Requiem for a Coffee Maker

Requiem for a Coffee Maker

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:

Coffee Consumption

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.)

My original Nespresso coffee maker was a premium I received in my days as a mom blogger. At the time, I determined it was the most life-changing device I’d ever owned.

(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.

Nespresso Vertuo Plus

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.

It’s a win-win.

The Three Margaritas

The Three Margaritas

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.

Marking Margaritas
Tequila, orange liqueur, and lime juice are the main ingredients for a margarita. Bitters add complexity and flavor.

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)

Ingredients:

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.

Bubbles and Sparks on the Fourth of July

Bubbles and Sparks on the Fourth of July

Five Ideas, One Menu, 15 Movies and  a Couple of Other Odds and Ends You Can Do (No Kids Required)

Celebrate the Fourth of JulyI wasn’t happy when I realized that the Fourth of July this year falls on a Wednesday.

I don’t know about you, but I think the greatest decision of the late 20th century was the one that turned holidays like Washington’s Birthday and Memorial Day into 3-day weekends. It is unfortunate they did not make a similar decision with Independence Day. I suppose “First Monday in July” is just not as much fun as “Fourth of July.”

At any rate, it can be challenging to entertain on the Fourth in years when it falls on a Wednesday “hump day.” Most people I know are hanging around town rather than taking extra days off from work. What will you do? If you want simple, but good ideas (kids optional), read below. If you want really creative time consuming ideas, go to Pinterest.

The Fireworks

This is the first thing that comes to mind for most of us when we think of this holiday. (What? The Declaration of Independence? Who are you people?)

If you live each year for the fireworks, you’ll want to either take advantage of a big display in your community OR blow some up in your front yard (but only if it’s legal – unless you crave the extra excitement and flashing lights that come from breaking local laws).

This is a true American way of literally letting your money go up in smoke –  and who doesn’t love that?

I always make sure there are at least a few whistlers in my fireworks package. The reason is practical: For years, my son used the 4th of July fireworks to blow up fruit and vegetables. This bit was a hit with the other neighborhood kids. Now that he’s all grown up and isn’t home on the 4th, our fruit is relatively safe — but I admit to missing the chaos and excitement that always came with this holiday.

Food and Drink

We’re lucky to live in an area where ”safe and sane” fireworks are legal to set off in the street, and our street always makes a big show of it. I’ve discovered that you can buy your way into your neighbors’ hearts by bringing out some sparkling wine to share with them. (The other way is to make sure you pick up your dog’s poop on their lawns. Better yet, mow their lawn once in a while.)

Be sure to purchase a couple of extra bottles of bubbles and some $1.92 champagne flutes to share. You can’t go wrong.

Most large cities and many smaller ones have their own large fireworks displays. This usually means getting in the car and driving to a park with a lot of people. Meet your friends there, bring a picnic dinner (don’t forget the bubbly) and enjoy the show.

To make it even more festive, you can add a hibiscus flower to the bottom of the glass for a very pretty look. I like adding four or five pomegranate seeds to bounce in the glass as I drink.

Invite your friends for an early dinner/BBQ. with the fireworks as the grand finale (which also works as a hint that it’s time to go home — DO make sure you serve your dessert before the fireworks).

SIMPLE MENU for Midweek Fourth of July BBQ

(This is especially easy if you have to work Tuesday and Thursday.) It is so easy, yet satifsying, you’ll actually be able to enjoy yourself and everyone will be happy:

  • Your favorite protein to BBQ (chicken, steak, salmon, etc.)
  • Cut up vegetables for grilling in a basket (cauliflower, mushrooms, squash, onion). Marinate in some olive oil and seasoned salt.
  • Small red potatoes, cut in half, seasoned with olive oil, crushed garlic, and seasoned salt. Grill in a basket.
  • Edamame salad: One bag frozen shelled edamame, one bag frozen corn, red chopped red onion to taste,  a lot of cilantro, and your choice of dressing (I use a Trader Joe’s cilantro salad dressing).
  • Egg salad with tarragon (keep mayo to a minimum, add some salt to taste)
  • Good bread
  • Purchased cake and berries, and/or ice cream

Watch a Movie

With scorching July temperatures, people clamor for a place where they can chill for a while – like an air conditioned theater. So it’s no wonder that the studios release blockbuster movies for Independence Day.  I’m more of a stay-at-home-on the-holidays kind of person, so binging on movies at home is good for me. Here are some patriotic movie suggestions for the holiday:

CH-AR-GE IT!

