All the Garlic

If garlic had a fan club, I’d be its number one fan. I go through Costco-sized supplies of garlic on the regular. My love for garlic reached new heights when I discovered a staple Lebanese condiment at one of the Detroit area’s many Middle Eastern restaurants. Say it with me: toum. The world literally means garlic, and for good reason; the recipe I made (thanks to a great YouTube video!) had three bulbs (about one cup peeled) of garlic. I never thought I’d successfully master this spread, and I’m so glad that I did. When I moved to Astoria, I flocked to the closest thing in Greek culture to toum, which is skordalia. Skordalia serves up some seriously strong garlic flavor, but through the vessel of mashed potatoes. With toum, you’re getting a dip that’s way more potent.

The entire process took roughly 30 minutes (including the peeling of each clove), and the cleanup was a cinch. Toum makes such a fantastic dip, but it’s also great to use as an oil in a pan for cooking fish, meat (so I hear), and vegetables. Be weary that there is A LOT of oil, and this recipe makes several cups. I consider a serving of toum to be about a tablespoon, and when I calculate my Weight Watchers PointsPlus, I clock it as about the same as mayonnaise.

Toum – Makes 4-5 Cups – 30 Minutes

  • Garlic – 3 bulbs, peeled
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (I used freshly cracked sea salt)
  • 2 cups Canola oil

To make toum, start by adding your salt and peeled garlic to your food processor. Pulse until the mixture is really fine, scraping down the sides as necessary. Once the mixture is nearly paste-like, make sure your processor is turned on, and start adding a slow and steady stream of oil, half a cup at a time. Alternate between oil and lemon juice (two teaspoons at a time) until all of your liquids have been incorporated. What you’ll notice is that after about a cup of oil, the mixture should thicken quite a bit, and you should literally be able to hear your food processor start to churn. It’s a beautiful sound, with a garlicky smell.

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A few important things:

  • You must make sure that your food processor is completely dry. Water will break the emulsion. Everything you use (short of the lemon juice, ha) needs to be dry.
  • When you add the oil and lemon juice, you need to do so slowly, in a thread-like stream. If you introduce the liquid too quickly, it’ll break the emulsion.
  • To peel the garlic without making a mess that’ll make you want to wash your hands (and risk introducing water), use your thumb and index finger to press down on the ends of the garlic. It’ll loosen the skin a bit, making it significantly easier and cleaner to peel.
  • Do not use pre-crushed garlic, or pre-peeled garlic. Just trust me, it makes a difference.
  • If you’re not serving a crowd and need to store the toum, make sure to let it cool and rest first. If you put it away immediately in an air-tight container, water droplets will eventually cause it to separate.

We’re Not Best Friends

Relationships are weird. We’re fed so many different fairytale scenarios about courting and falling in love from movies and TV shows, that when our respective stars don’t quite align as such, we begin to question everything about our bond with our beloved.

I remember when I told Adam he wasn’t my best friend. He was devastated. He replied with some textbook line about how couples are supposed to be best friends. I think my retort was less based in rhetoric, and more in hysterical laughter.

My best friend’s name is Emily. I’ve known her since she was born, and she was the maid of honor in our wedding. She’s the only person on the planet who I can unconditionally confide in, and who I know will always tell me the truth, regardless of whether it will hurt.

Adam is my partner. I used to find it odd when friends or colleagues would refer to their significant other in this way, but I’ve since changed my mind. I’m all about the partnership. (Ironically, the concept of partnership in the vein of collaboration is a key mantra at the company I work for and love).

To be partners in life is to accept, together, anything that you encounter — to explore and to navigate the world together, and most importantly, to build a life together on equal footing.

When I think about my partnership with Adam, I reflect on the vows we wrote jointly, and exchanged on our wedding day:

  1. Do you promise to be a loving friend and partner in marriage?
  2. Do you promise to treat each other with kindness, respect and appreciation?
  3. Do you promise to make laughter an integral part of your family?
  4. Do you promise to listen and learn from each other, support each other, and accept each other’s support?
  5. Do you promise to bear together whatever trouble and sorrow life may lay upon you both, and share together whatever good and joyful things life may bring you?

Partnership and togetherness were at the heart of each question. Adam’s not my best friend. He’s my partner. He’s the person I never want to say goodbye to – only good morning and good night.

The 5 Worst Things About Getting Married

A lot has happened since the last time I published a post – most notably, I got married two weeks ago. I have no regrets about the amazing man I married, our beyond incredible and supportive families, and the future we will build together. That said – and you don’t have to be planning a wedding to know this as a truth – planning a wedding can be a painful process. Things will go wrong, feelings will be hurt, and you’ll be struggling to stay focused on the end result, the ultimate ROI: you’ll soon be marrying your soulmate.

While I compiled a list of 5 things that I found to be the antithesis of wedding-planning bliss, I’m sure there are many more that could qualify.

1. More Money, More Problems: Weddings are expensive. Even if your parents are paying for some, most or all of your wedding, hidden expenses will sneak through. We came to a very fair agreement with our parents about expectations for our contribution, but budgets quickly crept up when Adam picked out an invitation that I fell in love with. I loved everything about it; it was so elegant and modern, and elegance and modernity come at a steep price. At the end of the day, I reasoned that if I wanted something, and I felt strongly about it, I should be the one to pay for it. That to me, and to Adam, was the ultimate test for necessity.

2. We Are Family: When people say that weddings bring out the worst in people, they’re not always talking about the immediate family. I think it’s the residual family who can often be pinpointed as the culprit for bad behavior. My advice to brides on this is to omit any people who won’t be able to focus on supporting you and your partner. I’m especially close with my parents and siblings – my immediate family – and my mother’s family. That said, there are deep-rooted feuds in my father’s family that have turned into immature grudges across parties, and have since trickled down to my generation. If I could go back again, I would have made a stronger argument with my parents that the room should only be filled with people who genuinely want to be there, not out of perceived protocol, but out of love and support. Thankfully, we had so many relatives and friends (who are basically family at this point) make the trek to Michigan – all the way from England, to Florida, New York, California, Indiana, Washington, Illinois, DC and beyond.

3. We Make Plans, And G-d Laughs: During our ceremony, the ketubah fell off of its easel, the lights were switched on by accident, the photo booth was unbearably warm, and our “first dance” song (In My Life by The Beatles) wouldn’t play for the DJ (he rigged it so that it would play from my phone through a microphone). There are mistakes you just can’t plan for, and it’s important to accept it, with no expectations beforehand. The only thing you can really realistically plan for is that you are getting married. My rabbi was so sweet; he could sense my type-A personality from my initial e-mail to him about his availability. He made sure to caution me about keeping focused on the love that we’re celebrating, and not the to-do lists and planning. I think he may have underestimated how a career in PR prepares you for poise in the face of even the most ultimate screw-ups and disasters.

4. You Can’t Always Get Your Way: I know that I’m neurotic, and that it’s in my nature to be controlling. But, as much as one’s eventual marriage is a partnership, so, too, is the planning process. I wasn’t one of those women who had her entire wedding planned before meeting the groom. In fact, navigating this with someone by my side was exactly what I needed for each of the minuscule details to be digestible and actionable. I chose so many of the elements, that I really was thrilled when Adam showed remote interest in things like the food, music, and invitations. I decided to forfeit control (with 5 vetoes), so that he could feel like his personal touch was also part of our big day.

5. If You Have Nothing Nice to Say, Don’t Say It At All: From the moment you get engaged, outside opinions will start to percolate. I sometimes think that all brides and grooms should go through media training to learn how to weather the naysayers and over-opinionated. Even now, two weeks post-marriage, my mother comments on how she doesn’t like the way I’ve chosen to stack my bands with my engagement ring. And, as I tell her without polish, I don’t really care.

You will almost definitely experience some sort of struggle in the wedding planning process, and it may not even creep up until the big day. It’s important to remember that while you could certainly sit here and whittle away a list of hundreds of crappy things/opinions/people/all of the above that you encountered along the way, none of that negativity is going to help usher you down the aisle. Turn off the noise around you, and focus on the fact that at some point soon, you’ll be saying “I do.”

 

That Thing About Birthdays

As of last Friday, I’m another year older. In two days, I’ll be one year and a week older. I feel older, but I don’t know that I feel wiser. Birthdays are funny in that way. As a kid, I treated my birthday as a social event. Naturally, back then I couldn’t flex my type-A planning talent, and my parents took the reins on planning. When I hit high school, I placed equal – albeit more controlled – importance on my day. My grandparents also contributed to my annual one-day sense of entitlement. They treated us, each of their 10 grandchildren, to “special days” – daylong shopping trips with lunch. I remember one year (4th grade, if I remember correctly) I opted for a Barbie (the FAO Schwarz Barbie) instead of a more mature option: pearl earrings.

This year, I did the 26-year-old equivalent of a Barbie trade. Adam offered to throw me a happy hour. He lives to surprise me. He even made a Facebook event (in my world – a world that’s dictated by social media engagement and activity – that’s a big deal). And, in classic Kirsch form, I decided that because it was out of my control, I didn’t want it. Even with a wedding on the way, the idea of being the center of attention is far less appealing in my personal life versus my professional life. We’ve had so many milestones in the past year, that I’m kind of celebrated out. So, instead of a happy hour, we did something that removed us far from the center. We attended a Knicks game, along with hundreds (maybe thousands, I’m not good at guessing these sorts of things) of other New Yorkers and the like. Hank Azaria was there, too. So that was something.

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I spent my birthday exactly how I wanted. I feel like that’s how it should be. I should be able to control my day, after all. I took the day off of work (which is hard when you love your job as much as I love mine), ate a solo lunch at Il Bambino (their crostini are delectable – get the olive spread, and you’ll have no regrets), hopped over for a mani/pedi at Kiki’s (it turns out that a spa pedicure is totally worth the up-charge), and perused the newly opened Lockwood Style, sister shop to Lockwood on 33rd Street in Astoria.

Maybe I’ll feel different in 2015. I don’t know. Until then, I’m grateful for the well-wishes, the macarons from my colleagues, the perfume from a dear friend, the cards and all other tchotchkes. Would I be deemed ungrateful if I said I could have done without the cold?

The Hundred Foot Journey [A Review]

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie. I’ve been very much tempted by the small theater I pass each workday on my short walk to the train, but have resisted, mostly in an attempt to conserve my energy and attention for The Hundred Foot Journey’s opening weekend. 

When you work the hours that I do, you want to do right by the things you love. 

Food and film are my two loves, and if I’m going to indulge in either, it’s only going to be when I can give each my full attention.

Juliet Blake, one of the film’s producers, is a family friend. I met her four years ago through my cousin Esther when I moved to New York, and she was – and still is – incredibly real. I got a glimpse of the movie from photos she shared via Facebook while on location, which only built up my anticipation even more.

From start to finish, the film was filled with warmth, from family to food, inviting the audience in as part of the experience. 

While you can’t deny that Manish Dayal was the star of the film, so too was Om Puri – my favorite. His character reminded me of Omar Sharif from Monsieur Ibrahim. And for that reason, I was drawn in. His rugged charm made him so lovable; we’ve all had the type of relative – most likely a parent – who has been meddlesome and persistent, in only the most protective and loving way.

While the food itself wasn’t as much a star in this movie as it was in a picture like Julie & Julia, the passion for cooking actively propelled the movie and bridged two cultures.

If you do nothing else between now and Monday, go see this movie. Not only will you leave without regret, you’ll have a renewed sense of inspiration to get you through the coming week.

 

New Tastes

I don’t do much after work. On Tuesdays, I go to the gym for a session with my trainer. On Wednesdays, we’ve started playing trivia at The Sandwich Bar — and we won our first go at it last week! On all other days, you’ll probably find me at Whole Foods.

Since Whole Foods opened up by my office a couple years ago, I over-frequent it. I’ve started buying groceries once per week, but I still find myself stopping by Whole Foods to stock up on the things I plow through — tomatoes, spinach, and berries.

On my way home from work on Friday, I popped in to buy the essentials – my fridge was barren – and happened upon a find that I can’t seem to get enough of: valbreso feta.

This isn’t at all like greek feta – not even in its texture. Valbreso feta is french and is super tangy – almost lemony in its brine – and incredibly creamy versus crumbly. It’s more like a goat cheese in texture than anything else. I’m a big fan of using goat-like cheese with lentils, and so I decided to make just that. I think in the past three days I’ve had lentils for almost every meal.

I’ve had a pantry full of lentils for a while – I once bought a giant bag of black (or beluga) lentils at Whole Foods, and it’s been sitting there, unopened ever since.

These little guys seem to cook a bit faster than their brown and green counterparts (one quarter cup lentils to one cup of water for about 15-17 minutes over medium heat).

Once the lentils were cooked through (tender, but not mushy), I transferred them to a pan that was heating up with one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and finely minced garlic. I added baby spinach, chopped heirloom tomatoes, and a little lemon juice to the pan. The lemon juice adds great flavor, but also deglazes the pan.

Once the lentils were combined with the vegetables and nicely sautéed, I transferred them to a bowl and sprinkled some valbreso feta over the top.

The creaminess of the feta added a really nice rich flavor and smooth texture to the earthiness and bite of the lentils and the acidity of the tomatoes.

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A Guide to Greek Eats in Astoria

I’ve lived in Astoria for 4 years now, and have grown to love the Greek fare that fills this not-so-little Queens neighborhood.

I’ve broken my favorites down by avenue, to show that you really can access good eats, no matter where you are in Astoria.

  • Zenon Taverna (31st Avenue): Zenon was the first Greek restaurant I ever dined at in Astoria, and it’s by far my absolute favorite. It’s hard not to love this family-owned and operated taverna. Their menu can be overwhelming – in a good way – with so many vegan and vegetarian options to choose from. My favorite? The chargrilled vegetables with skordalia, and their spanikopita. I also love, and have a hard time resisting, their trahana soup. Trahana is a cypriot soup that’s a bit like a porridge. It’s thick and tart from its yogurt base, and gets its texture from halloumi and bulgur. Make sure to treat yourself to dessert, too. The galatekboureko is delicious, but so are their homemade ice creams. If they have the rose-flavored one, try it. We had it for Valentine’s Day, and I’ve had dreams about it since. One note: Zenon is cash only, but I’d empty my savings to eat here if I had to.
  • Ovelia (30th Avenue): When I lived on 31st Avenue, and was in the mood for something a little hip, Ovelia was my go-to spot. It’s trendy without being pretentious, and serves up some of the best Greek-style brunch, lunch, and dinner fare on 30th Avenue. Not as old school as others nearby, Ovelia puts a modern spin on some of the Greek classics. My favorite dish on their menu is their eggs florentine. They serve two plump poached eggs over pita, sitting on top of spinach and feta. They also serve Lavazza coffee, which is a major plus.
  • Kopiaste (23rd Avenue): Kopiaste is a very warm, cozy taverna, located between Ditmars and 23rd Avenue on 31st street. It’s nestled to the side, but you don’t want to miss it. Their food is as lovely as their owner, George, who will make sure you’re happy with your food. He truly values quality and service, and it shows in every detail of the restaurant. This used to be our go-to place, but as we get busier, we haven’t been in a while. An added bonus here is that they offer complimentary dessert, and it’s always changing, and always delicious.
  • Taverna Kyclades (Ditmars Boulevard): Here’s the thing, I used to not be on the Kyclades bandwagon. The restaurant is teeny tiny, and unless you arrive promptly at noon, there’s always at least a 30 minute wait. That said, Kyclades has quickly grown to be one of my favorite Astoria spots (see, I’m capable of change!). If you’re a vegetarian like me, I suggest any of their salads, their beets, or their gigantes. The spinach pie is a bit too rich for my palate. Their dolma are also delectable. What really keeps me coming back though, are the dips. The skordalia and the tzatziki pack a fantastic garlicky punch that makes my mouth water just at the thought. Like many Astoria tavernas, Kyclades offers complimentary galaktoboureko or house wine if they’re out of the sweets. My one gripe? I wish they had the melitzanosalata that they serve at their East Village location. If you know me, you know I cannot get enough of eggplant.
  • MP Taverna (Ditmars Boulevard): It certainly took chutzpah for Michael Psilakis to open MP Taverna just a few storefronts away from Kyclades, the neighborhood favorite. MP Taverna has reached fame in its other locations, and it seems that Astoria is much the same. I find its fare to be slightly overpriced and lacking in properly portioned vegetarian fare. The meat dishes are huge, but most of the meat-free options are sides or smaller salads. That said, the one delicious vegetarian option that I love is their fusilli. It’s such a fun version of the corkscrew-shaped pasta, and it’s drenched in a super deep, rich, spicy tomato sauce. The texture is playful, with cherry tomatoes that burst in your mouth, bread crumbs, and feta to boot. But with an appetizer, two drinks, and two main courses, your bill will easily tip over $100 before tax and gratuity. For Astoria, that’s kind of silly.

Pictured: Vegetarian Fare from Taverna Kyclades

  • Top, left to right: Spanikopita, Peasant Salad.
  • Middle, left to right: Skordalia, Gigantes
  • Bottom, left to right: Tzatziki, Pita Bread

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