A Fish Tale...

Growing up, my mother had a certain repertoire of dishes that she drew from. We tended to eat the same handful of dishes again and again, and they were always perfect. Because we also ate out a lot (Mom may have been good at cooking, but she didn't enjoy it), it never became boring. Spaghetti, taco salad, burritos, chili, meatloaf, tuna salad, chicken and noodles, pork roast, and a well-practiced array of potato and vegetable side dishes were the defining flavors of my childhood.

In a way, I think my constant quest to test new recipes stems from an urge to find my own line-up of classics. Dishes that I can make again and again, and always end up with a reliable, delicious meal. Of course, I've adopted a few of Mom's recipes into my regular rotation, and in my roughly six-year cooking career, I've managed to accumulate a few standards of my own, like my pasta with saffron sausage sauce, turkey burgers, cranberry chicken salad, and of course, my beloved recipe for salmon cooked in parchment paper packets in the microwave. Not only was that salmon dish the very first recipe I ever shared here on "The State I Am In," it was one of the first things I ever made for Justin when we started dating. It has a very special place in my heart, just like he does.

Because salmon is one of Justin's favorite dishes, however, I found myself compelled to start looking for other ways to prepare it. Even if my existing recipe was flawless and foolproof, variety is the spice of life, and I didn't want Justin to get bored with plate after plate of salmon en papillote. Though I like salmon, because it is Justin's favorite, I've been scouring the web for recipes that combine salmon with other things Justin likes, and this time, I went with mustard. While I can tolerate mustard in small doses, my mustard collection has increased by a factor of 50% since we started dating; not unlike the exponential growth of my hot sauce collection, which has gone from zero to at least four different types that I can think of off the top of my head. The man likes his condiments.

Tonight's recipe came from Serious Eats, one of my favorite food blogs, and a good source for simple, weeknight recipes, which are woefully lacking from my repertoire in general. While it wasn't quite as quick or simple as my usual salmon, and it dirtied more pans, it was a nice change of pace. The mustard provided an acidic, spicy counterpoint to cut through the richness of the meat, and the technique of lightly buttering the bottom before searing the fish created a gorgeous, golden-brown crust on the bottom. I'm convinced that our broiler isn't working properly, due to a series of less-than-stellar attempts to use it in the past, but tonight, it beautifully browned and crisped the breadcrumbs scattered on top of the meat.

I would definitely consider making this again, even if it will never reach the hallowed status of my salmon en papillote recipe. Those kinds of dishes are rare, and finding them takes time. Until then, I'll have fun continuing to experiment, and in the meantime, I'll get the pleasure of trying new things, like tonight's mustard-baked salmon. I could do a lot worse, I think...

Easy, Crunchy Mustard-Baked Salmon
adapted from Serious Eats

2 slices high-quality white bread, crusts removed and torn into chunks
2 boneless, skinless salmon fillets
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for the salmon, softened
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1. Preheat the broiler to high and adjust rack to 6 inches below the element. Pulse bread in the bowl of a food processor until coarse crumbs are created, about 10 to 12 one-second pulses. Season the salmon with salt and pepper. Set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, mix together the breadcrumbs, 1 tablespoon butter, both mustards, and thyme, pinching the mixture together so the butter is incorporated and the mixture sticks together. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Spread the bottom of each fillet of salmon with a thin layer of butter. Preheat a medium skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add salmon buttered-side down and cook without moving until a nice crust has formed, about 2 minutes. Pile the crumbs on the salmon, then transfer to the broiler. Broil until the crumbs are crunchy and browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately.


Bein' Green...

I debated whether or not to blog about this recipe, considering it's for a dish that I find so odious that I've now made it twice without so much as testing it for seasoning. However, I've been told, by two distinct sets of dinner guests that it is ridiculously good. So good, in fact, that just about everyone who's sampled it has requested the recipe, which is what finally persuaded me that I should share it with others. I'm probably alone in my complete and utter disdain for guacamole anyway, so I'm sure the vast majority of you, my loyal readers, will be interested in this.

As I said, I can't stand guacamole, mostly because the texture and flavor of avocados grosses me out. It's like vaguely vegetal butter, and butter is an ingredient or a condiment, not something that I want to slather on chips and eat by itself. Plus, guacamole typically contains cilantro, and I belong to the camp of people with a genetic aversion to the herb. To me, it tastes like a combination of soap, and the flavor memory I have of putting keys in my mouth as a child -- metallic and unpleasantly tangy. As a result, I reach for other dips and snacks when I find myself at gatherings where guacamole is on the buffet table.

Not unlike fruit salad, however, despite my aversion, I'm fully aware of how much other people seem to love it, so I cranked out my first batch, based on a recipe from my of my favorite food bloggers, when Justin's family came over for my Cinco de Mayo-themed dinner. Magically, though only four people were eating it, the massive bowl of dip practically disappeared, and I suspected I might be on to something. I demanded honesty from Justin, to assure that it hadn't been eaten out of politeness, and he convinced me that it had, in fact, been the best guacamole he'd ever eaten.

With that knowledge in hand, I decided to reproduce it for yesterday's potluck. Not only would it accommodate my vegan guest, unlike my beloved olive tapenade, which contains anchovies, and cheese dip, the perennial snack time favorite on my mother's side of the family, but guacamole seems to be a crowd favorite. As Spock said, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." Once again, my guests inhaled the guacamole, and requested the recipe.

I can't vouch for this guacamole in any way, other than to promise you that everyone loves it. The secret to its alleged awesomeness is in the technique: pureeing the aromatics (the onion, cilantro, and peppers) punctures more cell membranes than merely chopping them, thereby releasing more flavor compounds into the finished dish. It seems like a subtle tweak, but apparently it makes a difference. If you like guacamole, I think you owe it to yourself to try it -- it may just be the best you've ever had. Only one way to find out...

The Best Basic Guacamole
adapted from Serious Eats

1 small yellow onion, roughly chopped
1.5 serrano peppers
1/2 c. cilantro leaves, finely minced and divided
2 teaspoons kosher salt
5 ripe avocados
juice of two limes

1. Combine onion, chili, half of cilantro, salt, and half of lime juice in a food processor and process until smooth paste is formed, scraping down sides as necessary.
2. Split each avocado in half, discard pits, and spoon out flesh into a medium bowl. Roughly mash with a stiff whisk. Add onion/chili puree, remaining cilantro leaves, and remaining lime juice. Fold to combine. Season to taste with more salt and lime juice. Serve immediately with warm tortilla chips.


I Suppose It's Berry Nice...

As we enter into summer, I've been observing people celebrate the arrival of warm-weather fruits and vegetables. My coworkers gleefully tear into packages of fresh strawberries and share them amongst themselves, and I've been buying boxes of blueberries for Justin to put in his morning cereal and pop into his mouth as a quick snack. I have to say though, with perhaps the exception of the impending arrival of peach/nectarine season, I'm not really feeling the same enthusiasm. I just don't care much for fruit.

Sure, I force myself to eat it from time to time in order to obtain vital nutrients, and feel like my diet is at least a little bit healthier, but I can honestly say that I never crave fruit. Nutritionists have tried to convince me in the past that if I eat it often enough, I'll come to love it, but it just hasn't happened. Even as my palate has matured during adulthood, and I've come to tolerate vegetables that I couldn't stand as a child, like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, I've yet to pick up a taste for fruit.

I particularly loathe berries, the stars of the summer fruit scene. I hate the tiny little seeds that get stuck in your teeth, the sweet/tart flavors, and the often mushy textures. If I puree them, add sugar, strain out the seeds and churn it into sorbet, I can get myself to eat raspberries, but that's about it, and I'm pretty sure that defeats any nutritional value in consuming the fruit.

Still, when it came time to pick some dishes for the Memorial Day potluck I hosted today, I found myself considering fruit salad. I may not understand it, but I'm astute enough to notice how happy people are to be consuming summer fruits. I make plenty of dishes I don't really want to eat myself just for the experience of making them and to bring joy to others, so why not give the people what they want? Plus, one of my guests has recently adopted a mostly-vegan diet, and I didn't have much time to bake one of my usual butter-laden desserts anyway, due to our trip down to White Hall. Fruit salad seemed like a perfect solution.

Because I don't eat it myself, I decided to turn to a source I could trust for a recipe -- my mom. For as long as I can remember, she's been making a fruit salad with poppy seed dressing that's always universally well-received with house guests, family members, and whoever else had had the chance to sample it over the years. I'd never had the inclination to try it myself, but I figured I couldn't go wrong.

Thankfully, though Mom was still down in White Hall with the rest of the family, Dad was home (an unfortunate accident at a conference he attended in Las Vegas last week left him with a badly sprained ankle, and unable to travel downstate with us) and he was able to locate the recipe in Mom's handwritten cookbook, transcribe it, and email it to me. Though I had to check two different grocery stores to find the frozen limeade concentrate called for in the dressing recipe, the recipe was exceedingly quick and easy to put together. The most time-consuming part was washing, peeling, and cutting up the fruit itself. Who knew it was so difficult to supreme an orange?

Just as it always has been for Mom, the fruit salad was a huge success. My guests devoured it, leaving only a tiny, single-size portion in the bottom of the giant bowl. Even I ate a few slices of peach and orange, and I have to admit, that for fruit salad, this stuff is pretty good. I know that simple, unadorned fruit seems to be popular this time of year, but if you're looking for a way to jazz up your summer produce bounty, I think you can't go wrong with this recipe.

Fresh Fruit Salad with Poppy Seed Dressing
adapted from Mom

1/4 c. honey
2 tablespoons frozen limeade concentrate
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
1/4 teaspoon poppy seeds
1/8 dry mustard powder

For salad, choose any four of the following:
1 c. fresh blueberries
2 medium peaches or nectarines, peeled and sliced
2 medium oranges, peeled and sliced
2 kiwis, peeled and sliced
1 c. fresh strawberries, sliced
1 c. grapes, sliced

In a small lidded jar, combine all dressing ingredients, shake well. Refrigerate several hours to blend flavors.  Arrange salad ingredients on serving plates.  Serve with dressing.



Surprise parties are kind of a big deal in my family. It feels like we're throwing one every couple of years, and the tradition goes back as far as I can remember. There was a surprise party to celebrate Grandma Betsy and Paw-Paw's 40th wedding anniversary; one to celebrate my 6th birthday, for which the whole family gathered in Galena, Illinois, where we frequently took family vacations during my childhood; we threw a motorcycle-themed surprise party for my uncle Doug when he turned 46, not long before he would tragically pass away from esophageal cancer; when he was still sick, he traveled to White Hall and the whole family stood outside on Grandma and Paw-Paw's deck and waited until they finally saw us standing out there -- I'll never forget the way Grandma's jaw dropped in shock!

More recently, we surprised Grandma on her 80th birthday (which, in retrospect, may not have been the best idea; I don't endorse surprise parties for the elderly), and my aunt Lisa, uncle Dick, and their kids have been engaged in a round-robin of surprise birthday parties. Tonight, we added to that proud, family tradition by throwing a surprise party to mark Mom's 60th birthday, and I have to say, we got her good.

Totally surprised -- and touched.
My aunt Brenda got in touch with me months ago to start planning a party for Mom; she wanted to do something to celebrate the person in our family who is always selflessly doing things for others, yet is seldom the center of attention herself. The family wanted to have a surprise party downstate, and in order to do so without raising suspicion, they had settled upon Memorial Day weekend, when the entire extended family usually gathers to tidy up Grandma's yard. I put it in our calendar, and the subterfuge began.

Calls flew back and forth between me and my aunt, on everything from timing to cake selection, though the vast majority of the plotting, scheming, and decision making occurred between my aunts Lisa and Brenda. Mom, of course, was curious why we weren't coming down to White Hall for Memorial Day, especially considering the fact that we didn't have any other plans. I scheduled a picnic with my friends for Monday just so I could tell her we had something going on (after 27 years of motherhood, she can always tell when I'm lying, so it had to be something that was grounded in fact), even though it would mean rushing back from downstate. 

Mom's Kermit cake suffered a mishap, as the unbalanced frog topper started sliding off the cake before the party started. My aunts and cousins hurriedly tried to prop him up with the cattails and leaves that had previously been interspersed over the surface of the cake, which held the whole thing together long enough for her to arrive, but it definitely diminished the overall aesthetic impact of the piece.
My aunts and cousin concocted an elaborate ruse to guide Mom into going to the restaurant where they were having the party: my aunt was babysitting one of her grand kids for the day, and the restaurant was on the way to her daughter's house so she could return him to his mother. Thankfully, the idea that she might be the subject of a surprise party was so far from Mom's mind, that she disregarded many potential tip-offs to what was afoot:
  • The large volume of cars in the parking lot didn't seem odd to her, and she didn't recognize the vehicles of her relatives. For our part, Justin and I had driven my distinctive, periwinkle Volkswagen Beetle an indirect way down to the party venue, to avoid driving through White Hall and the adjacent Roodhouse, where Mom might spot us, and had parted at my great-aunt's house and carpooled with her to the restaurant.
  • The restaurant sat us right in front of two large windows, which Mom didn't think to look through.
  • When they walked into the restaurant, my mom gave the hostess the name of the reservation, and the hostess said, "Party of eight? We have a party of thirty eight," and my Mom just wrote her off as being flighty.
When she came in the room, she was still so unsuspecting that she didn't even look in the direction of the huge gathering of people on the opposite side of the room. Her focus was on a table set for eight, the size of her original group, that the waitress was mysteriously not guiding her to. Finally, we had to haphazardly yell, "Surprise!" to get her attention, and even then, it took a few seconds for her to realize that the party was for her.

One of the biggest, and most genuine smiles I've ever seen from Mom.
Mom teared up, and exclaimed, "We don't do this kind of thing for me!" Not only was she completely taken by surprise, she was very touched. It was great to see so many people show up for Mom, and to see how many lives she has touched. She is very loved, not just by me, but by a community of people, and I'm happy that we were all able to gather to celebrate her -- she deserves it! Happy 60th Birthday, Mom!


Miso Hungry...

I try really hard to avoid monotony in my meal planning. Even the recipes we enjoy the most don't come into rotation very often, though Justin always seems very excited to see them when they do. Between my ongoing effort to try new recipes and expand my repertoire of dishes and skills, and my attempts to base what we eat around what's on sale at the grocery store, we end up with very little repetition in our diet. I honestly can't understand how some people eat the same rotation of meals week after week; a "Taco Tuesday" here, a "Clear Out the Fridge Friday" there, ad infinitum. I could maybe see living that way if you had kids who were picky eaters, but otherwise, that lifestyle would be anathema to me.

Thus, when I spotted an unbeatable deal on pork tenderloin at the grocery store this week, after we just had it last week, I knew I would have to find another way to prepare it. I couldn't turn down the price, but that didn't mean we needed to have the same meal in such a short period of time. While the last recipe I made was firmly within my comfort zone, (in fact, it was practically identical to the pork roast recipe I've been making lately), this time I chose a recipe that called for unfamiliar ingredients in a seemingly unusual combination. I was curious to see how they would play together.

Tonight's recipe called for the tenderloin to be brushed with a glaze made from miso, the Japanese soybean-derived paste, combined with apricot preserves, for sweetness. Fruit is a classic pairing for pork, but I was keen to see how the umami-rich miso would affect the balance of the dish. I'd never cooked with miso before, though I've eaten countless bowls of miso soup in my lifetime, so I was looking forward to experimenting with that as well. As I was reducing the glaze, I thought I could detect a buttery aroma emanating from the miso, but once the dish was complete, it didn't taste very strongly of the paste, other than a savory essence that was hard to pin down. The dominant flavor was, oddly enough, the orange zest, though the apricots added a pleasant sweet/tart element that rounded out the flavor profile.

The brightness from the vinegar in the glaze, coupled with the citrus made for a surprisingly light dish, for roasted meat. It was definitely a departure from the flavors that I usually pursue, but the dish made for a pleasant surprise. The meat was succulent, tender, and moist, and the sauce was a delicious, if unexpected accompaniment. I'd definitely consider this as a viable option for pork tenderloin in the future, if not the next time it goes on sale. After all, I have to keep things interesting...

Roast Pork Tenderloin with Apricot-Miso Glaze
adapted from Bon Appétit

5 tablespoons apricot preserves
1/4 c. miso (red or white both work fine)
1/4 c. white wine or Champagne vinegar
2 teaspoons orange zest
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 lbs. pork tenderloin, trimmed
1/2 c. chicken broth

Preheat oven to 425°F.
1. Coat large rimmed baking sheet with oil spray. Combine preserves, miso, vinegar, orange peel, and garlic in small pot over medium heat. Cook until thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Reserve.
2. Sprinkle pork with salt and pepper. Place on prepared baking sheet, tucking thin end under to ensure even cooking. Brush with 2 tablespoons apricot glaze; roast 12 to 15 minutes. Turn pork over with tongs and brush with 3 more tablespoons glaze. Continue to roast until instant-read thermometer inserted into center of pork registers 145°F, 8 to 10 minutes longer.
3. Transfer pork to cutting board, tent with foil, and let rest 10 minutes. Meanwhile, add chicken broth to remaining apricot glaze. Bring to simmer and cook until reduced to 2/3 cup sauce, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Slice pork crosswise into 1/2- to 3/4- inch-thick slices and arrange on platter. Spoon sauce over and serve.


Tied Up In Knots...

Much as I have been branching out lately into pies, tarts, cakes, and ice creams since we moved north, I can never really stray too far from my first love -- cookies. I'm always on the lookout for something new to capture my fancy, which is actually increasingly difficult these days, given the sheer volume of flavor combinations I've already tried in cookie form at this point. Still, the combination of salty and sweet together never ceases to be a font of inspiration for me, and when I spotted these pretzel and peanut-topped blondies in an old issue of Bon Appétit when I was purging my cooking magazine stash earlier this year, I quickly added them to my queue. 

Pretzels have long been a favorite dessert fixture of mine since I unexpectedly encountered them pressed into the top of some chocolate chip cookies at a restaurant that my family used to frequent when I was in high school. I'd always liked chocolate-covered pretzels, so the pairing didn't seem completely bizarre to me, but I had never though of pretzels as an ingredient for baked goods before that point. I was a little devastated when that restaurant closed, but now that I've got a kitchen of my own, I'm free to experiment with tossing pretzels into whatever strikes my fancy, including that chocolate-covered pretzel pie I baked back on Pi Day.

Plus, pretzels are something I tend to keep around the house these days. Since a over-enthusiastic binge on Cheetos and Doritos back when we first moved in together led to an unwelcome expansion of both mine and Justin's waistlines, I've banned all salty snack foods in the house with the exception of pretzels and the occasional bag of tortilla chips, which don't seem to pose the same threat to our collective willpower. I'm not sure that turning our "healthful" snack choice into an indulgent dessert is exactly helping our caloric intake, but having pretzels on hand certainly made this recipe a more attractive candidate.

