Thursday, December 31, 2009

Space. The Final Frontier.

I am in awe of large kitchen pantries, 6' tall pullout spice cabinets, rolltop appliance 'garages' on sprawling countertops and suburban "Costco Rooms."  I don't have any of those things. I live in a 1500 sq ft rowhouse. With 6 rooms + 1.5 baths, it's admittedly larger than many NYC apartments, yet like an apartment, it's low on closets and storage space. No basement, no attic and no garage.

Being a do-it-myselfer, I have a fair amount of inside and outdoor tools (what girl doesn't need an adorable 14" Remington Limb n' Trim chainsaw?) I'm a baker, bbq'er and home cook who likes to entertain...and I have all the attendant stuff that goes along. Plus beach, golf and hobby stuff. Oh, and a 14' orange kayak. Dad's a sport for letting me keep that in his garage out east!

I've maxed out the kitchen cabinets (Williams-Sonoma outpost), I've filled the shelves in the laundry room, the cedar shed is full of yard and gardening stuff.

In 2009 I purged lots of extraneous things, donated clothes to Salvation Army and coats to New York Cares. I chucked old junk, had a few tag sales, re-organized the 2 den closets, and I was able to give up my $600/yr storage unit. That's a win-win!

The last bastion with potential as a "junk drawer" is the Utility Closet. It's a 4' x 10' space tucked into the corner of the kitchen. My basement is livable space!

It pulls double duty, housing the boiler + water heater as well as tools, light bulbs, paper towels, paint, rollers and brushes, stepladder, brooms, odds & ends for fixits, garbage and recycling bags and the ironing board. I requested a half louvered door, so that some heat from the boiler would make the kitchen extra cozy.

I have hung tags from the major valves, so I know what's what if my plumber has to lead me through a shut-off or a test over the phone. Must contain the panic! If water is shooting everywhere all I hear is my heart beating in my eardrums and it's no time to learn what's connected to what! I wrote the installation date on the front of the water heater with a Sharpie (they have a 10 year or so lifespan, so I keep an eye in it for signs of rust or any leaks.)  I'll discuss the pros and cons of a tankless model with my plumber, when the time comes to replace/upgrade it.

To end 2009 on a productive note and start 2010 off with a clear head, I freshened up the space today. I put down some carpet tiles, changed out the ironing board cover (they get grody with spray starch), organized the tools, tossed out bags of orphan screws and plastic anchors, random curtain rods, bits of molding, old dried up glue and almost-empty cans of spray paint.
Earlier this summer, I blogged about saving paint for touch-ups in metal pint containers and getting rid of the 3/4 empty gallons. 18 pints fit neatly on an open shelf unit from IKEA. Note the room, paint color and type (satin, glossy, eggshell, etc...)
Inside the utility closet, I maximized the storage space by attaching pegboard to 2 walls. I did it wrong first--I learned the blonde way: First, glue 1/2" pieces of wood at all 4 corners, then screw the pegboard to the wall. If you don't glue wood to the corners, there will be no air space behind, for the hooks! D'oh!!
Pegboard is great for keeping oft-used tools accessible, without having to walk all the way in and dig through a toolbox.

Over time, it's easy just to stuff the stuff into corners and stack it into closets. Take a few hours to sift through, sort, save and toss and you'll be amazed at the space you'll reclaim!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Incredibly Inedible

As if they'd put free candy in with consumer electronics, or tuck some into the pockets of your new leather jacket? They didn't. It's not candy.

Keep an eye on toddlers, the elderly, pets and the illiterate on Christmas morning!

 Are you wondering "what if" someone does eat the silica gel?

Manufacturers might consider printing an explanation on the other side of the packet, so people don't panic, run for the ipecac or call the poison hotline!

No need to panic!

Here's the deal. Desiccants such as silica gel absorb moisture, and those levels can vary while a product is being shipped and stored. The packets keep consumer products dry from the factory to a store, and to your home.

If the packet is ingested, the pellets will suck all the moisture from the tongue, cheeks and lips.

It's a safe bet that that sensation alone will be enough to make the person quickly spit it out rather than swallow. The pellets are non toxic, and at most might cause a stomach ache.

