How Much for the Dress?

Pricing out wedding dresses makes me cringe. You heard about that girl who got a gorgeous dress off Kleinfeld’s discount rack for under $600? She’s not going to be you – she’s just the anomaly. If you want a dress that looks like it cost an arm and a leg, you better get ready to part with that arm, leg, and possibly a large hunk of cash.

People who make their own dresses don’t seem to come out much ahead. If your mother-in-law, the expert seamstress, makes the dress herself you’ll save a bundle. But you’ll probably eat up all that savings by ordering yards of lace and boxes of tulle, while gloating over all the money you’re saving on the seamstress.  It’s enough to make you close your eyes, let someone else do the heavy lifting, and then borrow their pain-painstakingly selected dress.

The real question is: why would a dress ever cost that much?

Black Bean Soup: A Quest

There are foods about which we have a singular, perfect, conception. Then there are food about which we have misconceptions. Certain recipes turn out perfectly each time, mainly ones taken off the back of a box. The pickles and celery I add to potato might be considered a misconception by some. Personally, I have no conception of Cuban Black Bean Soup.

I thought I knew what Cuban Black Bean Soup tasted like; I even thought I wanted it for dinner. I made it once, so long ago that I can’t pin-point the year, and my sole remaining memory is  that the recipe was very specific on one point. The recipe ordered me to mash half the beans – and unless the beans were mashed that soup was not Cuban, it claimed. So I mashed those beans until I felt cultured, accomplished, and bored. We dined like recipe-approved Cuban kings on that soup. Recently, when I felt in need of accomplishment – and soup – so I pulled out a recipe for Cuban Black Bean Soup.

The recipe was from a trusted cookbook. If it hadn’t been for that, I’d have found a new recipe as soon as I saw that this one doesn’t call for mashing the black beans. As it was, I trusted my cookbook, and used its recipe. The beans were not mashed, it was light on cumin, and the directions lacked Cuban attitude. I might not have remembered the taste of Cuban Black Bean Soup, but I when I tasted what I made, I knew that wasn’t it. However, it was a very good soup, especially when adapted to accommodate the contents of my fridge and freezer. This week, as the weather turned cold and brutish, I thought longingly of my Non-Cuban Black Bean Soup. Now I think I’ll go enjoy some, and you should too.

Non-Cuban Black Bean Soup

1 onion, diced

dollop of oil

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 jalapeno, diced [de-seeded – unless you want to add a fieriness to the heat of the jalapeno]

1 green pepper, diced

1 qt soup stock

1 can black beans/1 cup dried beans, cooked

1 cup corn [fresh cut or frozen]

1 tbsp mango chutney

1 tsp cumin

Sautee onion and garlic, add diced green pepper and jalapeno. Add in remaining ingredients, bring to a boil. Once a rolling boil is achieved, cover and simmer for one to three hours. It’s soup – the longer you cook it the better it’ll be.

For those of you still waiting to have some authentic Cuban Black Bean Soup, go to Trader Joe’s and buy a box of Cuban Black Bean soup, heat, and eat; it’s just right.

Rice, A Story of Inspiration

Sometimes one person just isn’t enough. If it’s just me eating dinner, I might eat everything cold, or chow down when my meal is still slightly raw, or even eat something that could be considered on the other side of fresh. However, once you add another person – and that other person is Special Correspondent Dena – I have motivation enough. If you combine that with an NPR review of rice – recipes included – I was guaranteed to make something new and fresh.

I began the evening by shopping for fresh ingredients, using the NPR recipe for Basmanti Rice with Pomegranate Seeds as my guide. Of course, all good recipes need to be revised. This is what happened:

Basmati Rice with Pomegranate Seeds

1 cup white or brown basmati rice I only have brown jasmine rice.

1 c of brown jasmine rice. Add another 1/2 c just to make sure  no one goes hungry.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 bay leaves

2 green cardamom pods, bruised I don’t have cardamon pods, and they take too long to find at the store. I’ll use that dried cardamon instead, 1 tsp. Wait, I don’t own dried cardamon. What’s similar? Google search: There is no replacement for cardamon. I’ve got news for you google, we’re all recplaceble.

a pinch of caraway seeds

Salt to taste

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 cups water

1/2 cup toasted pine nuts* Pine nuts are $1.00 an oz – and only come in 8 oz bags. That is not happening. What else might work?  What nut-like ingredient will not bankrupt me, my children, and my children’s children?