Despite the burn I suffered while making salted butter caramel a couple weeks ago, I do think I'm becoming more confident with making caramel, as I breezed through that portion of the recipe rather effortlessly. My only real problem with the recipe, as written, was that it called for far too many peanuts (nearly four cups!), and not enough pretzels for my taste. The result was a barely-there layer of blondie (perhaps the best showcase for browned butter that I've yet to encounter in a dessert, however), that was dwarfed by over an inch of nuts. The pretzels faded into the background, which was a shame, given the salty kick and delightfully crispy texture they imparted. I've changed the recipe below to reflect a ratio that I think would work much better.

In the end, these "cookies" felt more like a candy bar, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Given that a certain family member of mine who shall remain nameless nurses a near-addiction level obsession with peanuts, it's very likely I'll be making these again, though I'd prefer a higher ratio of caramel-to-nuts. It's pretty clear that I'm having a salty-sweet moment right now, and there's no end in sight...

Butterscotch Blondie Bars with Peanut-Pretzel Caramel 
adapted from Bon Appétit
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
2 c. light brown sugar, firmly packed
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Peanut-Pretzel Caramel
2 1/2 c. roasted peanuts (I would use a combination of salted and unsalted)
2 c. sugar
1/4 c. honey
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/2 c. heavy cream
2 c. thin twisted pretzels, coarsely crushed

For Blondie:

Preheat oven to 350°. 
1. Line baking pane with parchment paper, leaving a 1" overhang on long sides of pan. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside. Stir butter in a medium skillet over medium heat until browned bits form at bottom of pan 7–8 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl. 
2. Add brown sugar. Using an electric mixer, beat until well combined and mixture resembles wet sand, 2–3 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla; beat until fluffy and well combined, about 2 minutes. Add dry ingredients; beat until smooth (batter will be thick). Using an offset or regular spatula, evenly spread batter in prepared pan.
3. Bake blondie until golden brown, edges pull away from sides of pan, and tester inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, 20–25 minutes. Let cool completely in pan on a wire rack.

For Caramel:

Preheat oven to 350°. 
1. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread peanuts over sheet in an even layer. Bake, stirring frequently, until golden brown and fragrant, 5–7 minutes. Set aside. 
2. Stir sugar and 1/2 cup water in a large saucepan over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat; boil without stirring, occasionally swirling pan and brushing down sides with a wet pastry brush, until caramel is deep amber, 12–15 minutes. Add honey; return to a boil, stirring often, about 1 minute longer. Add butter; stir until blended. Add cream (mixture will bubble vigorously); whisk until smooth. Stir in peanuts and pretzels. Pour over cooled blondie. Chill until cool, about 30 minutes. 
3. Run a knife around short sides of pan to release blondie. Using parchment-paper overhang, lift from pan. Cut lengthwise into 4 strips. Cut each strip crosswise into 10 bars.


Turn The Page...

Every month, a stack of cooking magazines arrives in my mailbox. Ever since we moved and I had to get rid of years of backlogged magazines, I've tried to be better about going through them, looking up the interesting recipes online, pinning them to Pinterest for safekeeping, and tossing out the hard copies.Even so, there seem to be recipes that linger in my queue longer than others, and they mainly seem to originate from Saveur.

I'll admit, I was just as crushed as the rest of the foodie universe when I found out Gourmet was shutting down back in 2009, but it seems that Saveur has taken its place in the prestige food journalism world. Both magazines are notable for the artistry of their food photography, and the quality of their writing is top-notch. Saveur, however, has more of a travel-bent, and focuses on recipes derived from global cuisines. It's gorgeous to flip through and dream about vacations to exotic lands, but the recipes they include are often impractical for the home chef.

The average Saveur recipe demands a trip to the gourmet shop, at the very least, and possibly a trip to one or more ethnic grocery stores. I managed to circumvent this conundrum with last week's bucatini all'amatriciana by substituting bacon for pancetta, but even for someone who typically dedicates one day a week to an elaborate cooking project, it's just too much effort to source the ingredients to cook from Saveur on a regular basis.

I did, however, manage to spot another more reasonable recipe from Saveur, for Turkish tomato and lamb flat breads known as lahmacun, billed as being the Turkish answer to pizza. Since I had recently located reasonably-priced ground lamb at the unusual combination Latino/Eastern European grocery store not far from my house, I decided to give Saveur its due and give the recipe a try.

I've gotten to the point where I really enjoy experimenting with yeast doughs; not only do they impart a very comforting smell of baking bread to your house, it's almost magical to watch the dough rise and grow, almost like a living creature. Hence, this was a perfect Saturday afternoon project for me. I could see taking a shortcut and using pre-baked pita or naan as a base for the richly-spiced sauce of tomato, onion and lamb, if I wanted to have this meal on a weeknight, but I enjoyed putting in the effort.

Thanks to Saveur, I was able to recreate a little bit of Turkey in my kitchen practically on the other side of the world, in addition to producing a unique and tasty dinner for Justin and myself. They say the world is getting smaller all the time, and I'm lucky to live in a big city with access to ingredients from other cultures. Isn't the modern world amazing sometimes?

adapted from Saveur

1 teaspoon sugar 
1 package active dry yeast
2 c. flour, plus more for dusting
1 1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling
1⁄4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cumin
1⁄4 teaspoon paprika
1⁄8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 oz. ground lamb
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 plum tomato, grated
1 small onion, grated
1⁄2 serrano chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1.Combine sugar, yeast, and 3⁄4 cup water heated to 115˚ in a small bowl; let sit until foamy, about 10 minutes. Combine flour and salt in a bowl and make a well in the center. Add yeast mixture and stir to form a dough. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth, about 6 minutes. Transfer dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let dough rest until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Punch down dough, divide into 4 portions, and roll each portion into a ball. Transfer dough balls to a floured baking sheet. Cover with a damp tea towel and let rest for 45 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, make the topping: In a large bowl, combine oil, tomato paste, parsley, cayenne, cumin, paprika, and cinnamon and stir vigorously with a fork. Stir in lamb, garlic, tomatoes, onions, and chiles and season with salt; set topping aside. 
3. Put a pizza stone in bottom third of oven and heat oven to 475°. Working with one dough ball at a time, use a rolling pin to roll dough into a 10" disk. Brush off excess flour and transfer dough to a piece of parchment paper. Spoon 3–4 tbsp. topping onto dough and using your fingers, spread topping evenly to edges. Season with salt. Holding parchment paper by its edges, transfer to baking stone. Bake until dough is golden brown and topping is cooked, 6–8 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough and topping; serve warm or at room temperature.   


