Monday, May 4, 2015

Dancing on the Countertops


This is likely to be long-ish, in part because I have a lot of hopefully useful information to impart, and in part because it is just so ridiculously exciting to finally be at this stage!

Today we are talking countertops.  Specifically for the basement, we will be chatting kitchen counters soon enough (or actually not NEARLY soon enough for my tastes, but you know what I meant).

The basement has four places where we are getting countertops.  They are:

The console underneath the television in the media room.

The bathroom vanity.

The laundry room sink and cabinets.

This antique commode, which goes into one of the basement bedrooms.

I'm going to start with how we started, researching the right products.  For that, we went to a place that carries all of the different products we wanted to consider, Cosentino.  The short version is that we wanted to be able to consider everything from natural stone and marble and granite to manmade materials like quartzite and other composite products, and we didn't want to have to go to different companies to explore our options.  Cosentino is an international company known for the highest quality products and most cutting edge materials, so we met with them first.

And it was an eye-opening experience.  We explained the different spaces and how we plan to use them.  We talked about our aesthetic.  We talked about our budget.  The Cosentino team listened carefully and then took us through the different options for each space.  

The most important things we learned from them were these:

1.  Function, not look, should be your first consideration.  It's easy to fall in love with all those white marble kitchens all over Pinterest these days, but the truth is, marble is soft, porous, and hard to maintain.  Gorgeous?  Yes.  Useable in the right places?  Of course.  But if you are a red wine drinker, or have kids, or need a space to really be a heavy duty work space, marble is not the best choice.  There are better materials that can give you the look you want for almost any application, so form really should follow function for countertops or you will spend the rest of your life annoyed.  Case in point?  The kitchen counters at our family weekend place are gorgeous.  Deep gray natural stone.  Its been a nightmare since the day it was installed.  It has been sealed numerous times, but if you get one drop of oil on it anywhere, it soaks right in and leaves a stain.  The edges are all chipping, hit one heavy pot to close to the edge and a little chunk will fly right off.  They looked fantastic when they were new, but we regret them.

2.  Be flexible and patient.  Don't expect to make this decision quickly, and be willing to change the picture you have in your head if you discover the material you think you need so desperately is either out of your budget or not the best material for your space.

3.  Budget appropriately.  I had no idea that the most expensive, and frankly, most important part of countertops is the fabrication!  I sort of just presumed that the place where I bought the material would have people to turn it into my countertops, and that would be a simple labor charge.  Cosentino was very clear with me.  You need to have a terrific fabricator on board, and their costs are often higher than the cost of the material itself.  I wanted to learn why, so they connected me with one of their favorite fabricators and I went on a field trip!

Stone Masters is a company of countertop artisans, and I don't use that term lightly.  Their commitment to the finest fabrication of countertops in any material is extraordinary, and I met with the owner, Tom, who took me through the process!  He's been in the business almost 20 years, like his father before him, and their facility is completely state of the art.  Check out some of the equipment!

This suction-cup thingy can move up to a 2000 lb slab!

One of the saws, imported from Holland. Those blades are the size of a tire and cost $500 to replace!

The CNC machine, a computer-driven cutter that is accurate to .001 of an inch.
It can cut details as big as sink cutouts or as small as etched designs.

Another CNC machine
Tom explained that the reason good fabrication is so expensive is that accuracy and attention to detail are incredibly important.  All of this specialized equipment requires talented people to run them, as well as the craftsmen who do all of the finish-work by hand.  Edging, bevels, rounding corners, it all happens by hand.  Here are a couple of the artists who were working when I was there!

Hand-polishing a top.

Working on a beveled edge.
Tom said that when you are picking some of your materials, especially natural ones, it can affect the price of fabrication.  Some granites, for example, have embedded crystals or veins of steel or other natural metals.  Crystals can break out whole, especially on edges, which can make fancy edging nearly impossible.  Metal can actually create sparks and fire when being cut, even though the saws have a constant water stream!

You can see the water dripping off the table as this piece of marble gets cut.

This is the concrete table surface.  When the saw cuts through the materials, it gets sharpened by the concrete surface below.  They have to re-pour the concrete about every two months, which is about the time they have to replace the blade.

I asked Tom about the most expensive piece he ever did, and he showed me this scrap:

This is a semi-precious agate, and that is the actual natural color!  He did a back-lit fireplace surround, so that the light could shine though.  This stuff is $16,000 per 10x6 slab!!!  Apparently it was nearly $60K just for the fireplace surround.  Tom assured me that our counters would be much less Robin Leach worthy. On a busy day his team can do 5 whole kitchens!  It was so cool to see the whole operation and I strongly suggest if you get to go meet your fabricator that you take the time, it is really an exciting field trip.

