Monday, November 26, 2012

Ripped from the Archives: Bedroom Edition

This post was originally made in April of 2011 when we still had pet ducks (they were just babies then even!) and were apparently listening to a lot of Evita. Our bedroom still looks much the same, and I still love it!

The choice was mine, and mine completely. I could have any bed that I desired. I could shop to the limit of the greatest card... or else... or else I could budget hard.

You know, and listen to Evita, watch a documentary on Eva Peron and... MAYBE force Neal to watch the movie version despite the should-have-been pantsless butchery that was Antonio Banderas' performance in the movie during the renovation.

I asked Neal to comment on the "before" pictures of the room. It's funny to me to look at them now because when I took them I thought, "Oh, it's not that bad. It's not great, but no one will come in and be shocked by how bad the room is." Now, I'm totally shocked by how bad the room was. As Neal put it, "It was ours but it wasn't." It really was all our stuff (as loathe as I am to admit it), but also, "The wall color was bland and unfriendly and, most importantly, not something we picked." Also, "The floor was the lesser of two evils (the more evil option being beige carpet that somehow quantum leaped into the second floor from 1976)."

For what I can only assume is his sense of decency, Neal fails to point out that it was tan. The walls were tan, the relocated floor was tan, the bathroom is tan... It was only not the most tan thing I've ever seen based on the main floor of the house. Because to get any more tan than that, you'd have to become a realtor.

The duvet was threadbare, the sleigh bed didn't really accommodate tall people, the layout left a huge unused space in front of the bathroom doors so that they could be, I don't know, OPENED. The fan was just honestly the ugliest thing I've ever seen. And, as the kids would say, I've seen UR MOM.

Let's take a look, shall we?

Tan here, tan there, tan EVERYWHERE!

I bet you could waste a whole lot of space if only the doors opened into the bedroom...

Ducks wouldn't even crap in here.

Wait, that's not right, we need another Evita reference. SHIRTLESS ducks wouldn't even crap in here. I want to tell the people of Argentina... this bedroom sucked.

Okay now that that's done, the worst thing was really the bed. I don't know if you know this about Neal, but he's pretty tall. Just over 75" and when a Queen size mattress is 80", it doesn't leave a lot of room for getting comfortable. We settled on a California King, which is 84" long and impossible to buy sheets for. Not to mention finding a frame to put it on. I looked around online and while I found some King-sized beds that were nice, something to accommodate the extra length didn't seem to be readily available unless you went with a flimsy metal frame. We wanted something STURDY. A platform strong as fascism! Which meant, of course, that we'd have to build it.

Neal wrote previously about buying and refinishing the door that was to be the headboard on the blog that got deleted because people are jerks about ducks and trees.

But what about the platform? Don't worry, I have a plan - "Sipping cocktails on the terrace, taking breakfast in bed. Sleeping easy, doing crosswords, it's attractive." Oh, and I also have a plan for the platform.

Neal prepares for sanding after making the cuts - "Descamisados! I have taken these power tools from the oligarchs only for you! FOR ALL OF YOU!"

It went together surprisingly quickly, and because we stained and finished it before assembly, it was no time at all  before we had it in the room.  Which was a relief after the heated "hanging the door on the wall" session of the previous night.

"Then I must now be Vice-President!"  cried the door.

No, we said, YOU ARE A DOOR.  

"But you just told me I'm a headboard now!" countered the door.

Touche, door. Touche.

It took about three trips to Lowe's, a box of deck screws, and four 5" carriage bolts, but it's up there and it's never coming down. EVER.

I also installed a light fixture through what had been the doorknob hole. When you turn it on, it "burns with the splendor of the brightest fire," by which I mean you can't look directly at it.

This headboard hasn't learned the lines you'd like to hear. Eventually I'll either put it on a dimmer or switch out the lightbulbs for something not quite so bright.  As for the other lighting in the room... Well, this house may not have had appliances or window screens or any color other than tan when we bought it, but it did have one distinctive piece - The world's UGLIEST ceiling fan.

Seriously.  It was impossible to lay in bed,  stare up at it, and not wonder just how such a horrible thing could have been allowed to come into existence. Was there some kind of bad design contest at the fan factory? Was it a sick joke being played by builders on unwitting consumers? Luckily we'll never have to know the answer to this question as Neal joyously and gleefully ripped it down while it cried hauntingly, "Where am I going to?" Don't ask any more.

