Thursday, May 31, 2012

Panem et Conchasium: Mexican Sweet Bread

One thing I love about where I live is the diversity of my neighborhood. People from all over the world congregate to New York, many live in Queens. It seems though that so many people from all over the world come and make Elmhurst their home. According to “Elmhurst in Queens has the highest share of immigrants per total population. Seventy percent of its residents are immigrants. Other top neighborhoods in this category are all in Queens – Jackson Heights, Flushing, Corona and Woodside. In these neighborhoods, six out of 10 residents are born outside of the U.S, according to the same report.”

This means growing up around kids who, or their parents originally hailed from places such as Haiti, The Dominican Republic, China, Tibet, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, even some of the previous residents, Italians and Jews and other Europeans. In school, our forms came in six different languages, and kids were often asked over the PA system to help translate.

I feel very fortunate to live in a place like this, because it’s usually very hard for people to accept things that are different from what they know. I struggle with it too, because I grew up with certain things I knew to be “true” or “they way we do things.” It just is, it’s always been this way. People get very uncomfortable when their values, their “truths” are questioned. But it’s also very liberating to learn other ways of doing things, of being.

Growing up with an Italian mom, bread was important. It was my treat when my mom would clean the house. I’d sit in my high chair, watching Fraggle Rock, and dipping my hunk of Italian bread into melted butter. Hey, it was the mid-80’s, butter wasn’t bad back then. And, while it’s not “proper,” Italian bread is best enjoyed when ripped off in hunks or pieces, rather than cut. Your mom will be mad, but it’s so good.

Bread was also a great staple when my mom wanted something quick and simple to make for us. Italian bread was cheap, I think 3 or four loaves for a dollar, with some cheese and whatever toppings, popped into the oven, and done. With three kids, she could customize each of our breads (tomato and basil on mine, bacon bits or perhaps pepperoni for my siblings). We were all fed and happy. To me, bread is love.

So when I see how different cultures “do bread,” I get excited. I love bread, and it loves me more than I care to admit. On the other hand, I have this preconceived notion of what “bread” is to me. Bread is Italian bread, or we called it “hero bread.” I don’t think of bread and think of Asian bakery, or Indian naan or roti, or Colombian buñuelos although I think they are all delicious. Other breads have been elusive to me.

One bread that has mesmerized me that I never tried before was this Mexican bread. They look like large rolls, but have the prettiest colors and designs baked on top, similar to a pineapple bun. After doing some research I realized these were called conchas. As you can see there are a number of sweet breads, pan dulces, but I am most familiar with conchas where I live. I’ve walked past Vallecito (omg it smells like butter and sugar and LOVE!), I’ve passed Mira Cali, Broadway Bakery (although that’s more of a pizzeria and Western bakery).
Why have I never ventured in, to sample that which I admired from afar? The simple answer is that I didn’t know what I was ordering. Usually pointing and bracing myself for the surprise of what I bought doesn’t faze me. But sometimes it can be intimidating. Plus, adoring from afar creates this mystery, this fantasy, and sometimes that’s better than the real thing.

Sadly, in this case, the conchas fantasy prevailed. I went to a local supermarket that I don’t frequent all that often because it’s a little out of the way, and I swear they’ve renovated four times in a year. When you can’t find canned beans in a predominantly Hispanic supermarket, things are definitely out of order in that place!  I do like this market though because they have more choices than my closer markets. That, and this market just set up a bakery! I was able to buy what I needed to buy, and then sneak in some conchas! Not knowing what to expect (and at fifty cents a piece!), I had to try them all!

So pretty!

Well, they were prettier before they made the schlep 6 or 7 blocks back to my apartment. Some of the decoration fell off, but it remained in the bag. I found the decorative top was tasty, kind of like a sugar cookie in texture and taste. The brown had a hint of chocolate but I couldn’t make out a distinction between the white, pink and yellow. The bread itself was like a roll you’d get a sandwich on, texturally, but it was slightly sweet. It confused me because it wasn’t pastry sweet, it was just a little sweet. Maybe it would be good with some strong café, but I didn’t love it. Maybe that’s what I get for buying grocery store bread instead of bakery bread. Perhaps I will give this another try.

Up next, an announcement I wasn’t sure I wanted to make. I decided to go with it because I think it’s important to be honest, in my personal life, and on this. That, and perhaps to show that everything has a place, even Colombian hot dogs.

Until then, mangia!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Take Me Down to Coco, yo!

Lame title, but very cool that this is post #50! Woohoo!

Now, we’re back to the good stuff, local fare from here in Elmhurst, Queens. I went to Coco awhile back, but really didn’t know what to order My familiarity with South Asian cuisine consisted of making pad thai for a friend in college (word up Leila!), having no clue what I was doing, in a dorm kitchen with flickering lights. Good times.

I asked The Fisherman if we could go again, but he insisted that not all the food was good, like their noodles in soup was horrible. Pan fried stuff was good, in his opinion. I recall their chicken satay was good, so between our limited memories we decided to give it a go.

We sit and look through the menu

And ponder their special drinks, although I know my heart belongs to Thai iced tea. I’d like to try an avocado shake, or coco-pandan, mmmm.

I got my Thai iced tea, so tasty. Sharp, bitter strong tea with the smooth creaminess of the condensed and evaporated milk, so good!

Now, to order. We go for the satay chicken and the roti telur (roti canai with egg) for appetizers, and then shrimp thai green curry (after trying red and green curries in my own dishes, I think I like red more, hold tight for more on how I do Thai!) and chow kueh teow for mains.

The satay was as delicious as I remember it, moist juicy dark meat with a nice marinade, and INCREDIBLE peanut sauce. I wanted that on EVERYTHING! I am playing with using peanut and peanut butter in savory dishes, you will soon find out. This really could be main dish over rice, and in some places it is.

I never had the roti but it was quite delicious. Stretchy chewy bread? I’m there! And with egg it’s not a major starch bomb. This was served with another delicious chicken curry sauce. Saucilicious!! Two for two on the apps!!

For the main dishes, this curry has nice heat, not too crazy, and the veggies added a nice crunch and contrast. The sauce dished over rice was wonderful.

I actually really loved The Fisherman’s choice of chow kueh teow. Nice wok hei, which is hard to find but beloved when found, nice chewy rice noodles, tasty calamari, shrimp, sprouts (love that light crunch) and some egg.  I will definitely request this again.

The funny thing about where we live in Elmhurst is, we live around all these eateries, yet we often pass them right by. For me, Coco was an example of this. There are many, many others that we just pass because they’re part of the scenery for us. But I’ve decided that, when posed with “Hmmm, what should we eat?” that we take advantage of all the great local cuisine we have, that we usually don’t even realize.

Will they all be great? Of course not. But the important thing is it’s there, and we gave it a try (that and we can just roll home).

Anyway, next up, a quick blip on my adventures with Mexican conchas! Until then, mangia!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sea Faring Foodies: Part III, Italian and Brazilian Extras!

…And I’m back, again. Sorry about the delay, but at the office we just finished our spring fundraising season, whew! I hope you all did something nice for your mom this Mother’s Day. We focus on moms every spring, like the meal recipients who are moms. A lot of people think of their moms and then they think of women who are alone on this special day. We make sure they have a nice meal on Mother’s Day, and a card signed by someone who made a donation for Mother’s Day. They know they are not forgotten, not today, or any day of the year.

Now, I can finally finish Sea Faring Foodies Trilogy MWAHAHAHAA! These were the places The Fisherman and I had to pay extra in order to eat there. In sum, it was totally worth it. First up is Mama’s Italian Restaurant, a really nice Italian place, makes you think you’re on the water in Tuscany, almost. Then, we checked out Moderno Churrascaria, a Brazilian barbecue meatfest.

At Mama’s the atmosphere was very warm, very Mediterranean, really nice. We got the antipasti platter, beef carpaccio, salad with fig and pancetta, pizza margherita and cheese tortellini with creamy pesto.

The antipasti was really nice, a change from what I grew up eating as antipasti, veggies and cold cut cubes (delicious, but not exactly authentic). From top left, roasted tomatoes which were actually sweet and didn’t taste like crap (as most tomatoes do nowadays, sad). Then some prosciutto, which is always delicious. I’m so glad the Fisherman like Parmesan and prosciutto, these are not for the novice! 

Next were some lovely olives. The Fisherman is not a fan because he thinks all olives = canned black olives. Then roasted red peppers, a wonderful addition to ANYTHING, so good! Finally, something I never had before, but was quite impressed, a sort of zucchini frittata. It was light, not dense at all, cold, but not super wet as cold egg dishes can get, more so with any squash in the mix. A nice start before appetizers.

Next we tried beef carpaccio. I never had it before and it was really tasty. The olive oil makes it so silky and the pepper and greens make it zippy. It inspired me to want to try carpaccio again, and again and again.

I got the salad, but this is why: figs AND pancetta? Yeah, I was going for that. A little richness balances out the salad greens so you don’t have to be weighed down, but you also won’t eat it and then say “Uh, that’s it?” Nicely balanced. Notice in the lower middle, that glowing jewel or porktasticness, like a pancetta ruby.

For main courses, The Fisherman got the pizza margherita, and since we kept hearing about the pasta, I opted for the cheese tortellini with creamy pesto. The pizza was really good, not quite pizza from back home, but pretty close. We live in NYC, it’s a hard pie to compare it to. The crust was nice and crispy, the cheese was super gooey, but the one turn off for me was the tomatoes. 

Now, I love veggies on pizza, but when you go heavy on toppings like vegetables (which have lots of water), or large pieces (such as these tomato slices), one bite causes said topping to slide off, with the poor crust all by its lonesome. It’s so, so sad to separate crust from cheese and topping. It should be considered a war crime. Overall, a formidable pie.

The pasta was really nice, the most tender I’ve ever had. I’ve also never had fresh pasta before so this was an extra special treat. It wasn’t gummy, or dry, it was a totally different texture. I’ll have to investigate more fresh pasta from now on. The creamy pesto was really nice, something I never thought of trying before but will now…This was right up my alley as a major Italian cheese head.

All in all, it was a very nice experience. Like a trip to Tuscany on the sea.

Now, Moderno Churrascaria was a place we were very lucky to go to, since it opened a day or so before we were to come back to NYC. 

Boy, was there meat. GLORIOUS MEAT! As you can see the menu was long and lovely. Just like me. Yeah, I couldn't resist. 

For those new to the art of churrascaria, you have some object, in this case a paper square, sometimes something that looks almost like an hour glass. One side is painted red, the other is green. When the object is flipped to green, it means BRING ON DA MEAT! Guys with skewers of carnivorous delights come by your table and keep loading you up. When you flip it to red, it means NO MOAR!

Note, see at the top, between the drinks offered and the meat is this thing called a “salad bar”? Think of it as a “sad bar” and save your stomach (and calories) for the meat. It’s meant to distract you from the meat. I did try some ceviche for giggles. Not that exciting, but luckily I was really full anyway, I had my meatfill.

We had some Brazilian cheese bread, pao de queijo, reminded me of pandebono, but waaay less dense.

The meat which is incredible, the best I’ve had. We were offered picanha (a prized cut of sirloin known for its rich flavor), garlic beef (center cut sirloin marinated in garlic and sea salt), costela (slow cooked tender juicy beef ribs), filet mignon (succulent filet of beef seasoned to perfection), frango (chicken leg marinated in lime juice, sea salt and garlic), chicken breast (wrapped in smoked peppered bacon), costela de suino (pork ribs marinated in red wine and spices), linguica (Portuguese sausages flavored with herbs and garlic), chorizo (Spanish sausages flavored with red wine and Parmesan cheese), costela de carneiro (flavorful lamb rib chops from the spit). Yeah, it was awesome.

For the sides, we were given buttered rice (since you need butter after MEATFEST), savory black beans, garlic mashed potatoes, and fried sweet bananas. I loved the bananas the best, but I’m a sweet fiend. The others were good, but really, this is all about the meat. And I think these pictures speak louder than anything I can type up.

Sadly, I don’t remember which meat was what, but I remember that it was all incredible. The problem is you fill up really fast on all that protein. Yet, there is always room for dessert. The choices were papaya cream (a blend of papaya and vanilla cream and crème de cassis liqueur), coconut flan (traditional flan with toasted coconut), and mango rice pudding (sweet mango with dulce de leche). We went for the flan and the rice pudding. 

The flan was creamy and custardy with a nice coconutty flavor. I think if there was toasted coconut on top, or on the bottom and flipped over, it would add a nice crunch as you would expect with the word “toasted” in the description. The rice pudding I found to be really sweet, more than even I could appreciate. The bottom had the sweet mango, it was almost like jam. Not bad to try, but I’d go for the flan if I got a do over.

These two restaurants were definitely worth the extra cost. Mama’s was $10 a person and Churrascuria was $20, TWENTY per person. The closest Churrascaria to us in Queens is DOUBLE that price, for less quality selection, and the last time we went, was crawling with possibly mid level gangsters/drug dealers. Really. Doesn’t help you appetite when you feel like you fell in the snake pit.

So, that wraps up the Sea Faring Foodies Trilogy, finally. Wow, I can’t believe that was two months ago. Boy does time fly. Now, we’re back to our regularly scheduled program. We start with a visit to a local Malaysian/Thai spot, Coco.

Until then, mangia!