Christmas in July

With New York City (and much of the U.S.A.) in the middle of a brutal heat wave, we need a little Christmas. Right this very minute! We need a little Christmas now!

And so to help alleviate the heat, the Couchsurfing Cook was inspired to write a song.
It’s sung to the tune of Mel Torme and Bob Wells’ heartwarming 1946 classic, “The Christmas Song” and is sure to put a smile on your otherwise red-cheeked (from the humidity) face.

Now I can’t promise that this song will prevent sweat from dripping down your brow and into your mouth as you stand broiling on a rush-hour subway platform, but perhaps humming it while lying in bed at 3 a.m. with a window fan blowing furiously at your naked body while you curse the used air conditioner you bought last summer on Craigslist (because a couchsurfer broke your new one) that’s so weak you wonder if it’s even worth the electric bill**, will make you feel at least a few degrees cooler.

**This is happening to the CS Cook right now!

With apologies to Mel Torme, the CS Cook presents “The Christmas in July Song”:

Piglets roasting on an open fire.

Piglets roasting on an open fire.

Sausage stinking up your clothes.

Sausage stinking up your clothes.

Ice cream cones, being sold from a truck.

Ice cream cones being sold from a truck.

That song will stop, with any luck.

Everybody knows cannoli and some funnel cake,

Everybody knows cannoli and some funnel cake.

help to make your clothes fit tight.

Help to make your clothes fit tight.

Hyper kids, with their mouths stuffed with sweets,

Hyper kids with their mouths stuffed with sweets.

will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know more food is on its way.
Like cotton candy spun around as if hairsprayed.

Like cotton candy spun around as if hairsprayed.

And every parent there is gonna cry,
when they learn corn costs five bucks to buy.

When told an ear of corn's five bucks to buy.

And so I’m offering this lemonade.

And so I'm offering this lemonade.

To locals and to tourists too.
Although you’ve been warned many times, many ways,
New York’s summer’ll make you brew.

Stay cool everyone!

Watermelons in red and green Christmas colors.

And for the strangest version of “The Christmas Song” you’re likely to see, click here.

Saving the World One Brownie at a Time

Madagascarian Brownies

Malagasy Brownies

A few years back, I developed an unhealthy brownie obsession.  It started after I’d decided to pursue a romantic fantasy to quit my day job and open a cafe.  To see if the dream had legs — and to try my hand at the business — I managed through luck (living in the right zip code) and a little chutzpah to enter a free baking program for low-income workers at a school in Long Island City.   Little did they know, I wasn’t poor just creatively unsatisfied.

Here’s what happened next:  For six weeks I’d spend from 9 to 12 listening to people’s problems.  Then, at noon, like Clark Kent learning that Lex Luthor was about to invade Earth, I’d toss off my Anne Taylor dress, grab jeans, t-shirt, and a baseball cap, dash to the subway, and emerge 20 minutes later at the Consortium for Workers Education & Artisan Baking Center magically transformed from staid, nerdy psychologist into hip, flour-encrusted baker.  Then, from 12:30 to 4:30, I’d knead dough, fill pastry bags with frosting, and haul tray after tray of breads and sweets into hellishly hot ovens.  I was in heaven.

Mid-way through the program though, I came up with a new idea. Perhaps, rather than open a cafe (a potentially money-losing prospect anyway), I’d create a product.  A brownie product.  A very special brownie product:  Brooklyn Brownies.

Now Brooklyn Brownies wouldn’t be like ordinary brownies with walnuts and plain square shapes.  No.  Brooklyn Brownies would be round or rectangular and have flavors styled after Brooklyn neighborhoods, such as Coney Island with marshmallows and salted peanuts or Greenpoint filled with cream cheese and sour cherries.

The idea was inspired.  I envisioned my brownies supplanting the cupcake craze.  But just to be sure, I embarked on a whirlwind brownie-tasting tour to sample my competition.

You see the brownie I envisioned was very specific, hovering in the liminal space between cakey and fudgy.  Neither overly cloying (e.g., topped with frosting) nor flat, dry, and square like so much unleavened bread, my brownie, my ideal brownie, exuded a mature chocolaty je ne sais quoi not sullied by childish accoutrement.

Happily, my tastings left me wanting (and not for more) with only my hips appreciating the “exercise.”   And so, after numerous trials and oh-so-many errors, I finally created a recipe I thought achieved crustulum perfectus.  The Brooklyn Brownie was nearing completion.

And then I met Joe.

Like me, Joe had a day job.  And, like me, he too harbored fantasies of changing his life.   Only he aspired to a more noble calling:  he wanted to find creative and successful ways to fight poverty.   So he’d started working for Madécasse, a company that produced single-origin chocolate bars made entirely in Madagascar, one of the 10 poorest countries in the world but home to some of the world’s finest cocoa.

Madécasse was founded by two former Peace Corps volunteers who, after living in Madagascar, realized the country wasn’t poor because it didn’t produce enough cocoa, vanilla, and spices, but because it only produced those things.

This realization led them to a unique proposal:  why not fight poverty not with development aid or “Fair Trade” but by involving the Malagasy people at all levels of chocolate production — from bean to bar to wrapper.  That way more of every consumer dollar spent on the end product would benefit the island.  The result?  A higher-quality bar that could hold its own against competitors and yielded four times more impact to the Malagasy people through farmer training, higher wages, and increased employment.

Joe had inspired me.  What if I too could make a difference by using Madécasse bars in my brownies?  So one afternoon, Joe came to my apartment and we made them using Madécasse 70% cocoa and Sea Salt & Nibs instead of my usual source.

I was humbled.  They tasted amazing.

Now, thanks to Joe, I not only have better brownies, but a greater appreciation for the economy and politics behind chocolate.  And, if I ever do launch Brooklyn Brownies, I know exactly where I’m getting chocolate for the ginger and coconut-infused Flatbush!

Learn how Madécasse chocolate bars are made, then go make your own Malagasy brownies!

Joe in my kitchen.

Joe in my kitchen.

Joe Salvatore, Marketing Director — Madécasse:

“The pod is the size of a football.  It’s purple, green, and yellow.  It’s just beautiful.  It hangs off a twig, and you whack it off the tree and catch the pod.  They use an interesting tool.  It’s curved, and you have to crack the pod just right.  It slices the pod open and the middle looks like bug larvae — white, pulpy, and gooey.  All the stuff around it though tastes good.  Inside it looks like a garlic bulb or a football with little beans inside. You have to break the pod just the right way, because if you damage one clove, you damage them all, because it quickly degrades the whole fruit.

Once you get the insides out, you separate each bean by hand.   You ferment them to develop the flavor, then dry them in the sun.  You spread them out every day in the morning and before night scrape them inside.  You do this for a couple of days and, as you do so, they turn from white and pulpy to the dark brown color we know.

Now normally those cocoa beans ship to other countries where they’re sold to middlemen who then sell them at a higher mark-up, after which they’re shipped to Europe or other countries where they start to work on them.  They put them in machines that crack and separate the inside of the bean, which is called the nib, from the outer shell.  The outer shell is then blown away and it looks creepy, like a brain, folded, with nibs inside, densely packed.  That’s what chocolate’s made from.

You break those apart and grind them to a certain consistency.  Then you smash the nibs which, when you crush them, release a liquid that looks and tastes like chocolate and is then separated into cocoa solids and cocoa butter, which is basically fat.

To make a chocolate bar, you combine the cocoa solids and cocoa butter with sugar, vanilla, and binding so it holds together.  Then you mix it for a long time to release the unique cocoa flavors, and that’s what makes for a fine-quality chocolate bar.”

Malagasy Brownies

Serving:  8-10 rectangular brownies

Ingredients:

9 oz. chocolate (1/2 Madécasse 70% and 1/2 Sea Salt & Cocoa Nibs)
7.5 oz. unsalted butter
8 oz. granulated sugar
2.25 oz. pastry flour
4 large eggs at room temperature
Pinch of sea salt (only if using regular chocolate not Sea Salt & Cocoa Nibs)

Directions:

1.  Break chocolate and butter into small pieces and place in the top of a double boiler with the bottom pot filled halfway with water.  Alternatively, simply set in a small pot over a slightly larger pot filled the same way with water.

2.  Place double boiler on stove top over low to medium flame and gently stir chocolate and butter with a wooden spoon until fully melted.  Remove from heat.

3.  Measure sugar into a blender or Cuisinart and grind to a finer consistency.

4.  Stir pre-measured pastry flour into sugar to combine.  Then stir into chocolate until dissolved.

5.  In a separate glass measuring cup or bowl, whisk eggs until slightly frothy.

6.  Remove chocolate mixture from pot and scrape into medium to large bowl with a rubber spatula.

7.  Pour eggs into chocolate and fold in gently until combined.  The chocolate should have a thick, pudding-like quality.  *If you didn’t use Sea Salt & Cocoa Nibs, add pinch of salt at this stage.

8.  Cover bowl with plate and allow to sit for 30 minutes until thickened.

9.  After 15 minutes preheat oven to 350 degrees.

10.  Very lightly coat the bottom of each loaf, muffin, or Silpat container with unsalted butter, just enough so brownies slip out after baking; too much and the bottoms may be slightly greasy.

11.  Using a spoon or measuring cup, fill each container three-quarters of the way with brownie mixture.

12.  Bake on middle rack of stove for 30 minutes or until tops have a solid,  marbled appearance.  Brownies may be slightly soft in center.

12.  Remove from oven and allow to cool.

13.  Use a knife to gently loosen edges and remove each brownie by hand.

Brownies can be stored in a plastic container in the refrigerator or on the counter top for a few days.   They taste even better the second day!

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Head for the Bar!

The new digs a.k.a. kitchen

In case you hadn’t noticed, the CS cook has been on hiatus for a while, two months to be exact.  The reasons are many.  A cool art project I did on Governor’s Island.  An exciting new job.  Less couchsurfer requests due to the collapse of the world economy.  A re-evaluation of taking in couchsurfers, based on the goofy experience with the Korean girls (read last post for the sordid details).

But perhaps the biggest reason for my disappearance was that the Couchsurfing Cook got herself a BRAND-NEW KITCHEN! That’s right.  Ya’ can’t be cookin’ in the public eye without some serious Ikea cojones to back you up, and now I have them.

You see for the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve been working in a pretty makeshift set-up without storage, shelves, pantry, nuthin’! When I needed a place to put dishes, I’d put ’em back in the dishwasher!  I had one — count ’em one — drawer for spices, pasta, flour, etc.  Needless to say, it was NOT culinarily inspirational.

However given that I was short on cash-ola (and can’t make a large design/purchasing decision to save my life) the kitchen languished in a state of entropy until, well, until this blog came along and then, thankfully, something had to change.

And kids, change it did.  BIG TIME!  And now, it’s big, clean, white, and bright, and itchin’ for a cookin’ fight, as we like to say in Texas.

Which, speaking of Texas (trust me readers, this is going somewhere…), it’s been HOT here in New York City.  And I mean hot as h-e-double-toothpicks.  In fact, it’s so hot, you can fry an egg on your forehead!  It’s so hot, the hot dogs are sweating mustard! It’s so hot, the ice cream’s moving to Canada!  It’s so hot…aw heck, I’ll stop while I’m ahead.

Marcy and me after I dyed and cut my hair and got a tattoo

But seriously, it’s so hot that the other day I drifted into a Proustian, heat-inspired reverie of my own first wild and crazy couchsurfing experience, a Sex-in-the-City style trip I took a few years back to the fair city of Austin, Texas, where I met a woman who’s now become a lifelong friend and one of the BEST couchsurfing ambassadors I know:  Marcy Etemadi.  And it was in Austin, with the red-headed, salsa-lovin’ Marci, that I was introduced to what has become my favorite summertime drink, one that’s PERFECT for hot, hellish weather.  The infamous, only known in Austin, “Mexican Martini.”

Now if you haven’t already guessed, an M&M (as I’m going to nickname it) involves tequila instead of gin.  Having never been a gin fan myself, I for one was thrilled to learn you could turn the British classic on its head with a south-of-the-border twist.

But the coolest thing about an M&M is that you’ll NEVER (and I mean never) find a bartender outside of Austin, Texas who’s ever heard of this drink nor knows how to make it.  Which means, dear reader, when you saunter into your local pub, all gimlet-eyed, and ask the lovely lad or lass behind the bar if s/he can fix you a “Mexican Martini,” this same bartender will no doubt look at you with an expression lying somewhere between fear and love.  Because you, dear reader, have stumped the chump.  You’ve challenged the bartender’s manhood.   Respect, as Arthur Miller would say, must now be paid.

At which point your task is to whip out the piece of paper upon which you’ve written the recipe, hand it to the bartender, and calmly wait for the results.  Then, upon making said beverage and determining that it is, indeed, delicious, YOU, dear reader, will be elevated within the confines of the pub to cocktail god/goddess status. More specifically, the bartender will genuflect in your direction, bow in humbleness to your libational loveliness, and be forever in your debt for teaching him/her how to make this drink, thus guaranteeing you a free round next time you visit.  Do I wax nostalgic?  Oh yes.  I wax.

