The Holidays: Being Prepared

Lasagna Recipe

As we all know the holidays should be all fun and games; but often times it is easy to get struck down by the details so it is best to be prepared. First, accept you are not Martha Stewart; perfection should never replace fun.  Delegate, smile a lot and try not to sweat the small stuff.  You have all of January to be miserable.

Here are things to watch out for. The order doesn’t matter, all these things will happen sooner or later unless you have escaped to a fabulous island retreat in which case stop reading and go for a swim.

Decorations: What goes up must come down.

You can do this the easy way or the hard way.  Because on January 1 you will possibly be hungover but definitely masterminding the clean up so keep that in mind from the start.  If you have a partner who likes to hang up miles of lights try not to engage or encourage.  The same holiday effect can be achieved with a modicum of white sparkly lights, the old fashioned kind, (steer far away for the LED type because they end up having a bluish hue) wrapped over a swag of fresh evergreen garland festooned with bows made by twisting florist wire around red ribbon over your front door. Tuck a bunch of freshly cut greens into the urns on the porch first making sure to remove and discard the now dead chrysanthemums left over from Halloween.

Same for the tree.  Fresh or fake–your choice.  I prefer fresh because it smells better and you can throw it out the front door on January 1.  Toss on a few strands of the aforementioned white sparkly lights,  no more than one box of ornaments, and call it a day.  One year I only did lights and I think is was our prettiest tree ever.  Less is more.

If you must, get a couple of poinsettias to brighten up the mantle or the table.  Once again the beauty of these is the clean up–simply toss when they begin to look bedraggled or it is March and time to let go.

Entertaining: Try not to

If you do, keep it simple.  One friend had a holiday party for years where she provided a ham and a turkey and guests were asked to bring something that could be eaten with their fingers.  Some years it was all desserts and some years it was all appetizers but nobody ever complained and it all got eaten.

If you have to have a sit-down dinner provide only one entree that can be prepared in advance.  For Christmas Eve we like to make lasagna.  Served with a simple and I mean from the bag green salad dressed up with a fabulous (and simple) Gorgonzola and Pecan dressing, along with a loaf of garlic bread you can sit down and enjoy a glass of prosecco–and the meal– without feeling you just ran the Boston Marathon.

Let the games begin.


Best Lasagna Recipe

First take a Tupperware of frozen sauce from the freezer.

 If you don’t know how to make homemade sauce it’s time you learned.  Buy 3 or 4 large tins of canned whole tomatoes, chop up or squash and put in a pot with two onions quartered and a few cloves of garlic.  Toss in some hot Italian sausages in their casings and a pound of ground beef rolled into meatballs.  You don’t need to fry, spice, bread or do anything to your meatballs.  After simmering for several hours in your sauce they will taste just fine.  Add some bay leaves, thyme and oregano and cook for several hours.  Eat what you want, served over spaghetti and freeze the rest.

Defrost your sauce and then put some into the bottom of a lasagna pan or any other oblong pan you can put in the oven.  Layer with no boil lasagna noodles–if you haven’t used these before–you should.  They take one half hour and most of the pain away from making lasagna and they actually taste better!

Now if you are the prepared type you have already sauteed some sliced mushrooms with minced garlic, or you can just put a layer of raw sliced mushrooms into the pan.  Top with a mixture you have made of fat-free ricotta cheese, chopped spinach (if using fresh cook down first), parmesan cheese, one egg, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.  Then add a layer of grated mozzarella, a layer of sauce and start over again until your pan is full.  Top with a sliced up hot sausage or two and some more of that grated mozzarella and you are ready to rumble.  Cook covered at 35o for about 30 minutes and then uncovered for fifteen or so and let rest.

Adding the mushrooms, the spinach, and the fat-free ricotta keeps this lasagna from making you feel like you swallowed the proverbial lead balloon.  It is the holidays and it is important to reserve your calories for the extra alcohol required to maintain your equanimity in the face of all your nearest and dearest.

Domestic Arts 101

In the olden days, decorating was the wife’s job; real men played golf, watched sports on the telly and stayed out of the kitchen.  Clearly those days are over.  Real women go to work, real men cook and everybody has a say in decorating.  But he likes mid-century modern and she wants comfort and warmth.  Holy smokes!  What do you do?

You compromise and together you create your own signature look.
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Take, for example, this Rumson carriage house.   When the new owners took possession they brought with them the husband’s significant modern art collection and his design sense which was perhaps a bit formal, while the wife was angling for an up-dated, yet comfortable, elegant, yet child-friendly end of the spectrum.

First thing they did was transform what had been a formal living room into a lively gallery of amazing art, complemented by a modicum of seating.  The idea was to marry comfort with spare and sleek.  They wanted room where the art could shine, adults enjoy a cocktail and their three children to romp–the walled off living room, like husbands who don’t decorate, a thing of the past.

For a while it was perhaps it was a bit too stark but once they replaced a burnished hunk of copper coffee table with this painted wooden table from British Cottage the living room finally came together.
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The modern, copper coffee table that was in the living room happily found a new home in the family room where it compliments the metal work on the fireplace and anchors the massive leather couch.
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(I’m not sure whose idea was the basketball hoop over the fireplace in the family room–we would have loved this when we were kids).  They added a couple of custom Hickory White side chairs in navy plaid from British Cottage that swivel so you can either have a conversation or watch the game on the television on the wall opposite the couch.

Perhaps my favorite room is the dining room.  They kept the previous owner’s chandelier–from the days when the house was decorated in an over-the-top chateau style–and it looks pretty and romantic.  The husband was quite sure how he wanted the custom British Cottage table to look, striking and vibrant in dark oak which works beautifully with the linen-like but really Sunbrella slipcovered sidechairs chosen by his wife. The plain white walls and woodwork were a bold choice in this time of paint the world fifty shades of grey but it really lets the art and the architecture shine.

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We’ve been making house calls to this home for the last couple of years and every time we go it looks better and better.  I think every nook and cranny  has engaged the attention of both spouses and each has allowed the other their vision creating a lovely, family friendly home in the process.  Not easy.

 

The Maine Thing

Fish Taco recipe

Part of the reason why we are such happy empty nesters is when we sold our house and moved to an apartment above our store, we also bought a little place on a little lake in Maine, seven hours and 5000 light years away from NJ. There the air is always fresh, albeit slightly redolent of pine needles, and when the sun shines the sky is always a brilliant blue.

Mostly we like to be outside.  Hiking, sailing, kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, or just sitting on the dock reading a book.  But when the weather is not cooperating then we do another favorite thing which is messing about with the house. It’s a former camp, which to the uninitiated means a no-frills hut for hunters and fishermen, but fortunately, over the years, it has acquired what I consider to be the essential amenities of a home: indoor plumbing, electricity, heat and hot water.

However, our most favorite thing of all, and perhaps the one thing you can do in Maine at any time of the year–in any kind of weather–and that is eat, dine, nosh, you name it, we do it!  In fact we time our journeys so that after a quick six am-ish pitstop for a bagel and a cup of joe to go from The Coffee Corral in Red Bank, we are in Maine just in time for lunch at Day’s Crabmeat and Lobster Pound and Take Out, a type of restaurant we don’t have in our neck of New Jersey any more.

It’s the kind of place where you order at the window, then wait for your number to be called, and in just ten minutes or so you have the freshest fried haddock sandwich or crab or lobster roll you’ve ever eaten in your life.   Seating is out back at picnic tables, each with its own million dollar view.  Trust me, you will never wait in line at Red’s Eats again.

After Day’s it is just a hop, skip and a jump to our Maine cottage. But first we stop at the Fisherman’s Catch and Seafood Market in Damariscotta and pick up some crabmeat and fresh fish fillets.  (The lobster comes later in the week!)

