Eid Mubarak, Ramadan Reflections

Ramadan has come and gone, like a plastic bag drifting through the wind. Alright – not really like that – I just wanted to take advantage of that Katy Perry lyric. It did, however, feel like a very short amount of time, as it does every year. This year, I hoped to take advantage of every day, and not feel like my month was snubbed by my own mindlessness. But no matter how diligent we are each day in Ramadan, the end creeps up on many. You might think that we’d look forward to the end of Ramadan and be happy to stop fasting, but in my experience, the opposite is true. Yes, we do get excited for Eid ul-Fitr, the holiday that comes right after Ramadan has ended, when you spend the day with family and friends and get to eat. But for me personally, there’s something about coming together on a regular basis with my community to break our fasts and pray together, and taking a month to remove anything that would distract me from myself and my time to come closer to my faith. You don’t get to see the community come together as often, and the same mental/religious/other focus that comes with fasting is harder to come by. That said, Ramadan can be considered something of a reset, where you restore your body~mind~spirit~etc to its natural state…factory settings, if you will. This year I tried to avoid eating cane sugar and processed carbs for the month, and I promised a report back. So, below the final outcome.

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First question: Did I make it all the way to the end of Ramadan on my diet? Answer: a resounding Yes! And I’m not too bashful to say I’m quite proud of myself! In the days leading up to it, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to go through with my challenge. But it just goes to show you that you really can do anything you set your mind to. I emphasize mind because it’s a total mind game. What is it that makes me go for the cute cupcake after lunch or croissant for (second) breakfast? Cravings are your brain telling you that you want something because “remember how good it tasted last time? And remember how good you felt?” Did my cravings go away because I was fasting and I wasn’t eating sugar? Nah. But I was forced to get creative and  come up with healthy ways to trick my brain into thinking I was having dessert. Dates, so many dates, plantain, fruit smoothies, pretty-much paleo banana bread (recipe coming soon), and more fruit. Notice a trend? Fruit came through for me in my times of need during Ramadan.

Before I started, I thought my biggest takeaway would be that life is too short to free oneself from the burdens of sugar and that I am a miserable person without it. But in fact, I learned that there are many alternatives to baked goods for those with a sweet tooth, and exercising restraint is good for the soul. Did I get sugar pangs halfway through the month while looking at the Islamic Center’s bake sales? Yes. Did it feel better to resist the urge to give into the craving? Very yes. I can’t say how my body felt this month in comparison to a month of regular eating habits, since I was dieting under special circumstances and my body was not in its normal digestive state. However, I do feel like it’s good practice to say no to your superficial desires if it’s not something you do with ease. I might institute a no-treat Tuesday or something similar as a reminder to check myself before I wreck my stomach. Walking the streets of New York City sometimes makes it harder to say no when you’re passing a cafe on one block, a doughnut bakery on the next block, and an ice cream shop down the street. I’m hoping the habits I formed during Ramadan will stay with me, and that I won’t even need the no-treat Tuesdays. I’m excited to see how it goes!

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But, you know…of course I had to celebrate my accomplishment and one of our two holidays with a big cookie from Levain Bakery! it was delicious and I felt no body malfunctions.

Thanks for following along on my annual journey through Ramadan; I feel like this was a particularly special one. Come back later for that banana bread I was talking about. And in the meantime, let me know how you curb your cravings below!

Only a Week Left? Final Ramadan Reports

Checking in to you live from the last week of #ramadiet2k17 and y’all, it’s hot! We were in the midst of a heat wave last week, which promptly followed a cold snap that I was not at all complaining about. But here we are, nearly at the home stretch. It flies by every year. Let’s finish strong!

I’m going to tell you about what I’ve been making and eating. Because of this diet where I’m avoiding simple carbs and added sugar, I get to be creative not only about my savory meals but how I stay content with some alternatively sweet treats.

One of my favorite ways to break my fast (after a date or 3) is with a smoothie. Bananas, peanut butter, frozen blueberries, almond milk. It’s easy and full of good stuff, and sometimes I even freeze it for a frozen dessert.

