Monday, November 28, 2011

Setting the Scene

The Thanksgiving leftovers are barely cold and we're already dismantling the fall decor to make room for Christmas! Our extra desk was moved to make room for the Christmas Tree, so we created some extra space in the library for the time being to set up a display for the holidays. I'm also looking ahead at this table being utilized for our upcoming housewarming party!
Bob and I have been playing around with a plain white frame up on the wall. Against the brick, the picture-less frame looks pretty modern and fun. I turned it sideways and hung glittery snowflakes at different lengths to set a background. My three-years-running imagery of sheepskin rug, silver deer and two feather trees makes an appearance along with several vases and a hurricane holding blue and silver hued balls. 
A silver snowman and snowflake candle fill up one side. The candle is actually on a silver candy plate I filled with small decorative ornaments. And the story behind the snowman? Each year our book club does an ornament exchange. Last year, I was not the recipient of the adorable Pottery Barn snowman ornament and planned a quick shopping trip in my jealousy. By the end of the week I had my own little man. This year's ornament exchange is happening tomorrow night - what else will my eyes be tempted by??
I picked up the "Seasons Greetings" decoration during a random thrift store stop for $2.50. I normally wouldn't buy something just because it was on sale, but I am lacking in "phrase" decor" for the holiday and thought it finished off the display.
On one hand, I want to create a new scene each year, but on the other I don't want that to mean I buy all new things with each year! One or two new decor items a year - that's what I get. Although. . .if one of those things only cost $2.50, maybe that means I have a little more leeway? 
Okay, now I hit my quota - I'm a little bit in love with this bird I picked up at Gethsemane Garden Center and Gift Shop when we were tree shopping this weekend!
Here's a reminder of the slight differences featured on my display table from the past couple years. 
2009:
2010. PS. those cheap-o mirrors from TJ Maxx ripped paint off of our walls. Yikes. We hid the mess by putting up a painting and then touching up the paint before moving out!
A bit above the table you'll see three ornaments hanging by decorative ribbon. I took the ornament cluster idea from a few Pinterest shots.
Alongside the table, you'll see our card holder stuffed to the gills with Christmas Cards. No, I haven't already received my share of greetings, I am just one of those people who saves the best looking cards and my friends and family do not disappoint with some gorgeous ones year after year! As we do get new ones in this season I'll just plan on switching out some of the old ones to freshen it up. That reminds me that I need to get a move on my cards for the year. . .
Stay tuned this week for more photos of how our fireplace mantle turned out and a few shots of our lovely, albeit pricey, tree! Here's a sneak peek - we're in the process of procuring a few more lights - I swear I had another strand of 100 but seemed to come up short this year. We followed last year's tradition and hung the lights vertically. Let's just say I had to re-do it at least three times because I kept starting with the wrong end. . .
What about you? Is the tree up? Did you take advantage of Cyber Monday? I abstained from any shopping today, but am quickly realizing how little time there actually is to cross all those presents off the list!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Give Thanks

The oven was on for 8 hours straight on Thursday, every piece of tupperware in the house is being used and we've been eating turkey leftovers for four straight meals. Must be Thanksgiving week!

I had the pleasure of hosting Thanksgiving for the first time for my family, based around my sister's impending delivery of her second daughter. Since we weren't sure when she would have the baby, due to arrive on November 22, we had our parents come down to us this holiday season. Luckily for us, baby Amelia was born on Monday morning, which meant my sister and the new addition could join us at our house on Thanksgiving day!

Okay, so how to break down this holiday feast? I should first and foremost say that there is no way I could have stayed sane and on time if not for my mom's guidance and chopping skills! She happily tackled the apples, celery, onions, herbs, bread cubes, pears and more - a job I usually despise!

Here's the menu I created, with links to the recipes (either on allrecipes.com or this blog)

Appetizers
Creamy Goat Cheese and Honey
Pear and Blue Cheese Tartlets

Main Menu
Velvety Squash Soup
Maple Roast Turkey and Gravy
Cranberry, Sausage and Apple Stuffing
Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Cheesy Crock Pot Potatoes (calling for the recipe, sis!)
Creamy Brussels Sprouts
Cranberries (simply frozen package microwaved with sugar and water)
Rolls with Herb Butter (see recipe below)

Dessert
Pumpkin Pie
Apple Pie
Devil's Food Cake with pumpkin and chocolate frosting (to celebrate my Aunt's birthday)

Got all that? Let me start by saying that the pumpkin and apple pies were bought ahead of time to help a co-worker's daughter's softball team, my sister's fam brought the cheesy potatoes and my mother whipped up her famous creamy brussels sprouts and brought the rolls down. So again, couldn't have done it all without a little help! And if I ask nicely, maybe my sister will share her recipe for cheesy potatoes??

We don't yet have a table that fits more than 4, so I made sure to hold off on selling our outdoor table and chairs on craigslist until this holiday passed. With a fall themed tablecloth you wouldn't know that we were sitting on an IKEA patio table! This was an idea cribbed from my harvest dinner party last year.
I also used a desk that has yet to find a home in our new place as a makeshift buffet against one wall. Simple decorations including a bowl filled with candy corn (heavily marked down after Halloween at Walgreens!) and fake leaves scattered across the tables helped set the scene. We used the buffet for a crockpot of hot apple cider and the appetizers set out before dinner. Later, it would be used for the side dish overflow. We set the table at about 9am so not to have to worry about it later in the day. Once that turkey came out of the oven it was fast and furious getting everything else done!
I first made these goat cheese appetizers for a housewarming party a couple years ago - so simple! Then on allrecipes.com I found these pear and blue cheese tartletts and after trapsing around town to find the frozen tartlet shells (thanks Jewel, boo Dominicks!) these were too easy and so so good! Chopped pear, blue cheese, a bit of light cream and 10 minutes in the oven later here's what we have:
Okay, onto the main meal. I made the Cooking Light Velvety Squash Soup on Wednesday and left it in the fridge to just re-heat the next day. Smartypants move by me. My mom and I also made the Maple Glaze the night before to make our Thursday morning a little easier on us.
Either way, we were up by 6:45 in the morning to prep getting the turkey in the oven by 10am (to eat at 4pm). While I tackled the stuffing, my mom kept up with the dishes (something I can never seem to keep up with during meal making) and worked on her Brussels Sprouts.
The stuffing was delish - 12 cups, or almost 2 loaves, of bread cubes dried in the oven added to sausage, dried cranberries and apples. I replaced the leeks in the recipe with onion partly because I was too lazy to find leeks in the grocery store and partly because I already had the onion on hand.
At the last minute, I realized our extra lemon zest and fresh thyme from my mother's garden could be used to create some herb butter. We had a recipe from a Chopping Block visit where we realized how easy making speciality butters can be! 1 stick of room temperature butter, mixed with thyme, lemon zest and parsley.
Mix together and form into a tube with saran wrap. Put in the fridge for about an hour and then set out for the meal! You can also freeze these for up to 6 months or so.
Did I forget about the turkey? Not by a long shot. Let me start by saying that this turkey was FREE! We found a deal through Dominicks to spend $150 in a shopping trip and get a turkey up to 20lbs for nada. We filled the cart and were convinced we had enough to make the cut. However, I had also applied a ton of coupons online to our Dominicks card so the total kept going down down down. We had a plan for this. Bob ran to the liquor aisle and grabbed a bottle of Ketel One and a Maker's Mark. That did the trick. By the end of the trip, we had saved 48% or almost $150 off of our bill that included ingredients for three full meals and all of the dry ingredients for our Thanksgiving meal!
Defrosting the turkey started last Sunday when I made some room in the fridge for our big bird. On Tuesday night I took it out of the wrapper and rinsed it with water, wrapping it in saran wrap to help it defrost a bit faster. I wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed at this point as I didn't think about juices running down onto the refrigerator shelves once it thawed out. Wishing I would have put a pan under the turkey!
This maple glaze was an easy one as well - highly rated on allrecipes, I trusted the reviews enough to have this be the one we used for the big day.