He replaced it with a massive 70" ceiling fan that could get into a fight with Chuck Norris and WIN. Well, largely by fighting a psychological battle laden with jokes about Chuck Norris' mom but STILL. The fact that Neal actually installed it instead of making me do all the electrical work the way he usually does should imply just how vehemently he wanted that old fan gone.

When I was first planning the room I found this sort of retro whimsical fabric that I just loved. Neal wasn't so keen on it, though, so I settled for just using it to recover a chair that I picked up at Goodwill. Before:

On this night of a thousand birds, let me hold open the bedroom door...

Since I wanted to keep the bird theme going more subtly,  I did a painting of a feather and cut out some silhouettes:

Now we get to the part with the finished result!

Neal said I made too many pillows. Actually he said, "Screw the pillow class! I will never accept them. My father's other family were pillow class and we were kept out of sight, hidden from view at his funeral." So I threatened to put on Phantom of the Opera if he didn't behave himself.

The duvet was sort of the starting point for the color. I wanted something gray to help balance the yellow in the floor and something dark to make all the wainscoting look less beachy.  We found this new in the package at Goodwill for $12.50, which was a lot better than the $150.00 duvets I'd been looking at online.  On a later trip, I also found a matching sham.  So I matched the paint color to that and ended up using it on the nightstands and the bird chair, too.  I had to special order the silk shantung that I used to make the drapes and pillows, but it was 50% off and since I reused the blackout lining from the old drapes, it was still cheaper than buying even one pre-made curtain panel. All to make sure the money doesn't start rolling out, of course.

From this angle you might notice that where there used to be a table, there is now a couch. See, we went to IKEA for pillow inserts, as I'm sure so many other people do, and came out with a couch. The conversation went something like,

Kimberly and Neal: Ooh! Look! A couch!

Neal: 50% off... is that really the price?

Kimberly: I'll go ask... yes, that's really the price.

Neal: I think we should get it.

Kimberly: But where would we put it?

Neal:  In the car.

Che Guevara: Excuse my intrusion but fine as those sentiments sound, little has changed for us peasants down here on the ground...

Kimberly: Okay, I'll get a cart to put it on.

So we managed to fit a couch, three kids, three pillows, two shelves, assorted other IKEA crap, and a cello in the minivan for the drive home. Then when we got it here and moved it into the bedroom, one thing was clear - this door situation had to be fixed. We discussed, brainstormed and agonized.  Should we remove the doors completely? Replace them with curtains? Bi-fold doors? Sliding doors? At one point Neal wanted to use one of the old 3-foot wide pantry doors as a stationary panel leaving us like a 20" uncovered space of egress from the bathroom. Finally I insisted that we just buy chisels and switch the door hinges to the inside so that they just swing into the bathroom instead of opening out into the bedroom. We switched all the hardware to oil-rubbed bronze while we were at it and, as a bonus, the doors actually work without sticking now, which they never did before.

With a couch now occupying the space that previously housed my sewing table, this side of the room had to change.  Neal moved in a table from the office that was a better size and, as a bonus, offers more drawer space. I used the wall shelves as an opportunity to cram in more birds.

Okay, so I used every surface as an opportunity to cram in more birds.  Except the desk, which is now home to this thrifted typewriter. Perfect for signing your checks as 30127 - never be an account in the name of Eva Peron.

So let's hear it for the Bedroom Tour, it's been an incredible success. We weren't quite sure, we had a few doubts, but the answer is YES! It's finished!

Did you just call that fan a whore? You actually called it a whore? You better head to Cuba, and FAST.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Oh the things I do for love

People have known me for awhile have seen that I go to crazy lengths to do things the home made way. We bake all of our own bread products (sandwich loaves, hamburger and hot dog buns, baguettes, pizza crust, etc.) from scratch. On the rare occasion we eat ice cream, it's home made. I've done yogurt, tried making cheese, we haven't bought jam or jelly in four years, and I could make potato chips from home grown potatoes in my sleep. Not a single overripe banana goes to waste, getting turned into banana bread or muffins for the freezer. Clementine or lime skins are soaked in vinegar to make scented cleaner. I've made ketchup, hot sauce, and for a while there when dairy prices were low, I was even making our butter.

