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Archive for October, 2011

Comfort Food Weekend

We got a car this weekend! It’s a 2012 Honda Fit and we love it. Alec wondered whether we should name the car. I suggested Fitzwilliam Darcy; he countered with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then we decided to leave the car nameless for now. The first trip we took with the car after taking it home from the dealership? The grocery store!

The open road was calling our name, but friends were coming over for a late-afternoon lunch, so we had to hustle to the supermarket and back home to start cooking. And it ended up being a pretty domestic weekend because with the weather turning colder, all I wanted to do was putter around the kitchen.

For the 3 pm lunch – yes, kind of an odd time for a meal, but my friend ran a half-marathon on Saturday so I knew she’d be hungry – I built the menu around this macaroni & cheese recipe that I clipped from Cooking Light last month. It uses butternut squash as the basis for the cheese sauce. I made some modifications, subbing whole milk for fat-free (you can tell I really embrace the Cooking Light ethos) and using white cheddar instead of Pecorino Romano because I couldn’t find any of the latter in the fancy cheese section.

I forgot to take any more photos of this dish, so you’ll have to picture it covered with a crispy layer of panko crumbs and a sprinkling of parsley. It was goooood, and I still have a little bit left over to take for lunch this week.

Preceding the mac & cheese was an autumn salad. I should pause here and say that I’m not a salad person at all and almost never make salads for myself and Alec. But I always feel obligated to serve salad to company because it seems like the proper thing to do. I ended up being pleasantly surprised by Saturday’s salad, which I got from one of my favorite cookbooks, Simply In Season. I combined greens with sliced apples, caramelized walnuts and dried cranberries. The dressing was mostly olive oil and Dijon mustard.

My friend Erin said it tasted like a restaurant salad – what a compliment! And I learned a couple of things making it. For instance, did you know Hollywood propmasters used to make fake glass from spun sugar for stuntmen to crash through? Alec relayed this bit of trivia to me while cleaning the sticky mess I made from caramelizing the walnuts in sugar and corn syrup. The other thing I learned was that there are way too many choices of prewashed salad greens in the grocery store. How many permutations of fancy lettuce does the American consumer need?

For dessert, I initially wanted to do a fruit cobbler or crisp, but was worried about coordinating cooking times and oven temperatures with the mac & cheese. Also, there were apples in the salad so I wanted to serve something other than fruit for dessert. I made a chocolate cake in the slow cooker!

This photo makes the cake look unappetizing, but it was really good – the entire bottom was gooey, making it like a molten chocolate cake. And, like pretty much anything made in a slow cooker, this cake was super easy. It is a keeper for sure. (Nope, I’d never made this – or any of the other two dishes – before. I know you’re not supposed to serve dishes you’ve never attempted to company, but I like to live on the edge like that.)

On Sunday, I made soup out of a head of cabbage that had been sitting in the fridge. At least I think it was cabbage. Maybe it was lettuce? I’m terrible at identifying greens – I blame this on not being a salad person. Also, because I don’t like salads, I need to find other uses for things like lettuce. Alec said lettuce soup sounded like something the Bucket family ate in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but I wanted to try it anyway. And the soup turned out well! Very smooth and creamy. I microplaned some Gruyere on top because, well, life is too short not to add cheese to as much stuff as possible.

I had some leftover butternut squash cubes from Saturday, so I combined that with some sad, aging turnips in the fridge, along with apples and dried cranberries (if these last two ingredients sound familiar, it’s because they were featured in Saturday’s autumn salad). Those got roasted with some lemon juice, butter and brown sugar, and served alongside baked chicken.

So there you have it – a weekend of hearty, seasonal comfort food. And for the rest of the week, I plan on eating Halloween candy. That’s what I call a balanced diet!

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Oh Joy

When left to my own devices, I can snooze well past noon on a typical Saturday. One friend of mine has called me a ferret because apparently ferrets sleep a lot. I think ferrets are kind of gross (sorry) so I prefer to be compared to pandas, which also spend most of their days sleeping. In any case, this past Saturday was a different story. I because I was excited for our neighborhood Oktoberfest block party. I think I woke while it was still A.M.!

I realize how hideously uncool it is to be jazzed about a block party, but Alec and I are really embracing suburbia. And the gathering couldn’t be better timed because we just moved and without a social occasion, it could have taken us years to meet our neighbors. At our old apartment building in the city, I lived there for three years and never met another tenant until this one night, when a guy who lived upstairs got drunk and decided to bash in the glass plate of the building’s front door with a big orange traffic cone. Alec and I ended up bonding with our across-the-hall neighbor over a shared fear of being murdered in our sleep and then subsequently calling the police and exchanging business cards. Having been through that particular debacle, I can say with certainty that an Oktoberfest block party with garage bands, homemade chili and little kids playing in the street is a far superior way to meet your neighbors. (We especially enjoyed the high school band, Cardinal North, which vaguely reminded us of Sex Bob-omb from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.)

Our next-door neighbors, who’d we already met briefly, hosted the party and were really nice about introducing us to other people on the block, all of whom were very friendly. The couple that we bought our house from also stopped by the party and we chatted with them for a while. Between all the conversations, we learned some super interesting tidbits about the history of our house.

According to our neighbors, the house was built by the former police chief of Oak Park, a man named Joy, for his daughters. We heard conflicting numbers about how many daughters he had – either four or five – but they were all unmarried schoolteachers, and they lived in this house together. I love this story. It makes me think of Miss Lavendar from Anne of Avonlea, multiplied by four. Or five. (Miss Lavendar ended up getting married, but not until very late in life. And I always preferred her as a single lady. I suppose Marilla Cuthbert is a better example of a spinster.)

The next family to live here had an 18-year-old son who in 1994 was shot by gang members while he was driving through the west side. The case has never been solved. In the back yard is a tree that his parents planted in his memory. Unfortunately, the tree is dying, but Alec’s parents are coming for Thanksgiving and his mom is an expert gardener, so I’m hoping she will have some ideas about how to save it.

The third owners were a family that only lived here a couple years. We bought the house from the fourth owners, a lovely couple who told us – to our great relief – that they were not responsible for the textured high-gloss paint that was all over the walls. They had wanted to take down the paint but hadn’t gotten around to it, and eventually life events (children) and inertia took over, and you can figure out the rest. We feel fortunate that we had the time to take care of the walls (and floors) before moving in. I hope we’re doing the Joy sisters proud by taking care of their house!

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Shop Til You Drop

I am hereby declaring that if the U.S. economy goes into a double-dip recession, it is not our fault. OK? Because we have done our part. We bought a house, we’re planning to buy a car and we completed an epic shopping trip over the weekend to get some much needed home furnishings. This will sound painfully obvious, but when one moves from a one-bedroom apartment to a four-bedroom house, there are a lot of rooms to fill up! It’s a little overwhelming, but we wanted to get the process started. Here’s a rundown of our little spree through the northwest suburbs of Chicago:

I mean, obviously we stopped at Ikea first. I feel like I should be graduating past MDF to nicer furniture when it comes to big pieces, but this Swedish wonder is still one of the best places to go for inexpensive, cute textiles and other home accessories. I also love their meatballs – and I’m not alone because Ikea’s U.S. stores sold 119.7 million of them in 2010. Sadly, I was too full from brunch to stop at the cafeteria this time, but I did get some lingonberry soda on my way out. It’s important to stay hydrated while shopping! Here’s our rented Nissan Versa after our Ikea trip. It doesn’t look like a lot, but there’s a plastic storage bin in there crammed full of stuff.

Then it was off to Target, where we ended up making our favorite purchase of the day: a doormat!

I almost missed this doormat because it was on the lowest shelf and I could only see some of the green leaves peeking out. When I took a closer look, I realized the design looks very similar to the motif we used in our wedding stationery:

Is that uncanny or what? It’s almost like we got a doormat custom-made to match our wedding logo. And now these adorable lovebirds will get trampled on and have dirt wiped on them for years and years. It’s so romantic.

Stop #3 was Lowe’s, where we bought a rake (I’ve never owned a rake before!) and encountered this scary, gaunt animatronic Santa Claus near the gardening department. As I was walking past, his hand touched my shoulder and I nearly flipped out. He was creepy.

The last stop of the day was Bed Bath & Beyond. As most savvy shoppers probably know, despite the fine print on those ubitquitous BB&B 20% off coupons, they have no expiration date and no limit to how many you can use on a single visit. Alec and I obsessively collected all of the extra coupons that were discarded on the lobby floor of our old apartment building. And it paid off because we were able to redeem eight of them and save $75. I’m not sure if that counts as extreme couponing, but it’s certainly moderate-to-heavy couponing. Is there a reality show for that?

Six hours after we set out, we were back home with our loot.

Ah, consumerism. As a parting tip, I would say that it helps to be organized. The day before, we went room to room and made a list of items we needed to get. Then we made a Google Docs spreadsheet that listed each item, the room where it belonged and the store we thought would be the best place to buy it. After that, we went store by store and prioritized the top three to five items we wanted to buy. This kept us from making impulse purchases or spending too much time wandering around looking for stuff.

I’ve also been doing some online shopping. A coffee table and two rugs should be arriving soon. Pics to come!

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Cook’s Tour

While living in the old apartment, Alec and I had settled on a cooking routine that worked well for us. Every two weeks, we get a huge bag of vegetables from Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks, a lovely service that provides home delivery of seasonal and locally grown produce. I’m the designated menu planner, so I take out all my cookbooks and recipes on Saturday mornings and chart out the week ahead, structuring meals around our vegetables, trying to use up the most perishable ones first, and sticking with lean proteins like fish.  I know this makes us sound kind of insufferable, especially the seasonal/local produce thing, so I will also say that when I get home from work, I like to pour myself a bowl of Trader Joe’s Cheese Crunchies and eat them with a spoon like cereal. That is a fact.

Anyway, we wanted to make sure our routine could adapt well to the new house. The first test was making sure the broiler worked. We broil just about everything because it is the easiest, fastest, most foolproof way to cook meat and fish that we’ve found. If you don’t believe me, you can read this Mark Bittman column in the New York Times. Alec says it changed his life.

We made salmon and wilted greens for one of our first homecooked meals in the new house. Figuring out the salmon was a bit of an adventure. When we pulled it out of what we thought was the broiler after seven minutes, we saw that the fish had just partially cooked in the hot cast iron pan while the tops were still raw – meaning something was amiss with the broiler!

We eventually figured out that we had to put the fish on the top rack of the oven. But then what is this bottom drawer for? Storage? We have not figured this out yet.

As for the greens, they came from a Fresh Picks bag labeled “saute mix” and are a hodgepodge of arugula, mizuna and other things. I cooked ’em with olive oil, garlic, a little lemon juice and crushed red pepper. The mound of greens always looks so daunting in the beginning.

But then it cooks down to practically nothing. Which suits me fine, because then I have more room for ice cream after dinner.

And in the end, the salmon was edible despite the various false starts with the broiler.

Later that week, we did a chicken and zucchini stir fry. Stir fry is probably the second-most foolproof cooking method after broiling (provided, of course, that you know how to operate your broiler). I have a few stir fry recipes I like, but usually I just marinate meat in an arbitrary combination of soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, cornstarch, salt, pepper and sugar. Sometimes I’ll squirt in a little oyster sauce. Or hoisin sauce. Or Sriracha. Basically, if it’s an Asian condiment, it’s going in the marinade. This method has never failed me. Stir fry only takes 20 minutes from start to finish, even if you have terrible knife skills and need 10 minutes to peel and mince a single clove of garlic like I do.

Then we got fancy at the end of the week and made pan-seared shrimp and arugula risotto. I put this meal on the calendar because I was getting home from work early and thought we’d have enough time to make a more involved dish. Well, I did get home earlier, but then we decided to put together a new storage bench for the entryway and that took an insane amount of time because the instructions were terrible and the thing kept falling apart. I think we finally sat down to dinner at 9:30 pm or something. It was like living in Buenos Aires again!

I clipped the risotto recipe from Cooking Light a while back and it’s supposed to serve 6. Well, Alec and I ate the whole thing in one sitting. Whatever. It’s not called Eating Light.

So there you have it, the first week of cooking in the new house. And now I’m hungry for cheese crunchies…

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We moved! To be precise, we moved four days ago, but I was too tired and busy to document the process any sooner than this. The move was super smooth, thanks to the crack team of guys we hired – and my saintly parents, who arrived at the new house shortly after we did with toolbox and cleaning supplies in tow. First we admired the refinished floors:

After a few days of unpacking and organizing, we got a couple rooms in order. First was the kitchen, where my parents helpfully wiped down all the cabinets so we could unpack dishes. Our previous apartment had a massive pantry where we had stored a terrifying amount of stuff (seriously, we looked like a couple of hoarders) and I was worried about fitting everything into a closet-less kitchen. But we even had storage room left over – which means I can fill it up with seasonal dishware. Because I love seasonal dishware! (But that’s another post.)

Elsewhere on the ground floor, we spiffed up the living room. Coincidentally, the previous owners had the same couch in a different color, so we knew ours would fit nicely. I’d like to get some additional seating for this room, maybe an occasional chair to go where that purple nightstand is now, and we’ve ordered a new wooden coffee table to replace the transparent guy you see below. But this is looking good for now:

We also organized the master bedroom so we wouldn’t have to sleep on top of a pile of boxes. This is probably the cleanest it will ever be:

The other rooms need a little more work. Like this one, which will eventually be my office:

But all in good time! After all, settling in slowly is part of the fun.

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