Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The fruits of my labor

Back in June I showed you some photos of the herb garden on my deck and some examples of dishes I made with my bounty. I mentioned that I was also growing some vegetables in containers, but didn't share any pictures of them because they weren't producing much yet. Well, all that's changed. Spring wasn't kind to the hot weather crops--tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and bell peppers--that I planted. It was long, rainy and cold, whereas those plants thrive in hot, sunny weather. So their growth was stunted for a while. They have, more or less, rebounded of late, and it's fun to check on them every day and note their progress. It's even more fun to cook and eat what they provide me. Here's a little tour of my garden:

Tomatoes: a compact "Better Bush" variety that yielded me my first ripe tomato, sho
wn here.

Tomatoes: a larger, leggier "Celebrity" variety that did poorly when I first planted it; I uprooted it, tossed it into a corner of my deck, and forgot about it. Miraculously, it survived and produced flowers; when I noticed, I re-planted it and it's been doing well ever since.

Zucchini squash: all the yellow blossoms you see here are male blossoms; the female ones, from which the zucchini fruit grows, haven't arrived yet. When they do, bees (or, if there aren't enough on the deck, I--with a Q-Tip) will visit both the male and female blossoms, thus pollinating the female blossoms and ensuring good fruit production.

Cucumber: a close relative of the zucchini plant, it doesn't look much different, huh? Again, all these blossoms are male; the female ones develop later in the season.

Bell pepper: this plant is so pathetic it hardly merits sharing, but at least it does have one pepper. This plant is the one that suffered the most during the spring. It had lots of little baby peppers, but all but one of them fell off due to excess rain and lack of sunshine. This hardy little pepper continues to grow and mature, though, and as of today had a little patch of yellow on its shoulder. First it will turn yellow, then finally red when it is ready to harvest.

Eggplant: this variety, known as Asian or Japanese eggplant, is what I prefer to cook and eat. While Italian eggplants are often huge and full of bitter seeds, Japanese eggplant are slender and rarely grow to be more than 7 or 8 inches long. They have very few seeds and more sweet, creamy flesh. This is how my first ripe eggplant looked yesterday before I harvested it: it was about 4 or 5 inches long and could have matured more, but it was weighing the plant down so I removed it and cooked it:

Sauteed, very simply, with olive oil, salt and red pepper flakes.

Allow me to show you, too, how I ate my first ripe tomato:

Sliced and sprinkled with salt and pepper, no more, no less. That basil--purely a garnish--is home-grown too, of course!

It's obvious that my vegetable garden brings me a lot of pleasure. But the question is, does the produce taste any better than what's available in stores? So far, my answer to that question is a resounding yes. The tomato I grew was sweet, firm and vibrant-tasting; full of that true tomato flavor that is so often missing from store-bought tomatoes these days. The eggplant I cooked came out creamy and sweet, with a pleasant hint of bitterness from the deep purple skin. I don't do anything special to my plants--I water them when the soil is dry, and occasionally--like, once every month occasionally--feed them with a weak Miracle-Gro solution. That's it. So the moral of this story is that you, too, should try your hand at vegetable gardening and see if your thumb isn't green. It may be too late in the season now, but there's always next year!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The MTA Dining Car: next stop, Queens

Exciting developments are afoot here in my food-obsessed little world. Several weeks ago I was discussing vittles with a fellow food-loving friend, Kiera, when she made what I immediately recognized as a genius proposal: that she and I start an eating club. The word yes was out of my mouth in a heartbeat. I've made various eating club-like attempts over the years, the peak being in high school when my closest friends and I would gather at my house every few months to cook elaborate, ethnically themed (Indian, Middle Eastern, Greek, Thai, etc.) meals. But, as is evident here on this blog, most of my culinary endeavors occur in my kitchen, with me creating and consuming the food. I love eating out, but I rarely have the money to do so (when I do, I try to post my meals here on the blog, but you'll notice that my Cheap Eats section is a bit wanting). So when Kiera promised me organizational help and the attendance of a large group of people, effectively driving down the overall cost of dining out, I was sold. We recruited Kiera's friend Benedict as the final part of our trifecta and agreed on a name: the MTA Dining Car. Our title reflects our focus on outer-borough eating, the kind which tends to be more exotic, more exciting, and more reasonably priced than many Manhattan and some downtown Brooklyn restaurants.

