23 October 2013

Yes, you can buy cabinetry online

Say you’re working with a design-only designer on a kitchen renovation. Say that said designer puts together a plan to end all plans. A plan that takes efficiency and good taste to levels previously unimagined. Then what?

Since the lion’s share of kitchen design involves cabinetry, what do you do with a set of completed plans? How do you get from paper to a room you can cook in?

Well, one really simple way is by taking the plans you have and generating a list of components if your designer hasn't done that already. With that list you can go to a website like Cliq Studios, and place an order. There are a number of websites out there that’ll allow you to fulfill a cabinet order. A few more such sites are The Cabinet Factory, Kitchen Resource Direct and Kitchen Cabinet Depot. If you’re a homeowner buying cabinetry for the first time, each of those sites have staffed, toll-free numbers to hold your hand through the process.

These sites are set up to allow just about anyone to order semi-custom cabinetry. You choose the components you need in the dimensions you need them from an interactive catalog, just about the same way any industry professional does.

Ordering cabinetry is complicated but it needn't be overwhelming. There are a lot of parts to consider and to take into account but if your needs aren't too complex and you’re diligent in your approach, ordering cabinetry online may be the answer you’re looking for.

Explore the sites before you make a final decision though. Look for testimonials and look for details and descriptions about how the cabinetry’s constructed. Check to see where the cabinetry’s manufactured and for how long it’s warranted. Buying online is like buying anywhere. Ask a lot of questions and kick the tires as best you can before you take a leap.

Many online suppliers sell what are called RTA cabinets. RTA means flat-packed and ready to assemble. Be sure you’re up to the added labor if you buy RTAs and if the site doesn't define that term clearly, don’t buy from there. Similarly, look for details about the types of hardware used for hinges and drawer guides. If that information’s not listed on the site, call the 800 number. Good value kitchen cabinetry isn't just in the finish. It’s the hardware used that makes them last.

See too if they have a sample ordering program and what if any the charge is to get samples. Seeing color accurately on the internet is impossible, absolutely impossible and you have to see the actual product if you’re going to get an accurate preview of how things will look in your home. Again, if the site you’re on doesn’t have samples available or if they charge you for them, leave that site.

As you navigate the sites, look for endorsement logos from other entities. Such entities as HGTV and DIY Network don’t let fly by night organizations use their logos and only legitimate suppliers can be members of the NKBA.

Some sites have budgeting tools that will help you in your planning too. This tool from Cliq Studios is particularly helpful. Use budgeting tools as you plan and to help you keep a handle on costs as you move ahead on your project.

If you’re a design-only designer have you ever recommended an online resource to your clients? And if you’re a homeowner, have you ever used one of these suppliers? In either case, how was your experience? What advice do you have for someone who’s considering an online cabinetry purchase? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear some stories.

02 October 2013

Two hour baguettes? Hmmmm.

Here are two of my usual baguettes. I should put baguettes in quotes because technically, they're not baguettes. I say they're better but that's just me.

Anyhow, I've been on a tomato sauce kick of late and it's been brought on by my frantic attempts to keep up with the truckloads of tomatoes that've been ripening over the last few weeks. Who knew that five tomato plants could crank out this much fruit?

So last night at about five I decided I would make spaghetti for supper. I'd made the sauce earlier but pasta's not pasta without fresh bread but it was already late so what to do?

I decided to consult my kitchen oracle, Mark Bittman from The Times to see if he had any down and dirty (and fast) bread recipes. I found one for Fast French Bread.

Admittedly, I was skeptical when I read that someone could make real bread in two hours. I've been baking bread for years and it's always a process that takes me at least two days to complete. Why two days? To let the yeast do its thing and yield a loaf that tastes like bread, that's why. I had a feeling that rushing this would leave me with something that tasted like Wonderbread and I was right, but at least it was bread.

Here's Bittman's recipe:

Fast French Bread or Rolls
Makes: 3 or 4 baguettes, 1 boule, or 12 to 16 rolls

Time: About 2 hours, largely unattended

This bread can be made by hand or with an electric mixer, but the food processor is the tool of choice and will save you tons of time. Recipe from How to Cook Everything.

  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose or bread flour, plus more as needed
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast

1. Put the flour in a food processor. Add the salt and yeast and turn the machine on; with the machine running, pour about a cup of water through the feed tube. Process until the dough forms a ball, adding a tablespoon more water at a time until it becomes smooth; if the dough begins sticking to the side of the bowl, you’ve added too much water. No harm done: add 1/4 cup or so of flour and keep going. You’re looking for a moist, slightly shaggy but well-defined ball. The whole process should take about 30 seconds, and it will once you get good at it. If the dough is too dry, add water 1 tablespoon at a time and process for 5 or 10 seconds after each addition. If it becomes too wet, add another tablespoon or two of flour and process briefly.

2. Dump the lump of dough into a large bowl or simply remove the blade from the processor bowl and leave the dough in there. Either way, cover with a plastic bag or plastic wrap and let sit for at least an hour at room temperature.

3. Use a small strainer or your fingers to dust a little flour onto a counter or tabletop. Shape the dough as you like, into small loaves, one big one, baguettes, or rolls, sprinkling with flour as necessary but keeping the flour to a minimum. Heat the oven (with a pizza stone and/or a pan filled with rocks if you have them) to 400°F while you let the breads or rolls rise, in a cloth if you like, covered with a towel.

