Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Summer Vegetable Pasta Toss

The kids have been keeping me so busy lately that I have been very neglectful of this blog. It has become more and more difficult to actually find a moment to gather my thoughts and type something out on a daily or even weekly basis! Throw in editing photos and I am in way over my head! I used to have a clear time of day where I had an hour or two to myself where I could finish a few chores and then enjoy a few quiet moments to read or blog but I have found that time disappearing as of late thanks to the lack of napping. Not to mention, I think my kids are among the loudest human beings on the planet. When Matthew speaks it sounds to me as if he is shouting and Emma delights in shrieking/screaming when she is both happy and upset. A typical day consists of breakfast, a walk outside with the dog, basic chores and tidying up, followed by some gym time. We then come home for lunch, the older two have "school time" while I attempt to put Lucy down for a nap, and then it's prepping for dinner. Life is busy!

As a family, we have already enjoyed a few fun experiences this summer, just little moments that made a big impact on the children. The two that come to mind immediately both involve nature. While out looking at the turtle pond at the state park near our home, we were informed by a park ranger that some of the researchers were in the process of banding birds not to far from where we were. We headed over there and the children had a front row seat watching the ecologists capture, weigh, type, and band a half dozen birds. Each year, they track the migration pattern of several different species of birds that come through our area. These birds are monitored for life, providing valuable information on their activity during their lifespan. We were told that some of the birds migrate as far as South America only to come right back here in the springtime. Amazing! The kids were mesmerized the whole time but the best part came when it was time to release the birds back into the wild. Each kid, including Lucy, was given the opportunity to hold a bird cupped in their hands and then, when prompted, opening their hands and allowing the bird to once again spread its wings and fly high and away. It was a very neat moment for the kids.

As a funny side note, the ecologists were very good about explaining what they were doing to the children. Matthew, the child who never runs out of question, spent most of his time grilling the scientsts about the various birds they were capturing. At one point, he asked if they had caught any Blue Jays. They responded that they had not and then proceeded to tell Matthew that Blue Jays were very social and tended to travel in flocks and that you can normally hear them "flying overhead."

Matthew wrinkled his nose and then responded slowly, "Actually....those are geese."

Paul and I couldn't stop laughing for we too had never, ever heard a flock of Blue Jays flying overhead but those geese are everywhere.

The second family encounter with nature involved a giant snapping turtle that I spotted while Paul and I were driving back into our neighborhood. It was huge and just casually moving down the sidewalk. I didn't want it to wander into the street and get hit by a car, so I convinced Paul to let me rescue it. He was not too excited about this idea, especially when the giant turtle started hissing and lunging at us with its surprisingly long and flexible neck. While Paul distracted the furious reptile, I grabbed it using the back "handles" under its shell and we shoved it into a paper grocery bag. While we finished our drive home, we could hear it angrily rustling around the back trying to chew its way through the bag. Paul was convinced it was going to attack the upholstery next.

When we got home, we placed it into a large plastic bin along with some water and a chopped up apple. It continued to hiss and snap at us. We all piled into the car, picked up Matthew from school, and then headed down to a well-known turtle pond on the peninsula not too far from our home. Along the way, we did not tell Matthew what we were doing. It was only when we parked, unloaded our mysterious bin from the car, and allowed Matthew to remove the top to see what was inside that he discovered the true purpose of our mission. We dragged the bin to the water's edge and then set it on its side. Our turtle friend got the hint and immediately walked out of his prison and slowly made his way into the water. He paused for just a second, blinking and looking about at his new surroundings, before gracefully swimming deeper and deeper into the lake. On a distant log not too far from where we were standing were about 25 other turtle friends waiting to greet him. He had plenty of company.

If you made it through this long post, the promised recipe is here at the end! And it's a good one! I am in love with all the fresh, straight-from-the-farm, local produce that is available this time of year. This Summer Vegetable Pasta dish is a great way to use all of that beautiful, colorful produce. It's loaded with zucchini, tomatoes, asparagus, peas and fresh basil. The zucchini is actually cooked down a bit and then tossed with the hot pasta where it almost becomes part of the sauce. It's super tasty, light, and perfect for lazy dinners out on the porch or deck. Plus, it's such a pretty dish to look at!

