Comforting Fondue

Winter is a great time for prodigious amounts of cooking and eating! ;) The cold air really gives us an appetite and thus a desire to get into the kitchen; soups and stews never tasted so good. A friend who contributes to the blog Vinoteca recently posted on comfort wines. That got me thinking about the soothing dishes I go to especially when the winter months roll around. Many are tied to my southern upbringing and my grandmother’s table. Today, though, I’m making cheese fondue which I associate with junior year abroad when I met my husband. As soon as the weather gets cold, we both get a yearning for the festive Swiss national dish!

First, you need the right cooking vessel: un caquelon, or a ceramic fondue pot. You’ll also need some kind of heat source to keep the mixture warm once you get it to the table. Those small gel-type warmers like Sterno which have little more strength than a candle are not sufficient for this job. We have a spirit burner that I found at a neighborhood yard sale; you just have to keep replenishing the denatured alcohol that fuels it. After you have assembled the necessary equipment and cubed French bread, you need to get started on the cheese: a mixture of a half-pound each of aged emmentaler and gruyère. (You can increase the proportions if you're serving more than two.)

I have had only one failure making my own fondue—but it was a colossal one! Don’t make my mistake or you will end up with a huge glob of cheese for supper. The cheese cannot be cubed, thinly sliced, or any way other than grated. You can buy a bag of the two grated cheeses at Price Chopper and probably at other supermarkets around the country. We have a nifty cheese grater that you crank and the job is quickly done. Next, mix 3 tablespoons of flour into the one pound of grated cheese and you’re 10 minutes away from eating!

Cut one clove of garlic in half lengthwise and rub the cut side inside the pot. (I also chop up a bit of the same piece of garlic and throw it in as the cheese starts to melt.) Then pour 2 cups of dry white wine into the cooking dish and set it over medium high heat. When small bubbles begin to form over the bottom of the pot, squeeze in about one tablespoon of fresh lemon juice. Now you’re ready to put in one handful of cheese, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon making 8s for about 20 seconds or so until it melts. Keep adding a handful of cheese at a time until it is all used up. Stir in a dash of pepper and a grating of nutmeg, plus a tablespoon or two of kirsch. (The recipe also calls for a little salt, but I tend to think it's salty enough with just the cheese.) It’s now ready to serve. I normally make a green salad to go along with it.

There is some debate about what to drink along with fondue as seen by a recent article that appeared in the Times Union. I would strongly discourage beer or red wine. Classically, the drink of choice is white wine which matches an ingredient in the dish. Anyway, I hope you’ll try it.

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A Simple Meal

One of my sons always used to point out that I say that everything I cook is easy. Maybe now that he's on his own he realizes that it’s true. Many of my meals have few ingredients and take thirty minutes or less to prepare. Like anything else, of course, with practice your skills improve and you can turn out a dinner in no time flat. Not only that, you also develop what the French call “le pif” (literally, slang for “the nose”)—a flair, an intuition for what tastes good. In my mind, some of my best dinners have been only loosely based on a given recipe.

I’ve mentioned in a previous blog that I appreciate a quotation from Chef Paul Bocuse that good cooking does not necessarily imply something complicated and expensive; that the best meals are simple ones. Take last night’s completely oven-cooked dinner as an example. Our local fish store has some good crab cakes which I heated up for about 10 minutes and served as a first course with an impromptu dollop of mayonnaise mixed with fresh lime juice, and a touch sambal (Asian chili sauce) for added spice.

Since I am infamous for serving a combination of cuisines in the same meal, I decided to follow the appetizer with a Greek-inspired menu. To this end, I first visited a friend’s blog, French Fries on Wednesday, which has a huge listing of Greek and other recipes at the bottom of the first page under “Labels.” Lisa’s “Greek Potatoes Patates”—which are peeled, cut into wedges, topped with butter, a little chicken broth, olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, and onion—were just delicious. You do have to bake them for about an hour in the oven, but they are well worth it if you have the time. (Otherwise, rice, pasta, or bread would do fine as a starch.)

Next, I got out my Treasured Greek Recipes cookbook published years ago by the women at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Albany for its “Haddock Oliviano.” Using the fresh fish I had also purchased yesterday, I put the fillets in a buttered casserole dish and topped them with olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, salt, parsley, and a little oregano. All you have to do is bake the fish for the last 20-25 minutes of the potatoes' cooking time.

