Friday, December 25, 2009

Holiday Musings


Yesterday morning I woke up, wandered into the living room to face the day, and was greeted by this scene outside my window...
I find it magical. (despite the fact that the three smaller ones seem less like snowchildren and more like snowlittlepeople)
But their stick arms were akimbo, as if to say "Welcome to this new day!", and they seemed fabulously cheery and it made me smile instantly.
It was unfortunate that yesterday afternoon it began to rain and has continued to do so off an on all day today, and at the moment they have been reduced to sad little gray lumps-formerly-known-as-snowpeople.
So I am glad I was smart enough to take a quick picture.
I hope that you all have enjoyed the holidays of your choice, have eaten and drunk merrily (and safely), have spent time with friends and family and are headed towards the New Year with joy in your hearts.
I love being Jewish at Christmastime. I get all the benefits of the holiday, goodwill towards men and lovely cards and gifties and parties, without any of the pressure to decorate my house or host relatives or go into bankrupcy buying presents for the entire planet. After many years spent travelling at the holidays, spending the day in search of movies and Chinese restaurants in tropical locales, the past few years I have been home, much to my delight.
I play the Wandering Jew, getting myself adopted into other people's traditions and parties, which is enormous fun.
After all, as much as I love a good vaca, I love my friend Doug's annual Fete even more, since I get to see old friends and hear the old stories, and I can try and eat my weight in Christmas ham.
I have the privelege of spending Christmas Eve with Amazing Goddaughter and her family, as well as a gaggle of good friends old and new. There was much frivolity (and a bucket of Swedish Meatballs as big as a bathtub) and a river of bubbly and an absolute bacchanal of gift opening.
Favorite quotes of the evening:
Amazing Goddaughter, upon opening a package containing a stuffed lion: "MOMMY! Santa DID get my message!" followed by a barrage of kisses upon the furry beastie.
The other Wandering Jew in the room, a sci-fi fan, upon being asked if he enjoyed AVATAR: "I think it was the best version of Ferngully I have ever seen."
This made me laugh so hard I almost passed a stone.
Of course, it is only funny if you have seen both AVATAR, and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest
Which I have.
If you have as well, you're welcome for the laugh.
Today I got to be with brother-by-choice Officer K and his lovely family for the second year in a row. A wonderful, delicious brunch (MORE HAM!!!!) and much love and laughter. We then repaired to his cousin's house for even more festive visiting with his extended family, and I'm pretty sure if I score one more invite then I am legally one of them! Uncle M even remembered my name, which apparently puts me one step up from the rest of the relations.
I am now cozy back at home, full of good food and happy memories, and deeply grateful for all the extraordinary people in my life.
Which includes all of you who check in to read my words and make lovely comments and recommend me to your pals. Thank you all for being here. It makes my heart smile.
Tomorrow I get to start thinking about New Year's Eve, and dreaming of what the new decade will bring, and making resolutions.
Tonight, I am just basking in the general warmth of the season. Or that may just be the Ham Afterglow. Either way, it has been a lovely couple of days to be me, and I hope it has been a lovely couple of days to be you.
As my mom always says...Merry Everything and Happy Always! To you and yours.
Peace on Earth.


Monday, November 23, 2009

The Road More Travelled

I’m not generally a gear-head. When I find technology that works, I stick with it. I still have an answering machine, a land line, and I keep my cell phone and PDA as two separate entities. Until a year ago, I still had the VCR my parent’s gave me for my 21st birthday, and no I will not be telling you what ancient year that was, but suffice it to say it was PRIME technology for its time, but was thankfully not a Betamax.

I’m also a little bit old-school in some ways. I can read a book on a Kindle, but not the way I want…I like dog-eared pages, wrinkles from reading in the bathtub, and the occasional crumb or tea-stain on the flyleaf. I have an HD Television and the appropriate cable set-up, but I watch most things in standard definition, finding that things in HD are too sharp, too bright, and make me all blinky. Plus there are a lot of people on television who are very talented, but should not be seen in high def.

However, there is one area where I not only want gear, I want the best, the brightest, the newest and shiniest. Travel stuff. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of traveling for pleasure in my life. Lovely vacations hither and yon, all over the world. Long trips and short trips. But it wasn’t until I started doing a lot of business travel that I began to appreciate gear. The essentialness of really good, make-your-life-awesome gear. When you spend any time as a road warrior, suddenly equipping yourself for travel comfort and success becomes a moral imperative. And as I began this new arena, I discovered an interesting phenomenon. When you talk with people about travel, women tend to share ideas about clothes and shoes and how to pack your suitcase, and men tend to share what stuff makes their trips less stressful.

I’m a smart girl. I know you’re supposed to decide whether a trip is a “black trip” or a “brown trip” for ease of packing accessories like shoes, bags, and belts. I know to pack anything messy in zip-top bags in case of inner-suitcase-explosion. I roll my stockings and put them in the toes of my shoes just like every other woman I know. I can fit my clothes into my suitcase, but WHICH SUITCASE?

With a three-week European trip imminent, which was to be followed quickly by a two- night and a six-night business jaunts, I decided to really explore the world of travel gear, looking for stuff that would make my travels easier and lighter, and if I could make it stylish as well, so much the better! I researched, read reviews, and then got hold of the things that seemed a good fit for my experiments. Then I took my shiny new toys on these three very different excursions. And here are my top-ten, never leave home without them finds:

Travelpro Luggage:




I’ve become fanatical about the right suitcases, especially with all of the new regulations for both carry-on and checked baggage. And my favorite suitcases are made by Travelpro. I noticed the logo on a lot of airline personnel bags, and asked a flight attendant about them. She said that the industry relies heavily on the brand and that they are very durable for extensive travelling. The Platinum 5 was top of the line when I was in the market, so I invested in a 19 inch for short overnights, a 22 inch rollabord to carry on for longer business travel, and a 25 inch version for checked baggage for longer trips, as well as the rolling tote for use as a carry-on bag. They have since come out with the Platinum 6, which surprised me, because I couldn’t believe they could improve on such perfection. Seriously, I love these suitcases so much I could date them. All sorts of useful stuff, shoe pockets and a clip-in hanging toiletry bag, zip-out internal hanging bags to keep your evening wear and business suits wrinkle-free, plus a strong yet light-weight frame that can withstand some rigorous handling. It even comes in a lovely blue, just so you don’t have to look at every black suitcase on the carousel with wonderment.



Okay, once you have the suitcase (and have decided on that “black trip/brown trip” thing), how do you effectively maximize the luggage space? A guy pal who takes extended trips for business, often to multiple cities, said that his best travel gear was his comprehensive set of these packing aids…zippered canvas cubes of many sizes and shapes. He explained that by packing his clothes in the cubes, he could keep himself organized, and easily find exactly what he needs at any given time. I outfitted myself with a wide array, (in the lovely pale green color called Tree Frog, and some coordinating patterns in green and gray) and segregated my clothes. One for lingerie, one for socks, one for workout clothes, one for pants and shirts, one for pajamas…it took less than two minutes to put the puzzle together in my suitcase, and the same to unpack when I arrived at my hotel. I took a couple of extra cubes packed flat so that I could shift dirty clothes into them, and Eagle Creek even has some that are two-sided, so that you can have clean on one side and dirty on the other! By keeping my clothes in the cubes inside the hotel drawers, repacking was a cinch.


iPod touch : with travel Apps

I’ve been an iPod girl for years. Couldn’t live without it. But my 60G Classic is so full of music that it was difficult to use for watching videos, which is the best way to get through a long flight or a weather delay. I thought what I wanted was the snazzy new 160G iPod, after all, with all that room I could load it with all the TV shows and movies I could ever want for a trip. That was until I found out about Apps. I have a phone I like, so when the iPhone hoopla began, I didn’t pay much attention. But then my girlfriend Jenn said I should take a look at the iPod Touch, and when I did, I was an immediate convert. Or I should say, addict. I got the 32G Touch, and proceeded to pillage the Apps store like a mad pirate. Best travel Apps: WiFi Finder to help you locate the nearest WiFi, Zagat/LocalEats/Urbanspoon/Yelp any of which will help you figure out where to eat in most major cities around the world, FlightTrack to help you keep an eye on your flights, iFareFinder to help find the lowest fares (great also for needing to find a replacement flight when yours is cancelled, MyGates to help you get around the world’s major airports. Travel Help can find you local info on hospitals or embassies or other essential contact numbers, Taxi can find you a cab and summon it to your location, Translator will give you the translation of anything you type into all the major languages you might need, plus there are plenty of travel guides and maps for places you might visit. I also love the Kindle for iPod, turning my Touch into an e-book reader, the addictive and soothing game Ancient Frog (you’ll just have to check it out, it is impossible to describe), and the NYT Crosswords App keeps my brain from turning to mush. SportsTap keeps me posted on how my teams are faring, Mobile News gives me the AP updates, and Pandora creates custom radio stations for me based on songs or artists I like. The fact that it is the best little video player on top of it seems like a bonus. (get the anti-glare screen protector…just my advice) If I had to choose the one single best piece of travel equipment from this list for you to invest in, this is it, hands-down.



Your iPod, phone, Blackberry…these are delicate little gadgets and they need protection, especially if you are schlepping them all over creation. But frankly, I’m sick to death of the ubiquitous rubber sheath or hard plastic cases. The plain leather ones at the store are boring, the fun ones are a bit too Generation Text for a professional gal on the go. I know they function well, but I wanted something pretty, and appropriate for a woman over the age of 16. Then I found Vaja Cases, a Buenos Aires company making handcrafted custom leather cases for all of your small electronics. And they are gorgeous. A bit pricy may be your first reaction, but I’ve had my classic iPod in one for over 6 years of heavy-duty use, and the case is still beautiful and looks barely used, and more importantly, the iPod inside looks practically new. I also have them for the iPod Touch as well as my Blackberry, and if they made one for my laptop, I’d invest in that too. With over 32 colors of buttery leather to choose from, not to mention some lovely and sophisticated designs, you’ll want all your small electronics dressed in this stunning couture.

Netbook:

The new mini laptop craze is in full swing, and there are many of these adorable things available in a wide range of prices. For me, I wanted the option of an ultra-portable netbook which would fit easily into my purse, would handle basic e-mail, word processing, and internet, and had decent hard drive capacity. And yes, I wanted it to be adorable! The most craveable one on the market is without a doubt the Sony Vaio P series. These tiny powerhouses are the size of a clutch bag, weigh less than a Chihuahua, and come in four sexy colors. But more importantly, they pack the punch of a much bigger laptop. It will take a bit of time to get used to the half-size screen, but just tell yourself it is the biggest Blackberry screen you’ve ever seen, and you’ll shift your thinking. The keyboard is 85% the same size as a regular one, and took only moments to get used to, and the touchpoint navigation button is instantly intuitive, but they also have a Bluetooth mouse available if you prefer. I wouldn’t want to have to do a ton of business on it, it will never replace your primary laptop, but for vacations or short business trips where you don’t need your whole life with you, but still need to check e-mail, do some review of business documents, and maybe look some things up on the internet, this is the one. It is on the high end of the pricing for netbooks, but that is because it is a serious piece of equipment, with a larger capacity hard drive, and decent processing speed. If the Sony isn’t in your budget, the Aceralso has a very cute one for about half the price, which functions well and also comes in a gorgeous dark copper color…my mom bought this one and loves it!


Okay ladies, this is where the rubber meets the road. This piece of travel gear is my new secret weapon, and I cannot stress enough how much easier it has made my life. The travel jacket has removable sleeves to make a vest and has 22 internal pockets, each designed for specialized use (phone, iPod, book, water bottle, travel documents, glasses etc.) the thing is incredibly sophisticated in terms of design. From the outside, it looks like a basic vest. Underneath it is fully rigged out to carry essentially everything you would normally put in a carry-on bag (laptop excluded, unless you get the Sony Vaio P, in which case it fits perfectly). The vest is designed to distribute the weight evenly, and the internal pockets don’t make bulges, so no one knows how much stuff you have in this thing! Plus it has a patented tech system which allows you to internally install your phone and MP3 player and get the wires where you need them…it even has tiny earbud pockets! It is like having a secret agent bonus carry on bag, and totally fulfills a large percentage of my Alias fantasies. On my last trip mine held: iPod, iPod Touch, Blackberry, cell phone, sunglasses, wallet, travel documents, passport, book, bottle of water, snacks, Kleenex, gum, camera, magazine, airplane charger for iPod, lip gloss, pen, magazine, and on my way home, the small bag of souvenirs I bought in the airport! Amazing.


Chargepod : system


All this gear has one downfall. All those chargers! The size of my charger bag has been growing exponentially, and creating a lot of extra weight in my suitcase. But all that is over. Callpod has created a single unit that can charge all your stuff, in one outlet and at the same time! The Chargepod can charge six small devices all at once. All in its own perfect little carrying case. You can finally leave all those huge chargers and bulky cords at home! Genius. (Stay tuned for their V2 which will be able to charge 3 USB devices, 3 small electronics, and a laptop all at once!)







The new security regulations against carrying on liquids are awful for those of us who travel to wine country. But the good people of Bottlewise have come to the rescue. They have developed a system for packing bottles of wine (or olive oil or honey or whatever else you want to bring home) in your luggage. The padded cases have a heavy-duty internal plastic bag with double zipper, which ensures that even if the unthinkable happens and that bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape does break in your suitcase, the damage is contained within the bag. But with this padding and proper use, you should be able to get your wine or other liquid treats home from abroad safely and securely.



Guide books are great, but heavy to lug around. Part of the fun of a trip is in the planning, and the rest is in the adventures you can’t plan for. These small pocket sized notebooks are the best of all worlds: They come with a full set of maps for the city you choose, and the rest of the book is blank for you to write your own travel guide! I buy one for the city I am visiting as soon as I book the flight, and then fill it in with the information I glean from the travel guides and magazines and online sites I read before I leave. That way I can leave the guidebooks home, and still am able to add the fun discoveries I make along my way to use for a future visit or recommend to friends. A great gift for someone who is planning a trip.



Most of my travel is for business, quick trips that often require I head straight from the airport to a meeting. Comfortable traveling shoes aren’t always that adorable, and a lot of them are difficult to get on and off at security. I have always had a small Imelda-level substance abuse problem with Pumas, I live in them, have them in every color and hue and my friends have attempted to have a Puma intervention for me ever since they found out I have a whole shoe closet devoted to nothing else. (Don’t judge me.) But as much as I love them, the lace-up versions can be tedious when you have to get in and out of them efficiently. Then I found the Puma Simplice. (insert singing of angels here) These adorable ballet style flats have all the comfort and durability I have come to expect of Puma, with kicky satin styling, in a range of awesome colors. They look like a great flat, wear like a sneaker, and best of all, you can step right out and in of them at security without missing a beat. And yes, I did get them in black, brown, navy, pewter, and hot pink, and no, I don’t think that is excessive, and yes, I do think it showed tremendous restraint not to buy the red and white ones too. Best place to buy them, Zappos, (which is actually the best place to buy any shoes).


My trips were unmitigated successes, all three. The Travelpro suitcases show no wear and tear from baggage handling, the Cote du Rhone in its Bottlwise jacket made it safely home intact to give to Dad, unpacking and repacking took less than five minutes at every location, neat little green Eagle Creek cubes lined up in drawers and on shelves in the blink of an eye.
My Sony Vaio P elicited open stares of envy from everyone in the travel lounges and my neighbors on the plane, including a deep sigh from a fellow female traveler who said “That is the sexiest computer EVER.” with an air of longing, and with its ultra-portable size and minimal weight, I could keep it with me on my wanderings in case I happened upon a place with Wifi and could shoot a quick e-mail home. It was great to have at meetings for taking notes or referring to documents.
The Vaja cases still look brand new (as do the little components they house), and the killer combo of my single voltage converter/adapter and my Chargepod meant that everything I needed stayed charged for all my trips and only took up one outlet! My super-secret-agent-spy vest became an essential extra carry-on bag, not to mention a great alternative to a backpack for those day trip excursions, and of course had the perfect pockets for my Moleskine city guide and a pen so I could make fast references to the maps, and remind myself which restaurants I had read about in the area.
I was in and out of my Pumas in the flash of an eye at security, and they were appropriate and adorable at meetings, and handled museum wanderings and Roman ruins climbing with equal finesse. And best of all, my iPod Touch got me through six flights, totaling over 30 hours in the air and twelve hours in the airport lounges, with e-books and movies and TV episodes, and the lovely Apps found me the right Metro stations all over Paris, translated menu items in Provence, found me a decent restaurant for lunch in New York, and got me driving directions in Sun Valley.

Sometimes, being a gear girl can really pay off!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Ultimate Football Party

I am a stalwart Chicago Bears fan, however embarrassing their on-the-field performance may be in any given game. I have always been deeply grateful for my grandfather’s foresight in buying season tickets the year the team was founded, which have passed down through the family over the years to my Dad, who takes my sister and me to all of the games. And yes, I do mean ALL of the games, including the below-zero-sleeting-foggy-sweet-fancy-MOSES-it-is-flipping-miserable-out-here games. I know all the words to Bear Down Chicago Bears by heart. I own a special pair of navy/orange/white Puma’s that I only wear to the games. My sister’s dog is named Payton, and his AKC name is Sir Sweetness, in honor of Walter Payton, one of the finest running backs to ever play the game.

I am a fan.

What I am not, is a tailgater. Schlepping all that gear to a game, getting there early and setting up a grill, adding extra hours to time in the cold, it was just never a part of our family routine.

But I do love a good party, and one of the great things about football season is the excuse to have football parties. I don’t mean Superbowl Parties, those are their own unique entities. I mean a good old fashioned random Sunday afternoon or Monday Night Football party, either watching a great classic rivalry, or just rooting for your home team with friends.

Today at noon, I will be appearing on the WGN news to do a segment about just such events, and wanted to be sure that the expanded version of my tips, tricks, and recipes were available in their entirety here on the blog!

Tips:

Decorate the room with the television in the colors of your home team…plastic plates, cups, silverware and napkins easily found at the party supply store or at Target.

If you have one available, set up a second small TV in the kitchen (where people invariably gather) so that the game is on wherever people are.

Buy team hats (readily available online inexpensively) for your guests as party favors….if the logo hats are too expensive, buy plain baseball caps in the team colors.

Cover your buffet table in a green tablecloth and use white duct tape to make yardage lines, and white latex numbers to mark off the yard lines. Both of these can be found at Office Depot. You can also download team logos online and print them out to put in the “end zones”.

Make little labels for your food with fun names “Touchdown Dip” “Field Goal Drumsticks” “Monsters of the Midway Meatballs” “Goal Line Guacamole” “End Zone Empanadas” “Special Teams Salsa” “Defense Deviled Eggs” (someone stop me as I beat a metaphor to death…)

Set up a White Board with a standard betting grid (also easily found online if you don’t know how to do one already) but with the numbers covered up and have your guests write their names in a few squares. At the end of the first quarter reveal the numbers, and give out prizes for the people in the squares with the winning scores for each quarter, with a grand prize for the person in the square with the final score.

Menu:

Think regional specialties. Every team has some foods that are special for their city or region, and using that as the basis for your menu planning is both fun and delicious. If you are like me, you will have a great time researching the recipes and whipping up your own versions. If you aren’t much of a cook, or if you won’t have the time, see if there is a local place to pick up the food or look online to see if you can get what you are looking for shipped in. I know I have mentioned them before, but Foods Across America is an amazing resource for this, they are often the exclusive distributor of the original and most authentic versions of some really incredible regional specialties. If you do decide to check them out for a party like this, or are looking for some great food gifts, you can get a special 15% discount on all of your purchases through the end of the year by using the code FAASBAL09 at checkout.

If you do like to cook, Chili is a great go-to option. There are regional versions from almost all over the country, so you can customize based on the game you are watching. Arizona Cardinals playing the Cincinnati Bengals? Do a southwest green chicken chili and a classic Cincy 5-way. Dallas Cowboys facing down the Oakland Raiders? Do an all-meat Texas style and a California Vegetarian version.

You can have a couple of your guests bring their “famous” chilis, pick up a vat from a local restaurant or just make my Almost-famous chili! (recipe below)

For an awesome over the top party, try this set up:

One meat chili, one vegetarian (you can add a third version, like a chicken or turkey or green chili if you are having a really big group). Put them in slow cookers on one end of buffet table.

My favorite toppings and add-ins:

Tater Tots
Tortilla Strips
Shredded Cheeses (sharp cheddar, pepper jack, goat cheese)
Chopped onions
Chopped roasted chilis (jalapenos or Anaheim or pepperdew)
Chopped roasted sweet red peppers
Guacamole or Chopped Avocado
Lime Wedges
Fritos
Nacho Cheese Sauce (one large brick of Velveeta melted with one can of Ro-tel diced tomatoes and green chilis with the juice until blended)
Black olivesGreen olives
Chopped cilantro
Chopped parsley
Julienned jicama
Roasted Corn (cut off the cob)
Fresh chopped tomatoes
Red Pepper Flakes
Different Hot Sauces
Corn Bread Croutons (make or buy a not-too-sweet cornbread, let sit uncovered overnight, cut into squares, spray with cooking spray and toast in a 400 degree oven for 5-10 minutes until crisp)
Sour Cream
Jalapeno Oil (blend fresh jalapeno with olive oil and strain)

For fun bases:
Baked Potatoes (regular and sweet)
Fried Tortilla baskets (corn and/or flour)
Shredded lettuce for making taco salads
Cooked Macaroni (toss in olive oil to prevent sticking)
Cooked Rice (toss in olive oil to prevent sticking)

If I’ve forgotten your favorite topping or base, I hope you’ll share with the class!

Stacey’s Almost-Famous ChiliServes 8-10, multiplies up beautifully

This is a mildly spicy chili, I prefer not to make mine too hot and let people who want more spice add it in to their preference.

¼ c olive oil
2 lbs. ground veal (or beef, or pork, or bison, or turkey…)
1 lb. sweet Italian sausage (turkey or chicken sausage also okay here, ditto the spicy versions)
2 c diced yellow onions
7 T chili powder
1 T dark cocoa powder (unsweetened)
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 T ground cumin
1 T dried thyme leaves
1 T dried oregano
2 14.5 oz cans crushed tomatoes, San Marzano if possible
12 oz. beer
¼ c tomato paste
3 15 oz cans cannelini beans (great northern, black, or pinto also fine, I find kidney beans get tough in reheating), drained and rinsed


Heat oil in large pot till shimmering, then add onions and cook till translucent. Add garlic and meat (sausage meat removed from casing) and cook till lightly browned. Add spices and herbs and cook additional 10 minutes. Add tomatoes with juice, beer, cocoa powder, tomato paste and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. Add beans and cook 10 minutes to heat through. For best flavor refrigerate overnight and then reheat slowly over med-low heat on stovetop or in a slow cooker on low.

Some other handy recipes:

Baked Salami

1 whole 2 lb. salami (I only use Vienna Beef for this, it is really perfect, but if you have another salami you like, it just can’t be dry aged or hard salami)
1 jar Heinz Chili Sauce
1 small jar grape jelly
1 tbsp. powdered mustard (I like Colman’s)
2 pkg. cocktail rye bread

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove plastic casing from salami, and lightly score on both sides. Place it on a sheet pan and roast 20 minutes. In a small saucepan, heat chili sauce, half the jar of grape jelly, and half of the mustard until the jelly melts. Taste. It should be sweet and sour with a slight heat from the mustard. Need more heat? Add the rest of the mustard. Need more sweet? Add the rest of the jelly. When you like it, and then pour generously over salami, but try not to let too much puddle on the pan. Bake this for another 15-20 minutes. The glaze should be a mahogany color and the salami should be heated through. Take out of the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Slice thickly and place on slices of cocktail rye bread. Serve with extra sauce on side.

Bite Size Caprese Tomatoes

24 cherry tomatoes
24 bocconcini (mini buffalo mozzarella balls…you can substitute chunks of a larger piece of buffalo mozzarella or burrata, but do not use slicing mozzarella like you would use on pizza)
24 large basil leaves
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
White Balsamic Vinegar
Salt and Pepper

Slice top off tomatoes, and remove seeds and centers with melon baller or small spoon. Sprinkle tomatoes with salt and pepper. Drip one drop of olive oil and one of vinegar in each cup. Wrap a basil leaf around a boccocini and stuff into tomato cup. Serve chilled.


Herbed Popcorn
3 T peanut oil
¾ c popcorn kernels
3 T nutritional yeast (this will be with the dietary supplements at your local Whole Foods or health food store, and while it sounds like a strange addition, it has a nutty flavor that is reminiscent of parmesan cheese and pairs great with popcorn)
1 t ground mustard powder
1 ½ t salt (and more to taste)
1 t dried thyme leaves (or herbes de Provence or Italian herb mix)
½ t garlic powder
¼ t cayenne pepper (optional)

Mix all of the spices and herbs with the nutritional yeast in a small bowl.

Put oil and popcorn in a large pot, shake to be sure all the kernels are coated, cover pot with tight fitting lid and turn the stove burner on high. Leave the pot alone until you hear the popping slow down, and then give it a shake or two just to be sure that you are getting all the kernels popped. When the popping slows to three seconds between pops, turn off the heat, remove the lid, and pour the popcorn in a bowl large enough for you to mix it around easily. Sprinkle hot popcorn with about 1/3 of the yeast/spice mix and toss popcorn thoroughly. Taste. Add more yeast mix and salt until you get the flavor you want. Once you have the right balance, let the popcorn sit uncovered at room temperature until completely cool. Store in Ziploc bags or Tupperware containers for up to 36 hours. You can toast on sheet pans in a 400 degree oven for 3-4 minutes to recrisp or if you want to serve warm.


White Bean Caramelized Onion Dip
2 cans cannellini beans or other white beans, drained
Juice of 1 ½ lemons
½ c extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 T fresh thyme leaves
½ c caramelized onions (about one large onion cooked in 2 T olive oil over med-low heat till deep brown)
S/P to taste

Combine all ingredients in food processor and blend until creamy and smooth. Makes about 2 cups dip.

Austrian Style Potato Salad
3 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes peeled and cut into large chunks
1 red onion, diced as fine as you can get it
1/3 c rice wine vinegar
½ c canola oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch chives, chopped fine


Boil potatoes in heavily salted water till fork tender…do not overcook or they will get waterlogged. Soak onions in vinegar. Drain potatoes thoroughly, and pour over vinegar/onion mixture and oil, and mix gently, trying not to break up potatoes. Let sit at room temperature, tossing occasionally until cooled. Taste for salt and pepper. Garnish with chopped chives. This salad is better if it never gets refrigerated, and there is nothing in it to go bad or get rancid, so it is the perfect thing to bring to a party where food is likely to sit out.

Susan’s Apple Cake with Chocolate Chips

This is one of my favorite desserts, shared with me by my godmother who is the best home-baker I have ever met. It is a great fall cake, makes your house smell amazing, and is moist and delicious. Just try it, I promise you’ll love it!

2 c flour
2 c sugar
4 eggs
4 c cubed apples (3 large or 4 medium, gala, fuji, honeycrisp, anything sweet and crisp)
1 t baking soda
Pinch salt
1 T vanilla
1 c vegetable oil
1 c chocolate chips (lightly dusted in flour)
2 t cinnamon

Combine flour, sugar, eggs, oil, cinnamon, baking soda, vanilla, salt. Add apples. Add chocolate chips. Spread into greased 9X13 pan. Will look like not enough batter. But it totally is. Do not worry. Bake at 325 for 40 minutes till skewer comes out clean. Cool before cutting into squares.

Monday, November 2, 2009

For the Love of Root Beer

I’m not much of a pop person.

And yes, I call it POP, and no, I don’t care if you are snickering at me. If you order a scotch and soda you do not get scotch with Mountain Dew in it. Soda is carbonated water, and POP is carbonated water with sugar and flavorings and that is all there is to it.

But I digress. As an adult I’ve pretty much always been a water or tea kind of girl. I love Coca Cola exclusively in 8oz glass bottles and as more of a treat than a beverage. I drink Ginger Ale when my tummy is upset or when I am the designated driver, in which case I order it with a splash of cranberry and two limes. I did have a brief fling with the Canada Dry Green Tea Ginger Ale which I loved a little too much, and since they do not make a diet version, I had to give it up. (Note to Canada Dry people….PLEASE MAKE DIET VERSION OF GREEN TEA GINGER ALE. I miss it. But I cannot afford to quaff 140 calories a can. Thank you.)

After a short lived love affair withJolt Cola in the late eighties, more for the caffeine than the taste, I mostly gave up pop since I find diet versions tinny and overly carbonated and the regular versions simply too caloric to indulge in except as a rare treat. Luckily I love water, and drinking my eight glasses a day is one of the few healthy things I don’t have to force myself to do. Despite usually finding that flavored waters taste vaguely of furniture polish, I've recently become completely addicted to La Croix Pamplemousse, and am up to about a half a case a day habit. I thought originally it was because Pamplemousse is my favorite word in French, but it turns out that the light grapefruit flavor is just refreshing, doesn't leave an aftertaste or compete with food. Good job, LaCroix! You are totally forigiven for all the times I have partaken of your products and then spent an afternoon feeling as if I drank Murphy's Oil Soap.

An exception to my general indifference to pop this has always been root beer. Most diet root beers actually taste great, I'm very partial to Diet Barq's, and I always have it on hand for when the mood strikes me.

One of my favorite childhood memories is of going to the A&W restaurants as a special treat after overnights at camp. After a few nights in a tent in the woods, nothing was a more delightful indulgence than a perfect root beer float in an honest to god frosty mug, brain freeze imminent.

Over the years, I have tasted root beers from all over the country and have come to appreciate the nuances that the variations contain. Since root beer is made up of many different flavoring agents, from wintergreen to licorice to vanilla, it actually pairs beautifully with a lot of different foods, which can be a delightful and unusual option for the designated drivers and the underage at a party.

While a lot of root beers can be found at your local grocery stores, some of the regional varieties are really special. If you want to do a tasting, I highly recommend ordering the Root Beer Bundle from Foods Across America, and while you are there, browse around to check out their other local specialties from around the country. They have the coolest food gifts out there, including many things that you won’t find anywhere else except the actual original locations. And because I love you, I have hooked you up with a discount code that you can use for 15% off for the rest of the year! Holiday shopping, chickens! Just click the link above, place your order, and type in FAASBAL09 at checkout. Who loves you?

Last year in the midst of my recipe contesting fervor (scroll back through the archives for that saga) I discovered that despite how weird it sounds, cooking with pop can be a fun challenge. Recently I was writing about root beer, and inspired by my success with 7up cuisine, I began playing with it as an ingredient in cooking. As a result I was recently interviewed for an article about root beer which you can read here:

The Daily Herald Article on Root Beer
It was lovely to be interviewed. It was less lovely to have someone make up a quote out of whole cloth and print it as the last line of the article, making me sound like a complete idiot.

“It's almost like having a beer, but it's not;" Ballis says. "It can be real fun."
 Ballis begs to disagree. I can promise you all that as someone who works with words for a living, that sentence was never uttered. Not even in any possible configuration. Because I am not a ten-year-old writing a letter home from camp. Because in a million years I do not think having a root beer is anything like having a beer. It makes me feel sympathy for anyone who has ever railed against the press for being misquoted, even when I have thought that they probably just let their tongues slip a little bit.

That is all I am going to say about that. Unfortunately it is not all my friends are going to say about it. Last night at a lovely dinner party, my dearest pals spent the better part of the night responding to pretty much anything I said with “Can that be real fun?” or following my statements with the caveat “But it’s not.” I fear I may never live it down, however, if I’m going to dish it out I have to be able to take it, even if it is not “real fun” to think that people are going to read that line and believe that it came from me. Ah, the joys of print journalism. It’s almost like having your actual words and thoughts represented accurately; but its not!

Okay, time to stop channeling Bill Maher, the damage is done.

Back to more important things. Like the root beer that is nothing like having a beer, but is, in fact, REAL FUN!

Root beer is amazing with pork. Any recipe you have with Coca Cola for a braised pork dish or a ham recipe, root beer is a much more interesting and complex substitution. My favorite version is ridiculously simple. Just take a 5-6 pound bone-in pork shoulder and put in a large dutch oven with one to two sliced onions and cover with root beer, slap on the lid and cook covered at 250 degrees for about 4-6 hours until the meat is falling off the bone.

Root beer can reduced to a syrup by simply cooking over medium high heat in a saucepan until it reaches the consistency you like. I cook it down till it is the texture of maple syrup and then lightly paint it on thick sliced bacon before cooking on a sheet pan in a 400 degree oven until crisp and sticky. A surprisingly good pairing for pancakes and waffles, and for rich egg dishes, but my favorite thing to do with it is to make a grilled cheese sandwich on sourdough bread with a very sharp cheddar cheese, ripe tomatoes, and root beer bacon. Ridiculous. You can also put this syrup over vanilla ice cream for a twist on the traditional root beer float. A ½ cup of the syrup added to your favorite barbecue sauce tastes great, and next time your chili recipe calls for adding a bottle of beer, try a not-too-sweet root beer instead (I like Faygo or Boylan for this). And mixing the syrup into your favorite vanilla frosting recipe can make a great filling for cookie sandwiches, try it between a couple of spicy ginger snaps.

Saveur, my favorite cooking magazine even had this recipe for a root beer cake in their issue 104:

Root Beer Cake (adapted from Saveur Magazine)

1 cup butter, plus 1 tsp. to grease pan
2 1⁄2 cups cake flour, plus 1 tbsp. for dusting cake pan
2 1⁄2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup root beer
5 tsp. root beer extract
1 1⁄2 cups sugar
2 cups butter
4 room-temperature eggs
4 1⁄2 cups confectioners' sugar2 tbsp. cream

1. Heat oven to 350°. Grease a 9" × 13" pan with 1 tsp. of the butter; dust with 1 tbsp. of the cake flour; tap bottom of pan to remove excess flour.

2. Sift remaining cake flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl; set aside.

3. Whisk together root beer and 2 tsp. of the root beer extract in a bowl; set aside.

4. Beat sugar and 1 cup of the butter in a large bowl until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating briefly after each addition. Alternately add flour mixture and root beer mixture, waiting for each to be incorporated before adding the next. Mix briefly, then transfer batter to pan; smooth out top.

5. Bake, rotating once, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Let cool.

6. Put confectioners' sugar and remaining butter into a bowl; beat with an electric mixer to combine. Add cream and remaining root beer extract; beat to make a fluffy frosting. Spread frosting on cake.

Also makes great cupcakes, just cut down the cooking time to about 15-18 minutes.

Anyone else have recipes that use pop or other odd ingredients in unusual applications? Please share with the class.

In the meantime, if you try any of these, let me know what you think!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Never Do Today What You Can Put Off Until Tomorrow

Well chickens, it is no surprise to any of you that I am a serious procrastinator. To say that your Polymath has elevated procrastination to an art form does not even begin to do justice to my ability to leave shit to the last minute.

It is a skill honed over years of doing homework for one class during the class which preceded it. And yes, I am including graduate school in this equation, and no, I’m not particularly proud of myself. I have been known to write research papers which were supposed to span a whole semester of work in the weekend before they were due, compose science fair projects out of whole cloth a mere 24 hours before needing to schlep my display board into the gymnasium, and more than once cut the five periods before my English class in order to read the whole novel upon which we were being tested. AND I LOVE TO READ!

I once wrote over 8000 words in one day because I had procrastinated a deadline beyond all reason. AND I LOVE TO WRITE!

What is interesting about my particular procrastination pathology is that sometimes projects which I have procrastinated only get done while in fact procrastinating doing something else.

Case in point, my guest room closet.

My Victorian Era apartment is not lacking at all in charm, architectural interest, windows or space. It has beautiful hardwood floors and amazing built-ins and tall ceilings. It has a spectacular circular bay in the front, and I kid you not, the windows in that bay have curved glass that follows the same curve as the walls. It is my single favorite place on earth.

Part of my love for it resides in accepting its many imperfections. It heats indifferently with loudly clanky radiators, requiring layers of clothes and many throw blankets in the winter, not to mention creating an atmosphere entirely devoid of humidity that makes for five months a year of extra-strength lotion and ashy elbows and cracked heels. It gets dusty pretty much within eleven seconds of being dusted, and every year a different grouping of tiles does a kamikaze leap off of the shower wall. While the entertaining rooms are an embarrassment of riches, the bedrooms are small and oddly shaped. And there is minimal closet space.

When I was married, the his and hers closets in the bedroom didn’t come close to providing enough storage, so we used the guest room closet as overflow. When I got divorced, one project I did not procrastinate was to immediately take over both bedroom closets, my clothes were very excited not to be living apart anymore. The guest room closet quickly became something of a junk drawer. I decided I should convert it into a linen closet/shoe closet, in order to house two of my favorite things (and two things that I tend to over-purchase, requiring inventive storage). I took everything out of the closet, measured everything out, and bought all the necessary supplies.

And then someone called, or there was a marathon of The Surreal Life on, or perhaps something sparkly flew by, but whatever the cause, the supplies, along with all the crap I had taken out of the closet went right back into it and the door was shut.

For five years.

Until, procrastinating on a book deadline, it suddenly became priority number one and I again pulled everything out of the closet, installed the shelves, put away my linens and shoes and patted myself on a job well done, if not done in a timely fashion. The fact that the whole thing only took about 3 ½ hours, after five years of putting it off, is not relevant, but is embarrassing.

It is often thus with my procrastination, that as paralyzed as I am by inertia, as daunting as things seem, usually once I get started it really isn’t that bad, and usually is much less of a pain than I build it up in my head to be.

So it is often with this blog. I have every intention of writing several times a week. I WANT to post with regular precision, I want to be able to come up with those witty once-a-week specialty posts that other bloggers come up with, like Meatless Mondays on food blogs, or Bullet Point Fridays on a mommyblog. I could recap a show like Blackbird does with Survivor, or explain a witty food idiom like Claudine does. I may be a procrastinator, but I do respond well to deadlines, so at least I know if I had a promised day-of-the-week posting, I know I would do it. Probably at 3am that day, but I would do it.

But so far, nothing particular has jumped out as the right thing.

I don’t have pets, so I can’t give a weekly update as to the antics of furry creatures in my life. I’m not really dating much these days, so I can’t regale you all with tales of a Charming Suitor or the hilarity of blind dates gone wrong.

This post began as an apology for not posting more often…but it seems to be ending with a request for assistance. Your Polymath may be really good at a bunch of stuff and pretty oddly knowledgeable about random topics, but she is good and truly stumped and needs your help. I want to share more often. What would you like to read about?

Pick a day of the week and a catchy topic, and if I pick yours, an appropriate prize will come your way.

In the meantime, I will try to get my poop in a group and get in touch more often.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Show Me the Money

For those of you unfamiliar with my Great Chair Debacle, read here for the backstory and here for the last installment.

For the rest of you, we finally have CLOSURE!

Not that it was easy.

After negotiating a cash settlement so that I never had to see Ancient Bob ever again, I waited patiently for the young man responsible for ruining the chairs to come deliver the money. Because when I say cash settlement, I do mean cash…green in hand.

And by patiently I mean calling the company every day for a week to try and determine when the little SOB was going to make the drop.

I had agreed to sign a document that indicated that the settlement ended the matter and that the company was afterwards absolved of any further involvement, which was fine by me. The young man in question finally called to say he would be by to give me the money. When he arrived, he counted out the money, and then dropped the following little bomb:

“So that sheet you had me sign?” I had asked him to write out on a piece of paper that he had ruined the chairs and sign it so that I had some protection when he took the cushions to try and clean them offsite.

“Yes?”

“I’m going to need that back.” WTF?

“That wasn’t the agreement. I agreed to sign a paper for the company saying that I had accepted the settlement.”

“But I am also going to need that paper back.” Yeah, right.

“Um, no.”

“What?”

“No, you may not have that paper back. I am happy to make you a copy, but the original stays with me.”

“I need that paper.” I have no idea what he thought I was going to do with it, but now I was more than miffed.

“Why?”

“I don’t know, I just need it.”

“Well, that isn’t going to happen.”

“Well then I am going to have to call Michael.”

He stood up, pocketed my money, and went to leave.

“Just stay there, we can call him right now.” I reached for my phone, and since I now knew the number by heart, began to dial.

“No, I will call him.”

And then….HE LEFT! Huffed right out my door and got in his van and drove away.

WITH MY MONEY!

I was gobsmacked. You have got to be freaking KIDDING me!

I called the company. I explained the situation and they promised he would be back soon.

Ten minutes later my phone rang. He was on his way back. But he was “Going to need that paper.”

My patience was officially gone.

“You are going to come back here right now and you are going to give me my money and I will give you a COPY of that paper and I will sign the paper the company sent, as agreed. That is the last conversation we are going to have about this, I expect you in the next ten minutes.”

Fifteen minutes later he came back. He handed over the money, and I signed the paper and handed him a copy of the paper he had signed for me. And then he left.

I called my new buddy Nathan at Crate and Barrel who informed me that my darling Dorien was ON SALE!!! 30% off, baby. Finally a little bit of joy from the universe. I ordered 22 yards (yikes!) and called Rachel to tell her that she was on deck for reupholstering.

Now I am just waiting for the fabric to come in and by the beginning of November the chairs and ottomans will be redone and delicious. Only four months after they were defiled.

I’m counting the days. And I can tell you something else, I am never having them cleaned!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bob's Your Uncle

At long last I am delighted to report that the great chair debacle has (almost) come to an (almost) satisfying conclusion.

For those of you just joining the party, read here for backstory.

For the rest of you…

After the chairs were declared permanently ruined, despite the magic that apparently exists in New York, the company indicated that they would of course pay for the chairs to be reupholstered. I indicated that I have a friend who does such work for a living and that I would like for her to do the job, and they asked for me to get a quote from her for the labor and to go in search of fabric.

Rachel agreed to do the project for 25% less than usual, 1) because it is me and she loves me and B) because she has known me as long as I have had these chairs and like me has always wanted them in a different fabric.

I then spent the better part of two days at seven different stores trying to find the right fabric. Genius designer Penny said I would want natural fabric, in a good warm neutral somewhere between oatmeal on the lighter end of the scale and camel on the dark. As we had already ordered a gorgeous chair from Pottery Barn in a dark chocolate velvet (sooooo yummy.) she suggested a flat, matte fabric…it could have a texture, but no velvets or chenilles and nothing shiny. It would need to “be friends” with all the other colors and textures in the room. I love the idea of my furniture being friends with each other.

At lucky outing number 7, Crate and Barrel, a very nice man named Nathan helped me find exactly what I was looking for. A basketweave cotton fabric in a warm oatmeal color, with a soft feel and matte finish. I put down a deposit on the sample to bring it home and see if it got along well with the other kids in the class. I was a little worried, as the name of the fabric is Dorien, which seems like the kind of name liable to get a kid beat up every first day of school for 12 years, and might possibly result in membership in the AV club or the chess team. But I brought Dorien home to see what happened. I draped him over one of the cushionless ruined chairs and watched for 24 hours to see how he behaved in all the different lights of the day and night. In bright midday, he was a source of reflected light. At dusk he mellowed, becoming a nice subtle backdrop to the embroidered pillows that live on those chairs. At night he deepened, becoming a solid grounding force in that part of the room. So far so good.

I walked Dorien around the living room to meet the others.

“Hello, dark green leather couches, so nice to meet you. When I lay on you, don’t we just look like a tree from a magical forest?”

“Goodness couch of vaguely lavender properties, exactly what color do you call yourself, and can you believe how well we complement each other?”

“Oh my, Oriental Rug of gargantuan proportions, did you know I would exactly pick up the color in your swirls?”

Dorien is a little bit of a suck up, but at least he didn’t eat paste or pick his nose, and he was generally well liked and welcomed by the rest of the room.

I called the chair ruining, I mean cleaning, company. I gave them Rachel’s generously reduced bid, and the name and information on Dorien. I was immediately rebuked that the labor costs were very high and that the fabric was too expensive when purchased retail. They informed me that they had found a local company who had given them a bid in their price range that included fabric, and that they would be in touch to meet with me. I was sad not to be able to give the business to Rachel, but just wanted the chairs fixed.

I received a call from Bob, a representative from a company that has been operating in Chicago for over 70 years. Bob informed me that he would come by to see the chairs and would bring fabric samples with him. I said my needs were very simple.

100% natural fibers, preferably cotton or linen or a blend therof, but wool also okay.

Neutral color in the oatmeal to taupe family.

No chenille, no shiny, no velvet, no microfiber.

Texture is good, but no patterns, not even tone on tone.

Bob said he would be over around 9pm. This seemed late to me, but it isn’t like I’m not awake.

He arrived at 9:30. He was approximately 1072 years old. I worried that a heart attack was imminent while watching him navigate the eight steps of my front stoop. He looked at the chairs.

“These are very good chairs.”

Well they were before they were tie-dyed orange.

Bob shows me three sets of fabrics. All three are 100% polyester. One is a chenille. One is a pattern. One is shiny. None of them are remotely Dorien. They are more of a Tawny, Amber and Charisma and while someone might ‘welcome them to the mainstage’ or plop them in an oversized champagne coupe filled with soap bubbles, no one was ever going to put them in my living room. The green couches went pale. The weirdly lavender couch shuddered. The Oriental Rug waved hello, but she’s easily distracted by sparkly objects.

“Bob, I really want a natural fabric, and not chenille, not velvet, not pattern, not shiny. Basic cotton or linen with a little texture, in a simple oatmeal color.”

Bob requested that I get him a sample of Dorien for him to source and left. Luckily he made it to the bottom of the stairs without breaking a hip.

The following week Bob called to say that the sample I had sent had arrived and he would come by that evening to show me some new samples. Jen was scheduled to be over for our usual Wednesday girls night, and was excited to meet Bob, since she had no idea who Fyvush Finkel was, and therefore cannot picture him.

Bob was scheduled to come at 9pm. He arrived at 10:30. Which I have to assume was way past his bedtime, and he was probably missing curfew at the Home.

Bob showed me two sets of fabrics. One was a cotton duck that was sort of like that canvas they put on outdoor furniture. The other was 100% polyester. And shiny. And patterned. It took me all of one minute to reject them. Jen agreed with my assessment. Bob got testy.

“You have to be flexible, these are very good fabrics, much better fabrics than then one you sent me. And this one (the polyester) is washable and fire retardant.”

I take a deep breath, having been taught not to disrespect my elders. Or Methusulah’s elders.

“I appreciate that, Bob. However, this is a home with no children or pets or smoking. I don’t need them to be washable and fire retardant. I need them to be beautiful.”

“I have put these fabrics in homes on Lake Shore Drive.” Well, yes. In 1944.

“I want to find a good match for the one I sent you.”

“I’ll keep looking, but you need to be flexible, I have a very limited budget, and I have three people looking for your fabric, and I am just trying to prevent this from going to Court.”

Court? Now this is a legal matter, my dislike of plastic fabric? “Bob, you should not be in the middle of that, all you need to worry about is the fabric.”

“I have more samples in my car, if you want to come look.”

Bob’s car looks like someone backed up a dumptruck full of sample books and let it rip. No organization, just a pile, nearly up to the roof, of hundreds of sample books. After ten minutes outside trying to look through them by the dim light of his car, I gave up and requested that he simply try to find a good match for Dorien.

Jen was apoplectic when I returned from my visit to sample book purgatory. She couldn’t believe he was so dismissive and insulting. I sighed. It was a process.

After a third nocturnal visit from Bob, who I was now sure was a vampire or some other creature of the night, where he once again brought me man-made shiny fabrics that would survive a conflagration, insulted my taste, implied that I was unreasonable, and discussed the imminent law suit should I not cooperate, and told me that the only reason he bid the job so low was that he thought the cleaning company wasn’t good at what they do and he could smell oodles of such business, I called the company back. I would need a cash settlement, as I was not comfortable with Father Moses of the Polyester Cult removing my chairs from my home.

Turns out, after two months of dealing with me (and Bob) they were ready to cut a deal.

Tune in later this week to find out how even this went all catawampus, and why my chairs are STILL not reupholstered.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Magic


When you have lived in a vintage home as long as I have lived in my apartment, certain things are comforting. You can walk around in the dark in the middle of the night without your glasses on and never bump into anything, even avoiding the squeaky floorboards. You know every quirk of every appliance, door, drawer and closet. I’ve been in my apartment almost 16 years, and I know exactly how to flush the temperamental toilets on the first shot, how to lift up slightly on the handle to the guest room closet door to get it to stay shut, and where to give a tap with my hip on the kitchen drawer that sticks when it is humid. I know that my oven runs slightly cool, and that the hood vent over the stove has a mislabeled fan, so high is low and low is high.



Some things are less of a comfort. When, on a bleary-eyed-morning-after-the-night-before you forget about the one wry stream of water in the shower that never fails to squirt you right in the eye if you don’t lean to the right. The millionth time you blow a fuse by forgetting to shut off the living room air conditioner before turning on the vacuum requiring a schlep to the basement fuse box. The drafty windows in the living room, which are great for letting in light, are also not so great about protecting me from bitter Chicago winters, and I spend the worst of the icy months wrapped in blankets and sweaters, with thick socks and a permanently cold nose like a two-legged Labrador.



Generally, I love that I have lived here so long. However, occasionally it does come back to bite me in the butt.



As a part of the big apartment Version 2.0 project, I have been altering some of the artwork on the walls. Mostly this has been just about editing, and as there is no budget for painting, I have been resigning myself to the little imperfections that are revealed when something that has been hanging somewhere for a decade and a half is removed. Small nail holes, and occasionally secondary holes that the piece was covering up are made public. Slight discoloration in the wall paint, brighter behind the removed item than around it. In one interesting twist, a sort of shroud of Turin effect where a small hanging quilt used to be, the folds and drapes of the fabric captured in a light stain on the wall.



But nothing prepared me for the frustration I felt last week, when I went to take down six large pieces that had been hanging behind my couch for the last dozen years in order to replace them with a single large piece. This is when I discovered that the genius I used to be married to had decided that instead of using the technology and tools at his disposal to hang the pictures straight and even, he had not only put an extra dozen or so holes in the wall, he had eventually fixed the problem with the liberal application of DARK GREEN FLORAL PUTTY. Which left DARK GREEN STICKY PATCHES on the ivory walls when I removed the paintings.



Big green splotches. Not exactly the highlight of my design efforts.



I tried to scrape them off with a spatula. FAIL.



I tried to wash them off with soap and a sponge. FAIL.



I tried to sand them off with fine sandpaper. FAIL.


I was about to give up entirely when I talked to my friend Sue (set designer and former scenic painter extraordinaire) who suggested I try one of the Mr. Clean Magic Erasers.


I went out and bought a pack of the ones marked Extra Power. When I opened the package I was disheartened. They didn’t look very scrubby. Really basic white blocks of foam, slightly textured on one side. I wet one and wrung it out, as per the instructions, and went to the living room to see what happened. A little elbow grease and A MIRACLE!!! Wasband splotches gone! Wall saved!!!!



You have got to try these things. I’ve been taking them all over the house, little marks and big problem areas, gone in a flash. I can’t believe how well they work. I have a feeling I’m going to be buying them by the case!



Mr. Clean is my hero.



Now if only they made a Magic Eraser for those pesky exes….

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Not Counting Chickens in Chicago

As part of the whole “Stacey converts her apartment décor to something worthy of a grown-up” I didn’t just tackle the indoor spaces, but looked to my outdoor spaces as well. I have a tiny back porch, more of a porchlet really, with a view of the alley. From this porchlet you can see all manner of urban wildlife…raccoons, opossums, squirrels, many more rats than I am comfortable with, not to mention the occasional “guy who cannot make it home to urinate”. I have a decent sized front porch, with a view of lovely historic Logan Boulevard, with its wide lawns and lush trees and gorgeous Victorian architecture.

So when I moved in fifteen years ago, it seemed almost logical to put the small iron patio set we had been gifted…on the back porch. I'm not exactly sure why it was logical, but I know there must have been a reason. It isn't a big set. A couple small chairs, a tiny settee, a little coffeetable. The perfect place to sit outside and enjoy the ambiance of being on the first floor facing the alley. The set was, at the time, painted a white so dirty it was gray, was peeling and flaking to reveal rust, and had cushions in a garish daisy pattern of lime green, canary yellow and white. I mused to my then husband that maybe we should repaint them, possibly do new cushions in a Provencal pattern. He surprised me a week later by spray-painting them a bright bilious cobalt blue. I hated it, but it was a nice gesture, so I thanked him and left the cushions as is, not wanting to spend money on new cushions to match that horrible color, and figuring in a couple of years the paint would need re-doing again anyway and we could fix it then. We never did.

We never sat out there. It just wasn’t ever a good place to hang out casually. The only use it ever got was when visiting friends needed a place to smoke. The husband left the house eight years ago. The majority of my friends wisely quit smoking. The ugly blue furniture sat peeling and rusting away on the back porch undisturbed, and I never gave it much thought. Until this summer.

When it occurred to me that if I moved the furniture to the FRONT porch where the NICE VIEW is, I might actually want to sit outside.

I may be really smart, but sometimes I’m a flipping idiot.

The set moved quickly and relatively efficiently (since I was doing it alone) to the front porch where it made a perfect little sitting area. I went on Craigslist and found a kid willing to come scrape, sand and repaint for a pittance, and within the week they went from primary blue to a dark chocolate brown. I ordered replacement cushions in a camel cotton twill. It has been a delight all summer, and I cannot believe it took me so long to have this particular A-Ha moment.

Sadly, not every project has such success.

The moving of the set left a large hole on my porchlet in the back. Looking at the space I realized that actually, it wouldn’t be a terrible place to have dinner, since that happens at night when the alley is darkened, and with some candles or twinkle lights and good company as the focus, it wouldn’t be so bad. All I needed was a small square dining table and four dining chairs and I would be set.

The chairs found me quickly. Visiting a great funky store with design guru Penny, a perfect set of four (ridiculously cheap) folding iron dining chairs with a nice scroll design practically leapt into my car. Sadly, there was no matching table. I figured I would wait till the end of the summer when the patio furniture goes on sale everywhere and pick up a cheap one.

It is the end of the summer.

I looked everywhere. But the tables in my price range were either too ugly or flimsy, the ones I liked would need to be 90% off to afford them.

Until I checked on Overstock.com. I sometimes have good luck with them when I am looking for something specific, and they did not disappoint. A square folding iron dining table with a slat top that would match the slat seats of the chairs. The perfect size. In my budget. Five of them left. I ordered it. That was just over a week ago.

Today, sort of wondering where it might be and when I might expect it, I went to check the delivery tracking number with UPS. The UPS website announced proudly that my table has been delivered!

To Incline Village, Nevada.

Which is sort of nowhere even remotely close to Chicago, Illinois.

I contact Overstock.com, who confirms that the package was indeed delivered to Incline Village, Nevada. I inform them that I do not, in fact, LIVE in Incline Village, Nevada. They inform me that they will try to track the package down, however the item is now out of stock, so if they cannot find it, they will process a refund.

Table, FAIL.

Tune in next week to follow the continuing saga of the ruined chairs….

Monday, August 24, 2009

Madness

Dear Costume Designers for Mad Men-

First off, let me congratulate you on being a part of one of the best shows ever produced for television. Well written, thoughtfully acted, beautifully shot…really a triumph.

And in general, please know that I love the look of your work. Betty Draper’s cool icy beauty in those amazing ensembles where the dress has a matching coat of the same fabric, Grace Kelly couldn’t be more stunning.

Don Draper and Roger Sterling, either of whom would look fantastic in a burlap sack, those slick tailored suits with the trench coats and de rigueur fedoras, every woman I know wants to be the meat in that sandwich, if you’ll pardon the expression.

From Peggy’s prim and buttoned down working girl duds to Campbell’s slightly slick suits that underscore his general oiliness, you really have a total success on your hands.

Or at least you did.

The runaway standout of this hit is the character of Joan, played to purring seductive perfection by Christina Hendricks. Her personal code of honor which includes such delicious dichotomies as playing mama lioness protecting the execs fragile egos and professional foibles, while simultaneously sleeping with her married boss…pure melodramatical yumminess. Her stoic acceptance of rape at the hands of her fiancée, truly a brave bit of acting. She is complex and interesting and terrifically fun to watch.

And let’s be honest, how refreshing to see a woman on television who is built like a woman, and not a twelve year old boy! You have celebrated Joan’s curves, accentuating her amazing hourglass figure, letting her be the sexiest woman on the show, and giving those of us who are not, have never been, and never will be a size two a little frisson of confidence in our own curvaceousness.

I loved her as a bad-ass rebel courtesan in Joss Whedon’s short-lived and much beloved Firefly (mmmmm Firefly. Nathan Fillion. Sorry. Lost the plot for a moment.) and was really excited to find her in a strong supporting role on Mad Men.

So please understand that when I write you this letter it is simply to ask, in all genuine curiosity, and from a place of love…

What the f*** were you smoking when you did the costumes for this week’s episode!?!?

Christina seems to have put on a couple of pounds, which she can pull off like nobody’s business, and not being privy to her personal life nor much up on my Hollywood gossip, it is certainly possible that she might be preggers, but I’m not on baby bump watch.

I am however concerned that the outfits you put her in this week could not have been less flattering to some of her, um, currently slightly more abundant assets.

The shiny green blouse with the bow at the neck? Might be totally period appropriate, and is certainly in her wheelhouse color-wise. But good lord, what sort of underpinnings did you put that girl in? She looked like she was smuggling a pair of watermelons in her bra! I mean, I know she’s gifted in that area, but she looked like she should be hanging off the prow of a ship!

I know that some of the fault lies with the director’s choice of camera angles, having the poor girl filmed straight on from the side as she bent over was fair to neither her nor you. Nor to those of us watching, since who can follow the action when you are worried that fair red-headed Joan is going to faceplant in the middle of Sterling Cooper’s Madison Avenue offices due to the weight of her ponderous Kelly-green-silk-clad bosom?

I thought you might have saved the day with the blue suit in her second scene, from the back, it fit her like a glove. But then she turned around and from the front it fit her like, well, like she had borrowed Nell Carter’s boobs and tried to smuggle them into the office in a teal wool carpetbag tied around her neck with yet another blouse bow.

My sister and I had to rewind every scene she was in at least twice, because the ridiculousness of her in those unflattering get-ups made us laugh so hard we were crying and making dolphin noises, missing some of the cutting wit of the dialogue.

I assume if she is knocked up in real life that it will be written into the script sooner rather than later. But if she just had a few extra cheeseburgers between seasons (and god bless her if she did, you go girl!) for the love of god, get her in a drape-y cowlneck or give her some subtle ruching around the middle, and give her some balance.

And if you want to tell the director to have her cheat out a little bit so that he doesn’t film her in total profile, that wouldn’t hurt either.

I’m not saying, I’m just saying…

Your fan,
Stacey