Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Macro Garden

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For my own mental health, I needed to take a little time to enjoy my lush, fragrant surroundings this morning. Garden therapy :) Taking stock of “the little things” that I might easily pass right by in a fit of anxious activity pulled me out of the starts of a bad attitude. These pictures of my “around the house” circuit got me to let go of some pent up stress, and I am feeling much better about the prospects of handling, with a modicum of grace even, these last few weeks of school before summer vacation. I feel much better able to get on with my day, come what may…

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Summary of Updates

I have been (what feels like) crazy busy. Easter feels like it was a long time ago, but life has just chugged along and I have not been on here updating. I love looking back at my old blog posts since sometimes they are the electronic equivalent of a nicely checked off To Do list. A reminder to myself that, Yes, I did stuff. I finished stuff. My days fly by but I am actually accomplishing more than survival (sometimes, anyway).

I have projects from last summer to post about… I am very far behind! But for now, I am going to list off some of the things I have been doing, works in progress, and things I am looking forward to doing. Hopefully this will motivate me to keep at it :)

Stuff I have finished:

Window treatments: This was the first of my 3 House Projects to do in 2015. I made 2 lined and interlined, silk dupioni relaxed roman shades for the master bedroom. I then made 3 lined cotton relaxed roman shades for my girls’ room. Those were larger and 2 were ganged, so matching the pattern and getting them to hang straight immediately next to each other were my biggest challenges. I wanted to push my skills and make life better for myself, so I used real locking mechanisms and the heavy shades stay exactly where I want them, easily. They turned out great and I am loving not having cardboard boxes stuffed in the windows. #honestproject

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Pool closet, phase 1: This was the third of my House Projects to do in 2015. I had my wonderful man crunch some numbers and muscle the 2x4 frame up for me, but I feel so good having successfully dreamed up, planned and executed this life-bettering project primarily on my own. There was a mini fridge, drawers, counter and crumbling upper cabinet there before, and it wasn’t very effective storage. We wanted a place to keep pool supplies, towels, etc, and this renovated space is exactly that. I used a bypass closet door kit from Lowes, cut to size, with 2 Ikea Pax closet doors to make a wall of accessibility. I got the doors on sale for 25% off, and my only regret was not also getting the shelves then. We put those in with 1x2 supports, and used a shelf for the floor since the floor was not usable under the cabinet/fridge. Hoping it holds up well, but if I have to replace any part of it, it should be pretty easy to do. The double bonus to this is that I had to repaint the bathroom right next to it which meant fixing some poor drywall joinery, so that whole area looks much better. We still need to swap out the sink cabinet and install a new countertop, but phase 2 is slated for early summer or so.

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Dress alteration: I found a great Ann Taylor dress at (where else?) a thrift store, but it was about 6” too big around for me in the chest. I successfully removed 3” from under each arm. It has great armhole fit now, though it is clear (to me, at least) that the bodice is not fitting ideally. I knew this might happen since it is tucked instead of darted. It feels “bubble-y”, for lack of a better word… since I have essentially moved some vacant chest space around the body, it’s a little roomy still. I don’t think anyone will notice though, so I am choosing not to care :) I made the excess skirt into box pleats at the side seams to not have to rework the hem. Again, not ideal but a perfectly acceptable hack in this case.

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Backyard leveling: This was not my project, but I did help and then water the sod copiously. My husband needed a flatter backyard in order to make a hockey rink in the winter (yes, this was a NEED) as well as for other sport uses. He surveyed it himself, rented a sod cutter and bobcat, and proceeded to rip up the lion’s share of a perfectly lovely backyard. The good news here is that, though it was intense amounts of physical labor and frighteningly ambitious at times, the original sod lives on, but on a flatter backyard. He caught parts of it on time lapse, and you can see it here.

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Works in progress:

Pool chemistry: We are making the switch from Baquacil to plain ol’ chlorine for our backyard in-ground pool. Should be a big monetary savings (yay!), educational as we learn to do our own testing and break free from reliance on the pool store (yay!), and more effective at keeping the pool clean and sanitary (yay!). That’ll be going down in a big way over the next 2 weeks. The next step is to find the cheapest source of bleach/chlorinator and buy LOTS of it. My spreadsheet of cost analysis is up and humming, and hopefully the buying happens later today.