To round out the meal I made a modified Greek salad. I nearly always have feta cheese on hand which I crumble over lettuce, along with black olives, a tomato, onion, oregano, garlic salt, olive oil, and vinegar. Served along with a dry white wine, it was a simple, satisfying meal which is basically Mediterranean-based and heart healthy. Try it; you'll like it! Bon appétit!

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Keeping or Getting Fit

All of the over-indulgence associated with the holidays at this time of year makes me think of weight gain and working out. For ages my New Year’s resolution every January 1st was to get more exercise. That always lasted about a month at best, but I have gotten better recently. For one thing, I finally realized that the whole three times a week idea simply did not work for me. I was always changing my schedule and found some way to put off exercising. My latest thing is to plan for at least some kind of physical activity every single day. Now, don’t get me wrong…this is not two hours of hard labor at the gym that I am referring to. A mere twenty to thirty minutes of activity with a cardio component is sufficient in my mind.

By far, the top Cheapo way to keep fit is by walking. A comfortable pair of shoes is all the “equipment” that is necessary and you don’t have to become a member of a gym to get the job done. When it’s warm out, there’s nothing more invigorating and beautiful than a fast-paced walk along the river, the canal, the bike path, or even in town. During the cold weather one can bundle up for a quick jaunt around the neighborhood. I knew someone in Vermont who would go out every night after dinner, even if it was snowing, to get some exercise. If you have the time, you could also join the mall walkers, which is not bad at all. There are people and things to look at which makes the time go by fast and at one of the larger shopping centers you can get in your time without retracing your steps.

What I like best in a walk is to have a purpose to it, a destination. The problem here in the United States is that very few suburban areas have sidewalks, which can make getting to the local pharmacy, for example, a traumatic experience. In Europe, of course, people walk all the time. I remember going out with our children on a Saturday the year we spent in Lyon and not thinking twice about walking for three hours downtown. Trying to walk to a near-by supermarket upon our return to the States nearly got us all run over! Sometimes my husband and I create destination walks on the weekend. If we have to go to the bank, say, we plan an itinerary, park the car in an urban area, and walk the round-trip. You can get creative with this and see new sections of the city while getting in your exercise and doing your body some good.

Naturally, as with any type of activity, boredom is the enemy here. What I like least about working out is if I have to go round and round in a limited area like the gym. Even having a partner to talk to doesn’t really make up for the inherent monotony of this type of exercise. With a little imagination, I have found, I can work out, feel more relaxed, and sleep better as a result.

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The Best of My Cookbooks

These days most of us don’t look to cookbooks when we’re thinking about dinner. We just google “pesto” or “Asian drumsticks” or whatever it is we want to cook and voilà ! In the blink of an eye we have a recipe. I do have quite a few books that I count on when I want to serve a better than average meal, though. Whether it’s American or international cuisine that I’m planning, these books always come through for me. (Unfortunately, most of them may be out of print, but are probably available secondhand on eBay or at Abe or Powell's Books, for example.)

First and foremost, I have to pay homage to one of my culinary heroes, Julia Child. I truly admire her for the role she played in changing the way Americans cook. Yet, I can never imagine being like the blogger in Julie & Julia who spent a year going through the entire two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking,
preparing all 524 entries! No, I prefer to find recipes that appeal to me and try them out. I have several of her cookbooks, including Julia and Jacques Cooking At Home, which I really like. But mainly I go to the first one I received from my husband, From Julia Child’s Kitchen. There are quite a few delicious international dishes here, like the fish in a creamy mushroom sauce, Filets de sole bonne femme (…which reminds me of the French saying “C’est la sauce qui fait passer le poisson”…“Sauce allows you to serve fish”!) Another favorite from this book is Médaillons de porc sauté à la crème. This simple main dish, also made with cream, combines slices of pork tenderloin with allspice and thyme, garlic, shallots, and white wine. So quick, easy, and delicious.

