Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Art of the Artichoke

Oh, Chickens, it is my favorite time of year.  Artichokes are back.

I love artichokes more than is rational.  I may, hypothetically, own 12 of these:

Yes, I am aware this makes me an insane person.  Right up until I have a dinner party for 12 and serve everyone artichokes on artichoke plates and then I am a GENIUS.

Artichokes are magical to me.  A large artichoke packs 9g of fiber, 5g of protein, no fat or cholesterol.  It is high in Vitamin C and Magnesium, with some bonus Iron, Calcium, and B-12 hanging out in there.  And best part?  ONLY 75 calories for the whole thing!

Okay, thats not the best best part.  The bestest best part is that they are freaking delicious.  I literally cannot get enough of them, and from mid-April thru June, Charming Suitor and I gorge guiltlessly on these beauties.

Not kidding.

Yes, this is for two people.

I buy them 8 at a time.  The first day I get them, I prep and steam them, and CS and I have two each for dinner.  He will take one to work the next day for lunch, and I'll eat one at home for lunch.  The other two are then available for a day or two for either lunches or snacking or to become an ingredient in something else.  8 artichokes last us about three to four days.  And we do this routine once a week until the season is over.  And then we miss them until the following Spring.  These are the weeks that prove your love for someone, because do not mistake me, this is a lot of fiber and vegetation to put through your system, and they will, without fail, make you spectacularly gassy.  You might potentially blow the love of your life out of the bed.  But they will forgive you because artichokes are so yummy that it will not matter that you both become walking dirty bombs for eight weeks a year.

For those of you who think artichokes are complicated, they are not.  I've had a lot of practice, so I can break one down in about 45 seconds to a minute, but once you know the technique, you can knock it out fast yourself.  Don't be scared of the artichoke!  It will reward you.

When buying them, look for ones that feel heavy for their size, have leaves that are nice and tight, and they should squeak a little when you squeeze them.

First thing, have a large cutting board, an 8 inch serrated knife (essential) and a lemon, cut in half.  Do not do this with a straight edge knife, you need the serration for grippiness.  Trust me, you'd like to keep all of your fingers.  This is a great time to use that sad little mangy lemon in the bottom of the fruit bowl.  The artichokes won't care.  Hold the artichoke on its side, and slice off the stem flush with the bottom of the artichoke to make it fairly flat.  Let chefs peel and fuss over the stems, as CS says, the juice isn't worth the squeeze on that, go for fast and easy instead.  Once the stem is removed, use the knife on a slight angle to slice off the outer leaves and reveal the heart.  Go all the way around the bottom of the artichoke, it will take about 6 slices to have the bottom totally peeled.  Rub the cut side of half a lemon on the bottom.  Then turn it back on its side and slice straight down about 2/3 up the side, removing all the spiny top parts of the leaves in one go.  Rub the lemon on the cut ends of the leaves, and you will have a prepped artichoke!

I use a large steamer, but you can use a steamer basket in a stockpot, or a steamer insert.  Place your artichokes bottoms up in your steamer, with about 2 inches of water in the pot.

You don't want to boil them or let them touch the water, or the leaves will soak it up and get waterlogged.  Cover and steam over high heat for about 35-40 minutes.  I test by poking a fork into the bottom of one, it should go in and out smoothly.  I don't use a knife to test things like artichokes or potatoes because my knives are super sharp and may slip right into something that is actually not quite done yet.  Forks are a much better indicator.

Aren't they just gorgeous?  I take them off the heat and place them over a towel for about 15 minutes.  Then I put the four we are having tonight on a plate with a piece of plastic wrap, they'll be terrific at room temp, and put the other four in the containers in the fridge for later indulging.

I know many people swear by drawn butter for dipping.  And you know your Polymath is a big fan of butter.  Mo' butter, mo' better.  But not for artichokes.  Artichokes are buttery on their own, much like avocados.  They want a little acid and a little salt to make them shine.  I make vats of a pungent thick vinaigrette that we use for dipping.

 I use lemon juice, dijon mustard, shallot, capers, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, maybe a pinch of sugar or a squirt of agave just to polish off the rough edges.

I don't measure, I just go by eye.  This is the juice of 1 1/2 lemons, 2 heaping spoons of capers, a large glug or two of dijon mustard, and one chopped up shallot.  Then I pour in about twice as much oil as I have stuff in the bottom, and use my immersion blender to whizz it all up.  Taste for seasoning, adjust as necessary.  I like this much more intense than I would make for salad dressing, you should do what you like.  This is making a huge vat of it, because as I may have mentioned, we eat eleventy million artichokes a week, and this stuff lasts a couple of weeks in the fridge.  You should feel free to make a rational amount if you choose.  You don't need a lot, I only use about 1 tablespoon for a whole artichoke for dipping, you just want to gild the lily a bit.

For me, the first artichokes of the season are the only thing that really means Spring, and after this winter?  Seeing them today almost made me tear up a bit.

What are the super seasonal things you wait all year for, and how do you prepare them?

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Monday, April 7, 2014

Basement progress

Hello Chickens!  Is it Spring YET? Here we are still shifting back and forth from one warmish sunny day to three or four wintry gray days, but I'm trying to be hopeful that eventually Spring will arrive full force.

In the meantime, I know you are all wondering how things are progressing here at the House.

So this happened:

They roughed out plumbing in the future bathroom...this is the nook where the shower will go!

The place looked like a disaster area, but there is method to all madness.

 Then they trenched around the whole perimeter, and laid in a pipe for the drainage system.  This will ensure that you never (knock wood) have to read a blog post about a flood in our basment!

 They attached the plumbing system to an ejector pump, which will keep everything in the basement bathroom and laundry room flowing smoothly.

Then they began to clear the decks a bit.

 And after putting a ton of river rock over the drain pipe system, they riveted this special drainage plastic to the wall covering the now-rock filled trench.

They did a temporary frame so that we could check the size of the eventual shower.  This resulted in Charming Suitor and I pantomiming basic shower activity in between the "wall"  and the plywood, to ensure that it is deep enough to be comfortable.

Then they did a little bit of wall framing!

Since we are doing historically sensitive renovations here, anything that gets removed gets saved...these salvaged bricks are over 100 years old and still in solid shape, so we will keep them for future use.

Our contractors have set up a little conference room/lunch room in the future wine cellar!  That piece of stone is a huge limestone lintel we salvaged when we had to redo a doorway for better structural soundness, and it will eventually become the bench inside the new basement shower!

With the hallway wall framing going in, we can sort of begin to see how rooms are going to shake out down there.  And they are clearing out and prepping for the next few steps before we pour the concrete for the floor.

This means building a temporary ceiling cage for building materials that cannot be stored on the floor until the concrete goes down.

The electrician was here to run the wiring that gets buried in the floor over the weekend, and then this week they will be bringing in a load of pea gravel to level the floor, and then a few more steps and we can get the concrete trucks over here!  We all agree that once the concrete floors go in, we will really begin to see the future life of the space.

In other news, the gorgeous Wetstyle sink we ordered for the basement vanity arrived!

Its still in the box for protective purposes, but we peeked and are SO EXCITED with the choice.  Even though we are still months away from it getting installed, it is still thrilling for it to be in the house.

And we've now made THIS twice and cannot recommend it enough.  It is even great if you make it a day or two ahead and then reheat it.  Delicious.

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Happy Houseiversary To Us!


Today is the one year anniversary of Charming Suitor and I buying our forever home.  Now you would think this wouldn't be a big deal, since I'd been living in it for 20 years when the papers were finally signed, but it was.  Everything I always loved about this place got better the moment CS moved in, and then EVEN BETTER when we could officially call it ours.  I think the same happens for people who live together for a long time and then finally get married.  It just brings everything into delicious focus.  So I want to take this moment to say Happy Houseiversary to my extraordinary Charming dream house is anywhere you are, but I'm so glad it is here :)

In honor of our Houseiversary, we have a new bit of updating on the improvement projects, now that we are six months in...

As we speak the drain tile and sump pump are being installed in the basement.  Very boring, but the peace of mind that our currently historically dry basement will remain so, makes it a very happy thing indeed.

In even better news, we found a sink for our basement vanity project!

Remember our awesome Craigslist find?

We knew immediately that it would make the perfect vanity for the basement bathroom.  The patina on the wood and brass details are going to bring some much needed warmth and originality to a space that traditionally can feel a little cold and generic.  The next choice we had to make was about the sink.  We knew that we wanted a single long trough sink, both for the look (I hate side by side sinks) but also for the functionality (I hate getting elbowed in the head when CS and I try to brush our teeth together over the one sink in our current bathroom).  So a single long sink with two sets of faucets would not only be a great look, but also would be very useful.

And Look. What. We. Found.

Is that not the sexiest sink you ever did see????

The sink is almost 4 feet long, just over a foot wide, and about 4 inches deep.  It is from a company called Wetstyle which is a Canadian company that our architects suggested we check out because they have always found the products to be that magical combination of superior quality and reasonable prices.  And boy am I glad they did.  It was love at first sight.  Not only did they have the PERFECT size and shape of sink that absolutely matched the picture we had in our heads of what we wanted, but they were also lovely to work with.  When I emailed a couple of questions, I had answers practically instantaneously.  Their products are made of a natural stone composite material that is very eco-friendly, but also enormously durable.  You can get them in a high gloss (which we are doing for this one) or a very cool matte finish that I find inspiring and am pretty sure we will be exploring more soon.  I got lost on their website for the better part of an hour, dreaming of future bathrooms.  After all, there are five more on the horizon, lord help us!

After we found the sink online, we headed over to a local design studio to see them in person, and were very impressed with how they looked and felt.  We compared them in person to sinks from other high end companies, and they were the clear winner...beating out a lot of sinks that were double the price! We ended up ordering the high gloss for this project because this sink will be getting a lot of use in tooth brushing and shaving, and we wanted easy quick cleanup.  But I have to say, when I felt the matte finishes?  I definitely want to do at least one of these somewhere in the house.  I can't really describe how nice the surfaces felt, but I never thought I'd want to pet a sink....until now.  

I don't know if this pic captures the matte finish that well, but, trust me, it is a gorgeous look and when you touch it, it feel sort of cool and soft and smooth like a river rock.  

And I know we are literally like 2 years away from even thinking about the Master Bath, but, um, I can't stop dreaming about this....

Shut the front door!  I'm a bathtub girl anyway, but this?  Can't you just imagine?  It sends my heart into palpitations.  

Sorry.  Where was I?

Oh, basement bathroom.  It feels like now that the vanity is coming together the rest of the bathroom is going to fall into place, design-wise.  And it was definitely smart to start here.  The brass handles on the vanity mean that we are actually going to go with antiqued brass finishes for all of the faucets etc., so that the room feels cohesive, in a pretty traditional or old-world style to underscore the age of the buffet.  I think having this cool modern Wetstyle trough sink paired with the antique vanity and antique-repro brass faucets is going to be pretty spectacular.  We went with the undermount version of this sink because the buffet is already counter height, so adding another four inches of vessel sink would have been very bad for short little me.  We will replace the wood top with some sort of stone countertop TBD, and the sink will be attached underneath.  SO EXCITING!

The other big find for the house is the kitchen table!

I know, you are asking yourself, isn't our dear Polymath some 18 months or so away from having a kitchen into which she can put a table?  And the answer is, um, yup.  But when the table finds you, you have to go with it.

It is a 1920s oak trestle table that was in the conference room of a bank!  A full four feet by eight feet, the top is just a solid slab of oak.  Gorgeous oak...

Look at that grain!  Couldn't resist it.  We found this beauty in Milwaukee at a cute little antique place, and all I can say is that it was a total STEAL.  Like, think IKEA pricing.  We are headed back to Milwaukee in a couple of weeks to pick it up...and foist it on my parents weekend place until we can give it a home!  Thank goodness they don't care if we temporarily redecorate their dining room, because we can't store it here while we are under construction, and to be honest, both of our storage units are full to the brim!  So big props to Mom and Dad for the assist :)

I'd say welcome to Spring, but we are expecting about 4-5 inches of snow today, so happy Wednesday!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Winners One and All


It is snowing here.  Again.  I swear this winter is trying to kill us.

So, the winner of the cookbook title contest is Yours in Good Taste.  I submitted all three to my editor. And the official name of the cookbook is....


Stacey Ballis’s Most Awesome Simple Recipes

Now you may be noticing that the only thing this has in common with ANY of the titles we all sent over is my name.  Welcome to publishing :)  I have all the creative control in the world when it comes to what lies between the covers of my books, and none at all when it comes to their titles and cover art. The nature of the business.

But I adore you all for helping and playing!  And I would like the contributors of the three top entries to please send your shipping addresses to me at staceyballisinfo (at) gmail (dot) com, so that I can send you all a little something.

The good news is that now we have a title, and I am working hard on getting it together for you, and it will be out in October, in time for holiday cooking.

But I thought, since the whole Throwback Thursday thing is in effect, I would share a retro recipe with you.  One of our dear friends didn't grow up in the States, and as a result, every once in a while there is a food he just never has tasted.  A couple of weeks ago he expressed a curiosity about Sloppy Joes.  So I said I would make a batch the next time the four of us got together for one of our movie nights.  Charming Suitor was not happy about this, since Sloppy Joes do not invoke happy memories for him, but he was willing to take a bullet for his buddy.

Here is my updated recipe for a more grown-up Joe.  Not cloyingly sweet, like so many, but a good balance of savory and sweet.  No green bell peppers which make your house smell like an armpit and make everything they touch taste like a foot.  CS called them definitively the "best Sloppy Joes" he had ever eaten...and then requested I never make them again.  

Any childhood food you've been craving an update on?

Stacey's Sloppy Joes
Serves 6-8

3 lbs ground meat (beef, turkey, chicken and pork all work fine)
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch chunks
1 sweet onion, peeled and cut into 2 inch chunks
2 stalks celery, cut into 2 inch chunks
6 serrano chiles, seeds and ribs removed, minced finely
2 cloves of garlic, minced fine
½ c tomato paste
¼ c water
3 T grapeseed or canola oil
1 c ketchup
½ c bbq sauce (I use homemade, but use whatever bottled sauce you like)
½ c chili sauce
1 t Worcestershire sauce
2 T dark brown sugar
salt and pepper to taste

In your food processor, pulse the carrots, celery and onion until you have a coarse paste, with about the same texture as the ground meat. 

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium high heat, and add the oil.  Sauté the vegetable mixture for about 6-8 minutes, letting the water evaporate and some good browning should occur.  Add in the tomato paste, and water, mix well and continue to cook, letting it brown a bit more, about another 2-3 minutes.  Stir in the minced garlic and Serrano chilies, and cook about 2 more minutes, and then remove the mixture from the pot.  Add the meat to the pot, and break up with a potato masher or spatula and cook until well-browned.  Drain the meat, reduce the heat to medium low, and then return it to the pot with the vegetable mash. Stir in the ketchup, chili sauce, Worcestershire sauce, bbq sauce and brown sugar.  Cook for 10 minutes to let the flavors blend, and then taste for salt and pepper.

It is best made the day before, and then reheated in a low oven or a slow cooker the day you want to eat it.  Freezes beautifully.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cookbook Titles

Okay, Chickens, here are the top three choices for me to submit to my editor for cookbook titles:

1.  Cooking Between the Lines: Recipes from the novels of Stacey Ballis

2.  Fiction to Kitchen: A collection of scrumptious recipes for any occasion by Author and Food Enthusiast Stacey Ballis

3.  Yours in Good Taste: The Collected Recipes from the Novels of Stacey Ballis

Please comment below with your votes, and please only vote once for one title!  The top vote getter will get a special prize from me.  I will be submitting all three of these to my editor, and if one makes the grade, there will be an even bigger prize!

Vote by 11:59pm CST Thursday and I will announce the winner on Friday!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pantry Gloop

Hello Chickens!  Are you sick of winter?  Because I am just about up to here with this weather business.  At the moment I'm watching the rain pour down, which makes me happy, because perhaps some of this 68 freaking inches of snow we've had dumped on us will actually go away, but also makes me nervous, what with the whole flooding potential.  Not to mention that the temp is supposed to drop again, and I'd prefer to keep the whole ice rink situation solidly in Sochi, thank you very much.  At the moment?  Its like living in a half melted margarita.  With dirt in it.  And a staggering amount of unattended to dog poop.  C'mon people, pick up after your dogs!

So far, so good, nothing scary happening in the basement, but I'm keeping fingers crossed for all of my friends and loved ones who live where the water systems can get overloaded.  We've always been fortunate with our location, the basement here is a dry one.  But you can bet we are in the process of installing drain tile and a sump pump, because we believe in better safe than soggy.  We are still enjoying the heck out of the new central heating system, and loving the look of the place now that all the huge radiators are out of the house!  You'd be absolutely shocked how much room is taken up by radiators.  It feels like a whole new space.

In other news, we are officially beginning to design the basement bathroom!  This is enormously exciting, since it is the first time we are making decisions about how a room will actually look, as opposed to just the size and shape and function of a space.  Its complicated, since while EVENTUALLY it will be "just a basement guest bathroom" for the foreseeable future it will become our master bath, so we are walking a fine line of doing something that isn't too insane, but will still be an upgrade for us when we temporarily move downstairs so they can work their way up!

They say that with design, it is best to make one big initial decision and then let the rest follow from there.  It could be a tub or a shower configuration, it could be a tile choice or color scheme.

Here was our first decision:

This is an arts and crafts buffet, circa 1930ish, with original brass hardware.  And while it looks perfectly lovely in its temporary home in our dining room, we are very excited for it to have a future the vanity in the bathroom!  We will be removing the wooden top, installing an under-mounted 4 foot long trough sink with a stone countertop, and installing two wall-mounted faucets in antique brass to match the hardware.  Charming Suitor and I love the idea of both of us being able to brush our teeth concurrently without either of us getting beaned by a flying elbow or accidentally spit upon, but neither of us really love the look of two side by side sinks.  By doing one long shared sink with two independent faucets we will get the separate functionality we want, but with a more modern, cleaner look.

We will only lose the top three drawers when the sink goes in, and a couple inches of the depth in the two cabinet sections, but this piece should provide plenty of storage for the bathroom, and we think it will make for a really cool look.  If you are looking into bathroom remodel, especially in an older home, I strongly suggest you investigate your options of turning a piece of furniture into your vanity.  You'll get a much more custom look, often for a lot less money than you might spend on new cabinetry.  This piece we found locally on Craigslist for not much money (thank god it fit in CS's truck for schlepping it home!), and the conversion is pretty simple, our contractors will take care of it for us, but they say that anyone with basic carpentry skills could accomplish it as a DIY.

Now that we have committed to this design choice, we will focus on planning the rest of the bathroom to work with this piece and compliment it...stay tuned for more decisions as we make them!

Finally, I know you have all been on pins and needles about my pantry dinner project.  So the good news, at least for us, is that at least once a week I have indeed been concocting dinners out of what we have lying around.  Unfortunately for you, the recipes are so similar to each other that it isn't worth giving you recipes.  Since we are still working our way thru the endless supply of ground beef that comes when you purchase a quarter of a cow, the stewlike dishes all start with sautéed ground beef and onions, dumped in the slow cooker with some sort of grain or pasta, some sort of bean or lentil, a can of crushed tomatoes, a box of either beef or chicken stock, and whatever veggies happen to be lying around.  Each version is a teeny bit different, so that is preventing us from getting too bored, but it isn't like I'm magically coming up with exciting new dining innovations.  

I wanted to, I thought I would, but I find that a lot of the ingredients I have socked away are much more suited to making sauces and such, and would require the purchase of new ingredients to make them sing, so for the moment, I'm just focused on clearing the decks a bit and whittling down the stores while the weather still calls for hearty bowls of what CS has taken to calling "Casseroles Without Borders".  Hopefully when the weather improves and I've gotten the pantry and freezer down to more rational contents, I'll be able to focus more on new ideas.

In the meantime, don't forget to help me find a title for my upcoming digital cookbook...details HERE.

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Friday, February 14, 2014

Winners Announced, and a New Epic Contest!


In honor of Valentine's Day, I want to thank you for sharing your tales of young love gone sideways, Pamela and I really appreciate it.  I also want to take a moment to give a brief shout-out to my Charming Suitor for essentially making every day Valentine's Day.  (I know, its mushy, but he totally does.)

Congrats to the following winners of a signed copy of Notes to Boys!  Please email your shipping address to staceyballisinfo (at) gmail dot com:

Bev V

For the rest of you, I hope you will buy a copy of this terrific book, maybe for you and one for the person who begged you not to send that note to that crush.  You can find it at your favorite local bookseller, or HERE.

In the meantime, I need your help.  My first digital cookbook is going to be released this coming October.  (SQUEE!)  It will be the collected recipes from the novels, plus the "lost recipes" of dishes mentioned in the books but not included in the limited recipe sections in the back.  I need a couple of things from my favorite readers:

1.  Please comment with the names of the dishes you most want included that you haven't seen recipes for as yet.  For example, the Mea Culpa Muffins from Good Enough to Eat will be making their first appearance.  This is a good opportunity to go back to the books for a refresher, or to use it as an excuse to pick up one you might have missed! (hint hint)

2.  I need a name for the cookbook.  At the moment we are referring to it as Stacey Ballis' Big EBook of Yummy Deliciousness, which, you know, is god freaking awful.  So I am looking for some titles with a similarly fun vibe, but less terribleness.  I will pick the top few choices and put them up for a vote, and the top two vote getters will receive a fun package of cooking gadgets.  If my editor picks any one of your titles for the actual book, not only will you get a signed copy of Out To Lunch, but I will use your name (or the name of your choosing) for a character in my next book. (to be clear, not in Recipe for Disaster, which is finished, but the NEXT one which I haven't started writing yet because of the cookbook thing).

So, comment below with recipes I need to include, AND possible cookbook titles between now and 11:59 PM Monday Feb. 24, and I will open voting on Feb. 25.

Thanks again to the fabulous Pamela Ribon for coming to visit and being so generous with the signed books!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath