Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The five top movies to watch this New Year's weekend

I’ve never been a big fan of the hoopla that surrounds New Year’s Eve. I’ve certainly been to big, loud parties where everyone gets all excited about the countdown to midnight, but what I prefer is a more quiet holiday, perhaps with some good friends, good food, and a good movie. Peter and I were talking over dinner last night, brainstorming what would be the ultimate movie to watch over the New Year’s holiday. Lots of ideas flew across the dining room table, and we debated about the attributes that make the perfect New Year’s movie. For me, it has to be a “big”, lush film with great characters, and a certain sparkle or “edge” to it. 

So if you’re looking for suggestions, here are my top five movies to help you usher in 2011:

Living Out Loud
So many great scenes and terrific character development put this 1998 film at the top of my list. Holly Hunter plays Judith Nelson, a recent divorcee in Manhattan who’s looking for meaning in her life. Along the way, she meets Pat (played by Danny Devito), her high-rise building’s elevator operator who’s down on his luck, and Liz Bailey (played by Queen Latifah), a singer at a local jazz club. The writing is brilliant, the soundtrack is fabulous, and although I’ve probably seen this movie a dozen times, this film never gets old for me. There’s a scene at a restaurant that always makes me cry, and a steamy scene where Judith steps way out of her comfort zone and hires a massage therapist (played by LeAnn Rimes’s new fiancĂ©, Eddie Cibrian) for an in-home session. You can watch my favorite scene below. Judith is ready for some adventure, so after popping some Ecstasy, she has a run-in with Pat and then heads out to a club in New York’s Meatpacking District with Liz. 

Moulin Rouge
I find that people either love or hate this movie. I was bowled over the first time I saw this 2001 adventure, directed by Baz Luhrmann, who is a true visionary. It’s a giant, bright, loud movie set at the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris. Starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor (they’re both great singers!), the movie is filled with balls-to-the-wall production numbers, over-the-top sets, some wonderful screwball comedy, and a wonderfully touching love story. Watch this scene to see a great take on Elton John’s “Your Song” – gives me chills to see this again!

The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg

Starring a very young Catherine Deneuve, this 1964 film is all in French and is all in song. But don’t let that scare you away. The movie is colorful and beautifully romantic, telling the story of 17-year-old Genevieve, who wants to marry her handsome auto mechanic boyfriend, played by Nino Castelnuovo. Afraid that her daughter is too young to get married, Genevieve’s mother (who owns the umbrella shop in the coastal town of Cherbourg) puts a stop to the relationship. Go watch this terrific film, and just see if your heart doesn’t break. Here’s one of my favorite scenes, featuring the love theme, “I Will Wait for You”.


All About Eve
I’m sure everybody has already seen this classic Bette Davis vehicle, but this 1950 film still holds up. Aging Broadway actress Margo Channing is threatened when a seemingly innocent younger actress starts edging into her life and career. Featuring one of the all-time great movie lines (Margo downs her martini and with a flip of her hair, warns her cocktail party guests: “Fasten your seatbelts – it’s going to be a bumpy night!”), this film earned a “Best Picture” Oscar. Watch Bette Davis utter the famous line here, and see one of the earliest movie appearances by Marilyn Monroe.

The English Patient
When this movie came out in 1996, I saw it in the theater three times! Starring Ralph Fiennes and stunning actresses Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas, this film defines the word “lush”. Told through a series of flashbacks, the movie features wonderful landscapes in North Africa and Italy and a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. Here’s the official trailer for the film. "I promise, I'll come back for you. I promise, I'll never leave you." Sigh…

If New Year’s Eve finds you in the mood to laugh, then you need to check out “Waiting for Guffman”, a fake documentary about the townspeople of Blaine, Missouri (“The Stool Capital of the World”) as they prepare for a stage production in honor of their town’s 150th anniversary. Written, directed by, and starring Christopher Guest (married in real-life to Jamie Lee Curtis), this movie is outright silly and, at least to me, fall-down funny. Like other “mocumentaries” created by Christopher Guest (“Spinal Tap”, “Best In Show”, and “A Mighty Wind”), much of the dialog is improvised. Here’s a wonderful clip of the community auditions for the stage show. It still makes me laugh out loud!

So what do you think? Have you seen these films? Do you have others the would make a better pick for New Years?

Monday, December 27, 2010

I feel his pain

Wiped out after the holidays. Luckily, I got a "snow day" at work today, so we've all got a little time to catch up.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A sweet and savory Christmas

To me, nothing says “Christmas” like all of the traditional kinds of food we make each year. Over the past week or so, we’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Both of us love to cook anyway – but at the holidays, we always ramp up to create our favorite treats. This year was no exception.

First up was dark chocolate bark, a base of semisweet chocolate with swirls of white chocolate, all covered with a mixture of toasted walnuts, pistachios, chopped apricots, dried cranberries, and tiny pieces of candied orange and grapefruit peel. I made a huge mistake while candying the citrus this year. After spending almost an hour (!!) peeling and painstakingly removing all of the white pith from about a dozen oranges and grapefruit, I gave the peels two baths in boiling water (helps remove some of the bitterness), and then submerged the pieces in a heavy sugar syrup to simmer. Somehow I got distracted and “forgot” about the project, until I detected the smell of burning sugar. Oops…the mixture was at a fast boil, and big bubbles of black sugar filled the pot. I left the saucepan on the stovetop and went to bed, and when I got up the next morning, the entire concoction had hardened into one giant lump of coal, with little bits of orange and grapefruit peel peeking out. Totally disheartened, I left for work, vowing to scrub the pan when I got home that night.

But when I got home, Peter had a wonderful surprise in store for me. He had added some water to the pot and left it to simmer on the stovetop. The gloppy mess reconstituted into a (dark) syrup and he rescued most of the citrus pieces and put them out to dry. So when I got home, I found my sugared citrus on the counter, ready to add to my bark. A Christmas miracle, indeed!

Vegetarians will want to steer clear of our next dish: country pate, a savory blend of ground pork, bacon, ham steak, good-quality Cognac, onion, garlic, and wonderful spices. Peter calls it his “fancy meatloaf”! A little slice on a cracker or piece of crusty bread, along with some spicy mustard and a cornichon is soooo delicious. Here’s the recipe from Bon Appetit that we use.

And our “piece de resistance” – our traditional devil’s food layer cake with peppermint frosting. Four layers high, this recipe was featured on the cover of Bon Appetit a couple of years ago, and when Peter – a huge fan of good chocolate cake – saw it, he was determined to try it out. Filled with dark chocolate ganache and billowy clouds of heavy cream and minty white chocolate, the cake is covered with a marshmallowy peppermint icing and decorated with tiny curls of dark chocolate. Making this cake is time-consuming – we usually spread the process over two days --  and you pretty much use every pot and pan in your kitchen. But the end result is so tasty and rich, that a tiny slice will suffice. In fact, I’d recommend you find a few friends who appreciate good cake and offer them a slab. We brought it over to our friends Doug and Jo Ann’s house last night for a wonderful Christmas evening dinner, and even after serving six guests and leaving some with our hosts, we still have half a cake left! 

And what's not to like about our traditional Christmas Eve martini?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Visiting a local nursing home on Christmas Eve

Otis, our six-year-old Portuguese Water Dog, made his first visit as a certified therapy dog on Christmas Eve morning. We went to Marion Manor, a nursing home and rehabilitation center here in South Boston. Otis, decked out in his official therapy dog vest and colorful velour scarf, ran up the front steps at Marion Manor like he lived there, eager to report to his first day at work.

Inside, we met Christine, who works in the activities department, and she escorted us around the facility for about an hour. Up and down the hallways, Otis made his presence known, often being the first one to poke his head around the corner of someone’s room. He tugged us into the middle of a physical therapy session, where about 10 residents in wheelchairs were doing exercises, and the class came to a screeching halt while Otis made the rounds.  Christine knows every resident, and brought us to visit several dog-lovers who she knew would appreciate a visit from Otis. Most everyone seemed thrilled to see our pooch (“You’ve really made my day,” said one lady) while some were more content to just see him from a distance (“Do you want to pet the dog?” Christine would ask. “No,” several residents replied with a smile.)

We visited one floor that houses just men, where Otis got a little startled when one resident’s hand dropped on his head unexpectedly. Then it was off to the women’s floor, where Otis was in his glory. He’s always been somewhat of a lady’s man, enjoying the cooing and all of the fuss made over him. One lady named Rose seemed more interested in getting to know Peter and me (“I’m not so interested in the dog,” she said, “but you’re handsome!”)

As we left the women’s floor, we could tell Otis was spent. It must be a lot of work wagging your tail and letting people pet you for an hour! All in all, it was a great visit and we’ll make another visit to Marion Manor in the new year. 

Christmas Eve on Castle Island

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Amen to that...

Try these: White Trash Christmas Nuggets

With all due respect to Rachael Ray, some of the food she showcases on her TV shows and in her magazine don’t look so appetizing. I must say, however, that a few year’s ago, I found this recipe in her monthly magazine, and I made a batch to bring to my sister’s house for Christmas. I long ago tossed the recipe, so I don’t know what Rachael really calls these, but “White Trash Christmas Nuggets” seems to fit the bill. My sister asks for them every year, and honestly, they are pretty good: chocolately, crunchy, salty, and sweet.

These are very simple to assemble. Start with a bag of Kraft caramels. Unwrap them, and then roll each one into a flat disc with a rolling pin. Wrap a small pretzel nugget (I used Snyder’s of Hanover’s Sourdough Nibblers) in each disc, using your fingers to stretch the caramel to completely cover the pretzel. Using toothpicks or a fork, dip the covered pretzels into melted, semisweet chocolate chips and place on a foil- or parchment paper-covered cookie sheet. Before the chocolate hardens, sprinkle the pretzels with finely chopped, roasted almonds. Put the cookie sheet in the fridge until the chocolate is set.

So what’s your favorite, white trash holiday recipe?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas comes early for Frosty

We saw this display while walking around my sister's neighborhood last night. Ho ho ho!

A visit from Panty Claus

So we were visiting family in upstate New York for the holidays last weekend. On Saturday morning, I went for a walk with my dad around the retirement village where my parents live. It was a cold, crisp morning, but we had our cups of hot coffee and it was fun to steal a few private minutes alone with my father. Looping back to the house, we made a quick stop at the "clubhouse", the epicenter for all social activities in the village, so my dad could check his mail. I wandered into the main function room, where my dad pointed out the "free table" - a six-foot long, folding table where residents can drop off household items they no longer want. Anyone is welcome to take any item, but it's first come, first served, so if you see something you like, you’ve got to act fast.

On this particular Saturday morning, there were three items on the table: a well-worn copy of "Elle" magazine, an empty egg carton, and a pair of women's panties. Yes, in a retirement village where the average age is well north of 70, one of the items that someone donated to the "free table" was a pair of white panties with little flowers and a little pink bow at the center of the waistband. I have no evidence to prove that I’m not making this up, as I had left my camera back at my parent’s house. Later that morning, as we were on our way out to run some errands, we pulled the car over in front of the clubhouse and ran inside. And wouldn’t you know it? The panties were gone! Perhaps snagged for a Yankee Swap gift or by someone who really, really needed a pair of women's panties. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Snoopy's dance of joy

My favorite scene from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Missed it on TV this year -- all hail YouTube!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Just asking...

Is it wrong to watch the season finale of "The Biggest Loser" while eating a pint of Edy's mint chocolate chip ice cream?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The perfect gift for the busy executive

I had a little time to kill last night before visiting a friend on Boston’s South Shore. So do I go to the mall, or a Starbucks to overpay for some fancy holiday drink, or some posh little gift shop? Of course not! I saw a sign that says “Grand Re-Opening!” on the Family Dollar Store on Route 37 in Holbrook and pulled into the parking lot.

And yes, I did end up buying a few items: a pair of reading glasses ($6.00), a couple of small Christmas gift bags (50 cents each), a box of cinnamon graham crackers ($1.40), and just because chocolate milk suddenly sounded so good to me, a plastic squeeze bottle of Hershey’s syrup ($1.50).

The one thing I didn’t buy, however, was this deluxe 7” Executive Ashtray, made right here in the U.S. of A. And get this – this particular ashtray, a steal at $1.50, is BURN RESISTANT! Yup, says so right on the box! And it’s DISHWASHER SAFE! What well-heeled busy executive wouldn’t want one of these ashtrays on their desk? Comes in two fun colors: red (plastic) and black (plastic). And did I mention that it’s just $1.50? But supplies are limited: run to the Family Dollar Store. As of last night, there were ONLY TWO LEFT! HURRY!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Farewell, Mrs. Bridges

Last Wednesday night, we watched the final episode of Upstairs Downstairs, the acclaimed Masterpiece Theater series that ran from 1971 to 1975. When we started watching episodes from Season 1 last summer, I didn't think it would be my cup of tea - I'm admittedly biased against movies or TV programs that I categorize as "English Talky-Talkies". But it didn't take long for me to get hooked.

The series followed the lives of a wealthy British family (the Ballamy's, who lived "upstairs") and their household staff (who lived "downstairs"). It covers events over a span of 30 years at 165 Eaton Place in London and features real-world happenings (including World War 1, the sinking of the Titanic, and the influenza pandemic of 1918) juxtaposed against the politics, relationships, and drama of everyday life.

Throughout all 68 episodes, the acting was top-notch and the writing was superb. There are lots of twists and turns to keep you interested - and some bold moves with character development and demise. The series was nominated for and won many awards, including being named "Best Drama" by the British Academy Television Awards. It also won several Emmy and Golden Globe prizes.

My favorite character? Kate Bridges, played by actress Angela Baddeley, who oversaw kitchen operations "downstairs". Her character was proud, hardworking, and despite her sharp tongue, an old softy at heart. Perhaps I'm fond of Mrs. Bridges because she reminds me of my Grandma Reese, who until the day she died at age 96, was never shy about telling you - unfiltered - what was on her mind. I'm also drawn to the character because, if I ever win the lottery, I'd like to have a live-in cook like Mrs. Bridges. Wouldn't it be great to have all of your meals prepared, served, and then have those dirty dishes whisked away and cleaned?

So if you're looking for a series to get you through the long winter months ahead, I couldn't recommend Upstairs, Downstairs more highly. It's available on Netflix...so it couldn't be easier.

Here's a clip of the show...watch for Mrs. Bridges at about the 1:00 mark.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A lunch fit for "ach-ing"

On a quick lunch break from a business conference today in Providence, I ran over to Luxe Burger Bar. Delicious beef burger with goat cheese, dill pickles, baby lettuce and a side of gorgonzola tater tots. And oh yeah, a big, frosty cold ginger ale. Can't figure it out, but I'm feeling kind of sluggish now.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

For the love of god, people, HURRY. I can't go on without a Tweet from Khloe Kardashian

Associated Press -- Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, and Kim Kardashian are among the celebrities said goodbye to Twitter and Facebook on Wednesday for World AIDS Day. The campaign initiative, called the Digital Life Sacrifice, headed by Alicia Keys, aims to put the disease in perspective with celebrities filming their "last tweet and testament" videos and appearing lying in coffins for ads. Entertainers such as Usher, Jennifer Hudson, Ryan Seacrest, Khloe Kardashian and Elijah Wood, who also joined Keys's initiative, won't go back on social media platforms until they raise $1 million for the Keep a Child Alive foundation.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Listen to this: "Winter's Crossing"

If you’re anything like me, I’ll jump out of my skin if I hear Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” or Bon Jovi’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” one more time. It seems like these two songs – and a handful of other tired old Christmas songs – are the only tunes in the playlist at the two Boston-based radio stations that are now playing holiday music 24 hours a day.

If you need a break, might I recommend my favorite holiday CD? It’s called “Winter’s Crossing”, released in 1998 by James Galway and Phil Coulter. As it states on the back of the CD, it’s “An inspiring collection of seasonal music…from spirited jigs to touching melodies, Winter’s Crossing tells the tale of the men and women who braved a rough ocean to come to America from Northern Ireland, full of hope and strength.”

I’ve enjoyed this compilation for several years now, and even bought the accompanying piano songbook, so I can play along with the CD. Check out Winter’s Crossing on Amazon.com and let me know what you think.

Double whammy

Imagine my horror when I pulled up behind a car at a stoplight in New Jersey last Wednesday afternoon, and saw a “Palin” sticker in the rear window of the Jaguar in front of me. No disrespect to my Jersey friends – the car had a Virginia license plate. Now imagine my horror and shock when - about 30 hours later - I pulled up behind the same car at the same stoplight late on Thanksgiving evening. What do you think this all means?

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Look at THAT" indeed

Sandra Lee has a couple of TV shows on the "Food Network" - and as anybody who knows me will attest, I'll watch pretty much any cooking show. But Sandra takes the cake (pun intended) when it comes to food "train wrecks". Case in point...

My favorite YouTube user comment on this video? "For a nicer presentation you can serve it wrapped in a diaper."

Fresh Otis

Here's the "after" shot. He's nice and fresh...and he smells good!

I am blind, but soon I will see

It's haircut day! Otis has not been to the groomer's since before our vacation in Provincetown last August, so he's a wooly mammoth. Today he gets a shampoo and a cut, and will be ready to greet family on Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Try this: Almond Biscotti

What do you get when you combine a pound of softened butter, 12 cups of flour, a dozen eggs, 9 cups of sliced almonds, along with a good amount of sugar, a dash of baking powder, and some pure vanilla extract? A huge bowl of dough, which with a sturdy wooden spoon and a lot of patience, eventually is transformed into dozens of almond biscotti.

I've been making biscotti twice year - for Thanksgiving and Christmas - for at least a decade. The running joke is that if I ever showed up on Thanksgiving day without a box of biscotti, I'd be run out of town on the next rail. A few years ago, right before my sister-in-law Nora showed up, I hid the biscotti, leaving just a few crumbs on the big cookie plate. I tried to convince her that we had eaten all the cookies, but with a big smile on her face, and just a hint of fear in her eyes, she finally talked me into retrieving the hidden stash so she could enjoy a pre-dinner cookie.

These cookies aren't hard to make -- they just take time. I usually make a weekend-long project of it: bake the loaves on Friday night, cut the loaves into slices and bake them on Saturday, and then recruit Peter to help me dip the baked slices into melted dark chocolate on Sunday. And when I make a batch, I sextuple the recipe, multiplying the quantity of each ingredient by six. (Yes, there is math involved.)

I think I clipped this recipe from The Boston Globe, and over the years, I've tinkered with adding different kinds of nuts or using white instead of dark chocolate for dipping. But I've come to the conclusion that I like the original recipe best. The standard recipe appears below: you'll have to do your own math if you want to double, triple, or sextuple your yield.

Two tips: Years of experience have taught me to use those silicone baking pads on my cookie sheets - there's a good amount of butter in the recipe and the cookies tend to brown too quickly if I don't use them. And when you're slicing the logs, use a serrated knife. A regular, straight-edged kitchen knife will cause your cookies to crumble, and well, that's the way the cookie crumbles.

Almond Biscotti 
  • 1/3 cup butter, softened
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1.5 cups sliced almonds
  • semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • vegetable shortening 

  1. Beat the butter in a large bowl until soft and creamy.
  2. Add one cup of the flour, sugar, eggs, baking powder, and vanilla and stir until mixed well.
  3. Add remaining one cup of flour and almonds and stir until mixed well. (I use my hands - it's easier because the dough gets really sticky.)
  4. Divide the two in two, and shape each half into a 9-inch log on a silicone pad covered cookie sheet. The log should be about 1.5 inches wide. (You can put the two logs on the same cookie sheet.)
  5. Bake the logs for about 25 minutes at 375 degrees until they have started to brown. Let cool for at least 1/2 hour.
  6. Using a serrated knife, slice the logs into 1/2 inch slices. Bake the slices on the silicone pad covered cookie sheets at 325 degrees for 7-8 minutes, and then flip them over and bake for about 5 minutes. Keep watch of the cookies, checking them every few minutes, and turning them as necessary so that each side of each cookie gets lightly browned and crisp. (This is the time-consuming part.)
  7. When completely cooled, it's time to dip. I melt a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips, along with a tablespoon or so of vegetable shortening, in the microwave in 20-second intervals. When melted, dip each cookie halfway into the chocolate and place onto your silicone pad or foil covered cookie sheet so the chocolate can set. You can speed this process by putting the cookie sheet into the fridge for about 10-15 minutes.
  8. Store the cookies in an air-tight container, in layers separated by foil or wax paper.
Loaves of biscotti after the first baking.
Slice the loaves and set the oven to 325 degrees for the second baking.
The slices should be baked on both sides until toasty brown.
Let the slices cool before dipping each one into melted chocolate.
Let the chocolate completely set before storing. Enjoy!

“Fair & Balanced” and a moment of being real

This video has been making the rounds, so excuse me if you’ve already seen it. But it seems that some staff at FOX News, who have set themselves up to be the conservative cheerleader camp for Sarah Palin, are not above taking shots at Mama Grizzly (at least when they think they’re not being videotaped). On Thursday, this video was leaked online, and shows two FOX reporters poking fun at Palin’s new Alaska-based reality TV program. A big deal? Probably not…but it makes me glad to see that these folks aren’t 100% robots and are able to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness that is Sarah Palin.

And for what it’s worth – I caught a snippet of a Larry King interview with George (Senior) and Barbara Bush. Mrs. Bush was asked what she thought of Sarah Palin. “I sat next to her once,” said the former First Lady. “Thought she was beautiful. And she’s very happy in Alaska. And I hope she’ll stay there.” SNAP!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Graduation day

Otis officially graduated from therapy dog training this evening, which means that as a family, we're now a therapy team that's certified to visit hospitals, nursing homes, rehab facilities, and other organizations. The "training" provided a good orientation on what we can expect on our visits - lots of common sense applies here - and gave the folks from Dog B.O.N.E.S. a chance to evaluate our dog's temperment and social skills. We expect to soon start receiving regular e-mails about local facilities that are requesting dog visits. We even ordered Otis a special "therapy dog" vest that will help facility staff identify him as a welcome guest. Look forward to our first visit! Here are some photos from tonight's graduation ceremony.

"OK, I've had enough...get this off me NOW!"

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A friend indeed, and a friend in training

My sister-in-law Nora sent me a link to this video today. What a lovely tribute to our furry friends who have gone before us. Makes you want to give your dog a hug, doesn't it? Ahhh…Jimmy Stewart: they don’t make ‘em like that anymore in Hollywood.

Otis got lots of attention and affection tonight, the first night of his three-session training on how to become a therapy dog. It’s something I’ve thought about doing for a long time, but never got around to. But I’ve been feeling awfully sentimental about Otis recently, and started thinking about the joy and companionship he could bring to other people who could use a smile. So we signed up with “Dog B.O.N.E.S.” (Dogs Building Opportunities for Nurturing and Emotional Support), a nonprofit, volunteer organization based here in Massachusetts.

After we complete our three training sessions, we’ll be able to visit hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, hospices and other facilities that provide care to the elderly, the disabled, or to young folks. They even have a new program where your dog becomes a “reading dog” and visits children who have trouble reading, and sits quietly as a supportive, non-judgmental listener.

Tonight’s class was an overview of the program, and Otis was one of five dogs enrolled in this month’s training. I’ll keep you posted on our progress. Here’s a picture from tonight’s event.

I wish I may, I wish I might

Did you see it last night? We were walking back from dinner at the Farragut House in South Boston when I happened to look up and saw a shooting star streak across the sky. It had a long, sparkling tail and was moving fast. So fast, in fact, that by the time I point skywards and could get the word, "Look!" out of my mouth, Peter and our friend Ian had missed the show. Wikipedia tells me that a shooting star is actually the common name for the visible path of a meteoroid as it enters the atmosphere to become a meteor. I saw on Universal Hub (a Boston-based news blog) this morning that folks from across the region saw the shooting star, so my sighting has been confirmed, and wasn't just a hallucination caused by the Guiness I had with my platter of fried clams.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Mrs. Beasley made me cringe

Halloween is right around the corner, and you know what that means...I'll be hitting CVS on Monday morning to buy bags of "fun-size" Three Musketeer bars at half-price. Ahh...I love me some Three Musketeers, especially when they’ve been stored in the freezer.

Growing up, my sisters and I would dress up on Halloween and hit the houses along East Main Street in Victor, NY. And like millions of other kids across America, we'd come home and dump the loot from our orange plastic pumpkins onto the floor and start pawing through, looking for our favorite sweets. Those homemade caramel popcorn balls? Sorry - right into the trash. And apples? Boring - hello applesauce! I'd make a big pile of the best stuff (anything chocolate, fireballs, and Pixie Stix) and hand those nasty Mary Janes and NECCO wafers over to my dad.

For several years running, my Halloween costume was a "hobo": tattered clothes, dirt smudges on my face, and a big plastic cigar (??) in my mouth. Isn't it odd that I don't remember any other costumes? One year, my younger sister wore a Mrs. Beasley mask - remember Buffy's doll from "Family Affair"? To this day, I remember being freaked out by that mask - something about the way my sister's eyes would move behind those slits in the plastic. And then she’d stick her tongue out through the mouth slit. Evil Mrs. Beasley!

When we lived in Boston’s South End, we’d get kids by the hundreds on Halloween night. One year, we had to skedaddle inside after giving candy to 500 kids – and realizing that the pot was empty as another mob of ghouls and goblins rushed up the street. We always made a night of it, sitting on the stoop with neighbors, eating homemade soup (usually shrimp and corn chowder – I’ll be posting that recipe soon), and sharing some beer or wine. Now we live on the third floor of a condo building in South Boston, so there’s no trick-or-treaters. Last year, we packed up some wine and visited friends in the South End and had a ball watching all of the kids and their parents make the rounds.

So a few Halloween-related questions: 
  • What was the best costume you ever wore as a kid?
  • What was your favorite kind of candy to get on Halloween?
  • Do you get trick-or-treaters at your house on Halloween?

Monday, October 25, 2010

What have you conditioned your pet to do?

I recently came across this post on the Mental Floss blog
“I like to chew gum when walking the dog. At this point, simply opening the cabinet where the gum is incites a “WE’RE GOING ON A WALK!” happy dog dance. Unfortunately, the same cabinet is where we keep the black cardamom and take-out menus. What are some of the weird things — intentionally or not — you’ve conditioned your pet to do?"
So it got me thinking what we’ve conditioned Otis to do – and not surprisingly, it all revolves around food.
When we go for a walk or even just outside for a quick “business trip” before bed, a “pee” = a “biscuit”. And lest we forget, a cold, wet snout repeatedly bumps our leg (directly below the pocket where treats are stored) until a biscuit is produced.
When I get into bed, Otis will come running from where ever he is. Even before I’ve pulled the covers up to my chin, he’ll leap onto the bed, flop across my lap, and stare at me until he gets his “good night” biscuit. But I can’t dawdle getting the biscuit out of the nightstand drawer, because once Otis knows I’m reaching for his treat, the drooling starts.
If we use the can opener, we can expect Otis to soon be underfoot in the kitchen. He got trained to come running because when tuna sandwiches are being made for lunch, a little bit of tuna somehow ends up in his food bowl.
We live on the third floor of an elevator building. And those times when I’m too lazy to take the stairs, and Otis is with me, he’s come to expect a biscuit when he enters the elevator and sits down.
And when we eat our dinner in front of the TV, we always have to give Otis a biscuit, or else he’ll just stand in front of us and stare us down.
An observation: man, that dog gets a lot of biscuits during the course of the day. And a more sobering observation: have we conditioned Otis, or has Otis conditioned us?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bicycle pants are not for everyone

You've seen "Modern Family", right? Hilarious, laugh-out-loud funny show. Watch this clip from last week's show, where Mitchell recruits his sister to tell his boyfriend that his bicycle pants are, well, "not so hot".

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Try this: Caramel-dipped apples

Obviously, I’ve been on a cooking kick this weekend. First the cauliflower soup, then homemade dog biscuits, and I just finished making some delicious (if I do say so myself) caramel-dipped apples. These are a fall favorite. I put a tray of them in the refrigerator (they’ll keep about a week – if you can keep your hands off them that long) and then slice one up for dessert, or eat an entire one if I’m feeling piggish.

One tip: this recipe calls for using a clip-on candy thermometer. If you don’t have one, it’s worth the trip to the store to pick one up. My thermometer broke last fall and I neglected to replace it, so I thought I’d “wing it” today. Everything tastes great, but I think the caramel boiled too long, so it hardened up really quickly and was a little difficult to work with.

Let me know if you make these – maybe we can swap a taste-test?

Caramel-Dipped Apples
(from a 1999 issue of Bon Appetit, courtesy of Epicurious.com)

1 lb. box of dark brown sugar
2 sticks of butter, room temperature
14-oz can of sweetened condensed milk
2/3 cup dark corn syrup
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
1.5 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon dark molasses
¼ teaspoon salt
12 apples (I always use Granny Smith – love the crisp crunch and tartness)
12 sticks or chopsticks
Melted chocolate, dark and/or white (optional)
Walnuts, pecans, peanuts, etc. (optional)

  1. Combine first eight ingredients in heavy 2 ½ quart saucepan. Stir with wooden spoon or spatula over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves and the mixture is smooth, occasionally brushing down the inside of the pan with a wet pastry brush. This will take about 15 minutes. 
  2. Attach clip-on candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Increase the heat to medium-high. Cook caramel at a rolling boil until thermometer registers 236 degrees, stirring constantly but slowly with a clean wooden spatula. Occasionally brush down the inside of the pan with a wet pastry brush. This should take about 12 minutes. Pour caramel into a metal bowl. Submerge thermometer into caramel; cool without stirring, about 20 minutes. 
  3. While caramel cools, line 2 baking sheets with foil. Lightly butter the foil. Push one stick into stem end of each apple. Dip apple into cooled caramel, submerging all but very top of apple. Lift apple out, allowing excess to drip back into the bowl. Turn caramel, allowing caramel to cover and set around entire apple. Place coated apple on foil. If caramel gets too thick to dip into, add 1-2 tablespoons of half-and-half or whipping cream and briefly whisk caramel over low heat. 
  4. Chill apples on cookie sheet until caramel is partially set, 5-10 minutes. Lift each apple and using your hands, press caramel that has pooled around bottom of apple up over the entire apple. If using nuts, push them firmly into caramel. If using melted chocolate, drizzle it over the apples. Chill again until caramel and chocolate is set. 
  5. Keep in the refrigerator. I usually wrap each one in plastic wrap.

Got dog?

On this date six years ago, a Portuguese Water Dog named Stella gave birth to seven puppies in Cambridge, MA. The first puppy to arrive (whose given name was "Petey") was so big that he got stuck on the way out, and caused his mom to have a caesarean section. That puppy, re-named "Otis" when we adopted him eight weeks later, is still a big guy - 80 lbs - which is pretty large for the breed. But as his very proud owner, I tell you that he's sleek and fit, thanks to two long sessions each day at the park with a tennis ball.

Here's a photo of Otis eight weeks after his birth, that cold day in December when we brought him home, a photo from this morning's birthday walk around Castle Island, and his "official" birthday portrait:

In honor of his birthday, we always make homemade biscuits for Otis. We got this recipe from some friends who were visiting from London a few years back - they gave us a special cookbook and some bone-shaped cookie cutters! Here's the recipe - it's really easy, and I always double the batch so there's plenty of biscuits. 

1/3 cup margarine or butter (Otis prefers butter)
3 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup powdered skim milk
1/4 tsp garlic powder
3/4 cup water, room temperature
1 egg, beaten

  • In a large mixing bowl, blend margarine/butter with flour (i use a hand mixer).
  • In a small bowl, dissolve powdered milk and garlic powder in water and whisk in beaten egg.
  • Make a well in the flour mixture and gradually stir in egg mixture until well blended.
  • Knead dough on a floured surface, about 3-4 minutes, until dough sticks together and is easy to work with. 
  • With a rolling pin, roll dough to between 1/4" and 1/2" thickness.
  • Use cookie cutter to cut dough and put biscuits onto a lightly greased cookie sheet.
  • Bake 50 minutes at 325 degrees, or until browned all over. 
  • Cool on a rack until hard.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Try this: Silky Cauliflower Soup with Parmesan Crisps

We went over to the farmer stalls at Haymarket in downtown Boston this morning. Some great deals are always available, and there’s some amazingly fresh fruits and vegetables to be had. You need to be careful though – the majority of the vendors seem above board, but there are a few that try to slip the not-so-desirable merchandise in your bag. I tend to patronize the vendors who let me select my own stuff.

Anyway, we came home with bags and bags of produce for just over 20 dollars. One of the things we picked up with a beautiful white head of cauliflower, as it’s that time of year when I start thinking about making soup.

Here’s a recipe I’ve made before – and it’s really easy and good for you. It was featured on The Food Network’s “Great Deals with Dave Lieberman”.

Silky Cauliflower Soup

  • 1 head cauliflower
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • ½ cup finely grated parmesan
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Remove then leaves and thick core of the cauliflower and coarsely chop. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or soup pot over medium heat and add the onions and garlic. Cook until softened, but not browned (about five minutes). Add the cauliflower and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until the cauliflower is very soft and falling apart, about 15 minutes.

Remove from heat and using a hand-held immersion blender, puree the soup. You can also puree in small batches in a blender** and return to the pot. Add the ½ cup parmesan cheese and stir until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

Parmesan Crisps

  • 1 cup shredded or grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil and spread one cup of parmesan cheese in an single, even layer. Bake about 10 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Break sheet of cheese into large pieces and use them to garnish bowls of soup.

** If you use a blender, fill no more than 1/3 of the way with the hot liquid. Also, don’t put the cover on too tight, and wrap a kitchen towel around the top. Blending hot liquid can cause an eruption – trust me, I know – so just be very careful.

Note: To spice this up a bit, before serving, I stirred a pinch of nutmeg and a pinch of cayenne pepper into the soup. You can also chop up some chives to put on top. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

The storm

They were together in the house. 

Just the two of them.

It was a cold, dark, stormy night. The storm had come quickly

And each time the thunder boomed he watched her jump.

She looked across the room and admired his strong appearance.

And she wished that he would take her in his arms, comfort her and protect her from the storm.

Suddenly, with a pop, the power went out.

She screamed.

He raced to the sofa where she was cowering.

He didn't hesitate to pull her into his arms.

He knew this was a forbidden union and expected her to pull back.

He was surprised when she didn't resist but instead clung to him.

The storm raged on.

They knew it was wrong.

Their families would never understand.

So consumed were they in their fear that they didn’t hear the door open.

Just the faint click of a camera.


This was sent to me in an e-mail today. I don't know who wrote it or took the picture, but I thought it was hilarious. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

You want fries with that?

There was a time, not in the too distant past, when my friend "J" (I disguise her name to protect her identity, but it starts with "J" and rhymes with "Ulie") and I would, every few weeks, treat ourselves to a huge lunch at the local McDonald's. Yup -- the whole nine yards: a Big Mac or Filet-O-Fish sandwich, a supersize order of fries (extra salt, please!), and one of those plastic buckets of soda. The salt and grease tasted so good, but about an hour after we returned to work, we'd call each other, complaining that our stomachs ached.

We eventually got smarter and stopped eating at the Golden Arches - and now when we get together for lunch, we eat at Cafe Asiana, which incidentally is directly across the street from McDonald's. And we laugh about how gluttonous our noontime meals used to be.

Anyway, I saw this post today about an artist in New York who last April purchased a McDonald's "Happy Meal", and instead of eating it, left it uncovered on her kitchen counter just to see what would happen. She's been snapping a photo of the burger and fries every day since last spring, and to her horror, the "food" looks pretty much the same as it did when she bought it.

Sure, says artist Sally Davies, the fries and the burger patty shriveled up a bit, but the bun shows no signs of decay or mold. "And now, at six months, the food is plastic to the touch and has an acrylic sheen to it," she says.

Here's what the food looks like after 171 days on the counter (Sally says that after just 48 hours, the meal no longer emitted any smell -- even her dogs lost interest):

Pretty wild, huh? One more reason to be happy about my break-up with McDonald's. So inquiring minds want to know: why is this food is not spoiling?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Our get-away to the Cape

We escaped to Provincetown, at the tip of old Cape Cod, for the long Columbus Day weekend. Our friends Jan and Phyllis let us borrow their beach cottage (thanks again, ladies!), which is just a few doors down from where we've been spending our last few summer vacations, so the turf was very familiar. October is a great time to visit Provincetown, and this year, the weather was stunning: four days in a row of 65 degrees with a steady breeze. As usual, Otis was in his element on the beach (which makes sense, since he is a Portuguese Water Dog) and like always, he played hard and slept hard. We had no agenda but to drink coffee every morning at The Wired Puppy on Commercial Street and enjoy the beach. I even bought a book (gasp!) -- John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany" and read about 50 pages -- a major accomplishment! Here are a few photos from our get-away. (I also took some video on my Flip camera - but can't figure out how to load them into iMovie. Grrrrr....)

Our view from the cottage.


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