Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Meals with Autumn Abundance

I know I've been absent for a while... I promise there will be a posting on the roof by the end of the week. Life has gotten crazy for us, to say the least, and the blog fell to the back burner.

Lately, we've been taking advantage of the local abundance of produce from a variety of sources. Much of it has come from our CSA, which ended a few weeks ago, but others have been scavenged and foraged. I love fresh, local produce, and getting it for free is just an added bonus.

We were able to forage several grocery bags full of apples from a friend who has a tree that was loaded this year, since ours didn't produce this year. We've used the apples to make homemade applesauce using our food mill. The applesauce has been a great side dish for lunches, an addition to homemade breakfast breads, and a substitute for oil in baking to make things lower fat. Some of the appelsauce was turned into apple butter using the crock pot and then I canned it for gifts and to spread on toast for breakfasts this winter. The rest of the apples were sliced and peeled for apple crisp, apple pie, and were chopped with sausage and butternut squash and served over rice for a yummy supper.

I also acquired over a dozen butternut and acorn squash with an activity my students did for science class (they only harvested the seeds). So, we've been eating our favorite squash chili, pureed squash and cream sauce for pasta, and steamed squash as a side dish. I also puree it and freeze it to spread on tacos and burritos throughout the winter or put it into bread recipes in place of canned pumpkin. This is about the third year we've done this with the students, so I was prepared to make the most of the squash this year, so we didn't get sick of it before we used it up!

We've also enjoyed some summer preserves friends put up for us, including hot pepper jelly with goat cheese on crackers and some blackberry jam on earl grey tea rolls.

What fall dishes have you shared lately? Have the made use of local produce or an abundance of an ingredient? I'd love to hear about it!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Kicking more of the paper habit

We've been a recycling family for a long time, and I've been a recycling crusader since about first grade. I come from a family of scientists, teachers, Boy Scouts, and conservationists, so I "come by it honest".

But it's always bugged me that there are some things you can't recycle, such as some types of plastics (we only recycle # 1 & 2 here) and some paper products, such as waxed freezer cartons and the ubiquitous tissues. I've figured out how to use those other plastic containers for packaging leftovers/food for gifting and for starting seedlings. I've also begun using the waxed paper cartons for starting seedlings, just cut them off to fit the size you need (a butter carton will give you two containers if you cut it in half and retape the open end, a milk carton or cream container will work perfectly if you cut off the spout end, etc.). Then it's easy to give away these seedlings and you don't have to worry about getting your containers back.

But what about the tissues? I know there's a sanitation issue with recycling them; totally get that. So, I've begun using handkerchiefs as most of my grandparents generation did, and many still do. Certainly there are times when a tissue is best (when you're sick), but for the occasional nose blow or wiping sweat from your face when you've finished yardwork, a handkerchief works wonders. By folding it over a few times, you can get a few uses out of it (sorry if that's too graphic for some of you more sensitive readers out there). I keep one in the bathroom where the tissue box used to live and one in my pocket when gardening. When it's dirty, I throw it in the wash with the sheets and towels, since these get washed in warmer water to sanitize them.

All in all, I figure this has saved us a small amount of money in our monthly grocery/toiletry budget (since we used coupons anyway, we could generally get tissues for about 50 cents a box), but it's definitely saved the amount of paper that's thrown out in our house. It means the bathroom trash fills less frequently, which means we're saving on plastic bags there. (Not that we purchase these bags, we simply reuse plastic grocery sacks that seem to find their way into our house, even though we use reusable totes at the store.)

So, I'd love to know... was this post too extreme for you? Would you ever consider using handkerchiefs as tissue substitutes, or is it just too Depression-era or hippie for your taste?

Simple Greywater Solutions

Throughout the summer, I've been indulging my love of reading, which in my adult life has come to mean more nonfiction works in the form of things by Michael Pollan (such as The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma) and other similar works on simple living (of course these were borrowed or from the library, so my reading habit hasn't eaten up any of our budget this summer). Among the things I've been reading about this summer, greywater (water that has been used for laundry, dishes, etc. and could potentially be reused to irrigate the gardens) has been a topic, one which very much intrigues me.

One day we'd love to install a greywater laundry system, since we already use phosphate free laundry detergent (Charlie's Soap or Seventh Generation) and our homemade lavender laundry booster. However, the current NC building code doesn't make this the simplest thing to do in a residential setting, and our budget for household projects wouldn't accommodate it anyway since we're replacing the roof and covering the front deck with a metal roof. So, in the interim (or perhaps forever, depending on how the code and our budget go), we're implementing some simple greywater solutions.

1. All leftover water and icecubes in drinking glasses at the end of the day go to water indoor or outdoor plants. This means that I don't have to remember to water the houseplants once or twice a week and these small amounts of potable water don't go to waste by simply pouring them down the drain. (It's taken a while to train the family, but they've got the hang of it now.) The icecubes are great because they provide a slow gradual water source over an hour or so. We really try to drink only water in our house, though we sometimes succumb to the "need" for sweet tea or juice in the summer, or hot tea/coffee in the winter or mornings. This makes things easy and we don't have to worry about giving the plants something that might not be healthy for them. (Black coffee or unsweetened tea is fine for plants, especially blueberries which love acidic soils, so we sometimes pour leftovers of these on the blueberry plants--when I remember.)

2. Water from boiling pasta, corn on the cob, seafood, or canning is caught and cooled. Then, I take it outside to water the veggie garden or flower garden. If it's salted water, then I am more selective about where I put it (it might go on the weeds growing in the gravel driveway to kill them, rather than killing my flowers or stressing the veggies).

3. Water from washing dishes by hand is caught in a pot/bowl rather than the sink and poured over outdoor plants. The small amount of soap helps to deter pests and any organic matter (bits of lettuce, pasta, etc.) just decomposes in the soil. We try to use phosphate-free soaps here too, so they don't contaminate the groundwater. (This is key for us, since our water comes from a shared well and not a municipal source.)

All in all, I figure these actions lessen our need for irrigation considerably. I've really tried to subscribe to the xeriscaping philosophy with my flower gardens and only water the veggie garden on a regular basis. The flower gardens are watered with all this greywater I've described above. I can't imagine what else I could grow if we had the laundry greywater system in place!

So, what about you... what're you doing to capture greywater or conserve water on a regular basis? Have you experimented with a greywater system, or is yours just hodge podge like ours? I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Foraging for Food

According to Dictionary.com, foraging is the acquisition of food by hunting, fishing, or the gathering of plant matter. I've continued to come across this as a method of food sourcing in many sustainable living guides, including some of my favorites such as Organic Gardening magazine and The Backyard Homestead. But honestly, it seemed like too much work... I mean, really, with a full time job, who has time to go out and hunt this stuff up?

Until I realized that I already do this in some ways. Picking summer blackberries along our road is technically foraging; I am acquiring food by gathering it from a wild source, in this case an overabundance of blackberry canes. I gather apples from our school yard and plan to go with a friend who knows most of the apple trees along public sidewalks in our area (she propogates apple trees by taking cuttings, so she makes it her business to know where they are in town). I use these apples for applesauce, canning pie filling, and making apple butter. When we hike, I love looking for wild berry patches (I am always careful to take my field guide so I know what I'm eating is what I think I'm eating).

