The Basics

by Ann Waterman

Popcorn
Family movie night is a favorite event in my house, and an easy way to make it extra special is to watch with popcorn: It’s cheap, it’s good for you, and everyone loves it! And with Joseph’s fabulous movie recommendations, we have even more reason to enjoy movie night more often.

Since I don’t have room in my tiny kitchen for a hot-air popper, and the bagged stuff always leaves me disappointed (not to mention shell-shocked at the price and the ingredient list), I started making my own popcorn on the stove. It’s so easy and so much better tasting, I often wonder why it was ever outsourced to industrial food manufacturers. The best part about homemade popcorn is that it’s totally customizable (but more on that later). Try it, and I promise you’ll never go back!

How-to-make-popcorn
If you want to try your own homemade popcorn, here’s what you’ll need to make four servings (adapted from Simply Recipes):

  • Large, heavy-bottomed pot with lid
  • 1/2 cup of popping corn kernels
  • 3 Tbsp high-heat oil (I like safflower, avocado, or refined coconut oil)
  • Salt and whatever other fixings you’d like for your popcorn

Add 3 tablespoons of oil to your pot and drop in three kernels of corn, then cover the pot with a lid and place on the stove over medium heat. Now, wait.

When you hear all three kernels pop, add the rest of the popcorn kernels, cover with the lid, and pull the the pot off the stove for 30 seconds to allow the kernels to reach the temperature of the oil. This helps the kernels pop at the same time.

Popcorn-Popped
Return the pot to the stove (with the lid still on) and gently shake the pot back and forth so the kernels don’t burn. (I highly recommend donning oven mitts for this part.) You should start to hear kernels popping; when the popping slows to several seconds between pops, pull the pot off the burner and let it sit for a few seconds to catch any stragglers.

Dump the popcorn into a large bowl. If you like your popcorn buttered, put a couple of tablespoons (or more — I won’t judge) in the pot you just used to pop the corn: It’ll melt from the residual heat, and you can save yourself from dirtying another dish. Pour the butter back on your popcorn, season with salt, and toss to distribute the yummy goodness.

Popcorn-Butter-Salt
While I love classic buttered popcorn, sometimes I like to shake things up a bit and try new seasonings. My current obsession is popcorn seasoned with salt, pepper, and parmesan cheese grated with my Microplane. Be sure not to skip the pepper; it really makes the dish. (Zoe also mentioned a delicious-sounding seasoning in this post.) My other favorite combination involves some gourmet popcorn I received as a gift: I sprinkle it with maple sugar and grey sea salt and toss with a couple tablespoons of a neutral oil to make it stick to the popped corn. It’s delightfully sweet and salty.

My final tip is to try different kinds of popping corn. I was surprised to discover that there’s a huge range of varieties out there, each with its own subtle differences in taste. (My personal favorite is Ruby Red.)

How do you like to eat your popcorn? Any special or unusual seasoning favorites?

Images: Ann Waterman

PS — In case you missed them, check out these past installments in “The Basics” series:

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by Margaret Cabaniss

The Basics: How to Be a Good House Guest

Last month, we talked about how to be a good host for house guests. Today: how to be a good house guest. This job is less involved, thankfully, and some rules can be bent a bit if you’re visiting family and close friends — but there are still a few important tips to bear in mind if you want to be invited back.

Remember the rule about house guests and dead fish…they both start to stink after three days. Limit the length of your stay to something reasonable, particularly if your host doesn’t have a large place (or has a lot on her plate, small children to tend to, etc.). Again, if we’re talking family or dear friends, longer visits might be welcome — but it’s always good to double-check before making plans, especially around the busy holidays.

Let your hosts know in advance about any special needs. If you have allergies, let them know so they can keep the family cat off your bed; if you have food intolerances, give them some warning so that they don’t plan a meal that will give you hives. (Be more forbearing about personal dietary choices, though. If that’s hard to do, consider bringing some supplemental snacks of your own, or eating out.)

The Basics: How to Be a Good House Guest

Bring a hostess gift. Arriving anywhere with gifts immediately makes you a welcome guest — and since your hosts are giving you free room and board, a small token of appreciation is always a good idea. Fortunately, there are lots of simple, lovely things you can do here: freshly baked treats, a nice bottle of wine, a set of cloth napkins, etc. If you’re short on luggage space, take your hosts out to dinner instead — or consider babysitting one night so they can go out on their own. It won’t cost you anything, but that kind of gift is gold to harried parents of little ones.

Be considerate of your hosts’ schedules — and let them know yours. If they’re an early-rising family with small children, don’t sleep in until 11; if they’ll have to work during your visit, be sure to keep the late-night carousing to a minimum. As much as possible, try to accommodate the house schedule. By the same token, give them a heads-up about when you’ll be coming and going, whether you’ll need a ride to or from the airport, whether you’ll be at the house for dinner, etc.

