Tuesday, June 24, 2014

IRS Scam

Earlier in the week, I came home to an almost completely unintelligible voice mail. Originally, all I could get out of it was a menacing "Internal Revenue Service, the IRS" and after a few more listens there's a veiled threat to arrest me.

Let's see if I can upload a video. Take a listen yourself:

Here's my best shot at a transcript

This message is intended for Jonathan $%^$.
Hi, Jonathan, my name is Rian Cruz. I'm calling you from Internal Revenue Service, The I!R!S! -garble- purpose of my call is to certify that we have receive a legal petition-autics against your name under your Social Security Number regarding a tax fraud. So before this matter goes to federal claims court house and you get arrested, kindly call us back on our number 202-719-0249. I repeat the number, 202-719-0249. Good bye.

At first, you hear anything involving the IRS and you get a little wave of panic. But this message was just so over-the-top ridiculous. So I looked up IRS scam. Seems to be a lot of this going on these days. I also learned that the IRS's first contact with you will be in the mail. They may be intimidating, but they don't use "call us back immediately or you will be arrested" as an opening move. That's a little comforting.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Spotted Zebra

I going to bury the lead here and start with some history. After my wife's maternity leave was up, the kids went to a daycare center. As my oldest left the pre-k and headed off to kindergarten, we weren't as happy with the center as we were two years earlier. We found The Spotted Zebra and really liked the space and the staff seemed great. It's an integrated program meaning special needs kids and kids without special needs were in the same classroom. And I'm going to be honest, I had some concerns that this was a bad idea. Would my daughter be on track for kindergarten when she left? I was assured by her lead teacher that she would be ready to go in the fall, and she was clearly ready for school when she left. But it's not just that The Spotted Zebra got her ready for school, they were fantastic.

Let me give you an example. My daughter went through an "I hate sunscreen" phase. She's a fair skinned redhead. She needs sunscreen. Since everybody brings in sunscreen for their kids, the teachers basically had some of every brand/type of sunscreen on the market. They set up kind of a sunscreen "tasting"for her and determined the brand of sunscreen that was the least offensive to her. That's the level of care The Spotted Zebra staff has for the kids they have been entrusted to teach. My daughter's time there was great and if you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, there's a 90% chance she'll tell you she wants to be a special needs teacher. Probably not the most common answer you get from an 8 year old.

Onto the actual story: The Spotted Zebra just got bigger, moved to a new location and invited everyone with a connection to the school to the Grand Opening yesterday. It was a very nice opening complete with touching speeches and a very cute ribbon ribbon cutting which involved lots of kids and safety scissors.

The new space is huge compared to the old space. Plus, they've added a Bizzy Beez center which looks like it will be very well used. They've got a balance skills surfboard, new tactile centers, a wall with lit targets to hit with balls, a very cool exercise bike...

They also have a something that I could only describe as a calming room. If a kid is all worked up and needs to be away from it all for a few minutes, there's padded seats and lots of calming lights that are just relaxing. Here's me and Casey lying down on a a mat looking up at the lights and our reflection.

To me, the biggest "tell" if something isn't quite right in a child care center is staff turnover. At the center we left, the director had changed a few times in a few years and staff seemed to be leaving and getting replaced fairly frequently. My daughter left The Spotted Zebra 3 years ago to go to kindergarten and I was surprised how many faces I remembered.

So if you have a kid that needs a little extra attention or you are interested in an integrated program, you might want to check The Spotted Zebra out. Their new location is on Computer Drive East off of Wolf Road. The old school was a special place. The new school will be too.

Here's a link to their website.

And a confession: About 5 minutes after the doors opened, I dropped a cracker covered with artichoke dip on the floor. I cleaned it up pretty well, but I think I may have been the first person to spill something in the new school.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Trenton Tomato Pie Tour

This Sunday, I put my lack of parenting skills on display by bringing two kids under the age of 10 on a one-day, 7+ hour car trip, for the sole purpose of gorging on pizza. At least with our earlier New Haven tour, the eating and driving were more spaced out making the experience seem less like child abuse. The kids were game for the trip and excited to go. I’m not sure if that is an argument for nature or nurture. Maybe both. I had heard of the Trenton Tomato Pie but never had one before heading to New Jersey this weekend. There’s a thread on the style over at pizzamaking.com. One of these days I’ll get around to reading it. It will probably be a much more interesting read now that I have tasted the subject matter. Let's begin.

Albany Jane picked us up around 8 in the morning and off we went. A little before noon we got to Daniel’s place in Princeton and hopped into his van. This daring group of pizza samplers included 3 "adults" - Daniel, Albany Jane and me, and 3 kids my daughters Allison and Casey along with Young Master Fussy. It was a short ride and by 12:15 we were at our first stop, Gennaro’s

After we ordered, I went to go take a look at the kitchen and told someone behind the counter we had just driven down to try Tomato Pies and he clearly thought I was nuts. But this little kitchen visit revealed a few secrets. A door with an Employees Only sign was open and I could see into a storeroom. I saw the brand(s) of tomatoes they use and the type of flour. I’m not sure they liked that, because after we sat back down out our table (which was in a nice outdoor patio), a few blinds were abruptly lowered. I’m probably being paranoid, because you couldn’t really see the kitchen through the windows anyway. But trade secrets are trade secrets and pizza shops have them.

Here’s what we were served at Gennaro’s

The pizza had a crisp crust and the tomato was delicious. I’m glad I know what tomatoes they use, but I don’t think knowing that is enough to make what they put on this pizza. Allison and Casey also liked this pizza.

Conveniently located next door was a Halo ice cream bar. Daniel has mentioned Halo a few times on Twitter and Facebook and I was glad to be able to check it out. I should note that at this early and highly optimistic point in the day, we had delusions of buying several $2 pints of ice cream to share later in the day. Looking back at this moment with 20/20 hindsight makes that notion seem completely laughable. Allison went with a half scoop of cookie dough topped with a half scoop of cookies and cream. Casey selected a half scoop of M&M and a half scoop of mint chocolate chip. I went with a half scoop of Tahitian vanilla. With tax, title and licensing fees that ice cream order came in at the low, low price $5.50. Compared to a recent stop at Guptils after a softball game, that’s practically free and the ice cream was significantly better. Living near one of these places is would be fattening and is probably frowned upon by most doctors.

Finished with the first stop on our pizza tour and refreshed on this warm Sunday afternoon with ice cream, we headed off to Papa’s. I didn’t remember the name, but once I saw that they had a mustard pizza I remembered seeing this shop on the Cooking Channel show Pizza Cuz. A few photos of the television appearance on the wall confirmed my memory. 

We ordered two pizzas – a tomato pie with half sausage and one of the mustard pies with half anchovy. There is a note on the menu saying the sausage goes on the pizza raw so the pizzas with sausage might look a little well done. Here’s what came to the table. The mustard pie

 And the tomato pie with half sausage

Once again, the tomato pie was good. I really liked the crust but thought the tomatoes on the Gennaro pie were better. The sausage was also very good. A coarse grind of pork and pork fat mixed with salt, pepper, and fennel. As sweet sausage should be. I’m glad I tried the mustard pie, but I doubt I would do it again. At the very least, I wouldn’t order it again plain. I don’t know if anchovies are your thing, but it was a completely different pizza with the salt/flavor bomb that is an anchovy. Maybe the mustard flavor would go well with the sausage. Casey wanted no part of the mustard pizza and Allison took a bite of it before giving me the rest of her slice. Casey was just so-so on her slice of tomato pie and Allison enjoyed the sausage/tomato pie.

We were still feeling pretty good after two stops. Next up was Corleone’s.  

Here, we ordered a cheese pizza, a tomato pie and a deep fried calzone. My only experience with a deep fried calzone was at Pizza Town, USA. There, they only deep fry the small calzone. That calzone will fit in your cupped hands. This calzone, also a small, was more football sized.


I only ate a small piece of it. The dough had a nice flavor but I thought the filling was over the top. There had to be a pound of ricotta in there. Here's the Corleone's cheese pizza



And the tomato pie

The crust was just so-so here. It looked like the center of the pizza had been stretched too thin. I thought the tomato pie was much better than the cheese pizza but neither was better than the earlier two stops.

Maybe it was the two pizzas or maybe it was the deep fried calzone but as we were leaving Corleone’s I could have happily gone to sleep for the rest of the afternoon. The plan was to visit two more pizza shops. There’s no way that was going to happen without a break. Daniel knew of an ice place not too far from the next stop across the bridge in Pennsylvania. Off we went to the Yardley Ice House.

The "water ice" (not sure how it got the name) was refreshing - I went with strawberry lemonade, Casey chose cookies & cream, Allison picked mint chocolate chip – and we took a little walk around the town. I’m not sure if it was Allison or Casey, but one of them spotted a little park so we headed in that direction. The three kids climbed around and when we got back to the van, eating more pizza was was suddenly feasible. We headed off to La Villa.

Earlier in the day I had joked that we were going to go to a Pizza Hut. I’m not sure if she has ever been, but Casey hates Pizza Hut. I let her know that I was just kidding and all was well. But it turns out that La Villa is in a building that clearly was once a Pizza Hut. The only outside shot has a woman I've never met with a weird expression on her face. I'll spare her the online picture. Think Pizza Hut building in the middle of a parking lot. We ordered a large tomato pie.

This was the only pie of the day that was square. The first thing you taste when you bite into the pizza is garlic. Not that garlic is bad, but a tomato pie is meant to showcase the tomato and there was a lot of garlic. I didn’t really care for the crust here. I thought it was a little tough. It was the kind of pizza that you had to bite into and then tear the crust with a little bit of pull. To me, the chew on the crust and garlic knocked this down to the bottom of the list of tomato pies although I would probably come back here before returning to Corleone’s. Allison gave it an “eh” but Casey really liked it. I think she ate two slices.
We didn’t make it to De Lorenzo’s, a well known Trenton Tomato Pie institution. Personally, I blame them for not making the list. If they had opened before 4 on Sundays it would have been much easier to get there and see what they had. From what we ate, I think the best pizza would be a Franken-pizza combining the crust from Papa’s and tomatoes from Gennaro’s. But that is probably outside the realm of possibility. One can dream. Here’s the day’s breakdown:

Time Spent on a Pizza Quest: 6 hours of pizza touring
Number of Pizzas Ordered: 6 pies
Side Dishes: ice cream, water ice, fried calzone

Favorite Pies of the Day
Casey - Villa Rosa
Allison - Gennaro’s
Jon in Albany - Gennaro’s
Albany Jane - Tie between Gennaro’s and Papa’s w/anchovy
Daniel - Papa’s Sausage
Young Master Fussy - Doesn’t like pizza and would prefer to go eat soup dumplings

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Albany Jane and the Profussor (Daniel) for inviting us on this tour. We he had a lot of fun. The girls very excitedly recalled the trip to their mother tonight at dinner. I’d also like to thank the creators of the Nintendo DS and Mario Versus for making long car trips like this possible.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Market Bistro's Cooking School

I was invited to attend a cooking class at the new cooking school inside the the revamped Market Bistro Price Chopper in Latham. The cooking school is right behind the full service restaurant near the front of the new food court area. I had my doubts about how successful this full service restaurant would be when I toured the new Bistro section of store when it opened. There were several tables of diners and while I didn't eat any of the restaurant's offerings the plates of food being served looked pretty damn good.

On to the cooking school... I was invited to a 90 minute class titled Two Guys and a Grill with a focus on Certified Angus Beef. The school kitchen is pretty sweet. There are three islands that hold up to 5 students each for the hands on classes. There are also long tables for more of a lecture style class.Here's a picture I took from the second row. You can see the three islands and a pretty slick kitchen setup.

There's a camera on the back wall that projects onto the two screens for close ups of the lessons.

The beef was cooked by Chef Michael Ollier (from the Certified Angus Beef organization) and the side dishes were prepared the the cooking school's Chef John Winneck. First up was a top round London broil. This was marinated in a Central Market Marinade named Neil's Favorite Marinade, apparently Neil Golub likes it. These steaks got an overnight soak in the marinade, a sear on the stove-top grill, and then a bake in a 225 degree(F) convection oven.

Then a sweet corn souffle was prepared. During this preparation, each chef offered their opinion as to why eggs should be separated cold - Chef Winneck says the albumen doesn't stick to the yolks as much and Chef Ollier says the yolks are firmer and less fragile. News to me, and that's the kind of thing I like about cooking classes. Just some spontaneous, off-topic pro tip.

The souffle was had an interesting texture. The bottom turned into a corn spoon bread and the top was a soft egg. The beef was thinly sliced and still had a nice chew to it. I thought the marinade had a nice flavor but was a little sweet for my tastes. I gave the marinade bottle a quick look and MSG and high fructose corn syrup were on the ingredient list. Neil and I differ in opinion here. I don't think the marinade needs either but that's a matter of personal taste.

The next up was a petite sirloin seasoned with Central Market's Quebec seasoning, some bacon caramelized Brussels sprouts, and a twice baked potato gratin. The Quebec seasoning looked to be a Central Market riff on Montreal seasoning. Here's the petite sirloin and potato gratin.

Both were good. I'm a food snob, so I'll nitpick a little - I forgot to look at the ingredient list on the Quebec seasoning. It had mostly a coarse cracked pepper flavor and none of the garlic, onion or mild heat that I associate with Montreal seasoning. But in fairness, it wasn't advertised as Montreal seasoning. I really liked the flavors of the potatoes, but if I were to make the recipe at home, I think I would make mashed potatoes and then just stir in everything else. Again, a personal preference...and a completely different recipe.

Then some trimmed up New York strip steaks were grilled. It looked like all they got was some salt and pepper, which I would argue is all a good strip steak needs. You could probably even skip the pepper. The steaks were grilled and served with the caramelized Brussels sprouts and a chimichurri sauce.

I liked everything on this plate. I was also impresses with the amount of char Chef Ollier was able to get on the steaks while maximizing the amount of medium rare in the steak with what looked like and over sized grill pan. Again, some more personal preference, I'd probably skip the chimichurri sauce with a strip steak. A good, properly grilled strip steak doesn't need dressing up.

Everyone in the class was given a folder with all of the recipes and a shoppping list for the menu. Some of the items on the shopping list don't exactly match the recipe (I'm nitpicking again), like apple wood smoked bacon on the grocery list and Hatfield bacon in the recipe, but I'm being a jerk here. Although on the comment form, I mentioned that there was a lot of product placement in the recipes. Several Price Chopper brands were called out, the Hatfield bacon, some Cabot cheese, Eggland's Best.This class listed for $40. Most of the other evening cooking classes run longer and seem look to cost $55. I'm sure prices will vary by course.

My favorite part of my time in the cooking school was the discussion about what qualifies to be Certified Angus Beef. It starts with genetics, the steer needs to be Angus. Then it comes down to marbling which is determined after the animal is slaughtered. One in four Angus has the proper marbling to be Certified Angus Beef. I had to ask, if you are packing large cuts to be broken down in the store, how do you know what the marbling is going to be like?  A cut is made between the 12th and 13th rib, which is the cut made to quarter the side of beef, and the view of the prime rib is used to make the marbling decision. They've even done studies to make sure that view is an accurate insight to the rest of the cuts on that side of beef. Who knew?

Certified Angus Beef was my go to beef before I got mixed up in raising our own so I used to eat it all the time. This was probably the most beef I have eaten that wasn't ours in over two years. The beef was good...I like ours better. But I'm biased.

Back to the cooking school, they are planning to do quite a bit of teaching there. The schedule is available here. They do private events - got 10 people that want a class in something, that can be arranged. They also do some kid classes and it sounds like they had their hands full with a Frozen themed class.  The kids classes are going to broken up by ages, 5-to-8 and 9-and-up. The staff was very friendly and Cooking School Chef John Winnek is a capable teacher. Not everyone that can cook can teach. He can.

Full Disclosure: Besides being plied with beef, I was given a Certified Angus Beef gift bag. I don't know if that's a standard practice at all the classes. I know some local programs either send you home with food or have an in-store discount after the class. Anyhow, the gift bag contained an instant read thermometer, a spice rub, little pad & pen, a chip clip, a little meat guide that you can probably pick up at the meat counter and a coupon. I'm keeping the stuff this time because I'd like to try the spice rub and my mother-in-law needs an instant thermometer. So, it's hers. The kids will do something with the rest.

Monday, June 2, 2014


The past few weeks have been pretty busy. Between the softball practices, the games, Girls Scouts, and an overnight work trip to Utica we have begun to get the yard the way we want it. Although we're not really sure how we want it. One thing we were sure of was that the trees lining one side of out lot had to go.

Aside from being overgrown, about half of them only had branches on one side of the trunk. There's an easement behind the house and any part of the trees that crossed the property line had been cut off. They were originally nice privacy trees, but now they were patchy and dropped a shit-ton of needles. We got two quotes. One was for removing a little over half of the trees. The other was from Salvatore Tree Service for all of the trees and came in at about half of the first quote. Dun. They showed up when they said they would and worked all day (from about 7:45 until after 6:15 - we left for the Springsteen concert and they were still raking up). I wouldn't hesitate to call them again. I watched them take down a few trees and I had never seen it done like this. A guy in a harness attached himself to the crane. The crane lifts him up about two thirds the height of the tree. He attached the crane line to the tree and then repelled down to the ground. He picked up a chainsaw and quickly cut the tree about a foot off the ground. The crane hoisted the tree then laid it gently on the ground where it was unattached from the crane and cut up by two other chainsaw wielding guys. They had a chipper and a log hauling truck there too.

That was a Tuesday. On Wednesday, I was very surprised at how much afternoon sunlight those threes blocked. On Friday, we met with a landscape architect and talked about different ways to lay out the yard. On Monday, we left the house at 5:15 and headed to the softball fields for a game. When we came home a little after 8, this was in the back yard.

This was a little unsettling because 24 hours earlier I had been mowing the lawn in this area. And 26 hours earlier, I was having a catch with my daughter there. Apparently, this was leaning on the pines we had removed and it took a week of not having anything to lean on for it to come down. I thought the easement was the town's, so I contacted them to come clean up their tree. Turns out, it isn't theirs. It still owned by the company that developed the neighborhood. I contacted them. The guy seemed nice enough but the tree was still alive so it is considered "an act of God" which puts it on me to clean up. I told him that there was more of this tree to come down and he should have it removed. He said he'd take a closer look at the tree and get back to me. Then I did what any cheap bastard would do: I went to Harbor Freight with a 20% off coupon and bought their el cheapo electric chainsaw for $45. I had always thought electric chainsaws were silly. Like for weekend warriors that wanted to play lumberjack. Not that I have any real experience with real chainsaws, but electric chainsaws always seemed like toy chainsaws to me. But I didn't want to deal with mixing fuel or the added cost of a decent chainsaw for a few hours. This electric toy worked like a champ. Took a little effort, but that saw went through some 16 inch logs. We cleaned everything up, bundled the trimmings for the town to take away and stacked the logs to give away to people that have fire pits. Dun, again.

The next morning we went up to my in-law to make fence posts out of large locust logs to repair a bunch of broken posts. Making the posts completely by hand using an ax, a maul, and a sledge/wedge was not going well. So we started at one end of the log with beating an ax into it with the sledge. The as far up the newly made crack in the log as we could go, we beat the wedge in making the crack much bigger. Then we put the bucket of the tractor in the crack. And finally, through the magic of hydraulics we started making fence posts. The tractor just popped the post right off along the grain. After a long day of repeating this procedure, we had a trailer full of new posts.

Colonist that did this completely by hand were totally bad-ass and have my respect and admiration. That finished up Memorial Day Weekend and dealing with trees...until that little thunderstorm on Friday.

Are you freakin' kidding me? That tree I knew was going to eventually fall did. And right on my neatly stacked pile of logs from the first tree. And it broke another section of fence.

Did I say Dammit, yet? So this morning, I went down to the basement and got my handy, dandy $45 Harbor Freight electric chainsaw again. And here's what the yard looks like now with a pickup load of logs taken away.

If I can't get rid of these leftover logs, I'm throwing them over what's left of the fence.