All New Spicy Picks from the Chile Pepper Festival!

chile fest picksWell, here’s something new: a woman came up to me at the BBG Chile Pepper Festival on Saturday with a huge grin on her face and said, “I know exactly what you’re doing! I tried the same thing last year!” Apparently detecting my confusion, she clarified, “You know! Eating lots of spicy food so you’ll go into labor,” and then nodded at a grinning little boy who was, presumably, about one year old. Egad! This had not occurred to me in the slightest. Luckily, the fetal Leahey took the spice like a champ, remaining firmly in utero, and Jason and I found a bounty of delights to purchase and recommend. It says something about the depth of the product offerings that while we still enjoyed lots of our top picks from last year, we found a whole new collection of peppery offerings to love this time around. Here are the six that we deemed too good to pass up:

The Bronx Greenmarket Hot Sauce, Small Axe Peppers—The label of this one begins, “Only three locations begin with “the”–The Hague, The Vatican and The Bronx.” While that can’t be strictly true, I love the borough pride that these guys have. With the help of some Bronx non-profit organizations, they buy their serrano peppers from local community gardens, a way of sharing the profits and the love with their neighbors. But it’s not just a feel-good tale; it tastes great, too, with a slightly vinegary bite and lots of layered flavor. If you’re local, you can find it at Whole Foods and lots of other grocery stores, but if not, you can order online.


Yes, this weird thing is where your chocolate comes from

Spiced Hot Chocolate Bar, Jomart Chocolates—I’m not going to lie; spicy chocolate is a hard sell for me. Putting chili into something sweet often feels heavy-handed and intrusive. But Jomart, a 70-year-old Brooklyn chocolate manufacturer, makes a chocolate that is so rich and smooth that the spice just elevates it with a nice little kick. Also, when Jason was sputtering from overzealous hot sauce intake, one of the proprietors gave him some non-spicy chocolate to soothe the burn, and he reported it was equally delicious. Continue reading

How Egg Creams and Empanadas Will Save Us

Challah making workshop

Are any of these challah makers among the Chosen People? It’s NYC, so we couldn’t care less.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a tourist in New York City say, “I mean it’s a nice place to visit…”, implying that it’s a terrible place to live, then I’d have at least enough money to buy an unlimited Metrocard for this month. These assertions irk me, primarily because I’m pretty sure that New York is an awful place to visit, what with the getting lost and the questionable smells and the surly raccoons stealing your French fries in Central Park.

But I would also argue that New York is actually a much better place to live than to visit. And no, I’m not saying that only because of the food, though we’ll definitely get to that. One of the things I love is that you’re always running across weird happenings that would be near impossible to find if you were only here for a few days. This weekend, for example, was the Egg Rolls, Egg Creams and Empanadas Festival, celebrating the collision of Jewish, Chinese and Puerto Rican cultures on the Lower East Side.

eggcream-architectOne could get a combo of the festival’s signature foods for six dollars, which was a sucker punch of deep fried goodness with a chaser of dairy—not for the faint of stomach but delicious all the same. A word on egg creams for the uninitiated: there’s no egg! Or cream, for that matter. Just chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer water. Why this naming paradox came about, no one is entirely sure, but they will argue about it anyway, in a very New York sort of way.

The charms of the festival went beyond food. It was run by the Eldridge Street Museum (another NYC plus: there’s always a museum you’ve never heard of before), which is a beautifully restored synagogue built in 1887, and it was pretty awesome to prowl around the building, watching the Chinatown Senior Center Orchestra play in the main sanctuary right in front of the ark and tip-toeing past the tea ceremony in the balcony to admire the stained glass windows. Continue reading

Genealogy and Mushroom Stroganoff

mushroom stroganoffLately, Jason and I have been hitting old episodes of PBS’s Finding Your Roots, because we’re basically elderly people masquerading as thirty-somethings. Besides leaving me with a pretty hardcore Cory Booker crush, it makes me wonder if I’ve been remiss in not exploring my lineage more fully.

Me being me, my impulse is to celebrate those ancestors through food, but unfortunately, my people come from lands that don’t boast the most delicious vegetarian cuisine. I’ve never had any real testing done, but family lore has it that I’m primarily made up of genes from the mushy-pea-and-haggis-rich British Isles. There is one branch of the family that is Hungarian, which remains mostly shrouded in mystery. Could I be related to Attila the Hun? It’s possible. And since I’m too lazy to actually do the research, let’s just say that I am.


You can see the resemblance in the eyebrows.

It’s true that the Hungarians, too, are tremendously fond of meat, but I think they have a couple of advantages, culinarily speaking, over my Irish/Scottish/English forebears: 1) all of the Eastern European countries make some bangin’ pastries, and 2) they have a serious thing for sour cream. The first fact I realized when I went to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side. Though the staff was somewhat baffled when I asked them about Hungarian specialties and then offered up a Linzer torte, which I’m pretty sure is Austrian, I have to say that the cheese and sour cherry strudel was no joke.

The second fact I have always unwittingly embraced, but it was driven home to me recently when I got a craving for this mushroom stroganoff for which my mother (note: not at all Hungarian) gave me the recipe. Continue reading

Pictures at an Exhibition: Smorgasburg Comes to Prospect Park

lumpiaIt was a rough and windy day for anyone trying to peddle lemonade, but somehow or other, it came just the same. Smorgasburg, the movable feast and Brooklyn Flea spinoff that has been charming Williamsburg for five years had its grand opening this Sunday in Prospect Park. It’s there every Sunday of the spring and summer from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m, so head over if you want to see any of these things: dogs in the throes of ecstasy at finding the dropped food and trash-robbing jackpot, discerning infants who can tell the difference between a ramp and a leek at fifty paces, bearded men who will tutor you in the restorative powers of mushroom tea, tiny fried eggs on a stick and lots of people picking roasted corn out of their teeth.

bulgogi sliderjianbing in progressTruly, though, Smorgasburg exceeded my expectations. Amid the more expected fare like French fries and pulled pork sandwiches was a lot of stuff that I’d never tasted before. Here are a few of the treasures we found on our sampling round: crispy Filipino-style spring rolls stuffed with adobo-marinated mushrooms from the Lumpia Shack; a saucy seitan bulgogi sandwich on a heavenly roll from Monk’s Vegan Smoke Shack; a wacky Shanghai street food crepe/omelet/rice cracker mash-up from Jianbing Co. The last one suffered from long lines, though to be fair, it also had some of the best entertainment in the form of passersby trying to figure out how to describe it. (“It’s like a giant taco thing.” Um. Not really.)

Plus we ate some French fries, because food doesn’t have to be novel to be delicious. Continue reading

A Thanksgiving Carol

snoopy“Gaaah!” Jason spat, as soon as we entered our favorite bagel shop last weekend. Over the sound system, Mariah Carey was singing that all she wants for Christmas is me, and I thought Jason was going to spontaneously combust. “More Christmas carols!”

It’s not that Jason doesn’t like Christmas carols. He loves ‘em, and probably has more tolerance for Mariah Carey than I do. But he’s been particularly troubled this year by the proliferation of CEOD (Christmas Early Onset Disorder). I’m not convinced that there’s a War on Christmas out there, but if there were, I’m sure Jason would volunteer for the November offensive, and he’d do it in the name of Thanksgiving.

peanutsPersonally, I think that the under-the-radar nature of Thanksgiving accounts for most of its charm, but Jason strongly believes that Thanksgiving is getting short shrift. He made a convincing case for building a canon of Thanksgiving carols, but while we sat there chewing our bagels, the only food-focused songs we could come up with were “Eat It” by Weird Al and “Come on’a My House” by Rosemary Clooney. I actually like both of those songs, though I have to admit that they’re not the kind of thing you sing around the piano with the whole family.

So I wrote a Thanksgiving carol. Or more accurately, I rewrote the words of “Thanks for the Memories” to turn it into a Thanksgiving carol. If only Bing Crosby were still around to record it! I’ll settle for Adele. Anyway, warm up the old voicebox with some gravy and get ready to give this holiday its due. Here we go:

Thanks for the cranberries,
Grown in a swampy bog, beneath the gray Maine fog.
To harvest them in wader boots must have been a slog.
How lovely they are.

Thanks for the candied yams,
Strange but such a must. A food the color of rust,
Peeping orangely out at us from ‘neath their ‘mallow crust.
How lovely they are.

Many’s the time that we feasted,
And then we feasted some more.
Give the gravy boat another pour.
A turkey thigh. And pumpkin pie. Continue reading

What to Drink If You’re a Knight in Shining Armor


A fist pump for mead!

You can only watch so many rounds of the Armed Combat League Championships before you start thirsting for a flagon of mead. At least, that was my experience at my first (yes, first!) medieval festival last weekend. This was a totally free one (yes, free!) staged annually at Fort Tryon Park surrounding the reconstructed-monastery-turned-museum, the Cloisters. I cannot express how awesome it is that the city parks department actually goes to great lengths to put on a massive celebration for teenaged enthusiasts of swordplay, accomplished players of the lute and harp, and people who enjoy dressing their dogs up as princesses.

mead lineI did, however, think that the location in a public park would put a definite damper on my mead game. So imagine my surprise, when, after wending my way past armored contenders whacking each other with blunted axes, some slightly long-in-the-tooth Celtic dancers and a juggling performance by Joey the Jester, I came upon a special cordoned-off drinking area, where you could buy a ten-dollar beer or a glass of mead for eight. I think you already know, dear reader, which booth had the longer line.

If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, this might well have been your favorite part of the festival. Continue reading

Hello, Hunger, My Old Friend

The Void

It is not easy to find a visual representation of a lack of something. That is why Sartre book covers are so boring.

I have always been, as they say, a good eater, but I never thought that it was at the core of my being. Now I’m not so sure.

Certainly I have had the flu many times before, and while it’s always awful, I’m usually so nauseous that I don’t have the time to pause and reflect upon my lack of appetite. What happened on Sunday and Monday was different. I didn’t feel sick to my stomach (though that came later—a virus, maybe, or a latent Mexican souvenir), but I simply wasn’t hungry. It was startling. I’m almost always hungry. In the abstract, that doesn’t sound so bad (it sounds more like an ideal diet), but I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was completely unsettled by it. I wandered around aimlessly on my lunch break, confused by this sudden non-wanting. It was as though a thrumming engine that is always purring inside of me had dropped away. It was almost a relief when I started feeling ill; a presence rather than an absence.

Perhaps you find it silly or frivolous that I am equating a greedy desire for food with a cherished personality trait. But aren’t we all, to some extent, defined by our wants? They’re the heartbeats beneath our most vital decisions: this person or that person, Cleveland Indians or Cincinnati Reds, drama club or football team, crunchy or creamy. Continue reading

Mushrooms of Mexico

mushroomsBefore I saw a man in the middle of the woods cheerfully offering me a fungus called Balls of the Bull on the tip of a machete, I don’t think I’d ever said to myself, “Mexico…that’s that country with all the mushrooms.” But then I actually went to Mexico.

Oaxaca, nestled in the country’s southern mountain ranges, is a wonderland of culinary delicacies: cheese, chocolate, mescal, an entire rainbow spectrum of mole sauces. Plenty has been written about all of these foods, though, and I wasn’t sure I’d be inspired on our recent vacation to add another blog post to the literature. But something I wasn’t expecting to find at the markets around town were the heaps of dried chanterelles and big bags of the delectable corn fungus that Mexicans call huitlacoche. Soon we were in a pleasantly fungal state of mind, so when our friend Joel, whose family we were visiting, suggested we take a guided hike up into the mountains to mushroom hunt, we jumped at the chance.

Our point man for this excursion was a small sinewy man of indeterminate age named Ilario. I told him, in my shaky Spanish, that I liked his hat. He told me, in his shaky English, that he used to live in Indiana. And then we packed into the back of his pickup truck and headed for the hills.

Mushrooming is really less of a hunt and more of a mental game, a slow construction of invisible mushroom goggles in front of your eyes. Continue reading

Happy National Farmers Market Week! August 2-8

taco trio

Squash and okra and mushrooms, oh my!

That’s right, everybody, it’s time for a holiday you probably didn’t know existed but won’t mind celebrating. After all, why shouldn’t we give some props to farmers markets, which bring fresh, healthy, local food to cities, where lots of people need and want it? And if you’re wondering how exactly to celebrate, I’ve got some suggestions.

Why not try out a market you’ve never been to before? This past Sunday, I visited my friend Mignon in D.C. and we hit up the DuPont Circle farmers market, a first trip for both of us. The wealth of samples won me over immediately. It reminded me of when my grandma and I used to form entire lunches out of the samples at Sam’s Club, except here it was oh-so-fresh peaches and cubes of artisan cheese. As if that wasn’t enough, we also indulged in the taco trio at the Chaia booth. Summer squash with dill sauce and goat cheese in a hot-off-the-griddle tortilla? Yes, please! Okay, sure, I was so in love with the market that I almost missed my bus, but if you told me I’d have to sprint through Union Station every time I ate one of those tacos, my decision would remain unchanged. Continue reading

Chicago: The Culinary Nostalgia Tour


Hello again, beautiful.

Which was more essential: Tapas Barcelona or Dave’s Italian Kitchen? What had happened to Giordano’s? And above all, what was the maximum number of meals I could squeeze into a forty-eight-hour period? It was questions like these that tormented me as I worked and reworked our tight schedule.

As some readers may already know, I spent a handful of formative years in Chicago and have had reason to travel there for work lately. But Jason hadn’t been there for many years and he’d never been there with me, which meant that his consumption of cheese in the Windy City was sorely lacking. He decided to join me there for a weekend, but immediately after the plane ticket was purchased, the nail biting began—how to fit six glorious years worth of high-metabolism memories into a single weekend? Tough decisions had to be made. In the end, though, I think I did a good job of picking places that can’t be matched anywhere else (yes, even NYC). Here are a few highlights for the next time you’re in the neighborhood.

Al’s Deli: Yes, I know that “deli” is in the name, but that description doesn’t quite capture the magic of the place. It made me feel oddly at peace when I saw that the two aging brothers who run this place were still at it. One nervously takes the orders; the other, almost invisible to the customers, diligently makes the impeccable sandwiches. We got a Gruyere and a Jarlsberg and took them to a picnic table at a nearby lighthouse. I was so enchanted I forgot to take picture. Continue reading