After meeting with Tom and seeing the work being done at Stone Masters, we went back to Cosentino to make the final decisions!

For the media center console, we decided on Silestone, which is a man-made quartz product that is amazingly durable.  We picked a color called Pacific from the Ocean series.

It has great movement, and is a sort of mottled blue-gray with ivory and a taupe.  It will pick up some of the other colors in the room and I think will look amazing against the wood base.

For the bathroom vanity, we wanted a natural stone.  The room has limestone accents and a concrete floor, so we thought something a little warmer would be good.  We decided on a deep gray soapstone.

For the laundry room, we went back to Silestone, and went with Cemento Spa.

And finally, for that antique commode, which had a cracked marble top that needed replacement, Tom found us a remnant of marble that will be the perfect thing!

Best part?  They will be ready for installation next week, so you'll have another update very soon.

(If you are doing your own research, you can find out more at the Cosentino Website or the Stone Masters Website.)

Stay tuned for more updates, its going to be full steam ahead over here for the next two weeks as we get the basement buttoned up!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Art of the Artichoke- Redux

Oh, Chickens, it is my favorite time of year.  Artichokes are back.  And this is an update of last year's post, with some important new info!

I love artichokes more than is rational.  I may, hypothetically, own 12 24 of these (yes, I keep collecting them, and no, so far I have never used more than 8 at a time, but I MIGHT, you know, someday...):

I am also aware that this makes me an insane person.  Right up until I have a dinner party for 12  24 and serve everyone artichokes on artichoke plates and then I am a GENIUS.

Artichokes are magical to me.  A large artichoke packs 9g of fiber, 5g of protein, no fat or cholesterol.  It is only 17 grams of carbs, so very diabetic friendly, it counts as just one carb serving. It is high in Vitamin C and Magnesium, with some bonus Iron, Calcium, and B-12 hanging out in there.  And best part?  ONLY 75 calories for the whole thing!

Okay, thats not the best best part.  The bestest best part is that they are freaking delicious.

I literally cannot get enough of them, and from mid-April thru June, Charming Suitor and I gorge guiltlessly on these beauties.

Not kidding.

Yes, this is for two people.

I buy them 8 at a time.  The first day I get them, I prep and steam them, and CS and I have two each for dinner.  He will take one to work the next day for lunch, and I'll eat one at home for lunch.  The other two are then available for a day or two for either lunches or snacking or to become an ingredient in something else.  8 artichokes last us about three to four days.  And we do this routine once to twice a week until the season is over.  And then we miss them until the following Spring.  These are the weeks that prove your love for someone, because do not mistake me, this is a lot of fiber and vegetation to put through your system, and they will, without fail, make you spectacularly gassy.  You might hypothetically blow the love of your life out of the bed.  But they will forgive you because artichokes are so yummy that it will not matter that you both become walking dirty bombs for eight weeks a year.

This is especially important these days, as we are both being very careful about eating healthy and losing weight, which includes logging everything we eat, and there is something magical about a food you absolutely love, which in many ways loves you back.  There are very few foods that fall into this category, so I give huge props to the ones that do...this time of year artichokes are actually a big part of helping us stay on our program and not feel deprived.

For those of you who think artichokes are complicated, they are not.  I've had a lot of practice, so I can break one down in about 45 seconds to a minute, but once you know the technique, you can knock it out fast yourself.  Don't be scared of the artichoke!  It will reward you.

When buying them, look for ones that feel heavy for their size, have leaves that are nice and tight, and they should squeak a little when you squeeze them.

First thing, have a large cutting board, a 6-8 inch serrated knife (essential...more on this in a minute) and a lemon, cut in half.  Do not do this with a straight edge knife, you need the serration for grippiness.  Trust me, you'd like to keep all of your fingers.  This is a great time to use that sad little mangy lemon in the bottom of the fruit bowl.  The artichokes won't care.  Hold the artichoke on its side, and slice off the stem flush with the bottom of the artichoke to make it fairly flat.  Let chefs peel and fuss over the stems, as CS says, the juice isn't worth the squeeze on that, go for fast and easy instead.  Once the stem is removed, use the knife on a slight angle on the bottom, from the revealed center outward, to slice off the bottom outer leaves and reveal the heart.  Go all the way around the bottom of the artichoke in this manner, it will take about 6 slices total to have the bottom totally peeled.  Rub the cut side of half a lemon on the bottom.  Then turn it back on its side and slice straight down about 2/3 up the side, removing all the spiny top parts of the leaves in one go.  Rub the lemon on the cut ends of the leaves, and you will have a prepped artichoke!

