Tag Archives: Food

Live every day like it’s your birthday

Everyone has a favorite version of the old adage: “Live every every moment (or every day) like it’s your last.” I get it, I do. Life is precious and fragile, and if we knew we were dying (which when you really think about it, we all basically are), what would our souls yearn to do with such urgency that we’d once and for all let go of the meaningless stuff that weighs us down? I absolutely get this, particularly when it comes to loving, and letting our beloveds know they are cherished. (I sit here writing this on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.)

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I also find the idea of death as a motivator kind of dark though. Some of us take urgency a little too seriously, and this sort of message makes us susceptible to feelings of anxiety and defeat. Because if it’s all about, “quick, you’re running out of time, go go go!” well shit, I just can’t take that kind of pressure.

This is how I felt on my forty-first birthday last week. For me it was a little harder than forty, actually. Forty felt special, a big milestone birthday. I used it to look at life on a grand scale, to ask big questions. In hindsight, that wasn’t such a great idea. So I didn’t ask big “life” questions this time. Instead, I decided to focus on how I would behave, what I would do differently, to mark this one birthday day as peacefully as possible.

1. The first thing I did in the morning, more consciously than usual, was to give thanks for being alive. Because it’s true that life is precious and fragile. I know how fortunate I’ve been, and I happen to like it here quite a lot. And each new day really is a gift.

2. As someone who doesn’t like being the center of attention and struggles with feelings of unworthiness, birthdays feel a little awkward. So in the morning, I also made a conscious decision to remain open to the love I’d receive during the day. To not try to minimize it with the tired deflective “oh I don’t deserve it!” reflex. But to receive it fully, because who am I to stop the flow of love, all because of some stupid (untrue) script stuck in my head since childhood? I read somewhere recently that any love we deny ourselves is love we deny the world. The older I get, the truer this feels.

So I let my husband David and our son Eric, and my parents, spoil me. And it was freaking awesome.

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Sweet surprises I got to wake up to.

3. I also tried to stay centered on what matters, again, not big-picture thinking, but in the small things that arose throughout the day. Eric got into a bit of trouble at school that day. Sometimes I get kind of fixated on these things. You know, like I can control them? I thought about it and asked a little bit about it. Then I was happy, very happy, to just let it go.

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A bouquet of my favorite flowers.

4. I deliberately commented with a thank-you message to each and every Facebook friend who wished me a happy birthday. Since I’m not super popular, it wasn’t a huge number of people, but it felt deeply special. And with responding to each of them, I remember each of them still, with enormous gratitude. I’d invite you to consciously write ‘thank you’ a few dozen times one day and see how you feel!

And finally, 5. This one’s connected to 2 because it’s all about love. In this case, self-love and truth-telling, and discerning when something is, and is not, about me. A loved one called and I missed their call. I was briefly tempted to worry this had made them mad, then I … didn’t. We spoke later, no one was mad, and that was the end of it.

Another loved one whom I’d have liked to hear from on the phone sent me only a text message. <Shrug.> I was disappointed; then I accepted it, very importantly, without reading into it any messages about me.

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Here comes the ice cream cake!

My family and I tried watching a movie we’d recently loaned to a friend, and the DVD was so badly damaged that half the movie was simply unwatchable. I reached out to the friend, part of me fearing she’d be insulted at the insinuation that she’d ruined our DVD. She didn’t recall anything happening to our movie while it was in her possession, which I wholly believe, but she still insisted on taking responsibility for it, and replaced it with a new one. I’ve always highly respected this friend; now I respect her even more. Obviously I needn’t have worried. And to think I almost didn’t ask!

Focusing on what matters. Gratitude. Knowing when something is about me and the enormous, glorious freedom that so much actually isn’t. LOVE. I had a perfect birthday. Not because every single circumstance of the day was perfect  –though it was pretty darn nice–  but because I remained conscious about how I responded to everything that arose.

Again, I didn’t set out to ask big life questions at my birthday this year. But in asking how I wanted to spend the one day, I actually stumbled on some practices that could serve me pretty well every day. And since we’ve established that I’m not a fan of undertaking each moment like I’m about to kick the proverbial bucket, I figure that using lessons from a day spent celebrating life is a good approach for me. I probably shouldn’t eat every day like I ate on my birthday though…

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Churros con chocolate happy dance.

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French bread recipe

If you’re like me, you’ve often thought that homemade bread is something only the most sophisticated cooks can pull off. Oh how wrong we’ve been, and I couldn’t be happier to share this recipe with you! It is full-proof. And since few things bug me more than fussy, over-complicated recipes that feel unattainable, this one’s the opposite of that, and only requires ingredients most of us already have in our pantry. By the second or third time you make this, it’s going to feel so easy.

My inspiration/baseline was this online recipe. But I made some important changes to it that I think simplify things and deliver and even better texture and flavor. I also broke it down with lots (and lots) of pictures.

A note on warm water: Basically you run the hot water on the tap for a few seconds, but it doesn’t hurt your fingers to touch it. Not hot enough to cook anything, but definitely more than lukewarm.

Start by dissolving 1 tablespoon of sugar into 1 cup of warm water. After the sugar, quickly and gently stir in 1½ teaspoons of active dry yeast. Place in a warm place for at least 10 minutes. I often use my radiator when it’s nice and warm, or the top of the stove, with the oven underneath it preheated to 200.

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While that sits, mix together 2½ cups of all purpose flour with 1½ to 2 teaspoons of kosher salt (only 1 teaspoon or less if using fine table salt) in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment.

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When the warm water with sugar and yeast mixture starts to look like a funky, frothy science experiment –that’s exactly what it is!– and to smell a little bit like a brewery, you know you’re in business.

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Frothy and bubbling less than 10 minutes later. This part is so much fun.

Start running the mixer on medium speed, and add in the water with yeast. Try to scrape every bit from the measuring cup into the mixer.

