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Painting in the Dark

My (in)experience with chalk paint

We recently moved across the country from SF to NY. As always, new spaces require new configurations. My antique desk, a family heirloom I’ve had since childhood, has always been in my own private space. Years ago I painted it a bright pink which brightened up my office/closet in San Francisco. Here in NY, however, the desk ended up in our one and only bedroom.

Here’s where we started – pretty in pink

My husband wasn’t crazy about the pink, and I easily came around to the idea of finding a new color – one that would be pleasing for both of us and tie in better with the rest of our decor. I started researching “chalk” paint for antiques and found a lovely dark teal named Jitterbug from Country Chic Paint. 

Actually water- and clay-based, this paint produces a very matte (chalk-like) finish. Country Chic recommends using wax polish for protection and a subtle sheen. After watching several of their tutorials online, I purchased a DIY Starter Kit and a small jar of Jitterbug. 

I failed to notice that the small jar was only 4 ounces. My husband asked, “How are you going to cover a whole desk with that?” Good question. It was too late to change my order, so I figured I’d deal with what was on its way. 

I ordered this starter kit off the Country Chic Paint website

The starter kit arrived with three other sample jars (all 4 oz): Vanilla Frosting (white), Sunday Tea (light grey) and Elegance (light blue); a paint sponge, clear wax and antique wax. I’d also ordered the round wax brush. 

As much as I loved the rich color of Jitterbug, I worried that it would be too dark for our bedroom with its low light, dark wood floors and furniture. I got the idea to add Elegance (the light blue) to Jitterbug in a 2:1 ratio. I poured all of the Jitterbug into a glass measuring cup, then added half of the Elegance, for a total of 6 ounces of paint. 

Before tackling the desk, I tried my hand at a simpler project: a small unfinished farm table in my kitchen. I used Elegance for the top and Sunday Tea for the legs, two coats each. Then I wet-distressed according to instructions (with a wet rag two hours after painting) to rub away some of the paint. After 24 hours, I used the round brush to work in the clear wax and then buffed with cloth. 

Kitchen table painted in Elegance and Sunday Tea

Emboldened by my tiny table success (using less than half a paint jar), I was ready for the big desk job. Painting inside – due to small NY apartment – was no concern as this paint has very low VOCs and no smell. I propped the desk up to make the feet easier to paint, but didn’t even worry about using a drop cloth over the hardwood floors. The most challenging part was poor lighting in the bedroom. At least I felt like any potential mistakes would be hidden in low light. 

Knowing I was limited to 6 ounces, I started with the most visible parts first. Right away I noticed this was different from the kitchen table. While I didn’t consider the pink to be glossy, the chalk paint was not adhering well. So I quickly did a little sanding, then resumed painting. Desk drawers first, then front, then top. Let the first coat dry for two hours and reapplied. By this point, I knew all the most visible areas were well covered. The outside panels got two coats, the inside panels got one, and the back got none. Yep, the back of the desk has two pink panels bordered in teal – it’s very Miami Vice! 

Chalky view with pink showing through after first coat

Halfway through, I was missing the pop and polish of the pink. But once I buffed with wax and reassembled the hardware, I fell in love with this new look. It’s deep and soothing, and has its own pop and polish. Though I can’t say that the process was all smooth sailing. 

While I found the painting sponge easy to use, I made the mistake of closing it up in foil instead of washing between coats. This made my second application less than ideal (perhaps linty from dried paint or sponge deterioration). I was also afraid of that antique wax but determined to use it on the desk. 

I thought that the wax topcoat would hide imperfections, but it makes everything darker and therefore starker. I noticed this when using the clear wax on the kitchen table. So I cautiously started with the antique wax on the side panel of the desk (the side closest to the wall and therefore harder to see). It reminds me of dark shoe polish – you really have to use a lot of muscle to work the wax in. I saw some pink coming through as I’d used less paint on the sides. That’s ok, I thought, nobody’s going to see it in the dark. 

