Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I Left My Heart In... Baltimore?

Baltimore, Maryland.

It is not one of the destinations on my "Top Ten Weekend Vacations" list, but when the derby monster calls, you pick up the phone. So early on a recent Saturday, it was into the rental car with two fellow derby-ites and off to scenic Baltimore.

I had a sour taste in my mouth already from my last visit two years prior, where a simple weekend excursion to Charm City for a game turned into quite the affair. I don't want to bore you with all the details of the trip, but simply put, my family decided to attend the game and Jon and I decided to travel with them to save money on car rentals. But let me just tell you this: my dad seemed to neglect the fact that his children are all adult size now, and one of them dates a man that is over six feet tall. The small sedan will not work for long car excursions, especially when we know that there is a large, comfortable van parked right next to it in your driveway. Please reconsider the options next time.

To top off all the family "fun", it was Jon's birthday, which I have managed to ruin with a derby game every single year except one, when we were in Costa Rica... where I managed to contract the worst food poisoning ever.
Happy Birthday, Jon.

Jon and my family hanging out in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Birthday festivities!

I am totally down to participate in photo fun time with mom and dad, but the morning after a game, all I want is a damn bloody mary

So needless to say, as Margaret Thrasher, Puss 'n Glutes and I drove down I-95 towards our destination, I was dreading another lackluster visit to a city that did nothing except piss me off. But this time, I was determined to not waste a weekend. I decided that if I had to go to Baltimore, I would exploit it for the one thing I knew about it: BLUE CRABS. I promised myself that I would settle for nothing less than a gluttonous dinner of steamed blue crabs, served to me at a waterfront restaurant with paper-clad tables accompanied by a large bucket of icy Coronas. This would justify my weekend in Baltimore. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

When we arrived, it was sunny and 80 degrees, a welcomed contrast to the shitty Northeast weather we had been enduring for weeks, and upon arriving earlier than expected, we decided to go for a stroll along the waterfront at the South end of the harbor, giving me a chance to also stake out the restuarant I had tagged for the evening's festivities, Bo Brooks.

Waterfront: check.
Paper on tables: check.
Corona in buckets: well, they had a tiki bar, so I was pretty sure I was covered. So, check.

[and here's the part about the derby game, quick and simple so we can get to the tastier stuff. Scrappy game, very fouly from both ends, jamming, blocking, aaaand the end. Gotham beat Charm City, 241 - 102. A very decisive win. Very fun. Now back to the crabs.]

So after herding the cats (Q: how many people does it take to get Fisti Cuffs out of the building after a game? A: We don't know, she's probably still in there!), it was off to Bo Brooks for some well deserved post game grub. And as I have mentioned in past entries, the post game indulgence meal is a very exciting event for me. I have just burned 2,746,836,367 calories (that's a scientific number, by the way) and yes, I deserve fries smothered in crab dip. True story, they were amazing.

And the steamed crabs. Oh, the crabs. They sure hit the spot. Granted it wasn't peak blue crab season, and yes I was aware of the fact that despite being right on the Chesapeake these crabs were imported from Texas – a weird and somewhat disturbing phenomenon where the Chesapeake's abundance of blue crabs can't actually support the demand for them without completely wiping out the blue crab population of the bay. But as far as a satisfying eating experience goes, this was indeed one of them.

I love cracking crabs. I grew up doing it almost every weekend at the family shore house. There's a lagoon in the backyard and the first order of business upon arriving was to get the crab traps out from under the deck and the old chicken meat from the freezer. Tie the meat in the traps, and lower them over the railing, checking on them occasionally between dips in the lagoon and trips to the beach. On Sunday afternoon, we'd collect our catch (with a little supplement from the local crab shack) and my Grandma Mary would steam them up with a huge dish of spaghetti in red clam sauce.
And right there, that simple picture actually accounts for a large part of my summer childhood memories. But Grandma Mary is long gone, the shore house now belongs to my aunt and uncle, and when we do visit, those Sunday dinners have given way to concerns about leaving early to beat the traffic. But one look at a heap of crabs waiting to be broken into brings me right back to that sticky-from-the-salt air kitchen table, surrounded by the rotating cast that is my extended family, while my mom shows me for the one-hundredth time how to suck the secret meat out of a claw and one of my sisters kicks me under the table, just 'cause.

And really, isn't that why we love food in the first place?

And as if it couldn't get any better than that. After waking up in our hotel room which included this view from the balcony:

Thank you, Hotwire!
we were back in our trusty rental car ready for the drive back up North... almost. We had gotten a tip-off the night before from some teammates who claimed the best ever pie shop was right around the corner from the bars we were hanging out at post crabs the night before. All joking aside folks, what kind of person would I be if I refused pie??? So it was back to the waterfront for one more small adventure in the city that was oh so slowly winning me over. Did I mention how obnoxiously beautiful and fun the Fells Point section of Baltimore is? Who knew Baltimore boasted more than a high crime rate and John Waters?

And then there was the pie. Dangerously Delicious. Well, it was indeed, but that's also the shop's name- Dangerously Delicious Pies. Hello breakfast.

The three of us ordered our breakfast - hearty slices of BBQ pork pie and settled in with mugs of coffee while we impatiently dreamed of the goodness ahead. Brace yourself:

They make their own pulled pork and BBQ sauce right in house too!
After we wiped the drool and crumbs from our chins, we exchanged devilish glances and with a nod, it was done.

We had ordered dessert.

Strawberry rhubarb, a favorite of mine!
Banana cream

I can't even. It's just good. Good. Fucking good pie. Completely decadent and amazing.

Why, yes. I think I will

I loosened my seat belt considerably when I got into the driver's seat. I started the engine with a sigh and we began the trek home. In my mind I was thinking about September, when this year's Eastern Regional Tournament happens. It means yet another weekend excursion to Baltimore.

And you know what? I'm excited.

Monday, May 23, 2011



Is anyone still out there in Slice of Pie Blogland?

Sorry about my hiatus there, but I was spending my spare time (ha ha) with a new kitchen adventure. Yes blog readers, it's true. I have cheated on you with another food related endeavor. But it had good intentions and I will not apologize. And I promise to tell you all about this mysterious "other endeavor" very soon.

But back to more important things.


Allium Tricoccum. Ramson. Wild leeks. Ramps. If a spring onion and a clove of garlic secretly met for one night in an act of beautiful, pungent passion and inadvertently made a lovechild, it would be the ramp.

During early spring, if you go to any restaurant that prides itself on using fresh local in season produce, odds are they will be offering something on the menu right now that features ramps. Grilled, in salads, on pizza, in pasta – wherever the taste of garlic and/or onions is warranted. And in my opinion that's practically anywhere except maybe in a bowl of cereal... hmmm.

Jon and I have used them in grilled cheese sandwiches, butter sauces and butter spreads, pickled, sauteed, grilled, dried and deep fried. We even use the brine from the pickled ramps for salad dressings and sauces. Ramps are the best secret ingredient ever!

Dammit. I probably shouldn't have told you that. Forget it. Stop reading. Ramps SUCK. DO NOT go to the farmer's market to buy them! I repeat: STAY AWAY FROM THE RAMPS.

You know why? I'll tell you why.

Because every year, when the weather starts to warm oh so slightly and the prospect of Spring starts to peek its smiley little (metaphorical) head around the (metaphorical) corner, my rampdar goes off.

... they're coming... 

"Jon. Do you think they have them yet?"
"No. They're not out until mid-April."

"Jon. Do you think they're there now?"
"No. A few more weeks."

"Jon. Are they there yet?"
"Are they there yet?"
"Are they there yet?"

This year, it happened while I was perusing restaurant websites looking for tasty things, a normal day. And there it was. The Spotted Pig homepage. It featured an illustration of a pig portioned out for butchering with a speech bubble. The pig was exclaiming "WE HAVE RAMPS!"

My rampdar went wild. 

... they're heeeeee-eeerreee!

The following is the actual Gchat correspondence that followed; Tuesday, April 5th, 2011:

5:20 PM me: is it ramp time yet? The Spotted Pig has ramps already. we should check the farmer's market this weekend.
5:24 PM Jon: I dont think so they are most likely getting thiers from down south
5:31 PM me: ASSHOLES!

Surely, if I made it this far, I could survive another rampless week or two. And I did. Unfortunately so did every other ramp fanatic and chef in this frigging city.

You see, obtaining ramps is a bit like trying to get your hands on killer concert tickets – Lady Gaga or whoever the kids are listening to these days. The early bird gets the worm/tickets/ramps. This urgency comes from the fact that ramps are only available for a few precious early spring weeks and then they disappear, just as suddenly as they arrive, for the entire year. So you go to bed reasonably early Friday night and remember to set the alarm. No snooze button, no dawdling, no leisurely brunches. It's out of bed and straight to the farmer's market, and directly to Rick Bishop, the most prominent ramp guy. (Usually I wouldn't even share that information with you in the fear that it may help you beat me to the last bunch of ramps come next Saturday, but Rick and his offerings are so awesome that they deserve the shout out, and you deserve to experience them.) Don't even think about looking at other vendors first. Find Rick and get the gold. If you wait too long, then those damn fancy chefs come along and swipe up massive chef handfuls for their kitchens to use and you are left to wait yet another week, RAMPLESS.

