Thursday, September 30, 2010

Locks Like Lively

I want to have hair like Blake Lively. Apparently, I am not alone. When I went to Google for a picture, I started typing Blake Lively and "hair" came right up.

It's long, it's the best color and it has these fabulous curls while still being straight, if that makes sense. While I have longish, blondish hair, it's not like Lively's. I can't figure out her trick. It doesn't look like she has extensions, and it's not so long that it looks matronly. It's just perfect.

Gossip Girl was never something I watched, so I'd never seen her on-screen before, but when I saw her in The Town, I just kept thinking... well, I was thinking that her accent was a nightmare, but I was also thinking how fabulous her hair was.

Do I need to condition more, straighten less? Cut in long layers? Last time I tried to have long layers cut in, I had that Jennifer-Aniston-Friends haircut. Yuck. If I weren't almost 41, I might walk into a hair salon with her photo, and say, "Give me hair like this."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Morning Wood

Firewood is at the ready. The other morning, after my early morning meeting with my business partner and boyfriend (one in the same), I stopped by a local home to buy a truckload of firewood.

The seller, a resident of Denville, has piles of wood outside the front of his house along with a sign that says something to the effect of Firewood: cut and seasoned. Ready for burning. $3 per bag. Behind the pile is a lockbox where shoppers put the cash. It's on the honor system. I love this type of thing. It's reminiscent of a time when people trusted others, doors didn't need to be locked, and cookies were baked, not bought.

Over the weekend, my boyfriend and I went to pick up some wood for our campfire party. As Ward was loading up the truck, the homeowner approached us simply to say hello. He was a sweet, older gentleman who told us all about the wood and how good it was. I told him I'd be back to buy a bunch for the winter, and asked if he preferred a check, just in case the box was taken. 

His reply, "Nah, I trust people."  Lovely.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

You've Got (Real) Mail

In a recent blog post, I wrote about the lost art of note writing, and mailing letters. In response, a reader agreed that it’s so wonderful to get mail that isn’t a bill or a catalog, and it reminded me to bring up this discussion again. Really, in the age of status updates, tweets, and texting, we have surpassed the process of putting pen to paper. We don’t even spell correctly. We either rely on spell check to help us, or write “u” for “you”, “4” for “for” and other things. “Wht r u doin 2day?” We completely butcher our beautiful language.

Writing letters, notes, cards, postcards is so important. Yes, it’s nice to get an email from someone, or a text that says “I love you” but isn’t it much nicer to have it in handwriting? When my grandmother passed away, I looked at old cards she gave me because her handwriting reminded me of everything I loved about her. The way she smelled, the clothes she wore, how she shrugged when she got a compliment.  Outside of hearing her voice on old messages, this was the closest I’d come to her since she’d died. She’d held those cards, written those words on paper that I was now holding. What beats that?

Fabulous, belated birthday card, hand-written, available at K is for Calligraphy on etsy.

Suffice it to say that I am a major card writer. I write postcards, note cards, send love letters.  Ask Ward, and he will tell you. He is bombarded with mail from me on a near weekly basis. After I host parties, I like to send my guests thank you (for coming) notes, which makes him laugh since I was the host. But for me, the joy is as much in the sending as it is in the receiving. For my recent campfire party, I wrote thank you notes on the cards shown below:

Campfire flat notes by Pink Bathtub Designs, available on etsy

Which brings me to stationary. Do you remember when we used to use stationary that was personalized? I bought embossed stationary with my last name on it when I first got married. I spent a couple hundred dollars on it, and it made perfect sense. I don’t see people doing that much anymore. And though I no longer use Palisi stationary, I do have tons of note cards and postcards that I adore. I have an old desk – my grandfathers – that was given a face-lift by Andrea at Savannah Hope Vintage, which is now my letter- writing hub. On it is a letter opener with an anchor detail, and a little metal carry-all that used to have small herbs in it which now holds strips of stamps, and letter seals.

