Little Things Turns One

Last week I passed an important milestone; my blog, Focus on the Little Things, celebrated its first anniversary. My first post was written on March 2nd, 2010 as I was seating on the couch contemplating my life. I had become so wrapped up in the negative aspects that I was unable to see the countless positive things I had. Thankfully one year later, I was so busy enjoying my life that I didn’t even realize a year had passed.This past year has gone by so quickly and I am certainly in a much better place now than I was last year.

I have found a job that makes me excited to out of bed in the morning. I believe so passionately in the work that I am doing and the organization’s mission. I work with people who have high expectations for me and for themselves and people who strive to make a difference in the way other people live their lives. I am proud to say that I work for Robin Hood.

Matt and I are getting ready to celebrate our wedding in less than four months. And while the planning process got off to a rocky start, things are smooth sailing from now until the big day. Just this morning we were able to check off the last “big ticket item” on our checklist. We can not wait to celebrate this occasion with our friends and family. Already the excitement that other people have shared with us, particularly the two amazing people planning my shower, has been incredible. It is such a good feeling to know that so many other people are just as excited as we are, for us to get married.

After two and a half years, I am slowly starting to adjust to life in New York. No, I am not a Yankees fan, and never will be. But I have come to terms with the fact that Matt and I don’t live in Boston, and probably won’t in the near future. Instead of focusing on the things that I like about Boston that New York lacks, I am trying to focus on the things that New York has that I do like. These things include the following: Central Park, Bleeker Street Pizza, the fact that the Today Show is my local news, Union Square farmers market, Matt Kinsella, riding my bike to Piermont, Rubix Kube and frequent visitors.

This year has been incredible. I owe that to my family, friends and of course Matt. I couldn’t imagine a life without him. He has truly helped me focus on the little things, and sometimes the big things, that make life so amazing.

So thanks for following along… hold on tight, this year is sure to be a good one.

A Valentine’s Day Tradition

I have never really been into the whole Valentine’s Day thing. While I certainly enjoy receiving candy hearts and making homemade valentine’s cards out of red and white paper doilies, I never felt the need to expect boxes of chocolate, a dozen red roses and expensive jewelry. Matt agrees with me on this and we originally celebrated by going out to dinner.

The first year after college, I was working as a consultant, traveling to Princeton,  NJ a fair amount. On Valentine’s Day, I had a 10am flight out to NJ so I wasn’t going to be able to do dinner with Matt. Instead, he suggested that we get brunch at the Four Season before work. It seemed like a good solution, so I went along with it. At 7am in the morning, we sat down to eat and enjoyed a delicious breakfast in a room with a breath-taking view of Boston Common.

There was something nice about going out to breakfast on a week day and in a hotel where the wait staff treats you incredibly nice. I am not sure if it is because they assume you are a guest of the hotel or not, but there was certainly something in the interactions that make you feel really special. Matt and I decided to continue this tradition of celebration Valentine’s Day with a breakfast in various hotel restaurants.

This morning, Matt surprised me by taking me to Norma’s, located in the Parker Meridien. He got the idea from an episode of Gossip Girl, when Nate first met Juliette. So not only did Matt take me out to breakfast, but he was aiming to be as smooth as Nate Archibald – pretty impressive after more than nine years.

Breakfast was amazing. Matt and I both enjoyed ourselves fully and left completely stuffed. It was the best way to start my day and I wouldn’t have wanted to celebrate Valentine’s Day any other way.

Leaving the Island

Growing up, I lived in a circle with a radius of approximately 5 miles. I rode the school bus 4.8 miles to middle school, rode 6.6 miles to the Mall of New Hampshire, rode my bike 4.6 miles to the Bedford Bluffs where I spent every day during the summer and walked .4 miles to visit my best friend (or .2 miles if I cut through the woods).

When I was in high school, the circle expanded to a radius of approximately 60 miles. I drove 6.6 miles east to school, 55.6 miles south-east to swim practice and 73.9 miles south to visit Matt. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in the car. During those days, I knew every song on the radio, perfected my ability to dance while sitting, and learned the location of every Dunkin Donuts along Route 3. I attribute my relationship with one of my best friends to the fact that we spent at least 2 hours in the car together every day, not to mention the fact that we shared a near death experience when I decided to shut my eyes for a quick second while driving to practice. We spent a lot of time chatting about school, swimming, and of course, boys.

My life is very different now that I live in New York. I traded my car in for a subway pass, my one hour commute to swim practice in for a 30 minute subway ride to Union Square, and the 3 miles drive to the grocery store to a 3 minute walk to Whole Foods down the block. While living in a city does make some things much more convenient, I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss suburbia.

