Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring's Coming: Finishing Touch

In what began as a four-part blog about freshening up the decor in your home to welcome spring as well as guests and family members alike, the series has now unfolded and blossomed into tips on transforming our homes into comfort havens. We began by utilizing bold and beautiful spring blooms to brighten our home visually. Then we gravitated to refreshening the air by bringing in some ideas for infusing comforting scents into our homes to try and squash out the staleness of winter. By now, many of you may have begun your spring-cleaning ritual: diving head-first into closets and desk drawers, attics and other hidden crevices to sort and toss with reckless abandon. Likewise, in our attempts to be productive, little distractions abound everywhere. You may be sorting through your attic and continually stumble across some long ago tucked away and since forgotten object which brings pause in your cleaning spree as you take a virtual stroll down memory lane. You may not realize it, but you could potentially have a whole treasure trove of items which could be brought back to life in your home. In this segment, we'll talk about using different things on display throughout the home to make every room invite a sense of comfort.

Generally, when displaying objets, the key is to keep it under control. I have been in homes where the person's knick-knack collection had multiplied beyond all reason and the walls were covered from floor to ceiling with pictures. The home felt suffocating and the visual experience was way too busy to be comforting. If you are going to collect something, stick to one theme per room. When you see something in a shop, think about it. Will it not only fit into the collection itself, but tie into the color of the room as well? Does it look like a well-crafted item, or does it look cheap and tacky? Be selective, quality over quantity.

To make our home inviting to us, it is the comfort of something familiar and of things we love that makes it so. Such things are varying for each one of us as unique individuals according to personal taste. Let's start with my favorite room in the house: the kitchen. By displaying some cooking or food related items you've collected, your kitchen beckons you, as these personal touches make the space your own. Do you have a favorite cookbook author whose books you have collected? Then you might consider buying any of his or her books which you may not yet own and a single wall shelf to install on a kitchen wall on which to display your cooking idol; his or her books will then inspire you to whip up something rewarding at any given time. If you have space between the tops of the upper kitchen cabinets and the ceiling, this is a perfect space for displaying collections, whether you fancy elegant teapots, whimsical cookie jars, soup tureens, baskets or decorative serving bowls. Moving on into the dining area, if you have the space for some shelves, this is also an appropriate palette for some culinary display. I have a whole wall of my dining room filled with bookcases where I keep all of my cookbooks. In spaces in between these books I have various serving bowls and platters. The display not only lets people know that they are in the dining room, it's all about the food in here; but it also welcomes me to sit at the table and peruse a cookbook for next weekend's dinner recipe ideas.

In other rooms, such as the bedroom, guest room and family room, take the opportunity to display things you love. Being a Long Islander, I love the ocean and everything associated with it. In response to that love, I decorated my guest room accordingly, with a seashell print bedding set, a framed lighthouse poster, and I even framed a poem I once wrote describing the beach in winter. Then I filled in around the room with some conch shells and starfish that I'd collected on our Carribean trips, as well as a few shells I picked up along the shores close to home. The room is now not only comforting to me whenever I need to go in there, but it gives a Long Island welcome to out-of-town guests. In our bedroom, I decorated in a French theme, because I am half French and I also just happen to love all things French. Blue toile linens on the bed and window, a single pillow boasting "I'd Rather Be In Paris", because, frankly, I would. Across the wall right over the bed I placed three black and white prints of Paris landmarks in black frames. Whenever displaying multiple pieces together, keep in mind that odd amounts tend to work best visually. In our library and computer room, I have a show-and-tell of something else I love: Brian's and my weekends together. I am currently working on putting together a collage frame for each season, with photos of us having fun together: some beach pictures from summer, hikes and pumpkin picking expeditions in autumn, etc. Whether your spouse, your children or your pets, by framing a few of the best photos you have of them and displaying in a personal room such as a family room or library, you will not be able to fight back the smile for long when you come across that picture as you enter the room. Again, moderation is key. Three to five large prints is enough to set the mood and make the statement. An entire wall completely covered is turning what should be a comforting space into a chaotic art gallery.