Again, huge thanks to my mom for being at my side all day - I would not have known how to pull the neck out, find the gizzard packet or how to, ahem, shove my hand under the skin to rub the glaze into the breast.
We borrowed my sister's roasting pan and into the oven it went.
10 minutes later I freaked out - missed the step involving chicken stock and vegetables added to the bottom of the roasting pan! Take two.
We added a tin foil tent after the first 30 minutes and basted occasionally throughout the day.
Perfect timing for a Packers game break - and win!

Around 1:30pm we picked things back up. The sweet potatoes were peeled, cubed and put to a boil.
The soup was re-heated, the cranberries were prepped and the appetizers were formed. When the turkey came out, the brussels sprouts and stuffing went in. Here's a mid-way shot.
Who's ready to eat? Bob and my Dad watched a youtube video on the perfect carve and then got to work.
I dished out the soup course while the meat stayed warm in the oven.
After mastering the art of passing dishes, our plates were full and just as quickly our bellies were. My three day old niece slept perfectly through the whole dinner, allowing a bit of quiet time for my sister and brother in law to eat!

With dinner done, we cracked open the pies and cake to wish my aunt a happy 64th! Instead of Happy Birthday, we sang along to The Beatles' "When I'm 64" blaring from the iPad. Notice our Egyptian Alabaster vases glowing brightly with tea lights? Nice ambience to the evening.
All in all, a great night for a feast and to give thanks that we could spend it together as a family!

Of course, no Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without leftovers. My sister brought a couple to-go plates with dividers and we realized they fit perfectly in the pie boxes to not get squished on the ride home.
Bob and I are researching turkey recipes - after all a 20lb turkey for only 8 adults means plenty o' leftover bird. Here's a sandwich I whipped up today: herb butter, turkey, spinach and apple slices on fresh italian bread.
Bob went more traditional with stuffing cranberries, mayo, mustard and turkey on his sammie.
I hope you had a wonderful holiday as well! Any big traditions your family upholds every year? Any recipes you refuse to celebrate Turkey Day without?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Eat Your Vegetables

As we embark on another Thanksgiving holiday filled with food, family and more food, I thought I would share a quick and easy appetizer (or even dinner) option to help keep your kitchen time under control.

Who else loves Veggie Pizza? Raise your hands high. We grew up making this for a simple snack, but now I find it to be a great option to pack for work week lunches. I had to giggle when we were grocery shopping and Bob grew a look of horror when I said, "you grab the carrots, I'll get the cauliflower." He thought I meant "veggie pizza" - as in mushrooms and peppers, hold the sausage and pepperoni!
The base consists of 2 packs of crescent rolls flattened onto a baking sheet. You need to get a balance of not too thin that it can't hold all the toppings and not too thick that most of your piece is crust. Even though the crescents are pretty buttery already, I like to grease the pan because there is nothing worse than a stuck crust!

Bake according to package directions, but keep a close eye on how quickly it browns. Let cool before putting on  the cream cheese layer, or it will melt into the crust.

The "sauce" is 8 oz of softened cream cheese and 8 oz of sour cream mixed with a half package of ranch dressing and a few shakes of dill. I basically use the same mixture for my taco dip (which my family officially calls, "Lydia's Taco Dip") but replace the ranch dressing and dill with taco seasoning.

Then just go to town on the toppings. I stick with broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, carrots and black olives, with some shredded cheese on top for good measure. If I liked peppers they would definitely appear, but alas that is one food I just can't wrap my head around.

Cut it into squares and snack away!

I'll be back after Thanksgiving with the rundown of our (fingers crossed) successful hosting endeavor. A 20 lb turkey, 8 adults, a 2 1/2 year old and - BIG ANNOUNCEMENT - my 3 day year old niece Amelia will be taking over our condo.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Prove It - Part 2

Remember when I wrote about Bob's 5 foot painting that will hang above the fireplace? Well, we've made a little more progress and I think it just may be completed by our housewarming party in mid December!
Looking closely at the comic book cell we are using as inspiration (and by inspiration, I mean blatantly copying), you can see the dots that create the image. Pop Art indeed, but how to make this work in the real world?
We have gone through more than a few ideas to make uniform, clean dots on the canvas:

1. Free-form it.
No way. Too easy to mess up!

2. Create a stencil
That's the ticket! Okay, now what to use for the stencil?

2a. Use transparancy paper purchased from Blick.
A little too flimsy. What else you got?

2b. Use clear divider pages from a binder
That's the ticket! Okay, how to make the stencil?

2b1. Use a rubber stamp of dots to create the shapes on a plastic sheet.
Good thought, but quickly showed limitations by giving us uneven blocks of dots.
2b2. Use a print out of dots to create the shapes on a plastic sheet.
That's the ticket! Okay, now how to punch out the circles?
2b2a. A hole punch
Good idea, but limits you to the outer edges of a sheet, meaning the stencil would need to be applied many more times, which could cause more errors.

2b2b. This screw punch from Martha Stewart.
That's the ticket! Easy to use and only hurt the hand a little after 100+ punches! Okay, now how to apply paint to the canvas?
2b2b1. Regular paint and a regular paint brush.
Being as careful as possible, and basically wiping most paint off of the brush, we still ended up with some gloppy areas.

2b2b2. Regular paint and a sponge brush.
Same result as above. (Are you now singing, "2b2b2, strangers in the night, exchanging glances. . ."?)

2b2b3. A paint pen.
Worked well on the practice canvas, but proved a bit messier when applied to the actual painting - the lack of back support under the canvas.


2b2b4. Water soluble paint and makeup sponges.
That's the ticket! This has seemed to work well so far.
I am sure with each stencil Bob will get better and better. Up close the inconsistencies can be seen, but when this is up on the wall and from a normal distance it looks pretty darn cool.
Dang, I should put that process in a flow chart for ya!

After he repeats what he's done so far about 10 more times, the dots should be dotted and the spots should be spotted. Then it is a matter of outlining everything in black and adding the text in the word bubble. After that we might be looking at a finished product! Here's a wide shot to put it in perspective:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Lack Table Hack Part 1

I almost didn't want to write this post because one other time I detailed out the build plans for a piece of furniture in our house it never made it past the design stage. . .I'm hoping I am not jinxing myself this time around, but I was pretty excited to share an idea Bob and I had to create an "entertainment center" without actually investing in a huge piece of furniture.

This our current TV stand. It's from IKEA and is a great unit to hold all of our components and fit my 42" Samsung comfortably. (This photo was taken at the old place when we had it up on the wall)
However, to give it some scale - this is how it fits in our new living room. Keep in mind this is a work in progress photo and we have gotten further in setting up the place since this was taken!
That expansive brick wall can be a bit intimidating. We were trying to think of how to create more vertical shelf space and my head went to two recent inspiration areas:
- going to modern furniture stores and seeing back panel entertainment center set ups like this one:
- seeing this headboard made of Lack tabletops on IKEA Hacker.

After doing some measuring and noodling on it for a couple months, we found ourselves with an IKEA cart that looked like this a few weeks ago:
We bought 10 Lack Tables! Now, at $10 a pop for the black-brown color that matches the current TV stand that isn't exactly breaking the bank. (The white tables were only $8, too bad it was a limited sale when it came to color!)

On the car ride home, I started telling Bob how I pictured the shelves attaching to the back panel and we quickly realized we had different views of how this would end up looking in our heads. Uh oh.

Time to break out google sketch up. I downloaded it and left the design to Bob the expert. My half hour playing around resulted in a big ole mess on the page. Did you know you can find specific products to add into the program? Now that was easy.

First up, here was my idea. All Lack tabletops stuck together. 2 rows of 4 and another 2 on the bottom alongside the TV stand. We would put shelves (likely also Lack) in a couple rows. I do worry about the stability of the tops - could they hold a shelf that is in turn holding semi-heavy items? Or would they give out on us.
Next, Bob created his view. Each tabletop on its own, seeing the brick between. Shelves would likely go in between the tabletops, attached to the brick. Our challenge here would be a bit too dizzying an effect when trying to concentrate on the television. Also, I think it makes it more obvious that we just stuck a bunch of tabletops to the wall.
We came to a happy medium: three rows. We can put the shelves either on the brick or on the tabletops, depending on what we think will look and work best.
Next steps will be determining how to attach the tabletops together, how to attach them to the wall and how to attach the shelves! Stay tuned! This project will happen. I am not going to want to stare at these 10 Lack Tables in the guest bedroom for too much longer!