31 March 2011

fallback food

Do you have a fallback food? You know, something you order if you can't decide or aren't in the mood for anything, or something you tend to order when traveling (assuming you're not traveling to some amazing culinary destination). Maybe it's what you cook on a weeknight when you feel uninspired.

One of the cool things about blogging is how it makes you keep more track of the things in your life that you would otherwise just forget about, or not recognize as a pattern. But looking back through the food photos over the past few months that I haven't posted, I noticed a pattern.

There's a whole lot of salmon going on.


Salmon in Chicago


Salmon in Dallas


Salmon in LA




For me, salmon is an easy choice. I love love LOVE salmon, we don't cook it at home that often, and it's a heck of a lot healthier than most hotel room service food. It also usually comes with veggies, which is better (health-wise, at least) than fries. But did you notice the rogue scallop in there? See! I mix it up sometimes. :-)

What's your fallback food?

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xoxo,

29 March 2011

everything and the kitchen sink

Make that everything ABOUT the kitchen sink.


In our recent kitchen renovation (see the full before and after here, and the source list here), we had a lot of materials decisions to make. While lots of sites and books offer great tips on choosing things like flooring and countertop materials, there are some odd gaps in information that we discovered, and as a result we ended up figuring out a lot of things as we went along. Rather than leave that gap of info out there, it seemed like the least I could do was share what we learned, in case it helps someone else down the road.

Info on countertops exists in droves, so we can keep this part brief: basically, laminate is cheapest, wood is next cheapest, and from there the prices go up fast for things like concrete, granite tile, slab granite, slab marble, solid surfaces like Silestone and Caesarstone, etc. We didn't want laminate, so went wood since it was next cheapest. And so far we love it. The main thing about wood is that you have to be a little careful about water, and you have to use an overmount or self-rimming sink, not an undermount. But you don't have to be crazy about water, like you do with marble and red wine. Trees are made to get rained on, after all.


See all that counter space on either side of the sink, now that the sink is 25 inches wide, unlike our old 33 inch sink? That's on purpose. We considered some apron-front farmhouse style sinks, but ultimately didn't find any affordable ones that would fit with our existing cabinetry, and we decided that an apron-front would be too big. By going with a 25 incher instead, we gained four inches of counter space on either side of the sink -- almost a square foot and a half more surface area!

As for the sink material, given our space and budget constraints, and the wood countertop, we had to go with a standard stainless or glazed aluminum or cast iron sink. The cast and glazed option were pricier, so we were pretty much set on going stainless. (There are also polyresin sinks out there, but I'm not a big fan. They are really economical, though.) Standard-issue stainless sinks (how d'ya like that alliteration?) are all kinds of ugly in my book, so I really wanted to find something a little more attractive. Needless to say, I was crazy excited when I found ours at Home Depot, and for a pretty great price.


I love how the rim is nice and thick, and with just a single, clean line. Makes it look much more modern than most of its stainless brethren.

So here's the part about sinks that I wish someone had told us more about: standard sinks come drilled with a set number of holes.

In our case, that would be four holes. Make that four relatively closely-spaced holes.


That means two things: 1.) you have to have stuff to cover or fill four holes, and 2.) you have to have stuff to fill only four holes. No more, no less.

Most faucets come with a deck plate that let you cover either one or three holes. I'm generally anti-plate because I like the cleaner look you get without one. So that meant we had three other holes to fill, and only three holes.



Also notice, in the picture above, that the dial for our faucet is actually on the side, not the front, as we have it. Because of the close spacing of our sink holes, we knew that we either had to use the deck plate to give the faucet dial enough space, or move the dial to the front. Not a lot of modern faucets have a front control, so that was a must for us, and really narrowed down our choices. If we'd chosen the faucet before the sink, we'd have been stuck using the deck plate. Lesson: If you're going with a stock sink, pick your sink first, or at least pick the sink and faucet jointly.

So now we've got a sink and a main faucet... so what to do with the other three holes? We knew one hole would be for the water filter, since our place came with one built in, and we'd be dummies to take it out. Two holes down, two to go. One hole had to be an airgap, that little knob to the left of the faucet, which prevents your dishwasher from overflowing when the soap gets sudsy.

You can go with a standard air gap cap as we did, or you can choose from a few multi-purpose versions such as these soap holder, soap dispenser pump and paper cup versions, all from Overstock.


We considered (and even bought and returned) the soap dispenser pump air gap, but then realized that left us one unused hole. So we decided to put an under-sink soap dispenser in one hole and the standard air gap in the other.


Beyond the basic decisions, it was just a question of aesthetics. I knew we wanted a big, statement faucet, since the main part of the kitchen is otherwise lacking a focal point. I also knew we wanted a sink with a sprayer nozzle option on the main faucet itself, not as a separate hose (which would have used another hole in the sink, and I just don't love that look or function).


And I wanted the water filter spigot and main faucet to have similar arc lines but not compete with each other. I think we succeeded, and without spending a ton (though don't look too closely, or you'll see that the knobs don't quite match).

So that's the story of our sink! Gripping, isn't it? :-)

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xoxo,

28 March 2011

my birch tree obsession

How much do I love birch trees? Sooooooo much. Though we have all kinds of ridiculously beautiful trees out here in California, like giant sequoias and coastal redwoods, foxtail and Jeffrey pines, and of course the Joshua Trees of the high desert, I have a total soft spot for the birch trees of my native Midwest. We even special ordered faux birch logs for our fireplace when we revamped it, both so the white color would pop more than a darker wood color and because birch is just so pretty.


When I saw the HGTV Dream House 2011, a fantastic example of mountain modern perfection in Vermont, and saw the master bath mirror, I had an "Aha!" moment that I need to incorporate birch into our future decor.


Fortunately, lots of people more creative and crafty than I have also decided that they love birch trees, and so there are all kinds of birch-inspired housewares and art ideas in the Etsysphere. How nice would all of these things look in a mountain modern getaway? That is, in addition to the Dream House mirror, which I will either find somewhere, make myself, or die trying.

From Priss Designs

From TRW Mosaics


From Red Bird Ink


From VeeDubz


From Bragging Bags


From dchampin


From Ebony Paws


From sp116


From Dapple Designs


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xoxo,

26 March 2011

am i deranged?

Do I really want to leave this...


... for this?


Yes, that is a picture from this week, from Truckee. (Thanks to Pauline at the English Organizer for sending these pics my way!)

Am I really jumping at the chance to leave a wonderful city where...

... lemons grow on trees in the backyard...


... gourmet food trucks line up in droves all over town...


... I can harvest my own backyard tomatoes in the dead of winter...


(Hmm... notice that all of those things are food-related? Probably not a coincidence.)

... I can take a run through our own version of the Venice canals...


... I can shop at the greatest furniture mega-store in the world...


... All so that I can live in a place with none of those things, and where it looks like this...




I *think* the answer is still yes, but no way of knowing until we do it!


Snowy images from here. LA pictures are mine.

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xoxo,

25 March 2011

light but man-friendly manicotti

Do you ever find that you get really excited about a healthy new recipe, but then your boyfriend/husband/guy friend/brother/etc. gives it a resounding "meh"?

This happens to me all the time, though to his credit, Mark is getting better. But he really does the best with healthy recipes if they're only mostly healthy, and don't contain things like sprouts and adzuki beans. If you're only of the lucky ones, whose significant other will eat the healthy stuff enthusiastically, I'm jealous!

We had some manicotti shells laying around in the pantry, and I really wanted to donate them, but Mark insisted we hang on to them and cook them. They take up SO MUCH SPACE for just a few little shells. In our little pantry, I could not justify it. So I had to find a way to cook them.


Here's a recipe I found and adapted, which totally fits the bill (original recipe and the image below, here). Uses up the manicotti, and can be made pretty healthily. Bonus, this is really easy to make vegetarian, and still has lots of great flavor thanks to the spinach, mushrooms and yummy sauce.


I generally like to make anything like this -- shells, manicotti, lasagna -- with homemade sauce. You can definitely use something store-bought, but homemade can be really easy if you stick to mostly pantry ingredients. When we make sauce ourselves, we say that we're "A-make-a a-bigga tomata sauce!" So here's how you a-make-a a-bigga tomata sauce. (Keep scrolling for the full manicotti recipe.)

