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Recent Reads

Happy New Year to everyone! I came down with a flu on New Year's Day, hoping everyone else is starting things off a little bit better.  Today I wanted to share two books I recently finished, one being Diane von Furstenburg's autobio and the other a historical fiction account of New York City.

New York: The Novel, by Edward Rutherfurd

This historical fiction piece provides a sweeping history of New York City from the 1600s through 9/11.  A massive undertaking for the author, although somehow he's written similar accounts of Paris, London, and Russia. The book follows the Master family, starting with their original Dutch ancestor, trapping beaver and fighting with his wife in the wilderness of Manhattan (yeah, wilderness). It follows the Master family line right on through colonial times, the Revolutionary war, Civil War, emancipation, the Great Depression, the sixties, eighties, etc. The Master family interacts with characters that each represent all the different cultures that came to make up Manhattan as well, from Irish and Italian immigrants, to Brooklyn Jews, to poor Puerto Rican families fighting gangs in Harlem.

What I liked about this book was getting a flip book style view of history. It all happens so seamlessly, one minute Lower Manhattan is swampland and the next it's full of skyscrapers. I also loved how just plain nice the characters were (though, of course, that made it less realistic). The bad thing about the book was that it actually feels a little fluffy, almost like chick lit. Maybe it's because almost all of the characters get lucky breaks, or maybe it's because the author sort of flies through some periods, but I have to say it's not actually the most substantial read. Definitely fun, cool, and enjoyable overall though. If you don't mind sinking into an 800-pager, check this one out.

The Woman I Wanted to Be, by Diane von Furstenburg
Ugh. I wanted to love this one. I love DVF's clothes, and her column in InStyle magazine, and I've always found interviews with her to be very interesting. I couldn't wait to read her autobio, but I was disappointed.

I started out liking it but came away feeling almost brainwashed. She talks about all aspects of her life, from her childhood, her marriages, family, love affairs, and ups and downs in her business, but only in the most superficial way. Her goal seems to be flaunting her glamorous, jet-set lifestyle, and it comes off as pretty narcissistic. For example, she constantly talks about her love for her husband, Barry Diller, but then has all these periods where she leaves him for a few years to be with other men, and talks about this as if it's totally normal and fine, just something she needed to do.  She also totally glosses over her bout with cancer, making it sound like she spent a few weeks at a yoga retreat. Her treatment of the topic was so surface that the reader can't connect with her at all.  She goes on and on about Studio 54, and all her celebrity encounters, and never once addresses any flaws in herself or talks about her struggles in any real way.  It's not worth reading. Skip this one.


Ina Garten's Make Ahead Cranberry Martini

I was waiting for Ina's new cookbook, Make it Ahead, for almost a full year. I made a beeline to Barnes & Noble on release day and raced home after work to read through it.

And it was kind of disappointing.  A lot of recipes were rehashes of old ones (which you almost can't blame her for, it is her 9th book, how many ideas can one person have?), and a lot of them were just prep ahead tips, not things you could completely make and reheat.

I've had the cookbook for two months now, and Ina's make ahead cranberry martinis were the first thing I tried.

This is basically an upscale version of a cranberry vodka. I served it at our Hanukkah party, and it was very well received. It's fun and festive and easy enough to make (though not as easy as just a regular cranberry vodka...). I did doctor the original recipe by squeezing in the juice of half an orange, and adding an extra half cup of cranberry juice, but if you like more of a vodka bite, do it Ina's way.

Make Ahead Cranberry Martinis (from Make It Ahead, recipe written with my changes)

1 cup cranberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
6 strips of orange zest, 1x3 inches (I used a vegetable peeler)
1 750 ml bottle vodka
1 and 1/2 cups cranberry juice cocktail (original recipe calls for 1 cup)
1/4 cup Triple Sec
Juice of half an orange (original recipe omits this)

Pour bottle of vodka into a large pitcher, Pyrex, whatever it can hang out in for a couple days.

Combine cranberries, sugar, orange zest, and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and let simmer about 5 minutes, until cranberries start to pop. Let cool, then add to pitcher with vodka. Refrigerate for up to five days.

