Week with Hunger

Seven all-consuming days in the life of a food writer.



Bruni did it, Sifton did it, and now it’s my turn: I’m going to faithfully recount a week of my eating, down to the very last calorie-laden crumb. Now, before you judge me as a glutton, let me say that some of this ingestion is professional. I’m a restaurant critic, dining blogger, and food writer based in Westchester County.

Was this week about average? Actually, I’m ashamed to say that it was. While there were a few out-of-the-ordinary indulgences—silkworm pupae and raccoon come to mind—in some ways, this week was lighter than my usual load. I wasn’t scrambling to finish a review—which necessitates an almost complete sampling of the restaurant’s menu—nor was I in the middle of a comprehensive feature, which amounts to the same thing (except with more restaurants).

Looking at my eating, I need to admit some nasty habits, particularly that eating breakfast just seems to fall off my “to do” list every damn morning. Also, I’ve never been much for moderation—if I like something, I really like it, and consume accordingly.

Monday

am: Three cups of French-press coffee, each with one spoonful of turbinado sugar and a splash of one-percent milk. I actually feel pretty ascetic, since we ran out of my usual half-and-half.
Noon: Stuck at my desk under deadline, so I actually forget to eat breakfast and lunch. Some Trader Joe’s Roasted Seaweed Snacks pass under my nose, so I eat the entire 60-calorie bag, folding the paper-like sheets together and stuffing them crackling into my gob. This was not one of my prouder moments, especially when I noticed that my keyboard was slick with sesame oil and smelled of seaweed.
4 pm: Half of a Trader Joe’s “This Fig Walks into a Bar,” the two inches rejected by my three-year-old daughter as an after-school snack. They’re exactly like elongated Fig Newtons and just about as dreary.

6 pm: Monday is the traditional restaurant day off, so I’m on my own. The good news is I’ve frozen a quart of carabaccia (Tuscan onion soup) that I made from Cesare Cassella’s recipe. This makes an ideal emergency dinner, poured over a poached egg and a slice of pane de casa. I broil the lightly oiled bread, then shower it with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and rebroil the toast until the cheese is like a brittle lace.

7:30 pm: Did I mention that I’d joined a gym today? I swore away a year of steep monthly charges, so celebrated with two handfuls of peanut M&M’S. These I suck on until the candy shell is flimsy, white, and fragile, and the chocolate is melted and beginning to break through. I ignore my husband, who complains that I make disgusting noises as I do this. What does a Presbyterian know about pure sensuality?

Tuesday

am: Three cups of half-caffeinated coffee, each with a splash of half-and-half and a spoonful of turbinado sugar. Starting to wonder how many fat and sugar calories are lurking in this non-negotiable morning routine.

11 am: I’m starving after a morning of work and no solid food, so I slink downstairs for a quick bite. I end up with a Trader Joe’s butter croissant and an entire, three-ounce ceramic pot of Saint Marcellin cheese. I’ve justified this ridiculously expensive Fairway purchase—the three-ounce pot cost $5.99, making the extension $31.95 per pound—by thinking that I retain the little pots for serving olives. I neglect to factor in that I can already serve 15 different types of olives at once.

6 pm: Acting on the news that ZaZa in Scarsdale was named by USA Today as the best pizza in New York, I hightail it over for dinner and a blog post. My husband and I love the tender, wood-charred crust of the spicy, well-caramelized sausage round. We are slightly less thrilled by its simpler margarita, but this is definitely a player—if only its owner weren’t strolling the sparsely seated room with a mic and spouting loud Sinatra to uncomfortable diners. I eat one slice of both pizzas, and a few shreds of zucchini fritters.

Wednesday

am: I notice that two tablespoons of half-and-half contain exactly 39.37 calories—not bad for one serving, but that’s 117 for my day. Ugh.

11 am: Really starting to worry about the upcoming week. I have a lingering cold, and I have four huge dining events planned for the following five nights. To prepare, I start drinking a lot of water, switching to Mighty Leaf ginger tea whenever I can. I avoid the leftover pizza beckoning in my fridge, and instead boil two extra-large eggs for exactly four minutes and 30 seconds. Sadly, these efficient packages of protein demand a toasted TJ’s crumpet with a generous schmear of butter. My comfort food.

6:30 pm: Feel a bit like a boxer in training; I vow a small, low-impact dinner. I dig out one of my precious, super-rich beef broths and whip together a simple Vietnamese pho with chilis, shallots, and deli-case roast beef. The rice sticks add some satisfying carbs, the broth nutrients, and the beef proteins. I’m trying to keep my head in the game despite my cold, and wonder if I can shake hands without causing an outbreak.

