Simple Pleasures.

Simple Pleasures.
Irish soda bread on its way up North with Noah.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Farro: The Official Food of Armageddon

What a crazy ass scene last week was. No power. Barely any school. Trees and downed wires blocking just about every other street. And Halloween not just once, but TWICE, thanks to someone's genius idea to cancel and reschedule it, but failure to get word out to the critical mass of treaters and treatees.

Yee ha! There were definite upsides to the whole thing, of course. It did bring out the best in most of us. So many people shared their homes and hearths, as well as their fridge and freezer space. And I think it's motivated most of us to just finally bite the bullet and buy a darned generator, since it looks like the weather is only going to get freakier from here on in. And lastly, my love affair with a certain farro became even more passionate. 

If you're thinking that I've been getting busy with some ancient Egyptian tyrant, you not only need to check my spelling. You also have to get on the bandwagon with the rest of us who have raised farro--an ages-old Italian grain--to near-rock-star status in the U.S. these days. A little bit like barley, with a nice firm bite and slightly nutty taste, farro is actually an ancient variety of low-yield wheat that is high in fiber and--if you give a hoot, which I don't--low in gluten. It's showing up on restaurant menus and in cooking columns everywhere these days, adding chew to soups, body to stews and starring big-time in salads.

I'm even more smitten with my fair farro than I am with quinoa, which is saying a lot. Here's why: First: It's sturdier and starchier, without being too earthy, so my pasta-loving teenage boys not only eat it. They adore it. Second: It's a perfect side dish but is nutritious and satisfying enough to stand in as a main course when snuggled up to a gorgeous salad. And third: My favorite way of preparing farro is tailor-made for Armageddon cooking. All you need do is boil the darned stuff, toss it with some sauteed mushrooms and cheese and you're in business. What you end up with is a sort of dryish risotto, with a dose of fiber for good measure. I brought bags of farro up to Lake George this year and it it became our go-to stove-top meal when the wood was too wet to build a fire. And this week, when the power went out, I didn't have to think for even a second about what I was going to make for dinner. A little old match to light the stove and we'd be in business. Not just surviving but surviving deliciously and oh-so in style.

The only possiblly tricky thing about making farro is actually finding farro, and the right farro at that. I know, for example, that Whole Foods carries it, but the type they carry is a little too dark and earthy for my pasta-loving boys. My local Kings also has it, but again I'm not crazy about the brand. Our favorite farro is the semi-pearled variety that goes under the no-frills Roland brand, which Fairway carries, as do numerous web retailers. Because it's semi-pearled, this type doesn't deliver as much fiber as the whole grain farro. But it's got a less oatsy-groatsy texture and taste to it, which is what lures my kids in. You choose whichever kind turns you on. My mother-in-law regularly ferries farro out to us from the Upper West Side. And my girfriend Gail (who turned me on to farro in the first place) is always happy to plop a few bags on my doorstep after one of her sojourns to the Fairway on Rte. 17. Make a few calls and see who carries it in your neighborhood. Then fill up your cupboard and sigh with relief. Armageddon may come. But you'll know what to serve!

Gail's Perfect Farro

1 17-ounce bag semi-pearled farro (preferably Roland brand)
1 basket fresh cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced up (white button fine, too)
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. or so fresh chopped herbs of your choice (I usually substitute 1/2 tsp. dried herbs de Provence)
1/2 cup or so dry white wine (I just tip in whatever I'm drinking at the moment)
1/2-3/4 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (or even more, to taste)

Bring a big pot of lightly salted water to a boil. While the water is doing its thing, heat large skillet over medium flame. Add olive oil to the skillet. When the oil is warm (but not too hot), add garlic and saute until soft. Add mushrooms and herbs and saute all of this until it cooks down. Add wine, bring to a gentle boil and allow to reduce so there is about a tablespoon or two of liquid left in pan. Off heat.

Now, dump the whole bag of farro into the boiling water. Boil for about 21-23 minutes, testing every so often for doneness. When cooked perfectly, farro is tender but still offers a little bit of resistance when you chew it through. It shouldn't be hard, though. Drain farro and return it to the pot you boiled it in. Do not turn flame back on. Now, dump the mushroom mixture and its liquid into the pot with farro, along with the parmesan cheese. Stir it all up. Add more cheese, as well as salt and pepper, to taste. Serve with roast chicken or all on its own with a big salad of bitter greens, diced bosc pear, crumbled gorgonzola and a dijon mustard vinaigrette. As a main dish, one bag of farro should serve about 4. As a side, you'll have plenty leftover for another night.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Feeling a Little Jumpy?

