Restaurant Review: Project Brunch

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wp-1462216105205.jpgCandy-loaded milkshakes from Black Tap. Teardrop cakes too pretty to eat. Rainbow everything. Food crazes, meet Project Brunch. The new breakfast/lunch spot in Staten Island is making headlines for its over-the-top offerings, like blueberry-batter pancakes, tiramisu French toast, and a BLT with panko-coated tomatoes and herb aioli.

Of course, I needed to visit. And now that I have, all I can say is this: I must return. Multiple times. Until my fiancé and I have sampled everything on the menu, plus the daily specials, which were Oreo pancakes and reuben waffles during our visit last Saturday with Todd’s parents. We arrived at the restaurant around 9 a.m., worried we might be met with a long wait and lines extending out the door. From the outside, the spot looked sleek and modern, with big windows that let in tons of light.

Inside, we were pleasantly surprised to find only a 15-minute wait and a friendly atmosphere. The minimalist space evoked hipster cool and rustic charm; its wood and tin accents felt homey and low-key. It’s one room was smaller than we’d expected, but I appreciated that the tables were spaced well and didn’t feel crowded together. The noise level hummed at a low murmur that faded into the background. Overall, both the restaurant and its staff were extremely pleasant and welcoming.

While waiting, we perused the menu. I bounced back and forth between getting something simple—caramelized grapefruit; mashed avocado on whole grain toast, topped with grilled tomatoes and an egg any style; oatmeal with fresh berries, raisins, almonds, and brown sugar—or something extravagant. I love anything and everything s’mores, so I really wanted the s’mores waffle (graham cracker and marshmallow batter! a torched marshmallow on top! delicious hot fudge!). But since Todd planned to get the s’mores hot chocolate, I decided on savory instead of sweet. Todd’s mom ordered a cappuccino, which was served in a mason jar and brimming with foam. Todd’s dad and I both stayed classic with “bottomless” cups of strong Lavazza coffee.

We started the meal by sharing a thick, moist slice of freshly baked banana bread, topped with banana slices. It was accompanied by whipped cinnamon cream cheese, which was super tasty but also very sweet. I really liked that the cream cheese came on the side so we could take as little or as much as we wanted, though I wish it had been featured more creatively and appetizingly on the plate rather than smushed into a little plastic cup. Of course, I’m just nitpicking here. The banana bread, more than sizable enough for all of us to sample a piece, tasted heavenly: a hint of sugar, an overload of crunchy walnuts, ripe bananas. I’d eat this for breakfast every day if I could, little plastic cup or not.

Todd’s parents both decided to eat omelets, which came with home fries and toast. Our server was very attentive and sent Rachel’s food back to the kitchen when it didn’t come out as well done as she’d asked for. The omelets were each made with three eggs, and fillings ranged from standard onions and peppers to corned beef hash or chicken apple sausage. Though their meals were tasty, Todd’s parents expressed a desire to try something more adventurous next time.

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I chose the Project B.E.C. Think runny egg yolks, thick slices of cheese, crispy bacon—all on a bacon-chive waffle. If you’re thinking that sounds like the ideal balance of protein, carbs, and flat-out yumminess… you’re absolutely right. The eggs were cooked just the right amount, the bacon wasn’t too greasy or too burnt, the waffle was fluffy and warm. (Full disclosure: I did remove three of the six slices of cheese because it just seemed like too much cheese, even for me.) This luscious creation is definitely big enough to share, though I’m not sure you’ll want to. It came with home fries, but disappointingly they weren’t anything to write home about. Mine were soggy and a little cold, and I really thought they could have used a lot more seasoning; I’d recommend more salt, pepper, garlic powder, paprika, and maybe even a dash of chili powder for a little heat. Luckily the sandwich was outstanding enough to completely make up for it.

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That brings me to Todd, who ordered the most adventurous meal of all: the breakfast burrito bowl. A warm soft tortilla cradled a hearty blend of pulled pork with “secret seasoning,” caramelized onions, queso fresco, avocado, grilled tomatoes, sriracha sour cream, and a scrambled cheddar cheese omelet. Though I’d feared that the dish might be too spicy or oily for a morning meal, I was happily proved wrong as I stole bite after bite of Todd’s juicy pork. The ingredients’ bold flavors really mixed together well and left Todd feeling more than satisfied.

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I highly recommend Project Brunch. As for me, I’m already trying to plan a return visit so I can delve into the sweeter side of the menu. (S’mores waffle, I hear your call…)

The Second Annual Chocolate 5k Run

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Just when I thought nothing exciting enough to blog about would ever happen again, I scored a new PR in the second annual chocolate 5k run: 28 minutes and 32 seconds. That’s nearly two minutes faster than I ran the same course last year, so I felt pretty proud of my improvement. Here are a few highlights from the race:

The chocolate 5k, which took place a good hour and a half away from our house, was definitely worth the drive. For the $25 entry fee, you get a spiffy jersey and a drawstring bag, not to mention free food and a really great community vibe. The best part for me was getting to run with the people I love most in the world! Here we are (Todd, me, mom, and dad) wearing our race tees and posing in front of some signage:

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The course primarily traveled along the roads of New Windsor, with the first two miles mostly uphill. It took a lot of work just to get going, and I think we all felt pretty winded pretty quickly. Luckily the roads were closed to through-traffic, so we got to enjoy the scenery and appreciate the friendly residents who came outside to cheer us on. At the halfway point in the course, we circled through a roundabout, which had a water station and rest point for those who needed it. Right before my dad got there, he and Todd (who was just a little bit ahead of him and already heading back) shared a high five:

A few seconds later I gave Todd a high-five, too, and then caught up to dad. I never thought the day would come when I would pass him up during a race, but he was wearing new sneakers and I think just going easy on the rest of us. I passed him up here, during the mini “trail” portion of the race, and then we ran up the steepest hill of the race (so steep that I had to walk up part of it):

And finally, a short clip of the finish line (and my mom, ending on a strong, fast note):

The race was chip-timed, which I prefer for accuracy. Another big plus: It was followed by an all-you-can-eat breakfast of eggs, sausage, and chocolate (or chocolate chip or plain) pancakes. And coffee, hot chocolate, and chocolate milk. And chocolate fountains for dipping fruit, cookies, and—my favorite—marshmallows. Yum! Unfortunately I only remembered to take a picture after eating half of it because I was starving.

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After eating, we checked our time results and then stuck around for the awards ceremony. According to the official results, I ranked seventh in my age group; to place, I would have needed to run faster than 26 minutes. But I’m still happy with my PR—and maybe next year I’ll run even faster. Todd finished just ahead of me, at 27 minutes and 35 seconds. He won the second place award for males in his age group! True to theme, it was a jar of bite-size chocolates.

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An Easter Run and Recipe

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Of all the Christian holidays, the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is the most joyous. The songs at mass are uplifting and glorifying. We share treats and dinners with family and friends. Even nature seems to feel the spirit: little tulip stalks pop up from the dirt, the sun makes us squint in every selfie. And we take joy in the little things, the memories we create: a good run, a broccoli soufflé cooling on the stove…

An Easter Run

The day before Easter, Todd and I ran our first 10k (6.2-mile) race, the NYRR Central Park Spring Classic. We woke up feeling lethargic and lazy and cold. Did someone say spring? Because it felt more like winter, with a gusting wind and a temperature hovering in the 40s. We pulled on our layers (me in my head warmer, Todd in his gloves) and lugged our bodies to the subway. The race route began at 102nd Street in Central Park, traversed down the park’s west side roadway, looped along the southern border, and then returned right back up on the east. After a bit of wandering, we found the starting line and stretched to warm up (both literally and figuratively).

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In our corral waiting for the race to begin.

Finally, we were off! The first two miles felt hard; my fingers were cold and the elevation steep. By the third mile, I started thinking maybe I should stick to 5ks in the future. As we made our way through the park, I tried to focus on the sights: pink flowers, cute dogs running around on the lawns, my office building peeping over trees in the distance. During mile 4 I turned my attention to my playlist, which currently consists of 700 songs—and I don’t like most of them. At mile 5 I started to speed up while still maintaining a reasonable pace, then I ran as hard as I could for mile 6 and the remaining quarter mile. I finished in 1 hour, 1 minute, and 54 seconds—just above my goal time (60 minutes) but just below my expected time (65 minutes). Todd came in two minutes behind me.

We celebrated our run by making Easter treats, like chocolate-covered pretzels, peanut butter eggs, and cookie dough balls. And vanilla bean cupcakes with coconut buttercream. And a s’mores pie. And then we sampled them all.

 

An Easter Recipe

For Easter dinner I contributed a fluffy yet creamy broccoli soufflé. I originally began with one recipe, but when I realized it got very bad reviews, I frantically searched for another. I stumbled across this one, but had to wing it because I didn’t have some of the ingredients and because I didn’t want to include cheese in my dish. I have to say, despite that, I’m proud of how it came out. Read on for the recipe…

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Ingredients
~1/4 cup butter
~1/4 cup flour
~1 cup whole milk
~1/4 tsp salt
~1/2 tsp pepper
~1/4 tsp. cinnamon
~6 egg yolks, beaten
~2 (12-ounce) packages frozen broccoli, cooked and chopped
~1 small onion, chopped
~2 tbsp. nonfat Greek yogurt
~2 tbsp. light sour cream
~8 egg whites, beaten

Preparation
~Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
~In a small saucepan over high heat: melt butter, stir in flour, and cook for two minutes. Remove from heat, add milk, and whisk vigorously. Return to heat and stir until smooth; while stirring, add salt, pepper, and cinnamon.
~Remove from heat and add egg yolks slowly, a little bit at a time, whisking constantly.
~Add broccoli, onion, yogurt, and sour cream and mix well.
~Fold in 1/3 of the egg whites, then fold in the remainder.
~Pour mixture into baking dish and bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes.

One-Sentence Book Reviews

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I haven’t done as much reading lately as I had hoped I might, and I have a ton of excuses! Here we go:

1. Though my birthday was at the end of February, I’ve still been busy celebrating as recently as this Friday when a friend took me to dinner at David Burke Kitchen (though sadly it has gone downhill since I wrote this review in 2014).

2. I’ve been training for the 40-mile TD Five Boro Bike Tour in May. On Saturday I went for a ride with Todd, Dad, and my brother—and we did 25 miles! The last five miles were killer and I took them slow, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined it might be. In two weeks we’re going to try for a 30- to 35-mile ride.

3. With only five months to go, we’re starting to get in the thick of wedding planning. We ordered nearly 50 invitations, narrowed the options down to five, and think that maybe we’ve settled on one that fits our style. Next up? Figuring out favors, the guest list, hotel blocks, and food options.

But despite all that, I think I’m still on track to meet my goal of reading at least 50 books this year. Today I started Paper Towns by John Green; I’ve heard a lot about it, but it’s still too soon to share my thoughts. In the meantime, here’s the scoop on some of my most recent reads:

Worth It…

Room by Emma Donoghue: This gut-wrenching yet heartwarming novel is told from the eyes of a boy kept prisoner with his mom in a one-room shed—until now, when he must attempt an escape.

The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel: This novel—thrilling, passionate, lyrical—slowly reveals the riveting story of a man haunted by his criminal past.

Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders by Julianna Baggott: Three generations of women—reclusive author Harriet Woolf, whose final manuscript might be lost forever; her daughter Eleanor, worn out and overprotective; and Eleanor’s two daughters—remember what it means to be a family in this ambitious novel.

 

Don’t Bother…

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen: Though I’m a devotee of the author, this latest chapter in the Waverly family saga lacks the charms, quirks, or originality of the author’s previous works.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett: Aside from some linguistic flourishes, this depiction of human life on an alien planet is one-dimensional and uninspiring.

The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks: The book’s premise—a young elf must journey with the seed of a sacred tree to save her people from being overrun by demons—has promise, but the writing is too long-winded and dull; stick with the MTV show based on this series instead.

Restaurant Review: Marta

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For my birthday this year, Todd bought me tickets to see The Lion King on Broadway and made dinner reservations at Marta, a new restaurant from chef Nick Anderer that “reimagines and invents thin-crust pizzas” cooked in wood-burning ovens. Fish, meats, and vegetables are cooked alla brace, over an open-fire grill, and beverages include local craft beers as well as an all-Italian wine list. Located in the Martha Washington Hotel, the space is romantic (think soft lighting and cozy nooks) yet bustling, with an open kitchen, high ceilings, and tall windows that looked out onto the street.

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Todd at our table, from which you could see half of the dining room. The kitchen was located behind us, and off to the right was a small balcony with additional seating.

Though our servers continually changed throughout the night, they were all helpful and attentive; I don’t think my glass of lemon water was ever less than half full. Todd and I took a while to decide what to order: Would two pizzas be enough food? Would two pizzas and an additional entree be too much food? Should we order an appetizer or two, instead? We finally settled on two appetizers, two pizzas, and two desserts. There was more than enough food for both of us, and if you don’t have a boyfriend who can eat a horse and still be hungry, I’d recommend one appetizer, two pizzas, and one dessert to share.

For our first appetizer, I chose grilled broccoli seasoned with chili and garnished with olives, capers, and apricots. It was the perfect mix of charred, crisp heads and soft stems, and I was happy to see that there was enough garnish to go around. What I loved most about this dish was the sharp, vinegary kick that came along with each bite.

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Todd chose our second appetizer: crispy sunchokes (a variety of artichoke, as I learned thanks to Google) with duck confit and burnt orange. The sunchokes felt starchy like potatoes but had a fresh, herbaceous flavor, especially when paired with the charred bits of orange that came in the dish. The duck, though soft enough to melt in your mouth, didn’t stand out enough  and left me wanting something more. Overall, this appetizer really had a bright spring-inspired flavor that got us in the mood for the warmer weather forecasted for this week.

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After quite a long wait, we finally received our pizzas. And were they worth it! A note about the crust: when they say thin crust, they mean thin crust. I happen to prefer doughy, heavy pizzas, but I can go for light and crispy every now and again. These crusts are paper-thin, with the brittleness of matzoh and a taste similar to a saltine cracker. That doesn’t sound appealing, but somehow it really worked, and what I loved most was that the thin crust really let the toppings show off their flavors.

Our first pizza, the patate alla carbonara, had received rave reviews on Yelp. A white pie, it was topped with potato chunks, egg, guanciale (an Italian pork), black pepper, and pecorino. The combination of ingredients really worked on this pizza, and because of the thin crust, it didn’t feel like an overload of carbs. It was creamy, rich, salty—delicious for the first slice, good for the second, but maybe a little too strong by the third.

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With our second pizza, on the other hand, I could have eaten the whole pie. Or two. For multiple days in a row. It was a simple creation: a light layer of tomato sauce topped with thick, wet, gooey stracciatella cheese and basil leaves and a drizzle of oil. The cheese, similar to a burrata, soaked through the entire pizza. I can’t describe the flavor other than to say it was probably the best cheese I’ve ever tasted—and the best part is that it was made in-house, right there in the restaurant!

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Though I felt a little full, I knew I had to try dessert. Todd decided on a rich chocolate cake frosted with olive oil buttercream and accompanied by a glass of milk. I don’t really like chocolate cake, but he said he enjoyed it. I chose a cannoli cheesecake, which had a soft, creamy center that definitely had a cannoli cream flavor. Beneath that was a layer of chocolate chips, followed by what tasted like a graham cracker crust atop a thin cannoli shell. The best part: the dollop of pistachio cream and crumbled pistachios on top.

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Marta was a little pricey for pizza ($15 for appetizers, about $20-$30 for a smallish personal pie, $9 dessert), but definitely worth it for a special occasion. For the price, I felt like we received enough food, though I was surprised that we didn’t get any bread before our meal, which is usually standard in Italian restaurants. And my boyfriend was disappointed that they didn’t do anything special for my birthday even though he’d mentioned that on the reservation. It won’t replace my usual pizza joint, nor is it my favorite Italian restaurant (that designation is held by Oregano in Brooklyn), but Marta is still an exceptional choice with great flavors and decadent dishes.

A Bike Ride and a Lofty Goal

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The TD Five Boro Bike Tour is a cycling race with a course that passes through each of New York City’s boroughs: Staten Island to Brooklyn to Queens to the Bronx to Manhattan.wp-1456171020530.jpg On May 1, 2016, the streets will be free of cars, volunteers will man four rest areas and three water stations, and musical performances will take place along the 40-mile route. Approximately 32,000 cyclists participate in the bike tour annually—and this year, Todd and I will be two of them.

My dad and my brother, also racing in May, have both completed the tour before. They also bike more frequently and for longer distances than Todd and I ever have. Our longest ride was last summer: 17 miles. And before 2014, we never cycled at all because of my fear of biking, which had lingered since a bad childhood fall. And yet, in a moment of zeal and idealism, we signed up for the bike tour. Now we have just under three months to prepare, to remind our bodies what it feels like in the saddle.

