Sunday, July 24, 2016

NYC Adventures - July 2016

Last week, we took our family of five to Manhattan for a week. It was hot and humid and crowded (as NYC is), but we managed to give the kids a really good flavor of what NYC is like and some of idea of the iconic landmarks and cultural references alive in NYC.

[Photos to be added later. Hopefully.]

Several people have asked for our tips/tricks/things we learned. Here they are, in no particular order.

Added 7/25/16: This is the original list of sights and recommended restaurants we started from. Of the restaurants, we were only able to try Chelsea Market, Schmackary's Cookies, and The Melt Shop on this trip. I've previously eaten at Dos Caminos. All were fantastic.

  1. Don't drive into the city. Just don't do it. We park in the large transportation center in Stamford CT and take the Metro North commuter train (which runs 2-4 times/hour even on weekends) to Grand Central. Easy peasy.
  2. I prefer staying in midtown Manhattan - it's easy to get pretty much anywhere in a reasonable time. But the trade off is cost. It can get pricey. And midtown hotel rooms are small and very restricted about fitting a fifth person into a room designed for four. We would've had to pay for two hotel rooms, so found that renting a weekly apartment through was a better solution for us.
  3. Don't try the restaurants around Times Square. Nearly impossible without at least an hour wait which is unpleasant with hungry tired kids. Walk a block or two straight across to 8th or 9th Ave and you'll find ten bazillion fantastic unique restaurants to suit just about any taste and fanciness-level without the throngs of tourists.
  4. Speaking of restaurants, any of the well-known tourist places (even away from Times Sq) will have long lines. But if you're willing to try the hole-in-the-wall across the street you'll probably find a true gem. NYC is definitely a place for foodies. Chelsea Market is always a good choice - dozens and dozens of little counter places that are really one-of-a-kind and so good. And the Food Network studios are right upstairs in the building!
  5. We found the routine that worked well for us was to have a full breakfast at the apartment we rented; grab a light snack-y lunch wherever we were midday; then get a full dinner (either sit-down restaurant or take out) at the end of the day.
  6. The NYC subway is really easy to use once you figure out how to read the map. We downloaded the free official app for the MTA which was very useful. It has a route planner that helps you figure out how to get to any station or point of interest. The breakeven point between paying per ride and getting the 7-day unlimited MetroCard is 11 individual rides. If you don't get the unlimited rides, up to four people can share a single MetroCard. If you are doing the unlimited pass, each person needs their own MetroCard.
    • I do wish there was an app that combined the subway and bus routes. We never took the bus (even though our MetroCards covered both) because it was difficult to figure out the bus routes/schedules in conjunction with the subway routes. 
  7. Be willing to walk. If you go in the summer, you're going to get grimy and sweaty. Just plan on it and shower when you're done for the day.
  8. If you want to walk the Brooklyn Bridge (which is lovely), take the subway to the Brooklyn side and walk back (the station is just a couple blocks from the pedestrian entrance). You end up right by the plaza at City Hall where there are food trucks galore for a tasty treat at the end.
  9. The same day tickets to Broadway shows from the Times Sq booth are not always a bargain. The face value of many of the tickets sold is $150-$250, so half price is still pricey. But if you specifically ask for the least expensive seats instead of "best available" you might get lucky. Especially if you're willing to break up a larger party to sit in groups of 2 or 3.
  10. There are several companies selling passes to the top NYC attractions (the Met, MoMA, Empire Statue, Statue of Liberty ferry, Natural History Museum, etc.) as a group at a discount. If there are several you are determined to do on your trip, the passes can save significants amounts of money and are readily accepted. We chose an Explorer Pass, which allows you to pick and choose which attractions to add to it, and ended up saving 25% over face value of the admission fees. But depending on your needs and itinerary, one of the other passes may be a better value. In addition to the discount, the passes allow you to bypass all/most of the lines at most places, which can be significant.
  11. There are some hustlers looking to sell tickets/bike rentals/carriage rides to tourists at a few particular places (entrances to Central Park, Times Sq, exit of the subway station to the Statue of Liberty ferry), but we found that if we just politely ignored them they were not aggressive and would leave us alone. Aside from those few locations, we felt completely safe and not-accosted everywhere we went.
  12. Tickets to climb to the crown of the Statue of Liberty are gone many many months in advance. Tickets to climb to the pedestal and the museum are usually still available 4-8 weeks ahead depending on the time of year. These are free add-ons to the ferry ride to the island (which is always available), but only limited numbers are available for each day.
  13. What we did: explore Central Park (southern half only - the place is enormous!); 9/11 Memorial (such a beautiful, heartbreaking tribute); the High Line; Chelsea Market; the Intrepid Museum; Museum of Natural History and Hayden Planetarium; Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island; two Broadway shows (Finding Neverland and Phantom of the Opera); walk across the Brooklyn Bridge; walk down 5th Avenue/Rockefeller Center; Empire Statue Building observatory (we did it at night); Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Guggenheim (lobby only, just to admire the architecture); Museum of Modern Art; Times Square (though not for very long - the place is ridiculously crowded and overwhelming). 
    • The Met, Natural History Museum, and Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island are all pretty much full day activities unless you really want to curtail things to just the minimal highlights.
  14. Everyone we talked to was nice and more than willing to help and direct us around. NYC, and New Yorkers, are really great about making visitors feel welcome.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Mom's Famous Bao

