Miss Ginsu: About/Bio


A Tale of Three Ramen

Like a lot of American kids my age, I grew up with an imposter. Fool that I was, I loved it with an unreserved passion.

To my great shame, I still distinctly remember turning down countless opportunities for actual food in favor of plastic pouches of pasty-white ramen noodles.

Oh, how strange it now seems. I was held in a spell, rapt in blind adoration of a bunch of airy white bricks that magically transformed in hot water. Three minutes... and voila! Tender, wiggly noodles steeped one of eight or ten nearly indistinguishable monosodium glutamate flavor packets. Pure comfort-food bliss.

Despite a winning name, Top Ramen really wasn't the star player in my affections. For my personal ontology, noodle bricks weren't even in the same genre as the ambrosial Nissin Cup o' Noodles. Many happy childhood memories involve warming my hands atop the smooth paper barrier that retained precious steam for those three mystical moments between shelf-stable starch and ramen.

Now that I'm slightly more worldly, I know that real ramen holds very little resemblance to either the starchy brick or the salty cup.

I've come to discover that real ramen doesn't involve MSG packets. It isn't even really about the noodles. Real ramen is a sensual experience closer to poetry.

Between the pork and the seaweed, the mushrooms and the egg, the scallions and the broth, the noodle and the steam, real ramen is about comparison. It begins just breathing in the aroma of the bowl. Then the exploration: One bite is briny sea, the next is rich, savory earth. This one is bracing and vegetal. That one, creamy and smooth. This one is chewy, that one, crisp. Real ramen is revelation.

I'd intended to present a comparison of three Manhattan ramen shops, but I find myself torn between them.

Momofuku Ramen
Momofuku Noodle Bar (163 First Ave, near 10th St.)

Momofuku Noodle Bar, the critics' darling, was big, bold, meaty ramen with thick, sturdy noodles... a very American ramen experience. They make it with Berkshire pork and serve it alongside crisp Hitachino ales. It's luxe, crowded, efficient, expensive and oh-so-very NYC.

Momofuku Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon

Setagaya Ramen
Setagaya (141 First Ave., near St. Marks Pl.)

Ramen Setagaya is very clearly a US outpost of a slick Japanese chain. From a strangely mesmerizing wall display of Japanese food TV to the focused menu and overwhelmingly Japanese clientele, entering Setagaya felt more like a entering a teleportation device that dumped diners off in the midst of suburban Tokyo. The ramen, too, was transportive: tabletop to forest floor, rocky cliff and seaside farm.

Ramen Setagaya on Urbanspoon

Rai Rai Ken Ramen
(Rai Rai Ken Ramen House, 214 E. 10th St.)

Rai Rai Ken Ramen House is a dim closet behind a red curtain. Dark wood and a skinny ledge. The counter is high. The ramen is passed down from on high by a stoic staff of skilled young men. Chat with your companion. They're there to cook. The ramen is steamy, satisfying and dead cheap. Workers, students and hungry strangers approach needy and leave restored. This is a noodle shop for the proletariat.

Rai Rai Ken on Urbanspoon

Each of these ramen stops is within a stone's throw of the others. And each seems to represent a different aspect of the modern ramen experience. When I sat down to consider which might be considered the one true ramen experience, I really couldn't pick just one. It's situational.

Now, I'm no ramen expert, but I have a theory.

Setting the starchy grocery-store ramen aside as the phony junkfood it really is, the "best" ramen is less about single noodle bar or a single noodle bowl. It's really about the ramen bowl for who you are and how you're feeling at a particular time. Sometimes, the dark cave presents the right bowl of ramen. Sometimes it's the ramen on the slick countertop with the pretty servers.

So here's my thought: don't let anyone tell you they've got a line on the ramen. Top ramen is a state of mind.

Miss G.

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Going Bananas: The Mighty Morphin Power Smoothie

the mighty morphin power smoothie

It all started simply enough. Most consuming passions do. I had too many ripe bananas.

Normally, a quickie banana bread would solve the banana issue. But even a banana-loving person can only eat so much banana bread.

So I started freezing ripe banana halves and using them for breakfast. I'd just toss a frozen banana half in my blender with a cup or so of orange juice. Voila! Cool, refreshing smoothie.