With that focus in mind, I quickly suggested what I thought would be the perfect spot for our inaugural meeting: the Thai restaurant Sripraphai, located off the 7 in Woodside, Queens. I'd been reading about this place for years--it's one of the rare New York restaurants whose greatness seemingly all city-based foodies agree upon--but had yet to make it there myself. Now was the time. Kiera, Benedict and I arranged for a $20 per person (tax and tip included) family-style feast for the group. The menu, with a few slight alterations made for the vegetarians among us, was to include some of Sri's most lauded dishes. Among the appetizers, there would be Crispy Chinese Watercress Salad; BBQ Beef with Chili and Mint; Chicken Satay; and Tom Yum Soup. For the mains, we would be presented with Drunken Noodles with Chicken; Green Curry with Pork; Whole Red Snapper with Chili; and Chinese Broccoli with Oyster Sauce. Are you salivating yet?

Kiera and I made it to the restaurant by 7 PM to await the arrival of our guests, sipping on Thai iced teas with tapioca balls to pass the time. And one by one they came. We had worried that we might not meet our goal of 30 people and that we might get stuck paying the difference in the bill, but, as it turned out, we had fretted needlessly. All in all, we received 31 people, an affable crew composed of mine, Kiera's and Benedict's friends (and friends of friends). And we ate. We ate well. I've read that Sripraphai is the best Thai restaurant outside of Thailand, and while that is surely hyperbole, who am I to argue? The dishes we were brought certainly represented the best--the most complex, layered and delicious--Thai food I have ever eaten. I've never been to Thailand, but I'll definitely be returning to Sripraphai.

And so, without further ado, I'll show you the pictures I managed to snag of the food. The night was a whirlwind of plates and conversations, so, unfortunately, I missed a few. But like I said, I'll be back to photograph (and eat) more, and you should go see (and eat) the food for yourself.

Chicken Satay
The most adventurous choice on a Thai menu? No, but it was everything you'd want in satay: tender, juicy chicken paired with a thick, creamy peanut sauce and a refreshing salad of cucumber, chiles and red onion.

BBQ Beef with Chili, Mint, Onion and Lime Juice
Now things are getting interesting. This dish was fantastic, and, to my palate, unusual. The rich, tender bits of meat were coated in strong, spicy and acidic flavors that perfectly cut the beef's fattiness. The copious amounts of cilantro scattered over the top didn't hurt, either.

Crispy Chinese Watercress Salad with Shrimp, Squid and Chicken
Here it is: one of Sripraphai's most talked-about dishes. The cashews poised so delicately and unassumingly on top signify the riches below: supple, spicy watercress is lightly battered and deep-fried until crispy, somehow also maintaining the fresh, verdant quality of raw greens. As if that weren't over-the-top enough, the watercress is studded with tender bits of sauteed shrimp, squid and chicken. If you make it to the restaurant, this is a must-order appetizer.

And now onto the two main dishes I managed to photograph:

Fried Whole Red Snapper with Chili Sauce
Stunning, right? The only thing better than this dish's presentation was its taste. The fish was perfectly crisp and greaseless, with firm flesh and a mild, buttery flavor. Sweet and spicy chiles were strewn across the top with abandon, and a sweet, light sauce made with sugar or tamarind moistened everything perfectly. Need a must-order main? This is it.

Drunken Noodles with Chicken
OK, OK, I know I just said that the fried red snapper was your must-order main dish. But say you're not really a fish person. Say you're much more of a noodle person. Well, then look no further. Drunken noodles is one of my go-to Thai takeout dishes: I love the wide, flat noodles and the spicy but sweet sauce that drowns (or, perhaps, intoxicates) them. I've had a lot of iterations of drunken noodles. I've probably liked them all. But if I had to pledge my love for one of those versions, it would be this one. I couldn't stop eating it--and that's after a parade of seven courses and an endless amount of rice. Yes, this dish won my heart. And if you give it a chance, it'll win yours too. I guarantee it.

64-13 39th Ave. (between 64th St. and 65th St.)
Woodside, Queens
(718) 899-9599

P.S. Are you in New York? Do you want to dine on delicacies with the rest of us MTA Dining Car members? We welcome strangers. Email us at mtadiningcar@gmail.com.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Food & Wine, Patrick & Willy

About a month ago (this post, like most of my posts recently, is long overdue--hey, it's summer!), Patrick and Willy came over for yet another one of our dinners. It so happened that at work at Food & Wine that day I picked up the July issue of the magazine, thumbed through it, and found about a million recipes I wanted to try. I settled, though, on one that sounded perfect for a hot, humid day: Za'atar Flatbreads with Cucumber-Yogurt Salad. Za'atar (or zatar), a Middle Eastern spice blend that usually contains crushed sumac, dried thyme, and sesame seeds, is one of my very favorite ingredients, but I had only ever eaten it in restaurants and had never before cooked with it. But, like they say, there's no time like the present--or, at this point, the recent past. I promptly dog-eared the recipe, and, on my lunch break, strode the few blocks over to the market in Grand Central and, more specifically, to the Penzey's Spices stall therein. I grabbed a bottle of zatar and was halfway to having dinner on the table.

