Challah-lujah

Challah French Toast Recipe

The house on the Hill
The House on the Hill

Essentially Keith and I have the best jobs in the whole world.  For the last three decades we have paid ourselves to go shopping–which happily requires rambling throughout Europe and the United States looking for fabulous products to feature in our Red Bank, New Jersey store.

And that’s just the beginning.  Because once we’re done shopping, interesting people (for the most part) come visit our store in search of the perfect piece for their home, or second home, sometimes even for their restaurant or hotel.  And it is always interesting, even great fun, to learn a bit about their lives, personalities, tastes and vision.  Over the years our client list has grown, and grown and includes rock stars, politicians, plumbers, celebrity chefs, magazine editors, even some of the more infamous housewives of New Jersey–you just never know who is going to walk through the door next.

Usually once something sells, that’s it.  When I say adieu I hope for the best; rarely do I get to see how our things look in situ.  So I was quite pleased  to accept an invitation to view the rather myriad British Cottage purchases from over the years, in this home, certainly one of Monmouth County’s most iconic properties.  I would have gone even if brunch was not included!

Originally built in the mid 1800’s as a lighthouse on a hill on the eastern Middletown border, this house exudes charm and personality.  From the entrancing private lane, you enter through the iron gates to a lushly landscaped, circular drive topped by this simply lovely home.  I want to say it is the icing on the cake, or the jewel in the crown–it is really super.

Periwinkle Blue DoorI walked through the periwinkle blue door straight into a kitchen right out of the original Smallbone Catalogue.

Freestanding Viking StoveSmallbone is an English firm famous for introducing “unfitted kitchens” to the United States.  Totally bucking the trend of build-in, built-up,   over-built kitchens that are now the norm, an unfitted kitchen features freestanding furniture and appliances and a variety of finishes and materials.  Utterly charming, yet totally serious with industrial strength appliances, this is my dream kitchen.

Dining Room Table from British Cottage

Next up is the dining room featuring a huge farm table from, you guessed it, British Cottage.  The owners were over the traditional polished mahogany look with its requisite pads and table cloths and wanted a table that would encourage lingering dinners and withstand spills and splatters.

The chandelier, also from British Cottage, is a European antique we bought at auction, elegantly bouncing light off the charcoal walls and illuminating the owners’ artwork.  This space, which is at once modern and traditional, comfortable and elegant–is the look that defines 21st century decor.  These days nobody wants rooms that are too fussy or fancy, but a touch of class is always welcome.

While my host was putting finishing touches on our meal I ran upstairs to take a peek.  I loved the unexpected punch of color on the landing from the antique chest of drawers in a brilliant shade of original blue paint.  We imported it from Hungary, and it’s now looking fabulous right here in New Jersey.

Antique Chest of Drawers in Original Paint from British Cottage

The master bedroom has a British Cottage bed and small dressers that double as nightstands.  When they renovated the house a couple of years ago the owners made a vow to simplify, opting for calm serenity–but, of course, with the aforementioned pops of color to keep it happening.

British Cottage Kingsize Bed, Pine Bed

Upstairs, besides the master bedroom (which has an en suite bathroom to swoon over), there is an enchanting guest room and bath, another bedroom they use as a dressing room and a spiral staircase that leads to a ladder that leads to the cupola where the lighthouse used to be.  It is like the stairway to heaven; you keep climbing and climbing and finally you get there.  You can literally see for miles!

What you see through the window is the barn that houses a full size office space, a gym and a movie theater/media room.  Instead of whacking a full size addition onto the original house they opted to outsource those activities to the existing four stall barn and keep the original structure intact.  No McMansion here and what a relief it is.

And by the way, as it turns out, this property is for sale. Trust me, if I hadn’t already gone through the throes of downsizing, empty nesting and purchasing a cottage in Maine, I would be seriously tempted. For anyone in this so-called gig economy who needs a workspace at home, there is no way you would not be productive here.

But enough meandering. I was there for a reason–time to get fed!

Chris’s Challah French Toast

French toast is perfect for brunch.  Bread soaked in egg, later soaked in butter and maple syrup…great.  But challah, soaked in cream and eggs and sauteed in butter is truly ambrosia.  Food for the gods!

Challah (sounds like holla, rhymes with gala) is a fabulous Jewish braided bread made with a rich, eggy dough.  You can find it at Wegman’s or Whole Foods (or make your own, if you are feeling ambitious).

To make the French toast, start by slicing the challah in one inch thick slices.  Soak slices in a mixture of six eggs, 1 1/2 cups of light cream, 1 teaspoon vanilla and a tablespoon of sugar for about 3 minutes on each side.

Heat a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add your soaked challah and cook for three minutes or so on each side.  Serve with a few pats of butter and maple syrup.

Fresh fruit, bacon, scrambled eggs and mimosas all added to the fun…I was invited for breakfast and almost stayed for dinner!

The Maine Thing

Fish Taco recipe

Part of the reason why we are such happy empty nesters is when we sold our house and moved to an apartment above our store, we also bought a little place on a little lake in Maine, seven hours and 5000 light years away from NJ. There the air is always fresh, albeit slightly redolent of pine needles, and when the sun shines the sky is always a brilliant blue.

Mostly we like to be outside.  Hiking, sailing, kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, or just sitting on the dock reading a book.  But when the weather is not cooperating then we do another favorite thing which is messing about with the house. It’s a former camp, which to the uninitiated means a no-frills hut for hunters and fishermen, but fortunately, over the years, it has acquired what I consider to be the essential amenities of a home: indoor plumbing, electricity, heat and hot water.

However, our most favorite thing of all, and perhaps the one thing you can do in Maine at any time of the year–in any kind of weather–and that is eat, dine, nosh, you name it, we do it!  In fact we time our journeys so that after a quick six am-ish pitstop for a bagel and a cup of joe to go from The Coffee Corral in Red Bank, we are in Maine just in time for lunch at Day’s Crabmeat and Lobster Pound and Take Out, a type of restaurant we don’t have in our neck of New Jersey any more.

It’s the kind of place where you order at the window, then wait for your number to be called, and in just ten minutes or so you have the freshest fried haddock sandwich or crab or lobster roll you’ve ever eaten in your life.   Seating is out back at picnic tables, each with its own million dollar view.  Trust me, you will never wait in line at Red’s Eats again.

After Day’s it is just a hop, skip and a jump to our Maine cottage. But first we stop at the Fisherman’s Catch and Seafood Market in Damariscotta and pick up some crabmeat and fresh fish fillets.  (The lobster comes later in the week!)

   

 (I swear this guy in line ahead of me was Al Pacino but I was too afraid to ask!)

      In the summer, especially when the weather is delightful, time becomes of the essence so we rush to get the boats in the water and have a quick sail, or kayak or fiddle with the latest toy, the paddle board, because before you know it–it’s dinner time.  And that often means fish tacos.

Fish Tacos

I’ve been a fan of fish tacos ever since our friend, Doug Douty, of Lusty Lobster in Highlands, NJ  fame discovered them on a fishing trip to Mexico. He came back raving about how great these tacos were and even better, really easy to make: just flour tortillas, the freshest of fish and a crunch of slaw tossed down with a cold one. He had me by the time he got to the slaw–never even mind the beer.

Since then I’ve made them fried, and broiled and baked in the oven, breaded, blackened, sauced and unsauced and finally I  decided my favorite way to make fish tacos is the easiest.

First, to make cleanup a breeze, use one of those disposable aluminum pans you can buy at the grocery store.  Melt a little butter and lightly coat whatever boneless fish fillet you like–trust me you can use anything–even bluefish, and put it in the pan.  Spice the fillets up with whatever is on hand: some chili powder, paprika, some crushed red pepper, a little salt or Old Bay and let it hang in the fridge for a while.

Then make the slaw—once again I’ve made a hundred different versions and find the simplest tastes just as good as more complicated recipes with a ton of steps and ingredients.  Just grate or finely slice up some red cabbage. It has to be red cabbage; green does not work. Add some sliced, chopped or grated red onion, and if you like, a carrot and/or some chopped up hot peppers can go into the mix too. Then toss with a slurry you’ve made of about 1/3 rice wine vinegar to 2/3 mayonnaise and a pinch of sugar.  Put in the fridge and get yourself a glass of wine or a beer.

All that’s left to do is cook the fish and that just means you get someone else to put the pan on a hot grill until done—usually, it takes about ten minutes. Place your flour tortillas in foil on the unheated part of the grill so they warm up as the fish cooks.  (The fish can also be cooked in the oven at 425 degrees for about the same amount of time as on the grill.) The fish is done when it flakes.

The fish goes on the hot tortilla, top with the slaw, and serve with a wedge of lime.  If you want to get fancy put half an avocado on a hunk of lettuce to fill up the plate, grab another beer or glass of white wine and enjoy.

On Golden Pond

The World’s Best Fish Stew

       Like most visitors to Maine it was love at first sight.  I was 16 and working for the summer as a mother’s helper for a local Rumson family and they carted me along with them to their summer place on Prouts Neck. Most famous for being home to Winslow Homer it is a glorious peninsula composed of rocky crags on two sides and a sandy crescent on the third.  My little charges and I spent our days on the beach and climbing the cliff paths that circled around the neck, and it was a summer I will never, ever forget.       

      A similar thing happened to my sister when she first got to Maine, but she was her twenties and smart enough never to leave.  She landed on the Pemaquid Peninsula–just far enough north not to be completely overrun with tourists, but still filled with the requisite amenities that make Maine so delightful: a lighthouse, fabulous ocean vistas, lobster pounds serving the freshest and best seafood imaginable, estuaries, tidal pools, and even a sandy beach.

       We visited her many times over the years, and finally when we were empty nested we took the plunge, sold our family home, repaired to our apartment over the store in Red Bank (always the plan when we renovated a decade ago) and bought ourselves our own Maine cottage.

       As much as we love the ocean views, we opted for lakeside because our little lake (which is technically a pond because it is just shy of the required five miles) warms up so we can comfortably swim all summer.  And is great for sailing our little boat, and kayaking, and paddle boarding and running our little outboard to our hearts’ content without the fear of being swept out to sea.

       Naturally given the nature of our business, having our own home to furnish and decorate just adds to the pleasure of living in Maine. The first thing we did, and I know this is going to cause a lot of groans, was paint all the original knotty pine paneling Benjamin Moore’s China White and all the fir trim White Dove…. Yes, sacrilegious in some minds, but fully supported by legions of Scandinavians  who know how best to live in northern climes.  White makes smaller spaces live larger, reflects light and makes the day brighter and me, and happier.  (And we all know that when mom is happy–everyone’s happy.)

       Next we stripped the floors to a natural pine.  I love light floors because they hardly show the dust or dirt or wear and when they do one swish of the mop and they look as good as new.  With two small grandboys and a third sibling on the way, we want to make all of our visitors feel welcome and not fret over natural, and heaven knows with small boys around sometimes unnatural, wear and tear. You never know what they will get into or up to!

       We had new kitchen cabinets made for the galley style kitchen, mostly because I they smelled and I assumed  they were moldy.  When we took them out we found it was dead mouse–not mold–that we were smelling, so it turned out to be an even better decision to get new ones. We were able to insulate and mouse-proof, and yes, they are now white so the whole area looks larger and so much more inviting than before.

       Decorating was a challenge as there is essentially only one room on the main floor for cooking, dining and living.  We had to have a large farm table, after all we are British Cottage.  Even so, the one we chose has a metal base so it doesn’t look too massive, even though it is 96″ long and can seat twelve–squished–but still.  Our chairs are upholstered in black linen; not the fabric you would think of for a lakehouse but I thought they would have to do double duty as extra seating when entertaining a crowd so they may as well be comfortable.  And what else is Scotchguard for?

       I think cheap couches are a false economy.  Usually the fabric choices are awful.  And they can be really uncomfortable to sit on because the cushions are made of synthetic materials that are (besides being toxic) either too dense or too sloppy for relaxing properly–which is, after all, the whole purpose of a vacation home. So we have a really good couch, but we had two slipcovers made in a cotton blend that looks like linen and wears like steel.

      The armchairs in the room are slipcovered as well so if accidents happen–the clean up is minimal.  I kept the fabrics light, threw in some blue and white lamps and a fabulous antique wooden coffee table with traces of off-white paint that looks great but can take a beating.  Are you sensing a pattern yet?  This is just our fabulous Jersey Coast style–in Maine.

        I try to use antiques when decorating as much as possible.  With furniture that has been used over and over again by family after family one more nick or scratch is not going to be the end of the world; it’s just another part of the journey.  The whole point of decorating is to make your part of the world a little happier for you and your family.  If you build it right, they will come.

The World’s Best Fish Stew

This recipe originated with Kate Shaffer, owner of Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westport, Maine; naturally I’ve taken some liberties but basically it goes like this:

 Heat a glop of olive oil in a large pot, the more decorative the better because this is what you will be serving from.  Add a pinch or two of thyme, tumeric, fennel, saffron and crushed red pepper.  If you don’t have any of those on hand try some oregano or basil.  Heat just for a few seconds then add a large yellow onion & 2 celery stalks chopped up and 4 cloves of garlic minced.  If you have fresh fennel on hand and like the taste–add that.  For me a  little fennel goes a long way so I usually skip this step. Another step I usually skip is adding 1/2 a yellow pepper–only because I don’t have any in the house.  Then cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

 Add a 28 ounce can of whole tomatoes and their juice and squish them up a bit.  Fill the empty tomato can half with water and half with white wine–this is the bit I like because it means it is time to start cocktail hour.  Cook the mixture until it boils and them simmer for at least 15 minutes or as long as a couple of hours–the idea is to let those spices really season the stew.

 Just before you are ready to eat and the stew has simmered and is very hot, add your fish.  Any kind of fish works; I like a couple of pounds of cod or haddock the best.  Then add whatever else you like.  I generally splurge on 6 or 7 of the priciest fresh scallops and shrimp the fishmonger has on hand and chuck in a bag of mussels (make sure to take them out of the bag and scrub them first).  Cook until the mussels open and serve with some fresh parsley and a loaf of good bread and the freshest butter you can find.  Scrumptious.  Thank you Kate.