Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bon Appetit

Every month for a long time now, Meagan, Julie and I get together for a homemade meal. It was my turn to host dinner this month. In celebration of Meagan's birthday and her upcoming trip to France this spring, I decided to make diner à la Française.

I like to read about French food, and I like the idea of French food, but the few times I do eat French food, it's always so heavy. I leave the meal feeling like there's a stick of butter sitting my stomach. I must be getting bad Americanized versions of French food because I know it can be amazing. Let me explain:

When I was 21, my boyfriend at the time Mark and I both studied abroad in London.  I did my program through Syracuse University, which meant I spent most of my time hanging around other Americans, while Mark took courses at an English university which meant most of his friends were international students. When Mark and I decided to go to Paris for a long weekend, one of his French classmates suggested we stay with her parents, which seemed like a good idea.

During our three months of study abroad, Mark suffered all kinds of medical problems of comic proportions, so it was no surprise that we showed up at this girl's parents' doorstep with Mark in crutches. I am not talking about regular crutches one gets when they hurt their knee like Mark did, but the kind of crutches one might imagine Franklin D. Roosevelt or some other severely handicapped person to be using. Oh, those quirky Euros. The parents lived in a spacious apartment in a little street right off the Champs-Elysees, which we thought was quite impressive at the time, and they stayed out of our way as we pleasantly hobbled through the not-so-handicap-friendly streets of Paris.

Despite the disability, we had a wonderful time there, and on our last night, the parents hosted a dinner for us. The details of the evening are hazy (forgive my terrible memory). We definitely had some kind of yummy dinner, a salad, a cheese course after the meal which was kind of mind-blowing (cheese after the meal?) and then dessert, including some of the best macaroons I have ever tasted in my life. Of course, I remember the dessert.

The conversation was pleasant, and the father kept refilling my wine glass, and it was one of the first times I ever got drunk (remember, I wasn't all that cool in college). At one point, they were making fun of Canadian people's French accents.  Other than that, I have no idea what we talked about. I have no recollection of the names of these people or even what they looked like. All I remember was thinking how good everything tasted and how warm and drunk I felt and I went to bed woozy and happy. It was first introduction to European hospitality and it was one of the most memorable meals of my life. Now, that's the way French food should be.

So it was with that fuzzy memory in mind that I planned Meagan's French dinner. To give me direction, Julia Child seemed like a natural choice, but I nixed that plan because I didn't want to scare of my health-conscious guests with all that butter. So I went with the expertise of Ina Garten. While I am a little leery of Food Network celebrities, many people I respect are obsessed with her and trust her completely, so for this dinner, I would, too.

All of the recipes come from her Barefoot in Paris cookbook. For the appetizer, I started with Ina's cheese straws. This was my first time using puff pastry. I always read in cookbooks and magazines how easy it is to use and that is true. For the main course, I went with her chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, which yes, had 40 freakin' cloves of garlic. Basically you cut a chicken into parts, saute it and then let it simmer in the garlic and white wine, which later becomes the sauce. As a side, I made Moroccan couscous, which impressed the girls because it had currants in it. Both dishes used far more butter than I am used to, which made everything very flavorful but without that heaviness. Score!

I was planning to serve a salad as a cleanser course, but completely forgot about it, so we went straight to the cheese. I enlisted the help of my friend and cheese lover Nell to help me pick out a cheese plate. We had Brillant Savarin triple cream, Chabichou goat cheese, and an alpine cheese called Comte, which I picked up at Murray's.  Nell suggested I serve the cheese with dried cherries, almonds and crusty French bread--the divine combination made this every one's favorite course of the night (thanks, Nell!)  For dessert, I baked chocolate souffles and served them warm. We topped them with fresh whipped cream that melted right into the cake. I played Edith Piaf during the meal, and the French transformation was complete.

By the time Dan came to crash our party (and polish off the rest of the cheese), I was completely full of yummy food and drunk with French wine. Somehow, the alcohol went right to my head and I felt just as warm and woozy and happy as I felt all those years ago. Which meant that the night was an absolute success. The best part is that I woke up this morning without a hangover! That butter must be good for something.

