Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ring It In

There are only a few hours left in 2009, though in Australia it's already 2010.  I find this kind of ironic since, if you've ever been to Australia you know that it doesn't matter how many hours ahead they are, it's always 1983.

Neil and I planned to ring in the New Year with a small dinner gathering and have wound up with more than a dozen people arriving in less than four hours.

Why, you might ask, am I blogging when a house full of company is arriving any minute?  Because I've been banished from the kitchen, of course.

Now, in all fairness, this dinner party was my idea.  I was at the gym (where I get all my best dumb ideas) and thought to myself, "You know, we're not traveling this year; we don't have any major plans; and a bunch of our friends haven't really mentioned anything.  Let's just have a few people over."

Neil got on board, and I offered to cook.

Next thing you know, we've got friends, friends-of-friends, and had a very near brush with a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend (which is where we actually managed to set a boundary.  Yay.  Progress.)  I've been relegated to one dish (Lasagna; I prepped it yesterday.  All I have to do is throw it in the oven for an hour.) and the job of cleaning the bathrooms.  Meanwhile, the dervish has barely left the kitchen in two days.

I warned him this would happen.  That I'd take care of the cooking so he didn't drive himself crazy and ruin his good time by spending all his time in the kitchen.  And, in truth, he's doing so much work now so he won't have to do it later.  Still, here we are - exactly as we planned NOT to be - with Neil astir in the kitchen and me unable to move off the couch lest I risk the dreaded glare of suspicion or pursed lips of disapproval.

Still, I have to hand it to him.  Yesterday, when I couldn't find the kinds of paper plates and plastic silverware that I wanted, Neil ran to KMart during his lunch hour (and for $18.81 got dinner plates, dessert plates, forks, knives, spoons, napkins, plastic champagne glasses, a container of hummus, a French baguette, and cups.)  Today he's prepped the Eggplant Rolatini, made a Tiramisu, and is now organizing the appetizers.  Makes my lasagna look pretty puny.  (Hey! I made sauce, too!)

This man is clearly too good for me.  I have never done anything in my life to be worthy of him and cannot figure out why he's stayed with me so long.  Clearly, the only possible explanations are that the universe has a wicked sense of humor or that one day he is going to murder me in my sleep.

Anyway, it's New Year's - which generally means some looking back, but I did most of my sentimental looking back at Christmas.  There's no reason to bore you all with that again.  I'll just sum up 2009 - from my point of view - before we ring in the new:

1.  Why was 2009 the year everyone wanted me to stop eating meat?  Jonathan Safran Foer.  Natalie Portman.  The people who made Food, Inc.  I felt the whole year was kind of a cruel trick to keep me away from Shake Shack now that they finally opened one around the corner.  Seriously, as soon as a cheeseburger was so close I could go there in my pajamas, everyone is making the idea of eating meat look disgusting and sound immoral.

So here's my retort.  Go local.  Go sustainable. Choose meat from farmers rather than large agribusiness companies.  Eat meat from animals treated well, not raised in a factory.  Choose sustainable fisheries.  Then shut up cause I can't hear you over the sound of my teeth piercing pickles, cheese and sweet, sweet meat.

2.  What's with the endless fetishization of comfort food?  Burgers.  Mac & Cheese.  Fried Chicken.  Last week New York magazine had a five-page article about soup.  Soup.
We now live in a time and place where it's acceptable to charge people $14 for nineteen cents worth of wet chicken.

I'm over it.

3.  Is it me, or did a LOT of famous people cheat on their wives this year?  It seems like every member of Congress, plus Tiger Woods, plus the former New York Governor (who gets bonus scumbag points for sleeping with prostitutes) and the current one (who told us all on the way in, giving himself the air of being a charming rapscallion which temporarily obscured the fact the he's actually an incompetent boob.)  In 2010, I'd prefer more stories about elected officials actually, ummm, doing something good for society.

And can we please actually govern this year.  The whole obstruction/tea party/Joe Lieberman/birthers/I'm in Hawaii so I'll get to that bomb on the plane after this round of golf/truther/Ben Nelson/Louisiana Purchase/watered-down health care/global warming is hoax thing was a fun way to end the decade.  Maybe let's start the next one by doing something that doesn't continue to evaporate the middle class, sink the poor deeper into poverty, and line the pockets of wealthy bankers with the cash we're spending to bankrupt the government.  It's enough to make you nostalgic for the old Clinton days when we knew he was a horndog, ignored all the fulminated faux outrage from people who clearly had their own something-something on the side (I'm looking at you, Mark Sanford) but we actually got things done.  Yeah, they were sort of small and many were reversed, but - if I remember correctly - wages were up, unemployment was down, and the biggest thing we were scared of was the ATM crashing when it became the year 2000.

So, maybe that's the key to a better decade.  Tonight, Y'all, let's party like it's 1999.

The Last Word (For 2009)

DO THIS, New York:

Make my lasagna.

For the sauce:

1 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
1 29 oz can of tomato sauce
1 medium yellow onion
1 clove garlic
crushed red pepper flakes
olive oil

Heat a large stockpot and add a small amount of oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pot).  Dice the onion and peel and dice the garlic.  Add to the pot.  Cook until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add the crushed tomatoes.  Add basil, oregano, and parsley - fresh - cleaned and finely chopped.  Add the tomato sauce.  Add some crushed red pepper flakes for some heat.  (You can also add, grated parmigiano reggiano, green, red or yellow peppers, mushrooms, grounds beef, or sausage - it's up to you!)

 For the lasagna:

1 package lasagna noodles
1 pint Ricotta cheese
8-16 oz grated mozzarella
1 egg
salt and pepper
dried parsley

Fill a large stockpot with water.  Add olive oil and salt and bring to a boil.

Put the ricotta in a bowl and add the egg, salt and pepper and dried parsley.  Mix until well combined.

Boil the lasagna noodles according to the package (anywhere from 9 minutes to 14 minutes.)

