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You Dirty Bird!

It was a warm(ish) spring twilight. The smell of fried chicken was in the air. Or at least in my head – sometimes I get the two confused. But what better way to spend a spring evening than chowing down on expertly fried chicken? And you can even feel good about this chicken that is fried to a delicate and deliciously salty, crunchy crisp because they birds are all-natural, local and organic.

Where is this fried chicken haven of which I speak? Dirty Bird to-go on 14th Street near 7th Avenue. I ventured there last week to get the smell of fried chicken out of my head and into my hands (and stomach).

First a few words about the bird: Chicken is an every-man’s meat (for people that eat meat, that is). It’s a staple. It shows up on the dinner table all the time. Perhaps too much? That depends on what kind of chicken you’re eating, I guess.

People often get frustrated with chicken. I know the Box does. He grimmaces like a child when it’s placed in front of him at the dinner table, recoiling visibly from his plate. His sentiments are echoed in this hilarious scene from Little Miss Sunshine:

Warning: There’s some not-so-nice language in the video. So if dropping the f-bomb ain’t you’re thang, you might want to skip it.

But at Dirty Bird, there’s no reason to curse the chicken. Let me illustrate with photos:

The Scene:
A teeny tiny storefront, the main feature is the walk-up counter, complete with extra friendly servers. Really, these people were just so nice. I feel like I should know their names.

The Food:
I ordered a three-piece dark meat sampler with garlic kale. The chicken itself was juicy and flavorful – a perfect amount of salt. The outer fry crust had me pulling all the fried bits off the bone that I could find. Plus scraping any wayward ones up that had fallen to my very cool, camping-style blue plate. It’s amazing what a little buttermilk can do. The kale mingled with some large chunks of garlic and was wading in a bath of tangy, slightly vinegar-y liquid. I scooped up every last leaf in the bowl. The kale was not overcooked and soggy, but vegetable al-dente, preserving some snap.

Also noteworthy are the Chicken Fingers: tender and juicy white meat coated in the same light buttermilk fry. If chickens had fingers, they would want these. I recommend the BBQ sauce – you can taste molasses, which adds depth to the flavor. The Mac and Cheese was off the charts. It was like hot, cheesy ice cream with pasta in it. I wanted to put it in a cone. This is a good thing.

The Bathrooms:
None that I could find.

Afterward, if you need a powder room and a glass of wine, head to the bar just up the street – The Crooked Knife. Flop onto their couches and order some Cotes-du-Rhone. That’s what I did, anyway.

Overall Experience: The Big Lebowski – The Cult Classic

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This past weekend, I attended a food photography workshop run by House of Brinson. If you haven’t checked out their blog yet, you really should. It’s brimming with beautiful photography and recipes. Naturally, when they announced their workshop, I signed up immediately.

This was, hands down, the most helpful and informative food photography class I’ve taken yet. There being only three of us in the class, the small student-teacher ratio really allowed us to get in all our questions, and get as much information and assistance out of the class as we could.

We each set up a total of three shots. William, the photographer was on hand to give us advice on topics such as lighting, exposure and white balance, while Susan the art director would supply styling tips – as well as cooking up a storm (for both eating and photography purposes).

Here are the photos I took, with some notes scribbled in for helpful hints.

My first shot was of a bunch of golden beets (pictured above). I kept the styling simple so I could concentrate on the veggies. That being said, we did get to pull from the Brinson’s vast supply of cool vintage props. Like the soap stone that the beets are seated on.

You may remember from my previous food photography post that white and black cards can be used to reflect light and create shadow. I used two black cards in this shot to make the beets a little more moody. Who doesn’t like moody beets?

In fact, roasting beets is a great way to make them both moody and tasty. Here’s how to make Roasted Golden Beets:

What You Need:
1 bunch golden beets (about 4), rinsed with the stems cut off
tin foil to wrap them each individually
sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

What To Do:
Heat up your oven to 350 degrees.