This is my mom's FAMOUS bao, that she always made for our New Year's Eve open houses. I now make it every year for Chinese New Year. The steamed rolls (filled or unfilled) freeze really well. 

The first recipe is for the dough, which can be steamed plain or filled. The second two recipes are the fillings I usually make. You can adjust seasonings on the fillings to taste, or use your own. Fillings that are made of very finely minced ingredients work best.

Chinese Bread (Bao Dough)

Makes 24 rolls (unfilled)


4cflour    2Tsugar
1tsalt    1pkgdry yeast (2 1/4 t)
1/4csugar    1Tmelted butter
1 1/4cwarm water    


Sift together flour, salt, and 1/4 c sugar.

Mix together warm water and yeast in a measuring cup. Slowing stir in yeast. Mix well. Add melted butter to yeast mix.

Hollow out center of flour mix. Add yeast mix. Mix thoroughly. Knead lightly on floured surface until dough is smooth and elastic (10 min). Place in a greased bowl, cover, and let rise at room temp until double in size, 1 - 1 1/2 hours.

For plain bao (no filling):

Divide dough into 24 parts. Place on 2" squares of parchment paper (do not use wax paper!), let rise once more. Steam 20 mins in Chinese (double) steamer.


My slight modifications - used dough hook in stand mixer. In mixer, mix together *all* dry ingredients (except water and butter). Add *2 T* butter in pats while mixer is on. Slowly add warm water until dough forms a single ball and doesn't stick to sides of bowl. Leave mixer on to knead about 10 mins. Place dough in greased bowl and rise until doubled. Continue with remaining steps or use with stuffings.

Chicken Bao


2Tvegetable oil    2toyster sauce
2cchopped chicken meat    1tchopped scallion
2tcornstarch    1/2tchopped ginger
1/2tsesame oil    salt to taste
1/2tsugar    1 recipe bao dough


Mix together chicken through salt.

Heat vegetable oil in skillet and stir fry chicken mix until cooked through. Cool completely.

Divide bao dough into 40 parts. Shape each into a ball, roll thin, and shape into 2-3" round piece with center thicker than edges.

Fill center of each with 1/2 T filling. Fold dough around filling, twisting the top. Place on 2" square pieces of parchment paper (do not use wax paper!).

Steam 20 mins in Chinese/double steamer.

Pork Carrot Bao


1/4lbground pork    1tsalt
1scallion, minced    2tcornstarch
2carrots    2Tcarrot water
2tsoy sauce    Bao dough recipe


Shred and mince carrots. Cover with water, bring to a boil, cook 5 mins. Reserve 2 T cooking water when done.

Mix pork through carrot water thoroughly.

Divide dough into 40 parts. Shape each into a ball, roll thin, and shape into 2-3" round piece, center thicker than edges. Fill center of each dough with 1/2 T filling. Fold dough around filling, twisting the top together. Place on 2" square of parchment paper (do not use wax paper!).

Steam 20 mins in Chinese/double steamer.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Strawberry Muffins

I developed this recipe by taking bits and pieces of several others to make what I wanted. It's a favorite in our house, and the muffins freeze really well. Don't overdo the spices, or it will overwhelm the lovely strawberry flavor.

Katie's Own Strawberry Muffins

1/2ccanola oil    1 3/4cwhole wheat flour
1cmilk    1 3/4cregular flour
2eggs    1tcinnamon
1tvanilla    1/4tnutmeg
1tsalt    2Tground flax seed (optional)
4tbaking powder    2cfinely chopped strawberries


Preheat oven to 375.

In small bowl, combine oil, milk, eggs, and vanilla. Beat lightly. In large bowl, mix flours, flax seed, spices, salt, baking powder, and sugar. Toss in strawberries and stir to coat with flour. Pour in milk mixture and stir together.