In a 13x9x2 pyrex dish (or equivalent), do the following:

Cover the bottom with sauce.  Add three lasagna noodles, side-by-side, to cover the bottom.  Layer some of the ricotta mixture and more sauce on top.  Add another layer of the noodles.  Layer more ricotta, some sauce, and some mozzarella in the middle layer.  Add another layer of noodles, then sauce and ricotta.  Top with a final layer of noodles, more sauce, and cover with mozzarella.

Bake at 350 for one hour.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sappy Holidays

I knew well before we got to my sister's house that the halls would be impeccably decked.  My sister has devoted her life to making sure every one of her children's life experiences comes as close to the movie version as possible.  I'm not sure which is more impressive, actually, her near-obsessive dedication or the frequency with which she generally succeeds.  

Most of the time.  

Halloween, Summer Barbecues, Birthdays - she's a whiz.  But it all comes a little unglued at Christmas, when she and my brother-in-law host their biggest gathering of the year.  Yes, the house looks fabulous, like it was decorated by elves and reindeer and Rockettes; like one of those movies where the family gathers for a festive holiday and celebrates a spontaneous engagement, a miraculous recovery from cancer, or a madcap series of misunderstandings.  Still, in real life you can't keep the guests from destroying your veneer of a picture-book Christmas.  Somewhere between 30 and 50 people show up at my sister and brother-in-law's home and you're never quite sure if you'll wind up dealing with a newly minted lesbian (2006), someone's octogenarian boyfriend (2007), or the arrival of an ambulance (2008).  

(Christmas Lesson 842: consuming tranquilizers and lots of liquor on an empty stomach doesn't result in a Martha Stewart Holiday.  More like Betty Ford.  The EMTs were cute, though.)

Oh, and every year someone barfs in her guest bathroom.  Every family has their traditions....

Neil and I were accompanied by our friend Antoinette, who's been to this circus before (and may have been 2007's Holiday Heaver.)  We could have recited the menu well in advance, since my sister has it catered.   From the cocktail shrimp to the meatballs and ziti, to my tray of homemade Christmas cookies - everything sort of remains the same.

And yet, it doesn't.  Yes, my brother-in-law's father may wind up doing his live version of Fox News - that mix of misinformation and fear that has become particularly resonant with aging white men as they recede into an ethnic minority in a world they no longer understand.  Yes, my own father will spend half the evening smoking on the porch while his lover speaks to - well - no one.  Yes, my sister will not have a conversation longer than five words as she spins from one hosting task to the next.  

But something was different this year - or maybe it was me.

My mother, who is usually content to attend the event as a guest - sitting on the couch stuffing her face and passing judgement (it runs in the family), actually brought something.  A spinach dip she's been making since the dawn of time (Oh please, the recipe is on the back of the Knorr's Vegetable Soup box - I'm not writing it here - I've got a point to make.)  Yes, she decorated the top with paprika - which is her idea of adding a festive flair (as a child, I always knew when company was coming when everything edible in the house got a sprinkling of McCormick Paprika) - but it tasted just as good as it did 25 years ago.  I think I also saw her put something away.

My sister took a break from whirling like a dervish to recite a very clever, and very funny, poem she had written (this talent runs in the family.)  It was a testament to her family, and to Christmas, and for the first time I thought about the holiday over the continuum of time...

My first Christmas after moving back to New York, when she was pregnant with Amelia.  The following christmas I brought Neil, who I asked to marry me six days later.  And on and on.  Since my sister and brother-in-law began hosting the holiday we've grown to include their three children, my husband, my mother and father's significant others, and sort-of-step-brothers-and-sisters.  The menu might be the same - but we sure aren't.  And not just in size or structure - we've all gotten a little older, a little calmer, and we seem to like each other more - or at least become more tolerant of the things that annoy us.

Except maybe the guest dressed in a gold lame tank top and a motorcycle belt whose outfit only seemed to be lacking a lamppost and public defender.

The following day it was Neil's family's turn.  For the past several years we've visited Neil's Aunt and Uncle who live in Westchester.  And - yes - it is another holiday with a recurring menu and a recurring guest list.  

But I love it.  

We've gotten to see his cousin's son grow from an unnaturally happy baby into an unnaturally happy toddler (no kidding - this kid has the best disposition I've ever seen) - and a Big Brother when their newborn arrived almost ten months ago.  We've seen another cousin get married, and a third grow into his first job.  Everyone's always welcome - Michael's girlfriend (the coolest person ever), the other Michael's girlfriend (when was the last time you met a 20-something who wanted to go to space), some weird belly dancer lady who actually didn't show up this year and something felt missing as a result.  

Until you marry, you never really appreciate how nice it is to become part of someone else's family to the point where they consider you their own.  If nothing else, it makes you feel better that your own family isn't the only completely insane one on the planet.  And somewhere between the seven-layer dip  and the Christmas cookies (yes, I brought a batch here - I always do...) you think about how lucky you are.

Or maybe I should stop drinking when I'm on medication.


Wow, this entry is so much more sentimental than I expected it to be.  I was counting on a posting that rhymed lyrics from Let It Snow, like frightful and delightful, with words like "spiteful."  Yet all I can seem to think about is how beautiful my sister looked.  Or how charming my niece is becoming, so smart and articulate.  Or how funny her little sister is, dressed like Batman and flying around the living room.  Or how nice Neil's cousin-in-law is - a Southern Baptist country boy mucking it up with a mix of Yankee Catholics and Jews (maybe we should invite Congress to our Christmas celebration.) Or how Neil's cousins - and their cousins - all seem to enjoy each other's company like friends (my cousin's are a different story - but there's a family Bar Mitzvah in two weeks, so just hang in there.  If you're up for tales of resentment, divorce, harsh judgment and people who don't see each other very often getting drunk and airing family resentments, you're in for a doozy.)

