Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Favorite Spaces

I think everyone should have a few favorite spaces in their home. Even if the house is a disastrous mess, even if you don't have fancy furniture and artwork and accessories, there should be a few little corners of rooms where you can move the mess out of the way and take a photograph that looks like it came out of a design magazine. When I do the dusting and vacuuming I really appreciate these spaces in my house. You probably have spaces like this in yours. Take pictures of them. They'll make you love your home.

I bought this little stool at our community garage sale a few weeks ago. It was a wreck when I brought it home. The seat was covered with a ratty old moth eaten needlepoint tapestry. I restuffed it with polyfill and reupholstered it with the fabric leftover from the curtains I made a few years ago for the dining room. If you've never reupholstered furniture, it's easy to do and a great way to change the look of a room without spending a lot of money.

I love this spot in my living/dining room. We found this old university desk chair for fifty dollars at an antique shop in the Poconos. It's a nice place to sit in the sun and read a magazine. Sometimes it's a time-out chair for the kids, too. I made the curtains when we first moved in with fabric purchased at It's the same fabric I used for the stool above. The telescope was a Christmas present for the kids, who love to look at the moon.

This is probably my favorite spot in the whole house, the eat-in-kitchen. You may recognize the wall from the masthead of this blog. A friend recently commented that my red wall with gold frames looks like the foyer from The Royal Tenenbaums. While that is one of my favorite movies, it was not a conscious choice to emulate that scene. Maybe it was subconscious. The art hanging here are pieces that I've been collecting. Some are art prints by artists I've discovered on Etsy. Some are Chinese silk paintings given to me by my mother-in-law. There are a few of original watercolors, one painted by my great-grandfather, one by Tom's distant cousin in Hungary, and one by me. I found all of the gold frames at garage sales. The only thing I dislike about this space is the ridiculous light fixture. I hate it so much I've pretty much stopped cleaning it so it's extra nasty. I've thought about spray painting it black to make it less ugly but I don't think it'd really help much. When we're able to get something new, I'd like to have a fixture that's chunky and funky with gold accents. The kind of thing that makes you groan, "Oh, that reminds me of my grandmother." I like this picture a lot because I can see two of my favorite spaces in one shot.

This is another favorite place. If I'd backed up a bit more you'd see my little stool to the right of the piano. I played piano for seven years as a kid but this isn't my childhood instrument. I gave my  piano away years ago to a coworker when my parents moved houses and couldn't take it with them. We got this piano from a family in the neighborhood who was selling their home and couldn't take it with them. Good karma. The photos of the kids were taken by yours truly and the pear painting upper left was a kindergarten artwork by our son Robert. Since this piano has been in our home I've relearned to read music and I'm slowly getting back into playing. The songbook on the ledge there is Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head. It's one of my favorite albums and many of the songs are well suited for piano.

This plate was given to me by my mom. I thought it was sort of kitchy and cute and for a while it was hanging around the kitchen trying to find a permanent home. Last year the plate that normally hung in this spot fell off the wall and broke, so I popped this mother hen in its place. It's slightly out of place in the family room because on every other wall is Tom's sports memorabilia stuff. I think this plate is a nice reminder for everyone that it's really me who rules the roost. (Just kidding, darling husband.) Best part about this plate is that it's plastic!

This plant stand was given to me by my wonderful mother-in-law. It came from the Astoria, Queens home of my wonderful late grandmother-in-law. Before the home was sold about seven years ago, I spent a lot of time there with Tom's mom and grandma to get it ready for sale and rehome a lot of the furnishings. On my last day in the house before it was sold, we were about to walk out the front door for the last time and I noticed this plant stand hiding in the corner of a downstairs room. As soon as I saw it I felt like I'd discovered something very special. It has a marble top and the metal is covered with a pale green patina. The plant grew from a cutting of a jade plant that was given to me by my friend Liz. The original plant was near death because I'd sort of been neglecting it. I cut a piece and stuck it in this pot and it grew like crazy. I love the way it sort of cascades over the sides of the pot.

