Wednesday, November 28, 2018

I Joined the Bandwagon!

Guys, after about a year of hemming and hawing over whether or not to take the plunge, I did it. I became an Instant Pot owner. It arrived on Sunday and I've used it three times already to great success. And what would this lifestyle blog be if I didn't share my experiences with the Instant Pot?!?

Buyer Beware: the 8-quart is MASSIVE. 

Sam knew that I was thinking about getting one and Mr. Smarty Pants got up early on Black Friday and starting hunting the sales online. He found the 8-quart version on Amazon for more than 1/2 off. He ordered it and with Prime shipping, it arrived two days later.

I admit, I was a bit skeptical. I thought that the Instant Pot was just a glorified slow cooker. And I'm not a huge fan of slow cookers. I only use mine once in a while for very specific dishes. I don't love slow cookers because I'm not a fan of:

- Dried out meat
- Mushy veggies
- Overcooked pasta and rice

One of the most delightfully surprising things about the Instant Pot was that the taste and texture of the food you cook is NOTHING like the food cooked in a crock pot or slow cooker. Meat is moist and flavorful, veggies, pasta, etc. is all cooked to perfection. And the FLAVOR!!!!

Ok, I'll break down the first three things I made in the IP for you.

First up, was chicken wings. I'd heard these were amazing. I bought a dozen and seasoned them with salt, pepper, cayenne, paprika, garlic powder and onion powder. After seasoning them to my own taste, I pretty much followed this recipe. Even with pre-heating and pressure-release time, PLUS ten or so minutes under the broiler in my oven, this recipe was still significantly faster than cooking the wings in the oven. And there's no oil! They were moderately crispy, not nearly as crispy as I like, but I'm pretty sure the only way to achieve supreme crispiness is to fry the wings and I'm so not going down that road. So, for at-home wings, these were a solid 9/10. I tossed a little Frank's hot sauce on mine for an added kick and Sam and I had a perfect little lunch.

Sam's- no sauce, just seasoning.

Mine- gotta have Frank's.

Next, I tried this Spaghetti Bolognese recipe. Things I found appealing about this recipe:

- Minimal ingredients list
- Inexpensive
- Simple steps

This recipe is a SOLID 10/10. The pasta cooks in the combination of the beef broth and the fire roasted tomatoes. The mirepoix prep is the most time-consuming, involved step in the entire recipe. Which is to say a monkey could do it.

This dish made a perfect dinner for us and there was enough leftover for both of us to bring a tupperware to work for lunch the next TWO days. It made a LOT of food. 

Something they don't tell you about the IP: There's a pre-heating phase AND a pressure-release phase. So, when a recipe says "cook for 7 minutes on high pressure," that doesn't mean you're eating in 7 minutes. The IP has to pre-heat and build up the pressure to cook the food. Then there's the very brief cooking time, and then the IP has to release the pressure, which you can do manually in about 5 minutes, or naturally in about 10. So, a 7- minute cook-time recipe actually takes closer to 25-30ish minutes depending on how long it takes to pre-heat/build pressure. The more food in the pot, the longer it takes. Still, taking into account the pre-heating, cooking and pressure releasing times, the depth of flavor this dish achieves is borderline magical. A traditional bolognese would take around 2 hours worth of simmering and still might not be this delicious. And in the process the mirepoix veggies would turn to mush. Another benefit? You don't have to dirty a second pot to boil the pasta.

Something else they don't tell you about the IP: Almost immediately after you turn on the machine, you begin to smell the enticing aroma of whatever you are cooking. It's pure delight.

The next day, Sam and I both had to work late-ish, so when I got home, it was basically dinner time. I hadn't planned a meal, but we had some leftover pork chops in the fridge. I pulled out some brown rice and decided to try the IP out and see if I could make perfect brown rice in under 30 minutes. That seems like a miracle, but that's kind of what pressure cookers are made for, right?

I used a method I found online that was very simple but produced a fully cooked rice with a soft but not mushy texture. It was light and fluffy and took less than half the time it normally does on the stove top.

The recipe is simple:
1 cup brown rice
1 1/4 cups water

High pressure setting for 15 minutes, followed by natural pressure release. I seasoned after cooking with salt, pepper and a pat of butter (because butter, duh). It was the perfect side dish for our leftover pork chops. We eat a lot of brown rice, so I'm certain we'll be using the IP to make it from now on. Why wait almost an hour when you don't have to, am I right?

