True Confessions

Praveen at peace. He doesn't know about the palak paneer.

Person: Praveen
Location: Guwahati, India
Recipe: Vegetable Makhani

I cheated on my Indian couchsurfer. I know. I’m an awful human being.

And this after he brought me diamonds. And pearls. And brass earrings. And an odd but cool-looking key ring that sounds like bells when you shake it.

Diamonds and pearls and silver and brass are a girl's best friend(s).

And tea, god bless him, from his family’s tea plantation in Guwahati in the northeastern state of Assam.

Oh and then, he saved my life. That’s right. He saved my life, metaphorically speaking, anyway.

And still, I cheated on him! I’m clearly an awful human being.

Do you want to know how he saved my life?

Well, for an entire year, I’d been sitting on a free $800 American Airlines ticket to ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD that I snagged after agreeing to be bumped from a flight to France last year.

For a whole year I’d been sitting on that ticket, waiting, just waiting, for the right moment to cash it in so I could fly to ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD.

But then life took over, and I forgot about the ticket. I knew it had to be booked in September, but my day job didn’t allow for more vacation, so I’d purposely delayed booking a flight for as long as possible in order to push it into the following year.

Okay, so now it’s September second, a Friday night, and Praveen is at my house. He’s being incredibly nice.  We’re eating leftovers from an amazing Indian dinner he cooked for me the night before. When all of a sudden, it occurs to me that it’s September, which means, that’s right, that ticket, I need to book it soon because I have ONE YEAR to use it.

Do you see where this is going?

So I open the drawer in which I keep the envelope containing the ticket, pry it open, and discover that it needs to be booked THAT NIGHT!

ओह, नहीं!!  (“Oh, no!” in Hindi)

I start freaking out. I call American Airlines. What can I do? Where can I go? HELP!!!

After some back and forth, the ticket agent and I agree that my best bet is to fly to London on April 1, 2012. Done. Booked.

But wait. No. Not done. Not booked. Because booking over the phone isn’t enough. No. In order to use the free $800 ticket to ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, I have to BRING IT to the American Airlines counter at J.F.K. Airport and HAND IT to a ticket agent. And did I mention, the counter closes at 10:30 p.m. (it’s now 9:15 p.m.), I’m at least an hour from J.F.K. by subway, my car is in the repair shop, and it’s a holiday weekend, which means everyone and their mother will be on the highway, headed out-of-town.

मदद करो!!!!!! (“Help!” in Hindi)

Which is when Praveen, cool as a cucumber, says, “Don’t worry. I can drive you to J.F.K. I have a Zip car. And it has GPS.”* *(Insert my bad rendition of an Indian accent here.)

I stare at him, eyes melting. “Really? You would do that for me?”

“Of course,” he says, “It’s no trouble. I have GPS.”

At which point I feel EVEN GUILTIER that I CHEATED on Praveen earlier that night by offering him palak paneer that I’d bought that afternoon at a PAKISTANI restaurant! Which just goes to show what a horrible human being I am, and why it’s critical that Praveen NEVER, EVER find out what I did.

Cheating on Praveen at the Pakistani Tea House.

So we get in the car and start driving through the streets of Brooklyn and onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to get to J.F.K. Airport. But suddenly the GPS starts directing Praveen towards Prospect Expressway, which I would NEVER, EVER take to get to J.F.K.

“Praveen, why is the GPS directing us through East New York, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn, in a completely different direction than I’ve EVER taken in my ENTIRE LIFE to get to J.F.K.?”

“Oh, that’s probably because I programmed it to avoid tolls,” he graciously explains, at which point I internally freak out even more, because now I’m sure we will NEVER, EVER get to J.F.K. on time because the local roods will take FOREVER!!!!!!!

But drive we do, through neighborhoods I completely don’t recognize, until we reach J.F.K., at which point we start madly following signs to the departure gate for American Airlines (the last one, of course), and then I’m dashing, but dashing, to the ticket counter and breathlessly explaining to the woman behind the desk my situation, which causes her to stare at me like I’m a crazy person, until I stop blathering, at which point she says to me, “Well you’re one lucky lady, because if you’d gotten here 10 minutes later, we’d be gone.”

And with that, she processes my reservation and hands me a ticket: London, April 1, 2012. Just like that, Praveen has saved my life. Or at least my $800 ticket.

I rush back to the car. I hug Praveen. We both start laughing, amazed at our (my) good fortune. And then we drive back to my apartment, hardly believing we’ve just been through this whirlwind, three-hour escapade.

And as we lay down in our respective beds, I think to myself, “God, how I love couchsurfing, and how grateful I am to have Praveen briefly in my life. But, more importantly, he must NEVER, EVER find out about that palak paneer!

Don't tell him I cheated!

————————————–

Here’s the dish Praveen made for me during his visit. It was delicious, but because I can’t find vegetable makhanwala mix like the one he BROUGHT OVER from India, I’m providing a substitute that should get you in the ballpark.  

And to show you what an even more awful person I am, this photo is NOT the dish Praveen made for me, because that was so good we ate all of it.  No, this is a similar-looking mixed vegetable plate from the Indian restaurant Taste of Tandoor, located at 149 Church Street in lower Manhattan.  If you want to cheat on your Indian couchsurfer while in New York City, you can also visit Pakistani Tea House, just down the street, at 176 Church Street.

Mixed vegetable plate from Taste of Tandoor.

Recipe: Vegetarian Makhani  (Buttery Vegetable Curry)
Serves: 4
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Vegetables:
2 1/2 ounces (75 grams) vegetable makhanwala mix if you can find it. If not, try this: Parampara’s Vegetable Jaipuri Mix
15 ounces (425 grams) frozen, defrosted or canned mixed peas and carrots
4 ounces (115 millilitres) milk
1/2 cup (75 grams) red onion, diced
1/4 cup (40 grams) fresh red pepper, diced
2 Tablespoons (30 millilitres) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon (3 grams – 1.5 UK teaspoon)  mustard seeds

Rice:
3 to 4 cups (560 grams) pre-cooked white rice
1/2 cup (75 grams) red onion, diced
2-3 Tablespoons (30-140 millilitres) vegetable oil
3/4 (1.8 grams – 1 teaspoon UK) teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon (1.5 grams – .75 UK teaspoon) mustard seeds

Optional for rice:
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek leaves
1/8 teaspoon asafaotida

Spicy World seems to be a good source for Indian spices if you don’t have an Indian grocery in your town, and you can buy from them directly on Amazon.com.

To prepare vegetables:
1. Place oil in frying pan over medium heat.
2. Add mustard seeds, onion, and red pepper.
3. Add 1 cup (250 millilitres) water and the vegetable makhanwala or jaipuri mix.  Stir to combine.  Continue to cook about 5 minutes.
4. Add peas and carrots.  Add milk.  Stir to combine.
5. Lower heat and allow mixture to simmer, covered, until ready to serve.

To prepare rice:
1. In a frying pan, place oil over medium heat.
2. Add cumin, mustard, and red onion.  Add optional spices.  Stir to combine.
5. Add cooked white rice and stir to combine.  Cook over low heat until warmed.

Serve vegetable makhani on top of spiced rice with naan bread as accompaniment.

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Where Would Jesus Eat?

Would you like fries with that host?

With “The Book of Mormon” by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone opening on Broadway this week, New York City is about to be overrun by a bizarre and mysterious phenomenon with which few urban dwellers are familiar. No, not LSD. It’s the elders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a.k.a. LDS.

Now, being the strapping, young churchgoers that they are – and with a bevy of wives and gaggle (or is it pride?) of children to feed – the question of where to find sustenance in the neighborhood nearest the theater district, the ominously named “Hell’s Kitchen,” presents Mormons with a moral dilemma of Biblical proportions.

"No, Jesus! Don't eat there!"

But have no fear ye descendants of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the Couchsurfing Cook is hereth to provideth ye with wholesome restaurant recommendations sure to solveth that most pressingest of religious conundrums:

“Where would Jesus eat?”

Nook Restaurant

Nook, an intimate, 25-seat restaurant is perfect for the secretly gay Mormon who feels naturally comfortable in closet-size settings.

But Mormons of any sexual orientation should feel quickly at home with dishes that hew to traditional American fare, while offering flair-worthy presentations that offer a playful nod to potentially gay diners; a touch that will likely be noticed by only the most discerning or paranoid Mormon elder.

The burger and fresh-off-the-farm-boy salads are standouts, while the hearty Hungarian goulash, served over plain-jane egg noodles, is the perfect “transition” dish for gastro-curious Mormons.

True, the earthy, phallic-shaped mushroom cigars may look inappropriate entering the mouth, but if anyone asks why you’re eating them, simply say, “It’s not polite to ask, and I have the right not to tell.”

Nook doesn’t serve alcohol, perhaps as a polite nod to the faithful (though BYOB for non-Mormons is permitted). But be forewarned that this restaurant may be a poor fit for Mormons who are also chubby chasers; seating at Nook is extremely tight.

Great for dates, not great for guys or gals into chubbies.

Bali Nusah Indah

With its claim to fame as having a larger Muslim population than any country in the world, there’s plenty of potential converts at Bali Nusa Indah, one of the few Indonesian restaurants in New York City.

Could he be open to reading a book that will change his life?

But it may be Mormons who leave converted by the rich, spicy curries at this Theater District gem. Bali Nusah is the perfect spot for the Mormon with an adventurous palate who wants to ready his tongue for going on mission. Start with a simple salad containing a lovely peanut and lemon grass dressing.

A salad never hurt anyone. Did it?

After that, it’s baptism by fire with exotic-sounding dishes that range from mildly to medium spicy like ayam pelecing, a broiled boneless chicken with chili sauce or sambal goreng udang buncis, stir-fried spicy hot shrimp and string beans.

Learn to pronounce these dishes before you go on mission.

For the Mormon with a large brood, the best choice may be the Dutch colonial rijsttafel or rice table. With as many as 40 small plates to sample, each capturing Indonesia’s diverse cultures and tastes, it’s hard to imagine that any of your wives could complain that there was “nothing she could eat.”

Balkanika

The Old Testament and the Koran may have once done battle in the Balkans, but at Balkanika, a new restaurant owned by Istanbul-born Pando, the intention is to spread culinary peace and love across this former war-torn region.

Welcome to the Balkans! We're not at war anymore!

And spread is the operative word here, with its countless mezes or dips that may be hard for your average Mormon, raised on meat and potatoes, to wrap his mental pita around. The meze sampler of 17 spreads from ajvar (red pepper with eggplant, onion, and garlic) to tarator (yogurt, cucumber, and dill) is enough for an elder and at least three wives to enjoy, and the light-as-air bureks, phyllo pastries filled with spinach, leek, beef, or cheese may make some Mormons swear they’ve died and gone to heaven.

The meze sampler at Balkanika. Perfect for a large Mormon family.

The selection of Balkan wines from Bulgaria and Turkey are little known in the West, and not at all in Utah, but should be heartily enjoyed by agnostic and atheist diners.

The one dish at Balkanika Mormons will want to avoid are the “Sexy Balls,” thankfully served only at brunch. These healthy creations, made from pumpkin and flax seeds, nuts, and fresh and dried fruits taste delicious to those who don’t believe Joseph Smith is a prophet equal to Moses, but could admittedly traumatize the young ones in an LDS family for years to come.

Dining with the devil.

___________________________________________________________________________________

So grab your golden plates and walk, run, or bike over to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to see what the Couchsurfing Cook can verify is a truly hysterical yet moving musical, “The Book of Mormon” and try these great restaurants for a pre- or post-show meal:

Nook Restaurant . 746 9th Avenue . 212.247.5500

Bali Nusra Indah . 651 9th Avenue . 212.265.2200 ‎

Balkanika . 691 9th Avenue . 212.974.0300

The Couchsurfer Who Changed Everything

Marcel as I imagined him...

Ah, romance! The dirty, little secret of Couchsurfing. Sure, sometimes it’s all kumbaya, joining the world’s diverse peoples in a platonic group hug. But other times, CSers just wanna have fun, at least with people whom they know have already pre-booked their ticket home.

Yet I can state unequivocally, that in over two years of Couchsurfing, no man (or woman) has ever broken my Bristol-Palin like chastity.

That is, until Marcel.

From the moment we met, I knew Marcel was different: gentle, funny, willing to share the tiniest details of his life as if we’d known each other forever.

Initially, I swore I wouldn’t “out” our love on the blog. But now that I’ve changed my Facebook status to “In a relationship,” I’ve decided it’s time to let the world experience, as I did, the man – and day – I’ll never forget…

____________________________________________________________________

After Marcel and I awoke (he on his air mattress, I on my off-the-ground, queen-size bed). I suggested we hit the Lower East Side for breakfast at Panade, a “puff” cafe known for their sweet and savory choux pastry concoctions.

Panade girls staring at Marcel and me.

Marcel, having never experienced “puffs” in his country, the name of which I can never remember, took delicate bites of the cheese and rosemary and declared it better than the leaves he usually eats.

Choose your puff.

From there we walked to the Union Square Greenmarket, a perfect spot for people watching, as well as purchasing fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat, all by local purveyors, and at sizes even Marcel could chew.

Foolishly oblivious to the difference in our heights (did I mention Marcel is rather small?), I noticed his feet were worn to nibs by the time we arrived at the market! Helping steady him with my hand, we momentarily touched and, just then, something ineffable passed between us; at that moment, I knew our connection was much stronger than merely our mutual love of sleeping for free in other people’s homes.

After sharing a handmade Dutch pretzel (was he imagining us entwined?), he asked if we could stop at the Apple (PRODUCT PLACEMENT) store, to send an email. Immediately, my mood deflated. Was he writing to his girlfriend in his unpronounceable country to share with HER the fabulous day he was having with ME?

My hopes for love dashed, I sulked off to check my own email when, strangely, one from Marcel magically appeared on the screen: “THANK U FOR THE MOST PURR-FECT DAY OF MY ENTIRE LIFE!! I’M FALLING IN LOVE WITH U!!##$$, MARCEL!@#$%”

Our eyes locked across the crowded Apple store. We rushed into one another’s arms, the other guests too immersed in their iPods (PRODUCT PLACEMENT) to notice. After that, there was nothing, not even the fact that Marcel’s country only sells PCs, that could come between us.

Marcel and I relax at Sanctuary T.

Exhausted from the Apple store – and the excitement of our newfound love – we decided to recharge at Sanctuary T. There, in the dimly lit, Asian-influenced room, Marcel and I sipped mood-enhancing teas, grew tipsy from tea-infused cocktails, and ate tea-dusted main courses, secure in the knowledge that whatever herb or caffeinated beverage we imbibed could only further stimulate our feelings towards one another.

But just then, a dark cloud of recognition jolted us from our reverie: our day of love was nearly over, and soon Marcel would have to return to his difficult-to-locate-on-a-map country. Could our love withstand the oceans, mountains, hurricanes, mudslides, tsunamis, and occasional locust infestations, that routinely pummel his impossible-to-spell nation?

Teas and tea objects on display.

But there was no time to ponder, as night was upon us, and it was time for dinner.

Amazingly, Marcel had taken the initiative to read the New Yorker in the bathroom of my apartment earlier that day, and recommended we check out Millesime, a restaurant that had recently opened in a former no-man’s land (the East ’30s) that had begun trending hip.

Tiffany roof at Millesime.

There we found the Carlton Hotel, a Beaux Arts-style building built in 1904, recently renovated into a fashionable boutique hotel and now home to Millesime and the downstairs M Bar. As we entered the airy restaurant with its Tiffany glass sunroof, red leather banquette, marble bar, and candle-lit tables, it was as if – not only Marcel and I but the entire room – was aglow!

The dinner only heightened the exquisiteness of what we believed would be our last night together, beginning with the perfectly chewy yet crusty bread served with wine and olive tapenade, moving on to the perfectly prepared lobster on a bed of ice with house-made cocktail sauce and aioli, and ending with a simple yet elegant dessert consisting of a honeycomb square paired with a salty, French cheese.

The dining room at Millesime.

It was only then I saw Marcel crying.
“Why are you sad, my love?” I asked, barely able to contain my own tears.
Because,” Marcel squeaked, “We’re at the most romantic restaurant in New York, and I have something to give you.
He lowered his already small body down further to the ground and knelt on one knee.
Will you marry me?
Before I could answer, the wait staff burst into applause.
“Say, ‘Yes!'” they shouted.
And I did, amid tears and laughter, as a waiter lifted Marcel from the ground and carried him in his hand for all to see.

Downstairs at the M bar, we celebrated and danced, snacking on lamb chop lollipops and Basque-style popcorn, while the DJ spun songs from the ’50s, because Marcel said it reminded him of home.

____________________________________________________________________

Now that we’ve caught our breath, Marcel and I have decided to divide our time between New York and the land mass he calls home. Happily, we both still love couchsurfing and continue to host people when they come to visit. We do though still sleep in separate beds. After all, I don’t want to crush him.

Marcel was kind enough to make this video to share himself with all of you. I think you’ll agree, he’s just as described!
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To recreate my perfect day with Marcel, we encourage you to visit our favorite places:

Panade: 132A Eldridge Street
Union Square Greenmarket: From 14th – 17th Street between Broadway/University Place and Union Square East. Open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Sanctuary T: 337 West Broadway
Millesime and M Bar: 92 Madison Avenue

恭喜發財! Gōng xǐ fā cái!

Congratulations and be prosperous, now give me a red envelope! – Chinese New Year’s greeting

For those who don’t live in a multi-culti city like New York, it’s possible you were blithely unaware that Chinese New Year began yesterday.

This is the Year of the Rabbit when we’re supposed to eat carrots, hop around, and have sex as often as possible. I don’t know if any of that’s true, but I just added it to Wikipedia for the heck of it.

Now in 50 years, we’ll all know when Chinese New Year is because, by then, the Chinese will rule the world – if not the universe and most of the alien galaxies – which means it’s only a matter of time before we’re counting on abacuses, silverware as we know it will have disappeared, and our grandchildren will be speaking to us in Mandarin so that, not only won’t we be able to hear them, we’ll have no idea what they’re saying.

To give those of you who’ve never experienced Chinese New Year a 50-year leg up on the competition, I’m sharing photos of what it was like yesterday in New York City’s faux Chinatown; I mean faux only in the sense that, in the real China, people probably don’t hawk “I Love New York” T-shirts alongside their black market “Black Swan” DVDs.

The air was chill that morning, but the streets felt warm as we wandered among crowds dressed in bright colors, some beating on drums. Policeman stood by while firecrackers popped and cracked. Even they had no intention to stop the fun.

Firecracker droppings

Dragons shook and danced their way into stores, sending New Year’s greetings and asking for gifts. Store owners obliged by giving the dragons money in small, red envelopes. I’m told it goes to the benevolent associations and not the gangsters. Hey, what can I say? I’m cynical. I live in New York City.

Dragons roam the streets.

My co-workers and I celebrated by having lunch at Joe’s Ginger, the country cousin, though no less delicious, version of Joe’s Shanghai.

Joe's Ginger at 25 Pell Street

My co-worker, also named Joe, suggested we order soup dumplings. I’d never had one before. They sounded scary.

Filled with fat mounds of pork with soup snuggled inside – all of it held together by a spiral twist of sticky dough – soup dumplings pop a dollop of liquid in your mouth if you’re not wise to the fact before biting down. Joe advised we poke a tiny hole in the sack to let a little juice slip out first. Ha! I’m no fool! I knew to tuck a napkin under my chin to prevent squirtage.

