The trouble with Whole Foods

One of the things that makes New York -- or at least Manhattan -- workable, given its density, is that people know what they're doing. If you walk along any crowded Manhattan street, people are moving at a brisk clip, swerving left and right as necessary. No one has any tolerance for lollygaggers or fools. And that makes NY work -- it can be crowded and you can still get through a busy subway station and make your train. Everyone wants the same thing, everyone moves towards the same goal -- except at the Union Square Whole Foods supermarket.

It dawned on me today as I tried to maneuver through the stalled crowds in the produce section, when I attempted to pass the woman just gazing at the row of Dungeness crabs at the fish counter. At Whole Foods, people turn into, well, something else, something like non New Yorkers! They move slowly! They stop short and then just turn 180° back the other direction. They just stand around, not moving, only looking at the mountainous displays of organic produce, like a tourist in Times Square. And it's excruciating if you go into the store as a New Yorker, knowing where you're going and what you want to do. It's nearly impossible (if you go at any point in the afternoon/early evening) to zip in and get what you need because you're stymied by gawkers overwhelmed by the cheese selection.

It's a good store people, but come on! Remember yourselves! You're New Yorkers! You're brusque. You hurry. You Get. Things. Done. And that includes shopping at the Union Square Whole Foods! I know I'm fast and focused and aggressive. That's one of the reasons I *like* living in NYC, I feel like I'm surrounded my people -- except when I go to the Union Square Whole Foods!

Thinking about sweet yummy scallops

Yesterday in the New York Times Mark Bittman has a little article about scallops, In Winter, It's Scallops. Scallops are one of my favorite foods of all time. Before I liked any seafood or fish whatsoever, I loved scallops. I missed them so much when I lived in San Francisco that, one time when I came home to Boston for Thanksgiving, I ate scallops every night for dinner for a week!! Of course, those were mostly sea scallops, not bay scallops.

FANS of seasonal, regional foods have little to celebrate in the depths of winter, especially those of us in the Northeast. Among the notable exceptions is the bay scallop, often called the Nantucket bay scallop because one of the last significant fisheries for this gem, once found from the Maritimes to the Carolinas, centers on that island.

There is no doubt that the Nantucket bay scallop is the best scallop ever, and inspired by reading this yesterday, I headed straight to the greenmarket to see if the Long Island fishmongers had any. Talk about nothing to celebrate! The greenmarket was nearly deserted (I guess because of the horrible rain) and those who were there seemed to be only selling apples and squash. Lots and lots of apples and squash. I had to settle for sea scallops from Whole Foods instead.

My year in travel

Following Jason's example and call to action with his The year in cities, I present my Year in Cities. Not surprisingly, it's a lot like his!

Etna, NH*
New York, NY*
Boston, MA*
Munich, Germany
San Diego, CA
Paris, France
San Francisco, CA
Orange, MA*
Blarney, Ireland
Ballylickey, Ireland
Waterville, Ireland
Dingle, Ireland
Ennis, Ireland
Nantucket, MA*
Woodstock, VT
Middlebury, VT
Rochester, VT
Las Vegas, NV
Waitsfield, VT*
Hong Kong*
Bangkok, Thailand
Saigon, Vietnam

Wow! Six countries, not including the US, and six states. Of the countries, four I'd never visited before (Ireland and the Asian countries). Of the states, I'd been to all before. Here's to even more countries and states in 2007!

New York's diabetes problem

There's an astounding article about diabetes over at the New York Times Diabetes and Its Awful Toll Quietly Emerge as a Crisis. I was unaware not just of the amount of people being diagnosed with diabetes, but also its damaging effects. More than one in eight (!) adult New Yorkers now has diabetes.

New York, with its ambitious and highly praised public health system, has just three people and a $950,000 budget to outwit diabetes, a disease soon expected to afflict more than a million people in the city.

Tuberculosis, which infected about 1,000 New Yorkers last year, gets $27 million and a staff of almost 400.

Well worth a read, as the article says, "There is an underappreciated truth about disease: it will harm you even if you never get it. Disease reverberates outward, and if the illness gets big enough, it brushes everyone. Diabetes is big enough."

What to do with your old tree

Hey New Yorkers, wondering what to do with your Christmas tree now that the holidays are passed and it's dropping needles all over your apartment? According to this press release, Sanitation Announces Christmas Tree Recycling Schedule, you can just put your tree out on the curb!