What are your favorite spaces in your home? Tell me about them in the comments!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Roasted Sweet Potato Thingers

We belong to a local organic vegetable co-op so we always have a lot of fresh organic veggies in the house. This means I'm often figuring out ways to use up all this food before it goes bad. We love vegetables here but sometimes there's just more than we need. Tonight we're having smoked chicken with a brown sugar and spice rub for dinner and I happen to have these two ridiculously huge sweet potatoes.

I think sometimes people avoid cooking potatoes because they think they take a long time to cook. But when you cut them in skinny french fry-like fingers (or THingers, as my two youngest call them), toss them with oil and seasonings, and roast them in the oven, they're ready to eat in about 25 minutes. Oh c'mon, that's not long at all.

Cut the potatoes in slices and then in sticks about the thickness of a finger (thinger). These sweets are particularly huge so I cut them in half before slicing.
I had about 5 cups of fingers here. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary)

Once they're all sliced up, put them in a bowl.

Here's where the magic happens. Since it's still too cold for fresh herbs from the garden, and because we're not able to spend extra for fresh herbs from the supermarket, I rely a lot on whatever I have on hand in the pantry. In this case I went for

onion powder
chili powder
ground thyme
celery salt
Cumin (not pictured. But I love the flavor of cumin with sweet potatoes)
olive oil

Whisk together 1/2 cup of olive oil with about half a teaspoon each of those seasonings. Pour it over the potatoes and toss them to coat.

Just use enough of the oil mixture to coat your potatoes. If you have extra leftover, whisk it with some vinegar or lemon juice and voila! You have salad dressing.
Incidentally, if we were making an Asian-inspired chicken, say Teriyaki, I would have chosen a more  Eastern flavor palette for these taters. It could have just as easily been

wasabi powder
ground ginger
orange zest
sesame oil

Next put the potatoes on a baking sheet and spread them out so they're not on top of each other. Sprinkle Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper on them. I also gave a quick sprinkle of parmesan cheese because that's how I roll.

Bake at 350 degrees (use the convection setting if you have one) until they're tender but not mushy. It should take about 20 minutes if you have them spread out well. As they're baking, you can get in there with a spatula and flip them around a bit to cook them evenly, but make sure you shake the pan to spread them out again. Don't be afraid to spear the biggest one on the pan and test to see if it's done. Then for the last 5 to 8 minutes, increase the temperature to 400 to really get them crispy. The end result will be a sweet potato fry with a tender inside and crispy outside. These are a yummy kid pleaser!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What we're smoking...

It's not what you think.

Last night while I was creating this blog, Tom (the hubby) was busy preparing a whole chicken for smoking. We've done this before with a turkey and had good results. First step is to brine the bird, which involves a long soak in a salt/sugar solution for 10 hours. What is brining? Put simply, it's a process by which salt and sugar react with the meat to tenderize it and keep moisture in. The end result is a far more tender turkey/chicken/pork chop/whatever. We do it for our Thanksgiving turkey, and so should you. It really does make a difference. The brine we made last night consisted of

1 gallon water
1 cup salt
1.5 cups sugar
1 bottle of dark beer (we used 2005 Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale)

To prepare the brine, put a big pot on the stove and pour in the water, followed by the salt, sugar and beer. Heat the solution to boiling or until the salt and sugar is dissolved. Then cool it down to room temperature. (If you have a huge bird you should double or triple the brine recipe.) You can also experiment with the brine mix--add some wine, throw in herbs, put in some spices if you like, or citrus peels. These add-ins will add very subtle flavor to your chicken. Just don't add anything that contains additional salt or sugar or else you'll throw off the proportions. Tom didn't want anything fancy for this brine, so the above recipe is what we used.

I should note that although we are going to smoke this chicken, brining is a wise prep choice for other cooking methods as well. If we were roasting this bird we would have done the same thing.

Put your bird in a pot and add your cooled brine. The brine should cover the bird completely. If it doesn't, try a smaller pot. If it starts floating, you can weigh it down with a brick in a plastic bag or a huge unopened can of tomato sauce or similar. Once your bird is submerged, put the pot in the refrigerator. Or, if it's about refrigerator temperature outside, you can put it out on your back deck overnight, like we did. The rock is essential to keep out hungry critters such as cats and rabid foxes.

Chicken themed doormat is a total coincidence, I swear.

Leave your bird soaking in the brine for 10 hours, but not longer than that. After ten hours drain and discard the brine, rinse the bird really well in clean water, and let it dry for a few minutes. Use paper towels if necessary.

While rinsing and wrestling this dead naked bird in my kitchen sink, I had fond memories of bathing my kids in there. Is that wrong?

Next step is to make the rub. Here you can see the ingredients I used for ours. You can really use any spices and herbs that taste good together. And you don't really need to measure, either. Just use more of the flavors you like and want to come through more than others.

Incidentally these are all the same ingredients I use to flavor my homemade chili. Only thing missing is a Hershey bar. Seriously!
 The approximate proportions for the rub ingredients is as follows

2 cups brown sugar (light or dark, whatever you've got)
1 tablespoon Kosher salt (no more than that, your brine had lots of salt in it)
2 teaspoons black pepper 
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons chili powder
1/4 teaspon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons celery salt
1 teaspoon ground thyme (not pictured) 

 Mix all the ingredients really well.

Here I turned it over to Tom, who says it's most important to get lots of the rub under the skin and really try to distribute it as well as you can. The meat will hold more of the flavor this way.

And then rub rub all over the outside of the bird. Heh, rub rub, that looks funny.

There there, Chicken. Daddy's here.

Remember to support the head when you pick him up. Oh, wait...never mind.

All baby-in-the-sink references will now cease.

Now, on to the smoker. Being laid off from work has afforded Tom with ample time to pursue his hobbies, one of which is eating. So, he joined the local Barbecue Club. I suspect that only here in our lovingly cult-ish lake community does such a club exist, but if your town has a barbecue club I want to hear from you. Tom was immediately inspired by one guy's DIY smoker, which was made from a filing cabinet just like this one

Tax records or ribs?
The whole thing was painted with black insulating paint and the cabinet is rigged for ventilation at the top and a wood-burning firebox at the bottom. Each drawer was assigned a different type of meat, and each one was labeled--Ribs, Chicken, Brisket, etc. I thought that was hilarious. Until I saw the smoker Tom built...

Wait for it...

Tom said he didn't want to be in any of these photos. Maybe it's the sweatpants?
Tom locked himself in the garage for a week building his smoker. It started with a galvanized aluminum garbage can and the legs from a dismantled buffet table. It looked wonderfully bizarre. After a few modifications and a few coats of insulated paint, I thought it looked totally steampunk. Not to mention, it was very cold in November and Tom always wears eye protection so on more than one occasion when I entered the garage to check Tom's progress, I found him looking not unlike this guy. I commended Tom on his creativity and artistry. And then he revealed that he'd never heard the word steampunk in his life so now I don't know what to think. In any case we smoked our free supermarket turkey in the thing and it turned out great.

Tom insists I mention the original buffet table legs have been replaced with a kettle style charcoal grill.

Guidelines for smoking poultry are to cook at 265 degrees for one hour per pound. For our tricky DIY smoker, this means we may not eat dinner until 10pm.

Well, it's 9pm and we just finished dinner. Good news is, it came out fantastic. Check it out:

This is the George Hamilton of chickens.

 This smoked chicken came out so juicy and flavorful, we decided it didn't even need a gravy. I served it with simple sides of oven roasted sweet potato fries and steamed broccoli with brown butter lemon sauce. Recipes for those coming tomorrow!

Sourdough Bread Pudding

I wish I had photos of the process, but hey, I didn't know I'd be writing a blog until after it came out of the oven. Here's what you'll need:

Half a loaf of good stale sourdough, cut into 1" cubes
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 eggs
2.5 cups milk (I used 2%)
2 tablespoons good vanilla extract
2 cups sugar
A couple handfuls sliced raw almonds

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees

Stale bread really works best for this because it soaks up the custard without turning to mush. Cut the bread into 1" slices, then 1" strips, and then 1" cubes. Arrange the cubes in a deep dish pie plate, packing them in as tightly as you can. I had enough bread cubes to make two layers of cubes. I tried to make the bottom layer with crust side down, and the top layer with crust side up.

Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl. Add melted butter in a stream while whisking. Pour in milk, vanilla and sugar. Whisk until the sugar dissolves. Then pour this mixture over the bread in the pie plate. Once you've poured all in, feel free to push gently on your bread cubes to get each one soaked in the custard mixture. I put a small dinner plate over the whole thing and gave it even pressure. You can even put this in the fridge just like this and let it "age" for an hour or more, even overnight if you want. Custards like this will develop more flavor and set up better if you let them chill for awhile before cooking. I only chilled it for as long as it took for the oven to heat up and it still turned out fab.

Sprinkle sliced almonds all over the top and pop it in the oven for 60-70 minutes. I baked mine for a full hour and ten minutes. You may want to put foil or a cookie sheet under the pie plate in the oven because mine bubbled over slightly. Be careful taste testing when it's fresh from the oven. The sugar in the custard makes a candied crust and it will be very hot. The finished pudding will be crispy on the outside, moist on the inside. This would be great served warm with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Martha made me do it.

I always buy Martha Stewart Living when I see a new one at the supermarket. I bought the January issue when it was on the newsstand and then promptly put it in the bathroom with the rest of the unread magazines. I barely looked at it for more than two months. And then one day in early March the kids were driving me batty with demands. So, I retreated to the bathroom and claimed through the locked door that I had a tummy ache and to please leave Mommy alone for a few minutes. Then, I had a seat and grabbed the nearest magazine, which happened to be January's Martha. I flipped it open and landed on an article about Chad Robertson, owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Robertson explained his love of bread and how his sourdough has come to be known as the best bread in America today. And then he divulged secrets for how I could make bread as good as his, in my own home.

The magazine is now semi-permanently affixed to the refrigerator.
I've always loved to experiment in the kitchen, to make the same dish or dessert again and again until it seemed as perfect as it could be. My parents recall with amusement my teenage obsession with lemon meringue pie. Making the lemon custard from scratch was so authentic, since the diner pies I'd eaten were obviously filled from a tin can. I absolutely loved the process of whipping snotty egg whites into a thick fluffy cloud. I relished the artistry of swirling the peaks just right and then browning them to a perfect golden brown. I made lemon meringue pie probably fifteen times one Spring, trying to get the custard just right so it didn't flood the pie plate when cutting that first slice. My dad, a sweet tooth, was at first thrilled with my new endeavor because it meant there was always a treat in the house. But even he got sick of eating it after a while. To this day, he can't even look at a lemon meringue pie without reminding the whole family about "that time when Elissa made lemon meringue pie every week for three months."
Look, it's smiling at you.
Phases of the loaf.
Sourdough bread is made not with the commercial yeast you see sold in little packets at the grocery store, but with a "starter," or a culture of flour, water and wild yeasts that can be captured from the air around us, as well as from foods such as wheat and grapes, among other things. I think that's freakin' amazing. From the article in Living I learned how to make a sourdough starter of my own. That day, upon leaving my self-imposed time-out in the bathroom, I mixed up a starter and put it in the cupboard. I'm now baking beautiful loaves of sourdough bread that look, and I suspect taste, just as good as Chad's sourdough at Tartine. And tonight, after I took two fresh loaves out of the oven, I took the leftover bread ends from last week's loaves and cut them into cubes and made a bread pudding. Just a few minutes ago I took the pudding out of the oven and thought, "Oh my God, what is this glorious thing I just created?" It tastes absolutely divine. And then hubby walked in and said, "Mmm, that looks really good. What is it?" And I said, "I think I'm going to start a blog."

I thought bread pudding was gross. Til tonight.
So, I guess I've been inspired. I've started this blog to document my adventures in breadbaking, cooking, mothering, wife-ering, hobbying, and whatever else gets my juices flowing. Bloggerbid is a play on my last name. I like to cook and bake, I've established that. But I also like to take pictures, plant gardens, knit and sew, decorate, pet my dog, feed my fish, hang out with my kids, husband, family and friends. I'm a Jersey housewife but not like those twits from the TV show, though I do live in the same town as one of them. I have three children. Two boys ages 7 and 5, and a daughter who'll soon be 4. I have a husband who I adore, but who also has been unemployed for exactly one year today. The last 365 days have been the worst and in some ways the best of our lives. The next six months and beyond should be blogworthy, as many changes are about to take place. Hopefully changes for the better, but maybe not. So I'll document it here, and hopefully you'll find it interesting.