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A great breakfast hack I’ve been doing all month is making French toast with Ezekiel bread. This idea also comes from my friend Rebecca, healthy eating extraordinaire. I soak slices of bread in almond milk, egg, vanilla extract and cinnamon. I don’t like almond milk on its own, but when it’s being used for something like a smoothie or French toast, you can’t taste it anyway. And when I say soak, I mean it – the bread isn’t ready until you can squeeze it in the center and batter squishes out. This will take around 30 seconds. I make the batter in a shallow tupperware the night before to save time in the morning. I put peanut butter, maple syrup, and sometimes fruit on this French toast, and satisfies my sweet tooth just fine. Yes, I’ve allowed myself maple syrup as my one sweetener for the month. Frankly, this French toast kinda needs it.

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I always make sure to keep oatmeal in my suhoor (pre-dawn meal) rotation to regulate my cholesterol and stay fuller longer in the morning. Don’t be discouraged by oatmeal. There’s so much you can do with it. Add fresh fruit, honey, toasted nuts, coconut oil, nut butter, dates and other dried fruit…the possibilities are endless. Think of it as a vessel for things you like instead of just morning sludge. Get creative – I know you can do it, I promise.

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As we approach the final days of Ramadan, Muslims around the world get focused on their worship with prayer, reading the Qur’an and more. In the last ten nights is Laylatul Qadr, or the Night of Power. This is the night that the Qur’an was brought down for mankind. It is believed that this night has the strength of 1,000 months, so any good deeds (prayer and charity, for example) done on this night are considered as if they were done for 1,000 months. As you can imagine, it’s a particularly spiritual time for Muslims, and many spend longer hours at the mosque at night praying. In a week will be Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, full of food and festivities. Check back in soon to see how we throw down in NYC and some final reflections. Stay cool, friends!

#notevenwater? Dispatches from Ramadan 2017

We’re already a third of the way through Ramadan, and I’m thanking God for the mild weather in New York City thus far. When it’s hot, chugging hella water is just as important, if not more important, than what you eat for suhoor, the meal you have before dawn breaks – because you can’t eat or drink when fasting. The first thing I grab when I get up at 3 am is my big Nalgene bottle and I fill it with water, making sure to finish it before I go back to sleep. When breaking my fast, either at home or with others at the Islamic center, I have the same bottle by my side, and I’ll usually try to have another glass before I go to bed. Yes, our bodies can do amazing things under some duress, but water plays a very important role in their general functionality (think muscles – that means the brain!). So don’t stress it if you don’t have to. Stay hydrated folks, fasting and otherwise.

As far as this diet goes, I will say it’s been exciting to cook both hearty and tasty food for myself. And I was feeling great about avoiding sugar and empty carbs, appreciating life and all, until yesterday when I was arranging those jam-in-the-center sandwich cookies on a platter for the bake sale at my Islamic center and started considering a weekly cheat day for the rest of the month. But then I thought about how amazing the first cookie to hit my tongue will taste, and how impressed and content I will be with myself for my self-restraint. To make up for the lack of sugar, I’ve been eating sweet strawberries from the market straight from the pint, and popping back dates like chocolate chips. Dates are the traditional food to break one’s fast with, as Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said to do so, around the 6th century. Lucky for me, dates have a lot going for them: fiber, potassium, magnesium and copper. I used to dislike dates like I dislike figs, but now I love them. Besides, when you haven’t been eating for 16 hours, there’s an extra dimension of taste once your lips touch food again.

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One dish I learned to make from my friend Rebecca is chicken and bulgur. It sounds unfortunate, but Rebecca fed it to me for dinner a couple weeks before Ramadan, and I asked for seconds. It’s super easy, filling, and good to boot. Here’s my adaptation; check Rebecca’s wellness blog for the original recipe!

 

Chicken Bulgur
Makes over 4 servings

Ingredients
3 cloves of garlic
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 lb ground chicken or other meat
Oregano, garlic powder, and other Italian seasoning to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup bulgur
24 oz pasta sauce

Heat cooking oil in a large pot and sauté the onions and garlic. Add the chicken and season with the spices/herbs, salt, and pepper. Add the bulgur once the meat has browned, a few minutes. Stir the bulgur and the pasta sauce. Season again to taste. Let simmer until the bulgur turns soft, about 10 minutes. Serve with vegetables.

