Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Shoe Happy

I'd like to thank the women who take the time to write all the detailed, thoughtful reviews on Shoebuy and Zappos.com. (I've written plenty of them myself because I know how useful they are.) It's hard to choose shoes online; it's even hard to find good ones in stores if your feet are fussy, like mine. For me, reading reviews can be much more helpful than trying on actual shoes.

I may be the last woman in America to own a pair of funky rubber rain boots but—thanks to you reviewers— I think I've suffered my last drenching in slippery flip flops. I loved reading about how you test your rain boots in the bathtub. I appreciated it when you told me, again and again, that those deceptively adorable Sperry boots were, in fact, garbage. And there's nothing better than reading 52 glowing reviews about a style that's unexpectedly cute, affordable, and available in my size, like these Nomad "Puddles:"

I ordered these from Shoebuy, which ranks second only to Zappos for customer service—and usually has better prices. Shoebuy constantly offers coupon deals, so it's easy to get 10% to 25% off. I'll also get 11% in cash back from my credit card company.

I look forward to their arrival, to see if everyone is right. I hope my own reviews won't pop anyone else's balloon.

Update: Unfortunately, I had to return them because they were too small, and the next larger size was much too big. Darn! I'm blaming my feet, and not the reviewers.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ode to Trader Joe

We're lucky to live a few blocks from the Back Bay Trader Joe's, where we look forward to seeing Phil, the Stephen King lookalike, dispensing sports and food wisdom at his register. On our last trip, we met a lively French cashier, Jean-Phillippe. In his gorgeous accent, he told us that he lives in Aix-en-Provence, but his pension is in dollars and the exchange rate had driven him over here. We sympathized, remembering all the gelato we ate instead of meals on recent trips to Italy.

I hope the exchange rate improves before our next trip, next year. I want to eat! We had a few memorable meals, but not nearly as many as we wanted. When a plain, salad-plate sized pizza is $15, and a small glass of iced tea or coke (I can't drink alcohol, long story) is $6, gelato looks even more attractive. (Especially pistacchio, and cioccolato arancia, and cioccolato fondente....)

We were happier to come back to Boston knowing we could buy whatever we wanted at TJs to restock the kitchen. While food prices are rising insanely—I think my favorite LaBrea wholegrain loaf at Shaw's just increased by $2—TJs still has plenty of deals. Here are some of the things we can't live without:

1. Chocolate raspberry sticks. Satisfyingly chewy and chocolately, but low in fat. (They must be terrible for our teeth, however. I've spent the last few days editing articles dental health articles as a freelancer, and learned too much about the perils of sugar.)

2. Dairy dairy dairy. Cage-free eggs. Big tubs of low-fat plain or vanana (vanilla-banana) yogurt. Real French brie. Happy yellow New Zealand grass-fed cheddar. All still reasonably priced. To indulge: bars of luxurious President butter from France and English Stilton with apricots. We really should switch over to organic milk.

3. Trail mixes and nuts. Our favorite Sweet & Savory Trail Mix has chocolate, white chocolate, and peanut butter chips among the nuts and cranberries. Yep, it's candy, and we don't care.

4. Mushroom risotto. The price on the box went up during the rice crisis. But it went back down. At any price, it's easy to make and tasty, especially if you add shredded cheese and a porcini bouillon cube. These aren't available in the US, so just send me plane fare to Tuscany and I'll return with a porcini-scented suitcase. (I always do.)

5. Fresh pasta. One of our dinner staples, although I have a little trouble keeping those artichoke ravioli from exploding. Their bags of dried Italian pasta are great (and cheap) too.

6. Avocados. I can't have enough guacamole since I learned how to judge an avocado's ripeness—and while the tomatoes are perfect at the farmer's market. I make a lot, since TJs only sells them in bags of four. (At Shaw's they are twice the price.) If only they sold single lemons and limes instead of big bags that would go to waste around here. So I trek to Deluca's for a lime, and then we eat our guac with TJ's baked blue corn chips and their fresh, mild salsa (the one without cilantro, bane of our existence, since it tastes like soap to us).

7. Triple ginger snaps. Big tubs of extravagant, slightly chewy, ginger flavor. These replaced my craving for the extra-thin Swedish kind. But I'll still be very happy to get another big red Swedish tin at Christmas from my brother and his girlfriend.

8. Vitamins and supplements. I don't love them but I also don't like to think about how ill, bald, dry-eyed, sniffly, and rickety we'd be without them. We take flaxseed oil, omega-3s, and their powerhouse Super Crusade multivitamins.

9 Cocoa Hazelnut spread. They discontinued this a while ago, even though people raved about it. It was made with dark chocolate, tastes richer and less sweet than Nutella, and came in cute, hexagonal glass jars. (The plastic Nutella jars seem to react with the oil in the spread, which is just evil.) When a small supply of jars turned up in the warehouse recently, customers in the Brookline store were rejoicing that it was back (luckily, I was there), but alas. I stupidly bought one jar instead of 10. So I spread sparing amounts on my toast and peanut butter, and mornings are good.

There's much more to say about Trader Joe's, but I'm stopping so I'll have time to shop there later today.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

That Time Already?

