Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cool Girl's Christmas Gift Guide

 This is mostly for my mom. I thought maybe it would help out other people to type it here.

  • Mrs. Anderson's Baking Ceramic Pie Weights - fabulous for making tarts and quiches and way less messy than trying to make your own with rice and beans and foil. Also, clean up very easily.
  • I would love to take a bread making class at King Arthur's Flour in Vermont, but the classes are kind of expensive.
  • Wine cork kits from Wine Enthusiast - we have the oval trivet one and we love it. It is fun to preserve your memories of drinking wine, and they look cool I think. Also, you can always use another trivet (would love another oval one).
  • When I was 21 I got a Pier one papasan chair for my birthday. Then I moved to NYC, and never got to bring my chair with me. Finally, this labor day I drove home and was able to bring it back. Problem was the pets had lived all over the cushion, and my husband is allergic to dogs, so now I need a new cushion
  • I'd like this label saver and journal so I can keep track of all the wines I have tried. 
  • Wine barrel lazy susan. Very cool.
  • This is a great website, and I have wanted the Cleopatra bust for years. I have the Voltaire as featured in this post. I love most things on there, especially the busts.
Other than that, I think it is nice to get people gifts that could be an experience. Or clothing gift cards - it is very hard to go wrong with that and for people who might not normally buy clothes for themselves I don't think it is impersonal - I think it is nice because it is partially the gift of a guilt-free shopping experience as well as the clothes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Homemade English Muffins

The other day I was making some of Mark Bittman's whole wheat sandwich bread from How to Make Everything, and I realized that the same recipe of dough makes English muffins. We were undecided about what to have for dinner, so I thought maybe a sort of homemade egg McMuffin would be fun. I let the dough rise for hours, deflated the dough, and cut it into 12 pieces. I flattened them into little discs.

Then I spread some cornmeal on a skillet set on low heat and cooked them in batches.

I made sure they were lightly browned (about 15 minutes).

Then we cooked up some bacon and eggs and served it with spinach. I have long fantasized about homemade breakfast sandwiches that are not greasy, but just as delicious as fast food versions, and this really lived up to expectations- especially with some hot sauce and sea salt sprinkled on the eggs.

Then we had quite a bit of English muffins leftover. I wasn't sure we'd be able to finish them in time for them to still be fresh, so I had the idea of English muffin mini pizzas. It turns out Hannaford has these very cool pre-cut pizza toppings. It is fun because you can get a variety of toppings without  committing to any too much.

I melted the toppings on the English muffins under the broiler. That pickled asparagus on the salad is from Shaker Mtn Canning Co. and is very delicious. These turned out great - a dinner a 5 year old could love!

Two dinners based on one recipe of English muffins. Who ever knew they were so easy and delicious to make at home?

Capital City Gastropub, Finally

We finally made it to the Capital City Gastropub this past week. I think maybe my expectations were too high. I guess first I might say a word about the Wine Bar on Lark. I've previously written a really positive review of it, but I think my feelings have kind of changed since then. And it is not that they have done anything wrong, it is that I have realized maybe this whole "small plates" trend is not my favorite thing. I had friends over a few weeks ago, and they were saying how they thought it was meant for "people who eat like birds", which is fine since these people probably do exist. It reminds me when we lived in NYC, and frequently had drinks at a place called the Clover Club.  Of course the cocktails were fabulous, we felt very, very cool for going there, but if you wanted to eat it was sort of a rip off. They had amazing potato chips fried in duck fat with crème frâiche and chives for much more money than you would imagine, which is fine, and they were very, very tasty, but you just drank many cocktails and all you've had to eat is a few potato chips. For the same amount of money you could have gone to most any other reasonably priced restaurant and gotten an actual meal that might include a serving of vegetables. There is so much importance at places like this placed on the presentation. Once they start calling things "small plates" instead of "meals" there is no longer any correlation between portion and price. All of a sudden $18 for two small ribs seems like a fine thing to sell, whereas any other place for that price would include a piece of bread or a handful of broccoli or something to flesh it out a bit. What is really annoying is when the people at the Wine Bar act all passive-aggressive if you don't order their bird-meals. I would rather just have wine there and stop at DiBella's on the way home.

And I am not saying I only believe in big portions over amazing taste. I love the lunch at Jean-Georges in NYC, and sure, it is $30 for lunch but it is completely amazing and memorable. You only need tiny bites of fois gras on brioche with sour cherry preserves because you will remember that bite for a very, very long time. If your food is legitimately outstanding, that makes it all worth it. But fancy bar snacks, with a lot of the emphasis based on presentation and unexpected styling (why is the Bahn-mi deconstructed?), just doesn't seem like my favorite thing.

You never know how much to order. We went to a similar place, Quinn's, in Seattle a couple years ago, and our approach with 4 people was to just keep ordering things until we felt full. This sort of hurt my impression of the CCG, because it immediately made me feel like we could be in a place in Portland or Seattle without it actually tasting as good. If your model is "a stylish, unusual bite of that, stylish, unusual bite of that" it better be really, really good.

That all being said, I had a Delirium Tremens which I hadn't had in years and it was great. Everyone had some great beers, including a Brown's oatmeal stout for our out of town friend. Here was the food breakdown:

  • Fried brussel sprouts- very, very good. They had a light and flaky texture and everyone loved them.
  • Duck gravy poutine - the gravy was very flavorful and the fries held up their crunchiness. The cheesecurd was good too. I read someone else who said it wasn't cheesecurd, but ours was, so maybe they are working things out.
  • I had the fish tacos. I know another reviewer liked them, but I actually found them bland (which is hard to do with something that contains avocado and something fried). I don't know, I put some hot sauce on them, but something was really missing - maybe add some lime, a smoky flavor, habeneros, vinegar - something. Could have done without.
  • Our friend had the boudin blanc which was fabulous.
  • My husband had the short ribs and thought they were fine, but overpriced for only a couple of bites. 
  • Our friend had Bahn-mi. She seemed to like it ok, but was expecting a sandwich.
For dessert:

  • Two of us had butterscotch eclairs - fabulous. Reminded me of Sander's cream puffs in MI where I grew up, they were that good.
  • Two of us had this parfait thing with black forest and liquid cheesecake. Those were good, but something about "liquid cheesecake" annoyed me a little bit. Just like the Bahn-mi not being a sandwich for no reason. Like my little sister who once wanted to make a "reverse root beer float" with vanilla seltzer and ice cream made with root beer extract. Sure maybe that is fine, but why? I feel this might all play into a larger conversation about liking foods because they have some stronghold in your memory. This is a topic for a separate post, but at Thanksgiving we had a long conversation about how food you are nostalgic for is not always food you actually still want to eat. And I wondered if that was why I wasn't that wild about this place - like it is a collection of things that wouldn't mean anything to most people. But then after this conversation at Thanksgiving, I thought, no - it is more like that pretension without being really outstanding feels slightly irritating. 
Perhaps my expectations were too high. Later in the weekend we took our friend from out of town to Muza and Bellini's, and last night we got take out from Capital Q's, and I gotta say I was more excited about those experiences. I wonder if, like the Clover Club and their duck fat-fried potato chips, this whole style has a luster that can fade in a way that something like a really well done roasted chicken or beef bourguignon doesn't. Like, yes you put duck gravy on the fries, but they are still just fries and they are $12.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Food Section at Target