Pitch in. Your host might insist that he doesn’t need help with the dishes, but insist right back on clearing the table, at least. Offer to cook a meal, run some simple errands, or even just entertain the kids during dinner prep. You don’t need to wait to be asked: If there’s something you can do for yourself, do it. Your hosts aren’t running a bed and breakfast, and helping out wherever you can makes their job less stressful.

The Basics: How to Be a Good House Guest

Leave their home neater than you found it. Well, if you can, anyway. Make the bed (or put away the blanket on the couch) at the beginning of each day and straighten your belongings. At the end of your visit, strip your bed linens, wipe down the bathroom counter, and generally tidy up as much as you can, so that the clean-up after you leave will be minimal.

Once you’re back home, don’t forget a thank-you note. It’s an easy thing to overlook, but it makes a difference. Be sure to let them know how much their hospitality was appreciated — and maybe extend them your own, too.

Any other good guest tips to share?

Images: 1, Zoe Saint-Paul; 2, Williams Sonoma; 3, Marzipan and Smileys

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The Basics: How to Set a Table

November 19, 2013

by Ann Waterman

The Basics: How to Set a Table

I never registered for formal china for my wedding, opting only for a plain, white, everyday set. That’s because I was promised my grandmother’s set — a beautiful emerald art deco pattern — which I had coveted since I was a child. The only problem was figuring out how to transport it from my hometown in Winnipeg to my current digs in the burbs of Washington, D.C., without breaking it (or busting the bank for shipping). After several years of going back and forth with my dad about the best way to transport it, he came up with a brilliant idea: Deliver it in person via cross-country road trip! I was thrilled to receive him and my china — all in one piece — at my doorstep.

The Basics: How to Set a Table

Having formal china for entertaining purposes has been a delight, and I love pulling it out for special occasions. There are so many interesting pieces in my grandmother’s set, but knowing what goes where can be a little overwhelming. With the holidays approaching, I thought a little table-setting refresher might be helpful — for myself, and for all you hostesses out there (or those of you who might be enlisted by your hostess to help set the table).

Informal Place Setting

The Basics: How to Set a Table

Let’s start with a more casual place setting first — for everyday dinners or more low-key events.

Dinner plates should be placed 1 inch above the edge of the table and, ideally, there should be 30 inches between the center of one dinner plate and the next. Of course, that’s not always possible with large gatherings, and thankfully, Carson won’t be around with his ruler to check; just aim to get as close to that ideal as possible.

Napkins can be placed to the left of the plate or on the plate itself. Feeling creative? Here are some unique napkin folding ideas.

Forks go to the left of the plate (on the napkin, if that’s where you choose to place it). If you’re serving a salad, the salad fork goes to the left of dinner fork, since it will be picked up first. (A good tip for remembering which utensil is for what course: You always work from the outside in.) Knives are placed to the right of the plate, with the blade of the knife facing the plate. (It’s considered rude to have the blade facing your dining partner — and, back in the day, a sign of hostility. Not exactly the tone you want to set for a dinner party!) Dinner forks and knives should be 1 inch away from the plate, and the handles of your utensils should all align with the bottom of the plate.

Water glasses go directly above your dinner knife. If you’re serving an additional beverage like wine, it goes to the right of the water glass.

Formal Place Setting

The Basics: How to Set a Table

The formal place setting builds on the basic informal setting to accommodate additional courses. Bread plates go above your fork, with the bread knife placed diagonally across the edge. Dessert spoons and forks go above the dinner plate, one above the other, with the fork closest to the plate, tines pointing to the right, and the spoon directly above, with the bowl pointing left.

Wine glasses are placed to the right of the water glass in the order they will be served: If you’re serving a red and white, the red wine glass will be to the right of the water glass, and the white wine glass will be to the right of the red wine. Each glass is removed along with the course it accompanies.

Worried about taking your neighbor’s water glass or roll by mistake? Just remember “BMW” (like the car) for bread, meal, water — the order from left to right that these are placed on the table. Or, make the OK sign with your right and left hands: Your left hand makes a “b” for bread and your right hand makes a “d” for drinks.

If soup is the first course, add a soup spoon to the left of the dinner knife. The soup bowl is placed on top of the dinner plate and removed along with the spoon once the course is complete. If salad is the second course, be sure to include a salad fork (placed to the right of the dinner fork), and place the salad plate on top of the dinner plate. Remove it along with the salad fork when the course is complete, along with any wine that accompanied the course.