Residents should remove all tree stands, tinsel, lights, and ornaments from holiday trees before they are put out for removal. Trees must not be put into plastic bags. Clean, non-bagged Christmas trees that are left at the curb between Wednesday, January 4th and Saturday, January 14th will be collected, chipped, and then mixed with leaves to make compost. The compost will be processed and subsequently spread upon parks, ball fields, and community gardens throughout the city.

It always makes me sad to take down the Christmas tree, but I guess it's about time for it to go. Godspeed little tree, and happy mulching!

Looking to eat out in New York City

Then you need this list from New York magazine: 101 Best Restaurants. A list by stars (of course) but that goes from one star ("Good") to five stars ("Ethereal; almost perfect"). So what's the #1 according to New York? Le Bernardin. I can't comment because I've never eaten there, nor at #2, Masa. That's it for five stars. Thomas Keller's Per Se is #3 and comes in with four stars. And there's lots more great stuff on the list. Aside from the top ten (which has many yummy places), there are some of my favorite places to eat in the city in the second ten (Blue Hill!) and lots of stand-bys both old and new listed throughout. A handy reference, more so than Zagat (which I find "annoying" and "unreliable") or Michelin (which I'm not so sure about for its first NY edition). Read to the very end, as there are standouts at the very bottom like #98, Grand Sichuan Eastern (Second Avenue) and #100 Café Sabarsky. Good eating!

How to plan a meal

A little late with this one, it would have been a better link before all the holiday entertaining, but still useful for those that like to invite guests over for dinner. Le plan de repas, or "[H]ow to plan a meal from start to finish and then stick to the plan."

My guests often accuse me of having worked too hard to prepare their meal, and I have a hard time convincing them that the whole process was very relaxing and not particularly difficult. Although they may want to think it, I really didn‰Ûªt stress over their meal. I learned many years ago how to plan a meal from start to finish and then stick to the plan.

Great advice there, and it's pretty much what I do whenever I have people over for dinner, even if it's just another couple. A few years ago when I did Thanksgiving at my apartment in San Francisco, I had 3/4th of everything done before guests even arrived. It was great, I was totally able to hang out and enjoy the day.

On to 2006

As 2005 winds down its final ten hours for me here in Northern Vermont, I am both happy and sad to bid it adieu. The 2000s in general have been very difficult years, and 2005 didn't prove to be any different, except perhaps in its extremes. Some of the lowest lows ever and some of the highest highs to be had in a lifetime. It was definitely a year of transition, which perhaps is appropriate as we slide well into the second half of the decade. Good, bad, and ugly, life is rolling on. Matt Haughey, from his recent musings on Advice, had a wonderful quote:

[M]aybe life isn't a journey to uncover new truths in far off places, but instead to simply gain enough experience to understand what is all around you, all the time.

Indeed. I am looking forward: to 2006 and to life's journey, to all its ups and downs, adventures and changes; to being a year older (tomorrow!) and a year wiser (hopefully!); to gaining more experience and understanding and to observing the close-by truths all around me, all the time. Happy New Year!

Star inflation from Michelin

Missed this while I was in Asia. In case you did as well, from Salon, Did Michelin lower the bar for New York? Examines whether Michelin food reviewers lowered the famous guide's standards for the first-ever New York Edition. There's lots of opinion in this piece, much of which makes sense to me.

But putting aside subjective judgments, there are some reasonably objective indicators that suggest Michelin lowered the bar for New York. For one thing, Michelin broke its own rules in awarding three stars to any New York restaurants. It has long been Michelin policy that restaurants being reviewed for the first time are not eligible for three stars, no matter how good the food and service; the guide wants to see evidence of staying power before it catapults a chef and restaurant to, well, stardom. At the very least, a big exception was made for Per Se, which has been in business for only a year and a half (and which was presumably visited by Michelin's inspectors months ago).

I have only eaten at one French three-star (Pierre Gagnaire) and I've eaten at the French Laundry and Per Se and Daniel (and Daniel didn't even get three stars) stateside, and I don't think Pierre Gagnaire was any better than any of the other meals. Granted, that's not a lot of interesting read none the less.

It's that time of year

View of Sugarbush from the windowYes, it's 18° outside, but that only means one thing to me: the snow isn't melting! After a slow and a later-than-normal (skiing) start, we're heading over to Mad River for our first ski day of the season. Hopefully the old legs still have it! Ok, no more blogging, on to skiing!


What would Johnny Damon do? Apparently, it's leave the Sox for the *@!&**&%!! Yankees. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy has the sad details today in For Sox, a little off the top. If it's not the Curse of the Epsteino that's bringing this down upon the Nation, perhaps it's a Curse of the Queer Eyes. Of the five Sox who appeared on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," (Kevin Millar, Jason Varitek, Johnny Damon, Tim Wakefield, and Doug Mirabelli), only Wakefield and Varitek now remain.

