Friday, July 30, 2010

Dandelion wine sangria

No more news to report on the renovation. And in this case, no news is not good news. We've hit a roadblock, and that roadblock is called rough plumbing. Nothing can move forward until the plumber comes so we've had a subcontractor-free few days.

Luckily, a visit from great friends helped take our minds off reno delays.

And this. Dandelion wine from Russell Orchards in Ipswich, MA. Along with nine pounds of sweet, plump blackberries and blueberries, our friends also picked up an assortment of nontraditional wines. Blueberry. Pear. And dandelion.

This photo was taken after we'd downed much of the bottle, but look at the color. There. Way down toward the bottom of the bottle. Yes, it's yellow. Really, really yellow. The Russell website says, "unique flavor has the essence of sherry wine." And yes, it was unique. Very sweet. Almost syrupy. With a hint of...dandelion flower?

Too sweet for the majority of us. So, we turned it into sangria. A perfect summery drink and a great way to use a not-exactly-to-your-taste wine.

Dandelion wine sangria
Bottle of dandelion wine (or any sweet white)
2 cups seltzer water
2 oz. brandy
juice 1 lime
1 cup fresh blackberries
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
Ice cubes

Put ice cubes in a pitcher. Pour wine and brandy over ice. Add lime juice and berries. Lightly crush berries. Let sit for 15-30 minutes. Add seltzer before serving.

This is a very flexible recipe. You can use a wide variety of fresh fruits and wines, whatever you have on hand. For a dry wine, try adding ginger ale instead of seltzer.

Russell Orchards had an abundance of ready-to-pick blueberries and blackberries. Unlike picking strawberries which involved lots of stooping and crouching (sadly difficult for my rusty knees), I found picking blueberries very relaxing, almost zen. Add fresh cider donuts and nearby Crane beach, this becomes a perfect day's outing.

Apologies for the photo.
Plastic doesn't photograph as well as glass,
and my glass pitchers are packed away.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The curse is broken

Today's renovation news? We're pretty in pink, and the curse has been broken.

Sorry for the abysmal photos. I forgot to take any until the sun was just a rosy glimmer in the west. I'm amazed these photos, taken in near darkness with no flash, came out at all.

We are now insulated. Well. Just the kitchen. Which is good because for whatever reason, this room tends toward temperature extremes...frosty in winter and hot in the summer.

The guys also fixed the severely sloping floor down the back hallway and butler's pantry. A couple of general contractors referred to the slope as a "curse." Maybe it is. In which case, the curse has been broken. Is this a regionalism? Like "pocketbook"? I tried to look up the origin and usage of "curse" in this context, and came up with nothing. Yes. I'm a word nerd.

The curse was broken by copious amounts of self-leveling underlayment.

This is just the butler's pantry looking into the mudroom. The back hallway (not pictured) is a wall-to-wall river of the stuff. We'll be installing reclaimed white oak flooring on top of the underlayment during next week's DIY marathon.

In other renovation news, IKEA's new Ramsjo white-painted wooden cabinet doors sound promising for the butler's pantry. They'll be in stores soon. I'm planning a trip to Stoughton to see them first-hand.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Blustery day for butterfly bush

I've wanted to take photos of our butterfly bush for weeks now.

It sprawls overgrown, arcing at shoulder-height over the path to our front door, nudging visitors onto the grass. It thrums with life...bees of various sizes, a spectacular butterfly, and tiny, nondescript, energetic butterflies.

This morning, I finally had a few spare minutes. Today was a blustery day. Branches dipped and swooped in the gusts. It was a difficult day to shoot. As soon as I'd have a subject in focus, the entire branch would drop out of frame.

It was as difficult for the insects. The elegant butterfly flattened its wings against the wind.

And as the branch bucked and swayed, the butterfly tacked its wings against the gusts. Angling. Reacting. Riding the tossing blossoms.

I've been feeling a bit like that lately. Like an insect hanging onto a wildly bucking branch on a gusty day. But like the bees, I'm blown off, correct course, and I try again. Nervewracking, but at least I'm surrounded by flowers.

