home cooking


Lamb dinner at Michelle's

Lamb dinner at Michelle's

I’ve not been home for the last 7 Christmases. As a result, the holiday season has meant less about spending time with my real family and more about the friends that I’ve spent time with during this cheery season. This year in particular, friends have been opening up their petite New York apartments left and right to this foreign transplant, debunking the urban myth that New Yorkers do not cook and use their ovens to store magazines.

At Michelle’s, I enjoyed a delightful 6 hour dinner with 4 other women. We poured over Michelle’s wedding pictures between bites of cured meats and cheese and a bottle of chardonnay left over from her vineyard wedding. I stole the recipe for her spicy spaghetti vongole and ate an impossible amount of roasted lamb chops crusted with garlic, rosemary and thyme, bloodily rare and perfectly matched with a jammy malbec. To end the night, champagne and berries with sinfully rich Devonshire cream and promises to do girls’ night in more often.

A Christmas feast

A Christmas feast

At Andrea’s, her husband Dimitar was at once host, sommelier, server and dish washer while the women noshed non-stop on food ranging from home made to blatantly store bought. Andrea’s food showcased her Eastern European heritage, making cheese pastries, a vat of Russian salad, roast pork loin and sour cabbage. Jiyoung brought over at least 50 fried dumplings that were gone in a flash while we toasted Father Christmas on hot spiced wine and Cafe Zaiya’s very light and spongy Buche de Noel complete with a meringue Santa perched on the log. Presents open, and stomachs fed, we then proceeded to play with Dani, the Pantchevs’ baby boy, who was well behaved and all smiles everytime a camera was pointed in his direction. The boy could be a model!

Vietnamese roll - a good specimen!

Vietnamese roll - a good specimen!

Yanru’s post-Christmas affair had a South-east Asian flair as she served Vietnamese spring rolls; Pad Thai; and a Singapore rojak with Asian pear substituting for turnip and ham ching beng for fried crullers. This was a most hands on dinner, with Ruoying and I in charge of spring roll wrapping duty, resulting in rolls of varying lengths and fullness, and Yanru saving the leftover mint by boiling aromatic mint tea to go with a selection of cakes and tarts.

cookies on a windowsill

cookies on a windowsill

The holiday is not just about eating, but also about gift giving. Home made presents are in vogue this season so I joined Katherine and her friend for an afternoon of cookie making. A studio with a bit oven and a single cookie tray is not the ideal location for mass cookie production, but with some creative adjustments, Katherine made it work. As we shaped and burned dough, drizzled Pollockesque swirls of chocolate on coconut and oatmeal cookies and went trigger happy in bright red sprinkles, the room was suffused with a deep buttery scent. This must be the scent of Christmas.

Chicken Malabar? couscous, salad, yuenling, coke and wine

Chicken Malabar? couscous, salad, yuengling, coke and wine

My first meals in 2009 are also worth mentioning. Instead of being cooped up in the city, this year’s first few days were spent on snowy Stratton, VT with friends, some old, some newly acquainted. While the skiing was on occasion painful to say the least, the food was always good (barring the sorry plate of chicken tenders at the ski lodge). Katherine planned quite an international spread, as we cheered in the new year on Mediterranean chicken. The two Bens, in a valiant attempt to cook, manipulated pounds of spaghetti in a pot that could be larger and almost (but not quite) scorched turkey bolognese made by Papa Nesbeda carted all the way from New Jersey. We then went pescatarian on salmon on Jan 2nd, and attempted to wrap the biggest and ugliest Mexican taco on our final dinner. Snacks were on hand at all hours, tubs of Phish food and Chubby Hubbies passed around, and a 24 egg plate of scrambled eggs by Prescott devoured. A table filled with food, a room full of friends and laughter. A blessed New Year indeed.

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I have not forsaken watermelon as my favorite fruit per se, but these days my traitorous stomach has been yearning for fresh figs, particularly the thin-skinned california mission figs that are so easily available during summertime but disappear from the marketplace once it turns cold. I love ripe figs, the feel of the tiny seeds popping against my teeth, the squishy texture, and don’t care how I eat it, whether plain or wrapped in prosciutto. But when fresh ricotta is available, I like to plunk a few figs on the white curds and drizzle a little honey to finish. The creamy, grainy ricotta with a touch of saltiness balances out the honeyed sweetness of the fruit perfectly. Delicious.

Figs and tomatos go well with cheese

Figs and tomatos go well with cheese

While figs are a seasonal affair, I get my supply of to die for ricotta throughout the year at Di Palo’s, a scant 20 minute walk away. With a corner shop in the increasingly touristy and crass Little Italy, Di Palo’s remains a bastion of good taste and amazing Italian foodstuffs. They sell everything Italian, from cans of olive oil, fresh pasta  and bottles of brined capers. However the real action is at the counter, where countermen slice cured meats paper thin, scoop creamy ricotta and lure you into buying mozzarella that’s so fresh its still oozing milk. Come during witching hours (i.e. early in the day) and the shopkeepers are more than happy to discuss the merits of prosciutto di parma versus culatello and dole out generous samples. You feel compelled to buy more than you intended, as I found out this weekend, when I went in for ricotta but ended up buying bococcini and speck for a caprese salad and ham sandwich for lunch.

Insalate Caprese (sans basil), speck and breads makes for a rustic lunch!

Insalate Caprese (sans basil), speck and breads makes for a rustic lunch!

But even if you’re there when lines are long and tempers are short, the spoils of war are totally worth it!

Di Palo’s Fine Foods Inc

200 Grand St (on the corner of Mott St)

hot potTo me, Chinese New Year is not complete without a big family meal involving hot pot. While my real family is thousands of miles away in Asia, I was privileged enough to be invited to Chez Robert’s to share a meal with friends, close (ww, gerrie, ceci, robert) and new (Felix, Elaine, Hannah, Oliver, Bryan, Michelle). And while hot pot isn’t anything new to me, certain aspects were pretty novel. It was the first time I’ve seen 11 people fit comfortably in a NY one-bedroom, huddling over 2 huge pots overflowing with food; the first time I’ve eaten geese intestines (white in color with a crunchy, tendon-like texture, instead of being leathery like pig’s intestines) and one of the few times I’ve witnessed urbanite friends bust out their cooking chops (boy, can this guy cook). We ate steadily for 3+ hours, chipping away at the mountains of fish-balls, bowls of clams, dumplings both home-made and store-bought, and thinly sliced beef in Styrofoam platters that Robert gleefully ripped open every time we finished a plate.nian gao

We finished the meal with homemade chinese desserts, including a red bean glutinous rice cake (nian-gao – 年糕, Nian taking on dual meanings of being both sticky -粘, and year – 年) uber-auspiciously flecked in gold (Robert, my mum wants the recipe) and cold white fungus with lotus seeds and red dates soup, its gelatinous quality apparently good for the skin.

As we were about to leave with our aching and distended stomachs, Robert jokingly issued an invite for the next dinner party, with a sweatpants dresscode for ultimate comfort and extendibility. I for one will definitely be there!

And Auntie Hui, Uncle Sam and everyone else who made this Thanksgiving so tasty and memorable! The holidays are always festive affairs, and feasting, which inevitably leads to over enthusiastic gorging is not only condoned, but expected. Indeed, our hosts would be offended if we didn’t try our best to clear our plates, which explains why I am still feeling bloated. While I try to recuperate from gross overeating this weekend, let me count the ways I ate:
1. Sampling homemade scones that Gerrie and I made, to make sure their edibility
2. Licking the left-over sweet cream cheese mixture meant for the highly addictive mini chocolate cupcakes straight from the bowl
3. Surreptitiously tasting everything that goes out of the kitchen in the name of quality control
4. Spooning heaps of yams and stuffing that go with the tender bird that 2 years ago were billed as “White House Turkey” because George bought his from the same farm
5. Feeling torn between chocolate cake or strawberry and banan trifle, both from the kitchens of WW’s v. capably baker girlfriend, and finally just eating both, in between popping bite-sized creme puffs, cupcakes and butter cookies from Philly.
All these, and that’s only Thanksgiving! I’ve not even described our post Black Friday meal in vietnamese town, lamb bbqed over an open grill and served with dollops of mint jelly and the most pungent fish sauce flavored croutons one has ever encountered…
No wonder Tyler had been training for Thanksgiving since last week. Next year, I will be a champion eater too!