Thursday, November 5, 2015


We are at the high point of autumn. On a brisk afternoon walk, scenes from the harvest are everywhere. Scarecrows oversee porches alongside wreaths made from acorns, while in yards leaves have been carefully raked into piles or thoughtfully spread into carpets upon dun grass. The hues of autumn leaves are as warm and spicy as the pumpkin pie fresh from the oven whose fragrance, like the wreath upon the door, welcomes us inside. Here, candlelight flickers from glass globes in windows, and sheaves of wheat are tied together with velvet bows to decorate mantles and harken to the altar of the fireside.

Whether our walk was through chill New England spires and cemeteries or luxuriant California vineyards, there is a good chance we took a path through the harvest orchard. Even as last week's jack o'lanterns fall to the same natural process of decay and renewal that gives us autumn leaves, the harvest orchard is fulsome with the last of the season's fruit. There are still fat-bottomed pears in rosy d'Anjou or spritely Bartlett to gather from increasingly bare branches. But the harvest orchard is anchored, as it has been since time immemorial, by one of the Mother's most plentiful, magical gifts: apple trees.

Apples have been a trick and a treat for much of recorded history, with a story that goes back at least six thousand years and over seven thousand varieties of this single, singular fruit. Though we think of apples as an all-American treat, the only apple native to North America is the crab apple. Orchard apple trees were not introduced into the Americas until the seventeenth century. However, the apple tree was already thousands of years into human history by that time. Many believe that the apple tree was the earliest tree to be cultivated by human agriculture.

Though there are summer and winter yields, by far the most species of apple ripen for harvest during autumn. Along with the cultivation and harvest of the apple came its storage. Apples dried, cored, cut into disks, and threaded onto strings were one of the first snack foods, with the added benefit of distributing a sweet fragrance through an early homestead that likely benefitted from it. Another common method of storing apples was cellaring: storing the fruit, belowground as the term indicates, in dry beds of straw in barrels or boxes to stave off decay. This presaged the root cellar that was once as common to the American homestead as the water pump. With the advent of safe home canning, that root cellar became not just a storage facility for everything from barrels of apples to braids of onions. It housed rows of sturdy wooden shelves on which were stored the miracle of gleaming jars of food, preserved when it was fresh against times of scarcity.

Apple jelly is one of a home canner's core skills (no pun intended), but the most popular is applesauce. Everyone loves applesauce. It was one of our first treats, spooned in sweet mouthfuls as babies. We carry cups of applesauce in our lunch boxes, serve a side of applesauce with a thick diner pork chop, stir it into our breakfast oatmeal. Every blue-ribbon home canner sends a jar of their finest applesauce to the county fair, while leafers stock up on applesauce in the gift shop during an apple-picking trip. Applesauce was one of the first preparations I made when I started home canning. It was in memory of my grandmother's kitchen, where production was a chore that young hands were drafted into. My job was to wash the Mason jars she put up in.

The basic method to make applesauce is to peel, core and seed anywhere from a pound to a bushel of apples, boil them in a solution of water, sugar and an acid, and mash the result into pulp before hot water bath canning it. I have discovered that roasting the apples improves the texture of the applesauce while bringing out a warm sweet flavor that elevates the end product beyond the baby food jar. This applesauce is sweet and spicy, substantial in flavor and texture, and miracle of miracles, it isn't gloppy. Make two batches -- one for your pantry, and mini jars to tuck into holiday parcels and gift baskets. This applesauce is a lovely accompaniment to a fall dinner of roasted pork tenderloin and green beans or a leafer's luncheon of risotto with mushrooms and fresh lettuces with dates and Manchego.

It is essential to follow safe canning practices. For instructions on safe canning, click here:, or here: This recipe should yield about 4 pints.
3 pounds sweet red apples, such as McIntosh, Fuji, Red Delicious, Gala or an assortment
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 lemon
Unsalted butter

Prepare the apples
  1. Fill a large bowl halfway with cool water. Run a lemon along the counter under your palm. Cut the lemon in half crossways. Squeeze each lemon half over the water, then drop the lemon halves into the water.
  2. For each apple, peel the apple, safely cut the apple from stem to blossom end to form halves, and cut each half to form quarters. Safely cut out the seeds and core from each apple quarter. Place the peeled, cored and seeded apple quarters in the lemon water as you go. 
Roast the apples
  1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Butter the bottom and sides of a large rimmed baking sheet or ceramic baker.
  3. Place the apples prepared in steps 1-2 above into a large colander. Shake the colander well to express excess water.
  4. Transfer the drained apples to the baking sheet/ceramic baker. Spread the apples into an even layer.
  5. Sprinkle the top of the apples with 1/2 teaspoon salt.
  6. Sprinkle the top of the apples with the light brown sugar.
  7. Place the apples into the oven and roast until the apples are soft and very fragrant, approximately 35 minutes.
  8. Remove from the oven once roasted, and set aside until cool enough to work with, approximately 5 minutes. 
Make the applesauce
  1. Once the roasted apples are cool enough to work with, measure the apple cider vinegar into a large non-reactive pot.
  2. Add the dark brown sugar to the pot. It is okay if it begins to bubble and dissolve in the vinegar.
  3. Working carefully, transfer the roasted apples and all accumulated juices into the pot containing the vinegar-brown sugar mixture. Use a silicon spatula to get all of the apple mixture into the pot.
  4. If there are any large pieces of apple in the mixture, use a potato masher to break them up.
  5. Turn the heat to medium and cook the mixture, stirring frequently, until thick and very fragrant, approximately 10 minutes.
  6. Turn off the heat. Measure the spices into the mixture and stir the spices through the mixture. 
Can the applesauce
  1. Prepare canner, jars and lids.
  2. Place a clean towel on a counter near the canner.
  3. Use canning tongs to remove hot jars from water bath. Do your best not to touch the hot jars; let the tongs do the work. Place hot jars mouth up on the clean towel.
  4. Use a jar lifter to transport a jar mouth-side up to the pot containing the hot applesauce. Place a clean canning funnel into the mouth of the jar. Carefully fill the jar with applesauce to the ½-inch mark. Continue until all of the jars are filled. It is okay if there is applesauce left over; refrigerate it for use within 1 month.
  5. Check for and remove air bubbles if any.
  6. Use a clean, damp sponge to wipe the rim of each jar. Center a clean, hot lid on each jar. Screw a band down on each jar until it meets resistance; increase just until tight.
  7. Use canning tongs to return the jars to the boiling water bath. Add more water if necessary to ensure that the jars are completely covered by boiling water by 1 inch. Process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
  8. After jars have processed for ten minutes in the boiling water bath, turn off the heat. Remove the canner lid and set aside. Let jars sit in hot water ten minutes.
  9. After ten minutes, use the canning tongs to remove the jars. Being very careful of the hot jars, lids and liquid, place jars upright on the towel. Allow to sit 24 hours. After 24 hours, check for a vacuum seal (see instructions). Label each jar with the contents and the date prepared. Safely prepared, stored and sealed, the jam will keep for one year from date of preparation. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

