Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Countdown is On

So. . .I'm going to go ahead and chalk up my month long absence to my 'lil blog to a lotta travel and a less-than-inviting computer room (where I do my updates). Yes, the 2nd bedroom is still torn apart and we are still in bathroom remodel mode. But we're getting closer! Wall tile is almost done and after that it is really just finishing touches and putting the door frame back up. Houseguests are coming up for the holidays so our deadline fast approaches.

One thing I can cross of my list? A craft project I wanted to do about 2 years ago but was stuck for exactly how to execute. Suddenly, a solution dawned on me a few weeks ago and I got to work.

I picked up this printer's drawer from eBay with the hopes of creating a perpetual advent calendar for December's countdown to Christmas. I pictured perfectly sized blocks of wood with the date on one side and a holiday image on the other when it gets turned around. However, I was at a loss for how to cut perfectly sized blocks of wood to fill all of the spaces. So the drawer sat in the closet for 2 years untouched, until this Halloween when I came up with a way to use it for some scary mantel decor.
Perhaps it was seeing the drawer out and being used that drew inspiration, but I realized that I still had a ton of one-inch blocks from un-created Every Holiday Block sets. 
The single blocks fit nicely in the small spaces, and by mod-podging together a set of blocks, I could fill the other spaces neatly enough. 
I went with red, green and white painted blocks and mix 'n matched the number sticker colors for variety. 
After that step, I hauled out all of my holiday scrapbook paper, stickers and stamps and added some cheer to the back of each numbered block. 
I patiently waited for the fall to end so I could tear apart my Halloween display and replace with the advent calendar. Last Sunday was decorating day in our household, which meant I got to dig through all of my decor and find small items to fill the remaining spots. I used the same approach as Halloween - a little bit o' scrapbook paper, a few stamps thrown in....and this time I could use a couple small ornaments to fill spaces, too.
The advent calendar is joined on the mantel by a blanket of "snow," our Santa's Sleigh stocking holders, a blue and silver themed hurricane (to help prevent said advent calendar from falling forward), a couple wintery St. Nicks and our new pride and joy: a 2 foot tall Santa we bought last February at the Biltmore in Asheville, NC. 
Now I just can't believe that I'm already turning around block #6 - where is time going? I have a lot left to do before the 25th rolls around!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Cold Weather Comforts

The temperature is dropping fast here in Chicago which means we're bundled up with sweaters and trying our best to avoid turning on the heat for as long as possible. (Update: we turned it on at 10:00am today, November 2nd...)

Cold weather recipes to keep you warm are the best - and you probably won't find many people who argue against tomato soup being one of the best remedies for winter blues.

Although I made this homemade soup from America's Test Kitchen, slightly adapted, in the heat of the summer, I've been thinking about it for the last few days and gearing up to make batch #2 soon.

Cream of Tomato Soup
8 servings
3.5 Tbs butter
2 28oz cans diced tomatoes, drained with the juice reserved
1 onion, chopped
2 Tbs brown sugar
1 Tbs tomato paste
2 Tbs flour
1 3/4 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
cayenne pepper

Melt butter in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add drained tomatoes, onion, brown sugar and tomato paste. Cook, stirring until the onion is soft and the tomatoes start to caramelize. 
Stir in flour and cook for 1 minute. Slowly stir in the broth and the tomato juice. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 10 minutes.
I used my immersion blender to puree the soup which meant I didn't need to dirty up the food processor or regular blender. At this stage, I packaged half of the soup for the freezer, with a note that said "add cream" so we wouldn't forget when we pulled it out a few weeks later.
I used 1/4 heavy cream to the half that was left and brought the soup to a brief simmer before removing from the heat. After a quick salt, pepper and cayenne seasoning it was ready to eat.

And was it good. Very creamy, robust flavor and the perfect consistency. Definitely on the make-it-again list.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Get on the Floor

One step closer: The floor tile is in place! 

We are finally home a few weekends in a row, which means the (at last count) 17 more steps we need to take to get this bathroom remodel done-zo is going to see some headway. We changed the landscape of the room a couple weeks back by finally getting our floor tile into place, and I have to say that completing this step really helped us kick things into high gear with seeing what the finished product could look like!