This weekend I was around the Colonie Northway Mall area and instead of making a separate trip to a grocery store, I decided to see if the Target food section could fulfill my modest shopping list. My list consisted of: brown sugar, molasses, tomato paste, Colavita olive oil (I know I couldn't realistically expect this), and a snack for myself to hold me over until dinner time. As I was hunting down these items I seemed to hear a lot of different people they couldn't find certain items, perhaps indicating that the section is hard to navigate. There are a lot of items where only the Target brand exists, which for me made items harder to immediately notice, but I'm hoping they will taste ok. While there is a small meat and produce section where I've found some good things in the past, I feel that the food section in general is mostly geared towards mixes and already-prepared types of foods. I did find star anise though (I've read some Indian recipes that include it recently so I picked some of that up), and I spotted some tasty wasabi peas for myself as a snack. I also found some extracts and food coloring for the variety of homemade marshmallows I plan on making for holiday gifts. No luck on the tomato paste or the specific type of olive oil I was looking for. They did instead have quite the variety of pre-made sauces, so it does seem more suited to that type of purpose. In the end, my feeling is the Target food section can get you through a snack for yourself and even certain dinners, but you can't expect to cross off an extensive shopping list there. Things may or may not be there (I wouldn't have thought tomato paste would be unreasonable), some things may only be there in the Target brand version (I'll have to try these items to judge their quality), but if you don't feel like making another stop it is pretty convenient to have this section there in its expanded format.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"I have measured out my life with coffee spoons"

I love coffee. I've always loved it. My parents drink it black with no sugar all day, and I pretty much adapted that too. I feel about coffee the way I feel about baked goods in that the freshness of it is very important. There should not be very much time elapsed at all between the time it was roasted and delivered to you, and definitely not much time elapsed between when it was ground and brewed. That is why Uncommon Grounds is so good - they have a roaster right in the store. I really love Caribou Coffee, whose stores I basically lived in as an undergraduate (with comfy leather chairs and thick, heavy duty wooden tables that are great for studying). I still make sure to pick up their beans when I am in MI or at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport on a layover. Their coffee is never, ever burnt, and always bright tasting and delicious. Zoka Coffee from WA is amazing. Scott bought the Ethiopian brand when he was in Seattle at a conference, and it is complex, fresh, and has such nice, deep flavors. Every time I make a cup I can't believe how good it is, really - what a treasure.

Which brings me to coffee I don't really enjoy - Keurig's K Cup brewer. We have one at the office. Of course it makes sense at the office because multiple people can have different kinds and there is no mess to clean up. But I will argue the coffee does not taste good. We're low on the K Cups around here, and I started brewing my own coffee at home and just waking up a little earlier. It made me realize how much more delicious the coffee I make at home is compared to the coffee brewed in this thing. Apparently, there is a refillable cup you can buy so you can use your own ground coffee, but I have read negative reviews of this accessory online.  I just feel that these K cups seem expensive compared to regular coffee (I guess it depends what kind of coffee you normally buy), and it never tastes good. Creating all these little plastic cups for every single cup of coffee someone drinks seems also very bad for the environment (paper coffee filters are biodegradable, and can even be recycled). The taste must be affected by the fact that you have no idea how long those coffee grounds have been in the little plastic cup.You don't know how long they were being shipped all around the country while en route to wholesale big box stores. Then, they sit in the cabinet in the main office for weeks, before even getting to the point where someone might think about using them. It has been great waking up a half an hour earlier to leisurely enjoy my freshly ground coffee at the kitchen table while reading the newspaper, and that turns out to be much, much more satisfying. In this way, it becomes a moment, and more than just a means to an end. If I wanted to go really crazy I could add some frothed milk. So even though I will admit to the convenience of the K cups, I say the taste is not good, and the whole experience is unsatisfying, even though many of my coworkers love the thing. Since going without it, I've realized I'd rather go without than bother with something I don't even really like.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Emily, the Grinch

For some reason I am all of a sudden feeling very down on the holidays, and Jezebel informs me that it is ok for me to complain about it. Where to start?

  • Every year I read the InStyle Magazine gift guide, and every year I wonder who it is meant for. Are there women in the world who spend $2,000 on a Louis Vuitton fur scarf for their friends? Is the gift guide meant for me to hand the magazine to my husband? Does he also want to read about Amy Adams's parenting philosophy and how to perfect the cat eye makeup look? If you want to give me a gift guide, InStyle magazine, here is what I am in the market for: something along the lines of tins of cookies, ornaments, or small, cheap fashion accessories for my coworkers, books or cds for our dads, maybe a reasonably priced piece of jewelry or lotion for our mothers, and something for my husband that hopefully will make the house cleaner like a wine rack or bookshelf. In fact, I can't remember in my life a girl friend of mine buying me any kind of significant Christmas gift. Are there groups of women who buy each other $500 sweaters? Do they all work at magazines? Also, everyday on my way into work I listen to NPR and hear how much no one has any money. People don't have money to pay back student loans, they don't have jobs, and businesses that have lasted 30 years are closing up shop. Who are these people who can afford this? And also if I were that person who was in the market for a $2,000 scarf I think I would know where to acquire such an object. It was reminding me eerily of wedding planning - magazines telling people they need things that even well-educated, gainfully employed people are not anywhere near being able to afford.
  • Now sometimes I love me some Martha. We even went to see her show taped.  But the new issue of Martha Stewart Living is ridiculous, or rather the attitudes about Christmas it reflects in our society are ridiculous. Basically - make tons of things yourself, with enough food to bring out things from the freezer if guests show up with no notice whatsoever (who are these guests who show up at a moment's notice, and what are they doing still expecting cookies made from scratch without giving you any warning?), and make a million crafts to cover your whole house - because it is important to be festive (magical, even!). Most importantly, have fun and make it all seem super easy - like you put forth absolutely no effort at all!! That last step is always important to Martha. Make sure you have flower arrangements by the bed in the guest room including a bottle of water and a clean glass (facing down so no dust gets in it!), and then act like it all showed up there on its own! Well, we have a friend coming to stay tonight, and as I was cleaning, Scott said "If he doesn't like it he can stay in a hotel", which is true enough. According to this interesting article, one way to make a house feel like a home is not to feel like you have to constantly apologize for signs of life in it. When I had friends over a couple weeks ago, the pizza I made pretty much made a huge mess in the kitchen. My friend said something like "There is no way to make pizza without destroying your kitchen". So why should I feel bad about it? People are there to see you, and I don't see the point in freaking out trying to make your living space look like people don't live there. 
  • There's also the inevitable feeling of guilt in one way or another. You can't see everyone every time. I actually think families should get together in the summer when the weather is nice, it is cheaper to travel, and there is less pressure and expectations of complete joy at every moment. Would it be the worse thing ever if I stayed on the couch and ate fruitcake and watched a "Real Housewives" marathon? Who would that hurt? Of course a holiday Pottery Barn catalog can take your breath away, and the movie "A Family Stone" managed to portray a family that celebrates the holidays in a way that is both relaxed and fun, but the fact the holiday movies I remember liking most from growing up were "Home Alone" (kid spends holidays eating pizza and watching movies) and "Christmas Vacation" (movie that makes fun of the whole thing, including the food and relatives in a way that is actually sort of mean) says a lot about how stressful it can be. 
  • Black Friday is ridiculous. Who are these people? If you can't afford something without getting a ridiculous deal on it, maybe you should just bake everyone cookies this year.

I guess I just feel like the media expects people to spend a lot and put forth an enormous amount of effort for the holidays whether people have the money (they don't) or feel like it (I planned a wedding this year - I am fresh out of crafty energy). I don't know. I guess I am not up for it this year - and InStyle telling me to buy women I know more expensive clothes than I would ever buy myself, and Martha telling me to fill my freezer with cookie dough in case random people show up on my porch without me inviting them, well, it kind of just made me less into it that I might have been otherwise.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Mark Bittman's No-Knead Bread

This is amazing. I had heard about it for a few years and never tried it myself. But I read it in the Essential New York Times Cookbook, and decided to give it a try.

There it is served with Veal Saltimbocca from the same cookbook.

This recipe is revolutionary. Dead easy. The least amount of work I have ever put forth in regards to a baked good, and also better than any bread I have ever made before. The elasticity and texture is amazing. The crust is fabulous. It is like bread from an expensive restaurant, fresh as can be. And it was so easy – all I did was mix the ingredients together, leave the dough in the bowl for 18 hours, shape it into a ball and leave for two hours, put it in a dutch oven in then oven for half an hour, take the lid off and cook for about 20 minutes more – and viola – fabulous, rustic style bread with barely any effort. No mess either – you don’t even have to use the food processor. Amazing. I think I'll be making this all the time now.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Club Sandwich: The Original Recipe

Ms. Garlic noticed this recipe today in Amanda Hesser's essential Essential New York Times Cookbook. I couldn't find the original Times story from 1907, but another blogger transcribed it:

Club Sandwich
Original recipe

Go to the club.
Drink six toasts.
Eat a slice of meat.
Drink six more toasts.
Can't argue with that one...

Grandma's Pies and Restaurant

So I talked to my sister on the phone for a long time this weekend, and it turns out the people who live in my late grandparents' house think it is haunted. Of course I don't believe this really, and it isn't supposedly haunted by my grandparents, but instead my great grandparents who also lived there. I never met them, but I did research them quite a bit when I worked at Ellis Island (apparently they visited France a lot). Anyways, apparently the people who live there now smell smoke and hear big band music at random times when no one else is home (whatever). It caused my sister and I to start talking about all our grandparents' funerals we have been to. The first one, my dad's dad was when I was in college, when we were all barely starting to feel like grown-ups at all (I realize there are plenty of people who never get to know any of their grandparents for any significant amount of time, and I feel fortunate to have known the four of them during the years I was growing up). The second one was when I was in grad school.  When I got questioned by the airport security person as to why I was flying from Detroit to Laguardia at 6am on a Thursday I just burst out crying at her hostility - "My grandma died!!". I don't think I stopped crying until the wheels of the plane touched down in New York. It was terrible. I had dreams when I was a small child that one day my grandparents would die, but it still never seems like it should happen. It seems like the end of the world in that moment, like anything that would ever happen after that could only be very bleak and cold. The third funeral I was only in town for because of my friend's bachelorette party. That one almost seemed like the worst just because she was so much fun, undeniably, and had such an incredible zest for life. I also felt horrible for my grandpa who doesn't have his wife of 63 years anymore. Also, it almost gets to a point with grandparents' funerals where you aren't just mourning the person, you are mourning a time when everyone's lives were intertwined, when your cousins actually knew what was going on with you through triumphs and failures.

So finally I said to my sister the thing is not to miss them so much. The thing is not to be sad forever. The important thing is to remember what was fun about them, and appreciate the ways they inspired you to be the person you are doing the work you do in the world. And when I think about the happiest moments with all my grandparents I think about the Great Lakes and going on vacations "Up North" in MI. That is what people do in MI for vacation - they drive 4 hours north and go lay on a beach somewhere and eat ice cream. That being the pattern, Standish is a good place to stop to eat. We used to stop at Wheeler's there, and while I see most of the reviews online are not good, it will forever have a place in my heart as the place we took a moment to stretch our legs on long car rides and eat delicious open faced roast beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy. As I remember, they also offered a ridiculous variety of pies.

So somehow after this conversation with my sister Saturday night I wanted to go to Grandma's on Central Ave. Of course it isn't ambitious or cool at all. Who else serves open faced roast beef sandwiches though? No one, I would think. Being a person who no longer has any grandmothers this place does feel like going to Grandma's. The holiday decorations are often ridiculous and kitschy (love it! especially for Valentine's Day). The amount of pies you can choose from is overwhelming (just like my grandmother would have wanted it). The menu includes club sandwiches, yankee pot roast, and liver and onions. We went on Saturday night, and my husband went for the dinner special. It is a crazy good deal including 3 sides (he got minestrone, carrots, and fries), roll and butter, complimentary glass of wine, and a slice of pie. I got a garden salad with ranch dressing. With all my affection for fancy salads and nutrient-rich greens, I have to say there is still something nostalgic for my Midwestern upbringing related to the taste of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and ranch dressing all together. I had the open-faced roast beef sandwich, and it was exactly what I was hoping for - the bread soggy from soaking up all the gravy, the roast beef so tender it can be eaten with just a fork. We also rarely ever make potatoes ourselves, because I enjoy making bread and he likes making pasta, so the mashed potatoes were a special treat to me. He had the liver and onions and actually said when he ordered it "I know this is straight out of the 1940s - but..." I tasted it and thought it was quite good. After much, much deliberation for what to have for his free piece of pie we went with the Napoleon Apple. It had a layer of apple filling, a layer of vanilla pudding, and chocolate and vanilla frosting on top with some sort of streusel type sugar crumble around the edges. We've previously had Boston Cream Pie and the Pumpkin, and this was just as good as those. I enjoyed the coffee too. We sat there for a while before remembering we had to go up to the front to pay, so that is good to know.  Anyways, anyone looking for a bit of nostalgia, or to feel like they are actually visiting their grandma, can visit this restaurant as some kind of reminder or momentary substitute. I like it for what it is, even as I realize it makes me not very hip at all to request it on a Saturday night.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Candy Cane Cocktail

A couple of years ago I tried a candy cane cocktail at Bellini's. It was so good, and I kept going back trying to figure out how to make it.

