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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Spontaneous Tourist Date - Little Italy, NY

After a week filled with a number of pitfalls including flat tires, a busted boiler, a broken toe, I'd been hoping for something fun. Maybe even a cocktail? Saturday brought the need to do list, but seeing I'd had enough, my hubby said, "Want to go to the city in the morning and you can take pictures? Want to go tonight, dinner?"



*Pause*


1. We do not live around the corner from the city.

2. Clearly, this would be a real date - do we still do that after 23 years of marriage?

3. As semi-empty-nesters, it is our obligation to learn to be spontaneous.



"Give me 5 minutes. Let's go to dinner," I answer.



Jacket, camera, extra charged battery, wallet, cell phone, "Ready!"



We are dressed very casually and have no destination in mind. Who does this? Not us. I begin typing things in the browser on my cell phone and realize, "I've never been to Little Italy. Can we just go there?"



Ah, tourists. And, why not? We are tourists. I want to take pictures. We are not dressed to blend in with the natives, just call a spade a spade and be done with it. Down the highway, over a bridge, into the innerworkings of the city and poof, we find our destination AND street parking. No hydrant? No restrictions? Is this a trick? A high five for our luck and we are off.







We want to walk around and see the sights, the neighborhood, everything. It is already beginning to get a little too dark for me to shoot, but I don't care. Tourist photos it is! And then we stumble upon it, a kitchen store (to you, maybe not very exciting, for me a must see)!







Is this designed for the natives or the tourists? Does it really matter?


Doesn't everyone take pictures of the front door?








So much to see and wonder about - to dream of fresh foods and exotic tastes.



To me, they are like jewels, shiny and sparkly...




Is security watching me take pictures? Do they care or are they merely amused? Hubby points out the chicken and rooster themed dishes and we smile. A story, a thousand years old, that we share from his youth. Christmas Eve shopping for his Mom and a glass chicken candy dish - the details are ours, part of the threads that have woven our story.




We exit the store and bid the security guard in his suit a good night.


We walk along and see the world famous Lombardi's. And the line that wraps around the building. Tourists?





Street side entertainment for those who wait. I am sure he loves having his picture taken, feeling like a goldfish, stared at and photographed for the amusement of others.




More eye candy for the tourists and I fall for it...




And so we head to the restaurant we had passed earlier. The sidewalk specials had caught my eye and I knew they would have something we would each enjoy. Hubby is frightfully predictable and traditional and typically orders chicken marsala.






No chicken marsala?

Well, they do have "chicken and mushrooms in wine sauce." Whew.


I start with a French Martini. I know, I know, I am in an Italian restuarant, but that is my latest favorite. Then the Escarole and Bean in Brodo soup and the Seafood Risotto special.

Escarole & Bean in Brodo (broth)


You will need:

Garlic (my bowl alone had about 3 cloves) to taste
Escarole
Cannelini Beans
Olive oil
Salt & Pepper
Restaurant used Vegetable Broth - you may substitute chicken if you like...

* Grated parmesan for at table


Saute garlic in olive oil in medium pan. Add escarole and wilt with a pinch of salt. Next add broth and beans, simmer until beans are heated through and tender. Once soup is ladled into bowl, sprinkle (or grate or pile on) parmesan.


It is the simple things that are sometimes the best!


I could not properly photograph the soup, the restaurant is fairly dark and trying without flash leaves the images blurry as the shutter is held open long enough for me to shake and with flash, the image becomes washed out and unrecognizable. The same problem happened with my meal. But, his chicken dish, was amazing! To smell, to photograph, to taste. Served with a side order of gentle ribbons of linguini in a light tomato sauce. A soft kiss on the cheek of flavors.





Our meal ends and we decide not to try to eat another bite. We may have dessert while walking around a bit more. Goodbye Rocky's and thank you for the food memories.


And then we enter it, the real Little Italy. Cameras flash. Cigarette and cigar smoke fills your nose. Crowds. Vendors. Souvenier t-shirts and post cards. Does this mean we had eaten where the natives may eat?


What makes me look down? I have no idea. Handwritten on the sidewalk, "Here Lies Jimmy Hoffa." We laugh and walk among the tourists.






Thursday, August 26, 2010

What do you eat at Book Club?

I'd been thinking about it for weeks...time to meet with the ladies from Book Club! We've been meeting for a few years now I believe and we started out taking turns bringing pizza to one member's home. We read at least one book per month for Book Club and more for ourselves. Members fairly take turns picking the current read and titles range and weave through fiction, non-fiction, best sellars and required reading for college class.