The Basics: How to Set a Table

Once the main course is complete, clear the the dinner plate, fork, knife, butter plate and knife, and wine glass. When dessert is served, pull the dessert spoon down to the right and the dessert fork down to the left. You can use one or both. (And in case you’re wondering why you might need two dessert utensils, the fork can be used tines-down as an anchor for more unwieldy desserts with the spoon to break and scoop. The fork can also be used to “push” food onto the spoon.) Cup and saucer for tea or coffee can be placed to the right of the dessert spoon.

Need a cheat sheet for all of this? Check out this handy diagram of different place settings. Most importantly, have fun! While your guests will appreciate a beautifully set table, they’ll appreciate your warmth and charm even more.

P.S. — Does your silverware need a little polishing? Check out Mags’ easy way to clean silver.

Images: Ann Waterman

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by Margaret Cabaniss

How to Host Overnight Guests

No sense denying it any longer: The Holiday Season is officially upon us — and that means the beginning of Overnight Guest Season. Chances are good that, sometime in the next two months, you’ll either be someone’s host or guest (or, in some cases, both) as we all fly around the country to visit our nearest and dearest for the holidays.

It can be a stressful time of year without the added pressure of extra bodies in your house — and certainly, not every guest expects or requires red-carpet service — but it’s nice to go the extra mile occasionally, particularly around the holidays, when hospitality is the name of the game. Whether you have spacious guest quarters or barely enough room for a blow-up mattress, consider this a handy checklist for making your home a welcoming place for guests while keeping your sanity through the busy months ahead.

Check your supplies.

Before your guests arrive, check to make sure your basic supplies — bed linens, towels, blankets, and pillows — are clean and ready to go so that you’re not scrambling to find them at the last minute. If you have visitors often, consider investing in linens that are strictly for guests; that way you’ll always have what you need, and know that it’s clean when you need it.

To go above and beyond (via A Cup of Jo): Spend a night in your own guest accommodations sometime; it’s the quickest way to find out if there are any issues in the room that need addressing. Is the mattress comfortable (or does your air mattress leak)? Does it get cold in that room overnight, or too bright early in the morning? Always better to find those things out for yourself, rather than secondhand from a guest, so you can address them ahead of time.

guest_bath

Clean smarter, not harder. 

If you don’t have time to clean the whole house, focus your energy on two areas: the guest room (or wherever they’ll be sleeping) and the bathroom. These are the places your guests are guaranteed to see up close, so make sure those rooms, at least, pass inspection. Meanwhile, no one will be the wiser if you temporarily stash some clutter in your own bedroom — at least, that’s what I always tell myself… (Also: To get a sparkling bathroom in short order, be sure to read the fourth installment in SlowMama’s Basics series on how to clean a bathroom.)

Set the stage. 

Make up the bed and stock the room with fresh towels and a few extra blankets (particularly in the winter). Set out a waste basket, tissues, and a bottle or carafe of water on the night stand (so guests don’t have to go stumbling around for a drink in the middle of the night). Clear out some space in a dresser or closet (and include a few hangers) — or, if they’re sleeping in a common area, some space for their suitcases — and leave one outlet free for charging phones and laptops. To cozy up the room a bit, put out a small bud vase or candle (but nothing overpowering); it instantly makes any room more homey.

To really make your guests feel pampered, consider putting together a small basket of treats and commonly needed items for their room: travel-sized toiletries, bags of nuts or trail mix, a sewing repair kit, paper and pens, reading material, etc. (Those of you with space and a real flair for hosting might even consider a guest cart or guest closet.) In between visits, you can replace any used items and store the basket in the guest room or linen closet, then just set it out the next time company comes.

guest_room

Make it easy for guests to “make themselves at home.”

Guests never want to be a bother, and it’s easier for the host if they can fend for themselves a bit, too. Make common items easy to find (extra toilet paper, towels, etc.); consider setting out a bowl of fruit or snacks in the kitchen so they can help themselves throughout the day; and before bed, set out coffee supplies and simple breakfast items, in case you have any early risers. Also, be sure to let them know about any particular quirks of your house (a sticky shower handle, etc.) so they aren’t caught off-guard later.

Build a home cheat sheet.

How many times have you had to go digging for your wifi key when guests were over, or explain the elaborate series of steps required to turn on your TV? Rather than having to hunt down that information each time, include it all on a “cheat sheet” that you can easily print out whenever you have guests. Add any other important information they might need — cell phone numbers, your home address, etc. — and include it in the guest basket, if you make one. Live in the city? Don’t forget to include parking passes or instructions on where and when to park. Finally, make an extra copy of your house key and put it on a lanyard, then include that in the basket as well.

oliver_jeffers_map

Help them get to know the area. 

Whether you live in a popular tourist area or a quiet suburb, it’s nice to give your guests some information on local sights and things to do. Include a few maps, information about tourist attractions, and public transportation schedules and fare cards in your guest basket. If your schedule permits, consider planning a few activities for you to do together and play tourist in your own town for a day.

