Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year!

Well, Chickens, another year is upon us!   I know most blogs are giving you endless resolutions and NYE recipes and cocktail suggestions and the like.  But let's be honest.  If you haven't planned your menu for tonight, you are probably running all over town shopping and not reading blogs.  And we all know that resolutions are those lovely ephemeral things that make us feel super crappy about ourselves by around January 9.  I always start the new year resolving to laugh a lot and eat delicious things and drink good wine and read a lot of books and take many naps, since I like set myself up to be successful.  But I also try and think about anything in my life I want to do better at...not fix, not 180, not find perfection in, just do BETTER.  Because at the end of the day, if we can just get incrementally better at stuff that is important to us, it is a really good thing.  And it doesn't really matter if better is eating 95% of the bag of chips instead of the whole bag, that is STILL BETTER!

So here is my offering for the new year, for what it is worth, not resolutions, just reminders for myself to try to do better.  If any of them feel useful, feel free to borrow.  If you have any of your own, feel free to share with the class!

1.  I am going to try and be better about not putting off getting together with people I care about just because life gets busy.  It also gets short, and frankly, I have to have dinner every night anyway, might as well share it with friends.  I've realized this past year that you can have people over for dinner and not have it be a dinner doesn't have to be fancy, or even special, you can just make whatever you were going to make anyway (or order take-out for that matter) and make enough for a couple bonus people.  It doesn't have to be an all-night bacchanal, it can just be dinner and company for a couple of hours.  Its the connection that is the most important part, and following thru.  I'm going to try to not say "We should get together." to someone without pulling out my phone to look at a possible date to actually make that happen.  And when I do get together with people, and we end the event with "We should do this more often!" I will try and get that date actually nailed down in the moment.  I started doing a little of this towards the end of 2014, and it has been a good thing.  So I'm looking to make it a permanent habit.

2.  I'm going to try to be better about getting out of my ruts, sort of globally.  Just make more mindful and less knee-jerk decisions.  I'm still going to want to go to my old favorite hangs, but when we are going to run out and grab a quick bite, if we aren't specifically craving one of our standbys, then we should have a new adventure.  Are we probably still going to have salad and popcorn for dinner once a week?  Yep.  But I can at least use that to test new salad dressing recipes, or salad topping combos.   Just because I need a few things at the grocery doesn't mean I can't go pick it up at one of the fabulous Asian or Latin markets that are just as conveniently located to me, and maybe find something new in the process.  This past couple of years I added tennis to my usual workout routine of just weight training and treadmill, and it has been good for me, so who knows what other new programs might be beneficial?

3. I'm going to try and get better at being more forgiving, especially when it comes to little stuff.  If I can retrain my brain to ask myself "Did _________ intend to do or say that thing in a way that would piss me off or annoy me in a calculated and premeditated and targeted way?" before having an emotional response, whether _________ is someone I know and love, or that random guy who just cut me off on the highway, it would probably be better for my general demeanor.  If the answer is "No.", that knowledge might help me brush it off and not get pissed.  Of course, if the answer is "Yes.", then I can guiltlessly unleash the full force of my hellfire!  The same holds true for myself.  If I do something stupid (ok, WHEN I do something stupid, lets be honest) I have to give myself the same break I would give anyone else.

4.  I'm going to try and get better at making time for the crappy stuff the same way I do for the fun stuff.  If there is something I want to do, antiquing, or tracking down those boots the girl at the salon was wearing, or making a new cake recipe, or rejiggering things so that I can attend a party, then I suddenly become a scheduling genius with plenty of time.  But when it is something annoying like cleaning out a closet, or making that dentist appointment, organizing receipts, or fitting in a much needed trip to the gym?  Boy am I WAY TOO BUSY.  But its all BS, and I know it. And I also know that I feel better when I just get that stuff checked off the list.  So I'm going to work on reminding myself to put on my big girl panties and just do what needs to be done.  If there is something on my to do list that I am telling myself I don't have time for, I will try and ask myself if I would make time to do something enjoyable, and if the answer is yes, then I know it is suck it up time.

That's it.  My Better list.

