A True GastroNomad

As part of my assignments for the food blogging class  that provoked this new endeavor, I have been reading other blogs and online media for what feels like every waking moment – unless of course I’m writing or trying to squeeze in some “real” work!

 There’s a lot of food writing out there! Despite the huge crop of talented writers out there, my favorite contemporary food writer remains Mimi Sheraton. Born in Brooklyn (what’s not to love about Brooklyn?), residing in Greenwich Village (Ditto.), she has dedicated the majority of her illustrious journalism career to traveling around the world devouring the foods and related stories from each culture then sharing it all with her faithful readers since the early 1970s. She is one of my biggest inspirations as a writer, a traveler, and certainly as an eater!

 Recently (26 April 2009, to be exact) she published an article in the New York Times titled “Personal Journeys: Meals Worth a Flight (or a Cab Ride)” Admittedly, reading this piece nearly gave me a severe case of inadequacy-induced writer’s block, but I am choosing to use it as inspiration instead.

 In this article, Sheraton reminisces about a traditional French bistro in Paris that, even after a 20-year absence, remains worth a plane ride across the ocean in her eyes. As it turns out, there are many food experiences that would inspire her to grab her passport and catch the next flight; not just bistros in Paris, but also markets in Vienna, a steakhouse in Madrid, an “offal” restaurant in London, and a Michelin-starred ristorante in a less-traveled region of Italy. She even throws in a Roman-style favorite much closer to home!

 My inner gypsy is a hopeless romantic when it comes to the thought flying off to far-away-places just to taste something particularly special in its home environment. This wanderlust and accompanying hunger has been fueled by food writing such as this from a time long before I even had a passport or the means to fly off anywhere, much less to hop a taxi to the Upper East Side! This is a big part of why I became a chef in the first place… I reasoned that a chef can go anywhere in the world, taste the best foods, drink amazing wines, and always find work that would bring those things one step closer.

 I was right.

Gelato Italiano

This is a revision of an article I wrote for my column Eat and Tell that appears on Eat Something Sexy, a website created by my lovely friend Amy Reilly. (See link in the side bar)

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Gelato making is an art form in Italy and gelaterias often resemble galleries in homage to the frozen fantasy. Even a humble neighborhood shop makes great effort to elaborately garnish the sculpted colorful mounds with fruits, nuts, and candies. The serious artisanal shops are softly lit rich wood paneled rooms with marble floors and elaborate display cases of polished brass manned by charming Italians ready to satisfy your every need.

It’s been a few months since my last visit to Italy, but the summer weather here in NYC and my trip to Brooklyn Bridge Ice Cream Factory yesterday had me reminiscing about my days of wandering the streets of Rome and Florence in search of the best gelato in Italy. I’m happy to report that I was successful in this endeavor! I avoided the chain shops and disappointing gelato experiences by watching for Armani-clad businessmen with fresh cones and choosing places where Italian was still the language of choice. This was easier done in Rome than in Florence – may have had something to do with the Italian to tourist ratio.

Of the seven gelaterias I visited, two of the top three were in Rome, including the one place that I became so enamored with that I returned at least three times (twice in one day!). Here are my three favorites:

1. Della Palma Gelato di Roma: (Via della Maddalena 20, Rome, Italy 00186 near the Pantheon) I’m not the only person who thinks this is the best gelato in Rome, or anywhere else for that matter, but their success has not gone to their heads – though some of it has gone to my thighs! The selection and the quality are extraordinary. In the corner of the display case you will find about a dozen deep, dark chocolate flavors including my favorite one with pepperoncini (spicy red chiles). For those who prefer sorbetto, try fichi (figs with or without ricotta) or fruta di bosca (wild berries).

2. Gelateria Santa Trinita (Lungarno Guicciardini and Piazza Frescobaldi, Florence): The gelateria in Florence that was so highly recommended was a disappointment and many others were the Italian equivalent of Baskin-Robbins. So I wandered slightly off the beaten path on the “other side” of the Arno and found this chic little boutique serving hand crafted silky accessories of the sweet frozen variety to ultra-fashionable locals. I tried a Sicilian cassata gelato that was bejeweled with perfectly cut brunoise (for non-chefs, that’s very small cubes) of seemingly homemade candied fruits in the softest pastel colors embedded in velvety smooth ricotta-scented gelato. A scoop of that and one of pear gelato with a yummy swirl of grappa-soaked pear gelee made for a perfect early evening diversion.