The biggest problem I had was with the desk top. I did a little distressing as with the kitchen table. There emerged a few pink spots that I didn’t care for; I tried reapplying dabs of paint with a q-tip but that only made it worse. The antique wax highlighted the trouble areas even more.  

Rather scary first attempt with the antique wax

In a swift and desperate move, I poured a few teaspoons of the Elegance into the empty Jitterbug jar and scraped the sides as much as I could to create some sort of tint. I crammed the big sponge into that tiny jar and began covering the top as best I could from front to back. I only made it halfway before things got streaky. 

Of course, I am not recommending this plan (non-plan) of action. Painting on top of wax is not advisable – ideally I should have rubbed with alcohol to remove the wax so that the paint has a better chance of staying put. But I was tired and sore and ready to be done. I took a chance and ended up with a happy accident. 

Antique wax on top/sides and clear wax on front

The top now has a ombré effect that looks like a moody sea. It is quite beautiful. This morning I timidly applied another layer of wax (clear wax this time) to the lighter paint area in hopes of protecting it from scratches. So far so good. If my serene seascape ends up falling apart, I can always order more paint and redo the top. But for now I’ll trust the ebb and flow and see how it goes. 

Look at this gorgeous teal beauty

All in all, I love the chalk paint and can’t wait to tackle my stained glass frames with Vanilla Frosting. Should be a piece of cake after the desk!

Heavenly braised baby beets

Oh my, this dish is exquisitely delicious. How I love my CSA! Today’s box came with a recipe from the farmer. See my modifications below.

Braised Whole Baby Beets

1/4 cup butter (I used 2 Tbsp ghee)

whole baby beets and greens, washed well, trimmed and patted dry

2 cups fresh chicken or veggie broth/stock

2 Tbsp chopped mint (I sprinkled on herbs de Provence instead)

2 Tbsp cider vinegar

Lucky for me, I had just made chicken stock the night before. My bunch had four baby beets – perfect for two servings. The greens were so fresh and tender, and they held up well simmering with the beets.

Melt butter in skillet, then place beets on one side and greens on the other. When greens are wilted, add the broth, cover and simmer until beets are tender (about 10 minutes).

The recipe said to present on a platter with beet roots at one end and greens at the other. But I served myself a bowl and spooned on extra broth. The splash of cider vinegar is essential for bringing out the delectable flavors, as well as herbs, salt and pepper.

These beets are a joy to eat!

Dress-to-Shirt Hack

Super easy way to convert a shirt into a dress: just find a similar shirt in your closet to use as a template. These are both silk sheaths – the top on the left hits me at just the right spot, so I layered it over the dress, folded excess material to about an inch below (leaving room to sew hem), then moved top to the side and cut the dress.  Now it’s perfect! Even if I never get around to sewing that hem, silk lies flat. So don’t be afraid of a no-sew hack!

For a more challenging example of dress-to-shirt conversion (with cinched waist and actual sewing) – check out my earlier post here.

Way to Rutabaga

Farm box brought a bunch of rutabagas, which I intended to make into rutabaga-mashed potatoes. But I don’t really like mashed potatoes, so why bother?

Instead, I found an online recipe for pan-roasted rutabagas and then embellished with whatever I could find in the fridge. Leftover pho (for the chick stock flavor), leftover rice (well, why not – rutabagas aren’t nearly as starchy as potatoes). So after a 30-minute simmer, I had this lovely pan that resembled a Spanish paella of sorts.

How did it taste? Quite delicious! Rutabagas work well with the rice because they are similar in density and sweetness to other hearty root vegetables (such as carrots). And despite their unbecoming outward appearance, rutabagas turn such a beautiful golden hue with cooked (think butternut squash).

It did indeed remind me of paella, sans meat. This dish was perfectly filling. What a comforting meal on a cold winter’s night!

