Saturday, May 30, 2009

Grilled chicken, cherry, roasted asparagus and green bean salad: See, I really do eat healthy!

The other day, a friend put up the following on Twitter, "@DianaTakesaBite I shall call u blimpie from here on out..."

I responded, "Blimpie?"

"'Blimpie'... because of all the food u consume and the indigestion u must endure. Pretty soon you'll b as big as a blimp!" She wrote back.

Her words, while meant to be in jest, hit me hard. Especially after receiving a random personal message on Yelp a few weeks ago asking, "How are you not a big giant fat person?"

Looking over many of my blog posts, reviews on Yelp and updates on Twitter, it does appear as though I do eat an obscene amount of rich, decadent food. I go for pizza and ice cream. I treat myself to multi-course meals, I regularly post about my chocolate finds, and I am not one to turn up my nose when offerred a cookie. It is not hard to see why people think that I am constantly shovelling calorically dense food into my mouth with no regard for my health or hip size. I can't really blame them for thinking I am on the path toward a weight problem, Diabetes or, as my friend put it, a state of blimpdom.

What people don't see, however, is the healthy meals I prepare for myself most nights of the week that include whole grains like quinoa, fresh steamed vegetables and lean proteins. Or the sack lunches and fresh fruit that I take with me to work every single day. Or the green tea or water that I drink instead of sodas or sugar-laden fruit juice. In addition, while I do review quite a few restaurants, I actually eat 85% of my meals at home, limit my intake of alcohol, and, more often than not, eat my chocolate finds in moderation. A couple pieces of Hershey's Bliss dark chocolate after lunch and two Trader Joe's chocolate ice cream bon bons does not a blimp make. Especially considering my levels of physical activity (5 days of cardio + 2 strength training sessions every week).

This salad I made for lunch on Saturday, composed of balsamic-marinated grilled chicken, fresh cherries, roasted asparagus, green beans and shallots, and a moderate sprinkling of slivered almonds and feta cheese, exemplifies how I approach most of my meals. I enjoy delicious, foodie-friendly foods that still fuel my body and provide me with the proper vitamins, healthy fats, good carbohydrates and lean protein grams that I need to get through my day. I truly endeavor to make sure that I get at least 5-7 servings of fruit and vegetables every day, and am conscious of what I'm putting in my mouth when I am not indulging at a nice restaurant, chowing down on pizza with my parents, or seeking out a decadent dessert find for Sugar Bomber. I am able to truly eat whatever I want on those occasions because of the healthy habits I adhere to when I am not shovelling in the bacon, ice cream and cheese.

Plus, I do crazy things like go for ten mile hikes to nowhere on my "lazy" Sundays. (But, more on that later.)

The point is that the elicit images of food porn that I put up on this site are not representative of my entire diet, and I don't at all encourage anyone to subsist on an all pork fat or all ice cream diet. I do, however, encourage a diet that doesn't label any food as forbidden -- a diet that is about balance. Follow up a hearty meal at the meat lover's paradise, Animal, with a salad the next day. Eat a lighter lunch when going out for a big meal in the evening. And, by all means, eat a couple pieces of dark chocolate after lunch every single day. It doesn't just taste good, it's practically virtuous! Especially if eaten after a salad like this...

Grilled Chicken, Cherry, and Roasted Asparagus and Green Bean Salad

Grilled chicken, marinated in balsamic dressing, sliced
Mixed field greens
Fresh, ripe cherries (or dried)
Asparagus, green beans, shallots, tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper, and roasted in the oven at 400 degrees until tender (approximately 15 minutes)
Balsamic dressing made with balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, honey, salt and pepper (to taste)
Slivered almonds
Feta cheese

For another take on how to maintain a healthy "foodie" lifestyle, check out LA and OC Foodventures H.C.'s other blog, Foodie Fitness.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Riva: A Reverant Experience

I was giddy driving out to Santa Monica this past Sunday afternoon at 4 pm. I should have been cursing the slow-moving Prius in front of me or calling my mother to whine about the poorly timed traffic signals, but instead I was nearly bowled over with excitement. I couldn't wait to arrive at my destination. I couldn't wait for the evening to begin.

