Saturday, December 31, 2011

Paris: there's an app for that!

At this time last year I was planning my third business trip to Paris within a five month period. Prior to this fortuitous run, I had only been to Paris once for a very brief overnight trip from Brussels in the mid 80's. My sister, Linda, was living in Belgium at the time and had a business meeting in Paris so I was happy to tag along. That trip was what I like to call my first date with Paris, and it was love at first sight, so when my employer acquired a company in France last year I was thrilled to be a part of the integration team.  In fact, I may have been the first person to volunteer to train our new colleagues.

I flew out a few days early to squeeze in a little pleasure and stayed with my friend Laurie, who lives in the 7th arrondissement just minutes from the Eiffel Tower. It's a fabulous location and hard to pass up for a hotel out near my office in the suburbs.  So why not to commute to work each day and spend all my free time in the city?  How difficult could that be?

Paris is known for its efficient transportation systems and Laurie was teaching me the ins and outs of the buses, Metro and RER trains. My philosophy is that if you can read a map, then you can take a train. They pretty much work the same everywhere in the world. You find your destination, map out your route, board heading in the right direction, and get off at your desired stop.

My first morning commute was a smashing success. Laurie and I walked to the station, she helped me purchase my tickets from the kiosk, checked that I was headed in the right direction, and down the stairs I went to wait for my train. An hour later I was standing outside the Evry station waiting for a colleague to pick me up. The only problem was that I was standing on the wrong side of the station. We finally connected by phone and I was able to navigate to the front of the station (which actually looked like a train station) instead of the back entrance where I had been standing in the freezing February cold. Did I mention my mastery of the French language is practically non-existent? Well it is and the farther you get from the city, the fewer people you'll find that speak English. I knew I should have cracked open that Rosetta Stone, but wait it gets better.

At the end of the day my colleague dropped me back at station and I boarded my train for what should have been an hour's ride back to the city. My route had one transfer, which I'd easily managed on the trip down, so I didn't anticipate any problems going back. I hopped off the train in Juvisy (transfer point) and walked with the crowd (boy, was I feeling like a real commuter now) through the tunnel and up to the other side to wait for my connecting train. It was strangely quiet when I reached the top of the stairs, in fact there wasn't another living soul on the platform. I looked at the sign overhead and even with my limited French I knew that my train was cancelled and there wasn't another one coming in the foreseeable future, so it was back down the stairs where a very nice bilingual woman confirmed that I needed to get back on the green line and head to Gare de Lyon station. From there I could take the #63 bus back to Laurie's apartment. Ok, I could handle this, plus there's an app for that. (Full disclosure: I actually called Laurie to get instructions on the route and where to find the bus at the train station. That's what Parisian friends are for, non?)

I found the buses and easily located #63, so it appeared the commuting gods were on my side. I ran right up to it and tried to board. The driver (who didn't speak English) was pointing further down the road which I eventually figured out was the boarding location. He was sitting in the 'holding area' where they wait until their departure time and there's absolutely no chance of boarding there. So I stood within sight of the bus in the freezing cold. Twenty minutes later I was settled in my seat and heading to Laurie's. As we traveled through the 6th and then into the 7th arrrondissement I was seeing buildings and sites that were familiar so I was feeling pretty confident. I rang the bell for my stop and walked up to the front of the bus and stood just behind the driver waiting to disembark. Once stopped, I stood there for what seem like an eternity waiting for him to open the door. There was one person waiting to board, but nobody moved. Suddenly it felt like all eyes were upon me. What could possibly be wrong? I had the correct stop, so why wouldn't the driver open the door? Finally, the driver turned and looked at me and said that I needed to disembark from the side door. Did I suddenly become fluent in French? Non, but his hand gestures were pretty effective and I also recalled that I hadn't seen anyone exit a bus in Paris from the front like they do in New York, so I turned, held my head high and took the long walk to the back exit. I'm pretty sure that driver was happy to see me leave, and I was happy to see Le Tour Eiffel, again. Home, sweet home...

Day two: The train down to Evry and a cab ride back to Paris

I took the train down to Evry and successfully exited in the front of the station this time. We had a business dinner that evening so I would forgo the train and take a cab back to the city. We dined at Accor Academie, the training hotel for the Accor Hospitality Group in France. This academie provides chefs and other hotel staff with the opportunity to train for positions in Accor hotels across France. Our chef that evening was well on his way to a promising career. It was a delightful evening of good food, good wine and excellent company.

One of my colleagues booked cabs for those of us that were heading back to the city. A few kilometers into the ride, I noticed that the meter was racking up the euros at an astonishing pace.  Remembering that not all cabs in Paris, in fact hardly any, accept credit cards I was pretty sure the 50 euros in my wallet wouldn't get me even close to my destination. Okay, relax, no worries, I'll just check to be sure that the driver accepts credit cards. I leaned over and in my best French accent I asked, "Parlez-vous, Anglaise?" He responded, "Non". Time to pull out those trusty French apps that I downloaded:

I went right to the Talking French Phrasebook app as I recalled it had those frequently asked questions every traveler needs to survive in a foreign land. Bingo! So again,  in my best French accent, I asked:

Answer: "Non".  Rats, not the answer I was hoping for. The upside, though, is that he was very accommodating, which was truly a blessing because as we were approaching the city the fee on the meter was way past the euros I had in my wallet. So it was sink or swim and being the eternal optimist that I am I could manage this little bump in the road, so I asked:

My best French accent was lost on this delightful man so he pulled over and read the sentence I had completely mangled. He immediately nodded his head, checked his own iPhone, and took me to the closet ATM machine where I withdrew another 100 euros to cover the 120 euro cab fare. Yes, I over tipped like a good American and even managed to tear the 20 euro bill that I gave him in half as I pulled it out of my wallet. He laughed and said he would reparer it. I wished him a bonsoir (which I thought might actually be possible once I'd exited his cab) and delivered my most heart-felt merci beaucoup, to date.  So, yes there were a few tense moments, but with the right attitude, a kind and willing Frenchman, and a few good apps almost anything's possible in the City of Light.

My Paris Travel Apps:
RER (Train, Bus and Metro schedules)
Metro Paris Subway
Talking French Phrasebook
Paris Maps (offline version to use without an internet connection)
Aéroports de Paris

Additional posts about Paris apps that you might find useful and enjoyable:
David Lebovitz - Paris Apps
Paris iPhone Apps for Travel, Language Learning, & Fun

So what's your stretch goal for 2012?  Mine, well I think we all know...

Bonne année et bonne santé

Monday, December 26, 2011

Guest Post: Laura's Chanukah Cookies

I had the pleasure of mentoring Laura in her role as a marketing program manager at our previous place of employment. She's exemplifies the kind of talent companies should be nurturing today. While our new jobs have taken us in a different directions, we stay in touch daily thanks to IM, Facebook and email. We are also venturing into other areas of collaboration as this post will attest. Laura's a whiz in the marketing department and it looks like she might have a good fall-back plan if she gets the urge to try something new. 

Laura also pens this very funny blog about her traveling travails: alifeinplasticbaggies.  Enjoy!

Putting the 'oy in holiday joy by Laura Monn Ginsburg

Although the holidays tend to bring out my Rachael Ray instincts more than usual, I must confess that I’m not much of a cook/baker/entertainer. 

For three years now, my husband and I have thrown a Chanukah party for our friends to add something nontraditional to the usual Christmas party mix. We have one of those amazing problems, however, of having too many friends. This year, the guest list was over 80 people.

As our guest list has grown, so has my tendency to make things more complicated for myself. Because most of our friends are of the Gentile variety, I like to make it really feel like they’re at a Chanukah party versus just another holiday gathering. To this end, I make about 10 batches of matzo ball soup and order amazing bite-sized latkes from Linda’s Latkes (Oprah recommended!) in addition to making my signature icebox cake and cucumber sandwiches. This year, I decided to forgo the icebox cake (which takes up a lot of, um, icebox space) and make Chanukah-shaped cookies instead. What could be easier? (Answer: lots of things. Onto the oy.)

Unlike your usual posting goddess, I make very few things from scratch and these cookies were no exception (just call me Sandra Lee-vowitz). I used three packages of Betty Crocker® sugar cookie mix to yield approximately nine dozen cookies. I did make sure to add an extra tablespoon of sugar per mix packet as directed since I’d be using cookie cutters.

Although I’m not a whiz in the kitchen, my father put himself through college working part-time at a bakery, so I have picked up a couple of things most bakers know (no secret tips here)— refrigerating the dough for at least a half hour and making sure to flour your rolling surface and pin generously before even thinking about attacking your dough.

I finally got to work rolling and cutting the cookies but it took me a while to hit my stride—do you know how frustrating it is to make cut-out cookies?!?!

Regardless, they were looking pretty good from the second batch on:

As you can see, the three shapes are a Star of David, a dreidel and a menorah (incorrectly identified as a Kiddush cup by my husband. Like Crate & Barrel makes a Kiddush cup cookie cutter).

After hours and hours of baking, my husband freed his law office shackles and made it home just in time to ice. I found a simple icing recipe online and, using powdered sugar, milk, food coloring and corn syrup, made a simple blue and white icing for the cookies (like a true English major, I just added ingredients together until the consistency looked about right and the coloring looked ‘shiny.’ This was my legitimate icing criteria). Then we got to work:

Bella the dog was super excited about the cookie making as well.

At this point it was about 10 p.m. so we put the cookies in the fridge overnight for piping the next day. 

I did not make my own piping frosting, I hope you’re not too disappointed. I got these great pouches from Betty Crocker that come ready to go with just a minute of kneading and a snip of the tip. Luckily, I actually read the instructions for once and noted that although the frosting sets in minutes, you should wait about three hours to stack them. I piped all nine dozen cookies in about a half hour and left them to sit:

Three hours later I put the cookies in airtight containers until show time that evening. The cookies were a HUGE hit which means that, barring a further loss of sanity, you can look forward to a follow-up post next year!

Happy Chanukah!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Skillet Lamb Chops

I love my Lodge cast iron skillets. They can be used to cook, or bake, just about anything. I just watched David Lebovitz make a tarte tatin in his. Some of you may be using a treasured old pan of your mother's or grandmother's, one that's been seasoned from years of good cooking. If not, a new one can be seasoned by following these simple instructions. I have two skillets; one large, one medium and a medium sized griddle. I use them regularly to bake fish, roast vegetables and potatoes, cook mini pizzas, bake cornbread, or a rustic apple cake. Last night I sauteed New Zealand lamb chops in the large skillet and served them with sauteed cherry tomatoes and broccoli. Cast iron heats evenly and holds the heat nicely so the chops cooked pretty quickly over medium to low heat. 

Greek-Style Skillet Lamb Chops

1 rack of lamb cut into chops (New Zealand or Australian)
2 sprigs of rosemary (removed from the woody stem)
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons of butter
1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Sprinkle the chops with salt and allow them to come to room temperature before cooking. This keeps the meat tender and moist throughout the cooking process. Melt the butter and add the olive oil. When it's hot and just starts to bubble, add the garlic, rosemary and lemon and saute just until the garlic starts to brown. 

Lay the lamb chops in the pan and saute over medium to low heat for about 8 minutes on each side which should result in a medium rare chop. Cooking them slowly allows them to absorb the flavor of garlic, lemon and rosemary.

When they're cooked to your liking, place them on a platter and drizzle with some of the pan juices. Let them rest for about 5 minutes before serving. 

Sauteed Broccoli and Cherry Tomatoes

Cut broccoli into florets and steam for about 5-6 minutes. Remove from heat and cool in an ice bath for a few minutes. Drain well. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a cast iron skillet and heat over medium heat. When hot, add the cherry tomatoes and cook for 2-3 minutes, then add the broccoli and salt and pepper to taste. Continue cooking for another 3 minutes, or until the broccoli is heated through. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with your favorite grated cheese.

You can read up on the health benefits of cooking with cast iron. They're one of the least expensive pans you can buy, and one of the safest with which to cook. You can order them on-line, or keep an eye out for them in TJ Maxx or Marshalls as they frequently make an appearance in the kitchen department at both stores.  For a rustic feel, bring the pans right to the table and be sure to have a little bread on hand to sop up the pan drippings. Delicious!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Christmas Weekend in NY

As we rolled down Route 195 heading straight into a gorgeous, blazing sunset the excitement was mounting in anticipation of seeing the city adorned in its Christmas finery. We planned a day of art exploration, some good food, a stroll down Fifth Avenue and a visit to Rockefeller Center.

The Chelsea art galleries were our first stop. We spent several hours roaming through this five block area and we particularly enjoyed the Jim Hodges exhibit at the Gladstone Galleries. Hurry in, if you can (it runs through the 23rd of December), as it's an impressive body of work. His installations are something to contemplate. I was intrigued with the hole in the floor as part of his mirror ball exhibit and concluded that they must have ripped up the existing concrete floor and poured a new one to accommodate "the hole". I felt like I was enveloped by a starry night sky, and yes thoughts ran through my head about the complexity of the cosmos, quantum mechanics, and the black hole.  It was breathtaking. 

In the afternoon we made our way uptown for a little shopping and dinner at Fishtail by David Burke. This old townhome on 62nd Street has been transformed into a trendy, fashionable seafood spot. The coral walls are a dramatic backdrop for the fun fish art, and the room has a delightful ambiance. I started with a half dozen briny Barnstable oysters, which made me feel right at home, followed by roasted lobster served over a light vegetable lasagna. Two things I've never considered putting together, but they paired well.

Finally, we took a leisurely stroll down Fifth Avenue to see the windows which represent yet another form of artistic creativity. Bergdorf's Carnival of the Animals lives up to the standard they've set for dramatic, whimsical over-the-top displays that are always a visual delight. Ally pointed out that some require that you view them from a distance to appreciate what the designer intended.  Take a look for yourself, and have a very Merry Christmas...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hydrangea Wreath

You may remember that when I dried hydrangea a few months ago I mentioned that I'd be making a Christmas wreath. After a trip to A.C. Moore, and a cruise through my neighbor's yard to gather some pine cones, I was ready to get started.  Since this is an inside wreath I opted for an artificial base. Of course I wanted a nice thick wreath that didn't look fake and that was pretty much impossible to find, but I did find some nice garland. It was a nine foot piece which I formed into a circle (double thickness) that when finished measures about 29" across.

I used floral wire to hold the two pieces together. You'll need to wrap a piece around the wreath every 5-6 inches to hold it together. Once that's secure add pine cones around the perimeter by attaching them to a pine bough. I spaced mine about 3-4'' apart.

Next, I attached a garland of artificial berries (A.C. Moore) around the edge of the wreath just inside the pine cones. Everything gets attached with green floral wire. You can adjust the garland so the berries extend toward the edges of the wreath. Center the dried hydrangea on the wreath and push the stems into the greens. You can use a glue gun to hold them in place, or greening pins. I just pushed mine into the greens and they seem to be holding just fine.

To hang the wreath, make a loop using the green floral wire (make sure it's triple thickness) and affix it to the boughs at the top of your wreath.  This wreath is pretty heavy so I used a wall anchor to hang it, and placed a battery operated candle in the base which looks pretty when lit. I also used some of those greening pins in a few strategic spots to hold the wreath against the wall. You can pound them in gently with a hammer. This project will of course involve some spackling paste and paint when I take the it down, but I think it's worth it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


I love these perennial rituals that bring family and friends closer together. Whether we're in the same location, or miles apart, these traditions become part of the rhythm of our lives. It can be something as simple as sharing gifts of food, setting the table with your great-grandmother's tablecloth, hanging that special ornament or playing a favorite game after a holiday meal. Traditions pay homage to who we are, where we come from and what we cherish most in life.

As I was setting the table for Thanksgiving I thought about Leila Saks Ranger, my husband's great-grandmother. While I never had the pleasure of meeting her, I've had numerous conversations with my mother-in-law about her life, her passion and her artistic creativity. She had an eye for beauty and the talent to transform that vision into a magnificent handbag, a needlepoint sampler, or a lovely flower arrangement. Often these heirlooms will spark an interesting conversation around the dinner table, or just quietly comfort those who remember seeing them in another home at an earlier time. 

Traditions are meant to be passed on to the next generation. This year Ally and her cousins, Chloe and Nicholas, prepared the desserts for our holiday meal. Chloe made a delicious apple pie using a recipe from the original Silver Palette cookbook, while Ally made a traditional pumpkin tart that she served with a caramel sauce. I helped with the crust as that takes a while to master, but we left them on their own to assemble and bake their creations.

Nicholas arrived with his masterpiece which tasted as good as it looked. With the dessert making in more than capable hands, my sister and I went out to dinner on Wednesday evening and decided this might just become our new tradition. It was a welcome respite before a full day in the kitchen.

As we make the seque into the Christmas season, it's time to hang one of my favorite decorations: Stolle's angel. Some wonder why I'm so enamored with this bubble wrap angel and all I can say is that a gift made by a child can really strike a chord. Stolle presented it to me when she was about six years old and I was so impressed with what she created from some very simple, albeit unusual, materials. Who looks at bubble wrap and thinks of an angel? Obviously, an insightful child. With all the hustle, bustle and commercialism of Christmas it's sometimes hard to stay focused on what's really important, so this angel is a loving and gentle reminder as we head into the holiday season.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Roasted Kabocha Squash

Ok, I admit it, I'm slightly obsessed with kabocha squash. In my last post I mentioned that you can eat the skin and roasting is the way to go for that preparation. This sweet and savory combination blends nicely with the nutty flavor of the squash.  It's a great side for Thanksgiving as you can easily prep it ahead of time and then roast it while the turkey is resting. It offers a change from mashed or pureed squash, and if my family is an accurate barometer (we were eating it out of the pan) then it's sure to be a hit for any meal.

Roasted Kabocha Squash with Pecans and Dried Cranberries
(Serves 4-6)
1 medium sized Kabocha squash
Extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary
Healthy pinch of sea salt
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 cup of chopped pecans
1/2 cup dried cranberries

Trim the top and ends from the squash. Cut it in half and remove the seeds (save the seeds as they can be dried and roasted later)

Cut each half lengthwise, then cut those halves into 1/4 inch crescents.

Place the cut squash in a roasting pan that's large enough to spread it out to one layer. Drizzle with olive oil and toss so all pieces are lightly coated with oil. Finely chop two springs of rosemary that has been stripped from the stem and sprinkle over the squash. Add a healthy pinch of sea salt and some pepper.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes. Add the chopped pecans and drizzle the squash with the maple syrup and bake for another 10 minutes.

Add the dried cranberries and bake for another 5 minutes, then turn on the broiler and cook until the squash starts to brown.

Remove from the oven and allow to sit for about 10 minutes (this will make it easier to remove from the pan), then transfer to a serving platter.

Happy Thanksgiving

Monday, November 14, 2011

Kabocha Squash

This dark green winter squash is also know as Japanese Pumpkin. My introduction to it was through a macrobiotic cooking class. It's a staple of the Japanese diet, and I was enthralled with the nutty flavor at first bite. This preparation uses just a few ingredients, which is the essence of macrobiotic cooking and the way I like to eat food.

I also use kabocha in miso and other winter soups. Its texture is firmer than butternut squash and the skin is edible, too.  Personally, I think the skin tastes best when you roast the squash in the oven with a little olive oil, a drizzle of toasted sesame oil, brown rice or maple syrup, and salt and pepper. This mashed version is a great side dish for Thanksgiving and can be prepared ahead of time.

Japanese-style Kabocha Squash
1 medium sized Kabocha squash, washed, peeled and seeds removed
(select a squash with dark green skin as the flesh will be sweeter)
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 small sweet white onion, sliced into crescents
1 cup of water
1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil (I like Eden brand)
Salt and pepper

After you've peeled and deseeded the squash, cut in into 1 inch chunks.

Add the olive and sesame oils to the pan and saute the onions until golden brown. Add the squash and the water. The water should come about 1/2 way up the side of your pan.

Bring to a boil, then cover the pan and allow to simmer for about 20-25 minutes, or until the squash is very tender and most of the liquid is absorbed. (If the liquid cooks out too quickly during the cooking process add a bit more water).  Add salt and pepper, to taste.

I like mine with some texture so I use a hand masher, but you can use a electric mixer to obtain a creamier texture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Allow the squash to sit for at least 15 minutes before serving. It gets sweeter if it sits for a while. This simple recipe brings out the sweet, nutty flavor of this delicious winter squash.