The Essential Healthy Kitchen, Part IV: Cook’s Tools

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(Well, this concludes my series on kitchen essentials for the healthy lifestyle!  If you’re just catching up, read about my favorite ingredients from the pantry, fridge and freezer.)

I’ve been a home cooking enthusiast for several years now, and I’ve accumulated quite a collection of tools of the trade in that time.  And while I love my pie plates and cookie cutters, I find myself reaching far more often for the tools that make it a little easier for me to prepare healthy meals for hubby and me.  Some are pricey and others are cheap, but they’ve all been invaluable to me.

Citrus Press.  This is my favorite low-budget kitchen tool.  I asked Santa for one a few Christmases ago and I’ve used it at least three times a week – and usually more – since I got it.  I have this one from Williams-Sonoma, and it’s an amazing item.  Great quality and incredibly well-made, it squeezes half a lemon, lime or orange with next to no effort on my part, is dishwasher safe, and looks as good as the day I unwrapped it.  If you only buy one non-essential kitchen gadget, make it this one!

Microplane.  I think this is the best zester on the market.  I have a couple including this rasp, which I use for grating Parmesan and citrus, as well as a citrus-specific rasp.  I don’t use it as much as the citrus press above, but I do my fair share of zesting and this baby has seen a lot of action.

Oil Mister.  I got this from Santa too, and it’s wonderful for spraying just a fine mist of olive oil.  I can sometimes have a heavy hand with oil, so this keeps me honest.

Vitamix.  Okay, this isn’t exactly a budget item, but if you have been saving your pennies for a new blender, I can’t say enough good things about my Vitamix.  Before I got it, I had a regular blender which worked okay, but the Vitamix makes all other blenders look like dinosaurs.  It whips me up a smoothie in mere moments, and there are no chunks of ice to contend with.  It also makes a perfectly velvety pureed soup.  I can’t remember how I lived without my Vita.

Measuring Cups and Spoons.  If you’re practicing portion control, then measuring cups and spoons are absolutely essential.  Before I started measuring portions, I really had no idea what an appropriate serving size looked like.  But a cup of pasta or a teaspoon of oil are no-brainers with the right measuring devices.  I love these All-Clad cups and spoons, because they look like miniature pots.  Heh, fun.

What cook’s tools do you use to support your healthy lifestyle?

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The Essential Healthy Kitchen, Part III: Freezer

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(Since we’re all on the healthy eating bandwagon… for awhile, anyway… I’m doing a series on my favorite kitchen essentials for healthy cooking.  Catch up on Part I – pantry – and Part II – fridge – if you’d like to!)

The freezer is another contraption that no kitchen is complete without, and when used well it can be a fantastic arsenal for the healthy cook.  I love to stock mine with plenty of raw materials and – like with the pantry – there’s almost nothing that feels better than knowing I have a full freezer at my fingertips.  Here are my freezer essentials for healthy cooking:

Frozen Seafood.  We eat fish a couple of nights per week, because I love it, and I always have a few varieties on hand in the freezer.  I’ve usually got a big bag of shrimp (shelled, if I can get them) and a couple of bags of salmon fillets and tilapia fillets.  We buy our frozen fish from Costco, so we get them in huge quantities that last us several weeks and the quality is great too.  My favorite thing about the Costco fillets is that they are generally evenly cut and the same size, which means they all finish cooking at the same time, and there are no thin bits that are overcooked while the center remains raw (a pet peeve of mine).  I start to panic when we get low!

Frozen edamame.  With the shells, these make for a fun appetizer.  But shelled, they’re an incredibly versatile protein source!  I toss them in soups, defrost them and add them to salads, or saute them up for stir-fries and goddess bowls.  If I have a night where I don’t know what else to make, odds are I’m going to reach for edamame.

Frozen greens.  They’ve come a long way from the disgusting frozen spinach of your youth.  Whole Foods stocks frozen kale, frozen collards, and frozen green mixes and I always have a bit on hand.  My favorite is the frozen kale.  I’m always throwing it into soups and stews, or heating it up to toss with pasta and chicken or veggie sausage.  It’s great to have on hand for those days when you’re out of the fresh stuff.

Frozen berries.  Another Costco purchase, I have a gigantic bag of these in my freezer and it has seen me through many a breakfast smoothie.  I love to make my smoothies without ice, using just frozen berries – they cool the smoothie down without watering it down like ice cubes do.  And they’re a fun dessert too, just slightly defrosted in a bowl with a drizzle of milk.

