Friends: Meet our Remodel

There are, of course, lots of good things about entertaining. There’s the ensuing laughter that comes with being with friends and family. The food is generally good and often are things that you only eat when you entertain or are entertained. Like Pigs in a Blanket. Can you imagine how odd it would be if Bill asked me what we were having for dinner and I told him little smoky links wrapped in crescent roll dough? But they are yummy, and often make an appearance at a cocktail party unless the Barefoot Contessa is hosting. In that case, you eat Tartare de Filet de Boueuf or Pissaladieres. Not a single little sausage in Ina Garten’s refrigerator. Poor Jeffrey. I wonder if sometimes he wishes he could just eat meatloaf with ketchup.

But at least for me, one of the good things about entertaining is that it requires me to clean the house. I’m not ashamed to admit I take a bit of prodding when it comes to homemaking — unless it’s cooking. My specialty? You guessed it. Pigs in a Blanket. I make them fancy by sprinkling on poppy seeds. I’m pretty sure then people think the party was catered…..

Bill and I invited our neighbors in last night to see the house remodel that he worked on all summer long and into the fall. Like me, they also listened to months of grinding and hammering and cutting because he had his work station set up on our front porch. We resembled the Beverly Hillbillies, and owed our neighbors some wine and Pigs in a Blanket.

By the way, I’m being a bit hard on myself. I also served Brie en Croute (which I can spell but can’t pronounce), hummus, and deviled eggs. That fancy thing that I can’t pronounce is actually just brie that is smeared with raspberry jam, covered in pecans, wrapped in store-bought puff pastry, and baked. Ina Garten doesn’t even make her own puff pastry.

My signature cocktail (having a signature drink is something I learned from my sister Jen who believes you can’t have a party without a signature drink) was prosecco with a splash of cranberry juice, garnished with a real cranberry. I spent the evening in silent prayer that no one would swallow the cranberry and require the Heimlich. My prayers were answered. But only because, contrary to Jen’s firm belief in a signature cocktail, my guests all drank wine.

But back to our remodeled house. Though we still have some things to do in the house – primarily painting and carpeting the bedrooms, which will happen next spring – we couldn’t be more pleased with the results. All of the pounding from May through October was worth it. I don’t have any BEFORE shots, but suffice it to say that 25 years ago, when I walked into this house, I loved it immediately; however, I told Bill that I wouldn’t be able to live with the carpeting or the paint color. It only took 25 years for the change to finally happen.

But here are some pictures of the final (ish) result…..

Prior to our remodel, the brick on the fireplace of our family room was a yellowish color and the carpet was an off-white that I hated about 15 minutes after it was installed. The rug was a gift from Bill’s brother Bruce.

The living room floor was covered in the carpeting that I said I would replace immediately. Finally, 25 years later. The sofa, chairs, and coffee table belonged to Bill’s mom, Wilma.

Bill installed wood floors in his office several years back, but they were a very light color. The floor was sanded and restained to match the other rooms.

The floors in the formal dining room were previously also hardwood of the same light color as Bill’s office and the kitchen.

The kitchen was the room about which I was most worried, having grown used to the light colored floors. I was delighted with how they turned out.

The stairway is perhaps my favorite area. Previously, they were carpeted in that same carmel-colored carpeting and the spindles were wooden. I love the fresh look of the metal spindles and the dark wood.

Bill did an immense amount of work, and it’s as good a job as any craftsman would have done. The job required removing the carpeting, removing the pressboard that lay underneath, installing plywood before finally nailing in the hardwood. He did that in two big rooms, the staircase, and the upstairs hallway. In addition, he removed circa 1970 wall paneling and put up drywall on one wall, and remove wallpaper from another wall. He painted our fireplace, installed canned lights in the family room, and redid the mantle.

And he has Parkinson’s disease. Go figure.

By the way, he had his semiannual appointment with his neurologist on Monday, and got another thumb’s up. Thank you God.

Thursday Thoughts

Like Chasing a Rabbit
I’ve had a Fitbit for a couple of years now. Fitbits, as you know, measure your activity. My daily goal is 10,000 steps, and I reach it on the days I work out; other days I have to work a bit harder to reach the goal. One of the incentives is that you compete against others, who agree to compete against you. Bec’s grandchildren got Fitbits for Christmas, and shortly thereafter, they asked me to be on their list of “friends” against whom they compete. I can look at any time and see how I’m faring against the others, and let me tell you, when it comes to Mackenzie and Carter, it isn’t a pretty picture. It’s seriously like competing against Jack Russell Terriers. The numbers are given in 7-day averages, and Carter is always, ALWAYS in the hundred-thousands. How can I possibly compete against someone who has Running Club in the morning and plays soccer every day at recess?  I’ll bet on any given day, he has beaten me by 9 o’clock in the morning. I’m pretty sure he gets up during the night and just runs up and down their hallway for an hour. I wonder if Bill would notice if I did that……

Rich and Famous
I truly wonder how many famous people I have walked past without ever seeing them. When the family was in NYC a number of years ago for Heather’s college graduation, every once in a while as we walked the streets of NY, Allen would say, “Oh look, there’s Yoko Ono,” or “Did you see him? That was Alan Rickman” (the guy who played Hans Gruber in Die Hard (may he rest in peace). In 1995, Bill and I were in the Oak Bar at The Plaza Hotel in NYC having a drink, when Bill said to me, “There’s Marcia Clark.” If you will recall, Marcia Clark had her 15 minutes of fame because she was the prosecuting attorney in the OJ Simpson trial. So it’s of very little surprise that the other night, when we were out to dinner for Bec’s birthday and suddenly there was some commotion at the door, I paid ABSOLUTELY NO ATTENTION. This, despite the fact that a giant of a man accompanied by a bevy of people had entered the Cajun restaurant where we were dining. It was Erik, who actually had his back to the door, who casually said, “Huh, there’s Charles Barkley.” Well, I looked up and confirmed that it actually was the former Phoenix Sun great himself. After getting past being stunned by his sheer size, I made a very quick decision. I grabbed Mackenzie’s and Carter’s hands and briskly led them through the crowded restaurant to his table, just as he was getting ready to sit down. I politely asked him if he would be willing to let me take his picture with my niece and nephew. Now then, that could have gone south very quickly. After all, I was interrupting his private dinner. But it didn’t. See……

Charles Barkley Carter Kenz 1.16

When I’m rich and famous, I’m going to be as nice as Charles Barkley.

Cake Wars Continues
Bill isn’t the only one in this family who can bake. I made some cupcakes from scratch yesterday afternoon, using a wonderful Barefoot Contessa recipe. I changed them up a bit by using leftover icing from Bec’s birthday cake as a filling. I put the icing – a mixture of cream cheese, marshmallow fluff, and powdered sugar – into a squirt bottle and filled the chocolate cupcakes with the cream before icing them.  They were delicious.

cupcakes

Chocolate Cupcakes, courtesy Ina Garten and Food Network

Ingredients
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk, shaken, at room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream, at room temperature
2 tablespoons brewed coffee
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup good cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Process
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line cupcake pans with paper liners.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and 2 sugars on high speed until light and fluffy, approximately 5 minutes. Lower the speed to medium, add the eggs 1 at a time, then add the vanilla and mix well. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, sour cream, and coffee. In another bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. On low speed, add the buttermilk mixture and the flour mixture alternately in thirds to the mixer bowl, beginning with the buttermilk mixture and ending with the flour mixture. Mix only until blended. Fold the batter with a rubber spatula to be sure it’s completely blended.

Divide the batter among the cupcake pans (1 rounded standard ice cream scoop per cup is the right amount). Bake in the middle of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes, remove from the pans, and allow to cool completely before frosting.
Nana’s Notes: The Barefoot Contessa wouldn’t even consider OWNING a plastic squirt bottle, but too bad, her loss. The filling makes the cupcakes good. And, unlike Bill, I used store-bought frosting. So there.

Cooking Teachers

I’m not sure I can entirely remember what life was like prior to Food Network. This fact, of course, isn’t exactly surprising since I can’t remember where I park my car at the mall. The irony I’m afraid is that I CAN remember my home telephone number from when I was a 6 years old and the words to all of the songs from the 1960s. Sigh. Way to waste those important brain cells.

I guess our parents used those funny things called cookbooks. They didn’t have anyone to teach them to cook from their little black and white television sets. Well, except for Julia Child. And I don’t know about anyone else’s mom, but my mom didn’t particularly want to learn to cook French food. I would have liked to seen the look on my dad’s face should mom have plopped sole meuniere in front of him one night.

My mom says she learned to cook from my paternal grandmother (her mother died at a very young age). I learned to cook by watching my mother. And more recently from watching Food Network and PBS cooking shows.

It used to be that Food Network consisted almost entirely of actual cooking shows. Nowadays, you can find a few cooking shows on during the day, but nighttime consists entirely of competition shows. They don’t particularly interest me. So I mostly watch during the day. Ree Drummond, Trisha Yearwood, Ina Garten, Giada De Laurentiis. Others.

If I’m to tell you the entire truth, most of the stars of the shows drive me crazy. I can’t imagine cooking showing as much cleavage as does Giada, if for no other reason than that I would undoubtedly splash my chest with hot bacon grease. I sometimes think that if Ina Garten says “How (fill in the blank) is that?” one more time, I will throw my coveted seasoned cast iron skillet through the television screen.

But I have learned things from all of these Food Network and PBS cooks that I think has made me a better cook. Here’s a few of the things I have learned…..

