Puerto Rico Photo Diary

Is it a little silly that I had to wait for our second vacation of the year to come around before blogging about the first? It certainly feels very silly to me. But the thing about keeping up with a lifestyle blog is that it can be really hard to find time to sit down and document life when you’re too caught up in living it. Which is why I had to leave New York, where I can’t seem to relax for more than five minutes, and come all the way to a super chill outdoor coffee shop in California to write about our trip to Puerto Rico last March.

We spent four glorious days in and around San Juan, having been inspired to travel there by several dance crew friends who’d had lovely vacations there in the past. It seemed to have everything we wanted in a spontaneous spring vacation spot—a beach, proximity to nature, delicious food, a good bit of history and Latin American flair—all a short four-hour flight from home. We brought absolutely no work with us and just soaked up our surroundings, starting with the charming little Acacia Boutique Hotel.

The Acacia was in the middle of a quiet, peaceful, and pleasantly un-touristy pocket of the Condado district outside of old San Juan. It was less swanky hotel and more homey beach cottage with a very zen, East meets West sort of aesthetic, which turned out to be precisely the vibe we were looking for. We were the only twenty-somethings in the hotel—everyone else either had grey hair, was retired, or both—so I’m not sure what that says about the age appropriateness of our taste preferences, but I have no regrets. The Acacia was about two minutes from the beach and two minutes from our favorite breakfast spot on the island, and it had a huge heated outdoor pool, which made for wonderful daydreaming, stargazing, splashing about, etc. I would happily have lived there for a month…

Full disclosure though, the beach was not quite what we expected. I’d been looking forward to immaculate white sand, clear tranquil waters, and hours spent reading and tanning, but really, the beach was a slightly warmer version of something you might find off the coast of New Jersey. The waves were large and choppy and the wind was a force to be reckoned with, sweeping up our towels and slapping sand across our faces and such. It was really more of a beach for swimming and watersports than for lounging around, but once we adjusted our expectations, we had a lot of fun. Just a little something to keep in mind for anyone else who travels to the beaches of San Juan expecting it to feel like Bali.

Our favorite breakfast spot was called Kamoli Cafe, and it was a true gem. It was an open-air cafe, so you could sit at a cozy table inside but still feel the sunshine and the breeze coming in. It also had a traveler’s cafe sort of atmosphere, in that it was decorated with paintings and artifacts from around the world and housed a vintage consignment shop upstairs. The fresh squeezed juice cocktails, and more importantly, the Nutella-drizzled strawberry and walnut pancakes were to die for. To the extent that we ordered them on three of our four mornings in Puerto Rico! Oops. As we digested, Simon would take pictures of his coffee and we would plan out all the other places we still want to travel, and dream about some day opening our own traveler’s cafe meets bookstore meets community center in some faraway pocket of the world.

We spent two full days exploring old San Juan, the historical downtown area, and as we walked the cobble stoned streets we tried really hard to think of the right words to describe the feel of the place. Truthfully, it was a bit of a conglomeration of a couple of other cities we’d been to in the past…very sunny and European in its narrow streets, town squares, and facades, much like Barcelona or Vienna or Aix-en-Provence (no doubt because of its Spanish colonial history)…and also equal parts colorful and gritty, much like, say, McLeod Ganj. Then, between the hours of about noon and two pm, the Caribbean cruise ships docked and we were suddenly overwhelmed by throngs of very American tourists (you know--loud, friendly and jovial if slightly lost, donning sunhats and baseball caps and slathered in sunscreen), and it was like we’d never even left the continental U.S.

We sought refuge at Cafe El Punto, an adorable Puerto Rican restaurant at which the host at the door promised we would not be disappointed. And indeed we weren’t!! The place had absolutely fantastic mofongos (mashed fried plantains filled with chicken or shrimp or avocados, among other things) and the bartender was a very hip lady who spontaneously served us free samples of the tropical smoothies and cocktails she was whipping up for other guests. We were stuffed for the rest of the afternoon. We capped off our time downtown visiting the Castillo San Felipe del Morro. I tried to imagine how the castle’s various ancient brick and stone structures were actually used to defend the city back in the day, and had Simon take several perhaps somewhat cliché photos of me at various picturesque places, by which he was (I think) only a little bit annoyed.

I was fairly worried about the forecast throughout much of our stay in Puerto Rico, since rain was predicted for just about every day, but luckily it only actually rained during our already wet excursions—kayaking and hiking the El Yunque rainforest. We hiked the rainforest on Easter Sunday with a very friendly and knowledgeable tour guide from Fine Line Excursions. Our fellow tour group members were, admittedly, very difficult to put up with, but that’s a story for another day. Being in the rainforest itself was wonderful, what with the tropical foliage, the waterfalls, and the misty yet breathtaking view from the Yokahu tower, of the canopy below. Apparently El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, and I think I expected it to feel like a thick and impenetrable jungle. In reality though, the hiking paths were all paved and the uphills are very doable with a baseline level of physical fitness. Think state park, rather than scene from Tarzan. Fun times all around. :)

Our kayaking trip took us to Laguna Grande, a bioluminescent bay in which, when it’s completely dark out, microscopic little creatures light up the water like glitter with every movement of your paddle or flutter of your hand. It was a pretty magical sight to see, but our favorite part of the experience was actually getting to kayak through mangroves under a pitch black sky, with rain pouring down all around us. I may have had a mild panic attack when two typical little preadolescent boys pranked us all and screamed “Alligator on the right!!” Other than that, though, the trip was thrilling in all the right sorts of ways. It was too dark and wet to take pictures as we kayaked, so I’ll leave you with this shot we took just before taking off, before the sun set. 

We said goodbye to Puerto Rico months ago, and we leave California tomorrow, but already I can’t help but dream about where to travel next...

International Hip Hop

Recently Spotify has upped its game. Considerably. You can now listen to curated playlists like Pop goes Classical and Chillwave Workout. I’d been listening to Adult Contemporary all day on Sunday and was looking forward to trying out the International Hip Hop playlist while cooking, being a bit of a connoisseur. Three massively disappointing songs later, Drake came on and it was over. Rather than a playlist with hip hop from around the world, it was just...indie hip hop without the indie spin. It was grossly underwhelming. I could do way better, I thought. Ha.

I give you today a musical assemblage—it’s biased, microscale and focused entirely on my own tastes, but ultimately tells us something about what we as listeners can discern from different approaches to the common experience of hip hop. How can a universal medium express similar thoughts and emote to us in languages we cannot understand? Is shared experience that powerful a force? How can we stand to listen to something that doesn’t immediately unfold to us? I think it’s almost like meeting a person, learning new things about them over the span of years. Every time you listen you pick something else out, feel something stark and new. Without further ado, I present an odd assortment of summarily awesome things. I hope your cooking adventures and morning commutes improve as much as mine have!

The fifteen years of research that went into this began in French class, whittling away the morning hours before school learning awful conjugations and watching movies about dead farm fowl (“le coc est mort, le coc est mort…”). Enter Manau’s La Tribu de Dana, a song with such genius that they got sued for stealing the melody line from someone else (video of this harp-playing dude here). Breton/French rap fusion? Bring it.

In lieu of a video for this section, I'll start us off with a picture of me on a mountain in Switzerland (taken by Adaora) around the time I found and listened to most of this music. I was undoubtedly contemplating Manau and intellectual proterty (actually I was wondering how it was possible to be above the clouds. Wut?)

In lieu of a video for this section, I'll start us off with a picture of me on a mountain in Switzerland (taken by Adaora) around the time I found and listened to most of this music. I was undoubtedly contemplating Manau and intellectual proterty (actually I was wondering how it was possible to be above the clouds. Wut?)

Much of this list comes from an appreciation for the genre shared with my dear friend Hilary. “Hey, check out this awesome German rap song” – “Holy crap, this is awesome. I should learn German. Want to learn Russian?” “Sure!” (Today Hilary has learned impeccable German and my Russian could about get me to a sandwich shop at the airport before asking if anyone speaks English). She’s added about half of these songs over the years. Where to start? How about Cro, with the dynamic song pair Erinnerung and Traum, back to back as the pinnacle of an otherwise standard (albeit German) rap album. They’re jam songs and have the tendency to make you want to sing random German words at the wall (fair warning). But more importantly, you should go listen to Peter Fox, who is atrociously not on Spotify. His album Stadtaffe (city monkey) is a thorough work of art, and the songs Fieber and Haus Am See are well worth the listen, and are probably better than anything you'll actually find here (See? I even provided links. What, am I supposed to put up pictures instead?). Peter Fox also frontlines a band called Seeed (why not have too many vowels?), with jam songs Ding (for an infidelity theme) and Aufstehen (because who wouldn’t want to see Cee Lo Green rapping over a German song?). Ignore my playlist and go watch these songs. (Ok, you can keep reading too…)

You will find this playlist has some linguistic biases—this is natural: I never learned Armenian and couldn’t tell you how I feel about their counterculture, nor should I. But German, French or Italian? I have a lot to say. Fabri Fibra is every country’s ugly pitbull, looks like a movie extra, and likes to rap in a coarse Italian bunny suit (don’t click this link). He suffers in solo projects, but does well with collaborations (sort of like Kanye West or post 2002 Eminem)(ouch). Nationalistic smash hit In Italia is a brutal and entertaining look at what it means to be Italian (but really it’s all about Gianna Nannini’s chilling voice: “you were born here, will die here, all this in the country of half truths”), and Idee Stupide, a thematically indiscernible but nonetheless pleasant song has a strong style of its own that is a refreshing break from English songs of a similar ilk. Really it’s about Fabri Fibra’s song Speak English, in which he stuns everyone (me?) in the middle of indicting the English-speaking world on their linguistic imperialism to make watchers of his music video “enjoy the silence” with nearly a minute of seagulls and water just for the sake of doing it.

Where there’s an ugly rapper, there’s a cute little brother, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you to listen to Nesli, Fabri Fibra’s artistic and party-going smaller self. Awful in combo, Nesli differentiates himself by successfully singing and managing some works of pure poetic brilliance like La Fine (look up the translation if you like it—it’s a powerful engagement of time and loss) and Ti Sposero. Dance anthem Non Tornero is positively ratchet, but Spotify doesn’t reach everywhere so I’m stuck leaving you listening to Ancora in Piedi.

I think all the Italians I know would revoke my last name if I weren’t to point to a critically acclaimed artist, so I’ve included Caparezza’s Il Secondo Secondo Me to give you a taste of respectable music. And then there’s Jovanotti, who has a special place in my heart. I was first exposed to his music watching him stand on a raft in the middle of the Mediterranean and talk about how his home was home for the whales and the sea gods (yup), and then I went to Italy and cried my heart out to Tutto L’Amore Che Ho ("All the love I have"listen below and feel something). I’ve added L’Ombelico Del Mondo (umbilical to the world) and Quando Saro Vecchio, a song about aging and dying with grace that gets me every time.

