Wander: House tours

Philip Johnson Glass House / Good House Guest

Judd Foundation / Good House Guest

The first house that I remember living in was a cozy ranch with a big back yard on a block lined with other modest one-story homes. Except for the two-story colonial where Annalise lived. Annalise was older (well, big enough to go to school all day) and she had a fairy tale-like older girl’s room with an enviable doll collection and a giant doll house.

I still can’t distinguish if the following memory was fantasy or a true event, but I recall sneaking into that house one afternoon. Her mother was preoccupied on the phone, and I scampered up the stairs (such a luxury!) just to steal a glimpse of all the wonderful grown-up-girl things lining the shelves in Annalise’s room. Her mother called up and I hid under the bed (chest heaving) until she found little trespassing me. I’ve always been fascinated with the interior life of a home.

I still am. I love taking an evening stroll to soak up the vignettes playing out in brightly-lit living rooms or bedrooms. I can’t pass up a good period room in a museum (don’t try to rush me through the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle), and I’m a sucker for a house tour.

Frank Llyod Wright’s Fallingwater outside of Pittsburgh – the architecture, the casual ‘gift from a friend’ original artwork and custom furniture – make it well-worth the trip. There’s hardly enough time on the tour to cover all of the details, and it’s the sort of place where I would want to spend even just one night as a guest.

Super-modernist fans should flee from New York for the day via the Meto-North to wander the contemporary art and architecture campus (kingdom?) that is the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. Private writing hut, personal art gallery and one crystal-clear domicile. This New York Times story offers insight about the influential couple who lived there.

After years of restoration, Donald Judd’s home and studio in New York’s Soho neighborhood was opened to the public in 2013. Tours are intimate (six or so to a group) and leisurely paced, and you gain a true sense as to how Judd’s philosophy extended to every space – from the vibrant-feeling kitchen to the almost monastic bedroom (if not for the dazzling artwork found there). It’s a meditative space in what is now one of the cities most label-wagging commercial hubs. I wonder what Mr. Judd would make of the old neighborhood today…

Create: A little magic

Fireworks Prospect Park/ Good House Guest

As it’s been our tradition the last few years, we gathered with dear friends, neighbors and perfect strangers to watch the explosions in the sky over Prospect Park – Brooklyn’s version of the ball drop. It was a fine show on a cold and clear end-of-year night, but it wasn’t punctuated with that powerful punch of chaotic bursts.

Slightly disappointed, the chilly onlookers began heading back to their homes, but just as we’d turned our backs on the park, the sky erupted with a burst of pops and flares – a delayed, but no less daring grand finale to the year. Just when we thought it was over it wasn’t – there was still some magic left to be had. I thought that a fitting way to end 2104, a year heavy with loss, a year which reminded me to be more conscious about remaining open the good surprises and unexpected delights, too.

Wishing all clarity, brightness and magic when you least expect it in 2015.

Create: Extended family

Holiday lights/ Good House Guest

Crackers/ Good House Guest

For the past two years we’ve lived in the garden apartment of a sturdy, thoughtfully restored brownstone on one of those quintessential Brooklyn blocks. A leafy stretch where a perfect kick-line of brawny brick homes crowned in regal cornices lead to the park. It’s been a charmed run, and we know it.

We’ve been lucky enough to have more than landlords living above us, but friends, too. Even if we are an unlikely match. Us: hailing from the Midwest, writers and vaguely Christian. Them: Russian-born immigrants who are doctors and Jewish. There’s a sitcom in there somewhere, complete with an episode where the parents come downstairs to raid the honey baked ham and shrimp cocktail we had on offer at our Christmas Eve party.

We share the usual neighborly provisions of sugar or eggs, and we watch one another’s children in a pinch. Having doctors on call was helpful when our toddler took a temple-leading leap into a coffee table. And they appreciated help from an in-house editor to review speeches for their oldest son’s bar mitzvah.

Beyond that though, the above shots are a glimpse at just how much we’ve blended lives and learned from one another’s stories, traditions and cultures. One holiday evening we lit the Christmas pyramid and two menorahs in the window as we discussed the significance behind those stories and the importance of light. We popped open Christmas crackers (a UK tradition) and swapped the silly jokes inside as we passed around plates of latkes (three glorious kinds), pickles, Russian herring salad and my new favorite: pirozhki.

And despite the fact that the house is being sold and we’ll all be moving, I hope that we can make this gathering a holiday tradition for years to come….

Ps&Qs: Use the good plates

Good plates / Good House Guest Use the good plates. Uncrate your mother’s silver. Dust off the crystal. What are you saving those candles for? This is your special occasion.

I grew up in a house with an imposing china cabinet that smelled strongly of wood polish and rattled like a Waterford wind chime when you tip-toed past it. When those tall, hand carved doors were open it signaled party time, and my parents took great care in setting a table to welcome guests.

I’m too clumsy for cut-glass crystal and too impatient for the care of precious silver things, but my one indulgence: a good set of plates. I bring them out for everything from pizza to beef tenderloin. Because it’s not about what is served but rather, it’s about the people who traveled across an ocean or strolled a few blocks to spend time and share a meal with us. In fact, all about that.

