Thursday, December 30, 2010

Holiday goodness

This holiday season was family through and through. Both mine and T's family have been through a lot of heartache in the last year, some of it still very raw, and togetherness was really all that anyone wanted. Santa delivered in abundance.

Please note these phenomenal hats. Mine says "Merry Christmas, Eh!" and was discovered by T's dad in a Connecticut (not Canadian, shockingly) drugstore. T's is covered in sequins, naturally.

T's mom passed down her father's silver martini shaker to us, given to T's grandfather on his wedding day by a groomsman. It's inscribed with his grandparents' initials and their wedding date, and the sound of ice clinking in this huge vessel sent his mom right back to her childhood. This heirloom makes a lot of martinis, and set the tone for our Connecticut Christmas right away. We had so much fun celebrating together.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, we had huge news to celebrate: my brother is engaged! He and his fiancee (!) Nicole are the parents to my precocious niece Taylor, and their untraditional love story makes me so happy I could burst. I can't wait to call Nicole my sister-in-law, finally. Let the wedding planning begin!

Speaking of adorable offspring, how cute are my niece and nephews all decked out in their Christmas finest?

Did I mention the SNOW?! A White Christmas (okay, White Night of Christmas/Day After Christmas) is a huge deal 'round these parts. A family snowball fight was exactly what we all needed.

And the scenery! A total Winter Wonderland. Santa's present, just for us.
(Or so it felt!)

Going into the New Year, I'm feeling so blessed. A tad overwhelmed by some huge decisions facing us (see this, for example), but totally, completely blessed all the same. Having champagne toasts in Connecticut and North Carolina, after a year like this tough one, is the best way I know to move forward.

So cheers! From me to you, to your families, and to mine.



Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A serious, adult, not-kidding-around question

There is a house for sale, in(ish) our budget, that we like a lot. It is very pretty. We call it the "Pretty House," in fact. Here I am outside of the Pretty House last night, feeling pretty happy about it after our tour.

It has almost everything we want, with one big exception: the kitchen is tiny. It's 8x9, in an otherwise roomy house. Opportunities for expansion are pretty limited, given the layout exist but are major long-term projects.

So here's my question: Can I live with this kitchen? You know how I feel about kitchens. What would you do? Does it say something that I was smiling post-tour last night, or am I kidding myself?

Per a couple of requests for more context, here's what you need to know - I've also answered specific questions in comments:
  • This house is in our favorite neighborhood in Washington, DC - location is our first priority
  • Real estate is very expensive in DC, so being creative with your budget and figuring out where you can compromise is a must for everyone buying a home here.
  • The house is a historic rowhome with a rental unit in the basement (called "English basements" 'round these parts) with a separate entrance/exit that could provide rental income each month.
  • There's plenty of space in the primary part of the home for our current and near-future needs, and the option of taking over the rental unit and incorporating it into the rest of the house is a great long-term option should we want or need more space.
  • Did I mention our tight budget?

Friday, December 17, 2010

A good week

  • Dynamic work meetings and interesting projects: check!
  • Fantastic book club gathering at my place: check!
  • Finally finding my local hair stylist: check!
  • Gift-wrapping and card-writing: check!
  • Hiding wrapped presents from ribbon-hungry kittens: check!
  • SNOW: check!
  • Decorating for Christmas: check!

With everything going on lately, we ran out of time to get a Christmas tree. Again. Never mind the huge storage bins of Christmas ornaments in a particular motif that I've collected over the years without actually hanging them on branches. I keep telling myself that next year we'll have our first real tree together, in a house we own. Maybe? Maybe? At any rate, decorating our apartment injected it and me with just the sort of holiday spirit I needed. Here's a little taste...

We're off to Connecticut to celebrate an early Christmas with T's family. Have a winter wonderland weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How I Know

Remember when Whitney Houston was adorable? (Let us pause for an awesome '80s flashback.)

Whitney might look bubblegum here, but don't let the huge hair bow fool you. "How Will I Know?" is one of the biggest questions of all.

