29 September 2009

how important is heritage?

It's settled. We're going to stay in LA for Thanksgiving. We've long ago resolved not to travel by air around Thanksgiving, because of the invariable headaches, delays, cancellations and worse. But, the question always remains of whether to travel in-state to some outdoorsy destination. Last year, for example, we cooked our very first full, traditional Thanksgiving dinner... but then we immediately hit the road and drove five hours up to Mammoth, a cooler full of leftovers accompanying us.

Our first Thanksgiving

The year before, we didn't cook at all, and instead spent the holiday climbing with friends in the Owens River Gorge north of Bishop.

So this year we have decided that we'll stay in town, if not for the whole weekend, at least until Friday morning. No dine and dash. With that settled, it's time for the next question... whom to host? Naturally, if we're going to go to all that effort of cooking the full meal -- two-day-brined turkey, homemade stock which goes into the stuffing and gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, brussel sprouts, pumpkin pie and whipped cream -- then we'd really like to share it. (Though last year's full spread in front of just the two of us was quite comic!) We've invited Bob & Karla, whom we spent Thanksgiving with in Bishop two years ago, and my dear friend Jenn, who would be traveling in from Denver if she accepts. We'll see who else will be in town and without family obligations as we get closer.

And now for the most trivial but somehow still critical question: what kind of turkey to get? The liberal-guilt-laden foodie within me, the one who is too scared of all the propositions in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma to actually read it, thinks we owe it to ourselves not to eat some yucky, mass-produced, genetically-inferior Butterball. At the very least, it seems like we should get a free-range, organic bird, since poultry farming can be a pretty grotesque affair. But I'm one of those gullible people who has completely bought into the urban legend that huge numbers of mass-produced turkeys die of heart attacks during thunderstorms, because the breeding that has given them such large, juicy breasts has also given them tiny, overly-nervous brains. My great sort-of-ancestor Ben Franklin thought the turkey was a more deserving national symbol than the bald eagle ("a bird of bad moral character"), because it was a true native of America, and was thought in those days to be a respectable, courageous bird, one who would not hesitate to attack a Red Coat -- clearly no longer the case, even if they aren't dying en masse with every thunderclap.

Last year we paid $100+ for a 9-pound heritage hen ordered online from Dean & Deluca (I believe it was labeled a Tom, but at only 9 pounds, it seems much more likely that we ate Frau Turkey, not Herr Turkey.). Here she is after brining and a butter massage.

Though she was delicious, and we felt very virtuous eating a small-breasted though certainly-more-clever bird, $100 was a lot to pay for that privilege, even if turkey prices are rising. (This year, prices for heritage birds are even higher.) It seems more justifiable, though, if we're sharing the pricey bird with close friends, and not just eating it ourselves.

So will we go the heritage route? If so, we'll have to decide fairly soon, since they always sell out weeks before Thanksgiving. What I do know for sure is that we'll have a few repeats at the table this year:

AMAZING fresh sage and celery leaf stuffing with homemade turkey stock, based on a recipe from Gourmet, but with added cream (yes, Paula Deen would be proud)

And truly the best pumpkin pie ever, from the Cooks Illustrated recipe, with homemade whipped cream (and, I will confess, store-bought pastry)

I'm getting hungry thinking about it all. Can we just skip October, and get right into the yummy holidays and ski season?

24 September 2009

an old housewife's helper to the rescue

It’s 7:30 p.m., and I’m still at the office. Will be for a while yet. I’ve been here since 7:30 this morning, and that’s about the same story it’s been all week. Sigh.

It is nights like these when I feel pretty darn smart for putting the crock pot to use last night. At least I know that a home-cooked dinner is waiting for me at home… after a little microwave reheating.

When I cook crock pot meals, I feel a little too Betty Crocker for my taste. The crock pot makes me think of tough, brown, overcooked meat, and an abundance of beans. In general, I prefer for my food to have minimal time on the heat (mmm… blue rare steak…). But, during a busy week when we have already ODed on Koo Koo Roo, it’s great to know that I can throw a few things in the pot and eat pretty well the next day.

So tonight’s dinner (which I am only putting off until later and later by writing this) is a lovely pork chile verde, based on a recipe we learned at a cooking class we took in Solvang over our anniversary weekend in August.

It’s a tad more involved than many crock pot meals, but it’s sooooo worth it. A little pork shoulder, simmered to remove the proteins that cause scum to form. A little roasted poblano pepper with the char washed off, with some sautéed onions and garlic. A bunch of pureed tomatillos, a little dried oregano and cumin. Cook it till the pork is falling apart and then toss in some chopped cilantro. Mmmm…. so hungry... must finish working...

21 September 2009

taking on too much

This is a rich, rich subject. For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to do more, see more, learn more, experience more than there is ever time for. It’s not a problem of saying “no” – I’ve gotten to be quite good at that! It’s just that I want to do more than I really should, particularly if I ever hope to sleep, relax or stay sane. (This blog itself is a testament to that fact, highlighting both my desire to master the varied domestic arts for which I surely do not have enough time, and my desire to write about said pursuits, which itself takes yet more time.) Over the years, I’ve had to trim things back, cut classes and hobbies out of my schedule and give up on certain goals, because if left unchecked, I really will schedule away 100% of my time.

But the thing is: I really have no desire to change.

I LOVE learning about new things, I love figuring things out, I love relearning things I used to know, and I love sharing what I’ve learned with others. I consider myself extremely fortunate that I get to do a lot of this professionally: in my “real” job, learning about new issues -- like energy security, climate change, transportation, traffic safety, meth abuse, you name it! – and then sharing what I have learned with a public that will be helped by this information; and in my nighttime job, helping to guide people into their best, healthiest lives through yoga and spinning. I love both of my jobs, and that’s why, nearly ten years and a whole lot of responsibility into my “real” career, I’m still teaching four spinning classes and two and a half yoga classes (I split one class with another instructor) each week. Does it mean less sleep? Sure does. But would I trade it? Definitely not.

Why this comes up now is that today is the first day of an economics class that I decided to take through Santa Monica College this fall. It’s an online class, which is realistically the only way I could actually make time for it, but it’s no joke. Big, thick textbook. Required online discussions. Exams. I’m glad I’m taking the class, because economics has always been something I’ve understood much more vaguely than specifically, and this being a big recession and all, I’d like to have a better understanding of what Paul Krugman is talking about. So this morning I logged onto the course homepage and read the syllabus, which explains that I need to write comments and questions on the discussion board each week between Monday and Thursday, which requires first reading the assigned textbook chapter and lecture notes. (We won’t worry about exams for the moment.) Working backwards… Thursday night is too late to make comments. Wednesday nights I teach classes until late and then get up early Thursday to teach again. Tuesday nights Mark plays basketball. And Monday I need to get to bed early to teach spin Tuesday mornings. Sunday the notes haven’t come out yet. Looks like Tuesday it is.

Tuesday is now homework night. That’s all well and good, except that Tuesday is also supposed to be sewing night, reading night, recipe research night, catch-up-on-DVRed-cooking shows night and organizing night… all the things that are much easier to do when Mark is not home. (He’s just so fun to hang out with when he’s home that I get distracted.) So now I’m in the classic conundrum of my life: how to balance already juggled-to-death priorities to get everything done. Or, more realistically, what am I willing to let go of to do this new thing, in this case taking economics? (Too bad it is not home economics. That could magically combine many of my current interests!)

What’s the answer? Only time will tell.

18 September 2009

the condo project, part 2

Update: We've continued to improve the office since this post. Read about it here, here and here.

The chronicling of our renovation/redecoration of the new(ish) condo continues...

Though it was the last room to be "finished," the office/guestroom is the most exciting to me because it was definitely the most challenging. Multi-purpose rooms are inherently difficult, I think, because they inevitable need to store a lot of stuff, and they need to function in a lot of ways. Because we have just two bedrooms (still a very nice step up from the one-bedroom apartment we inhabited for 3+ years before we bought this place), our spare bedroom has to serve as Mark's full-time office, my part-time office, our guest room, our library, and the storage space for our voluminous skiing, camping and climbing equipment. No small task.

When we first moved in, we decided to keep the existing carpet in our bedroom and in the office/guestroom, so the only major renovation was scraping down the popcorn and resurfacing the ceiling, in addition to painting. To continue the blue color scheme from the living room, and to make the office more soothing, we decided to paint the condo's only accent wall, in a medium cornflower blue. Here is the progress from beginning to the almost-end...

The office/guestroom "before" -- felt very small and cramped, and totally devoid of personality

The office/guestroom "during" -- ceiling dust everywhere, and paint test swatches

The office/guestroom in the intermediate stage -- fully renovated, and mostly functional, but not finished

So here is the part of the decorating process that I get a little overly excited about: the addition of Elfa!

We have been in the condo since April, and we just finished the office. So clearly we were laboring over some decisions for that room that did not torture us in other rooms. The main questions were 1.) how to lay out the room, and 2.) what kind of storage to employ. We tried both desks on the wall away from the door, and the desks split onto the opposite wall. Both layouts had their virtues, but both desks on the same wall seemed to make the room feel most open, because it let us keep the bookcases under the windows, and push the daybed up against the wall. (I know this is a cardinal sin of decorating, but when you have small rooms, you sometimes have no choice but to push the furniture against the walls.)

In terms of storage, I had seen some very cool full-wall Elfa set-ups in design magazines, and thought that would be what we would want. But Elfa is not cheap (in keeping with the not-cheapness of its sole purveyor, the Container Store), and Mark wasn't sure if we wanted a full wall (or upper half of a wall) of shelves. We explored various floating shelves, bracket shelves, smaller shelving units, freestanding shelves, and at the end of the day, Elfa was clearly the best option. We did decide, though, to have two separate set-ups above each of our desks, so that we could put the shelves at different heights and not have it look funny.

Luckily for us, the Container Store was having their annual shelving sale, which made the Elfa gear slightly more affordable. And it really was impressive how quickly our sales consultant whipped up the plans with our particular details and components. Here are the pictures...

Mark putting on the final touches... oh, baby

The final Elfa set-up, in our finished office

The guest half of the room, with flip-out daybed. I love how the stripes on the pillow shams echo the stripes in the convention poster and watercolor above. Purely accidental.

My new desk/shelf combo.... I love it way too much

I swear the room looks bigger, and more open. And it holds a heck of a lot more than it used to! More importantly, things are finally put away, which makes me feel so much more productive in the room. (Whether I actually am more productive is up for debate.)

Update: We've continued to improve the office since this post. Read about it here, here and here.

16 September 2009

first party recap

This is where that whole challenge comes in of balancing my domestic pursuits and my career realities. We had a great party on Saturday, and here it is Wednesday, and I still haven’t had the time to post a few photos and a little recap. :::sigh:::

As to the party…

We were thrilled with everything about Saturday’s party… attendance, the vibe, how the food and drink came out…. and we will definitely do it again sometime soon. Mark’s birthday is in November, and December is a natural time for holiday parties…

Though I did, of course, forget to take pictures during the actual party (which means I missed out on taking pictures of the amazing Sprinkles cupcakes array that Mark arranged for Edward and Toby to pick up and bring with them), I did remember to take pictures of the food that we made for the party. Here’s how everything turned out:

The full buffet, making use of my favorite serving dishes

The clear favorite, roasted tomato caprese skewers (roasted tomato recipe based on Ina Garten’s)

The second-most-popular roast beef and horseradish crostini (recipe here)

The tasty but less-popular proscuitto-wrapped figs (apparently people are either not into or have not been exposed to fresh figs... who knew?!)

Snacks on the coffee table  

The bar, including St. Germain for the wildly (to use a Lucky Magazine word) popular signature cocktail

Some lessons from the party:
  • Make sure to taste the avocados before making the guacamole. Despite looking and feeling *perfect*, the avocados were absolutely flavorless (and maybe even hinting at a green banana flavor), and we had to throw out four big avocados worth of guacamole. I've never experienced this before, especially with California avocados. Sad.
  • Placecards to tell vegetarians which foods are safe for them are practical, but make people feel like the food is too fancy to eat. I'm guessing that Martha would use placecards, but Ina would not. 
  • Sorry to tell you, figs, but they're just not that into you.
  • When the Sprinkles arrive, everyone becomes like a little kid, in a good way.
  • It's safe to underbuy wine, because guests will always bring some.
  • If your signature cocktail is tasty enough, hardly anyone will drink anything else, and all that beer and wine you bought will just continue to take up fridge space. We did the St. Germain cocktail this time, and next time I want to try the wasabi cocktail that Mark ordered when we took his brother to Koi in July.
  • Wasabi peanuts (shockingly hot) are a great conversation-starter, especially for macho boys who want to show off to one another.

11 September 2009

the first party in the new place

This weekend we are throwing our very first cocktail party in the new place. Originally, it was intended to be a Labor Day weekend party, but so many of our friends were going to be out of town that we decided to push it back a week. That meant that it would coincide with my birthday, which is lovely and all, but I’m not a big birthday celebrator. Oh well. Sometimes you just gotta take one for the team.

In planning the party, there was a lot to think about… Do we serve just a few drinks, or do a full bar? What foods should we serve, and how will we display them? Do we want people to congregate in the living/dining area, or encourage more flow throughout the apartment and onto the back patio? And (embarrassingly) do we ask people to take their shoes off?

