Monday, June 27, 2011

NYC Cocktail Week at The Rum House

I'm not the biggest fan of Restaurant Week in New York, mostly because I'm cheap and would spend less than $35 on food for myself in an entire week if left to my own devices.  But equally because I enjoy a drink with dinner and that can get very expensive very quickly.

But sometimes special occasions present themselves, like a friend's birthday excursion to see a show in the Theater District.  And isn't it always better to be drinking when you have to go through Times Square on a Friday night?

With this in mind, we ventured to The Rum House at the Hotel Edison - the only remotely midtown-area bar participating in the grand NYC Cocktail Week.  The bar is a recently revived old-timey lounge and piano bar, and the scene was a fascinating people-watching mixture of 50/50 wandering tourists and destination minded hipster cocktail snobs (I like to think that we fell into the grey ether being a bit of both).  Thankfully, it wasn't too busy even during the post-work happy hour time that usually floods the downtown bars.

The Cocktail Week deal continues until this Wednesday and for $20.11, you get two full-sized cocktails with an appetizer.  I'm told it is "very New York" to consider this a bargain, but keep in mind: 1) well-crafted cocktails in these bars normally go for $12-$15, 2) this is the Theater District where it's tough to find a beer for less than $9, 3) you can split the deal!

And thank goodness for point number three, since apparently this can't be done at all participating bars.  You get a choice of four cocktails and either spiced almonds or hard-boiled eggs with smoked salt (okay, not the most spectacular appetizer choices, but they don't serve food here normally).  The almonds were surprisingly good and seasoned with a flaky sea salt/smoked paprika/cayenne mixture which was a really nice change from the shellacked sugary coating that I was expecting.

I ordered the Pathallus Molly (which I'm appreciating even more now due to the word play),  a gin-based slightly salty sinus-clearer served with spicy pickled green beans

Belated birthday girl Jill had a variation on a Negroni which was slightly sweetened with added whiskey.  Both drinks were rather perfect for our tastes, and accordingly, very very strong.  A single sipper cocktail to last you an entire evening?  I consider that a bargain, even if it is a bit "New York."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Fact or Fiction: Aluminum and Alzheimers

Yesterday I had the very weird experience of being told that I was drinking my way to dementia.  At work.

I'll back up a bit.  It shouldn't be news to anyone who has read more than one post here that I have a rather severe sweet tooth as well as constant internal conflict trying to control it.  My usual 5-fold strategy to deal with this in my cubicle is as follows:
  1. Chew a piece of gum.
  2. Eat a small sesame crunch candy.
  3. Eat a piece of fruit.
  4. Drink a diet soda.
  5. Eat a delicious yet vastly more caloric treat.
Lately I've been trying to cut back on the gum/the convenience store downstairs hasn't stocked my favorite kind in awhile, I haven't yet replenished my stores of candy, and fruit seems to attract flies in the heat.  So that leaves the diet soda, which isn't exactly the healthier option if recent news articles are to be believed.  But aside from the dubious science, I'm really just trying to avoid caffeine in the afternoons.  The solution that a fantastic Stop N Shop special (2 12-packs for $5!) revealed to me is seltzer water.  I seem to have a pavlovian response to the can pop noise, and it seems like any form of carbonation will do the sugar-curbing trick of stopping my descent past the critical step 4.

So needless to say I've been drinking the stuff like gangbusters.  Anyway, I'm dropping an empty can in the recycling bin yesterday evening, and a woman I don't even know says: "you know you're going to get Alzheimers by drinking that."  What??

Follow-up: "Yeah, you know, the aluminum from the can affects your brain tissue and makes you senile.  You can actually see the shiny particles when you pour a can out in the sink, and if you use a straw, it just goes straight into your brain."

The ridiculousness of the shiny particle/straw thing aside, I wanted to investigate this further for my own piece of mind.  I really do drink a lot of seltzer.

Image via Amazon

Does aluminum leach into canned beverages?
Based on at least 30 minutes of scholarly research and limited access to full-text articles, I can say YES - but only a toxicologically negligible amount (<0.3 mg/day) when compared to normal dietary intake.  Bare aluminum containers (e.g. old canteens) DO have the potential to significantly leach when filled with a more acidic beverage like lemonade and left to sit for a few days, however all aluminum packaging containers are now internally lacquered.

Lacquer? Yes, all food/beverage cans are coated with a polymer on the inside to insulate the product from the packaging material, and cans actually have to go through a de-lacquering kiln during the recycling process.  And this barrier polymer directly in contact with 100 billion Al beverage cans consumed by North Americans each year is loaded with, yep, BPA.  In fact, canned foods are actually thought to be the primary route of BPA exposure, but let's leave that for the moment..

Okay, so the lacquer prevents Al from significantly leaching in cans.  But the average adult still consumes approximately 2-5 mg/day of Al from antacids, cosmetics, food additives like baking soda, naturally occuring sources like fruits and vegetables, and even minor leaching from Al cookware.  Also, there currently is no enforceable maximum contaminant level (MCL, for those in the industry) for Al in drinking water.  Is this something to worry about?