So I say all that in order to feel justified in posting the following recipe. It's not something you will feel good making. You start out bad, with a box full of preservatives and high fructose corn syrup. You get worse with more high fructose corn syrup. Then while you're at it you throw in some gelatin rendering the product unfit for vegetarian consumption. But then you put sprinkles on top!

And you hold back the tears both because you know what's in them, but also because the kids think they are so amazing. Which is the only reason I'm sharing with the world the fact that I actually made these.

For Jack's 7th birthday we had a party at a paint your own pottery place which sounded messy enough without adding cutting and serving a cake to that. I got a few cookbooks from the library, you know, the kind with more words than pictures where cake recipes all start with creaming butter and sugar. Jack wasn't interested in those. Instead he gravitated right to

Click to buy it on Amazon.

It's a cute book and certainly less intimidating with some of the others, but I'd have a hard time telling anyone that these are home made cupcakes. Still, like I said, the kids loved them, so here's what to do.

Neapolitan Sundae Cupcakes

Makes 22 to 24 cupcakes
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Baking time: 18 to 20 minutes
Assembly time: 10 minutes
(these are all lies. The whole process took me a lot longer, especially when you take cleaning up into account)

24 paper liners (I used white ones so you could see the magic)

1 package (18.25 oz) plain white cake mix
1 package (3.4 oz) vanilla instant pudding mix
1 container (6 oz) low-fat vanilla yogurt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup water
4 large eggs
1/2 cup chocolate syrup 
3 tablespoons strawberry gelatin powder from a 3-ounce box

1 container (8 oz.) frozen whipped topping, thawed
1 cup chocolate syrup or sauce
24 maraschino cherries
Chocolate sprinkles (optional)
Chopped peanuts, pecans, or walnuts (optional)

Before we get to the directions, I wanted to note a few things I did differently. I was worried about the ability of Cool Whip (or real whipped cream) to stand up to transport and sitting around, so instead I used a can of vanilla frosting iced on with a star tip. Instead of chocolate sprinkles, the icing I bought came with confetti ones. And I drained the cherries on a paper towel for about 20 minutes so they wouldn't make the frosting look all bloody.

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 24 cupcake cups with paper liners. Set the pans aside. 

2. Place the cake mix, pudding mix, yogurt, oil, water, and eggs in a large mixing bowl. B;end with an electric mixer on low speed for one minute. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula...

OH! I have to tell you that my wonderful husband surprised me by ordering me a silicone spatula for my Kitchen Aid mixer:

And it's pink!
I've wanted one of these for YEARS and it works perfectly! Love it (and him)!

...Increase the mixer speed to medium and blend 1.5 to 2 minutes more, scraping down the sides again if needed. The batter should look well combined and thickened.

3. Divide the batter equally into 3 small mixing bowls (approximately 2 cups batter in each). To one bowl, stir in the chocolate syrup until it is incorporated. To the second bowl, stir in the strawberry gelatin until it is incorporated. Leave the batter in the third bowl plain. Beginning with the chocolate batter, spoon a heaping tablespoon of batter into each lined muffin cup. Next, carefully spoon 1 tablespoon of plain batter on top of the chocolate. Do not spread out the batter and do not let it touch the sides of the liner. Finally, gently spoon 1 tablespoon strawberry batter on top of the plain, not letting it touch the sides. Place the pans side by side in the oven.

You start out all -

Oh, this isn't all that much trouble...
 But it doesn't take long before you're -


4.  Bake the cupcakes until they spring back when lightly pressed with your finger, 18 to 20 minutes. 

This took a lot longer for me. The recipe babbles a bit after this, but lets assume you aren't a moron and can figure out how to remove the pans from the oven and get the cupcakes out of them, okay? I wrapped mine up and let them cool overnight, but if you're frosting them right away you might want to wait half an hour, especially if you're using whipped cream. 

The next day I put the store-bought icing (because seriously, at this point what's a little more high fructose corn syrup?) into a piping bag with a large star tip and attempted to make it look swirly. Drizzle on some chocolate syrup, top with sprinkles and the well-drained cherries.

Nailed it!

