Sunday, October 28, 2007

Mixed week

Well, it was a mixed week for me, some good, some bad, but overall, okay.

My cellphone broke down early in the week, and due to the fact that I had to be out of town for a conference on Thursday, I was forced to get a new phone before leaving. Given that our contract with Verizon was up, it was time to renegotiate, and so on Wednesday, Jess and I met over lunch to try and resolve the issue. It took almost two hours in the store and we walked out with Blackberry phones to replace our Palm Treo 650s. The guy in the store had promised us that the Blackberry phones would synch with the data online from our Palm phones. Guess what? They didn't...and according to their 800 customer service, they wouldn't...which made us pretty unhappy. Fortunately, they have a 30-day love-it-or-return-it policy. But we were going to have to go back in and get new phones, which would require another two-hour visit. Grrrrr.

Knotty and T were in town to visit the city, and so we asked them if they'd be willing to visit for an evening. We had such fun hosting Knotty about three years ago that we wanted him to visit again, and we were hoping to meet T., his other half...and meet we did. They came out to the Island on Wednesday night and we had a great night. It was great to finally meet T.

For starters, cosmopolitans for everyone. I fixed an appetizer of chicken taquitos with a choice of homemade salsa or sour cream corn relish dip. They were tasty and different.

For the meal, I made crab cakes and broccoli with cheese sauce. The crab cakes were amazing, but just a bit salty...I will change up the recipe a little bit for next time, but they were excellent. And since they are broiled, not fried, they are healthier.

For dessert, I had prepared some Baked Chocolate Custard, as well as lemon curd with some raspberries and blueberries in case anyone didn't want chocolate. Both turned out well.

Iced cold-brewed coffee was served to cap it all off. Yum. But the most fun was the company! We clicked so well. The night was over before we knew it, and we took them back to the train station, where we bade them farewell. We had such a good time, boys! We want to come out to visit you sometime!

Thursday, I had a conference at West Point at the The Thayer Hotel. West Point is about a two-hour drive from here, and it was raining quite hard while I was driving there. The traffic was terrible, so it took longer, and I was exhausted by the time I got there. Because the hotel is actually on the West Point campus, you were subjected to a military search of your vehicle before being allowed onto the campus. I got there about 15 minutes before the first presentation was to begin. So tired was I from the drive that I nearly dozed off during the first two speakers. The chairs in the presentation room weren't comfortable, so I began having muscle spasms in my back within a couple of hours of sitting.

The Thayer has been around for about 100 years or more, and it looks it. It wasn't one of those hotels that was charmingly old, it was stodgy and staid. The beds were downright horrible, as stiff as boards, and they didn't give when you sat or laid on them. The heating/AC unit on the wall sounded as though it was installed in the 60s and was so noisy it made it difficult to sleep. Between the noise, my back pain and the stiff bed, there was virtually no sleep for me.

The second day of the conference, Friday, my back was hurting so bad that I couldn't stay all the way through that day's presentations, leaving during the next-to-the-last presenter. I drove home and napped briefly. Then it was off to the city for a dinner party that Jess' organization was putting on. Jess had planned the dinner and chosen much of the menu. It was held at Tavern on the Green. (Off on a tangent: As famous as TotG is, I have never liked it since I last visited it in 1987. I wasn't happy that Jess had chosen it for his party. In 1987, the service was horrible, and I felt the food was overpriced for the quality offered. I was with a party of 9 friends. We were seated in a dining room that had a defective fluorescent light that was indirectly lighting the room. We asked to be moved but were ignored and were finally told, only after three complaints to the waiter, that no other seating was available. Due to the strobing of the lights, I began having a twitching spell which was noticed by other diners, and my friends asked for the dining room manager, whom we explained our situation to. He had sympathy for me and moved us to another room, but the server whom we were assigned to had too many tables already, apparently, and there was a rather loud discussion over who would be responsible for our table. There was another server who was quite upset that she was not given the table because she would have been able to handle it, but the manager told her that it was necessary for that room's supervisor to serve us in order that the service be appropriately attentive because we had been mistreated. Well, she was quite unhappy that she didn't get the table and was even more unhappy that the supervisor who did serve us did a terrible job. The most memorable point of the evening came when we were leaving. We had left the proper amount for the bill on the table, but did not leave a tip, choosing instead to tip the waitress who hadn't been given our table. As each of us filed past her on our way out, we had our tips in hand, and the lead of our party explained to her that she deserved the tip because we had seen that she had been shorted our table and the supervisor who served us did a terrible job. As we filed by and each gave her cash, she thanked us each individually and was crying by the time the last of us left. I will never forget it.)

