Tuesday, June 30, 2009

You Go, Grill.

A few years ago, I entered a culinary school program, but decided to "take a break" after the first unit and never went back. Which I guess makes me a cooking school drop-out (no graduation day for you, cooking school drop-out, you mixed up mixing and flunked fondue... gives whole new meaning to the title 'Grease'). I always wanted to learn the "right" way to do things, but found when I was there that I missed cooking in the bootleg, improvised, way I've always cooked.
Which is why I love grilling- you can pretty much walk the produce and meat aisles of the supermarket and pick things with your eyes closed (I don't recommend this on Sunday evenings) and, chances are, they will make a delicious meal thrown together on the grill. In the summer, I love to make a "mixed grill" plate of assorted veggies- it's great as a side to any meat, or you can serve the veggies over couscous for a delicious vegetarian meal with a Mediterranean vibe. And it's quick, easy, and saves you from having to turn on the oven or stove on a hot summer day.
There are a few tricks to grilling specific veggies (some lend themselves better than others),but follow these (very loose, of course) rules-of-thumb, as you'll be grilling like a pro.

Cut it down:
Slice whatever veggie you are working with into workable pieces- you want to aim for a size that is small enough to cook quickly, but big enough to keep from falling apart while cooking. Slice tomatoes in half, cut corn into 2-inch pieces, slice eggplant, zucchini and yellow squash into 1/4-inch thick slices or rounds, cut bell peppers into thick strips and trim the stems off of mushrooms. Asparagus and scallions can go on whole.
Sprinkle veggies with olive oil, salt and pepper to prep them for the grill. You can also marinate them in a teriyaki sauce, if you want (or you can add a sauce after they are cooked).
if you want to grill carrots, yams or potatoes, you are better off pre-boiling them until tender (about 5 minutes for carrots, or 10 for potatoes), or else you will be waiting a loooong time for dinner. This can be accomplished inside on the stove, or by putting a pot of water over the grill, clam-bake style.
Place the veggies directly on the grill, over medium heat. Cook, flipping once, until tender and those gorgeous grill marks appear, roughly 4-10 minutes, depending on the veg.
It may be gilding the lily, but feel free to dress your veggies with a tasty vinaigrette or a dash of balsamic vinegar after grilling.

Vegetables and a grill- they go together like rama lama lama ka-dinga de dinga dong.

Related: Burger Madness

Monday, June 29, 2009

Go Fish

I love to eat fish, but what with endangered populations, polluting fish farms, high mercury levels and all of the other concerns surrounding seafood these days, it can be very daunting making a trip to the fishmonger or ordering off a restaurant menu. What's healthier for me and the environment- wild Salmon or farmed? And what's the deal with Chilean Sea Bass? (Answers: wild Alaskan is best, and avoid the bass- it's endangered). The Deadliest Catch, indeed.

Luckily for all us pescatarians, Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers have fished around and culled together a definitive guide to what fishies you can eat safely, healthily and guilt-free. Check it out at: www.montereybayaquarium.org
And in case you don't usually carry your laptop with you to Le Bernadin, they also make these printable guides (click here to download the general one or visit the site for more specific regional guides) which you can carry around in your wallet and whip out while the waiter reads the specials. Maybe just don't do it on a first date.

So now you can go back to worrying about more important things... like creme brulée or chocolate soufflé?

image credit: current.com

Friday, June 26, 2009

Snazzy (and Snag-Free) Sweaters

Do you know what's unfortunate? I have to get on a plane and leave beautiful sunny California today and fly back to rainy and cloudy New York. Do you know what else is unfortunate? When your brand new sweater gets caught on your engagement ring and gets a nasty pulled thread or snag in it (how do you like that for a segue?). Luckily for all of us, one of these unpleasant occurrences can be easily remedied, with no airline change fees or automated call center required. I am talking about leaving California. Oops, I mean the sweater. Shoot.

Here's what you do:
1. Take a needle-threader (they come in most sewing kits from a nice hotel room or the drugstore), and stick it from the inside of the sweater out through the hole created by the snag.
2. Carefully thread the snagged yarn through the metal wire loop of the threader, and pull the thread through to the back of the sweater.
3. Pull the knit area around the hole in both directions until there is no more noticeable puckering.
4. Turn the sweater inside out, and tie the extra thread into a knot to prevent it from working its way back out to the other side, or getting caught on your hands as you take the sweater on and off.
5. Turn the sweater back right-side-out. Done and done.

So go and dig out those sweaters you thought were hopeless from the goodwill pile and fix 'em. You'll have plenty of time while I'm crammed into seat 18A, enjoying minimal legroom and maximal free bloody mary mix.

Sailor sweater, $94, from Boden USA

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Rich in Rags

I'll admit at the outset that this is not likely to be my most stimulating post of all time. I mean, I'll do my best to employ the gifts of florid prose and rapier wit with which I have been endowed, but just how exciting can a post about dishrags be?
Here at my parents house, there have always been several drawers chock-a-block full of rags of every variety, from pristine waffled dish towels to ripped up old t-shirts. But I've noticed that in more modern households, people seem to replace rags with paper towels, which are less absorbent and gentle, and so much more wasteful (even though they're better, don't fool yourself with those Seventh Generation ones- just 'cause they're brown doesn't mean that they're green).
It's time to load up on rags- quite possibly the most versatile and reusable household tool you can buy. Here are the ragtag kinds that I use:

Williams-Sonoma striped dish towels, $16 for a set of 8. Perfect for drying plates and glasses without linty residue. Or tuck one in your apron while you're cooking to serve as an impromptu potholder or non-slip base for a cutting board. As an added bonus you'll look so sharp and chef-y.

ProForce Terry Towels, about $20 for 60, from Sam's Club, Costco, or AllmartShopping.com. You'll want to buy these suckers in bulk- I bought one pack at Costco when I first moved to New York six years ago and I still use the same ones every day. They are perfect for sopping up spills, wiping off countertops, dusting, drying off dogs, strapping to your feet to dry a mopped floor... pretty much anything you can think of. And they're cheap enough to use for cleaning up paint and stain spills and other messy home improvement projects. A real rag of tricks.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wild for Wallpaper

My Childhood Bedroom

Growing up in a bedroom like this, it seems I was destined to either abhor or adore wallpaper. During my wild youth, it was the former, and I tacked up posters and ironic velvet paintings in an effort to cover the pattern (Ha! Nice try, younger me). But as I have gotten older, it has turned to the latter, and now I am a certified wallpaperphile. I love an all-over floral pattern, a bold stripe, or even a modern trellis. If it wouldn't seriously lower the value of our apartment (and likely give us both chronic headaches), I would plaster it up in every room in the place. As it is, we have wallpaper in the "master" bedroom, and I have been on a nine-month search for the right one for our entry hallway. Wallpapers can be expensive, but a little goes a long way- try papering just one wall in a room, your half bath (don't wallpaper a room with a shower or bath) or the inside of a closet. Make sure you request a sample and tape it to your wall for a while before you buy- you might be surprised (pleasantly or otherwise) by the scale or colors when you seen them in context.
Here is a great wallpaper calculator from Lowe's to help you figure out how much you'll need to buy (make sure you account for the length of the repeat on a big pattern, and be sure to find out from the seller whether they are selling single or double rolls).
You can relatively easily put up a small pattern or stripe yourself, but if your walls are tricky (lots of windows), or you are using a large pattern, you should hire a pro, which isn't too expensive (I found my guy on Craig's List).
Many of the designers of the most beautiful wallpapers only sell to the trade, meaning that if you aren't working with a decorator you are simply out of luck. But I have found some sneaky ways to get around those rules, and some websites that sell gorgeous papers to regular Joes like us. Wallpaper to the people!

Beautiful Wallpaper Sites:
Walnut Wallpaper
Farrow & Ball
Pierre Deux
Cole and Son
Ferm Living

Vintage Wallpapers:
Secondhand Rose
Hannah's Treasures

Designer Wallpapers to the Public:
Eades Wallpaper
Decorator's Best
Discount Decorator
Designer Fabrics Outlet

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Holy Guacamole

Every time I come home to the beautiful little California garden cottage I grew up in, I become more aware of what an usual slice of paradise it is (and I question my own sanity for moving to New York City). At my house, there are bouquets of fresh-picked garden roses in every room, and freshly-squeezed orange juice waiting for you at the breakfast table (well, sometimes you have to squeeze the juice yourself, but still). And there is a grove of avocado trees where every Spring, the boughs hang heavy with their delicious bounty. My dad has a long stick with a saw attached to the end which he uses to cut down the avocados (I realize this might be a regular garden tool for those who manage trees, but I haven't had much need for one in my terrace garden, so it seems sort of quaint and charming to me), and someone has to chase the fallen avocados to gather them as they roll down the hill.
So unlike New York where I pay $2 a pop at the corner store for avocados that may or may not be brown and mealy inside (it's like buying a scratch-off lotto ticket, you just have to keep your fingers crossed), here the avocados, well, grow on trees. Avocado is a delicious and healthy add-on to any salad, sandwich, meat, chicken fish or egg dish (or really, you name it), or you can let it take center stage in the role it was born to play: guacamole. Here's my loose recipe for guac- the quantities are a little bit of a guess since I never measure - I just chop up all the ingredients and combine them until they taste right. Feel free to play with the proportions or get crazy and throw some pineapple or mango into the mix.

2 ripe avocados, flesh cut into cubes
1/2 red onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 jalapeño pepper, stems and seeds removed, minced (optional)
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
1-2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
A dash of freshly grated black pepper
1/2 ripe tomato, seeds and pulp removed, chopped

Combine all of the elements in a bowl and toss to combine. Eat with chips, veggies, crackers, or your hands.

And in case you're someone who learns better from song, I found this video pretty entertaining.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Can't Live Without...Sunscreen

Today I am headed west to California for the week to visit my family and friends, and to escape the rainiest June in New York history (and hopefully to pan for some gold- or rather tan for golden sun-kissed skin. Okay, even I know that was a really bad pun- looks like we both need to up our Pun Protection Factor!) While my illicit love affair with tanning has been well documented on this blog, I have been resistant to offering actual tanning advice, lest I become a bad influence on you people (artery-clogging burgers not withstanding). However, as bad as my bronzing habit can be, even I wear sunscreen when I am at the beach or by a pool. I admit that it's typically SPF 4, but still. In a case of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-tan, I am going to recommend my favorite sunscreen (and over the years I have tried them all)- good old Coppertone. Not the spray kind, or the Sport kind, or the pink kind for kids- the classic that comes in the white or brown bottle ($10, available from any drugstore or drugstore.com). It's light on your skin and rubs in like a really nice moisturizer, not too thick or sticky. And it's not greasy at all, but it's waterproof and will last all day (although you should reapply anyway, she said hypocritically). But the best part of all is the heavenly smell- it doesn't smell like fake bananas or coconut- it just smells exactly like summer. I would bottle it and wear it as perfume, I love it so much. Now, if only it came in SPF 2...

Friday, June 19, 2009

Teeny Tiny Toiletries

If you have traveled anywhere in the last seven or eight years (and if you haven't, get a move on!), you are probably aware of the questionably effective/definitely stringent TSA regulations regarding carrying liquids aboard flights. I think I have a pretty good handle on the rules, and still I could beautify myself for the rest of my life with the products that have been confiscated from me (shampoo and conditioner that had been decanted, something that was 3.1 oz...) And even if your husband lets you check bags (must be nice), or you travel by car or train, who wants to lug that Costco-sized body lotion and sunscreen around? Not this blogger.

I'm also one of those people who prides myself on being prepared for every situation with the contents of my handbag. My husband looks at my (huge, heavy) bag in disbelief and says that he half-expects me to pull an umbrella, a coat rack, and a lamp out of it, Mary Poppins- style (umbrella- yes, coat rack and lamp- no).

All this is to say that I am constantly in search of travel and single-serving sizes of my favorite products, and rarely successful in finding them. Until now.

So I'm so psyched to have discovered Minimus.biz which is an entire website of travel-sized products. They have hundreds of brands of cosmetics and "personal care" items, and all your favorite snack foods in desk-drawer-sized portions. Additionally, Drugstore.com has also increased the number of products they carry in mini-size, and free shipping on orders over $25, so check out their selection, too.

Proof positive that good things do come in small packages.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hang in There, Baby!

How to Hang a Chandelier

Given the skepticism that my dimmer switch installation post was met with by those of you with (what is in my opinion) an irrational fear of electrocution, I am a little hesitant to encourage you all to embark on even more challenging electrical project. However, replacing an old ugly light fixture and hanging a chandelier is actually a really simple and inexpensive project that can have a huge impact on the look and feel of a room (especially when you put it on a dimmer, I might add). I'm telling you, if you break down and hire an electrician to come in and do it for you, the guy is going to bleed your wallet dry (and I will be so so disappointed). So I will persist in the face of your electrophobia in the hopes that I might, in the process, help you overcome your anxiety. And perhaps I'll shed a little light on the subject.

Here's what you'll need:
Stepladder or sturdy chair
Electrical caps and tape
Chandelier canopy (optional)
New chandelier
A friend to hold the chandelier for a few minutes while you work on the wiring. Also, to call an ambulance if you get electrocuted. (Kidding.)

Disclaimers: In the event that you are trying to hang the chandelier in an area of the ceiling where there is not currently a fixture, you will need to either drape wiring in a chain from another area, or hire an electrician to run wires through the walls to the spot. Also, if your new fixture weighs more than 50 pounds, you may need to replace the ceiling box which will bear the weight (Really? A 50 pound chandelier? Where do you live- Versailles?) That is do-able, but it's a little beyond my pay grade.

Here's what you do:
1. Gather your materials. The only really challenging thing about this project is that once you are up on a ladder and holding a light fixture with one hand, you are going to want everything you need to be at hand. I suggest wearing a tool belt (which has the added bonus of making you feel like a total electrical bad-ass. Just don't get cocky).
2. Turn off the power supply to the room where you will be hanging the chandelier.
If the circuits in your circuit breaker box aren't labeled, just flip the switches until the fixture goes off (then please go get a pen and label the switch). I've said it before and I'll say it again- once the appropriate switch is flipped to the "off" position, you are in absolutely no danger of electrocution. I repeat:NO DANGER.
3. Remove the old light fixture. First, you will need to remove the screws from the ceiling canopy, which will disconnect the fixture from the ceiling (so hold onto it). Then unscrew the wire connector caps, releasing that ugly fixture completely. Hand the fixture to your buddy - don't try to climb down the ladder holding the fixture, silly.
4. Prepare the new fixture. Remove any lampshades or dangly crystals from the chandelier before you hang it. Size the length of the chain so that the fixture hangs at the height that you want. Figure out how the chain attaches to the ceiling electrical box- this varies from fixture to fixture, but usually involves screwing a long screw thing into the electrical box's crossbar.
Thread the canopy onto the chain, face down. If you can attach the chandelier to the ceiling without obstructing your view of the wires, do so. If not, have your friend get on a ladder or chair beside yours, and hold the new fixture.
5. Attach the wires. Attach the chandelier's white wire to the ceiling's white wire by twisting them together, and screwing an electrical cap over them. Secure with tape, and then repeat with the black wires.
6. Finishing touches. Attach the fixture to the ceiling, if you have not already done so. Push the canopy up the chain to be flush with the ceiling and attach (this will work by either tightening a nut around the center chain hole, or two nuts onto screws on either side of it. For illustrated instructions, click here.

Photo credit: All chandeliers pictured are available for purchase from Shades of Light

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Foil Dull Scissors

Is there anything worse than dull scissors? Okay, yeah, fine, genocide is worse. But dull scissors are pretty annoying. And if you live in a house like ours where the same scissors might be used to trim bangs, cut open packages or chop herbs (oh, calm down- I put them through the dishwasher every day), it's likely that your scissors could be sharper.

Here's a quick trick for sharpening scissors, and all you'll need is a large piece of aluminum foil.

1. Take the aluminum foil and fold it in half three times.
2. Cut through the foil over and over with the scissors (creating a "fringe" effect). The foil will remove the little metal burrs that are dulling the scissors' edges, as well as any residual glue or gunk that is attached to the blades.
3. Test sharpness by cutting a piece of paper. If they are still dull, repeat steps 1-3.

It's a simple fix that really makes the cut.

photo credit: audelaine on flickr

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

How Does My Garden Grow?

Parsley, sage, basil and mint...the rosemary and thyme are on the other side.

In a box, on a balcony, on the back of a building, in the middle of a big city. And if I can grow pretty and tasty herbs in these decidedly unpastoral conditions with my brown thumb, then you can definitely grow them, wherever you are. I have two window boxes- one contains sage, chives, mint, basil, and parsley, and the other houses cilantro, rosemary, thyme and oregano, and I pluck leaves from one or the other nightly to enhance our dinners. I love fresh herbs, and passionately dislike dried herbs- mostly because they are so blatantly inferior to their more verdant incarnations. Planting a window box of herbs is more economical and green than buying them in plastic clamshells at the supermarket, and even if you don't cook with them, they look beautiful and smell fantastic. I bought some of my herbs in little pots (available at any home improvement store or garden center), and grew some of them from seeds. It's really gratifying to see my little seedlings thriving, but it took over a month for them to become fully grown, so if you start them now, summer will practically be over before you're eating them.

Here are some of the best fresh herbs to plant, and how to cook with them:
Sage: Delicious with poultry or red meat, or sauteed with butter as a simple pasta sauce.
Chives: A member of the onion family, chives are great with fish, potatoes or soup (try making chilled vichyssoise to really let them shine).
Mint: Delicious with lamb or as a tea. Or, use it to mix up a mojito or a julep and forget about the cooking altogether.
Basil:What doesn't taste better with basil? Fish, salads, meat... anything Italian.
Parsley: I have waxed poetic about my love of parsley before on this blog. It's fresh, peppery taste makes everything tastier.
Cilantro (a.k.a. coriander): A staple of Mexican cuisine- great in guacamole and salsas of all kinds.
Rosemary: Perfect with Mediterranean cuisine- potatoes, fish, lamb, olives... you name it.
Thyme: an essential element of "bouquet garni" in French cooking, thyme enhances the natural flavors of soups and stews, and mixes well with tomatoes and eggs.
Oregano: One of the grossest dried herbs in my opinion, oregano shines when it is fresh. Delicious in tomato sauces, and with all kinds of vegetables.

Simon and Garfunkel would be proud.

Monday, June 15, 2009

My Top Topping

Grocery shopping is so much more fun during the summer months, especially if you are lucky enough to have access to a good farmers' market or produce stand. But even if you only have a Von's or a Met Foods, or a Winn-Dixie or a Tesco (See? I even know the international supermarkets!), it is still pleasurable to take a stroll down the produce aisle and see nature's bounty... abounding. I like to go to the store without a list and pick up whatever fruits and veggies look the freshest or most ripe. That's what makes this dessert recipe such a summer fave- you can make the crisp topping ahead of time, and then use it with whatever fruit strikes your fancy. It's perfect with berries, pit fruits (like peaches, cherries or plums), or just plain old apples- or go ahead and play mad scientist and combine fruits for extra fruity deliciousness. Raspberry-Peach? Apricot-Blueberry? Yes, please!

What you need:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
1/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (not the quick-cooking kind)
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (optional- goes well with apples)
1/3 cup sliced almonds (optional)

About 3 lbs of fruit, sliced and pitted

What to do:
1. Combine the flour, sugars, salt and cinnamon (if using), in a medium bowl. Add the butter and use a pastry mixer or two table knives to cut the ingredients together. Add the oats (and almonds, if applicable) and use your fingers to form into moist clumps. Place bowl in freezer until ready to use (up to 3 days, or so).
2. Preheat the oven to 375. Slice up whatever fruits you are using and place them in the bottom of a baking dish. Top generously with the topping. Bake until fruit mixture is bubbly and topping is crisp and golden brown, 45-60.
3. Top with vanilla ice cream (or try the Haagen Dazs Honey flavor), and enjoy the sweet taste of summer.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Wedding Guestiquette

My parents' wedding, September 1966

In a world where etiquette seems all but forgotten, it holds strong to one last bastion: weddings. I have watched, dumbfounded, as brides who would think nothing of answering their cell phones in a movie theater and grooms who would brazenly lick their knives at fancy restaurants suddenly turn into Emily Post and the Prince of Wales when it comes to their weddings. Out of nowhere, they become totally transfixed with the proper way to address an envelope and the correct alignment of water and wine glasses. It's weird. Your friend may not have sent you a thank you note when you gave her your kidney last year, but you can bet she will send one for the potholders you gave her at her bridal shower. And that means that the newly-decorous couple will be holding you to much higher standards than usual, too. As a guest, you have less to worry about than if you have been asked to be in the wedding (if she didn't ask you to be a bridesmaid even after that whole kidney thing, that's cold), but there are certain rules you have just got to follow. Here they are, short and simple, so you can get on with it, and have a great time.
1. By Invitation Only. People go crazy over their wedding guest lists- it is often the most fraught part of the planning process for both families. So just because you have patiently listened to your coworker's daily monologue about programs, dinner entrees, and her bitchy bridesmaid, don't assume you will be invited. And don't make a big deal about it if you end up being excluded- it's likely she felt she would have to invite everyone in the office, if anyone (just be grateful it will soon all be over and you can go back to talking about faxes, lunch, and your bitchy boss, like usual). Also, only the people whose names are written on the envelope are invited to the wedding. That means that unless your friend was generous enough to write "and Guest" after your name, your brand-new girlfriend, your children, and your old friend from camp (who happens to live in the same town as the wedding) should stay home- don't ask if you can bring them.
2. R.S.V.P., S.V.P. Don't ignore that cute little card and envelope that came with the invitation. Come on- they put a stamp on it for you, and even made it fill-in-the-blank. All you have to do is check the calendar and decide whether chicken or fish will be better energy food to fuel your dancing. Don't make them call you to find out if you're coming.
3. Highly Gifted. Very few times in your life is someone going to make things easy for you by providing you with a list of presents they would like to receive from you, so take advantage of the bridal registry. If you must go off-registry, really make sure you are giving something that you are sure the couple would love, or be a lamb and provide a gift receipt. No need to break the bank, but keep in mind what the newlyweds/their families are paying to feed and entertain you- couples should spend a little more than singles. It's totally acceptable (and frequently much appreciated) to pool funds with friends and get the couple something really special, like that flat-screen you can't believe they registered for. And even if you can't attend the wedding, you should still send something. No matter what you give, though, send it ahead of time- weddings are busy and stressful enough for those involved without having to keep track of which of those tiny gift cards goes with which white-wrapped box.
4. Oh, Behave. Your friends want you to have a good time at their wedding- just not such a good time that it's a distraction from what's really important: them. You're a grown up, and you already know what that means, so I shouldn't even have to say this, but: Don't switch the seating cards around. Wear something appropriate (Ladies, no white, no necklines down to there, or hems up to here. Gentlemen, keep your shirts on). Don't be the guy initiating shot-taking before dinner. And for crying out loud, turn off your cell phone during the ceremony.
5. Play Nice: Weddings are about love and relationships, so do your best not to ruin any of yours, and try to create some nice new ones, while you're at it. No matter how stressful the trip was, or who made whom late, resist the urge to get into a fight with your significant other or friend- this is not the time or the place. Introduce yourself to the couple's parents (especially the hosts) and thank them for inviting you. Try to make some new friends, and do your best to chat up Miss Lonelyhearts at your table who doesn't seem to know anyone- she'll love you for it, and so will the couple. Oh, and for God's sake, don't say anything snarky about the bride's ugly dress anywhere near the videographer. Better yet, don't say anything snarky at all near anyone (at least until you get back to your hotel room).
6. Departing the Party. As much as it pains you, by agreeing to attend a wedding, you have agreed to take part in all of it's components. If the bride wants to toss the bouquet, suck it up and act like you want to catch it. You must stick around until after the cake cutting, even if you want to catch the last five minutes of the game at the bar. And lastly, if you want a little extra credit, send an email to the couple the next day telling them what a great time you had, and a thank-you note to the hosts. They will truly appreciate it and never, ever, forget you did. Even long after they have thrown their own propriety out the window.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Knob Snob

If you want to change the look of your old kitchen cabinets or gussy-up that basic dresser or desk you picked up at Ikea, but aren't up to a major sanding/painting/staining project, this post is for you. It's amazing what a little knob-swap can do to fancify (yeah, I made that word up- so what?) your space. Try putting some pretty hand-painted ceramic ones in your kitchen for a sweet, country feel, or some cut glass ones on your dresser to make it feel like a glamorous old Hollywood vanity. You can also try new knobs on your bathroom cabinets or closet doors, or hang them on the wall to serve as hooks for towels or robes, or as tiebacks for curtains. Think of it as pretty jewelry for your furniture or apartment.

All you need is a little imagination, a little bit of cash (but not that much), a screwdriver and about ten minutes. Save the old knobs, and you'll be able to swap them back when you move and take the new goodies with you.

All of the knobs above are from Anthropologie ($5-12 each), and I think they have the most eclectic mix, but you can find great knobs and pulls at Restoration Hardware, Olde Good Things, Home Depot, Lowe's, or even EBay.

photo credit: Boston.com

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Farmed Wife

Back in January, I signed up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm share for this summer. At the time, it was a little painful writing a check for food I wouldn't see for months, but the season is upon us, and I am finally reaping the benefits. Yesterday was the first pick-up (the last will be in October), and I was really pleased with the fresh, organic haul I received: ripe, juicy strawberries, crisp apples, fresh, peppery arugula, bunches of mint and oregano, yummy salad greens, broccoli rabe, bright green spinach, and heavenly crunchy radishes (not all of it is pictured, since greens are only so interesting). It presents an "Iron Chef" challenge to figure out how I am going to use everything this week, before the next mystery produce batch arrives.

With ingredients this fresh, you don't need a whole lot of bells and whistles- I want to keep the recipes simple so the natural flavors of the veggies shine through.

Tonight, I think we'll munch on the radishes raw, with a little soft butter and salt (don't knock it til you try it).

To serve with dinner, I'll be making a super simple arugula salad, like the one they serve at Lil' Frankie's (a family fave restaurant on the Lower East Side) with just arugula (that's "rocket" to you Brits), shaved Parmesan, and a lemon-balsamic vinaigrette.

Lemon-Balsamic Vinaigrette
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. fresh-ground pepper
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 cup olive oil
What to do: Combine lemon juice, vinegar, salt, pepper, and garlic in a medium bowl. Whisking constantly, add the oil in a thin stream. Remove the garlic and serve or store refrigerated for up to 1 week.

And we'll have fresh strawberries and whipped cream for dessert. Now to figure out what to do with two pounds of spinach and broccoli rabe...

To find a CSA near you, visit www.localharvest.org.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Tie Game

Now that you know how to iron an old ribbon, I thought it might be helpful to show you the best way to tie that lovely ribbon around a gift box. You may be thinking that you already know how (and what kind of idiot do I think you are?), but there's a better way than the way you know. Which doesn't make you an idiot, just sort of sadly misinformed. I learned this method during my tenure at Martha Stewart Weddings magazine, where exceptional ribbon-tying skills were a prerequisite for hire. How I snuck through the doors only knowing the lame way you know is still a mystery to me.

{click on the image to enlarge}

Here Goes:
1. Wrap your box with pretty paper (or try one of these alternative wraps).
2. Run the ribbon around the length of your box in one direction, ending with both ends on top. Pull until one of the ends is the exact length it should be in order to form the size of bow and tail that you will want on your finish product (we'll call this end "A", and the longer end, which is still attached to the spool in the picture, end "B")
3. Leaving end "A" on top of the box, wrap end "B" around end "A" twisting at the center of the top of the box. Run end "B" around the bottom of the width of the box, ending with end "B" at the top of the box again.
4. Tie the two ends together into a pretty bow. (That may be a lesson for another day).

The reason this method it better is that it leaves the "twist" in the ribbon at the top, hidden under the bow, instead of on the bottom of the box, where it looks sloppy and leaves the bottom uneven. In this method the ribbon rests flat against the bottom of the box, which is particularly important when you are wrapping little packages (like wedding favors) or stacking presents. It's one of those things that makes you wonder why everyone doesn't just learn this way to begin with (like peeling a banana from the tip instead of the stem- which takes off the weird stringy things, and leaves you the stem to hold onto like a handle. So much better!)

At any rate- that's a wrap.

photo credit: The Container Store

Monday, June 8, 2009

Birthday Bliss

So, today is my birthday (the astute will notice that I have had to make the excruciating change from "27-year-old" to "28-year-old" in my profile description), and I am feeling pretty introspective about it. Maybe it's because I'm so happy and appreciative of where my life is right now, that I wouldn't mind freezing time and being — gulp — 28 forever (or maybe it's because I'm hesitant to turn 30, and get wrinkles and die), but this is the first birthday that I haven't felt like making a big deal of. My typical birthday M.O. is to celebrate my birth month, making big social plans, and throwing a big party (sometimes more than one) throughout the month of June. But this year, I'm going to celebrate in little ways. Instead of a big blowout, here are some of the little indulgences and luxuries I am planning to partake in today:

1. A Starbucks Iced Latte with whole milk and real sugar.
2. A leisurely run in Central Park.
3. Reading in the sun. I'm going to put on my bathing suit and catch some rays on our terrace.
4. Playing with my baby niece and trying to make her laugh, even if it means completely losing my dignity making funny faces and animal noises.
5. A manicure/pedicure — one of the few things (maybe the only thing) that is cheaper in New York than anywhere else, it's an hour of pure pampering for under $30.
6. A bath — We have two bathtubs in our apartment, and I have never used either of them. That changes today with some scented candles and bubble bath.
7. Reading and responding to emails. Gotta love Facebook for reminding everyone it's my birthday. I certainly feel loved today.
8. Seeing The Hangover — it may not be highbrow, but like Milton Berle, I'm a firm believer that "laughter is an instant vacation."
9. A cocktails and dinner date with my husband. I love to make dinner but I also love to make reservations. Nothing like a Martini Monday!

Hmmm... this may turn into a Birth Month celebration, after all.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A Little Bit of Sunshine

One this dreary, rainy day, here's something that never fails to make me happy. And educational, too! How does Sesame Street do it?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Bright Idea

If you have old-lady pack-rat tendencies like I do, you probably have a bag or drawer of used ribbons somewhere in your house that you have saved from various birthdays and holidays for the last 25 years. In theory, these are kept for the purpose of re-using when wrapping gifts for others. But sometimes, when you pull that drawer or bag out, those wadded-up, wrinkly, old ribbons don't quite have the jaunty, festive look that you are going for, so you end up cutting off a new piece from the spool.

Here's a quick fix for "ironing" that old ribbon without hauling out your ironing board and iron. Simply remove the lampshade from a lamp, make sure the light bulb isn't too dusty, and turn it on. Within a couple minutes the bulb will get hot enough to "iron" your ribbon by holding it at the ends and rubbing it back and forth.

So when you need a pretty ribbon, make like a comic book character, and let a light bulb go on over your head.

photo credit: Real Simple

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Head of the Bed

There's something about a bed without a headboard or bed frame that just says "college dorm room" to me. Not that there's anything wrong with that... if you're in college. I just think a grown-up person's bed should look a little more pulled-together. You know what I mean- a little less like it might smell like Cup O' Noodles.

But don't worry, I'm not suggesting that you have to run out to the store and spend all your hard-earned cash on something that you only really use in the dark, while asleep. There's a easy way to fake the look of a headboard and give your bed a cohesive, tailored look without spending a fortune on a bulky frame.

All you need is two 26-inch square Euro Sham Pillows, $15, from Amazon.com (or one if you sleep on a twin), which can be propped up against the wall behind your other pillows. It doesn't hurt if you buy some really pretty pillowcases like those from Leontine Linens in the photo above right, but some simple white cotton ones would do the trick.

But don't worry, I'm not going to make you stop eating cereal for dinner.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Kernel of Hope

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears: This post is going to be even cornier than usual, because today I am going to be talking about corn! (Collective groan). It is finally the season for corn on the cob, which, for me, is one of those enduring symbols of summer. Is there anything better than biting into your first sweet, juicy ear of corn of the year? I think not. (Whether you employ the "typewriter" method of eating across the cob in lines, or the "rotation" method of eating around it in rings is a matter of personal preference).

However that whole idyllic moment can suddenly go very, very wrong if what you bite into is a bland, starchy ear of corn, instead. Not to be a Cob Snob, but yecch.

Here's how to become an expert- a Kernel Colonel, if you will, in choosing corn:
1. Try to find the freshest corn you can. The sugars in corn start breaking down as soon as it is picked, so the fresher, the sweeter. As a rule of thumb, local corn bought by the side of the road cannot be beat.
2. If you don't live in the kind of place where there are quaint roadside stands, you can still get good corn at the store. Always buy ears that still have the husk on them. I love when the grocery store has a big ol' pile of corn with a "6 for $1" special, because that corn is likely to be pretty freshly picked. No matter how much you hate the messy task of husking the corn, avoid plastic-wrapped pre-husked corn. It will be more expensive and decidedly less fresh and sweet.
3. Peel back a few inches of the husk to check the quality of the corn. The kernels should be plump and light yellow, not shriveled or browning. You will also want to check for worms, which are a natural part of the deal, but tend to be unappetizing.
4. If you are adventurous, take a small bite of the raw corn. Although it will taste kind of gross and raw (duh), you will be able to tell the quality of the flavor (sweetness, mealiness). Even if it's gross, you still have to pay for that ear, though.
5. When you get the corn home, refrigerate it if you don't plan to eat it right away. Refrigeration will prevent the sugars from breaking down as quickly.

If you have your heart set on eating corn, but are concerned about the quality of the corn you bought, there is one last trick you can employ to save it:
Add 1/2 cup of granulated sugar to the pot you are boiling the corn in (or soak the ears in sugar water before grilling). Somehow, the corn totally soaks up the sugar, leaving it deliciously sweet.

photo credit: Martha Stewart

Monday, June 1, 2009

Brighten Up: 10 Unexpected Uses for Lemons

In my apartment, I almost always have a teeming bowl of bright yellow lemons. I'll admit it's partially just because I love the way they look- they bring a little "zest" into a space (pardon the pun) and make for an inexpensive and attractive alternative to a floral arrangement. But these suckers aren't just for show- lemons serve a million purposes around the house from cooking to cleaning. Here are just some of the myriad things you can do with them.

Ten Surprising Uses for Lemons
1. Sanitize: Lemons are acidic enough to kill most types of bacteria. Rub a half a lemon over a cutting board, countertop, or butcher block to sanitize and disinfect without putting nasty chemicals near your food.
2. Whiten: Add a 1:1 mixture of water and lemon juice to fade tough stains (like those yellow underarm ones), or add 1/2 cup of lemon juice to the washer to whiten a whole load.
3. Shine: Sprinkle half a lemon with salt and scrub to shine up the insides of copper and stainless steel cookware or sinks.
4. Soothe Your Throat: Mix a 1:1 ratio of lemon juice and hot water for a tea that will soothe a sore throat. Follow with a teaspoon of honey.
5. Freshen Your Breath: for an impromptu mouthwash when you feel like you've been sucking on dirty gym socks, rinse your mouth with lemon juice- the acid will kill the stinky bacteria. Afterward, be sure to rinse with water to protect your teeth from the acid. Or, chew on a bit of the rind.
6. Clear the Air: When you follow your nose to find last month's Chinese leftovers in the back of the fridge, or the garbage can starts getting rank, soak a cotton ball in lemon juice and put it in the fridge or can. After a few minutes the bad smells will have disappeared.
7. Highlight Your Hair: Mix a 1:3 ratio of lemon juice to water and wet your hair with it. Sit in the sun until your hair dries completely. Results will be subtle. (Not recommended for brunettes).
8. Drive Away Pests: Wash your floors with a 1:10 ratio of lemon juice and water to drive off ants and roaches (no, it won't make the floor sticky).
9. Heal Bug Bites and Cuts: Rub lemon juice on bug bites to kill the sting or itch, or into cuts (if you can stand the pain) to disinfect and heal.
10. Fix Up Your Hands: Rub a lemon wedge on your hands to remove the odor from cutting onions or garlic, or stains from beets or berries. This also works to whiten fingernails that are yellowed from polish.

In other words, when life gives you lemons, clean your house, beautify, and heal yourself. Or, you could just make lemonade, I guess.

Photo credit: Country Living