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canned goods is more of a suggestion than a hard-and-fast eat-by date, but there was a lot of stuff that was so old or out of date that when I considered cooking with it I thought: "Well, that's so old though..."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.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Finished objects: Wool felt dryer balls

Quite a while ago -- by which I mean, oh, four or five years by this point -- a friend was moving house and hosted a clothing/household item swap. She was letting go of some wool yarn that she had dyed using natural dyes way back in high school. If memory serves, she had intended to knit a sweater from it but didn't like how the colors turned out.

I was interested in learning to crochet, so I scarfed the yarn up to practice with. And then, after having sat in my friend's stash for many years, it sat in mine for several more. I began to feel sorry for the yarn, waiting for so long to be useful! And so, in line with my recent epiphany that crocheting is probably not in my near future, I decided to do something else with it.

So I made it into wool felt dryer balls. The yarn I had made about 12 balls; I kept three of them for our use and I've been giving away the rest as gifts along with a bottle of essential oil (you can put a few drops on each ball before tossing it into the dryer and it will make your laundry smell nice).

I know that this probably does not seem like a very noble purpose for hand-dyed yarn. I confess that I have one set earmarked for my friend but I have not yet had the -- well, you know -- to give them to her.

But at the time, the imperative to *do something* with the yarn outweighed the qualms I had. The process could not be simpler:

-Wind yarn into softball-sized balls. (Yarn must be wool, and not washable wool -- something that will shrink and felt.)

- Tie off and use crochet hook (aha, I AM using my crochet hooks after all!) to poke end into center of ball.

- Put yarn balls into the legs of an old pair of tights or pantyhose and tie off with twine in between each one.

- Wash in hot water and dry on hot setting 3-4 times to felt the wool.

- Meanwhile, make endless series of immature jokes about "sock full of balls," "woolly balls," "is that a dryer ball in your pantyhose or are you just happy to see me?" etc. (DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP.)

- And voila! That's it.

The point of dryer balls is that they are supposed to make your laundry dry faster. I do think they work pretty well for that purpose provided that the load is made up of fairly uniform items -- like sheets or towels. With mixed loads like my daughter's or my laundry our dryer always seems to stop when thin fabrics like t-shirts are dry but the thicker things like the waistbands of pants are still damp, and the dryer balls don't solve that problem. Which is unfortunate, as that's exactly why I started looking into dryer accessories in the first place. Oh well. On balance, they're useful -- and that, after all, was the point of the exercise.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

About & Abroad: Our Montreal Christmas Trip

Before the event recedes too far into distant memory, I wanted to type up some reviews and recommendations from our trip to Montreal over Christmas.

First, a few logistical thoughts. We stayed in the Old Montreal neighborhood, in an Air BnB a couple of blocks from the Notre Dame Basilica. This was really convenient, within easy walking distance of the Old Port and a lot of major sights, and I think was especially advantageous for a winter trip. (We considered a few places in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood, and I could see that being nice in the summer, but I think I would have found getting around in the cold and snow a lot more unpleasant.)

We arrived in Montreal for our Christmas holiday the evening of December 23. This worked fine but I wouldn't have wanted to arrive any later -- grocery stores and such pretty much shut down for 48 hours from the afternoon of the 24th until around noon on the 26th. But as it was, we were able to get our bearings and get provisioned for the holiday.

In general Montreal closes for Christmas to a much greater degree than Amsterdam, which we visited over the holiday two years ago. There's still plenty to keep you busy, it just requires a bit more planning and Tetris-ing of schedules. Major museums and attractions mostly reopened the 26th. Some restaurants were closed from the 24th through the new year, others reopened the 27th or 28th, and some said they would reopen the 28th but...didn't. My advice is that if you want to go somewhere, and you can't see an affirmative statement on their Website or Facebook page that they are open, call first!

So with all of that said, here are some of the highlights from our trip. This isn't everyplace we went, just what I particularly recommend:

See and Do:

Pointe-a-Calliere / Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History: This is both a museum and a working archaeological site featuring the ruins of some of the earliest structures in the city. An exhibit set up among the ruins traces the history of Montreal and Quebec from the time of European contact to the present. The story told here gave me a very different perspective on European settlement of North America than I'd gotten in my history classes in the United States: I could see much more clearly how geography, natural landforms, and especially the courses of rivers like the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi shaped this process. Utterly fascinating. While I liked the archaeological site and exhibition best, my daughter was partial to the little dioramas of Montreal scenes through different phases of the city's history. There is also an interactive, kid-friendly exhibit about pirates and privateers that I thought was quite well done, but my daughter declared herself totally uninterested on the grounds that pirates are "smelly, foul, and mean." Your mileage may vary.

Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal / Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal: The city's grand cathedral, with decoration modeled on Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, had free admission (normally $5 CDN) on Christmas afternoon so we joined the crowds touring through the space. This was not a religious service, but did feel like a spiritual experience, albeit one of a secular sort (if it's not sacrilegious to say that about a church). What I mean is that marveling at the church's stunning blue nave, intricate wooden decorations, and tenderly carved statues of figures from Montreal's history with a crowd of people from all different backgrounds and traditions (e.g.: I saw a number of women wearing Muslim headscarves) felt very similar to standing in a crowd of people gazing at Rembrandt's The Night Watch, as we'd done exactly two years before. Which is to say it felt like an appropriate way to spend Christmas Day.

Patinoire du Vieux-Port / Old Port ice skating rink: I can't say much from a first-hand perspective since ice skating tends to be a daddy-and-daughter activity in our family but this outdoor rink on the shores of the St. Lawrence River is well run, reasonably priced, and plays just-cheesy-enough music.

La Ville Souterraine / Underground City / RESO: We treated this not as a destination in itself (though it could be) but as a means to an end, and we got almost all the way from our apartment to the Fine Arts Museum using this system of tunnels, shopping malls, office buildings, and subway corridors (there are 20 miles in all). It's worth trying out as a means of transport: Intermittently baffling, but fascinating and kind of awesome in the end. If you have a Minecraft fan with you, keep them engaged by marveling at how much time it must have taken to mine out all these tunnels!

Photo by my husband.

Musee des Beaux-Arts / Fine Arts Museum: We spent most of our time here viewing an excellent temporary exhibition on a jazz-age collective of Montreal artists. I wish I'd had more time to explore the permanent collections -- the museum has a really extensive collection of Quebec and Canadian art, organized into chronological exhibits, which I think could make a great art history lesson. My daughter and I did take in the Inuit Art collection, which is fairly small, focuses on contemporary artists, and is located in a wonderful little crow's-nest-like space at the top of one of the museum buildings. She found this really engaging and loved recognizing the Arctic animals and speculating about the monster-ish characters depicted in the sculptures. By the end of our time there she had sharper eyes than I did for the various materials (whale vertebra, etc.) used by the artists.

A couple of pro-tips for this museum: they are pretty strict about not allowing large bags/backpacks into the galleries, and while there is a (free/by donation) coat and bag check available I recommend packing light if you can. Also, I found the museum cafeteria expensive and pretty lackluster -- I wish that at lunchtime we'd braved the cold and tried out this vegetarian restaurant, which has a location just around the corner on Rue Mackay, instead.

Centre des sciences de Montreal / Montreal Science Centre: I have to admit, these sorts of places are usually low on my list of priorities when traveling. After all, if you've seen one science center (we have an excellent one in Seattle) you've seen them all, right? But my daughter wanted to go, and it was nearby and fit well with our other plans for the day, so off we went. And let me tell you, it was so great to have absolutely no agenda of my own and to just let her guide the visit. She loved the temporary exhibit featuring animatronic dinosaurs (of course), which was certainly entertaining if not really high on the actual science. We also spent some time in one of the permanent exhibits, about the human body and human evolution, which I thought was really well done -- engaging and accessible for my 8-year-old, but really meaty in terms of scientific content.

Eat and Drink: 

Il Focolaio: Brick oven pizza place with lots of different pies on offer, including many vegetarian options. The food is a little heavy-handed, but oh, blessedly, they deliver to Old Montreal.

Stash Cafe: We had a light lunch at this Polish restaurant on Christmas Eve. Friendly staff, charming Old World atmosphere, reasonable prices and portions, and kid-friendly options like pierogi, potato pancakes, and mushroom croquette.

Maison Christian Faure: This high-end pastry shop seems very old-school French to me, by which I guess I mean it seems to be staffed entirely by dudes. A little spendy, highly caloric, and absolutely worth the extravagance.

Tommy: A little cafe/coffee shop in a beautiful old space a few blocks from Notre Dame Cathedral. Sure, this place is a little hipster-y, in that way that I am slightly embarrassed at being such a sucker for, but the staff are totally friendly and down-to-earth. And they make a fantastic latte.

Comptoir 21: This fish and chips joint is, oddly enough, said to have some of the best vegetarian poutine in Montreal. I can confirm that, indeed, it was the only poutine I have ever been served outside my house that I thought was worth eating (oooh, fighting words!). Three locations -- we visited the one on Rue Ste. Catherine.

Fairmount Bagel: Ah, Montreal bagels! Yes, they live up to the hype, although strictly speaking my husband is not sure they are worth walking 40 minutes in a blizzard for, so -- make your plans according to the weather, I guess.

Next time:

St. Viateur Bagel: I was sorry we didn't get to sample the offerings from Montreal's other iconic bagel maker. St. Viateur and Fairmount have locations a couple of blocks from each other in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood, so I think the ideal thing would be to have a bagel bang-bang, no?

Dolcetto & Co.: This restaurant in Old Montreal looked promising, an atmosphere to appeal to the grownups but some nice basic pizzas on the menu likely to be enjoyed by the kiddo.

- Espace pour la vie / Space for Life: We had to scrap our plans to visit this complex of nature museums in the Olympic Park at the eastern end of the city when, on the last day of our trip, a blizzard arrived and my daughter came down with a cold. Dangit. I was intrigued by the Biodome's exhibits on ecosystems of the Americas and the Planetarium's show about the Aurora Borealis; my daughter was bummed to miss out on the Insectarium. Next time, indeed!