Monday, January 17, 2011

Pastina, Ramen, and Falafel: Jersey Comfort Food

This Christmas break, I was sick; really sick. (Luckily my body had the good sense to wait to completely fall apart until I had some time off from teaching. It's hard enough to function when you're feeling lousy - try being "on stage" in front of a 140+ teenagers while feeling lousy.) To help lift my spirits, periodically throughout the week-long holiday, Gary would make my favorite childhood comfort food: Pastina.

When I moved to California, Pastina was next to impossible to find outside of an Italian specialty store. Here in New Jersey, boxes of Pastina line the shelves of every grocery store. Growing up, I was plagued by severe ear infections, and my Sicilian mother would make me heaping bowls full of these little pasta stars, mixed with butter and salt, whenever my ears would ring and bleed; for me, Pastina remains the epitome of comfort food.

But not even Pastina sounded good last week, during our second snow day of the season. Usually teachers love snow days as much as the kids, but I woke up with nausia, a fever, and a soar throat. So Gary, our friend Chaya and I sought out some relief from the cold at the bottom of a steaming bowl of hot ramen soup at Rai Rai Ramen in New Brunswick, NJ.

Magnet from Rai Rai Ramen - Permanently Stuck On Our Fridge.

Pictures from Rai Rai Ramen by Amnet NY Times

It was so delicious - salty and sweet, with hot steaming noodles to slurp up.

And wouldn't you know it - this Martin Luther King Jr. long weekend, I once again came down with a fever, soar throat and joint pain - and once again, Gary and I went in search of some comforting food. This time, we found ourselves at a vegetarian mecca: Maoz Vegetarian - which is a "fast food" chain specializing in authentic falafel and vegetarian food.

The restaurant chain has not only gotten some major press, but it is also pretty easy to spot - it's floor to ceiling green tile with a couple of wooden benches. In addition to six US locations, there are Maoz Vegetarian franchise restaurants in The Netherlands, UK, France and Spain.

Gary Checking Out Menu at Maoz in New Brunswick, NJ

Maoz's "Meal Deal" - Picture from Maoz USA Website

I ordered a falafel and Belgian fries, and loved every bite. Perhaps you are noticing a trend? While all of my comfort food is delicious, for the most part it's also simply prepared and vegetarian.

Gary and I are both trying to eat more organic food, and be socially responsible in our food choices. What does this mean? Basically, it means that we are trying to eat real food instead of "edible foodlike substances", and we won't eat meat unless it comes from an organic farm that raises and slaughters its own meat, such as Griggstown Farm or Simply Grazin (both in Princeton, NJ). Our general lifestyle change has been inspired by Michael Pollan's books (In Defense of Food, Omnivore's Dilemma, Food Rules), Foer's book Eating Animals, and food documentaries including Food Inc. and Fresh.

As a cancer survivor, it's important to limit any exposure to harmful carcinogens, and controlling what I put into my body is a critical step in my ongoing fight against a recurrence of carcinoid cancer. Now, if I drink milk - it's whole milk from grass-fed, hormone-free cows; if I eat a granola bar - it has only a handful of organic, easily-recognizable ingredients... I check labels, I do research, I make sure I know what I'm digesting. I think that every cancer patient should read and watch the above resources, so that they can learn what to eat in order to increase their (and the planet's) chances of survival. If you don't have time to read a book or watch a documentary, try using a mobile-tool such as "fooducate" (for the iphone) to help make healthier choices in the grocery store.


  1. I'm doing my best to eat healthier foods, too. Especially since the cancer. I have yet to read the books you mentioned here, but am definitely putting them on my reading list. I looked mostly at Dr. Servan-Schreibers "Anti Cancer" which has many of the same recommendations and the documentary Food, Inc.

    By the way....I LOVE Maoz!! I studied abroad in Barcelona as an undergrad (only a month), but discovered Maoz one day and seriously, it was all I wanted to eat after that! If I do visit New York this year, I am going to find it!

    P.S. I did see that Dr. Oz is looking for "other" lung cancer people and that's me!! :-)

  2. YES! One more reason for you to take a trip to NY :) Did you see the CCF blog - there's a Forbes article actually correctly identifying Steve Jobs' cancer as neuroendocrine. Amazing! It's too bad that it took him relapsing for the word to get out about our rare disease.

  3. I am doing my best to eat healthly and lose weight. The process is sooo hard! I too became friends with a nurse at the hospital and she eats healthy.
    I tried falafal for the first time and loved it, I even bought it to try and make it at home. I truly don't want to be sick again, so I am trying hard to eat healthier! If ever you are in Rockville Centre, LI try going to Greek Town. Great Falafal!

  4. Thanks Sunshine! I know... it's super hard. I'm going to buy the book Stephanie suggested "Anti-Cancer"; I'll let you know how it is

  5. I did see that article. He's such a high profile, yet very private neuroendocrine tumor patient. It be interesting to see if by revealing that it is such a rare form of cancer, people will finally take notice. Or at the very least have someone to identify neuroendocrine cancer with -- as in, "I have that same type of cancer that Steve Jobs from APPLE had."

  6. Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa ( may be another choice. i know alot of people use it, its also non alcoholic, though it's effectiveness is not as good as alcohol based cough medicine, but it's still good to use on not so serious sore throat.