Fill muffin cups lined with paper liners. Bake at 375 for 25 minutes or until tops bounce back from the touch. Cool 10 mins and remove from pans.

Easy to double, and extras freeze well. Can play with the spices to suit personal taste. Can either finely chop the strawberries by hand or gently mash them. Key is to have pieces that aren't too big or the muffins can have raw dough.
Can also use all regular flour instead of half whole wheat.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Oven Baked Chicken and Onions

This is a dish I vividly remember being in regular rotation when I was growing up. It's so easy and tastes so good that it's now in my rotation and I'm sure my kids will have similar memories! This is adapted from the recipe for Oven-Sauteed Garlic Chicken in Sunset's Quick Meals with Fresh Foods. (Which was one of the first cookbooks my mother gave me when I went out to live on my own.) Basically, I cut down on the butter significantly and added lots more onions and pan sauce. There are never enough onions in this dish! 

Ideally, serve this over spaghetti, linguine, or another pasta that can hold the sauce. Any leftover sauce, onions, and chicken make an amazing base for a chicken vegetable soup!

Oven Baked Chicken and Onions


4Tbutter    salt and pepper to taste
4lgonions, thinly sliced and separated into rings    1cketchup
4-6chicken pieces (boned or boneless)    1cdry white wine
2tpaprika    6clovesgarlic, peeled


Place butter in a 10"x15" rimmed baking dish; set in oven while it preheats to 425 degrees F. When butter is melted, scatter onion rings over bottom of pan. Cover with foil and bake 10-15 minutes or until onions start to soften.

Arrange chicken over onions. Sprinkle with paprika, salt, and pepper.

In a small bowl, stir together ketchup and wine; carefully pour into pan (but not directly over chicken). Tuck garlic cloves among chicken.

Bake, covered at 425 for 20-30 mins. Uncover and bake another 10-15 mins or until done. Discard garlic and serve chicken with onions and pan sauce.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Peppermint Brownies

This is a recipe that my mother-in-law gave me at my wedding shower. I've made it hundreds of times and I always get asked for the recipe.

So here it is.

Peppermint Brownies

Brownie mix for 9x13 pan

Frosting - 3 c powdered sugar, 3 T cream, 6 T melted butter, 1 t peppermint extract (or to taste), green food coloring

Topping - 5 oz unsweetened chocolate, 6 T butter

Bake your favorite brownie mix according to package directions in a 9" x 13" pan. Cool completely.

For the frosting, mix together powdered sugar, cream, and melted butter. Add peppermint extract , a few drops at a time, until flavor is right. Tint pale green. Frost brownies when they have cooled. Refrigerate. 

For the topping, melt together chocolate and butter. Pour over frosted brownies; tilt pan to spread topping over frosting evenly. Refrigerate until topping is solid. Cut into squares.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Family Fun in Washington DC

In August 2012, we took our three kids on a road trip to DC and spent 10 days there doing all the tourist things. I've been asked several times for suggestions based on what we saw and liked for others planning similar trips. Instead of re-writing the whole thing each time, I put it all here and will be more than happy to direct anyone to read through this and ask any other questions. There are also many resources online for what to do in DC with families.

National Mall. Note that all the Smithsonian (and many other) museums are free, which is a win, but they partly compensate for that with the prices of food. We never took the time to really search out food options outside the museums while we were there. We chose convenience over price. We tended to buy lunch in the cafes/restaurants while out sight-seeing, and then make our own simple dinners at the hotel (we had a small kitchenette). Also, there's no subway/bus line that really goes around the mall so you have to do a lot of walking.