Plate o' soup dumplings

Then we shared plates of cold noodles with sesame sauce and Shanghai-style eggplant with garlic. The eggplant had a little pork too. It was an awful lot of pork in one day for a nice Jewish girl like me, but I didn’t want to be rude so dug in with the others. Of course, God punished me later that day by having me lose my subway Metrocard. Darn you, God!

After lunch, and despite being stuffed as dumplings, we went scheming for dessert. First we hit the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, but the scoops were expensive – $3.75 for flavors like green tea, lychee, and almond cookie – so we kept walking.

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory at 65 Bayard Street

Heading back to the office, we found many shops closed for the holiday, but luckily one of our favorites was opened: EVERYTHING FROSTED! And whether you like cupcakes or not, you have to admit it has the best name in the whole, wide world.

John Wu, owner of Everything Frosted at 105 Mosco Street

The owner, John Wu, makes cupcakes in exotic flavors like pink champagne and tiramisu and in Chinese flavors like jasmine with vanilla bean frosting and green tea with black sesame frosting. He trained under the Executive Pastry Chef at the White House. Do you think that means they served cupcakes for dessert at the recent White House dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao?

Joe liked the cupcakes so much, he bought six. Each one cost $2.50. A lot less than that $3.75 ice cream cone!

Now $2.50 times six equals…uh…uh… Well, if I was one of those whip-smart Chinese kids, I’d have figured it out by now. Too bad I’m just a dumb-ass white lady licking frosting from my fingers, when I should be using them to count!

Joe’s Ginger, 25 Pell Street, 212.285.0333
Chinatown Ice Cream Factor, 65 Bayard Street, 212.608.4170
Everything Frosted, 105 Mosco Street, 212.227.9828

“We had no idea just how desperate people would be…”

Chicken and pie living side by side.

Yes, that’s a quote from the head chef at Hill Country Chicken, referring to their fried Texas-style chicken. As someone who can’t eat chicken because I’m allergic to it (Yes, it’s true. People never believe me!), I was still desperate myself to try the sides and pies at Hill Country, which I did the other night in the middle of a frigid winter storm.

Read the sign: Cowboy Pie

All I can say is there’s nothing like coming out of the cold and into the warmth of your mama’s kitchen circa 1950. And that’s just what it’s like entering Hill Country Chicken. I was already a fan of their Texas-style brisket barbecue joint located around the corner and down the street. This time, while I couldn’t eat the main attraction, I had a yummy comfort food-y bowl of mashed ‘taters with pimento cheese with a side of fire-and-ice pickles. (God I love food with dashes.) Both were fab-tastic (my own invented dash-y word). The pickles were so good — flavored intensely with dried coriander and chili pepper flakes — I did something I’ve never done: DRANK THE JUICE!

Carbs and curbs


Honestly, it may be the tackiest thing I’ve ever done.

Here’s their address if you want to try the whole bird:
1123 Broadway @ the corner of 25th Street

For some reason my link to their Website isn’t working… : (

When the Pie was Opened


One of the great things about biking in the city is how you wind up randomly discovering places you might otherwise miss while rushing past in a subway or car.  Today on my bike home from Prospect Park to Carroll Gardens, I stumbled on a new restaurant in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.  The outside facade was done in whitewashed brick and the Ye Olde English lettering used for the name above the door made me feel as if I’d arrived in a small British village by way of the Gowanus Canal.   Appropriately the cafe’s name was similarly quaint “Four and Twenty Blackbirds.”  And the blackboard out front said it all:  this restaurant specialized in pie with a capital P.  But what amazing flavors of pie! Strawberry/Balsamic…Chess…Lavender/Blueberry.   Having only a dollar in my pocket and needing to get to the optometrist by 6:00 p.m. to pick up my new funky glasses, I couldn’t stop to eat.  But I’m definitely returning soon to see what dainty pies they set before this queen.  (Sorry, bad joke.)  This could become my new favorite writing locale.

Address:  439 Third Avenue at 8th Street
LINK:  http://birdsblack.com/

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