Summer Vegetable Pasta Toss
from Cook's Country May/June 2017

6 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 small garlic cloves, 1 minced and 4 sliced thin
1 pound spaghetti
1 zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut on bias into 1-inch lengths
1 cup frozen peas, thawe
1/4 cup minced fresh chives
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus extra for serving
2 tablespoons torn fresh mint leaves

Toss tomatoes, 1 tablespoon oil, minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper together in a bowl. Set aside.

Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add pasta and 1 tablespoon of salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente. Drain pasta and return to pot.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-low heat until shimmering. Add zucchini, pepper flakes, sliced garlic, an 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, covered, until zucchini softens and breaks down, about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add asparagus, peas and 3/4 cup water and bring to simmer over medium-high heat. Cover and cook until asparagus is crisp tender, about 2 minutes.

Add vegetable mixture, chives, lemon juice, and remaining 2 tablespoons oil to pasta and toss to combine. Transfer to serving bowl, sprinkle with Pecorino, and drizzle with extra oil. Spoon tomatoes and their juices over top and sprinkle with mint. Serve, passing extra Pecorino at the table.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

NYC Eats

While we were in NYC, one of my top priorities was visiting all the bakeries whose cookbooks are in my collection in order to pay homage and try a few of their classic treats for myself to see if my baking measures up at all to the real deal. Thus, the only real planned food we had in NYC was the few bakeries I had listed out for us to see and everything else was pretty much on a whim. We basically ate when we wanted to but made sure to just keep everything simple, inexpensive, and in-line with typical New York tourist fare. Below is a complete list of everywhere we ate (and drank) something as well as my detailed review of the experience. We certainly did not go hungry during our visit!

Shake Shack
691 8th Avenue, Midtown/Theater District

We hadn't eaten a true dinner before we made our way into the city, but as we were walking towards Times Square at 11:00 PM and I spied the glowing, neon sign of this iconic spot for burger lovers, I knew exactly where I wanted to feast. We stood in line for maybe 10 minutes and decided to order a single Shackburger with pickles (mine), a SmokeShack with bacon and cherry peppers (his), and a coffee milkshake to share. The atmosphere was upbeat, hip, and overall pleasant and the workers all seemed to be happy and eager to banter with silly tourists like ourselves. Most of the seating was taken, but they had a couple bar tables where you could stand and after sitting for hours and hours in both the car and the train, neither of us had a problem with standing. Our food came after another 10 minute wait and we scarfed down the burgers. They were simply fantastic - fresh ingredients, the perfect proportion of sauce (and that shake sauce is dynamite!), and I was in love with the potato bun squeezing all that meat, cheese, and vegetables together. Excellent, excellent, excellent burgers. Beats Five Guys by a long shot. Paul's only critique was that he wished that the burgers had a little char on the outside rather than being simply steamed on the griddle. We both agreed that the milkshake, while delicious and well-made, was fairly forgettable next to the burgers. I let Paul drink most of it. Overall, a great first meal in NYC.

831 3rd Avenue, Midtown

I was super excited to try New York bagels during our visit and researched the heck out of all the various bagel shops and Ess-a-Bagel continually came up as a local favorite. We got there bright and early and the line was still out the door. We waited for maybe 30 minutes to order food, longer by far than any other wait at every other place we dined. The wait was pure torture because the yeasty smell of bread baking was so intoxicating and the mouthwatering display of various cream cheese spreads, thinly sliced smoked fish, and other bagel toppings only intensified my hunger. When it was finally our turn to order, we both chose the Bagel with Lox sandwich with capers, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and chive cream cheese because neither of us can resist smoked salmon and it's kind of a New York classic. I got mine on a plain bagel while Paul chose an "everything" Bagel. The sandwiches actually took a while to make because the bagel artists definitely took the time and the care to ensure that each order was satisfactory. It was well worth the wait - this was probably my favorite thing we ate during our trip. Salty, chewy, creamy, crunchy - this sandwich had everything going for it. I loved the bagel - so chewy and dense with an excellent malt flavor. We ate in pure silence because we wanted to savor each and every bite. I was stuffed to the gills after finally finishing that glorious bagel and wasn't hungry for the majority of the day. If you are in the NYC area and craving bagels, I would definitely recommend this place!