Parmesan cheese rinds.  Whenever I finish a wedge of Parm, I stick the rind in a plastic baggie that I keep in the freezer for use later.  I make a big pot of vegetable soup many weeks, just to get rid of any aging vegetables from my crisper, and the Parmesan rind takes it from hum-drum to hum-dinger!  (Sorry.)  Just remember to fish it out before you eat…

Orange and Lemon Peels.  This is my favorite tip.  Whenever I’m using a lemon or orange for a dish or a snack, but not zesting it, I take a minute to peel the zest off in big strips, using a vegetable peeler (and carefully avoiding the bitter pith).  Since I use a lemon or orange almost every day, but don’t always zest it for a recipe, I’ve amassed a huge collection of strips of zest in baggies in my freezer.  They’re on hand for whenever I want to chop them up for adding to a side or dessert and they make me feel so gourmet.  I love looking at my little baggies of zest, ready and waiting for anytime I want to fancy up a recipe!

What ingredients do you keep in your freezer for healthy cooking?  Spill!  (Your secrets, that is, not the ingredients themselves please.)

The Essential Healthy Kitchen, Part II: Fridge

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(Psst – missed Part I, where I talked about my favorite healthy pantry ingredients?  Check it out here.)

Ahhhh, the fridge.  Command Central for healthy eating.  Home to fresh ingredients – produce, dairy, the works.  No kitchen is complete without one, and I like to strategically stock mine with the raw materials for all kinds of healthy meals.

Veggies.  This one’s a given, right?  I keep most veggies in my fridge.  (Winter squash and potatoes go in the pantry, but everything else is fridge-bound.)  I’ve always, always, got salad greens, carrots, onions, cucumbers and broccoli on hand – those are the most basic of basics in my casa.  Other frequent visitors include kale, baby spinach, brussels sprouts, cabbage, red and green bell peppers.  When I’m feeling particularly fancy, I’ll also pick up some fresh mint or cilantro, my two favorite fresh herbs.

Fruits.  Another given.  I am a huge fan of fruit – it’s my favorite food group – and I always need at least a little bit in the fridge.  I try to eat in season, both because that’s when produce has the most nutrients and it’s the cheapest.  So I favor apples and Asian pears in the fall, citrus in the winter, stone fruits and berries in the spring and summer.  At the moment my fruit drawer is stocked with avocados (I always have those on hand for salads, Mexican food night, sandwiches, smoothies and snacks), oranges (I’m trying to eat lots of cold-preventing foods), lemons (another fridge constant) and a few apples (Honeycrisp are my favorites).

Eggs.  They’re a quick, easy protein – I whip up scrambles for “brinner” (breakfast for dinner) many nights when I just can’t face anything more complicated.  If I have any eggs left from a carton after a week in the fridge (I usually do), I hard-boil them and eat them for snacks or lunch.  I know eggs get a bad rap sometimes, but I think they’re great.  I buy Omega-3 fortified eggs and we eat them in moderation for a kick of protein that feels more indulgent than it really is.

Yogurt and Skim Milk.  These were two of my biggest cravings during pregnancy.  In fact, one of the first hints I had that something was “different” with me was when hubby and I were grocery shopping and I suddenly felt a massive urge to drink skim milk, which I rarely bought before getting pregnant.  And my Greek yogurt “like” turned to full-on “love” when Peanut took up residence.  Even now that she’s out of the oven, I’m still enjoying skim milk, although not in the quanties I did while pregs.  (I pounded that first half-gallon in one day.)  And I love Greek yogurt for being a low-cal, fat-free source of protein and calcium.

Nuts.  I keep nuts in the fridge since they go rancid too quickly in the pantry.  They’re high-cal, high-fat nuggets, so I practice careful portion control, but they make for a wonderful hit of protein and healthy fats.  My favorites are pecans and almonds, so I always have at least one or the other kicking around my fridge.  I use them for snacks occasionally, but more often for sprinkling over salads or my morning yogurt or oatmeal.

Hummus.  This one is for hubby, since he can’t get enough of the stuff (although I like it too).  Hummus makes a wonderful sandwich spread instead of mayo, but hubby especially likes it for dipping pretzels or veggie crudites.  I love to put it out when we want a snack – it’s far better than a high-fat dip (although it does have some fat from the olive oil and tahini, so mind yourself).  I will occasionally make my own hummus or bean spreads, but I don’t always have time, so many weeks we buy a tub of our favorite grocery store brand and that stands in for us until I have a few minutes to whip up a homemade batch.

Dates.  They’re nature’s candy!  I love to grab a date or two for a sweet treat at the end of a meal (unless I’m having a square of dark chocolate) or for fuel before long runs when I’m training for a race.  I buy a big tub from Costco, and it lasts me forever.

