Monday, August 31, 2009

Bulgur is my New Best Friend

As promised, here is #98 of Mark Bittman's 101 Simple Salads for the Season.

98. Toss cooked bulgur with cooked chickpeas, quartered cherry or grape tomatoes, a little cumin, lots of chopped parsley, and lemon juice.

Once again, the obvious question is "how much?" How much bulgur? How many chickpeas? How many tomatoes, cumin, parsley and lemon juice?

Bittman trusts that readers will figure it out for themselves, but I'm not so confident I can pull it off. I guess I'll have to wing it...

Instead of cooking raw chickpeas, I took the way out and opened up a can. Unsure of how to cook bulgur, once again, I turned to The Joy of Cooking (page 266).

Here are the basic instructions for cooking bulgur:

1 cup bulgur to 2 cups of water. Rinse bulgur. Bring water to a boil, add bulgur. Return to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and cook for about 15 minutes until soft.

In this case, I substituted 1 cup of water with Avo's homemade chicken broth to enhance the flavor.

I think I overdid it with the parsley (Bittman did say "lots" after all), but I got it just right with two lemons. I regret that I used both cherry and grape tomatoes since it would have looked better with just one type. Oh well. No biggie.

The result was nutritious and delicious!

Encouraged by my success with bulgur, I jumped to:

92. Simmer a cup of bulgur and some roughly chopped cauliflower florets until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Toss with chopped tarragon, roughly chopped hazelnuts, minced garlic, Dijon mustard, olive oil and lemon juice.

After the first bite, Avo declared "it's a winner!"

Who knew bulgur could be so yummy?

Up next: #37.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Blog Days of Summer

Forgive me, readers. It's been nearly two weeks since my last blog post. And I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I have barely cooked or cleaned since then.

My excuse? I took my girls on a New England road trip and we fell into a Cape Cod state of mind. Along the way, we ate some crummy fast food (although I admit that I liked Mickey D's Caesar salad) and some amazingly, fresh and delicious food (thanks for my good foodie friends on the Cape).

The corn and tomatoes in Cape Cod in August are the best in the world. Of course, the beachy keen atmosphere enhances the flavor.

As much as I am glad to be back home in Brooklyn, I am experiencing a post-vacation letdown. I'm missing those lazy days by the pond when all we had to think about was: what's for dinner?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Salad #94

I never like to be too systematic when it comes to anything domestic.

It drives Avo batty when I clean a few dishes, then start to neaten the toys, and dust the mantel...I end up doing a little bit of everything and never doing a good job at anything.

Therefore, it seems fitting that I start at the random #94 when I attempt to cook my way through Mark Bittman's list of 101 Simple Salads for Summer.

94. Cook and cool quinoa. Toss with olive oil, loads of lemon juice, tons of parsley, some chopped tomatoes and, if you like, toasted pine nuts. Call it quinoa tabbouleh.

First, how do you pronounce quinoa? Keen-wa. Apparently, it's an ancient Aztec grain that is really good for you (high in protein and minerals).

The good news is that quinoa cooks quickly, but, apparently, it also becomes rancid quickly, so be sure to refrigerate it.

Next, how do you cook quinoa?

I turned to my handy copy of The Joy of Cooking (p. 254) for basic directions. There are actually several easy ways to prepare quinoa. I go with the following:

1. Rinse 1 cup quinoa in a fine-mesh sieve and drain

2. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat

3. Add and cook 1 clove finely minced garlic, stirring constantly to avoid burning

4. Add the quinoa and cook, stirring constantly, until the grains are separate and golden.

5. Stir in 2 cups water (I used 1 cup of water and 1 cup of Avo's homemade chicken stock for added flavor) and 1/2 teaspoon salt

6. Reduce to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the liquid is absorbed (12 to 15 mins). Fluff with a fork.

"Can't I just buy toasted pine nuts?" I asked Avo. "Do I actually have to toast them myself?"

He didn't bother to answer me. Instead, Avo walked me through the steps for properly toasting pine nuts:

1. Get a small frying pan.

2. Toss in pine nuts.

3. Turn up to low heat (don't add oil).

4. Toss gently until they are lightly browned.

I think I overdid it with the lemon juice (Bittman did say "loads of lemon juice"), but the amazing August tomatoes kicked this dish up a notch (as Emeril might say).

You might have noticed that Bittman's recipes don't include specific proportions. On the one hand, it's a bit scary because you might go overboard on lemon juice or another ingredient (as I did in this recipe).

But, on the other hand, it is sort of liberating. Not having to worry about messing up the measurements gives me confidence to tinker with Bittman's recipes and make them my own.

Next up...Salad #98.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Domesticated Bliss

Last June 4th marked Avo and my 9th anniversary. Since we were together two years before we got married, that makes 11 years of wedded bliss.

As with most couples, we've had some bumpy bits, but generally, we're pretty darned happy together (sometimes obnoxiously so).

But recently, we've arrived at a new level of compatibility and partnership. The difference? I've begun to cook and clean. No kidding. It's helped liven things up around the house and keep things interesting (Avo will never cease to be amazed when he arrives home to find me whipping up dinner).

"If domesticity is what you reveal to me at our 9-year point, I'm all for it! I like how you keep me on my toes," Avo said the other night.

"You timed it just right too. If you had done this too early in our marriage, I might have gotten spoiled. If you had waited much longer, I might have lost hope!"

The question is: will he lose hope if I burn his dinner?

[Cartoon by my fave, Lynda Barry]

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Cleaning Cheat Sheet

I haven't abandoned my quest to prepare Mark Bittman's 101 Simple Salads for the Season. I promise to update you on my progress soon.

But, for the moment, I've been side tracked by a helpful story I found online with time-saving household hints courtesy of Jeff Bredenberg, author of How to Cheat at Cleaning: Time-Slashing Techniques to Cut Corners and Restore Your Sanity.

1. Keep Dirt Outside Where it Belongs

Establish a no-shoe rule inside your home, and you'll prevent all kinds of muck from ever touching your floors. Place a basket or shoe rack by the front door and ask everyone to deposit footwear there. Keep in mind that you may piss off friends who consider their shoes to be an indispensible part of their outfit.

2. Cover up

Use washable slipcovers on couches and upholstered chairs to prevent permanent stains. If you can't bear to cover up all the time, use the slipcovers on high-risk occasions, such as kids' parties or holiday gatherings. So many colors and styles are available that you don't even need to spring for custom-made ones. Just make sure you can pop them in the washing machine.

It's a good idea, but I have no plans to follow Bredenberg's advice. Slipcovers remind me of my late Great Aunt Dottie, who wouldn't remove her plastic slipcovers unless the President was coming over for tea. Seems like an awfully timid way to life life! Besides, our leather couch washes off pretty easily.

3. Create a Disposable "Counter top"

Next time you cook something that's likely to make a mess, cover the counter with wax paper. Afterward, just crumple up the paper -- and the mess. Needless to say, this is not so environmentally friendly!

4. Make Appliances Clean Themselves

To clean a food processor or blender, fill halfway with water, add a squirt of dish washing liquid, close lid and turn on. The food will spin off the blades. Then just rinse. Be careful not to mistake it for a fruit smoothie!

To clean a garbage disposal (not that we have one), empty a tray of ice cubes into the disposal, toss in some orange peels, then grind until the ice disappears. Any bad odor will also disappear.

To clean a microwave, heat two cups of water in a microwave-safe bowl on high for five minutes. The steam will loosen cooked-on splatters. Then simply wipe away the grime with a paper towel.

To clean a toilet bowl, throw denture tablets in to make stains vanish overnight. The next morning, just brush a tiny bit and flush. Denture tablets also remove coffee and tea stains from mugs and get rid of crusty buildup in the bottom of flower vases. Just fill with hot water and drop one in.

To rid your furniture or drapes of pet hair, warm a dryer sheet and rub it over the material. This zaps the static cling, allowing the hair to fall off so it can be vacuumed up quickly.

To clear dust out of the crannies of computer keyboards or piano keys, use a can of compressed air -- sold at office supply stores. This also works on pleated lampshades and chandeliers.

Most importantly, know when enough is enough!

No matter how much you scrub, certain household items, such as door mats, stove top drip pans and shower curtains, will never come completely clean. So when they get too soiled, suck it up and replace them. Your friends and family won't think any less of you!

Friday, August 7, 2009

101 Simple Salads for the Season

It was one of The New York Times' most emailed stories for what seemed like forever. Mark Bittman's list of 101 Simple Salads for Summer certainly captured my attention.

To Avo's delight. I've begun to work my way through Bittman's recipes.

As Bittman states in the preface to his article, the criteria for the list was as simple as the salads:

In theory, each salad takes 20 minutes or less. Honestly, some may take you a little longer. But most minimize work at the stove and capitalize on the season, when tomatoes, eggplant, herbs, fruit, greens and more are plentiful and excellent.

Bittman breaks the salads down into categories: mostly vegan salads, vegetarian salads, salads with seafood, salads with meat, salads with noodles, grain salads.

Maybe because Avo and I are big grain eaters, I began at the end of the list with the grain salads.

So far, I've learned how to cook quinoa and bulgur (hooray!). In my next few blogs, I plan to let you know how my mission is going. Are you with me?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wikki Stix Rule

They're cheap. They're fun. They're handy around the house.

What are they exactly?

They're Wikki Stix, of course, a craft project for kids that is so much more.

Not only can they amuse your tot for hours, but they can also help you open a stubborn jar or retrieve a magazine from behind the couch.

There are countless household uses for this amazing product. According to the Wikki Stix web site , they can help in various ways. Following are just ten suggestions.

I'm confident you can come up with many on your own!

1. Wind up and secure extension cords with Wikki Stix to keep them from getting tangled.

2. Wrap a Wikki around the top and it will unscrew hard-to-open jars or small bottles easily.

3. Reinforce a slippery grip on a tennis racket or golf club. It will be much easier to hold onto if you wrap a few Wikki Stix around them.

4. Use Wikki Stix around holiday time to secure decorations. You can also use them to create window displays, cards, and gift wrap.

5. Tie snack bags shut with Wikki Stix

6. Secure candle in candle holder

7. Stick photos down in place

8. Circle important dates on the calendar (just cut Wikki Stix into short lengths and press into circle around date

9. Use Wikki Stix to keep buttons close at hand when you are doing some quick repair work. Just stick one Wikki on table or wall, etc. and press the buttons you will need right onto it...easy to take them off one by one as you sew them on the clothing.

10. Stick a couple of Wikki Stix to the end of a broom handle or coat hanger to retrieve hard-to-reach objects.

I love Wikki Stix (and no, they're not paying me to plug their product)!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Clear out the Clutter

I am not the world's best cook or house cleaner, to say the least, but I am a pretty good organizer. In other words, our house is dirty, but neat.

I might not change the sheets very often, but I put them away once they're clean. Recently, I went a little crazy organizing the children's books. After a productive trip to IKEA where we bought a new bookcase, I couldn't restrain myself for categorizing the books by reading level, author and size/shape (let's see how long it stays that way!).

Then I bought dividers for the girls' new dresser so that their shorts would be clearly separated from their shirts and pants.

Sounds nutty, but living in a New York City apartment with two kids and a cat, you've got to make efficient use of your limited space.

Needless to say, I don't need any help organizing. But I have a lot of friends who do. Some of them are even embarrassed to admit that they need help.

Luckily, I now know where to send them -- my new friend Eleanor Traubman, a small business consultant & professional organizer since 1999. Eleanor works with busy women who want to make more space for the people and the projects they love.

Eleanor is also the Editor-in-Chief of Creative Times, a blog for artists and entrepreneurs. Her mission is to bring people together through the arts, creativity, and humor.

I recently interviewed Eleanor, who is passionate about organizing:

Undomesticated Me: What inspired you to start your organizing business?

Eleanor Traubman: About a decade ago, I attended a workshop led by Michelle Passoff, author of Lighten Up! Free Yourself from Clutter.

I loved Michelle’s philosophy that de-cluttering wasn't just about getting organized; it was about letting go of things that are no longer relevant, useful, or meaningful to you so you could make room for new people, opportunities, and experiences to come into your life.

UM: Do you have any simple advice for people who are afraid to begin to clear out the clutter?

ET: Start by reflecting on this question: What do I want to make more space for in my life? A new relationship? A new job or career direction? A creative project? Your answer becomes the coaching tool to begin and to stay dedicated to the organizing process. Start small with one shelf or drawer.

And know that it is perfectly acceptable to ask for help! Getting someone to help you kick-start the process can be an immense relief.

UM: There is an emotional component to clutter and organizing -- how do you deal with that?

ET: When I work one-on-one with my clients, I am always going to ask them to consider the following questions when they are deciding whether or not to keep something: "Do I love this? Do I need this? Do I want this? Is this relevant to my life right now?"

There is something about having a supportive, neutral presence in the de-cluttering process that allows women to stand back from their stuff and make more rational decisions about what really deserves a place in their physical environment.

Also, for folks who come from families who have lived through war, economic depression, and other hardships, it's useful to remember this: Our safety lies in our relationships with others, not in our stuff. The universe will provide us with what we need when we need it.

Eleanor is giving a discount for Undomesticated Me readers!

Save 10% Special Offer

Professional organizer Eleanor Traubman offers a 10% discount for a hands-on de-cluttering session or a phone consulation to create a customized de-cluttering strategy for you.

To contact Eleanor: call 917-499-7395.

Offer Expires: August 31st, 2009

Now you have no excuse not to organize and clear out the clutter!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

We Like to Watch

Why is it that Americans are so keen on watching Food Network, but so reluctant to cook for themselves?

As a devotee of Food Network's primetime line-up, I fall into this category. But, with the launch of Undomesticated Me, I have been striving to not only be a couch potato, but to cook potatoes (and other stuff) as well!

When it comes down to it, we all have good excuses about why, as a nation, we're not cooking as much as we used to -- we're busy, we're lazy, and there are more easy, cheap mass-produced alternatives.

In Michael Pollan's excellent article in this week's New York Times Magazine, he explores this issue in depth.

According to Pollan, the decline of every day home cooking has several causes:

women working outside the home; food companies persuading Americans to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to do so. Cooking is no longer obligatory, and for many people, women especially, that has been a blessing. But perhaps a mixed blessing, to judge by the culture’s continuing, if not deepening, fascination with the subject. It has been easier for us to give up cooking than it has been to give up talking about it — and watching it.

Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia [Child] arrived on our television screens [in 1963]. It’s also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of “Top Chef” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star.” What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves — an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.

Not surprisingly, Pollan comes to the conclusion that something is lost when we rely on fast, cheap mass-produced food to nourish us.

When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt; these are three tastes we’re hard-wired to like, which happen to be dirt cheap to add and do a good job masking the shortcomings of processed food. And if you make special-occasion foods cheap and easy enough to eat every day, we will eat them every day. The time and work involved in cooking, as well as the delay in gratification built into the process, served as an important check on our appetite. Now that check is gone, and we’re struggling to deal with the consequences.

The consequences, of course, are that we are heavier as a nation than we were back in Julia Child's time. The irony is that we are also more fitness-crazed and diet-obsessed. Pollan suggests that perhaps the best diet is to "Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”

It's a provocative and somewhat far-fetched notion (what if I just "cook" myself homemade ice cream sundaes?), but, as Pollan acknowledges, it's unlikely that the age of home cooking will ever return.

Luckily, it's not an all-or-nothing deal. We can all do our little part in trying to reclaim the kitchen. I, for one, won't be ordering in and nuking a frozen dinner in the microwave tonight. I don't know we'll have for dinner, but I know that Avo or I will cook it ourselves.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Vacuum Like Beckham

Don't worry. I have no plans to turn this into a celeb gossip blog. But I did find it amusing that just after my lost post about how nobody loves cleaning, David Beckham boasted that he is "passionate about housework."

In the latest issue of People Magazine, the famous soccer player, is quoted as saying "I'm very passionate about cleanliness and housework. I love to vacuum."

As if that wasn't impressive enough, he went on to say, "I also like cooking. My signature dish for Victoria is grilled prawns or lobster and fresh vegetables. And for the children and myself it's pasta with fresh tomato sauce and olives."

So there goes my theory that nobody loves housework!

Now all of those women out there with crushes on Beckham are swooning over his domestic inclinations. After all, what is sexier than a man with a vacuum cleaner?