I made one other recipe from the book - Caramel Apple Cupcakes - and the sundae ones were the favorite by a LARGE margin. I wish I'd taken a picture of the insides because they really did look cool all layered like Neapolitan ice cream. But most importantly, Jack had an awesome birthday!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Ripped From the Archives: Kitchen Edition

Although this blog is newish, I've kept another on a now semi-defunct site currently overrun by Russians and Chinese spammers for TEN YEARS in a little over a week. At nearly 4000 posts, I've had a lot to say. I cringe now at the thought of some of them, but in the world before Pinterest and crafty blogging, I feel like I did pretty well!

This post originated just after I moved into the 90 year old farmhouse I rented between husbands. It was a great house, but hadn't been infused with any love in a long time when I moved in. I like to think I left it better than it was when I got there! This was the first renovation I did after being encouraged by the landlord to "choose whatever colors you like". I'm not sure they meant for the cabinets, but I sure didn't ask for clarification, either. I started on a Wednesday night and by Thursday, it was done!

It was really like a competition of which is uglier: the cabinets, the hardware, the counters, or the back splash  And really here can there be any winners? But look! There was also paneling!

And a whole wall of that tile! 

It was really a tough decision as to what to try to work with and what HAD to go. The floor is decent, and works well enough with the back splash  so I decided to pull the colors from that. Luckily I had some coordinating art, and found some curtains (yes, I bought curtains instead of making them, but I will be making other things to match!). So I decided to start with what was cheap and what theoretically I had time for and paint the walls, cabinets, and salvage the hardware. By Thursday afternoon, here's how it looked:





Everything got primed and then the paneling painted a color called "Ground Cover" and the cabinets "Spanish Moss". For the hardware, I pried off the really dated medieval looking backer plates, scrubbed them down, and spray painted them a satin-finish oil rubbed bronze. 

I spent just under $100 on this when you include the curtains. Here's how it breaks down: 

3 gallons of paint (trim, wall color, and cabinetry               $13.98 each 
1 gallon interior Latex primer                                           $9.88 
1 can spray paint                                                           $2.96 
1 fan chain                                                                    $2 
TSP substitute                                                              $4 
Asst. supplies (brushes, rollers, tape)                             $10 
2 window valances                                                         $14 each 

So, given that investment, I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out!


Eventually I replaced the table, tweaked the decorative items sitting around, and added art. The big drawbacks to this kitchen were the lack of a dishwasher, and the century old construction and messy plumbing. Also the mice. But it taught me to appreciate the virtues of new construction and the quirky charm of the old. I have great memories of this house, and I hope whoever live there now is as happy as I was. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Statistically speaking, it's not that hard to be cheesy.

First, a confession. I'm not really a fan of Cheez-Its. I mean, they're okay. And I'd eat them if they were around, and I certainly wouldn't starve to death if I could only eat Cheez-Its for the rest of my life, but they are definitely a product I have a hard time reconciling with my sense of healthy eating. Once, about a year ago, I bought a box of Cheez-Its and on the back it had pictures of wheels of cheese dressed up representing the different flavors. My kids were fascinated with this to the point of distractedly staring at it while standing still for an uncharacteristic length of time as if it were a great new TV show or a fascinating car accident. Really it was at this point that I vowed to never buy them again.

The magic is lost on me.

I was intrigued, however, when I saw a recipe for cheddar crackers on Pinterest and kept the notion of making a home made version in the back of my mind. But let's face it, 99% of the things on Pinterest just seem like a really good idea that you will never, EVER have the time to execute with any kind of success.

Enter a random library grab:

What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch - Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods
by Jennifer Reese
Author of the

While I may be a niche market, this is one of the most brilliant cookbooks I've ever read. Each recipe is rated for ease of use on a completely made up scale of something like, "Hassle: You will be amazed how easy this is" to "Hassle: You will want to bludgeon yourself with your rolling pin about halfway thorough this project," and also with a cost comparison between home made and store bought. There are so many variables that go into comparing the two, and cost isn't always the deciding factor, but I thought it was truly groundbreaking to see real money taken into account rather than just the vaguely condescending insistance to use "the very best grass-finished, organic, heirloom, artisan, homosexual squid ink pasta you can afford," as requested by many New York Times recipes.