Create: Pie Party

Pie party / Good House GUestMy clever friend Sue invited us over last week for a party with a motive so simple and compelling that it was positively brilliant: to eat pie. As you can see, people took the pie pot-luck directive very seriously.

People brought their A-game. I contributed a savory tomato and zucchini pie (a recipe I’d share, but it needs some perfecting). My offering, however, was no match for the rhubarb beauty with ribbons of doughy latticework; a thick egg and kale quiche; the wild blueberry with a buttery crumble top; a delicate apple galette, a bacon, egg and onion dish or the layered coconut number that I sadly didn’t even have room for after sampling most of the others.

It was an excellent way to spend the first official chill-in-the-air fall day here in New York, and I’ll be practicing my technique for the winter session.

Wander: Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, RI / Good House Guest

In late May, Kate Thorman, my fantastic Mr & Mrs Smith co-editor, and I embarked on a quick New England road trip blitz. Our Chevy Impala rental car had us rolling way more like Cagney & Lacey than Thelma & Louise, as we’d imagined, but we managed.

In just five days we made our way up to Portland, Maine, followed by a quick stop in Cape Cod and ferried out to Nantucket before barreling down to Newport, Rhode Island. We snapped shots along the way for the savvy travel site, Fathom, and with that is our first dispatch for them about our finds in Newport. Among our other discoveries: turns out I like rum.

Wander: Austin, Texas

Wedding/ Good House Gues

The excellent excuse of a wedding brought many of my relatives together for a fabulous family reunion this spring in Austin. Above is a shot from the main event, which was authentically Austin in its laid-back, endearingly DIY way, with an emphasis on creative food and copious cold drinks. Even if you can’t swing an invite to a stylish outdoor wedding at the Zilker Clubhouse high above the twinkling city below, leafy Zilker Park itself is still worth a visit.

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Bonus: Todd has family there too, so it was all cousins, all the time.

East Side House/ Good House Guest

Vintage Eastide house/ Good House GuestScreen Shot 2014-07-07 at 10.26.25 PMStay: We rented this desert-inspired domicile on the city’s Eastside, a quiet residential part of town that still had plenty of cafes and colorful piñata shops (purchases were made; a candy-stuffed Darth Vader was pummeled). This thoughtfully restored 100-year-old home with wide-plank hardwood floors, a claw-foot tub and back garden made it easy to slip into Austin and feel like a local. And, as with any good sanctuary, there were plenty of amusements between the bookshelves stacked with compelling reads, a piano and the record player with a handful of albums.

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Eat: We quickly became regulars at Cenote, a casual cafe and coffeehouse just a few blocks from the house.The super friendly folks there made us feel right at home when we showed up every morning in need of their strong brew. It also proved to be a spot-on place for a mound of greens or a hearty sandwich. The superb taco truck, Veracruz All Natural –  the migas breakfast taco is a must after a night out –  was also a short walk away. The mess of smothered fries goodness above is complements of Banger’s Sausage House, a German-inspired beer garden that takes license with tradition. Sausage varieties include: goat cheese and beet, a trio of duck, bacon and fig and dak bulgogi, just to keep it, you know, weird. The generous outdoor space with communal picnic tables is tucked within a row of former bungalow homes that now make up the bars and restaurants of Rainey Street.

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Do: Paddle on Ladybird Lake. This reservoir on the Colorado River is ringed by 10 miles of hiking and biking trails, but escape the relentless heat by renting a boat from one of several outfitters along the lake.

Wander: Hudson Valley

Falling Waters Preserve / Good House Guest

We recently fled to Red Hook for a long weekend. No, not that Red Hook in Brooklyn with the Fairway Market, lobster restaurant and somewhat made-up maritime bars. Rather, the small town a two hour drive up the Hudson River and into the woods of the Hudson Valley and Catskills region.

Hudson River / Good House GuestBecause we can’t manage to pull off a normal spring break on a beach like everyone else, we tend to run in other less-populated directions. This trip it meant we had snowy paths of the just-waking-to-spring woods practically to ourselves – an incredible contrast to our daily life. And with over 60 parks protected and maintained by the Scenic Hudson conservancy group, you could easily fill the days following birdsong and the trickle of ice-melt streams in a maze of pines. We tracked critters, poked at the lip of the still-frozen Hudson and even passed a few stoic saints (the path is part of a Dominican Sisters retreat center) as we crunched through the snow at the Falling Waters Preserve.

Sawkill Farm/ Good House GuestWe spent Saturday morning sampling pickled green tomatoes, stinky cheese and jams at the Hudson Valley Farmers Market at Grieg Farm. Later, we stopped off of Route 9 and met Michael and Callie, the couple (along with their chickens, pigs, cows and sheep) behind the bounty of gorgeous steaks, chops, sausages and just-collected eggs for sale at Sawkill Farm. A little daydreamy window shopping is always in order wherever we wander, and for that we spent time running our hands along the expertly planed tables and trying out chairs Goldilocks-style at Sawkille, a beautiful furniture and goods store in Rhinebeck.

