Monday, January 27, 2014

Double Chocolate Cookies

My friends and I had a little dinner party recently. We all gathered in an apartment, sprawled on various chairs, couches, and the ever-lovely floor, and ate our potluck dinner off of paper plates. While it certainly wasn't the most cohesive dinner I've ever eaten, I laughed until my sides hurt and realized that college is probably the only time where such a random, eclectic dinner party is truly acceptable.

I was tasked with dessert. Let me tell you, I dithered for a solid thirty minutes about what to make. See, I bought a container of cocoa powder at Trader Joe's recently (read up on that adventure here), and I absolutely wanted to use it. I looked up various recipes ranging from ice cream to cakes to truffles and everything in between. However, at the end of it all, I decided on something fairly easy and non-messy: chocolate cookies studded with chocolate chunks.

It was really quite easy. I didn't really use a recipe, I just subbed out a bit of the flour for the cocoa powder. While the baking time was a little iffy due to their awesome thickness, I figured it out in the end! My roommate N said that these are the best things I've ever made. I think that phrase gets thrown around a lot with what I make (humble brag), but everyone who tried these absolutely loved them.

You will need:
 -1 stick of butter, softened
 -1/2 cup of granulated sugar
 -1/4 cup of brown sugar, packed
 -1 egg
 -1 tsp of vanilla extract
 -1 cup of flour
 -1/3 cup of unsweetened cocoa powder
 -1/4 tsp baking soda
 -pinch of salt
 -1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chunks (or chips)

Oven temperature: 350˚F.

As with most cookies, start by creaming together your butter and your sugar with an electric mixer. You want all the sugar to be incorporated into the butter, for the mixture to have no lumps, and to be light and airy.

Then, add your egg and vanilla. Continue mixing until fully combined.

In a separate bowl (or Tupperware), combine your dry ingredients. That'll be your flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. Using a fork or your fingers or whatever, mix it all together until combined.

Then add about a third of the dry mixture to the butter and thoroughly combine. Continue until all of the dry mix has been added, and keep stirring/combining until the dough forms a bit of a ball and has an even texture, with no un-mixed lumps.

Now throw your chocolate chunks in there and mix to evenly distribute. Like with any cookie, you could add anything you like to these, including nuts, other types of chocolate, dried fruit... the list goes on and on!

This recipe only yielded ten cookies, since I love 'em huge and chewy. Each cookie was about two tablespoons' worth of dough, rolled by hand then pressed onto an ungreased cookie sheet.

Then, place them in the fridge for about half an hour, up to overnight. You'll notice as you roll them out that they're very soft and malleable, and for thick cookies, you do not want to have warm dough going into the oven! Otherwise, they'll spread far too much and you'll have thin cookies.

Once they've chilled, put them in your preheated oven for about twelve to fifteen minutes. Mine took about fourteen. You want the tops of the cookies to look lighter, dry, and a bit dull. Pull them out when they're an even brown, but keep them on the cookie sheet to cool, since their bottoms will cook some more while they're on the sheet.

These cookies pack a ton of intense flavor into each bite. They're chocolaty without being overly sweet, and they're deliciously soft. Serve them warm with a glass of milk after dinner with friends, and prepare to reap praise! Everyone loved these, and I loved how easy they were to make. I had all the ingredients I needed at home, and I only dirtied two bowls!

Since we didn't exactly have any leftovers, I wouldn't know how long these would keep for... but I'm sure they'd at least keep for a few days in a Tupperware container!

I can't wait to continue to experiment with cocoa powder in the kitchen. Single's Awareness Day Valentine's Day is fast approaching, so there's my excuse!

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Saturday in Culver City

There is no Trader Joe's within walking distance of my apartment. None of my roommates or I have a car. I'm sure you can sense our deep, painful conundrum.

To remedy our problem, the four of us rented a ZipCar on Saturday and made a day of a grocery run. Why not, right? We left our apartment around noon, drove to downtown Culver City, parked, and then ate lunch at a restaurant N had found on Instagram.

Native Foods CafĂ© is located right across the street from parking structure that houses Trader Joe's, and it's an entirely vegan restaurant. Now, before you lose interest in this post, remember that I am the only vegetarian in our apartment. My omnivorous roommates suggested eating at Native Foods after perusing the online menu, which promised satisfying and delicious plant-based meals for a really reasonable price.

We all ordered at the inside counter, then filled up our cups and found a seat outside. It was the perfect 75˚ day, and we took full advantage of the weather.

I sampled the lavender lemonade, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. However, it was a little too strong for my liking, so I watered it down with some ice and water. It wasn't super lavender-y, but there was a nice little aftertaste.

J got the berry hibiscus iced tea, while D got the peach iced tea. Both noted that they weren't extremely flavored, but a nice refreshment nonetheless.

We all shared the butternut polenta bites. Native Foods describes the dish as "pesto baked polenta topped with roasted butternut squash, caramelized onions and toasted pumpkin seeds in balsamic over arugula." While was quite visually impressive, it was a bit boring. The polenta was a little dry, while the butternut squash mixture on top was too subtly flavored. I had half of one, and didn't really want to eat more of it.

I ordered the Sesame Kale Macro Bowl, which consisted of "grilled Native Tempeh atop steamed kale, brown rice, creamy ginger sesame sauce, and tangy sauerkraut. Garnished with gomasio, toasted sesame seeds and green onion and served with crunchy cucumber seaweed salad on the side." I really enjoyed it! It was extremely filling while still tasting fresh and clean. The kale was nicely softened, which was great. Also of note was their homemade tempeh. I loved the flavor and texture of it, since store-bought or mass-produced tempeh can often have a strange consistency.

I also ordered a side salad, which consisted of greens, shaved beets, carrots, and sprouts. The dressing was some sort of balsamic vinaigrette. It was surprisingly huge, and really a nice accompaniment to my kale bowl.

J shared some of my salad and ordered the Rockin' Moroccan Bowl for herself. Its description was "your choice of tofu or Native Chicken marinated in our homemade Moroccan sauce with grilled veggies and quinoa. Topped with currants and toasted almonds." J chose the tofu, and said that there was nice spice, certainly present but not too much. She liked the contrast with the sweetness from the raisins to the smokiness of the sauce. She would order it again!

N ordered one of the specials, the Philly Cheese Steak sandwich. I was very curious to see if she liked it, considering there was a lot of seitan and cashew cheese. The verdict? She genuinely enjoyed it! However, she thought there was a bit too much food for a sandwich. She also thought that the seitan was not really used to its full potential either, since it was a little hidden behind the vegetables. The bread was apparently perfect, but she waxed poetical about the french fries! I tried one, and they really were awesome. N would order it again, but probably would try something else on the menu first.

D ate the Portobello Sausage Burger. A really hefty sandwich, it was "juicy grilled portobellos, our homemade Native Sausage Seitan, caramelized onions, salsa pomodoro, sweet roasted garlic, creamy pumpkin seed pesto and mayo." She immediately noticed the lovely pesto, and apparently with the right bite/forkful, she got a nice progression of flavor from the pesto to the mushroom. She found the top half of the bun with lettuce to be unnecessary, though. D also loved her fries!

We settled our bill, then walked across the street to Trader Joe's. Let me just say that we all bought groceries without thinking of how they would fit into our rather small fridge/freezer... after we paid, we came to our first obstacle: we squeezed ourselves and our individual carts into one elevator (astounding one random Amnesty International dude). Then, we somehow organized a total of ten (!) bags in the trunk of a small car.

Unwilling to return home just yet, we drove a little further down Culver Boulevard and found Ugo, a cute little restaurant, where we could enjoy a coffee.

As we walked through the restaurant to the outside tables, we noticed the huge gelato bar with dozens of flavors. D chose to order the Mixed Berry flavor, and it was really, really delicious. We all sampled it, and enjoyed the creaminess of the base with the texture and gentle tartness of the berries. She also ordered mint tea, as seen below!