Okay, I've never actually seen a recipe calling for grass-finished, organic, heirloom, artisan homosexual squid-ink pasta, but let's face it - it's only a matter of time.

I loved the prose between the recipes and the author's journey from normal suburbanite into the depths of surreptitious illegal goat owning bee keeper who occasionally butchers roosters and turkeys. Her stint with ducks really hit home and I laughed at the following passage both when Neal read it to me the first time, and then when I read it again on my own. This is EXACTLY what it is like to be friends with ducks.

(Owen and Isabel are the author's children, Mark her husband.)

April is the cruelest month for the spouses of animal lovers. On a sunny April afternoon, a year after I brought home the chickens, I went to buy them some cracked corn at the feed store. There, on the floor, sat a deep bin lit by an orange heat lamp and inside, quivering and twitching, was a mass of tiny downy ducklings. Some were black and some were yellow, like Ping, and they all had exquisite miniature rounded bills. I went to the cash register and asked for a cardboard box. 
I brought four ducklings home and put them in a cage on the office floor.

"I can't believe we have ducks!" cried Owen when he got home. 
Isabel raised her eyebrows and disappeared to her room.
Mark stood looking down at the cage.
"I know, " I said."But supposedly they lay a lot of eggs."
"They are very cute," he said.

Cute. And slovenly. It should have come as no surprise that ducks like water. Within hours the had splashed the contents of their drinking bowl around the cage and onto the wood floor. I moved them to the laundry room and replaced the shredded newspaper bedding. I came back after another hour to find the bedding soaked once again, and exuberantly soiled. By the end of the day it was papier-mache. By the next morning, it reeked. Animal cages smell bad enough when they're dry; they small worse when they're wet. I changed the feculent bedding in that cage daily, and each time, the ducklings scrambled into a corner, squealing, piling one on top of the other to avoid me. Ducks may be domesticated, but they aren't friendly. 

Soon the room smelled so noxious, I didn't want to do laundry anymore. When we'd had them only ten days, I filled a plastic baby pool with water, and put the ducklings out in the yard with the chickens. 

Three of our ducks turned out to be Indian Runners, as skinny, flightless bird from Java, tall and upright with a long neck that almost resembles a snake. Beatrix Potter's Jemima Puddle-Duck is thought to be an Indian Runner. They were very weird looking and they were, unfortunately, all boys. The fourth duck, and only female, was a brown Rouen duck."They make fine roasting ducks and have abundant  delicately flavored flesh," reports the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. I was done with slaughter, and this duck's abundant, delicately flavored flesh was useless to me.

Rouen ducks are not known for their egg production, but ours proved herself a champion layer. When she was about five months old, she delivered her first egg - long and heavy with a very hard, waxy white shell . Thereafter, she produced an egg almost every day and I scrambled them and fried them and they tasted like chicken eggs, except they were slightly richer and higher in cholesterol, and the yolks were the lurid orange of a California poppy. 

Just as there are cat people and dog people, I think there are chicken people and there are duck people. We soon figured out that we were chicken people. A hen might one day take it into her tiny skull to climb a tree all by herself to see what's on the other side of the fence. Or she might become so fixated on plucking every last centipede from under the woodpile that she loses track of her companions  Chickens squabble. Chickens have pet projects. Chickens have minds of their own, however small. Not so the ducks, who waddled in lockstep formation around the yard, wing to wing, all day, every day, muttering. They were like Hare Krishnas, always chanting in a gang. And they started their chanting just before dawn. I would lie there in the dark, listening to them.

"Those ducks are not right," Mark said one morning as we lay in bed. I had thought he was asleep.

"It's like in Rosemary's Baby when she hears the devil worshipers in the apartment next door."

"So you think they're harassing the chickens?

"I guess it's better than having a dog," said Mark, rolling out of bed.

"I don't' want you to remind me of this because I'll take it all back later," I said, getting up to join him, "but sometimes I hate having animals."

One day I heard a hen shrieking and ran outside to find two of the ducks jabbing at her with their blunt bills. It would have been pathetic, like stabbing someone with a butter knife, but the ducks were working as a team. A few days later, I caught them attacking another hen, but they had now figured out how to use their bills like clamps and had grabbed her neck feathers and were shaking her.

