Your Vacation Essentials

I leave for Cabo in exactly 68 hours -- but I mean, who’s counting?

Obviously, I’ve been looking forward to this vacation for a while. Over the past few years, it’s become an annual family retreat where we get to kick it under the sun together, catch some waves and drink endless carafes of sangria.  To top it off, my cousins from California are joining us with their babies this time. So, it should be a real treat!

In preparation, I’ve drafted up a Vacation Essentials guide, detailing the top 5 things you should be bringing with you on your next warm-weather retreat… 

Go-To Clothes

Every woman I know has been guilty of over packing. It’s as if we’re programmed to jam half of our closet into one suitcase – you know, “just in case” we need both the magenta and the forest-green leg warmers for our trip to Miami. It’s stupid. And it’s especially stupid when you’re going on a blissful, relaxing getaway where the whole point of the trip is to simplify. So, where do you start? First, make a list and be realistic. You truly need only a few items: necessary toiletries & undergarments, sunglasses, about 2-3 bathing suits, a pair of sandals, sneaks and maybe heels, a few light sundresses, one cover-up in case it’s cold and maybe 1-2 outfits for dining out. Remember: minimalist-chic is in these days, anyway.

Tip: As for choosing which outfits will make the cut, the trick is to honestly ask yourself “would I wear item X right this moment if I was at my destination?” If the answer is no, then you probably won’t wear it period.  Only pack your absolute favorites!

A Good Book

… or five. Thanks to some wonderful gift-giving friends, I’ll be bringing The Paris Review Interviews Volumes I & II for skim-reading, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please! for laughs, and a T.S. Eliot classic to delve into for good measure. I like having different books for different moods, but magazines are always a great poolside hit, too. If you’re more of an auditory learner, download your podcasts or books on tape before you get on the plane so you don’t have to worry about getting a good wifi connection. 

Podcast Suggestions: Alan Watts, Freakonomics, Planet Money

Your Version of A Journal

Call me a dork, but I grew up journaling while traveling and it’s something I’ve always held onto. The act of handwriting something down triggers a different area of your brain and facilitates better recall – and if I want to remember anything, it’s definitely how I felt while on vacation. It’s also therapeutic to take a few moments to reflect and soak up the relaxing vibes. Of course, reading back through vacation/travel journals is a little gift in and of itself and only gets better with time.

Side note: for people who really have a tough time “turning off” from the daily grind while on vacay, journaling is even more helpful. Create a small section of “to do’s.” Next time you’re trying to sip on a Pina Colada and that nagging voice pops up reminding you of an e-mail you forgot to answer before you left, just jot the item down along with a reminder to yourself of why it’s not urgent. Trust me, it helps – this goes for any type of anxiety, too, not just the work-related kind. It’s like transferring your problems to a sheet of paper that you can pick back up on when you return home.

Good Health 

The last way anyone wants to feel when they de-board the plane for vacation is stressed. Unfortunately, that’s usually exactly how people feel, especially when you hail from the Northeast. We work harder and longer than most folks and endure some of the worst winter weather, period. And it’s hard to turn off from all of that sometimes. Personally, I’ve been terribly guilty of this in the past, so there’s a few things I’ve learned.   First, cut out heavy drinking for a full week before you leave, if not more. You don’t want to risk being sleep-deprived, bloated, and worst of all, sick. Second, eat healthfully. It doesn’t mean you need to starve yourself, but you want to look and feel good for your trip. I stick to lots of fruits, vegetables, fish and olive oil before I head out for vacation (and try to in general, as well). Naturally I still allow a little bit of cheese and a glass of wine if I want it (after all, I am preparing for vacation.) For some added health benefits, I also plan to incorporate a fresh juice or smoothie these next 3 days prior to leaving!

A Positive Attitude

Attitude is everything in this world. Whether your flight gets delayed or you forget something important, there’s always something that is bound to go askew. And even if things pan out well logistically, we sometimes build up high expectations around the most irrational aspects of our trip, allowing minor things to bother us much more than they normally would (e.g. a silly quarrel with your significant other or having a sub-par meal out). But just remember the age-old saying that goes “don’t sweat the small stuff… and it’s all small stuff” and you should be just fine.

How do you prepare for vacation? Leave your ideas in the comments below!

4 Easy Ways to Spruce up Your Apartment

This is the time of year where I start getting the itch to emerge from hibernation and spend more time outside. Then I inevitably realize it's still a cool 30 degrees outside. Le sigh. But besides an enormous spring clean (which we'll get to eventually on here) there are some SUPER simple and affordable ways to bring a little more light and life into your apartment. Here are my four favorites:

Buy  Some Flowers

I can distinctly remember being a little girl and telling myself “when I get older, I’m going to buy myself fresh flowers every week.” For whatever reason, that signified some sort of mature indulgence to me at the time.  To be truthful, though, I only recently started fulfilling that promise. And you know what? It makes a really big difference. As humans, we’re biophiliacs by nature – we gravitate toward other living things. So, with a winter this cold, in a city this devoid of much plant life, fresh flowers can make all the difference.  Trader Joes/any bodega sells bouquets for as low as $2.99 (5 sunflowers pictured were $3.99). Trim the stems and add a squeeze of lemon and a packet of sugar and you’ll have lively flowers for a week +.

Light a Candle

Our sense of smell is the strongest one when it comes to recalling memories. So, it only makes sense that a specific scent can translate to a specific kind of happiness. Some people love the smell of vanilla or brown sugar, while others prefer citrusy scents or various flowers and spices. Personally, the food-themed candles are a little too much for me, but I’m a sucker for beachy/woodsy scents. This Woodwick candle “at the beach” has been so comforting and refreshing lately. Plus, it actually crackles as it burns, making me almost feel like I’m at a firepit on the beach.

Stock the Fridge

Few things are as rejuvenating as a recently cleaned, fully restocked fridge. As a foodie, this is, like, duh. Think about it: food is our nourishment. It should appeal to us aesthetically as well as nutritionally. I love opening my refrigerator and seeing a bunch of multicolored fruits alongside a variation of fresh veggies, delicious cheeses and a bundle of prosciutto or fresh shrimp. To give it a shot, simply try 1) cleaning out your fridge and then 2) making a homemade pitcher of sangria and a fresh batch of guac. Just imagine… colorful flowers, the scent of the beach, and you, kicked back with a glass of sangria and some Mexican food. You startin’ to feel me, here?

Re-organize Your Closet

In my old apartment I had a tiny hallway closet, so most of my clothes were hung on a free-standing garment rack in my room. This meant that I had to look at my clothes all the time, which isn’t necessarily exciting when you have a bunch of business suits staring back at you. To compensate, I put all of my work clothes and the majority of my darker clothes in the tiny hallway closet. Then, I used the garment rack to display my most colorful clothes in an appealing manner. When neatly organized, it was fun seeing my favorite red dress hanging next to my Peruzzi white leather jacket and my cobalt blue jeans. Moral of the story? Don’t underestimate the power of color.

Q&A with NYC's Chopped Champion Emily Chapman!

While perusing Facebook, you always come across old high school classmates – and some are more interesting than others. Emily Chapman is one of the interesting ones, and truth is, she always has been. Emily always had a genuine edge to her. No one could argue that. So, when photos of her crafting up delicious-looking, handmade delicacies at NYC hotspot Louro started popping up on my newsfeed, I was impressed (and immediately hungry), but I wasn’t necessarily shocked. When she made a status about appearing on Chopped, though? That got me pumped. Being on Chopped is the coolest. thing. ever. I think it’s the most intelligent and creative cooking show on T.V., and the fact that (spoiler alert) Emily won it all gets me psyched! Check out my Q&A with the Louro NYC Chef below.

1.       So, first off, congrats on the win! I would imagine Chopped is one of the most noticeable chef ‘medals’ out there, so to speak. What made you decide to apply and how did you end up getting a spot to compete?
Thanks for the congrats. Funny enough I didn't even sign myself up to be on this show. A friend and fellow chef of mine, Russell Jackson, had worked with me on a few occasions and was really impressed with my passion and drive. When I saw him again a short while after, he had informed me that he had told the Food Network that he knew a chef he felt would rock out on the show (his words, not mine). I thought he was talking about my boss, and I was like wow that's great for Dave! I was then informed that it was not Dave he was implying, but myself.

