Monday, February 28, 2011

Guest post on A Practical Wedding

I'm over at Meg's place today, talking about making the decision to get married. It's a post that I've wanted to write for a while, but it didn't really seem like it fit over here, so I was thrilled when Meg asked if I could do it for APW. Head over and check it out if you'd like.

And yes, I've been reading wedding blogs for years. I actually discovered blogs when my sister got married and I was looking for an alternative to wedding magazines. Then I just never stopped. I mostly only read the personal ones because it's the experiences I love hearing about.


P.S. Thank you for all your sweet comments about the post and for the discussion over on the post itself! You  guys are amazing, as is the APW community and it's a pleasure to be surrounded by such smart, thoughtful people. And also, may I just say that I'm amazed you are all too nice to call me out for publicly admitting that I watched Friends? That was going to get deleted in the edits, but I left it in for historical accuracy. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday flowers

Last week's flowers were holding up well, so I split them out into separate vases and freshened them up.

flowers, refreshed
{flowers, refreshed}

I do love trios.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reading, lately

Re-reading, rather.

tea + a book
{tea + a book}

I've already read Housekeeping, but I couldn't resist checking it out again when I was at the library last week. I read it slowly, because it is one of those books you want to get lost in. Quiet, sharp, witty and with an overarching aching feeling that hits you just slightly below the ribs. The words are beautifully crafted but never contrived.

Also, you might want to clean your house and cozy up in crisp sheets before you read the first couple chapters. There are some descriptions of domesticity in there that will have you feeling the urge to sun bleach all your linens, whether you have proper linens or not.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Greek almond bars - a work in progress

My life in Athens had a sort of fairy tale quality to it. Partly because I didn't work and my classes were a lot less demanding than usual, so I had a lot of time. I would wake up and drink tea with evaporated milk and chat with my roommates. I would eat oatmeal with honey and walnuts (and also with evaporated milk). And, if nothing in particular was scheduled, I would head out the door and walk. I would wander all day, with no destination in mind. I would get lost, but it didn't really count because you can't get lost if you aren't trying to get somewhere specific. I was almost never trying to get anywhere specific. And the city is relatively small, if you don't count the sprawling suburbs. I learned Athens with the sort of intuitive sense you only get from your feet.*

This is going somewhere, I promise.

One of my favorite parts of the city are the little peripteros that you can find on almost every corner. The kiosks sell just about anything a wandering person might want. Water, naturally. A huge selection of candy and ice cream. Plenty of Haribo gummies of various types. And nut bars.

almond snack bar
{almond snack bar}

They are nuts (usually almonds or sesame seeds or both) bound together with honey or sugar syrup. So simple, practically virtuous. And much more effective walking fuel than the usual candy bars. Easier to toss in your bag than a container of yogurt and honey (also available at the periptero).

I find them here, sometimes. If you have a Greek market, you might see them. Oddly, Longs Drugs frequently carries them in their international section.

But with so few ingredients, why not make them? I dug out a recipe for sesame bars from my trusty Greek cookbook. It basically involves heating honey to the hard ball stage and then pouring it over roasted nuts. I did everything possible to mess it up. I heated the honey in the microwave (it's a long story) and I ignored the fact that it was raining. Rain + candy making are not a good match. My bars turned out sticky, difficult. But I have hope. The flavor was perfect and next time I will try increasing the temperature to hard crack, to get the sharper snap I want. I added salt to the recipe and I highly recommend that you do the same. The occasional flake of salt played beautifully with the depth of the honey (I used sage honey) and the slight bitterness of the orange rind.

wrapped up
{wrapped up}

I wrapped the sticky bars in wax paper. I nibble, and think of Athens. I will keep trying.

Almond-honey bars 
(adapted from The Food and Wine of Greece, still troubleshooting for my preferences)
Equal weights almonds and honey**
Freshly grated orange rind
Flaky sea salt, to taste

:: Toast your almonds in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Set aside in a bowl.

:: Heat the honey to 256 degrees (this is my biggest point of disagreement with the recipe - next time I think I'll be aiming for at least 300 degrees). You must measure this with a candy thermometer. Sugar follows rules, and the hotter it cooks, the snappier it is when it cools. You cannot eyeball candy making (unless you get really, really good at it and can recognize the different boiling textures).

:: Add the grated orange peel and the sea salt to the honey and then quickly pour it over the almonds. Stir briefly to mix and then pour out onto a lined pan and press the almonds into a single layer with a spatula. I just poured them onto my usual half sheet baking pan lined with a Silpat and I didn't care that it wasn't a perfect rectangle. Next time, I think I would choose an 8x8 pan and line it with parchment.

:: Let it cool for at least one day and then cut the bars and wrap them airtight. Share around, because you can't make a small batch of these. I had to use a full cup of honey because a smaller volume wouldn't have worked with the candy thermometer.

* I remind myself to do this in my own city as well. I'm so good about exploring aimlessly when I travel, but I tend to forget to do it at home. I've made a conscious effort to walk whenever I have spare time and I've found so many great little places in my area of Los Angeles that I never would have seen otherwise. Everything just looks different.

** They mean this - I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of honey, but you need it to make enough syrup. I ended up using a full cup of honey and approximately 2 cups of almonds, but I highly recommend using the weighing method if you have a scale.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The weekend, briefly

Quiet, hushed. That's how my weekend photos feel. It poured on Saturday, which makes it easier to stay home and get stuff done. We finally watched Inception. We got some time in the kitchen (me - chocolate chip cookies to freeze for emergencies, d - granola). EDIT - If you're curious about my emergency cookie stash, you can read my post about it here.


grater, cheese
{grater, cheese}

breakfast quesadilla
{breakfast quesadilla}



kitchen afternoon
{kitchen afternoon}

cookie dough
{cookie dough}

sage honey
{sage honey}

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday flowers

D surprised me with flowers this week.

tulips, lisianthus
{tulips, lisianthus}

I added the hearts, naturally. I resisted the urge to glitter them, and I consider that my valentine's gift to him.

tulips, lisianthus, hearts
{tulips, lisianthus, hearts}

I'm always sort of bewildered by the fun valentine's day crafts you're supposed to make for your boyfriend. Because honestly, I'm pretty sure D would be touched by the effort, but otherwise uninterested in origami folded love notes hidden around the house or anything similar.

He did get brownies, but I only cut two of them into heart shapes. The rest we ate out of the pan, with a fork.

valentine's brownies, 2011
{valentine's brownies, 2011}

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tomato-coconut braised chicken and couscous

There haven't been a lot of recipes here lately because I've been busy and everything we eat has been of the throw-it-together variety. And it's hard to share those meals, because I don't have recipes and I'm lucky if I can even remember what I did. And even if I do remember, they're frequently decent but uninteresting and not really worthy of sharing.

But every once in a while I get lucky. Braised chicken thighs in a dish that ended up being vaguely Indian, because I had a sweet potato to use up and I decided to add some coconut milk, so garam masala seemed like the logical spice pairing.

tomato-coconut chicken
{tomato-coconut braised chicken and couscous}

This is good. Good enough that I'd like to try to write down the gist of the recipe so that I could replicate it sometime. It starts, as most good things do, with a pile of sliced onions and some spice (garam masala, in this case). And then you braise some chicken, which is a thoroughly reliable cooking method for those of us who are just not so good with meat and quail at the thought of having to figure out exact cooking times. And at the very end, you stir in some couscous, to absorb the liquid and give the meal some heft.

The instructions for this dish make it seem more complicated than it is, but that's just because I gave you a lot of detail. And remember - you can adjust as needed. Swap veggies or spices or liquids. Add more liquid if you need it, add more couscous if you'd like. But I'll probably make it exactly this way again. 

Tomato Coconut Braised Chicken and Couscous (serves 4, probably with some leftover couscous)

3 - 4 yellow onions, sliced
A glug of olive oil, for the pan
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
3 carrots, chopped (just because I had them - you could leave them out)
1 - 2 tablespoons garam masala (one of my favorite spice blends, I get mine premade from the Indian market)
Large pinch of flaky salt (or whatever, in whatever amount you like)
3/4 cup red wine (totally optional - I just needed to use up the tail end of a bottle)
1 can diced tomatoes (14 oz), not drained
4 - 6 chicken thighs (I used bone in, but skinned them)
Extra liquid, as needed (I think I used an additional cup of beef broth, just because it was open, but you could use water or more tomatoes, or whatever)
1 large sweet potato, chunked (also optional, but it was sooo good in this dish)
1 can light coconut milk (14 oz)
3/4 cup whole wheat couscous

:: You want to use a large saucepan with a lid. I have a large straight sided saute pan (similar to this one, but in stainless steel), and it works beautifully here. 

:: Saute the onions in the olive oil over medium heat, until they're soft and starting to brown and caramelize (maybe 10 - 15 minutes).

:: Meanwhile, chop your carrots and press your garlic. Get out your garam masala, open your can of tomatoes. Take the skin off your chicken if you'd like.

:: When the onions are ready, toss in your carrots and garlic. Saute for another few minutes, then add the garam masala and stir for a minute, to get the spice incorporated.

:: Pour in the red wine (if using) and your can of tomatoes. Stir it up, add a pinch of salt. Place the chicken thighs in the pan.

:: If the chicken isn't covered by liquid (not swimming in liquid, just a very thin layer over the top), then add a bit of extra liquid to bring it up. I used broth, but you could use water if you'd like, or more tomatoes.

:: Let it come to a simmer, cover the pan and lower the heat. It'll need to cook for at least 45 minutes to get that nice falling off the bone tenderness.

:: After about 15 minutes, toss in the chunks of sweet potato. It takes a little less time to cook, so it doesn't need to be in there the whole time. Stir, turn the chicken over if you'd like, replace the lid, walk away.

:: Check it at 45 minutes to see if the chicken is tender and the sweet potatoes are done.

:: If ready, remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and set aside. Stir in the coconut milk. Bring it to a simmer and let it cook for a couple minutes, without the lid.

:: Stir in the couscous, turn off the heat, replace the lid. Give it at least five minutes to absorb. You aren't going to have light fluffy couscous - it just hydrates and thickens up the sauce and it's amazing. If you feel like you have way too much liquid, you can add a bit more couscous.

:: Add the chicken back to the pan, serve. Eat alone, or with naan.

Also very excellent cold out of the fridge the next day. I had way more couscous than chicken (only used 3 thighs) so I ate the leftover couscous on it's own. If you're vegetarian, you could still do this but leave out the chicken and maybe add more potatoes and I think it would be great.

P.S. - There are some nice variations in the comments! You guys are amazing. This is probably my favorite kind of cooking (start from a base and wing it) so it's great to see everyone chiming in with their own spin on it. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The weekend, briefly

The weather was so gorgeous this weekend that walking was really the only thing to do. And we walked - about seven miles over both days, although we offset it by making frequent stops to eat delicious food. We specifically picked our neighborhood because it is so walkable and it's lovely when we actually have time to take advantage of it.

pedicure weather
{pedicure weather}

beard papa
{beard papa's}


churros y chocolate
{churros y chocolate}

We hadn't been to Beard Papa's for cream puffs in a while, so it was nice to stop in. Although I don't know if we'll be going back soon, because the next day we tried the new churro place and I'm smitten. They serve traditional churros for dipping into thick hot chocolate. They're a little skinnier than the ones we were used to in Spain, but such a great snack. And the cafe con leche was excellent. We pretended we were on vacation.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday flowers (crafty edition - take II, the evolution)

I'm still playing with these. I added some succulents and mixed in some candles.

succulents, candles, paper flowers
{succulents, candles, paper flowers}

I think we'd need to use clear glass cylinders instead of mason jars. The jars photograph well, but in real life the embossed writing obscures your view of the succulents. I'd also use something other than dirty gravel that I scraped out of the yard, in case you were wondering about that.

succulents, candles, paper flowers
{succulents, candles, paper flowers}

I'd like to have taller candleholders that could fit actual votives instead of tealights, but we have about 200 of these already (leftover from my sister's wedding). I'm still trying to decide how likely it is that the candles will set the paper flowers on fire. (Probably likely, if the flowers are loose and people start playing with them. Potentially less likely, if I glue all the flowers in place.)

The succulents weren't chosen specifically - they're just pups (baby succulents!) that my mom had lying around, waiting to be planted. That's part of what makes the succulents do-able for us. My parents already have a huge native garden to pull from.

This prototyping part is fun. Figuring out how many square feet of space you need per person for different seating layouts? Decidedly less fun. But much more important. So we're doing that stuff too. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Granola I did not make

D makes big batches of granola so that he can eat it all week. He uses this recipe (which is from Molly, but he didn't know who that was until I told him) but I think he leaves out the dried fruit and maybe adds a bit of lemon zest.

d's granola
{d's granola}

I don't usually eat it for breakfast, because I'm loyal to eggs. But I like snacking on it at other times of the day.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Valentine's Day 2011

This year I decided to play with crochet thread for the Valentine's Day cards. I just drew little lines with plain Elmer's glue and then stuck the thread right on. It looks like the glue will be really obvious but it flattens out a bit as it dries and it's fine. The balloons are just red felt hearts.

valentine's day card 2011
{valentine's day card 2011}

I was searching through my archives to see if I've adequately explained my Valentine's Day thing (obsessed, platonically) and I think I've covered it. In 2009 I gave it a whole week, complete with garlands, cookies, and cards. Oh, and I participated in Amanda's swap and Lauren and I became instant internet friends.

Last year Circe got a new bandanna and I sent goodies to Lily and became obsessed with her work (and eventually purchased two paintings that I treasure) and we became friends and I got goodies from cevd, who was already a friend. I can't find any record of my cards, but I definitely made brownies. Shaped like hearts.

In summary, Valentine's Day is good for friends.

Also, I haven't decided what to bake yet. But I still have several days for that.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The weekend, briefly

colors, photos
{colors, photos}

puppy feet
{puppy feet}

breakfast with d
{breakfast with d}*

impromtu tea strainer
{impromtu tea strainer}

pups, avocado
{pups, avocado}**

snowy, avocado
{snowy, avocado}**


tape, hearts
{tape, hearts}

* I may do a lot of the cooking during the week, but Dustin is all over weekend breakfast, always. I love it. 

** I'm not the only one obsessed with avocados this season - the pups were eating them all weekend. They can't finish one in a single sitting, but they are afraid to leave them lying around in case the other one steals it.

*** Currently averaging four oranges a day. This is the only time of year that I eat fruit on a regular basis. I'm more of a veggie person normally.

Mondays have not been happening around here lately. I mean, I get up and go to work because there isn't any way around that. But if I don't feel like looking over photos on Sunday evening, then I don't. I've been trying to institute a two hour pre-bed cutoff, wherein I don't do any work for at least two hours before I go to bed. No computer, no filling orders, nothing. I have intermittent bouts of really annoying insomnia (I fall asleep with no problem, but I'm wide awake at 2 am and can't fall back asleep), which I think mostly flares up when my mind is still running too fast at night, so I'm hoping this will help. So far I'm managing to stick to this 2/3 of the time, and I think it makes a difference when I do.

Whew. The point is, sometimes there will be photos on Mondays and sometimes they won't be here until Tuesday. My random and unsolicited sleep musings were just a bonus. You're welcome!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday flowers (crafty edition)

At approximately 11:35 pm last Thursday, I got this image in my head of a carpet of paper flowers. But not tissue paper ones - they were flowers with heft, tinted with watercolors. Structural, if you will. And they could be clustered thickly, thus the carpet image, and they would be so easy to toss on tables as wedding centerpieces, without fear of wilting. I tried to explain this to D and he told me to go to sleep. So I did.

But the next evening ...

paper flowers
{paper flowers}

$5 worth of supplies + nearly 8 hours of hard labor. Totally do-able, right? D is still not completely sold - he is kind of attached to succulents, which are also easy to set out and unlikely to wilt and require far less time.

Still and all ....

paper flowers
{paper flowers}

I'm hoping that our current household wedding obsession will calm down once we have our design finalized. Otherwise, you guys might be in for several months of half started projects and wedding babble. We should never have opened these floodgates.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The best combo

I've been all over this lately - ginger + shallots + garlic.

{shallots + ginger - garlic not pictured yet}

All finely minced, quickly sauteed in a bit of vegetable or sesame oil. Tossed with green veggies.

I love using this treatment on bok choy (blanch the bok choy first, drain and then toss in the skillet with the g/s/g saute and add a splash of soy sauce to deglaze the pan).

But it's also good on broccoli (steam broccoli, then toss in the skillet with the g/s/g saute, adding a wee bit of extra oil if needed).

And seriously excellent on green beans (same drill as the bok choy).

It's nice to have a really easy go to combo, especially because we normally keep all three on hand.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New year, new budget (part II)

You guys, I'm so glad that you are as dorkily excited by personal finance as I am. It's nice to have company and I loved reading your thoughts on spending.

Once I knew how I wanted to spend my expendable income, I had to figure out how to stick to a budget. I've always had a generalized budget, but I've never really tracked my spending. My necessary expenses are all paid automatically. My contribution to our joint account (which pays for rent, utilities, groceries, car insurance and any fun stuff we do together), my student loan payments (which I will be paying for a very long time), my savings, our joint savings, and my retirement contributions all get pulled out immediately after I get paid, so I never have to worry about overspending and not being able to meet my obligations. But whatever was leftover was just mine to play with and I'd like to step it up a bit this year, especially with the wedding coming up. 

Soooo .... I'm giving myself an annual allowance this year. I always get frustrated with monthly budgets because my spending fluctuates a lot. I'm hoping that seeing a lump sum sitting there (and diminishing, over the course of the year) will help motivate me to keep my spending in check. The annual allowance is just for money that I spend on fun things (shopping, drinking, buying overpriced cookies, etc). As I mentioned, most of my big expenses come out of our joint account and D and I have a separate budget for that.

Also brand new this year - I created a line item for hair cuts.  I am cheap and I hate paying to get my hair cut. But I also feel significantly better with a decent cut. Dilemma. So I calculated out how much it will cost me to get my hair cut every 8 weeks (my stylist will do a free bang trim whenever I want, which is every 3 - 4 weeks), added it up, gasped a little and then put it into my budget. That money doesn't come out of my allowance, so I won't be tempted to stop going.

I created a super simple spreadsheet so I can have a brief overview of how I'm doing throughout the year. Each month I'll enter my credit card bill + miscellaneous expenses. I put almost everything on my credit card (points!) so the miscellaneous is usually cash that I've taken out for splitting bar tabs. 

You can see the spreadsheet here. Feel free to save a copy to your computer if you'd like - I'm not guaranteeing that it will be the most mind blowing financial tool invented, because I'm using it for the first time. You can make your yearly allowance anything you want. If you change the number in that cell, the others will adjust for you. As you input your monthly expenses, you'll see a running tally of how much money you have left for the year.

I'll keep you guys updated on how it works. I went back and checked my spending from last year and the allowance I've given myself is much, much lower than what I've been spending. The sensible thing would have been to up it a bit, but instead I'm soldiering on. I'll adjust if I need to, but I'm hoping I can stay in the ballpark.

Questions? Ask in the comments and I'll answer as best I can.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

New year, new budget (part I)

The last two years I've done a shopping hiatus after January, inspired by Joslyn. The first year was revelatory. The second year was slightly less so, which I took as a good sign because I really do think I improved quite a bit. (If you missed it, you can see all my 2009 shopping hiatus posts here and the 2010 ones here)

The goal is always to think about my spending and to learn to spend more usefully and thoughtfully. What I've learned is that I prefer to spend money on experiences (yoga classes with D, happy hours with my girls, good meals out, premium cable*) rather than stuff. Unless it is really awesome stuff that I will cherish forever (notably, my CathrineHolm bowls that I have not had a second of regret over, despite the high price tag) or use like crazy.

catherineholm lotus bowls
{catherineholm lotus bowls}

Once I figured that out, it was a little easier to prioritize. I spend less on clothes than I used to (although I could still improve - my goal is to stop buying anything cheap, ever). And I feel less guilty about spending money on the experiences I love. I'm naturally a saver, so I can't focus too strictly on cutting back or I start to stress out big time and not want to spend any money at all. If you read quick financial tips, they tend to emphasize cutting your spending on frivolous items. Cut back on your eating out, paint your own nails, make your coffee at home, watch DVDs instead of going out to movies.

To some extent, I agree. You can save a lot of money by making your own coffee in the morning and if you're stopping for coffee just because you can't get your act together to make it, you might want to look into that. But, if you stop for coffee every morning because you love the ritual and you truly enjoy the luxury of having someone else make it for you, then prioritize it and make room in your budget. You'll just have to give up something else that you like less (cheap tee shirts that fall apart after you wash them, maybe?).

I don't buy coffee every morning, but I do buy myself flowers almost every week. Because I like it. So I make room for it. I also like going out to eat regularly, and I'm happy to pay for it. I like being with friends, and I don't mind buying ingredients for a really nice meal or paying for my drinks if we decide to go out. It would be cheaper to stay home and just eat beans all the time, of course. But these things improve my life, tangibly. I'm careful not to take them for granted, to remember that I'm lucky. I don't deserve these things, in the sense that I'm somehow entitled to them as a right (indulgences are not rights even if it seems like everyone else can afford them - I think we tend to forget that sometimes). But I deserve them in the sense that I work hard for them and I budget for them and I appreciate them.

I save money on things I don't care about as much. I always pack a lunch (or eat frozen meals) at work, because running out to buy lunch and eat it in a rush by myself doesn't make my life any better. I take the bus to work and D and I share a car (and all the expenses that go along with owning a car), which is a pain sometimes, but not that often.  I avoid wandering around in stores because I know I'll be tempted to make impulse purchases and I don't need extra stuff. I check books out from the library and only buy the ones I really love. I have a $10 cell phone and a prepaid plan that costs me less than $10 per month, because I don't like talking on a cell.

Here is the bottom line - your expendable money should be giving you joy, making your life richer. I can't have everything I want, but I can pick and choose the things I want the most and then make them happen.

Tomorrow (if you aren't all completely sick of personal finance already) - my new strategy for this year.

* I used to try to convince myself that we should cut our cable, but I've come to peace with it. We love cable, we look forward to all the new shows and we watch them together, so I'm classifying it as together time. Also, crafting without cable really sucks.