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.

My sweet & savory day at The Cook’s Atelier

Oops! That’s my husband in the doorway, probably reading a map.

Blog reading can lead in all sorts of directions. For me, it includes the discovery of The Cook’s Atelier in Beaune, France. The Atelier is a cooking school/wine shop/kitchen boutique created by American expats Marjorie Taylor and her daughter Kendall Smith Franchini to share their love of French food and wine.

I discovered them and the Atelier in a blog more than a few years ago and thought, “Wow! I’d love to do this.” Last winter as we began planning our trip to France, I realized I really could! Beaune was already on our itinerary and we made sure we would be there on a “class day.” This is the story of  the “Day in Burgundy” I spent shopping, cooking and dining with nine like-minded travelers and the charming and remarkable Marjorie and her daughter Kendall.

A day at the The Cook’s Atelier is first and foremost an extended class in French cooking with an emphasis on the Burgundian region and its traditions. However, it’s also a short course in the fine art of the French kitchen, in the selection and preparation of fresh, farm-to-table ingredients from the best local resources, in pairing food with the best local wines and then in serving it in a beautiful, casual-yet-elegant french tradition. It is, quite simply, what Marjorie and Kendall love best about France and how they share it.

If I sound smitten, it’s because I am.

We began at a local cheese shop. A total of ten participants, some in two’s and three’s, others like me on their own, gathered a little self-consciously in front of an enticing cheese shop on a square in Beaune. A few of us began introducing ourselves as class participants, but before we could really figure out who was who, Marjorie showed up, introducing herself and her daughter Kendall, connecting many of us to bits of information she had gleaned from our emails, and promising a full day of shopping, cooking and savoring the results. Whatever shyness we may have felt quickly dissolved under the influence of Marjorie’s warmth.

After a tour of the shop and talk of pairing soft and hard, strong and mild cheeses, as well as purchasing some of what we would need for the recipes ahead, we moved on to the Beaune market. Since my husband and I had made a brief tour of the market on our way to find our morning coffee and croissant, it was especially interesting to meet their favorite vendors. Marjorie and Kendall had shopped the market earlier to make sure they bought the best of the fruits and vegetables available. This is key to their cooking philosophy, the best and freshest ingredients, simply prepared.

From the market we moved on to the butcher where we discussed and tasted a variety of pates and acquired some veal rib roasts for our lunch. Then it was off to the Atelier where we trooped up to the second floor kitchen. (Deep breath!) It’s amazing!

The stove and the copper! We all wanted to take it back home!
This is a recent Instagram I saved showing this light-filled space!

This is a teaching kitchen, but I could easily live with it. In the U.S. we have such a different kitchen aesthetic, requiring space for a variety of tools, gadgets, appliances, and knickknacks. The Atelier kitchen is spare and simple, and what I think of as quintessentially French. It stars a beautiful LaCanche stove and Marjorie’s stunning collection of copper cookware, which, she tells us, are (along with her cookbooks) the only things she brought with her when she moved from Arizona to France. Next to the stove, a long, counter-height cabinet provides serious storage. Above it a knife rack holds enough cutlery for the class a few times over. In the center of the room, a narrow, marble-topped worktable was neatly set with chopping blocks, aprons and towels. And light. There’s so much light. The Atelier is housed in a 17th century building, and the second-floor kitchen features a floor-to-ceiling window at one end that looks out to the original, winding wood stair to the third floor, the wine shop and kitchen boutique at ground level below, and a skylight above.

 

Who wouldn’t be happy cooking here?

Simple storage, the freshest ingredients, basic tools.

So, we donned our aprons, and took our places while Marjorie chatted to us about the menu (grougeres, green garlic souffle, vegetables including fava beans, fennel, wild asparagus, carrots and potatoes, roast veal, madeleines, and simple butter cake). We cleaned and trimmed vegetables, prepared cake batter, and prepped the madeline batter and pans for later use. We learned about knives, storing fresh herbs and whole vanilla beans (but not together!), and how to crack and separate eggs (it took two dozen eggs to get the 12 egg whites we needed for our souffles, but that was part of the fun). We grated cheese, whipped egg whites, and learned to “french” the bones on the veal roasts. We discussed copper cookware and the basics of roasting any meat.

The veal roasts, seared on the stove top and ready for the oven.

And all the while Marjorie shared the story of her restaurant in Arizona, her daughter’s love of France and move there, Marjorie’s decision to follow and the serendipitous development of the business with their love of cooking, wine, and all things French. Kendall’s husband Laurent, has joined the business, running the store and negotiating the intricacies of owning a business in France. Together these three have created a successful family business focused on work that they love and accommodating the needs of Kendall and Laurent’s two small children who dart in and out of the business as they would their own house.

At the same time all ten students developed our own brand of kitchen comaraderie, asking questions, sharing tasks, basking in Marjorie and Kendall’s hospitality. I have wondered since then, did we all get on so well and enjoy our time together because we shared a love for cooking? Perhaps. But I also think the hospitality, the shared tasks and, later, the shared meal ultimately had total strangers trading emails and hugging goodbye.

The seven course lunch.

A simple, beautiful table that focused on the food.

After our cooking chores, Marjorie and Kendall gathered our aprons and shooed us upstairs to another sunlit room with another table for ten, this time set for dining. It was simple, set with white dishes and heavy, white monogrammed napkins simply folded. No overblown centerpieces or themed place settings. Despite the afternoon light, votives and candles glowed on adjacent surfaces.

We began with glasses of champagne and the grougeres we had prepared earlier, then some of the charcouterie from the market. Next, fava bean and shaved fennel salad and then the individual souffles in copper pots appeared. (Note so self: Serve something in individual pots. It’s magical!) We oohed and aahed over the presentation, then over the souffles themselves. Kendall served more wine (She chose something for each course, and I am so sorry I did not take a photo of each bottle. I would love to refer back to them!)

The souffles tasted even better than they looked!

I can’t go thru all the courses (I’ve probably already bored you), but clearly thoughtful presentation is the perfect complement to fresh, seasonal ingredients and careful preparation. We took the time to savor each course, the conversation (and wine) continued to flow, and the rest of the afternoon slipped away.

I loved every bit of the day, and I have continued to savor it, mentally as well as puttering in my own kitchen at home. I’ve tried a few of the recipes and look forward to doing more.

When we travel, it’s so easy to define what we want to see (the Eiffel Tower or Duomo) or experience (hiking in the Grand Canyon or walking China’s Great Wall). I think my day at The Cook’s Atelier was more; it was slipping into a heady slice of French culture, and now seeing what I have brought back home.

I encourage you to visit the new website for The Cook’s Atelier. The photos are gorgeous, you can learn more about them and their classes, and they have a shop!

For now, I’m so glad you joined me. See you next time!

 

 

 

Laissez les bon temps rouler

roosterswithbeadsOr, let the good times roll (but it sounds so much better in french!). Fat Tuesday — the culmination of Mardi Gras for the uninitiated — is this week.

We are getting ready to celebrate.

Fat Tuesday was essentially unremarkable in our household until our son began attending Tulane and we fell in love with New Orleans.

And how could you not? The food, the music, the Spanish moss, the St. Charles streetcar running from Tulane to Canal Street (I must have ridden it a hundred times, trying to take in every detail of those remarkable houses along the way), but most of all the joyful essence that permeates this city (not the Bourbon St. vibe, which is certainly something to see), but the live music that pops up everywhere, the funerals celebrated with a parade, the food, the food, the food.

But, I digress…

It’s time for a celebration. January & February have been gray and surprisingly snow-less in Chicago. The post-election hangover lingers on and spring is still several weeks away. So we invited a few friends to dinner on Fat Tuesday and unearthed our trove of Mardi Gras beads, except I think they call them throws.

img_1135I am cooking up a pot of gumbo and we have a genuine King Cake (Google is a wonderful thing!).

Although I’m not big on themed parties, Fat Tuesday calls for extra oomph. In my case that means purple, green and gold feathers and beads and a vintage New Orleans souvenir tablecloth I bought years ago for just such an occasion.

fattuestable

At the heart of it all, of course, are good food and good friends.

This is the lesson of New Orleans and good times, why would you just cook and serve dinner when you can add a few more beans to the pot, invite the neighbors, and make it a feast! The perfect antidote to gray days!

Happy Mardi Gras!

See you next time!

The party, the painters and an empty nest

Was it just last week that I was blogging about our “Annual Open House”?

The party was fun for us, and, I trust, for our guests. We ate, we drank, we toasted, we kissed hello and good-by. We told stories and jokes. We made promises to get together more often in the New Year. Yes, it was good.

In fact, we had so much fun that I never did get a chance to snap any pre-party or party photos. I did, however, think to get a few post party shots. If tables and countertops littered with empty wine bottles, glasses and platters are any indication, this was a successful event.

postparty

But wait, the week gets better.

The morning after the party, the painters arrived at 7:30 to paint the upstairs and downstairs hallways, the stairs, the bathrooms, the master bedroom and related woodwork (which had been stained a dark walnut, necessitating sanding and priming before moving on to two coats of white paint). They’ve done a beautiful job and we love the colors and the new white woodwork. We’ve also trashed the house, emptying the master closet and the linen closet into a spare bedroom, along with miscellaneous lamps, artwork, and accessories. We can’t find the laundry. The power cord to my laptop was missing for more than a day. You know how this works. Maintaining any sense of order during a project like this is hopeless for us.

Friday, they finished up by painting the ceiling in the kitchen and family room. So, that morning we cleared the counters, took down the mantle decorations, and I took another picture of the same island countertop.

painterkitchen

Actually, I think this picture (below) says it all. New paint job, Christmas angel and artwork re-hung in the hall amid the painters’ gear. Not the schedule I would set, but as my husband, a.k.a. “the scheduler,” pointed out, we’ll begin the new year with all this freshened up. And sometimes you just have to roll with it…

painterhall

Which brings me to the second half of this post.

The holiday season always delivers an emotional mix. There is joy in the unvarnished excitement of children awaiting Santa, the good cheer of family and friends savoring the season, the music, the traditions large and small, and, if you are so inclined, the Christmas story itself. For me and for many others there is also nostalgia for holidays past.

My mother and father and my grandparents before them absolutely loved Christmas. We had no exotic traditions and some Christmases were leaner than others, but there were always festive trees and tables and visits with extended family and friends. Lots of laughter and story telling. And that is what I think of when I think of holidays past.

Steve and I did our best to carry those traditions forward with our own family, sharing the holiday with my mother and aunt and uncle, and, when they could join us, cousins, and friends. There was always a harried dash to church on Christmas Eve that ended with the magic of singing Silent Night in a candlelit sanctuary. (Never mind that my daughter once attempted a short nap in the midst of the live creche scene and my son came this close to singeing the hair of a fellow acolyte as they walked down the aisle.) And that was just Christmas Eve.

Although my mother, aunt and uncle are no longer with us, we now have a pair of grandsons who bring a whole new kind of joy to the holiday. So we travel to Ohio to celebrate with our kids there and my daughter-in-law’s family. And our traditions morph with theirs. And I am so very gad we are part of it.

Like dealing with the painters, sometimes you just have to roll with it…

Being an empty nester is not always easy. You have to learn to share your kids with their adult lives, careers, new cities and new partners. You can’t always have everyone at your holiday table or even preside over your own table. If you’re going to let change taint your holiday, well, I really think that’s your fault.

Yes, I want my kids to call me, visit me, invite me and still need me. Once a mom, always a mom. But I think my kids also deserve my respect: to live their own lives, make their own decisions, raise their own kids. (And if, as my friend Jill says, I have to sometimes bite my tongue, I can learn to do that too.)

We’ve been empty nesters for more than a decade, and I’ve come to the conclusion that to succeed in these multi-generational times, we need to bring a little more to the equation. We need to continue to grow ourselves. It’s pretty easy to get stuck in “I was…” or “We always…” when we should really be working on our flexibility gene. What difference does it make if we have turkey and all the trimmings or ham and hash brown casserole? More importantly, perhaps we need to stop worrying about the empty nest and start feathering its successor.

It’s something to think about when we’re done wrapping packages, addressing cards, baking cookies, and recalling those Christmases past…

I wish you a wonderful, joyous, overindulgent holiday however you spend it!