Friends have been sharing their favorite IP recipes and now that I've had such great success with the first few I've tried, I'm certain I'll be using it on the reg and tasting all their favorite dishes.

Do you have an Instant Pot? What are your go-to recipes? What do you love/hate about it? Leave a comment and let me know!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Christmas Shopping: What to Buy for your Adult Friends

Remember being a kid and opening your presents on Christmas morning only to discover a package of socks or underwear? Remember how supremely disappointing that was? Well, if you've ever been an adult in that situation, you may have felt a LOT different. Case in point: Several years ago, my BFF and her husband gave me a pair of knitted wool socks for Christmas.

I was pretty psyched to receive this gift. Why?

1.) I live in New England where it's cold and you ALWAYS need warm socks to wear with your boots.
2.) I live in New England where it's cold and you ALWAYS need warm socks for hanging around the house.

In other words, come winter time, I could wear these socks pretty much around the clock. Inside, outside, wherever I am, these socks are my go-to. Do I have plenty of other warm, fuzzy socks? Yeah, I suppose I do. But most of them are synthetic. These are WOOL. And that's something to make note of when choosing a pair of socks either for yourself or as a gift. Choose WOOL. Choose a natural fiber because it will not only provide the best warmth and coziness, but it will also allow your feet to breathe. Synthetic materials can be freakishly soft. It's all that refining of the materials that makes it so unnaturally soft. But for every bit of softness, you'll lose out on breath-ability. Which leads to.... sweaty feet.

Maybe this post is a little TMI, but it's all true and great advice. If you want to give your adult friends a fabulous gift for Christmas, find a pair of high quality WOOL socks. They'll love and appreciate it more than you know.

Don't mine look cute with my Uggs? Percy thinks so.

Happy Christmas shopping everyone! 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Friendsgiving 2018

I believe it is safe to say that Friendsgiving 2018 was a rousing success! At one point, I believe we had more than 30 guests crammed into our little home. But it didn't feel crowded, it just felt... full. :)

I'll try to keep this post succinct but there are a lot of details to address. Let's start with FOOD. So many guests brought amazing dishes, but since I don't have those recipes, I'll stick to what I prepared.

First up, the ever popular Pumpkin Sausage Lasagne. This dish never fails to dazzle, so if you want to really stand out at your next potluck, show up with it. My version takes the Rachel Ray version in the link and doctors it up a bit. The main difference is in the sauce. Her recipe doesn't make nearly enough (in my opinion). I like my lasagne sauce-y, so instead of 3 cups of milk, I use 5 and I add an extra can of pumpkin. This makes more than enough for the pan to be nearly overflowing, so I usually put the baking dish on a baking sheet for any spillage to catch.
You will need a LARGE pot for the sauce. 

The second major change I make is adding TONS of grated mozzarella. For this party, I think I bought a package of 4 cups shredded mozz. Every layer gets a generous handful or two and the remainder goes on top for a creamy, cheesy topping. Don't be mistaken- the mozzarella does not replace the parmesan in the recipe. It's IN ADDITION. Wear your stretchy pants.

Hands-down the MOST popular dish at Friendsgiving was the "World's Best Mac n' Cheese." I first tasted this recipe at a Thanksgiving years ago at my BFF's in-laws, although they weren't yet her in-laws at the time. Anyway, it was a life-changing mac n' cheese and I highly recommend you try it. For the party I doubled the recipe and the dish was scraped clean by the end of the night.

Sooooo cheeseyyyyyy! 

I also made a large charcuterie and chip/cracker/dip spread: 

I love this type of spread because there's something for everyone. I also love how easy it is to mix store-bought with homemade and have an enormous variety of textures and flavors. I did store bought chips, crackers, veggies, fresh and dried fruit, meats and cheeses. The dips were a mix- some store bought, some home made including an all-time favorite black olive and garlic tapenade. SO easy!

In a food processor, combine 5-6 cloves fresh garlic with 2 drained cans of black olives and a bit of olive oil. Make it smooth, make it chunky- whatever your preference. Sometimes I add pine nuts if I have them. 

Next were my mom's famous stuffed dates. Also SO easy! 

Slice medjool dates open "butterfly" style and stuff with cream cheese and either a whole walnut or whole pecan. My mom usually rolls them in sugar, but I opted to drizzle them in honey. Always a hit. 