So that's how it started:
Banana + OJ = Smoothie

After a while, I thought it might be nice to get some of the good enzymes from active -culture plain yogurt into my system. Started adding about a half-cup.

The new digestively correct version:
Banana + OJ + Yogurt = Smoothie

Over time, I wanted to reduce the volume of orange juice (so much sugar!) and I did some experimenting and figured out that soymilk helped keep my smoothies thin enough. (Milk curdles if you're also using oj. Not appealing first thing in the morning.) Substituting a tablespoon of peanut butter or Nutella for the oj made for veeeery tasty smoothies.

The improved formula became:
Banana + Soymilk + Yogurt + PB = Smoothie

When I started making them for J, he wanted to add tablespoon of wheat germ (for additional vitamins and fiber). And since J is wild for berries, we also started adding in some fresh or frozen berries instead of juice or peanut butter.

The nutritious, collaborative recipe:
Banana + Soymilk + Yogurt + Wheat Germ + Berries = Smoothie

After J returned to a heavy workout program, he needed more protein. Meanwhile, I was doing more running, so I figured a protein + carb combo breakfast couldn't hurt. At that point we started adding some protein powder (a "designer" whey product, made using milk solids) to power the muscles.

The high-tech protein power version:
Banana + Soymilk + Yogurt + Wheat Germ + Berries + Protein Powder = Smoothie

After a while J read up on nutritional supplements for athletic recovery and got into L-Glutamine (an amino acid recovery supplement) and BCAA (Branched Chain Amino Acid) powders. The glutamine doesn't taste like much, but the BCAA is seriously bitter. I continued pouring my smoothie at the high-tech protein powder version (above), before adding a little glutamine and BCAA into the blender for J's smoothie.

J's big muscle recovery smoothie:
Banana + Soymilk + Yogurt + Wheat Germ + Berries + Protein Powder + BCAA + L-Glutamine = Smoothie

Acai (pronounced ah-sigh-ee), the fruit of the Brazilian Açaí Palm, seems to go wherever Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners go. They suck on frozen packets of the stuff after practice.

So when J took up jits, we learned all about acai. It's high in fiber and antioxidants, and it seems as though it may also reduce inflammation in the body. Handy stuff. In our casual testing, J says he's able to work out longer without getting hungry when he's had an acai smoothie. And since FreshDirect delivers Sambazon pure acai packets along with delicious frozen sliced peaches, the smoothies have been very happy indeed.

The individually tailored potions:
Me: Banana + Soymilk + Yogurt + Berries (or Peaches) + Protein Powder + Acai = Smoothie

J: Banana + Soymilk + Yogurt + Berries (or Peaches) + Protein Powder + Acai + BCAA + L-Glutamine = Smoothie

These days, there's a minor panic in the house when banana supplies run low; It's funny to remember that the whole winding evolution was hatched by a surplus.

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Eating local. Like, really local.

Busy Bee Pierogies

Chez Ginsu is currently located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and contrary to what that moniker might lead you to envision, large swaths of this place are dirty and decidedly industrial.

Though certain sectors of the 'Point are hip these days, my end of the hood remains cheap and old-school (in good part because we sit squarely in the middle of the largest land-based oil spill in U.S. history. But hey... cheap rent).

My closest thoroughfare, Nassau Avenue, features a charming Luncheonette, a couple of pizza joints, several examples of the ubiquitous Chinese takeout counter and a fleet of Polish eateries.

Polish food has never been one of the world's most beloved cuisines. Ask anyone — even those who are fairly well-versed in food — to name all the Polish dishes they know. The most you'll likely get from them is pierogies, kielbasa and maybe Zywiec, Greenpoint's Pilsner of choice (though most are unlikely to pronounce it correctly... the company's begun advertising the stuff as "Z-Beer" for the tongue-tied American market).

So although I'm a big fan of local food sourcing, eating locally (as in, eating in the neighborhood) hasn't exactly topped my priority list.

Recently, I wondered if maybe that position was wrong-minded. I decided to give some serious examination to local foodstuffs. Making a stop at Nassau Ave's Busy Bee Food Exchange, I purchased meat pierogi (pierogi z miezem) and beet-horseradish condiment (cwikla). The Bee deli case also featured a few creamy salads and pints of "bigos," which is supposed to be a hunter's stew made of beef stock and sauerkraut.

Pirogi, for the uninitiated, are Eastern European dumplings... tasty little dumplings filled with a variety of substances.

When I lived in Minnesota, we frequently went out for Friday lunches at the Ukrainian Catholic Church gymnasium in North-East Minneapolis. There, little old men served endless cups of coffee and took orders while little old ladies tirelessly produced phyrohi (potato, kraut-pork or plum... your choice). It was great. Cheap, tasty comfort food made by little old ladies. You really can't beat that.

Those memories flowed back to me as I prepared my pierogi. Pierogi can be served boiled or pan-fried, like potstickers. When I tested The Bee's meat pierogi, I pan-fried 'em and was very pleased with the results. Served alongside the bright-magenta cwikla with a cucumber & sour cream salad? Good eats at a good price.

Of course Stella, my Polish landlady, instantly knew I'd been sullying her building with store-bought pierogi. Polish landladies have special radar for betrayals of that ilk.

The very next day Stella knocked on my door bearing a look of supreme confidence and a plate covered in three types of freshly boiled pierogi she'd just made: cabbage-bacon, potato and sweet cheese. I intended to eat just a few and share the rest with my roomie. But they were good. Really good. I ate them all.

As it turns out, local eating is good, but really, really local eating... now that's superb.

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Forget Foodies. Unleash the GastroGnomes!

The New York Times published an article today that features "The Foodie Scene in the Twin Cities," the subhead for which proclaims, "In another sign of a cultural awakening, dining out in this city of sensible industry is no longer confined to steakhouses."

Sitting on the couch this morning, I read this line aloud with ill-hidden outrage.
Confined to steakhouses? Seriously? Did the writer actually visit MSP? I lived thereabouts for close to ten years and I can't remember ever eating at a steakhouse.

My sweetheart chuckled from his desk a few feet away. Having already read the piece, he knew my boiling blood wouldn't cool a bit as the thesis statement of said article became clear.

As it happens, the "Foodie Scene" covered in the Times refers almost entirely to some recent "celebrity chef" action. Oh sure, there's a passing reference to one of the excellent farmers' markets and to Chef Brenda Langton, a Minneapolis fixture who's been cooking tasty things as long as I can remember, but as far as the Times is concerned, the term "foodie" seems to be confined to those looking for high-end five-to-seven course prixe fix dining directed from on high by the new gods of expense account cuisine (Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, in this case).

Why all the rage? Well, if I knew nothing about the Twin Cities (and honestly, that's true of the majority of New Yorkers I've met), I might read that article and think to myself, "Thank heaven for those bold, selfless celebrity chefs. How else would a backwater like that learn any kind of appreciation for organic and regional ingredients? God bless Wolfgang and Jean-Georges."

All of which is complete and utter hogwash. But wait... is it possible that they mean something different by the word "foodies?"

With that thought in mind, it seems the foodies of the Times eat exclusively at tables with very high thread-count coverings. Said foodies would also have to have completely forgotten Celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson who ran Restaurant Aquavit in Minneapolis (and NYC) until recently. And they'd have to be blind to places like La Belle Vie, whose chef, Tim McKee, was recognized by Gourmet, James Beard and the local City Pages. (And for that matter, I recommend that those seeking guidance on MSP just skip the Times and read the City Pages food reviews. They know all the best things going.)

I could go on, but I feel we should get back to business: "Foodie." I've never liked the word. It just sounds dumb. Like someone affixed a vowel sound to a random noun to make a label. It's what little kids do to form insults.

They can have that word. I just want to clarify that "Foodie Scene" as used in the article mentioned above should be read as the "Status Dining Scene."

On the other hand, I feel that those people who are dedicated to ferreting out and exploring the world of tasty, exciting, horizon-expanding foods available any a given place should be called something else.

"Gourmets" sounds flaccid and snobby. "Epicurians" seems accurate, but it comes off as a tad stiff. "Chowhounds" isn't bad, but it's rather specific. I'm going to go with something more like "Gastronomes," which conjures up an image of an army of garden gnomes armed with forks and knives, ready to explore and devour. Unleash the Gastro-Gnomes! (A bit terrifying, isn't it?)

Where do the Gastrognomes of Minneapolis-St. Paul eat? In many places, as it turns out. Ask a few. They'll tell you. In that spirit, I'll list just a handful of my favorite Twin Cities food spots:

The Midtown Global Market, where you'll now find a killah combination of cheap+tasty, including Manny's Tortas, Holy Land and La Loma, the home of tasty tamales.
920 E Lake St

One-stop picnic shop: The Wedge Co-Op, where you can get a loaf of bread, a fresh-pressed fruit juice, an array of treats and be on your way to the Sculpture Garden for lunch.
2105 Lyndale Avenue South
Minneapolis MN, 55405

The improbable Sea Salt Eatery for fish sandwiches and crab cakes that have no right to be so tasty. Be warned: They're only open in the good months.
4825 Minnehaha Ave

Ted Cook's 19th Hole Barbeque — Classic baked beans, cornbread, greens and saucy barbecue. Worth getting lost on the residential streets trying to find it? Hell yeah.
2814 E 38th St

Victor's 1959 Cafe Eggs with black beans and fried yuca? Toast with guava jelly? Yeah, I'm in.
3756 Grand Ave S

Hell's Kitchen, which makes awesome bison sausage and their signature brunchy treat: the luxe Mahnomin Porridge.
89 South 10th St

Emily's Lebanese Deli I've been trying for close to 6 years to make tabbouleh that tasty...
641 University Ave NE

Blue Nile I'm a sucker for Ethiopian. Mmm... Stew.
2027 E Franklin Ave

Surdyk's wine + cheese shop extraordinaire
303 East Hennepin Ave

Rustica Bakery Breads, rolls and pastries made with love, skill and a bonus helping of tastiness.
816 W 46th St

A Baker's Wife's Pastry Shop Unassuming, inexpensive, impressive. Get a tart.
4200 28th Ave S

Coffee Gallery at Open Book. This listing really isn't all about the food. There aren't many things I crave more than Books + Coffee. Open Book is an amazing resource for anyone who loves books and enjoys seeing how they're constructed.
1011 Washington Ave S

Bayport Cookery Okay, so it's actually a stone's throw from MSP. But my lord, people... they host a morel fest. It's damn tasty and not terribly expensive. Make the trip. These guys were doing sustainable, local cuisine before it was cool.
328 5th Ave N
Bayport, MN

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Faster? I’m the fastest.

This entry falls into the "confessional blog" category, so if you're just here for a recipe or a pretty picture, skip on down to a different post. This one gets a bit ugly.

After reading an article in my dad’s Yoga Journal (the April, 2007 issue, I believe) on the benefits of fasting, I was intrigued. Now, I realize this blog is "The Hedonista," and fasting is about as anti-hedonist as it gets, but I'm all about exploration.

I did a little more research, and the arguments in favor of the occasional fast seemed compelling. It’s a process our ancient ancestors probably underwent with some frequency, initially due to shortages and later, due to religious motivations, so it seems likely that human bodies could be well adapted to experiencing both feast and famine periods.

Fasting practitioners claim that fasts provide all kinds of benefits from a body detox and an increase in energy and clear-headedness to an improvement in the workings of the body’s elimination systems (health fasters seem to be big on the elimination thing). More than that, voluntary fasting is inexpensive, practiced worldwide and often tied to reasons of religious and spiritual focus. I figured I’d also gain even more appreciation for the flavors of food once I started eating again.

One of the pieces I read mentioned that fasts are often undertaken in the spring and fall to emphasize moments of inner cleansing and renewal (And you'll note that Lent, Ramadan and Yom Kippur each take place in the spring or fall).

Having just rolled past the spring equinox, I was already jonesing to wash the floors, scrub the tub, lubricate my bike chain and prune the stack of magazines clogging the coffee table, so why not try an internal spring cleaning as well?

I decided on the juice fast, which seemed like a low-impact route. Juice fasters are supposed to reap the benefits of fasting without many risks, so it seemed like a wise move for my first foray. I figured three days would do the trick: I’d be a little hungry on the first and second days and then I’d achieve physical and mental clarity and enlightenment on the third. Whee!