The Whole World Is Watching...

Chicagoans have been on pins and needles this week as the city prepares to host the 2012 NATO Summit, where heads of state and diplomats from the organization's 28 member states will gather to discuss matters of foreign policy. The city very much remembers the scars left by the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the Chicago Police Department, along with the military and the federal government, is taking every conceivable precaution to make sure that the event is not unduly disrupted by protesters. Popular opinion holds that the officials are way overreacting, and exaggerating the extent of the security threat, and I tended to be of that mindset as well. For one thing, Occupy Chicago has never garnered the same attention or strength as the New York and Oakland branches of the movement, and I can't recall a protest around here that has attracted a mass audience in my lifetime.

However, today, on the eve of the Summit, I did spot two groups of protesters; one was a small band of Veterans for Peace, roving through my neighborhood on the sidewalk, near my bus stop of all places, protesting U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. I have to question their decision to protest in Roger's Park, where there was nobody to see them but commuters on their way to work and students on their way to school -- certainly no media. The other was a larger group with a parade permit, marching down Clark Street around lunch time, and accompanied by about half as many cops as there were people in the parade. This group had a more general anti-NATO message, but they were much better organized, complete with witty chants. 

It will be interesting to see how the Summit plays out. Will the protests increase in strength and numbers, as feared by the police, or will they continue at the same relatively unimpressive level? As for me, I couldn't really care less about the whole NATO gathering, aside from the impact it's having on my commute to work. I'm glad not to work or live downtown while this is going on, as the unpredictable reroutes and street closures will undoubtedly create a traffic nightmare. For now, I'm content to watch it all unfold from the far North side, and remain geographically above the fray.


Keep It Simple, Stupid...

Ever since I've taken a greater interest in food, I've made more of an effort to seek out culinary experiences when I travel. In Istanbul, I took in the sights and smells of the spice bazaar, where heaping piles of brightly-colored spices compete for consumers' attention, and on my most recent trip to Italy, I made sure to check out the central markets in Florence and Ravenna. Foodie travel icon Anthony Bourdain says the best way to learn about a place is through its markets, and while I'm not sure I completely agree with that, it is a treat unto itself to see all the rare foods that are common in other countries but that don't get imported to the United States for whatever reason.

For example, in the upper right hand corner of this photo is burrata, a cheese that has recently become trendy in the U.S., but is almost always inferior to the Italian original. The cheese spoils so rapidly that it is wrapped in leaves on the day it is made. When the leaves begin to wilt, you know the cheese is no longer fresh.
In addition to visiting the markets, I felt a certain hyper-awareness of what I was eating when I was in Italy this time around. I enjoyed the food a great deal more than I did the first two times I was there, due to a combination of older, more diverse taste buds and greater knowledge about what I was eating. Also, I feel that I have much stronger memories of what I ate this time around. 

A simple plate of spaghetti all'amatriciana, for example, stands out in my mind as a study in culinary elegance. There weren't many ingredients, but everything in the recipe served an important purpose. Guanciale, or cured pork jowl, adds a funky, smokey flavor to the dish, balanced by the heat of red pepper flakes. Tomatoes provide acidity, and onions lend their sharp bite. Italians can be very rigid and resistant to interpretive license with their classic dishes, and it is easy to see why -- you shouldn't mess with perfection.

Since I don't have one of those expansive, European-style markets at my disposal, I had to make a few improvisations when I attempted to replicate that plate of pasta in my own kitchen. For one, guanciale only exists at expensive gourmet shops, so I substituted bacon, since I had some on hand. It wasn't quite the same, but it would do. I also substituted regular, cheap canned tomatoes for the imported San Marzano varietal favored by Italians. Sacrilege, I know, but the dish still turned out just fine. 

The dinner I ended up with, bucatini all'amatriciana, was easy and quick enough to be a regular weeknight meal around here. It will never supplant Sardinian sausage sauce as my favorite at-home Italian meal, but it's always good to have options, especially when they conjure up such happy memories...

Bucatini all'Amatriciana
adapted from Saveur

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 oz. pancetta or bacon , cut into strips
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small carrot, minced
1⁄2 medium onion, minced
1⁄2 teaspoon. crushed red chile flakes
1  28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 lb. bucatini or spaghetti
1/2 c. grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving

Heat oil in a large, high-sided skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta; cook, stirring, until lightly browned, 6–8 minutes. Add pepper; cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Increase heat to medium-high; add garlic, carrots, and onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 6 minutes. Add chile flakes; cook for 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens and flavors meld, 20–25 minutes. Season with salt; keep warm.

Bring a large pot ofsalted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until just al dente, 6–8 minutes. Reserve 1⁄2 cup pasta water; drain pasta. Heat reserved sauce over medium heat. Add pasta and reserved water; cook, tossing, until sauce clings to pasta, 2–3 minutes. Add 1⁄2 cup Pecorino; toss. Divide between serving bowls; serve with additional Pecorino.


Tender Is the Loin...

There used to be a time when I could barely bring myself to touch raw meat. For the first several years of my cooking career, I only made dishes either with ground beef or turkey that I could flop into the pan straight out of the package, or I purchased meat that was cut exactly to the size I needed. This may not be very PC of me to say, given the growing sentiment against factory farmed meat, and the popularity of Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, but I struggle with being reminded of the fact that my meat once came from a living, breathing animal. I prefer to delude myself that it just materialized, neatly shrink-wrapped in my grocery store's butcher counter. If I put too much thought into where my meat comes from, I'd probably start considering vegetarianism. 

Over time, I've gotten less squeamish. I'll buy bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs because they are cheaper, and do some of the butchering myself. I've even started expanding the repertoire of meat that I'm willing to purchase, into pork roasts and pork tenderloins, both of which need to be trimmed and cleaned at home. I'm not going to say that trimming the firmly-attached silver skin off of a pork tenderloin is a pleasant kitchen task, because the meat is still slimy to the touch, and that stuff is practically impossible to remove, but I'm willing to go through the effort in order to add variety to our diet. 

This week, I managed to find a relatively decent price on pork tenderloin, which can be incredibly pricey, so I brought one home. To prepare it, I opted for a recipe that included roasted pears and shallots, since fruit is such a natural compliment to pork. Furthermore, I was intrigued by the unique pan sauce that accompanied the meat, which was formed from a mixture of pear nectar and chicken stock. I hadn't seen a sauce quite like it before, so it seemed like a technique worth exploring.