I also decided last minute to whip up an "everything but the bagel cheese ball. I combined 1 1/2 packages cream cheese with about 1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and  about 1/4 cup chopped fresh chives. Once incorporated, I rolled it into a ball and coated it with Trader Joe's "Everything but the Bagel" seasoning. 

We had a bar of a bunch of different wines, beers, liquors and I made a Honey Crisp Apple Sangria.  Again, I doctored the recipe up a bit for the party. I bought a box of wine, which I thought would be tripling the recipe, but turns out the box had the equivalent of almost 6 bottles of wine, so my proportions were a bit different from the recipe. My version of the recipe was something like this: 

1 box Franzia red wine
1/2 gallon apple cider
1 cup orange juice
2 cups brandy
6 chopped Honey Crisp apples
1 large sliced orange
1 large sliced lemon
juice of one more lemon
12 cinnamon sticks

I skipped the club soda and hoped for the best. This drink tasted like fall. It was perfection. I wish I'd remembered to put out cinnamon sugar for rimming the glasses, but you can't get everything right all the time, right? 

Ok, on to the decor! 

I kept it simple with basic decorations in the living room where we have yet to hang any artwork (or actually, a new flat-screen TV):

I also put candles pretty much everywhere and wrote a quote on the chalkboard sign in our dining room. It was a big hit: 

Read the fine print. LOL

I also wanted to make sure my guests were taken care of in terms of the more indelicate needs, so I put these in each bathroom: 

The sign is a little hard to read. It says, "Friendsgiving Guests, Please help yourself to whatever you need and if you need something you don't see on the tray, just ask Renee or Sam. Just don't ask Percy. He's terrible at anything other than sleeping, eating or being adorable." This was a quick and easy DIY to show our guests we'd thought of their potential needs beyond just food and drink. Most of the items were already in the house. I just bought a bag of Life Saver mints and the eye drops. Other items I put out included tampons, band-aids, hand cream, Advil, nail files, Shout stain removing wipes, a lint roller and some Tums antacids. I'm pretty sure most of the items were used throughout the night, so it was worth the time and effort. The trays and little dishes to hold the various items all came from the dollar store. All told, this project (for both bathrooms) cost less than $10. Of course if you have to buy some more of the items, it could run you a little more. 

One of my final DIY projects was to ensure we would have plenty of seating. You may recall my vanity make-over where I upcycled an Ikea Marius stool. Because the stools were so cheap, I had bought 3 additional with plans to eventually do the same or a similar upcycle down the road. Friendsgiving was the perfect excuse to finish the project. 

I made them all the same as the vanity stool so they can actually function as a set of four. I love that they are stackable so when not in use they don't take up much space. They all got used throughout the night so they were a worthwhile project. 

Finally, in putting together my outfit for the night, I realized all of my fun party fascinators were lent out and I had no time to get them back. I hopped into my craft room to see what I could find and came up with this little headpiece that ended up being PERFECT. 

And in a strange twist of fate- the feathers are actually turkey feathers! Gobble gobble! 

I didn't get a great photo of the headpiece on me, so here's a picture of it on its own: 

Can you believe I had all these supplies in my craft room? Just waiting for the perfect project. The base is a pre-made piece I bought from a millinery shop in NYC. The feathers, as I mentioned are stripped turkey feathers. I love their iridescence! Finally, I covered up the hot glue holding the feather stems in place with a little black satin ribbon. But how does it stay on my head? Easy!

I simply stitched a couple of hair clips to the back. Done. You could also stitch a comb if you prefer. Given how short and fine my hair is, I prefer the clips- they feel a lot more secure on my head. 

Lastly, here's a lovely montage of some of our guests enjoying themselves: 

 Who wore it better? LOL

HAPPY FRIENDSGIVING!!! What should we do differently or better at our next Friendsgiving? Leave a comment! 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

A DIY of Opportunity

Years ago my mom was redecorating her dining room. There was a large wall she didn't know how to fill. I suggested an oversized fork and knife. Like, REALLY oversized. I pictured them being several feet long, maybe even 4 or 5 feet. We've been on the hunt for some ever since.

About a month ago, I heard about a local production company going out of business. They were basically giving away all sorts of random stuff. I decided to stop by to see what they had. Apparently, they had done a production of "Beauty and the Beast" because I found a pair of oversized silverware. They were just made out of plywood and spray painted silver. Nothing special, but they were free. When I showed them to my mom, she took one look and said, "Not interested."

Her loss. 

They sat in my garage for the next few weeks while I thought about what, if anything I might do with an oversized set of flatware. (Cue: many jokes from my husband at mealtime.) I finally came up with a plan and it was crazy cheap and easy to execute.

I started with a bottle of chalk spray paint in black and gave them a couple of coats.

You can kind of see the outline of my next step in the photo. I sketched it out before going for it with the chalk paint pen. I'd chosen a great food-related quote by Julia Child:

"People who love to eat are always the best people."

True story, am I right? Anyway, the chalk pen made quick, easy work of this project- not including drying time on either the black or white paint, this project took about 15 minutes. SO easy! 

The final product: 

Super cute, right? I've got the perfect spot for them in our kitchen and can't wait to hang 'em up! 

Sometimes the best DIY projects are the ones you didn't plan to do, but where the opportunity was too good to resist. Total breakdown of the cost on this one: 

Wooden Fork & Knife- FREE!!!
Black chalk spray paint- $4
White chalk paint pen- $1 for two (on sale from $2.99)

Saturday, November 10, 2018

DIY Ladder Towel Holder

All homes have their quirks, I suppose. Our house has a few including the fact that the towel bars in the bathroom are basically as far from the shower/tub as they could possibly be. With two bathrooms, Sam and I have each gravitated towards our own bathroom, and he mentioned the other day that "his" bathroom needs a towel bar much closer to the shower. DUH. I had been researching blanket ladder DIYs on Pinterest and I said, "Hold off on the towel bar. I have a better idea."

In addition to researching the ladder DIY projects, I'd also been shopping around for one that was already good to go. I mean, why not? But truthfully, even the cheapest second hand ladder was still at least $60 and usually a little more shabby chic and rustic than our esthetic. Given the cost of wood, I decided to go the DIY route.

Just about every one of the DIYs I found incorporated wooden dowels for the slats. I knew I wanted to use wood that could also double as a shelf, rather than only serve the function of holding a towel. I also noticed that all the "super easy!" and "sooooo simple!" DIYs I found, none of them really addressed the issue of the bottom of the ladder needing to be slightly angled. You'll see what I mean later in the post.

I got up early on my day off last week and went right to Home Depot. I had read somewhere that they will cut wood for you. As I do not own power tools, or really very many tools at all, this was key to the project. I picked out my wood- 3 pieces of 1X3X8 "Common board." Basic and about $6 per piece. I had two of them trimmed down to 63 inches and another cut into 5 18-inch pieces. I would later learn that my math was off and I would only end up using 4 of those pieces.

The sign to the right explains their "Lumber Cutting Policy" which is that the first two cuts are free, the rest are 50 cents. But they didn't charge me anything despite needing more than 2 cuts. 

Percy was very patient while the wood was being cut. He also made a friend there who gave him bacon-flavored dog treats. No wonder he loves coming with me to Home Depot. 

All my wood cut to size. 

I also picked up a nice color stain while I was there, bringing the total spent on supplies to just over $20. In addition to that, knowing I would never be happy if the bottoms weren't angled, I picked up a $10 hand saw. An investment in future DIY, in my opinion. 

When I got home, the first thing I did was cut the bottoms of the long pieces. I wanted an angle between 10 and 15 degrees so that when the ladder is leaning against the wall, the bottoms are flush with the floor. I used my hand saw for this and it was surprisingly easy! 

I totally nailed it. 

Once I had the bottoms trimmed, the next step was to sand all my pieces and stain them with the stain I'd bought. This was a quick and easy process. I used the extra pieces of wood as drying racks for the stained wood pieces. 

How pretty is that color? I love it. 

The next step was to wait for the stain to dry, so while waiting I cleaned the house and then my building assistant and I decided to watch some HGTV for more inspiration. 

After chilling out for a few hours, we went back into the garage to assemble the ladder pieces. One of the tutorials I'd found online said that you put the rungs of the ladder about 18 inches from the bottom, then 13 inches apart from there. The tutorial said there would be 5 rungs. I ran out after 4. Math, not my strong suit. Or maybe not THEIR strong suit. Or maybe I just mis-remembered the tutorial. I did read about a dozen of them after all. 

Since the ladder was going to lean against the wall at an angle thanks to my sawing of the bottoms, I wanted to attach the rungs at the same (ish) angle so that they would be able to function as shelves, too. To do this, I measured the distance from both sides of the angled bottom, marked each side of the ladder side, then connected those two points with a line. This would serve as my guide for attaching the rungs. 

