Sunday, November 29, 2009


Years ago, the first thing I noticed when I moved to Massachusetts were the stretches of stone walls linked along the country roads and marking property lines. This sign of habitation is much more harmonious with the nature of the rugged land than the picket fences lining every cookie cutter house in Connecticut.

John, my friend Eve's father, has worked as a stonemason in the Berkshires for years. With the unpredictable weather, he is quickly finishing up a stone wall in the entryway before winter sets in. I gave him a hand, always eager to test my brawny side.

The first thing I had to do was mix up more cement, which is a lot like making cake batter. Sand and the two cement additives are mixed together dry before adding the water and mixing it to a cakey consistency.

While John placed the exposed slabs for the face, I followed with alternate layers of cement, large rocks for the big gaps in the center of the wall, and gravel to fill in the smaller spaces. I got into a rhythm and used the same principles for assembling a wedding cake- keeping the layers level and alternating rows of materials to make it more stable.

It's important to really fill in all those tiny cracks, as the wall is only as strong as its weakest spot, he said. Nothing would be worse than having to go back after the cement has set and break apart the rocks because of poor reinforcement.

The biggest thrill was getting to use the diamond power saw and cutting through giant slabs! Sadly, my camera battery died so I couldn't shoot the dramatic video I intended. Since I try to live by Eleanor Roosevelt's great quote, "Do one thing every day that scares you," I felt like I got my quota for the day.
Stonework can be a bit tedious, but it's amazing how much it parallels working with pastry. Only you get to use a sledgehammer while you are assembling the layers.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gratitude. Every day.

I woke up today thrilled to be an adopted daughter to my friend Eve's family on their farm in Columbia County. As much as I love my family, I find the dynamics of other people's families intriguing, especially in a holiday setting like Thanksgiving, no less.

For starters, there was a strange sense of calm when I walked in the kitchen. Ominous. Tea was being sipped while NPR buzzed in the background. The turkey was sitting on the counter, still wrapped. The dining room table hadn't been set the night before. No one was stressed.

This was not the Thanksgiving I grew up with. I was accustomed to a cleaning overhaul comparable to extreme home makeover and pandemonium in the kitchen as we raced to get everything done before guests arrived. There was the year the turkey fell on the floor, the countless squabbles I had with my brother, and the years and years growing up in California where we had no turkey at all (can't complain about a honey baked ham, but it's not the same as traditional turkey).

At Eve's, we were all ready to go, with an ample 6 hours before guests would arrive. There was no mandatory football, but I felt the need to get some exercise. I volunteered to do some mucking in the pen for the miniature horses, and satisfying a romanticised idea of being a farmgirl for part of a morning. A little fresh air was what I wanted, and a full-blown workout was what I got.

Sweaty and covered shin-high in horse poop, I came back to the house to shower. The dining room was ready, laundry was hanging to dry on the line over the porch, the kitchen was full of incredible smells, and everything was ready for the big feast of the year.

We sat for dinner at about 6 and enjoyed two kinds of stuffing with gravy, creamed peas and onions, mixed winter vegetables caramelized with bacon, cranberry sauce, and a beautiful mixed baby green salad. And that was after I had already filled up on cheeses, chips and dip, hummus, and smoked salmon. I still went back for seconds.

This year, being with someone else's family makes me appreciate mine more, for all the different traditions, for the generosity of my friends. It also made me realize we do need to have more than one day being appreciative for what we have and for who surrounds us. As my favorite saying goes, shared from a very dear friend: Gratitude. Every day.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Preparing the Stuffing

For the third year in a row, my friend Eve invited me to spend Thanksgiving with her family in Hillsdale, New York, since I've found myself family-less around the holidays the past few years.

This year, the timing was perfect with no work, no apartment, and two months of basically no cooking. For weeks, I've been looking forward to a big day of cooking in a spacious country kitchen with a fridge full of ingredients. For a chef just back from sabbatical, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the greatest day of the year.

Eve was driving back from her med school in Maine, so her mom, Pat, and I got a jump on food prep for the big feast. When I am in someone else's kitchen, I take on the role of sous-chef. It's so much easier than assuming responsibility when you don't know where things are or the idiosyncrasies of the appliances. I've run into enough snafus lately from forging ahead on overly ambitious dishes in under equipped kitchens- it's like trying to strategize for battle on foreign terrain.

