Thursday, December 30, 2010

My opinions, such as they are

I've noticed the comments dropping off on my blog a bit, which I feel I can probably attribute to the holiday season and people generally having more exciting things to do than read this blog. Eating large amounts of food, for example. Or performing in Nativity pageants. Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder if it's not also a product of what I'm putting out there. After all, what is there really to comment on about snow? Perhaps my many readers are actually still out there reading, but just aren't getting enough to work with. (For the record, I truly appreciate all of you who've told me you read and just aren't big commenters. I don't need comments to feel I have a successful blog, I'm just trying to keep things interesting.)

Anyway, in light of this revelation, I'm devoting this post to shaking things up a bit with some controversial views on hot button topics. Actually, scratch that; I don't really want to tackle hot button topics at all. I will, however, try to take positions that I find controversial in that they go against conventional opinion. Such as: hating puppies, although I do not, in fact, hate puppies. I've already mentioned my distaste for mashed potatoes which I've found people consider as going against all that is tasty and good in the world. I've also mentioned my stubborn antipathy for James Franco, although I'm hoping this film's release will help cure people of their "James Franco can do no wrong" type sentiments. Today, I have two more for you:

1) Automatic windows in cars
I can only assume everybody likes these because I don't think they even put the manual window roll-up devices on cars anymore. But I can't help but wonder if they have been ubiquitously embraced without questioning the consequences. Now, I'm as lazy as the next person, and I too can appreciate the arm muscle saved (I mean, come on, if I wanted to use muscles willy nilly like that, I could have just walked wherever I was going and skipped the car all together, am I right?). No, my issue is not with the laziness factor; it's with the fact that you have to have the car on to operate the windows. How many times have you been waiting in a car while the driver ran in to get something and thought how stuffy it was with the windows up? Without the keys, your only option is to open the door. Okay, so that one has an easy fix. But what if you're trying to roll the windows up quickly because a serial killer/rabid dog/swarm of locusts is lunging for the open window--and the keys have fallen somewhere under the seat. I think it's important to prepare your life as if it could become a horror movie at any moment.

Luckily this woman either had her keys or had the archaic manual windows. Otherwise, she would be getting rained on, thanks to modern technology.

Granted, I don't own a car, but this oversight might just be on my list (albeit not particularly high on the list) of reasons not to acquire one.

2) Bananas and bacon on pizza
Now this is something I like, that I can't figure out why it hasn't caught on with other people. When I suggest the combination (outside of South Africa where I was introduced to it), I'm met with a mix of surprise and pity. Bananas are excellent with salty things--peanut butter and banana sandwiches come to mind. Likewise fruit is good on pizza, or at the very least, people have become used to seeing pineapple on it without recoiling. Bananas hold their shape surprisingly well on a pizza, and, as anyone who's ever had a banana fritter knows, they are excellent warmed up. I could understand it not becoming a staple at Pizza Hut or anything, but I've seen far weirder things on pizzas (even at chain places). Lettuce? Carrots? Celery? Surely, these things have no more business on pizza than bananas do, and yet they're all available on signature California Pizza kitchen pizzas. A travesty.

Okay, I'll admit this doesn't look super appetizing, but there are so few pictures of banana and bacon pizzas to choose from. The fact that the internet doesn't even seem familiar with this makes me feel that much more alone in my opinions.

Not terribly controversial, but there you have it. I hope everyone has a happy end of 2010!

Monday, December 27, 2010

A white post-Christmas

I spent a lovely Christmas holiday in Texas with its warm weather and delicious Czech pastries. It was a particularly fancy and well-0rchestrated Christmas in which both the good silver and holly-embroidered napkins made appearances. My mother and I even briefly thought that it would be a good idea to make rolls from scratch (er, or with the help of my mother's bread machine). This seemed like a good idea when we gamely wheeled our cart past the inferior brown-and-serve rolls in the grocery store. Less so on Christmas morning when we realized it still takes about 3 hours to go from ingredients to completed rolls even with the help of the modern technology of rapid rise yeast and an Oster. Also, we think we may have made some errors in the dough making as what should have been soft, yet malleable, bread dough turned out as this:My mom insisted we capture this moment for posterity. Or perhaps as a cautionary tale.

At any rate, I'm now back in Astoria, although just barely, as I caught one of the last flights out on Sunday before a massive storm hit the east coast. Although I think the media dubbing the storm "Snowmagedon" or "Snowpocalpse" are over-stating the case a bit, we did get a solid 20'' of snow which they've yet to clear from all but the major avenues of Astoria. Yesterday, I just stayed inside, watching the blizzard and the unluckly few floundering through it. I also, naturally, took a few pictures. Behold! Astoria in Snow.

This was the friendlier snow that I was willing to go out in because I didn't have food in my apartment.

30th Ave this morning. Suddenly glad I don't own a car.

I was hoping the office would be closed this morning, but considering the owner of the company lives in walking distance, it was sadly not to be. Since I have no personal days left at work and live within 3 blocks of a train that was inexplicably running on time despite being an above-ground train, I really had no excuse to call out. I showed up at work and was one of 15 people (of a total of about 100) who did so. Those of us who showed up were treated to lunch and got to leave an hour and a half early (despite most of us showing up at least a half an hour late). I could get used to this snow business. Also, going into the city enabled me to take some lovely Manhattan-in-snow shots. Here I am walking down the middle of Broadway. Luckily there were no cars because the sidewalks were not yet shoveled.

A path forged through Madison Square Park.

The few. The proud. The true Shake Shack devotees. Heat lamps or no, I have no idea why these people are eating outside.

Things are supposed to return to business as normal tomorrow (sadly, likely no more free lunches). Also, the snow will all transform into brown slush and treacherous ice. That said, perhaps because I had so few of them in my youth, I'm quite the fan of snow days.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Eating my way through the lone star state

I'm currently at my parent's house enjoying the 77 degree holiday weather in Spring, Texas. (For the record, those readers looking to rob my apartment now that they know I am far away from Astoria should know it is locked up and watched by both a tenacious roommate and a fierce guard cat. Also, unless you want a 4-year old Sony Vaio on which the e key hasn't worked in months...well you should probably move to greener pastures.) One thing I'm enjoying about being back in my hometown (besides not being at work and being able to go jogging outside) is the food.

New York is a seeming food mecca that should have every type of cuisine known to man (and some fusions they just make up when those options get tiresome). But there are a few things that I find Texas has New York soundly beat on. The first is obviously Mexican food. You can get some excellent Mexican food in New York, I grant you, but you also end up paying for it. Cheap, good Mexican food is the norm here, such that those modifiers would be redundant. In New York, "cheap" Mexican involves "guacamole" that has clearly never seen an avocado and far more closely resembles pea soup. Also, inexplicably, cheese fries.

The second thing, despite all the trendy "Southern comfort" food places in the city, is chicken fried steak. You would think, and maybe this is being a Tex-pat talking, that slathering a plate-sized piece of steak or chicken in batter, deep-frying it, and slathering it in white gravy would be popular anywhere. Strangely, this isn't the case.

Finally, and this is really the most important: kolaches and donuts. Kolaches, for those readers who have never experienced these little pillows of heaven are rolls filled with sausage and cheese and any number of other delicious options. They're originally a Czech or Polish thing brought over to Texas and, I think, parts of the Midwest. There is a place by Grand Central called Kolache Mama that claims to sell these. Trust me, they do not.

They don't photograph super well, but, trust me, these taste better than the slightly-misshapen eggs they appear to be.

The other issue is donuts. New York is a bagel city and thus not terribly worried about the taste of their donuts. That said, relying on Dunkin' Donuts (or worse yet: deli and bodega donuts) for all your donut needs just isn't right. If you're ingesting half of your daily sugar in one meal, you might as well enjoy it. And as far as I'm concerned, with the possible exception of fresh Munchkins, these just aren't worth it.

At any rate, this will likely be my last post while I'm home, so I want to wish all my readers a happy, food-filled holiday wherever you are! I shall enjoy the precious edible regionalism while I'm here and be thankful I can run outside again.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Location, location, location

I began this blog over 7 months ago. A total of 231 days. The approximate gestation period of a hippopotamus. In that time, I've mentioned basically every day-trip (or weekend trip or longer vacation) I've taken, photographically documented much baking and currying, and developed a somewhat irrational and one-sided enmity for James Franco. In between these adventures, I have very half-halfheartedly tried to give my blog some local relevance by throwing in references to my beloved neighborhood, Astoria. It is either that or come up with a new blog name.

To that end, today I sifted through a little local news and found this article that piqued my interest. And yes, I realize the article is from September. At this point in time (and really until such time as I grow paranoid enough to get my own police scanner), I can promise only Astoria information, not up-to-the-minute headlines. But back to the article! My interest was piqued in part because I used to live about a block from those (formerly) high cost condos. It was my first real apartment (I choose not to count the 2 month sublet in a basement with no kitchen) in New York. When I lived there, back in 2008, they were just building those condos. I would observe the construction happening on what is a truly mammoth building and wonder why anyone, who had the money to invest in some chic condo, would want to live out there. I would trudge 15 minutes (I feel 20 is really journalistic hyperbole) through the snow and ice, past a White Castle and McDonalds as the scant dining options, and think "This just doesn't feel like fancy condo territory."

For those of you who didn't feel like reading the article (and, frankly, there's not much reason to), it explains that the cutting of the QM22 bus to Manhattan has had devasting consqueneces to this building project hoping to sell million dollar condos in no man's land. My first thought on reading this was: there was a bus to Manhattan there that only recently got cut? And secondly: how the hell didn't I know about this when I was trudging through the snow back in 2008?

As a side note for clarification: Don't get me wrong; I truly loved my first apartment in Astoria. I painted the living room walls a lovely, homey teal; I had what has turned out to be the largest bedroom I've yet occupied in New York; and I met a roommate who has become one of my closest friends in the city. That said, aside from the proximity to tiny burgers, the location is just terrible.

I also have one more piece of Astoria news! Check out the new website for this great (Astoria-residing) graphic designer. Keep him in mind for all your freelance design needs.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The land of steel and penguins

This weekend, I yet again left the warm embrace of Astoria to continue my as-of-yet-unmentioned pilgrimage to all the former steel capitals of the United States. My journey to Pittsburgh was 99% about seeing the sites of this industry marvel and 1% about visiting my dear friend B who is studying there. (Just kidding, B, and thanks for letting me sleep on your sofa bed!) Nevertheless, Pittsburgh surprised me with its, at times somewhat surreal, charm and its unparalleled obsession with its sports teams. Per my usual take on travel writing, I'll be letting photos do much of the work for me. After all, Pittsburgh is, in many ways, a city that needs to be seen to be truly appreciated.

On Friday night, shortly after arriving in the steel city, we visited the Phipps Conservatory which is open in the evening only on Friday nights. The botanical gardens were all decked out in a Christmas display that interestingly featured a great deal of snowman carnage. At one point, our group happened on Santa's chair, completely vacated of Santa. We did what any self respecting group of young adults would do and tried to see how many people we could fit in Santa's chair. We then made weird faces and asked some drunk woman to take a picture of us.

This is so my Christmas card next year.

Another favorite of mine from Phipps was an extensive miniature town with several trains running through it. I tried to take the obligatory picture of me as a giant trying to squash the tiny town, but because my timing was off, I just look like a regular-sized person who hates toy train tracks. Oh well, can't win them all.
Nothing about this picture does the tiny town justice. You'll just have to take my word for it. Or visit Pittsburgh.

The other highlight of the trip (aside from some excellent waffles) was a museum called the Mattress Factory that is apparently the best kept secret in Pittsburgh. You wouldn't think it was a secret given the copious signage advertising it, but all the bus drivers we asked about it looked as us like were crazy. Perhaps "mattress factory" has some other tawdry meaning to some, but all I got was confused or repulsed looks, rather than helpful directions. Nevertheless, it's a fine museum and definitely worth a visit. When we were there, they had an exhibit of Cuban art that was very interesting. The follow pictures are from that:
In hindsight, I feel pretty uncouth and insensitive smiling in front of what is clearly a heavy-handed political message.

This is just the sort of seedy thing the bus drivers of Pittsburgh were subtly trying to warn us about.

This, in a nutshell, is Pittsburgh.

Overall, it was a wonderful trip to one of the true American cities. A city where a sandwich with cole slaw and french fries on it is consistently described as the only local cuisine. Where you can get updates on the Steelers game on a loud speaker in the airport bathroom that has the same urgency as actual flight updates. A city where it is possible to have endless baskets of bacon with your happy hour. Frankly, I wouldn't be upset to call such a place home. Well except for the football-crazed thing. Either way, it was wonderful to see my friend again and to meet some new ones. And both thanks and apologies to all the over-worked grad students who helped make my weekend great!

Also, apropos of nothing, it's really cold in Pittsburgh!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Holiday rambling, punctuated by a few photos

Despite owning few Apple products (almost none of which I've actually purchased for myself), I seem to have an obsession with the utility of the iphone as a camera. Which is my roundabout way of saying that none of the below pictures are from an actual camera, despite my owning a fine one. The other night I had yet another incident of remembering to bring my camera (as a matter of fact, actually going back to get it), and yet neglecting to remember the all important memory card. So as both I and my camera have issues with memory, I turn to the all important iphone camera for some shots of the city at Christmas. There are only a couple of pictures actually. I hope I haven't over-sold any of this.

I'm not sure you can really see what's going on here. The detail of a Bergdorf Goodman's window is difficult to capture even with the technological advances of Apple in the palm of your hand. I always enjoy the 5th Ave Christmas hoopla, which sadly goes hand in hand with the 5th Ave Christmas crowds (different from normal 5th Ave crowding in that each person's girth is widened by shopping bags which they use as weapons against anyone--be it small child or Salvation Army bell ringer--who dares keeps them from the entrance to the Nine West Outlet) . But this year the windows of Bergdorfs were particularly stunning. I find it hard to believe that anything actually in their store, for all that its worth, could be as intricate or as amazing as the displays. However, I'll never know because I try to avoid actually going into stores when I know I can't afford anything in them. It helps keep me content with my class.

Normally, I try to not post semi-unflattering pictures of me looking both cold and irresponsible for not wearing a hat. But obviously I had to post this one, as there is an iconic holiday emblem to my left. Or I guess to my right. But at the left of the photograph. As you can see by the large mass of people behind me, I'm not the only one who knows about it.

This one probably won't make much sense to all but a couple of my readers. It's actually more of a preview of things to come (as in, I will soon make a post with a series of pictures of me at landmarks around the city with a tiger puppet on my hand, for reasons to be explained later). Suffice is to say, FAO Shwartz is one more enjoyable part of the holiday season in New York. Fans of the movie Big can see some real live piano dancing every hour on the big piano. If you've ever visited me between the months of November and March, I've probably made you do this. At any rate, the above arc is for purchase with two of every stuffed animal possible for the very reasonable price of just over $2,ooo. Some slightly spoiled, Biblically-minded kid's Christmas just got better. Not included in the price is the tiger puppet in the foreground. That came from a dollar store in Conway, Arkansas.

Sorry this post is so scattered. By way of apology, I'll leave you with my favorite photo taken on an iphone this week. This little gem was captured by my roommate:

Dinah acts so put upon by my absences, but I think she does all right for herself when I'm not there.

Monday, December 6, 2010

What to get for the person who has everything and likes soap

This year I started my holiday shopping early (before Thanksgiving even) and thus lulled myself into a false sense of security. Now it's nearly Pearl Harbor Day, and I'm still missing gifts for some of the important people in my life. In addition to getting gifts for the aforementioned loved ones, I also need to get one for my office holiday party which has the added disadvantages of requiring a strict price limit, being for someone I don't know well (though who doesn't want a Starbucks giftcard, right?), and being a full week and a half before Christmas.

I've been looking for gift ideas online because it's a scary world out there right now in actual stores. Also, going to real-world stores with their finite inventories would require me to actually have a general idea of what I wanted to buy. Unfortunately, even online I haven't found anything that exactly suits my recipients (at least the ones I don't already have gifts for). But, rather than have all that time go to waste (alongside most minutes I spend online), I'm posting the gift ideas here for the first ever Living the Astorian Dream holiday gift guide! Just a note, I realize this post is unluckily placed directly above a post railing against the blind consumerism that brings us useless products, because as you will see many of the gifts I'm about to mention are themselves somewhat useless. The only defense I have for this hypocrisy is that it's totally acceptable to buy these useless things as long as they're cute and you're giving them to other people. Ahem.
To redeem myself, the first place I recommend is Mxplyzyk (the weird name is some kind of Superman reference) is a Greenwich Village based giftshop and almost all of what they sell is both cute AND useful. From cute bath stoppers ( to fetching salt and pepper shakers (, this place makes for some great semi-utilitarian gifts. I'm also a big fan of the cute measuring cups above!

What could be more useless than a goldfish in a bag that will inevitably develop fin rot or whatever mysterious ailment kills all carnival prize goldfish? Actually, probably just keeping them in a small quantity of water in a plastic bag for an extended period of time likely does them in, but I digress. No matter, the above is far more useful because it's, in fact, a tangerine grapefruit soap available from Vat19 ( Vat19 is an online gift and gadget site best known for selling the world's largest gummy bear (a disgusting looking confection that is apparently equal to 1,400 regular gummy bears). They have some interesting gift items up for sale and even have them organized by potential recipient from "inner child" to "person who has everything."
I think umbrellas are the perfect gift for anyone because you're constantly losing them and needing them replaced. Then again, I also have decided people shouldn't give me cute umbrellas because I've lost too many of them and clearly don't deserve nice things. But surely you know someone who can handle the responsibility of remembering to pick up their umbrella off the floor of the bar/train/Dunkin' Donuts even after it has stopped raining. If so, there are some cute umbrellas (even a goldfish one) at modcloth: The independent, self-proclaimed "mod-retro" online clothing shop also has some great accessories, and I've bought a couple of dresses from them in the past as well.

So yes, from the people who measure things to the people who use soap (and want to smell like tangerine after doing so) to the people who don't like to get wet--this should cover absolutely everyone on your shopping list. And while no one frankly needs their soap to be plastic-fish-filled or their measuring cups to be babushakas, well, isn't this what gift giving is all about?

One more thing: per my semi-monthly attempts to give this blog some actual local relevance, your Astoria tidbit of the season is that there is currently a holiday craft fair going on at the beer garden in Astoria. They have raffles on the weekends (still waiting for that call about the green vase) and you can buy eggnog while you shop for gifts made by local artisans. It's pretty small (this is the first year), but I went a couple of weekends ago and they do have some really nice jewelry and small art pieces. Also cakes balls on a stick.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The sky's the limit

I've spent a lot of time on airplanes lately, although really I shouldn't say that yet as I still have another four flights this month to undergo. Whenever you fly out of JFK your flight is inevitably delayed for an hour or so after you're already on the plane. As discomforting as it is to hear, once you're strapped in with your tiny allotment of leg room, that you're now 50th in line for take-off, it does give you more time to do one thing: peruse the Skymall catalog. For some reason, this is something I only do while the plane is on the ground. I guess it's because I find it difficult to read during the actual take off, and I don't want to get too involved in a book. Coming back from Texas this weekend though, I ended up getting through the entire catalog because we were an hour on the ground due to a "mechanical error" that turned out to be the toilet in the back lavatory not flushing.

The Skymall catalog is just brimming with innovative products whose sole market seems to be people whose mental acuity is compromised by breathing recycled oxygen in a pressurized airplane cabin. From the standpoint of an inventor, it seems that you would think of a need that requires filling, create a product to fill it, and then sit back and wait for capitalism to do the rest. The problem with so many of the products in Skymall is that I can't figure out what need they're hoping to satisfy.

Exhibit A: The Marshmallow Shooter
According to Skymall: "This clever pump-action device shoots sweet, edible miniature marshmallows over 30', and--unlike other marshmallow blasters--it comes with an LED sight that projects a safe beam of red light to help locate a target for accuracy." Which leads me to two questions: 1) There are other marshmallow blasters? and 2) They don't have LED sighting?? If that's the case, I doubt I'd have much accuracy at all projecting marshmallows up to 30 feet. And then what would be the point.

Exhibit B: Electronic Feng Shui Compass
Let's assume for a minute that you are someone who cares passionately about the ancient Chinese system of aesthetics known as Feng Shui. Are you seriously going to put the state of your positive chi in the hands of a little machine that can't possibly comprehend your goals and intentions? I don't think anything truly spiritual comes with a USB charger attachment.

Exhibit C (my personal favorite): The Litter KwitterIf this really works, Skymall really should stop marketing their (literally) 20 different options for fancy litter boxes with computers in them so that you can own a cat and never actually shovel its feces. They also have litter boxes that double as end tables and cost far more than my entire IKEA living room set.

Apologies to any readers who own and love these products. Actually, if you do for some reason own one, I'd be very curious to know if it works. Can you really shoot a marshmallow up to 30 feet? And do you find it's more satisfying then just throwing one? Do you now have to get in line behind your cat at the bathroom? Has your bedroom never felt more spiritually balanced? Inquiring minds (well at least one) want to know.

Monday, November 29, 2010

I'm thankful for stories with endings

Amazingly, the month of November is already coming to a close. This means we will soon be back to our regularly scheduled programming here at Living the Astorian Dream. Which, as you've probably figured out by now, is not really that different. Mostly I'll just feel obligated to write a little more, resort to recipes a little less, and consider proofreading before publishing.

I wish I could say that my time this November was fruitfully spent. However, the only fruit really born from this experiment were shorter hair (theoretically haircut time was one of many times my nose should have been in closer proximity to a grindstone) and the discovery of my henceforth untapped skill for making sublimely creepy Christmas cards. That said, while I'm not finished, I can say: my word count did go up, and I'm determined that before month's end my book will have an ending. So yes, at the very least my book will have a beginning and an end. Now it's just a matter of filling in a few gaps (if you're feeling charitable, you can imagine them as small gaps), and my draft will be complete.

One thing that stood between and my writing this past week (not that I'm making excuses), was that I was far too busy stuffing my face with Thanksgiving goodness. Impaired by mass amounts of turkey and wine, I wasn't equal to writing so much as haiku. (For the record, I'm not intending to belittle the labors of true haiku poets...just that the type of haiku I write could generally be generated in a semi-conscious state.) I don't have much else to say about Thanksgiving, except that it was lovely to see my family and to eat the delicious offerings they provided. It was also fun to eat some proper BBQ and briefly attend (though not participate in) a square dance. Below find two photographs that I feel succinctly sum up the event:

What a beaut'. Behold 21 pounds of free range deliciousness.

Did I journey to Japan? Or is this just one of the culturally varied parts of Fort Worth, Texas? It's surprisingly hard to tell sometimes. Also, I'm posting this because I'm weirdly proud of this picture. Notice the delicate balance of shadow play. That just happened.

Finally, I'd like to take this time to give a shout-out to my talented mother, a loyal reader and commenter of this blog, who has already completed her 50,000 words for the month. Congratulations, frenchteacher! You are proof that it can be done. And done despite turkey-and-wine-impairment to boot.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Recipe for a tuberlar Thanksgiving

Last weekend, I went to see a friend do a cooking demo at the farmer's market in Union Square. Said friend is in culinary school, and it was a class assignment to demonstrate how to cook something using locally grown, seasonal vegetables from the market.

I think the recipe they made--braised fennel and potatoes--would make an excellent contribution to a Thanksgiving feast. I know most people are Thanksgiving tradition purists and have a long settled menu that doesn't abide changes or substitutions. That said, for those Thanksgiving mavericks, this particular recipe would be an excellent stand in for the traditional mashed potatoes. (This is easy for me to say, because mashed potatoes are something my Thanksgiving dinner could do perfectly well without. I know this likely makes me a Communist, but I hate mashed potatoes. It's a texture issue. For whatever paranoid reason, I feel like they're choking me).

My friend displaying his well-honed knife skills. Turns out, I've been cutting things inefficiently all my life.

After trying the little sample cup allotted to me at the farmer's market, I had to buy all the ingredients and make my own skillet full at home:

Potatoes don't photograph super well, I've decided. I'm willing to forgive them that, though only when they're braised in cream.

Here's the recipe (courtesy of the National Gourmet Institute) if you want to make it a part of your Thanksgiving. Or any fall meal really.

Braised Fennel and Potatoes

1 large fennel bulb (with fronds intact)
3 T butter
1 large onion, cut into 1/4 inch saute slices
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 lb potatoes (I used fingerlings, but any will do)
1/2 c water
1/4-1/3 c heavy cream

Remove fennel fronds from fennel bulb. Chop enough fennel fronds to measure about 2 T, and set aside.

Quarter fennel bulb lengthwise and core, then cut into 1/4 inch slices.

In large saute pan heat butter over low heat. Add fennel, onion, salt, and pepper. Cover pan, stirring occasionally until onion is softened (about 5 minutes).

Add potatoes to pan and cook over low heat, uncovered, stirring frequently for about 3 minutes. Add water and simmer covered until potatoes are tender and water has evaporated (about 10 minutes).

Add cream to dish. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with fennel fronds and serve.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I can take a hint

During short post month (er, I mean National Novel Writing Month...because I swear I'm still doing that), I always enjoy it when posts can just write themselves. Or rather I enjoy throwing other people's writing up on here that they may entertain you with their fine words. Today's contributions come not from my 826 kids (whose work I've had no compunctions about pirating in the past) but from some contest-winning writers. That's right--they finally announced the winners of the Hint Fiction Writing Contest of many posts ago. Here they are without further ado (by which I mean: effort on my part):

First Place:

Cabin Fever
by Sean Johnston (Sachse, TX)

Cindy had agreed to the electric fence, the deadbolts, the new alarm system—true—but she had assumed his intentions were to keep people out.


Inheritance Money,
by Tami Absi (Dayton, OH)

To fish his apartment key from his pocket, Gunther placed his pink slip, the Detroit Daily’s obituary section, and the flowers on the floor.

by Matt Mintz (Fontana, CA)

The pastor's daughter made me meet her in the church basement. There was no light but she told me where to duck.

Swimming Lessons
by Vicki Wilson (Clinton, NY)

Her husband told the coroner she'd only signed up for the damned class because some crazy fortuneteller told her she'd die from drowning.

The Mirror
by Colleen Leeman (Brooklyn, NY)

She held the old, straggly feather boa up against her business suit. She apologized to the picture of her with pigtails on the dusty table.

How Does Your Garden Grow
by Katheryn Yu (Dripping Springs, TX)

One morning Annie found a hand under a the rosebush where she had never left one before.

Although I was sad to see none of my readers' wonderful entries made it (unless...Sean of Sachse..are you out there?), I must say I very much enjoyed the winning entries. Particularly the swimming one, but then I do have a soft spot for fatalism in short fiction.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Squashed mac and cheese

Another short post up ahead. I've been getting some requests for the mac and cheese recipe I alluded to in my previous short post. And I can completely understand why: I've always been a fan of hiding vegetables inside junk food. It makes you (or the very least me) feel less guilty to be gorging on mac and cheese when you've squashed some dietary fiber and potassium in there. Also, it's nearly impossible to avoid squash at the farmer's market right now. A friend sent me this recipe, but I'm transcribing it below with my changes. Mostly I just left out things I didn't have at the time. And I didn't use whole wheat pasta because really isn't the squash healthy enough?

Squashed Mac

500 g organic macaroni or other pasta (I used shells)

One small onion diced

¼ cup butter, softened

3 Tablespoons flour

3 cups organic whole milk

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 1/3 cups butternut squash puree (about one squash peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces--simmered with water for 10 minutes, drained, and mashed)

2 cups grated cheese (I used a combination of extra sharp cheddar, Parmesan, and Jarlsberg--I think as long as you have some sort of Swiss in there, it'll be delicious)

Salt & pepper to taste


1/3 cup Panko or plain breadcrumbs (I used the latter)

1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated, not powdered

2 Tablespoons unsweetened coconut, shredded (I was a little concerned about the coconut, but it turned out great!)


Boil the pasta according to package directions, taking it out a minute or two early so that's it's slightly al dente. Drain and set aside.

For the sauce:

In the same pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion, stir to coat and cook gently for about five minutes.

Sprinkle flour over the onions and stir well. Slowly add milk, whisking well. Cook for a few minutes, stirring often until mixture thickens slightly.

Add squash puree and mix well. Add cheese, a few handfuls at a time, stirring continually. Once all the cheese has been added and melted, stir in Dijon, and season sauce with salt and pepper. Set aside.

For the topping:

Combine bread crumbs, Parmesan and breadcrumbs in a bowl. Set aside.

To assemble:

Combine cheese sauce and cooked egg noodles together until noodles are well coated. Put mixture into a large casserole dish.

Top with bread crumb topping. Bake at 375F for about 20 minutes or until bubbly around the edges. Serve and enjoy your delicious (slightly healthier) mac and cheese!

Also, here's another cheesy, starchy vegetable (or fungus, I guess) recipe. I made this deliciousness last night. I'm not going to transcribe this one because I actually followed the recipe perfectly. Those who remember me from my Vegetables Are Friends days will know that I was not always so big a fan of mushrooms, but put enough cheese in something and you can make it taste good. A good lesson for us all.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Shutting up and reminissing about leaves

I'm still working on writing so this will be a (nearly) wordless post. The cold has finally hit New York and with it has come the darkness. Or maybe that's more the fault of daylight savings time. Anyway, all I know is that when I leave work it's dark now. To compensate, I'm posting some pictures of Fall taken within the last few weeks when we still had nice things like daylight in the evening and warm days to enjoy the park.

Note the color in the leaves and the fact that you can still see Central Park because of the magic of sunlight.

It's just like When Harry Met Sally, except slightly more dead.

Now that's a proper Central Park Fall tree.

The always lovely Bethesda Fountain, bathed in (albeit somewhat waning) evening light.

Sorry this last one's a little blurry. I was trying to be stealthy, although I'm not sure why because really you probably wouldn't dress your dachshund as a hot dog if you didn't want people to photograph the little frankfurter.