As I write this, the leftover chicken bones from last night are simmering on the stove. I am making Ina's chicken stock recipe. I read somewhere that you can't find canned chicken stock anywhere in France because everyone makes homemade. Love that. I am a new French food convert and Ina fan.

Yes, the birthday girl wore a beret.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Gross + Impressive = Gropressive!

For Kim's birthday last night, the poker people went out for dinner to
Mara's Homemade, one of the very few real New Orleans style restaurants in New York. Having never been there before, Team Squeen were pretty pumped. Even more so after a few Abitas and the realization that we were going to be doing some circus eating.

Kim, in true birthday abandon, ordered the giant crawfish boil -- as her own meal, mind you. Now, you don't have to go too far out on a limb to suppose that our Kim wasn't going to finish that big bucket of mudbugs on her own. The real question was whether we could do it collectively, and how much help I'd be after eating my entree and most of Yvonne's.

I should mention at this point that this was the first time I'd ever had boiled crawfish. Just something we hadn't done in NOLA -- probably because we realized that a beer bucket full of 'em was a pretty big commitment. (Again, birthday abandon -- and we salute you, Kim!) It's the perfect food for little boys. You pull these little boogers apart at the middle, suck the spices out of the thorax you're holding in one hand, then peel the tail you're holding in the other and suck out the meat. It's a little labor-intensive, but once you get the rhythm down, you go into a zone, and that focus is essential for making headway when you're elbow-deep in crustacea.

By no means did I bogart the bucket, and yet when everyone else had had their share, still about two-thirds were left. At first, I was totally confident we/I could finish. But after some solid dedication, and really quite enough crawfish for one man, we still couldn't see the bottom and I declared it a lost cause.

But since I wasn't actually
in pain yet, I figured I'd keep eating a few just while we wait for the waiter to come around and take our plates and our dessert order. Well, I turned some kind of corner in there, because the next thing I knew, the bucket looked like this:

Good thing that neither of the first two entrees I ate had been fried, otherwise I might've been full!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Snow Day

Can we talk about something other than the weather on this blog?

No. No, we cannot.

For starters, all New York is pretty much obsessed with the snow right now. Snowiest January ever. We got 19 inches last night, which was about 16 more than was predicted, and 1 inch less than the storm that brought the city to its knees. I still don't really have the right footwear for times like these. Why don't I just buy snow boots, you ask? Because it doesn't snow THAT much here. Ugh. As usual, I'm an idiot.

But today, my shoes stayed warm and dry and salt-free. Because it was officially a snow day. Government offices were closed, baby. Just after I started to brag about it to Yvonne, she got an email saying she didn't have to come in either. Sweet. So we each did a little work from home, continued Yvonne's usual workday routine of tea and a muffin at 11:00 (only this time, it was tea for two) and took lunch at the diner next door. That place, by the way, has never seen so much business on a Thursday afternoon. There were like 18 kids there, with their sleds parked at the front door, plus a slew of adults like us. We had our usuals (grilled cheese for her, lumberjack special for me), I went into a food coma for a few was pretty much the best workday ever.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chilly Willy

This blog post is about the weather. I am sorry in advance for your impending boredom.

This month, New York has been looking something like this...

and other days like this...

And all days feel cold, cold, cold. I haven't been happy about this. Usually I am a trooper and even do things like go run in the park on dark, cold winter mornings, but not this year. No sir. My California thin-blood husband is rubbing off on me (though I am not wearing long underwear when it is under 40 degrees just yet. I will never let it get that far.)

These conditions have definitely put a damper on the 365 project because lately, I don't feel like walking around at all. After work, on the weekends, all I want to do is go straight home. It's become something of a game of mine to find a picture to snap as soon as possible or find new ways to shoot things from the warmth of my home.

Due to all the snow, they keep delaying garbage pick-up so my neighborhood is starting to resemble a dumpster.

I see dead Christmas trees everywhere.

When it is cold like this, it is strange to be heading to the pool twice a week. I wear sweatpants, a warm hat and gloves over my swim suit. I am getting better with each swim, but since I am not naturally athletic and I don't like the feeling of being underwater, it does not come easy to me which is a great frustration. And then when I tell people that I am learning how to swim, everyone looks at me like "Huh? What? You can't swim?" like it's the craziest thing they have ever heard. Where was I the day every single person in the world learned how to swim?