Ina Garten: As annoyed as I get when the Barefoot Contessa instructs us to use “really good wine” or “good vanilla” or, as in one recipe, “really good saffron” (as if you should spend even more on an ingredient that already requires you to pawn your wedding ring to buy), I have learned that she is right that the better the ingredients, the better the final result. But the way I look at it, it doesn’t mean you have to fly to Madagascar to pick up a bottle of vanilla. It means, if possible, buy real vanilla extract as opposed to vanilla flavoring.

Paula Deen: Paula’s use of butter is (and I think was meant to be) ridiculous. But she taught me not to be afraid to use butter in my recipes. It simply tastes better. I also learned the easiest way to prepare collard greens – fold them in half and pull the leaves off the stem in one fell swoop.

Giada De Laurentiis: Despite my constant annoyance with her cleavage and the fact that she won’t simply say “spaghetti” or “fettucine” the way we do, she has taught me to use the freshest ingredients possible. Recently, she made a pasta red sauce that looked delicious, and she threw the rind of a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano into the sauce to flavor it. I will definitely give that a try. Giada also uses a lot of fresh fennel, and once I gave it a try when using one of her salad recipes that included fennel and grapefruit, I was hooked. Yum.

Ree Drummond: The Pioneer Woman has given me permission to use store-bought ingredients. Though Ina Garten must turn her nose up at Ree Drummond, I love that Ree will open up a box of chicken broth or use a jar of store-bought pesto.  If she can do it, so can I! It makes me happy to see her use her cast iron skillet so often because it’s one of my favorite cooking utensils. I couldn’t live without it. I love her 16-minute meals. Next to Lidia, I probably use more of the Pioneer Woman’s recipes than any other.

Lidia Bastianich: I left Lidia until last because, well, you know. I want her to adopt me. She speaks to me. For example, the day after I burned my hand because I grabbed the handle of a pan that I had taken out of the oven a minute or so before, she told me, “Kris, make sure when you take something out of the oven, you place a towel on it to remind yourself and others that it is hot.” (Well, she might not have directed it specifically to me, but she said it on her show the next day, and I know she meant it for me.) She has taught me not to fear anchovies but to embrace them as a rich and salty seasoning that melts in your fry pan and therefore won’t scare others, who will simply wonder why your sauce is so good. I also learned to salt my food as I cook, every time I add an ingredient or move to a new step. (If you fear oversalting, place the amount of salt you want to use in a little bowl and take from that. That’s what Lidia told me.) And maybe my favorite instruction from her is, “Clean hands are your best kitchen tool.” Amen.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Lidia recipes…..

Pasta with Baked Cherry Tomatoes, courtesy Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, Lidia Bastianich

Ingredients
3 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
½ c. plus 1 T extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 c. fine dry bread crumbs
1 t. kosher salt, plus more for the pasta pot
¼ t. pepperoncino flakes, or to taste
1 lb. spaghetti, gemelli, or penne
10 plump garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 T. chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 c. loosely packed fresh basil leaves, shredded
½ c. freshly grated pecorino (or half pecorino and half Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano) plus more for passing
4 oz. Ricotta or ricotta salata

Process
Arrange a rack in the center of the oven, and heat to 350 degrees.

Toss the cherry tomato halves in a large bowl with 3 T. olive oil. Sprinkle over tomatoes the bread crumbs, salt, and pepperoncino; toss well to coat the tomatoes evenly. Pour the tomatoes onto a parchment-lined sheet, and spread them apart in a single layer. Bake until the tomatoes are shriveled and lightly caramelized (but not dried out), about 25 minutes in all.

Meanwhile, fill a large pot with salted water, and heat to a rolling boil. When the tomatoes are nearly done, drop the pasta into the pot, stir, and return the water to a boil.

As soon as the pasta is cooking, pour the remaining olive oil into a big skillet, set it over medium-high heat, and scatter in the sliced garlic. Cook for a minute or two, until it is sizzling and lightly colored, then ladle in about 2 c. of the pasta cooking water, and bring to a vigorous boil, stirring up the garlic. Let half the water evaporate, then lower the heat, stir in the chopped parsley, and keep the sauce barely simmering.

As soon as the tomatoes are done, remove them from the oven.

When the pasta is al dente, lift it from the water, drain for a moment, and drop it into the skillet, still over low heat. Toss pasta quickly with the garlic-and-parsley sauce in the pan, then slide the baked tomatoes on top of the pasta. Scatter the basil shreds all over, and toss everything together well, until the pasta is evenly dressed and the tomatoes are distributed throughout. Turn off the heat, sprinkle on the grated cheese, and toss once more.

Serve immediately.

pasta with baked tomatoes

Nana’s Notes: I cut the recipe in half by simply halving the ingredients. I used fresh tomatoes out of my garden, which I’m madly harvesting. The only cheese I used was Parmigiano. The meal was delicious. Thanks again Lidia.