Kitchen remodel: part two

My dad and I haven’t always had a great relationship. I’ve done some dumb shit, and so has he, and we mostly dealt with our respective difficulties with each other by making our visits sparing and short. Over the last few years, I’ve tried to change that by asking both of my parents, separately, to do things I think they’ll enjoy. About two years ago, when asked what I wanted for my birthday, I asked my dad to paint the living room of the very crappy, falling-apart farmhouse I was renting. Sure, the living room needed painted for my own sanity — it was a disgusting institutional olive dingy green color — but I really wanted to spend the time with my dad, learning the trade he’s spent the last 43 years of his life doing.

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So when my dad offered — on his birthday this time — to paint my kitchen and bathroom for me as I continue to update my house, I happily agreed. Not only am I getting a very professional paint job, but it’s a good way for us to spend time together, without the need to fill every silence with words.

“I am here. I do care. Yes, I do want to spend time with you, dad.”

After I moved into my house, the entire thing needed repainted and the floors needed done. I lacked most of the basic tools for either one of these things, but because of the farmhouse experience, I had the skills to paint the house myself. My dad set me up with some tools: rollers, brushes, roller extender, rags, screens, a small bucket, and this ladder. I set to work and did a perfectionist’s job of painting the entire house, except the kitchen and bathroom.

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This ladder has been around as long as I can remember. It was the ladder that accompanied my dad to every side-work project he used to work to fund my private school education and riding lessons and swim team fees, as he stayed up far later than our bedtimes and was nearly always gone by the time we woke up for school. Between work and side-work, he’d pick my sister and I up from school, exactly on time every day at 3:15, dropping us off at sports as needed.

This was the ladder I used to climb so high up when I was little, perching on top, closing my eyes, and pretending I was atop a racehorse. I loved it when the breeze flowed through the garage, and hated when my mother caught me and made me get down. In her mind, that six-foot ladder may as well have been dangling me off of a cliff.

It was the ladder my dad used to fix anything we needed on or inside of the house. While I grew up in a fairly nice house in good repair, he was always painting something, or retrieving something from high up in the garage attic. This ladder was an ever-present part of my life.

I was so surprised when my dad told me I could keep “this old ladder.” He doesn’t know that I remember or care about these things, but this ladder will be the thing I remember my dad by, always. I left his initials on the side, the rags tied around it, and the blue electric tape holding together part of the bucket holder because I love that every bit of it was something he sweat over and spent his life on top of, for me and my family. Maybe to him it’s some old ladder, but to me, it’s an heirloom part of my family.

This ladder is a really, really cool thing to me. I haven’t decided whether I’ll take it out to my own garage, now, and set it up with a rope for reins (nevermind I own a real ex-racehorse, now!), or whether I’ll put it in my dining room and cover wooden shelves with fabric and display some of my favorite things that way.

Sweet potato pizza crust

After finishing those amazing tamales as my last restaurant meal until 2016, I jumped into working for the night. Rather than spending my New Year’s Eve with friends and family, I spent it with coworkers and screwing with drunk people. The DJ was too apathetic to announce when the clock struck twelve, and I broke a shoe at exactly 12:00. Still, it turned out to be a good night, and I left the building feeling like a rock star and ready to eat everything in sight.

I hit the grocery store, and couldn’t pass up getting myself two cheap, glittery “Cheerful Bouquets” for my table to start the year. I wasn’t sad buying them for myself, or longing for a mister. Cooking for one, as inconvenient as it often is, seemed a special treat, a nice time to reflect deeply on the previous year, and set my intentions for the coming year.

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My dining room is still a mess. And truthfully, I mostly moved the table’s contents to the floor for the picture, because I’m an actual human who was exhausted at five o’clock in the morning. I set myself up with a big glass of water, very much needing to refuel after a long night of sweating and working. I worked hard to create a new dish all my own in my head as I took the stage, without the help of Yummly, Whole30, or Google. I came up with a sweet potato pizza crust topped with ground turkey, sweet peppers, onion, fresh mozzarella, and spices. On the side, I used up some left over baby bellas by stuffing them full of ricotta and thawed summer Iowa sweet corn. Recipe below.

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As I quietly rang in my own 2015, happily alone and bathing in the quiet morning hours before sunrise, I became even more attached to this crazy idea that I won’t eat at a restaurant for one full year. I tried to figure out the specifics: Can I have drinks at restaurants while others eat? (Yes.) Are the authentic, beautiful, savory tamales at the Mexican grocery two blocks away considered “grocery store food” or “restaurant food?” (Restaurant food.) What will I say to people who invite me out to dinner? What about explaining this thing to people I don’t know well enough to invite over without some serious awkwardness in explaining my year off? Should I eat out when I travel? (I’ll use social dining apps first, try to find local bed and breakfast-y places on the much-loved AirBnB, stay with friends, grab some grub from the grocery store to snack on, or, yes, as a last resort, eat at a special and local restaurant.)

I started to figure out that this year will require a leap of faith. I’ll have people into my home that I don’t know as well as I normally would before inviting them over and feeding them, or asking them to do something different and explaining my own priorities this year. I’ll have to trust that I will get through the year, and not already corner myself into believing I’ll quit halfway through when hitting up a restaurant is more convenient or PMS is in full fury.

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All the shit you need for this:

  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 2tbsp olive or preferred oil
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2lb cooked and drained ground meat of choice
  • Pizza sauce or marinara
  • Sweet peppers and onion sauteed in butter or oil of choice
  • Fresh mozzarella
  • Oregano
  • Black pepper
  • Smoked paprika
  • Baby portobello mushrooms
  • Ricotta cheese
  • Thawed summer Iowa sweet corn (or…your cooked corn of choice)

Sweet potato pizza crust:

Peel and cook one large sweet potato. I used a microwave because I’m lazy, but you could dice-and-boil, roast (yum!), or bake that bitch. Mash and let cool slightly, probably while you do other things like chop vegetables or cook ground turkey. Add two eggs, stir until it has the consistency of cake batter. If it’s too thin from the egg, add in a little pancake mix or flour to thicken.

