Friday, March 28, 2014

Basil vodka lemonade

I can't believe I haven't shared this yet! I've been making this basil vodka lemonade for at least a year now, and it's become one of my favorite warm weather drinks. It's relatively easy and perfect for a pitcher pour, which is a major requirement for make ahead party drinks.

{basil vodka lemonade}

I bring sparkling water on the side and let people adjust to their liking. As written, the recipe is very, very strong - not just alcohol-wise, but in tartness. Some people like to drink it straight and others will dilute it down a bit. I like a splash of water in mine if I'm drinking it as a cocktail, and a bit more if I'm having it as an afternoon picnic drink.

Basil lemon syrup (based on this recipe  - makes 2 1/2 cups, enough for two batches of lemonade)

4 cups packed basil (just the top 4", from about a 1/2 lb bunch)
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
9 strips of lemon zest (I use a vegetable peeler for this, make sure to get as little white as possible)

:: Bring all ingredients to a boil in a medium saucepan and stir until sugar is dissolved.
:: Allow it to stand at room temperature for about an hour, then chill in the refrigerator at least an hour, until very cold.
:: Strain through a sieve, pressing with the back of a spoon to get all the liquid out.
:: Discard the solids (except I like to eat the lemon peels or save them for garnish - they're like candy!) and keep the syrup in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Basil vodka lemonade (makes 6 - 8 drinks, or a bit more if you go heavy with the sparkling water. Based on this recipe, but I modified the proportions to make it tarter and stronger - big surprise, right?)

1 1/4 cup basil lemon syrup
1 1/2 cups vodka
1 1/2 cups fresh lemon juice
Sparkling water, to taste

:: Pour everything into a bottle and mix it up. Pour over plenty of ice, add a dash (or more) of sparkling water.


If I'm finishing off a bottle of alcohol to make a drink I'm taking to a party, I'll call it serendipity and just pour the mixed drink back in the original bottle. It may look less classy, but it's nice to know the bottle can just get tossed in the recycling when it's finished. Or I guess the host could keep the leftovers without worrying about returning the bottle, but this has never happened because it always disappears before dinner.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Alllllmost done ...

It actually wasn't all that time consuming except for the fact that I ripped it out and redid it. And then I redid the basket weave at the bottom about 10 times because I was short on cord and desperately trying to make it work.


I just have a few finishing touches and then we'll get planting.


Which is it's own story, really.

I have an aversion to house plants. There, I said it. They remind me of everyone's houses in the '80s and I feel like people with houseplants are always worrying about strange sounding diseases and dusting them. Dusting living things! It just seems so strange, and like more upkeep than I can sign on for. I valiantly attempted to keep my balcony herb garden alive at our previous place because it was functional and I dislike paying for herbs. I gave in when D brought home mounds of rescued jade plant and spent a weekend potting it all up, because he swore I wouldn't have to do anything with it. I liked our green space although I generally let everything die during the winter.

And then we moved to an apartment with not a single scrap of outdoor space. We tossed the herbs and rehomed the jade and within a month Dustin started trying to get me to agree to indoor plants. I reluctantly agreed and then I decided that if a corner of our apartment was going to look like my childhood I might as well go the whole way and learn to macrame. Logical, right?

To be honest, the decision may have had less to do with aesthetics and more to do with the fact that I haven't picked up a new craft in a long time and I miss the feeling of it. It felt good. More details once I actually get it planted and hung.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Around here


trailer hunt
{trailer hunt}

stripes and dots
{stripes and dots}

ready for action
{ready for action}

coloring madness
{coloring madness}


Convincing D to make eggs and tortillas every weekend morning. He's a pro.

Still sort of looking at vintage trailer listings although it looks like the project might be on hold for this year. (We are equal parts relieved and disappointed - it will probably still happen, just on a slower schedule)

A St. Patrick's day baby shower for one of my dear high school girlfriends. All green and yellow, lots of California citrus. And babies! When did this happen?