Thinking back as far as your memory will serve, what were some of the first things which brought you comfort as an infant? A blanket? A bath? Guess what? That hasn't necessarily changed! Fluffy new towels in a seasonal or pleasing color and a basket on display filled with bath salts and lotions are the way to make a bathroom feel welcoming. New towels and a soothing lavender scented bath oil will set an inviting and comforting mood when you enter the room after a long tough day; all you have to do is fill the tub, step in, lie back and the day's trials and tribulations melt away. The living room can also be a welcome haven to comfort by simply draping a favorite, attractive blanket over the arm of a cozy chair or sofa. The blanket invites you to get comfortable and lose yourself in your favorite movie or a new book, or even browsing through a memory-filled photo album that you keep on the coffee table.

One last tip for displaying collections to personalize your home: I am a big believer of mixing up old and new. If you just discovered an old pitcher in your attic that once belonged to a beloved grandmother, for example, bring it down. You have probably collected a couple of pitchers yourself over the years. Choose your two favorite ones, and display them right along with Grandma's. It's a tribute to a relative who once gave you comfort, thereby evoking comfort here and now, and links together your shared attraction to collecting pitchers. Using old things that once belonged to now departed family gives an even more personal touch to your decor, it pays homage to someone who was once an important part of your life and it likely has a few stories to tell, stories which may have been told to you over the years by that person and are now stories being opened up for you to tell. I'm willing to bet that there are a lot of things in your attic or closets that you are getting reacquainted with, whether things that have been passed on to you by family members or just things you once purchased, maybe even used for awhile, got tired of and relegated into storage for another day. That day could be today, so while sorting through things and going down the virtual memory lane, also pause and ask yourself if and how this object could be a welcome addition to your home, thereby making your home a welcoming and comforting haven to all who enter. First, better bake up a batch of those cookies Grandma used to make and bring them along, you're going to be up there in that attic for awhile!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Spring's Coming: The Nose Knows

Last time we began a four part series about transitioning the setting of your home from one season to the next, to keep your homecoming interesting as all of your senses perked up when you walk through the door. I reviewed some of the spring treasures to be found in the produce section of your market, and delved into adding some spring flourish of flowers into your kitchen, eating and living areas of your home. Flowers not only enhance our living space visually, if you decorate with fresh cut flowers, they can enhance the room aromatically as well. When you are home, when your spouse comes home at the end of his or her day, or when your invited friends enter your home, you want all of the senses to say "Welcome home! Get comfortable! Feel the love!" Bright seasonal flowers are pleasing to the eye, and the way your home smells can be pleasing to the nose.

We see constant advertisements throughout the media for products to make our homes smell "nice." I actually don't use any of these in my home, they really do pose more hazards than benefits. Aerosol sprays are not only detrimental to the environment, but they are also allergy irritants and can be damaging for pets and for people who suffer from inhalant allergies or asthma. The scents are usually overkill and artificial, way too perfumey for my taste. The plug-in's have been known to cause house fires. Finally, just the thought of infusing more chemicals into our lives doesn't sound so comforting, does it? I prefer to utilize more natural means to produce more comforting and less harsh sensory enjoyment for the nose.

The most welcoming and seasonal aromas in your home from autumn through spring emanate from your kitchen. When you expect company, arrange to feed your oven about thirty minutes prior to your guests' arrival. Whether you are baking a pie or a chocolate cake for a an afternoon coffee visit, or the dessert for the evenings get-together meal, nothing sends such a welcome greeting to your guests as something baking in the oven. They will walk in from the cold, there may be traces of snow still on the ground outside, but inside the sight of spring tulips on the end table and the aromas of a blueberry crumb cake wafting in from the kitchen will immediately wrap their senses in warmth and contentment. Ideal springtime delicacies that your oven will present include blueberry crumb cake, lemon meringue pie, coconut cake, a pound cake to serve with a sprinkling of those fresh spring strawberries or a raspberry cheesecake. You can achieve the same ambiance in the fall and winter months when baking up pumpkin bread, apple pies, pear tarts and cranberry bundt cake. Even when preparing dinner for your family, your spouse who arrives home later than you will really feel the comfort of being home when he or she walks into a house that tantalizes both the nose and the appetite with the aromas of a roasting rack of lamb or orange-glazed ham beckoning from the kitchen.

As the daytime temperatures start to creep up, open as many windows as you are able throughout the house, even if only for three hours a day in the early afternoon. Your home has been sealed off from the outside elements for four months. The springtime ritual of allowing fresh air to circulate through your house every day will air everything out, and crisp fresh air with notes of early spring blooms and new grassy growth, is a comforting aromatic treat in itself; the effect magnified if you are fortunate enough to live by the beach and can add tints of salty sea air to the experience. Why else are there aerosol cans of room freshener sporting labels such as "Fresh Air" and "Ocean Breeze"? No corporation has really been able to successfully duplicate such scents, there is nothing like the real thing.

