Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Worth The Wait

Hello! In years past I've often purchased an amaryllis bulb from a local nursery to enjoy as a Christmas time bloom. Well, I don't know what happened this past December, but I never received the nursery's usual email letting customers know the bulbs were in. I'm guessing they had them for sale but the email list got messed up. But without the reminder, I never stopped in to buy one. 

However, I spotted a display of amaryllis bulb growing kits (bulb, soil disk and plastic pot, all boxed up)at a Chicago-area Trader Joe's December 18th. I knew, of course, that it wouldn't bloom in time for Christmas, but thought it'd still be nice to have "fresh flowers" during the winter. 

I didn't even look to see what amaryllis varieties were available, I just grabbed one of the boxes from the display. I studied the box more closely when we returned home later that day, and learned I had purchased the bi-color variety called Minerva. 

I've been burned in the past by dud amaryllis bulbs from chain stores, but took a chance on this one. It was about 1/3 the cost of the nursery's amaryllis bulbs, so I'd see if it was only 1/3 as nice. 

The box indicated the amaryllis would bloom in 6-10 weeks. Naturally we were hoping for the earlier time range, especially when winter turned so cold and snowy this month, but the waiting period was longer. Exactly nine weeks after I potted the bulb up, it began to flower:

Above, two of the four flowers on the stalk have opened, and there's another flower stalk that will bloom later. 

Another view:

A close-up of one of the blooms. Isn't it pretty? So nice to have such color this time of year! Indeed, it was worth the wait.

So, is it as least 1/3 as nice as the much more expensive amaryllis bulbs from the local nursery? Yes, I'd definitely say so - this amaryllis bulb kit from Trader Joe's was a bargain! 

Now, I do prefer to buy local, and I'll visit that local nursery as usual this spring to buy annuals and perennials. But if I happen to be at a Trader Joe's again when they're selling amaryllis bulb kits, I wouldn't hesitate to buy one.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Eats: Cinnamon-Brown Sugar Syrup For Coffee

Hello! When I was a kid, my parents refused to buy Pop-Tarts, so I only had them when I was at friends' houses. I particularly fancied the ones with a brown sugar-cinnamon filling. 

So when I recently came across a recipe for a homemade coffee flavoring syrup that featured these two ingredients, I made tracks for my kitchen to try it for myself. It was very easy to prepare, as you'll see below:

Cinnamon-Brown Sugar Syrup (recipe from Jessica Merchant of the blog How Sweet It Is)

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup water

Combine the sugar, cinnamon and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk constantly until sugar dissolves and mixture is bubbling. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Let cool completely before storing in a jar. 

And that's it. I didn't take a picture of the finished product because, well, it just looks like a dark brown liquid. But it does taste a little like my beloved brown sugar-cinnamon Pop-Tarts of yore. It made a nice addition to my coffee. 

You'll notice that the recipe doesn't give a big yield, but I see no reason why it couldn't be doubled if so desired. 

As for those brown sugar-cinnamon Pop-Tarts? As an adult, I could eat them every day if I wanted to - but to my grown-up palate, they don't taste very good! I think I'll stick to this cinnamon-brown sugar syrup recipe for a taste-alike flavored coffee version. 

If you'd like to see more of Jessica Merchant's blog, it can be found here.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Get Carded: More Valentines

Hello! My last post featured valentines I made for my own family; today's post will discuss some of the valentines that got sent out to friends. 

To a very creative local friend:

Materials used:
  • white card stock
  • scrap of 1930's sheet music cover
  • facsimile of vintage image
  • woman's face cut from vintage magazine
  • small heart cut from 1880's ledger paper I'd added paint to
  • small heart sticker from Cavallini's Valentine's Mailing Set
  • "happy valentine's day" stamped in red ink on graph paper scrap
For an old friend who lives out of state:

In preparation for making these ornaments, I punched several circles in a paint chip strip - only to find out that these shapes were too stiff to "hang" nicely on the ornament. But not wanting to waste these circles, nor the punched-out paint chip strip, I set both aside to use in card-making projects. Since the paint chip strip features reds and pinks, it found its home on this card. 

Materials used:
  • white card stock
  • paint strip with circles punched out
  • assortment of small heart shapes cut from book pages, painted 1880's ledger paper and serendipity paper
  • large heart made from art paper painted red and embellished with a paper doily scrap
I really like the way this card turned out! I thought the use of the hearts within the circles was quite effective, if I say so myself. It was especially pleasing since it was a way to use up scraps of paper that were too small to do much else with. 

And those punched-out circles? Some of them found a home, too, on this card to another local friend:

Materials used:
  • white card stock
  • large heart made from art paper painted red and embellished with a paper doily scrap
  • circles punched from paint chip strip
  • heart cut from painted 1880's ledger paper
  • heart cut from same decorated paper as large heart
  • "happy valentine's day" stamped in red ink on graph paper scrap
  • small heart sticker from Cavallini's Valentine's Mailing Set
Note that although the last two cards use some of the same materials, they look very different from each other. And that's the fun of creating greeting cards - never a dull moment crafting them because they're one of a kind.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Get Carded: Valentines

Hello! Now that Valentine's Day is over, I'll show off a few of the cards I made for family and friends. The focus will be on my husband and daughter today.

Since this is my self-declared "Use It Up" month and since my basement studio is very cold, I tried to work as much as I could with the crafting supplies that already resided in the storage tub I use to store my Valentine's Day decor. Fortunately I had enough supplies in that tub to make a variety of valentines. 

First up, our daughter's Valentine's Day card:

Materials used:
  • white card stock
  • white heart cut from paper doily
  • small lacy heart accented with red stamp pad ink; cut from same doily
  • scrap of 1880's ledger paper that I'd stamped with red acrylic paint hearts (I'd handcrafted that stamp)
  • facsimile of vintage valentine
  • sticker from Cavallini's Valentine's Mailing Set
  • "happy valentine's day" stamped in red ink on graph paper scrap
For my husband:

Materials used:
  • white card stock
  • piece of serendipity paper
  • page from facsimile of Victorian-era book on gardening
  • facsimile of Victorian-era valentine
  • eye image stamped in black ink, glued to scrap of stamped 1880's ledger paper
  • serendipity paper cut into heart shape, glued to scrap of stamped 1880's ledger paper
  • small heart cut from altered scrap of art paper
  • "we eat vegetables" cut from 1960's children's dictionary
Yeah, their valentines might look out of the ordinary, and I made my husband's card on the goofy side just to bemuse him. But that's how I roll!

For my next post I'll show off a couple of the valentines that went to friends.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Made It: Christmas Decorations After Christmas

Hello! I was recently intrigued and inspired by Patience Brewster, an  artist of unique gifts and  handcrafted ornaments , on how I would use Christmas ornaments year round. Patience enjoys repurposing her Christmas d├ęcor  by doing things like keeping some of their ornaments out on display and reshaping a string of holiday lights to commemorate other occasions.

This got me to thinking. I do love my small collection of Shiny Brites and other vintage ornaments, but they get a bit lost on my heavily-laden Christmas tree. So why not design a display to keep some of these ornaments out to enjoy on their own? And since this is the month for Valentine's Day, I decided to go with a theme honoring that holiday. 

But as it's also my self-declared use-it-up month, I focused on using things I already had around the house for my vignette. Fortunately I had more than enough "accessories" to create a rather full display:

Above, my ode to Valentine's Day, resting on top of a cake pedestal. The vintage items are three Shiny Brite ornaments, a reindeer ornament, a set of strawberry-shaped salt and pepper shakers and several Valentines. I also used newer materials: the white garland, three small glass dishes, a heart shape I'd embroidered and then sewn, and three pipe cleaner ladies I'd made, all from vintage materials (pipe cleaners, crepe paper and faces cut from a grade school textbook). Oh, and a partial bag of cinnamon red hots. (normally I wouldn't include perfectly good candy, as it'd have to be thrown away after this usage, but the cinnamon red hots had gone stale). 

A few close-ups:

The three Shiny Brites, one of the strawberries, and one of my pipe cleaner ladies. Besides scattering the cinnamon red hots around the base of the cake pedestal, I also used them in the glass dishes to elevate the ornaments. 

I know that the moon/stars Shiny Brite is a dark pink rather than red, but it happens to be my favorite one, so I wanted to include it. I love the outer space design! Purchased at a garage sale in Stevens Point, WI back in the 1980's. I paid a quarter apiece for it and several other Shiny Brites. Behind the ornament you can see a vintage valentine from the 1930's; it had belonged to the mother of a friend. 

The winter scene on this ornament is fitting even though Christmas was several weeks ago. A winter storm warning begins for us later on today, plus it's going to be very cold and windy. If we get enough snow to have to shovel tomorrow, that's not going to be a very pleasant task! Behind the ornament is the heart I'd made. The fabric, a thrift store find, came with a raised stitched pattern. I accented this stitching with dark pink embroidery floss before sewing the fabric into a heart.

I've always liked this vintage reindeer ornament as well. It had been my paternal grandmother's. I don't remember it on her tree, but I happily hang it on mine every year!

And that's it for my Christmas decorations after Christmas. Although I chose to focus on the current holiday of Valentine's Day, this idea can be readily adapted to other holidays as well, depending on what occasions you decorate for and what ornaments you have. For instance, pastel ornaments for an Easter or springtime look, red, white and blue for the Fourth of July, and so on. 

And if your kids have their own sets of Christmas ornaments, why not get these out on their birthdays and display them then? The first time you do this, they might think you've gone bonkers, but especially if they're younger, they may think it's a lot of fun. It'd certainly be a change from the usual balloons and crepe paper streamer birthday decorations! 

I am glad I was inspired by Patience Brewster's repurposing of Christmas decor, as my Valentine's Day display allowed me to enjoy some of my beloved vintage ornaments in another month. What's next? Well, I guess I can dream something up for Easter soon!

(full disclosure: I was not paid to promote the Patience Brewster website and its products)


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Made It: Valentines for Vets - The Lazy Way

Hello! Bought this at a local thrift store several weeks ago:

Cavallini's Valentine's Mailing Set, complete with 24 cards/envelopes, three rubber stamps, a red ink stamp pad and over 100 coordinating stickers. 

Cavallini specializes in vintage-style paper goods and accessories like rubber stamp sets and sticker sets. Their products are on the pricey side, which is why I took note of the above set at the thrift store. It had never been opened and the price tag from a local gift store was still affixed. It was quite a bit more than the thrift store price. 

Since 24 is the exact number of Valentines I make for the Valentines for Vets program every year (valentines given to VA hospital patients), I figured I could alter these commercially-produced cards to make them look a little more handmade. And since I knew I'd be working on a lengthy home improvement project throughout the winter, I was glad to save some time by not starting from scratch. 

After fiddling around with the enclosed cards a bit, here's an example of how I altered them:

Above, I added one large and one small heart, each cut from some serendipity paper I'd made (in this case, printed paper bags were decorated with various paints and rubber stamps). I placed the large heart on top of a piece of paper doily and added the word "Love" stamped on a piece of graph paper. 

Close up:

I really enjoy adding serendipity paper to greeting cards - a little goes a long way, and I think it looks pretty cool too! 

Here's what the card looked like before I add my embellishments:

It's cute on its own but I like it better with my touches.

Even though I saved time by just adding a few details to something ready-made, I still had to write a message in each card, then stuff the cards into envelopes. I used some of the cute stickers from the set to dress up the envelopes a bit. Then off in the mail they went, to the closest VA hospital in the region. 

Those who make valentines for vets are encouraged to deliver their valentines in person. That would be nice to do, but the closest VA hospital isn't all that close to us, so I've always mailed mine in.

Still, even from a distance, I'm glad to participate in this program, and hope that the veterans like the valentines I made for them!


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Bang For A Buck #1: From The Clothing Sale

Hello! For the past few years I've seen rumblings on the Internet that thrift store bargains are fewer and further between, and sometimes this does seem to be true. 

Then, too, I've attended estate sales and garage sales where the too-high asking prices are justified by the sellers displaying printouts from eBay listings showing even higher prices for similar items. (I've seen this occasionally done at thrift stores too). I don't mind this tactic as much if the estate sale is being run by a company hired for that purpose - after all, they're in it to make a profit - but if it's a self-run sale? If you're using eBay as a reference for setting your prices, why not just list your goods on eBay? (some larger thrift store chains, such as Goodwill, do have eBay sites now). 

Needless to say, I walk past anything I think is over-priced, but fortunately there really still are plenty of bargains to be had, or at least that's been true in my experiences. And this "Bang For A Buck" series will occasionally show off finds I feel are a very good value. Posts in this series might occasionally feature purchases that cost more or less than a dollar, but you get the point. 

In general, thrift store clothing still tends to be an excellent value. Sure, you have to examine the garments carefully for missing buttons, broken zippers, holes, stains and other flaws. But once you've inspected a garment and see no problems, you may very well have snagged a bargain, especially if the label is from a reputable manufacturer. 

The deals get even better if you stop in when a thrift store is having a good sale. Sometimes these are color-coded, as in everything with a blue label half off. Even better are the "clothing for a dollar sale", whether this be all the clothes currently on the store's racks, or maybe just the pants. These sales are worth a look - who knows, you may find just the item you'd been wanting to add to your wardrobe. 

Such was the case for me when I visited a local thrift store's "clothing for a dollar sale" at the beginning of winter. I bought these:

They may look like ordinary jeans, but note the green and white print fabric on the turned-up cuffs: that's flannel. These are LL Bean's flannel-lined jeans, and are almost $60.00 in their catalog. That's a far cry from a dollar! They were just my size and length (the latter not always easy to find in thrift store jeans, as I'm short) and were in fine shape. 

I'd long seen these jeans in the LL Bean catalog and had thought they'd be a nice addition to my winter wardrobe, especially when the cold winds blow down from Alberta or wherever they come. The 60 bucks stopped me though - it wasn't as if I have to be out in all kinds of winter weather doing outdoor chores (other than snow shoveling).

Our old house is rather drafty, though, so these flannel-lined jeans have been just the thing to wear when it's on the chilly side indoors. Last year I'd worn fleece leggings under regular jeans, but these jeans are more comfortable since the layering is already built in.

And so I'd say this purchase is definitely a great bang for the buck!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Eats: A Use-It-Up Soup

Hello! In my previous post I mentioned that I'd made soup with some odds and ends from our freezer. I followed the recipe labeled "Soup - Detailed Instructions" from Julie Jordan's Wings of Life Vegetarian Cookery" (a thrift store find).

Detailed is right! Jordan lists 14 steps, spread out over 2 1/2 pages. But I've condensed that write-up in 9 much shorter steps. First I'll give the basic recipe, then I'll list my 9 steps and how I utilized them (or didn't) in my soup. 

Use-It-Up Soup (recipe by Julie Jordan, steps adapted by me)

1 1/2 cups to 3 cups cooked dried beans
1 c. cooked grains
4 onions, chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
3 or more cloves garlic, mashed (perhaps she means crushed?)
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 quart canned tomatoes or 6-8 fresh tomatoes, diced
Freshly-ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
Red wine
Vegetables - all types, plenty of them

1. Heat vegetable oil (I use olive oil) in large pot. Saute onions, peppers and garlic in oil; add dried herbs and any other seasonings of your choosing (I used Italian seasoning) and cook until onion is softened, stirring occasionally. I didn't use the green peppers, and added just one onion - four seems excessive.

2. Add tomatoes, pepper to taste and 1 teaspoon sea salt. Although she didn't list it in the recipe, Jordan suggests adding a bay leaf at this point, and that I did. 

3. "Add a nice pour of hearty red wine" Jordan says. I used sherry. I also added water at this point, which Jordan doesn't mention. I started with 8 cups, figuring some of it would cook away.

4. Add long-cooking vegetables, such as carrots, turnips, potatoes, parsnips and sweet potatoes; try to cut all vegetables roughly the same size so they'll cook evenly. Simmer for 30 minutes; vegetables should be partially-cooked after the time is up. I added all but the last vegetable at this step, and also added some celery. 

5. Now add any medium-cooking vegetable, such as broccoli, cauliflower and green beans. Simmer 20 minutes longer. I had no vegetables from this category.

6. Now add cooked grains and beans. I used 1 cup each cooked barley, cooked lentils and cooked kidney beans - all had been leftovers from previous meals, but that was fine with me. I'd stuck them in our freezer, knowing they'd be perfect for this recipe!

7. Add short-cooking vegetables: cabbage, kale, peas, zucchini and okra. I used fresh zucchini and chopped cabbage that I'd blanched and frozen last fall (the cabbage had come from the Farmer's Market). Cook a few minutes longer.

8. Taste for seasoning. I added more Italian seasoning, a bit more salt  and pepper and a dash of cayenne pepper. 

9. Add a few minutes before eating - chopped fresh greens such as spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, Chinese cabbage. I had no fresh greens on hand, so instead I thawed some frozen chopped spinach and added that. 

9. Snip fresh herbs such as basil, parsley and chives into the soup right before serving. I used homegrown parsley that I'd chopped and frozen last fall.

That's it! The important thing is to follow the cooking guidelines for when to add the vegetables; this prevents them from getting mushy. But other than that, you can use any suitable tidbits you have on hand, like leftover rice or pasta, or a can of garbanzo beans if that's your fancy. 

Obviously there's no meat in the recipe since Jordan is a vegetarian, but if you have, say, leftover chicken from last night's dinner, toss it in if you like. There's a lot of flexibility with a recipe like this.

Indeed, it's a use-it-up soup! But it's good enough that you'd never know you were eating leftovers.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Use-It-Up Month

Hello! Last month the Dollar Stretcher website launched a pantry challenge, with tips on how to set up the challenge HERE.

It sounded like a good idea, but I caught wind of the challenge partway through the month, so I decided to start it this month instead. 

Basically, a pantry challenge means that one uses up the foods already purchased instead of filling the grocery cart each week with more food (exceptions can be made for fresh items like milk and fresh produce or other purchases deemed necessary). I'm not sure if it's really a big money saver if avoiding many grocery categories for the duration of the challenge means that a good sale is passed up. But it does give one the chance to use things that have been lingering around. 

For instance, I have two bags of candied ginger on hand. I'd bought one of the bags awhile back to use in a gingerbread recipe I'd come across. Alas, I never made that gingerbread - but still bought another bag of candied ginger in December when I encountered a good deal. So, it looks like I should find a use for the older bag of candied ginger this month. 

I don't really have a lot of excess pantry items though, in part because I don't have a lot of convenient storage. Our basement freezer is another matter, however. We have a full size freezer and it's currently bursting at the seams. Time to start eating some of the food in there instead of buying yet more eatables that have to be frozen!

And I did just that yesterday, making a nice soup out of some of that freezer stash.

But I'm not going to stop at just meals - I want to make an effort this month to use up what I already have on hand in a variety of ways. One big example of this is finally doing something with the flannel pieces I'd taken from my mom's fabric collection after her death (she'd sewn what was likely several dozen sleep pants for grandchildren over the years).

My mom died a little over four years ago, so I've had all this flannel for awhile. And it's also been awhile since I first learned about this projectwhich seemed like a good way to make a dent in the fabric. This turned out to be the case: using just the flannel pieces that have blue prints, I was able to cut 150 6" inch squares - and still have some blue flannel pieces left! Yeah, that's how much flannel my mom had remaining from sewing all those sleep pants, and I still have some flannel pieces in other colors as well. I might be able to make another comforter!(I wonder if she'd ever had plans for any of it?)

I've discovered that thrift stores can be gold mines for books and magazines. But for this month, I'll read what I have on hand (which is plenty) instead of bringing home new-to-me reading material. Last night I went through a few older craft magazines I'd picked up over the course of last year. A couple were keepers, but a couple weren't as interesting as I'd thought they'd be, so I'll donate them back. But I wouldn't have known I didn't want to keep them if I hadn't taken to time to look them over!

And so it goes. These are just a few examples of what I've done so far in my Use-It-Up month, but I hope to do more in the days ahead.