My Bachelorette Painting Party

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In the time since my last post, we’ve mostly been busy with wedding planning. We finalized the music selections for our ceremony and reception. We organized our seating chart and coordinated with the florist. We ordered our cake topper, created a program for hotel guests, and figured out our favors. We sorted hundreds of pearls based on size and shape: flat-bottom, large, medium, small, very small. But the best part of the past two weeks was the one thing I didn’t plan: my bachelorette party!

My cousin Nikki is my maid of honor, and since we were kids we’ve been thick as thieves. We used to put on plays for our family, make Backstreet Boys music videos, publish and distribute our own newsletter, and so much more. She knows the kinds of things I like and, more importantly, knows me for who I am. So she knew how to throw the best bachelorette party I could ever hope for. Here’s a photo of Nikki and me from the day of the party:

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We’d planned to do a group painting class, where an instructor walks you through the creation of a particular image—from how to blend colors to which brush to use for what type of stroke. But instead of signing us up for a class open to the public, Nikki recruited my closest friends to make sure we could snag a private room. They decorated with streamers and balloons and plenty of food, including muffins, donuts, fresh fruit, assorted cookies, and a cake that was beautifully designed to look like the picture we were going to paint: Rapunzel and Flynn drifting on a boat, with floating lanterns hovering in the sky above.

After we enjoyed some chilled Starbucks beverages and took some photos, we started the class. Though I’d never really painted before, our teacher simplified each step so it was easy to follow. I most enjoyed working on blending the background colors and constructing the castle; I was less happy with how my people came out. But overall I had a lot of fun, and it was great to see everyone put their own spin on their works of art! I think all of them look amazing in their own way, and I’m definitely going to treasure mine as a reminder of how much I appreciate my family and friends.

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Next, we went to brunch at Lilly’s in White Plains, where we ordered two types of pizzas, chicken and waffles, a truffle omelet, and fries. We all shared the food and everyone surprised me with gifts. Then I had a little surprise of my own: I had bought each of us bracelets woven into a knot at the top to thank everyone for helping me tie my own nuptial knot. We all put them on, along with the “Team Bride” accessories Nikki had supplied us with.

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As the wedding nears (only three and a half more weeks!), I’m nervous but mostly excited. I can’t wait to start a new chapter in life with Todd, who complements me in every way. And I’m so happy to know that no matter what the future holds, I have friends I can count on to be there for every part of it.

1-Month Garden Update: Lettuce, Herbs, and Corn Stalks

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It never ceases to amaze me how much the garden grows in only one month. Though it feels like not much has changed in my life—still editing, still wedding planning—my little sprouts have shot upward at an astonishing rate (especially in the case of the corn we planted this year.) I love picking lettuce fresh from the garden for salads, and grilled chicken tastes even more delicious when it’s marinated with olive oil and herbs. The tomatoes are still green, but the strawberries and black raspberries are juicy and sweet. Here are some photos that Dad and I took over the past week.

The top two pictures below show just how much our backyard beds have flourished. The lettuce is growing strong (though the arugula is a little bitter, the others are super tasty) and the herb garden is teeming with sage and mint. This year we only have one purple basil plant, but I think next year we’ll try to include a few more since we tend to use it the most. Below are our Swiss chard plants, on the side of the house. They’re doing much better there than they did in the backyard last year, and I think part of the reason is all the extra sun they receive in that spot.


Next up, some fruits and veggies! These are our heirloom tomatoes coming in, but we also have some smaller cherry tomatoes popping up on their vines. Our green peppers are still small, but the yellow and orange peppers are getting bigger, and I’m hoping they’ll soon start to change color. We have one zucchini inching along the grass right next to one yellow summer squash. The butternut squash, which we planted later than the others, hasn’t bloomed yet.

 

And here’s the corn; it’s just about my height now. Down beside that to the left are our onion plants. I need to do some research on when’s the best time to pick them since I’ve never grown onions before! Any advice would be much appreciated.

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One of the best parts of having a garden? Snacking on what we’ve grown (a healthy alternative to candy while I’m watching TV) and using it to make healthy salads, entrees, and desserts. In fact, today we’re going to toss some zucchini noodles with a pesto made from basil, parsley, and perhaps some tarragon. If it tastes good, I’ll be sure to share the recipe!

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Recipe: Peach Pie Crumble Bars

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I keep meaning to post a garden update, but then I continually forget to take photos of the plants when I get home from work in the evenings. I’m going to try hard to remember tonight! In the meantime, I wanted to share this really good recipe (based on one I saw in Martha Stewart Living) for peach pie crumble bars. They’re great as a mid-afternoon snack when you need a pick-me-up or as a refreshing after-dinner treat. Mine came out a bit more like a crumble than a bar because I ran out of flour, but if you follow the recipe below, it should firm up perfectly.

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Ingredients
For the crust:
~1 stick plus 5 Tbsp. unsalted butter
~1 cup sugar
~2 cups all-purpose flour
~1 tsp. salt
~1/2 cup chopped pecans

For the filling:
~1.5 pounds peaches (I used 1 yellow peach and 4 white peaches), pitted and cut into half-inch dice
~1/4 cup sugar
~1/4 cup brown sugar
~2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
~2 tbsp. lemon juice
~1 tsp. vanilla extract
~1/2 tsp.  salt
~2 Tbsp. maple syrup

~Cinnamon and sugar for sprinkling

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Procedure
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease an 8 x 8 cake pan; line with parchment, leaving overhang on two sides; butter parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add flour and salt; beat until dough forms loose clumps. Using your hands, fold in pecans.

3. Press about 2.5 cups of dough mixture into bottom and partially up sides of pan. (I didn’t measure mine but just judged by eye. You want enough left over to dollop it over the top in Step 5.) Set aside remaining dough.

4. In a medium bowl, stir together peaches, sugar, flour, lemon juice, vanilla, salt, and syrup until well combined. Spread on top of dough mixture.

5. Crumble reserved dough over top of peaches, squeezing to create clumps. (See photo below for an idea of how much dough should be on top of the fruit.) Sprinkle cinnamon and sugar to taste over top. I went heavy on the cinnamon, light on the sugar.

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6. Bake until fruit is bubbling and crust is golden, about 1 hour. Let cool, then cut into 2-inch squares to form bars.

Recipe: Roasted Duck with Cherry Sauce

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A few times a week, Todd cooks dinner for us since he gets home from work earlier than I do. Lately we’ve been drooling over duck dishes when we go out to restaurants, so he suggested that he try to make it at home. But since we’d never made duck before, we decided to find a recipe to guide us through it. After browsing through several cookbooks (we now have so many that they don’t fit on the shelves of our bookcase and are stacked on the floor), we settled on a roasted duck recipe from Drew Ramsey’s Eat Complete. Here’s the recipe (modified slightly from the original), and some special guest commentary from Todd on his cooking experience.

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The finish product: Roasted duck and cherry sauce served with herby spiced quinoa and steamed Brussels sprouts.

Ingredients
For the duck:
~1 thick duck breast, approximately 1 lb. (NOTE: The original recipe called for four smaller breasts, which would have taken less time to cook, but Todd wasn’t able to find that at our local grocery store. If you can find that, I’d recommend going that route, and only cooking the duck in the oven for 5 to 8 minutes in Step 6, below.)
~1 tsp. kosher salt
~1 tsp. black pepper
~1 tsp. paprika
~1 tsp. garlic powder

For the cherry sauce:
~1 Tbsp. olive oil
~4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
~1 cup pitted sweet cherries
~1/2 cup water
~1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Cooking Steps
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Mix salt, pepper, paprika, and garlic powder in a small bowl; set aside.
3. Using a sharp knife, score the fat of the duck breasts in a criss-cross pattern; do not pierce the meat. Rub spice mixture on all sides of the duck breast.

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Todd says: “Cutting the duck was super easy, since the fat is easy to cut through. But it has enough give that you won’t reach the actual meat unless you use a ton of force. So don’t worry!”

4. Place duck breasts, fat side down, in a cold oven-safe skillet. Place skillet over medium-high heat and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the fat starts to melt out.
5. Reduce heat to medium and cook until crisp, about 8 more minutes. Flip and cook for another 4 to 5 minutes, or until browned. Pour off any excess fat.
6. Transfer the skillet to the oven and cook until internal temperature reaches 170 degrees (for medium to well-done). This took us about 15 minutes, though cooking times will varying depending on the thickness of your duck and on your oven.

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Todd says: “Cooking the duck in general was a good experience, but it was hectic because duck fat goes EVERYWHERE. So much splatter!”

Chris adds: ” I came home to an oil-splattered stove AND oven. Luckily the duck that Todd cooked tasted yummy enough that I could forgive him.”

7. In the meantime, coat a small pan with olive oil. Add garlic and cook over medium-heat until garlic starts to brown.
8. Add cherries and water to pan, cover, and cook until cherries soften, about 5 minutes. Add vanilla and cook for 5 to 10 minutes more, or until cherries begin to break apart.

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Todd says: “The cherry sauce was delicious. It had the right notes of garlic and vanilla, with both working well with the sweet cherry. This was also really easy to make.”

9. Let duck rest for 5 minutes. Slice and serve with cherry sauce drizzled on top.

One-Sentence Book Reviews

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So far I’ve read 20 books in 2016. That’s almost halfway to my goal of 50 reads this year. I’m making good progress, and I’ve found some real gems; some of the titles I’ve delved into recently were just so good that I lingered over them, not wanting them to end. Now I’m on book 21: The Magician King by Lev Grossman. It’s the second installment in his popular trilogy, which is also currently a show on SyFy. I haven’t yet decided whether I prefer the books or the TV series. In the meantime, here are some short reviews to help you decide what to pick up next:

Worth It…

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel: With a style that’s intellectual and moving, and prose that’s constantly self-aware, Mandel weaves a complex mystery that centers on our primal human urge to wander, to leave.

Lingo by Gaston Dorren: Short, amusing vignettes reveal the history, development, and quirks of dozens of languages, both modern and ancient.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman: A baby washes up on shore and a couple decides to keep her, only it isn’t quite so simple in this expansive novel that touches on themes of marriage, love, trust, and community.

Paper Towns by John Green: Like the teenagers whose story it tells—a girl runs off and (sort of) leaves clues for her (sort of) friends to find her—this book is at turns awkward, mysterious, and ultimately hopeful.

 

 

Don’t Bother…

The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin: This novel’s characters fall flat on the page and the book—despite its promising love triangle between a dashing horseman, a young photographer, and an Austrian empress—proves itself to be just shallow as a fortune hunter.

The Rules of Love and Grammar by Mary Simses: This breezy read was chock full of heartwarming moments: homey diners, small-town neighbors, and best friend memories; unfortunately, it had just as many clichés and plot holes.

 

Spring/Summer Garden 3.0

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My very first backyard garden originated from a desire to eat locally, to self-sustain in some small way. Growing primarily herbs and a few tomato plants, I discovered a love for gardening; few activities left me as centered as digging my hands into the dirt or plucking leaves I knew I would cook with later. Last year’s garden saw the addition of a lettuce bed, which really flourished throughout the spring and well into the summer. I loved taking salads made with backyard lettuce to work for lunch, especially if I could also include some ripe homegrown tomatoes.

This year, for my third garden, I’ve followed last year’s layout—lettuce in the shady bed, herbs in the sunnier planter. But I did move all of my veggies to the side of the house, since it gets much more sun than the backyard. And we have lots more variety in our herbs and veggies this year! To help me grow them successfully, I plan to resume my “Growing My Green Thumb” posts (so far I’ve learned about purple basil, Italian parsley, thyme, and lavender) throughout the spring and summer. But until then, here’s an introductory photo tour of what I’m calling Garden 3.0:

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Lettuce bed.

First up, lettuce. Last year’s garden had three kinds, but this year I branched out a little since we were able to find more of a selection. Those tiny shoots on the right-hand side had sprouted up from last year, but it’s too early to tell exactly what type of lettuce they are. Next to them we planted colorful kale, which I’m really excited about, followed by what was simply labeled a “market blend.” Beyond that are red-leaf, buttercrunch, and iceberg varieties that should work well in many different recipes.

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Herb planter.

In the herb garden, I planted purple basil, Thai basil (though these plants already seem to be wilting for some reason), two types of lavender (one of which grew back from last year), German thyme, straight and curly parsley, chives, garlic chives, dill, cilantro, mint, and chamomile. And I didn’t forget this blog’s namesake: pineapple sage!

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Dad, helping me out.

As for veggies, we have a bunch of tomato plants (I even found two different types of heirloom tomatoes this year), as well as red, green, and orange peppers—and some jalapeños we bought by accident. There’s traditional eggplant and Japanese eggplant, leeks, cabbage, baby broccoli, Swiss chard, cauliflower, and squash. Todd really wanted to try growing onions, and I picked out little corn stalks. I don’t have much hope for either the onions or the corn, but I’ll stay positive and see what happens.

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Getting dirty.

Last but not least, I bought a raspberry bush—well, right now it’s more like a stalk with one little bud growing from it. I didn’t realize until later that it can take up to two years to grow and produce fruit, but I’m still excited. Now I’ll have something to look forward to even after summer ends!