One of the books I bought for my children when they left home is the outstanding Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen. I’ve heard that his New Orleans restaurant is not that impressive, but that’s not the case here. Unlike some of his later cookbooks which require the purchase of his seasoning mixtures, these recipes call for herbs and spices that you probably have in your cupboard. Okay, so it’s Cajun cooking; that means that it’s spicy. I would encourage neophytes to halve the amount of white, black, and red pepper until your tongue builds up a tolerance. In some recipes, too, you might want to cut down on the butter. That said, we have not had a bad meal from this book! Trust me on this. The list of exceptional recipes includes: Seafood Crêpes (oh, là, là, how delightful!), Shrimp Diane, Barbecued Shrimp (which we had Saturday night and inspired this post!), Chicken Étouffée, Chicken and Tasso Jambalaya, Roasted Pork…and I could go on! If you love—or think you might like—Cajun food, this is a must.

Another purchase I felt I had to make for my boys is Eva Zane’s Greek Cooking for the Gods. Perhaps my Greek friends will disagree, but I think this is perfect for beginners in this type of cuisine. I have made very many of her recipes and love them all: her stuffed grape leaves, moussaka, pastitso, broiled lamb steaks, Greek salad with feta dressing...mmmmmm! Many of the stew-type entries, like stifado, are easily adaptable to the slow cooker, too.

Finally, there are the two Silver Palate series cookbooks, which I first heard about from a college friend of one of my sons. Luckily for me, at separate times both volumes were on the shelves of my local secondhand bookstore. You can find a bit of everything in the area of American classics from dips to soups and main dishes in these texts. Written by two women who got together to start a catering business, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, the recipes each seem to have a nice little twist, like egg salad with fresh dill and beef stew with cumin. Yummy!

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Thanksgiving recipes

In graduate school I read something that has stuck with me over the years. It’s that modern people, with all of the mental concentration required to perform our everyday tasks, tend to seek out leisure activities which force us to work with our hands. I know this is true in my case. There is nothing I enjoy more than the relaxation that comes from gardening, drawing, or cooking. Focusing on such interests is, at least for me, a great stress reliever. Of course, preparing for big holiday celebrations can add a whole new level of pressure to an already busy life. To alleviate some of the strain, I start by preparing the food early. (In fact, one of my friends contends that I serve “leftovers” to my family…which is not exactly the case!) Before Thanksgiving each year, I begin on Sunday by baking the cornbread for my southern-style dressing; then Monday, I usually get the sweet potatoes ready; on Tuesday, it’s the cranberry sauce. Anyway, whatever the schedule of events, I think you get the picture.

In the time that we have been married, we’ve collected a stash of recipes that we use for the holidays, particularly for Thanksgiving. I would like to share two of them with you today. The oldest of these, from a secretary at Clark College in Atlanta, is still written on the same red index card from decades ago. This delectable dish, called “Sweet Potato Soufflé,” is not a true, puffy, hard-to-create soufflé, but a richly satisfying side dish, perfect for the excess of the holiday table. Over the years we have tinkered with the recipe slightly and have now passed it on to the next generation.

3 cups of cooked, mashed sweet potatoes, ¼ cup melted butter
¾ c. sugar, 1/3 cup flour
¼ cup milk, 1 teaspoon grated orange peel
2 eggs, 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla

For the topping:
1 cup chopped pecans, ¼ cup melted butter
1 cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup flour

Combine the sweet potatoes, sugar, milk, eggs, vanilla, melted butter, flour, orange peel, and orange juice; mix well. Pour into a 2 quart baking or soufflé dish. Combine the topping ingredients and scatter over the mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until bubbly. Serves 8.

Another all-time favorite of our family is “Cranberry Applesauce.” This one came from a sister-in-law and again dates from our time in Georgia. This easy to make dish tastes so much better, in my mind at least, than canned cranberry sauce. As I look at this card, I realize that it really needs to be rewritten…but I’ve made it so often that I could practically do it without any reminders!

2 ounces butter, ½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 lb. fresh cranberries, 1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 Golden Delicious apples, 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
1 ½ cups dark brown sugar,

Melt the butter in a pot and add the cranberries. Cook until they are popping and mushy. Peel the apples and cut into pieces. Add to the cranberries and mix well. Turn off the heat and add the brown sugar, spices, and nuts. Grease a 2-quart baking dish, add mixture, and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. If prepared in advance, cook 10 minutes, covered with aluminum foil, then refrigerate. Warm for 15 to 20 minutes before eating. (Note: this dish is supposed to be served covered with marshmallows, but I think that is too much of a good thing.)

