Monday, May 25, 2015

Sauces for Steak

Memorial Day takes on a different tone on the West Coast than it did in New York City. In New York, Memorial Day was the cue for summer's first mass migration to vacation homes on the Long Island shore, the Hudson Valley, the Pennsylvania mountains. If the LA breakfast news show is to be believed, long weekend destinations for Angelinos follow the Conestoga topography of western living: short flights to Las Vegas or San Francisco, road trips to San Diego or Solvang, local excursions to beach communities or mountain resorts, special weekends at Disneyland. The small town Memorial Day weekends of my childhood were solemn recognitions in the spirit of the holiday, where somber processionals to war cemeteries culminated in dumb supper picnics which the spirits of the war dead were invited to attend. These were conducted by grandmothers who remembered the ceremonies from the mists of their own childhoods. Some of the words and the memories dated back to the Civil War, on whose heels the earliest Memorial remembrances began.

It is important to remember soldiers first and foremost during this long weekend. Many locales still sponsor civic ceremonies, and it is good to attend one of them as a family, both in support of the soldier's sacrifice and to register respect for the soldiers in the family and community trees. Our beloved Pop Pop was part of the storming of Normandy, and while he came home, both his white lipped response to Memorial Day ceremonies and NaNa's stauncher, but more misty-eyed, ones told the story of the war years that they didn't have the words, or the heart, to utter.

Memorial Day has fallen into the same jumble of three day weekends that has also claimed Veteran's, President's, Martin Luther King Junior's, and Labor Days, but as we reclaim the original intent of these national days of remembrance, doing so also reinforces that they are holidays as well. The original rites of Memorial Day were serious, even grim, indeed, but they were followed by the feasting and togetherness that is the firmament of all holiday celebrations. As you gather family and friends for Memorial Day festivities, take time to mark the intent of the holiday by acknowledging the soldier's sacrifice, by contacting family and friends who are serving by telephone or video (followed up with a good old fashioned handwritten letter and box of cookies). Since all soldiers are members of our collective family, make a donation to a soldier's charity, and invite local soldiers to your family event. Many family historians have guardianship of a generational Book of Remembrance, where mementoes and photographs of family history are gathered and care-taken. Whether this book is generations old or yours is the first generation to keep it, set aside time to go through it with today's family and friends, and don't forget to note the attendees and activities of Memorial Day 2015.

On the homefront, the Memorial Day gathering is often a picnic or backyard barbecue for family, friends and neighbors. It is typical for each family and region to showcase its local specialty on the buffet table. My grandmother would have brought two tin buckets of legendary fried chicken and a blue ribbon apple pie. In the same spirit but a different latitude, NaNa and Pop Pop would have brought fire and ice, chocolate cake, and a case of beer.

While many backyard chefs have been sneaking in grill time since Easter, Memorial Day is the official start of outdoor cooking season. In Southern California, our fire pits and barbeque grills stay lit pretty much year round, but even here, living moves noticeably to deck and patio during this last full weekend of the month locals refer to as May Gray. Wherever your grill is located, from still chill mountainsides to sunny condo patios, from heartland back yards to brownstone rooftops, grill season has arrived, and Memorial Day weekend is its opening shot.

As befits a big start, the first grill of the season is often steak. A steak dinner is an event, and that makes it especially appropriate to the spirit of this holiday. Urban Home has a primer on procuring and cooking steak, and the all-important skill of testing for doneness; click here. We have the recipe for a family-friendly London Broil, and if you're cooking indoors, a dramatic, delicious recipe for Steak Diane. We have easily transported, group friendly side dishes from NaNa's pepper slaw to pasta salad and crowd-friendly and -pleasing desserts from apricot bars to spice cake. We can even recommend wines to accompany steak.

Though we've served savory London Broil with robust horseradish cream and topped kitchen steaks with thoughtful dabs of compound butter, steaks on the grate command special condimenting. Here are four easily made sauces to serve with the first steaks of the season, and with steak and roast beef throughout the year. These sauces are easy to prepare and add to steak's savory char without detracting from the firepit satisfaction of grilled meat. Set these on the table alongside the bottles of supermarket favorites, and see which disappear first. And as you give the first steak from the grill to the soldier who got to stand first in line, don't forget not only to honor soldiers for their sacrifice, but to say a quietude to the cattle who also sacrifice so that not only may we eat, but celebrate.

Sauces for Steak
Each of these sauces can be made simply and quickly from pantry ingredients. If you are serving the sauce with pan-fried steaks, make any of the first three sauces utilizing the drippings from the pan in lieu of the olive oil.

Red Wine and Mushroom
Clean 8 ounces fresh button, shitake or cremini mushrooms; cut into quarters. Heat a four-count of extra virgin olive oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add 1 medium shallot, diced, to the hot oil and stir with a silicon spatula until the shallot turns translucent. Reduce heat to medium and add the cleaned, quartered mushrooms to the pan. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and several grindings of fresh black pepper. Add two to three thyme sprigs to the pan. Use the silicon spatula to gently toss the pan mixture until the mushrooms are slightly charred and fragrant and start to release their juice. Carefully add 1/2 cup dry red wine to the pan. Cook for one minute or until the mixture thickens slightly and releases its fragrance. Turn off the heat, remove and discard the thyme sprigs. Gently pour the sauce into a bowl or sauce boat, and serve immediately.

Mustard and Cream
Heat a two count of extra virgin olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add 1 tablespoon unsalted butter to the olive oil; gently swirl the mixture to melt the butter into the oil. Add 1 medium shallot, diced, to the hot oil-butter mixture and stir with a silicon spatula until the shallot turns translucent. Press two cloves garlic into the pan; stir the mixture until the garlic gives off its fragrance. Remove the pan from the burner and carefully add 2 tablespoons brandy to the mixture in the pan. Gently swirl the mixture together until the alcohol evaporates. Return the pan to the burner and stir in 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard. Use the silicon spatula to mix the mustard into the brandy-shallot mixture. Use one hand to stir the mustard sauce while using the other hand to drizzle 1/4 cup heavy cream into the mixture.  Once the sauce is thoroughly incorporated, use the silicon spatula to decant the sauce into a bowl or sauce boat, and serve immediately.

Measure 3 tablespoons beef broth into a small measuring cup with a spout. Measure 2 tablespoons bourbon or whiskey into the broth. Swirl the measuring cup to mix the liquids together. Measure 2 tablespoons whole mixed peppercorns into a sturdy saute pan. Use the bottom of another pan to crush the peppercorns until they are bruised and roughly broken (it is okay if some whole peppercorns remain). Add a four count of extra virgin olive oil to the pan and heat the peppercorns in the oil over  medium heat until shimmering until the peppercorns start to sizzle; approximately 1 minute. Carefully add the broth-whiskey mixture to the mixture in the pan. Gently swirl the pan until the alcohol evaporates; approximately one minute. Once the sauce is thorough mixed, use a silicon spatula to decant the sauce into a bowl or sauce boat, and serve immediately.

