Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Supper Club: An Affordable Way to Enjoy a Great Meal

Kyle and I, along with three other couples, started a supper club. I guess it's more of a dinner club, but this is about the only instance in which "supper" sounds nicer than "dinner." Anyway, once a month, the eight of us (well, now seven of us) get together at one person's or couple's home for a meal. The host or host couple chooses the theme for that month and are responsible for the main course. The others take care of the rest, depending on where they are in the course rotation.

We hosted the first dinner in the summer of 2011. The theme was "Local," and we encouraged everyone to make dishes using ingredients produced within 100 miles of Kansas City. I made a little amuse-bouche of fried squash blossoms from my garden. They were stuffed with local sheep's cheese and my own basil, and battered using beer from our local brewery. In his typical fashion, Kyle made a pretty decadent main: braised bison shoulder (the bison was from western Kansas), local broccoli, and homemade pancetta mac-and-cheese. The pancetta was made using pork from a local butcher.

Since then, themes have ranged from "Indian" (we grilled naan and made chutneys for the salad course) to "Vegan" (we made a delicious galangal soup with coconut milk) to "A Night at The Movies" (for dessert, we made a Big Lebowski-themed cake that may or may not have included an F-bomb in the name and a bloody toe sugar cookie on the side).

I love supper club because we always get a fantastic four-course meal (save for the time I tried to make gluten-free matzo ball soup in a lobster stock for the "Conflict in the Middle East" theme; I went a little heavy on the conflict, but I think my friends just wanted to cook from "Jerusalem") without spending too much money. Whatever course we're making, we're making it in bulk, so it's affordable. Plus, we get a chance to catch up with friends we wouldn't otherwise see often enough.

This month, the theme was "County Fair," and everyone rose to the occasion. There were two interpretations of a corndog, a salad with pork, more pork, and whoopie pies.

The host, John, started us off with some boozy lemonade, homemade onion rings, and lamb corndogs — lamb sausage fried in a cornmeal batter.

Then we got started with the first of four official courses: soup. Our friends Heather and Phil (who always do amazing things with soup) made a deconstructed corn dog soup. I know it doesn't sound great, and while it's composed nicely in the bowl, it doesn't look incredibly appetizing either. Still, I promise that the combination of sweet corn broth, poached pork sausage, cornichon relish, corn cracker, spicy ketchup, and scallions was nothing short of delicious.

Next up was us with the salad. That was our course, and whenever it's our turn to make a salad, my meat-obsessed husband finds a way to get meat into it. Lots of meat. Our salad for the "Southern" theme, was a deconstructed Frogmore stew that included SEVEN meats. Yes, seven.

This month, for the "County Fair" theme, we made what I am calling a reverse pork salad. That's because my body doesn't process wheat as, er, gracefully as I'd like it to, so I avoid bread whenever possible. When I go to barbeque restaurants, I usually get pulled pork, slather it in sauce and top it off with some slaw. It's really a pulled pork sandwich without the bun, and Kyle's salad was a reverse version of that. He started off with homemade grilled-peach coleslaw, piled it with pulled pork shoulder (he braised it in veal stock and Coke), homemade barbeque sauce, and and homemade pickles. I probably don't need to tell you how good it was.

Then John presented his main course: a porkburger. Apparently this is a staple at county fairs. I can't say I've seen it, not that I've been to many county fairs, but I can say it was delicious. It didn't need any toppings because the patty itself was so flavorful and worked so well with the bun. (See? I don't always avoid wheat.)

By the time we got to the dessert course — whoopie pies, made by my friend Kristina and her partner Adam — it was dark, and the pictures didn't turn out. But a very messy good time was had by all.

By this time next month, Kristina and Adam will have a baby girl, so instead of a four-course dinner, I'm going to make a casserole, and the others will bring some meals we can stick in the freezer for them.

Life is a lot easier when you have good friends who can cook.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Closet Shopping: A Day in the Studio (Or, I Quit My Job)

Now that I'm freelancing again, I wanted to ensure I would work regular-ish hours and take regular showers. So, my food blog partner and I are sharing a studio space in Kansas City's Crossroads Art District with two amazing photographers (in fact, they're the ones who shot my wedding). The building is full of really attractive, artsy people. It's kind-of like being back in Brooklyn, and I'm inspired to put a little more effort into what I wear.

Now, you're probably like, "What?! You quit your job?"

Yes. I've been working for a while on a post called "I Quit My Job." But I can't very well post pictures of myself working (er, posing) in my new studio space without offering some sort of explanation. So, here's the abridged version and a longer one will surely follow. 

I quit my job. I was unhappy spending 8 to 12 hours a day doing administrative tasks to promote other people's work — especially when it was so similar to the work I used to do, and wanted to be doing. So, I quit my job to go back to full-time freelance food writing. I made the decision months ago, but given certain major life events — like buying a house! — the timing wasn't great.

I even had some offers for other jobs, jobs that paid really well. But I don't want other jobs. I want to do what I want to be doing, when I want to do it (which is sometimes 2 am) and I want to get paid a fair wage to do it. You know what? So far, I'm doing it.

There will be struggles, and I know it doesn't look like the smartest decision I've ever made in a time when I'm trying to pay off my debt, save money and live with a mortgage, but I've been working my whole life to pay for things. And the more money I made the more things I bought or leased or consumed.

Speaking of leasing or consuming, you're probably also wondering how I can justify renting studio space when I don't have a regular paycheck and I'm trying to be frugal. Well, the space is really affordable. Like, less than I was spending on lunches every month before I started this project affordable. Also, I'm so much more productive when I'm there, and when you're freelancing, productivity equals dollar bills. 

So, now that I'm spending less, I want to spend my time doing work that I love. And since I don't have to rush to be in at 9 every morning (not that I was ever on time), I can spend a few extra minutes digging into the back of my closet for clothes I forgot I had. 

jeans: Levi's Bold Curve, Skinny (purchased last year at TJ Maxx) | shirt: thrifed many years ago (and recently dug out of a giveaway bag) | shoes: Miz Mooz (found on the clearance rack at Nordstrom Rack last fall) | clutch: Hobo (purchased last year at TJ Maxx) | glasses: Warby Parker

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Sneak Peek at the New House: 50 Shades of Gray

The day after we closed on the new house, we took off for a weeklong Chicago trip. We had an amazing time, but I was anxious to roll up my sleeves and start making the house ours. Before I could paint, I needed to spackle. If there's one thing I love more than over-taping Christmas presents, it's spackling cracks and holes in walls. There's just something so satisfying about glopping a bunch of pasty goo on the wall, then scraping and eventually sanding it down to perfection. And in a house built in 1917 — with plaster walls — there was plenty of spackling fun to be had.

We officially took possession on Friday, so I went over that afternoon with my spackle, paint and tools (when did painting supplies get so expensive??). I didn't get as far as I would have liked — there was a lot of spackling to do be done, people — but I did decided that while I was at it, I might as well paint the kitchen cabinets. Okay, I decided I had to paint the kitchen cabinets. Since I'd attempted this once before, in an apartment, I had some experience — enough to know that if I didn't take the time to sand and properly prime the wood, my beautiful paint job will chip.

So, Saturday morning, after another pricey trip to Lowe's, I went back to the new house and took down the cabinet doors, then sanded and primed them. While the primer was drying, I got to taping off the the living room (my least favorite activity involving tape), which I took from an interesting shade of buttery yellow to a very bright white — one that's technically a super-light gray. If you can't tell that it's anything other than white, don't worry, you're not alone. My husband agrees with you.

I don't know exactly what I was thinking with the stark walls — I usually detest plain white (er, very light gray) — but since this house feels like a fresh start, I wanted to have a bit of a blank canvas to work with. I'm sure I'll get bored with it soon enough and paint them some other shade of gray.

Like Adam Duritz, gray is my favorite color, so that's what I chose for the kitchen cabinets, too. On Sunday, while painting the inside of the cabinets that will be be open (sans doors), I discovered the difference between nice cabinets and shitty cabinets: nice cabinets are painted on the inside.


It should come as no surprise that such a revelation meant I needed to paint the inside of all of the upper cabinets. While I was at it, I figured I might as well paint the fireplace, which looked like it had been stripped of something and then never finished.

Coating the fireplace took every last drop of a quart of semi-gloss gray paint. I didn't think about how porous cement is, and I didn't prime it. Of course, as soon as I'd finished, I wished I'd used a darker gray, maybe something closer to the color of the cabinets. But I'll think on it, and if I want to change it, it will be a great weekend project for me. And maybe I'll go crazy and paint it turquoise or bright yellow. For now, though, it's a vast improvement.

Tonight, I plan to paint the dining room and kitchen walls (more shades of gray), and clean up the huge mess I've made of the place. We'd like to get completely moved in this weekend, so here's hoping I don't find anything else I have to turn gray before then.

NOTE: All of the "after" shots were taken at night. Well, the wee hours of the morning. But I'll take some better ones when I'm finished painting.

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Our Trip to Chicago, In Instagram

Apologies for the radio silence. Kyle and I just returned from a week-long trip to Chicago. It was the first time I'd traveled without my computer since I went backpacking through Europe when I was 25.

To be honest, it was anything but frugal. We (okay, Kyle) prepaid for most of it before I began this project. But we had so much fun and ate so much good food. I'm still getting used to taking pictures of everything — as a "lifestyle blogger" I'm supposed to always do that, right? — but I managed to grab a few Instagram photos. I did not, however,  manage to edit them all with the same frame. Sorry.

The main theme of this trip was food, and I ate so much more bread than I should have. I shouldn't eat any, of course. But who can resist foie gras brioche French toast from Longman & Eagle (where we stayed for the second half of our trip)? Not me!

 Or a carnitas sandwich with a fried egg and pickled onions from Reno?

Or, uh, just about every sausage at Hot Doug's?

We did more than eat, of course. We saw The Book of Mormon, which I highly recommend unless you're Mormon or any other variety of super-conservative Christian. And early in our trip, we visited a friend of Kyle's, who along with his two male roommates in Wicker Park, was hiding this beautiful old couch with a boring beige cover. It broke my heart a little. 

Luckily, they couldn't really cover the beautiful fireplace and window in the apartment.

We also got to go to AmericanaramA, a touring summer festival featuring two of my favorite bands ever, Wilco and My Morning Jacket, as well as a very old Bob Dylan. While I didn't even recognize his rendition of "Tangled Up in Blue," I was glad to see him at least once in my (and his) life.

This was also an opportunity to be frugal: I went in with a bottle of bourbon in my underwear so I wouldn't have to pay for shitty over-priced stadium beer.

By the end of the show, my dogs were barking... and I seriously considered purchasing new shoes the next day, but did not, thank you very much.

Of course, I did do a little thrifting with my friend Holly. I mean, I can't take a trip and not buy anything.

It was a wonderful and much-needed vacation with my wonderful husband, and we were able to celebrate our wonderful new house.

Speaking of, it's time for me to start taking carloads of stuff over there. More updates soon.

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

My Sad Sack Lunch

I've impressed myself with my dedication to packing lunches since beginning this project. Sometimes it's leftovers, but most days, I'm able to put together a salad with vegetables from my garden and CSA, and I've even started making big batches of dressing so I can pour a daily serving into a tiny mason jar. It's frugal, healthy, and if I wanted to, I could totally be self-righteous about my local vegetables (I'm not).

But this week, well, I'm just bad at it. There's a lot going on, and I'm not getting a lot of sleep. I was half an hour late to work yesterday. Last night I was up until 1 am working on a freelance article about old barns. We're supposed to close on the house tomorrow (even though I still have a hard time believing that the bank won't pull the plug in the next 24 hours). Oh, and we leave for Chicago Thursday. There are other things going on, too, but I don't have the energy to write about them just yet.

The point is that even though I didn't really prepare a lunch yesterday, I managed to at least stuff what was left of a grilled tri-tip into a sandwich bag. Meat is good for one's brain, so that's something. And who couldn't use more protein? For a minute, I pretended I was going to stick to a strict paleo diet after that steak, but when a bag of M&M's pretty much magically appeared on my desk, that was over.

I'm not complaining about eating a delicious steak. Especially because I didn't pack any lunch today. I have three dollars in my pocket, and I'm going to find a way to turn that into lunch. Stay tuned...

Monday, July 1, 2013

Throwing a Baby Shower on Budget

My friend Kristina is about two months away from being a mom. Since I'm pretty sure that without her, I wouldn't have consumed enough food or fluids the week leading up to my wedding, I really wanted to throw her a nice shower. Also, I love the challenge of throwing a great party on a budget. 

I must admit that I had a bunch of stuff left over from said wedding that happened to work well for a shower — plates, cups, napkins, straws, tablecloths, a framed chalkboard, and booze (who says you can't have booze at a baby shower?) — so this isn't exactly a how-to-throw-a-baby-shower-on-a-budget post.

That said, if I'd had (er, taken) more time, it would have been easy to use my own mismatched vintage dishes and silver, whip up some decorations, and ask everyone to bring a moderately-priced bottle of wine or make a punch with cheap champagne and juice. Hosting the party at my house would have been a free option, too, but I was grateful to borrow a friend's beautiful studio (where I'll also be hiding out working on freelance projects soon — more on that later) so I didn't have to speed clean in anticipation/party panic mode. 

Before my co-host Amanda and I started to plan the shower, Kristina mentioned she really wanted to have a Blessing Way. Different from a shower, a Blessing Way is a gathering in which pregnant woman and her close friends celebrate her transition into motherhood (and which I admit seemed way too touchy-feely for me until I learned more about its history).

That worked out well, because Kristina and her partner live in a small apartment and we didn't want to shower them with too much stuff. Still, we found a way to combine the rituals of the Blessing Way with the materialism of a contemporary American baby shower. Go us!

We started by asking everyone to bring a dish that reminded her of a woman she loved. This was also a totally selfish request since the shower was on a Thursday and Amanda and I would have gone insane and completely trashed our kitchens trying to prepare all of the food on our own. (I like to make people think I have my shit together, but it's much more convincing on a Saturday or Sunday when I have a few extra hours to actually get my shit together.) It worked well with the theme.

I was able get it together enough to make one dish, and that was my aunt Susie's (which I've since learned she spells Suzie) tuna noodle casserole. That was the first $10 I actually spent. 

Some people clearly grew up in healthier families. 

There were other presents — that I failed to document because my phone was also the iPod — which included a beautiful handmade baby blanket and adorable, tiny clothes. Even I couldn't resist picking up a $9.00 denim romper from Target (I look terrible in them, so I decided that I will live vicariously through Kristina's daughter this summer). Someone bought Kristina a massage, and since she plans to make her own baby food, another friend decorated a bunch of glass jars.

In addition to the potluck item, we asked attendees to bring beads or buttons to contribute to a garland to go above the bed. We all added to it as we sipped on horse feathers and listened to Kristina share her fears and concerns about the future.

Though she didn't bring it up that night, I know that one of her concerns is money. And as someone who has always worried about money, I didn't want her to have to feel that when she was about to bring her daughter into the world.

To help lessen that burden — and not stuff their small apartment with a bunch of crap they don't really need — we asked everyone to chip in to help pay their rent for August, the month the baby is due.

While I won't get into numbers (beyond saying that everything combined cost me less than $100), I'm happy with the fabulous party/bastardized Blessing Way we were able to put together on a budget. I'm even happier that we were able to give Kristina and her new family a gift that will allow them to spend more time together, and less time worrying about money when the baby comes.