Well, maybe not quite halfway. But the rest of the recipe was remarkably simple. When I got home from work, I stopped into Peppe's, one of the many respectable pizzerias in my neighborhood, and picked up a round of pizza dough for $3. At home, I pounded it out, oiled it, and slapped it on a very hot charcoal grill, spooning a mixture of zatar and olive oil on the side facing up. About 6 minutes later, we had hot, yeasty bread that was perfect for scooping up the verdant, cooling accompanying salad of cucumber, spinach and peas bound together with Greek-style yogurt:

To round out the vegetarian menu, I prepared another dish courtesy of Food & Wine: a green bean, roasted red pepper and cherry tomato salad that I had sampled in the test kitchen earlier that week. Brightened up with fresh thyme and basil from my garden and topped with crunchy, nutty toasted almonds, the salad perfectly rounded out the evening's menu:

I'd say everyone was pleased, particularly Willy:

Za'atar Flatbreads with Cucumber-Yogurt Salad
Adapted from foodandwine.com
Serves 6


All-purpose flour, for dusting
12 oz. prepared pizza dough, divided into 2 pieces
5 oz. baby spinach
1/2 cup frozen baby peas, thawed
1 cup peeled and finely diced cucumber
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
2 tbsp. chopped mint
2 tbsp. chopped dill
2 tsp. minced garlic
One 17-oz. container Greek-style plain whole-milk yogurt
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups shredded romaine lettuce
Kosher salt
1/2 cup za’atar spice mix


1. Preheat the oven to 450° and place a pizza stone on the bottom rack to heat for 30 minutes. Alternatively, light a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill on high.
2. On a lightly floured work surface, flatten the pizza dough into two 9-inch rounds, about 1/4 inch thick; transfer to 2 well-floured pizza peels or inverted baking sheets. Let stand until slightly risen, 20 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, wilt the spinach with 1 tablespoon of water over high heat. Transfer to a colander and rinse with cold water. Squeeze out the liquid and chop the spinach; transfer to a bowl. Add the peas and mash lightly with a fork. Stir in the cucumber, parsley, mint, dill and garlic. Add the yogurt, lemon juice and 2 tbsp. olive oil and stir to combine. Fold in the romaine and season with salt.
4. In a bowl, combine the za’atar with the remaining oil and a generous pinch of salt.
5. Shake the pizza peel a few times to loosen the dough. Dust flour under any areas that stick. Spread the za’atar oil over the dough. Slide the rounds onto the hot stone and bake for 10 minutes, until golden and crisp. To grill the flatbreads, oil one side lightly and flip that side onto the hot grill. Spread the za'atar oil over the side facing up. Grill for about 6 to 8 minutes.
6. Transfer the breads to a work surface and cut into wedges. Serve with the cucumber yogurt.

Green Bean, Roasted Red Pepper and Cherry Tomato Salad with Toasted Almonds
Serves 4
My improvised version of a Food & Wine test kitchen recipe

1. Preheat the oven to 425°. Lightly coat 2 red bell peppers in oil and place in the oven on a baking pan to roast until they are soft and their skins are blackened, turning occasionally, about 14 - 16 minutes. During the last few minutes of cooking, place a large handful of whole, preferably blanched almonds on a small baking pan and toast in the oven. Remove peppers from oven and place in a bowl. Cover the bowl with a tight layer of plastic wrap and set aside to cool. Remove almonds from oven and set aside to cool.
2. Blanch one pound of trimmed green beans in a shallow pan of salted water until bright green and still crisp, about 4 - 6 minutes. Drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking. Place green beans in a large bowl.
3. When peppers are cool enough to handle, peel skin from them, open them up and remove their seeds. Slice peppers into strips and add them to the bowl with the green beans.
4. Cut one pint of cherry tomatoes into quarters or halve one pint of grape tomatoes. Add tomatoes to bowl.
5. Dress salad with a mixture of lemon juice, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, to taste. Add generous handfuls of chopped fresh herbs, such as thyme and basil, and mix well.
6. Coarsely chop the almonds and sprinkle them over the salad. Divide between four plates and serve.