1/2 c toasted sunflower seeds

8 to 10 mint leaves Forgot those at the store. Thankfully I work around the corner – looks like I’ll be back tomorrow.

1/2 cup fresh pomegranate seeds  Pomegranates are seasonal, and spring is not their season.

1/2 cup dried pomegranate and cranberry mix 

Rinse the rice well in running water. Drain and set aside. (Some people like to soak their rice in water for about a half-hour. This reduces the cooking time. I generally don’t soak my rice.) Unnecessary.

In a deep pan, heat the vegetable oil. Add the bay leaves and cardamom pods caraway seeds.  Saute for a minute, or until fragrant. I didn’t smell any fragrance.

Add salt to taste, the lemon juice and the rice. Mix well. Add the water and bring to a rolling boil. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook for 18 to 20 minutes for white rice, 30 to 40 minutes for brown, until most of the water has been absorbed. You will see small craters forming on top of the rice.

Remove from heat and let sit, covered, for about 5 minutes. Only if necessary; that rice was fully cooked at 30 minutes and I have no intention of drying it out.

This has yet to come: Fluff with a fork, remove the bay leaves, top the rice with the pine nuts, mint leaves and pomegranate seeds, and serve immediately.

Hopefully, in addition to being served immediately, this will serve as a classic for years to come. Failing that, let’s hope it turns out well.

Found in New York: Cosmetic Market

“They’ve got bowls!” I reported to my mom. “Gold bowls!”

“Do you need bowls?” she asked.

“No,” I said, surprised, “but in case I do, I now know where to find them.”

There are many places where the discovery of gold bowls would be commonplace, and even expected. None of those places are beauty stores. The only beauty store where you can find just what you need – from foundation to gold bowls – is Cosmetic Market. Cosmetic Market is an unassuming store on East 37th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenue, which looks like it was built for wholesale rather than retail. I passed by it a few times, assuming that it was a warehouse, until Special Correspondent Dena’s set me straight and sent me through the doors.

It has all the usual suspects in the beauty department: eye shadow, lipstick, brow and lip pencils, the works. The prices are good – OPI nailpolish goes for $3 a bottle rather than the drugstore’s $9 charge. Sure, you can only pick from three shades, which vary from pink to maroon, but that’s good enough for Special Coorespondant Dena. As she says,”I only paint my nails pink, so it really doesn’t matter that there aren’t a lot of colors.”

What sets the store apart isn’t the discount prices on name-brand goods; it’s the variety of goods. The gold bowls, which I didn’t buy, are only one of the many items that all beauty stores should stock. Think about it: the people who shop in beauty stores are the sort that would need to have gold bowls on hand. If you’re replenishing your supply of eyeshadow before a wedding, you’ll also need to pick up a gold bowl, or a set of shot glasses, for a bridal shower present. If you’re picking out a new lipstick for a dinner party, you need some nice note cards so that you can invite your guests. Even if you’re just stopping in to purchase your favorite brand of moisturizer, you mustn’t forget to grab a can of vaseline to fix that sqeeky doorpost. Of course, if you’re fixing a squeeky doorpost, you really should buy WD-40. That’s probably in the back of Cosmetic Market.

Found in New York

New York is a very big city. 220 streets, not including alphabet city. Over 1.5 million residents. All that, and more, cramped on 22.96 square miles. Despite the small physical size of the island of Manhattan, the mass of people who live and work here has engendered an impenetrable jungle of stores. This means that there is a store for anyone and everything. Bangladeshi pigs? Check Canal Street. Children’s shoes in adult styles? Talk with the salespeople at Tip-Top Shoes for Kids. Ham radio kit? It’s here, somewhere.

There is something for everyone, but with the crush of stores from the Bronx to the Battery, it’s hard to find just what you need. Some people live in New York City for years without discovering that great fruit stand two blocks from their apartment. Many spend decades working down the block from a hardware store without learning of its existence – or its great supply of doorknobs.

This is where your friends come in. They are the people who alert you to the existence of the best 99cent store in the city. They will lead you to Lower East Side’s best family-owned clothing store. When you despair of finding a skirt that fits, they’ll fix you up with their tailor – who also happens to have the best prices in town. Unfortunately, not everyone has friends like these. For those of you aren’t graced with friends who are in the know, welcome to a new series.