Saying no to a wind farm off Cape Cod

An op-ed in today's New York Times by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., An Ill Wind Off Cape Cod, argues against the creation of a windfarm in Nantucket Sound, off the coast of Massachusetts.

AS an environmentalist, I support wind power, including wind power on the high seas. I am also involved in siting wind farms in appropriate landscapes, of which there are many. But I do believe that some places should be off limits to any sort of industrial development. I wouldn't build a wind farm in Yosemite National Park. Nor would I build one on Nantucket Sound, which is exactly what the company Energy Management is trying to do with its Cape Wind project.

I too have been opposed to the Cape Wind project ever since I read about it. Kennedy's article is worth reading to consider what would be lost by placing turbines in the Sound, and it's not just the view. I remember taking the slow ferry (and only ferry at the time) to Nantucket as a kid and reaching that point where you couldn't see the land behind and you couldn't yet see Nantucket ahead. I felt like I was out in the middle of nowhere, only ocean in all directions. It was thrilling and exhilarating and scary all at once; I knew I was actually going someplace. Seeing, "130 giant turbines whose windmill arms will reach 417 feet above the water," from the ferry would certainly change the trip. Save the Sound and build them further off shore. Save the birds and the fish and the whales and the local fishing industry. And save too the sense of adventure for those traveling to the Far-Away Island.

How to order a good bottle of wine

I have a little technique that I've developed for ordering wines off a wine list at a restaurant. I've been using it for several years now with a fair amount of success* but caveat emptor: I don't pretend to be any sort of wine expert!

I'm not sure I can properly explain the full technique as there's a lot of gut to it, but here goes:

I'll start by skimming the whole section of whatever wine I'm interested in (Burgundy, Pinots, "Spicy Reds", whatever they call it), getting a sense of the price ranges and the vintages. What I look for is a slight discrepancy, like if there's something that's a bit older than its peers but whose price doesn't seem to be correspondingly high.

Here's a made up example list to show you what I mean:

Vineyard A   1999   $34
Vineyard B   2001   $35
Vineyard C   2003   $41
Vineyard D   1997   $39 ⇐
Vineyard F   2000   $40
Vineyard E   2002   $44

In the above example, I would order "Vineyard D". Thinking about this more, I guess what I look for is a wine whose age is below average (in the above list, the average "age" is 2000.3 but Vineyard D is 1997) but whose price is average or slightly higher than average.

As I said, the process has always been rather instinctual, but now that I'm trying to write it down I realize there may be a bit of a formula here. Going forward, I'm going to try and keep track of the data and see if I can get a better sense of it. In the meantime, you can try it out and see if it works for you.

One general note: I don't order many cabs, so I don't know if this works with Bordeaux or California cabs. It seems to work for Rhône varietals and we were very happy one night when we decided we were in the mood for a Burgundy and used the technique to order a 1° cru Côte de Beaune.

* I define success by a) that I and my dining companions enjoyed the bottle and/or b) the waiter tells me, "that's one of the best values on our list, how did you chose that?" or "how do you know that wine? it's exceptional for the price," both statements actually said when I've ordered with the technique.

What constitutes humane treatment?

In Its Busy Season, Foie Gras Battles Its Image Problem. From the New York Times, another article about bans on foie gras production, though not necessarily any more information about the issue. Some producers are humane, some are less so, but this we already know. I admit some bias towards the issue as I adore foie gras, but honestly, banning its production on humanitarian (animalitarian?) grounds? That's a slippery slope for legislatures to proceed down, and one that I'm not entirely opposed to. But I'd hope for some consistency, what about more regulations for humane treatment of chickens and cows? American factory farming is hardly more humane than family-farm foie gras production.

It's a difficult issue on many fronts. My feeling is that it's important to be informed about the process, from how an animal is raised and treated during its life, to how its life is ended and it arrives in your market. When I returned to meat-eating after years of vegetarianism, I promised myself two things: to eat meat only when I really wanted it (as opposed to eating it out of laziness, not wanting to make a choice, etc.) and to be conscious of what meat entailed as I did so.

That sounds heavy and almost new-agey and annoying, but it's not. I find I'm now more in to eating meat and preparing it than ever, but I have a total different approach to the process (than my pre-vegetarian days). Now when I roast a whole chicken, I save the neck and livers for stock and pâtés. I buy local meat from the greenmarket and talk to the farmers and producers. Most importantly, when I eat any meat or animal product, including foie gras, I savor it.

