Monday, April 8, 2013

March 2013—In Like a Lion and Out Like a Lion

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Although the groundhog had predicted an early spring this year, the weather this March has been unseasonably cold, sometimes frigid, with only a few mild days scattered in to tease us and the forsythia into thinking that spring was just around the corner. There wasn’t a lot of snow, but it was enough to put off buying flowers and putting away sweaters, wool socks, winter coats and gloves. Cartoons have appeared depicting frozen groundhogs, or showing people’s desire to strangle them.

Purim was very early this year, falling on February 23, a Saturday. The two weeks in February leading up to it shaped our plans almost hour-by-hour. We had dinner with Larry at Cheesecake Factory during that week. On Valentine’s Day, Saul and I had a late lunch together at Metropolitan Diner. Then we went to see the movie, Quartet, which we absolutely loved. We were too full to have dinner after that and hit the sack early.

On Friday, February 15, we picked up Faith and had a delightful Shabbat dinner at Jess and Alex’s with the girls. The time has come to begin emptying out the freezer, refrigerator and pantry in preparation for Pesach. I took challahs to them from the freezer, both the regular and rainbow type, and iced a sweet potato cake that was in the freezer with its brown sugar glaze. Alex filled in the rest with sushi, salads, and tofu shawarma. We had an assortment of ice cream with the cake.

After attending services on Saturday morning, we spent most of the afternoon online searching for a place in Ocean City, NJ, where we can be near the beach and boardwalk and have enough bedrooms so that Ari has one, too, all this without breaking the bank. I was really excited when we finally settled on one Sunday morning and thought we booked it through our agency, only to discover on Monday that the owner had booked it for the week we wanted already. A subsequent choice, like the first, also got shut down for the same reason. In the ensuing few days, we finally pinned one down.

At the end of February, Saul began complaining about a rash, but it was minor and not very troublesome, so we were just speculating about whether something was different about our detergent or whether he was eating something different. On Tuesday evening at 1:30 a.m., my eyes suddenly shot open with the thought that he might possible have shingles. I spent the rest of the night awake, watching him sleeping soundly and waiting for the alarm to go off at 6:00 a.m. so that I could ask him if the rash was on one side of his body only, one of the symptoms that I learned about as I perused the Net in my distress that night. Although it was not, he arranged to see the doctor the next morning in between classes. Thankfully, it was not shingles, but a minor rash, as we had originally thought. So we dodged yet another bullet. We were planning to spend Saul’s entire spring break week in DC with Ari beginning on Thursday, but decided to delay until Monday because we decided to get the shingles vaccination. That whole process became such a boondoggle that we wasted a few days of our vacation, and still have not received the shots.

On Wednesday, the day that Saul got an all-clear from the doctor, we met Faith for dinner at The Metropolitan Diner. As we were finishing, about 7:00 p.m. we got a call from Randi advising us that Ken had been rushed to the hospital on Kauai on Monday evening with horrible pain spasms in his lower back. On Tuesday, he was airlifted to the hospital in Honolulu in case he needed a neurosurgeon. Randi asked us if we could go to their house, get the discs that contained previous MRIs that had been taken of the area from their files, and ship them by FedEx overnight to Honolulu so that they could be compared with the tests they were about to perform. By some miracle and with a lot of help from two wonderful women at the FedEx center in Ft. Washington, we managed to get to the house in Warrington, find the discs, and get them to the FedEx office two minutes before the office was due to close at 8:00 p.m.

In the ensuing weeks, Ken endured a three-hour angiogram, among other tests, in Honolulu which did not lead to a diagnosis. In great frustration, he finally opted to return home a month early from his vacation to see other doctors here. As I write this, his pain and his frustration at not having a diagnosis have continued through a number of doctors’ visits of various specialties. He finally obtained an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis and has scheduled a flight there on April 16.

The shingles shots fiasco delayed our spring break plans to spend the last week of February and beginning of March with Ari in DC. We were told that we shouldn’t be around small children, pregnant women or health-compromised adults right after receiving the shots, so we delayed getting them until after the Purim festivities on Saturday evening at Beth Shalom in Cherry Hill. Very early Monday morning, after Saul took a fasting blood test, we discovered that Abington Hospital does not give the shots as our doctor (who also does not give the shots) had told us. We drove back towards home and then decided to have breakfast at a restaurant we had never before tried while we waited for Costco to open. The restaurant, next to a gun shop, had apparently gone out of business. By then, Costco was open and would take our insurance (the shot costs $188 each at Costco, and about $240 elsewhere). While we waited for the shot to defrost, we breakfasted on churros and smoothies. Half an hour later, we were informed that Aetna would not cover the shot if they administered it. Only our doctor or an approved clinic could administer it so that we would be covered. We then called Aetna, who suggested we get the shot at a nearby Minute Clinic (inside a CVS). While we waited to speak to someone there, on hold on the Bluetooth in our car, we had time to drive over there, only to finally be told that no Minute Clinics in Pennsylvania administer the vaccine. By then, we were so frustrated that we decided to return home, grab our bags, and take our chances in DC. At least our drive was relaxing with light traffic almost all the way. We picked up Ari relatively early from work and had dinner at our new favorite restaurant, The Heights, near Ari’s home.

As we continued our quest to get shingles shots, we wasted most of a day of our vacation on the phone with various representatives at Aetna until we finally got one who really got involved for a few hours, making all the phone calls to various places with us on the line. Eventually, she gave up, telling us that the only way that Aetna would cover the shot was if we picked it up frozen and took it to a doctor to be administered. She told us that the vaccine was good for several hours after defrosting. We decided to table the process for the time being and later, back at Chestnut Hill College, Saul learned from a colleague that a friend of hers had suffered a case of shingles for doing just that. The live bacteria had multiplied too much in the two hours it had taken her to get the frozen vaccine to the doctor. I think, perhaps, this is the dumbest thing I have ever encountered when it comes to health insurance coverage, and I have encountered a lot. In the meantime, after various colleagues encountered the same runaround, the college is looking into having someone come to administer the shots there.

Returning to spring break in DC, we had an absolutely marvelous time in the days we had left. We all had a completely unplanned culinary trip around the world. One rainy evening, we randomly stumbled on Jaleo in Crystal City after unsuccessful attempts at finding a quiet place downtown, a tapas restaurant owned by José Andreas, my fourth favorite chef in the world, after Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria, and Michel Richard. We had exquisite small plates there and sampled cheeses, foods and wine, imported from Spain, that are available nowhere else in this country. The next evening, it was still raining. We ate at the Indonesian restaurant, Satay Sarinah in Alexandria/Van Dorn. Ari often has lunch from their food truck parked near his downtown DC office, and he wanted to try the restaurant from where the food originates. It was very clean and pleasant, though very spare in decor in its ethnically diverse strip mall location. It was my first Indonesian food, and seems to be a cross between Thai and Indian. Very nice. Ari was in Tysons Corner all day on Thursday for recruiting business. Saul and I had lunch, again, at The Heights, and then stayed in and watched The Chronicles of Riddick and The Sorcerer's Apprentice on television. The next day, hungry and in desperation to find a restaurant where we would not have to wait an hour for dinner, we bagged a much-sought-after reservation at Thai Xing (pronounced “crossing”). This place is a quirky little venue that usually books months in advance ever since it was “discovered” by Anthony Bourdain. It usually takes months to get a reservation, but they said that if the three of us could get there within 15 minutes, they would take us. The food is a set menu, depending on the season, several courses brought out in a specific sequence as they are prepared, with no printed menus and no choices. Supposedly, the cachet is the authenticity of the dishes. It certainly was not the ambiance. Our “table,” in the basement of a DC townhouse, was a flea market-purchased desk and a large brass tray on a stand. Saul sat on a beat-up office chair, while Ari and I chose a makeshift window seat. The food was delicious and plentiful. We especially enjoyed a pumpkin dish and a beautiful salad presented on a large banana leaf. The main course was salmon. The meal cost $40 per person and did not include any alcohol. It was a great serendipitous experience that we all totally enjoyed, but it was way too expensive. During that afternoon, Saul had been perusing Facebook and pointed out to me that our friend Susan’s husband’s granddaughter, Madeline Rile Smith, was exhibiting a piece of her glass art that evening at a gallery in nearby Anacostia. I mentioned it during dinner, and we all decided to attend, arriving an hour before closing. She and her mother were absolutely shocked and delighted to see us there. We totally enjoyed looking at the avant garde art and meeting Madeline.

No international trip would be complete without China, so we had dim sum twice in a row, once at Silver Fountain, our new find, and once at Oriental East. Ari had all but demolished the chicken soup we made together on a previous visit, so we purchased the ingredients and made another batch of nine quarts. This time, Ari assembled it completely by himself with my instructions from the couch as I was considering a nap. His next-door neighbor, Hazel came over, to ask about the difference between her oil and his gas heating bills as she was considering switching over. The difference was shockingly huge! We chose and ordered a special front door for his home at Home Depot, which turned out to be a several hours-long project that seems to have turned out futile, as the company that makes the fiberglass doors refused, several weeks later, to make one wide enough to fit the opening. We finally bought a “real” vacuum cleaner (not a robot) at the new (and surprisingly uncrowded) Costco in DC. All too soon, it was time to return home and go back to our routines, but only for a short while as the advent of Passover changes everything.