Wrap each beet loosely in tin foil.

Place in the oven, wrapped and on a cookie sheet and bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until easily pierced with a knife and soft on the inside.

Remove them from the oven and peel off the skin (be careful – they will be HOT).

Slice them up into chunks and place in a bowl.

Season with sea salt and the olive oil. Rosemary is nice too if you have some fresh on hand. Serve alone as a side, or throw them in a salad.

My second shot was of a Cherry Tomato, Mozzarella and Zucchini Savory Pie that Susan baked from Martha Stewart’s Pies Cookbook (we also ate a duplicate of this guy for lunch).

A filling of zucchini, tomatoes, and cheese was enveloped in a buttery crust like an enormous pocket. Check out Martha’s book for the recipe.

Two challenges faced me when photographing this pie:

1. It was a little lopsided – too much crust on the lower right hand side.

2. It smelled really good. Even after eating it for lunch, I wanted another piece.

I cropped out the lopsided portion of the crust (you really don’t need to see the whole pie anyway), and tried my best to ignore the smell of the cooked veggies and cheese. As an added trick, we used gray cards for white balance/color temperature control.

My final shot was of four leek and puff pastry squares fresh out of Susan’s oven. They looked so nice on their parchment paper that I scooped them up in the pan and started clicking away. Eventually, we decided that the pan wasn’t working in the shot, so we removed it, keeping the parchment paper.

We didn’t use any artificial lighting – all of it was natural light coming in through the windows. It happened to be a VERY cloudy day this past Saturday. If you were in the NYC area that day you might recall it being downright unpleasant: horizontal rain and whatnot. However, we were still able to achieve nice lighting by slowing the shutter speed waaaaay down.

And speaking of puff pastry, it’s something that’s ridiculously easy to make. I even recommend getting the store bought variety and then topping it with any number of things. Take for example this recipe from Bon Appetit for a Honey Roasted Onion Puff Pastry Tart. You could also use many of our suggested pizza toppings, like the Fig Prosciutto and Ricotta topping.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks I will have much improved food photography for you. Although, I will still be inserting many a wonky iPhone shot just to balance things out.

Recently, I helped Mom (a.k.a. “Marmo”) lead one of her customized tours around Italy.  Mom’s philosophy is a good one:  try to keep the trips to two general areas within an 8-10 day time frame.  If you try to squeeze in too many spots, you’re only going to skim the surface of each area, and you’ll be shifting around too much to relax every once in a while.    The plan for this particular trip was to target (1) the Amalfi Coast and (2) Rome.

Marmo and I fly into Rome then take the train to Naples.  From Naples, we meet our driver, who takes us into Sorrento – a beautiful town at the beginning of the Amalfi Coast.  Our digs for our stay in Sorrento:  The one and only Excelsior Vittoria Hotel – a gated compound of baller type bodaciousness, complete with palm and lemon trees, beautiful gardens, and the most ridiculous view overlooking the Gulf of Naples towards Mt. Vesuvius.

Spanning six generations (it’s still under the same family ownership), The Excelsior has grown from a beautiful cliff side estate, into a 5-star hotel of dreams.  And for the group’s first day in the Amalfi coast, Marmo arranges a hands on Neapolitan Pizza making demonstration.  For this, I am beyond excited.  Readers of the blog are well aware of our undying infatuation with Pizza.

We are led to a bar around the pool, where there is, indeed, an outdoor brick oven in which wood logs have been burning for about 2 hours in preparation for our class.  Our class is being prepped by the head chef of the hotel, Vincenzo Galano, and a second chef whose name I didn’t get.  They first instruct us as to their method, which is very simple: a 3 hour rise, a little sugar with the yeast, some double zero flour and water.  No overnight rises or complicated gimmicks; it’s very straightforward.  I need to get a closer look to observe the finished product.