3. [name unknown] on Via Serpenti near Panisperna (in the Subura neighborhood of Rome near the Coliseum): This place is a small neighborhood place that serves a lot more locals than tourists. It’s off the beaten path in the ancient neighborhood that has been known for thousands of years as the Subura. It’s on one of the oldest streets in all of Rome and just a couple of blocks from the perfect little hotel I stayed in (www.hotelartoriusrome.com). I don’t know if this place is worth a detour, but I can say that if you are in the neighborhood, the gelato is wonderful and the staff is friendly, and there is a small piazza nearby with a fountain and some benches where you can reset your tired feet while practicing licking and lingering like an Italian!

Wandering Brooklyn, Part II

 

Another beautiful day in the neighborhood! Today is going to involve covering a bit more territory, so I have enlisted a partner in crime to join my expedition. We still won’t make a dent in the cultural offerings and exceptional foods of Brooklyn, not to mention the physical area this great city encompasses. This could take all summer! Yay! How lucky am I that this particular adventure requires little more than a MetroCard, HopStop, and some imagination? Good thing too, since my next plane ticket has yet to be purchased… my inner gypsy needs all the stimulation she can find and Brooklyn fits her budget.

 

A very slow moving morning landed me very close to home for breakfast – classic Belgian pastries and an iced green tea at Colson on the corner of 9th Street and 6th Avenue. Actually, I don’t know how classic my goat cheese and roasted pepper turnover was, but the pastry was flaky, delicate, buttery, and baked perfectly (no soggy spots). I’m happy and ready for the real adventure to begin.

 

A short ride on the G train brings us to Clinton Hill (C train would bring you to the door), a rapidly gentrifying, but still fun and funky neighborhood. Our destination is Habana Outpost (757 Fulton Street at S. Portland), the far more colorful and exciting sister restaurant of Café Habana in NoLita. habana Just walking up to this place makes you happy! You can easily imagine that you are on a Caribbean island with all the brightly colored umbrellas, tables, walls, and huge red food truck parked in the middle of the lot. The 90-degree weather only helped the illusion along! You order your food and drinks inside the restaurant then take your ticket and your well priced margarita out to the truck where the chef will cook your food to order – a decent Cubano sandwich, an amazing ear of grilled corn with queso blanco, a good cactus salad (too many red onions), and screamin’ hot fried sweet plantains. habana-food  The best part about this place is the ambiance and the laid back, diverse clientele. Hoping to make this a regular stop this summer – I imagine it is a great place to spend an evening. Next time, I’ll hit the “corn and a drink” express line.

 

Next time I’m in the area, I will definitely try Bati, the Ethiopian restaurant just down the street at 747 Fulton. I’ve heard good things but just couldn’t do two big meals that close together in this heat. But, I did manage a visit to Cake Man Raven’s shop at 708 Fulton Street for a piece of his famous red velvet cake, to go. Yes, it was worth all the hype and the $6/slice price tag. I can say that I never really got the whole red velvet thing, but this is damn good cake!

 

From Clinton Hill, we headed over to DUMBO and Brooklyn Bridge Park to walk off lunch and work up an appetite for the multi-course dessert ahead. We already had our red velvet cake in hand. A stop at Jacques Torres chocolates provided us with one of the best chocolate chip cookies in NYC and a “wicked” frozen hot chocolate (chiles and chocolate – say no more!). cake-etc1 If this wasn’t enough, we topped it all off with a scoop of handmade ice cream (coffee for me, chocolate chunk for my partner in crime) from the Brooklyn Bridge Ice Cream Factory. Overkill? Possibly. But so good, it was worth not eating dinner tonight!

Wandering Brooklyn, Part I

It’s the first truly beautiful warm day of the year here in NYC and since I live in a perfect neighborhood for enjoying beautiful days, I thought I’d do my culinary wandering in my own ‘hood today. Granted, I didn’t cover all that much ground, but I did discover some treats – both local and not!

 

To get the most of the beautiful day and to attempt to revive my fading tan, I headed to Prospect Park with a good book (the one I was pleasantly distracted from while at the beach in Alcoy). At the park, I stopped for my first dirty-water-dog of the year (everything on it). It totally hit the spot – tasted just like a classic NYC day in the park, which is fortunate and appropriate.

 

For a late lunch I tried a relatively new place in Park Slope, Hanco’s Bubble Tea & Vietnamese Sandwich (350 7th Avenue at 10th Street). Aptly named. I had a spicy bahn mi, an almond bubble tea, and xio (pandan flavored sweet rice, mung bean and coconut cake). The bahn mi was a refreshing balance of crispy, crunchy, and chewy – I’m definitely hooked! The xio was chewy and not too sweet at all – it reminded me (distantly) of some of my favorite Filipino treats (without coming close to the real thing – have to go in person for that). The bubble tea came home with me for a shot of rum, which helped both of us greatly!

 

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OK, now I’ve done classic NYC and Vietnamese street food… time to figure out what’s for dinner. Any suggestions?

 

On deck for tomorrow: Roebling Pizza, Cuban street food, and margaritas.

 

 

Island Time

As I sit here in my freezing cold office avoiding going out into the 50 degree overcast chill of this NYC “spring”, I can’t help daydreaming about being on an island – preferably in the Philippines!

 

I recently returned from a glorious two-week vacation – 4 days in Hong Kong, 9 days in Cebu & Manila. More on Hong Kong in the near future… today my mind is on a different kind of island!

 

It will take me several posts to cover all the wonderful food and experiences I had while in the Philippines, so best get started now with a bit of an overview with hints of things to come. To begin with, here are five of my (numerous) favorite foods that remind me of silky breezes, hot sun, warm clear waters, and my loved ones:

 

  1. Lechon (PIG!!): Pig products hold an especially dear place in my heart. I have yet to taste a part of the pig that did not bring me pure pleasure, and I’m fairly confident that, as I make my way from tip to tail, I will not be disappointed… but then again, I’m a reasonably adventurous eater! Filipinos have a way with pig that melts my heart!

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  1. Mangoes: Cebu is famous for its mangoes, and rightfully so!

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  1. Halo Halo (translation: Mix Mix): The most decadent, tropical ice cream sundae ever! Ube (purple yam) ice cream is a must, accompanied by jackfruit, custard cubes, young coconut, preserved sweet beans, gelatin cubes, and anything else that sounds yummy, all over shaved ice!

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  1. Mangosteens: This trip was my first experience with fresh mangosteen… opening one for the first time was like finding a sweet-tart, segmented jewel of tender fruit in a deep purple shell.

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  1. Tanduay Rum: Over 150 years of Filipino distilling history in a bottle. I don’t know if it really is the best rum I’ve ever had, or if the company I kept was just that incredible – the memories of both are forever linked. It’s amazing what you can do with a little help from your friends! Best served with Coke (Zero in our case) and fresh calamansi juice.

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A brief history of a GastroNomad

I’ve been a chef (or at least a professional cook) for over 15 years. I’ve been in love with food all of my life. Food has always meant more to me than simply “what’s for dinner.” Even before I understood the concept of food as a symbol of culture, I knew that different families ate different foods and that these foods were important to them – that sharing a meal was akin to sharing personal history, an intimate act.

 

I remember the first time I realized this. I was 9 years old. My best friend invited me to dinner at her grandmother’s house with her huge Italian family. Until then, I didn’t realize how families from other regions of Italy ate so differently from my own family whose roots are in southern Italy and Sicily. I was served an exotic dish I had never heard of before – polenta, which had been molded into a large loaf then sliced and served topped with meat ragù and grated cheese. I remember being amazed by the silky firmness and sweet corn flavor of the polenta. It reminded me of really thick cream of wheat, so I was shocked that it was served with a savory meat sauce – and for dinner! Everyone was so excited to have Nonna’s polenta – a family favorite. When I got home that night, I told my Sicilian grandmother all about the exotic meal I’d eaten at Michelle’s Nonna’s house. She explained to me that polenta was made from corn meal and that it is eaten by people from the north the same way we enjoy macaroni. That was my first lesson in food as culture.

 

I was fortunate to grow up in a home where exploring cultures through cuisine was encouraged and relished. When others were satisfied with egg fu yung, we were eating Sichuan dishes; when Rice-a-Roni was considered a treat, we were indulging in squid ink paella. On holidays we enjoyed traditional Italian-American specialties rounded out with traditional Polish foods and classic French pastries or tropical fruits like ripe mangos and papayas for dessert. My sisters and I all had adventurous palates long before we went off on our own, with our mother’s adventurous spirit to thank for it!

 

Even the simplest foods – or should I say “especially” the simplest foods – speak volumes about where someone is from and the role food played in their development. As an adult, my inner gypsy became obsessed with traveling to the roots of these foodways. It could be as simple as going to Pennsylvania Dutch country for real scrapple or Brooklyn for pizza; or going a bit further to Milan for risotto Milanese, or tasting various types of ensaymadas in the Philippines.

 

Five years ago, I decided to turn my fascination with food and culture into a career by getting a Masters degree in Gastronomy and focusing my research on immigrant foodways and globalization. The GastroNomad is my way of sharing my travel and eating adventures with you.