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If you’re wondering why this month’s photos have some questionable lighting, recall that I cannot eat during the lovely daylight hours #nothingisstaged #reallife #realdark 😛

Come back later for more communiqués, vis-à-vis fasting in this blessed month of Ramadan!

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~ Hey blog fam, it’s been a minute! I’ve been putting together my latest food endeavor – Carmen’s Cookies! Follow me on the IG and stay tuned for details coming this summer ~

Ramadan, the month in the Islamic calendar where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, is quickly rolling through, which means that I’ll be monitoring what goes into my body more than normal. But this year, I’ve made a decision to take it one step further and go on a diet. Yes, the cursèd word that some say explains itself in its first three letters. My reasoning was that during Ramadan, I already strive (yes, this truly takes effort) to avoid things that give the false hope of energy and happiness, but only leave me with a sugar crash and sleepiness shortly after consumption. So in an attempt to heighten energy levels, and assess my regular eating choices, I will be removing sugar and refined/processed carbs from my diet.

I know. If you’ve read this far, then you know me, and you know this is going to be a serious challenge. But what better time to do it than the holy month of Ramadan, when I will be working on my “reflection and focus”, religious and otherwise. Every year, Ramadan creeps up on me and ever year I get stoked about the month I treat as a reset and reassessment, weeding out the negative vibes and bringing back the good ones. For example:

“Do I really need to curse out this terrible Brooklyn driver?”
“So the subway is super packed and I can’t reach my phone…it’s not that serious.”
“One more bite: good idea or nah?”
“I’m so #blessed and I’m grateful for living in a place with four seasons. This 95 degree humidity will pass…right…”

Now is as good a time as any to do a deep dive on my diet and see where I can improve. By the end of the experiment, I’m hoping I’ll have motivation to adjust some eating habits (will I survive without a cookie after lunch?) and get to know my body better.

Sooo, to make up for at least part of the month without sweets, I sprinted to some places I’ve wanted to check out for a while before my time ran out. Below are the highlights…

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 presetDu’s Donuts The latest fancy NYC doughnuts put themselves on the map in April, and I tried the Strawberries and Cream and, I think Grapefruit Chamomile? I honestly can’t remember. My favorite part was the attractiveness of all the doughnuts; beautifully piped lines of icing on many varieties. The doughnuts themselves were good, but Dough still ranks number one in my heart.

Processed with VSCOcam with a5 presetI’d just happened to be walking by the small, seveeerely hyped cookie dough-scooping shop in Greenwich Village on my way to an appointment, when I noticed that there was no 3-hour long line wrapping the block. In fact, there was no line at all. I quickly attributed it to the early hour and having just opened for the day. Later, on my way back, there was still no line. Since I’m not usually in that part of the area, I figured I may as well finally see if Dō was worth these egregious NYC-trend lines. I left with a scoop of salty + sweet dough, with salted caramel and chocolate chips, at $4, and was promptly reminded of how weird I think it is to opt for raw cookie dough over fresh-baked cookies. I could not eat the small mound in one sitting, but it was not a terrible experience. 

Processed with VSCOcam with hb1 presetBrownstone Pancake Factory I love this place as much as I love pancakes, and if my friends Rebecca and Shyla are up for it, and our amigo Tommy is also in town, I get to eat here when I visit them. As you can tell from the photo, this breakfast-all-day restaurant has more than pancakes, as I was the only one that got pancakes…I had to represent for the team. We also shared an Oreo Cake freakshake. Delicious? Yes. Fit for one? Noo.

Processed with VSCOcam with hb1 presetKith Ice Cream Not long after I moved to Brooklyn, this sneaker store by Barclays Center opened a cereal bar. Don’t ask questions; this is Brooklyn. The cereal bar also features soft serve ice cream with your choice of cereal add-ins and toppings. I meant to check it out but never got around to it. Luckily, they’ve since opened a location next to my office, and I tried it out on one of those super hot days last week…you can see my ice cream started melting as soon as I stepped outside. They whip the whole thing up DQ Blizzard-style, and the ice cream itself was very sweet. Overall, fun if overpriced spot for only the occasional visit.

Come back soon for my dispatches from the frontlines of Ramadiet 2017!

Day in the Life: Food52

The new year at work has already graced us with lovely people and food. While I’m embracing my job/opportunities with renewed energy this year, I’m enjoying capturing the essence of every day in a quick snap or two. Take a look at what we’ve been up to!

Right before we broke for the holidays, Union Square Events graced us with their presence AND a wide variety of stunning savory and sweet tarts for lunch. There was a mushroom & winter vegetables tart, quiche and smoked fish, pistachio, sablé, fig and grapefruit, roasted apple, gingerbread, and milk chocolate toffee, and more. It was really quite overwhelming, but a lovely break from the day, getting to chat with the chefs of Union Square Hospitality Group and enjoying their delicious meal for us. We’re so spoiled!

We were shooting some pretty platters for the Shop, and our chef made crab cakes for the occasion (we didn’t end up using the shot with the crab cakes). We turned them into a healthy lunch with salad and vinaigrette. Aesthetically pleasing.

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We had a Valentine’s day-themed photo shoot, and our Art Director stopped on her way into the office for some quince branches. Then our chef in residence, Sara Jenkins, made some beautiful bright fuchsia ravioli, beet casunsei.

I was walking past the stove top in the test kitchen one afternoon of an editorial shoot, and looked into a pot which previously held duck for a warm duck and apple salad, and I thought it looked cool…

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The sunlight comes through the office a little differently every day. I caught a moment that the light was coming through the pot of water steaming on the stove in a super cool way. You can see where the window frame got in the way and made stripes in the steam.

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Looking forward to what the next weeks bring!

Dominique Ansel’s Digs, and the Elusive Cronut

There’s a note in my phone called “NYC Sweets”, where I add all the good/famous bakeries, ice cream shops, and doughnut cafés that I need to check out and experience as a new New Yorker. At the top of that list were the two Manhattan digs of Dominique Ansel, Cronut® extraordinaire. In all seriousness, Ansel actually registered the word and concept of the Cronut; even his hashtags have the ® symbol. It did take a couple of months, but I got myself to Dominique Ansel Kitchen, and Dominique Ansel Bakery. Why would one of the best known French pastry chefs need two establishments within a 15 minute walk of each other (I checked)? See below and you’ll know…or not.

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Taken from the staircase seating

My first stop was DAK: the Kitchen. I flip-flopped on the order of my visits, as DAK opened in the spring, a few years after the Bakery. At DAK, the big draw is not a pastry but a concept: “Time is an ingredient”. For many of the menu items, a key process of the recipe is left until the item is ordered. For example, if you order the made-to-order chocolate mousse, you’ll be waiting on your chef to fold the chocolate ganache with the meringue and whipped cream before it gets to your staircase-seat, soft and creamy. Or if you get the 1:1 lemon yuzu butter tart, the baker will be behind the counter in the kitchen, assembling together the crust, cream and lemon zest into an equally soft beauty. The indoor seating is all along a large set of steps, with cute round cushions designating buttox-placement. If it’s well-populated, DAK may be tricky to stay in, especially if eating with a friend. In the summer, outdoor seating and an ice cream window with flavors like “gianduja with orange blossom spritz, sea salt, and hazelnut brittle” are open and bustling.

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I got the mini matcha beignets. I see these being really great for people who don’t like their desserts being too sweet. I wish I were one of those people. On the other hand, I liked the nice kick of strong green tea flavor over the beignets, and the six that I got were a good serving size. Just don’t breathe too hard when you’re eating, unless you’re wearing an apron.

All in all, a generally cool idea being experimented with at Dominique Ansel Kitchen.

 

Next up: the OG, Dominique Ansel Bakery.

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I remember when I googled “cronut” five years ago, and landed on a New York Times article explaining the phenomenon of waiting in line for hours to purchase a $5 pastry in the dead of winter. I was like “nah”. Minus the pastry, all of those things sounded wrong to me. No way would I spend my day in the city standing in the cold for an overpriced dessert. But things change, people change. When I learned from friends at work that you could preorder Cronuts from the comfort of your home, I knew that having this rare creature could be done, and must be done!

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Path to the patio of DAB

Off I went, setting my phone alarm to 10:50 a Monday morning of August to remind me to log onto cronutpreorder.com to claim my prize. After much website traffic difficulty, all the available Cronuts for the first week of September were sold out, and I was without. But of course, I tried again the following week, and to my surprise, had no trouble reserving two Cronuts for a Sunday afternoon. Pro tip alert: this was because the Cronut flavor changes every month, and the first time I tried, the Cronut regulars(?) were ready to pounce to be the first to try the latest flavor. I now know that if you preorder a Cronut, wait to reserve one for the middle of the month, and you won’t run into trouble.

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I could have skipped the line, but I actually waited in it to get a peek of what everyone else was waiting for (not Cronuts, ha ha).

When I finally got to skip the line and turn heads with my box of Cronuts at 2pm on Sunday, it was September, and the flavor was bergamot and Earl Grey.

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This box, home of the cronut. Like a munchkins box but WAY COOLER

After all those years of seeing Cronuts on my Instagram feed and trying copycats (pretty good ones, in France no less), my time had come. I was embarrassingly giddy to open the box.

The bright yellow icing on top tasted strongly of the eponymous tea, and the cream filling had a subtle citrus and slightly bitter taste from the bergamot fruit. The pastry itself was crispy on the edges from the sugar coating (oh yes), and soft and chewy on the inside. So, like a croissant, but better. And this pastry is actually quite large. It barely fit in the palm of my hand.

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Turns out, the Cronut is worth the hype, and probably those $5, too, when you think about how it’s made. First off, the whole process takes three days. Once the laminated dough is made, it has to proof, then it gets fried. Then it gets filled, and then it gets topped with icing/ganache and garnish. Would I ever in a million years stand in a line wrapping around the block for it? No. But why would I, if I can buy one in advance with technology? Here’s how:

  1. On any Monday at 11am EST, go to cronutpreorder.com (note: it’s entirely possible that if you check later in the day, or even the next day, there will be some Cronuts left to order. Just make sure you’re flexible on the pickup day. AND do not order a cronut for the first week of a month, because you will likely fail).
  2. You’ll see dates two weeks from when you’re on the site for reserving up to 6 Cronuts. Select the day you want to pick them up.
  3. Choose a time you’d like to pick up your Cronuts.
  4. Purchase your Cronuts with Paypal, to which the site will redirect you.
  5. Set a reminder for yourself to pick up your Cronuts. You won’t get a reminder from Dom, and then you’ll forget 😦
  6. Swag on up to the bakery counter at your selected time to claim your prize and enjoy.

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A Day in the Life: Food52


You may know that I work at the food website food52.com. It’s a great resource for home chefs: thousands of recipes, daily content on what butter to use, how to season cast iron (I need to do that…future post?),  cookie maps! and then our shop with bespoke kitchen tools and home decor. Need a bed and breakfast tray? How about a mushroom log? As the photo producer I’m responsible for making sure all the photos for the site are shot and accounted for. That means I get to run around the set with the stylists and tell them when the mashed potato flatbread is ready to be shot, or if we’re missing ingredients for the vegan fish sauce. Sometimes I even get to be a food stylist, and bake things!

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Shot by Linda Xiao

Last week we launched our holiday market pop-up right in Union Square. Many hands poured over the space to make it look like it does now. If you’re in the city, stop by and say hello, or shop around for the holidays.

 

Friday was #nationalcookieday, and we were fortunate enough to have the Union Square Hospitality Group grace us with a visit, and cookies from almost all of their restaurants.

Keep yours eyes out for more fun #f52life tidbits. And if you have any questions, send them my way!