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Archive for November, 2011

Housewarming

Thanksgiving marked the first visit by Alec’s parents to the new house, and they spoiled us with a whole bunch of housewarming gifts. These items were so nice I wanted to devote an entire post to them.

My in-laws know about my love of seasonal dishware and serveware, so they got me these two metal trays at a vintage store in their town. The one with the ornaments has a funky retro aesthetic that, oddly enough, reminds me of Dean Martin’s Wild Party, a video slot machine that my MIL and I both like. (Seriously. When you get a bonus, an animated Dean Martin comes out and sings to you. What’s not to like?)
 They also got us a lovely coffee table book with photo illustrations done by an artist friend of theirs and another book about home design and practical living, which is totally Alec’s thing (I kind of aspire to live more simply, but I also spent the last paragraph talking about a video slot machine, so you know, work in progress).
 And now for some Finnish stuff (Alec’s maternal side is Finnish). A Finnish recipe book! So exciting. There are lots of ways to cook root vegetables in here, which is great because if last year was any indication, our produce service is going to be all tubers, all the time from now until March. And as a traditional housewarming gift, we got bread and salt, symbolizing (if I remember properly) always-stocked cupboards.
What great presents! I can’t wait to start shopping for everyone’s Christmas gifts – I hope they’re even half as thoughtful as these.

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A Rookie Thanksgiving: Recap

(Note: I meant to post this on Friday, but I missed by about 45 minutes. Happy Saturday!)
Ah, Black Friday, that annual tradition of rioting over crappy electronics at ungodly hours of the morning. I mercifully spent the day away from the crowds. It was a pretty easy day in the office and my reheated Thanksgiving leftovers were delicious. Speaking of leftovers, here is the recap of the big meal:
Alec was in charge of the turkey and did a marvelous job. First he brined the turkey. Don’t worry; it was plenty cold down in the basement and he didn’t leave the bird unrefrigerated for too long. Doesn’t this look like something out of the X-Files?
On Thanksgiving, we stuffed the turkey (more about that later), rubbed the outside with butter and set it on a V-rack in a roasting pan with carrots, celery, onions and herbs on the bottom.
And here it is all skewered, sewn up with kitchen twine and ready to go:
The turkey roasted beautifully, thanks to Alec’s expert basting. We were a little nervous about flipping it over, but I read a tip on a blog this week (maybe it was The Kitchn? I can’t remember) about putting plastic bags over oven mitts. Alec was a good sport and modeled the proper accoutrement for documentary purposes.
Surprisingly, the turkey was not too hard to pull off. The gravy proved to be much more complicated and time-consuming. We followed the instructions from The Best New Recipe and started by cooking onions with the giblets. (I did not touch any of that stuff – I left that to Alec. While I enjoy eating weird things like blood sausage and kidneys, I do not like to handle innards in raw form!)
Eventually we came up with turkey stock. After the turkey was done, we deglazed the roasting pan with a healthy amount of white wine and strained the whole mess into the stock. Look at all those charred bits!
And here is the delicious rich gravy simmering on the stove. The one thing we were missing was a gravy boat because it seemed like a wildly impractical gift to register for when we got married. But now I think it’s worth owning one just to bring it out once a year for Thanksgiving; I’ll hunt for a cute one at the Brown Elephant. We put the gravy in a creamer and that kind of worked, although it was quite drippy.
Now for the side dishes. I was really happy with the green bean casserole and now want to make it throughout the winter. The cream sauce (mushrooms, chicken broth, half and half, flour) took waaaaay longer to thicken than the recipe said, but it was worth the wait for all this salty, creamy goodness – which, by the way, reheated beautifully in the office’s Nixon-era microwave. My MIL took this photo:
The brussels sprouts with bacon took just 15 minutes to make, thanks to my food processor. If I had to manually shred those sprouts, I would still be doing it right now. Because I am the slowest prep cook in the world.
The stuffing tasted great; it had herbs and golden raisins and walnuts in it. The one grrrr thing was it turned out greige – a beautiful and trendy color for home decorating, but not for comestibles. I have to figure out how to make it more golden-brown like in Everyday Food. Remarkably, my horrible blurry photo makes the stuffing look even worse. Ack.
Lastly, there was the banana cream pie. Five egg yolks went into this! You will notice that the crust looks like a hot mess because I did a sloppy job rolling it out and didn’t bother fluting the edges. But it tasted great. I had two slices (and a Lactaid). This is a photo before I spread the top layer of custard and the freshly whipped cream:
 All in all, Thanksgiving 2011 was super fun. After years of sitting on my duff, eating snacks and watching movies and letting my parents cook everything, it was gratifying to be able to prepare a meal for Alec’s parents while they relaxed. And I’m grateful to my MIL for her heroic dishwashing after dinner because goodness knows that roasting pan was really scary-looking and if it had been up to me, I would have done something really first-world and awful like thrown it away instead of scrubbing the bottom.
I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

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Yesterday I talked about our Thanksgiving menu. I made pie dough for the first time tonight and am worried that the whole thing is going to fall apart when I roll it out on Thursday. We’ll see! No photos because I’m too embarrassed to show you my pie dough. I might be sending Alec out to Trader Joe’s for emergency dessert on Thanksgiving.

No matter what happens with the food, it will be served and eaten in a pretty room! You already heard about our new dining room table. Here it is again to refresh your memory:

The chairs are from World Market and I was able to snag them during their 25% off furniture sale. I wasn’t planning on getting upholstered chairs, but when I saw these on the website (and then in the store), I loved how elegant they looked. And I’m pleased to report that I indeed feel about 10% fancier sitting on these chairs than on my old Ikea chairs. Success! Of course, I will probably regret it when I spill beet juice or red wine on these chairs, but for now they are fabulous. We bought six of them, but we’ll probably just keep four around the table for everyday use, as it will look a bit crowded otherwise.

Oh, I will add that the chairs were pretty obnoxious to put together and I thought Alec was going to throw them in the garbage out of frustration. We did, however, discover a secret compartment of sorts on the bottoms of the chairs. It’s where the legs were stored when the chairs were flat-packed. I made some inappropriate joke to Alec about storing bricks of cocaine in the secret compartments. (And if you’re keeping track, that’s the second reference to illegal drugs on this blog in two days. I watch too many movies.)

The dining room rug is from Home Decorators Collection, a catalog/website I learned about from the interior decorator who helped us, and I was able to get it on a super sale, which was great because come to find out, 8′ x 10′ rugs are expensive! Stupidly, I bought the rug, which is actually 8’9″ x 11’9″, without measuring the room. And it just fit. I mean, one more inch and it would not have fit in the room. Whew! The rug has all the colors I was looking for: a light sage green, which matches the green on the walls of the adjoining living room; a light blue, which is the color we’re planning to paint the dining room; and a pale gold/yellow, which matches the sand-colored fabric of the chairs.

The final piece of furniture fell into our laps (figuratively) yesterday, when we were browsing at the Brown Elephant thrift store in our neighborhood. I had been looking for a sideboard/buffet with enough storage space for our table linens and a nice set of china that my mom recently gave us. And there it was at the Brown Elephant! The sideboard had just been donated a day earlier, so it didn’t have a price tag yet. The manager came over, gave it a once over, and said: “Fifty-five dollars for this bad boy.” Sold! And here it is, with a vase of flowers that a neighbor brought over yesterday to welcome us to the block. (I should also mention we hired her seventh-grade son to mow our lawn, and he was a total pro.)

I heart this sideboard. Originally, I was going to paint it, but I would have chosen an antique yellow/gold color and this is close enough. Plus it matches the lighter, golden blonde wood of the window trim and kitchen cabinets (the kitchen flows into the dining room). Sarah Richardson, my home design goddess, says that if you’re going to have disparate wood tones in a single room, you should have at least two pieces in each tone so that your room doesn’t look like a yard sale. I think our new dining room is up to snuff…now let’s see how it holds up for Thanksgiving dinner!

 

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We are hosting Thanksgiving this year for Alec’s parents, who are flying in from California for the holiday. It’s a big deal for us because it’s our first Thanksgiving in the new house, my in-laws’ first visit to the new house, Alec’s first Thanksgiving with his parents since he was 18, and the first time either of us have hosted Turkey Day.

I’m feeling the pressure, which is almost entirely self-imposed because my in-laws are actually some of the most relaxed people I know. I’m used to Thanksgivings being epic culinary extravaganzas because my parents will literally make five different kinds of meat and a bunch of both Chinese and American side dishes (steamed bok choy alongside sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, etc). And they also manage to restore the kitchen to its spotless glory within minutes of dessert being served.

At last week’s Unity Temple event, Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated said his advice for Thanksgiving was to keep it simple, just a few sides and a dessert – no need to make five different pies. I’ve decided to take his advice to heart. So here is the menu that I came up with today:

  1. Turkey, obviously. We ordered a free-range bird (free of antibiotics and hormones blah blah blah) from our regular produce service, Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks. I asked for the smallest available turkey and we got a 14 pounder, so we are going to be in for some serious leftovers. I have delegated turkey duties to Alec and assigned him reading from The Best New Recipe, which has detailed instructions about brining and so forth.
  2. Walnut and herb stuffing, from the Thanksgiving of Everyday Food. My family never made stuffing and I’m excited about trying it. Yeah, I know it’s just cubed bread with herbs. I like carbohydrates, okay?
  3. Shredded brussels sprouts with bacon, also from the Thanksgiving issue of Everyday Food. This recipe is a cinch with the food processor and is made on the stovetop, so it won’t have to compete with the turkey for oven space and cooking time.
  4. Alton Brown’s green bean casserole. Who doesn’t like green bean casserole? I liked this variation because it uses the cast iron skillet and doesn’t need too much oven time, plus it uses fresh mushrooms instead of canned condensed cream of mushroom soup.
  5. Banana cream pie, which is my father-in-law’s favorite kind of pie. I’m using the version from The Best New Recipe.

Preparing for Thanksgiving has made me realize I don’t know anything about roasting a turkey. We had to go to Bed Bath & Beyond for a roasting pan, baster, meat thermometer, carving knife set, carving board and a receptacle large enough for brining a 14-pound turkey. The buckets in the cleaning section were too small, so we opted for a plastic storage bin. I felt a little bit like Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, on an errand from Walter White (Season One spoiler alert!) to find a vat big enough to dissolve a dead body. I mean, I’m not trying to equate brining a Thanksgiving turkey with disposing of the corpse of a meth dealer…OK, I’ll just stop here before I dig myself any deeper.

In happier news, the dining room has really come together and I’m really glad we got our new table in time for Thanksgiving. We also scored a great sideboard at a thrift store this weekend. Pics to come!

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Alec and I, along with my work friend who also lives in Oak Park, crowded into Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple tonight to see Christopher Kimball, the founder of Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen.

Kimball, who took questions from the audience instead of giving a talk, was super articulate, funny and curmudgeonly in the best possible way. He riffed on everything from the virtues of Le Creuset (a $40 cast iron pot is just as good but only if you season it properly, which most people fail to do) to the horrors of supermarket meat (never, ever buy ground beef at a supermarket) to the time he went to Julia Child’s house for dinner and she made him shuck oysters (there was blood).

My biggest takeaway from Kimball’s talk was his refutation of the notion that “when you go into a kitchen, you should be able to improvise.” Our mothers and grandmothers, he said, only had a repertoire of 50-70 recipes. They made baking soda biscuits and pie dough thousands of times. So while their lack of reliance on recipes appeared effortless, it was actually the result of having internalized the basic underlying recipe through repetition.

(I should note that I never ate baking soda biscuits or homemade pie growing up; the equivalents for my mom would be congee and fried rice, or maybe Chinese-style chicken soup. But the principle is sound – I rarely saw my mom glance at a recipe, and yet when I think back to my childhood, we had a huge variety of dishes for dinner every night and it seemed like my parents could cook anything with whatever was in the fridge.)

Back to Kimball. Newer cooks, he said, should choose 25 recipes – any assortment of cuisines or dishes you like – and “make them so many times you never need to look at the recipe again, and go from there.”

This got me thinking. What are my 25 recipes? I’ve “memorized” a few recipes already, I guess, but they’re so simple that they don’t seem like they should count. Like mashed potatoes. Or pesto. Or my favorite baby bok choy “recipe,” which is nothing more than stir-frying the bok choy with garlic, red pepper flakes and a dash of soy sauce.

Looking at more complicated recipes, I think I’ve memorized just one: a Cook’s Illustrated recipe for waffles that involves buttermilk powder (yes, it’s a thing) and soda water. Alec and I love waffles so much that we make a huge stack every weekend, each eating three and freezing the remaining two.

One recipe is not a brilliant start. But I’ve almost memorized Szechaun spicy eggplant, which Alec and I make whenever we get eggplant in our produce box. And I think I can check off a basic risotto after I learn to eyeball how much white wine to add.

But it’s best not to get too legalistic about Kimball’s advice. It’s really about gradually acquiring enough knowledge about cooking – flavors, techniques, etc. – to break that slavish dependence on recipes, worrying if a small substitution is going to make a dish inedible or obsessively timing every step instead of just watching the food. Hopefully one day, my cooking will be as effortless – and tasty! – as the dishes my parents put on the table every night.

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Thrifty Finds

I like old stuff. For starters, Alec and I bought a house built in 1907. And with the exception of, like, underwear and mattresses, I like poking around garage sales, thrift stores and Craigslist for cool used stuff. (Alec enjoys old books so much that he once almost picked up one from a garbage can outside the Strand. I freaked out and he relented, but not before pointing out that the book was on the top of the pile, like that eclair that George Costanza ate in Seinfeld.)

On Saturday, our friend Erin (hi Erin!) joined us on a trip to the Vintage Bazaar, a pop-up flea market held in a storefront next to the Congress Theater in Logan Square. I had heard about the Vintage Bazaar from an acquaintance, who said she scored a vintage manual typewriter in good working condition at the previous one.

I had taken measurements around the house beforehand and was hoping to find an end table, occasional chair or maybe even a sideboard that I could paint for the dining room. Sadly, we did not score any furniture items – nor did I take any photos, because I forgot my camera. Oops! But you can look at the Vintage Bazaar’s Facebook album to get an idea of the event.

Despite the lack of furniture finds, I did score these awesome boots from Dethrose Vintage (sorry for the dark photo):

They were in pristine condition and I think they would have been snapped up sooner by someone else had they not been in size 5.5. Lucky for me!

After the Vintage Bazaar, we headed across the street to Village Discount Outlet. This particular location was pretty sad and messy, even for non-trendy thrift store standards. It’s funny how an item – say, a ceramic dish – looks like a rare steal for $15 at a place like the Vintage Bazaar, where everything is clean and laid out nicely and staffed by hipsters. But take that same dish and stick it on a Village Discount Outlet shelf where nothing is over $2, and you wouldn’t give it a second glance.

I did, however, find a milk glass-esque vase (I don’t think it’s real milk glass), and Alec found two paperback books. Everything was 50% off over the weekend, so the grand total for all three items came to…88 cents. Now that is a bargain! And I decided to put the vase in the passenger seat cupholder; I’ll buy a silk flower at some point to stick in there. It’s like my version of the Volkswagen Beetle bud vase.

Not bad for 30 cents, eh? Between the boots and the random car decoration, I’d call this a pretty successful shopping weekend.

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Like I mentioned in a previous post, I had my heart set on a rustic dining room table from a local carpenter. I loved the style of the tables – the simple slab tops and solid legs – and the idea of supporting a craftsman from the area.

Then I bought a table online.

From Walmart.

Yup, you read that right. And here’s the table:

This is what happened. Alec and I visited the carpenter’s showroom, where he explained his basic options for tables. He offered a 60″ size that could seat six; the next size up was a 72″ table that could seat eight.

We don’t have an eat-in kitchen, so the dining room table is where both formal and everyday meals will take place. I wanted the bigger table because when you add us + our future children + my parents + my brother and sister-in-law and their daughter and any other future kid(s), that’s a pretty big group. And we do see my family pretty often because everyone is local. However, on most days, it’s just Alec and me (and sometimes a laptop, but only at breakfast because dinner is a no-gadget zone). And Alec did not want us sitting at a huge table like the couple in Citizen Kane.

The obvious compromise was to get a table in the 60″ range that could expand to 72″ for larger gatherings. I’m sure the carpenter could have built us an extendable table and leaf, but the special request would have busted our budget on the table (and we still have other rooms in the house to furnish).

When we got home, I looked everywhere online for a dining room table in the same style with a leaf: Craigslist, Amazon, Ikea, Overstock, Pottery Barn, West Elm, Room & Board, Crate & Barrel, World Market, Pier One, Target, Macy’s, JCPenney. Some tables came close, but were too expensive or expanded to a maximum size that would be too big for our dining room, etc.

And that’s when I found just what we were looking for at Walmart.com. I felt a little weird about this – have you ever been shopping at, say, Macy’s, and you see a bag or a pair of shoes that are super cute, and then you realize they are from the Jessica Simpson Collection? Don’t lie, ladies, I know this has happened to you!

The funny thing is that through all the online furniture browsing and shopping I’ve been doing, I’ve realized that pretty much everything within a certain price range (i.e. my budget) is basically manufactured from wood composites by a non-U.S. factory. A Google Shopping search revealed that my Walmart dining room table was selling for twice the price at Buy.com. This week I saw a coffee table on Joss & Main that, when I Googled the model, was also available on Amazon and Target. (Joss & Main is a division of Wayfair, a huge home furnishings e-commerce company.)

Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that we bought a dining room table at Walmart and I’ve made my peace with it. I think.

P.S. You might notice a new rug and chairs in the photo above; I’ll write about those in a future post.

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