Because asparagus is in season. Somewhere.

asparagus-tied

We drove down to Bloomington today — the kids are on spring break, and since I’d like to be the “fun mom” at least one or two days out of the 14 they’ll be home, we went with friends to the Wonderlab — a small but all-around awesome science museum in the town that’s home to Indiana University. It’s a heavy hour drive south on a state highway — and on the way down, we were driving through some small nameless (to me) town, and passed what appeared to be a chain restaurant with a giant sign hanging on the outside, advertising the “Asparagus Festival.” Which is funny, since asparagus is totally not in season here right now. They’re off by a quarter year.

asparagus-colander

I can only assume this chain restaurant must be headquartered somewhere in California. Where asparagus is coming into season, which means we can buy it at our grocery store for about $3 a pound.

Asparagus is so elegant. It has the magical ability to dress up most anything it shares a plate with — from eggs to a simple green salad. When asparagus is added to a thing, it becomes instantly presentable. Which is why, once I start seeing it in my grocery, shipped from California, I buy it, instead of waiting for the 2-week window in July when we can buy it locally-grown at our farmer’s market.

Wild. And. Crazy. I am.

A pivotal moment in life came when I read somewhere (was it Julia Child? Chris Kimball? can’t be sure) that instead of breaking off the tough ends of your asparagus spears, which sometimes leaves you discarding half the stalk — you can just cut off the bottom inch or so, and peel the lower half to increase your asparagus real estate.

I almost doubled my asparagus intake in that one tip. It was beautiful.

asparagus-peeling

My very favorite way to cook asparagus is roasting it. This method does come from Chris Kimball — in his Cook’s Bible. But the method is so simple I’ve memorized it, it’s really not a recipe at all. I love that this can be done in my toaster oven, and it takes just ten minutes. Roasting deepens flavors in a way that steaming or boiling does not, and gives that completely delightful crunch on the ends, if you let it go long enough.

asparagus-roasted

Leftovers? I’ve eaten them cold out of the refrigerator, standing there with the door open. If you are more civilized, you can chop them and add them to a salad, or reheat them in a hot skillet before you whip up a lunchtime omelet.

Or claim an Asparagus Festival, right in your kitchen, and do whatever that dictates.

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Recipe: Roasted Asparagus

: closely inspired by a method found in The Cook’s Bible, by Christopher Kimball

Ingredients

  • 1 pound asparagus
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt to taste

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°, and have a baking sheet ready.
  2. Wash asparagus spears, and cut off the bottom inch or so, just the very toughest ends. Using a vegetable peeler, peel any remaining tough skin off the lower half of the spears. (They cook more evenly if they are a somewhat consistent thickness all the way down.)
  3. Toss spears with olive oil, and spread in a single layer on baking sheet. Roast for 10 minutes, or until spears are tender, and just beginning to brown on top ends.
  4. Season with salt, and serve immediately.

Copyright © Katy Carter, 2012.

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Kitchen reno, part 3: the countertop and backsplash

Coming into our on-the-cheap reno story a bit late? You might want to first check our our Julia Child pegboard pot rack, or the window and open shelves that put the fung back into my kitchen schway.

kitchen-countertop

From day one, I didn’t like the countertops in our kitchen. I remember when we were looking at the house, the day I fell in love with the kitchen sink, the owner telling us that they chose them because they “looked just like granite” and were “so cheap.” The thing is, they don’t like granite, they look like dark-brown formica (exactly what they are). And I’m not even wild about granite, so the perceived similarity was wasted on me.

But when it came time to do our reno, we just didn’t have the budget to replace all the countertops — and, truth be told, they could be worse. Since in our last kitchen we loved the butcherblock eating bar, we got a wild hair to replace just a portion of our counters here with the same material. At first I thought we’d have to stain the wood a similar color as our dark counters — but once we installed it, the mismatched surfaces worked surprisingly well, and the lighter color wood helped brighten the room.

The counter is from Ikea — called some forgettable combination of too many consonants and an umlaut-ed vowel or two. It’s crazy cheap — you can order a counter-depth 8-foot section for $169 (about $10/sq ft). We got the deeper version, since ours would need an overhang for our eating bar — but the deeper one only comes in a 6-foot length. This was the reason Tim had to build out the cabinets at the wall end of the counter — the 6′ length wasn’t long enough to extend from the wall to the end of the peninsula. He built the shelves out about a foot, and the counter covered the rest. Problem solved — and as it turns out, I love the variety the built-ins lend to the open shelves.