Recipe #1

Bigga tomata sauce
1 large can of whole tomatoes (unseasoned or Italian seasonings)
1 regular can of diced tomatoes (unseasoned or Italian)
1 big yellow or white onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, diced or pressed
1/2 cup of leftover red wine (not swill, but doesn't need to be fancy)
1/4 cup of Balsamic vinegar (optional)
1 t. dried oregano
1 t. dried basil
1 t. dried parsely
Crushed red pepper to taste
Salt and pepper

At the end, you'll homogenize the sauce (with a food mill, immersion blender, food processor, blender, etc.), so there's no need for anything going in to be too pretty.

Start by sauteing the onion your preferred way (butter, oil, or my favorite: water), and keep going until it's translucent and just starting to brown. Add the garlic and stir for one more minute. If you sauteed in a pan, transfer the onions and garlic to a bit pot or Dutch oven. If you started there, you're all set. Add the tomatoes, and bring to a simmer.


Add the dried herbs, and add the wine and vinegar, if adding. The vinegar will make the sauce a little more tangy, which I think is perfect for manicotti and lasagna which have a lot of cheese. For regular spaghetti topping, I'd leave out the vinegar, and add a pinch of sugar instead.


Cover it and let it simmer on low for 30-90 minutes... it's not an exact science. I like using one can of whole tomatoes so that it's easy to visually gauge the cooking progress. Once the whole tomatoes are starting to fall apart, you're good to go, but the longer you cook it, the more robust a flavor it will develop... and the harder time you'll have cleaning your cookware.

When you think it's done, cut off the heat, uncover it, and let it cool for a little while. (This is a great time to get started on the other elements of your manicotti.) After it's cooled enough so that if it splatters it won't burn you, it's time to homogenize it. If I'm feeling fancy, I bust out the food mill, since that takes out all the tomato seeds and makes sure no chunks survive. But if I'm using canned tomatoes, there are no skins to worry about, and so I keep the dishes simple by just using the immersion blender. Do this SLOWLY and CAREFULLY. Same goes if you use the blender or food processor -- follow your device's instructions for blending hot liquids.


Salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy a-bigga tomata sauce!

Recipe #2

Healthy but man-friendly stuffed manicotti
1 package of manicotti shells, boiled to al dente and drained
1 cup of part-skim ricotta
1 cup of low-fat cottage cheese
1 whole egg or 2 egg whites
2 chicken Italian sausages (OPTIONAL; I like to use one sweet, one spicy; Vegetarians could use veggie crumbles or just leave it out)
1/2 a big bunch of spinach (you can eyeball this)
1 c. mushrooms, chopped
1 c. mozzarella cheese, shredded or sliced
3-4 c. (approx.) of marinara sauce or bigga tomata sauce

Preheat the oven to 350. Boil the manicotti, rinse them really well in cold water, and set aside.


If you're using the sausage, remove the casings, break them into little pieces, and saute until cooked through. Wash your hands a million times in the process -- eek! Salmonella!


Remove the sausage from the pan and let it drain. Saute the mushrooms and let them sweat, and once they start to get dry, add the spinach. Cook as much of the water out of both as you can without burning them.


In a bowl, combine the ricotta and cottage cheese, and stir well. Stir in the egg or egg whites. Add a few pinches of salt and a couple twists of pepper. If you want to get extra fancy, add a quick dash or a few grates of nutmeg.


After the sausage and mushroom/spinach mixture have cooled a bit, stir them into the cheese.


Now it's time to stuff! I find that hands and a long-handled iced tea spoon make this easiest. Hold the pasta tube in one hand, using the heel of your hand to block one end. Use the spoon to fill from the other end. You want to completely fill but not overstuff each one.


Spread the stuffed shells nicely in a baking dish, being careful not to overcrowd or layer them, and then top with the sauce.


You can definitely use more sauce that what's shown in the picture above. You can also try adding some sauce to the bottom of the baking dish first... I would do this next time.

Bake uncovered at 350 for 25-30 minutes, and then top with mozzarella cheese and bake 5 more minutes until the cheese is melted.

Serve carefully (I didn't manage to get a single photographable example out of the whole pan!), and enjoy! Even if they come out of the pan messy, they are still delicious!

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xoxo,

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