Friday, March 27, 2009

La Cucina Povera (Or, Recession Eating)

There is an Italian phrase I came across recently that appeals to the cooking mood I've been in lately: la cucina povera. Literally, it means "peasant cooking," but the figurative meaning is more of a "make-do-with-what-you've-got" idea -- making meals from what you've already got in your fridge or pantry.

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I got this Idea in my head recently to try and go an entire workweek without buying one single food item. The goal: shop for groceries on Sunday afternoon, and then no purchases again until Friday night (when we always go out to dinner. I wasn't about to be that povera in my cucina, capiche?...)

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I didn't talk it up a whole lot here at the Blog, because I honestly wasn't sure we'd be able to do it. The plan included packing lunches every single day, and cooking dinner every single night, and frankly, I've tried it before and failed miserably. (Okay, maybe not failed, per se. But I couldn't stick with it for very long. I blame elaborate meal plans and overly-ambitious recipes.)

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This time around? We are going simple. I make a list of 5 or 6 meals, then buy all the ingredients on Sunday, plus fixings for brown-bag lunches. (Cafe de la Steele serves only turkey and cheddar or PBJ for lunch, so take your pick.)

Steven even got to pick out his own "lunch items." Inexplicably, he chose fruit cups and applesauce. I obliged him, and he ate every last bit of it. (We might have one cup of the mandarin oranges left, but he also eats them for snacks, so I don't expect it to last much longer...)

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Dinners were basically whatever I could scrounge up -- I bought a whole rotisserie chicken and used half of it to make chicken soup, and the other half is set aside for tarragon chicken salad. (Was set aside, anyway, until I ate up all the grapes.)

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I don't exactly remember which night we had this meal, but chicken soup and grilled cheese sandwiches are a pretty darn good combo. (Also, yes, I burned the grilled cheese. So sue me.)

(Actually, don't sue me. That won't jive well with the whole "saving money" thing...)

The cucina povera origins of this meal were as follows:

Bread and cheese for our brown bag lunch sandwiches became grilled cheese sandwiches.

Half of a bag of egg noodles left over from a not-so-good attempt at Crock Pot Beef Stroganoff (O, Crock Pot, I will avenge thee yet...) became the noodles for the soup.

A frozen (and forgotten) bag of peas and carrots in the back of the freezer became the rest of the soup, and all I had to buy was the chicken itself and the broth. (And in the future, I think I will keep chicken broth, or at least bouillon cubes in the pantry. Handy thing to have around...)

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In retrospect, I would not have diluted the chicken broth with water, and I might have also added a chicken bouillion cube. The soup ended up a bit bland, BUT! I am not counting it a loss since I made up the recipe out of my own little noggin.

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And I am mighty proud of me for that.

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Chicken Noodle Soup For A Recession
2-3 cups shredded roasted chicken (rotisserie is fine)
1 onion, chopped
black pepper
butter
1 bag frozen peas and carrots
1/2 bag egg noodles
2 cans chicken broth
1 cube chicken bouillon dissolved in 1/2 cup water

Melt butter in large stockpot. Toss in onion and cook for 3-4 minutes or until translucent. Toss in chicken and saute until warmed through. Add chicken stock and chicken bouillon and bring to a boil. Add frozen veggies and egg noodles, and cook until noodles are done. Season to taste. (Side note: I am so terrible at "seasoning to taste." Do they give classes on seasoning things? Does this mean I have no taste?)

We calculated our savings for the past two weeks of "Recession Eating", and our little peasant kitchen ended up saving us close to $200. I am completely hooked. Saving money is extremely fun.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Yes Chef!

I always make Steven go with me to the grocery store. Mostly because its more fun than going there by myself, but also so I can check with him to make sure he will eat what I'm planning for meals for a given week.

After three or four "will you eat this" back-and-forths, Steven wandered over to the red meat section of the deli and picked up a package of filet mignon. He turned it over in his hands, gently, and then looked up at me with those eyes. The eyes that say, "pretty please" without even having to say anything.

"Um, babe? I would definitely eat this..."

Two cans of pineapple, a can of sliced mushrooms, and one bottle of teriyaki sauce later...

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And there goes Chef Steven, whipping up some teriyaki steak for us for lunch.

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(He says to me in the store: "I'll cook it, and you can blog it." He knows the drill around these parts, clearly...)

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Being the Type A person that I am, I offered to "help" (i.e., tell him how to do everything), but the Sous Chef pointed to a bundle of asparagus and said, "Can you just get that working, instead?"

Yes, Chef! (Note: Chef Steven did not ask me WHERE IS THE RISOTTO in a screaming British accent. Next time, maybe...)

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Overall, I was quite impressed. Just like any good chef, he knew that presentation counts for a lot:

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Now that I think about it, this dish deserves a name. Hang on, let me ask the chef...

(He's thinking...)

Chef Steven reports that this dish will be called "Steak.... I don't know. Teriyaki Steak?"

Ok, so before he publishes his first cookbook, we'll get him a good PR person.

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Teriyaki Filet with pineapple and white mushroom, garnished with a side of asparagus, pan-seared with olive oil and kosher salt.

Not half bad, folks. I get this nervous feeling that he is better at this than me...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Talk of the Neighborhood

Once upon a time, there was a couple that moved into a new neighborhood. Just hypothetically, of course. And all of the couple's neighbors were constantly talking about "The Big Weed," to the point where the friendly new homeowners decided to hack it down to the bare trunk just to make sure they weren't going to be The House with The Big Weed anymore.

Well, turns out, its not over yet for our friendly protagonists. Today, our next door neighbors brought us a picture of what The Big Weed looked like in its prime.

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Now, I agree. This is a big, weird-looking weed. It is not something you see every day. I get that. But receiving this picture from my neighbors evokes all kinds of other questions for me, including questions like: (1) If I had a picture of someone else's backyard, would I 'fess up to it? (2) Would I bring a copy of aforementioned picture to the new owners (who clearly had nothing to do with this weed that was growing wildly in the backyard of a bank-owned property, and who have since chopped the thing down with their bare hands)? And perhaps most importantly, (3) Why are people taking pictures of other people's backyards? What else do these folks have pictures of?

I am slightly alarmed, people.

I am also slightly tempted to take a picture of their backyard and deliver it surreptitiously to their front door. ("Here you go, just thought you might enjoy a photo of your patio. PS, your lawn needs raking.")

When our neighbors eventually google my name and find this blog, I am going to regret having written this (even though its the truth). So, for that eventual occurrence, here's a nice note to the neighbors:

"Hi neighbors! Fancy meeting you here! Thanks for the picture of The Big Weed -- we're going to put it up on our fridge. We really appreciate all of the concern about the Weed and the general lack of maintenance in our backyard. You see, the house was bank-owned when we bought it, so I presume that the previous owners didn't have enough money to pay their mortgage, which probably also meant they couldn't afford extra mulch and new hostas. And now we are here, and its March. We have big plans for the yard, as I'm sure you understand, but things dont grow overnight, and we work full time (and not in the landscaping business). So, we were wondering, could you all just give us a few months to get the backyard in order? Honestly, I care lots more about my tomato seedlings than I do about mowing our yard at this point. Because its March. I promise our yard will eventually look better than this, but for now, don't hold your breath. Love, Heather"

The new 'hood is just gonna love me, don't you think?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I Like My Haircut, I Really Like My Haircut

Whenever I sit in a salon, the 9 year old in me starts singing this song:



("I like my haircut, I really like my haircut...") Cue my entire family to start singing this song out loud.

Carlie gave me that look the other day, and I knew it was time.

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("Mommy, your hair is embarrassing us in front of the other dogs...")

Steven had been gently recommending a trip to the salon as well, and he thought it would be fun to show you some before-and-after pictures. (You've seen our home renovation, now see our hair renovation...)

Here's the before. I think my last cut/color was maybe 6 months ago (or longer).

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"Hi, we are some embarassingly long roots..."

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Yep, I'm struggling.

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And here's the after:

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Purty!

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I kinda wish it was more stacked in the back (quit laughing and get your mind out of the gutter), but I can always ask for that next time.

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Now that I'm out of school (when will I stop using that excuse for not previously taking care of myself? Probably forever...), I think I'll keep up with the cut/color on a more regular basis. Like maybe every 2 months instead of every 2 years.

In other news, Steven and I have declared this week to be "Recession Eating Week." This does not mean we are eating our 401K's (the government and the markets are taking care of that! Ha! Oh, I crack myself up. Also, neither of us has a 401K, so really, not that funny...)

Recession Eating Week is something like this: buy groceries on Sunday, and your challenge is to not spend a single dime on food for the entire week. You have to eat from the groceries you bought on Sunday for the whole week, including brown bag lunches during the workday and dinners at home each night.

You would think this would be a piece of cake (and for most of you, it is probably your regular practice), but for us (for me, anyway), its really tough -- it means making brown bag lunches for me and Steven by no later than 7 AM (Steven leaves for work right around 7 - 7:30), and then getting home and making dinner by around 7:30 PM (much later and Steven will start looking hungrily at Pringles....) and then convincing myself (and Steven) that we don't need to hit up the DQ after a chicken noodle soup night that was disappointing at best....