If you live in San Francisco, Boston, or a handful of other cities that have caught onto the trampoline park craze, you have a handy new outlet for your frenetic energy. The rest of us, alas, will have to stick with Xanax or primal screams until one of these massive rubber rooms comes to a warehouse or airplane hangar near us.

Personally, when I got wind that there was someplace a person could literally bounce off the walls, I couldn't entertain the idea of waiting. So when the family headed out this summer to San Francisco, a session at House of Air was the second reservation I made. (If you know me, you can probably guess what the first one was.)

I kept my machinations a secret. All Paul and the boys knew was that on Day 2 of our trip, I was frantically pushing them to ride faster on the bikes we'd rented at Fisherman's Wharf because we had to "be somewhere" in the Presidio by 3 PM. Super annoyed does not describe the tude I was getting from them. Add "confused" to the mix when we rolled up to House of Air and they saw people popping in and out of sight beneath the roof of what looked like (and indeed might well have been) an enormous wall-less airplane hangar. When I walked them in and they spotted the near-endless sea of contiguous trampolines underfoot, their heads nearly spun off their bodies.

We plunked down $16 per person for our hour in the air. Signed waivers, the gist of which was, I believe, that if we broke our necks or ankles, it was our problem. Donned cute little rubber shoes. And headed to the open jumping section, where "air traffic controllers" kept potential mayhem at bay. We joined the ranks of about 30 hoppers of all ages and shapes, ranging from a group of 8-year-old girls popping about one inch in the air to a 20-year-old guy doing flips from an elevated launch pad to a jiggle-bellied Zach Galifianakis lookalike who bounced back and forth across the length of the room in a trancelike state for the entire hour.

Paul and the boys quickly abandoned this scene when they learned that a game of trampoline dodgeball was about to get underway in another massive jumping bin across the way. They never bothered to come back, except to laugh at me as I jumped up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down. "It's great for core strength!," a 22-ish air traffic controller bubbled to me as I bopped along. "You burn the same amount of calories during 10 minutes of trampoline jumping that you do running for a half hour! That's 1000 calories an hour!" she raved.

Maybe. I had broken a sweat by the time the buzzer rang, but I sure didn't feel like I had run my usual route or taken a spin class. I might have gotten more of a workout if I had had taken one of HOA's organized "air conditioning" classes, but perhaps next time. As for joint and bone health, that's even iffier. Already, law firms and orthopedists are doing business with jumpers who have suffered trampoline park injuries ranging from head trauma to dislocated shoulders to broken arms and ankles. One venue in Illinois had 16 ambulance visits within just the first months of doing business.

Paraplegia was hardly on my boys' minds when our hour at House of Air was up. In fact, they declared their rubbery interlude one of, if not, THE highlight of their trip along the California Coast (really? Not Big Sur? Not those 1000 -year-old redwoods? Not Chez Panisse?). And I'll bet that if Chelsea Piers were to open up one of these places, it would become the toast of New York's exercise and kiddie party circuit. At least until someone sued their asses off. In the meantime, if you happen to visit San Francisco, a pitstop at House of Air during a bike ride up to the Golden Gate Bridge might be a risk worth taking. And a decent way to burn off all those California eats.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Now....Some Good News from Greece

Greeks may not know how to manage their economy but they make one hell of a good cucumber and tomato salad. And it's only somewhat recently that I've learned why the "Greek salad" my decidedly nonGreek mom has always made tastes nothing like the ones I've devoured over in the land of Athena.

Thanks goes to my sister Jamie, who married a Greek guy and let me in on the secret a few years ago. Here it is: When her Greek friends and relatives make their horiatiki (as the salad is called), they DON'T use vinegar. Not one little drop. It may sound crazy to U.S. salad eaters, who can barely utter the word "oil" without attaching the words "and vinegar" when they are talking about dressing. But it's the god's honest truth. Instead, they rely on the ripest, juiciest, buxomest summer tomatoes to provide the perfect acid foil to the fruitiest, fullest extra virgin olive oil they can get their hands on. Then they top everything off with REAL feta....not the bland white crumbly stuff that tastes more like a pencil eraser than a piece of cheese. But good, gamey Greek (or French or Romanian) feta that actually tastes like it came from a warm, furry, grass-munching animal.

Mid-January, when tomatoes taste and feel like cotton batting and cucumbers are bitter and limp, is decidedly NOT the ideal time to make this salad, which hinges on peak-of-flavor ingredients. But right this minute absolutely is---you may even have your own bumper crop of cukes and tomatoes that you're wondering what the heck you'll do with. Or a green market in town that's more than happy to shower you with fresh-grown goods. Decent feta cheese is a little harder to come by: Sometimes I can find a fair rendition in the "fancy" cheese case at the local supermarket. Cheese shops are a far better bet. Surprisingly, I've also been able to pick up a tub of pretty good Greek-style feta at my local Costco. Pitted Kalamata olives are also relatively easy to find these days. If my pathetic A&P sells 'em bottled, chances are your supermarket does, too. Greeks also love to sprinkle in roughly chopped caper leaves, which are sold in little brine-filled bottles. I love these little things so much, they and a box of my favorite baklava were the only thing I asked my mom to bring back for me when she visited my sister last May. Be assured, your horiataki will survive very well without these little leaves. But if you are ever at International Foods behind the Port Authority in NYC or some other Greek speciality shop and espy little bottles of caper leaves, by all means grab a bottle. And snag one for me, too!

Here's the recipe. It's very loose--you can adjust the ratio of tomatoes, cukes, and peppers based on your personal preferences. My son Ben isn't a huge green pepper fan so I usually go lighter with them. Fresh oregano is a really nice touch but not a must. When I'm throwing together this salad for my family and I don't have any on hand or in my herb pot, I sprinkle on the dry and it's fine. The amounts I'm giving you here are what I use to serve my family of four. You can just up quantities if you are preparing horiataki for a crowd (which I do scarily often during the summer).

2-3 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and cut into chunks

3-4 ripe, juicy, beautiful tomatoes, cut into chunks

1 or 2 green peppers, cut into chunks

1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives (or to taste)

1 Tbs. (or more) capers

2 Tbs. fresh, chopped oregano or 1 scant tsp. dried (or to taste)

3-4 Tbs. (or to taste), fruity, yummy extra virgin olive oil (Greek olive oil is fantastic)

4 ounces excellent feta (or to taste)

salt and pepper to taste

Gently toss together the cukes, tomatoes, green pepper, and olives in a big, pretty bowl. Sprinkle on capers, then crumble feta over the top, and then sprinkle on the oregano and some generous grinds of pepper. If you are prepping in advance, you can stow the salad in the fridge at this point, but be sure to let it warm up to room temp before you serve it. If you aren't prepping too far in advance, keep your tomatoes, cukes, and peppers on the counter at room temp until you are ready to make the salad and serve the salad at room temp. The flavors sing so much more beautifully when the veggies aren't ice-box cold. Just before serving, drizzle salad with enough olive oil to moisten well, then salt to taste. Kali Orexi!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Heat Wave Lemon Chiffon Cake

I know that citrus is a winter thing and that we're all supposed to be fawning over strawberries right now, but there is just something about lemon that says "summer" to me. It's bracing, refreshing--sort of like a culinary air-conditioner. And nothing screams louder to me on a balmy evening than a slice of this luscious-yet-light lemon chiffon cake. I baked three of them this holiday weekend and still am not tired of it.

I tore the recipe for this beauty out of some magazine while I was languishing in the waiting room at my gyno's office years ago. I kept it in my recipe folder for probably a year and never got around to making the cake, however, because I couldn't get past the fact that the recipe used oil instead of butter. And you know how I feel about butter and baking. One afternoon, when I had absolutely nothing in the house and I needed to bring a cake for some occasion, I whipped this cake up. It was so extraordinary I was stunned. I think four people asked me for the recipe that very night. I've made it countless times since and it never fails to turn out fabulously--moist, moist, moist, delicate, and positively regal looking. I can't recommend it enough.

If you've never baked a chiffon cake, be not afraid. It really isn't tough at all to pull off. You will, however, need a few key tools: An angel food cake pan or a tube pan with removable bottom, something to whip up those egg whites, cream of tartar (which you can and will buy at your local supermarket even if you have always been mystified and just a little intimidated by it because you don't know what the heck it does), and the courage to turn your pretty cake upside down in order to let it cool properly. Oh, and one more thing: You'll need to stay just a little bit humble when everyone swoons all over you and tells you what an amazing cake you've baked. Here's the 411:


2 cups flour

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 Tbsp. Baking powder

1 tsp. Salt

3/4 cups water

7 egg yolks

1/2 cup vegetable oil

Grated zest of 2 lemons

2 tsp. Vanilla

8 egg whites

1/2 tsp. Cream of tartar


1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar

2 Tbsp. Plus 1 tsp. Fresh lemon juice

2 Tbsp. Melted butter, cooled to tepid

1 tsp. Grated lemon zest

1/2-3/4 cup sweetened, shredded coconut (utterly optional)

To make the cake: Preheat the oven to 325. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Make a well in the center; add the water, egg yolks, oil, lemon zest, and vanilla. Whisk the dry ingredients into the yolk mixture until the batter is blended and smooth. Set aside.

In a large mixer bowl, beat the egg whites and the cream of tartar at medium-low speed until foamy. Gradually increase the speed to high and beat the whites until stiff (but not dry) peaks form. Gently fold 1/3 of the beaten egg whites into the batter with a rubber spatula just until blended. Fold in the remaining whites just until combined. Pour the batter into an UNGREASED 10-inch tube pan (I use a tube pan with a removable bottom.)

Bake 1 hour, or until the top springs back when lightly touched with a fingertip and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Immediately invert the cake, still in the pan, onto the neck of a wine bottle or a large funnel. I personally set my cake to cool on three, stout overturned juice glasses. Cool completely.

To make the icing: In a medium bowl, whisk together the ingredients until smooth.

Remove the cake pan from the bottle or lift from inverted juice glasses and turn right side up. Run a long, thin knife around both edges of the cake pan. Transfer cake to a serving plate and remove the pan. (If you are using a tube pan with a removable bottom, lift cake out by the cone of the pan, invert over a serving plate, run knife around the bottom of the cake to release.) Spread the icing gently on top of the cake, allowing some of the glaze to drip down the sides. If you are a coconut fan (which I am) press generous amounts of coconut onto the top of the icing and sprinkle a little around the serving dish. Expect compliments.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Gooey, Easy Coconut Chip Meringues

I don't care if you celebrate Passover, Easter, or just the fact that you are alive every day. This little meringue recipe will provide you with an unparalleled religious experience this Spring. I promise.

For what it's worth, I have absolutely no business posting right now. I should, in fact, be writing about one illness or another for one deadline or another that is coming up way too soon. Or at least paying attention to my kids, who were largely ignored this past weekend because "mom had a deadline" and dad was slaving away in, ahem, Las Vegas. (No, really he was working. He hates that place.)

But I have my priorities. And when I see that Passover is right around the bend, I feel duty bound to get this recipe out into the ether. I call these miraculous meringues for many reasons. First and foremost, if you are used to those heinous chalky blobs that plague just about every seder dessert table, these gooey, toothsome, fragile beauties will be a downright revelation. Second, these meringues are so yummy--imagine a slightly melted marshmallow, with a crisp shell on the outside and flecks of coconut and chocolate chips within--they will even win converts among the Easter crowd, who have absolutely no need whatsoever to be eating crappy, flourless desserts on their big holiday. And third, you can whip these up on the fly absolutely any time, since their basic ingredients are so humble even old Mrs. Hubbard is likely to have them in her cupboard. I mean, four measly egg whites make about a million cookies. And you don’t even need flour in the pantry! I toss in coconut along with the chocolate chips, since the combination ranks among my all time favorites. But if you fall into the coconut-hating crowd, you can stick with chips and live happily ever after.

Give these a shot this holiday season. You might very well end up making them all year long. A few words of wisdom to keep in mind:

* These are best if eaten the day you bake them. You can get away with baking one day ahead if you must. But be sure to taste one about 20 minutes after it comes out of the oven so you can experience utmost bliss, if even fleetingly.

* Tie children and maybe even adults to the dining room table while they eat these unless you want meringue flakes all over your house.

* Don't even think about mailing these anywhere. Your recipient will call asking why you sent them a box of sand and chocolate chips.

* Don't make these when it is raining torrentially or super super humid. They won't turn out very well. Good rule of thumb (at least for me): If it's a bad hair day. It's a bad meringue day.

* Oh, and Julie, if you live 80,000 feet above sea level, I don't know what to tell you.

4 large egg whites, at room temp

1/8 tsp. Salt

1 ¼ cups sugar

1 tsp. Vanilla extract

½ cup semisweet chocolate chips

½ cup sweetened, flaked coconut—or more to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Lightly grease several cookie sheets with butter. Sprinkle flour over the sheets and shake to distribute the flour. Then turn the sheets upside down over the sink to knock off any excess flour. (Alternatively, go out and buy parchment paper. I know it sounds like a big serious step, but just go to the aisle where you find Saran Wrap and aluminum foil and boldly pluck a roll of parchment off the shelf. No one will ask for your diploma from the CIA, I promise. Then skip all that silly greasing and flouring and just line each cookie sheet with a nice neat rectangle of parchment. The meringues are so dry, you can just brush off the parchment and reuse it when you make your next batch. Which I suspect you will be doing soon thereafter.)

2. Using an electric mixer with the whisk attachment on medium-low speed, beat the egg whites with salt in a medium-size mixing bowl until frothy, about 40 seconds. Gradually add the sugar, then raise the mixer speed to high and add the vanilla. Beat the mixture for 50 seconds, stop to scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula, then continue beating until the mixture forms very stiff peaks--should take a few minutes longer. Then gently fold in the chocolate chips and coconut with the rubber spatula.

3. Drop the mixture by slightly rounded teaspoons (or with a small ice cream scoop) about 1 inch apart onto the prepared cookie sheets.

4. Bake the cookies until they turn a very light beige, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool the cookies on the cookie sheets. Again, make the kids eat them at the table, unless you want white crumbly stuff all over the house. Makes about 40 cookies.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Dark Truth About Whoopie Pies

I don't know if you've been following the burning controversy surrounding Whoopie Pies and the campaign to make them--not blueberry pie-- the official dessert of the State o' Maine. For sure, there are other things that might be catching your eye, like that little dust up in the Middle East. Or the nutsiness out in Wisconsin. Or the fact the end of the world is coming on May 21st. Or, well, let's just put it out there: The moth-to-flame adventures of Chuckie Sheen.

But being a baker and a bubble head, I've been keeping up with the aformentioned Whoopie Pie hoopla and the Tri-State Whoopie Pie mania that's ensued. And I can't help feeling just a little bit smug. Because I was onto these babies years ago, as a result of a trip up to Maine during which my obsessed family purchased Whoopies at virtually every deli, gas station, and market in the state. The kids and Paul bought them because--with all that creamy white yumminess oozing out between hockey-puck-sized cakes--the Whoopies all looked so utterly irresistible.

Here's the dark truth about why I personally kept buying them: I was hoping against hope I'd find one that actually tasted as yummy as it looked. And the fact is I never really hit pay dirt. The chocolate cake part was sort of bland and the cream was absolutely flat. When I got home, I got to work, scouring the Internet for a better Whoopie Pie. En route, I learned what Whoopie proponents are arguing about now: That both Maine and Pennsylvania lay claim to the cakes. I also learned why most Whoopies weren’t making me want to say “Whoopie”: The cake is often made with shortening. And the cream? It basically IS shortening. Whipped Crisco with lots of sugar and some vanilla if you’re lucky. Ew. Finally, though, I found a few promising prospects and I baked all of them. This one here is the best I’ve come upon. There’s still a nice, trashy touch: Marshmallow Fluff is the cornerstone of their filling. But there’s also a comforting amount of butter in the picture. Bring these to your next school bake sale and you will be a rock star. Bring these to Maine and maybe THESE will deserve the "Official Dessert" title campaigners have been angling for. In the meantime, I think Mainers should stick with blueberry pie and make nice with the peeps in Pennsylvania.

For the Cakes:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cocoa powder

(Dutch process, if possible, but not at all mandatory)

1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup well-shaken buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup packed brown sugar

1 large egg

For the Filling:

(This is enough for two batches of Whoopies)

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened

1 1/4 cups confectioners sugar

2 cups marshmallow cream such as Marshmallow Fluff

1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Whisk together flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt in a bowl until combined. Stir together buttermilk and vanilla in a small bowl.

Beat together butter and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes in a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a handheld, then add egg, beating until combined well. Reduce speed to low and alternately mix in flour mixture and buttermilk in batches, beginning and ending with flour, scraping down side of bowl occasionally, and mixing until smooth.

Spoon 1/4-cup mounds of batter about 2 inches apart onto 2 buttered (or parchmented) large baking sheets. Bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until tops are puffed and cakes spring back when touched, 11 to 13 minutes. Transfer with a metal spatula to a rack to cool completely.

Make filling:
Beat together butter, confectioners sugar, marshmallow, and vanilla in a bowl with electric mixer at medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes.

Assemble pies:
Spread a rounded tablespoon or so of filling (not too much!!) on flat sides of half of cakes and top with remaining cakes. Cakes can be made up to three days ahead, separated by wax paper in airtight containers and kept in a cool-ish place or in the fridge (and let them warm up a tiny bit before serving).

Monday, January 31, 2011

Stop the Insanity! Ski Belleayre.

Whoa! Do we have snow. Cabin fever is getting so bad, even my non-skiing friends are surrendering to the slopes. Which thrills me. What kills me, though, is that a day of skiing in these parts all too often is defined by two destinations: Mountain Creek and Hidden Valley.

Forgive me for being a killjoy. But, if you want learn how to hate the sport, visiting these Jersey snakepits is a surefire way to go about it. The slopes are absurdly short. The lift lines are sickeningly long. And the crowds? I don't know what's worse: Their daunting numbers or the lack of control and judgement they exercise on the slopes. Names might have changed. And years might have passed. But it's pretty much the same dopey scene I encountered as a teen in my alcohol-infused high school ski club. (My most distinct memory of Great Gorge/Vernon Valley: Trying to zip my ski jacket over my head on the chair lift to shield myself from the icy assault of the snow cannons and accidentally zipping my lips into my zipper in the process. Tumbling off the lift with my lips still zipped into my coat while my friends laughed their asses off pretty much sums up what my teen years were like) .

Here's my suggestion: If you want to spend a Saturday skiing, head up the NYS Thruway to Belleayre Mountain. Granted, it's a little too long a drive for a one-day trip, so you'll need to skip town Friday night. Granted, with its gritty, no-frills lodges and East Coast conditions, it's still a far cry from Colorado. But it's real skiing on a 3,325-foot mountain (compare that with 1480 at Mountain Creek), as well as one of the best bargains you'll find anywhere.

Here's the deal:
Sleeping over means serious savings: The Belleayre region is so starved for tourism bucks they make it almost cheaper to spend the night and ski than it is to visit for the day (okay, I'm exaggerating a tad). Crashing overnight at one of the very modestly priced local inns, hotels or motels that participate in the area's promotional program means kids under 17 can stay free in your room and ski scott free, too (limit is two kids per family; adults pay $55 for a lift ticket). That's not just a big savings on the youth tickets sold at the mountain. I did the numbers and my family only ends ups paying about $40 more for a mini sleepover vacation at Belleayre than we would if we day-schlepped over to Mountain Creek.

You'll only need about 24 hours: We skedaddle out of town right after work on Friday nights and are up at Belleayre in time for a 7 or 8 pm chow. With an early rise the next day, we beat daytripping crowds to the slopes by 9 am, are in the car by 3, and are back in Montclair in time for Saturday evening dinner and hijinx. UPDATE: We day tripped a few times this year and it was actually quite doable. A 6:00 AM departure from Montclair got us to the mountain by 9 sharp, with a hearty diner breakfast en route. A full day of skiing 'til four landed us back in Montclair about 6 PM with zippo traffic. Definitely an option if you don't have really little kids.

You shouldn't expect Aspen: Belleayre is about an hour and a half up the Thruway from Northern Jersey, 45 minutes west on Rt. 28, and a steep descent into the belly of the Recession. Once you pass Woodstock, "For Rent" seems to be the most popular retail sign and most buildings haven't seen a fresh coat of paint in decades. Belleayre itself kind of sits on its own, with a handful of once-cute-but-now-sort-of -haunted little towns spilling off either side of the highway. Since the Mountain is run by the NY Department of Environmental Protection, the whole place has a no frills feel to it. Expect a crowded, slippery cafeteria, grubby bar, and chilly lockers. No Colorado cushiness, whatsoever. But it's all about the skiing here, which is pretty darned good considering how close to home and affordable it is.

You'll Teach Your Children Well: Learning to ski for lots of kids is misery, either because their parents are screaming at them or they're stuck in ski school, where they spend a good part of their time shivering on the ski slope, awaiting their turn to practice whatever the teacher is telling the group to do. Charging just $65/hr ($35 for each additional skiier), Belleayre makes private lessons a viable alternative and a golden opportunity for anyone who wants to learn to ski. Paul and I had the boys start off every visit with a shared 2-hour private lesson when they were young and it was an investment we don't regret. Every instructor they ever had was wonderful. They learned what they had to learn without hating us. And Paul and I got some much-treasured time to ski together on our own. If there's one reason to come to Belleayre, this might top the list. And just FYI: There's lots of room to grow at Belleayre. The Tomahawk lift services some pretty respectable blacks and double blacks that continue to keep us and the boys plenty happy and challenged.
Wait and Watch: No real need to commit to anything far in advance, as long as you're not coming over a holiday weekend (which we avoid at all costs anyway). If the stars align weather- and committment-wise, log onto the Belleayre website, click on the lodging tab and start calling around to see who has a room. Don't get all fussy--the goal should be to find whatever place will fit the most of you into the fewest rooms (cots are fair game). Remember, you are only CRASHING here. You're not looking for mints on the pillow or Stickley accent pieces. For the most part, you can expect wall-to-wall carpeting, wood panelling, and limited cable service. (There are some higher-end options, like the Emerson, but they are so not worth it considering how briefly you'll be staying and what you're coming for, in my opinion.) The pleasant surprise: I think some of our best family memories come from sitting around playing dumb board games or giggling in the dark with each other at these funky places. Kind of like those great memories I have of staying at HoJo's when I was a kid, ordering room service ice cream sundaes in those styrofoam cups, and running down the halls in our footie pajamas. With nostalgic treasures like that, who needs Paris, right?

Wanna Go? Need to Know:
Where to stay: I'm not tipping my hand too much because I don't want to fight you for rooms. The towns of Pine Hill and Fleishmanns are both a stone's throw from the Mountain and offer a number of options. We tend to prefer lodges and B&Bs over the motels since they offer common spaces for us to hang out together. Log onto and go to the lodging page. It lists every option, including exact distances from the Mountain. If you really want specifics, shoot me a flattering email and I'll probably cave.

Where to Eat: Options are limited. The Pine Hill Arms (also a lodge) serves up one of the best bacon cheeseburgers on the planet, kick-ass chocolate cream pie, and a range of other hearty ski fare. There's also a weird Mexican restaurant in the town of Fleishmanns that we think doubles as a disco at certain times. Ask your innkeeper or motel owner where to eat and just go with it. A cold beer and some calories is all you really need before you ski, right? As for lunch at the slopes, bring your own unless the kids really require hot food. The cafeterias are pricey and pretty gross.

Alpine Intelligence: Lifts start operating at 9 am, but the mountain opens at 8. Take advantage of this if you have to rent equipment so you don't spend precious ski time in a rental line. If you are beginner skiiers or need to rent equipment, you'll need to park in the Discovery Lodge lot near the base. If you are a bit more experienced, avoid the base lot and drive right up to the Overlook Lot, which puts you at a nicer lodge and at the lifts for the higher trails. If you are experienced skiiers, skip both of these lots and park at the Tomahawk Lot. It services the more challenging trails and is a far less-crowded scene. There's no lodge at Tomahawk, but there is a ticket kiosk. Parking is so convenient, you can simply keep your supplies in the car and run over and get them when you need them. In any case, plan on getting to the slopes early to avoid having to park in the overflow areas, which are a haul from the lifts, even with the help of shuttle vans. If you are just learning to ski, check out the special introductory packages. They do involve group ski lessons, but they are free, so you don't have much to lose.

What to Bring: We bring nothing but the clothes we are wearing and our ski stuff. There is no reason to bring anything whatsoever to make yourself the least bit appealing. Unless, of course, you still have some sense of personal dignity. Which I lost when I zipped my lips into my jacket long ago!