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!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Year Four Goals: Quarter 1 Check In

It  has been a few months since I wrote up my next set of goals...let's check in and see how we're doing.

Culture Vulture
1. Read 15 Books - Between Book Club and a Leadership Program I am in through work, I don't think I'll have any problems at all with this one - I've already fit in 11 since January!
The Light Between Oceans - dragged a bit towards the end, but I enjoyed it overall.
Crucial Conversations - part of my leadership program homework. Helpful ideas for success at work and in life!
Made to Stick - Another in the leadership series (this will become a common refrain this year!). Great thoughts around making your ideas last.
The Marriage Plot - While it took me about 50 pages to get into it, enjoyed it while not like any of the characters - a feat. Note to self: re-read Middlesex.
Playing the Enemy - The book Invictus was based on. I went in thinking the book would be mostly rugby, but it was so much more and taught me a lot about Mandela's life and rise to leadership.

2. Watch 120 Movies - The habit continues. Latest Netflixes at home - getting through the tail end of the Woody Allen pics I have yet to see. Highly recommend The Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah and Her Sisters.
34 since end of June. Plowed through Homeland: Season 1. Loved The Lives of Others. Could have done without 2 Guns.

3. Visit 2 Museums - I just came back from the WWII Museum in New Orleans - amazing exhibit. Ready to tackle a couple new ones, and maybe an old favorite like the Art Institute!
June - Bob takes me to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for the evening. Bonus points: we find that they have live jazz on Tuesdays in the summer!

4. 2 Trips to the Theater - Breakdancing with Bach is coming up this weekend, that's definitely something new!
August - Not sure if this fully counts, but I took in a Broadway themed Concert in the Park! 11 Chicago-bound shows were highlighted with live performances. I'm counting down 'til I can see Newsies!

5. Visit 3 New Cities - If I want to keep up with my 15-places-in-15-years list, I think I may need to be crossing Austin or Savannah off in 12 months time. . .
An August wedding in Encampment, Wyoming allows me to cross State Number 30 off of my list.

6. Plan an International Trip - Peru was a hit, but after several trips learning about ancient civilizations (Egyptians, Incans and Mayans), I think we're ready for something completely different.

How Entertaining
7. Create 4 New Freezer Meals - We've been getting lazier in the kitchen lately, all the more reason to have more grab-and-go meals to pick from. 
August: Homemade Tomato Soup gets the freezer treatment.

8. Cheesemaking, Second Phase - attempted mozzarella, with room to improve. Shall we try the next level up afterwards?

9. Host 2 Parties - Our annual Harvest Party is a given, but also hoping to fit in a late summer bash to celebrate a (hopefully) done second bathroom.

Health and Wellness
10. Get Outdoors More Often - I'm a self-described indoor kid, but here's to long walks, camping trips and afternoons on (someone else's) decks.

11. Learn how to Swim - I shouldn't admit this since I grew up a lake, but I can barely swim. I don't love the water, but know I need to learn how to do more than flounder. Maybe I let Bob take me to the pool once or twice. . .

12. Keep Drinking More Water - Already doing more than I ever have before thanks to a steady supply of cucumbers and strawberries added to our drink dispenser. Keep it up.

13. Make More Appointments - I hit up the eye doctor and dentist for the first time in a long time this month. I told my eye doctor I thought it had been about a year and a half since my last visit. It had actually been close to 4. Make the follow up appointments early and stick to them.
I actually made my 6-month-from-now appointment for the dentist. That never happens. See you in January!

Adventures in DIY and Home Ownership
14. Sew Something Else - I promised my family their very own mantel scarves, and also had visions of a puppet theater stage for the nieces. First step: Detangle the thread that jammed up the machine last time I used it.
3 custom made mantel scarves are on their way to my mom, aunt and sister after this weekend. Post to come!

15. Second Bathroom Renovation - Tub, sink and tile has been taking over the garage storage area. We're gearing up for demo days in July and preparing to learn a lot.
Drywall is up, mudding is almost complete, painting is next. Lots of surprises along the way, but it has been fun and our budget loves us.

16. Closet Organization - Thanks to a revamped laundry room, our coat closet has mucho storage space and the wheels are turning with how to use it.

17. 12 Pinterest Projects - Recipes, crafts and holiday decor here I come.
Some pinspiration gave me a new way to decorate for Halloween using an old printer's drawer.

18. Complete Entryway Decor - With a church pew benchentryway table, some art on the walls and a storage crate, we're well on our way to calling this area done-zo. Now to finish off the wall above the table and pick up an umbrella holder.

19. Purchase New Nightstands - Our nightstands are ridiculously short compared to our bed height. We finally picked up new bedside lamps, so the end tables can't be far behind, as long as we find the perfect ones.

20. Find a Buffet - Sigh. We came very close last month when we spied this awesome buffet at an Antiques shop in Andersonville at 75% off. Someone else had it on hold and swooped in before we could make it ours. Might this be the year we discover our match?

21. Install New Ceiling Fan/Lights - We bought a ceiling fan a year ago. so in the box it sits. We moved in three years ago and can't reach the dining room lights even with the ladder, so in the dark we eat. Time to make a change here.

22. Make 50 Cards - Using my new Cricut machine to be sure. I'm running out of birthday cards, so a pile of those is next on my list.

23. Update Photo Albums - The wedding album is complete, but stacks of photos stare at me from their bin, waiting to be cut up and added to the memory books, including trips to London, Italy, Belize and Peru!

24. Make the Advent Calendar - I have a vision of creating wooden blocks that fit within a printer's drawer. The drawer was bought on eBay a year and a half ago and there it sits.

Professional and Personal Development
25. Learn Guitar - I received a guitar as a gift a couple years back. It is a nice display item, but it turns into a bit of a joke when I realize I don't even know how to hold it properly.

26. 65 Blog Posts - I'm trying to be a little more realistic, bringing this number down a bit from past years - but at the same time, would like to make sure that I hit at least 5 or 6 posts a month.
Only 12 in 3 months - should pick up a bit more now that this bathroom remodel is coming to fruition, but I finally made a list of potential posts to keep me motivated. The list has 22 items on it, so now it's just a matter of sitting down and writing.

27. Keep Driving - I haven't taken the car out as often as I should to keep up the practice, but here's to another year of behind the wheel, one trip to Target at a time.

28. Support 3 Charities - Whether it be time or cash money, here's to supporting the causes out there.
Good luck on your Walk to End Alzheimer's, Meika!

29. Find a Speaking or Writing Opportunity Through Work - I've had a chance to write an article and present in front of the department in the past 6 months. I'll proactively look for more opportunities in the professional arena.

30. Volunteer Once a Month - Chicago Cares, Ronald McDonald House and more on are on my regular rotation. Is this the year to try out something new?

31. Create 2 Positive Rituals - After reading the wonderful book, The Power of Full Engagement, I'm going to focus on finding at least two areas to create positive rituals to help manage my energy.

Money Matters
32. Purge 100 items - Last year I collected several bin-fulls to sell at our yard sale. Between clothing, old games and never used household items, I see some craigslistin' and yard sellin' in our future. 
25 items of clothing = gone from the drawer. I also made some tough decisions and pared down our pile o' reusable bags. We really only use a few, so goodbye to 8 rarely used or starting-to-rip ones.

33. Meet Savings Goal - A year and a half ago, I made up a goal to get to by our 2 year anniversary. We're getting closer, but hit a couple roadblocks called "Special Assessments" and "Elaborate Vacations." Not that I would give up our holidays, but if we can hit the goal by the end of 2014 you can count me as a very happy camper indeed.
Well, this would not have been a problem at all, except we recently found ourselves with an investment opportunity. We took advantage, which set back my goal a bit, but in the end we believe we'll come out ahead. 

34. Find 3 Extra Cash Opportunities - Between Lollapalooza Year Four, the odd focus group and collected pocket change, there should be at least a handful of extra moolah opportunities coming soon to a wallet near me.
I've had a nice surge in Etsy sales for my Every Holiday Blocks - sold out of my available 8 sets! Time to make some more, methinks. As mentioned, Lollapalooza gave us another round of easy cash in early August.

35. Back Up eFiles - This blog alone has hundreds and hundreds of photos attached to it, not to mention thousands of words. Between my music, my photos and my personal documents, it would be a good thing not to lose them all suddenly to a virus or sledgehammer to the computer.

36. Complete an Inventory - I always read about how you are supposed to have a home inventory on hand in case of a fire or disaster or a robbing rampage hits our house. Research how to put this together and make it happen.
The list has begun in GoogleDocs. Now I just need to work through model numbers, price estimates and finish it up.

And. . .
36.5. Be a great wife, aunt, sister, daughter, friend, boss and co-worker.
The old "do unto others" thing.