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Weekend Eating

As far as cooking for big groups goes, brunch is much easier than dinner. Unless you are doing something really ambitious like making eggs to order or something, you can make a lot of crowd pleasing brunch dishes (French toast casserole, strata) by assembling them the night before and just shoving them in the oven the next day. Something like pancakes or waffles requires more immediate attention, but you can keep them warm in the oven if you’d like to serve everyone at once and be able to eat with your guests rather than slave over the stove like a short order cook.

My family (five adults and a toddler) came over for brunch on Saturday. I made a sausage, mushroom and Monterey Jack strata from the ever reliable The New Best Recipe. While preparing the dish the night before, I had just one hiccup – I forgot to lay down the second layer of bread slices before adding the second round of filling and cheese. I should pause here to say that whenever I’m baking or cooking late at night, I almost always make little errors, and without fail I throw disproportionately large tantrums. (This has become such a recurring pattern that whenever I breezily tell Alec, “I’ll just make everything when I get home from <insert late evening event here>,” he’s learned to brace himself for hysterics.)

In the case of the strata, I predictably and melodramatically declared the dish to be ruined, but Alec very calmly took a spatula and lifted up the top layers so I could stick the bread underneath. The strata baked up nicely the next morning and tasted pretty good even though I skipped both the parsley and the recommended step of weighing down the mixture with boxes of sugar to make sure the egg distributed evenly.

On Saturday morning, I made brown sugar muffins with dried cranberries, a last-minute substitution for the blueberry muffins I planned because I discovered we were out of white sugar and we couldn’t drive to the grocery store because our car battery was dead.

My mom brought over two kinds of bread (which you can see in the strata photo above), bacon, wontons and soup dumplings. Did you know you can buy frozen soup dumplings at the Chinese grocery store? I did not. What a wondrous thing! We cooked everything but the wontons and had a feast.

Sunday was, of course, the Super Bowl. I say “of course” but I actually had totally forgotten until my brother mentioned it at brunch. (Also, I didn’t know who was playing. My best guess was the Sharks and the Jets.) We invited my brother, sister-in-law and niece over to watch the game – and this meant making snacks! Hooray. I made guacamole hummus (1 avocado + 1 can of chickpeas + garlic + cilantro + olive oil + lemon juice whizzed in the food processor) and bacon-wrapped red potatoes with rosemary. My brother ordered two pizzas from Sarpino’s and we had ourselves a Super Bowl party! I even taught my niece how to vogue during Madonna’s halftime show.

Yup, that’s the bacon from brunch. And we’ve got wonton to finish up this week too. Thanks Mom and Dad!

My brother and sister-in-law got me a breadmaker for my birthday and I made my inaugural loaf for a meeting of my book club, a group of girls that get together quarterly for dinner, wine and thoughtful literary discussion. We just finished The Hunger Games trilogy and my friend Rachel, who hosted this installment of book club, found a website with book-themed recipes…including suggestions for The Hunger Games! She made a delicious lamb stew and I tackled Peeta’s raisin and nut bread. Or rather, I put everything in my trusty new Breadman TR520 and let the machine do all the work.

I was going to do a dark crust to mimic the burnt loaves that Peeta gives Katniss, but I opted for medium instead. The bread turned out a little misshapen, but quite dense and filling and yummy.

You can read more about our meal (and see the recipes) at Rachel’s blog. As she mentions, our next book is Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I’m the host, so you can bet there will be more themed food!

Manchester Tanned

Before I dropped off the planet, we had prepared Alec’s office for painting by removing a shelf and beadboard, taking down the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, spackling over holes and washing the walls.

The next step was priming. Alec got started first and when I came upstairs, he had a little surprise for me!

Thanks to this year’s CES swag, we each had free t-shirts. Alec’s was from ioSafe, a maker of rugged hard drives, and says “Protect Yo Self Before You Wreck Yo Self” on the front. Good advice for tackling a home improvement project! My t-shirt was advertising Corning Gorilla Glass (you know, the stuff that smartphone screens are made out of).

When we applied the first coat of paint, I was worried that it was going to be the same color as the existing trim. See above and below the tape?

But after we put on the second coat and let it dry, the colors became more distinct. I’m not 100% happy with the contrast, but we can always go back and paint the trim later. The current priority is finding a carpenter who can build shelves for the office. I compiled some candidates based on friends’ recommendations and Angie’s List reviews, and a couple of them are coming over this week to provide estimates.

In the meantime, we moved the bare minimum of furniture back into the office so that Alec can start working in there again. I’m not sure if the desk will stay in this spot after the shelves get built; Alec’s dad had recommended that the desk face the door for feng shui reasons (also so that you don’t get snuck up on, as my cousin pointed out this weekend), but there might be too much of a glare from the window.

More updates to come after we hire a carpenter!

Office Space: Getting Ready

Alec is always a busy bee and he’ll be writing the third and presumably final installment to his trilogy this year, so it was important to make his office into a place where he can work comfortably. Up until now, the room had consisted of his desk, a leather club chair, two bookshelves (all from our previous apartment) and hundreds of books stacked on the floor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our plan is to hire a professional to install floor-to-ceiling shelves in the office. We had considered building them ourselves, but the task of getting so many shelves properly aligned was pretty daunting for rookie homeowners like ourselves. We do want to paint the room, though. And this meant clearing all the furniture.

The emptied bookshelves, club chair, swivel chair and file cabinets went into the mostly empty room we call “Natalie’s Room” because our niece naps there when she comes over to hang out. The desk and all the books went into the guest room, making it look like a used bookstore run by a couple of lunatics.

While I shuffled books across the hallway, Alec removed a wall-to-wall display shelf/plate rail thing. The new power drill he got from my brother and sister-in-law for Christmas proved useful for removing the big board, supports and beadboard. Here’s a photo with the shelf already taken down:

I helpfully removed nails from the boards, a task I performed while wearing Winnie the Pooh slippers as protective footwear. (My mom found these slippers in my childhood bedroom and brought them over. She is really determined to get rid of my old clutter now that I have an entire house to store stuff in!)

Back in the room, Alec also took down a bunch of glow-in-the-dark stars and planets that were stuck on the ceiling. We’ll tackle that later.

Alec carefully spackled over holes and cracks, then ran over the walls with a sanding block. The last step was to wash the walls. We went over them with water, let that dry overnight, then wiped them with a TSP solution and more water. Now the room is ready to be primed and painted next week. Good-bye green walls, hello Manchester Tan!

And…We’re Back

Alec and I returned this weekend from our last trip of the holiday season (can I still call it the holiday season?), which kicked off with our Hong Kong/China vacation and ended with a week in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. We were away from home so much that we had to suspend our Fresh Picks produce deliveries for more than a month. We went shopping today for a full week of groceries – I’d practically forgotten what that feels like!

Now that we’re staying put for a few months, I’m excited to tackle a long-delayed list of projects. First up is painting Alec’s office, the dining room, the kitchen and the powder room. I had been researching colors for months and could have happily kept procrastinating, especially because paint names are so fun.

But Alec’s office was pretty urgent. All of his books are still on the floor and we can’t get shelves up until the walls get painted. I was also under deadline to spend a Benjamin Moore Groupon I had bought ages ago. So without further ado, here is the color for Alec’s office:

Benjamin Moore’s Manchester Tan, not to be confused with Gladstone Tan, Bennington Gray, Northampton Putty,  or any number of other tweedy-sounding paints.

The kitchen and powder room will be painted in Harp Strings, a neutral that has a little yellow and a little brown to coordinate with the kitchen’s wood trim and earthy tile backsplash and floors.

And lastly, the dining room will be painted in Summer Shower. This was the color that took the longest to decide on, as I wanted something that would coordinate with the green of the adjoining dining room. I was originally leaning toward hues with more green and gray in them, but then returned to a color that was more distinctly blue.

As paint novices, we were a little baffled by all the options you have for paint.

But the guy at the J.C. Licht store was very helpful, and we ultimately settled on the Natura line because it is no-VOC and I have enough dermatological issues without worrying about exposure to even more chemicals.

Alec is headed to Home Depot this week for primer and other supplies, and then we’ll be ready to go! It’s good to be home.

Framily Dinner

A few months after buying that big ol’ dining room table, we finally took advantage of its full potential this week when we hosted some of our dearest friends for a holiday reunion potluck. Or, as my friend M. would say, a “framily dinner.”

Under different circumstances, I would have liked to cook a big meal for everyone. But the week between Christmas and New Year’s was totally jammed and I had no time for that kind of undertaking. Fortunately, all of my friends are talented cooks and were amenable to a potluck. I provided an appetizer and the main course, both of which could be partially prepped the night before. I also chose a main dish that could be done in the slow cooker because I knew I’d be racing home from work to meet the guests.

For the appetizer, I made a heart-friendly platter of sausage-cheddar balls. I prepared all of them the night before and popped them into the oven when I got home. Quite a heavy starter, I know, but it’s the holidays and I really wanted to try the recipe. They turned out well, with a nice kick from the cayenne pepper.

The main course was Hawaiian-style short ribs from the Thanksgiving issue of Everyday Food. The original recipe serves 6 and I increased it by 50 percent to feed our group of 10. Alec had the Whole Foods butcher cut the ribs into 3.5-inch pieces. I marinated the meat in the cooking liquid (brown sugar, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, Sriracha) overnight. While the other liquids got scaled up by 50%, I kept the amount of brown sugar the same because it already seemed like a lot of sugar, plus I used canned pineapple and figured it would be a little sweeter because of the juice. The sauce turned out fine, but next time I will add more Sriracha. Heck, I think one of my 2012 resolutions should be to add more Sriracha to everything.

Anyway, we jammed all the meat and cooking liquid, along with some red onions, garlic and ginger, in our slow cooker. The thing was stuffed to the brim and as a result, all the fat bubbled out of the crock pot and congealed into an enormous lake of grease on the counter. On one hand, this saved us the cooking step of skimming the fat off the top before adding the pineapple. On the other hand, it was TOTALLY DISGUSTING and an enormous hassle to clean up. Thank you Alec and Bar Keepers Friend  for doing all the dirty work!

You’re probably wondering what all this food looked like. Well, I forgot to take photos of the beautiful spread, so you’ll just have to squint at this dark photo of my half-eaten plate:

The other dishes were salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese and three (!) kinds of olives; pumpkin lavender bread, sweet potatoes with golden raisins and walnuts; homemade chocolate truffles; chocolate fondue and a gluten-free angel food cake that was truly delicious and would hold its own against a traditional angel food cake.

Of course, the company was the best part. I wish we could get together more often!

California Pizza Kitchen

I recently got back from a fantastic long weekend in California, where I celebrated my 30th birthday and Christmas with my in-laws. While discussing what to do for Christmas dinner, Alec’s brother proposed making pizza at home instead of going out to eat. We splurged on ingredients at The Pasta Shop in Berkeley: Vero Lucano bread flour, housemade rosemary pine nut sausage, a very nice tomato sauce whose name escapes me and Tumalo Classico goat cheese. OMG that goat cheese! I can’t stop thinking about it.

The Pasta Shop is one of those high-end shops where everything is super aspirational – a huge block of outrageously expensive pink salt that you’re supposed to keep on your table so guests can grate it directly onto their food! A tiny bottle of pinecone bud syrup! It’s not a place for regular grocery shopping, but it’s fun for the occasional extravagance. And I think the quality of the ingredients really came through. Here are some photos of the prep work:


My BIL made the pizza dough by combining two recipes, one from Alton Brown and one from Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix (we did not do an overnight rise). We made two pizzas. The first was all veggies, with garlic, peppers, olives, zucchini and the goat cheese. Alec’s mom already had the garlic, peppers and zucchini in the fridge. I used a vegetable peeler to get thin shavings of goat cheese.


The second pizza had mozzarella and provolone cheeses, along with the sausage and bacon. We had bought salami too, but the pizza was already so loaded with meat it couldn’t handle any more! (The photo below is pre-bacon.)


The pizzas were baked on an Emile Henry stone that we picked up at Sur La Table for the occasion. I don’t own a pizza or baking stone, but I kind of want to get one now. The instructions said you can use it to grill fish or meat, bake tarts, etc. And it’s dishwasher safe, although I’m not sure it would fit in our dishwasher.

Anyway, here are the pizzas in all their glory. I lost count of how many pieces I ate!

Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas with good eats!