Saturday, April 30, 2016

My home this season: April 2016

Here is a little planting bed -- formerly the bottom pool of a water feature that was non-functional by the time we moved in to our house -- just outside our living room sliding door. 

Almost everything in this bed is a Pacific Northwest native plant -- western meadow rue, fringecup, yellow violet, beach strawberry, columbine, TWO kinds of camas (I am inordinately proud of growing this plant!).

I don't think my husband is a huge fan of what I've done with this spot, and I admit it looks rather messy -- but that's precisely what I like about it. The way the wild plants have been allowed to grow, well, wild, and they've filled in the space with drifts and mounds of subtle flowers and delicate leaf shapes. (In fact, "what I've done with this spot" is not really accurate -- mostly, it's been the plants' doing.)

Why am I posting photos of my garden under the aegis of my monthly "what my home looks like these days" update? Well, to remind myself that our outdoor space is our home too. That's something I've been ignoring lately, to be honest. I've been frustrated by the fact that we've lived here for 11 years, and we've worked steadily on the yard every year, but it's STILL overrun with weeds and invasives, and we STILL don't have an overall landscape plan to guide us.

The truth is, our lot is substantially larger than I really want to take care of (a function of the outlying neighborhood where we could afford to buy a house). And at least one-third of it consists of rockery, slope, and parking strip that is inaccessible, difficult to maintain, and/or not really useful as a space for us to actually spend time in.

So I've just felt done with it all -- I don't want this, so I'm pretending I don't have to deal with it. It's too much work, and I don't have time.

And then I thought about something I read in one of Marie Kondo's books. (I know, I know -- go ahead and roll your eyes.)  She says you have to take care of your home, even if you're not thrilled with the home itself, because your current home leads you to your next home. To be clear, we're not planning on moving anytime soon, so we're not actually looking for our next home. But something about that admittedly woo-woo formulation seemed useful to me in dealing with the ambivalence I've always felt about the house itself. (Basically, the way I put it is -- we bought in an extremely hot market, so I knew I would have to compromise on space, style, or location, but I was kind of bummed about having to compromise on all three.)

And a week or two ago it occurred to me -- ohhhhh, that all goes for the yard, too. I realized that lately I haven't been fair to our little patch of habitat. So I'm trying to re-engage. And while this little pool doesn't quite constitute an overall landscape plan, come to think of it, it's a glimpse of what I'd like to achieve.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Eating lately: As good as they say

Here's a recent meal made up of two recipes that came highly (highly!) recommended from various quarters of the internet. Both of them, happily, lived up to the hype so I thought I would share.

First, Parmesan-roasted cauliflower. I discovered this recipe on the the delightful simple-living blog known as Assortment; it comes from Allie Lewis Clapp of Bon Appetit via Molly Wizenberg of Orangette. Everyone who writes about this dish seems to apologize for its simplicity and then shout its deliciousness from the rooftops. Consider this my addition to the genre.

(One small tweak I may make next time, though, is to steam the cauliflower by covering it with an inverted baking sheet for the first 5 minutes of cooking -- a trick I learned from the America's Test Kitchen recipe for oven fries. I think that should help the thicker parts of the cauliflower soften and cook through before the smaller morsels and onions get too far beyond the desired "just this side of burnt" stage.)

With my cauliflower -- the Romanesco version works just as well here as the common white stuff -- I served a hearty spoonful of chick peas. This dish was inspired by a recipe I pinned ages and ages ago from the blog Hungry Bruno. I liked the idea of "just chick peas," but to make things really work according to the original recipe, I think it would be necessary to cook the chick peas from scratch. Here I made do with the canned version, mashed them up partially, and simmered them for  about 20 minutes with some olive oil, a little bit of vegetable broth, and some finely chopped, spicy Mama Lil's peppers. And despite my rather loose interpretation of the recipe, this one, too, was as good as they say.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

My home this season: March 2016

March came in like a lion and we made a terrarium with what it left behind.

(Wooden pysanky eggs, previously: 1 | 2 | 3 )

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Finished objects: New dish towels, and a defense of downcycling

Upcycling is all the rage these days. Upcycled this and that are so omnipresent on Pinterest, Etsy, and various blogs that for a long time I wasn't even aware that the term "upcycling" was coined along with, and in opposition to, "downcycling."

Briefly, downcycling describes most recycling processes, in which discarded items are transformed into new products of lesser quality, while upcycling involves transforming trash into something better than it was to begin with.

It's hard to argue that upcycling is a good thing to strive for when it comes to industrial recycling, but in everyday life I think the idea of downcycling deserves a second look.

That's because even though it makes me sound like a crank, I have to say that quite a few "upcycled" craft projects strike me as a little bit, well, lipstick on a pig*. (It would be unkind of me to actually point out examples...but I bet you can think of some.)

Instead I think: Why not just accept that with time and use things will get downgraded to lesser purposes, without having to hide the fact that they have become stained or worn?

That is, "creative reuse" doesn't necessarily require fancying things up: Not everything needs to be a silk purse. A sow's ear is good for its purpose. A dishrag doesn't need a doily embellishment.

This is what I had in mind recently when I made some dish towels from an old tablecloth that belonged to my grandparents. It was given to them as a wedding present, so it must be almost 75 years old, can you imagine?

It's pretty threadbare -- even worn through in spots -- and not really in good enough shape to use as a tablecloth, even for a picnic.

But it's super soft and the color scheme is pretty, and I thought the fabric might have some life in it yet.

I might not have dared to do this on my own, but fortunately my mother views her mother-in-law's possessions less reverently than I view my grandmother's. >:-)>  (<--Devil smiley)

This was a very simple project: I just cut the cloth into six roughly equal sections, using the grid pattern of the fabric as a guide, and hemmed the raw edges. I thought about using this project as an opportunity to learn how to make mitered corners...but in the end I didn't bother.

I have to admit that some parts of the fabric are in worse shape than I had realized. I should probably patch some of those holes (NOT with a doily!). So this project might end up being more a meditation on wear and reuse than an actual source of new dish towels.

On the other hand, while the fabric itself may not be in much better condition than our existing kitchen linens, these towels are a lot more absorbent. I prefer them from an aesthetic perspective too, for their soft colors and uniform pattern. Perhaps most of all, I like the way these towels give me the chance to ponder the history of objects as I go about my everyday life.

*Not to be confused with "lipstick on Pig," which is what my daughter heard when she heard me say the phrase recently. Pig, of course, being the name of Ron Weasley's owl. Actually, I think "lipstick on Pig" should be a saying, too. It would mean something along the lines of "gilding the lily," but rather than indicating an attempt to improve on perfection, it would signify an attempt to prettify something for which prettification is irrelevant. So, a cross between "gilding the lily" and "like a fish needs a bicycle." So now you'll know what I mean when I use the phrase in everyday conversation, which I absolutely plan to do.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Late-winter pick-me-up

(This post contains affiliate links.)

Spring is definitely on the way, but here in Seattle the seasonal transition involves quite a bit of dithering on the part of the weather. Here are four things -- slightly random, but they all hang together for me somehow -- we have been enjoying while we wait out the frigid rain squalls.

1. Julia Rothman's Nature Anatomy (AmazonPowell's )was an impulse purchase, of the "I'm buying this for my kid, no really" variety. In this case though I'm happy to say my daughter actually has gotten good use out of it -- in fact she read it cover to cover as if it were a novel. (There's no narrative to it, it's basically just a series of labeled illustrations of various types of animals, habitats, and landforms, with facts delivered in short captions along the way.) A nice reminder of the gorgeous things out there waiting for us when the season turns, and the gorgeous words available to us in the meantime.

2. I've set myself a goal of reading a book a month this year, inspired by this post from Wait But Why that I mentioned in the comment section of one of my posts a while back. In the post, writer Tim Urban visualizes the number of times he is likely to do various things in the amount of his life that is left to him (assuming -- knock on wood -- a 90-year lifespan). I found the bit about books especially sobering:

"I read about five books a year, so even though it feels like I’ll read an endless number of books in the future, I actually have to choose only 300 of all the books out there to read and accept that I’ll sign off for eternity without knowing what goes on in all the rest."

Even more so because since my daughter was born over 8 years ago I have only read a handful of books. I've plowed through a fair number of New Yorker articles, sure, and quite a few blog posts (of course, it goes without saying, some lovely and thoughtful ones!). But books? Seriously, maybe one per year. (I blame time confetti.) One book per month probably seems like a laughably low bar to some of you, but better to start somewhere.

February's book was The Wolf Wilder (AmazonPowell's), a middle-grade novel about a twelve-year-old girl in late-Tsarist Russia who teaches wolves formerly kept as pets by aristocrats to be wild again, and the struggles that ensue when she and her mother run afoul of the cruel and powerful General Rakov. I recently came across a description of middle grade novels as basically poetry without the pretension -- the idea being that they often contain beautiful language and figures of speech, but you don't have to stress out about whether or not you're "getting it." The Wolf Wilder illustrates that well: "The sky was the blue of winter palaces. The snow stretched, untouched, for miles and the half-grown trees dipped like praying polar bears." You might even begin to wish that winter wouldn't end after all.

For the record, the actual middle-grader in my household also read the book, and she says she liked it, although fair warning: too many animals died for her taste. Some of these deaths occur off-page, as it were, but my kiddo is a sensitive sort; she's been known to abandon more than one book because a character said an unkind word about a cat.

3. On a different note, having exhausted my "log fire" candle, I bought a new one with the new season in mind, smelling of citrus blossoms and tropical fruits: Volcano by Capri Blue (Amazon). I have to admit that I wish it didn't smell so exactly like the inside of an Anthropologie store (mostly because I am embarrassed that I have apparently spent enough time in Anthropologie to have developed this distinct sensory association), but it's a lovely scent anyhow and a nice little sensory treat to go along with reading time.

4. Finally, a museum visit is another nice thing on a crummy weekend day.  I like the Frye Art Museum here in Seattle. It's a great place to visit with kids because it's small, the exhibits are often quirky in a way that engages kids and grownups alike, and admission and parking (in a lot directly across the street) are free, which really takes the pressure off. My daughter and I went there to see a (very abbreviated, as it turned out) exhibit of Russian paintings. I liked watching the expression on her face when I suggested that some of the paintings could be of characters from The Wolf Wilder -- half "Mom, you're so embarrassing" smirk, half delighted smile at the idea.

Leon Gaspard, "Head of a Russian boy" [...or is it Ilya?]

Ilya Repin, "Cossack girl," 1889 [...possibly Feo?] 

Though some might argue the best part of a museum visit is the cafe at the end. I don't think that's quite right, but I'm not above resorting to a little bribery....

Saturday, February 27, 2016

My home this season: February 2016

I wanted to post a few recent snaps of my house and link up with Styling the Seasons again, sneaking in just under the wire before the month is over.

So: the meaning of February. Hearts, of course, and my daughter contributed some worthy ones, made in her after-school art class.

And flowers, no doubt. Tiny, star-like daffodils are cheering, and the perfume of hyacinths is heady, amazing.

But I think equally expressive of love and tenderness is the idea of roots: those delicate, usually hidden parts that both feed the blossom and are, once we really look at them, equally wondrous. That's a better metaphor for what we witness, and what we cherish, when we love someone.

And so, for this month, a display of the rarely seen.

Yes, I know, this post might have been more apropos at the beginning of the month. But it's worth pondering these things at least all February long, don't you think?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Why I am no longer keeping a well-stocked pantry

Images via Apartment Therapy/The Kitchn (1, 2, 3)

I am a sucker for a beautiful pantry, with rainbow-colored collections of beans and grains and variously-shaped pastas arrayed in matching jars. Wouldn't it be nice to be not only so organized, but so prepared to cook so many different dishes?

But as nice as images like the ones above are to look at, I've realized that taking a similar approach to my own pantry is a recipe for food waste.

The truth is, I don't cook "so many different dishes," at least not very often. Mostly I cook the same things over and over.

Keeping things on hand because they are "pantry staples" even though I don't actually have recipes that I make with them is sort of the kitchen equivalent of buying khaki pants and black blazers because they are "wardrobe basics" even though I never feel like myself in khaki pants and I hate blazers. (I've totally done that, though, in the past.)

This is part of how my pantry cupboard that I showed you before-and-after shots of recently got so out of hand.

When I cleaned it out I tossed any cans and jars that were expired*, anything so old that were it a child it would already know its ABCs, and anything that, let's be honest, was not going to get eaten because no one in the house actually liked it.

*(I realize that "expired" when it comes to most canned goods is more of a suggestion than a hard-and-fast eat-by date, but there was a lot of stuff that was so old or out of date that when I considered cooking with it I thought: "Well, that's so old though..." and didn't use it. I wasn't going to become more likely to use these things as they got even longer in the tooth so there was no point in keeping them.)

This process resulted in a much sparser cupboard, and I'm calling that a good thing.

I expect it will get even leaner in the future, as I use up a few items that were fresh enough to keep but that I don't cook with all that often. When we polish them off I won't replenish their stocks.

Going forward, my aim is to keep on hand only ingredients that we go through in large volumes (I'd be nuts not to keep a backup jar of peanut butter on hand); frequently eaten snacks (Kind bars, crackers, salted peanuts); a few quick meals (boxed mac & cheese, tomato soup -- sometimes you just gotta); and the ingredients for a handful of tried-and-true recipes that are part of our regular rotation. That's it.

I still want to try new recipes, and experiment with all sorts of different beans and grains and pastas. It's just that when I have a specific plan to do that, I'll go to the grocery store and buy only the amount I need of that ingredient. Isn't 21st Century life grand?

So I guess when I say that I'm no longer keeping a well-stocked pantry, it depends on what's meant by well-stocked. Well-stocked as in copiously and with great variety? That wasn't working for me. Well-stocked as in thoughtfully, and a bit minimally, is more what I'm after.