Chicken coop/ Good House Guest

Not entirely removed from civilization though, we did venture into Rhinebeck and snacked on crispy wood oven-fired pizzas and a towering salad of shredded greens at Market St. In Red Hook, we were welcomed as regulars by the fine folks at Mercato. Warm reception aside (a woman from the kitchen picked Soren up and took him over to the chef for a special treat) the house made pastas – in particular, the toothsome tagilatelle bolognese – were the true reason to stick around.

hot tub / Good House Guest

Friends tipped us off to a simple, tastefully decorated two-bedroom rental house. Large windows maximized the views of the deep woods where we’d catch deer loping early in the morning. As an added bonus, it also had what Todd considers to be cherry on top of any vacation rental: a hot tub. Who needs the beach, anyway?

We are chronic weekend escape house renters. Here are a few other finds a pleasant drive from the city:

Overlook Nook Plenty of bedrooms, an inviting living room, a killer record collection, a sprawling garden and a pleasant blue stone pond.

Floating Farmhouse We were lucky enough to spend a glorious long weekend at this sublime space with some of the loveliest people we know (and a black bear, too!).

Woodstock Cottage We tucked away in this little cottage one snowy January weekend. It’s compact and cozy, but it was just right for a last minute off-season escape.

Create: Things in batches

limoncello/ good house guest

Exchanging a dozen of your fresh eggs for a jar of your neighbor’s honey was once standard practice in small towns and rural communities. This friendly and practical barter of goods is now experiencing a revival in cities across the country by like-minded food enthusiasts through highly organized food swaps. BK Swappers, founded in 2010, is one such group that my dear friend and fearless-home-cook, Jane Lerner is behind.


I got in on the action last month, and discovered how this pantry-stocking-swap works. First, you have to show up with something to trade, and everyone brings up to 10 jars, bags, bottles or tins of whatever they’ve preserved, pickled, baked or stirred up. This being my first swap, I went with a safe bet and just made a giant batch of spiced nuts. However, this event is not for those shy around the kitchen – there was kimchi stuffed sausage, Meyer lemon limoncello and orange bitters in amber-hued tincture bottles, to name a few items.


Everyone snags a space to display their wares. They also fill out a swap sheet with a description of their goodies, and then others can write in a proposed trade for your treat (for example: My jar of Sichuan chili pepper oil for your bacon-infused vodka). Trick of the trade: having a little tasting sample set out to entice fellow swappers.


It’s a very social affair. In addition to all the nibbles on the swap table, people bring pot-luck style dishes to share, and one swapper had even set up a knife-sharpening station. Just as if you were at the most delicious (and ambitious) cocktail party ever, folks stand around chatting and clinking beer bottles in-between bites of lavender shortbread or a scoop of pepper-infused jelly. All is casual and friendly… until the call to swap.

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This is where things get serious, and a bit hectic. Seasoned swappers circulate quickly to pounce on those chocolate-covered pretzels or tangy pickled Brussels sprouts they’ve been eyeing. The uninitiated (ok, me) hung back and tried their luck after the initial rush. No matter your swap style though, no one walks away empty-handed or without something new and different to try. After all, who couldn’t use a jar of peppery giardiniera or homemade butternut squash butter?

Does your pantry need a spring re-stock? The next BK Swappers event is Thursday, April 24 at the West in Williamsburg. Spaces can be reserved starting this Friday, April 4. Join their mailing list for the full scoop. Happy swapping!

Create: Summer in a jar

Summer in a jar/ Good House Guest

With whipping wind, sideways-falling snow and ice slicks on every block, it’s been important to keep in mind that there will be life after winter. In New York, that also means remembering a tidier time – before sidewalks were hedged with diminutive mount trashmores (complete with Christmas tree husks) covered in snow, ice and slush.

Right now a little bit of sunshine goes a long way, blue sky days are that much better and best of all is when the forecast calls for a chance to leave the house in something other than clunky snow boots. So I’m even more appreciate than ever of the friends who preserved, canned and bottled summer’s sweetness and shared it with us. Our pantry is stocked with bright marmalades and dark fruit jellies that give us hope for the possibility of budding trees, picnics in the park and far less trash on the sidewalk.

Here is my friend Sarah’s recipe for her red currant jelly so you can have your own spot of brightness on a cold day. We’ve been slathering it on toast and mixing it into plain yogurt.

2 pounds currants (washed and stems removed – can be frozen until ready to use)
1 cup sugar

Place the currants in a large pot, add the water (about 1/4-1/2 cup) and sugar (1 cup + to taste, some people so equal parts but I like it more tart than sweet). Cook over medium heat. The currants will start to release all their juice and pop out of their skins. Once you have a more liquified consistency, about 20 minutes, drain the currants over a bowl. I did this using cheesecloth and the help of a mesh strainer. Be careful not to squeeze the cheesecloth or you’ll get more of a cloudy jelly. Once all the liquid has been drained, you can pour into canning jars and process in a water bath (water bath canning instructions here).