Turning for a moment from Western Europe, I’ve included Bezubaan (sorry Hitesh) but no Honey Singh (sorry Aamir), though to be fair he makes a cameo on Mast Kalandar that I can’t ignore, so there you are Aamir, you can rest happily. A good primer on Desi Hip Hop is a track put together by Manj Musik that I absolutely cannot stand for its egregiously bad English chorus, but if it’s your thing then you should check out this video (there’s fire—there’s always fire). Singh wannabe song Baaki Batein Peene Baad made the list for being an absolute anthem despite being a lyrical goose egg, and I’ve included Musical Doctorz’ Jaguar for stylistic diversity and a smooth flow.

On recommendation from Soyeon I’ve listened to some KPop and, though I could have put a lot more effort into it (sorry), the unequivocally awesome Overdose made the list, and I would listen to it again and again. Someday I’ll choreograph something to it for demo team (bonus points for demo team members who made it this far into the article. You’ll get a solo :P). I’ve added Santana’s Migra for its energy, and I’ve added Juanes’ La Camisa Negra because it belongs with these songs. It’s not strictly hip hop, but it’s my playlist and I think you should know it. Complain later. For more fun, check out the ridiculously cheerful Bonito, another song that doesn’t belong on this playlist, but that is worth listening to, that made me happy when I was exploring (this section belongs entirely to Hilary). Logically, here's a Peter Fox video to keep things in the hip hop genre.

My old friend Taran gave me Kolaveri Di (Ha, oops.) and Amplifier by Imran Khan, but more importantly he pointed me toward Sexion D’Assaut, a controversial and wholly dank French rap ensemble. In true American fashion, its members have been in and out of jail, have shamed themselves publically for their questionably old-fashioned views, and are, of course, brilliant musicians. Driven by the musical mastermind Maitre Gims, a man possessed with a godly voice and a rap flow to make Biggie blush, they’ve put out a recent (I'm old, so maybe not) album called Apogee (climax—pun intended) with tracks like Ma Direction (quit school, don’t care—j’suis Maitre Gims), Wati House and Panama Allons Danser (for a song that dubs itself—it’s not a dubstep remix, it’s just the end of the song; leave it to Europe). Side songs include the wildy popular Desole and Ma Melodie by Dry, ft. Maitre Gims himself. More importantly, Taran led me to Stromae (verlan for maestro—go look up verlan if you don’t know what it is; it’s a linguistic treasure :P) with socially progressive songs and videos like PapaoutaiFormidable and Tous Le Memes. I’ve also included less well-known tracks Batard and Allors on Danse (because Kanye West had to make my playlist somehow—sorry Drake). Stromae is a solid artist and should be critically-acclaimed for some time to come.

Onward. What playlist is complete without slushy consonants and the occasional plosive? Zulu frontrunner Zola put out an Oscar-winning film called Tsotsi with an incredible soundtrack narrating life of a Johannesburg gang and the social tumult in modern-day South Africa. I’ve included songs Mdlwembe (“problem child”), Ehala, Sgubhu Sam and Matofotofo (the last two by other artists)(Matofotofo has the same trumpet line as John Legend and Estelle’s song Wait a Minute, which is awesome but came several years later; stealing a trumpet line from South Africa? Smooth. Or maybe everybody stole from an earlier song; #winning). Avoid Afrikaaner group Die Antwoord like the plague (don’t click this link. Really don’t)—they’re brilliant, but some music is just too weird. Instead enjoy Le1f’s Wut, a decidedly refreshing song with a music video starring a very gay Pikachu. Quality stuff (and open for critical discussion).

A word or two needs to be said about Bushido. Yes, Bushido, the German/Turkish rap headache with an Eminem complex. He started in the truly awful ensemble Aggro Berlin with co-star Fler, and put out some ear-rending songs like Neue Deutsche Welle (cars, chains, and a living falcon) and the destructively bad Deutscha Bad Boy (if you click the link, you’ll laugh and cry and refuse to listen to anything else I post). On to Sonny Black, Bushido’s Slim Shady alter ego, and then to angsty rejection of his immigrant background—all the makings of a great rapper. I’ve included the hit songs Schmetterling (a surprisingly enjoyable song called “you are my butterfly”) and Lose Yourself, ahem, I mean Alles Wird Gut, Bushido’s (again surprisingly successful) attempt at a chillingly motivational hit. The translations in the music video... well... it sounds a lot better in German. What can I say.

Let’s instead transition to Fettes Brot, Hamburg’s “hip hop dinosaur,” who has been putting out songs since I got interested in building with blocks and legos. Their music is hit or miss, but they’ve spanned the decades and have songs in every manifestation of hip hop’s evolution (See Am Tagen Wie Diesen for German jogging and casual tanks). I’ve included my first love affair with a German song, Emanuela, that I got to know at the dances at, you guessed it, German camp. Circa-2010 hit song Ich Lass Dich Nicht Los is a surprisingly moody indictment of old people on the internet and makes you feel all sorts of interesting things about love, loss and longing, most of all leaving you not wanting to be a lonely dude in a chat room (do those still exist? Sorry 2001!).

And back to Manau, my grade-school French infatuation and first exposure to songs in other languages that weren’t about brushing your teeth, counting chickens and civic duty. La Poupée has a wickedly contemplative beat that you could read philosophy books to, and should be a slow outro to any playlist on international songs. I included the Street’s English-language but decidedly non-American arrhythmic hit, Let’s Push Things Forward, the closest I’ll get to that deplorable Spotify playlist on International Rap. Et voila! We’ve come full circle, are still talking about Spotify, the internet, and some snarky use of the word ‘indictment’ – shows up a lot in talking about hip hop. Thanks for reading, go do your own research, and tell me what I missed. Hope you have as much fun as I did, and the backstory always makes it richer. Thanks again to fellow enthusiasts who helped me build the list over time. I give you my musical anthology.

Ode to Domesticity

Sometimes I look at Instagram pictures of pancake stacks, freshly baked cinnamon rolls, or fancy winter salads and lunch spreads—often immaculately displayed on a rustic reclaimed wood table with fresh flowers, a cup of coffee, and an adorable puppy or small child frolicking in the background—and I dream. I dream of a life in which I can wake up in the morning and have just three things on my agenda: Cook. Decorate home. Take photos. Repeat. What a disappointment I must be for the feminist movement! The dreaming is short-lived though. I remind myself that someone with a 9-5 job/grad school situation and dance rehearsals plus a social life in the evenings cannot realistically aspire for this sort of tranquil domesticity. I also remind myself that I did not move to New York City to hole up in our cramped, 40-square-foot pre-war kitchen and make delicious things. I could have just as easily become a chef/homemaker/professional lifestyle blogger from a cozy farmhouse in Vermont. With all that said though, it's winter, and I’ve had the luxury of a full month of vacation for the holidays. And on vacation...sometimes dreams come true. 

I’ve embraced domesticity in all sorts of ways this past month and a half. First, I made it my mission to turn our apartment into an actually comfortable and inviting place to live. Away with the stacks of dirty dishes, scattered piles of laundry, and the flurry of textbooks and miscellaneous papers that threaten to consume us when we get too busy to pick up after ourselves. In with the scented candles, homemade chai lattes, and Pandora’s hipster cocktail party radio station playing softly all day long. I discovered I’m happiest in my surroundings when all of my senses are stimulated just right…when the candles make our living room smell like pine cones and glow, and I’m sipping away at a cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg-infused hot drink while Vance Joy sings about riptides and I curl up with a novel on the couch…*swoon*.  Okay, I shall stop gushing now. What I really want to talk about is baking. Baking—before, during, and after the holidays—was my ultimate ode to domesticity. Once I got started, I couldn’t stop. And I feel compelled to share my creations with those of you who also enjoy baking and/or consuming sweet things because…well because they were damn delicious, if I do say so myself. Oh and they looked gorgeous too.

First up were these gooey cinnamon squares. One December morning before dance class, I was overcome by an urge to whip out my Smitten Kitchen cookbook and make this decadent dessert, which is essentially a cross between a snickerdoodle and gooey butter cake. It satisfies a sugar craving like nothing else! It also uses ingredients you probably already have at home, goes down wonderfully with a cup of coffee, and is the perfect little something sweet to take to a winter party or potluck. Simon and I selfishly ate nearly the entire pan of these babies ourselves, but we did manage to share a few bites with our Saturday dance crew. Shoot us an e-mail if you'd like the recipe!  Or just buy the Smitten Kitchen cookbook; it is truly a work of art...

For Christmas I went to Hungary to visit my mom's side of the family (they are responsible for my incorrigible sweet tooth, just FYI) and we spent ten days preparing and eating various three-course feasts and baking--among other things--these hazelnut tea cookies. These are the cookies you want to make for your friend/relative who claims they don't like sweets, because that friend/relative will devour these anyway. The cute, bite-sized, snowball look makes them kind of irresistible and the hazelnut flavor really comes through. Then there's the fact that they quite literally melt in your mouth thanks to all the butter and powdered sugar. I would make them every day if they were also healthy, but alas...Recipe here!

The inspiration for the deliciousness above was that for Christmas Eve dinner, it was requested that I make brownies for dessert. Now with all due respect, there was no way I was going to do that. I love brownies, I do. Brownies are great for a ladies' night in or a children's slumber party or for satisfying a case of the afternoon munchies...but for a holiday dinner?? I go big or go home. So instead, I made this French chocolate cake in collaboration with my mom and the brother. And it was just lovely. I've realized lately that the best desserts are the ones that are made with just a couple of basic ingredients, and have a deep, complex flavor and a moist and satisfying texture without being overwhelmingly sweet and heavy. This simple cake was the perfect example of that. It was rich and dark chocolaty and decadent without being too sugary or dense. We served it up with vanilla ice cream, fresh berries, and a dollop of whipped cream, and everyone was happy. People were still calling it brownies at the end of the evening…but I didn't let it get to me. Really, it is so much more.

I finished off my ode to domesticity after ringing in 2016 in Brooklyn. While everyone was making New Year's resolutions about going to the gym more and eating healthy things, I rebelled and made this incredible thing called cannoli pound cake instead. It is exactly what it sounds like. All the ingredients of a traditional Italian cannoli--ricotta, chocolate chips, pistachios, etc.--in cake form. It is quite possibly the most unique and intensely flavored pound cake I've ever had, and if I'd developed the recipe myself and was even remotely skilled and brave enough to start a small business, I would definitely be trying to sell it in local coffee shops by now. Please indulge yourselves and make this, ASAP. It can be your next just-because cake. 

The fun and games are over on our end though. We're back to the daily grind of school and work and dance, which means the apartment will slowly descend into a state of complete disrepair, and we will gradually transition from quick but wholesome homemade meals like lentil soup to dinners hastily ordered on Seamless. Life will become significantly less domestic and peaceful and glamorous and blogtastic. But this is okay; only so many dreams can be pursued at any given time. Our 40-square-foot kitchen isn't going anywhere, and I will absolutely be back. 

California

So I have this theory about how different people experience the world…. 

Simon on the Stanford Dish Hike trail. :)

….Some people might walk down the hiking trail above completely absorbed in their own thoughts, for the most part taking for granted their natural surroundings. Some might walk the path a little more in tune with their environment, pausing every once in a while to take a photo and think, 'wow, this is beautiful.' And others might experience this scene with every ounce of their being, marveling at the way the sun illuminates the golden grass, deeply inhaling the fresh air from the bay, and trying to find the right words to describe just what it feels like being eye-level with the clouds. Simon and I strive to fall into this third category. When we explore new places, we try not to focus too much on hitting up all the tourist spots and seeking out thrilling activities, and instead we take our time to really, truly feel the atmosphere of a place with each of our senses, capturing our impressions through pictures and prose. On that note, I'd like to talk about how we felt about our week together in California this summer. :) 

One of my favorite parts of California was without a doubt the mornings spent relaxing in Simon's backyard in East Palo Alto. There's nothing quite like fresh fruit, organic cereal, and the promise of uninterrupted reading time in a hammock to convince you to get out of bed in the morning. Then there was the weather, which basically embodied everything that perfect summer weather should be. Sunny and warm on the surface, with a consistent undercurrent of a crisp, cool breeze…blue skies, a reliable 65 degrees, and exactly zero chance of rain…honestly the weather made me want to live outdoors. What I would have done to bring it back to New York with me! We never spent more than an hour or so sitting and relaxing though. Even on vacation, I can't seem to sit still for too long, which is why breakfast and hammock time was followed almost always by a bike ride.  

Since we did not have a car, we biked literally everywhere, from Stanford campus to downtown Palo Alto to Simon's lab at NASA. What struck me the most during our miles of bike rides was that California is truly vast. Compared to Manhattan especially, there is an incredible amount of empty space, which was alternately liberating and isolating. In that sometimes it was kind of amazing feeling like it was just us and the grass and the sky left in this world, but at other times I missed the comfort of being surrounded by people and the hustle bustle of life. At any rate, the palm trees that lined the main road to Stanford were absolutely stunning, and the dry, arid landscape of the Bay Trail leading to NASA had a unique beauty to it too.

A funny moment from our bike trips was when I realized that part of the reason California seemed so golden brown in color was because I was seeing everything through my sepia-toned sunglasses. (Imagine seeing life through your favorite Instagram filter--that is basically what it was like.  I have since concluded that everything looks better in sepia tone.) Also quite amusing was the number of hurdles we had to overcome in order to actually be able to use our bikes to get around: two flat tire incidents, one case of oops the key is permanently jammed in the bike lock and we need professional assistance to open it, one chain falling off debacle, and the rather silly fact that the bike rental shop gave us a super fancy road bike which was only possible to ride if you leaned down like you were Lance Armstrong. How I felt about these obstacles is best captured by the second photo below.  

But enough about biking. When we weren't busy taking the scenic route to get from point A to point B, we spent our time on foot, exploring two cities: downtown Palo Alto and San Francisco.  Palo Alto puzzled me, because it seemed to have a bit of an identity crisis. Its residential parts consisted of quiet tree-lined streets and charming old Spanish- and Victorian-style houses inhabited primarily by Stanford professors. But in stark contrast, the commercial district was filled with swanky storefronts, modern but somewhat unoriginal architecture, a young, T-shirt and flip flop-wearing Silicon Valley crowd, and a few too many parked cars. It all felt like an awkward cross between a quaint college town and a run-of-the-mill American suburb, without a unifying culture or character. BUT that doesn't mean it didn't ultimately steal my heart! Palo Alto's saving grace was its fantastic food scene. 

We had the most delicious arepas ever at a lovely little Venezuelan place called Coupa Cafe. Then there was the incredible brown sugar banana and speculoos flavored ice cream at a 'microcreamery' called Scoop, and the award-winning (literally) Italian food at Osteria. I could go on. But everything just tasted so very fresh and so uniquely flavorful. I suspect this was at least in part because the ingredients in most of these eateries were locally sourced--when you think about it, just about all of our produce and organic food comes from California or someplace near it. But I am sure much credit is owed to the chefs and patrons of these restaurants as well, many of whom had received a 'Best of Palo Alto' distinction. :) In any case, spending the day hopping back and forth between the outdoor courtyards and terraces of various food establishments seemed to be an entirely acceptable thing to do in the city, and we embraced it. We whiled away whole afternoons reading and blogging and talking about life at Blue Bottle Coffee. Though Blue Bottle has many locations in New York as well, none of them can compete with the bright, sunny, inviting, picture perfect atmosphere of this one in particular!

As for San Francisco…well it would take a whole separate blog post for me to adequately convey my love for San Francisco, but I'm going to try my best to fit it in here. Simon and I had both been to the city before but I insisted that we come back for a day trip because I find San Francisco to be so wonderfully and refreshingly different from any other American city I've visited.  I love its hilly topography, its weirdly cold and windy and perpetually autumn-like climate (fun in small doses), its colorful streets and ethnic neighborhoods and Victorian houses, its proximity to the bay… need I go on? I think the pictures tell the story best. We began our day in vibrant Little Italy….

 …admired the architecture on the way to Fisherman's Wharf….

…strolled through the Marina district, and saw for the first time the breathtaking Palace of Fine Arts

…and capped off the day at the Presidio, an old military post turned into an enormous public park, which apparently features a food truck festival every Thursday evening April through October. I think it was at this food truck extravaganza that I felt most strongly that we were in California. A long row of food trucks was lined up along the green, serving everything from Baja fish tacos to Peking duck Neapolitan pizza to grilled cheese and tomato soup and other comfort foods. In the center of the green, a live banjo band played, and people gathered around campfires in little huts called cabanas, chowing down and enjoying one another's company. We'd never experienced anything like it before. I couldn't decide if I'd just walked onto the set of the movie Chef, or if I'd entered a new-age hippie commune, but I was very happy. 

I came back to New York about eight days later to an apartment that was just as much of a disaster as when I'd left it, and--much to my displeasure--to a new family of cockroaches. But you know, I think I brought some of the happiness and carpe diem attitude I found in California back with me. I've been pretty high on life ever since. I'd be quite content getting to spend a week or two of every year recharging my soul on the West Coast. I leave you with one last photo. It complements the very first one, being from the same Stanford Dish Hike trail that got me thinking about different ways of experiencing the world. It reminds me to not just breeze through each day as if it were nothing remarkable, but to really seize each moment and LIVE. 

An Elegant Affair

I’ve been thinking, and I’ve realized that each of my past few summers has had a very distinct theme, or flavor to it. Summer 2013 was the summer of angst, of desperately trying to figure out what in the world I was going to do with my adult life. Lots of apartment hunting, resume writing, and questioning and self-doubt about every decision I had ever made. Summer 2014 was more bright and sunny; it was the summer of exploration. Simon and I fell in love with New York and spent every spare moment discovering a new park, book store, coffee shop, or neighborhood. We were so inspired by our surroundings that we started this blog to record our adventures. It was glorious.

As for this summer? Summer 2015 has been without a doubt the summer of dance. Instead of accompanying Simon to California for his ten-week research stint at NASA, I stayed in the city to prepare for two incredibly important performances in August with Bollywood Funk NYC (videos coming soon!!). I’m absolutely thrilled to be working towards my childhood dream of becoming a professional dancer, and I’ve made some amaaazing new friends along the way. :) But wow, dancing for two to three hours after work every day has left me exhausted! And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss my summer of exploration a little bit. I miss having time to look around and soak up the beauty of the city around me. I’m always doing, doing, doing, and sometimes I miss just…being. Which is why I’m finally making time to blog about one of the few times this summer that I got to simply be. It was early June, and my best friend Natalie and I had the privilege of attending the tenth annual Jazz Age Lawn Party

The Jazz Age Lawn Party takes place on Governor’s Island a couple of weekends each summer. It is essentially an opportunity to travel back in time to the Roaring Twenties and experience the music, dancing, fashion, culture, and overall ambiance of the Prohibition era. It’s a dream come true for anyone who wishes they could have lived in the time of flappers, live jazz, and speakeasies. And it is indeed a most elegant affair. Natalie and I dressed up for the occasion. We each already had era-appropriate white and black dresses, respectively, but we had to do some serious research and last-minute shopping where flapper shoes and accessories were concerned. We ended up donning pearls, sparkly headbands, dangly earrings, and plain close-toed high heels in addition to the dresses, and drew quite a lot of attention to ourselves en route to the event (i.e., some not so subtle photos were taken of us on the subway, because I suppose we weren’t exactly in typical Saturday morning attire). Though once we boarded the ferry that would take us to Governor’s Island and arrived at the party itself, we fit right in. Everyone else had dressed up too; even the gentlemen were decked out in button-downs and suspenders and hats. The third photo below perfectly captures the scene, which frankly reminded me of a certain impressionist painting. ;)

The party kicked off with live music and a Charleston dance lesson. Two dapper young men asked us to dance, and together we all learned the basic step and a turn sequence. My swing dancing experience from college helped me out a bit, but mostly we bumbled about, laughed at ourselves, and had a great time. There were some party attendees and professional performers, though, who danced very convincingly like they were actually from the 1920s. After dancing for a bit, we found a shady spot on the lawn, parked our picnic basket, and enjoyed some cheese and fruit from home, as well as some not entirely era-appropriate but nevertheless gourmet pulled pork sandwiches and mac and cheese. And then we just relaxed and reveled in the calm, peaceful, joyous atmosphere of the event.

Since there are no cars allowed on Governor’s Island, we were far removed from the sounds of the city. A live jazz vocalist crooned along on the mini stage nearby, her band’s music playing through an antique gramophone. Anti-prohibition signs and various vintage clothing vendors lined the edges of the lawn, and we got a glimpse of some fancy 1920s car models too. And after standing in line for nearly an hour, we got our hands on some cocktails and marveled at what a civilized and sophisticated sort of affair this whole party was. Such a far cry from my raucous night at Governor’s Ball the weekend prior. Everyone around us was content to chat, picnic, play cards, sip politely from their drinks, and be merry. The crowd felt like a bit of a cross between Sunday churchgoers and croquet party guests, which was actually kind of ironic considering that the Roaring Twenties were all about being wild and breaking norms and such. I wonder what our predecessors would have thought of our relatively tame shenanigans. I, for one, had a lovely time.