Review: ABA Turkish Restaurant

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Last week I went out with my coworkers for lunch. I don’t often write on this blog about my job, but here’s some context: I’m a copy editor for a pretty big consumer magazine. There are three of us on the copy desk, and we read every article at several stages in the production process, looking for things like typos, grammar fixes, and style blunders. Anyway, it was senior copy editor LD’s birthday on Wednesday, so copy chief AD suggested we go out to celebrate. LD decided on ABA Turkish Restaurant, which featured a reasonably priced ($16) lunch special (an appetizer and entree, followed by coffee or tea).

The weather, stuck in a cold spell, made the day feel dreary; a light drizzle pattered down as we walked to ABA. Once inside, I appreciated the restaurant’s snug warmth: dim lighting easy on the eyes, a collection of polished wooden tables provided by a Turkish decorating company. Our friendly server gave us just the right amount of time to look over the menu; service in general seemed efficient without feeling rushed. In the end, all three of us settled on variations of the lunch special.

APPETIZERS
Clockwise from top left: lentil soup, yogurt soup, eggplant salad

AD ordered the lentil soup, which managed to achieve a bold, hearty flavor without being too spicy. The pureed lentils had a nice, thick texture, but I would have preferred the inclusion of whole lentils to lend a little variety to each bite. AD described it as “a fulfilling comfort food on this cold rainy day.”

On the other hand, LD’s soup of the day seemed made for a spring afternoon. She decided to order it after we spent some time puzzling over what “yogurt soup” could possibly mean. I kept imaging something thin, watery, and super tangy; in my mind, it didn’t sound too appealing. Surprisingly, it was actually really delicious—refreshing and light, so creamy and luscious—and I almost wished I had ordered it as well.

I decided on the eggplant salad for my appetizer, though it was not at all like I’d imagined. To me, “eggplant salad” conjures up a vision of chopped grilled eggplant, with some tomatoes, onions, and olives sprinkled throughout. Well, there was one olive, but no tomatoes or onions. Instead, roasted eggplant had been mashed with garlic and red pepper to create a chunky dip (somewhat similar to baba ghanoush). It wasn’t what I expected but once I tasted it, I was hooked. I couldn’t stop eating it, especially smeared atop the crusty bread (one of several types) served to our table.

ENTREES
From left: shaved lamb and beef, Turkish meatballs, grilled chicken kebab

The protein options for the second course (including shaved lamb and beef, grilled chicken, Turkish meatballs, lamb kebab, and falafel, among others) all came with the same sides: rice, red cabbage, and a small salad. The rice had a pleasant toasty depth to it, and the red cabbage gave a burst of brightness to the dish. Though the salad was relatively uninspiring (really just iceberg lettuce and grated carrots), I liked that it was at least a healthy addition to the plate.

AD ordered the thin-sliced lamb and beef gyro meat, subtly spiced and cooked on a rotating spit. The generous portion and traditional flavor left AD feeling satisfied. LD chose the Turkish meatballs, which consisted of char-grilled ground lamb and beef, seasoned with Turkish spices. Even though she didn’t want to eat too much in advance of her birthday dinner, LD couldn’t help but finish all the meat on her plate. I went with a simple order of grilled chicken cubes that ended up having a complex spice profile and were incredibly succulent—and I couldn’t get enough of the crispy char on the outsides. They tasted even better when dunked into my leftover eggplant dip!

COFFEE & TEA
From left: American coffee, Turkish tea

AD, LD, and I got a laugh out of the fact that final “course” of the lunch menu consisted of coffee, tea, and…that’s it. No dessert accompanied the beverages unless, I suppose, you ordered it separately and paid extra. I felt that something should have been offered, even if just a bite-size pastry or a piece of baklava (which, according to the restaurant’s website, is imported directly from Turkey) for the table to split. We also found it amusing that although ABA offered Turkish tea (a specific kind of black tea), the lunch special’s coffee option was “American coffee” (i.e., your average weak and watery cup of joe). As for the Turkish tea, AD commented that it was good but strong. I didn’t try it, but one Turkish reviewer on Yelp lauded its authenticity: it had the “right color, right smell, and right taste.”

OVERALL IMPRESSION

By no means am I an expert on Turkish culture or cuisine, but everything from the decor to the food at ABA felt real. Even better, it didn’t limit itself to only a few menu items; options ranged from pan-fried calf liver or beef dumplings to grilled meats or a vegetable casserole. Although I thought the third course should have included dessert, I found the appetier and entree portions to be just enough for a midday meal: I left feeling full, but not so stuffed that I wanted to go home and take a nap instead of returning to work.