A little 'love thy neighbor'.

Once in a while something happens that reminds me that although I live in New York City, this town can be just as small as any other. Today, I ran into not one, but three people I know--all in my neighborhood. One in particular, Anthony, has a special place in my heart.

Anthony is an elderly man who lives in a ground-level apartment that, to anyone who doesn't know better, appears to be a pawn shop. His front, storefront-style windows are large and filled with trinkets and yes, like any pawn shop, a bit of junk. Almost every night, Anthony brings his cordless phone outside, sets a chair on the sidewalk, opens his front door and blasts Frank Sinatra, while sitting on the street talking to friends and strangers. Every night. The fluorescent heart in the window gets turned on and sheds a hot pink light on the knickknacks he's collected in his window: model cars, a Bill Clinton bobble head, old-fashioned signs.

Even though we got some stares, Anthony's stoop had to make an appearance in our engagement photos.

He knows me well enough to ask what I'm making for dinner, and has taken to calling me "honey". To be called that by any other man would result in a dirty look. But a Rat Pack-era gentleman who is balding and slightly hunched? He gets a smile. He comments that I'm always carrying groceries, he asks for Brian and he notices a new tattoo or haircut. "Hiya, honey," he says, every night.

I can't articulate how much I look forward to those two little words.

I'm grateful that someone as unassuming as my neighbor can remind me of one of the most important lessons: Relate to others. Some things--like laughing, dancing, crying and even the smile that follows taking a bite of delicious food--are universal.  It's surprisingly easy to blaze your own trail, tackle your own dreams and go at it alone. But it's so much easier and gratifying to do it with friends at your side.

After all, we're all neighbors and everyone can use a "Hiya, honey," once in a while.

Courtesy of 6bittersweets.com
I've been thinking about baking Anthony some biscotti to accompany his sidewalk cup of coffee, since he's always curious about what's cooking. Click here for a great recipe with a boost of summer flavor thanks to the addition of oranges. De.Lic.Ious.


My taco, my way.

I love Mexican food. And by Mexican, I mean anything with an avocado, lime, cilantro and heat. That pretty much sums up my expertise on the topic. I have several friends who are los aficionados; they know their mole ingredients and how to make a proper tomatillo salsa. I surrender to them.

I'm perfectly fine with being a novice in this area. Sometimes food tastes better when you don't know what you're missing out on. Ignorance at the table can be bliss, and here's my point:

This was my dinner last night when I was craving "Mexican". Make a note that this is about as far removed as Mexican gets, but the flavors were there and I'm not gonna lie...I ate two.

So, what are you looking at? Whatever I had in the fridge that seemed like it would get along in the pan:

1. Shallots + Garlic + Mushrooms = sauteed together with a squeeze of lime juice to brighten it up.

2. Firm tofu 'steak' rubbed with some hot pepper and a smidge of tomato paste, also sauteed until golden with a nice crust.

3. Sliced avocado, fresh arugula, cilantro and cherry tomatoes, all dressed with a lime vinaigrette on a corn tortilla.

A total culinary mashup. Simple farmstand vegetables disguised as something south of the border.
Sometimes a little creativity and naiveté go a long way. It is your dinner after all.

Write your own recipe!


A pot of sauce for Joey.

Can that title get any more Long Island Guido? I think not. And it shouldn't.

Want to know why?

Because 'Joey' (known as Joe or Joseph to the rest of the world, but has always retained his Italian little boy nickname with me), my brother, is the quintessential Italian-American New Yorker and basks in his role as such.

He's the mayor--he knows everyone and they all like him. He embraces the New Yorkese language and makes fun of me when I pronounce 'coffee' any other way than 'cawfee'. He's the life of the party and can't conceive of a Sunday dinner that doesn't involve red sauce and pasta.

He also perfectly fits the bill of the younger brother, the same way I do as the older sister.

I'm the responsible, bossy, know-it-all. He's the fun, freewheeling, jester. That's probably why we had knock-down, drag-out fights for the first, oh, I don't know, twenty years of our lives.

Disclosure: This is not us as children. But it might as well be.

That's also why we're great friends today.

Joey and I were just starting to befriend each other when I started cooking. Don't get me wrong--we always loved each other as siblings--we just couldn't talk to each other for more than ten minutes at a stretch. I wouldn't be taking meal requests from him; he wouldn't trust anything I cooked.

This pasta dish changed all of that. This pasta scaled mountains, built bridges and gave us the strength to cross them. If you think I'm being hyperbolic, make this for someone and tell me your relationship doesn't exponentially improve.

This was the first dish Joey enthusiastically ate and requested again and again. Not because he trusted my cooking skills (that came later), but because the smells that drift throughout your house/apartment/kitchen are drool-inducing. Hypnotic. It converts even the most reluctant eater to a complete glutton.

Years later, he still asks for it and I still make it wholeheartedly (except I try to sneak in veggie sausage nowadays). What can I say?

I'm grateful to have such an amazing brother and friend (briend?), and I'm happy to make food not war.

Penne with Sausage, Artichokes and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Adapted from "Giada's Italian Family Dinners"
Serves 6-8

3/4 cup drained, oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, sliced, 2 tablespoons of oil reserved
1/2 pound hot Italian sausage, casings removed and crumbled (again, I use a vegetarian sausage. Field Roast makes a great Italian 'sausage'.)
12-ounce jar marinated artichokes, drained and chopped
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
3/4 cup chicken broth (I use vegetable stock)
1/2 cup dry white wine
14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
8 ounces penne or other tubular pasta
1/2 cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil or 1 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley or 2 teaspoons dried
1 teaspoon, fresh chopped thyme
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (optional)
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cubed (optional)

1.) Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil reserved from the tomatoes in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook until brown, continually breaking the meat into bite-sized pieces, about 10 minutes. Transfer the sausage to a bowl lined with a paper towel.

2.) Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the same skillet; then add the artichokes and garlic and saute over medium heat until garlic is tender, about 2 minutes.

3.) Add the broth, wine, diced tomatoes with juice, and sun-dried tomatoes. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce slightly reduces, about 8 minutes.

4.) Meanwhile, bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Add the penne and cook until al dentem, about 10 minutes. Drain the pasta.

5.) Add the pasta, cooked sausage, Parmesan cheese, basil, and parsley to the sauce. Toss until fully combined; then stir in the mozzarella, if using. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and extra Parmesan cheese.


Give the girl a chill pill.

Wednesday night dinners are fun for me. That, along with Saturday, constitutes my and Brian's date nights for the week and I generally try to make it special. Last night I made dinner.

It was a fail. Big-time fail.

Don't get me wrong. On the table, everything looked delicious. But when you know how something should taste, and you realize you missed the opportunity to nail it, you're just not going to enjoy dinner the way one should. This was my plight.

Romesco Cauliflower with Dijon Sauce? Undercooked.
Brown Basmati Rice? Undercooked.
Spanish Tempranillo wine? Needed to air more. The first sip tasted like lighter fluid with notes of burning nasal passages.

The underlying theme of the menu was impatience. Patience isn't a virtue I was given. The people on the sidewalk should be walking faster, the waiter should have greeted us sooner, the cake should have risen three minutes ago (as I open and reopen the oven door to check on it). I'm annoying myself as I write this.

More often than not, my impatience is more a relflection of ME than anything else. At least now, in my late 20s, I've learned this. The cake isn't bothering me, no. What's bothering me is that I don't trust myself to have followed the recipe closely enough to successfully bake the cake. I'm not (that) unhappy at my current job; I'm impatient that I haven't landed my dream job yet. I'm not upset that I can't find the right word; I'm doubtful that I have anything to say at all. Please tell me I'm not the only one suffering from this over-texted, over-Facebooked, great expectations era? My mind can be everywhere at once, concentrating on nothing.

My impatience with my day yesterday spilled over at the stove and even if the rice wasn't cooked, it was finished. Oh yes, to the table you go. And after a truly unsatisfying dinner (sorry, Bri!), I'm reminded to stay in the moment more, to worry less and to stay patient even in the most doubtful of circumstances.

Let's make risotto--a delicious dish that requires diligence and full attention. The reward is spectacular.

Photo courtesy of Gourmet, September 2009
 This recipe for risotto with radishes mixes bright flavors of springtime produce with warming comfort food. And again, the constant stirring and tending to the rice makes for a therapeutic cooking session.
Gourmet takes top prize once again!

Romano Risotto with Radishes
Serves 6 (main course)

For risotto:
6 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth (48 fl ounces)
2 cups hot water
3/4 stick unsalted butter, divided
1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 pound Arborio rice (2 1/2 cups)
2/3 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano

For radishes:
1 tablespoon white-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound trimmed radishes, julienned
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives

Make risotto:
Bring broth and water to a simmer in a 3-to 4-quart saucepan. Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons butter in a 4-to 5-quart heavy pot over medium heat until foam subsides, then cook onion, stirring occasionally, until just softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in rice and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add wine and cook, stirring, until absorbed, about 1 minute.
Stir 1 cup simmering broth into rice and cook, stirring constantly and keeping at a strong simmer, until absorbed. Continue cooking and adding broth, about 1 cup at a time, stirring frequently and letting each addition be absorbed before adding next, until rice is just tender and creamy-looking but still al dente, 18 to 22 minutes. Thin with some of remaining broth if necessary (you will have some left over). Remove from heat. Stir in cheese, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and remaining 3 tablespoon butter.

Prepare radishes:
Whisk together vinegar, oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Toss radishes with dressing and chives. Serve risotto topped with radishes.


Cookies for a Cause

I recently reconnected with a former coworker from my magazine days. We frequently planned events together and kept each other up to date on new restaurants and recipes. As we started catching up on life and updating each other on marriages, kids, food, etc., she let me know about a bake sale she was participating in.

She had me at bake sale.

I love a good bake sale. [Growing up, my school would host them to raise money for new departments or trips. I would start one on my own at the foot of my driveway, flagging down drivers in hopes for a few quarters. Although they weren't profitable, licking the Duncan Hines icing jar clean was incentive enough to keep at it. I digress.] This bake sale wasn't just one table of cookies. It is a nationwide initiative for a truly touching cause.

Cookies for Kid's Cancer was started by parents whose young son was diagnosed with the disease at age two. Four years later, after many tests and treatments, Liam passed away, but his memory lives on and is honored through these bake sales. This month would have been Liam's seventh birthday, so throughout the month of May, hundreds of bake sales are being held throughout the country to raise money for research of pediatric cancers. How inspiring to see a community of people together to make a change!

This is Liam who inspires bakers to bake for a higher cause
So, I'm thinking a bake sale is in order.
Any New York bakers care to join?

This un-baked cookie recipe is courtesy of Organic Avenue in New York City. This organic, vegan, raw shop is filled with juices, smoothies and raw foods. While that may sound off putting to many, trust me when I tell you these taste just as good as any oatmeal cookie you'll find. They're filled with healthy ingredients, like dates and coconut, are gluten-free, and are way too easy to eat!

Oatmeal Coconut Cookies
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup shredded coconut
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup medjool dates
1/4 cup Coconut Oil
1/2 cup raisins
2 tb water, optional

Pulse oats, coconut and cinnamon in a food processor until powdery. Add dates and coconut oil and process until a sticky dough forms (add water if needed). Add raisins and give a few pulses, until the raisins are well mixed throughout.

You can roll the dough into balls, coat in shredded coconut and serve, or flatten into cookie shapes.

Refrigerate to set the dough before serving, or eat them straight away if you're one of those raw cookie dough types! I topped mine with a dusting of cocoa powder and coconut.

Check out the founder of Organic Avenue, Denise Mari, making the cookies here!


How to succeed on Mondays without really trying.

The one thing Monday owes us is empathy. Sleeping in, brunch with friends, late nights out and the general permission to laze around dissipates on Monday morning when the disturbing 6:00AM alarm sounds off.

[Note: I used to be an early riser. Now that I'm not, I've learned why it's called an alarm. The words 'dread' and 'panic' instantly come to mind when I wake up and realized that no, it's not Sunday. That was yesterday, and that's alarming.]

Generally speaking, when it's time to eat, I want to feel like I'm doing just that. But, there are a lot of studies that prove that starting your day with a smoothie or juice actually boosts your energy. Logic being that rather than wasting what little energy you have on breaking down a sandwich, your body can effortlessly digest a nutritious drink.

Brian and I are trying to start the spring and summer seasons on a healthy, trim note. We're not using the word 'diet'. We're just eating healthier, moving more and avoiding our typical weekend junk food.

[Inspiration here. And here. Just kidding.]

After three days of smoothie breakfasts, I have to say that I notice a difference. A certain lightness, if you will. Here's your breakfast drink in four steps:

1.) Choose your fruit. I used blueberries, strawberries and a banana, but you can use whatever you have on hand. Easy.

2.) Add something healthy. This morning I used flaxseeds. Yesterday it was almond butter. Something with protien and/or omega-3s will make this more of a satisfying meal.

3.) Choose your blending liquid. I prefer almond milk, but I've also used rice milk, yogurt, or even water in the past. Again, whatever you have will do. Too easy.

4.) Blend and congratulate yourself on being a beacon of good health.

The additional perk here is that this takes all of five minutes to make, so you can hit the snooze button once, if not twice. You've already beaten Monday at its own game.