4. When you are ready to bake, slash the top of each loaf once or twice with a razor blade or sharp knife. If the dough has risen on a cloth, slide or turn it onto floured baking sheets or gently move it onto a lightly floured peel, plank of wood, or flexible cutting board, then slide the bread directly onto a pizza stone. Or you can bake on lightly oiled baking sheets. Turn the heat down to 375°F.

5. Bake until the crust is golden brown and the internal temperature of the bread is at least 210°F (it can be lower if you plan to reheat the bread later) or the loaves sound hollow when tapped. Remove, spray with a bit of water if you would like a shinier crust, and cool on a wire rack.


So I started with Bittman's recipe and changed around a couple of things as I flew through it. His instructions call for using a food processor and as I thought this through it made some kind of sense. A food processor used the way he did would incorporate all of the ingredients quickly but I was concerned that it wouldn't work the dough enough to get the gluten to form the correct structure.

When I pulled my dough out of the food processor it didn't feel right so I floured up my breadboard and kneaded it until it did. if you're new to bread baking, the whole idea of properly kneading bread until it "feels right" is maddening, or at least it was for me. Save yourself a whole lot of trouble if you're new at this and ask someone who does bake to have you over the next time he bakes bread so you can learn in person how to knead. Of course I never did this and was left to curse the darkness for about six months until I figured it out.

So after I'd kneaded it, I turned the dough into an oiled bowl and covered it with a wet dishcloth. An hour later I formed my loaves, sprayed them with oil instead of water and salted them because I didn't think the recipe called for enough salt.

They turned out passibly though I don't think they made a convert out of me. It's true the bread was done in less than two hours and unfortunately it tasted like it. There wasn't any real depth or nuance but since I was using it later to sop up tomato sauce it didn't really matter a whole lot.

The texture was OK and again I think I salvaged that with a good knead. I wonder how this would have turned out had I followed the instructions as written. The world may never know.

But at the end of the day I baked bread from scratch on a weeknight and proved that it's possible I suppose. It also gave me another excuse to beat with my shoe the next person I hear rationalize a poor diet of convenience foods with the excuse that he's has no time to cook.

So give this one a try sometime, you have nothing to lose. The best part of being a baker is that even mistakes taste good.

01 October 2013

The Affordable Care Act and you

It's here at long last. Though the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has been the law of the land since March 23, 2010 today marks the day when most people will notice the sea change it ushered in. Despite the fact that one of our political parties has been having a tantrum about it since the presidential election of 2008, despite that same party's willingness to shut down the Federal Government and sabotage the economy rather acknowledge the fact that Barack Obama is the President and despite the fact that same party's been hijacked by it's own lunatic fringe, the health insurance marketplaces are open for business.

So what does that mean precisely? Well with the help of Fran Berkman at Mashable and the Kaiser Family Foundation, here's a breakdown.

Whether or not you agree with the country's new health care policy, you should understand how it works. Here are a few things you need to know to get started.

The law is scheduled to take effect fully on Jan. 1, 2014. You can begin shopping and signing up for plans through the online marketplace starting today but the earliest a plan will take effect is Jan. 1. The enrollment period for 2014 lasts until March 31.

For subsequent years, the enrollment period will be open from Oct. 15 until Dec. 7. With few exceptions, these are the only time periods during which you can register for plans through the online marketplace.

Technically, using the health insurance marketplaces is available to everyone lawfully living in the U.S. The online marketplace is targeted at those who do not get insurance through their employers, but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. The new law actually expands eligibility for Medicaid, and Medicaid rules vary by state. Your state's health insurance marketplace website will help you figure out whether you qualify. Alternatively, even if you do receive insurance through your employer, you can still use your state's online marketplace — though you're unlikely to find a better deal.

The "personal mandate" to have insurance means you will be charged a fee if you're uninsured for more than three months in a calendar year. The penalty, which increases each year, starts at $95 in 2014 or 1% of your yearly income — whichever is higher. If you choose to pay the fee, you do so when filing your tax returns. You may be exempt from paying this fee if you meet one of several conditions (listed here).

Residents of most states can find their online marketplace at HealthCare.gov. For residents of 16 states and the District of Columbia, however, there are state-specific websites. A "Get State Information" drop-down menu sits toward the bottom of this page and will instruct you where to find information based on where you live. Again, the main HealthCare.gov website will direct you via links to anywhere you need to go to research and buy a health insurance plan.

Prepare most of your personal documents for reference, specifically financial records. Since the law varies depending on your income, you will most likely need your recent tax returns and pay stubs.

The plans are divided into four tiers based on cost and level of coverage: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. The government will subsidize your health care with a tax credit if your yearly income is less than four times the poverty level.

The health care-focused Kaiser Family Foundation created the calculator below to help you figure out whether you are eligible for subsidies.

Remember that everyone is protected equally under the new law, meaning you can't be charged more due to gender or medical history. Additionally, you cannot be denied coverage due to any pre-existing conditions and your insurer cannot drop your policy after you file a claim. Although plans vary in level of coverage, all plans must cover 10 "essential health benefits" — including ambulatory services, emergency services, hospitalization, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance use disorder services and more. While this part of the law took effect in 2010, remember that young people can stay on their parents' insurance plans until age 26.

For more information, the Kaiser Family Foundation has a number of resources on its website, or go straight to the source by visiting HealthCare.gov.