November at Urban Home Blog

Here are some of our plans for the sentimental month of November at Urban Home Blog.
  • In memory of autumn in New York, order French Roast Java and Pumpkin Spice coffee from McNulty's.
  • Participate in Movember to support research, advocacy and community for men's health issues.
  • Inspect and care for Thanksgiving serveware: launder and iron table linens, oil down wooden-handled serving pieces, polish silver pieces, gently wash and dry heirloom ceramic pieces.
  • Host West Coast Thanksgiving in honor of Mama Diva and all of the times she and then we hosted on the East Coast.
  • Spend a week in Solvang.
  • Pick up wine futures ordered in September.
  • Have a steak and a bottle of Pinot Noir at The Hitching Post.
  • Host Thanksgiving movie night as an alternative to Black Friday shopping. Serve turkey and dumplings with pumpkin ales and Central Coast whites. Screen Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Hollywood Canteen, Home for the Holidays.
  • Assess and re-stock the liquor cabinet in advance of the winter holidays.
  • Make and can mincemeat, applesauce and pumpkin butter.
  • Celebrate Scorpio birthdays including best friend by sending gifts of Santa Maria dry-rub and Pinot Noir.
  • Order and brine turkey.
  • Start infusing vodka for holiday gifts.
  • Put up display shelves for John's model train and airplane collection.
  • Have rugs, carpeting, curtains and upholstery professionally cleaned.
  • Meet friends at the Abbey for annual toy drive and tree-trimming party.
Reading List: Silent Spring, Rachel Carson; Vertical, Rex Pickett; To Live and Dine in LA, Josh Kun.

November, 2013: Grandma's Kitchen
November, 2012: Weatherproofing, Leftovers, Side Dish, Dessert
November, 2011: Leftovers, Thanksgiving Music, Side Dishes, Pumpkin Ale
November, 2010: Setting the Table, Side Dishes, Canning
November, 2009: Cranberry Sauce, Wines for Thanksgiving, Dessert, Weeknight Dinner

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Weeknight Dinner: Chicken Sautés

Since its inception, one of the cornerstone features at Urban Home Blog has been Weeknight Dinner. More than any other feature, Weeknight Dinner exemplifies the original intent of this blog that has blossomed to encompass more than I could have imagined at the launch: to write about homekeeping from the perspective of a city home, addressing the challenges and pleasures of creating a home in an urban environment. That is still the core mission of the blog, but if I have learned anything over the last seven years and counting, it is that, while there are aspects of homekeeping that are specific to an urban environment as there are to any location we make a home, overall, the commonalities of homekeeping far outweigh the specifics of locale.

I was a young urban professional faced with the reality of twelve hour workdays (plus train time) and from that corruption of time was born the idea of a feature, based on my own very real experiences, about making a good home cooked dinner on those nights when one has the luxury of a bit of time to do so, without consuming all of the free time and as a reward for all of the nights of take out cartons, leftover containers, and cereal bowls. I developed every Weeknight Dinner recipe in just exactly those circumstances.

For every night or string of nights we ate on the run, while I worked in Corporate America and John went to medical school followed by the punishing upside-down schedule of a medical professional, on nights when we were together, we wanted to celebrate that occurrence in and of itself. A good drink, a simple, well-prepared meal -- of all of the shared experiences of marriage, not all of them positive, these are among the richest, the most bonding, the most cumulative. At each weeknight dinner we had, we got to know each other anew, release the challenges that had built up prior, recalibrate for the next wave of activity.

As of this column, in Urban Home Blog alone, I have published about 250 recipes. Among the most popular of these are Weeknight Dinner, doubly so if you count the side dish recipes to accompany your weeknight dinner. A good weeknight dinner is simple without being boring, easy to prepare but with enough effort involved to focus the cook (or cooks) on the profound grounding and centering of the act of preparing, serving, and sharing a meal.

