Thursday, August 28, 2014

Eats: Mint Simple Syrup

Hello! My mint patch is small in size but is prolific enough to provide me with leaves for various recipes.

My husband likes putting flavored syrups in his coffee, so some of the mint goes toward that usage. In the past I'd used a mint syrup recipe that was a bit laborious to make. First the fresh mint had to be cooked in water, then slowly strained. The resulting liquid was measured so that a certain proportion of sugar could be cooked with it. The end result was pleasant to the taste, but a nuisance to prepare. 

Earlier this summer our local paper printed a recipe called "Mint Simple Syrup", credited to Brandpoint. It sounded so much easier than the recipe I'd been using that I could call this new version "Simple Mint Syrup". 

Since my mint was in need of a trim, I decided to try the recipe today. The amount of mint called for is listed somewhat vaguely as "1 large bunch". Wasn't sure how much mint that really was, so I snipped what I thought was a decent amount. I might have actually cut a little more than what I needed since I was making a half recipe. But I'd rather have too much than too little.

Above, washed mint ready to use. A short while later, I had this:

The above bottle represents half of what the scaled-down recipe yielded, so I got a nice amount of mint simple syrup for very little effort. 

How little effort? Well, here's the recipe:

Mint Simple Syrup (from Brandpoint)

2 cups sugar
6 cups water
1 large bunch mint, roughly chopped

Combine the sugar and water in a medium-sized saucepan. Stir to moisten the sugar. Add in the mint leaves. 

Bring to a boil and boil for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the syrup sit until it is cool. Strain the syrup to remove the mint. 

Store in the refrigerator until ready to use. 

Notes: as mentioned above, I made a half recipe. Somehow I didn't notice the "roughly chopped" notation for the mint, so after washing my mint very thoroughly, I tossed it into the saucepan, stems and all. (in my defense, my recipe copy, clipped from the newspaper, has "roughly chopped" on a separate line.)

Chopped mint leaves release more flavor than whole mint leaves would, but my simple syrup was still nicely minty - and of course even simpler since I had bypassed that time-consuming step. 

"perfect with lemonade or mojitos" the folks at Brandpoint proclaimed. I'm sure that's true, but I think Mint Simple Syrup would also be great added to iced tea - or a chocolate milk shake!


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Made It: A Bevy Of Blue Birds

Several years ago I purchased something called a "prosperity hen garland" at a local thrift store. The hens were made from pieces of colorful fabrics typical of northern India, where such garlands are made. It likely had originally come from a fair trade store. 

I didn't think that hanging the garland up would automatically bring us prosperity. I purchased it because I liked the lively variety of fabrics used and it was a very reasonable price as well.  Once home, I hung it where it would enliven our front porch. 

Over time those cheery fabrics have faded, to the point that the garland now looked like this:

Believe me, they look much more muted than they had when I first hung them up. Now, there was no Front Porch Police around, telling me that I had to remove them or face a penalty, but I didn't like how washed out they looked. So I decided to make another garland. 

I already had several decorative items on the porch with a good deal of blue on them (other handmade fabric hangings and pots) so decided to make a bevy of blue birds for my new garland. I showed off the fabrics I was going to use a few posts back. 

Finished the garland this morning and here's how it looks:

A couple of close-ups so you can see the variety of fabrics I used:

I recycled the bell that had hung from the bottom of the prosperity hen garland and tied it to the bottom of my blue bird garland. I strung the birds (16 in all) onto gold cord, using a variety of blue glass beads in between each bird. (there are also beads between each prosperity hen, but since those beads are flatter, they aren't visible). 

Each bird is about 3 1/2" high and 4" long. The total length of the garland is about 40". I enlarged a pattern from a vintage magazine to make the birds. I added gold bead eyes after stitching them up.

I have to admit, this project took awhile. First, I went through my blue fabrics (I have a lot) to pick out a variety to use. The fabrics were sourced from thrift stores, estate sales, garage sales, and people decluttering their fabric stash. That was the fun part. 

More tedious were the tasks that followed: the cutting, sewing, turning and stuffing of those 16 smallish birds. I paced myself, doing a little each day for several days until the project was completed. 

I'm happy with the way it turned out, though, and I know it'll be several more years until these fabrics fade on me as well. Until then, I'll enjoy my bevy of blue birds!


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

This Old House

Hello! My husband and I bought our first house, which was in Stevens Point, WI, back in 1988. We were fortunate in that a local historian had already compiled a book about older houses in the area, with our house included. Thus, we already knew the date of the house - 1871 - and the names of the families who had lived in it. 

Subsequent moves resulted in us becoming owners of three more older houses. Never did learn when houses #2 and #3 had been built and who had lived in them. Guess we'd been spoiled by the work done by that historian in Wisconsin.

Our current house is in a local historic district, complete with its own neighborhood association. Several years ago, the association began a house plaque program, giving homeowners a chance to order signage that shows off the date their homes were constructed.

Finally got around to ordering our own plaque. First, of course, I had to find out when our house had been built. We had thought it was around 1906, but I wanted to be sure. Had to visit three institutions around town that keep local historical records before I got my answer. It was in the archives of the local museum that I learned that our house actually dates to 1895. 

At the same time, I learned the name of the first owner, and found three listings in the phone book with the same surname. I'll contact these folks to see if they are any relation. I'm hoping that if they are, they may have some older photos of the house that we could make copies of. The oldest photo of our house the museum archives has dated from the mid 1970's. 

Still, it was nice to learn the date of our house's "birth", especially since it's older than what we had thought. Now we have this nice plaque, which arrived about a week ago:

One thing about an older home - it's not unusual to find now-vintage belongings left behind by previous owners. Sometimes it's items clearly deemed too cumbersome to move, like old porcelain sinks, old ladders, and old furniture. 

Sometimes there's smaller things that didn't make the move - nothing valuable, but still fun when discovered in a basement or garage. For instance, this:

Vintage wooden crate - not sure of it age, but given that it has a four-digit phone number, it may date from around the 1920's-1930's. Ironically, although the crate came from Manitowoc, WI, this crate was found in the basement of our current house. I use it to store reading material and craft supplies.

Found near the crate was the above, a serving spoon labeled "Tudor Plate Oneida Community Made" on the back. 

Close up of the pattern:

From doing a bit of online research, I learned that this pattern is called "Queen Bess" and dates from 1924. I'd say that the spoon is in very good shape considering it's 90 years old and had been languishing in the basement for who knows how long. It cleaned up nicely and now lives in our kitchen. I do use it from time to time for its intended purpose of dishing out food. 

Not exactly left behind, but instead covered up:

Our kitchen had sustained some water damage in March, and this wallpaper was discovered when the restoration crew removed the soggy wallpaper that had been placed over it. Although the newer wallpaper design is nice enough, I like this older pattern better. I saved a scrap of it that had come off the wall, and hope there's more to be saved when the remodeling crew comes next month to repair the damaged kitchen. 

And so it goes with an older house - history lurks at every corner!


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Short Time Away

Hello! Our daughter wasn't able to join us on vacation earlier this month due to a busy schedule of summer classes and a research job at MSU. She's currently home for a visit between summer and fall semesters, so my husband thought she'd like an out-of-town trip during that time. 

Since she mainly wanted to veg out at home, we only went away for one night. This meant, of course, that we had to go someplace close by. Not a problem, as the northwest part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula fits that criteria. 

It's so close, in fact, that it was a bit of a shock to realize that we hadn't been up north since 2008. Since that time we'd either traveled west or east for summer vacations.

So it was with pleasure that we headed up north Sunday morning. I was happy when I began seeing birch trees in quantity along the roadside - they always seem to signal "you're up north" to me. 

Traverse City was where we spent most of Sunday. Unfortunately, I was too busy walking around checking out shops in the downtown area to take any photos. But take it from me, it was an absolutely gorgeous day, with brilliant sunshine making the colors of the surroundings pop. The blue, blue waters of Grand Traverse Bay, just beyond the downtown, added to the visual splendor.

I wanted one of everything I saw, but primarily limited to myself to window shopping. Was sorely tempted to spend some money at Cherry Republic, in part because they had samples of some of their goodies out. Chocolate-coated dried cherries, cherry salsa, Hiker's Mix with dried fruits, nuts and chunks of chocolate - all yummy. The store was crowded with shoppers happily shelling out money for some cherry treats. 

Also liked the products at Roth Shirt Company; a lot of cute designs on t-shirts like local lakes and various hobbies. I overheard a customer ask if a particular t-shirt came in another color and the clerk said they could make him one in about 20 minutes. How's that for customer service? Judging from their website, the designs are in-house. I know, there are other t-shirt companies in other tourist towns that do the same thing, but I did like their designs. 

Besides these two businesses, downtown Traverse City has bookstores, numerous gift shops, other clothing stores and several eateries. There's also a very cool food co-op near the downtown, where our daughter and myself were sorely tempted to buy some handmade soaps (sourced locally). But I'd made myself a pledge not to buy more toiletries until I used up the stuff I already have, so I reluctantly passed. 

The subject of where to eat dinner Sunday evening had already come up before we left home. My husband is a big fan of microbreweries, so I wasn't surprised when he had two picked out at possible dinner stops. One of these was North Peak Brewing in Traverse City and the other was Short's in another town, Bellaire. I checked out both menus online and liked the menu at Short's better. That was fine with my husband since he said he really likes Short's beer. Another bonus is that neither of us had ever been to Bellaire before, so it'd be a chance to visit a new area. 

Bellaire turned out to be a village; the downtown was only a few blocks long. But even though it was a Sunday night and Bellaire seems small and out of the way to get to, things were hopping at Short's. I can only imagine how congested it must get on Friday and Saturday nights!

The menu is, well, short, with nothing on it that would appear to be dinner-type entrees - instead, there are few selections each of appetizers, salads, pizzas and sandwiches. As for the beers, my husband tried the  Loyalty Ale and also sampled a "experimental" beer flavored with - I kid you not - cucumber, lemon, and lilac. What don't they put in beer anymore? (after tasting it, he ordered another Loyalty Ale).

I ordered from the daily specials menu, joking with our waitress that I'm really hard on restaurants, especially sandwiches. I've had a lot of mediocre restaurant sandwiches that I've had to pay gourmet-level prices for. That's always a bummer when that happens. 

Not so at Short's, I'm happy to report! I had the Chipotle BBQ Beef Brisket sandwich and every part of it was awesome. Sometimes the ingredients in a restaurant sandwich can be fine but are marred by the use of blah breads. (I suppose I'm picky about sandwich bread since I make my own; had a BLT on homemade sourdough for lunch earlier today). The hoagie bun used for my sandwich was excellent, no complaints there. I was happy to tell our waitress that the sandwich had passed my test with flying colors. 

Since dinnertime was one of the few times I'd had a chance to sit down in several hours, I took a couple of pictures inside Short's:

Artwork from Short's beer labels turned into canvas prints.

And if you'd rather wear your allegiance to Short's than hang it on a wall:

Part of a row of Short's t-shirts. 

Walked down the block after leaving Short's to check out a gift shop. On the way we noted that Short's is expanding into the storefront next to it. Judging by how popular it appears to be, I'd bet they could take over the whole block with no problem filling up the space with customers!

If you'd like more info on Short's, go here.

We spent the night in Cadillac, which meant that we had a bit of the drive the next morning to get up to Petoskey. It's almost all two-lane once you get a bit north of Cadillac, but fortunately there are several passing lanes along the way. Arrived in time for lunch, and we stopped at a place we'd been to several years ago, Julienne Tomatoes. It was still fairly new the last time we were there, but we were happy to find out that very little had changed since that  visit. It's cute inside and has a good sandwich menu. 

As was true the day before, mealtime was the only chance I had to take pics, so here are a few from inside Julienne Tomatoes:

It's a small restaurant but is bright and cheery. As befitting the name of the place, much of the decor has a tomato motif. Not shown is the pair of tomato-shaped salt and pepper shakers on our table. 

Mismatched vintage tables and chairs. Our table was white enamel, but others were wooden. Chairs were wooden; some painted, some not. I love this look for restaurants!

The above sign, hanging on the wall near the entrance, traces the building's history going back to feed store usage in 1899. We remember when Graintrain, the local food co-op, was in the space, but it moved to a newer, bigger location near one end of downtown. 

We were all happy with our sandwiches, by the way. While mine wasn't quite as good as the one the night before at Short's, it was still plenty tasty and I can recommend Julienne Tomatoes. If you'd like to check it out for yourself, you can find their website here.

After lunch, our threesome split up to explore the area on our own. My husband walked along the nearby waterfront of Little Traverse Bay, our daughter checked out shops of interest to her, and I did the same for me. I visited a thrift store, The Gold Mine, as well as the used book sale section of the public library, but didn't buy anything at either place. 

As in Traverse City, there are plenty of places to purchase brand-new goods. I was tempted by the creativity on display at Northern Michigan Artists Market. I also liked the indie bookseller McLean & Eakin, although I was amused when the young store clerk asked me if I'd just been in there a couple of hours ago to buy a bunch of comic books. Evidently I have a double out there somewhere (actually, more than a double, since I've been told before that I look just like someone else, even someone over in England. I must have a very common-looking face). 

Loads of other nice shops too, especially on Lake Street and on the side streets between it and Mitchell Street. 

You'd really need more than one afternoon apiece to explore Traverse City, Petoskey and the surrounding area, but that's all the time we had. Since there is so much to see and do, I'm hoping that we won't wait another six years to return! 


Friday, August 15, 2014

Vegetable Garden: Successes And Failures

Hello! Summer may be winding down, but the weather for much of it has seemed more like fall. I can only imagine the disappointment of  visitors hoping for beach time, only to be confronted with cool lakefront air and water temperatures. 

It hasn't always been much warmer inland either. Consequently, the warm weather crops in my vegetable garden have been growing slowly. This really hit home when we went out of town on vacation the last week of July. Typically I come home from summer vacation to lots of produce ready to pick. This year, alas, the garden looked like it had barely grown at all in our absence. Yes, there'd been another cool spell while we were gone. 

But for a number of reasons, the pots of produce growing on our deck have fared better, such as:

Because of their small size, cherry tomatoes ripen more quickly than their bigger cousins, of course. I have two Sweet 100 plants, both of which I'd started from seeds. It's been fun seeing my little seedlings mature into plants taller than me! Loads of cherry tomatoes are on each plant. 

Close up of my Thai Hot Pepper plant. This is a plant that was purchased at the local farmer's market last season. It had gotten chewed up at one point last summer by some unnamed critter, so never got did much after that.  My husband suggested bringing it in for the winter, thereby giving it another chance this year. 

I can't say that the Thai Hot Pepper plant liked its indoors habitat over the winter, but at least it didn't die on me. It sprouted new growth soon after being returned outdoors. And in spite of not liking the cooler summer weather either, it's set fruit of several peppers. It's likely that not all the peppers will ripen before the first frost looms, but at least we know that we can bring the plant in again for another winter's stay! 

One of the plantings on my deck has actually enjoyed the un-summer weather:

Above, several parsley plants in one pot. Parsley can be slow to germinate from seed, but it's worth the wait. It's nice to stroll out to the deck to pluck some for a recipe, but it's grown so well I'll have to freeze some too. Frozen parsley isn't as good as the fresh stuff is, but beats the dried version hands down! 

Did read in the local paper today that the cooler temps this week have been a boon for the student athletes going through practices in preparation for fall sports. This is very true, but I'd still rather it felt more like summer - and I think my vegetable garden would agree!


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Thrifty Acres: Future Fabric Fun

Hello! I head to the fabric store when I plan on sewing a garment, but for craft projects I'm fine with material from secondhand sources like thrift stores, estate sales, or even the decluttered stashes from family members or friends. It's fun to collect fabrics from here and there.

And of course it's fun to make something with these fabrics too. I'm currently working on a quilt that will likely take me a long time (months? years?) to finish, but it's been a great way to go through my fabric collection.

But recently (like last night) I gathered up material for a couple of short-term projects:

A bunch of blue fabrics for a bevy of blue birds. The completed birds will be strung together to become a hanging decorative piece. This will replace something similar that's gotten rather faded. 

At the beginning of this post I commented that I've collected fabrics from a variety of sources. One source I hadn't mentioned was where I'd made my most recent fabric purchase: an interior design firm that was participating in our town's sidewalk sales this past weekend. This business was selling discontinued fabric sample books for 25c each. 

I found one such book whose samples were all 100% cotton. The samples are large enough pieces to sew into cloth napkins, so I happily purchased the book with that in mind. I mentioned my intent to the employee who took my quarter and she thought it sounded like a great idea.

Here's what some of the fabrics from that sample book look like:

Yes, I like the color blue, but this pattern also comes in green, dark red and rust. 

Close up of that top pattern:

I think this will make a nice napkin, and it'll be an inexpensive way to add a little "luxury" to my mealtimes. 

Both the napkins and the birds will be quick projects, which is good since who knows when my quilt will be done!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Eats: Sort-Of Granola

Hello! I like to add granola to my breakfast yogurt, but I don't like the brands out there that charge high prices for little bags of the stuff. Consequently, I make my own - easy to do. 

Basically, granola is made up of oatmeal tossed with a bunch of other ingredients. I've tried several recipes by now, including one that calls for peanut butter and one that's made in the slow cooker. 

But I recently came across one that was a little different from my other granola recipes. For one thing, it uses orange juice concentrate as part of the "wet" ingredients. It also uses Cheerios and Golden Grahams as part of the "dry" ingredients. The use of those cereals is why I think of it as a "sort-of" granola, although it calls for the usual oatmeal as well. But in the cookbook that the comes from, it's simply called "Toasted Granola".

Here's the recipe:

Toasted Granola (from a volume in Leisure Arts' Spirit Of Christmas series)

4 cups Cheerios
4 cups Golden Grahams
3 3/4 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
1 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup slivered almonds
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
6 tablespoons orange juice concentrate, thawed
3 tablespoons honey

Preheat oven to 300. In greased large roasting pan, combine cereals, oats, sunflower seeds and almonds. 

In small bowl, combine brown sugar, oil, orange juice and honey. Stir until well-blended. Pour over cereal mixture; stir until well-coated.

Bake 45 minutes, or until golden brown, stirring every 10 minutes. 

Spread on waxed paper to cool. Yield: 14 cups granola. 

Notes: feel free to use store brands of the cereals; I did. I don't care for sunflower seeds, and I didn't have slivered almonds on hand, so instead I used a cup each of chopped raw pecans and chopped raw walnuts. The recipe didn't list any other add-ins like raw coconut or dried fruits, but I'm sure these ingredients could be included to taste.

Here's what the granola looks like:

As for the taste: wasn't sure how the orange juice concentrate would taste in this recipe, but it's fine. It's not really noticeable. 

The granola is rather sweet though. The sweetness can be reduced in a few ways: cut back on the brown sugar, or reduce the amount of Golden Grahams, as it's a rather sweet cereal. One could just increase the amount of Cheerios or oatmeal instead (if doing the latter, more liquid may have to be added, as the oatmeal flakes would likely absorb more of the wet ingredients than the Golden Grahams would). 

Or, experiment with another kind of dry cereal, like Chex. This would make the granola much less sweet, I'm sure, but the overall texture of the granola would stay similar. I have to admit, though, that I kind of like Golden Grahams, as sweet as they are!

It's a fun take on traditional granola - more variety of textures with the different cereals added. It may be a "sort-of" granola, but it's a good one!