the bathroom fiasco

Friday, February 19, 2016

The bathroom was our first big project. Neither of us had ever worked with a contractor before and we were both somewhat naive. We tried to line up a contractor to begin work as soon as we closed on the house in early July, but it was difficult to meet contractors for quotes when we didn't own the place yet and had to arrange access far in advance. We had about two weeks with two apartments and hoped make substantial progress before we moved in. Very little progress was made. City inspectors were generally phantomlike beings whose existence I doubted. For about a month we showered at the gym and went to the bathroom at a local cafe. At night we had no choice but to pee into old bottles and dump the contents down the kitchen sink. It was a disaster. For the final week we had an outhouse which was thrilling & freeing in a way I never thought a portable toilet could be, though I often found that it had been used by strangers in the night.

The contractor was terrible at communicating and would suddenly say things like "Oh, by the way, we need the shower valve tomorrow." Usually it was an item we had ordered online and was scheduled to arrive in a week. We didn't have a car at the time, so there were many public-transit adventures and sudden Zipcar runs. One time we took the bus to a plumbing supply store in Southie and carted a gigantic exhaust fan all the way back to Jamaica Plain with us through multiple bus transfers. And then there was the porcelain pedestal sink that we ordered from Amazon. It arrived not once, not twice, but three times completely unprotected and destroyed. Finally they told us they had no more sinks to send us. We felt defeated and everything was awful. I strongly suspected that the staff at the local cafe thought we were homeless.

The plumbing  was worse than we expected, so we had to install new sewer lines, additional venting, and other expensive, unsexy things. We found a joist in the ceiling that was completely unsupported, so we had to add studs that ate into our floor space. To this day I am unhappy with the variations in the color of the grout, but I'm sure no one notices but me. The day the plumbers came to install the toilet remains one of the happiest days of my life. Not only did we have a place to go to the bathroom, but strangers were no longer using power tools in our house all day long. The ordeal was over and the house was finally ours.

can you finish making a home?

Friday, February 12, 2016

What does it mean to be finished with a home? Is it even possible? When we moved into our condo two-and-a-half years ago, it seemed we would never be done. As we lay on an inflatable mattress, we looked at each other and thought, "What have we done?"

The projects seemed insurmountable. Plaster was falling off the living room ceiling in chunks. The bath tub was blocking a heating vent. The bathroom floor sloped precipitously. You couldn't quite fully open the refrigerator door because it was wedged into a too-small pantry. The original wooden gutter on our porch was rotted through and paint was chipping everywhere. The trim in the dining room was covered in varnish that looked like it was frozen mid-boil.

I distinctly remember walking down the hallway and looking into each room, every one of them filled with obstacles that seemed impossible to overcome. We planned to write about all of these projects and to document them as we went along, but it all proved too exhausting. Finishing a project was enough. We had no time to lose before we moved on to the next room, the next fiasco.

And then one day as I walked down the hallway, I realized every single room was beautiful. Every surface had been restored and brought to life. It all happened so much more quickly than we even thought possible. Suddenly I have the wherewithal to tell the story of our house and so I would like to introduce a series of posts that tell the stories I meant to tell over the past few years. Next up: the bathroom.

kale pizza

Thursday, February 6, 2014

It’s a cliché by now to talk about the beautiful simplicity of Italian cooking, but on a weeknight it becomes a very attractive culinary philosophy. I love cooking complicated dishes on the weekends, but most evenings I just want to make something delicious with a few ingredients. That’s why this kale pizza has become one of my favorite go-to recipes. That is, if you can even call it a recipe. It’s so simple, it’s really more of a technique.

The secret is to begin your pizza on the stove to get the bottom nice and spotted, and to finish it under the broiler which crisps the kale and creates an intriguing textural contrast with the soft cheese and fluffy crust. Loading it up with good olive oil makes it even more delicious. It’s very Neapolitan in style without the trouble of a wood-burning oven. If you can’t find cavolo nero (Tuscan kale), regular curly kale can work well, too, but it will be a bit more voluminous.

Makes two 10” pizzas

1 lb pizza dough, room temperature (store bought or homemade)
8 oz fresh mozzarella
1 medium bunch of cavolo nero (Tuscan/dinosaur/lacinato kale)
Good olive oil
3 cloves garlic
Pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano

On a floured surface, cut the pizza dough into two equal-sized portions and stretch them slightly into a disk. Let the dough rest as you prepare the toppings.

Remove the ribs from the kale leaves and tear them into roughly 2-inch squares. Toss the kale with 2 tablespoons olive oil in a bowl, rubbing and massaging the leaves so they’re evenly glossy. Thinly slice the garlic (or mince it if you don’t like large pieces).

Stretch one ball of pizza dough until it’s about 10 or 11 inches in diameter, being careful not to crush the edges so you’ll have a nice, bubbly crust.

Heat a very large (12”) skillet or frying pan over a medium-high flame and begin heating your broiler, adjusting the rack so your pan will just barely fit under it. You don’t want to use nonstick here—as long as you don’t burn the pizza, it won’t adhere. After about two minutes, your pan should be hot. Gently place the stretched dough in the pan, and have all your toppings at hand so you can top it very quickly. First, brush the dough with 1.5 tablespoons of olive oil, then sprinkle with half the sliced garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Using your fingers, tear half the mozzarella into chunks and scatter them across the pizza, then spread half the kale over the cheese. You’ll want to use more kale than you would think necessary as it will shrink significantly.

Once you’re done topping the pizza, gently use a spatula to check the bottom. Once it has browned (or slightly blackened) in places, gently loosen the entire pizza with a spatula to be sure it hasn’t stuck. Move the whole pan under the broiler. You’ll want to shift it around during cooking to make sure the top browns evenly. It’s done when the kale and crust have nicely browned on the edges. Carefully remove the pan from the oven with oven mitts and use a spatula to move the pizza to a cutting board. Sprinkle it with the Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve it while you begin working on the next pizza, going through the same steps and using the rest of the toppings.

the best lentils

Sunday, November 4, 2012

I've finally done it. I've found the lentil recipe of my dreams. I always have so much hope for lentils, but in the end they're usually somewhat bland. I've always wanted to replicate the best lentils at Indian restaurants, but no matter how many spices I add, I've never quite been able to get it right. The answer, of course, can be found in Ottolenghi's Plenty, and the solution is a whole bunch of cilantro. If you're not a cilantro fan, this recipe will turn you off, but if you can't get enough of it, then by all means make these lentils as soon as you can.

What I love about Plenty is that every dish is so full of flavor: herbs, spices, fats. Too much vegetarian food tries so hard to be "healthy" that flavor moves into the background. You just can't build flavor without fat. We're hard-wired to enjoy food with a good lipid backbone, so feel free to add it with abandon on occasion. (Although, to be fair, even I cut down on the amount of butter stirred into this dish at the end. No need to guild the lily.)

As usual with Ottolenghi, it can be a struggle to find all of the ingredients for this recipe, but a good Indian grocer should have most of these things. The curry leaves in particular can be difficult to find, but they really add a nice element and I wouldn't recommend forgoing them. We made these after being cooped up in the house all day for Hurricane Sandy. I feared that the power would go out halfway through cooking and we would be left with a pot of inedible hard lentils, but thankfully we made it through the storm unscathed.

Ottolenghi's spiced red lentils with cucumber yogurt
(with a few small changes)

1 cup split red lentils
1.5 cups water
1 bunch cilantro (rinsed if gritty) (about 3.5 cups)
1 small onion, peeled
2.5 inches peeled ginger
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 thai green chile, seeds removed
1.5 tsp brown mustard seeds
4 tbsp peanut oil
1.5 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp sweet paprika
10 curry leaves
1.75 cups canned chopped tomatoes (I used crushed tomatoes, but you can use whole tomatoes and crush them during cooking with a spoon)
2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp fenugreek (optional)
.75 cup Greek yogurt
.75 cup finely diced and peeled cucumber
1.5 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1.5 tbsp lime juice

Rinse the lentils in a colander under running water, then soak in 1.5 cups of water for 30 minutes.

Cut the cilantro bunch somewhere in the middle to separate the leafy parts from the stemmy parts. Chop the leaves roughly and set aside. Throw the stalks into a food processor with the roughly chopped onion, ginger, garlic, and chile. Pulse a few times to finely chop everything without turning into a paste. I suppose this could also be done by hand.

Put the mustard seeds into a heavy pot and set on medium heat. When they begin to pop, add the peanut oil and then the chopped onion mixture. Reduce heat to low and stir for about 10 minutes. Grind the coriander and cumin in a spice grinder (or use the preground stuff if you're not a fanatic like me) and add it to the pot along with the turmeric, paprika, and curry leaves. Continue cooking and stirring for a few minutes.

Add the lentils and their soaking liquid, with the tomatoes, sugar, and fenugreek. Add a pinch of salt. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the lentils are fully cooked.

Mix the yogurt, cucumber, olive oil, and a bit of salt, and allow to sit at room temperature.

Stir in the butter, lime juice, and chopped cilantro leaves (reserving a few for garnish). Season with salt to taste. I served it with brown basmati rice and the yogurt and a few cilantro leaves spooned over the top.

ana sortun's whipped feta

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ana Sortun owns an expensive but very good restaurant in Cambridge called Oleana, but she also owns the much more reasonable Sofra bakery. I took Richy there on his very first trip to Boston and we've been visiting occasionally ever since. Sortun's food is full of fresh, Turkish flavors and is perfect when your spirits need a bit of a lift.

The best thing to order at Sofra is the mezze platter, for which you choose a selection of five prepared vegetables, many of which are also on the menu at Oleana. Our favorites are the beet tzatziki, muhammara (walnut-red pepper spread), and the whipped feta, which is a blend of sweet and hot peppers with feta cheese. It's perfect when spread on their very good za'atar bread and is great as an appetizer. With bread and a salad, it could also be a full meal.

The recipe calls for goat or sheep's milk French feta, which I was able to find at Russo's in Watertown, along with Bulgarian and Greek fetas. I hardly knew that Bulgarian feta existed and felt as if I had entered a feta wonderland. There were so many types that I started at the selection for a few minutes, examining the various packages as harried shoppers tried to elbow me out of the way. If you're unable to find such an extensive feta selection, I'm sure the supermarket stuff would work just fine. French feta is a bit creamier and milder, but I hardly think it would break the dish to try something different. The recipe also recommends a blend of Urfa and Aleppo peppers, but it seemed foolhardy to add new items to my already overflowing spice collection. In a pinch, you can probably substitute regular red pepper flakes.

With the weather turning colder and a hurricane raging along the East coast, it feels wonderful to bring a bit of Mediterranean sun onto the table. The bright, rich flavors of this dish are just what I need on this rainy day. We enjoyed it with a beautiful watercress, pear, and fennel salad from Nigel Slater's "Kitchen Diaries." The pears right now are perfect and they won't last much longer.

Whipped feta
adapted from Ana Sortun

8 oz French feta (preferably sheep or goat milk)
1 red bell pepper
1.5 tsp dried Aleppo pepper
1/4 tsp Spanish smoked paprika
1/2 tsp lemon juice
2 tbs olive oil

Line a baking sheet with tin foil and roast the red pepper under the broiler, turning it so that it blackens all over. Let it cool slightly, then peel, seed, and chop it roughly.

Crumble the feta into the bowl of a food processor and add the pepper and the rest of the ingredients. Process for about 2 minutes until smooth. Garnish with Aleppo pepper.

Za'atar bread

1 lb frozen pizza dough, thawed and left at room temperature for an hour or so (I get this in the Whole Foods freezer section).
1 tbsp za'atar
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Place a pizza stone on a rack in the middle of your oven and preheat to 500 degrees (or hotter, if your oven allows) for 30 minutes. On a floured pizza peel, stretch your pizza dough so it's about 18 inches in diameter. Using your fingers, create dimples all over the dough for the oil to collect in. Drizzle the oil over and then sprinkle with za'atar and salt. Slide the dough onto your pizza stone and cook until golden brown on top, which should only take a few minutes. Let cool slightly, cut into thin strips, and serve.

Watercress, pear, and fennel salad
from Nigel Slater

1 bunch watercress, trimmed of tough ends, washed, and spun dry
1 large slightly crisp pear, cut into thin wedges
1 large bulb fennel, thinly sliced (preferable with a mandolin)

For the dressing
1 lime, juiced
3 tbs lightly flavored olive oil
salt, to taste

Whisk the dressing together, remembering that it should be slightly salty and toss with the rest of the ingredients on a platter.
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