Birch Coffee
750 Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side

While winding through Central Park, we suddenly started to crave a pick-me-up and then wandered just a bit into the Upper West Side in search of this popular coffee house. The shop had a nice interior that was open and airy and there was plenty of seating. I ordered a Mocha Latte and Paul ordered a Vanilla Latte. Great coffee, great espresso. I loved that my mocha was not overly sweet like most of Starbucks lattes end up being. Definitely gave us the kick we needed to keep on touring.

Milk Bar
561 Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side

Note: I have pictures from Milk Bar somewhere between our three phones but for some reason can't find them. I'll post them on here once I do!

I adore Christina Tosi's cakes, cookies, and other creations that have helped her build her Milk Bar empire. Milk Bar has several locations around NYC and Brooklyn, but since we were already in the Upper West Side and not too far from this location, we headed to this small, unassuming bakery. It was fairly deserted when we walked in and I have to say that I was quite disappointed with how few offerings were in the bakery cases. There was a wide selection of cookies, a couple sad-looking slices of Crack Pie, but only one layer cake (the birthday cake) was on display and it didn't even look all that neatly put together as it was listing a bit to one side. Overall, I was unimpressed. But, since we were there, we picked up a couple cookies - a Blueberry Cream Cookie (mine) and a Chocolate Marshmallow Cornflake Cookie (Paul's). As much as we were unimpressed with the bakery itself, the cookies were fantastic. That blueberry cookie was a revelation and I vowed to try making them soon after getting home. Paul's Marshmallow Cornflake cookie was also good in flavor, but I wasn't a huge fan of the texture of the cornflakes. Paul like it a lot though, so that's what counts!

Levain Bakery
167 West 74th Street, Upper West Side

This charming little Upper West Side bakery is located is ensconced in the basement of a residential building and bakes up some of the best cookies in NYC. They are famous for huge, big-as-your-face cookies that are always warm from the oven! At four dollars a piece, the cookies are expensive but you have to keep in mind that they are quite huge so you're really getting four regular cookies for that price! We ordered a single cookie to share, the chocolate chip walnut, and had every intention of saving it for later but it was so warm and smelled so inviting that we wolfed the entire thing down before we were a block away. Amazing. I wish we had ordered more!

Magnolia Bakery
200 Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side

What a charming little place this was! Serving up cakes, pastries, cookies, and desserts along with coffee and tea, I was familiar with Magnolia from their cookbook and their Banana Pudding is one of my favorite easy desserts to make! I have never made it for Paul because he has an aversion to all things pudding so I typically reserve that recipe for times where I know other dessert options will be available for him. However, once we were at Magnolia, I wanted to try the Banana Pudding from the source and Paul actually agreed to "just have a bite." Well, even he couldn't stop eating it. Smooth, creamy, rich yet surprisingly light, it was way better than the one I've made for some reason. Maybe it was because we were enjoying it on site? I also enjoyed wandering over to the section of the bakery where you could watch workers decorate layer cakes for special events. I picked up quite a few piping techniques while watching them work. It was a very, very neat experience!

Nom Wah Tea Parlor
13 Doyers Street, Chinatown

This small eatery located in a tucked away alley in Chinatown serves up some of the best dim sum in the area. The smells of the various dumplings, shu mai, and pork buns leaving the kitchen were intoxicating and made me hungry even though I'm sure I actually wasn't! The only thing I really wanted to try was the BBQ Pork Buns (Char Siu) but we also ordered a five additional varieties of dumplings to try. I wanted to be adventurous and try the chicken feet but Paul wouldn't let me. The place was busy but the ordering process was really quick and fairly effortless given how few people were actually speaking fluent english. The dumplings came fast but not all at once, giving us time to finish one plate before moving on to the next. When everything arrive, I had no idea which dumpling was which but everything was delicious! However, everything paled in comparison to the pork buns which were HUGE and insanely delicious - a slightly sweet, sticky dough folded around a sweet pork filling. I wanted to eat about 15 more of those and was sad we only ordered one apiece! During our time dining here, it became even more glaringly obvious to me how terrible I am at eating with chopstix. The dumplings were quite large and very, very slippery and I basically made a mess of my plate trying to pick them up with those two tiny sticks! And there were no forks in the entire establishment so I was stuck with hacking my way through the meal. I'm sure I provided ample entertainment for the staff because I definitely seemed to be the only one struggling in the entire restaurant.

Bravo Pizza
360 7th Avenue, Midtown/Garment District

Our taste of New York style pizza was not a pleasant one. Granted, it was very, very late - around 12:30 AM I believe and this was pretty much one of the only places still open that looked somewhat clean. However, the pizza was overly greasy, the sauce was too sweet, and everything was incredibly overwhelming. I also ordered a salad on the side because after all the sugar and salt I had consumed that day, my body was craving something plant-based. I thought everything was quite expensive for the quality. I would not recommend this place.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters
18 West 29th Street, Chelsea

This is where we grabbed coffee early Sunday morning. A cute little coffee shop located in the basement of the Ace hotel, I enjoyed petting the numerous numbers of little dogs who came to the shop with their owners while out for their morning walk. The coffee, while still delicious and smooth, was a little on the weak side for our tastes. I felt like our lattes were infused with a single shot of a espresso rather than two. I enjoyed the coffee at Birch more.

Laduree Patisserie
864 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side

Paul and I have been longtime lovers of macarons. So, it was a no-brainer when I read about my friend Diana's most recent trip to NYC on her blog (in search of tips before our trip) and she mentioned purchasing macarons from this cute little patisserie that we were going to head there in search of those delicate little cookies as well. Luckily for us, Laduree has two locations - one in SoHo and another on the Upper East Side just two blocks away from the Frick Collection. It was the perfect place to stop in for a snack after perusing all that beautiful art. Since we were starving, we ended up purchasing a walnut croissant and a selection of six macarons - passion fruit, coffee, cherry almond, pistachio, blackberry, and strawberry cream. Everything was a bit pricey - the macarons were about two dollars a piece and they are tiny ones! The croissant was another four dollars but it was quite large, certainly enough for us to share. The croissant was absolutely heavenly - a sweet and nutty filling hidden inside beautifully flakey, buttery dough. I instantly regretted having to share it with Paul when I took my first bite. The macarons on the other hand, while very good, were not the best I have had. The flavor of the fillings were very bright in flavor but I felt as if the cookie itself was off a bit in texture. The best macarons we have ever had came from a tiny little french bakery in Ithaca, NY and we are still in search of ones that live up to those!

Breads Bakery
18 East 16th Street, Union Square

Based on another recommendation from Diana, we headed to Breads bakery in search of chocolate babka. I had read in a Serious Eats article about Breads' unique take on the tradtional chocolate babka. They utilize a laminated dough over the traditional enriched, egg-heavy bread of most bakeries as well as a nutella-based filling. I wanted to try this unconventional take on the babka so we headed there for a loaf to bring home with us. While we were waiting in line, Paul also spied an almond cookie with strawberry filling that looked appealing, so we purchased one of those as well. Paul ate the cookie at Union Square Park before we continued heading into the Lower East Side and you would not believe how much he raved about it. He still claims that that cookie was the single best thing he ate in NYC. I have no comment on that cookie since he gobbled it down without sharing. The babka, however, was divine. I enjoyed a slice for breakfast as we were driving home the next morning but then the majority of the rest of the loaf was demolished by Matthew. He literally sat at the counter and helped himself to the entire thing. I told him he could have a slice (singular) and then headed outside to pick up after the dog. When I came back inside, I found only a small end piece remained from the entire loaf and Matthew sitting there licking chocolate from his fingers and declaring that snack one of the best of his life. Pretty high recommendation coming from him!

Katz's Delicatessen
205 East Houston Street, East Village

Paul and I knew that we wanted to sample some type of traditional New York deli while we were in the area and we figured that there was probably no better place than the famous Katz's Delicatessen. I expected crowds for I was sure that this was a tourist hot spot, but I was completely unprepared for the utter commotion that was ordering at Katz's. First, they have a bouncer type set up at the door where a beefy, stern man hands you a ticket and orders you firmly, "Don't lose this or we'll never ever let you out!" Once we got our tickets and squeezed our way inside, we found that you could either wait for one of the limited dine-in tables in the way back where a waiter will take your order and bring you your meal directly to your table, or you could go to one of seven ordering stations and wait in line there for your turn. We were told that there was a long wait for the waiter option, so we found our way to what Paul thought was the shorter of the seven lines and stood there for nearly an hour. I was quite claustraphobic in this setting because there were people squeezing their way in and out, balancing trays piled high with sandwiches, coleslaw, and matzo ball soup, and nobody was particularly friendly. I began to stress about how, once we got our food, we would ever find a table because there seemed to be literally 400 people scrambling to eat in there. However, I needn't have worried, for when it finally came time for us to order, our "meat carver" was so pleasant and jolly that he made me finally relax. He gave us samples of the corned beef with mustard and then we ended up ordering a Pastrami Sandwich on Rye to split along with extra pickles. As soon as we turned around with our tray to find a table, one opened up right in front of us and we immediately grabbed it. Luckily, it ended up being the table where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal shared a meal while filming When Harry Met Sally which, being a huge fan of that movie, was a stupid-special moment for me. And our sandwich - piled high with hot, freshly sliced pastrami with a generous smear of mustard on thinly sliced rye - was incredible. It was so large, that I could not imagine eating a whole sandwich on my own! I could barely finish the half I had! My only complaint was, as a pickle fanatic, I found their pickles a little off-putting. The sour pickles had a strange, allspice after taste to them and I really did not enjoy the slightly mushy texture of the sweeter pickles. After our meal, I enjoyed perusing the back wall of the restaurant and seeing all of the many, many pictures of various celebrities and political heroes who have paid a visit to the restaurant. It was really impressive! Despite the pickle disappointment and the massive crowd of fellow sandwich-seekers, our experience at Katz's was an extremely pleasant one!

Baked NYC
279 Church Street, Tribeca

You have probably heard me mention the Baked cookbook on more than one occasion on this blog. Their brownies were a revelation for me and their creative, not-too-sweet layer cakes have been among the finest desserts to come out of my kitchen. Naturally, I just had to visit one of their many locations across the city and, since we were wandering around Soho/Tribeca area, we went to their location in that area which, I believe, is one of their newer spots. The atmosphere was akin to that of a hipster coffee shop and Paul was thrilled to find that they did serve coffee drinks there along with a wide variety of desserts and cake, many which I recognized from their famous cookbooks. When we arrived, they were actually in the middle of their "Cake Happy Hour" where you may purchase a slice of cake for half off. Naturally, we jumped on that and ordered a slice of the Malted Chocolate Cake along with a glass of milk (for Paul) and a Nitro cold brew coffee. The cake was everything I knew to expect from a Baked cake - not too sweet, slightly salty, with a light crumb. I loved the malted flavor and was very happy to try a cake that I had not yet baked from their cookbook. The bubbly nitro coffee was fantastic - probably the best coffee we had during our entire time in NYC. On top of it, the staff was so fun and friendly. I highly recommend this place!

The Lobster Place
75 9th Avenue, Chelsea (Inside The Chelsea Market)

Amid the overall crowded and underwhelming Chelsea Market, we were so glad to find this gem of a seafood market. An amazing variety of fresh seafood lined the room, large tanks in the back held live lobsters freshly caught from Maine, and several centrally located bar arrangements featured sushi chefs crafting fresh sashimi to order, boiling lobster for some incredible-looking fresh lobster rolls, or shucking clams and oysters to be served on the half shell. We immediately pulled up to the oyster bar and ordered a variety of the sweetest oysters to try. It was quite the experience watching the shucking and preparation process of the various platters, one I will never forget! And when our oysters came, they were among the best I have ever had. So refreshing! If seafood is your thing, this place is really worth the visit!

Whole Foods Market
1095 6th Avenue, Midtown

So tired were we from all of our touring, that we decided to take it easy on our last day and had a lame picnic-style dinner on our bed in the hotel room. We picked up a bottle of wine, some cheese, and a loaf of bread as big of your head at Whole Foods. I also visited the fresh food bar and dumped a bunch of arugula in the bottom of a to-go box and topped it with a variety of the various prepared salads they were featuring. While certainly an anticlimactic way to end our weekend of touring, it was pretty perfect given the circumstances and was actually really, incredibly delicious!

Until next time NYC!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Our Whirlwind Tour of New York City: Part III

Sunday morning, our last full day in the city, we had every intention of waking up at 6:00 AM and getting out on the streets to jump-start our final day of touring before the rest of New York City awoke. We were pretty zonked from the previous day so we actually slept in until 7:00 and did not regret it one bit. After a quick shower, we headed out to catch the Staten Island ferry in search of some gorgeous views of the New York City harbor, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island. We chose to bypass taking one of the Liberty cruises that will take you directly to Liberty Island and Ellis Island for tours since they were a bit pricey and crowded. The Staten Island ferry gets you very close to the statue, operates every half hour continuously, and is completely free. Since it was still fairly early in the morning by the time we got down there, there was probably only a dozen other people boarding the ferry at the same time. It was kind of neat having the entire boat for ourselves. The views of the harbor were stunning and the cool breeze against our faces was simultaneously refreshing and relaxing. Seeing Lady Liberty was a thrill and I couldn't help but imagine what the hundreds of thousands of immigrants, including members of my own family, must have felt when that statue finally came into view, signaling the end of their long journey and welcoming them home to a country that held so much promise for a new life, a new start, a new beginning. One can't help but get emotional while gazing upon Lady Liberty. Paul and I hardly spoke at all as we just stood there and let the moment sink in.

All too soon, our journey to Staten Island was over and we quickly disembarked and then basically turned right back around in the ferry station and re-boarded the boat to head back to Manhattan. Sorry, Staten Island, but we had no plans to tour you! Unlike our trip out, the return ferry was absolutely packed with people heading into Manhattan, but we managed to squeeze our way to the outdoor deck on the side of the ferry not facing the statue and just enjoyed the ride back while basking in the sunlight and watching the tug boats go by. It was pretty relaxing and I darn near fell asleep. I'm pretty sure that Paul actually did take a little snooze on the way back but that's not entirely surprising given his talent for falling asleep anywhere.

When we disembarked, we headed into the financial district of Manhattan. Paul really wanted to take a good look at the Wall Street Bull, but unfortunately just as we were walking up to it, two big tour buses stopped and about 300 hundred Asian tourists piled out and started swarming all over the bull. There was simply no way we were going to get a decent picture, so we just kept walking. We found Trinity Church, the famous Episcopal structure that has provided a place for worship and burial since 1697. It was amazing to gaze upon an edifice that has been a staple of worship in New York since this country's very beginnings. Perusing through the old cemetery outside the church, we found headstones that had been erected hundreds of years ago, including the oldest discernible stone placed by grieving parents in 1681 over the grave of their young son. We also easily found the graves of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury and one of my favorite historical figures (long before they decided to turn his life story into a rap musical) and Robert Fulton. I was excited to point out the Robert Fulton grave to Paul since, being a mechanical engineer, this guy should be one of his heroes. My excitement quickly turned to horror when I realized that Paul had absolutely no idea who Robert Fulton was. So, for the next few blocks, Paul had to put up with me giving him a quick synopsis of Robert Fulton's life and accomplishments, including how he made travel by steamboat possible and designed the first practical submarine The Nautilus for Napoleon Bonaparte. Given Paul's interest in engines and transportation machinery, I was happy to fill the gaps in his education with the life story of this early American engineer. Paul just walked faster to try to get away from me.

The night before, we had looked up mass times and schedules for the lower Manhattan area and our next destination was attending Mass at Saint Joseph's chapel right next to the Freedom Tower. In this tiny chapel, we were pleased to see that it was absolutely packed to capacity with fellow Mass-goers, including quite a few families with young children. The Mass was lovely but hardly peaceful. The many families around us struggled with their young, rebelling children during the entirety of the Mass. Paul and I found the occasional screams and shrieks from the back of the room rather comical and refreshing, especially since it was so nice to be on the other side of that scenario for once. Normally we are the ones juggling children and rushing to the back of the church to shush them while sweating and blushing profusely out of anxiety for disturbing our fellow parishioners. In all actuality, it made me miss our kids a lot.

After Mass, Paul really wanted to eat but I wanted to keep moving on our tour of lower Manhattan since we had to wrap it up quick to get back to the Frick Collection in time for the discounted tour! We headed over to the 9/11 Memorial and the Freedom Tower which proved to be far more emotional than I was prepared for. I could not help but tear up while gazing at the touching memorial to the thousands of lives lost in the senseless attacks over 15 years ago. Paul and I exchanged stories about where we were while we watched and listened as the events of that terrible day unfolded. Standing on the exact spot where so much devastation had taken place was emotionally overwhelming. However, it also provided us with the opportunity to reflect upon all the acts of heroism, love, and compassion that also occurred that day, strengthening my conviction that people are really basically good and even in the darkest of times, light can always be found. And on that terrible day that light came in the form of the thousands of firefighters, policeman, aid workers, paramedics, doctors, and volunteers who gave their blood, sweat, tears, and, in some tragic cases, their lives, to help the wounded, recover the dead, and protect the living. And, when the dust had finally settled, an entire nation of people came together to mourn, to grieve, and to pray. While terrible and painful to think about, gazing up at the Freedom Tower, which now stands tall and proud where its predecessors once fell, it is inspiring to think about how people find a way to come together and rebuild even after the unthinkable. Like I said, that visit was very emotional and left me with a lot to think about as we began our walk back uptown.

We finally made it to the Frick Collection just in time for the pay-as-you-wish time period. As soon as we got inside the foyer, I started snapping pictures like mad but was soon accosted by a member of the museum staff who sternly told me that no photos were allowed lest they confiscate my cell phone. So, sorry, the only pictures I got were the few I shot before almost getting kicked out. Needless to say, the mansion was breathtakingly opulent and the art in the collection was mesmerizing. Paul and I both enjoyed walking slowly from room to room and gazing upon painting after painting. We eventually found the piece we were seeking - the stunning portrait of Saint Thomas More, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger eight years before More's beheading at the hands of King Henry VIII. The portrait of More was on one side of an elaborate fireplace with a portrait of Thomas Cromwell, also painted by Hans Holbein, hanging on the opposite side. Thomas Cromwell was instrumental in helping Henry VIII divorce his first wife in order to marry Anne Boleyn and some accounts say that he conspired to get rid of Thomas More in order to obtain the Chancellorship for himself and viciously carry out King Henry's reformation by squashing the church of Rome. The portrait of Thomas Cromwell, depicting an uptight, angry, and soulless man, was a sharp contrast to the serene, kind, confident and calm demeanor displayed on the face of Thomas More. Very interesting given how history played out between these two figures - one is now a revered and loved saint of the Catholic Church while the other is generally considered a historical villain. Interesting that the artist seemed to capture the contrasting disposition of these two men in his work.

Completely satisfied with our tour of the Frick Collection, a very famished Paul and I then made our way up to a French bakery for some walnut croissants and macarons for lunch. We devoured the croissant on our way to the subway, but saved the macarons for a more idyllic noshing location. We took the subway down to Union Square where we alighted and found another bakery I wanted to visit - on the recommendation of my friend Diana - and try their non-traditional version of Chocolate Babka. We picked up a loaf and then made our way to Union Square Park where we feasted on our macarons in the shade while listening to a guy philosophize loudly from a nearby park bench to whomever would listen. Paul and I kept cracking up at all the ridiculous things the guy would spout off. Our favorite rant had to do with "the perceived stereotype that black men love their mothers and white men hate their mothers." I had personally never heard of this stereotype before, but the guy went on and on about why this was absolutely ridiculous and that "black guys can hate on their mamas just as well as the white guys." Words can't describe how much this guy cracked us up. The best part was that there was this very, very old man sitting on the bench next to him who acted completely oblivious to the ranting happening right next to him. Our philosopher would even ask the old guy every once and a while "You know what I"m sayin'?" only to receive a blank stare. It was our afternoon entertainment.

The Philosopher.

Then, we took off on a walking tour where we just meandered in and out of the different Manhattan neighborhoods. This was fun, relaxing, and a bit freeing since we didn't have anything truly specific that we needed to get to and we had fun just meandering about. We did stop for lunch at the famous Katz Delicatessen once we got into that area and we sat at the same table where Sally displayed her penchant for theatrics in front of both a packed restaurant and a mortified Harry. The pastrami piled high on rye was absolutely on point - especially when paired with the excellent mustard they slathered on the bread.

Then, we meandered through the Bowery, Greenwich Village, Tribeca, Soho, and headed north into Chelsea. We walked along the Chelsea pier and the walking path that parallels the shoreline, cutting up into the meat-packing district where we found the entrance to the High Line, a rooftop park path that extends for about a mile and a half and features some pretty incredible views of the city. I wasn't a huge fan of the High Line because, although the concept was very neat, it was so crowded that I couldn't really enjoy walking up there. While I was shuffling along at one point, I nonchalantly dropped my hand and grabbed Paul's hand to hold as we walked slowly along. Only, I realized quickly that the hand I was holding was much to soft and small to be Paul's. I hadn't realized that Paul had actually moved on ahead, dodging past a slow-walking couple in front of us, and I had in fact grabbed the hand of some poor old lady walking with her husband. She and I laughed about it and then I went and caught up to the husband who had abandoned me.

After exiting the High Line, we headed into the Chelsea Market since I had read in my guide book that it was a destination for foodies. Being the foodie I am, I decided to take a peek. Overall, I was pretty unimpressed with the selection of shops and eateries inside with the exception of the seafood market where they were selling the freshest, most wonderful fish and shellfish I have ever seen. They had a "lobster bar" where you could order freshly made lobster rolls as well as an "oyster" bar where you could pull up a chair and order a variety of fresh oysters, clams, lobster, or prawns and then watch as they shuck, clean, and assemble your platter right in front of you. Paul and I, being lovers of oysters, pulled up couple stools and ordered a sampler platter of local oysters. I had thoroughly enjoyed just watching the men behind the counter work at shucking the oysters - they were fast! When our oysters arrived, they lasted a whole 10 seconds before we slurped them down. They were so good and so refreshing! Best oysters I've had yet.

After our delicious oysters, we continued casually strolling through Chelsea and back into the neighborhood of our hotel. We took a quick break in our room and then realized that we hadn't actually taken a photo outside of Rockefeller Center. So, we headed out the door and made the walk up 6th street to Rockefeller Plaza which is right by Saint Patrick's Cathedral, so I have no idea why we didn't take our photo the day before. It was gorgeous to see at night though and not nearly as crowded as during the day! They had some weird blow-up ballerina thing in the center of the plaza and I have no idea what that was for but I thought it kind of ruined our pictures. We continued to stroll around a bit and enjoy the lights and the lack of crowds. It was kind of nice to imagine that we had New York to ourselves for a bit!

Realizing that it was fairly late - almost 9:30 pm - and that we really hadn't had a proper meal most of the day other than the ginormous sandwich we split at Katz's, Paul and I tried to figure out a place to eat for our last night in New York. I'm almost embarrassed to admit how lame we were, but we were both so exhausted from the excitement of the last couple of days that neither of us really felt like going to a restaurant. So, we hit up a Whole Foods not too far from our hotel and I made myself the most glorious salad ever while Paul bought a loaf of bread the size of Staten Island and a wedge of Gruyere. We also grabbed a bottle of Riesling. We brought our food back to our hotel and had a picnic dinner on our bed while watching sitcoms on Nick at Nite. It was wonderful, relaxing, and, while certainly lame to be eating a grocery store dinner while visiting a city renowned for its cuisine, absolutely perfect after such an exhausting day.

We arose at 5:00 AM the next day, showered and got our things together, and then made the depressing walk to the subway to catch the train that would take us to Grand Central and then back to White Plains to pick up our car and make the long drive home. I was sad to see our time in New York end so quickly, but I was very satisfied by how much we saw in our short time and how comfortable we became with navigating around the city. It was a wonderful experience and I can't wait to go back again sometime! It has probably replaced Chicago as my favorite large city. There is just so much history, so much culture, and so much to see crammed into the small little area that comprises New York City. If you have the chance to visit, I urge you to do so! Matthew is making me promise to bring him next time I go. We'll see!