Here’s my makeshift recipe:

3 spring onions, chopped (white parts only)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 TBSP butter + 1 TBSP olive oil
1 lb rutabagas, peeled and chopped
Pinch thyme and rosemary
Salt and pepper (I used Herbs de Provence salt)
1-2 cups chicken broth
1-2 cups cooked rice

Sautée onions and garlic in butter/oil. Add rutabagas and seasoning, stir. Add broth and rice. Turn up the heat to boil, then lower heat to medium. Cover and simmer until liquid absorbs, about 15 minutes. Stir again and reduce heat to low. Cover for another 15 minutes, until rutabagas are soft.

Clothing Swap Love and KonMari Madness

The cats can stay

While planning a clothing swap, I stumbled upon The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I thought it would make the perfect raffle prize for my swap guests. Being spring, I’d already caught purge fever and had several bags piled up in my closet awaiting the swap. But when I started reading Kondo’s book, I was transfixed! Before I delve deeper into the impact of the “KonMari Method,” let me first share a few words about the satisfying act of clothes swapping.

Behavioral scientists say that our eyes crave seeing something new. Once we acquire an object, however, the newness wears off in about three months. So the reason why some clothes get worn to death while others are seldom worn has more to do with how they make us feel when we put them on.

This is the beauty of the clothing swap. You satisfy your need to purge AND satisfy your need for eye candy! I usually end up with just a few new-to-me items, knowing some of them may stay with me a little while and others will be long treasured. Happens every time, and yet there are no regrets. Some of the best things in life ARE free!

What’s better than free? FREEDOM! Freedom from things you no longer want or need. While I already had a pretty healthy attitude about letting go of clothes, the Tidying-Up book helped me apply that to all possessions. Marie Kondo, the famous Japanese organizer, says in her book, “If it does not spark joy, you must discard.”

Sparking Joy

Purge by category starting with clothes – since that’s the easiest – then proceed to books, papers, miscellaneous and sentimental items. Take it all out and put it on the floor/bed so you can see everything. That makes it easy to decide what you want to keep and what can go.

Sent some to friends and the rest to the library

Why keep a perfectly good shirt if you never wear it? Free that shirt from your closet prison so it can live a new life (on someone else’s back). Same rule applies for all that stuff you “might use some day.” Pass it on – don’t let it waste away in your drawer! And when you find true treasures in the muck, put them where you can see them so they bring you daily joy.

The KonMari Method is meant to be a marathon (“all in one go”). While Kondo says it should take about six months, I went KonMari crazy and finished in six weeks. Partly because I have moved a lot and partly because I live in an 800 square foot apartment in SF, I already prided myself on being the Queen of Purge. But I was wrong. Oh, was I wrong.

Every day I spent at least a few hours going through drawers, cabinets, shelves and boxes. One day I spent 9 hours in my husband’s closet! (Note: Kondo does not recommend purging other people’s belongings; luckily my husband was pretty patient with me during this process.) It felt like moving, minus the packing boxes and truck.

At least 4-5 bags ended up in our hallway every single day. I couldn’t believe the volume and the weight of all this discarded stuff. I made daily drops at Goodwill. I lugged 25 pounds of old software CDs and hard drives to a local place that grinds them to smithereens. I donated old pillows to the pet hospital.

I recycled mountains of old papers. A ridiculous amount of paper sorted; so much so that my fingertips developed a painful sensitivity (which thankfully subsided after the sorting was complete).

I never knew so much junk was lurking in our tiny place. My husband and I have always been tidy, at least on the surface. Our apartment looks exactly the same as before, unless you open a closet or drawer. There it’s a whole new ballgame.

My rainbow shirt drawer

I showed my bureau drawer to a friend of mine – all those shirts folded the KonMari way, like lovely little sushi rolls. She snorted, “Somebody needs a hobby.” Why, I think I’ve already found it! Did I mention I’m a Virgo? ? I could happily continue my new-found folding fetish until my dying day.

I met a lot of resistance from friends when I mentioned my purge marathon. Let me be clear, I’m not advocating a spartan lifestyle. My closets and drawers are still full, but I’m no longer drowning in a sea of excess. Now things are really clear because I can see all my stuff. And I only kept what I truly wanted to keep. Liberation!

And yes, “things are really clear” has more than one meaning here. My mind feels lighter without all the clutter. It’s not just the space but what’s in the space that matters. I chose these things, and my sharpened decision-making skills have emboldened me. I’m sparking joy all over the place!

(p.s. – I gave away the book and promptly checked out Kondo’s second title, Spark Joy, from the library. I highly recommend both.)


Amateur Sewing Hour: How to Convert a Dress into a Top

img_8476I fell in love with the bird print the moment I saw it. What luck – 100% silk and bargain-priced at the used clothing store! The dress was too big, but I knew how to cut it down to size. At least I thought it did. Even though I tailored to fit, it still wasn’t quite right.

Not such a big print, you see, yet somehow it overwhelmed my petite frame. While the cinched waist looked good, the wide gathered skirt with pockets at the hips wasn’t doing me any favors. So today I decided to turn this dress into a top.

img_8477You may smirk and say my project is for the birds. It’s true that hemming tops is one of the hardest things I attempt on the sewing machine. But I knew this one was going to work out. Silk is a lot easier to handle – as opposed to stretch fabric (like a t-shirt). And I envisioned an empire top, which is basically like a really short dress, right?

I knew how to cut a circle skirt. I pinned it and cut nine inches off the bottom. Hey look, I can use the extra material to make a cowl (or a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl)! And how light as a feather I will feel with the weight of a hundred birds lifted off my hips. This is gonna be good.

img_8479Still smirking over there? This project isn’t so scary for an amateur. I turned the pockets into faux pockets by sewing them shut and cutting out the interior material. Then I started hemming the bottom at one of the side seams and slowing worked my way around, folding the narrow hem over twice as I went to get a clean look.

Now I’ll tell you an important tidbit that I learned from my one sewing lesson when I first bought my machine: you must iron to finish your work. I hate ironing (she whines), but I remember the teacher saying this: do you want people to ask “where did you get that fantastic thing?” or do you want them to ask “oh, did you sew that yourself?” Hmmm, must avoid looking home-sewn…..

img_8481-1The thing about hemming tops especially, is that the bottom often curls up. This, my friends, does not look professional. It looks like a mess. But with a fabric like silk, it’s very easy to steam iron the hem so that it lies flat. And suddenly your creation no longer looks like something you hacked with a razor. It looks like a bona fide top!

I love this look – it’s the perfect length to be layered with a cardigan or blazer. I think I’ll wear it out to dinner tonight with jeans and ankle boots. These birds are making me happy once more. Let’s fly!


Rainy Day Oatmeal

The sky is a misty white this morning; the streets are slick with rain. The perfect time for a comforting bowl of delicious oatmeal.

Forget instant – you really do have time to make the slow stuff, even on the busiest mornings. “Old fashioned” rolled oats cook up in just 10 minutes. No need to hover over the pot. Use that time to make your coffee or tea, feed the cat, scroll the news.

IMG_7634 (1)Oatmeal for one is easy. I use one cup of water and half a cup oats. Simmer uncovered 10 minutes; then remove from heat, cover and let stand a minute or so.

Prep a bowl of nourishing additions: mine has blackstrap molasses, flaked coconut, chia seeds, walnuts, raisins, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. Just a handful or a splash of each. I aim for the best quality ingredients. Even the spices are organic!

IMG_7629Bob’s Red Mill is my favorite brand of oats. I store the bag in the door of the refrigerator. Coconut flakes and chia seeds, too. Keep the pantry stocked with the rest and you will always be prepared for that perfect steaming bowl of goodness. For added extravagance, top it with sliced fruit and a little almond milk.

While I love my homemade granola for breakfast, something about the warmth of oatmeal feels more satisfying. A good reminder to not save this for a rainy day!


Lacquered Carrots to the Rescue

Image 1Um, yum!

This may look like a Halloween treat, but it’s actually the perfect side dish for an easy peasy fall meal. For me, that means buying an organic rotisserie chicken from Whole Foods and then pairing it with fresh vegetables from the CSA box.

I love carrots any old way – juiced, raw, roasted – but this recipe elevates the common root vegetable repertoire. No improvisation this time (as I’m prone to do), I just follow the recipe to the letter. From one of my favorite cookbooks, The Healthy Hedonist by Myra Kornfeld: “These carrots are sweet but not cloying.” You said it, Myra!

Lacquered Carrots with Coriander

2 TBSP extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 c maple syrup
1/4 c dry sherry or mirin
1 TBSP balsamic vinegar
1 lb carrots, cut in 1/2-inch-thick diagonal cuts
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground coriander

Throw everything in a large skillet. Cover and cook over medium-low heat until carrots are tender (about 15 min).

Uncover and cook, stirring constantly, until the carrots caramelize (about 6 min). Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and serve hot.

And that’s it. So easy.  This time I transferred the cooked carrots to a plate, returned the skillet to heat, threw in a minced garlic clove and some kale, dash a salt – voila! In a few minutes I had the perfect medley meal. Whatever juices were left in the pan made a nice finish for the kale as well.

Image 2All so scrumptious, but the carrots really steal the show. Perhaps I should call chicken the side dish. Or wingman to my carrot.

The Simple-Minded Chef builds Roots

IMG_6211Honestly, sometimes I feel like such a klutz in the kitchen. I’m slow, I’m uncoordinated. And yet…..I can get lost in a dreamy state just chop-chop-chopping away. It’s nice. I’m creating something. Hopefully something that is not just edible, but actually delicious. That’s my goal anyhow.

So tonight I wait as my first attempt at some-sort-of gratin cooks in the oven. I had an unusual collection of root vegetables to cook up from the CSA box: kohlrabi, turnips, rutabagas. I loosely combined a couple of gratin recipes from my trusty Alice Waters book, Vegetables.

I peeled the kohlrabi and rutabagas (though I hate to peel, with these two, it’s a must). Then I threw everything into my food processor using the quarter-inch slicing blade. I buttered a 9 x 12 baking dish and started constructing my layers: kohlrabi slices on the bottom, topped with salt, pepper and thyme, sprinkled with green garlic (which resembles green onions). Same treatment to the next layer (turnips). Rutabagas ended up on top.

IMG_6214Then I was supposed to add milk, but when I opened the refrigerator there was none. Crap! Now what? The recipe said “moisten up to the top layer with cream, cream and chicken stock, or milk.” I had to improvise with vegetable stock and almond milk (about a cup of liquid total).

I sprinkled Parmesan over the top layer and put the dish in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes. I tell you, it sure does smell good. The timer just beeped and I’m staring at a nicely-browned gratin.

How does it taste? The turnips and kohlrabi are divine – perfectly seasoned and tender. The rutabagas? A little dry and woody in texture. Next time I will know to put them on the bottom and perhaps use the thinner slicing blade as they obviously take longer to cook. I scooped out a big portion of the two bottom layers, stirred the rutabaga slices in the remaining pan juices and returned to the oven for 10 more minutes.

I am giving this experiment a thumbs up. I didn’t miss the milk at all (the veg stock was key though I’m not certain the almond milk did much to add or detract from the flavor). Once fully cooked, the rutabagas were just as delicious as the rest. And their yellow hue provided a little color contrast. Turnips and kohlrabi (both white on the inside) were hard to differentiate here – their flavors complement each other so nicely, they might as well be twins.

Ah, such a satisfying dish and a nice break from our too-familiar friend, the potato. I love it when I try using new-to-me vegetables and it works out. It certainly builds my cooking confidence in the kitchen. Maybe I’m not so much simple-minded as single-minded: I’ve realized my goal of creating something delicious!