Friday, June 26, 2009

On a Jaunt

Off for two weeks to see some bands and some friends in England and points south. Be good while I'm away!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What a Tart

Ever since the spring rains have come, I've been somewhat overcome with the availability of tender, delicious leafy greens. Week after week I would pick up bunches of swiss chard, loving the novelty of it, sauteed simply with a little garlic, a few pinenuts and some golden raisins.

But as delicious as that preparation is, it did begin to feel a tad stale after the eighth time in three weeks. So eventually I found myself with a gorgeous bunch of swiss chard that was begging to have something new done with it.

I have been seeing a raft of savory tart and quiche recipes of late, so was inspired to try my hand at creating my own version.

I was aiming for something lighter than a quiche (more veggie, less custard) yet more substantial than a tart. So I loaded up on the chard and onion, defiled the crust with a bit of fresh herb and cornmeal, and threw in a wisp of cayenne to make things interesting. The result was exactly what I was looking for. Tender yet veggie packed filling and a flaky but vaguely rustic crust.

I will say that due to the butter in the crust, the dish is on the rich side. If you would prefer something lighter, you may want to sacrifice some of the flakiness in the crust and go for an oil based crust rather than a butter based one. Or forget the crust altogether, I leave the decision to you. It will be delicious regardless.

Swiss Chard Tart

1 cup flour
1/4 cup coarse cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
ice water as needed

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound swiss chard
2 small or 1 medium onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
pinch cayenne pepper
scant scrape of nutmeg
salt to taste

To prepare crust, combine flour, cornmeal, salt, thyme and butter either in a food processor fitted with a steel blade or by hand. The mixture will look like meal, with pieces of butter the size of small peas, when it is ready. With the motor running (or your fork mixing), add the ice water in a slow stream, until the dough just barely comes together. Turn dough out onto a piece of saran wrap, press into a disk and wrap well. Chill for at least an hour.

Once dough has chilled, preheat oven to 375. Roll out dough on a lightly floured board to a thickness of about 1/4 of an inch. Lay gently, without stretching, into an 11-inch tart pan and press to fit. Trim any excess dough and feel free to eat it while standing alone in your kitchen. Put the tart dough in the freezer until oven has preheated. Once removed from freezer, drape aluminum foil to fit and then lay dried beans or some other weight on the aluminum foil. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove weights and foil and bake for another 5 minutes. Allow to cool.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Wash chard thoroughly and cut into ribbons, separating stalks as best you can from the leaves.

Heat olive oil over medium heat and saute onions until just becoming translucent, salting to taste. Add garlic and chard stems and cook for a few minutes longer. Add greens and toss, salting again to taste. Cover and allow to steam until greens are fully cooked. Set aside and allow to cool.

In a separate bowl, whisk eggs, milk, cayenne pepper and nutmeg together.

Spread swiss chard mixture over the prebaked crust, taking care to leave behind as much moisture as possible so as to avoid making the crust soggy. Then pour egg and milk mixture over the chard. Bake until just set, approximately 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bucking the Weather

I have had obligations (or perhaps "plans" is a more pleasant characterization) the past couple Saturdays and as a result have been missing my weekly Greenmarket runs. Luckily, my CSA box began last week so I have had ample fresh produce (mostly leafy greens, which frankly is a bit boring but I must have consumed more iron in the past week than I did in the previous month which I suppose is a positive).

However, as valiant as my last bouquet was, and with a lifespan of twelve days, the proud stalks really were quite stout-hearted, I still had been without blooms for longer than I preferred. So, despite the soul-dampening weather this weekend I was looking forward to my time at the Greenmarket.

In defiance of the cloudy skies, I chose a bouquet of cheerful sunflowers.

And thought they would be adorable on my bathroom sink, right next to the Alessi dental floss dispenser that my mom bought for me and my sister the last time she was in Paris. She said that they made her smile, and I have to agree. An appropriate accompaniment for the winsome bouquet.

Too bad my horrid faucet has to ruin it for the two of them.

But as one bucks nature at one's own risk, I felt it important to give a nod to the gloom with this bunch of green...branches, I suppose.

Quite appropriate to our northwest-like weather, don't you think? Deep green, in homage to the great June deluge. Charming, and almost boisterous I it betrayal to say that I may even prefer it to the chipper sunflowers?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

New Digs

I was thrilled with the prospect of singing the praises of Di Palo's, my favorite little Italian food shop, located in one of the few remaining remnants of Little Italy. I was excited to tell of the personal attention lavished on each customer, of the resulting ever-present long lines, the generous samples of translucent pink meats and shards of salty cheeses passed down said lines, and the warm, communal feeling engendered by the whole experience.

I was delighted to tell of the wonderful offerings behind the counter. Fresh ricotta for instance. Ricotta that in no way resembles anything you have ever bought at a supermarket. Rich and smooth, the grassy lactic perfume barely nudges against your nose.

It of course would be wonderful in a variety of dishes like the ricotta gnocchi that Delicious Days featured a few weeks ago, baked with some herbs with an egg whisked in, a frittata, the list goes on. But my favorite method of preparation is the simplest...cold, drizzled with fragrant honey, with perhaps a few walnuts scattered about if you are feeling ambitious. It is that good.

Basket cheese, not dissimilar to fresh ricotta, is another of those Di Palo's gems that you don't often see elsewhere. Drizzle it with a bit of vin cotto, I beg you. And then there are the wonderful hard cheeses, many with odd items adhering to the rinds (I saw something that looked like hay the last time I was there), and my god the gorgonzola simply oozes, practically weeps. I may send myself over the edge if I discuss much more, so I will simply say that the selection of meats is just as extensive and high quality as that of the cheese.

And I was over the moon to to mention that the prices are beyond reasonable. I firmly believe that the price of parmesan cheese is the barometer for the price structure of an entire establishment. For instance, Dean & Deluca charges $24.99/lb the last time I checked, Citarella is $17/lb, and Fairway, generally the low price leader, is $13.99/lb. Di Palo's beats the low price leader at $12.99/lb!

And, in addition to all of this, I was relishing the thought of describing the charmingly cramped quarters, how the line snaked around ravioli, anchovies and panetone, providing ample time for browsing, chatting and daydreaming. Sort of the way Murray's Cheese used to be when they were located on the north side of Bleecker.

But I went by the other day and saw this:

An expanded store! It must be four times the size of the original establishment.

When I was there the store was not fully up and running, as half of the space was vacant, barricaded by a large refrigerated case. But it is huge! It will be interesting to see how this new space works for the Di Palo's folks...will it be like a recently widened highway, which fills up just as soon as it opens with expanded gridlock? I have to admit, I secretly hope that it does. I would desperately miss the jovial (and even the not so jovial) crowds.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Bait and Switch

I've expounded at length before my affection for Nigella Lawson. I like her self-possessed attitude, her articulate and thoughtful nature and of course her recipes, many of which are in heavy rotation in my kitchen. Her Spanish stew has made a welcome appearance on many a winter evening. Or on a Friday night in June, which this year is difficult to distinguish from winter. I added some kale as a nod to springtime.

But ever since she moved into that gorgeous Belgravia townhouse with Charles Saatchi, I wonder if the house is what is compelling me to watch her show every Saturday morning (as lovely as both she and her food are).

My fascination reached such a crescendo on Saturday that I spent hours online searching for revealing magazine photos of the townhouse...and I found that there aren't any!!

This is the closest I came...

...a feature from defunct magazine House and Garden from November 2004. Is this even in the right house? This looks more like a country home than their very modern city dwelling. But I do yearn for that library.

So then I resorted to beauty shots of Ms. Lawson that included at least a portion of the kitchen.

Highly unsatisfying from a house voyeur standpoint.

So then I had to move on to YouTube...or rather, since I have no idea how to pull stills from YouTube videos, I lifted them from La La Lovely Things, who apparently has a bit of a real estate crush as well.

I adore this light fixture. The image is perhaps not clear, but it is essentially a round cage with fairy lights mounded up inside. I find it so whimsical.

And this image I like I believe because of the lamp. I know the Bourgie lamp is not all that unique at this point, but my fondness for it has not waned. Plus which I suppose I also like the fact that I, a mere working girl (in my grandmother's sense of the word, not, well, you know), could, if I so chose, have a home furnishing in common with a pair of stylish multimillionaires.

Additionally, I remember catching a glimpse of the inside of that cabinet that the lamp sits on during one of her shows, and it was painted the most fabulous lime green. I was instantly smitten.

And this sign, which marks her enviable food storage facility, I find utterly charming.

So often these sorts of vintage inspired kitchen items can seem straight out of TJ Max, but this is utilitarian enough to avoid that it comes across as pleasingly tongue-in-cheek to me. Although, I suppose that is because it is likely the actual label from some grand old pile's kitchen rather than an interpretive imitation.

But perhaps the most satisfying image I found was of her refrigerator.

La Ghiacciaia is made by Meneghini, and is meant to be a reinterpretation of the old wooden Italian iceboxes. I covet it intensely.

So I thought, will somebody please do a feature on this house? I'm dying to see more. But wouldn't you know it, the "kitchen" is a set on an industrial estate somewhere far from Belgravia! Which I guess would explain the presence of the very un-Saatchi Bourgie lamp.

So now I am at a loss. I'd love to see the actual townhouse, but I'm afraid it might be a bit more grand than I am hoping for. And the set? Well, I think we as viewers have seen all there is to see.

Friday, June 19, 2009

What I Liked This Week

Pia Jane Bijkerk. A stylist/photographer/generally creative person living on a houseboat in Amsterdam, she blogs about and photographs her everyday, which is quite a bit more beautiful than the average everyday. I am totally captivated by her photos, and charmed by her obsession with flowers (and can particularly relate to her love of peonies!). She's just written a book about the artisans of Paris called Paris: Made by Hand which I cannot wait to explore.

After hearing many wonderful things about Eugenia Bone's book Well-Preserved, I took a gander through while browsing in my favorite bookshop the other day. Officially obsessed! I fully intend to buy obscene amounts of produce this weekend to can, stew and pickle.

My favorite Swedish design blogger is back from her break. Hooray! Am I the only one having a moment with Scandinavian design?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Potraits of Many Ladies

My parents are avid and very thorough readers of the New York Times. When I visit them, I always make sure to lay claim to the front page as soon as I rise in the morning, otherwise I know that I will be waiting for quite some time as my dad seemingly memorizes the section. My mom is quite devoted to the arts section, and although she has the opportunity to see many wonderful performances in the Bay Area, she occasionally pines for those that alight in New York. So, as she likes to attend them vicariously if possible, I often get emails from the home front telling me of goings-on.

The latest of these missives alerted me to a free performance by the extraordinarily talented violinist Hilary Hahn. It was titled "Hilary Hahn!!" and closed "Jealously, mom". How could I resist?

I dragged myself up to The Old Town Hall on Sunday (quite an event, as I am reluctant to go to midtown on the weekends) and roped Marissa into accompanying me. Of course, as the performance was free and New Yorkers love to stand in line for hours on end, I had missed the last of the free tickets by a mile. Luckily, we were right around the corner from the International Center for Photography, which is currently exhibiting Richard Avedon's fashion photography. Perhaps just as luckily, Marissa's connections to her former life got us in for free!

I love those moments when, through an image or a performance of some sort, you suddenly understand why a famous artist is admired. It often happens to me with regards to artists whose prolific periods occurred either before I was born or when I was too young to be aware of the arts. This past Sunday, I experienced such a moment with Avedon.

It's hard for me to remember seeing another photographer who brings such movement to still images,

who creates such interesting geometry with ungeometric subjects,

who is so utterly capitivated by all women,
and who can create a world that the beholder yearns to inhabit with just one image.

What an artistic genius, clearly he more than deserved the fame that his work garnered. It's always nice when that happens.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Money Matters

Given my propensity for extreme frugality, it probably comes as no surprise that I like to check my accounts daily. First thing in the morning. Compulsively. I think I got it from my dad, who used to endure occasional ribbing from my mom about how often he "massaged" his money. I just like to know that no errant charges have made it onto my account, and I derive a certain comfort from knowing exactly what I have (or don't have).

However, given how many different student loan and investment accounts I have, checking them all is quite the chore. And although I have put together numerous spreadsheets over the years attempting to summarize my situation, I never felt like I had a complete grasp on it. That is, until I found

Now I didn't exactly find it on my own. I'd read about it, I'd heard about it, and then Marissa told me that she loved it. So finally, finally I gave it a try. And as promised, it is genius.

All you do is enter your username and password for all of your online accounts. Bank accounts, mutual funds, mortgages, 401(k)s, student loans...this site can do it all. For the vast majority of financial institutions and investment vehicles, Mint can connect to their server, thereby automatically updating your balances and consolidating all of your financial data into a readable form.

I initially loved this site for its summary page. I look at it every day and know with absolute certainty what my net worth is (depressing as that number may be, I feel better knowing it than not). And the ancillary features are great...I get emails when a bill is due, when my bank balance is running low or when some sort of financial catastrophe is imminent. And I could, if I didn't pay for so many things with cash, keep track of what I'm spending my money on, and compare those amounts to a budget I had set, to last month's spending in given categories, and to the spending patterns of the average American.

But what I think I appreciate most about this site is the utter sense of calm it has brought me. It is almost as if I have a hyper-organized assistant working for me to monitor my financial matters. No accounts are forgotten, nothing slips by unnoticed, no calculations are incorrect, and everything is paid on time. All of this with a soothing color scheme in the background. No stress, no alarm, just the facts.

And while I'm on the topic of helpful financial websites, let me throw out a few more. I've already mentioned Get Rich Slowly, a helpful blog written by a newly frugal, previously indebted man. But let me add to the list (I think I'm late to the party on this one as well, but hey, it shows you how to save money on, you guessed it, bills!), as well as The Consumerist: Shoppers Bite Back, which is a site owned by Consumer Reports that exposes various nefarious practices by big business as it relates to their customers and also dispenses useful tips. And my latest discovery (it was actually featured on The Consumerist) which I am loving is called Credit Karma. I've always been curious about what my credit score is, but have been somewhat loathe to pay for it. With Credit Karma it's free (at least your score from TransUnion is), and they give you a customized report card with tips on how to raise your score. Always good info to have, and very excited to get it gratis!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Cleaning Up

It all started with Oprah. Last week I saw an episode of her show that profiled two extraordinarily wasteful families. They recycled nothing, ran no fewer than four electronic devices at any one time and threw away enough food in a week to feed a small village for a month. Oprah of course set them straight, and had them reading books and drinking out of reusable water bottles in no time.

I was initially horrified by the total disregard for money and resources generally, and was sliding into smug territory until I remembered my own overcrowded refrigerator. After a zealous weekend at the farmer's market and a small dinner party during the week (I served the clam, fennel and pasta dish from Suzanne Goin's Sunday Supper at Lucques, which was outstanding), I had an abundance of fresh, easily perishable food just waiting to be either used or wasted.

So I threw everything together with some pasta, cream and walnuts and had myself a luxurious little dinner. And returned to feeling smug.

Clean Your Fridge Out Pasta
Serves 1

Note: All measurements are approximate, adjust to suit the contents of your pantry

scant 1/4 cup walnut halves
3 ounces penne
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
1/2 fennel bulb, diced
1 clove garlic, sliced
8 spears young asparagus, trimmed and sliced into 2-inch lengths
2-3 tablespoons heavy cream
1-2 tablespoons chopped parseley

Put on pot of salted water to boil for pasta. In a dry skillet, toast walnuts over medium heat until fragrant. Transfer walnuts to plate or bowl and set aside.

In same skillet, warm olive oil over medium heat and add onion and fennel. Salt lightly, and cook, being careful not to brown the vegetables. Drop the pasta into the boiling water.

Once onions and fennel are tender, 3-4 minutes, add garlic and cook for a minute. Add asparagus and saute for two minutes. Pour cream into skillet. The cream should cover the bottom of the pan, but the depth should only be about a quarter of an inch. Bring to a simmer, and allow to reduce a bit, approximately two minutes. Taste, and add salt if necessary.

Once pasta is al dente, drain, reserving some cooking water, and add to skillet. Toss through, and if sauce is too thick, add a bit of water to loosen things up. Toss through fresh parsley and serve.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Toasty Feet

The very generous folks at Whooga, an Australian sheepskin boot company (no, not THAT sheepskin boot company) are offering you all $30 to spend on their site. Given that their boots run in the $100 range, that is quite a hefty reduction! Just type WHATILIKEN into the coupon code box at checkout to redeem the offer. I've got my eye on a pair of those woven grey boots...

What I Liked This Week

In preparation for dinner at my place with Louise the other night, I swung by my favorite local wineshop, the Green Grape, which conveniently is located right between my office and my apartment to pick up a bottle.  I rushed in, slightly frantic, and asked for something cheap to go with clams.  The wine savant behind the counter steered me towards Broadbent Vinho Verde, which turned out to be delightfully effervescent, highly drinkable and $10 a bottle.  And now I have a new go-to summer wine.

For the fiscally conservative among you, I discovered a website this week that may become highly addictive.  Get Rich Slowly is a blog written by a man who was once in debt, got himself out of debt and is now the picture of frugality and prudence.  It's not as dull as it sounds, and has actually become one of my first-thing-in-the-morning websites.

I'm inexplicably compelled by the blog for Wool And the Gang, which is a design collective that sells hip knitwear, either ready made, or in kits if you prefer to knit your own.  Perhaps I'm into the blog because it is mostly pictures and very few words?  You need a reading break every once in a while, no?  Anyway, all of their wool comes from well treated animals in Peru, and supposedly Mary Kate and Barney's Julie Gilhart are fans, so I suppose I'm not alone here.  Oh, and my new favorite restaurant hosted their American debut recently!

And finally, the Amateur Gourmet gives us a recipe for the most refreshing drink ever...homemade gingerale!  Not that this gloomy weather necessitates it, but perhaps it can be used as some sort of inducement/ritualistic act to bring out the sun?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

How Timely!

After writing about Jen Bekman's ridiculously affordable art, I just got an email notifying me of a sale on her ridiculously affordable art! Enter the coupon code RIDONK at checkout to get 20% any print. Happy shopping!

Art For The Masses

I love the idea of filling my walls with art.  Or rather, I love the idea of filling the walls of a lovely loft or townhouse that I fantasize will one day be mine with art.  As much as I appreciate the big windows and high ceilings in my apartment now, I'm not sure that a real work of art would feel at home with my parquet tile floors and fake chrome bathroom fixtures.  But then I discovered Jen Bekman's site 20 x 200, a site that democratizes art, selling pieces that range in price from $20 to $2,000.  Now a $20 or $50 piece would most certainly feel at home in my apartment, and in most others I would imagine.

For quite some time, each bi-weekly email that I received from her showcased works that I related to, that I could absolutely see buying, and I looked forward to seeing what she would come up with each time.  But then a fallow period came, and I became somewhat less addicted to browsing the site.

However, today the clouds lifted.  Not only did she have some charming prints that were new to the site, but some of my favorites which had previously sold out are back!

Christian Chaize fulfills my longing for the beach very effectively with these two photos for which I yearned for quite some time.

Perhaps now that they are back I should buy the pair to hang above my bed?

And I spent a month being completely enamored with this photo by Beth Dow

but couldn't justify the purchase since I wasn't sure where on earth I would put it.  And then when it quite predictably sold out, I was devastated.  But today I saw that it is back!  Apparently the photo is featured in the July issue of Martha Stewart, which I imagine made for quite a compelling reason to restock the print.  Whatever the reason, I am overjoyed by its return.

So get yourself over to the have no excuse for barren white walls any longer (nor do I)!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Just Smile

This past weekend was an eventful one for me, as I crossed quite a major threshold.  I have officially moved from ingenue to woman of the world (29 to 30 if that was not clear).

And I was feted in a manner appropriate to the occasion.  As is our birthday tradition, Zenia and I, who share a birthday, took each other out to a decadent dinner just prior to our party on Friday night.  The lovely gentlemen at Blue Ribbon plied us with free champagne and nibbles, and then, suitably lubricated, we convened with friends in the west village late into the night.  The remainder of the weekend consisted of lazy brunches with those I hadn't seen in much too long, art exhibitions and museums, and some blissful alone time with a good book.  Heaven.

The weekend was bookended perfectly as Paul had made dinner reservations for Sunday night to celebrate the blessed day of my birth.  I am always excited to have quality time with my beloved, but I was particularly thrilled because he had chosen a restaurant I had never heard of.  Now Paul is quite up on all things cool and new and cutting edge but I am most certainly the food maven in the relationship.  So the fact that I had no idea where he was taking me could have meant either that it was very good or very bad.  

As I suspected, the restaurant was very, very good...and new and cool and cutting edge.

The Smile didn't look like much from the outside

but the inside was warm and inviting.  It just reeked of high quality, clean tasting honest food.

The place is quirky.  By day it is a store selling various pieces of clothing, tea and high quality soap with a cafe in the back.  It is closed in the evenings with the exception of dinner on Sundays, which The Smile began serving a couple of weeks ago.  As with any hip (or in this case, hipster) spot, a bit of Facebooking is involved.  In order to secure a Sunday evening reservation you must join their Facebook group (The Smile) and request one.

If this sounds a bit affected and you are put off, do not be.  One of the best aspects of this place is the relaxed and friendly vibe it cultivates.  Paul and I were greeted by and taken very good care of all night by a warm, friendly pretty young woman in a long prairie dress.  The place is BYO, and the price quoted for dinner includes three courses, tax and tip so you will never be surprised by an exorbitant bill.

As for the food?  Of course it is no Per Se, but it is very good, and is the type of food I would be happy to pay for.  I find so often that I go to restaurants and leave thinking why on earth did I just pay for something that I could recreate more successfully at home?  I could not make that argument here.  

The trio of savory Mediterranean influenced dips were fresh and interesting (a bit too interesting...we filled up on them too early in the meal!), and my gazpacho was quite spirited.  It deftly avoided that salsa/tomato sauce trap that so many versions fall into.  Main courses were simple and satisfying, and desserts were perfumed and lovely.  Plus which I was so happy not to see the ubiquitous molten chocolate cake on the menu!   

So quickly, join the Facebook group and take your dates, first or otherwise, there while it is still a hidden gem.  And prepare to be lauded for your knowledge of underground dining.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Beach Gear

I've been thinking a lot about the beach lately.  Perhaps because I'm in the final stretches of planning a vacation, and my last few have been beach-centric?  [By the way, if anyone knows of any not to be missed spots in northern Spain/SW France, please let me know!]  

Exhibit 1, Ipanema, where I spent a blissful few days during the Winter of 2008.

Exhibit 2, the Dominican Republic, Spring of 2008.  I believe that I may have been the only person who didn't get sunburned that day.  You see, as the whitest person in the group (yes, that's me in the blue dress and by the way, I had just gotten spray tanned a few days prior) if not the world, I am very well acquainted with sunscreen and its many benefits.

And, if I had a photo, Miami would be Exhibit 3.  Also quite enjoyable.

Oddly, despite growing up in California, I have only recently become a fan of the beach.  It always seemed like such a pain, lugging untold amounts of furniture, giant coolers and giant bags across hot sand.  While in Brazil I vowed that I would spend a minimal amount of time on the beach.  I insisted that I was not a beach person.

Well, turns out I am.  I love the beach...well done beaches at least.  And nobody does them better than they do in Brazil.  Now there may well be beaches somewhere in the world more naturally beautiful than those in Brazil, but I seriously doubt you will come across one that is more well equipped than the one at Ipanema.

The beach going public is provided with chairs, umbrellas and very good food from a variety of vendors that walk around through the crowds.  No need to even get up!  So you see there is little to lug to the beach as it is virtually all there already.  All you need is sunglasses, sunscreen, a book, a little money for said food, and your trusty sarong.

Sarong you say?  Aren't those largely decorative?  Well glad you asked.  As it turns out, they are the most intelligent piece of beachwear ever invented.  First off, you can wear it any which way as a cover up, the styling options are nearly endless, with the number of variations rivaling those in the Hermes scarf tying guide.  Then, once you get to the beach, simply drape it over your chair, tie it behind the back so it stays in place in all but the strongest of winds, and you're all set.  No need for a bulky, sand-filled towel!  I have never felt so unburdened at a beach as I did in my sarong in Brazil.

If I've convinced you, give this one a go, if you're only partially convinced, give this hammam towel a try.  It's sort of a compromise between the two that will ease you in.  You'll be over to the sarong side in no time, I promise!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Born in the USA

Every since the glamorous Obama-cized opening of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum, I've been itching to go see it.  I attempted to strong-arm Rob into accompanying me on Saturday, but the allure of Sophie Calle's show at the Paula Cooper Gallery was too strong.  Rightly, as it turned out.  Saturday was the last day of the show, and it was a provocative installation that was very much worth the trip.  And as an added plus we were able to witness first-hand the now famous line for the Picassos at the Gagosian Gallery.  Rather than stand in it, Marissa, Vivian and Rob and I headed over to the Empire Diner for some eggs.  I'm confident that our decision was the right one.  The eggs were great, as was the company, and the service was...entertaining. 

Sunday was my day.  I had no plans before a dinner with Paul, so I made my way uptown to see the Met's newly renovated galleries.  I'll admit I had somewhat moderate expectations.  As much as I love Shaker furniture (I actually really do, this guy makes some wonderful pieces in the style if you are a fan as well) I wasn't looking forward to galleries full of early American hutches.  

But let me say, the collection really is quite wonderful.  It is, at it turns out, a lot of furniture.  But many of the pieces were fascinating.  For instance, a grecian style sofa in yellow silk made me want to drape myself across it, perhaps while wearing a kimono of some sort, and although I can't say that I love the style of this piece (apparently it is called a tete-a-tete), I think the concept is absolutely genius.

What an utterly perfect configuration in which to have a conversation with someone!  Facing them, not too close, not too far.  Why on earth did these go out of favor?  Perhaps one too many people got caught in boring conversations with no hope of extricating themselves.

In addition to intriguing single pieces of furniture the wing also includes period rooms.  Now in general, I find rooms in museums really can run the gamut from overwrought and cloying to sublime.

The Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery is one of those rare examples that is both overwrought and sublime.

But the rooms in the American Wing tended mostly to the sublime.  There were of course those few mandatory Federalist style dining rooms, but there were some truly fabulous exhibits, many of which reminded me of the gorgeous old Berkley homes with loads of wood and enviable detailing (or I suppose I should say Bay Area childhood home is a fantastic craftsman bungalow which was not in Berkeley) that I love.

But oddly, my favorite example of this was an entry hall from a McKim Mead and White residential commission in Buffalo:

That basket pattern along the wall of the staircase was really one of the more compelling things I've seen in a while, and I love the screen dividing the stairs and the entry hall.

And of course Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright never disappoints, there is a fabulous large room of his on display as well.  Also lots of wood, also very Bay Area feeling while originating quite far from it (in this case Minneapolis).  Perhaps this style that I consider to be Bay Area is in fact simply American?  

It seems that by the time the midwest and the west had populations with enough money to build some of these gorgeous homes, the United States was old enough to have developed a distinctive style, and a very appealing one at that. I suppose that here on the east coast the money came fairly early, but the European influence was still strong, so we have a bit of a mish mash.

So if nothing else, the American Wing has shown me that my coastal snobbery is unfounded and that I should not assume that Northern California has the monopoly on good architecture and design!

Friday, June 5, 2009

What I Liked This Week

Well I was really enjoying the new blog written by a young chef doing his stage at Per Se, but it looks as if it has been taken down! Drat.

I must admit that I am intrigued by this floating biosphere scheduled to make the rounds of New York City's waterways this summer.

I will never quite understand the whole cupcake craze that swept the nation, but if there is one good thing that came out of it, it is Butter Lane, an absolutely charming shop in the East Village. For moist, fresh cupcakes with a tender crust topped with rich buttercream that actually will not send you into insulin shock, head over to East 7th Street, preferably after a leisurely dinner nearby.

Asparagus season is fleeting, and the tender green spears will be gone before we know it. Dorie Greenspan devotes a whole post to ways in which to enjoy it while we can.

And if you really want to feel lucky about your health, hygiene and living conditions, pick up The Places In Between, Rory Stewart's account of his walk across Afghanistan just after the fall of the Taliban. You will feel very, very clean and quite appreciative of your indoor plumbing (among many other things).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Italian Job

Ah, puntarelle.  Another unfamiliar leafy green that has recently come to my attention in the market.  I bought it assuming that it was just another term for dandelion greens but oh how wrong I was.  A bit of research revealed that puntarelle is a variety of chicory, picked while young.  But frankly, it looks fairly similar to dandelion, no?

Apparently the traditional roman preparation is a puntarelle salad with an anchovy dressing, which I'm told mellows the bitterness of the greens.  However, as much as I know liking anchovies is the sophisticated thing to do, I just can't get there.  I'm working on it, and may get there eventually, but for now I'll have to settle for being a food bumpkin in this respect.

So I picked up some bacon, the bumpkin version of anchovy, as visions of warm salad dressing wilting the greens danced in my head.

I washed and trimmed the leaves and let them soak in a bowl of ice water for an hour, as one is meant to do in the anchovy preparation.  This, by the way, is a genius little trick.  My semi limp puntarelle immediately perked up and looked like new again.  And I found that the bitterness had indeed abated somewhat, which I believe is the point of soaking in the first place.

I set to work making my warm bacon vinaigrette, then when it was ready tossed it with the crispy puntarelle, scattered my bacon bits and a bit of blue cheese throughout, and I had quite the satisfying meal.  Maybe there is something to these obscure vegetables after all.

Puntarelle With Warm Bacon Vinaigrette
Serves 1

1/4 pound puntarelle
2 slices thick cut bacon, cut into pieces
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3/4 teaspoon mustard
salt to taste
blue cheese (optional)

Trim and wash puntarelle.  If stalks are thick, cut lengthwise.  Drop in bowl of ice water and leave to soak 30 minutes to an hour.

After puntarelle has soaked, remove to colander to drain.  Once drained, place in serving bowl.  Saute bacon pieces over medium heat until crispy.  Remove bacon to drain on a paper towel.  Pour all but two tablespoons of remaining fat from pan.  Remove pan from heat and add vinegar and whisk in mustard.  Pour over waiting puntarelle.  If necessary, sprinkle salt over the salad and continue to toss (depending on how salty your bacon is, this may not be necessary).  Sprinkle bacon bits over salad and, if using, crumble blue cheese over greens and toss.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Leafy Greens

Now that the sexier items in the farmers market like asparagus and peonies have been around for a few weeks, my infatuation with them has abated slightly and I am able to turn my attention to the uglier duckings...dark leafy greens.

There is an abundance of greenery coming to market these days, much of which I welcome back like an old friend (hello young sweet Swiss Chard!), and some of which I have to confess is unfamiliar.

For instance, last Saturday my bag contained not only the above-mentioned chard (stunningly good, so much better than the ancient specimens in the grocery store), but also lovage and puntarelle, neither of which I knew a thing about.

I was compelled to shell out $1.50 for the lovage due I think to some romantic notion regarding old English gardens. I have no idea whether lovage is English or not, but I feel like the fact that I've heard of it at all I owe to either Nigella Lawson or Nigel Slater lamenting the lack of it today and reminiscing about their grandmother's famous lovage consomme.

What is it you may ask? Basically it is a bitter version of celery, with leaves rather than stalks. I'll admit that I tried a few fresh leaves and was underwhelmed. I may even have grimaced. Apparently Deborah Madison's suggestion to try a few leaves in a salad is not for me.

So I opted to cook it. I boiled a few of the miniature Yukon Gold potatoes I had sitting around in heavily salted water. Once cooked through, I sliced them up and sauteed them in a bit of olive oil. And once browned, I threw in a half teaspoon or so of smoked paprika, showered a bit of Maldon salt over the spiced potatoes and added a tablespoon or so of chopped lovage to the mix. Oh, and some frozen peas.

It was, somewhat surprisingly, quite delicious. The lovage added an unusual dimension...a flavor I would not have been able to identify had I not cooked the dish myself but that added a lot of interest. So my conclusion is that lovage is a wonderful background flavor, and is meant to be layered with other components. In this case the paprika was the dominant note, with the lovage adding a nice fresh counterpoint and it worked quite well.

So in order to use up the rest of my bunch I fully intend to use it in chicken stock (I have a frozen chicken carcass in the freezer anyway), to stuff a roast bird, and in place of celery in a mire poix for the likes of a bolognese sauce, meat stew or soup. I predict great success. Or at least moderate success. This is a lot to make before the leaves wilt beyond reason after all.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Silky Smooth

As you may recall, I tend to get a bit hysterical about the purity of my beauty products, both face and body. The list of products that I look to avoid precludes me from using most drugstore and department store lotions, serums and creams, so I suppose you could argue that I've taken things a bit far. However, as I've had good luck finding non-toxic replacements for all of the products I'd used previously, I've been perfectly content with my vaguely radical (some would probably say unnecessary) lifestyle choice.

But there was just one exception. It is bizarrely difficult to find a good natural, affordable body lotion. Of course my beloved Dr. Hauschka makes a gorgeous range of lotions but at $40 for 4 ounces I just can't get on board. And all of the high quality drugstore brands insist on using those horrible hormone altering parabens and birth defect causing phlalates

So when I was wandering through Whole Foods a month or so back, I was mightily intrigued by a massive bottle of very hippie looking moisturizer called Everyday Shea.

32 ounces for $9.99?!! Sign me up! Unscented please.

Now I'll admit that it was a bit rocky in the beginning. Initially the pump delivered some sort of watery shea butter byproduct. I figured that this is what happens with such a painfully organic product, so I unscrewed the lid and attempted to stir the bottle with the long end of the pump. The tube that brings the lotion to the nozzle promptly fell off and I was on the verge of tossing the whole thing out but at the last moment I squeezed a bit out (the top of the bottle seemed to have none of this separation issue) of the pumpless bottle onto my parched hand and was quite taken with the product.

Despite being made of shea butter it is completely non-greasy, even the unscented version has a slight but intoxicating chocolatey scent, and the product keeps the ever-attractive scaly skin well at bay.

And if you care about this type of thing, the proceeds go towards a shea butter cooperative in Togo that produces the stuff. A noble enterprise indeed.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Oatcakes From Scotland

I find Nairn's oatcakes to be strangely delicious.  Given that they are essentially oats and water I don't fully understand the attraction...after all, it seems like the kind of thing that the poor serfs in Far and Away would be forced to eat.  

But despite, or perhaps due to, their rather ascetic nature, these oatcakes make a wonderful base for some rather indulgent toppings...cheese, butter, various saturated fat-filled dips.  And actually jam is a surprisingly good partner as well.

However, whenever I'm looking for them I can't find them, or I find some odd variety like ginger that I find totally unappealing.  And often if I do find them they cost $5 for one package.  For oats!  

Anyway, I took a gander at the ingredient list, and as it was pretty limited, I figured I could devise a recipe without too much trouble.  And I was right!  

I was a little worried about my steel cut oats being too coarse to form a dough without a bit of flour so I added some barley flour I had laying around and threw in some all purpose flour as well.  But if you have some fine cut oats, adjust as you see fit.

Scottish Oatcakes

1/2 cup barley flour
1/2 cup steel cut oats
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon all purpose white flour
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 teaspoons vegetable oil (I used safflower, you could also use melted butter or bacon fat)
1/2 cup water

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a bowl, combine flours, oats and sea salt.  Stir in your fat of choice with a fork, blend with your fingers if the fork isn't doing it for you.

Stir in enough water to form a dough.  Knead on a floured surface for 10 seconds or so.  Flatten into a disk and roll out to a thickness of 1/8 - 1/4 inch.  With a cookie cutter (I prefer round but do as you wish) stamp out your crackers and place them on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, until edges are brown.
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