Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Winter capsule wrap-up

It's the end of March, and time to join with In Residence and Just Jacq for the final linkup in their winter capsule wardrobe series. Full disclosure: I switched over to my spring wardrobe a couple weeks ago -- more on that later, but for now, here's a recap of how things went this winter.

What I wore

Most-worn items: medium-wash skinny jeans (10), black skirt leggings (10), black merino straight skirt (5), fuchsia layering sweater (10), gray/white striped popover (8), burgundy long cardi (10), light blue long cardi (9), gray boots (20).

Least-worn items*: medium-wash bootcut jeans (4), crimson/black/gray flowered dress (1), dark pink long-sleeve tee (2), ballet-pink cardi (1), blue hand knit cape (1), navy rose-print shawl (1), black ballet flats (6). *(List does not include items that were only worn once or twice because I ended up getting rid of them.)

Above are collages of some of my most-worn and least-worn items from my winter capsule. What I'm really interested in, though, are not the outliers but the averages. There's this idea floating around out there that women wear 20 percent of their clothes 80 percent of the time. I'm not sure there's much rigor behind this statement, but I'd bet the general idea rings true for many of us.

I hoped that one of the benefits of a capsule wardrobe approach might be to help me wear my clothes more evenly, both by spurring me to remove the clothes I don't really want to wear from my wardrobe, and by providing a smaller number of clothes that are easier to mentally keep track of and keep in regular rotation.

Of course, just robotically rotating through my wardrobe from one shirt to the next wouldn't be much fun, but I would like to feel like the majority of my clothes are really pulling their weight by, you know, actually clothing my body, rather than just sitting in my closet.

And the capsule approach worked pretty well, I'd say. For example, I wore most of my pants 5 to 7 times each. Skirts and dresses generally got 3 or 4 wears each, and I wore most of my tops and sweaters between 3 and 6 times each. What I don't see is a big split between a lot of items worn once or twice and a few items worn a ton, and I'm happy about that.

How my capsule evolved

Winter capsule additions

As I mentioned at the outset of this experiment, I structured my capsule wardrobe challenge a bit differently from the norm. Instead of shopping to finalize my capsule before the season started, I opted to begin with what was already in my closet -- gathering together all of the items I owned that were appropriate for the weather and fit my color palette -- then added and subtracted items over the course of the challenge.

This strategy worked really well for me. Actually wearing my capsule for a while gave me a sense of how to edit it (in both directions) that I wouldn't have had up front. I'm really interested in what this experiment can teach me about the structure of a well functioning wardrobe, and I think keeping that question at the forefront helped me avoid mindless shopping.

I started my winter capsule with 56 items of clothing (13 bottoms, 16 tops, 21 sweaters, 6 shoes). Over the course of the season I got rid of 13 items and added 5. This meant I ended with 48 items of clothing (13 bottoms, 13 tops, 15 sweaters, 7 shoes).

I added a pair of medium-wash bootcut jeans, two layering sweaters (gray and ivory) that replaced similar items I had passed along, a light blue cardigan, and a pair of long-sought black ankle boots (on that last item, see below).

I won't go through the items I got rid of in detail here (you can read back to previous posts if you're curious) but I did notice a couple of patterns: I passed along several layering sweaters because I didn't like the cut, a couple of short sleeve sweaters/vests that didn't add much to my wardrobe, and all but one of my pullover sweaters. Team cardigan!

Speaking of adding and subtracting...

March Additions

Black ankle boots: La Canadienne via Ebay. I've wanted a pair of black ankle boots for the last two winters but couldn't find exactly the look I had in mind from a brand I trust at a price I was willing to pay. So I was very happy when my patience was rewarded and these turned up! I'm looking forward to wearing them in spring, too.

Silver bead necklace: belonged to my husband's grandmother. My mother-in-law was in town a couple of weeks ago and brought some of her mother's jewelry for us to look through. I'm not sure I would have gone hunting for a piece like this on my own, but I like the nice touch of polish it adds to dressier outfits (my other silver necklaces have a more casual feel).

March Subtractions


What I learned 

Three things, primarily:

1. Kali at the blog The Nife en l'Air has written about the importance of noticing the details of our favorite items of clothing, as these details can be the difference between a new purchase that becomes an immediate favorite, and an "almost-right" one that languishes in the closet.

My winter capsule wardrobe definitely helped in that regard. For example it's clear now that I DO NOT LIKE crewneck tops, but I love scoop necks. And I've worked out that I love cardigans, but not plain ones: they should have interesting details like a cable-knit or other texture, a shawl collar, pockets, or even all three. Figuring this out has helped me avoid several less-than-ideal purchases.

My formula for wardrobe variety: basic tops (scoop necks, please!); sweaters with subtle but interesting details.

2. As I mentioned above, what I really hoped to learn from this challenge was something about the structure of a well functioning wardrobe, and I think I've gained some insights there too. Many capsule wardrobe formulas advise having roughly twice as many tops as bottoms, plus a few "third pieces" or "toppers" (blazers, cardigans, sweaters) for variety. I have never been able to get these formulas to work for me, primarily because I wear a "third piece" (usually a cardi, of course!) almost every day.

This winter I noticed that I don't mind wearing the same relatively basic tops over and over, but I like more of a sense of variety from my outer layer. I think this means that my seasonal wardrobes will have roughly equal numbers of tops, bottoms, and sweaters. And my capsules will probably be bigger than those of many folks, primarily because of those extra sweaters. That's okay with me; again, my goal is functionality for me, not minimalism per se.

3. The other question about wardrobe structure is the balance between neutrals and colors. Many capsule wardrobe-ers use a mostly neutral palette with a few "pops of color" here and there, but again I march to the beat of a different -- more colorful -- drummer. And there's not much advice out there about how to build a more colorful capsule wardrobe.

My experience suggests that just because you like to wear a lot of color, doesn't mean you need All The Things in All The Colors. That's reassuring, isn't it? What I noticed was that the categories of my wardrobe that functioned the best contained at least one example of each of the following (and a pretty good balance of them overall): darker neutral - lighter neutral - darker color - lighter color.

Well balanced pants! Darker neutral: black (cords, skirt leggings, ponte pants); lighter neutral: gray (cords, skinny jeans); darker color: burgundy (cords); lighter color: medium blue (bootcut jeans, skinny jeans). (Blue denim is often -- with good reason -- considered a neutral, but in the context of this capsule wardrobe I think it also functioned as a color. I noticed that I often grabbed a pair of blue jeans to avoid creating a "grayscale" outfit for example.)

Note that this doesn't require that the darker neutral, lighter neutral, etc. be the same across clothing categories -- among pants, the darker neutral could be black and the lighter neutral could be gray, but for tops the darker neutral could be gray and the lighter neutral could be ivory. It's just a matter of making sure all the bases are covered in each category.

Let's consider this a rule of thumb, a provisional theory for now -- I'm looking forward to testing out how it works with my spring capsule.


Capsule wardrobe principles | My winter capsule wardrobe | January recap | February recap

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A simple spring pasta

Here is a dish that is a new favorite in our house, a simple spring pasta with marinated chickpeas and mozzarella, with wilted greens stirred in at the end. 

The recipe comes from Mollie Katzen via Serious Eats. I found it on my "Spring" Pinterest board, though honestly I'm not sure how it got there. (Yes, I do still use Pinterest quite a lot for menu planning.)

You really can't go wrong with Mollie Katzen, and this dish is a winning combination of very flavorful and dead easy -- accommodating of busy schedules, too. First you marinate a can of drained chickpeas and cubes of fresh mozzarella in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, and some dried herbs. (This takes me no longer than 10 minutes to pull together, people!) The original recipe says to let it sit for an hour or two at room temperature, but I think you could also assemble this part of the dish in the morning and then stick it in the refrigerator until dinnertime.

In the evening, you just boil some pasta, then dump the whole marinade shebang into the drained noodles. Stir in some arugula (it will wilt a bit with the heat of the pasta) and grated Parmesan cheese, and dinner is served.

I made this twice with arugula, and then wondered how it would be with Tuscan kale instead. The answer, of course, is excellent. And equally easy: just throw some roughly chopped kale (be generous; I'd say at least 6 to 8 cups) into the pasta water for the last minute or two of cooking, to blanch it. Drain along with the pasta and proceed as usual.

In fact I think the kale version of the dish has an edge, as it makes better leftovers (reheated wilted arugula is not my favorite).

I recommend using Pipe Regate for the pasta, as pictured in the photo at the top of this post; the chickpeas nestle nicely in the hollows of the noodles. Sounds like an obscure pasta shape, but I found mine at Whole Foods, and organic to boot.

My husband is agitating for the addition of red pepper flakes, which I am confident is a good idea, and plan to try it next time I make the dish, which I am confident will be soon.

Linking up with Anne's Pin to Present feature today, a very worthwhile challenge to actually do something with all that inspiration I collect online.

Original source: Pasta Shells with Chickpeas and Arugula, Serious Eats

Saturday, March 14, 2015

On Exuberance and a Purpose for Every Place

Recently via the charming sewing/quilting blog Flossie Teacakes I discovered a new home decor blog called Apartment Apothecary that I've really been enjoying.

The writer, Katy Orme, has a winningly down-to-earth voice. And she certainly has mastered the decorating style I aspire to. (Which, after poring over photos of her apartment, I can now label as Scandinavian white minus the austere modernism, crossed with English car boot sale minus the cluttery kitsch. Halfway between London and Copenhagen, if you will -- hey come to think of it, that's Amsterdam.)

Katy also co-hosts (along with Charlotte of Lotts and Lots) "Styling the Seasons," a monthly invitation to "style any surface in your home to represent the change of month and what it means to you." This month I thought I would join in.

I've expressed some skepticism about the concept of "styling" in the past so I suppose I should explain myself. (First Instagram and now styling? What's going on here, has the world or at least Sarah gone mad? Don't worry -- I remain morally opposed to Twitter.)

I suppose what I'm not so keen on is styling for its own sake -- form without function or even form that interferes with function (that's a nice looking arrangement of objects on that bedside table, but where am I supposed to put my glass of water?).

But switching things up around the house to follow the changing seasons? I can get behind that. And the idea that the objects in our homes should reflect our hopes and intentions? Oh yes, count me in. (Meaning is function, in my world.)

I decided to work with a marble-topped sideboard that was given to me by my aunt. It's moved around a bit in the house but at the moment it resides on one side of our dining "nook." Since it's right near the dining table (meaning, about a foot and a half from the dining table, which is on the other side of the nook, which should give you some idea about the scale involved and why I can't call it anything other than a nook, cutesy as that may seem), the sideboard tends to become a dumping ground for items hurriedly cleared off the table before dinner-time.

If styling can save us from this fate, then I'm all for it.
Recently I had made a conscious decision not to "decorate" some of the surfaces in our house but instead to try to leave them clean and empty. Yet what I am noticing is that surfaces left completely blank tend to attract clutter. It's almost as if, when a surface doesn't have a specific purpose of its own, it is doomed to become a catchall. In my head I'm revising the oft-quoted "A place for everything and everything in its place" to read "A place for everything and a purpose for every place."

I can see now that's part of what's going on with the sideboard. We put it in this spot because that's where it fits, not to serve a particular purpose. No wonder it's become a clutter magnet.

So the first step was to clean up and take things back to a blank slate. Then I added tulips! I also hung a print of birch trees that I bought my husband for his birthday several years ago. (You guys, I am so good at buying prints by independent artists off Etsy and the like...and so bad at actually hanging them on the walls.) By happy accident, the yellow in the tulips matches the yellow in the birch forest print.

So for this week at least, the sideboard's purpose is to hold something beautiful. An indulgent purpose, but it counts for now. And I have resisted piling crap on that sideboard for a full four days -- success!

As for what this month means to me? You have probably guessed from my posting schedule of late, but February was quite a slog around these parts. From March, I'm hoping for a little exuberance. So, not one bunch of tulips but two; not one vase but half a dozen.

Exuberance justifies a liberal hand with the photos, don't you think? Here we go....

Monday, March 9, 2015

On jumping on the bandwagon

There's plenty more cat microblogging where that came from.

I am just about the last person on Earth to make this announcement, but I went ahead and joined Instagram.

My beloved old lady cat died suddenly in mid-January, and after she was gone I went looking for pictures of her. I didn't have all that many. It made me resolve to take more photos in the future -- of the cats, my family, and everyday life in general.

For a while I did a series of posts on this blog called "Weekending," with photos and short captions describing our weekend activities. I've found that I like being able to look back on those posts and I thought that Instagram might offer a more frictionless way to accomplish something similar.

Most of the people I'm following right now on Instagram are artists or creative types of some sort.  I wasn't particularly expecting this, but I have been fascinated with the way this platform offers a glimpse into creative endeavors in process. I think it's a nice antidote to the focus on product or outcome that tends to arise from the blog format.

I mean that you can start to get a sense of how long it takes for a creative project to come to fruition, and how this is interwoven with the more mundane aspects of a person's everyday life. Of course, I know that these images are "curated," but I guess I'm choosing to believe that at least in some cases, in some ways, these visual narratives are telling an authentic story.

For example here is a post that's worth reading in its own right, but that became especially interesting to me in light of knowing that the writer had previously shared most of the images on the post via Instagram. So instead of seeing these words and images as being fully formed, final products that sprang out of nowhere, I have a sense of them being part of a questioning, experimental process. That's a really useful perspective, I think.

For myself, I'm hoping that sharing little snippets of projects in progress might create some kind of accountability to encourage me to follow through and finish them (which we all know is a perpetual problem for me).

So if you've jumped on the bandwagon and joined Instagram too, I would love to connect with you. You can find me here.

Friday, March 6, 2015

You are going to eat a half-pound of Brussels sprouts for dinner, and you are going to like it

Really, you are -- I promise!

Alright, I know, Brussels sprout season is almost over, if it isn't already. But it took me a while to work out this recipe so I wanted to post it here while it's still fresh in my mind.

This dish is actually very simple to make -- it's a version of fatteh, a Middle Eastern dish that combines toasted pita bread, vegetables and/or meat, and a garlicky yogurt sauce. Etymologically it has the same root as fattoush, or pita bread salad; both dishes are designed to use up stale bread. Well, bring on the plant-based peasant food, is what I always say.

The inspiration for this Brussels sprout version comes from a meal my husband and I had a couple of months ago at Mamnoon, a local Syrian/Lebanese restaurant. Their Brussels sprout fatteh -- or what was left of it by the time I thought to snap a picture -- is in the bottom left corner of the image below.

All of the mezze we had that night were amazing. There were foodie touches like kale butter swirled into the yogurt that topped the Brussels sprouts, and baby arugula accompanying the feta-stuffed sambusek pastries. But these didn't seem like mere trendy flourishes; instead they added to the flavor of each dish, without obscuring the simple, unpretentious nature of these foods.

I was also really glad to see this on our table:

Please don't misunderstand me here. I'm not trying to encourage slacktivism, and I certainly am under no illusions that my purchase of an appetizer is going to fix the situation in Syria. But it was nice to see a restaurant acknowledge the world we live in (this date night happened to be at the end of the week of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, so I was feeling rather bleak about the state of that world). And a relief to think that there might be an option other than total despair and self-abnegation on the one hand, and fiddling while Aleppo burns on the other.

As for those Brussels sprouts, what intrigued me was the sauce, which was gently, warmly garlicky rather than sharply so as it has been when I've made various versions of fatteh before. At first I thought the garlic might be roasted, but when I tried this the flavor got completely lost, even when I mashed an entire bulb of garlic into the yogurt.

In the end I turned to a trick from The New Best Recipe, which is my basic-recipe bible. In the recipe for basil pesto, the editors (the same nerd-tastic folks who run Cook's Illustrated magazine and America's Test Kitchen on PBS) suggest toasting whole, unpeeled cloves of garlic in a dry skillet to tone down its sharpness. That technique provided the flavor I was after in the yogurt sauce here, too.

In fact, I used a second technique from The New Best Recipe to cook the Brussels sprouts, too. When I roast Brussels sprouts, I am often frustrated by the way they cook unevenly -- the single leaves that fall off the outside when you trim and quarter the sprouts are charred before the sprouts themselves cook through. So I borrowed a method from the book's recipe for oven fries: cover the baking sheet with a second baking sheet and let the vegetables steam for the first five minutes in the oven, to get a head start on cooking.

One more note on ingredients: I am sorry to be a snob, but you need to find yourself a proper Middle Eastern market and get some good pita bread -- big, delicate loaves, not the thick, doughy stuff that passes for pita bread in mainstream American supermarkets. That stuff won't fly here (ask me how I know).

Alright, so the result of all this tweaking is the recipe below -- I hope you enjoy it, either now or next winter!

Brussels Sprout Fatteh

Inspired by Mamnoon restaurant.

2 loaves pita bread
olive oil

1 pound fresh Brussels sprouts
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 tsp. pomegranate molasses
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
freshly ground black pepper

2/3 C plain yogurt (I recommend full-fat)
1 large clove garlic

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Place the pita bread on a baking sheet and brush very lightly with olive oil. Put in oven and toast until the top of the bread is dried out but not browned. (You can do this while the oven is preheating, if you like. I don't know how fast your oven heats so I can't tell you how long it will take -- 5 to 7 minutes I'd guess, just keep an eye on it.) Remove bread from oven, flip over, and brush the other side of the loaves with oil, again very lightly. Sprinkle with a little bit of salt. Put back in the oven for another 5 minutes or so to crisp up the other side. Remove from oven and let cool while you cook the Brussels sprouts.

Meanwhile, wash and trim the Brussels sprouts, and cut them into quarters lengthwise. Toss in a bowl with 1 Tbsp olive oil, pomegranate molasses, ground coriander, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Spread out on a baking sheet and cover the baking sheet with another upside-down baking sheet like a lid. Place in the oven. After 5 minutes, remove the top baking sheet and allow the Brussels sprouts to continue to cook, uncovered, until they are tender inside and caramelized outside, about 20 to 25 more minutes.

To make the yogurt sauce, place the plain yogurt in a bowl. Heat a small skillet (I like cast iron) over medium heat and place the garlic, with the peel still on, in the skillet. Toast, shaking every now and then, for about 5 minutes, until the garlic is fragrant. When the garlic is cool enough to handle, peel it and press it through a garlic press into the yogurt. Add a pinch of salt and stir the sauce ingredients together.

To assemble the dish, break the pita into pieces with your hands and place on two plates (I like to have some small pieces that can get soaked-through with yogurt as well as some large pieces that I can pick up and use to scoop up the rest of it). Divide the roasted Brussels sprouts between the plates and pour the yogurt sauce on top.

Serves 2.

P.S.: The UNHCR's Syria relief fund is right here.