8:30 pm: Evil husband breaks out the year’s first Valentine’s Day conversation hearts and starts passing me little candies as we watch TV. Before you think, “Awwwww, how sweet,” you should realize that he purposefully picks the most lame in the bowl—like “email me.”

Thursday

am: I drop a spoon of sugar onto my handy electronic kitchen scale that also measures in grams: my coffee’s spoon of sugar weighs eight grams, making each cup cost 32 calories in sugar. Add that to the half-and-half, and we’re talking 72 calories per cup, minus the five calories of actual coffee. Three cups (231 calories in total) is my usual daily consumption, though I confess bad days when I drink up to six. Crap. Crap. Crap.

Noon: Today is an insane day. I’m under a threatening deadline with work and we have a dress event tonight in Yonkers. I totally forget to eat, because our daughter’s school called another freakin’ snow day, and one of us (turns out, my husband) has to drive with our daughter to the Bronx after a blizzard and pick up a frozen, dead raccoon from a madman—more on this later.

5:30 pm: Having jammed Rocky into our basement freezer, we grab showers, throw on clothes, and swan into the Hudson River Museum’s Hudson Valley Bounty. I instantly step into a puddle with my black suede couture shoes, and briefly hate my life until Susan Lawrence’s hors d’oeuvres come around. I eat three: Meyer lemon Wiener schnitzel with lingonberries; lobster wonton with roasted sugar pumpkin, fennel pollen pumpkin seeds, and balsamic syrup; and French onion soup dumpling with melted Gruyère cheese. Having had a rough day, I have two glasses of Ruinart blanc de blancs NV during cocktails, though I can’t swear that there weren’t three (and let he who has a raccoon in his freezer judge first).

Wednesday, 6:30 pm, Friday 11 am, Saturday 11 am—Vietnamese pho à la Sexton
 

 

The six-course dinner at the Hudson River Museum features dishes cooked by local chefs, who also choose the pairing wines. X2O’s Peter Kelly serves warm Alaskan crabmeat with roasted bone marrow, crispy garlic, and herbs. It’s served with a salad of parsley and hearts of palm, and a yummy Château de Sancerre 2009. Moderne Barn’s Ethan Kostbar follows the crab with poached Alaskan halibut (Alaska in the House!) with fregola, eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash minestrone broth and Newton Unfiletered Chardonnay 2007. This is followed by Harvest on Hudson’s Vincent Barcelona, who offers roasted shallot baked polenta, pulled duck confit, and Chianti pickled onions with Domaine Chandon’s 2007 Pinot Noir. North’s Eric Gabrynowicz serves glazed short ribs of beef with sweet potato, Brussels sprouts, and chips, with (perhaps a couple of) glasses of Numanthia Termes, 2008. Finally, the meal winds up with Maarten Steenman’s fabulous desserts from La Tulipe Desserts. We dig into pastel, perfect macarons; hazelnut dacquoise; Guyaquil chocolate mousse; a red-wine-poached pear; and winter spiced coulis. I confess that, despite all the food, my head is spinning, so I skip the Monsanto Vin Santo “La Chimera” 1993, and pass mine to my Vin-Santo-loving husband.

Yeah, saintly, I know. But then I am invited to X2O for an after-party and have a fruity Xaviars cocktail while grilling some chefs (who refuse to be named) about how to cook a raccoon.

Friday

am: Starting to stress about the half-and-half, so I downgrade it to my daughter’s one-percent milk, as if that would make a dent in last night’s calorie consumption. Consider some oatmeal but just can’t face it this morning.

11 am: Soup. I hit that pho and hit it hard, feeling like my cold is winning. Plus, I need something light and sustaining, since I am about to butcher a raccoon.

6 pm: This is a grim day of disgusting processes. Plus, I use so much bleach to sanitize my kitchen, a friend observes, that my house “smells like a public swimming pool.” I eat lightly today—my husband makes sausage risotto from the Silver Spoon cookbook, using my last quart of homemade beef stock. Bastard.

Saturday

am: Switch back to half-and-half, because only gradual change can be lasting.

11 am: Pho-gain. Turns out I can live on pho, but only if I eat it in the dining room to avoid the sight and smell of raccoon boiling in its own fat.

7:40 pm: We hit our friend Baron Ambrosia’s “First Annual Bronx Pipe Smoking Society Small Game Dinner” a bit late, which is problematic because I’m carrying an hors d’oeuvre: confit of Adirondack raccoon with juniper berries, thyme, rosemary and pickled watermelon rind mostarda on Tom Cat bread. The baron greets us wearing an embroidered, full-length golden cape, looking like an elegantly evil prince. We’re in an abandoned Bronx courthouse—with no heat or (“official,” points out the baron) bathrooms—yet it’s so stunningly staged that instantly we forget this until the fourth glass of Tony Schultz’s pretty Normandy-style cider. I check out my raccoon’s competition—spiced, deep-fried raccoon kofte with dilled yogurt—and wonder if confiting was the best choice.