This is what I came up with:

2 ounces vodka (I like this Prairie vodka. It is from Minnesota, and apparently not available everywhere. It was also reasonably priced).

1 1/2 ounces white cream de menthe

Smash up candy canes and wet rim of frosted glass. Dip rim in pile of candy canes on a plate. Shake with ice in cocktail shaker. Strain into cocktail glass. Enjoy that taste of the holidays!

While I know there are plenty of drinks that can serve to warm you up from the cold weather like red wine or wassail, this drink is the taste of cold weather. Crisp, freezing, exhilarating - the taste of winter - feels like your breath fogging up a glass window on a bright 30 degree morning or stepping onto an icy patch on a parking lot with shiny black, high heel  boots and feeling the ice crack below.

Tea from the Whistling Kettle

I've previously discussed how fun it is to go to the Whistling Kettle in Ballston Spa for lunch. But I was appreciating again the other day really how good their teas are. When we first moved here, we used to shop at Teavana at Crossgates, which was fine. We got some really great brewing accessories from there, and I still can't walk by through the mall without admiring their cast iron tea pots. But once you discover the local place, it seems much better to support them. Once we bought tea from Little Buddha on Lark Street, which was fine except they didn't label any of them and we bought like 8 kinds. It takes a little of the fun out of it to not know what you are having, and then if you like it you won't know which one to purchase next time. We haven't finished them because we can't be sure they'll be something we'd be in the mood for.

So my friend was over, and I was looking through the tea from the Whistling Kettle that we have, and here are the ones we have left in our cabinet:
  • Scottish Breakfast - strong and classic.
  • Passion, Chili, and Orange Rooibos- I know I am the crazy sort of person who wants my tea very spicy, but there must be other people like me in the world too, right? This is my idea of a good time - burning tongue and all. It also has no caffeine, making it a good nighttime option. (I can't find it on their website, which makes me wonder if they still carry it.) I find this one to be soothing and invigorating at the same time.
  • Lavender Earl Grey - infuses the whole downstairs of the house with the smell of the South of France. Ahhhhh, soothing and fragrant. I usually order this one when we go there to eat. 
  • Vanilla Chai - this is not any sugary mess you can get from corporate coffeehouses - this is the taste of India - spiced and strong. It is the real thing. With some frothed milk, it is heaven. We still also have the cane sugar leftover from Teavana and that is very tasty, especially in Chai.
  • Belgian Chocolate Rooibos again, no caffiene, and so delicious. I served this one to my friend and she was very impressed. It really has such a calming effect, and is great with milk or without. It is almost like having a dessert without the calories.
  • We also still have Maple Cream and Irish Cream, but I haven't had those as much so I can't really comment, except that I have tried them and they were good.
  • I love Lapsang Souchong, but we are out of that right now, and I do understand that it is an acquired taste for a lot of people. For me it is the tea equivalent of good scotch.
Would love to head up there again soon! They really do such a great job.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanksgiving Inspiration Part 2

I already talked about some ideas I've had for Thanksgiving. I've also already said I am not hosting this year. But that doesn't have to stop me from coming up with menu ideas for other people (after all, planning the menu is half the fun). And decorating too, of course.
And remember to take a moment to say what you are thankful for.  Last year I think I said I was thankful for my job, and the cheese we had, which came off as cold-hearted maybe because the 5 year old who followed right after me was thankful for a brother to play with. Of course I am thankful for all the fabulous people in my life. But after hearing day after day on the news about how difficult it has been for so many people in terms of economic conditions, I am very, very thankful to have a job, and especially one I find really interesting. Sometimes maybe it is hard to take a step back from one's life and think about gratitude. It is easier to take things for granted. But let me attempt to do a better job of it than I did last year.

Things I am thankful for:
  •  My health
  • My husband who is the sweetest, smartest man in the world
  • My family who is never, ever boring.
  • Friends who understand you so well even if you don't see them very often.
  • All of our amazing wedding presents, and how much they contribute to us being able to prepare our meals effectively.
  • Pan-Am.
  • My boss, who is way smarter and competent than she ever really gets credit for. She really knows what she is doing, and you can't say that about everyone you'll ever work with.
  • All of the possible circumstances and decisions and minute gyrations in the world that have led me to this spot in my life where I am supremely happy, and where I get to have a day off just to go and eat my friend's amazing cooking.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Flea Market, Raynham, MA

I had to go to Boston's Logan airport to pick up my husband today, and my coworker was going to visit her son in RI so we both stopped in to check out The Raynham Flea Market together. It was a very smooth and easy drive out there. It looked pretty intense from the pictures on the website. I got an enormous amount of brooches for a bridal brooch bouquet I'm making for a friend of mine (like these). In fact, if I hadn't gone here I'd probably be chasing them down one by one and that would have taken forever. Instead, I found enough for the whole thing, at the budgeted price, all in one shot. I also found vintage Pan-Am cocktail stirrers. Yes, I'll be making drinks to use them later tonight. I also found a book from 1959 with tips on how to dress a wife with "a note to the husbands" at the beginning of each chapter. It actually had some good tips, like not to buy things you don't really need and how to pare down your closet. Here's more info about the book. I got actually a whole stack of books for a quarter each and had a nice conversation with an elderly man about the reading habits of his wife. I said "She sounds like a cool lady!" and he agreed that she is.

I had a corn dog. I don't think I've ever had a real corn dog in my whole life. When I was a kid we only had ones made out of tofu. But this was something else. I enjoyed it to a ridiculous extent, way more than I should have.

 My friend's son got some cool baseball cards (Justin Verlander! including a piece of fabric from his jersey on the card - very cool), and my coworker got very, very excited about the looks of the whoopie pies. Now, I've mentioned my coworkers have very specific ideas about whoopie pies. The sponginess factor is important. They must not just be a cake - instead, they must be halfway between a cake and cookie. The filling must not be frosting - instead, it should include marshmallow fluff. Well, these just looked amazing. I was waiting for my coworker and everyone who walked by the booth stared at them and was like "Holy cow!!". They were epic. I actually called her up and said "I have got to show you something!". She got very excited like everyone else there, but said "Tell me sir, what is in the filling?" "It is just frosting", he said. "Hmmmm," she thought about it, but ultimately could not resist. Check it out:

It took four of us and we still had like 4 inches of it left. Problems: my coworker didn't find it authentic and would have rather had it smaller and had a spongier cake and including marshmallow fluff. However, the impressive size - even for $5.50 blew all of our minds. And while we were eating it in the food court people were stopping and staring like there was a super hot woman at our table half naked. They were straining their necks to stare at our whoopie pie. It was ridiculous.