Early in the day, rinse 1 bunch fresh cilantro and 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley under cool water. Place the herbs on several layers of paper towels and set aside to dry. While the steaks are grilling, cut the herb bunches so that you have only the leafy tops. Place the leafy herbs into the bowl of a small food chopper. Add 3 peeled medium garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, and a pinch each of salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper to the herbs. Close the safety lid on the chopper and pulse the mixture until all of the ingredients are roughly chopped and mixed. Unplug the chopper and remove the safety. The sauce should be thick, green, slightly chunky, and very fragrant. If necessary, add 1 - 2 teaspoons olive oil to ensure that the sauce can be spread. Carefully decant the sauce into a bowl or sauce boat, and serve immediately.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Spring Cleaning, Part Four: Products Updated

It's hard to believe that it's been almost five years since I started writing about spring cleaning. That first post was for a food shelter site where among my beats was nostalgic cooking, a role I slid easily into. Then as now, I associated spring cooking with chiffon cake, so that's what I wrote about. The post has been archived by the site's successor, but in writing about chiffon cake I was writing about spring and food, and that meant writing about my grandmother. For my grandmother, spring meant chiffon cake, Easter candy, and spring cleaning. And so, chiffon cake led to spring cleaning, and not just because of the crumbs on the upholstery.

Since then, I have written about spring cleaning both practically and poetically. Annually, the most popular free printable download in Urban Home Blog's ever-expanding library of them is the Spring CleaningChecklist, even as that article enjoys an annual resurgence of hits. After my cancer diagnosis, treatment and, at press time, cure, I re-evaluated my approach to homekeeping, which led to popular articles on the chemistry of spring cleaning as well as its products.

As noted before, changing households is an opportunity to re-evaluate how we keep our homes. Most of us know the familiar routine of evaluate/purge/organize that represents annual and semi-annual household organization, from setting up the home office in January to changing over the closets at spring and autumn. But it kicks into high gear in a move, and the work, overwhelming as it can get, is also rewarding. As much as we accumulate, it is good to pare down. By volume alone, a move all but demands this, and a large-scale move, such as one to another part of the country or the world, commands it.

Once you arrive in your new home, one of the necessities of setting up homekeeping will be evaluating what you need to do to keep a safe and well-run home in this new environment. The larger lessons of that teach themselves. For John and me, after years of vertical New York City living, the open arms layout of our Los Angeles home afforded us the pleasure of reconnecting with outdoor living.  But that's only one example. Any switch of households, whether across town or across a continent, will require practical re-considerations as well. These include everything from learning a new neighborhood to maintaining new appliances and cleaning new surfaces. To that end, here is a follow-up to a popular earlier column on Spring Cleaning products. It is not meant to supercede that original column, but it does take into consideration the needs of a new and different urban home, many of which didn't necessarily apply to the previous one.

As with all lists and guides at Urban Home Blog, this is a list of suggestions rather than a comprehensive checklist of essentials. This list is based on my ongoing experience as a homekeeper and lifestyle author, and, as always, none of these is a compensated endorsement..

A fundamental concern for homekeeping, and one we don’t always think about unless something goes wrong with it, is the water supply. The quality of water supplied to your home will be evident at shower and bath time, when you do the dishes, and on laundry day. You can learn the details of your water supply from your water company. It is good information to have, for it affects everything from personal hygiene to kitchen, laundry to plumbing. In all municipalities, you have the right to expect that the water that comes out of the tap is clean enough for human consumption. Always call the water department if the water looks dirty or displays an off odor.

For household use, water is evaluated on a scale from hard to soft, with hard water referring to water with a noticeable concentration of mineral salts, especially magnesium and calcium, and soft water referring to an absence of that mineral salt concentration. One way that hard water announces itself is in the formation of mineral deposits in basins and enclosures, and in lower lather when mixed with water-activated cleansing agents. In addition, municipalities will be affected variously by salt, dirt, local manufacturing, and other factors. It is important to remember that the water supply runs both directions, and whatever you wash away returns to a larger water supply, where it affects the ecosystem.

In the kitchen, water quality affects virtually everything. While, again, you have the right to expect that the water that comes out of the tap is safe for human consumption, for drinking and cooking we use filtered water. This came into sharper focus when we moved west, where we noticed that our city water evidenced a hard profile. We have tried both faucet filters and filtration pitchers and have found that a filtration pitcher works just fine. We use Brita Everyday Water Filtration Pitcher. A counter embedded in the lid advises us when it is time to change the filter, which we buy in bulk at the beginning of the year. We use this filtered water for everything that impacts food and drink, from boiling water to filling the ice trays.

Water quality in the kitchen doesn’t just affect drinking and cooking, it affects preparation and clean up. Since the earliest days of Urban Home Blog, I have tagged every recipe that utilizes fresh produce with cleansing it before cooking and eating with a food-safe produce cleaner.  We like both Environne Fruit and Vegetable Wash and Trader Joe Fruit and Vegetable Wash.

I wrote about dishwashing liquid in the previous column about cleaning products. Those recommendations still hold, but how I do dishes has changed now that I have a dishwasher. As with all home appliances, taking care of the appliance with routine maintenance and cleaning both enhances the appliance's functioning and extends its life. CLR Calcium, Lime and Rust Remover can run through most dishwashers, but it's best use is for those mineral-filmed basins and stalls referred to above. For the dishwasher, we prefer Glisten Dishwasher Magic for both its economy and ease and effectiveness of usage. Use it once a month to clean and disinfect the dishwasher. A finish-rinse agent such as Jet-Dry helps the dishes dry nicely by interacting with the rinse cycle of the machine, a need that becomes more pronounced with hard water.

Once you have removed those sparkling dishes from the dishwasher, you will need to return them to well-organized cabinets. We all recall the gummy plastic shelf liners of our childhood cabinets and craft tables, but the best shelf liners are made from natural material. Bamboo liners exist but are pricey and not shock absorbent. We have found that the best shelf liners are made from cork. We use Target Naturals Adhesive Cork Liner.