Friday, July 23, 2010

I can see clearly now

The wall has gone.

(With apologies to Johnny Nash.)

I haven't posted much about the kitchen because frankly, there wasn't much to post. There were things happening. Slowly. But they were things like rough electrical, getting rid of all that random wiring and running wire actually through the walls. Important, but not visually dramatic.

But yesterday. Yesterday, they opened up the doorway between dining room and kitchen.

Finally, I could see it. The way the space is going to look.

This opening is probably the single biggest change in the kitchen. And yes, I was anxious about how it would look. You see, we designed the kitchen by ourselves. No architect. No kitchen designer. Just us with input from the great folks online at Gardenweb's kitchen forum and various friends and family members.

Here's the before (furniture and lighting belonged to the previous owner):

Here's how it looks now:

I love it! Whew!

Functionally, this opening improves the traffic flow. Before, there was only one narrow entrance to the kitchen, accessed via a rear hallway. People would enter the kitchen then get stuck in the breakfast area. Children were always dashing in and out behind me as I cooked, and I worried that I'd bump into someone with a pot of boiling pasta. Now you can enter/exit via the dining room, avoiding the cooking/prep areas of the kitchen.

But beyond the flow improvement, the new opening lets in so much light! Now from the kitchen, I can see the front yard, and if anyone is at the front door. The kitchen feels much more connected to the rest of the house. Next week should be a busy one. Rough plumbing, putting in the new window, and drywall. Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Though nothing can bring back the hour...

Do you know how sometimes, a fragment of a memory teases your brain? Nothing as robust or fully fleshed as something remembered, but an echo of a memory. A shadow?

"Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;"

I could hear a woman's voice, speaking these words. After searching, I discovered that they were spoken by Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass. Set to music by Single Gun Theory in "Take Me Back." Their album, Like Stars in my Hands, instantly transports me back to grad school. I can literally smell the yellowed paper and library dust. Feel the quiver of caffeine and little sleep and deadline-fueled research.

My present, this flower, lies thousands of miles, geographically and metaphorically, from that memory. My biggest and my smallest trooped into my office, bearing two flowers from the garden. A gift from them and from my current life, so different than what I'd imagined back then.

"Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;"

- William Wordsworth,
"Ode. Intimations of Immortality"

Monday, July 19, 2010

Pizza on the grill

After eating this tonight, my son announced that we should grill pizza all the time. The pizza crust developed a lovely texture on the grill, chewy with a nice crunch. Normally I make homemade dough, but because we're operating with a minimal basement setup, I bought the premade Trader Joe's dough balls.

We paired the pizza with farmers market bicolor summer squash, lightly brushed with olive oil and dusted with salt and pepper. The squash was incredibly sweet and flavorful.

We had nowhere to roll out the dough. Sometimes, you just have to get creative. In this case, Will laid a piece of old kitchen countertop on the deck table. Our youngest was an enthusiastic helper and ladler of sauce.

Grilled pizza

Put a pizza stone on the grill. Preheat grill to medium-high heat.

Roll out dough on a floured surface. Prick lightly with fork. Dust pizza paddle with cornmeal. Slide paddle under crust and move it to the pizza stone. Cook covered for 4-5 minutes. Remove. Add sauce and toppings. Place back on pizza stone. Cook covered until the cheese on top begins to brown, approximately 8 minutes.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Life itself is the proper binge"

Words to keep in mind. When I was much younger, I thought I could inhale life in great, greedy gulps. Now. Maybe I nibble. Anxiously. (Although I wolf my food. Too many years of having only minutes to eat before the children needed me. It's a habit I'm trying to stop.)

I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but the highlight of my Washington, D.C., trip was not the Washington Monument or the flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner. Or any of the great and glorious national and historical treasures housed there.

It was Julia Child's kitchen.

I admit it. I'm kitchen-obsessed. I glued my nose to the plexiglass and admired every practical, colorful inch of Julia Child's working space from the black, six-burner Chamber range to the wonderful mix of stained and painted wood. That her kitchen looks so modern today attests to the longevity of designing and choosing materials for function. Easier said than done.

So many of Julia Child's choices could and should be used in today's kitchens. Her cabinetry mixed stained wood with blue and green painted cabinets. The colors were cheerful and individual, transcending fashion.

Butcher block counters were used throughout the space. They looked like they were in well-used, but wonderful shape. For several hours after seeing her kitchen, I had second, third, and fourth thoughts about choosing stone countertops over wood. Julia had solved the water/sink/wood problem by using a large stainless sink integrated into a stainless counter with drainboard. An elegant and functional solution.

The large range with stainless hood and integral stainless shelf were surprisingly modern. Utensils, pots, and kitchen equipment were all arrayed, close at hand. This may seem cluttered to some, but I loved it. There's something inherently sculptural about kitchen equipment. Something honest. This was a kitchen about making food, not about making a statement. Lovely.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Grilled corn on the cob

It's absurd how I first learned about grilled corn on the cob. Not from a cookbook. Or any cooking-related media. No. I saw the title character on Nero Wolfe, that excellent, short-lived A&E series, pontificate on the superiority of grilled corn. Summer hasn't been the same since.

If you haven't already, you must try this. You'll never boil another ear of corn again. I promise. It's that good.

Grilled corn on the cob

Gently pull down husk from the cob, leaving the pieces attached. You may only be able to pull it down about halfway. Don't worry, and don't tear off the husk.

Remove all the silk that you can.

Smooth the husk back into place. Repeat with each ear. Preheat grill on medium heat. Lay the ears on the grill. Turn occasionally.

The husks will char. That's okay. After about 20 minutes, remove from grill. Cool a bit, and then peel off the husks. The kernels will be unmarred, juicy, and full of flavor. The corn tastes so good that the kids forget to ask for butter.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I wandered out amongst our gardens this afternoon. With the weekend rains, the plants have edged past luxuriant into Audrey II-wanna-be territory. Actually "gardens" is too manicured a term for the motley sprawl of greenery and blooms in our backyard. We'd popped the vegetables into any available empty bed space. This lack of planning shows in the riotous disorder of flowers, foliage, and edibles. A landscape designer would wince. A cook, however, might be intrigued.

Between the kitchen demo and the persistent little tummy bug raging through the whole family, we haven't had a chance to enjoy as much garden produce as we'd like. We just harvested huge bags of fresh lettuce, mustard greens, and basil. Along with the tomatoes, corn, and squash from the farmers market, they'll make delicious foundations for meals in the next few days.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Mosaic Monday: Land's Sake Farm

From our strawberry-picking visit to Land's Sake Farm in Weston. Can I just say how much I love my macro? Big, big major lens love. Now I must buy it a gorillapod (or cut way back on the coffee so I can get rid of the shaky hand blur). Buying photography accessories has become more addictive than buying shoes!

Now blueberry and raspberry picking season is here. How quickly this summer is flying!

For more mosaic fun, visit the Little Red House.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Softness triumphs over hardness,

"feebleness over strength. What is malleable is always superior to that which is immovable. This is the principle of controlling things by going along with them, of mastery through adaptation."
- Lao-Tzu

My new mantra. That I'm repeating repeatedly. Because surprises du jour are a specialty of the house under renovation.

A key tool in my trusty survival kit. Good for all renovation ills, including anxiety, irritability, frustration, nervousness, and the vapors. Plus, it has antioxidants.

Sadly, I think dark chocolate-covered pomegranate has met its match today.

Two little ones with explosive tummy bugs. While our washer and dryer sit unhooked in the dining room. Perhaps I should bleach the sheets in the tub? Now that's an idea. The steam cleaner blew a major downstairs fuse. Which cannot be fixed until the Man-who-knows-electricity returns with son from camp.

So picture us. Packed inside a hot, demolished, cluttered, boxed-up house. With bacteria flying every-which-way. While feeling a little peaky oneself.

Today was the big reveal after the asbestos abatement. Pulling off the old flooring layers revealed more "what the heck were they thinking?!?" challenges. Inevitably, large DIY projects have now ballooned to become enormous ones.

I am soft, feeble, malleable. I'm adapting. I need more dark chocolate.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

First casualty

Good-bye, old oak floors. Now laid to rest in hazardous materials bags. I'm sorry the asbestos guys couldn't save you. Let your passing be a warning to other rash, carefree remodelers, those who think that their design choices will live forever. Such a waste.

This went up this morning.

A serious warning for renovators. Sheet vinyl can contain asbestos. Ours had asbestos in its paper layer. This paper layer is quite friable (it tears and shreds when you try to pull off the vinyl) and dangerous. Don't feel safe because your old house doesn't have the more common asbestos tiles. Get your older flooring tested. Lecture over.

It struck me just now that my house looks like a movie set. For a scary movie. All this thick hanging semi-opaque plastic. Wait. I thought I caught movement. Just as I was turning. Out of the corner of my eye. Blurred behind the plastic. "Kids?" No answer. "I told you guys not to go in there. It's dangerous." Annoyed, I peek behind the plastic. Nothing. Just the hulking metal bodies of disconnected appliances and the oddly sinister plastic-sheeted outlines of boxes and shelving. I retreat and starting walking away when I see it again. Fleeting. A quick suggestion of movement.

Not really. Just in my imagination as the sun lowers and shadows gather.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


D is for demolition.

It's also for:

All of these have some resonance today. If our first day of renovation foreshadows what's to come, just sock me away in a sanitarium now. Do not pass "Go." Pay out $200. Okay. Way more than $200.

We uncovered some fun stuff today. Almost a full panel of festive wallpaper.

Treasures trapped behind cabinets:
a 'fro comb (a 70s perm?)
overdue library slips (a cunning and delinquent child?)
a 45 vinyl recording of "Grasshopper (Jansen-Vennik)" by the group Spin (a mid-70s rock jazz group in Holland)

The sweetest discovery was this sign, so carefully lettered by a child. I don't know who Joan was. A newborn sibling. Someone returning from a trip. But whoever Joan was, she was loved.

And then there was the not-so-fun stuff. A demolition start so delayed that I began picturing ourselves up past 2 in the morning, crowbars in hand. The asbestos removal company comes tomorrow so we're up against a hard deadline.

Advice: Do not schedule contractors the day after a holiday.

If I squint my eyes and cock my head and really try to visualize the glass half full, I admit that the contractors eventually came and worked well. Our GC meticulously tarped every doorway into the construction zone to contain the dust. Two men removed an entire kitchen and started opening up a wall, all in four hours.

Creating that simple opening between dining room and kitchen has become...complicated. Complicated by a jumble of electrical wiring. A steam pipe (this clearly marks a no-fly zone). And metal lath that requires a special tool to cut.

There toppled the dominoes. Because of the metal lath, the opening can't be completed. Because the opening isn't done, the hulking stainless refrigerator can't be removed. Because the refrigerator is stuck, my husband will have to take off its doors. The contractors will return tomorrow morning to maneuver it through the current 30" opening.

I'm looking forward to the dumpster's (delayed) arrival tomorrow. For now, we have an enormous mountain of rubbish on our driveway. The dumpster'll come out...tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there'll be...a dumpster? You know when you're humming a song from Annie, that cocktail hour is way overdue.

Monday, July 5, 2010

First harvest

Our first harvest from our gardens. Mixed leaf lettuce. Beautiful. And they made a delish salad. Really fresh produce seems to have an intensity of flavor that's unmatched by its grocery store counterparts.

It feels odd that lettuce is a summer crop here. It's a late fall/winter crop in Texas. Disorienting. Unlike summer crops in Austin that you have to water lavishly, the lettuces have been almost carefree. I think we've watered them three times and weeded once. Even I (with the brownish thumb) can't mess that up.

I also learned something new today. You harvest the outer lettuce leaves, leaving the inner leaves to grow. Obviously, we never succeeded with lettuce in Austin (the whole brownish thumb thing).

Our vegetables are thriving (other than the unfortunate mustard greens that were devoured by something or lots of somethings). Did you know that Yukon Golds set fruit more readily than most potatoes? And that its fruit is poisonous? We didn't. We're getting a bumper crop of Yukon Golds, all from one potato that had been left sprouting and neglected in the pantry. Will plucked the Yukon Gold fruit today. They look a lot like baby tomatoes, and we didn't want the little girls to use the poisonous fruits for their mud stews.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

You're a grand old flag

"You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of
The land I love.
The home of the free and the brave."
- music and lyrics by George M. Cohan

Wishing you and yours a happy Fourth of July.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Adios old oven (a best brownie farewell)

I'm going to miss baking in the coming months (though not necessarily in our old, not particularly even oven). At least it's summer. A good season to give the oven a break. I won't miss the way the oven ratchets up the temperature from mildly warm to furnace-like.

For my farewell, I chose my old standby, the best brownie recipe. This recipe is quick and easy enough to whip up when your children have friends over. Everyone raves about it, and you'll feel like a rockstar mom. It requires few ingredients or tools (which is all good because my kitchen is almost completely packed up).

Best brownies

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour an 8 inch square pan.

In a large saucepan, melt 1/2 cup butter. Remove from heat*, and stir in sugar, eggs, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Beat in 1/3 cup cocoa, 1/2 cup flour, salt, and baking powder. Spread batter into prepared pan.

Bake in preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Do not overcook.

*Very important step! The first time I made these, I somehow missed this step and ended up with little swirls of cooked egg in the batter. It looked like sludgy egg drop soup. I always stir in sugar first and mix it well before adding the eggs, just to avoid the cooked egg catastrophe. Also, just go ahead and crack the eggs directly into the pot. No need to dirty another bowl. The allrecipes link has a frosting recipe for the brownies, but I've never made it. The brownies are delicious all on their own.


Friday, July 2, 2010

A Bluebonnet in our nation's capitol

Oh, it's good to be home.

Spending time with family. Being in our nation's capitol so close to the Fourth of July. Standing by the Washington Monument with the U.S. Capitol Building, the White House, and the Lincoln Memorial marking compass points around me. Emotions soared and swelled. And since I'm a total sap (who weeps at movies and embarrasses my children), I became a bit misty.

But it's good to be home. Where the grass has somehow grown inches in a few days. Where we still need to pack away our kitchen and mudroom by Monday. Where the beds are ours, and the coffee is caffeinated. (I highly recommend the Residence Inn at Pentagon City. Large rooms. Good value. Decent breakfast. But their coffee...well...let's just say that it has the kick of a decrepit, shoeless mule.)

I did learn a few things from my too-brief stay. One. And this is an important one, folks. Do not drive from Boston to D.C. and back. Do not believe Google maps. One way will not take you 8 - 9 hours of driving. No. It will take you twelve. (And a big thank you to Delaware for making that happen.)

The folks in our capitol city would make you proud. They're courteous, kind, and generous. It's not just crepe myrtles that bloom in Washington. Gentility and manners bloom there too.

Finally, I think I'm a New Englander for life. One hot, muggy Washington D.C. summer day, and I thought I'd literally melt into a puddle. Picture a blogger melting Dali-style. "The Persistence of Humidity." I think I'd combust if I stepped foot back into Texas during the summer.

Oh, and one more thing. A wide-angle lens has climbed its way atop my wish list. Oh, why are good lenses so spendy? I can't justify buying one any time soon. Especially with the old leaky house gobbling money like some slobbery-mawed monster. Before you accuse me of being fickle, I adore my macro. Really. But it doesn't do such a great job with monuments. So, a few trip highights:

The space shuttle, Enterprise. I can hear the Star Trek theme swelling in the background. I remember getting a paper space shuttle in a magazine as a child and being absolutely enraptured by it. I remember Columbia and Challenger. Seeing the Enterprise almost made me cry.

"Ahhh...what could I do with $1,000,000. BMX bike, iPad, apps...."

Path to the sky, Washington Monument

This last doesn't need any caption, does it?