We chose charcoal gray, 12x24 tiles from Lowe's, written about in this post. The dark colored floor pops nicely against our lighter gray walls and we can't wait until our shimmering ice wall tile is up to complete this picture. And, boy, was the price right - we spent no more than $100 to complete our look.
As should be the case, we spent the majority of time measuring and testing out layout patterns before we ever got to cutting. 
Our chalk line tool came in handy, and the pieces of paper helped decide exactly how many tiles we would need to get the job done.
We used 1/8 size spacers, which would allow enough space for our grout in Polyblend Dove Gray to show through. 
Although those extra few inches somehow doubled our costs, we decided to pick up a 24" tile cutter for about $100 as opposed to buying a smaller one for the majority of the cuts and renting a wet saw for our longer cuts. We figure the investment is worth it for future projects and it also gives us the flexibility to not have to finish everything in one day with the $60 rental.
After a couple tries - and a slight finger injury before we decided to wear the gloves - Bob had the tile cutter down. We also picked up a pair of tile nippers to create the edges needed for the hole where the toilet would sit.
Once we had everything laid out, Bob spent a day with the tile thinset, getting everything locked into place. He used a knife-like tool to get rid of the extra thinset the grout went down.
The next morning we tackled the grout and then wiped everything down with a damp sponge.
Wonderful! Just a couple final steps before we can cross this one off the list: we picked up grout sealer that needs to be applied after we run tile up the side of the tub. Our biggest hurdle there? Unfinished edges on the tile mean we need to figure out how to make beveled edges on the top of the tub tile. We may end up renting that wet saw after all.....
In case you are thinking the grout looks a little light in the photo above, we find ourselves with a steady stream of drywall dust as we finish up projects - our floor needs a good mopping before the grout sealer goes on to ensure we get the color we intended!

Here's a shot of how the floor looks from the entryway. And, hey! Is that a toilet going in? Stay tuned for the story of that fateful morning - when rookie mistakes came to a head and we found ourselves in a sitcom-like situation involving buckets of gushing water!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Golden Nuggets

In an effort to find new and exciting recipes to try, I somehow stumbled on ideas for homemade chicken nuggets. Now, this being my favorite option through the McDonald's drive-thru, I had to wonder if we could create something that could compare to the deliciousness of a McNugget dipped in Sweet and Sour Sauce. . . I'm deciding to ignore the fact that I almost always feel a little gross after eating McDonalds and just focusing in on the chickeny goodness. . .

We picked up ground chicken, apples and spinach to round out the rest of the ingredients we had on hand to fry these up. They were super tasty - to the tune of me eating six in one sitting.

Apple Chicken Nuggets
1 pound ground chicken
1 1/4 cups diced onion
1 cup apple, peeled and grated
1 tsp dried sage
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried parsley
2 cups frozen spinach
1 cup dried bread crumbs
2 cups oil for frying
Mix chicken through spinach together and form small patties (we got about 12 large-ish nuggets). Put the bread crumbs in a shallow dish and press the patties into the bread crumbs to coat them. Heat the oil in a large frying pan, cook a few patties at a time, about 3 minutes per side. Lay on paper towel to dry and cool. 

To bake instead of fry: 425 for about 15-20 minutes. (But let's be honest: fried foods just taste better!)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Goodbye Tension, Hello Pension!

My Aunt Christine retired in September after a long career in Madison. My sister and I decided to throw a little shindig in her honor to celebrate the next chapter of her life. It was just family, so not a big blow out to plan, but that didn't stop us from getting a little Pinspiration for decorations and activities. 

We created a secret board on Pinterest that we could both contribute to, and pretty quickly had our plan in place. My sister took care of all of the food planning, which left me with the decor. I didn't go overboard, especially since this was just a casual late lunch in the 'burbs, but it was fun sifting through ideas outside of co-workers throwing the party.

