Plus 2 Cases of Wine, 1 Case Champagne and 2 Large Bottles of Bourbon
Quite a few years ago, I was at a women’s Jewish event, where we were asked one-by-one to share our favorite holiday. My answer was Thanksgiving. I was the only person to proclaim a non-Jewish holiday. I felt half-rebel, half-outcast.
Thanksgiving has been “my” holiday for years. Stress is minimal because there isn’t any real expectation attached to this holiday except to eat and drink. And I’m really good at eating and drinking.
The guests around the table vary from year to year, with some coming just for dessert or just appetizers. It’s fun to have an excuse to entertain for three solid days, even if it does cost us the equivalent of a small vacation, as we host a houseful of out-of-towners.
Of course, as the years have gone by, the menu has had to change to reflect everyone’s evolving dietary needs: vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, diabetic or just plain healthier. I miss the corn dish made with cream and bacon. And the sweet potatoes-yam dish made with (never) too much butter.
I used to scour through the Bon Appetite magazines that my mother gifted me. Most have been tossed, but I kept the Thanksgiving editions because they are sentimental to me. And I hate to admit it, but the reason I’m not using their recipes any more is not my guests’ health requirements – it’s because I’m less ambitious. I want to spend less of my time with cooking and busywork, and more enjoying time with my guests. This year we have a couple of new people who are bringing their personal Thanksgiving favorites, which makes my life even easier.
While I toyed with the idea of listing the whole menu with links to recipes, I realized the only thing I really need to share is the tradition we now do before dinner. Everything else is probably similar to every other household. But, I think the pre-dinner activity is what sets us apart. In a good way.
The Before Dinner Drink:
We’ve been enjoying this yummy cocktail for a few years and if you haven’t tried it before, I urge you to run to your local Costco and buy a large bottle of Maker’s Mark, or whatever bourbon you like. And even if you aren’t a bourbon person, trust me. Santa’s Little Helper is great. I learned the hard way not to have one until dinner is ready to be served. Not exactly a light aperitif, but oh well. Thanks to Donna’s good friend, Marsha, for introducing us to it. Here’s the recipe, found on many websites:
Pour the big bottle of bourbon you just bought at Costco into a pitcher, throw in some cranberries, a couple of cinnamon sticks and a handful of whole cloves. Cover it and let it sit 24 hours. When ready to make drinks, pour over ice 3 parts of your delicious infused bourbon, 1 part triple sec, and top the glass with some 7-up. Dig up some cranberries from the pitcher to add as a garnish.
There are two other drinks I only have once a year. Eggnog, which I also wait for Thanksgiving Day to enjoy, and a holiday flavor drink from Starbucks on December 24th.
I am useless until I’ve had my first cup of coffee.
I’m sleepy. I’m slow. I cannot focus. I start to do something and then drift off to do something else.
I simply do not function until I’ve used my coffee maker, and I tell people that all the time.
My family thinks it’s a joke, because they truly don’t comprehend how fuzzy I am until I get that glorious hit of caffeine – and that I NEED it. They make fun of me for guzzling it down and asking for another.
But thanks to the DNA analysis I got from 23AndMe, I now have a genetic excuse:
My Beloved Nespresso Coffee Maker
I’m telling you all of this so you understand the urgency I felt last Thursday, when I fired up my beloved Nespresso machine and Aeroccino… and went to pour my heated almond milk on top of my espresso…
…only to discover that my cup was devoid of its usual shot of coffee.
OK, there have been times when the machine has hiccuped. After all, I’ve had it for several years now.
The pod – which usually drops into receptacle designed for that purpose – was still in place. I tapped the brew button again, and this time, I watched as the machine went through the brewing process, but did not drip any of the precious coffee into my cup.
Instead, I saw vapor rising from the machine itself. All the hot water from the two brewing attempts had collected in the spill tray. I used oven mitts to grab the tray and empty it into the sink and drove to Starbucks.
I thought I remembered this happening before. “It just needs to be descaled,” I decided.
But I could not descale the machine as long as that pod was stubbornly stuck in there.
Nespresso vs. Keurig
I also began Friday and Saturday with a Starbucks visit. On Sunday, I settled for a lesser cup of coffee from the Keurig (a gift from my mother, which I keep because my husband thinks espresso cups are too tiny and lattes are too fancy, and he insists he’s incapable of making a pot of coffee with a drip coffee maker.)
(Note: That post on my original SoCal Mom blog links to a post on this site’s predecessor, InQuestOf – which no longer exists. So my review of the machine has disappeared. Suffice to say: it was a positive one.)
I have a lot of reasons for preferring the Nespresso to the Keurig:
I like to drink lattes, so I want an espresso base.
The quality of the coffee in the Nespresso pods is better.
Nespresso’s aluminum pods are fully recyclable, and Nespresso makes it easy to do by accepting the used pods by mail.
My husband enjoys a challenge, so he attempted to remove the stuck Nespresso pod. This task led him to Home Depot a European style screwdriver he could use to take it apart.
“Well, this thing is knackered,” he said, as he showed me the plastic parts that broke off when he was taking the machine apart.
RIP, my trusty Nespresso machine. It served me well.
My NEW Nespresso Coffee Maker
And say hello to my new and improved Nespresso Vertuo Plus. I ordered it immediately after learning that the old machine could not be put together again. It was delivered last night.
(Another note: I should probably mention that while my original review of my old Nespresso was a sponsored post, today I am neither an employee nor an affiliate of Nestle or Nespresso, and am receiving no compensation for writing about this now.)
My old coffee maker could only brew espresso in a couple of sizes. My usual morning cup of Joe was a latte that consisted of two shots and about 4 oz of steamed almond milk. But a few years ago, Nespresso put out new models that produce beverages in five different sizes.
And these machines brew the coffee in a revolutionary new way: not by percolating, or dripping, or pouring over – but with a built-in centrifuge. The result is a mug of coffee that has about an inch of foamy crema, (like a good espresso), and it’s so rich and foamy that you almost don’t need to add any milk.
The thick crema is what impressed me most about the newer Nespresso machines, and why I vowed that I would buy one when one of the old machines died. I always thought that would be the Keurig, but I hadn’t counted on having a mishap with a stuck Nespresso pod.
The Vertuo retailed for about $300 when it first debuted, but the cost has come down to the $150-$200 range. There were issues with water temperature on earlier models, but I’ve made two cups today and both were sufficiently hot.
Best of all, since this machine makes both espresso and regular mug-sized coffee, we can get rid of the Keurig and free up some counter space for another appliance.
I came home and sat on the couch. It was only about 4:30 in the afternoon, but I really didn’t feel like doing anything. I just experienced my first drink of kava and I was tired.
I tried to remember the conversation I had with my sister in the morning, when told her I was planning to check out a kava bar in my neighborhood.
“That sounds like fun,” she said. “I wonder if any of it will be like the wine you brought back from Barcelona.”
OK, that was a non sequitur. It took me some time to realize that she was talking about cava (sparkling Spanish wine).
My husband had a similar reaction when I mentioned that I was kava-curious. He cheerfully replied that his brother used to drink instant Kava back in the 70s. (He was talking about a classic brand of reduced-acid coffee.)
Auto-correct on my iPhone is also confused. It thinks I really want lava.
(Kava, lava, java… what difference does it really all make?)
What Exactly Is Kava?
My son was the one who originally told me about this new (to me) beverage. He drinks it regularly in Austin (where he lives), especially when he’s doing his “sober months.”
Sober months is an activity (or lack of activity) which seems to be growing in popularity with his age group.
I can honestly say anyone who decides to stop drinking alcohol at my age does so permanently. We are past the “temporary” stage of quitting. You’re either all-in or all-out.
The kava drink is brewed from the root of a plant (Piper methysticum) that grows in the Pacific Islands. Kava means “bitter” in the Tongan language, and there’s truth in advertising there, because the beverage I drank was very bitter.
Polynesian cultures have imbibed kava for over 1,500 years as a medicinal and spiritual libation. It’s now being touted in western societies as a non-weed, non-alcoholic way to relax, mellow-out, and feel groovy.
Kava bars have long been a fixture in Hawaii, with the first one that opened in the continental United States being in 2002. In the early 2000’s there was some concern about kava’s safety, such as possible liver damage.
It appears to have been found to be safe for most people, but I’m very cautious and strive to do everything in moderation. As with taking any drug or supplement the general rules apply: Do your homework first.
My Kava Bar Experience
An online search turned up two venues near my home where I could sample some kava. The first one was a hookah lounge, so I chose to go to the one that was strictly a kava bar. I drove there shortly after their 3:00 opening, bravely opened the door and walked in.
It had a low-light kind of ambiance, which I understand is not unusual, and the background music was unremarkable. It wasn’t classic rock, wasn’t jazz, not country or hip hop. I don’t know what it was, and it didn’t impress me.
However, the rest of the place did surprise me. It was actually kind of nice.
The room was dominated by a long, wood top bar with comfortable bar chairs, and it had maybe a dozen booths. There was a young guy behind the counter (who was the owner), and a younger guy behind the bar (who was an employee). Younger guided me to my first kava drink.
He handed me what appeared to be an 8-ounce serving, with the flavoring of my choice: Irish Cream – much like the creamer I use in my coffee. But this didn’t taste anything like coffee.
He told me to drink it fast, which I easily obliged to get it over with, because this stuff must be an acquired taste. Younger suggested I suck on a lime chaser to help with bitterness, but I think I’ll pass on that the next time.
He instructed me to sit and relax to get the full effect.
Within a minute or two, my mouth got numb, kind of like a Novocain feeling. (Eh, not sure that’s something I like.)
Young and Younger behind the bar assured me that was normal.
A couple of minutes later, I started to feel dizzy. Then really dizzy.
I told Younger and he said to drink water, since kava can be dehydrating. So, I got up and clumsily walked to the bar to get a cup of water and bring it back to my booth.
In the meantime, four also-younger guys had entered the joint and were sitting a couple of booths away. They were having a good time and were obvious regulars. A 20-something woman walked in for her regular order. It was about 4:00 in the afternoon and people were stopping in to relax and socialize after work – like what my friends and I call “happy hour.”
I think Young and Younger were a little worried about me. Without prompting, Young brought me a glass of tea, which he said would help me. I wasn’t feeling sick, but who knows what I looked like. I sipped the cold tea.
After about 45 minutes, I thanked them and walked out to my car.
And to be entirely honest, I’m not sure I should have driven. My mind was OK. I didn’t feel drunk or stoned or high. I hadn’t attained some cool alternative mindset (which would have been fantastic). My reflexes felt normal enough and the dizziness had passed. However, my head felt… heavy. It was a weird sensation.
When I got home, I sat on the couch, turned on the TV, and called my son.
“You should drink it slowly,” he said. That’s not what Young and Younger had advised.
I felt tired the rest of the evening, but unfortunately, that didn’t translate to better sleep that night. The effects of kava apparently wear off within 30-90 minutes.
I’m thinking I’m going to try it again. I’m not afraid of it, but as I am a lightweight with drugs, I’ll ask for a weaker brew.
If there’s a moral to this story, it’s “go slow.” Buyer beware, but don’t be afraid to try new things.
I was kind of proud of myself for doing something like this on my own. It’s been a while.
Is there a better summer cocktail than a classic margarita? The combination of citrus, ice, and tequila is super refreshing on hot summer days (and nights).
Our usual July 4 routine is to stick with chilled sparkling wine… but then my daughter’s boyfriend showed up at Linda’s house with a ginormous bottle of tequila. And you know the old saying: When God gives you tequila, you have to make margaritas.
I confess: I’m not much of a bartender. I don’t often drink margaritas outside of Mexican restaurants. If I really want one at home, I go to the supermarket for a pre-mixed Jose Cuervo (when I don’t care about the calories) or Skinny Girl (when I do).
But lately, I’ve been trying to cut out commercially made foods with stuff like high fructose corn syrup (one of the main ingredients in that Cuervo margarita mix). I’m also enough of a food snob to appreciate a good craft cocktail, even if I don’t have the patience to make one myself.
But Linda’s got tons of kitchen confidence, and she spurred me on to work together on finding a margarita recipe we could call our own. The result is a story I like to call:
Goldilocks and the Three Margaritas
Like all good 21st-century people looking for obscure information, our mission began on the Internet. We did a search and perused about a dozen recipes, and picked three to try.
And we had to do a little tweaking before we arrived at the one that was Just Right.
The most important qualification for picking a recipe was that we had to have all the ingredients: Besides the tequila, that meant fresh lime juice, orange liqueur, and some kind of sweetener.
The first recipe called for agave syrup, which Linda already had in her pantry. But the agave didn’t dissolve very well; I ended up having to clean most of it out of the shaker, where it had stuck.
The resulting cocktail was too tart for Linda’s taste. I liked the flavor, but admitted it didn’t really taste like a margarita.
We were intrigued by the second recipe we tried, because it called for angostura bitters. It also included agave, but I wasn’t going to try that again. So I omitted the sweetener entirely and doubled up on the Cointreau.
That margarita tasted OK – but it wasn’t great. And we wanted a margarita that tastes great.
The One That Was Just Right
For the final recipe, we decided to whip up a batch of simple syrup to replace the agave (1 cup of sugar dissolved into 1 cup of water, which we brought to a simmer and then cooled).
I dutifully added the ingredients. But the resulting drink was a lighter color than the previous one. So I poured it back into the shaker and added in more tequila.
That’s when I realized that the darker color of the previous cocktail was because of the bitters. So this one ended up with double the tequila.
And of course: this was the one that tasted the most like an actual margarita.
I also found it too sweet, so I added in a couple of dashes of angostura bitter – plus an extra dash of Scrappy’s orange bitter for taste.
And that’s how we made a margarita that was Just Right.
Two Drinks Away Just Right Margaritas
(yields 2 cocktails)
6 oz. tequila 2 oz. Cointreau 2 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice 2 oz. simple syrup Angostura bitters Scrappy Orange bitters
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the tequila, Cointreau, lime juice, and simple syrup and shake for about 15 seconds. Pour into a couple of glasses and swirl in bitters to taste (we added two dashes of Angostura and one dash of Scrappy Orange).
Although I like a good salt rim on my glass, it’s not necessary – these margaritas were great without it.
Also, most of the recipes we saw online were adamant about using premium tequila – which is a great way to sell expensive booze. The brand we were using doesn’t cost much, and the result was great.
It’s possible that dipping into a $30 bottle of Patron or Chinaco would yield a better drink… but I seriously doubt that the difference would be all that noticeable. Then again, the Cointreau we used costs a lot more than your average Curacao.
Maybe the next time, we’ll experiment with switching out the tequila and orange liqueur. That could be our next mission.
Manhattan’s Grand Central Station is a city within a city, where busy commuters can take care of all their needs without ever leaving the building: Shops featuring gourmet groceries, wine & spirits, cards & gifts, clothing, accessories — even a tennis club and an Apple Store.
And of course, lots of places to grab a bite to eat – or relax with a drink before heading home.
My sister and I were not heading home for another day, but we had an afternoon to kill. So we decided to kill a few brain cells while we were at it with cocktails in a Grand Central Station bars.
And what better cocktail to imbibe in Manhattan than a Manhattan? Then one drink led to another and before you knew it, we had embarked on the kind of epic endeavor that only seems like a good idea when you’ve got a buzz on: To sample a Manhattan in every bar in the building.
Yes, it was our own personal Manhattan project.
The Classic Manhattan
For those of you who have never tried this most American of cocktails, you should know that the recipe has been around since the Gilded Age, and has remained pretty much the same:
2 parts whisky, 1 part sweet vermouth, and 2 dashes of bitters. It can be served straight (in a cocktail glass) or on the rocks (in a rocks glass). Garnish can be a twist of lemon or a maraschino cherry.
It sounds simple, but we learned over the course of the afternoon that there are lots of variations within the framework of those three ingredients, thanks to different kinds of whisky, vermouth, and bitters.
The Bar at Cipriani Dolci
Cipriani Dolci is located on the West Balcony and is part of a chain of upscale Italian restaurants that that originated with Giuseppe Cipriani’s legendary Harry’s Bar, opened in 1931 in Venice. This bar feels like it’s that old, too – even though it dates only to the station’s last renovation in 2002.
The bartender there asked if we wanted our drink order dry, sweet, or “perfect.” This referred to the vermouth, with “perfect” made up with equal parts dry and sweet. Since perfection isn’t something you find every day, we opted for that.
And having tasted it, I’ve decided that I will ask for my Manhattans made perfect from now on. The drink’s balance of flavors was indeed, perfect – right down to its Luxardo cherry garnish. This became the benchmark against all the other Manhattans we sipped.
2. Michael Jordan’s Steak House
Right next door to Cipriani on the East Balcony is Michael Jordan’s Steak House. The kitchen was closed for renovations on the day we visited, but the bar was open for business. Alas, their Manhattan was not all we expected.
Linda thought it was because I ordered it on the rocks and waited a few minutes, so it was watered down. But the one at Cipriani was also iced and it was delicious down to the last drop.
Perhaps it was the whisky? We asked for Bulleit in each of the two establishments but didn’t specify bourbon or rye. Perhaps Michael Jordan’s barkeeps were making Manhattans with the former when we were expecting the latter.
I was also disappointed that there was no cherry garnish, which seems a silly thing to be upset about at my age. I guess I really do like to have my cherry on top.
Our mixologist let us know that he trained with Jonathan Waxman at Barbuto. He also informed us that Bulleit wasn’t an option, because The Bar only stocks “artisanal spirits from small batch producers.”
So for our very artisanal Manhattan, we settled on Rittenhouse Pikesville rye, from Kentucky – on the assumption that since Bulleit is made in the same state, it might have a similar flavor.
This Manhattan featured its own mix of bitters: 2 angostura, 2 orange, and 2 peychoud. These were all (of course) handcrafted and sourced locally from Hudson Standard. We got into quite a conversation about bitters with our mixologist, who boasted that he keeps over 100 different kinds of bitters in his apartment.
I may add that our drink also had a house-made maraschino cherry speared by an absolutely gorgeous cocktail pick. And with all that artistry and care, how was it? Delicious.
We cannot vouch for the quality of the seafood, but they do make a good, generic-tasting Manhattan with a pedestrian maraschino cherry.
The Oyster Bar was our last stop on our tour of Manhattans in Manhattan. We had a dinner reservation to catch in the Bowery, were definitely feeling all that bourbon and vermouth… and were under the impression that we’d actually hit every bar in the terminal. Alas, when we got back home and began the research to finish this post, we learned that there are at least two more bars we never got to see during our visit.
I could do another search for titles that include the words “Java,” “Cappuccino,” “Latte” and “Caffeine.” The point is, there are a lot of women who cannot get through the day without their hot, caffeinated beverages, and I am one of them. I have a Pavlovian response at the site of a Starbucks logo, and an uncanny ability to remember the exact locations of coffeehouses I’ve visited — even in cities I rarely frequent.
I admit it: I am an addict. I go through periods where I try to cut down on my consumption (such as the nine months of pregnancy, when I switched to decaf) — but I always come back. I just have a hard time waking up in the morning, and need a little liquid kickstart. And I need it even more on days when I’m trying to write: Caffeine has been shown in studies to help increase women’s focus and concentration, and I have found that an extra cup has the power to jolt me out of my spacey stupors and back on track.
But I won’t drink just any cup of Joe. My favorite coffee beverages are the sweetened lattes, which have way too many calories to consume in mass quantities. I hate a brew that’s overly bitter or weak, and while I enjoy a good espresso, I don’t often make one for myself, even though I have a pretty good espresso machine. I’m lazy. I don’t want to take the time to heat the machine, measure and tamp the grounds — and then clean it — just for a single tiny cup. (We won’t even talk about the effort it takes to froth milk and clean the nozzle for a cappuccino or latte.)
So given these proclivities, it’s not surprising that I took some time out of a busy day earlier this month to attend an event showcasing the latest single-cup machine from Nespresso. The festivities were held in a pop-up cafe at LA’s famed Grove shopping center, and for most of those attending, the big attraction was celebrity spokesperson Padma Lakshmi. But for me, it was the coffee.
The Nespresso “U”
Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi is the type of woman I like hanging out with. She loves good food and good drink and I could put up with her being so gorgeous long enough to enjoy a Girls Night Out in a trendy restaurant. She said that she had stopped drinking coffee in the United States because too often, it tasted like a hot, bitter liquid with grounds. And then a friend suggested she try one of Nespresso’s machines. She bought one for herself and loved it — so her endorsement actually means something, as it comes from someone who uses the product herself.
The machine has a small footprint, so it does not take up a lot of counterspace. The water tank swivels so you can configure it to fit exactly how you want it.
It is extremely simple to operate: turn it on, drop in the capsule and let it go. You can modify the size of the pour: Ristretto is the smallest, at 0.85 oz, Espresso is 1.35 oz and Lungo is almost the size of an old-fashioned coffee cup, at 3.75 oz. These are NOT Ventis — but the resulting brews are not weak and nicely balanced.
When you turn the machine on, it takes just 45 seconds to heat enough to brew a cup of coffee with 16 bars of pressure, which create a gorgeous crema float at the top.
The colorful, aluminum coffee capsules are also small and Nespresso sells a variety of attractive containers for storage and display. However, they’re really expensive (scroll on down to the section titled “Bad.”) The capsules are airtight, which ensures that your espresso or coffee will always come out fresh.
The U automatically pushes the empty capsule into a container for emptying and recycling later. There is also virtually no excess dripping, which is super nice.
Nespresso has targeted foodies and coffee snobs with this machine. It’s only available at Nespresso boutiques and high end department stores and cookware chains like Bloomingdale’s and Williams-Sonoma, which — whether you like it or not — gives the machine some cachet. But that means if you don’t have a retailer near you, you must order the coffee capsules online or by phone. It’s easy to do with membership in the Nespresso Club, where you can get personalized advice on which of the 16 “Grand Cru” coffee blends you like best. (The U came with a sample of each; I have been busy jotting down my tasting notes on each one so I can figure out what to re-order).
I love the ease of making myself an afternoon espresso pick-me-up or an evening decaf. It is no exaggeration when I say that owning this machine has changed my life (in a good way).
As mentioned above, you can’t just run out to the supermarket to buy more capsules. And if you don’t have a Nespresso boutique near you, you will have to order by phone or online.
The capsules will run you about sixty cents a piece. This is expensive when you compare it to the cost of coffee by the pound, but it’s within range of the price of other single cup coffeemakers’ modules. It’s also way less than you would pay for a shot of espresso at Starbucks, and the flavor is better.
You cannot make cappuccinos or lattes with the U. Nespresso makes other models that include a frother. They also make an Aeroccino (seen in the video), which heats and froths milk.
Of course, as with any single cup coffeemaker, there is a lot of waste inherent in all those little coffee capsules. The good news is that Nespresso’s all-aluminum capsules are 100% recyclable. Nespresso will even pick your used ones up for you — if you live in Manhattan.
The rest of us have to do the recycling ourselves. That means taking them to your local recycling center, after you have washed out all the coffee grounds. You will also need to pack and bundle the used capsules tightly (because their small size can jam the machines that process the aluminum).
Another issue is Fair Trade – ensuring that the farmers use best practices and earn a fair return. For the last couple of years, I’ve only purchased Fair Trade certified coffee for my home. Nespresso’s coffee has been certified by another organization, the Rainforest Alliance, which aims to accomplish the same goals of sustainable farming with living wages. And here is where it gets dicey: The Rainforest Alliance has been accused of being a greenwashing program, because they will certify a product with as little as 30% sustainable content. (Nespresso says their goal is to source 80% of their coffee from the 40,000 farmers who are participating in their own proprietary sustainable coffee program.)
So that could be an issue. However, all is not rosy with the Fair Trade organization, either. There has been a rift between Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International, the organizations that issue the coveted certification. The bottom line is that it’s increasingly tough to tell what you’re getting, even when you make the effort to pay a premium so that the people who grow your coffee benefit.
This is one I’ll be chewing on for a long time — while sipping an espresso.