I avoid a sous-vided, medium-rare otter rack, as well as the beaver that was roasted “hot and fast” by a BronxNet TV executive. Instead, I hit the bugs, figuring they’re probably the safest to eat. I love the mildly corn-tasting dak dae (silkworm pupae), and steel myself for the som tum with maeng da. These giant waterbugs, prepared by Chef Joe Boonchun of famed Siam Square Thai-Cuisine Restaurant in the Bronx, look like something I saw in a YMCA shower once. Reader, I eat them, and cross the crunchy bugs off my life list (never to return).

I skip all three muskrat dishes (I take the word “rat” as a warning), instead opting for a furiously boiling Brunswick stew made from beaver tail, heart, and a random rabbit. I gnaw on the section of beaver tail that is passed my way to sample (it’s so beavery!), and tuck into the delicious tlacuache en chile ajo (possum with dried pepper and garlic sauce with cactus leaves) prepared by Chef Rafael Mata, Sr., of Xochimilco Family Restaurant. I roll my eyes at the boys-will-be-boys bull-penis soup, since its protein is neither small nor game, and my raccoon can attest I really don’t need soup to make me more manly. I hit Joshua M. Bernstein’s Brussels sprouts balsamic hard: the backstory there is that his vegetarian girlfriend nixed his otter plans.

During the final tobacco course, I whip out my father’s Meerschaum and attempt to keep it lit without luck. I resort to snorting all the intriguing snuffs on offer, all the while sipping spine-rattling baverhojt—the Baron’s own take on Scandinavian schnapps flavored with beaver musk gland. Alcohol kills all, right?

Saturday, 7:40 pm—Baron Ambrosia’s game dinner night. Tlacuache En Chile Ajo (possum with dried pepper and garlic sauce garnished with cactus leaves over Mexican rice), prepared by Rafael Mata, Sr., of Xochimilco Family Restaurant in the Bronx.
Som Tum with maeng da or giant water bugs and a mixture of shredded green papaya, tomato, string beans, and ground peanuts, prepared by Joe Boonchun of Siam Square in the Bronx; ingredients supplied by David Gracer.

Sunday

am (late-ish): Understandably, the day starts off slowly. My mouth tastes like a dead, chain-smoking beaver. I take a can of Moxie soda—the regional, New England soda flavored with gentian root—from my secret hoard because I have an idea that it’ll kill the taste in there. It doesn’t.

Noon: Starting to feel a bit better, though every night of indulgence leaves me one step back with my cold: I’m a personal rhinovirus hot zone.

5:30 pm: We hit the Stone Barns Sixth Annual Sausage & Beer (& Grains) Dinner. I haven’t eaten a thing all day, using all my meager energy to replace critical electrolytes. By the time the hors d’oeuvres land, I’m ravenous, and I hit all the Stone Barns icons: foie gras sandwiched in thin sheets of dark chocolate; Adam Kaye’s thoughtful sausage in pastry; cheesy gougeres; venison canapés; miniature croques monsieurs; smoked pork rinds—the lot. I’m starting to feel as right as rain after hitting all the beer tables, too.

We hit it off with the couple next to us at the long, beer hall-like table. Our meal starts with Adam Kaye’s stunning Stone Barns charcuterie, served on a slate holding fennel salami, bresaola, le jambon royale, and venison salami. Our new friends alert us that there were too many plates of Kumamoto oysters and pork crepinettes at our table. I make out with four bivalves, and sacrifice the extra meatballs to our new friends. I’m feeling pretty good about this spirit of cooperation, though my optimism could be attributed to the Captain Lawrence rye ale.

Stone Barns’ turkey fennel sausage follows, with saffron mustard and sweet onions. This is paired with Defiant Brewing Company’s Valley Malt Lager and followed by a blood sausage over eye-rollingly delicious potato soup with pancetta and apples (and Kelso of Brooklyn’s Smoked Triticale Lager).

At this point, we’re practically swinging steins with our tablemates, yet the delic-iousness continues with beet sausage and venison link with sauerkraut and smoked lady apples and Empire Brewing Company’s Wheat Wine. It all winds up with Chef

Alex Grunert’s hazelnut-and-praline dessert served with candied blood orange and coffee ice cream and High Point’s brawny Ramstein Spelt Lager. We bid a teary farewell to our tablemates (what were their names, again?) and head home, deeply weary.

Tomorrow starts the Master Cleanse. Yeah right: if only I loved maple syrup.

Julia Sexton is a restaurant critic, food writer and CRMA-award winning blogger. When not eating her way through local restaurants for Westchester Magazine, she runs marathons, lifts weights, and eats only raw, macrobiotic food. NOT!

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