Pool repair: Tis the season to fix fallen tiles and crumbling coping (the concrete that goes around the pool edge). My mental saving grace here is that these do not affect the pool functionality at all, just aesthetics. How wrong can we go? We collected the fallen and loose tiles at the end of last season, and decided to wait over the winter to see if others loosened to make 1 repair session instead of 2. I have some tile experience as we laid a new tile floor 12 years ago in our last kitchen. This job will require some concrete base repair, then mortaring in the tiles in the correct pattern, then unsanded grouting. Then I’ll use a buildup of sanded grout to fill in the crumbled coping areas, and repaint the coping and pool deck. Sooner or later we’ll have to re-pour the full deck, but this should hopefully buy us some years of use in the meantime. We’re switching from an automatic cover to a floating bubble wrap type solar cover, so that will mean less wear and tear on the coping as well.

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Vermiculture: Nerd alert… I started a worm farm. I am a long way out from knowing more than the basics here, but I used a couple 5 gallon buckets, drilled some holes, collected some red wiggler worms from yard detritus, and am hoping they live, multiply aggressively, and make compost. This is more of a science experiment than anything else, but I would love to see our food scraps turned into usable compost.

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Yardwork: I am trying to learn about what perennials we have here so I can take care of them. Some I am moving around, dividing, and learning how to harvest. I just pulled some rhubarb and am going to learn how to freeze that. I have a lot of daffodils that need deadheading, and beds that need weeding. It has been warm and wet… everything is green and gigantic, especially the weeds! I bought some plants for my containers and am working on getting those done and getting them hooked up with the irrigation (you know, so they don’t die). We’ve been weeding the dandelions in the yard for fun (or whatever), but it’s a losing battle, especially after all the rain. We’ve been getting them out before they mature into the puffball stage, so hopefully that means something down the road. Or we’ll just give up :)

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Stuff I am looking forward to doing:

Sewing a swimsuit: Well, hopefully the first of many swimsuits. I have inspiration, patterns, fabric I love, and supplies. Now I just need time! I am going to start with one for myself, and then make some for my girls.

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Garage/estate/rummage saling: This should go under “works in progress”, but it is something I enjoy immensely. I am a haggler by nature, and I like a good deal. I had a great weekend whereby I upgraded our dinner ware and found some outdoor patio furniture for a song. Part of that is a chair that needs the seat sling replaced, and I am also looking forward to how to do that myself. I am purging the stuff we already have that needs to be upgraded or simply let go, so we should end up with a wash in terms of accumulation (yay!).

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Riding a bike: My awesomely handy, bike-riding dad is fixing up a bike for me! I am pretty excited about this :) We have a single adult sized bike around here, but it hasn’t been working for a while. My dad fixed up a bike for my husband just recently too, so, pretty soon, our whole fam can go for a bike ride together!

Painting the stairway and hallway: Lie. I am not looking forward to this. It is the last remaining house project for the year. I am, however, very much looking forward to it being completed! It will require a lot of prep, wall repair, and trim painting. I am holding off on this for some time when I don’t have a lot of other things going on. So… never?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Eagerly Awaiting Spring

Happy Easter!

Having survived the slings and arrows of an intense Easter season, replete with another First Communion (!!!), a birthday, and lots of school goings-on, I am now impatiently waiting with bated breath for predictable warm weather. Oh, for footwear that doesn’t require socks!! And as I tromp around my cold, wet, gray yard, pondering future landscaping possibilities and better acquainting myself with the particular plant species inhabiting this corner of the earth, my soul is craving real Spring. To reassure myself that it, in fact, will arrive in due time, I have been enjoying last year’s pictures of the garden splendor and hunting out some relevant quotes (the purple parts are my own take home messages from this exercise… applicable to so much more than gardening). Enjoy with me until reality is once again in bloom…

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The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.

-Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933)
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Be patient, O be patient! Put your ear against the earth; listen there how noiselessly and gently it upheaves its little way till it parts the scarcely broken ground, and the blade stands up in day.

