Saturday, October 31, 2009

Leaf Peeping in Long Island City...

 In our own rough and tumble kind of way.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Rainy Night Out in NYC

I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to an event tonight for

food52 is a beta site that crowd-sources recipes, celebrating the serious home cook, with weekly recipe contests (52 of them, get it?!)  The end game will be a compilation cookbook to be published in 2010 by HarperStudio. The site is a treasure trove of original recipes and having met the catalysts tonight, Amanda Hesser, Merrill Stubbs and staff...I commend them for spearheading what is becoming a real community.

Amanda Hesser is the former food editor for the New York Times, and has authored a book, The New York Times Cookbook. Merrill Stubbs is a freelance food writer, recipe tester and collaborator.

Tonight, I was an interested, casual observer. I'm more of a baker than an original I am in awe of the folks I met tonight. They think outside the box, where I follow recipes and might add a minor flourish. I wing some dishes on my own and I'm getting more comfortable, having fun and trying new things like jicama and celery root, slow roasting and braising, but I still rely on a meat thermometer, rather than knowing "doneness" by pressing the meat.

My former housemate Jennifer Hess, who's blog I follow invited me, as her hubby Mike stayed home in Rhode Island with their ailing cat, Kali. Jen was a food52 contest winner this summer for a pork recipe that was featured with photos in no less a publication than the NY Times. Jen was asked to come down from Providence to demo her very cool summer cocktail, the Tom & Ginger, in front of a crowd tonight in a wonderful apartment in Chelsea, NYC. Who else would think to take some leftover liquid from pico de gallo and turn it into an insanely good DRINK?

Check out and 

Bonus for me...the Home Depot in Chelsea was a few blocks from the I did a quick spin through and picked up a taping knife, mud pan and self adhesive drywall tape... stay tuned for my wall repair post in a day or so.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Simple Goodness

I bought some beets at the farmer's market last Saturday. Root vegetables say "autumn" to me. I've been in a cocoon-y mood on evenings and weekends as autumn kicks off. I'm all about reading, writing, DIY'ing, gardening, Netflix-ing, cooking, baking, 100 mile radius for travel, and having very low key get togethers.

Sauteeing red cabbage with apples, butter and a little brown sugar. Dressing up locally made kielbasa with fennel seeds, mustard and cardamon. Roasting pork tenderloin stuffed with spinach and pine nuts. Baking cookies and breads. Braising short ribs. Mashing yukon golds with the wonderful, vintage potato masher that my cousins offered with a cookbook from my Aunt Kate's kitchen, after she passed away unexpectedly in September.

Tonight I felt like roasting a veggie, so I scrubbed the beets, sprinkled them with kosher salt and splashed them with a little olive oil.

Appealing, before roasting

A-peeling, after roasting!

After 30 minutes in a 375F oven, the aroma in the house let me know they were ready. I could have let them cool for longer, but I'm trying to train my fingers to be a bit more chef-like by holding hot foods. I swear I'm not a fugitive trying to burn off my fingerprints. (Too much CSI and Food Network) I'm not even close, so I was saying "ow, ow, ow, ow" as I peeled off the skins. The beets were so deep-purply and roasty. They put canned beets to complete and utter shame. Promise me you will not eat canned beets!

I might have quartered them and had beets with blood orange sections and greens with some balsamic vinegar and olive oil....but I did not have the 2 latter ingredients. Instead I sliced them, crumbled some goat cheese on top, gave the sel et poivre grinders a turn, and drizzled a bit of olive oil. So simple and so good.

What's In a Name?

What's in a name? That which we call a tag sale, would smell as sweet...    Apologies to the Bard.

Well, maybe not smell as sweet, but whether it's an estate sale, stoop sale, garage sale, swap meet, yard sale, rummage sale, street market, flea market, moving sale, lawn sale, white elephant, curb sale, bazaar, bric-a-brac sale, or the tres fancy sounding marche aux puces (the famous Paris flea market) I'm probably going to veer off to check it out.

