Should you take a cruise?

Should you take a cruise?

The above photo shows the Seabourn Odyssey (450 passengers) adjacent to the Royal Caribbean Jewel of the Seas (2700 passengers). Royal Caribbean has much larger ships in its fleet.

We don’t take two or three cruises a year like some people we’ve met, but we’ve been on three cruises in the last 10 years and have picked up enough experience to make some recommendations. You might have seen some of the disappointing cruise ship photos, and you may have read Don Saltzman’s snarky review of a luxury cruise.

Put all that hyperbole aside. Cruises can be relaxing and invigorating and a lot of fun. It depends on you and what sort of things you enjoy. And how much you want to spend. We have limited ourselves to 7-day cruises because longer ones seem to us to be too much of a good thing.

Our experiences were a cruise around scenic Alaska on the Celebrity Millennium about 10 years ago, and a cruise on Seabourn to the Caribbean and another in the Mediterranean on Seabourn a year later. Both of them happened to be in the same ship, the Seabourn Odyssey, although all the staterooms had been upgraded during a winter drydock.

The nice thing about cruises is that you don’t have to pack and unpack everyday: your hotel comes along to every port, and your dinner or lunch is waiting when you come back from your excursions. The only disadvantage is that the ship usually is again underway by 6:00 pm, which precludes dinner in town. The only exception was at Monte Carlo, where they stayed in port until 11 pm in case you wanted to visit the casino. Recognizing, as Penn and Teller put it, that casinos are for people with poor math skills, we didn’t avail ourselves of the gambling.

Deciding on a cruise

You first need to decide on your budget. We created a spreadsheet of information for 11 of the most popular cruise lines from mass market to luxury. Here is a small copy:

cruise rotated

You can look at the entire table full size here. The table identifies cruises from about $2000 to well over $10,000 for a week for two people. This price may or may not include airfare, and you can sometimes get a good deal booking the airfare through your cruise line. We chose our cruises with rooms having a balcony (veranda). You can get ocean view staterooms a bit cheaper and windowless interior cabins quite a bit cheaper, but they can get a bit claustrophobic without a view. Prices were  recorded in mid to late January of 2020, and probably change all the time. Photos were taken from cruise ship web sites or in a few cases from CruiseCritic.com.

To approximate total costs, we assumed you would take four shore excursions (for 2), would order the drinks package and go to a specialty restaurant twice. We also added in the tips and WiFi charges if  not included. This gives you comparable costs across a spectrum of ships. If the cruise line couldn’t or wouldn’t provide a cost, we added in one from a comparable carrier.

You also have to decide on whether this is an adult vacation, or whether you want to bring children. This can get a lot more expensive in a hurry. While Disney excels in cruises that entertain children, they are by far the most expensive cruise line, costing more than actual luxury cruises. We’ll deal with Disney separately below.

Travel agents

We strongly suggest that you work with a travel agent. They know a lot more than you do about cruises and you usually end up with more shipboard credits and good advice that way. One agent told us about a nearly secret whirlpool she used on deck 6 every day. And we used it too!

Ship sizes

Ships vary considerably in size with small ones like Seabourn, Regent, Crystal and Oceana being sort of boutique cruises. But the large preponderance of cruise ships are floating towns of 2000 to nearly 3000, and MSC being floating cities of 4500 to over 6000. Obviously, you are likely to get more attention in the smaller ships, but the really important number is the passenger to crew ratio. Note that for pricey Seabourn, that number is only 1.3, but for the larger, mass market ships, that ratio is 3.0 or more. That is what you are paying for: more personal service, which includes better food and more wait staff as well as more helpful cabin attendants and the like. You generally find that the cabins are more luxurious as well.

Here is a sorted table of the ships by staff ratio.  Note that while the most expensive cruises have the lowest staff ratios, there are some bargains to be had. Crystal looks like  a good bargain, although note that it has larger ships.

Pasngrs Crew Ratio Total
Seabourn 450 335 1.34 $9,240
Silversea 596 411 1.45 $11,000
Crystal 980 655 1.50 $5,601
Regent* 700 445 1.57 $6,999
Oceana* 684 386 1.77 $7,998
Princess 2600 1150 2.26 $5,226
Disney 2400 950 2.53 $11,279
Royal Carib 2730 989 2.76 $6,638
MSC  4500 1536 2.93 $4,889
Celebrity 2852 920 3.10 $6,035
Carnival 2980 953 3.13 $4,879

Excursions

You should decide your objective for a cruise. Most people treat cruises as times to relax and get away from the pressures of daily life. On most cruises there are stops at ports most days, and you can stroll through the towns or take guided tours. In Alaska, the towns are quite small, but if you want to see the usual Eagles and Bears and Whales (Oh my!) you definitely should book shore excursions. If you do, you will definitely get to see  eagles and the mega-charismatic fauna!