2.       What were you most nervous/excited about prior to competing, if anything?
 Going on national television is a nervous feeling, regardless of what it's for. A competition is a competition, but you know that millions of people will be watching you. So there really isn't any room for error. Another very stressful aspect is that youre not just representing yourself, but the restaurant you work for and every single chef that has ever trained you. That's a lot of pressure (I mean, if you care about your former chefs). I was excited too. I mean, its a great opportunity that lots of chefs/cooks would love to have, so I was very grateful.

3.       Which ingredient was most challenging and what did you do with it?
The ham steak. I don't know what it is about that thing, but I just dont like it. I remember eating it as a kid, and just not liking it. When I saw it, I was fairly grateful because it was the deciding factor on my final dish. I saw ham, and then lemon lime soda, so I instantly knew I would do a version of pho. I should have taken more time to try and enhance it a bit more, but I knew that the most important aspect of that dish would be executing the broth. I mean, thirty minutes people!

4.       I hear it’s true: you really do see the ingredients right before the clock starts. What is your #1 tip for cooking under such pressure?
Yup, it's true. You see the ingredients in real time. I was actually happy about that. I was glad the show was real. But tips for cooking under pressure? Anyone who saw my episode knows that I was a shakey disaster in the first round. It's just really overwhelming. Theres a clock going, and a LOT of cameras and people following you around and are all up in your face. The thing that switched for me mentally was when I finally figured out my dish. Then it's just having confidence, I cook every day for more than 12 hours. If I don't have a natural instinct to just keep cooking, I shouldn't be in this business! lol

5.       New York City is saturated with good grub. Can you depict your ideal food day and where you would have breakfast, lunch and dinner?
Breakfast... hmm. Not much of a breakfast person. If I do, I just like bagels. Bagels on the Square are my favorite, and Jack's Coffee is my ultimate saving grace (Mad Max is the way to go). Lunch is easy, I'll give you my top three. The beet sandwich at Little Park; a paratha roll from Mirch Masala; or surplus of food, especially soup dumplings, from Hot Kitchen. Dinner for me I have three "go tos" Uncle Boons, Dirt Candy, and call me bias, but Louro.

6.       And finally, there was a part during the introductions where you mentioned currently “having no fear” and that’s something that caught my attention. Because from my personal perspective, I never remember you having any fear. How has cooking brought about, or fine-tuned, your sense of fearlessness?
Having no fear starts with believing in yourself. Once you can do that, there really isn't anything left to be afraid of. Cooking has allowed me to get my self confidence back. Knowing that I am talented, that my strive and prickly personality actually can coincide with one another; that's what this industry has allowed me. I can be myself, feel comfortable doing so, and help round out some edges. (Lord knows, I had(ve) a lot of edges!)

March in NYC

As both the great outdoors and the good people of Facebook have continued to remind us, it’s effing cold and windy outside and this winter feels like it is NEVER going to end.  But it will, and it all starts with March. Or, so we hope, anyway. While you can drink yourself stupid any day of the year, March provides a plethora of opportunities to do so - what with Americans’ deconstructed understanding of St. Patty’s Day and all. Nevertheless, drinking opportunities are aplenty, so I won’t even get into them here. Below are this month’s “Top” events, designed to expand your mind (or your taste buds) rather than kill your brain cells. Enjoy!

1.       BJORK

Call me biased, but this woman is a genius in every sense of the word. Prolific as ever, Bjork is touring New York this spring with a series of intimate shows at City Center and Carnegie Hall. I scooped up tickets early at $50 but, unfortunately for many, they’ve now skyrocketed on Stub Hub. If you can’t afford to catch a show, grab a ticket to NYC’s Governor’s Ball (which you should be doing anyway - $135). She performs on day 2, Saturday. Oh, AND she has her own retrospective on exhibit at MOMA, featuring much of her life’s work thus far, beginning March 8th ($25 to enter MoMA – or free if you’ve got a corporate relationship!)

2.       The Amory Show

Continuing the theme, March is a truly phenomenal month for art in NYC. Sprawled out over two piers (92 & 94), The Armory Show is a breathtaking, immersive display of over 2,000 pieces of art. The breadth and depth of exhibitors is absolutely unparalleled anywhere else in New York. With how large the showcases are, it’s an easy way to spend an evening out.    

3.  Entrepreneurs Festival

Check out a showcase of 80+ startups, plus speakers, panels, parties and roundtables, all taking place at NYU’s Tisch Hall.  

4.      Brisket King

Head over to the Irondale Center in BK to taste endless brisket by competing chefs, along with spirits and craft beer, of course.

5.      New Directors Film Festival

If New York is known for anything, it’s known as the hotspot for up-and-coming talent, regardless the industry. Check out this 10-day event at Lincoln Center and MOMA to see the work of emerging, international filmmakers. +5 for bragging rights and fodder for dinner table discussion.

6.       Flower Festival

Lord knows, we need some color in lives with all this cold. Get out and shoo the winter away at this year’s annual Macy’s Flower Show (who knew this even existed?)

7.      Restaurant Tasting

Head over to the Metropolitan Pavilion and indulge yourself in food samples from 50 restraurants and 35 nations – all chosen by the ever-trusty Village Voice food critics. With your ticket comes complimentary, paired drinks. Naturally.

Top NYC Speakeasies

Last week, I brought you to PDT down in the East Village, aka my favorite speakeasy to date. While it is easily the most well-hidden speakeasy with the best drinks, it's also the most well-known and so, not surprisingly, the toughest to get into. So, that being said, there are a few other hot contenders I'd like to share.

Back Room: Back Room is an actual operating speakeasy from the 1920s where the likes of Lucky Luciano hung out for "business meetings." I've never experienced a wait here and it's great for groups. The velvety-fireplace-gentleman's-living-room vibe has a low-key allure to it. And the novelty of having your drink served in a tea cup/paper bag doesn't wear off. Located somewhere on Norfolk St., this is one place that I've been to three times and each time I have trouble finding it. Look for the guy in a long black jacket posted up by an alleyway down a set of stairs. Oh, and keep an eye out for celebs, they love it here.

Blind Barber: Located on East 11th, the Blind Barber is a little easier to find than most speakeasies since there's always a line outside of it. Blind Barber actually operates as a barber shop during the day. Guests walk through a barely-lit barbershop and a secret door opens to boisterous party area. You'll get in eventually - you just have to wait (or throw the bouncer a $20). Once inside, the DJ plays awesome throwback hip-hop and there's a small room in the very back that's been converted to a library for those of a more quaint persuasion. 

Employees Only: Tucked behind a Psychic's curtain, Employees Only lies in my beloved West Village on Hudson Street. Matt took me here three long years ago and I was totally smitten - you know, with the bar ;). This place is best for dates - it's small with lots of sit-down tables and the food is just as delicious as the very well-touted cocktails. However, the bar area definitely gets brimming, too, so I wouldn't rule that out. Plus, it's in the West Village, so #win.

Know any speakeasies we missed!? Comment below!

Shh... Please Don't Tell (my favorite nyc speakeasy)

Two things New Yorkers love: a good cocktail and a great secret.

These days, the former can absolutely still be promised - and the latter can be, too, albeit a little less seriously. While modern-day speakeasies don't boast the secretive nature they once lived and died by (what with the internet and no more prohibition), reservations and even the actual location of some of these places can still elude even the most savviest of New Yorkers. Luckily, I've made my way around a drink or two these past three years, so I have some first-hand experiences to share. I'll start with my favorite (and most recent) one:

My birthday was this past Sunday and, for it, my boyfriend told me he had a little surprise planned out. The one catch? He'd have to make a call at 3PM and wasn't positive it would all work out. Lo and behold, 3PM came and 'a' call turned into about 40 straight calls. My second-hand anxiety kicked into gear. I didn't want him worrying about a reservation - there were a million places we could go.

So, he finally opened up: he wanted to take me to the famed speakeasy "Please Don't Tell" down in the East Village. Once he finally got through to the other end of the line, though, the reservations were all booked and our only chance was to go early and get in line (PDT opens daily at 6PM). We thought about it over a couple glasses of wine and decided to go for it. 

We arrived at 5PM at Crif Dogs on St. Marks and 1st Ave. The small hot dog joint only had a few customers, 4 of who were already posted up near at the telephone booth (i.e. the secret passageway entrance to PDT!). Luckily, they bailed after a few minutes, which made us first in line.

We took up two stools, ordered some cheese fries, and made ourselves right at home. As we waited, we watched Bruce Lee's "Enter The Dragon" on one of Crif Dog's super-old mini TVs while DMX's "Slippin" played in the background. I swear, the music went perfectly with the "boards, don't hit back" scene. Easily one of the highlights of the evening.

nyway, by the time 6PM neared, a line of 15 or so people had formed behind us. The light blinked on in the phone booth and I stepped inside to dial 1. 

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We made it! We were the first two people in and were placed in the best seats in the house, right at the bar. Sitting at the bar at a mixology lounge like PDT is like sitting at the Sushi bar of a great chef - it's a real treat! We skimmed through the menu and decided that the more ingredients we had never heard of, the better. Then, we watched our bartender "Long" work his magic crafting up the two most delicious cocktails either of us had ever tasted, period.

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A fun part about PDT is that you get to sip on the most perfectly crafted cocktail you've ever had and then order cheese fries and a hot dog! And even the food comes through a secret trap door from the kitchen. Even though we had ordered cheese fries already, we obviously went ahead and got another round + 2 dogs. 

After two fantastic hours, we decided to head home to catch SNL 40 (how good!?). But before that, I had a birthday beer back out in Crif Dogs, Matt tried on a new friend's hat and we ordered 1 last round of cheese fries. Naturally.

While PDT has been my favorite speakeasy to date, there are a few other standbys that I've come to love (and aren't quite as much of a hassle to get into!) Tune in next week to find out more of my favorite NYC secrets :

NYC Restaurant Week Picks 2015

Ah, yes, RESTAURANT WEEK. But before you throw down $38 + tax/tip too quickly, ask yourself this: are you sure it’s worth it? $38 for a three course meal sure sounds like a deal, but for those of us on a budget, it’d be wise to remind ourselves to still choose our restaurants carefully. But alas, have no fear, for I have done all the leg work for you, yet again. Criteria is listed below, based off a similar list I crafted this past summer:

1)     The Restaurant Must Serve Dinner (3 courses - $38)

$25 for lunch is great and all, but I’m not 75 years old so I really don’t have any interest in going out to eat at 1PM. Honestly, when was the last time you went out to lunch, let alone spent $25 on it?

2)     The Cuisine Must Be “Worth it”*

 French, Steak/Seafood, Upscale American New/Classic, Japanese

*If you’re spending $38 per person on Chinese or Mexican, you’re doing it wrong.

3)     The Ratings & Atmosphere Must Be Just Right

All 5 restaurants on the list are well rated, have something unique about them and are curated to keep you warm during this Polar Vortex we’re experiencing.  

 Top 5 Restaurant Week Recommendations

21 Club – Classic American – 23 Zagat – Midtown – Historic Speakeasy

*Manhattan’s Most Prestigious Landmark 2006 Wine & Dine

ACME – American New - 21 Zagat – Noho -  Sexy

*America’s 10 Sexiest Restaurants 2012 Details

Tavern On The Green – American – N/Y Rated – Central Park West – Classic

*Headed by noted chef Jeremiah Tower, recently renovated, in Central Park

Charlie Palmer Steak – Steakhouse – N/Y Rated – Midtown East – Fine Dining

*Surf n’ turf, locavore focus and 400+ wine list

Sarabeth’s CPW – American Comfort – 20 Zagat – Central Park South – Sophisticated Casual

*Traditional stand-by, located on CPS and has oysters on the RW app menu

5 Healthy, Affordable & Easy-to-Make Breakfasts for Work

I’m an all-out breakfast person. I have no lunch routine and can honestly do without it some days. As for dinner, it comes in a close second to breakfast, but oftentimes some wine and a little fruit & cheese platter will do the trick. Breakfast, on the other hand, I have no exceptions for. If I don’t eat a filling breakfast, I turn into a monster and I am not to be f-cked with under any circumstances.

In a perfect world where time and money flow freely, I would wake up every day the way I do when I’m on vacation - over the course of a drawn out, 2-3 hour breakfast. I’d kick things off with tall, cold glass of water with lemon, followed by a freshly-brewed cup of Rook coffee with a little heavy cream (swoon) all while enjoying some form of impressive literature, a.k.a the Saturday Comics. Then, about an hour later, I’d break out some fresh berries to nom on while my poached eggs with bacon-avocado toast was being magically made over a bed of fingerling potato-kale hash. Naturally, I’d be soaking all of this up on a porch somewhere overlooking the ocean with the sun rising and happy birds softly chirping along the horizon.

Unfortunately, the normal Monday-Friday does not allow for such a magnificent breakfast routine. And as someone who clearly has a strong affection for eating during A.M. hours, I’ve had a difficult time adjusting. To compensate, I used to order my breakfast daily from a midtown bodega near my office. Regularly, I would have two eggs over easy, a side of bacon, hash browns with cheese, onions and peppers, rye toast lightly buttered and some fruit. After a while, though, I knew I had to change things up. For one, I was in need of a nap or a long walk after eating every morning - neither of which is plausible at my place of work. More importantly though, I was spending close to $50 a week on breakfast (thank you, New York prices). That’s $200 a month on breakfast. Not necessary. So, I changed things up and crafted a new morning menu.

The criteria? Each breakfast has to be satisfying, healthy, and CHEAP. Of course, it was also important that each meal be easy to make and heat up, whether at home or at work. (NOTE: I’m all for the whole “don’t eat at your desk” thing, but when you don’t have a cafeteria, you don’t have a choice.)

1.     ‘Topped off’ rice & beans + an apple

Do you know how little it costs to cook a plate of rice & beans? And furthermore how delicious and nutritious it is? Brown rice costs pennies (even if you get the microwaveable kind) and it holds very well over time. Same goes for beans. Make a batch of each on Sunday and bring them to work in separate containers. For added deliciousness, slice up an avocado, pack a baggie of diced scallions & shredded cheese, and stash hot sauce at your desk. Hello, Latin-American vacation.

2.     Frittata & berries

A frittata is basically a quiche without the crust. It’s surprisingly easy to make as well. All you need is leftovers and eggs, really. I always have spinach and mushrooms in my fridge, in addition to some kind of cheese and I’m never short of potatoes. Here’s how to make it: sautee some potatoes with onions, adding in whatever veggies you have left over. In a separate bowl, scramble eggs with cheese (I recommend pepper jack for a kick and a good melt) and pour over top evenly. Do not stir. After a minute or two on the stove, pop the pan in a 375-degree oven for about 10 minutes. Now, just slice it equally into 4-6 large slices and you have a satisfying, hot breakfast for an entire week! Note: A mix of mozzarella and prosciutto is also delicious for this.

3.     Cereal + hardboiled egg + clementine

This is perfect if you, like I, have a work refrigerator with endless cartons of milk in it. Milk that’s always fresh + always free = deal. Trader Joe’s has healthy cereals for as low as $2.69, clementines come in packs of 16 or so for $4 and organic eggs cost $4-5 a carton. Basically, you’re getting 12 days of breakfast for less than $1 a day. Boom.

4.     Fresh Banana-nut / Apple-Pie Oatmeal

Sure, you can buy the steel-cut oats that will pretty much feed you for a year, but you can also “splurge” on the $3 boxes of 8 packets in the fun flavors of apple cinnamon, maple syrup, etc.. It’s still healthy, okay? Seriously. It is. To freshen it up, chop up apples (for the apple cinnamon pack) or slice a fresh banana (for the maple-syrup pack). Top it off with some crushed walnuts & a drizzle of honey (also stashed at your desk). For some protein, make the oatmeal with that free office-milk. Or, just boil an egg!

5.     Avocado-Bacon Toast

Okay, so you may or may not have a toaster at your office, but regardless, this toast is doable. Cook the bacon ahead of time and store it in the fridge. Mash up 1-2 ripe avocados and add a little lemon and sea salt. Toast up some version of a nutty, whole-grain bread, smear the goodness and top it off with a slice or two of bacon. It’s honestly as easy as that and should last you 2-3 days (a squeeze of fresh lemon does wonders). If you don’t have a toaster in your office, you can always swap the bread for a bodega-bagel OR, better yet, eat this breakfast at home

 Do you have a favorite breakfast that you audible to in the morning? Share below!