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The Pillow Project: First Principles

When it comes to making pillows, I have a couple of rules for myself which have stood me pretty well.

1. Measure the pillow form. I don’t care what the label on the bag says. Measure it anyway. If you are re-using a pillow form, also measure it because having people karate chop the pillow for ten years is bound to compress and shift the filling and this, believe it or not, will change the measurement. See the photo at the top. Take that measurement — that is how big you make the piece of material. NO, YOU DO NOT ADD SEAM ALLOWANCES. This is one of those ‘take it on faith things. When I have added seam allowances, I end up with a pillow cover that dwarfs the pillow insert. You want that pillow cover to be literally as tight as a drum. If you are putting a zipper into the back side (or a button flap or whatever), you need to complete that particular operation (putting in the zip, making the flap and the buttonhole and pinning it down as if it’s buttoned up or whatever), and THEN measure vertically and horizontally. If it’s greater than your original measurement, then trim down the edges until you DO get to that measurement. Again, once you sew this (and I use a half-inch seam), and put in the pillow form, it will look like Jane Mansfield at the beach, which is actually what you want. You don’t want corners that droop, or wrinkles or whatever because the pillow cover will then bunch up and wear out in odd spots. Remember: Think Jane Mansfield. (more…)

The Pillow Project

I think I can safely say at this point that even at Chez Siberia, it’s spring. Most of the snow is gone and I’m seeing the little leaves of the spring bulbs start to poke up.

Not that it is warm by anyone’s stretch of imagination. It’s 22 degrees F. this morning and windy so it’s not warm. But we are seeing the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, winter-wise, here. Which means only one thing.

Dissatisfaction.

After being cooped up for almost 5 months (and given the series of storms, horrific cold, wind and so forth; that 5 months seemed to last forever), there is part of me that requires massive change. Ordinarily, this revolves around getting my hair cut but this time, it’s more global. (cue scary music) I need change in the house.

Change in the house usually requires painting (which I don’t want to do; I actually like the color in the house at the moment). Some people go for a giant ‘slip-cover-a-thon’ for the furniture or a big change-over in the drapes. And not that I could not be convinced to change out the drapes in the livingroom for spring/summer/fall. I actually think that might be a good idea (something light-colored perhaps), BUT from a budgetary standpoint, I always go for ‘biggest bang for the buck’, which I think in this case involves… cushions for the two couches in the livingroom.

Above you see one of the couches. We have this one and a dark blue one and a red and blue and ‘some other colors that I’m not quite sure I can identify at the moment’ rug to tie everything together in the livingroom. I certainly lay no claim to great expertise in home decor. We tend toward the ‘find a hole and fill it’ school of decorating, especially on the walls. But after living with these couches for five years (one is an ancient one we inherited from one of my great-aunties which went through a complete re-do from the inside out), I have to say one thing:

They look a lot better with cushions on them and they look a whole lot better with cushions that are highly contrasting. At the moment, cushions are a bit ‘thin on the ground’ as they might way.

Hence the title above: The Pillow Project

Pillows, as a home decor project and as a sewing project are about as simple a deal as you can possibly find, as long as you measure the pillow insert correctly. If you want to be very technical, you can make cushion covers with zippers in them, or you can devise an opening that is held closed with buttons (meant to be seen, or not) or with a clever use of folded fabric at the back, like an envelop. But I need to make, as they might say out West, a ‘whole mess’ of cushions. I might even change out the cushion covers I already have (just to put something else into the rotation. So far, the plan includes printing cushion covers and fabric with screen printing. I might even use fabric paints on the fabrics and come up with my own fabric as well. This is an opportunity to let my creative ‘freak flag fly’.

So, stay tuned.

One a penny, two a penny..hot cross buns

This is the time of the year when you can find all sorts of seasonal/holiday treats in your local grocery store or bakery (if you have one). My seasonal guilty pleasure are hot cross buns. I have not had them in years but my brain certainly remembers the taste and so..I picked up a package along with the rest of the grocerias. When I got home, I settled myself down with a cup of tea and one of these shiny buns with the sugar cross on the top.

Tasted … just…like…paper towels. For a second, I was wondering if it was me, somehow. I have had a nasty cold for a while, so I tried out one of them on the DH. Ditto. So, I checked the ingredients.

No eggs. No milk. No butter. No wonder…. (more…)

Think Irish? Think Lamb!

Yes, yes, I know, St. Patrick’s Day is coming up fast and the usual thing is corned beef and cabbage. But, let me make the case for something else: lamb.

First, let’s look at this historically.
Anyone in Ireland who ate beef was probably a) rich and b) not Irish. Raising beef takes a lot of land. For the amount of land you need to raise a beef cow, you can raise a small herd of sheep. Which is why lamb and mutton has always been far more available and popular in Ireland than beef because even if you were a crofter and had only a small patch of land to work with, you could raise a bunch of sheep and have not only meat but also wool. So, if you want to be ‘Irish-Irish’, eating lamb is just more Irish than eating beef of any sort to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Second, let’s look at this nutritionally.
Courtesy of our friends at nutrtional data, for a 3-ounce portion (and I think we can all accept that no one actually eats JUST a 3-ounce portion, but at least we are comparing ounce for ounce here.
Cooked Corned Beef…………………………….Roast Leg of Lamb
Calories: 210……………………………….220
Fat: 15 grams……………………………….15 grams
Protein: 15 grams……………………………..22 grams
Sodium: 960 mg……………………………….55 mg.

These last two are the bell-ringers here. Lamb, ounce for ounce, has more protein than beef does, though it does have the same amount of fat, so in terms of ‘protein bang for the buck’, lamb wins here. Secondly, and I think from a health perspective, even MORE importantly, corned beef is a just a huge sodium hit and I realize for a lot of people, that is the entire point of eating meats like corned beef and pastrami: they love the salt. Well, the salt does NOT love us or our hearts or blood pressure. That 3 ounces of corned beef (and again, who eats just a 3-ounce portion – that’s the size of a pack of cards) is way too much and let’s not even discuss anything else that will be eaten with the meal, like potatoes (going to salt those, too, right?). So, roast lamb wins out here too. Just 55 mg. of sodium. That’s one of those ‘pat myself on the back’ meals right there.

So. For those folks out there who have ‘Fear of Lamb’, here is Aunt Toby’s handy dandy so-simple it hurts roast leg of lamb.
You’ll need:
Meat thermometer or probe
Boneless leg of lamb roast – 3-5 pounds, fresh or defrosted, at room temperature
5 cloves of garlic, chopped fine.
Several sprigs of fresh rosemary with the leaves removed; save one for the top of the roast.
Small baking pan
One medium sized onion, sliced up

This is going to take a couple of hours, so don’t plan for this being something you can throw into the oven when you get home from work on Monday night, ok?

Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees F.
Take your lamb roast. It is probably either trussed up with string or it’s in one of those elastic nets. Take off the net.
Flip it open or unroll it depending on how the butcher did the deed. Take all the garlic and spread it onto the cut surface of the meat. Then sprinkle all the rosemary leaves on top. You should have the same amount of coverage as you see in the photograph here. Then take your black pepper grinder and grind a couple of good strong grinds of pepper on the surface. Then re-roll the roast or flip back the outside on top.

Now, how are you going to make this thing hold together while it’s roasting. If it was trussed with string, use the string you took off to unroll it and wind it around again after you’ve rerolled it. If your meat came with one of those elastic nets on it, here is the way you get it back on again without the whole thing flipping out and ending in a wreck on the kitchen floor.

Put the net over the ends of your hands, as in the photograph and put your hands over the closed end of the roast. Move your hands forward until you have the netting about half-way up the roast. Then take your hands out of the net. Use your fingers to pull the ends of the net over the front and back ends of the roast. Voila!

Take your baking pan and put your sliced onions into the bottom in the center. Put the roast on top of that; this will prevent the roast from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Put the pan into the 350 degree F. oven for 30 minutes. At the end of 30 minutes, turn the oven down to 170 degrees F or the lowest setting your oven has. Yes, I know this is sort of scary — but lamb does not take well to high heat. If you have horrific smell memories of Sunday lamb roasts, this is the reason why – the fat was burning in the high heat. Lamb does super well in ‘low and slow’ cooking. Leave your lamb at this low temperature for an hour and stick in the probe or meat thermometer to test the center for temperature. You are looking for 160 degrees F at the center. If it has already gotten to 140+ but you are looking to speed this up, you can raise the oven to 250 degrees F and the roast will not suffer – the outside will get a bit crunchy-er which some people like.

Once you have reached 160 degrees F at the center of the roast, take the pan out, wrap the meat in the foil tent and prepare the other side dishes (I am pushing Brussels Sprouts this week, but to each his own), and serve.

NO MINT JELLY.

Bon appetit!!

Searching the seed catalogs

For all I love the internet and seed sites (I have a very long history with seed companies..we won’t even go into that), there is something totally different about reading a catalog. I find I get so much more out of what’s on offer and this year, because the long range weather forecast is so weird (cool but dry), I have to scan more carefully than ever for magic words such as: ‘tolerant’ and ‘cold tolerant’.

I also like to get right to what is new. I think every gardener is like that. Yes, we all love our Danvers Half-long Carrots and San Marzano Tomatoes, but it’s always interesting to see what stars the seed companies have hitched their wagons to this year. Here are some interesting things that I’m looking into.

Kosmic Kale (Territorial Seed): PERENNIAL Kale. Perennial is one of those words I look for also, as I’d rather plant something once and then…move on. This is something you have to buy (right now – if it’s like other new introductions, seed will be available down the road) as a plant, but if you eat kale (and who should not?), then this is something you might want to consider.

Wasabi ‘Daruma’ (Territorial): OK, so Wasabi is not new, but it IS something, like ginger, which is getting more attention in terms of people’s trying to grow it here (esp in the Pacific Northwest). Again, this is something for people who love a challenge (for most of us, tomatoes and peppers are challenging enough).

Grafted Vegetable Plants (tomatoes, Peppers, et al.) Now, Territorial seemed to be the seed house that introduced this a couple of years ago. I have to admit that I saw this as a totally cosmetic and ridiculous offering until a friend of mine got some grafted tomatoes to try last year. His success rate with them vastly beat his seed-grown plants. Territory also offers grafting rootstock seeds and clips, so for those folks who want the benefits of grafting (disease resistance) but don’t want to pay the heavy freight, that might be the way to go.

Rapper Basil(Territorial): The magic words here are ‘slow-flowering’ — one of my biggest annoyances with growing basil is bolting, so this is something to look at. It also has huge 4-6 inch leaves, which not only plays into my urge to throw basil into sandwiches but also my need for lots and lots of basil for drying.

Spring Beet Blend (Territorial): OK, so you’ve had it with kale and are still not ready to take on Brussels Sprouts. It’s time to do some beets. OK, so you don’t like the fact that they bleed. This blend has orange and white beets which don’t bleed. Plant a whole row out as thickly as you can — pull up the small leaves, thinning the plants as you go so that you leave(heh) a couple of inches between to grow the rest of the beet below ground. Beet greens are nutritional powerhouses so this is a plant where you get a two-fer out of it.

Merida Carrots (Territorial): For those of us who just can’t seem to get out into the garden in the fall to harvest, this is YOUR carrot. 240 days, people — this is an overwintering carrot. I’m not sure this will work up here (probably better suited to more southern areas), but I’m certainly willing to give it a try. Plant in September and harvest… the next May. How cool is that?

Celery: Now, if you had to ask 1000 gardeners to list their top 5 vegetables that they absolutely grow, celery is not one of them which is too bad. Celery is also one of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ in terms of the sheer amounts of chemical residues found on them in produce bought at the grocery store — in commercial production, they are sprayed like fury. And I can tell you from my experience that celery is actually … quite easy to grow. As a matter of fact, one year, I grew it and then dug up a plant for the greenhouse for wintering over and eating and it was tender and quite delightful. Territorial has an organic and stunningly colored one called ‘RedVenture’. Just don’t plant it next to your rhubarb chard.

Pip, Pip … and all those sorts of disasters

Never, ever let it be said that your dear old Aunty cannot snatch disaster from the jaws of victory. Given enough distractions, 50-odd years of cooking muscle memory can go flying right out the window, taking the recipe with it, straight down into the toilet.

Exhibit A: This morning, before the DH and I left to go to a sort-or local museum (any museum that does not require suiting up for a 4 hour drive qualifies as ‘sort of local’ in my book) for a workshop, I wanted to make cookies. Not just any cookie, mind you, but the sort of cookie that I was able to find in literally every coffee shop, tea counter, railroad commissary, and museum cafe when we were in London, UK. Which was recently (did I forget to tell you that? Well, we WERE). These cookies are basically referred to as ‘chocolate caramel shortbreads’ and range from the blatantly ‘the only connection in these biscuits with real ingredients is in your head’ commercial sort, shrink-wrapped in cellophane, to something which might elicit noises found in that deli scene from “When Harry Met Sally.” So, once we returned, I was determined to recreate them simply so I could get my fix have the memory available.

And luckily, through the agency of Millionaire Shortbread Bars, I thought I’d happened on the recipe version of the ‘slam dunk.’

No such luck. Distracted by the time, a nasty cough, thoughts about the workshop, and snow outside the window, I completely lost it. The recipe for the shortbread part of this affair calls for 3/4 of a cup of butter. No great shakes, I thought at the time, that’s three sticks.

Woops. No wonder once I took the 9×9″ pan out of the oven, that it did not look like shortbread; it looked like shortbread soup. That’s when it hit me: 3/4 of a cup of butter is 1.5 sticks; not 3 – big trouble. But I was not in a mood to throw that in the trash and start again (I didn’t have time, either); I scooped it into a heat-proof bowl, added more sugar and almond flour (frankly, that is what I had at my hand; I could just as easily have used regular all-purpose flour, which is what I used the first time, so this shortbread is half flour/half almond flour). I mixed that up, said a little prayer to the kitchen gods and goddesses and pressed it into a 9×13″ pan and put it back into the 350 degree F. oven for another 20 minutes.

And…it came out like a champ. I thought I was home free.

Not so fast. The caramel layer calls for taking a can of sweetened condensed milk and heating it for 60-90 min. OR, if using the microwave, doing various calisthenics with the zapper.

In a large heat-proof bowl.

Not a large Pyrex(tm) measuring cup. Well, I thought it was large enough until some rather disturbing noises started coming from the microwave — it was boiling over. So, I hauled it out, transferred it to the biggest heat-proof bowl I’ve got and cleaned the rest of what had boiled over onto the glass microwave tray into the bowl too. No, we are NOT going to discuss the fact that someone had been heating up spaghetti sauce and had not cleaned up the tray afterward. I was a desperate woman and what’s a little tomato and basil in the cookies between friends, right? So, I went back to microwaving it, lowering the power and stopping it, stirring it and so on until it turned brown.

With the texture of tile cement, I might add. Tasted fantastic – but spreadable? Nyet. Addition of a little milk, dribs and drabs as we go to restore a bit of “liquification.” Plopped that into the pan of now-cooled shortbread and (not in the recipe, but I figure chopped walnuts cannot ruin anything) added a double handful of walnuts, chopped up pretty well. And it looked like this: Pretty darned good.

Again, I deluded myself into thinking I was ’rounding third’; all I had to do was make the chocolate layer, which called for a teeny bit of butter and chocolate chips. More cement. I added more butter – it looked better but still had all the appeal of chocolate cement. Out came the milk again. This was NOT the nice shiny layer that I was looking for. And time was getting short. So, frankly, I plopped the entire deal on top of the walnuts, pushed it around to cover with a wet rubber spatula and as the DH was honking the horn on the car outside, slid the pan into the fridge to wait for out return.

Final result? What you see in the top photo. The texture of the top layer is just like the ones in London – a bit resistant at first and then you hit the nuts and caramel. The shortbread is mmmmmm. From an appearance standpoint, I need to work on that chocolate layer to get it smooth and shiny (confections are NOT my strong suit – anyone have any ideas?), but other than that, I can recommend these heartily.

Pour a cuppa!!

Last-minute dinner

Sometimes, everything in the day just conspires to prevent you from being super organized and you come home at 5 p.m. to nothing taken out for dinner. This is one of those lessons in having things on the shelf. Not that I would promote this on an ongoing basis, but sometimes, you want something fast and good. This is as fast and good as I’ve got:

Cannellini and Pasta

What you will need from off the shelf:
Pasta such as penne
1 can of cannellini beans
2 cans of diced tomatoes (or home canned, if you’ve got them)
1 big onion, diced
1 can of mushrooms (or fresh, sliced up, if you’ve got them)
Optional: a can of artichoke hearts, rinsed and soaked in cold water, squeezed out and cut in half.

Cook your pasta according to directions, to al dente.
In a large pan (frying or dutch oven), sautee the onion and muchrooms, add the cannellini beans and diced tomatoes and cook up.
Add the pasta and warm through, and add the artichokes and warm through.

Now, if you are scrounging around in the fridge and have something like escarole, chard, or spinach, you can chop that up and throw that into the pan toward the end to cook through and that is a very nice addition. OR, you can serve this with salad.

Very quick, tasty, and vegetarian.
Bon Appetit!

Starting this year’s garden

So, there you are, with the pile of seed catalogs (or the URLs of home gardener seed companies and your computer) and feeling overwhelmed. You’d like to have a garden this year. You’d like to grow more of the vegetables that your family eats (fruits too, if you are feeling ambitious), but there are so many varieties to try. What’s going to work for you?

What I always tell people who ask me about starting a garden is this: Start with what your family already eats. Just sit down with a pencil and paper and think about what gets put on the plate at your house and what gets eaten. Not the ‘awwww, do I have to eat this?” sort of response and with pulling and shoving and lots of sighs and finally a bit gets chewed up and hopefully swallowed. I mean, eaten. And I don’t care if it’s eaten covered with cheese, catchup, tomato sauce, parmasan cheese, ranch dressing, Italian salad dressing or melted butter and lemon juice. I mean eaten and, it is hoped, with relish and perhaps with yummy noises as well.

That list might be actually fairly small (and that is ok – we have basically 10 go-to veggies at Chez Siberia other than potatoes and onions), but that is ok. Here is out list:
Cabbage Family Plants (cabbage, broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Kale)
Carrots
Fresh Green Beans
Peas
Beet Family Plants (Chard and Beets)
Spinach
Greens of various sorts
Tomatoes
Peppers
Squashes and curcubits (summer, winter)

Once you have that list, for the first time you have a garden, try to keep your eyes smaller than your stomach – don’t go crazy, don’t rip up your entire yard. There are two means to success: First, only dig up as much as you can keep control over. If that is a 4 foot by 4 foot block, then so be it. If that is one 3 foot by 10 foot bed, then so be it. The DH once dug up about a quarter of an acre of the yard by hand, made beds, planted everything and ripped up one of the tendons in his arm. I was very pregnant at the time, so all of that sat out there while he was all bandaged up. Needless to say, finding the harvest was the challenge. We could have done a lot better with one bed. Second, not only pick types of veggies that your family eats (if all you can get your kids to eat is tomatoes of any sort – fresh in salads or processed for sauce for pizza and pasta – then grow tomatoes), but also pick varieties that will work for you and your location. Every seed site or catalog will have a USDA zone map which will tell you dates of last frost in the spring and first frost in the fall. Count up the days in between those two dates and you’ve got your growing season. Make sure you choose varieties of those veggies which will mature (that is, give you stuff that you can eat) which have shorter maturation than your growing season.

For example, here at Chez Siberia, to be frank, we are taking a huge risk if we put in plants like tomatoes and peppers before Memorial Day. The first week is June is sort of ‘iffy’ in terms of getting a frost. Likewise, although my zone information says that my first killer frost is the end of September or early October, we’ve been known to get freaky Canadian jet stream stuff during the first ten days of September which has killed everything in the garden except for the cabbage family. So, I only count June, July and August for my growing season: 92 days. So, in choosing tomato seeds to grow plants (or, if I were the sort of person to buy my plants at the local- not big box chain store – greenhouse, I’d check the labels on the six packs, the number of days to maturation will be there also), I’m going to go for the shortest days to maturation that I can find. One more hint on this — the smaller the tomato, the smaller the number of days to maturation, generally. So, cherry tomatoes are almost a ‘no-brainer’ here at Chez Siberia; beefsteak tomatoes will be something that I’d start a couple of plants super early and keep transplanting them into bigger and bigger pots until it is warm enough to transplant them outside, AND I’d put black plastic on the ground where I was planning to plant them to make sure the ground is nice and warm also. So, for example, for a beefsteak type tomato, I’d choose Pruden’s Purple (which is an heirloom tomato, tastes great, and has a days to maturity of 72 Days) over Black Brandywine (which is another heirloom, but has a days to maturity of 90 days).

Another thing to think about is this: If you have never gardened before, and you have children, it will be far easier to get them to eat what you are growing if the stuff looks familiar. So, if what your children think of as a ‘tomato’ is red (or, you eat green peppers at home, as another example), then make sure that you pick varieties which mature looking like what they expect the item to look like — a round, red tomato, not a black or purple Russian type, or a pepper that matures as a chocolate brown color. After a couple of years, you can branch out a bit and grow purple carrots, purple broccoli, fingerling blue potatoes and so on. But for the first time, just take it easy.

Live blogging a snowstorm

With the best will in the world, there is not much Aunt Toby can do this morning about the weather in the eastern US. I’m frankly hunkered down in a motel room near an airport, lighting candles and hoping for a break in the weather in time for the DH and I to take a plane to London to make the acquaintance of the newest member of the fam. It is uniformly horrific everywhere and I have every belief that our flight will get cancelled again.

Such is the way with climate change and travel.

So, since I have absolutely no tools at my disposal (no can opener, no shovel, no gas grill, nuthin’) to do anything for readers today, I do have access (obviously) to the archives of KCE and I’ve pulled out a couple of hopefully useful and perhaps even a bit entertaining posts which might help someone out there over the next couple of days.

Take care of yourselves out there.
Cooking on an outdoor grill: cooking on the grill in the snow

General Prep and Operations: What to do

Oh yeah – dress warm, ok?

Make it work — sewing a car seat ‘poncho’

Nothing makes your dear Aunt Toby feel more old than finding out that the stuff the literally was brand new when she was a new mommy not only has changed completely but comes with a whole different set of directions, concerns and legislation now.

When the Little Siberians were brand new, car seats (and at that time, all that was available and considered necessary were infant level seats – I recall that once a child reached a certain height, we were allowed to use a booster seat and that was it AND infant seats at that time were allowed in the front seat, which is how your Aunty developed this rather annoying habit of throwing out her right arm when she had to brake suddenly) were, for the time, considered pretty safety-conscious affairs: An actual seat with a back, with not only a three-point harness inside the seat, but also a way to clip them into the seat-belt clips. (more…)

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