Weeknight dinner should be something of a treat, either as a bit of a splurge or as a meal that harkens to a tradition or culture. We have weeknight steak dinners and weeknight pasta feeds, and weeknight dinners from Native American, Chinese American, French and California cooking, to name a few. Weeknight dinner is aligned with the seasons, and one of the delights of weeknight dinner is having traditions around seasonal cooking. Even in sunny SoCal, every January we settle in for a dinner of wintry New England Clam Chowder with cream cheese and chive biscuits; every autumn, cider-braised chicken with roasted root vegetables.

Moreover, weeknight dinner teaches, expands, and solidifies a cook's repertoire of techniques and recipes. We have weeknight dinners that teach how to make a ragout and weeknight dinners that teach how to compose a main dish salad. This month's Weeknight Dinner teaches one of the most basic, and important, skills in the home cook's vocabulary of them - sautéing chicken breasts -- and utilizes that skill to prepare and serve three classic chicken sautés.

Boneless chicken breasts are a staple of weeknight dinner. That makes sense: they are low fat and high protein, relatively inexpensive, and can be prepared quickly. But almost any cook will tell you that boneless chicken breasts are a challenge to cook well, for their lack of fat and bone renders them all but tasteless, and contributes to a dry texture if mishandled. The challenge with boneless chicken breasts is preparing a dish that is simple to master and appetizing to eat. Luckily, that challenge has been met in chicken sauté, in which boneless chicken breast cutlets are flash-sautéed in hot oil and served with a simple, flavorful sauce.

Here is the master technique for sautéing boneless chicken breast cutlets, along with three recipes to serve for a satisfying go-to weeknight dinner. Serve these sautés with rice pilaf or pasta tossed with hot olive oil and garlic, and a nice salad. They will all agree with a nice glass of wine or a well-deserved cocktail.

Chicken Sautés
Try to get cruelty-free, organic boneless chicken breast cutlets. Not only should that support humane animal farming methods, but the meat will be more flavorful. Look for chicken breasts that are flesh colored while displaying no gray, yellow or excessive red discoloration or any off odor. This recipe serves two; it can be doubled.

For the chicken
2 boneless chicken breast cutlets, approximately 1 pound total weight
1/4 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons cake flour
1 teaspoon table salt
Several grinding fresh black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
Prepare the chicken cutlets
  1. Safely use a sharp paring knife to remove any skin, flecks of bone or cartilage, or deep red or gray discoloration from the chicken cutlets. If warranted, trim so that you have two chicken cutlets of equal size and thickness.
  2. Mix the flours, salt and several grindings of fresh black pepper in a pie plate. If additional seasonings are called for (see below), mix those into the flour mixture.
  3. Working one at a time, dredge both sides of each chicken cutlet in the flour mixture. Turn the cutlet several times, moving it in different directions, to coat it with as much of the flour mixture as you can. Place the floured chicken cutlets on a heat-proof plate.
  4. Place a sauté pan large enough to hold both chicken cutlets on the burner. Turn the burner to medium high.
  5. Drizzle the pan with a five count of extra-virgin olive oil.
  6. Once the oil is shimmering, use tongs to place the chicken cutlets in the hot oil. Work carefully to avoid splattering. Safely and gently shake the pan to ensure that the chicken cutlets are not stuck to the bottom of the pan; use the tongs to gently loosen them if they are.
  7. Cover the pan with a splatter screen and cook the cutlets, safely and gently shaking the pan occasionally, until cooked through and golden, approximately 4 - 6 minutes per side.
  8. Add a one or two-count of extra-virgin olive oil to the pan if the pan runs dry.
  9. Once the chicken cutlets are crispy and golden, use the tongs to gently remove them from the hot oil. Place the cutlets on the heat-proof plate and tent with aluminum foil to keep warm while you make the sauce.
Make the sauce
  1. Once you have removed the cutlets from the sauté pan, turn the heat to medium. It is okay if some flour mixture remains in the pan. Add a two-count of extra-virgin olive oil to the pan if the pan is running dry.
  2. Add the garlic / shallots to the pan if using. Sauté in the hot oil until soft and fragrant, approximately 1 minute.
  3. Add 1/2 tablespoon flour mixture to the pan. Use a wooden spoon or silicon spatula to stir the flour mixture until it is toasty, approximately 1 minute. It is okay if the other ingredients in the pan stick to the toasted flour.
  4. Turn the heat to low.
  5. Gently pour the liquid ingredients into the pan. Use the wooden spoon or silicon spatula to stir the sauce ingredients together, including scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
  6. Add finishing ingredients if any to the mixture in the pan. Cook the sauce until slightly thickened and very fragrant, approximately 2 minutes.
Serve the sauté
  1. Plate the sautéed chicken cutlets and stir any accumulated juices into the pan sauce.
  2. Add finishing ingredients if any to the plate.
  3. Gently spoon the pan sauce over the chicken cutlets.
  4. Serve immediately.

Chicken Saltimbocca
  • Add 1 tablespoon dried rubbed sage to the flour mixture before dredging the chicken cutlets. Before adding to the hot olive oil, wrap each floured chicken breast in 1 - 2 pieces Prosciutto di Parma.
  • Sauté: 1 small shallot, minced, per sauce step 2 above
  • Liquid: 1/2 cup dry vermouth, 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • Finishing ingredient: 1 pat unsalted butter
Chicken Piccata
  • Add 1 teaspoon ground dried thyme to the flour mixture before dredging the chicken cutlets.
  • Sauté: 1 small shallot and 1 clove garlic, minced, per sauce step 2 above
  • Liquid: 1/3 cup dry vermouth, 1/3 cup chicken stock, 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • Finishing ingredient: 1 3-ounce jar large capers, rinsed in a wire mesh strainer
Chicken Marsala
  • Add 1 teaspoon ground dried thyme to the flour mixture before dredging the chicken cutlets.
  • Sauté: 1 small shallot and 1 clove garlic, minced, per sauce step 2 above
  • Liquid: 1/2 cup sweet Marsala, 1/4 cup chicken stock
  • Finishing ingredient: 6 ounces cleaned white button or bella mushrooms, quartered, sautéed in 1-2 pats butter until they release their juices, approximately 5 minutes

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Designing the Home Office

photo: Eric Diesel
It was bittersweet to leave the home office we had so carefully set up in Astoria, but it has proven to be an equitable trade-off as, for all that we miss about New York City, we have really settled into our Los Angeles urban home. There are a lot of transplanted New Yorkers in LA, both permanent residents and seasonal ones. As I've noted before, to us transplants used to the cramped living conditions of NYC, the abundance of living space in Los Angeles feels like an embarrassment of riches. And like many qualities of living in the sunshine state, from spectacular sunsets to the Sunset Strip, once it becomes part of our lives it becomes difficult to imagine living any other way.

The breadth of Los Angeles is the cultural core of America's second largest city. LA evolved along the geophysical fault lines that account for verdant farm land, rocky green hills, and oil all being located in this promised land between desert and ocean. Communities, known to Angelinos as pockets, nestle, crowd and luxuriate within physical boundaries that are defined by lifestyle as well as zip code. This is especially true in and around Hollywood, which leads to West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Century City, Santa Monica, Westwood, Studio City, North Hollywood, Burbank, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Downtown, Glendale and Pasadena, to name a few and each of which then leads further out. And the most important thing about this topography, which along with suntans and the movies is what everyone automatically associates with LA? There's a lot of space to fill, and that's as true of the home as of the highway.

The openness of western space commands rethinking spatial flow. Urbanites who are used to thinking vertically discover, sometimes as a surprise, that it requires adjustment to think horizontally in this different urbanity. It seems obvious when we see it written out, but as it's happening we don't necessarily notice that environment shapes our perceptions. In Manhattan, the skyscrapers and bustle are both enervating and focusing; you have to adapt to the sheer volume of the crowds and the soaring scale of the architecture. This was one of the reasons we settled in Astoria. It had a courtly, old world vibe, of neighborhood pride and small businesses and apartments with some space in them.

photo: Eric Diesel
In Los Angeles, one of the reasons we've settled in West Hollywood, aside from the community presence in this world-class gayborhood, is that it is a place of both aesthetics and industry. From the secluded charm of bungalows lining streets overhung with palms and bougainvillea to busy corridors of clubs and condos, work and play coexist in WeHo as they do nowhere else that I've lived. Though there is pace here, motivation comes not from the urgency of city desk deadlines but from the pleasures of good living: green trees in parks filled with neighbors, strolls down shopping boulevards culminating with brunch on stage-set patios. Don't kid yourself: there is a hard-working ethic in Los Angeles -- many businesses from movie studios to downtown firms operate 24/7 -- but aesthetics work hard here, too. How one lives is understood to be vital, and from the fresh strawberries in the markets to the tai chi classes on the lawns, all of this good living is as much an inspiration for the daily grind as it is a means unto itself. And, from the actors who run sides on patios to accountants who work from laptops on dining room tables, the home has long been a workplace.

In every way from record-keeping to paying bills, the home office is the business hub of the household. As work in the home cannot help but be personal, the home office is one area that cannot help but reflect the personalities of the users. Because most families, ours included, share home office space, the home office can easily take on a slapdash quality, but with smart design the home office can minimize busy-ness while being conducive to business. Even if you don't have room to spare, you still have room for an office. Home offices can be as formal as separate business quarters annexed onto the home and as informal as a commandeered corner of the dining room table.

Appropriately for a medical professional and a writer, the home office is one of the key rooms in our urban home. In our cross-country move, the most challenging room to pack was the home office. There were as many memories as books in that room. The office was the focus of one of the most successful columns from when Urban Home Blog was written from Astoria. In that office was situated the writer's window so often referred in those Astoria columns. While it was very well organized, that office was cramped, befitting the brownstone intelligentsia that any New Yorker would recognize and feel right at home with. When I wrote about that home office, I had no idea that just a few years hence, I'd be revisiting the home office both by setting one up and designing one, in a location that is diametric to New York City in every way from weather to scale.

photograph: Eric Diesel
Our home office is full but not crowded; true to the ease of LA living but picking up a bit of the hustle from Hollywood just outside. The writer's window opens onto the patio, whose privacy wall inspires with the striations of brown and terra cotta of California painted rock. The yard is busy with bromeliads flexing and hummingbirds sipping, steadied by the house-wide embrace of a looming California laurel, grounded by a Sago palm whose spread, at about five feet, reveals what a baby this plant is. We open the windows whenever we can, admitting the chatter of neighbors both human and canine on the sidewalk, the perfume of the tangerine blossoms that line the alley, the cries of the ravens who patrol the rooflines and treetops.

If the scale of Los Angeles living provides context for this home office, these magickal birds provide inspiration. I placed raven silhouettes on the wall, in stances from perched in watchfulness to flapping in protection. Some misinterpret the raven's cry as menace but it really a cry of connection between worlds external and interior. In this room of industry and inspiration, we always want to be in touch with the raven's otherworldly cry.

The message of these birds is appropriate to a work room where the outdoors enters through the windows. To facilitate welcoming the outdoors inside, we hung simple metal Venetian blinds in a shade of dark coffee. Window blinds don't crowd a room with fuss, which is an important consideration in a room that is already busy with work. Blinds operate simply, welcoming invigorating sunshine into the room with the pull of a cord. Properly slanted, the blinds suffuse the office with the golden late day sun every Angelino treasures and, later still, limns the room with moonlight.