Now I live on an island.  An island that is 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles wide. A 23 square mile island with more than 1.6 million people. No longer do I live in a circle with a 60 mile radius. Now I live within a rectangle that is 10 square miles smaller than my hometown, yet has a population that is 80 times larger. I travel within a circle that has a two-mile radius and I never leave the island. That is, until today.

For my Birthday, Matt promised to take me to a cooking class. We have done this before, see prior post, and it was a lot of fun. However, instead of going back to the Institute of Culinary Education, Matt decided to try out The Brooklyn Kitchen, a smaller, “off the beaten path” location (follow their blog here). After reading through the course offerings, we decided on the Fresh Pasta Sunday course. So this afternoon, after a delicious breakfast of irish oatmeal and some time in the gym, Matt and I ventured off the island and into Brooklyn.

We arrived to tree-lined streets, buildings no taller than 5 stories and a strange, but enjoyable, quietness. We could easily walk down the sidewalks to the kitchen without having to dodge tourists and hundreds of people. I suddenly felt at home in Brooklyn.

Our class was amazing. We learned how to make the dough from scratch and worked with a pasta machine. As we put the pasta through the machine a few times, our dough grew into a long sheet. As we cranked the pasta through the machine it flattened out and grew in length. Working together to maneuver this large sheet of pasta, we were able to make angel hair pasta, fettuccine and butternut squash ravioli. At the end of class, we were able to taste the fruits of our labor and bring some of the uncooked pasta home. It was a great experience and I can’t wait to invite Matt into our kitchen at home more often. He is an amazing sous-chef!

I encourage you all to leave your island and expand your radius; you never know what you will find.

Be Your Own Boss – Cupcake Kids!

When I was in college, I had a friend, Jessi Walter, who was a few years older than me, that I looked up to like a sister. She was one of the nicest people I had ever met, extremely smart, and would give me advice whenever I asked for it (which was probably too often!) I loved hanging around her room – it was clean and organized and she had the most amazing hand-painted furniture.  I always felt like I was in a real house, as opposed to a dorm room when I went over there. Whenever I was there, I just felt happy.

I am so glad that we have reminded friends over the years. She is still one of the nicest people I have ever met, extremely smart, and she still gives me advice on life. Now, instead of hanging out in her dorm room,  we hang out in the Cupcake Kids! kitchen.  Every time I walk into the space, I feel that same sense of happiness, that I felt when I walked into her dorm room many years ago.

The idea for Cupcake Kids! was born when Jessi Walter decided to combine her love of kids and food in a practical way. Jessi set out to create a company that would provide students with hands-on cooking experiences designed to provide them with the opportunity to have fun in the kitchen while learning about food and nutrition. Jessi believes that creativity and education in the kitchen play an important role in a child’s development and help kids to build self-confidence and independence. For 4 years, she has been giving this experience to the kids of NYC.

Formerly a Vice President on Wall Street, Jessi’s passion for kids and food and her entrepreneurial spirit have taken her on a new adventure. Jessi graduated from Harvard in 2003, where she earned an economics degree and was a member of the Women’s Swim Team. As one of the oldest of 23 cousins, she has a passion for kids and their development. In her previous life as a swimmer, Jessi started a company offering technique lessons for young swimmers and brought the same enthusiasm and fundamentals to the pool as she brings to the kitchen today.

What sets Jessi and Cupcake Kids! apart from other child-centered companies is the pride that Jessi takes in her work and ultimately in her company. I’ve had the pleasure of helping out with Cupcake Kids! for the past 2 years. Jessi’s focus is on coming up with lessons that entertain, as well as educate, the “budding chefs” who visit her kitchen. She wants them to walk out of the kitchen with a smile on their face and a new appreciation for food and a sense of accomplishment. They gain confidence through measuring, mixing and baking. By combining ingredients to make a delicious treat, these children are able to see their successes right before their eyes, and taste them too! The excitement that Jessi, and her teachers, have for cooking and food is passed on to the children.

 I am so proud of Jessi for all that she has accomplished. I am also honored to have been a part of it  and I can not wait to see what the future holds for Cupcake Kids!

Please visit the Cupcake Kids! website to learn more about classes and birthday parties and, visit Facebook to become a fan of Cupcake Kids!

Brunch

I am a huge Brunch fan. If there was a contest for the best meal, brunch would win by a landslide in my book. Not only are you allowed to sleep in, but you can do so and not miss all of the wonderful delicious breakfast options. However, if you want to wake up early and eat a small breakfast first, that is ok because there are lunch options at brunch too! And if you want to just go crazy and have two breakfasts, GO FOR IT! You can start out with a nice cup of coffee followed up with Bloody Marys and Mimosas. You can eat brunch at 10am (Upper West Side family crowd), 12pm (Midtown and tourists) or 3pm (West Villagiates). There are no rules at brunch.