The meals begin to change as members take turns preparing a dish. Baked ziti, chicken on skewers, fruits and desserts. The ladies talk about life, the book, the meal and some more about life. The location begins to change and they meet at a historic area landmark and when not everyone can make it, two meet for dinner at a restaurant and the location this month changed to the home of another member. Though I'd been there before I wrote the house number down so I would not forget and set off for my friends.

I'd walked through the gate, stopped to dig out my camera and went back out.

How welcoming!

I am a bit early and the hostess and I chat as she gives me a bit of a tour for the camera. So many cozy and warm spaces, for gathering or just letting your mind rest.


The light faded quickly and many of the photographs I'd taken were

dark and shadowy.


We thought we might eat on the porch and chat, but the cool night was a bit too much and we stayed indoors instead. A treat just the same.

In the kitchen for just a moment to check on dinner, then on to the photography display our hostess has created with thoughtful images her husband has captured. Next, on to the studio and I want to photograph everything - her work in progress, the way things are grouped, the feel of the sturdy, filled bookshelves. Must respect the artist's space...though it is a bit of fuel for me.



Our tools, they are art, they evolve, they drive us, they are an extension of us.



And, of course we are hungry. Though we have not met for most of the summer and our reading is not as disciplined as a group as we would like, we have committed to the meal and to talk of life.

Simple, satisfying and snappy salsa and chips. The salt, the crunch, the perfect activity for hand and mouth while we catch up about local topics including disputes about small farms and the smoke from outdoor woodstoves. Who has rights? What about the property owner? The neighbors? Pass the dip please!

I knew it would be chili and on this cool summer night, it is a warm and comforting choice. The surpise is in the cornbread topping. The chili was baked in a round casserole dish then topped with an instant cornbread mix and cheddar cheese. A food hug in a bowl. As a lover of chips, I had to add some to my dish and later use them as secret scoopers to get every last bite of chili.




The discussion comes around to books and things literary while tea steeps in mugs. English Breakfast for me and I breath in the warm scented steam as a plate of famous cookies are put in the middle of the table. We talk of possible next titles and leave things loose and unfinished, but we know we will meet again soon and share a delicious meal served next to a healthy dollop of life with art and literature on the side.



















Saturday, August 21, 2010

What makes a dinner memorable?

And so our youngest son has been dropped off for the first time at college. A day of firsts. This is our first child to go away to school, our older son chose to live home and commute and so we, the parents, are filled with emotions; pride, a bit of anxiety, happiness, and a sprinkle of worry. We wear our smiling faces as we watch him walk away to his new temporary home.

Coincidentally, it is my birthday. My husband of 23 years and I begin a quiet and thoughtful 3 hour ride toward home and I spot a restaurant.




"Are you hungry," I ask.

"No, not really," he answers and by the time I can point out the restaurant, he realizes I am not asking if he is hungry, but rather if we can stop at the cute restaurant I just spotted next to the river. He turns the vehicle around and I smile.

A tough task lies ahead. How do we separate dropping our son off and my birthday? Or should we try to at all?

We stand in front of the restaurant and can clearly see the dining room is lined with tables butted against the windows. "I definitely want to sit by the window," I think as I take the picture. Memories of meals by the water come to the front of my thoughts and push away the cloudy unsettled feelings that were there.



As we approach the front door, I wonder, how many other families stop at this restaurant for this very moment in their life? How many other parents find a few minutes of comfort in food after leaving their child to start their own journey?


Is this part of the process? Finding a little adventure of our own? A place to create new and happy memories...stories to share with family, "and we found this wonderful little restaurant overlooking the river..." Hope and promise. So much anticipation for this one birthday dinner. Or is that what it is at all?




Upon entering the gift shop/foyer area, we notice crafts, maple syrup and other items for sale on the left and a generous sitting area that somehow reminds you of a grandmother you never had on the right. A woman, who can only be defined in age as "older", greets us and carefully picks up menus. She walks purposefully and carefully, it is hard for me to slow my gait, I am so accustomed to speeding ahead - from one task to the next, hurrying to finish and now, the walk is symbolic in a few seconds, I have no need to rush.

Without asking, we are seated a few tables away from other dinners, by a gloriously large and clean window. This is the table...




Typically, things happen a bit quickly in a restaurant in New York.
Normally, your water glass is filled, you are asked if you would like a drink and once that is brought to you, your order is taken.
I knew somehow, this would not be the case.
Yes, a young lady came and poured water and another lady asked us what we would like to drink, but she also told us, "Your cheese and crackers will be right out." Hmmmm.


Not every meal has to feature trendy gourmet bits to be impressive. Quality, freshness and even a touch of unique lend to the warm, homey but yet, out to dinner feel.
The house drinks are listed in a flap in the menu and I select the French Martini. Basically, vodka, Chambord and pineapple juice, shaken with ice and poured into a stemmed cocktail glass. A moment of sweetness to be sure. We clink our glasses in a toast to my birthday. Is that why we're here?



Next, we place our dinner orders and time seems to stop. Conversation feels a bit forced and we seem to choose what feels like safe and neutral topics - the crows fishing on the sandy bank of the river, wondering how deep the water is and laughing about the 70+ year old group of Senior Citizens who are discussing Facebook. Should we just dive in and talk about the huge pink elephant? Will he be ok? What's he doing now? Our older son text messages in and asks where we are (if we were closer to home he would have joined us) and we try to act as though all of this is normal, everyday, routine and we are fine.

The waitress brings us a "relish platter" and a basket of pop-overs. How quaint! What a lovely interruption and of course, it makes the elephant disappear.



Though the elements in the platter are not foods we would typically expect to eat when we are out, we sample and begin to speak a bit more relaxed. "Wonder when he will feel homesick, right away or after some time?" "Wonder how he will get along with his roommate." "Well, we did our job and the rest is up to him..."

My husband leaves the table to find the men's room and upon his return he tells me, "Remember how your grandfather used to leave little pieces of paper and notes written in pencil around his house? Well, the men's room has a note by the light switch, 'Please turn off light when you leave' and a note to remember to flush."

Charming or annoying?

The relish platter has been cleared and we continue chatting through a fresh and crisp salad. Feeling a bit more at ease, able to relax and just enjoy the meal, our main courses arrive.



Though the menu called it "Broiled Seafood" the scallops and shrimp did not have a broiled feel. I was happy to have chosen from the House Special section, "Braised Beef." We were offered two vegetable choices from silver bowls; a green bean medley or cauliflower and I had a generous spoonful of each along side a baked potato.

We share our entrees and as I thought from looking, mine seems the better choice. The beef had been cooked long and slow to fork tenderness and the gravy was rich without being salty or over seasoned. Yum.

The dishes are cleared, the dessert menu is brought to us and in one of the sections, a story of the history of the restaurant. Lovely. I make a selection and venture away to the Ladies' Room. No note about the light switch, but the gleamingly clean tile and grout allow one to forgive any taped reminders. This restroom is indeed well maintained.

An individual pot of tea arrived in my absence and he has a cup of aromatic coffee. Within a few minutes our dessert arrives and thankfully, no secret candle or strangers singing, "Happy Birthday." This dinner was much more.

Apple Fritter - made with Granny Smith apples (I asked).


While this recipe is not from the baker, it seems the closest thing I could find on the web.
Our apple fritters were really apple pie pockets served in a cozy vanilla sauce.
Heaven. We wait to see what our next trip up or back from our son's college will bring...

















































Sunday, August 8, 2010

Tradition - yes! Cake - no!



Past generations had pretty standard traditions for most occasions and when a child was celebrating a birthday, having cake was more than an assumed expectation, it was the rule. I do not remember the pivotal point, it may have been my renegade husband who said, "I really don't like cake. Can we have something else?" A new tradition was born. The birthday celebration can completely reflect the culinary tastes and desires of the honoree and why not? This idea in itself is the new tradition. Through the years we have had many birthday cheesecakes, key lime pie, strawberry shortcake, ice cream cake which contains no cake at all outside of the chocolate crumbs in the middle and several apple pies.

This year, I wondered how I could personalize an apple pie the way a birthday cake can be iced, frosted, have computer generated graphics and photos...so many options for a cake. I have a number of "crust cutters" which are small metal forms similar to cookie cutters and among them are leaf and apple shapes. I wondered if I could roll out the top crust and simply carve out "Happy Birthday." Well, I'm sure it can be done, but for my first time out, I decided instead to simply carve his three letter name, "KEN" and call it a personalized birthday pastry.

Success!

What do you do at a family birthday party? We played wiffle ball in between dinner and dessert. Once the candles were lit, the happy birthday song was sung, we had our birthday pie and played 2 furious rounds of Uno. Ah, what is sweeter than good times with our families and the memories we create?

Looking over this experimental and small step into a new tradition, I wonder what I can do to improve. Next time, I may think out the font a bit more carefully, but I recommend everyone try this at least once.

The filling for this apple pie was 6 large apples, peeled and sliced, a sprinkle of cinnamon, a tablespoon each of sugar and flour, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

A secret - I used a store bought double crust, but yes, I can make my own from scratch. This pie was fancied up by the personalized custom crust carved before baking.