Note from the table, that there is a wide variation in charges for what are probably the same Alaska tours, since there aren’t very many tour providers in these small towns. The typical charges for tours ran from $80-$125 on both Celebrity and Seabourn, but note that some other lines like Carnival and Princess mark these tours up by nearly a factor of two, to $225 to $249. Regent, Crystal and Silversea bundle them in their price.

In Saltzman’s screed referenced above, he complains about “nothing to do.”  This is odd, but even the smaller ships have pools and exercise facilities. Some of the bigger ones have climbing walls and running tracks around the perimeter. But the reasons this is so odd is that cruises take you to destinations almost every day and there is plenty to do in exploring the town or island of the day. Trudging along cobblestone paths and hills of old European cities can take a lot out of you, and we usually felt we had most of our exercise by the time we returned to the ship. We usually found a whirlpool to rejuvenate in after our late lunches.

On Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises you probably should be a little more selective in choosing tours. In many cases, like Menorca and Toulon, a walk through town is all you probably need, and we found that your could probably skip the tour of Nevis, since you can walk to Hamilton’s birthplace from the pier. (The only remaining building is the stable, and they don’t permit pictures because the exhibit is so cheesy.)

Entertainment

Evenings on most cruise ships include various kinds of after-dinner entertainment. Our ship traveled with singers, dancers, a 6-piece band and soloists. Larger ships have more elaborate “Broadway style” productions. These shows consist of hard working young singers and dancers doing their best with what seemed to be pretty bland material and we think these must be aimed at some other demographic.

Meals on cruises tend to be creative and well prepared in the main dining rooms, with more informal food choices at other buffet-like venues around the ship. And you can get a pretty good dinner delivered to your stateroom if you don’t feel like eating in a large restaurant. Only a few ships charge for room service.

Celebrity

CelebrityDespite Celebrity’s TV saturation of their surreal Dream Song (Jefferson Airplane) commercial with the improbable redhead in the clashing green gown, Celebrity is a good cruise line. It was originally owned by the Greek Chandris Group, but was sold to Royal Caribbean in 1997. The “X” on their ships looked to me to be a reference to the Unix X-Windows system, but it actually is the letter Chi for Chandris.

The ship we were on had 2800 passengers, but It never seemed crowded. The main dining room is a two level affair and there are two seatings at maybe 6:30 and 8:30. They have since added walk-in seating as well since then. You are assigned to a table for the cruise, in our case we shared the table with 3 other couples and found them friendly and congenial. You also have the option of dining in their specialty restaurant for an additional fee for about $50 a head. Since we had purchased a drinks package for the cruise the wine may have been included.

The dinner menus were varied and well prepared, but the breakfast and lunch were served buffet style from several smaller stations were you could get typical hot and cold breakfasts and lunches. The breakfasts were at best adequate, and while you could have a waited breakfast, it was the same food.

Celebrity excelled at baggage handling at a level we haven’t experienced elsewhere. We flew to Anchorage and stayed overnight at a hotel, leaving most of our tagged luggage outside our room for pickup. They took it directly to the ship and it was in our stateroom when we arrived, after taking a bus from Anchorage to Seward, where we boarded our ship. Even better, since we never really left the US, they took our tagged luggage from outside our room directly to our flight home from Vancouver. We never had to touch it. And while Vancouver is indeed outside the US, we were on a bus that delivered us  directly to the transit area, so we never officially entered Canada. This was really well done!

Celebrity has briefly advertised a Kids Sail Free program. Their drinks package at $59 a day seems excessive, but their current advertising suggests that they are offering drinks as part of the standard fare.

Seabourn

seabournSeabourn sails on small ships having 450 to about 600 passengers, with very low passenger to crew ratios and excellent service. The level of attention you get is very high and many of the crew will soon know you by name. And on our second cruise the social director remembered us from the year before! Seabourn cruises are all inclusive except for the excursions: tips, liquor and all meals are included. Even the specialty restaurant, The Grille by Thomas Keller is available at no charge.

The rooms are a bit larger at 302 square feet and the cabins are quite a bit fancier. Since liquor is included in the fare price, they ask what you want them to stock your minibar with and keep it stocked all during the cruise.

One of the most relaxing things about Seabourn is sitting poolside, either in the shade or sun and finding a waiter at your elbow offering you a drink from his tray. They will also bring you any kind of drink you want, if that one doesn’t quite meet your taste requirements.

On our Seabourn cruises there was usually one singer doing pop standards with the band who was pretty good, but performance purporting to be “classical” were more like Lloyd-Webber and other popperetta rather than actual classical singing.

On our second cruise, they had cut some corners: the service in the informal restaurant suffered, and they were only offering two kinds of wine with dinner, where the year before they had four or five bottles to choose from. However, it remained an elegant experience we’d happily repeat.

There is a nominal charge for WiFi, but they provide enough shipboard credits to cover it. We never ran out.

Seabourn also features spas and treatments using the name of noted alternative medicine quack Dr Andrew Weil. Some of the excursions are labeled as “Mindful,” but fortunately none of the tour guides knew anything about this hokum. Weil’s treatment regimen includes yoga, Chinese herbal malarkey, and acupuncture, otherwise known as a pre-scientific theatrical placebo.

Carnival Cruises

CarnivalCarnival is distinctly a mass-market cruise line with ships holding around 3000 passengers. The staterooms are much less fancy (early Holiday Inn) and they keep their low per room prices by charging you separately for tips, specialty restaurants and WiFi. Their liquor package is so high at $52 per person per day that you could never drink enough to cover it, and getting  drinks individually is probably the only solution. They also have the highest passenger to staff ratio of any of the cruise lines we looked at 3.13.  This is the kind of ship where they have Lip Sync Battles and Water Slides. Their excursion prices are roughly double those of Celebrity and most other cruise lines. They have several kids clubs on board.

Princess Cruise Lines

princessPrincess Cruises is a slightly more upscale cruise line also owned by Carnival. Drinks, WiFi and tipping are folded into the base price. However, their excursion prices are even higher than Carnival’s. The room décor is significantly better than Carnival’s. Specialty restaurants have charges of $25-$29 per person, and they offer children’s programs for ages 3-7, 8-12, and teens. They also offer some 4-person staterooms featuring models so attractive you can’t tell which is the mom and which the daughter. Princess Cruise Lines and Carnival have both paid whopping fines for dumping oil and plastic waste.

Regent Seven Seas

regentRegent Seven Seas is a high end all-inclusive cruise line, where drinks, tips, WiFi, all restaurants and all excursions are included in the price. With only 700 passengers and a passenger /staff ratio of 1.5, you can be sure to get excellent service and attention to your needs. With five specialty restaurants in addition the main dining room and the Pool Grill, you are sure to find something interesting every night. They are so sure that they are standouts in the luxury cruise market, they even publish a comparison chart.

While their list prices seem high, they actually turn out to be two for the price of one fares, which makes them an excellent value. They also offer bundled air fare. While this is clearly a ship for adults, they do offer discounted children’s fares and a Club Mariner Youth Program.

Royal Caribbean

royal caribRoyal Caribbean takes the cruise experience and turns it into a theme park. On the smaller Enchantment of the Seas with 2730 passengers, they have scuba, climbing walls and a bungee trampoline and an old arcade. On their larger ships, they also have dodge cars,  laser tag, vertical sky diving into a large plastic tube, and a surf simulator (??). And on some Caribbean cruises, you may stop at their private CocoCay island (Bahamas) amusement park.

Their main Windjammer restaurant is open for all meals and the Chops Grill (at extra cost) is open for dinner, and lunch on sea days.

But Royal Caribbean doesn’t stop there. Their larger ships have over 6000 passengers, as you can see from this extensive table.   Their latest Quantum Ultra (or maybe Death Star) class ships can carry 6680 passengers and 2200 crew, giving them an unimpressive staff ratio of 3.03. These are touted as the world’s largest cruise ships. These large ships have up to ten restaurants to choose from.

And as usual drinks, tips specialty restaurants and WiFi are all at extra cost. If you want to sit and quietly sip your drink around the pools, these are not the best ships for you, and if you really like to vacation in close quarters with a lot of people, you could skip the boat and just spend a few days in New York.

Oceana

oceanaOceana is a top of the line small ship experience, with a staff ratio of 1.77. The fare is all inclusive including drinks, dining, tips, WiFi, excursions and airfare. Some of these are part of a bundle called OLife Choices which is a per-cabin program which includes drinks, air fare, 4 excursions and WiFi. The Culinary Experiences include te Grand Dining Room, Toscana, Polo Grill, Jacques, Red Ginger, Tuscan Steak, the Terrace Café and the Wave Grill, as well as coffee and tea shops and culinary classes. Oceana does not mention any youth programs. This looks like a fine choice, but Oceana cruise reviews are less than stellar, implying that their food and service have slipped.

Crystal Cruises

crystalCrystal Cruises is a luxury cruise line running ships with just under 1000 passengers, and with a staff ratio of 1.5.  Tips, drinks and WiFi are included. The restaurants include the Waterside main dining room, The Marketplace (by day) and Churrascaria (a Brazilian steakhouse) by night, Uma Uma, a sushi bar by chef Nobu Matsuhisa, Prego, the inevitable Italian restaurant, Silk Kitchen Asian cuisine, and The Bistro and Trident Grill for informal meals. There is also an ice cream bar. Entertainment includes Broadway inspired shows, and movies.  They also offer enrichment lectures featuring “thought leaders” and book readings by favorite authors. There are exercise facilities, a lap pool, yoga, Pilates, and some sort of hokum inspired by Feng Shui at the Crystal Life Spa. Most recent  reviews of Crystal  Cruises have been a bit mixed, criticizing the food and some of the excursions. Crystal tells us they will not be cruising to Alaska again until 2022.

Silversea

silverseaSilversea is an all inclusive luxury cruise line with under 600 passengers. They make their actual prices difficult to discover, as they want you to given them your name and address first. This link shows some of their current deals. Without going through “Request a Quote” it is hard to know what the prices will actually be. Fine dining abounds on Silversea, with a main dining room, The Grill, Indochine, La Dame, Seishin, La Terrazza, and Kaisecki. There is an air and hotel program, that offers free economy or business class for an addition $699 each way, per person.  Online reviews of Silversea are mixed, but difficult to summarize. In general, this is likely to be a fine experience.

MSC

MSC_Cabin_SE_Balconylw_800x450_CB (1)MSC is a European line that has made significant inroads in the US.  Their ships are about 4500 passengers, but with a staff ratio of 2.93. However, MSC has announced plans for the Meraviglia Grandiosa, which will carry 6334 passengers, continuing the trend to megaships. MSC also has announced their private island, MSC Ocean Cay, off the Bahamas. Ships will stop their for a day of food and dancing going on into the night, where there will be a light show featuring the local lighthouse. The idea of visiting an actual living island instead does not occur to them, we suppose.

MSC cruises claim to have twelve distinct venues, including HOLA Tapas, Butcher’s Cut, Kaito Teppenyaki, Ocean Cay (seafood), and Marketplace Buffet. MSC also currently offers All-In Plus, with free drinks, free WiFi and $100 shipboard credit, for $419 per person for 7-day cruises.

Criticisms of MSC include rating it one of the “worst lines” by EscapeHere for lackluster food, outdated rooms and few English speaking staff. CruiseCritic is a bit more evenhanded with 2400 Excellents, 1800 Very Goods, 1375 Average, 1261 Poor, and 1107 Terrible ratings.

Disney Cruises

disneyWe waited until last to discuss the Dumbo in the Living Room: Disney Cruises. A quick glance at the cost table above reveals that it is easily the most expensive cruise line we’ve discussed, even though with a staff ratio of 2.33 it provides less attention and from the looks of their stateroom photos, it is far from luxurious: rather more like a budget motel.

The rooms have a separate toilet and shower, but no closets. The only storage is that small dresser in the picture. There is also some room to store your suitcases under the bed.

The reason for the high cost is of course, children. Disney cruises are not only about entertaining children, they also are housing and feeding them. So, while your typical veranda stateroom looks like it is for two adults, the couch unfolds to a bed, and there is a pull-down bunk bed as well. So, the base room charge is really for four passengers, two adults and two smaller people. So, while Disney claims that adults could sail without children and eat and drink in the adult areas, this is not very cost effective.

Much of the child appeal of Disney cruises is the encounters with costumed Disney characters, the “clubs” for various age groups (and not unlike that on several other lines) and the Broadway-style shows. Some ships actually present (probably shortened) versions of Tangled and Frozen, but it appears that some of the time these are pastiche shows along the lines of  “Frozen Lion King Aladdin II.” (OK, I made that title up.)

Dining on Disney cruises schedules you to rotate among three different restaurants, with your table mates and servers coming with you to maintain continuity. There are also several more informal choices, including pizza and burgers. While the food is included, ice cream at their soda shop is not. Every Disney ship has at least one adult restaurant as well, the Italian Palo   being the most common. Some ships also have a French-style restaurant called Remy, named after the rat in the cartoon Ratatoille, who wants to become a chef. Personally, I don’t find the idea of rats in the kitchen particularly appealing. In the cartoon, Remy opens his restaurant when an established chef invests in it. (However, no one mentions that this will be a short investment, since rats’ life span is only about 18 months.)

You can see a complete run of menus from a Disney cruise here. Note that the menus and the food names are drenched in Disney  promotions and Disney kitsch.

The problem with these adults-only restaurants, of course, is that you still have to get your children fed. Apparently, if your kids are old enough, they can eat at their usual table and then the servers will escort them to the kids’ clubs. Of course, if they are that old, they probably would prefer a cruise without the costumed characters milling about.

Disney has a bizarre tipping policy. Tips are not included in the price, and while bartenders add 18% to the drink charge, Disney suggests that on a 7-day cruise, you tip your server $31.50, your assistant server $24.50, your head server $7 and your stateroom attendant $31.50. You can arrange to have this charged to your bill if you like. It amounts to about $189 for two that should probably be bundled into the cost of the cruise.

Disney does not have an overall drinks package, but their liquor prices are so cheap ($5-$8) that you can easily charge them to your account. However, premium drinks (like Scotches) can run up quite a bill. And unlike most cruise lines, they don’t mind you bringing on your own booze.  They do have a beer mug package. Buy a souvenir mug and you can get it filled with beer whenever you ask. Stay classy, Disney. On the other end, they have a wine package, which means you can buy 3, 4 ,5 or 7 bottles of wine ahead of time. It’s kind of an odd idea, but apparently cost effective.

Overall, Disney cruises are not for us, as our children are grown, but even when your kids are young, you might do better to take them on a less aggressively Disneyfied cruise and take them to a theme park instead. To be fair, some adults like this sort of thing, and you might be one of them, but you can spend a lot less for a more luxurious experience on some of the other cruise lines.  Other critics have been less impressed.

 

 

 

Terrasole: outstanding dining in Ridgefield

Terrasole: outstanding dining in Ridgefield

Terrasole, just off Main St in Ridgefield has been serving fine Italian food for over ten years. Founded and managed by Pietro Polini, and with executive chef Eugene Jerome, Terrasole is one of the finest Italian restaurants in Connecticut. The food and excellent service reminded us of the food we had in Italy: it is just that good!

We visited Terrasole twice recently, once on a quiet Sunday evening and again on New Year’s Eve. Despite the crowds of the holiday evening, the wait staff and kitchen never missed a beat: both experiences were outstanding.

You will notice that your table may contain a wrapped bottle of extra virgin olive oil as well as one to use on your food. While we usually brush aside those little puddles of olive oil for butter (and they will bring you some right away) this is one time when you want to savor their house brand olive oil. Then, if you agree, you can buy a bottle to take home. We did and we are so glad: it is rich and flavorful, one of the best we’ve had.

You know you are in an outstanding restaurant when you see the fascinating menu, including the beautiful Arancini Aragosta: “Imported carnaroli rice risotto balls filled with fresh Maine lobster, crab, peas & burrata cheese served over lobster bisque sauce.” We’ve never had anything quite like them, and they were quite delightful.

But, their take on the classic beet salad is fascinating as well. Dubbed Carpaccio di Barbietole, this is essentially a beet carpaccio, served with baby arugula, almond goat cheese rondure, and white truffle essence vinaigrette.

We also tried their rearranged Caesar Salad, served with grilled romaine heart and creamy parmigiano dressing, shaved imported sharp provolone, and grissini (bread sticks). Again, rising far above expectations, this was an outstanding version of this classic.

linguinii vongole

Terrasole has two seafood and pasta dishes we found entrancing. One was Linguini alla Vongole, which was fresh linguine pasta tossed with rock shrimp, cockles, cherry tomatoes, imported Portuguese octopus, white wine, parsley, pepperoncino, and shaved imported bottarga (salted cured fish row). This was exquisitely delicate and a dish we’ll return to again and again.

Their other outstanding version is a Tagliatelle al Frutti di Mare alla Annie McNally (shown above). This dish starts with homemade tagliatelle, and is served with fresh Maine lobster, Maya prawn, clams, calamari, PEI mussels, scallops In a spicy San Marzano tomato sauce. This was outstanding and somewhat reminiscent of lobster Fra Diavolo, but much richer with all the other seafood ingredients. Utterly amazing.

lobster ravioli

On New Years Eve, they had Lobster Ravioli on the menu: two ravioli for the appetizer portion and four for the entrée. This was a rich, smooth, creamy delight, and yes, two were enough for an appetizer and four plenty for dinner. Try it whenever they add it to the menu, as it was one of the best ravioli we’ve ever had.

Our other entrée was also a menu addition, a red snapper special served with a puff pastry and white truffled cream vegetable side dish, along with some excellent gnocchi. Quite an excellent addition.

snapper special

And, of course, there are some desserts to sample, but there was no question that our favorite was the profiteroles. Quite a sumptuous portion at that. Rather than chocolate sauce, they were served with melted chocolate that had begun to solidify on the ice cream. A great way to end the evening.

profiteroles

Terrasole also has a wine bar personality. You can order wine, meat and cheese from the Salumi e Formaggi menu. Another great opportunity for a lighter visit.

Terrasole is simply an outstanding restaurant. The staff are warm and friendly all the time you are there and the food is outstanding. You’ll see!

facade

Flameout- the story of why IBM Instruments crashed and burned

Flameout- the story of why IBM Instruments crashed and burned

In the summer of 1978, a group of IBM executives met in Armonk to form the Instrument Systems Task Force and explore IBM’s entry into the chemical analytical instrument business. The IBM PC was not yet even a glimmer in Don Estridge’s eye, and the only well-known personal computers were the Apple II, the Tandy TRS-80 and the Commodore Pet.

By October, IBM’s Corporate Management Committee had approved the venture and IBM Instruments was soon formed. This book explores and memorializes the rise and successes of IBM Instruments and its eventual demise, only about 6 years after it was announced. To many, this was a shocking failure from one of the greatest computer companies in the world, and it is worth taking some time to examine how the Instrument Division grew and how it finally was shut down.

It tells the never-before written full story of IBM Instruments and why everyone who worked there misses it.

nr80 announce

This corporate Greek tragedy details the ideas for great products like a redesigned NMR spectrometer console that concealed obsolete electronics, to a desktop computer far ahead of its time that received far too little support.

Successes included an excellent AF series NMR spectrometer and an IR spectrometer based on new PC-AT, as well as a satellite PCNMR workstation package for the PC-AT that revolutionized the organization of NMR labs.

But eventually, IBM’s Instrument business unit was shut down and we all went off to other jobs. What they did wrong was mostly management-based, not technical and the book explains it in detail.

Flameout: The rise and fall of IBM Instruments- a business study wad just published and is a great book for anyone interested on how small businesses grow and sometimes do not. Early readers have called it

  • “A must-read! “
  • “I think the book deals with some important issues still relevant today.“
  • The value of writing these things up is huge”.

The book is available on Amazon.

The Misen Nonstick pan

The Misen Nonstick pan

Our last nonstick pan wore out years ago, and we didn’t bother replacing it because they are hard to care for: the coating flakes off and isn’t edible, of course.

But we decided that we really wanted to make better fried eggs, and a nonstick pan really makes a difference. The Misen Nonstick Pan, which has been heavily advertised on the Internet and FB seemed a possible candidate. It looked better made than those cheap pans that come from the As Seen on TV conglomerate and we thought we’d give it a try.

both pans

The 10” Misen pan compares favorably with our Allclad 10” pan. It’s heavy and well-made, weighing 42 oz. The Allclad weights 37 oz, probably because it lacks the same sort of handle. The coating is PFOA free and is described as a three layer DuPont platinm coating.

 

 

To illustrate the problem we wanted to solve, we fried a couple of strips of bacon in the Allclad and 5 more in the Misen pan and compare the residue. The Allclad pan had streaks where the sugar in the bacon caramelized on the pan, while the Misen had some floating debris that did not stick to the pan or to the eggs.

 

 

We were easily able to fry 4 eggs at once in the Misen pan, and they didn’t stick at all while cooking. It was pretty easy to baste the eggs with a little bacon fat while they cooked, although they did move easily so we couldn’t tip the pan too much while spooning.

frying eggs

With any nonstick pan, you are supposed to use a non-metal spatula. We have one that see Melmac on it. Others might be wood, silicone or nylon, and in any case, you can slip the eggs onto the plate two at a time without breaking the yolks.

2 eggs fried

In terms of egg cooking, we are completely sold: the Misen is a great pan.  We were disappointed to learn that the instruction sheet says that we shouldn’t have put it in the dishwasher, but since it washes so easily, that isn’t a huge problem.

The Misen instructions say cook only at medium heat, and never above 450˚ F. You shouldn’t scrub with pan with metal or abrasive sponges, but thus looks like it would be unnecessary. And you shouldn’t shock the hot pan by pouring cold water in it. You also shouldn’t stack other pans on top of it (without padding). We paid $45 for our pan plus $5 for shipping and it arrived in about 4 days. It’s a really nice pan and we hope it lasts a long time.

The easiest way to poach eggs

The easiest way to poach eggs

Forget egg poachers! Forget those rubber cups!

The easiest way to poach eggs is in a pan of simmering water. You slowly slip each egg into the pan of simmering, salted water and cook for 2 ½ to 3 minutes. We demonstrate it in the video below.

We also repeated it adding a little vinegar (2-3 Tb) to the water to keep the white from spreading. The vinegared version then requires that you rinse off the eggs before serving in a bowl of warm water.

Both methods work great and easily scale. You can get 4-5 eggs in a 3-quart pan and 8 or more in a larger frying pan.

Below is a photo of the vinegared version.

vinegared version

Filet Mignon Stroganoff

Filet Mignon Stroganoff

You may think of Beef Stroganoff as a sort of noodle casserole with tough pieces of indifferent beef included. Perhaps a church supper favorite, but nothing memorable.

Well, thanks to the inspiration of a chef at the long gone Christopher Inn in Columbus, I have an entirely different recipe in mind that you will love. You make it with Filet Mignon.

OK, this isn’t a church supper dish, and may be a little more expensive, but it is now a fancy meal with medium rare beef in it. And since filet mignon has no bones or fat, you really don’t need a lot of it per person: maybe ¼ to 1/3 pound each.