I, first and foremost, love breakfast food. Growing up, family dinners were a nightly occurence in our house. Most of the time my mom did the cooking, but we were expected to help out with the planning. I was a VERY picky eater growing up, which my parents learned very quickly. So instead of constantly fighting with me to eat the food put in front of me, my mom came up with a better solution. Every week before we did the grocery shopping, we all had to suggest 1-2 meals that we wanted to have for dinner. I had 3 “go tos”: spaghetti, hamburger helper and waffles. Breakfast was great in the morning, but breakfast for dinner – as a kid it doesn’t get any better than that (well maybe ice cream for dinner, but that, as we all know,  is an anomaly). Working in a school, I have the “benefit” of eating lunch in the cafeteria for free. It is funny because the most dreaded day of school lunches for our office is “breakfast for lunch” day. Clearly, as a kid, I would have loved that. Another sad reminder that I am old!

In college, brunch changed from being all about the food, to all about the company. Sitting around the dining hall tables with my best friends, we would catch up on the gossip from the night before. We could make brunch last for hours – especially if we had a paper to write or a test to study for. I miss my college friends the most when Sunday mornings roll around.

Living in New York, you have the opportunity to eat at amazing restaurants. While I certainly eat our for other meals, eating out for brunch is my all-time favorite. Just like a band’s performance of the song “Don’t Stop Believing” is my way of judging their ability level, a restaurant’s brunch menu (and the quality of those dishes) is the best way to rate a restaurant.

On Sunday Matt and I visited Sarahbeth’s on the Upper West Side. I had been there once before with my parents and Abby, but it was Matt’s first time. The menu has a great selection and I was torn on what to order. Last time I ordered the eggs benedict, so I decided to change things up a bit and I ordered the lemon and ricotta pancakes.

Being fron New Hampshire, I am a complete maple syrup snob. While I love pancakes, french toast and waffles, I hardly ever order them at restaurants because they always come with Aunt Jemima or some other nasty immitation syrup. When I was younger I used to bring a small jar of pure maple syrup to sleepovers so that I was prepared for whatever food came my way at breakfast. (Yes, I was THAT kid.) Sarahbeth’s serves all of their “sweet breakfast” dishes with organic maple  syrup. Score one in my book!

The food was great and the atmosphere almost made you forget you were in New York City. I highly recommend this restaurant for anyone looking for a good brunch spot in NYC. Just remember to make revervations because the Upper West Side crowd certainly gets after it early on Sundays.

And if you aren’t planning on visiting the Big Apple anytime soon, don’t worry! They have a location in Key West Florida and an online store: http://www.sarabeth.com/ Sarahbeth’s for all!

Date Night

After Matt and I got engaged, my mother shared with me a photocopied section from a 1954 home economics text book.

HOW TO BE A GOOD WIFE
Home Economics High School Text Book, 1954

Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal, on time. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs. Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal are part of the warm welcome needed.

Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so that you’ll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people. Be a little gay and a little more interesting. His boring day may need a lift.

Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the home just before your husband arrives, gather up schoolbooks, toys, paper, etc. Then run a dust cloth over the tables. Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift, too.

Prepare the children. Take a few minutes to wash the children’s hands and faces (if they are small), comb their hair, and if necessary change their clothes. They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part.

Minimize all noise. At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer, dishwasher, or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet. Be happy to see him. Greet him with a warm smile and be glad he is home.

Some don’ts: Don’t greet him with problems or complaints. Don’t complain if he is late for dinner. Count this as minor compared with what he might have gone through that day. Make him comfortable. Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or suggest he lie down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him. Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soft, soothing and pleasant voice. Allow him to relax and unwind.

Listen to him. You may have a dozen things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first.

Make the evening his. Never complain if he does not take you out to dinner or to other places of entertainment. Instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure, his need to be home and relax.

The Goal: Try to make your home a place of peace and order where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit.

I decided that, although I have over a year before I get married, I should work my way down the list starting with the first one: dinner. While my baking skills pretty strong, I am the first to admit that my cooking skills are lacking. I have tried to improve them by making an effort to cook a few home-cooked meals each week and I have even taken a few cooking classes at the Institute for Culinary Education.

