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In the inimitable words of Oliver Wendall Douglas: Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.

There really is an Agritopia® . It's outside of Phoenix and it really is trademarked.

There really is an Agritopia® . It’s outside of Phoenix and it really is trademarked.

 

Golf course condos are passé. The new status symbol is a farm view.
A new kind of residential development is bringing 24/7 farm-to-table living to the suburbs. Called agrihoods, they’re suburban subdivisions built with a working farm as the central feature, in the same way that other developments are clustered around a golf course, or pool, or clubhouse. A few dozen of these planned suburban communities are up and running, and the Urban Land Institute is currently tracking the progress of hundreds more in various stages of development.

The agrihood concept isn’t new but we’re seeing a new breed.
They’re not the hippie-dippy back-to-the-land communes of earlier eras, and they’re more than just a handful of lots being sold off so that a family can keeps its farm. What’s different this time around is the arrival of large corporate developers who are creating massive projects with thousands of housing units on a single tract. They’re anchored by professionally managed, for-profit farms that engage in large scale food production. They’re rich in amenities that give residents the benefits of farm living with none of the chores. And they are a mixed bag. Some are committed to responsible development practices and the preservation of open land; others are sprinkling a little fairy dust of sustainability to push just so much suburban sprawl through local zoning authorities.

The logo'ed plastic cups and bottled water of a Willowsford gathering

The logo’ed plastic cups and bottled water of a Willowsford gathering

More style than substance: Willowsford
300 acres are farmed inside the walls of this gated community in Loudon County, Virginia. Residents of the 2,130 homes can join a CSA or visit their own farm stand, and according to the developer’s brochure, they can also enjoy home grown produce in “The Grange… a gracious gathering space designed in the fashion of an elegant countryside manor… with periodic visits by local and celebrity chefs who use ingredients picked fresh from Willowsford Farm to create pop-up restaurant menus.”

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SaveOrangeCounty.org responds to the proposed construction of 5,000 new homes.


Green-washing’ the billion dollar agrihood: Lake Pickett South
The Florida developer’s website describes the development as “an idyllic setting that is steeped in nostalgia and mindful of nature…inspired by the rural lifestyle of yesteryear, enabling people to forge a relationship with the land and each other…” That’s some high-fallutin’ language for a plan to create the region’s largest cluster of car-dependent residents on environmentally sensitive land.

 

The Cannery connects to one of the nation's most well-developed biking infrastructures

The Cannery connects to one of the nation’s most well-developed biking infrastructures

 

Big isn’t necessarily bad: The Cannery.
You can’t plunk down just any project in Davis, California, a college town that’s known for leading environmental stewardship. The Cannery began with low-impact land use by reclaiming an abandoned tomato packing plant. Each of its almost 600 residences will be electric car-ready, generate its own solar energy, and be planted with fruit and nut trees. All will be within 300 feet of the city’s network of bicycle paths, and the campus and downtown can both be reached within five minutes. The developer deeded the farmland to the city, which will run it with an educational focus.

 

Open space, bucolic views, and farm fresh food. You might not save the planet, but it’s a beautiful day in the agrihood.

 

 

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Has the High Price of Eggs Got You Down? Rent a Chicken.

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Egg prices have more than doubled in most of the country and there are more increases to come.
An avian flu outbreak that struck farms in egg-producing mid-western states has led to the deaths of more than 48 million chickens causing wholesale prices to skyrocket—a record-breaking 85% jump in May alone. Because most of the affected birds were egg-laying or breeding chickens as opposed to those raised for meat, it’s wreaked havoc on chicken economics. For the first time ever, eggs are a more expensive form of protein than chicken breasts.

Measures for these desperate times.
The egg shortage forced the Whataburger chain to abbreviate its breakfast service, Rita’s franchises substituted eggless soft-serve for its signature frozen custard, and Chinese-American Panda Express tried putting the yellow in its fried rice with corn kernels. But for everyone with a backyard there’s another option: chicken rentals.

People lease cars because it’s less hassle and commitment than ownership; same with chickens.
There’s a slew of poultry leasers out there with regional and even national presence like Rent the Chicken, Rent-a-Chicken, The Easy Chicken, Urban Chicken Rentals, Coop and Caboodle, and Rent a Coop. They all follow pretty much the same formula: For around $150 a month, they deliver two or more hens that are of egg-laying age, a portable chicken coop, food, bedding, and supplies to last the rental period, and an instruction manual. The rental season usually runs from late spring to early fall, the prime laying season with long daylight hours and warmer temperatures when a chicken produces about an egg a day. At the end of the rental period, the leasing company comes to retrieve the whole setup,

Poultry leasers report that about half of their renters have grown so attached to the chickens that they opt to purchase them outright rather than return them for the winter. These are backyard farmers who got hooked on the fresh eggs, the feathered pet-like creatures, and some serious locavore bragging rights. Others are relieved to hand back filthy, shrieking fowl that barely edge out snakes in cuddliness, and are prone to ailments like poultry mites and pasty butt.

For those inclined toward the latter version of avian husbandry, you can always lease your own little piece of the farm while keeping your fingernails clean with Rent Mother Nature. There are no laying hens but you can lay claim to a beehive in the Catskills, an oyster bed on the Puget Sound, a lobster trap off the coast of Maine, or a pistachio tree in the Arizona desert, and for one season the harvest is yours. You can lease a dairy cow and the farmer will ship back wheels of cheese, the sap from your stand of sugar maples comes to you as syrup, and the wheat from your leased acre of farmland is milled into flour. Rent Mother Nature sends out periodic progress reports during the growing season, and many of the farmers welcome personal visits from lease-holders. There’s a minimum guaranteed bounty with a roll-over to the next season if it’s not met, and your larder will overflow if there’s a bumper crop.

 

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Actually, Grandma Isn’t All That Good a Cook

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                              [grandmothers and their cooking- images via Gabriele Galimberti]

 

According to a CNN/Eatocracy poll, Grandma’s cooking is pretty hit-or-miss.
21.5% report ‘wonderful’ food coming out of both of their grandmothers’ kitchens, but most rate at least one of their grandmas in the range of ‘decent’ to ‘yuck.’

