Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Another Inagural Voyage

With our wedding done, the time has come to make more things with our wedding gifts. Tonight, this involved making a beef, vegetable and barley soup in our new Dutch oven, and then after dinner fixing the first cocktail with new new martini glasses and cocktail shaker. (Actually, we got two cocktail shakers -- any capital regionites want our old one?) I thought an appropriate choice was the king of cocktails, the Manhattan. In this case, made with Sazerac Rye.* Delicious!

*In Manhattans, my position is that rye is better than bourbon -- the hint of sourness and spice works well.

French Macarons

I absolutely love French Macarons. I would like to make the argument that they are one of the most ideal desserts for the following reasons:

  • They are the perfect size. I will never understand the idea of massive desserts. Nothing is that great after a few bites anyway, and if you are sitting down with the whole pint of the Ben & Jerry's I might ask did you actually even eat dinner? I think for dessert all you really need is one and a half or two bites. It is about cleaning your palate and lightening your mood. It is not a second meal.
  • The combination of textures is sublime. The outside is ideally crunchy like an eggshell. The cookie part is ideally a bit chewy. And the filling should be soft and creamy. Perfection! Crunch-chew-lick up creamy filling, what could be better?
  • They look very beautiful. No one would expect anything less from the whoopie pie's little sophisticated cousin. I especially love when they are all different colors, like at Jean-Georges where they serve lavender flavored ones after lunch.
I will never know how I spent 27 years without appreciating these. Perfection!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Poetry and Food

 Our friend read this poem at our wedding ceremony last week. I love it so much.

LIII from One Hundred Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda:

"Here are the bread-the wine-the table-the house:
a man's needs, and a woman's, and a life's.
Peace whirled through and settled in this place:
the common fire burned, to make this light.

Hail to your two hands, which fly and make
their white creations, the singing and the food:
salve! the wholesomeness of your busy feet;
viva! the ballerina who dances with the broom.

Those rugged rivers of water and of threat,
torturous pavilions of the foam,
incendiary hives and reefs: today

they are this respite, your blood in mine,
this path, starry and blue as the night,
this never-ending simple tenderness."

Our wedding was a blast. We've socialized more and eaten out a lot since then. We took some friends and family on a culinary tour of Albany afterward (Ala Shanghai, lunch at Provence, Forbidden Pleasures appetizers and the new summer menu at New World Bistro). We even stopped by a cute little bit quirky cafe in Catskill, NY on our way back from a wedding this past weekend. It was all very fun, but I think I am ready for things to settle down a bit. I actually said to my boss at some point last week that all I really wanted was to be at home and roast a chicken.

The thing is that weddings are a community driven affair. Sure, they are supposed to be about romance, but they are also very public. I remember one day in the winter. It was freezing outside, and I spent the day reading Jonathon Franzen's Freedom. I roasted a whole ton of garlic and made the Cook's Illustrated chicken with forty cloves of garlic. The house smelled amazing. The dinner was great. But more than that, the story of the marriage in the book I found very compelling. People aren't perfect. Marriage is long. There was such a difference in the scenes where the husband was in a cold house by himself, and his wife was there cooking up something hearty and delicious. Of course their marriage wasn't perfect, (and the book wasn't perfect either for that matter), but there was something ultimately inspiring about it. They both had their one person they were supposed to be with, and it didn't matter if it was difficult. To finish reading that book, and then to eat a homemade, hearty dinner in a warm, garlic scented house somehow felt very romantic. On a freezing winter day when I probably hadn't left the house all day, maybe it wasn't exactly a romantic feeling, but a feeling that I was a part of a partnership that would endure. In the same way our Le Creuset pots we got for wedding presents somehow seem like they will be cooking us chickens and stews forever. I love the Le Creuset stuff so much because when I look at them I see the clunky, heavy possibility of decades of shared meals together on cold winter nights.

There is something funny about wrapping up a wedding chock-filled with romantic moments, and really just wishing to do something that a lot of people probably consider a chore. I've touched on the theme before, but somehow to me when I think of marriage I think of roast chicken. I know some people go through wedding withdrawal, but I see it differently. To quote a card one of our friends gave us "The only thing better than looking forward to your wedding is looking forward to the rest of your lives together".

Monday, June 20, 2011

Tips for Planning a Successful Wedding

We got married over the weekend, and it was pretty much the best thing ever. Here are some tips I can offer to other engaged couples so that they can also have an enjoyable big day.

