Monthly Archives: February 2014

My weekend in New York

What an awesome weekend. I have written before about my ongoing love affair with New York City (see here, and here). Friends and family ask me all the time what I do on these trips. It’s a very valid question. Here I finally answer them in some detail. But first, a summary of some logistical faux pas; still scratching my head over these …
Snow and ice outside the train window; sweltering heat and sun on board the train. And a heart that swelled with gratitude!
On this trip to NYC, my first one since becoming the proud owner of an iPhone, I was especially psyched to use the compass app that comes with it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve exited the NYC Subway and wanted to cry out, “Won’t someone just tell me which way is East, please?!” (Hey, it’s not that easy!) This time that wouldn’t happen. As I emerged excited–exuberant, even–from Penn Station and onto the snowy streets of Manhattan, I whipped out my awesome phone … and went the wrong freaking way. Ugh! The walk to my hotel took easily twice as long as it should have, and included an extra long, puddle-filled stretch of city block behind Madison Square Garden, pulling my little suitcase behind me with one hand, holding my umbrella in the other; no hand left for my phone. Not that it was of any use, and I am still not sure how the awesome compass app led me astray.
The coaster at one of the restaurants. I can always count on Mr. Louis Armstrong: now I will think of this quote every time someone asks me, “What is it with you and New York?”

There was also the issue of my umbrella, which kept trying to flap itself inside out in the wind. Slapstick was so the opposite of the cool, seasoned NYC-visitor look I was going for. By the time I was leaving my hotel after checking in and dropping off luggage, I was not above asking the receptionist, “This way is North, right?” I knew it was, just wanted the confirmation. Her response, a little indignant: “I don’t know which way is North! All I know is this way’s Uptown, that way’s Downtown.” Ah, another inadvertent faux pas. What was I thinking!

 

An alternate title for this blog post was Expanding my collection of selfies.
There is some variety in where I stay (wherever I find the cheapest hotel around Midtown Manhattan), and based on that, the places where I choose to eat. Otherwise, though, the truth is I tend to do a lot of the same things. I visit the three focal points of the research for my book. They are places that have captivated me so profoundly, and sent my imagination soaring so high, that I have ultimately felt compelled to create a story around them.
And so, my first stop on Saturday was the Merchant’s House Museum, on East Fourth Street. As their website indicates, it is “New York City’s only family home preserved intact — inside and out — from the 19th century.” The family that occupied this home for 100 years also had an intriguing history. The final survivor was an unmarried daughter, who spent many years alone in the house until her death–alone, in the house–in the 1930s. She was regarded by some as an eccentric, but little is known about that. The house is also, by the way, thought to be haunted.

My second favorite place to visit is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. It offers tours of the neighborhood and of the recreated apartments of different families–Irish, Italian, Jewish–in a historic 19th century tenement building at 97 Orchard Street. No one famous ever lived at 97 Orchard Street; George Washington did not sleep here. The Tenement Museum is important–invaluable–because it tells the stories of thousands of immigrants who lived hard, worked hard, sacrificed much, and ultimately forged a new American identity in a part of the city that was, at the turn of the 20th century, the world’s most densely and diversely populated neighborhood. Think about that. The highest concentration of people, from the largest variety of countries of origin, in the entire world, coexisted on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Orchard Street in 1898. (Museum of the City of New York)

These places have become such a part of me, that I know it is borderline obsessive. Just call me the Merchant’s House and Tenement Museum stalker, that’s okay. Each time I visit either one, I am routinely asked by a museum employee, “You’ve been here before, haven’t you?” Plus, I’ve read so much about them, that during tours, I have a hard time resisting my Hermione Granger urge to raise my hand and chime in.

97 Orchard Street then and now. (Lower East Side Tenement Museum Photo Collection)
This was my first time in the city after having completed roughly 95% percent of my novel. I kept walking through the rooms, pacing back and forth, seeing the action of my story in a new way. Wow! Currently the story only exists on my laptop–thank goodness it’s no longer just inside my head–but it came to life before me this weekend. That, my friends, was pretty damn cool.
NYU’s historic Brown Building (Greene Street and Washington Place) off Washington Square Park

The third routine stop on my tour of Manhattan is NYU’s Brown Building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. This 10-story building once housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the largest and busiest one of its kind at the time. Triangle occupied the top three floors of the building. On a mild Saturday afternoon in March of 1911, 146 factory workers, most of them women under age 40, perished in a fire that started on the 8th floor and traveled–exploded–upwards within minutes, likely caused by a cigarette butt tossed in a scrap bin. It was a senseless loss of life, the tragic convergence of unsafe working conditions, panic fueled by ignorance fueled by more panic, unfair employers, and the same sort of hubris that caused many to declare the Titanic unsinkable just one year later. The story left me breathless from the first time I heard it.