Does it even matter?
Nonna, Bubbe, Grammy, Abuela– Grandmother in every language is synonymous with warm and squishy feelings. It’s associated with the soft focussed nostalgia of childhood celebrations, family gatherings, and traditional dishes. So what if Grandma over-cooks and under-salts everything?

Grandma probably doesn’t know from whole grains, goat cheese, and fresh ginger. She started cooking when lettuce meant iceberg, the best coffee came ground in a can, and yogurt was strictly for health nuts. But she also wasn’t cooking with mono- and diglycerides, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, modified food starch, and the multitude of flavorings, preservatives, and texturizers found in today’s food. We call it ‘whole food’ when we cook without processed and refined ingredients; grandmothers just call it food.

Scientists theorize that feeding grandchildren has essentially transformed human evolution.
The grandmother hypothesis looks at the role of grandmothers in the early history of our species. It says that healthy, long-lived grandmothers helped feed their grandchildren, freeing their daughters to produce more children at shorter intervals. This meant that grandmothers with the greatest longevity ended up feeding the most grandchildren. Those descendants, who also carried the longevity gene, went on to enrich the gene pool of our ancestors. Recent simulations run by the Anthropology Department at the University of Utah suggest that 60,000 years of Grandma’s cooking has added 20 years to our lifespans.

With In Her Kitchen, the Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti celebrates the breadth of grandmothers’ cooking. He visited 58 countries, documenting family matriarchs and their traditional meals in a multitude of cultures and contexts. Each is photographed with a symmetrical arrangement of ingredients paired with a second image of the completed dish. Click through the images for a brief biography of each woman as well as recipes for each dish.

All those proud grandmas in their kitchens; you can’t help but smile. Who cares if any of them can really cook?!

 

 

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Makers and Hackers: Here’s Your Refrigerator

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The FirstBuild co-creation community debuted a really smart refrigerator at CES 2015, the giant, global consumer electronic fest that landed in Las Vegas this week.
FirstBuild‘s industrial designers, scientists, engineers, and fabricators partnered with GE Appliances to reimagine household appliances. The ChillHub is the collaboration’s first community-generated product launch.

The ChillHub refrigerator isn’t just smart; it’s hackable.
It’s got WiFi connectivity, 8 USB ports, and is compatible with a Best Buy-full of other appliances, gadgets, sensors, and control systems like Nest and OneCue. But the real draw is that it’s all open-source. The source code, circuit board, and the mobile app are free and available to anyone that wants to tinker, modify, or customize the fridge. In keeping with the open-source spirit, creators are encouraged to design 3-D printable ChillHub accessories and share the templates with other owners who can download, print, and assemble their own products.

Dozens of different accessory components are currently in various stages of production, some still in the concept phase and others that are already distributed through the FirstBuild website. There are diet trackers, bacteria-killing lights, an egg tray that hard boils your breakfast, and an in-fridge safe to keep medicine out of a child’s reach. Coffee brewers and smoothie makers are big, as are dispensers (milk, beer, soda), butter (softener, stick cap), and anything that makes bad refrigerator smells go away.

Visit FirstBuild.com to see the the ChillHub and its many user-created accessories, from the frivolous to the functional.

 

 

 

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He’ll Look at Your Kitchen and Guess Your Weight

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[Image by Frank H. Nowell via University of Washington Libraries]

Brian Wansink is on a mission to change the way we eat.
As the director of the famed Cornell Food and Brand Lab he’s given the world the 100-calorie snack pack and the Ig Noble Award-winning Bottomless Soup Bowl Experiment. He’s scrutinized centuries of Last Supper paintings to track the evolution of portion sizes, and knows just how many more people will order mac and cheese if you add the descriptor ‘creamy.’ Wansink is pretty much the foremost authority on why we make so many bad food choices, and he’s concluded that most people basically have no idea how much they’re putting in their mouths or why.

Your tastebuds and appetite aren’t calling the shots.
Of the 220 or so food-related choices you face in an average day, Wansink has found that maybe 15 of them lead to conscious, active decision-making based on health, hunger, and taste. The vast majority are of the mindless variety—when you help yourself to seconds because the bowl is right there or take a gulp of orange juice because you saw the carton when you opened the refrigerator. Your kitchen is leading you—even tricking you—into mindless eating.

There are fat kitchens and skinny kitchens.
Wansink’s research determined that easy access to certain foods predicts the weight trajectory of a kitchen’s denizens. Occupants weigh nine pounds more than the norm when a box of cookies or bag of potato chips is sitting on the counter. A visible box of cereal correlates to an extra 21 pounds. Soda is the most dangerous countertop fixture—even when it’s diet soda—associated with 25 extra pounds, while a filled fruit bowl predicts that the occupant will weigh eight pounds less than the norm.

You too can have a skinny kitchen:

  • Wrap your ice cream in foil.
    Put the cookies on the highest shelf or the lowest. Turn the pantry into a coat closet and the coat closet into a pantry. Do whatever you have to do so that you’re thinking before you indulge, and even working for it.
  • Add color.
    You eat more in a white kitchen. You also serve yourself more on white plates. The contrast works against you, encouraging you to fill the negative space.
  • Skip the candles.
    You linger at the table when the lights are low. Dim lights lead to second helpings.
  • Think small.
    You’re probably going to eat 90% of whatever is on your plate, so make it a smaller plate. And while you’re at it, a smaller serving spoon can cut serving size by 14% regardless of the plate size.
  • Rearrange your food.
    Mindless Eating 101: if you see it, you’ll eat it. You’re three times more likely to eat the first food you see in the cupboard than the fifth; the same goes for the top shelf of the refrigerator versus the crisper.
  • Check the door swing.
    You’ll cook more vegetables if you give them the path of least resistance. Your refrigerator should open toward the sink where you’ll wash and prep them. It’s about a $40 repair job if you’re swinging the wrong way.

