Monthly Archives: July 2016

Cooking Thanksgiving feasts

Cooking Thanksgiving dinner can be an intimidating prospect. But it doesn’t have to be. If you’re armed with the right gear, and know how to use your kitchen appliances properly, hosting the holiday can be an enjoyable time to connect with friends and family. So, before the big day, read through our list of tips and kitchen essentials to acquire. It can make cooking and cleaning up after your Thanksgiving meal much easier.


1. Roasting pan and rack

You can cook a turkey in a disposable aluminum pan from the grocery but takes a lot longer, and you run a greater risk of splatters and spills, which can cause your oven to smoke. A sturdy, deep roasting pan conducts heat much more effectively, and makes it easy to use a roasting rack. Resting your bird on a rack allows for more even cooking and keeps your turkey from wallowing in the fat that drains from it while it roasts.

TIP: If your oven already has residual grease and spills in it, you might want to run the self cleaning cycle well before hosting the holiday, as high oven temps can cause those stuck-on remnants to smoke and smell up your house.


2. Meat thermometer

A Thanksgiving turkey should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t guess at it. The best way to gauge the temperature and ensure your turkey is safe to eat is with a good meat thermometer.

TIP: If you have a convection setting on your oven, you can use it to roast your turkey in less time than it takes to cook in a conventional oven. Convection cooking continuously circulates the hot air in the oven, sealing the juices inside the meat, while browning and crisping the skin.


3. Fat separator

What’s a Thanksgiving turkey without gravy? To make the very best gravy from your turkey drippings, use a fat separator. Pour the drippings straight into the separator from the pan, and let the fat rise to the top. Your drippings can be poured from the bottom of the fat separator, leaving the grease behind. Deliciousness is close at hand!

TIP: Gravy forms a skin on its top if the heat gets too low. So, bring the gravy up to a boil on your cook top, and then set it to a simmer that makes it bubble gently until you’re ready to serve. Lots of pots on the stove plus a turkey in the oven makes for a hot kitchen. If you have a range hood, be sure to put it to work to vent all that steam and heat.


4. Carving board with a trench

Protect your kitchen countertops by using a generous cutting board equipped with a trench for meat juices. Some boards even have indentations or spikes to help hold the turkey in place.

TIP: Always hand wash your wood carving boards. Heat and hot water from a dishwasher causes them to warp and split.


5. Electric knife

While a carving set with a fork and knife are traditional, an electric knife makes quick work of carving a turkey, producing uniform, even slices of meat. The serrated double blades cut cleanly through the skin without tearing it the way a traditional knife blade can.

TIP: The blades on an electric knife can be removed and put in the dishwasher for cleaning along with the rest of the dinner dishes.


6. Microwave safe bowls and dishes

Timing is everything, but coordinating a feast where the bird and all the sides are hot and ready simultaneously is a challenge. Cut yourself some slack. Equip yourself with a set of attractive microwave safe serving bowls and dishes, and don’t be afraid to use that quick-cooking appliance to reheat some things at the last minute. That way, you can bring it all straight from the kitchen to the table.

Home to get extra storage

You’ve read every home organization book on the market. You’ve thrown out and given away most of what you don’t want or need. So why are you still tripping over stuff? You lack storage solutions.

Running out of room to put things is more common than you’d think. You could look for a bigger home, but first consider a less radical approach. You may simply be out of ideas, not places, to stash what you need where you need it most often.

Untapped storage solutions exist in most homes. Great places to put things can be hiding high, low and everywhere in-between the roof and the foundation.


Find additional storage space above, below and beyond

Aside from the obvious areas to store large boxes in attics, basements and garages, many of these alternative storage solutions can be bought ready-made at discount stores, repurposed from flea market finds or created from inexpensive building supplies. Some require relatively minor renovations and make fun weekend projects for DIYers.

  1. Garage ceiling. Get your excess belongings off the floor and up in the air. You can build a loft or buy ready-made ceiling storage for the garage.
  2. Above doors. If space is tight, sturdy shelving above and around door frames could be your answer. What you store there may depend on where the door is — front foyer, mudroom, bedroom, porch — so make sure your shelves are sturdy enough for the task. Extra towels stacked or rolled on a shelf over the bathroom door weigh a lot less than books.
  3. On top of wall cabinets. If your kitchen cabinets don’t go all the way to the ceiling or bulkhead, a row of pretty baskets can hide items you don’t use all that often but don’t want to hunt for when company comes for dinner.
  4. On doors. Need a place for hanging dish towels so they don’t fall on the floor when you open the oven? How about for the bath towel hanging on the shower curtain rod that gets wet while you shower? You can find over-the-door hooks, towel bars, spice racks and baskets that slip over the top of cabinet doors, closet doors and bathroom doors. Cabinet door spice racks also make nifty bathroom catch-alls for cosmetics and other tiny items like dental floss, eye drops — whatever you use daily that takes up valuable medicine cabinet or countertop real estate and tends to get lost easily. Holsters for hairdryers and other styling tools can be built into the inside of vanity cabinet doors.
  5. Between wall studs. If you have an empty stretch of wall that spans two or more studs, you have potential shelf space. You could go for the obvious solution — some floating shelves or baskets are easy enough to buy and install on the wall. You can also create recessed shelving that doesn’t protrude into the room’s space by cutting out a section of drywall. Avoid areas with plumbing, or electrical wiring (typically near outlets). Build and finish a plywood box to fit the space and hold the shelves. You can leave the shelving open, or mount a hinged door, mirror or framed picture over it.
  6. In tight spaces. Even if you have only a few inches between the fridge and the cabinets, you may be able to install a narrow pull out pantry or broom closet that you can roll in and out. Finish the front in a paint color, stain or veneer and hardware to match the rest of your cabinets.
  7. Kids’ rooms. Spice racks mounted inside closet doors make ideal picture-book shelves where you can display the covers facing out for the little ones to identify their favorites easily. Avoid mounting them to furniture that can tip over if a child tries to climb up the racks. Double hang closet rods that hook over the stationary rods not only add storage but make it easy for children to reach and dress themselves — plus learn to put away their own clothes. A sturdy wall hook for each child, either in their rooms or in the mudroom, can keep backpacks from adding to a mess underfoot. Buy or make a fabric or mesh hammock for a corner of the room to corral stuffed animals.
  8. Under the stairs. Staircases hide many cubic feet of space that can be used in a variety of ways including pull out storage, extra closet space, cabinets, shoe racks, pantries, wine coolers and bookcases. If you are fortunate to have stairs in your house, do not let this potential storage space go to waste.
  9. Under the cabinets. What’s under your kitchen cabinets behind the kick plates? Usually, nothing. Adding drawer storage there makes room for everything from baking pans and cutting boards to pet feeding stations.
  10. Under the floor. Small houses often make use of the space under the subfloor for compartments to house sporting equipment and clothes. You may not want to cut up your hardwood living room floor, but the floor inside a small closet is fair game to create this type of hidden storage.

Creative upcycling fails

I am a big believer in upcyling, recycling and repurposing to keep discarded items out of landfills. I’m just not very good at envisioning something that already has a specific function as something that can fulfill an entirely different one.

I need suggestions. The internet is filled with examples to guide me. DIY websites, blogs and Pinterest provide an endless array of good ideas for those of us who are creatively challenged when it comes to finding a second incarnation for used “stuff.”

Unfortunately, some examples are pointless or just unappealing. There is, as a friend once told me, no accounting for taste when it comes to repurposing, which means you need to apply a critical eye to what someone else thinks is a really clever, attractive and effective reuse of old junk. Not everything should be reinvented as something it was never meant to be.


Painted furniture is not always an improvement

Painting furniture is not necessarily the best way to give it a second life. Distressing a beautiful piece that needs refinishin — stripping, sanding and staining — and slapping on some paint instead is sacrilegious at worst and frivolous at best, especially when the painter doesn’t know what she’s doing.

While browsing an antique shop today, I nearly cried when I saw a vanity table from the 1920’s that had been painted three different colors — white, magenta and mint green. And the once-beautiful but now tarnished metal and tortoiseshell drawer pulls, which were an essential part of the original design, had been totally ignored and looked grossly out of place.


Repurposing: what works and what doesn’t?

There are some truly amazing upcycles to be found online such as piano bars repurposed from old pianos. And then there are some less sophisticated, but extremely economical and useful repurposing projects such as pallets turned into all sorts of backyard furniture and shelving. But not all repurposing can qualify as “up” cycling. Some projects get a definite thumbs “down.”

By now you may be familiar with some epic repurposing and upcycling fails — for example, the deluxe bar and toilet grill that utilizes the commode’s tank as an ice chest for chilling beer — and the toilet bowl for grilling burgers. If you’re someone who thinks it’s brilliant, don’t invite me over for a barbecue.

Granted, I turned a chi chi cat litter box into a planter and to some that might be distasteful, but it didn’t look like a litter box. And I wasn’t using it to cook my dinner or serve my neighbor a beer.

Small Home is Right For Family Holiday

If you think you need a big house to host a major holiday meal, you’re mistaken. The spirit of the holidays is about being together with the people you love, and no amount of square footage can create that magic. You can host a Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or Christmas meal, even in a small house or apartment. You just need to get creative. These out-of-the-holiday-gift-box ideas will get you ready for a truly enjoyable event, regardless of the size of your home.


1. Create space

You have limited room in an apartment or small home, but you can make the most of what you have. Rearrange the furniture to maximize floor space. Pack it all into the corner of a bedroom if you have to. Rent or borrow folding chairs, which can be easily whipped out, moved around, and stored away again. Bring small side tables out of bedrooms to make a resting place for drinks and plates. Then, designate a single room, like a bedroom or office, where guests can leave their things, so your entertaining space won’t get cluttered with coats and bags as guests arrive.


2. Serving alternatives in small homes

Not everyone has room to serve 20 at their dining table. Who cares! There are plenty of alternatives to the Norman Rockwell depiction of a holiday meal. Dispense with the table completely if you need to. Most people won’t mind sitting on the couch with a plate in their lap, catching up with a relative they rarely see. Plan to serve buffet style, and release any anxiety you have about your upholstery. There are wonderful stain removers on the market, and the Internet is loaded with tips to remove gravy from anything. Got a gang of kids coming? Pull out an extra tablecloth and let them picnic on the floor! While you’re at it, seriously consider disposable plates, napkins and flatware. A heaping mound of dirty dishes in a small kitchen sink is overwhelming. If the food and company are memorable, few are likely to focus on the plates and cutlery.


3. Keep meal-prep simple

Chopping, mixing, and all the other cooking what-not takes up a lot of space. As much as you can, pick recipes that you can prep and cook ahead, to keep the kitchen less crowded and give you more time to enjoy your guests. When it comes to beverages, forget about offering every option. Create a small station with a signature drink where guests can serve themselves.


4. Get outside your small house

Find opportunities to get outdoors. In many parts of the country, the weather can be nice enough to enjoy a fire pit, hiking or snow-shoeing and lawn games like corn hole and horse shoes. Take an after dinner walk through the neighborhood to check out the holiday lights. Live in an apartment building with no yard? Plan a scavenger hunt, and get your neighbors involved. Then, invite them back for a piece of pie, and get to know them better. Connecting with your community can make life more fulfilling all year long, not just during the holidays.


5. Ask for help!

No matter the size of your home, if you’re hosting a holiday, you should absolutely ask for help. Most guests want to contribute, and it’s more fun to work as a team. Ask some guests to arrive early to help with parts of meal preparation and table-setting. Ask other guests to bring an appetizer or dessert to eliminate some of your cooking chores. Enlist a teenager or grandparent to help entertain little kids. In entertaining and in life, when everybody pitches in, it brings us closer together.

With some planning, you can pull off a wonderful holiday celebration no matter the size of your space. It’s the time you spend together that makes the memories — not the table settings and other trappings. Now, find your favorite recipes, and ask your Mom to bring Grandma’s famous casserole. Happy Holidays to one and all!