The Joy of Cooking

Before Thanksgiving I had my twenty-three year old Ikea kitchen cabinets professionally painted. That required emptying drawers and cupboards and getting rid of many things that no longer served me, designating them for either Goodwill or the trash. Inspired by the resultant lack of kitchen clutter, I’ve tackled my 1840s Irish hutch, the home of all of my cookbooks, kitchen utensil instruction manuals, food clippings and miscellaneous things once held by random magnets on the refrigerator. This trip down a decades’ long memory lane became a recipe for smiles, a tear or two and a lot of reflection.

After, organized and weeded out

After, organized and weeded out

The oldest item, aside from the hutch itself, is my favorite cookbook, Joy of Cooking. The mint green cover of this 1963 edition, the last authored by its originator, Irma Rombauer — stained in places and held together with duct tape — gives evidence of not just its longevity in my collection, but of its utility. The red ribbons attached to the binding and provided as page markers are permanently embedded in the turkey roasting and pie baking pages. Which is not to suggest that others are not well thumbed.

IMG_1066Long before Google, Pinterest and Epicurious, Joy was my “go to” for questions about equivalencies, substitutions, techniques, housekeeping tips and proper entertaining etiquette.

Not that I hadn’t been properly trained at home. Whatever else she might have been, my stepmother was, by the standards of the 1950s and 1960s, an excellent home keeper and cook. Yes, meals were meat and potatoes affairs occasionally enhanced by the modern packaged foods newly available at the time, like Shake n Bake or Velveeta. But meals were always a sit down affair, with dinner at 6pm sharp every night, breakfast of eggnog and cinnamon toast ready before school and sandwiches, milk and fruit at lunchtime. My sister and I were schooled on how to cook, set the table and clean up — whether just for our family of eight or an important dinner party with white tablecloths and multiple forks and spoons at each place setting.

But it was Irma and her daughter Marion who first taught me about cuts of meat, measurements for cocktails (who knew what a “jigger was”), drying herbs, the many types of flour and sugar, even how to remove coffee stains by pouring boiling water onto them from a height of two feet! More than a cookbook, Joy was my fictive mother, grandmother and great grandmother, available at an instant to tell me how to do almost anything in the kitchen or dining room, on the porch or patio. The wonderful illustrations, common sense approach and recipes made with readily available ingredients presented in honest and family friendly combinations, made Joy not just one of the New York Public Library’s 150 most influential books of the twentieth century, but an antidote to the over the top foodie extravaganzas that hit bookstores and restaurants in the 1990s and beyond. (Influenced a bit by this, my 1997 edition of Joy rarely is used and will be replaced by the 2006 75th anniversary edition which is more faithful to the original Joy vision.)

Next came my upscaling at the hands of Craig Claiborne. Living in New York City as a young adult and then (as now) a devotee of the New York Times, I devoured his columns and tried many of the recipes in the four Times cookbooks I own: The New York Times Cookbook, The New York Times Menu Cookbook, The New York Times International Cookbook and Craig Claiborne’s Favorites from the New York Times. More gourmet than the down home cuisine in Joy, but still reproducible by the home cook without a trust fund to spend, Claiborne’s recipes ranged from regional specialties cooked simply to more elegant dishes influenced by international cuisine.

Several staples of our Thanksgiving feast — including the southern cornbread stuffing, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce — originally came from these volumes. When the Times put out The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century in 2010, after carefully checking to make sure that the stuffing recipe was included, I bought three copies, one for myself and one for each grown daughter.

And then there was Julia. Like many, I was smitten with her PBS cooking shows, which became must see TV for me. Too young to have watched The French Chef while in boarding school in the 1960s, I found her in the 1970s and immediately started working my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. While I never made every recipe as did blogger Julie, I made many, and then most from the cookbooks reprising episodes of her later cooking show seasons.

For me, Julia was not just about technique, she was about being fine with less than perfect results. Watching her laugh off small goofs or even dropped chickens and hearing her signature “Bon appetit” at the conclusion of each show made me eager to try to replicate her creations, like her, with a wine glass in hand. It was she who influenced me to acquire Le Creuset cookware, which forty years later is still my “batterie de cuisine”. Living now in the D.C. outskirts, I have more than once made the pilgrimage to her kitchen at the Smithsonian. Some day I will even have a pegboard wall, perhaps in her signature green!

During the 1980s I discovered the Moosewood cookbooks, five of which I now own, with publication dates spanning from 1977 to the early 1990s. Like many, I was first cutting down on meat, eventually choosing not to eat mammals while still cooking with fowl and fish. Especially during the 1990s, the healthy, relatively inexpensive and easy to prepare dishes featured in the cookbooks and the Ithaca restaurant for which they were named became staples in my household, both out of principle and practicality; raising two daughters on a teacher’s salary required some real budget jujitsu.

An assortment of culinary classics like the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts, Jane Brody’s Good Food Cookbook, Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking, and Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking have been joined by several Mark Bittman titles. (I’m still coveting How to Cook Everything…. do you hear me Santa?).

Then there are the appliance specific cookbooks/manuals: slow cooker (the best are by Beth Hensberger), blender, food processor (my favorite is the original robot coupe 1973 cookbook which I still have, even though I gave the machine to my daughter), pressure cooker (from days owning a sailboat), ice cream maker, grill, fondue pot. I own too many vegetarian or near vegetarian cookbooks and will keep only one or two, but my two bread cookbooks from Williams Sonoma and Cindi Flahive-Sobel will still have honored shelf space.

Family recipes and those garnered from friends have been painstakingly digitized onto laminated recipe cards residing in a plastic box. Clippings have been weeded out (if I lived to be a hundred I could eat a different saved chicken recipe every day…not likely to happen). My Evernote recipe notebook, Pinterest food folder and New York Times online recipe box hold my virtual clippings.

I began by mentioning smiles and tears, and you might be wondering why. My 1963 Joy has penciled annotations in two different hands drawing me back first to a grand love from my twenties and then a failed marriage in my fifties. The New York Times cookbooks bear the black-penned name and date of my college lover and mate. Julia Child came into my life at the same time that my daughters did, and all of the books were gifts from their father.

I’ve gone through phases, trying new cuisines, new gadgets, new men, new identities. As I leaf through the books, unfold the yellowed newspaper clippings, decide what fits me now and what doesn’t, I experience a rush of joy at remembering the happy times of cooking for men I loved, children I bore, friends I cherished, relatives I wanted to nurture as they had me. Many of those I recall are no longer a part of my life, on to other kitchens, other meals, or other dimensions as in the case of my dear friends Charlie and Antonio.

Cooking is an act of love. My culinary library tells the story of my journey from young adulthood through relationships, marriages, parenting, juggling work and homemaking, empty nesting. After forty-five years, I’ve learned to cook without much use for instruction, working by instinct with whatever is at hand most of the time. But my cookbooks have become totemic, keys to who I have been, what I have aspired to, who I wish to continue to be inspired by. “Bon appetit!”

Kitchen Cabinets Are Done!

Well, the kitchen cabinets came back on Thursday, all was put back together on Friday, and here are the results (pardon the hasty, pretty terrible pics… better ones later):

The kitchen looks much brighter; everything looks refreshed and updated, even though nothing else was changed.

We’ve decided to wait on the countertops since we find our 12 X 12 grey porcelain tile with a two inch oak wood border to be very practical. Because the tiles are large there are few grout lines, and because they are matte finish porcelain they have a number of advantages: heat resistance; stain resistance, ease of clean up; great for pastry rolling; we love the color. The grout lines are a little wonky but could be redone.

If we do decide to change them we have agreed on good ole honed Carrera marble. It’s “hot” right now, which puts me off a bit, but after falling in love with it on our trip to Italy where it is EVERYWHERE, that would still probably be our choice. I heart soapstone, but Mr. D nixed that, and, it would be darker. We both hate a shiny countertop …  too much glare. Mr. D. in particular is a messy cook, so a honed marble will no doubt etch and stain, but we like patina and live in a  house that is nothing but patina. In any event, we are ready to cook turkey!

Kitchen Cabinet Refresh

Over the past six years I have replaced all of my kitchen appliances, refinished the heart pine floors, changed out the light fixtures, door knobs, faucet, cabinet pulls, exhaust fan, ceiling fan, door to the deck and man of the house. Next up: kitchen cabinet refresh.

Since even after 23 years I like the layout of my kitchen, I nixed the idea of ripping everything out and starting over. I thought about just having new wood doors custom made, but that was out of my budget. My Ikea cabinets are still structurally sound, if yellowed with age.

IMG_1009The original European hinges and recently replaced  knobs and pulls are in great shape, so painting seemed the best option.

At first I thought I would do the painting myself — to save money.  I researched Ikea mentions to see if anyone else had done this, and decided that the project was viable because my cabinet and drawer fronts are solid MDF, not foil or laminate covered. Benjmain Moore makes a water based paint called Advance specifically for cabinets that has gotten rave reviews, and I’ve done a lot of painting over the years, (but no spraying).

On a whim I looked on Angie’s List to see if I could find a shop that specialized in this kind of thing, and low and behold Allusions, Inc. was offering a special.  I figured, what the heck, at least I can get an estimate! After Bonnie, the owner, came to the house and confirmed that this was a reasonable solution for my dingy, yellowed cabinets and the poorly painted Crate and Barrel china cabinets in the eating area, I pulled the trigger.

Chaos came to my kitchen on Thursday as a pair of cabinet refinishers disassembled all of my cupboards, and asked me to relocate the contents of sixteen drawers. I had been told that only the drawer fronts would be removed, so I wasn’t prepared and had a bit of a panic.

This is what things looked like after things were disassembled:

What is it about having junk drawers that is inherited? I so clearly remember vowing to myself that I would never, ever, have those “hold it all, stuff things in there to be dealt with later” drawers that were in my childhood home. I have to face the fact that I have at least three of them. And how many times have I culled the herd of Tupperware, throwing away orphaned lids and BPH laden containers only to again have a full bin of them ready for Goodwill? Do they just multiply in the drawers while I sleep?

This is the “after.”  I spent all day yesterday sifting through random and haphazardly erected skyscrapers of dishes and everything else that had been unceremoniously dumped in a giant pile on my kitchen table or in boxes on the floor.

This whole process has caused a bit of self reflection. I do love to cook, but how (and more importantly WHY) do I have so many spices? I try to recycle them every year, checking expiration dates and doing the sniff test to see if they have the ability to flavor anything with a taste other than musty kitchen cabinet.

And the sprinkles, cupcake papers, cookie cutters, birthday candles — do I really still need all of this? Isn’t that from a previous life, or do I really think I will be that neighborhood lady who is always arriving at the doorstep with beautiful Martha Stewart inspired home baked cookies complete with piped, monogramed icing and the appropriate seasonal sugar crystals? Really?

And what about the two drawers full of pet medicines, clippers, toys, combs, leashes, etc.etc.etc.? It’s hard to throw those things away, especially because one is not supposed to put medicines in the trash, and throwing away old rabies tags from long deceased pooches feels a little bit like sacrilege. Did I mention how carefully I moved the pretty wooden box with my dearly departed dog Sydney’s ashes in it so as not to accidentally drop it/him necessitating clandestinely vacuuming him up as happened to Ben Stiller and grandma’s urn in Meet the Parents?


Meanwhile, the remaining pets couldn’t wait to jump into the newly created playground of doorless cabinets!

I feel as if my entire life in retirement is about decluttering. Room by room, drawer by drawer, file cabinet by file cabinet, and yes, even book by book I am questioning the detritus of my life. Handling each object brings back memories, some pleasant, some not so. Husbands, children, bosses, siblings, friends all speak to me as I weigh the utility, the sentimental value or the sheer size and weight of  all of thesethings and the memories they generate. “Pick me,” each object says, like puppies greeting potential owners. “I’m downsizing and my house is already broken,” I reply.

I am so not a hoarder, and yet I have acquired a great deal of baggage in my years on this planet. I’m ready to let a great deal of it go. I don’t want to be burdened, tied down, needing to dust and reorganize my grievances or unfulfilled desires. “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free,” says the Shaker hymn. I’m going to try to apply this to my kitchen drawers, yes, but also to my aspirations, be they for the larger society, my immediate family, my yoga practice or my mindset. Perhaps a new coat of paint, a tidying up, and getting rid of half of my “stuff” is enough. We’ll see. I’ll let you know!

Kitchen Window Casing

It occurred to me that I should have the window and door casing redone before I painted the floor, so this morning Mr. R stripped the old casing and measured for the new, which will match what is in the rest of the house (at least what has been put in by me — the old casing is different in almost every room, sometimes with two profiles in one room! — Gotta love old houses and their quirks . . .).

From this:

window after the old flat casing was removed

To this:

casing profile in the "new" old areas

More pics tomorrow!

Decluttering Redux

Wow!  what a difference just letting go makes!  My inner Red Queen went to town last night in the kitchen and my local thrift store will be the beneficiary.  Gone:  reproduction jelly cabinet, armchair with woven seat, innumerable tchochkes that lived inside the jelly cabinet.  Now the pie safe has pride of place.

Pie Safe

The wonderful Mr. R, my indispensable handyman, will be repairing/replacing the rotten floor boards and very, very soon I will have lovely new “vermont cream” painted floors. More after the jump . . .

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Have you ever just looked at a space in your home that has been that way for a thousand years (ok — maybe five or ten or two) and just thought “off with their heads” when you looked at those collectibles you lovingly added over time?  This morning I woke up, channeled my inner Red Queen, and decided to edit, edit, edit in my kitchen.  Less is more!

From Country Living

Doesn’t this pared down kitchen look swell!

Painted Floor Part 2

OK.  I’ve really fallen in love with the patterned painted floor from yesterday’s post.  After getting a paint sample at Home Depot (gotta love those little samples for $2.95) and then playing with the Behr website virtual design studio I think I have decided.  Here are the colors I picked out:

my kitchen color scheme

From bottom to top — Vermont cream is my trim paint –it’s a lovely creamy white used throughout my house; cottage white on the walls; light rattan porch paint as the floor base with Vermont cream squares and (top color) traditional tan tiny squares at the corner. Kind of like the picture from yesterday. . . and oh — cabinets are 20 year old Ikea creamy white beadboard:

and counter is slate gray procelain tile bounded by inch thick oak (that needs a refinish –also on the to do list):

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Kitchen Floor Update

OK.  So I am a little bit (lotta bit?) undecided about the kitchen floor.  Still sourcing the reclaimed heart pine but also thinking about painted floors.  Don’t these look dandy?

(All photos courtesy of Cottage Living)

So . . . I’m thinking about brightening up my kitchen with a nice new painted floor instead of the heart pine . . . pics to follow after I’ve actually done the dishes and vacuumed the floor 😉

Heart Pine Flooring

I spent way too much time yesterday surfing for info on flooring options for my old house.  The kitchen floor is desperately in need of some TLC, but it sure is hard to find replacement 2 1/2 inch heart pine.  It seems as if everyone wants wide boards or 2000 square feet.  After toying with the idea of painting the floor and not worrying about what the replacement boards were I found this article: Flooring Options for Period Homes which suggested that painted floors were quite common for less public rooms like bedrooms. My kitchen might be the most public room in my house!

Old House Online has a great set of links for period flooring sources which I wish I had known about before I spent hours looking on my own!

Antique heart pine, contrary to popular belief, is as hard a flooring option as oak and was used at Mount Vernon, Monticello and virtually every home until about 100 years or so ago when oak became a popular choice.  Now, finding reclaimed heart pine means saving flooring from homes about to be demolished or barns and factories suffering the same fates.  Some old growth heart pine is reclaimed from logs submerged in rivers.

Back in the day these floors were usually either left bare, rubbed with linseed oil or varnished.  Today polyurethane finishes or tung oil are the most popular choices.

If I can get the heart pine I want I will try to get the kitchen floors refinished by a non-sanding method.  See an example here. I’d love to replace the yucky wall-to-wall upstairs, but that will have to wait. . .