Though I do love me some Martha Stewart (my new favorite show is “Whatever, Martha,” because it lets me watch Martha’s shows while getting to feel cynical and ironic about it), I think I’m more of an Ina Garten-style hostess than an aspiring Martha. Ina’s belief: it’s okay if not everything is homemade, and if everything looks really casual. Really, things don’t have to be perfect. Right on. The Martha-style everything-needs-to-be-just-so approach is 1.) too time-consuming, and 2.) a little intimidating to guests. Guests should be comfortable, right? They shouldn’t feel like they can’t have us over because their hosting won’t be up to the same level.

(Aside: We love having friends over for dinner, and we love trying out some of our fancier dishes when people drop by. But I learned something really important from a dinner we served a few months ago. We had a couple over who are not super close friends, but whom we really enjoy talking to. We decided to serve lamb chops and risotto in a Madeira reduction, which is our total standby meal. It sounds fancy even though it’s fairly simple to make, it makes guests feel special, and we’ve made it enough times to have the technique and timing down. Plus, it lets us serve a Rhone wine or something more interesting than a typical California cab. As a starter, I also made a new recipe for chilled English peas and buttermilk soup, which was really tasty (and not at all difficult). Everything went well culinarily (a rare feat), but then our guests said a few times how gourmet the food was, and in their thank you email a few days later wrote, “We’ll have to put on our culinary A-game to have you two over.” So, the lesson I took from this was three-fold: 1.) we should wait until we know folks better and have hosted them a few times to make the things that seem fancier, 2.) we should always be mindful that a guest could feel insecure about their own cooking or hosting if we serve something extravagant, which is not the effect we want, and 3.) if the result is that the friends don’t invite us over for fear of not living up to a high standard we’ve set, then we’ve failed on many levels. Bottom line: better to make everyone feel comfortable, rather than trying to impress. Lesson learned.)

So going by the Ina approach, we decided to make a few simple appetizer-style dishes and buy a few more. Our rule: everything should be edible in one bite, and not require a plate or any utensils. This way people can nibble politely, or can take a plate if they wish. But they won’t ever be embarrassed trying to eat an awkward dish while having a conversation with someone they are just meeting (a situation I have found myself in far too many times, because I think only about what looks tasty when I take food at parties, rather than what will be easy to eat). We also have some vegetarians and gluten-free eaters to accommodate, so wanted to make minimal use of meat and starch. Luckily, no vegans! (As a former vegan myself, I know what a pain I was to party hosts!)

Here’s what we decided to serve:

  • Proscuitto-wrapped figs (green or black, whichever look freshest on the party day)
  • Mini-caprese skewers (roasted cherry tomato and mini fresh mozzarella with basil on a toothpick)
  • A few types of crostini (goat cheese, blue cheese, roasted pepper… exact flavors TBD)
  • Guacamole in Tostitos “scoops” (technically vegan)
  • Roasted shrimp cocktail (tails peeled, so no need to deal with the extra shell)
  • Pepperidge Farms assorted cookies (purchased)
  • Fresh fruit cut into bit-size pieces
  • Thin Italian breadsticks and olive tapenade (purchased)
  • Marcona almonds (purchased)

Things we discussed but nixed: hummus and pita (too messy, and people don’t want something garlicky at a party), cheese plate (requires utensils, and can be messy to eat if the cheese is good), olives (what do you do with the pit?), and mini flatbreads (would require turning on the oven, which will make the kitchen too warm during the party).

As for drinks, we have a fairly well-stocked bar already, so decided to have a few mixers (tonic, ginger ale, vermouth, Coke, grapefruit, cranberry and orange juice) available, but focus on one signature cocktail in addition to serving beer and one or two well-chosen wines. For the signature cocktail, the only decision was which variation to make on the St. Germain cocktail (my current alcoholic obsession). We decided on the simplest: St. Germain, Prosecco or other dry sparkling wine and club soda. Really easy to mix (which means less time away from the party), and delicious. I think we will have many St. Germain converts by the end of the party. But if folks want to make a more traditional cocktail, we can accommodate that, and we’ll have a cocktail recipe book out for folks to find inspiration. I have no idea if this is a good idea, but I assume we’ll find out if this approach is worth repeating. I think it could be fun to flip through a book at a party and make something crazy. Or that might be a case of too many choices being a bad things. We’ll see!

On the other questions, we’ll just play it by ear. If people move toward the back patio, great. If they stay in the living room (or congregate in the kitchen, which always happens even if you try to keep people elsewhere), no problem. As long as I can keep people from singing “Happy Birthday,” I will consider the party a success.

Off to buy the fresh ingredients, flowers, and lots of toilet paper! That’s the one thing a party must not run out of. :-)

10 September 2009

domestic weekend, part 3: improving on the container

In my final report on our thoroughly domestic Labor Day weekend, I'm going to put off my decorating update until we make a little more progress on an exciting new project (Hint: a Christmas Elfa has arrived early!).

When we moved into our new condo in April, I was so excited to finally have a balcony, which meant that I could  do some container gardening. Of course, I would prefer an actual yard and a real garden, or even just the garden, but after living for the last five years with no outdoor space to call my own, I was thrilled to have anything. Bonus: this balcony came with southern and western exposure, which I hear tell is a good thing. I started out some containers of summer crops in late April, and it's been a mix of disasters and tiny successes since then. Fortunately, I've learned a thing or two.

In the initial round of crops, I started three tomato pots (big mistake: putting two small plants per pot, figuring they would sort out the survivor through a little Darwinism), one jalapeno plant (bad luck: choosing a seedling plant that apparently was not wired to produce spicy peppers, and instead grows sweet jalapenos), and two long boxes of herbs, including three types of basil, parsley, sage, thyme, mint (accidentally bought spearmint, when I wanted peppermint), and oregano (big mistake: not realizing that some herbs are annuals, and some are perennials, and planting them all together). All in all, it has not been a total failure. We got a few pints of sun gold cherry tomatoes, which may just be my new favorite, about a dozen early girl tomatoes, one tasty heirloom zebra tomato (the sole yield from that whole pot!), and have had a steady crop of basil and thyme. The parsley and oregano got infested with some sort of tiny bug (interestingly, they were in the herb box for which I used sterile potting soil, while my organic compost box stayed bug-free), and I had to cut them way back. And the pepper plant has been ridiculously productive, despite the fact that it's basically growing mini bell peppers. Hmm... is this a common problem with jalapeno plants from nurseries? At least I know I am not alone in my starter garden travails.

But, determined as always, I'm viewing the gardening failures as a learning experience with some good lessons: 1. Don't overcrowd the pots, no matter how desperate I am to get the most out of my limited space. One plant per pot for large plants. A maximum of two or three for plants that don't expand much. 2. Organic gardening is harder than it seems. Chemical-free bug spray is a necessary evil. 3. Start the plants myself, so that I know exactly what they are. 4. Research is not the worst thing in the world. It probably yields better results than acting like I have a clue what I'm doing just because my parents had a vegetable garden when I was 10.

So with those lessons in mind, I'm starting the fall crop indoors. My thinking is that I'll see what grows well, and let that determine what I plant. If I'm lucky, I'll have more plants that I have room for, but if that's my biggest problem, I'll be in great shape. Right now, I'm starting some herbs (tarragon and chives), greens (arugula), peas (sugar snap, shelling and snow), and vegetables (okra, brussel sprouts, broccoli, cayenne peppers). I have read that peas should not be started indoors, but I'm impatient, had space, and figured worst case I could start them again outdoors when it cools off. With the rest, I think I've started them correctly.

Right now, the arugula, broccoli and brussel sprout seedlings are winning the race, but the sugar snap pea shoots just started popping up, and the cayenne peppers are starting to look strong. The chives are getting tall, but look very thin and wispy (I've never grown chives before, so don't know if that's normal).

A possible problem that I foresee: I have the seedlings in jiffy trays, each of which holds two types of plants, and it's likely that the seedlings in each row will need to be hardened outside (something that could also spell disaster -- it means exposing the plants gradually to wind and direct sunlight, and will probably result in many dead seedlings) at different times. I will cross that bridge when I come to it.

For now, we're enjoying the last few tomatoes of the season until it's time to uproot those plants and replace them with new fall crops. And I'm trying not to get too attached to my cute new seedlings, as promising as they may look right now.

09 September 2009

domestic weekend, part 2: travails with singers

I learned to sew a long time ago, and when I was little, my mom sewed a lot of my clothes (not that I appreciated it at the time). But I’ve been interested lately in starting up again and relearning the craft. My interest has come more out of a frontier-spirit-Little-House-on-the-Praire-make-your-own-clothes notion than out of any sort of Project Runway illusions. So I decided to buy a sewing machine.

After reading online reviews, I decided on the Singer Esteem II, a well-priced basic machine that got terrific user reviews on target.com. I bought it at the store, took it home, and followed all the various instructions that came with it. Loading the bobbin: check. Threading the bobbin: check. Threading the upper thread: check. Actually sewing: not so fast. It seems that the machine was dead-set on doing this awful thing I now know to be “birdnesting,” or putting big knots of thread on the underside of the sewed article.