Taking full advantage of all that citrus since we have a drawer full of lemons. And I realized I never shared this particular drink recipe with you, so I'll make sure to get it posted soon. It's more summer than spring, but it's a handy one to have in your back pocket.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Balsamic vinaigrette

I debated even posting this because olive oil + vinegar is not revolutionary and you probably already do it in a bowl with a fork but fully emulsifying it makes it a million times better and adding some garlic and basil is weeknight dinner next level.

balsamic vinaigrette
{balsamic vinaigrette}

I don't have a hard and fast recipe (read - I don't measure) and it always comes out fine. The blender* emulsifies it beautifully and with no effort on my part, which is the real secret. I still love the mayo/yogurt based Mexican-ish Caesar dressing, but for everyday I tend to make this one, or one that is basically identical but uses lemon juice instead of vinegar and has a smidge of anchovy paste and a couple cloves of garlic.

Super simple balsamic vinaigrette (makes enough for a couple salads, scale as necessary)
1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil (adjust to your preference. I'm somewhere in between)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste (about 1/2 tsp salt, a few grinds of pepper)

Optional (but highly recommended) add ins: 
Toss in a clove or two of garlic
Add a few leaves of basil
A heaping teaspoon of good mustard

It holds up for a few days in the fridge although it might need to get shaken up before you use it.

* You guys, I know I mention the tiny blender all the time. It's just that when I registered for it I had no idea how much I would use it and now I'm a tiny blender evangelist. I have no stock in Tribest, I swear. I think any small blender would serve exactly the same function. Just make sure you get one that has lids for the blending cups and you'll be set. I haven't purchased salad dressing in years and I don't mean that in a superior way, it's literally just that making it is easier than remembering to buy it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

February reading

On my last round up post someone asked how I'm managing to read so much, which makes a lot of sense because I'm definitely getting through more books these days. The secret is a new bus commute that's about an hour each way, so, sadly, I have no tips to pass along (other than trying to encourage people to check out public transit?). I try to reserve my commute for reading. It can be tempting to start checking my email on my phone, but I don't do it unless there's a five alarm emergency going on at work that really can't wait an hour. Messing around on my phone makes it feel like a time I need to fill, rather than a time I get to use, which is how I want to see it.

TransAtlantic - I loved this book. It consists of layers and layers of history, centered around Ireland but involving multiple historic and fictional characters. The three main threads are the first non-stop transatlantic flight, Frederick Douglass on a book tour in Ireland and George Mitchell helping broker the Good Friday Agreement. I can't imagine how much research it must have taken, but it ends up feeling effortless in the best way possible. The writing is lovely, of course, I'd expected nothing less after reading and loving Let the Great World Spin a few years ago.

Dept. of Speculation - This is a slim, beautiful piece of writing. I kept stopping to underline phrases and then re-read paragraphs. You can easily tear through this one, but I wanted to slow down. It's a simple premise - tracing a woman's adult life in bits and pieces but the voice is perfect - humorous and honest and beautiful. The plot is not the point. I liked the lack of detail, the way the writing felt like memories and the way the timeline played out with occasional jumps. I re-read it within a week of reading it, because it felt like it was over too fast.

The Dog Stars - This is my FAVORITE book I've read in ages, I think. It is an apocalypse novel, which I'm prejudiced towards, but even if you don't love reading about a post-disaster world, you could love this book. One of the things I enjoy about dystopian novels is the landscape - the eeriness of a world so sparsely populated, the cities silenced and abandoned. This novel focuses on the actual landscape rather than the usual rubble. There are lots of descriptions of quiet rivers and canyons and forests. There is a lot of fishing. I was more than half in love with the narrator, who pilots around in an old Cessna and carefully wraps his old dog Jasper in lovingly scavenged quilts. The language feels exactly right for the character and the writing is beautiful in a completely non-flowery way.

Garlic and Sapphires - I read Ruth Reichl's other memoirs a few years ago and really enjoyed them (and now want to re-read them because I can't remember everything). In this latest one, you get a behind the scenes glimpse of her life as a food critic, which entailed numerous disguises. Did I sometimes feel the agonizing over the deeper meaning of her disguises was a little tiresome? Yes, but it seems like it was a real issue to her. I was (gleefully?) surprised that she was willing to dish so much dirt on her NYT colleagues. Her original restaurant reviews are sandwiched in between the chapters where she discusses researching them and it was a good structure for the book.

Cool, Calm & Contentious - A book of humorous essays. I love humorous essays, especially autobiographical ones and I enjoyed most of these. For a crazy dog person, I have to say that I did not love the ones about her dogs. I think there are some thoughts that should remain internalized and the voices you give to your dogs are probably included.

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites - I read a lot of memoirs and I still cringe a little when I try to criticize them. Memoirs are a special class of writing because they're dependent on a combination of events, writing and character. You don't have to have all three things going for you. I do think they are fair game for criticism, particularly when written by an established author, but it's difficult because it's easy to sound like you're saying I just don't like this person. But I just didn't like this memoir. It felt both exhaustive and superficial to me and it turned out to be less about indulging appetites than denying them, as the author describes thinking about food but rarely eating it due to a deep desire to be thin. This could have been interesting, but because the denial wasn't really acknowledged with much depth, it just ended up feeling like an unexplored issue. Similarly, there are chapters and chapters about difficult relationships without any real intimation of what exactly is making them so difficult. I felt uncomfortably squirmy when the author described routinely crying in restaurants all over New York, but then, I have a fear of crying in public that probably borders on emotional repression, so maybe that's just my baggage.

The Dinner - This was a pretty intense book. There isn't much I can say about it without giving it away and it's a book that really shouldn't be given away. Which leaves me in a bind. The story took a really dark turn pretty quickly and I considered abandoning it, which is saying something, because I routinely read books about serial killers who hide victims behind wall paneling. This is a different kind of disturbing. I loved the writing, I enjoyed the structure of the book and I was impressed that the author could pull it off, frankly. But I'm not sure I would recommend it to anyone I know.

State of Wonder - A science fiction-y novel set in a Brazilian jungle. I enjoyed the crazy plot but I wasn't particularly moved by it.

Jack Reacher series 1 - 6 - These are re-reads for me. The series sometimes has a miss but on the whole I love the declarative sentences, the detailed descriptions of weaponry and the occasionally unbelievable plots. And no, I did not see the recent movie because I was horrified by the idea of compact, dark haired Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Reducing the pantry

I finally bit the bullet and starting paring down and organizing our pantry over the weekend. I knew I needed to reduce so I've been planning our meals with an eye to using up the backlog. When we moved I basically just tossed stuff in cupboards and figured I'd deal with it later. I pulled it all out and evaluated.

{this is not all of it}

I used to keep a pretty decent stockpile of food in the house. Not anything near survivalist levels, but I could cook pretty easily without a trip to the grocery store and we probably could have lived for a month without purchasing anything new. It was nice, but there just isn't space anymore and I'll need to be more thoughtful about it (i.e. I will no longer have 10 kinds of beans and five kinds of flour on hand at all times).

Things I will continue to keep: general baking supplies, grains and legumes that we use regularly (rice, couscous, red and black lentils), canned tomatoes, small supplies of just a few kinds of nuts, etc. For the most part I'll try to buy on a smaller scale and just get what we need. It means more frequent shopping, but I can live with that.

The large pantry now looks like this...

large pantry

The spices aren't going to live on that bottom shelf forever. I'm on a hunt for a spice rack that will fit the dimensions of our narrow broom closet so I can store them more efficiently (and make them easier to access). A few of the dry goods are temporary too, in that I'm not planning to replace them once they are used up. The cupboard is deep, so a lot of the containers are stacked two deep. I went with the easiest, cheapest solution and just wrote down what is in the back (non-visible) layer on a piece of masking tape and stuck it on the shelf below. At least we don't have to pull everything out to check to see what we have. That empty space on the second shelf is where I've been putting dry goods that I've purchased specifically for meals in the coming week. It makes them easy to access and there's no point putting something away if I'm going to pull it out and use it within a day or two.

And the smaller cupboard is right above our coffee/tea area, so it has mostly the stuff we use in the morning.

small pantry

I have one small pantry above the fridge as well, but I would have had to risk life and limb standing on the stove trying to get a photo of it. I keep our lesser used baking supplies in there.

There are still some empty spaces because I'm trying to figure out how best to use the space and we aren't fully stocked with some of our usual things right now.

I have to say it feels like a relief, not having to keep up with an inventory. And not feeling guilt over the jars of split peas that would languish there for ages because we were never in the mood for them.

I'm sure some of you are shocked by how much I still intend to keep on hand, but I promise, it's a huge reduction. For reference, here is my large cupboard in my old place, which is literally twice the size of my largest cupboard now (and I had four medium sized ones to boot!).