Many homes are equipped with a garbage disposal. A good garbage disposal is an environmentally responsible way to deal with food scraps provided it is utilized and maintained properly. Locate the usage directions for your garbage disposal unit in the homekeeping records or online and then heed them. Your garbage disposal unit should break down appropriate food wastes such as non-fibrous fruit and vegetable scraps and then send them, almost liquefied, into the wastewater system. Most garbage disposers work best if operated under a thin stream of running water. While cleansing supplies exist for garbage disposals, the best cleansing supply for your garbage disposal unit is a box of baking soda. Pour 1/2 box of baking soda into the unit monthly, and allow the soda to sit in the unit for five minutes. After five minutes, turn on the tap so that the stream goes into the disposal's drain, and run the disposal until it sounds clear, typically about thirty seconds. If your municipality allows, the best way to manage food scraps is a compost bucket. We got our white ceramic compost pail with charcoal filters at Koontz Hardware in West Hollywood, where we knew it would conform to local guidelines. We use the compost to nourish the soil for the plantings around the patio.

A task whose necessity doesn’t change is laundry. Air- and water quality have their effects on clothes. For all machine-safe fabrics we add 1/2 scoop OxyClean per load to the drum of the machine as it fills. For sturdy clothes that see a lot of wear, such as underclothes, we add one capful of Lysol Concentrate Disinfectant per load to the drum of the machine as it fills, and for all laundry except towels we add 1/4 cup baking soda per load to the drum of the machine as it fills. Perhaps we ever will be New Yorkers at heart, for it is noticeable how many of our clothes are black. To clean those, we use Perwoll Black.

Fabric softeners are tricky, as many of them contain irritants to sensitive skins and, depending on the formulations, some of them can harm fabric either by staining it or by leaving residue on fibers. If you use baking soda in the wash water as noted above, you shouldn't need a fabric softener, but if you like the fragrance that fabric softeners impart, the best products are green. We like Seventh Generation Natural Liquid Fabric Softener and Ecover Fabric Softener. Remember that all laundry recommendations must be evaluated against such considerations as contact allergies or other reactions with cleaning products, and for suitability for fabric- and article type.

Of course, skin is at the center of the daily bath. We make our own bath salts in our urban home, but before we clean our skin we must have clean bathtubs, showers and sinks. Cleaning the bathroom must include disinfecting it, but disinfecting agents can be harsh. While most households keep  a supply of disinfecting wipes in a bathroom cabinet, these are best kept for touch up cleaning rather than for regular cleaning. For that, measure 1/4 cup Lysol Concentrate Disinfectant into a small waterproof bucket and fill the bucket 1/2 with warm water. Agitate the solution until well-mixed, and, wearing rubber or latex gloves, use that solution and a sponge to clean the bathroom. For hard-water deposits, Calcium, Lime and Rust Remover works well; be sure to follow the label directions, including those for ventilation. Especially for the shower and tub, the Rubbermaid Extendable Scrubber is invaluable for cleaning the bathroom.

One thing I got used to during years of caring for New York City hardwood floors was the "high traffic area" of weekday game shows. In California, hardwood flooring exists in older buildings but in newer ones, wooden flooring when present is likely to be made of bamboo. This material is sustainable, durable, cost-effective and attractive. While not a hard wood, bamboo responds to the same cleaning schedule, process and products. Click here for those earlier recommendations. Bona Hardwood Floor Cleaner works effectively and easily to clean and condition the bamboo flooring in our new urban home.

For carpets and rugs, we remain faithful to the Riccar1500S, though newer models have since been introduced. With regular upkeep, carpets and rugs shouldn't require ongoing deep cleaning. If they do, rental machines such as Rug Doctor are available at the home center and often the supermarket. At the home center they should also be able to refer you to a professional cleaner for home textiles, who can not only clean carpets and rugs on site but deep clean the upholstery and draperies as well.  This is a worthwhile expense once a year.

Between professional cleanings, use the vacuum to regularly clean carpets, rugs and upholstered furniture. For leather furniture such as the club furniture in our home office, use Lexol Leather Cleaner and Leather Conditioner on a weekly or bi-weekly basis as warranted by the atmospheric conditions in your home. Click here to learn about monitoring temperature and barometric pressure in the home; as a rule, the warmer and drier the atmosphere, the drier leather will become and the more frequently it will require care. Once it is compromised, leather cannot be salvaged, so this care is not only important once you have the furniture but as a consideration before you purchase. If necessary, a tanner may be able to repair small patches or panels in the furniture.

Finally, while it is certainly sobering to hear that your home requires earthquake proofing, in Southern California that is a fact. Earthquakes are unnerving to be sure, but they are our emergency to be prepared for just as surely as a midwesterner has to be ready for a tornado and an northeasterner ready for a blizzard.  It isn’t a cleaning product, but this is as good a place as any to remind us of the necessity of a household kit. Pre-packaged kits are available, but the best practice is to decide what is necessary for your household and then assemble those supplies. Place them in an easy-to-carry box with a handle, and place the box in an accessible area of the main floor of the home, such as an entry closet or the broom closet. FEMA has a valuable list of items to consider. Include an index card with emergency numbers, both for you and for emergency responders if necessary. Finally, register your household with both local law enforcement and the FEMA field office. Include pets, children, and the elderly, so stating, and if any of these individuals are housed elsewhere, even short term, be sure that those institutions daily send an updated list of residents and charges to local law enforcement.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ranch Dressing

As we organized the pantry last autumn, I wrote about repurposing used canning jars to hold everything from spice blends to pine nuts. Still one of the best uses I can think of for a retired canning jar is as the traditional vessel for ranch dressing. That's because, true to its name, ranch dressing is as homey as you can get, especially if that home is a dude ranch with plank tables for dining and a big sunny kitchen turning out breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for ranch hands and city slickers alike. Ranch dressing is true California cooking, and it comes from John's and my home away from home, good ol' Santa Barbara. Perhaps that accounts for the qualities of the dressing both on the salad greens and on the taste buds: it cool in reflection of its Yukon roots but mellow in response to that relaxed Santa Barbara vibe.

Anyone who has watched the evening news or shopped in a supermarket has encountered the term "Hidden Valley," but it turns out that rather than the work of an advertising agency, that was a real place. Hidden Valley was the name of a dude ranch owned by Steve and Gayle Henson. Steve had worked as a contractor in Alaska during the 1950's where, legend says, he perfected a dip for fresh vegetables that was based, as many cream dressings are, on mayonnaise and buttermilk. Once Steve and Gayle opened Hidden Valley in Santa Barbara, they started serving "ranch" dressing to guests, who liked it so much that the Hensons began selling spice packets for the guests to take home. Those spice packets eventually moved to the salad bar and the supermarket aisle, and a genuine American food invention moved beyond a local specialty to become the best selling flavor of bottled salad dressing in the country.

Though ranch is the most popular salad dressing on the American table, you don't get a true sense of how popular it is until you spend some time in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is the perfect mix of ranch chic and wine country elegance, which resonates with those qualities of ranch dressing that are simultaneously rustic and sophisticated. You will probably start your dinner at the Hitching Post with one of their signature fried artichokes (another California specialty), but don't even think of ordering the dinner salad that follows it with any dressing other than Ranch. Expect to find ranch dressing at virtually every table you visit: attending the crudités at your hotel's happy hour, limning your iceberg wedge at the lunch place, anointing your omelet at the breakfast buffet.

The original recipe for ranch dressing is proprietary. That said, no California cook worth their stash of Chardonnay doesn't have their own recipe for ranch dressing. The dressing from our urban ranch is a jumble of flavors bonded in the cool middle, served and stored in the traditional Mason jar. In homage to the original, this ranch is a respectful distillation of California cooking and Santa Barbara ease. It is perfect on chopped green salad or as a dip for fresh veggies or crackers.

Ranch Dressing
Wild or Texas onions are typically available at farmers markets or produce stands and often appear at the supermarket. If you can't obtain wild/Texas onions, use a small white onion. A box grater is an essential item in your urban kitchen; here's one we like. Wear a cut-resistant mesh glove when working with a grater; here's one we like.

3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup buttermilk, plus extra if necessary
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 medium clove garlic
1 small wild or Texas onion
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
1 bunch fresh chives
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon hot paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried cayenne pepper
Table salt
Freshly ground black pepper
  1. Rinse both the chives and the parsley under cool water and lay both bunches of herbs upon a double layer of paper towels to dry.
  2. Carefully use a paring knife to remove the stem and root ends from the onion. Position the box grated on a dinner plate. Put a cut-proof kitchen glove on your hand. Beginning with whichever end of the onion is flattest, use the gloved hand to carefully run the cut onion across (not up and down) the small holes of the grater so that the grated onion falls onto the plate. Keep going until you have grated most of the onion.
  3. Set the grater aside and remove the glove. There should be between 2 and 3 tablespoons of grated onion on the plate. Measure out 2 - 2-1/2 tablespoons grated onion and transfer the measure of grated onion to the well of a small mixing bowl. Sprinkle the onion with salt. Use a silicon spatula to mix the salt into the onion.
  4. Pat the parsley dry. Place the parsley on a clean cutting board reserved for vegetables. Safely use a medium kitchen knife to rough-cut the parsley. Measure 1/4 cup chopped parsley and add to the salted onion in the mixing bowl. Transfer the remaining parsley into a plastic food bag and refrigerate for another usage.
  5. If warranted, rinse the cutting board and pat it dry. Place the chives on the cutting board and safely use the kitchen knife to rough-cut the chives into tiny pieces. Measure 2 tablespoons chopped chives and add to the salted onion-parsley mixture in the mixing bowl.
  6. Peel the garlic and remove the root end. Half each clove; remove and discard any sprouting from the center. Use a garlic press to press the garlic into the onion-herb mixture.
  7. Sprinkle the garlic-onion-herb mixture with 2 teaspoons white vinegar. Use the silicon spatula to stir the mixture together. Cover the bowl and set the mixture aside to cure for 1/2 hour.
  8. After 1/2 hour, measure the mayonnaise and the sour cream into a medium mixing bowl. Use a wire whisk to the whisk the ingredients together until the mixture is smooth and creamy with no lumps.
  9. Uncover the bowl containing the cured garlic-onion-herb mixture. Use the silicon spatula to transfer the garlic-onion-herb mixture into the bowl containing the mayonnaise-sour cream mixture. Use the spatula to scrape the side of the bowl to get every last bit of the cured mixture into the cream mixture.
  10. Use the wire whisk to whisk the cured garlic-onion-herb mixture into the mayonnaise-sour cream mixture to make the dressing base.
  11. Sprinkle the dressing base with the paprikas and several grindings of fresh black pepper. Whisk the spices into the dressing base.
  12. Measure 1/2 cup buttermilk into a glass measuring cup with a spout. Hold the measuring cup over the bowl and use one hand to pour the buttermilk in a thin stream into the dressing base, using the other hand to whisk the buttermilk into the dressing base as you pour. Use the spatula to scrap the side of the measuring cup to get every last bit of the buttermilk into the dressing base.
  13. Test the dressing for consistency. Add a bit more buttermilk if desired.
  14. Transfer the dressing to a clean quart Mason jar. Place a clean lid and band on the Mason jar. Refrigerate the dressing until ready to serve.
Please note: this dressing makes no claims to the original formulation.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Chopped Green Salad

Spring is the first season of harvest in the vegetable garden. California leads the country in agriculture in too many crops to capture here. Fortunately for our lunch plate and our waistline, these include the ingredients that fill our salad bowl: lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions, even the olive oil for our dressing. It is no coincidence that salad is a mainstay of seemingly every menu in Los Angeles, from brunch and lunch spot to our urban home. Some of that has to do with the LA obsession with fitness, but while every cuisine begins with local availability, California cooking has always centered around fresh, local ingredients. Locally this gives us everything from Bay Area sourdough and cioppino to Central Coast Pinot Noir. It gives us fruit salad and Cobb salad and Caesar salad. And universally, it gives us mom's weeknight dinner side specialty: chopped green salad.
Here is Urban Home Blog's official recipe for chopped green salad. It is fresh and bright with strident iceberg lettuce, crunchy with assertive radishes and soothing cucumbers, crowned with sun sweetened cherry tomatoes. While this is the combination of vegetables we prefer in our urban home, a true chopped salad should reflect your household preferences. These can come from cultural tradition or the bounty of the garden or, the best reason of all, because "we've always done it this way." I have seen chopped salads anointed with everything from shavings of carrot to threads of red cabbage, from fresh herbs to dried mushrooms, from the dreaded beet to the welcome red pepper. In our home, the rule of thumb is that chopped green salad must be made from the freshest vegetables available. Ideally these come from the home garden or the farmer's market, but there is no reason you shouldn't be able to make a great chopped salad from the produce aisle of the supermarket. A great chopped salad is best when served with fresh dressing. Favorites include basic vinaigrette, blue cheese, and ranch, but the winner is Italian, so I have included the recipe for an Italian dressing so flavorful it evokes the cruet of countless weeknight dinner tables.