I hope you don't have to find this out the hard way!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Cold Hands, Warm Hearts

It's 11pm and we're into the 5th hour of NYC's first snowstorm of 2009. There's a blizzard watch for surrounding areas, and we'll get about 12" here in Long Island City. Something about snow--it lightens the mood, passersby are more readily chatty and the gritty city is blanketed with quiet and beauty. For a few days anyway, til the dogs whiz and the snow turns gray from sand and traffic.

I'm tempted to make a snow angel, but I don't want to risk being run over by a plow--they're already out, clearing even the tertiary roads. Tertiary. The Sanitation Commissioner says "Toi-shee-ary."

The division of labor along our row of houses is unspoken. Every hour or so, we sweep and shovel our own area, then clear the neighbors' on either side. That way, no one comes out to a daunting job. We switch off, lending shovels and brooms and we have some chit chat. Sheila said that she would like to share some pot pie that she had coming out of the oven in a few minutes. 5 minutes later, my phone rang and there she was, handing me a whole pie, steaming hot!

Maybe because New York is a city where people seem to have blinders on, walk fast and talk even faster...I still get caught off guard by true human kindness. I brought the piping hot pot pie inside, and could not resist having a small sliver. It was very good, warming and rejuvenating, with a splash of vin rouge ;-)

Sheila and I reconvened for another pass with the shovels and she told me how the pie evolved. Neighbors and friends Diane and Barry came by to donate a small fridge to the theater that she runs with her husband, Brian.  Peter, the caterer across the street, saw Sheila and said that he had a tray of freshly roasted turkey left over and did she want it? Did she want it? YES! Presto, Sheila made some turkey pot pies--with potatoes, carrots, celery, bacon, peas, rosemary snipped fom my garden (!), parsley and thyme from her garden...all under a flaky golden crust.

It's after midnight now, and it's time to let the snow just snow. We will dig out in the morning.

Shhh, don't tell...I'll be handing mini bread puddings off to Shelia tomorrow. A sunny, snowy December Sunday--perfect for pre-Christmas baking.

Surprise, Sheila! Right back at'cha.

The big dig on LIC's "tertiary" roads in the shadow of the Empire State Bldg.

...And the city snowstorm circle is COMPLETE---a bag of dog poo sits in the snow!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NYC, The Melting Pot

Kudos to the culinarily curious, whose tastes run to the offbeat side of the menu. By offbeat I mean offal. I can't seem to summon my inner Anthony Bourdain. I've tried haggis in Scotland and in Southampton, NY, raising my glass while passages were passionately read about Robert Burns. I'm game but I have limits.

Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet, explains further, "Traditionally, a Haggis is made from the lung, liver, and heart of the sheep. These are mixed with oatmeal and a few spices and stuffed into the sheep's stomach. After being boiled, the Haggis is brought to the table with a great deal of ceremony. A piper ushers in the Haggis and all raise a glass of Scotch whiskey and "brrreath a prrayerr for the soul of Rrrobbie Burrrns!" It is then served with "neeps and nips," mashed turnips and nips of whiskey. I think you have to drink a lot of Scotch before you can truly enjoy this dish, but a party of Scots without a Haggis is simply not heard of."

For the past year, I've tagged along with the "Queens Restaurant Club" a casual group that uncovers interesting spots for dinner. We do our own thing, but it's interesting to note that organized eating tours are run on the #7 subway line, sometimes called "The Orient Express" for the ethnic neighborhoods it passes through as it leaves Manhattan and heads toward Flushing, Queens. Jackson Heights, where most of the restaurants we visit are, is 10 subway stops out on the #7 for me, about 25 minutes from home.

The #7 heads out of Manhattan.

You could spend a whole day in the heart of Jackson Heights doing a street-food cart crawl. There are hundreds of restaurants and bakeries, from walk up windows to the dingy, the overly lit, to the newly renovated...but you know the food is authentic when you're the only blonde in the place.  

We've had Thai, Bangladeshi, Turkish, Argentinian, Indian, Peruvian...and last night we went to the Himalayan Yak in Jackson Heights, a Nepali/Tibetan restaurant.  

A Yak.

After scanning the fascinating menu and seeing Goat Intestine and Beef Stomach served various ways, Dried Spiced Up Goat, Sausages "filled with beef blood or goat blood" we decided we were going to be vege-and pescatarians for the night!