As part of Yelp's Wine Club, I was fortunate enough to join a 20-something party of similarly-minded yelpers for a special wine and food pairing event at Riva, Jason Travi's sister restaurant to the highly revered Fraiche in Culver City. I'd had the opportunity to dine at Riva once before, and knew that my friends and I were in for a treat that evening. Especially since the patate simplice pizza I'd enjoyed the last time was included on the tasting menu.

Despite my high expectations for the night, nothing could have prepared me for what awaited us at the Promenade-adjacent restaurant. Nothing could have prepared me for the flawless service, generous pours of wine and impeccably presented platters of food. Nothing could have prepared me for four of the best hours I have ever spent at an eatery in Los Angeles. In a word -- perfection.

Of course, since I error on the side of verbosity, I've got a few more words to share about the experience.

Like fried arancini balls, golden brown and oozing long sensuous strands of mozzarella cheese. And luscious dollops of burrata, drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar and precariously plopped on toasted rounds of bread. And Borgo Magredo Prosecco -- bubbly, understated, and a welcome replacement for its French cousin, Champagne. After two glasses of Prosecco, two Arancini balls and the aforementioned crostini, my stomach was purring with contentment and primed for the feast to come. Our hosts led our motley crew into a private dining room tucked away in the back of the luminous space of the restaurant, and we were transported away from the world as the restaurant staff, co-owner, and knowledgeable wine broker wooed us into heady states of oblivion.

"Wine is supposed to be fun," the wine broker, our MC for the night, told us as he described the 2007 Umani Ronchi Verdicchio Classico that would be served alongside our Crudo. The bright wine tickled our palates with its subtle undertones of almond and citrus, and in the moment, no truer words have ever been spoken. It was fun. Especially when paired with our trio of crudo that included a big eye tuna with tonnato sauce and capers, sea bass with pink peppercorns and lemon oil, and a spectacular albacore. We sipped, we tasted, we sipped again, and then marvelled at the way the wine was transformed after each bite. We couldn't wait for more, and the restaurant and wine broker couldn't wait to give us more.

Platters of bacon confit pizza, the aforementioned patate simplice, and a judiciously topped arugula and prosciutto pie, descended upon our tables still steaming from the wood-burning oven. We teased our tongues with a 2006 Vignamaggio Suahili Syrah Salento and then dug into the feast before us. Despite the demands of cooking for a large group, the pies were flawless, and the patate simplice, redolent with ooey gooey fontina cheese, thin slices of yukon gold potatoes, and seasoned with rosemary and sea salt was even better than I remembered. In the four months since I've been to the restaurant, the kitchen has clearly gained mastery over their dough -- the salt-kissed crust is crisp, but tender to the bite, and easily stands on its own.

A short break and educational briefing from our wine broker followed the pizza course, and despite the haze that was threatening to overcome my sensibilities (and ladylike decorum), I did my best to pay attention to his description of the 2005 Lungarotti Rubesco. The bold red wine, a combination of Sangiovese and Canaiolo, was ultimately my favorite pour of the evening, and the spiciness of its finish paired well with the multitude of various antipasti salads that were presented to us with it. The fresh bite of the largely bean-based salads was a welcome break after the heartier pizza course, and by the time the bowls had been cleared, we were all ready for a sweet ending.

"If you ever need a hostess gift, buy a bottle of this dessert wine and some biscotti," our wine broker instructed us as we received our glasses of the 2005 Lungarotti Dulcis to be paired with an over abundance of small cookies. Our eyes glistened with lust as the platters were set down on our tables, and I lost complete sight of my manners as I dove in for a warm chocolate chip cookie here, a perfectly caramelized, buttery macaroon there, and two or three or four crisp bites of chocolate and almond biscotti. While the dessert wine was a bit cloying for my palate, the cookies helped temper the sweetness, and I made a pointed effort to consume as many as possible so as to ensure the optimal drinking experience.
By the time we rolled out of the restaurant four hours after our arrival, we were all in shock over the amazing dining experience.