 Thank You seals, also from K is for Calligraphy

I buy note cards that are either unique or have meaning. I used to buy them at Home Goods because they were cheap, but then I realized that I was undervaluing them. This is not to say I don’t buy any at Home Goods; I do, if I like them. Mostly, though, I buy them either on vacation or on etsy. Etsy has tons of homemade note cards. I don’t prefer those that are done on the computer, graphic-y ones that are a dime a dozen. I like the ones that are screen printed or stamped. Ward has done note cards from some of his photographs; a series of Mountain Lakes cards, and a set with his well-known downtown Denville photo on the front. I love them because the images are both familiar and beautiful.

Ward's beautiful note cards. Available at Ward Vogt Designs on etsy.

I really enjoy searching through stamps, too, at the post office, to make the whole envelope look nice (it is partly about the package, no?) For my campfire thank yous (that had campfires on them), I bought Scouting stamps. It pulls the theme together nicely. Why not make things as nice as you can?

Most often, I use my grandmother’s old rubber stamper to ink a blessing onto each envelope. It says:

Dear letter, go upon your way
Over mountain, plain or sea.
God bless all those who speed your flight
To where I wish you to be.

The act of letter writing is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly and should be done often. Think back to when our grandparents sent letters to their friends, just to see how they were doing. It was really, very nice. I urge you all to start sharing your birthday wishes, love messages, friendly hellos, miss yous, and thanks via letters instead of through a form of technology. 

If you are on facebook, join the letter writing movement here:

Facebook's version of Slow Food, the Slow Word movement.

The Italians

As I write this, I have Italians in my basement. I say that with great kindness, because I love that they are Italian (as I am) and they have these thick accents that let you know that they are off the boat. They are Joe, and Joe D. There are other Italians that come with them sometimes, another Joe and Dave, but they aren't here today. It's a small job.

The Italians come to do various handywork, like today's job of cleaning out my basement and garage and hauling all the stuff away. Last year, they put in a french drain for me. They are soccer players with full-time jobs who have such a nose to the grindstone attitude that they rarely take time off. Today's job, and the others, are done on days off from work, weekends, and nights.

After their van pulls out of my driveway, the Italians will be heading to my parent's house to take away a daybed. Last week, they stained their deck. And in a few days, they will be returning to my home again to paint the inside of my garage white. Just so that I can see things better. (This summer, when a snake went into my garage and never came out, it really unnerved me, enough to get the garage cleaned.)

I listen to them speaking Italian, and it makes me desperate to learn. The language is so beautiful, even when spoken through gruff, determined mouths. I wonder, if I have enough handywork done, might I be able to pick up some of their naive tongue?

Monday, September 27, 2010

(Party) Like It Never Happened

I had the best time at our campfire tonight. The kids seemed to have a blast. The trampoline was constantly full, and the horseshoes (that Ward put in; thanks honey) and bolo toss got lots of use. The pulled pork was a hit, as usual, and so were the empenadas. But the 32 ears of corn, well, I'll be sure to scratch those off my list for next time.

Let me tell you what worked and what didn't, so that you can learn from my mistakes. Always make food that can keep heated easily. The slow cooker pulled pork did this effortlessly. The empanadas were easy enough to leave in the oven on low heat (200*) so they worked, too. For the kids, I made what I call Hogs in Sleeping Bags (Steve, I think you made that up, actually); giant pigs in a blanket. I wrapped pizza dough around the hot dogs, give them a quick brushing of egg wash, and then baked them on parchment paper, at 400* for about 20 minutes (or until brown). Once cooked, they stacked easily and were easy to handle. One warning, the hot dogs sometimes shoot out the bottom of the dough, and hit the floor (as my little friend Gavin found out tonight), so be sure to tell that to your guests before they indulge.

I made over 30 ears of corn, boiling them in batches of ten, but then I couldn't figure out how to keep them warm without drying them out. Mission: failed. Plus, they weren't a big hit anyway. I did use a knife to remove the corn from the uneaten cobs (about ten), and put the kernels in a freezer bag to eat at a later time. So the loss wasn't big, all in all.