I found a recipe for a special potion you’re supposed to sip. It’s supposedly detoxifying (you'll note this is a big buzzword in fasting circles), and it's extremely simple to make.
The detox beverage
2-3 Tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
2 Tbsp pure maple syrup
1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper

Mix and combine with 8 oz fresh water. Sip throughout the day.
Inexplicably, everyone from my coworkers to my roomie already knew about this stuff (I’ll refer to it as LMC), so I took that as a good sign. Also, when working at the garde manger station at the restaurant, we happened to always have fresh lime juice, maple syrup and water on hand, so I ignorantly used to mix a variation of this magic potion and sip it while I worked. It wasn’t fantastic, but it was cold and refreshing and kind of reminded me of limeade or homespun Gatorade.

Lacking a home juicer, I bought a bunch of easy-to-squeeze limes, 100% tomato juice, 100% carrot juice, 100% fresh orange juice and whole ginger, along with some herbal detox tea, laxative tea and a few chicken backs that I could simmer into a chicken-veggie stock (the chicken stock at the store was full of crazy additives, and I didn’t really think modified food starch and “seasonings” were appropriate for my spring cleaning).

I chopped up the ginger and simmered it in water, put up three quarts of chicken-veggie stock, had a big, green salad for dinner and drank a cup of the laxative tea before bed (which, in retrospect, was perhaps my first mistake).

The next morning I awoke, hungry, but having successfully completed the first ten hours of the three-day adventure. I sipped a blend of orange, carrot and ginger juice.

It was Friday. A lighter day. I’d be a little hungry, then I'd keep busy cleaning the apartment on Saturday and I'd finish up the fasting on Sunday.

Cue the doom song. You can probably imagine how the rest goes, but here’s the diary I kept:

7:30 a.m. I resist the urge to make a smoothie. It's a strong urge.
8:00 a.m. I sip a carrot-orange-ginger juice while I juice limes. Juicing limes is good for the biceps. The COG juice seems thick with a nice balance of sweet, sour and spice. I savor it and wonder whether I should pack a thermos for work. No... the Lime-Maple-Cayenne drink will sustain me, right?
8:45 a.m. I bike to work without incident. I don't think I'm supposed to bike. I'm supposed to sit quietly and meditate or something.
9:00 a.m. I begin drinking my detox tea and sipping a 32 oz portion of the LMC concoction. It's revolting. Might be better over ice. The next batch will definitely have less cayenne in it.
9:15 a.m. My intestines feel queasy.
9:30 a.m. Bathroom dash.
10:00 a.m. First meeting. I leave the LMC at my desk. It looks weird. The tea doesn't look suspicious. I resist the open-topped, beckoning box of Jewel Dates near purchasing as I walk to my meeting.
10:45 a.m. There's those dates again on the way back to my desk. I continue my incredible program of resistence.
11:00 a.m. I'm supposed to be proofreading the ad copy. I'm doing a hack job of it. I can't focus. This sucks.
11:45 a.m. I can't concentrate. My hand keeps floating toward the desk drawer that contains my dried fruits and nuts. My mind is wandering loose around the room. Someone just brought by a plate bearing chunks of freshly baked maple-glazed ham. I salivate and resist. I drink another swig of LMC.
11:55 a.m. I'm a floaty cloud. I'm a floaty cloud that needs go find the bathroom again.
11:57 a.m. Passing Merchandising, there's those dates again. I resist. Passing Purchasing... Oh, no. It's the ham. I am weak.
11:58 a.m. Who knew maple-glazed ham went so well with dates?

I didn’t even make it to noon. Fifteen hours total. Fastest fast ever.

The lessons: Clearly, working at a food company is not an asset to fasters. People who need to carefully concentrate on important tasks should think twice before fasting on work days. Laxative teas deserve respect. Also: quitting both a hefty caffeine habit and a well-established food routine on the same day… probably not a recipe for fasting success.

Post-fast, I'm sure those who eat a lot of packaged foods and fast food could experience effects in mood and energy by cutting out these foods in favor of fresh fruit and vegetable juices, but I now wonder how beneficial fasting can be if a person already eats a varied diet of mostly fruit, nuts, whole grains and veggies.

I may try fasting again, but if I do, it’ll be a project undertaken after kicking the caffeine monkey. I’d start on a day when I don’t need my brain for anything, and I’d definitely remove myself from contact with food.

I now know that even if my will starts strong, I can never again underestimate the empty belly’s weakness in the presence of a maple-glazed ham.

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