And the tone is all wrong now to review Isabella's (77th and Columbus - we ate there last night.  The wine list is excellent (get the Syrah) and the food is always seasonal, well-prepared, and flavorful (I got the short rib - a solid B+, Neil got the Mahi Mahi - an A- which would have been an A if it were warmer.)  

Or to review "It's Complicated" (better than you're average rom com, but classic Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give; What Women Want) - a middle-aged female fantasy pic (nothing wrong with that) where the lead character goes from being sullen, barren and forgotten to a the object of desire for two men - one woefully inappropriate but great fun, the other much more suitable but a little less colorful.  The film is lifted greatly by the performances of Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and John Krasinski (who more than acquits himself on a screen full of heavyweights.)  Steve Martin, doing his "Steve Martin-puppy-dog-thing" he's been perfecting since the eighties (and nailing since "Shopgirl") is amusing, but a non-entity through most of the story.  And rising young talents Zoe Kazan ("Revolutionary Road" and everything on Broadway since 2007 that's required a sullen young women - "100 Saints You Should Know," "The Seagull") and Hunter Parrish ("Weeds," "Spring Awakening") get their screen time with the legends, but this show is all about Meryl and Alec.  She's the only living actress who could make this woman not only appealing but embraceable, and he's the only comic actor in his age range who could make the character more than a punch line, but find his soft, gooey center.)

But I can't do those things because, really, all I can think about is how much the Hermits I made reminded me of these oatmeal fruit bars my father once baked for me while I was away at college.  And even though I probably hadn't spoken to him in weeks (another story; another time) he sent me these awesome cookies which he broke his mixer to make for me.

Anyway, I'm sure the snark will be back soon. Like I said, there's a family event coming up and I'm bound to be less charitable.  And we're having a New Year's Eve party, so you never know what's going to happen there.  I hope it's blog-worthy.

As long as no one barfs in our bathroom.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Twas the Night Before the Night Before Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve eve and I’m finding myself wishing for a sleigh and nine flying reindeer. This post is coming to you from the quiet car on Acela 2172 en route from Washington, DC to New York – or perhaps en route is too optimistic a phrase. More accurately, we are en place; stuck in Wilmington, Delaware as one (of many) disgruntled passenger reminds a neighbor that his cell phone conversation is unwelcome in this part of the train.

With the courtesy that Americans have become known for the world over, the conversant rolls his eyes, blithely ignoring his fellow traveler, shouting into the phone that he was distracted by someone telling him he is in the quiet car(“what?” “QUIET car” “What?” “Q-U-I-E-T .”) After communicating that he is stuck (“What?” “STUCK.” “WHAT?” “S-T-U-C-K.”) they chatted a bit longer before ending their conversation.

Meanwhile, the disturbed passenger went in search of quiet elsewhere.

There’s a metaphor about America in this story – several actually – but since it’s Christmas I’ll be charitable and resist the temptation to point them out.

Though I must admit my four trips on Amtrak these last two weeks are providing much insight into the communities of people who regularly travel the corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. Politicians, Financiers, Students. So far I’ve seen a Senate aide taking a rare evening off from turning Health Care Reform into legislative sausage for a quick trip home to Philly; some Asian twink who purchased four beers at once and drank them all in less than an hour; and a woman whose possessions included two Blackberries, a Barbie, a juice box, and a copy of “The Secret.”

Each ride has also included a police which we’ve been instructed not to pet, which causes me to ponder how dumb the American people have become. It is bad enough airplane announcements now require 458 words, repeated three or four times, spoken loudly and in the cadence of one speaking to a retarded child. To inform you of the flight’s destination. Either it is perfectly normal for people of reasonable and average intelligence to board flights they’re not ticketed for to places they don’t want to go, or to reach out and touch a drug-sniffing German Shepherd attached to an armed cop, or Americans have gotten stupider.

I’m voting for the latter.

Speaking of voting – and of the health insurance reform cited above – this week the U.S. Senate moved decisively closer to passing a major reform of the health care industry. Of course, the process has been a bit like Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” – by the time we reel it in there may be no meat left on the bone.

On the one hand, it’s historic that – for the first time ever – both houses of Congress will pass bills based on the principle that all Americans deserve to have affordable health care; that no one should die from being too poor to get insurance, or should become poor simply because they became sick.

Conversely, so many worthy goals fell by the wayside while so much greed and self-interest was displayed by people whose job it is to act in the best interests of the citizenry rather than the corporatocracy.

I could understand the minority party using the rules of parliamentary procedure to resist passage of a bill they find objectionable – or even one that would simply hand a huge political win to their opponents. Politics ain’t beanbag. And the Democrats didn’t hesitate to use the filibuster to stop Bush’s appointee’s to the federal judiciary.

But Democrats are another story. You may not vote for the final bill, but you don’t block the leadership on a process issue. You vote to allow the bill to come to the floor, then vote against it. If Democrats can’t agree – as a bloc of 60 – not to vote against the party on procedural issues, then they will send the American people a message that they can’t govern.

They’ll also send the message that they’re petty, greedy sycophants. Joe Lieberman should have been threatened with the loss of his chairmanships and seniority, not indulged when he held the bill hostage. Ben Nelson should have let substantive issues come to an up or down vote.

I don’t often agree with Lindsey Graham. However, even though I’d like to see the bill pass and he wouldn’t, we both agree the bill includes slush money for states like Louisiana and Nebraska so the leadership could buy the votes of their Senators.


Whatever happened to change? Whatever happened to articulating and explaining a new role for government? Instead we get a win that’s so much smaller than it ought to be, and so much dirtier than it should have been. Miraculously, the Democrats, who have become superb at taking a lead and blowing it, managed to accomplish something historic and look petty, venal, uncoordinated and incompetent in the process. No wonder Americans don’t think government can do anything right.