Having plenty of pickled ramps will hold you over until they're in season again...

A few weeks ago, I knew it was time. The alarm went off and soon Jon and I were running RAMPant (har har) through the farmer's market. We spotted the booty and staked our claim. My rampdar had been spot on. It was the very first weekend ramps were available.

In the past weeks, Jon and I have been going to the market and it seems that this spring a big handful of vendors have caught ramp fever and are now carrying them. And they're making bank: a small bunch of these babies – about six – costs a whopping $3. I've seen them go for $4. We usually buy $15 to $30 worth at one time.

What I haven't told you yet is that like mushrooms, ramps are not grown, they need to be foraged. So realizing the monetary potential, these vendors are either beginning to cultivate ramps (which is rare and is an undertaking of a few years before you can harvest them) or have forayed into foraging.

And all of a sudden, there was that voice in my head that makes me do weird things again. The spring air had apparently awoken it.

Save your dollars.

Not you. What now?

Stop buying ramps.

Are you out of your – er – uh, my mind?

Stop BUYING ramps... go find them!

Now why didn't I ever think of that? I love hiking! I have a pretty good bearing on the wilderness of the NY/NJ area, AND thanks to years of gardening chores growing up, I am quite an efficient weed digger. Hell, I've probably walked past ramps a million times! Greenmarket be damned! We're going foraging!

The very next weekend, two derby friends and I found ourselves standing way off the trail in the middle of a forest at what I believed to be the perfect location for ramps: moist grainy dirt, adequate shade, running water.

We looked.

And looked.

And looked.

We found lots of stuff...

a leaf bug
a swampy moss covered log
a tiny morel mushroom
a dead frog
a live frog

... but not a single ramp. Anywhere.

I was getting discouraged. In my research for this trip, I was convinced they would be here. How could they not? It's a weed that grows crazy along the entire Appalachian mountain range from the Carolinas all the way to Maine. Had the damn hipsters made it this far away from the city and taken them all already? Can you get that far on a fixed gear bike???

Harumphing, we finally called it quits. We decided to get back on the trail and finish the loop. At least we'd get a beautiful hike out of the whole affair. I'd just have to figure out a substitute for the ramp bouquet I promised Jon who was stuck working.

Somewhere between encountering some really pointless historical placards (like one for a house built in the 1950's and was then torn down in the 1960's) and getting all turned around because of a really poorly executed trail marking system, Justin tapped me on the shoulder. "Pie... is that one?"

Could it be?
I paused in bewilderment. Is it? I squatted and ripped off a piece of the leaf and sniffed. The familiar stink filled my nose. I gasped and began digging.

"IT'S A RAMP!" I exclaimed as I pulled the white bulb from the dirt. We danced an jumped a bit as we looked around. And sure enough, there they were, happily growing in little patches in the grainy, shady soil, right next to a large stream...

... and the trail. Well, this should be interesting. We were actually ramping illegally: you are not allowed to forage inside a NY State park. The original plan was to find some secluded patches by following the streams way off the trails away from the eyes of rangers (and other ramp lovers). We thought for a moment. We had gotten this far in our excursion and now the little fuckers were right in front of our faces, reeking of awesomeness.

Laws or no, the people would have their ramps.

So we began to dig.

That's $3 right there

There was something completely satisfying about the process of plunging your bare hands into the cold wet dirt and pulling out pure food. It was very primal and familiar and probably the most intimate way I can think of to get your food: straight from the source to your hands, with not a single middle man. You learn a lot about your food this way. For instance, that ramps love to grow beneath pricker bushes. Fun.

We foraged responsibly, making sure to leave the baby ones and not wipe out entire patches, and figured we had about $30 worth of garlicy booty in our bag. After about an hour of digging, we called it quits. We were only about halfway through the trail loop and the ramp patches seemed to peter off after that spot, so we washed our hands in the river and went on our merry way.

As we continuted through the woods, brainstorming all of the ways that we would use our newly accquired bounty, we were stopped dead in our tracks.

No way. Not this, and not now! After finally overcoming all of the impossible odds of the day and finally emerging victorious, I couldn't believe that this was happening. Ramp gods! How could you taunt me so? I clutched my beloved ramps a little closer and sighed a quiet expletive.

There, looming before us in the diminishing light beckoning us closer was the last thing we ever expected to encounter:


Ramp angel!