And, indeed the dough is softer and fluffier than my freshly shampooed hair.  I had always thought that an overnight rise was essential for that ultra soft feel for pre-cooked pizza dough, but this proved otherwise.  The two man Pizza dream team then instructs us on hand pressing the dough, and lets each of us take a crack at it ourselves.

After the dough is flattened, the sauce is applied, followed by the mozzarella, some grated parmesian, and some olive oil.  It is then transported into the oven, and spun around with some of those extra long pizza peels that I want to decorate my apartment with.

Basil leaves are chopped up and spread onto the pie after it is pulled from the oven, nice and piping hot.  And the final result is wonderful.  The melted mozzarella has a milky, slightly sour, yet fresh tang to it.  The basil supplies a faint, but noticeably minty backdrop.  The cooked dough is beautiful.  Charred on the outside, but chewy and floppy when chomped down upon.  The center of the pie is the way a Neapolitan pie should be: saucy, sloppy, and a tad oily.  Skewering sections of this pie accordion style with my fork is a thing of ease.  Delicious.

The sauce is wonderfully fresh, while the grated parmesan cheese adds a nice, subtle kick not typically included in our New York furnished Neapolitan pies.  Halfway into my pizza, I’m thinking about sneaking Vincenzo and his pizza making sidekick through customs back in Newark so we can dominate the NYC/Neapolitan Pizza scene.  This pie would be easily on par (if not better) with some of well thought of joints in Manhattan.

And with what would be a theme for our stay at the Excelsior, Vicenzo and the rest of the staff could not be nicer.  Everyone got their own apron and chef’s hat, as well as the perfect amount of instruction (neither too much nor too little).  And after an hour or so of being around that oven, what better way to celebrate than to kick back, enjoy a freshly made pizza, some sparkling Pellegrino, a glass of wine, and a view of the Excelsior’s garden of lemon trees?

There is no better way.  Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks for more tales of my trip to the motherland, or feel free to contact Marmo to create some tales of your own.

There are so many memorable scenes from The Big Lebowski, but my favorite is the intro scene in which the Dude, expertly played by Jeff Bridges, cruises an LA supermarket in his signature bathrobe for the sole purpose of purchasing half and half for his White Russians. He takes a sniff of the carton, and then pays for it with a check.

For those of you unfamiliar, a White Russian is a drink made with half and half, Kahlua and vodka served over ice. It’s sweet and creamy and cold, like a milkshake, just not thick. And I love them.

Recently, I was in South Beach, competing with my team, Full Throttle, in the Nautica Triathlon. Post-race, all the team members were relaxing poolside, replenishing lost calories with a variety of beverages.

One of my teammates passed me a blended ice drink. when I asked what it was, she told me it was a Vonder Slide, which was essentially a White Russian made into a blended, frozen drink, invented by and named after another teammate, Karen.

Upon sampling the beverage, and also drinking someone else’s in its entirety (sorry, Jess), I shouted over to Karen, holding up my cup, “The Vonder Slide is going on he blog!” This was met with what I understood to be enthusiasm at the time, and so here it is:

The Vonder Slide

I decided to make a slightly healthier version (ha!) with almond milk instead of half and half. Don’t get me wrong, I love my half and half.  But I thought I would try a little something different. Turns out, the almond flavor goes very nicely with the Kahlua. It also makes the Vonder Slide accessible to all my lactose intolerant readers – bonus!

What You Need:
Makes 2 -3 drinks
A blender
Ice – 2 scoops
1 cup almond milk (or half and half)
1/4 cup Kahlua
1/4 cup vodka
Strawberries for garnish

What To Do:
Throw all the ingredients minus the strawberries in the blender and whip it up to your desired consistency. You can add more ice if it’s not icy enough for you.

Once you have established your desired consistency, pour your concoction into tall glasses, and garnish with a strawberry.

Don’t forget the straws!

Slip into your bathrobe and onto the pool deck.

The dude abides.

Karen is not only an accomplished mixologist, but also an incredible athlete. She placed fourth in her group at the South Beach Triathlon which earned her a spot on the podium. Congratulations, Karen!