Finding a bubbly bargain

There's sparkling wine, and then there's Champagne. Some people don't differentiate and happily drink whatever bubbles. But for those, like moi, that prefer Champagne, here's a little help next time you're looking for a "cheap" bottle. The New York Times tasted 25 bottles under $30, Champagne: How Low Can You Go?. What did they find?

Some well-known names - Piper-Heidsieck, Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouët and Mumm's - were among the Champagnes we tasted that did not make our list.

It shows how dicey this category can be. For $10 more, you can buy Champagnes that are not only more reliable, but offer more dimensions of aroma, flavor and texture.

If you choose wisely, at $30 and under, you can certainly find satisfying bottles. But too often, the result is Champagne on the label, but less than you hope for in the bottle.

Don't worry though, they found some wines that were, "Lively, Energetic, and Under 30." I haven't tried any of the ones they list, but I'm sure I will now that I'm aware of them!

Related: Recently in the December 4, 2005 New York Times Style Magazine there was a small blurb about "Boutique Bubbly." I can't seem to locate it online except in the Times archive, so no link. But the gist of it was, "Discriminating Champagne lovers are eschewing highly hyped houses in favor of small-batch bubbly from family-owned estates." Apparently some great wines can be found for under $50, "a fraction of the price of a bottle from one of the big guys."

Recommended labels include H. Billiot Fils (Brut Réserve, $37) and Larmandier-Bernier (Premier Cru Blancs de Blancs, $37). You can find a good selection of these small-batch Champagnes at Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City. Out-of-state delivery available to certain states.

Cooking with cast iron

From today's New York Times, Mark Bittman writes about cast iron skillets in, Ever So Humble, Cast Iron Outshines the Fancy Pans:

As cookware becomes more expensive and the kinds available become more varied, it's increasingly clear to me that most "new" pots and pans are about marketing. For most tasks, old-style cookware is best. So these days when I'm asked for a recommendation, I reply with an old-fashioned answer: cast iron.

I couldn't agree more: I have an 11 1/2" cast iron skillet I've had since 1993 and I love it. I use it all the time. If you're looking for a good holiday present for a cook, perhaps a skillet would be good? Also, what Mr. Bittman doesn't mention is that you can often find cast iron skillets really cheap at tag sales and country antique shops. They're usually quite seasoned already, and there's something really neat about using a pan that's fried more than its share of eggs before you even got your hands on it.

Minor changes around here

I tweaked the subway design a little. That mega-giant black header was just too depressing! So I toned it down a bit, trying to keep the theme but making it feel a bit lighter and cheerier around here. Hopefully the new design will make you feel cheerier as well! As always, let me know if there are any problems in your browser.

Also: snowflakes!!!

A bout of hair confidence at the gym

I went to the gym for the first time yesterday. Since I'm used to working out on my own by basically just running outdoors, I wasn't feeling very confident about my "outfit" for my new scene, especially my hair. I've been growing it out for over a year now and it's reached a state I can only call "mushroom-shaped frazzled frizz." As I walked over to the gym, I told myself that it didn't matter, that it was about working out, not looking good, etc. etc. Still, I felt as awkward as the first day of high school.

In the locker room I stood at the mirror, fretting about the pathetic little pony tail I could manage, pinning up stray hairs with bobby pins, trying not to look at the other women with their great restrained luscious head of hair. Then I noticed the woman next to me, pushing her headband into place. She was sporting not one, not two, but three pony tails. Two were down low near the nape of her neck. And her shorter hair that wouldn't reach? That same hair I was affixing with pins? She simply made a third pony tail on the top of her head, a fountain of hair gushing up from her skull, and held the strays back with a jaunty terry headband. I watched as she headed out of the locker room, tri-ponies bobbing in the gym breeze. I smiled to myself, realized I had nothing to worry about, and headed out after her.

If you live someplace snowy

I've been a Martha Stewart Living subscriber for years now, and there's always something neat in each magazine that I want to do. This month's magazine (December 2005) has a great snow pillar idea. You pack snow into a Bundt pan and make "cakes" then stack them and put a candle inside! The pictures in the magazine are better than the single one shown online, but you can get the idea. In the mag, they have several pillars lining the walkway up to a house. If I had a nice walkway to a house, I'd totally do this!

Overheard in the neighborhood

Eating at a typical New York City diner the other night, I hear one of the women at a three top behind me call the waiter over to her table.

"We've decided we'd like some wine," she says to him. "Could we please see the wine list?"

He says nothing for a few moments, then replies, "We have two wines: red and white."

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