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

Dumpling Mama and Girl Power

glorious dumplingsSure, sure, everybody knows that there’s a female nominee for president. But did you know that another major stride in gender equality was made on Saturday afternoon at the NYC Dumpling Eating Contest?

Here’s how it went down: Jason and I, along with thousands of other dumpling enthusiasts, crammed ourselves into Sara D. Roosevelt Park and watched in astonishment as Molly Schuyler, a competitive eater whose other accomplishments include eating 33 corndogs in eight minutes and 440 chicken wings in 26 minutes, crushed not only every other competitor in the park but also her own previous dumpling world record, eating an incredible 115 dumplings in two minutes. Nearby, an anthropomorphized dumpling named Dumpling Mama (the mascot of the sponsoring company, Chef One) jumped up and down in excitement and clapped her little dumpling hands.

dumpling mama

Dumpling Mama presides.

What I found truly shocking about the feat was not the fact that Molly easily outpaced men who were two to three times her size (many competitive eaters are really quite svelte), but that she looked perfectly comfortable after the competition, mugging for the camera and calmly chewing, yes, another dumpling. Her punk rock hairdo was barely mussed. There was none of the puking into a bucket that I witnessed among the top contenders at the Coney Island hot dog eating contest a few years ago.

In other words, she’s pretty much my new hero. 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

Tempted by the Night Market, Sated by Jackson Heights

dr fish

A fish has gotta eat…

When we were living in Asia, it took me a while to warm to the idea of night markets. It seemed like everything on sale, from street food to “Same Same But Different” t-shirts, was priced slightly higher for the benefit of looking at it in very dim lighting. But then the Siem Reap night market gradually won me over as I came to realize two advantages it provided over the daytime markets: 1) everyone feels better about getting drunk, which is really the only pleasurable way to shop for anything, and 2) there was a tank where you could pay to have tiny fish eat the dead skin off your feet, which was even better than drunk-shopping.

So needless to say, when I heard about the grand opening of this year’s Queens International Night Market, I was intrigued. Queens is an empire of ethnic food, from the feta cheese of Astoria to the dumplings of Flushing, so the idea of a night market in such an atmosphere made visions of a super-sized Smorgasburg dance in my head. Maybe it wasn’t even too much of a pipe dream to hope for a spa fish or two. I did some stomach-stretching exercises and set out for the territories near Corona Park. 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

Shannon and Jason Own the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Chili Pepper Festival

IMG_0922The advertising promised “5 Blazing Bands, 7 Hours of Chocolate Debauchery, 23 Years of Spicy Culture, 2 Legendary Fire Breathers, 52 Fiery Food Artisans, 52 Acres of Glorious Gardens.”

Fire breathers and free spicy food?  We’re there!

We visited every stall.  Every. Stall.  And here are our picks:

Shannon’s Pepper Picks:

Brooklyn Delhi: I cringe at paying $8 for a jar of salsa, no matter how good it is, because I could (and might very possibly) eat the whole thing in a single sitting with a spoon. But with achaar, Indian pickle, a little dab’ll do ya, and with innovative combinations like rhubarb ginger on offer at the Brooklyn Delhi booth, the price suddenly seemed entirely reasonable and left me wishing I’d packed some naan in my purse.

IMG_0925Queen Majesty: Do you know that the easiest way to catch fruit flies is with vinegar? That whole thing about catching more with honey is such a lie! Anyway, I love vinegar in many forms, and even though sweet-hot sauces seem to be all the rage these days, Queen Majesty makes beautiful vinegar-based ones that still have plenty of complexity. Try the jalapeno, tequila and lime flavor for a delicious tangy kick. Continue reading

Shannon’s Guide to NYC’s Best Vegetarian Sandwiches


The greasy paper, picnic table majesty of a Parisi sandwich

Recently, I went to a Volume 1 Brooklyn event celebrating the launch of their sandwich-themed essay collection. It’s not hard to surmise why I attended. Just about everyone in the audience had a deep love of sandwiches; you could see it in their eyes. And while I had no complaints about the quality of the writing, I was underwhelmed by the quality of the sandwiches discussed. It felt a little like a group therapy session for those suffering from sandwich guilt, finally airing their dirty secrets about Arby’s, Subway and White Castle.

People! You live in New York City, a veritable cornucopia of beautiful sandwiches! I am a vegetarian, so a large percentage of these sandwiches fall outside of my purview, and STILL I can list a number of sandwiches that are absolutely-cannot-miss experiences. In fact, I think I will do just that.

Parisi Bakery, Little Italy: Early in our relationship, I was reading a manuscript by Jason that had an extended sandwich-eating scene. My comment in the margins was something like, “I don’t really see how this scene moves the plot along,” and he sheepishly admitted that he wrote it mostly because he wanted to describe a Parisi sandwich. Now that I’ve had them, I know why. Parisi is the most old school of Italian bakeries, and when they pile their fresh rolls with loads of fresh mozzarella, pesto, pepperoncini and just about any other topping your heart desires, all for about eight or nine bucks…marone! Now that’s a sandwich.

Noodle Bar, West Village: Most people wouldn’t go searching for sandwiches at a spot that specializes in a very different kind of food, but I can’t get enough of the vegetarian sau bien at this place. Continue reading

Tofu Shawarma with Garlic Red Cabbage & Roasted Tomatoes

New York, like all great cosmTofu Shawarmaopolitan cities, I suppose, is a city of street meats.  In all sorts of parts of town (but especially those in which office dwellers in their daily dry-cleanables must descend by elevator onto swarming lunchtime streets that will one day give me a heart attack), men of assorted non-Western European ethnicities grill up all kinds of marinated beast on gas-powered metal carts.  I don’t eat grilled beast, of course, but damn if the smell doesn’t always make my mouth water.  The lines at these carts are often positively absurd, I have a friend who insists on going to a particular chicken-and-rice cart every time he visits, and I have no doubt that serious meatys coming from elsewhere in the country would have their minds blown to spend a few meals eating this stuff while leaning against some wall or fire hydrant.

So I get jealous.

And low and behold a shawarma spice mix called to me from the shelves at Sahhadi’s.  If you don’t know, shawarma (which Wikipedia defines as “a Levantine Arab meat preparation” but which is, etymologically, derived from a Turkish word for rotation) is one of those giant meat sticks you see turning next to a flame or heating lamp.  It’s like a gyro, basically, and I once saw someone shave meat from the spit using a circular saw, which was fairly cool.  And I figured I could do something veggie with this.

So boom: Tofu Shawarma with Garlic Red Cabbage and Roasted Tomatoes

  • 1 block of tofu sliced into 1/4″-thick pieces
  • shawarma spice mix
  • 1 1/2 cups of red cabbage sliced 1/4″-wide
  • 3 onions sliced
  • 1/3 of a pint of cherry tomatoes
  • olive oil and butter
  • 8 cloves of garlic
  • 3 tbs cumin seeds
  • 4 ounces plain yogurt
  • 1 lemon Continue reading

The Way of the Mushroom

Found 'em!Here are two truths that I have come to realize. 1) There are people out there with a natural affinity for finding mushrooms. You will know these people when you happen upon them, because at some point in the conversation, they will not be able to control themselves, and they will tell you about the massive morel supply they scored the previous day. When they go hiking, they practically trip over puffballs and hen-of-the-woods. If physics allowed for the sparkle in their eye to be mushroom-shaped, it would be. 2) I am not one of these people.

this is not going to work.To explain how I learned this, we need to back up a step, to my birthday last month. My friend Mignon gave me a mushroom box from Back to the Roots, out of which you can grow your own delicious fungi. It was a lovely gift, and one that filled me with trepidation, since Jason and I had bungled a similar gift a couple years ago. Twice. But this one did feature smiling children, oohing and aahing over their mushrooms, on the back of the box, which boosted my confidence. I can do most, if not all, of the things a four-year-old can do. And yet, when I found myself balancing cat food cans in order to anchor a wobbly and submerged bag of peat, I had little hope that this experiment would actually work.

Enter my brush with some mushroom folk at Bonnaroo. Continue reading

My Darker Self, Buried within a Knish

“Okay, I’m really going to do it this time,” I whispered to Jason as he flipped through books on Brooklyn history with antiquated titles like Fire Laddies and Every Kind of Shipwork.

“Yep, you got this,” he told me. “Remember: spinach. Eye on the prize. Don’t get distracted by the lady with the pigtails.” He was right; the woman in question definitely had crazy in her eyes. I circled the table, trying out a stealthy, jaguar-like walk, and moved in for the kill.

knishbookcover-silverlauraWe had come not with the purpose of hunting, but of listening. Laura Silver, author of the new book Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, was giving a reading in the Brooklyn Collection of the library. The reading and the Q and A session did turn out to be fun; that woman seriously knows her knish. But I found it a little hard to concentrate, still flustered by the scene of primal competition that had gone down at the preceding wine and knish reception.

yonah schimmel

What was at stake (photo courtesy of the Village Voice)

If we can back up for a moment, I will try to explain why I was excited about this reception in the first place. It’s possible, if you are reading this from somewhere that is not New York, that you have not tasted a knish. I don’t think I knew what one was until I first moved here, and, walking friendless and hungry around Central Park, I pointed to a deep-fried little square on a hot dog cart and asked if it was vegetarian. I think I got laughed at, but I was rewarded for my humiliation with a greasy, mustard-drowned potato pastry. A street knish: not fine dining, but exactly what I needed in that moment. And later, I found the sublime, handmade knishes at Yonah Schimmel, mounds of mashed potato filling so substantial that the thin pouches of pastry can barely contain them. Every cuisine has its dumpling comfort food—the pierogi, the gyoza, the tamale, the ravioli—and the knish is among my favorites. Naturally, when I heard about the reception, I looked forward to the opportunity to commune with fellow knish-lovers and break potato with them.

So I was a little upset when the other attendees turned into a pack of slavering, ravenous wolves, stealing the free knishes right out from under me. Continue reading