Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ana Sortun's Chef Sets: Complex Meals in Minutes

The intoxicating smell of mint rose up as soon as I tore open the first of three packets. That alone surprised me.  Even better, in less than 10 minutes with almost no prep, I was sitting down to eat sautéed shrimp with quinoa, Greek herbs and raisins.  I was trying out the new Chef Sets, a collaboration of one of my favorite chefs, Ana Sortun (of Oleana and Sofra) and SetPoint Health in Newton.  When I was asked if I would want to sample the new line, I never hesitated. Easy to prepare meals? Vegetarian options? Complex flavors?  Sure!  As a working single mom I struggle to find ways to get healthy, interesting meals to the table in less than 15 minutes.  These kits easily fit that need. Chef Sortun and Set Point Health have created 4 different options.  Each set comes with 3 packets, easy directions and a vegetarian option.  I tried two with the protein they suggested, and two vegetarian style.
Quinoa with Greek Herbs and Raisins: This was the dish with the wonderful mint.  The herb shaped the dish, lifting it up and mixing gently with dried orange. In fact, I could have happily served this at a dinner party. The suggestion which I replicated, is to use shrimp and feta. I always keep Whole Foods' frozen shrimp in my freezer for an inexpensive and easy protein fix.  Ironically, though, I loved the broccoli and quinoa the most. In fact, next time I may try pan roasted tofu.  I never would have thought (or taken the time) to grate an orange and find good dried mint for a mid-week dish.

Quinoa with Crushed Pistachios and Za'atar Spice: I loved the quinoa preparation which involved mixing it with sautéed onions and peas before adding the spice mixture. In this set, you top the quinoa with salmon and spoonfuls of Za'atar, a mixture of thyme, sumac and sesame seeds.  My favorite part? The crushed pistachios that added a wonderful contrast to the tender salmon.
Couscous with Moroccan Spices and Almonds: With little in my pantry and exhausted from packing up  to move, I reached for this set. And this time I decided to try the vegetarian recipe featured on the Chef Set Meals website.  Instead of chicken, I tossed chickpeas in with the sautéed onions and Aromatic packet. I scattered the almonds from the Garnish packet on top of the chickpeas and couscous.  I wasn't quite as taken with this set as the others. In retrospect, cooking the couscous with broth would have added much more flavor. This dish was just much more subtle than the others. But I still ate it all. In fact, I loved it the next day, cold and tossed with a bit of olive oil and sherry vinegar for a salad.
Bulgar Pilaf with Turkish Pilaf and Pistachios: This was by far my favorite grain mixture of the Chef Sets.  By using Trader Joe's precooked lentils, I was literally able to prepare this set with less than two minutes of prep. And the bulgur pilaf cooks up in 6 minutes. The point? I had a fabulous vegetarian meal together and full of cumin, spearmint, sweet and hot peppers.  The pistachios added a lovely crunch while the pepper added warmth and color to the lentils. The cucumber sauce would be just as fantastic of plain burgers or falafel.

Overall: One of the great strengths of the Chef Sets is that even the most inexperienced adult could pull these off. Second, these are a quick dish for any of us who don't have the time or money to put together these spice mixtures.  No, it will never replace a delightful meal at Oleana or Sofra, but it is certainly quicker, faster, and, of course, less expensive.  For people who are counting calories or trying to stay healthy, by following the recipes exactly, the sets empower you with knowing exactly the nutrition and caloric breakdown of your meal.  They may not be an easy sell to kids or even adults whose palettes aren't quite ready to leap into sumac or cumin and mint. But for those of us who crave full flavored and complex meals in minutes, these are a great option.

The Chef Sets are now available at selected Whole Foods, as well as Sofra in Cambridge for around $6.00.

Thank you, as well, to Chef Sets and Chef Sortun for giving me a chance to try these out.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Designers who Inspire

For the past two years, I have had home envy. From the moment I moved into my beautiful rental, my landlord told me that he would be moving back in 24 months later.  Since I knew our time was temporary, and that buying a house was on my horizon, I have been drawn to a few authors, publishers, blogs and design shows. And then on my Pinterest site I highlight all I have gathered.