For each one of us, knowing is a unique process, but it tends to involve the way we feel, the way we laugh, the at-homeness and thrill of it all, and those many and varied things that can't be quantified. (If knowing was as easy as an equation, we wouldn't have pop songs written about it, now would we?)

So there are the big things, but there are also those tiny moments that are as humble as they are full of proclamation. There is me, cooking home alone while he's away on a business trip, digging through the spice box, and discovering a small bag labeled "Homeground Ancho Chile Powder," written in his handwriting, full of chile that he did in fact grind himself.

Someone needs to slap an '80s hair bow on me and call me done, because this little treasure from a guy whose stove had only been used to cook frozen pizza when we met, is in fact how I know.

*Really, I couldn't fit a Whitney Houston/bagged powder joke in here somewhere?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Baby, It's Cold Outside!

It's freezing outside. Full-on, brrrr-cold freezing outside. Hey, when you're already facing temperatures in the teens in mid-December, you're allowed to be dramatic. In fact, preparation can be fun! Despite the fact that we moved to DC last winter during a blizzard, I stuck it out until spring with the one pair of (heeled, unsuitable-for-ice) boots that life in previously warmer climates required. Can you see where I'm going with this? By the time winter weather rolled around this year, I was ready for it. Enter my cold-weather footwear upgrades:

Cole Haan Air Chatham Rain Boots

I loooove my rain boots. I've already sloshed around yucky cold rain with them, just waiting for the day when they'll plow through snow and ice with ease. I adore the look of them, too - the tweed on top is perfectly me. Despite the fact that another pair of Cole Haans in this apartment inches us dangerously closer to being "That Cole Haan Couple," I love these things to pieces.

Frye Archie Hikers

I bought a pair of brown leather boots from JCrew when I went off to college in Boston years and years ago, and I wore those shoes out. I had them re-soled twice in ten years, that's how much I loved them. I finally (with tears!) gave up on them in Dallas and have been searching for replacements ever since. Enter Frye with these fantastic boots that somehow seem perfectly "me" and timeless all at once. 

Not-yet-purchased Furry Fabulous Boots

My next purchase in the warm and practical footwear category is going to be something furry and fabulous, for days as cold as today when there's also inches of snow and ice on the ground. Any of these would fit the bill fabulously, don't you think? And while we're at it (and as a nod to furry black or gray boots that might be out there)....

Eddie Bauer Slope Side Down Parka

...I think this parka would be fantastic on those bitter days when my pretty wool coats and scarves won't cut it.

Oh, how times change... at one point my delicate open-toed stilettos were my prized shoe possessions, but these days I'm prioritizing all things sturdy, waterproof, and decidedly un-shiny! Cold weather veterans out there (Chicago girls, I'm looking at you): any tips on looking cute and staying warm at the same time?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Beach Therapy

The perfect thank you, via Kirtland House

From the bottom of my heart, a sincere thank you for all the kind words that so many of you sent my way, via letters, calls, comments, tweets, you name it. Each one helped my heart feel a tiny bit better. It's been a very tough few weeks, but I'm really looking forward to a family-focused holiday and a much-needed new year. Besides our increasingly interesting real estate search, my big focus is hanging out at the homestead and watching my newest nephew experience Santa for the first time, among other quiet delights.

After spending so much time on the Outer Banks the last few weeks, I have a renewed appreciation for a cold, quiet beach. One day over Thanksgiving weekend a storm was rolling in, and I took my camera along for the walk. I like how the oncoming storm feels larger than life in these pictures. Or perhaps what I'm really sensing is the photographer's feeling of general powerlessness. Either way, these photos are perfectly suited to that weekend.

These were taken a week later, on a bitter cold December morning. It had snowed the night before - the first snowfall of the season for me, and it happened at the beach. There was something poetic about that. Walking on the beach that cold morning - all bundled up, ears whistling with the wind, cheeks getting chapped - was the best therapy I could find.

Any guesses how often the subject of buying a beach house has come up over the last month? Sigh. We at least promised ourselves we'd retire on the water, which is something, right? Only thirty years to go!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Eat More Collards: A tribute to Aunt Jill

My aunt passed away at her home on December 1. She had two memorial services: one in eastern North Carolina, close to the farm where she was raised, and one on the Outer Banks, where she lived and taught English for 20 years. This is the piece I read at both services.