Quite simply, it's an organized effort to sell unwanted items. I don't haul a crazy amount of other people's stuff into my home, and I never buy used clothing. If you've been reading this blog you'll know from previous posts that I am not opposed to carting home an interesting piece of furniture.

I pay full price for things that catch my eye in my impetuous, Hermes enamel bracelets, the mango wood table and chairs (ooops, not at all suited for NY weather) etc...but I do like a bargain. I poke around for certain things I like...Victorian era watch fobs to wear as pendants, sterling silver napkin rings--I love to mix and match them,  postcards of old New York, unusual cookie cutters, etc...

I picked up the sterling silver fobs (at left) in 2007 on Portobello Road in London for about 10 pounds ($15) each. The bronze medal and the charm (2 sided with portraits of someone's ancestors) were found this summer for 5 euro ($7.50) each at a flea market I happened upon, on the outskirts of Cortona, Italy. They're known as mercantini, or "little markets."

I wear the medals frequently and I get to have interesting conversations about them. The bronze medal was very dark, and when I shined it up, I saw that the back is inscribed "Il Touring Club Italiano Al Benemeriti Dellacarta D'Italia MCMVII"  How neat is that? It's a commemorative medal from 1907. The Cortona mercantini, to me, is a wonderful memory of a really sweet Italian town that's gotten a bit too popular, since "Under the Tuscan Sun" was filmed there. (See throngs thronging in Cortona, left.) My cooking class (about 10 of us) was part of the tourist crush...

Aside from finding the flea on the edge of town, another good memory will be the fist-sized fig with mascarpone and honey that I had for lunch in the town square. It was crazy good, and it puts regular figs to shame!

Early this summer I spent a weekend out East with some like-minded pals. We were driving along and we passed a sign tacked to a tree. At the same time, we all yelled "Tag Sale!!"  I turned down a dusty road and there was a massive barn, crammed with all kinds of stuff. Lots of junk, but I guess that's my opinion. I don't "need" anything, I just like to look for the odd tidbit. This was not a store, and there was no attempt to organize things into categories. Pots and pans were stacked up next to books and baby toys, next to dusty raccoon hats, framed concert posters, boxes of old shoes and scratched furniture. We poked around for about an hour and the only thing that caught my eye was a red enamel, 4 quart oval casserole. It was very retro, with white handles. I cook with a round blue Le Creuset dutch oven, and this oval one would be a great size for soups, chili and stews for less than a crowd. The price sticker said $50. I flipped it over and saw Le I knew it was the real deal. There was a little ding in the enamel on the right side handle---my bargaining chip!

I had my 'totally disinterested in this dirty, old, chipped casserole' look on my face when I asked the guy what he'd take for it. He didn't even look to see the $50.00 sticker and he said, $25.00 I guess."  I happily forked over the dough and looked to see how Sandy and Shelley were doing. They haggled for a set of 3 pieces of unrelated art, and they were happy with that! We got into the car and I was laughing out loud at my find! I felt like I should peel out in a cloud of dust, yelling whoooo hoooo. But, I didn't. I wanted to, though!


The other day I was reading the latest Williams Sonoma catalog--I have lots of kitchen stuff from there. I like their colors, tablescapes and recipes and also to compare retail prices to what I've paid at a wholesale supply store. I read a description for a flame red casserole that was "a heritage oval 4 quart cocotte inspired by a drawing in the Le Creuset archives."

Suggested price $290.00, on sale for $150.00. Here it is---looks a lot like mine, doesn't it? Life can be so dang rewarding.

"Sinko" de Mayo

I traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico summer of '08 for 10 days. It was a great mix of gorgeous, no-humidity-golf with stunning mountain vistas, taking long walks around the old section of the city where I stayed, and poking around towns like Tonala, Tlaquepaque, Ajijic and Lake Chapala with my guide. If you want to golf, off the tourist track, I highly recommend that you contact Chuck Kinder at so he can set up your rounds, lessons, hotel and tours. Gringas and gringoes should note that other than "resort golf" there is NO public golf in Mexico and you can't just call and get a tee time or walk on.