(FYI, I’m not letting the Republicans off the hook, here. I think they’re clearly on the wrong side of history and I think they may ultimately pay a price for their obstructionist approach to governing right now. I’m also embarrassed for them that, on issues of tantamount importance to the American people, they’ve basically refused to even show up to the debate and are marching in lockstep rather than voting their conscience (Olympia Snowe and Anh Cao, excepted.) Still – that’s their right. They’re the minority and the tools of parliamentary procedure are theirs for the using and abusing….)

Anyway – in other news, Brittany Murphy (see classy photo, right) is dead. The cute, awkward moppet from 1995’s Clueless, who grew (or, I should say, shrank) into the haunted victim in “Don’t Say A Word” before receding into tabloid stories about her tiny frame, erratic behavior, and possible drug use and/or eating disorder. She was 32.


OK, not really, and that’s rude and glib. But it’s also the reality of how we chew through celebrity in this country – turning every young actress into a starlet, then a sideshow. Why can’t they just be entertainers and performers? Do they have to become fodder? The LA Coroner has attributed the manner of death to “natural causes” but really, she was killed by popular culture.

If you do eat (as I suspect most of my readers do), I can inform you that my annual Christmas Cookie bake-a-thon has been a rousing success. I made Hermits, Linzer tarts, Gingerbread Men, Sugar Cookies, Chocolate Glazed Toffee Bars, Scottish Shortbread, and Peanut Butter Chubbies. It would take way too much space to give you the recipe for all of these, so my gift to you will be the recipe for the Peanut Butter Chubbies. This may not sound like much, but wait til you try these cookies – they are the best cookies ever. Plus, who doesn’t want a Chubbie for Christmas?

Peanut Butter Chubbies

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a large cookie sheet. (It’s best to use your largest cookie sheet and cook these all in one batch; the cookies cannot be transferred from the sheet until they’ve been baked and completely cooled.

Whisk together 1 cup flour with ¼ teaspoon salt. Add 5 ½ tablespoons (two-thirds of a stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces (butter must be cold,) 3 tablespoons smooth peanut butter and ½ teaspoon vanilla. Beat on low speed (or by hand) until the mixture just begins to hold together. Add, and beat until well-blended, 12-14 peanut butter cups, chopped, and ½ cup finely chopped unsalted peanuts.

Shape into one-inch balls and space them about 1½ inches apart on the cookie sheet. Bake until faintly tinted brown, about 16-20 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before transferring, otherwise cookies will be too crumbly.

Well, this tin can is finally moving, and I might get home in less than 8 hours.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Sizzling Delight

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Apollo Theater continues our legendary talent competition with the indefatigable Stepp Sisters….”

Despite the immediacy of live theatre, there are only a handful of so great “you-HAD-to-see-it” live performances.  Ethel Merman in Gypsy.  The Beatles in Central Park.  Barbra Streisand; ditto.  The original Broadway production of Hair.  Judy at Carnegie Hall.  Bette Midler at the Continental Baths. Eponine’s soliloquy in Les Miserables.  The original production of Rent.  Cher’s Farewell Tour.  Patti LuPone in Gypsy. (Some things come full circle.)

I’m gay, so my list clearly has an unnaturally high number of performances by women who are dead or dying – actually, fictionally or professionally (Ma chere Cher, where art thou?)  Your list may be different, but the one thing we’re likely to agree on is that the new national tour of Dreamgirls, which ended its New York run at the Apollo Theatre on Saturday night, is a game and energetic production but is unlikely to be found on either of our lists.

Creatively staged with sliding LCD panels that are artfully and – unlike the recent production of 9 to 5 – not distractingly employed, the show suffers from splitting the difference between the 1981 stage version and the 2007 film, attempting to satisfy fans of both and ending up accomplishing neither.  (There is one exception: the inclusion of the song Listen, from the film, repurposed as Effie and Deena’s reconciliation.  It’s a catharsis the movie never achieves but sorely needs, since the story is as much about the broken bonds of sisterhood as it is Curtis’s defiance of Effie’s love and Deena’s will.)

The young cast brings ambition and energy to the production, but the roles often seem bigger than they are, contributing to the feeling that you are watching not a production, but a reproduction.  Though they are all quite talented, the cast never quite achieves harmony with each other and the pace and activity often seem frenetic and haphazard, rather than focused and urgent – a necessity for a show about trying to breakthrough in entertainment.

Two exceptions prevail.  The first is the young man playing Jimmy “Thunder” Early, who invests the role with humor, self-awareness and a soul-deep need that evaded Eddie Murphy on screen.  You understand who this Jimmy is because the actor knows. 

And the single best performance (as it should be, since this is – ultimately – her story) comes from the exciting new discovery, Moya Angela, as Effie.  Prideful, wounded, stubborn and vulnerable, Miss Angela nails the role without falling into the too-easy traps of lapsing into melodrama or understating the magnitude of Effie’s need.  The role begs inevitable comparisons to the Jennifers – Holliday and Hudson – each of whom blew the doors off the role with powerful performances of voice and emotion, but such comparison are both unfair and beside the point.  The point of the role is to take you, convincingly and devastatingly, on Effie’s journey, and at that she ultimately succeeds.

The show also features season six American Idol third place-finisher Syesha Mercado.  Which is Spanish for Syesha Market, which is where you can buy a Syesha.

Whatever that may be.

The show now leaves on a national tour and, if successful, may return to New York for a Broadway run.  It’s in the canon of great musicals – and one of the few about an African-American experience – and it is good enough to justify seeing.  But once is enough for me.  If it returns, I am telling you: I’m not going.

But I will say it was awesome to see the show at the Apollo Theater.  I haven’t seen so many African-Americans and gays hanging out together since the Democratic National Convention. It’s nice to see us getting along again after all those churches preached against same-sex marriage.

