I love having Wednesdays off. I work for a non-profit on Tuesdays and Thursdays (soon to go to full-time when I take over for the outgoing Executive Director in July, but that's another story). Having a day in the middle of the week to get stuff done -- or simply to start new projects -- is so nice.
Today, I had nothing other than housecleaning planned for the day -- and hopefully some dog walking if the weather permitted (which it did!) -- so I embarked on a project I have been thinking over for months. When we had our old sofa recovered last year, the reupholstery people convinced me to get throw pillows made with the sofa.
I thought I liked the fabric, but once delivered, I realized I was mistaken. But, I can sew, so I figured I'd make myself some new pillows. I went to fabric stores and looked all around for some cool fabric, but never found just the right thing. Then, I remembered my fabric stash -- I pick up fabrics from estate sales. Sometimes I see things that are really beautiful, and I can't pass them up.
I found this lovely linen backed fabric with crewel vines and flowers on it, buried deep in a pile somewhere in the sewing room. Just enough for two, maybe three, pillows.
That was a few months ago.
I finally got around to pulling out the pillow forms from the offensive pillows today, and I set about to work. They took about two hours to make, and I see from the price tag, I paid just $3 for this wonderful stuff. And the pillows look great on the sofa. Dobby seems to like them!
Wednesdays and estate sales. Yes.
Okay, so I have been cooking a lot lately. We are fortunate enough to have been able to totally gut our 80-year-old kitchen and the result is nothing short of amazing. We are the third owners of this lovely old house, and it seems we are the first to make any updates. Which is very good. Except for the unfortunate 80s remodel of the downstairs powder room (which involved a maroon commode and sink, and wallpaper that matched the curtains), the house was untouched. We tackled that bathroom right away, and we were so pleased with ourselves we decided the kitchen would be next.
We didn't move any walls or otherwise extend beyond the original footprint of the room, but by opening the wall between the kitchen and dining room and closing off the door leading to the basement (another basement entry is just a few feet away, so we didn't really need both), we were able to make what seemed like a tiny old kitchen into something beautiful and spacious.
The idea was not to go with whatever the latest design trends, but rather modernize the kitchen with a nod to the style and age of the house. I love it, and it is so much fun to prepare food now!
Funny, though, my latest cooking phase is not actually in my kitchen. The weather is finally beginning to feel like spring around here, and I keep thinking about all the preserving and canning, etc., I plan to do. Len bought me a book on preserving meats and I bought a Charcuterie book, but it was a cookbook on canning (mostly) that made me break out my new toy, a countertop roaster/smoker.
This thing is fabulous. You can roast a whole turkey if you like, but it has these little inserts on the sides where you can add wood chips for smoking. So easy, like operating a crock pot. It's an Oster product and it costs about $75 on Amazon. From my admittedly sparse experience, I don't see why anyone who doesn't smoke meat for a living or for competition would need anything more than this little guy.
Anyway, Eugenia Bone's recipe for smoked chicken intrigued me, so I made it. Other than the 24-hour brine, the actual smoking took about an hour. I smoked three half chicken breasts and used two for her recipe for pasta and arugula with smoked chicken (so very good, it is now in my permanent rotation). The extra chicken breast was taken over to our friends' house, Drew and Sarah, this weekend for pizza night. BBQ sauce as the base and a little bleu cheese with chopped smoked chicken -- a fantastic pie.
As I type this post, I am making a smoked brisket (thank you, Alton Brown, for your recipe). We are having the brisket on some fresh-made rolls from Jim Lahey's My Bread book, a vinegar-based cole slaw (Len does not eat mayonnaise unless he is tricked into it), and maybe something else. I still have time before supper tonight.
Since learning about Jim Lahey's famous No-Knead Bread recipe a couple years back, I have been obsessed with the long fermentation method of making bread. The man is a genius. With some flour, salt, yeast and water, and a covered cast-iron pot or clay baker, any home cook can make a delicious loaf of bread that will impress you -- and any friends lucky enough to share the loaf with you.
