Saturday, October 30, 2010

Mediocre Week

Oh look, a pretty rainbow. Best thing seen from my kitchen this week.
It's one of my signature 'fail' weeks in cooking. No one can cook well all the time. Luckily my husband was faring a bit better, and has taken a little more interest in the kitchen lately. Here are some pictures of some good ideas and some bad executions, for your entertainment:

Attempt at Alpen Magrone
 Ever since our trip to Switzerland in the spring, I've been planning to recreate this awesome dish we had at Hotel Waldstaetterhof in Luzern. They actually had two separate kitchens, one for meat and fish, and one for the vegetarian menu. The vegetarian menu contained different comfort type dishes with creams, sauces, pastas, potatoes - and you could choose your vegetarian protein (quorn, seitan, tempeh). I was able to order fish, and if I remember correctly my husband ordered a creamy mushroom dish with quorn with some vegetable or potato or something - it was very good.

When we asked about this macaroni and cheese type dish called alplermagronen, the waiter told us that it's a traditional dish from the mountains: a hearty dish for cold days, technically translated "alpine macaroni". It was a creamy bowl of penne and cheese, with chunks of potato, served with a bowl of applesauce. The swiss cheeses were no surprise, as melted cheese was in overabundant supply at most of our meals, but the potatoes were a new twist. The tartness of the applesauce cutting the salty creaminess was a totally new experience.

Here we are now at the tail end of prime apple season, going into cooler weather, so I thought the time for alplermagronen had arrived. I was only able to find one recipe online, and I have to say I should have just tried to figure it out on my own. My results were dry, not creamy at all. The potatoes were flavorless, since there was a lack of sauce, and somehow I undercooked the onions. I ended up pouring tons of homemade applesauce (without the spices) all over it for moisture.

Attempt at Peanut Seitan Skewers
I haven't done much Asian cooking lately. I've kind of been craving Thai food, but we rarely order it because every restaurant in our delivery radius in Downtown Brooklyn uses stupid fish sauce. I think fish sauce is the most overrated thing ever, and I refuse to keep the smelly stuff in the house - I swear they make those containers leaky on purpose, schmearing fishy smells on everything in the cupboard. I also think it's incredibly insensitive and ignorant of restaurants to use fish sauce, knowing that they offer "vegetarian" tofu versions of curry, and most people won't realize that there's actually gross fish sauce in there. If they only knew how much business they could have if they made true vegetarian dishes.

I decided to turn a box of seitan into marinated skewers one night, and followed another recipe I found online. Again, I should have followed my instincts and grilled them like I do the Gardein BBQ skewers - searing the outsides, keeping the inside moist. But, this being my first attempt I followed instructions to bake the skewers. Not only did the seitan completely dry out, but the peanut sauce turned out too gloppy and bland. I recently realized how many gross additives are in Skippy, and have switched to pure unsweetened organic peanut butter. It doesn't make a very enticing peanut sauce.

This was supposed to be dumplings.
Also on Asian night this week, I came home early to make dumplings from a package of wonton wrappers I was sure I ordered a week ago. I chopped and sauteed carrots, onions, oyster mushrooms and cabbage, and mixed it with soy sauce, garlic chili paste and such until I had a nice dumpling filling ready. But, I was wrong, there were no wonton wrappers, only a half-package from over a month ago, rotten and moldy. The package I thought was wrappers in the fridge, was actually rice noodles. So I cooked the noodles and mixed them with the dumpling filling. It was edible, but a bit wierd, and hard to eat the miniature vegetables with chopsticks.

Scone mix doesn't make great biscotti.
One last fail this week. Since my previous successful attempt at using bread mix to make biscotti, I tried to do the same thing with scone mix this morning. Didn't work. Just a dry, crumbly, flakey mess.