What's deal with aluminum exposure and Alzheimers?
In the 1970's, a connection between aluminum bioaccumulation and dementia was discovered from studies of long-term hemodialysis patientsDialysis encephalopathy is a syndrome specific to those with chronic renal failure on dialysis; phosphate-binding aluminum gels are used during treatment, and Al can accumulate in the brain due to the patients' inability to excrete it, causing degenerative neurological impairment.

But that doesn't seem to mean much for the general population with functioning kidneys and regular dietary exposure.  The link between Al and Alzheimers was first proposed 40 years ago, and scientists still haven't come to a conclusion whether or not there is a relationship at all, and if so, whether it is a correlation or causation situation.

In any case, the CDC has established a minumum risk level (MRL) of 1 mg/kg/day for 15-364 days for immediate duration oral exposure to aluminum.  This translates to 10 times the upper-average adult intake for a 110lb person, and much more than that if you've got any meat on your bones. 

So to summarize: unless you are actually eating the can itself, you're probably okay.  Aside from the BPA thing of course, but hey at least it's not Al-related.  If you want to be really really neurotic, studies proved that refrigeration and shortened storage time reduce leaching significantly, so drink fast and keep it cold.

And as a final piece of advice, don't listen to old ladies on the elevator.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Repurposing Leftovers: Trash Noodle Soup

This dish was inspired by a lonely little container of rice noodles leftover from a Thai food order that I discovered in the fridge.  Noodles can sometimes be incorporated into stir fry situations if they're in good condition, but these were at least a week old and had congealed into a sort of stringy brick that would definitely not have held up to a frying pan.

The solution?  A brothy soup to rehydrate the noodles into an edible form, while delivering a delicious and healthy dinner.  This isn't really a recipe so much as a rough ratio of ingredients and flavoring suggestings since I don't think I've ever made this the same way twice.  And as I write it out, it's not unlike fried rice in it's basic components and adaptability.  The version pictured is miso/hot and sour flavored with tofu, cabbage, edamame, and some rehydrated black fungus I bought in Chinatown ages ago, though this dish certainly doesn't need to have asian flavors or ingredients if that's not what you have on hand.

Here are a few winning flavor combinations:
  • for bastardized minestrone: use 1 cup of white/kidney beans, 1/2 can of diced tomatoes in juice, a small chopped zucchini, fresh spinach, splash of red wine, oregano, basil, and finish with parmesean cheese
  • for simple, rustic, and healthy: sautee 1/2 a thinly sliced onion and 2 cloves of garlic before heating broth, use 1 cup of cooked chickpeas, a few handful of shredded green cabbage, and finish with a drizzle of tasty/expensive olive oil
  • for cheaters' thai: substitute half of the broth with a can of coconut milk, use shredded chicken or tofu chunks, mushrooms and red peppers, season with 1 teaspoon or so of green curry paste, fish sauce (start with 1/2 tablespoon), a lime wedge, and fresh cilantro
  • for quick and dirty pho: simmer broth with whole star anise and a cinnamon stick, serve hot broth over noodles and thinly sliced raw beef, and garnish with basil, mint, bean sprouts, and sriracha
  • for salty, hot, and sour (or the Chinatown special, a personal favorite): use rehydrated shiitake, black fungus, or seaweed, tofu chunks, frozen edamame pods, and green onions, seasoned with 2 tablespoons of miso paste mixed with an equal amount of warm water, a big squirt of Sriracha or other chile paste, and 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar

The only caveat I would add is do make this in small batches since it's best when eaten right away.  If it sits, the noodles keep absorbing more and more moisture until they completely disintegrate to turn your soup into a gelatinous mass of starch and veg.  Quick-cooking rice noodles are especially susceptible to this.  If you wanted to do a noodle soup lunch the next day, just keep the broth/meat/veg mixture separate and heat it with the noodles right before you eat it.  I know, I know, that makes two separate containers to wash and that's the worst.  But isn't it worth it for a (very nearly) free lunch?

Trash Noodle Soup

Serves 2-4
Total time: <10 minutes
  • 4 cups (1L) low-sodium stock or broth
  • 1 cup quick-cooking or pre-cooked protein (small chuncks of tofu, poached and shredded chicken, shrimp, and even white beans would work great)
  • 1-2 cups quick-cooking or pre-cooked vegetables, chopped (edamame, scallions, small broccoli/cauliflower florets, mushrooms, tomatoes, green beans, sprouts, cabbage, greens, or rehydrated random ingredients from Chinatown)
  • seasoning (see above)
  • 1-2 cups dry leftover noodles

Heat broth to a boil while you chop and assemble the rest of your ingredients.  Add protein and veg to simmering broth and cook 5 minutes or until heated through.  Add seasoning to taste.

When you're ready to consume: break up the noodle mass with your hands as much as possible and add to the broth.  Heat and stir until separated and resembling noodles, and serve immediately.