Back to Basics, Shirley Style

It’s weird. I don’t think of myself as all that high maintenance, but when I break it down, I have some pretty high class tastes. Guess that’s why I’m a diehard New Yorker.

That said, I can be happy with very simple things too. Today was a perfect mixture of the two.

I spent the sunny, unseasonably warm day traipsing around Madison Square Park. Squirrels kept running really close to me, like they were challenging me to a race. Or maybe they were chipmunks. What’s the difference again?

After nature scared me back indoors, I spent hours writing at Birch Coffee inside the Gershwin Hotel. I’ve loved the place for years, and keep rediscovering it under different circumstances. About 5 or 6 years ago, I was walking by the hotel and heard strains of jazz and light laughter pouring out its doors. As I peeped in a window, a doorman came out. I thought he was going to scold me for smudging up the window, but he just wanted to encourage me to go inside to enjoy the show up close. “What, free?” said the country-bumpkin Shirley. It was, indeed. I stepped into the warmly lit lobby, settled into a spaceship shaped mod red couch, and soaked up the live jazz trio. I’d somehow wandered into a Fitzgerald novel with an updated design scheme.

Years later, when I was working in Union Square, my friend told me he was leading a meditation class in the newly opened Birch Coffee. “What, free?” I asked in my usual tactful manner. He nodded yes in a non-judgmental namaste kinda way. As I bought my gigantic cup of caffeine for meditation (yup), memories of that hazy jazz night came back to me. I had tried to find my way back but could never find the mysterious hotel again, so it was an electric thrill when I realized I was finally back.

Since then, I’ve sought out both the hotel and cafe when I’ve needed safe haven for reading, writing, and caffeine replenishment.

After a solid writing day there, a wonderfully talented friend whisked me away for wine and tapas at Pipa. We shared a bottle of yummy dry white (it’s called Whatever the Waiter Said, I highly recommend it), albondigas, pulpo gallego, and bolas de queso. Poor waiter. I insisted on ordering in my horrible Spanish accent, but the food itself was amazing and so was the company.

Here’s to a day of creature comforts, both humble and high!

I’m Grateful for Salt

I love Thanksgiving! It’s a day when even my wiseacre friends (yeah, I’m trying to bring “wiseacre” back) share the things that make them thankful with no trace of sarcasm. So I promise the salt thing is not a joke.

Salt used to be so valued that it was used as currency. In fact, the word “salary” came from the word “salt”. There’s a lot of fascinating history about it, but it was actually a fable that sprang to mind when I thought of giving thanks for salt. When I searched for it, I found a lot of variations but none that were exactly as I remembered. Here’s my version, pulled together from scraps of memories and morsels of other stories:

Once there was a wealthy man who had three daughters. He decided one day to test their love for him, and asked each to bring him the greatest gift in their power. After seven days and seven nights, the oldest daughter brought him a jeweled crown, laden with jewels of every kind. The man placed the crown upon his head, felt its weight, and smiled. “You must love me very much,” he said to the eldest. Next, his middle child approached with a majestic coat sewn of the rarest furs in the world. The man draped the coat upon his body, felt its warmth, and smiled. “You must love me very much,” he said to his second daughter.

Then, his youngest and most favorite daughter approached. In her hands, she held a simple wooden bowl piled high with salt. The man would not accept the bowl. “What is this?” he frowned at his daughter. “I bring you salt,” she said. The man was stunned. “I asked for the greatest treasure you could find and you bring me salt? You are no daughter of mine.” He banished her to the kitchen, decreeing that she would have to work to earn her place in his household from now on.

For dinner that night, a feast was ordered to celebrate the wondrous gifts that the two older daughters had brought. As each course came out, the man and his guests struggled to enjoy the dishes. Finally, the man summoned the chef to ask why everything was so bland. The chef bowed his head and explained that his youngest daughter had instructed him not to use salt. At that, the man’s eyes filled with tears and he understood his daughter’s gift. The family and guests rejoiced as she came out of the kitchen to join them.

By giving thanks for salt today, I mean to give thanks to all the little things that add so much. That’s the beauty of this holiday. It reminds us to recognize what really makes life wonderful. Enjoy, everyone!

Everything Should be Served with a Bourbon Reduction

No, it’s not what you think. I haven’t taken to huddling in a corner with a flask of bourbon and umm, salt and corn starch as my companions. Just wanted to illustrate how easy it was to make a delicious bourbon reduction for my steak dinner.

After visiting the gym today, which was gloriously empty, I went to the grocery store, which was gloriously crowded. The shelves were completely empty in the poultry section. Across the way, a juicy 2-inch thick cut of steak made (rib) eyes at me. I succumbed to its charms.

Once home, I turned the oven to 450 degrees. While it pre-heated, I roughly diced a Spanish onion, caramelized it over medium high heat, and set the sweet, silky pieces aside for later (after I ate about half of it by the spoonful). I added a bit more oil to the pan, turned the heat up to high, and placed the steak lightly on. After searing 1 minute on each side, I popped into the oven for 10 minutes (for medium rare).

During those 10 minutes, my onions were in severe risk of decimation. Next time, I should just be honest with myself and caramelize 2 onions. Luckily, I had a glass of Wild Turkey bourbon (holiday appropriate!) on the rocks to distract me.

When the steak was ready, I placed it on a plate to rest and put the pan carefully on the stove. If you’re following my instructions, be sure to use oven mitts. That pan is going to be very, very hot. Also, if you really are following along with me, it’s time for another glass of bourbon. Be sure to leave enough for cooking.

I tossed a thick slice of unsalted butter, a generous splash of Señor Wild Turkey, a smidge of corn starch, and a teensy sprinkle of salt into the pan, and then turned the burner on low heat. I happened to be making a big pot of chicken stock so I threw in a cup of that when the sauce looked too thick. If you’re still following along… how are you reading after all that whiskey? Hee!

If your sauce seems too thick, and you don’t have a handy pot of chicken stock bubbling on the stovetop, I think you can use some milk. I haven’t tried it yet, but I think I’m right. Or you could be more careful with the corn starch than I was.

Then, I just scraped all the delicious steak juice crust (that sounded more delicious before I typed it out) off the pan, stirred in the surviving onion bits, and poured everything over the steak. For this meal, I paired with a simple baked potato and garlicky spinach (not shown). Bon appetit!

Catching Some Z’s

There’s something about catching up on sleep that makes me want to research facts about sleep. I know, I know. Nerd alert!

It seems like such a simple thing. You just close your eyes and power down for a few hours, and wake up recharged and ready to go at full speed again. So why do some people need more or less than others?

According to research, the average need for sleep is 6-8 hours. But I’ve met many who fall outside of that range. Some people complain that they need 10 hours a night. It’s hard to tell if that’s because we’re all sleep deprived and everyone’s trying to catch up though. It’s like we have a national debt on rest.

Others boast that they can get by on only 4 hours each day. I’m kind of in that camp, but then I need a nap, which really isn’t supported by the traditional American workday. Apparently, Leonardo da Vinci practiced something called polyphasic sleeping, a series of short naps throughout the day that replaces a full night’s sleep. Hot damn, I love the Europeans! I also found a great article about people who need almost no sleep at all.

The freaky thing is that if you don’t get what your body needs, your body starts to shut down. You can’t speak or think clearly, you might get moody, and your body might just take what it needs and fall asleep while you’re in the middle of something. Basically, the effects of sleep deprivation sound exactly like the effects of too much whiskey. There’s a great piece by Discovery Health about the importance of sleep that you should read for more info.

I guess I’ll run with the computer analogy used earlier. Some people probably have better processors or cooling fans, so they don’t need as much sleep time. Whatever it is, I’m so happy I got what I needed. Now I’m ready to do whatever it is that well-rested nerds do. Whee!

Cinco de Thanksgimme Success!

For the past five years, I’ve hosted a pre-Thanksgiving potluck to catch up with good friends before the holiday madness takes over. It’s called Thanksgimme because guests walk in the door with food, I yell “Thanks… gimmeee!!” and gobble it all up as they look horrified. I wonder why they keep coming every year. Maybe because I entice them with homemade marionette video invites. Say hola to Señor Turkey!

Yesterday was the fifth annual Thanksgimme (which is why I didn’t post on Sat as usual). I called it Cinco de Thanksgimme and designed a menu around classic Mexican flavors: bacon & salsa cowboy beans, baked red rice and (suuuper proud of this) Jalisco-style braised goat. Success! Everything came out muy delicioso, especially the goat, which was fall-apart tender and just the right amount of yummy fattiness to melt on the tongue.

Friends came with a taco station (including an incredible avocado cream sauce that I ate by the spoonfuls), chili blanco, jalapeño mac & cheese, homemade guacamole and salsa to die for, and loads of wine. It’s clear they know the way to my heart! For dessert, we feasted on a Junior’s cheesecake, a chocolate pie and donuts from the amazing Peter Pan bakery. Technically, none of those desserts fit the Mexican theme, but I didn’t hear any complaints.

Feliz Thanksgimme to all!

Gettin’ Some W & W

What a week! I didn’t even go out for Halloweekend. I just hung out with my wigs and skulls at home.

You know how some people always need R & R? Turns out I need W & W: writing & working out. Despite the hectic work schedule, I’ve started making time for those two things again. It makes a huge difference and actually makes my work better, too.

To force myself back into a steady writing schedule, I joined a Meetup group called Shut Up and Write! After a few minutes of introducing ourselves, everyone abides by the rules and writes continuously for an hour or more at each meeting. I’ve gone to two meetups already and am loving it. It’s so much easier to be productive around other productive people, instead of hanging out with my tv. (Although I have to say that the new seasons of New Girl and Community are really making tv time worthwhile, too.)

On the workout front, I’m keeping up with the footballing. Our team played the last game of the season on Thursday. I’ve been improving every week, so I psyched myself up to really make a difference this time. And I did! Not only did I pull my first flag off an enemy player, I pulled two. Both were from guys, so I was equal-opportunity about it. And the highlight was that I stopped a runaway touchdown run. The guys said that we’ll be practicing in the off-season, so I’m hoping to go pro in like, one maybe two years. Be sure to add me to your fantasy football leagues!