I also love the counter because I can knead bread and roll out dough directly on the surface (no knives here!). I wanted a non-toxic way to keep them water-repellent and conditioned, so I make up my own spoon oil and give it a coat every few months. My kids took a ball-point pen to it once, which required a light sanding — but as far as spilled wine, berry stains, etc., they will fade on their own in a matter of a day or two. It’s a little harder to give the counter a daily wipe-down, but the trade-off is worth it, to have a soft eating and prep surface.

kitchen-tile2

The last major change was the backsplash. The original kitchen didn’t have one — and I wanted to go with something classic, something that wouldn’t lock us into a color scheme, something cheap. Enter the good ol’ white subway tile. Already precipitously close to being over-used, likely to become the infamous “avocado green” of the early 21st century kitchen, it was hard to argue against it. You can get 100 tiles for $60 (we used a shy 200 tiles, so the total was about $120). Plus, I love white. I have white cabinets, and wanted the white-on-white walls to match. My original plan was to have the entire kitchen wall, straight up to the ceiling, covered in tile. But in the end I decided a little splash of paint would be nice — it helped that my husband “strongly recommended” I not do that, and since he was doing all the work, well, you know.

kitchen-tile

In the last kitchen reno post, next week, I’ll wrap up the remaining details that brought the whole project to a close — as well as give a line-by-line breakdown of cost (as best I can manage, we’re not the best receipt-keepers). Anyone wanna take bets on the total project cost? Or, wanna guess the one thing I still hate about my kitchen? Leave it in the comments — the winner will get nothing more than the joy of knowing you guessed something right.

Who doesn’t want to be right?

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You might enjoy following the rest of our reno adventure:
Part 1: Julia Child Pot Rack
Part 2: The Window and Shelves
Part 4: Final Details & Cost Breakdown

Kick the can: the easy way to use dried beans

driedbeans-cup

Back in my single days, I was addicted to a bag of instant beans and rice called Vigo. I’m guessing they only required cooking for 15 minutes or so in boiling water — since that’s about all I could manage in those years — but what I liked about them was the fact that the bag told me to douse them in oil and vinegar, Cuban-style. This dressing made me an addict (nevermind the fact that the brand of beans had nothing to do with this condiment) — I even remember requesting they carry them at my new grocery store when I moved to Tennessee.

Years later, I graduated to canned beans. I’d saute onions, peppers and garlic, and add a can of black beans to the mix, spiced with cumin. A little more homemade, one step less processed.

I think it was our beloved Brazilian Black Beans, from The Joy of Cooking, that first had me buying dried beans. I couldn’t believe how much cheaper it was — I could even afford to buy organic.

But there were still so many recipes that called for a can or two of beans. For both economic and health reasons (home-cooked beans retain more nutrients than canned, contain no BPA, and if pre-soaked are much easier to digest), I decided to try and use dried instead — and finally figured out a way to do it that makes it almost as easy as buying a can.

driedbeans-soaking

Cooking in bulk is the key — and to make it even easier, I usually kill two birds with one stone, and have a bean-cooking day when I need a large quantity of cooked beans for a recipe. These white navy beans were cooked to use in a Tuscan White Bean Stew — and I saved the rest for future use. The instructions below include a long (24-hour) soak, which greatly helps bean digestion and combats anti-nutrients. A slow-cooker is my favorite cooking vessel, as I can leave it on while running errands in the morning. The most important thing to remember about cooking dried beans: do not add salt until beans are cooked. Salt toughens beans, and causes most cases of the dreaded beans-that-never-get-done.

Try this just once, and I guarantee you’ll give serious consideration to kicking this can from your cupboard.*

driedbeans-frozen

Recipe: How to Cook Dried Beans

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds dried beans (black, pinto, kidney, navy)
  • filtered water for soaking & cooking
  • 1 Tbsp whey or lemon juice (optional)
  • 2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed (optional)

Instructions

  1. In a 2-quart bowl, combine the dried beans with 2 quarts lukewarm water (this will more than cover the beans, but the legumes will swell to several times their size) and optional whey/lemon juice. Let sit for 12-24 hours (you can change the water once during a long soak, but this is optional).
  2. Drain and rinse the beans very well.
  3. Combine rinsed beans in a slow cooker with enough fresh water to cover by 2 inches. Add optional garlic, and cook covered, on high, for 4 hours, or until tender. DO NOT ADD SALT until beans are fully cooked (I freeze mine unsalted and season as used).
  4. Let cool completely. Use immediately, or divide into 1.5 cup (one can of beans) or 3 cup (two cans of beans) portions in freezer bags. Will keep frozen for 6 months. To thaw, submerge in a bowl of lukewarm water for 30 minutes until loose enough to remove from plastic (avoid microwaving in the plastic bag).

