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Summer in Astoria

April 10, 2014

long-island-city-view

As I am tossed along by the wind currents that barrel through tunnels between skyscrapers, I yearn for the melting away of layers, the fresh breath of spring on my skin.

Someday, not so long ago, I was free and easy, on the interstate, rushing away from the city for a weekend escape in nature. I was savoring frozen yogurt on a late, sweltering summer evening. I was too hot. I slept with the windows open.

I came home from any commute drenched from sweat and discomfort, and I stood under a stream of cold water and washed with spearmint soap until everything tingled and my skin forgot the city grime.

Then I lay motionless in my towel on the bed in front of a fan waiting to be cold again. I drank complicated cocktails on rooftop bars with a view. I wore open-toed heels and threw on flip flops to run around the neighborhood. There were weddings and country cabins and LIRR journeys to the boardwalk. Playing guitar on the roof.

central-park-summer

And again and again…before and before…the years are circles marked by summers and the summer vacations I took. Reading books on the beach and at the pool and on the back porch. Growing up with the flowers all around me, marking the seasons by crocus and peony and autumn joy.

This is my fourth summer in New York, which feels somehow weighty, as though my time here has been longer than it has.

It’s my third summer in Astoria.

With those free and easy months quickly approaching, I feel the urge to build anticipation for my favorite parts of summer here in Astoria, my adopted Queens home. So, here’s a quick hit list of what I’m looking forward to.

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1. Swimming in the adult lap swim, mornings and evenings at the Astoria Park Pool

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2. Grabbing Eurotart yogurt with kiwi, blueberries, strawberries, and chocolate shavings at Vanilla Sky

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3. Nighttime films in Socrates Sculpture Park and Astoria Park

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4. Eating outside at Bareburger and in backyard gardens at Leng Thai, Astoria Bier and Cheese, and Il Bambino and drinking outside at The Strand and Studio Square.

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5. Not being cold walking home in the cold after hot yoga at Bikram Yoga Queens.

6. Writing on my roof, in Central Park, in Socrates Sculpture Park — wherever my traveling journal takes me!

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7. The farmer’s market in Socrates Sculpture Park!

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8. The LIC Flea, which kicked off its second season last weekend. I’ve never been. This year it’s definitely on the list, especially because they’re opening a new location closer to me, at Kaufman Astoria Studios (starting May 4.)

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Farm Photos By Lily Kesselman Photography, LLC

9. Spring Pop-up at Queens County Market on Sunday May 4… how awesome does this look?

Ralph Waldo Emerson

April 1, 2014

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I was thinking of this quotation today, and my appreciation for Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I talked about him in all of my college admission interviews.

I had read “Self-Reliance” in my Introduction to AP English class in junior year of high school. I loved the man. His writings are so pure. They are timeless because they express an objective clarity of thought which we rarely encounter today.

In the spirit of Whitman’s barbaric yawp, they display a self-possession as well as a courage to be proud of one’s own genius.

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Coincidentally or perhaps not, I felt this way about myself in high school more than at any other time in the past few years. In other areas of my life and my person, I had yet to develop. But the freedom I valued highly in those days was the freedom to immerse myself in literature.

I borrowed extensively from the Stamford Public Library. I spent long Saturday afternoons wandering past names I recognized and those I didn’t. I read Lawrence Ferlinghetti while lying in the grass. I read Leaves of Grass while lying in my bed. I taught myself Robert Frost and e e cummings by heart and recited their verses before falling asleep and while floating in the gentle waves at Cape May Point, staring out toward the distant line of blue meeting blue, somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond.

It is something to be grateful for, the opportunity to encounter the classics for the first time. As we are becoming ourselves, they become us, too.Ralph-Waldo-Emerson

New York in Blossom: Orchid Show, New York Botanical Gardens

March 25, 2014

I admit it… I cheated in my post last week! I’m so anxious for spring to arrive that I used photos from spring 2013 to speed things along. It worked! I’ve seen the first spring bulbs peeking up from beneath their winter mulch.

Today I’m offering fewer words and more photos, for a serious injection of spring color. Take a look at these before you shop for your spring wardrobe.

And most certainly, check out the Orchid Show this spring at the New York Botanical Gardens. This year’s theme is “Key West Contemporary,” and it promises to be an exotic departure from our door-to-door mundanity.

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Thanks, Dallas, for taking this lovely adventure with me. You’re always good for them!Image

And finally, the New York Botanical Gardens has a fabulous gift shop. Including these, after my own writer/gardener’s heart:

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Quel Che Piace: Zuppa di Ceci

March 22, 2014

zuppa-di-ceci-florence

I recently entered a contest to win a week-long trip to Italy. But this isn’t your average Venice-Florence-Rome trajectory; far from it.

This short scholarship, hosted by WorldNomads.com, immerses you in the local food culture of one of three regions of Italy: Emilia-Romagna, Cinque Terre, and Langhe and Roero (in Piemonte.) While there, each of the three winners has the opportunity to meet Italians involved in all levels of the food production chain, from vintners to sausage makers to cooks. All of these experiences are then transcribed by the winners into a blog and even shared in front of a video crew!

In order to enter this contest, I created a journal in which I shared a recipe. The contest guidelines suggested that the recipe be “…something that you think would transport other travelers to a new place, simply by making it at home. We want recipes with soul and with that make us miss a place that perhaps we’ve never even been.”

I chose the recipe for Zuppa di Ceci, which I first tasted at Trattoria Mario in Florence. Trattoria Mario deserves its own blog post — which is why I wrote about it back in 2010. To reveal the true beauty of the humble chick peas, I conducted a photo shoot on my sunny roof. Image

When I first heard of this contest in January, I knew I had to enter. But I didn’t know how I would find the time! I ended up writing most of my entry on my iPhone on the train to and from work each day. It was somehow easier to start filling the small screen of my phone than the large screen of my computer or even a handwritten journal. (Side note: not surprisingly, I’m not the only writer who finds it easier to get her thoughts down underground.)

In addition to the story behind the recipe, the contest required an essay explaining why I was a good fit and why I should be chosen. Until a week before the deadline, I believed that this essay should be 1500 words, and had written, edited, and proofread one slightly over the word count.

I was shocked to discover one week before the deadline that the limit was actually 1500 characters — including spaces!

With a lot of emotional anguish, and much help from my dad, who is an expert editor, I was able to chop the essay into roughly fifteen percent of its original length.

I’m now considering what to do with the remnants of the essay (the remnants being the bulk of the original.) I could divide it into several blog posts, or perhaps find another outlet for it. I have a few ideas in mind.

Here’s the miniature version of the essay:

Voi mangiate per vivere. Ma in Italia, si vive per mangiare! 

You eat to live. But in Italy, we live to eat!

So my Tuscan host father, Babbo, “Dad” in Florentine dialect, explained to me.

His wife Ornella created glorious meals. But it was Babbo who taught me how to eat: how to twirl pasta, how to peel a peach with a knife, and how to linger over a Sunday dinner.

They molded my culinary sensibility.

Since I lived with them in Florence in 2008, I have dedicated myself to Italian food culture, majoring in Italian and creating two blogs. Piccolo Mondo, Gran Cuore records my journey from American student abroad to gastronomic adventurer. When Nutmeg Met Basil explores my life after graduation, working as a nanny in Parma and getting to know Emiliana cuisine.

Today, in my position at a public relations firm, I write website content and magazine articles on daily deadlines. As a communications professional, my skill set will allow me to produce a high volume of quality content during my scholarship period. Through videos, essays, photos, and social media, I will document a way of life that is in danger of disappearing as Italy modernizes.

Winning this scholarship will fulfill my dream to return to Italy and focus on food, giving me access to parts of the Italian culinary landscape I’ve never before experienced. It will also allow me to communicate my joy to others. Ultimately, it will launch me toward a future in which food, wine, Italy, and writing are intertwined.

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Here’s a teaser for my entry:

Ingredients
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
3 15-ounce cans of chickpeas
1 cup water
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste

How to prepare this recipe:
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot. Drain and rinse the chickpeas and add them to the pot along with 1 cup of water. Cook on low-medium heat, covered, until the chickpeas are soft and heated through, about 15 minutes.

Remove slightly more than half of the chickpeas from the pot and puree in a blender or food processor. Return the pureed chickpeas to the pot and stir them thoroughly. Let the soup simmer on low heat.

Saute the garlic with the chopped leaves of one sprig of rosemary for several minutes until toasted, and then add to the soup.

Allow to simmer for an additional 15 minutes. Add water as necessary to thin the soup to the desired consistency. Add olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste.

Serve the soup with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh rosemary for garnish.

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The story behind this recipe:
Non e` buono quel che e` buono ma e` buono quel che piace.
Personal preference reigns in matters of taste. (Tuscan proverb)

The chickpea may seem to be a lowly bean. But Italian cooking honors the most humble of ingredients. This is most evident in the Tuscan kitchen, known as “cucina povera” or “poor cuisine.”

This recipe for chickpea soup is extremely simple; it gets to the heart of what matters to me about the Italian attitude toward food. A dish may start with a humdrum ingredient, but it never ends with a boring flavor.

This soup is so remarkable that, months after eating it in Florence’s tiny, family-run Trattoria di Mario, I dreamed about it. I awoke from the dream with a lingering sense of well-being. Already back in America, I set out to recreate my Italian experience through recreating this soup.

To read the rest of my entry, click here!

Spring in New York

March 17, 2014

Spring-new-york

The first few days after we spring forward for daylight savings time have that freshness, that spring energy that cannot be replicated at any other time of the year.

It’s warm and certain smells we’ve forgotten have been unlocked in this new air. Not those icky, worldly summer in New York smells, but clean, innocent, earthy spring smells, of dirt and defrosting branches. The promise of a more outdoor life tantalizes us, and the bathing suits and jaunty striped sailor shirts in store windows begin to make sense.

This is our season, when we begin to remember what we didn’t know we’d forgotten, bringing up from beneath the earth our own treasure trove of hopes squirreled safely away, and the secrets we no longer need keep.

This is spring. This is freedom. This is the beginning.

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New York Wine Expo 2013 Starts Tonight

March 1, 2013

Sunset Javits Center NYC Wine Expo 2012

Last year I had the privilege of attending the New York Wine Expo, now in its sixth year at Javits Center. It was an unparalleled opportunity to taste wines from all over the world in one afternoon. Read my review of last year’s event at the Wall Street Job Report.

This year, the Wine Expo returns to New York on March 1-3, 2013. Click here for more information and to buy tickets. In addition to the tasting event, this year’s event offers a series of seminars and guided tastings. It’s not too late to buy tickets for some of the lectures. I recently had the opportunity to speak with three individuals closely tied to the event.

The Exciting Growth of Italian Wines

Italian-Pavilion-LogoItaly continued to be the leading exporter of wine to the United States in 2012, registering $1.5 billion dollars in export sales. “Considering the moderate prices of most bottles of Italian wine, this is a huge landmark,” said Italian Trade Commissioner, Aniello Musella. And the preference for Italian wine among American consumers is growing, Musella noted. In 2012, the market share of Italian wine remained stable at nearly 30%. “This is largely thanks to the great variety of Italian wines,” Musella said. “Italy has over 400 combined DOC and DOCG appellations alone and a bounty of native varietals.”

“I think that interest in Italian wines will continue to increase,” Musella said. “Lesser known and emerging regions like Puglia, Umbria, Sicily, Campania, and Friuli Venezia Giulia will benefit from a curious public. Organic, biodynamic and artisanal producers will attract interest as the foodie movement continues to grow in the US and the compatibility of these artisanal boutique style wines with diverse food styles is discovered.”

The Italy Pavilion at the 2013 Expo will feature roughly 30 different Italian wineries. I asked Musella for some recommendations. He said that wines from the south of Italy ought to be better known, mentioning Nero d’Avola from Sicily and Aglianico from Basilicata and Campania as varieties to try. He also highlighted Cannonau from Sardinia, and Sagrantino from Umbria, along with Primitivo and Negroamaro from Puglia. Pure varietal expressions from the North are also worth trying, such as Refosco from Friuli Venezia Giulia. For those that already appreciate wine, Musella suggested the Metodo Classico sparkling wines from Franciacorta.

He also touched upon the hot Moscato trend that has grown in the US in recent years and added that it would be terrific to introduce American consumers to another facet of this grape’s production possibilities, such as fabulous dessert wines from Moscato like Passito di Pantelleria. Passito is a rare, luscious, honey-gold dessert wine for which Pantelleria is known.  Moscato di Pantelleria instead is a light, delicious off-dry wine which is also wonderful.

California Dreamin’ of Pinot Noirs

David Rossi of Fulcrum Wines in Napa, CA

David Rossi

I also spoke with David Rossi of Fulcrum Wines in Napa, California. Rossi will be giving a talk at 7pm tonight titled California Pinot Noir: Touring The State’s Great Pinot Regions.Several years ago Rossi decided to combine his home winemaking experience with his corporate food marketing career and launch his own winery with his wife, Christinna. Aware of the need to be unique in the cluttered wine business, Rossi chose to focus entirely on Pinot Noir. “We wanted to find a grape where we could have a voice, and do something different,” Rossi said. In 2005, when Rossi started Fulcrum Wines, Pinots were getting heavier, bigger, and more like Syrahs. Rossi’s vision was to create a more balanced, restrained wine; hence the name “fulcrum,” or point of balance.

Rossi laughed as he told me about the “Sideways Effect,” what he termed the surge of interest in California Pinot Noirs following the release of the movie Sideways, which portrayed a road trip through California wine country. In it, Paul Giamatti waxed poetic about Pinot Noirs (the red grape of Burgundy), which got people excited about exploring the wine more. But that excitement is not a fad, noted Rossi. “We’ve had six to seven years of growth and it’s the fastest growing red variety,” he said.

In 2011 Fulcrum Wines released seven Pinot Noirs, all from California.  Rossi sources grapes from all over the state, which boasts many varied growing conditions, with different types of soil, distance to the ocean, and levels of elevation. For example, the grapes grown in Mendocino County in the north are cool climate and retain acidity, with cherry, earthy notes. By contrast, the grapes grown in Chalone, to the south, are in a high plains, desert climate, so they are dark tannic, with chocolate and espresso notes.

Recognizing Excellence in the Finger Lakes

Thomas Pastuszak

Thomas Pastuszak

I also spoke with Thomas Pastuszak, Wine Director at the NoMad, who will be giving a seminar titled The Cool Climate, World Class Wines of the Finger Lakes at 12pm tomorrow (Saturday, Mar 2.) Pastuszak went to Cornell to study neurobiology and classical piano and began working in restaurants to pay bills. Through his restaurant work, he got to know smaller producers in the Finger Lakes region. Ever since then, he’s tried to get people behind Finger Lakes wines. “The region has been maligned,” he said. “It developed a reputation for poor quality wines. But the area is changing quickly. It’s only had a fine wine culture for three to four decades, and it’s entering a Golden Age.”

Pastuszak is excited about the region’s potential. It’s one of the few American regions that has a similar climate to the cool-climate regions of Germany, France, and some parts of Italy. It is home to some of the deepest lakes in the U.S., which allows for heat retention and warmer winters, as well as cooler summers. The wines are not fruity, but are balanced with refreshing acidity. His favorite white from the region is Riesling. It can be dry and mineral-driven, but it can also be honeyed. It’s a great transmitter of terroir and it speaks of the soil. For red, Thomas recommends Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. Their minerality and freshness makes them great table wines, akin to their cousins in France.

Leli’s Bakery & Cafe: An Astoria Gem

February 23, 2013

Leli's Cafe in Astoria Queens NYC

Last month as I strolled home along 30th Avenue, I discovered Leli’s for the first time.

This cafe brings a breath of fresh air to Astoria, offering a taste of the outside world.

It is a spot that manages to be both cozy and spacious, buzzing and customer-oriented, filled with eclectic but comfortable decor and a range of delicious treats, some traditional and others unique.

On Sundays, it is filled with families brunching, students studying, and friends meeting over coffee.

Drinks ordered to stay are served in adorable mismatched colorful cups and saucers. But the real appeal is the food. Pastries both sweet and savory, a huge array of cupcakes and cakes, and a case filled with cookies tempt friends meeting over coffee.

Chocolate Croissants at Leli's Cafe

Astoria has plenty of bakeries and cafes, but few have the ambience that Leli’s does. It begs you to come inside, sit down, and rest a while.

Pastries at Leli's Cafe Astoria Queens NYC

Leli’s opened to great popular acclaim in November 2012. I am looking forward to several other new openings in the neighborhood– a rumored Korean restaurant on Broadway and 29th St. and a new venture, the Shady Lady, also on 30th Ave (and 36th St.)

Leli’s Cafe is at 35-14 30th Ave / Astoria, NY 11103. Find them on Yelp and on Facebook. More detailed reviews available from Queens NYC and  Tastoria Queens.

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