Friday, February 26, 2010

Sneak peek: basement bathroom

Here's a sneak peek at our basement bathroom. We have more to do. There are many benefits to doing it yourself, but a big drawback is how slowly it can go when wedged between job, children, and other real life distractions. Big round of applause goes to Will, first-time tiler extraordinaire.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


A new piece of art, currently gracing a closet door.

Note the cell phone in right hand. My littlest makes it a point to tell me that I'm wearing a purple skirt. She mentions this every single time. I think she's giving me a hint. Note: when a four-year-old gives you fashion advice, perhaps it's time to refresh your wardrobe.

For those of you who were wondering what I look like, now you know.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

By the numbers

Today's blog is my homage to "Harper's Index." This recurring feature in Harper's Magazine contains topical, funny, arcane, whimsical, revealing statistics. (Each stat isn't all of these adjectives at once, of course.) For example, from the January 2009 issue: "Number of box cutters taken from U.S. airline passengers since January 2002: 105,075." Why on earth would you travel with a carry-on box cutter? Planning on opening your UPS packages on board?

Now that I've lived in New England for more than six months, here's my Gena's Index. The theme? Austin/Boston.

Average number of days with highs over 90 degrees (per year):
Austin: 94
Boston: 0

Average number of days with lows under 32 degrees (per year):
Austin: 0
Boston: 102

Average number of miles driven per month (by me):
Austin: 2,000
Boston: 650

Length of mortgage in years:
Austin: 15
Boston: 30

Monthly mortgage payment:
Austin: x
Boston: 1.77x

Average number of times that breakfast tacos were consumed (per half year):
Austin: 23
Boston: 3

Average number of times that bagels were consumed (per half year):
Austin: 9
Boston: 22

Number of times that margaritas were consumed (per half year):
Austin: unknown due to number of margaritas consumed
Boston: 3

Historical data provided by The Weather Channel. Any counting mistakes are mine.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Here's our master vanity concept. The sink has to be off-center in the vanity in order to be centered under the existing medicine cabinet. There's something that disturbs me about the asymmetry, especially because the backsplash/shelf treatment is so pretty. I wonder if it feels forced. We could redo that entire wall, but it would be pretty costly.

The top middle and rightmost drawers are dummies. The other four drawers are functional. There's a shelf underneath for a couple of short baskets. We were planning on paint grade maple topped with marble remnant. It would have pulls...just haven't put them in SketchUp.


After all that work.

We had another thought.

We have this lovely dresser that Will inherited from his grandmother. Now it's not the fanciest piece of furniture. In fact, it is very, very plain, but well built out of solid pieces of wood. And despite lots of neglect, is relatively sturdy. Maybe. Just maybe, we turn over this dresser to a woodworker and have it rehabbed into a vanity. The top taken off. Reinforced so it would support marble. Drawers cut into to allow for plumbing. I think it just might be beautiful. Very unpretentious. And homey. And eco-friendly. Nothing greener than repurposing what you already own.

Then, I could put a tongue-and-groove wainscoting around the bathroom and add a 5" marble ledge at the top of the wainscoting along the sink wall. Similar to this photo here.

From the Kohler and Cottage Living 2007 Idea House in New Orleans

Pretty concept vanity or eco-friendly vintage vanity?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Field trip: Staples Cabinet Makers

Serendipity. My favorite word.

I wasn't searching for anything for the breakfast room. Kitchen, yes. Bathroom, yes. Plenty of items to research. But one day, I was browsing through the Staples Cabinet Makers web site, and found an absolutely perfect something for our space. So one early afternoon, we took a field trip to their showroom located in Plainville, MA.

Owned by Stephen and Christine Staples, Staples Cabinet Makers is a small firm that focuses on handcrafting rustic, heirloom-quality pieces of furniture. Many of their pieces incorporate reclaimed lumber and industrial parts. These eco-friendly materials are revisioned into useful, sturdy, beautiful pieces such as these.

And yet, photos can't convey how incredibly beautiful and tactile these pieces are. As I passed a tiger maple dining table, I ran my hands gently over its top. Its surface felt silky, undulating like the finest, most luxurious fabric. Their reclaimed pieces offer gorgeous patina with an amazingly touchable finish. Not rough. Not plasticky. Just perfect.

You could easily picture the pieces in a design magazine spread. I especially loved the inclusion of unexpected details, repurposed parts from various machines and industrial originals.

Stephen and Christine warmly welcomed us and offered a tour of their workshop. This expansive space holds projects in varying stages of completion, an abundance of raw materials and reclaimed parts, and an amazing collection of hand tools and larger machines, including a leather belt-driven lathe built in 1902.

Pictured is Stephen with one of his hand-turned bowls, small pieces of art in themselves.