When four o’clock rolled around, the party swiftly drew to a close. We stood in line for the ferry back to Manhattan, back to the present, back to reality. I wasn’t quite ready to leave, and thinking back on it now, I wish I could go back to the Jazz Age Lawn Party just for a little bit. But perhaps the fleeting nature of it is part of what made it such a memorable experience in the first place. There’s always next year!

Thrice-Baked Lemon Pie

The days are getting longer. The air is warmer, fresher than it’s been in months. The birds are chirping again, and I even saw a tree blooming in Tribeca the other day.  Never mind the occasional surprise snowfall and the fact that I’m slowly drowning in grad school work—it’s officially spring and I feel alive. We’ve emerged from our winter slump and all of a sudden I feel compelled to do brunch on Sunday mornings, to take long walks through Washington Square Park, to run off to dance class every chance I get, to finally attend to all those creative projects I started but never got around to finishing. Never mind that there are still only 24 hours in a day—my energy and ambitions are boundless this time of year. Sometimes Simon tries to get me to slow it down a bit, stop being such an energizer bunny, sleep in for once. This doesn’t usually work. Two weeks ago, I got up at 9am to bake pie. 

I’ll have you know, though, it wasn’t just any pie. It was a black bottom lemon pie from The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book that Simon got me for Christmas, to help me carry out the rather ambitious culinary project I began last July—mastering the art of pie baking. Now the pie book itself is an extraordinary thing. It was written by two sisters who own the lovely Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop in Brooklyn, and it takes you through absolutely every step of the pie baking process from selecting seasonal ingredients to preparing the crust from scratch to baking the custard or fruit filling just right. The book isn’t for the casual baker or the traditional one; its instructions are slightly geared towards perfectionists like myself and the recipes are all highly creative spins on typical favorites. So my black bottom lemon pie experience turned out to be quite the adventure.

First—and this was about three months ago—I went on a hunt in search of all the equipment our kitchen still needed in order to make this black bottom lemon pie happen: a pastry blender, a rolling pin, pie weights, a citrus juicer, a grater, and a fine-mesh sieve. Second—now we’re back to 9am two weeks ago—I went on another hunt, traipsing all about the Upper West Side for Meyer lemons, a sort of cross between an ordinary lemon and an orange that the recipe absolutely needed. Then, after obtaining all the other, more basic ingredients, I got to work. I followed all of the pie book’s instructions for preparing the all-butter crust to a T: Mix the dry ingredients. Cut in butter with a pastry blender. Add ice water and apple cider vinegar. Bring the dough together into a ball. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Roll out the dough with a rolling pin. Fit it into a buttered pie pan. Crimp the edges. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Prick the crust all over with a fork. Freeze for at least 10 minutes. Line crust with aluminum foil and pie weights and pre-bake it for 20 minutes. Brush crust with egg white glaze and pre-bake for 3 more minutes. Breathe. Your crust is finally done.

Sound like a lot of steps? It was. In fact, this is a much-abbreviated version of all the steps; I’ve left out all sorts of highly specific tips and techniques and instructions that were also included in the pie book and that played a pretty significant role in making the crust work. But all I’d like to say about the crust is that all the work was completely worth it and I wouldn’t change a thing next time. All the refrigerating and freezing and waiting between steps made me impatient but made the dough wonderful to work with, and the final crust both aesthetically pleasing and texturally heavenly. I felt incredibly accomplished when my pre-baked crust popped out of the oven looking like a work of art.

Making the filling was significantly easier. I melted some chopped Ghirardelli chocolate and heavy cream and spread it all over the bottom and sides of the crust to create a glorious “black bottom.” And while that was setting in the fridge, I juiced and zested four Meyer lemons and one orange, combined this mixture thoroughly with eggs, sugar, and cream, strained it through my recently bought fine-mesh sieve directly into the chocolatey pie crust. Then I baked the whole pie at 325 degrees for about 40 minutes. Simon cheered me on and took countless photos throughout this whole process, and when the pie was finally out of the oven, I let it cool for a few hours while we went to see Insurgent in theaters. Guilty pleasures. :)

We tried the pie around 2 in the morning, after our late-night movie, and it was everything I had hoped it would be and more, creamy and immensely flavorful, with the dark chocolate bottom perfectly offsetting the sweet yet tart taste of the lemon filling. The crust that I’d spent half the day working on didn’t fail to impress either—crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, golden brown in color…certainly my best work thus far. We had only a slice each that particular night, but continued to eat the pie every night for the rest of that week. We thought about inviting friends over to share it with….but it was just so delicious...we’ll share next time. ;)

And now I suppose I’ll confess…I call my most successful black bottom lemon pie a thrice-baked lemon pie because that is in fact the number of times I had to bake it before I achieved this beacon of deliciousness that I describe above. The first time I baked this pie, you see, I followed the instructions in my pie book a little too closely. Don’t overbake the pie, it said. Take it out of the oven when it’s set but still quite wobbly. My pie was wobbly all right. So wobbly that when I eagerly cut a slice for Simon and I after it had fully cooled, the whole thing transformed into a gooey, underbaked mess. So what did I do? I put that pie right back in the oven and baked it again. By that point of course, it was ugly, fairly unsalvageable, and certainly not blog-worthy. So two weeks ago, when I woke up at 9am feeling giddy because it’s finally spring, I started from scratch and baked that black bottom pie a third time. I used my own judgment and let it bake until it was only very slightly wobbly and voila, the third time was the charm. Pie isn’t something you can just master the first time around, it seems. Making mistakes is a necessary part of the process. Which means that this particular culinary project (like most of my other projects…) is going to be a whole lot lengthier and more complicated than I originally thought. It also means that we get to eat more pie. No complaints about that!

Carotene Adventures: Anatomy of a Recipe

What do you do with 75 carrots? Rather, how do you make 75 carrots into the most moist, mouth-watering pot of natural goodness imaginable? Thanks to Smitten Kitchen, we've been making this recipe for over a year. It's my favorite thing to eat, and I'm always suggesting that we make it (even in the summer). Between the months of November and April, we do indulge liberally. 

Instead of telling you, we developed a project we've been meaning to try for quite a while. After watching, you'll have a good idea of how a sharp knife, an immersion blender and some good supporting ingredients can transform a heaping pile of root vegetables into a steaming bisque. Step by step, moment by moment, we give you: Carotene Adventures.

And for all that cannot see the embedded video above, here is the youtube link.

Winter in Two Cities

As someone who grew up in the heart of Chicago but who has also unabashedly fallen in love with New York, I take issue with how often people seem to like to pit these two cities against each other.  Some of my dear Chicagoan friends tell me that New York is too crowded, too dirty, too expensive, too pretentious, not nearly as incredible as it claims to be. Meanwhile, native New Yorkers have informed me that Chicago is nothing but a ‘second city,’ too Midwestern, too gang-ridden, insufficiently cosmopolitan, always trying yet inevitably failing to live up to the greatness that is New York. What is this ridiculousness? Why can’t each city be appreciated in its own right instead of being regarded as an inferior version of the other? Why can’t we all just get along? Spoiler alert: This will not be a Chicago vs. New York blog post. I’m not in the business of polarizing my audience. Plus I’ve never been a huge fan of taking sides in such debates. Call it indecisiveness, but I don’t see things in black and white—I’m more of a gray area kind of gal.  So these past few weeks of winter, as Simon and I split our time between Chicago and New York for the holidays, I was interested not so much in comparing these two cities but rather in having new and inspiring experiences in both.

New York

In mid-December, as part of our last-minute scramble to find the perfect Christmas gifts for our families, we visited the Union Square Holiday Market. It turned out that the rest of New York was in an eleventh-hour Christmas shopping frenzy too—the market was so packed that the only way to explore each vendor’s offerings was to join the long, snail-paced line weaving through the square and wait a minute or two at each stall to get a front-row vantage point. But everyone was in good spirits, and the body heat the crowd collectively generated on that 30-something degree day made for a surprisingly cozy outdoor shopping experience. We had many excellent finds (a lovely red infinity scarf for my mom, a Toulouse Lautrec-inspired set of coasters for Simon’s mom, etc., etc.) but by far the most interesting stall we came across sold handcrafted jewelry and wall décor made of antique ceramic plates, vintage coins, animal skulls, and other ancient curiosities. The vendor, Scott Jordan, told us that he had personally collected the artifacts for the jewelry and wall art by conducting urban archaeological digs at various sites across the city. We found this absolutely fascinating, and we’ll certainly be returning to the holiday market next year. Shopping on Amazon may be convenient, but the holiday market is a much more intimate, creative, and fun setting for finding that perfect gift. 

Our second New York adventure of the winter was a trip to City Bakery. I had discovered City Bakery on a scrumptious list of 27 places in the world to get incredible hot chocolate. So when we walked through its doors I was thoroughly expecting to be wowed, and City Bakery delivered!!  Our hot chocolate was so decadent that it was served not in a mug, but in a bowl, with a spoon. It was a thick, creamy, and rich milk and dark chocolate concoction that came with an enormous, fluffy, made-in-house marshmallow on top. And it was heavenly. To top it off, the buttery and flaky pretzel croissant we ordered with it was the perfect complement—the saltiness of the croissant offset the sweetness of the hot chocolate just enough to leave me wanting more of both. I’m getting excited all over again just thinking about it! The only other time I can remember having such an amazing winter treat was during our visit to Angelina three years ago, a café across the street from the Louvre in Paris. So I feel so very lucky that the gem that is City Bakery is in lower Manhattan, just a few subway stops away from home. You might just find us there the next day that it drops below 30 in the city. Oops, I think that’s tomorrow! 

Two days before leaving town for Chicago, we celebrated my birthday on Broadway and attended a performance of If/Then at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. I think most Broadway shows could be appreciated from just about any theater in the world, but I was really happy we got to see this particular one in New York itself.  In case you’re unfamiliar with the show’s premise, it’s a very contemporary sort of musical that traces the alternative paths that a woman’s life can take based on one small and seemingly trivial choice that she makes after moving to New York City. Having spent the past year and a half making big decisions, wondering about their ramifications, and trying to make it in New York myself, I really connected with the story on a personal level. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone, but let me just say that Idina Menzel was fabulous, and that as we left the theater and walked toward the lights of Times Square, I was filled with a sense of endless possibility. New York as of late often makes me feel this way.

Chicago

We made it to Chicago just three days before Christmas, and on this particular visit we were determined to not only catch up with family, but also to experience the city from a fresh perspective. Growing up there it had been so easy to take our surroundings for granted. This time, though, we were ready to soak up the city, to rediscover it, to make new memories there. And so, after making a big batch of Swedish chocolate balls for Christmas day, I took my little brother to the annual Zoo Lights festival at Lincoln Park Zoo.  The event was clearly geared towards children and families, but I found it pretty magical myself. It began at 5pm, after normal zoo hours had ended, and while the animals all appeared to be sleeping, every tree, patch of grass, and walking path in sight had been illuminated by a gorgeous holiday light display. The zoo had transformed into a winter wonderland of sorts. You could see the breathtaking Chicago skyline across the pond. And even the typically frigid weather was on its best behavior for us. We spent a good two hours wandering amidst the lights, taking in the festive atmosphere, and snapping enough photos to exhaust our camera batteries. 