There is a coffee shop in the NYU building across the street from the Brown Building. Eye witnesses from 1911 recall being, basically, at these very windows when they saw the bodies of fire victims fall to the street. Reading Leon Stein’s book* while sitting here was so powerful, it was hard to hold back the tears. It was also an incredible gift. How had I not known to come and sit here before? *Leon Stein was a journalist whose research on the fire provided the most detailed, in-depth account of it that exists today.

Every time I stand on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, I want to stop passersby, point out the site of the tragedy to them, ask them to take a moment. I have shed tears standing by myself on that corner. Don’t think I don’t know how this adds to the strangeness of my behavior around these locales. What can I say? It’s a passion, passion about the places, passion about the stories they tell. And a passion that finally led me to ask, what if these stories converged in a novel … ?

What if a young immigrant woman living in the Lower East Side and working at Triangle forms an unlikely friendship with the eccentric elderly spinster living alone in the fancy old house that sits on East Fourth Street, directly en route between her neighborhood and her factory job … ? And what if a Hispanic woman in the 21st century is haunted by something she sees on a trip to New York, and eventually uncovers her own family’s mysterious connection to these women and to a century-old tragedy … ? To be released in 2015 🙂

This, folks, is what I do on my trips to New York. Also? I take advantage of the chance to travel solo, pursuing a deep personal passion, very grateful for the opportunity. When one’s day job is wife and mother, no matter how loved and cherished that job is, such opportunities are imperative, and priceless.

Finally, when in New York, I eat, a lot. Ohhhhh yes. Until next time, I leave you with a few highlights of the food. What a gift this trip was!

Lunch at Taqueria Lower East Side. It is superb and outstanding and comforting and abundant–and cheap!–Mexican food. Please note the very reasonable total for the amount of food and drink. The margarita was also delicious but a little too strong if I wanted to remain conscious and act relatively normal during my Tenement Museum tour.

Dinner at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro. Beet, goat cheese, and endive salad with arugula and walnuts, French fries, Comté and Machego cheeses. A truly special meal. The culinary equivalent of an hour at a spa, and I did take a good hour to eat it all. Holy sheep’s milk; and cow’s and goat’s. I covered them all, and I was in heaven!

 

 

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Valentine’s Days Past and Present

This Valentine’s Day marked the 10th anniversary
of me not being proposed to. I’d been
dating this man for just over a year and all signs pointed to marriage. A
dinner reservation was made at The Melting Pot, the place we had gone to months
earlier the night before we first exchanged I love yous. I was already a
little nervous as we were taken to our table. Then the woman who seated us said,
“You should know this is a lucky table. The couple who sat here right before
you got engaged! Isn’t that exciting?! Other diners were taking pictures; it
was oh so romantic.” Cue stomach ache. I’m afraid I don’t even remember much about
the meal that night. But no, our “lucky” table did not bear witness to a second
marriage proposal that particular evening. And the disappointment did feel
pretty crushing at the time.

 

This year’s Valentine’s Day flowers

Timing really is everything. My date that night was already
researching engagement rings and planning a phone call to my father—I
come from an old school family. A proposal did come that same year. Less than
two months after Valentine’s Day. In Paris. And yes, it was very romantic, so much more so than it
would have been amidst bubbling pots of melted cheese. There was no view of
a lit up Notre-Dame de Paris as backdrop at The Melting Pot in DC, thank you
very much. Not that it’s a competition between the woman who was proposed to
at The Melting Pot and me. But I win! (Kidding, sort of.) I made sure this year to say
to my husband, “Hey, happy 10th anniversary of the night we did not
get engaged!” To which he responded, rolling his eyes, “You say that like it
didn’t work out in the end!” We laughed. And we both still–sort of–want to
smack the seating hostess who put a damper on that Valentine’s Day for us. She couldn’t have known, of course. That’s okay.

It just took a little more time, and patience
Fast forward six years. Valentine’s Day 2010, I was pregnant
out to *there*, and watching the
Vancouver Winter Olympics from my couch in DC was the closest I got to physical fitness of any kind.
That’s unless you count bicep curls, chugging the chocolate milk by the
gallons. Hey, I was pregnant and needed the calcium. And I needed something to
wash down the Nutella-smothered croissants (yes, plural) that were my nighttime
snack about 30 minutes before bed every night.
Two other things stand out about that one. That Valentine’s Day came a few days after the
record-breaking East Coast blizzard that became known as Snowmaggedon. If you looked out
onto our street after snow had been falling for two days, every single car was
still buried in snow for hours and hours … except for our little SUV. It was
all pristine whiteness as far as the eye could see, with this shock of bright,
shiny red (the color of our car) outside our house. The wonderful man who didn’t
propose 10 Valentine’s Days ago had diligently dug out our car and cleared several
yards’ worth of street in the event that his wife went into labor. This was
also the weekend that the women in my Puerto Rican family—my mother, sister,
sister-in-law, and nieces, the women I love best and most fiercely in this life—flew
up to DC to throw a baby shower for us. My nieces played in snow for the first
time in their life. We had amazing food and great laughs. Anytime we went out,
we’d walk hand-in-hand or linking elbows to keep from slipping on the snow and
ice. It was one of the happiest, most unforgettable Valentine’s Days of my
entire life. I felt so loved!

 

Snowmageddon 2010. My husband was getting geared up to start digging …
In February of 2013, our son started preschool two mornings
a week. It was his and my first real separation since he was born. And it was
tough. He cried for his mama quite a lot. And Mama did her share of crying when
he wasn’t looking. Valentine’s Day fell on his second week of school. Somehow, I
(literally) missed the memo that each child was asked to bring Valentine’s
cards and treats for the entire class. I was the only parent there with a child
who wouldn’t stop crying, and who hadn’t brought anything for the other kids.
Basically I spent it apologizing to all the other parents. “Hi, yes, I’m the
mother of the new—screaming—boy over there. We didn’t bring anything for
Valentine’s Day, sorry. But nice to meet you! How about a play date…?” It wasn’t
the happiest.

One year later, the boy adores school and would go every day
if he could. “Bye, Mama! … Go, Mama!” He says at drop-off. “Okay, I’m going, I’m
going …” I respond.

I spent this Valentine’s Day enjoying snow day #2 this week,
as well as all the fruits of my cooking and baking from the previous day. It
was also spent packing for my trip to New York City. I am writing this blog on
the Amtrak train with snow blowing outside the window! I have developed a tradition
of traveling to Manhattan by myself every year in February. It is by far the
most affordable month (wonder why that is) and it allows me to continue research for my first
novel (now 114,000 words-, 390 pages- strong) in this “concrete jungle where dreams
are made of…”
13 Feb 2014 cooking and baking. And I couldn’t resist a food shot.
I hope you had a very happy Valentine’s Day. Who cares if it’s
cheesy and commercialized! It’s a day for celebrating love and chocolate. And I
hope you had plenty of both wherever you were.
And if something you deem important didn’t happen to come true for you this time, maybe be
patient, give it time …
View from the window of my DC-NYC train

 

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Mexican lasagna / Food blogger envy

 

 “Jealousy is a very ugly thing, Dorothy. And so are you in anything backless!”

(Image from Starstills.com)

 

This line is among my top-40 favorites from The Golden Girls, one of my top-3 favorite sitcoms of all time. I agree with Sophia, that jealousy is a very ugly thing. In fact, I was recently thinking about this when I was pondering the question, what makes people snarky? I may blog about that one soon. In the meantime, I truly believe that rare–and lucky–is the man or woman who can honestly say they don’t feel jealousy with some frequency in their day-to-day life. And because I am talking true honesty here, I will tell you that I too experience my fair share of jealousy. Ugh.

I am jealous of people who live in Paris, women with easy straight hair or thighs that don’t rub together when they walk, men’s ability to go to the bathroom within a wide and flexible array of contexts, people who can eat certain foods without getting heartburn. The thing is, though, there is only so much I can do about many of these things. And that’s if I even wanted to. I am not going to go out and straighten my hair because–hello!–that would cancel out the easy part. The last time I tried to go to the bathroom standing up (after spending a lot of time around my brother and our male cousins), I was about 4 or 5 years old and it didn’t go very well. But I know I have had, and will have, plenty of other lifetimes for that one, and meanwhile I quite like being a girl in this one. And my thighs are an issue that I take one day at a time.

