Saturday, September 9, 2017

Cabinets and Wine Fridge

Cabinetry was delivered last week and my contractor got to work right on the northern wall so that all of the cabinetry around the wine fridge would be completed just prior to delivery. For our cabinets, we went with bamboo just like we did for the kitchen. This time, our designer went with a different company from the one we used for the kitchen. Nonetheless, the end result is a very similar look and feel.

The house had a floor to ceiling closet against the eastern wall which was removed during demolition. The plans called for a Murphy wall to be built. A soffit was built out beyond where the old closet doors were. The design called for a portion of the wall to be on a hinge and behind the cabinetry would be a walk-in storage area. The middle portion of the cabinetry will be where we place our TV on top and an electric fireplace below. The idea being that if you just walked into the room you couldn't tell that there something behind the wall. But then the middle portion can swing out. A motion detector turns on the lights as you enter the storage area. The plan is to put shelving on the real wall so that storage boxes can be placed on them.

Another element that we wanted in the redesigned downstairs room was a proper wine fridge. Before, we had an inexpensive wood wine rack held 44 bottles. We quickly outgrew that and it became surrounded with wine boxes. We are club members at three different wineries so we receive regular shipments to our house. Couple that with trips to Sonoma County and the close-by Livermore (and Santa Cruz) wine region, and the boxes of wine were getting higher and higher.

When it came time to clear out the room, I emptied the wine rack into boxes and then temporarily stored the wine in one of the bedrooms. The total was ten cases of wine.

So this week our new wine storage fridge was delivered and set up. It was actually one of the first purchases we made last summer. It was almost literally one year to the day from when we put our down payment to when we paid it off and arranged for delivery. On the recommendation of some friends, we purchased a fridge by the French company Transtherm. Give the amount of wine we wanted to store--and to allow some room for growth--we selected the Prestige Ermitage. Depending on the shelving configuration one can put 182 to 234 bottles of wine in it. At this point, we will go with the 14 individual, pull-out shelves (182 bottles) rather than the maximum configuration of 234 bottles.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Carbon Steel Pans

My workhorse skillet has been a traditional 12" nonstick. But with almost daily usage, I find that they last about one to two years and then they need to be replaced. The nonstick components begin to die off. Scratches and other damage begin to take their toll. There always comes a day when you realize that this pan is done and it's time to order a replacement.

While nonstick skillets are convenient, they are treated with the chemical polytetraflouroethylene (PTFE). This surface, while nonstick, is prone to scratching and erosion over time. Plus you have all of the chemicals, perhaps, leaching into your food.

Cast iron is an excellent alternative that will last a lifetime. When well-seasoned, it can offer a similar nonstick experience. But they are heavy and have more responsibilities in the cleaning and maintaining end of things.

So enter, carbon steel pans. I was reading this article (limited access without a subscription) in a recent edition of Milk Street magazine and it introduced me to carbon steel pans. I've peered into enough restaurant kitchens to know that the stack of pans from which cooks draw from are their workhorse--carbon steel pans.

The article, entitled "Toss Out Your Nonstick Skillet," made the case for using a well-seasoned carbon steel pan instead of nonstick. The article and the video below say that carbon steel can offer a similar experience to PTFE nonstick but it will last a lifetime and skips the chemicals.

So based on the article, the video, and other research, I decided to start with Mafter Bourgeat 11 7/8" pan. Here it is as delivered to me from the factory.

Carbon steel pans need to be seasoned before use. The seasoning process helps to build a natural nonstick patina. From the factory, the skillet will be a metal silver color but the goal is, over time, to get it a brownish-black color. Seasoning directions as provided by the manufacturer (reworded):

  1. Wash the pan in hot water with a mild detergent, using a bristle brush, if necessary (as you can briefly see in the above video), to remove factory protective coating. Be sure to get both sides of the pan.
  2. Dry the pan thoroughly.
  3. Over medium to medium high heat, add 1/3 cup vegetable oil (I used canola), 2/3 cup salt, and the skins of 2 potatoes (I used russets).
  4. Sauté, continually swirling the contents around entire pan (including side), for 15 minutes.
  5. After 15 minutes, let the pan cool slightly. Then discard the contents and rinse in hot water (to minimize temperature shock--but still be careful with this step). 
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 with another round of seasoning. 
  7. Let pan cool thoroughly (I did about 30 minutes). 
  8. Rinse the pan under hot water removing all of seasoning ingredients. Dry completely with a towel.
  9. Reheat the pan with a little oil
At around 10 minutes during round one, I noticed that pan began to darken. I don't think you need to be too religious about the 15 minutes, as I was. You can probably do a little longer without any negative impact. Remember that it will continue to darken with ongoing usage, eventually turning black.

Here's the pan after the double-session seasoning.

Like cast-iron, carbon steel pans should never be washed with detergent. Hot water and a gentle brush should be all that is used. Also like cast iron, water/rust is the enemy that can ruin the pan. After the soap free cleaning never air dry these pans. Dry thoroughly and do a quick season with a bit of oil before putting it away.

My pan's maiden voyage was with shrimp and yellow onion. I found the pan to be very nonstick even on its first use. The heavy seasoning that I used created some areas of blackening which I thought would be difficult to clean, but hot water and gentle brush got the pan very clean.

I look forward to continuing to try it out and watching it darken over time--improving the nonstick qualities.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Paint, Concrete Polishing, and Windows

There has been slow, but steady, progress on the downstairs renovation project.


We got a first coat of paint in the room. We are going with two shades of grey. Most of the room is a lighter shade of grey but the wall with the new windows will have a slightly darker shade. This is our "accent wall." After the first coat of paint was applied, the painter was reluctant to paint the second coat until after the concrete polishing was complete. He was concerned that dust and scrapes could occur. We agreed with his assessment and had him stop after the first coat. So he still has to come in for a second coat.

Concrete Polishing:

About a week later, we got the concrete polished. When we bought the place, the downstairs room had some cheap, adhesive tile squares on top of the 1956 concrete slab. As the room got demolished, we had the tiles pulled up since, somewhere in the design process, we decided to go with polished concrete instead of carpeting or tiles. The concrete slab that the downstairs room sits on was very intact for being fifty years old in earthquake-prone California along with being in a house with some creeping down the hill. There were no cracks. But there were some new patches that were part of the recent construction where the future sink needed to connect into the main outgoing water/sewer line which is under the slab.

Once we decided on concrete polishing, we began to notice it and study it everywhere. Look at the floors of Costco, supermarkets, stores like BevMo, and other strip mall drug stores.
And you will often find that polished concrete on most of the industrial floors you walk on. Sometimes you will see cracks or patches but the polishing just equalizes everything so that these imperfections--while still there--do not stand out as much. So after studying industrial flooring for awhile, we sought out a concrete polisher and went with a matte finish with no color. Depending on the company, you can get higher levels of sheen and also color the concrete.

For us, the mostly pristine slab did develop some cracks during renovation. this was probably due to us shifting the weight of the house with the piers or the temporary scaffolding while the wall was removed for the La Cantina door installation. Or both.

But we are very happy with the final product. Because of the previous adhesive tile, the concrete still shows some of the square patterns. But, based on our research, we knew that going in.

This week, the windows were installed. We had already replaced the windows on the top two floors, but didn't do downstairs, specifically awaiting this project. Unfortunately, we were no longer allowed to install the same double pane aluminum-framed window due to California's ever-evolving the Code of Regulations. The standards are updated periodically by the California Energy Commission to allow consideration and possible incorporation of new energy efficiency technologies and methods. So aluminum window framing is no longer accepted under Title 24 so our choices were fiberglass or vinyl. We thought we may paint the framing to match the upstairs aluminum, so we went with fiberglass (although more expensive) because it can be painted. It was also the better choice since we wanted the smallest framing option.

