Sunday, November 28, 2010

Amy's Bread Cookbook Review + Focaccia with Fresh Rosemary


It's no secret that I love carbs.  A couple months ago, I wrote an entire entry dedicated to carbs, and of course, Amy's Bread, a metropolitan haven for carboholics.  I mentioned my desire to own Amy's cookbooks.  I'm here today to tell you that I recently did purchase one of the books, the revised and updated version of the original Amy's Bread cookbook.  I was so enthusiastic to try my hand at baking bread, just like they do at Amy's!  Their breads are highly respected through all of New York, and are featured on many menus throughout the city, not to mention delicious!

Whole wheat sandwich bread with oats and pecans

The book is well organized and has a fairly extensive introduction with in depth information on ingredients, equipment, and of course techniques.  First of all, I must point out that Amy's creates artisan bread, which, according to the cookbook, uses a lot more water than most other bread recipes.  The book states that a drier dough yields a dense bread with a tough texture and very small holes in the crumb, whereas a wetter dough yields a chewy bread with a glossy crumb, longer shelf life, an appealing texture with open holes, and a much more complex flavor.  The trouble is that a wet dough is much harder to work with, trust me.  Some recipes in the book (for the really wet doughs) use an electric mixer, but the ladies of Amy's Bread prefer to mix most of their doughs by hand, and this is what is suggested in the cookbook.  Personally, I love getting my hands dirty in the kitchen.  I didn't mind the mess, and although my hands and work space were covered in wet, super-sticky dough (which I referred to as a dough monster!), I felt like I was really making bread, not a cake or cookies, bread.  The dough was so wet and sticky, in fact, that my mom had to hold down the large wooden cutting board I was kneading the dough on, because it kept lifting up and down and moving around as I was pushing and pulling the dough.  I'd highly recommend working with your dough on a large counter or directly on a heavy table you don't mind getting dirty instead of a cutting board, which is not going to stay in place, I promise.  If you can get past the sticky dough all over your hands and board, you can definitely make these doughs!  My bench scraper became my best friend during this process :)

Potato onion dill bread

I was also a bit worried at first because most of the recipes in this book require the use of a starter.  Which means you have to plan ahead.  Fortunately, less than a dozen use a derivative of a sourdough starter, which requires several days to refresh until it is active and ready to use.  Otherwise, most of the recipes that use a starter use either a poolish or biga starter, which can easily be made the night before the bread is to be made.  Both are very simple to make and require minimal effort.  Phew!  I decided to start with one of these.  Maybe I'm a sissy, but with Thanksgiving last week, I just didn't have the time to start a sourdough starter amidst all the other things I had to do.  And trust me, even with the "faster" starters, all the breads in this cookbook require a serious time commitment.  They all have several resting periods, which are fine for taking showers, vacuuming, cleaning out your inbox, painting your toenails (if you're a girl... or a guy who's into that, no judging!) and anything else that needs to get done during the several hours total you may need to wait for your dough to rise, intermittently, of course.  During one of the rises for my dough, I went to brunch while my mom dough-sat for me :) She's awesome!

Some of the starters used in the book

I like the way this book is set up, the pictures are mouthwatering, and the recipes are clearly explained, with photos in the intro of how to knead the wet doughs, mix in special ingredients, and shape and score the different loaves.   I do have a few criticisms, however.   First of all, each recipe lists a yield and special equipment required before the ingredients are even listed.  I think it would be very useful if they had included active and inactive times or at least time ranges in this section.  These recipes are very time intensive, and including these times up front could be useful in selecting which recipes might be more accessible, rather than reading through each recipe and doing addition to see how long they will take from beginning to end.  Each recipe also points out right beneath the title if the recipe uses a starter, and if so, which one.  This is very useful when narrowing down a recipe to try!  Unfortunately I must point out an error on the Brioche Pan Loaf recipe, which states that it does not use a starter and then goes on to include the poolish starter in the ingredients.  An oversight, but I wish the editor would have caught that :(  This is the revised and updated version of the book after all.

The brioche recipe

Two more things, and I promise I will be done with my criticisms (and you will thank me for pointing these out!).  In the introduction, the book states that the recipes were all tested on "old New York City gas ovens," and that with more modern ovens and electric ovens, the temperatures given may be too hot, and if so the temperatures should be lowered by 10 degrees F on all recipes.  First of all, maybe this should be pointed out in a more prominent location than page 43, in the middle of the techniques section, which some people may never even read.  Second of all, I would hope that in testing these recipes they would have thought to attempt them on some newer ovens as well, since I'm guessing many people making these recipes will not have "old New York City gas ovens." Just saying.  That kinda bugs me.  Fortunately, our electric oven worked just fine with the recipe I made.  But it's the principle.

Crispy bread sticks with anise, coriander, and mustard seeds

My last issue involved the method to create steam in the oven.  Again, the techniques section goes in depth to explain that you should put a small pan (such as a mini loaf pan) in the oven with ice cubes to create some initial steam, and preheat a cast iron pan as well, which will be filled last minute with boiling water.  It says here (and only here) that the cast iron pan should be an old pan you don't mind rusting.  This warning is never repeated again in the recipes.  The techniques section offers an alternative, where you can mist the oven walls with a plant sprayer several times.  I opted to mist my oven walls because I don't have a cast iron pan, and even if I did, I doubt I'd want to ruin it to bake bread.  I revised the recipe below a bit to include both techniques so you can choose for yourself.  Next time I may try using an older non-cast iron pan in the oven to create steam and see how that works, but for my purposes of making focaccia, the spritzing technique worked just fine :)

Oh yeah, the focaccia.  I was getting to that, I swear.  Even though I had a few concerns with the cookbook, overall I think it's a great cookbook if you are aware of these minor issues.  I was a bit intimidated at first with making a starter and creating steam in my oven to bake bread, two things I'd never done before.  The starter was a piece of cake to put together.  My two-year-old nephew could have mixed it up just fine.  The steam issue also worked out just fine with the plant sprayer.  Next time I may try out the water pan technique, but we'll see.  The focaccia was AMAZING.  The best bread of any kind, I think, I've baked both in and out of culinary school.  Even though it was sticky and messy and took forever, it was not difficult to make.  A bit challenging keeping the board on the table (thanks, mom), but otherwise the hardest part was just waiting during each rest period.  My bread baked up perfectly, had a delightful slightly-salted and rosemary-infused crust on top, with beautiful open holes, and a lovely chewy texture that I can't even begin to describe.  It definitely had a complex flavor (as promised) and I'm so glad I got to use a starter and fully experience that additional flavor and character that it gave my bread.  In the end, after making my starter the night before, taking it out of the fridge super early in the morning, and then working on my bread for over 6 hours before I could finally eat it, would I make it, or any of the other time consuming, sticky-doughed recipes from this cookbook, again? Abso-f@$*in-lutely!

*UPDATE 1/8/13* I have since made several recipes from the book. I am still obsessed with my incredible results, but have become aware of MANY editorial problems in the book. I have included a thorough rundown of my recent findings in a recent Amazon review of the book. You can read it here.

Focaccia with Fresh Rosemary
Makes one 17 by 12-inch rectangle
(Adapted from Amy's Bread)

1 3/4 cups plus 2 T. (15 oz) warm water (85 to 90 degrees F)
1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups (12 oz) biga starter (see recipe below)
4 1/2 cups (22.5 oz) unbleached bread flour
2 T. plus 2 tsp. (1.48 oz) milk
2 T. plus 2 tsp. (1.27 oz) extra-virgin olive oil
1 T. plus 1 1/4 tsp. (0.45 oz) kosher salt
2 T. plus 1 tsp. (0.35 oz) fresh rosemary, about 2 1/2 branches, chopped
Additional extra-virgin olive oil and kosher salt, for topping

Line a 17 by 12-inch sheet pan with parchment paper and lightly oil with olive oil. Set aside.

Place the warm water and yeast in a large bowl. Stir with a fork to dissolve the yeast and allow to stand for about 3 minutes. If you are working in a cool kitchen on a cool day, increase the water temperature to 105 degrees F to give the dough a warmer start.

Add the biga to the yeast mixture and mix with your fingers for 1 to 2 minutes to break it up. The mixture should look milky and foamy. Add the flour and mix in with your hands, lifting the wet mixture over the flour to incorporate it. When the dough becomes a shaggy mass, move to a very lightly floured surface and knead until it becomes smooth and somewhat elastic, about 5 minutes. Place the dough back into the mixing bowl, cover with oiled plastic, and let rest for 20 minutes to smooth out and develop elasticity.