"Can you believe that?" My friend Anna asked me.

I shook my head in bewilderment. I couldn't. The service, food and wine that we received for only $30 a person was nothing short of exquisite. But more importantly, it gave each of us a memory that we are not soon to forget. Especially since we have each documented it on Yelp with 5-star glowing reviews.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Strickland's Ice Cream: Getting what I want

"So, umm... I hear there's a really good ice cream place a few doors down." I say casually as I take a large bite of my thick-crust slice of BBQ chicken pizza at Gina's Pizza in Irvine.

My mom raises an eyebrow. "Where?"

I nod my head to the right. "Just over there."

My mom turns back to her pizza. She doesn't seem particularly interested in filling her stomach beyond capacity.

Typical, I think. She always has to stop eating when she's full. Soooo anti-American.

"It's homemade -- they make it fresh everyday." I continue, hoping my words will lure in my dad instead.

"They are thinking of opening a new location." He interjects.

"What?" I ask, popping a stray bite of chicken into my mouth.

"Gina's. They're expanding. He may be the new manager." He says, referrring to the handsome UCI student who is always manning the counter when my parents and I come in for one of our ritualistic pizza nights.

"Oh, right." I respond noncommitedly.

At the moment, I don't really care much about the expansion of my favorite OC pizzeria. I care about ice cream -- specifically the ice cream sold at Strickland's, the independently owned shop near Gina's that is rumored to have some of the best ice cream in Southern California. I've been dying to try it, and am not about to miss out on another opportunity to taste the frozen deliciousness that has received an average of 4 stars on Yelp.

As I polish off the thick wedge of crust on my second piece of pizza, I set my jaw in determination.

I don't care what they do, I will have the ice cream tonight.

Ten minutes later, as my dad scours the restaurant to further harass the aforementioned assistant manager, I sneak out the front door with my eyes fixated on the ice cream parlour just down the walkway of the strip mall. My mom follows. She knows what I'm doing.

"I just want to have a peek..." I say, feigning indifference.

I don't just want a peek, and she knows it.

"Do you want me to get you one?" She asks playing the role of the good mother -- just like she always does.

I nod my head shyly. "If you don't mind..." I say as though it doesn't really matter, and then immediately turn toward the list of daily flavors that rotate everyday.

"Can I try a couple of the flavors?" I ask the pleasant-faced middle-aged man behind the counter.

He gives an enthusiastic affirmative response and rushes off to fetch me a taste of both the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup and the Mint Oreo.

"I think I would get the Mint Oreo." My mom whispers.

I ignore her, my mouth suddenly enraptured by the sea of creamy bliss that is descending over my tongue.


In a daze, I select the Peanut Butter Cup, and spend the car ride home mooning over the soft-serve consistency ice cream that truly tastes as though it is fresh from the maker. Mid-way through my generous serving, I start to tire of the dessert, but finish it anyway. I've waited far too long for this ice cream to let even a tiny portion go to waste. And unlike my mom, I subscribe to a full-fledged "Big Fat American" policy when I'm treating myself. No cup nor plate will enter the trash with food still on it.

The delicately flavored peanut butter ice cream is the perfect cool treat to begin the long Memorial Day weekend, and the perfect way to end another successful Gina's pizza night witih my parents. I will repeat this experience again. Only next time, I'm bringing my parents down with me.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Carrot Cake Oatmeal Cookies: Gettin' lucky in the kitchen

I often feel like a bit of an imposter when I post recipes on my blog. While I like to think that I know my way around a skillet and oven, I'm constantly making mistakes and committing kitchen crimes that would make many a foodie and chef shudder in revulsion.

Things like covering my risotto with a lid to make it cook faster instead of patiently stirring it like a good cook.

Or using Lawry's fajita mix instead of whipping up my own chicken fajitas from scratch.

And overcooking chicken and eggs due to my irrational fears about contracting food bourne illnesses.

These are the types of things that nag away at my conscience when I posture as an authority on arugula pesto or orzo salad or quinoa. I'm not an authority. I'm just a girl who enjoys cooking, loves eating and who, every now and again, gets really lucky in the kitchen.

This past weekend was such an instance.

On Saturday afternoon I was hit with a massive case of the baking itchies and for once in my chocolific life, was not in the mood for chocolate. Because carrot cake is one of my favorite desserts, I became obsessed with the idea of making carrot cake cookies. But not just any carrot cake cookie. Oh no, it had to be a special carrot cake cookie -- chock full of oatmeal, walnuts, white chocolate chips, and coconut -- ingredients that, unfortunately, were not present in any of the recipes I found on-line. I considered giving up my quest and just messing around with the vegan version I found on 101 Cookbooks, but I started to feel grouchy and whiny about it and finally decided to be a big brave soldier and make up my own recipe.

I was a little nervous about how they would turn out, especially when I saw how sticky the batter was, but once the golden brown muffin-like cookies emerged from the oven, I knew I'd hit baking gold. They were absurdly delicious for a cookie containing a vegetable, and even more importantly, brought a smile to both my parents' faces. Even my dad, who always has a "helpful" suggestion for how to improve a dish or recipe, exclaimed, "These are good!" upon taking his first bite. Those three words were enough to make me giddy for the rest of the night.

Well, that and all the sugar from the two cookies I consumed in rapid succession.

Diana's Everything but the Kitchen Sink Carrot Cake Oatmeal Cookies
Makes 20 large cookies

1 stick butter (1/2 cup), softened
3/4 brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup carrots, finely shredded
1/2 cup coconut
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
3/4 cup white chocolate chips
1 cup flour
1 cup oats
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Cream together softened butter and brown sugar. Add egg and vanilla, beat with an electric mixer until fluffy (approximately 1-2 minutes).

2. Combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in separate bowl. Mix together with a wire whisk. Add to the butter, brown sugar, egg mixture. Stir until just combined.

3. Add oats, coconut, white chocolate chips, walnuts, carrots. When everything is well-integrated into the batter, refrigerate for approximately 30 minutes. Batter will be sticky.

4. While refrigerating, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spoon out golf ball-size scoops onto a cookie sheet and bake for 14 - 17 minutes depending on temperature of oven and how cool the dough is from the fridge. They will be golden brown on top when done. If they appear moist in the middle they aren't quite there yet! Cool completely on a wire rack before enjoying.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day Feasting: Saying "Hello" to Summer

For most Americans, it seems as though Memorial Day has become more about transitioning into summer than about honoring the soldiers who have died for the country. Rather than paying homage to those brave men and women, we tend to use the day as an excuse to fire up the barbecue, pop open a few beers and break out the white capris that have been hibernating in the back of the closet since Labor Day.

As such, over the years I have come to associate the day with my dad's barbecued chicken, the sweet ears of corn that are finally in season, and homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream fresh from the maker. These are the things that my childhood summer memories are made of. And these are the things that I instinctively found myself craving yesterday.

My two roommates and I had planned to make our Memorial Day Monday night an occasion for bonding over good food and wine at an undetermined location, but when I woke up yesterday morning, all I wanted to do was enjoy a casual, simple supper at home. I wasn't about to duck out on the festitivies at the last minute, but I was secretly thrilled when my roommate said he wasn't feeling well enough to go out.

"Oh that's fine! Not to worry at all!" I enthused. "We'll reschedule! Wouldn't want you to push yourself when you are sick." I continued, already fantasizing about the summer-inspired meal I would make.

It didn't take long for me to decide on teriyaki-marinated grilled chicken (prepared on my grill pan), Giada's orzo salad that became a staple in my parent's house last summer, and the aforementioned ear of sweet yellow corn. Even though I didn't get to enjoy it with my family on the patio of my Newport Beach childhood home, the fresh, festive meal was the perfect bite of nostalgia for the end of the long weekend, and a precursor for what is to come in the months ahead. Here's hoping it involves at least a few occasions that warrant homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Orzo with Tomatoes, Feta, and Green Onions
Adapted from Giada's recipe on Epicurious

Makes 2 generous side portions

1/2 cup whole wheat orzo
1 tablespoon low sodium Better than Bouillon chicken base mixed with 5 cups of water (original recipe calls for regular chicken broth)