We saw the show with friends of ours – a couple – whose company we’ve come to enjoy quite a bit.  Prior to the theatre we ate at a soul food restaurant on the Upper West Side, to put us in the mood.  The Shark Bar, on Amsterdam Avenue (74th/75th) is among a handful of NYC institutions for authentic soul food (though we can never figure out why the waitstaff is all South Asian.  Every time they recite the specials, I’m half waiting for them to offer Chitlin Vindaloo.)

Bypassing the roasted chicken, which I’ve had before (delicious,) and the meatloaf (divine – and one of the few in Manhattan served with tomato sauce instead of gravy, though the brown stuff is an option if that’s your thing) I order the pork chops, which arrive smothered in gravy and onions.  Neil goes for the St. Louis Ribs, which are falling off the bone and dripping with barbecue sauce.

Each entrĂ©e comes with two sides and Neil – as I could have predicted – chooses the macaroni and cheese and the cole slaw, while I (also predictably) order the candied yams and a salad of tomato, avocado and Vidalia onions.  The corn bread and mini muffins that accompany the meal are cakey and sweet, and the whole experience is enough to make you want to move someplace on the delta if it weren’t for the humidity, the hurricanes, and the Klan.

Equally as delicious was our meal at Fusha, a new(-ish) Asian restaurant on the corner of 75th and Amsterdam.  This is one of those spots that ends up being nine different restaurants before you know it.  When we moved to the Upper West Side it was Gabriela’s (Mexican) and closed immediately.  It re-opened months later as Mama Goo (note: good Asian drag queen name) which was a Chinese restaurant.  We liked Mama Goo – it was cheap enough to eat at once a week, but nice enough to actually go to for a sit-down meal, which is anomalous for Chinese restaurants in Manhattan.  Mamo Goo “closed for renovations” (New York-speak for: “We’re broke”) and re-opened months later as San Luigi – a checkered-tablecloth red-sauce Italian place, best referred to as a “joint.”  But San Luigi was also a good weeknight dining spot, had a nice variety of dishes and a decent inexpensive wine list, and we enjoyed it.

So, of course, it closed.  For renovations.  And re-opened as Fusha, a pan-asian restaurant (this is also New York-speak for “We can charge you more if we do a few Thai dishes, a few Vietnamese dishes, something Chinese, and throw in a sushi bar.”

We resisted Fusha for a long time.  No good reason – just, well, unfocused revenge (it’s the little things like a shared love of unjustifiably hating inanimate objects like restaurants and handheld electronics that keep Neil and I together.)  To paraphrase something my husband would say, “Sure!  We’ll go.  We’ll like it.  I’ll find a favorite dish and then they’ll close.”  We held out for nearly a year, patiently waiting for it to become a deli or tapas bar.  Now thst we’ve eaten there, it’s almost bound to happen.

Anyway.  Neil got a green curry that was spicy and creamy and delicious and I got something called Sizzling Delight. 

They were half right.

It definitely sizzled, but I wouldn’t go as far as to call myself “delighted” (though I imagine trying to market something called “Sizzling Adequacy” presents marketing challenges.)  It was fine, but the flavors were kinds of muddy, and the texture was a little gummy, as if the flour used to dredge the chicken didn’t get hot enough in the wok.

I know it sounds like we’re bulking up for winter, and maybe we are, since today we did a big brunch at Lansky’s deli before retiring to the couch to stare at the tree and a line-up of Christmas movies, or movies prominently featuring Christmas scenes (apparently You’ve Got Mail falls into the latter category.) 

And we must be eating too much because a toothpaste commercial featuring Brooke Shields saying “I like to eat healthy” evoked a flood of emotion from Neil (“I need to eat healthy.  I’ve been eating nothing but bread and potatoes and carbs all weekend.  I should be eating salmon.”)  It may be the most one person has ever been moved by a Brooke Shields performance.

And as long as were talking about the current status of people who were famous in the 1980s - my Entertainment Weekly informs me that Brian Bonsall (little Andy Keaton from the final, shark-jumped season of Family Ties) was just arrested for attacking a man with broken bar stool.

This is why I want to be on TV, people!  Where else but America can you spend five minutes on television at age 6 and still be a bold-faced name, years later, and have your white trash behavior end up on page 11 of a major periodical.

Not that I'd ever beat someone with a bar stool, though Neil might come after me with a frying pan if I interrupt him while he's cooking.

I give my husband a hard time, but he’s a truly wonderful man.  He decorated our tree so beautifully it could be in a department store window.  He spent yesterday bargain hunting for gift wrap and cookie tins and holiday decorations (I finally have a stocking to replace the $1.99 polyester one I bought at CVS in 1995 and ironed my name onto.)  He even got us a poinsettia and it might just manage to live until December 25 – a true Christmas miracle.  Actually, it will probably die, and we’re not sure why the only living things in our apartment that manage to remain in that condition are the two of us.  Between the microwave that takes 4 minutes to heat water and all the wireless and cellular technology, we’ve probably got more radiation running through our veins than Karen Silkwood. 

Guess we’ll hold off on that baby a little longer….

Friday, December 11, 2009

Out of the Woods

Apparently, the cop at the entrance to the Greenwich Village Equinox was there because Tiger Woods's mistress was there, and the paparazzi was out of control.  

Ok, before everyone jumps all over me for writing about this, let me indicate 4 reasons why this is news, even though the Tiger Woods story, in general, is NOT:

1.  Tagging onto something this stupid but over-reported is bound to improve this blog's results in search.
2.  It  permits me to illustrate the proper grammatical usage of a singular possessive when the possessor's name ends in "s".  The usage of "s'" is commonly substituted but is often (though not alway) incorrect.
3.  Any time a cop is in an Equinox for any reason other than to arrest someone for jacking off in the steam room is news.

Maybe the reason we're getting so much of Tiger-gate (Wood-er-gate?) is because the sex scandal of an admired, accomplished professional athlete is a refreshing change from all those sex scandals about politicians, many of whom are neither admired nor accomplished.