Share schedules.

Speaking of schedules: It’s a good idea to share these with your guests. For their part, find out when they’re arriving and leaving (especially if you need to drive them to or from the airport); on your end, let guests know what time you usually get up in the mornings (particularly if they’ll be sleeping in a common area), when dinner usually is, or if you have any commitments that will take you away during their visit.

Let them help.

Guests feel more comfortable if they can help out in small ways, so let them. This doesn’t mean having them mow the lawn or mop the floors (unless, of course, your awesome in-laws insist…) — but letting them set the table, dry the dishes, and so on can make them feel like a helpful member of the household, rather than a burden. It’ll also keep you from running yourself ragged, particularly around the already-stressful holidays. Which brings us to one final important tip:

Go easy on yourself.

All these tips can make it sound like hosting guests is a full-time job, but particularly around the holidays, don’t kill yourself trying to be Martha Stewart and Julia Child rolled in one. Keep the meal-planning low key, with easy overnight breakfast casseroles and slow-cooker dinners. Don’t feel like you need to entertain your guests every hour of the day; they’d likely be thankful for some quiet time, particularly after a long trip. Most importantly, remember that they’ve come to visit with you, not to be catered to in a four-star hotel. Worry less about making everything Pinterest-perfect than enjoying each other’s company.

Have any other tips for hosting overnight guests? Share them in the comments!

Images: 1, Margaret Cabaniss; 2, Maple and Magnolia3, Paul Massey for Living Etc UK; 4, Oliver Jeffers

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by Margaret Cabaniss

How to Make Vegetable Stock

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that canned stock is kinda crap. That’s not to say I never use it, but I always feel a bit disappointed in myself when I do. Homemade stock is far tastier and healthier than the store-bought variety (for a real scare, try checking out the sodium content in one of those cans next time) — and yet, for all that, it’s dead simple to make. There’s really no comparing the two, and with just a little advanced planning, you can keep a ready supply of it on hand.

Chicken stock is the classic, of course, but vegetable stock is a nice alternative when you need a vegetarian option, or when you simply don’t have a chicken carcass on hand but still want to amp up the flavor of homemade soups, grains, or sauces.

First, a quick word on the “stock vs. broth” debate: While the word “stock” may have at one time meant a liquid cooked with bones, today it’s commonly applied to any liquid used as a building-block ingredient in something else (think of stocking your pantry), while “broth” is anything ready to serve as is. You’ll see both words used to describe what we’re talking about today, and for our purposes, they’re pretty much interchangeable.

How to Make Vegetable Stock

Pick Your Vegetables

Just about any vegetable is fair game when you’re making stock, but for me, a solid base always includes the mirepoix standards: onions, carrots, and celery. Use roughly equal amounts of your veggies to make sure you end up with a balanced broth.

Beyond that, different groups of vegetables will add different characteristics: garlic, shallots, and leeks add great flavor; mushrooms add some depth; potatoes will add body; and herbs like parsley, thyme, and bay leaves round everything out with some nice herbal flavors. While you can add more adventurous veggies like tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli, etc., they tend to be more assertive and will change both the color and flavor of your stock — so proceed with caution.

An easy way to build up your stock base is to save your vegetable trimmings throughout the week — mushroom stems, carrot peels, leek tops, etc. — and store them in the fridge; when you have a good amount saved up, throw them in your stock pot! If your vegetables are getting past their prime, chop them up and store them in the freezer for later — but don’t wait until they’re too sad-looking: Limp veggies make for limp stock.

How to Make Vegetable Stock

Sauté for More Flavor

While you can simply throw your veggies in a pot with some water and get going, I like to start by giving them a quick sauté to help develop their flavors. If you have the time, let them sweat for up to 30 minutes — or roast them in the oven first. But even just a few minutes of browning will do wonders for your stock.

How to Make Vegetable Stock

Simmer, Don’t Boil

Once your vegetables are sautéed and ready, add water to cover them by an inch or so and turn up the heat. You want to bring the liquid almost to a boil, but not quite; you lose too much stock by boiling it, and the resulting liquid will be cloudier. Once you see bubbles appearing around the edges of your pot, turn the heat down to low so it simmers gently (sending up an occasional bubble), partially cover your pot, and let it sit for one hour.

You really don’t need more time than that: While bone stocks benefit from a long simmer time — up to 8 hours or more — vegetables will give up their flavors within an hour; after that, they just start breaking down and muddying your stock. (Don’t worry if you end up going a little longer or shorter; your stock will still turn out fine.)

How to Make Vegetable Stock

Strain and Store

(So, yes — I realize the bag reads “chicken stock,” and we’re talking about vegetable stock. I have no idea how that happened. But learn from my mistakes, kids: Double-check your labels.)