At the gym where I practice, there is a hot tub next to the pool where people just sit and stare at all the swimmers doing laps. It's kind of embarrassing to have all these sets of eyes watching me flounder in the water (particularly because most of the people who use the hot tub happen to be gross old men). But then again, who goes to the gym just to sit in the hot tub? Maybe that's embarrassing.

Today I spent most of the day under the covers reading. I made some soup, some muffins and baked a few cookies (I had some leftover cookie dough in the freezer from Christmas).

Yeah, that's my picture of the day. So sue me. It's 17 degrees outside. Great photographic moments will arrive some other (warmer) day. And those cookies were pretty, pretty good.

Weather report complete.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In the Snow

I have the best sister. I really do. Annette is the type of person who is always up for anything. We were both hanging out at my mom's house in Jersey this weekend. It was freezing cold, the sun was going down, and yet when I asked my sister if we could go outside so I could practice taking portraits, she was super psyched. This guy could learn a thing or two from her.

Here are some of my favorites from the shoot (thanks, sis!)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Who Knew?

Three things I learned in the last 24 hours:

1. Christian Bale is British.
2. Robert Pattinson -- also British.
3. The Seattle Seahawks logo is designed to look like Native American totem pole art.

Yes, I'm an idiot.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dan vs. Besta Jagra

Let's start with the triumph.

What you see above is our newly reorganized bookcase. We grouped the books by color. Wish I could say we came up with this idea, but it's enough that it looks awesome in our apartment (pictures don't really do it justice).

And now, the tough stuff. I spent the better part of Sunday afternoon -- and evening -- grappling with Besta Jagra, our new Ikea entertainment center. (Can I just say I love the name Besta Jagra? It's a good Star Wars name. Say it out loud. Am I wrong?)

Now, let me set this up by saying my grandfather is a master carpenter. My dad's not quite at that level, but he knows his way around a table saw. Meanwhile, I struggle with pre-fab Ikea furniture. This is what they call progress.

I'm sure that a 4-foot long TV stand with two drawers isn't supposed to take four hours to construct, although in my defense, at least one of the pictures in the instructions was inaccurate. And a lot of them took major deciphering (is the little wheely thing pointed up, or down?) which was sometimes unsuccessful anyway, requiring unscrewing and rescrewing. (I realize that Ikea's picture-only approach to instructions is meant to be some sorta latter-day Esperanto, understood by everyone around the world and uniting us in our peaceful comprehension of universal pictograms, but seriously...why not provide a written version online at least? Where somebody could read a phrase like, "Make sure the little wheely thing is pointed down." That's what would've kept the peace in our house on Sunday.)

Step 1. So far, so good...(not really)

When I was somewhere around step #15 out of 28 (and Yvonne was safely in the next room, knowing what was coming), I freaked out a little. I became the dad from The Christmas Story when he's fixing the furnace.

"Ohhh, DAMMIT! This whole thing is UPSIDE DOWN. You can't have the rough side on one side and....yep, the smooth side on the other. I knew it. HOW CAN THIS EVEN HAPPEN??? I followed all the directions, those idiotic directions WITHOUT WORDS. There are no words! Who would write directions like that??? Of course I couldn't follow them. And the thing is, I can't even fix this! This particle board crap isn't made to screw and unscrew and then rescrew. It'll never hold. THIS THING WILL FALL APART. I promise you.

"What a disaster.






"Nevermind. I had it right."

Thirteen or so steps later (not counting a couple more re-dos), this, too, ended in triumph, but only after blood, sweat and almost tears were shed. Besta Jagra, you were a formidable foe, but we all knew how this was going to end.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Baby, it's cold outside

Gosh, it's cold. I know it's January, but it's become frigid, bone-chilling, don't-want-to-leave-your-house hibernation cold. This weekend wasn't much for excursions. No matter, I had to stay home because I had work to do. That doesn't make for interesting blog fodder, so let me touch on the things I somehow (barely!) managed to do despite the weather conditions.

I did go to the pool with Danielle and practice swimming. I did better than my first time, but not great. I can't swim the entire length of the pool without stopping to catch my breath or unintentionally drinking a cup of water. And I look like this doing it:

I figured out after this picture was taken that my goggle straps don't have to stick out like that. There are actually bands to hold them in place on the sides of your head so you don't have to look like a total moron. It's my second day, so sue me. And yes, I am willing to risk public humiliation and post this picture just for my fans. My suit is reversable by the way. It turns blue some days. I love that.

On Saturday night--since Julien was in town--Dan and I met up with him, Kayleen, Kim and Nien on the Upper West Side to watch some football and eat Indian food. Julien told me that The Ham would be a much better blog if we had a picture of Dan trying to eat a cookie from a pizza box full of cookies.

This picture came out a bit blurry (sorry, not used to working the point and shoot anymore!) so this is a pretty lame attempt at blog glory. Though Dan ate the majority of those cookies in the next 30 minutes of this picture being taken. That has to count for something, right?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Crocheted Bicycle, the Return

Remember that crocheted bicycle?

Yvonne's post about it resurfaced in her year-end wrap-up, and when I clicked the link the other day, I noticed that three months after the post (and previously unbeknownst to us), the artist herself commented. Kinda cool, no? I mean, obviously she found the post with the help of Google, but bumping into her online added to the serendipity of discovering her rad piece of street art, the feeling that this city is just a small town teeming with creative energy.

Now that the artist, Agata Olek, -- who, it's worth noting, happens to be Polish -- is blowing up, we can also say we were in on the ground floor.

Check out this video of her badass crocheted outfit for the famous Wall Street bull.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


This weekend, after Dan told me that I couldn't take a swim class in my current swimwear, I took the subway to Paragon Sports to buy a new swim outfit. The guy working the swim cap and goggle area was extremely knowledgable, helping me pick out what I needed quickly and painlessly. The girl at the bathing suit area, now that's another story. Athletic swimwear has strange number sizes, and I didn't know what they meant, so I asked if she could assist me.

"Yes, let me help you," she said, "because I wouldn't want you to go into the dressing room with a suit that's too small." Based on my dress size, she pulled a few suits for me in size 32. I went to the dressing room and pulled one suit from the rack. I could barely get the thing up my leg. Maybe this one had a weird cut. I tried another one. I somehow managed to squeeze my butt into the thing, but the look was a bit sausage and the feel was a whole lot uncomfortable. The rest of the suits, no better. As if bathing suit shopping wasn't stressful enough!  I peeked through the curtain for further assistance, but the girl was long gone, and there was no one around. I had to change back into my clothes and start over. I got a bunch of bigger suits and tried again.

When I left the dressing room the second time around, another sales woman asked, "How does it fit?"

"Good, I am getting this one," I said, lifting up the size 38--three sizes bigger than what the original girl recommended.

"You know they run small."

"Yeah, thanks."

Luckily, my shopping experience had no indication of the fate of my first swim class. I was certainly nervous for the first day. I was facing a big fear. I don't like going underwater. I always think my contacts are going to pop out. I can't hold my breath very long. I was worried of freakouts and panics and tears. I was afraid that I just couldn't do it.  But then I reminded myself, THIS IS KIDS STUFF, Yvonne.  

I was so happy that I signed up to take the semi-private class with Danielle because she put me at ease. We met at the Y, got dressed in our suits, goggles and caps and looked like twin alien bugs. We got there early so we sat by the pool and watched everyone swim. One lane was taken up by an impressive kids swim team that were fast, furious and fearless.  Then I looked over in another lane where I saw an old man swim so slowly, he looked like a piece of driftwood. I identified with him more. Danielle and I talked but I was very nervous and couldn't follow much of the conversation until she turned to me and said, "I think my head is shrinking."  That made me laugh. I am guessing people don't usually sit around in swimming caps. They're pretty freakin tight.

Our instructor Geo came and introduced himself, and he also put me at ease with his sense of humor. He couldn't figure out who was Danielle and who was Yvonne. We did a few drills like going underwater and making bubbles, paddling our legs, pushing ourselves off the wall and gliding on top of the water, and then finally, moving our arms and legs and trying to swim.  My problem was that I would move my arms and move my legs, but not at the same time. When I came up for air, I forgot to breathe and kept holding my breath. Geo said I needed to relax and was thinking too much. After the half hour class, I was wiped.