At any rate, it was 20 years ago, and I had never been back. I wasn't looking forward to it at all. But I was extremely surprised. The service was deftly attentive and the headwaiter was very interested in seeing that everything was perfect. He must have checked back with us no less than eight times. Granted, a party of 50 people is handled a bit differently, but I was nevertheless impressed. Jess had done a very nice job making the food selections, too. The appetizers were quesadillas, shrimp scampi on skewers, fried calamari, tomato and fresh mozzarella skewers, Thai spring rolls, and bruschetta. All were good, but the quesadillas, calamari and shrimp were outstanding. For dinner, there was a choice of salmon or filet mignon, served with a potato casserole and steamed asparagus. The filet was magnificent, and the asparagus was quite good. The potato casserole tasted strange with a mix of parmesan and nutmeg, and very few people ate it once they tasted it. But overall, the food was quite good. The dessert was a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting that was decadent and very dark, and had just barely enough sugar. It was wonderful; too bad the coffee they served with it wasn't. It was bitter and over-roasted. All in all, I'd give TotG a 3.5 out of 5. But the party was definitely a 5. The DJ was great and played a really fun variety of music, the service was impeccable, and the bartenders really knew how to mix a drink! Jess was presented with a lovely plaque for his work over the year, which was well-deserved. You throw a great party, honey!

Saturday was a mess...we went to the Verizon store to exchange our phones and had to spend another two hours getting that done. As we walked to the car with our new Motorola Q phones and began to work on getting the phones to synch, mine locked up and wouldn't do anything. I soft-booted it to no avail. Aggravated, I had to go back in and spend ANOTHER 30 minutes waiting on tech support to fix it. We left there and drove to Bloomfield, NJ so that Jess could photograph the rugby team's final game to determine the regional champions. The weather was horrible and traffic was slow. We got to Bloomfield and had to pee - bad - and we needed to grab something to eat, so we had to just drive around looking. We were already 20 minutes late for the game when we had arrived in town, and time was ticking. We spent more than 25 minutes trying to find a place to eat that had a bathroom. When we got back to the field, the game was well into the second half.

Unfortunately, our team lost, but Jess got some very good pictures which he will undoubtedly post on his blog later.

Sunday, we went with our friends John and Michelle on the Fall Foliage boat tour up the Hudson. It's a four-hour tour and is supposed to be spectacular with the fall colors, but this year, fall has been a dud. There was virtually nothing worthy of seeing in the way of leaves for the entire trip, and to top it off, we had to stand in the cold for more than an hour beforehand because the boat was late arriving to pick us up. Though the leaves were a bust, we still enjoyed the ride, and afterwards, we went to BLT Burger for some chow before heading home. I enjoyed a wonderful BLT Burger with their outrageously crispy and delicious fries and a strawberry-banana milkshake. I think that BLT is one of the best burgers in the city. We also had a side of their yummy beer-battered onion rings. Delicious!

So, some good, some bad, but overall, a nice week and weekend.

I'll share the recipes for my crab cakes and for my roasted red pepper and sundried tomato chicken with you later this week.

Have a great week!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Now, for an excellent tip: Ghirardelli Coffee

Okay, so enough ranting about crap products; here's a recommendation for a product I have loved for a number of years: Ghirardelli Coffee (or I should say, Caffé). Yes, Ghirardelli, the chocolate company, makes a line of chocolate-flavored coffees that are quite good. I discovered them about eight years ago at, of all places, Marshall's. But in the last two or three years, Marshall's has stopped carrying the Ghirardelli coffees. I was heartbroken over the loss of the coffee, but not over the fact that I would no longer have to wait in long lines and put up with slow, snotty, and generally unintelligent checkout people. I was delighted to find the full line of coffees online at J.L. Hufford Coffee and Tea, where I don't have to wait in long lines and shipping is quick and inexpensive. They carry all the flavors in regular and decaf, but you do have to buy in bulk - 5 lbs. This is not a problem for us, because we go through coffee pretty quickly, esp. when we make cold-brewed iced coffee. I've been pitching you on the cold-brew method ever since pinknest told me about it, and I will say it again, if you haven't tried it, you don't know what you are missing. I like the Chocolate Caramel - it has always been my favorite flavor, and in second place, Chocolate Raspberry. I have to say that I am not crazy about the Double Chocolate, mainly because it has a very un-subtle cinnamon flavor, and since I don't like cinnamon in most things, I don't like it. And I have three pounds of it in my freezer - if you would like it, let me know.

At any rate...I can always count on the Ghirardelli Chocolate Caramel to elicit comments from guests like, "this is the best coffee I think I've ever had. What kind is it?" They are always surprised when I tell them what it is.

There are online merchants other than JL Hufford that carry it, but most places are more expensive and don't offer the full line of flavors. I have also ordered it from The Stuffed Chocolate. You can buy it in 12-oz. bags there instead of bulk. Their service is also very good.


New! Planters® Dry Roasted Cashews

A few weeks ago I blogged about house brands vs. national brands. One of the things I discussed in that post is the fact that the quality of some national brands seems to be slipping. In the cashew department, I particularly noted that Planters cashews were particularly offensive for their extreme greasiness. This is what happens when big megabrands like Kraft buy up smaller brands with food expertise like Planters, and when tobacco companies buy up brands they have no business Kraft. Kraft hasn't been the same since it was purchased. At any rate, I was a little surprised when I saw new dry-roasted Planters cashews on the shelf at the store. I was also a little surprised that I found myself picking them up and putting them in my basket. I don't know what I was thinking.

Well, let me tell you what was no surprise: they sucked. Kraft never knew how to make a good nut when they bought Planters, and they still don't. I was a little shocked to find that there was also sugar, corn syrup solids, MSG, paprika, dried yeast, and a lot of other crap on the cashews. Gee Kraft, don't you think that the nuts are good enough without all that junk on them? Are you using inferior nuts that you have to dress up? The Kirkland brand that I love, as well as a number of other brands, only have cashews, salt, and perhaps a trace amount of oil. That's it, and let me tell you, Kraft, that's all a nut needs to taste great.

Shout out to Mr. Peanut: your nuts are nasty.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What kind of gourmet are you?

You may find this funny (or gross, or both) but one of my favorite snacks is a Town House cracker topped with a wafer-thin slice of very cold Plugra® or President® salted butter.

I have loved butter ever since I was a child. My mother would go to the dairy about three miles from our house to buy fresh butter, cream, and milk when I was a tot, and I learned very quickly that butter and cream were two of my favorite things.

When I was a child, my family would go out to eat every Friday night...same restaurant every Friday night. They served wonderful dinner rolls and they came with a bowl full of butter pats...a 1/2 tablespoon of butter situated atop a square waxed card, topped with a square of waxed parchment. I was so enamored of butter that I would swipe as many of the pats as I could manage, peeling back the top paper and eating the butter off the card much like a child would eat the frosting out of an Oreo® cookie. I can still eat butter with nothing else...though it doesn't have quite the appeal that it did when I was younger.

I have a hangup about butter, though...I don't really like my butter soft (in France, they would say "tender" butter); I like it cold so that it doesn't melt into bread, because melting the butter takes some of the flavor away that butter has when it is cold. Call me bizarre, but this is my psyche when it comes to butter.

My mother always used to caution me not to overbeat whipping cream because it would separate and turn to butter. My thought was, "why worry about that? It would be couldn't be bad." Uh, after I did it once, I decided that making butter was something better left to the dairy.

So now what kind of a gourmet do you think I am? I must say in my own defense that I am a butter snob...the European butters have a cleaner, fresher taste than U.S. butter, and so I am hooked.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


One thing about Portland - there are some nice parks (state and national) within easy driving distance. On the first day of our trip, we drove out to Wahkeena Falls, and then its neighbor to the east, Multnomah Falls. They both have their own beauty. Jess took these lovely shots.

Here are the Wahkeena Falls. Note that this is only a very small section, these falls are very "deep" in length. Follow the falls back to the back middle right of the photo.

And here are the very grand Multnomah Falls. They are just spectacular.

These are just two of the reasons to love Oregon.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Portland ponderings

So, we spent most of last week in Portland. I flew out on Tuesday to meet Jess, who had been in Anaheim for a conference and flew up to Portland. We had been to Portland about three years ago and fell in love with it. It's a beautiful city of parks and roses and great food, coupled with an abundance of homeless people and weather that's very unpredictable.

If you like Seattle, you will love Portland, because Portland is much nicer. Much. nicer.

I left Tuesday at 7:30p NY time, arriving PDX at 12:15 a.m. Wednesday morning. JetBlue nonstop flight. I don't care what JetBlue says about their extra legroom and "leather" seats, the seats themselves are still as uncomfortable as those on any plane, and the legroom makes them only slightly more tolerable...slightly. They are still torture devices. Couple that with a 6.5 hour flight with no food served, and you have a flight from hell. The only redeeming thing at all was the 36 channels of DirecTV with the provided headset, so that I could turn up the volume loud enough to drown out the squalling infant sitting 5 rows back.

Arriving in Portland, late but safe, we waited at the luggage carousel, where I met a woman I had seen boarding the plane in NY with a service dog. Turns out she trains service dogs and works with people who need them. The dog was an adorable Australian Kelpie, and his name was LaRue. He was adorable, cuddly, and personable. So we visited about Portland and she gave me some restaurant recommendations. One of them was Nuestra Cocina on Division Street.

Next day, went to breakfast at Zell's; it was delicious. We had the wild salmon omelettes (because when you are in Portland or Seattle, you just don't get better salmon anywhere). Drove out to the the beautiful Wahkeena Falls and then to the stunningly huge Multnomah Falls which is just up the road from Wahkeena. The skies were mostly overcast, but cleared some as we were returning to the highway. Figures. But then it rained like crazy, so that gave us some consolation that the fleeting moments of blue sky we got at Multnomah were lucky.

Returned to town, grabbed a bad sandwich at Subway, met up with a friend and then went to dinner at Jake's Crawfish Bar, which is always a good meal. The calamari is terrific there. The crabcakes were amazing. The chocolate mousse, to die for. The service was also terrific. The first of a number of restaurants to be opened by the duo of McCormick and Schmick, I'd say it's the best...we ate at an M & S steakhouse in Seattle once and it was not worth it.

Thursday, we went had a huge pancake breakfast at Bijou cafe, and while it was delicious, it wasn't as good as Zell's. We're noticing that Portlanders are a very "green" group. Natural fiber clothing. Earth shoes. Ultra-casual clothing. I felt overdressed wherever we went. For the guys, hooded nubby pullovers (maybe hemp) over flannel shirts, with jeans or cotton pants. Vegan and vegetarian choices on most every menu. For the girls, natural, unsprayed hairstyles, very little makeup, very casual clothes. Yet curiously, smoking in restaurants and bars still exists here. Interesting little paradoxes like that are all over Portland. More about that tomorrow.

We spent Thursday evening with Todd and Pony and they were kind enough to have us guest on their podcast, which we follow regularly. Oh, it was a blast! We felt like we knew these guys well already (we had met Todd on a blogger trip to NYC about 4 years ago, and had followed Pony for almost as long on his blog), and they were just as crazy funny as we knew they would be. You'll need to check out their podcast here to know what I'm talking about.

We went out to dinner with Pony and two other blogger friends, Andy and Brian, whose partner Mark writes a blog from Dallas. Andy used to live in NYC (we miss you!) and we met him and Mark and Brian at our first blogger barbeque back in 2004. Blogging has been such a great way to meet friends!

At any rate, Friday's Oregonian had a terrific food review section that was perfectly timed. We used it to check out several places. Friday morning we had the best breakfast of the entire trip at Mother's Bistro. Fabulous food, every bite of it. If you like biscuits and gravy, these were the absolute best I have ever had. Jess had the wild salmon omelette and it was the best of the entire trip. It exceeded the Zell's omelette by far.

Friday's dinner was at Nuestra Cocina, highly rated by my flight companion as well as many local food magazines. They were right. They made about the best margarita on the rocks (Cadillac) that I have ever tasted. I also had a delicious and very spicy, peppery mahi mahi ceviche and then a carne asada that rocked. Wow. It's hard to impress me with Mexican food, but this was impressive.

Saturday, we went to Industrial Cafe for lunch. The Oregonian had hailed its chicken pot pie as the best in Portland. They were not wrong. It was an experience. Jess had the chipped beef gravy on toast, also terrific. You can't get chipped beef in New York. Poop. I always used to like it when my mom made that dish, and so I told Jess I'd make it when we got back home, but didn't remember seeing the chipped beef in the store...because I hadn't. They don't carry it here. Rats! For dessert, we went to a little french boulangerie (again from the Oregonian) St. Honore Bakery that had a mesmerizingly tongue-tingling tarte citron. I got Jess a chocolate eclair. Both were wonderful. We ate them while sitting by a nearby park. We then went on a park crawl, hitting a number of parks and enjoying most of them immensely. The leaves were starting to turn, and they were so pretty, especially the aspens and maples. My favorite was the Washington Park and Hoyt Arboretum which was atop a very high mountain overlooking downtown. What a view.

Saturday night, we met up with Todd and Pony again, and Andy and Pony's partner Chopper. We went to a little place called Pause that was only about a block from their house. If I had a place that close by with food that good, I'd weigh 350 lbs. The spinach artichoke dip and crab-shrimp dip appetizers were so tasty. I had an amazing Cuban sandwich that wasn't really authentic, but was delicious nonetheless. Jess had a killer steak sandwich with a chipotle dressing and that was amazing, too. The skin-on fries covered in kosher salt were excellent. I could have eaten them all night.

Alas, the evening (and the trip) had come to an end - we had to get to the airport for our 11:59 redeye flight. It was a miserable flight home, but the trip had been so good, it didn't matter much.

Okay, that's all I have for today. Come back tomorrow for some pictures of the falls.