Holiday ups and downs

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It's been an exciting Holiday Season so far. We had a great thanksgiving dinner, we got a Christmas Tree and have been adding decorations over the past weeks and, despite dire economic warnings, my restaurant is actually very busy. Sometimes it feels even, dare I say it too busy.

But I've noticed that I'm really tired today. Tired from all the holiday rush. Rush to get ready for seeing family and the rush to close out the year on a good foot at work. It's many levels of anticipation and it almost feels anxious in it's intensity. Shouldn't it be quieter? Shouldn't the past few days of cold and snow made it as silent in my head as it has been outside? You know, that feeling that you get when walking through a light snow in the evening? There is the steady rhythm of crunch crunch beneath you feet of ice and snow and yet a quiet from the gentle snow, dampening even the screachinges siren. How can we get that moment back and just play the loop?

Taking the Holidays Seriously and having fun doing it...

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I wish we had photos of getting our Christmas Tree and bringing it back home. We chose one of the coldest windiest of nights to "go pick one up", which is a lot easier said than done when you have you, your wife, your two legs and arms and hands and the New York City subway system.

Don't get me wrong, it was fun, but it was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be about three hours earlier after we'd finished straitening out our apartment to prepare it for a tree. We had talked about maybe getting a tree this year, but at some point I decided, yea, if we can do a full-blown Thanksgiving dinner for our family, than hell yea we're ready to put up our first Christmas Tree. Despite being highly allergic, I was a big pusher for it.

I was thinking back to all the fond years of sitting around the tree that one day a year, after we'd all put in something to decorating it, and filling up the area around it with beautifully wrapped gifts and it was came back to that sharing, that sharing spirit. Everyone in the house contributes something to the tree, and everyone receives something from it, and even if we can't afford it, or to put anything under it, its worth it because it gives you something. It lends an exciting emotional atmosphere to a household. It makes things feel vibrant and alive, if only for a few weeks. That's something we all need this year.

So, we bought our tree last night. We found it on the corner of Court St. and Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn. we sort of picked out the tree we wanted, and headed off to go eat first.
This part of Atlantic Ave. is renowned for its Middle Eastern restaurants, butchers, and groceries. We picked the Yemen Cafe. Yay! Salta! I chose the Lamb Salta, and Man 'o Man, that was the most perfect meal for a cold winter's night. Stone baked bread, slow roasted lamb, lamb soup and a nice crisp iceberg salad dressed with a salsa like dressing. Everything had a little spicy edge to eat and everything was perfect. We loved it and its my lunch today. The bill was forty eight bucks and there was enough food for 4.

So, the meal there got our bellies ready for the journey ahead. We set out to get lights and a few ornaments first. We walked past a the new Urban Outfitters and saw some cool glass ornaments and picked up a few boxes of those, just to get our tree some ornaments to start, then we dropped off at CVS and bought a box of lights and some hooks.

Next, we tromped back to the tree sales area we liked best and picked out a nice 6 + foot tree and then headed back to Jay street to head home. Longest walk ever. Or at least that is what it felt lugging a tree back to the subway, but we made it there and then made it back home.

Tracie popped out for some more milk and with the helpful and welcome aid of hot cocoa we put up the tree and hung the lights and the first ornaments.  We think it looks pretty cool.
Our First Christmas Tree
But we want more, we want to add our own handmade ornaments and hopefully start a lifetime of fun. Today, I searched the web and found a few helpful links, one of my favorites at mademagazine.com, led me to my first ornament that I just completed a little bit ago. Woohoo! DIY ornaments are cool.


Making an Icosohedron ornament, Part 1


The first finished ornament:


The finished ornament

Thanksgiving Extravaganza 2008!

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Food and more food

Well, Tracie and I prepped and cooked for four days and everything came out great and felt a lot smoother than it ever has before. We were more organized and got everything done like a good kitchen crew should (as we often do). I should expect it feeling easy, I am a professional chef now, but somehow, cooking for family and friends stresses me out more than for people I don't know sometimes.

Gardening in the Urban Landscape...starting out

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Last year, we planted a few herbs and that was the extent of our gardening. Meanwhile we participated in a Community Supported Agriculture Farm Share, and received some great local vegetables.

Our landlords and neighbors live above us and have a nice backyard, small, but tightly packed with greenery. They told us we were welcome to use some of the space, and so we did. Last year, we planted oregano, garlic, lavender, and we bought a small window box and planted some chives and a few other herbs. They already had mint growing in the are we planted the herbs and garlic, so we figured we'd keep it there. Later in the growing season they had tomatoes and peppers, while we wished we did. they had nice baby lettuces, while we wished we did.

This year, I resolved to extend our garden-able space. I was going to build a box. And so I did. I went to Home Depot and bought 2, 1 in x 10 in x 6 ft pine boards and 4, 1 in x4 in x6 ft pine boards. I decided the boxes dimensions would be 1.5 ft by 6 ft.  One month ago today, I built the box and painted it.  One week prior to that, I had started my seedbeds. I used to egg cartons, both sides of the lids, splayed out on a cooking sheet, and 4 other 2 -4 in plastic container pots.

