Chain of Fools

As if the myriad hobbies I have weren't enough, I decided to take up crochet. Yeah...go ahead and laugh.

In last week's post, Short Attention Span Theater, I talked about my inspiration for doing crochet - creating yarn work in the round and amigurumi (the Japanese art of knitting or crocheting small stuffed animals and anthropomorphic creatures.) Lion Brand Yarns has a great weekly newsletter with patterns and tips and such. A couple of months ago, the patterns were these awesome handmade washcloths that are round and, of course, crocheted. Also, a couple of years ago, I impulsed purchased a book of amigurumi called Creepy Cute Crochet because, well, the patterns were creepy and cute. Note the word "crochet" in the title.

Lion Brand has awesome patterns
Creepy Cute Crochet
Seriously. So cute. And creepy.



So, I went to the library and got a few books out. Seven to be exact. Overkill? Maybe a bit. But I wanted to make sure my bases were covered. What I discovered was this:
  • Photos of actual hands crocheting seem to be easier to follow
  • Illustrations can be very difficult to understand
  • Nearly every "beginner crochet" book contains the same, basic instructions for making chains and doing your first rows of crochet
Any of these books can get you started so, in the end, it's really just a matter of taste.

I like Crochet: The Complete Guide by Jane Davis because it's a three-ring binder style so it lays flat while you're trying to learn. It also has excellent photos of various stitches so you know what it's supposed to look like (not what mine look like currently.)

I'm also fond of Beginner's Guide to Crochet by Pauline Turner because it uses photos of real hands and, after every stitch lesson, there's a simple pattern to employ that method.

Crocheting for Dummies is, like most "For Dummies" books, more information than anyone should ever need. However, I was VERY impressed with the quality of the content and the way the information was presented. If you, quite literally, knew nothing about yarn and yarn work, this book would be indispensable.

Who is that on the cover of "For Dummies"? Amy Poehler?

So, using my plethora of library books, I took a my first tentative steps into crocheting. I feel really awkward and I'm having a lot of trouble with tension. For your enjoyment, I've posted a couple of videos of me trying to crochet. Think of it as watching a baby horse taking its first steps - wobbly and silly.

One fun thing to note: check out how I'm making the chain. It's kind of like binding off in knitting. This is what happens when we mix disciplines. Also, I'm pretty sure that I'm doing the yarn-over in the wrong direction.

video
video
 
I'm sure all you crocheters out there are going to be shaking your head and laughing. Just know, I'm laughing right along with you. And, I plan on being able to make that washcloth before too long. 

- Alex

PS - Cassandra and I went to lunch today and we worked on crocheting a bit. Thought you might enjoy this image:

Embroidery School: Lesson 2

We covered the basic tools we need a couple weeks ago so now it's time to talk about the most fun part of embroidery...the floss (the colorful thread for the newbies out there).

You can buy floss at any big-box department store or small needlework shop.
The big box stores generally carry the workhorse brand DMC. Now, don't let the workhorse mislead you! DMC makes a luxurious (100% cotton) product and it is what I use 90% of the time. Most independent needlework stores carry it as well along with smaller, boutique brands such as Weeks Dye Works.

How much you spend on floss depends on your budget. (This is where I tell you the good news.) Overall, floss is seriously affordable. You will only spend about $1 for a skein of DMC, but it does go up from there when you are looking at the hand-dyed varieties. But, much like the other tools I talked about, I advise beginners to start with the less expensive. You will have a lot more fun if you aren't so worried about wasting money during your learning curve.

Once you get comfortable with embroidery, you can experiment with alternative threads such as linen, ribbon, etc. There are a lot of fun supplies out there from companies like Purl Soho.

Each section of embroidery floss pulls apart into 6 strands of thread.
(hand-modeling by Troy!)
Once you get your cotton floss in hand, you will notice that each little yarn-like rope consists of 6 strands of thread. (Hence the term, 6 strand embroidery floss.) These strands are meant to be split apart and used as a single thread, double, triple, etc. Most times, 3 strands is what you want to use. For instance, in our Woodland Pattern Series all stitches are to be made with 3 strands unless otherwise specified. By varying up the thickness of the thread, you can create depth the same way you do with different stitches. It's another way I like to experiment with design in this medium.

