Thursday, April 17, 2014


This is not revolutionary but I don't think I've ever discussed it. A couple years ago I made vanilla extract as part of our Christmas gifts for family (and apparently never posted about it) and I haven't purchased any since then.

more vanilla extract
{more vanilla extract*}

I researched all kinds of vanilla beans, got overwhelmed and just ordered these because it was easy and I got free shipping. (see my note below - do NOT order those!) The 8 oz bag has approximately 54 beans and it lasted me for about two years. For the first year or so the beans stayed pretty plump and I loved having them on hand to scrape directly into recipes (pudding is particularly good when you use fresh vanilla bean) and I also started making extract. I have a completely unscientific method that involves splitting a handful of beans and covering them with vodka and then waiting. I don't bother worrying too much about the proportions, but I've seen recipes calling for anywhere from 3 - 10 beans per cup of vodka, if you want a reference. I go heavy, using about ten per cup. Vanilla does contain some compounds that are water soluble, according to my internet research, so I always stick with vodka and make sure it's about 35 - 40% alcohol (70 - 80 proof). This ensures there's enough water to get all the flavor.

You do need to plan to wait at least a month to allow enough steeping time. I decant into a smaller bottle once it looks nice and dark (I bought these for our Christmas gifts that year and kept a couple for our use) and then I'll reup my stock by tossing in a few more beans and vodka. I don't bother taking the old beans out.

When I opened the bag of beans while reorganizing the pantry last week (er, last month) I discovered they'd finally hit their limit and were brittle and dry. Luckily they're still perfectly functional for extract, but I guess it's time to reorder. Edit - I wrote this draft a month ago and did, in fact, re-order. The beans were terrible! It was like a completely different product, even though it was the same seller, exact same item. They were mushy and weird and I was too scared to even open the package so I returned them right away. I'm leaving the original link in just in case anyone was thinking about ordering from that supplier. Don't do it! I've heard good things about Beanilla and might go that route this time even though they're much more expensive.

I'm honestly not sure if this saves a ton of money. It was about $30 for the bag and it lasted from November 2011 to January 2014 and made enough extract for our use and for sharing. I just like knowing I'll never run out of vanilla extract and I like having fresh beans on hand.

*This photo was taken on the top of my refrigerator and no, it wasn't staged there for any particular purpose. Every surface in my kitchen was covered with stuff  because I was reorganizing the pantry but I didn't want to have to put away the nearly empty bag of dried out beans so I just put my cutting board up there and stood on the step stool. I am easily distracted while cleaning.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Kale salad with dijon-shallot dressing

A few years ago we were having dinner with family at the Napa Valley Grille and the waiter asked if we were enjoying the salad. When we told him we were, he whipped out a stack of xeroxed recipes and doled them out to the table. It's since worked its way into regular rotation at every family get together. Even people who aren't completely convinced about raw kale might be persuaded to get on board here.

kale salad
{kale salad}

The salad is pretty dang simple to throw together but it tastes complex. Because the kale is thinly sliced and tossed with a bit of romaine, the texture is more palatable to raw kale haters (that's my theory - I love kale any which way so I've never totally understood the complaints). The dressing is the star of the show - the shallot, garlic and dijon give it some bite but it's mellowed out by the oil and the basil.

exposing the rib
{exposing the rib}

To "shred" the kale, I fold each leaf in half along the rib and then run the knife down to cut out the rib quickly. With the kale still folded in half, I cut ribbon-like slices all the way down.


I wash it all in the salad spinner afterwards, which is much easier to deal with than full leaves.

I play fast and loose with the recipe and don't worry too much about specific amounts. I'll usually make a huge bowl of greens using 2 bunches of kale and 1 head of romaine. This will give you enough salad for a large dinner party or two people all week. If I'm planning to use it throughout the week I store the greens by themselves and toss in dressing and toppings just before serving.

Napa Valley Grille Kale Salad

Dressing (makes about 1/2 cup - enough for 2 - 3 servings. I will double or triple this for a big batch)
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup oil (I use good California olive oil)
1 tbsp grated parmesan cheese (can sub anchovy paste if you prefer)
1 clove garlic
1 tbsp minced shallots
1 tbsp minced basil
1 tbsp dijon mustard

Blend well. I use the mini blender so I don't bother mincing anything first. If you mince everything then you should whisk everything but the oil and then add the oil slowly to emulsify. 

Salad (amounts below are for a single large serving - I'll scale up without worrying too much about the exact proportions if I want a big batch)
3 oz shredded kale
2 oz shredded romaine
1 tbsp parmesan, freshly grated or chopped
1 oz golden raisins
2 oz cooked quinoa (optional - I often leave it out)
1 tbsp sliced, toasted almonds

Toss with 2 oz dressing. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


As you probably know from my incessant whining over the last three months, we moved to a smaller place in December and it was immediately obvious that our (not so insubstantial) cooking/baking supplies weren't going to fit in the new kitchen.

Luckily, D was willing to tackle the challenge. We added shelves first (p.s. - had our first decent earthquake a few weeks ago and everything was fine! but I'm still planning on putting in bars or something). The next project was a wall of counter height cabinets that would provide us with storage space and also give us enough counter room for more than one person to be in the kitchen at once.

We couldn't buy cabinets because the space was narrower than a standard cabinet depth. Otherwise we would have farmed this out to Ikea for sure.

Here is the progress over the last couple months ...

west wall
{west wall}

I don't have a picture of the space empty because moving was a blur. But this is what that wall looked like right after we moved in. We temporarily stacked a shelving unit and a bench there.


D built a false wall to temporarily* cover up the built in ironing board cupboard (I know, I know. In theory, it's a charming feature. In reality, it hadn't been cleaned since 1935 and I wanted the cabinets more) and put in the base.

{cabinet boxes}

After building the cabinet boxes and squaring them up, he put them in place.


We painted everything the closest match to our kitchen white we could find, including the false wall.

fully installed
{fully installed}

And then we added the cabinet doors and D built the most beautiful walnut top for it, to match our floating credenza.


In the area above we hung the old chalkboard and the dessert frame from our wedding. It's the only wedding related decor we let ourselves keep and we're planning to repurpose it at some point (photo collage? another chalkboard?) but for now we hung it as is.

We built a tiny shelf with a space for a plant, inspired by this post. D added a groove along the shelf so we could safely stash the iPad there, since it always lives in the kitchen.

The minute the cabinets were finished our apartment felt a million times more functional. Having the extra counter space means both of us can cook at the same time and our kitchen stuff finally has a place to live. I'm over the moon.

*Whenever I share projects like this I get questions about installing stuff in a rental. All I can say is, no, we usually don't ask for permission first and no, we've never lost a security deposit. I take the risk on it because the additions make our apartment so much more livable. We're always careful to remove anything we've added and then patch and paint properly when we move out, although it certainly makes the moving process more intense. We're pretty considerate in general and I think the bar is pretty low - our landlords always seem relieved if there aren't gaping holes in the walls and broken windows. Your mileage may vary.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Around here ...

sunday pancakes
{sunday pancakes}


caffe vita
{caffe vita}


kale chopping
{kale chopping}


I've mostly been working. And working and working, which does not make for fascinating content. I've managed to sneak some good stuff in there as well. Pancakes on a Sunday morning, lots of Circe time, testing out all the coffee places in our area, making up for our complete lack of outdoor space with park time and even cooking every once in a while.

Coming up soon - kale salad, cocktails and kitchen cabinets (aka - a functional kitchen, finally!). Not all in the same post, but you know, spread out a bit. Also have some more budgeting + meal planning posts in the works, but those take a little longer to flesh out so god knows when that will happen. Soon, I think.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Basil vodka lemonade

I can't believe I haven't shared this yet! I've been making this basil vodka lemonade for at least a year now, and it's become one of my favorite warm weather drinks. It's relatively easy and perfect for a pitcher pour, which is a major requirement for make ahead party drinks.

{basil vodka lemonade}

I bring sparkling water on the side and let people adjust to their liking. As written, the recipe is very, very strong - not just alcohol-wise, but in tartness. Some people like to drink it straight and others will dilute it down a bit. I like a splash of water in mine if I'm drinking it as a cocktail, and a bit more if I'm having it as an afternoon picnic drink.

Basil lemon syrup (based on this recipe  - makes 2 1/2 cups, enough for two batches of lemonade)

4 cups packed basil (just the top 4", from about a 1/2 lb bunch)
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
9 strips of lemon zest (I use a vegetable peeler for this, make sure to get as little white as possible)

:: Bring all ingredients to a boil in a medium saucepan and stir until sugar is dissolved.
:: Allow it to stand at room temperature for about an hour, then chill in the refrigerator at least an hour, until very cold.
:: Strain through a sieve, pressing with the back of a spoon to get all the liquid out.
:: Discard the solids (except I like to eat the lemon peels or save them for garnish - they're like candy!) and keep the syrup in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Basil vodka lemonade (makes 6 - 8 drinks, or a bit more if you go heavy with the sparkling water. Based on this recipe, but I modified the proportions to make it tarter and stronger - big surprise, right?)

1 1/4 cup basil lemon syrup
1 1/2 cups vodka
1 1/2 cups fresh lemon juice
Sparkling water, to taste

:: Pour everything into a bottle and mix it up. Pour over plenty of ice, add a dash (or more) of sparkling water.


If I'm finishing off a bottle of alcohol to make a drink I'm taking to a party, I'll call it serendipity and just pour the mixed drink back in the original bottle. It may look less classy, but it's nice to know the bottle can just get tossed in the recycling when it's finished. Or I guess the host could keep the leftovers without worrying about returning the bottle, but this has never happened because it always disappears before dinner.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Alllllmost done ...

It actually wasn't all that time consuming except for the fact that I ripped it out and redid it. And then I redid the basket weave at the bottom about 10 times because I was short on cord and desperately trying to make it work.


I just have a few finishing touches and then we'll get planting.


Which is it's own story, really.

I have an aversion to house plants. There, I said it. They remind me of everyone's houses in the '80s and I feel like people with houseplants are always worrying about strange sounding diseases and dusting them. Dusting living things! It just seems so strange, and like more upkeep than I can sign on for. I valiantly attempted to keep my balcony herb garden alive at our previous place because it was functional and I dislike paying for herbs. I gave in when D brought home mounds of rescued jade plant and spent a weekend potting it all up, because he swore I wouldn't have to do anything with it. I liked our green space although I generally let everything die during the winter.

And then we moved to an apartment with not a single scrap of outdoor space. We tossed the herbs and rehomed the jade and within a month Dustin started trying to get me to agree to indoor plants. I reluctantly agreed and then I decided that if a corner of our apartment was going to look like my childhood I might as well go the whole way and learn to macrame. Logical, right?

To be honest, the decision may have had less to do with aesthetics and more to do with the fact that I haven't picked up a new craft in a long time and I miss the feeling of it. It felt good. More details once I actually get it planted and hung.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Around here


trailer hunt
{trailer hunt}

stripes and dots
{stripes and dots}

ready for action
{ready for action}

coloring madness
{coloring madness}


Convincing D to make eggs and tortillas every weekend morning. He's a pro.

Still sort of looking at vintage trailer listings although it looks like the project might be on hold for this year. (We are equal parts relieved and disappointed - it will probably still happen, just on a slower schedule)

A St. Patrick's day baby shower for one of my dear high school girlfriends. All green and yellow, lots of California citrus. And babies! When did this happen?

Taking full advantage of all that citrus since we have a drawer full of lemons. And I realized I never shared this particular drink recipe with you, so I'll make sure to get it posted soon. It's more summer than spring, but it's a handy one to have in your back pocket.