And next, in our Meals on Reels series is a scene from Napoleon Dynamite, a movie with many fascinating characters.  But, to me, one of them really steals the show: Uncle Rico.  Played by John Gries (who also, by the way, played Roger Linus in one our of favorite shows, “Lost”), Rico is simultaneous villain and hero, evoking sentiments of pity, humor and disgust.  All of Rico’s scenes are brilliantly hilarious.

Of particular and relevant hilarity (this is a food blog), is the scene in which Rico grabs Kip’s steak, with his bare hands, and hurls it at the cycling duo of Napoleon and Pedro, smacking the former right in his grill and knocking off his glasses, which is followed by Rico’s how-you-like-me-now type celebration, and Kip’s “that’s what I’m talkin’ about.”

And speaking of steak, the fam and I were recently at Sammy’s Ye Old Cider Mill, in Mendham NJ.  In terms of Jersey steakhouses, this is really my favorite option, despite the influx of quality, chain operated steakhouses popping up in the surrounding area such as Ruth’s Chris and Roots.  Those other joints just don’t compare to the intangible qualities that Sammy’s brings to the table.  (But if it’s suits, unoriginality, and cheesy, wall mounted, gold plated Ronald Reagan quotes you desire, it’s best to stick the latter mentioned joints).

Let me first qualify this review with a slight bias: My family and I have been coming to Sammy’s since I could walk (and perhaps maybe even before then).  So there is undoubtedly a nostalgic benefit that I receive from Sammy’s that others may not.

But nostalgic bias aside, this place has so much character.  Sammy’s offers a unique dining experience:  you order right when you walk in the door.  When your order is placed, you wait downstairs at their bar, with old video games (such as Pac Man, Centepede, and Pinball) until a holler from the bartender, who might as well be Coach from Cheers, alerts you that your meal is ready. 

After games, drinking and mingling, it’s up to the old, never-modernized dining hall you go, complete with dull green, landscape painted walls from decades ago – which was done as payment from a former patron who could not pay his restaurant tab.

At your table awaiting you is the greatest red wine vinegar salad I’ve ever tasted.  With iceburg lettuce and chopped onions, this “salad” probably holds zero nutritional value, but who cares?  If you’re calorie counting, you’re not in the right restaurant.  And you’re pissing me off.

The fam follows this up with a Sammy’s staple: The Vodka Pasta (for 4, in this case).

I’ve sampled vodka sauce from a good amount of places.  There is nothing, nowhere, nada that compares to Sammy’s Vodka Pasta. If I were receiving the electric chair tomorrow?  This would be my final meal.  It’s cheesy, salty, spicy (ahem!), and creamy.  It has bits of fresh tomatoes in it and rocks your world with every mouthful.  Sprinkle some parmesan cheese on each helping, and you’ve just put the finishing touches on an absolute masterpiece.

For an entree, I order the Surf (Lobster) and Turf (the strip), which thankfully comes with a bib.  I’m a slob as it is.  At Sammy’s, I’ve been known to take out cats two tables over with some errant lobster fluid.

The Strip (the above picture is actually the box’s filet) is lean, with some tastier streaks of marble towards the bone.  It is cooked as asked (medium rare) and perfectly salted, juicy, and tender.  The Lobster is meaty, sweet and substantial.  It doesn’t fall apart or get stuck in portions of the shell when I’m tearing into it. No digging into the dead lobster crevasses to uncover left behind chunks of meat; it all slides out as one piece.

Elana orders the shrimp scampi.  If I somehow survived that initial go around within the electric chair, and was given a second meal to ingest before my apparent death, I might go with the scampi.  Elana is generous enough to share some of hers, so I can be reminded of the greatness that is Scampi a la Sammy: jumbo, breaded shrimp bathing in a thick, potent, lemon garlic butter sauce.  The sauce alone can be eaten like soup, it’s so outrageously tasty.

All of this comes with Sammy’s signature fries, which are crispy and brown but also quite moist and flavorful. Sea salt is sprinkled about.  Much like the rest of the meal, steer clear of the fries should you be monitoring your cholesterol.  So.  Damn.  Good.

Marmo and Elana save room for some of Sammy’s satisfying desserts.

While I’m moaning and clutching my stomach from overeating for the 163,403rd time in my career, Elana checks out the bathrooms, which as she puts it, “like the dining room in that they are similarly outdated, but charming. The tiled floor is left-over retro-chic, and there are thankfully large mirrors. The only element that has always unnerved me is the western-saloon style doors to the stalls. I always feel kind of exposed when I’m behind them.”

A former speakeasy, there still is no sign out front and nothing about the place, not even the video games, signify an update beyond the 1980’s.  But its food, feel and experience make a timeless impression.  I never get tired of this place.

Overall Experience: Animal House

Well, John’s birthday has come and gone. He has now entered his 30’s, which I keep telling him is the best decade (So far…I think when I turn 40 I will say that is the best decade).

We consoled his aging spirits with bourbon (gift from me), surf and turf dinner (review forthcoming!) and golf clubs (from Marmo and the Box).

But to give back to you, valuable readers (who shock and amaze us everyday by reading this blog), we gave away a prize.

To one randomly chosen commenter (using the paper strips in a hat method) we award a jar of herbed salt straight from Rome, Italy. It’s delicious stuff. I put it in everything. Even my breakfast cereal. No, I really don’t do that. But come to think of it, it would be nice on some savory oatmeal.

Why don’t you try that, Fresh and Foodie? Because YOU are our lucky winner! I’ll be contacting you with details.

And you all should check out the Fresh and Food Blog because it’s pretty cool. And tasty.

I may have mentioned this before, but possibly my favorite movie of all time is Ghostbusters. John and I used to quote this movie to each other quite frequently. We still do from time to time. I recently watched it and was comforted to know that this 80’s movie stands the test of time. It’s still funny (Art Deco, very nice), and Bill Murray is….well, he’s just a genius.

And speaking of things that stand the test of time, how about a Twinkie? According to the Hostess website, Twinkies have been been hanging around on bodega shelves since 1930 (some of them quite literally). President Clinton even put one in a time capsule. I wonder what that one looks like now…

Dan Akyroyd and Harold Ramis (stars and writers of the film) were not immune to the immense power and omnipotence of the Twinkie. They worked it in to one of the best scenes in the film as seen below:

And now I’m going to tell you about a Twinkie. One that I found at Lulu Cafe in Chelsea. I had gone to Lulu in search of Intelligentsia coffee which they brew in their 8th Avenue shop. I found a whole lot more including some homemade Twinkies in different flavors.

At first I was intrigued by the sign (who wouldn’t be?):

And then the flavors! They offered:

Red Velvet Lulus
red velvet snack cakes filled with cream cheese frosting dipped in white chocolate

Lemon Lulus
lemon snack cakes filled with lemon curd, dipped in white chocolate

Brooklyn Blackout Lulus
chocolate snack cakes filled with dark chocolate pudding dipped in chocolate

Passionfruit Lulus
yellow snack cakes filled with passion fruit cream, dipped in white chocolate

I decided on the passionfruit variety and was not disappointed. The cake was moist and dense. In my opinion, real Twinkie cake is a bit insubstantial. I want CAKE. And by that I mean a mixture that is a touch hearty. This one was. And the passionfruit filling was a nice contrast: light, airy with a hint of that fruity flavor piped expertly through the center of the vanilla cake.

A few shavings of coconut graced the top along with a glaze of white chocolate to give the whole thing a graceful “petite-four” flair. I loved it.

So when your spirit storage facility is at capacity and your collection of spores, molds and fungus is getting a little out of hand, don’t panic (and DON’T cross the streams!). Just:

And then call Ghostbusters.

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