We weighed our options and sadly decided to leave Ramptopia unscathed. Our bag was full and we had crammed all the dirt we possibly could under our fingernails already. We gawked for a while longer and snapped an iPhone picture to preserve the coordinates of our new found secret wonderland.

We would be back.

Grow well, little rampies. We shall meet again next spring for some more foraging. Possibly with a much larger bag.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Another Battle in the Epic War

There are many great rivalries in the world. The best thing about them is that no matter how hard each side argues, no matter how informed, how passionate, or how drunk, there will never ever be a definitive winner:

Joe Frasier vs. Muhammad Ali
Yankees vs. Red Sox
Edison vs. Tesla (duh, Tesla.)
Deep dish vs. traditional pizza

Notorious B.I.G. vs. Tupac Shakur

This last one is of particular interest to me because it has the potential to open up the door to perhaps the biggest and most heated unsolvable rivalry of them all:

Which coast is the best coast?

(You've probably already yelled your definitive answer at the computer screen.)

But I am here today not to rabidly support a side in the grand argument (East Coast) or begin a long response thread of debate, but to simply present a comparison:

Which coast boasts the better Christmas experience?

Now, before people get all huffy, let me just state that Biggie only got to be Santa because he looks more like him. And for the record, I think Tupac makes a wonderful elf.

Thus far, I have accumulated 30 Christmases under my loosened holiday belt: 28 in Northern New Jersey and 2 in Southern California. While my favoritism clearly lies with my... spirited... family in the Northeast, I will look at this matter objectively and consider three different criteria: holiday ambiance, the Christmas meal and extracurricular activities.

Just like getting into college.

One thing I will never ever in a million years get used to is this Christmas with palm trees thing. It just doesn't feel like Christmas. Of course it's absolutely gorgeous, but it just completely throws me off to look around and see beautiful tall palms with the sun sparkling off of the Pacific and little dots of surfers sprinkled on top. Bing Crosby never sang about a sunny Christmas, and I'm not really sure if anyone I know wants to have a sandball fight. To me California says "Sweet! I'm on vacation, bro!" not "Hey! Merry Christmas, buddy!"

Bing Crosby aside, the fact that I didn't ever need more than a sweater was pretty awesome. Sunglasses ended up being way more important than multiple layers. In fact, I didn't even bring a coat, which ended up making my trip to the airport in New York in the 6AM darkness pretty frigging frigid. Ah well. I've done stupider things.

My super awesome Christmas hat I picked up and the necessary sunglasses

And being a huuuge fan of driving with all the car windows down, I was elated that here I didn't have to wait until May to do it.
But the biggest benefit I see to a West Coast Christmas is being able to send nice pictures to your family who is back East battening down the hatches in preparation for 3 feet of snow:

"We're at the beach and you're not!"

However, the one blaring fact that made me a little depressed out there is that I saw so few houses decorated for Christmas. Too cool for Christmas lights? Too busy surfing to hang a wreath? With my family, every Christmas we take a drive around the area in a little outing we like to call "Gaudy House Hunting".

I'd say... a 7 out of 10.

Armed with a camera and plenty of coffee, we drive around until we get our fill of tack and plastic Santas. Luckily, in North Jersey there is no shortage of these houses (only electrical outlets), and the tour always ends with the grand finale: a trip to the Elvis impersonator's house, who happens to have quite the knack for Christmas decorating.

Truly The King

Too big for the blog! A panorama of the backyard, complete with huge pond

Clearly, I have high expectations when it comes to outward Christmas displays. But alas, in SoCal, the number of darkened houses far outnumbered those with jubilant Christmas spirit (and high electrical bills). On Christmas Eve, just when I thought all hope was lost, I mentioned my utter disappointment in California's decorations to Jon. We were leaving his aunt's house in Pasadena to drive down to his mom and her husband's house in San Diego.
"I never brought you to Christmas Tree Lane?" I perked up a bit. This sounded promising.
We took a small detour and ended up on a street where all of the tall pines lining the road were adorned in bright colored lights, creating a vibrant tunnel of Christmas-y-ness.

And I was happy. Now it felt like Christmas.

(photo by Michael Lynch)

So California sure scared me a bit there with it's surprising lack of flamboyance (although extra points are awarded to Jon's sister Devon's peculiar neighbor, whose house probably looks like that all year).

For complete over the top extravagance, a disregard for style and a big loud "up yours" if you don't like it, ambiance point: East Coast


However, to the state's merit, what it lacked in ambiance, it sure made up for in tasty things... tasty Mexican things to be exact.

La Estrella. Best. Fish. Tacos. EVER.

