the little reveal

Just about 2 years ago this month we started our biggest house project yet: a kitchen remodel. It’s pretty much done!  After reading many kitchen design books and websites, I can tell you that an incremental DIY project like this will never really have a “BIG REVEAL” stage, but in the balance, we got to celebrate a lot more mini and major revelations and celebrations along the way. The other side benefit of the long-term remodel is that we spread out the cost over a long period.  We had a few months with big outlays, but for the most part absorbed the entire project into our regular monthly budget. But yes, you have to be able to live with some chaos for an extended time frame: it's definitely a trade-off.
Before, a functional but well-worn and dated space.
Despite the long time-frame, the kitchen was mostly functional almost the entire time. This is mostly due to the flexibility of the DIY, the fact that my spouse is awesome (he temporarily installed the sink about four times), and because we had two kitchen carts that acted as work spaces and could be rolled out of the room for the day and pushed back after the cleanup was done.  Our old lower cabinets were re-purposed for storage and rearranged along the way. We did have dishes/gear spread around the house over the course of several months, but by I think January we had almost everything back in the correct room.
August: Second round of dry-walling
The biggest cooking gap we had was when the entire space was (mostly) gutted and we were installing the floors, but to be honest those work days were so intensive cooking was the last thing on our mind—we were too tired to even eat out at the end of the day.  We had a second gap when the new sink and cabinet went in (and the insulation and drywall behind it): I think we had four or five days of washing dishes in the basement.
May: Reclaimed floor going in
The two hardest parts of the project, probably the two we could have saved the most time on, were the things we wanted to do the most, so there we were.  First the floor.  We had a laminate floor floating on top of two layers of vinyl/tile and an underlayment.   We went back and forth on options but we both really wanted hardwood and for the floors to be on one level.  This meant pulling everything out and going down to the sub-flooring.  We also opted for reclaimed flooring from our local Habitat for Humanity Restore. We loved this option as it matched our vintage oak in the rest of the house, and hit all the buttons of saving money, recycling, etc.  BUT, it also meant removing hundreds (thousands?) of nails, and scraping the joints to remove any tar paper/finish etc. 
November: Last upper cabinet on this side going in.
The second time-consumer was that D wanted to build the cabinets himself. In some ways this made the project really flexible, as he could build one at a time and customize each one to the space.  But it also took time, and made us dependent on warmer weather as his shop is mostly in the (unheated) garage.

Layout-wise, our our biggest change was to remove the cabinets from the back wall and add a window that looks out into the back yard and garden. (D's idea, and a brilliant one.) To compensate for the lost storage, we added extra cabinets to another wall, and a long counter with drawers replaced one of our rolling carts.  Originally an L-shaped eat-in kitchen, now it's more of a wide galley. We also widened the doorway to the living room.   

So here we are today.  There’s still a bookshelf to add, and some trim-work in a couple of spots.  The flooring has its original finish so eventually we will sand it down and re-varnish. Most mornings we are still amazed by the transformation when we walk in to make coffee.  There are certainly flaws—any DIYer (and heck, probably most folks who have contracted jobs) can point you at mistakes or compromises we made along the way.  But I like that our kitchen is handmade, that it doesn’t look that it came from a store, and that we can use it every day knowing we did every damn thing with our own effort.  (Special thanks to two siblings with renovation skills that came up and helped for a weekend each, and also provided consultation and trouble-shooting along the way.I will add, while we had tackled most of the elements of this job before (windows, drywall, tile) having so many factors in ONE room made me very glad we waited until we had built up our skill-set before taking this on. It was daunting, but really rewarding.

A few details (based on things I was looking for when researching this project): 
Sink: IKEA farmhouse sink, by way of Craigslist
Faucet: a ubiquitous Kohler from Home Depot 
Dishwasher: 18 inch Frigidaire (Energy Star rated and perfect for a 2-person household) 
Range Hood:  Kobe (purchased sight-unseen online but well-built and works great so far) 
Stove: BlueStar RCS (my splurge/reward for all that we saved on's somewhat quirky but I love it.)
Cabinet color: Persian Blue milk paint from General Finishes
Counters: Maple butcher block from Forever Joint Tops, a wonderful Wisconsin family business.
If I've forgotten something, leave a comment or send me an email.
We love the curved counter cut to our specs. There's space on the end for dog dishes and/or a stool. Eventually a bookshelf will go where the framed photos are. We kept our old fridge for the time being, it's relatively new.

the much maligned cauliflower

I started growing cauliflower about 4 years ago, and hadn't really cooked with it a lot before then. Unfortunately my timing in this regard means that every recipe search returns dozens of results for "how to use cauliflower to replace X in your diet".  I get paleo, whole 30, keto, gluten free, how to get your kids to eat it, blah blah blah results, but not enough recipes that just enjoy this lovely vegetable for what it is.  But after complaining about this on twitter yesterday (while imagining a cauliflower/potato salad hybrid, and only finding anti-potato salad recipes), I decided I would compile some of the favorite recipes I HAVE found.  While many of these are nutritious and accidentally vegetarian or gluten-free, they are in my repertoire because they are delicious and a celebration of the featured vegetable, not an excuse for one.

Cauliflower and Caramelized Onion Tart (from Bon Appetit, via Smitten Kitchen)

This was declared a winner from our first summer of trying out recipes. It also wins for the most decadent of dishes, and the least fitting in any category of healthy diet fads.  This beauty boasts three kinds of cheese (mascarpone, parmesan, and gruyere-- I usually substitute Roth's Grand Cru).  It's possibly better suited for fall eating as you roast the cauliflower first, and then bake the tart for another half hour or so, but I usually can find a cool summer evening to make this too. 

Gobi Manchurian (I usually meld a mishmash of recipes but this one from Saveur is probably the closest.

This one of my favorite dishes from the local Indian Buffet, and while it's putzy to make at home it's so very good made from scratch.  Historically it comes from a fun meld of food cultures, and has a sweet, Chinese take-out flavor mixed with the more complex Indian spices. You can make it super spicy for a hot day too.

There are quite a few easier but (almost as) tasty Indian dishes for cauliflower:

Aloo Gobi (I adapt from this one, this is a really good overall Indian recipe resource--her pakoras recipe is also great and you can stick cauliflower in there too!)  Gobi Palak Kofta Curry:   sadly the site I found this on is not working now, but it's a spinach/cauliflower dumpling made with chickpea flour in a spicy, tomato/yogurt-based sauce (okay this is almost as putzy as the manchurian dish). There's also a lot of mixed vegetable curries, both "dry" and saucy versions, that can use cauliflower (and a ton of other produce), it's one my favorite ways to cook in high summertime.

Cauliflower and Parmesan Cake, Ottolenghi, via Smitten

I find that Smitten does a good job of streamlining some of the more elaborate "chef-y" recipes, and seems to parse out the better recipes out of a popular book like this one (it's from Plenty). I make a half-batch of this for two of us and either use a small skillet or loaf pan to bake it.  This is kind of like a more substantial frittata than a cake, but it's interesting and cool, and I might just make it tonight.  It's a hearty vegetarian main, though I did add bacon once and wasn't un-pleased with the results.

Another Ottolenghi recipe I tried was Cauliflower and Cumin Fritters, via Food and Wine.
I only made these once but my notes say that they were a hit, I should make them again.

Cauliflower Cheese

When I'm looking for vegetable comfort food, BBC Good food is my jam.  Brit recipes can be a lovely counterbalance to barely cooked, earnestly healthy superfood.  Any veggie can be "cheesed" really, it's pretty much just a simple mornay sauce with some extra mustard. In fact, I often make a classic Wisconsin-style baked mac and cheese in the wintertime, and just add a package of frozen garden veggies--often a broccoli and cauliflower mix.  It makes a decadent side dish into a more satisfying main.  

And, while cauliflower is often featured in fall/winter recipes, my "spring" crop is usually ready to eat in late June and into August, when I'm not necessarily feeling like turning on the oven.  I throw florets on the grill, or onto pizzas, into stir fries, or pasta dishes.  There's always pickling (I made a lemony refrigerator pickle from Food in Jars last year that went over really well.  And, the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook   has a Cauliflower pesto recipe that is perfect for a hot summer day.

So there you have it, a compendium of cauliflower. Have at it!  Or, if you have another favorite, let me know!

On sticking to the plan

You'd think the meal-planning habit would start in the doldrums of winter, or when you were stuck in a rut of cooking the same things all the time.  Mine came at the height of the summer rush.  It was most likely mid-August, when the counters were overflowing with tomatoes, and the refrigerator drawer was packed with zucchini, and a walk through the backyard caused minor heart palpitations.  It was the time of year when a preserving project might take up most of the after-work hours, and when dinner time approached a helpless feeling arose.

I'd throw "tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, peppers" into the Epicurious search engine, and three thousand recipes would come up.  I'd stare at the screen, oohing at the possibilities, and 20 minutes later remained hungrier but no more decisive, and the temptation to bail out and eat a tomato sandwich, or worse, order take-out, would creep in.  It was the summer glut panic.  I needed to focus.

So we sat down, me and my spouse who had witnessed several cooking meltdowns over the last week, and brainstormed a meal plan.  How about fajitas with peppers and fresh salsa?  Lets put that down for Tuesday.  Obviously the counter is screaming Italian food, we'll make a eggplant pasta dish Wednesday.  Thursday?  How about we grill a bunch of veggies and have pitas and hummus, middle eastern style?  PIZZA FRIDAY was born, where we could throw all the ingredients together and use up the leftover tomato sauce from canning earlier in the week.

Thus began our template-style of dinner planning.  We had a rough theme for each day of the week, including one leftover day (Mondays), assuming low-energy and high chances of good things in the fridge.  Weekends themselves were a little more free-form, with more time allotted for a bigger project, indulging a random craving, or choosing to eat dinner out rather than defaulting to it.

And it worked! Just narrowing down the options meant I was wasting a lot less time, and having a plan percolating in the back of my head during the day made meal preparation much smoother.  It turns out that sticking to the plan after getting home late was a lot faster and less stressful than staring at the inside of a loaded (or empty) refrigerator.  And even bailouts were less dramatic:  maybe I had grand plans for Eggplant Parmesan, but after a hard day reverted to throwing all the ingredients in a skillet and pouring it over a bowl of pasta.

Also we wasted less food.  Our weekly brainstorming session would take into account things coming in the garden or getting old in the freezer.  The coordinating grocery list would just require the parts for specific meals, no more throwing things in the cart because it looked potentially useful.  Leftover bits from earlier nights worked their way into usefulness much more easily when I knew what was coming up, and just knowing how old something was in the fridge was HUGE.  (Beans? Oh yeah, those are from Tuesday, I'll throw them into the chili tonight). As we got more coordinated, we were able to dovetail our plans more easily: a roasted chicken over the weekend would be earmarked for enchiladas, a tub of sliced peppers and half an onion could be saved out for a super easy pizza prep.


Like just about everything I write about here, there is no one-size-fits-all method that works for everyone. Now that we're in much more of a groove, we're less rigid about following the actual template and spend all of 15 minutes jotting down a weekly menu and grocery list based around what's in season and what we're in the mood for.  But still, as the August glut creeps back this year, I'm glad we have a structure in place when the harvest starts taking over my counters.

and natives

Back when finished up the backyard terracing project, we were left with a middle zone between our two stone walls that needed planting.  It was semi-crappy soil, a steep slope, and blazing hot southern exposure.  Since one major point of the wall project was to eliminate perilous mowing, we wanted this section to be fairly low maintenance.  Due to chickens and dogs, it also had to be able to take some abuse.  This was not the spot for delicate, diva plantings. and not really a good spot for edible plants, except for the grapes that D planned to plant along the walls.

One option we had in mind was to try a prairie planting.  I knew they were drought-tolerant, put down deep roots for erosion control, and were good for pollinators.  I had  never really thought much about native plantings before, our ornamental flower beds have many of the regular old classic perennials: spring bulbs, sedum, asiatic lilies, heuchera and hostas, with hybridized monardas and lupines.  I'd seen plenty of cool permaculture/hippie front yards in Madison planted with natives, and while I thought they were interesting, I guess I just didn't get it.  It just seemed like an cool option if you had acreage, and great for municipal park areas, but maybe not for my backyard.

But here we were, with a problem area looking for a solution, so we decided to give it a shot. The UW-Aboretum has an annual plant sale, so we ordered a mixed flat of shorter, sun-loving prairie plants, and picked up a few more natives from The Flower Factory, our favorite local perennial place. We started prepping the area in sections, and covered/smothered the areas we didn't have time to get to yet (and grew pumpkin the first year, why not?). In subsequent years we learned about a very cool program called Plant Dane! which offers a group discount on native plants in their spring sale--it's a great deal and a perfect way to get started. We've added lots of blooming varieties, more grasses, and some shade tolerant plants for the side near our garage and under a maple tree.

So now we're in year 4, and while it's still a work in progress, I've fallen deeply in love with this section of our yard.  More so than our other ornamental areas, it's just a crescendo of blooms and textures, starting with ephemeral prairie smoke in the earliest days of spring, and rising to a point, mid-summer, where it's a riot of color and activity.

And oh, the bugs!  I knew we'd attract bees, but it's a zoo of damsel flies, spit bugs, caterpillars, fireflies, butterflies, and tons of different bees, wasps, and other pollinators. The birds (native and imported alike-- even our hens) love it for it's seed-heads, insects, and to collect materials for nests. I can sit happily on the steps and listen to the humming of activity on a muggy afternoon, and come dusk the bats arrive, making calculated sweeps over the yard.

And of course we're not quite at "low maintenance" yet, there are some perennial weeds we are fighting (bindweed, ground ivy) that will probably take a few years of editing to get to the point where the desired plants can hold their own.  Some natives are more aggressive than others in spreading around, so we are learning what to recognize, and when to move/remove things that are volunteering in the gaps.  It's a little more chaotic than the cultivated spaces I have elsewhere in my yard, and takes a little more patience on my part to let things be wild.  But I'm learning to go with it :)

So I get it now.  I'm happily on the native plant bandwagon.  I'm never going to be purist about it: we've transplanted a few random "regular" plants that seemed to have an affinity for growing in this environment--thyme is super happy along our stones, as are creeping phlox.  Black-eyed Susans have been naturalizing all over our yard for years, and I have no idea what their original variety was. 

At the end of the day, I live in a relatively un-natural place: (some of) our neighbors are always going to spray their lawns, there's a gas station up the street, lights from a sports field sometimes stay on late into the night.  And yet there is wildness too--we live close enough to corridors of undeveloped space that we see fox, mink, kingfishers and wood ducks regularly.  It's always going to be a mishmash, and our yard is always going to be a haven.  Milkweed is popping up in my front yard flower garden next to the towering lilies, bumblebees are feasting on my hosta blossoms, and that's just fine with me.

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