We spent Christmas itself and the days directly after it with Simon’s lovely extended family, playing cards, watching movies, and giving and receiving a rather extraordinary amount of gifts. And once the celebrations slowed down a bit, we went on an adventure to find a favorite Chicago coffee shop. We already had a couple of favorites in New York (they’ll be featured on our coffee project page very soon, promise!) but none yet in our hometown (we were over-scheduled high schoolers the last time we’d lived there, after all—coffee shop hopping hadn’t been a priority at the time!). So we found this fabulous list of Chicago’s best coffee shops and decided to try two of them. First, we met up with a dear old friend at Gaslight Coffee Roasters in Logan Square. The latte there was hands-down incredible. Creamy and nutty with just the right touch of acidity, flavorful in a layered and complex way. And we loved the spacious, industrial, loft-like sort of vibe in the coffee shop too; it was exactly the sort of atmosphere we’d hoped to find in that corner of the city. 

Our next coffee shop stop was The Perfect Cup in Ravenswood—Simon’s parents took us there. At The Perfect Cup, interestingly enough, the latte was actually somewhat less amazing than the establishment’s name suggests. But we were okay with this because the café itself was so darn cute.  It was sunny and bright, with large comfy couches and Ikea-like dining room furniture. Our table was large enough for a game of chess and a game of cards to be played side by side. Overall, The Perfect Cup felt like it could have been a close friend’s apartment; it was a homey, inviting, and comforting place to while away a cold winter afternoon. 

As I write this, it’s nearly one week later, and we’re back in our little Upper West Side abode. Winter is far from over, but we’ve loved wrapping up 2014 with these Chicago/New York adventures and we’re super excited for whatever the new year will bring. For now, given the pile of cookbooks that I got for Christmas currently sitting on the coffee table (and given the frighteningly cold forecast for the weekend!), I’m thinking I’ll spend the next couple of days holed up in the kitchen, cooking up some mushroom bourguignon and malted chocolate pecan pie...Stay warm, everyone! 

Tuesday Grind

So very much to do, so little time…that has been the theme of these past few weeks of autumn. One day in early October, I fell asleep dreaming of pumpkin spice cookies, foliage-filled hikes, Sunday get-togethers with friends, and warm apple cider. Then I got hit with the boatloads of reading assignments, essays, and research projects that I had somehow forgotten would be a part of graduate school, and promptly put aside the various seasonal pleasures I had planned. Now it’s nearly Thanksgiving and as I look back wondering where all the time has gone, I realize that my days have mostly been dominated by routines. Yes, routines, those mundane activities that most of us breeze through each day without a second thought as we power through our to-do lists, run to keep up with our overscheduled lives, and pursue the ever-elusive goal of accomplishing all our hopes and dreams. No one ever really seems to talk about or take any pleasure in their routines, much less blog about them. But why not? Life isn’t always a thrilling roller coaster ride or a beautiful walk in the park, as much as we like to portray it as such. Sometimes life is just plain ordinary.  And ordinary can be okay. It can even be beautiful and enjoyable in its own way, if you allow it. This post is my tribute to the ordinary. It is a photo journal of my Tuesday routine, my Tuesday grind. It was inspired by the Sunday Routine section of the New York Times, and hopefully it will inspire you to discover your own routines, to find a way to spice them up and enjoy them, to take charge of your version of ordinary and live it to the fullest.  Here goes. :)

8:50am Tuesday starts with an egg bagel and cream cheese from Absolute Bagels. At this point in the morning, I feel groggy and unpleasant, because I have been silly and have only gotten about six hours of sleep the night prior. But my bagel fixes everything. It is fresh out of the oven, soft and moist on the inside, crisp on the outside, and stuffed beyond belief with cream cheese.  It is freakishly delicious, because the people at Absolute Bagels are masters of their craft. 

9:30am Having survived three rather cramped and uncomfortable subway rides and hurrying my way through the swarms of rush hour commuters, I am at Grand Central Station and it is beautiful. I come here three times a week to catch the train to my classes at Sarah Lawrence, and when I have time to spare I walk this hallway slowly and try to experience it with the awe and appreciation with which a tourist might experience it. Did you know Grand Central Station is the biggest train station in the world? Just a fun fact I try to keep in mind on ordinary Tuesdays. 

9:45am Time for a latte from Irving Farm, one of my absolute favorite places to get coffee in Manhattan. This latte is so much more than just a caffeine fix…it is rich, creamy, and immensely flavorful. It is artfully presented and it leaves you feeling warm and cozy and happy and awake and ready to conquer the world. It is pure perfection. Lucky for me, the Irving Farm at Grand Central is literally right next to the platform where I usually board my train, so this latte is a permanent fixture in my Tuesday routine. Once they took an extra minute or two to get me my order (it was no trouble at all, really), and the barista gave me a 'free coffee' card for next time, just to be nice. What more could I ask for?

10:50am Two hours after leaving my apartment, I am finally in Bronxville, headed towards Sarah Lawrence campus. The commute is a long one, but in the end it feels genuinely worth it. Bronxville is such a cute little suburban town. It is quiet, calm, and peaceful--a refuge after the bustling streets and impatient crowds of Manhattan. And there are so many more trees, so much more foliage, so much more green. The walk to campus can be hilly and exhausting but I try to soak in the nature and take a few moments to think, to plan, to daydream… 

11:05am I arrive at grandma's house. I mean…at the child development building on campus, where I take a two-hour seminar style class in personality development. Doesn't it look like it could be grandma's house though? It's just as homey and charming on the inside too. A lovely place for learning psychoanalytic developmental theory and training to become a play therapist. :) After my seminar, I cross campus and spend the entire afternoon as a participant-oberver at the Early Childhood Center. This involves watching and interacting with a fascinating (and precious) group of three to five year olds as they run around on the playground, build castles out of blocks, make cookies out of play dough, and pretend to be dragons and princesses in a make-believe land. This is without question the best part of my Tuesday.  

4:30pm A few hours later, I'm back at the train station, still on the Bronxville end of things, ready to start the long commute home. By this point I'm starving and because I didn't have the foresight to pack a snack, I succumb to temptation and treat myself to a Boston cream-flavored doughnut. Confession: I don't actually do this every Tuesday. But I've done it on more Tuesdays than one, and I certainly did it today. No regrets. Everyone deserves a little something at the end of a long day. I board the train, daily dose of sugar in tow, and head back to the city, back home. 

6:15pm It's dinnertime. And because it's Tuesday, the giant pot of chili that we cooked before the start of the weekend is no more. Which means a pit stop at Dig Inn, a most excellent place to enjoy a plate of healthy and natural comfort food. For me this involves free range chicken on a bed of brown rice, with a side of sweet potatoes and roasted beets. It's almost as good as a homemade meal and definitely enough to energize me for an evening of studying. 

7:00pm Simon comes home from his evening class at Columbia. We catch up on our respective days and hunker down, throwing ourselves into our various reading, writing, and research assignments. We look forward to the day when we are no longer graduate students and can actually relax in the evenings like real human beings, but try our best to stay in the present and enjoy the process of learning anyways. Tuesday is nearly done, and Wednesday is almost here. Life goes on, daily routines continue, the ordinary remains ordinary. But we embrace the ordinary. At least until we have time for our next weekend adventure, of course… ;)

A Taste of India in NYC

It may surprise some of you to learn that Simon and I take a Bollywood Funk dance class every week. We learned very quickly after moving to New York that you can find pretty much everything under the sun in this city if you look hard enough. So I, being a dancer at heart, made it my new year’s resolution to find a brand new style of dance to add to my repertoire. A few weeks after the snow melted and we emerged from our winter slump, I signed up for ten lessons with Bollywood Funk NYC.

I’d wanted to try Bollywood dancing ever since Simon and I spent a summer in Dharamsala, India a few years ago, volunteering during the day and enjoying Bollywood music videos over dinner every night. Something about the bright and colorful outfits, the energetic music, and the complete joy radiated by the dancers had me hooked. After watching my first performance with Bollywood Funk, Simon was hooked too. So nowadays, most Saturday afternoons, we attend BFunk classes together at Pearl Studios, in the heart of the Garment District. 

Now the Garment District is admittedly one of my least favorite Manhattan neighborhoods. Though there are few things I dislike about the city, this neighborhood has them all at the highest levels of intensity: stifling crowds, narrow sidewalks, overzealous cab drivers, air polluted with stale dog pee and steamy trash…In the Garment District, I just find it a little hard to move/breathe/exist.  But all that aside, once we arrive at Pearl Studios for dance class, it’s all worth it. Bollywood Funk is a fusion of jazz, hip hop, funk, and contemporary Bollywood dance, which means we get to spend an hour learning some of the most fantastic choreography with an amazing, fun, diverse, and supportive community of dancers. BFunk truly gives life to our Saturdays. And beyond that, it has opened us up to a cultural side of the city that we most likely would never have discovered otherwise.

Two weekends ago, we found ourselves at Diwali in Times Square, a massive celebration of the festival of lights featuring Indian street food, impressive feats of acrobatics, and Bollywood performances from dance companies across the city. Simon ordered some chana masala and saag paneer, I posed for a picture in a cute little photo booth, and we finished browsing through the festival just in time to watch the advanced/professional-level members of Bollywood Funk completely own the stage. Their performance was inspiring, as always! Though we are yet humble beginners, we hope to be close to that level of amazing someday. ;)

We decided to continue partaking in the Diwali festivities last Sunday afternoon by attending another celebration, this time hosted by the Association of Indians in America, NY. The event was at South Street Seaport, right by the water, with beautiful views of the Brooklyn Bridge and skyline. 

It was a wonderfully sunny yet very chilly autumn day, with the wind from the waterfront making me wish I'd really bundled up. But we had plenty of Bollywood performances to keep our minds off the weather. First there were the little ones — four, five, and six year olds dancing to Bollywood beats. This was precious. I teach ballet lessons to this age group at work, so I know how hard it can be for them to remember the steps and have the confidence to perform in front of adults. I had so much respect for the little darlings. Then there was a teenager who looked like the Bollywood version of Justin Bieber, but proceeded to thoroughly surprise us with his dance skills. Bollywood Funk was scheduled to perform around 2, but since the event was running on "Indian standard time", they hit the stage about an hour and a half later. It was absolutely worth the wait though, and by far the highlight of the whole afternoon. They blew us away, and made us so proud!! 