I took these pix with my phone...that's my finger in the photo of the little boy next to the chilies. Yeah, National Geographic has not called to hire me.

I took some breaks from golf and on a day trip, Lilli our Mexicana/German guide was able to bargain for us. Her blonde hair and blue eyes threw off the sellers, when she started haggling "for herself" in perfect, rapid fire Spanish. The pottery in Tonala was spectacular. I saw a hand-painted Talavera ceramic sink and some cute pottery salamanders. Lilli bargained them down to $40 for the sink including the wrought iron stand (WOW!) and $5 for the salamanders. (Talavera pottery is available in the US, with the sinks selling for $150-$250+ and the stands for$179.) The shop was off the "market day tourist path" and they did not offer shipping. The shopkeeper gave us some cardboard and tape. Lilli and I high fived back in the car--I felt like a criminal. I didn't trust that the pottery would survive the baggage handlers, so I wrapped the sink basin in bubble wrap and put it in my carry on bag along with the lizards. Not that it was contraband, but it felt like an "I Love Lucy" moment-- when Lucy Ricardo disguised the prosciutto as a baby, to get it on the plane from Italy to New York.

At the airport, there was no charge to check 1 duffel bag + a golf bag. Yay for small victories. But, the ticket agent wanted to charge me $100 for the additional "baggage" which was the wrought iron stand, wrapped in corrugated cardboard and bubble wrap. $100 for a package that weighed 2 pounds? My $40 sink was suddenly getting way more expensive. I was peeved! I stepped off the line to think and then I saw the solution--a guy in the terminal wrapping luggage, thickly, in plastic film, til it shimmered like silver. We had a chat. For $9 he wrapped the sink stand onto my rolling duffel bag...cut out holes for the bag's wheels and that, was that! I got back in line and tried not to smirk. Checking in 1 bag---no charge!

When I got home, I set about transforming my 1/2 bath into a May-hee-can el quarto de bano!

I had to have this sink, no? Si!!!!!

Ok, first I repainted the bathroom---it was formerly "farmhouse colors" according to my cousin, Chris. Deep green walls and a brick red gingham curtain. The decor was dated and the old porcelain sink was industrial looking and way too big.  After checking with my plumber for the right measurement, I ordered a brushed bronze faucet and drain set from an online wholesaler.  After he did the installation, I painted the pipes glossy black to match the stand.

All I needed for the existing medicine cabinet was a new knob, how simple! White switchplates were replaced with brushed bronze. I saw a little Aztec candle at Ikea for $1. Too cute. I moved a wrought iron sun/candle holder in from the kitchen, which is really more Mediterranean...and bought some hand towels in colors taken from the sink. I found a simple lace curtain in the 'discontinued' bin at a linens store.
The sun and the salamader are happy!

And for about $600 total, including sink, stand, towels, paint, plumbing + installation...a new look for a tired old 1/2 bath.

As an aside...they make 'commodes' too...they're $900 in the US. I don't think I could fit one in the overhead...but they're kinda fun! "Hey, Lilli.....!"

Open Storage

There's a quirky little extension off the kitchen, at the back of my house. In it is a 1/2 bath, laundry, storage shelves for entertaining  stuff...and a door to the yard. My "basement level" is livable space, and without an attic or a garage...that hall became a catch-all for years. Very dreary and cold. In my mind it's going to be replaced with an English conservatory with a stone base, wrought iron, gorgeous glass, heated tile flooring...    A girl can dream!

Til then...

I took the bull by the horns for an upgrade. I don't fool around with structural projects, so a contractor pal took down the old sheetrock, replaced loose and missing bricks with heavy duty cinder block, and re-sheetrocked. I had a nice bit of cleanup to do, then got to work on the "turd polishing."



The transformation was messy but fairly painless. The contractor left Friday night and I was finished by Sunday afternoon. The main idea was to create a transition to the yard, so I chose garden-y colors and accents.