In addition to their larger pieces, Staples Cabinet Makers also offers smaller decorative pieces such as mirrors, wall cupboards, and collectibles. They're currently running a Spring Sale with 15% off all items in their showroom and 10% off made-to-order pieces from many stock designs. I look forward to having one of their pieces in my home someday.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Farrow & Ball

You know the saying "champagne tastes on a beer budget"? I have champagne tastes on a prosecco budget.

We're leaning toward painted cabinets that we'll paint ourselves. But the paint will most likely be Farrow & Ball. An English company founded in the 1940s and still independent to this day, Farrow & Ball uses traditional methods of manufacturing paint, using old-fashioned pigments instead of synthetics. The company mixes all of its paint in Dorset, England, and ships them to their stockists. Now, I don't know if I've just swallowed the Farrow & Ball marketing pitch whole, but I have to admit there is something about their colors once applied. They look historic, elegant, muted without being muddy. And who can resist colors named "String" and "Elephant's Breath"?

I've now taken two trips to my nearest Farrow & Ball retailer (or stockist) and purchased enough samples to paint a small closet. And now that I've uploaded the photos, I realized that the colors don't read true on my laptop. The photos are too grayed and dark. The colors do read fairly true on my desktop.


A lovely warm changeable neutral. A warm, pale taupe.

Green Ground

This is an amazing color. A very pale spring green, but in certain lights, it reads as a neutral.

Old White

A perfect sophisticated, warm gray. I don't know what it is, but this color simply screams high-end. This would look stunning with marble.


The color of corduroys. A more intense version of string with perhaps a touch of mustard.

Ball Green

A gray-green that again reads almost neutral.

Vert de Terre

A stunning green with a hint of blue.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Looking glass

For some reason, snow makes me want to take photos. It's a good thing I'm in New England (though this year anywhere in the U.S. except for Hawaii would have sufficed).

I call this series "Through the Looking Glass." I know. Hoity toity. Isn't the act of naming photographs (when I'm not an artist) pretentious? But the name just jumped into my head, and I can't shake it out. Or I guess I could call it "Fun with Focal Length."

Review: Zinsser Perma-White Mold & Mildew-Proof Interior Paint

Reminds me of that old elementary school prank call:

Caller (muffling giggles): "Excuse me, but is your refrigerator running?"
Person who answered: "Yes?"
Caller (bursting into guffaws at own cleverness): "You'd better go catch it then!"

And that, in a nutshell, is how I feel about the Zinsser. Now I'm an old hand with a paint brush and roller, but I haven't done many ceilings. That said, I was stunned at how runny and thin the Zinsser was. I was caught between not having enough paint on the brush and having paint drip off the handle. I'd see paint drips down the walls when I'd barely coated the ceiling above. The coverage was also poor, possibly because I feared overloading the brush. This seemed to happen all too easily.

The guy at the paint store sold me this formulation because I was doing a bathroom ceiling. It's supposed to be great at resisting mildew. I hope so. It wasn't fun to apply.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Maple sugaring

I'm a big fan of Mass Audubon. Our $58 family membership has been one of the best purchases we've made since moving to the Boston area. So when I found out about the maple sugaring program at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, I immediately signed up my family.

The Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary's annual Rent-a-Bucket program gives folks the chance to actually tap maple trees. A great hands-on activity for the entire family. Tickets to a pancake breakfast later in the spring and a bottle of maple syrup made from sap collected on-site were added bonuses. Through their sugaring season, the wildlife sanctuary and its fellow Mass Audubon site, Moose Hill in Sharon, offer maple sugaring tours where you can watch sap being collected and boiled as well as taste the sweet results. Perfect family fun when winter seems to be dragging its heels.

After the participants all arrived, we headed down to a grove of maples trees a short walk away.

Tapping maple trees turned out to be a relatively simple process. You drill a hole in the trunk to a depth of about an inch-and-a-half, angling the hole downward towards the exit. The hole needs to be on the southern side of the trunk, at least six inches from previous holes. (The holes from previous tapping spots heal over and look something like belly buttons). Once the hole is drilled and cleaned out of shavings, a spile is gently tapped into place. A bucket is hooked under the spile and covered.

The sap doesn't really start flowing until the days turn warm. It was in the high twenties that morning so only one of the several trees my son tapped started flowing. The flow was more like steady droplets. We all tasted the sap as it dripped from the spile. It was clear and watery and tasted very slightly sweet. The sugar content is highest at the beginning of the season (around 4%) and drops off to about 1% by its end.

Once the sap flows, it is collected every couple of days. The Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary has a wood-burning evaporator that boils the sap, concentrating the sugars. The final boil is done in the kitchen where temperatures can be more finely controlled. The result can be light, clear amber or a darker, richer maple syrup.

What an amazing family outing! No one wanted to leave. Many thanks to Richard and the other folks who work and volunteer at Ipswich River. Their warmth and enthusiasm for what they do added greatly to our experience. My children all had a hand in tapping the trees. Even the little ones gently tapped in the spiles. We're all looking forward to coming back, visiting "our" trees, and seeing how they're producing. I think we have a family tradition in the making.

(For information on other Massachusetts farms that offer sugar house tours, you can check the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Welcome home, Agatha!

Here she is, waiting patiently for the serious work to begin. Isn't she a beauty?

My son and I both stood at the range (the grates and backsplash were detached for transport). There was plenty of room for us to cook together. He was very excited about our cooking side by side, and couldn't wait to do his specialties: grilled cheese and boxed mac 'n' cheese. He's ten. His repertoire will expand. I can't wait til we can start cooking with Agatha. (And yes, Agatha the Aga is just uber-cutesy, but I couldn't resist.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010


2 girls +
1 pair of scissors +
urge to play hairdresser =

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


A snow day today so instead of the regularly scheduled errands and extracurriculars, I'm researching and designing. I've been hunting for the perfect master bath vanity for awhile now, from Restoration Hardware/Pottery Barn to Home Depot to Costco and a zillion online places. Nada. Nothing that makes me perk up and say, "That! That is the one!"

So we're designing our own. Here are our inspirations.

This lovely piece is from Provence et Fils. The mirrors are a bit much for me, but I absolutely love the encased backsplash with wood shelf and detailing.

It reminds me of this Pottery Barn piece that I also love: the Lucca single sink console. I don't particularly like the way that the sides come forward on the countertop. I think the Provence et Fils piece offers a similar feel with more usable space.

And because our master bath is very small and needs all the storage it can get, we're incorporating elements of this Pottery Barn classic single wide sink console.

I sketched out something freehand, and my husband translated my sketch to something more detailed on Google SketchUp. I love the result, but am also a bit nervous about it. After all, I'm not a trained interior decorator or a restoration historian. I'm very interested to discover what the responses and the bids to build out will be. We'll see.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cinnamon bananas

sauteed in butter. Warm, delicious, nutritious fare for breakfast or a snack, especially on a cold day. After cleaning her plate, my middlest sprout said seriously, "You should make this every day, but not on the days that we don't have bananas." My littlest sprout yelled, "Is this candy?!?"

This is not exactly a recipe. More like a general "how to."

Cinnamon bananas sauteed in butter
bananas peeled and cut twice (once lengthwise and once across)
brown sugar
unsalted butter

Melt a little butter in a heavy pan (nonstick or cast iron). Not a lot. Just enough so the bananas don't stick. Meanwhile sprinkle flat side of banana with brown sugar and a touch of cinnamon to taste. Let butter get hot, but not brown. Place bananas flat side down. Cook until they're warm and a bit caramelized. Flip over. Cook a bit longer. Serve.

Thanks to my next door neighbors for this breakfast idea. I didn't remember their exact instructions so any flaws are mine. I used a bit more than a tablespoon of sugar for three medium, not-very-sweet bananas.

I know. I ruined a perfectly good banana with sugar. And my kids will gladly eat undoctored bananas. I rationalized my decision this way. This takes the place of an unhealthier treat like waffles or cinnamon buns. From the responses I got, my sprouts were just as enthusiastic about the cinnamon bananas.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Winter danger

This is the most dangerous spot in the house.

Yeah, right. You scoff. The risk of taking a nice nap. Or the perils in curling up with a good book.

No, there's a danger in New England winters that no one speaks about. That I'd never considered. It affects my life daily. My children's lives. Even my dog's life.

It's not frostbite (or even frostnip). Nor icy roads. Nor hypothermia nor carbon monoxide poisoning.

It's static.

It's true. Folding laundry has become the housewifely equivalent of running the gauntlet. Have you ever heard fleece sleepers crackle? What a threatening sound. And ouch! The shocks! My trusty liquid Downy claims static control properties. Um. No. Not here. Not in winter. We've got enough static to make laundry move around on their own. Either I have clothes that have become possessed by the devil or I've got enough static to generate electricity for a small city. I'm thinking the latter.

And that sofa? Here in New England, microsuede is deadly. The perfect breeding ground for static. Giving hugs has become painful. I swear that I've seen a spark arc between my hand and my poor pup's nose. No wonder she has been avoiding us. And cuddling with the kids always involves an "ouch!" or two or three. And because they're wiggly, it's an ongoing series of "ow!" and "ouch!" and "yikes!". We're like a live-action "Interjections!" show for Schoolhouse Rock.

So if you're thinking about moving up to the frozen north from sunnier climes, beware. Choose your furniture fabric wisely. Stock up on dryer sheets (I've heard that these might work better at eradicating static electricity). Just some friendly advice from one southerner to another.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Field trip: Yale Appliance

I'd called Yale Appliance and Lighting last week and discovered that they had an Aga 44" Legacy in their outlet. A multi-year Best of Boston winner, Yale Appliance has a reputation for fantastic customer service. True to their rep, the salesman answered all the questions I had about their Aga and invited us to talk to their on-site chef about his experiences cooking with them. So on a rare child-free Saturday, we headed to Dorchester to find out more about Agas.

The Yale Appliance outlet. If you're in the Boston area, this is worth a special trip. We didn't take our children, but I wouldn't hesitate to take them next time. Only open from 10 am to 1 pm on Saturday mornings. Like Brigadoon (but luckily appearing more than one day every hundred years). This is not just a place for dinged, has-been throw-aways either. Not at all. Take a look at this faucet assortment. Beautiful and stylish and at a considerable savings. What's not to like?

In today's outlet, we found SubZero refrigerators of several sizes, a Sharp microwave drawer, a behemoth Wolf stainless hood, and a Whithaus fireclay farmhouse sink among other treasures. Plus many other ranges, hoods, sinks, grills, washers, dryers. Basically anything a home could need.

The Aga 44" Legacy is a gorgeous range that hides its thoroughly modern, dual fuel workings in an enameled vintage exterior. Here it sits nestled among less stylish compatriots. Imagine it as the centerpiece in your kitchen.

I'd loved what I'd seen online, but what about the small ovens? We'd brought our bakeware to test the ovens' capacities. We were pleasantly surprised. There was plenty of room for our most often used bakeware. The baking sheet measures 17"x11", and the pyrex casserole measures 13"x9" (doesn't include handles). It even accommodated our large turkey roaster (albeit at a bit of an angle).

My husband spoke with the chef at Yale Appliances who was extremely helpful. He said that the cooktop was very well laid out. The power was not that of the professional ranges (the biggest burner is 15K BTU), but he thought it handled everyday cooking from simmering to searing very well. He also spoke highly of the convection ovens.

We also looked at the Aga 6-4 on the regular showroom floor. Like the traditional, "always on" Aga cooker, the Aga 6-4 is built from cast iron. However, the 6-4 is a modern appliance that one controls like any other range. The ovens were smaller than the 44" Legacy's. The cookie sheet did fit, but just barely. But isn't this range a lovely beast?

The regular showroom? Amazing. I expected appliances, but the extensive displays of sinks, faucets, and lighting took me by surprise. Even though they were incredibly busy, the salespeople took the time to answer questions and look up pricing. And that lovely Aga in the outlet? Well...that story is to be continued.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Roast brussel sprouts

I recently discovered (as in this year) that I love brussel sprouts. Roasted. Not boiled. Why did I spend the last forty-odd years living in fear of them?

This is such an easy way to prepare them. And...of course...delicious.

Roast brussel sprouts
Wash brussel sprouts and halve them. Toss in ziplock bag with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast in a 375˚ oven for approximately 35 minutes.

You'll never have to fear brussel sprouts again.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Slow cooker short ribs

3 lbs beef short ribs
1 medium onion
1 (28 ounce) can tomato sauce*
3 TB lemon juice
4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 and 1/2 TB dried parsley
1 tsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
2 TB brown sugar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes**
1/2 cup red wine

*I'm trying to avoid using canned foods so I used a 26.46 oz. box of Pomi strained tomatoes.
**A bit less if you're cooking for little ones.

Brown ribs on all sides in large pan or pot. Cut onion into thin rings. Transfer ribs into slow cooker when browned. Saute onion in drippings until soft. Transfer onion to slow cooker.

Deglaze pot or pan with red wine. Pour into slow cooker. Add remaining ingredients. Cook on low for 4 hours. Before serving, skim off fat. Serve with mashed potatoes or pasta.

I'm not a huge ribs fan, but this was delicious. Reminiscent of osso bucco. The gravy or sauce it made was divine. My attempt at deglazing went awry when I had to pause cooking for a bit. The little girls had created a Lego dinner party. How festive! Who wouldn't want to be invited to that table?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mutable onyx

I've never seen a natural stone change so much under different lighting. The tile salesperson did warn us when he checked out our sample.

In daylight, the Green Persian Pistachio onyx looks glorious. Hints of spring green. Smoky translucent depths. Subtle swirls. Though the sample we took home was much more muted than the spectacular display board, it was still lovely.

Under incandescent lights, the gorgeous green turns putrid and bilious. The smoky depths become murky and flat. It's like a Jekyll and Hyde stone.

I'd basically given up on the idea of using it (master bath floor) until I took these photos of it in daylight. See? So pretty!

Someone with a better lighting budget (or perhaps a bathroom that's flooded with daylight), please use this stone!