Monday, May 31, 2010

Travel Bite: Turkish Viagra

Turkish Viagra is a ubiquitous moniker for various kinds of dried fruits and nuts I saw throughout Istanbul's Spice Bazaar. Frankly, I don't know if there's any truth to its claim of increased prowess or longevity.

In fact, rather than combatting it, I think their Viagra actually promotes E.D. (Eating Double). I know that I can go for four to six hours.*

I'm not sure why some are referred to as Viagra and others aren't, but you'd think the generic brand would be cheaper.

I came upon this Viagra market on the side of the road in the remote region of Cappadocia in central Turkey. I sure hope Pfizer isn't planning a hostile takeover.

The landscape in Cappadocia is fascinating, to say the least, with churches and houses carved into immense volcanic rocks.

Maybe the demand for Viagra explains why there are so many cave hotels (love nests?) like this one in the town of Goreme. Hey, whatever gets you through the night. In my case it was fig, apricot, date, almond, pistachio, hazelnut and walnut.

*Warning: Dried fruits and nuts are not recommended for everyone. Talk to your doctor first and see if Turkish Viagra is right for you.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Memo to Mario Batali

To: Emperor Batali

Cc: Blogosphere

From: A Plebeian Foodie

Subject: Your Behavior

Dear Emperor Batali,

I recently stopped by your restaurant, Mozza2Go for a book signing. Since I already had your new book, Molto Gusto, Easy Italian Cooking at Home, I figured you’d sign it while we exchanged some gastro repartee and maybe dish a little about your Spring Peas with Mint. On the tube, you seem upbeat, charming, culturally curious, and quite the provocateur, so can you blame me for wanting to bask in your gargantuan glow for a fleeting nanosecond? (Not to mention, I was still on a legume high from those fabulous peas.)

I thought I'd have to stand in a long line, and as my reward, you'd allow me one question or anecdote and maybe a photo. Believe me, I knew enough to make it about you. Somehow I couldn’t see you being too interested in my blog or that I just ate at Babbo and that you should ask my waiter why he didn’t serve us olive oil to go with our bread. Nope, I settled on the topic of your peas. Emperor, you still reading this? Just checking.

To my amazement, I found easy street parking, and when I walked in, there was no one in line. It was just you, me and several of your “people.” I muttered to your 20-year old girl-hottie handler that I already had the book, and with a Swiss-clock precision hand movement, she said, Right this way.” Right this way? I was the only one there, and you were sitting at a table 10 feet in front of me. I knew the way. Your bare legs and orange Crocs were the telling lighthouse in my sea of confusion.

Granted, I showed up 45 minutes after it started, but it seems to me a Batali event would have attracted a coliseum-sized crowd if your P.R. patricians had handled it properly. But no. There was just a slew of your books and me. As I inched up closer to your greatness, I had the audacity to make eye contact with you. It was like looking directly into the sun. Retinas burning, I quickly turned away. I felt your imperious demeanor condemning me for your empire's fall. Or maybe you're just like that naturally. Who knows (I bet your wife does), but I'm guessing Nero is your hero. Then I had the unmitigated gall to speak to you.

“I made the peas," I said. "But I didn’t have any club soda. What’s that for?”

“It's to keep the peas crisp,” you said tartly, with no apparent interest in my personal relationship with your peas.

“What’s your name?” you asked, perfunctorily and rushed.

It was clear you wanted to sign the book and be on to the next person in line, who, incidentally, was no one. Emperor, why the hurry? Were you late for your next phantom book signing? Shouldn’t my pea comment have warranted a “How did you like them?” Or at the very least, a meager, child-sized portion of a smile? Should I not have been rewarded in some infinitesimal way for actually showing up to revel in your renown?

“Can I get a picture?” I said to your girl hottie handler.

“Sure,” said girl hottie, brusquely, as if well-prepped for the question and motioning me again with Swiss-clock precision to give her my camera and get behind the table.

I stood next to you as you made no acknowledgment of my existence. I might as well have been a blow-up doll. You did acknowledge the camera, however, and managed to look more civil than you behaved. And I bet you weren't too pleased that some P.R. patrician made you play dolly dress-up in the exact same outfit that's on your book cover when you could have been in your toga and Crocs.

