Playing hostess

Growing up, one of my favorite things to do was help my mom get ready for a party, and it’s now one of the things I miss most living 600 miles away from home. Sorting through my mom’s recipes and cookbooks to come up with a menu, creating grocery lists and trips to Wegmans (and I miss Wegmans!), serving as sous chef to my mom’s head chef role, getting the house ready, chit chatting with guests, and cleaning up after everyone left–each part of the process had its own challenges and rewards, but I learned a lot in the process about being organized, being flexible, but most of all, making people feel comfortable and welcome.

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Salad for a heat wave

I love summer, and I declare it proudly. After the winters that I’ve lived with all my life in Rochester and now Chicago, I have no complaints when the temperature goes above 80, 90, even 100. I leave my air conditioning off for as long as I can possibly stand it; I hate wearing weather-appropriate clothes and then freezing as soon as I go inside a building.
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Tomatoes are here!

Tomatoes are just about to flood the markets around Chicago, and I couldn’t be happier–caprese salad,  BLTs, pizza, gazpacho, here I come. Sometimes it just comes down to the simplest ingredients to make the most satisfying meal, though: great bread, juicy tomato, crisp lettuce, salty bacon, creamy avocado, and the barest bit of mayonnaise.
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Flower power

I’m lucky enough to come from a long line of green thumbs–my mom, aunts, and Grandma all grow beautiful flowers. Unfortunately my small, shady porch doesn’t lend itself to growing flowers for cutting, so for now I just try to treat myself to a bunch at the farmers market when I can afford it.

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Family feud-worthy ribs

“Don’t tell your Uncle Dave…but I like your ribs better.”** In my family, those words are spoken quietly out of earshot of most other family members, but I’ve been lucky enough to hear them a few times over the past few years that I’ve made these ribs for get-togethers at my mom’s house.

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Braised and grilled ribs, good enough to start a family feud.

Ok, so the ribs may not actually instigate a family feud (though this post might), but they are damn good.

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Art for the non-artist

If I’m honest, I don’t consider myself particularly artistic–my sisters both are “legitimate” artists as photographers and jewelers. Maybe it’s my tendency to overthink my efforts or my preference towards order and symmetry; maybe I just found a different creative outlet in literature and writing.

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That said, I don’t even consider this an art project because it’s so easy and takes so little effort or thought–and therefore there is very little for me to over-think. It was also incredibly inexpensive for the results. I think all the supplies, minus the frames, cost less than $20. I really encourage anyone (especially those who don’t think they’re artistic) to try this; it’s a lot of fun, it would be great for kids, and the end results look store (or independent-artist)-bought. Continue reading

4 p.m. snack time

If you’re anything like me, 4 p.m. means a pretty big drop in energy levels at work. Lunch is over, dinner’s way too far away, and I need a little something to get my energy back up (yeah, my day pretty much revolves around mealtimes, what’s your point?). Since napping at work is generally frowned upon and I’m not a coffee drinker, I found that these little bars make the perfect afternoon snack (or breakfast on the inevitable days that I forget to pack anything).

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Grilling 101

With as much as I grill, it occurs to me that it might be helpful to lay out the basics of grilling for anyone who is interested in getting started. It’s a lot of fun, it looks impressive, it lets me keep my apartment cool, it cuts down on dishes, and if I can share the feeling I get when I introduce myself to neighbors at a building party and they respond “You’re the girl who’s always grilling! We always want to come over and see what smells so good,” then so much the better! It’s definitely a skill I picked up by trial and error over the past few years, but it would have been great to have some getting started tips at the beginning.

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I’m lucky enough that I can use a charcoal grill on my porch, so that’s what I’ll speak to. I have a little Lodge cast iron grill that’s just the right size for me and a few friends, and I’ve never found anything I haven’t been able to cook on it yet.

  • lighter cubes (more controllable and less smelly than lighter fluid)
  • long and short matches
  • charcoal, lump hardwood or briquettes
  • two sets of tongs: one extra long for moving charcoal, one medium length for the food
  • heat-proof gloves for moving grates or coals
  • a fire extinguisher (never needed it, but it’s a MUST)
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Lighter cubes+matches+fire!

First, put two of the lighter cubes on either side of the grill and pile about 12-15 briquettes up and around the cube. Give it enough space that the briquettes aren’t right on top of the cube or it will smoke more than burn. Personally, I prefer Royal Oak Chef Select 100% hardwood briquettes since they burn really evenly, and I always seemed to go through about twice as much of the lump charcoal as the briquettes.

Once the charcoal is down, light the cubes with one of the long matches and let it burn for about 15-20 minutes until the briquettes are mostly covered with ash. My grill doesn’t have a lid, so I never leave it unattended, and keep an eye on it either through my door or out my kitchen window.

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Ready for charcoal

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Briquettes, just lit…

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…and 15 minutes later.

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Perfect for marshmallows! Or, you know, real food.

Once the briquettes are ready, spread them over the bottom grate of the grill with the tongs and put the top grate on the grill over the hot coals. Let it heat up while you finish preparing whatever you plan to grill, then rub a paper towel lightly coated with canola or another high-heat oil over the top grate. Be VERY CAREFUL here. You’re basically rubbing an unlit torch over burning coals. If the coals start to flare up, pull the towel back until they calm down.

Now the grill is ready for food. This could be a whole other post, but for most things, like the zucchini above but also any meat or seafood, lightly coat them with olive or canola oil and salt (my favorite is large-flaked sea salt), and place them on the hot grill. Be careful of any oil dripping onto the coals, as it can cause flare-ups. If that happens, just move the food away from the flame (or you can spray it with a little water). Most vegetables only take a few seconds on either side, they should still have a bit of bite in the center. You can adjust the heat by opening or closing the vent on the grill, create direct or indirect cooking spots by moving the charcoal around, lay foil over the grate to create a “pan” (bacon cooked this way? you wouldn’t even believe)…the choices at this point are pretty endless.

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Zucchini brushed with oil, sprinkled with salt, and almost ready to eat

Once the food is off the grill, brush the grates either with a steel brush or the end of an onion lightly brushed with oil (weird, I know, but it seems to work and, yay, a use for random onion-ends) to remove any cooked-on bits. Close the vent on the grill, and cover the grill once it’s cooled down.

And that’s it! The basics of grilling, as I wish I had known them when I started. I hope this is useful for anyone who’s interested in grilling, it is really a fantastic and fun way to cook.

Bacon on the grill

Don’t even get me started with bacon on the grill…

We be jammin’

Sincerest apologies to Bob Marley, I just had the title of this post stuck in my head and it needed an outlet before it would leave me alone.

Cherry Cardamom Rosewater Jam

The past two years, I’ve been vaguely interested in learning how to can…stuff. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to make, all the recipes I ever saw for jam prompted the response “Want some sugar with that sugar?” Eesh. I’m not a huge sweets person to begin with and while I do get cravings for a good PB&J or want something to stir into yogurt, I inevitably end up with about 3/4 of a jar of jam sitting in my fridge for god-knows how long before I throw it out (I do keep the jars though). It seems like such a waste. And I’ve never been a pickle fan, though I have learned to like a little bit of pickle relish on a burger. So what on earth would I can that wouldn’t go to waste? Continue reading