Copyright © Katy Carter, 2012.

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* Confession: I still sometimes have canned beans in my cupboard. I consider it part of our natural disaster plan, kinda like the stores of food hoarded in my basement.

This post was linked up to Simple Lives Thursday.

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Kitchen reno, part 2: the window and shelves.

reno-window-2

I know I said I’d be going in reverse order, on this whole kitchen-reno-reveal thing (feel free to start at the beginning), but truthfully my order is completely nonsensical (hey, a chaotic reno deserves nothing less than chaotic documentation, right?). So the main reason we did this, the instigator of change, the little flicker of an idea that became my new kitchen — The Fung Schway Window. On night I went happily to bed with this over my sink — the point of no return, the sign of tentative progress:

reno-windowhole

The hole in the wall wasn’t quite as much of an inconvenience as the fact that the cabinets had to come down first. We lived for a few months without those cabinets — even got to that point where you stop seeing the state of mild chaos you’re living in. We’d have a new visitor to our house, and I’d see their gaze fall briefly, but repeatedly, on our unexplained wall-of-no-cabinets. And then I’d remember that most people don’t live this way, with partially-painted drywall instead of cabinets above their countertops.

But soon the window was in, and it was glorious. Not, mind you, the view — while washing dishes, I get to look at our neighbor’s window air-conditioning unit and rotting backyard swingset, used for presumably-grown children I’ve never seen. But no matter, because like an overexposed photo, I can make it all go away, blow it out in my mind, replace it with blinding light.

reno-window-straight

And it was the light. And openness. And the fact that I could now stand at my sink, and not feel like I was facing a cave wall, or washing in a basement. For some reason, this is important to me (one of my personal imagined levels of hell is washing an endless stack of dishes in a basement).

And then, of course, the shelves. We had to have a place for our dishes and such, since those cabinets came down. I’m a huge fan of open shelving, even though a few members of my extended family perpetually wonder how we will deal with the dust. My answer is usually we don’t. Dust is so underrated.

reno-shelves-1

The design was based on a problem that will be covered in a subsequent post about the countertop. But my contractor-husband basically had to build out a section of shelves on the far end, and then we filled in the middle shelves using Ikea iron brackets. It worked out great — I use the larger shelves for jars and storage, and the middle section is reserved for dishes.

reno-shelves-jars

reno-shelves-2

I am not a matchy-matchy person, and even relish the fact that my dishes continue to be a hodge-podge collection of everything from restaurant-ware (the best, sturdiest white dinner plates EVER) to thrift-store finds. Most of my serving dishes are visible on the upper shelves so I can always scan the top to see what I need. The under-shelf teacup hooks were a recent addition, and I have plans for adding an under-shelf wine rack to further maximize space.

reno-shelves-greencups

So thrilled I was with how this turned out, we could have just stopped there. But we didn’t — and after splurging on the most expensive part of our reno, a new section of countertop, we just needed to add a few tiny details to make it almost, so-close-to, just shy of perfect (I would be so bored — yet likely much more sane — without fixating on things that need improving).

Next up in the reno series, Best Supporting Actors: the countertop, and our cheap & trendy backsplash.

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You might enjoy following the rest of our reno adventure:
Part 1: Julia Child Pot Rack
Part 3: The Countertop & Backsplash
Part 4: Final Details & Cost Breakdown

City gone squirrely

squirrel

(He’s gun camera shy.)

We live in the city. Which means we have city squirrels.

How is a city squirrel different from a country squirrel? Or a suburban squirrel? While I can’t speak to any genetic mutations or species-specific differences, I do know that, until we moved to the city, I had never known squirrels to be so…

ballsy.

I was mildly taken aback when squirrels chewed two rodent-sized holes in our trash can (one is “in” and the other “out?”). And that whole thing about chomping away at our Halloween Jack-O-Lantern? Well, it wouldn’t be Halloween in the city without a half-gnawed pumpkin head, now would it?

And I thought it kind of cute, the day my 8-year old came in from outside and said, “Mom. You’ll never guess what I just saw. It was a squirrel, with a piece of buttered bread in its mouth.”  And I was all, “ok, ha ha, that’s funny, why do you really want me to come outside?”  And she was all, “no, REALLY Mom.” And so I walked outside, and what was staring me in the face, but a squirrel, with a piece of buttered bread in its mouth. Perfectly-buttered. Like it was presented to the squirrel on a platter, with a side of bacon.

But then the relationship started to go downhill last summer, when they began eating our tomatoes. I took action, whipping up a hot pepper spray using a half-pound of habaneros and dousing our plants.

I can only assume our squirrels like their tomatoes spicy, because it didn’t deter in the least.

Then last weekend, I had just finished putting the last strips of plaster-of-paris-dipped newspaper on the Death Star Pinata we were making for my son’s 6th birthday party. I set it outside to dry while I iced cupcakes, feeling totally on top of things, for once. I even remember seeing a squirrel sitting right outside our back door, and I swear he looked inside at me. I think he might have even chuckled. Because a half-hour later, I went out to get the Death Star, and this is what I found:

squirrel-deathstar

The Squirrel had chewed right through, presumably gnawing away to get the recycled Halloween candy from inside.

And then today. I have a fun new writing gig, over at NUVO (Indy’s alternative newspaper) — and one of my upcoming stories is about the Indiana Artisan Marketplace. I’ll be doing a preview story, so the PR folks wanted to send a basket o’ goodies to get the creative juices flowing. I gave the rep my address, and told her to leave it on my porch if we weren’t here.

squirrel-basket

So this afternoon I was doing some work when a glint on the front porch caught my eye. I looked, and it was a random bottle, lying in a position like someone tossed it up to my door. I opened the door, and saw the goodie basket. I was still trying to figure out how the deliverer managed to let a jar of maple syrup fall to the concrete floor unawares when, as I picked up the basket, I saw something else that wasn’t quite right.

A gnawed-through bag, of what used to be three giant dark chocolate chip coconut marshmallows, from 240Sweet. Only there were just two marshmallows left.

squirrel-marshmallows

And it wasn’t as much the fact that the squirrel took a marshmallow — I mean, who can blame him — but the fact that he came onto my front porch. Just walked right up to the front door, and took stuff out of my basket. Tried to walk away with the maple syrup, even.

Well, it ends here. Squirrel, if you are reading — and honestly, at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had an iPad stashed away somewhere in our crawlspace, with a twitter account an all — when you strutted up to my front porch, you crossed a line.

I have three kids, and two marshmallows.

This, squirrel?

This.

Means.

War.

 

Kitchen reno, part 1: the Julia Child pegboard pot rack

potrack

Remember my bad kitchen feng shui? When, about 18 months ago, I decided I couldn’t live another day in a kitchen without a window above the sink? Because who can daydream about not doing dishes while doing just that and staring at a blank wall?

Well, I now have that window, plus much more, and it didn’t even take 18 months — more like a year. I just needed six more months to actually write about it.

I’m happy to report that my chee* now flows freely westward as I wash countless dishes every day. Freely westward for about 25 feet, until it stops dead at the window a/c unit of our neighbor’s house (6 yards is better than a foot, right?).

Anyway, I figured it was finally time for an update, and some pics. Because I really do now love my kitchen, and feel kinda like a proud grandmother whipping out her accordion of wallet-sizes.

So, in reverse-order of completion, I present the projects, one-by-one:

The Pegboard Pot Rack

The ice cream on the proverbial cake of our on-the-cheap reno was my Julia-Child-inspired pot rack. This is perfect in my kitchen — primarily because there is no place to have an overhead-hanging rack like we’ve had in previous houses. We have a 2-foot wall next to our stove that sits at a 45° angle, and it was begging for a large piece of peg board to house my collection of newish-and-vintage pots-and-pans right at arm’s length.

What I love about it:

  • the majority of my pots-and-pans no longer take up valuable drawer space
  • my cookware couldn’t be closer to the stove — I just turn on the burner and grab what I need
  • the wall rack allows me to use pans as color in the kitchen — my favorite is the tomato-red vintage Dansk enameled cast iron that my friend Sarah found on a Goodwill run.
  • the whole project cost about $20

Granted, my husband did the whole thing (I cook, he fixes things: it’s our agreement). But I totally could have done it on my own. If I’d wanted to.

You just need a piece of pegboard from your local hardware store — and if your board doesn’t come with them, make sure to pick up a package of hooks. While you’re there, go ahead and pick out a quart of paint, and some primer will help too (we had primer already, and used a $5 sample paint from Sherwin-Williams that had been a discarded kitchen color). If your board doesn’t come with spacers, you’ll need some small scraps of wood to use for that purpose.

Cut your board to size, and prime/paint it. Then using 1/4″ spacers (the board can’t sit flush on the wall, or the hooks won’t go through the holes — we made this mistake in our previous home’s laundry room), screw the board to studs in your wall. Tim used 8 screws for our 2×5.5′ board. Touch up any paint flaws (paint over screws), let dry, and arrange hooks as needed.

Julia drew the outlines of her pots on her board with a black sharpie, but I just can’t commit like that.

Voila. Pot organization, kitchen color, efficient use of space, dirt cheap. What more could I ask for.

Check back for a future reno post featuring: The Window, and The World’s Trendiest Backsplash.

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* I know, I know. It’s qi. But even with a reno’d kitchen, I’m still as low-brow as I was in 2010.

You might enjoy following the rest of our reno adventure:
Part 2: The Window and Shelves
Part 3: The Countertop & Backsplash
Part 4: Final Details & Cost Breakdown

This post was linked up to Simple Lives Thursday.

An excuse to get out my mandoline

beetchips-rack

Oh I cannot wait for spring.

And lest your mind wander to the stereotypical images of gardening, mid-70s days and open windows: I’m really just ready for yard sales.

I developed a little tradition last summer. Late Friday night I’d check the paper and craigslist for area sales, and make a tentative list. My goal was to be at the earliest sale about 10 minutes before they opened — then I’d make my rounds, finally ending up at the Farmer’s Market mid-morning. By noon I was home with a Subaru’s worth of produce and treasures, ready for my eye-rolling oh-so-willing husband to help unload.

The thing about yard sales is that it’s almost impossible not to stereotype a sale depending on address — even though experience says the best deals and finds are often at unexpected places. One day last fall, toward the end of the sale season, I found one located just a few blocks from my house, on North Meridian Street.

If you’re not from Indianapolis: a good stretch of North Meridian (ahem, across a proverbial and invisible track from my block) is on the National Register of Historic Places. It holds stately, stone, turn-of-the-century mansions, heralding from they days when automobile money found its way to our city. Some of the homes are reminiscent of movie sets, surrounded by fountains, stately grounds, and lion-clad iron fences.

My kinda street to hit up a yard sale.

So I did — and as I perused linens and kitchenware that was no longer needed “at the condo,” I started a neat little pile of finds: a set of Riedel wine glasses, an All-Clad stainless griddle, and an OXO mandoline slicer. The griddle was marked $175 — and even after my best talking-down speech he wouldn’t budge (understandably, it’s a $350 griddle). So I walked away with the $1 wine glasses and the $5 mandoline — and though I likely tweeted and instagrammed those finds to a bloody pulp, I never forgot the griddle that got away.

Never satisfied, I am. It’s the blood of the thrifter.

A mandoline is, in my humble opinion, a somewhat frivolous tool. Excepting the fact that when you need one, nothing else will do — you just don’t need one that often. Case in point: I had still not used my $5 OXO even once after 6 months in my cabinet. On an afternoon of procrastination this week, I decided that must be remedied.

beetchips-mandoline

The challenge? Beet chips. Uniform slices are key, because otherwise these chips would be nearly impossible to cook evenly. This is a solid effort with just a small pile of reward — so save these for an afternoon when you’re bored, or needing to instead do laundry, or wanting to impress your dinner guests. A single large beet produced enough for 2 people, though I did eat them all.

Because I’ve gotta get every penny’s worth out of that five bucks.

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There are many recipes for beet chips available — this one from Martha Stewart gave me the idea of sandwiching baking sheets to keep the chips flat. The chips lighten as they cook — so dark red spots actually mean they are under-cooked — the chips will turn brown if they begin to overcook.

Recipe: Beet Chips

: one medium beet will yield 2 side servings

Ingredients

  • 2 medium beets, peeled and sliced 1/18″ thick on a mandoline slicer
  • 1 Tbsp olive or melted coconut oil
  • spices to taste: garlic powder, smoked paprika, chili powder, etc.
  • salt to taste

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350º and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl, toss beets with olive oil.
  3. Add 1/4 tsp of each of your spices and salt, and toss with your hands to coat and separate beet slices (latex gloves will prevent pink hands). Taste a raw beet for seasoning, adding more to taste.
  4. Lay beets in a single layer on prepared sheet, and sandwich another sheet on top.
  5. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove top sheet, and rotate bottom sheet in oven. Bake another 8-12 minutes, or until beets are starting to turn pink.
  6. Cool beets on a rack, they will crisp as they cool.

Copyright © Katy Carter, 2012.

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