08 April 2015

simplifying dinner

Sometimes we like to cook. Most of the time, perhaps. We'll research new recipes and collect our ingredients and make an evening out of it. I love those nights, the two of us puttering about in the kitchen with Fresh Air on the radio. I love the menus we create and how creative we let each other get with recipes. I love that, without meat, our dinners have broken out of the formulaic Protein, Starch & Side Vegetable scenario. It's a lot of fun.

Except when it isn't. Except when we don't feel like cooking, just eating. When it's too late or we're too tired or I Just Want To Sit On The Couch And Read This Book Please. In this case, we have a few options:

Skip dinner 
Ok, that's not really an option, but maybe just snacking on some crackers? Sad story.

Order in
No shame in this! We do try to limit it though so we rarely order food on a weekday. Plus, it can end up taking just as long as the next option...

Simplify dinner
This is our newest challenge. Funny, right, that it's a challenge for us to simplify our dinner routine? Of course there's always the odd bowl of cereal that can be substituted for a proper dinner, but what I'm more interested in are the healthy, tasty meals that don't take a lot of time, too many ingredients or much brainpower. Our go-to list involves dinners which are basically made up of the same ingredients, just put together differently. Quesadillas/tacos/enchiladas (rogue veggies & beans in a tortilla), salad (rogue veggies, maybe beans, over greens), grain bowl (rogue veggies, beans over a whole grain).


We did not want to cook dinner last night, but we came up with something that was quick and easy and not a grilled cheese. I love grilled cheese but there is a limit to them, and I've been pushing up against that limit this winter. We put together a pearl couscous salad with sliced strawberries (impulse buy), corn (from the freezer), avocado (always), sliced almonds and hemp seeds (pantry staple) and a lime vinaigrette (limes were on hand to make margaritas).

We also fixed up a can of black beans, a la this deliciously easy creamy beans recipe adapted by Molly Wizenberg. I know the recipe doesn't look like much, but please give them a try. Here's all you do: Open a can of black beans, toss in a tablespoon of butter, a minced garlic clove and some shakes of hot sauce. Simmer it all together with the bean juices (yum) for about 30 minutes while you work on something else. MAGIC!

I think simplifying dinner goes hand in hand with a general need to let ourselves off the hook more. Not everything needs fixing, not every moment needs to be filled with a project, not every evening needs to be wildly productive and forward-leaning. Some dinners are masterpieces and some are pure sustenance. And how lucky are we that our most serious food concern is not about whether we can afford it, or how difficult it is to access it, but rather what do we feel like making each night?

30 March 2015

drinking horchata

Two weeks ago, Chris was in warm New Orleans for work. A week ago, I was in warm Atlanta for work. Saturday we were both home and it was snowing. Yesterday it stayed in the 30s but was sunshine-y all day long. That tricked me into thinking it was actually springtime here. Maybe even summertime? It's been a long winter, ok? I'll take any semblance of warmth I can get.

In honor of the sunshine, we made our first batch of horchata and then I lost my composure because it was so brilliantly refreshing and delicious. I know it may not sound refreshing because it is a creamy (non-dairy, but still) but believe me when I say that it was positively thirst-quenching. We were inspired by a few minutes of Martha Stewart Living we caught on PBS over the weekend and followed this recipe. It's not too thick or too sweet. You can add a splash of golden rum if you're feeling boozy, or you can have it as is, served on the rocks.



Instead of the cheesecloth, I'd recommend using a nut milk bag to make the straining process easier. We also cut down the sugar by half (using only 1/2 cup).




And then we made crackers/cookies/biscuits! We took the leftover pulp, about 1 cup or so, added 2 tbsp of coconut oil, rolled it out to about 1/4 inch thick on a parchment lined baking sheet and baked it for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, flipping half way. Pro tip, to flip them we just topped the tray with another sheet of parchment and then stacked a second baking sheet on top and flipped it over like you would to get a layer or bundt cake out of the pan. Quicker than flipping each one over with a spatula. We sprinkled a bit of maple sugar, sea salt and cinnamon on top. They are a strange hybrid baked good, I'm not quite sure how to categorize them but I do know that a smear of chocolate pear jam on top is a good idea.

We also sautéed up some veggies for loaded quesadillas and blasted the Amy Winehouse station on Pandora, because one time a waitress put that station on during a private dinner and I was blown away by its unexpected perfection. Spring weather will be here soon, right? i think so. In the meantime, we are busying ourselves with our very own maple sap harvest right on our city street...

11 March 2015

go to the library


A quick public service announcement for the start of National Reading Month...

Visit your local library!

It's been brought to my attention that people aren't using their libraries as much as they should. You guys, you know you can borrow stuff for free, right? Books, e-books, audiobooks, DVDs... For free. It's a dream. I remember packing a backpack full of library books as a kid and thinking I had just scored the deal of the century.

I'm on a halfhearted quest to pare down my own personal library. It's halfhearted because I'm never going to get rid of my books completely, but I am trying to be more thoughtful about which books I keep. For an obsessive reader, that can be pretty tricky, but here are two things that make it easier:

My kindle
I was on the fence about a kindle for awhile, and you can read about my decision here. I'm happy to report that it has been an awesome investment. I read books on my Kindle more than I do in hardcopy. It's lightweight to carry around with me, I can read it in bed without keeping Chris up and I have instant access to a gazillion books. I love it, it's awesome, the end. And! It doesn't mean you can't still use the library...

The library
Libraries are goldmines. You just walk in, find a book you like, flash your library card and they let you walk out with the book. Did you also know that many libraries have an e-book collection? Our library does and I borrow from it all the time. The downside is that the collection is less comprehensive than the hardcopy collection and also the wait time is generally longer. But still, I can borrow and download free e-books on my Kindle.

Libraries have more than books. A true story:  My friend recently lent me season one of The Newsroom. Chris and I watched it and were totally hooked. But how to get our grubby hands on season two? It's not on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Guess where it was? The library, of course. Sitting there, waiting for us to watch it for free instead of do anything productive around the house.

Ok, that was my public service announcement. Rediscover your libraries. Borrow books and whatever else they have. Ours even has free museum passes that you can borrow. And all sorts of events and classes. For free.

ps- If you are serious about buying a Kindle, or other e-book reader, may I suggest that you get a Kindle Paperwhite or other reader that is solely a reader and not also a tablet? Tablets are great, but dedicated e-readers are better for reading. Much easier on the eyes, better battery life, no distractions. The regular Kindle is on sale for $59 right now, but the Paperwhite and fancy Voyager have built-in lights which is a huge bonus for me.

pps- Not sponsored by my library, Kindle or the Nerd Association of America.

Related
About banned books
Libraries & cookbooks

Photo: A shelf in our own personal library :)

28 February 2015

on neighborhoods and community


I spend much of my work week thinking about neighborhoods, talking about neighborhoods and encouraging others to care about and invest in neighborhoods and the people who live in them. I also spend much of my free time thinking about neighborhoods too.

We lived in Center Square for over six years. Technically, we lived in Hudson/Park for four years and the past two and a half we were true Center Square residents. Before that, I've lived in the New Scotland and Pine Hills neighborhoods. Now I'm representing the Helderberg hood. In a small city like Albany, it's easy to be fooled into thinking that there are just one or two great neighborhoods. Or that there ought to be only one or two great neighborhoods. Or, if you are from NYC, you might think that Albany isn't a city, as evidenced by a recent question I got from a Big Apple dweller about how I like living out in the country. But really, what makes a city truly great, is when all neighborhoods are great. When you can go from one to the next and feel safe and inspired and connected. When there are services and retail and transportation in each. And when each neighborhood has its own character! Neighborhoods of brownstones, ones with tudors, ones with trendy restaurants and others with small specialty shops.

When we bought our house, it was a transition to think of a more uptown neighborhood in the same way. But yes, there are families, young professionals and retired folks living in both 'hoods. Homeowners and renters. Our new place is walkable, with a few notable restaurants nearby, and we need more. I'm looking forward to the spring thaw so we can get outside and bump into more of our neighbors.

What it all comes down to is community. You don't have to live in a downtown row house, or even a city. (You could live in, for example, a coastal yurt community or houseboat neighborhood!) But that sense of place, it's really important. At least it us to me.

I'm quite not as communal or open-door as I hope to be. Like many of us, I long for a bit of space and privacy. I spent years grumbling about on-street parking and street noise. I daydream for a yurt or tiny cabin in the woods. Beneath that, though, you'll find someone who longs for community. For a tribe, defined by geography and proximity. For face-to-face experiences and conversations. For casual drop-ins, where friends swing by and I make two cups of coffee and slice up the everyday cake that is on the counter. (If I'm honest with myself, I don't really want you to casually drop. So please, don't do it. Call first, ok? Even better, just text first so I can take my time deciding whether or not I want the intrusion. Sorry, I'm working on it.)

I love that we have friends throughout the country and that technology makes it so easy to see their faces and hear their voices. But man, I long for real-life interactions too. It can happen in a small city, a big city, a town or in the country. But place matters, and so do the people that make up those places.


So where am I right now? I'm in our new house in our new neighborhood in our small city, one with backyards and driveways but also with sidewalks and neighborhood shops and some things worth walking to. I'm enjoying our space and the different bustle it brings. I'm a small city defender but still fill my Pinterest board with tiny homes in the country. That's the way it goes.

Related
Our last apartment
Tiny house daydreams

Unrelated
Everyday cake recipes from Orangette, Eating from the Ground Up, Saveur & Smitten Kitchen, in case you have any visitors popping by :)

Top photo of one of our old neighborhoods. Bottom photo of Albany Has Neighborhoods print by Aaron Wilson, purchased at Fort Orange General Store, framed at Framebridge (inexpensive custom framing).

19 February 2015

the warmth









If you live in the Northeast or any other cold part of the country/world, this can be a tough time of year. Temperatures are regularly in the single digits or below freezing. There are official warnings to stay indoors. Cabin fever sets in and, if you're like me, a bit of guilt over your winter-induced laziness. Factor in the likelihood of catching a seasonal cold or the flu and we've got the makings of a full-blown pity party. So grab some comfort food and give yourself a few moments of pity, but then you must snap out of it.

On days like this, I need to remind myself that warmth is enough. I bring my gratitude practice right down to the bare basics, starting with being so grateful for my warm house and cozy fireplace, for having a car to get me places and enough warm clothes to keep me safe and bundled up. Some weeks, this is the most creative I can get with my gratitude, even though I could fill books with all of the things I am thankful for.

But right now, I'm grateful to be warm.

I'm reading Woodswoman, the first of a few memoirs that Annie LaBastille wrote about living alone in the Adirondacks. Annie begins her story in the heart of Adirondack winter as Annie's respect for the season's harshness grows with every adventure and narrow miss. I read it from the comfort of our bed or from beneath an afghan on the couch. And I come back to the realization that, sometimes, the warmth is enough. It's enough to be warm and safe right now.

There's a different rhythm to the season, that's for sure. I can write all day long about the need to embrace it, to celebrate it as a time for retreat and reflection, but when it comes to everyday practice, I'm falling short. So here's to staying warm! To thinking warmly about others and ourselves. To knitting and hot toddies and thick socks! To the days finally getting longer- it's 5:19pm and still a little bright out!

12 February 2015

chocolate pear jam

I've had this recipe bookmarked for awhile, and a few weekends ago I took the plunge. I armed myself with an armful of Bosch pears, the new Decemberists album and the quiet of a snowy morning. That's just what you do when you find a recipe for chocolate pear jam. You make it happen, no questions asked.

As is so often the case with jam recipes, my yield differed from what was called for. Likely because of a mis-measurement of pears on my part or some science-related explanation of the air quality and humidity levels that morning. I doubled the recipe and ended up yielding only 3 1/2 half pint jars, instead of the four I imagined.


Upon finishing up, I promptly made a batch of scones because I had to. Again, it was chocolate pear jam protocol and I had no choice. Croissants would have also been an acceptable option, and in that case you would do well to just buy them at a local bakery because 1) no one has time to make croissants and 2) I never want to witness how much butter goes into them. It would ruin the experience.

That afternoon, I spread a generous portion of chocolate pear jam atop a freshly baked scone and I thought to myself, "This will save lives." Now, I don't know if that is strictly true in the medical sense of things, but I do know that I will never underestimate the medicinal properties of warm chocolatey pear jam and a pastry. It helps if you stand over the stove stirring the jam and staring out the window as the snow falls, but you might be able to get the same benefit by stealing a jar of the good stuff from someone else. I don't know, but that's why I'm on a mission to put up jars of weird, delicious things you won't easily find at the store. What was once just a shelf to show off my preserves has become an apothecary of sorts, and anything with chocolate in it is bound to show up on the prescription pad.

Would you try chocolate pear jam? You really should. I wonder if my batch is more chocolate-y than the author intended but, then again, I'm not sure that's actually a problem. This is a phenomenal fancy jam that will totally win over your house guests or make your gift of a home-canned jar of something seem really special and not like an afterthought. It's the real deal.

Recipe is another good one from Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces. You can find a similar, but not quite the same, recipe on the author's website Food in Jars.

05 February 2015

all toile everything, or a bathroom update




Our home is a 1930s brick English tudor with a bright red door and oodles of charm, if I may be so bold as to say so. Among the steeply-pitched roof, archway and original hardwood floors and trim, there is the toile. Toile de jouy. There was toile in the upstairs washroom and in most of our closets. I tried to make peace with it. As ugly as it was to me, I did sort of love it. Look at the country folk dancing! Watch them sing and play! Wave hello to the man playing the flute as you shampoo your hair! But, no, it could not last in our home.



So when we had a few days off around the holidays, we tore it down. Then Chris patched up and repaired the wall in many, many spots and we painted it a light gray that we though went well with the oversized original tiled wall.


We figured we might as well replace the mirror on the built-in original medicine cabinet, and in a stroke of genius and keen observation, Chris realized we had a wooden-framed mirror that would fit perfectly. Et voila, he took the old one off and put the new one up and now our bathroom feels like a whole new space for just the cost of some spackle, a can of paint and a few screws. And a new shower curtain. I love it.





We hung up a bundle of fresh eucalyptus in the shower because Pinterest told me the steam would make our washroom smell like a swanky European spa. Sold! In our old place, we were used to showering and getting ready in a windowless basement bathroom, so basically I feel like a queen every morning in this 1930s bright and airy space. Next step is re-tiling that floor.


Let it be known that I found curtains with the exact toile scene as the wallpaper that was in our bathroom. I haven't bought them... yet. What say ye? All toile, e'rything?

20 January 2015

cranberry ketchup


Continuing my strategy of canning only the weird recipes, right after the holidays I made up a batch of cranberry ketchup using the recipe in Food in Jars. While I was at it, I used the leftover cranberries to make a few jars of cranberry simple syrup to freshen up seltzer and cocktails.

What's cranberry ketchup? I, like so many of you, was totally thrown off the first time I heard about non-tomato ketchup. WHAT DO YOU MEAN, NO TOMATOES?! That's the beauty of these weird little recipes; they blow up your preconceptions and smash your traditions. I like that sometimes. As it turns out, you can make ketchup from lots of things that aren't tomatoes. What makes ketchup so ketchup-y tends to be the spices and flavor you add to the main ingredient. So for the cranberry ketchup, I sweetened it, spiced it, added onions to it and cooked it way down to a thick, french-fry-dipping consistency.

The verdict? Pretty tasty. It tastes exactly like cranberry ketchup should. Undeniably in the ketchup family, with a slightly odd tartness from the cherries. It hasn't replaced my other ketchup substitute, the beloved tomato jam, but it's a nice switch from my sugary, processed Heinz bottle.

And yes, if you are wondering, I'm a ketchup person. I bastardize my eggs with it and dip everything in it I can find and, in my wild youth, had been known to put it on my mac and cheese. It's blasphemous, but it's delicious. At least I'm trying to expand my ketchup palate, right?

09 January 2015

dear sugar


I don't know where I first heard about this book or who recommended it... was it you? Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is a collection of advice columns written by Cheryl Strayed. For years, Dear Sugar was an advice column run anonymously on TheRumpus.net, where it attracted a huge cult following. I wasn't hip enough to know about it then, but when this book appeared on my e-book queue from my local library, I snatched it up and then devoured it.

Strayed, as Dear Sugar, is funny and direct and empathetic. At times, the book is heartbreaking. It's about messy human life is and the strange human experience is. It's wise and memorable. I loved reading it.

When I was almost done with this book, I realized that the new Reese Witherspoon movie is the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Then, as I sat down to write this post, I read that Dear Sugar is becoming a podcast! Signs from the universe, friends, and you'd better pay attention to them.

I find myself thinking through advice more when I'm asked for it, making sure it's what I really believe and what I think is right. When I'm not asked, I really do try to keep my mouth shut but when a friend comes knocking, I want to be able to shine a bit of perspective on their situation. Being careful not to judge, but maybe illuminating the parts they can't see and then let them chart their course. It's probably too pretentious or presumptuous of me, but then again, I've never claimed otherwise :)

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