Chopped Green Salad
As noted above, use any combination of fresh vegetables that reflects your family's tastes and traditions.
For the salad
1 head iceberg lettuce
1 green bell pepper
1 red bell pepper
1 cucumber
1 bunch radishes
1 bunch scallions
1 dry pint cherry tomatoes
For the dressing
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/3 - 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium clove garlic
1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Make the salad
  1. Position an in-sink colander into place.
  2. Place a drop of vegetable cleaner in the palm of your hand and rub each pepper with the cleaner. Rinse the peppers under cool water until clean. Cut each pepper in half from cap to bottom. Cut away and discard the stem; cut away any pithy white from inside each half. Rinse each half under cool water to remove the seeds; if saving seeds for planting, do this step over a fine mesh sieve to catch the seeds. Cut off the rounded top and bottom of each half and set aside for composting. Set aside one green pepper half for another usage.
  3. Turn a burner on low. Spear one red pepper half with a heat- and fire-proof fork or skewer. Carefully place the speared pepper over the burner and turn the pepper over the burner to roast it, until the skin is wrinkled and slightly blackened. Turn off the burner.
  4. Transfer the roasted pepper to a small mixing bowl. Cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap.
  5. Inspect the head of iceberg lettuce, removing any papery or yellowed or brown leaves. Rinse the head of lettuce under cool water and place, core side down, on a layer of paper towels to dry.
  6. Decant the cherry tomatoes into a small colander. Pick through the tomatoes to remove and discard any that display discoloration or soft spots. Remove stems and caps if any. Rinse the tomatoes in cool water and set aside to drain on paper towels.
  7. Run the radishes under cool water, making sure to clean off dirt if any. Remove the stems from the radishes and set aside for composting. Cut the radishes crosswise into coins. Transfer the cut radishes to the in-sink colander.
  8. Flatten the two remaining pepper halves, one green and one red, skin side down against a clean cutting board reserved for vegetables. Cut each flattened half roughly into strips and cut across the strips to form rough squares. Transfer the diced peppers to the in-sink colander.
  9. Peel the cucumber and cut in half lengthwise. Use a teaspoon to scrape away the pith and seeds. Cut each half into crescents. Transfer the cut cucumber to the in-sink colander.
  10. Lay the scallions on the cutting board. Align the scallions side by side and across the bottom. Use a sharp knife to cut across the bottom of the row of scallions to remove and discard the stringy root ends of the scallions. Use the knife to cut to remove and discard the browned or papery outer skins of the scallions. Use your hands to remove and discard limp, yellowing, or papery green tops from the scallions. Use the knife to cut across the scallions, both white part and green part. Transfer the cut scallions to the in-sink colander.
  11. Use a tomato knife or sharp paring knife to cut the tomatoes in half. Transfer the chopped tomatoes to the in-sink colander.
  12. Give the in-sink colander a shake to mix the chopped vegetables and to drain excess water if any.
  13. Hold the head of lettuce core side down and shake it dry. Place the head of lettuce core side up on the cutting board. Use a bread knife to cut the head of lettuce in halves straight down through the core. Use the bread knife to cut each half straight down through the core into quarters. Use the bread knife to cut away and discard the core from each iceberg wedge, doing your best to keep the leaves from separating.
  14. Cut across the lettuce wedges to form ribbons. You will need between 2 - 3 wedges depending on how big a salad you are making. Transfer the ribboned lettuce to the in-sink colander as you work, lightly mixing the lettuce into the chopped vegetables in the colander.
  15. Once the salad is chopped, leave in the in-sink colander to drain. If it will be more than an hour or two before serving, place the salad in the salad bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until serving time.
Make the dressing
  1. Remove the plastic wrap from the bowl containing the roasted pepper (steps 3 and 4 above). The pepper should be very soft and fragrant. It is okay if it has expressed liquid.
  2. Use a fork to mash the pepper. It is okay if some pieces of papery skin remain. 
  3. Peel the garlic and remove the root end. Half each clove; remove and discard any sprouting from the center. Use a garlic press to press the garlic into the bowl containing the mashed roasted red pepper.
  4. Sprinkle the mashed pepper-garlic mixture with the dried herbs, salt and crushed red pepper flakes.
  5. Mix 1 tablespoon cold water into the mash to form a paste. Using the fork to mix the paste, slowly measure the vinegars into the paste.
  6. Measure 1/3 extra-virgin olive oil into a glass measuring cup with a spout. Use the fork to continue whisking the mixture in the bowl as you drizzle the extra-virgin olive oil into the bowl. You should have a thick, fragrant emulsion; if necessary, thin the dressing with another tablespoon or two of extra-virgin olive oil.
  7. Give the dressing a final stir and serve with the salad.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Caring for Outdoor Living Spaces

When we moved cross-country, I touched on both the practical and the poetic aspects of setting up a new household in a couple of From the Vault posts. Moving west meant re-evaluating my homekeeping, as the care and maintenance of a home is so different between Los Angeles and New York City. The primary noticeable difference is space. It is a cliché but it is true: in New York City, space is at a premium, and however much of it you get is, among other conditions, both part of the trade-off for living in the city and the result of how hard you are willing to work. After the requisite several years of trying to cozy up to supers and of putting our names on management company lists, with the help of a friend we prevailed with a sizable rent-stabilized apartment in the then hidden-gem neighborhood of Astoria. It was bigger than most apartments in New York City are and in it, we had a very good life. Much of that life, from conservation work in Astoria park to holiday walks through Astoria’s business district, from Pride Weekend in Greenwich Village to Thanksgiving in the city, has been chronicled in the early years of Urban Home Blog.

Our apartment in Los Angeles, which could be described as modest by some LA standards, wouldn't exist in New York City. As I've written before, to a New Yorker, space in Los Angeles is an embarrassment of riches. Because there is space to inhabit, our building along with most in Los Angeles is built for arms open wide. Out here, space is an embrace, from the ocean crashing against the never-ending horizon at the beach to processions of palm trees towering over boulevards.

Southern California homes are designed with outdoor living in mind. A drive along the classic film strip of Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills affords glimpses of the showy landscaping of mogul mansions, where tennis courts, citrus groves, outdoor art pieces, gazebos and pools are protected by stately iron gates, often attended by guardhouses.  In areas inhabited by those whose fortunes are still ascendant, outdoor living occurs poolside and parkside, in plazas and on porches, on patios and balconies both public and private.

Common to most apartment buildings of its provenance, our urban home is fronted by a patio with a rock wall and a bit of yard. The yard is overseen by a splendid California laurel who has been watching over this turf since this area was fields of poinsettia farms, and by an unkindness of ravens who make their urban home in those branches. The branches shade both the office window and the hummingbird feeders, whose users exhibit no concern whatsoever in shooing the ravens from the area at feeding time. From the low hedge at the sidewalk to the hellos of neighbors passing by, everything is open and welcoming.

We let the indoors in whenever we can, and that gift of southern California living  is also a responsibility, because outdoor spaces - including  yard and patio, carport and garage -- require care. Here is Urban Home Blog’s Guide to Caring for Outdoor Living Spaces. As with all lists and guides at Urban Home Blog, this is a list of suggestions rather than a comprehensive checklist of essentials. This list is based on my ongoing experience as a homekeeper and lifestyle author, and, as always, none of these is a compensated endorsement. 


It sounds obvious, but when caring for the outdoor spaces of your home, it is helpful to understand the atmospheric patterns in your area. Your local county extension can help you understand local atmospheric conditions and weather patterns, and so can The Farmer's Almanac both in print and online. But it isn't necessary to be a climatologist to identify the basic weather patterns where you live - whatever you've noticed is likely what's true. Just remember that conditions change seasonally, and will vary throughout your area.

In southern California, local weather includes a specialized phenomenon, the same one that nurtures those world-renowned wine grapes: the microclimate. As John and I learned during last spring's May Gray, a simple drive along one of the city's boulevards can start off gray and clammy and conclude in dazzling sunshine and dry heat, all while passing through a variety of local weather occurrences and all without leaving Los Angeles! Each of those zones is a microclimate, and each one is settled over its own parcel of topography. They slip and slide into one another depending upon larger atmospheric and geological conditions, but they can get as specific as the square foot. This is as true of the home as it is true streetside. It is as true of large homes with landscaped grounds as it is of compact homes whose outdoor space is a stoop, a patio or a balcony. And it means that the conditions that apply to one home may not necessarily apply to the neighbors.

Yes, we all have access to the weather report, but for your home, it is worthwhile to invest in a weather station and learn how to interpret it. For household use, obtain a weather station that accurately reports barometric pressure and temperature while being easy to understand. Where feasible, it is ideal to place one weather gauge outside and one inside, with both linked to a single station that supplies the readings for both zones. The included instructions will advise the optimal placements for weather gauges; typically it is a semi-protected area when outside, such as a porch or eave, and a contained traffic area when inside, such as a hallway or foyer. Acurite 634 is easy to understand and inexpensive. For homes with yards and gardens, a rain gauge is a nice addition; we like Productive Alternatives' Stratus.

That rain gauge is especially important to the green members of your household. Through years of gardening columns, I have always advised that plants are members of the family, and should be cared for accordingly. The plants in the yard are not less family members because they get to live outdoors - in fact, living out there means they are routinely exposed to conditions that indoor dwellers are spared. Whether you are your own landscaper or a gardener does it for you or for a management company, learn the basics about the plants in your outdoor space. At a minimum, know the species, basic care requirements, and health issues plants may be prone to, such as disease, infestation or damage. Two good resources are The Plant Encyclopedia and My Garden Guide. Also learn if there are any heirloom plants in the vicinity, especially trees, as these carry special responsibilities - often including advocacy.

Learning your USDA heartiness zone is vital for caring for outdoor life, especially plants, and agrees with learning about the weather patterns as discussed above. This information is easy to obtain and understand; two invaluable resources are the USDA and your local county extension. The latter can also connect you with local garden clubs. Unless your lease or gardening agreement precludes caring for or planting in your outdoor space, understanding the weather, the zone and the plants that thrive in them will enable you both to care for the plants that are already there and to decide what plantings you want to pursue.

Basic gardening kits are widely available but can be of varying quality and do not offer the option to thoughtfully choose individual tools. Just as with kitchen tools and the household tool box, it is best to obtain gardening tools individually. Choose the best tools your budget allows, balanced against practical value such as usage. Any home and garden center or hardware store offers trained staff to help; for the former, try Home Depot or Lowe's, for the latter in Los Angeles, try Koontz Hardware. For modest outdoor gardening needs, obtain a portable-sized trowel, spade, bulb planter, and pitchfork; a pair of lockable pruning shears; and a pair of gardening gloves with rubberized grips. For watering, obtain a large rust-proof wide-spray watering can. For larger yard care, supplement the basic gardening kit with a full-sized hoe, spade, shovel, and rake. For watering, add an easy-coil gardening hose with extra couplings, a watering wand, and sprinklers if they are warranted.

A kneeling pad and gardening clogs are useful, and if you're gardening in the sunshine, don't forget your sunblock. A soil tester allows you test the basic characteristics of the soil, which is always a good idea and is a necessity for caring for plants that require specific conditions, such as cacti and succulents or roses. For plants and soils themselves, consult with the local garden club, who can recommend the best local nurseries. Nurseries, hardware stores and seed exchanges all provide access to seeds, and you can save seeds from kitchen produce. Store seeds in clear glassine envelopes labeled with the species and common name, harvest and drying dates if saved, and expiration date if prepackaged.

While most gardeners default to storing their portable gardening tools in a bucket, for ease of transport store them in a plastic toolbox or a strong canvas tote bag. Remember to clean your gardening tools after every usage - typically a pass under the hose or spigot is fine. Use a wire brush to loosen stubborn clumps of earth. Dry gardening tools with a gym- or car-towel (see below) dedicated to the purpose rather than leaving them to air dry. Inspect gardening tools periodically, and oil them as warranted with a basic household oil such as 3-in-1 or WD-40. Finally, to truly bring the outdoors and indoors together, keep a composting bucket and corresponding composting catalyst such as charcoal in the kitchen for cooking scraps. Compost the scraps and return them to the yard or garden according to the instructions and schedule supplied with the composting bucket.

Those larger gardening tools may very well be stored in the carport or garage. Parking spots often include storage space, from simple bins and cabinets to lock and key storage units. Whatever your outdoor storage, use it for bulky items, those that are infrequently accessed, or those that pertain to outdoor living. Avoid using cardboard containers for outdoor storage, even if the storage is enclosed - cardboard deteriorates in response to exposure. Use specially treated wooden crates or plastic bins with snap-lock lids. Storage spaces are often prone to extremes of heat, cold and barometric pressure, so consider keeping a high-capacity moisture absorber such as Damp Rid in the storage space. In the event that mold and mildew appear, that will require special handling; start by learning about these fungi and some ways to manage them here.

Of course, the household member that the garage, carport or parking space primarily stores is the family car. It goes without saying that regularly scheduled service appointments for household vehicles are vital; schedule those visits at the beginning of the year while you are scheduling the year's other appointments such as doctor, dentist and veterinarian. While you're at it, renew your yearly membership in a respected automobile club such as AAA. Yearly, have the club send you a map book of your area, and keep it with the vital deeds in the glove compartment. A map book of your area is invaluable beyond the paper maps it contains - it will contain local municipality information from emergency services to rest and renewal resources such as gas stations, restaurants, and hotels. Most of us also have a GPS device such as Garmin Nuvi -- most automobile clubs can program or download driving directions right into your device. The auto club can also advise on the right road and first aid kits for the amount and distance of driving you do. Wherever you live, be sure that the emergency kit provisions for emergencies specific to your area - in southern California, that includes earthquakes and mudslides.

While professional maintenance is vital for the safety and durability of the car, you can manage some car care yourself. Whether you do it yourself with suds and buckets or let a pro do it at a roadside car wash, washing the car is a given on a regular basis as well as before and after long road trips. Car care businesses such as car washes, gas stations and dealerships can provide the best supplies for washing the car, based on such considerations as the car's paint, detailing and finish. Don't forget to care for the inside of the car. Maintain a supply of interior detailing items such as interior cleanser, leather conditioner, window cleanser, and microfiber detailing cloths, and use them routinely - ideally, weekly -- to detail the car's interior. Keep a supply of small rubbish bags to contain the daily refuse of driving. Properly dispose of the bag and its contents at the end of each journey.

Finally, as you and your family enjoy the benefits of outdoor living, remember that other species make their home there as well. In our urban home, we refer to these as “patio family.” Three favorites are bats, bees and hummingbirds. Some of the ways we provide for these extended members of our household include composting as noted above to provide healthy vegetation for bees and other insects, not disturbing them or their living spaces, hanging bat houses, and maintaining hummingbird feeders. Obviously each family makes its own choices regarding caring for outdoor life, based upon considerations specific to each family such as health concerns, beliefs, etc. Our belief is that we are part of larger systems, and we take care to be respectful of that. Ecology is a cornerstone for how we keep our home, both outdoors and inside. From family pets to the plant life discussed above, the pleasures and privileges of outdoor living are attended by responsibility to the lives that co-inhabit the space.
Urban Home Blog’s Guide to Bees and Beekeeping

Monday, January 20, 2014

Rice Pudding

The sounds of the kitchen are the sounds of comfort. On a winter weekend, the refrigerator door opens and closes as if from afar, if we are hearing it from the floating comfort of our warm bed. Anticipation awakens us to the sound of eggs cracking, of dishes clattering, of bacon sizzling in the pan. And soon the aromas greet us: of melting butter, of toasting bread, of perking coffee. Breakfast on a winter morning beckons us with the warmth of the oven, the sturdiness of the coffee cup, the promise of the sunlight filtering through the curtains and glinting off the snowscape just outside.
Snow was a rarity on my grandmother's homestead, but warm memories of her kitchen aren't. In that kitchen she cooked and canned, every day and every season and sometimes all day, in a rhythm that understood and inhabited the grand poetry of the seasons but treated each day as the gift that it was, that it is. Springtime meant spring cleaning and sponge cake; summer meant cookouts and canning. Autumn meant mincemeat and roasted turkey and the holidays meant cookies and ham. And winter, whatever the weather, meant pancakes and home-baked bread and catching up on chores on days, rare as they were, that were too cold to venture far outside. Saturday was the busiest day of the week, as grandma's turn at the weekly church rummage sale started mid-morning with sorting tables of soft goods from pressed table linens for the home to corduroy jeans for the youngsters and didn't end until she had ladled out the last of the lunch-time barbeque from the communal pots in the kitchen.
On Saturday mornings, she didn't make a big breakfast - true to her schedule and to the times, that was saved for Sunday morning. Often we ate her apple granola. But if there was an extra bit of time or a grandkid that happened to be clamoring for it, she made rice pudding. Yes, you read that right: rice pudding for breakfast. As noted in numerous columns, including last November's Thanksgiving of acknowledgement for powerful mother figures, my grandmother was an extraordinary woman, and here was the proof, in a double-boiler.
That double boiler is the key to true grandma's kitchen pudding. If you've ever had the privilege of eating pudd'n from grandma's kitchen, it has ruined you for the gluey concoctions of the prepared foods aisle and the lunch line -- an accomplishment that, rightfully, grandma is proud of. With a double boiler, a body got a small amount of water to a good boil in the bottom chamber and then fitted the top chamber just above the boil line, so that the fresh, simple ingredients in the top chamber of the boiler cooked very hot but gently while being stirred attentively but not as if any of this labor was a big deal. The result was a pudding that was substantial and rich, not the foamy silk of the dessert cart or the heavy-handed custard of a rotation through the oven. My grandmother's rice pudding was soft and ploppy in bowls, served with butter and sugar on the table in case somehow the pudding wasn't rich or sugary enough.
My grandmother made butterscotch, banana and Indian pudding, but the specialty of the house was rice pudding. Unlike many of my grandmother's recipes that I replicate, this one is not exactly duplicative - because they are something of a rarity in the contemporary kitchen, this pudding is not made in a double-boiler. Take note, though: it could be. The technique that cannot be improved upon is cooking pudding stovetop. The rice takes a nice slow bath in a simmer of whole milk infused with pungent spices and warming vanilla. The rice turns silken but retains its toothsome quality, while the fragrant milk-spice bath fills the entire kitchen with the smells of a perfect childhood snow day. Many serve their rice pudding heaped diner style into parfait glasses and garlanded with whipped cream or meringue, but in our urban home, we serve rice pudding topped with a sparkly dusting of cinnamon sugar. And yes, we serve it for breakfast.
Rice Pudding
American long grain rice should be a staple in your urban pantry; click here for Urban Home Blog's Guide to the Home Pantry.
1 cup American long grain rice
3 cups whole milk
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1-1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 eggs 
  1. Measure the sugar and spices into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Use a wire whisk to mix the ingredients together.
  2. Measure one tablespoon of the cinnamon sugar into a small bowl and set aside.
  3. Measure the rice into the cinnamon sugar. Use the wire whisk to mix well.
  4. Carefully measure the milk into the rice-cinnamon sugar mixture.
  5. Measure the vanilla extract into the milk-rice mixture.
  6. Turn a burner to low. Place the pan on the burner and use the wire whisk to stir the mixture.
  7. Place the lid on the pan. Cook the mixture over low heat, stirring occasionally, until thick and very fragrant, approximately 45 minutes.
  8. After 45 minutes, use a teaspoon to test a bit of the pudding. It should be pleasantly sweet with rice that is cooked through but still chewy. If warranted, cook up to five minutes longer, adding up to 2 tablespoons more milk if the pan is running dry.
  9. Once the mixture is thoroughly cooked, break the eggs into a bowl. Use the wire whisk to beat the eggs until they are they are creamy with no visible yellow, clear or white streaks.
  10. Use one hand to continue whisking the eggs while using the other hand to use the teaspoon to drizzle some of the hot pudding mixture into the eggs. Work quickly and consistently in order to warm the eggs but not cook them. Continue tempering the eggs until the eggs turn thick and fragrant.
  11. Hold the bowl containing the egg mixture over the pan containing the pudding. Use your free hand to gently whisk the pudding mixture as you tilt the bowl so that the egg mixture goes into the pan in a thin, steady stream. Whisking as you go, the pudding should become very silken and fragrant.
  12. Use a silicon spatula to get the last of the egg mixture into the pan.
  13. Cook the pudding, stirring constantly, one minute.
  14. Turn off the burner and cover the pan. Allow to sit, undisturbed, five minutes.
  15. Remove the lid from the pan and stir the pudding. Use a heavy spoon to transfer the pudding to four serving bowls. Sprinkle the puddings with the reserved cinnamon sugar.
  16. Serve warm.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Homekeeper's Library: Craft Books

Perhaps it is by grand design that, in this hemisphere, the new year turns in the depth of winter. Even we who don’t have snow and ice to drive us indoors find ourselves holing up a bit, as we review the year just completed and orient ourselves to the new year that has arrived. Winter drives us indoors for a reason. Snow day or not, this is the time to let go of that which no longer serves with gratitude for its service, and to set the stage for whatever will be arriving. This is the time to consider plans and put them into action, to use down time to get organized, and to learn new skills.