Finding Bollywood and Indian culture more broadly has made our experience living in New York so much richer. We had work and we had school but now we also have dance. We had concerts and culinary adventures but now we also have Diwali festivals. What could be better?

If you, like us, want to learn how to dance like this we highly suggest trying a class with Bollywood Funk NYC! Classes are available in both Manhattan and in Jersey City. And if you're not a dancer at heart but just feel like you could use a little more Bollywood and Indian culture in your life, here are a few more of our recommendations:

1. Movies: Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. It's got singing, dancing, a love story between two very attractive lead characters, plenty of cheesy lines, and a colorful Indian wedding — all the ingredients for a successful Bollywood film.

2. Food: Try dinner or the lunch buffet at Indus Valley. Though we haven't sampled enough Indian restaurants in New York to claim that this is the best of the best, it's our go-to on the Upper West Side. They make a fantastic chicken korma!

3. Parties: Try Bollywood clubbing with Bollymix NYC on Saturday nights. Do it! Just like regular clubbing, except the music and crowd is far more exciting. :)

Please let us know if you have any questions or cultural recommendations of your own to share! Happy October and Happy Diwali!

A Walk Down Columbus

When I moved to New York I had very slight knowledge of the city. I thought it would all look like Midtown; I knew hipsters lived in Brooklyn; and I had some concept that in the ‘80s, artists were pervasive in Soho. What I did not expect to find was the Upper West Side. Treeless, tall, unforgiving, I thought. But here on the Upper West Side the manses and sunny lanes evoke something more home-like, small children and their families bus about, and in places the architecture takes on a timeless feel like the capital cities of Europe. Guttural, archetypal, comforting, this place I did not expect. With rain and sun alike wrestling for control of the skies, we excursed along Columbus Avenue between 96th and 66th, deep into the heart of the neighborhood.  

Our first stop on the walk south was an establishment so unique it boasts its own cookbook. Many cafes and restaurants will serve “original food,” usually by slapping on beets or artichokes to an otherwise run-of-the-mill sandwich or salad. At Momofuku Milk Bar, the pastries and cold treats come in flavors that simply don’t exist anywhere else. The frozen yogurt can be ordered in candy bar or cereal milk flavors that are suspiciously on-point. Their fare includes the compost cookie (all ingredients. potato chips? sure, why not!), a sandwich with pickle-flavored dough, and my drink of choice, the espresso cereal milk milkshake with a full shot of espresso brewed right in. With eclectic decor like the life-size neon milk sign and rows of jarred mixes for do-it-yourself crack pie, the milk bar is a fixture of the neighborhood and a must-see.

A few storefronts later, we stumbled upon Unique Boutique, a quaint thrift store that brought back childhood memories of trailing mothers, aunts and grandmothers through Midwestern antique trinket markets. Often disappointed as an adult by the lack of charm that many city thrift shops have, the surprising warmth of Unique Boutique had us poking through used books, peeking around upturned bed frames and eyeing tasteful portraits. The highlight (yes, even for me) was the compact but surprisingly extensive used chinaware, and we came out with an unanticipated $8 tea set in hand-painted blue. 

Another neighborhood pivot is the American Museum of Natural History, just as exciting as a career scientist as it was as a kid. Skilled at offering a reasonably low figure ($5) for the suggested donation ($22), we were inside and exploring in no time. Passing a set of purple posters celebrating the miniature, we found our way to the anthropology section and paid homage to the Tibetan culture installation. It’s rare to see an in-depth, continent-by-continent distillation of human culture at a science museum, and here the curators have done a fantastic job distilling the breadth of human diaspora. Having spent our college years talking Mayan, Middle Eastern and medical anthropology over good coffee, the installations swiftly awoke discussion and imagination.

When we emerged, the weather decided it had had enough with inconsistency—it was supposed to rain all day, woe to he who ventured forth in that moment. We ventured forth. Hungry, wet, despairing but laughing, we bought food cart hot dogs, took photos, got soaked to the hips, and enjoyed the fury of the skies. In fifteen minutes the sun burst out brilliantly as if to apologize for the wet clothes and the rapidly dispersed flea market (our intended destination) and made up for a lack of rainbows with a sheer tidal force of brilliance only attainable in the glimmering minutes after a rainstorm. 

On and off the rain came, and we took refuge again in Paper Source, a colorful and spacious store dedicated to paper, paper products, paper-based projects and toys for children of parents shopping for paper. Colorful, inviting—and most importantly dry— we did our back-to-school shopping for notebooks, pens and ledgers. At the back of the store was a wall of stamps and ink pads showing birds, snowflakes and pumpkins; cars, planes and trees. Liking the spidery-ink aesthetic, we chose a shedding tree and sagely peacock feather for the cover of our notebooks.

After fulfilling childhood yearnings for milkshakes, used books, colorful science, puddle splashing and paper art, we subsided to Joe’s Coffee. There is a Joe's Coffee up by Columbia, taller, noisier and painted white, and we'd tasted the coffee there before beginning the Coffee Project. Without a comparison and still clinging to adding sugar, we'd had no idea what we were tasting. But that evening, with drying shoes and tired limbs, we sat back and enjoyed a cup of quintessential, near-perfect espresso. Flavorful, darker than usual, and possessing the layered flavors that only a select few cups do possess, our drinks warmed us up and took us in. Surrounded by the hum of voices, soft music, and the creep of evening, we slowed down, let our shoulders relax, and talked about the day. Books came out, smiles came and went with the natural rhythm of creative thought, and the indelible comfort of the Upper West Side felt that much more like home.

The Last Days of Summer

Though it’s still a steamy 86 degrees outside, there have been quite a few signs that it’s time to say goodbye to summer. 

  1. The sycamore trees in Riverside Park have already started to shed their leaves. 
  2. If you wake up early enough in the morning, the breeze most definitely smells like autumn.
  3. Columbia undergrads back for the start of school have once again taken over our neighborhood. 
  4. The word on the street is that Starbucks has begun selling its pumpkin spice lattes. (Is it just me or is it a little too early for that?)

A part of me is absolutely thrilled that September is here—I’m beyond excited to be starting my graduate program in child development at Sarah Lawrence and I love, love, love the fall. But this Labor day weekend, another part of me also really wanted to cling on to the last vestiges of what has been a relaxing, fulfilling, and truly wonderful summer. So naturally, I planned a picnic. Here you might say, do all of your leisurely pursuits involve food in some way? To which I would respond, funny you should ask—why yes most of them do! This is because we’ve discovered that preparing and consuming food not only nourishes us, but it awakens our senses; it evokes pleasure. It stimulates our creativity; it brings us closer together; it brings back old memories and helps create new ones. So you can see why I chose a picnic—our second picnic of the summer, in fact—to commemorate the changing of the seasons.

Our picnic menu this time around featured primarily seasonal ingredients: berries, melons, tomatoes, fresh herbs, and the like. Simon was tasked with making panzanella salad, which, if you’ve never heard of it, is a classic summer salad from the Tuscan region of Italy. He chopped up some plum tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, red onion, and basil leaves. He also added in some sweet corn, fresh off the cob, and drizzled everything with an olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and Dijon mustard dressing. Mmmm. 

But the best step was the last step. Instead of mixing all the ingredients with spinach or lettuce or another typical salad green, we mixed in…. bread! Cubes and cubes and cubes of French bread. Bread is in fact the distinguishing element of panzanella salad. And though I was initially puzzled by its presence in the panzanella recipe, it turns out you can’t go wrong with replacing greens with carbs. No surprise there, I guess!

While all this was happening, I worked on making a triple berry crisp. I took some creative liberties with the recipe and used my three favorite berries: raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries sprinkled with sugar (no blueberries for me!). As for the crisp, it was a mixture of flour, oatmeal, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and butter that I got to mix together with my bare hands. Such fun! I did use one stick of butter less than recommended though, which turned out to be a great idea. I layered the berries and the crisp in a large glass baking pan and popped the whole thing in the oven for about 30 minutes. By the time it came out, in all its fruity, bubbly, golden brown glory, we had also prepared some homemade guacamole. And after packing everything into our wicker picnic basket, we were ready to go!

Our picnic spot of choice was one of our favorite little fields in Central Park, located between 69th and 71st St on the west side of the park. I’m not convinced the field has a name, but if you’d like to find it, it’s right by Le Pain Quotidien, a Belgian bakery chain that I love, and is surrounded by large, flat-faced rocks perfect for sitting, reading, or sunbathing. This field holds a special place in our hearts because it always seems to be populated by frolicking children, energetic dogs, cute couples and families, and generally happy people. Spending time there is always a restorative experience; it fills you with life. And on a more practical note, there are restrooms available there, which means you can comfortably stay for an entire afternoon or evening.  So of course, we did.

The weather seemed a little threatening when we arrived a few minutes after four—storm clouds in the distance with a chilly breeze approaching. But the rain held off, giving us the gift of one last perfect summer day. We spread out our red fleece blanket, served ourselves, snapped a few photos for this blog post, and ravenously dug into the panzanella salad, the guacamole, and the triple berry crisp. Everything was just beyond delicious. The panzanella was fresh and light, with all the right hints of sweet, tart, and spicy. The guacamole tasted like pure summer in a bowl. And the berry crisp…oh my.  The blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries were vibrant in both flavor and color, and with the delightfully crunchy crisp, each bite of dessert made me very, very happy. 

Before we knew it, it was 7:30, and the sun was swiftly setting, as if to remind us that this would really be one of the last hurrahs of summer. But not to worry, on our way home, I was already making plans for our autumn picnic. Because we like to enjoy all the seasons of the year. Be on the lookout for another blog post about that in a few weeks! In the meantime, we’ll be busy acclimating to our respective graduate school programs, studying in coffee shops, and perhaps even getting back into shape for a 5K. Fall is the best time of year for a run…

Happy September! :)

One Year in New York

Today marks the one year anniversary of us living together in New York City!

To celebrate, we treated ourselves to a bottle of Pinot Grigio and chocolate mousse from none other than the Hungarian Pastry Shop. What's with the little green creature on the right, you ask? Simon surprised me with a stuffed T-Rex from the Museum of Natural History. I promise it was not a totally random giftthe adorable little thing struck my fancy during our visit to the museum over the weekend, and Simon decided to indulge my inner child and buy it for me. We named it Rupert. As for the candle and the flower? Mere decorative touches, of course. It's pretty wonderful finding excuses to celebrate things; it breaks the routine and gives you something to look forward to on an ordinary Monday. Do you have a random anniversary to celebrate? If so, have some champagne, eat cake, buy a gift for your friend or mom or significant other, snap a few photos, and smile. You deserve it, and you won't regret it! Happy Monday everyone. :)

Afternoon Cloister

The first time I took the M4 north to Fort Washington it was pouring rain, and I waited for the bus under the awning of Westside Market, unknowing. At the time I was searching for a place to live. This time we waited but a brief moment in the summer heat for the M4, under the same awning, this time in search for a peaceful calm away from home. The ride was necessarily nostalgic, ever eye-opening as we passed through rapidly changing neighborhoods—Morningside Heights, Washington Heights, past the Columbia Medical Center and into Hudson Heights. We got off at the same tree-lined stop at 190th, where the A-train meets the buses at a hilltop enclosure looking out over Inwood Heights. Removed, elevated and still, the region between Forts Washington and Tryon represents an eye in the storm, a sea of calm above the raging torrent that is Manhattan proper. Drawn to this quiet and this sanctuary, we went a-walking.