I stumbled on a new trigger for my jealousy through my tireless online searches for new recipes or tips on reinventing old ones. My love of cooking runs deep and sometimes borders on compulsion. I don’t boast much high-brow sophistication in my cooking (or in anything else I do), but I do like to think that it is healthy and flavorful comfort food. So seeing all the food blogs out there was starting to make me a little jealous. This blog post is simply in the interest of my own happiness: I figure that if I can knock off one of my jealousy triggers, it should make me happy.
Here, then, is my recipe for Mexican lasagna. It is half-vegetarian (for me), with pieces of chicken breast on the other (husband’s) side.
Ingredients:
1  4oz. can of diced green chiles
2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped
8 oz. shredded Monterrey Jack cheese
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 to 1/2 cup dry black beans, cooked (or 1  15oz can)
2 cups corn kernels
6-8 small flour tortillas
vegetable oil (for frying the tortillas)
2 small or one large zucchini or yellow squash, cut into 1-inch half-moons
1 small onion or half of a large onion (about 1/2 cup sliced)
1 bunch cilantro (nothing against haters of cilantro who think it tastes like soap, other than, well, you’re so wrong)
1 pint (=2 cups) half and half
1 chicken breast (2 if using chicken throughout the entire casserole)
1/4 tsp thyme
salt and pepper
Optional: your favorite salsa
Use a 2-Qt rectangular baking dish
Where I cut corners: buying canned chiles. Ideally one would roast poblano peppers, then peel them, remove the seeds, and dice them up. The main reason why I chose not to, aside from time, is that so far I haven’t been very good at it. I also bought salsa rather than making my own (not that I don’t have a fabulous, foolproof salsa recipe) for this particular dish.
Another area for cutting corners was to use frozen corn. I love how fancy it looks to cut the kernels off of ears of corn, and it’s awesome for when fresh corn is in season and you don’t mind having corn flying all over your kitchen. Using (thawed) frozen corn is pretty decent too, that’s all.
Areas where I did not cut corners: I like to start with dry beans and cook my own rather than use a can of beans. Three main reasons. 1) It is a lot cheaper. 2) I have often gagged when opening a can of beans and seeing that slimy goo that they have been sitting in. 3) This way I have a lot more control over the texture and flavor. I just cook about 1/2 cup of dry beans with half an onion, some of the same cilantro I bought for the recipe, and a bay leaf, with salt added toward the end.
I also grate my own cheese. It is significantly cheaper, and I do think there is a difference in freshness.
Cooking instructions:
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a pan, and sauté onions for a few minutes. Add the cooked beans, the chiles, and the zucchini, with about 1/2 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. Cook until the zucchini just starts to get tender.
Melt the other 2 tablespoons of butter in a different pan. Sauté the garlic for about one minute, then add the corn, thyme, and 1/2 salt, plus another pinch of pepper.
When everything is combined, stir in the half and half. Cook the mixture for about 5 minutes. Cool a bit, then transfer to a blender, and puree. Taste for salt and pepper, it may need a bit more. It will appear chunky and not completely smooth, because of the corn; that’s okay, trust me. This garlicky, creamy corn sauce is the key to the unique awesomeness of this dish.
Roast the chicken breast for the meat-eater(s) in your family. Then shred or cube up the chicken.
Fry the tortillas for about 30 seconds on each side. This makes them more manageable. And very importantly, it makes them puff up, which provides an incredibly rich layer in the lasagna that I find similar to pastry. It’s that good. A cumbersome step, to be sure, but so, so worth it.
Begin the layering! First, spread 1/4 of the corn cream sauce on the bottom of the dish (see how it’s lumpy?).
 Add one layer of tortillas. You will need to cut some up to make them fit.
Layer half of the zucchini/bean/chiles mixture across the dish. Add half the chicken on one side of the dish.
Add a third of the shredded cheese, and chopped cilantro (about 2 tablespoons).
Repeat process: 1/4 sauce, tortillas, the 2nd half of the zucchini/beans & chicken*, 1/3 cheese and cilantro.
*Important note: If, like me, you feel strongly about keeping half of it vegetarian, make sure you keep the chicken on the same side of the dish during the second round of layering!
Add another 1/4 of the sauce and one more layer of tortillas. Top with the final 1/4 of the sauce, and the final 1/3 of cheese and cilantro (I added some cheddar at the end because cheddar is my husband’s favorite and it was his birthday.)
As with most of my cooking, I prepare this in the morning, then keep it in the fridge until dinner time. Then, I put it on a sheet pan (in case the cheese and sauce runneth over) and cook in a preheated 375 oven for about 20 minutes covered, 20-30 minutes uncovered until it’s bubbling and browned on top.
Hearty. Spicy. Yum. And dinner for easily two nights in my house. P.S. Yes, I forgot the salsa. It can add nice flavor and moisture, but really isn’t needed. The corn sauce, on the other hand …
Oh and we followed it up with this beauty.
Chocolate cake with pecans–pecans for the birthday boy, but on one side only for the kiddo who dislikes chunky nuts in his dessert; food segregation is quite important in our house!
I had vowed, after the holidays, to not bake a single thing in all of January–this was January. So this blog post could also be filed under “will I never learn?” I had good reason, though. We were snowed in and the man deserved birthday cake.
What’s my takeaway on jealousy? I believe like Iyanla Vanzant: “Comparing yourself to others is an act of violence against your authentic self.” It would be an impossible–and miserable–life if I was always trying to keep up with whatever makes me jealous about the perceived lives of others. But I have to say, writing this has made me very, very happy. Wow! The kind of “jealousy” that propels me to go after something that brings me joy? Yes, please, thank you. As for spending more, longer time in Paris? Timing is everything, and I am prepared to be patient.
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