In a perfect world, we would all eat mindfully. In the real world, something like 90% of us are mindlessly ruled by environmental food triggers. In his recently published Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday LifeWansink doesn’t try to fight those tendencies, but helps us understand and manipulate eating environments so that, even when it’s mindless, we’ll eat less and enjoy it more.

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Everyone Wants to Walk to the Coffee Shop

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Abbey Road via Apple (Parlophone)/EMI

Urbanologists call it The Great Inversion.
The last half century was spent fleeing the blight and density of cities. Now we want to go back. The jacuzzi-tubbed four-bedroom suburban spread doesn’t signal the success it once did. These days you’re a nobody if you can’t walk out the front door and get a latté.

It’s a cultural shift built on coffee.
77% of Americans say that walkability is a hugely important factor when they decide where to live. Most say that they would choose a small home with nearby amenities over a larger home where they have to drive everywhere. And the favored amenity isn’t schools, churches, parks, or movie theaters; it’s a café that’s within walking distance.

A premium coffee vendor is no small thing to a neighborhood.
It signals that a neighborhood has 
arrived, that it has economic vitality and cultural momentum that can continue to snowball into something greater. Realtors and civic associations even refer to this type of upswing as the ‘Starbucks Effect.’ And we’re not just talking about fuzzy, quality of life issues; there is usually a real increase in property values when a neighborhood acquires food-related amenities.

Walk Score rates the walkability of any home or business. It calculates a score from 0–100 for any address— 100 is a Walker’s Paradise and 0 is totally Car Dependent. The algorithm assigns points based on the nearby amenities, as well as factors like cul de sacs (not a walk-friendly feature) and block lengths (shorter is better). A car-free lifestyle becomes possible with a score upward of 80. A study conducted by CEOs for Cities uses Walk Scores to quantify the Starbucks Effect: it estimates that each point adds $3,000 to a home’s sales price.

What’s your Walk Score?
If you’ve ever lived in a highly walkable neighborhood, you already know what a beautiful thing it is. Walkable communities are happier, healthier, safer, cleaner, and greener.

See the Walk Scores of some well-known residences:
The Obama’s former Chicago home has a middling Walk Score of 71. The move to the White House got them into a home with the very robust score of 97.
The Brady Bunch ranch house had a Walk Score of 74; very respectable for the San Fernando Valley.
Monica’s lower Manhattan apartment on Friends scores an unbeatable 100 points.

 

 

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You’ll Be Gone Long Before These Foods

This is not about Twinkies.
Or Christmas fruitcake, circa 2004. Or leftovers that wear out their welcome.

Forget what you think you know about spoilage, shelf-life, and expiration dates.
This is a list of foods that never go bad. You don’t toss them when you clean out the pantry, remodel your kitchen, or move to another city.
You’ll be long gone, but that box of brown sugar will live on.

The sweeteners

 

White, brown, or powdered, sugar never goes bad. Bacteria can’t feed on sugar, so it will never spoil. Corn syrup is also a keeper, but we’re not fans of the stuff. Honey, with its own antibacterial properties, has been famous for its longevity ever since centuries-old honey pots were unearthed from ancient Egyptian tombs, and found to be perfectly edible. Maple syrup has a surprisingly limited shelf life of just a year or so, but who knew you could freeze maple syrup indefinitely?!

 

The carbs

Unless you’re wild about gravy, that tin of cornstarch could be the last one you’ll ever buy, since it never goes bad. All of the white rice varieties, like jasmine, arborio, and basmati, will keep forever; the higher oil content of brown rice makes those varieties prone to spoilage. Wild rice is another food that will outlast you, even though it’s not a rice at all, but is an edible grass.

 

The condiments

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Salt—kosher, iodized, from the sea, or chiseled from mines—it never goes bad. Its resistance to bacterial growth makes it handy as a preservative for other foods. Like salt, vinegar is also used to extend the shelf life of other foods, and is, in a pure state without added flavorings, eternally self-preserving. Vanilla (the extract, not the beans) doesn’t just last forever; it actually improves with age. The cheaper, artificial extract is no bargain when you consider the cost to replace it every few years when its flavor fades. Spring for the good stuff and your grandchildren will still be baking with it.

Heat, light, moisture, air, and pests; these are the enemies. Keep them away from your pantry, and you can keep these foods forever.

When in doubt, check with the keep it or toss it query bar at Still Tasty.

 

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Young Men Are Digging the Dirt

image via Giddy Limits

image via Giddy Limits

 

← This is the average American gardener.
She’s over 45 years old and there is a 79% chance that she’s college educated. She spends an average of five hours a week and $70 a year on her hobby, mostly at garden centers. She almost certainly grows tomatoes.

 

This is the new American gardener. 

image via Williamsburg News

image via Williamsburg News

 

 

 

 

He’s between 18 and 34. He’s not puttering in his own backyard but in the yard of his rental or maybe a community garden. In fact he’s not puttering at all because he’s busy taking on the industrialized food system.

These new gardeners and have little in common with the ladies in floppy sun hats. They plant more intensively in much smaller spaces (96 square feet versus the typical old-school garden of 600 square feet) and spend lavishly (an average of $440), plunking down more in hardware stores than other gardeners. They pass on herbicides, pesticides, and ornamental plantings and have created a boom market for hot peppers and beer hops.

Gardening rates have exploded in the past five years with participation up from 36 million households in 2008 to 42 million in 2013.
Five million of those new gardeners came from the 18-34 year old age group, with young men (6 million) quickly gaining on young women (7 million), and most of those are first-time gardeners. Fully 35% of all households in America are now growing food at home or in a community garden. Garden purchases are a top priority for discretionary spending, ranking third after Christmas and weight loss-related purchases; they’re in second place if you throw in the $7 billion spent on garden gnomes and other decorative accessories.

Read more about recent trends in the National Gardening Association’s Garden to Table report on the last five years of food gardening America.
The Art of Manliness enumerates 7 Reasons to Become a Gentleman Gardener.
Read some true life tales of gardening lads who blog:
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Dinner Party Wars

image via MissOmniMedia

image via MissOmniMedia

 

There’s a show on the Food Network in Canada called Dinner Party Wars:

Dinner Party Wars invites you to enjoy a deliciously hilarious hour of wining, dining and undermining as three couples go head to head in a ruthless, no-holds-barred dinner party competition. Hidden cameras capture every detail as testy guests come to blows and taste buds are either tickled or tortured.

A Canadian chef and a British etiquette expert serve as arbiters of taste and style by mocking, critiquing, and choosing an eventual winner from competitions like Gnocchi Knockdown and Chicken Bingo.

This is home entertaining as a full contact sport.
It’s soulless competition, a manifestation of our over-heated foodie-ism that has turned dining into an emblem of status and lifestyle. And it’s a far cry from the simple pleasures of sharing a hand-crafted meal with friends.

It’s easy to see where we lost our way. 
It started with Martha—the one we love to hate and hate to love. Martha Stewart taught us to sweat the details with her asparagus bundles braided with strands of chive. She instilled in us her mania for perfection and armed us with stencils, X-acto knives, and a carpenter’s level to decorate cookies.

Then the foodies took over. We learned to critique every morsel, abandoning genuine gustatory pleasures as we vet the preparation and provenance of each locally-grown, artisan-crafted, bee-friendly bite. Entertaining is fraught with political correctness and one-upmanship knowing that you’ll be drummed out of polite society if you serve the wrong coffee.

Dinner party perfection should be at most aspirational. We shouldn’t expect to reproduce the slick pages of Bon Appetit or Martha Stewart Living any more than a reader of Playboy expects to date a Playmate. 
And in any case there’s always a lot of air-brushing going on.

Our current favorite antidote to dinner host anxiety is Kinfolk. 
It’s a magazine, dinner and workshop series, online journal, and film series that celebrate the soul of the dinner party. It’s about artistry, but it’s scaled back to a simple elegance. You’ll find recipes, table settings, and shopping resources, but it’s more inspirational than instructional. There’s nothing super-human about any of it. Feet on the ground, sleeves rolled up, and you’ll get there by dinner time.

 

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Things To Do with a Freezer During a Polar Vortex

 

Move over, freezer. You’ve been replaced by a polar vortex.
The weather phenomenon has spawned an online craze for homegrown science experiments that exploit the frigid temperatures. There’s the boiling-water toss (I’ll spare you the frozen urine iteration), the frozen egg on a New York sidewalk, the shattering frozen t shirt, and everyone’s favorite frozen bubbles.
How can a household appliance compete with that?!

Here are some alternative uses that will restore your freezer appreciation:


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Clean a pot
Stick pots and pans in the freezer to remove stuck-on, burned-on messes. It works even better than soaking.

 

Beeswax-taper-candles

 

 

Extend the burning time of candles
Frozen wax burns more slowly.

 

top-secret-envelope

 

Open an envelope 
A minute in the freezer and a sealed envelope pops right open. Snoop with impunity with none of the telltale rippling marks left by steam.

 

Harddrive on Ice

 

Revive a hard drive
A few hours in the freezer can be a temporary fix. It won’t bring a crashed drive back to life but it will buy you a few precious minutes to copy files.

 

gum

Unstick gum
Sticky gum and candy will flake right off. Freeze the host object—clothing, shoes, upholstery—long enough for the gum to harden.

 

booksale

Eliminate musty smells
A day or two in the freezer kills molds, mildew, dust mites, bacteria, and other nasties that come along with old books and attic-stored clothes.

 

Even in a polar vortex your freezer can come in handy. Anyway, winter can’t last forever.

 

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Picking Up the Tab for the White House Kitchen

image via Lame Cherry

image via Lame Cherry

 

Room but not board.
That’s the deal we make with presidents. They live rent free in the White House but meals run them extra.
If food is served at a state function, the government picks up the tab; when it comes to family meals, they’re on their own.

Groceries are delivered from various Secret Service-approved commercial suppliers, and they’re randomly rotated for added security. Household staff members fill in the basics with runs to butcher shops, supermarkets, and farmers markets. At the end of each month, the bills are tallied and submitted to Mr. and Mrs. Obama. Personal care items like toothpaste, shaving cream, and Tylenol are on the tab, plus the cost of snacks for Air Force One.

The Obamas also pay the salary of the chef who prepares the First Family’s meals.
Past First Families all opted to pay just for the groceries and have their family meals prepared by the White House kitchen staff—an executive chef, executive pastry chef, and four sous-chefs, paid for with taxpayer dollars. The Obamas chose to bring in a personal chef, Sam Kass, who works in a small private kitchen on the residence level of the White House. Kass has been cooking for the Obamas since their Chicago days and knows their likes and dislikes so well that he rarely consults with them on menu planning. He’s also notoriously tight-lipped about their eating habits saying little more than “we have very balanced meals,” and that the family “walks the walk” with Michelle Obama’s healthful food initiative for the country.

Still, a few details have leaked out about the Obama family dinner hour.
We know that the president sits down at 6:30 to eat with the family nearly every night, a practice that is much criticized for his perceived neglect of  the traditional schmoozing time for Washington’s power players. Meals begin with a quick blessing and a clink of their glasses. The family typically plays a round of rose and thorn—going around the table, each member shares something positive from their day (the rose) and also something difficult or unpleasant (the thorn). Meal-time is soda-free, peanut-free (Malia’s allergic), vegetables are plentiful, they eat brown rice instead of white, and dessert is served just a few times a week. The president detests beets and loves double-crusted fruit pies.

Dinners out are rare, in part because they turn into a major production.
A Secret Service detail conducts an advance walk-through of the restaurant, scoping out the Obamas’ points of entry and exit, and seating. Metal detecting wand-wielding agents position themselves at the front door, and a dozen or so more take up positions inside and out, including a multi-talented chef-agent who supervises kitchen security. The Obamas arrive by motorcade with leading and trailing police motorcycle and cruiser escorts. There’s an ambulance, a couple of communications vans, and some black Chevy Suburbans carrying still more Secret Service agents behind tinted glass. Somewhere in there are multiple armored limousines, one of which holds the First Family.

Why bother?
Especially when there’s a brigade of White House cooks, an organic garden, the remnants of Thomas Jefferson’s wine cellar, and never a dish to wash.

We’ll probably never know what’s on the Obamas’ shopping list.
An annual report is submitted to Congress that documents official, tax-supported White House expenses. But the First Family’s personal expenses, paid for out of their own pockets, are their own business.

 

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The Family Dinner. It’s Not Just for the Holidays.

Dinner with the Andersons: Jim, Margaret, Princess, Bud, and Kitten

Dinner with the Andersons: Jim, Margaret, Princess, Bud, and Kitten; via Screen Gems

 

The reality of a family dinner bears little resemblance to its mythical counterpart.
It’s the rare household with mom, dad, and kids sharing the events of the day over meaty roasts and noodle casseroles. There is probably more texting to outsiders than sharing with family. And a weekday roast? In your dreams.
But that’s okay because family mealtime is not just about the warm and fuzzies of the cultural ideal.

A regular shared meal can pay huge family dividends.
Study after study points to the same thing: regular family dinners lead to happier and healthier kids. They’re less likely to smoke, drink, abuse prescription or illegal drugs, or develop eating disorders, obesity, or depression. They watch less television, delay sexual activity, and get better grades in school. 
Clearly there’s something to this.

Whatever it is, it’s not just about the food.
The ‘secret sauce’ of a successful family dynamic is not in Mom’s meatloaf. Obviously there are plenty of other factors that contribute to a family’s well-being and anchor its values. A common mealtime is just one piece, but it seems to be the bellwether.

Go heal the planet, but don’t be late for dinner!
Since producing the environmental crusade An Inconvenient Truth, Laurie David has been advocating for family well-being. The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time doesn’t have Al Gore’s narration, but it does have child-care experts, writers, artists, and chefs sharing their personal dinnertime rituals. Participants include Maya Angelou, Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali, Alice Waters, Arianna Huffington, Nora Ephron, Judge Judy, Michael Pollan, and Sheryl Crow.

The differences between families that eat together frequently (defined as eating five or more family dinners per week) and infrequently (fewer than three times per week) are striking. The definitive studies have been conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Read the full report: The Importance of Family Dinners VI.

Try it, even if it’s just a takeout pizza and nobody has anything to say.
There’s no guarantee that the food is any healthier just because we eat together as a family. It doesn’t guarantee meaningful conversation, much less moments of genuine intimacy.
But the ritual of the family dinner at least makes these things possible.

 

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The More We Spend On Our Kitchens, The Less We Cook In Them

Julia Child in her pegboard kitchen

Julia Child in her pegboard kitchen

 

Are you looking or are you cooking?
According to Remodeling Magazine, the average cost of a midrange kitchen remodel in 2013 was $53,931 and the average upscale project cost $107,406. For all that expense, we’re not cranking up the six-burner Viking rangetop very often. About half of our food spending is in restaurants, and as incomes rise, cooking drops off even more. Just 11% of Americans eat two hot, home-cooked meals a day, and in households earning more than $120,000 a year, a mere 2.4% have those two hot meals at home. And presumably the higher earners represent the households with the pricey remodels.

We salivate over acres of gleaming granite and stainless steel and 22-slot blocks of Japanese knives from a hot new bladesmith, even when the dual door Sub-Zero is stocked with nothing more than red-boxed Stouffer’s, Trader Joe’s burritos, and pints of Ben & Jerry’s. Kitchen square footage has doubled over the last 30 years to give ample space for high-end appliances and specialized cookware. We spend giddy hours online drooling over the design possibilities on display at Houzz and Pinterest, and we’re consumed by choosing among the 55 different shapes and sizes of whisks for sale at Sur la Table. We love everything about our kitchens except for the actual cooking.

We love to watch others cook.
There’s a tv set in 35% of American kitchens and it’s probably tuned to a cooking channel. When it comes to our own cooking, we spend an average of 27 minutes a day on food preparation —less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of Top Chef. Even when we do cook, the Viking’s 30,000 BTUs of firepower are sitting idle. In fact the stove is only our second favorite kitchen appliance with first place going to the microwave. Entrées are prepared from scratch just 59% of the time, down from 72% in the 1980’s, and we’ve even decreased the number of ingredients per dish, from a 1980’s average of 4.4 to a current 3.4. One in ten adults will literally never turn on their stove or oven.

Who wouldn’t want a spacious, good-looking, well-equipped kitchen? But real cooks know how to make the most of whatever they’ve got, and some of the best cooks work their magic with the least impressive batterie de cuisine.

Author, cooking tool expert, and home cook extraordinaire Michael Ruhlman shares his equipment recommendations in My Essential Kitchen Tools
Food writer Mark Bittman, formerly of the ‘Minimalist’ column in the New York Times, gives us the flip side, sharing his picks for 10 non-essential kitchen items in A No-Frills Kitchen Still Cooks.

 

 

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Tech Support from the Kitchen

 

Rocket scientist apron via Zazzle

Rocket scientist apron via Zazzle

 

When it comes to tech support, nothing tops the kitchen.
It’s a treasure trove of fix-it potential. There’s wood and metal, plastic and glass; things that cool and things that heat; hard surfaces and soft; sticky and smooth.
Forget about help lines and warranties, everything you need to keep your gadgets running smoothly is right there.

 

resized

Boost your home Wi-Fi
Most home routers project the signal in a circle. But most routers sit near the wall where the connection comes in to your home. That means that half of its signal is drifting outside through the wall. A couple of cookie sheets or a semi-circle of foil will redirect the signal back into your house.

 

http://ashscrapyard.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/frozen-phone-freezer.jpg

Keep your phone charged.
Did you forget your cell phone charger again?
Put the phone in a cold place—the freezer compartment of the minibar fridge in your hotel room, or just a nice cold windowsill in wintertime. The cold will slow down the chemical processes inside the phone’s battery and extend the life of the charge

 

http://images.teamsugar.com/files/usr/1/15111/IMG_3210.preview.jpg

New life for old iPods
Early generations of iPods were plagued by temperamental hard drives that would lose their alignment. We’d constantly power up and power down, give them a shake or a gentle smack. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. There are newer, more reliable models, but if you’re still plugging your earbuds into vintage Apple, you can try to bring it back to life with a night in the freezer. The hard drive contracts from the cold, and more often than not it reseats itself properly as it thaws.

 

http://www.paperstone.co.uk/images/NewsImages/2011/banana-cd.jpgSafely fix scratchy disks (better than the method you use now)
CD and DVD lasers read data from a metal disk protected by a thin layer of plastic. When that top layer is scratched, a lot of people reach for an abrasive cleaner that makes the scratches shallower by rubbing off more plastic. Not the safest for data, but it works. Better still is a method that restores the protective layer: peel a banana and rub the fruit on the disk; then rub it in with the inside of the peel. Wipe away the excess and it’s indistinguishable (to you or to a laser) from the plastic coating.

 

http://img4-1.realsimple.timeinc.net/images/1005/new-uses-rice-cellphone_300.jpgDry a wet cellphone
Studies tell us that one in three smartphone users bring their phones with them into the bathroom, and eventually, more than half of them will drop it into the toilet. Act fast and it might be resuscitated. 
Take out the battery, wipe it all dry, inside and out, and put the phone and battery in a bowl of rice. It’s the same principle as a few grains of rice in a salt shaker—rice has a kind of magnetic attraction for water molecules and if you leave the phone in there overnight the rice will pull out all the moisture. As long as the battery didn’t get soaked, the phone should be fine, although considering where it’s been, a little cleaning might be in order.

Combine a little patience with some ingenuity and a well-stocked pantry, and look what you can accomplish.

Posted in gadgets, home, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Luck! Prosperity! Harmony!

 

[lucky feng shui cat]

[lucky feng shui cat]

Feng Shui is not just a collection of superstitions.
Feng shui is a system of aesthetics that adds up to a technique for living. Global businesses like McDonald’s and Disney are regularly guided by feng shui principles when they develop properties, and some U.S. cities have toyed with incorporating the techniques into their building codes. They know that when the elements of your environment are in harmony, and negative energy is deflected, there’s a flow of positive energy that brings balance and vitality to your life. Health, wealth, fertility, personal growth, and positive relationships will find you.

Feng shui in the kitchen.
The kitchen is an important room in both Eastern and Western cultures. It’s the most heavily trafficked room of the house, and the place most closely aligned with a household’s prosperity and well-being. Eating is critical to the entire cycle of health, humor, work, and family. It’s also entwined with the five natural elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water—that play a role in feng shui. The kitchen needs a little special attention.

Layout
Ideally, you shouldn’t be able to walk into your home and see the kitchen right off the bat. That would portend digestive and nutritional disorders because of all the coming and going. If your kitchen is visible from the entry you need to draw attention away from it by placing an eye-catching object or artwork in a different direction. The cook should been in command with a good vantage point. A cooking island is an excellent option.

The stove is all-important. It shouldn’t be under a window, face a bathroom, or be situated beneath a bathroom that’s on an upper floor. Rotate the burner you cook on to keep your wealth circulating. Empty the tea kettle when you’re done using it: since the stove is a fire element, water shouldn’t sit on the stove for long periods of time or it can dampen your passion for life. Microwave ovens are convenient but don’t lead to serenity.

Color
Reds, pinks, and purples overload a kitchen with fire and can lead to family squabbling at mealtime. You also don’t want to use too many water colors like deep blues or greens that will compete with the ever-present fire of the stove. White symbolizes purity and cleanliness, so it’s always a good choice. If there’s not a lot of natural air and light, non-fluorescent lighting and circulating fans will keep the positive energy moving. Crystals will further magnify and enhance this.

What’s sitting out?
Knives can cut the energy flow so they should never be in an open rack with the blades visible. A hanging rack of pots and pans can be overwhelming. If you have one, make sure it’s not directly above an area where you cook or eat. Fresh flowers bring uplifting energy to the kitchen. Dried flowers are not recommended. Best of all is a bowl of oranges for good luck— arrange nine of them together to bring the most power to the room.

Try to limit kitchen clutter. Unanchored objects disrupt the peace and they can drag you down with their extra weight, especially if you want to lose some weight of your own. Dieters will do best in a clutter-less kitchen. Keep counter tops clear and drawers and cupboards tidy. Don’t allow food to linger too long in your pantry or refrigerator—stale food will bring stale energy to your kitchen.

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Make Your Own Gin (no bathtub necessary)

 

Homemade-Gin-Kit-4

[image via The HomeMade Gin Kit]

 

Gin is just vodka with some added flavorings.
Sorry, gin aficionados, but it’s true. The gin might find itself retailing for a few times the vodka price in a handblown crystal bottle with a bejeweled stopper, but they both started life as the same, un-aged, flavorless, grain alcohol.

That’s why it’s so easy to make your own gin.Commercial gin producers start by distilling grain into the vodka-esque base. Most producers will put it through a second distillation to get the flavoring in there in vapor form, but some will simply flavor it and bottle it. That’s what you’re going to do, and it makes a perfectly respectable gin, especially since you get to flavor it to your liking.

Home distilling is illegal.
In fact it’s illegal in every single country in the world, with the sole exception of New Zealand. No worries though, because there’s plenty of inexpensive, already distilled, neutral-tasting alcohol to use as your base. In other words, you’re going to start with some cheap vodka.

The basic recipe is no more complicated than making tea. You soak juniper berries, coriander, and citrus peel in the vodka and strain them out when it’s flavored. A funnel and cheesecloth will do, although a Brita-type filter pitcher is even better (and as any budget-conscious cocktail lover knows, an initial run through the Brita does wonders for inferior vodka).

Premium gins are distinguished by subtle differences in their taste profiles—Tanqueray is pungent with juniper, Bombay Sapphire has a hint of licorice, Hendrick’s tastes like cucumbers—but the precise blend of spices and botanicals in each is usually a closely guarded secret. Homemade gin gives you license to experiment. You can spice it up with dried chiles and peppercorns; warm it with spices like star anise, cloves, and cinnamon sticks; and add herbal, fruit, or floral notes.

Aspiring mixologist types that don’t know where to start can buy a gin-making kit complete with a pre-mixed blend of spices, botanicals, flowers, and aromatics.
You can also find plenty of gin-making recipes and other resources at any of the social networks for cocktail enthusiasts like Imbibe, See My Drink, On the Bar, and eGullet’s Spirits & Cocktails Forum.
DIY G&T:  Serious Eats has a recipe for homemade tonic water.

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, diversions, home | 1 Comment

Not Cooking in Our Really Nice Kitchens

Julia Child in her pegboard kitchen

 

It’s an oft-told tale: acres of gleaming granite and stainless steel, a six-burner Viking range pumping out 30,000 BTUs of fire power, the 22-slot block of Japanese knives from a hot new bladesmith; and the dual door Sub-Zero is stocked with frozen pizza and Hot Pockets, red-boxed Stouffer’s, Trader Joe’s burritos, and pints of Ben & Jerry’s.
It’s not just an amusing anecdote. The more we spend on our kitchens, the less we cook in them.

According to Remodeling Magazine’s Cost Vs. Value report, the average cost of a midrange kitchen remodel in 2011-2012 was $57,494 while the average upscale project cost $110,938. Kitchen square footage has doubled over the last 30 years, giving ample space for high-end appliances and specialized cookware. We spend giddy hours online drooling over the design possibilities on display at Houzz and Pinterest, and are consumed by the choice of whisk from the 55 different shapes and sizes for sale at Sur la Table. We love everything about our kitchens, except we’re not so hot on the actual cooking.

For all that expense, we’re not cranking up the Viking very often. About half of our food spending is in restaurants; just 11% of Americans eat two hot, home-cooked meals a day. And cooking drops as income rises, so a mere 2.4% of households earning more than $120,000 have those two hot meals at home—and presumably these higher earners represent the households with the pricey remodels.

That home cooking ain’t what it used to be.
We spend just 27 minutes a day on food preparation— less time than it takes to watch an episode of Iron Chef America. Our entrées are prepared from scratch 59% of the time, down from 72% in the 1980’s. We’ve even decreased the number of ingredients per dish, from a 1980’s average of 4.4 to a current 3.4. Scarily, about 10% of adults use the microwave for virtually all of their cooking.

When it comes to your kitchen, are you looking or are you cooking?

 

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Airbnb for Home Cooking

 

It’s called the new sharing economy, collaborative consumption, the peer-to-peer marketplace.
The success of Airbnb cemented the intersection of online social networking, mobile technology, the DIY movement, and the heightened frugality of lingering economic uncertainties. If you want to borrow or rent someone’s apartment, bicycle, car, lawnmower, designer handbag, parking spot, or any number of random household goods, you can find a marketplace to do it. There’s also plenty to eat in the sharing economy.

There’s also plenty to eat in the sharing economy.
There are underground food markets—quasi-clandestine events that remake the traditional farmers market into a tribal gathering of would-be chefs, food entrepreneurs, and food adventurers; they are to the indie food world what a rave is to the music crowd. There are food swapping events, where no money changes hands but you bid with bags of your homemade granola for someone else’s jars of jam, home-brewed vanilla extract, or hand-rolled pasta. And there are businesses trying for a piece of the market like Feastly, that turns your home cooking and dining room table into a restaurant for the night, and Gobble, that sells and delivers your meals to local customers.

Food sharing is an idea whose time has come.
It’s recession friendly; it earns a little income for the cook, and is generally cheaper (and healthier) than store-bought or restaurant takeout. It suits our interest in alternative dining seen in the wave of food trucks and pop-up restaurants that’s been gaining steam in recent years. It also dovetails with the interest in artisan foods, providing a showcase for cooks and a platform for food entrepreneurs to build their customer base.

But is it legal?
Bear in mind that even Airbnb—which facilitates $500 million worth of transactions annually and has a company valuation of $1.3 billion—stands on shaky legal ground. If you are a renter listing your home on Airbnb you’re probably violating your lease; if you own, you’re probably breaking zoning and other laws for operating an unlicensed inn.

The standard rule in most of the U.S. is that if you bake some cookies in your kitchen, you’re welcome to share them with friends, family, and neighbors; you can bring the cookies in to work to share with coworkers; you can exchange them at swaps and potlucks. But unless your home kitchen is commercially licensed, what you typically can’t do with your cookies is sell them for money. Some local authorities turn a blind eye to blatant violations like underground markets, while others crack down on even the most benign sales, resulting in incidents like St. Cecelia’s pie-gate, when a Pennsylvania state health inspector shut down three elderly, pie-baking church ladies at a lenten fish fry.

State and local legislatures are being prodded to loosen up regulations, especially when it comes to low-risk foods like fruits jams and baked goods. More than half of the states have so-called cottage food laws governing home food production, and a few more have laws pending, but individual cities, towns, and counties can add their own layers of bureaucracy and regulations.

Before you sell, consult the state law database at The Sustainable Economies Law Center.

 

Posted in community, food policy, home | Leave a comment

Low-Tech Fixes in a High-Tech World

Rocket scientist apron via Zazzle

 

There are plenty of little home remedies for jump-starting balky gadgets.
There’s the blow dryer technique to warm the ink in an old toner cartridge to get it flowing; or the register at the supermarket checkout that only works when the cashier wraps the credit card in a plastic bag. My personal favorite is the trick where you use your head as an antenna: let’s say you’re pushing the button but you’re out of remote range for your car door opener. Touch the metal part of the key fob to your chin, hit the button again, and this time you’ve got it.

Nothing tops the kitchen when it comes to tech support.
It’s a treasure trove of fix-it potential. There’s wood and metal; things that cool and things that heat; hard surfaces and soft; sticky and smooth. Combine a little patience with some ingenuity and a well-stocked pantry, and look what you can accomplish.

resized

Boost your home Wi-Fi
Most home routers project the signal in a circle. But most routers sit near the wall where the connection comes in to your home. That means that half of its signal is drifting outside through the wall. A couple of cookie sheets or a semi-circle of foil will redirect the signal back into your house.

http://ashscrapyard.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/frozen-phone-freezer.jpg

Keep your phone charged
Did you forget your cell phone charger again?
Put the phone in a cold place—the freezer compartment of the minibar fridge in your hotel room, or just a nice cold windowsill in wintertime. The cold will slow down the chemical processes inside the phone’s battery and extend the life of the charge.

http://images.teamsugar.com/files/usr/1/15111/IMG_3210.preview.jpg

New life for old iPods
Early generations of iPods were plagued by temperamental hard drives that would lose their alignment. We’d constantly power up and power down, give them a shake or a gentle smack. Sometimes it worked; most of us moved on to newer, more reliable models.
A night in the freezer might bring it back to life; the hard drive contracts from the cold, and more often than not it reseats itself properly as it thaws.

http://www.paperstone.co.uk/images/NewsImages/2011/banana-cd.jpgSafely fix scratchy disks (better than the method you use now)
CD and DVD lasers read data from a metal disk protected by a thin layer of plastic. When that top layer is scratched, a lot of people reach for an abrasive cleaner that makes the scratches shallower by rubbing off more plastic. Not the safest for data, but it works. Better still is a method that restores the protective layer: peel a banana and rub the fruit on the disk; then rub it in with the inside of the peel. Wipe away the excess and it’s indistinguishable (to you or to a laser) from the plastic coating.

http://img4-1.realsimple.timeinc.net/images/1005/new-uses-rice-cellphone_300.jpgDry a wet cellphone
Studies tell us that one in three smartphone users bring their phones with them into the bathroom, and eventually, more than half of them will drop it into the toilet. Act fast and it might be resuscitated.
Take out the battery, wipe it all dry, inside and out, and put the phone and battery in a bowl of rice. It’s the same principle as a few grains of rice in a salt shaker—rice has a kind of magnetic attraction for water molecules and if you leave the phone in there overnight the rice will pull out all the moisture. As long as the battery didn’t get soaked, the phone should be fine, although considering where it’s been, a little cleaning might be in order.

 

Posted in gadgets, home, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Shouldn’t Robots Be Serving Us Dinner By Now?

(Rosie from The Jetsons; WA-7 from Dex’s Diner, Star Wars II Attack of the Clones; robot Woody Allen from Sleeper; Mr. Waiter concept design)

Where are our kitchen robots?
From Isaac Asimov to The Stepford Wives, there’s been the fantasy of an anthropomorphized household domestic to make our lives easier.
Then last week we watched while a robot performed a daring, elaborate landing sequence that put us on Mars. Since then the Mars Rover has been scoping out the planet and sending pictures and status updates from its own Twitter account (@MarsCuriosity).
I’m just looking for a little help around the house. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Here in the U.S. we’ve kind of stalled at the Roomba vacuum and the dancing robot mouse at Chuck E. Cheese. There is far more enthusiasm for the kitchen robot concept in Asia.

http://cdn.indulgy.com/vE/dC/98/robotrestaurant04.jpg

Harbin, China’s Haohai Robot Restaurant has 18 robot waiters and cooks that perform nearly every task in the restaurant. Most are single purpose: there are dumpling bots and noodle bots, a host bot that greets and seats, and a bot that scrubs the pots. Each can work a five hour shift on a single battery charge.

 

http://www.spreadmybutter.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/roboramen.jpgIt takes just two robots to run FuA-Men Restaurant in Nagoya, Japan. But then again, the menu has just one item—a bowl of ramen in pork broth. Named for its Fully Automated Men, the owner claims that it’s a perfect bowl every time because of the robots’ “accuracy of timing in boiling noodles, precise movements in adding toppings and consistency of the taste and temperature of the soup.”

 

http://i444.photobucket.com/albums/qq169/ITechDiary/Green%20Campaign/mk-robot-project-2.jpg

At the MK Restaurant chain in Thailand, about a dozen of the franchise owners opted to staff their restaurants with Yumbo. The Linux-based robot simulates a young teenager with an after-school job; he’s shorter than average with a youthful voice and big bright eyes on a video screen head. He carries trays of food from the kitchen and buses tables afterward.

http://thecoolgadgets.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/dalu-robot-restaurant-robot-operated-food-serving.jpgThe Dalu Robot Restaurant in China’s Shandong province didn’t need a traditional serving staff but just a delivery system to get the raw food to the tables. It’s a hot pot eatery where diners select their ingredients and cook their own meals by dipping various vegetables and meats into pots of broth, oil, and chilis. The robots, which resemble a gold-plated Klaatu from ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still,’ circulate through the dining room on bicycle-powered food carts, pausing for deliveries when diners flag them down.

A robot in every kitchen? If these restaurants are any indication, I’d say not so soon.
At this point, robots are no different than bread makers and pasta machines—nice to have, but they’re still just the one-trick ponies of the kitchen. Like all too many appliances and gadgets, they’re uni-taskers. I’m sure electric crepe pans and strawberry hullers have their devoted fans, and they make perfect sense for a restaurant with strawberry crepes on the menu, but they have no business squandering space in most people’s kitchens.

Give me a humanoid version of the smartphone and an app store stocked with dishwashing, table setting, and onion chopping. Then we can talk.
Until then, I’ll stick with my Twitter relationship with the Mars Rover.

 

 

 

Posted in appliances + gadgets, home, Science/Technology | Leave a comment
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