Go shopping – I hear that is a patriotic thing to do! Purchase a flag if you don’t have one or if yours is in bad shape. Check out the traditional patriotic shirts that are sold every year at Old Navy. There’s also this red, white and blue heart shaped necklace that is fun, or this very cool Sunnydaze hammock you can buy online.

Do Your Part

Research your community to see where volunteers are needed, either for clean-up, helping with a large event, or donations of food. If your parent is in a senior living residence, check to see if they need  Fourth of July help (or any other day). Giving to others in our community is one of the most patriotic activities we can perform.

Please leave any other ideas you have for how to spend the Fourth of July on a Wednesday. And remember, two drinks away is a good place to be.

I’ll Take Manhattan(s): Drinking in Grand Central Station

I’ll Take Manhattan(s): Drinking in Grand Central Station

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's Perfect Manhattan
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

Manhattan at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse
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.

3. The Bar in the Northwest Hall

The Bar at Great Northern Hall

The Bar at Great Northern Hall is the type of place that employs “mixologists” instead of “bartenders.”

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.

4. The Oyster Bar

The Oyster Bar

This is the oldest watering hole in Grand Central. The tiled ceiling is gorgeous, but the rest of the decor looks like it was plucked out of the 1970s. We were expecting something that looked old and elegant, so this was a disappointment.

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.

So now we have a reason to return…

Happy H-Olive-Days!

Happy H-Olive-Days!

Flashback to September, when I had my hysterectomy. I was revived at some point in the afternoon and moved into a hospital room, where I was reunited with my smartphone.

That’s where I saw the pitch to do an interview with a Cooking Channel host Annie Sibonney, about olives from Spain.

I like olives. I like ’em in martinis (which makes this a perfect subject for Two Drinks Away). But I’ve always enjoyed them as a snack. As kids, my sister and I would grab the big, black pitted ones and pop them on our fingers and play for a while before eating. (I always imagined them as guards at Buckingham Palace.) As an adult, I love the briny, Kalamata and other cured types of olives for tapenades and in cooking. And I’m of Spanish heritage (that is, if you trace my mom’s Sephardic Jewish family back about 500 years).

So I thought, why not? And I responded to the request with a commitment to write a post.

But a funny thing happened once I got off my painkillers and tried to resume my normal life: It’s been hard. I’ve come a long way since those first few days after my surgery, but I’m still surprised by the ridiculous things that end up causing me pain (including sitting at a desk). Actually, I don’t mind it so much when it’s stuff like vacuuming and taking the trash out… but I’ve been trying to conserve my energy for activities that pay (like my “day job” doing marketing for an IT company client). Blogging for fun has taken a definite back seat.

So here we are in December, and the poor publicist from the olive company – who was kind enough to make Sibonney’s video – is pleading to know when I’m finally going to publish it.

I really can’t let the year end without fulfilling my obligations, can I? Especially when we’re heading into high party season – and some of the olive-based snacks Sibonney demonstrates in this video are ideal for entertaining. (I, for one, cannot wait to try the olive and orange salad she displays… not to mention the olive oil and vermouth marinade she shows with a bowl of mixed olives.)

So, here is the video. I apologize to the patient publicist for the delay… and to the rest of you for my terrible pun: Happy H-Olive-Days!

Note: I was not compensated for this post – not in money or product. I truly wanted to write about olives. That was some good medication.