Breakfast potatoes, by Amit.
 Just to end on a positive note, my husband had a little more luck this week. He's not on a project right now, and has had a bit more quality time with the apartment. An episode of Brunch @ Bobby's inspired him to cook up some spicy cumin breakfast potatoes last weekend, and they were actually really good. He confuses me, because I think he really does know how to cook and just plays dumb sometimes. Maybe my mishaps of late are forcing him to display his hidden talents.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Striped Bass, Russian Kale and Honey-Pistachio Levain Toast

Just me and my big striped bass hangin' out tonight. There's a big Yankee play-off game, so my husband decided to go into the city to watch with friends. I have no interest in spending any more time in midtown, or pretending to socialize after a stressful workweek. Tonight I just want to stay home and play with my food.

I'd like to find a way to spend my days wandering the city and it's awesome greenmarkets, and bringing food home to experiment. Instead, I sit at a desk all day and color shit (oh, I mean creatively design awesome jackets). Which sounds nice, but more specifically, I waste time and money doing completely illogical and counter-productive projects for a bunch of crazies. To put it nicely. Of course, there's more to it than that, but needless to say, it's not that glamorous or creatively fulfilling - and that's where playing with food comes in.

Your own kitchen is one place where you don't have to do what somebody tells you. You don't have to follow a recipe exactly - unless you're baking, but that's obviously not my strong point. This has been my creative outlet lately, and frankly, it keeps me from going crazy. It's a Libra thing - if the idea energy stays inside too long it turns into poison and makes one extremely bitter.

I had just a tiny bit of creative juice left for cooking today. I guess some of it was knowing I'd be eating alone, and that meant I could eat pretty much anything on the planet that my heart desired. Quite the luxury, living in NYC. So today was not a full-on experimentation, since I got the non-recipe for my striped bass from the fish guy.

I have a very hard time sticking to a recipe, but I pay close attention to the methods advised by those selling their own products at the greenmarket. Many of them are standing here in NYC, from a smaller town, working hard to make money from their passion. And just like I can tell you about high-performance fabrics and how to curve an armhole line with utter expertise and certainty, so can the farmers tell you the very best way to eat what they sell.

Today, as I rushed to catch the end of the market, I found a very small fish stand in Union Square with 2 or 3 cases of fish. The striped bass caught my eye, reminding me of rustic landscapes and fish-poles instead of commercial sized fishing boats and vast oceans of anonymity. There were two young guys and the leader's obvious girlfriend or wife or whatever, just passing the time in the cold being super friendly to people and joking around.

I asked the one who appeared to be the leader of sorts what the best way to cook a striped bass is. His girl tugged on his arm and said "tell her about the frying-baking thing, tell her!". How cute, I bet he made it for her when they first dated, and she was "hooked" for good - wink!

Recognizable stripes
"First you score the skin side 2" apart, and season both sides with salt and pepper," he told me. "You must first spear thy fish with a Renaissance sword!" added his girl. They all laughed, obviously some wonderful inside joke they were working with all day.... I miss my friends! Leader-guy continued in the seasoned farmer's market quick-instruction tongue, telling me in a few quick and easy steps how to make a very simple, awesome, dish. And then I was sent off, to go softly into the new moon's light with the fair fish.

A succulent bite of fresh striped bass

Striped Bass with Tomato Topping
As instructed by an expert fish seller.
You will need an oven-safe skillet or cast-iron frying pan.

Fillets of Striped Bass
Olive oil
Salt & Pepper
Minced Garlic
Diced Tomato (fresh)
Chopped Basil (fresh)

1.  Cut 1/4" deep slits in the skin side of the fish, 2" apart.

2. Season both sides with salt and pepper

3. Get the pan very hot, with olive oil. Place the fish skin side down and cook for 4 minutes.

4. Flip the fish over, and place in a 370F degree oven (I quote) - but 375-400F is OK too, no big deal.

5. Cook for about 8 minutes in the oven. Remove to a plate.

6. In the still hot pan, add the tomatoes, garlic and basil. Cook it up for a couple minutes, add more oil if needed. Serve on top of the fish.

Red Russian Kale

Sautéed Kale

Sautéed Russian Kale
1 head of Red Russian Kale (a more delicate relative of the curly green variety)
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 C onion, chopped
Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper
fresh Nutmeg

1. Pull the leaves of kale off from the lower parts of the stems. Rinse them well, as worms and their little gifts like to stick to the leaves. Roughly chop the leaves.