  • 1 lb filet mignon ( to serve 4) cut into small cubes.
  • ½ lb mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 scallions, minced
  • 4 Tb butter
  • 1 medium onion, minced coarsely
  • 12 oz beef broth
  • 2 Tb dry sherry
  • 1 pint sour cream
  • 2 tsp dill weed
  • 2 Tb minced parsley
  • 1 cup rice, cooked
  1. Heat 2 Tb of the butter until it foams, and add the sliced mushrooms.
  2. When the mushrooms begin to give up their water, add the minced scallions, and saute until they soften.
  3. Remove the mushrooms and scallions to a bowl.
  4. Add more butter and saute the minced onion until softened. Remove onions to the bowl.
  1. Pour back any butter from the bowl, and saute the beef a few pieces at a time until just browned. Leave them medium rare.
  2. Remove the beef to the bowl and add the beef broth. Reduce the broth to less than half a cup, add the juice from the meat, and the sherry and cook down briefly.
  1. Add the sour cream and stir until warmed.
  2. Add the dill weed and the beef and mushrooms and heat through.
  3. Place the stroganoff in a serving bowl and sprinkle with the chopped parsley.
  4. Serve over rice.
Mom’s mac and cheese

Mom’s mac and cheese

My mother never made macaroni and cheese from a box for us, even though that blue box was created back in 1937, before I was born. She always made it from macaroni, milk, cheese and a little flour to thicken it. She also usually included wieners in the mix  and backed it in the over until it was brown and bubbly. So we’ve been making it mac and cheese based on her model ever since.

Mom probably include a bit of onion in her cheese sauce, and we always have. And sometime in the last couple of decades, we started added a little chopped green (and red) peppers to pick the flavor a little. But it still is a quick meal, taking just over half an our from start to finish.

I think she always used elbow macaroni, because all the other cool shapes weren’t yet available. We’ve settled on shell macaroni, but you can use any shape you like. Our latest revision of this recipe uses heavy cream instead of making a bechamel sauce. If you go this route, be sure to NOT use light cream, which will curdle when you bake it.

  • 1 lb macaroni, any shape you like
  • 1 lb wieners
  • 1 sweet green pepper or a mixture of any colors you like, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • Olive oil
  • ½ lb cheddar cheese (or any mixture of cheeses you like), cubed
  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • 1 Tb Worcestershire sauce
  • Breadcrumbs
  1. Preheat oven to 375˚
  2. Bring 2 quarts of salted water to a boil and cook the macaroni until tender. Avoid stopping at al dente as the pasta will soak up the cheese sauce while baking.

3. While the pasta cooks sauté the onions and peppers in the olive oil until tender,
4. Add the cream and Worcestershire sauce.
5. Stir in the cubed cheese and stir and heat until melted.

6. Slit the wieners lengthwise so they will heat through and lay in a casserole dish.
7. Add the just-cooked macaroni, but don’t over fill the dish.

8. Pour the cheese sauce over the macaroni, and sprinkle with breadcrumbs.
9. Bake 20-25 minutes until the cheese sauce is bubbling and hot.

baked

Serve at once.

Egg Foo Yung: an easy dinner

Egg Foo Yung: an easy dinner

This simple recipe can be considered a “Chinese omelet,” with meat and vegetables. It takes very little time to prepare and served with rice makes quite a satisfying meal. This recipe is derived from one by Joyce Chen.

ingredients

  • 7 eggs
  • 1 cup bean sprouts
  • ½ cup celery, cut in thins strips
  • ½ cup sliced mushrooms
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 cup cooked pork or chicken
  • 1 Tb sherry
  • Olive oil

Gravy

  • 1 cups chicken stock
  • 1 Tb soy sauce
  • 2-3 Tb flour mixed into 1/3 cup of water

If you are using pork, cook it briefly so it is still tender. We found that if you use a boneless pork chop, you can cook it most effectively by placing the chop on the trivet of an Instant Pot with 1 cup of water. Cook for 1 minute and do a slow release for about 5 minutes. This should give you pork at about 138˚ F. You can then cook the rice in the pot while you are making the Egg Foo Yung.

  1. To make the gravy, heat the chicken stock in a saucepan and add the soy sauce. Mix the flour and water together in a small cup and slowly add to the stock with stirring until the gravy is thickened. Discard any lumps.
  2. Cut the pork or chicken into strips and then into small pieces for the “omelet.”
  3. Cut up the mushrooms and mince the onion.
  4. Cut the celery by shaving strips off the stalk so they are similar in size to the bean sprouts.
  5. Put the bean sprouts, celery, mushrooms, onion, sherry and pork in a mixing bowl and add the 7 eggs.

6. Mix the eggs gently with the meat and vegetables using a rubber spatula so as not to break up the pieces.

7. Heat the oil in a wide frying pan and scoop out about ½ cup for each patty. Fry on both sides until browned lightly.

Serve with rice and gravy.

 

 

 

Rustic Bread: Great bread with almost no work!

Rustic Bread: Great bread with almost no work!

I am grateful to Bob Scrofani for pointing out this simple bread recipe published on YouTube as Rustic Bread by “Flavors of Spain in the Southwest.” This is an experience report on how I did it and how you can, too.

The recipe is embedded in the video and in the comments, and it assumes you have a kitchen scale. There are hundreds of reasons to have one around, but I give the U.S. measure equivalents as well. The recipe uses all-purpose flour, and I use King Arthur for this. The cup/weight equivalent may vary for other flours.

This recipe takes very little work, but a bit of time, include 4 episodes of folding, 20 minutes apart. and a slow 12 hour rise.

  • 1000 g all purpose flour (7 ¾ cups)
  • 20 g salt (1 Tb plus ¼ tsp)
  • 1/8 tsp yeast (they suggest 1 g, but yeast particles vary a lot between vendors)
  • 780 ml water (26 oz) at 80˚
  • A plastic storage container (with lid) that holds at least 12 cups.

You will also need either a 4 qt cast iron Dutch oven or an equivalent casserole dish. We used a 2.5 quart Corningware casserole dish, and it was plenty big enough. Our storage container held 21 cups, and the dough never rose more than halfway inside the container.

  1. Weigh out the flour in the storage container, and add the salt, yeast and water. Mix with your gloved hand. You can try a wooden spoon, but it doesn’t pick up the flour along the bottom as well. Mix until all the dough is cohesive. Cover for 20 minutes.

2. After 20 minutes, you can begin folding the dough over itself inside the container until it is together in the middle. Try to stretch it each time you pick up a corner. You can do this best with a moistened hand. Cover for another 20 minutes.

stretch

3. Repeat folding after 20 minutes

4. Repeat folding the 4th time after another 20 minutes.

5. Cover and allow to proof/rise for 12 hours. If you can’t bake it at that time, refrigerate the dough, covered until you can.

6. When you are ready to begin baking, put the casserole or Dutch oven into a 475˚ F oven to heat.

7. Turn out the dough on flour board and divide it into two. Fold and stretch each one into a ball, and put each ball in a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap or a plastic bag and let it rise for an hour.

8.  Remove one dough ball and flour it. Take out the baking dish and cover. Lay one dough ball into the disk, cover it and put immediately into the oven.

9. Bake covered for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake 10 more minutes.

in casserole10. Remove the bread to a cooling rack. Make sure it is done by tapping on the bottom. You should hear a hollow sound. Be sure to let the dough cool at least 30 minutes.

11. Reheat the baking dish and cover in the oven and bake the second loaf the same way.

Even after all this baking and cooling, it is possible that the bread may be slightly damp.   I suggest you slice it half an hour ahead of dinner to make sure the slices dry out.

sliced

If you have left-over bread, you can make it into very good toast. In fact, you can slice the whole loaf, freezing the slices and take out a few for toast any time you want.

toast

 

Revisiting Sono Seaport

Revisiting Sono Seaport

Since we last visited Sono Seaport this spring, they have remodeled the place and chef Matt Storch (of Match and Match Burger Lobster) has remodeled their menu. The seafood is still provided by the Bloom Family and is as fresh as ever. The seating in fair weather is still outside on picnic tables and under umbrellas, although there seems to more indoor seating available for the cool weather to come. The umbrellas have been upgraded to much nicer ones, and the chairs along the larger tables are much nicer, too. The picnic table seem the same: hard to get both legs under if you have big feet.

But the soups are delicious and a greatly improved part of the menu. The clam chowder ($7 a cup) is at least as good as ever, although now served in pressed cardboard inside of dishes. The Lobster and Ocean Bisque ($8 a cup), is excellent with real pieces of lobster in it as well as at least one scallop and pieces of several other fish included. Again, no dishes, though.

lobster roll

The Lobster Roll on the menu is available in ¼ lb, ½ lb and 1 lb sizes for $21, $36 and $69. This is a Maine lobster roll, which is to say made with cold lobster and citrus mayonnaise, and served with potato chips and slaw. By contrast both Match sites serve a hot Connecticut buttered lobster roll. However, the delicious ½ lb lobster roll we got had an enormous amount of lobster that we could barely finish.

fried clams

If you are looking for classic fried clams, however, you may be disappointed. The menu only includes Clam Strips ($14). (Shades of Howard Johnson’s!) If you want actual belly clams, you won’t find them. The waitress suggested ordering Whole Clams and have them fried. Six clams for $14 and twelve clams for $28. These are meatier, she said than the clam strips but pretty expensive.  The 12 clams we got had less meat than the usual order of belly clams.

They’ve also done something weird to their French fries. They seems to have been par-boiled and then single-fried, which leads to a sort of mushy potato with a hint of having spent a little time in the fryer. Not all that successful. Skip them and ask for the onion rings.

mouse cake

They only had about 3-4 desserts, not printed on the menu, but we split an order of Chocolate Mousse Cake. The mousse was fine but the cake was tough and dry.

Both the Fisherman’s Feast and the Belly Clams  we had this spring are off the menu, as is the Lobster Ravioli. We hope some of these return.

tables

Sono Seaport is at 100 Water Street in Norwalk, and is open daily 11am to 10pm.