1 large vine-ripened tomato, chopped (original recipe calls for red and yellow teardrop or grape tomatoes)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 green onions, chopped
2 tablespoons slivered almonds or pinenuts, toasted (I used almonds)
3 tablespoons feta cheese

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
2 teaspoons basil-infused olive oil (can use regular EVOO)
2 teaspoons agave nectar (original recipe calls for honey)
Salt, pepper to taste

Whisk together vinegar, lemon juice, agave nectar, olive oil, lemon zest, and salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, cook orzo in chicken broth according to package instructions. When tender, but still firm to the bite, drain and transfer to a large wide bowl, tossing frequently until cool. Toss with vinaigrette so the pasta doesn't stick together.

Mix tomatoes, feta, basil, and green onions into orzo. Season with additional salt and pepper. Let stand at room temperature or refrigerate until needed. Top with slivered almonds.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Fried Eggs with Pesto and Roasted Vegetables: A simple, light lunch

It was stressing me out much more than necessary for a long weekend that, for many, is primarily about rest, recuperation and the return of summer whites.

The facts are these. Yesterday's schedule presented me with a bit of a food dilemma. I had to eat breakfast before I left my parent's house in Orange County for church at 9:45 am, and I wouldn't be able to get back to my apartment in LA with groceries until 1:15 pm at the earliest. At that time, it would be approximately 3 hours and 15 minutes before the wine/food pairing event I would be attending at Riva restaurant in Santa Monica. I knew I would be ravenous since my body needs sustenance every 3 1/2 - 4 hours and is used to eating a filling lunch at that time. I also knew that I would need to throw something together quickly, and finally, given the impending feast, I knew I would not want to overload my belly with anything too filling like a sandwich or an Elaine-from-Seinfeld "Big Salad."

As such, my lunch needed to adhere to the following requirements:

1. Hearty enough to halt my hunger pains for no longer than 2 1/2 - 3 hours

2. Fast, easy, simple to make so as not to cut into any more of my digestion time

And because I am semi-neurotic (read: crazy) when it comes to the composition of my diet:

3. Healthy, containing either fruits/veggies since my dinner would most likely be devoid of both

4. Light on carbohydrates since there would be pizza and other carbolicious treats to come and balance is important to a girl who wants to still fit into the Anthropologie dress she really should not have purchased the day before (even if it is exceedingly adorable and brings out the shades of blue in her eyes in a most pleasing way)

My self-imposed requirements created considerable pressure for what should have been a simple meal, and I spent a substantial amount of time on Saturday night before coming up with the solution to my eating dilemma: the incredible edible egg served with lots of vegetables.

For this dish, I decided to do my spin on the poached eggs over fresh market vegetables that my friend Ashley ordered at Huckleberry when she came out to visit me a month ago. I selected asparagus, green beans and a vine-ripened tomato from the produce section at Whole Foods, accidentally purchased a 1/2 carton of $5.99 eggs (this is what happens when grocery shopping is done at frantic, lightening speed) and on my way out, grabbed a container of basil to make a quickie version of pesto for an added punch of flavor.

The dish went together incredibly quickly -- while my green veggies roasted in the oven, I prepared my pesto, chopped my tomato and toasted some bread crumbs to sprinkle over the top. And even though my French roommate was appalled that I fried my eggs a little too far past the runny yolk stage, the final result was not only healthy and veggie-friendly, but delicious as well. More importantly, however, it cured my hunger pains precisely up until the moment when I took my first bite of arancini at the restaurant last night. In the words of Goldilocks from Goldilocks and the Three Bears , my lunch was "juuuuust right."

The rightness of my sanity on the other hand, is still up for debate.

Fried Eggs w/ Pesto and Roasted Vegetables
Based on similar dish at Huckleberry in Santa Monica

Serves 1 individual who wants to be full, but not too full

2 eggs (hopefully eggs that do not cost $1 each)
7 spears asparagus, chopped into 1-inch pieces
15 green beans, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 vine ripened tomato, diced into chunks
Toasted bread crumbs (optional)
Olive oil
Salt, pepper to taste

Quick Pesto
1 tablespoon basil, very finely chopped
2 teaspoons olive oil (I used basil-infused olive oil because I'm crazy like that)
1 tablespoon finely grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon water
Salt, pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss asparagus and green beans with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and bake for approximately 15 minutes or until tender.

Meanwhile, prepare pesto. Chop basil by hand and then mix with other ingredients, or combine everything in a food processor. I did it by hand to minimize the amount of dishes with fine results.

Just before veggies are done, toss the tomato into the pan and fry eggs over medium in large skillet. If desired the eggs can also be poached. When everything is ready, plate the veggies and top with the eggs. Spoon pesto over the eggs and sprinkle the entire dish with toasted bread crumbs.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eatery: A taste of home in NYC

I should have been disappointed when my brother suggested we go to Eatery for brunch on Sunday afternoon after a night of heavy eating, drinking and seemingly endless karaoke. I'd already been to the popular Hell's Kitchen lunch, brunch and dinner spot three times, and as a non-resident, repeating any NY restaurant more than a couple times seems worthy of a place on the list of cardinal foodie sins -- right below ordering steak well-done and eating only California rolls at Nobu.

With so many fabulous places on virtually every corner of the city (even the dodgy ones), it would seem wasteful of me to go to one place four times over the course of five consecutive visits to New York. Yet, as soon as my brother mentioned Eatery, I immediately began nodding my head in enthusiastic approval. It was where I secretly wanted to go too.

It might have been nice to go to Balthazar or some other Zagat-rated, Chowhound/Yelp-adored brunching and lunching spot, but there was something incredibly comforting about going some place familiar and steeped with so many fond memories for both my brother and me. It was the first place he took me for brunch on my first visit to NY three years ago. It was the first place we went as a family when we took the red-eye out from SoCal to spend Christmas with him in the city. And it was the place where he and I went two years ago, the day after his 28th birthday when he was nursing a much stronger hangover than the mild aggreviation we were experiencing this past Sunday.

It was special to go back there with him and his friend Jamie this past weekend -- not just because Eatery knows how to knock out a palate-pleasing corn flake crusted French toast with orange marmalade, fresh berries and cinnamon syrup; and a crackified version of mac & cheese, heaped with crunchy frizzled onions for optimal texture contrast; but because it felt normal to be there. And it felt like we were being "locals" -- a tag that clearly doesn't belong to me, and no longer belongs to my brother either now that he resides in Phoenix.

It was supremely comforting to see the same lackluster complimentary coffee cake arrive at our table moments after being seated -- the same coffee cake that we still always end of eating, inspite of its mediocrity. It was equally comforting for me to sip the same Pickwick green lemon tea that I'd sipped on my other visits to the restaurant, and to debate over the same menu items I always debate over. Ultimately, I chose to bypass the essential French toast (my brother's selection) for Steven's special daily frittata with grilled chicken, tomatoes, zucchini, and goat cheese ($10), and an order of the Buckwheat pancakes with honey-pecan butter, fresh berries and maple syrup ($9) to split with Jamie, who opted for the aforementioned Mac & Jack ($12).

As we satisfied our post-reveling hunger pains with our grand spread of carbs, eggs, mac & cheese, and Mimosas, I felt perfectly content with my brother's restaurant choice. While the food is fairly standard for mid-day brunching nosh (ie. warm, filling and tasty), the restaurant is more than standard.

Eatery is noteworthy in my mind because it makes me feel at home in New York -- like I belong there and could spend many a weekend eating and regretting eating that darn coffee cake amuse bouche. In a city that can be alienating for both visitors and residents alike, it's a pretty remarkable thing. Especially for a pink skirt-wearing blonde girl who hails from "the OC."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ruben's Empanadas: A temporary moment of happiness

I don't normally take much stock in the quoatable quotes celebrities choke out in magazine interviews. They all seem a bit contrived and forced -- like a clipboard-yielding publicist is feeding lines into the interviewee's ear from across the room.

"Now tell them that you love eating In-N-Out animal-style burgers and that you were a big dork in high school and that you care deeply about the genocide in Darfur."

Right. And Angelina Jolie is just like us because she pumps her own gas.

Because most interviews tend to involve these types of self-promoting, dubiously truthful revelations, I typically skim such articles and promptly move on to the "Healthy Recipes to Slim Your Thighs!" feature. On Sunday evening however, in an attempt to make my issue of Women's Health magazine take up as much time as possible on my five-hour flight from NY to LA, I actually paid a bit closer attention.

Near the end of the interview with the saucy Zoe Saldana (of Centerstage and Star Trek fame), the confident actress declared that "Happiness is nothing but temporary moments here and there." (page 129) Her point was that being a "happy" person does not necessarily mean being happy all the time. There will still be low points, and one needs to relish those fleeting moments when things are well with the world.

The quote struck me as an apt descriptor for my brief 28-hour visit to New York that weekend. The entire trip was a string of temporary moments of happiness -- like the brief encounter my brother, his friends and I had at Ruben's Empanadas in SoHo on Saturday afternoon.

I was starving after my long snack-free (aside from my pb & j sandwich, carrots sticks and apple) flight, and knew that I wouldn't make it until our 9:30 pm dinner without some additional form of sustenance. My brother and his friends were also feeling the mid-afternoon sugar slump, so it wasn't exactly Derek Shepard-style brain surgery for us to reach the conclusion that some form of food would need to be ingested. Stat.

It was at this critical juncture that my brother's NY-residing friends, an adorable couple who make me believe that maybe I have an other half out there somewhere too, suggested Ruben's Empanadas, a grab-and-go hole-in-the-wall that is famous for their spicy chicken baked empanadas. It also wasn't very challenging for us to decide that we would each be ordering the eatery's most popular item. (Though I was all sorts of intrigued by the broccoli empanada.)

Since my brother's fab San Fran friend and I had already devoured some snacks at Dean & Deluca, including a righteous granola bar that was essentially a really big/thick cookie bar, we opted to share our $4 spicy chicken empanada. As we munched through the butt-shaped (her words, not mine), baked-not-fried concoction, I couldn't help but notice it was like a hot pocket. I'd never had a hot pocket before, and truthfully, have no desire to ever lay my lips on one in the future, but the practicality of the empanada's design was not lost on me. It's the perfect package for on-the-go dining at those times when dinner is too far away or there isn't time to grab a proper lunch. The tender, flaky dough filled with delicately spiced white meat chicken, tomato and onion, packs a hearty one-two punch with its combination of protein and carbs, and the half empanada that I enjoyed was just the right amount to keep my stomach purring until we arrived at our dinner destination.
Beyond merely the satisfaction the empanada brought to my stomach, the few minutes that we spent feasting on our afternoon snack in the middle of an awkward sidewalk park in SoHo was lovely in its humbleness compared to the events that would follow that evening. We all knew that the night would likely be a crazy one given the nature of the celebration and the amount of alcohol that would be consumed, and in many ways, our interlude at Ruben's can be viewed as "the calm before the storm." It was a nice moment. A Zoe Saldana moment -- the type that inspires a "mental picture" to remember during the times when bad things happen. Fortunately, none of us seemed to need it the rest of the trip. It was all happiness and laughter -- even with regards to the stranger in disturbingly tight jeans, who took his shirt off at a nearby bench.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bacaro (NYC): A celebration of food, wine and my brother

"If I buy your plane ticket, will you fly to NY for my birthday?" Said the text message I received from my older brother two Sundays ago.

Without a moment's hesitation, my hands flew to the key pad on my pink Motorola Razr that stopped being cool two years ago.

"Yep!" I typed out with enthusiasm, and as I hit the send button, I immediately began fantasizing about the evening we would have celebrating his 30th birthday with fifteen of his closest friends.

I had the whole fabulous night mapped out in my head. We would be dining in a private room at a chi-chi restaurant in a trendy neighborhood -- ideally Buddakan in the Meat Packing District where Carrie Bradshaw had her rehearsal dinner in the Sex and the City movie. We would would sip $11 Asian mojitos with ginger and mint, nibble on edamame dumplings and miso cod, and then depart the restaurant for an equally chic lounge where we would continue to imbibe until the last call at 4 am.

