Monday, November 29, 2010

Learning to Cook

Disclaimer: This is not a cooking blog. I don't know how to cook, but I was so surprised with my progress since August 1, 2009 I couldn't help but share. Experiential Learning at it's finest.
There are several reasons why I don't enjoy cooking. I'll admit, my recipes are not organized and I can never remember what our favorite meals are. I'll say that I don't enjoy grocery shopping, and I'll confess that I have an aversion to touching uncooked meat. It's all a recipe for disaster in the kitchen.

My fridge on Sunday (most days for that matter) wasn't very inspiring either:

For some reason, Sunday dinner became the road less traveled. I decided to 'wing it'. Usually this ends in cereal for dinner, but last night cauliflower was our centerpiece. I managed to pull this off:

Does it look like a crab cake? Fooled ya. I think I once tried a similar recipe from a Rachael Ray magazine, but (see aforementioned disorganization) without the recipe I decided to see what I could do with what I had on hand. Here's what I used:
  • 1 head of cauliflower
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 handfuls of whole wheat flower
  • 2 pinches of special herbs de province my friend gave me
  • dried basil (I'd season everything with basil if I could. I'm crazy about this herb)
  • some oil
  • lots of spinach
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes
  • a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette
  • shredded parmesan cheese
How that for measurements? I don't measure when I don't have a recipe.

I boiled the cauliflower, but I can't tell you how long because I got it started then had to turn it off while I delivered some cookies to our super. Maybe it took 15 minutes. I just waited until I could smash it down with a fork. After draining and smashing all the cauliflower I added my herbs and eggs then picked out the shells... I didn't mention I can't crack an egg... and my handfuls of flour.

I began heating some extra-virgin olive oil (I thought this would be 'lighter' than frying in butter) in a large skillet and dropped in the cauliflower globs in four-at-a-time to fry. I think there could be other ways to heat them - perhaps by broiling - but I wanted Dom to eat something for dinner and I knew if it was fried he would give it a try.

Once all my little patties were set out on paper towels I rinsed off the spinach, picked off the stems and drizzled in my balsamic vinegar. I made little beds for the patties and shredded some fresh parmesan cheese on top. Not bad at all.

The picture above is the reheats I had with a whole wheat tortilla for lunch. I ran out of balsamic vinaigrette last night so this is Greek feta dressing. Just as I sat down to enjoy the leftovers my dear friend Jill called from Columbus. She said she found my blog and plans to read every post, welcome Jill. I'm happy you're here.

It was very appropriate that she called just as I was thinking about sharing my makeshift cauliflower recipe because it also gives me a platform to shout my hoorays for her chocolate pumpkin cookies I mentioned delivering above. I make these cookies constantly (when I have access to pumpkin) and they're a big hit.

I don't like to share this recipe because it's so easy people might not think of the cookies as a gift. We'll see if Jill really reads and if she gives away my cookie secret.

My mom will tell you, and my college roommates will confirm, that I've come a long way in the past year and a half. Marriage brought out the Julia Child in me. While there's still progress to be made - Julia made tasty food after all - I feel like breaking free from the cookbook to create something edible is a step in the right direction.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Doesn't This Look A Lot Like Christmas

I am going to write an ode to my Gnausa* shopping cart. I love it. I push it everywhere. It even transported our Christmas pine home from Little Italy yesterday evening.

Life this year is much different from life last year. We're the the big city, so we get a smaller Christmas tree. To be fair, this was our "love fern" two years ago (Sarah and Dom spend within their means):

Anyway, we're thrilled with this year's Norfolk pine. We've learned a lot since 2008 and chose a plant from my new friend at the Italian market that is meant to be kept indoors. In fact, despite it's pine-like look, my friend told me that it's a tropical plant. If it is, surely it will love my climate. writes that this plant could live inside and would grow straight if I turn it every once in awhile. Wikipedia says it must be planted outdoors after the holidays. We'll see who wins... maybe I'll ask John what he thinks.

We haven't had time to decorate it yet, but I'll get another post up to spread the holiday cheer in a few days.

*Side note: gna means go in Armenian. I like to call this my Go USA cart.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving in Columbus

We're celebrating Thanksgiving with the Zaengers this year. A week in Worthington fills my heart with gratitude and appreciation for my parents, family and friends and what they have done for me over the years.

My parents always roll out the red carpet when we come home. It doesn't have to be a holiday to get some TLC and genuine hospitality. Not only do they cook up delicious meals, but they entertain with the best of them (with a hat tip to the Wii, Bananagrams, the Columbus Zoo and Elf the movie). Mom cares about comfort; always setting out travel-sized toiletries, picking up our favorite foods, and providing fresh towels in the bedroom. Dad will make sure you know exactly what Ohio teams are playing, on what channel and when. Go Bucks!

This year was particularly special because Seda, my Peace Corps Armenia teacher, friend, and mentor also came to our feast from California where she is getting her master's degree. My cup runeth over!

Not ones to miss an opportunity to put Ohio's best face forward, today my dad, Dominic and I took Seda on a tour of some of the Columbus wintertime sights (it was way, way too cold to visit any of our outdoor favorites like Highbanks, the park of roses, or Inniswood). We headed down to Capital (that's me with my brick above), visited German village's Book Loft, drove past Dad's charitable pharmacy and stopped by the Santa Maria.

The brick I placed at Capital reads: "Direct our footsteps Lord, Psalm 121". Psalm 121 was the last thing my grandfather said to me before I left for Armenia in 2006. It's the first thing I think of when I remember him today. I am grateful for Frank Zaenger. For his faith, his guidance, and the family he raised. May we always remember as we walk that the Lord will watch over our coming and going both now and forevermore.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Getting Noticed in our New Neighborhood

Yesterday I went to campus for a jog by myself. On the way home I crossed the street to our apartment and a friendly gentleman struck a running pose and commented: "What, no partner today?". I had no idea who this guy was and his question caught me off guard. I quickly replied "not today" and headed home.

What? People recognize me?

Then I realized, I've lived here for nearly three months! We do stand out a bit because of our race, but we're particularly hard to miss in the morning because a) we're running and b) I'm wearing a neon yellow reflector jacket.

Neighborhood, you recognize me? Well, I've started to recognize a few things about you:
  • I like to watch you, Speedy Scooter Man, fly down the middle of the road in your motorized chair at 20 miles per hour. Where are you going in such a hurry? Why don't you use the sidewalks or at least wear a helmet?
  • I'm grateful for you, Talented Opera Singer. Maybe you don't live in our building, we are so close you might live in a different building all together, but when the windows are open I feel like I'm at my own private concert.
  • I tolerate you, Cat Lady Across The Street. Why you've decided to invest in cat food for the 20 stray black cats in our neighborhood is beyond me, but I'm sure they appreciate your effort.
  • You terrify me, Pigeon Flock On The Corner. Why must you get all riled up every time I walk by? Don't you migrate? Isn't there a park you could hang out in?
Thank you, Man Downstairs, for your understanding when I bribe you with a bar of Lindt dark chocolate to turn your music down. Of course I'll always oblige your requests to stop 'dragging across the floor' when I'm vacuuming at 11 a.m. on a Saturday.
  • I feel for you, Bodega Owner, as you sit at the check stand for hours, days, weeks on end. You remind me of Usnavi and I wish we were friends. Thank you for the free matchbook.
  • I wonder about you, Next Door Neighbor Front-Porch-Sitter, and appreciate your willingness to bring back the use of the front of the house. I bet you get a kick out of me running up and down the street on my lunch breaks. What can I say? An hour's not enough time to get to Family Dollar and back.
  • You're wonderful, Jeff, and I must say you're the most hard-working super we've ever had. Thank you for keeping our sidewalks leaf-blown, our apartment building warm and our trash cans empty. Now about that pet policy...
More recognition to come. We'll be here for awhile.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Summer Must Be Over

Because today I had to say farewell to our local farmer's market. It was bittersweet because I also learned that this season NYC food stamp users received more than $200,000 in special coupons for fresh produce from the markets. Why do all good things have to come to an end?

There's a hopeful program here called Health Bucks. Since 2006, the number of farmer's markets receiving these coupons has increased from 29 to 60 throughout the city. According to this NYC Health Press Release, it seems that the expense of fresh produce can be offset with the coupon program:
"The Health Bucks increase the value of food stamp benefits by 40 percent when redeemed at participating farmers' markets in New York City. Whenever a customer spends $5 in food stamp benefits at a participating market, the customer receives a $2 Health Bucks redeemable for fresh fruit and vegetables.
There are more than 1.7 million people in NYC who participate in the food stamp program. Sometimes I complain about not having access to food I want in the Bronx (e.g. canned pumpkin), but honestly we have everything we need here. The choices are just difficult. What do you say to your husband who can be perfectly satisfied with a slice of pizza for $2.50 every night? Although it would add up over time, the immediate decision of convenience and low cost surely keep the corner bodegas and street stands open year round.

I stood in line behind a woman in La Super Tienda Del Bronx today as she had the cashier subtract groceries one-by-one until the total cost equaled the stack of one and ten dollar bills she had in her hand. I've been in her shoes, but not because I was budgeting.

Exposure to a different way of eating and shopping has been both frustrating and delightful the past few months. The grocery store closest to our house surprises me with advertisements like: "Spend $150 and get a free pork shoulder" or "plantains $.25 if you buy 20". If I'm shocked and I'm only shopping for two, how much more rich does that deal become when shopping for six? How much more valuable is that entire pork shoulder compared to $2 of carrot sicks?

Small side note: If I'm willing to make grocery shopping a two-hour trip, I can walk about 25 minutes to Little Italy for fresh bakeries, cheese shops and an indoor Italian market. I feel great about shopping there. Although things are more expensive the people are friendly, the shops are clean and the music is played at a reasonable volume, the food is fresh and the selection (on cheese, pasta and olives of course) is expansive. I often make this trip. I know I'm fortunate to be able to do so.

Things will have to change in December. Either my grocery commute will increase (there are several yearlong markets in Manhattan) or I'll have to learn to appreciate imported fruits and frozen vegetables. Regardless, I will thank God I have the choice.

Monday, November 15, 2010

We've Got Worms

In our new compost container that is!

That's right, situated here in the middle of the Bronx I've started my own container compost. All it took was a friendly environmentalist, a yogurt container full of dirty squirmies, and the raw produce leftovers I seem to constantly accumulate from my farmer's market fare. Watch out, this little investment is preparing us for some springtime container gardening (with cleaner and with 'nutrient'-rich soil)!

The dream started with our new friend John (pictured below with Dominic on Halloween).

John is an excellent resource and told me about keeping the container dark, poking air holes for ventilation, lining the bottom with paper and the importance of avoiding citrus fruits and coffee grounds for the acidity. Worms don't like acid.

He also passed along some online sites I can use to learn more. So, of course this evening I spent time perusing where I discovered vermicompost happens naturally. Who knew?

Because I know you're just dying for more detail, John got his worms from You can get anything on that website! He told me that they're actually a hot commodity. You can see why below:

There are my worms, happily nibbling on some kale, figs and pear core. Yum!

Call me when you need some "black gold".

Monday, November 08, 2010

Good Morning America

This weekend IPED sponsored a career trip to the nation's capitol. Dominic has been pretty consumed with school so I'm going to provide an introduction here and hope that you'll ask him what his experience was like. This was his first time to DC!

Dominic's first few days were jam-packed with tours, meetings and networking events. The alumni and program director really show the grad students a good time. They put us up in a hotel right behind the capitol building! My biggest regret was not packing my running shoes.

We extended the trip to be tourists for a few days over the weekend. Heather, our dear friend from Peace Corps Armenia, hosted us in her beautiful apartment. Talk about generosity! She spent time with us the night before leaving for an international trip and left us with her keys to hang out for the weekend. We were so thankful for her hospitality.

The metro system in DC is comfortable: clean, organized, color-coded and rat-free. The bus routes are easy to understand. We woke up on Saturday morning and headed to the Mall in style to see our other RPCV friends Bob and Peggy. Peggy and I had been interested in visiting the Holocaust museum so we planned to meet up there, but first we stopped by to say hi to Bo (the Obamas were in India).
If I might make a recommendation, don't start with the Holocaust museum. It makes for a long, difficult day. It's unique because, more than a typical museum, it's a memorial as well. I won't even begin to describe the experience, except to say that I appreciated the efforts made to refocus visitors' attention on the 'what now?' question. I picked up a brochure on the way out called "A Changed World: The Continuing Impact of the Holocaust". It covers topics like protection of human rights, protections for refugees and reconciliation between Christians and Jews during and after the Nazi era. What about the ongoing impact? I never knew, for example, that after the Holocaust the Roman Catholic Church and ELCA renounced their anti-Jewish teachings and promoted interfaith dialogue. Martin Luther, what were you thinking?

We left the museum and walked for a bit. Catching up, processing, looking for lunch. Despite the Incredible phone, we couldn't find an open sandwich shop! We ended up at this fish market where we fought off the birds to defend our crab cakes and chowder on the waterfront.

We had about three hours and more than 300 years of history to cover, so we rented these bright red bikes right off a sidewalk rack and pedaled around to all of the major monuments:

And some not-so-major ones too (Poor Mason)...

Washington DC is a special place. It gives me a similar feeling to when we see the Statue of Liberty or even when we walk through Times Square believe it or not. It is that realization that we have the blessing right now to live among some of the world's most iconic places. DC, we can't wait to come back!

Monday, November 01, 2010

Big Bambu

We're new here, but we know a good view when we see one:

Last month two artists named Doug and Mike Starn built an enormous bamboo fort on top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's art, so of course at 100 feet long, 50 feet wide and 50 feet high the structure could be described as: "the complexity and energy of an ever-changing living organism". Ultimately, I think some cool guys just wanted to hang out on top of the world:

Sunny, 70 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, your favorite music playing and an uninterrupted view of Central Park? I'd build some art for that hangout too.

It was definitely an exhibit worth seeing twice (which I did). I took Dominic the first time and then when a special surprise visitor showed up at my house the following weekend I took her too. Any excuse to relax in the sunshine.

The Big Bambu was really all I wanted to see at the Met, but on the way back down to the ground we stumbled across some modern sculpture art and couldn't help but stay and play for a few more minutes. This is what we would look like if you were a fly:

And this contraption would start and stop at the push of a foot pedal. It didn't start for Dom, but two minutes later a 6-year-old girl went up and got it to work.

To all those who may question my appreciation for the tremendous artwork in the Met, I will add that during my second trip I did spend some time admiring Monet and Baldessari's view of Pure Beauty. This town can overwhelm the senses if not taken in little by little.

October whereabouts

Here we are. November. Oh goodness!

Since I spent most of the beginning of October out of the state on business travel, I'm going to summarize briefly with three photos. We'll start with the most adorable and work our way back:
Seattle, WA
1. I just couldn't stay away from that happy face (or from my client responsibilities). So just about a month after I left I flew back to Seattle for a four-day visit. Happy Halloween from one of the cutest kids I've ever met. Our little pumpkin was getting ready to go out to a bagel breakfast this day when I arrived. Of course I got salmon lox.

St. Paul, MN
2. What can I say, we had a late dinner at the Mall of America while I visited the home office. No roller coaster for me, but Dominic made out well on this trip because apparently Minnesota doesn't have a sales tax on clothing.

Decherd, TN
3. Thank you, Nissan, for building your car engines in Decherd. I went all out and tried the most authentic southern cookin' I could find: fried green tomatoes, southern white beans, BBQ pulled pork sandwich on hoecakes. What is a hoecake? Fried corn bread of course (aka heart attack waiting to happen). Good thing the motel had a workout room.

Just when I thought I was going to try my hand at makin' it in New York I left. Fortunately the end of the month brought me back to the Bronx. More on that to come...