December 31, 2005
Happy New Year!!
I did successfully follow through on a New Year's resolution once: I went vegetarian three years ago and stuck it out for seven months. Either the bangers and mash at Chip Shop or my cousin Ruth's stewed chicken threw me off the wagon -- I can't remember which. I still try to eat meat only occasionally, but over the holidays I have been eating meat as if I were trying to make up the lost time, which is bad.
I'm off to celebrate in a bit and I don't seem to have an idea for a resolution at all at the moment. Spend less? Go back to school? Learn how to make a souflee? Actually, the souflee idea doesn't sound half bad, since there's a great bleu cheese souflee recipe in the Barefoot in Paris cookbook. It's also not as lofty and impossible as the "spend less" resolution. It's a little pathetic for a resolution, though.
If I'm feeling ambitious, I could add this: Do not eat out for one month. If I can get D to go in on this one with me (I think he got the idea in my head in the first place), we'll have a fighting chance. It would force us to hone our cooking skills (much needed), and the side effect would be a little saved money. I'm highly doubtful of success, though. I'm a little scared of a month without sushi or Red Hot chinese take-out or brunch. That's a very non-New York thing to do. And what if I have a bad day and have a killer craving for the squash soup at Souen?
And which month would it be? Would it include lunch? Derek buys lunch at the Sony commisary every day, so that might not work for him. We could just focus on dinner. I suppose we'd have to invite people over if we wanted to be social, which is not something we're terribly skilled at (it involves cleaning the apartment). Still, it would be a worthy experiment. I say we try for March. There are no birthdays that I can think of then.
I'm betting we don't last a week.
December 29, 2005
The Ingenious Relocation of the Traditional, Time-Tested Day Family Christmas Celebration
It has been a unique Christmas. A week-and-a-half ago, I got a call from Mom saying that Dad had slipped on some ice in the driveway and had broken his leg. He was doing okay, but was going to have to have surgery and would probably have a long recovery to deal with. The following Monday, I started a new job. Tuesday, the transit workers decided to strike (*&^*&$%^%!!!). Wednesday, we learned that Dad was probably going to have to spend Christmas in the hospital. Oh, and I should mention that my Christmas shopping was no where near done two weeks ago, and was impossible to do given the intervening circumstances. It was a stressful couple of weeks, to say the least, and I can't say I entirely held things together.
First, an update on Dad. He is valiantly soldiering on with a variety of metal rods and other pieces of metal sticking out of his shin, after having undergone the first of two surgical procedures. Although the pain has been difficult to manage at times (it was a bad break), he's in good spirits and probably grateful for being excused from his usual last-minute shopping spree. He remembers slipping on some black ice while carrying shopping bags to the house, being briefly suspended in midair, and then crashing down on his shin. Somehow, he got himself into the house and called 911, only to wait forever because they had the wrong address. Since then, he has been enjoying a steady stream of Diet Coke, painkillers, and Christmas candy while things stabilize in the hospital. He has a room full of gadgets (he is, at heart, a gadget man, given to early adoption of gizmos and electronic appliances of every sort), including two laptops, to keep him busy. We're hoping to have him home after the weekend.
Now, I have to explain the Traditional Day Family Christmas Celebration, so you can understand how Dad's hospital visit might make us all a little batty. It's a little silly, yes, but there is NO deviating from the Celebration, because it is Essential, and has been in place for Decades, regardless of family members with broken bones in hospitals. There is a very precise and time-tested holiday schedule in our house. The challenge was not how to alter the usual extravaganza, but how exactly to bring the Day Family Celebration to Dad, given some annoying little hospital Rules and Regulations (and pesky hospital staff).
First, there is the Gathering of Dad's Numerous Children and Grandchildren. Dad has accumulated several children and scads of grandkids through the course of two marriages, and we usually gather a bunch of them for a pre-Christmas gift-exchange event. I assumed this might be slightly altered or cancelled given the hospital circumstance, but no. There are traditions to uphold, you see, hospital rules be damned. And Mom almost reproduced our usual party without a hitch. Through the help of a "patient representative," a "family room" was booked for 15 people so we could have the party down the hall from Dad's room.
The snag came at the entrance desk. We were definitively barred entrance when we arrived with our holiday party entourage and numerous shopping bags of food. We were told by a completely humor-less woman that the room was "restricted" and "not just anyone can go wandering upstairs, you know." We mentioned that we WERE the 15 people it was reserved for, but this made little headway. I have never encountered such a standoff-ish, haughty bunch of hospital volunteers. After explaining that we weren't welcome, they asked that we move our stuff out of the way and leave! I wonder if the hospital staff realizes that they were in mortal danger of being strangled at that point.
After much cursing and an epic battle of hospital software and frantic phone calls, the entrance workers suddenly changed their minds. A full blown battle of the Day Family against the hospital staff was averted (although Mom gave them a nasty speech in return for their efforts), and we proceeded upstairs. Mom assembled a rather large and well-appointed Christmas party for 15 people in the hospital, with a three-course meal, spiked egg nog, AND chocolate fondue. Are you impressed yet?
The next significant Day Family tradition is the Christmas Eve reading of the archival (and falling-apart) copy of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." The time and place of said reading is habitually dictated by my brother Nick, and CANNOT be missed, regardless of how much wrapping you still have to do or how tired you are. The mood must be festive, the dog must be present, and Mom will read and comment on how her favorite line is the one about how "new fallen snow gave a luster of midday to objects below." We will roll our eyes. Dad was excused from this particular tradition so he could sleep (more often than not, he is asleep during the reading anyway). And besides, the hospital wouldn't let us call at one in the morning.
Next up, family members wake, procure coffee, and ready themselves for present opening. No one is allowed to enter the living room at this point (unless the living room lies between one's bedroom and the coffee, in which case exceptions may be made, but only if one agrees NOT to look directly at the stockings). When the family is ready, we proceed down the stairs in order of age (with the dog being encouraged to lead the way but usually failing to understand his role). Nick enters first, followed by me, then Derek, then Mom and finally, Dad. Since Dad is last, the order wasn't terribly disrupted, but Dad may be required to do an honorary walk (or crutch-assisted hop) into the living room when he returns. To accommodate his present location, we decided that he would open stocking presents last.
Once in the living room, we must stand clear of the stockings (no touching!) while the stuffed stockings are preserved on camera for archival purposes. Finally, we each settle into a chair and begin tearing through the stockings and "under-the-stocking presents." Once complete, the usual process involves taking showers and gathering in the dining room for "crackers" (those party things you pull apart), champagne, and eggs benedict with extra hollandaise sauce.
Much thought and preparation went into the dilemma of how exactly to handle this part of the hallowed Celebration. Could we make eggs benedict ahead and bring it to the hospital? Unacceptable. It would turn to cold mush on the way, and hospitals, we have been informed, do not have microwaves. Should we eat it without Dad? Equally unacceptable, and possibly a little cruel, given the hospital food alternative. And really, the point of the Christmas Brunch is that it's over-the-top and completely unnecessary and gluttonous. Nick was responsible for the ingenious solution. He found an appliance practically made for making eggs benedict in hospitals. It's a toaster with an egg-poaching attachment. Not an egg frying attachment, but an eggs-benedict style poaching one. The only thing it doesn't do is make hollandaise. He bought one, tested it out at home, and then bought another. I'm sure the hospital has a whole slew of rules prohibiting this type of homemade-meal cooking (Dad was NOT happy about the open flame involved in the chocolate fondue), but somehow this didn't factor into our preparation. The Sage side of the family is not so good at playing by the rules. I'm sure Mom would say something like. "Hospital rules be damned! We must have our hollandaise!" at this point.
On Christmas morning, after stockings and showers, we packed the car up with all of the remaining presents, pitchers of coffee and hollandaise, eggs benedict ingredients, and orange juice. We must have looked like complete nutjobs walking into the hospital with 10 shopping bags and a suitcase on wheels. A little ridiculous, yes, but as I mentioned before, the Day Family Celebration must go on. Again, the hospital entrance workers gave us the obligatory we're-in-charge-not-you-even-though-it's-Christmas trouble, letting us know first that four people couldn't possibly go up at once ("This is a hospital, you know."). Again, we persisted and they computed and we eventually made our way upstairs.
There was hardly anyone in the orthopedic wing -- somehow everyone manages to get better on Christmas Eve -- and Dad didn't have a roommate, so we decorated his bed and leisurely set about opening Dad's stocking. I can't say it was quite like the usual fireside event, but it was fine. We set up our eggs-benedict-making apparatus in the "family room", and while it must have taken an hour to get the appropriate amount of eggs poached and english muffins toasted, we got the job done. Dad was suitably impressed. I'm sure the nursing staff (which is made up of much more friendly people than the entrance staff) thought we were all nuts. Our party crackers came with little paper crowns, so we were all walking around with orange and yellow burger-king-like crowns on our heads.
Anyway, mission accomplished. The Day Family Celebration is complete, and we're all recovering well from pre-Celebration stress. I just got word that the second surgical procedure was successful and Dad might be home Sunday. We may have to enforce some sort of safety procedures for the family to ensure that the following Christmas does not involved hospital entrance workers.
Update: I got a fabulous Canon Rebel XT for Christmas from my family and Derek (thank you!!) and took some pictures at the hospital, so I'll have those up soon. Also, Derek and I drove down to Delaware for the Costas Family Christmas Extravaganza after we left the hospital, which is equally gluttonous and festive. We made out exceptionally well on the gift front -- blog readers may be interested to know that Derek's brother Wes gave us a gift certificate to Al Di La! I'll have photos from Delaware up soon as well (including many of the most adorable one-year-old on the planet, D's nephew Xander).
December 27, 2005
Finally. Vacation. The obsessing over gifts and schedules and work and sleep is over, at least for a few days while I recover at my family's house in New Jersey.
I have many holiday havoc tales to tell, which I'll post here just as soon as I'm done eating the rest of the fudge...
December 22, 2005
If out-of-towners are wondering about the strike, it sucks. I can't finish Christmas shopping and we sat in traffic with 5 people in my car for 3 hours last night.
Carpooling isn't all that bad, of course -- I've gotten loads of homemade cookies out of it from my passengers, and I've gotten to work very early, which is nice.
I will be doing my usual last-minute panic wrapping and buying during the next 24 hours, and I'll be recovering after that, so I won't be posting much.
Here's wishing my loyal readers a fantastic, happy, non-strike-affected holiday -- thanks for checking in.
December 17, 2005
It was the candy thermometer. Or, more specifically, my reading of the candy thermometer, that produced the chocolate goo. I tried again with a different recipe tonight and things went much more smoothly. When the chocolate mixture is heating up it takes quite a while to reach 238. I mistook 225 for 250 last night. Tonight's batch solidified pretty quickly and is much more giftable. I'm thinking of throwing batch #1 on the stove again for another go (this may be disastrous, but the alternative is that I slowly eat all of the chocolate goo myself, which is bound to happen if it sits in the fridge any longer).
Update: Saving Batch #1 did not go well. The candy cane crumble on top somehow turned everything into toffee when I heated it up again. It is now officially Failed Fudge, and even I don't want to eat it.
A word of advice: Stay away from the section of the cookbook labeled "Candy" unless you have a degree in the culinary arts. And patience. And at least a 700 on the math section of the SATs. And excellent eyesight, so you can make out exactly where 238 degrees is on a candy thermometer without steam fogging up your glasses.
I think I just made chocolate jam. Does anyone want a jar of chocolate jam for Christmas? You could spread it on ice cream. It certainly won't solidify or anything like that. I know this because I was aiming for chocolate fudge. You know, the kind that you can slice up and put in 100 little candy cups and give out at work?
At least we have a backup plan: Derek's Mom's cookie recipe. Derek has purchased a professional-looking cookie press and we bought sprinkles, and there will be no candy thermometer involved. Still, I'm pissed about the fudge. I love fudge. My Aunt Sue used to send us homemade fudge for Christmas. It was great fudge, too -- just the right amount of graininess and chocolate. I usually hogged the box.
Maybe someone out there has fudge advice. Here's what happened. At a holiday party earlier this month someone had made fudge for the first time and described it as "easy". It involved chocolate, vanilla, and evaporated milk, and some stirring. I thought I could handle that, so I looked around for recipes online. Like an idiot, though, I settled on the complicated one in Joy of Cooking because I figured it might turn out to be REALLY GOOD (when it comes to cooking I am an over-achiever). The Joy recipe calls for half-and-half, heavy cream, corn syrup, bittersweet chocolate, sugar, vanilla, and butter. I should really know better. My mother goes through candy-making trauma every Christmas, and I've been witness to plenty of cursing and ruined batches of candied nuts and candy-thermometer distress. Candy-making is hard -- you have to measure everything perfectly right, and then god forbid you miss the crucial temperature mark because your syrup will turn to mud or rock candy or, in my case, chocolate jam.
Derek and I actually did math, on a sheet of paper, to calculate the proper amount of chocolate. I measured everything else very carefully, and even warmed the water to be used by the pastry brush (I should have realized when buying the pastry brush that I was in over my head). I forced myself to read the directions through once before starting to avoid the usual mid-recipe panic. I chopped chocolate and left the candy thermometer on the stove so it wouldn't be cold when I put it in the pot. I heated the sugar and cream in the pot until syrupy, then added the chocolate and stirred until it melted, and boiled the mixture for about a minute (probably at too high a heat, but it wouldn't boil, damnit).
Then, I added the thermometer and took pictures because I was so proud of my little cooking adventure. The temperature creeped up ever so slowly, and I decided to get a little cleaning done while waiting. I also got a bowl full of ice water ready to stop the cooking when it reached 238. The next time I looked at it, it was at 250. Since it was a new thermometer it took me a second to recognize 250, which possibly made things worse. I moved the pot to the ice water and waited. It took forever to cool down. I cleaned the entire kitchen and listened to a CD of annoying Nick at Nite TV Christmas songs (Derek was in charge of the music). Somewhere in the cooling process I remembered to add the last ingredients -- butter and vanilla. I did not stir anything during cooling because Joy forbids it.
When it was finally cool I was meant to stir it with a wooden spoon until it "snapped" or lost its sheen. I stirred and stirred. I didn't really know what "snapped" meant, but figured I'd find out when I got there. No such luck. When my arm got tired I brought the pot to Derek and he stirred mightily. We tried different stirring methods. The "fudge" was like shiny chocolate syrup that tasted a little odd. We went online for help and were advised to throw in some confectioner's sugar. I did so, but it did nothing in the way of reducing sheen or thickening or snapping. Finally, I gave up and poured it into the pan to "set", if that is even possible given it's liquidity. So sad. I'm not exactly sure what to do with it if it doesn't turn out to be edible. Maybe I can use it for fondue?
Update: Oh, man. It's such a shame. It sat for an hour and I covered it in candy cane pieces and it's soooo good, but it's never going to be solid. This is tragic.
December 11, 2005
On the holiday front, I have made it through the phase of Christmas shopping where I browse for hours and buy nothing. I've moved on to the phase where I buy and buy and buy with hardly a thought about whether a gift is suitable for the recipient or not. This I blame on all of the holiday candy that has appeared in our apartment. We have party leftovers: fudge, cheesecake, and gingerbread. We also have sugar cookies and baklava from Derek's annual pilgrimage to Sahadi's. And we're planning to make more fudge and sugar cookies shortly. I'm on a sugar high. I blame the bad gifts on the sugar. And Christmas-is-two-weeks-away panic. Last year, I started early and managed not to BUY so much. I also asked everyone else not to buy so much, to avoid all of the unnecessary commercialism and waste. This year, there's so much going on that I've fallen into some old bad habits -- mainly buying stuff because I can't be bothered with finding substitutes (like museum memberships, tickets, donations, etc.). I did buy books from the used bookstore, and I'll get tickets to something, but I have not been as good as I was last year.
I also have a chronic habit of buying way too much for two people on my list. My mother (because she has reminded me of four thousand things she might like to have, and I know what she likes, so everything jumps out at me as a possible Mom gift), and Derek's almost-one-year-old nephew Xander (toys and baby clothes are just irresistible). Luckily, Xander's birthday is December 26th, so I have an excuse.
Today, thanks to Derek's superior knowledge of discount shopping in the city (if there were a degree offered in this area, he would be a good candidate), we shopped ourselves silly at Pearl River -- a chinese department store on Broadway and Canal. I had never been but I think it will be a standard holiday shopping destination from now on. It has aisles full of great stocking stuffers -- art deco alarm clocks, fancy chop stick sets, unusual Asian candy, slippers, bowls, etc. It was fun just to walk through the place and gawk. I bought a new teapot, which I hopefully will not lose the whistler for and burn to a crisp. We visited a favorite Chinatown restaurant afterwards -- Vegetarian Dim Sum House, for corn
cimcheecongee (great corn soup) and dumplings.
Macy's vs. the Brooklyn Museum
Last Tuesday I spent a harrowing two hours lost in the Macy's Maze looking for women's socks. Socks! Frigging socks! How is it that not a single employee knew where they were?? I walked for miles, got disoriented and dehydrated and confused (this always happens to me in Macy's), was told to go to four distinct locations to find socks, breathed in at least a pint of noxious perfume, was distracted by countless departments I didn't know existed, and guiltily ate a mall pretzel. When I finally found the socks (by asking a fellow customer with socks in her hand) and figured out what to buy after nearly collapsing from the mall-walking and mall-air and mall-distractions, the cashier couldn't ring things up right and I had to return them and re-buy them somewhere else. I'm never going back. I hate Macy's.
Thank goodness for the Brooklyn Museum. The point of my taking a half-day of vacation on Tuesday was to visit the museum during the holiday members-only 20% discount sale. The Macy's visit was meant to be a quick stop, not a sanity-threatening nightmare. I wish I'd gotten to the museum earlier. The new entrance is such a welcoming sight at night when you're walking out of the train station. And the shopping environment was the opposite of the pandemonium at Herald's Square -- it was more like an antidote to the holiday shopping frenzy elsewhere. First, it's quiet. Second, there was a little area for sitting down and relaxing, which Derek convinced me to do over the phone after I explained the Macy's episode. Third, in the little area-of-relaxation there were free hot drinks (cider, coffee) and FREE COOKIES. It was very nice. And then, of course, the store is great and I bought a whole bunch of gifts there. Volunteers were even stationed outside of the store to wrap them.
Speaking of the Brooklyn Museum, we went to First Saturday last weekend and saw a fantastic Flamenco performance and the Edward Burtynsky exhibit. I absolutely loved the Burtynsky photos -- the exhibit is called "Manufactured Landscapes" and it's only running until January 15. If you like photography I highly recommend it. Burtynsky (that site has some representative images) takes beautiful large-format pictures of industrial landscapes -- marble mines, oil-processing plants, Chinese factories, etc. The images are arresting -- usually the scale places emphasis on the immensity of industrial undertakings and how tiny their human instigators look next to them. The industrial landscapes themselves are beautiful. There's something fundamentally appealing to me about a landscape full of non-natural geometric shapes, like the endless cubes of marble with rust stains in a mine, or a complex system of pipes in an industrial plant. There is beauty in efficiency. Because of this, the photos are also quite disturbing -- these immense industrial undertakings are clearly unnatural, and the viewer becomes aware of the scale of the damage done. There is one picture of masses of Chinese factory workers pouring out of buildings during a shift change. It's eerily similar to a very dark shift-change scene at the beginning of the movie Metropolis. Industrial coordination is eerie. There's a sadness to the photos. Huge oil rigs, for instance, look like tremendous, domineering monuments in one set of photos -- but the photos document the process of taking these rigs apart to reuse the materials.
December 05, 2005
Jingle Bell Rock
My brother Nick and I officially kicked off the holiday season with city holiday activities on Friday. The first stop, naturally, was to see the Rockefeller Center tree, of which my brother is an avid fan. We took pictures and had our pictures taken (by NBC photographers who later sold us prints for exhorbitant sums), watched the skaters in the rink, and did a little shopping. The atmosphere was festive and the tourists were out (there seemed to be a good deal of midwestern holiday camaraderie), but it wasn't too crowded.
Next stop, the Top of the Rock -- the newly opened observation deck at the top of 30 Rockefeller Center. The access is very organized -- you are assigned a specific 15 minute interval in which to show up, watch a couple of videos, then shoot up seven stories in an elevator with a glass ceiling (nice touch). At the top, there are three levels and the 360-degree views are fantastic. It was quite windy at the second level (the uppermost one was closed because of the wind), which added a little drama, but there are tall plexiglass barriers all around so you don't have to worry about falling to your death amid skating tourists below.
I had been itching to go to Top of the Rock ever since those vintage photos of art deco detail and tourists in the 1950s started appearing in ads. It did not disappoint. There's something gratifying (and exhilirating) about seeing the city from above -- you get a sense of the immensity of New York and the tremendous collective effort it has taken to build. It's also beautiful to look at. I kept jumping up and down like a kid when I got off the elevator. It was a little ridiculous. (Lots more photos are on Flickr.)
Next, Derek hosted us at the very well-appointed and comfortable (I'm so jealous) Sony Commissary. I miss fancy corporate cafeterias with made-to-order pasta. Damn non-profits! We also wandered around Sony Wonder for a while since I hadn't seen the redesigned second floor (shameful, I'm told, given the blood, sweat, and tears that D has put into it over the past few years), checked out the employees-only Sony Family Store, and visited the public Sony store downstairs.
Finally, we spent the afternoon wandering through the Union Square holiday market. I always spend an inordinate amount of time in there and emerge with very little, possibly since it's so damned cold. It helps when there's hot cider to be had from the greenmarket.