There you have two of our choices for the Thanksgiving table. Let me know if you try them and what you think. Enjoy this best of the American holidays!

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New-Style American Cheeses

We were in Troy over the weekend and stopped in at Pioneer, the new food co-op. Even though the cheese counter is not that extensive so far, they do stock some interesting artisanal American selections. Besides, the friendly man working there is quite knowledgeable and has steered us toward some very decent cheeses, like the three we purchased Saturday. These are part of what seems to be a new trend, I’m happy to report, that follows in the European style of cheese-making.

The first one we tried came from Twig Farm in West Cornwall, Vermont, just south of Middlebury, near the New York border. It’s an organic, semi-soft, washed rind cheese made from raw goat’s milk or a goat/cow combination. The man at Pioneer said it would soon become one of our favorites and he’s probably right about that. When we tasted it in the store, it was a bit cool and so the flavors didn’t really come out until after it warmed in the mouth. This is the reason that at home one should store these kinds of cheeses outside the refrigerator, like they do in Europe. Warning: this is not your typical mild American cheese; it has a full-bodied, almost grassy taste.

Next up was a Western Massachusetts Berkshire Blue, a gold medal winner at the 16th World Cheese Awards in London. The fact that this cheese has won national and international prizes and that it is available in places as far away as California is an indication that they have a superior product. Just the look of the yellowish base with veins running through it lets you know that this is not your ordinary blue. Made from unpasteurized Jersey cow’s milk, it is pungent yet quite mild when compared to others of the same type. Not too salty, either, which can sometimes be a problem with Roquefort, for example.

Finally we tried another product of Vermont, this one from Scholten Family Farms in the town of Weybridge, north of Middlebury. Patty, the cheese maker, studied at the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese; the fact that there is such a place points to the rising interest in developing new cheeses. Hallelujah! The small medallion-shaped white rind cheese is along the lines of a less creamy Camembert or Brie. It’s made from the pasteurized milk of Dutch Belted cows. (Anyone who drives the Mass. Pike from time to time has probably noticed this unusual breed which has a wide white stripe around the middle.)

Speaking of which, a few weeks ago our new friend at the Pioneer cheese counter also suggested a delicious Camembert produced by the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company,
right here in the Hudson Valley. A very rich and creamy sheep’s milk cheese, it was awarded a prize in 2000 by the American Cheese Society. No surprise there!

These chesses are a bit pricey compared to the plastic-wrapped, industrially-produced cheeses found in the supermarket. But if you’re willing to try them, I feel sure that in no time, with a lovely glass of red wine, you’ll be enjoying them yourself. Cheers!

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Area Supermarkets

One of the biggest happenings this past summer in the Capital Region was, believe it or not, the Grand Opening of a new supermarket. That’s right; everyone turned out in Latham on August 18th to find out what The Fresh Market was all about. I know because I was there, too! Apparently the managers were stunned at the numbers of folks lined up that Wednesday; they had never seen anything like it before. (Little did they know that the same thing occurred when Wal-Mart and Krispy Kreme came to town.) Hmmm, what does that say about our area? In this case, I suppose our community was thankful that a beautifully landscaped gourmet food market had finally come to a half-abandoned industrial plot right at the intersection of Routes 9 and 155.

Anyway, the medium-sized supermarket is well-laid out and attractive, but the prices are ridiculously marked up. Just the week before at my usual grocery store I had purchased an identical two-pound bag of mussels in the same blue netting for $2.00 less. A small can of chipotles in adobo sauce was 70 cents higher at the new store! But, on the bright side, you can get things at The Fresh Market that are hard to come by anywhere else: lamb shanks, for example, as well as frisée lettuce, harissa sauce, small imported olives, and fresh croissants. One time recently, we were buying fish and noticed lovely slices of smoked salmon which were delicious on bagels the next morning. There are also some pretty tasty barbecued spare ribs in their prepared food section. Since it’s only minutes from our house and because we don’t want that piece of land to revert to what it was before, we’ll continue to patronize the place at least for specialty items.

Normally I go to Price Chopper. It’s a decent grocery store with good prices (as their name says!) and I think that having The Fresh Market as competition has actually forced them to up their game. All of a sudden I see things like ground lamb in the meat cooler and crème fraîche at the cheese counter. The other big thing that Price Chopper has going for it is the 10 cents off a gallon of gas patrons get for every $50 they spend, a real draw in these times, of course. In fact, I’m surprised the gas deal hasn’t driven its other big competitor, Hannaford, out of business around here.