I prepped the area (swept, spackled, sanded, caulked) and used a sand textured sage green paint to mask the imperfect tape/spackle job where the new sheetrock met the old. A 95% smooth taping job was ok with me on a low impact job like this (hallway, not master bedroom!) as long as the common brick wall between houses was solid! I was not going to spend nights feathering out the joint compound for perfection and waiting for it to dry.

Because the brick is very old, and I don't want to tempt fate, I kept the old shelving up. I dressed it up by painting the hardware, wrapping the shelves all the way around in contact paper, and securing the seams with little nails called 'brads.' Thumbtacks would work, too.
I know, it looks crowded, but I seriously purged stuff before I re-loaded the shelves! OK, maybe I can thin out some vases.

I shamed myself into a further purge. Much better now!

Open storage is less preferable to a closed cabinet but there are very few available that are under 9" deep, and with glass fronted sliding doors. With the house NOT being level and plumb (!) I'd have to bolt the cabinets into the brick wall and that's dicey.  Open shelving keeps me a tad neater.

I covered the concrete floor with adhesive-backed carpet tile that I cut to fit, and rolled out a hooked runner that makes it more comfy underfoot. I picked up the doormat at Tar-jay, and I already had the hooked rug.

Two cabinets from the kitchen re-do had been mis-measured, so those went up over the washer and dryer. I measured for and ordered opaque glass in gray, which made sense with the gray carpet. Glass is easy to install---just squeeze out clear silicone around the inside, press and and the glass sits tight. I'd found 'garden themed' cabinet pulls in the sale bin at Restoration Hardware a few years back, and finally had the chance to use them. Adorable!

I had the old wooden door out to the yard and a pitted aluminum framed jalousie window replaced a year or so ago. The final touches were a wooden shade for the door, a sheer, flowy lace curtain for the window overlooking the yard, and doodads like garden shadowbox art and a ceramic thermometer. Now the hall is light and bright, and all the vases, wine glasses, linens and things are organized. A recent dinner party guest spilled red wine on her white jacket. Without missing a beat, we stepped in from the yard, treated the spot, threw the jacket in the washing machine, then the dryer and she was wearing it by the time dessert was served. Easy, breezy.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Autumn Logs

It's mid-October, a bit muggy and warm at night, and I can still hear crickets as I fall off to sleep. It's too soon to light up the fireplace. My home sits within a row of houses and for everyone's peace of mind, I had my chimney flue re-lined and the mortar repointed inside and out. The liner is a 6" oval, halving the draw I used to get. Gone are the days of loading up the car with firewood from Connecticut or Long Island and stoking multi-log fires. With Asian Longhorned Beetle alerts and deforestation...I was feeling conflicted about my lumberjacky moments, anyway.

Manufactured logs (like Duraflame) have a pronounced chemical odor, so I was thrilled to find Java Logs a few seasons back. They are made (in Canada) from compressed, spent coffee grounds. 'Green' brownie points--they're recycled!

Java Logs burn for 3 hours--hotter, cleaner and brighter than manufactured logs, supposedly throw off 85% less carbon monoxide than firewood, and they emit a faintly sweet aroma. They are great for wood burning fireplaces, wood stoves and outdoor firepits. Resist the urge to POKE the logs...just let them burn down. I've found Java Logs at Whole Foods and Ace Hardware. (Check Google for local sources. The logs are dense, and the weight makes shipping from the factory in Canada is prohibitive!)


While I'm waiting for cool Fall nights and cozy fires, I've made up some Chocolate Chip Cherry cookie dough logs (!)  for the freezer. Ready to slice and bake, or to give as a prezzie. Here's what you'll need:

'Toll House' Cookies with Cherries
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temp
2 Tbs shortening
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed                          
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp table salt (not flaky kosher!)
1/2 cup dried cherries
6-8 oz chopped chocolate (I use Valrhona blocks or Ghirardelli, mixing semi sweet and milk chocolate)
(Add 1/2 cup chopped nuts if you prefer them to cherries, or in addition to. I prefer nut-free.)