Brown 3tbsp butter in skillet on medium heat. Drop in 1/4 – 1/3 of the batter, depending on how many and the size of mini pizzas you want. Flatten out into a 1/4″ thick patty, and cook until pancake-finished on one side. Flip, repeat. Repeat process using rest of batter.

Preheat oven to 400F degrees or so. It doesn’t really matter, but 400 always seems like a nice round number for baking things.

To cook garlic you’ll need later: 3-4 tbsp butter, in skillet on medium, until melted. Add 3 cloves of minced garlic, until garlic is soft and butter is browned.

Grease cookie sheet with olive oil or nonstick spray. Top pizza crusts with whatever pizza sauce you like, or leftover spaghetti sauce. Add ground meat of choice (I used lean turkey), sauteed sweet pepper/onion combo, fresh sliced mozzarella, and garlic from above (save the butter for later, just scoop the garlic out with a fork). Top with oregano, black pepper, and smoked paprika. Bake for about 6-8 minutes, just until toppings are hot and mozzarella is melted. Overcooking will lead to rubbery mozzarella — ew.

To make stuffed mushrooms:

Take out stems and dark brown innards of mushrooms with a spoon, being careful not to bust the sides or bottom. Gently cook mushrooms in butter just long enough to soften, top-down, over medium-low heat — about 4 minutes. Flip, cook another 2-4 minutes with the inside down. Plate, fill with ricotta, top with corn, drizzle the rest of that yummy hot garlic butter over the top, and add paprika or pepper if desired.

Pro tip: eat the mushrooms with your fingers and the pizza with a fork.

You know how Target is, right?

Before I can anxiously say goodbye to my restaurant addiction, I’ve needed to do two things: prepare my dining and cooking areas, and eat at a few of my favorite places.

One of my Overexcited Phase goals was to get new adult-like plates, bowls, silverware, and real (gasp) glasses made of glass. After a great night at work, and also needing
to grab some overdue holiday gifts and tampons, I set off for Target. I could surely find some relatively inexpensive, plain white plates at Target.

These are the things I came home with: thick yoga mat, purple yoga block, hand warmers, cheap gloves, a scratch-off lottery ticket, dog food, a soda, and an orange massage stick with pointy massage balls. These things are not very kitchen-y. I’m an excellent to-do list writer. Very thorough. I am also terrible at following through. You know how Target is, right?

Next project: clearing the dining room table before January 1. After I bought my house in September and moved in officially at the end of October, it became a catch-all spot, as many people’s tables do. I painted the walls and trim, ripped out and replaced the floors in the entire house, and removed a junk ceiling fan/light combination. Here’s where we’re at:

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And over the next year, the baseboard trim will be installed and the trim paint touched up, a large painting hung behind the table, and an electrician to do some rewiring and install a nice modern light fixture with antique bulbs. A restaurant filled only with my favorite people, and the foods I create with lots of love for those people and nourishment for myself.

Next up: dinner at a nice southwestern restaurant with lovely coworkers who radiate happiness. I think it’s going to take me awhile to master making tamales, and I can’t wait to eat a few from one of my favorite places in town.

And tequila. There will definitely be tequila.

Breaking up with eating out

It was worth it while it lasted, and I’ll definitely miss your beautiful lighting, your fancy table cloths, your heavy silverware, and your menus of abundance and flavor. But I think it’s best if we took a break. Just for a year. You’re such a charmer, and I’ve stayed in this relationship much longer than I should have.

I don’t even know how in the fuck this white Midwestern girl will learn to make passable tamales, rich with cumin and onion and something called lard, created by some mysterious steaming process of deliciousness and extra deliciousness. I may lean on the soft, gooey shoulder of a local specialty cheese shop for awhile, which will definitely have to count as a grocery store and not a restaurant.

And I’ll have to make an exception, to come crawling back to restaurants while I’m traveling, or the rare times my very most favorite vegan macaroni and cheese makes the menu at a local vegan restaurant run by a vague acquaintance. We can still be friends, you know. I have clients that love restaurants, and I wouldn’t dare deprive them. But eating at restaurants 10-15 times a week has to stop.

I know my kitchen is pretty ugly, and that my cooking skills are only marginally better since I used my coffee pot to make ramen and jello shots and heat up Spaghettios in 2006. It’s going to be tough: I’m always on my way out the door, I can’t eat some grain products, and there’s a restaurant on every corner calling my name. I might even have to buy some new contraptions to do new things with new foods. I can afford to slip back into the fast and loving embrace of restaurants, any time, and I’ll have to keep my eye on the long-term goals:

  • Re-allocating the money from my big, bad restaurant habit into the continued remodel of my sweet new urban-ish house, including the ugly kitchen with the loud fridge.
  • Spending more quality time with friends in a wider range of activities rather than sticking our heads in menus. I want to know my friends better through the things they love to do and learn, not through their tipping percentages and usual soda order.
  • Learning some of the family recipes (if there are any) from my mother, who can surely cook something other than mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, and pickle roll-ups.
  • Having a better relationship with the origins of my food, the cooking process, and caring for my body by filling it with happy nutrients instead of a pile of sad chemicals.
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No dishwasher and ugly as hell. I’m going to need better fridge magnets.

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A sad fridge lacking in vegetables and drowning in chemicals.