Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent Calendar Round-Up

Remember those crappy cardboard and glitter advent calendars of yester-years?  The doors are officially open to a new age of counting down to Christmas!  These are some of my favorites this year that provide a magical spectacle and really pack a punch.

via Pickles
I especially love this one because it can be used year after year, only takes the tiniest of presents, and can be rolled up and stored away with ease.

Handsome image and idea, though I think the larger gifts should be saved for Christmas itself.  Let's not get ahead of ourselves here....

This is made out of small tins.  They could be magnetized to stick to the refrigerator door...

Start saving those matchboxes!  This is adorable.

I do like the ones using clothespins.  This minimalist design looks nice with variously wrapped packages, but also with nothing attached.

A great use for all those cardboard toilet paper rolls.

Finding 25 tiny gifts can be a challenge.  I usually find myself in Chinatown buying some erasers, wind up toys, stickers, candies.  I also try to get some useful items in there like chapstick, samples from Kiehl's, ribbons for wrapping Christmas gifts, little packages of nails, thumbtacks, wire ornament hooks, and tiny Christmas tree ornaments.  Any other ideas?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

And now for something Completely Different (i.e. Slightly Different)

TheOccasionist, SouthwestThanksgiving13

Change was in the air this fall as we gathered together to discuss our Thanksgiving menu.  We all agreed we needed to shake things up a bit: we were tired of making the same exact recipes year after year.  My parents go to Santa Fe every fall and return home with incredibly flavorful chile powders and whole dried chiles from the farmers' market there.  We are always struggling to find new uses for these flavors before the next round arrives.  With all these chiles at our fingertips we decided that this year would be a showcase of New Mexican flavors, in other words a Southwest Thanksgiving.  And of course everything would be different....
We sat down together to discuss the menu of new and different dishes we were going to prepare, only to find that every one of us had a dish (or two) that we apparently couldn't live without for our Thanksgiving feast.  Personally, I couldn't give up the cranberry sauce my mom has made for years.  My dad had to have the mashed potatoes.  Gravy was a non-negotiable for my mom.  Making something new and different was going to be harder than we had expected.
We came to the realization that it was our own traditionalist tendencies that kept us in a Thanksgiving "rut", and that really what was so wrong with that?  If we cared so much about keeping particular dishes in the Thanksgiving canon, then we had better embrace our "rut".
Needless to say, we mostly altered traditional Thanksgiving dishes, giving them a twist instead of having something completely different.  We had a lot of fun researching recipes and identifying "Southwestern" ingredients.  We tried to incorporate the "three sisters": squash, corn and beans.  These three grow well together because they help nourish one another, and they are a common combination in  traditional Southwest Indian diets.  We asked friends for their recipe suggestions, and even received in the mail a stack of New Mexican magazines with recipes from friends in Santa Fe.  And, I think we all had a pretty good time arguing about what recipes could and couldn't change.

Ultimately, this was our Southwest Thanksgiving menu:

Nibbles before dinner:

Pecan-Chile Dip
Roasted Chile-Pumpkin Seed Salsa
Tortilla Chips
Fresh Vegetables
Spiced Pumpkin Seeds

The dinner:

Butternut Squash Soup with Cayenne and Sauteed Mushrooms

Chile-Rubbed Turkey 
Cornbread Dressing with Poblano Peppers and Chorizo Sausage
Mashed Potatoes with Chicos (smoked and dried corn kernels)
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Cilantro-Lime Pesto
Cranberry Sauce (the usual recipe with orange and walnuts)
Cranberry Sauce with Jalapeno and other earthy peppers
Pickled Red Onions


Pumpkin Pie
Pecan Pie
Ginger Ice Cream
Chocolate Chile Truffles
Caramel Popcorn
Chocolate Pecan Bark

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Hors d'oeuvres

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The bird

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The spread: (Clockwise from top left) The Turkey, Cornbread Dressing, Cranberry Sauce, Pickled Onions, Roasted Chile Salsa, Brussels Sprouts, Mashed Potatoes.

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My heaping plate

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Chocolate Chile Truffles

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Caramel Popcorn and Chocolate Pecan Bark

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All gone....

Table decor included a mix of gourds and cactus pears with a sprinkling of paper cactus cocktail stirrers for good measure.  I managed to ignore the whole "cactus" part of the cactus pears when I bought them.  I picked each one up, rolled it over to check the color on all sides, and then stood in line to check out with them cradled in my arms.  Do NOT follow my lead on this one!  I had very uncomfortable invisible cactus spines in my hands for a few hours.
The cactus cocktail stirrers I bought in Chinatown, cut the wooden pick down to about an inch long, and stuck the ends into rounds of cucumber to stand them up straight on the table.
I'm thinking maybe we'll improve upon the Southwest theme next year.  A few ideas for next time:
- Crumble the cornbread in the dressing in larger chunks
- Write out the menu on a board or mirror for guests to refer to
- Watch your hands on the prickly cactus pears

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Gourds, Cactus pears and Cactus cocktail stirrers amidst votive candles

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Gourds and cactus: Mixed messages? Perhaps, but we're allowed to on Thanksgiving

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The garden

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     A few leftover bottles of wine chillin' in the garden

Thursday, November 22, 2012

An All Day Affair: Thanksgiving Prep

TheOccasionist, AllDayCooking6

One thing I love about Thanksgiving is waking up in the morning, turning on the oven, and using it all day.  There are so many dishes to make, the kitchen becomes a stage and the cooks become performers dancing between one another, juggling knives and balancing pans.
This probably sounds absolutely dreadful to some though.  I happen to enjoy cooking, and have prepared Thanksgiving dinner with seasoned cooks who know the kitchen we use together and are organized and thoughtful about sharing the space.  However, I know that preparing the Thanksgiving meal can be a pretty stressful event.  So I like to think of it as a whole day of celebration rather than putting all the focus on the meal.  For me it begins with the preparation: Planning the menu, doing the grocery shopping, assigning tasks, beginning to cook, lots of pots of tea which melt into glasses of wine as the time comes to actually eat.
What are your Thanksgiving traditions besides the eating part?  A walk in the woods?  The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?  A quiet breakfast at your favorite diner?  Whatever you do on Thanksgiving, remember that the meal itself is only a fraction of the occasion and that there are many ways to make it memorable.

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Preparations begin with plenty of tea on hand

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Caramel popcorn

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Rolling the chocolate chile truffles

TheOccasionist, AllDayCooking5 by ElizabethVanBuren
Two sauces: Pecan-chile sauce and Roasted chile-pumpkin seed salsa

Can you guess what our theme is this year?  .... Southwest Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wedding of Whimsy

I'm still trying to figure out what makes a wedding great, but this was definitely one of the most creatively handcrafted and whimsical I've attended.  Apologies for the quality of photographs -- I went camera-less, but found myself overwhelmed by the ebullient details and had to resort to my phone's camera.

After the ceremony, we processed through the streets of the West Village with makeshift instruments, giant garlands of paper flowers and a group of whimsically masked and costumed revelers. 

Arriving at the 14th Street Subway Station, we all boarded the train bound for the reception in Queens.  The bride and groom found seats directly under an illustrated subway poster of a subway car scene with a cast of NYC characters colorfully represented.  It seemed to reflect our own parade of merry-makers.

Arriving at the reception, we were faced with tables laden with food and flowers, reminiscent of a medieval feast.


The "wedding cake" was the most ethereal and enchanting I have seen.  Made by the father of the bride, it was a whirl of branches bent together and fitted with wire "nests" full of cream puffs.  The most delicious cream puffs I have ever eaten!

The traditional bride and groom cake topper snuck itself into the tree as well.

The reception space was hung with hand dyed paper banners and fairy lights.

The view of the Manhattan skyline was breathtaking, especially with the party reflected in the window.

Details really help to set the tone of a party and invite guests to experience the events in particular ways.  The details of this wedding set a tone of abundance and abandon, and gleeful originality.  This kind of energy is catching, and it caught on fast with the guests who added their own fodder and exuberance, making it a memorable occasion for our bride and groom.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Every Day Delights: (Over) Abundance

Zucchini is a prolific garden vegetable.  Every time you turn around more squash have formed on the vine.  If you fail to inspect the plants for even a single day, you may end up with a mammoth zucchini the size of your thigh.  They are certainly sneaky things, and thus they require a certain amount of stealth on our part as well.

Barbara Kingsolver wrote of zucchini season:
       "Sometimes I just had to put down my knives and admire
     their extravagant success. Their hulking, elongated
     cleverness. Their heft. I tried balancing them on their
     heads, on their sides: right here in the kitchen we had the
     beginnings of our own vegetable Stonehenge. Okay, yes, I was
     losing it. I could not stay ahead of this race. If
     they got a little moldy, then I could compost them. And the
     really overgrown ones we were cracking open for the
     chickens to eat – that isn’t waste, that’s eggs and meat….
        Could they design an automobile engine that runs on
        It didn’t help that other people were trying to give them
     to us. One day we came home from some errands to
     find a grocery sack of them hanging on our mailbox. The
     perpetrator, or course, was nowhere in sight.
        ‘Wow,’ we all said – ‘what a good idea!
        Garrison Keillor says July is the only time of year when
     country people lock our cars in the church parking lot,
     so people won’t put squash on the front seat. I used to
     think that was a joke.…”

    -Barbara Kingsolver, excerpt from 'Zucchini Larceny,' Animal,
    Vegetable, Miracle

Assuming Garrison Keillor is correct, and we all have a little too much of a late summer harvest, it is time to get creative with this ingredient.  
Grilled zucchini is definitely my favorite, but I have had some other more surprising dishes as well: Zucchini skin salad with lemon zest, Disappearing Zucchini Orzo (Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), Zucchini Brownies (Edible Berkshires), Pizzas with zucchini, corn, feta, lime and cilantro.  The list goes on and on.  Some recipes showcase the zucchini's flavors, and others use it more for its texture and moisture.

Last weekend I got inventive in the kitchen.

Clockwise from top: A tiny fraction of the harvest, zucchini soup, zucchini bread, zucchini pickles (delicious atop a hamburger).

This weekend I'll probably do a little offloading, so keep your doors locked....

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Back to School

I've got the back to school blues and I'm not even headed back to school.  I confess that even as a non-school-attending adult, it still crushes my heart to see those banners and ads go up every summer's end about your nearest "Back to School Sale".  I'm a firm believer in enjoying every moment given to us, as you know, and the summer season is one of those that is very dear to me.  Especially the end of summer when the evening light is so golden, the grass is parched, and the nights start to get a bit cooler.

That said, I do have a back to school tradition that I love.  I haven't been a student for a number of years now, but L is starting a graduate program today so I have been thinking about "back to school" and my mixed feelings about it.  It is certainly bitter sweet, which is why I like having the following tradition to brighten the moment: The first day of school photo.  My parents insisted on taking one of me every year as I headed out the door with my still empty backpack and brand new blazingly white sneakers.  I hated it then, but somehow by the time I started college I came to love that moment.  So much so that my college roommate and I did whole photo shoots of ourselves headed back to classes each fall.  We made sure to make them really shmaltzy -- since they inherently are.  We often used the autumn-touched lake as a back drop, and clasped our hands under our chins as an homage to the cheezy official class photos we had been forced to take in elementary school.  The difference being that these were fun and goofy and we took them because we wanted to.
Whether by choice or not, these photos now provide me with a cross section of the years as they have passed: the change in fashions, hair length, braces to retainer to perfect smile, backpack to shoulder bag, child to young adult.  Sometimes it is good to reflect on who you were.  It may help you get to who you want to be.
And besides, as an adult who doesn't want to pose in front of the door with a brand new backpack to capture the moment of setting out on a new adventure?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Watermelon Round-Up!

'Tis the season for those big juicy globes that bring delight to all and are such a radiant symbol of summer.  That's right, I'm talking watermelons.  Here's a round up of watermelon uses from elegant to campy.

Watermelon and Feta Salad:

This is one of my favorite recipes.  I see it on restaurant menus more and more these days, but I still find it an unexpected pleasure to serve at home.  Plus it is easy and doesn't require ANY cooking (which is a great advantage on a hot day).

Watermelon, cut off rind and thinly sliced
Feta, sliced thinly
Olive oil
Black pepper, freshly cracked
Salt, a flaky one is the best like Maldon or Fleur de Sel

Arrange sliced watermelon on individual plates, then place feta slices on top.  Drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Ta-dah!

An Alternative Watermelon Salad:

Watermelon, cut off of rind and thinly sliced
Mint leaves, whole or ripped
Olive oil
Black pepper, freshly cracked
Salt, a flaky one is the best like Maldon or Fleur de Sel
Chili flakes

Arrange sliced watermelon on individual plates and sprinkle with mint.  Drizzle with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and chili flakes.

Watermelon Porcupine:

This whimsy just tickles my fancy because we've had a resident porcupine in my parents' garden for the past two years.  She/he waddles out in the late afternoon to fill up on greenery and in the process trims our hedges.
Image via Cutest Food

Vodka Watermelon:

Image via SweetPaul

I've always wanted to try this, but haven't yet.  These directions come from Sweet Paul

Large funnel

Cut a hole in the watermelon all the way into the meat. Place the funnel in the hole and pour in the vodka.  (He suggests using lime vodka.)

Note: It takes about 2 days for a watermelon to soak up 2 cups of vodka, so do it in the fridge and ahead of time.

Watermelon Polo:

This game is reminiscent of the days of summer camp.  It can be played in a pool or at the lake.  Grease a watermelon using Vaseline or Crisco.  Divide your players into two teams.  The objective is to get the slippery watermelon to the "goal" without picking the watermelon up out of the water. (In a pool, the goals would be two opposite walls.  In a lake, use two buckets weighed down with rocks to keep them submerged, and set them up about a pool-distance apart from each other.)  I promise, this is harder than it sounds.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Every Day Delights: Inventive Light Fixtures

I've seen a bunch of creatively repurposed pendant light fixtures in my travels recently.

A cheese grater chandelier at Little Muenster, a grilled cheese shop on NYC's Lower East Side.

Image via The Kitchn

Image via The Kitchn

Relique sells a single antique cheese grater fixture

Image via Relique

Beaters from industrial mixers form the light fixture at The Cheeseboard Collective in Berkeley, CA.

Zipper 8 Lighting makes a soda can tab pendant light

Can you imagine what an archaeologist would think having unearthed one of these? "Were these tools?  Are there remains of grated cheese, or slopped soda? Or are they light fixtures, having been fitted with a socket and bulb?" They might never get it straight, but lucky for us, we live in the present where objects are constantly being reinvented in playfully creative ways!