06 August 2008

The title of our blog is a direct homage to Jeffery Steingarten's book, The Man Who Ate Everything. It, and former NYTimes restaurant critic Ruth Reichl's book, Garlic and Sapphires, are two of my all-time favorite food books (not to be confused with cookbooks, which I will have to write about later). Like Reichl, Steingarten augments his scientific discovery of different food topics with recipes that allow you to transfer the written word into a very enjoyable tactile experience. Both of these books are highly practical affairs, and the cooking advice from the recipes are always a value-add. Even 11 years post-publishing, his chapter on cooking with a subsistence budget, "Staying Alive", remains relevant and delicious during our yet-to-be-declared American recession with recipes like Perfumed Rice with Lamb and Lentils and Swiss Chard and Bean Soup with Ricotta Toasts.

But what I appreciate even more than his wisdom-compiling-recipes is his culinary spirit of adventure. Try everything, and if you don't like it, eat it 3 more times prepared by the greatest chefs before you write it off! I have been a practicer of this method even before I knew Jeffrey had made it famous simply because my gluttonous appetite made me curious even about the food I detest: fish, all manner of seafood, and yogurt. Dining at Per Se last year (Chef Thomas Keller's New York version of French Laundry), I was delighted to find that my favorite dish was the Mediterranean fish, dorade. His kitchen found the happiest point between succulent, flaky white flesh and a potato-crisp-like skin. The fresh lightness of its flavor was miles away from the fishy flavor I started detesting back in my fish-stick days. I have also begun to eat all manner of shellfish, but my earlier aversion (perhaps happily) means that I only eat it when at its best. Yogurt I have yet to befriend. It's a texture thing. If you have any suggestions of what restaurants or yogurt dishes may change my mind, do let me know!

For me, the love of creation and The New has drawn me to the kitchen from the start. I began cooking around the age of 6 out of self defense from my mother's pregnant and hormonal taste buds. I believe I began with pasta (which remains my specialty) but it wasn't long before my parents found me early in the morning up to my elbows in flour, baking from a complicated recipe involving stiff peaks of egg whites that I had beaten by hand, not knowing how to operate the mixing machine. This all meant that I was incredibly good at fractions by the time I entered elementary school from learning to divide and multiply recipes. In addition to this early self-interest in cooking, I grew up in Italy, Poland, Serbia, and Germany, which allowed my food explorations to begin early. My mother, a frustrated gourmet trapped cooking for immature palates, taught me from the earliest age how to navigate open-air farmers markets in each of these countries to find the freshest bargains. From the toothless farmers in Poland to the suave negotiating of the Italians, it all fascinated me, and I still go to farmers markets just to enjoy the sounds, smells, and noises. They are constant sources of inspiration. Now in New York, it is easy to continue to enjoy the foods of my youth, and also become acquainted with more sophisticated techniques and diverse palates. Presently I am on a chili binge in defiance of the hot weather, cooking up green salsa every week with tomatillos and jalepeños bought from Angel at our Yorkville Sunday farmer's market at 91st and 1st Av. If you're unfamiliar with tomatillos, they look like green tomatos with corn husks attached. According to Angel, they come in several varieties, which to my eye are only differentiated by size. Here's the recipe:

- enough tomatillos to make about 2 cups when mashed (about 5 large or 10 small.)
- 2 jalepeños (if you don't like to burn your mouth, do 1 or omit the seeds)
- 2 limes
- 1 bunch coriander (cilantro)
- salt to taste

Over your the open flame of your gas range, roast the tomatillos until their skin is charred black. If you're cooking with the small tomatillos, the open flame method is impractical, so try putting your heavy-duty pan over very high heat and toasting the tomatillos in there until charred. Allow them to cool before peeling off their skins with your fingers.

Mash up the flesh of these gorgeous green guys, mixing the very finely chopped jalepeños, juice of the limes, chopped coriander, and salt. If you prefer a medium heat to your salsa, scrape out most of the seeds from the jalepeños before chopping them up. Be sure to wash your hands with soap straight afterwards! My skin is still tingling from an ill-timed scratch post-jalepeño chopping tonight. The proportions here are very flexible to your tastes, but the flavor combinations are crucial. Good to eat with anything from corn chips to eggs.


Another way I especially like to explore flavors is through mixed drinks. I am a part-time bartender at private parties through Columbia's Bartending Agency (www.columbiabartending.com), where I not only get to peek inside gorgeous and sometimes hip apartments, but experiment with my classical mixology training on willing guinea pigs. Having come of age in Eastern Europe, I have a taste for straight hard liquor, especially good vodka. My go-to is Stolichnaya, although I love to try all the new boutique brands that have been coming out lately. I cannot wait to try the traditional vodka made from potatos! Gin I feel is highly underrated, and the refreshment of its herb-y, botanical infusements are particularly good in the summer. What I have been using most in my liquor cabinet this summer, however, is my dark rum as Boyfriend Marcus is addicted to my mojitos. I insist on dark rum instead of the light rum Columbia Bartending School lists in its mixology manuals because the flavor is so much more satisfying: mellow and spicy. I have yet to taste a light rum that doesn't remind me of Bacardi's chemical after-taste. Disgusting swill. My recipe focuses on ease of preparation as I am typically making these in our sweltering apartment with sweat running down my nose, hence the short-cut of using Sprite or 7-Up instead of a more traditional blend of soda water, simple syrup and lime juice.

- a good dozen mint leaves, preferably still attached to their stalks
- at least half a lime per serving
- your favorite dark rum (I've been using Havana Club and Bacardi's 8 year old lately)
- Sprite or 7-Up
- lots of thick chunks of ice - as big as possible so they will melt slower

In a heavy-bottomed glass, muddle the mint with the a wedge or 2 of lime squeezed over it. (For non-bartenders, muddle means to mash your ingredients together. A wooden kitchen spoon works well in place of a dedicated muddler.) Only give it 5 bashes at a maximum: enough to make the flavors stick together, but leave the mint relatively intact.

Now fill up you glass to the rim with the biggest ice cubes you have on hand as nothing's worse than a watered-down drink. Some really great bars are so focused on minimizing meltage that they have special ice cubes frozen in the size of the whole glass, or will double-freeze the ice. Depending on how badly I need the drink I will make the ratios 1:3 or 1:4, dark rum to Sprite.

To finish, rub a lime wedge around the rim of the glass to flavor, squeeze the juice, and drop it in. Use a long-handled spoon to mix the drink within the glass and distribute the mint leaves and lime wedges prettily.


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