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Best Bets: Decorating With Flowers

Years ago the Chop spent a couple of months out in Seattle, and perhaps the biggest point of culture shock in the Emerald City was the near-universal habit of buying fresh flowers regularly. Maybe it’s a direct result of the mostly dreary weather there, but Seattleites go around buying flowers like Parisians buy baguettes.

As a city, Baltimore is not particularly floral. We tend to buy most of our flowers in connection with funerals or anniversaries, and even with a recent increase in the presence and awareness of urban gardening on public and private lots, the vast majority of that soil has been given over to vegetables. Flowerbeds in public parks and flower-potting in streetscapes remains minimal.

Daffodils look great in Cylburn Arboretum... or in your living room.

We grew up in a house where fresh flowers were seldom present. When they did appear indoors, they were always meant to sit in the same heavy crystal vase on the dining room table. Over time, they began to achieve the same effect as a Christmas tree; they were around to mark an occasion and they had a great effect when first placed there, but with each year that went by and each day they sat in the same spot they were just too easy to get used to, and were eventually overlooked almost entirely.

Now that we’ve got a house of our own with plenty of space to decorate we’re discovering that flowers are the best way to keep the home looking fresh as time passes. If the warm weather we’re enjoying recently has you thinking floral, here are a few tips to get the best of your buds.

  • Buy different flowers each time. Daisies are nice, but if all you ever buy are daisies, you might as well just buy a picture of some daisies and be done with it. You’re better off just going for whatever is in season, or whatever has been marked down for a quicker sale. This way you get variety without having to think too much about it.
  • Have a few different vases handy. It’s best to have about 1 vase for every room in your house where you might put flowers. If you have a studio with a kitchenette, 2 is enough. If you’ve got six rooms plus a good size bathroom and a screened porch, get as many as 8 vases. They don’t need to be expensive, and a few of them should be plain and understated for moving from room to room. (Thrift stores are a great source for plain vases.) Make sure the sizes and shapes are different to accommodate different flower varieties.
  • Flowers in each room, not every room. It’s just too much work to keep flowers trimmed and watered in every room at the same time. Keeping them in one room at a time minimizes work while maximizing appeal. Dress out the table for dinner guests, or put them in the bedroom on date night. Try to keep them in the room in which you’ll derive the most enjoyment from them in any given week.
  • Make buying flowers a habit. Perhaps no one loves flowers more than the Dutch, and in the Netherlands flowers have a regular spot on the shopping list next to bread and milk. We in Baltimore would do well to be on a first name basis with our neighborhood florists, or make the flower cart a regular stop on our weekly trips to the grocery store or farmers’ market.
  • Don’t be afraid to grow your own. It takes good timing, a little knowledge, a lot of work, and a bit of luck to grow flowers from seeds. If you’re not possessed of all of the above though, you can still grow flowers successfully, barring a garden-digging dog or any neighbor kids running roughshod over your yard. Nurseries and home improvement stores have thousands of types to choose from, and will be happy to help you find the best type for you. Most places even sell flowers in biodegradable, plantable pots keeping the work required at a minimum.
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The Do’s and Don’ts of Christmas Lights

We’re forgoing any Christmas decorations this year. Call it an austerity measure. Call it Grinching. Call it (most accurately) laziness. With the amount of traveling we do every year, and not knowing when we’ll next be home for the holidays, it didn’t seem prudent to invest time, effort and money in decorations that may not see the house-front again for another 3 or 4 years, especially with no wife or children to share in their enjoyment.

With Christmas just 10 days away, we’re guessing that everyone who’s going to decorate already has, so we may be a bit late with this, but we’re certainly not too late to judge the good, the bad, and the ugly as far as Christmas lights in Baltimore go.

We’ve noticed that the vast majority of inner-city rowhouse dwellers are disinclined to decorate at all, and most will only bother with a tree if there’s a Santa-aged kid in the house. It pains us to admit that the County’s got it all over us as far as decorating goes, but no matter which side of the city line you’re on, you can’t go wrong if you’ll follow our advice to the letter.

This house on Peacock Lane in Portland is a masterpiece of taste and understatement. It's warm, welcoming, and wonderful.