Up to two days ahead of time, you can make the cocktail. I did mine Friday night for a Sunday afternoon party. Strain the vodka mixture into a pitcher, reserving cranberries but discarding zest. Add the cranberry juice, triple sec, and juice of half an orange. Stir.

When ready to serve, fill a cocktail shaker with ice, pour in some of the drink mix, and give it a good shake. Pour into martini glasses, garnishing with cranberries. Enjoy!


Hanukkah Recap

Yesterday was our family's fourth annual Hanukkah celebration, a tradition I instituted when my husband and I got engaged.

Usually, the celebration takes place on a Sunday night, but I like Sunday nights to myself and thought I'd do an elegant holiday lunch this year. We live about an hour from the rest of the family, so I figured it would be easier on them too to have it earlier in the day.

I was very happy with this year's lunch menu, though it's not exactly traditional.  We have a couple of different kinds of eating habits (aka some people are easygoing and some are pains in the asses!) so I served two main course options.

We started, of course, with matzo ball soup. No picture, but here's last year's post with the recipe. Delicious and make ahead.

For my non-meat eaters, we had Ina Garten's Roasted Salmon Nicoise salad:

I loved this. It's a mix of room temperature salmon, served with blanched green beans, spring mix, roasted red peppers, steamed fingerlings, tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, and olives, all topped with a tangy Dijon vinaigrette. The salmon, eggs, and green beans can be done a day ahead, the potatoes need a quick boil before serving, and then you can assemble it in the morning and refrigerate until serving time. Easy, healthy, delicious, and customizable- key for my crew.

Find the recipe here.

Our other main course was a roast beef tenderloin, an expensive option, but well worth it for ease of prep and crowd pleasing factor (and the sandwiches with leftovers!). All I did was salt and pepper the living hell out of it, and roast it for about 30 minutes at 425. I took mine out when it was 130 degrees and let it rest about a half hour before serving. You may want yours done a little more rare, so give it a shorter rest time or take it out at 125.

I served this with a horseradish mayo. No real recipe there either, I used about half a cup of mayo, a few tablespoons of sour cream, a tablespoon of Dijon, and a teaspoon horseradish.

We had latkes, pictured above. These I always cater, they are too much work and too smelly to cook at home.  Wegman's charges me $25 bucks for 40 or so latkes and applesauce. I'd say that's worth it!

My sister in law made a nice mixed greens salad, and we also had Food52's ridiculously good spinach gratin, and roasted asparagus. A loaf of challah made an appearance too.


And, as always, we had piles of gifts and a cramped apartment:

Happy Hanukkah!


Friendsgiving Recap

As you may remember from last year, I host a “Friendsgiving” party for my friends and I in our apartment.  This year’s featured a lot of excitement, from issues with my oven early in the day(cue panic, thank you God it finally kicked in and worked!), to our first close couple friends to announce a pregnancy!

Today, I’m sharing this year’s menu, for anyone who may need a little last minute inspiration.

A friend of mine recently started an invitation business, and is learning calligraphy, so I had her do the menu. Amazing job, right?

As you may remember from last year (LINK), I host a “Friendsgiving” party for my friends and I in our apartment.  This year’s featured a lot of excitement, from issues with my oven early in the day(cue panic, thank you God it finally kicked in and worked!), to our first close couple friends to announce a pregnancy!

Today, I’m sharing this year’s menu, for anyone who may need a little last minute inspiration.
A friend of mine recently started an invitation business, and is learning calligraphy, so I had her do the menu. Amazing job, right?

Our Menu:

Antipasto: assorted cheeses, crackers, prosciutto, salami, soppressata, olives, and marinated artichoke hearts.

Roast Turkey: this year, I used Rachael Ray’s dry-brined turkey recipe. You salt the bird a day ahead and rub it down with a butter and herb mixture. Day of, all you need to do is let it sit out for an hour at room temp, and then roast away, 15 mins per pound.

Stuffing: I used my classic sausage stuffing recipe from last year.

Spinach Gratin: absolutely love this make-ahead from Food52. This was the big hit side dish this year.

Quinoa with Roasted Squash and Walnuts: Another great make-ahead. Cut a butternut squash into 1 inch cubes, roast with olive oil, salt, and pepper at 425 for 35 minutes, or until tender and browned. Meanwhile, cook up a batch of quinoa. Combine the two and refrigerate a day or two ahead. Just before serving, toast walnuts and combine with quinoa. Delicious.

Roasted Cauliflower: another make ahead. I roast the cauliflower the day before, and just reheat before serving. I like to dressing mine with a lemon/caper/parsley dressing.

Kale Salad: I modified Marcus Samuelsson’s kale salad from the November issue of Food and Wine. I used his dressing and curly kale, and added fennel, carrots, and  radishes. You can dress it ahead, which is rare and convenient for salads.

Cider Punch: this Saveur chilled cider punch recipe is AWESOME. Cold sweet cider, whiskey, and ginger beer (my favorite!) make the perfect large-batch drink.

And of course, we always have cornbread, regular bread, cranberry sauce, and gravy! I count on my friends to make those. 

Dessert this year was a fantastic selection of pies, tarts, and tiramisu from the Cake Boss’ shop in Hoboken, courtesy of my very generous friends Brett and Debbie. I have to admit, I expected them to be terrible. I figured with all Buddy’s fame, he’s gotta be slacking in his pastry shop, but he’s not. I was gobbling down that blueberry crumb pie for days. SO good. 


Entertaining Essentials

Inexpensive Charger Plates, $1.00
Charger plates instantly dress up dinner, and I love being able to buy multiple colors to go with different table settings. These were only $1 at Amazing Savings, so I stocked up on red, gold, and silver.  I’ve also seen them at the Christmas Tree Shop, if there’s no Amazing Savings in your neck of the woods.

Pottery Barn Caterer’s Box Collection, $15-$60 for 12
This dinnerware collection is perfect for entertaining.  White porcelain plates, bowls, and mugs, as well as glass drinkware, are sold in sets of 12 and inexpensively priced from $15-$60 for the dozen.  You can also pick up napkins, flatware, and table linens to match as well.  They’re perfect to keep on hand so you don’t have to resort to paper plates when entertaining.

The brand 10 Strawberry Street also sells similar plain white bulk entertaining dinnerware, at a slightly lower price point. You can find them often on One Kings Lane, and sometimes in Walmart.

World Market Galvanized Party Tub, $17 
When I host parties, the boys always bring truckloads of beer, and we run out of room in the fridge very quickly. Now, I fill this large tub with ice and leave it out, giving guests easy access to the booze without compromising the fridge space I need.

Walmart Inexpensive Serving Utensils, $2 
You can never have too many serving forks and spoons, and I really like these plain silver ones from, believe it or not, Walmart. They’re sold open stock, so you can buy as few or as many as you need. They look attractive and elegant, they hold up well, and you can’t go wrong at only $2 each.  

Table Runners
I like to use a plain ivory tablecloth and accessorize with a colorful runner. My favorite is Luxury Linen Loft’s Burlap Runner, which I picked up on Etsy for $10. It adds a great rustic element to a fall table. I also love the runners on World Market, my favorite being the Kavita runner in the picture above- so colorful!

Sur La Table’s sale rack is one of the best places to find gorgeous table linens deeply discounted, which is how I scored the pretty ones above.

I tried very hard to find an inexpensive glass drinking dispenser, but all the ones I bought leaked. I finally bit the bullet and got this item from Pottery Barn, and I love it. Sixty bucks well spent- no leaking, easy to clean, and I was able to have it monogrammed to match my PB decanter. Awesome.

Disposable Condiment Bowls, $2.99 for 20 

Another great find from Amazing Savings. I like to use these for my mise en place during a dinner party- I’ll pre-chop my herbs or lemon zest and put them in these bowls in the fridge.  They take up less space than a bowl, and just before serving, I can sprinkle the garnish over my dish and toss them when done, saving dishwasher space as well.  They double as little ramekins too for dipping sauces, olives, or nuts. 


Recent Reads

10% Happier, by Dan Harris

Harris is a Nightline news anchor who suffered a panic attack on live TV, which subsequently propelled him into the world of meditation and mindfulness.  Harris studies Eckhart Tolle, works with a prominent psychiatrist well-versed in Buddhism, encounters the Dalai Lama, and attends a 10 day meditation retreat. He begins to understand and observe the frenetic way his mind works, and calm the disparaging, ragingly insecure voice that runs constantly inside him.

The book is incredibly well written. I loved watching the struggle- we see him start out hating anything spiritual, thinking mediation is for goons, and ultimately wind up benefitting from it and preaching its cause to anyone who will listen. It reminds me of the way I think God works in most of our lives, putting struggles in our path to continually improve and change us, challenging us to open our minds and embrace things we once rejected. 

The book is not a “how to” on meditation, though you can gain lots of tips and insight by reading it. Harris formally includes some notes and resources in the appendix, but my favorite were the little nuggets of wisdom I picked up throughout:

“When a big wave is coming at you, the best way not to get pummeled is to dive right in.”

“You may find that it’s not the pain that is intolerable, but instead your resistance to it.”
“How often are we waiting for the next pleasant hit of ...whatever? The next meal or the next relationship or the next latte?”
Simple and maybe even obvious, but so many of us, especially myself, live our lives on the exact opposite way. 
I didn’t devour this in a day like I do with a good fiction novel, and I admit I don’t find Harris to be the most likable person in the world, but it was definitely a worthwhile read, and has, of course, inspired me to meditate. 
Some Luck, by Jane Smiley
Loved this book. The novel starts in 1920 with newly married couple Rosanna and Walter Langdon, living on a farm in Iowa.  Each chapter spans a year, ending in 1953. I loved the format of the novel; it moved quickly and mimics life- first you have a newly married couple, primitively without electricity, and all of a sudden their children are grown up with kids and adventures of their own.  The story has births, deaths, love, and family, set against historical backdrops of the Great Depression, World War 2, and the McCarthy era. A sweeping, fascinating portrait of American family life. Loved it.
Boy, was this a weird one.  The book explores the friendship between two opposites: Mia, the “bad girl,” and Lorrie Ann, “the good one,” and what happens when their fortunes change. A string of bad decisions and bad circumstances catapult Lorrie into a dark, depressing path. Mia watches from afar and attempts to reach out, but their friendship falters over issues like illness, death, drugs, and parenting. The novel explores the bonds between friends. Though compelling, I ultimately found this one unnecessarily dark with a depressing ending. 
Evergreen, by Rebecca Rasmussen
Okay, I have to admit the cover art drew me in, even though I read by Kindle.  This one’s a bit similar to Some Luck, in that it involves a couple in the earlier part of the 1900s living off the land. Eveline and her husband, Emil, live in a small cottage in the woods.  They raise one small boy, but one day when Emil is off at war, Eveline is raped and conceives a daughter. She  never tells her family about this event, or the daughter, whom she gives up, but after her death her son Hux finds out, and seeks to find his sister.  The novel is an easy read, touching on themes of loss, regret, love, and what might have been. Enjoyable, fast paced, and interesting.


Holiday Outfit Guide: The Office Party

Every year in my office at Christmastime, there’s people who dress with a bit too much holiday spirit. I’m talking blinking reindeer antler headbands (seriously), immense amounts of red sequins, ornament shaped earrings, or non-ironic ugly Christmas sweaters.  It’s fine to get excited about the holidays, but I tend to think the office is a place of restraint.

I usually opt for a black and white outfit with pops of red in my shoes or accessories. I also love a classic pencil skirt and button down in a festive color, or a professional wrap dress in a deep red or evergreen. If you go with something in a festive color (like red, green, or metallic), pick one and stick to it. Don’t pair your green dress with red shoes.  And please, please, please avoid sequins.  

And while I’m being bossy, watch the booze too!! I learned this the hard way when an old boss delivered a pitcher of Alabama Slammer shots to our table…at 11:45 am. Whoops. Stick to wine, it’s classiest.

Some classic and professional holiday office attire:

And of course, the shopping guide: