In which the author tells you how to run your life -- or at least how to make the most of the fun parts of it.

For instance, inside these pages you will learn how to weather a mortar attack in good spirits; how to avoid booking yourself on the Internet into a bed and breakfast full of twee quilts and dusty tchotkes; and how to plan a dinner party that will stun your guests with deliciousness and style and not destroy your will to live with the amount of work you have to do to pull it off.

These are things I know firsthand, and things people who know me often ask me about (though I usually just book them into bed and breakfasts myself -- identifying ruffled death traps is an acquired skill). I am almost always right about everything (food, style and travel-related, anyway, and often many other things) and if everyone would just do as I say, dinner would taste better, cupcakes would not be dry, your parties would be more fun (for you), and mortar attacks... well, they always suck. I can't do anything about them.

*except laundry. I can't manage my own laundry, much less yours.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

How to Throw a Party for 50-year-olds

(a winter wonderland of beer... in my backyard)
1. Buy a lot less beer than you would if you were throwing a party for your 20-something officemates.

Seriously, it was like the loaves and fishes up in here. I threw a giant party for my boyfriend's 50th birthday -- incredibly, the first birthday party he has ever had (he lived in the woods with bears as a boy, truly) -- and I swear we finished the night with more alcohol than we started. (and we started with a lot).

2. But take advantage of nature's bounty. Winter parties are great. The drinks ice themselves.

(this is the backyard in question, all oriented toward a Malm steel fireplace - circa 1967, the Year of My Birth, that I got off Craigslist for $75. Not really pictured, but you can see the 8-foot stack in the lower left corner if you tilt your head like a quizzical dog. I built that day-bed structure myself. I love it.)

They also don't eat much, those AARP novitiates. I hauled in 35 lbs of pulled pork, made 20 lbs of awesome mac & cheese (trick! accidentally burn the sauce. imparts a mysterious and wonderful smoky flavor!), 10 lbs of coleslaw, 8 lbs of pickled shrimp (pictured below) and 8 lbs of sweet potato fries with a wonderful Dijon mustard-smoked paprika sauce of my own devising. Anyway, these people ate almost nothing.

3. Don't panic buy an extra 4 lbs of shrimp.

(Pickled Shrimp. I followed a recipe on Martha's site, but found it to be a little lacking in complexity, so I soused it up with some vermouth and fresh orange juice, and that did the trick. Let's see it close up, yes?)

Here's an action shot of coleslaw being tossed. It is a requirement with pulled pork sandwiches.

sweet potato fries, ready for reheating...

the blood-orange Manhattan's were a hit. But I still have about a gallon in the fridge.

5. Rely on your best friends for help. Meg, Eileen and Truly made sure all the food was hot and the wine replenished, while I wandered around giving the stink eye to anyone who looked like they might be about to spill on my gray velvet Chesterfield.

why yes, that is an attractive bowl catching drips from the rusted outdoor sink. Would you like to see it closer and more dramatically lit?

these were the only birthday candles, lining the walk to the front door. It was a great night.

Thanks to everyone who came and to my boyfriend who is smoking hot at 50. He made me take down his picture from one of my first posts, but you might be able to google cache it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How to Improve Your Oatmeal Cookies

We're on sort of a salt roll here at How To Run Your Life*. We generously salt our bitter greens and Brussels sprouts, lightly salt our coffee, and now we're salting our baked goods.

(and on Modern Family last week, salted chocolate milk featured prominently in the plot. I haven't tried but intend to.)

It's quite trendy. Salted caramels are all the rage of course... and if you've ever had chocolate dipped pretzels (or meditatively consumed pretzel sticks dipped in Nutella while watching TV... highly recommended), you'll want to give this a try.

Salt elevates the sweetness of the standard oatmeal cookie -- it's hard to explain but it just sort of gets you in the back corners of your mouth near your molars. You'll eat one and say, "mm delicious" and then walk away, and then you'll walk back and eat another and will repeat ad nauseum (literally). They are hard to not put in your mouth.

These are a perfect mix of caramelly (from the extra brown sugar), salty, toothsome and tart. Plus they are oatmeal so hello: fiber. (You can tell yourself as you eat them for breakfast, which you will.)

Little story. Boyfriend once expressed revulsion at the notion of fruit in cookies. I made him these. He recanted.

This is my recipe, adapted from a Martha classic, but considerably tweaked.

Makes about 3 dozen
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups packed light-brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
Coarse sea salt or Kosher salt for the top of cookies -- just enough for a few grains per cookie.

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle or whisk attachment, cream butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs; mix on high speed to combine. Mix in vanilla; set aside.

3. Combine oats, flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in a large bowl. Stir to combine. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and beat on low speed to combine, 10 to 15 seconds. Remove bowl from mixer, and stir in cranberries.

4. Lightly sprinkle the raw cookies with large-grained sea salt. Hold your hand about a foot above the cookies and spread that salt -- not too much. But enough. It provides that mysterious salt hit before the sweetness and tartness, then the salt in the dough gets you on the back end (so to speak).

5. Using a large metal scoop, drop dough onto prepared sheets, about 2 inches apart. Bake until golden and just set, about 18 minutes. Transfer sheets to wire rack to cool.

A Christmas Song!

I think I'm a little late to the game on this, but I am in love with this song from the Weepies, which I heard being sung by Catie Curtis, a folk singer out of Boston, during the White House Christmas tour this week. Give it a listen!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How to Make a New Life Resolution

I am heading into an exciting period of underemployment wherein I will finally not have an excuse not to live my life as I always planned I would, had I ever become a pampered housewife. I have not become such a housewife, but (delightful) circumstances have me at home for a while, and I get to create an intentional domestic life. Sort of like a dream version of Martha Stewart’s life, if she weren’t so busy with her empire and that calendar of hers.

(And, no, I have not won the lottery – sort of the opposite. What I have won is the opportunity to be at home for long stretches, as long as I don’t go wild with the charge card. More on this wonderful professional change in a future post.)

So ask yourself: If you didn’t have to go to work every day, how would you run your daily life?
Post your answer in comments. I’m looking for ideas… Basically, I’m having mild panic that I will become a Pringles-eating-couch monster without an office to go to. It’s entirely possible.

So I am looking for structure that will allow me to make the most of this gift of time. When I do end up in the full-time grind again – if I do – I don’t want to regret not living this period exactly as I should – organized, serene, and productive, with the time and inclination to savor the good stuff and indulge my hobbies.

Here’s my first pass at Rules for Living Intentionally, The Home Version:

1. Every meal will be an occasion. I will take the time to prepare good food and eat it at the table – not in front of the TV.

2. I will read the newspaper every day.

3. Television watching will be kept to a minimum during the day – appointment TV only. (That means Ina Garten, which will help me keep Rule 1. She’s always having people over for lunches).

4. Lunch dates will be made and kept with friends working downtown (and time permitting I will walk to them, and bring them homemade treats, or invite them to my house to feed them).

5. I will swim or walk or take a yoga class or go to the gym daily (M-F). The siren song of my 10-foot Chesterfield is strong.

6. I will complete my 16 lesson (30 minutes a day) Arabic language CD, finally, four years after it might have done me good. I can order one sesame cookie and tell people I am an American in a singsongy-Syrian dialect that dissolves native speakers into peals of laughter (just enough Arabic to get me kidnapped in a bakery!). That's it.

7. I will play my violin 30 minutes a day.

8. Every morning I will pop in one smallish, manageable load of laundry, and fold it and put it away.

9. I will do 10 Sun Salutations every morning to counteract all that couch sitting I will inevitably do upon ignoring rules 1 – 8.

10. I will make my bed every day – and I will shower and not wear pajamas all day.

11. I will tackle work in 2 hour blocks, at my desk – not on the couch.

12. I will take a break in the afternoon for tea.

13. I will make bread once a week.

14. I will do my dishes after each meal.

15. I will go to a lecture, movie or discussion once a week.

16. I will become an expert upholsterer. (a girl can aspire)

17. Every day I will do one hateful cleaning task for 15 minutes – wiping the floor, cleaning the baseboards, dusting the ceiling beams.

18. Once a week, at an appointed day and time, I will sit down for an hour to write actual letters and cards to friends and family. (Hat tip to Micki at Apartment Therapy for that one). Small bottles of champagne will be involved, to lure me to the desk.

19. I will track what I spend every day (necessary under the new austerity regime).

20. I will read books from the library.

21. I will only check my email four times a day -- when I wake up, after lunch, before dinner and before I go to bed (unless of course I have a project in the works). Massive time suck.

Thoughts? Suggestions?

How to Make Better Coffee

My friends Ben, a former Secret Service sharpshooter who can drop a man at 1,000 yards, and Meg (who cannot) make delicious coffee. I slept over at their fabulous Chesapeake Bay home during Thanksgiving weekend and Ben showed me his trick.

(I have a bedroom in their house, it is known as "Pam's room." Meg has a room at my house, known as "Meg's room." We were roommates for 5 years in our 20s... the separation has never quite been complete...)

So the secret, which I tried at my house:

Salt. Just a few grains over the coffee grounds before you brew it.
The science: salt inhibits your tongue's ability to taste bitterness (that's why you should generously salt your roasted Brussels sprouts, broccoli rabe and the like. You taste the vegetable instead of the bitterness. Don't over salt it, use more than you would normally think would work. It really improves the flavor.)
So a few grains of the stuff -- a tiny pinch between your finger and thumb -- takes the edge off your coffee. Don't try this with iodized salt. Use large grained sea salt -- it's mellower and has larger crystals.
I made coffee this way for my boyfriend last weekend without him knowing -- it was like an awesome commercial about decaf coffee from the 70s -- and he loved it. It really was delicious. We had leftover coffee that we reheated in the microwave the next day and it was still awesome -- smooth and nutty. Give it a whirl.
You're welcome.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A White House Christmas

So there I am watching Genevieve Gorder on HGTV showing off the White House Christmas decorations this weekend, and my boyfriend and I discuss the fact that this is all done by volunteers and how have I not volunteered for this yet (if the White House saw my rather random Christmas tree decorations it might think twice about allowing me near it in December) And in the midst of all of this I forgot that I had an 8 am pass to see the White House decorations the very next morning.

Consequently, I hit "snooze" three times before finally prying open my eyes at 7:45 and realized: I have 15 minutes to get my butt to the White House, approximately 25 blocks away in rush hour traffic.

I roused a grumpy but ultimately heroic boyfriend to drive me down, and I was on line by 8:05, and ran into some of my colleagues who were held up at the front gate. Because my name was on the cleared list, I was able to help speed their clearance along... they'd been waiting for 40 minutes in the icy cold for someone to run their drivers licenses. (Since the Salahis, things have been in a bit of a disarray down at 1600.)

Anyway! Here's what I almost missed but for an indulgent boyfriend with a car and love in his heart. The pictures don't quite do it justice....

the east door, and below, the highlight for me. A difficult to photograph series of wreaths -- each with a different fruit or vegetable, tightly packed -- pears, citrus, pomegranates, artichokes, and something that looked cross between a pear and a purple gourd. The latter is the first wreath on the left. Then there were little orange somethings... peppers?

The East Room -- where the president sometimes has press conferences -- was decked out with peacocks. Here's a close up of one of the mantle decorations followed by the mantle and a tree in the room. There was scaffolding still up... some last minute decorating going on.

this tree, above, was made with gold painted newspapers
the tree above was topped with a sheaf of wheat. The theme for the whole house is "simple gifts."

these branches were beautiful but also didn't photograph well. Tiny crystal (or plastic, who knows) cubes were wired to look like an ice storm had just rolled through. Gorgeous.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Git yourself a new Craigslist living room for Christmas. Cheap!

Periodically I go through Craigslist to see what I would buy if I had to furnish a living room fast, that day. Here are today's offerings in DC. The coffee table is the real winner here... This ensemble is a bit dark for me, but I think they all work... $915 for the whole mess of furniture, and only because I didn't like the modern $40 pair of lamps with the side tables.