The other new market in town is Pioneer, otherwise known as the Troy Food Co-op. After years of waiting, we members were so happy a few weeks ago when the store finally opened. It is nicely laid out with large aisles. We’ve been especially impressed with their local meats, like pork chops, which have no hormones. Pioneer also has a cheese counter that was supposed to rival Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op, but it has a long way to go in that department. There are some good local cheeses, but very few offerings from abroad. Cashiers told us to use the “suggestion box” to get the managers to order what we’re looking for. So, we’ll see what comes of that…

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Casual Dining Our Way

Our readers must know by now that we are undeniably and unapologetically snobs when it comes to cuisine. For the most part we’d rather stay home and try out online recipes or those in some of our many cookbooks than eat inferior food. A new favorite, too, is to use the ideas suggested by Jacques Pépin in his PBS series, Fast Food My Way, or on his website. That does not mean, however, that we don’t enjoy an occasional burger or taco from a fast food restaurant. Au contraire! It’s just that we wouldn’t be caught dead (and never alive!) in a place like Taco Bell; don’t the ads make the food look bad? There are small, ethnic restaurants in and around the Capital District that we like: Bros. Tacos downtown Albany has fresh, homemade tortillas and very tasty carne asada and fish tacos; Pancho Villa’s in the Catskills makes a terrific salsa and has a wide variety of Mexican dishes from mole to quesadillas. We have even tried national chains such as Moe’s and Chipotle. Our verdict: Moe’s sauces are passable, but that’s the extent of it; Chipotle, with its use of fresh ingredients, is not bad at all for a franchise.

A local restaurant we've recently discovered is run by a garrulous go-getter named Tex. Pig Pit Barbecue is definitely worth the trip, either for eat-in or take-out. Situated right at the northern end of I-787 in Cohoes, the place has a lengthy, diverse menu which includes barbecue, Mexican, and southern dishes. (Tex is true to his motto “Put some south in your mouth”!) Their homemade brisket is luscious, smoky and moist. The sides that we chose like the fried okra and cole slaw (or was it the potato salad?) need some work in our opinion. We did enjoy the spicy Cajun beans, though, and will go back and give it another try. [Word to the wise, this restaurant is NOT located on Washington Ave. like this site says; don't make our mistake. Better to call for directions.]

One long-time favorite which I could never overlook is a superb Vietnamese restaurant on Central Avenue in Albany. Just a little better than a hole in the wall, Van's can in no way be called “fast food” because of the service. If you are patient, however, the food is inexpensive and definitely worth the wait. We have been fans since the early days at another location and continue to go to Van’s on a regular basis. Nothing is better than their huge beef pho soup (for $7.00) on a cold night. Other dishes we really enjoy include the vegetarian pancake, the hot and sour pineapple tofu soup (trust me, this is great!), and beef with rice noodles. Truly, there is hardly any way to go wrong here.

For readers who enjoy a bit more upscale casual dining experience, DP Brasserie on Chapel Street in downtown Albany may fill the bill. DP himself is Dominick Purnomo, the son of Yono who owns a fancier place at the same address. The brasserie menu has everything from burgers to crab cakes plus a few international offerings, including Indonesian specialties of their heritage. About a week ago we tried DP for the first time and were favorably impressed. I started out having a very delicious Chicken Satay, followed by vegetarian Stir Fried Noodles with cabbage, celery, and onions which were also very good. Husband thought that his mussels in white wine, butter, and garlic sauce were excellent. The only suggestion I made to the waitress is that they should serve actual bread instead of the unique, but limiting pretzel balls with mustard; she said that Yono’s has bread and that next time we should simply ask for it.

So, there you have some ideas for fast and not-so-fast casual dining in upstate New York.

Two Upstate Bistros

Planning to spend the whole summer celebrating our wedding anniversary was such a good idea in so many ways! Not only did we travel and discover new places, but we also enjoyed a variety of taste experiences worth noting. In mid-July we took off toward the west on route 20 for three days in the Finger Lakes. After having lunch beside the lake in pretty Cazenovia, we arrived at our destination: Skaneateles (pronounced, believe it or not, “skinny atlas”)! We’ll remember the clear waters of the lake, shopping and walking down the streets of the cute town, and visiting the surrounding vineyards. One of our best memories of all, however, is the meal we had at Joelle’s French Bistro.

