but then it turned out that it wasn't so cheap online and purchasing $70 worth of lactaid in one sitting made me feel....pathetic.

but everyone is looking to save a few bucks these days, so come with me my friends, learn all that amazon has to offer! hint #1 - amazon does not seem like the place to pick out a couple of fun looking snacks and order. hint #2 - it seems to be most useful for those expensive staples (i.e. my favorite organic wheat-free cereal and tea). so, if you are one of those people who has a favorite gluten-free pancake mix that you use every sunday morning, this would be the perfect place to find it. amazon even has a gluten-free section AND a nifty ordering feature where you save even more money if you order the same gluten-free item regularly. i shall be subscribing to cereal. more subscriptions to come. and yes, you have to have somewhere to store 6 boxes of cereal at once but it really isn't as bad as the costco size toilet paper or tide.

and don't forget free cone day tomorrow at ben & jerry's!

Monday, April 13, 2009

spelt matzo balls and homemade stocks (happy passover)

it's been six years since i've eaten a matzo ball. i've been known to dream about them--i love them that much. the last time i was at 2nd avenue deli at 2am, i may or may not have taken a teeny tiny bite of one. now, if you have an allergy and not an intolerance, this wouldn't be a possibility for you. however, if you plan ahead (unlike me) there are a plethora of wheat-free and gluten-free passover resources available online. there are also many products available around new york. i've been reading a lot about the availability of gluten-free matzo in brooklyn--including at fairway. since i usually don't plan far ahead in advance to order my wheat-free passover needs online...

on my recent trip to california, i was overcome with joy when i spied a box of SPELT MATZO MEAL in whole foods. (the difference between la and ny whole foods to be written at a different time.) i almost wept tears of joy. but instead, i grabbed the
box, made my way to the register, and packed it into my suitcase to fly back with me to ny.

in preparation for my matzo ball (passover) meal, i decided to make chicken stock and vegetable stock, and the matzo balls. the plan was vegetable stock wednesday, chicken stock thursday, matzo balls friday. i'm sorry, there's no way i could have had a big dinner in the middle of the week, i'm really not loyal to the religious celebrations.

so although canned/boxed stocks can get the job done, homemade stock is
the best. and it's deceptively easy and affordable to make. just think of it as throwing a bunch of stuff in a pot. the two main issues for me seemed to be: 1. reduction/lid on or off? and 2. seasoning. first to address number 1. i often feel as though my stock reduces to almost nothing and although it's probably concentrated enough to add water, i just cannot bring myself to dull down the stock flavor. that being said, definitely start with PLENTY of water (aka a gigantic stockpot) and leave the lid mostly on. leave some room so that the stock can reduce but if you leave the lid completely off, everything will just evaporate away. number 2: do not be afraid to season! i tend to have a light hand with the salt but stock is really something that benefits from it. the safe thing to do is under salt and you can always add some later on. just taste as you go. now you're ready!

who better to turn to for a starter stock recipe than
mark bittman? so i started with some bittman recipes for the veggie stock and went with a classic chicken stock recipe from the 2nd avenue deli. adapt as you see fit. stocks are quite forgiving.

chicken stock (adapted from epicurious and the 2nd avenue deli)
  • 1 pound chicken parts
  • 3 stalks celery, including leafy tops, cut into 3-inch pieces
  • 2 halved onions, unpeeled
  • 4 large whole carrots, peeled
  • 1 leek, washed, trimmed and cut in chunks
  • 3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 bunch of parsley
  • 1 bunch of dill
  • pour 18 cups of cold water (depending on the size of pot you have) into a large stockpot, and throw in the chicken parts and celery. bring to a boil.
  • cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes. test chicken breast meat with a fork to see if it's tender and fully cooked; then remove it from the pot, and set aside. leave other chicken parts in the pot.
  • add onion, carrot, leek, garlic, salt, and pepper. let soup simmer for at least 1 hour and 15 minutes. cook longer if you have time. (mine was on the stove for a total of about 3 hours.)
  • add the parsley during the last hour of cooking.
  • when chicken breast cools, remove skin and bones and cut into bite-sized pieces. you can add it to the soup, just before serving, or save it for something else.
  • strain the soup, and discard everything solid except for the carrot.
  • drop in the dill for a minute before serving and remove. add salt and pepper to taste. slice carrot and toss into soup. also add the chicken pieces if desired. if adding matzo ball, let them simmer in the soup for 15 minutes before serving.

