Thursday, November 29, 2012

Downtown Home and Garden

The Hubby and I were in Ann Arbor recently to visit The Boy, attend a football game (U of Michigan won!), and take a quick look at the house he'll live in next year. It's old and lovely:

Filled with architectural details:

 And I'm sure he and his friends will thoroughly trash it, in true frat boy tradition. *Sigh.*

I also had time to visit one of my favorite Ann Arbor shops: Downtown Home & Garden. A century ago, it was a feed and seed store, and you can still see traces of that in the stacks of hay bales, bags of chow, and an old-fashioned buggy parked indoors:

But now Downtown H&G sells a huge array of things for, well, home and garden. This time of year, the store is aglow with cute things for the holidays, like these adorable glass teapot tree ornaments:

And little critter ornaments made from...I'm not sure what. Straw? Paper?

The blown-glass ornament were so unusual. Piccolos! (Or are those flutes?):

Trailers and VW vans!:

Retro lights, like this set:

The store had yards and yards of fresh evergreens for sale:

And stuff to make sure the wild critters in the back yard have a merry holiday season, too:

 I loved their sweet, retro-style toys:

And they have a dear Shop Kitty, too, seen here with some of his fan mail from local children:

But what really makes my heart go pitty-pat when I visit the store is its amazing assortment of big-kid toys, like these colorful Le Creuset teakettles:

 and matching frying pans:

Dishtowelling by the yard (I went home with some of the blue-and-white):

Teensy tart pans (I tucked a marble in one so you could see just how small they are):

Polka-dot aprons:

Gloves for heavy and light work:

These rolling pins are used to make a kind of cookie, I think:

 Now, here's something you don't see in Los Angeles!:

Since I was last there, Downtown Home & Garden has added a Beer Garden out back, with a kiosk selling spirits and snacks, and fire pits to gather 'round:

If you are ever in Ann Arbor, be sure to visit this lovely store. And pop out to the Beer Garden, too. They've saved a seat for you:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Winter Pasta Sauce

For most of us, even here in sunny Los Angeles, the beautiful bounty of summer tomatoes is over. But that doesn't mean the end of tasty, home-made tomato sauces. No way!

When there are no fresh, local tomatoes to make a bright, summery tomato sauce, you want to go in the opposite direction. You want a rich, dark sauce, nuanced with layers of flavor. The kind that fills your home with warm, homey smells. That simmers for hours on the stove.

And if you can make the sauce out of things you probably already have in your fridge and pantry--so much the better!

That's why I love this sauce. It's easy to make, it doesn't require any fancy-pants ingredients, and it only needs one pot to make it, start to finish. (The entire recipe is written out below. I'll just walk you through its highlights.)

This sauce uses a few surprise ingredients: nutmeg, a little sugar, and dill weed. The nutmeg and sugar bring out the natural sweetness in the tomatoes, and the dill weed adds an unexpected note, another layer of depth.

At the base of the sauce is my version of the Trinity--equal amounts of onions, carrots, and celery (other cooks prefer green peppers over celery, but not moi).

(Toss the trimmed bits of onion base, celery heart, and such into your freezer to make soup stock another day. Read how I do it, here.)

Sautee the diced veggies in a large sauce pot with some olive oil until the onions are translucent:

You'll need cans of tomatoes, tomato paste, and tomato sauce. All three products, used together, boost the "tomato-y-ness" of the sauce.

Dump the canned ingredients, and everything else, into the pot. Bring it up to a fast boil, and then turn the pot down to simmer, covered, for hours on a low flame. If the sauce looks too thick, you can add some water, stock, red wine, olive oil--even beer!--to thin it out. (Or a little splash of several of those things.)

After a couple of hours, the sauce will look something like this (below). It will be thick, rich, and aromatic. You can use it right away for a delicious pasta dinner. But if you refrigerate the sauce and let it sit for a day or so, then warm it up later, the flavors will "marry" and mellow, and it will taste even better.

Make it today, then have it tomorrow or next month. Delicioso!

Winter Pasta Sauce
makes approximately 4 cups

2-4 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 onion, diced
1/2 C. diced carrots
1/2 C. diced celery, including some leaves
1-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
1 8-oz. can tomato sauce
1 15-oz. can tomatoes--whole, diced, crushed--it doesn't matter--just break them up if they are in big chunks
1-2 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated is best, but the kind in a jar or tin is fine)
2-3 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. chili powder (or more, to taste)
1/4 - 1/2 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. dill weed
salt, freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large sauce pot, sautee onion, carrots, and celery in the olive oil. When the onions are not quite translucent, add the garlic and give the pot a stir or two. When the onions are translucent, add all the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil, then drop flame down and simmer, covered, for several hours. Check the sauce every half hour or so and give it a stir. If it is too thick, add some water, stock, red wine, olive oil, or beer to thin it down.

Remove bay leaves and serve over hot, cooked pasta and top with shaved Parmesan or Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese. Can be stored in the fridge for a few days. Chilled sauce can be transferred to a zip-style plastic bag and frozen.

Four Variations:
Olive/Mushroom Sauce: 20 minutes or so before serving, stir into the hot sauce a small can of sliced black olives and a double handful of chopped fresh mushrooms. Simmer until mushrooms are cooked. 
Pink Sauce: Right before serving, remove simmering sauce from the stove and swirl in about 1/2 C. or so of sour cream, Greek yogurt, creme fraiche, or lowfat plain yogurt.
Florentine Sauce: Right before serving, stir several cups of fresh baby spinach into the hot sauce. Cook for a few minutes until the spinach "wilts" but retains its fresh, green color.
"Preppy" Sauce: Make the Florentine Sauce variation, above, and right before serving, dump in the sour cream, yogurt, etc. from the Pink Sauce variation, above. Green and Pink = Preppy!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday vs. Small Business Saturday

I don't really mind Black Friday, but there's no way I want to participate in it. The idea of going on a huge shopping expedition one day after Thanksgiving makes me nauseous. The crowds, the frenzy, the short tempers, the parking hassles--ugh! And coming on the heels of a day in which we pause to give thanks for what we have, the mad dash to over-consume just one day later feels...wrong.

For me, what feels right happens a day later--Small Business Saturday. Even though there's a tie-in with American Express, this is a grass-roots movement to encourage people to spend money with small, mom-and-pop enterprises and avoid Big Business.

On Small Business Saturday, I will get a lot of my holiday shopping done. Here are the places I'll be hitting:

My local mom-and-pop jewelry store. Their stuff is gorgeous, the prices are reasonable, and I know when I spend money there, I'm helping the owner and his wife put one child through college and the other save for his upcoming wedding. I buy charms there for my two grand-nieces.

The toy train shop. Every community bigger than a breadbox seems to have a train hobbyist shop in it. I go to mine for the best in model trains for one of my grand-nephews.

My neighborhood yarn shop. This independent yarn shop has far more beautiful yarn than any hobby mega-chain. And the ladies are happy to help me if I get stuck on an instruction! I'll be looking for yarn to knit a project for a certain somebody.

Several thrift stores and flea markets. Oh, how love I junking! My favorite finds lately? All-white bath towels (so easy to bleach, look good with any decor), wood picture frames, snowflake ornaments, and a variety of Christmas ornaments (for tying on packages or giving to my Christmas-observing friends). I can't mention a few other things I'llbe looking for on Saturday, because some of my holiday gift recipients read this blog. Heh.

My local used-books store. A fantastic place to find total deals on books, maps, and prints. My local one even has a shop kitty! Without fail, the people who work at these places seem to be knowledgeable, friendly, and eager to help you find what you're looking for. Can you tell what I am looking for, below?

Beading shops and local beaders. Okay, so I cheated on this one because I've already bought my beads. But my point? There's a small army of talented beading people out there, making beautiful, one-of-a-kind jewelry. Just Google 'em. I just commissioned this lovely necklace from a very gifted young lady I know.

And what makes it even more special:  The round turquoise beads and the pink, lozenge-shaped ones are from clothes that used to belong to my Nana. If you live in the central California area, contact Beads by the Bay in Morro Bay. It's a full-service shop, with beads and findings as well as finished jewelry for sale, and lessons in a delightful pagoda in the back garden. Tell them Juli says "hi."

Vintage and/or resale clothing shops. My friend has one, just a five-minute bike ride from my house, and although she carries label and designer items, absolutely nothing is ever over $100. Almost every town large enough to have an intersection has a clothing resale shop. Think outside the box--buy a beautiful sweater and turn it into a wintry pillow cover. Earrings and pins make beautiful ornaments to hang on a tree, tie to a gift, or repurpose as pendants on a necklace. I'm going with an open mind, just to see what I can find. And to say "Hi" to my friend.

(I love my friend so much, I let her doll me up like an ageing, French tart in stuff from her store and put this photo on her shop's website. I may regret this decision. Or not. ) 

Local bakeries. If you can't bake, or don't have time to bake, get to your local little bakery and nab a freshly made pie or cake or batch of cookies as a hostess gift or a present for your neighbor. If you live in a city, there's probably an ethnic bakery close by that has some fantastic specialties to make a nice, last-minute gift.

Local coffee house. After a busy day of shopping on Small Business Saturday, I will buy myself a pick-me-up cup from my local, independent java joint. Mine has sofas and overstuffed chairs inside, a garden outside, WiFi, an attached gift shop with a French flavor, and a welcome smile whenever I drop by with a pug in tow.

That's big. And a fitting end to Small Business Saturday.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Pugsgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

photo credit: Baxter Boo, published in Huffington Post

I hope you have a safe, happy, lovely day.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Doors, Doorknockers, Gates, and Windows

It's no secret that, wherever I travel, I love to take photos of windows and doors.

Why? I don't know. Perhaps because doors and windows are so intriguingly neither-nor.

They are the in-between spaces, the thresholds--literally--between our exterior and interior lives.

And when I travel abroad, I see so many gorgeous doors, gates, and windows.

The kind you just don't see much, here in Los Angeles.

There's a lot of fake patina in houses and buildings around L.A., but in Italy, you see the Real Deal.

 I just love it.

So, here are some of my faves, from Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and the Isle of Capri.

 I hope you enjoy them.

I'll be quiet now.


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