I want to take this moment to thank each and every one of you for reading and commenting and sticking with me, you cannot know how much it means to me.  I want to wish all of you a year of peace and love and safety, and BETTER, whatever that looks like for you.

See you in 2015!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Everything!

Merry Xmas Chickens!

Whether you are gathered around a sparkly tree, or gearing up (as we are) for a day of movies and Chinese food, I hope your day is happy and full of love!

Thanks to all who offered such amazing suggestions for things to hide in our walls for future owners.  We will reveal the actual bits and bobs as we go, but in the meantime, we gathered the family around to vote, and here are the winners of stocking stuffers from me!

The winners of Big Delicious Life:

Unknown- with the suggestion of blueprints and pictures
Jessica- with a bottle of wine that means something to us
Daruma- menus for take out places, map of local interest
Amanda- love letter from CS to me and vice versa
Elizabeth- a recipe box with beloved family recipes

And the grand prize winner, of a copy of Big Delicious Life AND a signed advanced copy of Recipe for Disaster is....

Noelle C- with the pictures of our neighborhood and love letter to the future

If you won Big Delicious Life, please send me your email address to staceyballisinfo at gmail dot com, and Noelle, I need both your kindle email and your shipping address!

We are still taking suggestions, and who knows, if you send a really cool one, perhaps there will be more prizes!

In the meantime, celebrate the season in the most delicious way you can, and I hope it is filled with love and joy.

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Monday, December 22, 2014

Crowdsourcing Memories

Hello Chickens!

I am reaching out with a house update and a need for some help.

First off, things are cranking right along in the basement.  All the walls have been framed in, all the plumbing and electrical have been roughed in, the bathroom fixtures have arrived.

Did you know that toilets come in a toilet shaped cardboard box?  Neither did I. I'm delighted to add it to the list of new discoveries.

Nearly every day Charming Suitor and I go downstairs to look at the bathtub-to-be. Our current bathtub is more of a bathpuddle.  It is a 1978 corner tub, an oval that is about a foot deep and two and a half feet long, so effectively, a really good place to soak your butt, the backs of your thighs, and two inches of lower back.  The future tub is 6 feet long by three feet wide by 22 inches deep.  A SOAKER.  In which you can actually soak all of you.  We are counting days.

Now that we can see the skeleton of the walls, it really feels like things are happening.  My dad, who has been enjoying our tales of some of the things we have been finding inside the walls as we demo made a great suggestion.  We should plant some things in some of the walls so that in another hundred years when another family is making the place their own, they will have a little bit of a record of us.

Not a time capsule, per se, all neat and in a convenient container.  Nope, we are talking about flotsam and jetsam, simply put inside the occasional nook or cranny, to get dusty and age worn and maybe tell someone in the future who we were.

Which is a very cool idea.  And one that I thought you all would be great to help with! the spirit of holiday giving, I have prizes!  The top five suggestions of cool things that CS and I could plant here and there in hidey holes for future generations will all get a gift copy of my digital cookbook, Big Delicious Life.

And our number one favorite suggestion will also get a signed advanced copy of my new novel Recipe for Disaster.  Since the heroine of Recipe for Disaster is living in the half-finished ruin of the house she is renovating, and something she finds in a wall literally changes the course of her life, it seemed appropriate.

So, please make your suggestions in the comments by 11:49PM Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Morning, I will announce the winners like a little giftie in your stockings.

Please note...we are not looking to spend a lot of money, and anything that is technology will be WAY defunct by the time anyone might find it, so please keep your suggestions to things you think would tell someone something about us, or about the time in which we live, and isn't going to cost us a fortune!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Winner Announced!

Congrats to Andrea and your Peanut Blossoms!  You have won a signed copy of Dana Bate's wonderful new foodie novel A Second Bite at the Apple.  Shoot me an email at staceyballisinfo at gmail dot com with your shipping address and Dana will get your prize right out to you.

For the rest of my Chickens, I really enjoyed this book and think you will too, so why not treat yourself this holiday season?

Stay tuned later this week for a house update...

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Guest Post and Giveaway with Dana Bate!


One of the things I love best about my job is that I get to connect with other writers.  And while I adore my peeps regardless of genre, it is always very special when I can meet a writer in my strange little specific genre of foodie fiction!  So when I was introduced to Dana Bate and her work, it was extra special.  I've been fortunate enough to be able to blurb both of Dana's charming books, The Girl's Guide to Love and Supper Clubs, and the brand new A Second Bite at the Apple.  I just loved both of these books, and thought it would be a fun celebration of the holiday spirit to let Dana take over the blog today and share a recipe from the book and offer a giveaway of a signed copy of A Second Bite at the Apple!  Take it away, Dana...

Many thanks to Stacey for letting me take over her blog for the day!

So today I want to talk about holiday treats. Specifically: brownies.

For a lot of people, the holiday season means cookies: cookies as gifts, cookies as decorations, cookies as a primary form of sustenance.

I should preface what I’m about to write by saying I love cookies. Snickerdoodles, chocolate chip, thumbprint, molasses, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin – I’m pretty sure I’ve never met a cookie I didn’t like.

But here’s the thing: cookies are a time suck. The dough is easy to throw together, sure, but the rolling, the cutting, the scooping, the waiting between batches – it can take a while. And if you are short on time, you may rue the decision to bake those adorable windowpane sandwich cookies.

Brownies, however, are a different story. Brownies take mere minutes to throw together, and then you pour the batter in the pan, stick the pan in the oven, and about 30 minutes later, you are finito señorito.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you don’t want to make plain, old brownies. You want something special, especially this time of year. I have just the ticket: salted fudge brownies.

I have made this recipe countless times, and people always rave. And the best part? They are dead easy. Easy, impressive, and delicious: sounds like a recipe for success to me.

I like these brownies so much that I even mention them in my second book, A SECOND BITE AT THE APPLE – a book that Stacey not only blurbed but has also offered to give to one lucky reader! All you have to do is comment below with your favorite cookie or brownie recipe, and you could soon be the owner of a signed copy!  Submit comments by 11:59 pm CST Monday, and winner will be announced Tuesday!

Salted Fudge Brownies by Kate Krader from Food and Wine Magazine

  1. 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
  2. 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
  3. 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
  4. 2 cups sugar
  5. 3 large eggs
  6. 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  7. 1 cup all-purpose flour
  8. 1/2 teaspoon Maldon sea salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Line a 9-inch square metal cake pan with foil, draping the foil over the edges. Lightly butter the foil.
  2. In a large saucepan, melt the butter with the unsweetened chocolate over very low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat. Whisking them in one at a time until thoroughly incorporated, add the cocoa, sugar, eggs, vanilla and flour. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface. Sprinkle the salt evenly over the batter. Using a butter knife, swirl the salt into the batter.
  3. Bake the fudge brownies in the center of the oven for about 35 minutes, until the edge is set but the center is still a bit soft and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out coated with a little of the batter. Let the brownies cool at room temperature in the pan for 1 hour, then refrigerate just until they are firm, about 1 hour. Lift the brownies from the pan and peel off the foil. Cut the brownies into 16 squares. Serve at room temperature.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Vegetables are Us

Hello Chickens!  I hope the festive holiday season is treating you all well.  I promised myself that this year I would not inundate you with one more roundup of "stuff to buy" post, since every blog on the planet is giving you their top ten gift ideas and to be honest, I'm exhausted from reading them, let alone writing one.

Which doesn't mean that I don't have a product I think you should buy, its just that it isn't so much a gift for someone else as it is a gift for you, and something I'm finding particularly relevant for the holiday season.

As you all know, I am in a constant state of working on my health and watching my weight, and since I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, my diet and cooking have changed a lot.  With my darling carbs now severely limited, I've had to figure out how to bulk up my diet, and that means lots of veggies.  I try to keep cut up raw veggies around for easy snacking, and I'm making a lot more vegetable based soups and stews.  Even when I do make something like pasta, I'm cutting the pasta amount itself in half and filling in with vegetables.

And of course, it is the entertaining season, and that means veggie and dip trays.  Endless veggie and dip trays.  Which in the past didn't really affect me, but now that I need to survive my own parties without derailing my program, I've become really focused on the veggies, since they are my safe haven.

The short version?  I'm chopping a LOT.  And while you know I have no shortage of knives round here...

I can't help it.  And half of them were Charming Suitor's to begin with.

...that doesn't mean that there wasn't room for one more.  Wüsthof was kind enough to send me one of their 8" Gourmet Vegetable knives to test, and it is a gamechanger.

You see those holes?  I'm used to working with veggie knives that have the little divots to help food release, but this is the first time that I've worked with a knife that actually had holes in it.  And they totally work! Even the stickier stuff, like butternut squash or carrots that tend to hang onto the knife no matter what you do, they slide right off.  This is helped along by the little raised ridge that is parallel to the holes, which means even the most stubborn slice of the stickiest veggie slips right off the knife like butter.

Mmmm.  Butter.  

Sorry, distracted myself.

At any rate, in this house of a zillion knives?  This odd looking little workhorse has made quite a place for itself.  And the fact that it is from Wüsthof, one of the most trusted names in high quality blades, means that I will have it forever.

So, whatever else you are shopping for these days, if you have parties coming up that require some serious veggie work, or are looking at a long cold winter ahead that is going to need minestrone, and potato gratin, and glazed carrots, and roasted root are going to want to pick one of these up.

To inspire you to vegetable greatness, here is my go-to recipe for roasted root veggies.  I make some variation of this all winter long.

Roasted Root Vegetables

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Peel the following and cut into one inch chunks:
4-6 carrots 
1 large celery root
4-6 parsnips
4 turnips
1 head of fennel, sliced with root intact into 8 wedges
1 large red onion, peeled and cut into eighths

Toss all of the above with 1/3 c olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, 1 T dried thyme and put on a large baking sheet in one layer.

Roast for about 45 minutes to an hour, stirring every fifteen minutes, until golden and crispy outside and soft inside.  Garnish with toasted chopped walnuts or almonds, and some crumbled goat cheese if you really want to get fancy!

Yours in good taste,
The Polymath

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Every Castle Needs a Moat!

Hello Chickens-

Just a quick one today, because this happened:

City code requires that a building our size has 1 1/2" pipe for the water main.  Ours was 1".  And original, so it was lead.  Copper is code now.  This meant we needed to get new water service.  Here is how that works.  Your plumber gets a permit for the new water service, and the city comes out to the property to mark where the current pipe is.  The plumber digs a trench next to the pipe, and accesses the shut off and the main city pipe, and runs the new pipe parallel to the old pipe, creates a new tap into the city main, and then switches over the service. The city comes out to inspect it, and then you fill the trench back in and deal with your lawn, which now looks like giant gophers have been using it for grenade practice.

Or that is how it is supposed to go....

Unless the city marks the old pipe wrong.  By three feet.  So that when they go to dig, they bust through the pipe filling the trench with water.

Yep!  Our castle had a moat!

The shut off had to be dug out to try and get the water to stop.

But first they had to set up a pump with a hose to suck all the water out of the trench.

Eventually the trench was emptied, they were able to clamp the broken pipe, shut the water off, and make repairs.  Luckily we have a great team, so we got our water service restored within five hours, and now they are finishing up the final details and will start to get the trench filled back in, and tomorrow they will come to pour the concrete to fix the sidewalk.

I'm sure our neighbors hate us, especially the dog walkers and stroller mommies, since the sidewalk has now been blocked since Monday, but we are excited because the new water service is the last piece of the puzzle before we can really start doing finish work in the basement!  We still have a small part of the floor down there that hasn't been poured, because they had to be able to attach the new water service and run the pipe, and install the meter, so now we can button that up and really kick into high gear!

Stay tuned, more news coming!

Yours in good taste,
The Polymath

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

In Vinotemp Veritas

Chickens, its time to talk about wine.

I’m not talking about that casual after-work grab whatever bottle is in the fridge left from the weekend and glug it into the nearest vessel for some decompression.  I’m not talking about that bottle you picked for the clever cutesy name on the label that you take to “book club” because you presume it will go well with salsa and Tostitos and girl talk.

Today we are talking about wine.  Serious wine.  Wine you choose as much for what it will be in 5 or 10 or 25 years as for what it is today.  Wine you choose because it is the best possible pairing for the meal you are preparing.  Wine that is a passion, a pleasure, a way to connect as much as a way to relax.  Wine with a capital W, where the winemaker knows that the wine is made in the vineyard and not the winery, and the name of the importer is as important as the name of the grape.

I may have mentioned before, that my Charming Suitor is a wine guy.  A serious wine guy.  A collector for over 30 years.  You know how when you marry someone, you also marry their family and friends?  In my case, that family includes some names like Donnhoff and Zind-Humbrecht and Comte LaFon, and the friends include pinot noir, nebbiolo, mourvedre, and riesling. 

Here is what I learned when I met CS.  It isn’t the grape, it is the producer.   And the terroir, like territory, the expression of the land on which the grapes are grown developed in the barrel.  You should be able to taste the geography in the glass.

I thought I didn’t like Chardonnay, finding it like licking an oak tree covered in butter.  Turns out I don’t like oaky California Chardonnay, what I like is Chardonnay from Burgundy which is much more like licking lime juice off a river rock, or unoaked Chardonnay from New Zealand which is like eating fresh melon with a squirt of lemon and a drizzle of honey. 

I thought I hated Riesling, waving it off as cloyingly sweet, and always suspect in the weird blue bottles.

I was wrong.

So. Very. Wrong.

CS took me to the best wine store in Chicago, Howard’s Wine Cellar on Belmont, and put a 20-year-old Riesling from the Mosel in my face.  I swooned.  Turns out?  Riesling is the single greatest white grape, and in the hands of a decent producer, one the best possible things to drink with great food.  You think you need red wine with lamb?  You’ve never tasted it with Riesling.  Thai food?  Riesling.  Trust me, good Riesling isn’t sweet, it isn’t cloying and it is freaking delicious.

What I also learned is that CS, while a serious collector and passionate wine guy, isn’t a wine snob.  He is a "collector" not  "curator".  He buys wines that he believes will be delicious with food we prepare and shared with friends and family.  He isn't in it for the prestige of a massive cellar, he just wants to drink well with people he loves.  He doesn’t give a whit for the “famous” star wines, for the “90 point” wines, for things that are expensive for the sake of being expensive.  He says “Any idiot can spend $100 and get a decent bottle of wine.  Show me the guy that can spend $10 and get something delicious, that is the guy I respect.  I don’t care about a point system.  If you think you can taste the difference between an 89 point wine and a 90 point wine, you’re dead wrong, but you can pay the 50% upcharge for that little point.”

Since he has been at this for so long, he has amassed something of a large collection.  You know, enough wine so that we can drink very well.  For the rest of our natural lives.  Even if we open a restaurant in our living room.  And he has, for all of this time, been storing it in a special wine storage facility.  About 4 miles from our house.  Which is, as you might imagine, somewhat inconvenient.

For our first anniversary I bought him a 160 bottle wine fridge so that he could keep a decent stash in the house and not have to drive to the storage facility every time we needed wine.  We did a ton of research, and after reading every possible article and review, found that Vinotemp was the company to go with.  Founded by a winemaker who was looking for better and smarter ways to store wine at home, the Vinotemp units have the dual temp system that you need for storing red, white and champagne in the same unit, humidity control, and they run quiet and with energy efficiency.   Plus they have a lock on them, in case you are worried about bottles walking away, or finding themselves in the hands of the underaged.  We set it up in the basement and it became the “house cellar”, allowing CS to rotate the wines from storage that were at their peak onsite where we could remember to drink them!  Win/win!

When we began designing our house, the first thing CS said was that whatever else we did, it wouldn’t be a real dream house unless he had a wine cellar.  And when he dreams of a wine cellar, it isn’t some fancy room with grape vines painted on venetian plaster walls, with special bottles lit on display racks.  Nope.  He dreams of a wine cellar that looks a little dirty, a little dusty, a little musty.  A cellar where he can organize his wines for easy access.  He doesn’t need a tasting room, he doesn’t want to taste wine in a damp cold room, he wants to taste wine in our living room or dining room.  The wine cellar just needs to store it properly.

So when we again set out to do our research, it came as no surprise that when it comes to building a wine cellar from scratch?  You guessed it.  Vinotemp to the rescue.  We sent them the dimensions of the space, the number of bottles and types of wines we were looking to store, a general layout of the basement.  And they helped us figure out which cooling system to order, and advised us on every aspect of prepping the space properly.  Since we were starting from scratch with a gutted space that needed no retrofitting, we were able to go with a very efficient ducted system.  It essentially works like your central air-conditioning system, with ductwork feeding the space and a thermostat regulating the temperature but also the humidity.  It is precisely calibrated so that you can keep the conditions in your cellar absolutely perfect at all times. 

Once we decided on the unit, Vinotemp began to build it.  They put all of the cooling systems together custom, and then test them at the factory to be sure that what arrives is what you need and in tiptop working order. 

Ours arrives Wednesday.  We have finished framing out the cellar space, and are in the process of installing vapor barrier and a tremendous amount of insulation, per their detailed specs.  We are using special wood and drywall that is designed to be moisture and mold resistant.  Once the space is built-out and painted, we will work with our Vinotemp designer to do the racking system.  CS is still debating what sort of racking he wants, and they have many to choose from, so stay tuned and we will keep you posted on the design of the space as it comes together!

I love this stone racking, similar to the stuff they use in Burgundy cellars, and totally gorgeous!

Even better, we are designing a space in the future butler’s pantry to move the Vinotemp wine fridge upstairs, where it will be a godsend for both our everyday drinking and for parties.

Stay tuned for more cellar updates, along with some pictures of the progress!

In the meantime, here are CS’s top five tips for wine buying and drinking:

1.  We have a tendency in this country to drink white wines too cold and red wines too warm.  Room temp is 70 degrees or more.  Reds are best stored and drunk at 56 degrees.  Whites at 54.  General rule?  Use the half-hour philosophy.  Take whites and sparkling wines out of your fridge half an hour before you want to drink them, put red wines into your fridge half an hour before you want to drink them.  And if you are ordering in a restaurant, ask to feel the bottle, especially for reds.  If it isn't cool to the touch, ask for the bottle to be put on ice for five minutes.

2.  Make friends with a competent wine seller.  You don’t have to learn all there is to know about wine, you just have to know someone who does!  Find a place that you like, and talk to the wine seller about what you enjoy about wine and what you don’t, what you want to eat with the wines you choose, and what price points you are comfortable with.  Let them guide you to two or three bottles.  Drink them.  Did they nail it?  Now you have your person.  Did they fail?  Find someone else.

3.  Only buy what you can store properly until you want to drink it.  I know you might like the look of a full wine rack, but if the only place to put it is in your kitchen next to the stove, leave it empty.  Wine stored at room temp is already less than ideal, anywhere in the kitchen is just going to cook it.  If you don’t have space or budget for a small wine fridge, at least store your wine in a dark cool place, basements are preferable, but out of the way closets are okay too, and don’t invest in a lot of bottles, just keep it to what you are likely to drink within the next few weeks.

4.  Wines for food are not necessarily the same as wines for casual drinking on their own.  Sometimes a wine that might not be terribly delicious for just sitting around having a bit of a relaxing time after work, but will be absolutely spectacular with food.  For casual drinking, stick with things that are juicy and fruit forward like a young syrah, something refreshing like a rosé, or crisp and bright like a gruner veltliner.  With appetizers, champagne or sparkling wine is always welcome, and there is a very affordable bubbly out of New Mexico called Gruet that you can keep on hand.  For dinners, you can bring more complexity to the table, like a burgundy or Riesling, and if you can, maybe something with a little more bottle age on it.

5.  If you have the ability, invest in a Vinotemp wine fridge.  They have a range of sizes and styles, and a price for almost any budget.  They even sell refurbished units at a fraction of the retail price, some of them as inexpensive as $120!  Most importantly, once you have one, you’ll be able to store and serve wine whenever you like, and know that it will always be the perfect temperature and best possible condition.

Yours in Good Taste, 
The Polymath