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At this point, I always have flour nearby for sprinkling, and I refill the “yeasty” measuring cup with warm water. I mix for about 30 seconds. If A) the dough still looks too crumbly and isn’t coming together and off the sides of the bowl, I add additional warm yeasty water from the measuring cup, about 1 teaspoon at a time, then wait another few seconds.

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My dough was looking crumbly and dry, so slowly I added 1 tsp at a time of the warm yeasty water. Works every time.

If on the other hand, B) the dough looks too wet, I sprinkle very small handfuls (also about a teaspoon) of flour at a time. I usually run into A more than B. My point is, if the dough doesn’t look like it’s coming together like it’s supposed to, it’s still very fixable if you go slowly and watch it carefully. Just don’t panic!

Once you see the dough come together and off the sides of the bowl, continue to knead with the mixer on medium or medium high speed for about 5 minutes. (Make sure the tilt head on your mixer is locked, otherwise the dough will make it wobble and shake and it won’t knead properly.)

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This is what you want your dough to look like, then you let the mixer do the kneading for 5 minutes.

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Meanwhile, prepare a large flat rolling surface with flour, and a medium-sized bowl (it should hold at least eight cups) with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil to coat the bottom and sides.

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iPhoneFeb2016 2579After 5 minutes, turn off the mixer. Coat your hands with flour, and remove the dough onto the floured surface.

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See how sticky that is? You’ll need flour to unstick it from the dough hook.

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Knead with your hands* a few times until it looks and feels soft and smooth. It can look like a disk or a ball. (*This just means you fold it onto itself and push down with the heel of your hand.)

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Place into the bowl with oil, turning over once or twice to make sure the dough is evenly coated in the oil. This prevents an awkward crust from forming as it sits and rises.

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Now it’s covered in oil.

Immediately cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and place in warm, draft-free place until it’s roughly doubled in size, at least an hour, up to 2 hours.

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Again, putting the dough on top of an oven preheated to 200 works really well.

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After an hour and a half, I was good to go!

Now you’re ready to prepare the dough for its second rising. 🙂

Uncover the bowl and take dough out. Don’t be alarmed when it deflates the instant you touch it. It’s supposed to do that.

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‘Punch down your dough’ is the bread bakers’ equivalent of the literary ‘kill your darlings!’

In fact, many recipes for bread and pizza dough will specifically tell you to “punch down the dough” at this point in the process. Place on floured surface again, and smooth out a little with well floured hands.

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Use a rolling pin to roll the dough out thinly, to about the size of a standard half sheet pan, about 13 x 18 inches. Cut the dough in half, lengthwise, until you’re left with two roughly 6 x 18 pieces.

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Begin to roll each half of the dough up, again lengthwise. Keep it tight, and smooth out air pockets.

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Pinch the seams as much as possible. The aesthetics are an area where my baguettes still need a bit of work (as you’ll see in the photos below) but the flavor and texture are so 100% legit that I know the rest will catch up. Place each rolled up dough half, seam side down, on a half sheet pan lined with either parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Fold and tuck the ends in and under using your fingers, again pinching the seams a bit.

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I like to –very gently– rub a bit of flour on the baguettes at this point. It helps create the crust when it bakes later on.

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I just rubbed these with a small amount of flour. This is optional.

Use the same sharp knife to slash each loaf (I go in about an inch). You can do a few diagonal lines, or one line lengthwise along the baguette. (Here are a few fancier ideas I’m excited to try soon.)

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Here I did diagonal slits.

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Here I went with one long lengthwise slit. As you can see, I had some issues rolling one of these. My problem? I didn’t like how it came out the first time so I tried to perfect it. It would’ve been much better if I’d left it alone!

Place in your warm place of choice, no need to cover it this time. Allow to rise a second time for another hour, until it doubles in size again.

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A little over an hour later, these had risen perfectly. And my awkward-looking one was still looking awkward. Scroll to the end for the result.

Now you’re ready to bake your bread! Place a roasting pan (at least 2 inches deep) on the bottom rack of the oven, then preheat to 375.

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Combine 1 egg while with 1 tablespoon of water. Brush bread with the egg wash.

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Once the oven is preheated, fill a large measuring cup or pitcher with hot water. Put the half sheet pan with the bread in the oven, then pour hot* water into roasting pan below it, until you fill it about ¾ of the way. This will create a steam in the oven while the bread bakes, which combined with the egg wash, will give your bread a delicious golden crust that won’t murder the roof of your mouth.

(*The reason you don’t want cold water here is because the steam it creates when poured into the preheated roasting pan could be dangerous — hot water creates the steam with less chance of causing any burns.)

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Watch out for that steam!

Bake for 20-25 minutes. Start checking at 20 minutes, and continue baking for 2 minutes at a time until the crust is golden brown.

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I was a little bummed at how visible the seam was on this baguette. Then I tasted it, and all was well.

Your only challenges now will be waiting for it to be cool enough to handle so you can eat some, and once that happens, trying not to eat half a baguette in one sitting. I have failed at both challenges and am not even a little embarrassed to say it. It’s so delicious I dare say you will impress yourself and your friends, and the return is that much more amazing considering how easy it is!