We're going strong on Day 4, and tomorrow night is our one freebie night, meaning we can have a Friday night out (and probably a weekend breakfast out, too), but then its back to the grind. I'm going to keep it going as long as we can stand it, and then check the budget at the end of the month to see how much we've managed to save.

And it turns out, I'm not the only one planning a Victory Garden this year. I am looking forward to seeing how this turns out for them -- I wonder if the White House lawn has good dirt?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Gardening Within the Confines of the Law

When we moved into our house, there was a rather suspicious-looking florescent light rigged up on one of the walls in the basement. We made a few jokes about the former owners "growing things" down there, and then I promptly forgot about the existence of that light. Steven set up his guitar stuff in the basement, and (since its chilly down there), I haven't been down there for quite a while.

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Last weekend, I bought some seed starting peat moss and planted seeds for spinach, brussles sprouts, carrots and two varieties of mesclun lettuce. And this weekend, the seeds sprouted. I read the directions on my seed-starting mix, and it says to "place under lights or in a sunny window. I tried to prop the seeds up in a sunny window, but our sunniest spots are directly behind the house, and there aren't any windows facing that direction with a good solid ledge to hold the seedlings.

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Which brought me to my lightbulb-over-the-head moment, when I realized that the light in the basement could be put to good use after all. (Go ahead, get all your pot jokes out of the way now.... I know what it looks like but its spinach, people. Spinach!)

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The last day of frost here in my neck of the woods is May 3, according to my obsessive researching and Google-fu. Most of my seed packets say "plant indoors 6-8 weeks before last frost date."

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And that just so happens to be (somewhere around) this weekend. (Right? I never trust my own math...)

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After I realized that my lighting system could really work wonders for seed starting, I sort of went crazy and started a few seeds of everything. I think the sprouts here are the spinach and mesclun lettuce (the red ones are definitely the mesclun lettuce, and the green ones look rather spinach-y to me, don't you think?). This weekend, I also planted seeds for:

Brandywine Pink heirloom tomato
Roma (paste) tomato
Garlic chives
Italian Oregano
Sweet Basil
Thyme
Parsley
Cilantro/Coriander

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I'm planning to keep the herbs in a container on the porch, and the tomatoes will go into the actual garden (along with the spinach, carrots, brussles sprouts, lettuce, and oh so much more.)

I know I'm being overly ambitious and setting myself up for a complete disaster. But I can't help it. Its so exciting to think I could grow a whole garden full of veggies in a mere 3-4 months from now! I also bought seeds for okra and green beans, but the seed packets say to plant them right in the ground after danger of frost has passed. So I'm waiting till May for those. (Did I mention this is just the plan for the spring garden? I haven't even considered what I might grow when full-on summer gets here.... Peppers, pole beans, corn, watermelon, more tomatoes? The possibilities are endless...)

Cross your fingers, everybody!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Would you read it?

An interesting discussion cropped up at work today. As with any group of overly opinionated people, when you get a group of lawyers together and ask them a question, you will likely never get a consensus.

And so it was with today's topic. I was extolling the virtues of having a Facebook account, especially if you have teenage or preteen kids. You want to know what they're posting for the world to see, right?

And this discussion inevitably led to the diary discussion; namely, would you read your kid's diary?

My opinion is that there are some additional factors to weigh here. For instance, did the kid tell you about the diary? Did the kid hide the diary somewhere? Was the diary locked?

A couple people at work talked about needing probable cause (that lawyer thing popping up again). I think (to the shock and awe of my teenage self, who would be horrified that I've reached this point) that I'd probably read it no matter what.

I kept a diary when I was young, filled with all the maudlin and angst you'd expect from a teenage girl pouring her heart out (in pink gel pen, of course). I have no idea if my parents read it at any point (Mom and Dad, feel free to enlighten us in the comments if you want), but I imagine they already had a pretty clear idea what I was thinking and feeling back then. (The 16 year old me probably would have spilled her deepest ambitions and heartbreaks to a telephone pole; I was quite the talker.)

So now I wan to know what you folks think. Would you read it? Would you refrain? What are the rules for this type of thing? (Am I overthinking this?)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Just a Bit More...

Every few weeks, as we start to forget what it feels like to spend hours at a time perched precariously on the ladder, we try to hit another room.

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Yes. It really is that teal. With an inexplicable green stripe under the (completely non-matching) wallpaper border.

Steven is the king of removing wallpaper. See him roar.

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Earlier, he'd stayed up half the night to transform what we'd dubbed the "Minnie Mouse Room" into something a bit less, well, Disney.

Here's how you might remember it looking...

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Pink-o-rama.

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And after a few coats of "Barnwood" (which I still think is too dark but Steven absolutely loves:)

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Its a bit greener than it appears in these pictures. Also, I think the trim needs another coat of white to really pop.

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Pringles tried to help us paint, but he was too distracted by the snow outside. (I don't blame him, it was gorgeous.)

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Only two more rooms to go (and then the basement). Oh, and the upstairs bathrooms. Oh, and pressure washing the siding. Oh, and then there's all that trim....

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Springing Forward

I got up this morning at 8:30 AM, only all of a sudden it was 9:30 AM. And then I did the dishes, and instead of only being 9:00 AM, it was suddenly 10:00 AM.

My morning is missing, and I'd like it back, please.

(However, when the sun is still up at 6:30 PM tonight, I imagine I won't be complaining nearly this much.)

My brother Matt is visiting for the weekend, and we have pretty much worn him out in the last three days.

We bombarded him with papparazzi pictures (during which I could not seem to keep my eyes open for the flash).

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Steven was much better at it.

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Matt and I gallavanted around Alexandria on Friday (while Steven had to work, ha ha). We saw the Torpedo Factory, which was actually quite cool, even though all the art is way over priced. I get that its original, but is your 4" by 4" canvas painting really worth $165, lady? Really? I'd give you $25 for it, maybe.

After the overpriced art, we wandered along the waterfront for a bit and then met Steven for lunch at Dixie Bones. Now, I know Steven and I are creatures of habit, but I just happened to browse through my photos from March 2008, and guess where we were?

That's right:

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Just like clockwork, folks.

Saturday morning was more of our endearing habitual routines: breakfast at our Saturday favorite, followed by a car wash. I forgot what color my car actually was. Turns out, its white. Who knew.

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And then, a twist. Steven leans to Matt and says dramatically, "Have you ever seen a Lambourghini? Up close?"

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The answer to that question is now, definitively, yes.

(Ferraris are also, now, Matt-approved.)

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Then we traversed up to Georgetown University (and I mean UP -- the entire school is perched vertically on the side of a cliff).

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Steven tried to play it cool, like could have possibly been a student there.

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Me, on the other hand? Well, I played the part of "Doting-Mom-With-Camera," replete with embarrassing stops of passers-by: "Excuse me, do you know where the English Department is?" (They didn't. They were visiting, too. Steven and Matt were mortified, and decided to stand about 200 feet away from me as this was occurring.)

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We never did find the English department, but we did find the Graduate School. Also, Steven found a brass ballerina. He may have a new calling, folks.

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The campus is as beautiful as I'd expected. Lots of old, interesting buildings and architecture.

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And, most importantly, gutterspouts shaped like dragons. How could you go to a school without a dragon for a gutterspout?

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I think we all left the place, inspired. Matt also managed to leave with a new album cover for his next project.

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Today we're going to sit around and do nothing. I think we've earned it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Lasagna Garden!

A few weekends ago (before we got doused with snow again), I hit up the garden and laid down my first few layers of the lasagna garden. (Note to the gardeners among us -- I really have no idea what I'm doing here. I'm blindly following the book and hoping for the best.)

(PS - the book is so super fabulous. I love it.)

Okay, so here we go:

Rocky, weedy ground. Needs to be tilled and de-rocked, and generally just looks like a lot of work.

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Wet newspaper, in thick pads, laid over the rocky, weedy ground.

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Layers of dead leaves and kitchen compost laid over the wet newspaper.

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What used to be my coffee grounds and banana peels, now beautiful rich soil.

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Put it all together, and you have my very first little backyard garden. It still needs several more layers of peat moss or hay and compost, with a few bags of potting soil on top, just for good measure.

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Meanwhile, in the non-lasagna half of the yard, ghosts of gardeners' past are springing up.

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I think they are daffodils. (But I am no expert.)

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And, for those of you who haven't yet heard about the Weed Heard Round The World, may I introduce you to what's left of it:

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During the first week we moved into our house, we had no less than 12 neighbors walk by our yard and make comments about "the big weed." One lady even said she gave directions to her house by it. "Turn left at the big weed."

Well, lady, I'm real sorry, but I will not be the neighborhood landmark for bad lawncare. Another neighbor said (in a snarkier tone than I had anticipated) that we'd probably need a chainsaw to cut it down.

Nope, it came down with the strength of Steven Steele (and a hacksaw). But I can't figure out how to get it down any shorter than that. Any ideas? (Fire is not an option, as it appears to be growing right out of my deck.)

With all of the yard work, it was inevitable we'd step on something. Apparently it was the second set of daffodils. Whoops.

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My little bro (who is 6'4" and ergo, not little) is visiting this weekend and we are excited to host him. Matt, I promise not to make you spread bags of compost or anything while you're here.

Well, maybe just a few bags...Come on, rotting food and dirt are so totally Spring Break!