"Fermented, Dehydrated and then Oil-Drenched Dry Vegetables" sounded a bit we ordered some traditional sauteed cauliflower and potatoes with spinach, dumplings, 'butter naan' bread and spicy dipping sauces, tingmo (a Tibetan steamed bread--more like raw dough, not too bad, but not great) and a poor tilapia that was cooked way past it's yumminess---four of us had about one forkful of fish. I've heard fish cheeks are good, but when I poked my fork in there, it was brown mush. Himalayan Gack! The "Just Plain Beaten Rice" was just that...beaten flat, and dry like uncooked oatmeal. The texture was interesting and it was good mixed with the sauce and veggies.

I'll bet there are many things on the Himalayan Yak menu that are downright delicious. I'm very open to trying new foods, but for me, offal is awful. I felt we were hopscotching around the menu, looking for the familiar. Yakkity yak, I won't be going back.

Next up, Sapori d'Ischia, a quirky Italian restaurant (Italian food market by day!) in an industrial section of Woodside, Queens.  I've been there a few times--it's a hidden gem, literally.

Worth checking out: The Travel Channel is running a series called "Meet The Natives USA"

It's very interesting to hear the tribesmen, who have never been to America, call our food "lifeless" and to wonder why pets are sold in stores, and have tailored clothing! Their host in Peoria, Illinois was roasting a turkey in a plastic bag for Thanksgiving and the Chief said, "I'm afraid that plastic will melt and poison our bodies." A fair observation! Gee, I wonder if he's tried a Fluffernutter sandwich or some Hot Pockets and Pop Tarts?

The Chief

Tribesmen, wide eyed, shopping in a pet superstore

Friday, December 11, 2009


Resolve. That's a good, strong word. As a verb it means to come to a definite decision, to deal with, to settle, to solve. As a noun, it's a course of action.

It's mid December--where did 2009 go? I'm kind of glad it's going. The news shows are all busily compiling their year end clips--the rise and the fall, the passings, the scandals, the firsts, the worsts, the mosts...

I don't make sweeping resolutions anymore, because they are too easy to break. I did resolve to hit the gym and I didn't quite get there. In other areas, I was having a great year, getting lots done until August, then the wheels fell off in various ways.

My up moments were great! I'm happy with how my life is taking shape, I'm independent, I have a tight circle of friends, I'm close with my family, I love working on my home, kayaking, golfing and taking photographs. Good, clean living and good, clean fun.

I started the year off happy in my position at work, I took some cooking classes, and instead of taking my Spring golf week, I sprinkled days off here and there but saved up my time to spend 2 glorious weeks in Italy late June/early July. Americans take notoriously short vacations--so taking two straight weeks takes some pre-planning. Italy was incredible! Here are some snaps:

Visiting my friends Amy and Guido LaVia in Lake Como.

The farmhouse in Pereto, home base for cooking class and touring. Hello!!

Drying pasta, and taking copious notes.
The vistas were un r-e-a-l!

Fields and fields of sunflowers.

Last day, parting shot--two teensy nuns sipping cappuccino at the Pisa Airport.

Thankfully I have nearly 600 photos and my memories, because I was yanked out of my bliss two days after I returned from vacation. My business unit was shut down at work, and I was laid off.  They had no choice, but I was stunned. In between outplacement services/resume tweaking, and hustling around NYC in a suit and heels in the summer dental benefits had already been mapped out and used for the year, so of course I cracked 2 molars (granola and thai peanut sauce) this summer and needed crowns. But first, painful gum surgery so one of the crowns would fit better! My debit card data was stolen and nearly $4000 disappeared from my checking account in a matter of hours, my car needed $800 in repairs, the roof was leaking...and I had a few other invasive medical things crop up. Gimme a break!

It all got sorted out, replaced, patched, fixed, etc...except for the job. And that's a critical cog in my wheel of independence.

I don't compare myself to others, or do the "woe is me" thing. I know many people who have dealt with huge obstacles and tragic losses. My stuff is surmountable--it just came at me all in a row. I'm so lucky to have my sister, mom and close friends to help shore me up when I'm questioning "now what?" I heard the best word of my year, this week: b-e-n-i-g-n.  There is no safe route through life---ya just have to face what comes and be willing to leap.

