Coupling in the Kitchen

Big city living comes with many little conveniences – many of which are just a click or tap away. After years of sending out laundry and ordering groceries via delivery – I’m a loyal Instacart user – I’m actually convinced that there’s nothing that can fully alleviate the typical moans and groans of living in New York.

I don’t even really live in the city proper. Just outside of Manhattan, Adam and I have nestled comfortably into the Queens County neighborhood of Astoria.

I’ve tested the boundaries of my budget over the years as I’ve developed adult independence. I’ve reasoned away from the lack of logic behind thrice weekly orders from Seamless, and especially since partnering up with Adam, I’ve rekindled my love for cooking.

No matter where I’ve lived, my kitchen has always served as the heart of the apartment. And so when Adam and I moved in together, our kitchen became the place where we were able to find time to chat and unwind. The bedroom is for sleeping, the living room is for binge watching Netflix (smart TV=best purchase EVER) and the kitchen – well, the kitchen is for congregating.

We recently subscribed to Blue Apron and Plated, and it’s really been our way of doing something together – sometimes in a “lord, give me the strength” kind of way – and learning how to communicate through challenges – chopping fennel is harder than it looks!

When I married Adam, I promised him that we’d do adventurous things, but that we’d also define adventure together. I like to think that our culinary adventures keep us on our toes throughout the week, priming us for the real adventure that is simply living – read: surviving – life in New York

brie grilled cheese

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.

toum

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.

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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Aubergine Dreams: An Ode to Eggplant

Before Mark Bittman penned his praise for eggplant via the New York Times, I became acquainted with the fantastic fruit.

Sometime after I lost interest in microwaving spaghetti squash, I picked up a beautiful Italian eggplant at Whole Foods. Like my foray into egg poaching, I was intimidated by this purple-skinned ingredient.

Nerves were lifted when I pulled my first attempt at baked eggplant out of the oven. Lightly sprayed with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and other fresh herbs, I had successful made juicy, tender eggplant steaks. And I ate all of them. In one sitting, without regret.

Fast-forward a year later, as I live happily with my boyfriend, a confirmed carnivore. Eggplant is our unity fruit — the one ingredient we can agree upon as the star of a meat-free meal. Whether it’s his stewed eggplant and tomatoes, or my eggplant with cherry tomatoes, lentils, and spinach, together we enjoy it, and Mark Bittman was right, it does make me happy, as I do eat it everyday.

Sliced, lightly battered and fried with a honey drizzle on-top, or char-grilled and topped with a dollop of skordalia, I can’t think of an eggplant dish I would want to pass up. Most recently, my boyfriend grilled up eggplant steaks that I proceeded to eat for one week straight, often topped with a slice of ovaline mozzarella and a poached egg, I’ve spent some time collecting a series of eggplant recipes I cannot wait to try on my own:

  • Fried Eggplant with Molasses Recipe – Berenjena Frita con Miel de Cana: This recipe reminds me of a dish I tried at Tapas Adela in Baltimore (their dish was called Eggplant Fritas, and was served with a lavender honey). It’s like an eggplant donut, and makes this otherwise healthy ingredient just a wee bit sinful. Remember: no regrets.
  • Grilled Eggplant with Tomato and Feta: I love eggplant, but I especially love eggplant with tomatoes. The acidic sweetness of the tomato mixed with the hearty earthiness of the eggplant work so well together, and the fresh bite of feta adds a nice touch. I might add mint to this recipe for kicks.
  • Mediterranean Eggplant Salad: I love a good eggplant salad, and the prep is so fuss-free, that there’s no excuse not to try this one at home. Another added benefit? This recipe comes from Weight Watchers, so it’s inherently PointsPlus-friendly.
  • Black Bean and Red Pepper Burgers: Where does the eggplant come in? You see, that’s the genius behind this recipe. As a fan of any opportunity to ditch the bun, I was so pleased that this recipe replaces the simple carbohydrates of a bun, with the ever-loved eggplant.
  • Roasted Eggplant Bruschetta: Like I said, I like to ditch unnecessary carbs. And with eggplant acting as the base of this bruschetta, the flavors of the other fresh vegetables will be better blended, also allowing the textures to shine without competing with the toasted baguette.

The Perfect Poach

Poached eggs were, until recently, a mystery to me. I was unsure of how to order them (over-easy, over-hard?), and was intimidated at the thought of preparing them. This was all true until last week.

Adam and I went to Costco and for some reason — cholesterol not on the mind — he purchased a huge container of fresh eggs.

I’m not really an egg person, but I do like a good poach every now and then, served over steamed spinach, cherry tomatoes, and feta. And while brunch is over-accessible in New York and neighboring parts, I decided to save money one afternoon by making my very own poached eggs.

I watched several tutorials — finding the Serious Eats one to be most helpful — and quickly poo-pooed the idea of vinegar, saran warp, a spoon-induced whir in the water. Nope. All you need is a pot or deep non-stick pan, a slotted spoon, water, and fresh eggs. Fresh eggs are perhaps the most important element, because the whites will form beautifully with fresh eggs.

The process turned out to be super easy, albeit suspenseful as I waited for the whites to cook fully over the yolk. As the poaches perched up to the surface, I knew they were ready, and waited with anticipation to cut into the oozy yolk.

I captured a Vine video of my perfect poach, and snapped this photo to share.

Lentils, Spinach, Goat Cheese

I love Middle Eastern flavors. I could eat lentils for every meal, and often times I do.

In Detroit, we have some of the best Middle Eastern restaurants in the country — and I’m including New York in that statement. I’ve lived in New York for almost three years, and simply have not been able to find a single restaurant that comes close to my midwest Middle East.

Lately, Anita’s Kitchen (Ferndale, MI) is my favorite place to go when home because their portion sizes are more realistic and meant for one person (I don’t like being too full, and I don’t like taking home leftovers), and the food is a bit more eclectic. Their garlic sauce is not my favorite — I prefer it from Sultan’s in East Lansing, MI — but their Spinach, Goat Cheese, and Garlic dish is one of my favorites. Don’t even get me started on their eggplant salad. Noms.

For dinner tonight, I was craving Anita’s, but with a few states between us, I decided to make my own version of my favorite dish.

Start with a non-stick pan, and spray well with Olive Oil-flavored cooking spray or EVOO (1-2 tablespoons). Add half a medium white onion (sliced) and two cloves of garlic, finely minced.

Once the onion softens, add a 1/2 cup cooked beluga lentils, 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, and 1.5 cups spinach. I added steamed string beans to my recipe — about one cup.

Because the lentils were air-packed, and not freshly boiled, I didn’t add salt. For a peppery taste to balance the earthiness of the vegetables, I added 1/8 cup pepper-crusted goat cheese.

Delicious, filling, and healthy. Lentilicious.

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