When I heard that Ken and Randi were returning early from their Hawaiian vacation, and knowing what a nightmare the return flight was likely to be for Ken, I spent a couple of days shopping and cooking to stock up their refrigerator with Ken’s favorite foods. He had not been able to eat for a few days at a time while hospitalized, so he returned quite a few pounds lighter than when he left. I was grateful that I cooked, because within a few days, Randi, with her lowered resistance from all the stress, caught the flu. Thankfully, Ken did not catch it, too.

During March, Saul and I attended the Philadelphia Flower Show for the first time in a few years. We had been disappointed at the high cost and quality of the show in previous years, but decided to give it another try. It was very sparse this year—not crowded, but that was because there was tons of space between each display in which people could move around, lots of floor space, not many exhibits. We had a mediocre lunch at The Down Home Diner in historic Reading Terminal Market, but the Bassett’s ice cream we had for dessert was as good as it was 30 years ago.

Our realtors up in the Poconos found a suitable tenant to sign a one-year lease for the property, and we agreed. The young couple just moved in a few days ago, and it looks, so far, like it is going to be a win-win situation for all of us. He works at a Wal-Mart, has a great credit rating, is very handy and willing to fix things, and said that they absolutely love the house.

Saul and I spent a day driving to Ocean City to check out the place we had reserved from online photos for our family vacation this summer. After a couple of hours of trying to get in to see it with various keys that the realtor collected from a number of his offices, we discovered that someone had broken off a key in the lock. It was a bitterly cold day, lightly snowing from time to time, and we consoled ourselves with lunch at a nostalgia location for us, The Crab Trap in Somers Point. Driving back, sorely disappointed, we were again consoled with a lovely Shabbat dinner with Jess, Alex and our granddaughters. We rescheduled when Ari was here during the week of Passover, packing our own picnic for the day, and were wowed when we finally got in to see it that the reality was even better than the photos. We can’t wait for summer! As an added bonus, we spent about two hours checking out the new Revel Casino in Atlantic City, which is gorgeous, and now my favorite. Ari also lost some money to the slot machines, but we had a great time. On our way back, we stopped to take the older girls and Jessica to see The Croods at the Marlton Theater, stupid, but funny and cute, and in 3D, visually stunning.

Backtracking again, I spent the week before Pesach, converting over the kitchen, shopping for supplies, and cooking for the holiday. The first seder took place on Monday evening, March 25, this year, Jessica’s birthday. I decided that I missed all the traditional foods that Alex doesn’t make. Ari was going to be with us for the whole week, and for a few days, Beth, so I figured it would be okay to make small quantities of the things I was missing for a few years now to eat during the week. I was going to be making larger quantities of desserts for the entire crowd during the two seders at Jess and Alex’s home. Alex doesn’t like to make desserts. Among the foods that I only make once a year during Passover are: gefilte fish, homemade chrain (fresh ground horseradish and beet relish), chopped chicken liver, brisket, stuffed cabbage, smoked turkey, matzoh apple kugel, and Passover potato knishes. Saul and I had very little hope of finding the live or very fresh carp we needed for the gefilte fish. We checked in at Assi Market, but the manager told us that even though they usually carry it, this time of year, the truck arrives without any. On Sunday, a week before the seders, he said he would order it and to check in with them the following Friday to see if it was really on the delivery truck. Lo and behold, when we called on Friday morning, they said that two had been delivered. The market is only five minutes away, so we ran over and found the most beautiful, large, fresh carp I have ever seen. I was intending to take only one, but after cleaning and gutting, the fish weighed only 7 lbs. I figured by the time we removed the head and fileted it, I might only have two to three lbs. of actual flesh. I decided to take the second one also. We rushed it home and Saul broke it down and fileted it while I prepared the stock. It was the best, most delicious gefilte fish I have ever made. We stopped at Wegman’s in Warrington to pick up and drop off some items to Ken and Randi, who was in the middle of her flu. There, we were surprised to find an interesting array of kosher for Passover food items that we had not expected to find. At $17 to $18 a lb. from the kosher butcher, Simon’s, I had decided against making brisket, knowing that it shrinks to almost half its size when I cook it. At Wegman’s, I found glatt kosher fresh meat sealed in blister packs for about $8.00 a lb., so I bought a small brisket and some stew meat. Both were outstanding. Ari claimed it was the best brisket I ever made. I used the stew meat to make a delicious beef and cabbage borsch with the cooking liquid from cooking the cabbage for the stuffed cabbage, the trimmings from the leaves and the core of the cabbage, the root vegetables pureéd from a large batch of chicken soup, and a jar of tomato sauce. After Wegman’s, I met Jessica at Simon’s Kosher Meat to pick up my part of the Passover order, fresh chicken liver, ground beef, and some chicken necks for soup. Ari picked up several packages of fresh Empire kosher boneless chicken breast on his way here from the Costco in Maryland that stocks cases of kosher meat for their large Jewish clientele. Everything is way cheaper if you can find it at Costco. Saul and I made eight different sorbets this year—lemon, orange, pineapple, banana, mango, strawberry, grapefruit, and sabra, along with the usual mocha mousse crepes, flourless chocolate almond bars, and strawberry rhubarb crumb pie. I even had a chance to experiment with a pink birthday cake for Jess that turned out wonderfully, a classic sponge cake with a frosting made from pure organic coconut oil, Passover confectioner’s sugar and grape juice. I had a blast cooking during the week before Pesach and absolutely everything turned out superior this year. I never felt the exhaustion I usually experience as I spread out the labor over the whole week and Saul helped tremendously. I even finalized a large publication at the same time for my business.

We had Shabbat dinner the Friday before the seders at Larry’s, along with Faith, Lori, her husband, Saul, and their son, Jordan. Ari drove up from DC that afternoon. He left the office early and made it here by around 8:00 p.m. Because he was not feeling well, he was not able to eat much, but had a few pieces of the smoked turkey leg that had just come off of the kettle grill, some of the chometz that I traditionally leave on the kitchen table and a lot of coconut water. We had breakfast at Duck Deli, met with our accountant about taxes, and had dinner at The Metropolitan Diner. On late Sunday afternoon before the seders, after our friend Faith came over to help us dig up the horseradish from our garden, an older couple who had seen the “For Sale by Owner” sign on our lawn, came to look over our house. They said that their married son, who lives only a mile or two away, had seen the sign. They loved the house, and after some discussions and haggling at the kitchen table, agreed to pay our price. We received a check in the mail from them a few days ago, so it looks like the deal is on.

The seders were stupendous as usual. Alex outdid himself in preparing our personalized family haggadot, chock full of photo montages of everyone in the family and friends that attend the seders, pertinent drawings that all of us have supplied over the years, anecdotes, and blessings for each other as well as the traditional readings. We were supposed to pick up Beth at the airport the Saturday evening before the seders, but her flight was flying through Denver and was snowed out by a huge blizzard there. The earliest she could arrange to arrive after that was Monday evening after the first seder, so she opted to cancel, a great disappointment for all of us. The weather was terrible the evening of the first seder and we all feared for black ice on the drive home. Luckily, we all arrived home without incident. The first seder was attended by Jess, Alex, Sami, Izzy, Yona, Elaine W., Anne, Bobby, Michael E., whose youngest daughter had a baby that evening, same birthday as Jess, Elaine S., Naomi, Matt, Talia, Rifka, Paul, Ari, Saul and me. The second seder was attended by Jess, Alex, Sami, Izzy, Yona, Elaine W., Anne, Aunt Ruth, Bobby, Larry S., Aaron, Stacey, Jacob, Lilly, Zach, Ari, Saul, and me. The food was incredible as usual with Alex’s vast array of karpas to keep us  occupied “culinarily” until the sumptuous meal and his ingenious devices for keeping the kids engaged throughout the service. During Passover week, Ari worked long hours remotely during the day. We began to look at properties in Florida in between. Although he had not been feeling well when he first arrived, after several days, he became himself again. Unfortunately, I caught the norovirus the day after the seders and was under the weather for a few days. Despite the fact that I had prepared and handled all that food, no one else caught it, thank God. We managed to meet Jess one night at Neshaminy Mall to see the movie, Oz The Great and Powerful. Shabbat dinner during Pesach was real homemade shawarma at Jess and Alex’s, and Rifka joined us for the evening. Ari returned home on Monday with a supply of Passover food for the following day and beyond. Putting away all the Passover paraphernalia was relatively easy this year with Saul’s help and the organization of the new kitchen. We met Faith at Aman’s Bistro for an after-Passover vegetarian Indian dinner.

We have found an exciting property in Florida on which we have begun negotiations. Saul will be retiring in just over a month, and our lives appear to be changing dramatically, hopefully for the better. The weather is still harsh and chilly, but the crocuses and daffodils have begun to appear, so spring must certainly, finally, be just around the corner.

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