The new large picture window is now one solid plate of glass (the previous window had framing for two openings). The smaller window (which was where the door used to be) is a casement window that opens outward.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Hard Steamed Eggs

Hard boiled eggs make for a tasty and a relatively healthy snack. But what if the way you've been preparing hard boiled eggs for all these years was not the best way? We have made the eggs the traditional way--the way our mother's taught us--with boiling water.

Not too long ago, while attending a dinner party where one of the dishes contained a good number of sliced hard eggs in a green salad. The creator of the dish said that he had done some online research and found that it's actually a better practice to hard steam them, which is what he did.

If you research the topic online, you will find a variety of approaches for hard eggs. The most common is to submerge the eggs in water, bring it to a full boil, and then remove from the fire, cover the pan, and let the eggs cook for 10-12 minutes. But sometimes an egg will crack and some of the yolk oozes out creating what looks to be a deformity.

Then you'll find camps that swear that a pressure cooker works best. You will find suggestions that involve baking eggs in an oven. Then, there are whole discussions about the age and temperature of the egg and how that impacts results. There is a lot of thoughts and words online for such a simple thing. But the result that everyone is striving for is a hard-cooked egg that is easy to peel and does not crack during preparation.

So using some of the links below, I gave it a try. Add an inch or so of water to the pan. You don't want water coming over the base of the steaming basket. Over the water, place the steaming basket and add your eggs. Turn on the heat and bring to a boil. Bringing one inch of water takes way less time than the traditional way (saving you on the energy bill). Once boiling, turn down heat, if needed, but keep a boil going. Cover and set a timer for 12 minutes.

At the 10 minute mark, prepare an ice bath. In a large bowl create a mix of water and ice cubes.

After 12 minutes, remove the cover, and take the pot off of the heat. Using tongs, transfer the eggs to the ice bath and let it rest there for 10 minutes. When it's time, use the tongs to remove the eggs and let them dry on a towel.

The result? Same tasty egg as the traditional way, but much easier to peel. No more losing chunks or layers of eggs.

Next, I wondered if I could use an appliance steamer. I have a Black and Decker steamer. Because the eggs are further from boiling water and there's more steam escaping, you need to go 25-30 minutes.

Here are a few resources on the subject:

Fresh Eggs Daily - Shows you how to use the bamboo steamer.

Instructables - Step-by-step guide with photos. Lots of comments to add ideas.

Serious Eats - This person really went to town experimenting with a variety of factors.

Give it a try!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Framing La Cantina

With the foundation work done, the next order of business is to get the La Cantina folding door installed. Over the last few days, the exterior stucco was removed on both sides of the downstairs room. Then the existing window and studs were removed on the west wall and the frame for the 8' x 8' La Cantina door installed.

Even though it's just the framing covered over with plywood, the room already feels transformed. The west wall will be mostly a wall of glass with a ton of natural light. The two hardy panels on either side of the door framing are visible but now seem dwarfed.

On the left wall, you can see the old door frame (covered over with plywood) and the new foundation cutting through the bottom. We are about to order a 4' x 3' casement window that will fit into the existing door framing there.

On the right, the half bath with some new framing since we moved the door frame to the right.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Foundation Work Completed

Our foundation was completed this last Friday; exactly 6 months after the work began in January. That's what happens when you schedule foundation work just as a record-setting rain season gets under way. Once the dry weather returned and the water table lowered, the work was completed within a few weeks.

Hardy Frames on either side of what will be our 8' x 8' La Cantina folding door.
Once the piers and rebar were in place underground, they jackhammered the foundation on the corner of the house. Because were are changing the door placement, they needed to build new forms for the concrete for the new foundation. The rebar from the underground piers also are inside the foundation and then attached to the Hardy Frame shear walls which can be seen on the right and left side of the photo. Hardy Frames are pre-fabricated shear wall structures that provide architectural strength and stability.
HFX Hardy Frame attached to foundation

Hardy Frame bolts
New foundation stem wall cuts through old door frame
Over to the left, where the old door was, the foundation now cuts across it. The old door opening will be transformed into a wall with a window in it. 

Outside, the new foundation is also visible. The concrete sidewalk has been re-poured. I fully expected that the concrete replacement would not be a very high quality job and that in the future, we would have to just have the whole thing redone. But, happily, it is looking like they did a great job matching the existing sidewalk. 

Outside corner of the house

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Blue Apron vs. Hello Fresh

A number of months ago, a friend gave me a code for a free box with Blue Apron food delivery service. Since then, we have been getting Blue Apron boxes every once in a great while. Mostly, I will order it when there are some interesting menus with new ingredients or approaches I want to experiment with like different seasonings or ethnic ingredients (like Korean gochujang).

My account has us getting three vegetarian recipes per week per week for two people. The price is pretty reasonable when you calculate the per meal average compared to a dinner out.

Recently, I followed an ad on Facebook for a competing service, Hello Fresh. They too had a free week promotional code so I signed up to get the free box and then disabled the account. I cancelled not just to get free food but it seemed that you could not preview the menus until you had selected a date for your first paid delivery. I didn't like that so I just cancelled.

Then, one day, we came home to find both a Blue Apron and Hello Fresh (my free one) box on our front porch. So I decided to look at the glass as half full and have the opportunity to have a side-by-side competition. A food delivery smackdown! Here we go...


Hello Fresh wins on this one right out of the box, so to speak. All of the ingredients for each dinner are in a shoe box sized box. Unpacking is quite easy as you just transfer the three boxes to the fridge.

With Blue Apron all ingredients for all three meals are packaged together in one big box and you transfer all of the labeled individually wrapped ingredients to the fridge. Also, with Blue Apron, each meal has a small paper bag that contain the "knick knacks." This is usually for small items like a small bag of seasoning, or a small vial of vinegar, and so on. I've had two experiences where an ingredient was missing (Last time, I got online and found that you can report missing ingredients and get a few dollars refunded). But I have to give credit to Blue Apron on including recycling directions on the first delivery. With both services, pretty much everything is recyclable.

Both services offer a card stock paper with step-by-step directions and high quality photos. The Blue Apron gives a more detailed description of the meal. Blue Apron also gives a wine pairing and with both services you can purchase wine from them. We have not tried that, however.

Dinner 1: Hello Fresh: Mediterranean Tomato and Asparagus Bake
This was our first experience with a Hello Fresh dinner. Overall, prep and cook time was less than Blue Apron but the servings seemed a little smaller. When I first got invited to Blue Apron through a friend, I was assured that there would be leftovers for lunch the next day. Generally, that has been true. Not the case with this first Hello Fresh dinner.

The preparation process was a bit mixed. The roasted veggies took half the time as advertised. For the browning of the couscous in butter, I took more time than directed so that more browning could occur. Start of prep to serving was about 40 minutes.

The dinner was overall a positive experience. A satisfying meal that consisted of a base of roasted Israeli couscous covered by a layer of roasted baby asparagus, grape tomatoes, scallions, roasted walnuts, and feta cheese. There were no leftovers, however.

Dinner 2: Blue Apron: Calzones with Sweet and Spicy Peppers
This was the first Blue Apron dinner of this week. Prep was about the same as Hello Fresh (not counting the time that the pizza dough sat out to get to room temperature). Calzones were stuffed ricotta cheese, chopped olives (could have been more) with chopped and sautéed sweet peppers and sliced peperoncinis in a tomato sauce. A green salad on the side that also had sliced cucumber and feta cheese. The dressing was quite bland. But during the week you can get online and read what other are saying, so I was able to make the suggestion to others think about adding some ingredients to the dressing. My calzone creating experience is limited so I ended up with oddly-shaped calzones which perhaps affected the competition.

Between these two dinners Hello Fresh had the edge.

Dinner 3: Hello Fresh: Garden Quesadillas
Tonight's dinner featured roasted zucchini, strips of red bell pepper, and sliced red onions all grilled and the added to a quesadilla with chipotle mayonnaise and mozzarella cheese topped with a freshly made pico de gallo. A plain arugula side salad was on the menu but I decided to try to amp up the dressing given the experience of the night before.

Prep was a little longer than the first Hello Fresh dinner. I would say it was more like an hour from start of prep to serving. The recipe was for two quesadillas but six tortillas were provided and there was enough roasted vegetables to spread it across three quesadillas. So we had a satisfying dinner and there was a quesadilla for lunch the next day.

As I prepped this meal, I noticed that Hello Fresh tends to use the oven, where I think, it should be done in a skillet. Here, for example, once the quesadillas were assembled they went back into the oven the melt the cheese and brown the tortillas. Normally, I would have done it in a lightly oiled skillet. With the Hello Fresh method, I found that the oven dried out the tortillas a bit

Hello Fresh nice touch: They threw in a full 2 ounce bottle of Tabasco sauce. It wasn't directly called for but just listed as an extra option if you wanted to add some heat. I, of course, had some open in the fridge so I stuck this one in the pantry for future use.

Dinner 4: Blue Apron: Pickled Beet and Hard-Boiled Egg Sandwiches with Smoky Mayonnaise
This was billed as an Eastern European sandwich. I hard-boiled the eggs over the weekend to save some time in the work week. The beets are cooked in a red wine vinegar and this took longer than advertised. The smoky mayonnaise was made by adding smoked paprika to the provided mayo to taste. Also part of the sandwich was fresh dill and capers. Once assembled, sandwiches were put into a skillet with a dab of oil and the pressed down to combine the ingredients and lightly toast the outside.

The bag a baby kale that was sent for the side accidentally got frozen in the back of the fridge so I just made a mixed greens salad and some leftover dressing from another dinner.

We thought the sandwiches ended up tasting better than we expected. We both felt that pickled beets wouldn't be something we would like in a sandwich, but everything ended up blending nicely and we were pleasantly surprised.

I had some leftover beets and I was able to take a small bit of leftover sandwich in my lunch the next day.

Pitting these two against each other, the advantage went to Blue Apron.

Dinner 5: Hello Fresh: Crunchy Veggie and Lentil Salad 

This was a simple salad that took about 40 minutes to prepare. As French lentils cooked, I chopped radishes, carrots, and cucumbers. The dressing was a mix of sour cream, fresh dill, olive oil, lemon juice, along with salt and pepper. Whole wheat pitas were stuffed with feta cheese and then, once again, warmed in the oven where I would have though the skillet would be the better choice.

The salad ended up as a base of cooked lentils covered with dressed arugula and then a variety of fresh veggies. Finally, the salad was drizzled with the creamy dressing. The first bites were pretty underwhelming. But as the ingredients mixed and married it suddenly went to a whole new level. After mixing up the salad, it went from uninspiring to interesting and tasty.

Dinner 6: Blue Apron: Sugar Snap Pea Risotto with Mascarpone Cheese and Mint

This one actually went pretty fast for a risotto. I would say it was about 30 minutes from start to finish. Most of the time was on the front end, prepping the veggies that would be in the risotto. Instead of the usual Arborio rice they provided Carnaroli rice for the risotto which seemed to cook faster and was more forgiving than Arborio. In researching risotto rice online, I have learned that many chefs prefer Carnaroli rice over Arborio. Good to know!

Shocked snap peas and freshly chopped mint leaves were added to the risotto along with cheese, scallions, and garlic.

In the end, it was fine and satisfying but was bit generic. Nothing jumped out. No interesting ingredients or tastes.

Between these last two, Hello Fresh gets the nod.

So, for the three meal matchup it ended up with Hello Fresh - 2, Blue Apron - 1.

So you might think that this will cause me to reinstate the Hello Fresh account. Not just yet. For now, we will stick with Blue Apron despite the results of my smackdown. I'm sure the results could have been different on another week.

Partly, we'll stick with Blue Apron because we're used to it. Also, we find that Blue Apron offers a more interesting selections and have some unique and unusual ingredients (next week we will be making a pizza that features juice and zest from a pink lemon). We also don't get Blue Apron each week. We pick and choose and on the off weeks we still rely on our CSA box.

But I can say that both of these services offer high quality meals and either one will provide some new meal ideas.