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, May 20, 2012

Making A Kitchen Out of Nothing At All.

My friend D. is in the midst of a divorce (bleh) while overseas (bleh, but also an excellent cure for heartbreak, see earlier post) and has to refinance (bleh) and wants to turn her first floor into a proper one-bedroom apartment that she can rent out. It's got a lot going for it  -- a bathroom already, a bedroom with a fireplace in it, a nice back patio, but no kitchen.

That's where I come in.

It's a one room kitchen/living room that is approximately 19 X 10 -- a pretty narrow rectangle. To make it feel better and function well I am dividing it into approximately two square "zones" -- one about 9 X 10 (the kitchen/eating zone) and the other about 10 X 10.  They will be open to each other so neither will feel small, and the 9 foot kitchen will incorporate an eating surface (a great, live edge wooden bar... ie the bark and natural shape of the wood still evident). Everything design-wise will be cool, a little traditional, and a little sleek: Carrara marble countertops (I found salvaged slabs I can have cheaply cut -- will be a total bill of maybe $400), light grey subway tiles, white Ikea base cabinets, stainless appliances, and a maximum use of inexpensive open shelves. Cabinets are a huge drain on the budget. In a small apartment like this, you just don't need that many. I'll be borrowing space from a hallway closet for a small pantry and microwave oven, and there will be 4 base cabinets with good storage.

See an inspiration board above.

But here's the rub.She has been working with a construction guy whom she used in the past.

And dude is slimeball. Srsly. He quoted her a price - $15K -- but refused to provide a detailed breakdown  of how that $15K would be spent -- which means she can't swap out cheaper fixtures or cabinets or whatever if she wants to bring the price down, because he is hiding all those costs -- and I promise, making a huge profit.

I had this guy's number pretty much from the start -- I've had contractors like that, and they are depending on your ignorance, your desire just to get it done, and their male bluster to get them through. The truth is the guy doesn't really know how much everything costs. He's guessing, building in a huge pad for himself, and he'll just make it up as he goes along. And guess what:  if he goes over budget, she's gonna be coughing up more money, because he's got her in a compromised position.

So today we had a meeting. I told her to ask for the detailed estimate. He claimed to have sent it to her already (he didn't). And then he made up some long heavy sigh explanation about how long it's going to take (what, hitting resend? you big old liar?) and then finally at the end of the meeting -- after I had pointed out everything terribly, dramatically wrong with his crappy design (corner sink, with a dishwasher right next to it. Please explain where you stand to fill  dishwasher? You don't. Corner sinks SUCK.)(Only an idiot man who doens't cook would put a dishwasher next to a corner sink. It imprisons you. don't ever accept this configuration. Not only that, he had the range right next to the corner sink -- no counter space between them) he warned D.: "you're back at square one!"  (to which I simpered inside... "Not square one! Anything but square one!")

Why? He wanted to scare her. Why? Because he wanted to give her a small kitchen that would be easy to install, and require the least amount of work on his part. That's what they do. They are awful, and most don't like Little Ladies coming along and ruining their pay day (MEEEEEEE!). But that's what I love to do.

And: he has terrible design sense. He wanted to minimize the kitchen to maximize the living space -- to the tune of about 5 square feet. To what end? A cramped, ugly, horrible and unusable kitchen that makes you resent every dollar of the 15K you gave him. You'll be cowering at the end of the 19 X 10 foot room, "exalting" in your 12 X 10 foot "living space," instead of truly using and enjoying every inch of the room, kitchen included. Would you really notice a difference between an 11 X 10 room and a 12 X 10 one? Not if I design it.

His design violated every precept of  good design as espoused here: no long, useful runs of counter; a Formica counter, god help me (they peel, burn, and get scratched. another false economy. Get stone or butcher block); wee, cramped  everything. Upper cabinets everywhere, just stuck to the wall like buck teeth -- an eye sore and expensive to boot.

He actually said this to me: "Your design is nice but it's a lot more work for me."

Ummmm, yes. And he thereby showed his hand to my client: he wanted to do this fast and cheap. He's not interested in the finished product.

Here are true facts about kitchens, large or small: the more time you spend upfront sourcing great stuff, thinking hard about the design, planning, mocking it up, the better and cheaper your kitchen will be.

Another true fact: a small cheap kitchen is a false economy. Make it a little bigger if you can, and make it gorgeous and functional, and take your time with it. That doesn't mean it will be more expensive, necessarily, but more thoughtful. Shop for sales, get your stuff delivered to the site before they start construction. comparison shop. Buy good quality salvaged cabinets and design a kitchen that fits and works around them. Spend money on the appliances you want and that will make cooking a pleasure. Do it all in advance, and then build your kitchen.

The most fun part was right at the end when I said, "go ahead and send me your detailed budget, and I'll play around with this, see if I can save some money on sourcing." He said no, he'd just estimate the cost of my design (yeah, right: that's going to be accurate and fair!). I said, "no, I'll just start with your design and estimate and tweak around the edges."

And then he bolted -- he had a lot of work to do to justify the $15K price tag that he made up.
(And: $15K is a fine price for a new kitchen -- low even. But don't ever let them get away without costing out everything. You are going to be the one covering the difference when the bill has to get paid, not them.)

I don't think we'll be working with him He now has an interest in this failing. I want someone who looks at her situation (divorcing, living in an actual war zone, and tight on money) and thinks: I can make her life better. This ain't him. Pictures of the space and detailed drawings to come. Really looking forward to getting to do a kitchen as I wish! I get to be in charge!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

How Not To be Hungry When Poor

Here's one way.  At $1.34 a pound for organic sweet potatoes in Park Slope -- probably the most expensive you're gonna find -- you get a belly full and one of nature's super foods. With potatoes in particular, because they sit in the soil and absorb what's there, chemical or otherwise -- organic is important.

Wash your sweet potatoe. Prick it with a fork a few times. Pour a little olive oil in your hand and rub it all over the potato. Put it in an oven at about 375. Bake it till its done  -- maybe  30 minutes? The skin will be crispy. If you don't prick it it's gonna burst it's sugary insides all over, so do as I say.

Split it open while it's warm, put in a nugget of butter, then shake some Penzey's chipotle powder over the opening and a little bit of kosher salt.

Eat it hot. The sweetness of the potato, the spice of the chiptole, the saltiness of the salt and the unctuous butter... this is a good meal, and costs less than $2.

If you have some arugula, make a quick salad out of it. A more satisfying meal you are unlikely to find (and relatively low calorie too -- if you're trying to lose weight, swap this out for one or two dinners a week and see what happens.

You can eat more expensively but not more deliciously. You know I'm poor-ish now, right? That's how I came to understand the power of the sweet potato.

(Roast other sweet potatoes while you are at it in the same oven. A day later scoop out and mash the insides of another roasted sweet potato and heat up a can of drained, rinsed black beans  spiced up with some of that chipotle powder and some smoky cumin and salt. Spread the potato and black beans in a corn tortilla that you've heated in a cast iron skillet or toasted in your  gas flame. Top with a little cheese -- Monterrey Jack, cheddar, queso blanco -- fold it over and turn into an enchilada (scroll back. you'll find "my" enchilada sauce). Cilantro on top and sour cream... yes.

The next day fill the skins with a little cheese and toast them under the broiler for a healthy-ish snack. (Cheese is healthy, if calcium is your goal). (And it should be, ladies).

Anyway, the point is: sweet potatoes. Good with something spicy to cut the extreme sweetness.

(You can also make sweet potato pancakes with leftovers). (and biscuits). (and sweet potato and green apple soup with curry). (and pie)

you're welcome.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How to raise your children

Despite my generous hips, ample breasts, and glossy hair -- traditional indications of fertility -- motherhood has eluded me (or rather, I have eluded motherhood). Never wanted babies, never got 'em. Perfect!

I am, however, weirdly obsessed with child rearing, and I have many friends with children, and I am a keen observer of humanity. Therefore, I will tell you the one universal secret to raising children and remaining sane at the same time.

Among my friends who have both kids and happy marriages, there is almost a unanimous embrace of one single practice: enforcing an early bedtime.  7 pm works for many years, and means parents can have dinner together - a real dinner, with yucky things kids don't like -- watch adult tv, or shake up a cocktail and chat, happily and unbothered, for three or four hours a night. This is necessary to prevent homicidal mania brought on  by children and maintain a happy union.

The problem with this, of course, is the fact that many parents work late and putting their kids to bed at 7 would mean they would never see them. I personally don't see that as a problem, but I can understand the reluctance.

However, among my friends who keep kids to this schedule, their general tranquility from having quiet evenings to handle household chores in peace, have a relationship, and still get a good night's sleep -- along with the fact that the kids are well rested -- seems to compensate. You can see the little moppets on the weekend all you want. And the kids do well on a strict routine and lots of sleep.

If you need help GETTING them on a sleeping routine, watch super nanny. It's a central feature of every show.

I have spoken.