One-Sentence Reviews: My February & March Reads

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This morning I started my first book of spring: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s my 17th book so far this year, as I steadily make progress toward reading 55 works of fiction and nonfiction—and maybe I’ll even try to throw in some poetry or graphic novels to keep things diverse. In January I posted mini reviews of my first five books of the year, and now seemed like a good time to reflect on the rest of my winter reading while gearing up for warmer weather and hopefully many days sitting on my porch with a good story in hand.

Worth It…

The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick: I love that this glittering, stylized novel doesn’t shy away from tough and sometimes taboo topics, all while successfully unraveling the gordian knot linking its two suffering protagonists.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: When old beliefs are denounced in favor of a new religion, only a young gifted girl can see the terror coming to her town; this spellbinding tale of magic, folklore, and history is a new kind of fairytale that can easily hold its own among the classics.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware: This thrilling mystery about a bachelorette party gone wrong is so compelling that I finished it in only one day, unable to rest until I had found out just what it was the narrator couldn’t remember about the murder that had taken place.

Don’t Bother…

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith:  This novel—which traces the history of a painting and its painter, and its forged counterpart and its painter—has too many subplots and could have been told in half the number of words.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George: The only good thing about this thinly plotted novel is its original premise: a floating bookshop that doles out books like medicine (too bad the book quickly leaves that idea behind and heads instead into cliche and oft-charted waters).

The Sparrow Sisters by Ellen Herrick: I had high hopes for this book, billed as similar to the writings of Sarah Addison Allen (one of my favorite authors!) and Alice Hoffman, but its unrefined characters and muddled plot fail to generate even a shred of magic.

Recipe: Irish Soda Bread

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With sleet clattering down outside and aboveground subway service suspended, I found myself stuck at home during yesterday’s blizzard. School, of course, had already been canceled, so Todd was home too, and I wanted to bake us something yummy, something perfect for a cozy snow day. I decided that something would be Irish soda bread, considering this Friday is St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve never tried to make it before so I was a little worried, but then I found a really simple recipe on The Kitchen (one of my go-to websites for food facts and ideas). And though there are a few things I might do differently next time (include a little more sugar; add more raisins), I’m still really pleased with the result! It had a mild sweetness and a moist yet still kind of crumbly texture, which I enjoyed cold with a mug of hot coffee and then toasted this morning with butter and jam.

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Because I didn’t have buttermilk and could barely get up my driveway without slipping on ice, let alone travel to the store, I had to DIY the process by adding two tablespoons of lemon juice to two cups of regular whole milk and letting it sit for 30 minutes to thicken. Another way to do this is with vinegar, as my fellow blogger over at Happiness in Jars did yesterday when she, too, baked an Irish soda bread! And now for the recipe, slightly adapted from the one I found on The Kitchn:

Ingredients
~Oil or nonstick cooking spray, for greasing
~4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
~3.5 cups all-purpose flour
~1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
~2 Tbsp. sugar
~2 tsp. baking powder
~1 tsp. baking soda
~1 tsp. salt
~2 cups buttermilk
~1 cup raisins (I  used a mixture of regular and golden)
~2 Tbsp. heavy cream, for brushing

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Preparation
~Make sure oven rack is in the middle position, then preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a baking sheet with oil or nonstick cooking spray.
~In a large bowl or the bowl a stand mixer, whisk together flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
~Add butter cubes and use your hands to squish them with dry ingredients until mixed and no large clumps remain.
~Add buttermilk and raisins and either use a spatula or a stand mixer’s dough hook to combine. When wet and sticky, remove dough from bowl, plop onto prepared baking sheet, and shape into a slightly flattened ball about 7 to 8 inches in diameter.
~Using a sharp knife, score a large X into the top of the loaf from end to end, about a half-inch deep. Brush top of loaf with heavy cream.
~Bake until golden on top and the center of the X has lost its wetness, about 45 to 50 minutes. Around the 30-minute mark, check to make sure bread isn’t too brown; if it is, tent with foil and continue baking until done.
~Cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before serving. Store, wrapped, at room temperature for up to three days.

Nutritional information: approximately 85 calories per ounce.

 

My Fastest 5k Yet!

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16939531_10106026132379209_4669073140362198351_nThis year Todd and I are working toward the NYRR 9+1 program, in which you run nine races and volunteer at one to gain guaranteed entry into the 2018 NYC marathon. (No, we have never attempted such a long distance before. No, I am not sure I even can run an entire marathon. But I know I have to try, at least once in my lifetime.)

Because we figured January and February would be super cold, we chose the Washington Heights 5k in March as the first of our nine runs. Did I expect it to feel a little bit like spring? Silly me. The temperate was in the 20s; I could see my breath while we hurried to the starting line. I’d dressed in high socks, leggings, a tank top with a pretty warm jacket on top, gloves that could become mittens, and my Pusheen hat—and though that combination worked perfectly during the race, it left me hopping around trying to stay warm while we waited in our corral.