Once the stock is done simmering, remove the larger vegetables with a slotted spoon and then strain the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer. (For an even clearer broth, you can line your strainer with a coffee filter.) Taste and adjust your seasonings as necessary — soy sauce, vinegar, and white wine all add some nice complexity — but remember that you’ll be adding the stock to other recipes later, so it’s best to keep a light hand here; you can always add more salt and other flavorings later.

Vegetable stock can be stored in the fridge for 4-5 days, or in the freezer for a few months; after that, it’ll start absorbing off flavors. I like to use quart-sized bags in the freezer, laying them flat so they take up less space. You can also freeze stock in smaller amounts in muffin trays, then pop the pucks into freezer bags for when you just need a bit of stock in your recipe. Be sure to label your bags with the contents and date — and again, be sure to label your bags correctly, unlike me. (Sigh.)

And that’s it! With a little advanced planning, you can have lovely homemade stock at the ready all winter long.

How to Make Vegetable Stock

Basic Vegetable Stock
I find this mix of veggies gives me the best flavor with the fewest ingredients, but feel free to make substitutions or additions based on what you have on hand. Suggested variations are below.

  • 2 T vegetable oil
  • 3 stalks of celery
  • 4 carrots
  • 2 medium onions
  • 5-10 mushrooms
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 10 stems parsley
  • 1 T peppercorns
  • 1/2 c white wine

1. Rinse and roughly chop the celery, carrots, onions, and mushrooms (no need to peel). Heat the vegetable oil in a stock pot over medium/medium-high heat, then add the vegetables, garlic, and salt. Let the vegetables brown for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Cover the vegetables with water by about an inch (4-6 cups) and add the parsley, peppercorns, and white wine. Return to medium-high heat until the liquid is just about at a boil, then reduce the heat to low, partially cover the pot, and let the stock simmer gently for one hour.

3. After an hour, remove the vegetables and strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer. Let cool, then store in the fridge or freezer.

Other variations to try: roasted parsnips, turnips, and potatoes; leeks, scallions, or shallots; dried seaweed (for a briny flavor); dried mushrooms; herbs like thyme, dill, bay leaves, or lemongrass; whole spices (in very small amounts) like juniper berries or cloves; a splash of vinegar or soy sauce (a couple teaspoons per quart of stock is plenty)

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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by Ann Waterman

The Basics: How to Roast a Chicken

After several failed attempts at roasting a chicken in my early cooking days, I avoided whole birds entirely, leaving Thanksgiving turkey-roasting duties to my husband. It was always an embarrassing gap in my repertoire, as I consider myself to be a fairly accomplished home cook, and roast chicken is such a basic dish. I was finally forced to face my culinary nemesis a few months ago when a friend offered me two free organic, free-range chickens. How could I refuse? I put on my big girl pants and decided to overcome this culinary hurdle once and for all.

And guess what? With one simple recipe (I hesitate to even call it that) and a few key tips, I made a crisp and succulent bird that left me wishing I had discovered this preparation sooner. In the hope of saving you from the same fate, here’s how to make the easiest roast chicken ever (adapted from Michael Ruhlman).

Buy

I know some of my early roast chickens failed because I used frozen birds and failed to thaw them properly: When I pulled them out of the oven, the exterior of the bird was done but the inside was undercooked. Make things easy on yourself and use a fresh bird, the best you can afford. Roast chicken is such a simple food that quality really makes a difference. For this recipe, a 3- to 4-pound bird works best.

Chicken-Prep

Prep

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees if you have ventilation, 425 if you don’t. Remove any packaging, making sure to check for giblets inside the cavity (feel free to toss or use them in gravy). No need to wash the bird; a simple pat-down with paper towels will do. (Food experts say that rinsing a bird can contaminate your work area with foodborne pathogens like salmonella.)

Place your chicken, breast-side up, in an oven-proof pan that’s roughly the size of the bird (save your roaster for that Thanksgiving monster); if your pan is too large, the juices can burn and smoke. Personally, I like to use my cast-iron skillet: The size is perfect, and the sides are high enough to contain other vegetables if I choose to roast them alongside.

Salt-Seasoning

Season

To create a delicious crust on your bird, rub it with about 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. I know it sounds like a lot, but trust me on this one. If you want to get really fancy, stuff the cavity with some lemon or onion quarters (or both) and a sprig of your favorite herb, like rosemary or thyme. But no pressure: We’re keeping this as simple as possible.

Roast

Make sure your oven is preheated, then put the bird in and leave it for 1 hour. That’s it, I promise: No rotating the bird halfway through or lowering the temperature. After an hour, you can double-check its doneness by sticking an instant-read thermometer in the thigh (being careful to avoid the bone) and looking for a temperature of 165 degrees.

When you pull it out, you’re going to have a crisp, juicy bird that you can’t wait to cut into…but hold off and let the chicken rest for 15 minutes. You want those juices to reabsorb into the meat to keep it really moist.

Eat-Roast-Chicken

Eat

Serve with a green salad and some crusty bread, and you have yourself a meal. If you want to take this dish to the next level, add some vegetables like potatoes, parsnips, carrots, or even brussels sprouts around the bird before you put it in the oven (toss them with just a bit of olive oil first, but skip salting them, since there will be plenty in the juices from the bird), moving them around a couple of times during roasting to make sure they’re coated in the yummy juices from the chicken. They’ll be golden and brown when the bird’s done.

And there you have it — the easiest roast chicken ever. If you’ve ever hesitated to roast a chicken before, do yourself a favor and give this a whirl. I promise it’ll quickly become a staple in your household meal rotation.

Images: Ann Waterman 

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by Ann Waterman

Clean_Bathroom_header

I knew I’d arrived in the domestic arts when my mom, the cleanest person I know (I’d eat off her floors in heartbeat), asked me if we’d redone our bathroom because it looked so clean and new. I just about died from the unintended recognition of my cleaning prowess.

I wasn’t always this good at cleaning bathrooms — my college roommates would be happy to elaborate, I’m sure — but I’ve gotten better at it over the years and can make even the dirtiest bathroom sparkle with a little elbow grease and a few tricks up my sleeve. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way:

Clean-Bathroom-Caddy

Tools

It’s important to have the right tools when you’re cleaning: It’ll make the job easier and save time. I like to have a cleaning caddy where I keep all of my supplies close at hand when I work. In the caddy, I keep the following: baking soda, castile soap, a 10:1 solution of water to bleach in a spray bottle, cotton rags (made from my husband’s old t-shirts), microfiber cloths, an old toothbrush (used exclusively for cleaning nooks and crannies, not teeth), a scrub brush, and my favorite cleaning solution. I keep bathroom-specific cleaners (like toilet-bowl cleaner) under the sink. I also have a small bucket to toss dirty rags in as I work, since I go through a lot of them and don’t want them lying around on my freshly cleaned floor (yuck!). You may also need a broom and dustpan for the floor.

Clean-Bathroom-tub

Tub and Tiles

When it comes to any chore, I try to tackle the hardest thing first; it helps knowing the rest of the job will be downhill once the first task is complete. In the bathroom, it’s cleaning the tub and tiles I dread most (with the toilet coming in at a close second).

The first thing I do is clear everything out of the area — shampoo bottles, razors, bars of soap, etc. — so I’m not knocking things down when I clean. Then I check my cloth shower curtain liner to see if it needs a wash. If it’s looking a little funky, I’ll take it down, toss it in the wash, and replace it with my back-up liner.

Cleaning should always be done top to bottom, so I start with the tiles first. If you’re feeling green, put a little castile soap on your scrub brush and clean away. Rinse the walls with a wet microfiber cloth (I like the microfiber cloths for this task because they hold a lot of water). For the tub, sprinkle in some baking soda, add a little squirt of castile soap, and go at it with your scrub brush. (Prefer a chemical cleanser? No judgment here. Sometimes the soap scum gets to be too much for me and I’ll resort to Scrubbing Bubbles, rinsing it off with a wet microfiber cloth.)

Clean-Bathroom-Squeegee

Just a quick word about mold: Even if you clean your bathroom regularly, mold can still pop up in your shower. Mold loves damp conditions, and your best defense is to keep your bathroom as dry as possible: Always turn on the fan while you shower, and close the shower curtain when you’re done so it can dry. I know you probably don’t want to hear this, because it’s something your very meticulous neat-freak aunt does (or your friendly neighborhood blogger <cough>), but swipe the walls with a shower squeegee and wipe down horizontal surfaces where water collects after every shower. Taking a few minutes to do this after you shower could save you from a tedious (and potentially expensive) re-caulking or re-tiling job later on. If you’re battling mold, here are some green ways to get rid of it.

Clean-Bathroom-Hardware

Dusting

Before moving on to the toilet, vanity, and floors, I dust all the hardware: the towel bars, light fixtures, and the often-overlooked toilet-roll holder (take a look: You’ll be surprised at how much toilet-paper dust has settled on it!). I also like to wipe down the door handle and switch plate with a little bleach solution,  just in case someone didn’t wash his hands after using the bathroom (8-year-old, I’m looking at you).

Clean-Bathroom-Toilet

Toilet

Apply your toilet-bowl cleaner first to allow it time to work while you clean the exterior of the toilet. If the toilet bowl is especially grimy, consider applying it before you start the shower.

I used to waste a lot of time chasing around wet dust on the toilet porcelain with my cleaning rag until I discovered a little trick: Now, before spraying the toilet with any cleansing spray, I do a dry wipe-down first with a microfiber cloth to capture all the dust. It makes my wet wipe down so much easier; just think of it like sweeping the floor before you mop it.

Again, work top-down, making sure to use a clean rag for surfaces that come in contact with skin (i.e., don’t clean the underside of the toilet seat and then use the same rag to clean the top of the seat). Pay special attention to the toilet seat hinges where grime loves to collect. This is where I like to pull out my cleaning toothbrush to get it really clean. Don’t forget to clean the base of the toilet, too.

Clean-Bathroom-Sink

Vanity

Clear the vanity of anything sitting out on the counter, taking care to give everything a quick wipe-down as you move it. Pay special attention to soap dispensers or bar soap holders, which may need to be rinsed with water to remove dried-on soap.

If you’ve already dusted the light fixtures above the sink, next spray and wipe the mirror to remove fingerprints and toothpaste stains. Spray the entire surface, including faucet hardware, with cleanser. Starting with the faucet, begin wiping down the counter, saving the sink for last. To get rid of funk around the faucet fixture and the sink drain, spray with cleanser and use your cleaning toothbrush to really get it clean.

If you have a vanity cabinet underneath the sink, check to see if the handles and cabinet door are clean. (My boys sometimes leave toothpaste dribbles.)

Clean-Bathrool-Floor

Floors

Remove everything from the floor so you can clean with ease. Empty the garbage can, shake out the rugs, and give the bathroom scale a wipe-down to remove any dust. Next, sweep the floor, being sure to use your microfiber cloth to grab the dust that likes to settle on the trim.

There are several ways to wash the floor, but my preferred method — shown me by a college roommate who used to clean hotel bathrooms — is to spray a section of the floor with my preferred cleaner and then wipe it with a rag. Repeat until the entire floor is finished, folding your cloth to a clean part as you work. Depending on the size of the floor, you may need a few cloths to get the job done. I like this method because it saves me from messing with buckets of water and mops, and it allows me to really get into nooks and crannies — plus, since most bathrooms are small, it takes little time.

Clean-Bathroom-Towel

Finishing Up

You’re almost done! Replace shower items, vanity items, and any trash cans or bath mats you removed while cleaning, then take down used bath and hand towels and replace them with a clean set. Now, how about a nice, hot shower in your squeaky-clean tub?

What are your favorite bathroom cleaning tips?

Images: Ann Waterman

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by Abby Scharbach

How to Hem Pants

With the start of school and a change of season right around the corner, it’s a good time to talk about hemming pants. With no end of “short” in my family’s gene pool, it seems I always have hemming to do, even when my kids are growing like weeds. Being able to hem is definitely a helpful tool to have in any mama’s toolbox, and the way I do it — although not exact — is pretty painless.

First, have your child put on his new pants and stand on a high surface, like a bar stool or your dining room table. You want his leg to be as close to eye-level as possible. Then simply measure the depth of the hem you want. You don’t need to pin it up, just remember the measurement. In this case, my hem was just over four inches.

Hemming Pants

With the new “skinny” style of pants, you might want to add ¼” to ½” to the hem; as you’ll see with Ander’s finished hem below, I wish I did that here.

Turn your child’s pants inside out and measure out the hem on all sides, folding the pants; I usually check the length in the middles and on the side seams. Then, iron the hem to create a crease in the pants. At this point, you can pin the hem in place.

How to Hem Pants

Since this hem was so deep, I decided to trim about an inch and a half off of the bottom of the pants, leaving myself around two inches of fabric to work with when I sewed the hem.

How to Hem Pants

Fold the raw edges of the pants under and pin in place.

How to Hem Pants

I do a simple running stitch when I hem. Thread your needle and put the tail of your thread (or your knot) behind the hem. Then, grab a little bit of the pants fabric and a little bit of the hem. Continue along the edge of the hem. I’ve used light thread to illustrate the stitch, but you’ll want to match the thread to the fabric. (If it still sounds a little confusing, here’s a video demonstrating how to sew a hidden stitch to help make it clearer.)

How to Hem Pants

The one thing I’ve learned (the hard way, with a bridesmaid’s dress) is not to pull too hard. Grab only a thread or two of the pants fabric, and only pull your sewing thread through lightly. This ensures that your hem doesn’t show. Even a perfect hem will show if you pull too tightly.

Here’s a picture of the finished hems: The one with light thread is on the left so you can see it better, and the one with matching thread is on the right so you can see what it should look like when it’s finished.

hem_pants_f

And here’s Ander, officially ready for our homeschool tutorial a few weeks early. One pair down, three more to go!

Ander in Hemmed Pants

This is the third installment of SlowMama’s “The Basics,” a new series of how-to posts designed to help you be a better, more self-sufficient cook, hostess, seamstress, carpenter, homemaker…you name it. If there’s a basic skill you’ve always wanted to learn, let us know! 

Images: Abby Scharbach. Abby is a homeschooling mama of seven and lives in downtown Baltimore.

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How to Make Good Pie Crust

Where I come from, pie crust is serious business, and none was quite so delicious as my Grandma’s — though I believe my mother is pretty much her equal. Great pie crust seems hard to come by, and many home cooks are intimidated to try it themselves, but I’m convinced the secret boils down to two things: a tried-and-true recipe and a little confidence.

For years, I’ve been using the “Never-Fail Pie Crust” recipe from Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens, and it truly never fails me. In fact, everyone always raves about my crust, so I’ve never felt the need to branch out. I’ve adapted the recipe below and want to show you just how easy it is to make. Summer and fall are pie-making seasons, so never mind living up to your grandmother’s reputation (or anyone else’s) — just grab that flour, believe in yourself, and make it happen!

Note: While I use a lot of alternative flours in my cooking these days, this is a standard pie crust recipe, so I recommend using unbleached white flour or substituting half whole wheat. This tends to make enough for one double-crust pie plus a single shell, depending on the size of your pie plate. You can double the recipe easily, and the dough freezes well. I use this for galettes and any pie-like concoction that calls for a standard crust.

Alrighty: With my trusty helpers at hand to help me show you how it’s done, let’s get started…

How to Make Good Pie Crust

First, get everything ready. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • rolling pin
  • measuring cups and spoons
  • fork
  • pastry cutter (or two blunt knives)
  • sifter (or fine mesh strainer)
  • large mixing bowl
  • pie plate

How to Make Good Pie Crust

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 Tbsp salt
  • 1/2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 lb (approx 8 oz) shortening or lard, cool or at room temperature
  • 1 small egg
  • about 1/2 cup water

How to Make Good Pie Crust

Use a sifter or fine-mesh strainer to sift the dry ingredients together into a large mixing bowl.

How to Make Good Pie Crust

Using your pastry cutter (or two dinner knives), cut in the shortening (I use lard straight from a farmer a lot) until the mixture is coarse and crumbly. Here’s how it should look:

How to Make a Good Pie Crust

Break the egg into a liquid measuring cup and beat with a fork. Add water to raise the liquid to the 3/4 cup mark and beat again to combine. Next, make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour in 1/2 cup of the egg mixture, mixing lightly with a fork and tossing flour in from the sides as you go until it’s mixed in:

How to Make Good Pie Crust

Knead the dough a couple of times until it comes together in a nice ball, then wrap tightly in saran wrap and keep in the fridge until ready to use.

How to Make Good Pie Crust

To use the dough: For a double-crust pie, cut the dough into three equal pieces (and set one aside). Form the dough into a ball, or thereabouts:

How to Make Good Pie Crust

On a floured surface, roll out one dough ball into a round disk about 1/4″ thick. Keep plenty of flour under it and on your rolling pin so it won’t stick. (If you give the dough a quarter turn after every roll, that will help keep the dough loose, too.)

How to Make Pie Crust

Do your best to make it nice and round, then lift it gently from the surface and lay it evenly over your pie plate. To transfer your dough without tears, try one of these tricks: Gently fold the dough in quarters, then place the “point” in the center of your pie plate and unfold; or, gently lift one side of the dough, drape it over your rolling pin, then slowly lift the rest of your dough (keeping the pin in the middle) and lay it in the center of your plate.

Here’s how it looks when my mother makes it:

How to Make a Pie Crust

My own pie crust never looks this great, so don’t worry: If your crust isn’t perfectly round, or if it hangs unevenly over the edges, just trim it. If any holes appear, plug them up with extra dough from your trimmings.

Roll out your top piece of pie dough the same way. After filling your pie, place your second layer on top and trim the edges of the pie with scissors or a knife. Then take a fork and press it gently against the edges all the way around to seal the pie crust together (you can also pinch it with your fingers to create a rounder, lovelier-looking crust). Don’t forget to make a few venting slits.

Hpw to Make a Good Pie Crust

If you like, brush the top with the remaining egg mixture before placing it in the oven (it’ll make a glossy, beautiful crust), then bake according to your pie’s instructions. (Depending on the pie, I usually bake mine at 375 for 40-45 minutes, or until it starts to brown.)

Do you have a favorite recipe for pie dough? Are you intimidated by pie crust, or is it second nature for you?

This is the second installment of SlowMama’s “The Basics,” a new series of how-to posts designed to help you be a better, more self-sufficient cook, hostess, seamstress, carpenter, homemaker…you name it. If there’s a basic skill you’ve always wanted to learn, let us know!

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul 

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