2. Heat oil in a large pot, and cook onions and garlic for a couple of minutes. Add about half of the kale and stir. Cover for a couple minutes and then stir in the rest of the leaves.

3. Cook until completely wilted, and season with salt, pepper and a little fresh ground nutmeg. Cover and cook over low until ready to serve. I cooked mine about 15 minutes, but it was fine at 10 and still fine later - it's pretty resilient stuff.

Honey-Pistacio Levain Toast
Sliced artisan bread, such as whole wheat levain
Pistachios (raw)

1. Lightly toast the bread slices.

2. In a chopper or food processor, add pistachios and some margarine. Pulse until chopped and mixed together. Drizzle a little honey and pulse some more to make a paste. 

3. Spread on the toast. Eat as-is, or toast (or broil) another minute or two until the nuts are browned.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Flat Beans with Garlic-Basil Sauce

When I saw these huge green beans at the market I thought they would have tough strings requiring lots of prep work. And then I noticed the sign: "String-less Flat Green Beans".

#1, this means I was right in my visual assumption.
#2, I must have found something special, hence requiring the informative sign.
#3, Quick, buy them, and figure out the rest later.

Another assumption I made is that if the bean is larger, it probably has a milder flavor. So I concocted an interesting sauce to dress it up. I can tell you I've eaten the leftovers twice already, and I'm not sick of them yet.

Measurements are not important here. I probably had about 3 cups of beans cut, and used 1 large clove of garlic, 1 really big shallot, and small pinches and dashes of everything else.

Garlic Mustard Flat Beans
String-less Flat Green Beans, rinsed, stem ends trimmed off, cut into 2" pieces
Olive Oil
White Wine
Mustard (dry powder)
Black Pepper
Kosher Salt
Fresh Basil

Bring a pot of water and a bit of salt to a boil and add the beans. Boil about 5 minutes or until tender, they cook pretty fast.

Saute minced garlic and shallots in a little oil. When translucent, add a splash of wine and scrape up the bits from the pan. Add a little margarine, a sprinkle of mustard (the same amount as if you were using say, garlic powder), salt and pepper.

If you have the means to zest a lemon, shave about half the yellow off of one lemon into the pan. If not, no big deal. Cut into quarters and squeeze one over the pan and stir.

Add the drained beans to the pan, or the sauce to the beans, whichever is easier. Toss in a small handful of fresh chopped basil. Taste for seasoning, adjust if needed.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Okra with Tomatoes and Ginger

I experimented with okra for the first time today. I've had it in bhindi masala, and now bameih b'zeit, so I know I like it. I wasn't at all in the mood for anything spiced or masala-ish today, but my husband insisted that okra is quite flavorful on it's own, and doesn't need much spicing.

The main ingredients I used seem quite traditional to the Indian dish: okra, potato, tomato, onion. I was also influenced by the mild, sweet flavor of the Lebanese bameih b'zeit which is finished with cilantro and lemon. I was also intent on tying in ginger, since I'm trying to maintain recovery from last week's stomach issues.

The resulting stew-like meal turned out pretty good. I think I liked the okra a little better before it was totally cooked - it had a nice crispness to it like an al-dente green bean. My only real complaint is that I used a new type of potato, which I should have tried on it's own first. The teeny-tiny Rose Finn Apple Fingerling potatoes would do much better roasted with some spices, as they added nothing to the okra dish, and didn't soak up the juices. I think the rest of the ingredients worked well together, since we hardly had any leftovers. I might try adding chickpeas next time for protein.

We have all heard how wonderful onions, garlic, and the lycopene from cooked tomatoes are for your health, but here are some facts about okra:

-Low in calories
-High in fiber
-Rich in vitamin A, C and anti-oxidants
-Also good source of B-complex vitamins and vitamin K.
-Very high in folates

When buying okra, look for 2-3" long, bright green, firm, unblemished pods. Don't choose any with brown spots or that feel soft. To prepare, rinse and remove the stem end. Slice into circles, about 3/8" thick.

