The Collective: Sorta Like Grandma’s House Went Down the Rabbit Hole … and Ended Up in MePa

How to describe The Collective. It’s sorta like grandma’s house went down the rabbit hole…

Pillars are draped in faux bling, bound in cable ties to look like a bristle brush or covered in a knotted weave of those skinny, noodley balloons (called twisting balloons) used to make balloon animals.

Tables have been inlaid with incomplete Scrabble tile sets purchased on eBay; street signs, bath tubs and even a classic “Walk/Don’t Walk” sign (which makes for a particularly warming seat) are now chairs.

The light fixtures are striking, particularly the prescription pill bottle chandelier with its surprisingly delicate orange glow and the giant sculptural ceiling light made of styrofoam. It just goes on and on…

Bottom line: Thanks to the craftsmanship of some crazy, brilliant, out-there, what’s old is new again and hardly anything is what it seems. Everything in the restaurant is reclaimed or redone somehow, or used in an unexpected way.

Even the truffled deviled eggs came out lined up in an overturned egg carton, and the chicken-n-waffles ($12) — a table favorite — came out in a hot cast-iron skillet, presumably the one that had something to do with how the dish was cooked.

But then, everything else was presented on … white plates. Rectangular white plates, oblong white plates, white bowls, all uniform white, white, white.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if all the plates, glasses and flatware were mismatched, too?” our table mused. “They could be sourced from flea markets or … bought up at auctions from restaurants or wholesalers in incomplete sets. Something…”

Really, so insignificant. But we just loved the decor so much we wanted it to go all the way, down to the level of detail where that aesthetic would still be there even when we finally pulled our eyes away to look down at our food.

Oh yeah, the food! Lands solidly in the “grub” category. There are more ladylike dishes on the menu, but the best of what I sampled was the hands-on finger foods.

So whether it’s Hong Kong ribs ($20) at 10 p.m., a late-night dessert of the (darling) housemade fudgesicles on a stick ($8), or a 4 a.m. order of disco fries ($12) to sop up the booze, just get messy.

The Collective, 1 Little W. 12th St., at 9th Ave., 212-255-9717. More information can be found here.

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What’s In an Egg? (aka the “Size Does Matter” Post)

There are few grocery staples as beguiling as the egg: color, size, grade, omega-3s …. seriously?

Prior to my Market Research column in amNewYork newspaper, my methodology for buying eggs may as well have been to cover my eyes and point randomly, giving preference to the more expensive, brown eggs over the most basic white eggs, eventually compromising on some middling dozen without really knowing why.

So when I was given the green light for this assignment, I just couldn’t wait to get in those little eggies’ faces.

Research

I skulked around the egg sections at more than a half-dozen major markets around the city like some crazy chicken lady — Whole Foods, Gristedes, Food Emporium, C-Town, Gourmet Garage, among them — before I settled on five packages that covered the spectrum of the egg kingdom.

They were:

Jack’s Egg Farm (Brooklyn), Grade AA, Medium, white ($1.99)
Eggland’s Best (various), Grade A, Large, white ($3.79)
Horizon Organic (Colorado), Grade A, Large, brown ($5.69)
Giving Nature (Newton, Pa.), Grade A, Extra Large, white ($3.79)
The Country Hen (Hubbardston, Mass.), Grade A, Jumbo, brown ($4.19/6)

Methodology

On the day of the tasting, the chef and I cracked one of each of the eggs open to compare size and color of yolk; stature of egg white; taste of egg (sunny side up, runny yolk) with just the slightest dash of kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper as our quality control.

Admittedly, I’m not sure I knew how varied egg size and yolk color could be until I poured out five eggs at one time.

In terms of taste, hand’s down, the winningest eggs were from Jack’s Egg Farm and The Country Hen — the cheapest and most expensive eggs in the survey, comparatively.

Huh. So you’re saying that I could pay less than $2.50 for a dozen eggs from a local manufacturer — which happen to be graded as AA — or I could pay $0.70 per egg (albeit, a guaranteed excellent egg that was conceived in living facilities with sunlit porches)?

Four words: Egg King for life! (That’s Jack’s Eggs Farm’s tag line.)

Sooo…. if you don’t spend the time to read my less-than-500-word article (read it!) here’s what you need to know about eggs:

(+) The only difference between brown eggs and white eggs is the bird from which they’re laid. Brown eggs are more expensive because the birds that lay brown eggs are larger and require more feed;

(+) Doesn’t matter how eggs are packaged. According to my source at the American Egg Board,  the only difference in type of packaging is cost. “In the production industry, if you put good eggs in the carton, the carton should protect the eggs,” she said.

(+) The grade of AA is higher than Grade A; however, due to manufacturing processes, by the time that many eggs labeled “Grade AA” reach the market, they’ve become Grade A eggs. The difference is slight to consumers.

(+) Eggs naturally have about 100 mg of omega-3, so when a company (such as Eggland’s Best) boasts that their eggs are a good source of omega-3, having 115mg omega-3 per egg … it’s purely a marketing ploy. (If omega-3s are your deal, look for eggs that have 200 mg to 300 mg omega-3s per egg, such as Giving Nature‘s eggs or The Country Hen.)