What do you keep in your healthy fridge?

The Essential Healthy Kitchen, Part I: Pantry

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As we all continue trying to live our best, healthiest lives in January (before February arrives and everyone falls off the wagon at the first sight of Valentine’s chocolates), I thought I’d do a mini-series of posts talking about the ingredients I’ve found to be key in my healthy kitchen.  Now, I’m not claiming to be any kind of an expert here.  But I try to put healthy meals on the table for my family every night most weeks (although I’ve succumbed to takeout a bit more than usual with an infant in the house) and over my years of cooking I’ve developed some preferences.  So I’m going to share my favorites over a series of four posts.  Part I will focus on my pantry essentials, in Part II we’ll talk fridge, Part III will be devoted to the freezer, and in Part IV I’ll share some of my favorite kitchen tools for healthy eating.

I think the pantry might be the most important part of my kitchen.  I love the feeling of well-being that comes with a full (and organized!) pantry.  I love knowing that I have everything I need at my fingertips, whether I’m pulling together an entire dinner from pantry ingredients because I’m due for a trip to the grocery store, or whether I’m just flavoring up something fresh from the fridge.  And there are a few pantry ingredients I can’t live without.

Herbs de Provence, Thyme and Oregano.  Dried herbs are one of the best ways to bring flavor to a dish without blowing your calorie budget, but they can be tricky.  I’m not a fan of most dried herbs – I think fresh is usually best.  Mint, for instance, is an herb that I’ve bought dried in the past and you know what it tastes like?  Nothing.  At least, nothing like fresh mint.  I love fresh mint so much that I’ll always, always spring for the real thing.  But there are a few herbs that I must have dried in my kitchen – namely thyme, which I like both fresh and dried, oregano, which really benefits from being dried (fresh is way too strong), and Herbs de Provence, my favorite blend.  I sprinkle them over pasta dishes, in egg scrambles, soups, stews and anything else I can think of.

Spices.  Here’s one area where I’ll probably never pare down.  I love spices, and they’re another great way to add flavor without fat or calories.  I buy plenty of spices, but my favorites are cinnamon, curry powder, ancho chili powder, and Northwoods seasoning mix (a Penzey’s blend).  Although I use plenty of different spices, those are my top must-haves for flavoring foods.

Fancy Salts.  Sure, excess sodium is pretty bad for you.  I try to avoid processed foods because of the sodium, but there is definitely a place for salt in a healthy pantry.  As with things like chocolate, I firmly believe that buying the good stuff means you can use less to better effect.  I always have Maldon sea salt on hand for finishing dishes, and I usually have a couple of other salts as well.  Right now I’m working my way through a little pot of French Grey sea salt that I acquired from R, and I also have a jar of lavender salt for when I’m feeling particularly fancy.  The better the flavor, the further you can go on just a little pinch.

Beans (canned and dried).  I love making heirloom dried beans from scratch, and I keep several bags in my pantry for long winter days when I don’t have anywhere to be and I can devote plenty of time to soaking and cooking beans.  (There’s not much active labor involved, but you do need to be around to babysit once they go on the stove.)   But for quick weeknight meals, I keep plenty of canned beans around.  Hubby loves chickpeas, while I favor cannelini beans or black beans – so we keep copious amounts of all three handy.  They’re great for soups, stews and chilis, salads, goddess bowls, Mexican food night – you name it.  (Just remember, if you buy canned, look for a brand that doesn’t use BPA in the can linings – yech – and rinse the beans well before adding them to your dish!)  On those nights when I’ve gone awhile since making a grocery run and I’m scrounging dinner from the pantry, beans are almost always involved.

Quinoa.  I’ve already told you that quinoa is one of my favorite healthy swaps.  I’ll use it in place of rice in almost every dish (except for risotto or rice pudding), because it’s healthier and quicker than most rices.  I keep other whole grains on hand too – I do have rice, for when I’ve got lots of time on my hands, and I always stock barley, millet, rolled oats, and often a grain mix.  But when I want a grain to go with dinner (well, it’s really a seed, but who’s counting?) I almost always reach for quinoa.

Olive oil.  While I don’t follow any particular diet or eating plan, my eating style tends to be similar to the “Mediterranean Diet” and that means I eat my share of olive oil.  I have several different extra-virgin olive oils (and other oils, too, but olive is my favorite).  They are great for adding flavor and healthy fats to dishes.  (They are still oils, though, so don’t go crazy.)  I always have the following: a less expensive, generic EVOO to use for cooking; a nice EVOO for finishing or drizzling over salads (I love Olave brand); and at least one infused oil (I keep white truffle-infused oil on hand because I love it, even though hubby’s not a huge fan, and I often have a basil-infused oil from Olave kicking around the pantry too; right now I’m also loving the blood orange-infused oil from Olio Tasting Room).  And for very special treats, I have a little bottle of EVOO that my parents picked up in Tuscany.

Dark Chocolate.  Sometimes I want a little something sweet to finish off a meal, and a square of dark chocolate is just the ticket.  Just a wee nibble is enough, since it’s a strong flavor, and you’ll feel as though you had a special treat without breaking the calorie bank.  I keep bars on hand and break off a square or two a few times each week – not too often, but enough so that I don’t feel deprived (because feeling deprived is NOT healthy).  My favorite bars are Chocolove – almonds and sea salt in dark chocolate, or candied ginger in dark chocolate.  Again, a little goes a long way!

Tea.  I saved the best for last!  Plenty of research shows that drinking tea is all kinds of healthy.  Black tea packs potent antioxidants.  Green tea helps with weight loss, and brings antioxidants of its own.  And there’s an herbal for whatever ails you.  Plus, if you don’t pour sugar or honey in, tea is calorie-free!  (I rarely sweeten my tea, since I like to taste the tea itself.  I’ll do a bit of milk and sugar in an English afternoon tea, once in a blue moon, but the vast majority of the cups I brew are unsweetened.)  I always have black tea on hand, and lots of it in many different flavors, because it’s my favorite.  I keep a bit of green tea knocking about the pantry too, and a tin of coconut oolong from the Spice and Tea Exchange in Alexandria, which I love.  For herbals I favor chamomile (especially Celestial Seasonings honey vanilla or Traditional Medicinals chamomile with lavender), but I always have Celestial Seasonings “Mint Magic” around because it was my favorite tea as a child.  I go through several cups each day, so my healthy pantry would be woefully incomplete without a wide selection.

What’s in your healthy pantry?  What good-for-you ingredients can’t you live without?

Packed Lunch for Two in Ten Minutes Flat

I try to pack lunches for hubby and myself as much as possible.  Anything that comes out of my kitchen is guaranteed to be cheaper, and most likely healthier, than what we could buy from a restaurant or cafe near work.  Not that we won’t treat ourselves occasionally – but that’s what it would be, a treat.  On a regular day, I’ll throw together our lunches in the morning before we leave for work.  And since we’re out the door by 6:30 a.m. most days, I’ve got to make the lunch preparation snappy.  Here’s how I put together a balanced lunch for two in ten minutes flat:

Step 1: Decide – the night before, if possible, what will be on the menu.  At 6:00 in the morning, I’m not a short-order cook, so most of the time hubby and I have relatively the same thing.  If we’re having sandwiches, we’re having sandwiches – although he’ll get whatever kind of sandwich he wants (from ingredients we have, obviously).  So he may ask for PB&J while I’m having cheese or hummus – and that I can do.  Last night hubby expressed a preference for salad today, so salads it was.

Ingredients and containers laid out and ready to go.

Start the clock running!  10 minutes remaining

Step 2: Start assembling the salads.  Add lettuce to each container (hubby gets the big one; I’m also having one leftover enchilada so I’m just taking a side salad).  Chop salad veggies (we’re having bell pepper, cucumber and tomato, and I’m also having a chopped pear) and add them to the salads.  Hubby gets most of the veggies because the salad is his main course; I just get a few since for me it’s a side.

Look at those tasty fresh salads!

Step 3: Finish off the salads with any final touches.  Today it’s cheddar-jack cheese and dressing (Annie’s Naturals Goddess) for hubby; pasteurized goat cheese for me.

5 minutes down, 5 minutes to go!

Step 4: Clean up the work area – take dishes to the sink and throw out veggie scraps or other garbage.

Lunches laid out and ready to be packed.

Two minute warning!

Step 5: Pack it all up!  Hubby is also getting an apple and I’m getting a pear.  And I have snacks because the baby gets cranky by late afternoon – so I’ve got a YoBaby yogurt (don’t hate) and some cherries to nosh on so I don’t get queasy on the drive home.

Ready for the commute!

Annnnnnnnd… she’s done!

Exactly ten minutes later, here we are all packed up and ready to go off on our day.  (If you’re curious about our lunch containers: hubby’s salad is packed in a glass bowl from Anchor and his lunchbox is actually a free insulated lunch bag I got as part of a packed lunch when I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton for a conference earlier this year.  My salad and enchilada were packed in Snapware – also glass and available at Target – and my lunchbox is from Built and is available at the Container Store and other stores.  My snack bag, which has my cherries and yogurt in it, is from Posh Pouches.)

Happy lunching!

A Thrifty Challenge

As a foodie… and as someone who loves fresh produce… my grocery bills can get pretty high.  Between the piles of fruits and veg, the nice cheeses that we bring home, and treats like fun spices that somehow find their way into the cart, I often find myself with teeth on edge, wondering how I managed to spend so much money at the grocery store checkout on any given completely normal week.  It also doesn’t help that hubby and I shop at Whole Foods (for the time being, but we’re anxiously awaiting that blessed day when Wegmans opens its next northern Virginia store, which will be tantalizingly close to our house).  All of this combines for some unacceptably high grocery bills.

 I’m not going to give exact numbers, because I prefer to keep financial information off the blog.  Just take it from me when I say that for quite some time now, I’ve been unhappy with my inability to economize at the market.  That’s why I’m getting serious about cutting back.  My lofty goal is to cut my grocery spending IN HALF for the remainder of the year.  (What I mean by that is this: I naturally spend somewhere within a range, say between $A and $B, on a weekly basis.  Each week until December 31st, I am setting a goal to spend within a range of between half $A and half $B.)  I started this goal a few weeks before we left for our vacation and I’m glad to say that so far, so good.  In fact, I’m pleased to report that on our big “return from vacation stock-up” trip, while I was fully expecting to blow the budget, I still came in $25 under my upper range.  Woo to tha hoo!

 This could get interesting.  Here’s what I’m going to do:

  •  Keep the pantry clean, organized, and clutter-free.  I am usually good about keeping an organized pantry, but lately I’ve let it get a bit out of hand.  The first step in cutting back on grocery bills is going to be cleaning out the pantry.  There’s no better way to figure out exactly what I already have!  I’m usually pretty well-stocked on canned and dried beans, brown rice, vegetable stock and soup in cartons, and oats (both old-fashioned and steel-cut).  Part of my money-saving strategy involves using those staples more.
  • Use coupons!  Whole Foods has a page of current coupons – and they’re coupons for things I already buy on a regular basis, like plain Greek yogurt.  Every so often, in a burst of thrifty inspiration, I print a page of coupons (and you can select only those ones that you want to print – so cool) and then promptly lose them.  Not anymore, though.  I’m going to go to the grocery store armed with coupons.  But – and this is a major but – I’m ONLY planning to use coupons for items that I would have bought anyway.  Coupons can cost you more money (and extra pounds on the tush) if you use them for overly-processed foods, like chips, that you wouldn’t have bought without the coupon.  I’m not into buying things just because I have a coupon – but if it’s an item that I buy anyway and I can save a dollar, I’m going for it.
  • Stock up on staples when they’re on sale.  I used to do this all the time when I ate chicken – I would only buy it when the organic chicken was on sale.  If we ran out between sales, we didn’t eat chicken again until the next sale.  But as a vegetarian, I find I’m terrible about this.  I buy the staples I need instead of waiting for sales and then stocking up.  If I need tofu, I buy tofu – even if it’s not on sale.  Same goes for beans.  Last week at the market I started to put this idea into practice – I bought three cans of lentils because they were on sale.  Now I’ve got them in my pantry and I can use them in meals anytime – and the next time I need lentils, I won’t have to buy them full price.  I need to be better about stocking up on staples when they’re on sale, and not buying them when they’re full price.
  • Control myself in the produce department.  My biggest money drain at the market comes from getting too excited about all of the pretty fruits and vegetables and buying way more than hubby and I can eat in a week.  I invariably end up throwing stuff away and it just kills me.  I need to either learn to preserve, or I need to be better about not throwing stuff into the grocery cart just because it looks good.  I have to get real about exactly how much veg two people can actually eat in seven days.
  • Get back in the menu-planning habit.  I used to do this and it did save me some money – although not as much as I’m aiming to save here.  I’ve fallen out of the habit and just gotten into whipping up whatever interests me in the moment, which is fun and all, but it’s an expensive habit that I need to kick.

 So there you have it – my strategy for saving some major cash at the grocery store.  I’ve exempted one item from my money-saving strategy: beer.  I personally don’t drink beer, with the exception of the occasional Blue Moon – the only beer I like.  (I’m such a girl.)  But hubby is into artisan beers, especially IPAs, and they add up.  I’ve spent a lot of time gritting my teeth over the grocery receipt, looking at how much money goes to expensive beers.  But you know what?  It makes him happy.  I could say “no” or tell him he has to reign it in, but I’d be a nag, and I’d be taking away something that he enjoys.  I’m just not willing to do that.  So for purposes of this money-saving challenge, I’m considering beer as a separate item that I won’t count toward the “grocery costs.”

 So there you have it: I’m challenging myself to chop my grocery costs in half for the rest of the year – through December 31st.  And I’m hoping that when I get into 2012, my thrifty strategies will become habits that will continue to save us money.  I’ll report back regularly to let you know how it goes!

Mug Shots

Is there anything in the world better than a steaming hot beverage?  Whether you’re a coffee addict, or you prefer tea as I do, or whether your poison is hot cocoa or cider… there is something indescribably satisfying about wrapping your hands around a mug full of your favorite warm drink, breathing in its aroma, and taking that first near-scalding sip.  I’ll drink tea out of any vessel, of course, but I prefer to sip from one of my own favorite mugs.  I don’t have a particularly large collection, but I like to think of it as well-curated.  Each of my mugs makes me smile, and thereby fulfills its purpose.  Want to see the lineup?  Here it is…

 This is my favorite mug.  I’m a sucker for irony, puns, and double meanings, so this cup from Urban Outfitters makes me grin every time I sip from it – which I do nearly every day.  It is my go-to tea mug for obvious reasons, and I refuse to allow it through the dishwasher for fear the cheeky design will fade.  I’m sipping Earl Grey from it now as I write this post.

 I brought this pretty little number back from England in 2008 – obviously.  I love the soft green and the cute little teacup design, and the fact that it brings me right back to London every time I drink from it.

 This is a handmade ceramic mug – one of a set of two – that was a gift from my mother-in-law Lynn a few years ago.  She is well acquainted with my love of all things handmade and robin’s egg blue.  I cherish it, and its twin, and bring them out when I’m pouring two mugs – one for me and one for a friend – or when I am in particular need of smiles.  I think of it as a cold weather mug; even though I sip tea all year round I use this mug the most in the fall and winter.  Something about it is particularly warming for me – its homemade, organic shape, perhaps, or maybe the love with which it was given.

 True dat.  I got this mug at Wegmans on a trip back to my alma mater for my fifth reunion.  It’s my favorite mug for coffee (yes, I do have coffee occasionally) although I will use it for tea from time to time as well.  It puts me in mind of gorges – duh – Libe Slope, McGraw Tower, Ives Hall, the A.D. White Library, Collegetown and all of my favorite Cornelliana.  Go Big Red!

 Love this mint green ForLife mug with its convenient steeper basket.  I got this – and its periwinkle blue brother – when I first got into drinking loose tea and needed a convenient way to steep tea at my desk at my first job out of law school.  I’ve since graduated to a Travette pot, but my ForLife mugs come in handy for chamomile tea (which clings annoyingly to the steeper basket in my Travette) and for times when I want to brew just one cup.  Okay, that’s not often, but they are useful.

 I got this mug at Walt Disney World when I was a kid and it’s been a favorite ever since.  I’ve loved Winnie-the-Pooh as long as I can remember.  My little Pooh mug is perfect for small cups of cocoa (which is a beverage I can’t do in quantity – too sweet) or the Celestial Seasonings teas that remind me of my childhood (a.k.a. the days before caffeine).

 This last mug isn’t mine, strictly speaking – it’s hubby’s.  He and I are both fanatical Buffalo Sabres fans.  This is hubby’s second – or maybe third – Sabres mug.  Every time the logo fades from being run through the dishwasher too many times, we replace it.  Life without a Sabres mug in the kitchen is just plain unthinkable.  Hubby has graduated to drinking coffee out of an enormous Block Island Times mug he got from my brother for Christmas (I have one too but it’s not pictured in the lineup because I use it as office decor, not for drinking)… but we will always, always have a Sabres mug in our collection.

So there you have it – my personal mug collection.  I’ve had other mugs that have cycled out of the regular lineup, either because their logos faded or because they are black or dark blue in color (being a tea drinker, I like a light-colored interior so I can see that my tea is fully steeped).  It’s a small group, but I love them all.  I’m hoping to bring them home a new friend from London this fall… I have my eye on this, this, this, or maybe this.  (Yes, I have been pre-shopping on the Harrods website.  Wouldn’t you?)  Now, if you’ll pardon me, I need to go put the kettle on…

A Tale Of Four Kitchens

It seems like it was just yesterday that we moved in, but hubby and I are about to celebrate our one-year anniversary of living in our house.  I’m still pinching myself just about every day.  It was a long, drawn-out process to even get to moving day, and I still can’t believe that this house is ours.  We started with about a year of researching the market and checking out open houses, cruising real estate websites and keeping up on the real estate news in our area.  After a year of that, we teamed up with the same realtor who had helped us buy our lovely condo and it didn’t take us long to find our dream house.  Sadly for us, the house was a short sale… so even though we put an offer in back in October of 2009, and that offer was accepted the very next day, we didn’t actually turn the key until March of 2010.  Oh, and then we had to sell our condo.  Someday I’ll tell you all about that nightmare over a cocktail or twelve.

Why am I talking about this now?  Well, hubby and I were burnt out on spending money and overwhelmed with our space, and we decided to live in the house for awhile… like, almost a year… before we started decorating, renovating, or anything.  We only broke our rule once – we stained the back deck in early fall.  It needed to be done.  But now we’ve been in the house for awhile and we’re both getting itchy to make it our own.  As you can guess if you know us in person, there’s a lot we want to do, and we have some strong opinions.  Believe it or not, the kitchen is not the top of the list for a major overhaul.  That’s not to say it’s where I want it to be, and it’s not to say there’s nothing I’ll be doing in there (for one thing, the gold-tone cabinet pulls need to go, and they need to go, like, five minutes ago).  But the rest of the house is taking priority at the moment because the kitchen is livable for a few more years.  So as I dive into home renovations, I thought I’d take a little walk back through my kitchen history.  What a long, strange trip it’s been…

Kitchen In A Box

A shoebox, that is.  Because that was about the size of my first big kid apartment.  And by “big kid apartment,” I mean an apartment that I lived in without five roommates.  The first (and last) time I lived on my own, I had a teeny tiny little pad in Foggy Bottom for my first two years of law school.  It was a studio apartment and you could throw a paper airplane from one end to the other, but I still loved it.  Aside from being my very own space (never had that before!) it was where I really came into my own as a home cook.  There was no dishwasher, no counter space to speak of, and if you opened the oven all the way you’d bump your tush into the fridge door.  But I am living, breathing, non-starving proof that you can still make Barefoot Contessa corn chowder in a kitchen with one square foot of counter space.  (Sorry no pic, but this was before I got a digital camera and started taking pictures of my dinner.  I was just a baby!)

Newlyweds: Hubs and Messy


Messy homemade ice cream in Arlington.

Our first couple apartment was a cozy place in Arlington, VA.  Compared to the size of my single girl apartment, it was palatial.  The kitchen was just a little galley, but it felt like heaven to me.  I had four times the cabinets and probably ten times the counter space, so we’re talking huge upgrade here.  And even though the ceiling caved in (twice) I had some good times in this kitchen.  I had a whole cabinet where I kept my shiny wedding gifts.  I made Thanksgiving dinner twice in this kitchen.  I put more dogears in my Barefoot Contessa cookbook, and I got confident enough to start experimenting with dishes and straying from recipes.

Modern Condo Glamor


Condo kitch, all set up for hubby’s surprise 30th birthday party

Ahhhh, my beautiful condo.  There was not one thing I would change about this kitchen.  Everything was new.  Everything was perfect.  It was spacious, elegant, convenient and… well, perfect.  By the time hubby and I moved into our condo, I was quite confident in the kitchen.  I was feeling hemmed in by my apartment galley and looking for a kitchen that would support me as I took on new culinary adventures.  I fell in love with this kitchen immediately – the cool granite, the sleek stainless steel appliances (can we just have a moment of silence for my stainless steel appliances?) and the modern blond wood.  Cooking in this kitchen was a joy.  I had an entire island to spread out on, and it was a fabulous space for entertaining.  I learned so much in this kitchen – how to make pasta, for one thing.  I spent hours standing on those beautiful hardwood floors rolling sheets of pasta.  And the parties we had… such fun.  In 2009 we hosted a chocolate themed party and then didn’t eat chocolate for six months.  Good times.  I didn’t leave this kitchen behind without shedding a few tears. 

The Kitchen Of Today

And here we are.  This is where I mix batter and roast veggies and toss salads these days.  I love this kitchen more and more every day.  And even though there are things I’d change about it (oh, to have stainless steel appliances in my life again! No, seriously, how amazing would that wall oven look in metallics?) it’s my new home and I’m proud to have it.  I love the sleek black granite, the cooktop in the island, the double wall oven and the THREE (count ’em!) pantries.  A girl could get used to this place.  Especially once those gold cabinet pulls turn to brushed stainless.  I’m just sayin’…  So, there you have it.  My kitchen history in pics and prose.  Stay tuned because this space is only going to get better!  And as you can see, I’m starting off in a pretty good place.  And always remembering the kitchens of yore…

TBYT: An Organized Pantry

This post is part of a series on Taking Back Your Time.  TBYT focuses on the little habits we all can cultivate to spare those extra minutes, seconds, and hours in each day, so that we have more time to do the things we really enjoy… like blogging!

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
~Mary Poppins

Call me weird, but few things give me more joy than an organized pantry.

And it’s not just that it gives me joy… keeping an organized pantry really does save time.  And money.  Hear me out.  Knowing exactly what is in your pantry means you can open the door and quickly have dinner options laid out for you on a busy weeknight.  It means you won’t waste money buying eight cans of chickpeas when you already have twelve cans at home (I’ve been there).  It means you have the tools in your arsenal to make a fast lunch for yourself or the kids in the morning without digging around looking for the sandwich baggies.  It means you’ll never be surprised by moldy bread (ew).

Trust me, if you put an hour or so into organizing your pantry (and if you commit to putting things back where you found them!), it will pay you back in minutes saved every day.  And those minutes really do add up.

So, wanna know what’s in my pantry?  Okay, here you go…

Top shelf (L to R): My cereals and oats, dried fruit, whole grains (millet, barley, farro), rice and quinoa.

Upper middle shelf (L to R): Whole grain pastas, sauces, mustards, nut butters, sliced bread, nuts.

Lower middle shelf: seasonings, salts, bread crumbs, oils and vinegars.

Bottom shelf (L to R): Dried beans and legumes, sea vegetables and Asian specialty ingredients, canned beans, canned veg (and some meringue cookies thrown in there for good measure).

And here’s the floor:

Winter squash and potatoes, snacks, hubby’s cereals (yes, we shop at Costco… why do you ask?).

I organize like items with like and group things together in baskets or bowls, or on trays.  For instance, I keep winter squash in a basket from Target, seasonings are in a wooden salad bowl I got for my bridal shower (I like keeping it in the pantry because I get to admire it every day!), and oils and vinegars are on a tray with a picture of Switzerland, which I pilfered from my grandmother’s house (okay, she gave it to me).  Having nice baskets and bowls to keep things in makes it easier for me to remember to put things back where they belong.  But if you’re more mature than me (ha!) then don’t bother.  See if I care.

Now, because I know you all want to see it (is that crickets I hear?), here’s my baking pantry:

There’s a method to this madness, too.  From the bottom to the top, the shelves are organized as follows:

Bottom shelf: sugars (granulated, brown, sucanat, confectioner’s, honey, flavored).

Lower middle: flours.

Middle: baking essentials (extracts, liquers, baking powder/soda, salt, measuring cups, etc.)

Upper middle: mixing bowls.

Top: holiday items and cake/cookie decorating.

Keeping these pantries organized saves me hours in the long run, because I know exactly where to find what I’m looking for.  So call me a dork… whatever, I don’t care.  I know where my lentils are.  Do you?

Old and New

Now that I’ve spilled the beans about my move… and actually gone through with the move… I thought I’d share a few pictures of my old condo kitchen – which I miss SO much – and the kitchen in my new house, which is lovely in its own right (although the condo will always hold a special place in my heart).  As you can see, it was a bit crazy for awhile. Between consummating our sale on Wednesday and moving on the immediately following Saturday, hubby and I were pretty much overwhelmed.  We’re feeling better now.

The condo kitchen on either the night before or the morning of our move… I alternated between packing boxes and lovingly petting my stainless steel appliances, which I loved and which I really, really miss:

The kitchen in the new house, looking tragic with my stuff everywhere and a knee-high pile of newsprint:

The main cooking area after I had cleaned it vigorously and organized it compulsively, looking a lot better:

And finally, a view from the eat-in area, of my tidy and uncluttered kitchen.  Loving, loving, loving:

Of course, being the kitchen-obsessed baker I am, I had to unpack the kitchen first.  The rest of the house still has a long way to go.  We’ll get there eventually, but it’s a long road ahead.  And I’m not planning to keep the kitchen exactly like this.  I have some very specific ideas (yes, I’m a “Monica”, had you not already guessed?) and I’ll definitely be making some changes and adjustments – big and small – to make the kitchen more my style.  But in the meantime, I’m back to happily mixing up batter and tossing salads.  I’ll always miss my condo kitchen, but I’m sure I’ll grow to love this kitchen just as much – maybe more – as I put my own stamp on the decor and crank out some tasty dishes.  Which, of course, I’ll be sure to share with you.