After the rest period add the milk, oil, and salt to the dough in the mixing bowl and knead it in the bowl until it is all incorporated.

Move the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead until it is very smooth, silky, and elastic, 7 to 10 minutes. The dough will be sticky, but don't use too much flour for kneading. The finished dough should be wet but supple and springy.

Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn it to coat with oil, and cover it tightly with oiled plastic wrap. Let the dough rise at room temperature (75 to 77 degrees F) for 1 hour.

Turn the dough while it is still in the mixing bowl. Gently deflate the dough in the middle of the bowl with your fingertips, then fold the left side over the middle, and the right side over the middle. Fold the dough in half, gently pat it down, and then turn it over so the seam is underneath. Let it rise again for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until nearly doubled in volume.

When the dough has risen, loosen it from the bowl and gently pour it onto the center of the oiled baking sheet. Pat it gently with your fingertips to stretch it evenly out to the edges of the pan. Be careful not to tear the dough. If the dough resists stretching, let it rest for 2 to 5 minutes, until it becomes supple enough to stretch again, then continue to press it out to the edges of the pan. (If the dough is dry, you may have to repeat the resting/stretching procedure several times). Brush the top of the dough lightly with olive oil, cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap, and let rise for 1 to 2 hours, until the dough has doubled and fills the pan (a finger pressed into the dough will leave an indentation).

30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Fill a plastic spray bottle with water and place a small pan (such as a mini loaf pan) on the lowest possible rack of the electric oven. If using a water pan to create steam, also place a cast-iron pan (that you are willing to get rusty) next to the small pan, fill a teakettle with water to be boiled later, and have a metal 1-cup measure with a straight handle available near the kettle.

5 to 10 minutes before the focaccia is ready to bake, carefully place 2 or 3 ice cubes in the small pan in the bottom of the oven. This helps to create moisture in the oven prior to baking. If using a water pan, also turn the water on to boil.

Brush and dot the surface of the dough gently with olive oil, dimple it in several spots with your fingertips to prevent air pockets from developing underneath, and sprinkle the surface lightly with kosher salt. Sprinkle with chopped rosemary all the way to the edges.

Quickly open the oven, and place the pan of focaccia on the oven rack, then using the plastic spray bottle, quickly mist the focaccia 6 to 8 times. If using a water pan, have the metal 1-cup measure already filled with boiling water and carefully pour it into the cast-iron skillet. If not using a water pan, instead quickly spray the walls of the oven 8 to 10 times. Immediately close the oven door. 2 minutes later, open the oven and quickly spray the walls 8 to 10 times more, closing it immediately afterward. Spray the walls again 2 minutes later, 8 to 10 times (you will have sprayed the oven walls on 3 separate occasions now if not using a water pan).

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F and bake for 15 to 20 minutes longer, until golden brown and crusty but still soft inside.

Remove the focaccia from the oven and immediately brush it lightly with olive oil. Cool in the pan 10 minutes, then carefully slide it onto a cooling rack. Remove the parchment (to prevent steam from softening the bottom crust) and let cool. Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into squares. Focaccia is best served the day it is baked.

Biga Starter
Makes 1 3/4 cups or 14 ounces

3/4 cup plus 2 T. (7 oz) very warm water (105 to 115 degrees F)
1/8 tsp. active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups plus 2 T. (8 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour

In a medium bowl, mix the warm water and yeast together and stir to dissolve the yeast. Add the flour and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon for 1 to 2 minutes, until a smooth, somewhat elastic batter has formed. The batter will be fairly thick and stretchy; it gets softer and more elastic after it has risen.

Scrape the biga into a 1-quart plastic or glass container with high sides, mark the height of the starter and the time on a piece of tape on the side of the container so you can see how much it rises, and cover the container with plastic wrap.

Let it rise at room temperature (75 to 78 degrees F) for 6 to 8 hours. Or let it rise for 1 hour at room temperature, then chill it in the refrigerator for 8 hours or overnight. Remove it from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours to warm up and become active before use. Biga should more than double in volume. If you use the starter while it's still cold from the refrigerator, be sure to compensate for the cold temperature by using warm water (85 to 90 degrees F) in your dough, instead of the cool water specified in the recipe. Use the starter while it is still bubbling up, but before it starts to deflate.

*Disclaimer* I received no compensation to write this review. I purchased the cookbook myself. My opinions are always my own.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Purple Sweet Potato Bread Pudding with Cardamom Whipped Cream


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  I am so thankful this year, as I am every year, but maybe more this year.  In the past year so much has changed in my life.  I attended and graduated from culinary school (with a perfect 4.0 GPA by the way!).  I moved to New York City and interned at the Food Network, every foodie's dream job.  I am surrounded by friends and family who love me, and who don't think I'm strange for photographing all my food, both at home and at restaurants.  I feel accepted, and I am so grateful for that.  Since November 2009, the readership of my blog has increased tremendously!  I have over 650% more visits than I did this month last year!  I have made wonderful food blogger friends and I am so inspired by all of you, and love seeing all the wonderful and creative dishes on your blogs.  I am inspired to create fun dishes not only for myself, but to share with all my amazing readers.  Thank you for taking the time out of your busy lives to read my blog and to leave thoughtful comments.  I feel like such a little person in the world (in truth, I'm only 5'1"!) but I feel like through this blog I make an impact on people's lives, and that's something I've wanted for so long, to make a difference, and to inspire people.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, for giving me a wonderful audience to write for.  I love you all!

Recently, I was introduced to Okinawan purple sweet potatoes by Maya at Foodiva's Kitchen.  She has made almost a dozen amazing and inspiring dishes utilizing this vibrant root vegetable.  With her guidance, I managed to find a source to purchase them in Chinatown and immediately started planning what I would make.  I chose to make bread pudding as my first exploration with this new ingredient.  The great thing about bread pudding is that it is so versatile!  You can make it with bread that is crustless, or leave the crusts on (I did).  You can use regular white bread, crustier Italian bread, challah, brioche, sweet rolls, cinnamon rolls, donuts, croissants, panettone, quick breads or cakes (pumpkin bread, carrot cake, etc)... just make sure that you let your bread dry out and get stale, or lightly toast the bread cubes.  I cubed my bread the night before and left it out on a tray to dry out.  This helps them absorb more of the yummy custard!  For the liquid, you have choices as well.  You can use milk, cream, a combination, eggnog, again, a lot of options there.  I used low-fat milk, which was great because the purple sweet potato puree thickened it nicely, and using cream probably would have made it too thick and rich.  You can also mix in fresh or dried fruits, nuts, chocolate chips, whatever you like.  A simple bread pudding can be transformed into so many different things.

I made a large baking dish of this mildly sweet and lightly spiced dessert for Thanksgiving, but allowed myself a small preview with a personal ramekin of the purple custard-infused delicacy.  Everyone who tried it thought it was perfect and not overly sweet or rich, just right.  It was easy to make room for seconds, haha :) I liked the idea of adding a touch of cardamom as one of the spices in the bread pudding and then repeated it again in the whipped cream.  The little black specks of cardamom in the whipped cream looked like fresh vanilla bean, but instead offered a completely unexpected twist.  It was a great background note that didn't overwhelm the dish, as I obviously wanted to showcase the purple sweet potato both in color and flavor.  I think I succeeded :) I hope you'll seek out these beautiful sweet potatoes and give this recipe a try!  And if you can't find them, just substitute regular sweet potatoes.  I promise it will taste just as good!

The "family-sized" bread pudding for Thanksgiving

The Victoria-sized one for me!

The cardamom whipped cream melted into the warm bread pudding, and made it taste oh so awesome!

The insides look a bit less purple than the crust, but there's no denying this baby is purple inside and out :)

Purple Sweet Potato Bread Pudding with Cardamom Whipped Cream
Serves 8 to 10

Bread Pudding:
Unsalted butter, for baking dish
8 cups stale* 1/2-inch bread cubes (such as Italian, challah, or brioche)
1 cup purple sweet potato puree
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
4 eggs
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
3 cups low-fat milk

Cardamom Whipped Cream:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 T. sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom

Place the oven rack in the center of the oven, and preheat to 350 degrees F.  Butter a 9 by 13-inch baking dish and arrange the stale bread cubes in the dish.

Whisk the purple sweet potato puree, brown sugar, eggs, cardamom, and cinnamon together in a large bowl.  Then whisk in the milk until well-combined and smooth.  Pour the mixture evenly over the bread cubes in the baking dish, pressing down with your hands and making sure that all the bread gets submerged and starts soaking in the custard.

Soak for 10 to 15 minutes and then put the baking dish in the oven.  Bake until the filling is set and the top is lightly browned and crusted, about 30 to 35 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat the heavy cream to medium peaks.  Beat in the sugar and ground cardamom to medium-stiff peaks.  Serve the bread pudding warm with cardamom whipped cream.

*If your bread isn't very stale, cut it into cubes and allow the bread cubes to dry out at room temperature all day or overnight. Alternatively, lightly toast them on a sheet pan in a 350 degree F oven until dry, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The World's Greatest Sandwich, By Thomas Keller


Thomas Keller and I go way back.  I was lucky enough to meet him at a book signing last spring, and my culinary world immediately changed.  I already knew how talented he is, but I never realized he is such a great guy.  Honestly, one of the nicest people I've ever met.  I'd like to think of Thomas Keller as my friend.  He would probably consider me more of a stalker.  (Disclaimer to Keller's reps: I am not now, nor have I ever actually stalked Thomas Keller.  I'm simply stalking his mind).  Case in point, this sandwich.  I was recently doing some sandwich research for work, and putting together a sandwich spreadsheet (because my life is awesome!) and I came across this recipe.  I never saw the movie Spanglish, for which it was created, but I think the sandwich is universal.  It was intended for a late-night sandwich craving in the movie, but I think it's perfect for breakfast, lunch, or dinner as well!  My stomach loves it, and so will yours.  Thanks, TK, for another winner.  Love, your biggest stalker fan, Victoria ;-)

PS My official goal in life is to have dinner at Per Se, Keller's 3 Michelin Star NY restaurant.  It costs $275 per person.  I'm accepting donations now through forever.  Thanks :)

BLT Sandwich with Fried Egg and Cheese
Serves 1
(Recipe by Thomas Keller, used in the film Spanglish)

3 to 4 thick slices bacon
2 slices Monterey Jack cheese
2 slices Pain de Campagne (rustic country loaf), toasted
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
4 slices tomato
2 leaves butter lettuce (aka Boston lettuce or bibb lettuce)
1 teaspoon butter
1 egg

Cook the bacon until crisp, drain on paper towels and set aside.

Place the slices of cheese on one slice of the toasted bread and place in a toaster oven or under a broiler to melt the cheese.

Spread the other slice of toast with the mayonnaise, top with the cooked bacon, the sliced tomato, and the lettuce.

In a nonstick skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Fry the egg, turning over briefly when the bottom is set (keep the yolk runny!)

Slide the finished egg on top of the lettuce. Top with the other slice of toast, melted cheese side down. Place the sandwich on a plate and slice in half, letting the yolk run down the sandwich.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sweet Potato-Black Bean Empanadas


When I told my half-Latino brother-in-law that I planned to bake these vegetarian empanadas, he told me that the act of baking these babies instead of frying them would have his grandfather rolling in his grave.  But when he tasted these flaky morsels, he told me they reminded him of his aunt's cooking, and that if his grandfather's ghost decided to haunt him after eating these, he would simply shove a hot empanada in his mouth.

You're welcome to bake or fry these, I've included directions for both, but I assure you that either way these small turnovers will be light and flaky with a fun surprise of sweet potato and black bean inside.  The filling was so good we decided it could easily act as a side dish on its own, so feel free to double the filling recipe and serve it crustless if you'd like.

Sweet Potato-Black Bean Empanadas
Makes about 2 dozen
(Crust recipe adapted from Food Network Kitchens)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup cold unsalted butter (2 sticks), diced
2 large eggs, beaten
Flour, for rolling the dough

Extra-virgin olive oil, for sautéing
1/2 medium sweet potato, peeled and cubed into 1/4-inch pieces (about 1 1/4 cups)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 tsp. ground cumin, divided
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
3/4 cup drained and rinsed canned black beans (1/2 a 15.5 oz can)
1/4 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. chili powder
1/4 cup water

1 egg, beaten

Add the flour and salt to the bowl of a food processor and pulse twice until combined. Add the butter and pulse until it becomes mealy with pea-sized bits of butter, about 10 times. Add the egg and pulse 10 more times until the egg absorbs into the flour, but do not let it form into a ball in the machine. Remove the dough to a work surface and bring the dough together by hand. Form the dough into a disk, wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 1 hour.

Lightly coat the bottom of a sauté pan with olive oil and heat over medium. Add the sweet potato, salt, pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin, and sauté until lightly browned and tender. Remove to a bowl.

In the same pan, drizzle more oil and add the onion and garlic and briefly sauté until softened, a few minutes. Add the black beans, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, ground coriander, chili powder, and salt and pepper, to taste. Cook until heated through, and then add the water to deglaze the pan. Use the back of a wooden spoon to smash some of the black beans to thicken the mixture. When the mixture is somewhat saucy, but thick, remove it from the heat and combine it with the sweet potato. Allow the mixture to cool before assembling empanadas.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a rectangle about 1/8-inch thick. Use a 3 3/4-inch round cookie cutter to cut out circles of dough. If the dough circles are warm and soft at this point, return them to the refrigerator to chill for 10 minutes. Gather the dough scraps, reroll the scraps, and cut out more circles, until you have used as much of the dough as you can. Put 1 tablespoon of the filling in the center of each dough circle. Lightly brush the edges with the beaten egg and fold the circles in 1/2 to form semi-circles. Reserve the remaining egg wash after assembling the empanadas. Using your hands, pinch around the edges of the dough semi-circles to seal. Crimp the edges with the tines of a fork. Transfer to 2 parchment paper-lined baking sheets and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Brush the reserved egg wash over the tops of the empanadas, and bake for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown, rotating pans from top to bottom and front to back halfway through. Serve hot.

*Alternatively, fry the empanadas. Fill a wide-heavy bottomed pot 3 inches deep with vegetable oil. Heat oil to 365 degrees F over medium heat. Omit the egg wash over the top of the empanadas. Fry in 3 to 4 batches until golden brown and crispy on both sides, about 5 to 7 minutes per batch. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a dry paper-towel lined baking sheet to drain. Sprinkle with salt immediately. Return the oil to the proper temperature between batches. Serve hot.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Melting Pot: From China to Venezuela and Down Under

New York City is a blending of many cultures, a true melting pot.  Back in the day, this is where immigrants would travel with hopes of a greater life and bigger opportunities.  Today, it's a place where people come to make it in the big city.  Sinatra had it right.  If they can make it here, they can make it anywhere.  Not much has changed if you really think about it.  New York is a beacon of hope, a symbol of America, a multicultural epicenter.  That's honestly one of the things I enjoy so much about living here.  We're all in it together.  It's our city.  It belongs to all of us.  I love that you can find just about any type of ethnic cuisine here, at an incredible price range, from top dollar to bargain basement.  Unless someone wants to fund future outings (I'm serious, I'm always looking for a benefactor) I will most-likely limit my explorations to a moderate price range (you're welcome).  Let's get started with a bargain basement pick from the Far East...

Vanessa's Dumpling House
118 Eldridge St
(between Grand St & Broome St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 625-8008

I selected Vanessa's after an afternoon of trolling Canal Street for the perfect bag.  A friend had recommended it, and said it was worth biking miles out of her way for late-night dumplings when a craving hit.  Well, anywhere in New York that's worth going completely out of your way for a craving must be pretty good. After waiting in a somewhat lengthy line, I selected an order of pan-fried chive and pork dumplings, an order of pan-fried cabbage and pork dumplings, and a scallion pancake.  My grand total for 8 pan-fried dumplings and a giant, fluffy wedge of scallion pancake: $2.75.  Yes, I meant to put the decimal point after the 2.  Each order of dumplings was $1 and the plain scallion pancake was only 75 cents.  They offer scallion pancake sandwiches which are stuffed with various fillings and cost more, but I knew this would be filling enough as is.  So with my wallet less than $3 lighter, I filled my belly.  The chewy and crisp dumplings have a slightly thicker dough than what I'm used to in the past, but I prefer the extra texture here, trust me.  That bit of chewiness is all the difference.  And the scallion pancake, it's a thick, fluffy wad of dough, flecked with scallions within and topped with sesame seeds, lots of them.  You will get your money's worth, and you will never be hungry again.  Oh and for those of you keeping track, this place has an "A" for sanitation from the Health Department, so keep your "if it's cheap it must be dirty" comments to yourself :)

Half of the menu, I didn't photograph the rest, which had soups and noodle dishes, sorry :(

In action

Making some scallion pancake sandwiches!

My feast!  All for under $3!

Left to Right: Chive and Pork Pan-Fried Dumplings $1, Cabbage and Pork Pan-Fried Dumplings $1

Scallion Pancake $0.75

Caracas Arepa Bar
291 Grand St                                    93 1/2 E 7th St
Brooklyn, NY 11211     and        New York, NY 10009
(718) 218-6050                             (212) 529-2314

I've been to the Brooklyn location although the East Village one is the original.  They share a menu, so you can get the same dishes at either location, and Brooklyn is more convenient for me and much easier to get a seat, as I hear the other location is always packed.  You may remember Caracas Arepa Bar from the arepa "throwdown" where they reigned supreme over Bobby Flay.  These flat, unleavened cornmeal patties generally derive from Venezuela and Colombia.  Caracas offers up Venezuelan-style arepas that are stuffed to create sandwiches.  Though they appear to be small, they are far more filling than they look.  I decided to start with some tostones topped with mojito mayo, lemon and crumbled white cheese.  It was a great starter and even a bit filling.  It would have been plenty to share.  I selected an arepa based on a friend's recommendation, the La De Pernil, which is filled with roasted pork shoulder, tomato slices, and a spicy mango sauce.  It was very good, extremely juicy, although the mango sauce wasn't quite as spicy as I imagined it to be.  They offer a spicy sauce on the table for you to add to your dishes, but I forgot about it until after I finished my meal, but then I tasted it anyway and it was good :) Next time for sure!  They have Happy Hour specials on drinks all week long from 4 to 7 pm, and I indulged in a $4 Pacifico with my meal.  My final tally was a mere $16.50 before tax and tip for a drink, an appetizer, and a tasty and authentic arepa.  Not bad for an impromptu trip to South America!

Tostones Mochimeros - Fried Green Plantains topped with Mojito Mayo, a squeeze of lemon and white cheese $5.50

Arepa La de Pernil - roasted pork shoulder with tomato slices and a spicy mango sauce $7 

Tuck Shop
75 9th Ave                                               115 St Marks Place                             68 E 1st St
New York, NY 10014        and           New York, NY 10009       and       New York, NY 10003
(212) 979-5200                                     (212) 979-5200                                 (212) 979-5200
When I generally think of meat pies, I think of jolly old England (and of course Sweeney Todd, which is a bit disturbing, I admit).  Well wasn't Australia once a British colony, housing all the convicts that weren't fit to stay in England?  I'm sure the meat pie traveled with them too, as Tuck Shop features Australian meat pies and instructs you to "Eat 'Em With Ya Hands."  A new location recently opened in Chelsea Market, so I was very excited to try it out!  They offer ketchup and suggest you use it, and I won't argue with an Aussie in matters of meat pies... or kangaroos.  Apparently, in Australia they put ketchup on everything.  These crusts are not really flaky, but thick and firm around the edges, a good stable wall around the filling, easy to keep the pie together as you eat with your hands.  Also, it's good to note that everything on the menu is under $6.

I first tried the traditional meat pie with ground beef, and thought the ketchup was actually a great touch.  The filling was well-seasoned, tasty and moist, but not too liquidy, and stayed nicely inside the crust's embrace.  On another visit, I tried the Thai green chook curry pie, which is filled with chicken in a curry sauce of Kafir lime leaves, galangal, Coconut milk, Thai basil and chilis, and served with sweet chili sauce instead of ketchup (although you could still top it with ketchup if you like, down under they would).  The pies are not super filling on their own if you're completely starving, but would serve as a nice lunch or light meal, or can be paired with generous side dishes ($4 a piece) for something more substantial.  I tried the Tucker box which comes with a pie and 2 sides for $12.  I had the scalloped potatoes, a cheesy potato side that will fill you up where the pie left off, and the coleslaw, which is not overly mayonnaisey as some slaws tend to be.  It includes apples and a touch of sriracha, but could use some more seasoning and acid, if you ask me.  It's a fresh option great for cooling you off after a few bites of the somewhat spicy curry pie.  While a pie alone left me wanting just a little bit more, the Tucker box was too much and I took home most of the sides.  A good idea would be to split sides with a dining companion, just for a few extra bites.

Traditional Meat Pie (Ground Beef) $5.50

Thai Green Chook Curry Pie (Kafir lime leaves, galangal, Coconut milk, thai basil and chilis) $5.50

With sweet chili sauce

Coleslaw $4

Scalloped Potatoes $4


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