All in all a fun time. I would say the flea market felt a bit like Las Vegas to me - incredibly fun for a very specific amount of time, until all of a sudden it seemed crazy overwhelming and very tiring. You need to be looking for something specific at a flea market or it all runs together. For me, it was a friend's bridal brooch bouquet - and thanks to my trip today I believe it is sure to be pretty fabulous looking.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Goat Cheese and Leek Quiche

When I was a single girl I was hopeless in a culinary sense. I never seemed to have ever taken a picture of the kitchen I had when I lived in Astoria, Queens (probably because it was that terrible), but I did take some pictures of other parts of the apartment.To give a sense of what I was working with:

There were lots of books.

Is that a Planet of the Apes poster taped to the wall? Yes, I think it is. Martha Stewart would not approve. I had a crazy, crazy bookcase I made when I was 21. Is that me glued on next to Virginia Woolf and George Washington? Yes. (I don't have an explanation).

I literally used scarves and blankets as curtains and wall decorations. Like this "curtain" that hung up there for 3 years:

(For comparison sake - see also me wearing the "curtain" in Scotland just after we ate at the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter- proves it was so not a curtain:)

And this "tapestry" (I'm really not trying to be narcissistic here, just ignore my face). Yes, it is an actual Hogwarts blanket nailed to the wall. Now we actually use it as a blanket again.


I did, however, have quite a mug collection my mom made me pare down when I moved.

The one in the lower left corner you'll remember from this post. (Oh and I think that is an actual curtain being used as a tablecloth - there was no actual table to eat on BTW - and apparently I was in need of actual curtains so that is ironic). And my friend will report that I also had bowls (because I served her pizza in them). But I did not have much else. So you can imagine my husband-to-be's surprise when he suggested we cook at my place when we first met. He quickly realized I didn't have a cutting board, a chef's knife or a whisk. When he came over and realized I did not have these things we went to a restaurant supply store around the corner under the subway tracks in sweltering heat and bought these things. I thought I was thinking ahead by buying a cutting board - but I bought a glass cutting board and he said he thought those dull the knife. I bought it mostly because it had a beautiful image of a vineyard on it. What did I know? (We still use it for decorative purposes though). He hated that I didn't have any air conditioning, and he felt like he was sticking to my black leather futon. I said I "didn't believe in air conditioning" or something. He watched "Sports Center" and complained that I left the windows open constantly even when I left to go to the grocery store and slept even though I was a woman living alone in NYC and basically on the first floor. I replied that I didn't actually live on the first floor, and it was more like a floor and a half up - that it was impossible to get in from the outside, and in fact, I had tried when I got locked out before and failed. He was genuinely worried about me, and that seemed so sweet that I did actually start to close my windows more. This same summer it turned out there was a fire escape rapist who snuck into women's rooms in Astoria even higher up in buildings than I lived, so that was good of him to worry about me.

I got to work in the kitchen. The kitchen was terrible. The only plugs were on the on opposite side of the kitchen from the counter so you basically had to trip on anything to get in or out of the kitchen. The oven was wildly inconsistent. No dishwasher. No room. It was no wonder I never made anything. Also, every day at 10:30 the sink would inexplicably fill up with suds 7 feet or more in the air filling the entire kitchen, even on the floor. This doesn't seem that sanitary either. I had to scrub and scrub those suds off every day. No idea what they were made out of.

It says something about the magic of this recipe that I was able to make it taste so good. It is from Cook's Illustrated. When thinking back on making the quiche, I cannot imagine that I made the crust. It must have been a frozen crust, but the fact that now I would assume I was making the crust confuses me a little, but I am sure I didn't have the skills for that. So basically you first cook the pie crust for a few minutes, and take it out of the oven. Then, you cook the leeks in butter (taking care to not leave any grit in the leeks), and slice up pieces on goat cheese and crumble the cheese and spread the leeks on the base of the pie crust. Then you mix together cream, milk, eggs, nutmeg, salt and white pepper. I think the nutmeg gives it a unique taste that you might not expect - spicing it up a little. It is just a pinch, but I believe it makes a difference. Also, the white pepper is mild enough not to overpower the cream and eggs, and I believe that is also makes a difference. You just whisk that together and pour it over the leeks and goat cheese and bake it. Delicious! I think he was impressed. He acted impressed anyways.

Reasons this recipe works for someone who has an ill-equipped kitchen and no cooking skills to speak of:
  • It is hard to screw up the deliciousness that is goat cheese.
  • It is also hard to screw up cream. In fact, I made whipped cream for company last night, and it was literally heavy cream and vanilla and it was amazing - so of course cream with goat cheese would impress people.
  • Quiche is one of those things that sounds healthy and complicated to make without really being either of those things.
Anyways, so coming out of that success I made this recipe for a staff Christmas party at the Morgan Library and Museum. I made it for my future in-laws. I made it with my mother. At the staff Christmas party especially they went over very well. Everyone was like "How did you make it so delicious?" while eating 10 of them and asking if they were low fat. I made the recipe for so many occasions mostly because people seemed to genuinely think it was delicious. I almost wonder if part of becoming a cook is building confidence to try more and more complicated things. You almost need to start out with something that works out great in order to talk yourself up to tackling harder things that may not go well. I hate to admit it, but my first attempt making empanadas did not go well. And if I had encountered such a blow to my confidence early on it may had made me less interested in trying to learn how to cook at all.

I'll also say that it takes a special man to date a women who does not own a whisk, a knife, or a cutting board. I'm grateful to him for not judging me (to my face at least) for having a mattress on the floor as a bed and doing things like eating a box of chocolate eclairs for dinner (as discussed here and here). I would say being able to provide for oneself tasty, healthy, and reasonably priced meals is a very, very useful life skill - vital to health and budgetary concerns as well as helpful in friendships and fostering a sense of community. It's not just about showing off, and it is not about being a food snob. I actually hate the word "foodie". It is actually very practical. I think some people are not interested in cooking because they don't where to start. Well, this is where I started - with goat cheese and leek quiche. I served it to a man stuck to the black leather futon due to no air conditioning watching ESPN, in a bowl most likely, from a kitchen with plugs dangerously hanging every which way with dirty dishes piled up no doubt. And somehow - the man came back for more thousands of times after that (in a better kitchen with actual knives and cutting boards).

Friday, November 11, 2011

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Café and Cookbook

One good thing about living in Albany is the proximity to so many other great places to visit like NYC, the Berkshires, Cooperstown, Montreal, and Boston. About a year and a half ago some of my Study Abroad companions and I reunited for a weekend filled with cultural activities.

I brought British themed snacks.

We had a Mad Men inspired fashion show.

We visited the Boston Public Library and a great vintage travel poster show.

We went to a great Italian restaurant in the North End.

And we visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Café. Unfortunately, it looks like the café is closed right at this moment for renovations, but when we were there it was open. I love that museum. It is so eclectic, so intimate, so personal. It is not formal or stuffy. Also there is the mystery of the stolen paintings, that I (as a person who works in museums) find completely fascinating. I find the subject so fascinating that I read books meant for teenagers about the subject. The café was really great. I had gazpacho that was crisp and refreshing. My friends had a curry chicken salad with pecans. Sparrows scurried by outside in the garden. It was a small space, but brightly lit and a modern, minimalist contrast to the cluttered, vibrant museum walls. I was such a fan of the gazpacho, that when we got to the museum shop and my friend saw the cookbook she held it up from across the shop and said "You have to get this!"

So I bought it and I have loved that book so much all this time. It has a selection of tarts, quiches, salads, and lots of old timey New England sounding things like apples and cheddar in several dishes. The recipes are mixed in with archival photos from the museum of Gardner throwing dinner parties (fabulous!) and socializing. All these recipes seem from a different time period entirely, and sometimes I just like to sit and read this book, even though it is a lot smaller than most cookbooks I have. I love the chilled cucumber soup, stuffed mushrooms, artichoke cheese pie, apple and cheddar quiche, tourtiere and many more. The author is not afraid to use lots of shallots in things, which I love. There are many recipes I want to try and haven't - veal and tomato mousse, things that fluff up the fish similar to this Dorie Greenspan recipe, ground beef with raisins and spices, peppers and cabbage stuffed with things. There is also a smoked salmon cream cheese pie that sounds very fun to try. I love this kind of cooking. If I were wealthy I would totally open up a quiche/chilled soup/scone/vintage mismatched china sort of place called Amelie's and rent out the banquet room for bridal showers, but alas I am not.  

I read in the New York Times the other day about the decline of the cookbook now that people can bring an ipad in the kitchen. And while I will admit to last night bringing the laptop into the kitchen to read this recipe, I will defend cookbooks. Because to me, that collection of recipes binds together moments in one's life. I've cooked up whole parties from this cookbook. I have specific memories associated with many different recipes, and I can pick it up and revisit the very same recipes any time. A book becomes a living part of your kitchen, whereas things you found online can be forgotten easily (the exception being many Cook's Illustrated recipes we've printed and used for years). A cookbook is a souvenir not just of the time you bought it, but of all the times you used it. So for me, every time I use the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum cookbook I'll think of our very fun trip, our awesome Mad Men fashion show, comparing engagement rings, eating ridiculously overpriced cupcakes in the Back Bay and our summer in London all over again.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Casual Pizza Dinner

I'm having a couple friends over for dinner on Friday. It is no big deal. In fact, Marguerita Pizza is one of the absolute cheapest foods you can make even if you buy really great fresh mozzarella. I use the Cook's Illustrated recipe, and it works great. Sometimes you want to push yourself and cook something really ambitious, but sometimes you just want to have a couple friends over to keep you company, and it should be very casual. I have though seen some very fun ways to enhance the adult pizza party experience.

Martha Stewart a while ago had a tip about using store bought pies, and letting people add their own ingredients.

This blog (Celebrations at Home) makes it look really cool.

Here's some other tips: at 20Something Cupcakes blog , The HipHostess, and the kitchn.

Sometimes parties aren't about the fuss. Especially if you get your friends to bring the salad. I'm thinking about making Dorie Greenspan's chocolate mousse. But if not, it is no big deal.

Since my husband is going out of town, I think maybe I'm just focusing on this so that I don't just end up making lime sherbet, eating that for every meal, and laying on the couch watching the Housewives all day (or something like that). Anyways point is pizza parties aren't just for children anymore. They are easy, cheap, and fun for adults too, and who doesn't like pizza?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Baba Louie's Pizza, Great Barrington, MA

This week my husband is going to Ireland for work, and I am going to pick him up from the Boston's Logan airport on Sunday. Last time he did this we stopped in Great Barrington for dinner on the way back. We found Baba Louie's Wood Fired Organic Sourdough Pizza in our guidebook and thought it sounded tasty. Scott  wanted soup, and I wanted to split a salad, and we agreed to split a salad.

Scott: "Does that salad have nuts in it?"
Waitress: "No, just greens, balsamic dressing, red onions."
Scott: "Ok, we'll have that." Then we each ordered a pizza, and he ordered a beer.

Then, the salad came and he had a few bites and all of a sudden his mouth became as big as a football and as red as fire engine. "I think there may have been a nut in there", he said, running to the bathroom. He was in the bathroom throwing up for about half an hour. The waitress asked what was wrong and said "He did not say he was allergic to nuts".

Me: "Well, he did ask if the salad had nuts, and you said no. That was why he was asking."
Waitress: "Well the nuts are stored above the greens. One probably fell in. If he had said he was allergic we would have been more careful."
Me: "More careful in not putting in ingredients you said didn't belong there in the first place?"

I sat there as he was throwing up, and I got increasingly worried. We asked for directions to the emergency room. She brought the bill. She charged us for his beer he couldn't drink because he was throwing up and full price for everything else, including the salad. Now, I love servers. I was a server. And I know full well she could have made the beer that he was not able to drink or the salad that made him seriously ill disappear off of the check. She was not sorry at all. Sure, she didn't actually put the nut in there, but admit some wrong doing on behalf of the restaurant! Also, people have life threatening allergies and you guys store the nuts above the salad greens? Are you crazy? The fact that she thought it was all his fault for not making a bigger deal out of it (the man had just gotten off an overnight trans-Atlantic flight), when he asked "Does this have nuts in it?" and she said "No" still makes me mad. I tipped her, just because I know what it is like to rely on tips, and that's the kind of girl I am - but really I feel she should have shown some remorse.

So we went to the emergency room in Great Barrington. They gave him a lot of medication, told him he was lucky there was a hospital nearby or he could have lost the ability to breathe with his throat closing up. They told him he was the chattiest patient ever, which was funny. I just kept saying "You should have ordered the soup! I was the one who wanted to get a salad!! We should have gotten soup!!" We ended up getting home at like 2 am. It was awful. I think he had to cancel class the next day. Now deciding where to eat dinner on Sunday night I think we are going to go to the Castle Street Cafe (the restaurant Ruth Reichl told me could not possibly be good). It seems like testing fate too much to go back there.

I might add that the pizza was actually good when I ate it the next day. Also, that the nurse at the hospital said "Yeah that place has a lot of nuts". But I will also say he is able to eat at lots of Chinese restaurants that serve cashews in things and has never gotten sick at any of those. I don't know, here is a tip: if there is something that people have life threatening allergies don't store it above one of the most commonly used ingredients.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Thanksgiving Inspiration

When I was a kid I felt overwhelmed by Thanksgiving. It just always seemed like so much food that we'd end up feeling sick at the end of it. When I was in college and learning about people starving all over the world, a holiday just devoted to eating seemed a bit like flaunting our wealth in the faces of the less fortunate of the world. Like many things in life, sometimes it takes being able to do something out of free will instead of obligation for you to appreciate it. I did enjoy the green bean casserole:

 (A Midwestern classic: can of green beans, can of cream of mushroom soup mixed together , french fried onions on top, put in the oven for a while.)

This blog shows someone attempting the kind of holiday meal I remember as a kid here and here. This post has some great retro Thanksgiving photos (like the one I featured above).

 In the past few years I've had different ideas about how to approach it. Our first Thanksgiving we did actually make an enormous amount of food, but we pretty much ignored tradition altogether. It was:
  • Goat cheese stuffed dates 
  • Tomato and basil brushchetta
  • veggie tray
  • butter lettuce salad with hearts of palm
  • cauliflower braised in white wine and anchovies
  • maple glazed carrots
  • mushroom bread salad
  • baguette slices
  • beef wellington
  • veggie wellington for my sister
  • chocolate cream pie
  • pumpkin whoopie pies, from One Girl

That was a bit ridiculous. The next year we tried to avoid making too much food, so we scaled back a lot:
  • Beef Bourguignon
  • Duchesse potatoes
  • simple salad
  • our friend brought buttermilk cheesecake with cherry compote (which was fabulous)
This year I am not hosting. My friend has discussed doing the very traditional New England approach - as in quince, buttermilk, all super old school ingredients and preparation. I have discussed doing an all out retro menu: jello salad, cheesy potatoes made with sour cream, the yams with the marshmallows and brown sugar, the ham with the pineapple maraschino cherries on it. If I did this I would also wear a totally fabulous apron.  No one ever seems interested in these ideas. I even say that there are actual made-from-scratch recipes out there which could stand in for these processed Midwestern dishes - like the green bean casserole recipe was featured in Cook's Illustrated once, but again there has been little interest.

I guess our thing is we don't like turkey much, and our style of cooking is different altogether from anything that was made when I was a child at Thanksgiving, so why not ignore all traditions? But then if you just decide you can do anything you want, what is there to help you decide what to make? It should feel festive in some way, or it won't seem special, but it shouldn't be incredibly stressful for the host either. I did read in the recent Martha Stewart Living magazine about a potluck Thanksgiving, and while this looked fun, I'd worry about whether things would go together or not. (If you haven't read that issue the 6 layer chocolate cake with salted caramel  and the sky high pumpkin meringue pie recipes are worth the price of the issue alone.)

Anyways, whether you go with a contemporary, traditional, retro, or even multi-ethnic or vegetarian Thanksgiving menu, I think it is really about getting together with people you care about and having a day where you relax and catch up rather than go to work. That is a nice thing. I think in my adult life though, I have felt that one other important aspect of Thanksgiving is that it should be fun and fairly low stress. The fact that I don't think it should be stressful is part of why I think there should not be rigid rules about what to serve.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Blue Benn, Bennington, VT

So I am out in North Adams, MA dogsitting, and for the first time I didn't just lay around watching Bridezillas for twelve hours. For one thing, our wedding is in the past now, and secondly, I usually happen to be out here during a blizzard of some kind (that is when my coworker usually goes on vacation to Florida or something). I kinda like it out here. It is on the top of a mountain next to the Appalachian Trail so sometimes they get stray hikers. They have a hot tub. There's random wild animals. It is not boring, and it is different enough from where I live to feel like a bit of an adventure or a vacation. My coworker always apologizes about the clutter. By this she means bridal shower invitations, the hope chest her son is refinishing for his girlfriend for her birthday, the issue of Cosmo her other son's girlfriend was reading, a snapshot of my coworker and her husband of 30 years kissing in front of the Grand Canyon this past summer (then another shot of them giggling about it a moment later), and the suit her husband wore to his sister-in-law's funeral a couple days ago still hanging on outside of the bedroom door. That's not clutter - that is the stuff that makes up a family, a marriage, and a life, and that's not something anyone should feel they have to apologize for.

Anyways, so first I went on a wild goose chase for the Bennington Farmer's Market. Everything I saw online said it is open year round, and that it was supposed to be at the corner of River and Depot streets at the Bennington Station. No luck there. Then I went to Second Hand Rose Thrift Store around the corner from there. They had some great argyle and tweed pieces (I love thrift stores ), and I got a very cool lambswool sweater for less than 10 bucks. I mentioned to the sales lady about the Farmer's Market and she was very nice and offered to phone the Chamber of Commerce for me. They said it is indeed on year round, and that sometimes when it is cold they relocate to some abandoned mill or factory building down the street. I went there and still no luck, so I don't know - I guess I advise calling someone before making the trip out to the Bennington Farmer's Market.

Then I went to the Blue Benn for breakfast. My family is obsessed with this place. That photo above is from January 2010, probably about the second day I started working at my current job. My sister used to go to school at Bennington College and work at Pangea, and frankly Vermont is a strange place without her. I hadn't even been to the state of Vermont since she graduated a year and a half ago. But since my farmer's market plans were foiled I decided to go on my own. What is good about it is that the ingredients taste fresh and not greasy. It is cash only, and I only had about six bucks left so I just got the two eggs over easy with toast and hash browns. The eggs were nice and fluffy, the bread was very good, and the potatoes were cut in large chucks. The potatoes were very flavorful - not greasy and not too crispy. They also have like five different kinds of hot sauces. In the past I have gotten the breakfast burrito (very good), and a lot of different things with the fresh and delicious Vermont cheeses on them. They also have a variety of vegetarian choices, like things that include tofu, spinach, and portobello mushrooms. They have things that sound a little weird (an omelette with marinara sauce on it?), and sometimes unappetizing (pumpkin dump cake?), but it all adds to the charm. The waitresses are middle aged and unimpressed. The cooks all have tattoos. The pink haired college kid talks to the lumber jack looking mountain man. They play Bob Dylan. The specials are all written in marker on computer paper and taped behind the counter in a huge mosaic of interesting sounding dishes. Of course my sister loved it. It is pretty close to what a fictional imagining of a small town Vermont diner would be - not to mention the sleek, narrow, train car building. If you want a booth you will probably have to wait a while. I just took a seat at the counter right away. I was by myself, but I also think sitting at the counter is part of the experience.

Anyways, then I stopped by the Salvation Army thrift store on the way out of town. I have previously said how much thrift stores reflect the tastes and budgets of the surrounding neighborhood. This one being a little more on the outskirts of town than the Second Rose seemed to reflect more of the Vermont mountain man persona. It was mostly L.L. Bean sweaters, religious paraphenelia, and tons of tweed hats which probably came from elderly men. In a different mood I may have gone for some of these sweaters. I think they were playing country music, and I was feeling very far away from Albany. In fact, I had also stopped in the Hawkins House Craftsmarket,  and I heard some ladies talking about how difficult it is to drive in Albany and Troy. The kept referring to Albany as "the city", and I thought don't they know New York City is "the city"? Hilarious! I moved up here thinking I would relax and bake pies, but I guess it is all a matter of perspective.

On the way out of town I also saw the "Occupy Bennington Movement". There were about 5 of them, but they had a lot of enthusiasm.

I'll be out here again in January for a week when my coworker goes to Disney World.  It will just be me, the dogs, the bears, the wayward hikers and probably a good amount of snow - so wish me luck.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Point

We've been to The Point several times now, and my feeling is that it is better as a place to meet people for drinks and snacks than it is a good place to go for dinner.


Large amount of space is good for meeting a group of friends.

Desserts - Cheesecake lollipops ("Sweet, decadent cream cheese spheres"), and cinnamon doughnuts ("Cinnamon Delights- Bite size, cinnamon and sugar doughnuts garnished with cinnamon glaze, Chantilly cream and berries") were ridiculously delicious.

Cocktails - I had the "About Thyme 9, Aromatic. botanical. refreshing. Hendrick’s gin, Pimm’s #1, muddled cucumber, splash of lemonade, splash of club, fresh picked thyme." I loved it. It was very refreshing. Also a lot of other options looked interesting too.

Appetizers - We had fried green beans with a wasabi sauce, and some kind of sampling of multiple appetizers, including the crab cake, that were all very good.


On several occasions the music was too loud. Whole point of it is that it is large enough of a space to meet a big group of friends, don't ruin it with music so loud people can't talk to each other.

Entrees. While the food was good -  two of our friends had "Black and Blue pizza- Slices of filet mignon, gorgonzola cheese gnocchi, mushrooms, spinach and carmelized onions served over grilled pizza dough" for $16, two of our friends had steak, and I had "Tuscan Cherry Pork- Pan-roasted free-range pork tenderloin with a Bing cherry, Chianti wine, and tomato glaze served with potato and vegetable of the day" for $19. It seemed expensive for what it was. I guess for me I just have certain favorite restaurants: New World Bistro, Cafe Capriccio (see also Scott's review here), and Provence. Those three restaurants are legitimately exciting. They are worth going to, and The Point for dinner seems about in the same price range as these without being as exciting. Sure, if it is a special occasion I might want to go to Jack's Oyster House or McGuire's, and if it is a random weeknight I might go to Capital Q's or Bellini's, but for the weekend night out with friends there is actually a lot of competition.  I'm not sure I couldn't make any of the entrees we had at The Point for much cheaper at home.  Like Creo, when people ask me about it I hesitate briefly about what to say, it isn't that it is bad. It is fine. But for the price, I'm not sure (I am in favor of Creo for brunch though). In these economic times people need motivation to pay more to eat out. One of our friends said that they used to have more ambitious and complicated items on the menu that didn't work out that well, and that they seemed to have taken those off. But as far as roasts, steaks, and potatoes go - I can actually do that myself pretty easily and it will taste very similar.

That being said, The Point as a place to meet friends for drinks, desserts, and snacks is fabulous, as long as they don't have loud music. Again, it is a huge space, and you are never going to be able to get into Mahar's or the Wine Bar on Lark on a Friday night and be able to sit down with 6 of your friends. So I say let's hear it for a cheese plate, an interesting cocktail, and Cheesecake lollipops split around the table!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cup Diner, Astoria

Scott and I were both customers at the Cup Diner in Astoria, Queens for a couple years before we even knew each other. I used to order the L.A. Salad which had strawberries, blueberries, walnuts, greens, blue cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette. Eventually after being a customer there for such a long time, I decided it would be a good place to work. It was only a few minutes walk from my apartment, and the food was good.

As you can guess from my lack of make-up or hair brushing, I worked the 6 am shift. The world is a different place that early. There aren't that many people out and about, and so people interact differently, with a little more conversational intimacy. I served coffee to people who worked at the Kaufman Astoria Studios across the street. Then there were the celebrities. I waited on Larry David, Steve Wiebe from The King of Kong movie (this actually turned out to be our first date movie - Wiebe was there for the premiere of his movie at the Museum of the Moving Image across the street), Spike Lee, plenty of people from "Law and Order", Josh Lucas (who thought he was too hunky and famous to pay for his $5 check of chicken soup and iced tea), a variety of gentlemen suitors (some better than others), and neighborhood families who loved me and would say hi to me at the grocery store and on the street when I wasn’t working. My fellow waitresses were often fabulous – it was the closest my life will ever come to an episode of Pan-Am. The food was great in the beginning – BLTs, deep fried French toast coated in coconut with strawberries, Junior’s cheesecake, coleslaw made from scratch, and pretty good coffee.

When I first started there I worked nights, and they wanted me to be a manager. It actually turned out to be a horrible deal financially, and I fought to work the day shift as a server. I am glad I did, because one of the first day time shifts I worked was when I met my husband-to-be. The first time I met him I was folding napkins around silverware, and he had a newspaper with the NBA playoffs being featured which mentioned the Pistons. I started talking about LeBron James, and after that day coworkers started to put him in my section because they thought I wanted to talk to him. I think the third time I waited on him he told me his name. Then, one time I pressured him into ordering the fish and chips. He thought it was way too many fries and kept feeding them to me. I don’t think that is a normal thing to do with your waitress, and it made me think he liked me. Another day I was getting ready to leave, and he just kept saying "Wait, I am getting my check!" And I waited five minutes, and I didn't think that was normal either. Very smooth.

He told me stories about people who I’ve now known for years, and it’s funny to think back to that moment of him saying “My friends in CT…” or "My friend who is an English professor" and now having memories of them now in my own life. In between me filling his coffee he talked about going to France on his honeymoon, and I thought “that is a honeymoon I’d like to go on” (4 years later it was Napa we went to instead, and had great food). He was adorable, the smartest guy ever, knew about stuff I thought was interesting (even though that was 4 years ago now I think we had a lengthy discussion about Mitt Romney's chances running for the presidency), and fun to talk to.  It was an uncertain time in my life. I was applying to grad schools all over, my life could have gone a million different directions. It was both terrifying and extremely exciting. But one thing I was sure of, almost immediately, was that he was the guy for me. I don't mean that in an overly dramatic way. It just very simply true.

The restaurant had problems. A new owner cut corners that led to disastrous results. There were rumors of ties to the mob, and of fraudulent paychecks. I left to go to grad school, and the place shut down. But without overly romanticizing it, I just want to point out how restaurants can be the beating heart of a community. They bring people together, and live on in the minds of the people they touched even years after they shut down. Like when I added our lovely server from New World on facebook and saw that she was already friends with the husband of my friend who did a reading at our wedding, and a few others of my friends. Servers just have the chance to meet everyone in a given neighborhood, and I think that is a special thing. There are awful parts of being a server, but the sense of community that surrounds the job and restaurants in general I'm not sure can be replicated. For me, I got a husband out of the deal, and two of the iconic coffee cups I stole when I heard the place was closing down just before I stopped working there. We still use those cups - the only difference is that now he is usually the one serving me.