Clean up wasn't bad, mostly because my neighbors Kim and Barry brought everything into the house with me, and Barry single-handedly did all the recycling. By the time Ward got back to the house, everything was done. This was a good thing, because he had done a bulk of the cleaning during the party (garbage, recycling, moving things to and fro the house) and had been helping me prepare all week, then had to leaf blow the lawn, start the fire, set up games, and keep the kids in order. He was fairly wiped out as it was.

When I clean, I throw out everything that can't be spared. Then I just move left to right until the house looks as it did before the party, you know, Like It Never Happened (my new favorite life motto). Of course, there were a few extra (gifted) bottles of wine, and some candles, which were sweet reminders of the party. And the leftovers, mmmm, the pulled pork is just waiting to be eaten again tomorrow.

Potato chips weren't a big hit, but the nacho chips with guacamole and salsa were.

And for drinks, I opted not to have soda for the kids and instead had apple cider, filtered water in glass bottles, and a table full of hot cocoa. For the cocoa, I had insulated pitchers that I filled first with hot water, to get them warm, then later dumped out before putting in the cocoa. I made the cocoa with milk and organic cocoa powder in my Bialetti. I overfilled it the first time (which is just more than half full before it gets moving). I went to check on it and, boop!, there was chocolate spilled all over my vintage sideboard. I sponged it off, no problem, but the lesson here is, Follow directions. Beside the insulated pitchers (two) of cocoa, I had a bowl of mini marshmallows, and a canister of whipped cream. The kids loved all this. Soda wasn't missed.

Dessert - s'mores - was wonderful, though I overbought marshmallows (about six bags more than needed). Two friends brought brownies, and the leftovers are now in my freezer, so I can defrost and enjoy at my leisure.

As I sat writing my thank you notes, I thought about the fact that most people have lost the desire to write and mail notes. They text, email, and social network messages, but no one writes anymore. That's just sad. I love writing, I love note cards, and stamps. The note cards I used tonight have little campfires on them, and I bought (Boy) Scouting stamps for postage. It makes a difference, I believe. Getting something in the mail, and with a stamp that makes sense, or is, at least, beautiful.

Next up is our kiddo Halloween party. Anyone have an ideas for an old-fashioned Halloween party?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sunday, A Day of Rest (from writing, that is)

Countdown to the campfire has begun. Tomorrow I will not be writing my blog, as I will be knee-deep in good friends and their (and my) children. In an attempt to get as much done as I could in advance, I used my air popper to make tons of popcorn for tomorrow, and let me tell you, it's so much better than my old one, because I don't have to stand there and crank the handle. I got out my griddle and made my son homemade pancakes while the kernels cooked themselves. The popcorn is gorgeous and white, without one unpopped kernel. I added a little salt today, to keep the popcorn dry, and tomorrow, before everyone arrives, I will melt butter and pour it all over the top. (Ready to give up your nuke-o-waved popcorn? If you do, I will send you a baggie full of my Boy Scout kernels to try. You won't ever go back, I assure you.)

I picked up 12 lbs. of pork butt (butt. ew, sounds gross but apparently it's better thank pork loin) that I ordered from my butcher, cut it so it will fit into my two slow-cookers, and put the remaining 2 lbs. in the freezer for another time.  Of course, I forgot the buns, so I will be back to the market for the third time in two days! Then again, I also need a bunch of cider for tomorrow, so ultimately it's two birds, one stone.

I bought bags of local apples -- three of which my son's already eaten -- and thirty ears of corn. I am feeling the fall spirit, regardless of the summer temps. Last night, being so excited for Sunday, I decided to light a giant fire in the fireplace. Within 15 minutes, I was hot hot hot, like you wouldn't believe. My head's in the game, but mother nature just isn't playing nice. Apparently, it will be cooler tomorrow, in the low 70s, which would be wonderful, given the party plans. Campfires and hot cocoa (made in my Bialetti cocoa maker with Silly Cow Farms Natural Hot Chocolate, topped with plump, mini marshmallows) isn't quite as appealing when it's hot outside.

Last minute, I will be getting more firewood, booze, and perhaps some more mums. And then, party! Have a great weekend.

Friday, September 24, 2010

I Want S'more!

I've been poking marshmallows onto sticks, rolling them in melted chocolate, and then again in crushed graham crackers. It's taken every ounce of effort for me not to sample one, or two, and I was sure to quickly wash away the remaining chocolate before I took my fingers to it.

S'mores on a stick are a decadant way to eat s'mores without completely making a mess of yourself. I made 25 of them for a campfire that I am hosting on Sunday. Make no mistake, these stick s'mores in no way replace the old fashioned kind. I still have six bags of Jet-Puffed marshmallows, and as many giant Hershey bars, and graham crackers, ready to melt into each other over a crazy flame. I have marshmallow roasting sticks, from Campmor, that are 42" long, to allow 'mallows to safely melt over an open fire. 

My favorite months are the ones that allow me to be outside in the warm sun, with a nice breeze. A late summer afternoon is usually my favorite. I love the sound of crickets, and the knowledge that the sun won't be setting until well after 8 p.m. But I also love my home state of New Jersey, and living here means four full seasons. I do my best to embrace them.

Just days into the season, I am reminded of apples (apple picking, apple crisp, apple pie, baked apples), pumpkins, and hot soups. I want to make meatloaf, beef stew, spaghetti and meatballs, muffins and pies. I want to walk through the woods, and hear the leaves crunch beneath my feet. And I want to have a picnic of champagne and strawberries by one of the many beautiful lakes that surround me.

Having a campfire is the perfect way to launch a season of cozy nights by the fireplace, snuggled up in blankets with the windows open. Crisp air crashing into warm homes just makes perfect sense for fall. 

When I was melting my chocolate in my double boiler, I looked outside at the leaves, gently changing colors, and I was reminded of when I was a child and watched my mother make a carrot cake. She stood, shredding the carrots, one by one, while It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, played on the television. It was magical.

I want to give that magic back to my loved ones. 

So I bake, and cook, and decorate, and celebrate, and make every meal as magical as possible. My s'mores were a simple way to celebrate. Three marshmallows speared on a lollipop stick, rolled in melted chocolate chips and crushed graham crackers, then left to harden on wax paper. When I wrapped them in cellophane bags and tied them in gingham ribbon, voila! They became a tiny bit of magic.

Next week, I will be making my mother's carrot cake. And I will post the recipe for you all to try. I promise you that the work involved in making it is worth the smiles you'll see when first bites are taken.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

So it's decided...

I am at that age. You know, the one that slaps you straight upside the head and says, "Get it together, you're life is passing you by." Soon, I will be 41, and it's time for me to get it together, grow up, and start taking myself, and my life, a little bit more seriously.

The timing couldn't be worse. I've spent the past month dealing with, first, an eye injury, then vertigo, and now, a ringing, blocked ear.  Steriods have been prescribed and, hopefully, they will do their job without fattening me up or messing with my head. Nonetheless, I feel physically horrible and I am completely emotionally drained, yet I find that the only way out is by climbing a higher mountain, and doing it alone.

Does this make sense?

I am going to learn a language. My language of choice is Italiano, but I don't have anyone to practice speaking it with. I have a five year background of Spanish behind me, which amounts for nothing in the real world, and there are native Spanish speakers everywhere. Thus, it seems like the best idea to do Spanish, and then if I am still motivated, add Italiano as a third language.

Total immersion at Berlitz (my dream) is nearly $4,000 and Rosetta Stone, levels 1 and 2 are less than $500. Do I do the expensive way, and just get it done, or take a chance with CDs and do Stone?

Yo no say.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Succulent Death

My succulents are dying. It pains me to admit this. I have had countless plants in my lifetime, and all have done very, very well. Except for my succulents.

It all began back when I was 19. I was working as an assistant manager of a clothing store in a small shopping mall. Each year, during Easter week, they would allow carts to enter the mall to sell items not normally sold there (this was in the 80s, before carts were all over the place). My manager's husband brought in a plant stand. One day, he needed coverage for a few hours, and I offered to help. When my shift ended, along with a hearty thanks, I was given the opportunity to take any plant that I wanted. I had never had a plant before, and was terrified that I would kill anything I took, so I set my sights low, on a $4 spider plant.

My manager was amazed. I didn't choose a big $25 arrangement, but a cheap spider plant. When she asked why I made that choice, I told her that no plant stood a chance in my care, so if I was going to bring a plant to its death, I wanted it to be something small.

That plant proved me wrong. While I will agree that it's very hard to kill a spider plant, this one not only lived, but flourished. It's babies made over ten plants for friends (I would clip them and root them in water, then replant for friends), and it lived for over 15 years.

It didn't die on it's own. My ex-husband and I would put it outside every summer to enjoy the sunlight, and it finally grew so big that we couldn't accommodate it in the house, and then we were getting divorced to top it all off, so the plant just stayed outside one year until it met its untimely death.

Since then, I've had more houseplants than I can remember. Through three houses, and varying degrees of sunlight, I've had to pass some along and make accommodations, but I've always had success. Succulents, though, have failed me 100% of the time.

I kill cactus, aloe, and any other succulent that comes my way. I've been told to water more, or water less, to give them more light, less light. Still, no dice. But I'm not ready to give up. Not yet. As I sit here in front of the fireplace, looking at my dropping, browing aloe plant, the one with still damp dirt, I wonder "What can I do to keep this plant alive?"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Party, People, and Pulled Pork

Hello my darlings. This past weekend, I hosted my mother's birthday party. It was a small gathering of her closest of friends, and it went very well. Everyone in attendance was lovely, telling stories and laughing. Though I knew everyone, I spent an extended period of time talking to my mother's friend, Lorenza. I always knew I liked her, but now, I love her.  She has such stories, and when I commented on a bracelet of hers that I loved, she told me that she made it, then took it off and gave it to me. In May, my friend Deb did the same thing. Took off her bracelet and gave it right to me. Wild, right? It seems that people like to take off their jewelry and give it to me. Pretty damn cool.

I set the party up outside, with string lights everywhere, and damask table cloths on the tables. I kept it simple and had fruit and cheese platters as appetizers, all of which I had the opportunity to sample at Whole Foods first. Dinner was a choice of empenadas or pulled pork, both of which were spectacular. The empenada recipe was from Krinky, and the pulled pork was from Deb. I know you don't know who they are, but you must know that they are both great in the kitchen.

I cannot say which was better. Both food options were amazing, and that is not me patting my own back, so much as it is me thanking them for their recipes (posted below).  They are simple, simple, simple to make. You just have to give them a try. Let me know how you do with them.

Krinky's Empenadas
1 lb. 85% ground beef (leaner will be too dry)
1 onion, chopped fine
2 T tomato paste
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 t cinnamon
1 t ground cumin
1 c Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded
1/4 c finely chopped cilantro
1 (15 oz.) box Pillsbury just unroll pie crust

Adjust oven rack to middle; heat to 450*. Line baking sheet with parchment paper (I didn't one, and it all stuck to the aluminum foil).
Cook beef and onion in large skillet over medium heat til just browned. Add tomato paste, garlic, cinnamon, and cumin, and cook til fragrant (about 30 seconds). Off the heat, stir in cheese and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper, if desired.
Cut each dough round in quarters. Arrange 1/4 of filling on one side of each half, leaving 1/2" border around edges. Brush edges with water, fold over filling, crimp edges to seal. Transfer to a baking sheet. Pierce air holes in dough and bake til golden brown, about 15 - 20 minutes.

Deb's Pulled Pork (Slow Cooker Style)
1 can root beer
1 pork loin 3 - 4 lbs.
1 bottle of your favorite BBQ sauce (largest size)
Worcestershire sauce
1 onion, sliced into rings

Pour a can of root beer in your slow cooker with the pork loin. Cover and turn the slow cooker on low for 6 hours.
Turn off slow cooker, drain out root beer and fat from pork loin. It's yucky and doesn't smell good but don't worry. It will.
Cut apart your pork loin into about four pieces. Put back in slow cooker, and add the whole bottle of BBQ sauce (I like Jack Daniels brand). Ade 1/4 to 1/3 c Worcestershire to empty BBQ sauce bottle and shake it well, getting all the BBQ sauce off the sides (waste not, girls), and then pour it in with the pork. Add onion rings.
Let it cook another 2 hours on low and mix it around periodically.
Use two forks to pull the pork loin apart. Remove and discard any fat.
Let it cook another 30 - 60 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve on your favorite rolls.

Pure Popcorn

Tell me, please tell me, that you are as horrified by microwave popcorn as I am. It's pure chemicals, it's expensive, and frankly, it doesn't taste very good.

For the past nine years, I've been using a stove top popper that required me to turn a handle to keep the kernels moving so that they wouldn't burn. A royal pain in the ass. So when my second stove top popper fell apart, I went out looking for a new one. 

Though I was unable to find what I was looking for, I found a different type of popper and it's just so much better. I got the West Bend Stir Crazy Corn Popper, took it home, and made some popcorn for my son. I used Boy Scout kernels which, apparently, are premium grade, because they over popped right out of the machine. I measured for regular kernels, so next time, I will put in less than the recommended cup.

Anyhow, I put in some canola oil and kernels, turned it on and left the room. It's automatic, so I didn't have to turn a handle, while still being a clean pop. There is a spot on top where you put your butter, that then melts all over the popped corn. It reminds me of the air popper we had when I was a kid. I am thrilled. 

Cleaning it is a breeze. Just a little soap and water. The user manual has all sorts of recipes (sugar and spice popcorn, molasses popcorn balls, stir crazy crunch) and it was pretty cheap. About $20, at Target. Ditch your microwave, and get yourself one of these bad boys.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Welcome to My World!

I am such an old-fashioned girl. I love old things, old ways, and I am happiest when in the kitchen. Dressing up, entertaining, and cooking give me a small thrill. Cleaning can be rewarding, too. Don't get me wrong, I am down with the bra-burning liberals who believe that women and men should have equal rights. But in the process of equalizing ourselves, we've pushed away the stuff that our grandmother's were proud to do like cooking, cleaning, gardening, knitting, decorating.

In today's world, we hire people to clean our houses, we buy prepared foods or dine out, we send out the laundry, and we leave our gardening up to the landscape companies. I know all about this. I did it, too.

After I got divorced, I felt I had an even better reason to do none of the above. I hired everyone to do everything. I even hired my friend to organize my closets. Maybe this all sounds normal, or maybe it sounds crazy. Either way, living like this kept me detached from my home. Someone else was responsible for everything that happened in my house. I didn't even know where my cleaning products were kept.

I wanted to be the person whose elbow grease got the house sparkling, who knew where the shoes were put, and how to change the vacuum bag. I wanted my son to eat whole foods that I made for him. Pancakes, meatballs, cookies from scratch. It's good, honest work.

I am both the man and woman of the house, so I do all those things, while also taking out the garbage, building the "some assembly required" furniture, and changing most of the light bulbs. For Christmas, I am asking for a drill, because I've learned that life is much easier when you have your own drill.

It is my hope that women go back to taking pride in making meals from scratch, whether on the stove top, in the oven, on the grill, or in the slow cooker. No more microwave meals, girls. You deserve better than nuked food. I hope that you will see flowers that inspire you to plant, and send thank you letters on note cards instead of by email, text, or worst of all, social networking posts. We need to slow down, get real, and stop getting lost in shortcuts.

Let's read books that we can hold in our hands, no nooks, no books on tape. Share recipes. Think, and live, slowly. Call, don't text, and put the cell phone down when you are driving. What is so important that it can't wait until you get home?

I am almost 41, and I've finally realized that all that matters in life are the people we love, and the little things we do to show them we care. That's what this blog is all about.

Hope you enjoy reading the domestic goddess files.