Genevieve Gorder: Sigh. If there was one person that I could bring in to design my new house, it would be Genevieve Gorder of "Dear Genevieve" on HGTV.   Like any good designer, she listens to her clients and pushes them. What I love most is her desire to tell a story. She carefully combines a client's objects with one she discovers. As she said, "Design is emotionally a part of our everyday lives. What we see reflects how we feel. When a place is comforting, you are comforted."  She is a fan of built ins, flea market finds, using color to enhance a room, clustering mirrors and special objects, and yet never making a room cluttered.  She is particularly adapt at helping families create rooms that are as comfortable for kids as for adults. I tear up, pathetic as this is, at the end of most of her shows.  I would love to feel as inspired, transported and moved in my new home as her clients do.

I am definitely a fan of the Not So Big House books. I appreciate the way that Susan Susanka finds a balance between acknowledging that we lead complicated lives and need some things, but also can make do with relatively smaller spaces by using space efficiently. She also writes in a way that is very accessible.

Apartment Therapy: I have always been drawn to small spaces and had longed for a smaller house.  I loved the idea of less to clean, less energy to use, less room for clutter. Apartment Therapy is full of gems designed for people focusing on small spaces.  But the publishers also have a flare for the modern, green, contemporary, up cycled and just fabulous.

Design Sponge: This site is one of my sources for photos of before and after renovations done by real people (as in non-decorators or people with thousand to spend). Just like Apartment Therapy, it is updated multiple times A DAY which means I can spend way too much time checking out their featured products and designs.

Houzz: Sigh. This isn't my site for real ideas, unless I win the lottery any time soon! But since this is the the site for designers and decorators to show off their stuff it is also a never ending source of inspiration. I like that I can put in search terms like "warm colors living room" and find hundreds of photos that have those features.

My organizational obsessive geek loves the sites Real Simple, I Heart Organizing, and Bowl Full of Lemons. Because of these sites I am now the proud owner of my own label maker, many plastic containers and a home office binder.

Design Seeds is a sweet little site. Each day they have lovely palettes. I hope to draw from them as I create design boards for my kitchen and living room.

Taunton Press: I can count on these publishers to have books that feature gorgeous landscaping, stonescaping, hardscaping, etc.  The images are lovely and again, the books provide hopes for the future.

I don't have cable, so I have to rely on the web to get my TV fix.  But the HGTV site provides me with enough full episodes to listen to as I pack. I am a sucker for the shows that use software to quickly superimpose images of their vision on a current place.  In addition to Dear Genevieve,  I am a recent fan of CurbAppeal as my new house definitely needs it!  And I watched Holmes on Inspection religiously before my own inspection for a worst case scenario.

Feel free to throw any other ideas this way!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Recent finds: Gelato, Frozen Yogurt and Ice Cream

Growing up, I could never get enough of Cabot's ice cream right in Newtonville. With their strawberry ice cream cone clock, huge waffles and giant sundaes, there was little else we needed after a softball game or anytime. As I got older, White Mountain Creamery was a more exciting option as mix-ins appeared. The server would pound ice cream on a marble slab and then smooth in Reese's and Oreos and infinitely more sugary candy then seemed possible. And the best in the pre-calorie-counting days? They would jam all that into a freshly made waffle cone. By high school, I had moved onto what was then unique: one of the first frozen yogurt places in town: JP Licks. We trekked to Brookline so I could have all the non-fat coffee or mint I wanted.  As an adult, I have come to have almost no cravings for ice cream. It is too rich, too sweet, and frankly, too expensive.  But with two young sons, visiting ice cream places is just required (at least as the occasional treat!)

They have a few recent favorites. First, yes, true: my mother just took them back to Cabot's and they were in heaven.  They also enjoyed their first gelato, at the newly opened Nudo Gelateria on Watertown Street on the the Watertown/Newton line.  I loved the chocolate-orange and pistachio which weren't as cloying sweet as most ice cream.
They also like the new Frozen Yogurt Innovations (FYI) in Wayland. Opened by local families, customers just take as much of the yogurt and toppings as you want. Then, you pay by the ounce. While the California Tart just isn't as good as Pinkberry, it hits the spot. And for an occasional treat, it couldn't be more convenient.

We live near one of the few Dairy Queen restaurants.  Talk about occasional treat. About once a summer we trek over for them to get a drippy soft serve vanilla or ice cream that often melts by the time we get to the benches in the parking lot.

As for me, for the rare times I splurge, Pinkberry is still it. I stick with the basic tart flavor, typically with fresh fruit. After yoga, it is a relatively protein-rich-somewhat-healthy treat.

My favorite though? The nights we stay home, sit on the porch and the kids enjoy a little bowl of Breyer's.  Meanwhile, I sip a homemade basil lemonade. It is the easiest and most relaxing. I can conjure up.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Let the Decorating Begin: Images from Easy Canvas Prints

(Our two new photos on canvas from Easy Canvas Prints!)
A new house means clean walls, just asking to be filled with travel memories, family photos and art work.  I have one piece of good art that I treasure: my triptych of paintings from Mike Bryce of Rhode Island.  Although our family watercolors and pastels may not make it to an art festival any time soon, I will find frames for some key designs by my sons and myself.
Paintings by Mike Bryce
But I also have dozens of photos documenting trips around the world and the growth of my boys.  Financially traveling is far from reality right now.  But those images serve as daily reminders of where I have been and where, someday, I hope to take my children.  When Megan of Easy Canvas Prints asked if I wanted to check out how they transform photos to artwork, I couldn't refuse. So last fall I sent them an image that they transferred to canvas.  It was of Two Lights State Park in Maine.  Rocks tumble upon rocks creating tide pools, Pollock-esque lichen paintings and vistas along the Maine Coast.  It is a sight of peace and beauty.  And my image arrived. Easy Canvas Prints did a fine job wrapping my image on the canvas.
But when I put it on the walls, I realized I had made two mistakes. First, the size (eleven by fourteen inches) didn't capture the glory of the Park.  Second, because my image didn't have enough contrast it just looked flat up on the wall.  I hung it anyway and do love being able to glance at a place that holds memories for me, and after a recent visit, my sons.
Megan, though, offered to do one more. This time, it would be a bigger print: 24 inches by 36 inches! With a better sense of what works, I started by jumping into the Easy Canvas Prints world of stock photos. I knew what I wanted this time: sun and the drama of mountains or the beach.  I felt transported when hiking in the Canadian Rockies, Alaska and Hawaii. In each of those places I had moments where I would gasp at the natural beauty, time frozen before the Internet.  Yet as much as I liked the stock photos, none were, well...mine.  So, ultimately I chose a photo that I took while visiting Playa Del Carmen.
The photo is from a trip to the Iberostar Toucan and remains a sentimental and emotional memory for me and a favorite for my sons.  And this time I knew that between the azure of the sky, the light off the beach and the rocks, the contrast would do justice to the canvas.  Once we move, it will hang in our new family/living room.  There it will keep us in touch of the possibility of travel in our future. In the meantime it will bring beauty to us.  Until I move, I have hung it above our couch in our main room. And this, time, this time I just want to leap into the photo.  The size is perfect and absolutely captures the openness, peace, and glory of the Caribbean.  Look at again on the top photo: the size just draws the eye right in.

Just like last time, Easy Canvas Prints did a fantastic job of printing and wrapping the canvas. Their site was as easy to use as I remembered. Best of all, I discovered that they have a great feature where you can see how the size of the print will look over, say, your couch.  With so many walls to decorate, I hope to turn back to Easy Canvas Prints if (and when) we travel again.

Thanks to Megan at Easy Canvas Prints for these two great images. Easy Canvas Prints did provide these to me for free, but my write up is all my own. Best of all, though, if you like Easy Canvas Prints on Facebook, you can get 50% off plus free shipping! So click here to start:

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Pillows as Art: Parker|BROWN Textiles, Rockport

Last year as I meandered through the stores of Rockport, I discovered, on the edge of town, the loveliest of stores. There, at Parker|BROWN textiles, Helen Parker, mom and artist, creates hand dyed pillows and textiles.  And now, as I am starting plans to decorate my new home, I keep thinking about the gentle blues of of her folded pillows, a lovely design that she created from yarn and the softest of chenille on her sea themed pillows. I just wanted to sit in her studio which is directly attached to the store, to talk to her more about the creative process and to inhale the colors. I had to return to reality that day, but I will return to her store.

Parker|BROWN Textiles, 67 Broadway, Rockport, 978-546-8050