veggie stock (adapted from the nytimes and mark bittman)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 1 unpeeled onion, quartered
  • 1 celery stalk, trimmed and chopped
  • 1 leek, washed well, trimmed and cut in chunks
  • 2 or 3 unpeeled cloves garlic
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 10 or 20 parsley stems, or stems and leaves
  • salt and pepper
  • put oil in a the bottom of stockpot and turn heat to medium-high. a minute later add carrots, onion, leek, celery, and garlic. cook about 5 minutes; then stir once or twice. when vegetables begin to brown proceed to next step. (if you have more time brown them well, stirring infrequently.)
  • add parsley, bay leaves, 8 cups water and some pepper. bring to a boil, and adjust heat so mixture simmers gently. cook at least 30 minutes, or until vegetables are very tender. simmer longer, if you have time. (i simmered mine for about 2 hours.)
  • strain. taste, and adjust seasoning before using or storing. if you have time, cool, refrigerate, and skim off fat.
  • if serving with matzo balls, simmer in stock for 15 minutes before serving.
matzo balls

umm, i used a mix. it was the only spelt way i could find! two tips here: refrigerate the mixed dough before making matzo balls and don't crowd them in the pot! i didn't use schmaltz (there were vegetarians among us!) and the matzo balls still tasted delicious.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

weeknight dinner: thai basil chicken

subtitle: BOMB DIGGITY thai to make at home (get the theme here?)

first i ate at jitlada. then i learned i could make a dish at home that got me almost as excited as hollywood thai and maybe even more excited because i had made it myself. i came across this dish on my google reader and i filed it away. now i think it might make it into the regular rotation. but i'm getting ahead of myself here. first, major props to michele of serious eats for posting this one. now that we have that taken care of, i give you gai pad krapow (thai basil chicken)!!!

this dish has that classic yummy sweet, salty, spicy combination. you really can't go wrong. adjust the spice to your liking (remove seeds and membrane from chilies if you want the flavor without so much heat) as well as the sweetness level with the sugar. it is also surprisingly easy and quick to make. and it's a perfect one to feed a crowd and impress guests.

gai pad krapow (thai basil chicken)
  • 1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • finely chopped chilis (you can use the kind of your choice here, i used 2-3 thai chilis for pretty decent heat)
  • 1 large shallot, finely sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/3 lb green beans trimmed to 1 1/4"
  • 1/2 pound ground chicken
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 bunch basil, leaves only (use holy basil, if you can find it)
  • boiled rice
  • fried egg (over easy)
  • nam pla prik (recipe follows) or fresh lime wedges
  • heat the oil over high heat in a wok or large frying pan. when you can see waves forming in the hot oil, add the chilies, shallots, and garlic and stir-fry until golden, about 30 seconds.
  • add the green beans and stir-fry until cooked but still crunchy, 3 to 4 minutes.
  • add the ground chicken, using a wooden spoon or spatula to break up the meat into small pieces. stir-fry until chicken is cooked through.
  • add the fish sauce and sugar to the pan, and stir to distribute. Taste, and add more fish sauce or sugar if desired.
  • reduce heat to medium-low. add the basil leaves and stir-fry until completely wilted. remove from heat.
  • serve with boiled rice, over easy fried egg (optional), and nam pla prik or lime wedges.

nam pla prik (chili fish sauce)

  • 3-4 parts fish sauce
  • 1 part fresh lime juice
  • chilies, finely chopped
  • shallots, finely sliced
  • combine ingredients. consume immediately, or pour into a clean jar and store in refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Friday, April 3, 2009

a new favorite la thing: JITLADA! (aka serious awesomeness)

let's talk thai food. i've been trying to work on the queens thai pilgrimages (sripraphai, zabb) to find some good stuff. it was good but certainly nothing that came close to the hype. then, when i was in la, my dad told me about a place he had recently be frequenting for lunch. more thai hype. i completely trust my dad when it comes to thai food but after all of the queens hubbub, i had my doubts. my ears certainly started to perk when he told me that the restaurant features a menu with the dishes recommended in gourmet magazine, the la times, and la weekly.

JITLADA! the menu is expansive. but take a look at the recommended dishes, chat with jazz a bit, and you'll be all set. one thing to be aware off: the spice factor. i won't pretend that i'm someone who does spicy food. i like my food with some spice and kick but i refuse to get into any sort of macho argument here. so although at some restaurants i may prefer something hot involved, i don't even start to compete. that being said, i'm going to go out on a limb here by saying that most people here will need mild food. and even then, it might make you sweat.

and now, the meal, blow by blow:

the first dish of the night may have also been the best. coco mango salad: mango salad with shrimp, red onion, cashews, lime, and chili. i love crunchy textures so this really did it for me and the shrimp added some welcome varied texture. it was spicy but also sweet and tart at the same time. the shrimp and cashews added additional flavor and sweetness. a fabulous combination of flavors. a++!