All year, I've been diligent about removing our names from catalog mailing lists, but I still get a few that I like, including The Company Store's (those cozy, pretty, embroidered flannel sheets). Today I felt a chill upon seeing their first Christmas (aka "holiday") catalog in my mailbox. 

I suspect I love Christmas far more than the typical sane adult. After all, I grew up in the Christmas City of the USA. But even I don't want to think about it three full months ahead. Somewhere in early November suits me: after Halloween but well before Thanksgiving, since we have to figure out our multi-family, multi-state holiday plans a few weeks in advance. 

And when it's cold and dark at 4 o'clock, all those little twinkly lights and glowing shop windows make winter more bearable. At least until January. (And in January, there are sales.)

I'll bet that if I went into Lord & Taylor on Boylston Street today, I'd find overdressed trees and their signature, revolting decorations that play loud and relentless electronic holiday tunes. (The Boston store's trees always go up first, and then all the other store merchandisers visit and take notes.)

So I'll stay out of there. I may keep Christmas in my heart all year long, like Mr. Scrooge, but I'll be darned if I'll put up with the Little Drummer Boy before the leaves are falling.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sugar High

I became a cupcake connoisseur when I was little. My mother was a school secretary, she was popular, and she brought me every class birthday-party cupcake she received; usually a few a week. I could distinguish scratch baking from mixes at an early age, and developed standards.
In Boston, our cupcake options are limited. Everyday, hopeful people wander into the Johnny Cupcakes store on Newbury, which sells T-shirts, not baked goods, and walk out disappointed. Here's a partial run-down of local cupcake bakers; additional research (Flour, for instance) is obviously necessary:
Lyndell's Bakery in Somerville makes large, flat "moon cakes" shaped more like tall pancakes. (They make the regular shape, too, but the flat ones are fabulous.) I had one tonight, frosted in vanilla and chocolate like a black-and-white cookie. The flat shape gives the perfect cake-to-frosting ratio in every bite, although it helps to eat them with a fork. Their chocolate frosting is exceptional: rich without being too sweet. Nirvana.
The bottom of the barrel: overpriced and microscopic Kickass Cupcakes in Somerville: a crumby, tough, biscuit-like texture and bland frosting. (These were not even their scarier, vegan versions.) In this case, "too small" was a good thing. Hard to believe they won "Best of Boston." They also make cupcakes for dogs; perhaps all of their recipes are best suited to dogs.
In Back Bay, we have Sweet. I wanted to love them, because they are nearby, and their shop looks charming. But their $3.25 cupcakes were disappointing: very small, flat, dense, and mealy-textured. They need a more buttery, less lardy taste, and a touch of salt. Their frostings were fluffy but lackluster. They offer a great cardboard carry-out box, however, with a clever insert that protects each cupcake like a jewel. A friend's wife helpfully pointed out that we should have eaten the box first, so the cupcakes tasted better.

Lulu's in the North End was also a retro-chic let-down. Their cupcakes looked great (reproduction Hostess cream-filleds!) but their taste was uninspiring. Not enough salt to enhance the sweetness? The wrong kind of shortening? I can't tell. But a cupcake should be more than a vehicle for frosting. (And I love frosting.)
The South End Buttery has the best cupcakes I've tried in the city. Moist cake, rich frosting, a good range of flavors, including carrot cake and lemon. They bake superb scones, too, and it's a friendly place to hang out.
I've tried to love Party Favors, in Brookline. They offer a riot of colorful, creative designs; their display case is a spectacular sight. But their products are often stale despite their good looks. Frozen, not fresh.
Modern Pastry, in the North End, makes a delicious, classic cupcake. A mound of creamy frosting and moist cake in basic flavors, with sprinkles or little plastic decorations to delight your inner child. I've only had them once; need many more.
In Manhattan, all the Carrie Bradshaws head to Magnolia and Sweet Sugar Sunshine for old-fashioned, super-sweet cupcakes. They're cute, fresh, and fluffy, and you can't argue with buttery, pastel-blue frosting.

The best cupcake I had in NYC was a red velvet number at the Blue Dog CafĂ© on West 25th, with a mountain of gorgeous chocolate ganache swirled on top. Overkill, but there's no such thing as too much frosting. In cupcakes, as in life, it's the thought that counts. 

Proper Spelling and Grammar, Anyway

Welcome to my blog! Don't you have anything better to do right now? Neither do I. How nice that you've chosen to waste a little time here, with me.

With hundreds of millions of blogs already floating in the ether, I just asked myself if the world really needed another one. The answer was a booming "No!" But I figured that one more blog wouldn't do any harm. And it might do some good. I can use a new forum for pontificating my opinions (my friends and family should be relieved). And I'd like to record my observations about my little corner of the world, the Victorian neighborhood of Back Bay, Boston. I am fortunate to live here, and I feel I have a pretty wonderful life, all things considered.*

I expect I'll also be writing about people, politics, food, books, shopping, decorating, traveling, and the various strange or beautiful things I encounter from day to day. And if I attract any readers, that will be amazing.

I will try not to be boring about our three (spectacular) teenaged cats.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more.

*I may be feeling a little less fortunate these days. The condo below ours was just gutted and will be pouring dust and construction noise into our place from 7 to 4 for the next few months. It's only Week 2 and I'm already feeling a bit shell-shocked. And we weren't even around for Week 1...