Monday, November 30, 2009

Picket Fence

Finally, our picket fence is here!

It was fascinating watching it put up. Things snapped together and fit in precut sockets like giant Tinkertoys.

The oddball little corner bit looks just fine:

The little gate near the hot-colored roses is taking shape here:

Here's the side that runs up the edge of the driveway:

The too-short cinderblock-and-brick wall we share with the neighbors now is capped with a crisp line of pickets:

The white pickets look terrific against the green grass!

Now all we need is fifty bajillion roses.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My Thanksgiving Retrospective

The lovely holiday of giving thanks is over. The guests have returned home. The leftovers are tucked in the fridge. Now we have our memories, and some photos of a wonderful gathering.

I hope to stay aware of our blessings, and to keep an attitude of thankfulness, for days and days to come.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Food Trends

We're up to our eyeballs over here in turkey, stuffing, roasted veggies, and bottles of wine. Definitely no time to document our meal step-by-step, but I did want to take a moment and share a very cool graphic from the New York Times that shows where in the country people are searching for thanksgiving-related foods. The big surprise to me was pie crust: do people in the southeast search for pie crust recipes less often because they're buying pre-made frozen crusts, or do they already have family recipes and a cultural knowledge of how to make a good pie crust? More data makes more questions, as my father would point out.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dreaming of Aprons

It's Day #1 of my prepping-for-Thanksgiving drill. Today I'm drawing up "to do" lists, setting the dining-room table, and knocking out some of the early, do-ahead cooking, like making cranberry sauce and corn bread for the stuffing.

I'm a messy--make that an enthusiastic--cook. When I'm in the kitchen, flour falls on the floor, sauces drip on the countertops, and invariably whatever I'm wearing gets smeared.

Enter the apron. Currently most of my aprons are the no-nonsense, chef's-type: a loop around the neck, ties that encircle the waist, and a single panel of fabric that falls roughly from collarbone to kneecaps.

My aprons are practical, rugged, and sort of blah. Except for one. A few years back, Daughter #2 gave me a wonderful chef's apron emblazoned with a photocopy of my pugs' faces. It's beyond adorable.

But Woman can't survive on one adorable apron alone. Not this Woman, anyway, who dons an apron six or seven days a week.

Lately I've been dreaming about cute aprons. Vintage aprons. Or those that look vintage. And of course, polka-dot aprons.

Oh, they're out there, folks. Here are some of my faves. Here's the "Victory Full Apron" from StitchthruTime:

Ya think the fact that I love this apron might have something to do with the seafoam-green storage cabinet and the vintage canisters on top? Yeahhhhh.

From AOL Shopping, I found these cuties made by Jessie Steele:

That black one with white piping SO has my name on it!

I found a number of outstanding aprons on Etsy, the online handmade goods consortium (If you haven't looked at Etsy, go now! I give you permission. It's a wonderland of great stuff.)

This apron is from Etsy provider "Boojiboo." What a great job she's done of styling the shot--check out that red mixer and vintage stove in the background:

This cutie has polka dots as accent fabric. This is Etsy contributor Dianne Designer Aprons. And I want to live in her house. That's a tantalizing glimpse of a little old white house across the street, and look at the turned-work balusters and column on her front porch:

Oh! Front-porch lust!

Okay, back to aprons. This one from Etsy's Leahashley gets my vote because a)It's mostly black, b)It has polka dots, and c)It has a clever, asymmetrical details:

Half-aprons aren't good for me (I always seem to be hugging a batter-drippy bowl to my chest at some point). But if I were in the market, Dapperduds offers this adorable and unusual apron on Etsy:
This one is from Pam Mariutto on Martha Stewart's website:

Eh! Such cuteness, I feel my resolve to stay away from half-aprons beginning to slip. LoverDoversClothing on Etsy, I hold you responsible!:

Enough apron drooling. It's back to the kitchen for me. Next up: baking cupcakes for one of my houseguests, who turns 20 on Friday!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Interior Design Tip #47

In interior decorating, it is always a good idea to toss elegant and casual elements together in a room for extra visual interest.

For an intriguing twist in the family room, try layering kid-friendly denim beanbags...

...on top of a gorgeous, hand-knotted Persian carpet.

And don't forget to include something living in every room.

Like a potted plant.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Canning for the First Time

My mother's post about eco-smart gift wrapping reminded me of the holiday gifts I plan to give this year: jams, jellies, and spiced peaches. (And speaking of green--edible gifts in reusable mason jars are about as good as they get.) This train of thought reminded me that I haven't shared with you my first foray into canning! Sheesh.

My family, while wonderful cooks/bakers/crafters/knitters, has not to my knowledge included canners. But I seem to be falling down the delicious rabbit hole of artisan, local, organic food, and I was determined to try canning for the first time. The Seattle growing season is rather short, and summer produce is fleeting. If I want to eat berries in January, I had to do something to preserve them in September. Imagine the delight of opening a jar of pure summer when you've been eating primarily root vegetables and you'll see what I mean.

Home canning has taken off this year, particularly among younger people. Whether it's the recession or the trend towards homemade goods or the rise of local and organic produce, a lot more people are preserving the harvest than ever before. For example, the Seattle-based website Canning Across America began in August as a small project among a few friends and has ballooned to a national movement. Join the canvolution!

So although I knew I wanted to can, I didn't have any of the knowledge, skills, or tools to do it. The Ball website was a great resource, as was my roommate Torian who has made jam with her mother all her life. In an amazing stroke of luck, I found a complete canning set on Craigslist for $75, including a big pot, a rack, assorted accessories, four dozen jars, and the Ball Blue Book--the holy bible of beginning canning.

A word of caution: Improperly canned food can be very dangerous. Botulism is a deadly neurotoxin that can live even after your food is boiled, so just throwing things willy nilly into a jar and putting it in a water-bath canner is not safe. The only way to stay safe is to process your cans above boiling (i.e., in a pressure canner) or make the food acidic enough to kill the toxin. Never can without a scientifically tested recipe (such as from Ball or a good university), and never change recipes to be less acidic.

My home canning weekend began with a trip to my local farmers market. Many vendors had discounts on large volumes of produce, specifically for canning purposes. Also keep a lookout for "seconds" produce--these have spots, bruises, or other imperfections that make them less expensive. Because if you're turning them into mush, who cares if your fruit is bruised? I'm not big on pickles or pickled vegetables, so I stuck to fruits.

First up: raspberry jam.

Mmm, how I love raspberry jam. And raspberries themselves. And pretty much anything having to do with raspberries.

This was a lot of raspberries. (Are you drooling yet, Lauren?)

The best way to wash delicate berries is to swish them gently in a bowl of water, then scoop them out and let them drain in a colander.

It was a bit emotionally painful to mush up so many perfect raspberries, but Torian has nerves of steel. No berry went unsmushed by her potato masher of death. (Notice how clean the kitchen is at this point! Didn't stay that way for long.)

We followed the recipe for fresh raspberry jam, adding a bit of pectin for the right consistency. Berries are a very high-acid food, so you don't need to worry about acidifying to prevent botulism. This is why most people begin canning with berry jams; they almost do all the work for you.

Our cans went into the boiling water-bath canner...

...and then when they were done Torian fished them out with a special can picker-upper. This rubber-coated metal utensil came with my canning supplies, but I didn't know what it was. I probably would have tried to use tongs to get the cans out if Tor wasn't there to show me how much easier this was.

The finished cans look like shining jewels. It's really hard for me to leave them alone, but you can't touch them as they cool or the lid won't seal right.

We didn't have quite enough raspberry mush to make a full rack of jars, so we smashed some blueberries into the last two to make a combination raspberry-blueberry jam. I think I liked it even more than the pure raspberry! It's also a beautiful deep purple color.

Once we got the hang of jam, we moved on to harder projects. I attempted a pomegranate champagne jelly, but I didn't put the pectin in on time and it never set. So now I have pomegranate champagne syrup? Oh well, I didn't expect perfection on my first try. I'm sure it will be great for cocktails.

I was pretty pleased, though, at how the spiced peaches turned out. We blanched and peeled the peaches, quartered them, cooked them briefly in a spiced syrup, and then packed them into jars with lemon juice, a cinnamon stick, star anise, and cloves. Don't they look pretty?

I gave my first can away yesterday, to a housemate's friend who was lamenting not having his mom's canned peaches this winter. And the verdict? Delicious.

In total, I canned:
5 pints raspberry jam
2 pints raspberry blueberry jam (one of which my boyfriend has already claimed)
2 pints failed pomegranate champagne jelly
2 pints peach butter (hot damn this is good)
2 quarts whole blueberries
2 quarts tomatoes
8 quarts spiced peaches

Not bad for my first time. Next up: pears!

Eco-Friendly Holiday Gift Tags

Yesterday I discussed alternative ideas to buying holiday gift wrap and ribbon. Today I'm continuing the topic, but this post is all about gift tags. We need gift tags, otherwise your Uncle Bernie can end up opening the lingerie intended for Sister Sue!

What we don't need is to buy gift tags. Using little bits of this 'n' that, you can make beautiful, unique gift tags for almost nothing.

And yes, you could use those adhesive tags you get in the mail from charities. The tags are cute but not very personal. They're also not at all creative on your part. With a little bit of scavenging and planning, you can do far better than this:

First, start collecting paper.

I'm talking leftover bits of gift wrap, clean cardboard, greeting cards, that sort of thing. I found a gold mine at my local independent art store. In the back of the store is the big guillotine of a paper cutter they use to cut customer's orders. Next to the paper cutter, I discovered a treasure trove of beautiful, quality paper. It was all the bits left over after employees cut paper to measure for clients. One polite question later, and I was happily digging through the most beautiful card stock, tag board, and corrugated papers, in a rainbow of colors!

Here's just a small sample of my haul:

The colors boggle the eyes!

Art stores, stationery stores, and office-supply stores all produce paper scrap like this. If you ask, they may be happy to let you riffle through their clean-paper trashcan.

But if you can't find a place that produces paper scrap, look for beautiful boxes and bags at your local mall. This gorgeous, sturdy card stock came from a popular retailer:

Oh, the color! The shine! The possibilities are endless.

This lovely bag, below, came from a local Asian gift shop. Usually I use my own cloth bags when I shop, but when the store is putting my purchases in paper bags this beautiful--and for free!--I take the bag:

This delicate, two-tone scrollwork, below, was on the front page of an annual report. The top part of the brochure is covered with type, but look how pretty this bottom part is:

Sometimes you'll find beautiful paper in the most unexpected places. My cold-weather long johns came in packaging colored a gorgeous grey-blue:

And nothing beats corrugated cardboard for textural interest. This one is a finer corrugate than the usual stuff that boxes are made of. It's perfect for gift-tag projects:

And starting this season, please save all the pretty greeting cards and invites you receive. They are the start of some terrific gift cards for next year:

Okay, here's one thing I bought. But what a deal it was! Several years ago I found this nifty box at Michael's, a craft-store chain. The plastic box is packed with a rainbow of small cards, about an inch and a half square. I've used them for many gift tags, school posters, and other craft projects over the years:

And the edges are decoratively cut in different patterns, for extra visual appeal:

Any good art store carries beautiful, handmade papers for sale. These are pricey, maybe $5 per sheet and up. But if you use the paper sparingly for small things like gift cards or small gifts, one sheet will last you a long time:

So, let's get started!

Gather your tools together. Here I have a cutting mat, a straight edge, an X-Acto knife and fresh blades, a hole punch, rubber cement, scissors, reinforcement circles, and some plain white labels:

Use an X-Acto knife, straight edge, and cutting mat to create perfectly straight-sided squares and rectangles. If you don't have these tools, a good pair of scissors and a steady hand will do just fine.

To begin, cut up a bunch of squares and rectangles to create the "base" of your cards. Use a fairly stiff card stock so the tags won't crumple or wrinkle.

Next, use a punch to create the hole in the card, before you start decorating. That way you can plan your design around the hole:

NOTE: If you have children, they can make these gift tags, too. Just pre-cut the card stock and pre-punch the holes, so they aren't using dangerous X-Acto knives or getting frustrated if they don't have the hand strength to use the hole punch.

Now, cut out little bits of this and that, and just start gluing! Here's an evergreen made out of a bit of aluminum foil, accented with a bit of silver star twistie stuff. The star stuff is pricey, but you only need five or six inches to make a tie that will fasten the card to any package you want:

By the way, all the cards I'm showing you are blank on the back side, so you can write your "To" and "From" sentiments there.

Egad! The orangey Thumb of Death has showed up again. But I love the card, which is just nine reinforcement circles in a grid. On the blue card, they remind me of snowballs or a modern take on snowflakes. I added a pale ribbon to keep in the same color family, which makes the gift tag look more modern, too:

Here's a little bit of that expensive, hand-made Japanese paper, which I've torn on two sides and cut on the other two, with a bit of coordinating cord to form the tie:

For this card, I cut out a bit of the Christmas invitation you saw above, and glued it to a card stock with a pearly sheen. Instead of the expected red or green ribbon, I used a bit of sage green satin:

If you have stickers, or if you have kids (who invariably have stickers!), you can create some fun and easy gift cards in a snap. Here, I glued a skinny green ribbon down the length of one of those little pre-cut cards from Michael's. Then I just pressed the menorah sticker on top of it all:

I love this idea, below: Cut out a series of triangle shapes in one color (here I'm using green) and arrange them on a piece of card stock, gluing them down just at the fat part of the triangle. Overlap them, and you get a stylized evergreen forest. Not gluing the tops down gives the "forest" a slightly 3-D look. I paired a quiet, light-green ribbon with the card, but a bright green or dark green would be beautiful, too.

So, put on some holiday music. Gather all your materials around you. Pour yourself a cup of something soothing to drink. In 30 minutes, you can turn out a flurry of beautiful, unique, and festive gift tags for all your gifts.

If you work for 30 minutes more, you can turn out enough of these tags to give as a gift to somebody else!


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