Do: Use white lights. When you light your house, the idea is to show off the house not the lighting itself. Colored lights have a way of clashing with each other, and with the features of most houses. With white lights, it’s nearly impossible to go wrong. They can be accented with small strands of red or green lights if you’re really craving a little color, but white effects the soft, warm glow that makes a home look most inviting in the dead of winter.

Do: Work with the symmetry of your house. If you’re going to light up the door, be sure to light up the full length window next to it. Any architectural features like gables or overhangs should be lit, otherwise you run the risk of an incomplete aesthetic. If you have an attached garage, that should be treated as part of the house as well.

Do: Understand that less is more. Resist the urge to compete with your neighbors or add just one more ‘finishing touch.’ Too many lights, wreaths, bows, etc. can go from festive to cluttered very quickly.

Do: Take note of what your neighbors and others are doing. If someone with a house style similar to yours gets it right, don’t be afraid to borrow some of their ideas. Just because you’ve always done it some specific way, doesn’t mean you can’t try something new this year.

Do: Place your tree in the front window. This isn’t mandatory, of course. Some people will want to set up their tree in a non-fronting room. If you’ve got the room and the right windows (bay windows, picture windows) placing the tree at the window will serve to bring the inside out a bit and make the whole effect that much more unified, cozy, and inviting.

Yes, there is actually someone's house under there.

Don’t: Buy any of those giant inflatable snowmen. Just look at the picture. Even with only one of those, your house is a considerable fraction of being that ugly. All those inflatables that light from the inside and require you to run an air compressor half the night are always, always, always tacky. The first Clark Griswold who ever bought one of those probably thought he was pretty clever, but now that Wal-Mart is moving them by the truckload in every town in America they look more ridiculous than ever.

Don’t:Put a bunch of wire statues all over the yard. All those little deer skeletons are junky and trite. One look at them and all we can think is “Welp, that’ll be in a landfill somewhere sooner or later.” That’s not the thought you want in your head at Christmas time. Also, along the same lines, we’d like to mention that we fully endorse natural wreaths and trees.

Don’t:Light deciduous trees. If you’ve got an evergreen, go ahead and light that. Most types of bushes and shrubs are good for lighting as well. Once they lose their leaves though, deciduous trees look dead and have no symmetry. Lights tend to look more like they’re tangled than neatly strung.

Finally Don’t: String all purple lights and football decorations. Christmas is supposed to be about the little baby Jesus. It’s not about the little baby Ray Lewis. Harbaugh, Reed, and Flacco are not the three wise men. The Yinzers in Pittsburgh may have a memorabilia-based economy, but as Baltimoreans, this kind of thing is beneath our dignity.

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How to Stock a Home Bar, Part 2

Welcome back, Choppers. In yesterday’s post we went over the problems with most bar-stocking advice at great length. Today we’re back to give you some solid advice on how to get started on building a bar that even Churchill himself would be proud of.

We told you yesterday that collecting 30 good bottles of liquor would not be as expensive or as difficult as one might imagine. Make no mistake though… it’s going to take a while. If you happen to have a large lump sum to blow on booze that’s all to the good. Most of you though, will be wanting to spread the cost out over time, by adding one or two bottles a week.

These posts make a couple of assumptions about you, Gentle Reader. They assume that if you’re going to acquire a piece of furniture for specific use as a bar or liquor cabinet, then you actually like to drink. We assume you’re the type who comes home from work and has three drinks to unwind, and then has a friend or a couple over on Saturday for four drinks. (And if anyone ever asks you how many drinks you’ve had, they’re an uncouth bastard. You will not answer with a number higher than 4 under any circumstance.) It assumes you know what you like and what your friends like, and that your tastes have evolved beyond your college years.

As we hinted before, we believe 30 bottles is the ideal number for the well stocked home bar. Any fewer might just leave you wanting for something particular in the wee hours. Any more will almost certainly gather dust and hang around way too long. Let us be very clear about this though; that 30 does not include wine. 90% Of bar guide books will suggest putting a few types of wine on your bar, and this is just plain wrong. Wine goes on the wine rack. We also assume that you own a wine rack.

This is pretty much what your weekends will look like with a proper bar in your house.

So with the wine out of the way, you can break down your 30 bottles into 7 different categories, which can be purchased individually in turn in the order of their utility. A hard and fast rule of bar stocking is this: Never return from the liquor store with a free hand. meaning that you should be buying at least 2 bottles at a time. One is the everyday bottle you went to the store to refill, and the other is stock to be put by for the future. In this way, in about 7 months of weekly trips to the liquor store, you should have a very well-supplied bar at home.

The Staples… 6 bottles.

These are what you definitely need to be shopping for first. They are the basic 6 liquors that you’ll find in any bar anywhere. They’re your everyday go-to’s, your speed rail, if you will. Whiskey, gin, vodka, brandy, rum and tequila. These don’t need to be very expensive at all, since you’re going to run through them. You do want to stick to name brands though. We’d recommend Jim Beam, Beefeater, Smirnoff, Bacardi, Cuervo, and Tariquet. (Which is actually Armagnac, but who cares? We like it and it makes a tasty Sidecar, so don’t be a nerd about it.) These are your minimums. You can adjust upwards as your taste and budget allows.

Variations… 8 Bottles

These are liquors of the same types as above, but of a slightly different type or a better quality. Example: One bottle of Cuervo might be plenty enough, but even though you like Beam okay, you still want to keep something better on hand like Buffalo Trace, as well as a good rye (Rittenhouse), 2 Scotches (Johnnie Walker and something in the $40-$50 range), a blend (Dickel) and an Irish (Tullamore Dew or Powers). You might even throw in a second gin and a dark rum.

Liqueurs… 6 Bottles.

These are going to be bottles that you use primarily as mellowing, sweetening, or flavoring agents in cocktails. They should be of at least the same quality as the base spirit, so do yourself a favor and stay away from the Mr. Boston and Bols shite down there on the bottom shelf. Six good choices would be: Kahlua, Cointreau, Domaine de Canton, St. Germain, Rumple Minze, and a Calvados or apple liqueur of some sort.

Vermouth… 2 Bottles.

Sweet red and dry white. You may think you can get by without them, but you can’t. Not even in the age of Red Bull. Smallish bottles of brand name stuff will pay dividends.

After Dinner Drinks… 2 bottles.

It’s handy to have something sweet on hand that you intend to drink one glass at a time. Nobody’s going to sit around and get drunk on sambucca, but sometimes it really hits the spot after a meal. Good choices in this category might be Pernod, Bailey’s, and Tia Maria.

Wild Cards… 4 bottles.

Use this category to fill in the gaps and experiment a bit. You might want to fill it up with more after dinner type drinks, or experiment with whatever catches your eye at the liquor store. At this point you’ve been collecting bottles for a while now, so you know what you’d like to try. You can also change it up once you empty a bottle.

Special Occasion Bottles… 2 Bottles.

These are your macho single malts and your VSOP or XO cognacs. Odds are you won’t even have to buy these bottles, as someone will likely notice you’ve built a hell of a bar, and may give you one as a gift. Likewise, they are what the name suggests. You’ll save them for a special occasion and share them as a gift with your guests for that occasion.

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You’ll need to round out the bar with mixers, maybe the two most important of which are bitters and simple syrup. get at least one bottle of bitters, and buy (or re-use) a dedicated bottle for simple syrup. you’re not going to be buying any of those pre-made gross grocery store mixers, so go ahead and boil some sugar. It’s really not hard.

For everything else, stick to small cans. You can skip whatever you’re in the habit of keeping in the fridge already. For instance, we usually have orange juice and ginger ale in the fridge at the Chophouse, so we don’t bother much with stocking bar sizes of it. You are going to want Coke, ginger ale, Sprite, club soda, tonic, OJ, cranberry, and the surprisingly versatile Minute Maid lemonade, as well as a can of tomato or v8 stashed way in the back just in case. We say experiment as much as you want with juice, but leave the flavored vodkas to the D.C. set.

The only other thing you’ll need is glassware. We swear by the double old-fashioned glass. It will in fact hold a nice double shot with room for sloshing if you’re drinking on the rocks, and is plenty big enough to build a highball in if you want some soda. It’s the only glass you’ll ever really need. If you have any room left, you might want to also go in for a decent set of cocktail glasses for serving drinks straight-up or neat. We recommend cocktail glasses without stems.

You won’t look or feel like Don Draper when you’re busy wiping that Negroni off your white sofa just because you wanted a set of “real martini glasses.”

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How to Stock a Home Bar, Part 1

As some of you may already know, we recently furnished our dining room here at the Chophouse. We’re exceedingly pleased with it, as it turned out looking and feeling even better than we thought it would. Thanks to the invention of the 180 degree flatscreen, we can even see the television from the head of the table, which means we might actually take meals in there more than once or twice a year.

Quite honestly; comparing furniture, installing lighting, trying to match napkins to placemats, and deciding from among thousands of paint colors can become a tedious chore after a while. There’s only been one step of the process which we’ve thoroughly enjoyed every step of the way… building the bar.

Every house should have a bar. Even if that house is a tent.

Well, not exactly. We already had a very serviceable home bar set up in the kitchen. But moving it into the dining room means it’s still a good opportunity to step things up an extra notch, and a good excuse to buy (and sample) a few new bottles.

As luck would have it, we also just picked up a copy of Jason Wilson’s Boozehound; On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits and after the first 60 pages or so, we’re finding it pretty good. It’s conversational in tone, and Wilson is someone we’d definitely have a drink with. Still, he manages to fall into the same traps that virtually all drink and cocktail writers fall into.

People who adopt drinking as a hobby are almost exclusively of two types: Nerds and Frat Boys. Frat Boys (of any age) are pretty much self explanatory. Cocktail Nerds are a little more nuanced.

There are several things that nerds of all stripes will have in common, and one of them is that if you ask a nerd a simple question, you will get a very complicated answer. Ask a Star Wars nerd on which planet the rebels hideout was, and you’re likely to get an answer which includes the prequels, a full explanation of the rebels guerrilla structure, and the particulars of the Lucasfilm soundstage in the 1970’s.

So it is with Cocktail Nerds. Even something as simple as “What goes into a Manhattan?” will earn you a lecture on the merits of rye whiskey vs. bourbon, the type and ratios of vermouth, a lesson on the prohibition era, and a full discourse on bitters. Plus a snarky remark about cherries. On top.

This is the exact pitfall that catches Wilson in his book. Open up any mixing guide or bartender’s bible and you’ve got to sort through scores of pages of ridiculous recipes featuring arcane ingredients, endangered brands and preposterous combinations. Even modern guides and books talk about things like egg whites, grenadine, and Lillet with a straight face. It’s 2010. When’s the last time you saw anyone drinking a cocktail with grenadine?

By the same token, these books, as well as virtually every website out there will give you just plain bad advice on how to stock your bar. Most of them will just assume that you’re going to have some kind of huge party (and that you have them all the time) and that you’re going to be wowing your guests with your extensive knowledge and skill on the history and practice of bartending. Give us a break! Even fairly social people are usually drinking alone when they’re at home. When company does come over, they usually come just a few people at a time. It’s rare to meet an adult who hosts more than 2 medium-to-large scale parties at home each year. One or none is the norm.

This is why the Chop knows people with cabinets full of wedding booze that gather dust years after the wedding; because they followed bad advice on bar stocking when they threw the biggest party of their lives.What should be a source of pleasure and a point of pride becomes little more than a dusty, clangy, expensive eyesore.

So tomorrow the Chop is going to explain exactly how to build an impressive home bar to suit your own tastes, without all the nerdistry. And when we say impressive, we mean it. By the time you’re done you’ll have 30 bottles. There will be no sour apple pucker, no ancient bottle of sherry to impress Grandma, and most importantly: no Red Bull.

The best part? Building a full bar is cheaper and easier than you think. Stay tuned.

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P.S.- If you want to read writers who manage to talk about drinking in an interesting, engaging, and entertaining way, check out our drinking blogs blogroll, especially Modern Drunkard, NY Barfly, and Boozeblogger.

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