Okra with Tomatoes and Ginger 
approx. 4 servings
20 minutes

1 T olive oil
2 T margarine
1/2 tsp fresh ginger, finely chopped
1/2 C onion, diced
2 C okra, cut into rounds
2 tomatoes (use good tomatoes, like vine-ripe, campari or heirloom for the best flavor)
**optional: 1/2 C chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
Lemon juice (from 1/4 lemon - about 2 T)
1/4 C fresh Cilantro, chopped
Kosher Salt & Pepper

1. Heat oil and margarine over medium heat in a deep skillet. Add the onions and ginger and cook for about 3 minutes until translucent.

2. Add okra and cook, stirring frequently for about 8 minutes. My husband says it's best to let them stick to the pan and get a little crispy - but don't let the onions burn. Season with a sprinkle of salt.

3. When the okra begins to change color (darker) add the tomatoes. *This is when you could add some cooked chickpeas if desired. Reduce heat to simmer, season with salt and pepper and cover. Cook 5 minutes more until okra is the desired doneness.

4. Before serving, toss in the cilantro and add the lemon juice. Serve with rice and your favorite flat bread, naan, or warm pita.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

French Spaetzle with Honey Mushroom Gravy, Inspired by Germany

Spaetzle with a protein trifecta: mushrooms, (veg) bacon and walnuts
As you may have gathered, my husband and I were in Germany for Oktoberfest two weeks ago. I only took part in some of the insanity that is the actual Oktoberfest. I spent some time shopping for inspiration for my outerwear line (and for myself) and exploring Munich's city center.

Clocks on towers around Marienplatz

As usual, I returned with more photos of the local produce market than anything else. I have to admit, I was quite excited about the stereotypical German sausages and pretzels, but whatever I tried was not all that. The real stars, aside from the popular drunk-sustainence of wiesn hendl (crispy roast chicken), were the mushrooms. I had an amazing bowlful of chanterelles and boletus (steinpilze) in cream sauce at Der Pschorr, where my husband had a fresh pasta with seared boletus that actually tasted and chewed exactly like scallops.

Wiesn Hendl at the Hacker tent at Oktoberfest
Chanterelles and Boletus in cream sauce at Der Pschorr

Growing up picking wild mushrooms like chanterelles with my parents, I have a particular appreciation for fungi. I've never seen so many varieties as I did in Munich. Chanterelles are scarce and expensive here in New York - and this was a particularly horrible year for them - but in Munich you can buy them on the street corner, right next to strawberries and peaches. There's just mountains of them, among other varieties I've never seen before.

Mountains of chanterelles on every corner - these in Viktualienmarkt
Boletus. I've only seen cartoons of puffy mushrooms like these.
I can't believe we've already been back for two weeks. I guess we lost one week to being sick with colds from flying so much and being in damp cold weather for a week (not to mention drinking insane amounts of beer). Then there's the work that piled up, and our anniversary, my birthday, and trying to re-instate the workout regimen.

Amidst the madness, I managed to take a day off yesterday, and I happened to make it to the Union Square greenmarket. I like going on the weekdays when there are different vendors there and just slightly less people. One of my favorite things in life at the moment is discovering a new food at the market, taking it home and learning about it while figuring out how to cook with it. I was overwhelmed with new items and inspiration yesterday. Aside from the usual mouth-wateringly handsome heirloom tomatoes, I brought home several new things to play with: flat "string-less" green beans, okra, watermelon radishes, rose finn apple potatoes, and honey mushrooms.

I connected with the mushroom man immediately. I'd never seen him at the market before - he was from Honey Hollow Farms in Schoharie County up North in the Catskills (I believe it was Michal Hoffman, if my research is correct - although I'm a shy one so I didn't ask). His table wasn't huge - but it outshined the usual lame-o baskets of Shiitake, Oyster and boring Cremini mushrooms I usually see. These were different - all laid out in little half-pints and quarts across the table making their unique "honey" color and well-defined gills stand out. Hotness. I love a new mushroom.