  • Don't take yourself too seriously. If you want to do goofy dances with the 7 year old flower girl all night, it is your event and you are allowed.
  • Eat. After hearing from too many people that I would not get to eat anything at my own wedding, I made sure to have lunch catered. I compared the menus from a few places. I thought about Bountiful Bread, but it seemed expensive for what it was. I figured if it wasn't going to be cheap I might as well get something I really love. The New World Bistro catering menu was great. They were exactly on time, and they were super nice. We got the Hudson Valley salad, jerk chicken salad wraps, goat cheese, red pepper, and pesto wraps and lime phyllo tarts. I think everyone who got their hair and makeup done appreciated it. Also, if people eat they are less likely to get headaches from drinking too much champagne throughout the day. I count my decision to order lunch before our 5:00 ceremony as one of my best ideas. It had the added bonus of leftovers. So at 1am when the kitchen at the hotel bar was closed my sister, my friend from high school and her boyfriend, and my cousin all came up to polish off the sandwiches for me. The bridal suite at the Crowne Plaza has pretty much the best view of Albany that exists, and it was very, very beautiful. Will I ever have a breathtaking view of the New York State capital while basically having a picnic in a luxurious suite with loved ones from three different states through the wee hours of the morning? No, most likely that will never happen again, which is part of what makes it all so sweet. Thank you, New World Bistro, not only for a fabulous lunch but for a beautiful moment in the middle of the night. 
  • J & S Watkins rocks! That is all there is too it. Wedding cake that is not dried out and doesn't taste like Styrofoam. God bless 'em.
  • If possible hire super nice people who share your vision and get your personality. Erin Harkes sang our first dance song. It was the anniversary of a very sad event for her, and she showed up anyway. She is all around just an amazing person, and the song to me was one of the single most romantic aspects of our whole wedding. Jacqueline Lynch is totally fabulous. We have obviously not gotten any pics yet, but I love her work. I am sure they will be amazing. And she gets me and the kind of photos I wanted. Are we on the cover of a romance novel? No, no we are not.  We're hanging out looking cool with our best friends! She is so, so smart and so, so creative. I actually made a piece of art for a charity art auction once, and she bid on mine and I bid on one of hers with neither of us looking at who it was made by. The just proved to me I was meant to hire her. Are you a cool, stylish bride who doesn't want to come off as princessy and airbrushed? Hire her! Our coordinator at the Crowne Plaza was really the best. I don't think she exactly knew what to do with my approach of making everything myself, but she went with it. She dealt with all my crazy diagrams and drawings for the decor I made. At the last minute when Erin Harkes wasn't picking up her phone because she was parking, our coordinator said "Do you have a back up plan?" in a really calm voice. Erin found parking and showed up, but if she hadn't our coordinator was ready to deal with it. That was a big part of why we picked the venue. She just seemed from the very beginning to be completely nice and totally organized, and she was from beginning to end. Make Me Fabulous is the best in the area, period. They will literally make you fabulous, doesn't matter who you are or if you don't normally wear makeup or hair products. It will still look like you, only a fancier version. They are the best.
  • Hope for the best with the food. I know it is difficult to feed a lot of people and have it turn out tasty, but ours was really great. People cannot stop telling me how good all the food was, and while you need to pick things based on convenience/price/location first, the food at the Crowne Plaza is actually very good (for the record we had the herb crusted salmon, prime rib, chicken saltimbocca, and mushroom pasta purses for entrees - all delicious).
  • Hope the professionals clean up after your mistakes. I somehow didn't count the kids for the rehearsal dinner. Well I did, but I only reported the adults because the kids were a different price. I wasn't thinking about the number of seats. This was at Jack's Oyster House, and they recovered by pulling a kids table out of thin air in about 5 minutes. Oops! I was left wondering how many more mistakes I would make by the end of the weekend, but they are professionals, and they know what they are doing. They just really did a great job overall, and it was a memorable and beautiful night. We had the banquet room connected to the end of the bar with windows all around, and it was a wonderful downtown Albany view. 
  • This is a cliché, but people worry about things for months they don't notice on the day of. Like my friend who almost forgot her bouquet at her own wedding as she was walking down the aisle. I spent weeks researching and thinking about boutonnieres, and my dad lost his and a best man forgot his in the room. Who cares? No one notices. People did compliment the ones that made it to the ceremony, but it was no big deal at the time even if I spent many, many hours thinking about them last fall.  
  • Don't do anything you don't want to do. We didn't have a florist, DJ, or videographer. We also didn't buy the expensive diamond encrusted bands the pushy woman at Kay Jewelers tried to make us sign up for store credit cards to buy. Instead we went across the hallway to Glennpeter Jewelers, a local family-owned company, and they basically said "Affordable? We will give you affordable!" (and really it is the thought that counts). Learn to just say no, and save yourself thousands of dollars.
  • Don't giggle as you say "I do". Even if your beloved tries to put his ring on you. Your mom won't like it, and neither will he. (In my defense I will say it is a little hard to seem romantic with everyone you have ever known staring at you while taking pictures!) Still. 
  • While I somehow didn't get to notice the ceremony decorations (we had ficus trees like the Royal Wedding - flowers are for paupers!), I did notice the ceremony music. This woman did an amazing job. It was beautiful, simple, and elegant. She played a processional that didn't remind anyone of a death march, which is really what you are aiming for! 
  • To avoid getting just a list of names in the guest book add in questions like "Where do you see us in 5 years?" "What are your earliest memories of us as a couple" "Who would play us in a movie?". For that last one we got answers such as: Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Emily Blunt, and Stephen Colbert and Zooey Deschanel. Hilarious. But seriously reading the guestbook comments might have made me more emotional than anything else. Everyone was so genuinely happy for us, and to have that in writing I am sure years from now will be invaluable. 
  • Hug your friends, thank everyone, and try to hunt down the groom once in a while.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Out of Town Edition: Le Colonial