Though I am a thorough online researcher and advice-seeker, my search for a solution to the sewing problem on the Esteem II put previous searches to shame. First, I had to figure out what the problem was called (hence the discovery of birdnesting), and then try to address it. This involved many searches on the Singer support site, a call and email to Singer (both of which they responded to very politely and thoroughly, though, as it turns out, not sufficiently to solve the problem), and the consultation of dozens of chat groups and how-to sites. But ultimately, after about two weeks of fiddling with every knob, rethreading the machine dozens of times, and looking for new online advice, I gave up on the Esteem II.

Lucky for me, Target is great about returns.

Though it was a bit more of a splurge, I am now the proud owner of the beautiful, extremely functional Singer Precision 7444. If we pretend for a moment that the Esteem II had worked for me and sewn stitches correctly, there would still be a world of difference. While the Esteem II sounded functional, like a reliable Toyota Corolla, the Precision purrs like a Ferrari. (Okay, not quite a Ferrari, but considering how rarely I am given over to automotive metaphors, the machine clearly makes an impression.). Powerful, precise, endless speed variation. On my first try, I got everything threaded correctly, the auto-tension setting perfect, and proceeded to run through nearly every stitch the machine offers (which is a lot). 
It also has a drop-in bobbin instead of the complicated case which, if you know anything about sewing, is much easier to deal with. The trade-up was definitely worth the extra $70, because I really look forward to using the new machine.

(Aside: I love Gretchen Rubin’s commandment to “spend out” on her Happiness Project Blog and I definitely believe in this. While I don’t think it’s wise to spend more than necessary on most purchases – for example, we happily drive a six-year-old Honda Civic, and have only one car for the household, when we could probably afford a nicer, newer or second car – I do think it’s worth spending a little extra if doing so will make me actually use what I’m buying. Invariably, if I pay full price for a nice pair of shoes, I wear those shoes a lot more than the $40 clearance rack shoes. Even the per-wear price is more favorable for the expensive ones. I think it’s the same thing now, with this new sewing machine.)

So armed with my new, highly functional machine, I set out to make my first garment, a flowy, jersey skirt with a foldover waistband.

This seemed like a reasonable project for a Saturday, especially with Mark playing in a beach volleyball tournament. But, it turns out, the question was not one of time, but space. Here are all the things for which one needs a lot of space when sewing:

  • Ironing the patterns, so you can cut them out precisely
  • Pinning the patterns to the fabric, and then cutting the fabric (the most space required)
  • Laying out the fabric pieces and pinning them together
  • Sewing the actual garment
  • Ironing the seams after they are sewed
My system for my first go went something like this:
  • Dining room table: ironing station
  • Kitchen table, folded out to full size (filling up the kitchen): pinning and cutting
  • Tray table in the guest room: sewing machine station

So actually creating the garment looked something like this:
  1. Go into the dining room to iron the patterns, and then hunch over to cut them out
  2. Go into the kitchen, lay out the fabric carefully, pin on the patterns, and then hunch over to cut the fabric
  3. Go back to the dining room to unpin the patterns and pin the pieces of fabric together (more hunching)
  4. Go into the office to sew the seams
  5. Go back into the dining room to iron the seams down
  6. Repeat the whole process for the second section…

By the end, my back was killing me! But, I had a not-too-awful-looking skirt that I might actually wear. In fact, I did wear it, to go to the Container Store to pick out shelving. (True, it was a casual errand, but I always like to look my best at the Container Store.) :-)

Since the first skirt was made of jersey, which is fairly tough, I wimped out and did not attempt to hem the skirt. Instead, I bought a rotary cutter, and just got a very clean line along the bottom. I will save hemming for the next project. But for now, I am officially a maker of my own clothes, and one step closer to the prairie.

08 September 2009

a very domestic weekend

Labor Day weekend. The classic American holiday. The last chance to relax before school starts and work gets busy again. 

Though Mark and I usually take every chance we can get to leave LA and get into the outdoors, we had a little survival epic misadventure in July that made me not so excited about camping on this particular holiday. And it’s not ski season yet (though I desperately want it to be). So we had our first staycation in a good, long while. Other than a trip down to Manhattan Beach to watch Mark play in a beach volleyball tournament on Saturday and an evening at Cinespia at Hollywood Forever Sunday (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in honor of John Hughes), we stayed home all weekend (plus Monday) and hunkered down to some domestic delights. 

On the cooking front, I boiled lots and lots of corn in celebration of the remaining days of summer, and we made our first attempt at homemade mayonnaise (a classic French sauce, of course!). In decorating, we finally attacked the office/guest room and developed our game plan for the many functions and things that need to be stored in that room. In gardening, I trimmed back all of the tomato plants to help them ripen the last few tomatoes of the year, and thinned out the first seedlings of the fall veggies. And in the newest pursuit – sewing – I made my first, actual wearable garment. Somehow we also found time to spin and do my first training run for the half marathon, teach and then take a yoga class, and sleep for 12 hours Sunday night (certainly the first time the latter has happened since our honeymoon). Whew! This is the kind of time I live for… super productive, but also really relaxing. Now I am ready for the post-Labor Day work frenzy.

I’ll chronicle the adventures in decorating, gardening and sewing over the course of the week, but cooking is up today.

My near-obsession since mid-July has been boiled corn on the cob. In the last two weeks, I am sure that I have made it at least 10 different days. Mark tired of it a few weeks ago, but I am still going strong. Naturally, I’m a bit particular about it. The corn has to be really fresh, the kernels bursting with juice when raw. If the store has already husked the ears, that’s a no go (makes them dry out too quickly). And I try to cook them the day we buy them, or the next day at most, so they don’t turn too starchy. And for cooking, they go in boiling water for 3 to 3 ½ minutes, and not a second more. The result when the corn is good… sheer delight. Sadly, the corn season is rapidly dwindling, and the late season crop of white corn is just not as satisfying as the yellow corn from late July and early August. So I’m interspersing other veggies into the mix.

Last night, we had three bunches of asparagus between the two of us, and that was a nice treat. But on Saturday, I found really gorgeous globe artichokes at Trader Joe’s, and used that as an inspiration for a culinary first in our home: making homemade mayonnaise (or, in this case, the garlicky aioli version). A few weeks ago, I found great artichokes at the Hollywood farmer’s market, and was inspired by them to make my first go at hollandaise sauce. I followed the original Julia Child recipe exactly and got (if I do say so myself) a perfect result. That may have made me a little overconfident in the attempt at mayonnaise.

If overconfidence was my first mistake, doing a Google search for “aioli” and going by the first recipe I saw was my second. The instructions: beat one egg yolk with garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper until the yolk turns a pale yellow, then slowly dribble in one cup of olive oil. I decided to use the food processor, which I believe was a good decision. Everything was going well… light yellow egg yolks, sauce thickening nicely as I VERY slowly poured in the oil (roughly four minutes for the first half a cup). All the recipes I had read in the past said you could speed up the oil pouring a little after the sauce started to come together, so I did that. And all of a sudden, just after ¾ of a cup had gone in, I knew that something was wrong. The sound in the food processor changed from a nice, thick stirring sound, to a sloshing sound. And I knew: I had broken the sauce. I kept running it for a minute or two, hoping it would come back together, but it was too late. I then went and checked the Julia Child recipe, and of course she says never to add more than ¾ of a cup of oil per egg yolk. If only I had listened to her first…

The broken aioli… so beautiful and thick just moments before

By this time, we had two slightly overcooked artichokes and chicken breast tenders, so we decided to make the best of it and use the broken, runny aioli as artichoke dip anyway. And on taste alone, it wasn’t half bad. I thought about making another batch, just to get the technique right, but realized that we’d then have almost two cups of sauce, which is probably more than we’d eat in, oh, a month. A little excessive, just to prove that I can do it. So I’ll save that attempt for another day.

The final product, with Mark’s homemade honey mustard and my failed aioli

My healthier version, with the chicken steamed instead of breaded and sautéed

Onward to new cooking adventures!

04 September 2009

my birthday card resolution

In the last few years, especially since the explosion of Facebook, I've noticed that I get a lot more happy birthday greetings than I used to. But, virtually all are Facebook notes sent from folks I am not all that close to, and most of the rest are text messages from friends, with a few cards from loved ones (especially my wonderful inlaws). I am not complaining at all... to me, it is totally the thought that counts, and every text and FB note makes me really happy. Really, it's just nice to know that someone was thinking about me and wishing me well.

But, doing my best to channel the spirit of a gracious hostess, I have resolved to keep better track of people's birthdays, and to send actual, paper birthday cards that arrive on or before the birthday. So far, so good. We've gotten cards out on time to all of Mark's immediate family this year (well, almost... the card to Mark's brother went out about two days later than it should have, but still before his actual birthday).

We didn't do quite so well on mother's day and father's day, but did manage to send flowers for the former, and a card to my dad on the latter. (I figure the card to his dad is more Mark's responsibility, though I did remind him once. And I think he did call his dad, so that sorta counts.) On my side, my dad got flowers instead of a card, and I felt good calling his local florist instead of going through one of the national biggies.

Congrats cards for engagements and babies are a more mixed bag. Because there is not a set deadline, as with birthdays, these types of cards tend to sit on our desks a bit longer. And, like any guy, Mark does not jump at the chance to write a nice note to his male friends... there's only so much I can do in these cases, and I just have to be okay with that.

There are a few things I have found helpful to stay on top of birthdays, since this has never been a strong suit of mine before. What I have found the most helpful is to enter birthdays into my Outlook calendar with annual recurrences, and reminders set to alert me a week before each birthday. Every few weeks, I go through and look at the coming few months birthdays, and then hit up Hallmark to buy cards for those people all at once. We also keep a stockpile of cards that don't need to be so closely tailored to the person: anniversary, baby, pregnancy, engagement, wedding, sympathy, congratulations. It sounds expensive to keep this stockpile, I know, but Hallmark actually has a pretty great stock of $.99 cards that don't look how you might expect for that price.

Cell phone picture of the current stack:

Armed with the appropriate cards, I write the person's name and birthday on a post-it, and then stick a note on each card. Then, I stack the cards with the soonest birthday on top, farthest off on the bottom. So when my Outlook reminder pops up a week in advance, I have the card right there and can send it out on time.

This is probably the most Martha-Stewartesque thing I do, but I'm glad I'm sticking to this resolution. Everyone loves getting birthday cards, and I think it's important to let those we love know how special to us they are. One little card a year goes a long way in showing that.

03 September 2009

the condo project, part 1

This is not exactly breaking news, but the new blog looks so sad and empty so I wanted to put some pictures up. The condo project has lots of pictures.

In February of this year, Mark and I bought our first place, a two-bedroom, two-bath condo in a 1970s West LA building. While not a fixer by any means, it was the type of place that required a little imagination to see the potential. Fortunately, having spent the last two years with my eyes glued to HGTV and Domino (RIP), I am Ms. Potential Seer. The previous resident had done very little with it in his seven years there, but the elderly woman who owned it before him was OBSESSED with a horrid shade of pink we now know to be “dusty rose.”

How bad could it be, you ask? How many places could really be dusty rose? For starters: the guest bathroom wallpaper and paint, all of the light switch covers, the kitchen countertops, the grout in between the kitchen floor tiles (I am not joking), most of the apartment’s power outlets and light switches (not just the covers, but the actual outlets and switches, all hand-painted), and, in the coup-de-grace, the gas range exhaust pipe, which is fully enclosed in a cabinet (also hand-painted). Needless to say, the pink had to go.

Thanks to this little mortgage meltdown that you may have heard about, banks are requiring actual money down these days. So after our down payment, the cash left for renovations would not stretch to include complete bathroom and kitchen gutting. Those would have to wait. But we could cover the basics: taking down the popcorn and resurfacing the ceilings, fresh paint everywhere, and new bamboo floors in the living room, dining room and hall. We also needed some new furniture because: 1) our wonderful old Room Service couch would not fit in the new space, 2) we finally got a proper dining room, and 3) there is space for me to have my own desk, and my own vanity (both huge luxuries that I am so happy to have). The story of selecting the furniture is much longer, probably not that interesting, and still in progress. But suffice to say, we picked out the new furniture and some accessories, and now it’s feeling like home.

On to the aforementioned pictures!

Before/during/after of the living room:

At first, I really wanted a new, white mat for the photo on the right (a long exposure of gondolas in Venice bobbing in the water at night), but now I kinda dig that it’s not completely matchy-matchy. Photo on the left is the view up into the dome of the Reichstag in Berlin. Middle photo is light coming through a trellis from our honeymoon in Cabo. 

Before/during/after of the dining room:

More before/after photos to come. Stay tuned.

a new blog begins

I'm excited to be blogging again, after a couple of years away. My last blog, tanjasana, was a nice project, and at times I was actually good about posting, but then I built my new yoga web site and found other things to focus on and, well, you know how this story ends.

So a little introduction... I'm a youngish (let's just say under 40) married woman in Los Angeles, working by day as a successful social marketing executive, working by early morning and occasional evening as a yoga teacher and spinning instructor, and slightly obsessed with decorating, cooking, entertaining, hosting, gardening and all the rest (exception: crafts). I also love outdoorsy things like skiing, climbing, and camping, and Southern California provides endless opportunities for that.

My goal: maintain a successful career (two careers, really), and master the many arts of homemaking. (Childless homemaking, that is.) So this blog will chronicle my progress (and debacles) in decorating, entertaining, gardening, cooking, and my newest addition: sewing.

A quick preview of posts to come: renovating and decorating our new two-bedroom condo, disasters in container gardening, and learning to cook meat after 13 years as a strict vegetarian.

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