The course was a simple out-and-back that looped up through Fort Tryon Park, taking us around the Cloisters, a MET museum specializing in medieval art and architecture. I highly recommend checking out the collections there; the entire museum is so incredibly peaceful and awe-inspiring. It’s also situated at the top of a very large hill, which we had to run up as part of the race. This is where I say thank you to the creators of Disney’s Moana soundtrack: As I labored up the steepest of the inclines, the song “How Far I’ll Go” popped up on my playlist, and its yearning buoyancy gave me the push I needed to stay strong and positive. From there just another small hill, and then I sprinted the rest of the way down Fort Washington Avenue, about a mile left to the finish line.

I didn’t catch my time as I crossed, but I felt really good, not winded or aching despite what I knew had to have been a faster pace than usual. I’m hopeful that this means my weekly combination of one long run and several short speed bursts is training me to become a better runner—either that or I was just trying to outrun the cold! When I later checked my chip time, I’d completed the course in 27 minutes and 7 seconds, a new PR. I’m a little worried that it was just a fluke and I’ll fall behind in my next race, but the only way to find out is to sign up and run. One down, eight to go…2018 NYC marathon, here we come!

Women, Strong & United

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Created by O, The Oprah Magazine senior designer Tova Diamond.

Our entire office wore red today in honor of International Women’s Day and the women’s rights movement. Though we’ve made great strides in equality, there’s still a ways to go, both around the world and here at home in the United States.

Whatever your political views or cultural background, we should stand together as women, strong and united. There is so much to celebrate about each other: our tenacity, our individuality, our accomplishments, our collective voice.

In that spirit, I’d like to share some wisdom imparted by women (the last quote is my favorite!):

  • “Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.” -Amelia Earhart
  • “I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them. I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity.” -Michelle Obama
  • “I do not demand equal pay for any women save those who do equal work in value. Scorn to be coddled by your employers; make them understand that you are in their service as workers, not as women.” -Susan B. Anthony
  • “I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.” -Mary Shelley
  • “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” -Madeleine Albright
  • “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” -Maya Angelou
  • “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” -Audre Lorde
  • “I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story—I will.” -Amy Schumer
  • “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” -Sheryl Sandberg
  • “Do not live someone else’s life and someone else’s idea of what womanhood is. Womanhood is you. Womanhood is everything that’s inside of you.” -Viola Davis

Restaurant Review: Zora’s Cafe

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Not only did my coworker’s get me gifts for my 29th birthday, including a giant box of Godiva chocolates and a book that’s all about coffee, they also took me out to lunch. We settled on Zora’s Cafe, an unassuming soul food spot on Ninth Avenue between 47th and 48th streets. The restaurant aims to “develop healthier soul food dishes without compromising great taste” by using cage-free eggs and organic vegetables, among other strategies. The simplicity of the menu in the window—four appetizers, seven entrees, only three lunch specials—belied the savory complexity of our meals. Once inside, we noted that the space felt cozy and welcoming, with exposed brick and the smells of the kitchen wafting out into the dining space. What’s more, the mother-daughter duo that started Zora’s were the ones who served us and cooked our food! Now that’s what I call true Southern hospitality, and it was much appreciated.

Our meal began with complimentary cornbread: soft in the center but deliciously crispy on the edges. A hint of citrus added a pleasant zing to it, and I probably could have eaten the entire basket on my own if I hadn’t wanted to save room for my main meal. Adrienne ordered an iced tea, which she enjoyed, while Lisa and I stuck to water. Our server, Zora herself, was extremely welcoming and attentive, checking back to make sure that everything was to our liking and whether we needed anything more. She had no problem answering our questions, even when we asked the same ones twice!

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Then it was time for entrees. Everything on the menu sounded good: fried green tomatoes, battered wings, chicken and waffles, slow-simmered braised beef oxtails. Ultimately we all chose the catfish sandwich; Adrienne and Lisa got theirs fried and accompanied by white bread, whereas I went with pan-seared and whole wheat. The lunch option was only $10, and it came with a side of fries, though Zora explained we could substitute any other side we liked instead. Lisa went with a simple salad, Adrienne chose the spice-dusted potato salad (in the photo on the left, below), and I picked the collard greens (in the photo on the right, below). The sandwiches also came with a hot sauce and a white condiment that was a homemade version of tartar sauce.

Adrienne and Lisa both agreed that their cornmeal-crusted catfish had a ton of flavor, despite being a little salty. Adrienne’s potato salad was rich and creamy. My fish was cooked perfectly, nice and flaky and melt-in-your-mouth tender. The sear gave it a slight char that paired really well with the collard greens. Although the dessert options, including a peach cobbler, sounded so tempting, we all felt too full to give them a try. That’s just one of the many reasons I’m already planning to go back! I’d definitely recommend Zora’s Cafe to anyone looking for a solid lunch or dinner option in the area.

