Behind the kitchen that works

One of two deep drawers under my cook top to hold pots, pans and lids right where I use them.

We remodeled our kitchen four years ago, but people sometimes ask if I still like it.

What?

Are you kidding?

Do I still like it?

I thought long and hard about every choice we made. I had more than one folder of photos and ideas I had torn from magazines. I had a growing Pinterest board.

Yes, I still like it. I like it more all the time.

The kitchen turned out better than I ever thought possible. I love it. I’m crazy about it. It is my happy place.

We live in a thirty-odd year old house in a suburban subdivision. The kitchen layout is pretty much the same as every other house here, and although we did change the footprint a bit, getting rid of a peninsula in favor of an island, what really makes my kitchen great is that it works really well. I have a professional kitchen designer to thank for that.

This wasn’t just a cosmetic update (although it certainly needed it). We thought about and planned for function. Katherine asked us a lot of questions about how our old kitchen functioned: what we liked about it and what we didn’t like (for starters, the back door opened into the refrigerator); are we avid cooks (yes); do we entertain (yes, large and small groups, often). She helped us solve some key issues.

It started with the microwave.

This is true. It needed to be replaced. Our old kitchen had a microwave/fan unit installed above the stove. In fact, we put it in. It’s a great, space-saving option. But when push came to shove, it wasn’t that great for me. I’m pretty short (less than five feet) and (1) I really couldn’t see what was going on in the microwave and (2) I was reaching high to get hot food & dishes out of there. Add to that my husband’s observation that the fan unit did next to nothing. So, better microwave placement and a functional fan were at the top of our list.

Locating the ovens for comfort and accessibility took some planning, but that was worth it. I also love the vertical storage above and the cubbies to the left. That drop zone has kept the rest of the counters much clearer.

We could have put the microwave in the lower cabinets. After we chose an island layout, we gave serious consideration to that. But I just wasn’t sold on the idea. So then Katherine suggested a built-in microwave and oven unit that could be installed at a comfortable height. We would also then trade a stove for a cooktop. A bonus for this option was that we would have an electric oven, which is more precise for baking, and a gas cooktop, which we both prefer for stovetop cooking.

That decision was a win, win, win. The microwave is at eye level for me. The oven is just below it, making it much more comfortable to access than one below a cooking surface. And, can I just say I love the cooktop. It’s wider than my stove was and has a fifth burner. That sounds like overkill to some, but it’s great for us. It’s larger for big pots and, if anything, I needed to learn to dial down the heat on it. Finally, we got a great fan that really pulls cooking fumes, smoke and heat out. It’s actually a little larger than the cook top for better efficiency.

I don’t consider any of these to be glamorous choices, but they truly improved the function of the kitchen. We made other conscious choices that I appreciate daily.

I traded off shelf space for drawers in most of my lower cabinets and I love them. I keep my pots in two deep drawers below the cooktop. They pull all the way out, so I’m never fumbling in the back of a cabinet for a pot. I keep everyday dishes, serving and mixing bowls, measuring cups, and other prep and serving tools in drawers in the island. Again, I’m not fumbling in cabinets and I can see everything in the drawer at a glance. I’m not a hugely organized person. In fact, my friends will tell you I’m a messy cook. Drawers have helped me “clean up my act.”

I also asked for — and got — vertical storage for trays, cookie sheets, sheet pans, etc. Again, it makes these kitchen go-to’s so much more accessible.

Including the kitchen sink

The sink choice was the source of much debate. There are almost too many sink options out there. I have had porcelain, stainless, and, in our pre-renovation kitchen, a solid surface sink integral to the countertop. Steve was insistent on going back to stainless, which was fine by me. I was more concerned with the size of the sink. I wanted one big enough to hold my largest pots. After lots of measuring, we settled on an oversize bowl that actually holds 12-in. by 18-in. sheet pans. (There is a smaller bowl to the left with the garbage disposal. ) I absolutely love this sink! It’s big, extra deep, and holds a big dirty pan so you can really clean it. At the designer’s suggestion, I also got a stainless steel rack that fits the bottom of the sink and protects the surface from scratches.

Is it silly to say you love your sink? Probably, but I do. When you aren’t cooking in a kitchen, you’re cleaning up. Make it easy!

We also enlarged the window over our sink. It was really dead space that we leveraged to bring in more light. Here, again, the designer hit a homerun. She enlarged the window all the way around and had casements installed instead of the traditional double-hung windows we had. The casements have the same divided lights as our existing windows, but are much easier for me to reach across the sink and crank open. Even if we’d asked a contractor for a larger window, I’m not sure we would have gotten easier access.

The renovation gave us plenty of “pretty,” including some glass-fronted cabinets to show off dishes and collectibles, a stove mantle that camouflages the fan and shows off some of my transferware, quartz countertops that work really hard and still look like new, pretty moldings, and a lot more.

The nice thing about pretty, of course, is that it comes in a range of price points. Cabinets, countertops, hardware and light fixtures come at all price points to keep you on budget. The same is true for appliances. It would have been fun to go “top of the line” but the budget just wasn’t there. In fact, we re-installed our dishwasher because it was just a year old.

Pretty is easy to add. You can readily replace light fixtures or upgrade cabinet hardware to refresh the look. It’s possible to replace solid cabinet doors with glass and upgrade countertops. We’ve all seen the gorgeous before & after’s that result from (re)painting cabinets. But making the bones work was more challenging, and I don’t think we could have done it without a professional designer.

That said, when all else fails, wipe down the countertops, add a big vase of flowers and a bunch of candles, and dim the lights. Ta da!

(I know this works because I have done it!)

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.

 

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Cooking from the book

If you follow me on Instagram. you already know how excited I was when my copy of The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook arrived. The Cook’s Atelier is the cooking school I attended last spring in Beaune, France. I wrote about the one-day workshop, here, meeting Marjorie, her daughter Kendall and the rest of the class to shop the local market for ingredients, returning to their 15th Century atelier, and preparing and sharing a remarkable French lunch.

Like that day, this cookbook is much more than recipes. It’s a thoughtful treatise on French culture, particularly in the Burgundy wine country. Ex-pat authors and cooks Marjorie Taylor and Kendall Smith Franchini share their love and appreciation of all things French and the challenges of defining a business based on their passions for cooking and wine and then launching that business in their newly adopted country.

Not only is the food scrumptious, so are the full-page photos!

First, this is a lovely book, beautifully printed on heavy paper. (So French, I’m sure.) The photos are stunning, and document every aspect of their life, from the delicious food, to the countryside, the Beaune market, the local vendors they have come to appreciate and depend on, the elegant simplicity of their shop, kitchen and dining room, and, of course, the family at the center of it all. (If you have been to their shop, then you know the integral role played by Kendall’s husband Laurent and how sweetly their two young children occasionally appear in the shop or kitchen).

Butter. So quintessentially French on its own, but then there is clarified butter, compound butter, buerre noisette. So much to learn!

Lots of cooks, restaurants and foodies publish cookbooks. There seem to be at least one or two new ones each week. But few spend time on technique and ingredients (well, maybe the likes of Alice Waters and Julia Child). The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook stands far above these latest publications. Charming sections tackle the French larder, cooking tools, burgundy wine, the French cheese course, and traditional cooking techniques like frenching and tying a rib roast and trussing poultry. Recipes are grouped by season and compiled into menus, something I especially appreciate since I am notoriously uncertain about what really goes with what. In short, this is a cookbook you can truly learn from in addition to finding great recipes.

So, you may ask, what have I made? I’ve been making the French butter cake since I took the class. It’s simple and delicious, two prerequisites for French cooking. I’ve also prepared the grilled veal we made in class (and practiced the sauce technique with a few other cuts of meat).  Now I’m working on the green garlic souffle. (Mine tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work. See below!)

Tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work.
What we made in class, served in these wonderful, individual copper pots. I need more practice!

I have added pastry tips and disposable bags to my kitchen equipment and tested them last week on gougers and madeleines. Next up? Coq au Vin. Marjorie and Kendall use white burgundy instead of red, and I can’t wait to try that.

Gather ingredients first!
Gougeres, dainty pastry puffs flavored with gruyere and served warm with an apperitif. I’m practicing my pastry bag skills for these.
Madeleines, best served slightly warm after dinner.

What have I learned? Quite a lot. Fresh — which means seasonal — ingredients make a difference. Ask the butcher for help. Make sure you understand the recipe before starting. Gather all tools, prepare pans, and measure ingredients before cooking. Have fun. The story in my kitchen and yours is the same as the story in theirs — it’s about the family and friends around the table.

I couldn’t resist showing you a few more pages from the book. The photos are really beautiful. The first is their teaching kitchen and a corner of their shop where they sell their own lovely line of copper pots, along with kitchen tools and a carefully curated selection of wine. Below that is another shot of the book.

 

As I was writing this post I went back to the original from last June after my class there. In it I said I was smitten. Yikes! I am all over again. To learn more about The Cook’s Atelier, you can visit the website at www.thecooksatelier.com. The cookbook is available wherever books are sold, including Amazon.

Thank you so much for stopping by. I’ll see you again next time.

My everyday 10 and counting

One of the blogs I follow is Mocadeaux, another empty-nester who loves food, wine, travel and grandchildren (pretty much a kindred soul, I’d say). She recently wrote a post on her “Everyday 20,” which listed 20 things she buys and uses every day. The idea comes from an American Express ad encouraging card holders to use their Amex card for these everyday things. We traded comments on that particular post and although it turns out that neither one of us uses that credit card, she encouraged me to try the same topic.

Alas, Mo, I only came up with 10 right now, though there will be a part 2 in the near future. Some of these are one-time or occasional purchases, but they are things I appreciate every day. In the meantime I’m hoping everyone will read on to learn — in no particular order — my “Everyday 10.”

1. My iPad. Like Mo, I am an Apple fan. And though I’d be lost without my iPhone and I love my Mac, what I pick up most often is my iPad. I use it to read and write emails, for Instagram, to view photos, read the news. I even download books to it. It’s all about the bigger screen.

2. Instagram. I came late to the party on this, after my daughter encouraged me to try it. But honestly, I just love it. It’s like a new design magazine every time I scroll down. Who do I follow? Other bloggers, foodies, designers, some magazines, travelers, my daughter (she’s a great photographer). I do not follow celebrities, politics, fashion, music, or movies. I do not follow FaceBook friends. IG is simply my daily dose of the pretty that interests me most. (You can follow me here.)

3 & 4. Rimmed baking sheets and pre-cut parchment papers to fit. I use these daily, sometimes more than one for a meal, for roasted vegetables, meat and poultry browned on the stove and finished in the oven, appetizers, cookies, and more. Although I snapped a photo of them here as my husband was preparing meatballs, I also use a half-size pan that’s perfect for roasting vegetables, etc., for just the two of us.

 

 

5. While we’re in the kitchen, the vertical storage in this cabinet. I keep baking sheets, frequently used trays, cutting boards, cooling racks, and a few shallow pans in this cabinet above my oven and microwave. This is one of the custom touches I insisted on when we remodeled our kitchen and I’m so glad I did. I can see and reach everything here. (High cabinets and shelves are lost on short people like me.) In fact I wish now there was space for more of this storage in the kitchen.

 

6. Grocery store flowers. I am happiest when I can snip flowers or greenery from my own yard and  garden, but the growing season in Chicago is so short and the winter is soooo looong. Frankly the blooms and greenery in the store see me coming and call my name. If you choose well, for $10 you can bring home an armful of sunshine.

 

7. This paint color. Designers describe Sherwin Williams Popular Gray as a “warm gray,” which I thought of as an oxymoron until I tried it on a wall. I love it! Last year I used it in the upstairs/downstairs hall, the powder room and guest bath. Ditto this year in the spare bedrooms and my husband’s office. It’s a soft, neutral background that works well with assorted furniture finishes, artwork and accessories. In the past our rooms have sported a variety of paint colors (not to mention my wallpaper period) and I’m loving the uniform background. And, see #8 below.

8. White woodwork. The Popular Gray walls are awesome against the Benjamin Moore Simply White woodwork and doors. When this painting mission began, we decided to paint our dark, stained woodwork. And, yes, it’s a lot of work: sanding, priming, then painting two coats. (Full disclosure: pros did a lot of it.) But, what a difference! It totally transformed the house, taking it from subdivision 70’s to now. Paint really is a miracle worker.

9. My sewing machine. Like a lot of women my age, I started sewing in my early teens, cranking out A-line skirts and dresses. As time went on I began to sew more sophisticated garments. I like doing things with my hands, and, of course, I like clothes. Fast forward to my first apartment and then our first houses. I made curtains, so many curtains for about a decade, but sewing with active children underfoot was challenging. I finally pretty much gave it up. I made a few Halloween costumes and even sewed for my daughter’s American Girl doll, but I was rusty and not always pleased with the results. Fast forward once more to my retired self. Not only do I have time to sew, but I can take my time with a sewing project. And, I really wanted lined, white linen curtains in the living room. Not gauzy; something substantial that would hang in graceful folds. So, off to the fabric-lover/decorator’s nirvana otherwise known as Calico Corners and fifteen yards of fabric and lining plus a few afternoons at the machine and I have exactly the look I had in mind. My machine and I will be spending more time together.

10. My new soup/pasta/salad bowls from Williams Sonoma. I’m a bit of a dish junkie, not just in terms of transferware and ironstone collections, but also about what I put on the table daily. I’ve had a set of pasta bowls for years, but they were really big (and encouraging really big servings!). I wanted something that would be more multi-purpose, serving pasta, but also hearty soups, chili, even one-dish dinners like beef bourguignon. These stylish and sturdy white bowls from Williams Sonoma are perfect for all the uses I noted here, as well as an entree-sized salad. Win, win, win!

What’s your everyday 10 or 20 these days? I’d love to hear!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time!

Three things for this week in this season

There’s so much going on this season, and when things get a little crazy, I get really indecisive. (Seriously, as in should I wear boots or shoes to the store? Cook pork chops or pasta for dinner? Everything gets to be an issue.) It’s not surprising that I couldn’t decide what to write about this week, so here are my top 3 topics: traveling wineglasses, necessary conversations, and a new book.

The traveling wineglasses came out of their boxes last weekend (you may remember last year’s post about them here) to welcome friends to our holiday open house. I hate to hang numbers on things, but this has been our holiday tradition for more than four decades. Once in a while I get a little weary of this whole thing (as in, should I really be having yet another party?) but then someone says, “We always look forward to this…” And the truth is, we do too.

Since we have had so much “practice” at this party, Steve and I have developed a routine for getting it together and we have simplified, simplified, and simplified some more. It is, after all, about getting together with friends. For the last few years I have been serving prosecco along with the customary wine and beer. I did it at first as an ice breaker. But now I think, on a Sunday afternoon, it’s what people enjoy drinking. (Back in the day we served eggnog and then for a while it was spiced wine. Talk about an evolution!) Bubbles are much more fun!)

I have learned to keep the menu simple, so I can enjoy the party. This year it was really just meat & cheese trays, some veggies & dip and Steve’s burgundy meatballs. It’s pretty easy to “dress up” the trays with fancy olives, some fruit, even little cornichons or nuts. The meatballs are the “hearty” snack and definitely made ahead. We re-heat them on the stove, then pop them into a chafing dish for the afternoon. I made two batches of cookies and bought some and, voila! we had a sweet tray.

Although we have an artificial tree, I love fresh greens. I bought three big bundles to use inside and out with seeded eucalyptus and red winterberries. They pretty much arranged themselves. Next year I may try working fresh greens into some of my artificial greenery.

And that was the extent of my party planning.

We live in interesting times.

A few weeks ago I impressed myself by getting our tree dressed early. (Step 1 in my party plan. Get it done so all the boxes are cleared away.)  The next day I was up in time to see a news message on my iPad announcing that Matt Lauer had been fired for inappropriate workplace behavior. Now Al Franken has been pushed out of the Senate, and Roy Moore came this close to winning a Senate seat.

The good news is that the women who helped launch the conversation are on the cover of Time magazine. Well done!

On the one hand, I am both uncomfortable and tired of hearing various recitations of sexual misconduct. On the other hand, the women who have come forward have shown remarkable courage. This is a singular moment in time and a conversation we need to have. We need to listen to their stories and keep listening. Sons and brothers and husbands and co-workers need to learn that this is not acceptable behavior. Girls and women should never settle for anything less than a safe work place. I can’t wait to see where this conversation takes us.

On a more positive note…

Earlier this week we heard former Vice President Joe Biden speak during the Chicago stop on his American Promise Tour. What a wonderful and refreshing evening! He sat onstage at the Chicago Theater with Leslie Odom, Jr. and talked about the purpose behind his book, Promise Me, Dad (which was handed out to everyone in the audience), his career as a public servant, the commitment he made early on to always, always put his family first, his role in the Obama administration, and more.

The audience was packed and remarkably diverse in every way. We all hung on to every word, laughing at his stories, bursting into spontaneous applause at his observations of American history and politics, and shedding a few tears as he described his son’s battle with brain cancer. My daughter looked around the packed house at the Chicago Theater and summed it up perfectly: “This makes you wonder what could have been if history had played out a little differently.”

So now you know what I’ve been up to and why I still need to finish shopping, tackle holiday cards, and maybe do a little wrapping. But, in truth, the Biden book is calling my name. And it’s so nice to sit by the tree.

Wishing you the warmth of family & friends, as well as the peace of the season as we head into the holidays!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

 

New reads and a great new recipe

One way to soothe my September/back-to-school nostalgia is to look ahead to a year of good reading with my AAUW book group. This group has met for decades, long before Oprah launched her book club and the Internet spawned bloggers (like me!) with all manner of lists.

I have already shared with you (here) that we meet on the first Friday morning in September to select eleven books for the year ahead. Nominations are submitted in advance and additional options from the floor are not accepted. Since so many blog readers and bloggers are avid readers, I thought I would share our choices and invite your comments.

Not surprisingly, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly are on the list. (They’re on everyone’s list, and for good reason. I blogged about Gentleman here and recently finished Lilac Girls, which is based on a true story of a New York socialite who brought to light the details of Polish detainees at Hitler’s women-only concentration camp.)

We’re also reading The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg, another nod to WWII. Lisa Ko’s The Leavers recounts the life of an undocumented Chinese immigrant, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See takes on the lives of a U.S. adopted Chinese girl and her birth mother.

The Other Einstein, by Marie Benedict, about Einstein’s wife, and The Stars Are on Fire by Anite Shreve, about a fire in Maine in 1947, are both considered historical fiction. News of the World by Paulette Giles, set in post-Civil War Texas, may also fall into that category.

We also chose So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman, a murder mystery told over 17 years. (A bit of a surprise since we don’t often choose mysteries.) The protagonist in An Unnecessary Woman by Almeddine Rabih is a 72-year-old woman looking back on her life and her books. (I’m very curious about this one!)

We always try to include at least one classic and this year it’s Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. I read this in college and I’m anxious to delve back into it. But we decided against Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. Maybe I’ll have to put that on my personal list. We also did not have room for LaRose by Louise Erdrich or The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I’ll have to add them to my non-club list as well.

So, what do you think? Are any of these on your list? I’d love to know what you’re reading this Fall. And if you need more ideas, check out Katie Clooney’s picks at The Preppy Empty Nester.

(Actually, between Katie’s book, movie and TV recommendations, Mocadeaux’s wine picks, and Everyday Occasions recipes, one could enjoy a genuinely delightful time this fall!)

An easy, elegant appetizer

Last week I was searching for a new appetizer recipe, something simple, and maybe make-ahead, to simplify a midweek dinner for friends. My solution to these dilemmas is often to cruise my collection of Ina Garten/Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. (Ina never disappoints!)

The recipe as pictured in Cooking for Jeffrey. I think mine looked almost as good!

What I settled on was this easy and delicious pot of herbed goat cheese. In addition to the cheese, the only ingredients were fresh dill and basil (both plentiful in our garden right now), olive oil, salt and pepper. I used a cute jelly jar and a log of fresh goat cheese that I cut into four portions and flattened them a bit to make appropriately-sized disks for the jar. I made this a day ahead. Before my guests arrived, I let the jar of cheese come to room temperature before adding it to a small cheese tray, serving it with a choice of hardy crackers and toasted baguette slices. Yum! I loved it, but more importantly, my guests did too. You can find the recipe here.

I’d love to hear what you’re reading and cooking these days. And by the way, I hope you’ll follow me on Instagram to you can get a peek at a new adventure.

Thanks for stopping by! See you next time.