   

 (I swear this guy in line ahead of me was Al Pacino but I was too afraid to ask!)

      In the summer, especially when the weather is delightful, time becomes of the essence so we rush to get the boats in the water and have a quick sail, or kayak or fiddle with the latest toy, the paddle board, because before you know it–it’s dinner time.  And that often means fish tacos.

Fish Tacos

I’ve been a fan of fish tacos ever since our friend, Doug Douty, of Lusty Lobster in Highlands, NJ  fame discovered them on a fishing trip to Mexico. He came back raving about how great these tacos were and even better, really easy to make: just flour tortillas, the freshest of fish and a crunch of slaw tossed down with a cold one. He had me by the time he got to the slaw–never even mind the beer.

Since then I’ve made them fried, and broiled and baked in the oven, breaded, blackened, sauced and unsauced and finally I  decided my favorite way to make fish tacos is the easiest.

First, to make cleanup a breeze, use one of those disposable aluminum pans you can buy at the grocery store.  Melt a little butter and lightly coat whatever boneless fish fillet you like–trust me you can use anything–even bluefish, and put it in the pan.  Spice the fillets up with whatever is on hand: some chili powder, paprika, some crushed red pepper, a little salt or Old Bay and let it hang in the fridge for a while.

Then make the slaw—once again I’ve made a hundred different versions and find the simplest tastes just as good as more complicated recipes with a ton of steps and ingredients.  Just grate or finely slice up some red cabbage. It has to be red cabbage; green does not work. Add some sliced, chopped or grated red onion, and if you like, a carrot and/or some chopped up hot peppers can go into the mix too. Then toss with a slurry you’ve made of about 1/3 rice wine vinegar to 2/3 mayonnaise and a pinch of sugar.  Put in the fridge and get yourself a glass of wine or a beer.

All that’s left to do is cook the fish and that just means you get someone else to put the pan on a hot grill until done—usually, it takes about ten minutes. Place your flour tortillas in foil on the unheated part of the grill so they warm up as the fish cooks.  (The fish can also be cooked in the oven at 425 degrees for about the same amount of time as on the grill.) The fish is done when it flakes.

The fish goes on the hot tortilla, top with the slaw, and serve with a wedge of lime.  If you want to get fancy put half an avocado on a hunk of lettuce to fill up the plate, grab another beer or glass of white wine and enjoy.

Cooking With Gas: These are a few of my favorite things…

Baked Artichokes, Shrimp, Mozzarella–and Scallops

         The late Marcella Hazan is often credited with being the godmother
of Italian cooking in the United States.  Of course I didn’t know that when I picked up her Classic Italian Cookbook in the discount bin at Barnes and Noble and that evening made possibly the best Chicken Cacciatore ever.  I only found that out years later when I read an interview with her in the NY Times food section that included a recipe for Baked Artichokes, Shrimp and Mozzarella I have treasured ever since.  But with a tweak–or two.
        Here’s my version:

