Thursday, October 31, 2013

Grilled Cheese Nirvana: Meltkraft

A grilled cheese seems like a simple matter, but it is possible, even easy, to screw up. My mother managed to ruin many a grilled cheese, either through neglect (too burned, er, toasted, for my tender palate) or too fancified, with plastic sliced tomatoes.

Meltkraft masters the genre. This artisanal grilled cheese restaurant, which opened right around the corner from me in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is a sibling of the Valley Shepherd Creamery, a gourmet food shop a few blocks away.

There is also an outlet in Philadelphia.

Valley Shepherd Creamery, a sheep farm in New Jersey, makes outstanding cheese, which is one key to amazing grilled cheese. Another is the bread. The outstanding bread is good enough on its own, and simply ethereal when smothered in melted cheese.

For the purist, the Shepherd classic is the way to go. There is just the right amount of crust and crunch, and oozing full fat cheese.  You can customize your sammy with truffle oil, bacon, duck fat or bacon fat for the non-vegetarians, or, if you must, tomato.

There is also a ‘melter skelter’ with pickled green tomatoes, jalapenos, BBQ potato chips and watercress, a messy nirvana that will leave you craving more.

For those who like their cheese cold, the Goat & Beets is a fantastic combo of goat cheese, fennel beets, arugula, honey and walnuts.

The café has a great selection of craft beers on tap, and you can take home a growler. For more kid-friendly fare, organic chocolate milk in a mason jar is the way to go.

But ymmy as the food is (there are also cookies, pastries and soups) the service is sorely lacking. We went on a Saturday just after the place opened, and our sandwiches took 45 minutes to get melted under the industrial toaster. But we gave the place another shot.

This time, one register wasn’t working and no one who placed orders there got their food started. Guess which line we were on? Then we were told that the salad or chip option that comes with the sandwich had turned into a $1 surcharge for the salad. We ordered salads, paid for the upcharge, got chips.

Brooklyn Heights Luxury Gym: Equinox

Many NYC gyms with Brooklyn branches treat their outer-borough siblings as poor relations. Not so Equinox, which has a luxury gym in Brooklyn Heights.

The 5 story fitness emporium includes a spa, a juice bar, coat check and kids' club.

The impeccably clean locker rooms have Kiehl's products, beautiful tile and large, soft towels.

There are also early morning, mid-day and evening classes, with a Pilates studio, spin room and yoga studio.

I was impressed with the number of weight benches, free wights and bosu balls scattered throughout, with trainers who actually returned equipment so you could easily find what you needed.

My only gripe with Equinox is that the cardio equiment only has a few overhead monitors, instead of individual screens. If you like to channel hop, you are limited by the choices, which on the day I exercised, were CNN, CNN and soaps. Doesn't anyone watch here E!?

But the gym also has great music pumping through, so you can remove your ear plugs and be more social.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Kosher Cooking for All

In New York, it sometimes seems that everyone is Jewish – or knows someone who is. The homeless man in my neighborhood wished me a good yom tov (good day) on Rosh Hashanah and local stores have special Passover and Hanukkah menus each year.

If you are looking to cook for a Jewish holiday, a Shabbat meal, or just everyday Kosher, you could do worse than Joy of Kosher: Fast, Fresh Family Recipes.

Written by Jamie Geller, the book has recipes that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a Kosher cookbook – smashed red potato nachos or miso-glazed salmon. These are easy to make, delicious dishes whatever your religious persuasion.

I particularly liked the tips for making the recipes simpler for everyday, or dressed up for entertaining.  There are also suggested wine pairings throughout.

While many of the dishes are meat – my grandparents didn’t think it was a meal unless there was a huge hunk of animal protein – there are quite a few vegetarian choices. The faux chopped liver, with mushrooms and walnuts, yielded such a look and feel of chopped liver that I was transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen.

And if you are trying to cut down on saturated fats, the olive oil dark chocolate mousse or gooey chocolate cherry cake are wonderful desserts for anyone.

For those without a Bubbie (Jewish grandmother), there are holiday menus, and a Hebrew/Yiddish glossary. And for anyone who has been invited to a seder and doesn’t know what to make, there are Passover ‘adjustments’ to many recipes.

So nu, what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Hotel Palomar: San Diego Kimpton

Kimpton Hotels strike the right note between hip and family friendly. This chain of boutique hotels offers great value, with free bikes and coffee in the morning.

Unfortunately, the Hotel Palomar in San Diego was not up to the brand standard. There were only 2 bicycles for guest use, and both times we tried to use them, they were out.

Our room was slightly shabby, with stained cushions and scuffed, dusty floors. But the morning coffee was delicious and in the evening, there is free wine.

The fitness center was so cramped that there was no place to roll out a mat – the hula hoops would likely not get much use.

