Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Art of the Hand-Written Note

When I was in first grade I won the handwriting award–an accolade I won't soon forget–which prompted me to write notes to people, mainly so I could admire my handiwork as it flowed across the page. My ego aside, I loved corresponding with friends; writing letters became a passion, topped only by the thrill of receiving a response in the mail. I loved the entire art of letter writing, from the paper and the ink to the story behind the stamps. Santa brought me a calligraphy set one year for Christmas and I would spend hours at our kitchen table practicing my flourishes. Soon I was addressing envelopes for weddings and making my own cards. To me, a letter represented my connection with someone else. It was an artistic expression of thoughtfulness.

Letters have now been replaced by emails and Facebook is the new way to connect (allowing you to "collect" friends with whom you'll probably never correspond). I miss those authentic bonds made through an exchange of paper, and so I'm bringing back the art of the hand-written note.

Here's what you'll need:

A Letter Station - Designate a place in your home devoted to all the essentials you'll need to write and send a note on-the-go. I use a silver tray on my desk which houses pens, blank cards and stamps. My pens sit upright in an old glass floral frog. Can you guess which pen is my favorite in the photo below?

I love the idea of an old tack box filled with all the necessities. You could also use an old plate, platter or bowl.

Blank Cards - There are some fantastic options at Target (I bought a box of 200 multi-colored note cards over two years ago and I'm still using them). Kate Spade makes a box set of cards for every occasion, so you'll always be prepared. I stock up on paper and envelopes at Paper Presentation on 18th Street and often make my own. For the card below I used an old photo I found at the flea market and attached it to a blank note card with gold photo corners.

A Great Pen - There's nothing like a thick, inky pen to help you get your words on paper. I love to write on a diagonal...it looks so unique and personal.

Notes are especially appreciated when they're unexpected. Thank someone for a recent heart-to-heart or let someone know they're on your mind. One of my girlfriends always sends me a thank you card after coming to my house for dinner. Of course she doesn't have to, but that's the point. To open my mailbox and see a personal card can literally brighten my day. The art of the hand-written note is about connecting with someone and showing them how much you care.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Life, The Musical

I've often imagined what it would be like if Life were a musical. You step foot out of your apartment to greet the day and suddenly you're singing a solo and everyone on the street seems to know the words. There's a posse of Broadway dancers doing jazz runs behind you as you cross the street. The number ends with a bang (an arial shot of the cast looking up with their arms in the air) and then life goes back to normal, except now everything's just a little brighter.

These fantasies were born from a childhood of watching movies like Singin' In The Rain and Meet Me In St. Louis. They shaped my view of the world and turned me into a hopeless romantic. There was a sense of togetherness and community in those musicals–no matter what came your way, you were armed with a slew of extras who could help you express how you felt. These songs asked us to appreciate the moment and embrace Life as it unfolds.

Given the stress of our times, I think we could use a bit of this magic in our lives. Instead of togetherness, we often feel alone. People don't make eye contact in the street or smile at strangers (or sing their worries to those standing by). Most of us are tired, impatient and downright cranky. There's just not enough time to invest in the people that cross our paths: our dry cleaners, the person who sells us our morning coffee or the people who pass us on the sidewalk.

I was recently reminded of the power of song after watching this week's episode of Glee. When Chris Colfer and Lea Michelle performed Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy, I was flooded with feelings of nostalgia and joy. I dug out my iPod, downloaded the song and haven't stopped smiling since. I listened to the song on my way to work and it turned my silent, hamster-in-a-wheel commute into a relaxed stroll towards my destination. "Forget your troubles, come on get happy" (I struck up a conversation with the barista at Starbucks)..."You better chase all your cares away" (I noticed the sparkle of the shop windows)..."Shout hallelujah, come on get happy" (I watched people pass by in a hurry and imagined them trying to get home to dinner on the table or a family waiting for them after a long day at work)..."Happy days are here again" (I literally couldn't wipe the smile off my face).

It's possible people were staring at me, as smiling is often a cause for concern ("She's probably crazy"). Surprisingly enough, I received a few smiles in return and felt genuinely connected to those strangers in that moment. Having a soundtrack to my evening brought me more into the present moment than I'd been in a long time. It was my song–the style, the genre, the "old New Yorkness" of it all– and it captured everything I love about being in this great city (I told you...hopeless romantic). I was inspired to be a good "extra" in someone else's musical: to listen, to share, to connect with the people that crossed my path.

In these tough times we can find hope through the camaraderie of song and so I encourage you to find your own soundtrack. What songs capture your life right now? What brings a smile to your face? My soundtrack is entitled "Autumn In New York"; these songs make me feel like the star of my own musical and inspire me to ask the question "What would Gene Kelly do?" Maybe, when no one's looking, I'll kick up my heels and twirl around a lamp post before continuing on my way.

"Autumn In New York"

Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy - Glee Cast
I've Got You Under My Skin - Frank Sinatra
They Can't Take That Away From Me - Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
C'est Si Bon - Eartha Kitt
It Had To Be You - Harry Connick, Jr.
Singin' In The Rain - Gene Kelly
The Way You Look Tonight - Fred Astaire
The Trolley Song - Judy Garland
Count Your Blessings - Diana Krall

Friday, October 8, 2010

Sweet Potato Ginger Soup

I made this one up as I went along, which is the fun thing about making soup. This combination is simply delicious...it feels fresh while still tasting like Fall. The sweet potatoes are rich and comforting while the ginger adds brightness and depth. I'm giving you complete creative control over the ginger; a little bit will give a "je ne sais quoi" to the sweet potatoes while a lot will knock peoples' socks off. It's all up to you.

Sauté 2 chopped onions and 1 clove of garlic in 2 T of butter over medium heat until onions are soft (about 10 minutes). Peel and cube the sweet potatoes (I used 3 large potatoes) and pop them in the pot, sautéing for another 10-15 minutes. Add 3 cups of chicken stock plus 1 1/2 cups of water, 1 t of salt and 1/2 t of pepper. Bring to a boil and then simmer with the lid on for 30 minutes. I liked using the immersion blender because it added texture to the soup (rather than it being perfectly smooth), but you could also transfer small batches to a blender. Now, for the ginger. I actually "juiced" the peeled ginger in a garlic press. I probably used about a T of the juice for my soup, but again, you could tone it down or spice it up according to your tastes.

The color is stunning. It's so ridiculously simple and it's a great seasonal meal to serve this weekend! Enjoy!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fall Bliss

I had the day off yesterday and it was glorious. Billy, Ellie and I took a trip to a quintessential country town in New Jersey where both my parents grew up. Nothing's changed since the days on my grandmother's farm where I used to spend time as a little girl. That farm is the source of my favorite childhood memories, and I've made it a sort of unofficial tradition every Fall to return back to this magical place...just to see it and remember. It's here where I fell in love with the idea of home.

There's a farm for apple picking behind the General Store in town, so the three of us wandered through the orchards picking Jonagold, Macoun and Empire. Baked apple desserts mark the beginning of the Fall season!

Is it me, or is there something special about apples with their leaves in tact? They make a beautiful centerpiece on my farm table at home.

Inspired by the cooler weather, I made a classic dinner of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. One word: yum. The recipe for this soup is super simple and so delicious you'll never want tomato soup from a can again. I loved the open-face grilled cheese crostini with sharp English cheddar; they were perfect for dipping.

Saute 2 chopped onions and 2 minced cloves of garlic in 6 T of unsalted butter for about 15 minutes. Add a 28 oz can of whole plum tomatoes, 3 cups of chicken stock, 2 t sea salt and pepper (to taste). Bring to a boil and simmer with the lid on for 20 minutes. You can pour small batched into a blender until smooth, or use a nifty immersion blender and voila.

For the crostini, saute one clove of minced garlic and an herb of your choice (I have thyme growing in my kitchen...just a few sprigs is all you need). The aroma will fill the air in about thirty seconds. Turn off the heat and lightly dip pieces of baguette (or whatever you have) into the flavored oil. Shave cheddar cheese over your crostini and put under the broiler.

The apple crisp recipe is one of my all-time favorites. The ingredients are sinful. (Well...really just the two sticks of butter, but what are you gonna do? Why do you think it tastes so damn good?)

Preheat your oven 350 degrees.

For the filling, combine the ingredients and pour into a baking dish.

6-8 apples
1 t orange zest
2 t orange juice
1 t lemon zest
1 t lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1 t cinnamon

For the crumble, you can combine with a blender but I just use my fingers. I love to mash the cubes of butter with my hands; it's a fantastic way to get my frustrations out. Note on the crumble: you might suspect that you've done something wrong because it looks like a floury mess when you mix it together, but have no fear. It will be divine when the butter melts and turns the flour and oatmeal into this crispy, crunchy topping. I told you it was sinful! Cover the entire apple mixture with the crumble and bake for 50 minutes.

1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 cup oatmeal
2 sticks cold butter, cut into small cubes

Fruit Crisp recipe courtesy of Ina Garten