I'm closing out 2009 looking for work, and it is tough sledding out there. I'll blog about "surviving a layoff" once I've actually survived it.

There's no list of resolutions to be compiled. I plan to have a Merry Christmas, to take 2010 in small bites...and to exude a steely resolve.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Art Within Reach

Like getting a new haircut or new pair of shoes, I like the instant gratification of rearranging the art on my walls, purging some or adding new pieces.

I've been a steady customer at local frame shops over the years, but sometimes I just wanna get some stuff up on a wall, and not spend a lot to do it. I picked up three neat old prints in Italy this summer (at that cool flea market we stumbled upon in Cortona.)

I spent $12 apiece, which I felt was a great deal. They are numbered French lithograph plates, apparently cut out of an old book. They detail "Costumes civils et militaire de Toscane" circa 1825. I chose a Tuscan male villager, a female from the countryside, and a hospital nurse...holding a tray of food and with large keys hanging from her apron strings.

In my quest to rein in the outlay this quarter...I decided against framing locally. With archival mats, glass and nice frames, I'd be looking at spending $100 each or more, easily. These prints are nice, but not exactly fine art!

I took a spin through Home Goods, dubbed "The Mother Ship" by my friend Joan D, because it's the feeder store for the odd lot leftovers that land in the housewares departments at Marshall's and TJ Maxx.  I've been known to do some scrounging at the latter two. There, you have to dig around and you're likely to find one frame, probably dented or scratched. At Home Goods, I snapped up three decent looking 8" x 10" matching black wooden frames for $6.99 each. Score!

Scrape off the price tag with a straight edge razor blade, use glass cleaner to get the residue off and clean both sides of the glass. Quick, quick--no measuring. Position the print on a work surface, place the glass on top, and use the razor blade to trace around the glass, cutting through the print.

I am hanging the prints, rather than standing them up on a table or shelf, so I gently snapped that thingie off the back. These are for me, not gifts, and no one's looking at the I am fine with the two little holes that it left.

The lithos look great in a hallway that has some other Tuscan prints, and they're a nice reminder of my trip. Another little project, off the to-do list!

Monday, December 7, 2009

We're Jammin'!

Ms. Classie Parker

Classie Parker. What a hoot! A lifelong Harlem NYC resident, with roots in South Carolina, she's a community gardener and a "canning consultant." I tagged along with my friend Sandy to a canning workshop on the Lower East Side a few weeks ago. That evening we watched Classie and some volunteers pickling veggies in a brine. Canning is a misnomer, since glass preserving jars are used. "Put some LOVE in that jar, darlin! Shake your bootie, bay-bay...mmmm...hmmm!"

I left the workshop smiling and curious, lugging a big home preserving kit (gratis from the Ball Corporation!) that included a huge blue enamel pot, rack, jar lifter, spatula, lid lifter, a funnel and the 100th Anniversary Blue Book Guide to Preserving. It's the canning bible.

Sandy, Hersky, Shelley and I made Pear Butter last weekend. It's the consistency of applesauce. We used bosc pears, with a touch of nutmeg and orange zest... it's super sweet. It took us 3 hours from start to finish--peeling, coring, slicing, cooking down, and processing. A good Sunday afternoon project, chatting and reading the NY Times in between. Not sure yet what I'm going to pair it with!

"Yes, we can!" make homemade Pear Butter.

Today I flew solo and canned Raspberry Jam.  1.5 hours, start to finish. The most time is spent getting that big pot of water to boil! Santa, please bring me an induction heater that boils water in 90 seconds!

There are basic principles that cover types of preserving (boiling water or steam pressure), how to prevent spoilage and bacteria...and also very specific measurements for various fruits, sugar, and the type of pectin to be used (if any) to promote jelling.

Types of pectin cannot be used interchangeably--a recipe will either call for no pectin at all...or Liquid Fruit Pectin, Natural Powdered Pectin, No Sugar Needed Pectin, or you can use Pomona's Universal Pectin. Definitely follow the instructions on each box regarding proper amounts. Many stores do NOT carry pectin, or might have just one kind. Check the specialty area, the baking aisle and also where they display Jell-O mix. I did some crisscrossing around Manhattan to no avail (Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Food Emporium, D'Agostino's) then found the mother lode--all four kinds--at good ole Stop 'n Shop in Westport, CT this weekend. I sometimes forget that I'm a city girl. Maybe there's not much canning going on in NYC? I bought two of each kind, to be sure that I have the right pectin on hand! You can also order pectin online from

I recommend that you get the Ball Blue Book of Preserving, and read up! Or visit 

There are tons of categories and recipes (no sugar, low salt, full sugar...) for fruit butters, conserves, jams, jellies, marmalades, preserves and chutneys. You can make pickled veggies, relishes, sauces, "canned" meats, soups, stocks and stews. I'm starting out with jams. My taste runs more sweet than pickly, and I love the chunky consistency and bright colors. I think they'll make nice prezzies.

I got bulk raspberries and sugar at Costco, and some "mason" jars with lids and bands (Kerr brand, made by Ball) at the hardware store. If you order online you'll spend about $1 or less per jar. They come in a range of sizes--quart, pint, half pint, etc... There are different styles and shapes (diamond crystal cut, or plain jars, tall, squat, wide mouth, triangular) and you can get holiday-themed printed lids. Get some 'label paper' for your computer and design your own, or buy pre-cut labels with nice edges at a craft store, like Michael's.

Target and The Container Store carry lines of jars called Quattro Stagioni and Leifheit that are expensive---$2.50 or more per jar. I have not checked out the Broadway Panhandler, Zabar's or WalMart. 

Here are the supplies you'll need, the recipe and some photos of the Raspberry Jam Project

Supplies: (Note: Classie Parker's grandmother canned in a cauldron in the woods in South Carolina, without any fancy tools! The canning kit that I was given is handy, but not necessary to do the job!)

A big lidded pot, like a spaghetti pot or enamel lobster pot
A smaller pot to simmer the lids/bands
A medium pot, to cook down the fruit (I use an enamel Le Crueset dutch oven)
Tongs or a canning jar holder
Jars, dome lids and metal bands

1 Quart crushed raspberries, about 48 ounces (I used a pastry blender to crush by hand)

6 1/2 cups sugar (eeek!)
1 pouch liquid fruit pectin

1. Boil water in the large pot and sterilize the jars for 10 mins (or run them thru the dishwasher!)

2. Simmer water in the smaller pot and sterilize the lids/bands for 10 mins (do not BOIL, lids have rubber)

3. Remove sterilized jars to a dish towel
4. Combine crushed raspberries  and sugar in the medium pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Stir in liquid pectin. Return to a rolling boil, boil hard for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.

Skim foam. Ladle hot jam into the jars, leaving 1/4" headspace.

Wipe the rims so there is no residue. Position the lid, and tighten the band, but NOT too tightly! Process 10 mins in boiling water (10 mins is for NYC, times vary for different altitudes.)  Remove the jars from the water, and cool on a rack for 24 hours. As the jars cool, you will hear the lids "plink" one by one as they form the vacuum seal!

This recipe made 11 half-pint jars. I think receiving a quart of jam would be very overwhelming! I'm well on my way, to a very merry, homemade Christmas!

Monday, November 23, 2009

DIY Apple Pie

Mrs. Smith has a nice business for herself selling mass produced pies, Costco sells 'em the size of a manhole cover for less than $10 and there are tons of bakeries where one can pre-order for the holidays, or pick up a pie on the fly. 

Baking for the holidays is a real joy for me, and so I go the home-made route all the way. I try to plan for the fruit and make the dough and fillings a day or two ahead. That way, I'm not in the kitchen til 2am the night before a drive, or clogging up someone else's oven to bake, the "day of."  Best to stay out of the host's way...

"Yeah, could you move that turkey? I'm gonna need your only oven for an hour for this here pie!"

I'm making apple and pumpkin pies for T-Day, and will add cheesecake and a gluten free Buche de Noel for the round of stops at Christmastime. I usually ship cookies to more far flung friends.

The Joy of Cooking recipe for apple pie is tried and true, and I've never wavered. I make piecrust dough in the Cuisineart using the basic flaky pie crust recipe that came with the machine. Before baking, I brush the top crust with milk (don't say eeewww--if I didn't tell you, you'd never have known!) I plunk down some cookie cutter shapes pressed from rolled out scraps, then sprinkle all over with cinnamon sugar. Yum!