Monday, December 28, 2009

Get A Grip

If you're doing a lot of cooking this holiday season, especially in someone else's kitchen,  chances are you are risking life and limb (well, at least digit) while chopping and dicing with a less-than-sharp knife on a slippy cutting board. I mean, honestly, you are practically begging for a bleeding wound. If you've listened to me at all, you know what I think about dull knives- and that's not much. It's easy (and kind of fun) to sharpen your knives (I'll show you how one of these days), and a sharp knife is much safer than a dull one.  But while you may not want to take on the task of sharpening your great-aunt's Miracle Blades, there is something simple you can do about that ridiculous cutting board. This is one of the most valuable lessons I picked up during my brief stint in culinary school (unlike whipping egg whites into meringue by hand, which is a total waste of time and energy in the age of hand mixers): dampen a paper towel or rag, lay it flat on the counter, and place the board on top. The towel will stick to both surfaces and keep the board from budging. 

This same trick works for anything that slips around- like my parents' orange juicer, which slips and slides all over the kitchen counter and nearly dislocates your wrist when you use it. But place a wet paper towel or rag underneath it, and voila- juicing becomes less of a squeeze and more of a breeze. 

photo credit:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Merry!

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Let your heart be light,

From now on our troubles will be out of sight.

Here's wishing you and your families the most charmed of Christmases, wherever you are headed!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pet Pitfalls

A few weeks ago, after one of our increasingly-rare nights out with friends, we came home at 1 a.m. to find the contents of JM's gym bag spread all over the house, a suspiciously empty chocolate-bar wrapper (I admit it, it was mine) and a dog that was running circles around the ceiling. Chocolate is poisonous to dogs, and she was so strung out that we could see her heart pounding in her tail. I immediately called the emergency vet clinic, and was informed that she hadn't eaten enough to kill her, but it was pretty scary to see her like that (and also kind of funny). And, from the looks of it, she had some very trippy dreams that night. All of this is to say that I decided to educate myself about what human foods are poisonous to dogs and become a more diligent and careful pet owner.
But, things are starting to get very festive around here, with decorations and presents and holiday foods everywhere. I admit that I have been a baking (but sadly not a blogging-about-baking) fool these past couple weeks, and my pants, so comfortably loose post-marathon, are starting to shrink up again as a result. But, in all this festive frenzy I have to keep a constant eye on the other voracious eater in the house. No, not JM - he's annoyingly disciplined - I'm talking about the dog, again. Human food in general is unhealthy for dogs, so try to keep visitors from slipping your pooch a cookie or two. But, if you have a four-legged friend in your house, here are the things you should be especially careful about, all year long.

Human Foods That Are Toxic to Animals
Macadamia Nuts
Raw Potatoes
Tomatoes (cats only)
Xylitol Sugar-substitute (found in sugarless gum)

Also Watch Out For:
Broken Glass or Ornaments

Monday, December 21, 2009

Oh, Fudge!

It is truly the most wonderful time of the year. Because, for these few weeks between Thanksgiving and your New Year's resolutions, you have full permission to eat things you would never eat during the rest of the year. Now, I am not suggesting that you pig out on anything and everything (put down the fruitcake and back away slowly), but a few well-selected seasonal indulgences are not only allowed, they are encouraged. And this dark chocolate peppermint fudge is not only easy to make and delicious in a festive way, but it's super-rich, so a little goes a long way. It travels well, so you can make a batch, package it sweetly and give it to your neighbors for credit that will last well into the New Year. Go ahead, fudge a little.

Peppermint Dark Chocolate Fudge

What You Need:
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup milk chocolate chips
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
Pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
1/4 cup crushed hard peppermint candy (roughly 3 candy canes)

What You Do:
In heavy saucepan, over low heat, melt chocolate chips with condensed milk and salt. Remove from heat; stir in peppermint extract.

Spread evenly into waxed or parchment paper-lined 8-or 9-inch baking pan with a spatula.

To break up candy canes, place them in a ziplock bag, and bang with a rolling pin or frying pan.

Sprinkle with peppermint candy. Chill 2 hours or until firm.

Turn fudge onto cutting board; peel off waxed paper and cut into squares. Store covered in refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tipping Tips

Unless you're Cornelius Vanderbilt IX, right about this time of year, what with all the parties, gifts and travel, you probably feel a distinct lightening in your wallet, and meanwhile, your credit card bill is likely arriving with an extra stamp to accommodate its new-found heft. But before you cross the last name off your gift list, you also need to remember the people who have provided services for you this year, and, ideally, give them a little cash tip to thank them. This process -- who to tip and how much -- has proven to be one of the most opaque things about adulthood, for me, anyway, and I am still not sure I've got it right. Here's a little list of people you may have forgotten about this holiday season, who deserve a little extra something. If you truly can't afford to spend one more penny this year, you can always write a sincere card thanking them, or give them something else, like a box of homemade cookies (or check in tomorrow for a recipe for easy, festive fudge). Though, if you have a personal trainer and a cleaning lady and can't afford to give a tip, you need to work on your budgeting skills. May I suggest you buy a Roomba and a Jane Fonda workout video, instead? Just don't turn off the lights and pretend you've gone out of town early to avoid the whole problem.

Babysitter: Tip a regular babysitter one- to two-nights' pay. Tip a daily babysitter or au pair one week's pay. In addition, give them a small gift from the child- they deserve it for looking after your progeny all year.
Doorman/ Superintendant: $10-80 for each doorman (depending on how much you have used their help), $50-100 for the Super.
Mailperson/ Newspaper Deliverer: $10-20 is appropriate for each, but if giving cash makes you uncomfortable, you could always give a gift card to Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts of equal value.
Cleaning Person: If you have someone clean your house twice a week or less, a tip equivalent to one visit's fee is appropriate. Adjust the amount if they come more or less often. They'll be less likely to throw a red sock in with your whites.
Personal Trainer: $40-60, if you feel you have a good relationship and they have worked hard with you.
Hairstylist/ Manicurist: Depending on your relationship, you may want to double your usual tip during your December visit. This is unnecessary if you have no personal relationship with them.
Dog Walker/Groomer: Give the walker the equivalent of 1 week's pay, and the groomer $20-50, but only if you use the same one frequently.

Just when you thought you were finished with your shopping. On the bright side, at least you can shop for all these folks at the same place- the ATM.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

French Is Best

Sure, they can be snooty, but most of the time, I feel like the French have good reason to be. I mean, they just do everything so well- they way they eat, the way they dress... It's gotten to the point where people just call great things "French" even when I don't know if the Gauls even really had anything to do with inventing them, like French Fries or, the topic of this post, French toast.
French toast is one of my favorite brunch items. It's perfect for those times when you can't decide between bready pancakes or eggs for breakfast- why not combine the two elements and then top it with whipped cream and syrup? Sounds like a solution we can all get behind.
It's also a great festive breakfast for a holiday morning or (as we had this weekend) when you have weekend guests. I've been making French toast since my high school sleepovers (yeah, I was already this twee back then), but I recently discovered a great "grown up" orange-liqueur-tinged version on Simply Recipes that I combined with my old standby to create my new go-to recipe. The booze lends a delicious rich flavor, but cooks off, so feel free to toss back another mimosa. Happy Holidays! Or rather, Joyeuses FĂȘtes!

Orange French Toast

(serves 4)

You Will Need:

4 eggs
1/2 cup whole milk or half-and-half
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon fresh grated orange rind
1/4 cup triple sec
A pinch of salt
A loaf of crusty french bread or baguette sliced into 3/4" pieces - stale bread is okay.

1. Beat eggs, and combine them with the milk, cinnamon, orange rind, salt, and triple sec in a bowl.
2. Arrange bread in the bottom of a rimmed baking pan, and pour egg mixture on top. If making in advance, cover with foil or saran wrap and refrigerate overnight. Otherwise, allow to soak for a few moments.
3. Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of butter in a large skillet or frying pan, over medium heat. Add the toast slices in batches (as many as will fit), and cook on each side until browned and aromatic, about 3 minutes to a side.
4. Top with fresh whipped cream, maple syrup and fresh berries (because fruit makes it healthy!).

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hangin' Around

Here's a quick holiday decorating idea for those of you with doors. A wreath, garland or bouquet of greens looks lovely, festive and charming, and is a welcoming sight for your holiday visitors. But, if you rent your house, or live in an apartment building where you are required to have metal doors, it can be tough to figure out how to hang them. Those over-the-door wreath hooks are, frankly, kind of ugly, and can obstruct the way your door opens and closes. Instead, use this simple method that requires nothing more than a pretty ribbon:

1. Tie a long piece of ribbon to the door decoration. Use a regular knot to make sure it is well-attached, and then cover that with a pretty bow.
2. Run the ribbon over the top of the door. Pull the ribbon on the backside of the door until the decoration is the height you would like, and is centered left to right.
3. Tie the end of the ribbon to the doorknob on the inside of the door. Again, tie a knot to make sure it is secure, and cover it with a pretty bow. The friction on the top of the door will prevent the ribbon from slipping.

That was easy!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tree's Company

Now that I'm back in New York, I really have to kick into gear with my Christmas preparations. I was so distracted by my planning for my trip to California and running the marathon that I honestly haven't done a thing about Christmas and New Year's. Time to get rolling on the gift-buying, party planning, and home decorating, stat. Today, I am buzzing around like one of Santa's elves, unpacking, cleaning, and digging out all our Christmas stuff from storage. And tonight, JM and I are going out to buy our tree. While I'm excited, I'm still smarting from trees of year's past, which have completely dried out, and become stiff, grayish messes by the middle of December. They didn't look too hot, were a major fire hazard, and you should have seen the trail of pine needles I had to vacuum up going all the way down the building's stairs when we finally got rid of them. So, this year, I finally did my research, and realized all of the mistakes I have made with previous years' trees, and am determined not to make them again. Here's how to keep a Christmas tree (or Hanukkah bush) fresh, green and alive (at least until the holidays are over).

1. Buy Fresh. Try to get a tree that has been cut down in the last three days. That can be tough if you live in, say, Arizona, but if you ask the vendor ahead of time, they will generally be honest with you about how long trees have been sitting around, and when there are new deliveries arriving. If you time your trip to the Christmas tree stand according to that schedule, as an added bonus, you'll also get first dibs on that perfectly shaped tree before anyone else sees it.
2. Slice Job: Before you take your tree home, have the seller slice off the bottom of the trunk for you. When a tree has been out of water for more than a few hours, the trunk saps up, leaving it unable to absorb water. A fresh cut will make your beauty ready to soak up water.
3. The Water, the Whole Water... When you get your tree home, put it in a stand with a reservoir that holds at least one gallon of water. A tree can drink up to a gallon a day, so make sure you refill it every night (relax, it's only for a couple weeks). Never let the water level get lower than the bottom cut of the trunk, as any exposure to air will allow the cut to sap up, and you will have to re-cut it to get it to absorb water again. I always use my lemonade pitcher for this task- it pours evenly and keeps me from spilling water all over the floor.
4. ...And Nothing But the Water. No matter what you have heard, adding things to the tree's water like aspirin or bleach doesn't keep the tree fresher longer. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. Just give the tree water, and it will be happy. Well, as happy as something that has been chopped down can be.
5. Cool It. Don't put your tree right next to your fireplace (this is a hard one for us, since we have fireplaces in almost every room... yes, I am bragging about my fireplaces again), or anywhere where it will be exposed to too much hot air (like on top of your radiator's floor vent, as I did last year - oops). Surprise, surprise, dry, hot air will cause your tree to dry out. Likewise, the large-bulb Christmas lights emit far more heat than the small ones, so avoid them if you can possibly resist.

Learn from my mistakes, and you'll have a gorgeous, green, living tree. Or don't, and at least you'll end up with some great kindling.

photo credit: Country Living

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Thrift Shopping

I'm headed back to New York today, and, while I can't wait to get home and see JM, I will certainly miss how well taken care of I am when I am home visiting my parents. Instead of iced sparkling water delivered to me in the hot tub by my mom, I'll be back to self-poured tap by the kitchen sink. Instead of lovely meals prepared by other people, I will be back at my three-meal-a-day cooking regimen. And, most unappealing of all, instead of "placing an order" as my dad runs out the door to the store, I'll be back into my old daily grocery-store routine. Especially around the holidays, when the markets jack up their prices, grocery shopping can be a daunting and expensive venture, and is never my favorite part of the day. Far too often, I have ducked into the store to grab some chicken breasts for dinner, and left with twenty bags cutting off the circulation to my hands and a receipt longer than my arm and my leg (and costing as much). It's easy to justify these costs as things we "need", but truthfully, there is no reason a family of two needs to spend our future children's college tuition on groceries. Could we spend less? Aisle say!
Happily, I have developed a few strategies to help cut costs at the grocery store, and, in the spirit of holiday giving, I will share them with you. If I play my cards right, these little changes could add up to a big chunk of change. Hopefully one big enough to cover two plane tickets back here in January. Warm up the hot tub, mom!

Make a List: When I go to the grocery store with a list of the items I need written down, I end up spending about 50% of what I spend when I go in without one. It makes me feel like an idiot that I make this mistake again and again, but it is marginally comforting to know that statistics show that everyone else makes the same mistake over and over again, too. Don't be an idiot like me: Always make a list and stick to it.
Shop Around: I go to two different grocery stores- the nice one and the gross one. At the gross one, I buy everything that is packaged, boxed, canned or bottled, as well as laundry detergent and paper towels (personal goods like toothpaste and shampoo are always cheaper from the drug store). At the nice store, I buy fresh meats and produce, which are worth the splurge. But, I have noticed that the same brands of canned beans and jams are sometimes $2-4 more at the nice store than they are at the gross store. For savings like that, I can tolerate aisles that smell like ammonia and surly checkout girls.
Price Check: Always look at the cost per unit (CPU) price of packaged goods, which is usually printed on the shelf label beside the net price. Bigger containers aren't always cheaper than small ones, and sometimes there are surprising price discrepancies between two equally "good" brands. And consider store brands for basics, like flour or rice- you will never know the difference (but your credit card will).
Prep Your Own Produce: As I have mentioned before, it pays to avoid the pre-cut or packaged produce. By simply spending a few minutes after your shopping to wash lettuce and cut up fruit, you can save a ton of money, and end up with fresher food. That's what we in the business call a win-win, people.

Photo credit:

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Be My Guest

This is the time of year when people travel around the world to see one another, and, happily, a lot of our favorite people end up making pit stops in New York City. That means that our usually docile social life perks up a bit, and that we have a few houseguests who will be availing themselves of the Murphy bed in our guest room in the coming weeks. And we, ourselves, will be taking over the guest room at my in-laws' house in Boston over Christmas, and back here in California at my parents' house for New Year's. While receiving visitors is one of my favorite things (what could be better than friends coming to see me in my cozy nest and I don't even have to put my shoes on?), there is certainly such a thing as a bad houseguest. As the saying goes, "Visits always bring pleasure - if not the arrival, the departure." When someone is planted in your personal space, sometimes the simplest things can make the biggest difference between the former and the latter. Here are some easy tips about how to be the kind of houseguest that gets invited back again and again.

1. Keep It Clean: This one is obvious, but no matter how much your host implores you to "make yourself at home," remember that you aren't in your home. While it might be fine for you to leave your bed unmade, dirty socks on the floor, and dirty dishes on the coffee table chez vous, don't do any of those things while staying with someone else. Keep the guest room and guest bathroom tidy, as if they might walk in at any moment. And when you leave, offer to strip the bedsheets (your host may or may not want to deal with the laundry right away), gather up used towels, and do a thorough check to make sure you are leaving the spaces you used in good order. I'm not saying you have to mop or clean the windows, but, think like CSI, and try not to leave an excessive amount of your DNA lying around: dispose of your used tissues, nail clippings, and any unusual amount of hair you may have left in the shower drain. Gross to read about, I know, but even grosser to pick up after someone else.
2. Lend a Hand: Your hosts may enjoy catering to your every need, or they may not. To offset the work they are doing on your behalf, offer to help with the little chores around the house- cooking, walking the dog, etc. (or offer to write their blog for them). The day after Thanksgiving, I came downstairs to see that my mother-in-law had already washed all the dishes, and I nearly fainted with gratitude. You don't have to offer to paint their house or mow the lawn (grand gestures are unnecessary), but that's the effect you should be going for.
3. Go With the Flow: No matter how much they love you, chances are, your visit is disrupting your hosts' usual daily rhythms. Be mindful of that, and try to ease into their schedule as much as possible. Eat when they eat, and if you are up earlier or later then they are, do your best not to disturb them. Unless you have major jetlag as an excuse, don't sleep in late and force them to tiptoe around you. If you make plans with other people while you are in town (which is totally fine), let your hosts know ahead of time, so they know they are free to make their own plans during that time.
4. Come Bearing Gifts: Bringing an inexpensive token is a great way to soften up your hosts when you arrive. And, I always say, think ahead, and a gift at the beginning of the visit can be much less elaborate or expensive than sending flowers or something after the fact. Alternatively, you could offer to take your hosts out to a meal or cook for them in the house- but make sure to schedule the event at the beginning of the visit, so it really happens. And always always send a thank-you note afterwards: It will cost you five minutes and a stamp, which is a far better deal than $450/night to stay at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown. And it's a sure-fire way to be invited back.

P.S. To my not-too-distant-future houseguests: while your visits were the inspiration for this post, I know you all to be gracious and kind people, and did not write this as a pointed hint towards you. I am sure you all have lovely houseguest manners all on your own, and JM and I are so looking forward to seeing you. That is all.
image credit:

Monday, December 7, 2009

Marathon (Wo)man

Yesterday, I completed my first marathon! I covered those 26.2 miles in just under five hours, which, I'm proud to say, is slightly faster than my nine-month-old niece could have crawled it. A victory nonetheless! I am sure the course, which ran through lemon and avocado groves and within view of both the mountains and the Pacific ocean, was gorgeous, but I was pretty deep inside my own head, where the view was considerably less uplifting for most of the way. Still, I felt really lucky to have my family and friends (and some perfect strangers) cheering me on the whole way, and I'm pretty sure the dull ache in my entire lower-half will be gone in time for New Year's. This whole venture has only reinforced my immodest notion that I can do anything I set my mind to, so watch out for my next foolish escapades, of which there are certain to be many. Now, can you hand me that Icy Hot?

Looking happier than I felt at Mile 24

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dinner on a Dime

I'm finding it hard to get my head around the fact that Thanksgiving has already passed, and we are barreling headlong toward Christmas and the New Year. JM and I sat down last night to look at our calendars and we realized that between parties, holidays, visitors, and travel, we have hardly a free night between now and the next decade (get ready for the '10s!). And while we are looking forward to all of that with feverish enthusiasm, all of those things plus our holiday shopping have us feeling like there are dollar bills sprouting wings and flying out of our wallets.
So around this time of year, I start getting very resourceful about the meals we do eat at home. And I'm betting a lot of you could use a little resourceful yourselves right about now. Here are some strategies I use to make weeknight dinners quick, easy and very inexpensive (we're talking less than $5/ serving). So instead of just giving in and shelling out on take-out all season, take some of these tips and you can spend those spondulics on something a little more festive. Like tinsel. Or noisemakers. Or fruitcake.

Well, maybe not fruitcake.

Seven Cheap Supper Strategies

1. Double Duty: Instead of planning your meals one-by-one, think ahead, and you can often get several meals for the price of one. Roast a chicken for tonight's dinner, and, instead of allowing your husband to eat seconds, reserve half the meat to make a chicken pasta, salad, or soup for tomorrow night. You'll be amazed at how doing this can cut your labor and grocery bills in half.
2. Soup-endous: Make a big pot of soup this weekend (try black bean or a hearty veggie soup), and you'll have meals for the week, for pennies each. Double the recipe and freeze half, and you'll be set for next week, too! Sure, you might get sick of it by Friday, but think of the money you'll save!
3. Breakfast for Dinner: Instead of shelling out in the meat aisle every night, look to an unexpected source to get your nightly protein- eggs. Try a rustic Italian-style poached egg, or a cheese omelet with a salad for a meal that is faster than fast food, and healthier and cheaper, too.
4. Presto Pasta: Think you have nothing to eat in the house? Before you go blow your paycheck at the market, check your pantry again. If you've got pasta in there, you've got a cheap, easy dinner. To dress it, saute an onion with that leftover tomato sauce in the fridge, or mix whole wheat pasta with fresh herbs, butter, and lemon juice for a simple, delicious dinner. If you can root a meal out of your pantry, that's a dinner that is essentially free.
5. Kitchen Sink Salad: A lunch staple for me is what I call a "kitchen sink salad" or a "random effing salad", in which I take a bowl of greens and toss in anything in my kitchen that looks appealing. Dried cranberries from the cupboard? Sure. Hard-boiled eggs? Why not? Last night's leftover salmon? In it goes. Take it as an opportunity to clean out your fridge and make dinner at the same time. Top it with a little homemade vinaigrette, and you'll be in business. Is it effing random? Yes, but it's usually also pretty tasty.
6. Frozen Assets: When looking for dinner resources, don't forget about that other compartment in your fridge (you know, the colder one). I almost always keep a couple boxes of frozen peas or spinach in there (great pasta or add-ins), and sometimes I luck out and find a frozen burrito or pot pie. If you don't have those things at home, check out the freezer section of your market- you can usually find something inexpensive and tasty to eat in a pinch (and, as a bonus, you may be able to cook the whole meal in your microwave)!
7. Stay Late: When all else fails, consider this nefarious strategy for getting a free meal- stay late at work. Most employers are required to pay for dinner when workers stay past 8 p.m. If you are already stuck at your desk til 7, spend the extra hour doing some online gift shopping, and cash in on a free sandwich for your efforts. Sure, it's not exactly ethical, but I'm guessing it's not the first time you've wasted time at work. For instance, what are you doing right now?

photo credit: Martha Stewart