Some foraging guides mention common weeds as edibles, such as dandelion greens (which I love for their spicy flavor in salads) and even our dreaded pokeweed for cooking greens (though I hear it stinks to high heaven when cooked, which has kept me from trying it thus far). Lamb's quarters are also edible greens, and the wild daylilies apparently make fabulous little fried fritters when battered like squash blossoms. I know that wild mushrooms and morels are another source of foraging fodder, but am a little too hesitant to try them on my own. I'd love to find someone local who knows what to look for who could show me how to ID these things.

We're also considering having a neighbor or friend get a deer for us this fall so that we have this source of low fat, high protein meat this winter and next spring. We live in an area where processing fees are minimal, making this meat only about $1 per pound, well below supermarket and farmer's market prices. In other areas of the country, it's easy to acquire wild protein sources through fishing or hunting other game.

One of the best things about foraging is that it's a free source of organically grown food (which helps us stick to our food budget and our ever increasing commitment to eat locally and organically). For me, it's also a great time to enjoy nature and spend some quiet time alone, or pleasurable time with friends or family. It also allows us to enjoy the flavors of fresh produce in the off season. By freezing wild blackberries, strawberries(these are the tiny ones that most people rip out of their yards--I try to transplant them when I dig them up and have managed to make my own little strawberry patch for free!), and grapes, we can have them on our cereal in the morning or in smoothies or desserts (they're fabulous over homemade icecream!). Another added benefit is that if I have an excess, I can these items (jams, jellies, preserves, sauces, etc.) and donate them to our local food pantry. Some food pantries will take fresh donations, so you might check your location to see what they prefer.

If you're interested in foraging, Organic Gardening magazine (Feb/March 2011 issue) has a great article and source list on the subject.

What about you? Do you forage for things in your area? What's your favorite "wild" food? Maybe it's salmon berries in Alaska or clams in Maine (mmm, clams... wish we were closer to the coast so I could do some seafood foraging!) I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fabulous Sale and Date Day

On Friday, Benny and I took a trip we'd been planning for a while to Troy, NC. This tiny dot on the map is my cousin's old stomping ground and birthplace of Capel Rugs, and just down the road from Seagrove pottery country. The reason for this trip was two-fold: 1) Benny had the day off and we wanted a date day together, and 2) the annual clearance tent sale was going on at the original Capel store.

After an early, but leaisurely, breakfast of scrambled eggs with chorizo and garlic scapes (from our CSA) and homemade rolls with yummy blackberry jelly, we loaded up our picnic lunch into a cooler and loaded ourselves into the Jetta. Roadtrips are always fun times for us, and uninteruppted time to talk about things without being distracted by the "to do" list of the moment. The trip took about three hours, one way, so we had plenty of time to chat and to listen to the current book on CD (The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis for this trip).

We arrived in Troy easily (thanks to Oliver, our British accented GPS phone app), and parking was thankfully a breeze. The tent sale outside was where the best bargains were, so we pulled out our paint chips (which now live in my purse, along with my small retractable tape measure) and began sifting through. We knew our budget, $100, for a large area rug for the living room and two smaller rugs for either side of our bed. Tall order, yes, but my cousin had said the prices were so good here we could definitely make that budget work. (Did I also mention these purchases were our anniversary gift to each other?) I fully intended to snap a few pics of the sale event, just to give you an idea of the place, but I fogot in the excitement. Most of the large rugs (5 x 7 or 6 x 8) out front were under $70 and they had many small rugs for as little as $10.

The traditional braided rugs were the most deeply discounted, so these were the ones we gravitated toward. I also liked these because they are primarily wool, a natural fiber, and because they are double sided, so when one side wears out, we simply flip it over, which gives it double the life.

After much discussion, comparison, and a little haggling with another customer over a rug we both liked, we came home with a large 5 x 7 oval rug for the living room and two smaller ones for either side of the bed. With tax, the bill was slightly over $110, just barely over our budget. But for rugs that will last us a lifetime, we both felt like we'd scored a deal. We love how the rug in the living room isn't too "matchy matchy" and has a rainbow of colors, so that if we decide to paint the room a different color one day, the rug will work with practically any color scheme. The rugs beside the bed follow a similar pattern, though the colors are more muted than those in the living room rug.

Once we had our purchases securely stuffed in the back seat of the Jetta (wonder car that it is), we ate our picnic lunch on the road (pot roast sandwiches, granola bars, and water in our reusable bottles), headed for Seagrove. Along the way, we hunted for a produce stand to buy some peaches, but found none. The mission to Seagrove was really just to check out the route and collect a map or two from the visitor's center to see if it was something we'd like to come back and do some other time. (Our concensus was that it should definitely be one of the next road trips, perhaps with other family who also enjoys handmade pottery.) Leaving Seagrove, we employed the help of Oliver, our friendly GPS, since we were leaving from a different place than we started.

We managed to time our trip back so that we just made Sonic's happy hour (with two minutes to spare!), so Benny enjoyed a half price strawberry limeade (90 cents), while I enjoyed a full price (shame, no icecream things on the happy hour menu) Butterfinger blast thing. (I've always been a sucker for those!) Since there's no Sonic in our hometown, hitting the Sonic happy hour was a small big deal to us; we love cheap thrills.

Of course, when we hauled the rugs inside once we got home, Lavender had to give things her sniff of approval. She also went over the top with the all-out roll and back scratch routine once we had the rugs in place. She seems to appreciate the softer rug underfoot in the living room; it has become her new favorite spot to attack the massive rawhide bone she got for Christmas. (Pictures to come later today.)

Have you found any fabulous end-of-year (fiscal year) sales on home goods? Had a great road trip or date outing with someone special? I'd love to hear about it!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Unexpected projects and blessings

Summer is a time for outdoor projects, at least around our house. We're still very much in the settling in phase with regards to landscaping. Our budget only allows for one major project a year, and hardscaping (patios, retaining walls,etc.) must be done before my favorite part of installing plants can begin. This means that I've had about three years to dream and plan for some spaces, while watching the natural vegetation (i.e. weeds) take over certain spots.

Last summer, the major project was buildng two retaining walls out front to make a more usable terraced space for gardening and perhaps a fire pit/chimena. This summer's project was a large patio under the deck out front, using concrete pavers and gravel inbetween to blend with the gravel driveway that it will intersect with. Then, we were unexpectedly blessed with some gifted flagstone, but not enough to do the entire patio area. We were considering purchasing more to fill in the entire area, but then along came a few storms...

We lost several shingles in these storms, called a roofer recommended by a trusted friend, and ended up being told we needed to replace the roof as we would lose more shingles in the next big storm. Consequently, this has put the patio project on hold, since we haven't heard back from our insurance company about what they see as reasonable. So, we're in a holding pattern, and now debating whether we go with a metal roof or asphalt shingles again. (Metal would be more environmentally friendly and more wind-resistant and cheaper in the long run, but the asphalt shingles would be cheaper now.) Since we'll have to have the roof redone, we're also considering getting estimates on covering the front deck in the process. We use the deck much less than we'd like in the summer because our house is southern facing (a huge plus in the winter with snow melt, but bakes in the summer). All this is totally unexpected, but we think we have enough in the house budget to make it happen. If we end up renting a room upstairs in the fall, then that additional income would help to make this project more affordable.

So, that blessing of gifted flagstone? We're planning to construct a smaller patio now behind the kitchen. We'll use the same materials, but it'll cost significantly less since we'll need much smaller amounts of gravel and sand. It will be a dry-laid patio, to allow for drainage, and I'll plant camomille and creeping jenny begween the stones to help the patio blend more with the surrounding gardens. Maybe next summer's project will be the patio under the deck.

In the meantime, we'll do what we can to reduce our expenses and "put our heads down" to make the roofing thing happen. I'd love to see the front deck covered, but we'll just have to see about the cost there. Do you have thoughts on a metal roof, or experience with one?

What about you? What summer projects do you have planned? Has an unexpected expense become a blessing in disguise for you? I'd love to hear from you! (And I promise to post more frequently this summer!)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Garden Goodness

We've had rain here for what seems like two weeks straight. It's a bummer for actually working outside, but the plants are loving it. The pass-along plants I picked up at a co-worker's house and garden (phenomenal property... old farm house, two ponds, and drifts of flowers, perennials, herbs, and veggies across the acreage... I was in heaven) are doing well. We went to visit between rain storms on Saturday and came back with a trunk loaded full of perennial geraniums, irises, all kinds of hosta (she's a hosta junkie like I am), herbs, ornamental grasses, wild ginger, and tons of other stuff. Much of it went into our own gardens here at home, but some will be planted by my students into our gardens at school. I'm loving watching my plants thrive in the rain we've had, and it's been a great time to transplant things.

We've also had some lettuce from our garden this week, as well as chives, thyme, lemon balm, and parsley I grew from seed. (I've read that Italian parsley can be troublesome, but I had great luck with it.) My basil isn't quite big enough yet to harvest, but hopefully in a few weeks we'll have some fabulous pasta dishes, focaccia, and pesto for pizza.

Indoors, I potted up some houseplants that were in need of larger containers. Some of these were from my Teacher of the Year "flowers" from my school. (The secretary is a gardening buddy, so she knew I'd want something that would keep on living, instead of a floral arrangement that would die in a week or two.) I've also been reading that you can grow your own houseplants from citrus seeds, avocado pits, and even pineapple tops. How's that for saving some green, while improving your indoor air quality?!

Since we split a CSA (community supported agriculture) share with some friends, we're really looking forward to lots of fresh produce starting in June. We purchased our share through the High Country CSA, but there are lots of others out there. If you're not from our region, check out options in your area. They're a great, and generally affordable, way to support fresh, locally grown produce from farmers in your area. Plus, you usually end up with some fun ingredients that are new to you, so it makes for more fun in the kitchen.

On another note, Benny recently attended a rain garden workshop through our local agricultural extension agency. It was only $20 and included great notes and handouts, first-hand experience with planning a rain garden, and lunch from a local restaurant. For those not in the know, rain gardens are designed to help control flooding and pooling after rain storms. So, they're generally planted in low-lying areas and with plants that can tolerate "having their feet wet". If you don't know much about gardening and would like to get into it, your local ag extension agency is a great place to go. These folks are paid with your tax dollars, so it's their job, and generally their joy, to help you with all things agricultural. They offer all sorts of gardening workshops, from gardening basics to bee keeping courses to Master Gardener certification courses.

So, what're you up to these days? How are you gardening green; are you splitting plants with friends, started your own herb garden, or did you start your own rain garden? I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pass-along plants and perennials

By now, you know that I don't like to spend money on something I can get for free, or close to it. This is one of the reasons I have so many "pass-along" plants in my garden. I also love finding deals on the clearance rack at Lowe's and Southern States, especially when they're perennials.

Since this week is my spring break, I've been spending some much overdue time in the flower gardens... weeding, planning, dreaming, planting, and moving things around to fit my vision for this year. I acquired some pass-along plants from a few co-workers who know my passion for gardening (I also teach a gardening exploratory course to my middle school students, so we're constantly acquiring new plants people donate.) and through some donations of plants we couldn't use at school (we have mostly sun at school, so shade loving plants don't do well... so I bring them home to live behind the house). I've added some varigated Solomon's seal, more pulmonaria, helliobores, and will add some more hosta tomorrow. I'm working on splitting some of our larger hosta to fill in some areas along the steep bank behind the house (hostas are a love of mine in the landscape... they're so easy to grow and propogate and they'll grow in almost any situation). My phlox and lady's mantle began to self-sew last year, so there are baby plants popping up all over the garden, which is a nice surprise and a great way to fill in the blank spaces. Now that some of our gardens have been in existance for three years, it means that I now have the joy of sharing some pass-along plants with friends, so they'll benefit from some phlox, pachysandra, lemon balm, and lady's mantle.

Of course, with all this spring gardening, this required the obligatory visit to Lowe's. I went with the plan of scoring some Easter lilies on sale after Easter (they'll come back year after year, so don't toss it after the blooms fade if someone gave you one... plant it!). But, alas, there were no Easter lilies to be found... but there were a TON of spring perennials on the clearance rack for, wait for it, 50 cents a piece! They weren't dinky little guys either, one and two-gallon plants. All they needed was a little water, some deadheading, and they were perfect for my gardens. I grabbed five bachelor's button plants and some other things I don't remember the name of, but for under five dollars, I walked out of the garden center with eight perennials that will add color and texture to my gardens year after year. It doesn't take much to make this girl happy... a trip to Lowe's and five dollars well spent!

How's your garden growing this year? Have you had the joy of sharing plants with others, or started your garden with pass-along plants friends gave you? Any good deals you've found at local garden centers? I'd love to hear how you're living and saving green this spring!

Our Ghetto Greenhouse

Back in late February, I began planning for our veggie garden. (Some of this was done over snow days browsing seed catalogs and drooling over Barbara Kingsolver’s descriptions in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.) The seeds were ordered and each day we checked the mail, I was like a kid waiting for a letter from Santa… “Did they come yet?” The little packets of seeds arrived one day and I began the next phase; setting up our ghetto greenhouse.

This began with getting out all the plastic egg cartons and assorted yogurt/sour cream/ricotta cheese containers I’d been saving all winter. (I told you we reuse everything around here… well, almost; we draw the line at toilet paper.) I punched drainage holes in the egg cartons with an ice pick and nested the two halves together. I did the same thing with the larger plastic containers, saving them for transplanting later.

This meant that I could water them from the bottom and not disturb the seedlings’ tiny roots once they germinated. I filled the top one with organic soilless seed starting mix and then moistened each pod. The seeds were pushed into the moist soil and then I slid the whole set-up into a large bread bag and closed it with a twist tie. We started peppers, heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, basil, brussel sprouts, and cilantro this way. Once these were all ready to go, we put them on a card table in front of our sunny, southern facing window… right in the middle of the living room.

In about six weeks, we had some fabulous seedlings in each pod. I transplanted the tomatoes, lettuce, brussel sprouts, and peppers to the larger yogurt/sour cream containers I had prepared earlier. Using a spoon to scoop them out made this process really easy. Transplanting them to deeper containers really gave the seedlings a jump start.

In the meantime, Benny built some raised vegetable beds for outside in the yard where we’ll transplant the veggies this weekend, after we fill the boxes with a mixture of peat moss, compost, and vermiculite. We’re looking forward to good fresh veggies this spring and summer—as local as they get!

We’ll update tomorrow on how we constructed the beds and managed to fit all the materials into the Jetta. I’ll also fill you in on our new additions to our edible landscaping.

I’d love to hear what you’re doing in your garden this spring, so leave some love in the comments!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Long Time, No See

Just a quick post to say that I've been busy with life, but I'll return to post several updates this week. I finally finished my National Boards portfolio and got it in the mail, so I feel like I have some of my life back! :)

We've been busy with getting veggies started, cleaning out flower beds, and planning our veggie garden layout. I'll share that and some indoor projects as well.

Looking forward to getting back to you tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Crafty Solution

Recently, Benny and I were discussing the state of the kitchen table. It tends to be my craft work area/landing zone for all that everyday crapola that comes in the house... junk mail, jury duty letter and parking pass (yes, I get that joy next week), recipes we want to try, etc. I tend to be a "piler" while Benny needs a space to be free of clutter. He's put up with my craft junk covering half the kitchen table because he knows I need to leave a project unfinished at times, and because I like to be in the same space with him when he's working on the computer or watching TV. But I realized that it would make him tremendously happy to have a clear kitchen table, and I'd like seeing the space neat and tidy also.

So, this past weekend, we took about an hour to organize my small collection of stamping supplies that had recently taken over one end of the kitchen table. (I forgot to get a before picture of this... sorry for all of you who love before and afters. Just imagine all your junk mail piled up with stamping supplies and a few random leftovers from Christmas decorating and you've got the general jist.) Thanks to Benny's mom, I had recently acquired some fabric covered storage crates (from Costco, where else?!) which I used to organize the paper, envelopes, and stamps.

Then we moved Benny's dresser (it had been emptied at the time that we installed the closet system last year and had never made it's way to the basement... we're hoping it'll find a new home with a friend or a food pantry client--the dresser in it's previous location is above) in front of the window for the time being. We carried the small sewing table that was getting little use in the upstairs guest room down to that corner of our bedroom. With it positioned on the wall adjacent to the window there's plenty of natural light, but I added a small desk lamp for some additional lighting for evening work. The small drawer is great for storing embossing powder, ink pads, decorative scissors, etc. and hides all that clutter well. I love the tape dispenser that's got the pre-cut tape that I can grab with one hand while holding things together with the other, and I added a coaster for the glass or water or mug of hot tea that I always seem to need when I'm in the throes of a craft extravaganza.

I'm going to add a pen/pencil holder to the desktop when I find just the right glass container, and I want to get a desk calendar/blotter to catch all the random pen scribbles and ink from the stamps. Eventually, we'll add some floating shelves above the desk for additional storage. (I'm thinking something white and clean-lined, Ikea-esque, that would blend with our trim and not seem too out of place with the traditional lines of the table. What do you think?)
Right now, I'm bringing a kitchen chair in when I want to work, but our plan is to recover one of the chairs in the basement with our tax refund and some cool striped velvety upholstery fabric my mom purchased for us a while back.

I love the fact that it's allowed me to keep the kitchen table uncluttered, which keeps hubby happy. It also means that my craft area is on the same level as the TV and kitchen, so that means that I can visit with Benny while I craft or check on whatever is baking in the oven without running up and down the stairs.

But on to what you really want to know... how much did we spend?

Table: free (originally from my house growing up, so from Mom)
Storage crates: free (thanks to my mother-in-law)
Desk lamp: free from college days
Coaster: free (it was one of a set of four picture frame coasters--I used wall paper samples instead of pictures to add some texture)
Caster cups: $2 at Wally World (these were to protect the soft bamboo flooring from dents)

Not too shabby for working with what we've got! Have you done any fabulous transformations by just shuffling things around your house? Do you have any grand ideas for the shelving we want to do one day? I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Lovin' Super Doubles

Did anyone else get some major deals at the good ol' HT over Super Doubles this past weekend? (For those not in the know, Harris Teeter occasionally does super double coupons, which means that those $1 and $1.50 off coupons actually end up being $2 and $3 off.)

We did our major shopping run on Saturday morning bright and early to miss the crowds and hopefully get most of what was on our list. It would have been great to go on Wednesday when the promo started, but that just wasn't in the cards with Benny being out of town and a crazy school schedule for me last week. (Love seeing my students play basketball, but it makes for crazy long days.) Of course, we used our Grocery Game list, which we printed and prepped on Friday night. Such a romantic date night, I know...

Here are a few of the deals we scored:

Free Items-- salad dressing, boxed potatoes (for the local food pantry), cough drops, 16 cups of yogurt, canned biscuits (they make a great quick pot pie)

Less than $1-- bacon bits, pizza sauce (two cents!), pasta, juice, crackers, muffin mix, toothpaste, crescent rolls, frozen veggies (ten cents per box--we got six)

Most other items on our list were somewhere between $1 and $2. There were a few things we bought without coupons, like produce, but there we shopped specials.

Our total.... drum roll please.... for over $110 worth of groceries, we paid just $39.90, a savings of almost $78.00! Recently, we discovered the eVIC coupons, which you can find online when you sign into your eVIC account. These are electronic coupons, so they aren't doubled, but they're tied to your VIC card, which means you don't have to clip them. They will allow you to compound these with regular printed manufacturer's coupons, so we did this with a few items, like the veggies, yogurt, and granola bars.

There are all sorts of coupon/savings sites out there, but most of my favs are in my list here. You can also check out my previous posts on couponing, if you've got questions, or feel free to leave a comment. By shopping coupons, sales, and planning our meals for the month, we've drastically cut our grocery budget beyond what I had thought was possible, even with sticking to our values of buying organic and local when possible. I hope that this is some encouragement for you to do the same, while not compromising your family's health or values.

Happy savings! I'd love to hear from you! :)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

February Menu Plan

First, an update on our January quest to "rock whatcha got" and use our pantry and freezer goods to their best. We ended up spending around $50, instead of the estimated $30, for groceries for the month, due to some necessary dairy products (milk for the homemade yogurt and I gotta have my cheese) and produce being a bit more than anticipated. We did stick to the menu for the month, with a few extras thrown in, such as stir-fry and fried rice.

This month we're still trying to use as much from our stockpile as possible, and use coupons and gift cards to purchase the rest. Hopefully, we can stick to the $50 grocery budget this month as well. (We did splurge and go out to eat in downtown Raleigh with a friend this past weekend, but the visit was well worth--always so good to catch up with you, Paul-- it and the food was fabulous. If you're in the area and haven't checked out The Raleigh Times, it's a great bar with fantastic food. I had the Frech Country Salad, and it was to die for with roasted beats and slices of pear.) So, without further ado, here's the menu for the month...

Week 1:
spinach lasagna, supper club meal, acorn squash chili (leftover from what we made for the local campus ministry)
Groceries to purchase: peppers for chili, ricotta cheese, sour cream, acorn squash

Week 2:
chili cheese oven fries, shepherd's pie, stir fry with shrimp, Valentine's dinner
Groceries to purchase: baking potatoes, organic baby spinach, onions, heavy cream, wild caught seafood (whatever's on sale and looks good)

Week 3:
quiche/breakfast casserole (with eggs from my student), black bean burgers (using leftover beans that have been frozen), hot dogs with warm cabbage slaw/kraut, supper club meal
Groceries to purchase: organic milk, organic cabbage, bacon

Week 4:
breakfast for dinner (blueberry or pumpkin pancakes, eggs, grits), vegetable beef soup, pizza
Groceries to purchase: flavored tea for hot breakfast teas, coupon items focusing on dairy and frozen veggies, citrus fruit if available and reasonable

As usual, our breakfasts will consist of one of the following: cereal from the stockpile, muffins (the sunny morning ones were very good, btw), or homemade bread turned toast with homemade jam. Weekend breakfasts will be more along the lines of coffee, eggs, and grits/fresh muffins.

Here's what we'll be using from the pantry/freezer this month: frozen pasta sauce, frozen summer berries, frozen ground turkey, canned chili, canned veggies for soup and shepherd's pie, dried black beans, grits, pancake mix, basic baking supplies

The homemade breads this month will be: pumpkin spice bread, whole wheat hamburger/hotdog buns, sunny morning muffins/lemon poppy seed muffins, beer bread, pizza dough

And, if you're wondering what we'll have for Valentine's dinner (all ingredients will be purchased from EarthFare thanks to a certain Santa's giftcard we stashed away... thanks, Mom), here's that specific menu (maybe you'll like it so much you'll steal it... be my guest)

Valentine's Dinner:

Steamed/sauted seafood seasoned with lemon, sea salt, parsley, and pepper
Warm spinach salad with caramelized onions and a butter sauce
Baked potatoes with butter and sour cream
Homemade cream brulee (using the recipe from The Joy of Cooking served with a warm berry compote

I'm hoping you're finding your meal planning, budget cooking, and couponing as helpful as we are in these lean times. Let me know if you've got any fabulous budget cooking ideas or cookbooks to share. I'd love to hear from you, so leave some love in the comments for me!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Bartering and a CSA

I love living in an area where bartering is still very much a part of life, and where you do things for acquaintances and neighbors, just because you feel like it's the right thing to do.

This year, I'm blessed to teach a fabulous group of sixth grade students, one of whom has her own flock of thirteen chickens. She is responsible for their care, feeding, and checking the nest boxes daily. And she has started bringing me fresh eggs about every two weeks. I offered to pay her for them, but she sweetly said no, that they give away the eggs they can't eat to friends. So, we've been enjoying wonderfully fresh eggs, with far more nutritional content and likely more environmentally responsible management methods, for several weeks now. They've made fantastic omletes, deviled eggs, and I love adding them to baked goods. The yolks are so bright yellow, and it warms my heart to know that they were given yummy veggie scraps from the kitchen with lots of love from this child, rather than some commercial feed strewn about by machines adults getting underpaid for their work. In return for these fabulous eggs, I share my favorite reads with this student, who gobbles up books the way her chickens do blackberries in the summer. All in all, more than a fair trade.

A few weeks ago, our neighbor took out his snow blower and cleared the entire bottom portion of the drive for us. We called to thank him and offered to bake them some homemade bread. I don't think they really expected us to go through with it, but they were thrilled with the banana coconut bread, and I loved baking it as a thank you gift... and it was much more economical than paying someone to scrape the road.

At our favorite local bakery, we've discovered that if we go in at the end of the day, they'll often cut us a deal on the day old bread, which is already reduced. If they don't sell it by the end of the day, they have to throw it out or donate it, so by having us purchase it for a reduced cost, we're helping them pay for the ingredients and overhead, while still getting a lovely and hearty bread for sandwiches or breakfast. Even though we generally make our bread ourselves, we find that we love patronizing the bakery and that we get ideas for new flavor combinations to add to our own breads. (The apple rosemary bread sourdough we had a few weeks was fabulous both with butter and cream cheese, as well as being prepared as a grilled cheese sandwich. It's definitely something we'll try this fall when apples come around in abundance again.)

We've decided to split a share of a local CSA (community supported agriculture) program through a farm cooperative with another family from church this spring. This means that for about 20 weeks, we'll get farm fresh veggies, with the option of adding eggs, goat cheese, and even meat. For $25 a week, this is a steal for providing ample organic produce for 4 adults and two kids. The cool thing about this CSA is that it has a service expectation with it, so I'll get to spend some hours out at a farm this summer learning just how they do things and helping to maintain some of the veggies. (Or maybe I'll get to help out with the poultry and learn how to care for some chickens... I can't wait!) It's amazing how much further your budget goes when you decide to spent locally, and how much better you feel knowing that more of that money goes to support those farmers directly. Not to mention the benefits of transporting the produce a shorter distance, meaning fewer fossil fuels used and fresher ingredients.

So, how about you? How are you sharing in the abundance that you have, large or small? Are you considering supporting more local farms this year? And how do those decisions impact your budget; are you like us and finding that it's worth it, both for the money and the health of your family and the environment? Or maybe you're not quite there yet, and are still on the fence about the whole local food movement. Whatever your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Updated DIY List and Breakfast Baking

A few weeks ago, I was blog hopping all over the place since we had yet another snow day. I stumbled upon this in my wishful thinking of warmer weather projects and decided I'd begin the hunt for a soda crate of my own to create this living garden art. I found a few on ebay, but with shipping, they ended up being about $20, which was more than I wanted to spend for something I was going to staple to pieces and fill with dirt and plants.

Benny and I were also on the hunt for a pretty and unusual plate to hang in the kitchen to balance out a little vignette we're doing on the wall (I'll post pics when we get that finished), so we took one Saturday afternoon (after I'd had a morning of Saturday school with the kiddos to makeup a snow day)to visit our favorite local art gallery and the antique store down the street. After visiting the main and top floors in the antique store, we were about to call it quits, but decided to investigate the basement level, which is mostly where they keep the furniture. And were we glad we did... we found both things we were hunting for; a silver plated punched decorative plate and a soda crate that had seen better days. So, all told, we spent $25 for both and were pleased with our purchases. Not only did we like what we found, but we were happy that we were able to put our money into a local business, rather than sending it who knows where through ebay. (Not that ebay isn't great for some things...)

I'm super excited about my hanging garden and plan to hang it on the exterior basement wall when we finish the patio area underneath the deck this spring. I think it'll add a nice touch to the seating area under there and it should do well with the amount of sun it'll get. But I'll wait to construct it until it's a little closer to spring here, and I'll give you a step by step rundown when I tackle it.

My next project is to make a Valentine's wreath for my classroom door. I'm thinking a yarn wrapped cardboard thing, something like this. I want something that's going to be simple to make (and I can do it while I watch Arrested Development or one of our James Bond movies with Benny), but will be fun and festive for the kids.

This month has also been about using what we have around here in the kitchen as much as possible, so we've worked down the freezer and the pantry a good bit, but still have plenty of staples to spare. One of the things I had an abundance of in the freezer was bananas and berries. (The school occasionally gets donations from the local grocery, and the cafeteria can't use them, so when they sent boxes full of bananas, I stocked up.) You can freeze bananas right in the peels, no kidding, if you're planning to use them for baking. I just thaw them in the fridge overnight or in the microwave and they're ready to go. I discovered this fabulous coffee cake recipe in my Coffee Cakes cookbook by Lou Seibert Pappas that uses bananas and coconut, both of which we had on hand, and the recipe was perfect for dessert when some friends invited us over for dinner a few weeks ago. You'll find that recipe at the bottom of the page. I also plan to work some bananas and berries into these muffins, which will either get made tomorrow (if we have another snow day) or this weekend.

Banana, Macadamia Nut, and Coconut Coffee Cake

2 c all purpose flour (or substitute 1 c whole wheat and 1 c all purpose)
1/2 t salt
2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
3/4 c packed brown sugar
1 1/4 c mashed bananas (about 2 1/2 large bananas)
2 large eggs
1/3 c veg or canola oil
2 T amaretto liquor (or just add some extra vanilla)
1/2 c sour cream or plain yogurt
1 1/2 t vanilla extract
1/2 c sweetened flake coconut
1/2 c chopped macadamia nuts or pecan halves
1 T granulated sugar mixed w/ 1 t cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9 inch cake pan or springform pan.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and brown sugar. Stir to blend. In a food processor, combine eggs, bananas, oil, liquor, sour cream, and vanilla. Add banana mixture to dry ingredients and stir to combine, until smooth. Stir in coconut. Pour into greased pan. Top with nuts and sprinkle cinnamon sugar mixture over the top.

Bake 30-35 min, or until golden on top and cake tester comes out smooth. Cool on wire rack, and then remove from pan. Serve warm or at room temp, cut into wedges. Serves 8-10 (or breakfast for two all week long).

I'd love to hear what you're up to, or if you try the recipes or project ideas!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Homemade Yogurt, and Living to Tell about It

A few days ago, I took yet another one of our snow days to try my hand at making some homemade yogurt. I had done this several years ago at a microbiology workshop (yes, I'm that much of a nerd that I'd take a week of summer to learn about microbiology), so I knew it wasn't nearly as complicated or scary as many people make it out to be. Basically, you're trying to do the same thing you do with yeast bread... encourage the microbes you want to have to grow and crowd out the bad ones.

My rationale for trying this was twofold. I wanted to try it at home because I knew I'd be able to have more control over the ingredients; I could use organic milk, mix in local honey for sweetner, use jam and frozen fruit for toppings. In essence, I could make sure that it was quality, with no artificial flavors, sweeteners, or preservatives. I also wanted to try doing it because I knew it would be cheaper than purchasing store bought yogurt of the same quality, unless it was free with a coupon (which happens occasionally).

I primarily used the recipe in The Joy of Cooking, but I found a method for using the CrockPot in The Backyard Homestead, which is a fabulous book for those gardening enthusiasts. Basically, you use a milk of your choosing (I started with whole milk, just because that's what several recipes recommend, but skim will have the same protein content as whole, which is really what matters) -- 2 cups--and warm it to 180 degrees on the stove. I used a candy thermometer to measure the temp. Then, you allow it to cool to 106-110 degrees, add your yogurt culture (about three tablespoons of plain yogurt), stir well, and put into sterile jars. I just used small mason jars, the kind you would for jam. You place the filled, covered jars in the Crock Pot and set it to warm. (Not low, just warm) Cover the Crock Pot and allow it to set up for 5-6 hours, or overnight. Mine took about 7 hours, but I think I had a little less yogurt culture than the called for 3 T. The yogurt will keep in the fridge for about a week, but if you plan to make another batch, you should use your yogurt culture within 5 days.

I've enjoyed it for breakfast this week with blackberries from the freezer and some honey, but it would also be great with granola, sliced banana, or frozen for a dessert treat. You could easily add vanilla or orange extract if you like those flavors.

Let me know if you try it; I'd love to hear from you! Here's to living green, and saving green, in the kitchen.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Incredible Savings

Here's the long-awaited guest post from Mr. Living Green, Saving Green; I hope you enjoy! ~ Allyson

I would have liked to typed this guest blog entry sooner, but with vacation and other blog posts where I was on worker status, I didn’t have it in me to type it out. I know...I know...it is just a short blog post, but I am not the blogging queen like my wonderful wife.

Little backstory to bring you up to speed with my cellular story... February 2010 my mother purchased a Palm Pre Plus and I also got one because of a BOGO special Verizon was running at that time. I have thoroughly enjoyed the convenience of having a smartphone and we have used it for a lot of helpful applications beyond it just being my everyday phone. In the life of the phone, however, I have had to have it replaced under warranty for some technical issues. The second replacement being in the first part of December for battery overheating issues.

The question I faced was do I replace a phone and mobile OS experience that I really enjoy or switch over to another phone. I decided I would start searching if I could make the switch over to another phone at little to no cost to me, because it is the “Saving Green” way to do things. In my searching, I had decided I would stick with a smartphone, but would go with an android based phone. I went to our local Verizon reseller and tried a couple models out to get an idea for size and feel, so that when I could get to a corporate store I would no how to best use my two year upgrade pricing that I found to be an option on our plan for my line.

Enter Bestbuy...in the middle of December with a great promotion...free smartphones for the month of December. They chose four smartphones per carrier and made them free with new 2 year contracts or upgrades. So, with my wife totally unaware of my plans, I called and told her we were going to the big city to get me a new phone. She is usually skeptical of my last minute half-baked plans and this time would be no different, but when I used words like "free" and "gratis" (that's Spanish for free, for those of you who weren't in the know)...she went along with the plan.

We called on the way down and asked if they could set one aside for us, so when we arrived walked up and told Shawn my name and he got my phone out of the back to begin setting it up. 25 minutes later, and after not even having to take my wallet out except to double check my license number, I was the proud new owner of a free HTC Droid Incredible.

After having the phone a couple weeks, I have been really pleased with the purchase and the general sense of outdoing myself on the deal. Allyson will be the first to tell I am a master of saving green, but this was such a good way to finish out 2010.

What deals have you found lately that make you just want to put another feather in your cap? Good luck and keep searching for those incredible savings.

Stylish Blogger Award

My fabulous cousin over at Southern Comfort has awarded me the Stylish Blogger Award. She has tons of creative ideas, so I hope you take the time to check her blog out sometime. On top of that, she's an amazing friend and cousin... so thanks, Elizabeth!

In order to receive the award, I have to fill you guys in on seven things about me, which you probably don't already know. So, here goes:

1. This one is a no brainer... I adore my family, and by family, I not only include those immediately related to me, but those friends (and fuzzies) who might as well be family. I firmly believe that I have the best husband in the world and a dog who would do anything in her power to show me her love (including licking my feet when I get out of the shower).

2. I love sweaters and jeans. Winter is a long season here in the High Country, so it's a great time to break out my sweater collection. Cable knit ones are probably my favorite, but I also love cowl neck sweaters and turtle neck ones. Sweaters are great, because the go so well with anything... especially jeans. If I could live in jeans, I would. I'm so glad I teach at a school where we're still allowed to wear jeans on "casual Fridays". On snow days, if I'm not still in my pajamas, I'll be in my jeans and a sweater or sweatshirt.

3. I truly enjoy cooking with my husband... and I know how crazy that might sound to some of you! We make a great team in the kitchen and often find it a relaxing way to spend thirty minutes or so at the end of a long day at work. We love to get creative with the ingredients we use in dishes and generally use a recipe as a guideline, not something set in stone (unless it's one of those family comfort foods, in which case no variations are wanted or needed!).

4. I hate handwashing dishes. I grew up in a house with no dishwasher, other than our two hands, so I've had my fill of doing dishes by hand. I'm incredibly blessed to have a husband who agreed at the start of our marriage that he'd do the dishes if I folded the clothes. I think that's a pretty fair trade!

5. One of my "secret" indulgences is curling up under the covers with a cup of hot tea and a new cookbook. I recently revisited one of my old cookbooks and have decided to go into the daring territory of making my own yogurt (apparently you can do this in the CrockPot... who knew?!). I'll let you know how it turns out.

6. I love James Bond movies. We're working toward eventually owning all of them; currently, we have 21 of the 22. They're great for Friday night date nights with homemade pizza and a good glass of wine. We have visions of doing a true marathon at some point, starting with the originals and working our way through the various Bond actors, but it's gonna take a good bit of planning to get that marathon off the ground.

7. I love to paint with watercolors and mixed media, but am still working on finding the space to do that here in our home. We dream of one day finishing out the basement to have a craft room... until then, my paintings are mostly small ones that can be done in a few hours here at the kitchen table.

I'd like to pass the award along to the following bloggers, many of whom I've only recently discovered:

Confessions of a Plate Addict

Modish (especially the guest blogs from Petals and Pedals)

Pretty Handy Girl

Thanks for Today

Simply Step Back

Milk Without Money

The Frugal Find

You Can Thank My Mother

Someday Crafts

Black Copper DIY

Cup and Table

Pure Green

Thanks for the award, Elizabeth! :) I hope you all have a fabulous day, and I'd love to hear from you!

Give Us A Hand(rail)

We've been busy these past few snowy days. We took advantage of the time stuck indoors and addressed the hand rail that was on the before Christmas list, but never quite happened amidst the holiday baking. We took the time to do it right, which meant taping, filling holes with wood filler, sanding, staining, and a coat of poly. (When I say "we", I really mean that I helped tape, and then took on the role of inspector while Benny worked. I took the time to plan out the vegetable garden for spring... who knew there were so many options for salad greens?! ... working in the stairwell is really only a one person job anyway... though Lavender tried her best to "help".)

Here's the before, with some of the lovely blue painter's tape. You can see that it's your builder's grade oak handrail with traditional spindles. (One of which popped out of place during staining... we'll address that with some finish nails before we touch up things.) We opted for a stain that would match the mantle, thinking that it would tie the room together a bit more. Benny custom matched the stain to the mantle, so it's not a stock color, otherwise, I'd let you know the actual color name/number. The stain and poly were both fairly inexpensive, thanks to Benny's store discount at Benjamin Moore, and we only needed a quart of each (really we could have done with even less, but they only sell it in quarts, and I'm sure we'll find other uses for it as we tackle other projects).

And here's the after, in all it's smooth, satiny glory!
I love how the stain brings out the wood grain, and I'm already having visions of how beautiful it will look during the next holiday season all gussied up with garland, lights, and glitzy ornaments. What do you think? Overall, a great use of two snowy days.

But we didn't stop there... we broke out the new ($15!) duvet cover we bought this summer at Ikea, which I finally got around to washing on Thursday,
and wrangled the duvet inside. I love how it lightens up the room, although it definitely needs a few accent pillows to tie the wall color and brown accents throughout the room together. Lavender seems to approve!

I love that these projects didn't cost that much, and they were a great way for us to spend some quality time together. They did a ton to revamp the look of things without breaking the bank.

What projects have you crossed off your list this weekend? What would you do for accent pillows on the bed... or just leave it as is? How have you redone things at home without much stretch to your budget? I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Snow Day Kitchen Crafts and Reading

Today is yet another snow day and school's out, so per the 5:15 am phone call to let me know that, I've had a rather productive morning. Outside of the routine cleaning (a load of laundry using some homemade laundry detergent from my fabulous cousin, unloading/reloading the dishwasher and washing up some stuff by hand, and folding some clothes), I've had some time to explore something I've been interested in for a while... spice extracts.

I've been making my own vanilla extract for years now, but I've been curious about other spice extracts. I knew the process had to be similar, so I employed our friend Google to find out what I could about making orange, lemon, almond, and mint extracts. Here's what I found...

Orange and Lemon Extract: Basically, the process is the same as the vanilla extract. Peel the fruit, minus the white pithy stuff, and immerse it in vodka. Allow it to cure for a while, then use as you would any extract. You can leave the peel in, or strain it out, depending on your preferences.

Almond Extract: Again, similar process. Grind the almonds (the recipe notes using blanched, rather than roasted... I suppose roasted nuts might have lost some of the natural flavor oils in the roasting process), and put these in a jar with vodka. Allow to cure, then use. I would probably strain this one, just so you don't get almond bits in your baked goods, if that's not the desired result. Store in a cool dark place, as you would any spice or extract.

Mint Extract: Use 12-14 Tbs of fresh mint or 6 of dried with 3 cups of vodka. Store in an airtight glass container in a cool, dark place. I would chop or crush the mint for maximum extraction. I think this would be great with chocolate mint or peppermint, so I plan to try it in the spring when my mint comes back up. (This was compiled from several different sources, so there's no link here.)

I think any of these extracts would make a great gift, and a collection of all of them in small, pretty bottles would be so special for a friend who loves to bake. I especially love the homemade extracts, because you can control the quality of ingredients that goes into them. I recently learned that many commercial vanilla extracts contain corn syrup, especially the "imitation" ones, so that's even more of a reason for me to make my own, besides the fact that it's so much more cost effective than purchasing those tiny grocery store bottles.

** Note that I haven't personally tried any of these yet, so don't take this as gospel. Let me know if you do try it and how it works out!

Today, I'm also rereading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It was one of my favorite summer reads and has been fun to reread on this snowy morning. It's got me itching to order some seeds and get some veggies started now so they'll have a jumpstart in the spring. I loved my heirloom tomatoes last summer (before the deer found them), so I'm wanting to try some heirloom beans, squash, and root veggies this year. Maybe I'll get a garden plan sketched out before the end of the day...

I'd love to hear from you! Have you tried any of these extracts, or others? Are you finding yourself already hoping for spring after all this cold and snow (especially in the High Country)? Or are you just loving sitting curled up with a book, a blanket, and a cup of your favorite hot tea with your wonderful fuzzy at your feet?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

After Christmas Holiday Decor Deals

I'm sure you all found your share of after-Christmas deals. This year, I was on the hunt for some pre-lit faux garland, silver ornaments to decorate the garland with, clear glass ornaments to decorate for gifts for next year, and holiday mugs to use as gifts with homemade hot cocoa for next year.

I managed to find my garland for $5 for a 9-foot section at Target, after seeing it at Michael's for more than double that. I scooped up two sections, as well as some silver ornaments for 50 cents a tube (I think there were 8 in each tube). They were a mix of sparkly glitter, matte finish, and standard shiny silver ones. I got a variety of sizes, and we'll use them to decorate the garland on the banister and the mantle next year. I also plan to use the polished silver candle sticks from my grandmother's house in the mantle decor next year, as well as some magnolia leaves spray painted silver, and some pine cones from the family tree farm.

We also had a hayday in my in-law's attic and at Goodwill finding all sorts of holiday decor that could be updated with a little spray paint. My mother-in-law had tons of 80's brassy ornamental instruments, including french horns and trumpets, which will get updated with a coat of silver or white spray paint. I'll wire them onto the banister or work them into the mantle decor. The larger ones will find a place hanging inside a wreath on the door. She also had several decorative nut crackers, of which I took one (there were four... notice the restraint on my part ;)), with plans to strip the faux fur beard and hair and spray paint him silver or white to add do the mantle, in the style of this humble blog. I'm loving that I'll be giving these things a new life with just a little paint, that they're being saved from a landfill, and that they're FREE! There were also some clear glass ornaments at Goodwill that were perfect for our DIY ornament project, though we snagged a few more at Michael's also after Christmas.

I found some of the holiday mugs I was hunting for at Goodwill, and they're super cute for $1 each... neat little snowmen. They'll be perfect for some homemade cocoa and a candy cane or two tucked in for a sweet little holiday gift for coworkers or friends. While at Goodwill, we also found two pairs of pants for Benny, one of which will be made into shorts, as well as a nice Old Navy sweater for me that's this season's style, without the big price tag. I'm still on the hunt for some skinny jeans to wear with my boots, but I'm not willing to pay retail prices, so I keep scouring the Raleigh Goodwill in hopes that I'll find some. (Goodwill, and thrift stores in general, are great places to go after the holidays, since people who didn't like their gifts and couldn't exchange/return them often donate them. It's also a great time to go since many people are doing the last minute clean-out to get the tax credit for their donations before the end of the calendar year.)
So, how about you? Any deals on holiday decor or amazing thrift store finds? I'd love to hear from you!

January Menu Plan and Recipes

The stretch between Christmas and the end of January is always a little long for a teacher, at least in NC. We get paid before school lets out for the holidays, which is nice for last minute shopping, but that check has to last until the end of January, meaning that sometimes it's more like 5-6 weeks between checks, rather than just four. Thankfully, this is usually not a problem for us, as we always have a well stocked freezer and pantry, and usually have some leftover Christmas food bounty to get us through. So, this post is all about making the most of the holiday leftovers and our pantry/freezer so that grocery trips are minimal, but the menu is varied and enjoyable. I'm also including a few recipes to share with you so that you have some new ways to use up those holiday leftovers, without getting bored.

Holiday leftovers on hand: sliced ham, ham bone, turkey carcass, smoked turkey breast (since we didn't do most of our holiday eating here, there is no stuffing/mashed potatoes or gravy for a turkey casserole--but we did manage to scavenge the ham bone and turkey carcass, as well as sweet-talking my grill master uncle into smoking a turkey breast for us)

Pantry/freezer staples on hand: tortillas, cheese, pasta, rice, dried beans/split peas, canned tomatoes, canned potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, newly stocked spices/herbs (thanks so Santa), frozen veggies, frozen meat (ground beef and sausage) sundried tomatoes, dried mushrooms, basic baking supplies, home canned veggies gifted by a coworker, eggs, canned salmon

Breads to bake (with aid of bread machine): whole wheat burger buns, pumpernickel bread, breakfast bread suitable for jam/peanut butter

Week 1: ham/turkey melts on pumpernickel bread, chickpea burgers with lemon aiole sauce (using dried chickpeas prepared in crock pot), split pea soup (using ham bone and pantry staples), supper club swap
items to purchase for week 1: whole wheat flour, 2 green peppers (chop all and freeze half for week 3)

Week 2: barbecue turkey burritos with beans and sour cream (shred the turkey and saute with cumin and onion, then mix in homemade or prepared barbecue sauce and the black beans to create the filling for the burritos), wild rice and mushroom pilaf, breakfast casserole with sun dried tomatoes, ham, and mushrooms
items to purchase for week 2: sour cream, can of black beans, organic milk

Week 3: ship wreck (everyone calls this something different--it's that casserole with potatoes, canned tomatoes, ground beef, onion, and pepper), salmon patties on a spinach salad with mandarin oranges, pecans, and homemade croutons, fill in w/ canned soup if needed, supper club swap
items to purchase for week 3: organic baby spinach

Week 4: vegetable soup using 1/2 lb. ground beef, freezer/canned veggies, and onion/garlic on hand, jambalaya, bread for sopping up soup broth
items to purchase for week 4: organic milk

Breakfasts will consist of cereal and milk, toast with jam/peanut butter, or yogurt with frozen berries. Snacks will be nuts from the pantry, Ches mix (gifted by Benny's mom), or trail mix from dried fruit and cereal. We are really trying to cut down on sweets, so we will limit desserts to a piece of chocolate from the stocking loot, or our small group gatherings. Lunches will be the usual leftovers from dinners during the week.

As you can see, there's not much to purchase this month, and if we stick to the plan, we shouldn't spend more than about $30 on groceries for this month, which will help us to stretch that paycheck as far as it can go. This will also hopefully help us to save a bit more this month, which will be a good boost for our emergency fund.

Below, you'll find my loose variation on my grandmother's split pea soup. It's not at all what you think of as that army green mush, so give it a shot if you've got a ham bone leftover from the holiday festivities.

Split Pea Soup (in the crock pot)

6 c homemade or store-bought veggie/chicken stock
1 15oz can diced tomatoes
3-4 carrots, chopped
3-4 stalks celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1/2 large bell pepper, chopped
1 package split peas, sorted and rinsed
1 ham bone, with some bits left on for flavor and added meat, add additional chopped ham if desired

Seasonings: salt, pepper, bay leaf, oregano (all to taste)

Combine all ingredients and cook on low in the crock pot for 6-8 hours, until peas are done and tender, but not mushy. Serve with quality bread or a sandwich (we like a ham melt with pumpernickel and brown mustard).

Let me know if you like the recipes, or if you have any other favorites to use up holiday leftovers! I'd love to hear from you!

Holiday Blog Slacker

So, I totally slacked on the blog during the holidays. It's not that I didn't have stuff to post about, I was just so busy doing, traveling, and visiting, that the blog just went to the bottom of the priority list. That, and I generally avoid the internet during holidays, mostly to dedicate time to family and friends. So, I hope you understand (and I'm sure you do, because visiting with family is hopefully as important to you as it is to me).

I'm catching up on posts today, including Benny's long awaited guest post, so check things out. There will be some upcycling/decor related ideas, menu planning, and holiday gift ideas for you to save for next year.

Happy New Year, all!