(+) Recipes generally call for large sized eggs.

Nom nom nom!

The Breslin’s English Breakfast Splurge (aka the “Must Add Pork Fat Beans!” Post)

For someone who can be so utterly particular about foods “touching” on her plate at this adult age — let’s just call it “a heightened sensitivity to plating” with dismissive hand wave (kidding!) — I should love, love, love The Breslin‘s full English breakfast ($21), which comes sans the traditional brekkie beans and, by extension, the tomato-y bean sauce that pools underneath everything.

I should love that there are no dry toast slices staring me down, begging me to sop up the mingling fatty-yolky-saucy drippings, right before I lick my fingers (possibly not kidding). The Breslin’s rendition is so clean it’s … a sensitive-to-plating foodie’s dream.

… Well except, this time, I sort of want the mess. I love the mess. How the first cut into an over-easy egg sends yellow yolk running into the bean sauce, which has by now commandeered the plate. And the fried tomato? Forget about it. Seeds and juice everywhere. Mmm, mmm, mmm.

By no means is this observation a slight toward the cooks, or the presentation. The execution of every component on this April Bloomfield gold-star dish is the picture of perfection: the browned casing of the breakfast sausage crackles with each bite; perfectly crisped (American-style) bacon; a grilled baby portobello, so succulent. The baked beans in pork fat, get outta here.

But for anyone who wants a truly sloppy English Breakfast, an already pricey meal goes over the top when you add a couple of slices of toast ($1.50/slice) and split a side of the (messy! soppy! delicious!) baked beans ($7). In sum, your English breakfast will cost you $27.50.

Or, I noticed, $2.50 more per person than it would cost to share the smoked pork belly with mashed potatoes at dinner, which is $50 and meant for two.

When I pointed this out to our waiter, he tried to justify the cost by (and I paraphrase): Well, sure, but to really round out the pork belly dinner, you’d probably start with an appetizer and you’d want to order a vegetable side, like the cabbage. And you’d want to balance it with something sparkly, like prosecco, which — did you know? — sparkling wines are the best to help you digest really fatty foods.

Damn that sounds like a gorgeous meal. Until then, you can find me in the bar, where I’ll be sipping on the house cask ale and nibbling on some bar snacks, which look scrumdiddlyumptious.

The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, 16 W. 29th Street, at Broadway, 212.679.1939

KP: So Yeah, I Know How To Make Really Good Quiche (Here’s How)

Quiche and I, we just get each other. It’s a natural evolution from one of my earliest cooking comfort zones, eggs, which are one of my Dad’s specialties — and so they’re one of mine, too.

But it goes deeper than that: Quiche is not just about eggs. This dish as I’ve interpreted it (and probably bastardized it) lies at the nexus of eggs, the utilitarian meal (could be breakfast/lunch/dinner or all of the above) (I have a tough time with the strictly breakfast-for-breakfast-only foods), and the kitchen sink dish — really, so long as your mix-ins are not rotten and play nicely together, and you chop them up small enough, you can probably stick them in a quiche and it’ll turn out just fine.

In this case, I had a ton of meat from a lovely rotisserie chicken that needed a home. I had plenty of orphaned eggs, left over from different six-count or 12-count packages. I had a fat zucchini that was asking to be utilized, and a pair of red bell peppers that were about to give their death gasp. (I ended up using about half of one. The remainder was too far gone.)

Quiche doesn’t have to be complicated. Here’s why:

photo-2

Fail -Safe Kitchen Sink Quiche

4 eggs
1. c. milk (of your choice)
1c 1/2 meat of your choice, diced small (if you use something really salty, like bacon or smoked salmon, adjust significantly)
1c 1/2 shredded cheese (your choice)
1c minimum, preferably 1c 1/2 fresh vegetables, diced or thinly sliced. Can be anything: baby broccoli florets, zucchini, bell peppers, onion, … get creative, but keep it basic.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Key no. 1: Prep all vegetables and protein first. This is the longest bit. Mix eggs and milk in a bowl, set aside. Layer dry quiche ingredients into the frozen (slightly thawed is better) pie crust. Pour egg mixture evenly over ingredients.

Key no. 2: Gently, ever so gently, stir/mix ingredients and egg mixture within pie crust so you get a little bit of everything spread out — if you chose a good combination, it might start to look festive, little dots of color, like sprinkled confetti.

Manage to slide liquidy quiche into the oven — whew. You’re almost there. Now all it has to do is bake for 45-60 minutes.

Key no. 3: Do not, absolutely resist, taking the quiche out just because it’s puffed up in the center, it looks like it’s baked, it’s been in the oven for more than 45 minutes and it smells damn good. You’re so wrong.

Let it be … The quiche will continue to puff and continue to brown a deep, golden color around the edges and the whole apartment will continue to smell tantalizing — deal with it.