Baked Artichokes, Shrimp, Mozzarella–and Scallops
Figure one artichoke per person.  Fill a bowl with cold water and the juice of a couple of lemons.  Peel off the tough outer leaves of the artichoke–maybe a few more than you think–then snap or cut off the top part of the remaining leaves.  Cut  into  quarters  and  pull out the fuzzy bits in the center.  Cut the quarters into halves or thirds and add to your bowl. (In theory the lemon juice prevents the artichokes from getting brown on you
but I find they still get a little discolored but not to worry).
Glug a fair amount of olive oil into a large saute pan, add a couple of chopped up cloves of garlic and a diced up shallot or two if you happen to have some handy.  Marcella says to saute until nut brown and remove-I leave the bits in the pan and then add my artichokes which I have drained well and dried a bit so they don’t splatter in the hot oil.  Add all the salt and pepper you want now.
Turn the artichokes so all sides are covered in oil and cook on medium/ low heat for five minutes.  Then add some water to partially fill the pan, cover and simmer until tender.  This takes anywhere from twenty five to 40 minutes depending on how hot your pan is to how big your artichoke pieces are. (Test hearts with a fork stab to get an idea of doneness).
Marcella says to put your artichokes into a buttered pan, I usually leave them where they are and add some butter–like half a stick because I like
a buttery artichoke flavor.  If you are feeling healthy I think you could skip the butter entirely.  Anyway spread raw shrimp evenly across the top (devein but leave the tails on for flavor).  And then I add scallops–cut into halves if they are on the robust side–because Keith won’t eat shrimp and I have to make this recipe.
Now here Marcella says to top with buffalo mozzarella, some parmesan, and a couple of tablespoons of butter cut into bits and sprinkled on top, then cook in the upper third of a preheated 450 degree oven for about 20 minutes.  I usually cook it cheeseless in a 400 degree oven for twenty minutes and then up the temp to 450 and add the cheese for about 5 minutes until it melts.  (I skip the butter because I have already gilded that lily).
Whichever way you go–watch that mozzarella carefully because it is really easy to overcook it.  Remove from heat.  Let rest and serve warm with lots of crusty bread to sop up the juice and lots of napkins because you just have to use your hands to get to the artichokes properly.  And if you left the tails on the shrimp it just makes sense to pick those up with your fingers too.
Buon appetito!

 

At the New York International Gift Show

Just a quick update while I wait for Keith to get out of the shower. Today is the final day for us at the NYIGS; a to-the-trade only exhibition at Pier 94.

This is our second time as vendors and it has been
a lot of fun.  We’ve sighted the doyenne of decorating, Nina Campbell, (buying fabulous flower arrangements from the Diane James gang), bonded with the Sister Parrish group, and met many, many interesting retailers and decorators from all over the country–and even out of it.  More to come when we get back home.

Laird’s Apartment!

   Finally something cool to write about.  Our daughter, Laird,  moved to her new apartment yesterday and we were on hand to lend a hand.  For many parents this is a nightmare but for us it is way too much fun.  Particularly now that we have Boris’s guys at the Green Line Moving Company to do the heavy lifting. (Google them, he’s in Woodbridge, NJ–the price is right and they do a great job.)

       Laird and the movers arrive at the new apartment, just blocks from the park, the Museum of Natural History and–
most importantly I’m told–the subway!
    

Before:
A scary scene:
Much better.
Small apartments need huge closets.
Look how organized she is, finally.
Where will it all go?
We’ll hang the pictures and think about curtains another day.
  

Let’s put the thanks in Thanksgiving

Crunch time is here.  Believe it or not we will be delivering dining room tables and chairs on the day before Thanksgiving…wow.  It happens every year, but even I can’t imagine waiting until the last minute to put my dining room together. 

But maybe it’s because there are just too many options?  Besides what is available in your own neighborhood, on line you can shop the entire world.  Add to this the pressure people feel to chose something that will last forever, throw in the fact that there are usually two people who must agree on a design they both feel they absolutely have to love FOREVER and voila, gridlock.  


Actually that is why we don’t try too hard to sell furniture over the internet.  In my heart I believe you have to see it, feel it, and touch it to understand what you are buying.  Too many times I have loved, really loved a product on the page or on the screen only to feel mega disappointment when it finally arrives. 


So thank all of you who call me from Ohio and elsewhere.  Probably you would really love my things, and I encourage you to buy them but I am uncomfortable guaranteeing there will never be a problem.  I’ve had four people come in the store in the last month saying they returned dining room tables they ordered from Restoration Hardware because of color and condition issues. Actually it happened to me today.  I have a customer who patiently (sort of) waited six months for her bedroom furniture and the color is off. 


The fact is when you are dealing with a product that is handmade out of natural materials, there will be some variation in color and condition.  Sometimes it can be a lot of variation–each piece of wood, particularly reclaimed timber, is different. The reason why our tables stay sold is you actually see the exact table you are buying and we explain how to maintain said table…


For example, the worst thing in the world for old wood is a super hot house heated by a furnace that sucks all the moisture out of the air.  In fact many times when we get a call that a table top has cracked we’ll find a child with bronchitus–the air is just too dry and a humidifier is needed–stat.  I
f a top does split, chances are it will come back together again when you turn the heat off in the spring.  And if not it is an easy thing for us to run over, pop the top and clamp it back together again. 

The other major problem is finish.  If you are buying a table with a raw wood top it needs to be protected from spills or else it will stain.
A waxed finish lends a lovely patina to wood and will provide protection against spills, but a wet, drippy glass will leave a ring. We always provide a can of wax when we sell a waxed pine table so you can touch it up at home. 

For the last couple of years we have been selling hardwood tables (and some pine) with polyurethane finishes that provide more protection, but you still have to be careful about scratches.  Because we usually start with wood that has been distressed, our fix is to fill in the scratch with a furniture touch up pen in a slightly darker color, hopefully making the the scratch look like it has always been there.


Luckily for those of you who demand zero maintenance, we do offer a finish that is probably a resin and use it on our sandblasted trestle table.  It is so hard I think you could probably drive a truck over the table top and not leave a mark.   However, I’ve been in this business long enough to know it is only a matter of time before a teenager somewhere, somehow manages to mess it up. 


But that is another whole blog–teenagers and furniture.  Meanwhile l
et’s just be thankful for our families and friends and remember fondly those who made our lives possible. Happy Thanksgiving!

Decorating is not hard to do!

     I am amazed when grown women, immaculately groomed, accessorized to the hilt and with nary a root showing lament that they are at a loss when it comes to decorating their homes.  They can easily throw down the price of a small sofa for a big name bag, tie a scarf twenty different ways, and be coordinated head to toe but can’t choose a dining room table?


Me, I can find furniture in a vacuum.  In fact when Keith and I were young and living in Philadelphia we furnished our apartment and most of our friends’ simply by visiting my hometown of Rumson New Jersey on Junk Day, a twice yearly event when residents would park their unwanted possessions on the curb for the borough trucks to cart away. 


And years later when I could afford to buy my furniture I read that the designer Sister Parish (I think it was Sister Parish) was famous for finding more places for seating in a living room then you could ever imagine, I felt empowered and purchased two more armchairs that very evening.  I now have six upholstered chairs, two couches, two coffee tables, an antique wooden Irish fools chair and numerous stools and benches and still don’t feel crowded.  

And I could never live without the painted antique pine secretary we bought in Denmark, or the wonderful antique Chinese altar table anchoring a six foot painted Chinese panel of a lily pond and two beautiful white egrets that I convinced Keith would excuse him from having to buy me another anniversary gift ever ( I lied.) 

Does it go?  Of course it does; because the walls are calm, the floors are calm, and the furniture, although in abundance is not drastically overscaled but in proportion to the space.  Is one couch Biedermeier and another Chippendale? Yes.  But the fabrics compliment each other, there are lots of lamps to add warmth and decoration on side tables ample enough to hold both books and drinks, while beautiful paintings and a collection of vintage shorebird prints enhance the walls.

 Do you still think decorating is hard to do?

September Already!

Sorry, August clearly got away from me. 

Between exhibiting at the NY Gift Show, visiting with my son Colin and his wife, Melissa, who enjoyed a little r&r at the Jersey shore (cooler than Houston, but not by much) and just my usual days at the store, I missed my August blog.  However, not to worry, I have great plans for September.   

Basically we have covered bedrooms and dining rooms, I think,  but have we ever talked about the foyer?  It’s huge.  If you haven’t cleaned in weeks, there’s dishes in the sink,dust bunnies reproducing as only rabbits can, it doesn’t matter–as long as your foyer is well designed and attractive.   The reason I say this is strangers have no reason to go any further into your house.  Play dates can be dropped, business can be conducted, and neighbors can peek in without anyone knowing you haven’t made a bed in weeks. 

All it takes is a little planning and some cunning.  Banning the children and your husband from the area may sound mean, but that is why mudrooms and garage entries were invented.  Put some hooks and a bench by the back door and only allow relatives and close friends access to that part of the house.  They know you so there is no use pretending.  

Next you need to find a piece of furniture which is not too deep, unless you have a McMansion and then you have help so this blog really does not apply to you. 

In your case all you need is a gorgeous round table and a fabulous flower arrangement–I recommend my new best friends from the gift show, Diane James and her daughters, Caroline and Cynthia.  They make the most beautiful flower arrangements you can imagine–their wholesale customers include Neiman Marcus and Gumps.  Just go to their website, DianeJamesHome.com and you will see what I mean.  They are not inexpensive but when you consider one arrangement could last a really long time (the flowers are all artificial but you would never guess unless you touch them).  And Caroline blogs three days a week, clearly an overachiever, but it is fun to read.     However, I digress.  For those with moderate to small foyers, the answer is a table or a chest. 

Something with a few drawers to stash the bills, park your keys, and hold a hairbrush.  Next comes a beautiful mirror, which not only makes the space look larger but also affords you the opportunity to make sure your hair is neat, teeth brushed, and zipper zipped before exiting your home or answering the doorbell.      

Next some lamps, a basket, or a small flower arrangement to put on the furniture you selected.  Try to leave very little of the top showing for two reasons.  The first is beauty, second you prevent family members from leaving their junk on the top.  And try to refrain from parking family photos here.  Unless someone in the family is a supermodel, these belong in more personal spaces (like the backstairs or an upstairs hallway).  

Now I fully intend to illustrate this blog with photos from the store and home (I actually have two of the vignettes I described because I could not figure out which one I liked best) but first I need to eat lunch and then pay my September bills…but after that I’m on it!  have a great day and enjoy this fabulous weather.Cheers!  Tricia

Countdown to the NYIGF (New York International Gift Show)

 As usual it seems it is the end of the month and I have yet to blog, which is amazing because I have so much to report.  The big news is Keith and I have been furiously preparing for the New York International Gift Fair,  which takes place in mid-August at the Javits Center and Piers in NYC.  The show is designed to present the latest innovations in furnishings, tabletop, accessories and more to retailers and designers in the metropolitan area.

We feel this will be a good opportunity to expose (there has to be a better word) our British Cottage products to a wider audience.  For years we have been manufacturing our own designs, first in England, and now at our factory in Hungary.  Bespoke, handmade, and hand delivered are our standard operating procedures, not a marketing ploy. 

So this will be a test to see if our British Cottage vision is viable out of our comfort zone in Red Bank.  Our pricing has always been reasonable, partially because there are no middle men, we are direct importers, and also because we are committed to staying affordable.  While we may have one or two rock stars and three or four moguls as customers, mostly we sell to people with tuitions and car payments and orthodontistry to worry about. 

Which brings me to my next point, one of the problems with selling a product that is built to last is that the customer only ever needs to need to buy just one.  There is no built in obsolescence at British Cottage.  A pine farmhouse table never goes out of style; it doesn’t break.  In fact, it can actually improve with age.  So we are happy to widen our customer base.  According to some reports as many as 35,000 will attend the gift show.

And we are not only bringing furniture but also one-of-a-kind antiques and accessories we have picked up in our travels to Europe.  We’ll have dough bowls and Staffordshire china, antique maps and botanical prints, authentic British flags, watering cans, you name it.  The items in the photograph are just a few of the things we plan to exhibit.  We’ll be on Pier 94, booth # 43060, come see us if you get a chance.  Or stop by the store; Red Bank is easily accessible by car or train if you are coming from the city.