Next, I pre-drilled holes in the sides on each of the angled lines I'd drawn. I did this because I was originally planning to use screws to attach the rungs to the sides. 

Turns out the screws I had were not the best plan- too big for the wood I'd purchased. Since this ladder is not meant to EVER be climbed and the most weight it will be holding is a towel or two and maybe a candle or small plant, I decided to use some finishing nails instead. It was much easier. And fortunately the pilot holes I'd drilled weren't too big for this change of plans. 

Once the rungs were nailed in, that was it! Done! I let the stain dry for a full 24 hours before using the ladder. It's perfect for the space and I'm so proud that I made it myself!!! 

I didn't really get the rungs perfect- they aren't exactly the right angle and they're not all consistent, but the top one is actually perfectly level, and that's the one that I'll probably use as a shelf more than any other, so that's good. Considering my lack of expertise and the appropriate tools, I'm actually thrilled with how this turned out. 

And that is actually it for the house DIYs on the docket. I do plan to re-do the bathrooms entirely at some point, but for now this ladder towel holder is a good start. Let me know what you think I should tackle next! My list is done! 

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Easy DIY- How to Make a Bow Tie

Percy, our incredibly adorable terrier mix looks really handsome in a bow tie:

As the seasons have changed in the last few weeks, I wanted a bow tie for him that was a little less summer-y. I found a cute black and red plaid collar, but couldn't find a bow tie to match. So, I decided to make one. It's so simple and easy to do and I actually bothered to document it so I could blog this incredibly simple DIY to share on the blog today. Go me! 

I started with some leftover red fabric from an old project and cut four rectangles about 2 inches by 3 inches (I didn't measure- that's just a guess) each: 

Next, I stitched around the edges, being careful to leave an opening on one side (between the pins):

Here's a sewing tip: When it's time to turn the corner, make sure the needle is down through the fabric. Then lift the presser foot up and rotate the fabric. Put the foot back down and continue along the next edge. 

Pro tip #2: Trim your corners before flipping the fabric around. 

Make sure to push the fabric into the corners to make them nice and crisp. Pro tip #3- use the end of a pencil or a chop stick or something: 

Iron your two finished rectangles, then stitch up the opening. You can hand-stitch or machine stitch, but since the stitches aren't likely to be seen, I just machined them.

Next step- lay one piece on top of the other and fold in the middle, accordion style: 

Next, stitch the folds in place. Again, you could do this by hand, or by machine. The only trick with using a machine is that at this point, the fabric layers will be very thick, so go slowly or you'll risk breaking the needle. 

You can see I stitched a "Z" pattern, using the same technique with the needle/presser foot as the corners in the beginning. 

Now that you're at this point, the next step is to make the band that wraps around the middle of the bow tie. Start by cutting two strips of fabric, about an inch and a half wide and about 3 inches long. 

Stitch along the long sides ONLY. 

Next, you need to flip this right-side out. To do this can be a little tricky but fortunately I have this AMAZING tool that is made for exactly this purpose. Seriously, one of the best sewing-related purchased I've ever made. I believe it's called a "loop turner" or something like that. It only costs a couple dollars at the fabric store and it is worth every penny. 

The tool has a little hook on one end. You just have to thread through the two layers of fabric, catch the end with the hook and then pull the end through to the other end, flipping the fabric right-side out. Piece of cake. 

When you're done, press the edges. Next, sew a small bit of elastic to one end. It's easier to do this step now, but if you forget you can always hand-stitch it on after the fact. But try not to forget, because like I said, it's easier at this point in the process. 

Now that you have the elastic stitched, sew one end of the small band to the other, creating a circle. You'll have to do this part by hand. 

Once that's all stitched, it's time to slip the bow through the circle you've created: 

You can see I still haven't cut the thread from hand stitching the band into a circle just yet. That's because I used it to also stitch the circle to the bow to make sure it won't ever slip out. This step isn't 100% necessary, but it definitely makes it more secure for something that will be getting daily use. 

Once you've sewn the two pieces together, just trim all your threads and slid the bow tie onto the collar! Done! It's such a quick and easy project you could easily crank out half a dozen in an hour or so. Which I might just do with some other fabric I have in the bins: 

My model was less than cooperative, but you get the idea: 

I mean, it's pretty freaking cute, right? And the nice thing about this project is that if you don't have a sewing machine, it will still be a pretty quick and easy project with just a needle and thread. Let me know what you think!

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