Located in a charming farmhouse north of town on State Street, the bistro is run by two former residents of New York City who chose to ditch the rat race for a calmer life upstate. The Moroccan-born Joelle and her French husband have created a lovely ambience with cuisine to match. Our first decision was whether to eat out on the patio or inside. A kind of compromise was reached: to peruse the menu out back and then to move in for dinner. Then the most difficult choices began …what to have from a list of delicious-sounding appetizers and entrées. The offerings of the first course were varied and many were oh, so tempting: frogs legs, onion soup, a warm goat-cheese croquette. Finally, my husband picked the country pâté and I went for the beef carpaccio which turned out to be a huge serving of deliciously raw beef, the best I’ve ever had. The only other diners inside that night were two couples at a neighboring table who had ordered another one of my favorites: escargots à la bourguignonne. When we told them how great the aroma was from their appetizer, they insisted that we use our bread to try the leftover sauce. Outstanding! There were the typical elements…butter, garlic, and parsley, but the chef had added some fresh basil which brightened the sauce, giving it a slight anise taste. Next time we’re there I’ll definitely have the snails. For my main dish I had originally ordered the veal tagine, but had to settle for chicken since they were out of veal. While my entrée was good, my husband’s vegetable couscous was really delicious and, as we like to say, a true test of the kitchen. All of that topped off with champagne and crème brûlée for dessert—what could be better?

Interestingly enough, we no longer have to leave the Capital District to get a really good meal. A strip mall in our town recently saw the opening of The Epicurean Bistro and Wine Bar, a branch of a restaurant in Troy. After reading a stellar review in the newspaper, we headed over there one evening in August. For a first course, I must admit that I was quite attracted to the salade au crottin de chèvre, a warm goat cheese salad. Yet, after our experience at Joelle’s, there was no way I was going to pass up the escargots that night, especially when Pastis butter was the basis for the sauce. Although the sauce for the snails at The Epicurean was good, it didn’t quite measure up to the one in Skaneateles. Husband, who has hardly ever encountered a dish of entrails that he could pass up, had to have the special that night: pan-fried brains. (I kid you not!) His evaluation: they could have been more crispy and the sauce was a tad too garlicky for his taste. For his main course, my husband continued his peculiar ways, having the calf’s liver, which he really enjoyed and even I have to admit it wasn’t bad. I went for the more conventional steak/frites, which compared favorably to the dish I'd had at Tree in Manhattan. It was especially fun speaking French with the Parisian-born chef Dominique Brialy. Bon appétit, everyone!

Visiting the U. N.

On our last morning in Manhattan we decided to visit the United Nations Headquarters, a huge complex just off First Avenue between 42nd and 48th Streets. Word to the wise, don’t imagine (like we did) that you can get to the General Assembly Building when it opens, breeze in for a quick tour, and be out in an hour or so. Going through security, for one thing, reminds you of being at an airport—made more difficult since 9/11, I’m sure. Then there is a very long, slow-moving line since only two or three employees sell tickets for the tours. Even though we arrived at around 9:30, there were already plenty of folks ahead of us and we had to wait for the 11:00 o’clock tour. At least there are some things to do in the lobby while waiting: like seeing the Chagall stained-glass window entitled Peace, the Dag Hammarskjöld Meditation Room, and, on that Monday, a moving tribute to the 101 U. N. staff members lost as a result of the Haitian earthquake in January 2010, more deaths than in any mission worldwide.

Once gathered together, our group was brought upstairs to see where the Security Council meets. The young Chinese woman, who is studying in New York as well as working as a guide at the U. N., told us that decisions regarding international peace made by the 15 members of this committee are legally binding. The Council meets daily in private sessions and its five permanent members have veto power. The president of the Security Council rotates monthly in alphabetical order according to country. Our guide told us that, since it was founded in the fall of 1945, the U. N. has helped 80 nations achieve self-determination. Currently, the U.N. has 15 separate peacekeeping missions from Haiti to Congo and Liberia, to India and Pakistan, among others.

We then visited the General Assembly, the main deliberative organ of the U. N. In this large room that can hold 2000 people, 80 member countries discuss pressing world problems. Subjects are varied and include landmines, epidemics, hazardous waste, and human trafficking. Decorating the halls throughout the building are international gifts to the United Nations, such as a Buddha from Thailand, Persian rugs of the men who have served as Secretary General throughout the years, beautiful Kente cloth from West Africa, and a Chernobyl commemoration from Belarus.

The most interesting part of the tour, in my opinion, had to do with duties of the United Nations outside of peacekeeping. At a summit in 2000 the U.N. proposed eight development goals for the millennium, including eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, and promoting gender equality and empowering women. One way it hopes to achieve another goal of reducing child mortality is by supplying mosquito nets to eliminate malaria among families in affected areas throughout the world. Since the mid-1990s UNICEF (The United Nations Children's Fund) has also distributed a so-called “school-in-a-box”, which contains basic supplies for schoolchildren in developing countries. Another terrific idea is the multi-functional platform which contains a hand-cranked generator. This energy supply has eliminated two to four hours of hard labor by women each day by speeding the grinding of grain.

All in all, it was a very informative introduction to the work of the United Nations.

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Two Museums in Manhattan

All Cheapo Snobs must come to learn that “free” is not necessarily something that we enjoy. The Snob side of us should have remembered going to the Louvre once many years ago on its free day, the first Sunday of the month, along with a few thousand others and all of the problems that ensued. But our memory proved faulty one summer day when we decided to visit Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (on 53rd between 5th and 6th) during its free admission period on Friday between 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. Like us, a myriad of visitors thought it would be a great idea to arrive there right before the free hours began, hence, a line that (no kidding!) wrapped half-way around the immense city block. If free is what you’re after, at least show up at 5:00 or later. Anyway, the sight of all of those people goaded us to spend at least a half-hour tasting a beer at a local Irish pub before having the strength to join the long entry line. Once inside, though, the situation was not much improved. Highlights of the permanent collection—Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, and especially Van Gogh’s La Nuit étoilée—were swarming with people making it difficult to approach, never mind actually appreciate, the works of art. On a side note, The Modern, MOMA’s full-service restaurant on the ground floor, is an award-winner with a tempting menu, though the time we were there was a bit early for dinner even for us.

A better Cheapo Snob idea is the following: entrance fees to museums in the city are seemingly “suggested donations.” Upon arrival at The Metropolitan Museum at 1000 5th Avenue, we were asked if the $40 charge for both of us was acceptable; our proposed $30 payment was received without anyone batting an eyelash. Then Cheapos can take pleasure in the museum's free offerings, such as our chosen “encyclopedic tour” of the collection. Even though the walking was substantial, it was great to get an introduction to what “the Met” has to offer by one of the summer interns, a young man named Jason. First off was a pre-Columbian funerary mask from Peru. Apparently, from the slanted shape of the eyes, art historians can tell that this beautiful gold object dates from the Sican culture of the 9th to the 11th century. It is thought that the dangles on it represent the movement of the body in life and that the mask once had feathers decorating it.

Next on the agenda was an ivory pendant mask from the kingdom of Benin in the 15th or 16th century. This realistic figure is believed to have been of the artist’s mother and to have been used in purification rites. Decorated on the outer edges with mudfish, a symbol of divinity, the object has noble scarification marks of the Edo culture and was once worn on the neck as an amulet.

The third item on the tour was a 1500-year-old Greek marble statue of a Kouros (youth) dating from 5 to 6 centuries BCE. The abstract face, stiff arms and legs, and the irregular proportions mark the work as the creation of an early artist. Its importance lies in the fact that it is the first known naturalistic conception of the body in Western culture. It is also amazing that this vibrant statue was created without the need for a support pillar.

Then there was a 900-year-old realistic "mummy portrait" (never knew there was such a thing!) on limewood which, well-preserved by the sand in Egypt, had no need of restoration. It depicts a 12- or 13-year-old boy, possibly an Egyptian in Roman clothing. Finally, in the South Asian galleries we saw an early example of Shiva, lord of the dance, (no, not Michael Flatley!) of the southern Indian Chola dynasty. This creator, preserver, and destroyer god, seen as the center of the universe, wears the headdress of divinity as it tramples the lies of “the dwarf of illusion.”

So there you have our latest suggestions for visiting museums in New York City. Enjoy!

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