How to Nail the Off-Registry Wedding Gift? A Very Special Experience for Two

Going off-registry for a friend or family member’s wedding can be risky — best reserved for only daring friends who know the couple well. But for those who are up for the challenge, a thoughtful off-registry gift that truly complements the couple can the most meaningful. We got married this past December, and one of the more unexpected but happy surprises have been some of the off-registry wedding gifts from friends and family. Knowing my French husband Olivier and I love cheese and wine, one friend gave us gift cards to boutique shops we hadn’t yet tried in our neighborhood, Moore Brothers wine and Beechers cheese. Other friends gifted memberships to MoMA, so we can get our culture on a bit more (while there’s so much to do in New York you’re a boring person if you find yourself bored, it’s also easy to be lazy and miss some of the city’s many arts and culture offerings). But the coolest gift so far showed up at our door last night at 7pm: Dante Giannini, a personal chef to make a romantic dinner for two in our tiny Chelsea kitchen, making “farm to table with seasonal ingredients” in a “classic French/American” style. We had a moment: Olivier joked that now Dante’s cooked a three-course gourmet meal in our kitchen, I can’t complain anymore about not having enough space. Ha. But seriously, the meal he managed to cook on a counter space of less than two feet square was quite incredible. A few photos of our night:

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Creative use of space! All this fit in our kitchen.

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Braised pork chops…

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…plus a mint-yogurt sauce for the appetizer.

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The finishing touches…apple salad and truffle oil!

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Prepping the table: Decanting a Durigutti Malbec from Back Label wines + lots of candles = roooomaannncceeee.

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We finished every bite!

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Buttery sauteed mushrooms to top a lamb chop entree.

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Lamb chops with lentils, sauteed mushrooms, basalmic reduction. Delicious!

DSC_0464Homemade apple crumble ice cream and lemon tart. Tasted like cookie dough!

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My Fourth Grade Essay on Chocolate (Kind of Makes Me Want to Eat Chocolate)

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I was going through some old files yesterday when I stumbled across two drafts of an essay I wrote — yikes I’m almost ashamed to admit it! — 20 years ago, when I was in fourth grade. It made me smile, so I figured I’d share it:

September 22, 1993

Chocolate

I absolutely love chocolate. The reasons why are because: It’s sweet & I love sweet stuff. It’s just good old plain chocolate. It has that diffent [sic] taste. It comes in mints, which I love too. But there are bad parts too, just like with all desserts. If It’s all that I eat, I start feeling sick.

My fourth grade teacher, Ms. Lafrenz, was wonderful; she taught me my first lessons in creative writing — and I credit her for helping me to discover my love of words. Her feedback, I’m sure, was to make my piece descriptive, a little more show and less tell.

OK. Round two:

October 1, 1993

Chocolate, Chocolate!!

As you may know, CHOCOLATE happens to be people’s favorite type of desert [sic], all over the U.S. But However, out of all the people, I am the person that desires the sweet, crunchy sensation of chocolate the most. I love to bite down on the firm shell, and taste the creamy, but sort of solid center of the brown, chewy chocolate. Right now I can imagine the pleasantly sweet taste, permanently stuck to my toung [sic]. Oh, how I can not stand this sugary, sweet taste! Now how I just have to describe it! Thinking about it, it tastes like a wonderful chocolate land store, filled with all the chocolates you could imagine! Chocolate mints, smothered in a deep, dark brown chocolate. Ohhh, how I idolize the sweet taste of a chocolate mint, melting in my mouth, ever so slowly, so tasty. But after I think about it for so much time. I rember [sic] those horrible tummy aches I got when I ate too much of it. So now I guess that chocolate is so sweet tasting, but it doesn’t always turn out so great.

There you have it: A little chocolate fiend, attempting to describe a chocolate experience. Surprising how little has changed over the past 20 years (though these days, a good glass of wine is a very close second).

5-Course Gourmet Supper Club Goes Under the Table in Brooklyn

Olivier and I were invited to our first supper club — a private dinner by a pro chef held at someone’s apartment — yesterday night in Brooklyn. It was a five-course dinner with wine and beer pairings by Under the Table Brooklyn. I was seated next to Krista from TheLovelyBits.com and we had fun talking shop:

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And what a way to get introduced to supper clubs. This wasn’t just any way to stuff your pie hole — all of the proceeds went to Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts in the Philippines. Now that’s the way to feel good about your food!

Dinners by UTTB usually have themes. (One they recently hosted was an “Innards Dinner,” featuring all of the inner portions of animals — cow brain, tongue, intestintes, etc. Hey, when in Brooklyn, right!). But since this round all of the food was donated, the theme was, well…Top Chef New York: A couple of talented cooks doing an amazing job with limited ingredients. A few generous local vendors ponied up the goods, including classic lager from Brooklyn Brewery, fresh salmon from the Chelsea fish shop F. Rozzo & Sons, bone marrow from the old school SoHo New York butcher shop Pino’s Prime Meats, a variety of wines from the Brooklyn shop Slope Cellars, and something tasty from the South African NYC restaurant WOZA. Plus with a family donation of $100, our friend Sam went with Italian chef Matteo Boffo to the Park Slope Food Co-Op and bought the rest of the edibles, including fresh seasonal veggies and eggs.

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While the $100 price tag wasn’t cheap, I have yet to hear of any place in NYC that serves a gourmet five-course meal including wine pairings that comes anywhere close. And the food? Phenomenal! Here’s an overview, in pictures:

First course: Celery root puree. Homemade porcetta added robust depth and a satisfying saltiness, while chunks of sweet roasted turnip, braised fennel and pickled black radish gave the dish depth and texture. Yum!

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Second course: Cured salmon. This was my favorite! Matteo cured a chunk of salmon and an egg yoke, making them both fully “cooked” and safe to eat. What, exactly, is curing, you ask? (Well, I asked.) As Matteo explained, curing is an ancient food preparation where (typically) meats are coated in salt and/or sugar (both in this case) and left to sit out and “stew” for seven or eight hours. This process sucks out all the moisture, the same thing that happens when you cook over heat, and voila! The meat is prepared, just as safe as if you were to grill it over the BBQ or broil it in your stove. Even cooler, the process preserves the natural colors and texture of the meat, as you can see below. The salmon was tender and slightly chewy, and the yolk reminded me of candied (but not sweet) fruit. Honey-roasted beets added crunch, while cream cheese and candied lemon kicked in a little sour-and-tart. I’ve never eaten any dish quite like it.

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Third course: Saffron risotto. This was a simple dish with roasted bone marrow and parmesan, with saffron our friend Sam bought in a street market on a trip to India. A bit simple but a nice “palate-cleanser” (if you can call cheese and meat that, I just did) between courses.

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Fourth course: Coconut curry salmon. Some of the best curry I’ve ever had. More salmon, but the skin was decadent, deep-fried to a crisp. And the sauce. Oh my God the sauce: mushroom, green pepper, potato, cilantro, lime, lemongrass ginger, tumeric, and scallion. Everyone at that table probably thought I had hit up Mary Jane before dinner, but I swear something about it tasted like chocolate. Olivier said it was probably because my tastebuds just love chocolate so much that my brain tricks me to think anything I like must be the brown stuff. Possible. But Matteo humored me and said that curry actually DOES pair really well with white chocolate (even if it wasn’t in this dish). Anywhoo, whoa. Good stuff.

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Fifth course: Lavender & rosemary gelato. Homemade slightly-sweet but refreshing rosemary gelato. Over an soft, olive oil cake that reminded me of pound cake but richer. Drizzled in olive oil. With fried rosemary on top. Wow.

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When we left the apartment four hours after arriving, it felt about 10 degrees warmer (but still coldish at about 40), with a crazy foggy mist. An eerily beautiful end to a seriously indulgent night:

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A Very Un-American Thanksgiving, New York-Style

Yesterday was one of the first times I haven’t eaten Thanksgiving dinner with my parents (the other being the year I spent teaching English in Paris, celebrating among other American teachers with a plate of spaghetti with canned red sauce and a glass of wine). This year instead of making the trip from New York all the way to Arizona (a brain-zapping 7-hours, with no direct flights), my fiancé Olivier and I decided to stick it out in New York and host our own – and first – Thanksgiving dinner together.

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My friends already had plans with their own families, but because Olivier is from Paris and he met most of his New York buddies as an international student at Columbia, we had our picking of “homeless” non-Americans who were stranded with a day off but nowhere to go…and no pumpkin pie to eat. So we decided to have our own version of a newcomer pilgrims’ feast: five Frenchies, one Indian, one Italian, one Chilean, one Moroccan, and one Arizonan (that would be me).

Like most things in New York, our kitchen is “cozy” (to use a common euphemism) – if you raise your arms you reach the walls elbow-to-elbow in width and arm-to-arm in depth. Features include: no dishwasher, 12 square inches of countertop, a four-burner gas stove that’s about 50 degrees off, and a microwave lightning machine that rattles when it gets to hot and literally lights up inside with fiery white bolts of energy (yeah, we should get that checked out).

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Given the conditions and my limited experience cooking Thanksgiving dinner, I decided to do what any good New Yorker does in times of culinary crisis: have someone else do the cooking. We ordered a “pre-cooked” bird online from Whole Foods and picked it up Thanksgiving eve, along with cheese (didn’t want to chance a riot by depriving the Frenchies of a meal without their national food) and ingredients to make homemade cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

When we got home that night I got to making the latter two. Turns out cranberry sauce is harder than I thought – even though it only requires boiling the berries with water and sugar, I bought two different sizes of cranberry packages but followed the instructions for just one of them, so the result was a bit overly sweet and watery (I got lucky – cranberries aren’t really grown outside of the US, so no one at our dinner table knew any better). The pies, on the other hand, turned out perfect – gooey and with just the right amount of spice and sweet, even though I had to improvise with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves in place of pumpkin pie spice (I got lucky, improvising usually doesn’t work out too well when you’re baking).

My biggest fear was our Thanksgiving turkey, which needed to be oven-heated for two hours before it would be ready to eat. At 12 pounds it was going to be a tough fit in our pint-sized oven: its foil pan only fit in one direction…and then only when we folded up the sides. But in the end, it fit!

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I have to admit I was proud we started preparations for our feast the night before, because we avoided my usual last-minute panic to prepare (the last time I hosted a “formal” event at our apartment – book club for a few girlfriends over the summer – I decided the apartment needed a scrub-down after I got home at 6:30 but before the guests came over at 8, which resulted in answering the door with fat sweat stains down my back and the first guest setting out most of the food for me while I scrambled to finish wiping down the bathroom sink).

This time the timing was just right. As our friends arrived we drank wine, munched on crackers, cheese, mixed nuts, and olives, and talked. Guests commented on our artwork and instruments (all Olivier…though he works in finance he’s always singing or painting or coding on the weekends). We laughed about how Frenchies ruin Thanksgiving for Americans living abroad. You can’t buy cranberries or stuffing in Paris. A friend accidentally ordered a GIANT 12-kilo (that’s ~30 pounds!) turkey when she meant to order 12 pounds, and when she couldn’t even fit it in the oven the typically French grocer refused to let her return it. Another friend asked the butcher to stuff her turkey and ended up with one filled with foie gras that set her back several hundred Euros. Then in a couple of hours we sat down to dinner:Image

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Yep, that’s a piano bench and two fold-out chairs. But despite our inept space and the roaring steam heaters drowning out parts of the conversation, we still popped champagne and stuffed our faces with turkey, potatoes, and pie. And even though I did miss my family, it will probably remain one of my most vivid memories of Thanksgiving for life.

Juice Cleanses: Healthy or Disordered?

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Juice cleanses. Juice fasts. Juicing. Whatever you call it, it seems to be everywhere lately. Between going on my own veggie-based (and unintentional) “cleanse” with a friend this weekend and an article on “juice heads” in this week’s New York Magazine, the topic seems to be the yoga for this generation’s yuppies.

Last weekend I spent with a very good friend who was in New York from San Francisco, who, after a week of heavy client dinners/drinks, was spending the weekend eating vegan/organic/gluten-free — basically raw fruits and veggies, or a juice diet. We started out the weekend at One Lucky Duck in Chelsea Market, an “organic, uncooked plant-based foods” joint that specializes in juice cleanses. She ordered a green kale-based smoothie, while I went next door and grabbed some vegan sushi, figuring I could be healthy too but still wanted to chew my food. It was actually delicious (the veggie-based sushi, not the green smoothie); that night we went on to eat soup, hummus and a veggie platter at Gobo, another vegan spot in the West Village (which, at least on the night we were there, catered to lesbians, 20-somethings on a girls’-night-out, and yogis). It was tasty, and I found that even though we hit the early bird special at 5pm (about 3 hours earlier than I usually sit down for my evening meal), I was full until I went to bed that night. And the next day? My intestines were empty, and we both really did feel lighter and energized by eating vegan and raw (except for my one whole-milk latte that afternoon, whoops). But something about it felt…dangerous.

My mom (daughter of a nurse) and my dad (son of a doctor and nurse) always drilled in the importance of a varied diet when I was growing up: Start every meal with a salad, always eat a variety of foods (never too much or too little of any food group), and you’ll be healthy. I was lucky. I was in good health, but my parents still let me enjoy the occasional burger and fries. By the time I was old enough to make choices about what was served on my own dinner table, I was pretty used to having lots of greens, some grains, a bit of dairy, some meats. In other words, a pretty balanced diet.

But that’s not to say I didn’t pick up unhealthy patterns of eating. Like many teen girls faced with social pressures, insecurities, and rail-thin magazine models as your model of beauty, I struggled on and off with eating disorders. With a little counseling, I began to appreciate the good eating habits my parents had been instilling in me for years and the root behind my battles with eating. I realized that much of my unhealthy relationship with food had to do with control — or a lack thereof in my life. My issues started after a traumatic event, and from then on, whenever I would feel especially vulnerable because of a relationship gone wrong, or a bad grade on a midterm, or a shitty boss — when I turned to eating as the one thing I felt I could for sure control. Research shows that eating disorders are, in fact, grounded in the need to assert control in life.

So as I was reading the NY Mag article, it started to ring bells. “With juice, you can wash everything away, all the things that make you feel helpless. You can’t control the trajectory of your career in an unstable new economy, or where your kids get into school, or if the city will flood again–that’s all happening over your head….There’s no reason to be anxious, because [with a juice cleanse] you have everything under control.” And “Juice…[gets] its devotees jazzed up, under control, and certain they’re living right. And, or course, it hastens that other thing that’s so important to New Yorkers–exceptional, twig-like thinness. Of this you must not speak, though clearly it is the highest and most sacred goal of all.”

In this “cult,” it’s never just one cleanse. It becomes a lifestyle, a way of living, a higher goal (“what did you do today? I juiced.”). But the article forgot to mention that restriction to 900 calories per day for some on a regular basis — barely over the border of the 600-800 calories that’s classified as anorexia — also results in some nasty side effects in the long term: reduction in bone density, dry hair and skin, ulcers, and even the highest rates of suicide among all psychological disorders.

All of this not to say that every person who does a juice cleanse or eats all vegan/gluten-free/organic is anorexic or bulimic. Or that it’s less healthy than a country that’s over 2/3 overweight and 1/3 obese — the reverse issue with food control. I’m actually even considering doing more all-veggie days in the future, because eating more really did make me feel great (I just want to chew what I eat). But I do think that the NY Mag article (which, as it has its own right, tried to look at the topic objectively) failed to touch on one important point: sometimes it’s worth taking a step back from the latest diet fad to re-examine what your real goals are.

Photo Credit: http://nadineleenutrition.com/