Friday, January 30, 2009
Thursday, January 29, 2009
I have finally seen the light and have a lovely collection of reusable shopping bags, and I actually use (and reuse) them. Here's what's great about them:
1. they are very sturdy, so you can fill one with a six-pack of (um) seltzer, and then put your eggs right on top, and not worry about it breaking.
2. They make you feel like you are doing your bit to save the environment.
3. They aren't just for groceries- I take them to the drug store and the hardware store, and I have started carrying one in my purse for impromptu shopping trips.
The LL Bean canvas bags (about $30), shown above, are classic, washable, insanely durable (I think my parents have one from the 40's in our basement in Michigan). You can choose your favorite colors, and have them monogrammed (or personalized with tags like "meat", and "veggies", if you're organized like that).
The Reisenthel line of bags (about $8) is made of lightweight ripstop polyester, and fold into their own little mini-bags for your convenience. They (and many other great options) are available at www.reusablebags.com.
Of the bags sold as grocery stores, Whole Foods' Better Bag (99¢) is really great. It's made from recycled soda bottles and feels kind of flimsy, but I've had several for over a year and they have held up amazingly. I prefer the larger size, because the straps will go over your shoulder.
I also love these RuMe bags (3 for $29), which are actually cute and can hold up to 50 lbs. I tend to prefer bags that don't shout with slogans like "I'm so Green", which feels sort of smug and self-satisfied, and rings of the user trying to get credit for their bag from all random passersby- so these pretty patterns are right up my alley.
Stylish, comfortable, convenient environmentalism? It's in the bag.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
My good friend Amy was in town last night and stayed over at the manse. So I thought it would be fun to create a new feature called "House Guest Blogger" where I make all my house guests contribute a post to the blog (hey, listen people, there's no such thing as free lunch)! Amy has a "bi-continental" lifestyle, splitting time between Philly and London, and she decided to share her favorite tips for visiting Londontown.
Me: Why is now a good time to visit London?
Amy: Well the exchange rate is really good right now (about $1 =£ 1.42), and plane tickets are really affordable (check out US Air). Plus, the Spring is my favorite season in London- it isn't too crowded like in the Summertime, and at least the rain is warm rain.
Me: What are your favorite tourist attractions?
Amy: There are a few tourist-y things that are expensive but worth it. The Tower of London is amazing (admission + a tour costs £16.50), and I was blown away by Churchill's Underground War Bunkers (admission £12.95). The views from the London Eye Farris wheel (tickets £15.17) are spectacular- you can see the whole city (but if you have a window seat flying into Heathrow, make sure you look out as you land- you might see the same views for free!) There are also a ton of great things to do that don't cost a thing. My favorite museum is the Victoria and Albert Museum of decorative arts, where admission is free. There is an incredible Chihuly chandelier in the main rotunda that is worth the trip itself. I played soccer in college, and my husband and I love get into the British "football" experience. We go to games of the Queen's Park Rangers, a local "minor league" team. The fans are wild and the games are great- the season runs roughly from August through March. In my opinion, the best park in the city is Battersea Park, on the south side of the Thames. It has beautiful gardens and fountains, and a great rolling lawn which is perfect for picnics. It's also less crazy crowded than crazy Hyde Park (which is crazy).
me: What's the best way to get around?
Amy: The tube is by far the best way to get around London. It runs on a schedule, so you can plan your trip out ahead of time on http://tfl.gov.uk. Make sure you buy a daily or weekly pass, as they are almost always more cost-effective than purchasing single-ride tickets. If it's a nice day out, London is a great city for walking- which you might want to do during rush hour when the subway is insane. You might think you have seen a crowded subway in New York, but you have no idea. Cabs are expensive, but to and from the airport, there is a great service called Just Airports which will take you for about £27, rather than closer to £50.
me: What do you like to do at night?
Amy: London has a pub culture that is really great. I like the Duke of Clarence and the Drayton Arms, which are both on Old Brompton Road. They both have a young clientele and good food. There's a great website, Fancy a Pint?, which rates, reviews, and maps all the pubs in London, so you can find one that suits you in any neighborhood. If you're going to the pubs you need to anticipate that the service is usually pretty slow and lax. On the bright side, you can pretty much hang out at a pub table for hours without anyone hassling you, if you want to.
me: Any tips for avoiding jet lag?
I always book a window seat on the red eye. I bring my noise-canceling headphones and an eye mask, and sometimes I'll take a Tylenol Simply Sleep. Once I land, I go right to bed and take a 1-2 hour nap, which tides me over until I go to bed that night. I find that the adjustment is a little harder on the way back, so I try not to book anything important right after I get back.
Thanks, Amy! Future house guests, stand warned!
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Just make sure you open a window or get the vent working, as some of these things will make you light-headed if you spend too much time in an enclosed space. I'm making an effort to start using greener cleaning products in other parts of the house- for the health of the environment as well as ourselves. But in all honesty, when it comes to the bathroom, my products can't be harsh and toxic enough- beach? chemicals? Bring 'em on! (Seriously, though, if you find green cleaning products that really work- let me know).
For mold and mildew that seems to sprout in the tiles, I use Tilex Mold & Mildew Remover. Spray it on the grout and caulking around your tub whenever things start looking a little icky. It's a miracle in a bottle.
If you have a glass shower, I like Soft Scrub Deep Clean Spray. I just spray it all over the glass right when I finish taking my shower, and then rub the whole thing with the scratchy green side of a kitchen sponge, and rinse with the shower head. You only have to do it every few weeks and it totally gets rid of that gross fogginess caused by soap scum and lime and calcium deposits.
In between, I use a Shower Squeegee to dry the glass on a daily basis- call me crazy, but I think it's kind of fun.
For the least pleasant part of the job, I use Lysol Power Toilet Bowl Cleaner. You just squirt it in the bowl and then give it a quick once-over with the toilet brush and flush- about as easy as it gets. For the upper part of the toilet and the seat, as well as the sink and bathtub, I use Antibacterial Fantastik.
It works like a charm, and leaves everything sparkly clean. Maybe you'll actually use that tub to take a bath.
Now all you need is a pretty new soap and some crisp clean hand towels, and you're guest ready! On to the kitchen...
Monday, January 26, 2009
But it was 14 degrees out (all of the water froze in the cups at the water stations), and I ran 13.1 miles- something I wouldn't have thought I could ever do.
I only started running about a year ago when I moved offices and suddenly found myself in a situation where I had to take the subway to go to the gym. It seemed like such a waste of time- I was decidedly a non-runner, but logic prevailed when I realized that I could get a better workout just by putting on some sneakers and running out the door. We used to live close to the Hudson River, and I started running along the path there. I considered myself to be in pretty good shape when I started, but running is pretty good at making you humble- I could barely run a mile without turning into a wheezing mess. But the more I did it, the more I could feel myself getting stronger and better endurance (so much more rewarding than some Belly Dance Aerobics class at the gym).
As added motivation, I also got the Apple Nike + iPod System- a sensor which goes in your shoe, and a chip which attaches to your iPod- the system provides constant feedback about your distance, running time and pace. For me, it was a huge motivator to set and meet a goal of running, say, 3 miles in under 30 minutes, as opposed to "I'm gonna run to that bridge and back". The information is displayed on the iPod's screen, and a voice pipes in periodically to let you know how you're doing. And there is no denying the motivational power of running with music. I also more recently started running with my friend, T. We like to run at about the same pace, and have a comfortable no-talking policy (I am incapable of chit-chat while running, if no time else), but running with someone is inspiration to get out the door, and to keep going, even when you really really want to stop.
What's the shortest way to get from being a couch potato to completing a marathon? Well, running, of course.
T and me, approaching the finish. See how there are people behind us?
(For you Nancy Drews who notice that I am wearing a different hat in the top pic and the bottom, and that the time on the finish clock above is wrong, that's because the top pic is actually from a 5-mile race I ran a few weeks ago. I just liked the iconic quality of seeing the finish line sign. I took some editorial liberties, okay? So sue me.)
Friday, January 23, 2009
The original recipe calls for sun-dried tomatoes, which I usually leave out, but feel free to sub in any veggies that sound good to you- it would be amazing with mushrooms, bell peppers or zucchini thrown in.
Serve it with a fruit salad and sourdough toast for brunch, or with a mixed greens salad for dinner. Or, since it's so easy to reheat leftovers and tastes just as good the second time around, have it for both!
You will need:
1 lb sweet sausage, with the casings removed
1/2 cup chopped shallots
2 garlic cloves
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
5 large eggs + 3 large egg yolks
1 cup half and half
1 cup whipping cream
2 cups grated mozzarella
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 375°F. Grease a 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish with butter or cooking spray. Sauté sausage in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat until brown and cooked through, breaking up with back of fork into small pieces, about 10 minutes.
Add shallots and garlic to pan and sauté 3 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons parsley; stir 1 minute. Spread sausage mixture in the bottom of prepared dish. (All of this can be done up to 1 day ahead. Just cover and refrigerate until you are ready to finish cooking.)
Whisk eggs, egg yolks, half and half, whipping cream, 1 1/2 cups cheese, and salt in large bowl to blend well. Pour egg mixture over sausage mixture in dish. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheese and 2 tablespoons parsley over. Bake until top of casserole is golden brown and knife inserted into center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. Serve, then die and go to heaven.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
I tend to prefer to buy single varieties of flower and either keep them as a monochromatic bunch or arrange them at home, rather than buying the mixed bouquets at the deli. I find that frequently the deli will mix older blooms with fresher ones, making them (and my enthusiasm) more likely to droop faster. Plus, a single variety is always sophisticated and elegant, while, unless done with care, a mixed bunch tends to project a "hospital gift shop" vibe.
The trick to making all flowers last longer is to trim the stems at least a couple of inches (at a diagonal angle, so the stem bottom doesn't sit flat against the bottom of the vase, restricting water supply) and remove all of the leaves that will be below the water level in the vase before immediately placing them in cool water (leaves will rot, turning the water bad more quickly). Ask the deli for the packets of "flower food" they give out, and use them. Replace the water and re-trim the stems every couple of days.
In between uses, make sure the insides of your vases get cleaned thoroughly.
When buying for someone else, I take the flowers home and remove the tell-tale plastic and "Say It With Flowers" paper-wrapping, trim the stems and re-wrap them in simple tissue paper tied with a pretty ribbon (I wouldn't call it lying, exactly, but there's no need for the recipient to know you got the "2 bunches for $12" bodega special).
My favorite tried and true corner-store varieties are tulips, spray roses (pretty in a bud vase on a nightstand), daffodils and lilac, (in Spring only), flowering branches (like dogwood or cherry blossom), and the very durable and long-lasting mums, carnations and alstroemeria (shown in the foreground in the main photo above).
Some of those flowers, like carnations and mums, have, in my opinion, gotten a bad wrap for being "cheap". I think if you take a single color (and they come in so many beautiful colors) and bunch them together in a low vase, you can create a really sophisticated looking arrangement (like the red carnations in the Martha Stewart photo above).
Another way to "elevate" cheap flowers is to place just a few buds in several small containers (like these bud vases from CB2, $2.50 each) and spread them down the length of a table or mantle. Shot glasses and egg cups work well, too.
What to look for when shopping for deli flowers:
Mostly closed buds
Bright green leaves
What to avoid (or, signs those buds are duds):
Dropping leaves or petals
Already mostly open buds
Soft stems (or straws or wires holding them up)
Bent or broken stems
Roses that feel squishy, not firm and meaty
Leaves or stems that are slimy or rotting
Flowers coming from a bucket with milky looking or smelly water
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
A few years ago, I finally figured out a way to carry all that stuff semi-gracefully. I call it the "suitcase" method, and it doesn't require any special straps or skills.
Here's how it works:
First, stack your skis with their bottoms together. Then slide the wrist-strap loop of one pole over the tips of the skis, and the wrist-strap loop of the other pole over the ends of the skis. Then stick the tip and "basket" end of the poles through the loops on the opposite end, forming a handle. Grasp the poles toward the middle, finding the balance. Voila! Now you can carry your poles and skis with one hand, like a suitcase (or rather, a suitcase made out of skis).
You can also attach your boots together by their straps, and carry them over your shoulder. That leaves you with one hand free to carry your face mask, helmet, gator, foot warmers, glove liners, extra socks...well, you might need to bring a real suitcase, too.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
After a full day of watching the Inauguration coverage, I am pretty well-versed in the details (although I'm still waiting for the photo from space that Wolf Blitzer keeps promising). I loved all of the pomp and patriotic tradition, but true to form, I was most interested in all of the details of the Congressional Luncheon. A little research on the official luncheon website revealed a surprising amount of detail. The meal was served on a reproduction version of the Lincoln china (above). There was also a special painting borrowed from the New York Historical Society- "View of the Yosemite Valley," by Thomas Hill, which served as a backdrop to the head table. The painting is meant to represent the "dawn of a new era" and also is an allusion to Lincoln's signing of the Yosemite Grant, which made the valley a public reserve.
The site also revealed what the floral arrangements looked like- pretty much what you might expect, if you ask me, what with the red, white and blue.
The best detail of on the website is the bizarre menu for the luncheon, along with the accompanying recipes. In honoring and alluding to Lincoln, the planners chose "game birds" and apples as ingredients because he was said to have enjoyed them. Click here to download the amazing recipes and have yourself a patriotic meal to celebrate! I'll see you in the pheasant aisle...
I hope you all had a great weekend. I'm glued to the TV watching the inaugural festivities to blog this morning, so I'll have to check in later. No matter what your political views are, this is a historic and momentous day for America, and I'm so happy to be around to see it!
Monday, January 19, 2009
Friday, January 16, 2009
The most popular item I gave this year was these amazing Onion Goggles from RSVP ($18). I think I made my distaste for onion-produced weeping clear in this post, but that was before I discovered this amazing product. They are super-comfortable, really work, and make everyone kind of look like Bono. Sometimes I forget that I'm wearing them, and my husband comes home to find me, be-goggled, reading a magazine or something. At least I haven't accidentally worn them out of the house (yet).
This Butter Bell ($20) is such a genius invention! You pack butter into the top of it, and put cool water in the bottom, and you can leave it out on the kitchen counter for up to a month. It keeps the butter fresh and soft.
As it does every year, my stocking yielded some lovely soaps and fancy toothbrushes (Santa has always been very hygiene-oriented in my house). Luckily, these are actually two of my favorite gifts to receive.
These soaps from Fresh ($14) smell terrific and are packaged beautifully with patterned papers and wired beads, so they don't have to be hidden away in a drawer until you need them.
I also love pretty (non-neon-colored) toothbrushes. There is a great selection (including a tortoise shell one with badger hair bristles!) at edentalstuff.com for about $5. They actually look nice next to your sink, and make you feel like your bathroom is ready to be photographed for Better Homes and Gardens (well, once you pick the wet towels up off the floor).
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Embarrassingly and depressingly, in the last 10 years (since I became tech-dependent) I have floundered my way through broken phones, a lost iPod, dead computers, and notably, one PalmPilot which took a swim in the toilet. And every single one of those times, I had to scramble to pull together friends' contact information and other lost info. I paid hundreds of dollars for data recovery and never was able to recover some files (which is why, at this point, I don't have a single paper I wrote in college or any photographs of the years 2004-2005). Why didn't I learn? Why? Because I'm an idiot, that's why.
Backing up your electronics is super-easy, only takes a few minutes, and actually makes all of your electronics work more efficiently and cohesively. Once a week (or even once a month if you aren't gadget-crazy), back up all of your electronics- digital cameras, Blackberries, cell phones, PDAs, and iPods to your computer. Using the "Sync" capability on your Blackberry, cell phone or PDA, you can link to your computer calendar and address book.
Then, I recommend that you back up all of the data from your computer onto an external hard-drive (they are available at electronics stores starting at about $60). Make sure you back up all of your photos, music files, and important written documents as well. If you have downloaded software that you have paid for onto your computer, you should back that up, too.
Alternatively, if you have a Google account (or if you are willing to register for one- it's free at www.google.com) you can also back up all of your contacts and appointments on Gmail and GoogleCalendar. (which backs it up on the internet, so if anything happens to your computer, you are covered). You can also back up Microsoft Excel or Word files using Google Docs. And you can back up all of your photos on an online photo website, like KodakGallery, which has the added bonus of making it so you can share them with friends and family. If you go the online back-up route, just don't forget to also back up your music files and software on discs.
Trust me (2009 me, not 2004-2005 me): the first time you do a massive back up will take half an hour, and then each time after that it will only take a minute or two. Which definitely beats years of regret. Baby got back (up).
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Around this point in the week, my dinner- menu- planning creativity always seems to start running out of steam. And when the temperature is below- frigid outside like it is on the East Coast (I believe the technical meteorological terminology is "colder than a witch's bosom"), I'm not particularly inspired to make the rounds to my neighborhood grocery purveyors.
Enter an easy, delicious and healthy dinner option that can be made super-fast from things you probably already have in your kitchen- Eggs Poached in Tomato Sauce. (It's also versatile- for eggs-ample, I think it would also make for an eggs-tra special weekend brunch...)
Pour about half a jar of tomato sauce into a large rimmed frying pan, covering the whole surface of the bottom by 3/4" (or make your own using sauteed garlic, tomato puree and red pepper flakes, if you want to be a fancy pants). Warm on medium heat while stirring occasionally (I recommend wearing an apron or, at least, not your favorite silk evening gown while cooking this, as the sauce has a tendency to pop and splatter in all the wrong places). Crack the whole eggs directly into the sauce, trying to keep them separate from one another, and cover. Let eggs poach until yolks are firm, 3-8 minutes (depending on what "medium" heat means to your stove). One egg per person should be sufficient, but we usually indulge and have two each.
Meanwhile butter (or drizzle with olive oil) and sprinkle a little salt on some slices of bread (the same number as eggs you have poaching)- I like something crusty like a boule of French bread, (but whatever floats your boat), place on a cookie sheet, and put under the broiler or in a toaster oven until lightly browned and toasty. Make sure you keep an eye on those suckers- they will burn if you aren't careful.
Place bread on a plate, with a cooked egg and some sauce on top, and then sprinkle with Parmesan cheese (and parsley, if you've got it).
I usually serve it with a salad for a rustic Italian-feeling meal in under 10 minutes. I can't eggs-tol the virtues of this meal enough- if you want quick and delicious, it's eggs-actly what you're looking for.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
As a bit of a foodie (with a healthy appetite), I strongly recommend this book to anyone who has ever wondered where the food on their plate came from. And I recommend it even more to anyone who hasn't wondered, because this you need to know about. In The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan walks the reader through the steps that food takes to get from the farm (or ranch) to the table, and the road is a very eye-opening and frightening one. The author explains how our disconnectedness from the food we eat has serious implications for the health of our bodies, and the health of the planet and economy.
In short, most mass-purchased produce is grown using toxic petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, and then trucked or flown across the country (or even further, in the case of the bell peppers from Spain I got at the supermarket yesterday) to distribution centers, then trucked to local stores. By the time you buy it, it has been out of the ground for many days, and has taken very costly and environment-damaging travels to get to you.
After reading this book, I felt very empowered by the information and was inspired to try to shorten the path between my food and myself. As a city dweller, my options are limited (short of turning our rooftop into a chicken coop), but I was an inspired by a friend in Philadelphia, who belongs to a farm cooperative, to try to find one in my area. The website Just Food provides a great resource for finding CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs in the NYC area (or you can just google CSA and your city name, and some should come up). Here's how it works: you pay a farm a certain amount of money (usually between $250-500 for a full summer of produce) upfront- literal "seed money"- and then when the season comes, you receive a box of whatever veggies and fruit the harvest produced each week. While you share in the inherent risks (drought, insect infestation) of farming, you will likely end up with super-fresh, organic local produce for lower-than-supermarket price all summer long (usually June-November). Most also have optional chicken, dairy and egg share options as well. Some CSAs deliver to homes, or some require you to pick up during certain hours each week (so choose one close to home). All in all, it's an easy and delicious way to make the food chain a little shorter.
Monday, January 12, 2009
One of the desserts I made for our holiday party (and then promptly forgot to photograph) was a truly delicious lemon-blueberry bundt cake that I keep thinking about. If you don't have a bundt pan, you can divide the batter between two loaf pans, and it will be equally loaf-ly.
You will need:
2 1/2 cups (+ 1 teaspoon) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
a few handfuls of blueberries
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
Nonstick cooking spray, for pan
1 cup confectioners' sugar, for dusting or glaze
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, whisk 2 1/2 cups flour with baking powder and salt; set aside.
2. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars with a mixer on high speed until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs, one at a time, beating until incorporated. Reduce speed to low; add flour mixture in three additions, alternating with two additions of sour cream.
3.In a small bowl, toss blueberries and zest with one teaspoon flour; gently fold into batter. Coat a 12-cup nonstick Bundt pan (or two loaf pans) with cooking spray. Spread batter in prepared pan.
4. Bake cake on bottom rack of oven until a toothpick inserted into center of cake comes out clean, 60 to 70 minutes. Cool in pan 20 minutes. Invert onto a rack; cool completely, top side up.
5. For decoration, you can either dust the cake with confectioners sugar (using a sifter), or combine the confectioners sugar with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and enough water to make a liquid glaze. Drizzle over the cake.
This is such a great festive cake for a tea party, a birthday, a shower or for a dinner party. And, if, by some miracle, you don't finish it at the party (for instance, maybe your guests don't have taste buds), it is just as delicious toasted for breakfast. OMG, my mouth is literally watering right now, writing this- it's that good.
Friday, January 9, 2009
Instead of paying the big bucks for wooden boot shapers (like my dandy of a husband has), you can just drop a rolled up magazine into each boot. It will unfurl just enough to hold the bootleg erect (it should be all the way inside the boot- not sticking out like in my misleading pic). Just be sure to use a mag with a little heft- US Weekly probably won't be substantial enough (and no one ever accused US Weekly of being substantial).
It's a green, easy, and economical solution, and best of all, it gives me a great excuse to keep that Rolling Stone with Brad Pitt on the cover just a little longer. Give the droops the boot!