So I kept it simple today with peeling vegetables and prepping stuffing at a leisurely pace. The cranberry sauce is done, the pies are in the oven, and the stuffing is ready for the turkey, as am I.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Big India in Little Massachusetts

Once in a while it's fun to eat way more than you should, almost to the point of discomfort.* That was the plan today when JP and I headed to Bombay in Lee for an indulgent dinner. I very seldom have the craving, but when I go, I can't imagine anything more satisfying than Indian food.

Here's what we had:
-the Veggie Sampler with Samosas, Bhajia, Medhu Vada (vegetable fritters) and Bhel Poori (puffed rice)
-Bagari shrimp with poori (puffed fried bread)
-Paneer Naan (flatbread with Indian cheese)
-Lamb Phaal (the hottest thing on the menu)
-Dal Makhanni (yellow lentils)
-Steamed rice
If you aren't intimidated by spicy food, phaal is amazing. You can see the chunks of hot peppers in the sauce, while earning mad respect from the chef and waitstaff. And I've always believed in the powers of spice for scaring off threatening colds.
We just managed to stand up to the phaal, but by my last couple bites, I was ready to surrender, both to the heat and to the limits of my stomach capacity. And I forgot I'll be doing the Thanksgiving binge in two days. Oops.

*Not recommended every day.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Candles and Butterflies

It feels like I just got back to New York and I immediately ran off to Massachusetts for the holiday week. My sublet goes through the month, so some time in the Berkshires (my last home before moving to Brooklyn) will give me the chance to couch surf, enjoy a big Thanksgiving, and get the last week of wanderlust out of my system before I settle back in my own place.

I'm spending the day with my friend, JP, at Magic Wings in Deerfield. JP brought his mother to the butterfly conservatory for her birthday and let me tag along. He's a professional photographer and chef, so our outings are always interesting.

This conservatory is enormous, and houses exotic birds, reptiles, plants and flowers in addition to thousands of butterflies. You can even see butterflies hatching straight from the chrysalis.

Afterwards, we went to the Yankee Candle Company right up the road. I don't usually get caught up in the Christmas frenzy but at this time of year, it's nice to get drop-kicked into it if you're otherwise a bit of a grinch. Every inch of this place was decked out in full blown holiday cheer and every imaginable candle scent under the sun. What, exactly, is a "beach towel" supposed to smell like?

JP was getting restless as his mom and I wandered around the store for hours, transfixed by bright lights and shiny objects. He found the corner of the store where you can custom dye your own personal candle. He went with the complicated rainbow taper.

I'm officially in the holiday spirit, but I'll back up and deal with Thanksgiving first.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Coffee without the Fuss

I've gotten a bit lazy when I'm in the Financial District. No matter how tired and bleary-eyed I am, there seems to be a Starbucks on every corner, and halfway up every block. One of these days I need to take a count of how many I pass from the Fulton Street stop to Water Street.
That's why it was so refreshing to try something new, at the suggestion of my beautiful godsister, Madeleine. She's lived in that neighborhood for several months and guided us to Zibetto Espresso Bar.

I have gotten more straightforward with my coffee as I get older, and usually go for a simple house brew or an Americano, in this case. Madeleine had a latte with an unusually adorned foam:

It was worth it to not have to wait in a line going out the door. Also ironic was being in an Italian coffee joint and ordering coffee in English instead of java jive. I'm going back just for that.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Other Julia

Today I met with my friend Julia, fellow Brooklynite. In addition to being an avid coutdoorswoman and climbing extraordinaire, she is a seasoned fashion designer who works for Mint. One of the things I love most about her is that despite her sophisticated training, she never passes judgment on anyone else's style sense (or lack of it, as in my case).
We caught up on our accumulated adventures and climbing news, and Julia shared her lovely winter salad with me. She is as adventurous in her approach with food as she is on the crag! I'm now inspired to start incorporating more pomegranate into my repertoire- real pomegranate and not just the pre-packaged seeds.
Here's what was in it:

-pomegranate seeds
-parmesan cheese
-cherry tomatoes
-red onion
-oil and vinegar
So simple. So good. And it goes great with mimosas.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sarah's Sensationally Simple and Sophisticated Salad

Yum! Another great dinner at a friend's house while I'm couch surfing my way back to my place in Brooklyn. I often forget how wonderful food can be when at its simplest. My friend, Sarah, reminded me of that with a beautiful salad- and it's all about the dressing and just a few ingredients.