First off, I used my Cricut machine and some scrapbook paper to create a banner that read "A Sweet Ending to a Long Career" for over the buffet (where the desserts would be placed). I played around with the settings until I had large enough letters and circles and used glue dots to secure the letters to the backgrounds. White yarn was used to attach the banner together, and in retrospect I could have done a cleaner job trimming up the ends! 
To separate the words, I found two cupcake images in my Cricut shapes and cut out a few. I realized afterwards that I could have also just created more space between the words, but it didn't occur to me until I had the whole thing together! 
Speaking of desserts, I used this party as an excuse to make Pumpkin Whoopie Pies. Love this recipe, written about here. I have to say, this was my best batch yet for how flat the cake parts came out - I think it was because I used a little less pumpkin than usual. Typically my pies turn out to be ball-shaped and don't sit flat very easy, even with a whoopie pie pan, but these were near perfection.
I loved the card I found on Pinterest that read, Goodbye Tension, Hello Pension. Rather than print it out as it was, I used the Cricut again to create the 8x10 and threw it in a white frame.
For a table centerpiece, I filled a lazy susan-style tray with broken sunglasses, smashed USB stick, an old cell phone and a dead iPod, among other sad items. I'll admit that I hit up the dollar store to buy the sunglasses, a wind up toy and a stapler with the sole intention to bust them up. Along with a photo of Aunt Christine was a sign declaring what all of these items have in common: We Don't Work! My old flip phone was an instant hit with the 5 year old niece, Ella, who promptly grabbed it from the tray to make some very important calls.
Finally, Christine's Bucket List gave us all a chance to write in our ideas for how she should be spending her time now that she has more of it. I made a sign out of scrapbook paper and various travel/vacation/activity stickers or chip board pictures I had on hand. 
Christine read the submissions out loud after dinner. The ideas ranged from small ideas like going to the zoo (Ella's idea) to philosophies like Eleanor Roosevelt's "Do One Thing Every Day that Scares You." 
What sorts of things are you looking forward to taking on when you retire? Me? More travel and then even more travel.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Year of Living Cable-Less-Ly

We hit 3 years at our condo as of October 1st! One thing this made me think about was how we decided to ditch the satellite box at the end of Year 2 after our DirecTV contract and special rate ran out. Facing $95 a month, on top of escalating internet and phone costs, we figured there must be a better way and considered cutting the cord.

Now, I am a cable television fan - I love me some DIY Network, AMC and FX. And Bob was hard pressed to give up History Channel and The Daily Show. And, truth be told, a little bit of me would be sad that on any given Saturday afternoon National Treasure, Indiana Jones 4 or The Mummy wouldn't be inevitably blaring from our living room TV (seriously - I think those movies are on an endless loop on 8 different stations.)

We set up the cancellation date and haven't looked back since. The secret? We aren't watching any less TV than we were before, but saving about $90 over what we were were spending a month. Here's why:

Netflix ($20 a month for 2 discs in the mail and streaming)
We were paying for this already, with my Netflix account going on Year 9. Although streaming only would gain us even more savings, I love getting discs in the mail because there is still a whole lot out there not on instant. How else would I be making my way steadily through every Woody Allen movie, or show Bob the wonder is that The American President?
Hulu Plus ($8 a month)
With this account, we keep up one-day-late with the network TV shows. I just had to get used to watching Modern Family on Thursdays and Parenthood on Friday nights (I mean. . .Fridays at 4am after I get back from going out to the clubs. . .oh, let's face it - I'm cuddled up on the couch.) We realized not everything could be found on Hulu Plus, so we ran to cbs.com all last year to keep up with How I Met Your Mother.
Chromecast ($30 one time purchase)
With the chromecast plugged into our TV and synched to the iPad, all of our netflix-in' and hulu-in' can be shot up on the screen and the iPad used for other things. Our blu-ray player has apps for both of these, but we find that casting is a little more reliable with our internet speed. I have also heard great things about AppleTV, but we decided to be a bit cheap with the Chromecast.
Antenna (borrowed)
With an antenna in place, we can watch all of the network stations - so we didn't have to say goodbye to Sunday football. . .or Sunday night football. . .or Thursday night football. . .
HBO Go (ahem, borrowed)
We have a login for our iPad for HBO Go, which has allowed us to watch lots of movies and catch up on shows like Veep and The Wire. The Chromecast works for this app as well, so no need to stare at the tiny iPad during movie night.
I also have Amazon Prime which I try to take advantage of, but find that there is a lot of crossover with Netflix offerings. However, I order from Amazon at least once or twice a month (half our bathroom remodel came from Amazon) so the free 2 day shipping helps me justify the annual subscription fee.
So any issues with our non-cable life? Just a few:

No DVR
A small price to pay since Hulu allows us to start our shows whenever we're ready, but sometimes I miss the quick and easy pause or rewind feature.