The point at which the quiche should be taken out and left to rest/cool for at least 10-15 minutes before cutting into it is when it starts to look so golden brown you’re on the verge of worrying it’s going to burn/be overdone. (And, the toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.)

Sprinkle with salt and pepper to your liking, and that’s Fail-Safe Kitchen Sink Quiche.

The Portland, ME Edition: So Cheap, So Good (aka the “First Impressions” Post)

This is Portland: Home to just more than 60,000 residents, Maine’s photo-10largest city is the same size as the coastal San Diego County town where I grew up when I left it 10 years ago. And we called that a suburb.

Salty and seafaring, and at the same time off-hand-ish bohemian, Portland is an amiable mix of “Mainers” who are in agreement about a few things: Tattoos (everyone’s got one). Excellent beer, at ridiculously low PPP (price per pint). Food that is impressively sustainable and local, without really trying (Earth happy and recession-friendly).

What a great food culture. When I left Portland I cried, just a little bit. Here’s just a few reasons why:

photo-2Gnocchi for breakfast? Yes, please! The lightly-browned, pillow-y potato packets are a brilliant alternative to the usual, often oily, previously-frozen-then-fried breakfast potatoes (e.g. hash browns or home fries).

At the Front Room, Chef Harding Smith’s neighborhood spot in the East End, my order of breakfast gnocchi shared the plate with sautéed spinach, thick-cut strips of the house’s “amazing bacon”* and two poached eggs — all of which was a little too generously doused in a citrus-y hollandaise sauce. Next time I’d probably order the sauce on the side, so as to moderate the application. Still, total decadence for a mere $8.

photo-7photo-15Working fish market! Uneven, wet and slippery floors! I know I’m giving myself away here, but I thoroughly enjoyed the sights and smells inside the Harbor Fish Market in the Old Port, just one example of a seafood vendor that does brisk wholesale business and is also open to the public.

Maine oysters ($1.19 ea.), steamer clams ($2.69/lb), live lobsters starting at $3.99/lb., and on, and on: I was heartened to discover that seafood isn’t just a New England export, it’s a way of life. On a whim I picked up an 8 oz. container of fresh crabmeat ($10), packaged by Wood’s Seafood of Bucksport, ME. So sweet and succulent, the crabmeat ended up the centerpiece of dinner for three a little later…

photo-13photo-12Really good, cheap beer: The cost of a pint of pretty much tops out at $4 at (the somewhat misleadingly-named) $3 Dewey’s, which has 36 beers on draft, mostly regional microbrews, including 7-10 seasonally-rotating taps. I was more than pleased with my choice of: Geary’s Summer Ale, Shipyard Export and an Allagash White (a classic). The free popcorn’s not a bad gig, either — buttery, salty and fresh-popped (I saw it), I polished off a couple of baskets’ worth all by myself. (Just don’t look too closely at the flavor-crusted exterior of the popping pan.)

*Being editor-types, my friend and I picked up on the fact that the B.L.T. sandwich description lists “amazing bacon” an ingredient. We were dubious of this so-called “amazing” bacon, that is, until a side of bacon arrived. Four beautifully-cured, thick-cut, not-too-fatty strips of bacon … price? $2. It’s amazing, I’ll vouch for it.


Wednesday: Voila! The $5 (Fill-You-Up) Salad

Confession: I am a little terrified of the choose-your-own-adventurephoto-3 salad stations at delis and counter-service restaurants in Midtown, you know the ones where you can pick your own mix-ins?

Making good food decisions on the fly is not one of my strong suits. And unlike ice cream toppings, which are made to go together (often times the more the merrier), there are more bad ideas than good ideas lurking at the salad station. I feel like I inevitably end up with one item that makes the whole thing gross, like fresh mozzarella … and silky tofu. Plus, with so many options, it’s difficult go get out for less than $7, which is often my goal.

photo-2I finally think I found a strategy that results in a salad that is both super cheap — $5 for a veggie version, or pay an extra $1.50 for meat — and that you won’t regret later on.

STEP ONE: Pick the small salad. Nevermind container size, the salad will be substantial. At Village 38, the small salads start at $2.75. (If you still have doubts, pick up a $0.50 bag of Wise chips.)

STEP TWO: Say “yes” to free. Order all the complimentary ingredients you can stand. At Village 38, they offer sprouts, red onion, scallions and crutons.

STEP THREE: Order one menu item from each category. It sounds like so little, but with the free ingredients you’ll end up with a salad with five (or more) mix-ins, plus dressing. Plus, your salad is less likely to get messed up by your over-zealousness. You’ll be fine.

photo-1I ordered: $0.50/mushrooms, $0.75/egg white, $1 feta cheese (upgrade and get a meat protein if you’re in doubt or feel like spending a little more).

STEP FOUR: Add it up. Double-check to make sure you’re getting charged for what you ordered. In my case: $2.75 + $0.50 + $0.75 + $1.00 = $5. Now that’s a bargain.

Ed. Note: I tested this strategy at Village 38, but in general, most places offer some sort of free “topping(s)”  and their price point for ingredients is within the same range, if slightly higher. You’re still in and out for less than $7.