Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Epicurean Adventures: A (n Eating) Spree Grows in Brooklyn

As anyone that knows me -- well, at all -- can confirm, I am not a suburban girl. No way, no how. The ample parking only does so much to placate me when another ugly strip mall is erected, and PeopleofWalmart.com is exactly why I choose not to frequent areas within a certain radius of any Walmarts. The lack of sidewalks confuses me (where do I walk?!), the Cape Cods and 1970s colonial houses make me depressed (oh, how I miss peeking in through the heavy draperies of Garden District Victorians and Mediterranean style manors of New Orleans ...), and having to drive everywhere makes me cringe (ahh, carbon footprint! Carbon footprint!). And so, even though I love my sleepy little hamlet of Oakdale and its sweeping river views and stately McMansions, it's a relief to get out of the gray-rimmed suburbs, commercial buildings and roads outlining the borders, and into a city.

With a big breath of relief, Boy and I made our way out to Green Point, Brooklyn this past New Year's Eve, to spend the holiday with native Brooklynites and Tulane college friends.

Now you may exclaim, "Wtf?! You complain about gray suburbs to go to Brooklyn?!" But this actually makes sense. I've always been more comfortable in cities, with their close-set buildings, tall towers, and colorful schemes and architecture. The bold reds, rusty golds, deep greens, and other fabulous, rich earth tones are everywhere, and now, as Brooklyn continues to rise in stature as one of the most desirable areas in the country, interesting shapes and the Tiffany blue of frosted glass abounds. Parks and playgrounds are scattered about, and people walk their dogs, exchanging friendly hellos. There's something about a suburb that makes people less friendly, although the crime rate is always higher in a city due to the high volume of people, interestingly enough.

Anyway, you're here for the food; not the stories. So I'll get back to it.

We arrived in Green Point, Brooklyn on New Year's Eve after a series of mishaps mostly involving Boy's refusal to drive back into our driveway from the street and retrieve my navigation system and our friend Jared's apparent inability to tell time. It was requested that we bring dessert, which we had planned on picking up before leaving the island. I'd hoped we could go to my favorite bakery, Benkert's, and get a lovely cake, since man, do I love me some lovely cake. However, due to Jared's extreme lateness, this was a no-go.

The reason the cake-buying was put off until the day of was twofold: a) Boy thinks Edible Arrangements are not tacky (they are, and thank God they ended up being ridiculously, unjustifiably expensive or I would have been shamed in front of all my friends by bringing overpriced melons in the shape of "flowers") and b) Boy thought he could get one the day of a holiday (he couldn't anyway, which sadly, says too much about suburban taste ...).

Anyway, off we went with snow on the ground and cake at the shop ... yet to be purchased. Oops.

Fortunately, one of our detours took us through an area of Brooklyn where we had a choice of Spanish or Chinese bakeries. We stopped off at a Chinese one (it had a parking spot in front of it) and I picked out the only cake design in the case.

Chinese cake is very different from American cake in many ways. It's not very sweet, for one, since the Chinese are salty/savory people and tend not to have too much of a sweet tooth, culturally. A spongy, light-tasting sponge cake (how apt of a name) is used instead of the usual crumbling yellow cake, and frosting is found only in a whipped cream flavor. Sometimes, you can get a vanilla-y whipped cream flavor. But normally, you get whipped cream.

Choices in filling are also limited to a fruit medley mixed in whipped cream, which may include anything from pineapples to Asian pears to mangos to melons. The top of the cake? Also decorated with fresh fruit, but usually melon balls and ripe strawberries. We didn't have any kiwis on ours, but this picture was the most demonstrative I could find, considering that ours got eaten too fast for pictures to occur.

The cake I got had a bit of a chocolate drape on it, but not very much, which suited me just fine, and since I feel that cakes with writing on it are kitschy and festive, allowed the girl to write Happy New Year (in English - Chinese wasn't even an option, since I was obviously very much an ABC) in gel on it. (Sidenote: Also, Chinese cakes have writing in gel. It's a little weird and gooey.) Unfortunately, as I was walking out the door with my $15-for-a-10-inch prize, a girl walked in with a tray of three of the cakes. *Sigh.*

Anyway, this cake was a success, since, as it ends up, our friends are in agreement that a) Edible Arrangements are tacky in a distinctly non-fabulous way and that b) fruit cake is good (? Me, personally -- I prefer buttercream hot messes on top of moist yellow cake). This made for a great finish for what was the star of the night, a one-pot meal that blew our frickin minds.

Our Green Point friends were of Polish heritage, having immigrated here as young children, and brought with them (along with a super-slick sounding language that leaves me fazed) an incredible knowledge of Eastern European cooking styles and dishes. Never have I ever eaten potato pancakes like the ones they've made us, nor stews with the power to induce eye-rolling ecstasy as theirs do. Slow simmered with love and a whole lot of patience (the latter being very, very different than the school of cooking I've always been accustomed to), we were treated to a delightful feast upon our arrival.

The apartment was filled with steam and succulent scents when we entered, rich flavors blending in the air like smoke for an opium-eater. My mouth instantly started to water, and it was with excitement that I dug into the salads they already had ready. Crisp Romaine hearts with fresh mozzarella, thinly-sliced prosciutto, and fresh tomatoes drizzled in balsamic vinegar whetted our appetites as fresh potatoes were mashed in a large pot with some sour cream.

As the asparagus steamed, well-trimmed beef short ribs continued to simmer off the bone in a gorgeously layered pot of hearty stew, tender carrots, celery, and onions mixing beautifully with the beef broth and a full bottle of red wine.

With that, the end of 2009 was off to a great start.

The first meal of 2010, on the other hand, was off to a much less delightful one, and makes for an awesome story that I plan to share in my next post. Stick around.

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