-William Coles, The Art of Simpling, 1656

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If thou of fortune be bereft,

And in they store there be but left

Two loaves, sell one and with the dole

Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.

-James Terry White (1845-1920)

 
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The pleasure of picking a few flowers and finding the right vase for them is incomparable.
-May Sarton (1912-1995)
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I'd rather have roses on my table than diamonds around my neck.
-Emma Goldman (1869-1940)
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Do not think it a waste of time to cultivate a few flowers or to let the children have a flower bed. It is judicious for parents to cultivate a love of flowers in their children from the earliest years, as flowers have a refining influence, and never lead astray, but always upward to what is purer and better. If one's time and strength are limited, a bed one yard square, with a geranium and a few nasturtiums, for instance, can give pleasure to the whole household; and these flowers will bloom all season, until the frost blights them. A few flowers in pots are better than none.
-The Old Farmer's Almanac, 1893
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Don't try to follow all the advice that is offered to you; make up your own mind what you want to do and go steadily ahead. If you fail you will know how, and why, which is in itself a distinct gain. Distrust garrulous advice; the gardener with real knowledge is not inclined to force advice upon others.
-Ida Bennett, The Flower Garden, 1903
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It is very difficult to write about flowers. I discovered this truth only when I started to do so... In a very short space I had to combine the descriptive with the practical - petals, in fact, with slugs; loveliness with manure; lavishness with instructions for pruning. Successful gardening is made up of all these things, and to be a successful gardener one must also be a realist.
-Vita Sackville-West, Some Flowers, 1937
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I recommend to any person, however humble his means, however narrow his land - if he must choose between beauty and profit, between flowers and shrubs on the one hand, and vegetables and fruit on the other, to have beauty. [...] Potatoes and apples you may buy about as cheap as you can grow them, and you will buy them if you do not grow them, to keep body and soul together. Beauty can only be bought at the most extravagant price, and if it is not cultivated at your home, will hardly be bought; there is no physical appetite to clamor for it, and common economy begins with dispensing with it.
-R. Morris Copeland, A Handbook of Agriculture, Horticulture, and Landscape Gardening, 1859
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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Low-Carb, Dairy-Free Creamy Chocolate Breakfast Shake

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As promised, today I am sharing one of my current favorite recipes… a delicious creamy chocolate shake that also happens to be very healthy… to balance out the last carb-laden post. My sister and brother-in-law recently accomplished some amazing health goals by adopting a low carb lifestyle, and I was duly inspired to do a homemade version of the Take Shape for Life diet (spoiler alert: it’s working). This shake is a big part of why I am losing weight… low calories and low carbs, lots of nutrition, and it is actually delicious and substantial! Before we get to the recipe though, here are a few tidbits that might be of interest:

COCOA POWDER: It’s a real challenge to make anything chocolaty without cocoa. My favorite cocoa powder… a high-quality, popular cocoa that fits into our limited grocery budget… is Rodelle. I buy it in big canisters at Costco when they have it, typically leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas season. I ran out in April last year and had to wait till November to get more, so as a precaution I bought 4 canisters to get me through the year. So far, so good. I make most of the brownies/cakes/cookies/shakes/etc my family eats from scratch so we do go through it. Here is the product you’re looking for on Amazon (currently $18!! what?!), but it was just $7 for the very same quantity at Costco this past season so it’s worth stocking up when you can. For that price, it is really no more expensive than anything generic in your local grocery store. Fun fact: Just 2 tablespoons of cocoa has 16% of your recommended daily value of fiber and 30% DV of iron. It’s tasty stuff, and healthy.

AVOCADO: I learned in the past year (thank you Pinterest) that avocados freeze really well. Their high fat content makes them ideal for this. So when my local stores put them on sale for anything less than $0.50 per, I stock up. When each one is perfectly ripe, I peel and seed it, chop it into eighths, and freeze it on a cookie sheet. I store the chucks in a ziplock and pull them out as needed for smoothies, shakes or guacamole (not quite as good as fresh, but certainly better than no guac!). Avocados are also high in potassium, fiber and have a bit of protein to boot. They make this shake incredibly creamy and are truly honestly not noticeable in terms of tasting it in the shake. They are the secret ingredient!! My 3 yr old loves to steal some sips, and even my deeply-entrenched standard American diet husband admits he enjoys it “but I get the impression it might be healthy”… touché, Sherlock.

COLLAGEN HYDROLYSATE: I purchased mine via Amazon, the brand is Great Lakes Gelatin - the kind in the green canister. It is a flavorless white power which will dissolve even in cold liquids. I know you probably don’t have this sitting around, but I am currently using it daily to (hopefully) help revitalize my poor, aching, mother-of-four, used and abused sacroiliac joints. Collagen hydrolysate is a protein precursor to gelatin… another substance getting a lot of health food press lately. It is procured from grassfed beef hides (yum?) and research has been done indicating it may have a wide variety of uses in treating everything from joint pain to osteoporosis to ulcers and leaky gut. Also beneficial for radiant skin, strong nails and vibrant, healthy hair. I understand that it has much the same health benefits as any bone broth or other whole-animal type foods… you’re getting all the good stuff our standard American diet leaves out. After less than a month of daily use, I am not ready to claim that it has fixed my back pain problem, but it IS a sneaky way to add some flavorless protein to a shake. You could sub a typical protein powder instead, or leave it out altogether.

Pro tip: I regularly add a scoop or half-scoop of unflavored whey isolate powder to this shake (I like Mike’s Mix for value and taste) if I need more protein at the end of a day to meet my RDA but I am craving a treat. FYI, 1 scoop of Mike’s Mix has 114 calories and 40% of your daily protein needs, and currently costs just $0.72 per serving… almost identical in cost and nutrition to a 4 oz chicken breast at $3.00/lb… but a LOT easier to put in a smoothie ;) It’s not crazy expensive like some other specialty “health foods” when you consider how it will be used. I use almond milk (from Aldi) in my shakes because I am losing the battle with lactose. Whey protein powder contains only trace amounts of lactose, and so is still a great choice for the lactose intolerant like me. I can’t speak knowledgeably about non-dairy protein powders, but it would be easy to find one if you are of the dairy-free persuasion but still want to bulk up your shake.

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So… after all that blathering on, here’s the recipe:

Healthy Chocolate Breakfast Shake

Ingredients:

1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk

1 cup water

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup ice cubes

1/2 average size avocado, frozen in chunks

2 tbsp cocoa powder

1 rounded tbsp Great Lakes Gelatin collagen hydrolysate (green container)

Splenda* or sweetener of your choice

Directions:

Add wet ingredients to blender (I love my Nutribullet for anything like this). Mix dry ingredients together first (prevents clumping), then add to wet ingredients and mix until very smooth. Enjoy your shake!

Variations:

If low carb and dairy-free isn’t such a priority, adding some malted milk powder turns this into a delicious and healthy chocolate malt!

Try adding some other flavorings like peppermint extract, coconut cream, nutella, or espresso powder. This shake lends itself well to a wide assortment of flavor accompaniments, so give it a whirl (pun intended).

Nutrition (as written, using 1 tbsp granular Splenda, calculated using myfitnesspal):

This very filling 24+ ounce shake only contains 245 calories, and 6 grams of net carbs!

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*I realize that many people are anti-artificial sweeteners, and are probably incensed that I would suggest they might *gasp* be part of a healthy recipe. I have decided to use them at this stage of my life. That is my decision for my own health. Please feel free to make a different decision that suits your requirements, but please don’t leave comments about it here… that’s just not the point of this post. Thanks.*

**This post contains affiliate links to products that I use and have purchased with my own cash, but only the ones I would actually recommend. If you happen to follow a link and also happen to make a purchase, a small percentage of that will come back to me and, for the sake of full disclosure, I will promptly use it to buy fabric or fund a home improvement project. Do with that knowledge what you will ;)**

Friday, March 13, 2015

Easy Pretzel Sticks Recipe (with Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce)

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It’s Lent. Yes, most definitely Lent. When you need to bribe your kids to eat leftovers (yet again) and you’ve given up after dinner desserts, the most effective way to do it is to make soft pretzels. Even acceptable on meatless Fridays! It’s also good for making friends and influencing people… take some to your next meeting or social event. See what happens.

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Want to make some? First, prepare some dough. You can use many different dough recipes to get delicious pretzel results. The dough recipe I used is from King Arthur Flour website. Prepare a cooling rack by placing it on a dishtowel and spraying it with cooking spray (you will be baking directly on it). Baking on a wire rack will allow the pretzels to cook on all sides without getting too crunchy or soggy in places. This is my favorite method after much trial and error. I would also use this method for bagels. The towel will soak up drips… don’t skip that step.

While the dough is rising, skip the wimpy baking soda bath and jump straight to the big guns of pretzel-making: LYE. Lye will almost always come in a container where DANGER and/or POISON are printed in a font size bigger than than the contents of the container itself. Make no mistake: lye is dangerous!! Have you seen Fight Club?! It is used in soap making and also as a drain cleaner. Alkaline substances will corrode and discolor your favorite aluminum pans (ask me how I know), so don’t use those with lye or baking soda. Lye can cause severe burns. Which is why you will exercise common sense and protect your skin and eyes as necessary. Got it? Okay. Don’t let lye freak you out… You’re the boss if it! The pretzels will be worth using substances that may get you on some sort of government watch list. Trust me. Of course if you don’t have lye on hand and must make some pretzels right now, by all means use the baking soda as advised by the KAF recipe I linked.

Preheat your oven to 450. If you have convection, turn it on (if you don’t they will still turn out amazing!). Put about 6 cups of water in a stockpot (choose your dirtiest looking stainless steel stockpot… the lye will leave it sparkling!), add a couple tablespoons of lye (always add the lye to the water, never the other way around!), stir to dissolve, and heat to simmering. Lye can get staticky, so be careful when measuring and clean up any spilled lye particles quickly to avoid unpleasantness later.

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Roll your dough out flat and chop it into breadstick shapes (4” L by 1/2” H by 3/4”W… ish) with a pizza cutter. Perfection and uniformity are completely optional.  Allow it to stand for a few minutes while you make sure everything is in order with your lye bath and wire rack. Carefully place the strips into the simmering lye bath for about 10 seconds, just until they turn a little yellow. I do about 4 at a time since I can scoop that many out at one time. The yellow means the gluten in the surface of the dough has been affected by the alkaline bath, and it will give you the delicious pretzel flavor and golden brown pretzel exterior you know and love. Don’t leave them in too long or they will get soggy. Scoop them out with a mesh strainer utensil or slotted spoon (again, avoid aluminum). The lye in the water on the pretzels has reacted already, so you don’t have to be overly worried about lye burns if you need to nudge them with a finger at that point.  Arrange them on the rack, leaving some room for expansion. When the rack is full or you’ve done them all, sprinkle with kosher salt to taste.

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Place the wire rack into the preheated oven and bake for 8-9 minutes, or until they are a light golden brown and nicely puffed. Meanwhile, you can pour the hot lye bath down the drain and feel pretty good about it. When done, allow them to cool for a few minutes, and then coax them off the rack. Some may require gentle persuasion with a spatula, but hopefully the cooking spray did it’s job and they slide off easily. I don’t own a nonstick cooling rack, but I imagine that would be a good thing for these.

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These pretzels should be eaten promptly… if you try to wrap them up, the moisture of the pretzels will be soaked up by the salt and they will get gluey in parts. Still tasty, but not everything you might hope. They will last out in the open (or in a brown paper bag) for hours with their chewy exterior, and can be reheated in the oven later if you want to serve them at a party but don’t want your guests to see you in chemistry goggles while you cook them (sort of joking, sort of not). They are amazing with a honey mustard dipping sauce. My basic recipe is below (a knockoff from Applebee’s, I think), though I rarely measure ingredients and it always turns out delicious.

Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce

Ingredients:

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

1 tbsp prepared or whole grain mustard (the kind with visible seeds)

1/4 cup honey

1 tbsp white vinegar

Directions:

Mix well. Refrigerate to store.

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To restore balance to the world, next I will share a delicious gluten-free, low carb recipe. I’m currently limiting my own carb intake, so writing this pretzel post was a little bit of a Lenten sacrifice :)