Sure, it might sound like I was a total disaster on day one, but it was a total success story for me. I actually felt more calm than I expected I would.  The water felt good. The goggles prevented the contacts from popping out. I could hold my breath okay (maybe too much!) It was scary but it wasn't too scary.  It's possible that one day I will be able to do it.  What a huge relief. Looking forward to next week!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Breakfast of Champions

When it comes to breakfast, I haven’t an adventurous palate. Sure I sometimes enjoy pancakes and eggs on the week-ends, but on most of the days of the week, for as long as I can remember, I eat a bowl of cereal with milk. Bland and bran and some fruit, that's what I crave when I wake up in the morning. On days I really want to go all out, I will treat myself to plain oatmeal topped with sliced apple and cinnamon.

My perspective on breakfast was forever changed when I went to Europe, and I discovered the excitement and wonder of plain yogurt. Who knew such plainness could equal such goodness? Mixing plain yogurt with muesli and corn flakes, that combination of tangy and crunch, blew my breakfast mind. I still continue to dabble in that meal about once a week, but it's not the same: American yogurts just don’t make the grade.

Since then my breakfasts have continued on with their ho-hum existence...until now. Just yesterday, I have made a new discovery that just might revolutionize my breakfast, my world, my entire life. I am pleased to announce a new addition to my breakfast repertoire...drum roll please...homemade granola!

Granola: Ready for its close-up.

I made my first batch a few weeks ago for my sister-in-law during Cookie Bonanza. She is a pretty healthy, non-cookie eater person, so I searched for a low-fat recipe with no added sugar except pure maple syrup. I gifted half and saved the rest for me, and the mix of baked oats, almonds, dried cranberries and crystallized ginger suited my palate nicely. With tons of leftover nuts, coconut and dried fruit from the holidays, I decided to have another go. This time, I would try a more fun (i.e. more sugary) version from Bon Appétit that had a combination of oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, ground ginger, honey, coconut flakes, pecans and a mix of dried fruit--I had cranberries and mango on hand.

While it baked, this granola made my apartment smell warm and heavenly that when I finally took it out of the oven, I could barely help myself from snacking on the too-hot-to-touch, caramel-colored flakes. After it cooled down, I had another taste and it was so good that I was disappointed that it was evening and not breakfast time. I reluctantly ate leftover lasagna for dinner, and spent the rest of the evening sneaking handfuls of granola, thinking about granola and dreaming about how great my granola breakfast would be the next morning.

Some very long hours later, after sleep and a workout, it was finally granola time! For this momentous occasion, I thought I should take a picture or two. It was exciting to have some natural morning light to work with, but my pictures weren’t as sharp as I liked so I whipped out my new tripod to get some extra clear shots. Problem is that I am still new to maneuvering the thing, so it took some time to set it up just right. Even though I still wanted to work on getting the perfect granola shot, I wanted to eat the granola more. So my food photography career was put on hold for another day. The granola was as good as I hoped it would be. I paired it with--what else--plain yogurt and fruit.

Now I can’t wait until tomorrow morning.

My first tripod photo shoot. I was too hungry to wipe down the spoon.

P.S. Happy Birthday to my brother Peter!!!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Nell's Party, Or a Test at Being Pleasant

When we were in college, Kunka, Pete and I would often go to parties and maybe talk to the one or two people we knew, but pretty much just stand in the corner. Then finally, at the last party of our senior year, this group of dudes who were our mortal enemies (they didn't know it, but they were) came up to us and were like, "For four years, we've seen you at these parties and you don't talk to anyone. You're so...intimidating." (I swear this really happened.)

Ten years later, Yvonne and I go to parties and sit in the corner. Nobody's intimidated.

I bring this up because we went to Adam and Nell's to celebrate Nell's birthday on Sunday, and it gave me a chance to put my New Year's resolution to work, and be more pleasant. Jacey was the first of the Ham readers to identify "pleasant" as an attribute not often associated with the writer of this post. Indeed, it probably falls on the list somewhere between "cuddly" and "graceful." Not that I'm generally un-pleasant, per se, but the idea is to be more open and engaging, to take more joy from being around people. Difficult to do from the couch in the corner. But pleasant, I shall be!

Nell, hands-down one of the most photogenic people we know, hiding behind the lens.

So on this day, while hiply attired guests circulated and raved about Nell's truly to-die-for elk meat chili (!), Yvonne and I...stayed rooted to the couch. What can I say -- social dread, like old habits, dies hard.

(But there's always work, with its awkward elevator rides and the exchange of those closed-mouth, grimace-smiles you give to people you see all the time but don't know. In other words, a whole world of opportunity! And, today, I made a real effort...and I give myself a B. I felt more pleasant, but I'm quite certain nobody could tell the difference.)

Also, Yvonne made a red velvet cake!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Movie Marathon 2010 (I Can Still Post About Last Year for Another Coupla Days, Right?)

You know by now that we like to stay in for New Year's Eve, eat homemade lasagna and have a little movie marathon. We've done parties, the midnight run in Central Park -- we've never done Times Square, but I did Spain's version of it once, which had the same massive crowds and pickpockets -- and nothing else really compares. Our movie picks always include a classic, a musical and a lite comedy. Here's a quick rundown of what we saw Thursday night:

- As you can see from my earlier post, this one is a bit of a revelation for me.

Newsies - It's a musical with Yvonne's heartthrob #1, Christian Bale. So she knew she was gonna like it. I was a little skeptical...but nobody told me it's about UNIONS. Two thumbs up! (Though Yvonne says she would've liked it more if she were 13.)

Wet Hot American Summer - Multiple friends whose taste I can no longer trust told me this was hilarious. A cult hit. I worry for the members of this cult.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Jimmy Stewart Is the Man

"In this world, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant."

--Jimmy Stewart in Harvey, one of our New Year's Eve "movie marathon" picks.

Also, my guiding motto for 2011. I guess you could call it a resolution.

It won't be easy.

New Year, New Ham

A special announcement:

After three years of writing The Ham, I think things have grown a little stale. I am excited to announce that starting with the new year, Dan will be joining me as co-writer of The Ham.

That's right: Everyday Ham will now be your online destination for EVERYTHING and EVERYONE Team Squeen.

Please give him a warm welcome!

The Master List

I love making lists of goals. Every year around this time, like many people, I usually think about the past year and decide how I would like to improve myself in the new one. I have written many a resolution list. I even write resolution lists when its not January 1st. I know there are notebooks around my apartment littered with them and a few months ago, when I was cleaning and organizing my computer files, I found a whopping number of them--old and new--so many I made a folder for them. I read them and was sort of amused and dismayed to find that list after list, year after year I basically write the same list of unaccomplished things. The lists were so similar, in fact, that I took it upon myself to consolidate the data and create one master goal list. Perhaps this is the only list I need now. Except for lists on how to accomplish my goals on the master list ;)

The master list (in a nutshell):

1. Be a writer. Be my own boss. Create something I am proud of.
2. Have an awesome supportive network of family and friends.
3. Live in a cool home with a garden and big kitchen.
4. Travel all over the world.
5. Be healthy, active and strong.
6. Actively work on creative pursuits (photography, cooking, etc).
7. Find spiritual bliss.

I often think to myself that I am unfocused and that I don't know what I want in my life, but obviously there is a part of me that does know, but I just keep ignoring myself or thinking that my list isn't good enough and I will come up with a new, brilliant life strategy. My new year's resolution is to stop procrastinating (what am I waiting for?), read the lists and just do it.

First thing I am knocking off my list? Learn how to swim. Falling under the be healthy and strong category, I've been writing this on my goal lists for about ten years. I never took swim lessons and was afraid of water as a child so as a result, I can barely swim from one end of the pool to another. Every time I watch the summer Olympics, I get inspired to take lessons but never do anything about. No more procrastinating! My friend Danielle and I signed up for a private class at the YMCA; we start this week.Wish me luck...this is definitely conquering one of my big fears, and I am feeling a little scared!