Fort Tryon itself saw battle in the Revolutionary War, and its geography is telling. With a clear line of sight across the Hudson, plenty of tree cover and sheer cliff faces, it provides an ideal defensible location—both from marauding boats and from the cosmopolitan whiles of the city. The gardens were fragrant and captivating, washing away the tension and cares of the day; and with a series of arches, walls and romantic lampposts, the park won us over. The highlight was a circular enclosure covered completely by a shady tree dome and sporting a misty blue view of Jersey that you can only get looking from the shade across a great distance illuminated by the afternoon sun. 

From the park we traversed a series of Provencal roads cut into the hill to find ourselves in front of a medieval cloister reconstructed in painstaking detail sometime in the early 20th century. On a cliff’s edge, the structure felt like something straight from the Tuscan hillside. Medieval architecture has always captured our imaginations in a way that the art from the time period cannot, so after saying our respects to an obligatory wooden Mother and (headless) Child from the 12th century, we wandered the halls and were called by a courtyard garden with fountain and porticos that felt oh-so-familiar. Anachronism aside, the Met (official curators) did a excellent job recreating an aura possessed by only the most authentic of hillside villas.

We retreated from the green expanse across a scene of family picnics, eschewing French tourists and city-dwellers alike in search of a successful Washington Heights coffeeshop. A diamond in the rough and wholly unexpected, Café Buunni proved to be a truly 5-star coffeeshop experience. The friendliest staff, well-curated photography and a heart-warming atmosphere transformed a hole-in-the wall establishment into an enticing extension of the radiating calm of the Fort Tryon neighborhood. Sipping excellent coffee and reading our summer novels, we could say with confidence: we’ll be back; it feels like home.

Sunday in Soho

Simon and I both had diaries growing up. Speaking only for myself, I have to say, keeping a diary was stressful. Every night, I would inevitably run out of time and fail to document the events of the day, such that by the time I finally got around to writing a diary entry, I would frantically attempt to document a week’s worth of fleeting moments, feelings, and experiences in one sitting. I find my preadolescent diary struggles pretty amusing in light of the fact that I’m about to attempt to blog about adventures from over 10 days ago. Some things never change!

The Sunday before last, we decided to visit Soho. We’d heard rumors that some Manhattanites never venture north of 14th street, and figured it was time to check out what was so special about the lower parts of town. So we rode the 1 from 110th all the way to Houston. (Did you know that the name Soho is just an abbreviation for “South of Houston Street?” We didn’t. And yes, we did giggle out loud at the silliness of it when we found out). Getting off the train, the fact that we were in an entirely different neighborhood from home was immediately perceptible. Gone were the legions of Columbia students, the upper west side nannies and strollers, the energetic dog owners with their labradoodles and maltipoos. In their place we found mostly young, twenty- or thirty-something urban professionals with really good taste in clothing. Oh and also, some rather excellent architecture, food, and shopping. Soho embodied the stereotypical image of Manhattan that I think exists to some extent in everyone’s mind, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. 

The first stop on our itinerary was Sabon, a fancy soap establishment. I was drawn in by the colorful and aromatic displays of handcrafted, artisanal soaps, as well as by the elaborate sampling station in the center of the store. Simon mostly just watched while I stepped up to the stone faucet, ran my hands under the water, and happily accepted a series of oils, exfoliating scrubs, lotions, and other spa-like implements from the store clerk.  I thoroughly enjoyed the impromptu pampering, and left Sabon with silky smooth skin and a few mental notes of things to add to my birthday wish list. 

To keep Simon happy as well, we walked into a Samsung store, which could more accurately be described as a Samsung theme park. The place did not actually sell Samsung products. Rather, it allowed you to play with various prototypes and get free things in return, like a T-shirt, a shot of espresso, or a spinach and feta pastry. So like children we played, we got free things, and we were happy. I may forever feel partial toward Apple products, but Samsung definitely scored a few points in my book!

When we could no longer suppress the hunger pangs, we beelined for Tacombi, a taqueria that had been on my list of restaurants to try since the very beginning of the summer. The place was wonderful, first and foremost because of its atmosphere. It was located inside what appeared to be a refitted warehouse, complete with exposed pipes, concrete floors, metal folding chairs, and a colorful and carefree paint job. As if that weren’t awesome enough, our tacos were served not out of the kitchen at the back of the restaurant, but out of a vintage Mexican food truck sitting right in the middle of the warehouse. We felt like we’d been transported to either a surfing town in southern California or a fisherman’s village somewhere in Central America. The vibe was so very relaxed—in stark contrast to most of Manhattan. And the food itself was fantastic! So simple, so fresh, so flavorful, so authentic. We ordered guacamole and four kinds of tacos: pork belly, crispy fish, “maiz y poblano”, and “huevos a la Mexicana”.  Words can’t quite do our full experience justice, but I think our photos come close.

Our last stop was a lovely independent bookstore called McNally Jackson. Having just visited Strand the night before, I initially wasn’t keen on spending another evening browsing through books, but Simon convinced me otherwise and it turned out to be entirely worth it. McNally Jackson was a more intimate and inviting sort of space. It housed a significantly smaller selection than Strand, but the titles all resonated with me. While Simon wandered through the science fiction aisles, I spent most of my time in the indie novels section and the cookbook corner. Together we also came upon a really neat print your own books station, and resolved to go back someday with a creative writing project in tow. After an hour or so of browsing, we settled down in the store’s cafe, where we proceeded to sample the latte and pastries and soak up the literary decor. I almost began reading one of my purchases of the day—an autographed copy of the novel California, by Edan Lepucki—but it was approaching dinner time and we were about ready for the comforts of home. We’ll be returning to McNally Jackson frequently in the wintertime though…there’s nothing quite like a cozy world of books and coffee on a blistery cold day.

To finish off what has felt more like an excerpt from a travel guide than a contemplative blog post about the city, I shall leave you with the addresses of our new favorite Soho (and Nolita) spots, should you wish to spend an afternoon exploring the land below 14th street in the near future. Happy adventuring!

Sabon
123 Prince Street
http://www.sabonnyc.com 

Samsung Galaxy Studio
130 Prince Street
http://www.samsung.com/us/galaxy-experience/#Home

Tacombi at Fonda Nolita
267 Elizabeth Street
http://www.tacombi.com

McNally Jackson Books
52 Prince Street
http://mcnallyjackson.com

Adventures in Baking

I love the travel section of the New York Times. When front-page news is concerned with nothing but wars and partisan politics and I begin to feel like there isn’t much hope left for humanity, the travel section inevitably saves the day, reminding me of all the beautiful places and cultures that are still worth experiencing in the world. Earlier this month, the corner of the globe featured in the travel section was Memphis, Tennessee. And the article left me inspired, not to visit Memphis, but to bake pie. 

In Memphis—and in many parts of the South, I gather—baking pie seems to be this time-honored tradition. Every pie recipe is a treasured document, with its own genealogy, history, and story. People bake pie not just because it’s delicious, but because it’s something that they really take pride in; because it’s a way to pay homage to their grandmothers. Now my grandmother did not bake pie. I myself am more of a muffins and cookies kind of girl, and I don’t have my very own collection of special pie recipes that have been passed down in my family from generation to generation. However, the article, with all its vivid photos and romantic prose, really made me want to join this national community of pie bakers, to become better acquainted with this quintessentially American dessert, and to ultimately master the art of pie. And so just like that, the idea for my latest creative project in the kitchen was born. I would begin with a Southern classic I had neither heard of nor tasted, but nevertheless felt compelled to make: chess pie.

The simplicity of chess pie was what drew me to it. The ingredients were for the most part things we already had at home—eggs, sugar, salt, flour, butter, vanilla, cornmeal and vinegar. And the name of the pie seemed intriguing as well. Did people play chess while eating it? (Answer: Perhaps. There are many theories as to where the name originally comes from).  Anyways. Must not digress. I’ll walk you through my first experience with chess pie.

First, I made the crust. I mixed together some flour, sugar, and salt, cut in some chunks of unsalted butter, and crumbled it all together by hand. Then I sprinkled the doughy mess with some water, formed it into a ball, and flattened it out with a rolling pin before placing it into my buttered pie dish. You can very easily skip these steps by simply buying a store-bought crust, or make the crust using a fancy pastry blender or food processor, but I think making it from scratch and getting your hands dirty is so much more fun. Although you may want to actually cool the dough in the fridge for two hours or so before you roll it out…I was too impatient to do this, and things got a little messier than intended!

While the crust pre-baked in the oven for a few minutes, I whisked together the eggs, milk, and vanilla, slowly stirred in the sugar, and added all the other ingredients until I had a mixture that looked basically like orange juice. The two cups of sugar I poured in felt like way too much but it was totally worth it! Also, while skipping the vinegar in the recipe was tempting, I was so glad I added it after all. Sometimes you just have to trust the recipe. 

After I poured everything into the prepared crust, the pie baked for about 40-45 minutes at 325 degrees and when it came out of the oven the top was a beautiful golden brown, almost like crème brûlée. The crust was a bit too brown for my liking, but apparently the trick to preventing that from happening is to cover the edges of the crust with aluminum foil prior to baking. I’ll have to try that next time! In any case, the chess pie turned out to be heavenly. It was smooth, creamy, with a nutty, vanilla-infused, caramelized sugar sort of flavor. Not at all too sweet like I had feared, and it went down wonderfully with a cup of espresso. Needless to say, it won Simon’s stamp of approval and I will be making it again! 

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed my first serious foray into the art of pie. I’m thinking next up may be a coconut cream, or something seasonal with berries….mmm. If it’s a success, I’ll be sure to share! Until then, if you’re interested in trying your own chess pie, you can find the exact recipe I used here. Happy baking!

American Tomes: Roaming the East Village

America has a culture of appropriation, but given enough time some artifacts have earned their distinction as truly American: the hot dog (doch kein Wurst), baseball (crickets are bugs, no?), and the jean jacket (no analogue I can find). Having just finished a piping slice of traditional southern chess pie from Adaora’s creative oven that was so authentic I felt like an extra in a Tennessee Williams production, I found myself requesting a cultural continuance. I wanted coffee, greasy food, and above all, I wanted to patrol the dusty corners of a used bookstore. 