J ordered mint tea as well. I thought the presentation was particularly nice, with the glass and the lemon. Apparently the tea itself was nice and refreshing too, so that's a bonus!

N enjoyed an iced caramel latte. Again, we all noted the cool glass and the swirling layers of the drink.

And I drank a coffee! After years of priding myself on drinking black coffee, I've started to add cream and sugar when I drink it hot... Judge me, it tastes delicious.

We also enjoyed mixed berries with brown sugar and orange juice. It was something I think I may emulate at home sometime soon. It was like a more sophisticated riff on a fruit salad, while still managing to be extremely simple and delicious. The orange juice really was great as well. It was a wonderfully light and delicious way to end our little trip to Culver City!

After we settled our bill, we piled back in the car and headed home. Then the next challenge began: fitting our food into the fridge...

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

48 Hours in New York City

Note: I wrote a complete draft of this post on my flight back to Los Angeles. I somehow lost it, and I may have shed a tear. Maybe. Here's my (probably improved) re-write.

I managed to fit a lot into my Christmas break this year. After my exams ended (on the last possible day, naturally) I beelined to Boston and kept busy with cooking, skiing, working, and seeing my friends. Luckily, I was able to see just about everyone I wanted to, even with so many crazy college break schedules. However, one of my favorite parts of break by far was my quick trip to New York City. I met my high school roommate, Tayler, in New York last Thursday, and went back up to Boston on Saturday. It was a short little visit, but we managed to fit a ton in!

I spent a solid few hours before our trip planning our itinerary, so we knew pretty much exactly what we were doing the whole time. I had restaurants, addresses, opening times, and prices for just about everywhere we went! But, you know, we are college students, so we kept it flexible!

Armed with our plan, we met up at Port Authority around noon, after spending our mornings on our respective buses. Hungry and eager to stretch our legs, we headed about ten blocks uptown to Tom and Toon, a really cheap and allegedly delicious Thai restaurant. The main appeal was their $8 Express Lunch menu--Tayler and I both ordered Pad Thai and split an order of dumplings, and only ended up spending $15 a piece. I will say, Yelp did me well. Tom and Toon's food was very generously portioned and really delicious.

Once we ate our lunch, we continued walking uptown to our hotel, the New York Hilton Midtown. We expected a lot of walking all over the city, so we definitely wanted a more centrally located hotel. My dad was also extremely kind and donated his Hilton points, so the hotel room cost next to nothing. Thanks, dad! Glad I keep you around.

We unpacked quickly and immediately walked way, way downtown towards the High Line, an urban park and walking path constructed on an elevated freight rail line. It's about a mile long, winding between buildings and above streets, and adorned with various metal sculptures. At one point, you can even see the Statue of Liberty in the distance!

It's also pretty nifty that there's a ton of art on display. Whether it's the aforementioned metal sculptures or the painted building walls, there's a million places to look. While we didn't walk the High Line in both directions, it's said that if you do, you notice completely different things on your way back.

Once we reached the end of the path, we descended to street level and wandered for all of a minute until we found Bubby's High Line, a restaurant and coffee shop. Guys, this place was so hip. Wait staff in flannels, all the men had beards, lots of reclaimed wood, great coffee, and what looked like delicious pastries... I think Tayler and I stumbled into the right place. We sat around chatting and warming up for about an hour, then made the forty-block trek home.

Near our hotel, we saw this nifty little holiday decoration. While it was sadly gone by the time we left, we really enjoyed seeing it as we came to and from the hotel. It was absolutely stunning, and the trees wrapped in fairy lights made it magical. I almost thought it was December, not January!

Once we arrived back at our hotel around five, we watched the Food Network for a while and leisurely got ready for dinner. We made a reservation for 7:15 at Trattoria Trecolori, and got seated as soon as we showed up. It's a really cool place--exposed bricks and beams, what appeared to be three decent-sized dining rooms, and wine bottle decorations (my favorite).

We started with some crusty bread, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. I'm a sucker for warm, homemade bread, and this was really, really delicious. Tayler and I may have eaten the whole basket...

Just as Tayler and I were fumbling over the menu, our waiter came by and immediately sensed our dithering. We had decided on splitting two vegetarian pasta dishes, and knew we wanted the gnocchi. I explained the situation to our very knowledgable, very New York waiter, and before I finished two sentences, he interrupted and suggested switching to a pesto sauce for the gnocchi, and a vegetarian house special. Kind of blown away by his confidence and understanding of what we desired, we agreed and he zoomed off.

Both dishes came pre-split, because our waiter knew that Tayler and I were sharing. We started with the gnocchi, which were pretty good, but the gnocchi themselves were fairly heavy. While the mushrooms added a nice depth and umami to the dish, it was pretty heavy. I'm glad that I only had half the dish, as it would have been hard to finish a full portion. However, it was overall a nice dish, and I'd probably order it again, given the chance.

The kitchen special was absolutely unbelievable. It was a linguine in a tomato cream sauce, with shiitake mushrooms, and a variety of greens tucked within the pasta. This was absolutely incredible. I'm sure that it was entirely in the sauce--Tayler and I decided that it was more like a vodka sauce than a strict tomato cream sauce. We talked almost exclusively of this dish. Homemade pasta, rich mushrooms, the freshness of the greens... definitely our favorite!

Once we settled our bill, we wandered over to Times Square. We walked around, stopped into the Toys R Us to take some pictures and hang out with Clark Kent Superman.

Tayler and I then grabbed some mini cupcakes from Baked by Melissa, and finally returned to our hotel room for the night. Exhausted after a long day and many miles traveled, we ate our cupcakes, changed into pajamas, and went to sleep!

The next morning, we slept in, but were still out of the door by 9:30 to grab a quick coffee and pastry at Le Pain Quotidien. Unfortunately, the weather was absolutely nasty. It started with rain, turned to snow, then went back to rain. The streets and sidewalks were unbelievably slippery--so much so that as I stepped into a crosswalk, I lost my balance on some slush and fell into a puddle in the street, completely soaking my skirt. Let me tell you, New York puddle water is not the nicest. We rushed into the New York Public Library with plenty of time to spare before our scheduled tour, and immediately headed to the bathroom so I could stand in a stall while Tayler attempted to dry my skirt in the hand dryer. If that's not friendship, I don't know what is.

After that whole debacle, we made our way back up to the lobby and people-watched for about fifteen minutes before the tour started. The lobby is only a small sample of the beauty to come in the Library. The stonework is really breathtaking, especially when thinking about the years that it must have taken to complete the art in such incredible detail.

Naturally, the tour departed from the lobby. Our tour guide spent about ten minutes telling us about the history of the library, as well as some of the animals hidden within the various carvings around the building. Can you spot the lion in the above picture?

Among other rooms, we took a quick peek into the exhibition "The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter". Above, see the original toys of Christopher Robin: the real-life Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Kanga, and Piglet. Pretty cool, huh?

We were led up to the third floor, where we learned that these lamps purposefully displayed the lightbulbs at the urging of Thomas Edison. The Library has always had electricity, Edison was still around during its construction, and naturally he wanted the Library to show off his invention. The more you know, right? I certainly had no clue that was why the lightbulbs weren't obscured.

Our guide led us through the Rotunda and a few other rooms before concluding the tour. I had never visited the Library before, so it was really incredible to get a personal grasp of its scale and grandeur. It's also cool how it's still a real library as well as a cultural landmark. I hope that I will be able to visit again in the future!

We left the Library in a lucky spell of clear weather, made a quick detour to Grand Central Station, and then walked up 5th Avenue for about forty blocks with the intention of reaching the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tayler and I made a pit stop on Madison Avenue, just two blocks from the museum, to Neofytos Deli to grab a quick sandwich, and then we returned to the Met to pay our $12 entrance fee and wander around.

We started in the Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture room. This is only one example of the unbelievably intricate and detailed works that were produced many centuries before common era. There were many layers of carving in this piece, and Tayler and I spent a solid five minutes just admiring this one work.

We then headed to the South American exhibit, where gold featured prominently, and there were incredible headdress ornaments just like this one on display. Can you imagine having that atop your head? I feel powerful when I wear a five-dollar tiara, what would a priceless headdress feel like?

Tayler and I then paused for a brief selfie in the exhibit about vanities throughout the ages. Oh, the irony. There were various vanities from the mid-16th century up until the 1970s, so it was really quite fascinating to see how the basic form and function hasn't changed over that time, just the way in which they were decorated.

We then came to some (relatively) more modern sculpture. Again, the detail is just unbelievable. Especially in the second sculpture, there were even indents on the central man's leg where the other bottom-left man was holding him. Also note the tendons in the central man's foot. This was another that we just looked at for a number of minutes, contemplating the time and effort that it must have taken to create this work of art.

We made a quick swoop through one of the Egyptian rooms, where they have rebuilt an entire arch and tomb, as well as creating a reflecting pool and installing statues.

Tayler speaks Japanese, so we spent some extra time in the Asian gallery. While she was off exploring the Japanese Brush Strokes exhibition, I was staring wide-eyed at this room covered in the Chinese writings of one man. The picture doesn't do justice either--the panels hanging from the ceiling were about fifty feet long. There were thousands and thousands of characters written, and the precision with which they were all written was astounding.

This was one thing that I thought looked cool, but I didn't understand; a taxidermied deer (taxideermy? no?) was covered in glass balls by a modern Japanese artist. I think the meaning was completely lost on me, but it was funny to hear other people approach, remark on how cool it looked, then realize that a dead deer was inside.

After nearly three hours, we made our way out, stopping for some stained glass and some good ol' horse armor. Isn't it weird how armor, by nature used for war, can be something so gorgeous?

We then met up with our friend T on the Upper West Side, and huddled under shelter at the Lincoln Center while we figured out our game plan for our Friday night.

We decided on Japanese Barbecue, and headed back to Times Square to eat at Gyu-Kaku. We managed to make the last call for happy hour, so we enjoyed some cheap edamame and, for T, a huge half-priced beer. Win-win. We ended up barbecuing a variety of meats (for them) as well as a lot of assorted vegetables, and we all enjoyed it. There's something rustic about cooking (burning) your own food, and taking your time consuming it.

The three of us spent the rest of the evening hanging out as well as wandering around Midtown and a bit of the Upper West Side. We all turned in before one am, just because there really wasn't that much happening! Of course, Tayler and I were again tired from standing on our feet all day.

The next morning, the three of us went out to brunch at the Brooklyn Diner in Times Square. Tayler and I both had the egg white, spinach, and feta omelette with toast and polenta cubes, while T had eggs over medium and some of the grossest-looking sausage patties I've ever seen. Apparently they were pretty inedible, and they strongly resembled Jimmy Dean microwave sausage. Not ideal.

However, my omelette and polenta were really nice! The polenta was definitely the star--and the tomato sauce only helped! While the meal was good and kept me going throughout my bus ride back home, it was pretty pricey for what it was.

We parted ways shortly after we finished brunch. We headed back to the Hilton, Tayler and I packed and checked out, then I made my way downtown to catch my bus home. T and Tayler spent about another hour together before she had to catch her bus. Of course, my bus took forever to get home, but I'm so glad I spent the time in New York.

For a very reasonable price for a college student, and for the amount of activities that Tayler and I squeezed into our schedule, it was an awesome 48 hours. Great food, great people, great city... I can't wait to be back on the East Coast to take another detour to the Big Apple.

Of course, now I'm back in the other cultural hub of America, Los Angeles, so expect lots of posts coming from me in the next few months! I'm really looking forward to exploring LA and writing some restaurant reviews. Stay tuned!

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