Antenna Issues
Every time the train passes (which is frequently) we experience some static or interruption when watching through our antenna. Some stations are worse than others, which is why I usually opt for Hulu shows vs. the live deal. Bad memories of a key Downton Abbey moment ruined by the passing Red Line....

Internet Reliability
There is nothing worse than your program pausing to buffer. Until it happens five times in a row and you have to reset the whole thing to get it back in action. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate - there are plenty of worse things. But when you are in the moment, there sure doesn't seem to be. I suppose I need to keep things in perspective:
The other aspect of cutting the cord has to do with 3 of my Pet Peeves: Flipping, Background Noise and Falling Asleep to the Television. It is much harder to flip during commercials when you are watching a show on Hulu or Netflix. I have also enjoyed not having the TV on in the background all day long - as I like to justify my TV habits, "I watch TV with purpose." And without a sat box in the bedroom, the TV on our dresser has not seen much play at all in this last year. I know a lot of people like falling asleep to the TV - Bob is one of them - but it has always been a practice that has stressed me out. (My ideal sleeping conditions: pure darkness and pure quiet!)

So we'll keep funneling the DirecTV offers to the recycling bin and just say no to bundling our Comcast internet with cable for now and continue to save $90 a month. How about you, have you gotten rid of it, or do you have the magic touch with these companies and continue to get great monthly rates? Bob and I are convinced that we are saying the wrong thing because no one every offers us a better deal when we threaten to quit. They just go ahead and cancel our account without a fight. . .

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Drywall Files

One step closer! The walls in the bathroom have gone up in the last couple weeks thanks to hard work on Bob's part and lots of drywall mud thanks to our friendly neighborhood Ace Hardware.

First up was the drywall. We bought water resistant cement board, as suggested, but ran into an issue - the cement board is 1/2 inch thick as opposed to the 5/8 thick drywall alongside the new stuff. Because things weren't lining up, we had our work cut out for us when it came to the mudding prep. 
If something looks new in the photo above, you can thank Bob for having the idea to build out a shelf within our tub space! We had been considering a built in space to hold shampoos and such, but after dealing with a bump out space at the end of the tub we decided to use the space to our advantage. We used metal stud material to create the height and width we needed - and wouldn't you know it, it perfectly fits our 3 inch wide tiles!
After Bob had cut every piece to size and attached to the studs with drywall screws, he taped up the joints and corners. We used mesh tape that was touted as alkaline resistant (to complement our water-free cement board!). He also installed several corner beads.
1 pre-mixed container and 1 bag of joint compound later we were in business. Using the pre-mixed stuff first helped us determine what consistency our self-mixed batches needed to be, so we were glad for the extra purchase. 
We picked up 3 levels of drywall knives. The smallest was used first for all of our tough to reach crevices. Drywall patches also came in handy for a couple larger holes created during our thermostat move. 
A medium sized drywall knife did the majority of the work to spread things around and then the 12 inch knife made it all as even as could be. 
Our original thought was: "okay, we'll mud tonight and paint tomorrow - easy peasy." Easy not peasy, actually. Our drying time took longer than expected and the scope of the job wore us out quicker than we thought. So instead it was over the course of a few days that we made sure the job was done and several go-rounds later we were in a place to finish off these now-smooth walls.
Then we finally came to the fun part - painting party! Near the start of our remodel, we picked up fifty three shades of gray to try out on the wall. Cathedral Gray and Pencil Sketch from Behr and Seal Gray from Glidden. 
With the samples up on the wall, we quickly realized which one was juuuust riiiiight. Pencil Sketch was our middle ground - not too dark to blend right into our charcoal floor tiles, not too light to fade into our shimmering ice wall tile.
With a gallon of Behr in our hands and a couple new brushes, we got to it. 
I also made an impulse purchase at Home Depot and picked up this 3 dollar paint can lid with pour spout. We always make such a mess with our paint down the sides of the can - I was instantly enamored of this guy!
2 coats later and we were feeling pretty good about it all. 
We realized we have some touch up work to do and a late realization that we need to dig into the wall again to create additional support for the pedestal sink is causing us to groan, but just adding that layer of paint helped us really feel like we turned a corner with this project! 
And after a week that saw floor tile finished and a toilet installed, we're in the home stretch now!