An hour later we plunged through the crowds on East 14th Street like residential flotsam on a river of Manhattanites, professionals and itinerants alike. Dodging fighting children and fearless pedestrians emboldened by cell phones we followed our stomachs to the second best pizzeria in New York. Joe’s Pizza, like frontrunner Bleeker Street Pizza, has more photos of off-guard celebrity visitors, celebratory newspaper clippings and triumphant stickers from vaunted travel agencies than an oil rig has barnacles; yet compared to its cousin, Joe’s invests marginally more in its identity as “restaurant,” and sports a unified red and white painted interior with seats and tables aplenty. The slices were stellar, flavorful and fell apart like only a New York City pizza can. Stomachs purring, eyes alight, and determined to dive deeper into the East Village to avoid its northern edge, we left in search of the land of a million books.

Strand Bookstore houses a purported 30 miles of books on its shelves, and I believe it. Four stories of brightly lit, labyrinthine expanse holds tomes from Shelley to Sherbet. If a vaguely thematic collection of books on a table can be called an island, Adaora found herself lost in a veritable archipelago of contemporary titles. Though on the same floor, I felt several horizons distant tucked into a vertiginous and dimly lit assemblage of shelves so packed and sinuous I could have been a turnip in a literary small intestine. Overwhelmed and squealing silently with excitement, I surveyed the largest science fiction novel collection I have ever seen in one place while I listened to tut-tutting bookkeepers discussing the military etymology of the word decimate (paring one in ten to restore discipline) and how it applied to their shelves. Resorting to attendant carts of used copies I found a childhood favorite and proceeded to talk Adaora into buying two new books. We left singing and satisfied.

Our third and final stop was the Grey Dog, a distinctly American take on a distinctly American phenomenon- the coffeeshop café. Outside the US, only in the UK does the word entail ordering coffee and reading, studying, chatting and otherwise occupying tables for an extended time. Grey Dog, drawing from the ethos of the Black Sheep, Lone Wolf and Iron Horse in Western Mass, served comfort food, beer and wine, and felt like a rustic safe haven for coffee enthusiasts and Village cosmopolitans alike. Wooden walls, 1950’s era tables with state-by-state maps and the words PBR buzzing quietly in neon in a corner were all pulled together by an unlikely linchpin: a hutch center-right, once painted green with all manner of silverware, condiments and condiment substitutes, framed by yellow hanging ceiling lights. Grey Dog occupies the sweet spot between a dive and manufactured rusticity. It sports the indelible authenticity of a true East Village establishment. 

Over coffee, an 8” brownie cheesecake slice, with books new and old, we smiled. A peaceful subway ride across the Upper West side and one churning elevator ride later we plopped down on the couch and celebrated an American cultural success.

Evening Picnic at Columbia

A few weeks ago, we received an unexpected package in the mail. It was an enormous brown cardboard box with neither a sender’s address nor any observable clues as to what might lie within. Simon immediately tore it open and inside, lo and behold, was a beautiful wicker picnic basket! It came with all the fixings—plates, wine glasses, linen napkins, silverware for two… I may have done a bit of a happy dance around the living room; I was so excited. As it turned out, the surprise gift was from Simon’s extremely thoughtful mother Amy, whom we thanked profusely over the phone. In the days afterwards, I quickly got to work planning our first fancy picnic, and yesterday, we finally made it all happen.

We began with a trip to Zabar’s, our new favorite grocery store on the Upper West Side. If you live in the area and haven’t been to this place yet, you have to try it. In addition to produce and milk and eggs and such, Zabar’s has an incredible selection of freshly baked breads, imported deli meats and cheeses, made-in-house meals and desserts, and foods you wouldn’t ever think to put on your grocery list, but nevertheless feel the need to buy at first sight. It’s the perfect place to do a bit of pre-picnic shopping, and we left having purchased a loaf of rosemary pugliese bread, some Italian pecorino cheese, and a sizeable hunk of Hungarian salami, among other things. But those were just the appetizers….

A truly wonderful place. 2245 Broadway (at 80th Street). We learned about it while watching a video guide to the Upper West Side by a fellow blogger. Check it out!

Once we got home, I got to work with the rest of the picnic menu. Now if you know me well, you know that I can be slightly overambitious when it comes to planning out meals and excursions (and really, all manner of things). But Simon keeps me in check, so I managed to limit myself to preparing just two things: Pesto potato salad, inspired by a recipe from one of my favorite cooking blogs, the Smitten Kitchen, and a classic sour cream pound cake. Because we were somewhat short on time I also convinced myself to take a few shortcuts, like using store-bought pesto instead of making my own and substituting plain old all-purpose flour for pastry flour in the pound cake. Simon cracked eggs, diced potatoes, and used his superior spatial skills to wrestle everything into our suddenly small-seeming picnic basket, and by about 8pm, we were ready to go.

The master at work.

The basket ended up being a lot heavier than it looks!

So Simon very chivalrously carried it all the way. 

Yes I know. Eight o’clock in the evening. A ridiculously late hour for starting a picnic. What can I say, life doesn’t always go as planned. Given that it was just half an hour before sunset, we decided not to head to Central Park as we had originally intended. We had a feeling it might not be the friendliest of places after dark. Instead, we walked over to Columbia’s campus, which happened to not only have plenty of green space but also street lamps and graduate students milling about. We camped out on a friendly little quad between classroom buildings, and it was simply perfect.

The humidity of the day had passed, leaving behind a lovely summer breeze. It was quiet but not too quiet, the lights ambient but not too bright. We had total privacy, yet with the grad students nearby, we didn’t feel alone. And our food was just delicious. Even with the shortcuts I had taken in the kitchen. We thoroughly enjoyed our evening picnic, even more so because it was a sort of last hurrah before Simon’s week-long conference in Maine. And my life lesson for the day? Sometimes when things don’t go as planned, they turn out even better.  

Pie Face

Friday afternoons always feel full of possibilities. Especially when it’s a balmy 84 degrees outside and I finish work three whole hours earlier than expected, which is exactly what happened today. Having only gotten six hours of sleep after last night’s Prospect Park adventure and having chased after incredibly energetic small children all day, I was craving two things: the perfect cup of coffee and some uninterrupted reading time. So Simon and I decided to try a new coffee shop from our list. An Upper West Side coffee shop would have been the safest bet—we’ve had only the best experiences with lattes and pastries in this part of town. We were feeling rather exploratory though, so we looked at the Midtown section of our coffee map and settled on a café called Pie Face

Now we have a rule when it comes to trying new coffee shops—we do absolutely no research about where we are going beforehand—no checking out the menu online or reading someone else’s reviews. It helps each coffee shop experience retain an element of surprise, and it lets us form our own opinions about each place, unbiased by others’ perspectives. In the best of cases, following our rule has landed us in a coffee lover’s paradise, but there is always the risk that our experience will be a total bust. Pie Face was somewhere in between those two extremes. It turned out to be part of an Australian-owned café chain that specialized in miniature sweet and savory pies, which were quite literally decorated with faces to help distinguish one type from another. We placed our usual coffee order—a small latte for me, a macchiato for Simon—and after about 5 minutes of indecision, we settled on splitting three sweet pies: cheesecake, apple, and lemon cream.

The pies were simply adorable, and they were everything I could have asked for as far as pies go. The apple pie tasted like Thanksgiving, the lemon cream tasted like summer, and the cheesecake was your classic New York cheesecake. Our latte and macchiato on the other hand left much to be desired…on a scale of 1 to 5, we rated them a 2. Watery and bitter—not the perfect cup of coffee I had craved. But now we have a new place to go to for pie, so it was a win on that account. 

We had also planned to read at Pie Face, but I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired by the cramped bar seating and the indie girl rock band music in the background. So we walked the seven blocks to Central Park and found the perfect reading spot: a little field populated by two hipster musicians, a group of 12-year-old rugby players who appeared to hail from Monaco, a father running after his twin toddlers who were frolicking across the grass hand in hand, and three petite white dogs chasing each other around in a dizzying and incredibly cute and entertaining fashion. I was so in love with our surroundings that I almost forgot I was there to read. 

I got distracted by people watching, and would have taken photos of everyone there if it had been socially acceptable. Since it wasn’t though, I eventually immersed myself into my current summer read, which I would recommend for anyone interested in a good coming of age story featuring a wildly insecure adolescent female protagonist, a comically dysfunctional family, and a nontraditional road trip across the American South. 

I leave you with this photo of a massive crowd of tourists taking a picture of the sunset at the same time. It was indeed a beautiful sunset, but how and why all of these people decided to photograph it together is beyond me. Ah, Manhattan.  

BRIC House: A Brooklyn Concert Experience

The concert itself was a mixed bag musically—you could tell from the opening sample by the Colombian “turntablists” RVSB, Simon Says by the Pharoahe Monchs, personal pinash for obvious reasons but decidedly not family-friendly with its loud, direct and numerous f-bombs. But that mixed bag was part of the charm of the Celebrate Brooklyn experience, there in Prospect Park, in a simultaneously spacious but cozy bandshell surrounded by a crowd as diverse as any with its decidedly “hipster family” aesthetic. The food served was in top neo-American form as they served gourmet ice cream sandwiches on caramel cookies and pulled pork over traditional grits, each portion designed to perfection. There were more interracial couples than we’ve seen in one place, avid, shirt-waving dancers and blanket loungers alike. 

Brooklyn has a fierce non-conformity about it, which matched perfectly the Latin alternative music emanating from the rainbow-backed stage, a genre self-proclaimed to contain elements of funk, hip-hop and traditional salsa. At times it felt like listening to a Carlos Santana bachata playing over grooves written by the Temptations; at other times it was aggressive rapping or slow, pulsing Spanish love songs set to the backing track of a Disney production. From the three groups, the poignant highlight was an Argentinian set Illya Kuryaki & The Valderramas, featuring two drummers, two guitarists, a bass, a singer and a full brass section. During that sweet forty five minutes, the whole park cheered and danced in gleeful unison. Adaora brought out the cha-cha, and our friends helped us decide on English titles for incomprehensible songs with punchlines often sounding suspiciously like “funky cockroach” or “aquaman culo.” 

The whole arena had the feel of a children’s paradise with a grassy expanse and circus lights surrounded by a vibrant crowd, the occasional wafting of a certain raucous woodland animal, and the distant tapping of bongo drums unfazed by the adjacent concert. It was a gorgeous summer evening to share the company of friends, and our focus was continually brought back to the center stage by ever-changing and highly entertaining musical styles. We are neither a hipster family nor Argentinian, Colombian or Puerto Rican, but it is precisely that mix of differing nuclear families, culinary regimes and dancing styles that brought us there. Slowly but surely, we are falling in love with Brooklyn.

Hey, isn’t that Seven Nation Army? Sounds damn fine over James Brown…