Here's all it took to make it happen:

2 big handfuls of baby arugula (approx. 2 oz.)
1 pear, sliced (I like it with the skin on for more nutrition)
Shredded parmesan cheese
Mango dressing- Olde Cape Cod Zesty Mango Vinaigrette is what she had in the cupboard

It also goes well whether your slumming it for dinner (i.e. frozen pizza, as in our case), or accompanying something more elegant.

Stay classy, Sarah.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pie in Your Eye

Discovering a new comfort food is like finding gold. While revisiting some friends living in midtown, I was delighted to be served a beautiful spaghetti pie for a home cooked dinner amidst a sea of flashy restaurants painting Hells Kitchen with neon. My friend, Abe, is a fellow Sconie, so I shouldn't have been surprised that he knows the ways of the casserole world. (I am impressed that he knows them better than I do.)

Abe shared his grandmother's secret recipe with me. Actually, he claims his family doesn't have any secret recipes, but it is so good, it should be.
Spaghetti Pie

1 1/2 lbs ground beef (or morningstar vegetarian crumbles)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped (optional)
1 16 oz. can chopped tomatoes
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste
6 oz. spaghetti
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup cottage cheese
6 oz. shredded mozarella

Brown the meat; drain.
Add onion & celery to meat -- cook until tender.
Stir in tomatoes & tomato paste.
Season with salt, pepper, & sugar; mix well.
Simmer for 20 minutes.
Cook spaghetti according to package directions; drain.
Combine spaghetti with butter, parmesan cheese and eggs; Mix well.
Line a greased 10 in. pie plate with spaghetti mixture to form crust.
Spoon cottage cheese over spaghetti crust.
Top spaghetti and cottage cheese with meat sauce and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese.
Bake pie at 325ยบ for 45 minutes (put a cookie sheet underneath since it may overflow).
Serves 6-8

Monday, November 16, 2009

La Senorita en la Esquina

There are eateries in New York that I pass frequently and always say I'll go to, and never do. Today is not going to be one of those days. While walking dogs in Soho today, I keep passing La Esquina (at Kenmare on the corner, no doubt). This adorable taco stand beckons me with its smells and diner joint atmosphere, and looks like the perfect place to go for a quick lunch.

Thank goodness I went. And thank goodness I live in Brooklyn and not across the street from this place. Tacos are one of my weaknesses, and quesadillas are another. After a lot of hemming and hawing, I went with the quesadilla de huitlacoche- mexican truffle, roasted corn, epazote, mushrooms, and queso chihuahua (which I feel like I should know what it is, but couldn't tell you). Please do me a favor and look at the menu link if you can't actually go get the real deal, because my cell phone picture will never do it justice.

This was a rarety for me since I'm a meaty kind of girl. I'm trying to eat more vegetarian options when I go out because I've been surprised to find I don't miss the meat. Next time, I'm diving head first into their tacos. There are over a dozen to choose from, so that's going to annoy the poor soul standing behind me in line.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Back in the New York Groove

I've been back less than 48 hours and strangely enough, it almost feels like I never left. Brooklyn and I are starting over with a clean slate and new beginning.

When you leave New York and come back, it's like the honeymoon all over again. My first year living here kept me discovering something about the city or myself on a daily basis. Eventually, the annoyances begin to pile up and you see only flaws- the dirty subways, loud people, unabating traffic- and you lose that dazzled feeling that drew you together in the first place.

Now I'm looking around again, trying to really see things and not just walk around with a list of grievances and blinders on. We all need the chance to reinvent ourselves, or at least start over with a clean slate. I may be in the same city, but I'm definitely in a different place.

Yesterday, I spent some time with my friends Brandy and Coty doing Washington Square on the cheap. Real cheap. We found the Cheesesteak Factory for tasty pizza at rock bottom prices- two slices and a soda for $2.75. The three of us enjoyed dinner for, collectively, less than six bucks.
We took a walk towards the west village, stopping at a gallery called Charmingwall. I love peeking into gallery windows, but seldom feel drawn to go in at that moment. This small, intimate gallery was so warm and inviting (in a word, charming?) that we stopped in our tracks to look at the art. I instantly fell in love with the work of Evan B. Harris, a self-taught artist who uses scratching and sanding techniques to give his paintings an antique appearance.
After that, I was hungry again, so we found a funky coffeeshop laden with jumbo pastries. Coty got an elephant ear, Brandy had a linzer cookie, and I went all out with a giant carrot cupcake. There was no wheeling and dealing at this stop.
As hungry as I am, this city just may satisfy my appetite.