Downtown DC

  • Air and Space Museum. Kind of a must with kids. Great exhibits and interactive areas. The cafe here sucks big time - it's McDonald's and always crammed and gross. We went to the Museum of the American Indian next door for lunch and then came back rather than fighting through this cafe.
  • Museum of the American Indian. I wish we'd spent time here, but we never made it past the lobby on the way to the cafe. I've only heard amazing things about it. The cafe is expensive, but very good with a rotating menu that reflects different Native American traditions and cultures.
  • Museum of Natural History. Kids loved this one. Lots of diverse and really interesting exhibits. The gemstones exhibit is unique. Cafe is standard cafeteria food. Good, but (as usual) expensive.
  • Museum of American History. Our kids loved the transportation section, the Star-Spangled Banner, and Kermit, but not much else. They didn't understand most of the contemporary cultural exhibits. But they have a lot of rotating exhibits, so there are probably different exhibits now.
  • National Gallery of Art. Absolutely lovely if you have an art lover. And they have the only DaVinci in North America. The cafe in the basement is very nice and overlooks both a dug-out waterfall and a tunnel of lights that's a lot of fun to walk through.
  • Sculpture Garden. Outdoor part of the National Gallery. It was really nice to walk around it in the summer. There is a Pavilion Cafe in the sculpture garden that we really enjoyed.
  • National Archives. Totally worth it and doesn't take too long. See the original Declaration of Independence and Constitution and one of the original Magna Carta. We went first thing one morning and there was virtually no line.
  • White House. It’s a self-guided tour, and you can go at your own pace and spend as much time in each room as you want. It covers the official state rooms, and there are Secret Service officers stationed in each room. Those officers are an amazing wealth of knowledge! They will answer any questions and tell amazing stories about administrations and events in each of the rooms. But you usually have to request (free) tickets at least six months in advance through your Representative or Senator. Note: Tours are current suspended due to sequestration. Hopefully that will change soon.
  • Capitol/Library of Congress. You can walk into the Capitol visitor center and get a free tour ticket anytime. The standard tour is okay (you can see the dome), but if you contact your Representative or Senator ahead of time you might be able to get tickets to the galleries that look out on the chamber floors. There's an underground walkway from the Capitol to the Library of Congress. We walked around the LoC for less than an hour, but I'm glad we did. Stunning architecture and displays in the main lobby.
  • Bureau of Engraving and Printing. A really interesting tour. Watch real paper bills being printed!
  • Monuments/Memorials. Washington/Lincoln/Vietnam are all close together (opposite end of
    the Mall from the Capitol) around the Reflecting Pool and somewhat easy to walk to, though the Lincoln Memorial is at the very far end of the Mall. The kids really liked these. We never made it to the Jefferson or Roosevelt monuments, because those require walking to the other side of the reservoir and our kids just didn't have it in them at the time.

Other around DC

  • National Zoo. It's okay. Very, very hilly which made for lots of complaining from our crew because we were there after spending several days walking all over the Mall. The pandas are certainly unique, but the rest of it is a regular zoo. Food is typical zoo-fare, but there are lots of little eateries on the city streets just outside the zoo. The Zoo is also free (part of the Smithsonian) so it’s easy to come and go as often as you like.
  • Udvar-Hazy (annex of the Air and Space Museum). About an hour from downtown DC near
    Dulles airport in VA. This is the one we're all dying to go back to already! There's not really any interactive stuff, so Audrey was a bit harder to keep engaged. But it's an ENORMOUS hanger filled with planes and other aircraft. Fascinating stuff. I think it's worth the drive even if all you do is visit the space wing to see the Space Shuttle Discovery nose-to-nose – it’s a breath-taking experience! Again, cafe is nothing but McDonald's and there's no place to go outside the building. But you can bring your own food.
  • National Aquarium. This is in Baltimore. It's a nice aquarium, but I'm not sure I'd make it a priority over the stuff in downtown DC.
  • B&O Railroad Museum. Also in Baltimore. One of my husband’s favorites. A must for any train lover.
  • Mount Vernon. About an hour drive from DC and very nicely maintained. You can easily
    spend a full day walking around the grounds.

If you contact the office of your Senator or Representative, you can also get (free) tickets to tours of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Library of Congress, or Kennedy Center for the Arts. There may be a few other options, too. It's only the White House tours that require long advance notice and background checks.

What We Didn’t Get To, But Hear Great Things About

We stayed at Residence Inn in Greenbelt, Maryland, about a 5 minute drive from a Metro station with a very large commuter parking lot. The hotel prices in DC were astronomical, and we really wanted a place with a kitchen so we could make our own dinners after a long day of sight-seeing.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Nike Women Half Marathon

On Sunday April 27, 2013, I participated in the inaugural Nike Women Half Marathon in Washington DC along with 15,000+ other runners (mostly women), including my partner-in-crime for the day Alison. This was my first half marathon.

The course meandered around the big sights of downtown Washington DC - National Mall, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, National Archives, the Capitol, and so much more. A lovely, lovely course. 

Alison and I at the "We Run" sign at the Nike Expotique. It was amazingly perfectly proportioned to be able to use it as a cover photo. Which I did. Have to give Nike credit for knowing their audience and catering to discerning women with disposable income who like to shop.

After dinner near Dupont Circle the evening before the race, we were able to stick around to see President Obama's motorcade on the way to the White House Correspondent's dinner. Streets were blocked off and the helicopter started circling about 30 minutes before. About 10 minutes before, police cars startied zipping up and down the empty streets. Then came the motorcycle cops - 7 or 8 of them. Followed by several police cars, two black limos (above - one of which carried the President), two large black SUVs (also above), more police cars, an ambulance, more police cars, and more motorcycle cops. The DC locals seemed to not even notice. I was quite impressed, and can't imagine living in a way that requires that kind of environment.

On the wall outside Nike Georgetown, there was a mural that said "We Run DC" created out of all the names of the registered runners. It was quite something. And right down the street was Baked & Wired, where Wayland introduced me to the most amazing Coconut Cupcake ever!

 Look! There's my name!

Waking up at 5am on race day was rather difficult, especially since I'd had to wake up at 5:30am the day before to get to the airport. But I managed to find my way out of my cousin's apartment in the dark and actually find my way back to the Metro station. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to bring any of my breakfast that morning, but there was a 7-11 open so I was able to grab a banana, a Clif bar, and some water. I was proud to wear my Boston bib on the back of my shirt.

 Alison and I in the corral and not really awake yet. 

Way in the back of thousands upon thousands of runners. Next time, I think I'd put myself in one pace corral faster. It would be a more appropriate reflection of my pace, and the field was so crowded that weaving around the people walking at the beginning was rather difficult. One of the very few things I think Nike could improve on next year is to delay some of the corral starts to allow runners time to spread out on the course.

But the most amazing thing was that just before the race started, the officials called for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. And within a few seconds, all 15,000 runners plus the thousands of spectators all gathered together in that small space of a couple blocks were utterly and completely silent. You could hear the birds chirping. You could have heard a pin drop. Time truly stood still. It gave me such goosebumps!

 Had the honor of watching sunrise over the Capitol as we waited for the race to start.

As Alison said, "It's like a rave, but with runners!" This was in the 9th Street tunnel that goes under the National Mall. It was within the first mile and the space was filled wall-to-wall with runners. Barely any room to move and you had to be careful not to step on someone else's feet. (This is one place where a staggered start may have helped.) But within this fairly long tunnel, there were two different drummers set up to get hearts pumping and maximize the energy. Super-duper loud and overwhelming in there!
As we came out of the tunnel, everyone was funneled onto a narrow off-ramp. It was narrow enough and crowded enough that everyone was forced to a near stop to get through it. We stopped to take a photo of the tight crowd going around the bed after that funnel. So many people!

Over the miles, though, I came to appreciate that crowd - at least once it thinned out a bit. Nowhere else have I seen so many runners in one place who run at my slow pace! It was very gratifying.

Mile 3 rounded around the Lincoln Memorial.

The lawn behind the Lincoln Memorial had a group of Chinese dragon dancers and drummers. They were so enthusiastic and energetic! There were great groups all along the course, but I think my favorite was an all women African drumming group behind the Kennedy Center for the Arts. They were astonishing!

Still feeling great at Mile 3!

Behind the Lincoln Memorial, we ran across Arlington Bridge to the rotary at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. Looking back across the bridge at the Memorial was definitely worth of a photo stop.

Mile 7 and still feeling good. This was the start of several miles around East Potomac Park that was kind of lonely. Yes, there were runners all over the place. But there were no spectators, no bands, no one to help us maintain energy through this stretch. There were great volunteers at the water stations trying their best to cheer us on, but they were also overwhelmed by the volume of people coming through. It would have been a great place for a band or two (it is difficult to get spectators out there).

Mile 10 after coming out of East Potomac Park. Legs are starting to get tired and sore at this point despite the smile.

Turning the corner to do the loop in front of the Capitol building. That loop is much longer than it looks, especially when you're on the last couple miles of a half marathon and your legs are pretty well shot!

See that tiny green sign in the middle of the photo? It's the FINISH LINE!!! This was taken during a walk break because we couldn't even make it that far running at this point.

The finish line! There it is!

Just up ahead, we saw Alison's husband and 2 year old daughter (sitting on Daddy's shoulders) on the sidelines. Her daughter's eyes lit up when she spied her mom and she screamed out "It's Momma!" with the biggest grin possible. So adorable.

Little blue boxes from Tiffany's awaited the runners at the finish line.

Handed out by these lovely and gracious young men in tuxedos.

The necklace (in place of a medal) is quite beautiful. The front features the silhouette of a runner on a backdrop of cherry blossoms. The back has the name and date of the race.

We did it. We actually did it. Official time was 2:53. Actual moving time (removing pit stops and photo ops) was 2:40-2:45. Neither of us was able to keep a totally accurate time on our various devices.

'Ama Runs also has a nice race recap. I wouldn't recommend coming into a Nike race and thinking it's like a small road race where you can really do your own thing and find a pace and finish time that pushes you, or really try for a PR. The Nike races seem to be much more about the community and shared experience. If that's your expectation, it can't be beat!