1 pint ($5 worth) of Honey Mushrooms from Honey Hollow Farms
The honey mushroom is actually a parasitic fungus, growing on and even killing the trees it lives on. But to me, it looked delicious and new, and the man who I believe is Mr. Hoffman told me they are best sauteed with olive oil and then added to any number of dishes from crepes, rissotto, pasta, in cream sauce, etc. Unfortunately it was his last day at the market until Spring, when he'll be back with Morels.

I guess this is the French version of Spaetzle.
In honor of the wonderful mushrooms, and the vegetarian spaetzle dishes we had in Munich, I decided to make a dish combining the two on this rainy evening. I actually found French spaetzle in Food Emporium, which is much longer and thinner, almost like a fat, short spaghetti-like egg noodle. I let them boil a little less than 20 minutes and the texture was al dente, which I thought was perfect. My husband was skeptical at first, thinking we were basically going to have mac & cheese style spaetzle. He was pleasantly surprised at how satisfying the meal was, especially with the heirloom tomato and radish salad inspired by our trip to Eataly.

Various small heirloom tomatoes and mild watermelon radish tossed with extra virgin olive oil and good quality balsamic vinaigrette, fresh basil and a bit of pink himalayan sea salt.
The finished creation: spaetzle with mushroom gravy

French Spaetzle with Honey Mushroom Gravy
about 4 servings

1-1/2 C Vegetable Stock
½ C onion, cut into large pieces
1 clove garlic, smashed
Stems from 1 pint of Honey Mushrooms

1 Pint of fresh Honey Mushrooms, sliced, stems reserved for stock
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 T Margarine
1 T Flour
¼ C Dry White Wine
¾ C shallots, sliced
¼ C walnut pieces, toasted
4 slices vegetarian bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled
Dried or fresh chopped parsley (about 1T)
Salt & Pepper

Dried French style Spaetzle, (250g) cooked to package directions

1.    Combine vegetable stock, onion, garlic and mushroom stems in a small saucepan and simmer while you prepare everything else. This will give the stock a richer flavor.

2.    Heat olive oil in a skillet over med-high heat and add the garlic, cooking 1 minute. Add mushrooms and sauté for 4-5 minutes, season with a bit of salt, and remove from the pan using a slotted spoon so the juice stays behind.

3.    Melt butter in the skillet and add flour. Stir together and add the wine, stirring until smooth.

4.    From the stock pan, remove all the items from the liquid using a slotted spoon or straining into a bowl. Add the stock to the skillet, along with the shallots. Simmer about 15 minutes over low-medium heat. Add mushrooms and cook 5 minutes more.

5.    Meanwhile, cook spaetzle to package directions, about 17 minutes. Drain and pour into a large bowl

6.    Cook veg bacon in the microwave, about 2 minutes until crispy. Break into small pieces. Toast the walnuts.

7.    Pour the mushroom gravy over the spaetzle, add about ¾ of the bacon. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with parsley, tossing together. Serve topped with bacon crumbles and nuts .

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Quick Pumpkin Cranberry Biscotti

I woke up this morning with a yearning for baked goods. I thought that a nice crusty biscotti would go good with some fresh coffee, but I didn't feel like taking that much time and care to measure ingredients.  So, I started with a box of pumpkin bread mix and added a few things to turn it into crusty wedges of autumnal biscotti.

Quick Pumpkin Cranberry Biscotti
allow 1 hour start to finish
yields about 20 wedges

1 Box Pillsbury Pumpkin Bread Mix
2 large eggs
1/2 C unsalted butter
2 tsp ginger, finely chopped
1/2 C walnuts, chopped
1/2 C dried cranberries
1/4C all-purpose flour
1 egg white, slightly beaten with a fork
non-stick spray

1. Preheat oven to 350F.

2. In a small saucepan, slowly melt 1 stick of butter over low heat and add chopped garlic to infuse with flavor. Do not let the butter bubble or cook, keep the heat very low. Remove from heat when melted and warm.

3. Combine bread mix, 2 eggs, and ginger-butter in a mixing bowl. Beat about 50 strokes with a spoon until everything is combined evenly and moistened.

4. Stir in the walnuts and cranberries.

5. Sprinkle flour on a clean surface or board, and turn the dough out of the bowl onto the surface. Sprinkle more flour over the ball and use your hands to form a more even ball shape. Cut the ball into halves.