 

My 29th Birthday… Sort Of

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It was my sort-of birthday this weekend: Technically I was born on February 29, the extra day in a leap year, but since there isn’t one this year, I guess I can celebrate whenever I want! Everyone was so good to me. Todd’s parents bought me the rainbow cookie cake I’m posing with in the slideshow above, and my parents got me some cute cupcake balloons and took the family out to dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. And everyone gave me wonderful cards and gifts! I’m so thankful to have such awesome people in my life.

I know I haven’t updated this blog in a few weeks; it’s been tough to juggle work, household chores, errands, and hangouts. And when I do have some time, I’m not too sure what to write about. But now that I’m (almost, sort of) 29, I’ll try to be more responsible and do better haha. I also hope to really make progress on my New Year’s resolutions between now and my next birthday, as well as train for the 2018 New York City marathon. But I also hope to find more time for the people who make my life as meaningful as it is: all of my family and friends, and my fellow bloggers and online amigos who push me to do better, be better, and live better.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what your favorite blog posts have been, and what you’d like to see more of going forward so that I can brainstorm some ideas. And, as always, thank you so much for your continued readership and support!!! xo

Restaurant Review: Annabel

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During my lunch break I often walk around the Columbus Circle and Hell’s Kitchen areas of New York City, and more than once I’ve found myself staring into the windows of Annabel, an artisanal pizza spot on Ninth Avenue. Its interior is rustic-chic, with exposed wooden beams on the ceiling and hanging industrial-style lightbulbs. The tables are sleek and square, and the soft glow of the candles on each renders the room cozy and inviting as evening falls—perfect for a romantic dinner or a girls’ night of gossip. The latter is what I was there for, with my friend and former coworker Anna.

We spent some time looking over the menu, which includes a range of appetizers, salads, pizzas, and full-size entrees like bacon mac and cheese with pork ribs and crispy rice or whole wheat tagliatelle with calamari, clams, scallops, and lobster in lemon-cilantro butter. With so many options, we weren’t sure how to choose, so we started by crossing off what we didn’t want. The buttermilk fried chicken, braised short ribs, and truffled risotto all sounded tasty, but we decided they’d be too much food alongside a pizza. We settled on the spanish octopus with broccoli rabe and a yellow chili emulsion; it seemed relatively healthy and we thought it would make a nice light start to our meal.

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Spanish octopus with broccoli rabe and yellow chili emulsion.

Anna and I both enjoyed this dish, though we thought it could have been a little larger for $12. Instead of three pieces of octopus (we had to cut the last one in half to share), four tentacles would have been more ideal. Otherwise, it was cooked perfectly, not rubbery or mushy in the slightest, with a nice char on the outside. The broccoli rabe had just enough bitterness to leave a pleasant aftertaste but not so much that it made our tastebuds pucker. And the sweet spice of the yellow chili sauce complemented but didn’t overpower the delicate taste of the octopus.

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Pizza with arugula, ricotta, duck prosciutto, and blueberry jam.

For our pizza course, we wanted something unique, and quickly decided against the simple tomato-basil or four-cheese pies. Torn between two options, we went with the more outlandish-sounding one: ricotta, duck prosciutto, blueberry chutney, and arugula. What did we think of this strange mishmash of flavors and textures? Anna said it best: “The combination of duck, blueberry jam, ricotta, and arugula was not supposed to taste good; those ingredients just sound so random and odd. But I was very surprised at how delicious it was!” And it was delicious. The arugula lent the crisp yet still soft crust a tanginess that was perfectly offset by the sweetness of the jam and the creaminess of the ricotta.

The duck prosciutto was the finishing touch: a hint of savory saltiness. Only, I wish there had been at least one slice of duck for each wedge of pizza; we ended up having to break them in half in order to get the taste of the prosciutto on every piece. But overall it was worth it. For $18, we got a six-slice pie that our server described as smaller than your average takeout pizza but larger than a personal pie. It left us pretty full and satisfied…but of course we still found room for dessert.

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Pistachio creme brûlée.

Right away we decided on the pistachio creme brûlée. In all honesty, I can’t say it was a five-star dessert: the brittle caramel on top seemed a little more burnt than strictly necessary (though personally I like burnt things so I didn’t really mind). But aside from that minor flaw, the green-tinged custard delivered a bright flavor and rich creaminess that felt simultaneously fresh yet decadent in our mouths.

All in all, Annabel excelled in all aspects: delicious food, appealing aesthetic, and prompt and friendly service. Both Anna and I plan to return—there are still so many menu items we want to try!—and would definitely recommend adding this to your restaurant circuit.