Other design elements in the room include John's collection of vintage medical equipment and the haunted houses and witches that I collect, but the core functions of this room are work and study. Books, of course, are the foundation of those, and the room is lined with sturdy wooden shelves, attached to the walls as part of standard earthquake-proofing, painted espresso and housing our prized library. We have enough shelf space for showcase shelves, where are arranged vignettes of our favorite subject areas. Beatnik figurines huddle around my collection of Beat literature, daddy-o, including recordings of Kerouac reading his poetry and my prized pulp copy of On the Road. The Homekeeper's Library showcases the vintage homekeeping books that are among my passions, including my beloved Better Homes and Gardens Sewing Book. Our regular trips to Central Coast wine country feed not just our thirst for great wine but my passion for vintage books with its selection of great used bookstores. During periods when we can't get away, we live walking distance to the great foraging bookstore The Cosmopolitan Bookshop.

Organizing and caring for books is the firmament of a home library. Like a public library, a home library is a place of research, learning, pleasure and history. It is also a serious responsibility. In their way, books are fragile, and the techniques librarians and archivists use to store, protect, and utilize them are as important to the home library as they are to the circulating one. Each family has its own way of managing the home library, from a pile of picture books in the playroom to a shelf of cookbooks in the kitchen, from texts inherited from school days to paperbacks collected during years of pleasure reading. Whether you have a few titles or a formal library, books in the home should be organized and shelved. While no bookworm could argue with arranging home books according to Dewey, most home libraries don't require that formal of a system. We organize books broadly by subject, drilling down one or two levels for some subject areas. Within that, we shelve by title for non-fiction and author's last name for fiction. As arduous as this sounds, each title is entered into a simple Excel spreadsheet that includes columns for date/place purchased, cost and value. This is especially important as John's medical texts and my Homekeeper's Library constitute professional investments, and some of the titles in our library are rare or otherwise valuable.

photo: Eric Diesel
All books are sensitive to moisture and dust, and while in some cases a book binder can save a fragile volume, usually once a book is damaged by such agents as water or mold, it will continue to deteriorate and at most, only parts of it can be salvaged. Especially in a room where the windows are opened, dust once a week utilizing a static duster. Utilize an extension to reach top shelves. Dust the tops and the spines of the books, as well as the visible shelf surface. Every month to six weeks depending on the conditions in the room, use the vacuum cleaner outfitted with the dusting brush and crevice tool to vacuum the shelves. Rare, older or otherwise valuable books require special care to remain viable. Wrap vintage books, whether jacketed or not, with protective dust jacket covers. Take exceptional care with very rare or valuable books. Wrap them in acid free tissue and store them in book boxes. Handle them properly as determined by each title's value and condition, even if it means using gloves, a soft brush, and a page turner. For these titles, it is especially important to maintain good records regarding their history and valuation.

One item of furniture that didn't make the trip cross-country was the knock together desk we were using in that home office. Finding a desk was one of our priorities as we set up our new home office in Los Angeles. As a veteran of corporate work stations, I initially sought a modifiable work environment cube unit, which can be configured to the needs of the worker. While these are obtainable for the home market, the more I looked at them, the more I realized that they were outside of the purposes the desk in our office needed to serve. We needed a desk that was flexible to accommodate the work of two individuals, one of them a working writer, and that agreed with the scope of the room it would be in. Though I liked the capacity to configure work station units, that adaptability came at the cost of constriction of size. That makes sense; these units are originally and primarily intended for corporate environments, where every inch of space is a cost and therefore is an investment that must be maximized. It would have been a disservice to the luxury of space not to utilize our home office space to its best advantage. Like any room in the home, but especially working rooms (think of kitchen, bathroom, garage), the design of the home office must lend itself to the room's purpose. That is the challenge of home design and also its excitement: that each environment be the best expression of itself.

For the desk, I harkened back to another working chapter of my life: sewing costumes in a professional costume shop. In costume shops, work tables must be large enough that large swathes of fabric can be laid out on them. Accordingly, they are typically 60 or 120 inches long (the length of one or two tape measures) by 36 or 48 inches wide (the length of one yardstick or one yardstick plus one ruler). These dimensions turned out to be the ideal size for a desk top. At Ikea we found the perfect compromise: slabs of table top to attach legs to. And so we found and assembled our desk, whose size -- roughly that of a dining room table -- accommodates both the work and the supplies required for it.

While we were at it, we obtained an affordable reclining and pivoting desk chair. From this, there is room under the sizable desk surface for me to stretch out my legs when I write. Perhaps TMI, but it is a great benefit to me and one I didn't have in the smaller NYC office. There is no danger I will inadvertently kick the computer tower or the cords leading from it, which are tagged by function and rolled, bound and gathered in a wire basket drilled to the underside of the desk. To further free desk top space, in lieu of a standard monitor, we took a cue from the Urban Home Blog guide to home electronics and hung a flat screen tv that was aging out of use on the wall to use as a computer monitor.

Below the desk is a rolling file cabinet whose contents I manage with adherence to the hard and fast rule of "two in the drawer three in the cabinet" that I learned during fifteen plus years as an office worker. Older records are scanned onto hard and thumb drives, with paper records, when necessary, stored safely away in snap-top plastic boxes. On the desk top, vintage wire baskets painted dull gold and black leather boxes organize papers and files. At antique shops and tag sales I am always on the lookout for vintage dressing table trays, especially those that are Halloween themed. I use these to hold paper clips, note pads, and other small office supplies. The desk is lit by a mid-century lamp in Florentine gold. That touch of gold is echoed in the placement, on a shelf to the left, of the gold nameplate from my desk in the executive suite of my corporate days.