Friday, November 13, 2009

No Sleep Til Brooklyn

Getting on the train in Chicago was a completely jarring experience from the California Zephyr. For starters, everyone in line waiting to get on was given a ticket with a seat number. I found my seat and noticed that we were each being piled like sardines into a single car. Several people found a problem with this and moved around to find double seats to themselves. I sweet-talked the train rep, Carlos, into reissuing me a better seat.

We got ready to depart and Carlos meant business. He demanded the cards with seat numbers handed back to him and made people move if they challenged his authority. It was clearly a power struggle, but being settled in my double seat all to myself with the okay from Carlos, I kept quiet and was glad I went with the protocol.

Because we left close to 7 in the evening, and were moving an hour later, most people shut out the lights and sacked out right away. Daylight savings time has robbed me of extra light, so I knew I'd be up for a while until my body eased into the trip.

The biggest difference on the train was how many more people there are in the east than the west, at least taking trains. The train had 3 times more people than the Zephyr, and every station had a line of people waiting to board, even in the middle of the night. I didn't want to spend the night strategizing about keeping my double seat. Once I fell asleep, I guess it wouldn't matter.

Sleep was going to be rough. people were moving up and down those aisles like they were in a relay race. The doors between cars kept slamming shut, the wheels on the track were clacking loudly and I couldn't shut out the fluorescent lights. I'm such an insomniac to begin with, I don't know what I expected on the train, when I had less than restful sleep on my two overnights prior.

Still, I found plenty of reasons to be annoyed with the people oblivious that most people were sleeping, or trying to sleep. They stormed around with heavy footsteps and booming voices. Usually when all the reading lights are out in a car, that's an indication people are sleeping. I would love to be that clueless, just for a day, to see what other things I'd miss.

It started getting really cold, and I felt an air conditioning vent blowing on me. I'm not one of those people who sleep better in the cold. I'm not sure exactly what makes me sleep well. And why were so many different train attendant asking me if I was going to Toledo? Did Carlos have something to do with this?

Just when I thought there couldn't be any more distractions, a chorus of snoring began. I searched the car and found the main culprit to be the guy sitting directly behind me, though the woman kitty corner playing video games with the sound cranked was a co-conspirator. Now, what do you do when someone's snoring and you're trying to sleep?

Here's what I tried:


-headphones/blasting mellow music on my iPod

-wrapping my coat around my head

-sticking my fingers in my ears and squeezing my eyes shut

-sighing loudly

Here's what I wanted to try:

-spitballs (my strategy would have involved several other people to shoot from multiple locations)

-finding a long stick and poking him till he rolled over

-that Roald Dahl trick where you put soap shavings in someone's mouth until there's enough foam to make snoring impossible

-shaking him awake and demanding he stop

-getting someone else to shake him awake and demand he stop

-throwing him off the train

Luckily, the thing that worked in the end was fretting about it to the point of exhaustion. At least it's the last leg of the journey and I'm almost home.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Deep Dish Chicago

I've been enjoying a delightful couple days to savor being in Chicago. It's the tail-end of autumn here and I'm not missing my winter coat. Hey, and where's the wind? But I'm not complaining about the super mild weather while I'm here.

Last night I got to see Mindy, an old friend from high school who I haven't seen for 10 years! We went out to a pizza joint in Lincoln Park called Bricks, not because of the brick-oven pizza, but for the brick walls of the building. I found that slightly misleading because they advertise themselves as having the best pizza on earth (which insinuates a brick oven), but the pizza was so, so good that I'll let it slide.

Even better was great conversation with a rediscovered friend over dollar draft Schlitz. Since I was drinking Old Style with my uncle the night before, I was right at home with the cheap Wisco beer, that's also the fave at my local watering hole in Brooklyn. (Get ready, Duck, Duck, I'll be back there soon!)

Mindy and I shared a lot of laughs and a large thin crust- half mean green, half red planet. Two very enthusiastic thumbs up. My new favorite thing in the world is discovering a new place with an old friend. It's also a trip to be with someone as a grown-up whom you really knew as kids. When did I start getting so old?

My time in Chicago was too brief, but I was thrilled to have more than a twenty minute stopover. I'm full of family love and two full nights of sleep in a real bed, so I'm ready for the last leg of the train to New York tonight. And I'm hitting up more pizza at the station before I board ... deep dish is at the top of my list, though I refuse to compare it to the thin crust of New York.

I'm almost home!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Where's the coffee?

I recall my eyes opening to see a sliver of dawn several hours ago. I recall thinking it would be noteworthy to experience sunrise in Nebraska. I was quickly vetoed by my body, which needed sleep more.

I'm now awake in Iowa with the sun already high by 8 am. Its pleasant passing by farmhouses and fields and fields of dried corn. Being here is making me crave things like pot roast and a glass of milk.

I'm feeling nostalgic-the top half of my roots were spent in Wisconsin. Its a nice time to be here just before winter sets in, despite it being on the late side of fall. Autumn brings out the best in a lot of places.

The lounge car downstairs has coffee and overpriced snacks. Its hard for me to blog without coffee, but I guess sometimes you've got to rough it. After lowering myself to instant coffee the last couple weeks, anything out of a pot is like heaven.

Yesterday I was able to experience the dining car- and fortunately on a shoestring. Dinner is in the pricier range (steak, salmon, and pastas from $15-$23). I shared a table with a lovely couple from Des Moines and we took advantage of the Angus Burger deal for less than 8 bucks apiece, including a beverage. In the two and a half days on the train, I've been depriving myself of real food. I am living on fancy mixed nuts and chlorinated water, trying to stay as close to the bone as possibly and save my expenses for necessities, like coffee. I'll have to make up for it once I get settled back home. At least sitting in a chair all day doesn't give you a huge appetite anyway.

The few hours of light following lunch were timed perfectly for the ride leading us into Denver, and we enjoyed the sun sinking behind the mountains as we entered Rocky Mountain National Park from Greeley. The contrast of mountains between the Sierras, the mesas in Utah, and the Rockies is impossible to depict in photos, particularly with very basic equipment. Nice to see snow on the ground, but a reminder that I'm not at all ready for winter when I return to New York.

The lounge just opened. I'm outta here to get my brew. See you in Chicago.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Waking up in Utah

I'm up bright and early after a long night tossing and turning in my chair, negotiating sleep with a crying baby and philosophical 19-year-olds. I never sleep well when I travel, and I'm discovering that I'm a lighter sleeper the older I get.

But I can't complain because I'm in Utah, I have a coffee in my hand, the sun is rising, and the train is so quiet I can hear the clicking of my cell phone keypad. Now I remember why I don't sleep on planes, buses, or cars- I am completely captivated by landscapes.

I can already say this trip is one of the best things I've done for myself in a long time. Everyone should do this at one point or another.

The train culture is so open and laid back. One minute, I'm having a chat about dogs with a retired couple from Iowa, the next I'm watching a woman's baby while she steps off the train for fresh air. All around me people are offering their food, use of dvd players- even money, all to acknowledge that we're all in the same boat, pun or not.

And as annoyed as I was last night about the folk singer who wanted to strum her guitar when I was ready for sleep, I have to admit that it is really cool she wanted to play just for us.

There's a chance I may see my future sister-in-law at a longer stop in Colorado. I look forward to the other possibilities the day might bring.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Boxcar Betty

Okay, so it's an Amtrak, not a freight train. I've always wanted to travel the country by train and now that I have the luxury of time, I'm on my way.

I squeezed as much stuff into my bags as I could, and I don't think one more thing can be added along the way. Hardly believed my checked bag was a mere 38 pounds.

The bad decision I made with packing was giving sentimental items priority over food. But then again, that gives me an excuse to experience the dining car.

The California Zephyr is one of the most popular American scenic trains. Some of the highlights will be Donner Pass, the Rockies, canyons in Colorado, and I may just catch a glimpse of the Great Salt Lake if I'm up at 4 in the morning. Personal highlights will be 52 hours of knitting, writing, reading, and the companionship of me, myself, and my ipod until I arrive in Chicago.

Okay, mountains. I'm ready for you. I just hope I picked the good side of the train for the perfect window seat.

Surf's Up

Some photos of my time in Santa Cruz over the weekend, enjoying the surf competition on Saturday: