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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Sidetracked by a new recipe, a DIY and two unlikely books

It’s been hot. I’ve been bored. The blog post I’ve been planning just isn’t coming together. Like a kid getting sidetracked from a deadline on a school project, I find I’m easily distracted. And so this is what I’ve been up to.

The recipe

These are perfect conditions for me to start puttering in the kitchen. (Cooking requires you to focus on the task in front of you and take a mental break from everything else.) I had seen a recipe for Fresh Summer Tomato Sauce on Jenny Steffens Hobick’s blog, Everyday Occasions . (Her recipes are delicious and she’s generous about sharing tips for success.) I was intrigued by this recipe, because it has only four ingredients! Check it out here; I don’t want to spoil the fun.

This sauce was delicious, easy, and so fresh!! I served it with penne, some meatballs from the freezer, and beans from Steve’s garden. Next, I want to try it with homemade meatballs and polenta, a fairly hearty appetizer we sometimes share at a local restaurant. I’ve been thinking that a slightly larger serving of meatballs and a vegetable on the side could turn that appetizer into an entree.

Polishing silver

Have you ever made DIY silver polish with a quart of boiling water, a tablespoon of baking soda and a foil-lined bowl? This is a recipe I saw on the web a few years ago. I tried it out with a bunch of silver-plate flatware I had forgotten about in the basement. I dropped a few pieces at a time into the hot water bath, and the results were amazing. Although I still use the traditional paste polish when I have the time, this has been my secret go-to when I need to clean a few pieces in a hurry.

It is especially effective with this woven silver basket. (Yes, I also polished some silver.) This was a wedding gift from a special friend in my earliest basket-collecting career. It’s a challenge to clean, so briefly dipping it in this bath has been a lifesaver. My basket used to make appearances on only the most special occasions; now it hangs out on the coffee table or a side table all the time!

Connecting the dots between books

I think I already shared with you that recently one of my reading groups discussed Katherine Graham’s autobiography, Personal History. We had all loved “The Post” with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and wanted to learn more about Kay Graham. We came away impressed with what Graham accomplished, especially with regard to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Her father owned the Washington Post and turned it over to her husband, Philip Graham. Kay took over when Phil died unexpectedly. She make it profitable for the first time, stuck to the Post’s editorial principles and drove two of the most significant stories in the 1960’s and 70’s, making it one of the most powerful and respected papers in the country.

Hold that thought.

Next we read The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s post WWI novel that captures the essence of an era and a class of people. Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan were all about money — new money and old money. But they were incredibly careless people, and not just careless with things or money. They were careless with the truth and with people’s lives. Fitzgerald’s prose is magical but these are not likable characters.

Taken together these two books share so much about power and money done right and done wrong. What an interesting dilemma for the times in which we live.

It’s finally a little cooler here. I hope it is where you are, too. Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

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.

Groceries, the books we read, and where we shelve them

The bag may be recycled, but this grocery delivery vehicle is not all that new. Everything old is new again.

Everything old is new again. I was talking back to the television earlier this week and my husband suggested I blog about that particular angst, so here goes…

The Today show featured a story about the growing competition among online grocery shopping and delivery services. First, I think this is awesome and I would have loved this when I had two small children. But, this isn’t new! Ordering online is new, but not delivery.

Long before the chain groceries (and I know I’m dating myself here), Chicago neighborhood grocers delivered. My grandparents lived in a modest city neighborhood. No one owned cars. They walked to the butcher, the bakery, the bank. I remember doing all these errands on foot. (Which city-dwellers like my daughter still do.)

We carried lots of stuff home with us (Grandma took her special cloth shopping bags along for this purpose; that reusable Whole Foods bag isn’t a totally innovative idea either.) But if we bought many things in the grocery, or heavy stuff like flour and sugar, the groceries were delivered later, in a cut-off carton, usually by a schoolboy who worked for tips. I’m not even sure there was a “delivery fee” involved, but I do remember Grandma making sure she had tip money. And her delivery boy knew to come down the gangway to the back door, let himself into what was really the basement, and leave the box there. (A pre-requisite, I’m sure, for getting a good tip.) In fact, my uncle’s first job was an after-school gig delivering groceries.

Instagram on my mind.

Last month while I was languishing on the couch recovering from the flu (and before I started talking back to the television), I spent way too much time on Instagram, Pinterest, and cruising various blogs. Perhaps because I was still trying to put things back in order here after the painters had freshened up the living room and bedrooms or maybe just because I’m always rearranging shelf space to accommodate books and “stuff,” I started saving photos of shelves. I grew up in a house with book-laden shelves and have always had the same in my own home, so I am always amazed at book-less shelves. I think they’re pretty, but they just aren’t me.

Here are a few of the images I’ve saved to inspire my own shelves.

From James T. Farmer, I love the way this includes plates, pictures and books stacked this way and that. Not too busy but not boring either.
Here, more books on the shelves, but still interesting accents. I love the shelf over the door AND the hats on it. Image from India Hicks posted by Blue and White Home.
I really like this book-lined background for a chair and table. From Nell Hills.

 

The books on the shelves, or a few recent reads.

If you have been reading my blog, you know it’s hard for me to mention “book” without commenting on specific titles. You also may have noticed that my reading tastes are all over the place: biography, history, historic fiction, current fiction. Do I lack focus or do I just like to read? I have no idea.

My new favorite book recommendation is Jubilee by Margaret Walker. Walker is a widely known and respected African American writer and scholar who used her own family’s oral history and decades of research to tell the story of Vyry, daughter of a white plantation owner and his black mistress. The book spans the lavish antebellum years in rural Georgia, the ruin of the Civil War, and the empty promises of reconstruction. If you liked The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, I think you might like this too.

After Jubilee, I needed something lighter, so I read Sue Grafton’s first Kinsey Milhone mystery, A is for Alibi. I love Sue Grafton and I mourned her passing here. I discovered this series a little later on in the alphabet, and I wanted to see if this first mystery was as well-crafted as number 25. I was not disappointed. These are all great reads.

Right now I’m reading The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante. It’s the second book in her Neapolitan series. My book club read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series, and many just moved right on. I’m enjoying this book more, but it remains a tough read. This is translated from its original Italian. The language often seems clumsy and wordy, characteristics that I think better editing and translation may have improved. However, I love the story of two smart young women in an impoverished neighborhood making dramatically different choices while trying to hold on to their friendship.

Also on my list: The Other Einstein, Marie Benedict’s story of Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric; George Eliot’s Middlemarch, because I’ve never read it (and I was an English major!); and Origin by Dan Brown, because I’m a bit of a sucker for his historic/travelogue romps.

What are you up to as we wait for spring? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for stopping to read. See you next time.

From pumpkins to Christmas Curtains

My non-orange pumpkin patch.

How elaborate is your “fall decorating?”

When my son was 3 he asked if we could do some Halloween “decoration-ing” like his friend Brian’s mother did. So, we bought a few of those colorful pumpkin/black cat/witch cutouts to hang in the windows and a smiling skeleton (because you wouldn’t want to scare the 3-year-old) to hang on the font door. Done!

After a few years, we upped the ante, using a bale of straw as a seat for a scarecrow and “artfully” propping cornstalks in a few places. That was outside. I began to collect a variety of over-size dried gourds for inside. Then I traded the bale of straw and scarecrow for my own pumpkin patch, adding several of them to the landscape in early October.

Now we have morphed into pumpkins inside and out, especially decorative if they are not orange but rather green or white. (I even have a large pink one this year!) And we go to great lengths to get them to last until, hopefully, Thanksgiving. And I do fuss over a fruit and/or vegetable and/or floral centerpiece here and there. But I don’t make  point of adding seasonal throws to the furniture or even own fall pillows for the sofa. I don’t even have a single potted mum this year.

One “real” pumpkin with my ceramic ones from a Kentucky artisan.

Is this some sort of rebellion on my part? I am after all the person with files — electronic and paper — on her favorite rooms and decorators. (Thanks to Pinterest I can efficiently call up gallery walls, tabletop vignettes and mantels.) And I can spend hours rearranging books, collectables, and whatever on a shelf.

The Christmas Curtains

I was mentally making fun of all this when I remembered my grandmother’s seasonal change of curtains. Sometime in early November, she would start plotting the hanging of the Christmas Curtains. (And I say “plotting,” because the change of curtains required the assistance of my mother and/or my uncle to accomplish. My grandparents lived in an old, shot-gun cottage in Chicago, with high ceilings and tall, narrow windows. Grandma no longer did ladders, but it was fine with her if someone else did.)

The Christmas curtains I remember were sturdy barkcloth with red poinsettias and deep green leaves on a white ground. (And in truth, if my adult self had seen them on their way out, I would have rescued them and found a way to use them at my own house!) First, the living room and dining room windows and woodwork needed to be washed and/or polished before hanging the curtains, because who would hang nice, clean curtains on a window that could be dirty? (Thus making it even more of a project.)

Because these were Christmas Curtains, the process had to be repeated in January to hang the Winter Curtains. Then in the Spring, came the Easter Curtains. And, I think, there were separate Summer Curtains, though she may have eventually given them up. This was Julia’s salute to the seasons, so perhaps I come by this seasonal urge genetically.

No images of Christmas curtains, but here are my Grandmother and Grandfather with a Christmas tree in 1943 or 1944. This is a favorite photo. I love those smiles. War-time holidays were melancholy, but these two always made the most of every holiday.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother and her curtains. To us it may seem an odd choice. If she knew how infrequently I wash or otherwise freshen up the few curtains I do have and how many of my windows are frankly unadorned, she would be wagging her finger at me. But in my grandmother’s day curtains were one of the few ways she could indulge in a little decorative pizzazz. And she liked that.

So I’m thinking that though she would have found my alternatively-colored pumpkins a little odd, she would have liked the idea of a pumpkin patch and maybe even a scarecrow.

My pumpkins will stay outside at least until the squirrels devour them. The gourds will remain in place inside until Thanksgiving weekend, when ready or not my husband will start bringing up Christmas boxes. And we’ll probably eat turkey leftovers on the Spode Christmas Tree plates.

What about you, are you holding off on Christmas until after Thanksgiving?

Thanks so much for stopping by! See you soon.

Lilies, links and a new artist

 

Sometimes it’s the bits and pieces and not the “big picture” that capture my attention. Here are a few things that caught my eye this week.

An artist to watch

This past Sunday Steve and I headed downtown to meet some friends at the Millennium Art Show (which was really an excuse to catch up, walk around bit and then grab something to eat.) This was a small show but with some really interesting pieces and I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time seriously looking at the works displayed. Hmmm, perhaps we were chatting more than looking? However, I did enjoy re-discovering Daniel Lai.

This piece by Daniel Lai is called “Teach a Man to Fish.”

Lai is a Tennessee artist who enjoys sculpting and repurposing books into the most amazing pieces of art. I first saw his work at the Wells Gallery at the Sanctuary on Kiawah Island. His work is so distinctive that I immediately recognized him at the show on Sunday. He says he started playing with books as a bored student, then was encouraged to re-purpose some of a friend’s books. I’m charmed by his imagination, the many ways he uses books and pages, those wonderful clay figures and the little extras, like the fishing pole. I think his work is both whimsical and provocative. What about you?

I captured the images, above, of his work from screen shots on You Tube. I wanted to share a few more images of his work and my photos just didn’t do it justice.

Three links to visit

I have been known do lots of blog-reading and coffee-drinking in the morning. Last week I was giving myself a real break after several especially busy days. And here’s the fun, my email inbox was full of links to some great blog posts.

Karianne at Thistlewoodfarms always has a fun take on life (she’s also a wonderful photographer and shares amazing DIY projects). She did a great post on 5-minute cleaning tips. I loved this, because she mentioned the messes that you (or at least I) forget about (like Cheerios in the silverware drawer). I also love the idea of limiting cleaning chores to 5 minutes. Click here for her tips, and if you have a 5-minute tip, please share!

This is just a sample of Jackye Lanham’s work that I found on the web.

Joni Webb at Cote de Texas did yet another of her beautiful, well-researched and illustrated posts, this time on designer Jackye Lanham and her home in Charleston, SC. First, Ms. Lanham does beautiful work: elegant, traditional rooms, minus the do-not-touch museum look. You would like to live in her rooms and her Charleston house, well, just take a look at the post! This is pure eye-candy. Pour a cup of coffee and just enjoy. (Joni’s posts are always a mini-course in art, architecture and design. She did a remarkable post on the real homes and rooms behind The Crown.)

Finally, Elizabeth at Blue and White Home, has a wonderfully clean, easy, mostly-traditional-but-sometimes-modern aesthetic (she’s also a Chicago designer, yay!). One of her recent posts turns that look onto some floral arrangements she made from blooms in her parent’s Vermont garden. They are simple, unpretentious, infinitely doable and most of all really pretty. It’s one thing to go to the store for a few bunches of flowers and greenery (we all do it all the time), but quite another to create such pretty pieces from what we have growing in the yard. Check them out.

The “stars” in my garden

My garden has a few spectacular successes this year, as well as a few failures. I don’t know if it’s the weather or, more likely, my not-so-green thumb. However, I walk the garden daily, sometimes taking pictures, often cutting some blooms to bring inside, pulling assorted weeds and dead-heading spent flowers. Not surprisingly, the stars of this year’s garden are the daylilies, and these purple coneflowers that are popping up everywhere. Take a look:

I hope you’re finding some “fun stuff” in your inbox and enjoying these July days!

Thanks for reading and see you next time!