Heat oven to 375 F
Mix butter, shortening, sugars, egg and vanilla thoroughly with an electric mixer. Measure flour and sift with baking soda and salt. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet, in 2 batches, and do not overmix. Toss the chocolate and cherries very lightly in a little flour, so they don't sink when baking, then add to the batter and stir.  Drop rounded teaspoonfuls of dough 2" apart on an ungreased baking sheet lined with parchment or
 a Silpat oven mat. Bake 10-12 mins, but remove when edges are brown and cookies are still soft! Makes 3 doz large cookies or 5-6 dozen smaller.

Bake some for now, then divide the batter into logs, roll them in plastic wrap, and pop into the freezer.

Bring the frozen log to room temp before baking (thaw in the fridge til you're ready.)  These are yummy cookies, no matter how (or when) ya slice 'em!

Housewarming present or hostess gift idea:  Buy a baking sheet (1/2 baking sheets are a less imposing size--also great for roasting veggies), kitchen towel, wooden spoon, fancy baking chocolate or dried cherries... Add the cookie dough logs, wrap it all up in tissue paper and cellophane, and tie with raffia. Superstar!!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Curb Appeal

Years and years ago, when my neighborhood was way off the radar and under-gentrified, I was spending my energy fixing up the inside--mostly new paint and trying to add some personality to a dreary, plain vanilla rowhouse. I asked my youngest brother what he thought of the work I'd done, and he said, "You can't polish a turd, but you're doing okay." 


Scroll forward a few years and now the 'turd' is sitting pretty in a sought after neighborhood. It's come a long way. New roof, updated boiler, re-pointed brick, new entry doors, carpeting, paint, moldings, safely working brick fireplace, new windows, renovated kitchen, updated baths, etc...  Asked for an opinion on the status, my brother readily admitted..."It looks really good."

I am very house-proud and am invested physically and emotionally as well as financially. If I don't do the upkeep, it won't get done, but I find the work very gratifying. A group of people walked past this past summer, paused and said "this house is really great" and I was very happy to hear that! Who doesn't like a slap on the back?

Adding window boxes to a flat house is like applying makeup and lipstick. The house went from blah to yah! Every season signals a sprucing up, and my window boxes are the place to outwardly celebrate Fall, Spring/Summer and Winter. Through the years I've learned to get inexpensive annuals rather than perennials, and to mix in faux accents with the flora.

This summer was really hot so the annuals took a beating from the exhaling airconditioners. I was heading for the "Grey Gardens" look---accck---time to switch to autumn!

Not a good look...

I spent a grand total of $30.00 to spruce up for autumn '09. I bought ornamental cabbages for $5 each at a nursery, then filled in with faux grasses and accents that I keep in storage and have re-used for years...all from Michael's craft store. Buy seasonal accents a year ahead and store can save up to 75%.

Much better!

Recycle and Re-Use

I like to think I'm a careful shopper, buying things that are well made and well priced. Sometimes an item comes up short, like the chocolate colored outdoor rug I bought about a year ago. Loved the way it looked, but noticed that everytime I swept, the fibers (with all the color!) were disappearing. After a year, there were strings showing. I am not an over-sweeper and I did not have the NYC Marathon come thru the yard. I waited too long to call customer service (of course, it was 3 days beyond the 1 year guarantee) but after seeing the pix I e-mailed, the company offered a 50% refund. That's a cool $100.00.  The pattern I ordered is no longer offered (coincidence??) though they assured me that "no one else" had called...

 I went out back to ponder and decided that I didn't want to rush into replacing the rug in the Fall, with winter coming...or to invest another $100.00 on top of the refund, in case the problem resurfaced.

I flipped the rug over and though it's beige rather than chocolate, the fibers are all very tight and it looks alright upside down. Problem solved for 2009, and I have $100 bucks for something else down the line.


After & alright for now...