Back with Some Recent Reads

Hi again.  I basically took a summer vacation from blogging, but I’m back now and hope to be posting regularly again.

The reason for the hiatus was pretty exciting- we bought a house!! Construction hasn’t actually begun on the house yet, so it’ll be quite awhile till we move, and I’ve got no pictures to show, but my heart was in planning and getting all that together. Plus we took a no-computer-access vacation in August, which didn't work any wonders for my blog. 

But it leads me to my first post in over a month, a new edition of recent reads. I spent a large part of the summer gloriously lounging by the pool or on the beach, and I got some wonderful reading in.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
I loved this. It’s ultimately a redemption story- the memoir of a woman wrecked by drugs and death and a broken home, who decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail when she has nowhere left to turn. The story was gripping.  Her ability to access and describe her emotions is amazing, as is her resolve, strength, and toughness. The hike is not an easy one, and Strayed is not even close to properly prepared, but nothing deters her.  Strayed, and her life, are my polar opposites, and reading this, I was amazed on so many levels- the abuse a human body could take, how much you can overcome with sheer willpower, and even the way the universe appears to look out for each and every one of us. Truly a stellar read.

This Is Where I Leave You,  by Jonathan Troppel
This movie comes out Friday night. My husband’s was obsessed with this book, so I picked it up too and enjoyed it. It’s a hilarious story of an extremely dysfunctional family who comes together for a shiva after their father’s death.  The characters are entertaining and vivid, and they’re all facing some intense personal problems, which makes some of their interactions quite bizarre.  A fun read, if a bit vulgar at times.

Women in Clothes, by Sheila Heti, Leanne Shapton, Heidi Julavits
I’d describe this book as a literary collage. The authors surveyed 639 women from all perspectives and backgrounds- young, old, rich, poor, famous, sweatshop workers, transgenders, you name it- to get their views on style and fashion.  The book, which is crazy long, puts these answers together in variety of fun ways, from straight-up survey reprints, to interviews, to photo collages, to arty little literary pieces (that, admittedly, I didn’t understand and skipped over).   It got a little long and boring for me by the end, but overall cool and something a little different.

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is a kooky chick lit book about two twin sisters born with ESP. One chooses to go all out and become a medium, and the other chooses to abandon her skills in favor of a typical suburban life. When the psychic sister predicts a huge earthquake will hit their town, she gains crazy notoriety and the twins are forced to grapple with sibling and self-image issues that have been brewing for years. This is a fun, easy, chick-lit kind of read.  


Summer Vegetable Pasta

Whenever I'm in a farmer's market, I get a serious case of my eyes being bigger than my stomach. I want to buy everything, and I grossly overestimate how much I'll actually be cooking that week.
This past weekend was no exception. Two of my awesome girlfriends spent the weekend, and we hit up the farmer's market before breakfast. Not knowing what we'd wind up cooking that day, I stocked up on everything- peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, eggplant, spinach, tomatoes, fruit, you name it.
And as is usually the case with us, we skipped past the vegetables in favor of scrambled eggs with brie, and I found myself with a nice little bounty for the week ahead.
Which is where this yummy summer pasta comes in. This is my favorite type of meal to make: an assortment of vegetables, sauteed in oil, deglazed with wine, and finished off with Parmesan and fresh herbs.
I'm going to attempt to provide you with a technique, not a recipe, because the beauty of this dish is its flexibility. You can start your saute with onions, garlic, fennel, and any vegetable,  add in anchovies, or tomato paste, or swap the wine for lemon juice, finish with butter.  I don't like to provide exact quantities because you can do whatever you want. If you love eggplant, add a whole one. If zucchini's not your favorite, add a tiny bit.
Summer Vegetable Pasta (Serves 2-4)
1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1/2 a large eggplant, cut into 1 inch cubes
1/2 a medium sized zucchini, cut into 1 inch cubes
1/4 cup sliced baby portabello mushrooms
1/2 cup chopped mixed herbs- I used parsley and basil
2 smashed garlic cloves
1/4 dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock (I throw a teaspoon of bouillon in a measuring cup and pour water out of my tea kettle, but you can be fancy
1 box pasta (I used a mix of gemelli and rotelli, was trying to use up those awkward half boxes!)
Olive oil
Pinch red pepper flakes
Parmesan cheese to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
In a large skillet, saute olive oil and garlic until golden. Add in all your vegetables, and saute about 8 minutes, until golden.

Add white wine to pan and bring to a boil. Let wine reduce by at least  half, and then add chicken stock.  Add pasta to your pot of boiling water, and let vegetable mix simmer and reduce a little while pasta cooks.

Drain pasta and add to sauce. Cook together for one minute, then top with parmesan cheese and herbs.



Kale and Grain Salad

Over the past year, my husband and I have gotten really into weight lifting. Recently, we started seeing a personal trainer, who explained that "what you eat is everything" and sat us down for a nutritional consult.

Her rules are strict: no pasta, no cereal, no bread, extremely limited sugar intake (and sugar includes fruit, carrots, etc). She recommends lean proteins, sweet potatoes, lots of greens, and whole grains- the typical bodybuilder diet.

I can't stick to a diet like that too closely (I'm Italian, I love my pasta!), but I do want to try to eat a little cleaner during our weeknight meals.

This salad is my bodybuilder diet "training wheels"- I mixed couscous (a pasta) with freekeh (a serious whole grain), and added kale, snap peas, and a few shavings of Parmesan.  It was pretty good- I don't like the freekeh by itself, but blended with Israeli couscous, it made for a delicious mix of textures.

Kale and Grain Salad
1/2 cup freekeh
1/2 cup Israeli couscous
1 cup chicken stock
1 bunch kale, trimmed and chopped
1 cup sugarsnap peas
1 clove garlic, smashed
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese

1/4 olive oil
1 small shallot, chopped
2 tbsp vinegar

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add snap peas, boil one minute, then drain and rinse under cold water to set the color.

Combine 1/2 cup freekeh and 1 and 1/2 cups water in a pot. Bring to a boil, and simmer 45 minutes. (Alternately, you can buy cracked freekeh, which cooks faster. I had a hard time finding that).  Drain, and add to a serving bowl.

In a separate pot, add couscous and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes, until water is absorbed.  Drain, and combine with freekeh in serving bowl.

Saute the kale, garlic, and olive oil in one of the pots until wilted, and add to serving bowl. Add sugarsnap peas as well.

Mix all dressing ingredients together and pour over freekeh/couscous combo. Using a vegetable peeler, shave some Parmesan over the top. Serve and enjoy.

*You can also make this salad with just freekeh or just couscous, to make it easier. Or swap quinoa or farro for one of the ingredients.


Life Lately

I've been majorly MIA lately, due to an overwhelmingly jam-packed June, so I figured I'd share what I've been up to before I got back into regular posts.

managed a few summer nights drinking on the pier with friends // spent a weekend on the lake at my husband's old sleepaway camp // hubby's grandma shared some relics from her past as a famous ballerina  // LOTS of house hunting // badass new sneakers, only $14.99 // june was full of events: birthdays, family parties, and a friend's baby shower


Steakhouse Dinner

My husband is, quite literally, the pickiest eater I have ever known. He will not eat anything that swims, he’s not huge on most vegetables, eats very little "healthy" food, and usually acts as if trying something new will kill him. 

But his favorite thing is when I make him a classic steakhouse meal:

Seared filet mignon,

with crispy matchstick potatoes,

and of course, the classic wedge salad.   

It's a delicious and fairly simple meal, although things can get a little smoky while cooking the steak!

Seared Filet Mignon
2 5-6 oz filet mignon steaks (about 1 inch thick)
Cracked black pepper
Two slivers of butter

Heat a cast iron pan over high heat until screaming hot. I usually do this for somewhere between 3-5 minutes.

While pan preheats, coat your steaks very generously on both sides with salt and cracked black pepper.

When ready to cook, brush the pan with a small amount of oil. Place the steaks in the pan, and allow to sear for 3 minutes.  Flip to the other side and sear until desired doneness. I do ours to 130°, which is medium rare.

Just before serving, top each steak with a sliver of butter.  Sometimes I also use a drizzle of Trader Joe's balsamic syrup.

Serves 2.

Matchstick Potatoes, adapted from Ina Garten
4 baking potatoes, peeled
Corn oil (I used almost a full quart)

Preheat oven to 350°. Fill a large pot or Dutch oven with 1 inch of oil and heat it to 350°.

Slice potatoes into thin matchsticks, using a mandolin or the shredding disc of your food processor. Drop potatoes into a bowl of cold water as you work.

When ready to fry, drain potatoes very well. In batches, drop them in the hot oil and cook 3-5 minutes, until golden brown.  Remove to a paper towel lined plate, and sprinkle generously with salt. Repeat.

Keep warm on a baking sheet in the 350 degree oven for up to a half hour.

Serves 2-4.

Wedge Salad
½ head iceberg lettuce
½  pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 rib celery, diced
4 slices bacon, cooked until crisp and chopped
Ranch or blue cheese dressing

Slice the half head of lettuce into four wedges and arrange on a plate.  Top with tomatoes, celery, bacon, chives, and dressing.

Serves 2.

(I think this would be much better if you made your own dressing, using a recipe like the one here, but I told you, I have a picky husband, and a blue cheese is on the no-fly list).

Next project, fancy sauces for the steak. Anyone have any good recipes?


Spaghetti alla Checca

One stand at my local farmer's market has the most incredible yellow cherry tomatoes.  They are sweet and delicious and taste like summer.

I wanted a way to use these beauties in an uncooked tomato sauce, so I test drove an old recipe from Giada de Laurentiis' first cookbook- Checca Sauce, an uncooked mix of tomatoes, scallions, and fresh mozzarella. It came together in a few quick pulses in the food processor, and perfectly showcased the taste of summer.

Spaghetti all Checca, from Giada de Laurentiis
The original recipe calls for raw garlic; I hate the taste of that so I modified it slightly by cooking the garlic. 

1 box thin spaghetti
4 scallions, white and green parts, coarsely chopped
1 garlic clove
2 pints cherry tomatoes- use fresh, in-season tomatoes! No plastic packaged grocery store tomatoes here
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
2 tbsp grated Parmesan
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
4 oz fresh mozzarella, cubed

Saute the garlic clove in oil until lightly golden. Toss garlic clove and set oil aside to cool.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When boiling, add lots of salt and your spaghetti.

In your food processor, pulse scallions, tomatoes, half of the basil, Parmesan, and reserved oil until tomatoes are coarsely chopped. Do not puree.

Drain pasta, reserving 1/4 cup pasta water. Top pasta with tomato mixture, adding pasta water if it looks a little dry. Toss with remaining basil leaves, salt, pepper, and fresh mozzarella. Serve immediately.


Menu Card DIY

My personal favorite wedding DIY was the menus I created. They were really simple to execute, and came out looking extremely elegant. 

Pic by Spark Photography

I used Microsoft Publisher to create the menus. I started with a standard 8.5 x 11 page, and split it into two columns. 

I copied and pasted our monograms off the PDF of our invite proofs and placed that at the top. 

The text was all written in separate text boxes so that I could center it appropriately, and then I just copied and pasted from one column over to another. Very simple. I liked this because it allowed me to print two per page, which saved me about $80.

I had them printed on Opal Stardream cardstock from Cards and Pockets, like all my other DIYs.

Then, we had to cut down the middle of each page to separate them. I think Cards and Pockets would have done this, but I was being a little cheap and opted to cut them myself. 

I then used a corner rounder to round the corners, and then swiped the edges through a gold stamp pad.

Below, you can see how much that little edging added to the menus. (It also matched the gold edges on our invitation, though I cannot imagine a single person besides me would have realized that).


To make it easier, I ran stacks of about 20 menus at a time through the stamp pad. I had to do it twice to ensure everything got a bold enough gold color.

At the reception, we had these slipped into the fold in an ivory napkin. They looked beautiful; a DIY well worth the effort.