Jill Adams Morris

“I'm a collard-picking, collard-cooking, collard-eating farm girl,” Jill wrote several months ago. That statement is so perfectly Jill: both grounded and full of action all at once. As someone who crafted a life as rich with small pleasures as with big ones, she knew we’d always remember what a fantastic mother and wife she was, what a special daughter and sister and friend she was, what a good teacher she was, and what a valued community member she was. Those are the big things. Those collards, though, are what made Jill, Jill.

And so while we’re eating our collards in her honor, we can recall some other moments that she embodied. Jill was a rocking porch swing, a belly-shaking laugh. She was arms reaching out to kiss her husband and hug her daughters and rub a dog, legs that took her to down to the beach and all around the farm, and hands that created music, that made quilts, that grew beautiful flowers.

Jill was joy.  She was about doing what you love.  She was so much fun.  And she was so, so brave.

When we search for Jill’s joy in our own lives, we can picture her windsurfing on the sound, gliding over the water, strong and full of life. We can recall her being chief storyteller wherever she went, rocking with laughter and lighting up everyone around her. We can laugh about her Ocracoke accent impression, which she did better than anyone. We can remember her pregnant with Sophie and walking up and down the beach in a pink maternity bikini, trying to convince her to come out already so the fun could begin. We can see her taking Sally for her first tractor ride, teaching Sophie to play the piano, going on adventures with Anna and Carter, and relaxing on the farm with Bob.

When we think about doing what we love, we can remember how much Jill loved books and words, and how she spent her career helping students love them, too. We can think about the quilts she made and gave to loved ones, the dresses and curtains and everything under the sun that she sewed with care and skill. We can think about her love of music and all the ways she expressed it. We can treasure how Jill represented the glory in small pleasures that can rival even the greatest things: an engrossing novel you couldn't put down if you tried, a gorgeous day outside, the perfect lily, a wry pun and witty play on words, and yes, that pot of collards that tastes like home.

Life was just more fun with Jill. She was fond of saying “The blessings are more bountiful than the burdens,” and she crafted a life full of things that made her smile. That attitude is what she’d want us to carry forward: Be grateful. Be kind. Laugh. Do what you love. Eat more collards. And also, be brave.

Because when we think of bravery, each one of us will always think of Jill first, and remember how valiantly she fought her illness. She was full of grace, brimming with humor, and always stayed true to herself. She was Jill Adams Morris, a “collard-picking, collard-cooking, collard-eating farm girl,” and led by her daughters and her husband, her spirit will be carried forward forever.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Love and loss and life, this Thanksgiving

We're Outer Banks-bound to be with family tomorrow. My Aunt Jill has been fighting cancer so valiantly for the last year and a half, and it's time for everyone to gather around her now. There's so much to say, and no need to say any of it, really. One thing, though: tell your families you love them. Just tell them.

Us at the FDR Memorial, last weekend. One of those shockingly beautiful fall days, where being alive feels like the craziest blessing there is.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A week of thanks

Early Saturday morning, I received the kind of phone call that immediately made me want to hurry home to be with my family. Only, we'd just landed in Connecticut to spend the weekend with T's family. I was still buckled in on the airplane, in fact; it was not yet safe to move around the aircraft. North Carolina wasn't going to happen.

The next two days were spent in a really beautiful way. In fact, for a "Fakesgiving" weekend, thankfulness was very much in the forefront for me. I'm thankful that my in-laws are not just people I've been forced to reckon with during the holidays; they're people I feel honored to have in my life. I'm thankful that during a weekend when I wasn't at my best, they gathered around me and sent love out into the universe to my family. They made me a stiff drink, they set me up on a stool during a fabulous afternoon of cooking, they snuck out with me for adventures in between meals, they made me one of their own. I wasn't sure on that airplane if I could get through the next two days, yet by Sunday night, I was sure I shouldn't have been anywhere else.

We'll be with my family this weekend, which I would love to hurry up and get here already. It's where we need to be; it's where we are needed. But in this moment in between our families, at the tail end of a year that has brought with it losses and illnesses and more than we bargained for, I remain grateful for all that I have, and so very thankful for the love surrounding me.

Sunrise from the guest bedroom
Guilford, CT

Friday, November 19, 2010

Have a golden weekend!

We're heading up to Connecticut to celebrate an early Thanksgiving with T's family, and I couldn't be more excited to ooh and aah at New England prettiness, hang out in the kitchen all day with family, and laugh late into the night. Next week I'm going to try to write a real recipe for a delicious posole I threw together last night with pork shoulder leftovers - stay tuned for as much lime and cilantro as you can handle. Until then, a nice reminder for us all, from one of my favorite letterpress studios, Studio on Fire:

Have a golden weekend!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Savoring the Season: Butternut Squash Soup

I love the feeling of eating a season in a bowl. Soups are particularly good for this. In the fall, my soups take a turn toward homey, savory, and earthy, and few soups achieve this balance as well as butternut squash. A few weeks ago at our favorite splurge-worthy restaurant, I wanted to marry the bowl of butternut squash soup I was eating, it was so perfectly done. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered the chef's recipe on a local food blog. After a wee bit of tweaking to suit my tastebuds and access to ingredients, here's the version I came up with. Like all soups, this one is better the next day. I made it late-night to serve the next day for dinner and was wowed with the results. Slurp away!

Butternut Squash Soup
Adapted from J&G Steakhouse
Serves 5-6

2 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into chunks
4 cups chicken broth
1 ¼ cup whole Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons butter, plus dab
1 shallot, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups shitake mushrooms, cleaned and halved
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp chives, cut into small pieces

In a large pot, combine the squash and broth and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium and cook for about 20-30 minutes, until the squash is very tender. Working in batches, purée the mixture in a blender. Return the purée to the pot over medium-low heat, and add the yogurt and butter. In a pan, sauté one finely chopped shallot in a small dab of butter until soft, then add to the soup. Purée the soup one more time in a blender* until silky-smooth.  Season with salt and pepper to your taste.

To prepare the garnish, go back to your separate pan and sauté your other finely chopped shallot in butter for 3-4 minutes over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and sauté for another 3-5 minutes, until the mushrooms start to brown slightly.

Pour the soup into bowls, garnish with mushrooms, and sprinkle with chives.

*If you have an immersion blender you could of course blend right in the pot, but I found my real-deal blender to work better for achieving the texture I wanted. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Golden compromises

These were the shoes I really wanted. There is no verb in our language that accurately describes what I do when I look at this shoes. Swooning is far too gentle a sentiment.

But you know, priorities and being practical and feeling responsible-ish. So when I uncovered these from a table piled high with clearance sweaters and marked down 75%, I realized I'd stumbled upon a very happy compromise.

A girl's just gotta wear sparkles on her toes sometimes, right?

Monday, November 15, 2010

The dawn of a new day: Chicken Cashew Chili

This post is a big deal, but you don't know that yet. You clicked over to read not yet grasping the life-changing moment that was about to happen. The earth didn't shatter as a warning; the bowls in your cabinets stood still. And yet. Those bowls will never be the same, because this chili recipe is the dawn of a new day. The era of ground beef and green peppers is over. Triumphantly taking their place are the four Cs: chicken, cashews, chili, and chocolate. You heard me. Let's get started, shall we?

There are 4 Cs in this chili, and all of them matter.

The chile puree is the foundation for the entire dish. I can't stress that enough. Cook this chili with a whole chicken, and be conscious of what kind of chicken you buy (I buy free-range, hormone-free birds because I can taste the difference and it's important to me to support those business models). Maybe later you can shortcut this dish with a rotisserie chicken you shred yourself, but for the first time, just trust me and plan ahead, k? The cashews provide fantastic texture - both in the puree as a thickening agent and whole in the chili for a delicious, wholesome crunch. Finally: chocolate. Bittersweet chocolate, to be exact. Ruth Reichl calls this touch a "weeknight take on mole," and as usual, she's correct. I added my chocolate last, after tasting, and I honestly felt like it wasn't even necessary - the chili was already complex and rich and delicious. Stirring in the bittersweet chocolate, though, watching it melt and combine with the rich smoky chile flavor... it is a transformative, genius ingredient. There's no way around it.

Make this chili. Turn heads at the neighborhood potluck, freak out your guests during The Big Game, or make it like I did, quietly on a Friday night with a drink in hand, happily preparing a dish we'd enjoy all weekend long.

You can thank me later. And you will.

Chicken Cashew Chili
Serves 6-8 

4 dried ancho chiles
2 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon canned chipotle chiles in adobo
1 1/2 cups salted roasted cashews
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons salt
1 (31/2 to 4-lb) chicken - rinsed, patted dry, excess fat discarded, and cut into 8 serving pieces
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 (14.5 oz) cans diced tomatoes in juice
1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 (15 oz) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained

 Make the chile puree
Heat a dry small heavy skillet (not nonstick) over moderate heat until hot. Toast the dried chiles, one at a time, pressing down with tongs, for several seconds on each side to make them more pliable. Seed and devein dried chiles; discard stems. Tear dried chiles into pieces and transfer to a blender. Add broth, chipotles, and 1/2 cup cashews and puree until smooth. (Note: if you want a spicier chili, retain some of the seeds.)

Make the chili
  • Heat oil in a 6- to 7- quart wide heavy pot over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. 
  • Add onions and garlic and cook, stirring, until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. 
  • Add cumin and salt and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. 
  • Add chicken and stir to coat with onion mixture. 
  • Stir in chile puree, 1/4 cup cilantro, and tomatoes with juice. 
  • Bring to a simmer and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally to avoid sticking, until chicken is cooked through, about 45 minutes. 
  • Remove from heat and transfer chicken to a bowl.
  • Shred meat using two forks; discard bones and skin. (Note: I wasn't in a rush and waited for my chicken to cool and shredded using my hands; I find that much easier than using utensils.) 
  • Return chicken to pot and stir in chocolate, beans, remaining 1 cup cashews, and remaining 1/4 cup cilantro.
  • Cook over moderate heat, stirring, until chili is heated through and chocolate is melted.

Friday, November 12, 2010

CSN Giveaway Winner

And the winner of the $45 CSN gift certificate is....

Congratulations, Emily! I loved your answer, and I know you'll have fun with the guilt-free shopping!

Thanks for playing, everyone!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Flowers with purpose

Everyone remembers my super-fabulous wedding invitation designer ABCD, right? (Let us pause for a moment to celebrate letterpress.) Amy offered up a flower-arranging tutorial on her blog the other day, and I couldn't wait to try it. I buy flowers almost every week, but I never have any rhyme or reason as to how I arrange them. Some weeks, they look great. Other weeks, a wee bit sad. Having a blueprint for the first time was fun and illuminating. Please excuse the minor holes - by the time I realized I needed more flowers, the market felt really far away. But regardless, for my first try at a "real" arrangement, I'm lovin' it!

You know, as soon as I read Amy's post it occurred to me that I need to take a "class" on flower arranging from the Flower Whisperer herself, my mom. Her arrangements are always amazing, and a real lesson would be fantastic! Do you have an opening for your holiday session, Mom? And perhaps we can blog about it?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

CSN Giveaway Time!

Time for another giveaway from CSN, folks - that one-stop shop for everything from children's luggage to baby bee outfits to kids' riding toys! Why do I have kids' stuff on the brain tonight? Because I've checked the first Christmas gift off my list, so early for this infamous procrastinator. My nephew Liam's present arrived today.... check! Here's your chance to get into the early bird holiday spirit yourself with a $45 gift certificate from CSN Stores, applicable toward any of their 200 online stores.

Here's how to enter:

1. Visit CSN's Ultimate Gift Finder and tell me this: who's the first person you'll be buying a gift for this year?

2. Make sure your e-mail address is included in either the text of your comment or your blogger profile, so I can get in touch with you if you're the winner.

3. Entries are closed at 11:59 on Thursday, November 11. I'll announce a winner on Friday morning.

Good luck!

(Adorable Early Bird letterpress found here.)
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