After barely evading the Emperor’s wrath, I walked outside and sat down on a bench between two young women and their signed books. I looked at my camera.

“This picture is terrible of me,” I griped.

“Why don’t you go back?” said the girl on my right.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “The way he acted?”

“Yeah, I know,” said the girl on my left.

Then the girl on my right showed me her picture with you, and she was cuddled up close to you. Unlike me, she was not afraid.

“That’s a cute picture,” I said.

“But my bra strap is showing. I’m gonna go back.”

“I wouldn’t go back,” I said.

“I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t.”

Ah, to be young and reckless. I miss youth. But as an adult, I know better than to look into the sun twice. You can Photoshop a bra strap, but you can’t get a new pair of eyes.

So Dear Emperor, my advice to you is this: When life gives you lemons, make a lemon panna cotta. Don’t take it out on us plebes. We're the ones responsible for your reign. With your 15 restaurants, books, television shows and retail products, the Batali empire wasn't built in a day. It won't end in one either.


Lentil Breakdown, a Plebeian Foodie

Monday, May 24, 2010

Spring Peas with Mint

I'd rather have minty fresh peas than minty fresh breath.
And if it weren’t for the onion, I would have had both. But who needs friends when you can have these delicious peas?

I adapted this Mario Batali recipe from his new book, Molto Gusto, Easy Italian Cooking at Home. Of course, by “adapted” I mean I was too lazy to go exactly by the recipe since 1) That would involve measurements, 2) I had some fava beans I wanted to use up, so I threw them in (I recommend only using peas as in the original recipe), and 3) I didn’t have the sparkling water he called for in the vinaigrette.

I caught up with Mario here in L.A. recently and I asked him what the sparkling water was for. He said curtly, without a sliver of a smile, “It’s to keep the peas crisp.” Well, that might explain why mine seemed a little slimy the next day (but it didn't explain why Mario did—but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post to come). You can try the soda water and see if it gives the peas a longer shelf life, but without it, I wouldn't serve this later than about 12 hours after making it. But those peas in their prime? Wow-ie wow wow! Who knew so few ingredients could be so loud? Each one screams of flavor, and you’ll want to shout a big yum right back at 'em. What's a little onion breath among your new friends?


2 pounds peas in the pod, shelled, or 2 cups fresh peas

1 medium red onion, cut into dice about the same size as the peas. I used less onion. Taste onion first to see how strong it is, and then eyeball it.

½ bunch fresh mint, leaves removed and torn into 2 or 3 pieces each. I used less mint. You can eyeball it.

¼ cup Red Wine Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Maldon or other flaky sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper

Combine the peas, onion, and mint in a medium bowl and toss with the vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper and serve, or let stand at room temperature for 1 hour to bring out the flavors. (The peas can be refrigerated for up to 1 day; bring to room temperature before serving.)

Red Wine Vinaigrette

¼ cup red wine vinegar, preferably Chianti

¼ cup sparkling water I omitted this and didn't notice its absence.

½ cup extra virgin olive oil, preferably Ligurian

Whisk the vinegar, water, and olive oil together in a small bowl. (The vinaigrette can be refrigerated for up to 5 days.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Top 10 Takeaways from Food Blogging Camp

Last weekend I retreated into the wilderness at Camp Blogaway in California's beautiful San Bernardino mountains with other fork-enabled, alphabetically inclined conspirators in nosh. We laughed, we cried, we wined and dined, oohed and aahed, took notes and pics and hikes and swell corporate swag—and we all got along swimmingly. Here's my top ten list of what I took away (besides the swag) from my great blogging getaway.

10. Wherever you go, there's your blog.
You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the blog out of the girl’s overactive brain. Luckily, Prosac works in the woods, too.

9. A blog voice is not the real person.
The disparity between an online persona and the real-life person can be eye-opening. I know this not only from my experience at Camp Blogaway, but because Lentil Breakdown has not once offered to cook me dinner.

8. Sometimes it's better to be Jackson Pollock.
When you’re in a cake decorating contest and have never used cake decorating tools, why wander into Martha territory without a compass? Just say you’re an Abstract Expressionist artist all snooty-like and be done with it.

7. My photos suck.
Apparently I never got the memo that said a food shot must have a moody, diffused background with a glistening, sexed-up dish posing provocatively in the foreground atop a fleur-de-lis plate and napkin ensemble. Mine have fleur de sel. Shouldn’t that count?

6. Twitter resistance is futile.
Sure, I have a Twitter account, but I haven't gotten on the bandwagon because I didn’t want another thing to obsess about. Takeaway: What’s one more obsession to add to the pile?

5. Use your white balance.
No, you don’t have to move to Arizona to achieve this. Just look for the adjustment on your camera. Fewer travel expenses.

4. Don't forget your tap shoes.
When someone asks you to describe your blog, and you have not crafted a succinct positioning statement for yourself, breaking into Sammy Davis Jr’s "I Gotta Be Me" is your best bet. And make sure to do a little tap dance too.

3. Drinking makes you smarter.
If you want to win a martini kit badly enough, you really can figure out how many olives are in a big-ass jar, even though you almost flunked high school algebra.

2. Knockers up!
According to our fearless camp leader, people in a group photo are more photogenic when their breasts are pointing skyward like a couple of perky pine cones. Must be why God invented cold mountain air.

1. You’re never too old to have a new B.F.F.F. (Best Foodie Friends Forever).
Our obsessive ilk is an exotic breed, and now I know a whole slew of them from clear across the country to half a mile away, which means I can finally ramble on about things that others would like to have me committed for. And that's a good thing. At least for me it is.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Travel Bite: Great Market Hall, Budapest

On my trip to Eastern Europe two years ago, I went to Budapest for a few days and stayed down the street from the Great Market Hall. This incredible action- and pepper-packed market is on the Pest side of the city, which is separated from the Buda side by the Danube River.

The airy, three-story building was opened in 1897 and restored in the 1990s. The basement has a small supermarket, fishmongers and game, while the ground floor (shown here) has produce vendors, baked goods, spices, and other food items.

Peter Piper would have a field day with all the peppers here. There are strands, paprika powders and pastes everywhere you turn.

Pete could pick all the pecks of peppers he pleases—pickled or plain.

This section should have been called Grape Market Hall.

Mushroom mama here had the mother lode of shrooms at her stand.

This strudel maestro was composing a luscious apple aria.

While Pretzel Logic played at a shop nearby.

These were too pretty to eat, so I just watched.

Poppy seeds are popular in these parts.

Not so much in these parts.

The second floor has Hungarian arts and crafts, including embroidered items, peasant shirts, dolls, and tourist tchotchkes.

Upstairs there's also a food court with no shortage of meats and peasant fare.

Did I mention the meats and peasant fare?

Hot stuff: come to pappy. Wait. pappy is the hot stuff (pappy-rika).

If you leave here Hungary, you have only yourself to blame.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Cream Cheese Brownies

Mom would have liked these. I know I did.
This was my first Mother’s Day since the loss of my mother, and I asked myself, "Self, what's a little somethin' somethin' mom would have liked?" Well, that was a no-brainer. Something with bittersweet chocolate—her absolute favorite.

These may have been for her, but I couldn't think of a better pick-me-up than a fresh batch of cream cheese brownies from this wonderful David Lebovitz recipe. It's a combination of two of mom's favorite desserts—brownies and cheesecake. The recipe calls for three different forms of chocolate—chunks, chips and powder—and he says you can use bittersweet or semisweet interchangeably, as well as your choice of unsweetened or Dutch process cocoa powder. I used bittersweet chocolate chunks, semisweet chocolate chips and unsweetened cocoa powder—the perfect ingredients to chase away my Mother's Day blues. I remember making these for her once before, a couple of years ago, and she was in hog heaven. Here's to a repeat performance.

Oh, and mom, I'm putting a couple in a baggie for you in the freezer since I know that's what you'd want.



6 tablespoons (85g) unsalted butter, cut into pieces

4 ounces (115g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped

2/3 cup (130g) sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1/2 cup (70g) all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon (8g) unsweetened natural or Dutch-process cocoa powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup (80g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips

Cheesecake Topping

8 ounces (225g) cream cheese, at room temperature

1 large egg yolk

5 tablespoons (75g) sugar

1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (175C).

2. Line a 9-inch (23cm) square pan with foil, making sure it goes up all four sides. Use two sheets if necessary. Mist with non-stick spray or grease lightly.

3. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and chocolate over low heat, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and stir in the 2/3 cup (130g) sugar, then the eggs.

4. Mix in the flour, cocoa powder and salt, then the vanilla and chocolate chips. Spread evenly in the prepared pan.

5. In a separate bowl, beat together the cream cheese, the yolk, 5 tablespoons (75g) of sugar, and vanilla until smooth.

6. Distribute the cream cheese mixture in eight dollops across the top of the brownie mixture, then take a dull knife or spatula and swirl the cream cheese mixture very slightly with the chocolate batter. Resist the urge to mix and swirl too much, as you'll just make the brownies muddy.

7. Bake for 35 minutes, or until the batter in the center of the pan feels just set.

Let cool completely, then lift out the foil and peel it away. Cut the brownies into squares.

Storage: These will keep in an airtight container for a couple of days. They also freeze well, too.

David says they serve 9-12, but I cut them into 16 squares.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What's Your Plastic Footprint?

Thoughts of plastic sit in my cranium, not decomposing. It's everywhere—clogging landfills, devouring oceans and leaching stealthily into our food supply. I read that every piece of plastic that was ever produced still exists in some shape or form except for a small amount that’s been incinerated. I can hear my feet screaming, “Stop the plastic! I wanna get off!”

But how can I reduce my plastic footprint in our takeout, throwaway society? Can you really row against the corporate tide when your lifejacket is made out of plastic? They say change starts from the bottom up. Well I hope there are plenty of grassroots activists at the bottom of those landfills because these thoughts keep accruing in my cranium and they’re going nowhere fast. Every time I need to use a square of Saran wrap, again with the thinking.

My fixation started with plastic grocery bags. I acquired so many, I could have covered a continent with them like Christo. Then came the thoughts of all those empty water bottles out there littering the landscape like plastic mountain ranges. And the guilt that came every time my newspaper was delivered in a plastic bag even when the forecast called for drought. Sure, I considered canceling my subscription, but that meant putting the L.A. Times out of business, along with its employees, so I reverted back to plan A: Anxiety.

By now, my thoughts are 20 landfills deep of all the single-use plastics we waste: grocery bags, water bottles, produce bags, garbage bags, Ziplock Baggies, Saran wrap, styrofoam and hard plastic food containers, coffee lids, eating utensils…yada, yada, yada. Hey plastic, get off my planet! Your petroleum-based polymers are putting us in peril! Think I’m being all drama queen for nothing? Did you know:

• Only 2-3% of plastic is recycled.

• Over 500 billion bags are consumed annually that are made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic that does not biodegrade but instead photodegrades, breaking down into smaller pieces of plastic.

• Each year 1,000,000 sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals die from ingestion of or entanglement in plastics.

• A huge swath of the Pacific Ocean that scientists refer to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch twice the size of Texas is full of a plastic stew that is entering the food chain.

Oh, but my vast, internet-gleaned knowledge doesn’t mean I think my own plastic doesn’t stink. I’m as much of a Polythene Pam as anyone. The only difference is I carry my own water bottle, multi-use grocery bags, cotton produce bags*, and I wash and reuse baggies when I can. But most importantly, I try to stop and consider my options. Why, just the other day, I had to decide whether to buy organic yogurt in #5 nonrecyclable plastic or regular yogurt in #1 recyclable plastic. What’s an eco-conscious overthinker to do? I want organic and to recycle too! See why my cranium is so full? I'm exhausted. Soon I'll need a drool cup. And it better not be made of plastic.

Is it just me or were you thinking all this too?

*I highly recommend the Ecobag as seen in my photo.