So I have been happily making this free-on-the-internet-everywhere recipe ever since (do a Google search and an infinite number of sites show up with the recipe, which originally appeared in the New York Times). I have perfected the recipe to my kitchen and appliances and tastes, but the recipe is still Jim's basic version. Whenever friends come over for dinner, they now expect a loaf of this loveliness and think I am an amazing baker. I always pass along the recipe, as I have become an unofficial No-Knead evangelist.
A few weeks ago, I went on my now-annual trip to Napa Valley with my husband. I always get inspired by the amazing food in Northern California, and wind up ordering every cookbook from every great shop, restaurant, and roadside diner we visit. That last day of our trip each year, I hit "place order" in my Amazon.com cart, and the day after we return, I have new inspiration!
This year, I managed to notice in the "books others have purchased with this title" that Jim Lahey has a book about his No-Knead methods (by the way, he is the guy behind the Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC). I had no idea! And it has been out since 2009. I am woefully behind on most things, true, but this was just tragic! So, of course, I added his book to my purchases.
Oh, the wonders inside! The Ciabatta is divine, the Pancetta is equally good, but it is the pizza dough that knocked my socks off.
I was proud of my pizza dough, which is a variation of the Joy of Cooking recipe. My dough is crunchy on the outside and soft inside, and nice and thin. I make it about once each week or so, and the leftovers are always good the next day (crust doesn't get soggy, etc.). Oh, but had I known I could make absolute magic in my home oven, I'd have dropped that old recipe long ago like yesterday's, well, bread.
There are two pizza dough recipes in the book. The basic pizza dough recipe, which does not use the long-fermentation method, is not so great. But, the dough for the pizza bianca in the book is stellar. I will not reprint it here, because the man deserves to make a bundle off this book.
Lahey makes a white pizza with the dough -- essentially a flatbread with olive oil and rosemary, he claims -- but I use it as a base for all pizza (I just didn't add the oil and rosemary as he does in the book).
The pictures shown in this blog post are from the very first pizza I made with this amazing dough, a chicken, pesto and arugula pie, with ricotta and provolone. Oh, my. Such a good pie!
Buy the book. You will not be disappointed. Seriously. Buy this book!
It was a dog biscuit-making kinda day. I had a few hours to myself and I saw that I had the old-standby ingredients for my hounds' favorite treats, so I got to work. I have been making these for years, and I originally got the recipe somewhere on these internet tubes, but can't remember where (apologies to the originator of this recipe -- if I ever find you again, I will add a credit). The recipe for their favorite crunchy biscuits is:
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup oats
1 cup all-natural peanut butter (try and find the kind with no added crap, just ground peanuts -- either crunchy or smooth works)
1 cup water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Mix the ingredients together. Roll out to about 1/4 inch thickness onto a floured surface and cut into your favorite shapes. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes, take them out of the oven, flip the cookies over and bake another 20 minutes. Once the baking is finished, let them rest and cool on cookie sheets for at least an hour. The flipping and resting makes these treats very crunchy -- good for their teeth.
Is this winter ever going to end? Seriously. I am really tired of snow and ice and cold. My poor little dogs are freezing, too.
I don't know how, but I managed to not fall all winter. Until Friday. It happened so fast and I hit the ground so hard that I just lay there a while, dazed. It happened the afternoon after Sergio and his guys came to take down a beautiful old oak tree in our yard that was infected with the dreaded Emerald Ash Borer that is plaguing the trees here on the North Shore of Chicago. So, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was laying in sawdust. Lots of sawdust. And I carried said sawdust into my house. All over my house.
But my knee hurt too much to bother cleaning it up. The most injured knee (both got slammed hard) is my already damaged knee. So, I was worried I may have screwed up the screws holding that knee together. Friday night I went to bed at 9 p.m. -- I felt like I had been beaten up. My whole body hurt.
Had I still felt as terrible Saturday morning, I'd have asked Len to cancel his trip to Ireland (he left Saturday afternoon for a work trip). Slowly, but surely, I am gaining mobility. I can go up and down the stairs now without squealing at every step.
It's been a while since my last post.
I got a real job.
I am working for a non-profit political organization, working on their communications. New website, print newsletter, e-newsletter, e-marketing, graphics, the whole shebang. A lot of the old synapses are starting to fire again and I am enjoying the gig more than I imagined I would.
But, the job has cut deeply into my writing and art-making time, which is a drag, but I think it's worth it.
The coolest part is the job fits all my requirements, and I didn't even have to look for it. I wanted a part-time communications job not far from where I live. This job fits. Plus, I hadn't even been looking, and a recruiter contacted me out of the blue and set everything up. Pretty cool.
So, I have been working for a month or so, and, while this a fairly unconventional workplace, I like my colleagues and I like the work. So it's all good.
In other news, I have been enjoying visitors lately. My good friend, Debbie, came for a long weekend over the 4th of July holiday. We toured touristy places and walked on the beach and ate lots of good food. It was a great weekend!
Nell and Haley from the ATL are heading up this way soon and we are planning a raucous good time. They will be here when my husband's friends Trevor and Chris are coming up to go see Bob Dylan in Chicago. A full, fun house!
My mom is heading up sometime soon as well. She hasn't been feeling well lately, and it looked like I'd be visiting her this summer. But, she's known for changing her mind about things and has decided she wants to visit me! Hurray!
If you are wondering about the crazy picture of toilet paper rolls, that was taken in the bathroom at Bat17 in Evanston. I'm guessing they buy their bathroom products at Costco.
A day like today makes me wonder what I did in my past life to deserve all this goodness.
As I type this post, I am sitting on my lovely back screened porch, overlooking a a really pretty yard with flowers blooming, birds singing and the sun shining. Loretta, the crazy whippet, is sitting at my feet, dozing. Life is good.
It's around 80 degrees and there isn't a cloud in the sky. I keep my bird feeders filled with seeds, so there are always birds hanging around. For the last ten minutes or so, I've been watching a chickadee scouting around for a good nesting spot. If she chooses something too accessible to Loretta and Scully, I will discourage her, but it's been great fun watching her check out her options.
The lawn guys were here the last several days doing our spring cleanup. We do our own weekly maintenance, but it is really nice to have them come out spring and fall to spread mulch, and rake leaves, aerate and fertilize. They are a great group of guys who work really hard and, frankly, make me feel ashamed at my laziness. They installed a field stone patio out back last week, and removed our old broken down front walk and replaced it with pavers, and they repaired our decrepit front stoop.
It all looks wonderful and I am just so house proud right now.
But, I am most pleased with the back yard. Back in Georgia, it was really hard to spend time outside during the middle of the afternoon. It was just too hot! Here, there is always a breeze and we have so many trees, it stays pretty cool even on the hottest days.
Tonight, I am roasting a chicken on our charcoal grill and I have made a beet salad and I have three ears of corn I plan to make into something delicious.
And to think, just a few months ago I was hating on this place. The winter really dragged me down, but days like today almost make the winters worth it.
I just spent a week with the original Tweedle, at her home in Florida. I left Chicagoland dreary and cold. But the week I was gone, it was lovely here. Meanwhile, in north Florida, it was hot and rainy, really humid. I just can't win!
But, upon my return to Chicagoland, I find the weather here just glorious. The hostas are popping up all over, there are buds on all the trees, and loads of plants and flowers shooting up everywhere.
We are getting a patio installed in our backyard and the front walk repaired and replaced. The patio is really important, because with all the rain we have had, the dogs just tracked mud into the house. With a patio, at least there is some barrier from the mud to the door and we can catch them and wipe their paws. Besides, it looks awesome! Once the grass starts to fill in around the edges, it will be complete.
I am building a rock garden at the edge of the patio, where my bottle tree lives. It will be nice drainage, and look good. I bought the plants yesterday and hope to get started on the work tomorrow. I love rock gardens, partly because they are no-maintenance and because, well, I just love rocks. For years, I collected interesting rocks whenever I went someplace new. I had a few I brought back from Asia and Europe and from all over the U.S. (Just smallish rocks, mind you, nothing too big for carrying on a plane.) But, I traveled a lot, and the collection got pretty big. And we move a lot (but hopefully not anymore!). This last move, I just decided to leave the lovely rocks in the garden in Georgia. Those rocks had lived in their original locales, and then in my gardens in Michigan, Atlanta, Seattle, and then Atlanta again. They needed a rest.
I have to admit, I was feeling kinda blue last month. It's been a pretty long winter in Chicagoland and I'm just not used to it yet. In early March, I went to Atlanta to visit friends and came home with the flu that evolved into a nasty cold. It's been a month, and I still have a slight cough.
But, in spite of the cold weather and crummy cold, there were several bright spots in my month.
A very dear friend in Alabama noticed the weather in Chicago and just decided I needed some Springtime and sent me a beautiful bouquet of flowers. (I just tossed them out -- they lasted three weeks!) It was unbelievably kind of her to think of me, and I am ever so grateful!
A few days after that was my birthday, and, gosh, if you need a reason to like Facebook, birthdays are it. (I sometimes really hate FB, but it is the easiest way to keep in touch with friends and family.) Every year, I get a burst of happiness from FB on my birthday, when friends from all parts of my life send me well wishes. Just hearing that "ping" all day from my phone helped make my day even better.
But, the best part of the month, the part that actually got me out of my doldrums and back into the land of the living, was the vacation my husband and I took the last week of March.
We have both travelled extensively for work, but have rarely travelled together. In fact, in our nearly three decades together, I can only think of four planned vacations.
We went to Napa Valley (pictured at left is a vineyard, but I can't remember which one. Above left is an old vineyard on the Hess property that belongs to Christian Brothers. We went to 15 or so over the course of the week, and grape vines were everywhere!).
We flew first class, stayed in a very nice hotel in Napa, ate incredible food and came home with four cases of wine, plus joined a couple wine clubs. We also went to the Lagunitas brewery and went to a cheese festival in Petaluma. We spent our last night in California in San Francisco, and had a lovely dinner in Chinatown (near the Fairmont hotel where we stayed).
I guess when we finally get around to a vacation, we do it right!
When we came home, most of the snow was gone and the neighbor kids were wearing shorts (though I think that was wishful thinking on their parts). The next day, it did snow here, but it didn't stick and now the sun is shining and when I went to Home Depot yesterday, I noticed they were getting all the garden stuff out. Hurray! Spring has finally sprung!
(The picture at left is from the Ladera Winery. It is lovely. The tree in the middle is really beautiful and I plan to include it in some Tweedle art soon.)
Chicagoland was hit with more snow this week. Which is no surprise, really, just annoying. Especially since I am sick as can be with my THIRD bout of illness this winter.
My mother (the original Tweedle), ever the optimist, warned me yesterday that my father had a lot of winter colds and flu, too, and that I should see a doctor to rule out emphysema. Never mind that my dad was a heavy smoker until his diagnosis in his fifties, and that, aside from a few in my college days, I have never been a smoker.
Last week, I went to Atlanta to visit some friends and go to a book signing for the Smitten Kitchen cookbook. I had SO much fun! Too much, really, given that I wore myself out and made myself susceptible to all the nasty germs on the plane ride home.
It started out with fatigue, progressed to body pains and sweats, headaches, joint aches, and coughing and sneezing. I am over the hump now, but my throat is on fire from all the coughing. Pity me.
My wonderful husband has had a companywide business meeting in Chicago all week, but has come home twice now to replenish my juice and cough medicine supplies. He's a good egg. It's just as well he's not here. I'd just infect him and we'd both be miserable.
I may use the picture of the bottle tree in my back yard in my Holiday cards next winter. All my Southern friends will think that white stuff is so pretty. I know, I know. Y'all have have had snow this winter, too. But, what you got is no comparison to having to plow a path in the backyard so your dogs can relieve themselves.