Wednesday, August 29, 2012

This Week's (Big) Small Find: The Storage Ottoman

One trick to living comfortably in a small space is furnishing it correctly.  Everything we bring into this apartment has to (a) have great storage capacity and (b) not be so big/clunky/heavy looking that it makes our small space look smaller.  So, for all of you who are living in small spaces like we are, I thought that it would be nice to do a semi-regular spotlight on furniture and other related pieces that would fit well in a small room, apartment or even house. 

Today, I'd like to share the piece I've been lusting after my whole New York life.  It's this leather storage ottoman from Crate & Barrel.  

(photos from

I won't buy it because I just can't see spending that much on what is essentially a souped-up storage bin, but I absolutely love it and am searching for a cheaper and child friendly version of it.  It's leather, and I really don't need leather here in the land of sticky hands.  But it's oh so adorable, comes in a bunch of colors, and would seemingly hold a whole bunch of toys.  Plus, since it's on the smaller side, you can line up two of them so Mr. Minimalist and I could both put our feet up while zoning out to whatever garbage TV we're watching that evening.  And when we have people over, we could separate them and use them for extra seating.  It's just genius.  Now I will have to find it way cheaper without sacrificing the cuteness factor.  Will keep you posted.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Carmelized Fennel with Sausages

I have a strange relationship with fennel.  Although I'm not a big fan of the licorice/anise flavor, Mr. Minimalist is.  So, for his sake, since he puts up with so many of my food experiments and eats all the "girly" food I often put out, I decided to take up with fennel and see what I could do with it.  In years past, I have used it with success in only one dish (a fish dish by Martha Stewart, of course).  A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that I would be trying out a fennel and sardine pasta dish.  It did not go so well.  It was fishy and murky and not yummy at all.  But this week, I tried another fennel recipe and with great success!

This dish is based on a recipe by Lidia Bastianich (of "Lidia's Italy" fame).  I varied it a bit to suit the ingredients I had at hand and it turned out great.  My version involves a little short cut of buying the sausage precooked, so the order of operations was a little different from Lidia's dish.  Plus, by using quinoa as the underlying "grain" (really it's a seed... how cool is that?) I upped the protein/nutrition power of this dish.  Mr. Minimalist loved the dish, as did I, and it's quite healthy and guilt free. 

Carmelized Fennel with Sausage, over Herbed Quinoa

This recipe makes a nice filling but light dinner for four.  If you are super-size me kind of eaters, you might want to double the recipe, that way you'll have more than enough for dinner and leftovers.

A trick I read somewhere to make cooking less stressful is to prepare everything ahead of time. So, before you turn on the saute pan, do the following: peel and crush the garlic, pit and crush the olives (I did these two steps using a meat mallet... very satisfying!), and chop the fennel. The best way is to remove the stalk and the hard base, then cut it in half and cut out the core. Then slice each half again, and slice into 1 inch pieces. In my case, I also used frozen cooked sausages, so I defrosted them in the microwave while I chopped, then sliced them on the diagonal.

2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup olives, pitted and smashed (I used a mix of Sicilian and Kalamata)
1 large fennel bulb, chopped (reserve the fronds)
1/2 cup apple juice
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
5-6 precooked sausages, about 12 oz, sliced (I used Bilinski's Spinach and Garlic Chicken Sausage)
1 cup quinoa, dry
2 cup water
2 tbsp chopped fennel fronds
1 tbsp chopped fresh dill
kosher salt to taste (I used about 1/2 tsp)

Start the quinoa.  Rinse it well in a fine sieve under cold water for at least 20 seconds to remove the bitterness.  Combine the rinsed quinoa and the water in a pot with a tight lid and bring to a boil.  Turn down the heat, keep the lid on, and simmer the quinoa for 15-20 minutes until tender and translucent.  Toss the cooked quinoa with a tsp of olive oil and the fennel fronds and dill (reserving some for garnish).

Once the quinoa is cooking you can start on the rest.  Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a large saute or frying pan.  Saute the garlic for a minute over medium heat until it starts to brown.  Add the crushed pitted olives.  Cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add the chopped fennel.  Sprinkle with salt, cover, and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Towards the end, add 1/4 cup of apple juice and the apple cider vinegar.  The fennel should be caramelizing, so you should see it change color a bit and soften a great deal.  If the fennel is still hard after 20 minutes, add the remaining apple juice and cook until soft.

Add the chopped sausage and continue to cook over medium heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally, about 3-5 minutes more, until the flavors have melded and the sausages are glazed.  Serve over the quinoa and garnish with fennel fronds and dill.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Cure for Big House Envy

We were at my parents' place again last weekend.  As I've mentioned before, they're trying to downsize, and plan on moving to a smaller place sometime soon.  Meanwhile, they're cleaning house, and even doing some updates to make the place more marketable. 

Now, I grew up in this house, and until I went to college and started my life as an apartment-dweller, I was very used to having space.  It's been some umpteen years since I've lived in a house, and I have to say, there are times I really miss having that room.  I miss it even more when Mr. Minimalist and I watch House Hunters on Saturday mornings when the little one is napping.  I see these people in random cities complaining that the walk-in closet is too small, or their California King bed won't fit in the enormous master suite, or that there's no place to put the pool table they just can't live without.  I want to (and often do) shout at the screen-- get over it!  These houses are HUGE!  Come to New York and see how you can fit an entire nursery in that "too small" closet! 

But, then I take a deep breath and realize that, at least for now, I like living in a smaller space.  I don't mind not having all that room because the things we surround ourselves here are very dear, carefully curated and lovingly placed.  To be honest, I might be scared to suddenly upgrade to a 4 bedroom house.  I don't think I could handle that much furniture shopping!

Hip Hip Hooray!  Three Reasons to Cheer for Small Spaces

Here are some of the things I realized are wonderful about small space living.  Be my guest and add to the list-- let's be our own small space cheerleaders!

  • Small space, big budget.   When Mr. Minimalist and I were redoing our one and only bathroom, we were able to find really beautiful things to put in it.  When you're only covering a small area, you can use more expensive materials without breaking the bank.  We still had to bargain hunt, but if we had had, let's say, 48 inches of counter top to fill, we would never be able to afford things like granite or marble. 
  • Small space, less stress.   I read somewhere that the average American spends 55 minutes a day looking for lost objects. Well, I bet you anything that the most pitiful of these folk are those that live in big houses. Living in a small home forces you to get organized.   This means not having that constant stress that nothing is at hand. Do you know what it's like trying to pack up a one year old and get her into a car while your husband searches room after room of your parents' house looking for his rimless (and therefore almost invisible) glasses?  This would never have happened in Brooklyn.  Assuming you're growing into your space and not out of it, after a few months of small space living you will have found a place for everything, and not waste precious time looking for often lost items like remotes, phone chargers and rimless glasses.
  • Small space, tight family. Although I grew up in a house, my favorite memories of that house occupied less than 100 square feet of it.  I was happiest when we all cuddled under blankets to watch a movie, or plopped onto the sofas around the coffee table, my sister drawing, my father reading, and my mother and I chit chatting about the day.  For me, one room living brought us closer together as a family.  And one room living you can do pretty much anywhere.

What advantages have you found to living in a small space?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Lemon Verbena Summer Tea

I have been in love with lemon verbena since childhood.  You may remember me waxing poetic about my aunt and uncle's garden here.  In addition to a proliferation of citrus fruit, they always had a small bush of lemon verbena growing in the front yard.  My aunt referred to it by part of it's Latin name, Aloysia. As a child, I was sure she was calling it "Louisa." I didn't realize until embarrassingly later in life that this wondrous plant was in fact called lemon verbena, and not named after one of the Von Trapp daughters.

Some years the plant grew waist high, some years-- drier years-- it was scraggly and low, but there were always a few leaves for picking and steeping in tea.  Lemon verbena, in the proper climates, is a shrub.  The leaves are so fragrant that you can smell the lemony sweetness even by brushing past them as you walk. In tea, it gives a really smooth and subtle lemon flavor, with none of the sourness or acidity of actual lemons. It's warm and wonderful.

Now, since the garden is finally ready for planting (more on that later) I went out and got myself my very own Louisa plant.  I live in a much colder climate than lemon verbena should really have to thrive, but I'm hoping for the best.  Wish me luck.

Lemon Verbena Summer Tea

You can make lemon verbena tea on its own, or add it to hot or iced green or black tea for something a little more complex. It's very versatile.  Today, I made this tea hot.  You can follow the same directions, increasing the portion size, and with a little patience have a pitcher full of delicious iced tea.

6 oz boiling water
5 leaves lemon verbena
1 tsp honey

For one mug of tea, pick at about five good sized leaves.  Pour six ounces boiling water over the leaves and let steep about five minutes.  Add a scant teaspoon of honey.  Sip and enjoy.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Midsummer's Day's Musing

We went to the park today.  Today was one of the rare days when it was actually hotter in the park than outside.  Normally the park is a haven from the heat-- it's shady, breezy, and isolated from the heat that collects on the city streets.  Normally, we lay out, spread a blanket on the grass, and stare up at the blue blue sky while the little one watches all the bigger kids play ball on the field.  Normally our view is something like this:

But today it was muggy, buggy and overall just an unpleasant place to be.  I dragged my poor family to the park, however, because it was the farmer's market today, and we made a new resolution (call it a midsummer's resolution) to buy three different vegetables every week so that we could incorporate more fresh produce into our diets.  Last week it was beets.  Big mistake.  Beets, I believe, are not one of those vegetables that must be purchased fresh to enjoy.  To make most recipes, you have to roast or boil them, and to be honest, it was so labor intensive I lost all appreciation for the vegetable.  Maybe I just don't have the beet gene. 

But I digress. 

Anyway, this new resolution of ours has been working out well.  We got fennel and kale (we still have beets left over from last week, so we only got two more this week).  I found a recipe for fennel and sardine pasta sauce that I'll try out later and let you know about.  Kale is always good, and we throw it in everywhere. 

So today was productive, but hot.  No laying out for us today.  But we'll have vegetables for the week.  Recipes to come.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Which came first, the pack rat or the clutter? Three ways to clear clutter.

My parents are downsizing.  I spent the other weekend in a flurry of dust, with a kerchief tied around my face like a cowboy, sifting through college essays and grade school science projects, trying to make their house presentable for the upcoming open house.  It was exhausting.  And, in between sneezing fits, I kept yelling at myself for keeping all this useless stuff.

Do people gather clutter to grow into the spaces where they live or do people find places to live that will fit all the stuff they want?   It's a chicken and the egg kind of question.  My husband grew up in a city apartment, and-- consequently?-- he is a bit of a minimalist.  He's teaching me how to throw things out. 

Unfortunately, I did not know my husband back in the summer following my senior year of college when I carefully placed my history course pack and a stack of essays on WWII on a bookshelf in my parents' house because someday-- and this is the motto of all pack rats I believe-- I might need it.  And I did not know him back in 10th grade when I devoted an entire desk drawer to poetry drafts because someday I might want to finish them.

Now, in no small part thanks to my husband, I am less of a pack rat.  Mr. Minimalist lives by the rule that if at that moment in time it doesn't fit, make you feel good or help you out, then you need to just throw it out.  Integrating that into my psyche has really helped, and I find it easier to part with things now.  And it's so great knowing that everything I need is around me, accessible, and everything I don't need has been dumped, donated or re-purposed.

I find I have more room to breathe in my little apartment than I ever did in my parents' house.  And somehow, I don't think it's just the dust.

Getting Rid of the Clutter

Here are three reoccurring themes that come up in my reading on clutter clearing.  They say that knowing is half the battle... so hopefully coming to terms with how these themes affect your life will help you win your own battle with clutter.  


Should I keep this?
If you keep that collection of hotel shampoos, you'll never need to buy a bottle again.

Just throw it out.
By the time you get to using the whole collection, it'll have gone rancid, or you'll hate the smell, or you'll have forgotten where your "handy" spare bottles are.  Just chuck it and buy the shampoo you want when you need it.


Should I keep this? If you throw away your child's collection of tutus, you'll be throwing away memories of  their childhood.

Just throw it out. Will you really forget the first time you ever saw your child dancing on stage?  Keeping those tutus won't make you a new parent all over again, but seeing a little girl on her way to a recital will make you smile and think of days gone by... and the vision doesn't take up room in your closet.  (And if it's that sentimental, just keep one and store it neatly!)


Should I keep this?
That mess in the [junk drawer/closet/basement/office] will take too long to go through.

Just throw it out. 
If you think it takes too long to clear out your target messy space, just picture what life will be like after 30 years of telling yourself you just don't have the time to deal.  Spend less time thinking, and more time throwing, and you'll be amazed at how fast it can go.

What do you think of all this?  Stay tuned for future posts on clearing clutter.  Living in a small space, this is a big battle for me!