While I may shun many of the room-freshener products on the market, I do have one vice: scented candles. I do enjoy the calming and welcoming ambiance that a seasonally scented candle can create. The soft glow of the burning flame is soothing and creates a nice lighting effect for visual appeal, and I switch out the scents with the seasons for aromatic appeal. Throughout the winter I like the vanilla cookie varieties, in the summer I go for the citrusy and melon scents. Nothing says fall like a candle of cinnamon spice. Now to welcome spring, I like to seek out lemony scents. Candles can put a subtle layer of aromatic essence into the air, evoking feelings of warmth and comfort. However you should choose unscented candles when using candles for lighting effect at the dining table, as you don't want your nose to be caught in a battle of the scents as the food and the candle compete with one another.

As an avid home cook, a homeowner and a happy homebody, I do declare that the most effective and pleasing way to permeate the aromatic environment of your home with ease is from your kitchen. Through the ages, scents of various products from lip glosses to candles, and even to dolls, are those of edible delights: strawberry, vanilla, lemon, coffee, the list goes on and on, and on. Eating is something we all do, something many of us enjoy. We are comforted by the smell of cinnamon apple pie on a crisp fall day, or by a simmering pot of soup on a blustery day. Even on the smallest scale, for example, most of us would agree that the most welcoming and comforting scent when we first get up in the morning is that of freshly brewing coffee. It says "Good morning! Welcome to your day!" and we all enjoy savoring that aromatic cup of java as the warmth envelopes us in a virtual embrace before we head out the door to fight the day's demons. Next time we'll talk about how visual accents strategically arranged around your home can illustrate a scene of seasonal comfort. Many of the items which can be used are already in the treasure troves of your closets or attic; prepare to make your spring cleaning and sorting work for you to give your home that welcoming look the whole year through.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Spring's Coming: Flower Power

With last week's snowstorm and possibly another one on the way still, March is certainly coming in like a lion. Spring is, however, imminent as the sun is setting later and the temperatures aren't quite as bitingly frigid. After being holed up in the cozy warmth of our homes, everyone is eager to witness the first signs of spring as the crocuses and daffodils emerge from their winter naps, the sounds of birds coming home for the summer and the smell of fresh new grass after a spring shower. In preparation, many of us begin what has been referred over the ages as spring cleaning. The winter ski jackets are relegated to the back of the closet in exchange for lighter layers, the new season's fashions begin to fill our closets. The home gets a freshening up as marathon cleaning and sorting sessions get underway and windows are opened for the first time in months. The first of the season's produce adorns our dinner tables. This begins a four part series of tips to make the transition into spring enjoyable and help to make your home a more welcoming haven to come home to in any season, without breaking the bank on expensive home improvement projects.

When you have been away at work all day and trying to de-escalate the stress level during your commute home, it's important to walk into a home that really feels like a home should. It should feel welcoming. It should lift your spirits and evoke a sense of calm simultaneously. Your home should reflect your personality as well, the sights and smells and sounds should say who you are, so that you are comfortable in your own skin, or rather in this case, home. If your home feels relaxing to you, that will likely transcend to your guests as well when you have friends over for dinner or coffee.

This installment is going to focus on plants, and that includes produce; this is, after all, a blog on kitchen and home. While you have undoubtedly noticed that most vegetables and fruits can be procured from a supermarket all year round, those specimens which are not in season will not have the same impact of flavor on our palates. Produce should be enjoyed primarily during its peak season. With the arrival of spring, start by bringing home some asparagus. Spring is the best time to enjoy this versatile vegetable, and with the numerous ways that it can be prepared, you will not grow tired of it anytime soon. It can be roasted, simply lay the spears out in a single layer on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper and place in a 450-degree oven for about 15 minutes. It can be steamed. After steaming you can bring it right to the table for immediate consumption as a healthy side dish, or you can cut the spears into one inch pieces and toss them into a salad, a soup or a pasta dish. Also at peak season in the spring are peas, which can also add some bright green to a pasta dish or made into a delicious soup. Berries also enjoy the spring spotlight, and can be enjoyed au natural with no additions, or as a garnish on ice cream, or as an ingredient in baked goods. If you are fortunate enough to live near a farming community, take advantage of spring harvests which include lettuces, new potatoes and baby vegetables. Once again, you will taste the difference between these and the ones purchased in the supermarket during the off season.

Since the temperatures have not yet begun to heat up, one can still benefit from the use of the oven. Sending a whole chicken to the oven to roast for dinner will allow some time to putter around the home as you engage in your spring cleaning projects. In addition to bringing home spring produce from the store, consider bringing home some flowers to help set the spring tone. Think about which flowers are typically associated with spring: first daffodils and then tulips, for instance. You can create an eye-catching and warmly welcoming display on your kitchen counter, on your dining table and in your living room and/or family room. You can either choose colors which compliment the room's overall color scheme, make a statement with a bright color that pops the room to life, or go with the neutral classic of all white blooms which will create elegance in any backdrop. For a kitchen display, place the flowers in a whimsical container, such as a ceramic pitcher, a small galvanized watering can or an old-fashioned milk jug. Coming home to a display of bright yellow daffodils in a white pitcher evokes an uplifting feeling, knowing that your home looks welcoming as you revel in the season.

If you have curious pets or toddlers, I would urge you to consider using silk flowers rather than live cut blooms. Many plants and flowers are toxic when ingested, why take chances? If visions of your grandmother's obviously fake plastic flower displays are haunting you, put those images out of your mind. Today's artificial flowers are make from silks and look so real, it's near impossible to discern them from the live varieties unless you physically touch them. After an incident with one of my cats, which fortunately did not end tragically in this case, I have only used silk flower arrangements in my home. Other benefits to using silks include the fact that they will never look spent or die, they require no care whatsoever, and you'll be able to use them for several springs seasons.

The first image conjured in people's minds at the thought of spring is that of flowers. By gracing your home with flowers, this is the first step taken toward making simple and inexpensive changes to your decor to make your home feel welcoming and comforting. Flowers are uplifting in their brilliant visual appeal, and that will make your guests feel welcome and vibrant yet relaxed in your home as well. As spring moves into summer, tulips should be switched out for sunflowers, daisies, hydrangea blooms and peonies. When fall approaches, choose mums and choose flowers in colors that display a fall palette. For December, poinsettias set the holiday mood, as well as blooms of white and red. For winter I usually stick with white roses and hydrangeas in white or blue.

Another way to add floral decor to make a home seem welcoming is to display seasonal wreaths on each door that enters into your home. Wreaths aren't just for Christmas anymore, they now come in arrangements to suit any season and holiday. Some are strictly made of silk flowers indigenous to the season at hand, others are embellished with whimsical additions such as little stuffed snowmen, garden gnomes or teddy bears, ornaments of birds, seashells or miniature garden tools, or "Welcome" plaques. Every season I change my wreaths on the front and back doors, as well as the garden flag in front of the house, whose design changes to suit the season. If I actually had neighbors close enough in proximity to see it, I think they would be threatening me to take away the "Let It Snow" snowman flag right about now!

Flowers are not the only example of flora for use in kitchen decor. Edible displays are not only at home in the kitchen, but can strike that seasonal note effectively. In addition to a display of flowers on a counter, I often use a display of seasonal fruit. In the summer I'll fill a bright blue bowl with lemons, evoking the cooling idea of fresh lemonade. Not only do they look appealing, but when it comes time to juice a lemon for a recipe, room temperature lemons yield considerably more juice than refrigerated ones. In the fall I'll fill a wicker basket with a variety of fall-colored apples. In the winter I'll fill a white ceramic basket with green Granny Smiths, or a bowl with red pears and bosc pears. For spring, lemons and oranges look nice, as do the yellow and red tints of gala apples. These displays perform double duty: they not only enhance the decor, but encourage healthy snacking too.

Next time, we'll focus on how aromatics can play a role in making your home envelope you in welcoming comfort. I'll give you one hint: I think the oven and some of those spring berries might be involved! As we count down the days until that first official day of spring, next time you make a stop at the market, pick up two bouquets: one of asparagus for the evening's meal, and one of the season's first picked daffodils for your kitchen counter. Nothing welcomes spring like the lively picture of yellow daffodil blooms and a dinner of roasted salmon and asparagus with a light lemon sauce and fresh raspberries for dessert. It may be too cool yet to enjoy that meal al fresco among those springtime blooms, but you can certainly bring the flower power indoors all year long.