steamed mussels in spicy lemongrass broth were up next. these things were huge and they were big and plump enough to really hold the flavor of the broth. the broth was spicy and full-bodied. can a broth be full-bodied? well this one was, flavorful and rich.

flambe prawns with red curry sauce. the sauce was thick and sweet but also smokey and spicy. the prawns were quite large and perfectly cooked.

basil noodles with fish (not on the menu). this is my dad's "special" lunch dish. recommended personally by jazz. it was good and flavorful with thick, flat rice noodles but quite spicy.

mango sticky rice because what's a thai meal without some of this to finish it off? i really do love this dish and it was particularly good at jitlada. the mangoes were perfectly ripe, sweet and juicy. the rice wasn't overly sweet and cooked nicely so that it wasn't mushy and still had a wee bit of chewy crunch (in a good way).

i was quite happy with our selection and extremely full by the end of it. the only thing i would have changed (if i could have eaten another bite) was to order some of the delicious looking plates of greens i saw going by throughout the course of the meal. so go forth, thai eating friends and experience the ecstasy of jitlada! and if you can't quite make it out to la, head to queens and in between bites of
sripraphai repeat after me: "there's no place like jitlada, there's no place like jitlada..."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

more favorite LA things: in-and-out--zo style

to set the record straight, i don't eat red meat. i have not consumed red meat for many years now and never feel the desire to indulge. that being said, you may wonder how i can enjoy an occasional visit to in-and-out burger. now, if you're really on your in-and-out stuff, your first reaction might be, "ooh, ooh! i know, i know! you eat the grilled cheese from the secret menu!" and i would gasp "what about THE WHEAT?!" and you would say (as people often do), "right. sorry. forgot about that." confused yet? enter ANIMAL STYLE PROTEIN STYLE GRILLED CHEESE. any in-and-out aficionados out there that can help me with the order of that? the rest of you are probably wondering what exactly this is. it is a grilled cheese (with all the fixings) wrapped in lettuce. no meat! no wheat! it may sound a little weak but the "animal style" gives it some extra stuff. pickles, grilled onions, pickles and extra everything, to be exact. this crazy concoction is everything awesome about burgers MINUS THE BURGER! and for me, that's exciting. extra point for oh-so-good american cheese. how is american cheese so yummy sometimes?!

you're going to have to squint for this one:

lettuce, american cheese, grilled onions, tomatoes, pickles, and special sauce.

home recipe idea:
  • take a giant non stick skillet.
  • pour grated cheese in a burger-like shape. let cook.
  • scrape off cheese.
  • eat plain or serve with fixings.
but really, in-and-out's doesn't taste like that's how they make them. it must be magic. and some power from the bible references on the packaging.

a few of my favorite LA things: gilbert's carrots

you can blame my absence over the past week to a jam-packed trip to LA. that and my computer was playing sick and is now feeling much better. in any case, i have some catching up to do. and i'm going to start with one of my favorite little things in LA.

gilbert's el indio is a family owned santa monica institution. it features totally respectable down-to-earth mexican food that is decently priced. truth be told, i ate there just about every friday night during high school and now that i'm of legal age, it's even better because i can enjoy their deeelicious margaritas (available in pitcher size). my former fav: the super special burrito (thanks, wheat). current fav: chicken enchiladas (peace out, wheat). but what really keeps me coming back for more is the CARROTS. that's right, the delicious morsels of yummy pickled goodness that appear on the table from the hand of a friendly waiter, in a little white plastic bowl. keeeeeep 'em coming. i have yet to find comparable carrots anywhere, east or west. hence my need to be able to make them at home, in new york, where i am just slightly out of gilbert's commuting distance.

after much internet research, the closest tasting recipe i could find was here (thanks, blogger rachel!). i made a couple of minor adjustments and now have...drumroll, please:

gilbert's el indio carrot recipe (mexican pickled carrots)
  • 4 large carrots, peeled and sliced on an angle
  • 1-2 large jalapenos (i just use a few pieces of jarred pickled ones)
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced thin
  • 1 teaspoon oregano (fresh or dried works)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 small white onion, minced
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • toss together the carrots and jalapenos in a large glass container (with a lid).
  • in a large sauce pan, combine the garlic, oregano, bay leaves, onion, vinegar, water, sugar and salt. bring to a simmer for two minutes.
  • pour the vinegar mixture over the carrot mixture until it covers all the vegetables, and allow to cool on the counter top. when cool, cap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. can be kept for up to two months.
yields 1-½ cups