Simple Pleasures.

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

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Finally...a Great, Healthy Gift Idea

I am absolutely the worst gift giver. It's probably because I hate shopping in general and thus have no clue of what's hot for the season or what people actually want. I wrack my brains. I wring my hands. And I usually come up with doofus things--like an extra pair of earbuds or ski socks--that make people snore or cry. The hardest task of all is figuring out what to buy for my husband Paul's clients, simply because they really don't need anything, especially from people like me who barely know them.

This year, however, I hit pay dirt. It was October and I was scrounging around for a good birthday present. We had just come from apple picking in New York State and I thought about how cool it would be to send a box down to Paul's client in Tennessee, where maybe crisp Northern varietals might actually be a novelty. I Googled away and landed on, a site which sells a huge variety local apples, in particular the honeycrisp apple, which really is crazily crisp, thin-skinned, and sweet as honey. The coolest part was that they also send apples to American soldiers overseas and pay for shipping through their Operation Apple program.

I rang the place, cuz I of course had questions, and the owner, Paul Woolley, picked right up.  Woolley helped me arrange to send a box of his fab apples down to Tennessee. He then went and found just the right soldiers to send a bushel of apples to on Paul's client's behalf. Here's what he wrote:

"Just wanted to drop you a note and tell you that we found a local Special Forces hero SSGT Sean Keough who is in Afghanistan to send the case to. Sean's mom grew up with my wife and friends here in Upstate NY.  Recently Sean was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery.    Thank you for your contribution and tell Paul that I know from getting the emails and calls from these Heros that the apples will be a huge hit.  They always express two things - It’s a taste of home & so nice to just know someone is supporting them.  Thanks again.  Have a great day."

So off the apples went to Tennessee and Afghanistan. The soldiers loved them and sent pictures. And Paul's client was off-the-charts happy. He was insane for the apples and was even more thrilled about the fact that a bushel went to the troops. Ok, so why quit while I was ahead? I then sent apples to another client of Paul's for her birthday. SHE and her family went nuts. All was good. Story over. Or so I thought.

Yesterday, a box arrived on my doorstop. It was filled with honeycrisp apples. I was a little confused. Was this a weird coincidence? Was someone else I knew onto this apple-gift idea? Inside was a note from Paul Woolley himself, wishing us a happy holiday and thanking us for "starting a great thing." Turns out that Paul's clients were so thrilled with their honeycrisps, they sent out boxes and boxes of them to colleagues, friends and family for Christmas. And for every box that went out, they sent a shipment to our soldiers abroad. How cool is that? 

Long story short: If you're looking for a healthy, delicious gift that also does some good, keep and our troops in mind. You can even ring them up directly at 518-695-4517. Now...I'm off to grab an apple. Such a nice break from all the cookies, candy and other holiday health hazards hanging around this house. 

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Latke Love

Hannukah was looking to be a little glum this year. Paul's been out on the road for a long stint. My dad had gone into the hospital yet again. And my mother-in-law Florence, who is recovering from hip surgery and no longer drives, was stuck in her apartment on the Upper West Side. It seemed like it would be just the boys and I and our menorah all week.  I'd been so busy and distracted, in fact, I hadn't even picked up presents for them.

When Florence rang the house early Sunday morning, asking if I still planned to drive into the city to pick her up so she could celebrate with us (this, after I had spent Saturday driving my mother out to Great Neck for Aunt Sylvia's 90th birthday celebration at the assisted living facility), I started to get a little dizzy. When she followed that up with "And do you think you want to make latkes?" I thought I was going to light my hair on fire and run in the street. 

Latkes, you see, are not to be taken lightly. They're time-consuming. They're messy. They leave the house and its inhabitants doused in a sheen of oil. Not to mention, the potato starch leaves my hands feeling like beef jerky for about 2 weeks after the fact. Nonetheless, I've been making these particular latkes every year with Florence since the kids were born and they are widely adored by friends, family, teachers, tutors, and virtual strangers I've fed them to on the street. The whole crazy process of making them and sharing them has become our way of marking the holiday season and the turn of yet another year. 

So, anyway, there I was, about to give Florence a litany of reasons why I just couldn't make the trip to NYC to get her. Why I just couldn't see myself grating potatoes. Why I just needed to crawl into bed and watch back-to-back episodes of House Hunters International. When some little voice crept up through me and stammered, "I'll l-l-leave for New York as soon as I get B-Ben from his guitar lesson." Before I knew it I was on Route 3, calling Noah and Ben from the car and asking them to pick up a big bag of spuds. 

When Florence and I got back to Montclair and walked through the front door, it was as though those potatoes had brought their own holiday energy into the house. Noah sprang into action scrubbing and grating the spuds. Florence suddenly seemed like her old self, lording over the fry pan and bantering with me about when the latkes should be turned and how big they should be. Ben surfaced from hours of studying, so he could sneak bits of errant fried potato from the latke plate. The house filled with that irresistible smell of all things fried and golden. The chicken came out of the oven and added it's own savory voice. Finally, we gathered together around the menorah, stuffing our faces with the crispy, spidery latkes. We kindled the lights and gave lots and lots of hugs...a gift that might not have been enough for Ben and Noah, but was everything I truly needed this holiday season. 

The Latkes Recipe

These latkes, from The Joy of Cooking, are crispy, relatively simple, and totally yummy. The trick is squeezing out as much moisture as possible from the potatoes and keeping those latkes small--only about the size of a silver dollar. Otherwise, you'll have either a big, oil-soaked hockey puck that'll give you acne just by looking at it, or an unwieldy, soggy blob that won't stay together. Note of chagrin: After years of swearing that hand grating was the only way to make a proper latke, I wholeheartedly take those words back. For the past several years, I've secretly (or now not-so-secretly) used the coarse grater on my Cuisineart and have come out with not just good results...but fantastic results: Nice long shreds that hang together beautifully, with pretty little tongues of potato fringing the edges. And no pieces of shredded knuckle in the batch! I don't know why my mother-in-law and I were so convinced that hand grating was the rule....I think it was just the basic Jewish belief that nothing good comes without some degree of suffering. So pull out that food processor, shred those potatoes in a snap, and use the extra time you have on your hands to mop the oil up off the floor. 

Here we go:

Wrap in a very clean absorbent towel and wring to squeeze out as much moisture as possible:

About 6 cups coarsely grated potatoes (If you want super crisp latkes, use a starchier potato like an Idaho baker. That's what we tend to use. Lower-starch boiling potatoes and yukon golds are also supposed to be fine.)

Combine 4 cups of the wringed-out, grated potato in a large bowl with:
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 Tbsp. flour
2 Tbsp. finely grated onion
2 tsp. salt

(You will have extra grated potatoes. Set them aside. You can add them to the batter at the end, since you tend to run out of potato pieces before you run out of eggy stuff. Also, you'll probably freak out that your shredded potatoes are turning black. That's just what they do when they are not covered in water, so get over it.)  

Pour vegetable oil into a large heavy skillet or electric fry pan until it's about 1/4 inch deep. (You can actually start heating the oil at some point while you're working with the potatoes, if you want.)  Heat over medium high flame until a bit of potato sizzles when you drop it in to test. (Or set your fry pan to 350.)

Drop small spoonfuls of the potato mixture into the skillet, then flatten each out a bit with the edge of your spatula to make them sorta flat and somewhat thin. Don't make them totally flat like a pancake, though, because you want some texture there. Fry until browned on the bottom, reducing heat to medium, if needed to prevent scorching. Turn and cook second side until crisp, about 3-5 minutes on each side. Drain briefly on paper towel. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Serve with apple sauce, sour cream, and a spray bottle of Shout. Makes a bunch.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Go WITH the Grain This Winter

As I sit here in my toasty, light-bathed kitchen, my mind keeps creeping to another place. To that chaotic landscape of darkened homes, screaming generators, huddled gas-can armies, and shell-shocked faces. I can go on and on, like I'm sure countless others can, about the amazing people who fed us and housed us throughout this brave new chaos and about how so many people suffered far more than we did and are still struggling while we happily return to life as we know it. But you've probably heard that song already.

So, what I will talk about is the the thing I missed most through all of this nuttiness...more than Internet, my own bed, or clean underwear. It was my kitchen. Leaky appliances, off-kilter cabinets and all. No surprise, then, the first thing I did upon my return was throw a turkey in the oven, whip up my my mom's barley casserole, and celebrate Thanksgiving early.

In this post, I present to you the aforementioned barley casserole. It's been part of my life since I was in pigtails so I sort of take it for granted. But when I serve it to friends, it never fails to win raves. And in this age of grain obsession, it has gained near-rock-star status. I mean, when's the last time you ate barley when it wasn't in soup? How cool is it to pull a new carb out of your bag of tricks that pleases discerning vegetarians, suspicious kids, and reactionary Jewish grandparents alike? Way cool, I think.

Anyway, you should really give this recipe a shot. It nuzzles up perfectly against just about any roast meat. It also happens to be a superb out-of-the box side for Thanksgiving dinner. Not just because it's earthy and bird friendly, but because you can easily double the recipe, cook it in advance and warm it up (with an extra splash of broth to keep it moist) when the time is right. Yeah, yeah. You'll also be serving stuffing and it, too, looks sorta mushroomy and brown. Don't worry. Your diners will dig the variety.

There are only two things you need to know: First, you'll ideally want to make this in a covered pot that can go from stovetop to oven. I've always used the old, chipped turquoise Dansk pot my mom used for her barley casserole and eventually passed down to me. I can't personally picture this dish in any other vessel. If you don't have a pot that serves double duty like this, you can easily do the first step in a saucepan, then transfer the barley to a covered baking dish when it's time to move to the oven.

Secondly, you really should use dried mushrooms for the full, earthy effect. Again, true to tradition, I have always used this quirky brand of mushrooms my mom uses. They are kind of like porcini, but are far less expensive and tend to loiter in the low-rent canned vegetable or condiment aisle of some supermarkets. They don't really have a name but the cap says, "Genuine Imported Dried Mushrooms. Imported by the Kirsch Mushroom Company." I know my A&P--the crappiest supermarket this side of god knows where--carries it and if they do, there's a good chance your own crappy supermarket has them tucked into some random aisle somewhere. Ask your grocer if you don't see them. And if you can't find them, don't stress. You can splurge a little, shell out for some fancier dried shrooms, and say a quiet little "thanks" of your own when people tell you how happy you've made them.

Have a great and peaceful holiday. xo

Mom's Amazing Barley Casserole

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter (please, PLEASE use butter. It's nutty warmth is key here)
2 medium yellow onions
2 handfuls dried mushrooms (if you are really really in a pinch, you can use 3/4 pound sliced, fresh button mushrooms)
1 1/2 cups barley
2-3 pimientos, chopped (Goya sells them in jars. I don't personally know the difference between jarred pimientos and jarred red peppers. Guessing you can substitute if need be. But don't be afraid of pimientos. They are only scary in cheese.)
2 cups low-sodium chicken or (if you must) vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Place dried mushrooms in a bowl. Pour about 1 1/2 cups of boiling water over them and allow to stand while doing other stuff.

Chop onions either by hand or in food processor. When mushrooms are fully reconstituted and soft, lift from soaking water and squeeze out any extra liquid with your hand. Place mushrooms on cutting board and roughly chop. SAVE SOAKING LIQUID!!! DON'T THROW IT OUT!!!

Gently melt butter in an ovenproof, covered casserole dish over medium flame on stove. Stir in onions, and drained, chopped mushrooms. Saute until tender. Add barley and cook until barley is light brown, stirring constantly. Off the heat and add chopped pimientos, chicken broth, salt and pepper. (If using dried mushrooms, pour off some of the reconstituting liquid and substitute 1/2 cup of it for 1/2 cup of the chicken broth. Don't use stuff from the very bottom of the bowl, though, because it can be gritty.)

Cover dish and transfer to oven. Bake about 50 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Add more broth if barley becomes dry (it never does for me, unless I'm reheating.) Enjoy. And thanks Mom.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bake it Again....Ma'am

I know I've urged you to make this apple cake before. But I'm going to bug you again. That's because NOW--at the height of the apple harvest-- is the perfect time to make perhaps the best thing I bake. If the fact that I've been making it for years and years and that everyone who tastes it goes berserk about it isn't enough to sway you, then maybe you'll be swayed by the fact that Ladies' Home Journal recently published a piece I wrote about this recipe and THEIR readers are writing in about it. Not that LHJ is the final arbiter of good taste on the cake front, but I'm just sayin'.

Dorky name-dropping aside, I really can't recommend this recipe enough.  It's moist, perfumed with cinnamon, buttery, and keeps like a dream. It calls for granny smiths, but I use any firm, tart apple I happen to have hauled home with me from Upstate picking escapades. Kids love this cake, grownups swoon for's perfect for a fall dessert or can even stand in for a coffee cake at brunch. And it's practically foolproof. The only person who can't seem to pull it off is my mom. But then again, her oven runs about 150 degrees cooler than it's supposed to. Other than having an oven that works, there's really only one trick to this cake: Once you turn it out from the tube pan onto a plate, you're supposed to place your actual serving plate on top, and then flip it back over so the cake is right side up. For years, I didn't do this, nor did I realize I was serving this cake upside down. If you don't feel like taking the risk of a flip, forget this step: Serve it as it comes from the tube pan and let your friends and family flip for the cake instead.

All-Time Best Apple Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsps. Ground cinnamon
1 tsp. Baking soda
1 tsp. Salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
2 tsps. Vanilla extract
3 large eggs, at room temperature
4 cups apples (3 to 4 large apples), peeled, cored, and cut into ½-inch cubes

1 tsp. Cinnamon mixed with 1 tbsp. Sugar (turbinado ideally for some crunch) for topping.

Confectioners Sugar Glaze (highly optional, to drizzle over finished cake in order to dress it up a little. You'll need about 1/2 cup of confectioners sugar, stirred up with enough milk to make it drizzly, yet still thick. That's very little, s0 start with about a teaspoon and keep adding milk slowly until you reach the right consistency.)

Special Equipment Alert:  10-inch tube pan with removable bottom. If you don't have one, go ahead and get one at BBandBeyond or your local hardware store, or hell--just come over and borrow mine. These pans come in handy and take all the stress out of getting tube cakes out of the pan. And this does need to be made as a tube cake.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease a 10-inch tube pan with a removable bottom with butter or vegetable oil. I make life easy and spray the pan with Pam for Baking, which combines flour and oil in one simple squirt.
2. Whisk together flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.
3. Cream butter, oil, sugar, and vanilla in a medium-size mixing bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until the ingredients are blended, about 2 minutes. Stop to scrape the bowl twice with a rubber spatula.
4. Add the eggs one at a time, and mix on medium-low speed after each addition until blended, 10 seconds. Scrape the bowl each time. Once the eggs are added, mix again for 10 seconds.
5. Add half the dry ingredients and blend on low speed for 15 seconds. Scrape the bowl, add the rest of the dry ingredients, and mix on low speed until blended, about 5 seconds more.
6. Add the apples with a few turns of the mixer or by folding them in by hand with a wooden spoon.
7. Spoon the batter into the pan and sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar over the top. Bake the cake on the center oven rack until the top is firm and golden and a tester inserted at the cake’s highest point comes out dry, about 1 hour 5 minutes. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes.
8. Invert cake onto large plate. If desired, place actual serving plate on top of cake. Flip over. Allow to cool completely.
9. Drizzle with confectioners sugar glaze, if desired. Devour and win raves.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sad Summer's Ending? Go Here Now.

There are just a few precious gasps of summer left. If you're sitting around feeling blue or if your slacker kids are driving you up the wall, I've got the perfect prescription. Throw a few water bottles and some sunblock into a backpack, round up the gang and head out on Route 78 to Phillips Farm in Milford, New Jersey. There you will find an embarrassment of summer riches literally dripping from trees and vines, just begging to be picked, devoured, and transported to your kitchen back home. We're talking red-fleshed plums, blushing peaches, tender raspberries, and blackberries so obscenely lush and ripe that they burst when your hands graze them. I'm telling you no lie here. I head out with the family every summer to pick fruit so that I can make jam for the winter and this is the best fruit picking I've ever seen. We came home last week with $85 worth of fresh picked ambrosia and for the first time ever, we plowed through the stuff so quickly there wasn't enough left for me to can. So we went back this past Sunday and harvested another trunkful, which now waits for me in the downstairs fridge. I might just go down there right now, fill up a bowl and top it off with a big scoop of Greek yogurt. Oh yeah.

Beyond its bounteous fruit, Phillips Farm is easy to love. Far from the U-Pick crowds closer in to the suburbs, the fields here are quiet enough to hear the crickets chirp and the birds sing. Rolling hills and red barns surround you as you wander from the plum groves to the blackberry bushes, and just a single lonely teenager languorously waits in the shed to ring up your haul. No one seems worried about how many berries or peaches you're stuffing in your mouth as you pick and you feel like you practically have the place to yourselves.

And then there's the glorious farmland that surrounds the place. After you're done picking, take a 10-minute drive through fragrant farmland into the little town of Milford and over the bridge into Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania. Hang a couple of turns and you'll arrive at the Homestead, a rustic little general store/deli with a handful of tables out back, that's just perfect for a post-harvest lunch. Linger over a couple of turkey or roast beef sandwiches and grab a home-baked spice cookie or two for the road. Then meander your way back to the city or suburbs and the impending chaos of Fall, with your bellies and your car trunk filled with summer's sweetest parting gifts.

I'll close with this passage from Goodbye Columbus, which comes to mind each year as I stow away my harvest in our downstairs fridge. It's one of the most evocative I know:

"I opened the door of the old refrigerator; it was not empty. No longer did it hold butter, eggs, herring in cream sauce, ginger ale, tuna fish salad, an occasional corsage—rather it was heaped with fruit, shelves swelled with it, every color, every texture, and hidden within, every kind of pit. There were greengage plums, black plums, red plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, long horns of grapes, black, yellow, red, and cherries, cherries flowing out of boxes and staining everything scarlet. And there were melons—cantaloupes and honeydews—and on the top shelf, half of a huge watermelon, a thin sheet of wax paper clinging to its bare red face like a wet lip. Oh Patimkin! Fruit grew in their refrigerator and sporting goods dropped from their trees!"--Philip Roth 


Want to Go? Need to Know

Game Plan: Phillips Farm is a bit over an hour from Montclair. On our first trip, we left at about 2 PM, got there at about 3:15 and had plenty of time to pick. The place closes at 6 PM. Our second trip was even better: We left at about 10 AM, arrived at about 11:15 and picked until about 1:15. We hopped in the car and were at the Homestead for lunch by 1:30.  
Getting There: Set your GPS for 290 Church Road, Milford, NJ. That will take you to the Phillips Farm produce stand. They'll direct you to the fields, which are about two minutes away. On weekdays, you'll get your picking baskets at the produce stand. Weekends, they have someone working at the fields, so you can go directly there and get your baskets. The drive on weekends can be a little longer if you use the Garden State Parkway to get to 78--all that shore traffic, of course. Check out their web site at
What to bring/what to wear: If you're worried about ticks and bugs and sunburn and stuff, you can wear long pants and long sleeves. I don't and neither does anyone else in my family. We just give a quick tick check after we're done. The fields are set on a very sunny hillside and there is some stiff walking to do--slather on sunblock, wear sturdy shoes and bring some water. If you really get pooped or have an older person with you, you can always drive them up the driveway to the fruit you want to pick instead of walking it.                    
Where to Eat: Homestead General Store is located just over the bridge into Pennsylvania. The exact address is 1650 Bridgeton Hill Road, Upper Black Eddy, PA. Their web site is Don't be confused by all the other information on the site. I guess they sell coffee at numerous locations. Their general store, however, is in Upper Black Eddy. Oh, and don't be put off if there are motorcycles out front. I think it must be a popular stop for bikers but it definitely isn't a rough place.
Picking Tips: Since it's late August, the blueberries are almost gone, but there are tons of blackberries, plums, peaches, apples, and raspberries to be had. Other times of year, they have Asian pears, sour cherries, and a bounty of other stuff. Summer fruit is highly perishable, so unless you plan to can the stuff or freeze it, don't over pick. And don't pile up all your peaches or blackberries in each basket. Spread them out into shallow layers to keep them from crushing. Also--don't pick your peaches perfectly ripe. They'll be mush before you even get home. If you pick them slightly hard and then pull some out each day and put them on the counter, they'll ripen in about a day. If you want to make jam, give me a call and I'll talk you through it. It's not as scary as it may seem.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Venice: Where the Tough Get Rowing

If you should get to Venice at some point, try to remember this post. Not because I'm going to share the names of some amazing and affordable restaurants (though I can if you ask me). Not because I'm going to write about a delicious little hotel with the most charming sun-dappled breakfast patio (you can ask for specifics on that, too.) But because I want to turn you on to a seriously kick-ass way to see this captivating city.

First and foremost, forget about shelling out $100 for a half-hour gondola ride, no matter how tempting it may seem. Instead, I'm urging you to toss a pair of shorts into your luggage, get your game on, and make an appointment for a Venetian rowing lesson. That's right. A rowing lesson. For about $50 per person, you'll not only get some awesome exercise and learn a new skill (or at least try your hand at one). You'll spend two amazing hours paddling your way through Venice's legendary canals and magnificent lagoon and experience a side of the city that the crowds around the Rialto can't even begin to imagine.

I did exactly this, thanks to a recommendation from my girlfriend Bianca, who had read an article about rowing in Venice in the Wall Street Journal. And I can tell you it was a big-time highlight of a 10-day trip I took to Italy this summer in honor of my mother-in-law's birthday.

I'll admit: My first reaction when I received Bianca's rowing suggestion via email was to roll my eyes and mutter "as if." I was right smack in the middle of the trip with a family group that spanned in age from 13 to, ahem, beyond retirement age. Simply getting everyone on the same page for dinner and actually maneuvering our way to the restaurant without a fist fight or a fall was a major affair. How on earth would I find the place, much less find the time, to take a rowing lesson?

Wouldn't ya know it, our long Italian afternoons turned out to hold plentiful pockets of free time, during which the boys often played Spit in the room and Grammy Florence rested. Seizing the opportunity, I shot an email to "Row Venice," asking if, but fully doubting that, they might have a late afternoon spot available the very next day.

"Sure! No problem! How many will you be?" came a nearly instant response. I quickly scrambled and to my utter surprise, discovered that my brother-in-law Ken, his 14-year-old son Alex and my own 13-year-old Noah all wanted in on the adventure. The plan: We'd take a trip to the island of Burano the next morning and deposit landlubbers back at the hotel where they could rest. Then we aspiring gondoliers would meander our way through the throngs, across the Rialto bridge, to some random little canal, where we'd supposedly meet our guides with their boat and embark on a two-hour rowing lesson.

In a highly un-Rosen-like turn of events, everything went according to plan. Right up to the point where we reached our supposed meeting spot. But then: No boat! Were we on the wrong side of the little canal? Did we read the directions incorrectly? I called out to an older fellow across the way, "Do you know Row Venice?" As he looked at me like I was crazy, we heard a gentle, strangely twangy  accent wafting up the canal: "Don't wuhry. We're raaht heah...." and there appeared an ancient gondola-like boat with two seriously fit blondes at the oars. Nan--who turned out to hail from Kentucky. And Ana, a born and bred Venetian who, despite speaking Italian, Venetian, French and assorted other tongues, had little English under her belt. No matter. The duo promptly produced cold drinks, got us up on our feet and proceeded to give us a 10 minute crash course in Venetian rowing. (Have to say I was psyched when I saw that Ana was wearing almost exactly the same thing as I was. I had fretted just a little about how the heck a rookie was to dress for rowing, guessing accurately that a striped boat-necked shirt wasn't it.)

Both women were members of one of the city's many rowing clubs, which are apparently a cornerstone of social life for fit and fab Venetians of all ages. The various clubs have stewardship of (and in turn the privilege of using) the city's fleet of ancient sandolos and the like, which have been handed down through ages. They serve as a social hub for members and preserve tradition for the community, regularly staging races in the Venice Lagoon and holiday processions through the canals.

Back on the boat, we assumed our positions and were soon rowing--though clumsily-- through the canals, alongside other rowers as well as deeply tanned, sunglassed Venetian teens zipping along in their small motor boats. The kids in our own boat picked up on correct technique far quicker than my brother -in-law and  I did--especially the rear position which required standing up on the stern and actually steering the boat. Unlike the rowing I and you may know, you row a sandolo by pushing the oars with your full body weight and move the boat in the direction you are facing. It's an outstanding upper body workout and one which is catching on here in the U.S., especially in California, where I've found evidence of at least Venetian-style rowing club.

Eventually we arrived at the mouth of a canal and before us yawned the Venice Lagoon. My mouth literally fell open as my eyes soaked in the scene that embraced us--sail boats, sandolos, and skiffs darting across the water, the late day sun dappling the waves with amber, and the domed churches, Doges Palace, and all manner of time-burnished Venetian landmarks serving as a backdrop. In that moment, I understood why gondoliers sing. And sing we did. All of us, as we paddled, splashed, and laughed our way into the early evening. We ended up spending about three hours afloat with Ana and Nan, who seemed to care as little about the clock as we did. And who would, when magic is being made? Truly, truly. This was one of those memories of a lifetime. And I urge you to make a memory like this of your own if you should ever find yourself in this wonderful place.

Wanna Go? Need to Know

Whom To Call: There are apparently larger operators who offer Venetian rowing lessons, primarily as an excursion option for cruise ship passengers. For a more intimate and authentic experience, however, you're probably better off going through one of the small businesses that are affiliated with the Venetian rowing clubs. We reached out to Row Venice--who directed our inquiry to Ana and Nan, since they had a boat that would accommodate our group of four. Bottom line: You can contact Row Venice at via The woman who runs it is named Jane. If you want to venture out with Ana and Nan, you can contact Nan McElroy directly via her web site, She and Ana are an awesome duo.

What it will cost: We paid 40 Euros (about $50) per person. Our group of four added a tip of about 30 Euros and Ana and Nan seemed overwhelmed. They deserved every penny.

What to Bring/What to Wear: Nan and Ana row barefoot, so there's no need to pack sneakers just for this occasion, although you can wear them or Tevas if you want. Comfortable shorts and tee shirt are fine. Maybe a cap if it's sunny, but I guess it could blow off if it's breezy. Sunblock, camera, water, yes.  Venice is hot in the summer but does get chilly other times of the year so it's best to ask Nan what you'll need before you take off for Italy.

How to Get There: Our hotel was in Santa Croce and it took us about 25 minutes to meander through the streets, get over the Rialto Bridge, and find our way to our meeting point. With a simple tourist map of the city and some sense of direction, you should have no problem getting to where you need to be. And if you should get confused, just give Nan a buzz on her cell phone. She's pretty accessible.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Montclair Film Festival: How Cool Was That?

I'm no big movie goer. I'm just too darned hyperactive to sit anywhere for very long unless I'm earning money doing it.

So when it was announced a year or so ago that some people in my town were organizing a film festival, I  blew right past it. Paid it no mind. Figured it was for some other swathe of Montclair society that dug artsy flicks.

But last week, the festival became too damned big to ignore. I discovered that just about everyone I knew had bought tickets to something--whether it was the opening night party, panel discussions with various artists, or just tickets to various festival films around town. I suddenly realized I had seriously missed the boat.....I was a hopeless hoser.

But then my friend's hubby had to leave town and she offered to take me as her date to some of the screenings. I took her up on her offer, figuring I'd sit through some weird films and pretend I was part of the party.

I should have known better. I should have realized up front that this was happening here, in Montclair, a town I moved to precisely because of its lack of pretense and generally intelligent, inclusive vibe. Yes, the movies were mobbed. But no one was dressed to the nines or spouting semiotic drivel. There were t-shirt- wearing volunteers everywhere. Kids of all ages filling the seats. Engaging, friendly artists opening or closing the movies being shown. Within 10 minutes, I felt a part of what was happening.

Over this past weekend, I laughed 'til I couldn't breathe as I watched Kumare, a documentary about what happens when an Indian American from NJ grows his hair and beard, dons a funny outfit, declares himself a guru and heads out to Arizona in search of disciples. I surprised my mother for her 78th birthday with tickets to the Red Shoes. When she heard the widow of the director speak and realized she was about to watch her favorite film of all time--restored to its original glory-- she began to cry. And her tears didn't stop until the house lights came up. I scrambled back into town Sunday night for a 9:50 showing of An Oversimplification of Her Beauty and I'll admit. I scratched my head and had no idea of what was going on. But what the heck. What's fun without a little confusion?

I finished this incredible week having fallen in love with Montclair all over again. I was so proud of what this town had pulled together and the willing viewers who helped to make it a success. I guess I'm writing this to thank those at the helm who had the courage and the vision to make something so wonderful happen out here in the burbs. You did great things for this town and reminded all of us why we live here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Can't Get Your Kids Out on the Town (with you)? Try this.

I dunno about you, but it's getting harder and harder for me to drag my guys to all of the things I think they "should do" or "should be exposed to" in New York and other cities. All I have to do is mention the word "museum," utter the word "concert," or raise the specter of a walk past historic monuments and the eye rolling and groaning that ensues is enough to make me pull a Marie Osmond on all of them.

There is one strategy that does seem to work, however.  It, of course, involves food. For lack of a better name, I've come to call it "Food Hunting." Here's how it works.

I'll wake up one weekend morning with a bee in my bonnet and declare, "We're going into New York today." Ben will bitch that he has too much homework. Noah will warn me that he has lacrosse at 1 PM. Husband Paul will slink out of the room. At which point I will allay their worst fears and put it right out front that no museums, shows, or concerts are involved and that we can leave for the city whenever they so desire and come home whenever they please.

The Mission: Come up with some food that someone among us is dreaming about--tacos al pastor, doughnuts, pickles, Cuban sandwiches--then pinpoint the spot in New York that dishes up the very best. This usually involves a mass scurry toward laptops, with me and one or two of the boys Googling things like"best taco stands in New York" or plugging search terms into Chowhound or Eventually we come to the table, argue for our contenders and ultimately agree upon a destination--usually a decision based on a combination of  location and overall vibe, in addition to culinary raves.

Then, it's off to the city--no dress up, no big formal itinerary, no clock ticking. If we don't take the train, we'll usually park uptown at my mother-in-law's--the object isn't to park right outside the door of our destination but to wend our way toward it. That might involve a few subway stops. A long walk. Even a ferry ride. We arrive, devour, and then....

Something great happens: The day--the City-- unfolds around us. We find ourselves in a neighborhood we might never have deliberately visited. With their bellies happily full, the guys are game to wander into quirky shops, fiddle around with guitars at a hole-in-the-wall music store, even pop into a gallery or two with me. We might hang out and watch a sidewalk chess game. Or pick up star anise at Little India grocery. In short, an immediate and tasty goal gets them motivated.Yet they end up discovering the spontaneous treasures of New York that no deliberate game plan can deliver.

During our food hunts, we've aimed for enormous sub sandwiches at Faicco's in the West Village. We've scarfed down the fries with Vietnamese pineapple mayo at Pommes Frites in the East. There's been fresh mozzerella on Arthur Avenue. And toasted marshmallow milkshakes near Union Square. We've chased after culinary booty in other cities--from the best ham and cheese croissants ever at Tartine in San Francisco's Mission District to the kick-ass steak tacos at La Super Rica in Santa Barbara. Have all of our food hunts netted the best of the best foods? Who really knows. Have all the neighborhoods been enthralling? Of course not. But one thing is for sure:  It's one great way to get your family up off the couch and out into the fray. Give it a try and let me know what you find.

Friday, February 17, 2012

This Caramel May Ruin You

If you make this caramel, you may hate me for life. Not because you have scalded yourself with boiling sugar (which you won't do because I'm telling you now DO NOT TRY TO TASTE THIS STUFF WHILE IT'S COOKING). But because you will not be able to stop eating or making this sweet, slightly salty, buttery, creamy, chewy, ridiculously yummy candy-version-of-crack-cocaine and may very well gain 20 pounds over a single month.

Now, if you can deal with that very real risk, don't let this next slight hurdle hobble you: You're going to need a candy or high-temp instant read thermometer. I know. I know. That's one of those deal breakers that can knock any recipe off the "to cook" list for those of us who don't happen to be wearing a ruffled apron and working in a Fudge Shoppe. But for two years, I was stalked by this recipe for salted caramel that finally broke me and I now feel compelled to break you, too. Said recipe was given to me by a real estate agent down in Nashville by the name of Ms. Tori Stamps, who swore, in her buttery Tennessee-by-way-of-California accent, that this was the most "deeeeelicious, yuuuumy caaahhhhrmel evah and sooo aesy, tooooo." Miss Stamps never did get a sale out of us (that's a whole 'notha story) and finally stopped sending us log cabin listings. But that darned salted caramel kept pestering me every time I flipped open my "to try" recipe file. I'd look at it. I'd remember that monstrous slice of caramel cake I shared with Ms. Tori at a Leiper's Fork gas station My mouth would begin to water. And then I'd flip right past it because.... because....of that stupid thermometer.

Finally, while splurging on a shower liner at Bed Bath and Beyond, I bit the bullet and headed for the gadget aisle. And there it was. A big ol' candy thermometer emblazoned with all that "soft ball," "hard ball" gibberish. For $15, it--and the mysterious world of candy--was mine all mine. I rushed home, pulled out that dang recipe and got to work. Truth: Things were dicey at first. That thermometer thingy told me exactly what temp to cook the caramel to. But I still had to figure out the best time to cut the caramel. The easiest way to unmold it. And of course, there was that time I grabbed the loaf pan, which had become sizzling hot, and dropped the entire batch of caramel all over my kitchen floor and rug. (Miraculously it peeled off in one giant sheet. I came "this close" to wrapping myself in it.) But now, having made this stuff more times than I care to admit, I've got it down to, yes, a science. And I've developed a bonafide substance abuse problem. I never thought I'd reach the point in my life where I always had heavy cream in my fridge. But I'm there now. And with that one surprisingly long-lasting refrigerator item ever present, I am always at the ready to whip up a batch of Ms. Stamps' Tennessee Salted Caramel. Wrapped up in little foil or parchment squares, it's a fab hostess or thank you gift. Chucked it into a bowl, it's an awesome after dinner sweet. Hidden in the back corner of the freezer, it's the best pick-me up-possible without paying a visit to the pharmacist. Here are the deets. See ya at Weight Watchers!

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream
5 Tbsps. unsalted butter
1 tsp. fleur de sel (or sea or gray or kosher salt), plus a little extra for sprinkling
1/2 tsp. vanilla

Line bottom of a loaf pan with a strip of parchment paper. You'll need to make the piece of parchment long enough so that it goes well up the short sides of the loaf pan. This will give you something to pull on in order to release the caramel from the pan. Parchment being parchment, it will not settle easily into the pan and will kind of pop up when you try to put it in. To combat this little challenge, lay the parchment so that its natural curve from being rolled is working in your favor. I also spray the loaf pan first with Pam and this gives it something to adhere to. It will still pop up a little but should stay somewhat in place. Finally, don't fret too much because the weight of the caramel will push the parchment down when you pour it in. If anyone has a better trick for getting parchment to behave, give me a shout.

In a deep saucepan, stir together water, sugar and corn syrup. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat (you will continue boiling this mixture until it is a warm, golden, very slightly brownish color. Envision good, darkish honey.)

In the meantime, in a smaller pan, bring cream, butter and salt to a simmer over medium heat. Turn off heat. Don't let this boil over!!! Keep a careful eye on it or you will have a mess on your hands.

Once the sugar is golden, slightly brownish, add cream mixture to it. Be careful, it will bubble violently! (Doesn't this all sound so scary? Aren't you on the edge of your seat?) Add vanilla and cook on medium-low heat until your handy candy thermometer reads exactly 250 degrees F. Remove from heat immediately. (The higher the temp, the more solid the caramel will be.) Remember what I said from the get go--don't try to taste this unless you want to remove the lining of your tongue. Burning hot sugar is evil and dangerous.

Pour caramel into pan, let cool on the counter for a few minutes if you want, then carefully place it in the refrigerator. (Remember, too, that the pan may get hot, so you might want to use pot holders.) When cooled but still somewhat soft (like the consistency of those cubes of KRAFT caramel in the clear plastic wrap), turn caramel out of the pan. If you've cooled it too long, don't fret. Just leave it out for a while so it can soften up a little. Peel parchment off of the caramel. Then use a big, sharp, heavy knife to cut into squares. I like to make lots of little squares. Size is up to you, though. Throw these onto a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer, shake a tiny bit of salt over them if you desire (remember there is already salt in the caramel itself), then return to the refrigerator to cool completely. Meanwhile, round up any lazy teen or adult sitting around the house and have them help you cut up squares of parchment paper or aluminum foil. Then sit everyone down and spend about ten minutes wrapping each little caramel. If you use parchment, you can secure each with a rubber band. With foil, you can just pinch the ends so it looks like a fancy bonbon or wrap however you want and be done with it. I like to keep a little stash of these in the freezer for myself--each takes a lot longer to eat when it is rock hard. Fridge is good, too, when the weather is warm, so they don't get oozy and runny. I'm off to make another batch. Laytah.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Come and Get It! The 2011 Cookbook is Ready....

Happy New Year Everyone. Hope your holidays were peaceful. Not that you were all waiting on the edge of your seats, but there was no blog in December (as is the story every December), since I was updating my cookbook with this year's recipe additions.

It's ready to go now and I'm happy to share it. Just shoot me an email at and I'll send you the file. You can keep it on your computer or, if you find you like it, you can upload it to Staples or some other copy place and ask them to print it double sided. From there you can have them coil bind it and cover it with a clear plastic cover on front and solid plastic cover on back. Or, like some people do, you can have them three-hole punch it, so you can then slip the pages into a three ring binder. This way, you don't have to print the book every year but can simply print the new recipes (which I send in an additional attachment) and add them to your book.

I'm eager to hear from you and always welcome your recipe ideas, input and suggestions.