Speed Shopping, Elevated to an Art Form

Friends and family will attest that I enjoy a flair for gift giving and fashion as much as cooking and entertaining; a keen aesthetic runs in my family, which sets the bar high. And since I’m often approached about my sources, I’ll provide commentary here from time to time.

Living in SoHo, I don’t have to go out of my way for inspiration; the shopping possibilities en route to Whole Foods Bowery alone are too numerous to mention.

But when I’m pressed for time and need a gift, I make a beeline for MoMA Design Store. I appreciate its well-edited selection of sleek, unique, functional designs for almost every facet of life: wearable accessories, home décor, serving ware, and gadgets and supplies for both office and kitchen. You’ll also find the usual museum-gift-shop suspects here, such as note cards, post cards, and coffee table books with a specific emphasis on modern art and architecture.

It’s a place where, on any budget, you can quite effortlessly find something useful and thoughtful for anyone on your list. Often, the most clever and charming items are among the least expensive: The “2 Carat Cup” makes a particularly great hostess or Valentine’s Day gift. The ingenious packaging, photographed below, speaks for itself. Priced so modestly, these diamonds are definitely a girl’s best friend.

A Date to Remember

Of all my possessions, my standalone box freezer prompts the most curiosity from guests because its glaring attributes—unattractiveness and girth—defy New York apartment-dwelling and decorating logic. A suburban luxury that aids and abets my cooking habits, it’s roomy enough to store nonessentials like two homemade batches of red-wine ice cream (one to gift and one to keep); it’s also the place I squirrel away my mail-order pecans from Georgia.

That’s quirky, to be sure, but I almost always substitute walnuts with pecans when baking. Freezing pecans maintains their freshness (the high oil content makes them susceptible to becoming rancid in heat and humidity.) And, unlike the chain grocery store pieces who’ve seen better days, these are perfect, whole, meaty specimens.

They pair perfectly with dried Medjool dates, which I’d bought, forgotten about, and needed to use up. Pecan-stuffed dates are a staple of my mom’s Christmas cookie platter, but the other day I conjured up a variation and headed to my local cheesemonger for a petite wheel of Brillat-Savarin, a pasteurized cow’s milk triple crème brie that was a popular standout at our wine-and-cheese party in May.

Back in the kitchen, I whipped up a haiku:

Sweet, crunchy, creamy:

pitted dates stuffed with pecans

and triple crème brie.

I’ve never met a brie or a camembert I didn’t like; feel free to experiment with melt-in-your-mouth varietals that are readily available near you.

These are great as a snack or alongside a green salad for lunch, a first course or light dinner. Keep dates and pecans on hand, and serve Mom’s original version to impromptu guests or my triple-crème embellishment on planned occasions and as party hors d’oeuvre.

Ice Cream That’s Fit for a King

A 1970’s commercial and its infectious jingle touts the quintessential Americanness of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. (For a trip down memory lane, click here.) I’d argue that ice cream is as beloved here as hot dogs and apple pie, though its popularity predates America. It was served in the court of Charles II of England, who reigned in the 17th century.

Of all the ice creams I’ve enjoyed in my life—and I come from a family of ice cream lovers (my grandfather Gordon was known to enjoy a nightly bowl of vanilla ice cream before bedtime)—I think red-wine ice cream has to be among the most decadent in terms of complexity of flavor, luxuriousness of ingredients, and cost per bite. A roughly two-hour process (not including additional hardening time in the freezer), it’s made with nine egg yolks, heavy cream, whole milk, two bottles of cabernet sauvignon (each reduced down to one-eighth of its original volume), cinnamon sticks, a dash of whole black peppercorns and a dash of pure vanilla extract. It’s the Champagne of ice cream, to be savored on special occasions.

I first eyed and clipped the recipe for it  in 2004; it was published in The New York Times Magazine along with a recipe for upside-down fig cake, its suggested pairing. This was before it was so commonplace to find recipes online, and I’m happy to see that this ingenious confection is now within reach of a broader Internet audience. (Readers aware of red-wine ice cream purveyors, I’d love to know of and taste-test alternative sources for days when I don’t have time to make it or just a scoop will do.)

I’ve served it frequently at dinner parties and intimate gatherings, including a social I hosted for my small residential co-op. But gifting a pint of it to my friend (and neighbor) as a birthday-and-congratulations-on-the-bar-opening-gift, packaged in a Chinese takeout container, was a first. If you need a gift idea for the person who has everything (and you live sufficiently close by for a handoff before it melts), it’s hard to top homemade red-wine ice cream. I think even Charles II would agree.

If you are in the market for an ice cream maker, check out this site. The first two listed are brands that Cooks Illustrated, my favorite food magazine, also recommends in its 2010 review.

64-ounce paper Chinese takeout container, available at Pearl River Department Store for $1.25.

Tag and label from Paper Presentation

Haiku Cooking

It recently struck me that haiku has much in common with the best improvised home cooking: the simpler and fewer the ingredients involved, the more feasible and better it is—and frequently, the most challenging to do well. (Haiku, for those unfamiliar, is Japanese poetry that comprises just three lines and 17 syllables in total, the syllabic breakdown per line being 5:7:5.)

I first heard of haiku way back in Miss Mitamura’s fourth grade class at the International School of the Sacred Heart in Tokyo. Back then, we were charged with describing cherry blossoms, which in springtime were ubiquitous and luxuriously lined the path to our school’s entrance. I wish I could share with you what I wrote, but I do remember the assignment like it was yesterday.

At nine years old, it never occurred to me to write recipes in haiku. The extent of my cooking repertoire was baking Nestlé Toll House chocolate chip cookies, and I dutifully followed the instructions on the back of that bag of semisweet morsels.

But the other night, during the sweltering heat wave we’ve had here in New York, I threw together a simple salad with what was in the fridge, to accompany cold leftover pizza.

And I wrote a haiku about it:

Lettuce strewn with nuts,

Chunks of cherries, blue cheese, cukes;

Fruity vinaigrette.

Click here for a clever, effective method for pitting cherries.

A Foodie Faceoff

It seems only fitting to start this blog with what inspired it: a memoir essay I wrote for a food writing class taught by cookbook author Corinne Trang. The positive class feedback I received on this piece, and Corinne’s advice to my class of aspiring food writers to start blogging and develop our food writing voices, lit the fire in me to take the leap.

“Repeat after me, Gammer. Crumb buns,” said my older brother Maurie, correcting our grandmother as she prepared what she liked to call “crumble cake.” It was 1963, and at four years old, he was barely big enough to stand on his tiptoes so he could supervise her method of scrambling eggs. But he was already a perfectionist, culinary critic, semanticist and future iron chef.  Continue reading