Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cool Things You Will Like

Happy 4th of July!

Thought I'd share links to some of the things I've been enjoying this week. Savor the long weekend!

I can certainly see this being the perfect spot to have that 4th of July beer and watch fireworks. Now there's a tutorial if you want to make your own! (ReadyMade)

I just love her pictures so much. It's no surprise that she is a professional food photographer. (Frances Janisch)

I can't say I ever felt a driving need to make my own .gif, but now? Oh, now it's a different story. (Liz Stanley)

Oddly enough I haven't seen her show yet, but Emily Henderson is hilarious. I am definitely setting my DVR. (And not to state the obvious, but her design style is SO me!) (Emily Henderson, Secrets from a Stylist)

This is quickly becoming my M.O. these days. Yikes. I have too much to get done.

One time I made a princess costume out of an old sheet and some filmy curtains, but this? This is magnificent. I am incredibly jealous even though I can't imagine what I would do with this when the hundreds of hours of work on it was done. Something tells me wearing a dress modeled after the 1910's to a wedding might be overkill. (Amber Mendenhall)

I am heading out to buy some sketch pads today. Brilliant.

*Photo from

Monday, June 27, 2011

Blood, Sweat, and 24 Bags of Dirt

One of the positives (and negatives) of living in a building with other families is that you don't tackle any outdoor project entirely on your own. Our front parkway (the area between the sidewalk and the street) has been dirt pretty much since we moved in three years ago. Our building has tried a number of things in the past couple of years, but the combination of a ridiculous amount of tree roots, full shade, and neighborhood dogs peeing on everything have managed to keep reverting the space to dirt.

This year Nathan and I talked about actually planting a number of shade plants in the space, hoping that if we used one of those small fences, it would keep out the dogs. We still had to discuss the plan with the building though, and when that conversation happened, our day long project seemed to morph into something a great deal larger. The root issue was discussed, and we determined that we would actually need to dig out the roots and add more dirt, and what if we built an actual structure to keep the dogs out? Nathan and I looked into various types of stone, and as a building we eventually settled on the tumbled concrete pavers from Lowe's.

Our parkway losing the battle of the shade, tree roots, and dog pee.

We placed an order at Lowe's for a whole bunch of dirt and a load of bricks to be delivered to us on the day we were tackling the project. That day we spent about 6 hours digging up roots and leveling the ground before we were able to start laying the bricks (which took another 3 hours). Our pattern left some spots that required us to cut bricks to complete the pattern, which only sat a week before we got them cut (luckily, one of our neighbors is a contractor who volunteered to cut the three bricks for us or it's hard to guess how long they would have sat before one of us tackled it).

Plant box mid project, losing the battle with the oak tree helicopters.

A couple more weeks went by before we could all get together to go buy flowers for the space. This past Sunday, we made the trip to amazing nearby nursery where we had our choice of dozens of shade plants. We got about half annual and half perennial, with a mix of plants common to the Midwest, like a fern, coral bells, bleeding hearts, and astilbe, a few tropicals like begonias, coleus, caladium, and fuchsia for color, and Irish moss to fill in as ground cover.


Choosing the flowers and the layout was probably the hardest part of the whole process because we were dealing with all of our differing visions of what the final product should look like. Though the final look is somewhat different than what I alone would have chosen, I'm happy with the compromise, and it looks a million times better than the previous barren ground!

Sadly, we have another space next to this one that's almost twice this size that we're tackling next. I was under the impression we were doing that next year, but the second the last plant was in the ground, my neighbor turned to me and started talking about getting that started on Labor Day weekend.

Photos by my neighbor, Wayne, on his iPhone.

Friday, June 24, 2011


I'm all about trying more optimism to my life, but I definitely scoffed when I read my fortune last night. In the last year, I've gotten married, visited Turkey and S. Korea, and am currently going through a job upheaval. Good grief, what could possibly be next?

I'm not sure I can handle anymore adventure right now.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My Favorite: Biscotti

Biscotti used to be one of those baked goods that were so intimidating I never even contemplated making it, kind of like cannoli, petit fours, or macaroons. I'm not sure why I finally tried it, but it is surprisingly easy to make, very tasty, and much cheaper than anything you can buy in stores or coffee shops. (Also, dipped in chocolate, they make very impressive Christmas gifts for people.)

I regularly make this biscotti at our house because Nathan likes to have something small to eat in the mornings while he drinks his coffee. And there's nothing better suited to coffee dipping than biscotti. This recipe is very easy to tweak. Sometimes I add pecans and chopped dried apricots, sometimes lemon zest and pistachios, occasionally dried cranberries, walnuts, or almonds. For a very special treat, dip plain ones halfway in melted dark chocolate. (One bag of dark chocolate chips should cover a whole batch of biscotti with very little leftover.)

I am sure I originally found this recipe online, but it's been a few years, and now I can't find it again to give proper credit. I've tweaked it a bit too. This is the base recipe, but you can add any of the ingredients I mention above, just throw those extra ingredients in at the end before you form the dough into logs (except the zest, put that in around the same time as the eggs).

Almond Biscotti  
 (Don't forget: T=tablespoons, t=teaspoons)

3 1/4 c. flour
1 T. baking powder
1/3 t. salt
1 1/2 c. sugar
10 T. melted unsalted butter (1 1/4 sticks)
3 large eggs
2 T. vanilla extract (make sure it's pure, not imitation)
1/2 t. almond extract (don't increase this amount or it will taste bitter)

Sift the flour, b. powder, and salt together in a medium bowl. Beat sugar, butter, extracts, and eggs together in a large bowl. Add dry ingredients to large bowl gently, blending gradually. Optional: Mix in 1 c. almonds,other nuts, or dried fruit.

Form two logs, one per biscotti pan. Bake in 350ยบ oven until golden, about 40 minutes. Cool logs. Cut diagonally with sharp knife. Return biscotti slices back to oven on cookie sheet for 12 minutes or until lightly toasted. Turn over and toast for 8 minutes on remaining side.

See? It's actually pretty easy; the most time consuming part is the baking time, but I've started these at 9 pm before and still headed to bed at 11, no sweat. You can see why I have two biscotti pans; it certainly cuts down on the baking time. You can bake one log at a time if you only have one pan. You can even bake the loaves on cookie sheets, but I've found that the dough spreads too much if it doesn't have the sides of the pan to stop it. Not really a problem exactly, it just means your individual biscotti slices will be very long and thin and everything will take less time to bake.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

My Favorite: Kitchen Tools

 Totally odd post, I know, but I really really love my mango splitter, so you must be informed of this love, and while I'm at it some of my other useful lesser known kitchen tools. I decided to go with a baker's dozen just because I was having a hard time narrowing it down and a baker's dozen just seemed so apt for a kitchen post, right?

First, of course, the aforementioned mango splitter (lower lefthand corner). Fabulously useful. One of those one shot tools that is actually well worth owning if you make mango salsa as often as we do. It takes a wee bit of practice to be able to pick up a mango and choose correctly where to cut it, but after awhile you can identify the slight indention that tells you where the pit lies. This cutter leaves very little flesh on the pit and cuts the mango evenly into two large pieces. I recommend peeling the mango after cutting because it makes it less slippery. Also, you should know that this works slightly less well on the smaller variety of mangos you occasionally find in the produce section, so don't buy those.

Above the mango splitter is the ever-useful mortar and pestle, which was once an anniversary gift from Nathan. It's a nice marble one that has a lovely heft to it and has survived its share of knocks and tumbles. I firmly tout that there's nothing that adds better depth to a dish than freshly ground spices, and it's really satisfying to grind them to a powder with the little mortar (plus you get to feel a bit like a mad scientist).

For bigger spices like cinnamon and large amounts of peppercorns, I turn to my spice grinder (top left). Yeah, sure that may be sold as a coffee bean grinder, but it is fabulously useful in grinding my spices. I would certainly recommend buying a separate grinder for spices than the one you typically use for coffee beans because your coffee may end up tasting like cinnamon (yum) or tumeric (seriously yuck).

I really only use my biscotti pans to make biscotti, but you really can't make biscotti taste as good without them, so in my opinion it's another one of those one use tools that really are worth it to own. Still, I think these pans would be great to make some interesting shaped cakes or brownies if I ever have the urge.

The parchment paper you see in the pans is super useful to have on hand for practically anything in your kitchen. Not only does putting it in/on your cake pans and cookie sheets make clean up so much easier, but you can use it in making patterns for sewing and other crafts and as a disposable surface to save wiping up. Also, you can mimic the fancy bakeries by cutting this into squares and using in as muffin liners for baked goods. I haven't tried this, but I should. Actually, I'm pretty sure I just used up the last of my muffin liners, so in fact, I will be trying this.

Below the parchment paper is the difficult-to-find-in-stores garlic twist. It's kind of ridiculously expensive right now, but I cannot emphasize enough how useful it is to have. We use it for both garlic and fresh ginger; it takes seconds to mince three cloves of garlic and then even less time to clean. The cleaning part is what makes this hands-down better than a garlic press. I believe so firmly that this is worth having that I have given it as a gift in the past though every time it has been met with puzzled and dubious looks. Still, I persist.

If I had to use only one knife for the rest of my life, it would definitely be a  7-inch santoku knife (it practically already is the only one I ever use already). It's the perfect size to tackle anything in the kitchen without feeling like any second I'm going to chop off one of my fingers. Perhaps if I had better knife skills, this would change, but better knife skills don't seem a likely development so I will continue to turn to my favorite knife.

I use my kitchen shears for everything from cutting parchment paper to snipping herbs to trimming the fat off of meat. Sometimes even in preparing the same meal (though I end with the meat and always wash them very well after).

I actually grew up with this cake tester in our kitchen, so I asked for it when I had a kitchen of my own. It sort of reminds me of a oil dipstick, but I am reasonably sure that it's only use has ever been in the kitchen.  Using a metal cake tester, as opposed to a toothpick for example, makes it easier to see if your batter is set, and it's reusable so you're saving on waste. Sure this is another of those one use tools, but it doesn't take up any extra room.
A mini whisk is a surprisingly handy tool to have around. I find myself searching for it when I'm making small batches of batters, when I'm making mixed drinks, and when I just need to mix the salt and baking powder into the flour quickly before I add it to the wet ingredients.

We got the silicone muddler for a wedding gift, so we've really only had this a short while, but it is turning out to be a go-to kitchen tool. I use it for everything from squishing berries for toppings to actually muddling drink ingredients. The little waffle pattern on the bottom makes it very effective in squishing things.

I use my fine cheese grater for grating cheese, of course, but also for grating carrots for my tuna fish salad, and nutmeg (and less successfully, cinnamon sticks).

Finally, last but not least, I use my flour sack towels for everything in the kitchen. I tie them around my waist to use as an apron, use them as my surface for dusting raw fish or chicken with flour and spices, and even use them as actual towels occasionally.

There you have it, an immensely long post publicizing my love for kitchen tools. Like I said, odd, but hopefully helpful. Did I miss any tools or gadgets you can't live without?

*All pictures by me at night with the flash on, so forgive the poor quality. Perhaps I'll get around to replacing these with better ones, but it's about as likely as improving my knife skills. So. Well, don't bet a finger on it, I guess.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Happy Bloomsday!

I just love literary celebration days. It's the nerdy bookworm in me. 

Bloomsday is in honor of James Joyce's Ulysses, which honors the day all the events in the novel take place, June 16, 1904, and is named after the main character, Leopold Bloom.

There are an amazing number of events scheduled around the world today, including maps for those in Chicago, Boston, New York, DC, and LA to follow Bloom's Dublin wanderings in your own city.

My goal before June 16, 2012 is definitely to have read Ulysses so that I can go wandering down at the Bean in celebration of Bloomsday too. But no tattoos for me, I think.

An extreme celebrant of Bloomsday (Tattoo is the last line from Ulysses).
Haven't read it either? Catch up with the entire 1,000-page novel (much condensed, obviously) in tweet form @11ssyses or check out the process at the founder's blog.

First image from Imagine Ireland website.
Second photo via flickr by the queen of subtle.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Recent Conversation #6

Me: Hi, I'm in the grocery store, and I'm confused.
Him: Okay. What?
Me: Explain some things on this grocery list...(blah, blah, non humorous grocery-related blah). Okay, I'll get those things for you. Also, are the mini-energy bars on this list because you'd had to resort to eating them for breakfast, and you're running out since I'm a bad wife, and haven't made you your biscotti yet?
Him: Um, yes to everything except the last part.
Me: Aww...Wait, you mean the "bad wife" part, right?
Him: (Laughs.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Six Word Memoir

I remember when I heard about Smith Magazine's six word memoirs on NPR. At the time, I tried thinking of one for myself, but nothing I came up with really captured me. I'm sure I was getting ready for work and forgot about it as I tackled my commute. Today, as I contemplated another blog entry I am planning, my six word memoir hit me. Funny how I didn't make the connection before. I certainly find myself saying these words often enough.

From craft projects to emotions, my six word memoir is something I find myself saying on an almost daily basis. 

I May Have Gotten Carried Away

Yes, it seems more than a possibility.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

I Won't Let You Down, Frutescent

I encountered this site recently, and the English major in me rejoiced. The whole goal of Save the Words is to encourage people to use words that are falling out of use. I adopted "frutescent," which means to have the appearance of a shrub. I feel this word will be especially apt when describing the effect the soupy Chicago humidity has on my hair.

When you choose your word, you're told that you will receive a certificate of adoption in the mail. You can even purchase a shirt with your word on it. I'm looking forward to my certificate; I plan to display it at my desk at work. Seems fitting for a publishing company, yes?

 Suggestions for using your newly adopted word:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Meandering Along Life's Career Path

My company is "restructuring" yet again. These changes haven't really benefited me in the past (one time I was given a made-up title, the next I was laid-off), so needless to say I'm wary.

Turning to the bottle is certainly inviting.