I'm not sure how I didn't realize this, however, but the ingredients for this dish were quite similar to the pork roast with apples I made for the first time two months ago, and have already made again since then. the herbs were similar, as was the presence of fruit, and shallots. Even though this dish was delicious, and the sauce was a nice extra component lacking from the pork roast recipe, I'd just as soon stick to the roast in the future. Not only is the cut of meat cheaper, the cooking method produces a juicier piece of meat. I'd just as soon get the same flavor profile for less money. 

That said, this dish was very good, and would be an impressive meal to serve to guests. If you don't have a Dutch oven for the pork roast recipe, I think this would be an excellent alternative.

Pork Tenderloin with Pears and Shallots 
adapted from Bon Appétit
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 1 1/4-pound pork tenderloin
3 large shallots, each cut into 6 wedges through stem end, peeled
3 unpeeled small Bosc or Anjou pears, quartered, cored
4 teaspoons butter, room temperature
2 teaspoons all purpose flour
1 1/2 c. chicken broth
3/4 c. pear nectar

Preheat oven to 475°F. 

1. Mix oil, garlic, and chopped thyme in small bowl. Rub mixture over pork, shallots, and pears. Heat large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork and shallots; brown on all sides, turning, about 7 minutes. Transfer shallots to platter. Transfer pork to baking sheet (do not clean skillet). Roast pork until thermometer inserted into center registers 145°F, about 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, add pears to same skillet and cook over medium-high heat until brown on cut side, turning once or twice, about 4 minutes. Transfer pears to platter (do not clean skillet).

3. Mix butter and flour in small cup. Add broth, pear nectar, and butter mixture to same skillet; boil until sauce thickens, scraping up browned bits, about 7 minutes.
4. Slice pork; arrange on platter. Surround with pears and shallots. Drizzle sauce over pork.


My Corner Of The Sky...

As if one cultural outing this weekend wasn't enough, we headed up to the burbs today to catch the final showing of Pippin, the 70's pop musical. The show was produced by the Music Theater Company, a small troupe with an equally tiny performance space in Highland Park. Call me an elitist, but I usually ignore the suburban theater scene in favor of what's going on in the city, but Justin's parents had seen this particular production of Pippin, and were adamant that we needed to see it as well.

For reasons that previously eluded me, Pippin seems to hold a place in the heart of virtually every musical theater enthusiast I know, though I had never seen it, and had little interest in doing so. Still, Justin was persistent, and eventually found some heavily discounted tickets on Goldstar, so I decided to suck it up and head back to my hometown to see it.

Just as with Fela!, I ended up being glad that I let Justin talk me into checking out Pippin. While I wasn't crazy about the story arc of the show, and had little sympathy for Pippin himself as a main character (frankly, I found his quest for complete fulfillment at all times to be narcissistic and annoying), the show had several standout songs. Plus, the Musical Theater Company had cast an extremely talented group of performers, who were well-suited to their roles. The singing was superb (which is a rare thing in smaller productions, I've found), and the dancing was top-notch as well.

Predictably, for a small theater group with limited funds, the costumes were somewhat lacking, and looked to be pulled together out of the actors' closets in many cases. The set design was also quite minimalist, though not ineffective. I found myself a bit uncomfortable with the small scale of the theater space, in which our first row seats left us mere inches from the actors, and oftentimes the subjects of their eye contact, but that wasn't really their fault. I just prefer a less immersive theatrical experience.

Even so, the Music Theater Company's rendition of Pippin provided an excellent afternoon of entertainment. As long as we could secure seats that were a little farther back in the theater, I would gladly check out their offerings in the future, and I look forward to seeing what they tackle next.


Bird Watching...

With our entertainment budget limited as it is right now, splurges are rare for us. Tonight, I made an exception to attend another concert by Andrew Bird, who is not only my favorite musician, but one of the few performers that I have any interest in seeing live. I try to see him whenever he comes through Chicago, which is usually at least once a year, given that it is his hometown, though the number of traditional concerts he performs seems to be pretty small. Instead, he seems more interested in experimental performance structures, like the Gezelligheid shows he performed at the Third Presbyterian Church two Christmases in a row, or the intimate show he did in conjunction with his sound installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art last year. Hence, when I heard that he was going to perform a conventional concert at the Auditorium Theater to promote his new album, Break It Yourself, I knew I had to be there.

Since Justin and I don't make it down to the South Loop very often these days, we started our evening with dinner at Tamarind, the site of our first date. It's a sentimental favorite of ours, and I'm glad that it's still there for us to revisit. After our meal, we headed over to the theater, and began the arduous task of climbing to our seats, which were, by far, the worst seats I've ever had for an Andrew Bird concert. Normally, I'm willing to shell out more money for decent tickets, but Andrew Bird is extremely popular in his hometown, and his shows here regularly sell out in a matter of hours. Tickets for this one went on sale while I was at work, so I didn't have a chance to buy them until several hours after they had gone on sale, and I was lucky to get seats in the second to last row of the upper balcony. Even if we could barely see, we could still hear perfectly, due to the Auditorium Theater's formidable acoustics and sound system.

As per usual, Andrew Bird seems to have a vendetta against his fans, and subjected us to another miserable opening act. I've gotten to the point where I almost prefer his unusual, small-venue shows, because he is less likely to have an opener, because ever band I've ever seen open for him has been uniformly awful. One time, it was a Transylvanian-style folk duo consisting of an accordionist and a violin player, and another, it was a avant-garde jazz guitarist who seemed to think that tuning his instrument somehow constituted a musical composition. This time, we were forced to sit through Mucca Pazza, a self-described "circus-punk marching band," whose M.O. seemed to consist of a large number of musicians in mismatched costumes playing mildly tolerable music, and dancers dressed as cheerleaders milling aimlessly around, occasionally executed half-hearted, not necessarily synchronized routines. Needless to say, I was glad when it was over and Andrew Bird finally took the stage.

After last year's concert at the MCA, Justin was wary of giving Andrew Bird another try, as he didn't care for Bird's more experimental improvisational style. This time around, he seemed to really enjoy the show, which had the benefit of having a band to provide back-up instrumentals, as well as a female vocalist. Justin was pleased to hear a few songs that he was familiar with, including "Fake Palindromes," which is the ring-tone on my phone, but mostly, Bird stuck to material from the new album, which was fine with me.

Even though Andrew Bird is my favorite musician, I find that every time he comes out with a new album, it takes me a great deal of time to get into it. In fact, I often react quite negatively to his new work, and it is only after I force myself to listen to it several times that I begin to appreciate it. I'm not sure why that is, but it was certainly the case with Break It Yourself, which seems to have an even more mellow vibe than many of his previous albums. I've been listening to it on-and-off for weeks on my daily commute, but it mostly just kept putting me to sleep, and I couldn't get into it.

Hearing Bird perform the songs live, however, and getting to hear some of the stories behind them, gave me the sense of appreciation that I'd been lacking before. Though he didn't play the song from Break It Yourself that I enjoyed the most, "Sifters," I discovered a new fondness for others, such as "Near Death Experience," "Lazy Projector," and even "Lusitania," which I have never enjoyed across the several years that Bird has played fragments of it at concerts I've attended while he was working on it. That's what a powerful live performer he is.

Of course, my heart lit up with glee when he played Kermit the Frog's anthem, "Bein' Green," which has been a part of Bird's set list ever since he recorded the song for the compilation of Muppets covers, The Green Album, last year. His other covers were less memorable, and seemed to be drawn mostly from old-school folk and bluegrass artists I've never heard of, but such things are the source of his hipster cred. Still, it was interesting to hear him employ his talents in a different musical style, especially when he chose to unplug and play acoustic. In fact, I think the acoustic portions were Justin's favorite part of the show, largely because it was the easiest to understand Bird's admittedly mumbled delivery without the instruments to drown him out.

Overall, I consider the outlaying of funds to see this show money very well spent. I'd gladly shell out to see Andrew Bird the next time he's in town, and until then, I'll be listening to Break It Yourself on my iPod until I've made myself completely sick of it.



Whenever I have the privilege of traveling, I always do some research to learn about special foods and products that are native to the place I'll be visiting. I'm a firm believer in eating the cuisine of the place where you find yourself (no international trips to McDonald's, even if the menu is different abroad), and I try to find souvenirs that are evocative of where they came from, instead of a t-shirt or shot glass. Hence, when I traveled to the northern coast of France in 2007, I knew that butter seasoned with the native sea salt, or fleur de sel was a big deal in Normandy, and that caramel made with that salted butter was a specialty in the region of Brittany.

I dutifully buttered pieces of bread all along the Normandy coast without really having a dairy-induced epiphany, but when we crossed the border into Brittany just to have lunch in the walled city of Saint-Malo, I decided to be indulgent and have a salted caramel crepe as my meal. After all, these kinds of opportunities don't present themselves every day. I wish I could say that eating that crepe was a transcendent experience that fostered in me a burgeoning love of salted caramel, but it was merely okay. It was, however, tasty enough to inspire me to buy a few bags of salted caramel candy and salted caramel sauce to bring home as gifts for friends. 

Looking out over the English Channel from the defensive fortifications surrounding Saint-Malo.
Later in the trip, I was jonesing for a snack, and I decided to open up one of the packages of candy I'd bought. Surely nobody would miss a sole, missing piece, right? It was here that I finally had my culinary revelation. This innocent-looking caramel shocked my taste buds and changed the trajectory of my pursuits in the kitchen. It was better, even, than the beloved pecan-studded caramels that Grandma Betsy lovingly makes every year at Christmas, and dispenses to the family, and I treasure those like few other things in life. (Seriously, if I've ever shared one of my grandma's caramels with you, you are a very special person in my life.)

These were soft and chewy, like any good caramel, but they truly tasted of rich, creamy butter. They were far darker in color than any caramel candy I'd ever seen in the United States, and the resulting almost-burnt flavor of them helped temper the sweetness of the candy. The salt just rounded things out, and brought out the deep, well-developed flavor notes. I quickly decided to keep all the candy for myself, as well as the caramel sauce, and resolved to find other gifts for my family and friends.

That day, an obsession was born. Ever since then, I've been trying to replicate that initial encounter with salted butter caramel, from conquering my fear of caramelizing sugar at home, to finding a way to sneak salted caramel into every conceivable dessert possible. Today, with the help of ice cream genius David Lebovitz, I conquered salted butter caramel ice cream.

Although the ice cream ended up a bit runny, possibly from the high sugar content of the caramel, possibly from the larger-than-usual proportion of salt, the flavor of it was nearly identical to the salted butter caramel I first had in France. It is so intense, in fact, that I could only handle eating a small amount before needing a break, and a tall glass of water. That just means that you'll have it around longer to inject a bit of salted caramel joy into your days.

Going forward, I would omit the caramel praline from Lebovitz's recipe. The idea was that the tiny shards of caramel would absorb moisture from the surrounding ice cream and melt, leaving ribbons of liquid caramel in the finished product, but this process was incomplete in my batch. Instead, I was left with unpleasant bits of glass-like hard caramel that I was afraid would break my teeth. It was the single biggest flaw with this creation.

For the first time in my burgeoning caramel-making career, I managed to give myself a second degree burn on my thumb while I was adding butter to the molten sugar, so take a lesson from me and wear oven mitts if you decide to give this a try!

Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream
adapted from David Lebovitz

2 c. whole milk
1 1/2 c. sugar
4 tablespoons salted butter
scant 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 c. heavy cream
5 large egg yolks
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Make an ice bath by filling a large bowl about a third full with ice cubes and adding a cup or so of water so they’re floating. Nest a smaller metal bowl (at least 2 quarts) over the ice, pour 1 cup of the milk into the inner bowl, and rest a mesh strainer on top of it.
2. Spread 1½ cups sugar in the saucepan in an even layer. Cook over moderate heat, until deeply.
3. Once caramelized, remove from heat and stir in the butter and salt, until butter is melted, then gradually whisk in the cream, stirring as you go. The caramel may harden and seize, but return it to the heat and continue to stir over low heat until any hard caramel is melted. Stir in 1 cup of the milk.
4. Whisk the yolks in a small bowl and gradually pour some of the warm caramel mixture over the yolks, stirring constantly. Scrape the warmed yolks back into the saucepan and cook the custard using a heatproof utensil, stirring constantly (scraping the bottom as you stir) until the mixture thickens. If using an instant-read thermometer, it should read 160-170 degrees.
5. Pour the custard through the strainer into the milk set over the ice bath, add the vanilla, then stir frequently until the mixture is cooled down. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or until thoroughly chilled.
6. Freeze the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.


Didn't We Almost Have It All...

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just can't make something work, even when it seems like you are poised for success. Such was the case with tonight's dinner, a pasta dish that I selected based on what I believed to be the foolproof triad of bacon (which makes everything better), Brussels sprouts (a vegetable of which I am growing increasingly fond), and dried cranberries (which are surprisingly delicious in pasta, just try them in a basil cream sauce with chicken and fettuccine if you don't believe me.) I really couldn't fathom how that combination of ingredients could possibly go wrong, so I selected it as a relatively simple weeknight meal. 

Somewhere along the line, however, my foolproof meal turned into a flop. After following the directions in the recipe, the Brussels sprouts turned out completely overcooked -- soggy and bitter. No amount of crispy bacon, sweet-tart nuggets of dried fruit, or savory sauce was going to fix this nightmare. After all, it was generations of miserable, cooked-to-death Brussels sprouts that gave them their maligned status today, and when the usually tender, savory sprouts are cooked within an inch of their lives, they pretty much deserve all that bad press.

Usually, Justin and I playfully argue over who will get to take an evening's leftovers for lunch the next day if there isn't enough for both of us, but not tonight. Both of us tried to persuade the other to take them, in the guise of doing them a favor, but we both knew nobody wanted to eat this dish again. 

I'm not sure I'd be willing to give this another try. I do believe in this flavor combination, and perhaps if the sprouts were properly cooked, this would still have the potential to be delicious. After this failure, however, I'm almost to traumatized to try it. I've adjusted the recipe to reflect the changes I would try next time, if there is a next time...

Pasta with Brussels Sprouts, Cranberries, and Caramelized Onions
adapted from Serious Eats

4 oz. bacon, sliced into 1/4 inch strips
12 oz. Brussels sprouts, halved and trimmed
1 medium onion, sliced
1 1/4 c. chicken broth
1/2 c. dried cranberries, chopped
6 oz. fettuccine or spaghetti
2 oz. Parmesan cheese

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While that warms up, toss the bacon into a large skillet set over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon has rendered some of its fat and is crisp, five to seven minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels.
2. Turn the heat to medium-high, and add the Brussels sprouts cut-side down. Cook, making sure not to stir them, until they are browned, about two minutes. Add the onion slices, stir, and cook until the onions are translucent, about four minutes. 
3. Pour in the broth, vermouth, and dried cranberries. Stir well. Cover the skillet, reduce heat to medium, and cook until the sprouts are very tender, about 5 minutes. 
4. Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the directions on the packaging, minus a minute or two. When done, reserve 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid, and drain the pasta in a colander. Then toss the pasta into the skillet along with the pasta water. Turn heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring constantly, until the pasta is well coated and the liquid has evaporated, one to two minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with grated Parmesan and the cooked bacon.


Home Sweet Home...

Friday, in preparation for Justin's parents' visit, Mom came over to hang pictures while I was cleaning the house. I felt that it was important to get some of our artwork up on the walls before his parents came to see the place, not only because they are an important finishing touch on the place, but because I think they're reflective of my taste, and my vision for our home. I have a ton of artwork that I've been collecting since I was in high school, preparing for the day when I would have a place of my own, and it was very rewarding to find the right place for everything. I think the condo looks really great now, and I'm thrilled to be another step closer to being finished. Check it out:


I had originally selected an ornamental sculpture to hang over the bed, consisting of numerous wire circles welded together, but Justin was not a fan. It had been hanging over the bed in my previous apartment, and one night the nail it was hanging on came loose and it fell on me in my sleep. I told him about how it startled the bejeezus out of me, and he was paranoid about a recurrence, so I nixed that idea and went with a set of photographs from Xavier Nuez, a local artist. He has a fascinating working method, in which he photographs dilapidated urban scenes with an extremely long exposure. While the camera is running, he turns on a series of brightly-colored lights within the scene, creating dramatic lighting effects. I fell in love with his work at the Old Town Art Fair last year, and snapped up a trio of prints.


We recently finished work on the master bathroom, and the color (a vibrant yellow-green that I probably wouldn't have chosen if it hadn't been a spot-on match to the bedroom carpet) is growing on me. Miraculously, this etching that I picked up at a previously-owned art sale in high school was also a perfect match for the room, and just the right size for that particular piece of wall.

I'm really pleased with the Star Wars posters that have been intended for the space over our futon in the mancave ever since I gave them to Justin for Christmas last year. They bring a nice pop of color to a largely monochromatic room, and the retro styling of them fits the design sensibility as well. I'm particularly happy with the mats I chose for them, which have subtle sparkles embedded in them that emulate the night sky. I was concerned that they would come across as glittery and girly, but they ended up being the perfect compliment to the sci-fi theme.

For our dining alcove, I selected another trio of photographic prints, this time from California artist, Audrey Heller. I saw her work at the One of a Kind Show at the Merchandise Mart several years back, and was struck by her sense of whimsy. You see, she photographs commonplace household and outdoor scenes, but includes tiny model figurines from toy train sets who interact with the regular-sized items in creative ways. The photo on the top left, for example, shows a bag of Goldfish Crackers, complete with tiny scuba divers. Since all three images are food-themed, I had purchased them with the intent of putting them in my future kitchen. There ended up being no wall space in the kitchen at our place, but I figured the dining room was the next best thing. Plus, Justin's mom pointed out that the warm tones in the artwork pick up on the colors in our vase of sticks, which is just an added bonus.

I struggled with what to hang over the fireplace, since I didn't have a single piece that was large enough. I ultimately decided that a thematically-unified grouping of images would have to do, and settled upon my collection of woodblock prints. The long, skinny one on the right has been a constant fixture at my place of residence since my last year of college, and it, along with the picture on the bottom left, both came from the same pre-owned art sale I used to frequent in high school. The print on the top left came into my life through my travels, when I spotted it in the window at an art dealer in Prague.I've long been a fan of German Expressionism, and while the artist is presumably Czech, I felt that the crying nuns it depicts were similar in tone.

Technically, there's no artwork in the kitchen, but I figured I'd include a photo of it anyway, while I was including photos of every other room in the house.

The second bathroom is one of two rooms left that are incomplete (you can't see it, but the electrician had to make a hole in the wall to install the new light fixture, and it still needs to be repaired and painted), in addition to the curtains that still need to be hung in the master bedroom. Still, I'm pleased with how the polka-dotted shower curtain works with the towels and the paint that we recycled from our bedroom. It's always nice to save a bit of money when you can! I turned the bathroom into the etching room, with a collection of small format works I've assembled over the years.The other two pieces are on the wall on the other side of the mirror.

Thanks, Mom, for all the hard work! I think the house looks more like a home than ever, and I really couldn't be more pleased.