The Palomar does have a beautiful pool, with comfy lounges and a child-friendly zero entry. On the expansive pool deck, there are free yoga classes one day a week.

We ate at the nearby Jsix restaurant, in another Kimpton property, the Hotel Solamar. This hotel reminded me of the Kimpton in Portland, OR, with wine, craft beer AND cocktails at its evening happy hour; not sure how many bicycles that hotel has.

But the seasonal American restaurant was wonderful. We were greeted with sparkling wine and an amuse bouche, then had excellent salads and delicious fish and pasta.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Getting around Town: Friendly Rides with Lyft

If you are not familiar with a city, taking a cab can be fraught with anxiety. Will I have to wait long? Is the driver going to rip me off? Will he know where he’s going?

With Lyft, you get a ride and a friendly face. Download the app on your smartphone and you're good to go.

I recently tried Lyft in San Diego, and if you live in, or are traveling there, or to any of these cities: DC, Atlanta, St. Paul, Phoenix, Indianapolis, Dallas, Seattle, Chicago or Charlotte, you can check out this new ride sharing app – and save money.

Lyft rides are the same price or less than a cab, and with the promo code RIDE20, you get $20 in free Lyft credits.

The whole experience was seamless. We landed and I opened the app, a red balloon (the cars are distinguished by the furry pink moustaches on the front). You have to allow the app to access your location; then you are told how soon a driver will arrive.

By the time we got off the plane and walked outside, we got a text that our friendly Lyft driver was there. He greeted us with a fist bump and dropped us off at our hotel. On the way, he told us what local beers to check out.

We requested another Lyft driver when we switched hotels (the Hotel Palomar, with the bikes pictured above), and this one, an art student, told us about a great exhibit at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. It was like having access to insider info.

You pay for the Lyft ride through the credit card stored on the app – there is a suggested donation, and you can add a tip. And both the passenger and the driver rate each other – a handy tool so the company can keep tabs on drivers and weed out obnoxious passengers.
Lyft touches down in Baltimore soon as well.
Note: I did receive a free ride from Lyft, but all views here are my own.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Running and Biking: Staying Fit Outside at the Manchester Grand Hyatt

The Manchester Grand Hyatt, in San Diego, takes advantage of the wonderful southern California climate, with a jogging/biking map supplied by the concierge. Steps form the hotel, you can run along the sea wall, and though you can't bike through the adjacent Seaport, Village, you can cycle on traffic-free bicycle paths, or take the ferry over to Coronado for miles of bicycle paths.

The Grand Hyatt offers bicycle rentals for $10 an hour - $30 for a full day. These are bicycles for flat, leisurely biking, which is what you'll find along the water, whether in San Diego or Coronado.

And even riding one of these bikes, you can burn enough calories to make up for the Tower 10 IPA you might have had the night before. San Diego has so many craft brewers that it is hard to imagine staying sober long here.

But you will want to go easy on the beer. You have miles to run, bike, or power walk.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Manchester Grand Hyatt: Fitness Challenge

San Diego is one of those cities where everyone is always in a good mood. Any why not? The picture perfect weather, with crystal clear blue skies and a temperate range make everyone happy.

In this kind of weather, you almost have to run, but if you are staying at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, right on the San Diego Bay, you will also want to check out the excellent fitness center.

The large gym has a ton of elliptical machines and treadmills, with individual screens, and a ton of free weights and weight machines.

Oddly, someone has absconded with weights below 8 pounds; perhaps visitors to southern California are known for their incredible biceps and shoulders? I do a routine on a bosu ball (there were 3!) that is almost impossible do do with anything over 5 pounds.

But apart from that snafu (do people really swipe weights from hotel gyms?) you can get a great workout here.  There are resistance bands, a stability balls, weighted balls and mats.  There are body bars and weight benches.

And, right outside, there are running and biking paths.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Franny's: The Cookbook

I usually buy restaurant cookbooks to relive the glorious meals I’ve had at different places: The Greens, Chez Panisse, Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café, to name a few.

But I have no love for Franny’s, the restaurant. Although some of the food is delicious, some is merely ordinary and I never get a warm, friendly vibe from the place. Since there are so many other worthy restaurants in my neighborhood, I’d rather give my money to another place.

But the cookbook, Franny's: Simple Seasonal Italian, is another story. This wonderful book, by owners Andrew Feinberg and Francine Stephens, along with NY Times food writer Melissa Clark, has so many wonderful – and yes, simple – recipes that I want to dive into it again and again.

I opened it to a fall soup with tomatoes, fennel, pumpkin and escarole.  Amazingly, I happened to have all the ingredients on hand – even some fresh sage and rosemary still clinging to life in my garden.

The soup was rich and incredibly flavorful. Many of the recipes have ‘Andrew’s notes’ at the end, and this one gives a substitution for the Parmigiano rinds that are called for.
I just throw these into the freezer whenever I have them, figuring I’ll find some use later – what a great way to enrich the soup.

Of course, the pastas and pizzas really shine, like penne with spicy cauliflower and spaghetti with chickpeas, perfect for a pre-marathon carbo-load. The pizza recipes are accompanied by a fool-proof pictorial that provides the secret to perfect pies.

Although most of the cookbook centers on family-friendly fare, the adults-only cocktail section offered infusions and bitters that will improve any home bar. I am eagerly awaiting the Greenmarket return of ramps so I can make the pickled ramps for the Ramp Gibson.

Even my husband, who has vowed never to return to Franny’s, was seduced by the cookbook.

“Maybe we can give it one more chance,” he said.

I’m right behind you.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hunting for Veggies in Brooklyn

Kale salad has become shorthand for a certain type of Brooklyn restaurant, with locally sourced ingredients, hand-crafted cocktails and Fedora-wearing patrons.

In fact, at Hunter’s, it was a woman wearing a Fedora. But I will happily accept a parody of hipster-dom – Brooklyn – landia? for another crack at Hunter’s grilled kale salad.

The salad included toasted chickpeas, toasted squash and hard-boiled egg for a hearty fall starter.  Our friends raved about the chicken liver and bacon mousse, a dish that is sure to make any Jewish grandmother plotz. We ate their delicious vegetarian-friendly pickles.

I first encountered Hunter’s at the Brooklyn Exposed cocktail bacchanalia, Brooklyn Shaken & Stirred, where the Hunter’s Paradise shined: Junipero gin, vermouth, Aperol, OJ and a hint of peach jelly. 

There were even better drinks at the restaurant: the Handsome Hound, a Manhattan-like cocktail with local whiskey & barrel-aged bitters and the Rusty Bulleit, with rye, lime and bitters.

We also happened to come on a Sunday, when bottles of wine are half price.  Score!

I will return again to try the farro risotto, with root vegetables and the beet salad with walnuts and feta.

We had the excellent butternut squash agnolotti, scattered with Brussels sprouts leaves and pumpkin seeds and the wild mushroom pot pie, which has a rich sauce and more root veggies.

Both the Nutella bread pudding and ricotta fritters are warm, sweet endings to a great meal.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Getting the Green: Kids & Salad

When I was little, I was pegged as a 'picky eater' and I hated salad - because I hated salad dressing. My mother served gloppy Russian dressing, a mixture of my two least favorite ingredients, mayo & ketchup.

Then I discovered blue cheese. I loved blue cheese dressing, or blue cheese crumbled into salad, with lemon squeezed on top.

So it didn't surprise me that my youngest daughter hated salad. But a vegetarian who won't eat salad? Then she tasted Just Salad's balsamic vinaigrette. Although I make my own vinaigrette, she prefers this commercial version, but hey, if she's eating salad...

The other day, I sampled a chocolate hazelnut vinaigrette, developed by the chef at The Hotel Hershey (of course). The dressing was served over a roasted beet and orange salad - and I actually have a kid who loves beets.

The hotel's version also has arugula and radicchio, but she doesn't like those bitter greens. So I used a milder mesclun mix and the salad was a huge hit.

Make the dressing with your kids - and use it on any salad greens. When they add the Hershey's syrup, they are guaranteed to at least try the salad.

Note: I received the information about The Hotel Hershey and the recipe for the roasted beet and orange salad from The Hershey Company. Opinions are my own.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

School Lunches: One Month In

As the school year gets under way, I have already fallen into a lunch rut. My youngest daughter, who is now 15, so no longer content with her daily peanut butter sandwich, and being vegetarian further limits our options.

So Weelicious Lunches is a timely addition. Catherine McCord, founder of has put together over 160 lunches and is truly thinking outside the box.

She even improved on the classic PB &J.

This sandwich can’t be taken to school, alas, but it can be savored by hungry adult peanut butter fiends. You simply make the sandwich – she recommends natural peanut butter – and finish it in a waffle iron. It gets crunchy and melted and is truly inspired.

Another great recipe is for veggie meatballs, made from white beans. The recipe makes a ton, so you can have pasta with ‘meatballs’ and use extra meatballs for a veggie hero.

And even if your kid is in a (veggie) salami and cheese, phase, there are other great choices. Fiber-rich (and peanut-free) sunflower bran muffins and healthy (!) double chocolate whole wheat brownies?

Yes, please.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Rolling with the Baby - through Brooklyn

When my kids were babies, I resorted to many bizarre tactics to get them to sleep through the night.
Luvs may have come up with one of the most innovative.
Luvs and the Double Duty Divas, who are sending me product for this post (but not for my opinion – that is my own) is offering sleep-deprived Brooklyn parents free taxi rides on October 10th and 11th.
Since so many of us in Brooklyn are car-free, but baby-blessed, this is the perfect place to offer the nocturnal rides. They are available from 6pm-12am, and can be summoned by tweeting tweet @Luvs with the hashtag #LullabyLift.
Of course, the taxis have car seats and parents get a pack of the new Luvs with Nightlock, so once your baby falls asleep, she won’t wake up from a wet diaper.
I vacuumed with a baby strapped in a front carrier, walked the streets for an hour or more to lull my daughters to sleep and even held one in a car seat over my (running) washing machine.
In Luvs newest commercial parents try different and unusual ways to get their babies to sleep.  What did you try?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Brooklyn Bourbon: Widow Jane

For the most part, I take my bourbon neat. It seems a shame to muck up great bourbon with anything else.

Especially when that bourbon is Red Hook’s Widow Jane.

But the guys at Cacao Prieto have come up with an intriguing variation on the classic cocktail, Blood In The Sand.

This drink is usually equal parts Scotch, cherry brandy, sweet vermouth, and orange juice.

In the version to be served at Brooklyn Shaken & Stirred, the drink will be made with Punt e Mes vermouth, OJ, orange zest and an outlier, Gran Classico.

This Italian bitter, similar to Campari, (one of my favorite drinks) should add just the right bitter note to the cocktail.

Hey, we’re New Yorkers. We live in small homes and have rats in our playgrounds. We have the right to be bitter.

And if the drink overwhelms the bourbon, I think they are also offering unadorned tastes.

First Birthday: smash a cake in style

Along with push presents, smash cakes didn’t exist when my kids were babies. These are the cakes you give your precious darling when she turns one, and let her smush, crush and mash into her face and hair.

I just baked my girls regular cakes.

But I love the idea of making the first birthday party extra special by giving your child her own cake and letting her go to town. I still remember giving my oldest (she’s now 22) a piece of her first birthday cake. It was her first experience of real sugar and she was ecstatic.

Of course, by my the 2nd and 3rd children, cakes were nothing new. Once one kid goes down that rabbit hole, strictures against white sugar and white flour often go by the wayside.

Betty Crocker has a bunch of recipes for interesting, easy to make cakes, using their mixes as a base. My fave is the Peas & Carrot cake, which adds bananas to the cake mix.

The frosting is cram cheese, yogurt and carrot baby food and the decorations – frozen peas! No, it's not health food, but some fruit and veggies in a cake are a cool addition.

Of course, I think one year olds would love any cake.

Here’s  pic of my niece with her over-the-top bat mitzvah cake.

Check out all the cakes on Betty Crocker’s Pinterest page.

Note: this is a sponsored post and I received a gift card in exchange for my review. All opinions are my own

Friday, October 4, 2013

Brooklyn Fun: local cocktails

My love of travel and passion for locavore cuisine are seemingly at odds, but I figure it's a way to encourage people to travel to Brooklyn.

Even Manhattanites are sometimes reluctant to cross the water. Despite national magazine touting Brooklyn's renaissance - and, to some, its superiority - we in Brooklyn can feel like second class citizens.

But then there's an event like Brooklyn Shaken & Stirred, a celebration of local spirits and mixologists that should make dyed-in-the-wool Manhattanites jealous.

The 2nd annual event, Tuesday, October 8, offers attendees a huge variety of drinks and food to sample.

One that sounds particularly intriguing is the Brooklyn Carousel, which I guess could leave you spinning.

The drink is made with hand crafted Brooklyn Gin, a gorgeous gin (in a super cool bottle) that uses fresh fruit and botanicals.

Here's their description of the Brooklyn Carousel:
A vibrant blend of Brooklyn Gin, fresh lemon juice,
and triple sec, with a touch of brightness from Peychaud's aromatic bitters. 

You'll just have to go the event to see how it tastes.

Colonial Cocktails: Old Stone House

Bars that tout their classic cocktails are often serving well-crafted Manhattans and martinis, drinks that were popular in the 1920s.

But Old Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn, goes much further back. This history museum, site of the Battle of Brooklyn in the Revolutionary War, served Colonial cocktails to drum up support for its planned interactive exhibit.

The beguiling cocktail, a ‘shrubb,’ is a bourbon based drink with apple cider vinegar. It reminded me of the ‘drinking vinegars’ served at Pok Pok, which proves that good things come around.

The Old Stone House, part of the Historic House Trust of New York City, anchors Washington Park. The park has a fabulous playground, a turf field and a host of family and adult programming.

Shrubb Cocktail – serves 2  

3 oz   Apple Brandy
2 oz   Bourbon 
3 oz   Dark Amber Maple Syrup
1 oz   Apple Cider Vinegar
A few dashes of bitters 

The Old Stone House served these cold, with a twist of orange peel, so the drinks looked like Negronis. If you have an old fashioned cocktail coupe, shake the drink with ice in a martini shaker and serve in the coupe.