While I enjoy playing the role of Betty Draper, it is the year 2010, and Matt is not going to find himself playing the role of Don Draper. Before we got engaged, I made a comment one day (after being frustrated by Matt’s lack of culinary skills) that he needed to learn how to cook five different meals before I would agree to marry him, While this was more of a joke, Matt took on this challenge fully. The next few months, Matt would surprise me with dinners every so often. His five meals consisted of: fajita pizza, shepherd’s pie, chicken parm, chicken alfredo and enchiladas. He certainly proved himself to be a good cook.

While his cooking skills have slowly fallen off pace since he sealed the deal with the ring, he still makes “Egg McMatt’s” nearly every weekend for breakfast and can make a mean cup of coffee in our K-cup Keurig machine. For Christmas Matt bought me a gift certificate to take a couples cooking class at ICE. So on Friday, we finally went to a class where we could both work to improve our cooking abilities.

The class that we took was called “Couples Like it Hot!” and had a menu geared around spicy dishes. Matt and I had a great time and learned a lot. I’ve included some pictures and recipes below!

Cheese Twists:
1 1/2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 sheet puff pastry

Preheat over to 425. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Dust a work surface with flour.

1. Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the cheese on the right half of the dough. Sprinkle half the cayenne on top and fold the left side of the dough over the filling. Press the edges together. Roll the dough out lightly to a thickness of about 1/4 inch.
2. Sprinkle half the dough with another 1/2 cup of cheese and the remaining half of the cayenne, fold in half again, and press the edges together.
3. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on the dough and roll the dough into a rectangle about 1/4 inch think.
4. Cut the dough into long half-inch wide strips. Twist each strip a few times, then lay them out about 1/2 inch apart on the parchment-lined baking sheet.
5. Bake until golden, about 10-12 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then remove from paper and serve.
Spicy Mac ‘n Cheese:
1 pound Barilla elbow macaroni
1 1/3 cups whole milk, divided
1 cup mascarpone
3 cups extra-sharp shredded cheddar cheese
3 cups shredded pepper jack cheese
1 1/3 cups Jalapeno Puree (recipe follows)
1. Cook pasta al dente and drain.
2. Return the empty pasta pot to a low burner and add half of the milk, all of the mascarpone and the hot pasta to the pot, mix well.
3. Add half of each cheese (3/4 cups each) and mix well. Add the remaining milk and cheese and mix well.
4. Stir in the Jalapeno Puree and heat through. Serve immediately or transfer to a serving dish and keep warm.
Jalapeno Puree:
6 to 8 large jalapeno peppers, depending on heat
1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Puree together in a mini-processor.

Pot Luck

On Friday night, Matt and I were invited to a pot luck dinner. I was extremely excited as I had never really been to one before and I love to cook. Cooking at home is quite challenging for a few reasons. First, cooking for one is hard. I am all for left overs, but eating left overs for 4-5 days in a row is another story. Second, I don’t tend to keep a lot of food in our fridge. That is the NYC way and I have found that the food often goes bad before I get around to cooking it. As a result, I stalk up on the Lean Cuisines, which Matt is certainly a big fan of (note the sarcasm). Third, I love to bake and definitely think I my sweet tooth and detail oriented frame of mind, compliment the precise nature of baking. When Rachel Ray starts putting “palm-fulls” of spices into dishes, or “seasons to taste with salt and pepper” my mind starts calculating exactly how much she has just added to the recipe.

So, when the invitation to attend the pot luck came about, I quickly responded to the email and requested that I sign up to make dessert. Unfortunately someone had already called dibs on dessert, so I was left with the choice of making an entrée or a side dish. Knowing that the guest list contained a few male guests who probably didn’t have much experience in the kitchen, I decided to take one for the team and make an entrée. I had been wanting to try my hand at making buffalo chicken mac and cheese (see previous post, S’mac) but I was nervous about making a new dish for other people. After googling a few recipes, I picked one that looked manageable and committed to it.

The recipe I decided on turned out great. Not quite the same as S’mac, but still good. I used pre-breaded/pre-cooked chicken from Perdue and I used all of the hot sauce (not just 4 tablespoons) cause I like things extra spicy and am addicted to Franks Hot Sauce (remember those Lean Cuisines… Franks works wonders on them). Everyone was pretty impressed with the dish and Matt even went back for seconds! If I were to make it again, I would probably add more cheese or bread crumbs to the top of the dish.

The rest of the dinner was great. We had creamed corn, turkey and chicken, fresh fruit and some delicious chocolate cake. While some of the guests didn’t quite understand that the idea of a pot luck is to cook things yourselves, it isn’t too surprising in New York that 1/2 the items would be store-bought. In the end, we all had fun and decided it was definitely something we wanted to do again. It was a great way to start the holiday weekend.