6. Spray two small baking sheets with non-stick spray and place a dough ball on each one. Pat into a 9"x3" loaf with blunt ends, slightly flattening the top. Brush with egg whites.

7. Bake at 350F for 25 minutes. Remove and cool for 15 mintues, leaving the oven on.

8. Transfer loaves carefully to a cutting board, and slice across to form  3/4" wedges.

9. Place wedges cut side down on the baking sheets, leaving space between them. Bake at 350F for another 15-20 minutes - flipping them once for even crustiness. They should be firm all the way through, not bready in the center.

Store tightly wrapped at room temperature.

Finely Chop ginger and add to melting butter
Coarsely chop walnuts
Beat together baking mix, eggs, ginger-butter, walnuts & cranberries
Form into 9"x3" loaves on baking sheets
After 15 minutes at 350F, cool and slice into weges
Arrange wedges on baking sheets and bake for another 15-20 minutes.
Enjoy the crusty biscotti with coffee or tea

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Giada is Cute

Today we went to see a cooking demo by Giada De Laurentiis at the Food & Wine Festival. She's even smaller in person, and just as cute as on TV.


Giada invited a couple up to do some cooking. She kinda made them do all the work, while she talked to the audience.

Making double-chocolate espresso cookies

Speaking about her new product line at Target

I don't know where she found these kids, but they were so cute.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Amit's Punjabi Rajma

After our trip to Oktoberfest, this was a pretty sober week. We also tried to eat healthy to make up for all the damage done. My coworker asked me today if I brought any beer back from Germany. My answer was, "Yes, 4lbs of it right here!!!" (grabbing a handful of my enlarged love-handles).

But today was another coworker's birthday, which meant a fatty slice of chocolate cake for everyone. And although I'm proud of myself for trying out the Core Fusion workout at Exhale today, the wine I made Piccata with last night was beckoning me when I got home.

My legs were shaking so bad on the way home. I knew there was no way I'd be standing in the kitchen cooking dinner, and absolutely no way I could go out. I needed to sit, ASAP. Apparently, mother-in-law put a bug in my husband's ear today, while he sat at home watching movies on the 52" tv. She told him he should cook me dinner, since he was just sitting around all day. Alright, I'm in! No control-freakiness in the kitchen today, I promise! I just want to sit in his spot on the couch, text people like he does when I cook, and watch House Hunters International. For a change.

So I took him up on his offer. He even went to the convenience store to buy beans while I was showering. Soon enough, we had piping hot bowls of Rajma and naan in front of us. And all I had to do was help him find a couple spices. He worked hard, but go ahead and be jealous of him and not me tonight, for he shall be rewarded!

Amit's Punjabi Rajma
6-8 servings

1 T Olive Oil
1/2 Onion, chopped
2 cloves Garlic, chopped
1" (1 tsp + ) Ginger, peeled and chopped
1 tsp CuminSeeds
2 Plum Tomatoes, diced
1 tsp Cayenne
1/4 tsp Turmeric
1T Garam Masala
2 14oz cans Red Kidney Beans
2 8oz cans tomato sauce (no salt-added)
2/3 C water
2 tsp dried Fenugreek leaves
Handful of Cilantro, chopped
Salt to taste

1. Heat olive oil in a deep skillet. Add onions and saute until golden.

2. Add ginger and garlic, cooking a few minutes

3. Add cumin seeds and stir in. Cook until aromatic and they start to smell good.

4. Add tomatoes, cayenne, turmeric, and garam masala. Stir and continute to cook a couple of minutes.

5. Add beans, tomato sauce, water and fenugreek. Cover, and simmer 15-20 minutes. After about 10 minutes, add the cilantro. 

6. Season with salt and serve with naan or rice.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Revisiting London

Near Brick Lane, London
The last time I was in London was about 10 years ago. I was studying at London College of Fashion for a semester in my Junior year.  Honestly, studying was about the least of my endeavors there - although I'll admit that what I learned there was more relevant than I could have known at the time.  I was 20 years old, and focused on making new friends, exploring the first city I'd ever lived in, and drinking legally (in the flat, at the clubs, or on the Tube).

That's me, February 2000, drinking on the tube in my pig tails, on the way to some club.
It was also in London that I learned to cook outside the box. I'd taken the required food science and cooking classes, but had done little experimenting on my own. There were six of us living in a 3-bedroom flat, all pretty much broke. One of my roommates purchased a small British cookbook, probably from the nearby Woolworth's, since our kitchen was stocked with unfamiliar appliances and metric measuring tools. With the Pound worth about $1.50 at the time, it was far more economical for us to cook fresh foods than frozen or packaged. Also note the fact that we had a three-foot square mini-fridge for all six of us - so we weren't stocking up on anything.

We rarely ate at restaurants.  About all we could afford when we did was some budget pasta, gross corn-pizza, or noodles at Wagamama. My food adventures consisted mainly of exploring Sainsbury, Tesco, Marks & Spencer or Safeway. I made sweet potatoes with nutty butter, baked chicken with marmalade and attempted to make a very dry rabbit (not something I'll ever try again). Although I was branching out a little bit, I still walked past most of the more international ethnic cuisines that I had no idea about.

Last week I got a chance to finally go back to London, all grown up. My husband and I began our Oktoberfest vacation with a 3-day layover there before heading to Munich. He had decided that we would try to find the best Indian food in London, as it is touted as the best in the world outside India. Last time I was in London, I didn't even know what curry was - I just thought it was some sort of spicy gruel of which existed only one variety.

Bland Chicken Tikka and giant cans of beer. Better than standing outside in the rain!

Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Neasden Temple)
 We ate almost entirely Indian and Middle-Eastern food this time. We had home-cooked Gujarati potatoes and eggplant, made by my husband's great aunt in Harrow. We followed delicious smells into a market building on Brick Lane and ended up with bland sub-par chicken tikka and samosas, but really good beer. We visited the Hindu temple at Neasden and ate at the buffet there that served flavorful traditional Gujarati food.

Zaika in Kensington - impressive dining room
‘Yukon Gold’ & globe artichoke ‘tikki’, black eye beans laced with tamarind chutney, sweetened
yoghurt & ‘garam’ flour vermicelli, topped with artichoke fritter
One night we treated ourselves to an amazing modern Indian meal of over 6 vegetarian courses at Zaika in Kensington. Each dish was a play on traditional Indian recipes, but the ingredients were re-thought and put together differently so that each component was highlighted.

Lebanese food at Randa, part of the famous Maroush chain
The biggest surprise, however, was the first restaurant we stopped at upon arriving. We were jet-lagged and stumbling around Kensington High Street looking for lunch. It was a little late in the day, but this one place was still bustling: Randa. I've never been a fan of Lebanese food, but in Europe it always tastes better. We ordered hummus, which came with an entire bowl of whole vegetables and a couple of puffy breads. Best of all was the Bammieh B’zeit: okra cooked with tomato, onion, fresh coriander and olive oil. It was served chilled with lemon, and was super refreshing with a nice cold beer - and £4.85!

Then I noticed the sticker on the door: "I <3 Maroush". How many times had I passed by that sticker on Edgeware Road, walking home? So this was part of the chain of Lebanese restaurants called "Maroush", and I had walked by the original one so many times, unaware of the cheap and delicious foods inside. I guess that's what happens when you go back and look at something with a new perspective.

I'm not sure whose taste matured more in the past 10 years, mine or London's. Maybe the great food was always there and I never noticed, but I feel like it's mostly a recent development. I can't say great things about what I ate in the 5 months I lived there in 2000, but in 2010 I can say I had many great meals around London. I think it has grown up too, and I can't wait to go back again.

Now there's even Whole Foods in London! We were standing at the massive chocolatier's counter chatting with him about NYC life, when he pointed out Lisa Marie Presley doing some shopping.
In 2000, Spitalfields Market was known for a gathering of international food mobiles and indie designers. Now, it's more sophisticated (read: sell-out) - there's even an Oyster Bar among the clothes and crafts. And it was super busy!

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