 

French bread

Active prep time: 30 minutes                       Inactive prep time: about 3 hours

Cooking time: 20-25 minutes                        Makes: 2 loaves (2 baguettes)

Ingredients:

  • 2 ½ cups all purpose flour (plus more for sprinkling)
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 – 2 teaspoons kosher salt (½ – 1 teaspoon fine table salt)
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tablespoon water

Instructions:

  1. Dissolve sugar in warm water. Add active dry yeast. Let sit in warm place about 10 minutes.
  2. Combine flour and salt in bowl of electric stand mixer.
  3. Running the mixer on medium speed, add warm water and yeast mixture to the flour and salt. Mix until the dough comes together and off the sides of the bowl, adding up to 1 tsp at a time of additional warm water or flour as needed. (See notes for A and B above.) Once dough comes together, run mixer on medium-medium high speed for 5 minutes.
  4. Prepare medium-sized mixing bowl with vegetable oil.
  5. Using floured hands, turn dough out to floured surface and knead by hands a few times until smooth. Transfer to the oiled bowl, turning over once or twice to coat in the oil, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Set in warm draft-free place for 1 – 2 hours until it doubles in size.
  6. Remove dough to floured surface and roll out thinly to 13×8. Cut in half lengthwise. Roll each half up (lengthwise) to form a cylinder. Transfer to lined half sheet pan, seam side down, and tuck and fold the ends under.
  7. Score/Slash with sharp knife. Set in warm place to rise a second time for 1 hour, until it doubles in size again.
  8. Place roasting pan in oven, then preheat to 375. Prepare egg wash with 1 egg white and about 1 tbsp of water. Brush the bread and place in preheated oven. Fill roasting pan to about  ¾ full with hot tap water.
  9. Bake 20-25 minutes.

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Wow.

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See, the one I was all perfectionistic about came out ugly. Plain and simple. Luckily, the flavor and texture were still perfect.

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Hungry in Paris (Ask and it shall be given, part 5)

The following is a true story about one of the most randomly extraordinary things that’s ever happened to me. I want to share it with you here, to the best of my recollection.

I was 16 years old in 1992 when I went on a student trip from Puerto Rico to Oxford, England for a 3-week intensive English course followed by one week travelling in France and Spain. While I’d already been bitten by the travel bug years earlier, this was my first time away from home without my family or friends. That was its own big deal.

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The view from atop Carfax Tower in Oxford

The host family assigned to me in Oxford was an elderly couple living in a tiny house on a street almost identical to the Dursleys’ Privet Drive in Little Whinging.

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Left: the house I stayed in outside Oxford. Right: a photo I took of Privet Drive during a visit to the Harry Potter tour at Warner Brother Studios (London) this year.

The woman kept a padlock on the house phone, presumably to keep us student boarders from making long distance phone calls for hours and hours. She never hid her dismay when I turned down constant offers of tea throughout the day. “How can you not want a hot drink?!” (I lived in Puerto Rico where it’s 85 degrees year round!) And the sandwiches she gave me for my school lunches were either cheese and tomato, or tuna fish with butter and cucumbers. One time she asked me what I normally ate cheese sandwiches with, and turned her nose up when I answered ham.

But I digress.

When the three weeks in Oxford ended, my fellow students and I were revved for the upcoming week of straight vacation, starting in Paris. We grabbed our last packed lunches from our British host families, and hopped on a bus to London, where we boarded a train to one of England’s southern port cities (I think it was Plymouth) for the ferry boat crossing over the English Channel into France. I’m pretty sure I ate my sandwich (was it tuna and cucumbers or cheese and tomato? I can’t remember) well before I got on the ferry, and had basically no more food for the journey after that.

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Starting the journey

To say that the waters were choppy that day is an understatement. Though I was mercifully spared the miserable seasickness, I did witness a good number of my fellow travelers running to toilets with pale, drawn faces.

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The ferry boat ride

After that was over, we still had to take a train to Paris.

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Train ride to Paris … by this time in the day I would’ve given anything for a tuna and cucumber sandwich.

Finally, it was a drizzly early evening when we arrived at our Paris hotel. It was, in fact, dinner time, and just a few minutes too late to exchange money at a bank or at the hotel’s front desk. This was a time before you could go to any cash machine and withdraw money. Most people still traveled with travelers’ checks, the currency was francs, and none of us had any. We had a few British pounds left over, which did us no good whatsoever. Since most of us were high school students, we didn’t have credit cards, and I have a sense (my memory on this is a bit fuzzy) that some of the restaurants where we asked didn’t even take plastic.

What could we do? A group of about four other students and I started to walk around the city, trying to figure something out. We were wet, exhausted, and hungry. So we came up with a plan to approach someone who looked local, and ask them to withdraw cash for us using their bank card in exchange for pounds and travelers’ checks. It was a long shot, obviously, but we were starting to feel desperate. The first few people we asked –wait for it!– said no.

Right as we were about to give up, someone looked up and noticed the names of the cross streets where we were standing: they were Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance.

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So we figured, since we were literally standing on the corner of Hope and Providence, maybe we shouldn’t give up … surely someone would help us! That’s when we saw a pregnant woman exiting an apartment building. We approached her and quickly explained our situation.

To our shock and delight, she told us yes, she would withdraw francs for us in exchange for our travelers’ checks and pounds … on one condition: that we sit and have a drink with her before heading off to dinner. Starving as we were, we agreed. The woman went to an ATM, got out cash, and together we found a bar and sat down for a drink. I have only a very vague recollection of what she looked like, and she didn’t tell us much about herself. Funnily enough, we did learn that she was headed to the UK the following day, so she’d been on her way to the ATM machine anyway, and she was happy to take our British pounds.

She was also lonely. I got the strong sense that her baby’s father was not in the picture. Then she said something like this: “How funny that we met each other on the corner of Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance, and that we were able to help each other. See, it wasn’t just me helping you get your money, but you have also helped me by sitting with me these few minutes and talking to me, keeping me company. So in a sense, we needed each other.”

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Paris the next day

I think she declined to join us for dinner. Soon we completed our money transaction and parted ways, wishing each other all the best. Then my friends and I took the money to a Chinese restaurant where we had the grandest and finest Chinese feast I’ve ever had in my life. At least that’s what it seemed like in my 16-year-old mind, and who is my 40-year-old self to tell that girl otherwise? Mistaking our jadedness for wisdom is such a common blind spot among us grownup types.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the kindness of strangers in France. In fact, I’ve shared the stories here, about the incident with a cash machine in Paris and the time a few years later when my husband and I were hungry in a tiny French village. Isn’t this trend kind of mysterious and amazing? But all these things really happened. And remembering them touches a place deep in my heart where my own pure goodness lives alongside my faith in the goodness of others. Call me crazy, but I think we could all stand to tap into that place more often.