The club furniture that we invested in in New York anchors the Los Angeles home office at its center, commanding stature without crowding the room. Club sofa and chair in espresso leather are placed in an ell, with the open end of the ell facing the door while providing a corridor along the shelves to the focal point of the open window. Design books rest on a round coffee table that echoes the geometric forms of lampshades, clock faces and pin lights that break up the square angles of the room. The titles on display are changed regularly, and include titles written about in the popular Urban Home feature Homekeeper's Library. These are perused by a wrought iron raven from one of my favorite LA design stores, its head appropriately cocked at the angle of curiosity.

Office design is the cohesion that synthesizes work, study, and functionality. Designing the home office means assessing the space available against the work and study that will happen there, and then realizing the best work space for those with fidelity to the users' work/study style and while utilizing the resources available. Resources include space, funds and effort, but also organizational ability and creativity. Though we often think otherwise, as a card-carrying aesthete I assure you that those last two are not exclusive of each other. A creative mind flourishes in a well-organized atmosphere, and organizational ability depends on creativity to see the possibilities.

The home office presents the ultimate design precept - form vs. function -- and when successful, resolves the dilemma with the great design truth that function and form are interdependent. They reflect each other while each meets its own specific obligations. That is of great service when designing the home office, for there is hardly a better definition of home design than freedom within constraint, and no better example of the symbiosis of the two than a home office that is both practical and personable.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

October at Urban Home Blog

Here are some of our plans for the glorious month of October at Urban Home Blog.
  • Send donations to bat and bee conservancies.
  • Have furnace serviced. Have air conditioners serviced and sealed for the season.
  • Visit Los Angeles Public Library to view To Live and Dine in L.A.
  • Remove Halloween boxes from holiday closet in time to decorate for Halloween.
  • Scan markets / beverage dealers for pumpkin ale releases. Musts: Uinta Punk'n, Buffalo Bill Original, and Weyerbacher Imperial.
  • Meet with financial advisor for quarterly review.
  • Go on photo safari at Hollywood Forever. Leave flowers for Rudolph Valentino and bring apples to leave for the other spirits. Check rookery in case peacock chicks are displaying.
  • Do Halloween decoupage project.
  • Program updated goth music playlists and send links/burn CDs for Halloween presents.
  • Invite friends over to watch American Horror Story: Hotel premiere. Serve curried popcorn, Halloween candy, hot spiced cider, pumpkin ale, and Black Martinis.
  • Have autumn evening dinner at Jar. Bring preserved cherries as gifts for Chef Suzanne Tracht and staff.
  • Set out horror films, cemetery and wildlife documentaries, and Scooby Doo, Addams Family and Munsters box sets for October tv viewing. Have pantry items on hand to make snacks on movie nights.
  • Make and can pumpkin butter and cranberry sauce in anticipation of holiday gift-giving.
  • Keep candy bowl filled.
  • Set out Dumb Supper on the evening of Samhain. Burn candles and incense, and welcome friendly spirits that wish to partake of the offering in remembrance of their time on this side of the veil. 
Reading List: Hallowe'en Party, Agatha Christie; The Complete Fiction, H.P. Lovecraft; Dark Lover, Emily Leider.
October, 2013: Spice Blends, Pumpkin Groceries
October, 2012: Flights of Fright, Crafts Bookstores, Weeknight Dinner
October, 2011: Weeknight Dinner, Urban Bar, Baking, Mold and Mildew
October, 2010: Urban Bar, Sunday Supper, Halloween History, Haunted Houses and Witches
October, 2009: Hot Spiced Cider, From the Vault

Friday, September 25, 2015

Fresh Lettuces with Almonds, Dates and Manchego

Wine country living embodies the aesthetic of living that is about good food and drink, about stewardship of resources from the land to the community, about the fundamentals of hospitality itself. They who take care of others during the busy weekend gather on quieter weeknights for sharing, for relaxation, for camaraderie. Special bottles are uncorked, and special dishes are placed at table.

Wine country cooking reveals its deeper secrets just as surely as does a well-crafted red. This aesthetic of living is about doing so fully and richly, with appreciation and togetherness. Wine country cooking mingles local traditions and ingredients with the inventiveness of new chefs and the goodness of local flavors. Because California has such an abundance of agriculture, the identity of cooking styles becomes very localized. This month we've learned about Santa Maria Tri-Tip, one of the key dishes at the table of California cooking, as are the pinquinto beans that it is traditionally served with. We went on an autumnal wine picnic with a favorite bottle or one just discovered and a container of California chicken salad. For this final column in the transitional month of September, we go beyond the chuck wagon and the vineyard to the true superstars of the California table: fresh produce.

The California drought is an unfortunate staple of the nightly news, because it is a concern for all of us. Whether or not you are citizen of the Golden State, your table is. California is a leading agricultural provider in the USA, providing almost half of the combined agricultural product that winds up at the American Table. California is the top producer of strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, tree nuts, tomatoes, cattle and milk, and, reminding us that humans are not the only species to provide food for, hay. Californian or not, click here to learn about the California drought, including steps to take to conserve or contribute.

As anyone who's made the drive up the Pacific Coast Highway can attest, California is also the nation's leader in the production of lettuces. Only strawberries and grapevines account for more acreage marching up the hillsides from the interzone of rocky beach that buffers the crashing Pacific and the highway that zooms along the most scenic route in the USA.

Accordingly, the final column in this month of wine country living utilizes lettuces to showcase California produce, namely crunchy almonds and sticky-sweet dates. Paper thin slivers of Manchego, a Spanish cheese that is often paired with wine, crown the salad, while a rich vinaigrette of red wine and sherry bathes it. Serve your wine country salad before a main course of Roast Beef with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chicken Stew with Artichokes, or Cider-Braised Chicken. Or put the salad out as part of a wine and cheese board, especially featuring California wine, as all of the flavors represent the Golden State and pair attractively with the wine industry that is important both to the California economy and the world palate.
Fresh Lettuces with Almonds, Dates and Manchego
Most supermarkets with specialty cheese counters will have Manchego, as will any cheese store. Manchego is sold from wheels with a distinctive basket weave pattern, in ages less than one year or one year or older; either age will work for this recipe. Pitted dates should be available in bulk / dried foods area of the supermarket or health food store. A mandoline and a cut-resistant glove are important kitchen tools; click here to order. This recipe serves two.
2 heads fresh lettuces, such as red leaf, arugula, endive, escarole, or Romaine
6 - 8 pitted dates
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 1/3 - 1/2 wedge Manchego
1 small shallot
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup dry sherry
1 head fresh thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
Coarse grain salt, such as kosher or grey sea
Extra-virgin olive oil
  1. Place two salad plates in the refrigerator.
  2. Position an in-sink colander in place. Gently tear the tender parts of the lettuce from the ribs, core or roots; placing the lettuce leaves in the colander as you go. Figuring two handfuls of greens per serving, tear enough greens for two salads.
  3. Rinse the lettuce leaves under cool water, gently shaking the colander as you rinse to express extra water or soot if any.
  4. Safely use a paring knife to cut away and discard the stem and cap ends of the shallot. Remove the papery outer skin from the shallot.
  5. Cut the shallot lengthways into slices. Cut the slices lengthways to form matchsticks. Cut across the matchsticks to form dice. Transfer the dice to a small bowl. Sprinkle the shallots with a dash of salt.
  6. Measure the red wine vinegar and the sherry into the bowl containing the lightly salted shallot. Swirl the mixture in the bowl and set aside until ready to dress the salad.
  7. Working one at a time, safely use a paring knife to cut each date in half lengthways. Cut each half lengthways to form quarters. Cut across the quarters to form eighths. Add the chopped dates to a small prep bowl or coffee cup as you go.
  8. Fold a kitchen towel in half and place it on the counter. Place a clean cutting board on the towel. Unwrap the Manchego. Use a strong but not sharp knife such as a bread knife to cut away and discard the rind. Try to get just the brown or gray rind but not the cheese paste underneath; however the cheese will be dense and the cuts will not be perfect. You should have a triangular chunk of cheese with two wide flat sides.
  9. Once you have cut away the rind of the cheese, put on the cut-resistant glove. Use your gloved hand to position the triangular top or bottom edge of the cheese against the cutting blade of the mandoline. Use your free hand to safely steady the mandoline, keeping it free of the path of the cutting blade. Position the guide that came with the mandoline over the cheese and gently slide the cheese wedge back and forth over the cutting blade. Paper thin triangular slices of cheese should collect under the mandoline on the cutting board. Stop slicing when the guide gets too close to the cutting blade.
  10. When ready to assemble the salads, give the shallot-vinegar-sherry mixture a stir. Remove the plates from the refrigerator.
  11. Assemble the salads as follows:
  12. Drizzle the plate with a two-count of extra virgin olive oil.
  13. Use a tablespoon to drizzle the plate with a tablespoon of shallot mixture.
  14. Sprinkle several grindings of fresh black pepper on the plate.
  15. Sprinkle a dash of salt on the plate.
  16. Strip a few thyme leaves onto the plate.
  17. Place a few pieces of chopped date on the plate.
  18. Place a few slivered almonds on the plate.
  19. Place a couple of pieces of shaved Manchego on the plate.
  20. Add a light layer of lettuces on the plate.
  21. Sprinkle the lettuces with salt, freshly ground pepper, and few strippings of fresh thyme.
  22. Sprinkle the lettuces with 1/2 tablespoon shallot mixture.
  23. Sprinkle the lettuces with a quick pour of extra virgin olive oil.
  24. Place a few pieces of chopped date, a few slivered almonds, and a couple of slices of shaved Manchego on the lettuces.
  25. Repeat steps 21-24 above until you have used up all of the lettuce.
  26. If you have extras of other ingredients distribute it across the top of the salad but be careful to keep a nice balance of flavors. It is okay if there are dates, almonds, herbs, or shallot mixture left over.
  27. Serve immediately. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

California Chicken Salad

As befits the Autumn Equinox, September in California means wine weekends. The Autumn Equinox, or Mabon, was the harvest of orchard fruit along with perhaps the most sacred of all produce: grapes. In the ancient world, wine was revered for its ability to loosen inhibitions and to alter states of consciousness, which acts were seen as vital to the practice of connecting with the Earth. Drinking, merriment and madness were all associated with the festival atmosphere of Mabon, but the celebration belied deeper truth. In revering the Earth's production of grapes and the sacred gift of wine, those ancients were celebrating the second of the three harvests not just in gratitude, but in rituals of sympathy with the turning of the seasons. Harvest celebrations were acts of stewardship for the Earth as well as appeals against scarcity during the upcoming bleak months of winter.

Harvest is the most significant time of year in wine country. Wineries and tasting rooms are at their peak of production and of visitors. Harvest festivals abound, from Solvang's annual scarecrow festival to Santa Barbara Harvest Weekend. The Harvest tradition of the corn maze becomes a hay maze, often highlit by lattices of grapes. Aside from grapes, many of the farmlands grow pumpkins, which are vended from clapboard shacks along country roads just as strawberries are in the summer. Wineries often introduce their proudest bottlings during Harvest, and everyone -- everyone -- has an opinion on this year's yield.

It is a rite of wine country passage to go on a wine picnic, and there is no lovelier time to do it than a wine country autumn. Many of the wineries provide picnic tables and manicured lawns for opening a bottle just discovered. There is something special about spreading a blanket under a bower of grapevines, upon the welcoming ridge of a green hillside, upon rocky beach sands with the Pacific crashing against the shoreline. It is healing and connective, just as the autumn harvest has always been, has always been meant to be.

Olives, artichoke spread, bread, crackers, cheese and fruit are all available at such local markets as the Los Olivos Grocery and R Country Market in Los Olivos and the El Rancho and Vinhaus in Solvang. Another California supermarket staple that will likely be available for your picnic is California chicken salad. If you immediately thought of the mayonnaisey glop from the office lunch cart, get ready to encounter a regional preparation for as stalwart an item at the American table as there is, that will prejudice you once and for all against all indifferent interpretations and/or executions of it.

California chicken salad highlights west coast crops and flavors, including the crop most central to California living and food: grapes. It embodies the tenets of California cooking of freshness, local produce, lightness of touch and richness of flavor. Wine-poached chicken is pulled into delicate threads, then mixed with distinctively California ingredients for a dish that is flavorful and satisfying. It travels safely if kept cool, so make it ahead of time to serve with picnic crackers or pulls from a fresh loaf of bread, or keep a bowl of it in the fridge for lunch fixes.

At whatever table from picnic to luncheon you serve your chicken salad, its legacy is truest when enjoyed with a glass of good California wine. Try Gainey's spritely Sauvingnon Blanc, Foxen's plush Chenin Blanc, Bridlewood's voluptuous Chardonnay or Melville's satiny Pinot Noir. All will nicely compliment this original recipe for a true Golden State classic: California chicken salad.

California Chicken Salad
Resist the urge to poach the chicken quickly or over high heat; the slow, steady method is the only way to achieve the velvety texture for this dish. Click here for Urban Home Blog's recipe for chicken stock; if using store bought, use low-sodium. This recipe makes enough to serve four to six people.

1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
3/4 pound red seedless grapes
8 ounces pecan halves
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 cup off-dry white wine such as Chardonnay, Viognier, or Pinot Gris
Chicken stock
1 - 1-1/2 cups mayonnaise
1-1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoons table salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the chicken
  1. Look over the chicken breasts and trim and discard any fibrous areas or areas that display discoloration or an off odor.
  2. Place the chicken breasts in a medium sized saucepan with a tight-fitting lid.
  3. Measure the wine into the pan. Add enough chicken stock to cover the chicken breasts by 1/2 inch. Add the bay leaf and the peppercorns to the pan. Swirl the pan around to mix the liquids and the seasoning together.
  4. Cover the pan. Turn the burner to medium-low. Cook the chicken breasts until they are cooked through and the cooking liquid releases its fragrance, typically about 30 minutes. The chicken is cooked through when the tip of a sharp knife safely inserted into the thickest part of the meat meets no resistance.
  5. Once the chicken is cooked through, turn off the heat and remove the pan from the burner. Allow the chicken breasts to cool in the poaching liquid 15 minutes.
  6. Once the chicken breasts are cooled down, remove them from the poaching liquid and place them on a plate lined with a layer of paper towels. Discard the poaching liquid.
  7. Working one chicken breast at a time, place a chicken breast on a clean cutting board reserved for poultry. Use two forks or your hands to tear each chicken breast into bite-sized pieces. Transfer the shredded chicken to a large mixing bowl as you go.
Prepare the remaining ingredients
  1. While the chicken is poaching, remove the grapes from the stems, popping them into a colander as you go. Rinse the grapes and give the colander a shake to express excess water if any.
  2. Use a clean cutting board devoted to fruits and vegetables and a paring knife to cut each grape lengthways into halves, then each half into quarters. Pop the quartered grapes into a large mixing bowl as you go. Once you have quartered all of the grapes, you should have between 1-1/2 to 2 cups. Don't worry if the measure is not exact.
  3. Sprinkle the grapes with the salt and several grindings of fresh black pepper.
  4. Transfer the pecan halves to a nut grinder or mini kitchen prep and pulse until ground but not pulverized. Transfer the ground pecans to the bowl containing the grapes.
  5. Measure the poppy seeds into the bowl containing the pecans and the grapes. Use a silicon spatula to mix the grapes, pecans, and seasonings together.
Make the chicken salad
  1. Use a silicon spatula to transfer the seasoned grape-pecan mixture to the bowl containing the shredded chicken. Use the silicon spatula to mix all of the ingredients together.
  2. Use a measuring scoop and the silicon spatula to add the mayonnaise to the chicken mixture. Measure the cider vinegar into the bowl containing the mixture.
  3. Use the silicon spatula to mix all of the ingredients together. It is okay to add additional mayo/vinegar to the chicken salad to achieve the texture you like; work in increments of 1/2 cup mayonnaise to 1/2 tablespoon cider vinegar.
Serve the chicken salad
  1. Scoop the chicken salad into a serving dish or transport vessel, depending upon when and how you're serving. Serve with wheat crackers, fresh bread, or salad greens.