Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Home improvements: Bad news and good news in the dining room

Bad news: projectile feline scarf-n-barf.

Good news: all over the worn-out sisal rug I'd been gunning to get rid of for a while.

You might remember our dining room rug. It was a big day when I turned it upside down.

Way before.

The truth is, though, no matter how I flipped it, the thing was looking pretty tired -- worn, stained, cat-scratched, and completely unraveling in one corner.

When the aforementioned bad news happened I started to clean it up, and then I had this moment where I just felt DONE. Over it. I rolled up the rug and threw it outside.

That rug had been through 11 years, two houses, a wedding, four cats, and a baby. It had done its job, you know?

And secretly I'm grateful to our gluttonous cat. I'd been wanting to try removing the rug from the dining room for a while.

Thank you, Daisy, for solving my home decorating dilemmas.
Daisy shows us what she thinks of all this mockery.

My husband was skeptical. He thought (1) the lines around the previous position of the rug where the sun has faded the finish on our wood floors would look funny and (2) a dining room without a rug would look unfinished, as if it belonged in a house of college dudes.

It's true that there are sun-fade lines on the floor, but I don't think they are particularly noticeable.

His second objection I guess is a matter of taste. I'm definitely in agreement that we want to aim for a grownup-looking space. But I don't think a dining room necessarily needs a rug to look finished. When I look at my Pinterest board of dining spaces I see plenty of bare-floored examples, like so:

Original source.

And like so:

Original source.

Especially in an eensy space like ours, I think a rug can just create visual clutter. So. Here's where we are today. (The round table arrived here. Funny enough, in that post I was worried about how stressful it was going to be to find a rug my husband and I could agree on. Like how I sidestepped that issue?)


Anyway, I like it. My husband has not mutinied. Nice and simple looking, and it's definitely easier to keep clean.

Hey, and how about that flower arrangement on the table? Just a few stems gathered from our front yard earlier today.

The funny, spiky things with balls on the ends are anemone flowers that have lost their petals. (From these anemones here.) I think they're kind of funky and modern, and I really like the way they look with the subtly shaded, late-season hydrangeas.

I realize it's a bit cheeky to get rid of a worn-out old rug and label it a "home improvement." And I'm certainly not claiming that just getting rid of things will solve all interior decorating quandaries. But I do think that when we're thinking about replacing or upgrading an item, it's worth including "actually, do we need that at all?" as a step on the flow chart.

As a matter of fact, I recently did something similar in the kitchen. We had a mat in front of the sink that had always been kind of ugly, never stayed in place, had become horribly cruddy and stained, and couldn't be washed. I did ponder getting a nice rug of some sort to replace it, but in the end I just chucked it, and I haven't missed having something there at all. (Hm. Who knew I had such a vendetta against floor coverings?)

In the dining room, I've got my sights set next on reupholstering those chairs. I mean, this is pretty bad, right?

And this is not a case where I can just get rid of something and not replace it. But it should be -- knock on wood -- a pretty easy project: just stretch the new fabric over the seat and staple to the bottom. I'm thinking of a metallic gold linen -- it would echo the texture of some other linen we've got going on elsewhere in the common areas of the house, and I think the gold might fancify everyday meals a little bit without being fussy.

I need my dining room upholstery to be wipe-able, though. So I'm thinking about laminating the fabric. (Yes, I realize this is probably not the most environmentally friendly project ever, but I'm willing to compromise a bit for something durable.) Has anyone tried something like this?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

My wardrobe this season: Fall 2015

My approach to seasonal capsule wardrobes has evolved a bit since my first experiments in this area last winter. I'm still very inspired by the idea of switching up my wardrobe each season, and organizing each capsule around a characteristic seasonal palette or "color story." I'm less interested in having hard-and-fast rules about how many or which items I'm "allowed" to wear at any given time.

So here is what I did to organize my wardrobe for fall. I pulled together a stack of items that seem quintessentially "fall" to me. Here's a better view of what's in that first photo above:

My idea is basically to wear the heck out of these items between now and Thanksgiving, mixing them both with each other and with a variety of closet basics that I tend to wear across several seasons. (This post should give you an idea of what I mean by "closet basics," although it's not really an exhaustive view.)

I spent a bit of time recently playing around with various combinations of these items. I was inspired in part by this post on Bridgette Raes' blog showing the mix-and-match potential of items owned by one of her clients. Bridgette is a professional wardrobe stylist and clearly knows her stuff, and her posts have a warm and upbeat tone -- all of which makes hers is one of my favorite style blogs on the Internet (and is probably why I keep referring to her as Bridgette, as if we were on a first-name basis!). I like that instead of pushing particular trends or items to buy, her posts tend to be much more analytical. I find that even when the outfits she shows are not my style or appropriate for my casual, work-from-home lifestyle, I can often glean the underlying principles that she's illustrating and then apply them to items in my own closet.

So, I sort of took apart Bridgette's post and then tried to apply what she was doing to my own collection of items. I haven't replicated her template exactly, but I think I've captured the spirit of her post. Settle in, this is a long one, with lots of photos!

1. First, Bridgette tackles an item that seems like it should be a staple but has been deceptively hard for her client to style. She's working with a pair of subtly patterned navy pants, and I'm using my bottle-green cardigan.

Here I've paired the cardigan with my black skirt leggings and a teal layering sweater. I can wear this outfit with black ballet flats early in the season, or black ankle boots later on when it's colder.

In her post, Bridgette also uses a particular scarf repeatedly and shows how it pulls together a lot of different outfits. My goes-with-everything scarf is a large square scarf with a print of ducks on a pale-pink background. Here's a better view:

I love this scarf and wear it often in fall. It was an impulse purchase at Goodwill about three years ago, believe it or not. It is not my usual fare -- I thought it was a little way too preppy for me -- and I balked a bit at paying seven whole dollars for it. But I am so glad I did. It's a good example of the usefulness of rotating my wardrobe seasonally: I only wear the scarf in fall, so it feels fresh each year and I'm excited to pull it out and wear it again.

It's also interesting to consider with regard to color. A common piece of advice is to build a seasonal color palette around the colors in a printed scarf, but in fact I don't wear the colors in this scarf much at all. I do love this pale pink, but have very little of it in my wardrobe. And the particular blues and greens in the scarf aren't exactly the ones in the rest of my clothing. Nevertheless, I think it works because the pink makes a nice contrast to colors like teal or bottle-green, and the blues and greens end up being "close enough." (In the outfit photo above, for example, you can see that the teal layering sweater really pulls out the medium blue bits of the scarf. But they are really not the same shade.)

Second outfit: same cardigan, with mid-wash skinny jeans, a gray layering sweater, smaller floral scarf with green border, and green flats.

Same jeans and cardigan, this time with a gray-and-white striped popover blouse, gray boots, and the duck-print scarf.

Same jeans, cardigan, and boots, this time with a black watch plaid shirt and and a floral scarf with an orange background. (On a really rainy day I would wear this with Wellies and perhaps swap out the jeans for dark-wash skinnies.)

Finally, the same combination of cardigan and black watch plaid shirt, this time with my black merino knit pencil skirt and black ankle boots.

2. Next in Bridgette's post is a cobalt-blue pencil skirt. My version of a brightly colored bottom that turns out to be surprisingly versatile is a pair of mustard cords.

First, I've paired them with the gray-and-white striped shirt and gray boots that you've seen above, and my ivory Aran cardi. You didn't think I'd leave out my Aran sweater, did you? Perish the thought!

Same cords, with the black watch plaid shirt from above, long navy argyle cardi, and Wellies. I realize that is a lot of color, but I think it would be rather cheerful on a dreary gray day.

Now the cords are paired with a black-and-navy plaid tunic, long charcoal gray cardi, gray boots, and the duck scarf makes an appearance once more.

Same mustard cords and gray boots, this time with the gray layering sweater you've seen before, and a fair isle cardigan (mostly blue, but it has a bit of yellow in it). Cozy!

3. Finally, Bridgette styles a pair of gray pants to make the point that basics can be worn in non-basic ways. I'm going to depart from her formula here and show a mix of items because I wanted to feature at least one outfit including each of the items in my "capsule."

First, a couple of outfits featuring my plaid portrait-collar blouse. Admittedly this blouse has a rather short season -- it has elbow-length sleeves, so it's just not warm enough, even with a sweater over it, once the weather really cools down -- but I do love wearing it in the mean time. Here I've paired it with my black merino knit skirt and navy argyle cardi, both pieces that I've used in outfits above, and a pair of braided clog sandals. The sandals are a good example of an item wouldn't be practical to include strict capsule wardrobe for fall, but on one or two unseasonably warm days, it's fun to pull them out and create some unexpected combinations.

Here's a similar formula that will more often be weather appropriate: the same top with dark-wash skinny jeans, my long charcoal-gray cardi, and tan clogs.

Here's that black merino knit skirt again, with a Liberty-print popover blouse, emerald green cardi, and green flats. Of course I could just as easily swap out the skirt for my dark-wash skinny jeans if I need to keep my legs a bit warmer.

Medium-wash skinny jeans, teal layering sweater, long charcoal-gray cardi, black ballet flats: all basics that I've used in various combinations in earlier outfits in this series -- here completed with a teal paisley scarf.

And finally, the emerald-green cardi and black ankle boots, with my beloved animal-print shift dress.

So that's 14 outfits from 30 items, pretty similar to Bridgette's 15 outfits from 31 items. Also, about half of the items that I've used here were obtained secondhand -- just to continue beating my "a secondhand wardrobe doesn't have to be a hot mess" drum.

Of course, these outfits don't exhaust all the mix-and match possibilities of these items. And I have a few other things not pictured here that I'll likely make good use of (a camel cable-knit cardi, for example, and a few burgundy things that help outfits feel fall-ish.) But it gives a flavor of my wardrobe this season.

I think this sort of exercise is a great alternative means to accomplish some of the same goals as a capsule wardrobe more narrowly defined. I'm surprised how many combinations I've discovered that I wouldn't have thought of before sitting down and rather methodically pairing up different items in my closet. And I'm excited to wear these outfits this fall and make use of what I already have -- rather than going shopping.

I'm sharing this post on Anne's "pin to present" linkup on In Residence. You can find the post that was the original inspiration for this one, and several other posts from Bridgette's blog, on my How to Wear It pinboard.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Finished object: Pencil shirt

No, that's not a typo. My daughter requested a shirt with a pencil on it to wear on the first day of school; she is starting third grade and I doubt this sort of charming earnestness will be around much longer (kind of surprised it is even still in play, really)*, so I was happy to oblige.

*(More evidence that those innocent childhood days are numbered: I asked to take a picture of her wearing the shirt before we left for the bus stop this morning, and noticed that she was posing. That is, instead of smiling for a picture while wearing her shirt, she was trying to look a certain way. Like with a knee pop and everything. I felt pretty sad about it, to be perfectly honest.)

The shirt itself is a hand-me-down from her cousin and the pencil is made from fabrics my daughter chose from my embarrassingly large stash. I would like to point out that I cared enough to change the thread in my machine three times to match each element of the applique.

I did this project in a mad rush last Tuesday afternoon but my daughter didn't get a chance to wear her shirt until today: the start of school was delayed 6 days by a teachers' strike here in Seattle. Officially, the strike is not over but merely suspended; the teachers won't vote on ratifying the tentative contract until this weekend. I hope they do accept it (my daughter would be heartbroken to be out of school again), but even if they do it's clear that what we have here is not a finished object but very much a work in progress. Without getting too strident and overtly political, there seems to be a groundswell of energy among parents to finally force our state government to fix the systemic underfunding of public education that has been going on for four decades now, and I'm hoping to play some small part in that effort.

So here's hoping my daughter and I both learn and achieve a whole lot this year.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Last weekend of the summer

The last weekend of summer turned distinctly fall-like around here. Still, my daughter insisted on a trip to the beach on Saturday.

She desperately wanted to practice her new snorkeling skills.

But with temperatures in the low 60s (and water temperature in the low 50s), she couldn't quite commit to it.

Instead, she came up with a game of rolling in the sand...

...and then running down the beach and ever so briefly dipping in the water to rinse off.

Over and over again, until suddenly: "Let's go home!"

Sunday, I got out my new home accessory for autumn -- an impulse purchase in London that was wildly inappropriate to the season at the time, but is just perfect now:

Got out my favorite fall scarf and a cardigan, too. (I'll miss the warm weather, but to tell you the truth I'm kind of excited to play with my fall clothes.)

Rained all night... I'm glad I'd gotten those plants in the ground.

Heavy-headed anemones:


P.S.: Apropos of our earlier discussions about messy gardens and front-yard landscaping, an email from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's wonderful Yard Map program just hit my inbox, and there's this article with guidance about Making "Messy" Look Good. Genius!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Fasolakia: Greek green bean and tomato stew

Look at me, following through on my promises/intentions with respect to blogging! Better go check to see if your pigs have sprouted wings.

Anyway, here is the recipe for the Greek green bean and tomato stew mentioned at the end of my last post. My version is less soupy than many recipes I've seen for this dish (most of the liquid comes from the vegetables themselves), and also relies on fresh rather than canned tomatoes. Typing this up I realize that aside from the work of trimming the beans, this is a dead-simple recipe. I also suspect the basic technique of building a base of sauteed aromatics, tomato, and spices could be adapted to lots of other flavor combinations (I'm pretty sure this is similar to the process of making a South Asian curry, in fact).


Fasolakia (Greek green bean and tomato stew)

Adapted from The Greek Vegan

3 Tbsp olive oil
2 small onions, chopped fairly fine
5 cloves garlic, crushed through a garlic press
3 Tbsp tomato paste
1/4 C water
scant 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp dried dill
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 lb green beans, washed and trimmed, and cut into 2" lengths
4 to 6 medium tomatoes, diced
cooked rice
feta, Parmesan, or chèvre cheese

Heat the olive oil in a wide, deep skillet over medium heat. Saute the onions until translucent. Add the garlic and saute a minute or two more.

Add the tomato paste, water, and spices, and stir together into a paste. Add the green beans and toss to coat with the seasonings. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a few more tablespoons of water if the beans are too dry and begin to stick to the pan.

Add the tomatoes, turn the heat down to medium-low, and simmer 40 minutes more. Don't undercook! This dish is best when the beans are meltingly soft.

Serve over cooked rice, topped with crumbled feta, chèvre, or grated Parmesan cheese. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

In the garden and in the kitchen lately

Kitchen windowsill recently: exit bird stage left, pursued by crazy basil?

Before we left for our London trip back in June, my husband spent some time installing a drip irrigation system for our garden. This has been a huge success in terms of the health of the garden, saving time watering, and also reducing water use. I hate to admit that it comes with a downside, but it is this: when the garden doesn't demand daily attention, and life overall is kind of busy, things in the vegetable patch can easily get a bit out of control.

Fortunately, I rather like a messy garden. I mean, we even have a big crop of volunteer tomatillos this year, how awesome is that?

But it does mean that our intermittent harvests of vegetables tend to have a comical, over-the-top quality. 

The smallish, perfectly spherical tomatoes on the top of this pile are called "Mr. Stripy" -- a variety that I admit I bought on a whim, because of the amusing name, but they've been the summer's standout: sweet, juicy, never mealy, and seemingly immune to the blossom-end rot that has affected some of our other plants.

Sometimes, the best way to deal with such excess is the simplest one: we've been eating a lot of caprese salad, thank goodness it doesn't seem to get old.

With some garlic-rubbed toast and some good olives the plate above made a perfect light dinner (pictured is one person's serving, so don't worry, we're not starving to death over here) on one of those too-hot-to-cook summer evenings.  

Other times I've tweaked a tried and true recipe according to what's on hand. Here's a version of that pasta with marinated mozzarella, chickpeas, and arugula that I posted about this spring -- but with halved cherry tomatoes instead of the chickpeas.

Yes, I'm aware that what I've just offered you is basically caprese salad tossed with pasta -- when I said the combination doesn't seem to get old, I guess I really meant it.

Fresh tomatoes are all well and good, but when it comes to things like five-pound zucchini (oops) and slightly overgrown string beans, these sorts of ingredients need a bit more preparation. So I recently tried my hand at making a proper ratatouille.

Well, sort of proper -- I didn't bother to go buy an eggplant, figuring that the volume of zucchini I had could more than carry the dish. (It could.)

And I didn't have a red bell pepper on hand so I minced up a little bit of mama lil's spicy peppers in oil and added them to the onions and garlic. What I did do was cook the vegetables separately, following the instructions in this recipe (and very loosely following the proportions -- looking at the recipe again, I guess what I've done is substituted green beans for eggplant). I've always been resistant to this technique in the past: is that really necessary? it sounds like a pain in the ass. But, while it was surely more time-consuming than cooking the vegetables together, the extra effort didn't feel too odious. Stirring is meditative, after all, and the pan didn't require constant attention. And I definitely can't argue with the results.

Another idea for using up a similar set of ingredients, equally delicious but with a different mix of flavors: fasolakia, a Greek dish of long-simmered green beans and tomatoes.

To make this I started with this recipe, but the truth is I've changed it so much that I don't think you could get the dish I made by following the recipe at the link. How about you come back tomorrow and I'll type up my version for you?