Within 2 weeks everything was at least 2 inches high and it would soon to time to harden them and move them outside.

I needed soil. I needed something to line the box. I'd been reading a great beginner gardening book called, You Grow Girl, I know I'm not a girl, but Tracie bought it and it's a really great book for starting a garden in an urban environment.  I decided I would line the box with landscaping fabric, which would breath and allow proper drainage. I also decided that would line it with mulch and then a mixture of composted manure and gardening soil.
Living in a big city has an advantage of having so many options available for so many things, except when it comes to gardening apparently. I remembered from when we loved over in Clinton Hill, that there was  a decent gardening supply, called Gardell's. I called Gardell up and he explained that he wasn't open on the weekdays anymore, and that he didn't ahve what I needed anyways. So, tracie suggested another gardening supply she ahd read about, Chelsea Gardening Supply. So, we called them up and they had everything I needed, except it wouldn't come for a week.

I sucked it up and ordered. They suggested I order about 1/3 more than I did, and when the soil and compost arrived, I ended up with about 1/3 more than I needed anyways. But its always good to have extra on hand. For expansions sake and replanting sake. It has already come in handy.

Hurriedly, last Sunday, I laid in the landscaping fabric, poured in the mulch, and mixed in the composted manure and gardeing soil. The next day, I would plant. I spent the early morning of that day hardening off the seedlings. Some took well, some didn't so I did the same the next day. They all withstood the hot day well, so about midday I decided to plant them all.

I laid out my plans, drew a few sketches in my notebooks, this will go here, that there, and came up with a few plans. Then I just set in to planting. It took an hour or two in the hot sun, so by the time I was finished. I needed a break and some lunch. I took a short break, about an hour, and made lunch inside.

Upon my return outside, I noticed something was amiss with my new plantings already. A number of the seedlings were crushed or uprooted, but most were still well and intact. There were cat hairs in the box. I know cat hairs, we have one cat and our landlords have a bunch that they let roam in the afternoons sometime (all neutered and spayed). One of them, one I like a lot, Goldenrod, had turned the new box into a playpen.

I fixed what I could and built a makeshift moveable cover of sorts. I had two extra 1 x 4's that I hadn't used for the box, so I set two nails into thte sides of the box on each of the long sides, and bent the nails where they would support the 1 x 4's resting firmly. Next, I stapled a length of landscaping fabric between the two boards. I then set some gardening stakes down the middle of the box and across the ends, and placed the cover over the box, creating a quasi greenhouse.
Mini Green House
I secured the openings at the end with a few staples from my trusty staple gun. I figured this would be good enough to keep the critters out and let the light in. It was a hot day and projected week, and so I thought this would also help harden my seedlings off a bit before opening it up. In the back of my mind though, I wish I had some kind of chicken wire covering to wrap this fabric over, so that I could have complete peace of mind from the critters. 

Late in the week a storm came and I went out to tighten the fabric and noticed one of the cats had been sleeping o top of the cover, flattening out the lettuces below. I tightened the fabric and waited until the next day. When I checked the following day, cat hair again, and a storm had ripped the fabric over night. I replaced the fabric and thought all would be fine, this time, I had battened it down and tightened it well. But I knew I needed some chicken wire to keep these critters off the new sleeping box.

Sunday morning, Tracie and I checked the box, a hole was ripped and it looked like the cat had slept there again. I resolved to get some chicken wire. We went inside and had coffee and came out to find one of the cats tearing up the seedlings inside the cover. That was it, it needed stronger protection. 

I was extremely pissed at myself for not having gotten chicken wire sooner, and for those cats just not leaving well enough alone. We resolved to work into our day to find some chicken wire and return and fix the box. 

Boy is finding chicken wire in Brooklyn a chore. We were headed out to brunch in Ft. Greene at Bonita, so we stopped by Gardell's by the Lafayatte stop on the c to see if he had any chicken wire. He didn't, but suggested we try "Midtown Gardening", over off of Atlantic and Vanderbuilt. They didn't have any either. We then tried a small hardware store on vanderbuilt. No luck there either. Then we resolved to go to Lowe's. I opted to walk, this turned out to be a much much further walk than I could have imagined. Never again. Always take a cab or the train. We get to Lowe's and its huge and no one that works there knows jack about anything. I finally ask the right guy and find the chicken wire, only to spend the next ten minutes searching for chicken wire nails and a spool of wire to construct and tie down the whole mess.

Finally we get the stuff and head home. Tired and weary of the work yet to come. I took a nap and then went ot work on constructing the hooped chicken wire cover. This is me finishing it, and this is where it stands today, except it's a lot wetter. It's been raining all day. Now I need to seed some more plants and re-plant and maybe supplement some from seedlings that others have already hardened. 

I'm still excited about growing veggies for ourselves, but a bit annoyed by losing so many beautiful seedlings in the early processes. Finishing the Cover


Eating Simply Everyday...not like Rachel Ray

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Reading Serious Eats often gets me excited or worked up about something about food.

I was reading this article, How to Reduce Your Food Costs in 60 Minutes a Week, and got to thinking...

Want to save money? Start with always keeping a moderately full pantry of basics. Have a good amount of basics on hand and just cook often and build a personal repertoire of ways to cook things fast and start making variations on that. You can build and maintain this pantry overtime. Basics being: Flour, salt (various kinds if you desire), Cooking Oils (Olive Oil, Sesame Oil, Canola, Corn, etc.) water, onions, garlic, fresh ginger, dried seed herbs (coffee grinder to grind them if you desire), sugar, vinegar (several kinds), carrots, fresh herbs, eggs, etc.

Grow some food. Grow some herbs. Not all, but some. Then when you go to the grocery store or greenmarket, you buy what looks fresh or should be seasonal and fresh and you supplement it with what you have. This can help you weather cost increases in the fresh vegetables.

Cooking from fresh and basic ingredients is how to reduce your costs, that is how restaurants make money and how you can save it too.

Reduce your meat consumption.

I love meat, I will eat any part of most things that moved, but...slow down, these things eat too, hence, by nature they are going to increase your costs. No matter what kind of rationale you come up with to justify their cheapness.

Sure, there are cheap chickens,fish, beef, and pork at the grocery store, but why is it cheap? Do you really want to be planning your life around what meats are cheap? Or what meats are discounted and moved to sell. Can we thing about this please. Cheap meat is cheap because what went in was cheap.

Making a menu for the week is great, but a lot of people are overwhelmed by the thought of "making a menu" so that might not be their best option for reducing costs.

I find that if I spend too much time thinking about my menu a) it comes out over thought b) I get hungry and go buy a snack or sometimes even dinner, thereby negating the cost benefit.

Take stock of what you have on hand already.
My best menus are when I take out all the ingredients that look good to me and ask my self how I can cook them, what is my cooking and prep time constraint and how can they all be combined to make a meal.

For example: Say I have a whole 3 1/2 # chicken. I have butter on hand. I have some oregano, thyme, and lavender in my backyard. I found some nice ramps at the greenmarket. I still have a nice head of romaine lettuce in the fridge. I have eggs. I have extra virgin olive oil. I cured some lemons, just to have around and experiment with. I bought some artichokes a few weeks ago and preserved them and those might be nice in a salad somehow. My wife bought some beet pasta, and hey I have some red swiss chard, wouldn't that look and taste great together, and what cheese do we have? Oh parmesan, oooh riccotta salata... heh this is starting to sound like something....

From all this I made: Ramp and Mint Pesto (to marinate my chicken), Lemon and Ramp Roasted Chicken (Pollo al Mattone style), Fresh Beet Linguine and Swiss Chard in a lemon butter sauce, and a "Caesar Salad" made from hearts of romaine and fresh caesar dressing made from Worcestershire sauce, champagne vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, dijon mustard, black pepper, salt, parmesan cheese and a whole egg. I didn't use complicated techniques, I used what I had on hand. It took me about an hour and fifteen minutes. I cook for a living, so maybe it would take you longer, but do things ahead when you can. My ramp pesto was made a few days a head for something else. My wife had cured lemons many moons ago, and they are always nice to have to brighten up a dish, just scrape the flesh and mince and mix in (like in my pasta sauce). The fresh pasta was found at the green market, as were the ramps, chicken and eggs.

This is how good quick menu planning happens. Not over thought, just taking inventory of what you have and what you can do with it and taking action. Do this every-night you can and you'll save more money and be pleasantly surprised more often than you think.

Want to be realistic about reducing your costs on food? Spend more than 60 minutes thinking about it. I mean, most people spend more time than that on their subway, and somehow this is the golden, boils done to this, time that will allow you to turn your life around? Hrm.

In that case, spend 60 minutes, examining your cabinets and refrigerator and inventorying what you have on hand.

Spend another 60 minutes in your favorite market or grocery store, and buy 4 or 5 things you could cook several ways. Buy enough to last you more than 1 or 2 meals. Use a small amount of each, maybe not all at once, and cook differently several days of the week. Combine it with things you already have on hand. Got some rice in those cabinets? How about a box of pasta? Or maybe whole eggs and flour. You could make your own past, and you don't even need a pasta machine thing, it's called a rolling pin or wine bottle people.

Get about 5-8 ingredients together that you think would go well together and make something. Think about including different cooking methods, different base ingredients, and intermingling things from time to time. Use salt and other ingredients that open your taste buds.

Have fun. Play. Cooking and eating are a central part of life and you should make sure you make it feel that way as often as you can.
Keep it fun and interesting and use things you've never seen before.

Taste at every step of the way, and season in layers. This prevents you from ruining by over seasoning, or overcooking, or undercooking. Taste. Taste. Taste.

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