Friday, September 27, 2013

Recipes from My Ugly Blue Kitchen: Garlic Roasted Chicken and French Beans

You don't need me to devote an entire paragraph to describe how hectic the dinner hour is in a household with two children under the age of three.  Add to the chaos a husband who gets home from work at 6:30 and then goes on a training run because he is running the New York City Marathon two years after you did and is hellbent on beating your time, and you have yourself a recipe for daily dinner takeout.

But who are you kidding?  You have a mortgage.

Enter quick and dirty recipes that require very little preparation and few ingredients.  Bonus if they're for food your toddler will eat, thus eliminating the extra step of having to heat up chicken nuggets in the toaster oven.

This recipe is adapted from Everyday Food: Great Food Fast From the Kitchen of Martha Stewart Living.  It is one of the first dishes I taught myself to make after I was married, and, four years later, it is still my husband's favorite dinner.  When he limps in from his run and smells the garlic roasting, it puts a smile on his exhausted face.  The best part is this meal requires exactly five ingredients to prepare, not including olive oil, salt, and pepper, which I don't count because I use them in almost everything I cook.

Of course I'm going to get on my soapbox and tell you that yes, the chicken you use matters a great deal in this recipe.  With hardly anything to mask the flavor, you have to use the highest quality poultry available.  It should be raised locally, without hormones and antibiotics.  Bonus points if it's free-range and/or organic.  Believe me, I am no vegan, but I do care about the quality of life my chicken enjoyed before it became my supper.  The brands I like are Murray's or Bell and Evans, or if you're fortunate enough to live near a Stew Leonard's, Stew's Naked Chicken brand.

This is what the chicken looks like going into the oven:

And this is what it looks like when it comes out:

Serve this dish with lots of crusty whole wheat bread (it's one of the five ingredients!) so you have something on which to spread the roasted garlic cloves, which become soft and buttery while roasting.

Garlic Roasted Chicken with French Beans (Feeds 2 adults and 1 toddler)


1) 1 bone-in, skin-on chicken breast, halved.  (If you can't find chicken breast halves, find a whole chicken breast in the poultry case and have the butcher halve it for you.  This may sound obvious, but I didn't know you could do this until my husband told me so.  I lived a very sheltered existence before I got married.)
2) 2 heads of garlic
3) 4 sprigs of fresh rosemary
4) 1/2 lb. French beans
5) 1 whole wheat baguette
Plus olive oil, salt, pepper


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Slice the tops off two garlic heads (reserve the bottoms) and place them cut sides down on the bottom of a square baking dish.  Place one sprig of fresh rosemary on each garlic top.  Arrange the chicken breast halves over the garlic tops.  Sandwich the two reserved garlic bottoms, cut side up, between the chicken breast halves.  Place the remaining two rosemary sprigs on top of the chicken.  Drizzle the chicken and garlic with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Roast the chicken for a half hour, then turn the garlic bottoms cut side down and rotate the pan.  Continue roasting the chicken for another half hour, or until the skin is brown and the juices run clear. 

While the chicken is roasting, bathe the children. Clean the bathrooms. Do a load of laundry.

About ten minutes before the chicken is done, trim and cook the French beans.

Did you know that when you trim French beans, you're only supposed to cut off one end, leaving on the stringy, elf-shoe looking end?  Well, I didn't, but that's because growing up the beans I ate came out of a can.  Thanks, Ina Garten, for teaching me this important lesson.

The way I cook my beans is I fill a shallow frying pan with about a half inch of water and bring it to a boil over medium heat.  Then I toss all the beans in the pan and allow them to steam for 3-4 minutes.  This method is a bit unorthodox, but I guarantee you will get perfect, crisp-tender beans every time.  

Serve the chicken with the whole garlic bottoms, the pan juices, the French beans, the bread, and a sweet, juicy red wine like Rex Goliath Free Range Red.  It's got a big rooster on the label; you can't miss it!

Enjoy!  Let me know in the comments if you try this recipe and what, if anything, you did to tweak it for your family.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Before and After: The Family Room

In honor of the weekly social media holiday Throwback Thursday, today I'm going back... way back... to May of this year, when our family room looked like this:

Back then this room was not a family room; in the real estate listing it was identified as the "fifth bedroom," located just off the dining room on the main floor of the house.  The previous owners' grown son and his cat lived here.  There is also evidence that the son was operating a shell corporation out of this room, but we won't get into that.  The "before" pictures really do not do justice to how bad this room was, mostly because you can't smell pictures.  

Despite the odor and its small size, we knew we wanted to turn the fifth bedroom into a family room because, with only four of us, five bedrooms seemed excessive.  Also, we do not have a finished (by modern standards) basement, so unless we wanted to put our television in the formal living room, we had to create a comfortable space on the main level where our family could kick back, relax, and watch whatever Minnow dictates we watch.

It's amazing how transformative new carpet, fresh paint, and some handsome furniture can be.  Although it is the smallest room on the main floor, the family room is where we spend the majority of our time together.

Originally, we wanted to tear down the ugly wood paneling and hang sheet rock, but our budget didn't allow for it.  Instead, we had our painters prepare the walls with a special primer and then paint it a soft sunny shade (Benjamin Moore, Filtered Sunlight).  We replaced the old carpeting with an inexpensive, neutral wool/nylon sisal.  The light paint and carpet help the space feel larger than it is.  

Because of the dimensions of the room (approximately 12 x 12), we needed a slim, low-profile couch that could comfortably sit at least two adults.  We found this one at- wait for it- Bob's Discount Furniture!  Also, it's a queen-size sleeper-sofa, which means we can use the family room as an extra guest bedroom when the need arises.  But that's not the best part.  The best part is that the man who sold us this amazing piece of furniture is none other than Richard Dreyfus.  Don't believe me?

As my husband observed, all the good roles must have dried up after "Mr. Holland's Opus."

Our modular entertainment center and bookcases, from Pottery Barn, are some of the first furniture pieces my husband and I bought together after we were married.  The bookcases house all sorts of personal affects, from my dormant law school textbooks, to family photos and mementos from our travels.  The bookcases also house our combined libraries, which serve as a lesson on how opposites attract.  For example, the John McCain biography in the upper left corner is his.  The Marx-Engels Reader in the lower right corner is mine.  

Also displayed on the entertainment center is my matchbook collection, which contains a matchbook from almost every restaurant or bar my husband and I have visited together since we started dating eight years ago.  I love the story each matchbook tells, and I also love seeing all the pretty colors through the glass cylinder vase.  Fortunately, Minnow has never shown an interest in dumping the matches on the floor and lighting a fire, but who's to say I will be so lucky with the next child?  The matchbook collection will likely be put away when Peanut goes mobile.      

Say hello to Geoffrey Giraffe from New York City.  We picked him up at a flea market on the Upper West Side in 2009, and he has been with us ever since.  He is one of my favorite things so, although space is at a premium in the family room, I insisted we squeeze him in there in the corner.

We bought this double-decker cast iron and glass coffee table from Pottery Barn back when we were childless and reckless.  I liked it because it has space for our many coffee table books, including our wedding album and my Audrey Hepburn book collection.  Sadly, after Minnow was born we realized what a death-trap this table is, and removed it from our Upper West Side apartment.  When we moved to Bronxville, I insisted we bring it back, with modifications.  You can hardly tell, but running along the cast iron edges on both levels of the table is a black foam bumper, which has saved Minnow's noggin on more than one occasion.

Another one of my favorite things, displayed on the coffee table, is this decoupage tray by John Derian Company, which was a bridal shower gift from my aunt.  The tray depicts a whimsical essay about Central Park written by a young New York City student in 1869.  Our first apartment in Manhattan was a block from Central Park, and this tray serves as a reminder of how lucky we were to live steps away from such an enchanted place.

Behind one white door is a spacious closet, in which we store extra pillows and sheets for the sleeper-sofa.  Behind the other white door is our secret third bathroom.  Not only do we not need a third bathroom, but this bathroom is revolting.  Like all of our bathrooms, it had wall-to-wall carpeting when we moved in but, unlike our other bathrooms, that carpeting was saturated with urine of either the human or feline variety. Although my husband tore out the carpeting, the stench remains.  I have been in that bathroom exactly once, to clean it.  I do, however, have my husband check periodically to make sure that a family of raccoons has not moved into the tub.   


The picture on the back wall is a framed message from GE that my husband clipped out of The Wall Street Journal ten days after September 11, 2001.  It reads:

We will roll up our sleeves
We will move forward together
We will overcome
We will never forget

Of all the things in the family room, this framed sheet of newsprint means the most to my husband, a native New-Yorker.

With the autumnal dip in temperatures, the blossoms on my hydrangea bush are starting to change colors.  I love how these blossoms, displayed in a Tiffany vase we received as a wedding gift, add color and warmth to our tiny space.

Minnow, of course, has her own seat in the family room: A chocolate and white polka-dot arm chair from- where else?- Pottery Barn Kids.    

The bay window is bordered by botanical print curtain panels I bought on clearance from the Pottery Barn website.  If you can't tell, I sort of have a thing for Pottery Barn. 

Our long-range plan for the family room is to expand it by moving the front wall with the bay window up several feet toward the front of the house.  In the back of the room we will eliminate the closet and creepy bathroom and conjoin the family room to a breakfast room we are building off the back of the kitchen.  Because this will be an expensive undertaking, we didn't want to spend a lot of money upfront.  We had a strict budget for turning the fifth bedroom/ home business headquarters/ cat habitat into a comfortable family room, and I am so pleased with the result.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

I've Got 99 Problems But a Lead Pan Ain't One

If you had asked me before I became a homeowner what a lead pan is, I would have guessed a toxic cooking implement.  Now I know that it is absolutely the last thing you want to replace in your house.

At least that's what my in-laws tell me. Thirty years ago, when they bought their first home (in the same village in which we now live), the lead pan in their only full bathroom was the first thing to go.  As the story goes, my father-in-law was standing in the shower when the floor beneath him gave way and he almost fell through the living room ceiling.  The lead pan supporting the tub was completely rotted and needed to be replaced.  This repair reportedly cost thousands of dollars and took two weeks to complete.

So when, in May, the wall in the living room of the house we had just spent five figures to paint started to show signs of water damage, I assumed the worst: I assumed it was the lead pan.  Directly above the leak in the living room is our master bathroom.  It didn't matter that we hadn't showered in the master bathroom, or even moved in yet.  When our painter walked me through the house the day before our move and pointed out the quarter-sized bubbles forming under my Navajo White walls, I panicked.

"I fix this three times," our painter explained in broken English.  "But it come back."

"It's the lead pan!" I exclaimed.  "I know it."

Days after our move I called the plumber my in-laws had used thirty years ago, and he came to survey the leak.  After taking a walk through the master bathroom and the living room, he determined that the leak was not due to a crumbling lead pan because, as he astutely observed, the leak was not directly below where the shower is located upstairs.  He did, however, discover that the shower in the master bathroom had been built over an existing shower (which makes total sense because the previous homeowners had a penchant for layering; see post on wallpaper ), and, therefore the distance between the floor of the shower and the threshold is almost two inches shorter than what is permitted by code.  (Yawn, I know.  It's all so technical.  Skip ahead if I'm losing you.)  Because we also had a clog in the shower, the plumber concluded that the water damage to the living room wall was being caused by water spilling over the threshold and leaking through the bathroom floor.  He cleared the drain and told us it was safe to use the shower again. 

So we paid to have the wall repainted and resumed using the shower.   

You know that moment when your house is utterly placid because your toddler is finally napping, you've just settled onto the living room sofa with a two-month-old issue of The New Yorker,  and you happen to glance up and see an unmistakeable bubble forming on the wall you just had repainted? Yeah, so that happened ten days after the plumber left and, I'll admit it, at first I was in denial.  I told myself that my pregnant eyes were deceiving me.  I didn't tell my husband, who gets home from work too late at night to notice such things in an unlit room.

But the bubble spread like an ominous finger.  And then more fingers formed, until a gnarled witch's hand was raking across the paint.  My husband noticed, and he was miffed.

I called the plumber.  He did not return my calls.  For eight weeks I called the plumber.  I had a baby.  That baby grew.  The leak grew.  The plumber did not return my calls.

I later learned that the plumber my in-laws had recommended had spoken with my mother-in-law after working on our house and remarked, "I hope your son got a good deal on that house."

These are not comforting words to hear second-hand from the plumber who won't call you back.

Luckily, there is no shortage of plumbers in our village (an omen?) so I called a new plumber who came by the house the very next day.  After viewing the wall, touring the master bathroom, and tinkering in the basement, he found several pinhole leaks in the water line feeding from the basement to the master bathroom.  His plan was to open up the damaged wall and replace the entire length of old copper pipe with PVC.  This seemed logical, so I consented.  The next morning he arrived on my doorstep with two other men and a sledge hammer.  

Unfortunately, our home, as we've come to learn, is not logical.  So when the plumber opened up the water-damaged wall and found nothing but wood studs, I shouldn't have been surprised.  

"Where's the leaking pipe?" I asked.

The plumber swung the sledge hammer in the direction of the wall perpendicular to it- the one with the original bead board and dentil moldings.  "I think the leak is spraying from a pipe behind that wall," he said.

"You do?" I cried.  "Then why did we just open this wall?"

"Investigation," he replied.

"Well you can't open that wall," I said.  "That bead board is what sold me on this house."

The three men looked at me quizzically.  I knew I was being irrational.  Fixing the leaking pipe was imperative to prevent further damage and the growth of mold, but if we had to open up that wall, I wanted to do it with a pen knife, not a sledge hammer.  I called our painter, who agreed to come the next morning and slice, from the bottom of the dentil molding to the top of the baseboard, only the section of bead board concealing the leaking pipe.  The plumber would then break through the plaster, locate the copper pipe, and replace it with hardier PVC.  When the repair was complete the painter would return and fit the cut bead board back into the wall, like a puzzle piece.

In the meantime, the plumber decided to install an emergency shut-off valve to the water pipe leading to the master bath, to block more water from leaking into the wall.  To do so, he first had to locate the water main in the basement.

"Here it is," I said, pointing to a pipe in our basement with a rusted wrench attached to it in lieu of a shut-off valve.  The plumber laughed out loud.

"Yeah, I'm going to have to replace that, too."

The day the painter removed the bead board, another surprise awaited us: Horsehair plaster walls.  Basically, it's plaster mixed with horsehair (I cannot make this stuff up- Google it) that was often used in the construction of pre-war homes.  Not only is it creepy; it's also super-absorbant.  The entire plaster wall behind the bead board was soaked.

"This pipe has been leaking for a long time," the plumber observed.

"Like months?" I asked.

"No.  Years.  Many years."

I never wanted more to shake those previous homeowners, though doing so would likely cause harm to their fragile eighty-year-old bodies.  Seriously?  How do you allow a leak to continue for years?

Thankfully, and here is the silver lining folks, by the grace of God there was no mold in the wall.  Just lengths of corroded piping, lots of water, and damp horse hair.  The plumber replaced the leaking pipe and our painter installed new insulation and dry wall before fitting the bead board into place and closing up the wall.  Our painter is a magician.  


And after:

It's like the leak never happened, and we're back to using our master bathroom.  We've adverted disaster for now, but I just know it: The lead pan is the next thing to go.