This is my favorite one of these stories, though. I have no idea if the woman would remember the role she had in helping a group of hungry Puerto Rican students get money for food on a drizzly Parisian evening 23 years ago, or that the thought of her poignant generosity and vulnerability still moves me deeply and lifts my spirits every single time. I especially think about the power of asking. It’s not just that you might actually get what you’re asking for (which in itself is pretty awesome), but it’s how the act of asking for help opens the door to keep kindness flowing. And to think it happened on the corner of Hope and Providence!


 

Note: A new friend I made on this trip was a law school student, (I believe) at the University of Puerto Rico. By the time we made it to Seville, I had all but run out of money, and she lent me money so I could buy souvenirs for my family at the World Expo. I promised to pay her back, but then we lost touch completely after coming home from the trip. I don’t even remember her name! But I did circle her face in the only two photos I have of her. I would love to track her down, to thank her again and to pay her back. Please help me share this blog post, so we can keep up the spirit of pay it forward! (Or in my case, in the spirit of paying her back…)

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Tostones

I recently made tostones and posted some of the pictures on Facebook. Several friends responded with a request for the recipe. Here it is!

First, a language lesson. The appropriate singular form of tostones is tostón, not tostone (pronounced toston-eh). I’ve heard people, including high profile TV chefs, mispronounce it all the time. It grates on me. And I’ll be damned if I let a single tostón go the way of the tamale!

Thank you. Now let’s begin.

Start with very, very green plantains. In fact, it’s pretty critical for the unique flavor of these Latin-Caribbean delights that the plantains not show any signs of ripening, such as yellow spots (even a dulled green), or feeling soft when squeeze-tested. Green plantains are now relatively easy to find at most grocery stores.

Trim off the ends. Using a dull kitchen knife, run a lengthwise line down the middle, and peel. You will notice the skin is quite hard and heavy on sap. But a dull knife does the trick very well, and it’s a lot safer than a sharp knife given that it will take a bit of elbow grease to get this part done. Don’t be surprised if your fingers end up heavily stained from the sap. (It’s worth it!) Cut each plantain into 2-inch rounds.

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Preheat a frying pan with about 2 inches’ worth of your preferred high-heat frying oil to medium high. Fry the rounds in batches (to avoid overcrowding them) for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, and drain.

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Flatten the rounds. I use the bottom of a plate against a cutting board. It’s best if the plate has a flat bottom, no rim. Once flattened, the rounds start to look like tostones. You may need a knife to unstick the flattened tostón from the bottom of the plate. Fry them a second time for 3 to 4 minutes per side.

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Drain them on a fresh piece of paper towel. Sprinkle both sides of the tostones with salt the instant they come out out of the hot oil.

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You’ll realize right away that you can’t make these without needing to taste test the first one(s) to come out. The challenge is to not eat them all before the rest of dinner is ready to be served.

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TOSTONES

Prep time: 15 minutes. Cooking time: 30 minutes. Two plantains make about 1 dozen tostones.

Ingredients

  1. 2 very green plantains
  2. oil for frying
  3. salt

Cooking instructions

  1. Preheat about 2 inches’ worth of oil in a shallow pan to medium high
  2. Trim the ends off each plantain, and peel with a dull knife
  3. Cut each plantain into 2-inch rounds (about 6 per plantain)
  4. Working in batches, fry each round for 3 to 4 minutes per side
  5. Drain and flatten using a flat-bottomed plate on a hard, flat surface
  6. Fry a second time for 3 to 4 minutes per side
  7. Drain and sprinkle each side with salt
  8. Enjoy!
  9. (Serving these with homemade guacamole –recipe available– is optional, and highly recommended)

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Roasted Kale Chips

My beloved picky eater Eric came home from PreK one day and announced that his class had made kale chips with their gardening teacher. That he’d had some. And more importantly –wait for it!– that he’d liked them. I went straight to his teacher to ask if this was true, and she confirmed it! Whuuut?

So after several tries, this is my very own foolproof recipe for crispy roasted kale chips. Eric’s teacher wasn’t kidding. Whenever I make this (true story, I swear), he says, “Kale for dinner tonight! Yeah!”

(Oh yeah, and right as I perfected my recipe, I saw this at Whole Foods.

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Really? Don’t you just love it when that happens? “Like this or that? Yeah well that is sooo yesterday’s trend.” Bah, don’t believe ’em.)

Start with one bunch of curly kale*. Odds are pretty good you already have the other two ingredients for this recipe: olive oil and salt. Preheat the oven to 375. kale1

Pull the leaves off the stems, discard the stems, and rinse the leaves well (at least twice, depending on how much dirt you start out with).

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Make sure the kale is dried very, very thoroughly. I always use a paper towel after the salad spinner to be extra thorough. Otherwise, if it’s still too moist, it won’t crisp up in the oven. Drying the leaves is probably the most time-consuming part of this recipe.

kale6Arrange the kale leaves on two (half-sheet) sheet pans. Drizzle each sheet pan with a 1 1/2 tablespoon (a tablespoon and half) of olive oil. Toss to coat the leaves in the oil. Then arrange them in a single layer (this is why you’ll need the two sheet pans).

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The single layers is another step that ensures that the chips crisp up properly. If the leaves are layered on top of each other, they will only steam, and stay soft.

*My quest for crispy chips is an important reason why I use curly kale and not the more popular (if we believe Food Network) dinosaur or Tuscan or “lacinato” kale. Tuscan kale is too flat. The effect is similar to roasting the kale in multiple layers or without drying it well; it comes out soggy. Curly kale, on the other hand, allows some air underneath the leaves that helps the chips crisp up. Plus Tuscan kale is often more expensive. This one’s a no-brainer.

After the leaves have been tossed in olive oil and arranged in a single layer, sprinkle each sheet pan with about  1/4 (a quarter) teaspoon of kosher salt.

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kale12Cook each sheet pan (individually) in preheated 375 oven for 10 minutes. When the kitchen starts to smell like someone in your house has bad gas (about 2 minutes in), that’s how you know the kale is cooking properly.

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The kale chips will come out looking wilted, drier, and slightly browned once they’re done. But they’ll burn easily if you’re not careful!

Sprinkle with an additional pinch of salt the moment they come out of the oven (optional). And voilà. Enjoy!

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kalepicstitch1Any leftover chips can be stored in the refrigerator for two or three days. Just take them out of the fridge about two minutes before eating them, and they’ll taste just as crispy as when they were freshly made!

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ROASTED KALE CHIPS

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch curly kale
  • olive oil
  • salt

Cooking instructions

  • Preheat oven to 375
  • Remove kale leaves from stems, discard stems, and rinse leaves well.
  • Dry thoroughly in salad spinner followed by a towel.
  • Place kale leaves in two separate sheet pans. Drizzle each one with 1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, toss and arrange the oil-coated leaves in a single layer.
  • Sprinkle each sheet pan with 1/4 teaspoon of salt.
  • Cook each sheet pan (individually) in preheated 375 degree oven for 10 minutes.
  • Sprinkle with an additional pinch of salt while the chips are still hot.
  • Ignore obnoxious trend-fixations and enjoy your superfoods!

 

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Tips for New York City

I’ve booked another trip to New York–brace yourselves for an all new parade of selfies! (Here you can find previous accounts of NYC trips.) Planning whole new places to visit next month in continuing research for my novel. Oh, so excited! Plus, it recently occurred to me that maybe some of the things I’ve learned throughout my many visits could serve others who are less frequent visitors to the City. Somehow I’d generally assumed that everyone I know knows loads about the Big Apple, typically more than me, and I’m the only one excited to learn more and talk about it. Because I sometimes love it when I’m wrong, I hereby humbly present my bits of NYC wisdom on what to expect, what to do, and what not to do.

While in New York City, I highly advise against trying to enter the subway with rolling luggage of any kind or size. Oh man. Can you say stuck? I’ve tried putting the luggage in front of me, pulling it behind me, and Googling the words “NYC Subway turnstile with luggage” in anticipation of a trip. Something else I’ve tried is passing the luggage over the top of the turnstile ahead of me, placing it on the ground on the other side, then I go through the turnstile.

(Photo from Subwaynut.com)

But even then I risk holding up the never-ending stream of hordes waiting behind me to get through, and then I’ve worried that in the time it takes me to get through, someone on the other side will run off with my luggage. Strange fear? Maybe. The only thing that works when entering the subway this way is avoiding the turnstile altogether and using the gates. Sometimes this means the emergency exit gate. The worst thing that can happen then is sometimes you set off an alarm. Sure, I’ve worried that this will get me arrested, but so far it hasn’t, and I always have a story ready for the cops about how I have a Metro Card that I swiped, I’m just trying to get my luggage through. And in the spirit of pay-it-forward, any time I am using one of those gates to exit the subway and see folks struggling with their luggage on the other side, oh yeah, I routinely, happily, hold the gate open for them.

Don’t worry, the subway is nothing to be afraid of!
On the subject of what not to do in the Big Apple, here’s another doozy. Picture it. Barrio Chino–Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side (LES). Memorial Day Weekend 2013. I never (or very rarely) travel by myself, and I wasn’t driving, so I decide, what the heck, I will treat myself to a margarita with lunch. First, I couldn’t finish the margarita; motherhood has rendered me a lightweight. Second, I should have known better. My plan for after lunch was to walk to the Washington Square area. It isn’t extremely long, just over a mile.
I took the route along Bowery.
And I wanted the full experience of turn-of-the-20th-century LES immigrants walking up to their jobs at the Triangle Company off Washington Square Park. Well, I got a full experience alright. It was the first day that temperatures in the City were upwards of 80 degrees. I have an extreme sensitivity to heat and sun–as in, I faint. (A tradition going all the way back to waiting in line on a sidewalk in Puerto Rico circa 1980 for the movie Empire Strikes Back: Before I knew it I was coming to, on my back, and I was being fanned with a piece of cardboard that my poor freaked out father had scored from worried onlookers.)Also? Tequila is very dehydrating. By the time I made it to the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in addition to the emotions of thinking about the Triangle fire tragedy, I was queasy, and very shaky on my legs. I knew the odds were pretty good that I was going to lose consciousness and/or get sick. Miraculously, neither happened. I wobbled all the way to the park, and collapsed on a bench, with my head between my legs. A nice gentleman sitting nearby engaged me in conversation. From his concern for me, which was appreciated, he moved on to sharing a few personal details about his life that I really could have done without. Not sure which part of nearly passing out due to excess heat and low alcohol tolerance, combined with the tears, conveyed, “I am dying to know your life story.” But he meant well enough, and he pointed me in the direction of the nearest place where I could re-hydrate and recover a little.

The guilty drink. It was tasty enough, though, more so than the fish tacos. This was the sort of place that was more cool vibe than solid good food.

My husband David was not amused, after I finally felt well enough to text him, when he learned that I came thisclose to being sprawled unconscious, alone, on a New York City sidewalk, while he and our son were in DC, completely powerless to help. In truth, it was scary. No more half margaritas at lunch for Mama right before an NYC summer hike.

Here are some criteria I use in selecting a restaurant, out of–seemingly–countless options in the City. I don’t want an obvious tourist trap, if at all possible. Realistically, many places will have tourists and lots of them, but I try to stay away from the ones that scream magnet for out-of-towners. That rules out about 95% of Times Square and the Theater District, and that’s okay. Proximity (walking distance) to hotel is ideal; a bit of a loose concept with me because I’m usually willing to walk a fair amount. On the other hand, I’ve also made a few exceptions, particularly being happy to ride the subway for mofongo.