Although maybe that's not fair.  A fair portion of an entire political party has accomplished the Herculean task of convincing a segment of the American people that scientific facts are a mere matter of opinion.  After all, just because Darwin believed in God and evolution doesn't mean you're allowed to; much more fun to see if we can get broad swaths of the citizenry to live like ignorant fools.  Oh, and that whole global warming thing - apparently it's still clearly up for debate - and I'm afraid it might remain so until we're harvesting cotton and tobacco in New Hampshire.  (This year's Christmas tree: Douglas Fir or Coconut Palm?  Discuss.)

In our regular reality TV update, I am pleased to report that the cute brothers from The Amazing Race did NOT win, but came in second to Megan and Cheyne (stupidest name ever.)  Those two really did deserve to win, they managed to work together - and be NICE to each other - through the whole season, and came in first on most of the legs of the race.  The brothers, however, pretty much whined and bitched at each other across eastern Europe.  And the cuter one was fat.

However, the hot brothers on Top Chef totally won.  The duller one coming in second, with the younger (and cuter - looks matter) one winning.  In all seriousness, though, this was the best season of Top Chef ever if you were a foodie.  From the beginning, there were at least six seriously talented chefs, and they were all interesting to watch.  Plus, all six of them made it to the Top 7, so there were very few shockingly early eliminations.  Also, there was so much talent at the very top, that any of the four finalists could conceivably have won, without argument.  So much more interesting than the season I spent sitting around waiting for that cute little Butterball Stephanie to beat the pants off that creepy Richard Blais.  

I have to admit, it actually was a really touching episode, and I'm always so moved by the Top Chef finale.  It's great to see people who've worked so hard get recognized for it, and the contestants always seem to find so much joy in cooking.  As it should be.

In cooking news, most of what we've made this week is something I've already given you the recipe for, so I'm stealing today's recipe from my sister, who got it from Martha Stewart Everyday Food.  She loves this magazine - she says it's really well organized.  Every month they give you a vegetable, tell you when it is in season, discusses how to prep it (if necessary) and gives you a few recipes for it.  They do the same with other food categories, kitchen tools, etc - giving you an introduction to a particular item, provide information and background, then options for how to use it practically.  

Last night she made her family (they of the "I cook for these clowns every night" comment) a Roasted Vegetable Lasagna.  While it was cooking, my niece Cassidy (3 and a half) came up and said, "Mommy that smells delicious."

  • You'll need:
  • Coarse salt
  • 2 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • 2 pounds zucchini, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 3 medium red onions, cut into 1/2-inch rings
  • 5 ounces goat cheese
  • Marinara
  • Fresh Lasagna Noodles (you will need about 1/2 of the batch), cut into 4-by-13-inch strips and cooked, or store-bought dried noodles, cooked
  • 1/4 cup loosely packed fresh marjoram leaves, roughly chopped
  • 2 ounces finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese (3/4 cup)
Here's what you'll do:

  1. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons salt over eggplant slices, and let drain for 45 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, place zucchini in a single layer on oiled baking sheets. (Work in batches if necessary.) Brush with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Bake, rotating pans halfway through, until tender and just starting to brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Let cool slightly, then transfer to a dish.
  3. Place onion rings in a single layer on oiled baking sheets. (Work in batches if necessary.) Brush with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Bake until tender and browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool slightly, then chop into 1/2-inch pieces. Mix with goat cheese in a small bowl.
  4. Gently press eggplant slices between double layers of paper towels to remove excess liquid. Place eggplant in a single layer on oiled baking sheets (work in batches if necessary.) Brush with oil, and season with pepper. Bake until tender and golden, 6 to 9 minutes.
  5. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Spread 1/2 cup of marinara in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Place a layer of noodles over marinara. Layer eggplant on top of noodles. Spread 1/2 of the goat cheese mixture over eggplant. Spread 1 cup marinara over cheese layer, and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons marjoram. Repeat layering once, replacing eggplant with zucchini (noodles, zucchini, goat cheese, marinara, marjoram). Place a layer of noodles on top. Spread remaining marinara on top of noodles, and sprinkle with Pecorino Romano cheese.
  6. Place baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until cheese is golden and sauce is bubbling, about 45 minutes. Let stand for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.
Want the recipe in printable format?  Just go here.

Those of you who have been following may be wondering where the Christmas Cookie recipe is - but I'm suspending today's cookie recipe in honor of the onset of Hanukkah.  Yes, I know, I've said some pretty nasty things about Hanukkah recently, but I've been forced to re-visit my opinion of the holiday.

No, not by my mother.

By Mormon Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT).   Hatch - like many Republicans - is a huge fan of Jews and of Israel.  (So disorienting --- it's like finding out the Focus on the Family Guy, James Dobson, watches Will and Grace reruns and goes to Drag Bingo.)  Anyway, Senator Hatch is such a fan of the tribe that he's applied his talent for songwriting (the dissonance just grows, doesn't it?) to penning a song about Hanukkah.

Yes, of course it will suck.  All Hanukkah songs suck.  No trees, no Santa, and it's hard to get something to rhyme with Dreidel (or coupon or Florida, or anything else that would be in a song about a Jewish winter holiday.)  Plus, there isn't a great tradition of snappy ditties written by Mormon Republicans from Utah.  

Still, as signs of the apocalypse go, I'll take that over Tiger's mistress on the Stairmaster.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Clooney & Me

They finally the made the movie of my life and it depressed the hell out of me.

On the plus side, I get to be played by George Clooney, which once and for all validates what I’ve always believed was a spiritual connection between us.  Seriously.  Why else would I revel in suits with no ties and open collars, or have suffered through the penultimate seasons of The Facts of Life, the sit-com E/R (with Elliott Gould, Mary McDonnell and Conchata Ferrell) or Ocean’s Twelve (Bleh)???