And so, without further ado, I present the M&M.  The perfect summer cool-me-down.  The drink that will have the bar buying YOU rounds.  And, more importantly, will quickly help you forget that Satan just sent God a text message asking if he could raise the temperature on earth just a few degrees past 100;  he’s feeling a little chilly.

Sante!  Slainte!  Salut!

Mexican Martini

Serves one lush or two lusty but responsible females.

Ingredients:

2 ounces silver tequila
1 1/2 ounces Cointreau
2 ounces fresh-squeezed lime juice
1 ounce fresh orange juice
1 splash Sprite
1 splash olive juice or to taste
2-3 plain or jalapeno-stuffed olives

Directions:

1.  Fill a cocktail shaker with ice.
2.  In the shaker pour the tequila, Cointreau, lime, and orange juice.
3. Shake and strain into a wide martini glass pre-prepared with a salted rim.
4.  Add a splash of Sprite and a splash of olive juice, or more to taste.
5.  On a toothpick spear 2-3 plain or jalapeno stuffed olives and add to glass to garnish the drink.
6. Sip and enjoy.

I Am Strong. I Am Bulgogi.

We had to leave...we're sorry.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  We were supposed to make bulgogi.  Together.  You and I.  But you had other plans.  You went to the outlet mall with your “friends.”  You shopped at Tory Burch and Chanel while I went shopping for london broil and kimchi.  It was all I could do not to cry while chopping the onions.

Sure my 40-year old friend Randy thought you were great.  You were a cute Korean exchange student from South Dakota. Who wouldn’t love you?  So naive and innocent with those big, dark eyes.

You’d never been to New York you said.  We were going to make bulgogi you said.  It was your favorite dish you said.  Was any of it true?

Because then you disappeared.  Like a thief.  In the night.  And after losing the keys to my house!

Sure you left a note.  Said you were sorry.   Said you were so ashamed you’d lost the keys you had to leave.  But what about my calls?  My pleas?  “Come back!” I cried.  “I’m not mad at you.  What about the bulgogi?”

But you didn’t return my calls.  All you did was leave me trinkets.  A plastic Korean drum on a key chain and a pair of chopsticks.  What am I supposed to do with those?

But it’s okay, because I’m strong.  Stronger even than kimchi.  And I figured out how to make bulgogi.  On my own.

I learned there are different ways to make it.  You can fry it in a pan.  You can barbecue it.  One recipe even called for Asian pears to sweeten and tenderize the meat.  But I decided to do it my own way, using oranges instead of pears.  Because I could. Because I wanted to.  Because it’s my bulgogi now!

That’s right.  I made bulgogi.  I made it without you.  And it was good.  And my friends liked it.  And you know what?  I’m going to make bulgogi again.  Because it’s a great summer dish.  And it’s delicious.  And I know now, because of what happened between us, I can survive.  I can make bulgogi on my own.  And because of that, I know I’ll be okay.

Bulgogi Without the Korean Girls (Who Went to the Mall, Lost the Keys to My House, Left Me an Apology Note, Disappeared, and Refused to Answer My Calls)

Serves 6


The dinner table set with bulgogi fixins'.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 pounds london broil, thinly sliced

For Marinade:

6 tablespoons low-sodium tamari
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
2 cloves minced garlic
2 teaspoons white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 scallions, including green, sliced on diagonal into 1″ pieces
1 yellow onion chopped into 1″ pieces
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon grated orange rind

To Serve:

1 head red leaf lettuce
5 cups cooked white rice
12 ounces kimchi (1/2 – 3/4 jar)

Directions:

1.  Whisk marinade ingredients in a small bowl.

2.  When sugar has dissolved, pour marinade into large ziplock plastic bag.

3.  Add beef and chopped onion to bag and, using your hands, massage marinade into beef.

4.  Allow beef to refrigerate at least three hours.  For more flavor, let marinade overnight.

5.  When ready to prepare, preheat outdoor grill.

6.  When coals are ready, remove meat from marinade and place directly on grill.  Optional: brush grill with canola oil to prevent sticking.

7.  Cover with top and allow meat to cook 5-10 minutes until tender and slightly charred.  Use tongs to turn meat over and cook another 5-10 minutes or to desired doneness.   Remove from grill.

8.  While meat is cooking, wash and dry lettuce, separate individual leaves, and place on plate.

9.  Place spoonful of rice on top of each leaf, top with  slices of meat and a spoonful of kimchi to taste.

10.  Wrap lettuce around meat, rice, and kimchi.  Eat and enjoy!