On Sunday we went out for our first bike ride of the year: 10 miles, one quarter of the distance of the bike tour. The first mile was a breeze—literally. It was all downhill and the wind blew unceasingly into our faces. The next few miles felt good, body warming up, mind focused on the task at hand. Around the halfway point we stopped at the beach to take a short break and, of course, a photo:

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By the seventh mile, my thighs ached. I stood in my seat to climb up hills even though my bike was set to the first and easiest gear. I thought of nothing but pedaling, pedaling, pedaling. When I tried to speed up, my feet didn’t listen and kept the same plodding pace. We arrived back home. I stepped off the bike. My legs felt like jelly. I had forgotten how hard biking is when you aren’t going out for regular rides. If that’s how 10 miles felt, how will I make it through 40? My motto: Go as slow as you want. Stop as many times as you need to. Just try your best and enjoy the ride. Wish us luck!

Recipe: Spinach-Stuffed Chicken & Curry-Infused Couscous

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As much as I enjoy being in the kitchen, I only make easy dinners during the week—crockpot stews, grilled cheese, pasta with a simple sauce. The other night one of my best friends came over and we decided to cook instead of eating out. After a little thought, we settled on chicken breasts stuffed with spinach, garlic, and mozzarella, with a side of curry-infused, veggie-loaded couscous. (Although the steps below might seem complicated, the recipe is really easy once you get started.) The chicken took about 45 minutes to cook, which gave us plenty of time to prep the rest of our ingredients, set the table, and indulge in some girl talk.

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Stuffed chicken cross-section, with vegetable couscous

INGREDIENTS
For the chicken:
~Vegetable or other cooking oil
~4 tbsp. crushed garlic
~10 oz. spinach leaves, divided
~2 tbsp. lemon juice
~2 to 3 cups flour
~2 to 3 cups panko breadcrumbs
~2 eggs
~Approximately 7 (depending on size) thin-sliced chicken breasts
~Whole-milk mozzarella, cut into 1 oz. slices

For the couscous:
~1 box Near East Mediterranean Curry couscous
~2 tsp. olive oil, plus 2 tsp. reserved
~2 cups white and yellow corn, cooked
~1.5 cups chopped kale, cooked
~1.5 cups chopped red cabbage
~1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
~1/4 cup golden honey
~Sweet paprika, to taste
~Garlic powder, to taste
~Salt, to taste

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PREPARATION
For chicken:
~Add 3 tbsp. vegetable oil to a large skillet on medium-low heat. Once oil warms, add garlic, stirring often, until lightly brown and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add 5 oz. spinach and cook about 5 minutes; add additional 5 oz. spinach and cook several minutes more, until soft. Add lemon juice and mix, then turn off heat and set aside.

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~Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
~On the left-hand side of a roasting tin or piece of aluminum foil with the edges turned upward, pour flour into a small pile. On the right-hand side, pour breadcrumbs. Beat eggs in a small bowl.
~To a second tin, add a shallow layer of vegetable oil.
~Working one breast at a time, coat chicken thoroughly with flour, dip into egg, then press both sides firmly into breadcrumb. It helps to have a large cutting board on which to lay chicken flat after breading.
~Top chicken with sautéed spinach, then add mozzarella slices. Be generous with the cheese—you might have to use more than one piece to make sure the breast is covered from end to end.

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~Starting with whichever end is smaller, roll chicken breasts and place face-down into oiled tin. Stick 1 to 2 toothpicks through the tops of each to hold them together.
~Bake for 45 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches at least 165 degrees. In that time, the cheese should bubble and the breadcrumbs should brown.

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For the couscous:
~After chicken has been baking for about 20 minutes, combine 1.25 cups water, 2 tsp. olive oil, and the contents of the couscous spice sack into a medium saucepan.
~Bring to a boil, then stir in couscous.
~Remove from heat and let sit, covered, for 5 minutes.
~Add corn and kale to couscous and combine. (We used the frozen, microwavable bags, which take about 5 minutes each to cook. We made them right after popping the chicken into the oven; this way, they were ready to add to the couscous as soon as it finished cooking.)
~Add cabbage and walnuts to couscous and mix well.
~Stir in honey and remaining olive oil.
~Add paprika, garlic powder, and salt to taste; combine thoroughly before serving.

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Enjoy!