Remind me to tell you later about the live chicken living on the 5th floor of my office building (in accounts payable) last week, the excellent production of Carmen I just saw, and the recipe for mac and cheese with butternut squash in it that recently changed my life. But for now, back to the writing! I promise you I'm making progress. The word count hasn't increased that much, but the IDEAS are there.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

I bet James Franco doesn't have 30,000 words

It's November, and I've decided to buckle down. Lay my cards on the table. Burn the candle at both ends with some midnight oil. In other words, I'm going to get more serious about writing my young adult novel, henceforth to be known as Project: Defeat James Franco. For you see, November is National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, as the kids call it) during which participants are supposed to start and finish a novel in 30 days. I say I'm "sort of" participating because I'm not signed up, and I'm technically not attempting to write 50,000 words from scratch during the month of November. That said, I AM trying to finish my novel, even if I started it many Novembers ago. For those interested, November is also apparently Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, International Drum Month, and Pomegranate Month (but only in the United States). I only wish I had the time to participate in those as well.

Unfortunately, this means that I'll probably be posting here a little less. Or at the very least my posts will be shorter. After all, I've got to save the good writing for the werebears. I know this will be taxing for my more loyal readers (although I've been very excited to hear that many of my most loyal readers are doing NaNoWriMo themselves!). But just think: when my young adult novel takes off and becomes a smash sensation, you can say you read my juvenalia from the time when it was just blog entries. Perhaps they'll even publish these very posts, with a few edits of course, into an (albeit plotless) epistolary novel of sorts. Ah yes, imagine that.

Anyway, I promise not to forget about Astorian Dream and to check in and update as much as I can (or when I'm trying to avoid real writing...).

And finally, and this is completely unrelated to the above: remember that pumpkin contest for Zipcar? Well, my (boyfriend's) entry won an "honorable mention" prize of $15 in driving credit! I'm still not sure if the entry really was honorably mentioned or if it was more of a participation prize they gave to everyone, but I also don't really care. We'll take the $15, and they can keep their accolades! Although, I do think he should add this honor to his resume.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Michael Jackson-ing up 6th avenue

Last week I promised you an update on the Village Halloween parade and my not entirely pivotal part in it. The parade itself was a lot of fun, and definitely better than my previous attempts to try to watch it without participating. The only downside with dancing in the parade was that this was the week autumn weather finally came to New York. Last Wednesday it was an unseasonable 70 degrees, but come parade day it was more like 40. I figured that wouldn't be a problem because dancing would keep us warm. What I didn't take into account apparently was the 3 or so hours before the parade began that we would be standing on a very cold and windy Broome Street.

My group was performing two separate dances, both in tribute to talented pop icon Michael Jackson. The first was the dance to the "Beat It" video, complete with the fight scene that our fake Michael restores peace to. The second is the lesser known, and much more difficult, The Drill. I haven't found a video of us doing it online yet, but this is pretty much what we looked like, if a little less like Phillipine convicts. Also, there were less of us. Per the usual, I can't upload anything, but here's a link to the reasonable facsimile:

Our costumes were more suited for the Beat It part of the exhibition. We were divided into two rival gangs: those in leather and chains and those in torn jeans and bright colors. Naturally, I opted for Team Bright Colors because leather is expensive, and I already own torn jeans. Here I am looking as punk as is possible after just buying most of my outfit at H&M:
80s gang member or middle class poseur--you be the judge.

And here I am with a few members of my posse. In this one you can see that I put some red hair dye in my hair to add some more bright colors. It's a little more permanent than I thought, so I may be strawberry blond for a few days:

What a bunch of bad asses, am I right?

Now the moment you've all been waiting for: video footage of my first successful dance parade experience. As you can see, the videographers were slightly more interested in our awesome Michael Jackson impersonator, but you can totally see me trying to be thug in the background (the giant number 2 on my shirt does help). Here's the link:

Also, and this is totally unrelated to the dancing aspect of the parade, but who would have guessed that Chilean miner would have been the 'it' costume of 2010?

Hope you all had a Happy Halloween as well!

Update: Someone posted a video the us doing The Drill. You can't really see me, but trust me, I'm back there somewhere try to keep up:

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hey, hey, hey. WHAT is going ON here?!

As a child of the 90s, many of my formative years were spent watching re-runs of Saved by the Bell after school and on Saturday mornings. The outlandish characters fulfilling their high school stereotypes, the groan-worthy lines, the high energy laugh track, and Zack's constant breaking of the 4th wall all succeeded in keeping me watching the madcap adventures of the Bayside crew. The events that transpired each episode were never super surprising, so watching them over and over again was as reasonable as watching them the first time. Ten years ago, I had seen every episode (including the College Years and the Wedding in Vegas special, of course) and would have, for better or worse, considered myself very knowledgeable on all things Saved by the Bell. Last night, it was proved to me that 1) you forget a lot in ten years, and 2) there are people out there far dorkier than I.

A week or so ago, a friend at work asked if I wanted to be on her Saved by the Bell trivia team. She saw in me a kindred spirit who would be the appropriate completion to her team of Bayside afficiandos mostly composed of members of her bowling team. Naturally, I said yes, although with some trepidation after her team added me to a group email list and kept sending questions like "What was the name of the photographer who wanted to take Kelly to Paris on a modeling contract?"

Flash forward to last night: we'd breezed through (well...sort of) the preliminary rounds and were in the finals. The finals were held at the Upper East Side Big Daddy's which is a retro diner standing as a tribute to 70s and 80s pop culture. Also, good milkshakes. For the finals, we were requested to dress like our favorite Saved by the Bell characters. In my case, I chose to dress not as my favorite character, but as the character I thought I could best pull off with things I already owned. Interestingly, that ended up being Violet Bickerstaff, Screech's girlfriend played by Tori Spelling. Here she is with her boyfriend who lovingly calls her "my heart":

I'm not sure why she looks so sour here. Maybe its her hatred of basset hound heads. Or the fact that she's dating Screech.

And here's my approximation using only materials I had on hand (the dress is actually from my Halloween costume last year). Luckily the friend who recruited me went as Screech:Someone said I looked "better than Tori Spelling," which out of context I would find to be a compliment of dubious worth.

Here's the rest of my trivia team done up in their Bayside best:
That's Kelly in the foreground, two waitresses from The Max, and Bayside's finest wrestler A.C. Slater up top.

Sadly, we didn't win any of the fabulous prizes (mostly restaurant and bar parties), but it was a lot of fun! For those readers looking to test their Saved by the Bell trivia knowledge, here were some of the questions from the night (or at least the ones I remember):

During the Wedding in Vegas, what member of the crew opposes Zack and Kelly's marriage?

Who does Screech set Kelly up with when Zack says he wants to see other people?

When Screech's mom goes out of town to visit Graceland, she gives Screech a list of rules. What number on the list is the rule "no girls!"? (For the record, I can't believe people got this one.)

That's about all that I remember. Feel free to shout 'em out if you know 'em. On another note, I hope all my readers have a happy Halloween! I'll be dancing in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade--so, given my experiences at previous dance parades, this should be excellent blog fodder.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Not your grandmother's Holocaust novel: A review

Way back in this blog's infancy (for those unfamiliar with the developmental stages of my blog: as reference I'll offer that at 6 months I've decided my blog has reached its adolescence), I wrote a book review and promised to keep my reader's abreast of books I found to be of particular note. Then none of the books I've read in the last few months really felt worthy of reviewing. Either I didn't enjoy them that much, enjoyed them but didn't think I could really recommend them to others, or they were so mainstream that anyone who hadn't read them probably had done so intentionally and with difficulty.

Much of my reading for the better part of the last year has been shaped by a book club I attend monthly at Idlewild Books ( If you're ever in New York, this is a delightful independent bookstore that's worthy of a visit. And I'm not just saying that because the owner plies me with wine, pita chips, and lively discussion once a month. I've had mixed reviews of some of the books since I've joined the club, but they've all shared the link in common that they're books I would not have picked up and read on my own. However, this month's book was the first one I truly enjoyed. Or rather "was incredibly impressed by", as "enjoyed" is probably not the right word when describing a book that depicts such a horrifying version of humanity.

At any rate, the book is called Brodeck, or in some translations Brodeck's Report, and is one of the few novels by the French director and screenwriter Phillipe Claudel that have been translated into English. Claudel is apparently best known for his film I've Loved You So Long starring Kristin Scott Thomas. Although I haven't seen the movie, judging by IMDB synopsis, its looks to be about the same level of bleakness of subject matter. Full disclosure: for readers not looking for a rather dark read, this is probably not the book for you. It's set in an unnamed European village, and while the time and place are never really specified, it makes enough oblique references (and some rather direct ones) to clearly point to the Holocaust.

The novel is told in first person and in a very non-linear fashion. Brodeck, a villager who seems to skirt the outside of village society, is charged with writing an official report to absolve the other villagers of the murder of an outsider. In the process of writing the report, he confronts his own guilt and his experiences while a prisoner at a concentration camp. Because the time, while fairly obvious, is never specifically mentioned, it gives the novel and its atrocities an air of universality. During the discussion we would try to avoid destroying the illusion by referring to things as "quasi-Nazis" or "concentration camp-esque." The book at times reads like a parable, but also has elements of Garcia Marquez type magical realism and even fairy tales. There are many episodes where animals are used to make a point, although seldom are these stories or vignettes ever resolved or reconciled with the rest of the story. I'm not sure the last sentence makes it clear that I consider that a positive thing, but believe me, I do. The book is very complex and thoughtfully composed; even ends that are left loose are done with intention.

Overall, I recommend this book highly. Also, I promise to read more quality books (maybe even some happier ones) in the future. That way, I'll have something to recommend to you before my blog reaches its dotage.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Some nation's capitol

This weekend I left the warm embrace of Astoria to take a 4 and a half hour bus ride to our nation's capitol. Or rather my nation's capitol, as I don't presume to know the nationalities of all of my esteemed readers. At any rate, there was a database conference in D.C. this weekend. Normally, the frequent occurrence of database conferences affects me not at all; however, my California-based sister was attending this particular database conference, and I used this rare chance that she was on the same coast to journey down to see her. She was kind enough to let me and a mutual friend of ours crash at her hotel (the large, many-windowed Gaylord National) with she and her boss. In fact, she even gave up her bed to us and slept in a nest of towels and pillows on the floor. I realize this makes me sound like the kind of person who is too cheap to spring for her own hotel room and will dislodge the person who's name is actually on the reservation from her own hotel bed. In my defense, she offered. Even after I lost the coin toss.

You'd think a place this swanky could handle a simple request for a roll-away bed. And also wouldn't respond to a request for extra pillows with the delivery of a half dozen towels.

It was on the first night that I realized that while I'd scrupulously remembered to pack my camera, I had yet again forgotten to pack my memory card. That's right, the above picture was in fact taken by the good people in marketing at the Gaylord National. So sadly, there will be only one picture from this trip, that was captured with the usual grainy realism on my cell phone. (And frankly, I probably could have gotten a better picture online). Before I unveil that gem though, here's a list of pictures you will not be seeing: my sister pantomiming swinging a baseball bat because there was a fake home plate in the sports bar of the hotel, the giant plate of nachos at said sports bar, the lovely walk across the bridge to Georgetown, an environmental conscience-less squirrel trashcan diving and then littering its findings in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a potential duck brawl on the reflecting pool, a sign with a very odd spelling of "teepee" (is it just me or should it not be "tipi"?) in front of the Museum of the American Indian (which, and this is neither here nor there, I hear from multiple sources, has the best museum cafeteria on the Mall), a close-up of a "signature martini" from Vapianos that is garnished with five gummy bears, some beautiful orchids at the Botanical Gardens, and a close-up of my uncle's cat.

Okay, enough of that talk of what might have been. Here's the picture I did get:

Pretty nice, huh? Something about the statue just makes me want to climb up on his presidential knee and tell him all my troubles. Naturally, there is a small chain and a tall marble pedestal to keep you from doing just that.

So this post is extremely scattered and really tells you nothing about my trip to DC. Suffice is to say, I had a perfectly lovely (albeit far too short) trip, and it was wonderful to see my sister, my friend Michelle (a D.C. local who knows all the best places to get a gummy bear martini), my aspiring lawyer friend Aaron, and my uncle and aunt. Thanks to all those who gave me beds this weekend and especially to those who gave me their only non-floor-nest bed.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

That's the name of the game

Normally, this blog exists as a forum for me solely to amuse myself (and theoretically others) with thoughts on my weekends and cat. However, every so often I do seek to inform and enlighten. Don't worry, I'm not going to offer you my thoughts on the upcoming midterm elections; I may wear the hats of a book blogger or food blogger at times, but one thing I can promise to never become is a politics blogger. No, my blogger intentions are far more trifling than that. Today, for example I wish to sing the praises of a particular board game.

About a week ago, I impulse bought Liebrary from Barnes and Noble. (It's a sad fact that I always go into Barnes and Noble in Union Square just to kill time before meeting friends, and yet always come out buying something I likely don't need). The premise of the game is very similar to the game Balderdash. For those of my readers who, for whatever unfortunate reason, haven't played Balderdash (or the simpler Dictionary Game, from which it is derived), the rules are fairly simple. You are given a person, acronym, date, or word and have to come up with something plausible the person would have become famous for, what the acronym stands for, what famous event occured on the date, or the definition for the word respectively. Players then have to choose which they think is the correct answer (the correct answer is also given as one of the choices), and players get points both for choosing correctly and for having their answer chosen by others. Liebrary is the same concept except that it specifically deals with the first lines of books. Categories include: Classics, Romances, Sci-fi and Horror, Children's books, and General Fiction. Players are given the name, author and a basic plot and make up what they think the first line is (or at the very least: should be).

The game was co-designed by actress Darryl Hannah, for those who require a celebrity pedigree with their board games.

This weekend I made it a personal goal to invite friends to my apartment and get them just liquored up enough that they'd play this game with me. The first occasion happened organically and required very little effort on my part as my roommate happened to be inviting people over for vegan cassoulet (the perfect accompaniment to which is a get-together game encouraging full bodied, young red). However, while fun, this inaugural playing of the game was not enough to satisfy my lust for board games in general and writing silly first-liners specifically, so I invited several friends over for brunch the next day too. A few mimosas in, and we had another excellent game of Liebrary going.

Having played the game twice now, I feel qualified to blog about its merits. Full disclosure, I am something of a board game (and game in general) nut. I've been known to invite people for dinner with the express purpose of trying to coerce them into playing charades at some point in the night. I can be manipulative and perhaps a little too quick to refill the wine, but most of my friends know what to expect at this point. With that in mind, I fully recommend Liebrary to anyone looking for some good, clean, albeit somewhat nerdy, fun. Several friends expressed concern that they wouldn't be skilled at the game because they aren't avid readers, but it's really a moot point. Even though I'd read many of the classics in that category, and many of the children's books as well, I found by-and-large that the first line never sounded as familiar as I felt it should. Case in point, all my readers have probably read (or viewed) Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but who can immediately recall the first line? (To save you the trouble of googling it, the first line--disregarding the memorable prologue--is the none-too-memorable: "Gregory, o' my word, we'll not carry coals.")

The only downside to the game is the name. While clever (well, by board game name standards anyway) written out, when pronounced I realized I kept trying to say it differently then just simply saying "library," but there isn't really a way to distinguish it phonetically. For some reason, I kept saying the illogical "li-bary" which in addition to not matching the spelling of the name of the game at all, caused friends to question my literacy. Overall though, the clunkiness of inviting friends to "play Lie-brary, but see, there's an extra 'e' in it, so it's Lie-brary...Lie and then brary...get it?" is far outweighed by the simple joy of a night of creative game play.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Talented pumpkin artists and the deadbeats who love them

As you know (or may have gathered from previous blog posts), I am an avid entrant of Internet contests. Naturally, I prefer contests where a degree of skill is involved, be it writing short essays about meatballs or crafting Valentines haikus devoted to car-sharing or condensing whole stories into 25 words. I don't win said contests, but I find them an enjoyable diversion during the workday. (This is not to say that I'm too good for sweepstakes; I lose those too. However, I'd only recommend them if you have a separate email address set up just for siphoning off junk mail). Anyway, the latest contest to grace my inbox was sponsored by the car-sharing service I'm a member of: Zipcar (incidentally the same people who rejected my loving haikus of contests past). But putting aside past defeats, I saw that Zipcar had asked its members to carve a pumpkin into a "Zipcar inspired" masterpiece for Halloween this year.

This seemingly simple task was only problematic because I lack any real gourd-carving skills. My artistic talent is really limited to an excellent eye for collaging (if I do say so) and the ability to draw cartoon people that all look the same regardless of intended gender. Luckily, I have an ace in the hole: a boyfriend who went to art school and is generally enabling of my single-minded obsession with winning $200 in driving credit. My contributions to the project were the following: accidentally puchasing a pumpkin with the thickest skin of any squash I've ever laid knife to, refusing to let him use stencils or too many ideas from google because "we have to be creative, if we want to WIN," and taking numerous pictures of my cat with her head in the pumpkin (something she did of her own volition). Pictures follow, of course:

Isn't that cute? Well, perhaps you had to be there.

Once we removed Dinah, we formulated a plan:The plan. It's a car with the Zipcar logo on it in front of the skyline. Hopefully, that's obvious at this point.

Behold the hands of an artist at work:
At this point, I was mostly just watching what turned out to be a patently unfunny episode of The Office, and occasionally offering helpful advice like "try not to cut yourself."

Without further ado, our (er, his) creation:
You might notice that this picture was taken in a well lit room, with clearly no candle in the pumpkin. This is because we couldn't cut away enough of the skin for you to really even see light through it. I tell you, this pumpkin was a beast.

All other Zipcar annual pumpkin carving contest entrants better watch out!

And finally, for those wondering (which I'm sure was all of you) about my honorable, if unmentioned, entry in the Valentines haiku contest (the prize for which was only a paltry $100 in driving credit), here it is:

Sharing is caring-
"I'll share a ride with you, Love,"
Whispers my Zipcar.

I take pride in how creepy and anthropomorphic I was able to make that in only 17 syllables.