Seriously, though: go see Up In The Air right now.  You’ve probably already seen some reviews or the trailer, and have an idea of what it’s about, but here’s a brief synopsis:

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is a traveling executive who is hired by companies that are undergoing layoffs.  His job is to dismiss the employees, provide them with information about the transition (severance, etc.) and manage their emotions.  He eagerly spends 300 or more nights away from his barren Omaha apartment, finding a freedom in an untethered life of independence.  Suddenly, his way of life comes under fire by a young upstart (Anna Kendrick, in a career-making performance) who proposes to reduce costs by shifting the workforce from face-to-face terminations to video conferencing.

The irony that all of a sudden Bingham’s own way of life is threatened is fairly predictable, as is how it transforms him – first into a humanist and then, ultimately, a human.  In fact, the entire plot is either predictable or loudly telegraphed, which ends up being beside the point.  The plot is just a device to tell a story about how we make and miss connections all the time – often without an airport in sight.

And to showcase some of the finest screen performances of the year.  Clooney is tanned, trim and irresistible; he sells you on a lifestyle that is so isolating – a career so airless, joyless and soulless – that you almost want to go out and find one for yourself.  Kendrick – who telegraphed such promise as early as 2003’s Camp – is a revelation; her performance is a dance of bravado and fear, self-confidence and doubt.  She truly captures what it feels like to make the transition from being a student to living and working on your own, and her final scene showcases the complexities of humility and the freedom of choosing for yourself without compromise.

Vera Farmiga, as the woman Clooney first – and finally – manages to connect with is perfectly cast as his female doppelganger.  She’s luminous, and so completely convincing that the one plot development you expect – and then begin to doubt – involves her, and you doubt it because she’s so good inhabiting that woman you’ve seen a million times.  You know her, the blond who always has a blue suit and a black roll-aboard.  She’s somewhere between 30 and 50 but you’re not quite sure where.  She sells medical devices or software and she’s always in a good mood, she drinks scotch and laughs with the fellas, and she is unruffled by everything; impossible to penetrate.  You’re pretty certain she’s a bitch, but she’s always so composed and funny and flirtatious that you can’t prove it. 

That’s her.

The briefer performances are no less powerful.  Jason Bateman, as Clooney’s boss, chews through his scenes with smarmy joy.  J.K. Simmons (the dad, from Juno) is winning as a just-laid-off worker at a loss for his next move.  Only Bingham’s family is a let-down.  Melanie Lynskey, as his about-to-be-married younger sister is woefully underused in an underwritten role that could have been funnier.  Her wedding could have helped raise the stakes for Bingham but somehow feels to let the air of the urgency instead.  And Amy Morton, in what is essentially a reprise of her August: Osage County role, does her put-upon-sister-whose-really-the-matriarch thing.  She’s good at it, but it showed no range and sticks to pretty much one note.

That this film should come along – after all those years I said there needed to be a movie that captured the quiet desperation of the road warrior – feels like a message as I wrestle with taking a job with a software company while I continue to pursue my television career.  It asks all sorts of questions about what compromises we’re willing to make, why me make them, and what they really cost.  True, while some of the issue is not what we do, but how we do it, there is an inevitable disconnectedness that comes from living your life up in the air.  And the most powerful, most resonant moment in the picture comes when Clooney, in his role of sincerely selling insincerity, connects with a recently terminated worker by asking, "How much did they pay you to give up on your dream?"

The movie was just named best film of the year by the National Board of Review (one of the first organizations to announce its year-end awards) and it's not surprising.  In our anxiety-ridden times of 10% unemployment, this film truly is the movie of 2009, the year the economy forced us all to reconcile who we are (who we've become, who we are becoming) with who we want to be.

What’s not up in the air is how I feel about Ocean Grill, on Columbus Avenue between 77th and 78th St., where Neil and I ate on Thursday evening.  If I were shooting a film set in New York during Christmas season, this would be my first choice.  It’s spacious, but not cavernous, with dark wood floors, lighter-colored walls adorned with photographs (echoes of Sardi’s, but not tacky) and a chair rail.  It’s one of those places that feels elegant, in a very New York way.  Every table is intimate enough for private conversation, but the layout allows you to feel that you’re “among the people” and you wonder if somebody who is somebody is seated just a table or two away.

We shared a split pea soup to start.  Smoky with the flavor of bacon, without any lardons actually in the soup, it was rich and delicious, without being overly weighty for an appetizer.  Neil ordered a horseradish-crusted salmon with goat cheese gnocchi, forest mushrooms and butternut squash.  The salmon was expertly cooked, enhanced by the crispy crust, and set off by the squash and gnocchi which managed to add not just sweetness, but lightened the dish.  I enjoyed an oven-roasted Chilean sea bass that was moist and flavorful, served atop honeyed eggplant prepared with curry and raisins that was unexpected and delicious.  It was accompanied by polenta fries and a tangy emulsion of violet and mustard.

Meanwhile, it’s pouring down rain and very cold today.  A bleak day, made bleaker as I struggle through an episode of Melrose Place.  Did they really just introduce a plotline about Ashlee Simpson Wentz having slept with her brother.  Adopted, yeah, but so what. That’s gross.  This show gets one more episode before I give up completely on it.  (Why was incest so much less creepy in the movie Clueless?  Was it because they were step-borther/sister, and their parents were only briefly married?  Or is the magic that is Alicia Silverstone?  The world may never know.

So, I’ve got some time before the Florida/Alabama game.  I’m off to the kitchen for another batch of Christmas cookies.  These chocolate-toffee bars are always a hit.  Make two pans – one is never enough.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all purpose flour

6 ounces semi sweet chocolate, chopped (can use 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips)
1/2 cup almonds or pecans, chopped and toasted.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place oven rack in the center of the oven. Line the bottom and sides of an 8x8 inch square baking pan with aluminum foil.
Melt the butter in a medium sized saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar and vanilla extract. Then add the salt and flour and mix just until incorporated. Spread the shortbread evenly on the bottom of the prepared pan and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes or until the shortbread is golden brown with well browned edges.
Remove from oven and immediately scatter the chopped chocolate over the hot shortbread. The chocolate will begin to melt; with an offset spatula or back of a spoon, evenly spread the chocolate. Sprinkle the choppeds nut over the chocolate. Place the pan on a wire rack to cool.
Once the chocolate has set, lift the shortbread from the pan using the edges of the foil. Place on a cutting board and, with a sharp knife, cut into 16 squares.
Cool completely and then chop.
DO THIS, New York:
Go see Up in the Air
Eat at Ocean Grill
Make my chocolate-toffee bars.
DON’T DO THIS, New York:
I’d skip Melrose Place.  And incest.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

'Tis the Season

I love lists, and I haven't done one yet.  So, for the early part of this week, a Top Ten List of things I want this Christmas.

Dear Santa,

I know you're probably slammed this Christmas, what with the rising costs of Chinese labor due to an emerging middle class, and you may not have time to address the items on my list. (Though you may consider helping to bring back American manufacturing jobs by sending some of that work here - we sure could use it.)

Anyway, I can already sense that this Christmas's offerings are going to be pretty poorly constructed if the trailers for that new Hugh Grant/Sarah Jessica Parker movie are any indication, we're in for some pretty shoddy merchandise this Christmas.  Nevertheless, the annual "Letter to Santa" is a tradition, so I'm telling you what I'd like this holiday season:

10.  Please return Heather Locklear's marginal acting ability.  She's never been able to do much other than convincingly play a bitch, but apparently her visit to Meg Ryan's Plastic Surgeon robbed her of even that talent.  If Michael Richards can pull off Kramer again, then Heather should be able to do Amanda Woodward without making me cringe.

9.  Please explain why there is a new Boyz II Men album?  Please also explain why they are not called Men II Grandpa at this point?  They're middle-aged!

8.  Sales of consumer electronics are up, but men's apparel is down.  I can only imagine this is why we're burdened with the tragic

7.  If people are going to send me food towers from Harry and David, can you ask them to avoid including those ginormous mushy pears?

6.  Lucky Charms.  More Lucky Charms.

5.  No more housewives.  No more real housewives.  No more people who want to be real housewives and end up chewing up four news cycles with something that IS NOT NEWS.  No fake housewives.  The only kind of housewives I will accept are Desperate Housewives, and then only if Dana Delany successfully offs herself.  Her character has gotten boring and the storyline is wasting her talent.

4.  Can we please avoid that fake "War on Christmas" that seems to bubble up every year at just about this time?  You know, where Republicans accuse Democrats of being anti-Christian because they say things like Happy Holidays.  We're still at war in two places that 99% of American high school students can't find on a map (the remaining 1% being the illegal immigrants Lou Dobbs is always so riled up about.)  Every one is broke and unemployed or worried about being either, or both, except the bankers, who are crooks.  And people working for our socialist Big Government which also somehow manages to be in the pocket of Big Business.  And despite the fact that this totally makes no sense, I - a reasonably intelligent person - am actually seeing the merit in it.  What was my point?  Oh yeah - War on Christmas.  We don't need a third war - grow up and shut up.

3.  Speaking of Christmas, can we just let everyone have Christmas.  I'm so tired of getting flack for celebrating Christmas with the energy and fervor of a North Pole Elf simply because I'm Jewish.  So was Jesus, and since this holiday celebrates his birth, a time when he was certainly a Jew, we should get the holiday, too.  Plus, the guy created a whole religion and got millions of people to follow him, and it's lasted two thousand years.  What Jewish mother wouldn't brag about that?  But no, my mother gives me flack for celebrating Christmas.  I'd rather be unfavorably compared to Jesus than some Orthopedist whose mother plays canasta with mine.

Can we just agree: Christmas = Cool holiday with tree and presents; Chanukah = lame depressing holiday about arson celebrated with brown food and low-tech "top."  Also, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas is still more upbeat than "Oh! Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay."

And if we're attacking Kwanzaa here, too, can I just say it stole the pageantry from Christmas and the length of Chanukah to create an utterly new fake holiday.  You can't just make up a holiday!  Otherwise I'd take the month-long Ramadan and Christmas candy and create a holiday called Chramadan where I can spend the whole month of December eating chocolate.  Oh, wait - I do.

2.  I'm still waiting for my own show...

1. ...and those calorie-free French Fries I've been writing about for three decades.  Whenever you're ready.



Well, that made me feel better.  And now - here's a gift for you, my dear readers.  Every posting this month will include one of my favorite holiday recipes.  You may not know this, but every December, sometime around the 20th, I enter a fugue state and bake 10-14 varieties of Christmas cookies.

Today's recipe is a holiday favorite: Gingerbread People.  So easy, low in fat, and fun to make with kids.

Whisk together:

3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon ground ginger
1 3/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Set aside.

Mix at medium speed until well-blended:

6 Tablespoons unsalted butter (3/4 stick), softened
3/4 cup dark brown sugar (packed)
1 large egg

Add to egg mixture:

1/2 cup molasses
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Gradually add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients until well-blended and smooth.  Divide the dough in half, wrap in plastic, and let sit at room temperature (room temperature is NOT the temperature in your kitchen - especially if you live in an apartment, if the oven has recently been on; the room will be too hot.)  The dough should sit for at least 2 hours and as long as 8 hours (it can also be stored in the refrigerator for up to four days.)

When ready to bake, preheat over to 375.  Grease cookie sheets.  Place one portion of the dough on a lightly floured board.  Roll to 1/4 inch thick, flouring the rolling pin and board as necessary.  Cut the cookies using 5-inch tall gingerbread boy or girl cutter.  Transfer to cookie sheets with a spatula, spacing them about an inch and a half apart.  Bake 7 to 10 minutes until the edges just barely darken.

Decorate with piped icing.

Bite their little heads off.