We went down to NYC yesterday to meet Scott's parents for dinner for his mother's birthday. I spent the day at a craft fair which was very interesting, and I had a fabulous time. Not having lived in NYC for a while now, I noticed a lot of differences between there and Albany I may not have noticed before. First of all, this whole Williamsburg hipster look I don't think I have seen in 2 years. I can say with certainty I have never seen that look on anyone in Albany. Somehow fashion in Albany is more earnest and less likely to be put together in the spirit of irony.
Also, I feel that it is a lifestyle difference that in Albany people have to stop drinking at some point in the night because they usually have to drive home. At the craft fair it seemed like every other person was telling a story about being really drunk or hungover, and I know we had the whole Kegs and Eggs scandal, but overall people seem more responsible about drinking here. I was in a neighborhood known for having a lot of young people on a Sunday morning so perhaps it is not a fair point, but I also think this based on experiences with our own friends. The differences in social class to me seemed so much more noticeable in NYC than in Albany. We waited for Scott's parents at the B-Cafe in Bloomingdale's, and I could not believe how rude the older Upper East Side ladies were to the guy making the espresso. Then, he was just as rude back to them. Actually, I could believe it because I probably was that kid at age 23. I couldn't help but think how starkly different his life probably is compared to theirs. Obviously we have differences in social class in Albany. Of course we have nicer neighborhoods and neighborhoods that may need a little more help. But I have never seen this kind of contentious relationship between servers and customers here. I don't know why this is, except I guess that in NY if you have a lot of money your life is so incredibly different than the people who don't have very much, but in Albany whether you have money or not you probably still shop at Target and eat lunch at Chipotle on the weekends. Of course there are differences, but maybe they are just less immediately noticeable.

That being said, we had a lovely dinner. Le Colonial is a French Vietnamese restaurant on 57th street. It is decorated in an exotic and intimate style that really makes you forget you are steps away from Bloomingdale's. I don't know how they do it, but their sauces are all amazing. I am sure it is some combination of garlic, ginger, scallions, maybe sugar and salt, vinegar, but they have a nice tang without ever actually tasting sweet. I don't think we had been there in 2 years, but in those two years Scott was still talking about the crispy whole red snapper Saigon style with a light spicy & garlic sour sauce. In fact he talked about it so highly since last time that when we went yesterday most of our table ordered it. I tried it, and it was very memorable. Their sauces are light and interesting, and deep and flavorful. For appetizers, we started out with two from the specials menu. He had a shrimp wonton soup (with incredibly flavorful broth), and I had a crab and avocado martini. I love the idea of serving salads in barware. In addition to the crab and avocado the light summery salad had lime, cilantro, and scallions. It was perfectly refreshing. For my entrée I had filet mignon sauteed with sate sauce, yams and string beans. I had really worked up an appetite from walking around all day at the craft fair, and it was incredible. The meat was so tender, and the yams were a great flavor without being at all overpowering. Where I grew up yams are served with marshmallows and brown sugar on them,and sauteing them in a spicy garlicky sauce was a huge improvement.  For dessert, we all split a couple pieces of Key Lime Pie (my all time favorite dessert), and it was the perfect ending to a summery meal with bright, refreshing flavors. What a wonderful, wonderful restaurant. Apparently it is Yoko Ono's favorite, and I can see why.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Ginger Man

The Ginger Man is a cool place to meet people. Unlike some restaurants that have mostly booths, the Ginger Man has many tables that can seat 6 people or more. It is spacious and has a fun vibe. Their wines and cocktails are all really tasty, and (something I didn't know until very recently) they have a good amount of dedicated parking in behind the restaurant. I've shared some small plates with people before, and they were all had really interesting flavors and not too big of portions.

Which leaves us to the main attraction: Lamb Burger - Fresh ground and seasoned lamb on toasted brioche with radish-cucumber tzatziki, feta cheese and sweet potato fries. Mmmmmmmmm. If someone suggests going to the Ginger Man all I do is think about the lamb burger for like 3 days in advance. It is juicy, flavorful, it has cucumbers, and also the bread is light and airy. I will say I am not really a fan of sweet potato fries. I think that trend will die out in the coming years frankly. So I can't comment on too many of their other entrées because I just eat the one. I can't help it. It is like when you go into the music store and think "I could try something new that has gotten a lot of great reviews, or I could buy the new album of someone I've listened to for years". There is the classic adventure vs. comfort dilemma, and every time we go I think I am going to try something new or even one of the specials, but no - lamb burger it is.

It is just a great spot. With the convenient parking, tasty cocktails, small plates, and good location (which is especially good for St. Rose people), it works well for getting together with a group.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Modern Housewifery

When I first started cooking I was friends with a woman who did not have very much of an interest in food. She was very skinny, and in the NYC style suppressed her appetite with huge amounts of coffee and cigarettes. I mentioned that I was going home to make dinner one day, and she made a comment like "How oppressive! What is this, 1950?"

While planning a wedding, I can't help but think about what it means to be a "wife" in these modern times. All the imagery of a traditional wedding creates a story very different to what our marriage will actually be like. We're grown ups and have been for quite some time. We both have graduate degrees. We both have jobs. In fact, he mostly taught me how to cook. Yes, things are different now than they were in 1950, but my friend's reactionary viewpoint doesn't do anyone any good. The thing about spending all day Sunday cooking something is that you get to eat the leftovers for lunch at work all week. The thing about you doing the dishes is that you just cooked something that he doesn't like and isn't likely to eat any of. The thing about cleaning your house is that you also enjoy a nice place to live. It is not about oppression at all, it is about practical skills that make your life better. Also, I love him and want to make him happy.

I remember a scene in the movie "Cold Mountain" where Nicole Kidman's character was starving in some cabin on a hillside, and she said that everything she ever learned was useless. I remember when I graduated from high school, and I had taken French for 6 years, read the Iliad 3 times, but when I got a flat tire I had no idea what to do. I had no idea how long it takes to cook a chicken, or anything relating to food safety. This is an interesting column about the subject.  In addition to learning French, kids should know what makes a balanced meal. There are actual issues involving science and economics involved in running a sensible adult life, for both males and females. My grandmother and my mother both took "Home Economics" in school. I remember laughing at that as a teenager. And ok, my upbringing is well suited to my adult life of working in an art museum (lots of time at a computer, creative pursuits, reading about history, learning concise writing, being able to stick with tedious tasks without complaining), but part of the reason our dining room now is filled with cookbooks is because no one ever taught me what women learned in Home Ec in past decades. I am sure women in the 1800s didn't need Martha Stewart to explain to them how to clean their leather riding boots because they were probably taught from a young age. We visited with my paternal grandmother 2 weeks before she died, and I asked her for her pecan pie recipe which was related to many happy memories for me and she wouldn't give it to me. She was too busy trying to find out if my job at the museum I worked at was a paid gig or a volunteer internship.

Martha Stewart is an interesting part of this subject. My maternal grandmother made everything from scratch. Her baked goods were legendary. She grew up during the Great Depression, and came of age long before the onslaught of processed foods in every form in America's grocery stores. Then, when every possible food came already made, housewives were freed from hours of housework at the same time that women were increasingly entering the workforce.

I remember as a child my aunts sitting around making fun of Martha Stewart. They would say "She expects you to grow the blueberries yourself if you want a pie!" and laugh with a tone of resentment in their voices. And then to think I would grow up and be a person who not only subscribes to her magazine but checks this book a lot. Why do I need to check that book? Because without it I didn't know how to hard boil an egg, truss a chicken, or pick out escarole. No one taught me.

Perhaps no one taught me because of modern conveniences and the wide availability of pre-packaged processed foods. However, obviously the more processed foods you eat the more expensive and filled with chemicals they are. That is not sustainable, and once you figure out how easy, cheap, and tasty it is to make things from scratch the idea that you would ever buy frozen entrees just boggles the mind. Also I actually enjoy being in the kitchen and the process of learning about how things are made. 

The fact that many other of the domestic arts, like knitting, have been rebranded as feminists pursuits in recent years is also interesting. The fact that yarn can be really expensive and that it takes an enormous amount of time, I think makes it a separate issue than cooking from scratch. I can make pizza from less than ten cheap ingredients in the time it would take the delivery boy to find our house (about an hour).

So since I will soon become a wife, I compare the idea to historical and family examples, and I think about my friend's question 2 years ago, and the answer is "No, it is not oppressive to cook a nice dinner". We cook for each other. It is healthy, tasty, and cheaper for us. Those are our dirty dishes. And whether either of us does the dishes or we forget and leave it there, we still both have to go to work the next day.

There is a pendulum that swings throughout the generations. My maternal grandmother won state fair ribbons for her baked goods and had recipe cards littered all over the house. I get really excited about going to specialty food markets, and write this blog (probably the modern day equivalent of recipe cards). And as far as the idea that all 1950s were somehow oppressed, most of her recipes have comments written on them like "This makes everyone so happy!" and "Your dad LOVES this!" There are some similarities. It just happens to be a totally transformed economic, cultural and technological landscape.

(I should mention I have a large growing collection of frilly aprons, but I think in addition to protecting my clothes that it is mostly for irony's sake.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Girl in House

I'm not a "Sex and the City" fan, but everyone remembers Carrie Bradshaw in her ridiculously short shorts standing on one leg in the kitchen eating jam off of crackers (if I recall that correctly). Well, I think everyone has their "single behavior" (things they do when no one is looking). When I have the house to myself it quickly becomes a party - party of one that is. And what this party of one usually consists of is some combination of champagne, "Murder She Wrote", Hawaiian Pizza, French macarons, and three hour long conversations about my friends' relationships. Scott hates Hawaiian Pizza, so this seems like a good choice. Also when I am alone I seem to lose all track of time and make a batch of lime sherbert, and just eat that all weekend not realizing meal time came and went. It is all very hilarious.

So I came home from work today and Scott had gone to San Francisco for a conference. There was a piece of pizza from Smith's Tavern (Hawaiian with cherry peppers funny enough), which was very good. But then I went a little crazy. I went in high brow and low brow directions at the same time. I made something new and something retro.

First, I decided to make lavender sorbet from this book. I bought some lavender flowers from here. I thought I would make lavender lemonade or lavender shortbread. This recipe is delicious, and I think it would be very good in a glass of champagne. It's very light and is just enough to refresh you and cleanse the palate.

In a medium saucepan bring 2 cups of water and 2 cups sugar to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and add a lavender branch. Cover and let infuse for about 20 minutes. Remove the lavender and let it cool. Add 2 tablespoons of lavender flowers (you could put a little less for a little less potent flavor, but I really happen to love the flavor). Pour the syrup into your ice cream maker for half an hour, put it in an air tight container and let it harden completely for about three hours. Mmmm totally refreshing for a hot night. The recipe says you can also substitute thyme or rosemary flowers. This was part of why I wanted an ice cream maker so I could make weird things you can't find everywhere.

Then in a totally different direction, I decided to go retro and make Rice Krispie treats. I cannot say that I have made these in my adult life, in fact I don't think I have eaten one since college maybe circa 2001. First of all, you could probably do a lot worse health-wise for a snack than Rice Krispies, marshmallows, and not even that much butter. Second, there is something to be said about classic flavors that you just can't argue with. To change them at all is usually to take away from the delicate balance, like BLTs and grilled cheese with tomato soup. The recipe is right on the box:

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in large saucepan over low heat. Add 10 oz. marshmallows, and stir until completely melted. Remove from heat and stir in 6 cups of Rice Krispies. Stir it well and smash it into a 13x9 pan sprayed with cooking spray. Let cool and cut into 2 inch bars. Ok, maybe this is obvious but since we don't have a 6 year old in the house I had totally forgotten how to make them. Also I forgot the undeniably delicious and some how distinctive smell that marshmallows, butter and Rice Krispies have when melted together. That right there could be bottled and sold as the smell of childhood.

So the question is which one is better? The retro or the new? The recipe from the side of the box of a mass produced food stuff or from Amanda Hesser's book made with organic lavender flowers? The American or the French? Not sure, I guess I'll have to sit here watching the Mets in order to come to some kind of conclusion. Just kidding, I don't just lounge around aimlessly when left in the house alone eating sorbet all day - that would be lazy, and also bad from a nutritional perspective. Right.