Speaking of design....this is another topic I wanted to cover today. There are many design options out there that suit many tastes. Whether your aesthetic is modern, 40's-50's retro, Victorian, country, Sesame Street...there is something out there for you. I have used coloring books for templates, pre-printed fabric, my own drawings, templates from other designers...there are so many places to get designs. The trick is to have the design suit the project. For instance, you may not want to embroider a densely stitched flower on a light flour sack dishtowel. That would be better for something like the hem of a skirt, or a pillow front. I have a vision of making a quilt with embroidered blocks...let's just throw that on my list of things I want to accomplish!

Right now I am in the throes of designing the Woodland Patterns Series. I am having a ball dreaming these up. Design 2 will be released this Monday. (Keep an eye out for a fun little critter that lives in trees!) I have also updated our first design "Hare" to include directions, color chart, and stitch guide at the request of readers. From now on, all of our patterns will include these basics designed especially for people new to this craft. It aligns with our goal to try to encourage as many people as possible to get out of their comfort zones and try their hand at a new technique.

A peek at Monday's new pattern!
As always, we invite you to send us comments or questions regarding our tutorials or patterns. Thanks!

–Cassandra

Short Attention Span Theater



In the early '90's, there was an hilarious show on Comedy Central called Short Attention Span Theater. I remember it as being hosted by comedian (now political pundit) Marc Maron. I read online that Jon Stewart hosted it for a while as well. Funny that they both ended up doing political commentary. But I digress...

I love the title "Short Attention Span Theater". It invokes all that we are here at Mighty Distractible - and specifically, what I intend to deliver to you today.

Act 1 - Books

I'm currently reading two books at once. You're probably thinking, "Well, of course you are! That's what people with ADD do!" But, in my case, I usually can't focus on more than one book at a time. However, while I was waiting for my book-club book to download to the Kindle, I started reading another book that had been sitting there for a while taunting me. Turns out that both books are AWESOME and I don't want to delay reading either. The only reason that this unfocused reading is sort-of working for me is that both books are so VERY different.

The Hunger GamesThe book that keeps tearing me from my book-club read is Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I bought it because everyone I knew was reading it and loving it but, until I opened the book up the other day, I knew absolutely nothing about the plot. It's a real page-turner with an enthralling story and compelling characters. I had heard rumors that the movie version is already in production which, to my mind, says a lot about the popular appeal of a novel.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the VoidMy book-club book is Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life In The Void by Mary Roach. I think that this book could be the best-written non-fiction book I've ever read. It's funny and compelling and makes you want to be an astronaut - or not. I'm amazed at the author's ability to bring the technology and science of the world's space programs to us in such an accessible way. Mary Roach is a marvel of a writer and I can't wait to read more of her work - specifically, Stiff - The Curious Life of Human Cadavers!

Act 2 - Cooking

Recently, I figured out how to use my ice cream maker and I discovered that sorbet consists of three basic ingredients: sugar, water, and flavor (usually fruit). As a result, I've been on a sorbet making binge. This is a binge so bad that I think I may actually have broken my ice cream maker yesterday.

I've made two batches of blackberry sorbet (from the berries in my yard), two batches of pear/white wine sorbet, one batch of melon sorbet (which, if I make again, will become melon/cucumber sorbet), and one batch of "mojito" sorbet (which is really just fresh-squeezed lime and processed mint from my yard).

My experiments have had varying degrees of success. With batch #1 of blackberry sorbet, I learned the value of straining the pureed blackberries to remove the seeds. With batch #1 of pear/white wine, I learned that it's best to add the wine at the end or you lose all the flavor. The nice thing is that even the "mistakes" are pretty awesome to eat.

Cuisinart ICE-21 Frozen Yogurt-Ice Cream & Sorbet MakerSo, here are my easy-to-follow instructions for making sorbet in a Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker:

Make some simple syrup by melting a measure of sugar in twice as much water (2 cups water + 1 cup sugar, for example)
Cool the simple syrup to at least room temperature (better if you refrigerate it over night)
Puree some fruit (use a little simple syrup or other liquid to help with the puree-ing) until you have 1.5 cups of liquid
Mix 1.5 cups of simple syrup with 1.5 cups of fruit puree and add it to the ice cream maker following the manufacturer's instructions
Let it run for about 20 minutes. The "final" product should be the consistency of slushie. Spoon the slushie into a container and put in the freezer for about 2 hours. Voila! You have sorbet!

If you want to add other bits - some wine or bits of fruit - add these for the last 5-10 minutes of processing in the ice cream maker.

Act 3 - Crocheting

I know... Like I don't have enough hobbies already... I'm trying to take up crochet.

Last week I went to the library and took out a BUNCH of books on beginning crochet. I'm fascinated by the ability to work yarn in a circle. And I want to do amigurumi which is nearly always done with crochet.

 So far, I've done two chains and played around with a couple of stitch styles. I feel like I did when I first learned to knit - completely uncoordinated and spazzy. My stitches are wildly uneven and my tension is awful. But, I'm going to stick with it because I'm determined to make round washcloths. And funny little stuffed toys.

Perhaps on Friday I'll regale you with my crocheting prowess as a full blog post.

Epilogue - Blame It On Summer

I have a hard time focusing in the summer. I can't sit still for any length of time - especially if it's sunny and decent weather. So, I find myself bouncing from one project to the next, never quite completing anything. At least with the book-club book, I have a deadline.

Stay busy!

- Alex

Me and Madelintosh

It has been hot as hell here (see Monday's post) and yet I have had a lot of yarn in my hands. The central air does help, but I think I may have continued to work on my new sweater without it. Yes I said MY! I am knitting for myself...yeah! Mine, mine, mine.

It started as a twinkle in my eye.
The yarn I bought on a recent trip to Chicago is fast becoming a Tea Leaves Cardigan. Well, pretty fast. I have knit the yoke (this is a top-down sweater) and am currently wading through 13 inches of stockinette. Ugh. What is getting me through this mindless knitting is the amazing fabric the Madelinetosh is creating. It drapes, has a medium weight, and a soft texture...the finished garment is going to be incredibly versatile.


On each row I am alternating between two balls to avoid pooling.
 The Madelinetosh knits up like butta. I will be straight with you, when I bought this yarn I had some sticker-shock. I wondered if it was worth it. (I mean really, I've made some beautiful stuff with $7/skein Cascade 220. ) Oh my, I've learned that you get what you pay for with this yarn. It has it all, stitch definition, rich color, a firm twist...I repeat, butta. I don't want to love something so pricey, but I'm afraid it's too late.

Love!
And so far, I am really digging the Tea Leaves cardigan pattern. It has been very easy to read and fun to knit. If this sweater fits well when finished, I will be one happy girl. I will even go so far as to say that it would be a great "first-sweater" project for those who have never tackled one before. (You know who you are.)

Between the yarn and the "friendly" pattern, I am having a great time with this project. It is one of those that I get obsessed about finishing. With so many other projects on my plate, I keep picking up the needles and soldiering through the stockinette. Now, I need everyone to pray for some cool weather so I can wear the sucker when it's done!



Have a great weekend!

–Cassandra

Garden 2.0

For three seasons of the year (all the ones that aren't buried in snow), I like to talk about gardening. You may have noticed. I've posted about it a few times.

Lest you think I'm all talk and no action, let me assure you that, each year, I (eventually) get a garden in. And I really enjoy the fruits of my labor - until it gets too cold to cultivate anything in my tiny, northern backyard.

Each year I put in old favorites like basil and arugula and, each year, I try a few new things. This year, my favorite new item is malabar spinach. It's a slightly viscous leaf - thicker than the spinach we're used to - but the plant vines up the fence and is really prolific. I love vertical farming because it takes up so much less space! Any space-saving gardening scheme is right up my alley (see: "square foot" gardening).
Which brings me to the point of today's post - gardening for maximum efficiency and output.

Cassandra always teases me about loving everything in miniature. It's true - as a rule, if something is extra-small, I generally like it better. But I think the core reason I like small things is because they're efficient. My dogs weight 10lbs and 7lbs. I can bathe both dogs in the sink in under 10 minutes. They eat less and take up a lot less space. This is super-efficient.

With gardening, you can certainly choose smaller versions of plants, such as my dwarf cherry tree or globe basil, in order to be efficient. But, there are much better ways of maximizing yield with minimal space - both in theory and in practice.

In theory:

Today, I found an article about a Dutch design firm that conceived of a rooftop sustainable gardening model that they're calling "Polydome".  Basically, this is a self-sustaining ecosystem that can be built on rooftops in major metropolitan areas. Theoretically, at its peak, the Polydome can produce 15 pounds of food per square foot - and that includes fruit, vegetables, eggs, and fish. A single Polydome is designed to last 30 years and has small-farm commercial viability with high-yield items such as herbs and mushrooms.

The Polydom (I want to live here)

In practice:

Something akin to the Polydome is being practiced in downtown Milwaukee right now. I've written about Growing Power before but the place always deserves another mention.

The Growing Power Urban Farm is self-sustainable, uses everything it produces (fish poo becomes fertilizer, for example), and produces a big yield in a small space. From their website: 
In a space no larger than a small supermarket live some 20,000 plants and vegetables, thousands of fish, and a livestock inventory of chickens, goats, ducks, rabbits, and bees. 
I toured this facility and, let me tell you, the worm composter alone is worth the trip. Or maybe the fish tanks with the recycled water that's used to feed the plants that are planted above it. It's just a marvel all the way around.

Will Allen - founder of Growing Power - on the farm

When it's all said and done, I'm just glad that someone is thinking about (and doing) this kind of gardening today. I'd like to believe that the small farm will rise again and that we'll all start respecting and improving upon the agricultural cycle in a way we haven't for decades. And, frankly, I'd really rather eat locally produced, considerate food than, say, a tomato that was grown in a hot house, picked before ripe, and shipped half-way across the continent so I can have a slice on my sandwich. That well-traveled tomato just ain't worth it.

- Alex

Hot as Hades

According to me, we are living in hell. (FYI, anything over 90 degrees is hell.) This means that I did a lot of activities indoors this weekend. I am a big baby.

Central Air = Best Friend

With all this time indoors this weekend, you would think that I might have cleaned a room or two. Nope. I was in the mood for fun. And that means my hands are busy making.

Girls who sit and knit in the central air make progress on their sweaters!
I will admit, the one thing that did drag me outdoors this weekend was the cherries at the farmer's market. They are finally in season and...oh lordy, they were worth the trip in the heat. With cherries-a-plenty at my house and hot temperatures, I decided to make some cherry ice cream.

A love, love, love the bing cherries.
Simple vanilla ice cream with cherries mixed in. A recipe with just a few ingredients to keep it as light as possible. I poured over a few of my books and distilled down a basic recipe.

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Cherry Ice Cream
1 cup whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1-1/2 tbsp vanilla extract
2 cups of quartered pitted cherries

Combine milk, cream and sugar in a bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. (I use a whisk, but be careful because you don't want to stir too vigorously or you will make whip cream!) Add the vanilla.

Place your mixture in the ice cream maker and let it go for about 10 minutes. Then, add the cherries. Let the ice cream maker do it's job until you have ice cream. (For me, it was another 20 minutes.) Transfer to a covered container and place in the freezer for at least 4 hours.

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Ice cream action.
During the ice cream-a-thon, there was also knitting, sewing, and drawing. It was a good (self-indulgent) weekend.

Little boys need Snoopy pajamas!
–Cassandra

Andiamo, amici!



For as long as I can remember, I've wanted a vintage Vespa scooter.

Years ago, when I was really, really poor, I'd longingly look at pictures of old Vespas and think, "if I only had the money..."  Then, when I had a big-girl salary, I started to think, "if I could only save enough money, maybe someday". Then, a few years ago, I actually started looking at them in earnest - realizing that I could probably swing the money if I didn't blow my tax return on something stupid like bills.

For about four or five summers I've trolled the Internet for restored Vespas, hoping that the right one would fall in my lap. Unfortunately, I'd done a lot of research and I found that most of the "restored" scooters online were Frankenstein monsters - cobbled-together parts from various models and years. So, I started looking for people who did restorations so I could actually control what I got.

It was quite an adventure, let me tell you.

To cut to the chase, I ended up going with a restorer in Vietnam. Vespa purists will now be screaming their heads off because, from what I've read, the Vietnamese restorations are often pretty badly done and they are generally jazzed up with a bunch of extra chrome that was not found on original Vespas. However, I liked the guy I was dealing with, he provided a number of references that turned out to be very good, and he has been nothing but professional since day one. And the icing on the cake is that the entire bill, including shipping, was $1,500 less than what I would have paid for a similar quality restoration in the U.S.

By the time I was ready to send him a down payment, I knew (pretty much) what I wanted. My preference is for the older VBB models - these were built from 1958 through 1967 and have the bicycle-seat shaped seat with the pillion for a rider. I wanted the spare tire mounted in the front well as they were originally (many restorations replace the front-mounted spare with a glove box). And, I wanted a front and rear rack so I could tote stuff - like my dogs in a basket. What I didn't know was what color I wanted and, let me tell you, that ended up being the hardest decision of them all.

The issue was that I could have, quite literally, any color I could conceive of. So, as I thumbed through the Pantone color book, every other swatch appealed to me for one reason or another. I vacillated between variations of yellow, blue, green, and even orange. In the end, I settled on two colors - a beautiful light greenish-blue (Pantone 331c) or an olive and cream two-tone paint job. Cassandra offered up these words of wisdom, "You want to feel like you're on holiday every day you ride it" which sealed the deal for the green.


 I also changed my mind about 10 times regarding the seat covers... but that's another story of frustration.

The scooter is on a freighter headed for Los Angeles now. Once it's on American soil it will be transferred to a truck that will deliver it to the Milwaukee customs office. I expect it will be delivered in about a week. And I can barely contain myself, I'm so excited.

My 1961 Vespa VBB (with floor mats for some reason...)

You know those "bucket lists" everyone talks about? Well, I get to check one off mine now. I highly recommend fulfilling a wish... It's a great feeling.

- Alex

Embroidery School: Lesson 1

As promised, I'm going to talk some more about the technical side of embroidery. Please be aware that I'm a self-taught needle worker. I have no credentials from a prestigious school, but I am an avid reader and researcher (hell, lets just say obsessive). The bits of knowledge that I have picked up over the years has allowed me to create some fun embroidered objects for my home.


Lets start with 3 basic tools:


Fabric
100% Cotton quilter's fabric, flour sack, muslin, or light linen are great places to start. These more open-weave fabrics accept embroidery stitches with ease. Plus, these fabrics are so versatile. They can be made into wall art, pillow fronts, quilt blocks, clothes, dish towels, etc.

A basic white muslin is the perfect blank canvas.
Denim and wool felt are also fun fabrics to embroider. Their natural stiffness lets you embroider without much danger of puckering.

Check out this wool felt embroidered toddler cape. Those embroidered Hindi deities are most excellent!!
You can spend a lot of money on fabric, or not. Really, it depends on the project you're making. I tend to buy the best I can afford at the time. The way I figure it, you're putting a lot of time into something...why not make it built to last. And if you're planning on embroidering a heavy pattern on a thinner material such as quilter's cotton, you might want to add a stabilizer to prevent puckering. These come with all sorts of options. Tear away, iron-on, water-soluble, etc. I have even backed a piece of quilter's cotton with a thin basic muslin and stitched through both layers. It worked great! But, if you're a beginner you might want to consider simple patterns that don't need stability to start. It will be easier.

Hoops
A hoop is used to pull you fabric taught so that the tension of your stitches will be uniform. I can't imagine trying to embroider a piece of cotton without a hoop.

Look at the pretty wood hoops!

There are some really beautiful wood hoops out there. Maybe one day I will buy one...or I will continue to use "old trusty" (aka my 7" plastic hoop I've had for the last 20 years). I have no idea where it was purchased (I am guessing a variety store) and I'm sure it was cheap, but I can't justify tossing it. Still a functional item, it holds my work tight through all my crafty adventures.

From what I've read and experienced first hand, the 5" and 7" sizes are the most versatile. As a beginner, investing in one of these sizes will give you the ability to tackle lots of projects.

Some folks like to wrap their smaller, inner hoop with twill tape. This protects the fabric and previous stitches. It is personal preference. And on the subject of protection... never, never, never, leave your work in the hoop when you are not working on it. From my experience, you will get deep creases and crushed stitches. Bad idea.

Needles
An embroidery needle is much like a regular hand-sewing needle. The difference is that the eye is a bit larger (to accommodate threading floss) and they are quite sharp. These can be purchased in different thicknesses depending on the floss and fabric you have chosen. It is pretty self-explanatory once you have a pack of them in front of you.

Clover No. 3-9 Gold Eye Embroidery Needles, Pack of 16
A basic pack of embroidery needles.

The type of needlework you are doing will require different sorts of needles. Crewel, tapestry, and embroidery needles are quite specific for their functions. When doing embroidery, you want to choose a needle packaged specifically for that task.

My goal with these posts on the tools and techniques of embroidery is to help take out the mystery of how to get started if you are new to this craft. I truly hope this information is useful. Please feel free to leave a comment or send us an email with questions on these tutorial posts.

Next time, I will discuss floss and design options. Have a great week!

Embroidery Lesson 2 is now available! Click here.

–Cassandra


Cold Treats

The heat of the summer can really kill an appetite. As a result, finding the right thing to eat for dinner is often a real chore.

In today's post, I share a few of my favorite summer-time recipes that are quick to make, don't heat up the kitchen too badly (or at all), and are great on a hot day.

Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at HomeWhatever you decide to eat, the best dessert is ice cream! I'm a huge fan of Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream from Ohio. She just published a cookbook of her most popular flavors - in case you're feeling ambitious and want to make your own. Stay cool!


 - Alex




Cold Cucumber Soup

When your cucumber vines are overflowing, this versatile and easy soup is a great way to use them up. Get creative and experiment with the ingredients to get the flavor profile you prefer. I've provided some suggested options below.

recipe serves 4

2 medium to large cucumbers - peeled, seeded, and course-chopped
2 cups of plain yogurt
Mint or dill - depending on which flavor you prefer
optional - 1/2 cup of either buttermilk or sour cream depending on which flavor you prefer
optional - scallions, chives, or sweet onion (finely chopped) - reserve a bit for garnish
Salt and pepper

Put the chopped cucumbers and the mint or dill (and scallions/chives/onion if you're using that) in a blender and puree. In a separate bowl, combine the yogurt, buttermilk or sour cream (if using either), and the salt and pepper. Mix well. Fold in the cucumber puree being careful not to overwork the mixture. Chill for about an hour. Serve cold with some chives/scallions/diced onion or a  mint/dill sprig as a garnish. Pairs nicely with a heavier salad, like potato or macaroni.

Cold Tuna Salad

An extremely simple, cold version of a tuna-noodle casserole, the minimal ingredient list belies the wonder of this salad. It's just right when you want something that fills you up but doesn't compete with the summer heat. You'll find yourself eating this over and over again.

recipe serves a lot

1 large can of white (albacore) tuna packed in water
1 box of elbow noodles
1 medium to large red onion (vidalia will work as well) diced finely
Mayonnaise
Salt and pepper
(optional: some fresh, uncooked sweet peas are a nice addition if you have them)

Cook the box of macaroni until al dente (usually about 15 minutes - follow the box directions). Drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. Let the macaroni stand in the colander for a minute to drain off as much water as possible. Transfer macaroni to a bowl. Drain the tuna and stir into the macaroni. Stir in the chopped red onion. Add mayonnaise, salt and pepper to taste. Serve right away. After storing leftovers in the refrigerator, you may find that you need to refresh the dish with a little more mayonnaise before serving.


Caprese Salad

I love going to the Farmers' Market and getting the really interesting heirloom tomatoes. And, my favorite thing to do with them is make Caprese Salad. Everyone's seen a traditional Caprese - slices of tomato with a bit of mozzarella and basil on top - but I like mine to be more of a meal.

recipe serves 6

2-3 cups of large-diced tomatoes (use any fleshy variety, including cherry tomatoes!)
1 cup of medium diced fresh mozzarella cheese (you can also use those little marble-sized balls and not even cut them up)
10 leaves of basil - chiffonaded (rolled up and cut into very thin strips)
A large bunch of arugula
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar

Whisk together the olive oil and vinegar. Set aside. Mix the tomatoes, cheese, and basil together. Cover with the dressing. Serve the tomato mixture on top of a bed of arugula.