Mofongo with shrimp at Puerto Rican restaurant Sazón in Tribeca. Nowhere near places where I typically stay, but worth the subway ride!

I also want to be able to make a dinner reservation online ahead of time. And if they are too exclusive to allow reservations 1) online, 2) for only one person, or 3) well in advance at the time when I’m looking (I’ve only ever encountered these restrictions in New York), I typically conclude that I’m probably not sophisticated enough for them, and move on. Lunch is more flexible, though I still often map out a few options in advance. I get that this sounds way rigid, it probably is. But my typical trips involve no more than 48 hours in the City. There are many things I want to get done. By dinnertime, I am really tired and hungry. When you factor in getting lost and near drunken fainting, among other things, that leaves very little time to spontaneously find a conveniently located hole-in-the-wall restaurant with decent local reviews and plenty of pescetarian food options, that isn’t wildly expensive, crap, or just plain scary. Trust me, that’s when you realize the options are actually far from endless. I’m flexible, but having a safety net for a decent dinner allows me to relax and focus on the day’s activities.

Katz’s Deli, on East Houston, is an institution. It is packed no matter what time of day, most of the folks there are likely tourists, and the food offerings aren’t great for non-eaters of red meat. Still it’s worth a visit, if nothing else, to see where the famous “faking it” scene in When Harry Met Sally was filmed, and to enjoy the odd juxtaposition of a historic NYC Jewish deli where 9 out of 10 members of the wait staff are Dominican.
Affordable places where the food is delicious, clockwise from the top left: 1) Tuna melt with outstanding tater tots at Big Daddy’s Diner near Madison Square Park. 2) Inspired grilled shrimp pita and tzatziki at Souvlaki, in the LES. 3) Fish taco and potato flautas at the place to eat Mexican in the LES, Taquería Lower East Side. Taquería is my favorite of these three, although Souvlaki is a close second.
Pricier, snootier places that were nevertheless worth it: 1) One of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, at Pizzarte, near Carnegie Hall. 2) Endive and beet salad with cheeses and fries at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro, in the Murray Hill area.
Hotels? Simple. I’ve enrolled in a hotel points/rewards program. Whichever one of their Manhattan properties is cheapest at the time of my search, that’s where I stay. And I know exactly what to expect. Breakfast will be included, it will not be high end, and I will have my own bathroom–no, a private bathroom is not guaranteed to folks visiting the Big Apple on a budget. Being near a subway station isn’t too hard to achieve, but it isn’t guaranteed either, and it’s absolutely imperative.
Clockwise from top left: 1) The smallest room I’ve had to date, but it was clean, perfectly located, and quiet! 2) The view from one of the windows. 3) The nicest room I’ve had, it was also the farthest from the subway; I won’t be returning to this one. 4) Yes, sometimes I add a little extra to hotel room safety by putting something in front of the door.
I know so many people who have lived in New York City, I forget that I also know many others who know very little about it. And there are also the ones who find the City to be a bit much. I get that. The driving is crazy and aggressive (fasten your seatbelt when riding a taxi!), the subway smells like urine, and there are horns honking and sirens blaring at all hours of the day and night. This is also the only city where, at the end of a day, I have dirt underneath my fingernails even though I’ve done zero work with my hands. Someone near you shouts motherf**ker? You just witnessed an arrest? Sounds about right. These are just some of the things one can expect. Obviously this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. This City is impatient, unforgiving, in its unvarnished aliveness, and that can be overwhelming. But if you swim in its energy rather than resist it, it makes you part of it and injects you with its vibrancy. I love it truly, and true love lasts forever!
Some favorites: 1) The Flatiron Building. 2) Old tenement buildings in the LES. 3) A view of historic Cooper Union from one of my favorite intersections, Bowery and East 4th Street. 4) Washington Square Park.
One more thing. If you are going through Penn Station, which I affectionately refer to as one of the top ten hellholes to see before you die, I’ve got two words for you: Don Pepi. It is the best, consistently good deli there, with fast, friendly service. I always get a bagel and lox from them, even if there isn’t a mealtime in sight when I’m waiting for my train. It’s that good.
Now go.
You’re welcome.
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Food lovers’ food fight

In September of 2010, our son was 6 months old when his first little tooth was starting to poke through. With the exception of a few weeks when my post-partum depression had been especially exquisite, and my husband David had to step in with formula a few times, our baby had been nursed exclusively throughout those first 6 months. We had been told that this was an appropriate age to start babies on solid foods. So, at our neighborhood Farmers’ Market one weekend, David and I bought a sweet potato to prepare for our sweet angel. I rinsed, peeled, cooked it until it was just tender, and pureed it. So exciting!

This was his reaction.

I can almost hear it, “What the hell, man?!”

Baby 1, Parents 0. Thus began our endeavor to feed our baby anything other than Mama’s milk. And then, one month in, with my mother in town, it just happened–Boom! Maybe she deployed a secret technique one evening that she was alone with him. All I know is, just like that, we went from the photo above to the one below. Baby 1, Parents 1. Win-Win! Then we couldn’t feed him fast enough.

What followed were several very happy months of experimenting and making him all sorts of food combos. When the time came for us to begin introducing our own foods to him, things started to change. Again. Maybe one mistake was to start him on bland and vaguely sweet stuff, per the recommendations of pediatricians and “experts” everywhere, before transitioning him to what we normally eat. It made enough sense to us at the time. We were rookie parents in this era of ever-increasing food allergies and unknown scary crap being put into our food. Now, I am convinced that folks who start their kids eating what the grownups eat from much earlier on have got it right.

That transition, in our case, has been an ongoing issue. When he was a baby, I had virtually no tolerance any time something new made him gag. Still, in fact. Is that so wrong? There were times when we probably gave up too quickly. I take responsibility for that. And four years in, enforcing that he eat something new or go to bed hungry is simply not happening; can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Having your child help with the food shopping and preparation to get him interested in different types of food? Done, and done. He loves food in an abstract sense. And he has been exposed to a much larger variety in types of food than either my husband or I ever were growing up. These enthusiasms have simply never, or very rarely, translated to an interest in eating the foods.

Helping Mama make breakfast for dinner (with awesome veggie sausages). Trimming green beans. Declaring that monkeys live in broccoli. (Monkeys live in trees, broccoli looks like trees, it stands to reason…)
The truth is there’s no telling how different things would be based on changing a few key elements in our approach 4 years ago. These days, there are certain things that our son eats with consistent regularity. Oatmeal, fruits of any kind (just don’t try to get him to eat kiwi, kiwi freaks him out!), other cereals, rice, raw carrots, garlic-roasted broccoli, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, milk, yogurt, pretzels, anything sweet. Foods that he eats with varying consistency include chicken (only when it’s been prepared by me at home), couscous, peppers, feta cheese, olives, tortilla chips, pancakes, hard-boiled eggs, beans.

My goal? To be able to go into a restaurant and order something for him other than rice. If it isn’t the type of place that serves rice (and forget pilaf or wild), everywhere else we go, we bring his food. To that end, I spent some time one weekend bribing him with Disney videos on my phone if he would eat the chicken nuggets we ordered for him.

Feel free to judge. All these years, I have taken such pride in the fact that no fried chicken tender/nugget had crossed his lips. Eh, I was over it; now I wanted him to eat the chicken tenders!

This is particularly ironic given how much my approach to eating and cooking has changed in recent years. Home-cooked non-(or minimally-)processed foods, and no meat other than fish–and the occasional bacon. Some examples:

Cream of vegetable soup. Roasting the veggies with garlic first makes it extra special.
I have made more salads at home in the past year than I did in my previous 37 years. Raw brussel sprouts? Radishes? Never made anything with them before this year.
Fish and veggies every week, usually more than once. Sometimes I fry the fish, when we have a hankering for Baja fish tacos.

I obviously love to prepare rich, sweet, indulgent stuff sometimes, too. Using real sugar, dairy, and gluten–no subsitutes. Yet still made from scratch.

Last Christmas.
Because yum.

So you see, we eat pretty well in our house. It’s not as though we are trying to get him to eat lima beans. Boiled cabbage. Hemp loaf. Cabbage or hemp in any incarnation, really. And he has been excited to help shop for and prepare the vast majority of the things in these photos. Will not try a single one–except for the sweet stuff.

I marvel any time a parent tells me their child eats “pretty much everything.” Okay. What I really marvel at is whenever I confirm that they are actually telling the truth when they say this. But I get it. My kid won’t even eat pizza, and odds are good that theirs does. Most picky eaters will eat at least one of the items typically featured on restaurants’ children’s menus. And I have seen with my own eyes some kids who really are wide open, easy eaters. Kudos to the parents. Or congratulations on lucking out? Don’t know.

Meanwhile, we have the first of several summer trips in less than a week. Road trip to Florida. And we will likely go everywhere with our loaf of bread, and jars of peanut butter and jelly. Maybe I’ll throw a jar of Nutella into the mix, for variety. Pretty sure he’d eat a Nutella sandwich! Just don’t tell our pediatrician. And David and I will bemoan the fact that we can’t just order spaghetti, pizza, or chicken tenders off the children’s menu for him. Ah well. Ultimately, though, I’ll still be glad that he’s not eating the “chicken” tenders, that he has no concept of McDonald’s, and that thus far we have been spared the slippery slope of our kid enjoying and craving fried junk foods.

It obviously isn’t about keeping score or who wins or loses. We want him to be healthy more than anything, and thankfully, he is. We also wouldn’t mind a little more practical ease when traveling and going to restaurants and birthday parties sometimes, that’s all. Just eat the pizza, kid! But if modeling behavior is the most important way to teach our children valuable habits, then I have to believe that eventually, our sweet, highly demanding and discriminating little angel-man will indeed eat a very wide variety of foods, just like his parents do. I’m prepared to wait it out. I mean, right … ?

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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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Things I would say if I didn’t have a filter, Part 1

To the library staff during these freezing library days.
I know you mean well, I do. And I think you all do a terrific job. But look at me for a minute. I am wearing two shirts, two sweaters, a hat, a hood, my coat, fingerless gloves, and a third sweater around my legs. I am also drinking hot tea. Here, feel my nose. Is it still there? ‘Cause I can’t feel it anymore. Every person sitting in this section is wearing their coat. That poor woman over there hasn’t taken her hands out from inside her coat sleeves in at least ten minutes. How about you taste my water? Tastes like it’s been sitting in the fridge, doesn’t it? It’s just been here on my table for two hours. It takes me longer than this to get a bottle of wine chilled in my refrigerator at home.

To the woman who comforted my son on that particular day when he was inconsolable and I felt alone, and the one who told me he looked like a very well-fed baby when I most needed to hear that, and to my Whole Foods parking lot angel when I broke my pinky toe.
I don’t really know you, but I think I love you.

To the mother who has a conversation with me about how her child eats everything (but never candy), watches no TV, is always in bed and asleep before 8PM, was one hundred percent potty-trained by age two and half, adjusted seamlessly to preschool, has outgrown at least half of their toys, and how she, the mom, never loses her cool.
Unless I can have a conversation with you where I call your bullsh!t or your delusion, I’m not sure I see a lot of conversations in our future.
(The same general principle applies to women who talk about how they can basically binge-eat everything and anything, do nothing physical in the interest of their fitness/health, and look like a stick. I know about two people who could say this in earnest; they’re the ones who don’t need to talk about it. The rest? No tengo tiempo.)

To the two women who were having dinner together at a nearby table at a restaurant recently.
Could I be your friend, too? You two seem so cool. The parts of your conversation that I overheard–it was more than I care to admit–made you sound like terrific ladies. I am a good baker, I’m reasonably smart, loyal, and a good listener. Plus my husband also tells me I’m funny. I swear I’d make a great girlfriend!

A time in recent memory when it felt awesome to not have a filter.
Saying a loud “Thank you!” that’s dripping with sarcasm when someone just went through a door and didn’t hold the door for me, especially when I’ve been pushing a stroller.

Times when my non-filter makes me go woops.
About once or twice a week, with my husband. When something comes out of my mouth and then I say, “Wait. Did I really just say that out loud?”

The day when having a filter was the right thing to do.
I was going for a walk in my neighborhood and I saw a young woman sitting on the hood of her car, crying. I went to say, “Are you okay?” Then I thought quickly. No. That’s trite, and obviously she’s not okay. But I couldn’t not say anything. Because she was distraught and I was the only other person around, and I happen to believe that this stranger and I are members of the same human family. I had just a few seconds before I was directly in front of her! When I was finally there, what came out was, “I’m sorry you’re upset.” We then proceeded to have a meaningful conversation–that didn’t involve oversharing or violate any boundaries among strangers–about what was upsetting her. I like to think it helped her.

The day when not having a filter really paid off.
At teaching job years ago, I’d had a paper accepted at a conference in Mexico. My passport was going to expire before the trip, and I’d have to request an expedited passport renewal. But I knew I didn’t have any of the reasons that would qualify me for one. Which was precisely what the man at the passport office told me. Angrily. Next thing I knew, I said,
“Couldn’t you at least smile a little?”
“Excuse me?”
“Smile, you know, smile! Couldn’t you at least do that? Or are you having a bad day? I know I let my passport expire and now I have this trip to Mexico. I get that. But as far as I know I haven’t done anything to you personally. So why be so mad? Maybe smile a little instead?”
“Tell you what.” He said, smiling. “Because you made me take a moment to smile, and no one’s ever done that before, how about you come back after 2PM today to pick up your new passport?”
Cross my heart, true story!

Additional photos from Someecards.com, and (I think) Laurie Alex on Flickr.com.

 

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Eat Drink Google

I would like to talk about some of the practices, including the varying results of some of the things I eat/drink and some web searches, that I have engaged in while writing since beginning my structured schedule as I make progress toward the completion of my first novel.

I have heard countless times that the most productive times for writing creatively are in the very early hours of the morning. Something about still having one metaphorical foot in your subconscious world because you’ve just rolled out of bed. I have actually not found this to be my most productive time. In fact, on days when I have done any writing in the six o’clock hour, I frequently end up with the shortest word count for the day’s work. Or I end up having Googling mishaps like the one I had last week.

Google. Most of the time, I turn off the Internet, and especially–believe it or not–Facebook while I am within my ninety minutes per day schedule. But I do make an exception for Google.  Like when I can’t remember an Italian word. An important portion of the story I am telling in my book features an Italian immigrant family on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s. I took some Italian several years ago, and I’ve visited Italy a few times. I also happen to be a native speaker of Spanish, which has a lot of words in common with Italian. But at low-productivity early morning hours, I forget most of the Italian words I know. I would hereby like to strongly advise against entering the words Italian and ass in the same search. <Shudder> Still wish I could un-see those results. And yes, I know that it’s the same word in Italian as it is in Spanish, too. In my defense, I was on little sleep and I’d had no caffeine or nourishment when this happened.

Then there are times when I don’t have one of my New York City maps with me, even though I keep one upstairs and one downstairs for quick access because it is a constant reference. These are also times when I resort to my good, if dangerous, friend Google. The main downfall there is that I end up seeing names of restaurants in close proximity to some of the locations I’m researching, and before I know it, I am reading Yelp reviews for restaurants, and mapping out where to eat on my next escape research trip to the City.

Food and drink. Some writing friends I have spoken with recently are very keen on having a glass of wine while writing. This tends to be an utter impossibility for me, given that I do most of my writing either in the very early morning, or mid morning while my little boy is in preschool. I do, however, find that I absolutely need to drink something, and that needs to be a hot drink. Otherwise–true story–I end up sitting in the library or Whole Foods wearing four layers of sweaters, a fifth sweater wrapped around my legs, a scarf, a hat, and fingerless gloves. I like to think that this completes my look as a starving–albeit full-figured–artist. Now all I need is a garret on the Seine.

Last Saturday, my husband and I were on our first overnight getaway together (senza bambino) since becoming parents. After dinner at a rather pretentious restaurant where, to be fair, the deliciousness of the food made up for its overpriced small portions, he and I headed for–wait for it!–the hotel bar. If you knew us, you would know that this in an uncharacteristic thing for us to do. In fact as we sat there ordering a drink, we determined that neither of us could remember when we had last had a drink at a bar together. I still had writing to do that night, so I decided to test the theory of writing while sipping something alcoholic, and see how the creative juices flowed. I ordered a liqueur that we were introduced to years ago by my husband’s beloved aunt, called Drambuie. I will say, it was as delightfully warm and sweet as I’d remembered. But I did not find that it did much for my writing per se. I did, however, taste wasabi peas for the first time at that bar. Yum! I think crunching on the peas did more to fuel my story-telling while the Drambuie did more to make me sleepy.

I wish I could say that my Googling “accident” happened on the one occasion when I engaged in drinking while writing, but I think I still have a good excuse. This final picture is of part of the overpriced dinner we had Saturday night. Just because. I mean, a fourteen dollar scallop is just worth sharing, I think. And because it really was very good. And the scallop came with a celery root puree (another first for me that night) which I also found wonderful. Celery root and wasabi peas, two thumbs up!

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