January is the month of school closures, weekends indoors, and, yes, cabin fever. We catch up on everything from reading and movies to knitting and mending. Harried parents are looking for projects to quiet stir-crazy kids, and many of us use this time to get to all of the projects that we let pile up over the course of the year. There are memory projects to make of every event from last year's birthday parties to Halloween costumes, from vacation flip books to anniversary dinner shadow boxes. Household projects await, from cleaning and storing the holiday linens to organizing the garage. It is time to set up the home office for the coming year, and during the first long weekend of the year, maybe treat ourselves to a trip to the big box store to upgrade our electronics.

Many believe that as our ancestors drew inside for warmth and companionship, the practice of craft emerged. The cold dark winter months were the perfect time to tend to practical matters that fell to the way- or hearthside during the outdoor months. There were tools to repair, seeds to coax, shoes to sole, all accompanied by stories told and, eventually, written down. Going inside for deep winter coincided with reorientation after the winter holidays, as exemplified by the holy season of Yule that led to the holy season of Candlemas. That season occurred during this time of digging in, and both the study and application of craft became sacred acts.

Whatever craft you practice, January is an ideal month either to begin the study or to renew it. In honor of craft, crafters, and study and practice, here is Urban Home Blog's Guide to Craft Books. As you read both this column and these titles, remember that study without application is a bit pointless, and application absent study is foolhardy. Most craft stores have huge sales during January, at which you can obtain many of these titles and most of the tools and supplies for realizing projects. Let us use our time indoors to create something useful, or interesting, or beautiful, for both study and application are the law in January, and that is by grand design, for these set us up very well indeed for the upcoming year.

Craft Books and Resources
As with all guides at Urban Home Blog, this is not meant to be a comprehensive list but one of suggestions based on my own experience as a lifestyle writer and homekeeper. As always, none of these is a compensated endorsement.

Sewing. I have written before about my grandmother's copy of the Better Homes and Garden's Sewing Book, which in a very real way was the genesis of Urban Home Blog. Though some would call it retro, to my mind, this is the platinum standard for sewing books. Copies of this spiral-bound treasure can be obtained through used booksellers both brick and mortar and online. Retro sewing gets a more literal treatment in Sew Retro and Vintage Notions. In both of these titles, doing and reading spar nicely, with the marvelous year-long nostalgic ride of Vintage Notions inspiring the practical projects of Sew Retro. Interesting projects include a shawl (Retro, page 24) and a hanging organizer (Retro, page 136). For useful, practical sewing books, the Singer library remains the platinum standard: you will refer to Singer's New Sewing Essentials and The Complete Photo Guide to Sewing again and again. Finally, if you are looking for a new sewing skill to learn and some absorbing projects to turn out therefrom, try the Japanese craft of Sashiko. Sashiko Style makes this craft easy to understand and rewarding to execute.

Jewelry-Making. Jewelry-making is as practical a craft to learn as there is, for with the exception of fine pieces and clockwork, you will be able to repair the jewelry you have sequestered for just that purpose. To learn the basics, almost all craft stores have in-store classes and pamphlets; in our urban home, we rely on Michael's. For the homekeeper's library, The Complete Jewelry-Making Course is a solid basic guide. This thoughtfully written and well-illustrated course teaches all of the basics along with offering inspiring and practical projects. Once you start making and repairing jewelry, your own aesthetic will guide you to resources and projects, from romantic Victorian fancies to architectural post-modern statement pieces. One such is steampunk jewelry, as exemplified by Steampunk Emporium and Steampunk Style Jewelry. Some of my favorite projects from these specialized guides include Absinthe charms, cuff links and bracelet (Emporium, pp. 52 - 63), White Star Line necklace (Jewelry, p. 72), Captured Time ring (Jewelry, p. 34) and Admiral's Cuff (Jewelry, p. 131).

Paper Craft. Scrapbooking and papercraft are simple to learn and to do. They require a modest commitment of time and supply costs, but the return on investment could not be more rewarding. I have scrapbooks that go back thirty years, and turning those pages is the very definition of history coming alive. While all one really needs is glue, mementos and paper, books and resources about scrapbooking not only enliven your creativity but plug you into the community of fellow papercrafters, as most contemporary publications include access to online communities where await downloadable resources including templates, discounts at the craft store, and places to share your own designs, often by upload or pin. These include the downloadable paper crafts at Urban Home Blog such as ice cream bar party invitations and a bookmark.

That bookmark will come in handy when you dip into your scrapbooking and papercraft titles. A great fundamental title is The Encyclopedia of Scrapbooking Tools and Techniques. This well-written and -illustrated guide to the techniques and tools of this craft covers everything. With scrapbooking, one learns the techniques as one engages the craft, and from that emerges one's own creative style. I like the aesthetic and technique of Clean and Simple Scrapbooking and Clean and Simple Scrapbooking the Sequel, which offer forthright templates and techniques for a papercraft approach that avoids fuss. As you begin to capture memories from the four seasons and the events and holidays that fall within them, a good seasonal scrapbooking resource will be essential; try Better Homes and Gardens 365 Days of Scrapbooking Ideas. Papercrafters beyond the scrapbook will like Vintage Collage Journals, which contains beautiful examples of putting all kinds of ephemera to work with your memories and Delight in the Details, which has ideas for all kinds of paper mementoes. Finally, Wallpaper Projects is a wonderful little idea book for putting those patterns elsewhere in the home than the walls.

The study and application of craft are ongoing, and there are too many crafts to write about here. From making soap to putting together architectural models, from sewing aprons to tooling leather, whatever your craft, this is the perfect month either to learn and engage it or to re-learn and re-commit to it. If you are not sure which crafts interest you, Martha Stewart's Encyclopedia of Crafts covers almost all of the bases, from basic introductions to dozens of crafts to several inspiring projects for each. And if the memories of our ancestors practicing craft hearthside resonates with you, an indispensable tome for your Homekeeper's Library is Spell Crafts.