"Just say the word and I'll drive them out to the woods and leave them there," Mark said. 

"We can't do that."

"Why not?"

"A raccoon will just eat them. It would be inhumane."
"We're going to keep them forever?" said Mark.

"We could put an ad on Craigslist, I guess."

We did. No one answered. A week later we posted the ad again and received a single reply. Apparently, only one person in all of Northern California wanted to adopt out "chatty gang of flightless ducks." We did not ask what this person intended to do with them. 

A few days later, Owen and Mark took the ducks in a box down to the Safeway parking lot to meet their new owners. Twenty minutes later, with an empty box and downcast expressions, the two of them returned.

"I have no idea if we just gave them over to some satanic cult," Mark said. "I have no idea about those people. They had stringy hair and they say they keep their ducks in a hot tub."

"They were teenagers," said Owen contemptuously.

"A hot tub," said Mark.

We did not miss their chanting or the screams of the hens or the fetid baby pool, but I still feel guilty when I think about those weird, helpless ducks. And I miss those big orange-yolked eggs. 

Not that I will eat duck eggs. They are creepy, smelly, and I barely tolerate them in baking. But my six -year-old, a braver person than I, eats them scrambled with enthusiasm.

Which is to say that all of this is shared without consent, but I hope that if the author of this book ever sees this post that she will not object. Instead we will get together and drink fabulous home made margaritas, share some crackers and hummus, and I will try to explain to her just why gardening and canning is so much more cost-effective than she seems to believe while bonding over the shared trauma of having watched ducks rape chickens. It's kinda like watching Law & Order SVU, but with slightly less self-loathing afterwards.

I disagreed with a few things that were deemed better to buy such as potato chips (I only make them a few times a year, but I never buy them!) and hamburger buns (you just need the right pans!), but on the whole, I loved this book and highly recommend that anyone interested in a self-sufficient lifestyle check it out!


So mixed in among tales of ducks, turkeys, chickens, and goats, there is a recipe for knock off Cheez-Its that sounded much better than the Pinterest recipe for one reason: cayenne.


Make it or buy it? Make it.
Hassle: Even cutting them isn't that bad.
Cost comparison: Homemade $0.32 per ounce. Store-bought: $0.39 per ounce (I'd guess my margins are wider, though, based on buying things in bulk.)

8 Tbsp. butter, cold and cut into small chunks
1/4 pound grated cheddar (about 1 cup)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/8 tsp white pepper
Pinch of cayenne (I think I used about 1/4 tsp)
1 cup plus 2 tbsp. all purpose flour (I used all trumps bread flour because here it's that or whole wheat)
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

1. Put the butter, cheese, salt, white pepper, and cayenne in a food processor and pulse until the butter is broken up into bits and the mixture forms small curds, like cottage cheese. Add the flour and pulse until combined. It will now look more like wet couscous. Add the Worcestershire sauce and pulse again. The dough should be moist and come together in your hands.

2. Turn the dough onto a work surface and knead it once or twice until it forms a ball. Pat it into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least an hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

4. Roll the dough out a scant 1/4 inch thick. (If the dough seems sticky, flour the work surface, though you probably won't need to.) Using a fluted wheel cutter (if you have one; if not a knife is fine) and a ruler, cut the dough into long 1-inch-wide strips and then cut the strips into 1-inch squares. Gather and re-roll the scraps and continue cutting.

5. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet. The crackers won't expand, so you can fit them fairly tightly. Make a small hole in the center of each cracker with a skewer or the stem of an instant-read thermometer. A toothpick isn't quite big enough.

It's at this point you realize, "This is gonna be AWESOME!"
6. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the crackers darken just a bit. Cool completely on a rack and store in a cookie tin for up to a week.

As if they'll last that long.

Makes 70 to 80 crackers.

The first batch was amazing. The next batch I made, I doubled the recipe and probably quadrupled the amount of wine I had before making them, so they didn't turn out as well. Actually, come to think of it, the first time I made them I was low on cheddar, so I used half smoked Gouda  And I don't like cheddar, but I love Gouda, so that might have something to do with it.

Seriously, though. I would have taken an artistic macro photo in a bowl or something, but they were all gone by the time the light was right for that. Bottom line - make the cheez-its, buy the book, look out for ducks. Now you know.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Soup's On!

Tomato soup has been my Holy Grail ever since I started growing far more tomatoes than I could possibly consume several years ago. I asked friends for recipes, and no one really had anymore more refined than "tomatoes, basil, add cream." So I tried that and while it was good, it wasn't GREAT. I asked the internet and it suggested, "Use tomatoes and onions, but ROAST them first. Maybe with some carrots." Somewhat better, but not exactly the tomato soup of my dreams. All perfectly edible, but not perfect.

So for the most part I gave up and just canned whole tomatoes or crushed tomatoes. This year, however, I happened across this recipe: 

Actually this is her photo for creamy gazpacho, but it looked more like tomato soup than her tomato soup picture.

Now there were several things that seemed interesting about it. For example, cloves which I would NEVER have thought to add to tomato soup. As it turns out, cloves are the magic in tomato soup the way nutmeg is the magic in mac and cheese. It just tastes right. And running it through a food mill before seasoning and thickening it is smart because it saves me from the frizzy hair and burned fingers that comes with blanching and slipping the skins off of tomatoes for canning. PEELING TOMATOES SUCKS. That's right. You heard me. And it's about time someone said it. 

So having only the internet's promise that this was a time honored and much loved recipe, I decided to chance it despite my limited tomato resources...

Okay, I lied. I was at risk of being crushed to death by tomatoes.

The recipe calls for "1 1/2 ice cream pails" of tomatoes. I have no idea how much that is given that the last time I bought any quantity of ice cream that could be described as a "pail," I had to bike to the grocery store and pay with change. 24 cups is the official quantity, but I'm not sure if that's whole or chopped or what. Now that I have made approximately 7000 batches of tomato soup I can tell you - it really doesn't matter. Just put in a lot of tomatoes. I have these TRYGG serving bowls from IKEA that hold about 12 cups of whole, fresh tomatoes.

It's like they're made for this.

So generally I aim to have two of these full per batch of soup. Now here's the beauty of this soup:

Tomato soup is like the statue of liberty of tomato canning endeavors. Tomato soup wants your bruised tomatoes, the ones with spots on them, the not-quite-ripe, and the 400,000 yellow cherry tomatoes popped up in the garden unasked for from last year's fallen harvest. Tomato soup doesn't judge! 

So just cut off whatever bits look unappealing and half or quarter them, then toss them in a big stock pot over medium heat. Just add the other ingredients as you prep them. Don't put a lot of effort into making small pieces or anything, a rough chop is fine. Add in:

  • 2 cups chopped celery
  • 4 cups onions, roughly chopped
  • 2 large green peppers, chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 1 small bunch of parsley, roughly chopped (about 3/4 – 1  cup chopped)
I've done it without the celery or with dried parsley and both turned out just fine in the end. I'd say the same thing about home grown peppers and onions as I do tomatoes, just cut off any blemishes and throw it in, no worries. This is a great way to use up stuff that wouldn't otherwise keep.

The first change I made to the recipe is to add a couple of jalapenos quartered (and seeded, if you like) because I prefer for tomato soup to have a good bit of zing. Also, if you think the tomato situation is bad, you should see how many jalapenos I've had to deal with this year. To the pot add about 5 bay leaves and 6 whole cloves. Again, this differs from the original recipe a bit. I like food to be jam packed with FLAVOR. Bring it all to a boil, then turn it down and let it simmer for a couple of years hours.

Sure, it LOOKS like rabbit puke, but the house will smell wonderful!

Eventually it will all cook down and look more like you think it's supposed to.

Mmm, gloopy!
So it looks good, but DON'T TASTE IT. Remember, there's no salt or sugar in it yet, so it will taste about as good as a used Kleenex at this point. Time to fix that. First, dig around in there and pull out those bay leaves if you can find them. The next thing you want to do is turn off the heat and use an immersion blender to puree it all into a fairly thin consistency.

R.I.P. white immersion blender

If you have an immersion blender with a plastic shaft, you might want to let it cool a bit before this step. I got away with it a few times, but eventually the plastic warped enough on this one that the blades scraped against the bottom of the pot. I splurged on a new red Cuisinart immersion blender that has a stainless steel shaft.

And yes. I realize how many times I just said "shaft".

Once it's good and pureed, ladle the soup into a food mill fitted with the fine screen (if yours is adjustable like mine). I tried running it through twice, but it didn't make much difference in the final product. The first pass-through will catch enough of the seeds and skin to result in a pleasantly silky soup.

Strain it back into the pot (I usually rinse it out first), and turn the heat back on. Meanwhile, whisk together the following:

  • 3/4 cup cornstarch
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 1 tsp Cayenne pepper

Again, I upped the cayenne because I like things on the hot side, although my six-year-old who refused to eat NOODLES and has screamed, "TOO SPICY! TOO SPICY!" upon making skin contact with mild salsa loves this soup more than Jesus. Er, more than the six-year-old loves Jesus I mean. Jesus would probably also love this soup, but possibly not more than the six-year-old. I'm not really sure I can prove my argument one way or the other.

Somewhere Michael Pollan is saying, "See, I TOLD you there's corn in everything."

In YET ANOTHER bowl, or the one you used for the straining, melt a stick of butter (the recipe calls for margarine, which might be after for long term canning. I think it's gross, so I risked using actual butter). Stir in a scoop or two of the reheating soup, and then whisk in the dry ingredients. Once you've got a good slurry going, stir it into the pot of soup. Bring to a boil and let it thicken. Now comes the fun part - the tasting! I like to add in a couple of frozen pesto cubes, along with about 1/4 cup of lemon juice both for the flavor, and to keep the balance acidic for canning safety. Add salt, sugar, and lemon juice as needed to adjust the soup to your taste. 

To can, spoon thickened soup into hot, sterilized jars. Top with sterilized lids and bands, and process in a boiling water bath 45 minutes. Each batch makes about 5 pints, but I usually double it and end up with 5 quarts and a little left over. 

To serve, mix it with equal parts milk or water and heat, then top it with loads of freshly ground pepper and cheese, ideally with a good crusty baguette.

The full recipe as adapted from The Baking Beauties:

  • 24 cups whole tomatoes
  • 2 cups chopped celery
  • 4 cups onions, roughly chopped
  • 2 large green peppers, chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 1 small bunch of parsley, roughly chopped (about 3/4 – 1  cup chopped)
  • 2 or 3 jalapenos, seeded if you prefer less heat
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 5 whole cloves
Chop all this up, boil it for a couple of hours, hit it with an immersion blender, run it through a food mill, then add all this stuff.

  • 3/4 cup cornstarch
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 1 tsp Cayenne pepper
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1/3 cup prepared pesto
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
Bring it back to a boil, then store it as you prefer. 

Voila! The BEST home made tomato soup!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Problem with Pants

As anyone who knows me could tell you, I'm not a big fan of pants. Yoga pants, sure, and I'm pretty sure the whole jeggings trend was started just for me. They LOOK like pants, and you wear them where pants are supposed to go, but they are not, in fact, pants. Every now and again, though, I get the urge to wear jeans. There are nine billion pins a day of these cutely composed outfit centered around a pair of jeans. (And also usually a scarf, but scarves are a topic all their own.) But the big problem I have with jeans is just how hard it is to get a pair that fits right. If the waist is comfortable, the legs aren't long enough. If the legs fit well, then the rise isn't high enough and you either risk a plumber situation every time you bend over or they are far too tight in the crotch. So even though I don't frequently wear jeans, I have probably no less than fifteen pairs in my closet each CLOSE but not quite there.

A good example is this pair of American Eagle Outfitters Super Skinny jeans:

Looking sleek!
Which look great on the model, but on me, it was a little different:

So baggy I could carry groceries in the knees.

I don't know why it took me so long to think to tailor the jeans. I'm used to cutting off hems for the kids, but I never thought to restructure the jeans themselves. UNTIL NOW!

All I did was get a pair of jeans that had legs that fit well (and compared the two.

Another pair of American Eagle Outfitters jeans, but these are just the skinny and not the super skinny. Maybe there was some kind of mixup at the factory? 
The inside seam is flat felled, so I compared the straight stitched edge. Not much difference, and I actually ended up taking them in a bit more by about an inch and a half on the outside seam of each leg. But what a difference it made!

Still comfy up top, but now with a good fit on the leg as well! Hooray! Now I just have like another 14 pairs to go...