My Taco. Chile rellenos goodness

And speaking of good food, on Christmas Day, Jon and I set out to recreate the Robert Palmer turkey we made on Thanksgiving for dinner that evening.

As I stood in the kitchen preparing to cook, I looked out the kitchen windows and something told me this would be a bit different than my usual family holidays.

The view from the kitchen

Although both kitchens had sneaky pets patiently lurking around every corner, there was no real chaos.

Cali stealing all the butter wrappers

My dad wasn't up to his usual shenanigans, like "washing the dishes".

My mom wasn't freaking out about something, like a harmless little fire.

Mandatory open flame, Christmas 2010, Bourbon gravy

And there definitely were a lot less tequila shots. Only one to be exact, in honor of the Danna family craziness Jon and I knew we were missing.

A Christmas toast across the country

The jet lag definitely did not make cooking any easier, and neither did the turkey that was mysteriously done 2 hours early, but we turned out a great holiday feast.

The Robert Palmer turkey with gravy, stuffing, cherry pomegranate compote, mashed potatoes (not low-fat), string beans with buerre blanc sauce, sauteed brussel sprouts with rosemary and bacon, macaroni and cheese and citrus glazed carrots.
Once again showing my expertise in plate clearing
Jon's mom giving me some competition
Wine. Lots of wine
There it is!
The carnage. Merry Christmas!

And even better than the actual Christmas meal? The leftovers! Forget those towering Thanksgiving paninis! Ladies and gents, shuffle your stomach, notch another hole in your belt and make room for leftover turkey pot pie!

Best compliment ever

You know I love a good Italian Christmas feast topped with family insanity, but because of the best leftovers meal ever with the added bonus of tacos – which I can't get home, food point: West Coast.


We all know that meals end. Bottles of wine run dry (although hopefully not). And now all that's left is spending some special leisurely time with the family.

Gathered around a fire in the living room perhaps, singing some Christmas carols.

We do our caroling before Christmas, in front of my mom's 4th grade class. Here, a rendition of "Dominick the Christmas Donkey", hence the fedoras

Or maybe taking a nice family photo to frame and remember the occasion.

It took grandma 6 hours to get back up and me 3 years to recover from shock

At least he's wearing a tie

Or possibly... a choreographed routine to pass the time?

Spontaneous dance numbers are know to happen on occasion. Christmas Eve, 2006

You see, back East in snowy North Jersey, our Christmas holiday lasts for forty-eight straight hours, because Italians celebrate both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (I think it's just another excuse to eat extravagantly).

Twice the family!
Twice the food!
And twice the shenanigans!

That's right. I said times two.

Only so much time can be spent shoulder to shoulder around the dining room table feasting, so over the years, probably influenced by those large jugs of Carlo Rossi Chianti, we have found various unique ways of entertaining ourselves.

I know this seems somewhat strange and possibly scary to some of you out there. But to me, strange is being somewhere else on a holiday where the family never bursts out into fits of laughter, only one person talks at a time – with an appropriate inside volume – and there is never ever any swearing. Where's the spontaneous guitar singalongs? No costumes? AND WHY ARE THERE NO TEQUILA SHOTS?

I have a hard time feeling comfortable amidst a mild mannered family and it can be a big source of anxiety for me. I just don't know how to act. Lucky for this gal, Jon's family is not one of those. He wasn't lying the first time I took him to meet my family (and surprise! The WHOLE family happened to be there) and he just calmly said "Don't worry, I'm used to it." and poured himself a big glass of wine, turned to my uncle who was displaying his new handgun collection and jumped right into the conversation.

So I am quite comfy in SoCal. In fact, on Christmas Jon's family actually inspired me with a fantastic new after dinner activity:

a family game of JUST DANCE on Wii! Seriously! Nothing aids food along the digestive track quite like pretending you can dance like Tina Turner.

The game lasted well into the night and my gut hurt not only from the eating and the dancing, but from the amount of laughing I did.

The next morning, after dealing with my sore Wii arm and tweaked neck (apparently, I cannot move like Beyoncé) I immedately texted my sister and demanded she go out in the snowstorm and buy the game for my family.

A completely valiant effort by team West Coast – I am totally comfortable with Jon's family – sharing jokes, wisecracks, perhaps a few tears when I opened up a present (that just happened to be a sweet pasta attachment for a Kitchen Aid stand mixer... which meant I was getting a Kitchen Aid stand mixer from Jon when we got back to Jersey), but for consistency of entertainment value and uninhibited cheery chaos, extracurricular point; East Coast.


Well folks, it looks like we may have the concl– wait a minute... this just in...

Mandatory extra credit point for Jon shimmying in his Christmas sweater.


... let the battle rage on!