Instead, we ended up at Bacaro, a decidedly unposh Italian trattoria near Chinatown. And then sang karaoke and drank Amstel Lights at a dive bar called Winnie's.

Despite the lack of scene at the restaurant, and my fear of contracting a venereal disease from the red leather booths at the bar, it was ultimately one of the most unexpectedly great nights I've had in the past year. It didn't matter that Bacaro wasn't trendy or worthy of a cameo in "Sex and the City." What mattered was that for three hours, my brother, his dear friends and his superbly awesome sister, were treated to the type of service and feast befitting for A-list celebrities in Manolo Blahniks.

When we walked into the cozy space of the restaurant on Division, I had my doubts. When we walked down the stairs into the main dining room, which felt more like a cavernous wine cellar, I felt a thread of anxiety needling through my belly. And as we walked into our nook of the space, and I spotted our picnic-style table with wood benches instead of cushy chairs, my heart lurched with despair.

Or at least it did until I spotted the food that was already adorning the rustic table upon our arrival.

Generous platters of meat and cheese, baskets of freshly baked white rolls, plates of octopus and potato salad (slightly remiscent of the version at Osteria Mozza in LA), and dishes of assorted crostini with chicken liver, salt cod and mushroom, beckoned everyone in our party to immediately find a place to sit. As we sipped our glasses of Barbaresco and Sauvignon Blanc (we'd go through seven bottles over the course of the meal), and nibbled on silky proscuitto and pears with blue cheese, my Buddakan fantasy became a distant memory. Bacaro's family-style feast of classic Venetian dishes transported us away to another time and place -- a place outside of New York City, a place where the location is a meaningless component of the dining experience.

Once we made our way through every last sliver of cheese and stray red grape, our present, but not too present, servers descended upon our table with the first course (aka a carboholic's dream course).

Golden fried arancini stuffed with succulent mozzarella, mini spicy meatballs with just enough heat for a trip to the water glass, delicate gnocchi dumplings enrobed in a rich mushroom sauce, and impossibly creamy white asparagus risotto, commanded our attention from every corner of the table. Despite the heartiness of the fair, I couldn't stop myself from going in for another helping of the gnocchi, one of my favorite dishes of the evening, or another bite-sized meatball. Everyone else seemed to feel the same way -- no one was shy about diving in for a stray mushroom or, sadly, about stealing the last gnocchi dumpling away from the birthday boy. The evening wasn't just a celebration for my brother -- the restaurant seemed to be subtly crafting a celebration of good food and wine for everyone at the table.

By the time the carb-heavy plates had been cleared, the wine had taken a firm hold of our sensibilities and had, quite fortunately, severely compromised our ability to discern that we were too full for the main courses. While the marinated sliced steak over peppery field greens and fritto misto didn't captivate our forks like some of the other dishes of the evening, the braised pork shanks over polenta precipitated many a battle over the serving utensils. My brother's former roommate and I deemed it the "perfect comfort food" -- a cliched assessment that, while true, does not do justice to the juicy pork that is stewed into a state of Elvis Presley "Love Me Tender(ness)."

The meal was aptly capped with the only acceptable dessert for a 30th birthday party -- a three-layer chocolate cake from a specialty pastry shop (in this case, Venieros). We inhaled our slices of the delicate chocolate whipped cream-frosted cake, and then proceeded to demolish the tiramisu, flourless chocolate cake, panna cotta, and assortment of gelato and sorbet that was included with our prix fixe menu.

As I pulled myself up from our picnic table -- the ideal scene for an evening of laughter, indulgent eating/drinking, and several TMI's about my brother's love life -- I felt a twinge of sadness for what might not have been if we'd managed to secure a table at Buddakan. Bacaro was the place for this special night in my brother's life. And I couldn't have been happier to be there with him, his friends and that meaty hunk of pork shank.

Happy Birthday, Richard.

Monday, May 18, 2009

I Heart NY

Best 28-hour trip EVER.