I use a large steamer, but you can use a steamer basket in a stockpot, or a steamer insert.  Place your artichokes bottoms up in your steamer, with about 2 inches of water in the pot.

You don't want to boil them or let them touch the water, or the leaves will soak it up and get waterlogged.  Cover and steam over high heat for about 35-40 minutes.  I test by poking a fork into the bottom of one, it should go in and out smoothly.  I don't use a knife to test things like artichokes or potatoes because my knives are super sharp and may slip right into something that is actually not quite done yet.  Forks are a much better indicator.

Aren't they just gorgeous?  I take them off the heat and place them over a towel for about 15 minutes.  Then I put the four we are having tonight on a plate with a piece of plastic wrap, they'll be terrific at room temp, and put the other four in the containers in the fridge for later indulging.

I know many people swear by drawn butter for dipping.  And you know your Polymath is a big fan of butter.  Mo' butter, mo' better.  Well, usually, I mean, not these day when it is a little bit of butter used judiciously where essential, those buttery calories do add up quickly!  But even when I am on a full steam ahead butter festival, I just don't love it for my artichokes.  Artichokes are buttery on their own, much like avocados.  They want a little acid and a little salt to make them shine.  I make vats of a pungent thick vinaigrette that we use for dipping, (these days with about half the oil that I used to use, with no ill effect)!

 I use lemon juice, dijon mustard, shallot, capers, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, maybe a pinch of sugar or a squirt of agave just to polish off the rough edges.

I don't measure, I just go by eye.  For the original sauce, since many of you are not restricting your eating:  This is the juice of 1 1/2 lemons, 2 heaping spoons of capers, a large glug or two of dijon mustard, and one chopped up shallot.  Then I pour in about twice as much oil as I have stuff in the bottom, and use my immersion blender to whizz it all up.  Taste for seasoning, adjust as necessary.  For a lighter version, I do about 1/2 c of water, 2 T of white wine vinegar and 1/2 c of oil instead of the straight oil, keeping the rest the same.  I like this much more intense than I would make for salad dressing, you should do what you like.  This is making a huge vat of it, because as I may have mentioned, we eat eleventy million artichokes a week, and this stuff lasts a couple of weeks in the fridge.  You should feel free to make a rational amount if you choose.  You don't need a lot, I only use about 1 tablespoon for a whole artichoke for dipping, (now have cut that down to about 1/2 T, again, still very enjoyable) you just want to gild the lily a bit.

For me, the first artichokes of the season are the only thing that really means Spring, and after this winter?  Having them back on the menu is amazing.

Know what else is amazing?  Finding a special tool for a favorite dish that makes it even easier to prepare.

Meet my new bestie:

This is the new Wüstof 6" salad knife, which they sent me to test earlier this week.  And yes, it is amazing for salad, which I can tell you because salads are a big part of our new eating habit!  But as great as it is for that? It's a gamechanger for artichoke prep.  The 6 inch length is perfect for even the most jumbo artichoke, and the razor sharp serrations grip even the wiggliest sphere.  This thing has cut my prep time nearly in half!  Thanks to the always amazing team at Wüstof for sending it, for any of my Chickens who are as into the art of the artichoke as I am, you are going to want to have this one in your arsenal for sure!

What are the super seasonal things you wait all year for, and how do you prepare them?  Extra points if they happen to be on the healthy end of the spectrum!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Basement Update Video Part 2!

Hello Chickens!

Things have been really moving along here at the house, so it is time for some updating.

First and foremost, the painting is done!  After more sampling from the pink debacle and some help from our team at Sherwin-Williams, we FINALLY got the right color for the bedrooms.  Quartz White was the winner, a lovely pale pink with plenty of gray in it, and it is warm and lovely and no longer looks like whole sorority of Barbies got drunk on bubblegum slushies and threw up on the walls.

Final color choices:

Sherwin-Williams Peppercorn in the media room and exercise room, Black Fox in the wine cellar,  Eider White in the bathroom and laundry room,  and Quartz White in the bedrooms.  We used their Red Mahogany stain on all of the windows and on the wine cellar door.

As for the rest of the updates, I thought it was time for another video walk-thru!

If you missed the first one, here it is:

Ready for some big changes?  Check it out now!

Stay tuned for more updates next week...big exciting things happening here!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Painting with all the Colors of the Wind

Hello Chickens!

Things are cranking along over here, so I thought I would give you a brief update...I'll be doing another video walk-thru in the next day or so, because things are HOPPING, and frankly, you don't want to have to read a zillion flowery words about my new windowsills or doorstoppers or how much I suddenly love plinth blocks.

But I did want to share something important with you all, because I know one of the things I loathe about the interwebs is this sense that everyone's life is either insanely perfect or a constant hot mess, with little in-between.  Except I think most of us live most of the time in the in-between, I know I do.  Has our renovation gone scarily smoothly so far, all things considered (knocking on things), yep.  Thank goodness.  Have we had the occasional snafu?  Absolutely.  (SEE MOAT)  But I'm not here to make you think that renovations are a lovely little bit of delightful, nor a constant source of horrible.  They are mostly in-between.

So this is my in-between update.

We are painting.  And by we, I mean the very nice team of guys who are actually painting right this moment while I stay safely and smartly upstairs where I don't ruin anything.  Remember all of our conversation about the ins and outs of paint?  And how excited we were to have our palette all picked out? 

So, here is how we are doing (please excuse terrible photography):

This is the hallway!  We are so excited at this bright white space, the Superwhite color looks really nice and wide and tall, and doesn't feel dungeony or basementy at all, which is what we were going for.  The trim is all in the same color, just in Cashmere Pearl finish instead of satin, and it is ready to get its second coat.  Gorgeous.

This is the passthru from the media room, which leads to the wine cellar and the exercise room.  (exercise is thirsty work, you know, so we thought proximity to refreshments would be a good idea!)  You can see how the Ceiling Bright White stays white even though the walls are dark.  Genius technology, that.  The room doesn't feel cave-like at all, despite that Peppercorn paint on the walls.  I love how the white trim makes it pop, and the wine cellar door, which is the only door in the basement that is stained instead of painted, looks fantastic!  We picked Sherwin-Williams Red Mahogany stain for that door as well as all of the trim on the windows, and it is such a close match to the original stained woodwork on the upper floors that the house will feel pretty seamless.

Can you love a soffit?  I do.  This one.  This is in the exercise room, which has a curved wall, so our contractor made the soffit curved to match.  I love how the Peppercorn plays off the white ceiling and the brick and stone.

And then this happened.

Remember the very awesome grown-up sophisticated elegant pink I wanted for the bedrooms?

Remember how I counseled you all to do samples of many versions of paint colors you want in your rooms before buying paint?  Do you recall how excited I was that Sherwin-Williams will let someone order 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of sample paints for just this decision making process?

Yeah, that in-between thing?

What is not as clear here as I might like it to be is the truly horrible a-My Pretty Pony-ballerina-threw-up-fairydust-and-strawberry-Quik-in-here color that is on these walls.  Looking at these pictures you might think we are fairly close.  You would be mistaken.  These colors are Blush and Bashful.  Disney would clothe a stepsister in them.


So, today I have called my guy Dennis over at the Sherwin-Williams store and ordered two quarts of new sample colors that the painters will slap up in hopes that we can find something that doesn't look like I've covered the bedroom walls in Calamine lotion.  The good news is that they are currently running a 40% off promotion, so if you need some paint, now is the time to do it!

Stay tuned, I will keep you updated on all the good, the bad, and the in-between.

Yours in (usually) Good Taste,
The Polymath

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Some great news!


First off, you probably noticed that in order to get here you were redirected to the new domain!  Make sure to bookmark for the future.

Second, if you are in the greater Chicagoland Area, I am delighted to announce that the first event for Recipe for Disaster is coming!

And the best part?  It is an evening with me and my bestie Jen Lancaster!

Please join me and Jen in conversation about Recipe for Disaster, and her upcoming new memoir I Regret Nothing, and probably some other topics like Kimmy Schmidt and the enduring legend of John Hughes.

Thursday April 9
The Book Cellar
4736 N Lincoln

Both Jen and I will be signing books after the discussion.  Really hope to see you there!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Recipe for Disaster is Here!


Just a quick note to say that Recipe for Disaster is finally here!

Thanks to everyone who pre-ordered, and if you never got around to it, you can absolutely order it today or pick it up from your favorite local bookseller!

If you want to make me the happiest author in the world?  After you buy the book, pop over and make sure you are following me on Twitter, Pinterest, and like my Facebook Fan Page.  We all know how social media numbers help, so if you haven't yet joined the team, I'd be ever so grateful.

And as always, if you read Recipe for Disaster and love it, please consider writing even a brief review on Amazon so that we can help other readers find it as well!

I will be having some upcoming events in the Chicago area, we are holding off a bit because we'd like the weather to break before asking you all to come out on a school night, so stay tuned for some exciting readings and signings in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, thank you one and all for reading, it means everything to me.

Yours in Humble Taste,
The Polymath

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Tickled Pink!


Hello from the land of DRYWALL!  We are finished with the taping and mudding and sanding downstairs, having created an insane amount of dust, but we at long last have walls that are complete.  on the excellent advice of my mother, I have done my very first video tour of the space.  It is also my first video, so I hope you will bear with me from a quality perspective.  I tried very hard not to be too herky jerky or to pan around too fast.  But I'm no Scorsese, so please take it at face value.

Here is the basement:

If for some reason you are having problems viewing the embedded video, you want watch it on YouTube.

You will notice in couple of the rooms we have our paint samples still up on the walls.  For the media room and wine cellar, we were able to make our decisions very quickly...drumroll please...

Media room and Exercise Room:  Sherwin Williams Peppercorn, a wonderful deep dark charcoal gray

Wine Cellar:  Sherwin William Black Fox, a deep chocolate brown

As I mentioned before, the special pink we are looking to do in the bedrooms is a tricky one, and the lighting isn't making the decision easier.  Check out these three pics, which are not fantastic but should give you a sense of what we are dealing with:

With fluorescent bulb

Incandescent bulb

No overhead light, natural daylight
In the first picture, we have a compact fluorescent bulb overhead, in the second a regular incandescent, and in the third, only the light from the windows.  Now you can see why it is so important to check your sample colors in all sorts of ways, because the colors change A LOT.  And this is the time when you start to really get a sense of the rooms and the light.

Which means we are having our very first "uh oh" moment.

(Well, not including the Moat issue.)

Here was our original plan:  two basement guest bedrooms would each get a ceiling fan with a light in it.  We love a ceiling fan, especially for sleeping.  Most especially when it is Spring or early Summer, when it is still cool enough to not need air conditioning, we love to have the windows open for the breeze, with the fan circulating the air and creating some white noise sound that helps block the noise from the street.  So we thought that we would do them in all of the guest bedrooms throughout the house, so that when we have company, they can choose the fan experience if they like it.

We picked this one:

It is simple, reasonably priced, we would order it in white, so that it would disappear into the white ceilings, and has a halogen light fixture with dimming capability.

The plan called for this to be the only overhead lighting, since there will be lamps in the rooms as well, and the rooms are not massive, so installing a lot of recessed cans would look clunky.

When we did the walk-through with the electrician, there were no walls, only some framing, so there was full light bleed from the whole space, and the one center light seemed like it would be totally fine.

Except now that the walls have gone in, things are looking somewhat dim in the bedrooms, particularly at night, and we are a little bit worried.  Especially since the possible paint colors, which all look fantastic in the spaces where we have overhead can lighting, or upstairs on the first floor, are looking kind of generally crappy in the current light scenarios.  And of course, now we have fully drywalled, taped, sanded ceilings, so it is not really terribly convenient to start thinking about more recessed lighting.  It isn't that it can't be done, it is just a huge pain in the butt, a big unexpected expense, would throw off the timing of what comes next, and would still look clunky, which is why we didn't do them to begin with.

So, we are in the process of debating our options.  Halogen light, which is what we have in the fans that we bought, will mute color, especially when it is in a frosted housing, so we are going to try and temporarily install one of the fans so that we can get a true sense of the quality and amount of light it provides, and to see if the colors still all look crappy.  If the light seems sufficient, and we are able to find a color we love, we will stick with the original plan.

But in renovation, you have to be prepared to have as few sacred cows as possible, and to go with the flow.  If the fans don't provide enough or the right quality of light, we will scrap them for the basement bedrooms, and find a flush mounted ceiling fixture that will fix the lighting problem, and then as we move upstairs to the other bedrooms, we will know that we will have to add some recessed lighting cans to provide more light so that we can still have the fans.  It is a perfectly fine solution.  In our worst case scenario we'll still have three bedrooms with fans, two of which will use the ones we bought for the basement, so we won't be out of pocket on those, and we will just find some sort of great light fixtures for those two rooms downstairs.

I'll keep you posted as we finalize this decision, but I thought it would be a good story to share.  I now know that before I sign off on final overhead lighting for any room, I will need it to have all the walls in place, and if there are not finished walls installed, I will put up some tarp or sheets or something to block the light bleed from other spaces and get a truer sense of how the light will work in the room.  It is a good lesson for me, and something to put in your notes for your own renovations!

Stay tuned for the final decisions on lighting and paint, we still have to pick the final colors for the bathroom and laundry room, which we will probably do tomorrow.  But we are officially at the finishes and fixtures stage, everything from here on out is about stuff we can see and not infrastructure!

Also, do me a favor and let me know how you like the video.  Because if you don't love it, I can keep going with just pictures, but if it was helpful in any way to be able to do the space walk thru with me, I am happy to keep doing them!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath