New Tastes

I don’t do much after work. On Tuesdays, I go to the gym for a session with my trainer. On Wednesdays, we’ve started playing trivia at The Sandwich Bar — and we won our first go at it last week! On all other days, you’ll probably find me at Whole Foods.

Since Whole Foods opened up by my office a couple years ago, I over-frequent it. I’ve started buying groceries once per week, but I still find myself stopping by Whole Foods to stock up on the things I plow through — tomatoes, spinach, and berries.

On my way home from work on Friday, I popped in to buy the essentials – my fridge was barren – and happened upon a find that I can’t seem to get enough of: valbreso feta.

This isn’t at all like greek feta – not even in its texture. Valbreso feta is french and is super tangy – almost lemony in its brine – and incredibly creamy versus crumbly. It’s more like a goat cheese in texture than anything else. I’m a big fan of using goat-like cheese with lentils, and so I decided to make just that. I think in the past three days I’ve had lentils for almost every meal.

I’ve had a pantry full of lentils for a while – I once bought a giant bag of black (or beluga) lentils at Whole Foods, and it’s been sitting there, unopened ever since.

These little guys seem to cook a bit faster than their brown and green counterparts (one quarter cup lentils to one cup of water for about 15-17 minutes over medium heat).

Once the lentils were cooked through (tender, but not mushy), I transferred them to a pan that was heating up with one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and finely minced garlic. I added baby spinach, chopped heirloom tomatoes, and a little lemon juice to the pan. The lemon juice adds great flavor, but also deglazes the pan.

Once the lentils were combined with the vegetables and nicely sautéed, I transferred them to a bowl and sprinkled some valbreso feta over the top.

The creaminess of the feta added a really nice rich flavor and smooth texture to the earthiness and bite of the lentils and the acidity of the tomatoes.

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A Guide to Greek Eats in Astoria

I’ve lived in Astoria for 4 years now, and have grown to love the Greek fare that fills this not-so-little Queens neighborhood.

I’ve broken my favorites down by avenue, to show that you really can access good eats, no matter where you are in Astoria.

  • Zenon Taverna (31st Avenue): Zenon was the first Greek restaurant I ever dined at in Astoria, and it’s by far my absolute favorite. It’s hard not to love this family-owned and operated taverna. Their menu can be overwhelming – in a good way – with so many vegan and vegetarian options to choose from. My favorite? The chargrilled vegetables with skordalia, and their spanikopita. I also love, and have a hard time resisting, their trahana soup. Trahana is a cypriot soup that’s a bit like a porridge. It’s thick and tart from its yogurt base, and gets its texture from halloumi and bulgur. Make sure to treat yourself to dessert, too. The galatekboureko is delicious, but so are their homemade ice creams. If they have the rose-flavored one, try it. We had it for Valentine’s Day, and I’ve had dreams about it since. One note: Zenon is cash only, but I’d empty my savings to eat here if I had to.
  • Ovelia (30th Avenue): When I lived on 31st Avenue, and was in the mood for something a little hip, Ovelia was my go-to spot. It’s trendy without being pretentious, and serves up some of the best Greek-style brunch, lunch, and dinner fare on 30th Avenue. Not as old school as others nearby, Ovelia puts a modern spin on some of the Greek classics. My favorite dish on their menu is their eggs florentine. They serve two plump poached eggs over pita, sitting on top of spinach and feta. They also serve Lavazza coffee, which is a major plus.
  • Kopiaste (23rd Avenue): Kopiaste is a very warm, cozy taverna, located between Ditmars and 23rd Avenue on 31st street. It’s nestled to the side, but you don’t want to miss it. Their food is as lovely as their owner, George, who will make sure you’re happy with your food. He truly values quality and service, and it shows in every detail of the restaurant. This used to be our go-to place, but as we get busier, we haven’t been in a while. An added bonus here is that they offer complimentary dessert, and it’s always changing, and always delicious.
  • Taverna Kyclades (Ditmars Boulevard): Here’s the thing, I used to not be on the Kyclades bandwagon. The restaurant is teeny tiny, and unless you arrive promptly at noon, there’s always at least a 30 minute wait. That said, Kyclades has quickly grown to be one of my favorite Astoria spots (see, I’m capable of change!). If you’re a vegetarian like me, I suggest any of their salads, their beets, or their gigantes. The spinach pie is a bit too rich for my palate. Their dolma are also delectable. What really keeps me coming back though, are the dips. The skordalia and the tzatziki pack a fantastic garlicky punch that makes my mouth water just at the thought. Like many Astoria tavernas, Kyclades offers complimentary galaktoboureko or house wine if they’re out of the sweets. My one gripe? I wish they had the melitzanosalata that they serve at their East Village location. If you know me, you know I cannot get enough of eggplant.
  • MP Taverna (Ditmars Boulevard): It certainly took chutzpah for Michael Psilakis to open MP Taverna just a few storefronts away from Kyclades, the neighborhood favorite. MP Taverna has reached fame in its other locations, and it seems that Astoria is much the same. I find its fare to be slightly overpriced and lacking in properly portioned vegetarian fare. The meat dishes are huge, but most of the meat-free options are sides or smaller salads. That said, the one delicious vegetarian option that I love is their fusilli. It’s such a fun version of the corkscrew-shaped pasta, and it’s drenched in a super deep, rich, spicy tomato sauce. The texture is playful, with cherry tomatoes that burst in your mouth, bread crumbs, and feta to boot. But with an appetizer, two drinks, and two main courses, your bill will easily tip over $100 before tax and gratuity. For Astoria, that’s kind of silly.

Pictured: Vegetarian Fare from Taverna Kyclades

  • Top, left to right: Spanikopita, Peasant Salad.
  • Middle, left to right: Skordalia, Gigantes
  • Bottom, left to right: Tzatziki, Pita Bread

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Sign and a book

Engagement Gifts

When we announced our engagement, we received so many thoughtful gifts. Most were picture frames, a few were books. But today, I received my absolute favorite gift of all. I know I shouldn’t pick favorites, but in this case, I’m ignoring the etiquette and naming names.

The other day, I asked my friend Janet to do a reading at my wedding. I love her, and our friendship really has grown stronger and stronger as the years have gone by. She suggested a Pablo Neruda poem, and I felt like she was reading my mind. I never bookmark things anymore; most of what I wish to revisit, I simply pin on Pinterest. That said, my Chrome bookmarks have been full of Neruda poems for years.

Some of his work is a bit too graphic, but I found a poem in the book she sent me this week called “Your Laughter” and it hit me instantly that this is what Janet must absolutely read at my wedding.

The thoughtfulness of this gift, which came with an adorable “I Love You to the Moon and Back” wooden chalkboard-style sign, really made my day.

Passover Perspective

Pesach is approaching, and in just a few weeks, I’ll begin rationalizing how long I anticipate that I’ll actually be able to keep kosher for Passover. We have seders to attend in the city, Westchester, and New Jersey, and yet I’m beginning to separate my connection with the holiday from the story and meaning from the Haggadah.

I don’t much like matzah, and the first seder always seems a big sluggish, but that said, I’ve always considered Passover a time for reflection — for walking a modernized day in the shoes of our ancient ancestors.

I’ve spent my entire life trying to understand where I fit in with my religion, and defining how I choose to connect to it.

As a kid, keeping kosher and being forced to attend Hebrew school were enough for me.

Now, though, I’m determined to derive greater meaning from the upcoming holiday. Each generation of Jews has known struggle and adversity — and instead of thinking of their struggle, and how they survived, I’d rather use their strength to overcome hard times to find a way to give back.

I’ve been toying with the idea of volunteering for B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO), or some other such cause/organization. At this point, I’d like to use Passover as an opportunity to pay it forward.

Sticks and Stones

I thought words would never hurt me. Until tonight.

I was taking the train home after a late dinner with cousins. I felt that in terms of “financial karma” — if I spend responsibly, bad things can’t happen — it was the right thing to do.

Cold weather be damned, I hopped on the Q train towards Astoria, and made it to the 39th Avenue stop before things took a bitter turn.

Five or six high school-aged kids came through one train car into ours, and their immediate rowdiness and crassness didn’t bother me. Until I became their focus.

Three of the kids pointed at me, and proceeded to call me all sorts of insults on the fat scale. Fat was the least offensive, so was ugly.

I’ve worked so hard to even be where I am now, and five or six disturbed youth aren’t going to ruin that, at least not after tonight. Tonight, I’m shedding a few tears, because more than being hurtful, it was scary. These kids showed no remorse for their comments directed at me, or anyone else on the train that became their target. I honestly didn’t know what their next move was going to be, and that scared me.

At the end of the night, even as I sit here writing this in tears, I’m coming home to a safe place, and to someone who loves me. I don’t know for certain that it’s the same for those kids, and maybe that’s even sadder.

Here’s What

I love Andy Cohen. I am a devoted viewer of Watch What Happens Live, and admire the way he has completely reshaped the way we view and experience late-night television, and honestly, the way we digest pop culture in general. In particular, I adore his “Here’s What: Three Things I’m Obsessed With” segment.

So, tearing a page from Andy’s book, for my own here’s what series.

3 Things I’m Obsessed with This Weekend:

1. BuzzFeed’s Ranking of SNL “Weekend Update” anchors: Amazing. I love Kevin Nealon, Amy and Tina (duh!), and of course Dennis Miller. I was never really into Colin Quinn’s stint. But I respect him, and his cameo on HBO’s Girls last Sunday.

2. Gothamist’s Compilation of Larry David’s insults on Curb Your Enthusiasm: This compilation was pretty, pretty, pretty good. Sometimes I re-watch episode of Curb for the sole purpose of pithy one-liners and zingers.

3. Food 52’s History of Cider in America: Those who know my happy hour persona, know that I almost always opt for wine. When the menu is lacking in sauvignon blanc or a good pinot grigio, I start the scan for a good Strongbow or other such cider. So naturally, I found this piece pretty interesting.

What three things are YOU obsessed with from this weekend?

Family Ties

I come from a family of relative dysfunction. I speak to less than a handful of my paternal relatives, and I have both grandparents, so that’s two right there. That said, I don’t like to treat family like a four-letter word. In my book, to love is to love unconditionally.

I’m close with my immediate family, and most of my maternal relatives. We had it easy. Much like my mother’s family and their days in Detroit’s shtetl-like Jewish neighborhoods of yesteryear, we grew up within one square-mile of each other. Each house had its respective open-door, open-fridge policy; cousins were more like siblings.

We had our drama, we had our arguments, but as my mother (and grandmother before her) liked to declare “you can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family.” Her other favorite was “blood is thicker than water.”

I hold those sayings close, especially as I plan my impending wedding. It was natural to me, for example, to choose Michigan as the setting. My roots are there, and with three grandparents over age 80 and great aunts and uncles who played such a strong role in my upbringing, it would be so selfish to consider getting married anywhere else.

On top of which, it’s important for me to have my family as part of the bridal party. We tormented each other as kids. I share stories with friends about how my siblings (I’m looking at you, Dr. Kirsch!) would hold my arms back and scream, “free hits on Alex!” But, I love them. My sister and brother-in-law are gracing our family with a true simcha this February as they bring a baby boy into this world. My sister Anne and her fiancé Michael are starting their lives together in Miami. My brother (the doctor!) and his lovely girlfriend (also a doctor!) prove that love can flourish no matter the distance.

Our relationship as kids was fuzzy; we were so close in age that fights were inevitable. But, no matter how much we hurt one another with words or actions, my mother — learning a lesson from my father and his brothers — made sure we always spoke, and that we always made up and moved on.

My mother is my hero. She takes care of her father (my beloved Zaydie Sam), and my father — someone who suffers from a long list of conditions including diabetes and Parkinson’s. She is a giver, and a caretaker, and while I don’t always want to hear what she has to say — sometimes it’s because of how she says it — I love her most of all. She has spent almost no time caring what people think of her, and instead, has devoted herself to our family. To ensuring that we’re all in the loop on family ties, that we’re all happy and healthy, and that we have what we need – literally and figuratively – in life.

When my parents cut me off financially at age 21, I was preparing to move to New York. My father, who comes from a family where protocol and money are king, was determined to share that he thought I was meant for law school, and in publishing I’d end up penniless. My mother, on the other hand, didn’t share her predictions on my future. Instead, she said, “You’re meant for New York.”

She was right.

I’ve been here for nearly four years, have achieved great success in my still-short career, and am getting married in just over a year.

None of that matters though. Life is too short. Family has taught me in all part of life that you’re never too old to ask for help, or for forgiveness, and you’ll never be too old to say “I love you.” Three words, eight letters, endless good feelings.